Saturday, April 8, 2017

2017 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run - Race Report

I wasn't exactly supposed to run this race. I've been guilty as a perennial under trained runner since last year. It also doesn't help that the most I have run before starting was a 30K, although a tough and muddy one at that, around Lake Chabot. However, I have already failed to cross the start line at two other races I have signed up for earlier this year: Jed Smith 50K and Way Too Cool 50K. Part of me wanted to play it safe and just drop down to the "American River 25", which I have the utmost confidence of finishing. But another part of me wanted to go for it, and risk a "Do Not Finish", but notch another 50 mile accomplishment, having not done at all the previous year, but having done three 50 milers to date (American River 50, Dick Collins Firetrails 50, and Headlands 50).

American River (AR) 50 was the first 50 mile ultra marathon I have completed, back in 2014. I had the benefit of experience going in to this race. I knew the course to an extent. I have also technically done the course "twice" (or even "thrice" if you count training runs), as I have attempted the Rio Del Lago 100 back in 2015, which uses the AR50 course (or most parts of it). However, my experience on the course came into question as we immediately dove tailed into a trail after just a quarter to half a mile from the start line. AR50 was all road for the first 25 miles when I ran it back in 2014. I began to doubt how much of the course we're about to run is still part of the course I ran several years ago.

AR50 is a good first 50 mile ultra marathon for those attempting it. The first half is mostly road but it makes up for that fact by having half the elevation of other 50 milers in the Bay Area, such as Dick Collins, The North Face Endurance Challenge and Headlands 50. It also is a well supported race, given that it is run by Norcal Ultras. It also doesn't hurt that you get a nice Patagonia jacket (wind breaker back in 2014, fleece sweater in 2017 and other previous years).

Like most ultras, I started at the back of the starting line. I think this is more poignant the longer the ultra you choose, especially when you do an ultra of the 50 mile variety or more. It's easy to get caught up in the euphoria of a race start line and run fast the first few miles and the first half of the race, only to fade away and only walk most of the second half, or worse, not be able to complete the race due to an injury.

I did run with the intention of doing a one minute run and one minute walk. But I quickly adjusted it to a four minute run and a one minute walk interval, as it looked silly to start walking so early in the race (but I do know that I shouldn't care whether something looks silly or not). And so, I maintained the 4/1 ratio for the first aid station or so. I also took the strategy of going from aid station to aid station, and not worrying about the daunting fact that I am attempting to cover 50 miles, roughly the equivalent of doing two marathons, in one day.

A lot of the runners I had brief chats with at the start were first timers. They were in awe that I had done the race before. I told them that they chose a good first 50 mile ultra marathon to attempt. Unfortunately, I think a lot of them didn't make it to the finish line. I saw one of them take their bib off at Beal's Point, at the half way point (25 miles in). I saw another take a seat at about mile 28, so close to making the cutoff for mile 30. I saw another runner at mile 38 who looked strong but didn't seem to make the third cutoff at Rattlesnake Bar (which I barely made as well). According to, there were 411 finishers and 123 "did not finish (DNF)". Assuming those 123 crossed the start line, that would be a whopping 23% DNF rate (I have a feeling it's less than that, and that at the moment, it included those who did not start the race as well).

I made the first half of the race near the ball park estimate of when I wanted to arrive at Beal's Point, at 6 hours in to the race. When I arrived, I quickly asked for ice and water for two of my water bottles. The first of which was actually filled by no other than Ann Trason herself! I wasn't sure whether it was her when I saw her and asked her for ice on my second bottle, but confirmed my suspicion only a day after when I saw pictures from other friends saying they saw her at Beal's Point as well. I think it's awesome that someone like her would volunteer at these races! I wish I could have taken a selfie with her at hindsight, but I'm not sure if she's the type that likes the spotlight.

It got warm quickly from Beal's Point onwards. So I stuck to my plan on having ice on my cap, ice on two of my water bottles, ice on a bandana from my drop bag. I also wore arm coolers (like arm warmers, but you can douse them with cold water and even put some ice in). I forgot to douse my arm coolers at Beal's Point but did so when I reached Granite Bay.

The run from Beal's Point to Granite Bay seemed way longer to me than in the previous time I ran it. The course seemed to stay exactly the same, but I guess having no pacer made the miles seemed longer. I chose to have no pacer or crew for the entirety of the race. I did ask a friend to potentially pace me a few days prior, but since he was already scheduled for something else, I decided to fall back into having no crew or no pacer.

The rails started to fall off when I made the same mistake I have done in Granite Bay when I did Rio del Lago. I was in a hurry to get in and out of the aid station. I had my two bottles with ice and water, downed two cokes, but that was all I did. I didn't take any additional fuel with me for the next 9 miles to Horseshoe Bar. I didn't get my spare water bottle at Beal's Point. I just prayed silently as I went those nine miles that my two bottles would last me the whole time, but just like last time I used it all up with about 2-3 miles left to go. At the very least, I had one tailwind packet with me to give me some extra calories. But even that I failed to remember, as I failed to reload my tailwind packets at Beal's Point. In hindsight, I should have just carried the entirety of my tailwind packets with me the whole way. It might have weighed more, but at least there was no chance of me forgetting them. At least that strategy helped for my headlamp, which I didn't have to remember picking up in Rattlesnake, as I just had it with me the whole time.

The infamous "meat grinder", miles 30-41 of the course, is called such because of the relentless ups and downs throughout. It makes momentum for running harder, especially if you've only done a 50K leading up to this race. Surprisingly, I found I can still "run" parts of this, compared to when I ran it with a pacer. But the "run" I did seemed more like a shuffle as my pace would only show 15 minute miles or slower when I complete the miles and see my pace on my garmin watch.

I almost got lost early on at the meat grinder as I ran surprisingly strong. Only to hear someone shout "red shirt, you're going the wrong way!". I looked back, double back, and did indeed miss a crucial right turn, which would have added several miles into my race if I didn't hear those runners. After that, my confidence got shaken as I would always doubt whether I was going the right way several times, only to breathe a sigh of relief when I do see the orange ribbon, a "confidence ribbon" to indicate that I was going the right way. But then I got my confidence shaken again at several times of the course when I saw another runner and her pacer going towards me, only to hear them say they're back tracking because they got lost (but still made me think whether I was lost as well).

At around mile 35-36, a safety sweep caught up with us, which also didn't really make my day. It was odd enough that I saw the safety sweep several times at the first half (which was very odd, as the safety sweeps were ahead of several of us runners, and they were running back and forth, probably bored of how slow we were going about, haha). I did ask the sweep whether we were truly the last runners and he asked if I saw the two other women sweeps for this part of the course. I said I didn't and reiterated that I'm pretty sure there were a lot more runners behind me. He stayed behind and I thankfully didn't see any sweeps again at that point.

Another setback I had at one point was having two horse riders behind me for several miles. They didn't seem to be in a hurry or want to overtake me until I slowed way down. But then I overtook them again when they stopped and chatted with another runner, who seemed to be delirious with the heat (but she moved fast again shortly after). I was getting a little dizzy and nauseous myself. It could have been heat exhaustion for all I know, but I kept on moving forward. I was also slightly low of fuel and I felt my body sorely lacking the calories (and getting hangry, in effect).

Horseshoe bar, mile 38, didn't come soon enough. When I got there, I quickly asked for my two bottles to be filled with ice and coke (yes, coke). I needed the calories and the sugar boost at that point. I took a quick pee and then started running again, holding two peanut butter and jelly sandwich quarters with me. My watch had died at that point but I was told I had 3 miles to cover 45 minutes. It doesn't seem like a lot, but if you're at 38 miles, that seems like a daunting task and it did to me.

It was at this point of the race whether I doubted that I could finish it. I made the first two cutoffs (1:00 at Beal's Point, I arrived around 12:05-12:10, and 2:00 at Granite Bay, I arrived around 1:30), but I really wasn't sure if my run/walk pace was enough to get to Rattlesnake Bar in time. It also didn't help that it felt like the longest three miles of my life! I ran when I can, but the aid station seemed so far away. I started slowing down, even as I came nearer. My watch had died shortly before Horseshoe Bar, so I had no idea of the time and pace. I could have checked my phone but I didn't want to see how near (or far behind) I was. I wanted the mystery to somehow push me further.

Just when I thought that was the end of the line for me, I heard someone shout "5:06". I wasn't sure of the context of it, but am thankful for hearing that as it probably saved my race. I knew I had 9 minutes to go and having run these trails I knew that was doable. I ran/walk as fast as I could given the state of my body and legs. I made it with 2 minutes to spare! The aid station volunteers asked me for what I wanted but all I wanted was to cross the timing mat and get out of there. I still had my one and a half bottle of coke, so I think I was good until the next aid station.

