Ryan Neely, YiOu Wang Win Penultimate Race of La Sportiva Mountain Cup

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

The Table Rock 27K sees heated competition in the beautiful seaside hills of Stinson Beach, California

The sky met the ocean in a faint line barely hinted at by the dawn, but race director Tim Stahler was already in the small parking lot by the beach, setting up the start/finish line. The hum of the small pump filling the inflatable arch drowned out the sound of waves crashing a few hundred yards away. Dedicated volunteers strung small flags between cones placed on either side of the sidewalk, while others organized aid-station supplies near a truck, preparing to drive to Cardiac Point—a title whose aptness the racers would soon rue.

At this point, competitors were finishing up small, superstitious breakfasts before leaving their homes, hotels and camping spots. As they drove north from San Francisco along California’s winding, coastal Highway 1, sea cliffs diminished into a long white-sand strip—Stinson Beach, the start point of the Table Rock 10K and 27K, and a large part of what makes the race seem so magical.

More and more people arrived to don their race numbers and warm up before the race. Elite athletes such as La Sportiva’s Maria Dalzot, Bret Ferrier and Jason Bryant all came out to collect points for the 2015 La Sportiva Mountain Cup—the 27K was the penultimate race of the series. With a $25,000 cash purse, a lot was at stake with every step, with each of the 3,650 vertical feet runners would climb.

After an emotional buildup, the racers toed the start line and just like that they were off. Like a smoking barrel, the start line was quickly a shell of what it was moments before; all the runners’ pent-up energy had been released onto the course.

With 10K racers streaming in right around the hour mark, those of us at the finish held our breath each time a runner got close enough to discern if they had a 27K race bib on. Finally, at 1 hour 52 minutes 22 seconds, Ryan Neely crossed the finish line, nabbing a first-place finish and 20 points toward the Mountain Cup title. About two minutes later, Sam Robinson crossed the line, with Patrick Parsel closely behind him. Bay Area runners are tough to beat on their home turf and they showed us all how it’s done in the Marin Headlands.

With the men’s podium decided, we were all so excited to see who would be the top woman in the field. Maria Dalzot (currently first in the Mountain Cup standings) had just come back from a strong finish at the Zermatt Marathon in Switzerland, racing for Team USA. Everyone around the finish line was talking about YiOu Wang, a speedy road runner with less experience on trails but plenty of mettle. At 2 hours 12 minutes and 13 seconds, it was YiOu that came rocketing across the finish line in a flash of sweaty glory. Less than a minute behind, Maria Dalzot crossed the line with a huge smile on her face. I’m still not sure if it was from the sheer beauty of the course or from the great challenge that YiOu provided in Stinson Beach. Third place in the women’s category went to Caitlin Smith from Oakland, California.

With the beach just a few steps away from the finish line, competitors took to the ocean to wash the sweat and dirt from their skin. Reflecting on my time in Stinson Beach, I am stunned by the vibrant trail-running community that lives in the hills along the coast. Steep, twisting trails wind their way through redwood forests to the top of bluffs looking over the sea. I understand now how so many top-tier athletes emerge from the Bay Area woods.

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada