Saturday, March 8, 2008

Way Too Cool: cool, at last!

All last week I was both excited and quite anxious at the same time. Wondering how my third run of this popular race will turn out. I was not blogging yet early March last year, so you didn't hear much about it from me. Basically it was not a good experience because of some exercise-induced asthma, like at Miwok later last year. A disappointing 4:45:42, with a lot of walking in the second half of the course. The year before (2006), that was my first ultra, and I simply crashed, going out too fast (4:29:50).

But, since Miwok, I stopped taking the Echinacea supplement I had used for several years to prevent colds. Reading the instructions printed on the bottle, Agnès discovered that this supplement should not be taken when you are subject to asthma. Oops, what are the instructions for? To be read, dude! Interestingly, I did not have any more asthma crisis since then, but a few colds last fall and winter... Between occasional colds and exercise-induced asthma, the choice is easy! And now I can compete more consistently, with my lungs back!

This week then, I was hoping to use as the title of my weekly post: "WTC 08: too cool, at last!" As you see, I have dropped the "too" because I had a great experience, yet there is room for improvement. And competing at this level is still hard work...

By the way, a precision for the non (ultra) insiders (Hi Mom!) so they can understand the title: Cool is a small community close to Auburn, CA, the world capital of endurance sports and finish of the the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run in June. The race could have been called "Way to Cool" but it is actually "Too Cool" indeed to start the ultra season this way. The Californian way!

It all started with a great, quiet and long night at our favorite hotel in Auburn, the Best Western Golden Key Inn. This hotel is perfectly located for WTC and Western States (the finish), and Agnès and the boys appreciate very much its pool and jacuzzi. Half the hotel was probably occupied by runners that Friday night so the hotel had the breakfast set for 5:30am!

As usual, a very well organized and smooth registration process. A great sweatshirt and cool Brooks (!) technical t-shirt in the goodie bag. Plus the March issue of UltraRunning magazine (found my subscription copy in my mailbox on Saturday afternoon, but at least the one from WTC is clean -- I don't know why the copies I receive in the mail are consistently damaged with teared up covers; must be our mail(wo)man who is passionate about ultra too!). Was fun to go through this special issue reviewing 2007 performances, on the way back, while Agnès was driving. And find my name in several pages/listings, along with illustrious names! ;-)

With such a large field (457 entrants) I saw many familiar faces from the ultra community and had a few chats as we had some time before the 8am start (the Evans, Bev about the Coastal Challenge, Stan Jensen, Graham Cooper, etc.). It was cool at the start (42F) and the temperature was forecast to jump to 70F by mid day. A very sunny day. We changed time this weekend (daylight savings), two weeks ahead of spring, but it was definitely a spring day. Many were wearing singlets with or without gloves. I thought it would be safer to have short sleeves and, apart from several sunny sections at the end, I was happy with my choice and kept my silk gloves the whole way as the breeze remained cool and most of the course was in the shade anyway. As for the shoes, I have the feeling I was the only one with trail shoes in the lead of the race; I saw many road shoes and flats which were indeed OK since the trail happened to be completely dry, unusual at this season. But the Cascadias 3 are almost as light as racing flats, great multipurpose shoes.
By chance, Agnès got a shot of the eventual winner, Todd Braje, #112, from Eugene, Oregon. Turning his head and with bib #1 is Lewis Taylor, last year's winner, also from Eugene. One head above the pack is Tim Twietmeyer who must have run WTC close to 30 times now. And if you zoom, you will find my head (white cap, sun glasses) next to his left arm. A packed start...
As expected, the start was darn fast. At least for four reasons: the first 4 miles are downhill, including the first 1.3 on a paved road, the field was the most competitive ever and everybody wanted to warm-up in this cool morning. Like two years ago, I started with a comfortable 6:15 pace but at least this time, I was not leading, I was probably in 30th position! As usual, Andy (Jones Wilkins) was on fire and telling ultra tales to the company.

