Full Circle on the Skyline to Sea Trail

The Skyline to Sea trail is pretty special. As its name implies, it starts at the top of the coastal range at Saratoga Gap, and rolls gently through the gorgeous forests of Big Basin Redwoods national park on its way to a picturesque finish at the Pacific Ocean. Below are a few gorgeous pictures from David Baselt’s page that give a nice feel for what this trail is like:

Skyline redwoodsskyline startskyline roadskyline end

The trail is quite popular for backpackers, as it is beautiful, convenient to most locations in the bay area, has smooth trails and plentiful shade, and is overall a fairly easy 2-3 day trip suitable for beginner backpackers, families with children, etc. It is used by many as a training or shakeout trip to test their gear and fitness prior to longer trips in Yosemite or other wilderness areas. It is typically done as a one way trip with a car shuttle, over 2-3 days – and in fact Amy and I backpacked this trail in 2009 as our first backpacking trip together. We packed light and ended up running many of the downhill sections, partly for fun and partly because we had less than a day and a half to finish. Somewhere along the way, I decided it would be more fun to just run the whole thing in one day without carrying overnight gear.


skyline map

So the following year, (2010) I signed up for the Skyline to sea 50k trail race. I trained for about 2 months but as this was my first race and I really had no idea what I was doing, I was somewhat underprepared. I think my longest run in training was about 15 miles. When the race came, I ran a strong first half, enjoying the long downhills and pushing perhaps a bit too hard given my inexperience. I had forgotten my watch so I had no idea what my time or pace was, but I think for the first half of the race I was running fairly close to the front of the pack.

At about the halfway point in the trail, there is an additional 5 mile loop that turns the Marathon into a 50k (31 miles). I had decided to run the 50K so I headed out on this loop which grinds up a long steep hill to an exposed ridge, and eventually brings you back to the same point on the course where you left the main trail. It was on this loop that things started to go downhill for me. My legs were starting to cramp up and I had to stop to stretch them out a number of times. People started passing me. I had to slow my pace and walk a lot more than I planned. By the time I got back on the main course, I was cooked. My legs were now cramping every time I tried to run, so I was reduced to a fast walk with occasional attempts to jog down a slight incline. I started getting passed, first by the faster runners I had been seeing all day, and then by others I had not seen since the start. There must have been 30-50 people who passed me in the last 10 miles.

At some point a kind woman gave me a few salt tablets, which I had no idea people used to prevent cramping – and it was too late at that point to make much difference. As I approached the last aid station, I was dehydrated, my legs were destroyed, and my whirlwind of exhilaration had rapidly turned into a whirlpool of despair. Instead of flying down hills, I was now reduced to walking just fast enough that my thighs would not completely lock up. Running was no longer an option. I had run out of water miles before, and my quads and hamstrings were both on the verge of complete tetany. I had never pushed my legs like this before, and they were in full revolt.

The last aid station is only 3 miles from the finish line, but a full 10 miles after the previous one. When I reached it they had run out of both food and water – all they had left were a few cans of mountain dew. I sat down for the first time and chugged an entire can. After a few minutes I got up and shuffled on. Slightly rejuvenated after the sugar/water/caffeine infusion, I was able to intermittently walk and run the final 3 miles to the finish line, and even passed a woman who was struggling just like I was. As I approached the finish line, I was overcome with a surge of emotions, and the tears started flowing freely.

In spite of inexperience and numerous mistakes, I had managed to finish 71st out of 191 with a respectable time of 5:42:12 for my first 50k and first organized race of any sort. I was basically unable to walk for the next week, but the joy of flying down the trails and the sense of accomplishment made it all worthwhile.

Fast forward to 2016, with a few more races and adventure runs under my belt, and I came back for another run on the Skyline to Sea Trail. This time I decided to do the Marathon, as I had never actually run a Marathon before and besides, it seems like the natural “directissima” way to run this trail, rather than artificially making it longer and harder by adding an arbitrary loop up and down a huge hill in the middle of the course.

This time Amy and my friend Nico were also running the Marathon, and my friends Bryan and Jennifer Zeitler were running the 50k. Nico and I started near the front of the pack, and I kept a fast pace on the smooth rolling downhill sections, as I knew I would be hiking some of the hills later on. I was in much better shape this time, feeling strong but pacing myself so I would be able to finish strong as well. Nico took the start a bit slower – he prefers a more consistent pace as he runs up the hills and takes the downhills a bit slower.

Soon I left Nico behind, and as I crossed a road a few miles in, a volunteer told me I was in about 10th place – right where I wanted to be. I was hoping to finish in under 4 hours, which based on the last few year’s results should be good for anywhere between a 3rd and 12th place finish. The course plays to my strengths, with only  2500′ of climbing and a full 4000′ of descending on smooth, fast trails. I’m not the fastest on the climbs but I can usually make it up on the descents. And of course, this is a smaller race, so the competition was not as strong as in some of the larger races that attract lots of sponsored professional runners.

I stuck to my strategy of running the smaller hills and hiking the big ones, and making up time on the downhills. As I hiked up the largest hill, near the middle of the course, Nico and a woman he was running with both passed me – but I kept them in sight. Reaching the top of the hill I felt rested and strong, and soon I was passing them and a few other runners, as I settled into my downhill pace. I was about halfway done with the race and it was mostly downhill from here, with just a few small climbs to go.

Elevation profile:

Skyline to sea profile

On the second half of the course I occasionally passed someone but didn’t see many runners. The 50k runners were off doing their ridiculous extra loop and I must have been near the front of the Marathon pack. About 5 miles from the finish the singletrack trail turns into a fire road and I started to see people hiking, riding bikes and even horses. I passed a few backpackers and weirdly saw Erica Namba hiking up with a friend – I knew Erica from climbing at Berkeley Ironworks, and we actually carpooled to the race together in 2010 (she finished way ahead of me). Sometime after that she started dating Leor Pantilat, and in 2013 I ran into Erica and Leor at Road’s end as I got ready to “run” the Rae Lakes Loop and they were starting an adventure run of their own to some nearby peaks. Seeing a familiar face gave me a small boost, and I was happy to still be running and feeling pretty good.

A few minutes later, an equestrian informed me that I was in 4th place, so I immediately picked up the pace, thinking I might have a chance at 3rd place if I pushed it. Out of the blue I was passed by a guy going so fast he could not possibly be in the race. I found out later that he was the first place 50k runner, but at the time I assumed he must have been out for a solo 5-6 mile run – he had no bottle and I didn’t see his race bib and he was running what seemed more like a 10k pace than a 50k or marathon pace. I was running 9-10 minute miles at this point and he passed me like I was standing still. I never caught the 3rd place runner, but I did manage to finish in 3:47:37, 4th overall for the marathon, 3rd male, and 1st in my age group. So technically I had my first ever podium finish, in my first marathon!

Nico finished right behind me just a few minutes later, and it was fun hanging out at the finish line with him, talking about the race and cheering for all the other runners as they finished. Eventually Nico had to head home, but soon enough Brian and Amy and Jennifer finished their races, and we all celebrated a day well spent on the Skyline to Sea trail. I was ecstatic with my performance, especially as compared with my epic meltdown 6 years prior – and it was all the more special sharing it with Amy and a few good friends.

It was truly a special day for me – running full circle on the best point-to-point trail in the bay area.





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