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Six months ago, when I made up my list of races I wanted to run in 2013, I didn’t include the Golden Gate Dirty Thirty 50k. I initially thought that two 50ks would be enough for the first half of the year, and I had already committed to the Red Hot 55k and the Greenland 50k. But in the weeks leading up to the Greenland 50k, I decided that I didn’t want the spring/early-summer season to be done quite so soon, so I added the GGDT to my schedule.

I ran the race in 2011, so I was still vaguely familiar with the course and its many challenges. Rather than being nervous about running it, I found comfort in that familiarity. I didn’t have to wonder or worry about how hard the race would be – I already knew for certain that it was going to be a very tough 31 miles.

Pre-Race.

Two years ago it was chilly waiting for the race to begin, and I knew I wouldn’t have my own car to stay warm inside of (I took the Race Director’s strong suggestion and joined a carpool to the start). So on the day before the race I went to a local thrift shop and bought a cheap used sweatshirt and pair of sweatpants. I figured I could just take them off just a minute or two before the start and stash them behind a bush or a rock. If someone took them I’d only be out the five bucks I spent, but if they were still there when I finished (… it turns out they were…) then I’d be able to use them again in a future race. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this before.

Start to Aid 1.

Once we were underway it only took a couple minutes before I realized that the 50k field has grown a lot in the last two years. The transition from gravel road to singletrack that occurs at mile 0.25 was definitely more crowded than in 2011.  But after getting through the traffic jam, we spread out quite quickly. The double-track down to the creek demands restraint from a back of the pack runner like me – there’s no reason to trash the quads and gain 30 seconds in that section if it ends up costing many times more than that later in the race.

We quickly made our way up the Mountain Lion trail, and once we were done crossing back and forth over the creek we moved quickly through a little meadow and on to the first real climb of the day. This is where my power hiking began in earnest. Even so, I wanted to try to move quickly through as many of the runnable sections as possible, so any time the trail flattened out (even if just for 10 or 20 yards at a time) I sped up to jog.

I find that any time I can run/jog instead of walk it keeps my brain in a default “running” mindset. In the latter portions of the race, I want to think of myself as still “running it” and only walking where necessary or efficient to do so, rather than having walking become my way of moving. Whenever I become a default walker, I have to summon up a bit of extra resolve to begin running again, rather than viewing walking as a break (even if it’s an extended break) from the running.

Aid 1 to Aid 2.

There are a couple inobvious trail intersections in this portion of the course, but the awesome volunteer course marshals made it easy to make the right turns. This segment touches the high point of the course, but it doesn’t seem as tough to reach that point as either the long climb out of Aid Station 3 or the climb to Windy Peak.

Aid 2 to Aid 3.

The climb out of Aid 2 is difficult, but it’s also comparatively short (less than a mile), so it’s over quickly. It’s steep at the top, so having one of the race photographers stationed right at the apex of the climb makes for some interesting pictures. The next few miles are pretty fast, until you hit the ridge on Black Bear trail. The scrambling doesn’t last very long, but there’s also a bit of bonus scrambling down off the ridge before you reach the runnable trail again. Fortunately, after the scrambling it’s all downhill to Aid 3.

If we run ultras as a test of our ability to mentally and physically adapt, then my mental test came at Aid Station 3. After jogging down the new AS location, I was bummed to learn from one of the volunteers that they were out of Hammer Gel. It certainly wasn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, since there were other calorie sources available, but when you’re in a running groove and have a bit of tunnel vision focus, small setbacks can seem bigger than they really are. Thankfully, after grabbing a few pieces of banana and heading up the trail again, it only took me a few minutes to let go of my frustration and readjust my fueling expectations.

Aid 3 to Aid 4.

The climb out of Aid Station 3 is where I started to come apart in 2011, but I knew that I was in a little better shape for this year’s run. With the temps still rather cool I was able to keep moving upward without feeling like I was spending too much of my energy.

The inclines and declines in this section of the course are sometimes hard for me to read, so I just stuck with trying to run wherever I could, and listening to my body when it was telling me that it really did make more sense to walk. I also knew the downhill section off Windy Peak was going to be challenging, so I tried to save a bit of my knees and quads by holding back a bit on the fast downhill run to Aid Station 4.

Aid 4 to Aid 5.

While not the highest point of the course, or even the steepest stretch of trail, the climb up Windy Peak is hard. There’s a nice steep quad-jarring downhill (losing maybe 150 feet of vertical in about 1/3 of a mile) just before you reach the beginning of the climb proper. And then it’s an 1100+ foot climb in just over two miles. I began my power-hike pretty early on during the ascent, but once the trail turns into the trees (about a mile into the climb) it becomes runnable for a nice stretch.

