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!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pen's Pacer Report: Headlands 100

That wasn't a typo. This is not exactly your typical race report. This is what I call a "pace report," a recap of my experience pacing my friend Pen Perez on her first 100 miler race, the Headlands 100.

The Headlands 100 is not exactly what I would call beginner friendly, or what I would have chosen as my first 100 mile race (if I ever choose one). It is a challenging 25 mile loop going through the Marin Headlands. It starts and ends in Rodeo Beach every time, at which point the runner will have to go through the loop again. The runner will go on a reverse direction, so technically it makes it look like you've only done 2 "unique" loops. I have done a loop race, the Stinson Beach 50K, and it is mentally tough to do them, as your mind plays jedi tricks on you the moment you finish one, making you think whether you have the strength to do one (or more) of them again.

Pen had an attachment to running the Headlands. She finished her first 50 mile race in the Headlands, the Marin Ultra Challenge. She has spent a lot of time in Rodeo Beach with her family. Logistically, she told me that this would also be easier since most of her running friends and family live near San Francisco.

Pen asked me to pace her about a month prior to the race. I was so honored when she asked me to do so. Pen had paced me for the last nine miles in my first 50 mile finish, the American River 50. I was more than happy to return the favor!

The week leading to the race though, I have to say that I was very nervous. It occurred to me that I was pacing her from miles 81.5 to 87.4 of the race. She would have been running for at least 24 hours based on her projected time of arriving at the aid station I will be waiting for her, at Fort Baker. Having never done a 100 miler myself, I would not know how it felt to be running for 24 hours, whether she was sleepy, super sore, injured, etc. It was unchartered territory for me. It didn't change my mind on wanting to pace at all, but I was suddenly made aware of how big a task this might end up being.

Prior to seeing her arrive on Fort Baker that Sunday, I wanted to check in with Pen the day before. I went to Rodeo Beach after some coaching duties at Sports Basement Presidio. Sarah Jayne, who was crewing with Pen, carpooled with me to Rodeo Beach. As we arrived, we saw some familiar faces. We saw Trina in her car, charging her phone along with her cute dog (the name escapes me... Hudson?). We walked together to the Rodeo Beach aid station and saw the crew captain James (Mindy was at Tennessee Valley). Wolf Pack Racing was out in force crewing for Brian Ladrillono, who was also doing his first 100 miler. Belinda, Rebecca, Katrina, and Alison were there (as well as other Wolf Pack Racers whose names escape me, sorry!). Laura and Karen were crewing for an experienced ultra runner, Erica Techeira (her name's familiar, but haven't officially met her). We would later on see Wolf Pack Racing throughout the course, as Brian was anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour ahead of Pen throughout the race (though the gap got closer at times).

I saw Pen arrive at the 6 hour 30 minute mark, around 1:30 PM. She looked fresh as a daisy and full of energy. I marveled at seeing her, as she has done already a doozy of a marathon, yet she was still energetic, ready to go for a second (and eventually third and fourth) helping. Pen drank her Ensure for the first time, I believe (unfortunately not her desired flavor, butter pecan). She also had her electrolytes (Gu Brew, I think). Pen was very organized leading into the race. She had written down all her fuel and nutrition at every point in the race. She was even particular on what time she wanted her spam sandwich on hawaiian rolls (grilled upon arrival), her hash browns and coffee (which she gorged upon arrival at Fort Baker). All that planning paid off beautifully.

On the next day, I woke up early on, shortly after midnight. I slept early the night before but woke up super early due to excitement (and honestly a little anxiety). I checked Pen's status on the race (updated very well and timely, as she has given her crew access to her Facebook account). She just hit the mile 54.1 at 10:45 PM, so she was doing pretty well, having done more than two loops at the time I checked. I started packing for the race. I filled up my Victory bag, which I just purchased the day before from San Francisco Running Company with anything and everything I can think of: body glide, sun screen, band aids, tums, chocolate soy milk, etc. I wore my American River 50 mile shirt for good luck (haven't worn it in a while, and I barely fill it out to the fit I want, haha). I was also texting the crew for updates and it looked like I could swing by Rodeo Beach first, where Pen would be arriving at mile 75, the completion of her third loop, with Sam, who would have been pacing her for 25 miles at the time.

I arrived at Rodeo Beach with some chips, bananas, grapes, and wraps from Safeway. I also brought some coke (a favorite drink for ultra runners given the pure sugar content). Liz and her husband Adam were huddled around a thick blanket at each end, and Sarah Jayne was sleeping on a thick blanket as well like a cocoon. James was getting the spam ready to be grilled. They were tracking runners prior to Pen: the Jester, Brian, and some other runners. Good to know so that it's a sign that Pen would be around the corner.

Pen arrived around 6:30 AM. She didn't look as fresh as she was on mile 25, but she was still wide awake (and even loudly proclaimed it so). They made her sit on a camp chair and put a blanket on her, as they gave her all she needed (including her spam sandwich to go). It was a quick stop for Pen as she blazed off into the sunrise with Liz and Adam.

I drove to Fort Baker to be there early on. I saw the Wolfpack Racing team (they weren't at Rodeo Beach, because Brian had already left the time I arrived then). I chilled at my car for a while until Pen's crew slowly all arrived: Mindy, Trina, James and Sarah. We all waited for Pen eagerly (me the most, I must have visited the stinky porta potty three times to pee while not trying to gag due to the noxious odor).

Pen and Liz and Adam arrived around 8:30 AM. Pen had a wardrobe change at that time, all with the Pen-tastic crew's help. She changed her tank top, removed her jacket, removed some dust from her socks and shoes. She scarfed down her McDonald's hash browns like she hasn't been fed in ages, and drank her coffee with a wide grin (she hasn't had coffee in two weeks due to a caffeine fast, which has helped the caffeine be more potent during the race). In less than 5 minutes she was good to go. We started running. She asked for her pink jacket as it might get cold (it didn't, it actually got quite warm in just a few minutes' time). I ran back for it though just in case. The weather in the Headlands is quite finicky and unpredictable (I know based on previous races like the North Face Endurance Challenge).

