Thursday, May 28, 2009


This is my 4th year of running ultras, but I don't have any streaks going. It's not as though I've tried particularly hard, favoring new experiences over repeated events. However, of the 4 races I entered that first year, I have returned to 3. Firetrails, being my birthday run, is the only one where I actually made the effort to return each year. I generally try to balance my obsession with those other activities often collectively referred to as "having a life." Even for those races I've tried to repeat don't always make it into the final schedule.

Big Basin wasn't on my schedule this year, but it is one of my favorite places to run. With the weekend after Quicksilver open, I jumped at the opportunity to sign up for this race. It would also the first race where to which I would be returning for a 3rd time. However, some trail closures required Sarah and Wendell to modify the course. So, for the 3rd time it would also be a different route. On paper it looked like it might actually be a course improvement, shortening the 17K loop to 15 and running the other loop in the alternate direction putting the single track on the downhill. The shortened loop would be especially nice given the heat that was expected.

There's not that much to say about this race that I haven't said before. It's beautiful running through between the excellent trails, the redwoods and, of course, Berry Creak Falls. The new course was definitely an improvement and, best of all, there were absolutely no yellow-jackets! The heat, however, was there in droves. The first 25K wasn't too bad and I was definitely not trying to beat my previous sub-6 hour finish. I hit the half way point around 3:10. Given that I had run 3-1/2 hours in the heat the day before along with the fact that the new course had more climbing and measured a little long, I was moving pretty well.

The second half did not start off quite so well. Felling like I know these trails, I was on auto-pilot heading down the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail towards the creek. I knew there wasn't supposed to be much uphill on this section so as I cruised along the gradual grade, I became a bit suspicious. However, there was another runner up ahead in front of me so I assuaged my fears and just focused on catching him. I came upon him just as the trail dumped out onto a broad fireroad. I knew this was wrong. He was ready to keep going up the fireroad, but I insisted that we were off course.

Heading back down seemed like forever. Questions and doubts entering my mind every few yards. Eventually I arrived at the well-marked intersection we had both missed. As I ran back up trail to let my fellow wanderer know I had found it, I noticed what had probably lead us both astray. There was a yellow flag marking a downed tree that looked just like a course marking. It seemed like much longer, but in the end I had probably only added an extra 1/2 mile. However, given the heat and the nearly 10-mile loop, I really didn't need any bonus miles. I ended up draining both my water bottles before I had even finished 2/3 of the loop making this one very painful trip.

I came back into the aid station dehydrated and more than a bit off balance. While the volunteer filled my water bottles, I drank about 4 cups of sports drink and ate. I took a little time, but was not about to drop. Apparently, there were quite a few who had. Not only had the heat gotten to a lot of people, but heading out with the 15K and 25K runners always gets some people burning too much too soon in this race. The final loop was tough, but I had plenty to drink so it wasn't horrible. I just put my head down and focused on getting through the uphills. Once I made it to meteor, I knew I could cruise the rest of the course. I passed one person on the downhill and then caught another running in the final rolling miles.

This last guy was surprised to see me behind him as I had been in front of him the last time we met. I explained about getting off course and after a little conversation he decided he was motivated to kick it in. I opted not to give chase as I was already going to finish well over an hour above my PR for this race. I let him go and just took it easy on the final mile. I came into the finish in just over 7 hours and 20 minutes after the start. Its wasn't a PW (personal worst), but it was close. Given that I was actually the 6th finisher it was obvious that the race had taken quite a toll on many. In the end only 15 of the 37 starters finished the race. Some times a brutal race is just as rewarding as a fast one.

In the end, this race was an excellent training run as it was intended to be. My 3rd running of this event was as unique as the first. In my schedule there are two more potential 3rds coming up in my schedule. This weekend is the Ohlone 50K which was my first ultra ever. Next weekend is the Mt. Diablo 50K which would be my first 3-in-a-row race. As with Big Basin, I will try to keep each of these at the "training run" effort level. Diablo will be my last long run before tapering for Western States.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Quickening

My plan was to recover from C2M and then build my training up through April towards a big mileage month of May. April didn't go quite as I'd hoped. I had wanted to be at consistent 60-mile weeks, but, then, I can't even claim these plans to have been best-laid. Now that May is here things actually seem to be coming together--coming to life as it were.

