Sunday, March 28, 2010


I didn't know what to expect from the Diablo Trail Challenge 50K. Despite it probably being the race closest to where I grew up, I was almost completely unfamiliar with most of the trails. It started in Round Valley, a preserve that didn't exist until after I graduated high school. It then travels through Morgan Territory Preserve-- which I'd run in a couple of times--before heading onto Mt. Diablo proper. Last year was the first for this race and I knew a few people who ran the inaugural event. However, the weather and trail conditions were such a major factor during the first running, that both their tales and the results were a bit misleading.

I stayed at my parent's house in Concord. I only had a 10 minute drive to get to the race. Unfortunately, I thought it was longer so I had a bit of a wait for the bus. No big deal. It wasn't too long until it showed up, loaded us all on and headed out for the long drive to the start. The first part of the drive was very reminiscent since it was basically the bus ride I took home from school every day from age 10 to 17. However, the start was much further down Marsh Creek road. The nice thing about a point-to-point course is that you really get a sense of the full distance you will be running.

It was a bit chilly at the start, but we could already tell it was going to be a great day. I mulled around chatting with friends and meeting new people, sporting my, very-identifiable, new Brooks ID uniform. You gotta love how the fluorescent sticks out in a trail race!
 photo courtesy of Brazen Racing

We didn't have too long to wait before the start and we were all off and running.
photo courtesy of Chihping Fu

In his usual style, Chihping raced ahead so he could turn back and snap photos of us all.
photo courtesy of Chihping Fu

A few initial ups and downs helped spread out the field. After ripping a couple of the short, steep downhills (because I can't help myself), I settled into a nice easy pace for the early miles. There were a few descent hills and then came the first big climb, about 1500ft in 2.5 miles. I worked on my power-hiking pace and it didn't feel so bad. I even managed to pass a few people. I am hoping to improve my climbing this year, especially my walking pace. I remember watching some people running the early hills and reminding myself of the math. I was walking these hills not much over 17 minutes per mile and could probably run them around 15. However, if I reserve the climbing legs I will still be able to shuffle the later hills at a similar pace, but if I don't they will turn into slogs of well over 20 minute miles, easily making up for any early hill speed.

The really nice thing about this race for me is that there were some nice long downhill sections were I could let myself go. I was really enjoying these sections even though the trail was pretty beat up with hoof-holes from the cows and the wet winter. It allowed me to move up through the pack a bit as I think they slowed me less than they did other folks. I also seemed to really be enjoying myself.
photo courtesy of Brazen Racing

I really tried to take the time to look around and enjoy the amazing day and excellent scenery of this race. There were a lot of new faces here including quite a few first timers--many making typical rookie mistakes. I ended up giving one woman half of the water from one of my bottles when because she only had one for the long 7+ mile stretch between aid. I spent some time chatting with a guy named Dan who is in States this year and was starting to ramp up his miles. Before we knew it we were coming into the half-way aid station.

photo courtesy of Brazen Racing 

A few friends were there volunteering and it was good to have a brief chat before heading for the next climb up onto the Diablo trails. Most of the climbs seemed fairly gradual and so I focused on keeping a solid, maintainable pace. As we went through three hours, I tried to take advantage of the rolling single-track. I also took advantage of a few peoples early race mistakes as there I passed a number of people who were definitely starting to slow.

Approaching the 23 mile aid station, I had passed a number of people and felt like I had opened a bit of a gap on some of the downhills. However, just as my bottle had been filled and I was enjoying a bit of grazing at the food table, a runner I hadn't seen all race came cresting the previous hill. Jim Winne handed me my bottles and told me not to let "that guy" catch me. I guess it was time to race. We were back out on big fire roads with more rollers. It was time to push a bit as I looked back and saw that the guy behind me hadn't wasted any time in the aid station as well.

I made my time on the downhills and even passed one more guy who seemed to be having difficulty on them. However, once we reached the flats and a few more climbs, it was clear that he was far from dead yet. There was a bit more single track before the final aid station, but none of the downhill was steep enough for me to let fly. In fact, coming into this aid station, running uphill, I could see the runner I'd passed working hard too.
photo courtesy of Brazen Racing

Lucky for me, after this aid station there were a couple more short climbs and then a big descent after which I wouldn't have a pretty good gap. Heading down the hills, I saw a red shirt a few switch backs below me. I recognized it as a guy from UC Berkeley with whom I had run for a bit early in the race. I thought it might be fun to try and catch him, but there was little chance of an overtake since the final couple miles were relatively flat. I had no illusions of keeping up with a young whippet on that sort of terrain. It didn't matter anyway because he saw me coming and having seen my downhill pace, worked hard to assure that we wouldn't meet again until after the finish.

At this point, my focus was more on the numbers than the runners even though I had been told, incredulously, that I was in 5th place. I was more interested in breaking 5:30. When I looked at the race, I figured 6:30 would be a reasonable time for me. However, the elevation gain on the site is high by nearly 1000ft by my estimate and I was also having a pretty good day. I was pushing the pace as best I could, making my way through the many creek crossings in the final miles.