We started running a little bit before we hit a hike up to the start of the SCA trail head. I was glad that Pen was still able to run at this point. I asked her how she felt. I quickly regretted it as she mentioned her achilles was kind of weird. Thankfully she brushed it off quickly herself. I thought I wouldn't talk about her state after that. I quickly changed the conversation on positive things. I told her about how everyone was keeping tabs on her progress and how they were so inspired by her. She changed from worrying to being in high spirits. I kept on the conversation to all positive things. I told her and praised her for having already done more than 50 miles at this point, and how she had come a long long way. She wasn't even that far from Brian, who was a pretty strong runner himself. She looked more awake than Brian I told her, and her caffeine strategy worked.

The climb of SCA trail from Fort Baker is quite a hike. I was just glad we kept on moving and hiking. The pace was about a 20 minute mile, but my number one goal is to get her to Tennessee Valley, so that pace given the course and race limit, was still within goal. I kept Pen's spirits up during the climb. There would even be parts where I think we can run downhill. I decided we should slow down a bit though as SCA was a little bit technical, lots of rocks and a steep descent to the left if you lose your footing. At her state, I didn't want Pen to lose her balance while running and careening off the cliff (this was my biggest fear for this part of the course). We finished SCA trail successfully and switched off to Alta and then Bobcat. I told her a private joke along the way and she had a very big laugh which kept her going (sorry I can't tell it without incarcerating myself!).

She began to struggle in Bobcat. We employed the method that Sam used on her, have her run for 20 counts on each foot and then walk a little bit. It worked on Bobcat for a stretch, and we were even running Bobcat continuously for a while (Pen would even initiate the running at times). Once we got to Marincello though, I began to notice she was really getting exhausted. She told me she was getting tired. I told her it's very understandable, given how many miles she's ran. We just kept moving forward.

A mile into our downhill descent we saw crew member Trina (with a pink mustache and glasses as her costume). She was holding up a sign they made for her. She smiled and got a little bit of a second wind to do a few more run walk cycles here and there.

When we got to Tennessee Valley, Tawnya took over. I was so relieved at that point because I'm hoping Tawnya can work her magic on her. Tawnya has done Tahoe 200 just a week before so she can empathize more on what Pen is probably going through. She had her own tips and tricks on how to help her keep moving, such as putting two fingers somewhere on Pen's back to correct her form, which has slouched a little to the right (probably due to exhaustion). Her technique allowed Pen to stand upright and run despite having already run 87+ miles, and through a tough loop including Pirates' Cove.

We arrived at Tennessee Valley around 10:30 AM, so we had about 2 hours in my projection at least before they came back (it was a loop that took them back to Tennessee Valley before they did a last 4 mile stretch to the finish). We waited for Pen to come back one last time to Tennessee Valley, at which point Sarah and Trina paced Pen, while the rest of us drove to Rodeo Beach for the finish.

We arrived at Rodeo Beach to find Wolfpack Racing already celebrating. Brian was already there celebrating and chatting with his crew and fellow runners. I was amazed to see him still all energetic and chatty. We waited for Pen, but we waited with confidence as she had about two and a half hours to do 4 miles. It was a tough last 4 miles, but it was doable.

As we kept on speculating which of the people going down Coastal would be Pen, I decided to hike up Coastal to meet them. I kept on hiking up until I saw them at a distance. I shouted "Go Pen!" and I saw her husband and kids too coming down to cheer her along and take pictures.

We ran down to an amazing finish. James captured the video of the finish, and we all formed a hands bridge for her to run through. It was a big celebration as she crossed the finish line. I teared up (tears of joy of course) as I watched Pen savor her big big accomplishment.

Pen's husband and kids there, and several of her friends. She should look exhausted from having done a 100 miler, but she was still glowing and I'm sure basking in such an unbelievable accomplishment. She made time to hug and talk to everyone at the finish line, including myself. I gave her a great big hug and teared up again. I was so proud of her. I truly don't know if I can replicate such a feat (especially at this time since I'm freaking about two 50 milers, which are only half the distance she covered).

Pen went with us to the beach to take some pictures, and she took a quick and well deserved nap at Rodeo Beach. We even went out for burgers and fries at In N Out, her favorite burger spot and recovery food. We chatted, laughed, took more pictures, relived the moments, and then called it a day (she did have to rest after all, and James took her home, she thankfully didn't have to drive and shouldn't after that).

I'm inspired, but I can't say that I'm doing the Headlands 100 any time soon. I could be tempted to do the 75 mile race maybe as a training race for a 100 miler. If Dick Collins Firetrails 50 and NFEC 50 go well this year, then we can talk about Rio Del Lago 100 next year...


Monday, July 28, 2014

The SF Marathon 2014 - Race Report

"Va Por Ti Mamushka." This is for my mom.

Mile 0

The morning started uneventfully. My sister Cris, who was running the first half of The SF Marathon, stayed with me the night before and we both woke up around 3:30 AM, intending to leave around 4:30 AM (the first wave of the race starts at 5:30 AM). I had my usual breakfast of oatmeal, which I grudgingly forced in to my stomach even though I wasn't hungry (I learned to eat a good breakfast ever since I bonked badly at a 50 mile race which caused me to not make the 2nd cutoff at mile 36). We left around 4:30 AM, after I must have gone #2 almost four times (I ate pasta and plain tomato sauce the night before, but I did eat a big burger and fries for lunch, which I thankfully didn't pay for, in terms of stomach aches, during the race).

I was waiting for the next bus to arrive while looking at taxis and searching for rides at Uber to see which one is the quickest way to the start, which is a block away from Embarcadero. We missed the 4:30 bus by a few minutes, so we had to wait for about 15 minutes for the next one. Normally not a long wait for a bus, especially in the early morning, but it felt like an eternity after every taxi went by full of other runners and Uber kept on showing a map devoid of the signature black limousines dotted across it. We finally had the bus near 5:00 AM, a little crowded with other fellow runners, but not crowded enough not to ride it.

