Four months ago Marc Strozyk and friends were reading the news about the California budget cuts, and the State parks closing through out the Golden State. In the spirit of philanthropy generally reserved for fellow runners, Marc pulled together a diverse group of Annadel users and local businesses to put on a benefit 13.1 mile half marathon on the rocky, and sometimes muddy trails of Annadel Park. In that short four month window, Marc and CO. secured permits, mapped a route, roped in volunteers, got sponsors and signed up 300 runners nearly all via word of mouth. It was a Cinderella story to say the least. Race day arrived Sunday, February 7th 2010, with the sun peeking over the oak studded ridges surrounding Bennett Mountain.

I was there with my two oldest daughters as we set up our 12×12 wall tent for a emergency medical area. We figured our camping cots and chairs would come in handy to give any injured runners some privacy or protection if the weather turned nasty. (As is typical in February.) By 7:30 am we had the tent set up and we began migrating the tenth of a mile down the trail to the start line. The sky was clear and I was glad I had brought my sunglasses. The three days of rain prior had left big puddles on the course, but it was going to be a bright sunny day here in Northern California.

Click on the pictures below for full size.

The gun went off at 8:00 am SHARP. That punctuality is a rarity at the trail runs I have attended in the past. But like the sign-in and vendor area it went off without a hitch. I had probably 100 runners ahead of me and 150 behind me at the start. In that mile runners sorted themselves into their pace groups as we followed the wide gravel road for a long mile. We turned off on the Canyon trail and began the first 4 miles of climbing that took us from just over 200 ft above sea level to around 1400 feet. The 5% grade, while still on a fire road was made more difficult by the rocks jutting out of the packed sandy loam. Here and there storm runoff had cut a channel exposing the rock underneath, necessitating frequent course corrections. The rocks sticking up were just waiting to snag a toe of the careless runner. We were fresh at this point, but we were going to be returning over this trail after 9 miles of running, and that dulls the senses of even seasoned runners.

The Elevation profile, (created by the RD on a mountain bike) for the race is in Green.  A long uphill pull. Click for the full size picture in a new window

We ran from the grass lands into a section covered with oaks, and the trail consistency changes as well. Added to the soil was the organic matter from all the oak tree leaves that fell on the trail. The footing became muddier and slipperier as the shaded spots held more moisture and small streams were running clear but swollen across the trail. I passed the first aid station as we turned onto the narrower Marsh trail with 16 oz of water in my bottle and an energy gel in me at about mile 3. The aid station volunteers shouted encouragement and smiled as I passed them and continued the climb as the trail narrowed muddiness increased.

The remainder of the climb took us into fir covered trails with occasional oak patches along the way. I began to pass other runners who went out too fast, or had underestimated the toll running on trails can take on a person. I passed the Ridge trail intersection, grateful that the front runners hadn’t gotten more than 5 miles ahead of me and begun their return. We rolled into Buick Meadow and the sunlight glinting off of the green dew covered grass in the open field greeted me like an old friend. I knew, from previous runs in this section the rest of the Marsh trail was going to level off and allow my burning legs to rest as I worked to lengthen my stride on the less technical sections up top and around Ledson Marsh. I encountered the second well manned aid station on the edge of a mid calf deep creek. I refilled with 12 more oz. of water in my bottle, and consumed another energy gel before I plunged into the torrent and slogged on to the Ridge trail turn off at mile 6.75.

Now let me tell you, I ran with wet feet for the last 10 miles at least. Once some puddle had seeped into my running shoes, it was ON and I went ankle deep the next opportunity. It made puddle avoidance a non issue and I knew from my long run two weeks prior my shoe and sock combination was up to the task. I suffered no blisters in this run, and the frequent foot and leg baths seemed to cool my furnace, and invigorate my spirit. Fortunately there was ample opportunity to rewet my feet, as I trucked on down the trail.

