Sunday, March 1, 2015

My 50th 50K: so cold, so hard, yet so cool!

It's not easy to find a race to celebrate your birthday, even much so a National Championship! With that, it was a no brainer for me to come back to Long Island, NY, to run the 50K Road National. Last year, I had just turned 50 and I had big hopes in my brand new age group. Unfortunately, I trained too hard in January and had to take a couple of weeks off before the race, leading to a poor performance (3:37) although it was good enough last year to win my age group and get a first National title.

Learning form 2014, I made sure to include a lot of variety in my early season training. Running the 100-mile Nationals too hard at Rocky Racoon was definitely foolish on my end and I was relieved to bounce back with a promising 3:21:58 at Jed Smith 50K a week later in Sacramento, 3 weeks before the Championship. I was also very pleased with my last tune-up, clocking 2:03:12 for 80 laps on the track. Now, that was in Californian weather, that is in Spring conditions since we are missing winter again for the 4th time in a row over there.

With such a level of fitness, my only concerns were the weather and how tired I will be have a strenuous week at our mega IBM InterConnect conference (20K participants, 6 speaking engagements and 18 executive 1:1s). I had a few short nights in Vegas (including a 4-hour one and, trust me, that was just to catch-up with emails and work...), but managed to sleep for straight 9 hours for the 2 nights I spent at home before jumping on a plan again. Now, for the weather, I couldn't do much. At least, it was great to hear that the area had "warmed up" significantly for our arrival, meaning that the temperature had raised from close to 0F to just above 20F. But, even a 24F at the start, that is -4C, still looked frigid for the Californian I have become... At least it wasn't supposed to snow before 1 pm on race day, and no wind either, phew!

Here are Roy Pirrung (see below) and Bill Dodson, our USATF Pacific Association Mountain and Ultra Running Chair, who turned 80 yesterday.
And the runners getting ready and trying to remain warm before the start.
I stayed for a good hour under the tent, so scared to get outside. When it was time, I went on the course to run half a mile and warm up the machine. I was wearing gloves that I use for cross-country skiing, yet my fingers were numb and I couldn't feel them. Kind of scary when you have at least 3 hours of running ahead... In these conditions, there was little hope to warm-up so I went out straight at my targeted pace which was around 6:20 min/mile. Beyond winning my age group, my main goal was to improve the American M50-54 record which has been set more than 32 years ago at 3:19:33. I knew it was a bit foolish in these conditions, but you don't have that many opportunities in life and every year which passes doesn't get you closer, doesn't increase you chance at it. I couldn't get a list of the registrants so I had no idea who was competing in the Masters category, I only knew that Michael Wardian was racing in Peru this weekend so that left some space. Michael turned 40 last year and he is remapping our Masters landscape as he is still very competitive event in the Open division!

Despite running at 6:20, I quickly lost sight of the lead group which was counting about a dozen runners I believe. The only chance to make the top 10 podium this year was going to be though patience and drops of a few of these front runners. But, again, that wasn't my goal.

I clocked 19:48 for the first of 10 5-kilometer loops which was the perfect pace, right on track. Assuming a perfect pace, the record corresponds to 10 times 19'57". After this good warm-up, I was feeling better, even starting to get really good. And, I'd admit it, I'm still young at heart, so I was feeling excited to see I could run with ease at the target pace. So, guess what, I did push the pace a little and passed the two runners ahead of me, lowering down the average pace to 6:16 in the next 4 laps which I covered in 19:25, 19:30, 19:30 and 19:35 respectively. After putting a few minutes in the bank, I started the 6th lap by having strange sensations, getting my far sight blurry. Not really dizzy, but I was afraid that is what was coming next... For one thing, I wasn't drinking as much as I usually do. I took one more S!Caps, tried to drink more GU2O and water, and took another GU gel. Just to be safe as I was otherwise on my Vespa Power regimen. Maybe it was just the cold getting to my eyes...

I covered lap 6 in 19:43 which was still a good time but, with this episode, I eased up a little and finished lap 7 right on 20 minutes (20:00.6!). I kept pushing in lap 8 but it was a bit harder in the little/short uphills. I managed to clock a marathon in 2:47 but I was definitely slowing down with 20:29 for that 8th lap. The record was still at reach if I could hold the 20 min/lap pace, but the doubt started filling my mind and, of course, my legs were lacking their early race freshness...

I ran the 9th lap in 21:29 which means that I was now at 2:59:33, "just" 20 minutes off the record for the last 5K. I started the lap believing it was doable but unable to really get back to my initial pace and I lost hope with 2.5 miles to go. My ultimate lap ended up way over 20 minutes alas, 21:42 to be exact, therefore 1:42 off the record. So long for this big birthday gift but my time was still good for 7th overall and first Masters this year (special thanks to Michael Wardian for racing in Peru this weekend...! ;-). It's Sunday night and the results are already on line, thanks to the chip timing.

