Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tamalpa 50K Nationals: did you say rainy California?

For many people around the world, there is only one California, and that's a sunny one! And maybe too sunny these days which led us into this serious droughts and blazing wild fires. We are so much looking forward to the announced El Niño this winter, and even if it comes, it's going to take many (many) years to rebuild the underground water reserves as we are already tapping in some dated as back as 18,000 years!

With that, let me switch to the topic of this post, the Tamalpa 50K race which also served as the US National Trail 50K Championships this year. The Tamalpa Club had aleady hosted this championship for their even and I still remember how intimidated I was to particiapte to my first Nationals back in 2007, when the event was directed by Greg Nacco. If you follow this blog, you know these Nationals get more or less competitive depending on who shows up. So they are not like the Olympics where all the very best elites meet from around the globe. Some championships attract more rising stars though and it was the case this weekend according to UltraSignup's statistics and time predictions: for once at a local race, I was in 25th position, uh! So, while we were looking forward to seeing who was going to grab the title, the first big surprise of the day was that it was raining! In August, and in California, while, in contrast, the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc had perfect conditions in the Alps, at last!

Agnès had asked me on Friday evening if I had checked the weather forecast and I replied I never do as I don't believe they can really predict much with all the micro climates around the Bay. But, now, I wished I had because I would have probably picked my Brooks PureGrit instead of my super comfy Launch. Anyway, too late to drive back home, comfort of road shoes will have to do over grip of trail shoes.

Race Director, Tim Fitzpatrick, gave his pre-race briefing to our 250-large group.

With all these youngsters and speedsters sponsored by Nike, Adidas and even Brooks, the start didn't disappoint: I joked with Scott Dunlap and Mark Richtman that this looked more like the start of a cross-country race, if not 5K, 10K at most!




I couldn't count the number of men in front of me after we took off, and estimated 5 or 6 women were already ahead, what a start! Even Errol 'Rocket' Jones added some fun to the situation, sprinting to get ahead of us. For one hundred yards... ;-)

The back of the pack had barely passed the start line when the front runners had almost reached the end of the meadow as you can see on the second picture below:

We went on Muir Woods Road for 1/4 of a mile before reaching a tricky switchback to get onto Miwok Trail. With so many fast runners ahead, it was actually very smooth, the pace remained blazing fast. As usual, that's the trail section I pass Jason Reed and I then made two other moves up the line while Mark Richtman remained very close behind. For the non locals, let me say a few words about Mark: he is an ex member of Team USA for 100K and, decades later, he is still at the top of the game, at least in our Masters division, and you would never imagine he just turned 60! Last year at this race I was looking at another duel with him in our M50-59 age group, but he wasn't in prime shape so he didn't toe the start line, and volunteered as course monitor instead. We had our last age group friendly fight at Quad Dipsea last November and I barely made it by 7 minutes despite the 9 years separating us, which says a lot about Mark's fitness level. So, here I am, not haunted by other M50-59 competitors but a M60-69 one, way to keep me on my toes and yet another good excuse to refuse to take aging as an excuse to slow down...!

On the first steep climb out of Muir Beach on Coastal Trail, I decided to not push too hard with all the other climbs ahead, get into my rhythm (Hal Koerner's diesel mode) and not look behind to avoid the pressure. Even with these precautions I caught up with a few runners ahead before the top, including 2 gals. I pushed the pace down to Pirate Coves, hoping to distance Mark. Running in the cloud, the visibility was very limited, maybe 2 or 300 hundred yards, so you couldn't see who was ahead or behind anyway. You could hear the Pacific roaring at the bottom of the cliff, but barely see it. Several times during the race I felt sorry about the folks coming from out of town as they missed the amazing views we usually experience on this course (Pacific Coast, Golden Gate, San Francisco, Rodeo, Stinson and Muir Beaches, Tennessee Valley, ...). Coastal Trail without the Ocean views in particular isn't as spectacular as it usually is.

On our way up to Wolf Ridge, I got passed by Ed Randolph, M45-49, and I was glad that I had moved to the upper age bracket because he looked very strong (he is 45). We ran close together for the next few miles, me being faster in the technical downhills, him faster in the uphills. I didn't stop at the Rodeo Beach aid station (mile 8) and was blown away to see Mark just behind me as we were now climbing up Miwok trail. I thought "wow, with all the coming climbing, that's going to be a tough battle, it's going to come down to, first, who doesn't walk on Cardiac, then who doesn't walk on the last killer climb, Steep Ravine!" Yet, I thought it was way too early to push more in the uphills. I did hammer down on the way down to the Tennessee Valley aid station though, where I had the surprise to see Agnès. I didn't stop there either, and was pleased to not see Mark behind anymore, at least not close behind...


