Monday, September 29, 2008

Rio Del Lago 100: giving it all

Almost. Giving it all is a strange expression because you had better keep some energy not to die in our ultra runs. But, from runners to crews to volunteers, there was a lot to giving in these hot conditions on the trail this Rio Del Lago weekend. And, at many points along the course, I had the feeling of giving it all...

To make a long story short, this has been a successful experience finishing 2nd of my 2nd 100-miler with a time of 18:46. Every 100-miler provides a different experience and surely I found this one tougher than last year's Western States mainly because I went out too fast.

Now, there are so many things which I want to recount that I am going with numbered paragraphs for this post. For the ones not interested in the details, and a picture being worth thousands of words, you can jump to my online and commented Picasa album.

1. Pre-race

Getting there. I registered to Rio Del Lago (RDL) the day after I learned Western States (WS) was canceled in June. There are two 100-milers in our Pacific Association ultra Grand Prix and only one of WS or RDL count for the rankings. Without WS, and being too late to register for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), then RDL was the best option for my yearly 100-miler. Yet, I was not as focused on the event as WS to say the least and did not work on the logistics before a couple of weeks ago. I was glad when Michael (Kanning) offered to car pool as Agnès could not leave the Bay Area before Friday evening, which was too late to attend the mandatory medical check and briefing of Friday afternoon in Granite Bay. It was very nice to meet and get to know Michael's crew (father and grandfather). RDL 2007 was Michael's first 100-miler last year (at age 15!) and his grandfather paced him, what a great family story! Michael is working hard at improving the US junior record on the distance and it is really unique to meet these three generations involved in such an endeavour.

We arrived at Cavitt High School at 3pm, just in time to avoid the line for the medical check. After a quick check (blood pressure, pulse, weight), we were invited to participate to a study conducted by UC Davis on the evolution of body composition in such an ultra endurance event. The temperature in the afternoon was quite high and announcing a challenging race on Saturday.
At 5:30 pm Norm did the pre-race briefing in his unique and inimitable style. After reviewing the course in details he invited a few runners to join him and shared some personal annecdotes for each one. There was Mark Tanaka who was still wearing his Emergency Room clothes just out of work, Geoganna Quarles coming again from Florida, Shannon Farar-Griefer from Moeben who offered each runner a pair of white sleeves, Michael Kanning, whom Norm left competing last year for his first 100-miler at age 15, Rajeev Patel, an ultraholic who has inspired and coached many runners in the Bay Area, ultra elite Rena Schumann and favorite and local Greg Bomhoff.
RDL is for sale... That was the scoop of the day and a very moving and emotional part of Norm's speech. Norm explained that Helen is turning 86 and retiring from her spectacular senior marathon and ultra marathon career. Helen asked Norm ("only" 70) to step down from RDL. Norm still hopes that Helen will let him direct the Helen Klein Classic for many more years. He added that HK is much easier to set up than RDL. Told some stories about people unmarking the trail a few days prior to the run, the logistics starting 10 months before the race, 20 volunteers withdrawing in the last week, the difficulty to set up some aid stations for up to 18 hours. Personally, I also hope that HK will continue for many years in honnor of Helen. Anyway, Norm said that nobody has stepped up yet to take over RDL so this may be the last RDL and SNER.
With Michael's crew we went out for a past party at Pasta Pomodoro, conveniently located between the school and the hotel. We were joined by Rajeev, his pacer Anu, and another ultraholic, Karen Bonnett. As Karen was pronouncing Bonnett the French way (without the t), I asked if she knew James and sure enough, she is her aunt. I have seen James, an ultra prodige, compete in Western States several times including last year when he finished 14th overall, 43 minutes in front of me. It's not a small world, it's a connected world! And, between German, Indian and French roots, that was quite a cosmopiltan ultra dinner, reflecting well the richness of the Silicon Valley melting pot.
I met Mark Tanaka and Joseph Swenson at the hotel, where Mark was complaining about his hectic schedule, lack of preparation and wondering if he should enjoy the couple of complimentary beers. I advised him not and wished him a good night.

2. Race day

Dedication. I ran this race with two special people in mind. My brother Thierry and a Bay Area ultra runner, Tom Kaisersatt. Thierry is going through rough personal times in Paris and he was running Paris-Versailles this weekend, a 10-miler which has a big and long hill half way. I told Thierry I will have plenty of opportunities to think of him when climbing dozens of hills on the Rio Del Lago course and I did. Thierry did very well, around 1:06 (I ran this race two years ago and finished just under the hour, after pulling a muscle in my calf in the first mile while chasing the three lead gals, from Kenya and Russia...).

