Sunday, April 6, 2008

American River 50: never give up!

Ouch, right when I thought I was healed from exercised-induced asthma... I was going to wait until Miwok next month before claiming victory, but there is actually no victory, unfortunately. As you might have read in my Way Too Cool post last month, I had finally a great race there after two tough years, with my lungs functioning perfectly this time, which I attributed to stopping taking Echinacea supplement after Miwok '07 which was then the last race I suffered from asthma.

A long day

The day was perfect for a great race. Cool, mostly sunny with just a few clouds during the day, great competition, dry trail. With such a good setting plus the great form and training of these past months, I had told Agnès I was shooting around 6:45 for my first edition of this legendary race (29th year!). 2 years ago I was barely on the ultra circuit as I had ran my first 50K at Way Too Cool. Then, last year, I had to pass, because the race was the same weekend as the Boston Marathon (which I have ran every other year for the past 8 years). I gave her provisional splits from Keith's great online tool. We decided that there would be too much people at Beals Point (with potential pacers waiting) and agreed she will rather come with Greg at Negro Bar (mile 23.5), depending on the time they will take before leaving the hotel.

We stayed at the Larkspur Landing hotel, which is really convenient, just 1 mile away from the start. So convenient that I jogged 3 miles before the race, making a round trip to pick my bib then enjoying the comfort of the room to get prepared. Arrived just in time though, and got stuck in the pack trying to get on the tiny bridge we were starting on before taking the bike path (there must me an historical reason for such a setting, because this is really not the most convenient way to handle a pack of 500 runners...).
The start was given right at 6am and, in a short initial loop, we were first going down the river, for about 1.5 miles, before going up the American River for the remaining 48.5 miles, hence the name of the event. It was much darker than I thought and, as I was navigating between the runners to reach the head of the race, I paid extra attention not tripping on the side of the bike path. Steve (Bremner) recognized me as I was passing him. Steve is from Colorado and ran the Coastal Challenge with me this year. He followed me and I introduced him to Mark (Tanaka) and Michael (Kanning) who were chatting and had apparently decided to run together today. Steve and I went on, despite Mark's warning that the pace was fast enough. Steve followed then decided to slow down, wishing me a good race and that I won't see him again before the finish! As it turned out, I did see him indeed, and Steve had a great race, taking first place in his M50-54 age group in 7:13.

The first loop got us back at the start line where spectators were waiting for us. I had finally settle for a 6:35 minute/mile pace, seeing the flashing light of the lead bike 4 to 500 yards ahead. I was running on my own when I passed Agnès, 22 minutes in the race.
To the second, I kept this same exact pace for 10 miles, keeping an eye on the lead group in which Anton Krupicka had already taken his singlet off. I was running really smooth and well when, all of a sun, I felt this known inflammation in my lungs. Mark (Lantz) and Kenny (Brown) were with me at this point and I had to let them go to slow down. The start of a very very long slow down throughout the day... I was still running up to the Nimbus Overlook (photo credit: Peter Zinsli) and in the top 15, but that was the last piece of uphill I was going to run today:

After Negro Bar, I started getting passed by runners. First, Mark and Michael, still running together. Mark ended up in 15th position this year, 6:42, against 6th overall last year and 6:52 in a much more difficult rainy weather and muddy course. Good for 3rd of my age group, M40-44, behind Jorge Pacheco (6:20) and Mark Lantz (6:23). As for Michael, he easily won his age group (M1-17!), finishing in 7:47 and 40th overall. Way to go, guys!

With my breathing difficulty, I was hoping to see my crew, Agnès and Greg, at Negro Bar (mile 23.5), with my inhaler. No sign of them so I kept cruising as we were still in a relatively flat section of the course. Same at Beals Point although we had said it might be a too busy place to meet (actually this station has a huge parking lot, so it would have been a good option). Steve (Bremner) passed me right after Beals, then Jenn Shelton, from Bend, Oegon, who ended up winning the women division in 7:02 and 20th overall (Jenny Capel taking 2nd in 7:13). In his usual focused and steady way, Tim Twietmeyer passed me at mile 31, just before Granite Bay. With the fast start and the cruising, I passed the half-way mark in 3:05 and the first marathon in 3:16. For what it was worth, another Boston qualifier...

