The Road to Recovery is Neither Short Nor Fast

You have got to be kidding me.  2 years. 24 months.  That is the amount of time that it can take cartilage to form, mature, and adapt to the stresses I’ll likely place on it.  Microfracture surgery forms new cartilage and rather than replace cartilage and hence the recovery is excruciatingly slow, long, important, and individualized.  The recovery will depend on location, size, depth, quality of surrounding cartilage, age, BMI, health, nutrition, goals, motivation, surgery success, and more. Basically, it is highly individualized – so one must recognize that the existing evidence and information out there (this blog post included) is not 100% applicable to your situation.  Still, I hope to provide some insights into my thought process about recovery as I progress through the different stages of recovery.  There will likely be many ups and downs through the process as well, which will hopefully prove instructive (read: Amelia Boone’s great recent blog post highlighting how to persevere in the up and down process of recovery).

Currently, I am in phase 1 of the recovery, the (chondrocyte) proliferation phase.  After the surgeon poked a few holes in my femur the bone marrow hopefully formed a clot over the area which cartilage was missing.  The goal here is to have those stem cells turn into the best possible cartilage making chondrocyte cells as possible.  Not all chondrocytes are the same, studies have shown that some are better than others, just as some muscle cells, neurons, or endothelial cells are “better” than others.  With microfracture one of the reasons inferior firbrocartilage forms normally instead of matching the existing superior articular cartilage is because the chondrocytes that form in the blood clot are inferior to the chondrocytes which reside in existing high quality articular cartilage.  Thus, one of my strategies is to use interventions which either make superior chondrocytes and to keep the chondrocytes from dying off if at all possible during this initial 4-6 week phase of recovery.  My second strategy is to mitigate the many negative side effects of nearly zero load and essentially having my left leg immobilized for the this first 4-6 weeks.  Limb immobilization can cause atrophy of skeletal muscle, connective tissue, metabolic capacity, and overall loss of cardiovascular fitness.

To do so I have researched and adopted 3 strategic approaches which I hope will work together to improve the quality of my newly developed cartilage and lessen the negative impacts of no weight bearing. They are:

  • Mechanical stimulation
  • Nutritional supplementation
  • Passive heat


Mechanical Stimulation

6-8 hours/day. 6-8 weeks. Let’s start with mechanical stimulation.  There is good biological rationale for that mechanical stimulation increases the number of chondrocyte cells formed from stem cells and the quality of these cells as determined by the type and quantity of collagen and proteoglycans secreted by these cells.  The way I am doing this is continuous passive motion or CPM.  Evidence in animals clearly shows that 6-8 hours/day of CPM machine decreases the loss of proteoglycans, increases the formation of chondrocytes, may increase blood flow to the joint (the cartilage normally received very little blood flow and thus nutrients), may lower inflammation, allows more chondrocyte protective proteins to be formed, and overall better recovery (here, here).  However, most of the studies don’t say exactly how much CPM time is ideal or if CPM works better for specific types or sizes of cartilage defects (here).  Again, it’s individual.  Irrespectively of the limitations, my goal has been mechanical stimulation through mainly CPM with a move towards limited partial weight bearing starting at 2 weeks.  I started CPM movement the day after my surgery and have been very consistent with 6-8 hours/day in the “machine”.  I will likely continue for another 3 weeks for 6 weeks total.


Nutritional Approaches

Besides eating fresh foods, non-processed foods, low glycemic index foods, and a variety of vegetables and meats I have a few added supplement strategies not normally applied on a day to day basis.

Push Protein (20-30 grams/meal):  This is a basic one. Every meal should have 20 – 30 grams of high quality protein.  Typically for me its eggs in the morning, a protein shake (without added sugar) for lunch, and some sort of meat (chicken, pork, grass feed ground beef) for dinner on a salad.  See a review here.

