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...