Saturday, January 31, 2015

Rocky Racoon 100-mile trail Nationals: respect that distance!

Rocky Racoon is a race put by the Tejas Trails organization, in winter, 2 weeks after their other popular race, and also a USATF Nationals event, Bandera 100K. I had heard that it was a flat and fast course but, with that name, I was fearing a few rocky sections. Well, you may consider a few blocks of broken asphalt at the corner of the Park at mile 14 of the 20-mile loop, but that's basically it. So, apart form the fact that this isn't a word in the dictionary, I wonder why this wasn't called... Rooty Racoon instead! ;-) Indeed, as the short description of the course in the manuals says, it is "covered" with roots. Which makes it tricky at night, otherwise very runnable in daylight.

Beyond my focus on our North California Ultra and Mountain Running Grand Prix for the 9th consecutive year, I wanted to spice this year's schedule up with a few additional US Nationals (I did two last year, 50K road and 24-hour road). It was a bit aggressive, or others would say inconsiderate, but, liking speed, I was drawn by this fast course and registed mid January. The other reason is that it was in Texas and Max was available to host and drive me from Austin (the race is in Huntsville, TX, 60 miles North of Houston and 160 miles East of Austin).

With that, we drove on Friday evening and I got my bib on race morning, before the start at 6 am. I ran a 100-miler just under 15 hours, on asphalt, 3 years ago (Run d'Amore 2012, 14:54) and, based on other performances, I was hoping, or planning actually, to do it again, on a trail course this time. Again, without knowing much about the course since I never ran in this area before. And I was of course hoping to win our M50-54 age group, a small 5-runner contingent.

Before leaving Austin, I realized that I had forgotten to bring my headlamp which looked like a big rookie mistake for a race in the middle of winter! We stopped by REI in Red Rock and I chose a Black Diamond once again, despite not being satisfied with the one I bought last year (Storm), so I picked the most expensive model (Revolt) hoping that will do it this time (and I'm still not convinced at all unfortunately, need to find a better one, welcome any suggestion if you can leave a comment).
Indeed, with a start at 6am and all the roots on the trails, I was surely glad to have some light, that's really mandatory.
Most of the 20-mile loop, and certainly all the single track sections, are covered by either pine needles or dead leaves, like all the ground under the trees, it was hard to even see where the trail was in the dark. Daylight came around 7 am and, in the first hour, I twisted/rolled my ankles more than a dozen times, including 3 really bad ones. Fortunately I have very flexible and resilient ankles but, the third big twist, I swore and thought it was the end of my run. The fact is that I wasn't even trying to keep up with the leaders, but stuck in a group of runners which I don't like, preferring to go at my own pace. The pace was around 8:15 which was about what I was looking for. Once the light came up, we collectively picked the pace as we could now see all the roots much better. As usual, it seemed easy, so much that, although I knew that wasn't reasonable and sustainable, my average pace went down to 8:01 min/mile at which time I decided to slow down to not go under 8. Well, so much for a good decision because the mileage of my GPS was off by 0.7 mile at the end of the first loop which I completed in 2:37, that is a 7:51 min/mile pace, ouch, way too much excitement and impatience already!

Well, despite being too fast for me for a trail 100-miler, I wasn't even in the top 10! 23-year old David Kilgore, from Florida, was leading with a blazing pace. Before I had even finished the first loop, I pointed him in the out-and-back, 3.3 miles ahead of me! And, course record holder, Ian Sharman, wasn't even in the top 5. Assuredly, I wasn't the only one to have aggressive aspirations or needles in the legs this Saturday morning... ;-)

I was back on the course, and about 0.4 miles from the start when I crossed Scott (Dunlap) who took a GoPro video of our encounter (with all the runners we were either passing or crossing on this convoluted loop, he must have gotten a lot of footage!). I was still feeling good but took the time to stop more at the aid stations to refuel a little, and complement my taking of Vespa (2 before the start and one every 3 hours or so, that is at each lap here). But I wasn't much inspired by the buffet selection, I was carving for potato chips, rather than the artificial gold fish, on the salty side. Took a few Oreo cookies which don't seem more natural/organic to me... And I used my GU gels too of course (one every hour).

The second loop was basically the same, pace wise, especially as it was all ran in daylight this time. Around mile 27 miles I caught up with Matt whom I passed after a quick chat. I completed the 2nd loop in a more reasonable 2:45 (8:15 min/mile pace), still feeling good albeit some signs of short breath/asthma. On the third loop, my stops were longer at the aid stations and my average pace got down (or up) to 8:16 by mile 50, right on 7 hours. But, by that time, I had already started walking the uphills and was loosing ground and time. Matt was the first to pass me and, after checking on how I felt, left me in the dust. And I got passed by two other runners before the Dam Road aid station at mile 52. These last 10 miles of this third loop were really a struggle, alternating walking and jogging and that's when I decided that... I had enough of it, there was no way I would rebound fast enough to meet my goals, especially on the short breath side.

