Improvised Solo Headlands Hundred Race Report

26:45:00 ish (phone died at mile 87, but I have witnesses)
August 29th-30th 2020

by Will Barkan

Where to Begin….
This is a loose account of my solo (but well supported) headlands hundred. Solo race, but never alone. FYI It’s a long one.

Waiting for the conditions to be right:
After PCTR canceled Headlands hundred due to COVID, I made plans to run the route as scheduled on August 22nd. Unfortunately, California wildfires forced us to adjust to a tentative August 29th start. My crew and guides agreed that if air quality went above 50 parts per million (orange) we would cancel or stop the run in progress. We were very lucky and had green conditions the whole time.

The start:
My lovely Kim shuttled me out to Rodeo Beach parking lot for a leisurely 6am start. I got most of a night of sleep which is rare for me before a race. Conditions were cool, wet, foggy, and dark. I stashed my snack bear canister in the tall grass and waited for 6am.

Loop 1 Clockwise:
I began my clockwise loop heading up Hill 88 and down the coastal trail to Tennessee Valley (TV) beach. It was light by 6:30am even with the fog. Light enough for me to see my way down the steep Coastal Trail to Tennessee Beach. On fresh legs, I made my way up from the beach to the Pirate’s Cove trail. On my way up, a fellow trail runner Joel joined me as he was out for the 50 mile version. He noted I looked like I was “out for a long one” and I was. I passed Muir Beach strangle to see it devoid of tourists and headed over to the Xien Garden Center up Middle Green Gulch trail. No issues so far. Fuel and legs all working as trained.

Kim met me at the Tennessee Valley (TV) parking lot around 8:15am to bring my water cache for the day that I would stow away somewhere along Marincello. I was thrilled to see William Dai who had run TRT 100 with us last summer. Never need to go far to find crazy runners. I made my way up Marincello to stash my water. Upon filing my electrologist, I found the potent taste of Cascade dish soap in my soft flask. About 30 min later my stomach started to bother me slightly, but nothing major. Could be the soap, but hard to say. Fought through it and ran the rest of the loop down Miwok to Rodeo Valley.

Running up the Rodeo Valley (RV) trail and busted out poles for the first time that day and back towards Student Conservation Association (SCA) trails. I continued steadily down to Bridge North Tower Parking, and back up that same stupid trail (aka rainbow tunnel) back towards the Slacker Ridge trail. I would run up and down this section 8 times and it was always windy, foggy, and cold at the T-Junction. It was the only time I put on my sunglasses for fear of losing them when my hat blew off. I took Slacker to the Julian trail all the way down to Coastal and the Fisherman’s trail and back onto Bunker road back to Rodeo Beach at about 11:15am.

Loop 2 Counter Clockwise:
I was greeted by Steve and Merdith at my first aid station and snack refill. All went well except for dish soap bottles, but my water bladder was still good. Meredith provided zip-lock birthday cake and Steve joined me for the first bit of my second lap. We ran the road and just crossed the Lagoon when we ran into former sighted guide and champion cyclist Kathryn Quinn, Another amazing uncoordinated surprise. We got ourselves back on Coastal past the horse barn and back to the Julian trail. We ran back the way I came down to the bride and I cannot remember if Steve left or stayed with me for a while. It’s a bit of a blur. I know I almost fell, but caught myself with a folded up trekking pole. No more falls for the entire day. Blind guy victory.

As I passed mile 34-35 it was time for the not so fun long climb back up Miwok, all the way past wolf ridge, past Old Springs and to the top of Marincello. I drank Summit Tea and switched to GU and kept fuel simple here. Luckily I found my water stash (2 gallon jugs) at the bottom of Marincello near TV parking and refilled my water bladder after the last 14 mile section. Still some minor stomach trouble but fuel and water were ok. The number of hikers, bikers, and dogs were at their peak at this time.

I made my way back up over Miwok, much muddier this time and over to the Coyote Ridge trail. I ran hard down Middle Green Gulch, back through both gates of the Garden Center and back out to Muir Beach. Coming back on Pirates Cove is my 2nd least favorite part of this run. While only a 2.7 mile section of very beautiful coastal trail back to TV beach, towards the end of this trail the suck comes on quick. You hit a junction in a drainage before Pirate’s Cove and then make a hard left turn up steep stairs. After the stairs there is an even steeper grade, always washed out, with loose footing. Trekking poles make all the difference here. From there, a nice downhill run back down to TV beach and then start another steep climb up Coastal to Hill 88. This is actually one of my favorite hills. It’s only 1.2 miles but roughly 800ft of climbing and is often the last section of many headlands races. I hurried down the paved army road, back down the stair of death (only when you’re going down), and flew right into Rodeo Beach where many were waiting for me.

