Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Anaphylactic Paraparesis

or Skyline-to-the-Bees

Join us on another exciting adventure with our fearless duo as they attempt to descend from the heights of the Skyline (or, at least, a parking at a whopping 2600ft elevation) to the depths of the very sea (aka a plot of grass across the highway from the beach). Will they be up for the challenges that lay ahead of them? Will they be able to pound the steep, downhill trails without their quads exploding? Will they survive the onslaught of hoards of angry wasps? Traverse rocks and hidden tree roots? Navigate deceptive uphills nestled amongst a net-downhill course? Our ever-accelerating Rocky "the flying squirrel" should be able to literally soar unstoppably down this path as he leads the front of the race. But, what of our beloved though befuddled moose? Will the venerable “mid-pack plodder” be able to complete the distance sans allergic reaction and seizing limbs, or will he be shamed into returning to his previous vocation (and avocation) of conveniently storing head wear amongst his cranial projections? Tune in to our next episode to find out.

Rocket J. Squirrel - Lon Freeman (Leor Pantilat understudy)
Bullwinkle Moose - Steve Ansell
Boris Badenov - Wendell Doman
Natasha Fatale - Sarah Spelt
Fearless Leader - Aaron Doman (yes, he is really the one behind the scenes)
Gidney & Cloyd - Beat J and Harry Walther (Explorers from the Moon)
Dudley Do-Right - Craig Slagel
Snidley Whiplash - Fred Ecks

"Hey Rocky, watch me pull a Yellowjacket out of my....OOWWW...&@$%*$!!!!!"


OK, I think I just expended my limited reserve of creative juices on the intro. I guess I'll have to proceed with a mundane report of the actual race.

I'd been looking forward to the Skyline-to-the-Sea (aka SttS) for some time. I've always wanted to run this entire trail that goes from Skyline Blvd up above the city of Saratoga and finishes at the Pacific Ocean near Waddell Beach. In fact, I was one of the people encouraging Sarah and Wendell with great enthusiasm to add this event to their already crowded calendar (sorry Aaron). Not only is this a classic Bay Area hiking and backpacking trail, but it is a downhill course that seemed like it would play to my strengths. I even ran a preview of the top part of the course a couple of weeks ago. It was almost as if I was planning to treat this like a "real race" or something. After the preview, I had pretty much run every bit of this trail at one point or another at some point in the past. I ran the bottom part up from the beach to Big Basin Headquarters a couple of years ago when preparing for the Big Basin 50K. I ran the section down to Berry Creek both times I did that race. The last part from China Grade down, I didn't know I had been on until race day. It seemed very familiar and I now think it was part of the Big Basin Trail Half Marathon that I ran about 5 years ago.

Because this was a point-to-point course, there was a shuttle bus arranged that started from the finish and took us to the start. This also meant that I had to be at the shuttle area just south of Santa Cruz before 6:30am. And this meant that I had to get my sorry butt out of bed at 4-something A.M. in the morning. I'm really not a morning person. Somehow I managed to wake myself up enough to drive to the bus location without incident. Since this was a 50K only event for PCTR, it was all ultrarunners and so a lot of familiar faces. I was surprised that many people were actually able to go back to sleep on the bus especially with people like me and Craig blabbing on and on as we did. But, it was fun catching up with everyone during the 45 minute ride to the start.

After more catching up and milling about, Wendell gathered everyone at the start of the trail. He called for all the fast runners to line up in the front. The early miles consist of a lot of rolling singletrack so in order to try and avoid a messy bottleneck or lots of passing on tight trails, he was attempting to put people into some semblance of order. He then called for people who planned to finish in the 5-hour range. Now, I've only dipped below 5 hours once and that was on a 50K course that was pretty much a flat, road run. However, I knew that with a good deal of downhill early in this race I was going to have to hang with a lot of faster runners early on. If the trail had a nice big straight-shot downhill from the get go, it would not have been a problem. However, the initial few downhill miles didn't quite allow for an all-out, "let it fly" approach. They more wind around through the woods, crossing the road a few times and rolling up quite a few times on the way down.

While the broad view of the profile might make it look like a straight drop...