At that point of the race, I felt as if I had completed it. I knew, at least based on previous years, that the finish line wasn't a hard cutoff. Even if I finished past 14:00, which I did by 13 minutes, it was still an official finish for the race. They only have hard cutoffs for the first 3 cutoffs so that aid stations can wind down properly and for safety reasons as it gets dark and there is a mountain lion sign around the mile 45 point (although I have yet to hear anyone personally see a mountain lion, but I have seen a rattlesnake for sure!).

It was a slugfest to get to the finish line. I surprisingly was able to run on the flats and downhills but somehow I still felt super slow doing it. The last 3 miles seemed longer than when I first ran the race, and when I paced a friend for her last 9 miles of AR50. It also got dark with about a mile to go, and another runner, who forgot her headlamp, asked me to stay with her. I asked her if she could at least match my pace, which she thankfully did. I didn't want to leave her, but I also didn't want to hike up too slow that they could have taken down the timing mat (or decided to not consider us official finishers).

The last hike up was changed from when I ran it. Originally, there was one more big hill and you run the side of the road. They changed it where we went right instead. I wondered then if we were close, or if we had to do a roundabout turn just to add more miles to make it a 50 miler. Thankfully, the turn turned into one last hike up, which we took slowly as we were sharing my headlamp.

I finished and saw a friend at the finish, Beth Horn, whom I am eternally grateful for. Her friendly smile was a beacon in the desert. She walked with me to get my drop bags, get my food, and even drive me back to my hotel when I told her I was planning to get an uber. In hindsight, I should have booked the shuttle with AR50 which allows me to have my car near the finish. Now whether I could have driven myself safely back to the hotel, I'm not sure. Maybe I'll at least have a crew, if not pacers, next time.

It would be a good practice if I ever do AR50 again. Or maybe even Rio del Lago...

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Where To Train For Hills in San Francisco

"Hills are speedwork in disguise." - Frank Shorter

So you've signed up for the 40th Anniversary of The San Francisco Marathon (TSFM). Congratulations! But then, you say "Now, what?". You wonder what types of running you should be doing, how often to run every week, how many miles, and which hills are the best to train for the race. While those are all great questions and definitely things to consider for the race, this humble blog post of mine aims to help you answer where to train for the hills in San Francisco.

If you ask anyone living in the city, the answer would be "Everywhere!". Hills adorn the 7x7 square miles of this beloved city. But for those who haven't run any of the hills here in San Francisco, I list the top 5 hills that you can use for doing hill repeats, hill runs, and even hill hikes (yes, it's actually perfectly acceptable to hike up a hill or two, especially during race day, to save your legs for later on the race).

From the 5th best to the top hill to train in San Francisco (at least in my own mind), here are the five best hills to train for in San Francisco!

5. Fort Mason

Fort Mason Hill
Photo Credit:

Fort Mason is the first hill you will tackle in The San Francisco Marathon, if you're running either the full distance or the first half marathon (the second half marathon starts at Golden Gate Park, so it doesn't go through Fort Mason). This is a good hill for hill repeats as the length of the hill is short compared to most other hills in San Francisco. There are also no cars to contend with, but you do have to make sure you're looking up (or down) the road to make sure you're not on a collision course with any cyclists.

To train on this hill, I recommend a 10 minute warmup on flat ground, from the base of this hill towards the Aquatic Center or Embarcadero and back. From there on, you can do as many hill repeats that you can for about 10-15 minutes. You can focus on one direction if you wish to on certain days by either (1) running uphill, then walking downhill, (2) walking uphill, then running downhill. A 10 minute cool down run afterwards, plus some stretching afterwards is highly recommended.

4. Hayes Hill

Painted Ladies

While not part of the course for TSFM, this hill is a featured part of another iconic and local race called Bay To Breakers. Hayes Hill is an especially nice hill to climb because you are rewarded with spectacular views of the "Painted Ladies", a row of Victorian houses at 710-720 Steiner Street, as well as the Transamerica Pyramid building in the background.

If you're visiting the city from other parts of the Bay Area, you can simply take BART over to Civic Center and start running a mile and end up at the top of Hayes Hill. From there, I recommend that you keep running towards the end of Hayes Street where it dead ends and hits Stanyan Street. Turn around, take another helping of Hayes Hill up and down towards Civic Center. Congratulations, you've done a 4 mile run with a decent amount of hell! Er, I meant hill!

3. Lyon Street Steps

Lyon Street Steps

Technically, this isn't a hill, but I think you'll agree with the exception. Stairs are actually a great workout that mimic the toughness of a hill workout. In some ways, it can even be harder since you're forced to take more steps whether going or up or down. You can technically skip a step or two going up or down stairs, but I do not recommend it for these sets of stairs. In fact, I tend to keep an arm out for the hand rail when I go down these steps just in case I do a misstep or two along the way.

There are 332 steps to go down and up. You can start at the top, at the intersection of Broadway Street and Lyon Street. Or you can start at the bottom, near the intersection of Lyon Street and Green Street. Whatever you choose, be sure to take in the view and take in a snapshot or two. You're rewarded with views of the bay and the Palace of Fine Arts and the Marina.

2. Lincoln Blvd

Top of Lincoln Blvd

Lincoln Boulevard is a great road to practice hills since it's part of the course for the full marathon and the first half marathon. From the vista point of the Golden Gate Bridge on the San Francisco side, you can park nearby (parking can get full on nice days, but there should be spots if you start early enough).

Lincoln Boulevard starts with an uphill climb once you finish crossing back and forth the bridge on race day. There was one year that I ran the whole hill, but if you haven't been running hills, do remember that is totally okay to hike or walk up them, as you still have lots of miles to still go through, especially if you're doing the full marathon distance.

Be careful of cars along this road, as the road is only closed during race day. There is a trail behind the rails where you can run through, but it is a dirt path and there could be a smattering of rocks here and there, so just be careful of where you step when you do run it.

If you have the time, I recommend running this part of the course at least once so you're prepared for it on race day. I do highly recommend running with a group once you get to the longer distances for a full marathon (10+ miles) or half marathon (6+ miles). Run 365 ( is the official training group for TSFM, and that group is responsible for getting me to cross the finish line for the full marathon distance for 5 years now and counting!

1. Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks Summit
While not "the" highest point of San Francisco (Mount Davidson actually claims this title), running to the top of Twin Peaks rewards you with stunning views of the city at the top, with a 360 degree view. Make sure to pack a lightweight wind jacket at the top so you can stay for more than just a few seconds (and a selfie).

Running from Civic Center BART to the top of Twin Peaks and back is about an 8+ mile run, so this is a good hill to practice a long run with a hill involved. Just remember to conserve your strength and run slowly, but with purpose. You can also experiment with run/walk-ing up the hill. Try walking up a minute, running a minute, and alternate this method. It's a method I have used in some trail runs involving steeper hills, and you'd be surprised with how much faster you end up going. You'll also end up overtaking most hill hikers and even some hill runners who go out too fast to start.


So there you go, those are the Top 5 hills of San Francisco, if you want to train for hills. There are a ton more hills to train for, and I could have easily made this a Top 10 (or Top 20) list. Just remember to enjoy the view every now and then. Just don't take a selfie or snapshot and run away. Stop your watch. Take a minute (or two, or even three!).

Enjoy the views and enjoy the hills of San Francisco!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

2016 Razorback Endurance Run - Race Report

The Razorback Endurance Run was held at San Martin, California, a small city about an hour to an hour and a half drive south from San Francisco. Runners had the option of choosing a two mile paved loop or a 4.75 mile "relentless" trail loop, both of which start and finish at Harvey Bear Ranch County Park. The race has timed runs, where runners can run for as long and as far as they want for 6 hours, 12 hours, or 24 hours. Hard core ultra runners also have the option to go for a 100 miles, assuming they can cover the distance of 70 miles within the first 24 hour cutoff.

I was supposed to run Way Too Cool 50K on that same weekend, but after a failed attempt at a 100 mile at Rio Del Lago in 2015, I felt Razorback would be a good first attempt at a 100K distance. I chose the 4.75 mile trail loop when I signed up, but due to the forecast of heavy rain and wind, and the race director's warning that the trails will be definitely muddy and slippery, I opted for the "easier" paved loop. While I think the paved loop was still easier for that day, especially given the 100 feet of elevation gain per loop versus the trail's 700 feet of elevation gain per loop, I was in for a rude awakening.

