Sunday, December 7, 2008

Pacing in the ultra Mecca

For once, it is not a report about one of my races. As I told you last week after my great Quad Dipsea experience, I am enjoying a break away from competition for two months. However, when David (James) contacted me 10 days ago in order to pace him at the North Face 50-mile Challenge, I happily told him that I was free indeed. Little I knew about the level of competition at this event.

Before we get into the details of this Saturday, here is a link to my Picasa photo album (176 pictures and one video of the start). Enjoy! You can also look at Diane's wonderful shots in her photo album (especially as she covered the part I could not, while pacing on the way back from Pan Toll).

I met David at the Coastal Challenge, last January, in Costa Rica. It was his second Coastal Challenge and my first. I took second of the 6-day race, he took third. He won one of the toughest and longest stage and, despite a bit of competition, he helped me and saved me twice from drowning, in our aquatic adventures (in a torrent first, and in the Ocean the last day). Here he is, below, with Chuck Wilson, another friend who ran the Coastal Challenge three times and introduced it to me. This Saturday was Chuck's 60th birthday and I managed to get a special announcement from the speaker right before the final race instructions!
Kyle Skaggs, Matt Carpenter, Uli Steidel, Geoff Roes, Leigh Schmitt, Michael Wardian, Hal Koerner, Guillermo Medina, Karl Metzler, Kami Semick, Susannah Beck, Nikki Kimball, and more illustrious names which I may miss, newbie that I still am after 3 years in ultra. That looked like a dream starting line for any race director! Something which I have seen so far only at Western States or the races sponsored by Montrail (e.g. Miwok).

The start was given, on time, at 5 am (check a short video in my Picasa album). It was very early for a 50-miler, but I believe the reason is that the organizers wanted to preserve some time between the various races (50-mile, 50K, half marathon, 10K). Headlamps were mandatory for all runners for the first 2 hours and definitely needed as it was pitch dark despite a wonderful clear sky, full of stars.

After the started I stayed for a while at the nearby Youth Hostel, chatting with Peter Defty about his product, Vespa Power, a supplement which has been working very well for me since I started taking it in August. This is a product which comes from Japan and there was a Japanese delegation here this weekend, with an elite runner getting on the podium! Here they are, at the post race picnic:
I took the shuttle back to Rodeo Beach where I parked (thanks Marissa!) and left the parking lot around 6am, up on the Coastal Trail and Hill 88. I was going to pace David from Pan Toll (30 miles) to the finish and was excited to run up to Pan Toll rather than drive there: Peter offered me a ride and I could have asked Tony (Krupicka), who was crewing for Kyle, and Jenn (Shelton), pacing Susannah (Beck).

I passed a few runners between Tennessee Valley, Muir Beach and Pan Toll and took a few pictures on the way (see more in my photo album).I reached Pan Toll (11 miles) around 8 and the top runners had already gone through the aid station (18 miles for them). There, I found Topher Gaylord who had dropped (food poisoning during the week) and was starting getting cold after this early morning effort. Soon after I was shivering too, so much that I had issue signing the pacer waiver... I also met with Catherine Poletti who was waiting for Michel, her husband. Michel and Catherine organize the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, the famous 101-mile ultra event run through France, Italy and Switzerland, the last weekend of August, on a course similar to the difficult one of Hardrock.
After discussing with Topher and Catherine, Peter (Defty) told me "my runner", David, had dropped and just left. I had missed him by a minute or so. His knee was hurting, and David told me he had torn his knee indeed a week ago. I was not surprised then, but really disappointed for him, who came all the way from New York and was so excited. So excited that he reached the first aid station, Tennessee Valley, in the lead! He promised to come back though!

Rob (Evans) informed me that Michael Wardian was going to get paced by our friend, Mark Gilligan (UltraSignup) for the last 6 miles, and that he would certainly welcome a pacer from Pan Toll. I had never met Michael (we were both going to run Western States last June but it got canceled because of the California wild fires) but I knew from my reading of Runner's World that he was very very fast (see article): 2:21 marathon PR, US 2008 50K and 100K champion, etc. I told Rob I was going to give it a try, since I had come to this race to pace someone and it was actually my first pacing experience. Waiting for the front runners to come back to Pan Toll (their mile 30), I had some time to chat with Tony about potential races for him in Europe and his other plans before our Western States rally, or the Auburn "track meet" as it is also called.

In the shade of the redwoods, I was still shivering and decided to cross the road to get in the sun and see the top runners coming in (I posted good shots of the top 10). 1, 2, 3, ... 13 runnners and still no sign of Michael. This was certainly unusual and I decided to come back to the station to ask Rob if he had heard about anything about Michael. Just the time when Michael finally showed up, more than 25 minutes after the front runner... Michael was devastated but Rob did not leave him the option of dropping, annoucing him that I will be pacing to Tennessee Valley, for the next 14 miles. We quickly left the station and rushed in the woods on a trail which I was not familiar with (not a trail we use at Miwok and Headlands 50K). I took the lead and we were really cruising, flying over the roots and passing 50K runners. Michael was telling me about his mistake at the turnaround, getting lost and much farther down a steep hill (the same than Miwok?) up to a point where he could tell from the face of the hikers that he was the only runner they had seen today... He estimated to 45 minutes the time he had lost with this detour and, of course, that was not counting the damage done to his mental. I gave many words of encouragement, some he could not hear with my soft voice or not understand with my French accent... We walked some of the uphills but, geez, what a stride in the downhills and few flat sections!