I rushed inside the tent to avoid getting cold after such an effort and quickly changed. I did wear 2 long sleeves plus a wind-breaking jacket and didn't realize how much I had sweat during these 3 hours, my tops were trenched, oops! No wonder why I felt dizzy in lap 6, I'm glad I thought of doubling on sodium at that time. There was nothing hot to drink in the tent, just a cold Pepsi and piece of sandwich so, after the award ceremonies, congratulating a few of the top finishers and thanking Carl, the Race Director, I walked back to the car and drove to the Hilton for a nice hot shower. By that time, it was snowing, I'm so glad that the the snow started just as I was finishing...
It kept snowing pretty hard all afternoon, so much that I had 3 inches of fresh snow to scrap off my car to drive to the Marriott for a dinner with a few other champions, another nice birthday present! ;-)
From the right, next to me: Roy Pirrung had won his M65-69 age group, earning him his 82nd National title!! This was his 1,000th race, including 998 finishes. Roy is a legend in our sport and made it into the Masters Ultra  Running Hall of Fame. Next to him is Emily Harrison who won the race last year but had a bad day today so "only" placed 2nd. Ian Torrence has won many ultra trails and, despite suffering from the cold too, improved his time from last year. He also won the M40-45 age group. I met Brian Teason at Desert Solstice, we compete in the same age group. Next to Brian is Joseph Gray who ran professionally and is on Team USA. Joe had GI issues during the race which did cost him the podium this year. He still managed to finish in 3:07. As for Kevin Grabowski, I also met him at the Desert Solstice invitational in December. Kevin came in 9th overall, winning his M45-49 age group. Quite some speed around the table, and many running and racing stories for a lively post-race debrief.

Bill also stopped by to share his own account of the race. Unfortunately, he missed the M80-85 American record by mere 6 seconds out of 5.5 hours, so so close! He felt on an icy section earlier in the race, then collapsed at the finish line, which led the organizers to call an ambulance. Fortunately, Bill was fine, there is really no age to push the limits...

I didn't stop at the aid stations but I still want to thank the volunteers who stayed up in the cold, at the stations or on the course. I bet they had to "break the ice" forming in the cups of water... By the way, this weather makes me appreciate even more both where I live, as well as the hard work that runners in the North East have to put into training in such conditions. Kudos guys and gals!

I look forward to coming back but I would also like to find a race which isn't as risky, weather wise, to give the record another shot. Well, until our local Rich Hanna gives it a short himself as he would surely destroy it (Rich ran a 3:13 at Jed Smith last year, he was 49 and 6 months...).

In the meantime, I'll get back on the trail for Way Too Cool 50K. Yes, I know, this is crazy, it's in 6 days... Well, I have 6 days to taper then, with business meetings in New York and Oklahoma City, perfect excuse to want to race again next weekend to keep a balanced life! ;-)

It was my 50th 50K race out of 109 ultra races, Way Too Cool 2006 being my first one. It feels strange to think that I only ran 22 marathons in 17 years, even not that many 10Ks (45). What a ground covered in 9 years, so many new friendships and remote places explored, so many opportunities to keep pushing my own limits... And what a rewarding and meaningful addition to my life, along with family and work. So excited to see what the coming years and decades have in store to keep living a full life!

With these ramblings, it's time to go to bed, the best way to recover after such an effort. Have a great week all, Run Happy!

PS: a few snapshots from the award ceremony.

Overall winner, Zachary Omelas, 23, from Ann Arbor, MI, who took home an extra $1,000 for improving the course record by 75 seconds with a blazing 2:52:16! Quite a feat in these conditions!
 2nd place Tyler Andrews, 24, from Arlington VA.
 3rd place Kory Cool, 27, from Manhattan, KS.
 4th place Joseph Gray, 31, from Colorado Springs, CO.
 5th place Peter Maksimon (nor Adam Hewey! ;-), 36, Manitou Springs, CO.
 6th place Scott Traer, 33, from Wobum, MA.
 Oh, yes, that's me in 7th and 1st Masters! ;-)
 With Kevin Grabowski, 9th overall.
 #1, 4 and 5:
 Overall female winner, and 8th overall (I didn't get chicked this time! ;-): Sarah Bard, 30, from Somerville, MA.

 2nd female, Emily Harrison, 29, from Flagstaff, AZ.

In 3rd, ultra stud Keila Merino, 33, from New York, NY. Keila completed not only the Ultra Grand Slam last year (4 major 100-miles: Western States, Leadville, Hardrock , Wastach) but also the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Europe. This year, she set another amazing challenge, run from Los Angeles, CA to... Long Island, NY. Wishing her very special wishes as she runs in Brooks!

