Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Steep Hills and Deep Mud - A Sweeping Adventure

Coastal Trail North Face Endurance Challenge
I didn't do the Merrell Mud Run this year, but I got my fill of mud sweeping a portion of the marathon distance at the North Face Challenge in San Francisco recently. The trails were ridiculous. And when I say ridiculous I mean insanely un-runnable. But the front runners in the marathon were ahead of their projected pace times which could only mean one thing. They were using the mud to their advantage on the steep descents and probably sliding down parts of that trail on their butts. It was THAT muddy. They all had muddy asses so that was my best conclusion (hey... its hard not to look. They were some nice asses) and it was hard to escape not falling on your ass in a race like this.

Talk about a logistical nightmare. The two day race which was to include a 50 mile, 50k, marathon and marathon relay on Saturday and a half marathon and 10k on Sunday was nutty and chaotic. The 50 miler had to be rerouted onto the 50k and marathon course due to extreme weather conditions.

When I arrived to check in at my starting point it was drizzling and the front runners hadn't come in yet. Aid station volunteers were trying to adjust to the reroute instructions as best they could sending 50kers one way, marathon runners another way and 50 milers back onto the new rerouted looped course with everyone else. No one was marking how many laps the 50 milers had done by what I could tell.

With as much chaos that was happening I was impressed with how well the volunteers were holding it together. Yeah. They screwed up a few times sending runners the wrong way, but in the hour I was there I didn't see anyone getting upset, freaking out or getting pissed off for the mistakes. Volunteers were sincerely apologetic and the racers seemed to accept that there would be a few kinks. This race was pretty difficult to begin with and with the added inclement weather and confusion it seemed the racers were embracing the extra challenge. I was impressed by that. It seemed everyone I talked to was in good spirits and enjoying themselves.

Including the last marathon runner I was sweeping. Apparently she was an endurance walker who had signed up to walk the marathon distance. I had no idea there would be "walkers" along the course, but I was happy to hear that the race director had assured her a spot. I think he gave her fair warning of the level of difficulty because apparently she considered dropping to the half marathon distance but decided to stick with the Saturday marathon instead. Which was a good decision considering the Sunday races were inevitably cancelled and the trails were shut down due to mudslide danger.

I'm not aware of proper sweeper etiquette. This was my first time sweeping a course. Can I
catch up with the last runner or should I stay a designated distance behind her? Am I just stalking her or can I introduce myself? I started out running (with radio in hand) because I was just happy to be on course, but as soon as I realized my last runner was walking and stopping pretty often I caught up to her to check on how she was doing and chat a bit. I thought she should know why I was following her every move. Turns out she was a little freaked out by the last sweeper who stayed about 50 feet behind her and was stopping whenever she stopped.

Amazingly enough the weather hel
d out for the entire time I was on the trail. The woman walker and I pretty much chattered all the way to the Muir Beach aid station where she was pulled from the race due to cutoff times. There was just no way she would be able to make it back to finish before it got dark and according to the race director that part of the trail was worse than the one we had just come in on. Really? How could it possibly be worse than this?

This deep shoe sucking mud looked strangely familiar.
And I was fairly clean. I managed not to fall. Much.


Apparently it was.

The chatter on the radio indicated that there were more DNFs than expected but only a handful of medic help needed due to falls. That was good. And since this was a championship race it was apparent the race director and coordinators were trying to make sure that all runners were running fair course distances and making up distances if they were sent the wrong direction. There was a ton of back and forth about where to send runners and more talk about the extreme weather ahead. I tried to stay off the radio as much as I could while there was serious problem solving going on.

After my runner got pulled from the course the consensus was that the 50 mile sweeps would also sweep any marathon stragglers who were probably close to finishing by the time we arrived at the aid station cutoff. I was given the option to run back (I had a headlamp if I needed it) or take a shuttle. I opted for the shuttle. Had it been a clear and not so muddy I would have finished out the course for the full 17 miles. It was treacherously muddy and steep in some parts. Think mud pit muddy. I needed my bikini.

As a sweep it was my duty to check myself and the last runner into each aid station that we arrived at. It wasn't until I was on my way back to race start via shuttle that I suddenly realized I had failed to check myself and my runner into the last aid station where she was pulled from the course. I had called the main "dude" on the radio coming into the aid station but was never given the go ahead with my call to continue and then promptly forgot about following up once we arrived. Luckily the aid station volunteers there were looking out for us and reporting in that we had arrived and the runner was pulled.

The day went by quickly. It was a long drive out to the coast to help out. I completed my job and got the hell outa there before the next onslaught of weather cracked wide open. I was hoping to at least get a good run in and meet a few folks while I was there, but my time was limited if I was to get back before the storm.

So the day was good. Not as good as I was hoping, but it was nice to hike the Marin Headlands at least. Even if it was in 2 feet of mud. If anything, I think I would like to volunteer my time at more races, now. I think helping out at Western States would be fun. I'm going to look into that.
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