Sunday, August 9, 2015

Skyline 50K 2015: cloud nine for #9?

I like sharing pictures in my posts, especially race reports, as they are worth a thousand words, great time saving for me... and you! When I don't have any, I'd use my GPS track to illustrate the course and draw a few objective analytics about my run. Well, this time, I didn't take any picture and my GPS died at mile 24, darn! So much for running against an invisible clock, it became a whole mental game instead... As for the pictures, short of a crew, glad that a few volunteers posted some already on FaceBook, special thanks to Chihping Fu in particular!

I had a great training run 2 weeks ago on some of these trails at the Redwood Anvil 20-mile and was excited to come back on this fast course for my 9th consecutive run and this 34th edition of Skyline 50K. 3:48 in 2007, 4:17 in 2008 with a major quad injury, 3:54, 3:43, 3:46, 4:07 in 2012 while still recovering from my shoulder fracture, 3:57 and 3:52:30 last year, setting a new and hard to beat M50-59 course record. But, of course, improving it again was my goal this year.
We started right at 7am after the briefing of new Race Director, Brian Wyatt (photo credit, Chihping). Brian has taken over Adam Ray, making this race the first of a trail running series for his new organization Scena Performance. And Brian loves hilly trails, so this series is going to need good mental and quads!

Like every year, there were new faces with a few folks looking like really fast dudes. But, in ultra trail running, you never know, some may have hard time pacing themselves or they may get lost, as this is so different from flat road racing. Speaking of the latter, it was cool to see and chat with Devon Yanko. Devon only finished 2nd at the San Francisco marathon, but already won 3 other marathons this year (Oakland, Napa and Seattle, the Queen of the West marathons!). When chatting in the first 1/4 mile, there were already 10 other runners in front of us, that was definitely a fast start again this year! Devon told me she won't see much of me which I didn't really believe as I know she is so fast and that this fast course is a tough one not to be chicked... Yet, passing Jason Reed, by mile 5, I pushed a bit in the rolling section to see what was happening upfront and settled in 5th place, before loosing sight of the lead group of 4 runners by mile 2. I pushed a bit more in the first hills before the Grass Valley aid station. I didn't stop at this water-only aid station but got scared by two big dogs running toward me. No direct contact fortunately, but it took me a few strides to catch my breath after such an emotion, flying down Jackson Grade.

Carrying 2 bottles, I didn't stop at the Bort Meadow aid station either and kept pushing up the hill, finally breaking from 2 distant followers. With nobody in sight ahead and behind, I could finally release some pressure and run my own race, which I much prefer. With the cool and misty over cast weather, I hadn't drunk much so far and I also passed through Big Bear without stopping. I was looking forward to get on the steep 1/2 mile climb to the ridge, a section we had been descending twice for the Redwood Anvil 20-mile. Thinking of Hal Koerner's tip, switching to the Diesel mode and low gear, I'd say I climbed it in 2nd gear this year. I was also thinking of the first year I ran this race when Steve Stowers passed me in that hill. It's that time, 2007 and 2008, that Steve made the 100K USA Team, before experiencing a few injuries. This race has also seen great performances from Joe Binder (3:37 in 2010) who also made the team that year. Then, Chikara Omine of course who was watching us today as he is preparing for the World 100K Championships in Netherlands next month!

After this climb, it was time for keep going up Skyline Gate on the very runnable East Ridge. The temperature was perfect for running, with a sustain breeze we could feel running against it in the uphills. Chihping was at the Skyline Gate aid station too and took three pictures of my quick stop there to grab a piece of banana and cup of Coke while joking with the super entertaining Errol Rocket Jones! (Next 3 pictures, credit Chihping Fu.)

I asked how far ahead the lead runners were and he replied that I won't catch the youngsters, I have to forget about them. But that's exactly what I don't want to do, these guys keep me on my toes and help me fight the aging process... Now, we were at mile 14.4, I had run for 1:45 which I felt reasonably fast, but it's good nobody mentioned that the lead runner had already 15 minutes on me, wow! At least, not knowing, I kept believing and rushed down toward the torturous French Trail, while still feeling on cloud nine...
While paying extra attention to roots not to fall, I was thinking of what I will do in the next few miles in the redwoods, that is taking care of me (!), taking a third Vespa and an S!Caps. Hoping over roots on this dusty trail was certainly not the right time to get things out of my pockets.

As I was approaching the French and Madrone trails intersection, something exciting and interesting happened: I saw a dozen fast and tall guys from the Cal Berkeley XC team coming down the hill. I wasn't sure which way they'll go but I was first at the intersection and went on French trail, to only find them following me. I was faster than the group on the way down but I got into a frantic pace to stay in front on this winding section and, as I'd realize later, not only that wasn't so smart and sustainable, but I completely forgot about my fueling plan and strategy, yikes! We were now at mile 17 and I was just thinking this would give me a boost in my chase of the front runners, how presumptuous with a half marathon still remaining...