It took me 3 hour and 30 minutes to complete the third loop, now talking of a 10:30 pace, even including a good portion of running in the first 10 miles of that loop. I didn't want to spend the night crawling at 15 min/mile, that wasn't the intent. I stopped my watch after crossing the finish line, explained how I felt to my Bay Area ultra buddies, Victor and Noe, and returned my timing chip.
I even went on (UltraSportsLive) TV with today's host, Victor, my drop/DNF got quite some publicity! Well, likely not tomorrow's Super Bowl audience, but it's really cool to have such races getting this air coverage for those who can't be present.
Scott arrived a few minutes later and took a short break to refuel before getting on his 4th loop, quite excited about it and in good spirits. As I write this blog, back in Austin, I see he even finished the 4th lap in 12:39. He may not break the 15 hours, running the 5th lap at night and, I assume, in the rain, but he should be close!
At the top of the race, it wasn't pretty either. I first passed David James who dropped in the second loop, on major back issues. As I was struggling in my third loop, I also passed David Kilgore around mile 54. He was walking but had the guts to finish the third loop in 9:14. I'm sure he'll rebound quickly and, with such a speed, we'll see his back again! Marco Bonfiglio from Italy took the lead and finished the 4th lap in 10:37, followed by Ian Sharman 4 minutes later, Sam Skills 6 minutes behind and Paul Terranova, first Master (M40), 2 minutes after! I don't think anyone will break Ian's record this time, but there is going to be quite some action in the 5th loop for sure!

Wow, a new refresh of the page and here you are: Ian won in 13:32. (Post scriptum and correction: writing this post at the end of a very long day, I had initially thought he had improved his previous record of 13:44, but it was actually 12:44. Hard to comprehend with all these roots!) What a smart race from him, letting others go out too fast and closing with a 5th lap in 2:51 despite running in the night. Marco took second place in 13:57, Paul 3rd in 14:05, Sam Skeels 4th in 14:11, then Ronnie Delzer 4 minutes behind, then in 6th overall, Nicole Studer who also shattered Traci Falbo's course record by 23 minutes (14:22). What amazing performances at the front! By the way, Ian and Marco not being US citizens (from UK and Italy respectively), Paul not only won the Masters title but also the overall Championship/open division (I assume he will double dip the awards, respectively $200 and $1,000). Quite another coup!

Regarding our M50-54 age group championship, the jury is still out, no runner has completed his 4th lap yet as I type this blog post.

For one thing, the weather was perfect, not too cold, some sun but mostly overcast. Actually, some complained that it was hot, probably those used to train in freezing temperatures in January. The course was also in perfect conditions, and there was good competition, maybe too much for those who got caught into too fast pace in the first loop (yes, that would start with me...). As for me, as I just mentioned, my main mistake was to go out too fast. I also didn't drink as much water as usual, very little in the first lap actually, and slightly less GU2O than usual too. And I didn't quite adapt to the type of food at the aid stations, my bad for the lack of flexibility. I also didn't have a strong reason to finish just for sake of it, having run a dozen of 100s and even longer distances in 24-hour events last year. That certainly counted a lot in my decision. Plus too much bad stress at work...

I would also add that arriving just before the start and leaving before the race ended, didn't allow me to connect much with the local ultra community, I'll have to come back... But in the meantime, let me thank Joe and Joyce Prusaitis and all their team for putting up such a professional and popular event! And all the very helpful volunteers at the 4 aid stations, in particular Damnation which sees 400 runners for potentially up to 10 times (yes, not counting the DNFs, that would be 4,000 customers to attend to!!). I certainly highly recommend this race, for itself but also because it provides qualifying criteria and points for Western States and UTMB, while not being as challenging as a mountain hundred.

I will be running Jed Smith 50K next week, that should be much easier! Indeed, I still have the speed, and certainly some endurance, but I'm struggling at the 100-mile distance. And, to circle back with the title of this post, I would admit that I didn't pay enough respect to that distance, it's still quite a beast. Like people commented on Facebook, there will be other opportunities. To apply the lessons hopefully, and to learn others. Ultra running is a big and life-long experiment...

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Coyote Hills Brazen Racing Half Marathon: a fast 50K for me!