The race started at 6 AM on Saturday, March 5th of 2016. I drove that morning instead of staying the night before to save some money and to also have the comfort of sleeping (or staying awake) in my own bed. I arrived earlier than expected, but I would rather be early than late, even though I had a whopping 24 hour limit to cover 100 kilometers (62 miles). I really thought I had it in the bag, as I can walk if I have to, and since it was paved, not muddy, I wasn't too worried about the weather at all.

Around 70 runners were signed up for the event. I have no numbers on the ones in attendance, but it felt like around 50 people (dropouts are not uncommon for races, whether it be life events, weather, injuries or other circumstances that lead to runners not showing up on race day). The mood was that of excitement despite the impending rain. There were quite a few of us who switched from trail to paved when we read about the muddy conditions. There were still quite a few friends who braved the trail (even some who were gunning for 100 miles!), despite the forecasted trail and weather conditions.

The go signal from the race director came soon enough. People started running but there were a few (very few) like me who started off by walking. The first half mile was actually a slight uphill. Nothing crazy, more like a very slow 30 to 40 feet of ascent, but knowing I had to do this over and over again for 31 times, I figured walking it on my first loop was the smart thing to do. What wasn't smart was I ended up running when I saw the downhill and when I saw the others started running downhill. My plan all along was to walk the entire first loop as a warmup and I didn't listen to that as I got caught up with the "race euphoria". I didn't pay for it that early on, but I did pay for it later on the race, as I now whether I didn't properly warm up by walking those first two miles.

The weather in each loop was pretty dynamic throughout the whole race. It was raining on the first loop, but then it stopped, so I took off my jacket. In the fourth or fifth loop, the sun actually came out and broke the clouds, so I picked up and wore my sunglasses and wore my cap again. Afterwards, it rained again and I had to get my jacket and wear it all over. The aid station and our ability to "set up camp" next to it with our drop bags made the race very easy and accessible as we could always adjust as necessary every two miles depending on what was needed at that time. The food was also one of the highlights of this race. Every time I finished a loop, I rewarded myself with a snack of at least 100 calories, whether it was a banana, a quarter slice of bagel with cream cheese, a muffin slice, or even a small piece of chocolate! This is what makes trail races such as Razorback preferable to the simple water, electrolytes and gels for the road half and full marathons.

Even though I could technically reach my goal of 62 miles with just power walking at a 3 mile per hour pace (3 miles times 21 hours is 63 miles, so I would reach it prior to that), I opted instead to aim for a 15 mile per hour pace for as long as I can maintain it. I would walk up any form of a hill or ascent and run any down hills or flats. This course only seemed to have one or either. You start with an uphill, a downhill, and then another downhill. I also opted to run or walk on the dirt path rather than the pavement. I haven't done more than a 50K on pavement (Jed Smith Ultra), and a 100K on paved might be too much for my body that is used to smaller distances. Lastly, my strategy involved being in the "inner" loop. If I ran the outside loop, I noticed I was accumulating more than just 2 miles on each loop. I don't need any more bonus miles on this course! I'm just glad there is pretty much a zero impossibility on getting lost on this 2 mile loop course as it's just one big oval. I would have to be pretty delirious to somehow veer off and get lost (which never happened).

I was able to maintain an average of 15 minute miles until close to the fifth hour. After I finished my ninth loop (18 miles), I felt a severe tightening at the back of my hamstrings. I suddenly could no longer flex my left leg without pain rearing its ugly head. This was a totally new injury to me as I had only had IT band injuries, shin splints, calf and achilles injuries (which gives me instant empathy to whomever acquires these said injuries). I had this as I was approaching the end of that ninth loop. A flash of alarm went through my head. I had about 44 more miles or 22 more loops to go and while I could technically walk it, it will be a slow walk akin to a death march at this point and more rain and wind was on its way soon.

I decided to walk back to my car where I had brought my stick. I used my stick roller to work on my hamstrings, my calves, my IT band, but to no avail. I thought I brought my icy hot stick that I can also apply to alleviate the pain, but I realized I had forgotten it. Panic and disappointment suddenly came on me as my now "easy shot" at a 100K was now a "long shot" if not an impossibility. 

After sitting at my car thinking through everything, I decided to at least head back to the aid station to eat one of their bigger meals. They were serving meals every 6 hours for the 24 hour plus race and so they had something more than the usual trail fare. Before I can reach the aid station, I saw my friends who were doing the trail loops. They were in good spirits, enjoying the mud, but also taking their time doing so. They were unburdened with a goal distance like mine so this was really just a fun run on the trails for them. In some ways I was envious, and I wish I had joined them. In some ways, I also wished I just stuck with running Way Too Cool, which I most probably had a shot of finishing. But I reminded myself that I signed up for Razorback because of that darned buckle!

A friend offered or asked if I wanted to take some advil, which I quickly declined. I have deep reservations of taking advil, ibuprofen or any pain killers during a race. My belief is that pain is a sign that your body is telling you something. Either you fight it and recognize it (while you can). If the pain is too much, to me that means it's probably a sign that your body is telling you to stop. I told my friends that I would do one more loop and see how it goes. After I have a bit of grilled cheese sandwiches and doritos being served, of course! My friends boosted my spirits, as well as runners out on the course. 

One loop became two, three, and four. After five loops though, my right leg started showing the same signs of tightness. I saw another runner in front of me limping. He was headed to the massage tent like I am and he was in front of me, so I let him go and didn't overtake him. I figured I wanted to do at least 30 miles anyways before I saw the massage therapist. It would be an unofficial 50K on my part since I already had 29 miles on my watch and I figured I would do one more 2 mile loop before I saw her.

After I finished the total of 15 loops, I saw the massage therapist. It was actually with the hope that she can "fix" me and I would be up and running to do another 15. But after being worked on and screaming (literally) at times when she was working on me, my hopes definitely vanished. She had the same opinion after giving me some relief through working on my IT band, hamstring, shins and hips. She was actually the one that made me realize it was my IT band all along that was the problem. Of course everything was interconnected, but the hamstring pain was somehow connected to my IT band being severely tightened. 

I hobbled after I had been worked on by the massage therapist. I walked to the aid station tent next to it and gave my verbal decision to end my race. The timing staff asked me if I wanted to go a half mile out and back to make it an official 50K but I begged off. I already had an unofficial 50K on the books with my watch and I was happy with that.

The race director Tracy Johnson and her staff had a fantastic race for Razorback Endurance Run. The food was incredible. The staff was friendly. The weather went wild shortly after I ended my event, with non stop rain and wind for the next several hours. Although I didn't reach my goals with Razorback, I still ended up an official finisher considering it was a timed race. 

Thirty miles is nothing to scoff at. Of course, it's 32 miles short of what I wanted, but it's all in perspective. I have decided though, that based on this event, I had confirmed that I was under trained all along. I was waiting for something to happen as I had only been running 1-2 times a week since the start of the year. But yet, with my tenacity, I still managed to finish a 50K and a marathon back to back earlier this year. It was, alas, not enough to squeak in a 100K. 100K, like a 100 miler, is a distance to be respected. It needs the focus, time and effort required to really reach those distances. While I believe I mentally could do either distance, my body was in no shape to do either as of right now.

I have canceled my registration for the Lake Sonoma 50 miler and in the process of downgrading my Quicksilver registration from 100K to 50K. My goal race is now The San Francisco Marathon. I figure that I need to now rebuild my base first, run 3-4 times a week and aim for at least 20-30 miles each week for the next few weeks. For the fall, the focus will be The New York Marathon and The North Face Endurance Challenge.

It took me a race called Razorback Endurance Run to remind me of where I'm at. I should be proud of it, actually, as not many people can do 30 miles with very little training. I would like to credit my experience in ultras with that. I will come back again to my fitness level. I just need to recover from my IT band injury first and respect the process of building, peaking and tapering for running. 

Thanks Razorback Endurance Run! I shall come back and get that buckle one of these days, and maybe on the trails next time!

Monday, December 7, 2015

The North Face Endurance Challenge - Half Marathon Race Report

"Smile, and celebrate each mile!". This was what I was telling myself as I power hiked some of the toughest climbs during The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) Half Marathon: Miwok, Coastal Fire Road, and Marincello.

Race day on Sunday started with virtually no rain despite the weather forecasts (it was a tease though as it started raining about a mile into our run). I arrived at the start line festival covered from head to toe with my beanie, jacket, gloves and sweat pants. As the clock ticked down to the race start though, I quickly ditched all of them, including the windbreaker I wore back in TNFEC 2012 50K when it rained for pretty much the entire race.

