Sunday, March 15, 2009

Way Too Cool '09: longer, slower

Preamble: this is a long report, for a relatively short ultra. If you are in a hurry, you may want to jump to my Picasa photo album with Agnès and Greg's picture of the start and the top 28 finishers.

A bit of history and context

Way Too Cool (WTC) and I start having an history. Not as long as the 17 editions Tim Twietmeyer participated in though. For me, it started 4 years ago, on March 11 2006, when WTC was my first official ultra race, my initiation to ultra competition. It was one week after I had set my PR on the half marathon distance in Paris (1:15:04). I remember going into the race with confidence because of this recent PR and also because on of my ultra mentors from the Striders, Charles Stevens, had assured me that it was a cool race, and easy profile. I know he meant in comparison with other more challenging course but, at the time, he did not appear as easy at all to me. As a matter of fact and despite many layers, I was cold all the way, tired of slipping in the mud and getting my feet wet with the stream crossings and, of course, did not pace my self correctly, a common mistake of an ultra newbie. I ran 10" under 4:30 and did not found that "Too Cool."

A year later (2007), I was bullish and thought I could only do better. Indeed, everything went well in the first 14 miles until ALT1 (the second aid station, ALT standing for Auburn Lake Trail). In the hill off ALT1, I remember being passed by Tim as I was out of breath, hit again by this darn exercise-induced asthma. The last 15 miles were pathetic as I was alternating walking and slow jogging until I could not breath anymore, my lungs and throat struggling with coughing spasms. 4:45:42...

Last year, I was blogging and you can read the recount of my finally happy connection and experience with this major event on the North American ultra circuit. The title of my post says it all: "Way Too Cool: cool, at last!" 3:56:52 and, more importantly, good and happy memories, finally!

The 2009 edition

Like in 2007, I was not coming to the event rested. As you know, I ran a good 2:46:32 marathon at Napa 2 weeks ago, in the rain. In addition I experience quite some stress with the ongoing IBM-ILOG integration. Then Agnès took a full-time teaching job for a few months (French in high school), the boys are very busy for their coming musical, Smile, so even my crew was tired and stressed out. When I came back from work on Friday evening, I told Agnès that I had never felt that tired before a race. Fortunately, Agnès drove the last 2/3 of the way up to Auburn on Friday night and I could sleep for one hour in the car, plus another 6 hours at the hotel. We like the Best Western there (Golden Key) and the owners remember us now for our many stays, either in connection with ultra races or on our way to skiing at Tahoe. At breakfast I met Jeff, from the Runners' World forum, who came all the way from New York to run the event.

I had read on various forums that the weather will be great on race day and potentially over 70F. On race morning the temperature was only 38F though. Every one was chilly for the bib pick-up and runner check-in but there was excitement and many smiley faces with the nice weather ahead and the dry course this year. More and more familiar faces as this marked the beginning of my 4th year in ultra, yet many unknown face too as this even attracts people from all over California and the American West.
The start was given right on time at 8 o'clock by Race Director Julie Fingar, under the supervision of ex RD Greg Soderlund. It was a furious charge of more than 500 runners. Seems like a large number but you should know that many more candidates could not get in actually, the online registration filling in less than 10 minutes again this year. The first 2 miles are on the only road section of the course and, despite making efforts to pace myself, I passed the 1st mile mark in 6:26 slightly above my marathon pace. And, to tell you how fast we went off, there were probably 40 runners ahead of me! Like last year, I enjoyed getting some energy out of the joyful and vocal Andy Jones-Wilkins while passing him and Tim. In previous years, the course was obviously much shorter than the official 31 miles corresponding to 50K. This year marked a new era for WTC, with an extension of the first section before the Highway 49 crossing aid station. Last year, I was following Scott Jurek in the miles before and after this aid station and this unique experience revived some vivid and uplifting memories of seeing him flying over the rocks and roots in this technical section. With Scott at the finish last year:
Right after Hwy 49, I found Mark Lantz holding his knee on the side of the trail and stopped to see what was going on. Mark seemed in big pain and like he was not going to make it. He told me and Bev, right on my heels, to go on. As you may have read in my Napa marathon report, Mark passed me in the final stretch finishing right under 2:46. He is not only fast, but so strong as you will see later, I have a lot of respect for this mental toughness. We then continued with Bev leading the women race and Thomas Reiss. I mentioned Thomas in my Jed Smith post as one of the North California ultra elite. Before the Ball Bearing hill, or should I say wall, Lewis Taylor passed me and I was never to see him again. Ball Bearing is where I lost sight of Scott Jurek last year as I had to walk in this steep and rocky section. This year, I felt good enough to follow Thomas as he was trotting up the hill. With the extra 1.5 miles before Hwy 49, we passed the 10-mile mark in this hill, in 1:12, which I felt was more reasonable and sustainable than the 1:10 of last year. I followed Thomas' steps for a couple of miles but passed him at one creek crossing. Our average pace was down to 7:20 at this point.

