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.


Norbert said...

Good job and thanks for the nice report.
It felt good seeing you again,

Victoria said...

Great report-- see you at Firetrails!

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about finding time on that course. I felt like I ran that race HARD. Even though I bonked in the last 8 mile stretch I felt i for sure had sub-5 in the bag. My PR is 4:50 for a 50k. I've run that time twice. The first time at Skyline 50k the one around Lake Chabot. and the other was this year at Way Too Cool.

Even though STTS is net down hill there are a LOT of bumps that you knock you off your rhythm. I'm like you.... I need to learn how to run those hills...