Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ruth Anderson 2014: moving targets

After the 1,072 entrants in the American River 50-mile 2 weeks ago, a field of 87 registered for this weekend Ruth Anderson ultra races appeared like a family run. Especially if you now consider the 35,000 participants to Boson this Monday! And, for Ruth Anderson, it's actually 3 races in one event as you can pick between 50K, 50-mile or 100K during the race.

That won't surprise many, I had a big goal for this Saturday. For those who follow my blog, I had planned on participating to the US Nationals 100K last weekend. However, the nagging injury which appeared in my tibialis a couple of days after Jed Smith 50K 10 weeks ago still prevent me from training seriously. I took one day off after American River 50-mile then had a great week running 6, 9, 12, 9, 18 then 29 miles on Saturday. The injury reappeared 14 miles in my long run, while I was at the top of Black Mountain, so I had little option than running a few more miles to come back home... I had planned on running again on Sunday but it was too painful so I tapered for another week instead, except to test my new Brooks PureFlow which I wanted to use for the 100K this weekend. 6 miles of pure bliss, the test was conclusive. Back to the Nationals, I DNS'ed (Did Not Start) or, more exactly, I even DNR'ed (Did Not Register). Ironically, there were only 33 participants, including only one local running in my age group who took the National title with a comfortable 11h36. Let me salute still the performance of the winner, Zach Bitter in a blazing 6:44 as well as 2nd place, Joe Binder, 30, in 6:56. I actually met Joe a few years ago when he set the 100K course record at Ruth Anderson in 7:00:19, 12 minutes faster than Jon Olsen, both making it to the USA 100K team. See the results of the 21 finishers at the MadCity 100K Nationals.

Pierre-Yves picked me on his way to the start, a good opportunity to catch-up and learn about his own ultra racing plans. To prepare for Quicksilver 100K and Western States, he was definitely going for 100K as well. I shared my goal of improving the American M50-54 Age Group record which has been set by John Sullivan 32 years ago in 7:38:43. As a matter of fact, I never ran a 100K that fast, so it was quite an aggressive goal, especially on the Ruth Anderson course which isn't flat. I ran 7:51 last year, faltering before the 50-mile mark so I was hoping for a better and smarter race to improve by 13 minutes. By the way, the AG course record was 8:30, so that would have been 3 records at once, include a Personal Record.
We started at 6:30, in a fresh but nice breeze and past dawn so ample day light. Enrique Henriquez was the only one to join me at the front of the race, despite my efforts to start as slowly as possible. We covered the fist mile in 7 minutes and I intentionally slowed down in the next hill to let him pass. After asking me which distance I was shooting for, he said he was on the 50-mile and picked up the pace. I was not going to see him again all day.

Race Director Emeritus, Steve Jaber, had prepared a pace sheet based on a 7h30 100K, a 7:15 pace. With my initial 7:00 pace, I was 1 minute ahead of schedule at my first of 14 passages on the finish line. Although a minute doesn't seem to be such a bid deal, I knew I was going out too fast, yet I could manage to slow down. I need to learn this skill for my upcoming 24-hour events, darn... I was still feeling great in the 3rd loop, although having strange GI (Gastro Intestinal) sensations. With my efforts of slowing down, I managed to lower my average pace to 7:01 by the end of lap 2 and 7:02 in lap 3 but the half marathon mark. I was still about 3 minutes too fast for Steve. In the 4th lap, my intestine was cramping, I had to make a pit stop at the South aid station. Almost 2 minutes, it seemed like an eternity and, I felt the urge to pick up the pace to make for the time "lost," which I did. It was not 8:30 am, the bike path had many more users on this East Saturday morning and I kept lapping other participants, receiving and sharing some encouragements. All that provided some distraction although I kept really focused on my pace and listening to my body, trying to figure out how the GI issue was developing. Here is a picture from runner Chihping Fu at the beginning of my 4th lap:
Lap 5 felt ok but not as easy as the first three, I had to recover from the extra effort spent in lap 4. I was now closer to the "ideal" pace, around 7:10 average and passed the marathon mark in 3:05, 9 minutes faster than the record pace. In lap 7, I started feeling quite tired and out of juice, so much that I caught up with teammate Jeremy Johnson but was enable to actually pass him. Not enough juice in my legs but, more importantly, not a single motivation left in my mind. I forced myself to keep up with Jeremy, my lap pace was now down to 8:20 and I knew the record attempt was gone. Actually, while approaching the 50K finish line, I thought that, if it wasn't for the team and Grand Prix competition, I wanted to just stop and call it a day. For those of you who don't run ultras, you may think that, since I was going for 100K initially, it shouldn't have been a bid deal to just go for 50 miles instead. But there is a big difference between 31 miles (50) and adding 19 more miles when you don't feel good. Then, of course, adding another 12 miles after that.

