Sunday, November 13, 2011

Last Chance 2011: not missed!

This is quite a name for a race, for an event held in November, just in time to get a 50-mile qualifier for the Western States lottery. With the great times I had this year at American River and Dick Collin's Firetrails, getting such a qualifier was the least of my worry this weekend but, according to the organizers, 120 of the 140 starters on the 50-mile distance this Saturday were chasing this dream, so it was serious stuff for many. And for me too for another reason since I had missed the big opportunity to bank points in the Grand Prix at Rio del Lago, chasing too many goals. That was a 132-point opportunity which I missed and, after Dave Mackey took the lead in the Grand Prix with his Firetrails win, this weekend was my "last chance" to catch-up. Last chance as Dave isn't running Quad Dipsea, and I had only one option: win my age group. Which became quite challenging after Victor Ballesteros and Michael Fink registered a few weeks ago...

That was my 5th time on this course, although the event was then named the Helen Klein Classic in the name of Race Director Norm Klein's wife, a world class senior runner. Since Helen stopped competing ultras well in her 80s and Norm had given enough nights directing ultra, including the legendary Western States in the 80s, the race transferred to Desert Sky Adventures first, then Julie Fingar's NorCal Ultras (she now has a "collection" with Way Too Cool, American River, Firetrails, Sierra Nevada and Last Chance!). With that, and various big construction projects along Folsom Lake and the American River (levee and bridge), the course has evolved but always includes climbing back to the Folsom Lake Dam and Cavitt School, actually twice now.

On the previous single out and back, I had quite a few different experiences. In 2006, it was my second 50-miler and I finished in 4th in 6:52. In 2007, 2nd overall in 6:22, which remained my PR at this distance until Ruth Anderson 2010 (6:07). In 2008, the run turned to a nightmare with one of my worst asthma crisis but, quite determined and with 1/4th of my lungs working, I still manged to finish in 8:51, in 16th overall. Some asthma again in 2009 and I clocked a disappointing 7:12, surprisingly good enough though for 3rd overall that year.

Victor was very relaxed at the starting line. After participating to the road 100K World Chapionship and spending a year focusing on this event (September 2011 in the Netherlands) but going through injuries during Spring, he was in great shape and was looking not only for a Western States qualifier (although his 100K race should have been way enough for that), but also to clock another Team USA qualifier on the 50-mile distance, that is under 5:50 (5 hours 50 minutes). I knew my goal was in big trouble and that even my A game would not match that (Victor is 41, therefore in our very competitive M40-49 age group).

With the recent Daylight Savings Time change, it was great to have daylight for the 6:30 am start, after the bright night with the full moon. I was feeling ok although quite tired after having been on the road to visit clients and prospects for 7 out of the past 8 weeks. 35,974 air miles, 18 flights, 4 different countries including 3 in the Gulf and 4 different states in the US. Not to mention the associated stress and the sleep deprivation working double shifts across so many time zones and catching up with emails at night after client meetings or speaking engagements at conferences during the day. Of course, I'm happy to have a solid first job and busy and full life, making running only my second job... ;-) Anyway, with that, I was excited to get some stress relieved through such intense exercise that is running an ultra or competing with great champions such as Victor.
On the flat levee, we started right on my target average pace which was 7:00 min/mile pace which corresponds to a 5:50 50-mile time. Not that I was thinking of breaking 6 hours today, but that's a comfortable pace to start with. However, while Victor and I were following another runner, whom I supposed was on the 30 or 50K (three events held together), Victor picked the pace up after the third levee segment as the bike path goes down. As the miles passed, and the bike path steadily goes down along the American River, I was looking at the average pace on my Garmin 205 going down too into what I felt was a dangerous zone. 6:50, 6:40, finally reaching a plateau at 6:36 min/mile! I asked Victor if that was his 100K competition pace and he replied with a smile: "just slightly faster." We weren't even at mile 10, I thought I was really going to get into trouble soon...
Yet, with the perfect weather and conditions, it felt good and exciting to keep up with Victor and see how long I could extend that, eventually. Around the 10-mile mark, I slowed down a bit and was about 100 yards behind, while Victor remained with the lead bike. I did a quick pit stop and lost eye contact with both of them around mile 12 but was able to pick up the pace and catch-up before the 15-mile turnaround (at the Folsom Inn Parking Lot). As Victor commented on this picture from Greg on Facebook, Victor seems to say: "Damn, this guy just doesn't give up!?"
Our team captain, Greg Lanctot ( was crewing for me today and handed me two new bottles (one Gu2O and one plain water). By the way, all pictures in this post are courtesy to him as he was juggling between his camera, my bottles and Bree's ones! I grabbed a piece of banana and quickly left as Victor didn't even stop. We stayed close behind for the next 5 miles and we were still on a 6:36 min/mile average pace by mile 20. Still feeling good, I passed Victor after Main Bar (mile 21) to at least share the burden of leading. Doing so, I even got our pace down to 6:35 in the next flat section and thought how stupid that was, or at least unreasonable, and how smart Victor was to just stay behind. We passed the marathon mark around 2:52, just 5 minutes over my recent 2:47 marathon at the World Masters in Sacramento in July. With 24 more miles to go, this too seemed really aggressive... At this point, I even experienced some vision trouble and was glad the lead biker was wearing a bright yellow jacket! I took a Gu in case that meant I was low on sugars, and also paid a bit more attention on my breathing as I certainly needed all the oxygen I could process to maintain the effort. Fortunately that passed after 10-15 minutes and I was able to maintain a good effort as we were climbing back to the Dam and the high school. Victor remained behind and I thought it was a safe and smart strategy on his end as we had still more than 20 miles to go. In this uphill section, our pace went down to 6:43 when we reached and left the school for another out and back.

