Saturday, September 24, 2016

NorthCoast 2016 US 24-hour Nationals: a runner's diary

4 weeks without posting on my blog, I don't think it ever happened since I started blogging in March 2007. I'm getting close to 500 posts, maybe it's a sign I and you have had enough, what do you think? ;-) Have I not been running these past weeks? You bet I have, 332 miles since Tamalpa Headlands 50K. But there has been so many updates on Facebook, you already heard what I did last weekend.

Yes, at the last minute, I decided to enter the 24-hour road Nationals as I had customers to visit in Ohio. I was actually supposed to be in Saudi Arabia instead but that trip got postponed to first week of October now. For once, there was quite some serious competition on the roster in my M50-54 age group: Serge Arbona and Ed Ettinghausen, both having run way more than my PR. Serge even made the Team USA and the World Championships a few years ago, and Ed has covered 144 miles on a track a couple of years ago. But I thought I had a shot at that distance which represents our age group American record on the road.

Training had gone well in September, but the weather was giving high chance of rain showers throughout the day and the night, damned! Sure enough, it rained during the night and the course had large puddles when we started. It started running cats and dogs again just 30 minutes before the start, that looked like awful conditions. One of my biggest fear after what happened here 2 years ago was chaffing, and being soaked right off the bat didn't look good. By some miracle, the rain stopped 10 minutes before the start and that was it for the next 24 hours! I teased the event management team about how much they must have paid to get us this dry weather agains all odds. Few people know, IBM (yes, I'm an IBMer!) has purchased a few months ago (we cut quite a big check for that) because weather data and forecast are so important for most industries. Well, I wish I had gotten the memo that the forecast was wrong, because I would have followed a different race strategy.

Indeed, fearing the rain all night, I decided to start relatively strong and take a shot at our 100-mile road age group record which is 15 hours and 2 minutes (Brian Teason). Of course, I knew that would kill me afterwards but if the weather was going to turn bad anyway...

To recount my race, I was really counting on the data and splits recorded by my Garmin. Like Bev Anderson-Abbs, I sometimes hate my Garmins, although I keep buying and using them. The features are good but it's the upload capability which sometimes if not often sucks. Once again, the device recorded everything, but I lost all the data when the data transfer hung up. And since I'm writing this post a week later, after an exhausting and stressful work week, I have lost track of some details and numbers. Besides, running on the same 0.9-mile loop for 24 hours is a recipe for a boring race report so I'll spare you the details and, since an image is worth a thousand words (at least!), I'm offering a visual diary of 2 days in my running life! (You can also click on the picture to enlarge it.)

As you can see, it wasn't an eventless weekend! To hit the 100-mile mark under 15 hours, I just had to average a 9 min/mile pace. And to hit the 144-mile mark (our M50-54 age group record) in 24 hours, just 10 min/mile. So what did I do? Start way too fast, under 8 min/mile of course, everything you shouldn't do in a 24-hour event... A few pictures from the first 6 hours I believe (credit to Andy Noise for the first one, and Pat Dooley for the next 3):

Although that looks crazy, if not stupid, in retrospective, the thing is that I wasn't even in the lead! Well, I actually had no idea because I didn't have a crew (yes, I got screwed again!), and the display with the current standings was quite far away from the course. Running between 8 and 8:30 min/mile actually felt slow and easy. I did hit the 50-mile mark ahead of schedule, around 7 hours and 15 minutes if I recall. But it was hot and super humid so I started to slow down and lose faith in my initial goal, so much that by mile 80 I think, I started to walk, yikes!

