We decided to do a family reunion in Aptos, California this year since my brother lives there and we love the beach. I suggested a weekend that conveniently coincided with the Nisene Marks Marathon.
The Nisene Marks Marathon takes place in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. This is a beautifully lush redwood forest located just outside of Santa Cruz. The marathon has some significant elevation changes — totaling about 3100 ft up and down. It’s a small event, with only 37 finishers this year. Both the elevation and the size make this marathon much different than most of the races I’ve done in the past. I typically do road races that are either pretty flat or downhill.
Friday was the last day of school for my kids, and my 5th grader had her final “graduation” assembly and ceremony. We left straight from that for the ~10 hour drive from Idaho to California. We picked up some great pre-race nutrition along the way, In-N-Out. We arrived at about 10:30pm Pacific Time, which felt like 11:30pm coming from Mountain Time. We immediately went to bed and I was dreading waking up the next morning for the race.
Fortunately the race was scheduled to start at 8am, which is a bit later than most marathons. They also had packet pickup in the morning, which was convenient. I grabbed my bib and studied the map a bit while I waited. There were a few people I talked to and/or listened to, including one guy who had run ~250 marathons. He’d done all 50 states and was working on doing every marathon in California. Dang.
We started running the marathon about a minute late and the small field of ~40 people quickly spread out. I was running with 3 other guys for the first couple miles. One of them was a runner from New York who was doing his first marathon. He was a college runner and said he’d been training for 80 miles per week, which is more than I’ve ever done. However, I noticed he wasn’t carrying any water. I didn’t think this would be a big deal, but I was carrying my own water bottle since the aid stations were pretty spread out. It turned out to be more of an issue than expected.
About 2.5 miles in there were some cups at an aid station, so I grabbed one. Based on the map, I hadn’t expected water for another mile, but no big deal. A couple of the other 3 runners I was with didn’t grab any.
Two of the runners got a bit ahead of me and the other was several yards behind. I let the two go and tried to run my own pace. My pace was showing low 7:00’s, but with a steady climb that seemed fine to me. It felt about right.
Shortly after mile 4 the big climb started. The two runners in front of me immediately slowed down so I passed them and moved into 1st place.
The climb was pretty tremendous (for me at least). I’m not used to trail marathons. The race had started around 70ft above sea level. The big climb started around 350ft and would reach about 1800ft before turning around. I tried to just keep working at the hill without going to hard. My pace ranged from ~8:30/mi to 10:00/mi depending on the grade.
My left foot started to get irritated at one point so I stopped and loosened my shoe. Still no one caught me, although I could see another runner on some of the big turns.
The scenery in Nisene Marks was great, although it didn’t change a whole lot on this part of the course. We were running through a dense forest with big redwoods. It was very green and almost completely shaded.
Speaking of shade, based on the map I was expecting for an aid station around mile 6. Didn’t happen. Also nothing at mile 7. I was out of water in the bottle I was carrying and I was beginning to worry a bit. Finally at mile 8 I came around a corner to surprise an aid crew. They didn’t have any cups ready, but after opening a big jug we were able to fill up my bottle. There was a turn-around ahead, so I knew I’d get more water soon.
The turn-around was at mile 9.6 according to my watch, which was about a mile earlier than the map said. It turned out that my watch wasn’t very accurate in the forest, so I’m not sure where the actual turn around was.
On my way back I got to see how close the guys behind me were. They weren’t back very far. It was also fun to see other people coming up since I was their first sign that the climb was almost over. I was surprised that my downhill miles were only in the mid 6:00’s to low 7:00’s, but it was on dirt and I was trying to save some energy for the second big climb.
There was more water at the bottom of the second climb, which was around mile 16 by my watch. Once I started going up again I knew it was going to be taxing. My legs were pretty tired and I had not consumed enough water. It was fairly warm even though the trees blocked the sun.
At this turn we moved from fire road to single track in dense foliage. It was a well-used trail and there were lots of marks to keep us on the right path, but it was dense, hilly, and very steep in some parts. We had bottomed out around 250ft and we would top out at over 1100ft.
Some of the climbs got too steep for me, and I had to walk a couple of them. My pace had deteriorated quite a bit, so I figured someone would catch me sooner or later. I started to pass some half marathoners as well as some day-hikers.
Fortunately there was an aid station around mile 20 at the top of the hill. I gave a volunteer my water bottle and another volunteer said, “Only fill it half way so we don’t run out!” He filled it all the way anyways and I moved on.
About the time I started my descent, the next runner caught me. I sped up and stuck with him for a half mile or so, but it was clear to me that I wouldn’t keep up for long. I asked him how far back the next person was and he said we probably had plenty of room. I wished him luck and he moved on.
The last few miles were pretty grueling. I was just trying to finish the race so I could get a drink. My watch was off so I wasn’t sure exactly when it would end. I looked back a few times to see if I could spot any other marathoners, but I didn’t see any.
Finally I came around the last turn and finished. I considered running another 1.5 miles to make sure it was a full marathon, but after running about 150 yards, I realized that was stupid and I was finished.
I ended with an official time of 3:33:00 and confirmed with another runner that my watch was indeed off (his showed ~26.2).
I talked with the race director after and let him know that the water was an issue, especially since the map showed there would be aid stations every few miles. There were only 5 total, and the last one ran out of water a while after I went through it.
Besides the water issues, the Nisene Marks Marathon was enjoyable. For someone that doesn’t run in forests very often, it was a different experience. It’s a small field of runners and mostly on dirt road and trail. The elevation is challenging. I had a good time and I even got a pullover for getting 2nd overall.
After the race I grabbed a hot dog and some chips, walked to my car, and went to the beach to spend a couple hours playing in the waves with my family.