Another person who kept me going during this long race is Tom. Tom has inspired numerous runners in the Bay Area and beyond, mainly through his involvement in the San Jose Fit running club. I've known him through the Stevens Creek Striders. Tom has been helping out for many years at Western States, at our Last Chance aid station. There, he is known from the volunteers and runners from cooking delicious grilled cheese sandwiches, and I did indeed enjoyed one during my run in 2007 (June 2006 picture). Tom is fighting lung cancer with the same obstination as his ultra running and we all wish and pray for a quick and complete recovery. After his third chemio, Tom plans on running the San Jose Marathon on October 26, in stages and at a 30 minute/mile pace. I will be there to support him and please consider joining us if you are free that Sunday morning. Here is Tom introducing me to the art of trail maintenance back in March 2008 when I was doing my service hours for Western States:
Another proof that it is a connected world: when I told Michael about Tom's conditions, his grand father remembered him from their time at the Mofett AMES/NASA facility in Mountain View, several decades ago. Yes, small world...

Norm delivered his second briefing around 5:20 am. Just before, I had taken a pouch of Vespa, following recommendations from many other runners, lately, such as Jon Olsen, Scott Dunlap, Kiwi Paul. And I confirm it worked for me too. My gastric system was not so good just before the race but I had no issue for 36 hours, which really helped during the race. I'm sold!
With Rajeev and Karen:
With Mark and Michael:
With such a mental boost, we took the start at 6am (and not 5:56 am, thanks Norm!), in the dark morning of a hot day. It was really dark and thankfully, I had a headlight, based on some advice from past runners that it helps running in the first 20'. Michael stayed on my heels to take advantage of the light beam (he was not carrying a light), and I was following a few runners including Jon Olsen, last year winner and course record setter. Mark (Tanaka) and Bev (Abbs-Anderson) were just behind us, chatting (Bev took 2 months off to heal some quad injuries after Tahoe Rim Trail 100).
After a couple of miles, the course marking became confusing as we were getting on a trail shared with a triathlon this Saturday morning. Our lead group missed a turn and we went off course when about 8 of us reached the shore of the Lake at the start of the triathlon. Jon got us back on the trail and Michael took the lead of our group, pushing the pace as we were now passing the pack of runners, chasing Mark who was supposed to pace Michael in the first part of the race. After a few miles at a pace faster than 9 min/mile and still no sign of Mark, I had to calm Michael down. I went ahead and set the pace to 9 min/mile. We skipped the first aid station. Michael was excited because we were "putting time in the bank" in his own words. Unfortunately, there is not such thing in ultra, you'd rather have an even pace. At the second aid station, we asked if there were runners ahead of us (meaning Mark) and we were told yes. But it must have been the lead runners of the Sierra Nevada Endurance Run (52-miler or double-marathon) because, by the third aid station (Rattlesnake Bar, mile 12), I appeared first on the timesheet of the station.

I left my headlight with Michael's grand-father, dipped some potatoes in salt, ate a few pieces of banana and got off to catch-up with Michael and Chikara who had already left the station. Seeing Chikara with only one bottle I remembered that we had more than 9 miles before Maidu and went back to the station to fill up my water bottle. Michael and I both did a pit stop after Rattlesnake and we let Chikara go. We did not stop at the unmanned Power Plant station (water only, and only 2.2 miles after Rattlesnake). After a few more miles in the shade, we reached the famous Cardiac hill which we half ran, half walked. In the last switchbacks of Cardiac I looked down and saw Jon closing the gap on us. The three of us reached Maidu (mile 21.24) at 9:05 am, but Jon left first and I told Michael "we won't see him again today!". At this point, Jon also confirmed that Mark had also missed a turn in the first miles and was "way behind us."
The mile before Maidu was along a small canal, in the shade, my favorite section of the whole course. Shortly after Maidu we reached the Auburn Dam Overlook aid station (mile 23). Again, Jon left first, then Michael, still in a rush.
Chikara was still ahead and out of sight. Just at the exit of the aid station, there is a large water container which horses competing in the Tevis Cup (the same course as Western States) can drink from. I dumped my Brooks cap in it to keep my ideas fresh and clear before getting in the hot canyon down to No Hands Bridge.
Faster than Michael on the downhills, I passed him and, after a couple of miles, caught up with Jon who had himself caught up with Chikara. When we reached No Hands Bridge, Chikara was first, I was second. There was white markings (arrows and lines) leading us not on the bridge but up a steep hill, like we had to climb on Highway 49. I was surprised but decided to follow Chikara, before I heard Jon yelling at us. For this reason, Jon entered the station first, followed by me then Chikara.