There were 495 runners for the half marathon that day, which is a staggering number for a trail half marathon. Similar trail races I have done, especially ultras, were mostly with smaller or medium sized racing companies which would be thrilled or lucky to have that number for their entire racing event and not just a particular distance. I was in Wave 7, but my running friends convinced me to run a wave early at Wave 6. Since all bibs were chip timed, I don't think it mattered, so I went ahead and started with them.

I usually hold back when it comes to racing as a back of the pack runner and as an ultra runner, but since I was doing a half marathon, I decided to push myself early on this race. I ran with some of this year's trainees at Run 365 and it took me a medium effort, not relaxed, to just keep with them. The start was a flat to down hill part of the course until you hit magnificent Miwok.

When I hit Miwok, I decided to keep pushing a little by running for one minute and walking for one minute. I was debating about this race strategy even while I was running, but I felt like I should try to aim for a good finish time since 13.1 miles is not a foreign distance to me. I started overtaking quite a few runners, but I abandoned the run/walk strategy when I was three-fourths of the way on the top as I can feel my energy getting spent and I do still have about ten more miles to go once I reach the top of Miwok.

On the descent to Old Springs Trail, I paid the price for even running a small portion of Miwok. The same runners I overtook (some, not all) now gleefully ran down Old Springs having reserved their energy for the uphill. I was still running down Old Springs Trail but I wasn't running down fast, it was more like a nice jog.

The Tennessee Valley (TV) aid station quickly arrived and I saw volunteers shouting that they had water and electrolytes. Since I had three bottles of tailwind with me (two on my pack, one I carry), I think I have enough to do the four mile loop before I hit this same aid station again. I did decide to grab one of the clif blocks for the additional calories. I had two scoops of tailwind per 20 ounce bottle, but somehow the calories weren't enough for me that morning and I had already emptied one of them as I arrived at TV.

I ran to Coastal Fire Road with zest and pep to my steps. I was clocking in at an 11 minute mile pace, which is a somewhat fast pace for me, but I felt good and wanted to take advantage of the flat run to pick up some speed. I knew when I hit Coastal Fire Road that I will just power hike it, given how steep the climb is. Coastal Fire Road came and most of the group I was racing with power hiked it, except for maybe one woman who was running it. She was slightly ahead but like my time at Miwok, I think she was expending way much energy to just be ahead of me by thirty seconds to a minute. She was a faster runner though as I don't recall seeing her again after that portion of the race.

Going down Fox trail after the climb up Coastal Fire Road was a fun romp in the mud. It wasn't as muddy as I expected, where I would slip and slide but I still made smaller steps going down to have quicker turnover and put my arms out to balance myself on the way down. I wasn't going super fast that I would risk face planting, but I was going fast enough for my comfort level (apparently not fast enough as my pace was 13 and 16 minute miles for that 2 mile downhill segment, I need to clearly work on my down hill running to get my average pace up for these trail races). I still overtook some runners who seem to be more wary of the muddy trail than I was so at least that gave me some boost during this middle part of the race.

Going back to TV, I had emptied all three of my bottles of tailwind (ahead of my goal calorie intake) and decided to only have one bottle refilled by my friend and volunteer Tracy Corbin. I decided one bottle was enough to take me to Alta and I can always refill there if need be. I also made a quick pee stop after having chugged a lot of water since I was feeling bloated (but not hyponatremic, thankfully). From there, I started to power hike Marincello.

Marincello came and went without too much fanfare. I made a decent power hike and some injured runners hiking slowly up (one with a bandana wrapped around his left knee, probably an IT band injury?). I'm surprised to see some runners without even a single water bottle, but either they're experts or they're new to the trail racing field, which one, I'm not so sure.

As I got to the top of Marincello, I started running again towards the Alta station. I even started run/walking again the climb up Bobcat to Alta Trail surprising some other runners. When I reached Alta, I saw friends and volunteers Ken Michal and Laura Bello, but I just waved my hand to signal hi at that point as I was on a mission to see if I could do a sub 3 finish, in addition to just finishing.

I might have regretted bypassing Alta about a mile in as I started cramping. My left and right calves were already twitching after I hiked up Coastal Fire Road, but now they were complaining on why I'm torturing them so much this fine morning. I continued to take salt stick pills and even downed a gel or two as I mentally and physically fought the cramping. I even changed my gait for a while to use my left leg since my right calf cramped first but then both of them started cramping.

At that point, I was debating my strategy for the last two miles of the race. I can either just slow down, walk and ensure a finish, or push through, risk a cramp but still aim for a sub 3 hour finish. I decided to do middle of the road, not enough of a push to risk a full on debilitating cramp, but just enough to fool my legs that I'm taking it easy from this point on. I shook my legs every so often somehow thinking it would shake off the cramp. As I walked on a certain segment when it was twitching again and teasing a full on cramp, another runner egged me on to run. "You have to keep on running, especially with those big muscular legs of yours!". I flashed a big grin and it gave me a temporary boost, and then I wondered, was he hitting on me? I can't tell for the life of me, but at that point I didn't really care to wonder any further.

I kept on running while I reached the end of the downhill portion of Rodeo Valley Trail. I still kept on running a decent pace and even pushed it further when I saw the wooden bridge which signaled the finish was near. I was about a mile away and I had about ten minutes. It was still within the realm of possibility but then I remember that small little hill that we have to climb up again before we reach a flat to downhill finish.

I started overtaking runners again. I kept on running, but a few seconds here and there I slowed down to a quick walk to catch my breath. This is the last trail race of the year for me, and at this point, I wanted to give it my all, sub 3 finish or not. I stopped glancing at my watch and just pushed it.

I crossed the finish. My watch said 3:00:27. It was still a pretty decent time considering I had not run too frequently after my last trail race a month prior. My official time was 3:03:32. I'm not so sure where the additional minutes came from, but I vaguely remember it auto pausing when I stopped moving as I cramped at Rodeo Valley, so that could have been it. Even then, that's still pretty close to where I wanted to finish, even with the cramping issues.

I'm thankful I switched to the half when I crossed the finish line. I was signed up for the 50K initially, but after not finishing a goal 100 miler race, I knew I was mentally out of the game of doing another ultra so soon.

Even if I only ran a half marathon, this race was a tough half marathon with about 2538 feet of elevation gain and loss. I really should be and am thankful to end this year with a great finish and a fun weekend of celebrating with friends from the trail running community.

"Smile, and celebrate each mile!"

Monday, November 9, 2015

Rio Del Lago 100 Miler - Race Report

I asked a volunteer at the Camp Flint Gate Aid Station (mile 44.69), "If I drop here, can I hang out here until my crew comes to pick me up?". "Yes", she said.

I felt defeated, and had nothing left more in me. Yet somehow I knew that I still had time to reach the Cool Fire Station at that point in time. 

I downed a cup of coke and a cup of ginger ale, and started moving forward. She asked me, "So did you decide to keep moving forward?". 

I said "Yes".

This year was the 15th running of the Rio Del Lago 100 Mile Endurance Run. It was held just this weekend, from November 7th through November 8th. The race officially started at 5:00 AM on Saturday and runners are supposed to cross the finish line by 11:00 AM on Sunday.

In previous years, NorCal Ultras, the race organizer, might have been a little bit more generous with race cutoffs if runners missed them. This year, however, the race has hard cutoffs not only for the finish line but also at various distances/checkpoints along the way.

The race started with 352 runners at Beal's Point in Folsom, California. The start line had an amazing amount of energy in it. My friends and crew Christine Too and Arnold drove me to the start and helped me put my drop bags for each of the aid stations: Beal's Point (mile 19.2 and finish), Rattlesnake Bar (miles 35.83 and 84.15), and Cool Fire Station (miles 51.99, 59.99, and 67.99). I felt confident and optimistic the night before and even on this morning of the race, which was a good omen for me, as I am usually beset by stress and nervousness for big races, which lead to bad stomach and GI issues the night before and the morning of a race.

The first 19 miles around Lake Natoma were fairly flat with just very few uphills and downhills. I could have easily done it in 4 hours, but I planned for a very conservative start by going at a 16 minute mile pace on average. This means fast walking for me, as any running would put me a higher pace.

I was quickly thrown off on this race strategy when I immediately saw the safety patrol and sweepers at mile 2. I verified with them that they truly were the sweepers by looking at them and asking "Are you the sweepers???" with an incredulous and surprised voice. They answered yes, and I then replied "Sorry, but you'll have to bear with me, as I'm planning to run this loop at a 16 minute mile average pace." I think they said they were fine with me and kept running, chatting (and stopping when they reached me). It felt ridiculous to have the sweepers just behind me at mile 2 for a 100 mile race, but I was determined not to let it faze me as I was determined to stick with my plan.

