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.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Ragnar Trail Relays Tahoe - Race Report

Altitude is everything!

From August 14 to 15, I was part of an 8 person relay team that traveled to a remote pocket of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range at Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort. We camped for three days and two nights under a clear star lit sky and each of us ran three breath taking loops (literally and figuratively) in varying times of the day and night to cover a total of 127+ miles.

Day 0 (Thursday Night)

My friends Eileen, Ed and I carpooled to Tahoe from San Francisco. I was last to be picked up due to only being able to take two hours off from work that day. I was worried I was packing too much: I had my camping chair, gym bag packed with shirts, shorts, shoes and other fun stuff. I bought some usual trail snacks like kettle chips, nutella sandwiches, and turkey/cheese sandwiches. I also brought my collapsible cooler with coconut juice for electrolytes and some espresso canned drinks to keep me and the team awake during the night and early morning runs.

We arrived close to the camp ground closing time of 10:00 PM with about 30 minutes to spare. We thought we arrived at the unloading area but it turns out we arrived at the parking lot where a shuttle would take us to the campground. Not wanting to carry our camping gear for 3 miles, we drove quickly to the unloading area, unloaded in quick fashion and drove back to the parking lot in time to take one of the last two shuttles before we would have been required to walk back to camp.

We had a ton of crap with us (I was in the humble opinion that I packed the lightest as I even had to give up my camping chair due to space constraints on the car). We loaded it into a wagon (sample picture of wagon where Brian was carrying their gear earlier on in the afternoon below), and hauled it into the Weeple Army camp ground (the Weeple Army was the team we joined forces with for the Ragnar Trail Relay, and I am glad we did as they were such a great group to hang out with!).

Other than a dilapidated bridge where our wagon wheel got stuck for a few seconds, we got the wagon with all our goods safely to camp. The Weeple Army was so friendly that they helped us unload our gear without even asking for assistance! I can see how they would be a great team to help you on your first Spartan Race (I can see myself doing one, but I'll leave that thought for next year so I can focus on my A race for this year).

Having been tired from the 7 hour drive (including a nice dinner at Roseville and some last minute shopping for ice and water), I quickly retired to my sleeping bag. Eileen was the only one who brought a tent (I had one but never thought to bring mine due to space constraints, and Ed thought the same). It was only a two and a half person tent, and since I don't qualify as a half person, I volunteered to be the one to sleep outside (it wasn't cold at the time at any rate). We got to meet some of our teammates like Beth, Brian and Michelle, but being tired and old, I decided to retire early that night and save the socializing for tomorrow (we did have a race to run, after all).

Day 1 (Friday)

I woke up bright and early around 5 AM without the need for an alarm clock (my usual waking up time). Much of the camp was still snoozing and snoring. Quite okay with me as I had to do my business anyways. The altitude was beginning to mess with my stomach, which was not a good thing. I experienced the same when I did the Ragnar Road Relay two years ago, but my stomach went south more then due to stress (as I was slated to do 8 legs instead of the typical 3 legs in a Ragnar race).

After I came back, Eileen graciously offered to make coffee and oatmeal. I got the coffee but skipped the oatmeal due to my GI issues. I would rather be hungry than run on a spoiled stomach. It's a risk I've taken before and was willing to accept. At that point anyways, I was starting to feel better.

We all checked in 30 minutes before 10 AM, our scheduled team start. Ragnar had estimated a trail pace of 12 minutes per mile for our team and put us as one of the first groups to start. Not exactly my trail pace (mine is more 15 minutes per mile, including elevation gains), but we couldn't have had any more additional time, so I think it was great to start as one of the first teams.

Eileen was the first one to go and ran the green loop. I was the second to go and had to do the yellow loop. Beth then would be the third and ran the red loop. The green loop was the easiest, the red one was the hardest. Starting with the medium loop worked for me, but I just didn't know how my body would react to the fact that we're running at 6,768 feet above sea level. I quickly found out how it did react.

The Yellow Loop was the Summit Valley View Trail. It started out fairly okay with a few rollers, but even just running a few feet I can already feel how hard it was to breathe in high elevation. I fortunately had experience running in Tahoe when I went last year for a fun weekend with some friends from my San Francisco Triathlon Club group. I quickly remembered how hard it was though to breathe. I decided to breathe through my mouth and have the rhythm match my running. It felt haggard (and loud at times), but that's what got me through the loop.

The Yellow Loop had two big climbs. The first climb had some spectacular views of Ice Lake (and another lake that I do not know the name of). The climb would have been just a regular day of trail running for me if it wasn't for the altitude. I took some pictures (which I can't upload right now since the phone I used isn't currently working). I then started descending before another climb came in around mile 4-5, which was shorter but steeper (looks like a ski slope when the resort was still used for skiing and snowboarding). After a steep climb and hike, I was done with the Yellow Loop.

After the Yellow Loop, there were 7 more legs before I had to run again, so I was all set to start lounging and eating. Eileen helped me buy one of the excellent smoothies sold near the start/finish line (at $4, it tasted like the best meal on a plastic cup to a starved runner!). We then headed back to camp to relax and start getting to know our other teammates as we started discussing our legs (the loops, not our muscled legs), our background, and anything else under the sun.

Having run as part of an ultra team of 5 at a previous Ragnar Relay, it was a mixed feeling for me. I was happy that it wasn't as strenuous in that I didn't have to get ready every 2 hours to start running again. But I do have to say the waiting was also hard despite the fun of camping and talking (and eating). Our whole team was getting used to altitude running so our estimated times were pretty much out the window by the time the first Green-Yellow-Red loop was done. Beth came back from the Red Loop describing it as the hardest loop in Ragnar History (which it was, relative to the Green and Yellow). I started filling my head with how difficult it would be for me to run the Red Loop. I was supposed to run it during the dark hours of early morning, but it was a question mark whether that would happen or whether it was going to be during the day at that point. My paranoid self imagined myself tumbling down a cliff as she talked about ridges. It was either that or shining my headlamp on a hungry black (or is it brown) bear. I like to fill myself with happy thoughts.

As the relay was progressing, we went from two hours behind to I think even four hours behind at one point later at night. I wasn't stressed about it as I knew Ragnar offered the optioned of doubling up during the Road Relay to make up mileage and time, and I had a feeling they would do the same for the Trail Relay. The day continued with us cheering along each of our teammates: Michelle, Ed, Liz, Brian, and Kathryn.

When we got to the second round of legs, Ed took over Eileen's Red Loop and ran it in the dark. I'm glad Ed took over her Red Loop as I wasn't too keen on running either Yellow Loop or Red Loop in the dark. I ran the Green Loop shortly after Ed and I surprisingly had the best of fun running it. It was a quick hike uphill (which I was actually even running for a while because it's hard to know sometimes if you're running uphill when it's dark with only a headlamp on). It was a fun downhill as I ran it at my comfort level. Not fast to the point of risking a big injury but fast enough to imagine that I was Killian Jornet (one has to have a wild imagination at night to stop thinking about bears).

