Sunday, August 24, 2008

Headlands 50K: a good training run

I know, by choosing this title for my race report, I take the risk of appearing presumptuous. But, please, bear with me, I hope you will see what I mean.

Actually, a couple of days before the race, I thought that, if I was able to finish this one, without too much pain in my injured right quads (see my Skyline race report and the following posts), I will title my post: "Headlands 50K: just in time!" Meaning that I had healed in 3 weeks, just in time for racing again.
Certainly, the training for this year's Headlands 50K has been far from optimal. After 11 days of rest following Skyline, I resumed a light training with a progressive series of daily runs: 2, 5, 9, 12, 7.5 (track) and 13.1 miles last Wednesday. Although the pain was fading away the first 5 days, swelling, tightness and pain came back on the 6th day. My sister Marie and her husband Bruno, both MDs, arrived on Wednesday night. Marie is my remote sport medicine expert and I rely often on her judgment, formed on consultations over the phone or email. Both Marie and Bruno were not optimistic about my quad and suggested I ask my local doctor to get an ultrasound done to see how much the muscle was damaged or torn up. I saw my family practice doctor on Thursday but did not get the referral as it did not appear serious enough for him. All Friday, I was kind of procrastinating, wondering if I should participate in this trail 50K US championships or preserve my quads for the coming French Nationals of 100K road the following week (8/30). The three doctors were rather leaning toward the latter option, yet on Saturday morning at 5am, Agnès, Marie and I were driving up to the beautiful Marin Headlands (North of the Golden Gate bridge).
The US Championships... Surely, when I looked at the list of participants last week, it was a bit suspicious US champions on the distance would be crown this weekend. 77 pre-registered runners is quite a small field. The second clue was that the championships were not advertised on the race website, when it was last year. Well, at the end of his pre-race briefing, Race Director Greg (Nacco), confirmed that there was no championship today. Given the circumstances, I was not too disappointed because I was not ready to push my quads too much. However, I thought it was interesting because the idea to compete in the championship again this year was surely a big part of my motivation for showing up this morning (as well as participating to a Grand Prix event and avoiding a DNS, a "Did Not Start" since I sent my entry on the day I found out Western States was canceled.
7am, with temperature in the 60s and a very low and grey sky, here off we were for a rolling-coasting 50K. The start is on Rodeo Beach, which makes it tough with the soft sand. Cliff (Lentz) and some other runners chose to run close to the water, on the firm sand. I did not see them first, so I chose the shortest but more difficult path through the soft sand. On this picture you see the group of runners on the beach lead by Cliff on the right, and I on the far left, paddling in the soft sand...:
Quickly on the Miwok Trail, Cliff, Michael (Buchanan) and a third runner in red took the lead and I was already 1 minute 20 seconds behind them at the top of the first hill. On the way down, I was trying hard not to speed up like last year, to preserve my quads. I saw them going through the first aid station (the horse stables of Tennessee Valley); I was then 1:35 behind which I felt was not too bad. I spotted them going through the top of the second hill, and lost 10 more seconds going up hill. That was the last time I was going to see them until the finish. I like this picture taken by Agnès because, yes, there was some serious "trail work ahead", certainly in a metaphorical way!
I was expecting seeing Agnès and Marie at the second aid station, but they were at the 1st and 3rd instead (Tennessee Valley and Pan Toll). Going up Pan Toll, I recalled that it is usually where Erik Skaden passes me (at this race or Miwok). But he was not here this year so I just used him as a virtual pacer to keep pushing. Half way to Pan Toll, we were getting into the cloud and it was very misty, with the trail being even muddy in some places. Adding to it the slippery roots and steps reminded me our first stages of the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica (check this event out, they already got half the available slots taken for next January!).
On my way up to Pan Toll is when I realized I was running without thinking about the race. I forced myself to not push the pace in the previous two downhills, that is was just a run to train, and I caught myself into really running like in an intense training run rather than thinking about other racers. Only the aid stations, the valorous volunteers and a bib number on my shorts were here to remind me that it was not a supported training run, but a race, indeed!
Last year, Victor (Ballesteros) passed me on the technical trail heading down to Stinson Beach, the aid station slightly after the half-way point. In this section, you have to hop over roots and steps, stop and turn at many 180-degree switchbacks, bend to go under trees blocking the way. For all these reasons, I was fearing this part of the course and thought that, if I can get to Stinson Beach without pain in my quads, then I will have a great and successful run. And no pain did I feel indeed the whole way, what a relief!
Agnès, Marie and 3 volunteers welcomed me at the Stinson Beach aid station (next to the fire station). One of the volunteers said that the other runners were 5 or 10 minutes ahead (I thought that was quite a vague indication as 5 minutes make a big difference on a 50K). But both Cliff and Michael were faster than me last year (4:15 and 4:17 respectively, versus 4:23 for me), so I had no intention to push the pace more on the way up back to Pan Toll. We were still running in the cloud, missing the usual wonderful view of the Pacific Coast. We go back to Pan Toll on an another trail, along a very nice creek (steep ravine trail). After a turn, I ran into a male deer with majestic antlers (I hope this is the right term, I had to look into the dictionary). We both looked surprised but I must have appeared the most determined as he quickly left the trail to give me the way.
At Pan Toll, my crew was here again (5th time including the start) and introduced me to the volunteer indicating us the way through the Pan Toll Park Headquarters (a short detour from the usual course), an avid reader of my blog, cool! I picked a piece of chocolate (yummy!), hoping to fix the nausea which started around mile 14 (not sure if I was not drinking enough because of the fog and humidity, or what I missed in the food despite taking bites of everything). It helped a bit but my stomach stayed upset until after dinner, slightly better after the afternoon spent at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk where my company had its company picnic.
Agnès asked if I'd prefer we meet again at Muir Beach or a the finish. I chose the finish and was surprised to see them at the crossing of Shoreline Highway, then Muir Beach (they had to sprint to get to the aid station on time!) and the finish! 8 meeting points on such a course, what a crew! Too bad they could not even enjoy the view as we stayed in the fog the whole morning.
From Stinson Beach to the Finish, I slowed down, keeping looking back to see who was coming behind but did not see anyone. I thought that I could make it under 4:30 but my average pace got over 9 minute/mile in the last hills which I mostly walked. The finish always appear longer than you imagine, especially comparing with the Miwok finish.
I was not thrilled with my time (4:40:48) but was really happy to finish without having felt any pain in my right quads the whole way. I figured out that I got in 4th overall and 2nd Masters, behind Cliff. But Cliff told me I was third overall actually, behind Michael (4:21:10) and himself (4:27:11). The other lead guy dropped on an injury. Victor came in 1 minute and 6 seconds after me, I had no idea he was that close.
We debriefed on our respective performances and running season so far. Michael was 9th overall last year in 4:21, Cliff 6th last year in 4:15, Victor 7th in 4:41 and I, 11th in 4:23. So quite some shuffling from last year results but overall slower times this year. Either because of the weather, or the lack of competition, or our own personal circumstances, or a combination of all that. Jason Reed came in 5th, from 29th last year, in 5:08, 5 minutes faster than last year.
A special thank to the many volunteers who gave their Saturday up to assist us and stay all day in this cool and misty weather. From the registration, the website updates, the well stocked and manned aid stations, the lonely volunteers placed at each strategic turn, the perfect marking, the time tracking table and BBQ at the finish. And Greg as race director. THANK YOU! Every time I saw one of you, I felt joy, awakening from my training run state as you were reminding me there was actually some race going on... Thank also to the sponsors: Montrail, GU, Stevens Creek Software (thanks Steve Pat and see you in two weeks to volunteer at your Stevens Creek 50K), Sunsweet (missing the Abbs), SAS.