...a close examination of some of those initial steep sections shows quite a bit of up-and-down interspersed throughout.

For me, this meant that I had to push a lot more than I normally would. It was either that, or I would have been exchanging places with some people over and over on each up and down bit of trail. I tried to keep it reasonable, monitoring my breathing and reminding myself that most of these people would be leaving me as soon as we came to the first major uphill towards China Grade. My plan was just to push to that initial extended up hill section and then take it easy on the climb.

Craig Slagel stuck with me as did a guy named Franz whom I knew from the Runner's World Forums as "pure_h2o". We were only a little ways into the race when I heard the yells behind me. Apparently, the famous Big Basin Wasps were already out and ready to make sure we remember that we are mere interlopers in their park. I missed the first batch which I figured would probably fuel further rumors that I am the one who lures them to the runners in the first place. However, a little ways after the first aid station a lone yellow jacket caught up with me and nailed me in the arm. Not too bad. Nothing like my 20+ stings from the Big Basin 50K last year. Well, nothing like it yet, anyway.

We were having a good day despite the initial attack and I definitely enjoyed the downhill. But, all good things must end and the first long hill was upon us. I took it easy, but still maintained a shuffle pace as most of the uphill is fairly gradual. As expected, I was passed by many as we made our way to the second aid station. I went in and out quickly as I knew there would be another downhill section coming up. We headed over the rocky bit that I recognized from the Big Basin Half Marathon when it hit us, The Swarm! I felt the first one on the back of my head, then my back, then my neck and shoulders. It was probably even worse for Craig and Franz as they could see the mass of the little buggers as they got me, but there was nothing they could do to avoid them. It was just run screaming down the trail, waving arms and spraying oneself with water. Once we were out of immediate danger, we all stopped to inspect one another and remove any hangers-on. I know I got at least 1/2 a dozen stings, but what could be done? Deal with it an move on thankful that I didn't inherit my mothers allergies.

I know Sarah and Wendell always dread holding these races during heavy wasp season as I can't imagine anything worse for and RD than the thought of someone having a severe allergic reaction out on a remote section of trail. The three of us stuck together and tried to get back into a good rhythm. The other thing that an attack like that does is to totally throw off your heart rate and drain an awful lot of mental energy. I know the rest of the downhill section was run a bit more cautiously than normal mainly due to a simple lack of focus. For some reason, the ones in the head always feel like I'd been knocked with some sort of blunt instrument.

I tried to just focus on enjoying the trail and the beauty of running through the woods. We came to the section just before the Gazos Creek where the trail leveled a bit. I knew this trail and that it would go through some rolling terrain before we acquired the aid station. I was focusing on keeping a good pace over the varied terrain when I head "on your left" a little ways behind me. I thought that maybe someone in our little group had decided to pick it up when the voice came too soon right behind me. I barely had time to move to the side when Lon Freman flew by me at a pace that I would probably be proud of in a 5K race let alone a 50K. I figured that he was way out in front, but I didn't know that there was another runner whom he was reeling in. "How the heck do you get lapped in a point to point race?" I joked. Of course, I knew the answer as the section of the course we were on would be repeated as we did the only loop of this race.

The loop included the steepest uphill section of the course right after the aid station. I took it easy here, maybe even a little too easy as it is all runnable. We were past the half way point and if I was serious about racing, this is where I should have pushed myself. But, I'm never really that serious. This is also the section where Craig and I expected Fred to catch up with his superior climbing abilities. However, we didn't see him and I was happy when we hit the downhill again. Franz went ahead of Craig and I on the last uphill and then proceded to charge the downs. I gave chase, but he did a fabulous job of staving me off. I was recharged a bit and ready to push the final bit, but I knew there was one more uphill before my favorite part of the trail.

In and out of the aid station I went and then proceded across the road to the trail that would be the longest section without aid. I, again took it very easy on the uphills, walking quite a bit here. Craig caught up with me and we chatted a bit before a familar voice called from below us on the trail. Fred!

"Dude, what took you so long? We expected you to catch us on the Gazos loop."