Glucosamine and Chondroitin Supplements (2 x per day, 1.5 & 1.2 g respectively. Kirkland USP certified brand):  The literature on glucosamine and chondroitin is unequivocal to say the least.  Typically, this supplement is used for osteoarthritis to protect against further cartilage degradation rather than rebuilding the cartilage.  Still, while I am non-load bearing I can except that the existing cartilage may degrade without normal loading.  Glucosamine and chondroitin are reported to reduce the expression of cartilage degrading proteins (MMP-3) and inflammatory proteins that are detrimental to chondrocyte cell health as well.  (References here, here)

Curcumin (Meriva-SF, 500mg 2x day): Curcumin is a compound found in turmeric and actually has extensive research documenting its effects.  The major biological effect of curcumin is to reduce inflammation and cell division across many different tissues.  My specific interest is because of reports that it reduces the progression of osteoarthritis (reference here), improve chondrocyte cell survival, reduce inflammation, and prevent collagen degradation (reference here).  Other evidence suggests that curcumin may improve the differentiation of chondrocytes, critical to a successful microfracture surgery (reference here and here). There is also evidence it prevents weight gain and metabolic dysfunction following cessation of exercise (here).

Gelatin (~10g/day): The synthesis of soft tissue such as cartilage, ligaments, and tendons suffer from low blood flow.  Recently the role of the amino acid proline in stimulating ligament collagen formation was shown in a wonderful set of very applied studies by Dr. Keith Baar at UC-Davis (reference here).  Most of the gels used in joints use a gelatin like matrix to improve the cellular environment for chondrocyte health and differentiation (reference here, here, .  While I did not have a matrix put into my knee, I am putting plenty of jello into my body in hopes that some of the gelatin finds its way to my developing chondrocytes. In addition I am hoping that the gelatin mitigates some of the loss of connective tissue occurring due to non-weight bearing for an extended period of time.


Passive Heat (Sauna)

4-5 times/week, 20 – 40 minutes, 150 – 170 Degrees Fahrenheit. The last part of my current therapy is sauna time.  I think the sauna is a useful tool for most people and has many, many different beneficial effects.  My rationale is based on studies that have shown:

  • Increased in aerobic capacity and fitness, without training. Likely due to increase blood volume. (here)
  • Increased expression of cellular protective proteins, heat shock proteins, which are also associated with increased longevity and removal of damaged proteins (here)
  • Increased differentiation of stem cells into chondrocytes (here)
  • Heat shock protein can increase in chondrocytes (here)
  • Decreased in atrophy and better muscle function in response to non-weight bearing (here).

My dose is based on the idea that you need to be uncomfortably hot to raise your core temperature to an appropriate stimulus level. While in the sauna I started to include small exercises to keep my heart rate up at a level I typically see on a steady state aerobic run for 10-15 minutes.



 There are problems with many of the studies used as rationale above.  Some are in animals and cell culture models, while others use a small number of people or people with very different condition than I have.  I’ll never know whether my exact protocol is better or worse than any other.  I can’t live my life as repeated experiments to find out definitively what the best approach is.  Instead, I have developed a plan that I think gives me at least a better chance of improving my long-term outcome.  That placebo alone is worth the trouble of researching and implementing such a plan. So I continue to sit in my continuous passive motion machine, eating my jello, and preparing for my next sauna session while visualizing healthy abundant chondrocytes laying down plenty of articular-like cartilage.


Additional Selected References

Ohira, T., Higashibata, A., Seki, M., Kurata, Y., Kimura, Y., Hirano, H., … Furukawa, S. (2017). The effects of heat stress on morphological properties and intracellular signaling of denervated and intact soleus muscles in rats. Physiological Reports, 5(15), e13350.

Hedley, A. M., Climstein, M., & Hansen, R. (2002). The effects of acute heat exposure on muscular strength, muscular endurance, and muscular power in the euhydrated athlete. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(3), 353–8. Retrieved from

Scoon, G. S. M., Hopkins, W. G., Mayhew, S., & Cotter, J. D. (2007). Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 10(4), 259–62.

Miyabara, E. H., Nascimento, T. L., Rodrigues, D. C., Moriscot, A. S., Davila, W. F., AitMou, Y., … Mestril, R. (2012). Overexpression of inducible 70-kDa heat shock protein in mouse improves structural and functional recovery of skeletal muscles from atrophy. Pflügers Archiv – European Journal of Physiology, 463(5), 733–741.

