Sunday, November 2, 2008

Helen Klein 50 miles: did finish!

2006, the Helen Klein Classic was my second 50-miler, a few weeks after my first one at Firetrails. I was not blogging yet, but I remember I had great hope to set a fast PR, falsely considering a road ultra as being much easier than a hilly trail one. Sure enough, I started too fast and struggled on the way back of this out and back, finishing in 6:52 with many cramps in the final stretch to Cavitt School.

2007, you can look at the whole story. Again, a fast start and a tougher back but a much better time of 6:22.

In 2008 my hope was two-fold: first improve my time and PR (the Farther Faster part of me) and, second, put points in the bank for the USATF Grand Prix. The first goal surely turned out not being reasonable given the terrible weather conditions (rain and wind) as well as the same trail detour as at Rio Del Lago to get around the on going construction on the levee. As for the second goal, without Steve Stovers, Mark Tanaka, Mark Lantz, Gary Wang and Ron Gutierrez at the start as usual contenders in my age group, we were left with Ray Sanchez and Charles Blakeney for the ones I know (our age group has 29 people in the standings so far this year, versus 55 last year).

I car pooled to the start on race morning with Pierre-Yves Couteau, whom I met earlier this year at the Cupertino Big Bunny Fun Run 5K. But today was not Pierre's first venture in ultra: he has run Firetrails 50 already among other ultras and he is progressing very fast as you will see below.

We arrived at Cavitt School just on time to pick our race packet and listen to Norm's briefing at 6:15. Norm had spent the night in the gymnasium but did not get much sleep, between the noise of the rain on the roof all night and the worries coming from race directing in bad weather conditions. He actually delayed the start of the 50-mile from 7 to 7:10am so we had more light for the first detour around the levee.

Listen up! (RD Norm Klein, who has directed Western States 100 for 14 years, and completed the run too)
Even his wife, Helen (middle), is listening carefully to the last minute instructions (although officially retired from competitive running, Helen ran the 30K on Saturday, in 4:50):
With the pouring rain, I was happy to see this runner on the course without his cave man costume!
A picture with Helen before the start:
The race

The detour was the only trail part, about 1 mile each way. It was a bit slippery but not too bad. I followed Todd Braje for the first miles but he quickly went out of sight after Negro Bar. With the tricky trail section, our first mile was slow and we picked up the pace when reaching the bike path with sections ran in 6:30-6:15. Fast but keep in mind that the first 25 miles are going down along the American River, with 300 ft elevation loss in the first 10 miles. Seeing Todd winning Way Too Cool last march in 3:30, I knew that was his race. Actually, course record holder Michael Buchanan was on the entrants list but did not show-up. That would have been a great match to watch!

The rain was not too bad at the start and came and went. When the rain stopped, the wind accelerated the drying of our tops but not the shoes. The first 10 miles were eventless. It was my third attempt at using Vespa in races and Peter advised me not to eat anything in the first miles so my stops to the aid stations were short, just to grab some water to complement the Gu2O I was carrying in my bottle.

When I got to the Sunrise Bridge aid station, I had already slown down to 7+ min/mile pace but I was already quite breathless, potentially announcing another crisis of exercise-induced asthma. Sure enough, by the next aid station, Rossmoor Bar which is marking the turn around of the 50K, I knew it was not going to be a good day (in addition to the rain). Like my last big asthma crisis at American River last April.

I kept slowing down and saw Todd on his way back, 1.5 miles from the turn around, going strong and easy. I reached the Guy West Bridge aid station in second place, a few seconds before Pierre-Yves, then Michael and Ray. We reached the turn around in 3:11.

Out of breath, I let Pierre-Yves, Michael and Ray go, not without some regrets to be missing the good allure. Eduardo Vazquez stoped when passing me to propose some salt caps. I thanked him but replied I was suffering from asthma. Alternating walking and jogging, I crossed the rest of the 50-mile participants. I saw Charles Blakeney when we were 2.5 miles from the turn around and figured out he will catch-up with me in the remaining 23 miles. In many occasions I looked for him, behind, but the field was thin and sparsed so I did not get passed by too many runners.

