Sunday, August 28, 2016

Tamalpa Headlands 50K US Trail Nationals: ok with being chicked!

Ah, being chicked, what a concept... When I started running ultra marathons 10 years ago, I had no idea what this meant, it was just me against the challenge of getting to the finish line. I think I first heard the expression from Dr. Mark Tanaka who still have too much pride for not finishing ahead of all the gals. Since then, the years passing, Mark has made a name for himself for 'just' finishing what he starts, mostly grueling 100-milers and screwed as he calls it, that is without a crew. Not worrying about the gals ahead of him anymore! ;-)

As for me, I'm too old to compete elbow to elbow with the youngsters and speedsters when they toe the line as it was the case this Saturday, just happy to still get to play with the top gals in our field! So what does 'being chicked' mean...? For a guy, that is finishing behind one gal! (Not sure which expression was used when Ann Trason for instance ended up first overall, that is beating all the guys... ;-)

Speaking of top gals, I first met Camille Herron at the Mad City 100K Road Nationals last year in Madison, WI. Despite a brilliant career in marathon running, with many overall wins, she wasn't known yet in the ultra world. That was her first ultra and she took the win which gave him a ticket for the 100K World Championships... which she won outright! She also won the 50K Road World Championships last year and came to Lake Sonoma in April for her first ultra trail race, but took third, missing a golden ticket for Western States.

This Saturday was going to see quite a duel between her and our local Meghan Roche from Sunnyvale, another world-class runner, both on road and trails. And then there was Kasie Enman, a Salomon Team runner from Vermont and used to get on the podium in the super competitive SkyRunning race series. Then Caitlin Smith of Oakland, the defending champion!

The competition was even deeper on the men side, with more than a handful of runners pretending to the win, if they were not killing each others by falling in the technical downhills of this course. Here is Will Gotthardt who had a big crewing responsibility for several of the elite runners today: Scott Tummer, the winner of Ohlone 50K this year, and Caitlin.
As for Alex Varner (yellow top, Nike ultra racing team), a local legend for his blazing times on the Dipsea course, and second fastest time on this course (3:41:49!), he has other big goals this year so he wasn't going to go all out this Saturday, at least that's what he told me before the start.
The race is directed by Tim and Diana Fitzpatrick from the local Tamalpa Running Club, who bring their own ultra running expertise and experience to make this race a Marin County tradition with an outstanding organization which is key for a National USATF Championship. They also manage to get additional prize money for course records and that has attracted more elite runners from other States these past years. Mind our Ultrasignup rankings which are sinking deeper with every of these super fast races...

After a 5-minute briefing, Tim sent us off at 7:30 am. The weather was overcast with mild temperatures, perfect racing conditions. 15 seconds before the start, I realized that I had forgotten my pouch of GU2O in the car. I typically use one bottle every 15 miles so need one refill on a 50K. I thought of getting back to the car but instead, decided to keep calm and not worry about it. That I will use for once the electrolyte served at the Cardiac aid station. I had my S!Caps, 4 GUs, and one Vespa concentrate, that should do it. Actually, that will have to do!

I actually started in the middle of the pack to check who was in the M50-54 age group. Indeed, in every National Championship, we have to run with a bib on our back indicating the division we are competing in, either Open (under 40), or by 5-year age groups. I had seen in the list of registrants that there was William Emerson, 52, from Oregon, with a higher Ultrasignup ranking than mine, so I was wondering how this will play out. William had a very impressive ultra running resume in his late 30s and early 40s including an overall win at HURT 100, a couple of overall wins at Chuckanut 50K and Quad Dipsea, and many other podiums. But these two charts show us on different aging trends... By the way, I'm desperately and ambitiously trying to get to 90% and got quite close after Skyline with 89.95%, but this race was going to get this score down again...