As I often say, what I like in ultra running is the running part, certainly not the walking. After many laps under 8 minutes, it killed me to complete laps between 16 and 19 minutes! At the end of the afternoon, it was uplifting to see the legendary Mark Godale visiting us. Here is a picture he took as I was trotting along side another local ultra running legend, Connie Gardner (wearing Brooks Launch shoes too!):

As the night had fallen and the last clouds of the day were dissipating, the rise of the full moon was amazing. Yet, despite the good weather, I had serious trouble maintaining a sub 10 min/mile pace at this point. I had drunk a lot, and taken quite a few GUs (one an hour) on top of a Vespa pouch every 3 hours, plus a few potato chips and cups of Coke once in a while, and an S!Caps every hour, so I didn't think I was dehydrated but the heat and humidity definitely had their toll. After 12 hours of racing, I decided that it was time to catch-up on calories and made more frequent stops at the aid station. The hot food kept changing so you weren't sure of what you'll find at your next passage: I was so much looking for mashed potatoes but I had to first eat some macaroni and cheese, then some chicken noodle soup, some cheese pizza (made on site, yummy!), then the mashed potatoes finally came around midnight if I recall. I wasn't sure about that, but I even did eat and enjoyed French fries, a first during a race!

Without my GPS recording, or the race timing splits, I'm not sure exactly when I did my first stop at the medical tent after even walking slowly got painful; I think around midnight. There, a Med School student, Brent, provided me with a massage and leg stretching which got me back on my feet. I must have stopped for at least 20 minutes and got cold, although the temperature was still high throughout the night. Brent ensured that I put some layers on and I went back on the course, walking 2 laps, then resuming running to finally pass the 100-mile mark in a time close to 18 hours I think. Quite far from my initial goal but at least I was still moving and we had 6 more hours to kill... A selfie with Brent:
I'm very grateful to Brent for having fixed me this way and allowed me to get back on the course for more running. And it was cool to meet his wife and their three young children at the end of his 24-hour shift on Sunday morning.

I jogged for a while, maybe a couple of hours, but then had to switch back to walking again. I stopped by the medical tent around 5:30 am and Brent did the same magic except that my mind wasn't into it anymore. 110 miles completed but Serge was now way ahead and looking good, I wasn't going to catch him. Actually, this is the time that I discovered that I had 8 laps on the next M50-54 competitor, John Bertram, whom I saw passing by the medical tent twice as I was resting there and contemplating to stop for good. At 6 am, I went to the car thinking it was over, but I set my alarm clock for 7:30 am in case I had something back in the tank for the finish. Exhausted, I slept like a baby for 90 minutes which represent 2 sleep cycle for me. Interestingly, I even woke up 2 minutes before the time I had set on my watch and decided to check on the leader board. My legs were quite fried after such a break but when I discovered that John had just tied up with me, that kicked my ass (or my ego, rather... ;-)) and I got back on the course, where I left it 1.5 hours earlier, for a sprint which took the breath away of everybody, on or along the course. The sun was back and I got a good sweat out clocking sub-7 minute laps but I was determined to catch John and pass him. 1 lap, 2 laps, 3 laps, 4 laps at this pace, and still no sign of a M50-54 bib except for Serge who was now down to walking. I could not find this John Bertram anymore and that became an obsession, the weird feeling of chasing a ghost. I started thinking that he had bounced back too and sprinting behind me. The heads of the Women Team USA selection even offered to help me with my bottles but what I wanted the most is an update on the leader board with regard to John's position. When she told me that he was 2 laps ahead I replied it was impossible but I kept pushing in case she was right. At least I was logging some distance now... At the next lap she admitted that there had been an issue with lap counting or reporting, so she didn't know better...

Around 8:20, I finally found John who had changed his outfit during the night and was now wearing a bright orange rain jacket around his waist such as it was hiding his bib. Apart from being a potential disqualification in a championship, that was explaining why I couldn't find him... I kept sprinting until the very last second of the 24 hours and ended up with a distance of 124.3 miles (137+ laps), by pure luck right on 200.0 kilometers! Far from my original goal, far behind the winner's 148.6 mile mark (Olivier Leblond), even shorter than my 133 miles of 2 years ago on this course.

While I had found out I was in 10th place overall when coming back on the course at 7:30, it's only at the award ceremony that I discovered that I had finished 6th overall, 5th in the Men division, and secured that 2nd place in my age group behind Serge (4th overall, 3rd Men, with 136.9 miles). During our first laps together, Serge had joked that he had the feeling there would be 3 French guys on the podium, but we took 1, 3 and 5 instead, not too shabby. Well, we all run for the US anyway now...