The month started off with a much needed solo run of 29 miles a week after a 50K race. Then, my schedule opened up and allowed me to run a 50 miler last weekend. That topped the week of at over 73 miles and a 7-day (Sun-Sat) total of 102. My goal for this month has always been to put a big load on my legs before the June taper.

I didn't want to let up too much this week, tired though my legs were. I ended up missing Tuesday due to a busy work schedule, but then managed a rare mid-week 12-1/2 mile run that included a jaunt part-way up the peak. I had descent mileage coming into this weekend when my schedule opened up again. I made a last minute decision to sign up for the Big Basin 50K on Sunday. If I could get at least 14 miles in on Saturday, I could get another 70+ mile week in. With the Western States training weekend to come, I could target 3 in a row which would definitely be a record for me.

We're having a heat wave. My 15-1/2 along the Ohlone trail today was done at an easy pace. However, with temps in the 90's nothing felt easy at the end of 3-1/2 hours. Temps aren't expected to drop much and that 50K is going to hurt tomorrow. It's all good heat training to me. It may be too early to start acclimating, but not for the mental adjustments of paying attention to how the body is responding to the temperature. If I can execute on these next few weeks, I'll be feeling pretty good about June. My only risk is injury. But, pushing that envelope is what it's about.


Speaking of quick, I mentioned a 50 miler above. It was the Quicksilver 50. I have too much going on to write a full race report, but I'll try to say a few words here. Quicksilver is one of the Bay Area classics, but it has been too close to Miwok for me to consider the past two years. Some people didn't think so this year including Jean Pomiier who took 2nd and Victor Ballesteros who took 3rd (after finishing 2nd at Miwok). The real story of the day was Chikara Omine who crushed the course record finishing in 6 hours 15 minutes on a course with 8500ft of climbing!

I didn't know too much about this race heading into it. In fact, I'd never even been in the park before. It's been compared to Firetrails 50. It claims quite a bit more elevation gain/loss than Firetrails, but you'd never know it from the early miles. This race seemed totally runnable. In fact, I figured I was going to pay for my morning exhuberance. Quicksilver offers many smaller ups and downs to Firetrails bigger climbs and descents. That is, until you come into the 50K mark. The ups and downs continue, but suddenly they've become sharp. It's the same heading back out.

I'd had a good race to that point. I hit the 31.5 mile mark right around 5:45. As I headed back out I was thinking about how good I was feeling and that I hadn't really had any lows. The afternoon was going to be warm so I grabbed a second water bottle which I would use mainly to spray myself with icy water. I knew from experience that keeping the legs cool really helps. Once I was over the steep hills and through the aid station, I felt good and decided to push it.

If I made it to the Sierra Azul feeling good, it was less than 9 miles left and most of it downhill. I shuffled on the gradual hills leading to this aid station and caught up with Cecil Baumgartner, a 3-time Western States finisher. We chatted and headed into the turnaround together. We stuck together on the way back until the descents steepened up a bit. As I've said before, gravity sets my pace and I picked it up. It is also around this point that I realized I could break 9:30. I didn't really have a goal coming in and would have been happy with 10 hours. However, late in a race...

I pushed pretty much all the final miles and made quick time through the aid stations. I caught and dropped a couple of people and just kept on pusing. I knew there was some good downhill followed by a few of those steep rollers at the end. I was going to shuffle everything, but the steepest hills and power those downs no matter how steep they were. If I trashed my legs, all the better. You gotta feel the burn to get the results.

I was just about on the final downhill when a couple of runners were standing still on the trial. As I started to accelerate, the woman stepped out and said "Stop! There's a huge rattlesnake on the trail!" I had some familiarity with these locals. I slowed down as I approached. When I saw it stretched out on the far side of the trail, I just gave it a nice wide berth yelling back "they can't strick when they're not coiled, just give it space."

I pounded the final downs and came in at 9:22. Pretty happy with that.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Mud Fest - Plant Pest

With no running on Saturday, I needed to get a long run in Sunday. Furthermore, Meredith had given me her bottle of Miwok beer after the race since she was flying home. I have a strict "no long run, no beer" policy so there was extra incentive to get out on the trails. Besides, watching all those brave runners battle the elements on Saturday had me inspired. I was ready to head out into whatever mother nature could throw at me. However, she is a fickle one and never seems to give exactly what you expect.

For various reasons, I have felt a bit uninspired lately. Illness, schedule shifting, my runs lacking, heck, blame it on the bad economy. I really needed to head out on what one could call the trail running equivalent of "soul surfing." One description of which could easily be applied to time spent out on the trail:

"...the man upon his board who shuts out the world and its clamor, for the silence of rolling green passageways of bliss and beauty."

