Monday, August 10, 2009


As the pain seeps slowly from my memory, the image of this race and what it means to me will continue to take shape. It's been a full week since I was traipsing about the North Cascades with a pack full of food, taking water from mountain streams. The Plain 100 is a different type of race. It's difficult to be sure--a course that measures somewhere between 106 and 108 miles, 21,000+ feet of elevation gain/loss, no course markings, no pacers and a single aid station after the first of two different loops, somewhere north of mile 55. Everything else is only what you carry with you including map and directions because, despite a few Search and Rescue checkpoints set out on the course, only your fellow runners are allowed to help you figure out which way to go.

My schedule is pretty busy right now so I'm not sure when I'll find the time to write up a full report, but I would like to give some sense of the race and how I feel about it after being one of only 10 people to finish this year (out of 32 starters). The course itself is difficult enough what with the added distance, very technical trails and three major climbs up and over 6500+ft peaks. However, it's the format that adds another level of complexity and more than just a little bit of time to the trip. Course directions must be checked at each intersection (doubly or triply so during the night) . Filling up water and diffing food from one's pack are additional sources of time. Finally, there are the almost inevitable mistakes to be made in terms of managing hydration, nutrition or both. There is no next aid station where some kindly volunteer will suggest and then hand you "just the thing" to help turn your low around. Certain foods, such as fresh fruit or hot soup, are pretty much off the menu. If you don't like what you packed, you need to just deal with it.

While it may sound a bit miserable--and, indeed, it had its moments--I also found it quite wonderful. The area where Plain is held is absolutely gorgeous. In my personal race experience, it's natural beauty is rivaled only by Bighorn. Despite the fact that the trails are shared with motorcycles, they are narrow, challenging and surrounded by a pristine alpine environment. The guys who ride here are absolute experts and probably as passionate about the outdoors as any trail runner. The course traverses streams, runs alongside crystal clear lakes, through expansive meadows, into deep forests and over mountains that provide 360-degree views of the surrounding summits. Even with all this, what really sets Plain apart from other races has little to do with its setting. There's something I find just immensely satisfying about being able to traverse great distances through remote areas with only the pack on my back for support. It strikes at the core of why I fell in love with trail running in the first place. It's why many of my long training runs in the hills often best my race accomplishments in supplying fuel for the soul.

There's more than one tale to tell about a race that took more than 34 and half hours to complete. I sincerely hope I will find the time and inspiration to unfold at least some of them here. But, there are a couple moments that are key to explaining how special this race was to me. Some time during the second loop I remember saying that I was motivated to finish just so I would never have to return and do loop 1 again. I was thinking of that loop's pinnacle climb up Signal Peak--an arduous beast that goes up 4600ft in total with the initial 4200 ascended in about 4.5 miles all while carrying enough water to last 15 (for me this meant 145oz). However, even as I was saying it, I felt that it wasn't quite true. Confirmation came hours (and hours) later upon finishing. Despite the immediate feeling of having completed perhaps my most difficult race to date, I was never more certain that I would be returning to do it all over again. It usually takes at least days, if not weeks, before I want to give an event another try. Plain, however, I knew to lay in my future as well as much as my past even before I'd finished my first post-race drink.

Pacing and Chasing

The week after Skyline Beat, Harry and I got together for dinner. This is where Beat put the hammer down in his efforts to recruit us to join him at the Plain 100 this year. Despite my totally slacker month of July, I was easy to convince. Plain's ethic of self-reliance has always attracted me. Harry was a bit harder sell as he was still beating himself up over his DNF at States. By the end of the meal, we were all in. I did have one condition. I wanted Beat to let me pace him for the last 50 miles of Headlands the following weekend. I wanted to get a 50-miler in before I signed up for another 100. Since Harry was already pacing someone at the same race, we would all be out there on the course together.

Truth is, I had a twinge of guilt about being a pacer for someone who really didn't need one. It was almost as if I'd be sneaking into the race for free. Not only would I get to run the loop course once in each direction (the full race repeats each twice), I could sleep in Saturday, get some weekend errands done and run all through the night (which I love). To assuage my conscience I decided I would not partake of the aid stations. Harry and I had discussed how carrying our own food for the 50 miles would be good training for Plain where we would have to carry our own supplies on loops of 55 and 45 miles.

