Sunday, September 25, 2011

Trailblazer 2011: moving forward!

This is post #250 on my running blog and I wish I had more time to celebrate with some specific and original writing about the journey of getting there. But, on Friday, I received a call to fly to Alaska so I'm jumping on a plane again tomorrow and I need to get ready with this new mission. I'm also supposed to go to Saudi Arabia and Singapore, maybe Dubai and Thailand too, in October, then I'm speaking at a conference in Florida the first week of November, so there will be quite a few busy weeks ahead...

In the meantime, I was able and delighted to run Trailblazer 10K again this year. This is my 7th edition (2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011). Two years ago, I even participated the day after taking 2nd at a 52-miler/double marathon (Sierra Nevada Run) which explained my "slower" time (37:44). This year, the race was ideally placed 2 weeks after Rio Del Lago 100-mile (where I dropped at mile 71 unfortunately) and 2 weeks before the Dick Collins Firetrails 50-mile. I can't say that I was going to run on fresh legs as I ran 105 miles over the past two weeks, but I was excited to get back to the 10K distance after running circles at the World Masters in July.

Yesterday, I helped Adam, Toshi and John marking the course for the annual Quicksilver 10K and half-marathon that Adam has been directing for several years now. The race was held this morning too.
Back to Trailblazer, this has always been a perfectly organized race thanks to Aaron's professionalism and the passion and contributions of all the Friends of the Stevens Creek Trail. Let's also salute the numerous sponsors who support not only this race but also the extension of the trail through Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Cupertino and Los Altos (see the trail update website for up to date information). You can see some of this progress right now with the overpass bridge being built over 85 this year, but there is still a lot of work to do to connect the section of the trail along the Bay to the one in Stevens Creek County Park, in the Cupertino hills. Here is a rendering of the ongoing construction over 85:
With a 10K road race, there isn't as much to say as a 100 miler, so I'll be short, for once... Jose (Pina) took the control of the race from the start followed by Mikko Valimaki from Los Altos. I had done some speed work with Bob on Thursday morning, a session during which we ran 4 800s after which I clocked a 5:22 mile. I felt good but told Bob I shouldn't start the race that fast. With that, I settled a few seconds behind Jose and Mikko. By the first mile, they had a 10-second lead increasing to 20 seconds by the second mile. It seemed to me that Mikko was just waiting behind Jose to pass him later but, around the 3rd mile, a gap started to form between him and Jose, while I was 30 seconds behind Jose. I ran the first 5K (3.1 mile) right on 17 minutes and kept pushing, eventually closing on Mikko and passing him after the convoluted chicane in the 5th mile. We then got into the 5K 2-way traffic and Mikko stayed right behind while we were slaloming between runners. I lost sight of Jose but saw the lead bike again and decided to push the pace to secure a second place. Jose must have slowed down in the last mile because I finished just 10 seconds behind him, crossing the finish line in 34:24, a 5:32 min/mile pace, not too far from my 34:02 at the World Masters 2 months ago.
Jose won the 10K race again in 34:14 a few minutes after his son, Jose Pina Jr., won the 5K in 17:07 at 14! All the results got posted already on the BuzzWord website (10K overall, 5K overall). By the way, there was no XBox to win this year but they both took home a gift card which will cover a pair of running shoes, which is surely more healthy and useful anyway! ;-) Jose being 41 and me 47, he got both the overall winner trophy and the first M40-49 one. As for me, I came back with the satisfaction of my time as well as knowing that the fun we had this morning will raise money to extend the trail I ran thousands of miles on, all that thanks to the dedication of so many kind volunteers. Before leaving, I ran the 10K course a second time, albeit much slower (44:56), a nice way to cool down and finish a 50-mile week.
I also took pictures of many other 10K finishers and posted them as a Picasa album. Here is Stevens Creek Strider Bill Dodson, 76, winning his M70-79 age group in the 5K, running the 3.1 miles at a 8:12 min/mile pace, bare foot!
Thank you again to Aaron and all the Friends of the Stevens Creek Trail for putting up such a great event! And looking forward to my 8th participation!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Running to recover

Just a short post to tell you that I'm fine (if you care... ;-) although still recovering after last week's painful episode at Rio Del Lago. It took me three days to regain my pre-race weight, something I never experienced before. And I've been unusually tired all week. Granted, I didn't take much rest with a lot of work, long working days, including three starting at 5:30 am on the phone. My legs were still sore on Wednesday and I decided to go for a run on Thursday for 6 easy miles. On Friday, I ran 9 miles with the last 4 under 6:30 min/mile pace. It felt good to feel some speed again after all the slow miles of these past weeks.