Interestingly enough, with the faster start, I was still "right on pace" for the record, passing the 50K mark in 3:45. I've done 50Ks much faster than that, so all things looked fine from the outside. But, internally, I knew I wasn't able to run faster than 8 min/mile now, even 8:20 felt uncomfortable. After the 50K mark, the new goal became to at least run 4 more laps and even that wasn't a good prospect in my mind. Instead of the 32-minute target, my laps were now in the 37 minute range. By lap 8, all the parties following my progression had realized that I had slowed down too much and was now off pace. There were still quite a few miles ahead so I forced myself to keep hydrating despite the lack of interest and motivation.

In my 10th lap, I was expecting Enrique to pass/lap me, would have he continued on his sub 7 minute pace for the whole 50 miles. That didn't happen and, with contrition, I turn around at the 49.3-mile mark to finish the 50-mile in 6:22:57. As it turned out, Enrique had also switched goals, winning the 50K race in 3:31 so I was the 50-mile champion, which I had not expected at all.
Although many would give a lot to win a race, I was still quite disappointed about myself, not just for the missed goals but also for having asked Rajeev to go through all the trouble of getting the event sanctioned by USATF so the records could be official. Fortunately, I wasn't the only going for such a record: legendary Eric Clifton had come from South California to also attempt a 100K record for the M55-59 age group. As it turned out, Eric missed his goal too and switched to 50-mile instead.
Rajeev was upset that I felt sorry for him and he didn't want to mention anything about that in my blog, but that's still my blog, so I'll do it anyway. ;-) My personal frustration only grew, when late Saturday evening, I check Ultrasignup.com and RealEndurance.com to discover that I had also missed the M50-59 50-mile course record by 1 minute and 31 seconds. I had not check what that record was before the start, maybe that would have provided some motivation in laps 7 and 8. I guess I'll be back on that course then...

With that, what happened on the course with the others? I already mentioned Enrique's win on the 50K. The 100K was won by Nakia Baird in 9:16. While Excelsior took the team win in the 100K, we got the win in the 50-mile (Stephen Wassather, Jeremy and I) and took second in the 100K (Marc Klemnenic, 2nd overall, Pierre-Yves Couteau, 4th, and Jim Magill). And many more personal adventures, from Barbara Ash for whom it was the 386th ultra (!!!), to ultra rookies like my friend Frederique Garderes for her first 50K. Not to forget Bill Dodson's feat on the 50-mile, a few months before turning 80. Although Bill was also aiming at 100K, he very well deserved a beer from our Quicksilver President, Greg Lanctot. Here is "King Bill:"
Special thanks to Race Director extraordinaire, Rajeev Patel, and his co-RD, Anil Rao, here with their most official team of time keepers: Dave Combs and Stan Jensen and, standing, Molly, a new volunteer, Steve Jaber, Anil Rao, Rajeev Patel.
Yes, it was the first time the event was chip-timed thanks to Dave Combs new "toy:"
Here is Anil with the North Aid station Chefs:

And a warm thank to our team Captain, Loren Lewis, and Club President, Greg Lanctot, for having spent their day assisting and encouraging all of us this Saturday!

Here is Loren, with Jeremy, which is slightly misleading as Loren has actually spent more time on his feet from 5am in the morning to 7 pm, from helping at the registration to attending more than one hundred of our passages through the aid station:




And here is Greg, offering a pack of Oreos to speedster Chikara Omine for his next gluttonous challenge (Chikara has been off for 7 weeks because of an injury):
Although the conditions were outstanding, it wasn't the perfect day I was hoping for, not getting all the stars aligned. Yes, I started too fast, this is a star which I should be more in control of... The initial GI issue derailed my sugar intake. I did use Vespa but I kind of lost interest in the additional GUs to provide a few extra calories to sustain a record-setting effort. It is still pretty amazing that I was able to cover 50 miles just on 3 GUs, 2 cups of coke and 3 bottles of GU2O. As for the mental, still working on it after 97 ultras... By the way, the flexible format of the event, where you can pick your distance "on the go" is particularly challenging mentally. The injury didn't bother me during the race at least, but it's still too sensitive this Sunday for a run, can't take the risk of damaging it more 2 weeks before Miwok, then Quicksilver, then SilverSate. Yes, I know, crazy schedule ahead, we'll see how these races turn to really be training runs...