Saturday afternoon and I'm tired of waiting around so I call Harry to see if he wants to carpool to the race. After a little bad decision making, a lot of traffic and some more time spent waiting for an accident, we finally made it to the race. We missed the 50-mile race leaders coming in, but would still have plenty of time to wait for our mid-pack 100-mile runners. Or so we thought.

There was Beat standing around at the start/finish area. Only one possible scenario would have him there at that time in the race. His off-kilter walk and immediate attempt at explanation confirmed that he had dropped from the race. His knee had been giving him some trouble since his finish at Hardrock. When it started to act up during the race, Beat opted to not push it. He decided that making it to Plain in one piece was more important than hobbling to the finish of Headlands. I was bummed, but knew he'd made the right choice. Besides, I figured I'd be able to find someone else to pace if I just hung out for a while.

Jon Burg is someone I have known casually for a couple of years. He's generally quite a bit faster than I am so I don't see him much in races. For example, he ran Headlands as his first 100 the same year I did, but finished more than 3 hours ahead of me in 23:33. When he came in at the 50 mile split this year I went over to say hello and see how he was doing. After a brief conversation and explanation of my situation, he invited me to join him for the second half of the race. Like Beat, he certainly didn't need a pacer, but welcomed the company. I'd be heading out a little earlier than planned and also pacing a bit faster than expected.

The new course is a 25 mile loop that is repeated 4 times, twice in each direction. Like Javelina Jundred, the "washing machine" style loops add variety to the repeats. Reversing directions each lap turns climbs into descents and vis-versa. Then, as day turns into night, the familiar once again takes on a another new dimension. The modified course is very nice, covering most of the best trails in the Marin Headlands. As challenging as it is beautiful, the modifications add significantly to the overall elevation gain/loss. However, the familiarity and increased contact with other runners on the trail help to distract from the difficulty.

It was nice joining someone with whom I wouldn't otherwise get to run. Jon is a really nice, down to earth guy as well as a fairly talented runner. He's an even more talented walker. Pacing is always a unique challenge as it forces one out of the comfort zone matching someone else's cadence rather than running your own. It is generally compensated for by the fact that your runner is overall much slower during the second half of a race. While this was definitely true for Jon, I could tell right away that his long legs and ability to walk at a running pace were going to become a challenge for me as the night went on and miles accumulated.

With a 9:47 50-mile split, Jon was on pace to easily beat his sub-23 hour goal. However, as we headed out on the first loop after an extended aid station stay, he expressed some concern over how he was feeling and then complained of some stomach issues as we later on. Of course, this is a guy who can walk 15 minute miles uphill and 12 minute miles on the flats even when he isn't feeling well. I found myself constantly shuffling or jogging to keep pace with him. The weather was perfect and we had some very enjoyable conversation getting to know one another. Despite his issues and continuing to slow throughout the loop, Jon still knocked it off in a little over 6 hours.

Jon's stomach started feeling better during the final loop. About half way through he started upping the pace again (or at least it felt so). A key scene for this loop was when we were coming out of Muir Beach. Jon was striding up the steep climb while I was fell behind. A couple runners heading down the hill gave me a "good job" encouragement. I immediately responded by explaining "No, I'm a pacer trying to catch his runner. I need to do a better job." I managed to catch him, as expected, on the next downhill and pushed to keep up with him the rest of the loop. Jon ran a great final stretch passing one final runner in the last 2 miles to capture a top-10 berth in a time of 22:46.

I am very grateful to Jon for allowing me to "pace" him as I think I may have gotten more out of it than he. I bagged a 50 mile run for my training, managed my own food supply for the full course and, while I was hoping for a little more time on my feet, I definitely had a good workout covering the distance in well under 13 hours. After congratulating Jon and watching a few more runners come in, I hit my car for a nice nap. I spent the rest of the day hanging out at the finish line, cheering in runners and waiting for Harry. He ended up getting "the full meal deal" as his runner struggled with some problems. However, she was one tough woman and ended up giving Harry a lesson in the fine art of never giving up.