After being up for 30 hours, I was so much looking forward to getting to my hotel, shower and crash in a bed by noon but the ultra race continued much longer that afternoon. Indeed, as I exited the highway and was a mile away from the hotel, I got a flat tire which I had to change but more importantly get repaired before driving down 120 miles to Columbus on Monday morning. Instead of noon, I went to bed at 6 pm, after being awake for 36 hours (minus the 1.5 hours sleep break in the morning). Great endurance training...

There is many more details I could share from running for 24 hours or staying up for 36 hours, but I probably exhausted and lost your attention at this point. So, before leaving this post if you don't mind, let me conclude by commenting on a few pictures and of course by thanking all the volunteers which made this event possible, notably allowing the tradition started by Don Horvath and his own team 7 years ago! Can you imagine the number of shifts required to keep an aid station open for 24 hours and serve all sort of foods through the heat and humidity of the day, battling these nasty yellow jackets, and through the night? I don't have pictures of you, volunteers, but be sure you come first in the images I keep in my mind from this event.

2 years ago, I settled with my simple plastic bags on the gras next to Mary Skelton DaSilva's tent. This year, my neighbor hosts were Suzy and David, from Michigan. (Post-race picture.)
It had rained the night before the race but weather was looking better just after sun rise:

Oops, you can't see much on this picture but it was pouring rain 30 minutes before the start!
An event organized by Vertical Runner Race Management
Overall winner, Olivier Leblond, receiving his awards (first place overall medal and trophy, first place M40-45 medal, National Champion patch, a $1,200 check, and a ticket for Team USA and the World Championships in 2017!):

 Second place, Adrian Stanciu (144.94 miles)

 Third place Serge Arbona (136.91 miles):

 And my fifth place medal, and 2nd M50-54 medal

Serge with his buddy Paul, who helped me by refilling my GU2O bottles throughout the afternoon and most of the night:
2014 Champion Isaiah Jazen who had a much tougher day this time: he had broken his hand a week ago, in a bike fall during a triathlon. Isaiah is also a super accomplished mountain climber and did submit Mt. Everest a few months ago this year, he knows quite a lot about endurance!
 Race Director Brian Polen, offering a Garmin fenix watch at the raffle!
Here I am among many ultra legends! On my left is Roy Pirrung who covered 100 miles and won his M65-69 age group. He has earn more than 80 US National titles so far and still counting... And that was his 200 ultra race finish out of more than 1,000 races. Like he told me during the race "I only started running ultras in 1985..." and when I replied that I had already completed 130 ultras in 10 years, he replied "oh yes, but my ultras were not 50Ks". Pun intended, 60 of my ultras are 50Ks...
On my right is John Geesler who, according to Mark's post is a former 48-hour American record holder and has completed 30 Boston marathons!
 Last look at Lake Erie before leaving the site around 10:30 am on Sunday:

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Tamalpa Headlands 50K US Trail Nationals: ok with being chicked!

Ah, being chicked, what a concept... When I started running ultra marathons 10 years ago, I had no idea what this meant, it was just me against the challenge of getting to the finish line. I think I first heard the expression from Dr. Mark Tanaka who still have too much pride for not finishing ahead of all the gals. Since then, the years passing, Mark has made a name for himself for 'just' finishing what he starts, mostly grueling 100-milers and screwed as he calls it, that is without a crew. Not worrying about the gals ahead of him anymore! ;-)

As for me, I'm too old to compete elbow to elbow with the youngsters and speedsters when they toe the line as it was the case this Saturday, just happy to still get to play with the top gals in our field! So what does 'being chicked' mean...? For a guy, that is finishing behind one gal! (Not sure which expression was used when Ann Trason for instance ended up first overall, that is beating all the guys... ;-)

Speaking of top gals, I first met Camille Herron at the Mad City 100K Road Nationals last year in Madison, WI. Despite a brilliant career in marathon running, with many overall wins, she wasn't known yet in the ultra world. That was her first ultra and she took the win which gave him a ticket for the 100K World Championships... which she won outright! She also won the 50K Road World Championships last year and came to Lake Sonoma in April for her first ultra trail race, but took third, missing a golden ticket for Western States.