Tsuchida, W., Iwata, M., Akimoto, T., Matsuo, S., Asai, Y., & Suzuki, S. (2017). Heat Stress Modulates Both Anabolic and Catabolic Signaling Pathways Preventing Dexamethasone-Induced Muscle Atrophy In Vitro. Journal of Cellular Physiology, 232(3), 650–664.

Kuhlenhoelter, A. M., Kim, K., Neff, D., Nie, Y., Blaize, A. N., Wong, B. J., … Roseguini, B. T. (2016). Heat therapy promotes the expression of angiogenic regulators in human skeletal muscle. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 311(2), R377–R391.

Isaka, S., Someya, A., Nakamura, S., Naito, K., Nozawa, M., Inoue, N., … Kaneko, K. (2017). Evaluation of the effect of oral administration of collagen peptides on an experimental rat osteoarthritis model. Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine, 13(6), 2699–2706.

Shaw, G., Lee-Barthel, A., Ross, M. L., Wang, B., & Baar, K. (2017). Vitamin C–enriched gelatin supplementation before intermittent activity augments collagen synthesis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 105(1), 136–143.

Henrotin, Y., Clutterbuck, A. L., Allaway, D., Lodwig, E. M., Harris, P., Mathy-Hartert, M., … Mobasheri, A. (2010). Biological actions of curcumin on articular chondrocytes. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 18(2), 141–149.

stErZi, silvia, GiordaNi, laura, MorroNE, M., lENa, E., MaGroNE, G., scarpiNi, claudia, … foti, calogero. (n.d.). The efficacy and safety of a combination of glucosamine hydrochloride, chondroitin sulfate and bio-curcumin with exercise in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Retrieved from

Kjaer, M., Jørgensen, N. R., Heinemeier, K., & Magnusson, S. P. (2015). Exercise and Regulation of Bone and Collagen Tissue Biology. In Progress in molecular biology and translational science (Vol. 135, pp. 259–291).

Teich, T., Pivovarov, J. A., Porras, D. P., Dunford, E. C., & Matthew Laye, by. (2017). Curcumin limits weight gain, adipose tissue growth, and glucose intolerance following the cessation of exercise and caloric restriction in rats. J Appl Physiol.

Ko, J.-Y., Sun, Y.-C., Li, W.-C., & Wang, F.-S. (2016). Chaperonin 60 regulation of SOX9 ubiquitination mitigates the development of knee osteoarthritis. Journal of Molecular Medicine, 94(7), 755–769.

Chen, J., Li, C., Wang, S., Schmitt, G., & Madry, H. (2014). Periodic Heat Shock Accelerated the Chondrogenic Differentiation of Human Mesenchymal Stem Cells in Pellet Culture. PLoS ONE, 9(3), e91561.

Gracitelli, G. C., Moraes, V. Y., Franciozi, C. E., Luzo, M. V, & Belloti, J. C. (2016). Surgical interventions (microfracture, drilling, mosaicplasty, and allograft transplantation) for treating isolated cartilage defects of the knee in adults. In G. C. Gracitelli (Ed.), Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Karnes, J. M., Harris, J. D., Griesser, M. J., & Flanigan, D. C. (2013). Continuous Passive Motion following Cartilage Surgery: Does a Common Protocol Exist? The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 41(4), 53–63.

Wilk, K. E., Macrina, L. C., & Reinold, M. M. (2010). Rehabilitation following Microfracture of the Knee. Cartilage, 1(2), 96–107.

Howard, J. S., Mattacola, C. G., Romine, S. E., & Lattermann, C. (2010). Continuous Passive Motion, Early Weight Bearing, and Active Motion following Knee Articular Cartilage Repair. Cartilage.


The Decision – Microfracture Surgery

I’ve written more about injuries on my blog lately than I have about training or science or life.  It’s just where I am in life.  As I write this my left leg is strapped into a continuous passive movement (CPM) machine repeatedly going from 0 to 90 and back to 0 degrees.  My leg is restless and as I glance at my stopwatch I see that I still have another 90 minutes of this tortured mechanical and completely painless hell before I reach my goal of 6 hours for the day.  Its repetitive and boring, but yet it is also necessary, like much of recovering from an injury and subsequent surgery.