It didn't matter, Fred had caught us now and marched right past on the next uphill. I tried to let him drag me up, but I couldn't match his hiking pace and I didn't want to go into a run, saving myself for the long downhill to come. I knew if I kept him in sights I would probably catch him somewhere up ahead.

Finally, I crested the ridge and I took a short breather anticipating a crushing downhill for the next few miles as it descends, twists and winds on technical single-track. I started down and immediately had to pull up. A shot of pain through my right knee. It wasn't a jarring sort, but more like a feeling of over-extending the leg. I stretched and massaged, watching up trail for anyone coming down behind me. I took off again, but more gingerly this time. My knee kept wanting to lock. I knew it was something that would likely work itself out, but I couldn't let myself go when it is, so, what I wanted to do. I put up with it and just let it work itself out. Eventually, I was able to run in my normal manner and had fun jumping over roots and rocks on the bottom part of the trail. I caught Fred and bid him farewell just before reaching Berry Creek. I was not necessarily looking forward to the final miles on the gradually sloping fire road, but I did want to test my recent speed work and see if I could push myself to the finish.

I continued pushing. This is the part where experience pays off. I passed a number of people during this next section. Some who had gone out too fast in the early miles, some who didn't have the quads for all this downhill and a few who just made logistical mistakes (no water bottle for an 8+ mile section of trail with more than 20 under you belt?) I caught up with Franz and hung with him for a little while, but he looked to have spent his legs already. Just as I left him, and just as I was mentally patting myself on the back, I did it. As usually, on a relatively tame section of trail, I let my mind wander and caught my foot on some little rock sticking up from the dirt. Somehow I managed to just take it in stride performing what Franz would later describe as a "perfect Aikido roll" before landing right back on my feet and not loosing stride.

In fact, after checking the pain in my left knee, I think the adrenaline that kicked in after my little spill drove me to push even harder. The last part of this course only drops about 300ft in the final 5 miles and much of those miles includes more than a few little uphill bits to assure that a final effort is needed to meet any time goals. I had pretty much given up on a sub-5 hour finish as I didn't think I could make up the time needed for it. However, I am always doing mental math as I run the final miles of a race and so I thought that breaking 5:10 seemed like a good goal. That is basically a sub-10 minute mile for the 50K. I tried hard to stay under 9s on the down slopes and not to break too much above 10 on the uphill sections. I also was contending with making my hydration last as the day had gotten pretty warm and this was a long stint without aid.

Running with two empty water bottles in my hands, the final aid station came into sight. I didn't know quite how far it was to the finish, but I simply wanted to be in, out and on my way at this point. Before I could even make out who it was, the taunts came down the trail at me.

"Is that Steve?"
" No aid for you, buddy. Just keep going!"

While I'm not sure that abuse was exactly what I needed at this point, I knew these two jokers wouldn't let me linger any longer than necessary. In fact, I had barely sucked down a Coke when Beat was literally kicking me in the rear to get a move on. It turned out to be only a couple of miles to the finish. I was happy to learn it was muchless than I expected.

I knew these last couple of miles woudl be long. I remembered running them during a training run. It would be hot and exposed. To make matters a little worse, Wendell had to alter the course a bit. Instead of heading all the way to the beach and then back to the finish, we would around on some meandering trails over footbridges and through hedges that seemed to go on and on. I could hear the finish line chatter somewhere in the distance, but could not tell how far off it was. The clock was ticking, I was pushing, 5:10 was approaching. Finally, one last turn to the left and the inevitable sprint to the finish.


A respectible time for a "mid-pack, plodder" and 30th overall putting me well in my goal top-1/3 with 178 finishers in the final talley. However, I still wonder if I could find 10 minutes out there on the course somewhere. In the end, the fact remains that on a course that played well to my strengths, the only way to really improve is to work on my weaknesses. Those obnoxious uphills in the midst of this "mostly downhill" race, are where lost minutes are to be found.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Catching up

Attempting to get up to date on running things after my typical blogging ennui that seems to follow my 100 mile races. I have generally returned to normal running within a week or so after my big races, but I seem to take longer and longer to arrive at the point where I can sort it all out in my brain and report about it. Perhaps I will analyze and write about that at some point. Then again, maybe it's as simple as the fact that finishing each of these races is a very personal experience and it is hard to figure out what and how to share.