We enjoyed the BBQ but we would certainly have welcome some sun. Then, with the family, we spent the rest of the day at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Based on how well my quads behave this Saturday, I am now decided and excited to participate in the French Nationals, even without much training. For what it is worth, I surely got some strength training with almost 2,000 meters of elevation. Yes, for what it is worth, because next week's 100K is completely flat, and 98% asphalt. No high expectations in terms of performance as this is my first attempt at this distance on road (7h30-7h45?), but I do hope the weather will be good (I don't like rain, especially while running on the road). My main goals are to participate to an ultra event in France, enjoy the company of the ultrafondus, see what this type of event is about and participate to an event sponsored by Brooks.

Au revoir et à la semaine prochaine; ou l'année prochaine...! (*)

(*) Bye and see you next week; or next year...!


Anonymous said...

Bravo et tant mieux pour la douleur.
Dommage pour tes fidèles supporters que la visibilité ait été si mauvaise!
A mercredi

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Congratulations on your respectable performance despite injury! It's good that you could hold yourself back a bit to stay on the safe side. You inspired me to try this event, and I struggled through as best I could- my first 50K. Those hills were certainly killer, especially the last few, which looked deceptively easy on the profile view compared to the earlier hills, with their narrow rocky trails, erosion ruts and loose stones, and so steep! They made the track up the Dipsea trails seem sedate by comparison. I don't know how anyone could run up those (except maybe mountain goats!)

We're working on a post too, from a different perspective than yours here. It may take a while to finish though- I'm still exhausted and sore all over!


King Arthur said...

Nice shirt!

Jean Pommier said...

Glad you made it Cynthia. Looking for seeing your scientific analysis of your experience!

Others, Mark (Tanaka) forwarded me the link to the article in the Marin Independent Journal.


Chihping Fu 傅治平 (超馬阿爸) said...

Thanks for another great race report. Good luck (and no quad pain) at France National 100K!


Rajeev said...


Great report. Good luck in the French National 100K race.

A bientot.