On Saturday, I attended our Stevens Creek Striders Saturday morning meeting at the Stevens Creek Park and ran the REI Trail with the group before continuing on Stevens Creek Canyon Road and Trail and climbing up to Black Mountain on the Bellavista Trail, then down on Montebello Road. 28.6 miles and 4,000 feet cumulative elevation.

And, this Sunday, I went back up to Black Mountain on Montebello Road, even racing with cyclists on the way up, which provided great motivation to work harder. I refilled my bottles at the camp ground (yes, I know, it says "Non potable water...") and made the detour on Waterwheel Trail on the way back. Total 24.7 miles and 3,800 cumulative elevation.

Now, while I'm so glad to get back to training again, especially in this wonderful weather, and happy to have logged more than 68 miles in 4 days, all these miles didn't come easy. I know that, by saying this, you will wonder why I'm doing this as a hobby then. My first answer is that, training hard will provide satisfactions down the road. And I'll use the famous "no pain, no gain" as my second answer...

Anyway, the Rio Del Lago 100 results have finally been published on Thursday. 38 finishers out of 84 starters (45% finisher rate). Of these, 15 finished between 30 and 32 hours. Tough one...

This weekend, Dan Decker and Greg Lanctot, from our QuickSilver Ultra Running Team ran Pine to Palm 100 in 25 hours flat and 27:13 respectively. Next week, Gary Gellin will participate in his first hundred at the Bear. Busy September for the team!

Next week too, Adam Blum directs the Quicksilver Trail Half Marathon and 10K in San Jose. It is still time to enter or volunteer! Quicksilver Almaden County Park, Hacienda Entrance, Sunday September 25, 2011, 8:30 AM.

This was post #249, talk to you next week for the 250 milestone! Have a great week in the meantime!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rio Del Lago 2011: crashing at last!

It is not easy to talk about failure or disappointment, at least for me, so better make it a learning experience as most famous quotes about failure say. Besides, as Agnès often reminds me, I'm supposed to run for the fun of it, so better put my attempts to go farther and faster into perspective of other challenges we see in this world. Like all the lives lost or changed on and since 9/11/2011, in New York City and through the Middle East.

Back to Rio Del Lago: most of my excitement was coming from the fact it was my yearly 100-miler and my number six (Western States 2007, 2009 and 2010, and Rio Del Lago 2008, 2010). I discovered and ran this race, initially created by former Western States Race Director Norm Klein in 2000, the year our Western States race was cancelled because of wild fires in June 2008. In 2010, I ran it again as a second 100-miler that same year to maximize my count of points in the Pacific Association Grand Prix. This year, our Grand Prix had 3 100-milers again on the program: Western States, whose lottery I didn't make, Tahoe Rim Trail the same weekend as the World Masters Marathon and Rio Del Lago in September. I therefore had no other option than coming back to log many miles along the American River.

If you have followed my journey in ultra running since 2006, or on this blog since 2007, you will remember that most of my challenging races happened in this area, especially due to exercised-induced asthma. Since I'm taking Singulair on a daily basis though, I got that under control and even had a good American River 50 race this April. Finally some positive experience on the Pioneer Express Trail section between Sacramento and Auburn, at last! Yet, when I saw that the course of Rio Del Lago was changed in a way that we will run this section 4 times, I got really concerned as it still brings so many bad memories, including those of my pathetic walk to finish AR50 in 2008 and my first DNF (Did Not Finish) at the same race in 2009.

With more than 10 ultra races a year, there is a routine forming up with definitely less excitement than for my first events. Less excitement on one hand but also less anxiousness which is good. To the point that I don't specifically train for a particular race and usually prepare in a rush at the last minute, between other work or family-related priorities. For my first 100-miler, it was like a 6-month project including a 5-day family trip to Squaw Valley. For this 6th hundred, Agnès and I arrived at Beals Point 2 minutes before the start of the briefing on Friday evening and had planned to leave Beals Point by midnight to drive back home on race day this Saturday as Agnès was teaching on Sunday. Indeed, my goal was to run around 17-18 hours and be done by 10 pm. Let's see how this turned out...