From the time stamp of Agnès' pictures at Tennessee Valley, Mark was still just a minute behind me, still working on his prey... ;-)
Meanwhile, as I discovered from Agnès' pictures, the battle was raging in front. I was in 31st position at this point, 22 minutes behind the leaders (after just 11.5 miles!!), and the top 10 runners were within 10 minutes. Here are Andy Wacker (26, Adidas Team, from Boulder, CO), elbow to elbow with Patrick Smyth (29, Nike Team, from Salt Lake City, UT), fighting for the lead (yes, sprinting, with 20 miles to go!).
On the way up to Coyote Ridge, I could see in the fog a runner walking and holding his sides with his hands and I was blown away when, getting closer, I could read M50-54 on his back bib. Wow, I had no idea that I was even 2nd in my age group up to that point!
Alan Reynolds, another local and fast member of the Tamalpa running club, had gone out very fast and was struggling --we were only at mile 12-- but he had the guts to finish. With that I was wondering if I had missed other M50-54 in the 40 or so runners ahead at the start... One more reason to keep pushing...

After this climb I really enjoyed getting back to some speed on the way down to Hwy 1, on this smooth fire road section of the Miwok Trail. I looked back and couldn't see anyone behind but, again, the visibility was still barely a few hundreds yards. I enjoyed even more the last section of Miwok, a narrow and winding single track going down to Muir Woods Road. Before every race Agnès reminds me that the main goal of running is to enjoy it, so I thought of her (otherwise, most of the time, I'm more focused on pushing hard... ;-). We were at mile 17 and I was really feeling good but knew there was much ahead, starting with Cardiac, right at that stage, a 2.5-mile climb up to the Cardiac aid station. At least my mental was high and I was therefore resolute to not walk a step up that hill.

Apart for a few hikers, there was nobody to be seen in the fog all along, no distraction, just the focus on keeping moving forward on this runnable grade. Yet, in the last few yards before the aid station, there are high steps formed by roots, and I had to walk but managed to passed another runner who had stopped to take care of some bad cramping, then I caught up with Lon Freeman. When I first got into ultra racing, Lon was at the top of the game, having won for instance Miwok 100K in 2007, Skyline 50K in 2004, or, more recently, our Club QuickSilver 50-mile in 2012 as well as last year's Ohlone. So, it was intimidating to catch-up with him, especially as, very kindly, he told me that there were now only two Masters ahead of us. I didn't feel we were that fast compared to last year, and I was definitely not trying to win the Masters division in this competitive field, so it was great boost to know. Here we are, going through the Pantoll parking lot.

Going down Matt Davis Trail reminded me of the finish of Miwok 100K a few months ago except that the weather was so different. Despite paying extra attention in this section made even more treacherous and slippery with the wet conditions, I was moving quite fast, so much that I caught up with Emily Harisson. Emily is so fast on runnable terrain but she looked scared in these switchbacks and that was going to cost her the National title, I felt sorry for her.
I passed 2 other runners (Open Division) and surprised the volunteers of the Stinson Beach aid station when I rushed through it without stopping (thank you guys for being there anyway!). 7 miles to go and I was still feeling great, that's the way to enjoy running...!

In the first stairs up the famous Dipsea Trail I could feel a cramp nagging in my inner left hamstring so rushed to take 2 S!Caps and my 3rd Gu. As much as I wanted to slow down and walk in this climb, seeing one of the runners I had passed on Matt Davis following me kept me moving. I saw 2013 record holder Alex Varner again running with friends, just before the bridge where we leave the Dipsea Trail to continue on Steep Ravine.