We had completed the first 50K in 3:26, just one minute off my PR at that distance (Jed Smith 2010), oops, that was really crazy. Yet, feeling good and properly hydrated thanks to another efficient change of bottles from Greg at mile 28, I just took an S!Cap and a cup of Coke from the aid station and left a few seconds before Victor. At this point, I placed a big bet and decided to maintain the pace to see if I could preserve or even extend the lead. A BIG bet as we had 19 miles left to cover... No more lead bike to focus on, it was just me and, a huge asset, the encouragements of the other runners we were now starting crossing, either finishing their 30 or 50K, or coming to the school for the 50-mile turnaround. I want to say a big thank you to all of them in this post as I was saving my breath and just acknowledging and responding with a hand sign. To all of you, be sure your cheering meant a lot to me!
Giving it all, I was able to get the average pace down again by a mere 1 second in the next 9.5 miles to 6:42 by the Main Bar aid station ultimate turnaround (yes, this convoluted course has 3 turnarounds, check the race website if you are getting lost in my recount, and want to visualize on a map!). In this section, I decided not to check if Victor was behind and that I will find out about the lead once I negotiated the turnaround. It was great to see for the third time fellow Brooks fan, Eric Schranz, who was manning the Main Bar aid station. He was very pro-active in proposing help but I was set with my bottles and just took another small cup of Coke and one more S!Caps. Gordy Ainsleigh (the inventor of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run) was refueling on his way back to the school. When we crossed paths earlier in the morning, I called for a high five, which amused him, but I'm sure his fluid helped me going beyond my limits! (Check the picture on his Wikipedia page, that's one of mine! ;-)
Although I was definitely tired after such a fast 41-mile run, I was not going to sit there and wait for Victor, so I promptly went on. With 9 miles to go came the first cramp signals but it was too late to slow down as I had now about a 0.8-mile lead on Victor. Only at this point did I start thinking winning might be possible, although that would require to keep pushing all the way up to the dam to avoid a potential final sprint with Victor on the levee. Again, the encouragements and smiles from the other 50-mile competitors I was crossing or passing helped a lot and I managed to lose only 8 more seconds off my average pace. In the final 4 miles I turned back to check if Victor was coming back on me and the fact of changing my stride for that triggered some cramps so I figured out it was safer to just look ahead and keep moving. No signs of Victor on the levee, I was now pushing to compete against the clock. After dreaming in the morning of breaking 6 hours and entering the sub-6-hour "club" for 50-mile, I was now thinking of the amazing 5:42 that I remembered Todd Braje clocking here a few years ago (to only find out later that it was actually 5:49, the year the course had a trail detour at the end. It's at Jed Smith that Todd ran a 5:30 50-miler in 2009. He was 32 and I think that got him on the National team).

As I was approaching the school and passing signs such as "Smelling the Finish Line?", I was excited enough to sprint down the levee and so thrilled to cross the finish line and "break the tape" (literally, how cool) in a blazing 5:43:35. My third overall win this year, woo! Granted, it took me 10 minutes to recover and catch my breath from the effort as my body was really wondering what just happened, and 10 minutes is what ended up separating Victor and I (yes, that's me in his arms, and Jim all smile! ;-).
 At 56, former winner of Way Too Cool (1998), Helen Klein (1996) and Skyline (1994), Mark Richtman, took 3rd in an amazing 6:04.
Our Quicksilver Ultra Running Team did quite well again with Erick Toschi taking first overall in the 30K, Bree Lambert taking 2nd overall/woman in the 50K and Clare Abram 2nd woman in the 50-mile, second to Bev Anderson who is back racing after her knee surgery last year.