As I wrote at the bottom of my long post last week, Greg was running his first half-marathon race this Saturday in Fremont, on the other side of the Bay. As I'll be traveling to New York city and Austin next week and tapering before Rocky Racoon 100-mile (scoop, I'm going to run this US National Championship indeed!), I looked at what it would take to run to that park from Cupertino. While Google Maps didn't come up with the greenest route, I tweaked it a bit to go through Mountain View's Shoreline Park and the Palo Alto Baylands and that made a route of about 27 miles, exactly what I was looking for for a long run!
It was still quite dark when I left home at 6:25 am but the sky was "insanely" clear (no cloud to be seen in January so far unfortunately, meaning no rain either...) and the light quickly raised. I started with a conservative pace to avoid tripping in the dark but, as soon as it was safer, I pushed with a few sub-7-minute miles. The Stevens Creek Trail was actually busy especially going through Shoreline. The bad news is that I've never see the Stevens Creek so low: while the tide was low near the Bay, the creek is actually completely dry in the Mountain View section. What a drought...
I've ran this trail so often, including as far as the Palo Alto Airport and Golf, the first 16 miles felt very familiar. After that, it was a first, starting with going through East Palo Alto

 I had the pleasure to see that the Sobrato Family is helping that challenged community with a wonderful project.

I didn't have a map with me so I got on University Avenue as directly as possible. Since this was the least fun section because of the traffic, I would go through the neighborhood streets instead next time. Anyway, it wasn't too long before I reached an even busiest artery, Highway 84, with a great perspective of the bridge.

On 84, and its long bridge, you run on the bike path, really close to huge trucks going 60 mph but at least there is a fence of concrete blocks to protect you. While the height of the bridge is rather impressive in the distance, it is actually not that bad, very gradual, and I even lowered my average pace on the uphill from 7:58 to 7:57, then shaving two more seconds on the way down. Here is a view of the parallel rail track from the top of the bridge.

It was great to have a goal to run after or against: I really wanted to see Greg at the overpass turnaround so I pushed a bit and clocked a 6:24, 6:32 and 6:31 respectively for miles 22, 23 and 24. While the first runners had already gone through the aid station, I was able to see Greg not too far behind, flying and smiling!
I then saw Agnès at the next intersection where ultra runner Will Gotthardt was volunteering and directing the traffic through this confusing 3-way junction.
Not counting 15 minutes of picture taking or bottle refill, my Garmin was giving 2:59:53 for 26.2 miles, good long tempo run!

We waited for Greg to cover this first out-and-back, then I ran the first loop against the traffic which was now quite heavy with all the half-marathon, 10K and 5K runners on the course!
I saw Greg at the Bay View Trail aid station and advised him to take a Gu, if not the taste, at least for the extra calorie boost.
I then ran to the park headquarters, stopped to chat with Maggie, Michael's wife, who had ran the 5K, then climbed the Quail Trail to meet with Greg at the end of his second out-and-back then run together to the finish. 1:42:56 for 13.1 miles for him, 40th overall. I thought he'd won his age group but, poor guy, he just turned 18 and they had him in the odd 18-24 age group. It doesn't seem so fair to me to mix high schoolers and with potential college or older "kids". Anyway, the finisher medals from Brazen Racing are really awesome!
As for me, with all the stop-and-gos in the park, I managed to log 31.8 miles this morning, with 3:38:58 of running time. Good enough for my 4th ultra run in the first 4 weeks of 2015!

At the finish, I saw two other ultra runners. Kowsik Guruswamy whose 2015 resolution is a pledge to get "Farther, Faster" on his blog, referring to my blog mantra, and Lon Freeman who won the Ohlone 50K race which I missed last year, and was volunteering today. I saw a few other known faces but, overall, and not surprisingly, this is quite a different from my usual ultra trail running community. But I was amazed to see the perfect organization of Brazen Racing and the great participation, across all ages, of runners taking advantage of this opportunity to race in this beautiful and very accessible park.
Talk to you from Texas next week then and Run Happy in the meantime!!

PS: a couple of bonus pictures from Agnès:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Rhus Ridge: yet another solo ultra

I was reading an excellent piece from our National Jester (aka Ed Ettinghausen) in his own Run Jester Run Friends group page on Facebook (3,700 members!) about social runs and how to welcome (or not...) others in our runs. Not sure if you can all access it, or if you need to be a member of this group, but very much worth the read, a great reminder that our individual sport doesn't have to be anti-social!

We have many group runs here in the Bay Area, but, through injuries or changing life priorities, it's not always easy to maintain all traditions. Last week, I told you about the Saratoga Fat Ass that Keith Blom had revived, but that's one a year. We do have a few other of these annual Fat Ass runs around the Bay (e.g. Saratoga #2, Los Gatos Overgrown, Fremont).

More regularly, we have club runs. I did learn so much about trail and ultra running when I joined the Stevens Creek Striders in Cupertino, during our Saturday Morning club runs at Stevens Creek Reservoir. Especially tips from Mark Williams (the first man to finish the grueling Barkley Marathons 100-mile) and Charles Stevens (6 Western States finishes among many other ultras).