Continuous Passive Movement in the Tiny Home with Coffee and Charlie

As I prepared for surgery my scientific curiosity came out in full force.  After my first MRI, I consumed every article with the words chondromalacia (cartilage loss) and surgery (see pubmed list here).  It drove me crazy that there is not a single best practice for this and that each of the approaches have major drawbacks.  We can edit out genetic diseases, but can’t fix cartilage?

My injury (likely) began in Scotland (skip ahead a bit if you want injury only details).  After a successful return to competitive ultras culminated with a win at the Highland Fling I decided I needed to explore more of the Highlands before attending the wedding of friends from my Copenhagen days which brought me to the northern parts of the UK.  Northern it was, and in May that meant some significant snow at a mere 1200 ft.  My goal was a 25-mile loop through the Highlands, but 4 miles in I was post-holing and moving at an inexcusably slow pace, which I vowed to make up for with aggressive downhill running.  Poor strategy and my unnecessary risk taking resulted in a nasty fall in which I hit my left knee directly on the granite rock.  With a gash of several inches that required stitches, but only received steri strips (I should have taken advantage of government healthcare), my running on the trip was done.  In the back of my head I was worried that I did something more than cosmetic.  That sort of impact does not go unpunished.

Fast forward several months and an occasional twinge would make its way into my left knee, but never pain and never causing me to stop.  The fall semester of 2015, my first teaching, I was so busy it was near impossible to train.  That spring I vowed to run “the” local race and managed to get into decent shape, but would be stopped from full on training by a left knee pain that would come on following a hard training session and reliable disappear with a few days off.  My race suffered from the same pain a mile from the top of the climb.  Time off, a trip to Europe, and then retraining again while in Boston I suffered the same pain, stopping me from running and lingering into my walks for several days.

Upon returning to Boise I vowed to get the problem fixed.  My MRI showed an area of bone-on-bone contact where a small (2-3 mm) area of cartilage was gone.  I also may have had some meniscus damage.  The surgeon recommended no surgery.  I could walk with no pain and could run 30-40 minutes several times a week pain free.  As I already knew from my own research there were no good options and no guarantees.  Lifestyle adjustments first.  I’d become a more rounded endurance athlete – I could live without running as long as hiking, biking, and new sports like skiing and climbing could fill the gap.

My first MRI following a 9 mile run meant to make the area angry showed a small cartilage defect and swelling of the bone.

I suffered again through a busy Fall and managed to break my thumb cross country skiing.  But my knee was still hurting and not just running.  Skiing and walking seemed to aggravate it. WTF, was I just overly sensitive?  It was getting to the point of altering my quality of life.  A weekend backpacking trip pain-free was impossible and so come spring I sought additional opinions.  All opinions (those with an MD behind their name and mine) agreed that surgery was a good option and that the best of the worst options was a microfracture surgery.

So why are they all bad options? Well we are born with a specific type of cartilage in our joints called articular cartilage.  This cartilage has the property of being able to absorb repetitive shock and allows gliding of bones against each other for the entirety of our lives, hopefully.  Those that suffer osteoarthritis (bone arthritis) have degraded cartilage that causes the bones to rub, become inflamed and painful.  Surgery for osteoarthritis is a temporary fix with many of moving on to total knee replacements, replacing the idea of restoring cartilage with removing the cartilage (and bone) altogether.  This is because the cartilage that they restore or replace is not identical to what was loss in one way or another. However, I’m optimistic that I am not headed down that path yet as my injury lacks the pathology of arthritis and was trauma induced.  Yet, the science is NOT super clear on this either!!!

Note that my cartilage lesion is in the 4-5mm range. So much smaller than the typical 1-5 cm.

Mircofracture surgery has been around for nearly 30 years with mixed success.  In a not uncommon story in modern medicine it was developed before scientists really understood why it works (you only have to show that something works for it to get approved by the FDA).  Now we know it works because of stem cells, or more specifically mesemchymal stem cells that are located in bone marrow.  The surgeon goes arthroscopically into the knee and creates small holes in the bone where the cartilage is missing (in my case the femur).  These holes allow the stem cell containing bone marrow to leak out of the bone and form a blood clot at the area of bone lacking the cartilage.  The stem cells then transform into another type of cell, a chondrocyte.  The chondrocytes are the cells in charge of cartilage.  The cells are embedded within the cartilage and secrete the collagen and proteoglycan proteins that make up the cartilage.  With microfracture we recruit and turn stem cells into chondrocytes that fill in the gap of cartilage.  Unfortunately, the chondrocytes recruited do not secrete the same mixture of collagen and proteoglycan proteins contained in that beautiful slick and strong articular cartilage.  Instead we get a different “type” of cartilage called firbogenetica cartilage.  But it works, for a while.  How long you might ask, and I certainly did? Well the data is not clear on that either.