I passed Scott (Jurek) as he was really taking it easy around mile 5. Like when I passed Graham (Cooper) at Ohlone last year, I thought "what am I doing, I'm going to regret that..." Anyway, I told Scott how nice it was to see him in California again.

Then, in the technical downhill to the fist aid station, I was on Eric (Skaden) and Hal (Korner)'s heels. Really a good and dream company, isn't it?

At the Hwy 49 crossing, everybody was cheering Scott and he got his water bottle filled faster than me. I stayed behind him for the next 2 miles and it was really great to have the opportunity to see this legend from so close and so long. Cool? Not, too cool! In the technical sections, he is like a bird, or a tightrope walker, keeping his balance with his arms wide open. Too bad I could not tape that, but I will keep these images in my mind for a long time. What an inspiration!

As we approached the steep uphill to Brown's Bar, Scott ate something and drank a lot. I was a bit surprised as we were only 45' in the race. Surprised too to see how much he was sweating with only his Brook singlet on. When I was wearing two layers... I figured out he must still train in cold weather in Seattle and that was the start of heat training for him. We had a short chat about how different this trail was from late June at Western State and, when he learned who I was, he remembered I had sent him some tips I harvested from my week on the UTMB course last summer. He apologized for not having found the time to respond, then we talked about each of our week with Karine (Herry) and Bruno (he stayed at their bed and breakfast after UTMB last year). Then a bit about his race program for 2008. Such a nice and talented runner. And one other proof of the real sense of community of the ultra running family, a sport in which the elite is still so approachable.

Anyway, we reached the bottom of the climb to Brown's Bar and it was time for me to wish a good one to Scott as he kept running, leaving five of us in the dust, walking... I was not going to see him again for the next 23 miles...

I ran the next two miles behind Erik (2nd at Western States in 2006 and 2007) before losing his track. Finally, nobody in sight in front or behind me, I was getting my own race and settled to a pace which I felt was still very fast (too fast?), yet was mine.

I was glad to get to ALT1 (our first passage at Auburn Lake Trail), with a river crossing just at the bottom of the station, then a warm and comforting welcome from quite a large crew. Got my water bottle filled and, in a rush, dipped a baked potato in salt, put it in my mouth with a piece of banana and two pieces of watermelon... Yikes, what a cocktail, which I kept swallowing for the next mile. Rob, my pacer last year at Western Sates, taught me not to waste time at aid stations. Here is the result, so long the gastronomy and the opportunity to get to know the crews better...