Moving my way up toward the front of the race, I stopped by a runner wearing an M50-54 bib and asked if he was coming from Oregon. He replied that he had been there a few weeks ago as a matter of fact, but just for vacation. And he must have wondered why I was so interested in Oregon all of a sudden... Then I chatted a bit with another runner in our age group, Mark Murray, who pointed me to that other M50-54 runner he didn't know either, but that we could see about 200 yards ahead. I picked up the pace and caught up with him before the first big climb on Coastal Trail, out of Muir Beach. There he was, William Emerson, and we chatted a bit. He had actually run this race more than 10 years ago when it started at Rodeo Beach, like Miwok, and asked me if we were still running the same course, which I confirmed. I thanked him for visiting and, after I introduced myself as a local runner, he thanked me for hosting, so giving back the credit to our Tamalpa friends. He started alternating walking and running in the steep hill so I decided to keep running and passed quite a few other runners on that hill, catching up with Excelsior runners, Jason Reed and Karl Schnaitter, and Caitlin too, as well as Stanley Peng.

After the top of the hill, we can spot a few miles of the Coastal Trails but the leaders had already disappeared into Pirate Cove, amazingly fast runners! With that, I had little clue about where I did now stand but wasn't caring too much anyway. My first goal was to get my age group win, hopefully breaking 4:30 again this year, especially if that was what was needed to defend my title of last year, and also hoping to make the top 20 with such a deep competitive field. Oh, and not being too much chicked either... ;-)

Jason was flying in the long descent toward Tennessee Valley, I could only pass Caitlin and barely catch Karl, but I passed them and a few other runners in the tough climb up to the ridge over Rodeo Beach. I was now seeing three runners ahead: Kasie, and two runners with black tops which I thought were both from the West Valley Joggers & Striders Club. The first one, Edward Randolph, was, but the second one was from the Sacramento area and Edward's friend. I was able to pass him and got close to Kasie and Edward just before the Rodeo Beach aid station, but Edward faded away in the subsequent climb on Miwok Trail. Caitlin caught up with me in that climb and I decided to tie in to her effort to close her gap with Kasie. Cailtin has a short stride but a much faster leg speed than me, so it was a completely different rhythm but did the job quite well indeed. I followed her as we flew down to the Tennessee Valley aid station at mile 11.5. She flew through the aid station quickly thanks to Will's help, while I had to lose a few second in order to have a cup of Coke filled in, but I caught up with Caitlin before Coyote Ridge, with Kasie still in sight.

As we were now going down Miwok Trail toward Highway 1, it was super exciting to see Camille being chased by Meghan, a minute or so ahead of us. I still had no idea what was going on on the men side, but that meant I was right in the women battle for the lead! I stayed with Caitlin until the bottom of Cardiac, the famous section of the Dipsea trail. A volunteer at the Highway 1 crossing told us we were just 30 seconds behind Kasie and, indeed, we could still see her. But she disappeared after a few turns, so I kept pushing the pace and left Caitlin slightly behind, yet couldn't close on Kasie before the top. Devon Yanko was at the top and told me "I'm not telling you that there is an aid station just around the corner because I know you know", and she was right... ;-)

We were at mile 19.5 and that was the time to refill my GU2O bottle which whatever electrolyte they had the aid station. Fruity and artificial taste but it had to do because we were far from being done yet. Grabbed a piece of banana and off I was before Caitlin reached the aid station. We were still in the cloud and wouldn't see the sun today. I got a very personalized welcome and encouragement from Jerry Flanagan and Christine Chapon who were volunteering to get us through Pantoll and off we were on Matt Davis Trail after crossing the busy Panoramic Highway. After a few turns, I saw a runner with a white top and I was quickly closing on him. Oh no, it was Camille who was falling apart. I told her what was ahead and gave a few words of encouragements as she managed to follow me in beginning of the steep and technical downhill but I lost sight of her after a few switchbacks as I was focused on not falling with all the hazards of this section: roots, some muddy and wet sections, sharp rocks, irregular and steep steps and many hikers trying to navigate this horde of runners (really a bad day to hike a trail on race day...).

Not knowing what was happening behind, I kept pushing and flew through the Stinson Beach aid station. This time, as opposed to Tennessee Valley, Will had still Caitlin's flask in his hands! As I walked a few steps at the bottom of the Dipsea Trail to get an S!Caps and a GU, I saw Caitlin behind and that motivated me to run, well jog, all the stairs on that section, phew! A mile later, I could now see Edward, about 1 minute and a half ahead. Yet, I couldn't push the pace in the infamous Steep Ravine. It was weird to think that I climbed the ladder which marks the marathon distance on this new course at the time that leaders must have already finished, that is around 3:40 of running... But what can you do... I actually walked much more than what I wanted but managed to still close some on Edward and Joseph Rivera. I passed Joseph just before our second passage at the Cardiac Aid Station, then started chasing down Edward.