I was finally much relieved to find Agnès at Granite Bay (mile 31.5). She handed me my inhaler from which I could barely take a puff as inhaling and breathing was making me cough. Enjoyed the station for a couple of minutes, told my crew I was sorry for them because that was going to be a long day, as I didn't want to give up and preferred walking the rest of the course. It was 10:15am and, with my inability to run the up hills, still quite a few hours ahead of us. Agnès said she will be at the next station then, but I didn't see her before Rattlesnake Bar, 8.4 miles, 3 aid stations and... 2h15 later... In the meantime I kept being passed by nice folks who almost asked me if I was ok while I was stopping on the side of the single track to clear the path, while paying attention to the abundant poison oaks (yikes, I got badly hit again on Mount Diablo last week, clearing the path for the runners of the Mount Diablo 50-mile race, next week). Among them I met Ted (Nunes) from the Runner's World forum, and Eric (Schranz) another member of the Brooks ID (Inspire Daily) team. Several runners actually proposed me an inhaler, I never realized so many run with one on them.

Rattlesnake is where Kermit (Cuff) passed me. And Ken (Gregorich) who told me he was like me, having a very bad day. Kermit, though, was all smile. I told you about him in my previous post, after meeting him at our trail maintenance work on Mount Diablo, and the connection I established through Sarah (PCTR) with Vincent Toumazou, who will pace Kermit at this July Badwater. This picture of me getting in Rattlesnake Bar shows that even the down hills were difficult today, usually one of my specialties.

Discussing race strategy with Greg!
With the "never give up" spirit of the 49'ers (the pioneers of the West and founders of all these trails), and the moral support of my crew and friends, I went on for more miles up to the next and last "bar", Manhattan Bar (for sure, the Pioneers had a hard life, but many bars along the trail to get some carb along the way!).

In many stations I was welcomed by people who recognized me, like Burton from the trail running community on the Runner's World forum, at Horseshoe Bar. This time it was Jerry (Hill), one of the founders of our Cupertino running club, the Stevens Creek Striders, and long time Friend of the Western States Trail.

As my average pace was increasing inexorably and now up to 10:15 min/mile, with 7 miles to go, I was wondering if I would break 9 hours or not, especially with the last 3 steep miles up to the finish line. It really forced me to dig as deep into my lungs as possible to walk and jog the last miles to finally finish, with Greg on my side, in 8:53. A lesson of perseverance and courage, for me. And stubbornness too. Not my first one, quite similar to my 2002 Desert Classic Marathon adventure in Phoenix, Arizona, where I was in top position at mile 8 and had to walk the remaining 18 flat miles at 15 min per mile to be sent to the hospital at the finish where I stayed for half an hour before seeing anyone and deciding to leave.

So, yes, asthma is a serious handicap when it kicks in. And when it does, it makes me appreciate even more my past performances, when it does not... One thing is sure though: despite what some people think, it is not because I started fast that it kicked in this weekend. I was in great shape and it was my pace. Although I am keeping a detailed running log, there does not seem to be a single triggering factor among pollen, cool temperature, stress, dry air, speed, nutrition. I was hoping Echinacea was THE thing, but this weekend's experience contradicts this hypothesis. Unfortunately. So I will continue the experiments and, again, enjoy the races where I have my full lung and 80-VO2-max capacity! After 10 minutes sitting in the shade of the finish line tent, the pain of the end was quickly surpassed by the great feeling of accomplishment (I surely take the ability to run an ultra too much for granted) and the joy of getting to the finish line, overcoming the challenges and... meeting with exceptional people such as Anton Krupicka, finally!

Overall this day provided me with an opportunity to see more runners than usual although, despite the slow second half, I did see only the first 25% of the field (finishing 111 overall among 466 finishers). A big thank you for the support of the ones who passed me, and the gentle pressure of the ones who did not and helped me moving forward. I never thought as much of you as this Saturday, these many hours that you spent after we had finish our run. I cannot mention everyone of you of course, but what about Gloria Takagishi who did not miss any of the 29 editions of this race and finished this year again in 12:41!

More than usual, and same for Agnès and Greg, I enjoyed the views of the places we went through. Flowers, rocky sections, the never ending Folsom Lake, canyons, wild turkeys, jack rabbits, this is just one of the pictures taken by Agnès, of the local California Poppies, the State flower symbol:

Last but not least, more time to enjoy the volunteers, providing the same personal and outstanding service and support to every runner, from the elite to the slower ones, and over so many hours in the day. And let's not forget the usual flawless, yet remarkable, organization of Greg Soderlund and his team.