Exactly what I needed. Just head out on the trail unconstrained by the specifics of route, distance or even time. Just run, letting the terrain dictate my pace, choosing trails as they appear before me and returning only when my spirit has been fulfilled. Truth, however, is that I am not quite such an unfettered soul. I had some ideas to at least spend 4-5 hours and I did have to pick some place to run.

My original thought was just to head out from home and spend time out on the Ohlone trail. However, as I was going to drop my wife at work, I realized that heading to Chabot would offer a much broader range of options. I also had a vague idea of trying to explore some new trails such as Chabot-to-Garin or Chabot-to-Las Trampas. I was not going to be constrained by a plan, though, and when I arrived, I simply headed out on the west side of the lake. Based on what I'd seen the day before, I was prepared with jacket and gloves. As usual this assured that the rain stayed away, the gloves in my pack and the jacket around my waist for my entire run.

I had decided to head out to Bort Meadows and back to get some basic miles under my belt and then return around the lack and search for those trails on the other side. However, as I approached Bort, I was drawn to the MacDonald trail heading out to Redwood. I figured out what I was craving and it was something a bit more comitting than wandering around looking for new trails. The plan was then set to head over to that park and complete the full East/West ridge loop before heading back to Chabot. It's not the most beautiful route, but I knew it would give me the miles and hours on my feet that were what I really needed. I switched my GPS to not show pace or distance and simply focused on "being out there" and letting my mind wander. There would be no pushing on this run.

While it didn't rain, the evidence of recents storms was everywhere. The singletrack trails were littered with plenty of tree branches and other debris and all was wet and muddy. Running the East Ridge firetrail was like treading through something between the texture of wet glue and a swamp. While I was taking it easy, my hips, right knee and left foot felt a bit worked as the day crept towards dusk given all the slipping sliding and balancing I'd been doing. At one point I was thinking back to a discussion I'd had with Rick Gaston at the Miwok finish line. He said that, displite the wet conditions, the mud on the course wasn't that bad. We both agreed how much stickier things always seemed over on the east side of the bay. It's a conversation I probably should have recalled before chosing my route for the day.

In the end, I had a great run. I covered 29 miles and spent about 5 hours and 45 minutes out on the trail with the sun breaking through the clouds just as I finished. While the trails were a mess, the day itself was quite nice. Warm. Humid, even. Slipping into my nubby sandles and cooling down while walking around the parking lot, I had that glorious feeling of exhaustion that comes from a good, long run. I'd had my fill. I was happy.

After a refreshing shower at home, the night was completed with a Chipotle burrito and that Lagunitas IPA with a Miwok label on it. All good.

Well, all except for the next morning when I awoke to a bitter reminder of something I'd neglected the night before. A certain common west-coast shrub lined many of the single track trails I'd been running. Sporting its bright-green spring coat on each of its characteristic 3-leaf clusters, it wasn't difficult for me to recognize Poison-oak having grown up in California. What was difficult was remembering to dig out my Technu before hopping into the shower. Strangely enough, my exposed lower legs and arms seem to have avoided the leaf. It must have been transferred from my clothing. The big patch beneath my right eye is perhaps the most obvious, but certainly not the most uncomfortable location where I am currently displaying the tell-tale rash of my body's attempt to fight off the plant's toxic urushoil.

A small payment for a much-needed trip through "the silence of rolling green passageways of bliss and beauty."

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Me Watch Miwok

After Coyote Two Moons, where she was first woman in the 100K, Meredith and I were talking about our upcoming races and she through out the idea of pacing her at Miwok. I'd just finished a miserable race and so didn't give it much serious thought at the time. However, later, via email, she brought it up again and I let her know that due to my family schedule it would have to be a last minute decision. She was totally fine with me just showing up if I could since she wasn't planning for a pacer, but would be very happy to have me "kick her ass up the final climbs" (her words) in order to help attain her hopes of a PR on this course. With less than a week before the race, my schedule opened up and I let her know I would be there for at least the final 13 miles from Pantoll, but would try to get all the way to Bolinas for the full 20 miles. I was excited to be part of this race having run it the last two years, but didn't get in this time due to its popularity now requiring a lottery.