After I did my Green Loop, Ed and I watched a film about Western States that they were showing near the start/finish line. It was great to watch it even though I've seen it already beforehand. It was also very nice to have a fresh batch of hot chocolate mixed with coffee (the Ragnar mochachinno) with a small bag of Doritos to satiate me for running a grueling three miles (it was my dinner of sorts, if I remember correctly).

Day 2 (Saturday)

After we got back from the movie, Ed quickly retired inside the tent. I hung out for a while at the canopy and wondered where everyone was (they were either out running or sleeping in their tents, it seemed). It was so cold that I had to go back to my sleeping bag and cover myself. It was colder that morning than the previous night/morning, but I was warm enough to close my eyes and have some sort of sleep.

Ed did tell me that I had to tell Michelle to get ready for her Red Loop in the dark. I walked to her tent, which was closed and said her name in what seemed like a million times. Either she was out like a rock, or maybe she was in the transition area. I thought it was the initial, but I felt like I did my duty. I talked to Brian when I heard him walking about and told him about the situation. Beth was still out running the Yellow Loop in the dark, but she was close to finishing, so he would look for Michelle in the transition area (where fortunately she was).

Daylight came and it was time for me to take over Eileen's Yellow Loop. I was supposed to do a back to back Yellow Loop and Red Loop as I came after Eileen, but in a quick light bulb moment, I asked Ed if he was willing to switch his Red Loop with my Red Loop. He thankfully obliged and that gave me breathing room to rest between the two difficult loops.

I ran the Yellow Loop again, but having done it I knew what to expect. No more pictures this time. I ran it with confidence but not necessarily more speediness. I ran it at a minute per mile slower than the first iteration but I was totally okay with that.

Once I finished the Yellow Loop, I saw Ed with a confused look on his face. He told me he was still running the Red Loop as we discussed, but he was running it with Kathryn. The teams were now told to double up to make sure teams finish on or before 6 PM. The teams had an added bonus of letting the other team member finish faster so that the next team can start even earlier. I had the weird quirk of running the Red Loop now by myself, as everyone would have done Green-Yellow-Red in double teams by the time it gets back to me.

I had another smoothie thanks to Eileen and gobbled up a sausage along with it for a makeshift breakfast/lunch. I had several hours again to recompose myself, get a hydration pack with tailwind ready (my now go to fuel), and change to my next shirt (I was wearing a new shirt after finishing each leg, for freshening up reasons and to not get thrown off camp for noxious body odor).

I ran the Red Loop with no issues. I only wish my phone was working when I made the first summit. It was so pretty that I wouldn't mind coming back to that particular loop in the future (the Razorback Ridge Trail, it now seems to be named, quite appropriately). I did enjoy seeing a few hot shirtless runners, always a bonus in a hot race for me. They quickly disappeared like the mirage they were though. After two more summits, the loop made for a fun descent and a questionable fun run on the roads around camp for a mile or two (it seemed more like two).

It was a tough relay for sure, but all our faces started beaming once we crossed the finish line as a team. All our adversities, difficulties, and problems during the whole relay melted and we savored our accomplishment.

Eileen, Ed and I headed back to San Francisco shortly after, but I came away from the experience with huge love and admiration for the Weeple Army. I have already signed up for the New Year's Duathlon to spend some quality time with them again and get to know them a little bit more and even know more of them.

It may have been a tough two days in physical and mental ways, but I'm glad to be part of this team that endured it together. Another memorable experience that will stay with me my entire life. I'm not raring to do another Trail Relay just yet, but maybe if it's a new location like Vail Lake or Utah, I might be open to it.

Altitude is everything!

Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 Spooner's Cove 25K Race Report

Never underestimate a race, even a destination and/or training race.

I signed up for Spooner's Cove 25K because I wanted to do a trail run outside of the Bay Area. While the Marin Headlands and the trails in the East Bay Area are always a delight to run, I had been running them for over three years now and I was craving the sight (and challenge) of new trails. Spooner's Cove 25K offered that by giving me a taste of the trails at Montana de Oro Park, a three to four hour drive coming from San Francisco.

I chose the 25K distance out of the four distance options (5 mile, 8 mile, 25K and 50K) because it allowed me to explore all of the trails the race has to offer. I could have signed up for the 50K for "double the fun", but I wasn't feeling that I was ready yet to tackle another ultra distance so soon after the North Face Endurance Challenge last December. I also wanted more time to take the scenery in, take pictures, and enjoy the view without fearing that I was running out the clock. I wanted to explore new trails, but not finishing due to the time cutoff was something I wanted to be mindful of. I am very glad I didn't change my mind on this one.

The race started out at Spooner's Cove itself, a seemingly secluded beach with short cliffs. Parking was very limited at the beach, but I was lucky to get one of the last few spots after arriving an hour early before the start of the race. There was also parking a few minutes at the top, and they also allowed for additional parking for the latecomers (which irked a local runner who I talked to who had been going to the race the past few years).

There were roughly a hundred or so runners at the start. Most of them seemed to have signed up for the 5 or 8 mile distance, with the rest doing the 25K and the very proud few (27 of them) signed up for the 50K. The race started on time with everyone doing the same first few miles of the course.

We started running around the Valencia Bluff loop which reminded me of running the Big Sur Marathon last year. It never gets tiring to see the water on your side when it comes to running, at least for me. I started taking a few pictures here and there before deciding to leave the rest to my imagination and memory after I have had my fill of taking pictures. I decided to hang back from the very start, becoming a "back of the pack" run early on. I ran on the flats but took a walk break as soon as we started our climbing. And we had quite a few climbs!

Pecho, Rattlesnake, Badger and Valencia Peak trail were some very climbs within just a span of 3 miles. We're talking about a climb of almost 1200 feet at the very top. I don't know if I will ever conquer my fear of heights but I dreaded the climb as we kept on getting higher and higher. I even started getting scared of how we're supposed to go downhill. Luckily, I realized we were going down another way downhill. The 5 mile runners were lucky in that they don't need to get to the top of Valencia Peak (or maybe unlucky). The rest of the other distance runners had to go up and get a rubber band (placed in a precarious place at the top, mind you) to prove that you had indeed made the climb to the top.

After climbing the top, I took in the scenery, and then proceeded downhill. I talked to another couple who got to the peak at the same time I did and they mentioned they were doing the 8 miler. I told them I still had to do the other 8 mile loop going up and down Hazard Peak. At least we didn't have to do everything twice, we both mentioned. It was still a cruel thing for me to reach the start/finish line, where the only aid station was, and go back out to do the other loop. Mentally, it makes for a tough race as you're sorely tempted to just call it a day then and there.

There was some confusion as I arrived as I asked whether I should check in, and initially the volunteers had me cross the mat and another gave me a medal. I told them I still had to do the other 8 mile loop (although it's flattering they didn't think it was weird I finished so early for a 25K distance in just two and a half hours). I picked a couple of items to eat with me while I went on the second loop but I made a mistake of not taking in more water and electrolytes before I left the aid station.