At the top (Pantoll/Cardiac), I was really surprised that Devon told me that time "wow, you passed about 20 people!" because I had only passed Camille and another runner since I saw her. It just shows how confusing it is to track runners at that point of the course which sees all of us twice.

Anyway, it took me less than a mile to catch up with Edward and pass him, without even realizing that this has happened before, as he told me later at the finish. I kept pushing the pace all the way and badly twisted my left ankle as I was trying to avoid a mountain biker, that reminded me that everything could still happen with 2 miles to go and I had to remain super careful. We finish with almost a mile worth of super sharp switchbacks, maybe 30 or so, and that seems like taking for ever to negotiate all these turns, so much that I could hear Tim announcing Kasie's finish down in the meadow. As I was getting to the finish line 4 minutes later, Tim saluted with the word legend I think (oops), then an interesting "Here is the only runner carrying two bottles" which kind of surprised me (well, I saw a bottle in the bushes in the switchbacks, so maybe some elites throw their bottles on the course like on the Tour de France... ;-). As I was trying to catch my breath, Tim also kindly asked me for my time (4:27:28) and told me that I had improved my age group course record by 10 seconds! Well, I had not checked that but, indeed, I ran 4:27:36 2 years ago, so 8 seconds faster this year, I'll take it, especially given this year's circumstances. (I barely broke 4:30 last year too with 4:29:24.)

As expected though, the top guys had finished for a while and had changed already. What was less expected is a few of them were covered with blood, yikes! Meghan had won and broke the course record by 5 minutes, with a blazing 4:20:51 (Kasie taking second in 4:23:47), a record worth a $2,000 bonus this year! But her usual smile was showing a very bloody lip. Meghan's husband, David Roche, finished 2nd but with even more blood, and dirt, on his face. David has a weekly column in Trail Running Magazine, and I can already imagine the next article being something like: "If you don't have blood on your face, you haven't tried hard enough..."

Scott Trummer took 4th and had 3 bad falls, with cuts and blood on both is swollen knees. I haven't checked everybody else but heard about other falls and I saw a picture on Facebook of Sam Robinson, from Inside Trail Running with blood all over his face at one of the aid stations (he went one for 11 more miles before dropping eventually). I've never seen this before, such speed on technical trails is becoming insane, apparently some people don't read the speed limit postings, duh.. ;-)

The top 10 runners on the men and women side got an official award ceremony and below are a few pictures. As for the age groups, we were handed the medals individually and confidentially, so no pictures this time.

Top 10 men (from Cody Reed from Arizona with the check on the left, to Jorge Maravilla, 10th):
 Top 10 women (missing one on the picture):
The podiums with Tim and Diana:

Here are two very special spectators of this award ceremony, our Mountain Ultra Trail Grand Prix co-chairs, Hollis Lenderking and Bill Dodson.

Stats wise on my side: I got 16th overall, 14th men, 2nd Masters (1'59" behind Nate Bowen, 40) and, yes, winning my M50-54 age group for my 7th National title and 2nd this year. It was my 133rd ultra race and 59th 50K race. Again, given the circumstances, quite a great day and outcome! Except for the 80%-worth performance in Ultrasignup...

All the results were promptly posted on the race website.

After a bad race last year, Scott Dunlap was happy to run 4:44 this year (good for 2nd in the M45-49 age group behind Edward). And I look forward to seeing all the pictures he might have taken with his iPhone during the race!
Mark Murray catching his breath at the finish (3rd in our age group in 5:01, behind William Emerson who finished in 4:53).
And, among more than a dozen running this race, 2 Quicksilver teammates, respectively Brian Boyer (5:45) and John Brooks (6:34).