Hilary, a fellow pacer from Run 365 (the official training program for The SF Marathon) shouted for my name and joined us on the way to the start. She had been pacing for the full marathon distance at Run 365, but decided to just run the half distance, the first half, since it finishes near her home. We went to our exclusive Run 365 tent, but since I'm lucky enough to be an SFM Ambassador, I went to the SFM Ambassador and Pacer tent, which had exclusive porta potties as well, but less of a line. I did my customary business (only a #1, thankfully!) and then started mingling with my fellow ambassadors, but then came back to the Run 365 tent, with my intent to start with the pace group I had been running with for the past eight weeks.

We decided to drop in at Wave 6, to get an early start, and not Wave 8, which is the back of the pack. I started with my pace group, which included first time marathoners Mark, Paulina, Paola, Angie, Vyshalee and Shane; second time SF marathoners Mon and Christine; and first time first half SF marathoners Raven and my sister Cris. I took pictures like a papparazzi of fellow Run 365ers. It was nice to see my best friend Mindy, Coach Karen, volunteers Shannon, Lisa, Andrew, Kristel, and countless other Run 365ers. It was really a big reunion of sorts, old and new runners. Regardless, I was in race mode and planned to run my own race. While it would be fun to run with someone the whole way, it is always hard to do so, as you would have to either run quicker to accommodate their pace, or run slower to accommodate their pace.

Start to Mile 5 (Ferry Building to the Presidio)

As we crossed the start line, I burst into running, and at a fast clip. I still had the serious intent of doing a 4 minute run, 1 minute walk interval, but I planned to run at a good comfortable pace, but at a race pace and not my long run training pace. I heard Mon in the background shouting for the rest of the pace group to slow down since it is only mile 1 (rightly so, especially for first time marathoners). For good or bad at that point, I kept on running the first four minutes and never saw them again the entire race.

I saw Laura Bello, just a half mile from the start. I wouldn't miss her signature polo shirt, which I learned post race is made from wick material and is made by Marmot (she wears them to her 50 milers, emphasis on the s, and she rocks them and it's been a unique thing to see so far). I quickly say hi and bye as she is quite faster than I was.

Around mile 2, I saw fellow SFM Ambassador Taylor and her boyfriend Jesse. I was glad to see them both and had a chat for them, at least for a minute on my run interval. Taylor told me just the day before at the expo that Jesse just finished doing the AquaBike event at the Full Vineman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride), and was going to join her to run the full marathon distance. Quite an accomplishment as that is pretty much the equivalent of a full fledged Ironman triathlon, but just over two days (which can actually be harder, due to the gap in between). It was interesting to hear someone do it, as I toyed with the idea of doing so when I was still dead set on doing the full Ironman Lake Tahoe triathlon. I'm glad to hear someone attempt to accomplish it. I said goodbye after my walk interval hit and went to the right side of the road for my one minute walk and forged on.

The first big hill was Fort Mason. I was planning to do a 4 minute run, 1 minute walk interval regardless of where I was at, but I quickly changed plans. I decided I would power walk this hill and the hill going up to the Golden Gate Bridge. The reason I switched strategies was the tightness on my achilles heel (both of them), which I had Dr Kris Blum work on. It was especially noticeable when I ran up hills the previous weeks leading to the race, so I made the snap judgement call to just walk the hills to prevent heel problems too early on the race. I think I made the right call.

Mile 5 to Mile 10 (Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point and Back)

The second big hill came quickly. After running and walking through the nice million dollar houses along the Marina, the second big climb came shortly after a cheer squad from the Sports Basement Presidio. I walked again up the hill, up Lincoln Boulevard. It was amazing to see how many runners taking selfies while going up a hill. I even smiled for a second as someone offered to take another runner's picture of him trying to take a selfie with the bridge background and he declined, preferring the selfie. While I take selfies on occasion, I don't really like the resolution of the pictures taken, as most front facing smartphone cameras have one or two megapixels at the most for the front facing camera. At any rate, it was amazing to see how many runners taking pictures throughout the entire first half of the course (it is the more popular distance, given the chance to run the Golden Gate Bridge from end to end twice).

Weaving in and out of runners was especially harder when I got to the Golden Gate Bridge. Not only were runners taking selfies, posing in ones or twos along the bridge, but some opted to run or walk as twos or threes together. I had to weave in and out as I was running, but then move to the right (as most should do) when walking.

A woman with a black poncho with pink colored words "Va Por Ti Mamushka" was running on the bridge as well. Below her black poncho (I call it a poncho of sorts as it's almost like a blanket with a hole for her head or two capes, one for the front and one for the back) was a picture of a woman. I had seen her at the start and several times so far during the race. I kept on meaning to ask her what it meant and finally did when we crossed paths at the start of the run to the bridge. She said it meant "this is for my mom," and that her mom was a cancer survivor patient. I said that I was running too, and for my mom, and that she passed away. I ran past her for a while, but we've been overtaking each other and leapfrogging each other throughout the course, not competitively which I usually am, I might add, but just because of the way that we ran (especially me because of my run/walk interval).

At the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point, I heard volunteers shouting that they were out of water, and there is more water at the next stop. I was thankful I was wearing my hydration pack that day. I had been training with it on all the training runs, but even though it was an additional weight on race day, it was my security blanket. I wanted to be able to sip water whenever I want, and not when the aid stations came. This scenario validated my strategy (note that the water station could have eventually gotten more water again, but they were just out of water at the point of my passing).

I ran back to the San Francisco side of the bridge and it began to be a little roomier for the runners heading back. Part of it was because the runners going to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point were now running on the pedestrian part of the bridge. I thought it was quite early for them to be moved to that point, but it was a smart decision I think given there were more runners now heading back to the San Francisco side than those going to the Sausalito side.

