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."