With that amazing performance (per others' qualifier), I should take the lead back in the Grand Prix by mere 3.9 points (1.0% of our 384 total...), phew! I know there isn't much glory in that, with Dave having only competed in 4 of the 7 eligible events for the count, but at least that pushed me to dig really deep, far beyond what I ever thought I could go. I'm also thankful to Victor for the friendly and tough competition he offered on Saturday as he was chasing different goals and got us on such an aggressive but needed pace for such a performance.
Like Agnès said on Saturday night when I came back home: "this would be a good time to retire..." But, sincerely, I'm too much hooked now not to try other challenges, if not Faster, at least Farther...

With regard to the course record, this is a complicated situation between the changes of race directors, race names and even courses. Compiling information from various web sites (Gary Wang's Real Endurance, Mark Gilligan's UltraSignup for Helen Klein Classic or this year's Last Chance, Desert Sky Adventure's Helen Klein records web page website ), it sounds like I clocked the 7th fastest time since 1996 and 2nd in the Masters division:
  1. '97     Carl Andersen (37)     5:26:12
  2. '97     Brian Teason (36)     5:28:56
  3. '98     Brian Teason (37)     5:29:48
  4. '99     Mark Godale (29)     5:35:12
  5. '97     Kevin Setnes (43)     5:36:03
  6. '98     Mark Godale (28)     5:42:03
But, again, apart from the detour that I know from having run it in 2009 and 2008 and which did cost a few minutes to Todd Braje and Chikara Omine in particular, I don't know enough about that race in the 1990s to see what has changed. What I would say though is that climbing back twice over the dam didn't make it easier than when we were running the simple out and back along the American River. On the other hand, it was motivating (for the leaders at least...) to see other runners in the final stretches. If you ran this course back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, please consider leaving a comment with your perspective and some historical information!

Now, I've been asked how all this happened and I see five plausible explanations:
  1. First, the more stress and workload I experience at work, the more I seem to race well. Like this maximizes the stress relief I'm looking for when running, or as it gives me an excuse for not running at my best and just do what I can. The latter one is probably freeing my mental from some pressure as I usually not race well when I want to do "too" well.
  2. I almost titled my post "extra-vespa-ordinary" in reference to the Vespa "potion" I've been using for the past two years with quite some success. For instance, in this race, I only took 6 Gu gels, 2 pieces of banana and 2 small cups of Coca Cola. There is no doubt that this would not have been enough energy, at least for me, to run 50 miles at this effort level without digging extra  calories from my body fat. This stuff works!
  3. Back to the mental, I've been improving and stopped just listening to my body when getting fatigue signals. Several times during the race, I had doubts I could keep up with that pace, less because of physical limits but more because it was something I didn't have as a reference in my 2,400-entry log. By lowering this negative thought and increasing the "you have to do it, you can do it!" thought or internal voice, I was able to get far beyond what I had ever experienced. Sure it hurts (I ran 6 miles this Sunday with painful soreness and at a slow 8:30 pace), but it feels good afterward!
  4. Fourth, I'm going to give some credit to Greg who crewed for me this Saturday. As a personal trainer and coach he has this talent of both pushing you and getting rid of the associated stress. Mixing strong encouragements, focus and positive thoughts with enthusiasm and fun. It definitely worked for me this weekend, made the heavy traffic on Friday less stressful and the race on Saturday so smooth. And it also worked for our team this year as we took all the team titles in the Grand Prix (Men, Women, Mixed, Overall) and most of the individual Age Group ones too!
  5. Last but not least, there is hard work. Since I started running consistently when I moved to the US in 1998, I never averaged as many miles per week as this year. Although I know other log many more, I'm at 63.5 mile/week year to date, and that includes short but intense speed work sessions, weeks off to taper before races and days off because of business travel or meetings. To counter balance, I've put more long runs on weekends, many of them as training ultras actually. And I like when hard work pays off (not the case everywhere... ;-).
So, no miracle or silver bullet, I could actually add proper hydration as I drank about 5 16-oz bottles during the race, while I was stunned how little Victor drank in comparison. In any case, I swear, and both my GPS and Victor are here to testify, I ran the whole course and it was indeed 50 miles! ;-) At least what this shows is that, if you are yourself aiming at improving, there is hope in what our body can do...