And another teammate, Bree Lambert, got a National Champion title in her W45-49 age group, while also winning the Masters division! Didn't catch her with my camera at the finish, but here she is, running to get ready before the start... ;-)

To summarize I'd say that: most people had a great day thanks to the weather conditions. A few ran, if not very fast, at least faster. A few had bloody falls. And a handful even managed to both have a bloody and very fast race, still managing to avoid major injury despite falling on their face... What a day it was yesterday for trail racing... (in addition to watching the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc live throughout the weekend!)

Perfect race organization, from registration, pre-race emails and directions, parking monitoring, porta-potties (yes, that counts too! ;-), ample course marking and monitoring, aid stations, chip timing and prompt publishing, the drinks at the finish (I'm not a beer fan but I did see so many happy faces around the bar), the age group winner and finisher swag (super soft t-shirt fabric!), the sponsors (special kudos to Cliff Bar for spoiling us with their products) and... the delicious pizzas from, made on site! I'd be curious to know how many hundreds of pizzas they made for all of us this Saturday afternoon! They were so busy that I couldn't get them out of the tent for a team picture this year, so here they are, in different shots.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Post-ultra recovery: resting or... pushing?

After running ultras for 10 years and having logged 42,000 miles since I moved to the US, I wish I had the assurance of elite runner and coach David Roche to tell you, and assure myself, that I knew what I was doing with my training. Well, as much as I have respect for the youngsters shaking the ultra establishment, if there was any, I think it's fair to say that the saying "ultra is a big experiment" still applies. After all, we still see shooting stars, over performing for a while but sometimes burning out after too much intensity in racing or training. Therefore I have to admit that I'm myself struggling on training strategies, especially taking into account the aging factor. Not only we are all experiments of one in general and, surely in my case, there aren't that many 50+ runners keeping improving their time and pushing the envelope as much as I do.

When I started running marathons, my sister and best medical doctor, Marie, gave my this wise advice: "no more than a marathon race a year!" At the intensity that the Kenyans or Ethiopians are competing, in the red zone, it makes sense that they put all their bets on one race. Fortunately, I don't have to run to make a living, pretty sure I couldn't handle that competitive pressure and stress. Although the corporate world has its own version of these... Nowadays, I typically run 32-37 ultra marathons a year, more than half as training runs!

Anyway, after racing Skyline 50K last Sunday, relatively hard, what did I do this week? If you recall, I had cramps for the last 11 miles and didn't do much stretching after the race, so I was quite sore when I woke up on Monday morning after a very short night (working and blogging late on Sunday evening and waking up for a 6 am conf call with the East Coast, just to find out it had been cancelled 15 minutes earlier, grrrr).

Monday. Following Dean Karnaze's tip of recovering by resuming training the very next day after an ultra, at least with an easy recovery run, I did put my Brooks shoes on. The calves were so painful, I almost turned back after a few hundreds yards, yet decided to keep going as I was still capable of running under 8 min/mile. While the pain remained the whole time, the muscles eventually loosened up enough to keep up the pace. I completed 2 of my neighborhood 5K loops (6.2 miles total) with splits of 7:46, 7:23, 7:16, 7:15, 7:11 and 6:59, all that without watching my GPS, just by the feel.

Tuesday. I was bummed that my calves were still so painful, 2 days after the race, but went for another run anyway, albeit starting at a moderate pace. 3 loops this time (15K), with another nice acceleration in my miles splits: 7:29, 7:14, 7:03, 7:03, 7:00, 6:50, 6:53, 6:41, 6:32, and 6:19 min/mile on the last 0.3 mile.

Wednesday. The pain and soreness were mostly gone, but I could still feel some fatigue, so I started slow again to warm up. 4 laps this time (20K) with miles ranging from 7:32 for the first one to 6:35 for the last one and an average of 6:58 min/mile.

Thursday. Couldn't run in the morning and was trapped with work until late in the evening so finally took a rest day. It didn't feel that good because it wasn't a rest by design, but it was a good/reasonable outcome.

Friday. Not much sleep during the week but at least I felt my legs were well rested from the day off. I wanted to run 5 loops this time but had just enough time for 4 fast loops between two conference calls. With that, I started faster, the first mile at 7:06 to warm-up then progressively gaining speed with the last mile at 6:20 and an average of 6:32 min/mile for 20K, leaving 3 minutes to catch my breath and sweep my sweat as it was 84F outside!