In the uphill after ALT1, I was thinking how Graham and Tim passed me then last year, when I had already trouble breathing. I told myself "not this year!" The next 3 miles were fine. I was pleased to see the GPS indicating 17 miles at the 2-hour mark. That was very encouraging for my sub-4hr goal, although i was conscious the start was easy and I tend to start too fast and pay for it at the end... In a technical downhill to a creek, I almost tripped before passing Michael Buchanan. I was surely getting tired and this didn't help. Michael passed me back in the strenuous and steepest climb of the day, Ball Bearing. As well as three other runners. Short stop at ALT2, mile 20, to refill my Gu2O bottle. The volunteer said I was about 25th then. She was close indeed. Then came the section where we cross the back of the pack. The single track is really narrow and most of these runners are so nice to do acrobatic figures to jump on the talus to let the lead runner rush on their way back to the finish. I felt so grateful, and also embarrassed for these runners who had to stop for us, some of them who will be on the course for 8 hours or more. I don't remember how many of these and the nice smiles and words of encouragement. Every time I made sure to say "Thank you, and have a good one!" and after maybe 50 of these, I started losing my breath... In a passage I was slowing down I got passed by Roy Rivers. Roy is a Marin County running celebrity, excelling on the Dipsea course in particular. In one of the Runner's World forum threads about WTC last week, we were discussing the bets Karl Metzler had made in one of his posts. And not knowing many of the guys coming from Oregon, my best bet was on Roy's win of the M50-59 age group. Easy and safe bet: Roy finished 22nd overall, 2nd of the Masters (I was happy with third...). Last year I actually missed a turn at mile 7, continued on a fire road, crossing a gate. 2 other runners followed me, including Roy. We had to go back up the hill and that cost us at least 5 minutes, not to mention we were then back in the pack for a tricky section. With this sprint, plus a bad fall trying to pass a runner, this is were my asthma got triggered, way too early in the race. This year, I was paying more attention to this turn, and I just had to follow Scott anyway. Roy, still charging in the last yards (you won't give him 50 years, trust me!) for a 3:53 finish time:
In the last stretch I got passed by Edward Randolph, then Hal (Korner) in the climb to Goat Hill aid station (Hal was the perfect Goat, hopping from one rock to the other). Here he is at the finish, all smile, as fresh as getting in Robinson Flat to tackle 70 more miles! (For the non-insiders, Hal won Western States in 2007! And Robinson Flat is the station at mile 30, the equivalent of what we run at WTC.)
Despite the fatigue, it is always nice to see Norm up there, always joking, kidding and encouraging the runners. Last year he was wearing a woman costume, with quite some colorful make-up! Nothing fancy this year. Norm was surprised to see a chip on my shoe, he had not realized we were "chip timed" (like for American River 50-mile and Western States). Looking at my hesitation in front of such a buffet (including soup!), a volunteer asked me "What do you want?" To which I replied "Oh, just get to the finish!" Before leaving, Norm also complimented me for my gaiters asking where I found them. They are from Dirty Girl Gaiters and I love them! Especially with the Cascadias which are quite low and get dirt in them easily. The gaiters are light, soft and exist in may colorful models. They are also "dirt cheap" ($13, incl. shipping). I picked an international model on which France and the US flags appear next to each other (as well as many other nations). They got actually "portrayed" by Andres, our official photographer at the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica (Photo by J. Andrés Vargas - www.AdventureandPhoto.com):


By the way, for the non insiders, Norm is a legend of ultra. For running himself, but for at least two other reasons: being the husband of Helen Klein, a holder of many 70 and 80 year age group records on marathon and beyond. And also for setting up several ultras in the area, including the Helen Klein Classic the first weekend of November and Rio del Lago 100-mile in September.
I had 3:20 on my clock and the station sign was claiming 26.2 miles (good for yet another unofficial Boston qualifier!). Actually the GPS said 25.2 which felt more accurate. Yet that meant that I'd better get going to finish under 4 hours as I had lost much of my initial speed. I did not leave without wishing Happy Birthday to the "old goat" though!

I passed Erik (Skaden) in a short climb after the station. 2 miles later, I heard someone sprinting behind me. I jumped on the side of the trail to let pass the lead gal, Susannah Beck, yet another member of "Team Oregon", showing an outrageous superiority today. Susannah was on to set a new Course Record, breaking the one Ann Trason set 15 years ago, by 4 minutes! Wow, she was really flying. And, although 39, that's only her debut in ultra...
Barely stopping at the Hwy 49 crossing, I just grabbed a coke. I heard bells, and learned later that was Greg from the car as Agnès was driving back to the finish. Some walking in the last hill, with Eric Grossman (VA) and Bradley Mongald (WV) at sight. They were talking a lot and had to sprint or I would have caught them on the finish line! After such a difficult finish and some incertitude in the last miles about the reaching of my sub-4h goal, I let my joy explode on the finish line (unusual enough to get noticed! ;-).
My pace chart really shows my struggle in the last 10 miles. The scale doesn't really show that I was running many of the first sections at 5:30 to 5:40 min/mile. And the last ones around 9 min/mile when not walking. Overall, I ran the first 10 miles in 1:10, the next 10 in 2:20 and the last 10 ones in 1:30. Not a good progression or trend, it was time to reach the finish!
Although the elevation gain and loss is only about 3,500 ft (the scale of the chart below is a bit exaggerated on the vertical axis), this is not an easy course: some downhill sections are tricky, there are a few steep uphills which break your rhythm, many rolling sections in which you have to constantly adapt your pace while going up and down, and narrow single track most of the way.
In many races, we are so spread out that we don't see anyone between the aid stations. What surprised me the most this year is that we were constantly passing or being passed, showing a much higher density of the lead of the race. Besides, it was really fun to run among such an elite field.