I reached ALT1 without seeing anyone in front or beyond me. I stopped for way too long however to fill my bottle, take in more Vespa, some banana, Coke and a salt tablet. I thought I had plenty of time, reaching almost the half way point in 1:52, on par for a sub 4-hr finish. I was still enjoying the open bar and buffet when I saw Thomas, Bev and Caitlin Smith coming through, not even stopping! Then came the valorous Mark Lantz which made me realize I had rather keep going. When I left ALT1, my average pace had dropped down to 7:29 min/mile. I did the math (15 miles x 9 seconds to realize that I had stopped for more than 2 minutes, how bad...!).

I did not take me too long to catch up with Thomas and passed him actually as he was evidently having a bad day (he finished in 129th and 5:06, not sure what happened). Then it was time to reconnect with the lead of the women race which I will see unfolding from start to finish. Caitlin was still on Bev's heels, literally. I passed them in the tricky section going down to one of the major creek crossings, with freezing water. The water which we desperately want during Western Sates when the temperatures are above 100 or 110F, but not really in winter... I pushed the pace again to get the average pace up to 7:28. I even ran some of the crazy steep Goat Hill, but got out of breath quickly and ended up being passed by 3 runners just before ALT2, including Michael Fink (2nd at Jed Smith 50K).
I left ALT2 just before hearing people saying that the lead women were getting in. Time to move! I have a strange love/hate feeling about the section right after ALT2. Love because it is a very runnable trail, in the shade, soft ground, single track. Love too because we see the tail of the pack and we receive so many encouragements. The part which I don't like is that, usually short of breath in this last third of the course, I cannot even thank or return the encouragements of all these runners who stop to let the front runners pass, while they have themselves many more hours to spend on the course, and even the challenge of making the cut-off times for some. If you read these lines and are one of the runners who made extra effort to free up the single track by stepping on the side, and potentially get in the poison oak, THANK YOU! And leave a comment so I can follow-up with a personal note!