"A mile and a half to go," I was told. I glanced at my watch and saw that I would have to do that in just about 12-1/2 minutes. OK, 8 minute mile it was and no slowing for the creeks!
photo courtesy of Brazen Racing

With less than a mile to go, I felt like I had it. I was on pace. Then, just one little climb. It was nothing really, less than a quarter-mile long. But, it was enough to slow me down when I had no margin for error. I started to sprint for the finish as soon as I saw it, but quickly saw the clock next to it tick over to 5:30. I crossed the line about 10 seconds later. I smiled. It's a good feeling to race the final miles even if you just miss a goal.

In the end, I felt surprisingly well and had a very surprising finish. 5th place is probably about as good a result as I'll see this year so I have nothing but good memories for this race.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Go Short

I guess only someone who run's ultras would think of an 18.6 mile race as short. My intent last Saturday was to run the Sequoia 50K. But, this is basketball season and my son's high school team is in the regional playoffs. His game for Saturday was scheduled for 2:45pm. It didn't take too much math to realize that I would have to break the course record and PR by over an hour at the 50K distance to run that race and make it to his game. Needless to say, I didn't quite feel up to the task.

After a quick email to the RD, I was able to drop my registration down to the 30K distance. With an 8:30am start, I figured I could finish between 3 and 3-1/2 hours and still have plenty of time to shower and clean up before heading down to San Jose. The only problem was that I really hadn't raced a distance less than 50K in a long time. I was wondering how I should pace myself. I was also wondering about the fact that in an ultra, I generally feel pretty bad somewhere around the 3 to 3-1/2 hour zone.

I figured that if I could stick with some 50K runner who would normally be a bit faster than me, I would be at the right pace. Luckily, Harry was signed up for the full distance and he is not only faster than me, but also a good friend. Race morning was clear, but major rains had dumped the night before so it was going to be another muddy race for 2010. Harry and I started a bit far back in the field, but passed a number of people running up some of the early hills. Running hard uphill early in a race was definitely not something I would not have done in a longer event.

Harry and I stuck together through the initial miles through Joaquin Miller Park, but after the course enters Redwood there is a nice steep downhill on which I knew I would loose him though the mud did keep me a bit in check. I expected him to catch me again on either the next uphill or the rolling section of French Trail, but either he wasn't having a great day or I was pushing hard. It turned out to be a bit of both.

I decided to see what I could do and worked my way up a bit, passing people on the downhills and trying to hang on to them on the ups. I ended up coming upon one guy that I couldn't pass downhill. He wasn't that great going uphill, but on the downs he was actually out pacing me. He even dropped me on the Golden Spike trail which I alway considered myself to have "wired." I've always known there were better downhill runners than me further up in the field. The interesting thing was that he wasn't that much better a climber than me. I guess others are just as lopsided in their abilities as I am, only faster at both.

When we reached the flats, I caught up with this guy and we chatted a bit. He was doing the 50K so had I ordered the full meal deal, I would unlikely be seeing him at this point in the race. It turns out that he was doing his first ultra. It also turned out that he was closer to my son's age than mine. I also learned that we went to the same college only separated by a decade or so. I didn't stick with him on the way back as I was just focused on getting the race done and seeing if I could keep the pace.

Running in the mud is actually much worse on the uphill. I could feel that extra bit of effort with every step climbing up to the West Ridge. Had I known at the time how close I would finish to 3 hours, maybe I would have pushed a bit hard once we reached it. I was already pretty far outside my comfort zone and, being an ultrarunner, I have sort of installed a permanent governor on my ability to push into the red zone before the final miles of a race, my inner voice echoing "not yet, not yet" inside my head.

From the final aid station it was just two miles to the finish, but I was already pretty sure a sub-3 was not going to happen since I knew the trails pretty well. I took a little breather on the climb up out of Redwood to let myself focus on the final downhills. I knew the descent down Cinderella was going to be a blast. At this point in the race, we'd already caught up with many of the 20K runners. I think I scared a few of them on my way down muddy technical trail. I wanted to believe that I could still break 3 hours. Unfortunately, I knew the final rolling bit of trail after the downhill was just long enough to keep that from a reality.

I watched 3 hours go by just as I was heading up towards the final little hill. My hamstrings were feeling it and there was no reason to push to the limit at this point. I was plenty satisfied with coming in just under 3:02. Finishing 15th was certainly better than I had expected at the start. I did get a tiny bit of excitement before learning my final place. When I finished they had only put up the first 10 finishers. There were only 2 others listed ahead of me in the Men's 40-49 category! I thought there was a chance that it was younger field given the shorter distance. Alas, 3 of the 4 people posted next ahead of me were all in my same age group. Oh well, back to my mid-packer ultrarunning status.