All the results have been promptly posted on line on Saturday evening. 442 finishers: not a record year but quite a good one (WTC has always a very good finisher rate, usually above 95%). I was the last one of 28 to finish under 4 hours this year. The last record was 16 (2002) and the number is usually around 10. For what it is worth since the race does not count for the Pacific Association USA Track & Field Ultra Grand Prix this year, I was 3rd of the Masters. And since age groups are only 5-year wide above 35, I can't wait to be the youngest in my new age group next year!

I was expecting an Oregon versus California match: Oregon had an outrageous win overall. 10 of the top 25, the two first overall runners (male and female), the top 3 males! Ouch, they surely know how to train in winter and they are up to the legendary skills developed in this State for sprint and distance running. With Scott taking 4th less than 3 minutes behind the winner, that completed the superiority of the Northwest region over California. Way to go, guys, and see you back in the heat at Western States!

There are a few more pictures from Agnès posted in my Picasa album.

From last year, I remembered the benefit of getting a massage right at the finish from the amazing Monsters of Massage (Newcastle, CA). At Boston we get students and the massages tend to be quite light. Here you get the pros, the "monsters", and they press your muscles down to the bones! I barely feel any soreness as I'm writing these lines on Sunday, kudos VeLoyce!
Runners kept coming in the tent to get a ball of soup or a Pepsi. Or a massage. Or some ice to heal an injury as there were quite a few casualties: Bev, who won last year, took second but could barely walk after the finish, suffering from a terrible tendinitis. Rob (Evans) who pushed me to break 4 hours, completed the course in 4:08 despite injuring a tendon too. Caren (Spore) had fallen and her hand was bloody. Eric (Grossman) had scratched his arm through a bush and had blood all along. Oops, did I hear my father (a medical doctor) saying that running in general, and ultra in particular, is not safe...? Let's change the conversation then...

While waiting for the massage, I caught up with Kenny Brown and his wife, from San Jose. When I was mostly road racing in the Bay Area, he was one whom I was only seeing from behind. A 2:31 marathoner (Napa) and 1:10 on half marathon. He placed 3rd here last year in 3:47, and taking off with the lead runners again, he placed only 23rd this year in 3:55. He plans on continuing mixing cross-country, road racing and ultra, so we will see him again on the trails!
I had another nice chat with Scott about his plan to race in Europe again this summer (at least the Spartathlon which he won two years in a row already and where he would like to challenge Kouros' time).

Scott autographed my Brooks ID (Inspire Daily) singlet:
I discussed with Will (Gotthardt) about his race. I met Will for the first time at Ohlone 50K last year, his playing and training backyard. Will has been running ultras (50K) for only a year and plan to run his first 50-milers at Firetrails in October, where he will be well positionned to get the Dick Collins Roocky Award. We talked about the great opportunity that WTC represents to meet and run with the top ultra runners of the country. He had a blast himself, running in Nikki (Kimball) and Graham (Cooper)'s company, two Western States winners.

I thanked Race Director Greg (Soderlund) for the perfect day (and organization!), and for giving me this special bib number, 44. Although I told him I might be only 11 (see the whole story about me being born on 2/29, California time...).

This is such a professional job, definitely a full time job. Including of course the fate of assembling such a top class team of volunteers manning the 3 aid stations (2 double) which need to remain open for the entire day. The stations were perfectly stocked and even soup was served, in the morning!

A chat with the Western States "founder", Gordy (Ainsleigh). I told him that I contributed a picture for his Wikipedia page (below); he didn't know and will check it out. Gordy came with his chiropractor table and an irresistible offer: "I will fix (realign) your body for $1!"
With such a good representation of the West Coast ultra "who's who", hanging over at the finish line was a treat. Being like in "ultra heaven!" Unfortunately, all good things have an end and Agnès was anxious to drive back so we left by 1pm.