By the time I got to the left turn for the final 0.7 mile to the summit, though, I was a little low on energy. I was carrying a pack of peanut butter and a couple bite-sized candy bars from Aid Station 4, but when I thought about eating one, my body’s immediate feedback was “don’t do it.” I took my own advice, but had to slow quite a bit on the last quarter mile up to the summit turn-around, and back down past those same rocky sections. Fortunately, by the time I got back to the more easily runnable trails I was feeling better, and made a steady pace to Aid 5.

Aid 5 is set up as a water only station, but “water only” also included HEED, so I filled my bottle with a mystery flavor that I later figured out to be melon. The HEED was ice cold, and the calories were very welcomed, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a bottle of sports drink more. I’ve been using plain water for all my hydration for quite a while now, but I might reevaluate that now.

Aid 5 to the Finish.

Aid 5 to the finish is short, and there’s only the 1/3 mile climb up and out of the drainage, plus a few little other climbs in the last mile or so.

A weird thing happened during the last 3/4 of a mile, though. After the last uphill section, I heard three or four voices behind me. And even though I don’t have much of a competitive streak during races, for some reason I didn’t want those people finish ahead of me. I knew that putting in a hard effort during this stretch of trail could only improve my finishing time by at most a minute or two, and it would come at an increased likelihood of catching a root or rock with my toe and taking a tumble. But still, I decided that stretching it out like the last mile of a road 5k somehow made sense, and I sped down the trail to the finish.

Of course, the funniest part of this is that those other runners probably didn’t even notice me, and certainly didn’t know we were “racing” one another. Interestingly, it turned out that we were all part of the biggest clump of finishers over the entire race, with seven people coming in within a minute of one another.

Gear and Hydration and Fueling.

I wore the Altra Superiors, and left out the rock plate. I probably could have bombed the later downhill sections a lot less gingerly had I worn Hokas, but I think the extra weight probably would have more than negated any cushioning advantage.

I didn’t want to wear a hydration pack, but I was worried that a single handheld bottle might not be enough. So I used one handheld and a Simple Hydration waist bottle, and it was more than enough. The temps were cool and the sky was largely overcast, so if I run GGDT again and conditions are as good as this year, then I might go with just a single handheld.

I consumed maybe 900 calories in Hammer Gels and bananas, and perhaps 90 oz of water. I shouldn’t have relied exclusively on the aid stations for fuel, and I’ll carry an extra gel or two or three the next time I run the race.

While it had been two years since I’d last set foot on the trails, I found that my prior experience helped me mentally manage this year’s run. I couldn’t really remember individual turns or anything specific, but simply knowing that “the next section is going to be steep and difficult” or being able to tell myself “don’t get discouraged, this climb won’t last much longer” made the race feel less intimidating. I’ve come to realize this year that running a course without ever having set foot on the can cause me to burn a lot of unnecessary mental energy. Uncertainty (particularly in the context of “when will this damn climb end?”) can really suck a lot out of me.

The Course.

The Golden Gate Dirty Thirty is challenging. With 8,000-ish feet of climbing in 31 miles, plenty of rocky footing, and most of the course being over 8,000 feet in elevation, this is a great way for us mortal runners on the Front Range to test ourselves without having to drive hours and hours into the high country. (The Quad Rock 25 Mile and 50 Mile run are a bit lower in elevation, but just about as climb-y, so they’re also great Front Range events that dish out a serious challenge.)

Race Management and Organization.

Given that the size of the parking lot at the start is relatively small in comparison to the total number of racers, I’m impressed with how the Race Director managed to motivate enough people to carpool and make it all work. I don’t know how well the shuttles worked for the 12 mile race, but it’s a great idea to help reduce congestion. (And if there were ever any kind of shuttle option for the 50k, I’m sure that plenty of us would use it.)

Race day check-in went smoothly, and the drop bag system seemed to work just fine. But perhaps next year the RD could have a separate bag drop that’ll remain at the finish for when the runners are done. With so many of us carpooling, we don’t have a quickly accessible place to store gear while we run (that is, unless we’re the one who happened to drive). I had a few things that I wanted to have waiting for me at the finish, so I was forced to put them in my drop bag (even though I didn’t plan to access it during the race), have it hauled up to Aid Station 3, then hauled back to the finish. That seems like an unnecessary use of volunteer resources.

As I finish writing this… I’ve already decided that I plan to come back next year. The course seemed much less formidable the second time around. It’s still a very hard race, but now I think I’m starting to understand ways that I might be able to better prepare myself for it.