This Saturday was going to see quite a duel between her and our local Meghan Roche from Sunnyvale, another world-class runner, both on road and trails. And then there was Kasie Enman, a Salomon Team runner from Vermont and used to get on the podium in the super competitive SkyRunning race series. Then Caitlin Smith of Oakland, the defending champion!

The competition was even deeper on the men side, with more than a handful of runners pretending to the win, if they were not killing each others by falling in the technical downhills of this course. Here is Will Gotthardt who had a big crewing responsibility for several of the elite runners today: Scott Tummer, the winner of Ohlone 50K this year, and Caitlin.
As for Alex Varner (yellow top, Nike ultra racing team), a local legend for his blazing times on the Dipsea course, and second fastest time on this course (3:41:49!), he has other big goals this year so he wasn't going to go all out this Saturday, at least that's what he told me before the start.
The race is directed by Tim and Diana Fitzpatrick from the local Tamalpa Running Club, who bring their own ultra running expertise and experience to make this race a Marin County tradition with an outstanding organization which is key for a National USATF Championship. They also manage to get additional prize money for course records and that has attracted more elite runners from other States these past years. Mind our Ultrasignup rankings which are sinking deeper with every of these super fast races...

After a 5-minute briefing, Tim sent us off at 7:30 am. The weather was overcast with mild temperatures, perfect racing conditions. 15 seconds before the start, I realized that I had forgotten my pouch of GU2O in the car. I typically use one bottle every 15 miles so need one refill on a 50K. I thought of getting back to the car but instead, decided to keep calm and not worry about it. That I will use for once the electrolyte served at the Cardiac aid station. I had my S!Caps, 4 GUs, and one Vespa concentrate, that should do it. Actually, that will have to do!

I actually started in the middle of the pack to check who was in the M50-54 age group. Indeed, in every National Championship, we have to run with a bib on our back indicating the division we are competing in, either Open (under 40), or by 5-year age groups. I had seen in the list of registrants that there was William Emerson, 52, from Oregon, with a higher Ultrasignup ranking than mine, so I was wondering how this will play out. William had a very impressive ultra running resume in his late 30s and early 40s including an overall win at HURT 100, a couple of overall wins at Chuckanut 50K and Quad Dipsea, and many other podiums. But these two charts show us on different aging trends... By the way, I'm desperately and ambitiously trying to get to 90% and got quite close after Skyline with 89.95%, but this race was going to get this score down again...

Moving my way up toward the front of the race, I stopped by a runner wearing an M50-54 bib and asked if he was coming from Oregon. He replied that he had been there a few weeks ago as a matter of fact, but just for vacation. And he must have wondered why I was so interested in Oregon all of a sudden... Then I chatted a bit with another runner in our age group, Mark Murray, who pointed me to that other M50-54 runner he didn't know either, but that we could see about 200 yards ahead. I picked up the pace and caught up with him before the first big climb on Coastal Trail, out of Muir Beach. There he was, William Emerson, and we chatted a bit. He had actually run this race more than 10 years ago when it started at Rodeo Beach, like Miwok, and asked me if we were still running the same course, which I confirmed. I thanked him for visiting and, after I introduced myself as a local runner, he thanked me for hosting, so giving back the credit to our Tamalpa friends. He started alternating walking and running in the steep hill so I decided to keep running and passed quite a few other runners on that hill, catching up with Excelsior runners, Jason Reed and Karl Schnaitter, and Caitlin too, as well as Stanley Peng.