So why did I choose microfracture if I knew it wasn’t going to make the right kind of cartilage (see a detailed review on the different techniques here).  Well there were a few reasons.  One is that it generally works and it works better for younger (<40), healthy, and normal weight individuals.  So I’m optimistic there. Second, it keeps all the other options on the table.  Other techniques involve taking a biopsy of cartilage from somewhere else and growing it up in the lab or putting it straight into the existing gap.  These techniques work well for larger gaps, but you can only do them once and the replacement cartilage doesn’t always stick.  Athletes have come back from microfracture before.  Several NBA and NFL players have returned to play following the procedure, but many don’t as well.   Most data actually shows no difference in outcomes with the various techniques in patient populations.  Studies do show that the inferior cartilage breaks down though and perhaps I will get 10 years out of my imposter articular cartilage.  Still all of this data is population based – I could be lucky and never have pain again, or in 4 years I might be under the knife again.  Large studies with lots of people don’t tell you exactly how your unique situations will respond.

My PhD mentor always told me that I could spend 26 years being active or focus on competitive 26.2 mile races, meaning I was to jeopardize my long-term health for a short term athletic goal?  However, I had running mentors who were older (and healthy) and that reasoning always felt like a false dichotomy and certain data does back that up. I certainly did not get here because of an over use injury but instead an underuse of my intellect.  But now the question does seem relevant.  When my doctor said that with this surgery I should be able to run again I was taken aback.  I had actually being riding my bike and coming to grasp with the idea of coaching rather than competing.  I was coming to grips with closing that door.  But now…I’m not so sure as like many of you and others it has become a part of my identity, my meaning, and my passion.  Not running has been a struggle, but then again 26 miles or 26 years.  As I move forward with rehab and I plan to share the process. That much is known even if the place that the process is leading me to is not.

Marcus Aurelius Quote. Definitely, can learn from the Stoics in this situation.

For more papers on various ways to deal with cartilage defects:


MR seeks MR in M

A hypothetical personal from the pre-tinder era

Marin runner seeks Marin runner.  Bay bird calling all BUFF wearing buckled bearded men.  Must be willing to go to bed early on Tuesday nights and wake up early on Wednesday mornings.  You from MV downtown Equator, me from MV shoreline Equator.  North side men OK as long you have easy widow maker access.  Perfect date is IGing sunsets in TNF gear overlooking Muir and a night cap at the 2AM club.  August vacationing in Chamonix is a must.  Please include 2013-2016 summit numbers and Strava CRs.

Who am I?

[Brief background. While in Scotland on a trail run in May of 2015 I fell and hit my left knee HARD on a rock.  Ended up with a big cut and nothing else….so I thought.  Since then the pain in my knee has been creeping up in intensity to the point of causing me to limp in the mornings or stop in the middle of my runs.  Over the last two months I finally did something about, seeing the orthopedist, getting an MRI, and having a surgical consult.  This post is about the next step psychologically, not physiologically]

She stated firmly, “Nobody wants to read a blog post about an injury”.  Like most things I realized Bridget was right (thats why I’ll marry her).  So instead of writing about acquiring a potentially life changing injury, I’ll write about the prospect of losing a significant part of my life.  Thats inspiring, right?

The last couple months my Strava page is beginning to look like that of a technophobe.  As my kudos numbers atrophy away I wonder what other people think.  Are they thinking that I’m doing “secret training” (pre-Strava, called training).  I imagine once a week, on a group run people asking aloud, “What happened to Matt Laye”.  However, in reality its more like off of Strava out of mind and thats the crux of my problem.  Without running, who am I?