Michael ran out of water 2 miles before the next aid station, Old Inn. I could not pass him any of mine since this is against the rule. As a matter of fact, Michael was sweating a lot and was pouring some water on his head at each aid station, when I was still quite chilly especially in this section, almost all in the shade of the redwoods. Before Old Inn, we got on the Dipsea trail for about 2 miles, including the start of the climb to Cardiac. On the road section, we were flying and I told Michael my GPS got down to 5:15 min/mile! He replied that he felt much better going fast than struggling in the uphills...

We passed two 50-mile runners in Frank Valley: Philippe Rolly and Zacariah Miller. But it is only 1 mile before Tennessee Valley that we caught up with Hal Koerner, and that was the last competitor Mark and I could help Michael catch up with. Of course, for someone of Michael's caliber, finishing 9th was much disappointing, yet he thanked us for helping him finish instead of dropping at Pan Toll. What a ride for my first pacing experience! "Only"' 31 miles (50K) of running on Saturday, but I was happy to see the finish line (I ran some of the last section with Hal Koerner and the last 2 miles chatting with Zacariah). Michael (in blue, and running in Books!) and Mark (green) at the finish:
I stayed for a while in the North Face "village", seeing many familiar faces, but had to leave by 2pm as we had 9 guests for dinner. On the way back though, and to take advantage of this incredible good and clear weather, I stopped to capture some of the wonderful views of Rodeo Beach, the Golden Gate and the City (see the album for more).Overall, the event was masterfully managed and you could actually tell that North Face had poured quite some money in it. It was an incredible "ultra celebration" and surely the prize money contributed to this national and international gathering. My only whining? I've never seen an ultra with so much junk (mostly gel packets), in the US (trail cleanliness is one thing which surprises our visitors from France and I hope we can keep this American tradition on). I just hope that this is not the result of too much competition driven by the appeal of monetary prizes...


Anonymous said...

Jean, Thanks for doing another fabulous job of capturing an ultra event, bot in your descriptive and informative text and in your great photos! It was great to see you at the start and sorry you weren't able to pace Dave James as originally planned, but were able to still find a rewarding pacing job.

It is funny that you mentioned Peter Defty and Vespa. Peter gave me some samples about a week ago and, ignoring the advice not to do anything in a race that you haven't tried in training, I decided to try one Saturday morning. As I results, I had one of my best runs in ages for the first 15 miles, not being passed by anyone, holding my own after the first mile or 2. I only wish the effect had lasted longer for me :) Thanks again, Chuck

Anonymous said...

Que de difficultĂ©s pour ton "client", enfin, il semble que vous vous en ĂȘtes pas mal sortis

Anonymous said...


Thank you so much, I could not have done it without you seriously.

You did a great job and I am really pleased to have meet you.

Best Regards,
Michael Wardian

Olga said...

Jean, awesome pictures, and beautiful views, thanks! Bummer about your original runner, but so great that you helped Michael to suck it up and make the best out of the day.

Ted Knudsen said...

RE: Trash on the trail. I noticed it too. I'm not pointing fingers but this was not the typical ultra crowd and many of the participants were from other disciplines/sports (marathons,tri's) where it is common to throw down your cup and gel packs after an aid station.

You are never too fast or too cool to not pick up your own trash. If you disagree with me, try volunteering at an aid station and picking after people who are "racing" and drop a cup. Automatic DQ in my rule book (and I have reported runners before of this infraction).

Anonymous said...

I too was discussed by all of the gel packs and tabs left on and around the trail! Never in all of my years of trail running have I seen such disregard for the pristine environment, which we were privileged to run in. I witnessed a runner toss two whole gel packs down the hill in the grass on the spectacularly beautiful out-and-back section of the coastal trail. I called him on it and he went down and retrieved them. I only wish I had thought to get his #. This type of behavour can not be tolerated! Chuck Wilson

Anonymous said...

Nice report Jean, I didn't realize Michael got lost for that long. I am sure he feels better that he finished instead of dropping. And the garbage, yah, more than likely roadies threw it down, I picked up 6 powergel wrappers myself. Two were I ate them. To the next adventure.

Rajeev said...


Thanks for your wonderful report. It made me want to run this race next year!

Happy Holidays to you and Agnes.


Anonymous said...

Michael Wardian is a good runner but to claim he lost 45 minutes on his wrong turn is nonsense and disrespectful to the other runners! Looking at the race results and subtracting 45 minutes from his Pantoll split of 4:27:30 would mean he would have been at Pantoll in 3:42:30 which means he is basically claiming he would have been in the lead by 20 minutes!!! Sorry, but the reality was he was nowhere near the lead when he got lost. Yes it sucks that he missed a turn but this is like those that take a bathroom break and say they lost ten minutes when it was really one. Far more realistic would be to find out who he was running ahead of or behind when he got lost and then do the math based on their Pantoll splits. That would probably be accurate to within a minute or two and not this 45 minute absurdity.

Jean Pommier said...


Granted, 45 minutes is a lot when the top 4 runners finish within almost 10 minutes. I was just relating what Michael said when he got to Pan Toll. Unless we know for sure which distance (and extra elevation) he ran, we'll never know. That said, on one side there is the extra distance; on the other hand, the impact on the mental. Overall, it was certainly tough for Michael to keep going knowing it was nearly impossible to make up for his detour.

One more thing: when I wrote my report, the splits at mile 30 were all messed up, with three women faster than Michael, so it was difficult to use that in the analysis. It seems fixed, now, and it shows Michael lost 26 minutes on Matt between the two Pan Toll splits. Which is a lot for 12 miles. And, again, if you are a runner, you know how getting lost can get to your mental and diminish your ability.

Anyway, the titans will be back, there will be other matches, and opportunities to learn, as ultra always provide...


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