At some point, 4 of these runners passed me but they realized that they were getting in my way in the tricky downhills so they very kindly backed off. They turned right on West Ridge, where we take the left turn and I was glad to get into a more reasonable pace then, enjoying Toyon trail on my way back to Big Bear. I also took the opportunity to drink and finish my GU2O bottle, having barely drank from my water bottle in the first 20 miles... In retrospective, I should have taken that 3rd Vespa and S!Caps...

This time, I stopped at the aid station to refill mu GU2O bottle and take a 2nd GU gel. And asked for some ice in my water bottle, although there wasn't much room for that in it. I refrained myself to ask Karl Schnaitter about the front runners, and went on, realizing that I wasn't as fresh as the beginning. I didn't walk at all on the steep MacDonald Grade, yet I'd admit I had to switch down into 1st gear. Unconsciously for this whole race, I wasn't even checking on my average pace, I was only running by the feel of the effort and checking on the time and mileage from time to time, without even trying to compare to previous years, not having a plan at all except for the 3:52:30 age group record, and breaking 4 hours of course.

I didn't stop at the Bort Meadow aid station again, but thanked the volunteers while flying through, as I could sense I had to make up for some time to meet my goal. I kept moving at what I thought was a reasonable pace but it seemed the clock and time were flying faster, quite a strange feeling which I never experienced before. Then this odd and uneasy relativity experience became even more painful as my GPS died around mile 24, leaving me completely time-blinded... ouch! I was left with asking hikers "what time is it?" or "do you have the time?", that was a first for me. Long story short, when I reached the last aid station, Honker Bay, and asked that same question to ultra volunteer Stan Jensen, and when he replied 10:36, I knew that, even at 6 min/mile for the last 3 miles, 3:52 was out of question. As a matter of fact, I had now to push at 8 min/mile to break 4 hours... There is some mile markers on the last 1.75-mile section of asphalt, but I wasn't sure if they were from the same start/finish as the race. I asked one more time a hiker and got 10:49 with more than a mile to go... I was really relieved when I saw the clock at the finish line still showing 3:59...

Without a GPS track, nor my splits, it's hard to explain what happened, when I really lost time. I was excited to see on Strava what would have been my pace in the section after Skyline Gate, but I'll never know! Overall, I should be very happy to have broken 4 hours again, won my age group AND the Masters division again but here is the deal: the winning time this year was a record 202 minutes, yes, that's 3:22. That makes my performance worth 81% on UltraSignup; darn, so much for such an effort or for getting back so close to 90% this year again (89.86% before Skyline)... As a matter of fact, the top 3 runners ran under the previous course record, and the 3rd runner is only 19 year-old!! That was definitely not the year to run slow; I know, it's all relative, my overall average pace was 7:43 this year, not that bad but so pale in comparison to the winner's 6:30, on a hilly course...!! Not quite the cloud nine experience I was expecting, but let's say 8 on a 1-9 scale.

At least I didn't get chicked again this year! Poor Devon finished 2nd, getting to the finish line with a bloody elbow and knee. Unfortunately, that happened early in the race, around mile 3, and she got passed by a Strava/Brooks-sponsored athlete, Kimberly O'Donnel, who won in 4:05. As I was teasing Kimberly, she swore that she will got me next time. At 25 for her, and 51 for me, I'd say this would makes sense, you have to love this competitive spirit... ;-) Especially given her 100% UltraSignup ranking after 13 results (yes, that means 13 wins out of 13 races!).

Anyway, amazing 34th edition of this East Bay Area ultra classic, great job from Brian and his team of volunteers to keep such a tradition not only alive but with all the friendly and low key touch and atmosphere, quite something in the midst of all the changes our ultra trail running sport and community are going through these days. I had to leave around noon to hit some traffic on 880 and finish the day at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, staying up 21 hours for a very rich and full day (I'm sure many would have been worn out after doing only either one of these events... ;-).

Fortunately, I have 3 more weeks to keep training and/or taper before the next hilly 50K, Tamalpa, which is also the 50K Trail National Championship. There will surely be even more fast dudes, and not just twenty-something ones. I expect local elite Mark Richtman, 60, to kick my butt again, as well as a few Masters along the way!

With that, I already look forward to running my 10th Skyline 50K and seeing many familiar faces again and a few new fast dudes next year!

1 comment:

Larry Neumann said...

Hi Jean,

Good read and fun day. I was pleased to get a mention as one of "2 distant followers" that you shook early in the race :-) When I was running with Kevin and we watched you go past the Grass Valley aid station, I said to him "well, I've had my win for the day, I can still see Jean Pommier at mile 4!". He said something about having chased you for going on 10 years now :-)

The good news is the winning time was 3:26:12 (not 3:22), which as you mentioned, was one of three to beat Leor's course record on the current edition of the course. There is still one faster time from 1985 (3:23) but my understanding is the course was different then. So that should help your ultrasignup scoring a little? I don't know their algorithm, so I can't do the math, but I know you can.

Nice to meet you at the picnic, and look forward to finishing behind you in the 50-59 AG again some time the future :-)