Jon took off first in K2, a 1.25-mile up hill getting us to Cool. Chikara followed but I quickly passed him. To my surprise, I reached the Cool Fire Station aid station first. Jon told me later that he missed a turn at the top of K2 and started completing the loop that we were supposed to take later on our way back. Along with the nice volunteers, Greg helped me fill my Gu2O bottle up and Agnès prepared my Cool Off bandana with ice. Needless to say, the temperature was already high at 10:30 in the morning. The Olmstead Loop after the aid station was as pleasant as advertized in the program. My second "voted best section" of the run. However, going over the rolling hills still at a fast pace (9-9:30) took its toll and I started cramping around mile 35 and worrying as I was seeing Chikara closing his gap on me. Chikara caught up with me at Knickerbocker Hill and we came back to the Fire Station together but he left first again, barely stopping to heat and hydrate.
The way back down to No Hands Bridge was much more dusty than K2 and I was glad to wear my Dirty Girl gaiters. Shortly after leaving the Cool Fire Station, I saw Michael, walking, on his way up to Cool. He was very disappointed, actually devastated, as he got lost in Auburn on the first way down to No Hands Bridge. Not finding the trail and the station he got dehydrated and lost his chance to set the Junior record today. Michael is so strong, he kept going up to Auburn Dam Overlook (mile 44) before deciding he was too much behind to reach his goal.

I was still in second position when I caught up with Chikara in the long section between Maidu and Rattlesnake Bar (more than 9 miles). Chikara was not feeling well and I proposed some SCaps! (salt/electrolyte caps) but he was not interested. At this point (above picture at Twin Rocks), I was not in better shape than Chikara, having lost a lot of salt as the white "frost" was showing on my shorts, but taking the lead gave me a mental boost which got me back to Cavitt School. I had no idea who was behind and which lead I had then.
At the School, Norm was not happy with my weight and asked me to rest for a while, taking soup, crackers and pretzels. Norm was worried that I was not going to be happy with his diagnostic but I've been an aid station captain myself and very much appreciate the outside and medical advice. Besides, when I now look at the pictures taken by Greg, I was surely pale and looked tired indeed. The only thing that I would interject is that Chikara was probably in worst shape, yet Norm kicked his butt and forced him to continue when Chikara wanted to drop at mile 67. Chikara went on for a few miles before turning back and calling it a day. Afterall he is only 26 and has already proven he is an elite ultra runner, and he has many years to fine tune his performance on this distance. I stayed for 20 minutes and left Cavitt as Greg (Bomhoff) reached the station in second place. Greg passed me between Folsom Dam Park and Negro Bar, around mile 72. I had evidently suffered from the heat and needed to keep working on my weight and sodium level at a time I was not really hungry.

I left Negro Bar without my head lamp which was a big mistake. I almost got lost in the following section after I passed two volunteers placing glow sticks for the night. 2 miles before Hazel Bluff, it was so dark I could not see the trail and was running just following my feelings and some "trail instinct." I stopped from time to time to listen to any noise, and even yelled several times hoping to be close enough to the station for Agnès to hear me. No response, I kept going without seeing a single ribbon for a mile, i.e. at least 10 minutes. When the trail crossed the bike path along the river, I was afraid I had missed the station as I did not know this section of the run. Fortunately, thanks to some lighting from the bridge at the end of Hazel, I spotted a ribbon in the grass indicating the hill going up the Hazel Bluff aid station. At the top of the hill I found Agnès and Greg with my headlight (phew!) and my pacer Adam (Blum) who had been waiting since 5:30 pm (and it was now close to 8 pm...). Here is Greg, entering Hazel Bluff in the lead:
It felt good to know that Adam will pace me for the last 23 miles, through the night. Adam had run a 29K race in Santa Cruz in the morning and placed 2nd overall, 1 minute behind the winner. He was excited and ready to roll, needless to say, with much fresher legs than I. In addition to the moral kick of getting a pacer, and I realize on a much more practical level, I also got a boost when Agnès and Dave (Combs) proposed me some pizza. I could not believe it and the effect it did on me to have something different from the crackers and baked potatoes at this point of the race.
It basically took me 5 hours to complete the last 23 miles which does not reflect the relative lack of difficulty in this last section. You can read Adam's account of our "nice night walk in the park" on both sides of Lake Natoma, on his blog. Norm had told us in his briefing about a mega concert happening that evening at the turn around of the course, Mt Lion Knoll, and it was quite nice to have some music to keep us going through the night. I could not believe how nice this trail is, in such an urban area, so close to the city and car traffic. The two ladies manning the Mt Lion Knoll aid station were so nice and helpful, I was embarassed I could not eat more from their succulent buffet (soup and freshed baked brownies in particular). But Adam pressed me to return on the trail as we still did not know how far Mark was behind us.