And, 4th overall, 19-year old (!) and local runner, Lauren Dorsky:

Saturday, February 14, 2015

2nd Saratoga Fat Ass 2015: or is it dumb ass?

A barely took a break in December, just a few days while traveling through France and the Czech Republic over the Holidays, my ass didn't really have the time to put some fat on. Since the beginning of the year, short of eating an apple a day, I've been running at least an ultra a week, hoping that keeps the doctor away...

Agn├Ęs being in Austin, TX, this weekend with Max who is going to run his first marathon tomorrow, I was out of a Valentine today, a good excuse to spend a few hours on the trails on this Valentine's Day! After the first and original one, Keith Blom is also perpetuating that second Saratoga Fat Ass tradition and today was the day!

I thought I'd focus on speed at the track this weekend but my strategy this year to avoid last year's minor injury, is to ensure some variety in my training. After the fast Jed Smith 50K of last weekend, I ran 50 miles on concrete this week so it was time to hit the trails again.

Mark Tanaka had run the course yesterday (he was on E.R. duty today) and Chihping Fu will run tomorrow. Here is the group for the 8 am start:
The weather was gorgeous, actually even on the hot side for a winter run. And the trails were in perfect conditions, just soft enough from last week's rain, with a few branches and down trees here and there to make the run more interesting.

In these conditions, and profiting from the fact that Leor Pantilat never ran this fat ass, I was going after Pierre-Yves Couteau's "course record" of 4:42. After making sure everybody else had the course instructions (me included!) I took off in the lead and alone. The first loop is really trick when we get down over the huge boulders at the end of Ridge Trail as well as on Saratoga Gap Trail. Despite some pushing, my average pace was around 10:30 min/mile, from which I shaved a few seconds on the way up to Highway 35 on Loghry Woods Trail, then on Skyline Trail, back to the start.
I got back to the car with my GPS indicating 10.5 miles and 1:45 of running. A quick stop to refill my GU2O bottle, eat 1/2 banana and it was time to hammer down the second loop. I saw Keith 3.5 miles in that second loop as he was hiking it in reverse direction with a heavy back pack, training for the John Muir Trail (JMT) in June.
Everything was going fine, including the cruising on my favorite trail in this area, Travertine Springs Trail. While a few creeks were flowing, I was alarmed by how dry the area of the spring is this year. I've had my feet and legs really wet a few year ago in this area, not today! At the end of Travertine Springs Trail, I found the new bridge and I was actually so hot that I took the time to go down to the creek, under the bridge, to cool off my legs and head. A first in winter!

I felt refreshed and pumped up to hammer the way back up to Hwy 35, so much that I went 1.5 miles off course, all the way up to Indian Rock road, almost back to the Saratoga Gap parking area. Since I was going after a record, and like any good ultra runner would do anyway, I decided to go down to find where I went off course. If you see these signs, then you know you went way off course too!

I found another service road but it didn't seem right to run beyond these signs, would you agree?
Anyway, that seemed the only option so 1/2 mile up I went again, to end up in a private dead end, fortunately without any dog, phew! I retraced my path back and was pleased to find the rest of the group, as lost as I was the first time at this intersection. At least, my experience saved them the 4 miles I had run left and right and up and down on that road!

I led the group down to the sharp U-turn we had missed on Travertine Springs, after the new bridge. There was really no sign to be found, making it a very non intuitive turn. As I'd find out later, even Keith missed the turn but he thought it was just because he was doing the course in reverse direction.

With so many extra miles (4.4 miles exactly), worth 51 minutes including the discussions, plus the fact that I was now missing salt (I had lost 1 of my 4 S!Caps), I decided to just finish this loop, do a few more miles to Charcoal, to still make it an ultra.

Kevin Moore followed me on the way up from Travertine Springs and I gave him the water I had left as he was running with a 4-oz bottle only! I left him at Charcoal, then ran back to the start/finish. On my way back, I cross teammate Andy Benkert, from Santa Cruz, and Rida Chow (in Brooks!) who looked great. I was back to the car with my GPS indicating 28.55 miles, 4:52:22 and +/- 5,950 feet of cumulative elevation. Here is the course, including the section not to go on:
It was the year for a PR, but I felt like a dumb ass for having ran more than 4 miles off course on such trails, with the map in my hands...! Yet, it was a perfect opportunity to get some hill training which may get handy when pushing the pace again at the 50K Road Nationals in 2 weeks on Long Island. We'll see... At least I'm happy that I was careful enough on the first loop to avoid any injury. A bad fall would have been even dumber in retrospect.

A big thank to Keith for organizing this unorganized (has to be from a permit standpoint) and unofficial run. I'm glad I could run it for the 4th time (2011, 2012, 2013), and look forward to another opportunity to clock a good time, although I'm not going to wish we have such a summer weather next year. The worst drought in 1,000 years is the new headline, this is scary...