It started warming up as I went up the second loop. I could see the struggling faces of the runners coming back from the second loop of the 25K course. A lot of them only had one water bottle (I had two from my Salomon hydration pack, but I chose to not bring and use my bladder, which was a mistake). Several of them looked like they had already used their water as well. I thought of offering my water to one who seemed in a daze but I asked him if he was okay and he said he was. I then thought that I shouldn't probably give water unless I think anyone really needed it, as I would run the risk of running out of water myself and I had barely started the second 8 mile out and back towards Hazard Peak.

Hazard Peak wasn't as treacherous of a climb as Valencia Peak, but the heat made it a lot more difficult. It was exposed all the way, and the turnaround point seemed like it took an eternity to get to. I decided to walk until I reached the turnaround point, but I also had to walk going back since it involved an uphill climb going back. Another runner stopped and seemed in pain and said she was cramping, so I offered her two of my salt pills (she had water still, fortunately). I saw the lead male and female for the 50K as I started reaching the top before a downhill descent. The lead male runner was young, either a teenager or someone in his 20s, I can't tell. I decided that I should at least beat his 50K time since he was running twice my distance.

I started running downhill with 2-3 miles to go. I drank all of the water I had left at that point and downed the last salt pill I had. I ate a mini snicker bar, but not much else. My fueling was not really the best, but at least I didn't have any stomach issues the whole time during the race (they had no porta potties except for at the start and finish, and really no place you can duck and cover if you wanted to).

I finished the race at around 5 hours and a few minutes. Not my best 25K by any stretch, but I was proud of the finish nonetheless. I got great heat training with this race. I still have to find a perfect balance of carrying too much water and too little water, but I think I'll almost always want to have too much water for any race going forward. Dehydration and heat exhaustion (or heat stroke) is not something I want to risk.

Never underestimate a race, even a destination and/or training race!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Reluctant Race Report: The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Race

As I heard the cowbells clanging, I saw the fog slowly give way to the volunteers at the McKennan Gulch Aid Station at Mile 28. I told them I was happy that they were cheering, but I have decided to quit The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Race at that point in time.

I gave up. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally done.

I woke up quite early at 1:00 AM for a race that starts at 5:00 AM. I did this because I wanted to get a good breakfast in my stomach, oatmeal with a spoonful of peanut butter and a cup of coffee. I also needed to take a shower, do some last minute preparations such as putting body glide and sunscreen all over my body, as well as putting on my gear which included the headlamp, shirt, shorts, calf sleeves, windbreaker and shoes. I was debating whether to wear arm sleeves but given the weather forecast was for mid 50s to mid 60s, I decided to just put it in my drop bag for the Tennessee Valley Aid station, in case it got cold at miles 14 and 45. I didn't have extra arm sleeves for the other drop bag at Cardiac at miles 23 and 35, but I didn't consider it a deal breaker.

Preparations were still in the way when I got to the start area around 3:00 AM, understandably so since the start was still 2 hours away. I found my running group's tent, Run 365, and waited for other fellow runners to come. Peter and Nga eventually showed up, as well as other runners arriving through the shuttles. Then came other fellow runners running the 50 mile event: Char, Leilani, Sean, Michelle, Jake, and Trish from our group. I also saw some other fellow runners and friends I met through other groups: Jesse from Golden Gate Triathlon Club and Matt from San Francisco Marathon Ambassadors. It was also a delight to see other friends volunteering: Josephine, Trina and Monica.

The start of the race came soon enough, surprisingly absent the rain that was forecasted to be at the start at 5:00 AM. I took a sneak peak of the elites gathering through the small funnel for the starting line. I can't make out too many of them, but I think I saw Alex Varner, Chris Vargo, and Dylan Bowman. Off they went and three minutes later, my wave, wave 4 started as well.

I intentionally held back to be at the back of the pack as I most often do at a race. Not that I think I'll be the last one to finish, but because I want to start off slow. After all, we are running for 50 miles, not a 5K or a 10K.

Since I was hanging back, I never expected to be running with Peter early on, but he did run with me until a few minutes after we were directed to turn left towards Bobcat trail by my friend and course marshal Laura. Peter and I chatted for a while about race strategies and then I told him he should not feel compelled to hang back with me, as I knew he was way faster than me (which he was, because he finished the 50 miler faster than any other person in our entire running group).

As we started our ascent up Bobcat, most of the runners started running up the hill. I decided to stick to my strategy of power hiking the uphills, and running the downhills and flats. It made for a long climb up Bobcat, but it felt good running once I was going down Rodeo Valley trail. Once we got down to the flats, I kept on running, past the course marshal again and then to the Bobcat aid station, where my friend Madeleine was volunteering to mark the bibs as having done the Bobcat loop once. Yes, we had to do the 5-6 mile loop all over again. Having done loops in races before, I didn't really mind it at all. I arrived doing the second loop around 7:20, even 10 minutes early from my projected 7:30 am arrival for having done 11.3 miles.

The climbs never stop at this race, so the next one was up Miwok trail, which has a steeper climb in a shorter distance than Bobcat. I started power hiking again, and at this time the 50K has already started, so the elites were already scrambling up Miwok to the top. I am always in awe of runners who truly the run the entire ultra distance. While I still do consider myself an ultra runner, I would say that I hike roughly half of the distance I cover, be it a 50K or a 50 Mile. After climbing Miwok, we turned left and ran downhill at Old Springs Trail towards Tennessee Valley.

When I arrived at Tennessee Valley, it was already at mile 14, almost a mile more than a half marathon distance. I was actually doing pretty well. It was warm enough to leave my windbreaker. I kept on with just one hydration bottle in my hand, but I did take a pill case containing roughly six salt stick pills. I had two pill cases stashed at each drop bag station to quickly take a few salt stick pills to take every hour (at least one). At this point, I was in better shape when I was the previous year where I didn't finish the race, because I had GI issues early on last year, and I remember having to go to the porta potties at Tennessee Valley then.

I proceeded running through Coastal Fire Road and saw my friend Jeff, the first one I spotted from those running the 50Ks. He was doing pretty well and asked me which mile I was at. I knew I was around mile 14, but that was just a rough estimate on my part. Jeff vanished quickly due to his usual speed.

We were greeted with another big hill and big climb, before we descended towards a muddy (and slippery) slope towards Pirates Cove. My experience running The North Face Endurance Challenge 2012 came into mind, but at least it wasn't raining, so the mud was a little caked and less slippery, but still slippery nonetheless. After descending the stairs towards Pirates Cove, making a hard right and going up and down a few rollers, we started descending towards Muir Beach. Again, I was reminded about 2012 but this was a much smaller scale. There was not enough mud to slide down happily (yes, I said happily), but there was enough to still give you an occasional slip if you're not careful (or balanced) enough. Luckily, I have good experience running down mud by now given my two years of experience running trails.

The Muir Beach aid station came quickly but I was a little bit disappointed it wasn't near the parking lot where the nice porta potties were. At this point, I wanted to pee already and I didn't know the mileage at the time (we were at mile 18, I would find out later on). I knew the next aid station was at Cardiac and that was a big climb to get up to there, and 5 miles away. I hesitated for a moment, but decided to forge on as it seemed there was only one porta potty and there was already another guy lined up in front of it.

