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The days are getting shorter and the runs are getting longer: North Face 50 miler is just around the corner. I’ve heard rumblings of a year-round 5:30am Ninja Loop group run before. The Ninja Loop is a 11.5 mile route in the Marin Headlands that gains almost 2400′. It includes big climbs, steep descents, and the occasional flat; it’s the gold standard for benchmarking trail running fitness. Marin boasts its fair share of elite trail runners – 3 of the top 10 finishers at this year’s Western States 100 hail from the Bay Area, and some are known to make appearances at the Thursday morning run; it’s not for the faint of heart.

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I finally bit the 4:30am wake-up bullet this week and joined the Ninjas after some peer pressuring from a friend who will remain unnamed – he conveniently slept in. I’ve run all of the Ninja Loop trails before – some in the dark, but never at 5:30am with a group of fast runners. I was easily the slowest runner in the pack – I later learned that one of the Ninjas who seemed to bounce up the trails effortlessly was the female overall winner of North Face Endurance Challenge 50K last year.

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I held my own on the ascents, held on for dear life on the (pitch black) descents, and managed to stay with the pack for a better part of the run. We were handsomely rewarded for our pre-dawn suffering: the sunrise was breathtaking, and we enjoyed it from a perfect vantage point above the Golden Gate Bridge.

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I can’t promise that every Thursday will start at 5:30am, but when they do, I know that they’ll be worth the hurt.

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