As previously reported, the week after Cascade was focused on my wife's race at Disneyland. We did a few short runs the week leading up to the race. The following week, I returned to my running schedule in earnest. I've set a goal for myself at my next hundred, Javelina. Last year, I had a sub-24 hour finish and this year I've decided to try and take it down even further. I will write more on this later. The initial implication of this goal is that, I have decided to add weekly speed work into my schedule. The idea is that training my body to become accustom to some faster running at least once a week will make all my slower running seem easier as well as allow me to tap into a slightly faster pace late in a long race. I'm starting with intervals since I've read that they are better than simple tempo runs. I like 1/2-mile repeats with 1/4-mile jogs between. My goal is to build to 8-10 repeats per week. I may do some variations once I have been doing it for a while, but the most important thing is to be consistent in doing some "work" once a week.

Unfortunately, my first week of speed work coincided with a local heat wave that saw temps hit triple digits. Mid-day repeats plus appresive heat minus a water bottle equals a redlined heart rate and more than a fraction of pain. I only managed 4 repeats before I realized what a stupid idea this was. I did two more 1/4-mile repeats followed by an extended cool down that still left me far from cool. Not quite as I planned, but I have managed a bit better in the following two weeks. The second week of intervals I managed 7 repeats. I targetted sub-7 minute miles as a starting point. I managed to stay close to that even when running into a strong headwind and managed my last tailwind repeat at a 6:43 pace. This past week I did what felt like my first "real" speed workout. I managed to keep all but my second (windy) repeat under a 7 mpm pace and dropped things down the more I did. On my 7th repeat, I pushed it down near a 6:40 pace and kept going for a full mile finishing in 6:45. I felt so good after that, I knocked off one final 1/2 for a total of 9. Now, 7-minute miles may not constitude speed work for many people (anyone who runs around a 3-hour or faster marathon, for instance), but for me it's about what my 5K pace was last time I ran a 5K. I imagine that I am a bit faster now, but I do have a pretty active imagination.

Aside from the speedwork, I have been trying to get my weekly mileage back into the 60+ mile range. I managed 62.5 miles the week after Disney doing a couple of runs on each of Saturday and Sunday. Sunday included a 24 miler along the top part of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail. I hadn't run this section of the trail before and wanted to see what the race a couple of weeks later would be like at the start. While the course is a net downhill, there was quite a bit of rolling terrain at the start so I would have to think about what that would mean for a downhill "purist" such as myself come race day. The heatwave was ended, but not over and the run turned out to be pretty hot and a bit humid in the shaded woods. I ended up dehydrating myself pretty badly due to bad planning and a couple of bonus miles, but still had a good run. This race was one I was definitely looking forward to. I haven't "raced" a 50K in a while and wanted to see what I could do on this course. I didn't plan to taper or anything like that, but I did want to at least push it a bit.

The next week I managed nearly 67 miles mostly due to my friend Craig's 36-mile birthday run. My wife left for Singapore on Friday so I had pretty much no time constraints so it was going to be a full day of running with friends, something I almost never do outside of a race venue. There were six of us at the start including myself, Craig Slagel (the birthday boy), Fred Ecks, Chuck Wilson, Stephen Sorrow and Craig's girlfriend Mira who would be our roving aid station and support crew. We started at Muir Beach and generally followed the Headlands Hundred course up to Pantol. We then headed on to the top of Mt. Tam for the first loop and back for the first loop. Chuck wasn't up for the full 36 so he headed down via the Heather Cutoff trail that Headlands takes while we retraced our route up. This came to around 19 miles. For the second part we were going to go back up the same way and then just do an out-and-back towards Bolinas Ridge, but we decided to alter it a little bit. We went up the Heather Cutoff on the way out and came back down via our original route. We had a great time, in fact, almost too much fun in the beginning as our pace put our plan of making it back in time for the Sunday buffet at Pelican Inn out of reach. We picked it up a little for the second part, but still finished between 81/2 and 9 hours for the group. We all had a good time both during the run as well as at dinner afterwards.