The stretch of road and trail from Muir Beach to Heather Cutoff was actually quite runnable, but I began to slow down. I was fatigued at that point, but in hindsight, I think I was also at the beginning of hitting a wall. I was drinking electrolytes constantly, one bottle's worth through every aid station, but I don't think I consumed enough other food at each aid station to average 200 calories per hour. The fatigue momentarily vanished by watching in awe as the elites like Sage Canaday pass first (who eventually won the race, but by a thin margin of a few minutes). It also vanished when I saw my friend Andrew volunteering as a course marshal as we crossed the road going into Heather Cutoff. I was not all smiles though as I saw the beginning of a muddy climb up Heather Cutoff.

The switchbacks going up Heather Cutoff was a muddy mess. There was a stream of water going down from the very top, cruising towards the middle of most of the trail. There were faster runners wanting to overtake me from behind. There were elites blasting through from the top. It was a narrow trail for the heavy amount of runners going up and down this stretch of the course, and this is where my downfall started.

The climb seemed to take a long time for me but then I was thankful to be at the top, where Coastal trail reconnected. I saw Magdalena Boulet briefly, not knowing it was her exactly until some spectators shouted her name "Magda" as she cruised past me downhill.

Coastal was less muddy, but it was still quite a climb. I was started to not power hike, but just traipse along, which was not what I exactly wanted. It didn't help that I ran out of water and still was a mile or two to the top of Cardiac. I also then decided to eat a mini clif bar I ate from an aid station earlier, but it only temporary helped, and it made me more thirsty in the process given that I had no water to wash it down with.

A half mile left to the aid station, I started getting light headed. I thought this was really bad. I have hit a wall and I'm not even half way done with the 50 miler. I made it to the Cardiac with 20 minutes to spare before the first hard cutoff, but that didn't give me a cause to jump for joy because I knew what was next: Coastal trail from Pantoll.

Lucas took a picture of me (above) as I was drinking a can of coke to get some much needed sugar in me. I didn't really want the caffeine at this point because caffeine messes up my stomach (which it shortly did as I had to go to the porta potty at that point in time for a #2). Before I took my wet wipes to do the dirty deed, Ken advised me to just keep moving forward and my pacer and our common friend Brian should be able to get me back up to speed. Unfortunately, he didn't know at the time I almost decided to drop at that particular aid station. I quickly debated about telling him to contact Brian and dropping at Cardiac, but I felt that I still have the strength to forge on at this point, and I didn't want to let anybody down. It helped that my friends Phil and Angela were cheering me from the top as well. Phil even jokingly told me that "I hope you just didn't eat a banana for breakfast." I smiled weakly as I did eat a good breakfast, but I just didn't keep my nutrition up and regular once I got going in the race.

I decided to keep moving, and this time I had an extra water bottle that I purposely put in my drop bag just for this case where I felt under-hydrated. I also started snacking on the kettle chips as I descended towards Old Mine trail. I saw my friend Amadeo limping and I was concerned, but I cheered him to keep moving on (he spectacularly still finished the race, but posted about possibly being injured, hopefully not a severe one).

When I hit the Pantoll Parking Lot porta potties, I did the dirty deed again. I was getting nervous about Coastal trail, given that is also where I severely slowed down last year. It was the same exact feeling. I was less intimated about the trail this time. It was less muddy than I expected, and given my falling behind and the course changes, there was less runners going up and down the narrow single track trail. Even the spot where I severely cramped last year and learned that I should take salt stick pills for the first time seemed that it was "fixed" to be runnable (not that I ran it).

When I hit the Coastal trail, I started thinking about dropping out again, this time at McKennan Gulch. I did some math and I was going to end up at the aid station by 1:30 PM, which was pretty late considering I told my pacer Brian to expect me at Stinson Beach between 12:30 to 1:30 PM. I realize that as I write this that I totally misread the cutoff time for Muir Beach. I thought it was 3:30, and that would mean I would need to do 13 miles in two hours. The real cutoff was 4:37, and 13 miles in three hours is totally doable. This is a total lesson learned to carry a laminated pace chart with me for all future races. I did carry the pace chart, but I think I was so mentally checked out that I didn't even think to double check the pace charts to see if I remembered the 2nd hard cutoff right.

When I thought about this, that my now incorrect math that I won't make it, I wondered how to get the word to my friend Brian that I won't be able to finish the race. I decided to be on the lookout for my friend Michelle. It was her first 50 miler, and her friend who was supposed to pace her wasn't able to, so I thought at the very least Brian can pace her. I can still change my mind after I told her about this and parted ways, but I wanted Brian's being at Stinson to at least help someone, which eventually did as Michelle successfully crossed the finish line hours later.

The sweepers caught me by the time I was at Willow Camp Trail, and roughly a mile to McKennan Gulch. With my IT band on my left leg tingling, I told them that I will drop at the next aid station. It was a paved road we had to run which was only a mile, but again, like other parts of my run, seemed like forever.

As I heard the cowbells clanging, I saw the fog slowly give way to the volunteers at the McKennan Gulch Aid Station at Mile 28. I told them I was happy that they were cheering, but I have decided to quit The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Race at that point in time.

I gave up. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally done.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

2014 Dick Collins Firetrails 50 - Race Report

(Photo Credit: Audrey de la Cruz)

"All you need to do is get to the next aid station. That's only 3-5 miles from here. You can do it. Once you reach there, you can decide whether to continue or stop. It's your decision, and no pressure."

This is what I continuously told myself from the very start of the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 race. I had decided to use the mental strategy of breaking my big ultra marathon into bite size 5Ks to 10Ks, in order to bank small wins and keep on going.

I decided to take the early start option offered, which allows ultra runners who think they will take more than 13 hours to start earlier at 5:30 AM, instead of the regular start time at 6:30 AM. I had no ego about this decision, as I calculated it would probably take me more than 13 hours to finish the race, given my first and only 50 miler completed was American River 50, which took me 13 hours and 11 minutes. Firetrails 50 had almost 5000 feet of elevation gain more than my previous 50 miler, so taking the early start was pretty much a no brainer.

Around 20-30 people also took the early start option, so it was comforting to know that I would be in the company of other runners. This was comforting because we had to run in the dark due to the early start, so a headlamp was pretty much a necessity. I saw fellow ultra runner friends Laura, Jennifer, and Alina, who were using this as their training race for Javelina Jundred. I saw Tawnya, who was pacing her friend Grace, for the entirety of the 50 mile race (this being the longest run Tawnya has done since finishing a 200 mile race in Tahoe). I also saw fellow ultra runner Angela, who I had crossed paths with at Way Too Cool 50K and American River 50.

To Marciel Road: Mile 3.2

Given my mental mantra and strategy, my first goal was to reach Marciel Road. It was only 3.2 miles away, but those 3 miles had 600 feet of elevation gain in them. I was glad I practiced the first few miles of the course out and back just a week earlier, so this was no surprise to me. I knew we started with a few rollers, a left turn on a wooden bridge, and then a fast hike up Live Oak trail. Having ran the course previously also helped knowing what to look for while running in the dark. I could've sworn I saw another runner got lost immediately a mile into the course (either that or he was looking for a place to hide and do his business).