Halfway Point:
I arrived at about 5:30p about an hour behind my goal. Kim crewed me while my parents and guide observed the whole production. I got my vest off and change shirts and layered up for the fog, wet, and cold that stuck around all day. I began by downing the hot grilled cheese (with pickle) Kim made with care, plus chips, plus chicken noodle soup, and a coke. While I gorged myself, Kim walked me through refilling my running vest with snacks, water, and superpower summit tea. I remembered to ditch the nasty cascade dish soap soft flask and replaced it with a clean one from my backup kit. Kim helped me lube my feet and change shoes and socks. I lubed everything else and washed hands. We checked warm clothes to bring and 3 flashlights for the night. I took the critical step of brushing my teeth. I said bye to Kim and folks and rolled out for more punishment. Last hundred I did not brush my teeth halfway and spend mile 80-100 trying to wipe all the nastiness growing in my mouth from all those snacks and dirt.

Loop 3 Clockwise + Guide 1:
We left Rodeo a bit after 6pm and a 31 min aid station pit stop. I was joined by my coach Corrine Malcom, world famous ultra running coach, bi-athlete and resilient verbalist. We walked/ran back up Hill 88 from Rodeo to the steep turn off back down Coastal. Corrine and I did one guiding session in Golden Gate park in daylight and this was the first serious downhill single track we’d done together. Her guiding “call out” timing was spot on and we made good time back over to Muir Beach assisted by lots of trekking pole.

We made it back to the Garden Center by about 7:30pm at mile 56, clearing the gate of this eccentric community just before dark. After coming up Green Gulch without issue, we took Coyote Ride back to Miwok. The fog was so thick at this point, Corrine could only see about 20 feet and many of the turns were barely visible. Despite this, no wrong turns.

Miwok was sloppy and slick most of the way back to TV parking. We arrived after dark and despite my apprehension, found the water cache on the first try (this will come up again later). Because my parents raised me right, I offered to refill Corrine’s soft flasks and after about 5 seconds of blind guy water accuracy, we agreed it made more sense for her to handle the water in the dark. We hiked up Marincello, seeing multiple deer I think, and then back into the deep fog to make up time going down Miwok. Running down this section of Miwok to the bottom at RV was probably our best running for time and pace. We then turned left at a T-Junction to go back up RV trail up a somewhat lame and lengthy hill. On many of the uphills, I caught up on the latest with Corrine’s dog, tales of winter sports ninjas, Afghanistan idioms, coaching and therapy, and which are the best cheap beers from WA state. I guess Rainier makes the best cheap beer.

We successfully took the single track cliff on SCA in the dark back to the bridge. Who knew it gets hard to tell where the edge is in the dark? We made it to the Bridge at 11:30pm, mile 70, about 90 mins behind my goal. We flipped a U-turn and ran back up SCA into the fog and wind, cut over to Slacker ridge and back down the Julian trail. We saw and heard many coyotes including those in front of the Rodeo Valley “coyotes crossing” sign, but they left us alone. You would not believe how many people drive Bunker road at midnight in the fog.

As we turned around to the Rodeo lagoon, a sedan passed us hollering “Woot! Will’s Awesome” and various WWF Rick Flare patterned yells. We made it to Rodeo, mile 75 to find Tim Hall and David Li with a big surprise aid station. We originally planned to meet at the Bridge at 12:30am to grab Tim for a guide hand-off, but I figured they got bored when we were late and wanted to make the most of it. David and Tim had hot off the stove grilled cheese, chicken soup, and all manner of shiz. Corrine retrieved my hide-away bear canister and we refilled snacks. As we left the parking lot, Corrine warned me not to trip on a bottle of champagne left by the night creatures of Rodeo Beach. Not part of her guide training but a great sighted guide call out.

We made it back the way we came all the way back to the bridge. About 100M from the parking lot a deer jumped across the trail right in front of Corrine, no call outs on this one. We got the bridge at Mile 80 where Corrine finished her 30 mile night guide shift with honors. David joined by Meredith Johnson (from aid station mile 25) were out in the bridge parking lot in full form. Chairs, grilled cheese, soup, coconut water, amazing! While we refuelled, the California Highway Patrol drove by to inform us that the lot was closing in a few hours. Then the officers looked at each of our faces with a spotlight then hollered out “we’re looking for someone” and drove off. Tim and I geared up to head into the dark hopefully not right into that “someone”.

Although we were doing nothing illegal, I appreciate how lucky we are that nothing more happened during that interaction.

Full of espresso and trail-runner heart, Tim led me up the SCA back to the f’ing T-junction for the last time. I was surprised to find that I could still run some of this but not much. Tim brought a level of humor and Kentucky stories that got me back into the game. We picked up the pace running downhill on the RV fire raod, where I’m ashamed to say I had an emergency and B-lined into the tall grass. Tim waited patiently. After the deed was done, we busted out trekking poles for a long and not so lonely 3 miles back up Miwok. The normal distance between me and a sighted guide is usually about 6-10 feet. On the uphill, I’d say Tim could get 50ft ahead of me, but it’s hard to say in the dark fog how far. Tim would quickly see I did not have the same pep in my step. While I had little to offer the conversation, Tim’s call outs “rock right” etc. and funny stories kept me focused and engaged when my mind was wavering and decision making was not happening even at the step by step level.