The term "trail carnage" is well known to ultrarunners and usually applies to a situation where a large number of runners drop from a race due to unexpectedly extreme conditions. Here in California it is commonly due to hot weather especially if we have an early-season heat wave. Diablo 50 is the traditional season opener for hot races and, from all reports, this year was no different. However, as the Miwok 100K rolled around two weeks later, the weather gods seemed to have something a bit different in store. A storm was rolling in to Northern California and set to hit on the very weekend of the race. As I headed up to Pantoll with Victoria, another pacer, in my Jeep, the rain continued to pick up. Standing around in the parking lot, it was clear the runners were going get drenched. In fact, we saw a few drop right then and there as the weather took its toll. It turned out not to be that cold at the start so many were unprepared for the much tougher conditions further out on the course. Meredith came in looking strong. However, I was a bit worried as she also looked cold having worn just a tank up to this point and not having a jacket with her at all. She grabbed a long-sleeved shirt and headed out on the ridge. I told her we were still looking for a ride, but were still hoping to be at Bolinas.

We managed to catch a ride with the crew of a runner that Victoria knew and headed out to Bolinas in a nice heated SUV. We had been joking about the impropriety of pacers coming down with hypothermia before they even start their duties. We were happy that our new friends had no problem letting us hang out inside the car after arriving at our destination. The rain was still coming down quite hard and this aid station looked to be in the middle of a growing swamp. A little after 11am I decided to step outside and see what was up. The leaders should have gone through on their return trip and Meredith should be heading out to towards turnaround 7 miles away. I figured I could get some idea how things were going before there were too many runners heading in both directions.

No sooner did I step up to the aid station than I heard a voice calling my name. I knew a lot of people at this race so I wasn't sure if it was someone running, crewing or volunteering. I looked around and then I saw her. Burried beneath a wool cap and blankets was Meredith looking cold and defeated. To make a long story short, she had come through Bolinas, but couldn't stop shivering from the cold. Somewhere along the muddy fireroad she realized that continuing would be putting herself at risk and wisely returned to the aid station. There was a guy sitting next to her covered in an emergency space blanket. We found a volunteer to give us a ride back to Pantoll where my Jeep was parked. We got in the car and were joined by a third runner.

Even with the heat blasting in a crowded car Meredith was still having trouble warming up, but her spirits started to lift a bit. I teased her that the problem being her 0% body fat. She was really just kicking herself for lack of planning; she knew the decision to drop was the right one. After a little while conversation began to flow and I asked if she knew who was leading the race. Meredith said that it was Geoff Roes from Alaska. At that, the guy sitting next to her leaned over and, in a voice both tired and hoarse, said "No, I'm not." A very awkward silence ensued.

We both felt terrible. I don't know if it was so much that we were embarassed for not knowing who he was or if we just felt bad that we'd put him in the situation of feeling the need to explain. We offered condolences, but tried not to pry. Geoff, however, was more than gracious and launched into his story of what had happened. Being an Alaskan, it certainly wasn't the weather that brought him down, but rather stomach issues. You can read the full account on his blog now as I don't know that I could do it justice. In the end, Geoff's would just be one story among many as this day would end early for people in the front, middle and back of the running pack.

Eventually we made it back to Pantoll. Meredith and the other guy (afraid I can't recall his name) hopped in my Jeep to head to Rodeo. Geoff hooked up with his crew. We arrived at the start/finish and awaited runners coming in. I told Tia, the RD, that she had an extra volunteer if she needed me. With that, I was immediately sent off to Starbucks to buy a big container of hot coffee for the deluge of freezing runners who would soon be coming into the finish area. Results have been posted online. Eric Grossman from Virginia came in first then local runner Victor Balesteros and then Scott Jaime from Colorado. On the women's side, it was Kami Semick taking her 4th win at this race though this time she took the lead with less than 2 miles to go. Anita Ortiz of Colorado came in second woman and then local phenom Caitlin Smith took 3rd in her first effort at this distance. She is definitely one to watch.

The rest of the day was spent watching runners come in and chatting with friends. I made another run to Starbucks for another 2.5 gallons of coffee as the first went rather quickly. With around 50 no-shows at the start and a DNF number that topped 60, this was one of the lowest finisher rates in Miwok history. There were a lot of very cold, wet runners at the finish, but also plenty of smiling faces on all was said and done. Miwok is one of the classics in the California ultra scene and I was happy to be a part of it no matter what role I got to play. Congrats to everyone who was out there on Saturday.