I reached Marciel Road with no fanfare (and no wasp sting, unlike the previous week I ran, thank goodness!). The aid station was ready for us, but I decided to skip it as I didn't need anything at this point. I had already consumed my gel which I planned to do every 30 minutes and my salt stick every hour, so no need to waste even a few precious seconds surveying the station for fuel.

To Bort Meadows: Mile 7.9

The road to Bort Meadows was a little tougher at times. There were patches when I would be running by myself in the dark and imagined a mountain lion leaping in front of me. I wasn't that scared, but I thought that was a possibility. I did take some time to appreciate the sun rising with an orange glow across the horizon. I was tempted to take pictures, but given my "no pictures" mantra on races, I decided to just etch the beautiful view on my head and hope I remember it for years to come.

Bort Meadows came quickly, even my friend Angela was surprised. I didn't take any fuel because I was still good at that time, but a volunteer did offer to take my headlamp. I didn't have a label, but he said he would write it down. He said, "182", and I kept on running. I somewhat regret that later on at the finish when I realize I can't find my headlamp in the box of headlamps. I hope it still turns up when I email Norcal Ultras, but if not, I'll just move on.

To Big Bear Gate: Mile 10.5

It was shortly after Bort Meadows, around mile 7.9, that I saw the first male lead runner, Ryan Neely. I had an hour lead ahead of the regular and elite runners, which was mind numbingly blown away by Ryan (meaning he was running 8 miles per hour, having covered 736 feet of elevation gain... on trails!). At that point, I was almost certain that he was going to win that early on the race. I then saw the second place runner at that point, Jonathan Gunderson, who coached our previous track season for the San Francisco Marathon. He was only a few minutes in trailing Ryan, but I'm not sure what happened to him as I never saw him at the turnaround point, but I could have missed him easily when I stopped at one of the aid stations and/or porta potties. 

Going toward Big Bear Gate, I started getting my rhythm and started passing a few of my fellow runners: Grace, Tawnya, Alina and Angela. I don't know if it was a good strategy or not, but I felt great and since it was mostly flats, I decided to start running at a moderately easy pace since I know there are bigger hills to come. 

It was at this point I was realizing that I was going a bit faster than scheduled. I had assumed a 15 minute mile pace average for the whole race, but I was slightly faster right now due to fresher legs and less hills, so I was going to hit Skyline Gate earlier than even my earliest projections of 9:30 AM to 10:30 AM. I debated about slowing down, but I did tell my crew chief Eileen that in case I don't see her I'll keep on going and I'll just see her at the next aid station.

To Skyline Gate: Mile 15

The middle of the pack runners started showing up and catching up with me at this point of the race. The rest of the elites and middle of the pack who were running 10-12 miles per hour had caught up at this point, given my pace. I didn't mind at all. It was actually refreshing to see the faster runners go by and admire them instead of only seeing them at the start and never seeing them again (until they turnaround for this race, which is out and back). 

I saw a lot of familiar and friendly faces at the Skyline Gate Aid Station. Belinda, who takes the most wonderful trail race photos, was doing her magic capturing the moments, and Philip was with her to cheer us runners on with his cool looking white framed sunglasses and music. The aid station was run by Run 365 and I saw Shane and Trish immediately. I asked for my hydration bottle to be filled with electrolytes (Gu Brew), and didn't see Eileen, so I told Trish if they can tell Eileen to just catch up with me at Lone Oak (I didn't want her to miss me again at the next one, so I thought it was safest to meet me at Lone Oak). 

To Sibley Preserve: Mile 18.4

Sibley is when the rubber starts meeting the road. Sibley was the beginning of a long and steep hike up the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve. I had to pause a few moments to catch my breath, and for the first time I felt my calf twitch (which would be okay for a marathon or 50K, but not halfway into a 50 miler). I started switching to more frequent salt stick intakes to prevent a catastrophic calf cramp. I also kept at the back of my mind that I'm going downhill through this same route later on, so caution must be taken in going downhill as well.

Mid way up to fast hiking up Sibley, I saw the first of my Run 365 friends also running Firetrails 50, Sean. We both acknowledged how hard the hike up was Sibley. He stated he doesn't remember how steep this section was, but then again, we never really ran this portion in the opposite direction. This just goes to show that it's also important for runners to practice the course in the direction that the course is going. I took a mental note to make sure I do this for the North Face Endurance Challenge in December.

A few miles later, I saw another Run 365 friend, Michael. He was a fast runner but he stated he was struggling so he slowed down to fast hike with me a bit. I remember how he did this also at the North Face Endurance Challenge last year when he saw me but he had more energy then. It looked like he was struggling with the heat (I was too). We hiked for a while together, but I didn't want to slow him down because he's way faster than I am so I let him run in front of me and sure enough, after a few minutes, he started running again and I bid him a good race.

To Steam Trains: Mile 21.7

My mind could be muddled, but it was shortly after Sibley that I started seeing the lead to the middle of the pack of Golden Hills runners, including Run 365 friends Char and Jake, who I was delighted to see and gave and received high fives from.

At the Steam Trains aid station, I saw Eileen cheering for me and taking my picture as I ran a small incline up to the aid station. We then did the hydration pack switch strategy that I thought of. I had her ready with a hydration pack with a bladder full of ice and water, 6 gels and salt sticks. Since it was getting warm, I got an extra pill case full of salt sticks even though I was only 5 miles away from Lone Oak, the next aid station.

It was mostly down hill going to Lone Oak from Steam Trains and I was glad to relieve my quads, hamstrings and calves from another big uphill climb. What goes down must come up, however, so I remembered that I have to climb back up all these hills I was running down from. No matter, I still used my mantra of just going to the next aid station to make this race more manageable.

To Lone Oak: Mile 26

It was going to Lone Oak that I saw Josephine, Mon, and Christine, who I paced for at the San Francisco Marathon Training Program last year. It was a delight to see them even for a moment and give them high fives like I did to Char and Jake. It gave me a temporary boost as I forged on to start picking up the pace to meet my first pacer, Annabelle at Lone Oak.

I was reaffirmed in my decision to take the early start as I was running downhill toward Lone Oak. I think it was close to 11:30 AM at that point, so if I did the regular start, I would be cutting it close to the cutoff, which was at 12:45 PM (I would have made it by 12:30 PM instead of 12:45 PM). I pretended my cutoff was 11:30 AM for a while, which I would have barely missed if it was the case I was trying to barrel down Meadows Canyon trail. But in truth I should have pretended it was 11:45 AM, in which case I would have had plenty more time to spare.

At Lone Oak, I saw Annabelle and Eileen. I then proceeded to do my very first pee stop, which is a miracle considering my propensity to pee on a race. I switched packs again but now had two hydration bottles in addition, one with ice and water and one with ice and gatorade. A little bit of overkill in hindsight, but I didn't want to let the heat beat me that day.