Good luck to all my friends running Boston tomorrow, the planet is watching you, seize the opportunity!

PS: a few more pictures on Facebook

Saturday, April 5, 2014

American River 50-mile 2014: a smarter race

It was my 95th ultra since 2006 and 7th consecutive American River, although I had miserable asthma crisis in the first editions which I have been thankfully able to get rid of for the past three years, with Singulair. I walked 34 miles of the course in 2008 and dropped at Beals Point in 2009. Needless to say, I didn't have a love affair with this race initially... Last year I had a breakthrough an managed to clock a Personal Best of 6:47:39 and placing 4th thanks to a slow year. For those reading this blog regularly, you know I've been injured and unable to train all February and March except for winning my age group at the US Nationals Road 50K then agonizing with cramps at Way Too Cool 6 days later. I took 18 days off after Way Too Cool and, the MRI not showing anything noticeable, logged 100 miles over 8 days, leaving 2 days to taper before this 50-mile. Not a model of injury recovery and training, but I didn't feel any pain so I decided to toe the line, start conservatively and see what happens.

The major news about American River is that, after starting in Sacramento since 1982, Race Director Julie Fingar and her staff redesigned a course starting in El Dorado Hills, claiming more trails.
So everybody was eager to discover this new initial section and when I say everybody that's many people as there were 1,072 entrants, making it comparable in size to JFK 50-mile.





We started promptly at 6 am (the first 500-runner wave, followed by a second one at 6:15) and it was still quite dark despite a clear sky. When we drove with Agnes on Friday afternoon, there were quite a few showers and I become worried that the weather forecast wasn't going to be the one I had read before leaving, leading me to not take any jacket. Although we still need so much more rain, I was relieved to see the clouds gone when I woke up at 3 am. It has indeed been a gorgeous day and the rain had probably also cleared up the pollen. The trails were humid and soft but the creeks were very low and the mud at certain places had already almost dried up. Perfect conditions for this 35th anniversary edition! The remaining clouds on Friday evening:

After starting on a road section for less than a mile, we were soon on a trail and it was still dark, a good excuse to slow down, around 7:30 min/mile, quite a big change from our crazy 6:30 or so min/mile starts on the bike path of the previous course! I followed a "train" of runners including Ethan Veneklasen and Mark Lantz. Our average pace was 7:39 when we reached the first levee, now with good visibility and ready to hammer down the bike path, meaning running downhill along Lake Natoma. I passed Mark around mile 11, thanking him for the initial smart pace. At the turnaround before crossing the American River, my pace was now down to 7:12. Slightly faster than my plan but, again, that section was mostly downhill. I stopped at Negro Bar (mile 20) to refill my Gu2O bottle as Agnès was nowhere to be seen. She told me later that she got stuck at the start and had to wait for one hour before they reopened the Brown Ravine Marina road which derailed her plan.

I traded places with a few runners, me faster on trails, them faster on the asphalt and reached Beals Point (mile 24.3) in 10th position (I learned later). Here are the top 10 runners at Beals Point:
Agnès was there to assist me for a quick refill at the aid station and to encourage me.





And off I was after 24 miles, for the remaining trail marathon...
Agnès managed to make it to Granite Bay too, although I would not stop at that aid station. Recto...

...et voilà, verso!
I passed three runners in the hill leading to the Granite Bay "roller coaster", again I had no idea about what was going on with the head of the race but I couldn't care less, my main goal being to keep my injury under control and keep a consistent pace. After Granite Bay, Julie had us doing a 2.2-mile detour, called Twin Rocks Loop, to ensure the course was 50 miles.
I wasn't really sure what we were doing as I'm not so good with course directions anyway and orientation in general, so I followed the orange ribbons and chalk signs. I must highlight that the course was extremely well marked, you had to be either blind or quite disoriented to get lost today! By the way, I passed the 50K-mark in this loop in 3:54 (faster than my Way Too Cool!), and had ran the first marathon in 3:14 (thanks, NorCar Ultras for marking the trail with that mark).