When we reached the Ridge trail I was greeted by enthusiastic onlookers complete with cowbells. My spirit immediately soared as I made the hard right turn onto the single track that took me over 3 miles and climbed another 400 feet before dropping back into the Marsh trail. Along here I caught more runners and my non-avoidance of mud and puddles picked me up a few more spots as I overtook more cautious runners. It was along this Oak covered windy section that I KNEW I was prepared for this race. I was in my element and I was feeling 110%. Athletes know this as the Runner’s High, a burst of endorphins that dulls pain and boosts endurance. The energy gels at minutes 15, 55, 90, and 120 also maintained my blood sugar levels as my glycogen stores became depleted. I was greeted by name as I made the slippery hard left back on to the Marsh trail and had four miles of downhill between me and the finish line.

Now the nagging soreness in the hips, quads, calves, and hamstrings began to rise to the surface as gravity helped lengthen my stride and I pushed my feet to keep up with the increased turnover demand of the downhill. I passed a runner who had always passed me and finished ahead of me in training runs; it looked as if he had fallen earlier. He shouted encouragement to me as I passed him and fell in behind me as I began to gain on another training mate. At this point I became mesmerized in her stride as she glided over the trail so effortlessly. As my mind wandered one of those rocks snagged my right toe and I went rolling. As I was rolling I was grateful it was not a rock strewn section of trail, as I tucked a shoulder, grabbed my sunglasses, scrambled to my feet and continued my run.

I shouted a greeting to my compadres at the aid station at the Canyon/Marsh intersection once more and was greeted with shouts of encouragement as I hit the section that was the home stretch of so many of my training runs. Further down the trail I was overtaken by a fellow Annadel runner whom I recognized from runs earlier in the year. We seemed to converge at that point often on the trail and as in runs before she took the lead and widened the gap. Also along here I was overtaken by another training partner, a triathlete and friend that let me know I needed to apply more effort if I didn’t want to fall back more in the standings. I passed another runner who had fallen, no doubt a victim of the rocky fire road. Other runners and emergency team members were on scene so I continued to grind it out as we hit the flat section for the last mile.

Let me tell you, I could have been running back up the Canyon trail for as hard as that last “flat” mile felt. But as I rounded the bend I could see the crowd at the finish line and managed to put on a kick that would have made a 3:30 marathoner proud. I crossed the line with 13.1 miles and 1643 total vertical feet of climb and descent behind me at 2:17:05. My time put me 132 overall out of 271 runners who finished, and 13th out of 23 in my age group(nine of those in front of me finished under 2 hours). 

As the medal was hung on my neck and I received a hug from friends and my daughter, I thought about my expectation for this race.   Based on a similar 10 mile training run, my time was predicted to be 2:26:00 for the 13.1 miles.  So coming in under that was a victory for me.  It also was the first trail race of 10 miles or more I did not walk.  It was a challenging course, a beautiful day and it was to benefit a good cause. I hugged my daughter once more as she protested (something about sweating on her), and began the walk back to the staging area.

I arrived back there to find a smorgasbord of epic proportions. Sponsors had donated pasta, polenta, bananas, orange slices, bagels, cream cheese, bread , cookies, coffee and other assorted victuals for famished runners. After I had drank, eaten, drank some more, and savored a cup of strong black coffee, I was able to change into some dry clothes and watch runners behind me finish. The last one crossed the line at 4:15:00 or so and seeing the beaming smile on her face as she got her medal reminded me that from starting a training regimen to finishing a half marathon over technical trails is a long journey that begins with that first step.

Marc Strozyk presented a $20,000 check to go towards keeping Annadel State park open to the trail users in Sonoma County. The funds were raised from race entries, fees from a training group, as well as donations from sponsors and the community. So I will wear my race t-shirt and display my medal with pride, knowing I had the privilege of participating in something that captured the imagination and enthusiasm of an entire community in just four months.

Link to The Press Democrat  News story

Link to Official Results