I saw Jay along the bridge going back to SF, and I was slightly surprised as he's a minute per mile faster than me. I briefly cheered him on and went my way.

Mile 10 to 16 (Presidio to Stow Lake)

Going up Lincoln Boulevard was another big hill, and I opted for another power walk, especially since I'll be rewarded with a big downhill right after. I heard a shout for my name from Coach Dan, who was pacing one of this trainees at the Half Full Run Club, and aiming to do a sub 5. I shouted I was in trouble since I saw them at this point, and I'm aiming for a 5:30. I breathed somewhat of a sigh of relief as they told me they were in an earlier wave than I was. Not sure if the sub 5 happened because of the heat (I don't know the trainee that Coach Dan was pacing), but finishing this race is a feat regardless (starting this race for that matter is already an accomplishment).

As I hit the downhill, I ran down to make up the time but not at an irresponsible pace, as I know I am only near the halfway point. Once we descend, go up and down a few rollers on 25th avenue, and go up the first hill after Fulton, the split happens. The first half marathoners keep to the left, the full half marathoners go to the right. This is when the crowd of runners start to thin out, and the marathoners are left to run by themselves. I was actually thankful for this as I had been running with quite a big crowd from the start of the race, and I would rather run with a little bit more room than running like a herd. I saw Alex, which normally runs faster but is choosing to run slower for his heart rate training. Very admirable as I think it's harder for a runner sometimes to slow down than it is to run faster.

I opted to skip the restroom at mile 13, as it still had a line for it. I was hoping to use one at Spreckels Lake or the one near the bison area, or even Stow Lake, but to my disappointment all of them were confusingly closed (I'm guessing they didn't want too much traffic for those and have all runners use the porta potties instead).

I was glad to see fellow SF Tri Club members Deirdre, who was volunteering as a bike course marshal, and Bret, who was running the opposite way, and then ran with me for a few minutes (he was too fast for me and I hit my walk interval). Seeing the two of them gave me a temporary boost. But by the time I hit mile 16, the struggle starts...

Mile 16 to Mile 22 (Stow Lake to Mission Bay)

The sun started to warm up (or appropriately heat up) Golden Gate Park around mile 16. This was as were rejoining the line of first half marathoners (who veered left at JFK Drive), and were now heading towards their finish line, while marathoners keep on going and make a right towards Stow Lake to run a one mile loop around it. Stow Lake didn't seem like the eternity that it seemed like on my first two times running The SF Marathon in 2012 and 2013. It seemed like a quarter of an eternity, which is a big difference in my opinion. At least I saw fellow Ambassador Carla towards the end of Stow Lake, a quick hi and bye, but it was always good to see someone you know during a race.

I still kept the run/walk interval all the way to the tunnel that goes under Kezar Dr and enters Haight Street. I smiled briefly as one volunteer mentioned how we were all doing this for fun. A fellow runner and I laughed as this is the point which realistically doesn't seem fun at this point, and we start questioning our sanity.

I had another laugh as I cheered a fellow Run 365er who was bubbly as she said hi and that it was all downhill from this point on. I waved my finger from side to side and smilingly said that "No, no, no it isn't." I had meant to say it to be honest with her, and not frighten her. I hope she made it through the race (I don't recall seeing her at the tent, but not all 365ers go to the tent, otherwise it would have been madness).

Along Haight Street, I saw fellow pacer Steve, who I was surprised to see, like others, due to his usual pace of 10:30 minutes per mile. I later learned he bonked at the time I saw him, but I still give him great credit for pushing through such an early bonk. I hadn't bonked yet, but I feel I was getting to that point.

I came down to Mission Street, and I saw the woman wearing the "Va Por Ti Mamushka" shirt. While I saw her several times since the bridge, it was the first time I talked to her again, saying "Great job." She smiled and told me "I'll see you at the finish line." We never did see each other but after the race I wondered if that was my mother channeling herself through her, talking about life rather than the race.

I only saw her once again, at the hill going up towards Bryant Street. She powered through and I never saw her again.

Mile 22 to 26.2 (Mission/Bryant to the Finish)

I power walked the hill up Bryant Street, but this was clearly when I start getting spent. I had used up all the salt stick pills that I had been consuming every hour. I still had several gu gels left, but I wish there was something else to consume at that point. I was hoping for even the Nuun electrolytes at the aid stations, but they were mysteriously non-existent at the whole race, as far as I can recall.

Mission and the Dogpatch were industrial neighborhoods, nothing too picturesque, but necessary towards the trek to the finish line. The reward was the eventual run to AT&T Park and to the finish. The only highlight during that run was seeing fellow runner Alina, fellow Ambassador Laura and the Lululemon Cheer Squad. For the last 4 miles though, I was clearly struggling and had not been able to sustain my 4 minute run, 1 minute walk interval. I maintained my target pace of a flat 12 minutes per mile throughout the race, but started crumbling on mile 22.

I decided at that point that I had enough cushion that I can still attain my goal of a 5:30 finish, even by going at a 15 minute mile pace for the rest of the race. My math may have been bad at the time (and I'm still fuzzy about it as of writing). I was debating how hard to push it as I walked up Terry Francois to AT&T Park (which I don't remember being such a big incline). I told myself I would start running again when it was flat, but I ran in very brief spurts, maybe a minute or so then walk when I was at the park.

As I exited out of the park and towards Embarcadero, I was hoping to see the finish line. Again, I thought of pushing to finish even way earlier than 5:30, but I didn't want to jinx it and not even attain a 5:30, so I played safe somewhere around the middle. I decided I would book it when I see the finish line.

I finally saw it at the mile 26 point. I started running. I briefly saw my best friend Mindy, who confusingly asked if I wanted gu gel this close to the finish. I snappily waved my hand and kept on running towards the finish. I was still running the last 100 meters, but not as strong as I felt on all my previous races. I sprinted what could be the last 25 meters at least and hopefully got a good picture out of it.