In the end, I think the race was a success for us all. Well, maybe not for Beat, but I guess he didn't have to learn about his knee problem somewhere in the Cascade mountains in the middle of an unmarked course. How much this run will help with Plain, I'll have to see. My training over the weeks that followed it wasn't exactly what I had hoped...

Skyline Byline

As I hinted at in my previous post, I decided to jump into a 50K race in order to kick-start myself back into training mode. Similar to last year, I was able to add the Skyline 50K to my schedule at the last minute. In fact, I added it at the very last minute signing up on race day. It sort of felt old school handing over a check and signing the waiver that morning--well, except for the fact that I had contacted the RD on Facebook the day before to make sure there were openings.

Skyline is a classic race that has been around in one form or another for 28 years held on the 1st Sunday in August. It was originally a point-to-point course starting from Tilden Park in Berkeley, but now begins and ends at Lake Chabot in Castro Valley. It travels through Chabot and Redwood parks sharing as few trails on the out and back sections as possible making it more or less a loop course (really a figure-8 to be exact). It has a lot of similarities to the beginning and ending sections of the Dick Collins' Firetrails 50. In fact, it is probably an excellent training run for that race if you are approaching it as your first 50 miler.

Despite all of this as well as the fact that it is part of the PA/USATF Ultra Grand Prix, the race does not fill up. I think that this has as much to do with timing as anything. By August, most experienced ultra-runners are just recovering from or preparing for their big summer races. Most people in the area new to the sport have chosen one of the popular early season 50Ks as their first race and/or may now be focused firmly on the 50 mile distance. It is popular among long-timers in the sport--long being a preferable adjective to old now that I am closer to 60 than 20. At my count there were 15 (of 122) finishers over the age of 60 at this year's race and one finisher, Bill Dodson, finishing 74th at the age of 74. With a finishing time of 5:52 he bested a few folks half his age.

My personal goal going into this race was not much more ambitious. In fact, since I hadn't run longer than 14 miles in over a month, I stated that anything under 6 hours was fine with me. Just as I did last year, I started out slow on the rolling paved section along the lake. In fact, I continued keeping the pace easy just cruising and chatting. Starting my races at an easy pace is something I have been working on. Ohlone was a good test earlier this year as I noted that each year I have run it, I have tried to go slower up the initial ascent, but always ended up reaching the peak around the same time. It is difficult to convince oneself of it mentally, but the fact is you loose so much less time taking it easy in the early miles of a race than you do if you are forced to slow down in the latter miles.

I look at it this way. Slowing just 30 seconds per mile during the initial miles can feel like an easy jog yet will only add an extra few minutes to the first hour or so of running. However, late in an ultra, the difference between an easy pace may and a solid one may end up being many minutes per mile. Not only will this eat up much more time, but it the mental impact of being forced (rather than choosing) to slow down creates a cumulative effect. This fact becomes more important the longer the race. However, it is still difficult to slow youself abnormally when everyone around you is blazing out of the gates. It takes practice.

This strategy paid off well for me in this race, as I ran well behind my normal pace at start hanging way back in the field. As the race went on, I passed more and more people, but my paced remained as close to constant as possible. A look at the splits reveals some interesting facts. At the first aid station there were more than 20 people ahead of me who would eventually finish behind me. By the last aid station, there was pretty much nobody behind me who finished ahead of me. My average pace at the first aid station was just over 9.5 minutes per mile, my average pace at Skyline Gate (mile 14.4) was 9.86 and my final average for the race was 9.79. I believe that is as consistent a race as I have ever run.

Once again the Skyline 50K was an excellent addition. I went in just planning a training run, but came out with my third fastest 50K time at 5:10:28. It was a beautiful day with cool, cloudy conditions for all but the final 2 miles around the race when the sun came out and stuck around for the BBQ. I had a great time and the race topped off my first 60+ mile, post-States week. It definitely served its purpose of putting me back on the training track.