To Steam Trains: Mile 30.3

Given I was an hour ahead of schedule, and we had some big hills to climb back up, Annabelle and I took it a little bit easier going uphill and we even had a chance to chat about anything and everything. She told me about what races she's done so far: Kauai Half, Giants Half. She hasn't hit the trails since Woodside Ramble so I was a little worried, but then again, she had the advantage of fresh legs and we were on fire trails, which were fairly smooth (for the time being).

Eileen met us at Steam Trains. At that point, I was chafing at places where the sun didn't shine, and I hated it, but I didn't let it get to me. I asked for bandages and body glide, but the wait seemed long for the rest rooms, so I hid behind the porta potty to put the body glide and bandages (but I miserably failed). I went back to Eileen and Annabelle and we went on our way to Sibley.

To Sibley: Mile 33.6

Sibley was as tough going down as it was going up. I can see Annabelle also struggling as she's still technically somewhat new to trails. She also had a lot of slips and almosts (and one very big almost next to a steep cliff face, which made me shout for concern). We both decided to take it easy going even on the downhills. I didn't want to try going downhill faster, not that I was sure I could go downhill faster.

I let Annabelle lead the way, but I also gave some distance between me and her, as I tend to go downhill quick and let it go, so I didn't want to bump into her as I went downhill. Sibley had some steep downhills where it could lead to an injury if you don't take care of how you approach going down the trails.

The path to the aid station was one big uphill climb, which I didn't mind, but I can tell my quads and hamstrings are taking a toll. I usually don't tell my pacers even if I'm not feeling well as I don't see the point. I don't want them to get concerned and I think it's better to just get focused and stay strong and not get them into thinking I'm struggling or having any issues (although it's apparent I am struggling when I start to walk on places I should be able to run normally).

Annabelle and I made a quick pee stop at Sibley before enduring more hikes up and easy runs down going to Skyline.

To Skyline: Mile 37

The road to Skyline wasn't easy. Those 11 miles that Annabelle paced me were a hard 11 miles, regardless of how experienced any trail runner is. I think her fitness level made up for her lack of trail experience, as she would have either fallen on one of her several slips, or she would have been struggling after a few of the monster climbs that we did. She was a manager of a fitness club, so Annabelle is quite fit and adapted well to the task at hand.

Annabelle was also great in that she motivated me to run in times where I might not have if I was by myself. She also made me crack up several times with her humor and her wit. Her energy and enthusiasm really pulled me through out of those tough miles leading to Skyline.

I was a little bit worried about our time at a certain point, going into Skyline, but we arrived around 3:15 PM, so we had more than 45 minutes to the 4 PM cutoff. We had all different versions of the cutoff, from 2:30 PM, 3:30 PM. When I thought it was 2:30 PM, I was a goner. I took a mental note to have a laminated version of the cutoff times, similar to what I saw my friend Pen had when she ran her 100 miler event. Stressing out on a false cutoff time is never a fun thing, in hindsight.

To Big Bear: Mile 41.5

After being doused on the head and arms with cool water from Pen, given ice on the cap by Josh, salt sticks by Rachel, banana from Brian, and refilled bottles and pack from Eileen, my second pacer Audrey and I started running down West Ridge trail. I quickly hugged Annabelle and thanked her for all her support during those arduous eleven miles.

I got a second wind running with Audrey. It was also running downhill on wider, flat trails I think versus single track rocky and rooty trails that allowed her and I to run side by side and at a quick clip. We also ran quite a few flats.

It was when we hit a few hills again that the wind got taken away from me. Somehow on my watch we were only a mile and a half away from the Big Bear aid station but I started slowing down, even walking some flats and downhills. Audrey was nice enough and patient enough with me. She even entertained me with some conversation and laughs along the way, like Annabelle, so I was again very appreciative.

To Bort Meadows: Mile 44.1

I again started struggling at this point, so I asked Audrey if we can slow down to a walk even if it was flat for a few miles. Several other runners started passing us, but I didn't really care at that point. It was only 3.4 miles to Bort Meadows, but we pretty much took a long time getting there. Another big hill came which I remembered as it was the same one from Golden Hills when I ran it the two previous years. I cursed inside my head as we hiked uphill. I quieted the tired hamstrings and quads, just like I learned to do when I did North Face last year.

When we reached the downhill portion to Bort, I asked Audrey if we can start running. There was a very picturesque view at that point where she asked me if I wanted to pose, but I was grumpy at that point, and I wanted to just make the last cutoff. I thought again it was 4:30 PM for the cutoff, but it looked like it was 5:45 PM. Better to think it's earlier rather than later, I think.

We reached Bort at around 4:15 PM, where a volunteer asked me what to replace the bottles with. I have to say that the volunteers took care of the runners pretty well in this race, myself included. They just didn't stand there with their pitchers, they would grab your bottles, open the caps and refill it for you. That's what I call service! I gave my thanks and we went on our merry way.

To Clyde Woolridge: Mile 45.5

After we ran down to Bort, I asked for a walk break from Audrey. After making the last of the cutoffs, we had over three hours to cover six miles, which is more than enough for me to start feeling comfortable. I could have asked her to push me to run the last six miles, but this was a training race for me. The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile was my goal race, but of course, this race is very important as it sets me for a good mindset going into that race.

I thought Bort was the last aid station, and I forgot about Clyde, which I remembered from Golden Hills. It was only a mile and a half away, but when you've been running for 40 miles, each mile is a struggle (and a win).

We got to Clyde and I consumed two small cups of coke. I was tempted to try ginger ale, but I've never had it so I didn't want to introduce anything new to my body. I'll try it next time for a training run.

To Lake Chabot Cove (and Finish!): Mile 50

Mentally I was already drained at this point, so I barely spoke while running with Audrey on the last few miles. I would only acknowledge with a "Yeah" and "Okay" at times. I tend to clam up and quiet down when I'm facing rough moments, be it in running or in life. I again appreciated Audrey for being calm and patient when I know she wanted to run those last few miles (which is fairly runnable since it was flat with very small rolling hills).

When we got to a half mile before the finish, I told Audrey to go ahead and tell the rest of the team that I'm on my way. I didn't quite get to run the last half mile but I did run when I started seeing the picnic area.

I threw away my two hydration bottles temporarily to the side and ran to the finish and flashed two thumbs up. I hope that was a great picture!

To this day, I look at accomplishing 50 milers with disbelief. I can't fathom what I just did. All I knew is that I ran a few miles, one aid station at a time.

"All you need to do is get to the next aid station. That's only 3-5 miles from here. You can do it. Once you reach there, you can decide whether to continue or stop. It's your decision, and no pressure."

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Berkeley Trail Adventure 35K - Race Report

Shaken, but not stirred.

This is how I felt at the end of yesterday's "Berkeley Trail Adventure" 35K race, held by Inside Trail Racing. It was an odd contrast to the Coastal 50K that I just completed the weekend prior, and where I felt a lot better going into it and on finishing it.