The Kanning-Pommier Challenge

Before closing this post, a short additional story about this week. On Thursday, the Cupertino High School, Max and Alex' school, was visiting Homestead High School, of Cupertino, for a Track and Field dual meet. The Pioneers (Tino) against the Mustangs (Homestead). Interestingly, Homestead is the track where Bob and I do our speed work sessions, twice a week, the best track in the area. I was alerted not by Max, but by Michael (Kanning), the same Michael I mentioned above and also a Brooks ID'er (i.e. Inspire Daily team member). Michael was only going to run the mile, since it was just 2 days before AR. Max was up for the mile and 3,200m (2 miles), despite his lack of training as he focused much more on drama and the Seussical musical lately.

Michael's PR on the mile was 4:59, at 16. Max is 15 and is PR from last year was 5:04. A perfect setting for a match. I told Max not to think of the follow-up 2-mile race. He gave everything he had left after 6 tiring weeks (the musical), ran a great race, passing Michael in the last turn, with 200 yards to go. Michael fought back to the end and passed Max just before the finish line, right on 4:59. With Max setting a new PR at 5:00!

Although the meet turned to Tino's advantage, overall, with my poor performance at American River, Michael won the Kanning-Pommier Challenge 2-0. Way to go, Michael, just by yourself!

I will see some of you at Ruth Anderson in two weeks. Happy miles in the meantime!


Dave - Atlanta Trails said...

Congratulations on pushing through this race despite all the asthma trouble. You are a true champion!

willgotthardt said...


Sorry to read of your struggles, well done on seeing it through and the positive attitude overall.

Will G.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Sorry about the breathing, but way to stick it out, Jean, and nice report. I had also concluded you'd figured out the asthma thing and didn't expect to see you after you passed Michael and me. When you breathe well, you run much faster than I. Do you think running with the albuterol inhaler would've made a big difference?

Michael Kanning said...


Way to perservere, good job on pushing through to finish. Sometimes it's good to have to push through a really tough patch, because every time you succeed in doing so, you'll be more likely to succeed the next time. I figured something must have gone wrong for you when you didn't pass me in the second half, but I am confident that if you can be in full health at RA, you'll astound everyone with some crazy new PR-and I will quickly go 2-1!

Grae Van Hooser said...


What meds do use use to treat your asthma? What is your Hx of asthma attacks?

Steve said...

Jean: I was wondering what happened... I never beat you on a single stage of the Coastal Challenge so I was surprised to catch you at Beal's (27.4). I did glance over my shoulder after Beal's on that weird hairpin turn and you were moving quite slowly. You showed great spirit to continue on to finish what you started... Enjoyed seeing you again...

Tony Overbay said...

Nice report, Jean! All the problems you had and you still beat me by more than 2 hours...and I thought I had a good run! Wish I was a Dr. and not just a therapist. We can talk about your breaking but that's as good as I get :-) Looking forward to seeing you at the start at least at future races.

Anonymous said...

Tu me mets fait pleurer! Mais bravo pour ton courage "exemplaire" au sens fort du terme.

Jean Pommier said...

Thanks for stopping by, guys, and caring.

Dave, during all these hours I was actually thinking that a real champion would have dropped as they don't really care about DNF as long as they don't perform well (e.g. Anton has a DNF in his résumé and Scott dropped from UTMB last year, to save stamina for Spartathlon). But I'm just not accepting this "handicap" as a reason to DNF...

Mark, you are the Doc. The inhaler helps to contain the effect, but doesn't reverse it, so it's too late when it has kicked in. Yet, I'll likely take it with me at Miwok.

Grae, I only have asthma attacks once or twice a year, always during a race, so I don't treat it (I mean it's not chronic). First occurence was at BSIM (Big Sur) in 2000, then Phoenix Marathon in 2002, then CIM in 2005, HK 06, WTC 07, Miwok 07, AR 08.

See you on the trails,


Peter Lubbers said...

Way to go, Jean. I admire your tenacity. I hope yo uhave a good race at Miwok.

Greg said...

Awesome job, bro!