Molly's Race Director briefing with contribution from the father/inventor of the Western States 100, Gordy Ainsleigh:
4 minutes before the start, I was in the bathroom, battling with some GI issues, not a good start... We went off on the initial 1-mile out an back on the bike path with a small group including Brian, Mark, Jimmy, Toshi and Lukas. It was pitch dark but, not seeing Agnès before Dam Overlook at mile 25, I decided to leave my headlamp to her at mile 2. Fortunately, Jimmy, Brian and Lukas kept theirs and were really kind to highlight rocks for me as it remained very dark for I believe another hour or so and we were moving quite fast on the trail (around 8:30 min/mile). I ran very closely into Brian's steps until Twin Rocks (mile 7), then Lukas' until Horseshoe Bar where I just did a short stop to refill my water bottle. Jimmy was ahead and I caught up with him at New Rattlesnake Bar (mile 16). We left and ran a few miles together, with Lukas and Brian not far behind, then I slightly picked up the pace on this easy section, maintaining the 8:30-8:35 min/mile pace. When I reached the Cardiac aid station at the bottom of the famous Cardiac hill, or wall, the volunteers were still setting up the aid station and I still had some water left so I didn't want to stop and break my rhythm. Like my previous RDL runs, I jogged most of the hill and power walked about 25% of it. My average pace went down to 8:56 min/mile after Cardiac, this hill has its toll...
Since the start, my intestines were still cramping and I was looking forward to getting at the Dam Overlook aid station (mile 25) to make a well deserved pit stop at the restrooms (sorry to the newbies for the details...). Again, the aid station wasn't ready yet (no food on the table) and Agnès had just arrived on the parking lot after having had some difficulties locating it. While I was in the restrooms, she refilled my bottles with the water and ice she picked at the hotel and here off I was, down to the famous No Hands Bridge on the Western States Trail. This time, some food was ready and I picked a couple of pieces of watermelon before the strenuous climb up K2. With my GI issues, I knew I wasn't eating enough, and probably not drinking enough too to make up for the diarrhea. My average pace went down to 9:22 after K2 and 9:26 after the 7-mile and rolling Cool loop. It was definitely hot but I felt it was bearable thanks in particular to quite a few clouds in the morning. I was thinking with pity though of the many runners who will run this exposed section in the afternoon... I did a few improvised pit stops on this loop and pretty much emptied my intestines before going down to No Hands Bridge (mile 43). Good news but pretty late for starting the real fueling especially given the limited choices/menu at the aid stations.

I had seen Lukas entering the Cool Firestation aid station as I was leaving it so knew he was just a few minutes behind. I didn't see him at No Hands Bridge and ran quite a lot in the last major climb of the day, the 4-miles return to Auburn Dam Overlook (mile 47). Agnès, Pierre-Yves and Sean were there. Pierre-Yves was going to pace my from Twin Rocks, for the last 35 miles, and Sean was going to pace Toshi, for his 1st 100-miler.
I ate a bit, took the ice-filled bandana Agnès had prepared for me and left the station not feeling so well yet happy to still be in the lead and run along the water canal, my favorite section of this course. I ran down the "quad trashing" Cardiac, paying more attention to not slip on dusty rocks or trip on roots. This time, I stopped at the aid station at the bottom of the hill, to make sure I had enough ice and water for the next 6-mile stretch right in the middle of the heat. I had run the challenging first 50-miles in about 8 hours and was hasn't really looking forward the upcoming 3 section repeats between Cardiac and Twin Rocks...