The race was sold out at all distances 10K, Half Marathon, 35K and 50K. There were an estimated 300 runners signed up for the race. It was another reunion of sorts for me as I saw a ton of trail runners who I knew: Coach Karen, Gabe, Shawna, Char, Sean, Laura, Mindy, Pen, and Monica from Run 365; Patty, Laura, Alina, Jennifer, Brian, Leigh-Ann, Kate, Karen G from previous trail races and runs; Amadeo and Angela from SF Tri; a lot of other friends and familiar faces who I might have failed to mention.

I think I might have pysched myself silly going into this race. I remember vividly the harried looks of the runners passing the Big Springs Aid Station last year of the 35K and 50K runners. I also know the toughness of Inside Trail races given previous races I've ran (Stud and Mud 25K, for example). I started with a lump in my throat and made my fear of this race gnaw into me slowly but surely. It's amazing how much mental attitude and fortitude can make or break your race.

The 35K course had a total elevation gain of around 4600 feet. That is a ton of climbing for a 35K (21 mile) course. From the very onset we had to climb a couple of big hills after a short flat run. I stuck with the strategy of warming up for the first 5K as my coach had instructed. Not that I had the option or gall to run up the first few monster hills, at any rate!

Brian, who just finished Headlands 100, usually runs quite faster than I do, but he decided to hang back as it's his recovery run and ran (or more apt, power hiked) with me up Selby, Redwood, and Volmer Peak. He disappeared quite shortly when we hit the downhill on Seaview Trail. I would have tried to keep up with him and I'm usually faster downhill. What gave me pause on the downhill was all the jagged rocks littered on the trail. I usually have confidence blasting downhill, but I'm better with a flat (even semi steep) downhill. The rocks gave me pause as I didn't want a tumble going into Dick Collins Firetrails 50 in two weeks. Coach K actually experienced it but she's a badass so I doubt she's shaken by the whole thing (she kept on going and even beat my time by quite a margin).

Seaview had some spectacular views, and I was tempted to get my phone out and take pictures (I have never been to this part of Tilden). I hesitated but I moved on. I wanted to keep to my method of not taking pictures while racing.

After Seaview we had a loop around Curran, Wildcat Gorge and Meadow Canyon. I saw Sean briefly as he emerged from that loop and turned left, while helping Laura and another runner get their bearings as they emerged from the other side of the loop, but they didn't start correctly. They ran with me for a while before blustering on with their speedy selves.

After I emerged from Meadow Canyon, I started to head back out. I didn't think I needed to turn left, because that was going to Wildcat, where the 50K runners were going. I hesitated though, because Tim had mentioned Nimitz way at the race announcements (it's a good thing I listened). The run felt short if I was already heading back. Fortunately I saw Kate and Coach K emerge from the loop and head left. I almost cut my race short (and probably surprised other runners in the process if I did so, by finishing a lot earlier than them).

I ran with Kate from then on until the turn around at Nimitz way and back to the aid station. This part of the course was exposed to the sun and paved, which didn't win a lot of the runners going through the course at that time. This is also where I started feeling tummy issues and a little nauseated. I don't know if it was the combination of tailwind electrolytes (which I didn't care of, as it tasted like bitter water), and the peanut better jelly sandwich (which I cared for at first, but the second serving later on I took barely a bite of). I was bad again at my nutrition and drinking today (I felt semi bad at Coastal, but I was eating more voraciously there). I now wonder if something in that pasta sauce I ate the night before ruined my stomach. I have a feeling that could have been it (that or, having had too much caffeine for weeks, I usually have 2 cups in the morning and 1 more at times during lunch).

Kate was nice enough to slow down with me and be my unofficial pacer for the stretch. We chatted about anything and everything. We saw Char, Gabe, Shawna and Coach K heading back from the turnaround, so we weren't too far behind at that point. I did tell Kate that I was slowing down quite a bit and she can go on her merry way, but she was nice enough to keep me company until the Big Springs Aid Station. She even waited as I took care of business (yes, I blessed the rest rooms near Nimitz Way and they were actually nice and not stinky!).

I breathed a sigh of relief that we weren't going up Seaview as that would have been quite a climb. That sigh turned into a curse though as I quickly passed Big Springs Aid Station, where I volunteered last year, to see Lupine Trail. Lupine Trail was one hell of a climb. Erica and I climbed it and both her and I had to stop several times. Erica was doing great, considering it was her first 35K, first trail race, and she had only done flat road half marathons previous to that. Bonus points to her for doing two loops around Curran, Wildcat Gorge and Meadow Canyon. She was cursing the hills and there were a bunch of young guys smiling as we wound up the hill (they let us through).

Erica started running again once we went down Volmer and Grizzly Peak, but about two miles left into the course, I caught up with her. Her quads and hamstrings were acting up (for good reason). I was still nauseous at that point. We both decided to power walk together even though it was just flats and downhills. Better to keep moving forward than to stop.

When we reached the last mile, I asked if we should start running, even at a slow pace, to finish strong. So we went, both pushing each other to run the last stretch. It felt a little longer than usual, as my watch clocked in at 21.3 at the end, but we did finally find the finish line and went for it. I didn't feel necessarily competitive so I let her go through first. Interestingly enough, on the timing chip, I think she started just a few seconds before me so officially I beat her by a few seconds. I was actually more happy running in with her. I congratulated her for a great race and I told her previously that I hope it doesn't scare her out of trail racing (I have a feeling I'll see her again, but maybe it might be a few weeks before she tries it again, but armed with better information, like carrying a water bottle and reading the trail map).

All in all, not my best race, but something to learn from. My ego was bruised going into Dick Collins Firetrails 50, but this was a training run after all and better to figure this out on this race than Firetrails 50 in the next two weeks.

Shaken, but not stirred!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Coastal 50K Race Report

Warm up the first 10K, cruise the next 30K, do a fast finish for the last 10K.

This was the race strategy that my coach wanted me to employ for the Coastal 50K. It sounds like a good strategy. I didn't mind the first two phrases. I just struggled mentally whether I could a "fast finish" after having run 40K.

The race started at Stinson Beach and ended up at Rodeo Beach. It was the longest point to point 50K I've ever done (but not the longest point to point race, as I have done American River 50 Mile, which is also a point to point race). 117 runners started the race that morning. Two buses full of ultra runners (or would be ultra runners) from Rodeo Beach to the starting point of the race.

It wasn't hard to warm up the first 10K as I had to power hike the Dipsea and Steep Ravine trails shortly after running from the starting point of the race. I was glad a fellow runner and friend Michael Behrman was in the race as well, but knowing he's a lot of faster than me, I wished him luck and hang towards the very back of the crowd of runners. I wouldn't want to be stuck in a runner sandwich where I have a runner I'm following who's faster than me and a runner breathing down my back who's also faster than me. Having "run" up Dipsea and Steep Ravine, and it being only the first 3 miles of the race with already 2000 feet of elevation gain, it would be foolhardy to burn myself out running up it (I'm sure elite ultra runner Jorge Maravilla who won the previous year and who won again this year, beating his time by 10 minutes, is skipping happily up those steep steps).