Saturday. Work got in the way again, not leaving enough time to go up Black Mountain so I ran along the rail tracks down to Winchester Boulevard, a 16.6-mile out-and-back, 2/3 of dirt trail for a change. I didn't have much expectation for killing it but I happened to run my third fastest time on this route at 7:04 min/mile average.

Sunday. Again, got caught between work and family obligations and ended up having only about 3 hours for my long run, not leaving enough room for a hilly ultra. Decided to maximize the distance by selecting a flat course and went on the Stevens Creek trail toward Shoreline and the Palo Alto Baylands. First mile in 7:13 but I quickly picked up the pace and got under 7 min/mile pace for the 4th mile. When I saw that I ran the first 9 miles in 1:02, I thought of going the marathon distance around 3:10. As I was running through Shoreline Park, I passed a fast runner who recognized me from the Trailblazer 10K race. I was on a 6:35-6:40 pace throughout the Park and pretty happy to be able to maintain that pace in that heat (84-86F), with some breeze helping getting through this exposed area in this early afternoon. On the way back, around mile 18, I started getting some doubts on my ability to maintain that pace and settled down imperceptibly to a 6:45-6:50 pace, managing to going through the wall without bunking. However, passing my a MacDonald's at mile 23, I have to admit that I stopped my watch a few minutes to get some iced water to cool my core down. I ended up running 27 miles in 3:04:25 and around 2:58 for the marathon mark (again, not counting 12 minutes of stops for main road/street crossings and the lengthy stop to get iced-water). With the heat, I was drenched from the sweat as soon as I stopped running and quite tired with this sustained effort. I drank about 30 oz of water upon getting home, and rushed to make a smoothie with some Go Recovery brew (mango), milk, orange juice, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream: yummy cocktail which quickly got me back to my feet!

With the 50K Trail Nationals in 2 weeks, I wish I was able to squeeze in some hill training this weekend. Maybe next weekend then if I'm not on a plane again (I was supposed to go to Saudi Arabia again, but it looks unlikely as of Sunday night), before tapering more the following week.

Well, as you see, between resting or resuming training right away, I've chosen the latter this time, even pushing more than I had anticipated or thought possible. And I'm still wondering if that was the best thing to do this week, training wise. An 84-flat-mile week at an average pace of just below 7 min/mile following a 50K race, here is another data point, a drop in the global experiment that ultra running is... Although we lack data and formal analytics overall, but Strava, RunKeeper, Garmin Connect and many other sites are silently amassing that wealth of data from those willing to share. To this point, although I'm still keeping my Microsoft Excel running log up to date manually, which is a good way to remain independent from changes happening to all these platforms and software tools, I finally took the Strava plunge at the beginning of 2015 so all the above data is available on line. Surely, it's also nice to get some cool predefined dashboards such as this one, showing that I also know to take some time off or taper around bigger/longer races.
I'm sure that this level of details and analysis look futile for some. I agree that it's not good to fall overboard in over (or ultra!) analysis, but I'm a believer in the adage "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it!" (Edwards Deming) or "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it!" (Peter Drucker). So, putting some introspection into your running is important from time to time. Or all the time as a matter of fact to listen to your body, and your mind. That's what a coach can help on I assume and, at least for the tracking, motivation and (over) analysis parts, I seem fined with self-coaching... ;-)

With these random thoughts about post-race recovery and training strategies, I'm looking forward to keeping experimenting as long as I can, and reading and learning from others as well. We are all in ultra running together, aren't we?! :-)

Monday, August 8, 2016

Skyline 50K 2016: the 10th time's almost a charm!

10th consecutive year I toed the line of this early August event: I was so excited I had to post something on Facebook the night before. And what a night... After flying back from South Korea and Japan where we stayed for 13 days, and with the 16-hour time difference, I was seriously jet lagged this weekend. On Friday, I worked at the office from 8am to 12:30am, went to bed on Saturday morning at 2am and woke up at noon, oops! I always like to put a few hours of sleep in the bank, 2 nights before an ultra, at least I had this taken care of. But with that, I barely slept 4 hours the night preceding the race which isn't that good. Apart from that, I was feeling great after logging 123 miles while in Japan, including a few hilly long runs. And I was so much looking forward to a redemption race after the DNF at TRT, this time with a distance which is my sweet spot: that was my 58th 50K race today, in 10 years. And in these 10 years, I've ran each of the Skyline 50K edition, an event which is said to be the longest running 50K event in the US with 35 or 36 editions (co-race director, Adam Ray, wasn't sure, and Gary Wang has 32 years on his RealEndurance reference website, but Stan Jensen 36 years indeed on his page).