My commented slideshow of the event can be viewed below for the interested.

Did we land? At Disneyland!

By necessity I do much of my mid-weak training on roads, but I have never been much of a road runner. My one and only road marathon was about 3 1/2 years ago. My one and only road 1/2 marathon was almost 7 years ago. But, when my wife agreed to train for a marathon, enticed by the lure of amusement parks and people dressed as giant cartoon characters, I was more than happy to hit the roads. Keeping with the Disney theme, the first stop along the path to Orlando was the Disneyland 1/2 Marathon during Labor Day weekend. So, the week after Cascade Crest, I was back on a plane headed in the opposite direction for my wife's race and my recovery run. That and a whole lot of fun.

The really short summary of the weekend is that my wife did awesome and we had a really fun time. If you are going to do a road race, it might as well be in a unique and entertaining venue. The course winds through both the Disney's California Adventure Park as well as Disneyland proper. It then takes a less entertaining trip through the streets of Anaheim going out and around Angel's Stadium before returning and finishing through Downtown Disney.

No mountain vistas, no winding forest paths, in fact, no real trails of any kind. Just my wife and I running around enjoying the "Happiest Race on Earth." So, if your not one for big crowded road races or you just don't like amusement parks, this is not for you. But, if you can appreciate a trip on Space Mountain as well as a trip to the mountains, then enjoy the pictures and report below.

Our hotel was close enough to the start of the race that we could just walk there in the dark hours of the morning. It was hard to figure out which exact group you were supposed to line up in, but certainly not hard to find some place to be. We were supposed to be in last group since Zane had never run a the distance, but we landed in the middle group which ended up being pretty much exactly where we finished the race.

Here we are at the start waiting for the start...
From Disneyland half

...with a bit more than 10,000 other people.
From Disneyland half

Some people chose to wear costumes including this couple who both dressed as my wife's favorite Disney character, Tinker Bell. They were actually near us for much of the race. They were a lot of fun and I came to think of them as "The Tinks."
From Disneyland half

Eventually, the race began with a bit more fanfare than most trail races and we all moved forward.
From Disneyland half

After about a mile circling on the roads, we headed into the California Adventure park.
From Disneyland half

I stopped to take a lot of pictures most of which were pretty blurry like this one
From Disneyland half

We then headed over to Disneyland.
From Disneyland half

We, of course, had to stop for a photo op with Peter Pan and Tinker Bell
From Disneyland half

Lot's of other characters were around cheering us on as well
From Disneyland half

From Disneyland half

But, there's only so much running you can do around the parks so we eventually headed back out onto the roads.
From Disneyland half

The typical road race bands and cheer squads lined the course.
From Disneyland half

But, The Tinks were on hand to keep the Disney theme. Of course, the downside of this is that my wife is now scheming some sort of idea for next year.
From Disneyland half

Then more dance squads, cute little hula girls and other such groups to distract us from the more mundane scenery of office parks.
From Disneyland half

From Disneyland half

From Disneyland half

But, the Disney theme still there.
From Disneyland half

There was a little bit of "trail" along the canal.
From Disneyland half

Then it was on to stadium.
From Disneyland half

Then, it was finally time to head back for the last couple of miles.
From Disneyland half

My wife said that mile 11 on were tough. We found a great bracelet that I bought for her at the Expo the day before that helped get here through this section. It read "Tough Times Don't Last, but Tough People Do." She said she looked down at it about a dozen times in those last miles. I can't exactly wear the bracelet, but I will certainly remember the saying the next time I need it in an ultra.

Then, we were back into the Disney area.
From Disneyland half

The final stretch through Downtown Disney seemed a little longer than when we strolled down it the day before.
From Disneyland half

But, the finish line came into view and Zane kicked it in to finish in just below 2:30. An awesome, awesome job.
From Disneyland half

We made our way back to the hotel shuttle.
From Disneyland half

But, as we sat there with our post race goodies (which included yummy little mini pies), we eventually realized that the shuttle wasn't coming and we had to walk back to the hotel, but that didn't stop the smiles.
From Disneyland half

After some food and rest, we spent the rest of the day having fun riding rides and then went to dinner with the boys at the ESPN restaurant where we enjoyed eating from lounge chairs in front of giant screens showing about a dozen different sports.