I reached the next two aid stations, Willow Creek (mile 6.99) and Negro Bar (mile 14.47) easily and without any issues. I was actually having a great time despite having the sweepers constantly behind me (them, I can't say as I probably threw them off their game because I had a feeling they wanted to run just a little bit faster). I even ended up overtaking one runner at the second aid station because he seemed to be having some issues (I'm guessing either going too fast, nutrition issues, or maybe even going completely under trained for this event). I pretty much lost him when we started climbing a hill, and I was happy given that now the sweepers had to fall behind him and not me for the rest of the Lake Natoma loop!

I arrived at Beal's Point at mile 19.2 brimming with confidence despite being the second to the last person at that particular point in time. I even told my friends and crew that it was a walk in the park. After giving my crew my jacket, arm warmers, headlamp and getting arm warmers (doused in cold water) and a bandana wrapped with ice and some ice on my cap, I ran towards the next check point at Granite Beach.

I had my first kink of the day when I forgot to put in the hydration pack the peanut butter sandwiches and potatoes that my crew had given to me but I had put down on the table while getting the rest of the other items. I also thought I had forgotten to pick up my pill box full of salt stick pills (for sodium), which I was diligently taking every hour. I quickly brushed it off as I will see them again in an hour and I can get those missing items again at Granite Beach. At least I had electrolytes in one of my water bottles to get me through with enough calories to the next aid station.

At the next aid station, Granite Beach (mile 24.34), I was still feeling great. I ran a little bit faster than I did the last 19 miles as I channeled the time I was running with my pacer and good friend Mindy when she was pacing me for last year's American River 50 Mile Endurance Run. I wore a smile on my face as I remember her even singing and making up songs as we had a jolly jaunt on those 5 or so miles.

At Granite Beach, I met my crew, friends and coach again. I also saw "Endorphin Dude" Tony Nguyen, who I was a delightful surprise to see at this point of the race. Tony and I have pretty much the same background of getting into running. We were both overweight runners who lost a lot of weight by running and eventually ultra running (I still consider myself overweight, but not my much). I cracked a joke again with my crew and friends by shouting "Wet T-shirt Party" as they doused my head with cold water. I got my water bottles refilled, my salt stick pill box (which was actually there, but at the back of my pack), and boiled potatoes and peanut butter sandwiches.

Miles 24.34 to 35.83 was called the "meat grinder" for the relentless uphills and downhills. It didn't help that the trail was also littered with mountain bikers who were zooming constantly on the single track trail (and one of them could have pretty much hit me if we didn't both see each other). I think I had erased this course from my mind as it was also the hard portion of the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run for me, and despite my pacer Deirdre Geary for that race's attempts to perk me up, we both ran silently as we trudged along this portion (I was still thankful for her company then, as she helped me complete my first 50 miler). 

The thing that started my downward spiral was when I encountered my next "kink" in the race. I came out of Granite Beach with two filled bottles, but apparently that was not enough for me to get to the next aid station at Horseshoe Bar. And I thought Horseshoe Bar was mile 30, not mile 33.03. And so I ran (or more like walked) the next 3 miles without water or food. It didn't help that my Garmin watch was also dying and then completely died even before I reached Horseshoe Bar. From that point on, my cheery disposition turned into one of nervousness and panic.

I reached Horseshoe Bar and refilled my two bottles, but I also made it a point to drink one entire bottle of what I thought was electrolyte at first, but then the volunteer said it was actually water. It didn't matter as I was thankful to have my thirst quenched in the heat. It was only mid 60s at Granite Bay at the time, but with the exposed parts of the trail, it felt like it was mid 70s at certain portions and times. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (an aid station favorite of mine), downed a salt stick pill, and took off and thanked the volunteers. I did ask what time it was and it was 1:54 PM at the time and I had 2 hours to reach Rattlesnake Bar (mile 35.83) in the next 2.8 miles. I knew I would make the cutoff but at that point I knew I was going to be over my estimated arrival time by 30 minutes, as I was hoping to get to Rattlesnake Bar with 90 minutes to spare for the first of many cutoffs.

When I arrived at Rattlesnake Bar, I gave my hydration pack to my crew Christine and Arnold, and quickly headed to the restroom with moist wipes in tow. I thought that this would be the best pit stop to make as there were no other restrooms that I remember until the climb up to Last Gasp. I was starting to have GI issues due to my stress about my current situation. My friend Belinda asked me if it was a walk in the park now and I weakly smiled and said "It was more like a walk in the sauna." I told my Coach Mama Lisa that I was now behind 30 minutes on my projections, but she positively assured me that I was okay as I was still ahead 1 hour ahead of the cutoff (and she was right, I was still technically very okay at this point and have a good shot at finish the race). I got my headlamp and spare battery, jacket, arm warmers and gloves (as it was going to get dark and cold soon with the sunset), and I went off to the next aid station, my confidence already quickly crumbling.

The next few miles going to Last Gasp (mile 42.45) was a silent death march for me. Although I had now a watch (my coach lent me hers), I didn't turn on the pace portion of it for fear of it dying on me as my first watch, so I just used it to track my time. In doing so, I had no idea what my pace was and it felt like I was going on 20 minute miles (I was actually going on 16 for the first 3 miles, but then slowly crawled to a walk on the succeeding ones). I tried to channel my run with my good friend and pacer Pen when she paced me for this stretch but I think it didn't help as I was also struggling at that particular segment last year. It was okay to feel this way for a 50 miler, but this is definitely how I should be feeling for a 100 miler, I thought to myself. 

At Last Gasp, I saw another runner (the third one so far in the entire race). I got some much needed chicken soup broth (it was beginning to get cold). I also drank some coke. I wasn't planning to do so this early on, but I wasn't feeling well and didn't want to eat anything at this point, so the least I could do was to drink my calories. It was at this point that I saw the safety sweeps again. I can't say that I was happy to see them, but I expected them to catch me at this point. We all trudged up to the next aid station, and by this time it was dark. I was hiking ahead of them up the big climb to the next aid station. I didn't have the energy to talk so I stayed silent (and miserable) the whole time. It was at this point that I was debating to call it a day at the next aid station, Camp Flint Gate (mile 42.45). I was thinking that I could save my crew the waste of time of having to go to Cool Fire Station, only to have to drive me back at this point. Why not just pick me at Auburn Dam Overlook and save them the 30 minute drive to Cool? I was trying to justify that I'm doing them a favor but I knew I was trying to justify to myself why I should quit.

When I reached Camp Flint Gate, that's when I asked one of the volunteers if I could quit there and have my crew pick me up. She said yes, and I was really tempted at that point to quit. I debated for what seemed like an eternity but probably was about five or so minutes. I decided that the least I can do is at least try to make the Cool Fire Station and make the cutoff at 8:30 PM. It was around 6:30 at that point, so I thought it was still possible to reach Cool, which was about 7 miles away, in 2 hours (it did involve a big climb from No Hands Bridge up to Cool). I went to the restroom at Auburn Dam Overlook to just quickly shake my shoes for rocks (I had been running with something I felt, since the meat grinder). I then saw that I had a big hole on my left sock and what probably was a big blister as well. Just dandy, I thought to myself.

The sweepers were behind me and we both looked for the way to the next aid station at No Hands Bridge. I decided to be more conversational at that point since I could use the company in my literal and figurative darkness. Trish and Sky were the names of the sweepers, and they actually were great company for me to No Hands Bridge. I told them about my struggles and Sky was nice enough to egg me on and to convince me to at least try running every now and then, especially we were going downhill for the most part. My legs were shot at that point. They felt so tight that I was basically shuffling. I felt something on my left ankle as well which bothered me. Sky told me my muscles were probably just tight because of the cold and she was probably right as running seemed to have helped loosen it up a little. It didn't help though that I wasn't eating too much at that point. I was drinking the aid station electrolytes, but that was diluted, so I was drinking 100 calories per hour, at best. My stomach was gurgling, but I wasn't sure if it was because it was craving for energy, or it wanted me to go to the side and relieve myself (it felt like both, which was always an odd and queasy feeling). Trish and Sky got me closer and closer to No Hands Bridge, and we met up with Sky's husband along the way. They kept egging me on which was great and I was thankful for. They don't really have to do so as sweepers, and I was thankful for their patience, spirit and generosity. 

At No Hands Bridge, I think I had about an hour to go and about 3.1 miles left. It was here where I might have made a crucial mistake of stopping at all. I basically had an hour which was probably just the right amount of time to climb up to Cool. But my mind was basically deflated and I opted to relieve myself of my GI issues, which I think I could have just bared with at that point. I must have spent a good 10-15 minutes at the aid station before the next sweeper Shane accompanied me to Cool (Trish, Sky and Brian swept until No Hands Bridge). Shane asked me if we can try to make it to Cool in 45 minutes. I actually flashed a genuine smile at that point. It seemed impossible, but I'll continue moving forward.