With 269 running races in my log, I've given away many t-shirts, but there are a few events I like collecting Ts of, like Ohlone, my fetish race, Miwok, Western States of course and this one.
After this hectic night, the day started early as I arrived at the Chabot Lake Marina in time to see the 6am early start. I apologize for not staying until the last runner gets in, but I like this opportunity to see the ones who are going to battle the cut-offs and leverage this opportunity to start earlier, a nice option offered by a few race directors.

Here is Race Director, Brian Wyatt, giving his pre-race briefing/instructions before sending a dozen or so runners on the trail.

Meanwhile, there was this wonderful volunteer who was handling the bib pick-up all by herself! (Here seen as serving our very own John Brooks.)
The venerable Quicksilver ultra racing team members, Jim Magill and John Brooks ;-)

We started right at 7am but going on the North shore of the lake this year because of some construction at the dam. I had looked at the map but admit that I'm not familiar enough with all these trails to have internalized the course and was going to rely on course markings. Fortunately, there were plenty of these pink ribbons, plus a myriad (maybe 20 total) of Park volunteers at major intersections, that was very helpful to remove any doubts.

A bunch of runners from Excelsior were at the front when we started (Brian, Karl, Jason, and more), two other runners with blue tops whom I didn't know, and Chris Calzetta and I from Quicksilver. I've seen way faster and even crazier pace in the past, so the 6:50-7:00 min/mile we were at didn't seem unreasonable. I actually pushed the pace a bit in the first climb and Chris was the only one to respond and follow. I've such found memories from running these trails with Chris back in 2011 (Skyline and Firetrails) it was a delight to run a few miles again together, although I had no illusion that this would last for too long as he got stronger and faster these past years. But, between my faster speed in the downhills and his stops at the aid station (and me not stopping), we kept going on and on until we arrived together at the turnaround, the Skyline Gate aid station around mile 14.5. The excitement of still being in the lead about half way in the race even doubled as we got welcomed by Greg Lanctot, our Club President, always providing a ton of motivation and encouragement through his radiating energy. Here are 2 shots he captured of us at this station which, I learned later, was manned/hosted by our Quicksilver Club; thank you club mates!

With the third runner on our heels, we did not have the luxury of spending much time to recover and were quick to leave. I had planned on refilling my GU2O bottle but I had only used half of it anyway so not the right time. But that showed that I hadn't not drunk enough electrolytes, and even less water, despite a good sweat as I was still wearing my arm warmer/compression sleeves. A few people had told me it was going to be chilly but the temperature was actually quite nice despite the overcast. Sure enough, the low fluid intake translated into some cramps as we were flying down French Trail and, on the next steep uphill, I told Chris 'go for it!', meaning I couldn't keep up with his pace anymore. I drank much more in this section and took 2 more S!Caps plus a pouch of Vespa concentrate. I didn't mention above that we reached Skyline Gate in 1:45 which appeared to me like a slow time compared to previous years. I was so confused with the new trails we took in this first part that I couldn't figure out if and how much that first section was harder. Passing through mile 16 after 2 hours of running, I started to doubt that I will break 4 hours today, which was my biggest objective today (out of 9 editions, I missed 4 hours only twice but for injury reasons). Better keep pushing for the last 15 miles then and, the cramps persisting, I could predict some trouble and suffering...

