Tuesday, April 22, 2008

One Tough Lady

Those words certainly could be used to describe ultrarunning legend and pioneer, Ruth Anderson both for her incredible masters running career and her tireless dedication to and advocacy of the sport. However, the race that bears her name is generally considered anything but "tough" by ultra standards. The race consists of an approximately 4.5 mi loop around Lake Merced in San Francisco. Runners complete loops around an asphalt path (or the dirt trail along side it) that contains only a couple very gentle slopes with two aid stations per loop. Runners repeat either a just under 7 loops (50K), just over 11 loops (50mi) or just under 14 loops (100K) and are allowed to opt for the 50K or 50mi distance just before completing it (with the caveat that should you choose to continue on you must complete the longer distance or be listed as DNF). Typical springtime weather in this part of the city is cool, but generally mild with some light sea breezes sweeping over from The Great Highway. This sounds like perfect running conditions and this race is popular with those looking for fast times or a PR at one of the distances. However, this year the weather had a little something in store for those who might have labored under the misapprehension that you could ever take an ultrarun lightly.

This is not normally my type of race. I generally crave variety in both scenery and terrain. I enjoy tough courses as they compensate for (or at least distract me from) my lack of natural running talent. Running in circles on a flat path seemed like something that neither my mind nor my body were going to particularly enjoy. When I commented on this during the race, someone asked me "then, why are you wearing a Javelina shirt?" I will just say this, there is a big difference between 15.5 mile loops and 4.5 mile loops and Javelina is most definitely a trail run with desert scenery, some rocky sections and more hills than most people realize. This was essentially a road race set in a very pretty, but still somewhat urban city landscape. However, since I wasn't able to run Diablo this was my only weekend and only race with the opportunity to put a good 50+mi distance on my legs this month.

My goals for the race were as follows:
  1. Get in a good long training run (at least 50mi) before Miwok.
  2. Try to have fun running around in circles
  3. Clock a 50mi PR since it would be the flattest race I'd ever run.
  4. Go significantly under 9 hours for 50mi by averaging 10-mpm as long as possible
  5. Clock a 100K PR
  6. Go under 11 hours for 100K by averaging 10:30-mpm as long as possible
  7. Learn something about pacing and how my body reacts to a constant gate
Well, surprises were in store for me in this race and the first one came the minute I stepped out of my car at 5:45am in the parking lot. I'd heard the weather report the night before saying it was going to be cool and breezy for the weekend, but that wasn't even close to an apt description for what was hitting us. Early morning temps were in the 40s, but the real kicker was a continuous wind of between 25-35 mph coming from the northwest (ocean) direction. There won't be a detailed description of the various segments in this race report because the one thing that was not a surprise was the repetitive nature of this type of run. However, the biggest variety that this day had to offer was the wind that just never seemed to stop and actually felt like it was getting stronger as the day went on.

The headwinds hit just as you were heading up the gradual slope from the mid-loop aid station to the start/finish area. To make matters worse, this cold ocean breeze would occasionally dish out gusts that would literally stop runners in their tracks or threaten to knock you over from the side. However, the real pièce de résistance came as the winds would whip up dirt, dust and sand into your face both from the path itself and carried over from Ocean Beach to the north. I'm not generally much for integrating walking breaks that aren't dictated by the course, but after about 20 miles I realized it was just wasteful to be pushing into those breezes. I even turned and jogged backwards a few times to avoid being assaulted by the wind and everything it brought with it. My first 3 laps were averaged below 9:30s, but the pace began to degrade from there. I maintained the 10-mpm average up through the 50K mark (hitting it at just over 5:10) where the vast majority of the runners (30 of 43 finishers) decided they'd had enough of the wind and took the finish.