After the top of the hill, we can spot a few miles of the Coastal Trails but the leaders had already disappeared into Pirate Cove, amazingly fast runners! With that, I had little clue about where I did now stand but wasn't caring too much anyway. My first goal was to get my age group win, hopefully breaking 4:30 again this year, especially if that was what was needed to defend my title of last year, and also hoping to make the top 20 with such a deep competitive field. Oh, and not being too much chicked either... ;-)

Jason was flying in the long descent toward Tennessee Valley, I could only pass Caitlin and barely catch Karl, but I passed them and a few other runners in the tough climb up to the ridge over Rodeo Beach. I was now seeing three runners ahead: Kasie, and two runners with black tops which I thought were both from the West Valley Joggers & Striders Club. The first one, Edward Randolph, was, but the second one was from the Sacramento area and Edward's friend. I was able to pass him and got close to Kasie and Edward just before the Rodeo Beach aid station, but Edward faded away in the subsequent climb on Miwok Trail. Caitlin caught up with me in that climb and I decided to tie in to her effort to close her gap with Kasie. Cailtin has a short stride but a much faster leg speed than me, so it was a completely different rhythm but did the job quite well indeed. I followed her as we flew down to the Tennessee Valley aid station at mile 11.5. She flew through the aid station quickly thanks to Will's help, while I had to lose a few second in order to have a cup of Coke filled in, but I caught up with Caitlin before Coyote Ridge, with Kasie still in sight.

As we were now going down Miwok Trail toward Highway 1, it was super exciting to see Camille being chased by Meghan, a minute or so ahead of us. I still had no idea what was going on on the men side, but that meant I was right in the women battle for the lead! I stayed with Caitlin until the bottom of Cardiac, the famous section of the Dipsea trail. A volunteer at the Highway 1 crossing told us we were just 30 seconds behind Kasie and, indeed, we could still see her. But she disappeared after a few turns, so I kept pushing the pace and left Caitlin slightly behind, yet couldn't close on Kasie before the top. Devon Yanko was at the top and told me "I'm not telling you that there is an aid station just around the corner because I know you know", and she was right... ;-)

We were at mile 19.5 and that was the time to refill my GU2O bottle which whatever electrolyte they had the aid station. Fruity and artificial taste but it had to do because we were far from being done yet. Grabbed a piece of banana and off I was before Caitlin reached the aid station. We were still in the cloud and wouldn't see the sun today. I got a very personalized welcome and encouragement from Jerry Flanagan and Christine Chapon who were volunteering to get us through Pantoll and off we were on Matt Davis Trail after crossing the busy Panoramic Highway. After a few turns, I saw a runner with a white top and I was quickly closing on him. Oh no, it was Camille who was falling apart. I told her what was ahead and gave a few words of encouragements as she managed to follow me in beginning of the steep and technical downhill but I lost sight of her after a few switchbacks as I was focused on not falling with all the hazards of this section: roots, some muddy and wet sections, sharp rocks, irregular and steep steps and many hikers trying to navigate this horde of runners (really a bad day to hike a trail on race day...).

Not knowing what was happening behind, I kept pushing and flew through the Stinson Beach aid station. This time, as opposed to Tennessee Valley, Will had still Caitlin's flask in his hands! As I walked a few steps at the bottom of the Dipsea Trail to get an S!Caps and a GU, I saw Caitlin behind and that motivated me to run, well jog, all the stairs on that section, phew! A mile later, I could now see Edward, about 1 minute and a half ahead. Yet, I couldn't push the pace in the infamous Steep Ravine. It was weird to think that I climbed the ladder which marks the marathon distance on this new course at the time that leaders must have already finished, that is around 3:40 of running... But what can you do... I actually walked much more than what I wanted but managed to still close some on Edward and Joseph Rivera. I passed Joseph just before our second passage at the Cardiac Aid Station, then started chasing down Edward.

At the top (Pantoll/Cardiac), I was really surprised that Devon told me that time "wow, you passed about 20 people!" because I had only passed Camille and another runner since I saw her. It just shows how confusing it is to track runners at that point of the course which sees all of us twice.

