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.


  1. Thanks for writing this - lots of good insight there! I can't imagine why the sweepers were out so early - that would have really unnerved me. (It was good that they were not aggressive and even helpful though. But mentally, that's got to wear on you.) You will go into your next 100M wiser and better prepared. (And there will be a next one. I know it.)

    1. Thanks Allen. It did unnerve me to an extent, but it was more unnerving when they caught up to me at Last Gasp, because that time meant I was really getting slower than what's expected (although still in time). I think it's nice when they ask if they should be running behind or if I wanted company. I don't want to make it a habit of seeing the sweepers though for any race in the future. I really need to aspire to being at least being a middle of the pack runner.

  2. Charles, this is an excellent race report! I could really feel your struggle. I hope to do one next year, but a 100-miler is super tough, and you really put yourself out there. Congrats, and definitely be proud of achieving 52.4 miles. That's awesome. And those three things you would do differently? If you keep all the good stuff you mentioned and just add in those 3 things, I'm 100% confident you will complete your next 100-miler. Don't worry about weight or whatever, but DO work on building a better aerobic base. You'll be amazed with how much easier everything becomes with a better aerobic base. I can't wait to read your next race report. Finally, Nga mentioned you posted somewhere you intend to drop down at NFEC from 50k to half marathon? That's cool and do what you want, but my vote is to stay 50k, and begin mental preparations now for next year's Rio Del Lago! Peter

    1. Thanks Peter! Yeah, I think my aerobic base could have been better for a 100, and should definitely be leaps and bounds better, compared to a base for a 50. I did drop down to a half and that's already done. I could definitely still do the 50K physically, but my mind/heart is not in it right now. Next year for Rio Del Lago might be too soon for me. I might either do a couple of 100Ks first though (which I should have done anyways before doing a 100M), or re-attempting the NFEC 50M. Wish me luck and I hope to see you and Nga out on the trails!