Ruth and I went out to California for the 2008 Avenue of the Giants Marathon (and half-marathon and 10K) on Sunday, May 4. The race is held in the Humboldt Redwood State Park, about 250 miles north of San Francisco. The quickest way from the San Francisco airport to the race is to take US Route 101, a major highway that takes you straight to the race start. Ruth was going to be doing all the driving, and we didn’t want to do both a six hour flight and a boring five hour drive on the day before the race. So Ruth and I flew into San Francisco the Friday before, and broke the trip up by stopping along the way.
Instead of pulling off 101 somewhere, we decided to stay overnight on the Pacific coast in Mendocino. The trip from 101 to the coast took us along CA Route 128, a narrow, winding road through the hills of Mendocino County wine country. The trip was scenic, but slow as there were many twists that needed to be navigated carefully.
The hills continued right to the shore, so we didn’t see ocean until one last turn, when 128 suddenly ended and the coast appeared. After hitting the coast, we continued north on the coastal highway (CA1) along more winding roads, this time on cliffs overlooking the ocean.
In Mendocino, we stayed at the Blackberry Inn, a very nice place on the landward side of the coastal highway with a view of the ocean. Mendocino (pix) is a small, touristy town, with nice restaurants, galleries, and the like. In the summer it’s a busy seaside getaway, but in May it’s pleasantly quiet. There’s about three miles of trail along the cliffs that surround the town and look over the coast, which made for a stunningly beautiful 5 mile run from the Inn around the town and back on Saturday morning. I don’t usually run the day before a marathon, but between stopping to ooh and aah at the scenery, and running carefully to avoid tripping and falling over the cliffs, I didn’t work too hard.
After some browsing and lunch, we headed north along the coast on CA1. Again, the views were stunning. Then CA1 turned back east into the mountains. We thought we’d been traveling on winding roads before, but those were nothing compared to the next stretch. Ruth didn’t get a minute to relax for more than 50 miles, while I kept a tight grip on the Jesus handle as we twisted through, up and down. Tremendous views as long as you didn’t think too much about the possibility of falling off a cliff.
We finally made it to Redway, and stayed the night in a cabin at the Dean Creek Resort. Sunday morning, we packed up and headed the 20 miles up 101 to the race.
The race starts under a 101 overpass at the intersection of Bull Creek Road and the Avenue of the Giants at exit 663. Since the exit was blocked off for the race, runners were directed to leave the highway at the next exit north and drive back to the start. There was ample parking on a dry wash next to the Eel River, but access to the parking from the road was slow. People who didn’t heed the warning to get there at least an hour early were stuck in a line of cars waiting to park. Many of those people missed the start of the race, though with chip timing, that wasn’t a disaster.
The marathon course goes west out and back along Bull Creek Road, then takes a 90 degree turn south and goes straight out and back along the Avenue of the Giants. The half-marathon covers the Bull Creek Road portion. The 10K starts a half-hour after the other races and goes out and back on the Avenue of the Giants so they’re kept out of the way of the longer races.
The course is very runnable. The first half rolls a little, trending up on the way out and down coming back. The road is a little rough, but not too bad. The second half felt like a nice easy downhill going out, but it’s not much of a downhill, because it felt flat on the way back. Maybe I was just cruising. The only real hill is a bridge over 101 that you go down at mile 14 and up at mile 25 coming back. It’s nothing major, but it comes at a difficult point if you’re running on fumes. The same course is used for the Humboldt Marathon in the fall, with the first and second halves reversed.
The day was just about perfect. It was in the 50s and overcast. Even if it had been sunny, the redwoods shaded most of the course. There was some wind, but the trees shielded us from most of it.
My goal was to run comfortably, finish under 4 hours, and stay injury-free and leave something in the tank for Vermont City on Memorial Day weekend. Ruth wanted to improve on her 2:06+ from her first half-marathon in February.
I ran the first mile or so with Ruth. We hit the first mile marker at 12 minutes, which was slower than we’d planned, then I pulled away. I made it to mile 2 at 18 minutes, so I didn’t take the first split too seriously. Mile markers the rest of the way seemed accurate enough.
