Sunday, May 18, 2008


According to my wife, she found me sleeping on my back, feet dipping into the pool, a glass of beer unfinished by my side and a big smile still on my face. The last thing I remembered was staring up at the sky, the twilight outlining a tree that peeked over from our neighbor's yard. I'd never noticed before how the leaves bunched together at the end of each branch, like a lollipop. It was quite beautiful and I was thinking I'd tell Zane about it...

20 min back
I'd just taken everything off the grill and the food was spread on plates across the counter as I called my wife and son down for dinner. I asked if we should set a table or just eat "barbarian style." No answer was necessary as we all just dug in. My salmon was incredible, but so was the steak I'd made for Freddy and Zane's grilled tofu. Finding no sauce in the house I threw something together using pineapple juice, catchup, soy sauce, some spices and "Bacos". It was surprisingly good. Of course, to me, everything tasted amazing as my taste buds where running on overdrive in order to satisfy my post-ultra, voracious appetite. I'd gotten the idea to fire up the BBQ after I dropped my older son off at the airport. I was thinking about his comment that I seemed to have an awful lot of energy for having just run so far.

1 hr back
Jefferson had come home from college for the weekend. He just finished finals, but would be staying in Tucson as he scored a summer internship there. His flight left at 7:30pm so I hadn't been able to hang out too long at the finish line after my race, but still had to wait a little while as my ride finished about an hour behind me. On the drive to the airport, Jefferson asked me a ton of questions about the race, about the heat, eating, drinking, sweating, etc. It was the first time he had shown that sort of detailed interest. I rattled on and on (as I'm want to do) before forcing myself to turn the conversation back to him and his upcoming "real job". He's very excited about the internship and we had gone out and bought him a bunch of dress clothes the day before since he will be working in an insurance office. While he just finished his third year of school and didn't live at home last summer, this is still the first time he will really be experiencing what his life might be like after he graduates. We talked the whole time and I felt a little regret that we didn't have more time together on the weekend, but he was happy to be heading back. Just before he left he told me I didn't seem like I'd just run 31 miles in the heat and that maybe I just go run some more. I always feel pretty wired after my races (except the 100 milers) and it was thinking about this that gave me the idea for doing some grilling

2 hrs back
As Beat and I drove out of Del Valle another police car and a second ambulance passed going the other direction. A runner had fallen. Beat and Brad had stopped to help her as they descended the final hill. They said she was a bit out of it and was bleeding from going down hard. The race medic came up to help and the first batch of emergency personnel arrived before we departed the park. We were surprised seeing that many more heading back in. Beat was quite worried that this might be a bad sign. We would later learn that another runner had collapsed further back on the course and had to be evacuated by helicopter. The woman Beat helped was apparently doing better even by the time the emergency crews arrived. The man further back had gone unconscious and had to be rushed to the hospital. Latest word is that he is recovering, but was in pretty bad shape early on. In fact, his life was likely saved by the quick action of the runners and hikers who came to his assistance out there in the heat.

Obviously, conditions in this race were tough. Temps over 100 were reported in the valleys. Quite frankly, I'm still not totally sure why I did as well as I did under the circumstances. There were many people out there, much faster than me whom I watched finish. I contemplated this fact as I sat in the cooling waters of the lake waiting for Beat to finish almost an hour after I had. The why still alluded me, but what made the difference were the two things that I managed to handle better than expected: the heat and my uphill pace. This is not to say that the heat did not take a toll on me and the swim really helped my legs as it stopped the twitching in my calves and made them feel better all over. I just expected that the heat would eventually reduce me to a very slow grind on the last section of the race and that my finish would be much more like it was when I did this race 2 years ago as my very first ultra (though for different reasons).

3:45 back
"Sorry for passing you so close to the finish. I really only have one speed on the downhills."
"It's all right," she replied with a sweet British accent.
"See you at the finish," I called back over my shoulder as I cruised down the final hill and finished in just over 6 hours and 47 minutes.