Ah, Steep Ravine... What else do you expect from such a name other than a killer last climb at mile 26...? I have always struggled on this one and can't even imagine or comprehend how the top guys must go through this section still maintaining sub 7 min/mile pace! As a matter of fact, I was in this section while the first runners must have finished already, yikes! I admit I walked part of it then. I was particularly impressed this year with the crowd on the trail, I had never seen so many hikers especially on such a technical segment. The passage of the ladder was quite an attraction when I got there with a group of 20 or so kids trying to go down! Fortunately it's large enough that I could still manage to pass on the side without losing much time. I kept jogging everything else my legs and lungs would allow me to and, with that tough mental, passed a few more runners before seeing Agnès at the top, at Pantoll, enjoying a brief rift in the fog before plunging back into it 1/2 mile later.
On that only common section of the course, I crossed a few runners on their way out (Greg Nacco, George Rehmet, Errol Jones, ...) and didn't stop at the Cardiac Aid Station that time (my only aid station stop was on my way out, to refill my GU2O bottle). At this point I was still thinking that I had a slim chance of improving the age group course record which I had set last year in 4:27:30. But with my GPS showing 4:06 already with slightly more than 3 miles to go, I had to give it all. So I pushed as much as I could and, after a mile, even managed to pass Ed (M45-49) and Caitlin Smith. I kept pushing hard in the ultimate and endless switchbacks of Heather Cutoff Trail. We could hear the noise coming from the finish line but we could still not see a thing with the thick fog, what a suspense... I was bummed when I saw 4:27:30 while I was still dealing with the last switchbacks. I sprinted to the finish line for a finish time of 4:29:24 (8:31 pace) which was good enough this year for first M50-54 (or M50+ for that matter) and 2nd Masters! With all that, I still barely made the top 20 this time, 19th overall.  And, mind me (!), that's a poor 76% UltraSignup performance because it was a super fast year, with Adidas team's Andy Wacker, 26, from Boulder, CO, smashing Alex's record by almost 4 minutes! 3:37:20 on a trail course with technical sections and 7,400 ft of cumulative elevation, this is blazing or insanely fast! Compared to other sports, taking home $1,000 for that feat looks really cheap, but that's why our ultra running sport remains such a family and friendly business, which most of us love anyway!

As a matter of fact, Andy got an extra $500 for also breaking the overall course record.

Here are 8 of the top 9 runners, from right to left: Paddy O'Leary (9th), Chris Vizcaino (8th), Benjamin Stern (7th), Daniel Metzger (6th), Jared Bessett (5th), Mario Mendoza (4th), David Roche (3rd) and Andy.
Apart from Ivan Medina who dropped, UltraSignup had 9 of the top 10 runners right in its statistical prognostic, quite good Mark Gilligan! The top 10 UltraSignup list names finished respectively in that order: 3, 2, 1, 5, x, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10. Almost ready to bet real money!

Caitlin won the Women race and title, finishing 45 seconds behind me, so I ended up not being chicked again, phew!
Well, let's say I worked very hard to unchicked myself 5 times throughout this race! ;-) As I joked with Tropical John Medinger at the finish that it wasn't getting easier, he replied that he could easily predict the future for me on that one; thanks John... :-/

Co-race director and great XC and ultra runner herself, Diana Fitzpatrick was prompt to hand me my age group award, a superb Mountain HardWear jacket, a SFRC gift certificate and a few healthy food goodies. As for the USATF awards, it took more time while we were waiting for the various age categories to fill in (3 deep)...

Another local Tamalpa runner, Mark McManus, 41, won the Masters Division and got the $300 check. He ran a 4:27:54 and I was second, only 90 seconds behind, I had no idea we were that close!
The fog started dissipating finally over the finish area around 1 pm, and it was ideal conditions to catch-up with other runners, volunteers and family members.

Mark Richtman finished in 4:47:34, slashing the previous M60-69 course record by 20 minutes! He had trained hard, aiming at 4:30, but he got some cramping issues as well as some dehydration due to his water bottle breaking just after Stinson Beach. Without knowing how far behind he was all day, I owe him big time for keeping running hard in Steep Ravine in particular!

Jed Tukman's Firetrail on-site made pizzas were an absolute post-race delight and drinks were in abundance (yes, including beer, for those who run for that! ;-).
One note on nutrition: I would admit that I needed a couple of cokes to replenish my energy level after such a workout yet, this is still a testament to the value of Vespa: I was able to run a strong race just on 3 Gu gels, 2 cups of Coke and mini pieces of banana at mile 19, and 2 bottles of GU2O, or about 500 of calorie intake while Garmin estimates the overall effort at 3,500 calories, or 4,000 calories on Strava (I even doubt this fully takes into account the cumulative elevation but in any case, the Vespa Math still work and shows the energy had to come from some fat, eh eh).

