Monday, December 7, 2015

The North Face Endurance Challenge - Half Marathon Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Smile, and celebrate each mile!"

Monday, November 9, 2015

Rio Del Lago 100 Miler - Race Report

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

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

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

I said "Yes".

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Golden Hills Marathon 2015 - Race Report

I didn't want to run Golden Hills.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so I did!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2015

Headlands 50 Mile Endurance Run - Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

It turns out I might just file for a refund.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 17, 2015

Ragnar Trail Relays Tahoe - Race Report

Altitude is everything!

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

Day 0 (Thursday Night)

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1 (Friday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2 (Saturday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altitude is everything!

Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 Spooner's Cove 25K Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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