I had lost a lot of salt as everyone could see on my black shorts and blue top and my legs started cramping in several areas despite my taking of S!Caps regularly since the early morning.
With his first pacer, Lukas passed me and took the lead around mile 53 before I finally reached Rattlesnake Bar (mile 56.5) to... crash. I probably stopped for 20 minutes there, trying to swallow more chips and watermelon. I was still struggling with the taste of the fake cola, while Agnès was working at cooling my body off. Lack of salt, lack of fuel, dehydration, body overheating, cramping, that wasn't looking good at all.
I finally and painfully left the aid station as Jimmy got in. He and his pacer passed me before the end of the next 2.6-mile stretch to Horseshoe Bar. Given the circumstances, I asked Pierre-Yves to start pacing me there and come with me in what turned out to be more walking than running.
My big mistake at Horseshoe Bar was not to drink more before the 6 miles to Twin Rocks. I was moving so slowly at that point that it took me 1 hour and 45 minutes to reach Twin Rocks. When I crossed them, Lukas had a 4-mile lead and Jimmy at least 2 miles. At Twin Rocks, I was getting worse and stayed for 20 minutes with Pierre-Yves doing a good job at pushing me to eat and drink. At some point, some soup arrived at the aid station and that was exactly what I needed but, the time to prepare it, it was too late and I had to keep moving to make sure we were returning to Horseshoe Bar before the night as none of us had our flashlights.
During my stop at Twin Rocks, Toshi (above with wife Judy, an ER nurse who resuscitated a runner at Horseshoe Bar...))  passed me, as well as the lead woman, Julie Fingar (RD of Way Too Cool, American River and now Dick Collins FireTrails too). I left the aid station with Juan, from Napa, who was also in bad shape (vomiting...) but still running.
I had stayed on a chair for so long, my legs were tetanized and it took me at least 15 minutes to "warm" up again and be able to run. With the food I finally managed to eat at Twin Rocks, I ran more on this section. We crossed two other Grand Prix competitors in my age group, Ray and Charles. At this time, my only goal became (1) to reach Horseshoe Bar before it turned dark and so we could meet with Agnès since no crew were allowed at Twin Rocks and (2) to drop and drive back home... Given our plans, it was out of question that I crawl the last 29 miles for at least 10 hours assuming I could even continue through the night at 3 miles an hour... This thought gave me even more respect for the back of the packers, battling with cut-off times. One thing which came back to my mind is Christian's 2010 RDL blog post in which he wrote with a lot of philosophy about quitting when there isn't fun left ("And I made my decision that from now on, I was only going to run what made me happy."). While some pain and suffering is part of ultra running, this remains a hobby and there is no reason to potentially kill yourself at it! Since there was no medical tracking at this race and I have now some relevant experience in gauging my body in such events, I waited for another 20 minutes while weighing pros and cons with Pierre-Yves and Agnès and we finally left the "crime scene" as I called it on FaceBook to rush to the closest In-n-Out to get some real food, real potato, real salt, real Coca Cola, some of the missing ingredients during this day on the trail. My weight was 128 pounds before the race and 121 pounds upon getting back home (after eating...), so I have at least one proof point to support my decision, it was safe to stop there before it could get worse.

See in my Picasa album a few pictures of the pre-race briefing, the start and a few other runners, although mostly Toshi and I (with all these aid stations Agnès spent more time driving around than on the side of the trail to take pictures... Not to mention the worries given to circumstances).

There are plenty of lessons to draw but, for the interest of time (I need to get back to work, and you too... ;-), I'd highlight three:
  1. Attempt - I entered this event taking the finish for granted and focusing more on a fast finish time. I need to keep in mind that any ultra race is first an attempt at accomplishing a challenge, not a done deal. For some it's an attempt at a PR, for others it's an attempt at covering a distance for the first time, or completing a series of 10 or more finishes, or just finishing within the time limit.
  2. Respect for the course - I knew the course and I knew I didn't like it, yet I acted if it was going to be fine and I didn't adjust my goals and logistic plans accordingly. I was not properly fueling, didn't get enough sleep during the week and, although not running as fast as last year, I was not paying all the respect to the course. There are many variables in an ultra race but the course is the most immutable one: except for a mud slide or a destroyed aid station requiring a last minute course change like at UTMB this year, the course is the most stable parameter and you have no excuse of pretending you didn't know.
  3. Flexibility - Since Gordy ran the first Western States in 1974, self-supported, ultra racing has come to maturity, even some popularity that some pioneers don't really like. With that, and especially living and running in North California, we are blessed with an amazing number of events involving thousands of dedicated volunteers and hundreds race directors. The support that we receive at aid stations is the key reason behind the expansion of this sport and the rise of the number of participants and finishers. Another thing which I take too often for granted is the consistency in how aid stations are set up and manned. I know that one thing which worries me about entering UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) is that the food is completely different there. At Rio Del Lago this year, there was differences from what I'm used to with other local races, but this shouldn't have altered my run. Another flexibility requirement is about adapting my pace to what my body can handle. This one is tough when you tend to push your limits on the speed side, that's one reason I'm so impressed with the regularity of most of the elite runners (although some of them do drop and crash too...).
That's my 3rd DNF for 190 races in my log including 64 ultras. The first one was due to severe asthma conditions at AR50 in 2009. The second was at the French Nationals Road 100K on fear of potential renal failure. I feel I have less of a good excuse for this third one, yet that it was the right decision as I never "crashed" like that before, literally from head to toe. As much as I feared the DNF concept when I started ultra racing, DNF is part of the game if you want to test and push your limits. So, on this Sunday evening, I don't feel particularly good about my failure --most of my muscles are so sore, from my back to my calves, that's actually physically painful-- but I know there are plenty of other better days and opportunities ahead to have fun and run happy!