The trees were majestic. Their commanding presence and dignity added an unusual aura to the event, meeting every expectation we had when we decided to travel across the country. Every once in awhile, I’d follow a particularly imposing tree up to the sky, but since I wandered a bit if I was running while looking up, for the most part I kept my eyes on the task at hand.
On an out and back course, the first people you see coming back are usually the leaders. The Avenue of the Giants lets slower runners start an hour early to allow the roads to reopen sooner, which meant the first people coming back were some of those early birds. It wasn’t fun to see all those slow runners ahead of me. The first fast runner I saw had a Greater Boston singlet. I checked the results for him afterwards, but didn’t find anyone else from Massachusetts listed.
Since I started slow, once I hit my pace, I was passing people most of the race. I hit the first turnaround a couple minutes under an hour. At about mile 9 I stopped for five minutes at a port-a-potty. That was almost the only time anyone passed me the rest of the way.
There were a large number of Team in Training runners and all those early bird runners, so the first half was more crowded than a typical race of this size. Luckily, I left most of that behind by the turn for the second half. The second half was a pleasant cruse among the trees as the road was much smoother. On the way out I caught up with an older guy working on his 7th Avenue and we talked for a few miles. He told me he had developed the habit of counting runners he saw coming back after the turn so he’d know where he was. I pulled ahead of him before the turn, then when I saw him on the way back, he said that I was right at 100th place.
About mile 20, I was passed by someone about my age. It was the first time I’d been passed since the port-a-potty stop. I passed him back when he stopped at the next water station, then spent the next half-mile or so waiting for him to catch me again. When he finally did, I struck up another conversation. Sam was working on his first marathon. He had done lots of cross training (telemark sking, etc…), but his long run was only 13 miles, so he was struggling a bit. I paced him through mile 25, probably going faster than I would have otherwise, and we continued to eat up other runners. Then once we made it over the hill in mile 25, he got excited about the finish and raced in. I sped up some, but didn’t want to kill myself to save a few seconds, so I let him go.
At the finish, we got our medals and I met with Ruth. Turns out Sam was one of the people who had gotten a late start, so his chip time was actually about 10 minutes faster than mine. Since he was 48 that meant he’d qualified for Boston on his first attempt, though that didn’t seem to mean that much to Sam. He was looking at it as a once in a lifetime lark, inspired by a friend who’d been training hard after having a miserable time in his first race.
Ruth and I both had good days. Ruth set a half-marathon PR by over 6 minutes, finishing 9th in her age group in 2:00:27. I ended up finishing in 3:45, 5th in my age group and 66th out of 347 overall.
Sam turned back to jog out and wait for his friend. Ruth and I got in the car and headed back to Mendocino, since we’d figured a five hour drive after a race wouldn’t be fun. Monday, we got up, went on a kayak tour (pix) along the shore, then headed back to San Francisco where we spent the rest of the week in the Flower Child Room (pix) in the Red Victorian B&B in Haight-Ashbury..
Post-race, I was ready for my normal run on Tuesday, when I did 8 miles in Golden Gate Park after a hard day of tourism (Coit Tower, Fisherman’s Wharf, and cable cars)(pix). While we were out, we saw the World Famous Bushman. Wednesday, we went to the A’s game (pix) in Oakland. Thursday, we toured the park, running more than 3 miles through some of the gardens, and then returning with camera to visit the Japanese Tea Garden (pix). In the afternoon, we wandered Haight-Ashbury, which is now more of a hippy strip mall than anything else. That night, we went out with one of Ruth’s friends from high school who was currently living in Berkley. Friday, it was the Museum of Modern Art, and then improvised Shakespeare by BATS. Saturday morning, we headed back to the airport for our flight home.
WOW! What an amazing vacation, it sounds like it was perfect. How very very cool!
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I will be running this one for the first time in May 2009. I reserved a campsite in Humboldt State Park, basically a stones throw from the course. I also plan to get a hotel room in Garberville for the night before and the night after, so I can clean up good.
Thanks for this blow by blow description of the experience. I was wondering what the “double out and back” was like, and your post suggests that it doesn’t add any serious psychological burden or anything.
I am 44, and ran my first marathon in SF this past August, finishing in 4:03. I am wanting to run sub-4 hours…