I started this year hoping not only to win our North California Ultra Grand Prix for the 9th consecutive year, in my age group that is, which I did. But, to top that focus on local races, I set my eyes on 6 US ultra distance championships this year, versus 2 last year. Carpe diem, or you only live once, as the saying goes...!
It didn't started well as I DNFed at Rocky Racoon 100-mile in January, in TX. I had a great rebound in March in NY for the 50K road, taking the Masters title, albeit missing the 30-year pending M50-54 record by 1'48" partly due to the freezing conditions. In April, it was my first trip to Wisconsin (Madison), for the 100K, and I also got the Masters title. Fast forwarding to August for our local Tamalpa 50K Trail where I won my 3rd M50-54 title this year, and placed 2nd Masters. I had to miss the 50-mile trail Nationals at the end of May for family reason (the funerals of Agnès' mother), and I was looking forward to this last opportunity of the year, the Fall 50, also the 50-mile road Nationals.
Now, I must admit that I was really tired after my last race, 2 weeks ago, the inaugural Lake Folsom Trail, a demanding 68-mile course in the heat. It was my 3rd win in 4 weeks, I knew I was taking some serious risks to compete again, especially for such a distance on road pavement. Not the mention the rolling profile which I had not realized initially. Bottom line, I signed for it at the last minute and didn't come fully prepared.
And prepared for what anyway? A week ago the forecast gave a few light showers in the morning. Well, it's not just that, as a Californian, I forgot what rain is, even the locals admitted that we got quite a lot today. And that's even only one part of the story: the wind was also strong and blowing from the South, that meant running 50-mile against headwind.
I stayed in Green Bay, left the hotel at 4am and hopped on the shuttle at 5:30 which got us to the start by around 6:45 am. I had considered registered on race morning, I'm super glad I actually drove to Sturgeon Bay on Friday night to do it. With 15 minutes to get prepared before the start, there was definitely no time for some paper work!
We started at 7:03 and, with the thick clouds, it was still quite dark. At this point it was drizzling but the road was quite wet so I was trenched right away. At least it wasn't too cold (~55F). The list of participants wasn't published but I had heard that Zach Bitter was here to take his revenge over last year's mishap. He was running with Michael and they both went off course for almost 2 miles because of some sabotage of the course marking, and dropped shortly after. Zach is one of the fastest American distance runner nowadays, setting many records especially at the 100-mile distance. And he is our best ambassador of Vespa too! He has run 50 miles in 5:12 2 years ago so, with this level of speed, I wasn't ashamed to lose track of the group of lead runners after a mile.
My goal was to try breaking 6 hours (I ran a 50-mile in 5:43 4 years ago, albeit in better conditions!), and, without knowing who else was in the Masters division, I was hoping that would put me on that podium. After a few miles, we were quite spread but I could still see Camille Herron 3 to 400 yards ahead. I met Camille when she won the 100K Nationals in Madison in April. She was already quite known on the marathon circuit but that was her first ultra and, right away got her on Team USA for the World 100 championships last month, which she won in a blazing time of 7:08! Despite the rolling profile, by just trying to keep Camille in sight, my pace decreased to 6:53 by mile 7 which was more aggressive than what I had planned. And all that was under a very heavy rain!
In the 11th mile, with serious road work in Sister-Bay, we had to negotiate our way across damaged sidewalks and huge puddles. We were running against the heavy traffic of all the cars driving the first teams of runners to the start (the event has a 10-leg relay starting 1-hour after the solo race), and I got splashed by a few cars, refreshing! There is a short but steep hill at the exit of Sister Bay and I gasped for air at the top, yikes, not a good sign! My pace was back to 7:00 which I stabilized for the next 4 miles but at the top of the hill at mile 15, again, I could catch my breath and had to stop to walk for a few steps. I could feel my lungs weren't working properly and, sure enough, it got only worse in the next few miles. I did a long stop (1'30") to refill my GU2O bottle at mile 18.7 and was completely worn out after that. No breathing meant that my legs weren't getting enough oxygen and I was bummed that happened so early in the race. I kept trotting and, one I saw that the first runner to catch up with me was wearing a M50-54 bib too, I had only only one idea in mind, quit. Although, for some time, I was hoping to run as far as the 28-mile aid station, to pass the marathon distance at least, I just called it a day at the 23.7-mile aid station instead, glad that I had ran enough to even see some light (aka sun) after the first storm. I wasn't coughing too bad, but couldn't take a full breath without triggering some spasms in my lungs, to it was safer to just stop there.
