Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Everything comes together when the weather falls apart

Every race is a learning experience. First time on a new course, especially so. Sometimes you learn something new about yourself and sometimes you reaffirm long held beliefs. Saturday was my second time running 50 miles and my first time at the American River Endurance Run. The AR50 is really two different races placed end-to-end. It is basically a road marathon (with a couple small trail sections thrown in) followed by a nice rolling-hills trail run that ends on a relatively steep last few miles. One thing I definitely confirmed in this race is that I am, first and foremost, a trail runner; a mountain man to the core. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the start.


Picture courtesy of

This course was very different from my previous 50-miler at the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 last year. Even when attempting something new, I still like to set myself a "stretch goal" to keep myself moving and the 9-hour mark was what I put in my mind for this race. However, I didn't really know how to plan for such a course as my normal strategy of running fast on the downhill, enduring the uphills (with my patent-pending slog) and then simply maintaining on the (normally rare) flats, really wasn't appropriate here.

Knowing that I rarely keep to any plans that I may set for myself up front, I stated my race plan as follows:

- I plan to go out way too fast on the flats
- Run hard through the marathon mark
- Hit a 50K PR
- Slowly degrade in performance over the next 10 miles
- Suffer badly through the next 5
- Crawl slowly and painfully up the final hill to the finish

I figured that stating this publicly was my best insurance against it actually happening. I think it may have worked.

Every race report about this year's AR50 is bound to mention the weather and especially the abnormally, dead-on, prediction for race-day rain in the midst of great weather on all the surrounding days. There...now I've mentioned it as well. OK, I'll say a little more. It rained from the start. We all complained (my ultralight rain jacket was useless). It let up. We all rejoiced and were, therefore, punished with worse rain, wind, cold and lots of mud later on. Personally, I think I was less bothered by the conditions than some, but then I wouldn't be a trail runner if I didn't enjoy at least a little bit of slipping and sliding.

Anyway, I started the race very conservatively. I stayed in the middle of a very tight pack of runners for at least the first mile or so and tried to run as slow as possible and still keep a comfortable stride. Eventually, I fell into a nice pace and tried to maintain it as evenly as I could. Pacing is certainly not my forte and so I like to find someone else who seems to have a good pace and try to just stick with them. For most of the flat road section I kept myself right behind a woman who seemed to be keeping a perfectly metered gait. I just told myself to match her pace and do not pass. Despite the fact that I spent a couple of hours basically staring at the back side of a women who was obviously in very good shape, I really was not enjoying this part of the run. There was plenty of variety in scenery around and the path was very nice, but this constant, flat running was really wearing on me both mentally and physically. I remember how happy I was when we had a little bit of uphill over a bridge and then some downhill on the other side. I flew by a number of people going down as I let my stride open up. It felt good. Then we hit more flats and my (unwitting) pacer passed by me and I fell back into line.

A few more hills before the Beal's Point aid station helped my legs a bit, but I was beginning to feel the results of all this constant, repetitive motion. Both my ITBs and hips were tightening up. I was glad to have packed some Ibuprofen rub into my drop bag. It was no longer raining at this point and so I simply changed socks and decided (perhaps not so wisely) to stick with my road shoes. The rain hadn't been too heavy so far and, given my last 50-miler experience, I was worried more about my feet hurting than any potential muddy sections. I actually wasted a lot more time at Beal's than I had intended as I had difficulty finding my bag (note for future, make sure your drop bag is unique in some way!) I wanted to be in-and-out of Beal's in under 4 1/2 hours figuring that, at 27.4 miles, it should be at least half way given that the remaining 22.6 miles would be much slower going. I eventually got going again (after some awesome chicken soup). It was now close to 10:40am and I had to admit that a 9 hour finish was pretty much gone. An older guy I was talking to said that the remainder would take significantly longer than what I had done so far, but that a sub-10 hour finish should still be doable. I was convinced that I would still be well below 9 1/2, but didn't want to vocalize my (possibly over) confidence.

I knew the remainder was all trail. Based on the course profile, none of it looked too steep by my standards other than the very end. It was time to live up to my "Mountain Man" persona. My feet felt good, my energy reserves were high and I was definitely looking forward to no more flat stuff as I felt as though my hips would totally lock up. The course from here on was just my style. It was basically rolling hills for the next 20 miles or so. Other than some sections with steps (which my short legs don't like), it was perfectly suited to my body and my training. I put myself into low gear on the uphills just moving at that slow-shuffle-jog I call "The Slog". Then, I let gravity (and my big stumpy thighs) do their thing on the downhill. I passed a lot of people on both. I was passed a few times, usually on the flats or some of the lesser uphills. I did very little walking which convinced me more than ever that my uphill slog is actually more efficient and less taxing for me than the power hiking that many others (especially taller others) do on the hills. The rain came back with a vengeance, but I left my jacket off for the most part except when the wind really picked up. The mud came on with an even greater vengeance and I did start to question my choice of shoes. However, I learned that I just had to deal as trying to slow or walk actually made me slip more. The real solution was to keep lifting my feet, taking short , choppy strides (not a problem here).