But, was it enough about running? No! Being in Auburn this Saturday, I wanted to take the opportunity to get an overview of the finish of our coming American River 50 (a 50-miler, first weekend of April). 2 hours after my finish, we parked at the Auburn Dam Overlook where I saw a runner (Lon) who had evidently just run that last hill. I asked him for the directions and he indicated I will find a paved road going down to the river. I was surprised because I thought only the first half of the course is paved (the part I know from Helen Klein 50-mile), and the rest on trails (which were very muddy last year as it rained as much during the race as it did during our Boston marathon weekend). Anyway, here am I, going down to the American River which I reached after 1.7 miles, at a power station. Preserving my quads which were still hot after the 50K, I went down 800 ft in 15 minutes and came back up to the parking in 19 minutes. Bottom line is that I didn't see any road or trail down at the river so I believe that was not the AR course... At least I have a sense of the final elevation we will have to go through in the last 2 miles, in 4 weeks.
See you all in 4 weeks then, for more fast miles!

Farther, and faster...

14 comments:

Sarah said...

What a great race report!! Congrats, Jean, on your race and excellent placing in your age group!!

Sarah (PCTR)

Ted's Blog said...

Congrats on your sub-4hr FINISH!!! What a great report...I walked by you before the race and I was going to introduce myself but I still needed to fill my bottles. I'll be at AR50, so if I run into you again..I'll say hello! Congrats again on a great performance! Ted Nunes

Chihping Fu 傅治平 (超馬阿爸) said...

Jean,

Thanks for sharing this great report. I admire your writing detailed report for every adventure.

I never had a chance to run it due to the long driving, but I always enjoy seeing the performance in this run!

Great job. Sincerely hope to have a great season this year. See you soon!

Chihping

Rajeev said...

Jean,

I ran the race last year and it was a fantastic day, just like this year.

You report is wonderfully written. 3:56 is a blazing time by any standards and I congratulate you on the time and the high finish.

See you in AR50.

Rajeev

Anonymous said...

Encore un grand exploit, ce temps...mais, je ne sais pas si je vais transmettre à Papa le passage sur toutes les blessures des uns et des autres!
Bravo
Maman

willgotthardt said...

Jean-

Yeah no doubt one of the finer performances on the day, great that you were able to put it all together with your third try...well done.

Another terrific recap as well.

As a fellow 40+yo your speed/endurance continues to impress & inspire, and thanks for the kind words in your post.

Best of luck at AR50, then see you at Ohlone.

Will G.

Jean Pommier said...

Thanks for the compliments guys, it was such a pleasure to run in this company! I had my mud training all completed after Costa Rica, that was useless for this WTC edition. :-)

See you on the trails,

Jean.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Jean,
Congrats on a sub-4, great race report with lots of famous ultrarunners, and most importantly on figuring out how to better control your asthma (we are supposed to always ask about herbals too, but rarely is it relevant). You're going to have an awesome year, your best to date. I think I should stop even thinking about maybe winning PAUSATF this year... See you at AR (probably only at the beginning and when I catch up to you at the end)!

Anonymous said...

Jean,
Looked like you were having a blast out there as you flew past me (back of the pack) with a huge smile. Your kind greeting of "great smile!" was a nice boost for me. Congratulations on an absolutely great run! I can only imagine what it must be like to move so fast.
Diane

Anonymous said...

This was my first WTC and I saw you coming back and you flew by me. It was very impressive. Congrats on your excellent finishing time.

Tony Overbay said...

Jean, great race report! You're dead on, the elites being very approachable and great to talk to. And guess what, to me, you're an elite! So I look forward to chatting with you at AR50. Thanks for the comments on my blog as well. I'm far from ever running with you on a trail but feel the commeraderie nonetheless. And let me 2nd the plug for the Monsters, I see VeLoyce regularly and he's worked miracles! Happy training!

Tony

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Way cool you could stay with Jurek long enough to see his downhill technique up close. (If I ever tried that, I would undoubtedly crash, either literally or figuratively.)

Lord said...
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