I had passed Michael Cook in Goat Hill, but he was much faster as soon as there was a flat section and passed me again. He was wearing the Auburn Running Company t-shirt which reminded me I need to check on Dan Moores' status on his fight against cancer.
Here is what Gary has posted on his RealEndurance website:
Dan has found a donor match in his brother Michael and will be undergoing a bone marrow transplant at Stanford Hospital beginning in early March, with a goal of returning home in time for Western States. In the meantime, please send Dan good thoughts and continue your support at Auburn Running Company.
Wishing you the best with this procedure, Dan, to see you back on the trails soon! Speaking of fight, there were nice signs posted along the course this Saturday, motivational quotes which I really like. And, between the aid stations, we were left with our own motivation and mental strength, mine eroding a bit as I got passed by Bev and Caitlin, then Erik Skaden, and hard time keeping up with them. Last year I had passed Erik 3 miles before the finish. This year I passed him by mile 17 when I was trying to make up for my long stop at ALT1. Erik is so impressive, large stature, all muscle and power. With a lot of respect, I call him the Raymond Poulidor of ultra running in reference to his numerous 2nd places (e.g. Western States '06 and '07, American River '08, Jed Smith 50K '06, Helen Klein 50K '06, Diablo 50M '08). Something else I need to mention about Erik is that he got the 2008 Ultra Runner of the Year award from the Pacific Association USA Track & Field Association, not me. I actually got the same award in 2007 and I wanted to make the correction as there was some confusion about that in a recent article who ran in all the local newspapers of the South Bay (Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Campbell, San Jose, etc.). Since my 2007 award got unnoticed at the time, I hope the readers will forgive the mistake with the date...
Anyway, back to the head of the women race, I could witness the turning point when Caitlin took the lead at the marathon point, in the last difficulty which represents Goat Hill. I climbed it with Bev which was hoping she had shown up at this race in better shape. We stopped very shortly at the Goat Hill aid station, captained by birthday boy (or was it a girl ;-), Norm Klein. Helen was there of course, telling Bev that Caitlin was just 30" ahead of us, so we should go.
Michael Cook passed me again (after the finish we joked that we should combine his speed on flat section with my uphill strength...). I did not stop at the Hwy 49 aid station (sorry Steve Holeman!) and passed Jeff Kozak less than half a mile from the finish line. 4:14:43, 27th overall, 6th in Masters, but 1st in my brand new 5-year deep age group of M45-49! 8:12 average pace against 8:02 last year. The course was definitely longer, but I was slightly slower too, despite the ideal conditions. I will be back...
After seeing Agnès and Greg, Peter Defty (the Vespa effect worked well again!), Sean Lang (just 2 minutes behind me), I rushed to the massage area. From the amazing Monsters of Massage, VeLoyce took care of my calves and quads, so well that I had not a single sign of soreness in my legs this Sunday morning (went for a run!), except for the chronic inflammatory pain in my right ankle (ongoing since January) and left hip (3 weeks). I wish VeLoyce lives closer to my home and envy the ones living in the Newcastle/Auburn area for that (and for the opportunity to train on the Western States trail too!).
Thanks to the professional time management of Road Race Management, the results have been posted almost in real time on their website. Leor Pantillat had a stellar debut on this course with an overall win in 3:39. I did beat him at Quad Dipsea last November has he was having a bad while chasing Erik Skaggs, I bet that will be the last time! Caitlin won in the women with a time of 4:12.
I was very impressed by Eric Grossman's performance, who took the Master title in a blazing 3:51, faster than his time last year (I finished just behind him last year). With that, Eric was a great embassador of the East Coast ultra community among this majority of West Coast runners.
Overall, that was my second best day on this course. I want to thank you the volunteers for perfectly run aid stations and start/finish area. And a special mention to RD Julie who keeps perfecting the organization of this major event, gathering such a competitive and friendly field. The course marking was very good, and agremented with these encouraging and motivating quotes. And look at these 2 cute cup cakes among 540 other frogs, all man decorated!
Thank you also to the generous sponsors which make such races possible: my favorite gel and electrolyte brand, Gu, Shanon's Moeben for the nice sleeves in the runner packet, Patagonia for the two great Capilene tops, Norm's Sierra Nevada Ultras, Montrail UltraCup and Bank Card USA.
Again, take a look at my Picasa photo album including Agnès and Greg's pictures, mostly from the finish of the top 28 runners. With comments for a continuation of this recount...

See many of you at American River in 3 weeks! I have some unfinished business there from last year, if my lungs cooperate. No time for resting...


Anonymous said...

Great report! You are such a nice man to make a point of thanking us slow ones who step aside on ALT. You were really cruising through that section and I appreciated the high five from you as I called out your name. I know it gets tiresome for those of you at the front as well as for those of us at the back but your kindness makes it all okay. Seeing your speed is always motivating. Glad you had a great run!
Diane Forrest

Unknown said...

Nice to see you and Agnes again at WTC! Congrats on a strong run, and I will see you again at the AR50 (since we are both doing the pa/usatf).

Scott Dunlap said...

Sounds like you still had a stellar day despite the Napa-induced legs. Great too see you out there!


Anonymous said...

Nice shot of my taped up legs!
it was good to run with you out there.

Anonymous said...

Cette fois, je peux "les" voir...bravo aux photographes

Dave - Atlanta Trails said...

great race! especially considering the asphalt pounding a couple of weeks ago.

p.s. when, oh when, will our race calendars line up just for one race??

Andy B. said...

Great run and report Jean. See you at AR50.

Anonymous said...

Jean, yes, nice meeting you at breakfast at the hotel, even if briefly. Some other time we will have the chance to chat more. I too enjoyed the day thoroughly, even though I am at the other end of the pack, and finished in nearly twice your time, at 8:10 !!


Anonymous said...

Good run,Jean!! I enjoyed running along with you while reading your journal. You're such a great writer as well as a runner!!
Nancy Miller