One free of the Miwok climb, we ran down Marincello to TV Parking lot for a water top off. On the way down we discussed all the different ways to find the water in the dark on the way down. What tree and how far from the parking lot. We then came across 2 gallons jugs of water on the road lit up by a mil-spec flashlight. I turned to Tim and said “ do you think someone else left their water out here? David and Meredith wouldn’t go up here and grab our water would they?”. Tim assured me that it was my water. Plus who else would buy gallon jugs of water at Whole Foods? We picked up our empty water containers to clean up our mess and met David and Meredith in the parking lot. More soup, cola, and grilled cheese. I was stunned to find out that they went hunting for my water cache in the dark to make it easier for us. Unbelievable!

I partially leapt/staggered out of a lawn chair and started ahead of Tim up Miwok for the last 10 miles. Tim caught up quickly. We hiked back up the bike trail, sharp left turn at the big tree not visible in fog, up the muddy road past the water tank, coyote ridge, and back down Middle Green Gulch. We hit the Garden Center at dawn. It turns out people actually live there, but no one paid us any mind. I tried to get my run going again as we came to Muir Beach at 7:00am and back up Pirate’s Cove for one more climb. Tim gave me caffeine jelly beans 🙂 The section between Muir is a blur, but I remember telling Tim how much I hate the steep stairs at the Pirate’s Cove junction followed by steeper trail. We got through it and switched to downhill with 4 miles to go to the finish.

We crossed TV onto Coastal, back up to Hill 88. Funny enough while we were gutting it out on this 800ft hill, a runner passed us going up the hill and told us to “enjoy our hike”, I told Tim we’d let that go. Then 5 minutes later the dude turned around coming past us again saying it was too steep to run. I had a good laugh on that one. From there I led the way to the top of Hill 88. 1.7 miles to the finish.

Poles put away. Last GU in mouth. Tim sent a text update. I tried to hobble fast enough downhill into a run. We ran down the paved army road, barely got through the stairs of death, back onto trail, around tourists/children/dogs, and back down to Rodeo. Fog lifting and two red-tailed hawks came out to greet us. Kim and Mom & Dad met us at the finish. No tears, but I was quite nasty and spent. Thank you to Kim for putting up with this and for my parents looking on. Thank you to Tim, Corrine, David, Meredith, and Steve. There is no way this would have come together without you. Thank you for brightening my life during these dark COVID, wildfire, turmoil times.
08:45am Sunday August 30th.

Stuff that went really well:
Surprise All Night Aid Stations: I cannot fully share my astonishment and amazement at David Li and Meredith Johnson coming out to mobile crew me at 11:30pm, 2am, and 4:30am during my last 25 miles. Running a hundred miles with no other competitors, or smiley aid stations is a bit lonely. To have two friends and accomplished ultra-runners stay up all night to help me pursue such a silly goal nearly made me cry. I do my crying at the end though.
Guides: Corrine and Tim were absolute dynamite. We didn’t get much shake down time to practice guiding single-track in the dark, but there were no falls and lots of laughs. Guiding is hard enough on a road for a half-marathon in the daytime, let alone 50 miles of trail in the dark.
Smoke: I was super lucky that air quality stayed green for this 36 hour window. The next day air quality in Marin was over 100 particulates per million, and 3 days later fires picked back up and no running has really happened since.
Navigation: I only missed one turn at the very beginning running up hill 88 in the thick fog, but only went about 25m off course. Considering how thick the fog was at night, we never screwed up.
Trekking pole: Despite very little arm strength training, poles went really well. The UA adventure vest I used has the best lugs I’ve used for trekking poles making it easy to take them out and put them away. On flat or downhill sections I put them away which seemed to save more strength and also allow me fuel.
Good Sleep: Two nights in a row of really good sleep made this go way better than it could have.

Stuff that went not so great:
Wet & Cold in the Headlands : I underestimated how wet I would get in the fog. Until I got more clothes on at the halfway mark I was wet and cold and way more chaffed than normal. It never got above 64 degrees during the run, but the fog and wind didn’t really let up. Weekend before it 85F most of the day. Pack for versatility.
Downhills: Tim stuffed through my “grrrr’s and [expletive deleted] running downhill the last 15 miles. Doing incline training on treadmills really helped offset this for my last 100, an effective technique from Coach Sarah Lavender Smith. Hard to do with gyms closed, but still good to remember. I didn’t make my 24 hour goal, but I still PR’ed by 4 hours.

Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest 5 with 2L Camel Back + UA soft flasks for non-water drinks
Black Diamond Aluminum Z-Poles with straps cut off
Hoka One Speedgoat 4Hoka One Speedgoat 2Darn Tough Merino Wool thick cushion mid-cut hiking socks
Squirrel Nut butterB
lack Diamond Spot Headlamp
2 Petzl Tikka Headlamps