A few more minutes before the start of the race, I felt some tingling on my right achilles heel. I already felt it tight after a 4 mile tempo run up and down California Street just two nights before. I questioned the wisdom of doing such a hard run at that time, so I decided to be mindful of it the entire time as I climbed up Dipsea and Steep Ravine. I was with a group of other runners who also decided to hang back, but I was hiking up at a comfortable pace with them.

When we reached Pantoll, I did my first pee stop and then proceeded to Bootjack, which I'm familiar with, but not this particular portion. I was happy to start running downhill and began to make up the slower pace that I had while hiking uphill. I passed another trail runner who was walking. After I made my second pee stop at Cardiac, I saw her catch up but she decided to drop. I didn't hear the context of the whole conversation, but she mentioned not having to subject the volunteers to a search party for her (I'm guessing she has an injury of sorts, or maybe the steep climb could have made her rethink of the massive climbs to come up next). I grabbed two gels, downed an electrolyte, and started going downhill on Coast View.

Coast View was a good downhill (I'm so glad I wasn't running in the opposite direction!). I kept running downhill all the way, even through the Heather Cutoff. As I finished Heather Cutoff, I caught up with two runners who I eventually overtook as I kept on running on the flats toward Muir Beach. I was flabbergasted as I didn't expect to overtake anyone this early on a race, especially a 50K. I wasn't pushing it, so I just forged on.

Muir Beach had newly renovated restrooms (goodbye stinky porta potties). True to form, I made another pee stop as I felt I was drinking a lot of water. I stopped at the aid station, to eat two quarter sized peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (they never tasted so good in my entire life!). I took a slice of hard boiled potato, dipped it in salt and ate it. I wasn't following my fueling strategy for the race. I bought a ton of gels the day before but as I realized later on that night, I had bought too many of them with caffeine and caffeine upsets my stomach (which was already mildly upset, with a chicken curry dinner the night before). I saw a runner who had passed me when we were at Bootjack at the aid station and he told me I was booking it. I took it as a compliment as I ran to the base of the climb to Muir Beach and then started power hiking up.

The climb up Muir Beach was quite a climb. I haven't been back here since I did the Golden Gate Trail Run. I climbed quite quickly as I found a boost of energy. I passed another runner wearing "barefoot" shoes (vibrams, I guess?) as I entered the single track trail towards Pirates' Cove. In Pirates Cove, I overtook three another runners (again, jawdropping) as I continued to climb after just having climbed up the stair steps. I told them that "I guess that's why they call them ultra marathons, right?". They smiled with agreement. One of them knew me from Big Sur Marathon, a friend of my friend Pen, who just finished Headlands 100 the previous weekend. His name was Roger but that didn't help with the recall. I'll have to look him up on Facebook later on. He told me that the spot just finishing Pirates Cove and starting Coyote Ridge was where he quit last year, and he's back for redemption. I wished him luck as I started climbing again for Coyote Ridge.

Coyote Ridge was another climb. I encountered a couple (at least I think they were a couple) who were climbing as well. I kept up with them until we hit the downhill for Miwok trail. I was glad to get another downhill to keep up with my pace. I had no idea what my pace was because I left my garmin and my phone battery was dying. I was now running this race based on feel, but I had a feeling I'd do well as I have on the races I've done through based on feel. Going downhill I overtook another runner, a very fit but older runner. I've never felt competitive in a race before, but now I felt compelled to hold on to the lead and keep my distance on runners I've overtaken. Not for ego, but to push myself to run faster as a runner. I have noticed I've sort of plateaud pace wise and I need to push myself more, especially if I want to complete my goal race, the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler.

In Tennessee Valley, I blessed the rest rooms again (I was almost tempted not to, but the aid stations and rest rooms are 5-6 miles apart, on average). At the aid station, I asked them what mile we were at, I thought we were at 20 at that point, and we were only at 15. I was slightly disappointed, but I brushed it off quickly as I started climbing Marincello. Marincello is a 2 mile hill, which to this day I have never run the whole way through. There was a time I ran/walk it with a fellow runner and felt good the whole way. Being only half way through, I resorted to power hiking the 2 mile hilly trail.

With up comes down, and I was rewarded with a 2 mile downhill, the Bobcat trail. I was feeling good again and I was surprisingly able to run the whole way. I was really hitting my stride with this race. Usually even with downhills I would stop, but I made a short goal to not stop or walk until I hit the Rodeo Valley trail. I walked up the steps and started running again, although still at a "cruise" mode as I was only up to 20 by the time I reached the next aid station.

At the Rodeo Valley trail, I downed 2 cups of coke. Nothing like pure sugar to give me the temporary boost. I put a clif shot block on my short pocket and kept on moving. I knew what was next. It was a climb up Rodeo Valley. At this point, I was getting sick of the uphill climbs and I began to slow down, even though I was still moving. I could tell I was slowing down as one of the two women who I overtook near Heather's Cutoff overtook me as I entered SCA trail. Either I was slowing down or she made good time on catching up (it must be a little bit of both). She said that I'll probably catch up but I muttered that I probably won't. I must admit I was a little bit dinged ego wise, but I'm still ahead of a lot of runners.

I made a left on SCA towards the bottom of Golden Gate Bridge, near Fort Baker, and this is where I started seeing other runners. They were going in the opposite direction, climbing back up, before going down Coastal for the finish. I didn't see my friend Michael throughout the whole run down to Fort Baker so I assumed he was just too fast that I missed seeing him for that stretch (which proved right, as he finished an hour and 10 minutes ahead of me). At the Fort Baker aid station, there was no more coke, but they had sprite and electrolytes. I even took a bit of beef jerky just to see if I would feel anything different by eating it. They gave us a rubber band to indicate we reached that aid station (just in case some runners cheat by bypassing that aid station and cut the run short, which hopefully doesn't happen).

This was the period I should be on my "fast finish". I told myself that I'm delaying that a little as I felt foolhardy trying to run up SCA. I still had 6 miles to go and although I usually sprint when I see the finish line, I have never picked up the pace that early on a race (if I ever picked it up). I promised myself that I would book it once we got to the downhill, which was in Coastal.

I ran down Coastal like I was running away from a mountain lion. It felt nice to run at a good clip. As I hit another small climb though, I saw another runner, who I overtook in Coyote Ridge, catch up and then overtake me. We ran for a small stretch together, but I decided to let him keep on going while I maintain a decent but fast pace as we still had a good 3-4 miles at that point.

I hit the last aid station, at Rodeo Valley, the one I was just at mile 20. I had only 1.7 miles at that point, but I decided to down another electrolyte and coke. I ran the last 1.7 miles, with minimal stops to catch my breath. I wasn't able to sprint to the finish but I was glad to be able to keep on running the last few miles when usually I customarily slow down to a walk, and then run the last half or quarter mile.

I finished at 7 hours and 40 minutes, which wasn't a PR, but was only 10 minutes slower than Way Too Cool 50K. This was a lot tougher course. I think I could have even PRed on this one if I optimized some stops and ran even a few more segments. At any rate, I was glad to have been able to finish the race strong, and even run 9 miles at a decent pace the next day.

40 miles in a weekend. Not too shabby. I feel ready for Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Mile!