She looked familiar, but I couldn't really place her in my memory. I was just focused on finishin and letting gravity pull me through a final sub-8 minute mile. Later she reminded me that her name was Claire and we met at the Fremont Fat Ass 50K in January. Ah, that's it. My runner's amnesia tends to set in hard especially in the late miles of a race. It especially affects my recollection of names, faces and past conversations. Not so much the actual course or previous runs. Well, unless you ask me about an exact particular milestone.

6 hrs back
"The peak is just over this next hill."
"That's what you said before the last hill!"

Craig caught up with me on the long grind up to Rose Peak. I'd run a lot of the early miles with Beat as we are normally not too far off one another in these shorter ultras. We hit Mission Peak right around 65 minutes. Sooner than I expected given that we walked a lot more than I do in training runs and this is about the same time to the peak. I should probably consider that next time I am shuffling up the steep sections. I had a blast leaping down from the peak and then cruising down the fireroad after the Laurel Loop AS. Beat and I chatted the whole time down until I caught up with Brad just before the road crossing. We entered Sonol a little over 1:45 into the race. Almost the same time I did two years ago, though it was too fast a start for my fitness and experience back then. During the initial climb in Sonol there were a number of friends nearby including Beat, Craig, Brad and Chris. Somehow, though, I felt good on the climb and ended up dropping Beat as we wound up some exposed switchbacks before the first crest. I was trying my experiment of switching between power-hiking and shuffling. However, it turned out to work better to listen more to my body than the terrain to determine when to make the switch. If I found the fast walking pace driving me towards slightly labored breathing, I would try shuffling for a while to slow my breath. If the shuffling started making my calves feel like cramping then I would go back to walking. It seemed to be working as my pace and energy level both maintained.

At the Backpacker's AS, I think Craig was not far behind me, but I didn't really wait around. I grabbed what I needed took the offered sponge over my head and marched up that steep, steep climb. It didn't seem as bad as in past and I planned to dunk my head under the spigot again near the top of the climb. I actually passed two people on this climb which is unusual for me. After the steep stuff it is mostly gradual climbing on very exposed trail heading to the next aid station. This is where my other surprise of managing the heat well came into play. I really didn't do a lot of heat training other than getting in some nice short runs during the few really hot days we had the week before. The one thing I did do was some sort of mental preparation. When the heat arrived in the area I embraced it. I got excited about it and I tried to relax and enjoy it as much as possible whether I was running or not. I don't know if this attitude really helped, but I do know that, mentally, I was not worried about the heat going into Ohlone. I thought to myself, it will either get me or it won't. I also drew on my experiences at both Javelina and C2M and figured if the heat gets me then I just walk more and try to enjoy the day.

Through the Goat Rock AS, I still felt good and was ready for the long, though gradual climb to Rose Peak. This is where Craig caught up with me just as I was talking about him with another runner. I was looking forward to the upcoming downhill sections after the peak. This is my excuse for constantly telling Craig, "it's just over the next hill" as we approached false peak, after false peak. Craig was good about my mis-predictions and we ran together for about 2 1/2 hours, most of the rest of the race. I would leave him on the downhills and then he'd catch up on the next uphill. I would then use him to try to maintain my pace going up. It worked out well for me. I also remember that as I was approaching the peak, I was thinking about how 6-7 hours didn't seem all that long in ultra terms. This is where my experience since the last time running this course really came into play. I also knew exactly what to expect after Rose Peak as that part of the course was burned into my permanent memory as I "death marched" all of the final uphills last time.

After leaving Maggie's Half Acre AS, I knew what remained ahead, I knew what I had left in the tank and I knew what I needed to do to finish. I had mentally tried to "throw out" my sub-7 hour goal with the heat, but I still had it tethered in my mind in order to reel it back in on this final section. I upped my S!Cap intake to every 1/2 hour and switched my fuel intake to just gels for the remaining sections. I learned at Ruth Anderson that when my energy output increases ditching the solid food allows me to maintain a harder effort. So long as I could just keep the cramps out of my calves I would be good. I had one very close call as my right calf started to seize up on the first step out of William's Gulch (aka Satan's Pit). I let out a yelp, but managed to catch it in time. I took one more cap on that hellish climb knowing that there was just over 3 miles left and I wanted to be able to push to the finish. After the last big climb there is one more little hill before the downhill begins in earnest. This was the last I saw of Craig before the finish as I used up whatever I had left knowing that I could gain it all back on the final miles of firetrail descending to the lake.

