Contributed by Sim Phei Sunn.
Sim Phei Sunn at the start of her second trail marathon in the USA. (Photo 1 courtesy Sim Phei Sunn)
Marin County, USA, Saturday, November 7, 2009 – It was my second trail marathon in the USA. This time it was in the scenic cradle of Marin County and Mt. Tamalpais national park, across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The place yielded a special meaning for me. As a young student in Berkeley 13 years ago, my first orientation camp was in the Marin County Muir Woods. Coming fresh from tropical Singapore, I was totally unprepared and under-dressed for the cold and winds of the seaside campground. Yet I stayed outdoors and huddled next to a huge campfire the whole night. It was the first time I saw high waves hitting the shores, and a vast unbroken horizon of the ocean and city landscape from the trails.
13 years later, I am back on the shores, waiting for the start of a marathon. The Stinson Beach Marathon was a community event, limited to 300 participants across 7 mile (11.2km), 25km and 26 mile (42km) categories, with a course-wide 6hr cut-off time. The route took us from sea level to 1,800ft (550m) where we ran along the mountain ridge with a spectacular view of the glittering ocean. The weather was glorious with clear skies and sunshine.
Runners gathered as the race director gave instructions, and then headed for the beach where the start point was. That would be the only time we were at sea-level.
The run began with a steep climb on the Dipsea Trail. We went up 1,500ft (460m) in the first 3 miles (4.8km) on wooden steps, slopes and rocks. That averaged 500ft/mile (~110m/km). Brutal! A guy tripped in front of me and twisted his ankle. Ouch!
Runners start off at Stinson Beach. (Photo 2 courtesy Sim Phei Sunn)
The run began with a steep climb on the Dipsea Trail where runners had to climb up wooden steps. (Photo 3 courtesy Sim Phei Sunn)
It took me 50 minutes to clear that section. Everyone was immensely relieved to see the water station at the 3 mile mark. There were no distance markers on the trail, only orange guiding ribbons. The only estimates we had were the four aid stations at the 3 mile (4.8km), 11 mile (17.6km), 17 mile (27.2km) and 20 mile (32km).
Runners were encouraged to carry our own water due to the large and uneven distance gaps between the stations. I took along my trusty hydration pack. The route descended to 200ft (60m) for the next 5 miles (8km) until it was time to climb again. I ran and walked with two other runners as we tackled the unforgiving slopes for another 3 miles (4.8km). I looked forward to the next station at 11 miles and was having problems converting the measurements to metric.
The slopes which runners had to negotiate. (Photo 4 courtesy Sim Phei Sunn)
At some areas, the trail was narrow, with runners having to give way to others on their return. (Photo 5 courtesy Sim Phei Sunn)
The climb seemed never-ending until I heard vehicles and figured that the road and aid station should be nearby. This time we reached the maximum elevation of the marathon at 1,800ft (550m).
Each aid station had trays of nutty trail mix, energy bars, bananas, pretzel mix, Gatorade and water. I spent three minutes at each station, taking my time to munch on the nuts and refuel. This was the only marathon where I did not consume a single powergel. I was totally enjoying myself and the cashew nuts.
With the hard climbs behind us, we continued along an exposed ridge that snaked high along the mountain curves. The sun shone and the ocean resembled an endless soft flowing mirror. The breathtaking views and the gently rolling slopes made for a very pleasant run. I was distracted with my camera and almost fell flat on an uneven ground. It was difficult to keep my eyes down on the trail as the scenery unfolded by my side.
The run took participants over hills and ridges, with the trail set against a breathtaking view. (Photo 6 courtesy Sim Phei Sunn)
The nutty trail mix, energy bars, bananas, pretzel mix, Gatorade and water at one of the aid stations. (Photo 7 courtesy Sim Phei Sunn)
Soon I reached the 17 mile aid station and there was another 1.5 miles to the u-turn point. The path narrowed considerably, with thick dry grass growing on one side, and a drop on the other. There was only space for my left foot to land flatly, while my right foot struck the uneven mound at an angle. After a few minutes, my right ankle was strained from the constant lopsided impact. We also had to share the narrow trail with marathoners who were returning in the reverse direction. We often had to stop, step aside and let the other runner pass through.
Phei Sunn with Dave, the organiser of the race. (Photo 8 courtesy Sim Phei Sunn)
The u-turn point was nondescript, with only an arrow signboard. It was a race based on runners' integrity. We headed back on the narrow path to the previous aid station. I was making good timing, 3 hours 45 minutes by 20 miles (32km). There was hope for a sub-5h completion, since the last stretch was essentially downhill to the beach. I picked up pace, motivated by that thought.
Alas, going down wooden steps and rocks on the Matt Davis trail was more difficult than it looked. It was a zig-zag path that wound its way down. The flat section was paved with fallen leaves and provided a soft bouncy run. The challenge was to brake in time around the corner and not fall over the steps.
I checked the time – 4 hours 40 minutes. Gosh! I had no idea how near or far I was from the end point. I literally made a mad dash for the last stretch, while trying to avoid hikers along the way. Finally, the tarmac came in sight. I kept an eye on the orange directional arrows and reached the Finish sign. A personal best of 4 hours 53 minutes! It was slow relative to the local runners, but a huge improvement from my previous 6 hour trail record.
Clocking a personal best of 4 hours 53 minutes. (Photo 9 courtesy Sim Phei Sunn)
Sim Phei Sunn is a civil servant in her 30s whose recreational pursuits include endurance sports and mountaineering. She actually disliked running when she was in school and only started running after university.
Editor's note: Do you have a running experience that you would like to share with readers? Feel free to share it by emailing me at lesATredsportsDOTsg.