45 minutes for 3 miles with a 1000 foot climb was pretty much impossible. And it was actually 3.5 miles total to Cool from No Hands Bridge, at least according to Strava. Shane asked me if he should just run behind or if I wanted the company. I told him I could his company again at that point. So we talked about what he has done as an ultra runner, and he has done quite a lot. He has run quite a few 100s himself. All the gory details escape me but he gave me great company through those big climbs.

When we reached the top of the climb to Cool, I saw my friends Phil and Ed. We walked for a while and then saw Eileen, Trina, Christine, Arnold and Cris. We all walked as a team slowly in the trail towards Cool, under the starlit sky. It was the same trail that I ran last year as I was heading towards the finish at Way Too Cool 50K.

I felt relieved at that point, at the same time disappointed. I felt that I had let my pacers Phil and Trina down as I didn't even get to them so that they could at least take care of me and push me to my limits. I felt that I had let my crew for the second shift down, Ed, Eileen and my sister Cris, as they didn't even start their shift for crewing me. I felt that I had let Christine and Arnold down, for wasting their great efforts at crewing for me and waking up as early as 3:00 AM earning in the morning and working until that night to make sure I keep on going during the race. 

As of writing, the sting of not finishing seems to hurt more than the muscle fatigue and blisters that beset me. This is not the first race I had not finished. I attempted the challenging North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler twice and unsuccessfully finished it twice as well. This was my first attempt at a 100 miler and I thought that I could actually do it. I think I can still eventually do it, but I really have to badly want it, to constantly push myself, over and over again, beyond my physical limits, for the entirety of the race, in order to succeed.

"The body achieves, what mind believes," as my friend and pacer Phil said. I think at this point I have honed my mental toughness to get me through 50 milers, but not 100 milers (well, except for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler). I have to go back and think through what worked, what didn't work, and chart my path back to ultra running from this point on.

It is only in the world of 100 milers where finishing 52.4 miles is considered a disappointment. I should really be proud of myself for how far I have made it, as it has been the longest distance I have ever pushed myself, even if it's only 2.4 miles more. A simple analogy to this would be likening it to a fall in the trail. I just need to get back up, dust myself up, and continue moving forward. And continue moving forward.

P.S. Borrowing advice from a friend's coach, here are my three 3's for this event...

Three things I did right:
1. Have a plan. I went into the race with a plan. I wasn't as detailed as other runners I look up to, but I had a plan and I sticked to it, despite some obstacles thrown in my way.
2. Don't go out too fast. I followed my target pace despite how slow it seemed and reserved my energy early on the race, and I think it helped give me constant energy on the first 30 miles of it.
3. Keep a positive attitude. This helped my anxiety, stress and nervousness about the race, which usually lead to stomach issues the night before and the morning of a race.

Three things I learned:
1. Gaiters and quality running socks are important to 100 milers. Due to the distance and time on feet, small rocks and pebbles will seem like boulders inside your shoes, causing big and nasty blisters.
2. Review distances between every aid stations for fueling and hydration needs. I underestimated and forgot that it was 8+ miles between Granite Beach and Horseshoe Bar, and that led to running (or maybe more walking) for at least an hour, without eating or drinking, which started my physical and mental descent in this race.
3. Know that things will go wrong and lows will always be encountered. I had the mantra of "Embrace the suck" but I must have forgotten about it conveniently while climbing up last gasp. If I just anticipated and embraced the low moments of my race, I would have and kept on going.

Three things I would do differently:
1. Race with a better base. I had three 50 milers in my belt, but my physical fitness can always use some improvement. I could still lose about 15-20 pounds since I am technically overweight, even though I'm proud to be where I am weight wise.
2. Have a better fueling plan. I still don't have this nailed down, unfortunately. Even though I was eating 100 calories every 30 minutes, it went haywire when I ran out of water for that one hour stretch.
3. Keep calm and keep moving forward. When I ran out of water, I should have kept my calm. Instead I let panic get the best of me and that's when my GI issues started, as stress usually affects my guts as well. I need to practice on meditating more and learning to tune out negative thoughts and always focus on the positive. I should be my best cheerleader, not my worst critic.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Golden Hills Marathon 2015 - Race Report

I didn't want to run Golden Hills.

The whole week leading to the race, I was dreading the countdown as days passed one by one towards race day on Saturday. Normally, I wouldn't be afraid of a marathon at this point in my ultra running non-career.

I was afraid because I feel like I'm still recovering from the Headlands 50 Miler just four weeks ago, and the Berkeley Trail Adventure 50K just two weeks ago. I have never done back to back ultras, now to be supplemented by a difficult trail marathon (I know so, as I have done Golden Hills twice in the past few years).

On Monday, I had a deep tissue massage done to work on a lot of tight parts of my legs that I can't seem to fix by just foam rolling. My glutes, quads, calves, and achilles were tight. I even felt like I was having the beginnings of plantar fascitiis.

On Tuesday, I saw my sports chiropractor Doctor Kris Blum who gave me an adjustment as I was complaining about lower back tightness and applied Graston on my calves and ART on my hips and glutes. She worked wonders for me, as always, and I felt like I had a fighting chance to still do the race after I got out of her office.

On Wednesday, I did a short run, 3.5 miles instead of the 5 miles on the schedule. Better some than none, I thought to myself.

On Thursday, I met with my crew for dinner to discuss some race logistics. We were supposed to meet and discuss the pace chart and elevation chart with my Coach Mama Lisa, but an email from Norcal Ultras about a possible course change delayed the meeting. I still thought it would be good to meet some of my team members to discuss any initial questions and concerns, and I'm glad we were able to tackle them.

On Friday, I was in all out paranoid mode. I can't decide whether to still do the race or not. I even thought of calling my coach, but I didn't want to disappoint her by letting her know that I'm even considering not doing Golden Hills. I think she might have been okay with me not doing it, considering I have already completed two very difficult races. My concern for Golden Hills is that it wasn't my goal race, and I didn't want it to wreck me so close to Rio. I also, at the time, thought that a DNS (Did Not Start) would be better than a DNF (Did Not Finish) for me mentally. Of course, there was always the possibility that I could do the race, and do it well.

And so I did!

Race Day started early for me. I went and left for Lake Chabot early, so I could get a good parking spot. It also allowed me a chance to see the runners doing Dick Collins Firetrails 50, which started at the same location the Golden Hills Marathon finishes (as they do an out and back). I saw Tony and Ken, Coach Karen Peterson, and Coach Mama Lisa Felder. I even got to see fellow Ultra Fitness Beyond Imagination (UFBI) team member Alison, who was starting the race.

The Golden Hills runners take a chartered bus to the start, which is at Lone Oak in Tilden Park (the course is point to point, so it's highly suggested to take a bus to the start and leave your car at the finish). There were two bus loads of runners, but according to one of the race directors Lauri, for some reason 60 runners didn't show up for their bus (whether they opted to drive instead, it's hard to say). We had about 120+ runners at the start, I can't compare the numbers to previous years but it seemed a little lesser in number than I remembered.

After grabbing our bibs, chatting with my Run 365 friends, the race started in time at 9:00 AM. Dolores, Christina and Dawn, started around my pace and at that point, I decided to just stay with them and catch up with Run 365, as I am not officially in the group for the fall, as I am training with the UFBI team under Mama Lisa. I could have hiked up faster, but I was thankful for the camaraderie, the stories, and the laughter. I haven't been as relaxed at the start of the race in so far as I can remember. Usually I clam up immediately and get down to business.

At the first aid station at Mile 4.5 at Steam Trains, I told Dolores and team to go ahead and I will catch up. My stomach had gone south during miles 3-4, the culprit most likely being the tailwind. I decided then and there I was breaking up with this fuel once and for all, and I did so while doing my business at a nice real restroom, not a porta potty, thank goodness.

When I got out, I saw the safety sweep patrol and I was shocked to see them so early. Were we going too slow up Lone Peak, I wondered? They were equally shocked to see me as well and asked where I came from, and I sheepishly answered "from the restroom." At that point, I quickened my pace to widen the gap between them and me. Not because I was emitting noxious odors, but I wanted to never see them again for the entirety of the race.

I eventually caught up with Dolores and Christina, and then Dawn, at the next aid station at Sibley Park. I started switching to Gu Roctane, which they thankfully served, as I knew that would be better for me than Tailwind at this point. I also took a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which seemed to be agreeing with my eyes and stomach at most races so far this season. I took off and thanked the volunteers, wanted to pee, but there was a huge group of cyclists lingering near the restrooms, so I decided to just keep on going.