10+ hrs back
I arrived at the race start early as it is only 4 miles from my house and I knew that parking would be an issue. Milling around, waiting for people to arrive, I thought back to 2006 when I stood here at the start of my first ultra. It had taken me a couple of years to really build up the courage to train for and run an ultra. It had taken me even longer before that to build up the fitness to run anything requiring real endurance. I'd known about and fantasized about ultras for a long time and I was nervous standing there at the start. I didn't know anybody and really didn't know what to expect past 4 1/2 hours. My first post after finishing was the typical "I'm an ultrarunner" statement. Getting to the start of my first ultra was a longer path for me than for many as I didn't go through the "typical" route of running lots of marathons nor did I "dive in" as soon as I first learned about these long trail races. It was something I wanted for a long time and it took a long time to finally achieve.

Now, I guess, I truly am an ultrarunner. It is an integral part of my life and the main source of my friendships outside of work. As more and more people arrived I greeted and chatted with everyone I knew and it seemed that there were more that knew than I didn't. I was relaxed, having fun and looking forward to a great day on the trail. I didn't care about the heat. I wasn't concerned about my time goals. I just wanted to keep moving, enjoy myself, maintain forward momentum. No matter what the day would bring, this would be one to remember.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Recovery or Prep?

Last year, most of my races were separated by at least 3-weeks. I am about to enter my third race at Ohlone with Miwok 2-weeks back and Ruth Anderson 2-weeks prior to that. Now, compared to some folks I know this is no big deal. At least a few folks from the aptly named Yahoo! Group "Ultraholics" are doing what they call the "May Triple". That is Miwok 100K, Quicksilver 50mi and Ohlone 50K on three consecutive weekends. Maybe it's a sort of taper for those truly addicted to running ultras. Not only do I feel like the every other weekend is too much from a personal (and family) time commitment, but I also feel like I can't really get back into the groove before my next race. With the three week split, I had a recovery week, a normal running week and then a prep week. Now I feel like I am going right from recovery to prep and not really sure which stage I am in.

I was feeling pretty beat up after Miwok and took a couple of extra days off followed by a couple of days of very easy running. A Friday 5-miler was a check run to see what I might be able to handle for the weekend. I wanted to try to at least get in 1/2 my normal weekly target, but it would be a challenge with a busy family schedule and Mother's Day on Sunday. Saturday was one of those days were you just fit the running in wherever you can and see what it adds up to in the end. I actually did 3 separate runs and managed to total close to 21-miles on the day and a weekly total of over 35, but most importantly, I felt pretty good in the end. Each run was unique and out of the ordinary routine. However, I enjoyed them all and always love those days where I feel like I am "sneaking in" the miles.

Run 1
5 miles very easy with my wife along the very flat Coyote Creek Lagoon trail in Fremont. My wife wanted to "baseline" her fitness since she hasn't done any running since the start of the year. I really didn't expect her to go beyond 4 miles, but she has such an easy, consistent pace that she just kept going confirming multiple times that she felt good and wasn't pushing it. Why she is starting to run is a story unto itself involving a trips south, lots of asphalt, giant mice and The Happiest Race on Earth. At any rate, it was a beautiful morning and I am going to enjoy training with her with the bonus miles to my schedule along with easy paced running that I have such a hard time doing on my own.

Run 2
After the morning foray and a quickly scarfed breakfast, it was time to take my son to basketball practice and then drop my wife at work. Some poorly-timed traffic accidents on the roads between my two errands meant that this was all I had time for having to rush back home after my son's practice to make sure he had time to get ready for his friend's prom that he would be attending that evening. While he was busy preparing, I did some quick mental math and decided that if I could notch a few extra miles I would still be able to hit 20 miles for the day without extending my planned evening run into the dark. I jumped on the treadmill, turned on the TV and managed to get in 3 miles before I had to grab the camera and head down the street to take the obligatory pre-prom pictures.