Anyway, it took me less than a mile to catch up with Edward and pass him, without even realizing that this has happened before, as he told me later at the finish. I kept pushing the pace all the way and badly twisted my left ankle as I was trying to avoid a mountain biker, that reminded me that everything could still happen with 2 miles to go and I had to remain super careful. We finish with almost a mile worth of super sharp switchbacks, maybe 30 or so, and that seems like taking for ever to negotiate all these turns, so much that I could hear Tim announcing Kasie's finish down in the meadow. As I was getting to the finish line 4 minutes later, Tim saluted with the word legend I think (oops), then an interesting "Here is the only runner carrying two bottles" which kind of surprised me (well, I saw a bottle in the bushes in the switchbacks, so maybe some elites throw their bottles on the course like on the Tour de France... ;-). As I was trying to catch my breath, Tim also kindly asked me for my time (4:27:28) and told me that I had improved my age group course record by 10 seconds! Well, I had not checked that but, indeed, I ran 4:27:36 2 years ago, so 8 seconds faster this year, I'll take it, especially given this year's circumstances. (I barely broke 4:30 last year too with 4:29:24.)

As expected though, the top guys had finished for a while and had changed already. What was less expected is a few of them were covered with blood, yikes! Meghan had won and broke the course record by 5 minutes, with a blazing 4:20:51 (Kasie taking second in 4:23:47), a record worth a $2,000 bonus this year! But her usual smile was showing a very bloody lip. Meghan's husband, David Roche, finished 2nd but with even more blood, and dirt, on his face. David has a weekly column in Trail Running Magazine, and I can already imagine the next article being something like: "If you don't have blood on your face, you haven't tried hard enough..."

Scott Trummer took 4th and had 3 bad falls, with cuts and blood on both is swollen knees. I haven't checked everybody else but heard about other falls and I saw a picture on Facebook of Sam Robinson, from Inside Trail Running with blood all over his face at one of the aid stations (he went one for 11 more miles before dropping eventually). I've never seen this before, such speed on technical trails is becoming insane, apparently some people don't read the speed limit postings, duh.. ;-)

The top 10 runners on the men and women side got an official award ceremony and below are a few pictures. As for the age groups, we were handed the medals individually and confidentially, so no pictures this time.

Top 10 men (from Cody Reed from Arizona with the check on the left, to Jorge Maravilla, 10th):
 Top 10 women (missing one on the picture):
The podiums with Tim and Diana:

Here are two very special spectators of this award ceremony, our Mountain Ultra Trail Grand Prix co-chairs, Hollis Lenderking and Bill Dodson.

Stats wise on my side: I got 16th overall, 14th men, 2nd Masters (1'59" behind Nate Bowen, 40) and, yes, winning my M50-54 age group for my 7th National title and 2nd this year. It was my 133rd ultra race and 59th 50K race. Again, given the circumstances, quite a great day and outcome! Except for the 80%-worth performance in Ultrasignup...

All the results were promptly posted on the race website.

After a bad race last year, Scott Dunlap was happy to run 4:44 this year (good for 2nd in the M45-49 age group behind Edward). And I look forward to seeing all the pictures he might have taken with his iPhone during the race!
Mark Murray catching his breath at the finish (3rd in our age group in 5:01, behind William Emerson who finished in 4:53).
And, among more than a dozen running this race, 2 Quicksilver teammates, respectively Brian Boyer (5:45) and John Brooks (6:34).

And another teammate, Bree Lambert, got a National Champion title in her W45-49 age group, while also winning the Masters division! Didn't catch her with my camera at the finish, but here she is, running to get ready before the start... ;-)

To summarize I'd say that: most people had a great day thanks to the weather conditions. A few ran, if not very fast, at least faster. A few had bloody falls. And a handful even managed to both have a bloody and very fast race, still managing to avoid major injury despite falling on their face... What a day it was yesterday for trail racing... (in addition to watching the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc live throughout the weekend!)

Perfect race organization, from registration, pre-race emails and directions, parking monitoring, porta-potties (yes, that counts too! ;-), ample course marking and monitoring, aid stations, chip timing and prompt publishing, the drinks at the finish (I'm not a beer fan but I did see so many happy faces around the bar), the age group winner and finisher swag (super soft t-shirt fabric!), the sponsors (special kudos to Cliff Bar for spoiling us with their products) and... the delicious pizzas from, made on site! I'd be curious to know how many hundreds of pizzas they made for all of us this Saturday afternoon! They were so busy that I couldn't get them out of the tent for a team picture this year, so here they are, in different shots.