On the long way back, the most important event happened at the 50K mark, the Goethe Park aid station. I choked for the first time there, feeling so much fluid in my lungs (I don't wish you this experience if you can avoid!). I was spitting orange mucus, something that never happened during previous crisis, so that did not sound good. With that, I seriously considered dropping at this point. At American River, two things were different. First, I had never experienced a DNF and felt that asthma could prevent me from performing well but was not a good enough excuse to drop if I could still make the cut-off times. Second, Agnès and Grégoire were there to crew me and provide assistance, including my inhaler. If you follow my blog regularly, you will remember that I did have a DNF in August. And I had no crew this Saturday. Fortunately, one volunteer proposed me her inhaler. Unable to take a full breath, or even a small one for the matter, I barely took a puff but that definitely helped for the next two hours. The other reason I did not dropped is that, despite all the support of the volunteers, I could sense that it was not practical to get me back to the start. One of the volunteers even mentioned that the next station was only 2 miles away so I should try. So, after stopping for 14 long minutes, I went on with my alternance of waling and jogging.

At Rossmoor Bar (mile 34) I decided to give another try for the next station. Helen Klein Classic is known for the numerous aid stations. Some are as close as 1.8 miles, and the longest stretch is just above 3 miles. It is great because you don't have to carry much, but, if you are here for a PR, you don't want to spend two much time stopping at each (17 stations total). Now, if you are not on the front of the pack, you certainly enjoy these frequent opportunities to get some support as I experienced today.

I was glad to be welcomed by the cheering volunteers at Sunrise Bridge. They conveniently relocated the aid station a few yards from the original place, under the overpass, like the Guy West Bridge aidstation did too. In particular I received personal encouragements from runningfreeusa, from the Runner's Wold blog, who proposed me hot chocolate or broccoli-cream soup. I first instinctively leant toward what I like the most, hot chocolate, but decided soup was probably much better, with an S!Cap. The soup was hot, making up for my cold wet clothes and socks, and I left the station, walking and sipping the delicious and nutritious beverage. Just a half-marathon to go...

Had my Gu2O bottle refilled with the powder I was carrying, at Fish Hatchery (mile 39.5) and went up the bridge on which I could not even jog, between the short breath and the strong wind. At Main Street, the volunteers had set a convenient RV, stucked as they were in a sampy area. I choked for the second time when leaving the station and really scared me with this feeling of the lungs full of liquid, unable to breath. It passed after a few long seconds and I continued walking, albeit even slower. Fortunately, the next aid station, Negro Bar, was less than 2 miles away. There, one of the volunteers found in his car an old inhaler from which I took too small puffs.

At the last aid station, Folsom Dam Park, I was welcomed by the joyful Winni and Lee Jebian. Despite the bad weather and knowing about my asthma, they were cheerful and gave me some boost for the final miles. I got passed by three runners in the very final mile which is quite unsual for me. Actually I was going to jog the last hundreds yards down from the levee but choked for the fourth time, when Michael Persak and his crew (wife?) passed me. I choked quite badly again just 300 yards from the gymasium, explaining the 3 minutes separating me from Michael. When I approached the gymnasium, Norm yelled: "come'on, nobody ever crossed this finish line walking!" Well, it may have been a first, but I was surely satisfied enough to just pass this damned finish line. 14 miles of good running and 36.5 of walking in apnea and in the rain, that was a long enough torture for me today... Oh, no, it was just the fun of ultra endurance, the one I and we all like, right? ;-)


Todd had won in 5:49, not a course record (5:36) but a blazing time given the weather condition, the muddy trail detour and the extra lenght of the course this year (about 0.8 to 1.2 miles I believe). Pierre-Yves could not keep up the initial pace and finished 5th, yet in a great time of 7:15. Second was Ray, in 7:01, less than 40 seconds before 16-year old Michael Kanning. Complete 2008 results on the website.

As for me, Norm, Helen and Pierre-Yves took care of me, letting me lay down for a while until I could find some enough air and energy to take a very recomforting hot shower. Before leaving, we enjoyed the Thanksgiving dinner, and the carrot cake was the final touch for my recovery. As I write this post on Sunday afternoon I still have a very limited breathing condition, but I don't have any soreness from the limited physical effort given my current fitness. Now, if someone can just provide me with a trick or cure to avoid these random occurences of exercise-induced asthma! Something different from the "you should stop running" which I get a lot after such incidents... Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the traditional carrot cake:
Charles finished 8 minutes behind me. I thanked him for the mental push although he probably did not realize he was that close at the end.
Here I am with Steve Holman (10:06) who recently joined our ultraholics group:
Here are the traditional pictures with the Kleins. First, with Pierre-Yves, the "other" Californian Frenchie:
Thank you again, Norm and Helen, for the opportunity to run in your area and for another perfectly organized event. Norm, I'm glad Helen is letting you directing "her" Classic next year. And hope you find someone to take over Rio Del Lago.
And, before closing this post, two major things:
  1. First, a special thank to the volunteers. More than the traditional thank you, which is still well deserved when you realize that no event would run without you. But a special one in these terrible weather conditions. It is one thing to stay in the heat for a day, and not run a race when you are a runner, but the pouring rain and wind made it so much more difficult, especially the stations which did not have an overpass bridge near by or canopies. THANK YOU!
  2. Last but not least, running on thin air made me think during all the run of my friend Tom Kaisersatt who is fighting to keep his lungs. Keep it up Tom, your fighting spirit helped me again yesterday to get to the finish line!


