Sunday, October 12, 2008

Firetrails 50: 2 years later

October 7, 2006: my first 50-mile on this Dick Collins Firetrails course (FT). I was a rookie on this distance and placed 3rd in 7:25 (and won the Dick Collins rookie award). Great memories from the first 50 kilometers and tougher moments for the last 20 miles. So much ground covered in ultra since then, so much lessons learned, personal experiences gained, yet so much to learn in this highly experimental sport.

I had a business meeting which made me miss the run last year. Fortunately, the same meeting (our Sales Kick-Off) happens next week, so I was able to fit FT in my busy racing schedule, just two weeks after Rio Del Lago 100-mile, and 3 weeks before Helen Klein 50-mile.

The course

The Firetrails course goes up and down along the crest of the Oakland and Berkeley hills, an out and back from Lake Chabot to the South, to the turn around of Lone Oak, in Berkeley. It provides amazing views over the San Francisco Bay. Here is an aerial view with the Pacific in the background, and you can make your own by looking at my Garmin recording which I've uploaded on Google Earth (or Google Maps for a 2D map):
Saturday was chilly and the wind cleared the air so well that, from the section in Tilden Park, you could count the windows of the Transamerica Pyramid in the city. Well, maybe not while running, but if you were taking the time to enjoy the breathtaking view. Here is a picture from Agnès taken from Skyline Boulevard, South of the Skyline Gate aid station:
As for the cumulative elevation, I had heard about 9,000 feet which seemed a lot as this was also the total for the overall Rio Del Lago 100-mile. Actually the race web site talks about 7,800 feet. Once I uploaded my Garmin recording into SportsTrack, I got +6,600/-6,648. In any case, there are plenty of up and down hills and very few flat sections as the following chart shows:
Among the most difficult sections, surely the long climb back to Steam Train is the toughest. The front runners actually get a kick there as we cross the rest of the runners on their way to the turnaround. I would vote the second toughest section the last climb, right after Big Bear, with 9 miles to go. Otherwise, as the race of the name indicates, there are many fire trail sections making the course rarely technical.


Ann gave a short briefing to the runners of the early 6am start (the official start was given at 6:30).
Ten minutes before the start our ultraholics group led by Rajeev had some fun, trying to keep warm in this chilly morning. Here we are, from left to right (the fastest to the slowest someone said... ;-): Rajeev Patel, Martin Casado, Sean Lang and I.

The race

Do not panic, I will not go in as much details as in my last race report (Rio Del Lago). This Saturday, there was less suspense for first place. Actually there was a bit in the first mile as we did not see favorite Hal Korner at the start. Hal has won the 2007 edition of Western States and, 4 weeks ago, Angeles Crest 100. Victor Ballesteros took the lead right from the start, followed by Mark Gilligan. Victor was a rookie on this distance last year and set a blazing rookie course record of 6:46. I had not seen Mark for a while, not racing in the sames races. Mark had a series of injuries over the past year and DNF'ed in many of his races. He was here to get a WS qualifier in case he is picked in the Two-Time Looser (TTL) lottery. Mark is the man behind the cool UltraSignup website.

After 2 miles, I saw a headlight catching up and I thought it was Roy Rivers. Despite being 51, it was Roy's first attempt at the distance, making him a rookie. Roy is extremely fast and he always beats me at Quad Dipsea (his turf) and even did at Way Too Cool this year. When the light finally reached us, we found out it was Hal, not Roy. In the first steep hill, we lost Mark and Victor kept the lead, followed by Hal, then me. Victor did not stop at the first aid station. Hal stopped to drop the light he was wearing around his waist, and I did too to grab a cup of water (I was only carrying one bottle of Gu2O). In the next miles I could observe Hal's very smooth running, with short strides given his long legs, a very economical and efficient biomechanics for ultra trail running.

Around mile 6 I passed Hal who was making a pit stop, then Victor on the way down through the nice forest of Eucalyptus. I let Victor and Hal go at mile 12, for a pit stop, and I started having some breathing issues with the 8 min/mile pace. When I saw them again, it was near the turnaround where they had a 7-minute lead on me, at the bottom of our 3-mile climb back to the Steam Trains aid station. I estimated that I had about 7-8 minutes on the fourth runner (from the Mount Diablo team), so I kept pushing the pace, alternating walking and running, while crossing the other runners on their way down.

At mile 37 (Skyline Gate), I found Agnès and Greg.
Agnès had driven up there with Robin and Peggy. Robin paced Dennis and Peggy paced Penny, whom I had carpooled with to the start in the morning (we are all from the same club, the Stevens Creek Striders).
I had told Agnès I would at best reach Skyline Gate after 5 hours, and I was already late by 25 minutes. Hal was actually 25 minutes ahead of me at Skyline:
And Victor, 20 minutes:
Fortunately, Skyline marked the end of my low for the day, and the last 13 miles went better. I completed the last part in 1h20, although my Garmin marked 49.1 miles at the end so I suspect the last section to be a bit shorter (the turnaround should be at mile 26 but I had 25.3).