We had 7 entrants from our team today and all finished, albeit in different times ranging from Rickey Russell's 4:27 to Kat Powell's 8:11. This allows to score a few points in the Men and Mixed divisions of our Grand Prix (although Excelsior and Tamalpa will likely be ahead of us for this race). Here we are, Keith, Marc, Jim and I, still fresh and dry, before the start:
What a professional event again produced by the Tamalpa running club under the direction of Tim and Diana Fitzpatrick. Short of spending much time at the aid stations, I was mostly impressed by the number of course monitors at key intersections. I was surprised to hear that a couple of the lead runners went off course as I thought the marking with the pink ribbons was very good. It must be due to speeding... Amazing crew of 80 volunteers, plus one USATF representative who came from Virginia to hand us the awards!

On the way back we stopped by the San Francisco Running Company to materialize the two gift cards I receive from them, one from winning my age group at Tamalpa, the other at Miwok if I recall. I had seen a few of their employees training on the course in the morning, it was cool to see elite Jorge Marvilla again, in what must be his working attire! ;-) Thank you SFRC for your generosity and support of our local ultra races and community!
Before closing, I want to advertise an upcoming local race which would welcome more participants: the Stevens Creek 50K, a great course in the hills above Palo Alto, Cupertino and Saratoga. Saturday September 26! I will not be running it this year, volunteering with Quicksilver to man the Saratoga Gap aid station and running the Trailblazer 10K that Sunday, but I very much recommend this event which actually includes three distances on groomed trails: half-marathon, 30K and 50K. You can register on UltraSignup or visit the Stevens Creek Striders' Club website. And thanks in advance for spreading the word out!


Run Happy on the road or in the woods!


Monday, August 17, 2015

Burning hot and dry California: global warming a hoax, really?

Often these days I'm dreaming Albert Einstein would still be with us and help us formulate a proof that global warming is real and man made! He had such a genius to make things way more complicated and way less tangible accessible to all, I'm wondering who is going to step up to the challenge, I mean be successful at solving this embarrassing sustainability question. Not that I have much doubt myself in what science has already proven, analytically and experimentally, but because I'm speechless when I see denial statements coming from people that are supposed to be smart enough to... think!

Will Bill Nye succeed where so many have failed:
("The Bill Nye" documentary project has already raised $850K on KickStarter, that's a great start!)

In the meantime... here we are, a weekend during which we experienced pretty much all the symptoms of this global warming in Silicon Valley, in this beautiful California which is set ablaze and is fighting a 5-year drought:

  1. Smoke from wild fires raging hundreds of miles away,
  2. Record temperatures above 100F, including in Santa Cruz right on the Pacific Ocean,
  3. Lack of water in reservoirs,
  4. Lack of groundwater,
  5. High levels of pollen,
  6. Dried vegetation,
and we could go on... On Saturday morning, I was looking forward to the gorgeous views from the top of Black Mountain and took my camera with me. It felt harder than usual to climb along the Stevens Creek Canyon road and trail, and, with such a smell of smoke, I was wondering if I would get in a fire in one of our nearby parks. No, the smoke was coming from a distant fire in North California and there was so much of it that I couldn't see the bottom of the Valley from Black Mountain (2,800 feet), and barely Mt Umunhum.


I still managed to run 28.5 miles on Saturday, taking the back route to the top of Black Mountain. It had been a while since I ran the REI trail in the Stevens Creek Park, the home of our local Stevens Creek Striders Club. It was in August 2003 which I ran it for the first time with the Club, and when I'd hear about the existence of insane races of 100 miles... I learned so much from folks like Charles Stevens, the the Club President, or Mark Williams, who was the first to complete the grueling Barkley Marathon (which is actually 100 super hilly miles of back washing).

For sure, back then, there was more water in the reservoir. Agnès went kayaking last week, and Alex and I in June, but the low level doesn't allow for much exploration into the Stevens Creek Canyon.



On Sunday, there was slightly less smoke and I didn't go that far, only 16.6 flat miles, but I had to stop 4 times due to the heat (101F), and I believe poor air quality as well. It's hard to breath and even sweat when the air is as hot as the inside of your body...

Hopefully we won't need this heat training for the Tamalpa US Nationals 50K trail race in 2 weeks but, who knows, maybe for Ohlone 50K in September!

To finish on a more positive note than the start of this post, it was uplifting to read the compliments about how well California is coping with and addressing the drought. This means a lot coming from such an expert on sustainable development and water supply-related matters, Charles Fishman (author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.”). I strongly encourage you to read his columm in the New York Times. Yes, with the right behaviors and an unconditional belief that we need to radically change to avoid an ecological catastrophe, we can do this and get smarter!

Did you feel that global warming too this Summer?