Someone told me I was in like 3rd or 4th place and even though this didn't seem right, perhaps that is what fueled my drop in pace over the next lap. However, it's more likely that my mental math is what really helped me up the pace. I realized that if I could keep the running average to under 10:12-mpm that I could break 8:30 for the 50 miles. This basically works out to around 10:30 mpm for the final 19 miles though I didn't have that particular number in my mind, I was monitoring the average pace on my GPS as it crept up. The wind definitely felt like it was dishing out a beating, though with my low center of gravity I was perhaps less effected than some. I was feeling decent and maintaining well. I'd pushed through the 4 hour barrier without too much trouble and thought I could maintain my lap 8 pace with perhaps even a faster lap or so to hit 50 miles. My plan was then to ease up for a lap and just do the final 2 laps for the 100K with whatever I had left in the tank.

It hit around mile 38 just before the last bit of the toughest headwind section. A small, but sharp pain on the outside of my left knee. It made me pull up and stop immediately. I jogged a few paces and still felt it. I shook my leg, rubbed the IT Band and walked a little before trying to run again. I could still feel it so I stopped and stretched and rubbed the ITB some more. It was the same spot I had felt during C2M on some of the downhills where I had to resort to rock hopping. Why it was hurting now, I didn't know as I hadn't stepped wrong or anything. I concluded that it was a tight ITB and did some more rubbing and stretching before I felt OK to continue. I was able to run, but the constant feeling of pulling was there all the way to the main aid station. I was pretty sure it was just tightness so I decided to take some ibuprofen and continue on, but I also decided that I was only going to go for a 50mi finish as there was no point risking any more than necessary.

I was pretty sure that the time I wasted on that lap had killed an 8:30 finish so I set my sights on 8:35 in order to have a goal. I was actually able to pick the pace back up in lap 10 as I passed Charles Blakeney whom I had been going back and forth with for a couple laps. I told him not to worry as I would be stopping at 50. I was told at the aid station that Mark Tanaka had gone on for 100K where he was pretty much assured the win and that there were a couple others ahead of me likely to do only 50. I took the last lap at a decent pace just hoping for a good final time and not to be lapped again by Mark. Since the course is measured to finish the 100K at the final aid station, the 50 mile finishers go past it on their final lap and do an extra mile before walking back. It's kind of strange, but that's how the course was certified so that's how it stands. I was told I had 4th place (3rd man) locked up as I headed out from the aid station for my final mile
(or so) at a little past 8:20. I didn't know the exact measure, but figured a little over a mile so even keeping a 9-mpm wasn't going to break 8:30. However, I was very happy to come in just over 8 hrs and 33 mins. This was a 50mi PR by almost 40 minutes. Given the windy conditions there is probably still some room to bring it down further, but my thought when I realized this was simply "yeah, but I don't really want to."

As I walked back to the aid station I realized I felt pretty beat. My feet really hurt much more than in any recent race including my 100 miler the month before. It felt like my body had taken a pretty big toll for what was supposed to be an "easy" race. I enjoyed the day and I was especially impressed with the job the RD and volunteers had done in such windy and cold conditions. While I was happy with my performance, I still didn't feel any affinity for this type of race. However, one final surprise awaited me in the end. Even though I finished just above the middle of the 50 milers (heck, there were only 9 of us), I was actually the first in the men's 30-39 division! I got to take home a little plaque that will eventually have my name and time on it. Only in ultrarunning can a mid-packer like myself get bested by one woman and two older men and still win first place! Way too funny.


Baldwyn said...

Awesome job, Steve. I talked to you at the end, mentioning that you were one place above me, yet 40 minutes ahead :) Congrats on the PR, winning the age group, and just getting a great run in on a breezy day!

Brad said...

I finished 8th out of 9 in the 50 mile and won my age group (20-29)!

angie's pink fuzzy said...

oof! tough conditions.

how cool that you got first place in your ag!

SLB said...

Congrats on the AG win and another great learning experience.

Baldwyn said...

Yeah, had I known, I think I would have just gone ahead and did the 100k, just to get the plaque as the only M30-39 finisher for that distance! I don't know if I'll ever have that chance again! :)

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Indeed, congrats on the age group award too!