As for the other runners, the results are not published yet and here are the only news I was able to collect from FaceBook so far: Lukas took first in 18:40 followed by Jimmy 19:29. Interestingly, they too went to the same In-n-Out right after their finish... Maybe we could get them as event sponsor next year for some food donations! ;-) Ray did finish albeit in 30 hours and before going to the hospital (where he was able to update his FB status, so he must be fine now). In the coming days, I'm sure we'll hear about other heroic stories from most of the 85 starters.

A special thank you to Agnès for squeezing this crewing exercise in our busy family plans, to Pierre-Yves for taking a whole Saturday off his own family schedule all that for only 12 slow miles of pacing (and for accepting that I DNFed...) and thanks to the many volunteers who tried hard to contain the runners' troubles with the heat with the means they were provided with.

Here is what I wanted to share about this crash before another busy week. Now, if you still have some time to read more on the web today, especially around failure, disappointment and perseverance, I recommend these picks from 3 elite ultra runners:
  1. Scott Jurek's thoughts on his 5 attempts at UTMB
  2. Andy Jones-Wilkins, a model of perseverance and positivism, writing about another model, blind climber Erik Weihenmayer, and the theme of "Developing the Disappointment Muscle"
  3. Hal Koerner's moving recount of his 39-hour quest to get the UTMB-finisher vest

Monday, September 5, 2011

Brooks' PureProject: another big step toward minimalist

Innovative, cool and flashy, light, intriguing, functional, ... minimalist, here are some words I associate with the brand new PureConnect!
But, first, an update on my running since I didn't post last week. It's going well with a good 56-mile weekend a week ago (see the aerial pictures taken on my way up to Black Mountain, over the Bay Area morning fog) and 335 miles for the month of August (my second highest monthly mileage in my 13-year running log!). Last time I ran that much in one month was in May 2009 with 346 miles, 3 races (Miwok, QuickSilver and Ohlone) and a 122-mile memorial weekend training to prepare for Western States. I know this looks pale compared to the many 300-mile weeks that Tony Krupicka is used to log, but running is only my second job... Less miles this week as I'm tapering for Rio Del Lago 100-mile next week, but still 44 miles of easy/flat running as I'm trying to maintain my average weekly mileage above 62 miles (or 100 km) for the first time in my running life (I'm at 62.87 mile/week as of this Sunday evening).
Back to the title, I feel so lucky to have received a pair of PureConnect 10 days ago. The next day, I was running in them in the neighborhood at 6 am, then on Friday again. On Saturday, I even decided to get them on the trails for my 29-mile long run. As of today, I already ran 83 happy and "pure" miles in them and I'm hooked!
Here are a few reasons why I like them:

Innovative. There are two main sides of innovation in the PureConnect: the upper one and the sole. I'd say the upper one is even more revolutionary, with the mixture of a synthetic mesh and and layer of foam punched with holes. In one piece from heel to toe and left to right (no sewing).
That provides both a great protection and also amazing breathability (even the sun gets inside the shoe on the above picture!). Of course, if the air can easily flow through these two layers, so dust can too but that's not an issue. I didn't test them in the rain, but I'd expect the water to get out very easily too for the same reasons. Two other big innovations relate to the sole. The first one at the forefront extremity of the shoe with a toe grove or "Toe Flex", separating the big toe from the others and bringing new sensations close to barefoot running.
The second one is the "Ideal Heel" concept which trims the outsole under the heel in a shape enveloping the heel. This is a move toward minimizing the use of this part of the sole, transferring the landing under the ball of the foot as you do when you run barefoot.
Cool and fashy. The bright color, the innovative upper mesh, the unorthodox shape of the heel, here are some aspects which will surely catch eyes in stores. The men collection comes in flashy greens, while the women get a flashy blue and black theme.