Official Finish Time: 5:25:52, 13 minutes and 36 seconds faster than my fastest SF Marathon (and any other marathon I ran for that matter). I was beaming at the finish. I was tired, but I was beaming.

Va Por Ti Mamushka. This is for my mom!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Never Give Up!

If there's one lesson I've learned throughout the past few years that's made me successful as an ultra runner (and all other aspects of my life), it's this... never give up!

I started running in 2008. I was overweight by 30 pounds back then. I lost it by training for a half marathon. I gained it all back a year later, plus 20 pounds, for a whopping total of being 50 pounds overweight, by eating unhealthy and stopping my running regimen. I started running again in 2011 when I was diagnosed with fatty liver disease. I lost 50 pounds in about a year's time, and I have kept it off for the most part (I gain 5-10 pounds whenever I take a break from running or eating healthy). What's great is I have kept running for over three years now and I continuously work towards eating healthy as a lifestyle and not as a diet.

I trained for my first full marathon, the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon. While I was training with run/walk all the time, I decided to just keep on running for a full eight miles on race day. After that, I began to have to run/walk, and eventually just walk around the half way point (due to an IT band injury that shot pain on the side of my knees whenever I even dared to run). I contemplated quitting at the halfway point, but I didn't. I power walked my way to a finish. I limped for a whole month after, which in hindsight wasn't smart, but I was still proud of pushing through that fateful day. I learned to foam roll my IT band from that point on!

I trained for my first 50 mile race, the North Face Endurance Challenge, which was on December 2013. I trained hard and smart for it, completing two 50Ks leading up to the race. I failed to pay attention to my nutrition on race day, however. I ate a light breakfast and I barely ate during the whole race (due to stress and fear of a certain steep trail called Coastal). I cramped several times going up Coastal and debated quitting then and there. I kept on, however, and made the first cutoff. While I didn't make the second cutoff in time, mile 37, it was because of time. I believe if I didn't get cutoff I would have stubbornly made my way through that finish line. At any rate, I trained for another 50 mile race, American River, and finally got a 50 mile race under my belt. I am training for the North Face Endurance Challenge again this year.

I was one of the victims of the financial crisis. I was laid off from Washington Mutual, the biggest bank to fall back in 2008. I was unemployed for several months. I kept my head on high after being unemployed for several months. When an opportunity for work popped up in Central California (Delano/Bakersfield), I jumped in with both feet and took it, even though it was not what I used to make salary wise. I was actually adjusted to living there and moving up in my state job when I got a job offer from the city, which was back to the field I used to work in. I made the move back to the San Francisco Bay Area and the rest is history.

When I fall in love, I fall deeply in love. It has happened to me only twice in my whole lifetime. It is usually when I don't expect it, a friendship that (at least for me), turns into a deep and spellbinding affection. Unfortunately this is one area that hasn't worked for me, but given my tenacity, I am sure it will happen again. When it does, I am hoping it will be a two way street.

Never Give Up!

Monday, April 7, 2014

American River 50 Mile Endurance Run 2014 - Race Report

As I ran across the American River (AR) 50 Mile Endurance Run Finish Line, I walked slowly to get my medal, a bottle of water, and I saw my friends Mindy, Deirdre, and Pen. I hugged each and every one of them but when I hugged Mindy I started crying, and crying incessantly. I can't believe I did it. I finally did it... I completed my first 50 mile race!

4:15 AM

A complimentary shuttle from one of the official hotels/motels took us to the start line at Brown's Ravine Marina. We got there in what seemed like no time at all. Our bus driver was gracious enough to let us stay in the bus for a while, but then she had to gently kick us out when she got her marching orders to depart and go back to her station.

I dropped off my drop bags for Beals Point, Rattlesnake Bar, and the Finish Line. I then did the customary peeing trip to the porta potties. One time before heading to the tents to warm up with an early crowd of ultra runners, and another trip just 10-15 minutes before the race start.

It was nice seeing familiar faces at the start. I saw mostly saw friends from Wolf Pack Racing, who have almost pretty much adopted me the past few trail races I've done: Brian, Philip, Yvonne, and some new faces such as Alison, who was doing AR50 as her first 50 miler. I saw Alisa, who I got formally introduced to by my friend Pen as we were gleefully eating In N Out Burgers, our reward after doing Way Too Cool 50K. I also saw Alyssa, who like me, is making her second attempt at a 50 miler after not making the second hard cutoff (Mile 36) at the North Face Endurance Challenge (NFEC) 50 Mile Race.

6:15 AM

The race has started. I decided this time to hang back and go at my own pace, rather than starting out with any of my runner friends. I wanted to set my own pace at the very start. From miles 0 - 24.31 at Beals Point, I decided to do a run/walk with a 4 minute run, 1 minute walk ratio. I decided to follow the tip from Coach Kirk from the Fleet Feet Ultra team that I joined and trained with for this race. I didn't want to get caught up with the usual adrenaline that runners have at the start of the race, only to fade away and slow down sooner than I would anticipate.

It felt a little weird to start walking right away at the start of a race only after running 4 minutes, but I did so anyways. I thought I would hear the usual question "Are you okay?" that runners tend to ask other runners when they start walking or passing by them. Instead I gradually ended up seeing some runners doing run/walk themselves. I wasn't sure whether it was their strategy too at the onset, but I was glad to have some company employing my strategy.

The first 24+ miles of AR50 was a mixture of roads and trails, which I didn't really care for, in all honesty. I was initially wondering at the start whether I should have started out with road shoes, but having never seen the first 30 miles of the course, I didn't want to risk wearing trail shoes in trails that might be technical or need traction (flashback to my rough half marathon at Mount Diablo). It turns out that wearing my Brooks Gore Tex trail shoes were sufficient, and running on the dirt/trail side when I can helped prevent any serious injuries on the latter part of my race.