Run 3
You gotta love daylight savings when you can hit the trailhead after 5:oopm and still get in a descent run before dark. It's starting to feel like summer. My plan was to go up Mission Peak following the start path of the Ohlone 50K. I wanted to take it easy and simulate the race start as much as possible to try to remind myself not to push on this all too familiar hill. I tried. However, there were a lot of hikers out there and I just have such a mentally hard time containing myself when I just want to push past a large group. I definitely took the first bit harder than I will next week, but I did walk the steepest hills and did the mental exercise of imagining my pace on the various bits of the first climb. Once out on Horse Heaven it was easier to get into my own zone and practice my walking paces. I did go straight up the direct, steep bit even though I have heard the race is going to take the longer, but slightly easier, route over by the horse trough. I hit the peak in just under 65 minutes. I should definitely target a slower time for the race as I know I will open it up on the downhills. My plan for the day was to continue on course going a bit past where the Laurel Loop aid station would be before turning around. I wanted around 12 miles to hit that 20 for the day. The weather was near perfect, a bit warm going up, but breezy at the peak. I always enjoy the downhill section even though it is on firetrail and I probably would have gone all the way to Sonol and back if I had the full day to play with.

On the way back, I played with my uphill pace some more and discovered something that I am going to have to experiment with. I've noticed that on moderate hills, my power-hiking has gotten better. I can maintain a pretty good pace at a maintainable level of effort where my breathing and leg turnover feel in sync. However, when the hill gets steeper, to the point where I can't really keep a flat step, my effort level for a descent walking pace feels really hard and this is reflected in my breathing as well. In fact, I confirmed that it is on these steeper hills where I seem to be able to maintain a sort of shuffle pace with much greater ease than I can a walking pace. It puts a bit more strain on my calves, but the shortened little steps up on my forefeet can be maintained with an easier breathing pattern and at the same or even faster pace. So, here is the experiment I am going to work on. If I just need a walking break or the hill is such that I can maintain a strong stride at a faster pace than my jog then I am going to power-hike it. However, if the hill gets steep to the point where I find myself taking big steps up in order to walk or if I find myself going up on my toes while walking then I am going to switch to the shuffle and see if the effort is easier. There are some obvious exceptions such as going up steps or over large rocks where I would have to jump up if I were shuffling, but I am going to try this out over my next few trail runs and hopefully come to some conclusion before Bighorn 100. I probably shouldn't experiment during a race like Ohlone, but knowing myself I probably will. I mean, where's the adventure if you don't try at least one new thing in each race!

Monday, May 05, 2008

"Well, I finished"

The inevitable answer we give at the end of an ultra when the results weren't quite up to our own internal expectations of performance, were behind some goal we'd set for ourselves or when we simply finished feeling a whole lot more beat up than planned. I finished this race 20 minutes slower than last year which, considering my starting condition, is something I should be fairly satisfied with. However, all those pre-game excuses just seem to go out the window once you are in the race and especially when you are feeling good in those early miles. I think I still had that elusive 12-hour finish stuck in the back of my mind and I know that I really wanted to better last year's time. Being one who likes variety, I don't often repeat races and, being still relatively new to ultras, I have always improved my times when I have returned to a particular venue. This was my first repeat race where the return engagement yielded in a slower finish time. In the end, there is always something to be learned. So, rather than run through my normal details of the race, section by section, I am going to follow up on the theme from my last post.