Light. At 7.2 oz. the PureConnect is a very light shoe but still not in the flat category. Albeit with great flexibility, there is still a good sole providing great protection for long runs on concrete and asphalt, as well as a roomy toe box.

Intriguing. The thing which intrigues me the most in the PureConnect is their dynamics, that is how the sensations change from standing to running in them. I believe that's going to be an important characteristic to highlight in stores. Let me explain. Most of the shoes have a flat outsole which provides a large contact area with the ground, actually much more than what our foot has been designed for (the difference between a bare foot print and a shoe print). The Pure Connect mimics the bare foot with a non flat out sole and reinforced contact points (black dots). The first sensation, when standing still, is one of instability or rather, a freedom that we lost with conventional shoes and all their cushioning and stability features. That being said, this perception of instability completely disappeared for me as soon as I started running. Now, I am Neutral but be assured that, if you tend to under or over pronate, Brooks has you covered with additional Stability and Support with the PureFlow and PureCadence models, which both have a more classical/extended outsole/ground contact. Most if not all other brands would have come with only one new model, when Brooks comes with a collection to cover the diversity of runners out there; another reason to like and appreciate Brooks' focus and dedication on running!

Functional. I like the classic ample and symmetrical lacing. It is very efficient and keep the shoe tight while spreading the pressure over the top of the foot. Alternating road and trail running, I like the grey color of the laces, white ones tend to look quite dirty with the dust. The laces are thick and wavy (undulated) which is perfect to keep the knot tight.
Minimalist. The outsole of the PureConnect is simple, with very few components and fabrics. It is focused on providing flexibility, ground protection and matching the original foot/ground contact of bare foot running, mainly under the ball of the foot. So, while it is minimalist, it still provides very good protection: indeed, I like the firmness of the sole which I found slightly superior to the one of the GreenSilence. It even holds very well when running on rocks on trails, the shape of the sole also providing great agility on uneven terrain, similarly to what climbing shoes are to rock climbing. Another example of minimalism can be found in the design of the tongue: it is extremely thin yet large and enveloping. With such a shape, it doesn't move at all and provides a great protection from the abundant lacing. Even better it is made of extremely soft fabric which will suit people running barefoot in their shoe (I mean without socks).
More technical information can be found in the PureConnect's spec sheet. And a few more pictures of the PureConnect on Picasa.

By the way, this review is about the PureConnect but the PureProject comes with 4 initial models for 4 different uses and runner profiles. With my focus on trail running, I'm particularly interested in the trail-specific PureGrit which Brooks designed with ultra legend Scott Jurek. You can find more information on the Brooks' PureProject web page and pre-order to be among the first to experience the... Pure Running!

Speaking of minimalist and barefoot running, here is an excerpt of a thread I had with Caballo Blanco (aka Micah True, the hero of Christopher McDougall's Born To Run) on FaceBook this week:
Caballo> While Caballo is not a wildhorse about such marketing terms as Barefoot shoes and minimalist shoes; I prefer to call the running that I hope to attain Lightfooted. In whatever it is we are wearing or not on our hooves

Jean> Well said. I like when you come with new... Marketing concepts! ;-)

Caballo> and let it be known that if anybody steals this to sell crap Caballo will kick some butt
So, let's stay with the minimalist concept per the marketing message used by Brooks on the website. By the way, with all the Born To Run success, it is little known nowadays that Micah and the Rarámuri are not running barefoot, but with very minimalist sandals or shoes. Read Kathy S' interview of Micah to separate some facts from fiction in the best selling book. Anyway, I have heard enough serious injuries from people running bare foot, I'm glad Brooks gets us super minimalist shoes such as in the PureProject collection, yet with great foot protection.

Talk to you in a week after Rio Del Lago, and Run Happy in the meantime!