While relatively flat for the most part, the first 24+ miles had its share of hills and inclines. I had to start rethinking my run/walk strategy at a certain point, as run/walk doesn't work too well when I end up running up hill and walking down hill and flats. I started changing to the previous trail race strategies of walking up hills and running down hills and flats. I was on pace to meet my first pacer and dear friend Mindy around 11 AM. Not quite the 11:15 AM that I advertised would be the earliest I would get to Beals Point, but I did get there by 11:30, which was 90 minutes ahead of the cutoff time. My strategy in the race was to build a good buffer of time and lead at the early parts of the race, because I knew I would eventually slow down once I hit the higher mileage in the 30s and 40s.

11:30 AM (Beals Point to Granite Bay)

I was still in good spirits when I saw my friends Mindy, Deirdre and Monica at Beals Point. It was an aid station with a drop bag. Mindy was intuitive enough to get my drop bag ready as I arrived and we quickly replenished my salt sticks (which I consumed every hour) and Vfuel (a gel which I consume every 30 minutes). We topped off my hydration pack with water and my water bottle with electrolytes (seems a bit excessive for hydration but given the heat that day, I was glad to have that water bottle with me).

The 5+ miles flew fast as Mindy led me through some gentle rollers to Granite Bay. She even amused me with her singing and creative song composition (aka made up songs). I have known Mindy for over two years now and her company during the start of the onset of my fatigue was most welcome. We arrived shortly at Granite Bay around 1:30 PM.

1:30 PM (Granite Bay to Rattlesnake Bar)

As we arrived at Granite Bay, I was at mile 29.45 at that point. Fatigue has definitely set in, and my body has started its process of revolting (and maybe panicking at what I'm doing to it, and still about to do to it). I decided Granite Bay would be a good pit stop (or poop stop if you will). I wasn't having gastro intestinal issues per se, but I did have to relieve myself after eating almost 14 gels at that point. If you're an ultra runner, you know that talking about pooping is almost a normal conversation and nothing to be embarrassed about, especially since you have to do it eventually after being out running and eating for so long (I do wonder if the elite runners do it, or just "hold it in").

Mindy and Deirdre doubled as crew at the Granite Bay station and got me coke and some boiled potatoes dipped with salt. It was a welcome break from eating gels at that point. Deirdre and I said farewell to Mindy for now at that point as Deirdre was my designated pacer from Granite Bay to Rattlesnake Bar.

The next 11.54 miles seemed like the longest 11.54 miles of my life. I was so glad that Deirdre was there to pace me and insert some conversation every now and then. This part of the course was labeled "the meat grinder" for its constant rollers. We definitely stuck to our strategy of running down hills and flats and walking up the hills, but it was hard to get any momentum with the constant up hill and down hill that was given to us. I was also starting to feel my quads and hamstrings tighten up. I started to draw my experience from NFEC into play when I had to go up Dipsea after mile 30. I tuned out my semi-screaming quads and hamstrings. I did clam up half way towards this course as Deirdre paced me but I was thankful that she understood and that she still gave me the much needed company I needed by just being there and still constantly setting the pace and make sure we're on track to reach Rattlesnake Bar.

In addition to the constant rollers, the part that made this course tough was the scorching heat. The course was pretty much exposed and there were very few times when we were in the shade. When we got to Horseshoe Bar at mile 38.14, Deirdre suggested I put some ice in my cap and wear it, I did so and it was a very nice suggestion. I also doused myself with some cold water and changed my hydration bottle to have ice and water instead of ice and electrolytes, so I can continue to douse myself with water on the last few miles to Rattlesnake Bar.

4:30 PM (Rattlesnake Bar to Finish)

As we arrived at Rattlesnake Bar (mile 40.94), I was starting to envision the finish line. I was glad that my friend and pacer Pen and I ran this course just two weeks ago to preview it together and talk about our race strategy. When we ran together, I let her lead and dictate the pace, much like Deirdre and Mindy. At mile 40+, I definitely did not have any fresh legs at that point. I was even having a hard time just running the relatively flat single track, but I did so at times when Pen and I felt like I had some energy to expend.

Even though I can smell victory, I was being very cautious. One thing that I didn't let on to Deirdre and Pen was just how plain fatigued I was, and I was even a hard time just catching my breath and breathing normally. This was why I asked Pen if we could slow down a walk at flats quite a few times, and I was glad we still had that buffer time (we had 3 hours and 45 minutes to cover 9 miles, and we still finished with a lot of time to spare). I could have pushed myself to run a lot more of the last part of the course, but I was deathly afraid of not even completing it and jinxing it, especially when we start hiking up two big hills called the "Dam Hill" and "Last Gasp".

I was actually glad to see the Dam Hill as that meant the running part of our course was over. Sure, we had to power hike up a steep hill, but that was almost a normal and easy thing for me to do. We also knew how further along the top of the two "hills" were (seemed like mountains at that time, of course). I was impressed to see a lot of ultra runners summoning the strength to mix running up those hills. As much as I wanted to do the same, I still didn't want to get caught up in the euphoria of it, much like at the start of the race. Again, I didn't want to jinx it by suddenly fainting at mile 47, or my quads and hamstrings seizing to the point where I can't even walk uphill.

As Pen and I approached Last Gasp, we saw some aid station volunteers and some of the guys wore some pretty weird tights (like tights which make them look like you're seeing the actual muscles of a body). I learned later on that those same volunteers were shirtless later on. I saw some pictures, but I can't say that I really missed anything at all (I'm still glad they volunteered!). I did thank them for the two cups of pepsi that I gulped down since I was clearly sick of gels at that point.

As we approached the very top before the short stretch to the finish, I still asked Pen to hang on and run with me for a little while before she would run faster to the finish and get a picture of me crossing the finish. I still wanted the assurance that I wasn't going to faint!

As I entered Auburn Dam Overlook I summoned up the last bits of my energy and ran to the finish. I was amazed I still had some energy in me despite all my trials and tribulations that day. I crossed the finish and for a while I was actually disappointed that I didn't cry as I crossed the finish. That disappointment faded away as I saw my friends at the finish: Mindy, Deirdre, and Pen.