This is what I learned from my 2nd Miwok 100K
  • Don't listen to other people
    • Right at the start I saw Meridith whom I had met last year at this race where we helped one another push through some tough bits. Meridith insisted we were both going to break 12 hours. While I'd claimed to have given up on that goal, it was obviously still there in my head and this probably fueled my pushing more in the early miles than I should have.
  • OK, sometimes listen to other people
    • I also met Olga at the start and spent some time with her early in the race and then again later before the turnaround. It was great to meet her after exchanging blog comments over the years. We also both had original 12-hour goals, but she was dealing with her own pre-race issues and we both agreed that today might not be the day. At one point I remember her saying to me, "you know, you do sound like you are still a bit sick." This was early on and probably should have been a clue.
  • Listen to your body
    • Early in the race I decided to work on my uphill pace. Specifically, my poor power-hiking speed. I felt like I was doing well and keeping close to people who would normally drop me on the uphills (I usually then catch them on the downhills). However, by around mile 12, my hamstrings were feeling very tight and both them and my calves felt on the verge of cramping. I tried upping my electrolytes, assuring I was hydrated and focusing on my fuel, but the feeling pretty much never abated. This basically hearkened back to last year's Mt. Diablo 50K where I had also been ill the week before the race. The cramping feeling stuck around that whole day there as well. Sometimes, your body is telling you that it just isn't up for effort and nothing you do is going to let you push it beyond that point. At least, not without paying a price.
  • Listen to yourself
    • I did say, even publicly, that I was letting go of that 12-hour goal and I remember thinking that if I needed a goal to focus on that 13 might be a bit more achievable. My focus was supposed to be on feeling good and enjoying the day. And, truth is, there was much to enjoy and many things that did go right. For the second race in a row, I anticipated and pushed more smoothly through the 4-hour barrier. I had a descent recovery after the turnaround (though not as good as last year) and I even hit Pantoll Station on the way back at near the same time (10 hours). However, I knew there was much less "there" in terms of overall energy and my body was just not in the same condition it was last year. It is pretty much as I said going into the race.
  • Remember what you've said in the past
    • At the end of last year's race my initial thoughts were that, unlike at the end of some other races, "I did not immediately think that I could come back and run this better next year. Just finishing Miwok in whatever time I could is such an accomplishment that coming back and doing it again would just be icing." I probably should have read my race report from last year before hitting the starting line this year. Last year I approached Miwok as a goal race for the season. I had run a couple of 50Ks and one 50mi which was three weeks out. I was healthy, tapered and focused. This year, I've already run a tough 100-miler and two 50mi with the most recent one being a PR performance just two weeks prior to Miwok. Furthermore, I came down with a nasty cold immediately afterwards and was sick for a week. Now, why exactly did I think I might actually be able to better my previous performance?
  • Listen to your wife
    • As well as being the voice inside my head that pushes me through some of the tough spots, my wife usually sends me off in the morning before my races with two very important pieces of advice: "Don't hurt yourself and have fun." At the end of the day, these two goals should be all that really matters. While I did take one nice fall and I have the sorest post-race legs I have had in a long time, I didn't do anything that I would consider "hurting myself". I also definitely did have fun out there despite the discomfort. In fact, no moment will stick better in my head from this year's race than having Craig hand me an ice cream sandwich at the mile 49.5 aid station. Though not an ultrarunner, my wife is a fellow ice cream lover and can certainly appreciate the pure child-like joy of receiving this unexpected gift of sweet-milky-icy-goodness. Craig is my hero!
  • Occasionally, listen to your kids
    • Sunday morning I was hobbling around as my son came home from his friend's house so I could drive him to basketball practice. He asked me how my race went. I said, "20 minutes slower than last year" probably sounding more dejected than intended. He just gave me a funny look and said, "you've been sick" with the "what'd you expect" added by the tone in his voice. It was kind of a "duh!" moment and all I could do was smile. It was the role-reversal from the times when he'd be down after a bad game and we'd try to lift him up, but still provide the necessary dose of reality. Sometimes, I just need to take my own medicine.
In the end Miwok is, as I said last year, a tough race. I learned that if the day isn't right you can work harder from end to end, push yourself more, finish with less in the tank and feel more beat up at the afterwards, but still perform worse. Gary Cantrell has a great article in this month's Ultrarunning Magazine where he says (paraphrasing) that "without the possibility of failure, success is meaningless" This emphasizes one more thing that I love about this sport. With all the ups and downs, low points and amazing recoveries, you never really know how your race is going to come out until you are literally almost done. You can crash and burn at the end of a long race, you can make up an amazing amount of time in just the last 20% or you can sustain and hold everything together for a lot longer than you might think.

