Headlands 50K

by Brian McNeill

I was in San Francisco last week to attend a conference, and decided to stay over to run a race in Marin County over the weekend, the Headlands 50K. The race started and ended on the beach at Ft. Cronkite, which was a coastal artillery battery of 16" guns, and was manned by an "colored" regiment during WWII, protecting the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. Later, the big guns were replaced by Nike missiles, which fortunately, were never used to intercept Soviet long-range bombers.

This was my first trip north of the Golden Gate and into the land of hot-tubs and redwoods. Mill Valley & Sausalito are picturesque towns filled with art galleries and boutique clothing stores offering very expensive French & Italian designer labels. One would have been hard-pressed to find a domestic car or a domestic beer in either place.

I have not trained a whit since completing Massanutten three months ago, so this was an inauspicious place to try running an Ultra with no base of training. The course includes 7,000' of climb, some of it featuring spectacular scenery. At around 16 miles, one begins a climb from Stinson Beach, back towards the start/finish line. After a mile or so, one enters a narrow canyon that looks more like British Columbia than the parts of coastal California that I've previously encountered farther south. Featuring 300 foot tall redwoods, huge ferns and giant plants of various kinds (It could take Gary hours to ascend out of that canyon as he stopped to look at all the varieties of plants), the three mile climb took about 70 minutes, and also traversed short sections of the Dipsea Trail. I was spent by the time that I reached the top at 20 miles, and my hopes for a sub 7:00 finish had since faded. My cramped calves and wobbly knees just wanted to finish.

The weather was perfect, with the morning fog burning off by noon. Just before the finish, one could see the Golden Gate, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, and even the Peninsula as far south as Pacifica. What a spectacular view! Such a vista was a welcome reward for the pain caused by the final two climbs, each of which was easily 750' in less than a mile. I finished in 7:23:55 for 96th place of 116 runners. The winner finished in 4:01. (Yep, if I'd just had another 70 miles, I'm sure that I could have caught him.)

If you're ever in Northern California, it would be worth considering this beautiful, low-key race with excellent, full-service aid stations, a well-marked course, and cordial volunteers.

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