Jay Anderson said...

Hi. I knew you were struggling when I caught up someplace between 30 and 35 miles. I tried to offer some encouragement but I'm not sure the message got through.
As for the onset of asthma, I wonder if the rain and high humidity in the air triggered your breathing problems.
At any rate, congratulations on your finish under such trying circumstances.

Jay Anderson

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Hi Jean. So sorry to hear about your difficulties. Why weren't you allowed to bring your inhaler? I too suffer from asthma and it has caused trouble in the past. Some studies have claimed dietary fish oils help with asthma. For example this one
reprint/168/10/1181 (make sure there are no spaces) It couldn't hurt to try!


Jean Pommier said...

Jay, thank you for the encouragement. I believe you are the one who said something like: "keep going, it usually goes away!" Unfortunately, this is not the case with asthma, it takes several days to heal. But you didn't know. As for the correlation, I've had crisis in very dry and very humid conditions, at high elevation or sea level, in any season, so I ruled out pollen, temperature, air humidity/dryness. And the doctors I've seen so far are out of clue.

And, Cynthia, I happened to start taking fish oil supplement two weeks ago but maybe that did not bring effect yet. Inhalers are forbidden in competition in France (except for therapeutic reason) because of the boost they provide. That's why I'm trying to stay away from it... Anyway, thanks a lot for your concerns and feedback.


Scott Dunlap said...

Orange mucus - that does not sound like fun. Way to brave through it!

Yes, I was hoping to do the NYC marathon this weekend but didn't get a lottery slot. I found if you run a sub-2:50 marathon, you can get in, so I'll tackle it in 2009.

A Trail Runners Blog

Rajeev said...


I hope yop are feeling better now. You are indeed very tough. The orange mucus sounds terrible. Hats off to you for braving your asthma and the tough conditions and not giving up.

Hopefully you will find a way around the asthma and go win many races in the future.


Peter Lubbers said...

Way to tough it out all the way to the finish, Jean!
Hope you feel better soon.

Jean Pommier said...

Scott, you just made me realize that the orange might have been a over-reaction to Halloween... ;-)

As a matter of fact, my (doctor) sister feels that I had almost all the symptoms of a pulmonary edema. But my local/official doctor has never heard about someone with an edema able to run 30+ miles, so he ruled it out (also based on a negative x-ray of the lungs, this afternoon).

Reverting to the asthma scenario then, and I'm back to almost normal breathing after two days, so life is good, phew!


Unknown said...

Hi Jean - I ran the HK on Saturday and it was my first ultra ever! What a way to start down this new path - the rain was amazing! Your story is inspiring. I have asthma though on Saturday I (knock on wood) had no difficulties. You are right about the volunteers. Talk about dedicated! Hats off and umbrellas up to them all! Be well! Check out re fish oils for asthma!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jean

Your asthma symptoms and occurrences are interesting & strange. I've had asthma for 40+ years, but it really hasn't bothered my running very much at all. ( I do run a lot slower, though).

I do take pulmicort ( a corticosteroid) twice a day, which builds up prevention and works well for me. I'll often take a puff of albuterol before I run, which relaxes the airways, and can prevent trouble during a run.

Dust or dust mites is another common allergen, which did affect people during the dusty WS2007, but wouldn't have been a factor at this race !

Have you had the allergy tests as well ?

Hope you find the cause


tomlogan said...

Horrible weather and nasty asthma - what a day! I ran HK this year and had some breathing problems too (but that happens to me at most races). I’m not sure about the onset, but I think the creamy soup may have made it worse; anything creamy, dairy, or thick has always increased my mucous load. Go for the hot chocolate next time (if it’s mixed with water), hot drinks (especially coffee) have cleared my lungs up without fail. Of course a rescue inhaler is best, grab a hot drink and relax if you have no other options. You’re darn tough for kicking through it though. Kudos! See you down the road…

Dave - Atlanta Trails said...

I'm always impressed with how you tough it out with your bouts of asthma. Very impressive!