Adam kept track of my times and splits and told me we had a 40' lead on Mark when we saw him (Mark on his way to Mt Lion Knoll, us coming back to Hazel Bluff). Adam determined it was enough lead for second place, even allowing for some easy miles on the way back. Adam also thought I could get back to the School before midnight but that was not counting on my fatigue. Here, trying to make my mind over the food at Negro Bar (mile 94.5). This is where I took some water melon dipped into salt: I thought that would help my sodium but what was I thinking? That actually got me nauseous for the next 3 miles, really not recommended so late in the race...
I alternated walking and running more, keeping looking behind to see if there was any light coming. In the last mile, on the levée, something stranged happened. Adam told me I should run and I replied with a "not now, I have a story to tell you about Michael outsprinting his grand-father last year in the last mile." But Adam insisted and, sure enough, there were two lights at the end of the levee, 400-500 yards behind us. Although I thought I had given it all, it is amazing how you can still find resources for a final kick: I sprinted to the finish in such a hurry, it must have been funny to watch. And yes, Adam, you were right, my pace went down to 8 min/mile in that final stretch (according the my Garmin). As for the two lights, no clue who it was because Jimmy (Freeman) came in 3rd, 1h03 after me. Followed by Mark 25 minutes later, who himself had to sprint to the finish, with John Souza coming in only 1 minute later.
I was tired but happy with this second place in my second 100-miler. And, with a time of 18:46, an improvement from my 20:24 Western States although the course is of course very different with much less cumulative elevation (9,000 ft versus +18,000/-22,000 ft for Western States). Here I am at the finish with Jon (Olsen) and my pacer, Adam Blum:
I stayed for an hour in the gymasium to recover and participate in the second series of tests of the UC Davis study. Meanwhile, Agnès drove Adam to Hazel Bluff so he could get his car and we drove to the hotel, getting to bed around 3:30 am. Seems a dramatic picture below but it's just the UC Davis folks at work for some electro and blood work:
3. Post-race

After a few hours of sleep we had a nice and hearty breakfast at the hotel. A few limping runners, a few volunteers, a few crews, and many other "standard" people wondering from which planet we were. I could even chat with Jorge Pacheco, how cool is that? Jorge is so modest despite his achievements in ultra running. Last July he won the Badwater ultramarathon (135 miles across Death Valley in burning temperatures). He came at Rio Del Lago to pace his friend Shannon (Jorge is part of Team Moeben with Hal Korner and Tony Kkrupicka). I also got to know Shannon's husband and their son.

I slept again for 30 minutes after breakfast and, waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle, I was really not fresh when we got back to the school for the banquet and award ceremony, back in the heat. The food was very good though, as well as the company and legendary ultra camaraderie. Was nice to hear many more stories from each runner's individual experience of the run through this hot day and night. Rajeev and Karen (Bonnett) had just finished before we arrived at the school, with 4 minutes to spare before the 30-hour cut-off! There were followed by John Painting, DFL (Did Finish Last), who crossed the finish line with 40" to spare! 61 finishers out of 116 registered, that was a tough day for many. For all actually. Here, from left: Greg Bomhoff (1st), Jean (2nd), Jimmy Freeman (3rd), Norm Klein (RD):
Last, during the award ceremony, Norm spoiled us with amazing awards. Greg turned 40 so he should have been the Masters champion but Norm decided he had enough with the giant overall winner statue (ass above picture) and I was awarded the fancy top Masters clock as well as a cute pair of bears for 2nd overall, another one for first M40-49 and a nice eagle for RDL finisher. Luckily I was not flying back home but driving. For me who has still not seen a bear in the wild in California, I know have a representation of it on my shelf at home and in my office...
4. Additional notes

My first lesson and impression after the race was that it was not really "my race." Between pacing Michael, competing with Mark, keeping up with Jon and Chikara who both dropped afterwards, there was a lot of confusion in my head and I got caught in a too fast pace in the first part, given the unusual high temperatures.

Second, I believe I must have taken between 25 and 30 SCaps! yet it did not seem to be enough sodium. I was surely not heat trained for a race at the end of September, but I need to improve on the electrolyte management.

Agnès saw some really tuned crews in action (Jon and Greg in particular) and asked that we better prepare for next time. It feels good to have her getting so involved to support me in ultra running, in addition to all the support and love in all the other aspects and passions of my life!