The whole weekend was a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to adding the full marathon medal to this one.
From Disneyland half

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A Course is A Course of Course

Wow, am I behind on my race reports! I guess I've been hit with a strong dose of the post-100 ennui that Perhaps it will encourage me to essentialize and keep this brief.

What can I say about Cascade Crest? It is definitely a classic course. Every course seems to have its major unique challenge that identifies it whether its high altitude, super steep climbs, technical trails, hot canyons or unpredictable conditions. This course up in the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington state, seems to be an attempt by its course designers to try to fit in as many of the traditional trail challenges as they could while throwing in some of the most unique twists you will find anywhere. Even Hans-Dieter Weisshaar, who has run more than 100 100-milers, said that there are some parts of this course that are like nothing in any other 100 mile race.

To summarize, Cascade Crest includes the following:
  • Over 20,000ft +/- elevation change (enough to qualify it as one of the harder 100's alone)
  • Some long slow uphill grinds (almost 3000ft right off the bat)
  • Some short, but VERY steep climbs (late in the race, no less)
  • Big wide fireroads
  • Narrow single-track
  • Rock-strewn trail
  • Creek crossings
  • Muddy sections
  • Dozens of downed trees to climb over
  • Downhill sections so over-groan you can't see your feet
  • A little bit of snow on the ground for good measure
  • Potentials for severe weather in either direction (we only had a little rain at the end)
Add to those one a descent that is so steep that it requires a safety rope to go down, a 2 1/2 mile run through an old rail tunnel in the middle of the night and something called "The Trail from Hell" that takes even the front runners nearly 2 hours to complete though it is only about 5 miles and doesn't contain any significant climbing (unless you count climbing over logs, under branches and around pieces of the trail that seem to be falling into the lake below). This is one unique race and something that needs to be experienced rather than explained. About the only thing this course doesn't have is high altitude (peak is a little over 5500ft) which is a good thing for me because even without it I was eerily reminded of being at Bighorn during one of the last steep climbs.

I didn't really do a very good job of studying the course beforehand and maybe went into the race a little more nonchalant than I should for a 100 miler. However, I felt well trained and my only real goal was to redeem myself at this distance after my less than desirable finish at Bighorn. I did look at the maps and the profile a little bit and, somehow, figured that 27 hours seemed like a good goal for this race. I even put together a quick, "back-of-the-napkin" sort of plan. My simple idea was to run the first 1/3 of the race in 8 hours then have 19 remaining to run the other two thirds in something like 10 and 9 hours each (or vis-versa or some other similar combination). It wasn't a horrible plan and looking at the splits there is at least one person who came very close to splits like this and a couple who did much better in the last two thirds coming in under 26!

The thing is that if you look at the elevation profiles, it is clear that the bulk of the climbing, in terms of pure numbers, is in the first half of the race. So, even given the normal tendency to slow down by as much as 20% in the second half of a 100 miler, it seems possible to not loose so much time on this course, if you are just looking at it in the abstract. Except that things like trees, creeks, rocks and hills don't just exist "in the abstract." They exist in reality as real challenges to be faced and overcome and they don't really care how undaunting they may have appeared on a some computer-generated chart with alternating colored bars filling in the space beneath a squiggly line. If any course had to prove the assertion that "the overall elevation gain and loss doesn't tell the whole story," then Cascade Crest should be given the whiteboard marker and sent to the front of the class to school us all.

My plan was to go through my race now, section by section using the course profiles as a guide and posting the many pictures I took to give a sense of the place. However, at the rate I'm going I may never finish this thing and by the time I did I don't think anyone would want to read it. So, I am going to perform a complete cop-out and use modern technology as the crutch it was designed to be. So, in the place of witty banter, insightful observations and compelling narrative, I bring you a photo slide-show provided by the good folks at Google Picasa. This should provide all the entertainment, thrills and intellectual stimulation of back when my parents used to drag out the slide projector to show pictures of my butt-naked 3-year old self taking a bubble bath. Enjoy!