7:26 PM (Finish Line)

As I ran across the American River (AR) 50 Mile Endurance Run Finish Line, I walked slowly to get my medal, a bottle of water, and I saw my friends Mindy, Deirdre, and Pen. I hugged each and every one of them but when I hugged Mindy I started crying, and crying incessantly. I can't believe I did it. I finally did it... I completed my first 50 mile race!

Official Finish Time: 13 hours, 11 minutes, and 36 seconds.

Monday, March 10, 2014

25th Way Too Cool 50K (2014) - Race Report

When I saw the "1/2" mile marker, I decided to give it all I had and run for the finish. I knew there three more small uphill climbs (at least relative to the infamous "Goat Hill"), but it didn't matter... the end was in sight!

When I signed up for Way Too Cool (WTC) 50K, I signed up for it as a recommended "training race" for my goal race for the year, the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run. I have run the 23 mile loop of the course several times already with the Fleet Feet Ultra Team from Fair Oaks and Roseville, so race day approached with not much nervousness on my part. It will be my fourth 50K after all, having completed the North Face Endurance Challenge (NFEC) 50K back in December 2012, and the Stinson Beach 50K from Pacific Coast Trails and Mount Tam 50K from Inside Trail for 2013. I thought WTC would be a cinch given it has less elevation. I was dead wrong.

I arrived slightly before the crack of dawn at Cool, California on Saturday, March 8th. While I stayed at a nearby motel in Auburn to make my drive to the start line faster and easier, I decided to not any chances with race day parking, as 1200 runners signed up for the event, so I imagined a big line of cars from as far as the Highway 80 exit if I didn't get there early enough. So I left my motel in Auburn at 5:45 AM, and arrived shortly and without fuss around 6:00 AM. There were a few cars already arriving at the scene. The tents for the expo and the starting line were already up. As they instructed the cars to drive past the start line, I started to worry that the actual parking would be miles away from the course as I drove past the "Mile 1" sign. I breathed a sigh of relief as they had signs for us to circle back and then instructed us to park on either side of the road where the white lines were (the middle being the eventual space for the runners to run along from the start line).

I was officially training with the Fleet Feet Ultra Team from Fair Oaks and Roseville, but my roots still belong to Run 365 (and the oldest root being Team In Training - Central California). I was looking for my coaches at Fleet Feet, but I saw Coach Karen Peterson from Run 365 first, so I took a nice picture of her with her green puffy jacket and her green and froggy calf compression sleeves. She was into the green and frog theme more than I was. I was dressed in all red with my red NFEC shirt, red Adidas shorts, red Brooks trail shoes and red Nathan's Hydration Pack. We did some catching up for several minutes, but then I had to start looking for my packet pickup which was nicely picked up by Coach Kirk Edgerton for our team. They weren't still there at that point, but I did notice several green WTC bags and two other runners looking through them, so I figured those were ours. I got my bag and walked back to the car as it was still cold and I had still an hour and a half left to the start. I met fellow ultra runner and friend Pen Perez on my way back to my car. She was also early like me, having worried about parking and arrival when she did last year's race. We also caught up, but I had to head back at my car after several minutes as it was still quite chilly.

Thirty minutes prior to the start, I decided to start walking to the start line, to allow time for one last visit to the porta potty and to also see friends who are probably already near the start line. As I walked to the start line, a small group of runners had started at 7:30 AM, 30 minutes before the official start. These were runners allowed an extra start time if they knew they would need more than the 8 hours and 30 minutes course limit.

I started seeing a lot of Run 365 and Wolf Pack Racing friends near the start line (Wolf Pack is a Team In Training group for ultra runners, anywhere from those running 50Ks to 100 Milers). I took some customary pictures, posed for a couple of ones as well. I watched as several of them started with the Wave 1 group at 8:00 AM. I consciously chose to be at the back of the pack for Wave 2, knowing I don't want to start off too fast for this ultra marathon.

It was nice running and chatting with friends at the start, including Jennifer, Emily, Jake, Phil, Rebecca, and Karen. A lot of other friends had already started or started behind me including Sean, Vicki, Char, Shannon, Josh, Patrick, Michael, Luba, and Brian. Disclaimer: Tons of my friends ran this very cool race, so if I didn't mention you by name, it doesn't mean I don't love you, it means my memory storage was full at the time of writing!

The start was a wide road, but after a mile, it started to go to a single track. This is where it became one very long conga line of ultra runners. Some people were chatty and energetic. Some were in quiet serious race mode (me at that time). Some were quietly (or not so quietly) impatient, waiting for a good time to leap frog other runners and gain more speed. The first stream crossing was a serious stream. Several runners crossed it cautiously, putting foot by foot over rocks so they didn't get too wet. I just started wading into the waters, as I knew that more wet and wild stuff was to come! My socks and shoes were wet, but I didn't care. It actually felt good and invigorating. Now THIS was trail running!

I was totally unfamiliar with the 8 mile loop that we started with, as I had never trained on that part of the WTC course. I'm sure the Fleet Feet Team has, but I wasn't consistent enough on joining all training runs due to the two hour one way drive it takes to get to the training runs every weekend. At any rate, it wasn't a tough 8 mile loop. It felt actually short. I completed it in about one hour and 45 minutes, a little bit faster than the 15 minute mile pace I was expecting. After finishing that loop and entering the start of the 23 mile loop, I knew I had to start holding back a little, so I started walking whenever there was a slight uphill to break my runs into run/walks.