The next section through Buzzward's Cove and Horseshoe Bar includes a tiring succession of short and rocky ups and downs which always have a big toll on me. Thankfully, I developed my mental to handle them but I still can't believe how brutal this is when you want to maintain a 8 or 8:30 min/mile pace and you have 35-40 miles in your legs... Not only I had to pay a lot of attention not to fall (well, maybe I'm getting old after all...), but it was hard to also manage avoiding the poison oak on both sides of the single track. 1/2 mile before Horseshoe Bar, Nicolas Glatt, whom I had passed before Granite Bay, caught up with me, with his pacer. That gave me a boost/kick to keep going and maintain the pace, and I managed to distance them with 12 miles to go. The racing bug had finally caught up with me... ;-)

Agnès was also at the Rattlesnake Bar aid station and refilled my Gu2O, I was now good in terms of fluid for the last 9-mile stretch, although I was glad to get more ice at Last Gasp (mile 47.5).
There was a runner 2-3 minutes ahead of me at Rattlesnake Bar but I didn't have the energy to chase him. At this point, some people were saying I was in 7th, others in 10th (that must have included three pacers), then I saw Penny Beeston running on the trail in the other direction, who said she thought I was in 6th. With my bib #7 and my lowered goals and expectations for today, 7th was good enough and I went deep to keep moving despite the fatigue and lack of training. I ran most of the last 3.5 miles, some quite steep, but I had to walk a bit in the last mile, finally hit by some cramps. Still, so much better at mile 49 of 50 than for 18 miles at Way Too Cool 50K a month ago...

Nobody was to be seen behind so I wasn't in a hurry. I crossed the line in 6:51:33, 1st M50-59 (Greg Nacco would take 2nd in our age group in 8:00:48 and Veteran Tim Twietmeyer didn't make it today unfortunately -- Errata: Tim actually ran with on if his sons, Austin, 19, and they finished together in 10:29, what a great family story!). I also placed 2nd Masters behind Thomas Reiss who had a great day, taking third overall and clocking a 6:39:59 (in Brooks Connect!).
The race was won by Joel Frost-Tift, 25, of Los Angeles, and a 2:26 marathoner, in 6:26:52.
He was followed by Matthew Morales, 24, in a time of 6:30:40. Congrats to both of them for their successful first 50-milers!
I wouldn't leave the NorCal Ultras' Ultra Village at the finish line before getting the best of the massages, by Ve Loyce, the ultimate Monster of Massage. If it wasn't for my tibia which is painful again this Saturday evening (damned!), I'm sure I'd be running tomorrow, my muscles being drained by this powerful and healthy deep massage.
A big thank you to Julie and her crew, their professionalism, ultra running expertise and attention to all the details related to an event ran on such a large and sometimes remote area!
It was cool to see the originality of each aid station, Bill Dodson's costume at Main Bar, then the the Roseville football team serving the post race lunch in uniform!

And a big thank you to Agnès for driving around all day and back to the Bay Area and taking pictures, leaving her no time to even read a magazine...

Last but not least, since a few of you asked me on Facebook: what do I think of the new course? Many people argued that is was much slower, from 10 to as high as 20 minutes. Personally, I just lost 4 minutes from last year. On one side I'm a bit older (sometimes aging counts... ;-), and was clearly undertrained. On the other hand, I had a smarter race thanks to a slower start which prevented me from bonking in the second half. The first 2.5 miles on a trail, in the dark, are certainly slower than the equivalent mils on the bike path of the original course. But then, it's 12 miles on a donwhill bike path which is clearly faster. The next section up to Beals Point and Auburn is then similar, except for the additional 2 miles of Twin Rocks which aren't the most technical. So, maybe a few minutes lost in these additional 4.5 miles of trail but probably less than 5 minutes for the elite guys, who, by the way, tend to not participate to AR anymore since the race isn't in the Montrail Series and therefore not offering Western States spots. Now, for us mortals, I believe this initial trail section is an opportunity to actually start more conservatively and likely to save time afterwards by a better pacing early on. Assuming you don't twist an ankle in the dark... So, overall, maybe 5-10 minutes slower, at least for those not afraid of trails of course! With great conditions as the ones we had today, I'm sure experienced ultra speedsters can break 6 hours again!
Looking forward to coming back for this top event and course. Tim Twietmeyer has a record 33 finishes and it was Gary Wang's 20th finish today, what a commitment! Or just passion and love for this South counter-part of Western States, both races finishing in Auburn, the self-proclaimed world capital of ultra!