I secretly hope that my cartilage is superhuman and unlike those of others which are incapable of repairing themselves, but deep done I am starting to come to grasp with my own mortality in a purely running sense.  Bone on bone lack of cartilage does not repair itself, it breaks down until you need a repair.  At the moment all repairs are temporary despite some amazing treatments being developed. I imagine no number of second opinions will make me insured for experimental treatments reserved for multi-million dollar athletes and those who live moment to movement with excruciating pain.  So, I’m again faced with the question, without running, what do I do?

Now that I live in Boise I have a number of ways to reinvent myself.  Amazing mountain biking trails, skiing 15 miles from my front door, rock climbing 20 minutes away, and even a triathlon scene that is welcoming and down to earth.  But on a day like today when I get back from work tired and beat down its always a run that beats that beer in the fridge (at least initially).  For the last 20 plus years its on the trail and the road on my two feet which helps troubles, seasons, and time pass effortlessly.  Its comforting, its familiar, so its not just who am I or what will I do that I ask, but what will I become.

I’m fascinated by self-improvement.  Devouring books like “The Willpower Instinct”, “The Power of Habit”, and “Mindset”. I listen to podcasts about happiness, so called deconstructing world class performers, and improving my teaching constantly in my ears.  So I know a beginners mindset is a good thing.  Trying new things, stretching yourself, and even failing all make you stronger. But yet even thinking about letting go of running, of that massively important part of my ego, source of happiness, friendships and successes, is downright terrifying regardless of the benefits I fully know and truly believe await me.

Filling the void left by running is so much more than finding a competitive outlet.  As my high school coach Brian Davis said, “running is not a sport, its a lifestyle” and its been my lifestyle for so long.  Hence if I was a runner, who am I now, and more importantly who will I become.  I know that feeling a void left by running includes try to come to grasp with Matt Laye the non-runner and coming up with a better blog subtitle than “Adventures in non-running by a scientist”.  For now know that I’m not secret training offline.

[Post Update: August 27th, 2017. I recognize now that running is not what defines me, nor is the non-running options that I thought about so hard.  This entire time I was not asking the right question.  This idea of “I”, “self”, and ego are not the correct things to focus on.  As my meditation has deepened and my reading of stoic philosophy increased I am starting to understand that what I can’t control does not define me. The self is an illusion that we try to aspire to when all we have is our thoughts and physically being in this specific moment.  So I am not a runner, or a scientist, or a teacher, but I am me in this moment as much as I can be without as little ego as possible]

My Top Strava Segment in Marin (Mount Tam Hill Climb)

#10 (Rodeo to Wolf Ridge)

#9 (Coastal – Matt Davis to Willow Camp)

#8 (Pirates Cove)

#7 (Fox Trail Descent)

#6 (Ninja Loop)

#5 (Hogsback descent)

#4 (Fern Creek descent)

#3 (Marincello)

#2 (Dipsea)

#1 – Mount Tam Hill Climb


Location: Downtown Mill Valley (clocktower) to the East Peak Fire Lookout
Distance: 3.2 miles
Elevation Gain:  2533 ft of Gain
Overall Runs: 2040 Attempts By 330 People
CR:  Galen Burrell in 30:58 (!) and YiOu Wang 40:53
My place: 9th, 36:08
Why:  This is the route that really brought me into the trail running community of Marin and no other route can match that in importance for me.  From my first time up the summit meeting Brett for the first time on a Tuesday morning to the my last Wednesday morning jaunt with Brett plus an amazing community of runners I have covered this segment as much as any other segment in Marin (77 times, with countless numbers of friends).  When run at the same time throughout the year you are treated to a different sunset at a different point on the trail with different weather to boot.  Its amazing, as are Galen’s and YiOu’s CRs.  They are the king and queen of the Marin climbling trails for a reason.  Watching them hold court is every bit as inspiring as the downhills of Jorge and Vitor(s).

A rock star in so many ways, Mr. Galen Burrell

Insider Tip:  The scramble at the top of the route can be tricky to find, loose footing, and lead you astray easily.  There is a race every labor day where you can get a little competition on the normally casual, friendly, and gentlemanly paced route.  Don’t expect to nail it on your own and touch the fire lookout door, overwise it doesn’t even count as a summit run.