From there, when the 6-mile run was becoming too short, Charles invited me to join another Saturday morning ultra trail training running group on the Peninsula. I was so intimidated by this group of super experienced ultra runners who were doing for 20 miles every weekend! But I gave it a try and the pace happened to be just what I needed to teach me not to start too fast at a time I was still mostly interested in speed on the marathon distance and shorter races. Brian Robinson (the first man to get a super crown for having hiked the three cross-USA trails in one year, and also a finisher and course record setter at the Barkley marathon), his wife Sophia Lewis (Top 7 at Western States in 2003), Mike Topper (5 consecutive Western States finishes including 4 in the top 10!), Pierre Tardif (2 WS finishes, both in the top 10), Craig Heinselman, Chris Garcia, Eric Klein, ... I learned so much about ultra running from you guys! Before he moved up to Marin County, speesdster Gary Gellin was even part of this group these past years.

These Saturday morning runs rotate across 4 locations in the Peninsula: Woodside School, Wunderlich,  Windy Hill and Rhus Ridge. Rhus Ridge is the one I prefer because it is the closest and I only need to drive to Rancho San Antonio to get on the course. With the experience and need for even longer long runs, I actually made my own tradition to start from the main parking lot at 6:30 instead of the small and overfilling parking lot of Rhus Ridge at 7 am. I get to the top of the intersection of Chamise and Rhus Ridge trails around 7:05 and either wait for the rest of the group at the top, or plunge on the steep downhill or Rhus Ridge to see who had made it that morning.

Well, and it isn't the first time, nobody was to be seen from the group this weekend so I ended up doing the group run on my own... I certainly have been faster this way but I wouldn't have minded some account of each others' holidays. Unfortunately, beyond the races which may get in the way from time to time, this group has been decimated by many life events, mostly moves/relocation and injuries.

I've done this run more than 20 times now and already wrote several times about this course (e.g. 2009, another one in October 2009, and 2011, 2011 anti-clockwise, 2013 with my GoPro ), yet this is such a wonderful course and the light was so amazing this Saturday morning, I have to post a few pictures, cannot keep all this beauty to myself! ;-) Short of being social during the run, at least I can share something with you on line! So, here we are, not describing the loop again (in case you are interested or visiting, I even posted the route on Strava and Garmin Connect), just posting a few snapshots. Well, quite a few actually --I couldn't stop...-- but it shouldn't take you the 4 hours and 11 minutes which it took me to run these 29.5 moderately hilly miles (~5,400 ft +/- gain)!

Sister moon before sunrise, from Chamise Trail:

 7:30 am, the sun finally shows up!
 Light bouncing everywhere, on the fog, the trees, the trail...

 Fog over San Jose.
 Distant Mt Diablo floating over the Bay Area fog.

In the background and from the top of Black Mountain, Mt Umunum and my QuickSilver Club home base, Almaden Quick Silver Park.

View of the Pacific Ocean from the top of Black Mountain (2,800 ft)
 The white rocks of Black Mountain, don't ask why this place used to be called Black Mountain Farm...
 Reaching the Black Moutain dry camp ground, with company
 I wish my legs were that long, could be handy in races... ;-)
View from Bella Vista Trail toward San Francisco (yes, a nice view indeed!)
Aging tree still holding up on Bella Vista Trail
Switching from Montebello Open Space Preserve to Foothills Park (the rest of the run on the Palo Alto side was mostly in the fog)

I particularly like this picture, below because I was starting to think I had stopped enough for taking pictures when, after the next turn, I get in this amazing light rays at the edge of the cloud and I caught myself saying "shoot, I need to stop again!" ;-) And, of course, the picture doesn't make justice to the beauty of this sun light, nor does it show the droplets which were slowly moving up in the air. Priceless experience as we say...
The place of the traditional group picture, at the split between the shorter and longer course

Los Trancos Creek. At least there is some water flowing, but we need much more than that in winter!

 Looking for who Lynn Torin might be, I found this Memorial, actually from last month. RIP, Lynn...

 Farther on Los Trancos trail...

 Boronda Lake in Foothills Park (car access to Palo Alto residents only)

 Last but not least, the pond at Rancho San Antonio has filled up (almost)!
Here you are, a quick walk-thru of this Rhus Ridge loop course.

Sunday was more social, at least family-oriented, as Agnès, Greg and I went to Coyote Hills Regional Park on the other side of the Bay to look at the course of Greg's first half marathon next Saturday. Well, Greg and I covered the whole 13.1 miles (two loops), so that will be his first half marathon race then next week. I'm delighted to see the running bug spreading in the family (Alex ran the Marine Corps Marathon twice already and Max is training for the Austin Marathon in February)!

Following the Jester's wisdom, I'm giving you all a hug, runners and non runners alike! Have a great week and, if you are experiencing bad weather, please make sure to send some of it our way so we get more water in California. Will you, please...?