Anyway, that's enough about my personal recount of this perfect race for me, there were 97 finishers out of the 140 or so starters, and I heard about other PRs in these perfect conditions. A big thank you to Race Director Julie Fingar for another very professional and perfect event organization and the great volunteers at all aid stations although I apologize for having skipped most of them. I'm sure you understand I was on a mission... ;-) And thank you to Lily for her deep tissue massage which allowed me to run this Sunday.
Now looking forward to another similar break through, keeping defying aging and realizing patience is of essence. Next race will be the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot (10K for me, 5K for Agnes and Greg), there are already 12,000 entrants with a 17,000 cap. And the Western States lottery in parallel, fighting the challenging statistical odds. In the meantime, you all Run Happy!


Victor Ballesteros said...

Hey buddy, another great report. I still can't get over what an awesome effort you produced. Also, if it wasn't for you mentioning my name, I don't think anyone would know who I am- so thanks. I just had one small correction for you. I wasn't part of the u.s. team at the 100k worlds. I ran unattached. I don't know if you can correct that in your report. I wouldn't want anyone to think I was making up stories :-). take care.. till next time.

Toshi Moshi said...

Amazing run! Congrats! I love reading your report and analysis. So much to learn from here.
@Victor: Every ultra runner in NorCal knows about you!

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention that you still had enough juice to go dancing on Saturday night...
Encore bravo, tres belle performance!
A bientot sur les sentiers de la Baie...

Eric@URP said...

Jean-You looked fantastic out there, very controlled, very dialed. Perfect! It's always nice to see you.
--eric schranz

ps: my captcha code was "entioure." Does that mean anything in french?

Michael Jimenez said...

Hello, Jean it was a thrill to watch you and Victor battle for the lead in this really cool race. It was my first 50 miler and I was certainly inspired by the opportunity the routing afforded us to see all the competitors at various stages of the race. How exciting to see and run at the same venue with you, Victor, Mark, Gordy, Bev & her husband as well as many of the other strong and gutsy runners that pushed their personal limits on Saturday. What great fun! I for one never took offense at your obsequious head nods at any of our passing. I was so impressed and caught off guard at how far down the course you were when you appeared, I was dumbstruck & could only manage a "man you're fast". I hoped not to distract you from your tremendous effort! It was very apparent you were in a 'zone', that you effort was driving you towards something special. BTW this is the second race I've been in you & you were 1st in both. Hope to have the good fortune of watching you win many more!

Anonymous said...

Un enthousiaste bravo de notre part.
Surprise de te voir tête nue pour cet exploit.
Vraiment..."mission" accomplie!

Jean Pommier said...

Oops, Victor, I thought you had made the team, then dropped because of the injury yet decided to go on your own. You certainly deserve to represent our age group on that team, hope they consider you! Anyway, I corrected the text, thanks for leaving a note. And, again, for "pushing" me to that level...!
By the way, Toshi is right, making top 10 at Western States is certainly enough to give you enough fame for being well known around. ;-)

Anil Rao said...

Congrats Jean, thats one heck of a performance from you. great report.

Baldwyn said...

I was stunned to see you coming in for your finish as I was leaving for my second out and back. Especially when I looked at my watch, to see you well under 6 hours; something I thought you hadn't done before! It was great for us back of the packers to see you and Victor so many times throughout the run! What I find the most inspiring, especially to us just a little younger than you, is that you continue to set PR's. A friend of mine just did his first marathon, and I show him your speedy, yet mortal debut time as an example of the potential before him! Superb stuff!

GoPaulGo said...

Congrats again and great writeup!

GoPaulGo said...

@Victor... we all know who you are! Congrats on your great running at Last Chance!

Erwan Japon said...

Whaoh ! That's fast ! Almost exactly 3h/marathon average pace...
Hope you can one day gives this kind of high-level performance in WS100. With the increase yearly mileage + the knowledge you have (of both yourself and the course) I am sure you can do it. That would brings you in the top-10 for sure.
Felicitations !

Jean Pommier said...

Thanks for all your messages!

Erwan, thanks for the encouragements, I still have to work on the 100-mile distance, that's quite another animal to master... As for WS, I'm actually not putting my name in the hat this year as we may be abroad again at the end of June. One more chance for the 2,000 lottery players! ;-)

Rajeev said...

Great race report. Congratulations on your amazing win!!


Rajeev said...
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