The Godfather


Sunny and shirtless


Rainbow summit season


Headlamp season


Silhouette season


Sunset season

My Top 10 Marin Segments #2 (Dipsea)

#10 (Rodeo to Wolf Ridge)

#9 (Coastal – Matt Davis to Willow Camp)

#8 (Pirates Cove)

#7 (Fox Trail Descent)

#6 (Ninja Loop)

#5 (Hogsback descent)

#4 (Fern Creek descent)

#3 (Marincello)

#2 Dipsea


Location: Downtown Mill Valley (clocktower) to the Stinson Beach
Distance: 7 miles
Elevation Gain:  1348 ft of Gain and loss
Overall Runs: 485 Attempts By 288 People
CR:  Alex Varner 48:01 and Sarah Bamberger 1:00:05
My place: NA (ie not a true Marin resident)
Why:  Why? With only 288 official runners, why? Really, you are asking why?  Clearly you don’t live in Marin.  First run 1905, the Dipsea race is the oldest trail race in America.  And if you live in Marin….and you run….then it’s the Superbowl (side note: similar to the Superbowl it takes money and/or luck to compete).  Fittingly Alex Varner (blog) who grew up in Marin and has lived close to the start of the race is a multi-time winner of the fastest time (but not the race itself) and has the CR on the mens side.  The race is quirky (handicapped, black shirts, and short-cuts) and worth learning more about (great documentary on Vimeo here).  However, even if you don’t/can’t do the race the route itself is iconic.  Its starts with 3 flights of stairs (688 in total), plunges down to Muir Woods, climbs Cardiac Hill (complete with heart-stopping views while your heart is jumping out of your chest), descends through Steep Ravine, and completes the route at Stinson beach.  The race website has turn by turn directions here.
Insider tip:  While the trail is technically 7.4 miles long, notice that the segment is 7 miles in length.  That’s because on Dipsea day all routes are valid….well thats mostly true as some short cuts are forbidden many are still allowed.  That saves those in the know 0.4 miles.  Do I know them? No not really.  So go figure it out for yourself.  Also, there is the double Dipsea and quad Dipsea for those not able to get into the race.

The man, the legend.  


Marin Top 10 Strava Segments (#3 Marincello)

#10 (Rodeo to Wolf Ridge)

#9 (Coastal – Matt Davis to Willow Camp)

#8 (Pirates Cove)

#7 (Fox Trail Descent)

#6 (Ninja Loop)

#5 (Hogsback descent)

#4 (Fern Creek descent)

#3 Marincello


Location: Start at the Tennesse Valley Parking Lot and Climb to Bobcat
Distance: 1.3 miles
Elevation Gain:  677 ft of Gain(6%)
Overall Runs: 14972 Attempts By 3782 People (popular!)
CR:  Galen Burrell 9:35 and YiOu Wang 11:04
My place: 9th, 10:40
Why:  Sometimes called the 10,000 dollar hill as its place at the end of the TNF50 miler in December, this consistent mile plus climb can make or break a number of trail races in Marin.  While normally it is a nice runnable grade towards the end of a long ultra it can feel like a death march.  Adding to its place as #3 are the very stout CR’s by Galen and YiOu at 6:55 and 7:59 mile pace respectively.  I was fit when I attempted it and only managed 7:42 pace.  Currently the top 5 are all from current/past Mill Valley residents.
YiOu Fast

Marincello CR or Lake Sonoma win, which one would YiOu rather have…

Insider Tip:  When climbing up you will notice double white posts which represent 800m in.  This make a great hill repeat option if you are not up for the full-length route.  You can sometimes find the SFRC racing crew doing repeats out here on Tuesday nights.

You have arrived at the correct spot.  See you in a little while when your HR maxes and your quads no longer work.

