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Chasing Windmills Race #6: Golden Gate Marathon 2/8/14

“When I hear a race director call a course ‘scenic,’ I know this is code for ‘This course is pretty darn tough and will probably kick your butt, so look at those pretty trees or that ocean over there.’  The problem with this adjective is that a majority of marathon courses, at one point or another, will run past a rather beautiful part of their corner of the world.  But when I am sucking wind as I hit the wall at mile 20, that majestic moose on the horizon is just not going to help me dig deeper.

We are marathoners.  We are not out here on the roads because we wanted to do something easy.  If we were, we would either be sitting on the couch or playing soccer.  (I am kidding.  Relax.  Sitting on the couch is hard.)  We are out here to challenge ourselves.  We want to push the envelope of what our bodies can handle.  We know that somewhere out on the course, a unicorn could jump off a rainbow, covered in bunnies and butterflies, carrying a picture of two infants of different races hugging in a cradle of rose petals, while puppies lick their feet to the point where the tickling ecstasy erupts from their little tiny baby mouths, and all we would care about is if there is energy gel at the aid station behind them.”

– Dane Rauschenberg 138,336 Feet to Pure Bliss


I can’t tell you how many times this quote ran through my mind during the morning – and then early afternoon – of February 8 as I battled torrential rains, gale-force winds, unforgiving steep climbs, and treacherous, mud-slickened ascents along the trails of the Marin Headlands (part of the Golden Gate National Park).  For unbeknownst to me, in my desire to find a race tied in with a business trip for Sony Playstation in San Mateo, I had chosen a course that makes the legendary Crater Lake Marathon look like the proverbial walk in the park.  And, no, I’m not kidding.

This is about 1/3 of the hill we had to climb from the start line - and again at the 13.1-mile mark.

This is about 1/3 of the hill we had to climb from the start line – and again at the 13.1-mile mark.

On a perfect weather day, the course through the Marin Headlands would have met Rauschenberg’s qualifications for both scenic and difficult, due to its vertical climb of almost 5,000 feet over terrain that includes single-track trails and steep stone steps.  But on a weekend when the Bay area broke its 13-month drought – with up to 20 inches of rain falling in parts of Marin County and the North Bay – the course became a true test of survival, filled with countless opportunities for disaster (including hypothermia, a broken ankle or leg, and getting lost by taking a wrong turn at one of the numerous trail intersections).

The course elevation

As I told Kathy on the drive up to the race from the Sunol Treehouse, the only reason I finished (hell…even STARTED this race) in those conditions was because I was doing the Chasing Windmills quest.  If I were just signed up for a marathon that weekend, I would have been content to have slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, and then enjoyed the cozy comforts of the cabin.

Oh, how I wished I could have just stayed in my comfy bed at the Sunol Treehouse!

Oh, how I wished I could have just stayed in my comfy bed at the Sunol Treehouse!

The Sunol Treehouse

The Sunol Treehouse

But because I WAS doing the Chasing Windmills quest, that relaxing (not to mention warm and dry) morning was not an option.

I knew right from the start that it was going to be a long day.  As I stood in line waiting for the official start, I talked to some of the other runners – most of whom were doing the half marathon.  As one veteran of this race put it, “I’m only doing the half because the full marathon on this course is a total mind fuck.”  Oh.  Great…

Fortunately, a few miles into the first loop I hooked up with another veteran of the course.  Sanborn Hodgkins saw my Chasing Windmills back bib and began asking questions about the quest.  The next thing I knew, I had a running partner for the rest of the first loop.  (Actually, I had two running partners – Sanborn’s friend Kim also was running the full.)  Not only did Sanborn’s knowledge of the course help me through some of the toughest stretches, her camaraderie and sunny outlook (especially in the gray conditions) lifted my spirits when they sunk to their lowest.

Sanborn - my running partner for the first loop of the course (taken on a much better day for running)

Sanborn – my running partner for the first loop of the course (taken on a much better day for running)

Unfortunately, when we finished the first loop and were enjoying the aid station at the half marathon finish, I began to get cold and could not wait for Kim and Sanborn to finish their bathroom breaks – my fear of hypothermia setting in was just too great.  So bidding adieu to my running partners, I headed out to tackle the second loop on my own.  While I have no doubt it was the right decision, it was also a sad decision – because I knew that I would now have to conquer the “mind fuck” nature of that second loop by myself.

"I don't think the heavy stuff is gonna come down for another hour or two..."

“I don’t think the heavy stuff’s gonna come down for quite awhile…”

However, the second loop wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.  First of all, I now knew what to expect on the course.  The 4+ miles to the first aid station would be steep but relatively easy to maneuver.  It was the stretch between that aid station and the second one (about the same distance apart) that would require mental and physical toughness.  And once I reached that point, it would be literally almost all downhill from there, with just a few final hills that were all on road surfaces.

I just had to survive that middle third of loop two.

That stretch was difficult for a number of reasons, one of which was that it began with a one-to-two-mile hill that every competitor walked up (at least for most of it).  Running up it would have been ludicrous, because it was so steep you couldn’t run it much faster than you could walk it – and the emotional and physical toll of trying to doing so would have been significant.

The theme for the day - especially for the steep hills we had to conquer from miles 4-8 and again from miles 14-18...

The theme for the day – especially for the steep hills we had to conquer between miles 4-8 and again between miles 14-18…

After that brutal hill came a series of switchbacks along single track that exposed runners to the howling winds and driving rain that stung your body as it hit you.  This was by far the most dangerous part of the course, because the winds were so strong here that runners risked being blown off the side of the cliff.  (Kathy had heard other runners talking about this at the finish line while she waited for me and thought they were just being melodramatic…until I confirmed that I ran much of this stretch bent over at the waist to prevent me from being blown over.)

The wind was so bad that it tore my back bib!

The wind was so bad that it tore my back bib!

The final obstacle to the second aid station was a steep downhill stretch that caused my quads to scream out in pain from having to hold back due to the slippery conditions.  But I made it to the second aid station without incident, grabbed a well-deserved snack, and then took off with the words of Larry the Cable Guy as my mantra:  “Git’er done!”

By the time I made the final left turn on to the road that would take me to the finish line, I was so out of it that I didn’t even see Kathy yelling encouragement from the car, which was parked across the street.  Who am I kidding?  I was so out of it that I didn’t even realize I had crossed the finish line a few minutes later until Kathy confirmed it for me…over six-and-a-half hours of running in those conditions will do that to you!

Heading down the home stretch...and, yes, I felt as miserable as I looked!

Heading down the home stretch…and, yes, I felt as miserable as I looked!

And yet…

Despite all the suffering…despite all the pain…despite being chilled to the bone…I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so alive or accomplished as I did afterwards.  And I can honestly say that I now TOTALLY get the appeal of ultras/ultra-running.  Yes, the difficult course and brutal conditions created intense feelings of fear, doubt, and loneliness – but they also created massive amounts of pride, determination, and exhilaration.  And if it takes one side of the emotional spectrum to fully experience the other side of it, then by God I’ll take that package deal ANY day!

Tired, soaked, muddy, sore...and incredibly alive!

Tired, soaked, muddy, sore…and incredibly alive!


TIME:  6:40:19 (15:17)

OVERALL:  38 (55)

SEX:  21 (28)

DIVISION (M 40-49):  8 (10)

Please help me reach my $50,000 fundraising goal by making a tax-deductible donation at


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