Final thoughts. 100K is a tough distance, especially on trails. Even though someone like Dave Mackey, who crushed the course record this year, may be able to finish in under 8 hours, for most of us mere mortals this is one long, all-day affair. I heard a certain sentiment echoed by a few others during the post-run BBQ that I agree with even though it may sound rather strange to the uninitiated. In some ways, running 100K is actually harder than running 100 miles. Don't get me wrong, 100-milers are tough. They take more than just physical endurance and I have never felt so completely drained, physically, mentally and emotionally as at the end (or even the next day after) completing 100 miles. However, there are times in a 100 mile race when most of us take a more relaxed attitude. I definitely force myself to take it much, much easier in the early miles. I never worry about the minutes. I often take a little extra time at an aid station if its warranted, especially during the night hours. If I find I am really not feeling well, the idea of just walking for an hour or so is not out of the question. Finally, there are times during a 100 miler where ALL that matters is making forward progress; a 20 minute mile may bring me to near delirium. On the other hand, in a 100K, the possibility to really push myself from start to finish is a reality. In a race like Miwok where there are plenty of hills, but all of which would be runnable in a shorter event, the desire to "go, go, go" is ever-present. Starting in the morning and wanting to finish before dark (or not too far into dark for some) is a further added incentive. Basically, outside of the elite group, the 100K is about the longest standard race distance that most of us can run in a single day and so, to me at least, it's the longest distance that still feels like a race. A very long, hard race.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

What I Learned

OK, so I already blogged my pre-race excuse for the upcoming Miwok 100K. Nice to get that out of the way. I did an easy 5-mile check run yesterday and it looks like I will at least have no problem starting the race come Saturday. I guess I should focus on the actual race now. Looking back to last year I think of Miwok as when I transitioned to focusing on the longer events. While I still hadn't done my first 100-miler yet, Miwok was the race where I felt confident that I could go the longer distance. Also, it was the first race where I became convinced that I could run all day even if my plans went awry. I learned a lot from that race.

It started from the point at which I realized that I had left my waste pack at home. I started the race with a single bottle, without my gel flask, sans ibuprofen and without my electrolyte tabs. I made the decision to just drink more at each aid station and to eat as much salty food as I could. I ended up grabbing a second bottle at Pantoll even though I had no holder for it. I hit a bad spell on the way out on Bolinas Ridge with the heat and cambered trail messing with my mind and body. Despite all of this I finished and finished strong.

The main things I learned last year:
  • Be flexible
    • The main thing I learned last year was that all my upfront planning could go wrong and I could still make it through a long race. I am able to survive nearly completley on aid station fare if necessary. Since Miwok, I stressed a lot less about getting everything together before the race.
  • Start using handhelds
    • Before Miwok I never liked using two handheld bottles preferring a single bottle and a waste belt. Since that race I have now gone to using two handhelds and enjoy the feeling of having less on my body. I now use a pack only for 100-milers and then mainly at night.
  • Electrolyte pill are not mandatory
    • I still use S!Caps as they make it much easier to monitor salt intake, but they are really a modern luxury and the tried and true salty foods can work just fine. I do recall dipping both watermelon and a PB&J into salt at one aid station!
  • Limit those pain meds
    • At my first 50-miler, I really suffered from foot pain and only managed to feel better after hitting some ibuprofen in the last 5 miles. I started relying on it more and more in my races after that. I realized at Miwok that, while it is still sometimes necessary, I could get by for much longer on much less of it. After that I focused on limiting my use of "vitamin I" as much as possible.
  • I can and will recover
    • At Dick Collins I had a really bad spell, but never really recovered until maybe the last 5 miles. At other races I really only had shorter bad spots. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned at Miwok was that I could have an extended bad spell in the middle of a race and still come back and run strong in the end. Since that race I have had much worse and much longer bad sections and recovered. I have found myself running (sometimes hard) at the end of 100-milers where I expected continued degradation. More than anything else Miwok taught me patience and perseverance.

Despite feeling less than fully prepared for this race, I am now really looking forward to Saturday morning. I look forward to an all day run and I especially look forward to seeing what new things I may learn in this year's race.