My Top 10 Marin Strava Segments (#4 Fern Creek Descent)

#10 (Rodeo to Wolf Ridge)

#9 (Coastal – Matt Davis to Willow Camp)

#8 (Pirates Cove)

#7 (Fox Trail Descent)

#6 (Ninja Loop)

#5 (Hogsback descent)

#4 Fern Creek Descent


Location: Start at the East Peak Parking Lot at the Top of Tam and End at Railroad Grade
Distance: 0.6 miles
Elevation Gain:  672 ft of Loss (-21%)
Overall Runs: 2800 Attempts By 695 People
CR:  Victor Ballesteros 3:44 and Naomi Plasterer 5:25
My place: 15th, 5:15 (and I was trying hard!).
Why:  I’m probably a little biased because I ran this segment weekly during Tam Tuesdays and 6:11 pace does not seem that fast for a 0.6 mile, 672 ft loss section of trail, but for THIS section it is.  Whereas the previous two downhills (Fox and Hogsback) require massive turnover, Fern requires massive risk taking.  Over a several week period in 2014 the CR exchanged multiple hands and there was an all-out assault on who could take more risks.  Not surprisingly Victor Ballesteros came out on top by a solid 15s margin.  Personally, I can not imagine going under 5 minutes, yet alone 4 minutes on this switch-back, stair-filled, rocky and loose, and pipe popping out of the middle section of trail.

One of easier sections of trail

Insider Tip:  Be prepared to take some risks.  I think most of the time can be gained on the upper section which is loose and slick. This is a great section to practice for that crazy European trail race you scheduled. Which of course you scheduled, you live in Marin.



Victor is the man with the plan to fly down technical trails.


My Top 10 Marin Strava Segments (#5 Hogsback Descent)

#10 (Rodeo to Wolf Ridge)

#9 (Coastal – Matt Davis to Willow Camp)

#8 (Pirates Cove)

#7 (Fox Trail Descent)

#6 (Ninja Loop)

#5 – Hogsback Descent

Location: Firetrail where Hogsback Ends and Intersects Railroad Grade
Distance: 0.2 miles
Elevation Gain:  261 ft of Loss (-18%)
Overall Runs: 2948 Attempts By 688 People
CR:  Victor Mier 54sec (3:18 mile pace) and Lydia Gaylord 1:42
My place: 4th, including breifly had the CR for a 3 month period.
Why:  Because witnessing the abandonment at which Victor attacked this brief stretch of trail was crazy.  This is not a smooth stretch of trail by any means. Ruts, loose rocks, and often a chill that would water the eyes make this stretch tough to stay upright when you are just cruising.  3:18 mile pace for quarter of a mile is sub 50 seconds for 400m but rather than the metronic style you see circling the oval this was a form of controlled chaos which took skill in addition to fitness to harness.  I thought my 1:06 was good.  I was wrong.

Brett can Ninja, but he can’t Hogsback

Insider Tip: Sunglasses, wear sunglasses if you are really going for it.  Oh yeah and a running start helps as well.


When not descending like crazy Victor can be found living in a van or traveling the world.  A true renaissance man.

Top 10 Marin Strava Segments #6 (Ninja Loop)

#6 Ninja Loop

#10 (Rodeo to Wolf Ridge)

#9 (Coastal – Matt Davis to Willow Camp)

#8 (Pirates Cove)

#7 (Fox Trail Descent)


Location: Start at the (west) Parking Lot on the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge
Distance: 11.5 miles
Elevation Gain:  2151 ft of Gain and Loss
Overall Runs: 655 Attempts By 138 People
CR:  Brett Rivers 1:21:48 and Devon Yanko in 1:27:12.
My place: none, just never started and finished from that parking lot
Why:  The Ninja loop is on here because it has been a standard weekly run of many of the Marin trail running community for some time (pre-Strava?).  Plus I have to include at least one segment where the Godfather (and owner of SF Running Company) has the CR.  At 11.5 miles with more than 2k of climbing it is a challenging route, but it hits many of the best trails in southern Marin (including a segment to be included in the top 5).  Its not the most popular segment (due to its length), but it is aesthetically pleasing in so many ways.  My personal favorite is the stretch of SCA trail that ribbons along the hillside providing intermittent views of SF and the Pacific.  EARLY Thursday mornings is when the group meets, but you are rewarded by the pre-dawn wake-up call with sunrises over SF.

Views of the iconic Golden Gate make the last few miles more than worth it

Insider tip:  If you are doing this run on your own arrive early.  The tourist crowds can be overwhelming and the parking lot overflowing.  If you are not a Marin/SF resident be sure to follow Trailhapa on Instagram to experience the ever changing views of the Ninja run (both pictures you can find on his Instagram account).

You may get a sunset like this, or you may get fog