I forgot how steep it was going down Sibley. If I was going downhill with reckless abandon, I could probably make up even more time, but I would also risk going off the deep end. I decided to go at a measured pace, using caution rather than speed in navigating the downhill. Uphill was my strength, not downhill. I'll have to remember to work on that more later on, I thought to myself.

Skyline approached quickly and I saw more Run 365 friends, this time volunteering at the Skyline aid station. I knew the next aid station was 6.7 miles away, and I decided to just run with one water bottle today (because most of the other aid stations were just 4-5 miles apart). Given this, I gulped down 2 cups of Gu Roctane, filled my bottle with the same, ate a peanut butter jelly sandwich and forged on.

Confusion hit me twice on the path towards the next aid station. There was a trail early on, on the left, not marked with a chalk line to say do not enter. I thought it was the French trail, which we were supposed to go to, but the hiker I asked said it's further up. I checked my iPhone and Google Maps, and it did show the French trail as further ahead. I kept on going, doubted myself at times, but then eventually saw the trailhead to the French trail.

This was when the fun started. The French trail was the most technical part of the course. A lot of roots and rocks were part of the trail. If you don't watch where you step or land, you can easily twist your ankle. For some reason, I remember it being much harder previously, but during the time I was navigating it, it was actually fun! Yes, I said fun! It was also good to have the shade of the trees during this time as it was the afternoon and it was quite warm in the exposed areas of this race. The runners running Dick Collins weren't as lucky. They didn't get to run the technical trail that is the French trail, but they got the open and exposed West Ridge trail instead.

There were some more moments of confusion along the race. There was a fork where I saw a runner pondering where to go to. She said there were flags left and right, and she was right when I saw them. The chalk arrow did seem to point closer to the right, so I told her that was where we should probably go (and just sense of direction wise, seemed to make more sense). I was confident of my answer until I saw some chalk arrows pointing in the other direction at certain points. But since the other runners were still going in the direction I'm going, we "should" be right, correct? At any rate, we were validated by a young kid blowing a loud horn and telling us the aid station was up ahead (he did manage to surprise me, despite holding the accursed horn).

From that aid station, Big Bear, to Bort Meadows, it was only 1.7 miles, but it seemed much much longer. It was one of the last biggest climbs and it was on an exposed trail, and this is where I started seeing some runners slowing down (and where I also started overtaking some of them, amazingly).

Bort Meadows featured the resilient Super Hero aid station, where all volunteers were dressed up in super hero costumes. Wonder woman helped me refill my bottle with water (water seemed better just to switch out from Gu Roctane brew). I took two cups of coke and I forged on to the last aid station, Clyde Woolridge.

I was surprised to see another 50 mile runner hike up with me, and at my pace. It was Chris Jones. I knew him from a common friend, Tony Nguyen. The trail community is pretty small and mostly on Facebook so sometimes you know other trail runners by just seeing their name and picture on all your common friend's posts. Chris was one of the faster 50 mile runners, so I was surprised he was slowing down at my pace. He made some nice casual small talk about the race and running, and true to his faster running form, he vanished like the wind after we both hit Clyde Woolridge aid station.

I was so glad only 4.5 miles were left at that point. I did feel good, but I also felt like I had to pee at that point. I saw a nice restroom shed that they have at the Lake and relieved myself. The woman runner just behind me said "perfect timing". They didn't have any porta potties on the last two aid stations, so unless you wanted to relieve yourself out on the trails, you were out of luck.

The last few miles were a breeze. I can't say that I was running fast, but I was able to run the majority of it, with a few walk breaks in between to give me time to recharge and go again. I was able to overtake a few more runners in the end and sprint to the finish.

I finished with a sub 7 hour time (6:56, unofficial time). While it wasn't my fastest time on the course (my fastest was 6:02), it was the race where I felt the best all throughout, even the end. I beamed at the finish as I relished in my accomplishment.

I did it! 50 Mile, 50K, and a marathon, all in a span of six weeks. It was time for me to taper for my upcoming goal race, Rio Del Lago 100 Miler. It's time to start figuring out my strategy, my fueling plans, drop bags, and everything else to get me to that finish line.

I didn't want to run Golden Hills. But I did, and I did it!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Headlands 50 Mile Endurance Run - Race Report

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” - Bill Gates

The Headlands Endurance Run is a race hosted by Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCTR), and is comprised of several distances: Marathon, 50 Mile, 75 Mile and 100 Mile. All distances do the same 25 mile loop around the Marin Headlands (with the Marathon doing a 1.2 out and back before doing the said loop). Each 25 mile loop has about 5,000 feet of elevation gain so it is not for the faint of heart (below are the elevation charts for the clockwise and counter clock wise direction, which I had to both of having signed up for the 50).

Not content with the party atmosphere of those distances, PCTR also hosts a night version of the race at 8:00 PM on that same day, called the Night Sweats Marathon. It also has a 15K for those newer to night trail running that would be interested in running in the dark with aid station support and the camaraderie of other runners.

I wasn't planning on running the Headlands 50 Miler. It wasn't even on my radar until a few weeks ago. With Rio del Lago 100 Miler just around the corner, my Coach Mama Lisa Felder had suggested I do the Headlands 50 Miler since I haven't done a 50 Miler yet for 2015. I have done two 50 Milers to date, but they were almost a year ago (American River 50 in April 2014 and Dick Collins Firetrails 50 in October 2014).

I was nervous going into the race. I haven't even done a 50K yet for the year (I had done a 12 hour race where I stopped at the 50K mark, but it was a very flat trail loop for the Jackpot Ultra Running Festival). The most I have done in a training run was 20 miles, whereas I would be more comfortable doing a 50K in one day and 10 miles the next day as my peak training run. Also, Headlands had 10,000 feet of elevation gain compared to 3,100 and 7,800 roughly for American River and Dick Collins, respectively.

My fueling plan for the race was solely relying on Tailwind, a powder that you mix with water to give you the calories and electrolytes that you need. What lured me to Tailwind was its promise of not causing any gastrointestinal issues during running, which was a problem that happens to me once in a while, especially for longer distances like 50 milers. They even had a Tailwind Challenge where if you bought four bags of Tailwind, and use it for a race and for some reason don't like it, you can get a refund.

It turns out I might just file for a refund.

I was running with a Salomon hydration pack, but with 2 Ultimate Direction (UD) 20 oz water bottles. The Salomon water flasks are great in that they collapse when unused but you can't set them in a table while putting Tailwind powder and water, where a regular bottle works better. It also made my decision easier to use UD bottles in that I lost both my Salomon flasks when I set them down on a picnic table during one of my training runs (and they're quite expensive, like everything Salomon).

I put 2 scoops in each bottle, which is 200 calories. My plan was to drink one bottle for every hour on my feet. I would then replenish my bottles in aid stations (with measured powder scoops in ziplock bags that I would put in my drop bag, and a few on my hydration pack for aid stations without drop bags). Since I decided to run based on feel (I put my garmin watch inside my hydration pack, even though it was on, so I have no idea of my what my time is, or how fast I'm going, so I just listen to my body the whole time).

Everything worked flawlessly on my first loop. It was chilly and not warm/hot as previously forecasted at the start. I got to see Eldrith, a 75 year old woman ultra runner who is quite known in the trail community (she even has a race named after her soon). I even followed her as we fell at the back of the pack immediately (a common theme for me). Somehow I ended up overtaking her early on after we passed by Tennessee Valley (TV) aid station for the first time at Mile 4. I would see her at the out and back and she would flash a warm smile and say "great job" as if you were the only one she has said it to in a long time and with unabashed sincerity. I was actually shocked I was ahead of her given her ultra running experience. I knew she would eventually overtake me (I wasn't competing with her, mind you), and she did as expected when the wheels of my wagon started falling off on the second loop.

The first loop came by and went without any issues at all. I was well hydrated. I thought that my pace was not too slow and not too fast. I felt comfortable and I think my completion time of the first loop was going to be a respectable 6-6:30. When I arrived at Rodeo Beach for the end of my first loop, I was glad to see that I finished in 6 hours and 30 minutes. I figured then that I technically had the race in the bag. I had 9 hours and 30 minutes to do the second loop. I can probably walk it if I wanted to. I can see whether I can break my personal record for a 50 miler (13 hours and 10 minutes), or at least my next best personal record (13 hours and 30 minutes). The second one seemed more doable, but I was just focusing on keeping my rhythm.