It started getting interesting for the 23 mile loop when we ran downhill. I overheard a comment from a runner saying he doesn't even remember running uphill that high, to which his fellow runner answered "Cool starts from an altitude of 1000+ feet", which would have been the answer I would have voiced out as well. Running downhill wouldn't have been an issue if it weren't for the fact that it was now a very muddied trail, given that it had been raining the past few days at Cool. This was a harbinger of things to come, I thought. This will make both uphill AND downhill interesting. Even running the single track will be challenging as you don't want to slip and hit rocks, roots, or slip down the slopes. Truth came to bear actually half way on the previous 8 mile loop when a runner was seen nursing her legs halfway down the trail, while her runner friend shouted for other runners to be careful with rocks. Trail running can indeed be dangerous if one isn't careful (or if one isn't lucky either).

As we finished our descent, we had to cross the road briefly (with race support, thank goodness), and we hit a flat patch of road for several miles. This is where I met Angela and Trina (this is also where I believe I saw Deirdre, but my memory now corrects that to the time I started the 8 mile loop conga line, or shortly after). Angela and Trina were with the Wolf Pack/TNT team, and knew about me before I knew about them. Trail runners know about each other almost by the second degree of separation, which makes it a close knit group. I was amazed how they knew about me before I knew them, but I think my social media postings on a daily basis also helped them know me from friends of friends. They introduced themselves and we chatted for a while, but as I was on race mode, I would go fast, slow, fast and slow. Angela, Trina and I leapfrogged each other constantly for several miles and I believed it would last through the whole race, but for some reason I lost them around mile 15-17, if memory serves me right.

I started getting some steam around the half way point, around miles 15-17, as the course went back to a single track hugging the mountains. It was nice and flat, but I have to say that I missed seeing hills to break my momentum of running as I did with the Marin Headlands. WTC makes it easier to PR with a 50K given the lower total elevation gain, but it does have quite a bit of rolling hills added to just make it a little challenging. I decided to use those rollers again to break up my runs into run/walks, but that also meant runners who ran it consistently would overtake me, only to be overtaken again at some points.

The views were spectacular all along the single track trail, and it was very tempting to stop at a lot of areas to take pictures, but I was in race mode that day and I have learned to not take any photos, especially since I was aiming for a PR. I also passed through almost aid stations as fast as I can. I made sure to always top off my 1.5 liter hydration pack, and I also would grab one or two items served by the aid stations and eat them as I run. I still have a lot to improve on nutrition wise. I am eating more consistently now on my runs and races, eating 100 calories approximately every 30 minutes and a salt stick capsule every hour. For WTC, I started consuming V-Fuel for the first few hours, but I would also mix it in with the aid station food, some of which included clif bars, chews, peanut butter/jelly sandwiches, and rocktane gels. I also had some oreos towards the latter 3/4s of the race, but at that point my stomach wasn't beginning to feel good. I still ate them as I knew I had to keep on fueling despite not feeling well. I also consumed more salt sticks than I thought I would (around 10, I think) given the heat and how much I was sweating.

My fueling for the race was far from perfect, but I think I did well compared to some runners along the way. I met a woman who seemed very strong but complained her legs were locking up and tightening. I gave her two salt stick pills and I assumed she did well because I saw her on the last few miles of the race, still not as well as she was at the onset, but strong enough to keep up with me who didn't have any major issues. I also met two older guys who overtook me at one point, but immediately cramped and had to sit down just a few feet after they overtook me. I also gave them some salt stick pills. I really learned this lesson well on last year's NFEC, and I have to thank Yvonne Gallegos for it. I wasn't a fan of taking in anything, vitamins, pain relievers, or anything. But the salt sticks have really helped me not have any cramps which I tend to have when doing a lot of hills and when heat is involved.

I was wishing a hill would break up the constant single track that was flat (plus some rollers), and I soon got my wish when I saw Goat Hill again for the second time at least (if not the third or fourth, my memory is hazy as of right now). Goat Hill was nothing compared to the hills and mountains I've climbed in the past, but a hill is still a hill and I ended up respecting it. I might have power hiked it, but it was still a considerable effort, since it was around mile 23 at that point and my energy was getting depleted. As I conquered Goat Hill, I saw the next aid station saying "26.3". I jokingly told a volunteer if I could stop and get my medal now while he topped off my hydration pack. I was kidding of course, but he said no as if I wasn't serious. I was surprised to hear later on that some runners had dropped just after Goat Hill. It was still 5 miles from that point, and a still tough 5 miles, but I wouldn't have dropped, unless of course it was sharp pain (but then again, it would have to be REALLY sharp pain, and I'd have to weigh it against my ego and the prospect of a DNF).

The last 5 miles were still some rollers, and some open spaces were it felt like you were getting roasted on an oven. Thankfully those moments were only a few minutes in between. If the whole race would've been out in the open, it would've been an even tougher race (but then it would be less muddy too). I was familiar with the last 5 miles. That was an advantage, but also a disadvantage because I knew what was still left in front of me, and it wasn't easy. I still ran when I can and hiked when a decent hill came along.

The last aid station was across a road. I downed one small potato cube dipped with salt, topped off my hydration pack again despite being only one mile left (half of which is all uphill). I was offered a chance to have cold water doused on my head and I obligingly said yes. I almost opted for seconds, but it might have been too tempting to just grab the volunteer's water bottle and empty it on myself. The last big uphill might have been just another Goat Hill if you ask my opinion. I took the last of my salt sticks at that point and hoped that it was enough to last me the whole race. I saw Lisa from Wolf Pack Racing with her signature bell. I thanked her for being there, and did another descent downhill.

As I saw the last "1/2" mile sign, I knew it was in the bag. I can see the finish line from the distance. It seemed I had more energy than the runners who were coursing through the finish. I tried to motivate them without being too pretentious about it either. I have had some races too where I had to limp to the finish, but this was not one of them.

I crossed the finish line strong. I'm glad to see Coach Karen Tancuan and Coach Karen Peterson at the finish line. I then looked at my GPS watch. 7:23. It was a 50K PR for me. Not as whopping as I thought, but 40 minutes is a pretty whopping enough PR for me, and I savored it as well as all the good finish line race food, including the infamous frog cupcake.

Way Too Cool 50K, 50K #4 was in the books.