One thing which striked me on my ways back to Cavitt School is how clean such a group of 200 ultra runners left the trail intact. Not a trace of garbage, I'm proud of you all, this is really sustainable running. As I was running at Rancho San Antonio this Sunday morning, 1 week after RDL, I had to stop 5 times to pick some garbage left by walkers...

My recovery was quite quick. Some soreness on Monday but it was all gone after a nice early morning 5-mile jog with my friend Bob at the track on Tuesday. 5 faster miles on Thursday, a long tempo run on Friday on the Stevens Creek trail (14.6 miles at 6:35 min/mile), 15 miles with the Stevens Creek Striders on Saturday morning and 2 times PG&E at Rancho this Sunday (1:06 and 1:01 for a total of 15.5 miles and 3,000 ft, a good training for next week's Firetrails 50).

Because of the long out and back course (67 miles) some aid stations need to remain open for up to 18 hours which is very demanding on volunteers. Some other stations are remote, and some are very exposed in the heat. More than any other races I have seen so far, this is really a race which would not be possible without the dedication of these volunteers, way less numerous than for Western States for instance. A sincere thank to all of you, volunteers!

I still consider myself new in the ultra community (I was a rookie at the Firetrails 50-mile, less than 2 years ago), but I can already appreciate the gift to have had Norm and Helen as part of the ultra community for all these years, on both sides of the sport, as runners and champions, and giving back to the community through race direction and motivational speaking engagements (Helen was not with Norm this weekend but speaking at the Quad City Marathon and ran the half-marathon there). What an amazing and beautiful "ultra couple!" Thank you Norm, thank you Helen, and see you in November! You are great examples of people... giving it all!"


Anonymous said...

Bien sur je n'ai pas tout saisi de tes commentaires(!!) sorry!mais le diaporama de cette course est superbe.
Ce sont vraiment des courses incroyables. Je commence un peu à reconnaitre les autres concurrents au fil de tes récits.
Merci de nous faire partager ces bons et beaux moments. J'ai vraiment l'impression de passer a coté de quelquechose moi qui ne court pas!!!
Encore bravo et merci, je pense que ta recompense est dans ta tete car les trophés que tu as reçus sont.....très bien pour la prochaine brocante!!
Brigitte from France!!

Peter Lubbers said...

Great report Jean!
Congratulations on your very fast second place finish.
Take care,

Unknown said...

Good job Jean! It's amazing that you recovered so quickly, I feel like I am still feeling the effects of the CCC100.


Adam Blum said...


Fantastic job on 2nd place. It was such an honor being present firsthand to see it! And as usual your blog report was superlative.

For what its worth, you actually had a 1:20 lead when we saw Tanaka around mile 88. We passed Mark at 9:40pm, 40 minutes out of the "far aid station" at mile 84. Hence your lead was about double that or 1:20. That's when I said "you've got second in the bag".

Sorry about the unnecessary sprint at the end. You can always pay me back appropriately if you ever pace me. ;-)

- Adam

Eric@URP said...

Great race report! I wish I was there to see it!

Scott Dunlap said...

What a race! Very impressive you got through such a hot day. I would be on the couch for weeks for sure.

You may have run the last RDL! That would be a sad loss.


Victoria said...

Nice race report! I'm not going to lie-- reading race reports like this makes me think that maybe when I can run again, I might want to start thinking about doing a 100!!!

Well, in a year or so.

Congratulations though!

Anonymous said...

Noté plusieurs réflexions (en lisant ce passionnant récit) que je te ferai de vive-voix en décembre.
...émue aux larmes au moment de ton passage sans lampe dans la nuit!
Quel courage!

Papa et Maman

runstephane said...

Good job Jean,

C'est un beau résultat pour un 100-mile de remplacement ! Bravo, jolie performance, et ça continue sur la Firetrails... vivement la prochaine.

(Enfin le coup de la frontale quand même, à ton âge !!! :-))) )

Bonne récup',
Runstéphane from Ufoland

Jimmy Dean said...

Outstanding job, Jean! I am very much looking forward to seeing you at the next one! Are you in for Western States in 2009? Either way, it was great to meet you and run with you.

Warmest Regards,
Jimmy Dean Freeman

Jean Pommier said...

Thank you all for stopping by and the comments!

Jimmy, yes, I'm in for WS09 (should be good this time!).

Stéphane, oh yes, rookie mistake for the headlight; you know, it was only my second 100-miler (although the 3rd time I raced at night, including the Saintélyon last December).



Tony Overbay said...

Jean, great race! I passed you somewhere on the bluffs (you were heading back, though) and you were looking focused! Amazing to hear what you did the following week! My only training consisted of lifting a spoon full of ice cream to my mouth repeatedly!