I took an Ensure drink to add calories into my system and some protein. I had planned to take one every 12 miles, as advised by my friend Pen. I felt it get into my system and I started heading towards the reverse direction of the loop, back to the Golden Gate Bridge aid station. As I started climbing Bobcat trail, I started slowing down. Bobcat was uphill, but it was a very long trail with a slow and gradual incline. I power hiked it, but I found myself starting to stop at times to catch my breath. The same happened as I went up Alta and walked through SCA trail.

I'm not sure if it's my brain telling me to slow down because I have already ran 25 miles, so it's time to start slowing down. I still ran in spurts and when my heart rate seemed to go back to normal and I can breathe with my nose and not my mouth. I continued to fuel with Tailwind as I went towards the aid station, but then I started to feel my stomach full of Tailwind. It is almost as if it seemed I kept on fueling but it wasn't being used or expended be it through sweat or urination.

When I reached Golden Gate aid station, I decided to pee to check my hydration. If it was clear, I'm clear. If it was yellowish, I'm slightly dehydrated. Any other color would set off alarm bells. It was yellowish, but I felt a very very slight burning sensation. I was worried.

When I arrived at the aid station, I decided to abandon using Tailwind right away. I filled my water bottle with water, dumped the other one that still had Tailwind on it, and filled that with water. The aid station volunteer asked me if I was okay and I gave a muted okay. I initially asked for a whole can of coke, but I was convinced (rightly so) to just take a half a can (else I start shaking, said the volunteer). I also took an empty paper cup and filled it with peanut butter pretzels, for its salt. I was hoping it would counteract the sloshing I felt in my stomach.

As I headed back to TV, I still felt weird. I looked at my fingers and I felt they were puffed up. I don't know if I was mind playing tricks on me, but I swear they were puffy. I also put my hands on my stomach and sides and I felt just water all over. I remembered my Coach Mama Lisa's comments on a fellow runner gaining weight after a run that it's a bad sign, as fluid retention means your body isn't functioning correctly on processing your hydration. As if my situation wasn't bad enough, that also put a pit in my stomach.

Being in between aid stations, I decided to just keep going and get to TV. I can always decide what to do at that point. If I still feel worse, and the medic confirms it, then I will drop. No race is worth my health. After all, I run so that I become healthy, not to become unhealthy. Moderation is always key. I started shuffling down Marincello, but still stopped at points. I had a short chat with a runner who mentioned that the 16 hour cutoff was a soft cutoff and technically we had to just finish before the 100 mile runners do, which is 33 hours (if that was true, then maybe I can just drive home, sleep and come back for my 13 other miles, I thought kiddingly). Eldrith also overtook me at this point, with a quip on how long the downhill stretch was (she always says things with bright energy and a smile, which I love).

When I got to the aid station, I decided to survey the food available. I ate the watermelon. I had some coke. I asked if there was a medic I could ask my question on possible hyponatremia. He then recommended I get more solid food in, like crackers and some salt caps. It's just possible since I've been consuming all liquid that my body has been overwhelmed by it and needs some solids to absorb it. I did as told and forged on. Well, I did a short pit stop to take care of some business (much needed business) and then I forged on.

The hike up Miwok trail was relentless. It just went up and up and up. I even had a smart aleck casual hiker telling me to pump my arms as I went up the hill (I bet he has never even run a 10K, or even a 5K). I smiled weakly and kept on moving ahead. I put my arms on my hamstrings and tried to put my body parallel to the ground's incline. It's a technique that seems to make it easier to power hike, in my opinion.

When I finally reached the top, I started to run downhill. It was more of a weak shuffling of feet as I can barely have the strength to pick it up. I also can't go down faster for some reason as my lower back felt stiff and I didn't want to aggravate it. It wasn't my fastest pace going downhill but it was faster than walking downhill (and in some instances better). My strides were small and measured, so in case I step mistakenly I can easily recover. I was glad I brought my wind breaker jacket as it was windy, and my headlamp because it was about to get dark soon.

As I arrived at Muir Beach, darkness came. I still stuck to water not wanting to risk problems with Tailwind again. I again had coke to get calories and caffeine in. They also had lentil soup which was good for the weather was getting chilly, and it also had some sodium that I still needed. I thanked them as it was my last time visiting that aid station and I started hiking up Muir Beach.

During my training runs, I usually can power hike Muir Beach with relative ease, but this was about mile 42 in the race and I was unsurprisingly spent. I stopped a few times and broke the big climb into one hill at a time. I would stop, catch my breath, get a swig of water and move on. I eventually reached the trail going toward Pirates Cove.

I turned on my headlamp and I was in disbelief. I had used this headlamp before but all I got was a light that looked more like a gray shadow, and a circle that seemed like the size of a dime. I walked with it for a while before deciding to see if I could use my iPhone's flashlight feature. Much better and enough to light the way. I had to hold it though and my battery on my iPhone was roughly at 10-20% at that point. Probably enough to get me to TV, but then what? Again, I had to just break my goals into aid stations and just work on getting back to TV, which would be mile 46 at that point.

I was also starting to get worried that I would see an avalanche of runners going down Pirates Cove. It was hard enough walking in the dark in Pirates Cove, but to step aside whenever I see a headlamp in the opposite direction would be irritating and would slow me down a lot. Luckily, I was able to get up Pirates Cove with no sign of the Night Sweats Marathoners at that point.

I reached TV by the time the majority of Night Sweats 15K and Marathon runners were arriving. Great timing, I thought! At least I avoided running against them, and it looks like they were taking Marincello back to Rodeo Beach, so I don't have a big contra flow going back up Old Springs Trail. I saw my Coach Mama Lisa and Lauri at this point. I told them about my headlamp problem, and Lauri was kind enough to lend me Patty's headlamp. It was a Petzl and boy did it have a bright light! I felt that it can light up a small room with the amount of lumens on it. I made a mental note to explore buying a headlamp like it for my future races.

I got some more soup, chicken noodle this time. I got some coke, packed a few candied gummy bears for the last 4 miles and had my 2 waters filled with water. I was still feeling down as I knew those last 4 miles still involved lots of climbing and anything can go wrong. It was great seeing a lot of friends come by though, like Leigh Ann and Brian and that helped my spirits somewhat.

Old Springs felt long in the tooth but there were no issues. I did honestly start getting tired of saying thanks to every trail runner saying "good job" to me at this point. Is it discourteous to be silent, I thought? I was tired after all and wanted to save every bit of energy. I said thanks here or there when I can't. If I don't, I figured they never saw my face anyways (kidding, or semi-kidding). As I got out of Old Springs I saw my friends Matt and Kristin heading in the opposite direction on their 3rd loop for the 100 miler (they finished, I found out later on). I thought to myself that I find it superhuman how they did it, as past friends who have done all four loops. It must have been just an extreme mental and physical challenge to do so.

Fog greeted me on Fox Ridge as well as what seemed like more endless climbs. More stops, more swigs of water, some snacks along the way, and I ended up out of Fox Ridge. I then proceeded to the road to Coastal Trail, which was concrete but thankfully downhill. I shuffled again in the fog. The road looked like it was iced but I never felt any slipperiness (thank goodness), so maybe it was just white marks on it (or maybe my shoes had their grip working as intended).

There were a few set of steps going down Coastal Trail which I took very very slowly. Two steps per step and sideways. My IT band also felt tight and at this point, I didn't want to risk anything. It would be disastrous and quite sad if I somehow didn't finish with a mile or two to go. I shuffled and ran when I can, but walked when it made sense.

I heard cowbells in the distance and I saw the lights of the finish line. The 15Kers of the Night Run were also on their way back. Some were even nice enough to slow down and let me cross the finish line first. I crossed the line with a smile on my face and a sense of relief.

I did it! I finished my third 50 miler, and my first 50 miler for 2015. I have learned a lot from this race and I hope to apply all the lessons learned in my upcoming first attempt at a 100 miler.

Below are some photos and some post race thoughts, if you got this far on my report. Thanks for reading if you got this far! Happy Trails!

(Left to Right: Me, my friend Pen who did the Headlands 100 last year and did the Night Sweats 15K this year. Christina and Dolores who did the Night Sweats 15K, their very first night trail run!)

I swear I was running with pebbles (which seemed like rocks) under my left foot for the last 10 miles. That's what I get for not wearing gaiters or not having that fancy sole in my previous shoe, the Brooks Cascadias which would trap those pesky pebbles. I decided to ignore the nuisance until I crossed the finish line and I got rewarded by a huge blister at the bottom of my feet. It's a nuisance to walk as I curl up my foot to not press on it, so I look like I'm walking with a limp, but technically I'm not. I want to pop the darned thing, but I read it's better to just let it go and heal itself. I hope I'm patient enough to let it heal, and I might cover it again with a blister kit I bought at Walgreens.