After Skyline, Agnès and Greg continued the crewing and I saw them at Big Bear, Bort Meadows then at the finish. At Big Bear, I stopped and posed for the traditional picture with my homonym Mr. Pommier, from the Tamalpa Runners (light blue t-shirt):
Greg ran the last 100 yards with me, isn't that cool?
Finish time: 7:15:35, 10 minutes faster than 2 years ago. Certainly, the conditions were different. In 2006, I had prepared all Summer for this big ultra running deadline. In 2008, I had run a tough 100-miler two weeks before and I was seeing Firetrail "just" as a short 50-miler. It is not much that my legs were tired, it is the mental and focus which was not as acute as 2 years ago. Interestingly, what kept me pushing all the way on the second part is the fear to miss the lead of the M40-49 division. But the next runner was 21 and arrived 20 minutes after me and the second M40-49 1h04 behind me. The field was surely missing the top guns in my age group (Mark Tanaka, Mark Lantz, Ron Gutierrez, Jeff Teeters, etc.).

Post race

The overall event is masterly managed by two ultra legends, Ann Trason and Carl Andersen (and I should add their dog Zoe). It is hard to describe Ann's career in ultra especially for me who has joined the community a couple of years ago. Ann has a page on wikipedia but not much in it (some ultra historian must step up...). Not much compared to legends of other popular sports. 14 times winner of Western States (including 10 years consecutively) and still holding 3 age groups records at that event (F18-29, F30-39 and F40-49). Ann also broke twenty world records during her career. But, more than fame, she is looking at running again. Also, after 9 years, Ann and Carl are looking at someone to take over Firetrails for 2010 and beyond.
Carl has also an amazing list of ultra achievements and still holds many course records, some of them after 15 years (e.g. 6:26:42 at Firetrails in 1996, 3:52:29 at Quad Dipsea). People talk about Carl as Quad Dipsea King: over 25 years, there has been only 3 sub-4hr performance on this grueling course, 2 from Carl and one from young ultra genius Erik Skaggs in 2007.
Browsing the web, I just learned more about how Carl and Ann met, check this link out! After a beer, guess who they had their first date (and duel)... on the "Berkeley Fire Trail...!"

The registration and web site are perfect. The course marking, aid stations and volunteers are top. And the post-race BBQ is... over the top! Succulent burgers, pasta salads, drinks and Ann's home-made soup and desserts are even offered complimentary to the runners' crews. A burger was enough for me, but Greg and Agnès surely enjoyed Ann's treats:
Of course, behind Carl and Ann, there are many volunteers who make such an event a success. From the manning of the aid stations, the marking of the course, the network of radio operators, the time tracking which included a live web cast thanks to Steven Patt's software (Stevens Creek software), the chefs cooking for hundreds of people and a very long afternoon, the Park Rangers supervising our crossing of the roads, ... Sponsors provide key support too: Gu, Andronico's, FleetFeet (nice wind-blocking vest!), TrailRunner magazine, ZombieRunner, UltraRunning magazine, RaceReady. And let's not forget one man that I did not have the privilege to know personally, thanking him for the spirit he left and which we can all feel in the ultra community: Dick Collins.

At the finish, I was welcomed by my RDL pacer and ultraholic Adam (Blum). He had run the Golden Hills marathon (starting at our turn around), gave me five when we crossed each other near the Steamed Trains aid station and placed 6th overall in 3:52. In the final stretch he encouraged Caren Spore but was disappointed when he learned that she missed the course record by 3 seconds! Yes, sometimes, every second count in a race, even on a trail...

We left this ultra fiesta shortly after Sean finished (he had carpooled with Rajeev in the morning and we dropped him in Saratoga). I was happy with the result, yet it is only in the car on the way back that my body got warmer. I was chilled all morning, so different from the over heating experienced at Rio Del Lago 2 weeks ago. Yes, we do not really have seasons in California, but the weather does change from time to time... I love this area, an ultra and trail running paradise!

PS: oh yes, I tried Vespa for the second time (along with Gu2O, Gu, SCaps! and some ultra food). I'd say it worked again, will pursue the experiment...

Bonus track: Agnès and Greg's pictures in my Picasa photo album.


Unknown said...


Great race! Thanks for the ride back, it was nice to meet you and your family.


willgotthardt said...

Great race & report Jean, good to see you leading early there into Bort Meadows.

Ann & Carl do a terrific job with the event. Hope to finally run it next year.

Will G.

Victoria said...

Great race! Next year I will not be sitting behind the awards table but running.. however, I will probably not see you come in next year then! Congrats on a great day again.

willgotthardt said...

I want to add...

You would hardly guess Greg is your son. ;-)

Will G.

Anonymous said...

Encore noté quelques questions.
Touchantes photos des derniers yards avec Grégoire.
Encore un fois bravo.

Rogue Valley Runners said...


It was nice sharing the morning hours of pain, you ran really well with those Rio del Lago legs.

best recovery,


Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Great job Jean. I wondered if you were having asthma or bronchial problems when I saw the bandana over your face when you passed us. You certainly looked strong and smooth though.

Take care,

Anonymous said...


Good times sharing the trail with you again. It was really cool to run through those early miles in yours and Hal's company. To bad no one was there to take a picture of you facing off the cows after Bort Meadows.

Rest up and take care. See you on the trails.