Thankfully, I got the 'golden Uber' service with volunteers Dan and Barb driving their minivan from the finish to Fish Creek Bay just to pick me and drive me down to the finish. That was the first round trip for Dan today, and there will surely be many more given the conditions! It was great to chat with this super nice couple who have been helping on this race for the past 10 years, and helping organizing many other events in the area, including triathlons, for the sake of supporting and giving back to the community.
I got the finish line around 11:15 which left ample time to change before seeing the first runners coming in. Yet, and despite the conditions which turned back to heavy rain and headwind again, we were amazed to see Zach finishing in 5:17!!
I actually knew he was doing great thanks to Michael who had run with Zach in the early part of the race before also dropping at mile 24, on residual fatigue from a 100K (Lake Superior?) 2 weeks ago. But it was quite something to keep a 6:20 min/mile pace for 50 miles, and in these adverse conditions, even Zach himself was amazed!
Another surprise for the day was 2nd place finisher, Anthony Kunkel, 23, from Boulder, CO, who clocked 5:38, and ran most of the race in the rain, shirtless!
Then, 22 seconds later (!), Chris Denucci (Hoka) took 3rd overall, 6 seconds before... Camille who covered the 50-mile distance in 5:38:41, that is faster than the World Record for that distance on road !!! Unfortunately for Camille, a IAAF rule doesn't recognize records set on a course where the start and finish are distant of more than 40% of the overall distance, darn! She will have to do it again, without remembering the suffering she went through today... (In the meantime, Ann Trason still holds the record which she set in Houston in 1991.)
I spent the next hour taking care of Camille who had given it all and was so cold now. She first got a massage but I don't think that did much as she was shivering and couldn't relax. Then she asked for a glass a beer, and one of root beer, but that didn't do much either (some hot soup would have been better!). I got her to the medical tent to change (there wasn't any other place), and even that tent wasn't heated (in retrospective I'm kind of glad I dropped after all, I would have been miserable at the finish in these conditions...). She was starving for a hamburger but there was only pizzas which she didn't want. Long story short, she just wanted a hot shower so I put her in her car, hopping she could drive the 3 miles to her hotel. Amazing champion who pushes the envelope to the extreme (she had issues breathing around mile 20 too but took some caffeine and had a second week around mile 34).
Isaiah Jenzen (winner of the 24-hour Nationals last year) took 4th in 5:54. We then had to wait for 32 minutes and it was Tim Stieber, the M50-54 runner who had passed me at mile 20, who also won the Masters race. 5th overall and 1st Masters, that's worth $750 and was pretty much what I was shooting for, although I thought it would take a 6-hour/7:05 min/mile pace to get that. Smart race from Tim! The second Master (M45-49), Bruce Udell (orange top), finished one minute behind.
I finally got a few slices of pizza but, with the need to drive back to Green Bay and some amertume for having missed all my goals, didn't feel like staying for the mega party. With that, I didn't see anything from the team race, which is the fun part of this event.
Except for the weather, it was an amazing experience to be part of this 10th anniversary of this event which grew more than 10 folds in the meantime! A bit too much of car traffic for my taste, but I could see a few of the great sections along the coast and I know I missed a few in the second half. I was amazed how the marking and my GPS were aligned, it surely is a change from the mountainous trails. Kudos to the Race Director for such a professional event and this amazing logistic of a point to point course along this super busy road. And all that to raise money for local charities! Special mentions to the many volunteers along the course and to support such a large scale operation!
Will I be back? Maybe, although I must admit that I have difficulty returning on courses which I got into trouble in the first place (e.g. Tahoe Rim Trail 100M, American River 50M, Rio Del Lago 100M). But I would be happy to change that curse, like Zach did brilliantly this year!
My next one is in... well... 2 weeks, a 24-event format in New Jersey, so I better taper right away and fully recover this time... I may have to cut it 'short' to 12 hours anyway to fly straight to South Africa for work, we shall see.
3 out of 5 championships, that will be it for 2015, see some of you again at these events next year!
PS: a picture who those who actually 'made it!'