I really only hit one or two bad spots here. The worst came when I stopped for a check of my hydration level (i.e. take a pee) and began to feel lightheaded. I was in-between aid stations and was feeling low on energy. I reached back for my trusty gel flask filled with my proprietary blend of black sludge (Clif Shot mix of Double Espresso, Mocha and Chocolate). It wasn't there. My low physical energy was now being multiplied by low psychological energy. A bad combination in an ultra. I then remembered my Clif Blocks in my waste pack. I let a couple people pass me as I slowed to a walk and struggled to open the bag of Black Cherry flavored gelatinous squares. I pretty much stuffed them all in my mouth at once and began to feel better almost immediately. I switched into a run and passed both the guys I had just let by on a flat, open section. It is rare for me to pass on the flats late in a race. I opened my stride up and found a pace that felt good, but maintainable. From here on I was able to just keep going. Slowing a bit for the uphills, speeding a bit for the down. I had filled my water full at the Manhattan Bar aid station and was on my way to Last Gasp.

I knew that there was a little over 2 miles from the last aid station. I knew that 9 hours was impossible given the time, the the mud, the rain and the steep final climb. I reserved some energy, taking it easy on the last little downhill before the steepest part of the whole course. I looked up and could see everyone up ahead walking. The good thing about training on Mission Peak is that it makes everything else seem a little less steep. I decided I would use my low-low gear. I shuffled past people on this section up to the final aid station. I topped off my water and was ready to take on the remainder of the uphill, gravelly dirt road. A caught up with a guy who passed me at the aid station and asked if the remainder was about the same grade as what we were now running. He confirmed that it was and so I decided to push it. He told me to "dig deep" as I headed off. I was thinking that a 9:10 might still be in site, but as I reached the "2 miles left" sign I realized that that would require running under 9-minute miles on something close to 10% incline so I set my sights on a 9:15. I must have passed close to a dozen people up this last section.

My legs were tight, but I knew I could keep running. I opened my stride. The sign marking the "last big hill" and the growing sound of voices let me know that the parking lot was just up above. I slowed a little in prep for the run to the finish. I hit the flat road and gave it whatever I had left. My watch said I could make it under 9 hours 15 minutes and when the official clock came into view I knew it. I know there are various opinions about sprinting to the finish of an ultra and, truth be told, it does seem a little silly to try and make up a few seconds after running for well over 9 hours. But, it's these little goals we set for ourselves that keep us going. I wanted to beat that time. I had to get it. As someone yelled "here comes green gloves" in reference to my day-glo asics running gloves, I gave it all that was left.

Official finish time: 9 hours 14 minutes 52 seconds

Official finish thought:
"If you never give it all you have, you'll never have more than you've got."

11 comments:

miki said...

BRAVO!!!! I was looking forward to your report. Well done, Steve. And personally, I love sprinting to the finish too. It puts a huge smile on my face.

Eudemus said...

Thanks Miki. It is a really great race even if it isn't one of my favorite courses overall. Of course, I am already thinking about how to break 9 hrs next year ;-)

Chihping Fu 傅治平 (超馬阿爸) said...

Great job and nice report!

Glad to see you, my fellow from Fremont. The mud, rain, cold, and wind, only brought this run more fun.
There is no doubt that you'll enter sub-9hr next year.

Best,

Chihping

Eudemus said...

Thanks Chiping and congrats right back to you. Your 8:30 was an awesome time especially given the conditions! I do agree that the rain and mud made it more fun, especially on the trails. By the way, you took first place in the coveted Fremont Ultra Runner division :-)

Brad said...

Great job Steve! It was quite the day for running! I ended up with a case of poison oak on my right leg! :(

Good luck at Miwok!

Rajeev said...

Steve,

What a fantastic run you must have had. It was a pleasure talking to you before and during the early stages of the run.

Rajeev

Eudemus said...

Brad, it certainly was quite a day. Sorry to hear about the poison oak. I was spared, but I think partly thanks to the awesome race organizers and their little "hot shower" they setup at the finish which included a nice big bottle of Tecnu.

Eudemus said...

Rajeev, thanks. I did have a good time. It was great meeting you as well and I hope to see you at some races in the future.

anil said...

Congrats Steve. Great job on meeting your goal almost under such conditions.

cu at miwok.

btw even I am thinking of R2R2R2 in Oct timeframe, keep me posted on your plans.

Eudemus said...

Anil, thanks and congrats to you as well. I'm definitely looking forward to Miwok and I'll see you there. Will also keep posted about R2R2R (I'm not doing that final '2' :-)). It would be fun to get an organized group together. However, it's quite a ways away and there's lots of running between now and then...

See you soon.

angie's pink fuzzy said...

I'm LATE, but Congratulations!!!

and good luck at Miwok!!!