This time, I arrived at Big Bear (mile 20) with empty bottles, having forced myself to drink much more than in the first half. A few volunteers helped me refill them, and I also drank a large cup of Coke, getting some sugar before the next big climb. I was very pleased to have the stamina to run/jog the whole hill, still no walking so far! I had to stop at the top of the hill though because of a severe cramp in my calves, but was able to keep the cramps under control in the descent to Bort Meadow (mile 23) where I didn't stop again (sorry George Rehmet and team...). I felt good when the volunteers told me that, like at Big Bear, I was just 2 minutes behind Chris. With this boost, I maintained a good pace until about mile 25 where I realized that, unless the end of the course was cut short, it was going to require running sub 7 min miles to break 4 hours, darn! I did walk a bit but not too much, however my running had slowed down. When I finally reached the final aid station, welcomed by ultra volunteer Stan Jensen who was recording our splits, I realized that I had less than 18 minutes to cover 3 miles, which wasn't going to happen. Yet, I flew through the aid station to keep moving and protect my second place, telling to myself that, to balance the deception of missing the 4-hour mark this year, I should at least cherish these podium opportunities given my age (and it surely helps that the faster and younger dudes typically popping up at this event didn't this year!).

I had not seen anyone behind Chris and I for 15 miles since the turnaround but, bingo, one runner passed me at mile 29. I had no intention to counter, still content with third place but when, a mile later, I saw a runner with a yellow singlet (Excelsior) closing on me, this gave me a kick and got me to sprint the last mile this time. Oops, does that imply that I'm competitive? Yes, some times... ;-) Well that worked, I managed to finish in 3rd place overall, in 4:07, and I'm glad I did because 3 Excelsior runners crossed the finish line within the following 2 minutes! Dang, so long for the Grand Prix points because Loren was third for our club but quite behind. [Photo credit: Eileen Francisco]
Chris had won the race this year in 3:55. Here is the 2016 men podium:

When I shared my disappointment about my finish time with Brian, he said that he thought the new course had between 1,500 and 1,800 more feet of elevation, that surely counts. I look forward to hearing about what others have found from their GPS recordings. And that being said, I know that I may have to live and start accepting slower times, especially with my stroke hiccup of last March...

3rd place earned me a nice cap from event sponsor Victory Sportdesign. Although I was sorry he couldn't run today because of a cold, it was great to meet and catch-up with Victor again (and Lorna and Lucy). Hope everybody stopped by to check Victor's latest invention, a super organized and handy sport bag/luggage which can be carried as a backpack. If you missed the opportunity, make sure to check his website!
Special mention for Joe Swenson, another Quicksilver teammate, who becomes the second runner with 17 Skyline 50K finishes, equaling Barbara Elia's record. At the finish, Joe said he is going for 20! (Assuming he keeps running consecutive years, in two years he'll have run half of the editions...)

Big kudos to Brian and his Scena Performance team for perpetuating this great tradition and maintaining the very high standard of this event. As a side note, I chatted with two runners who were visiting from France and were impressed with the quality of the markings, the number of course monitors, the quality of the food at the aid stations and also blown away by the helpfulness and the kindness of the volunteers everywhere, their ears not believing the loud encouragements that they received when entering and leaving the aid stations. Great testament to the quality of our local races from a fresh perspective. Indeed, volunteers, you rock!!

What I also like in this event is that it marks for me the start of the second half of our ultra running season. Indeed, there have been so many great ultra accomplishments by many already this year, but we are barely half way, Summer isn't even over yet, let's keep running! And see you on the trails then...

Monday, August 1, 2016

Running in Japan: Noboribetsu Onsen in Shikotsu-Toya National Park

I'm not sure this is going to be a very popular or useful post. First, this Japanese National Park is really not on the beaten paths for foreigners, least so for runners and likely not for my blog followers. Second, we had such a bad weather for our whole stay, we couldn't see a thing which is quite unfortunate given the exceptional scenic landscapes this active volcanic area has to offer. Yet, I found so little help to prepare my runs while we stayed in this Park, I hope this will be useful to some people... And to provide a nice virtual visit of this part of Hokkaido in case you don't have the opportunity to visit, I even included a few videos for once. Now making for a long post by combining 3 long runs...

The Park is given as the 14th largest of Japan's National Parks and is the closest one to Sapporo in Hokkaido. There is even a direct bus shuttle from the New Chitose International airport to Lake Shikotsu and numerous trains riding along the Pacific Coast of this western Peninsula of Hokkaido. With some persistence, Agnès even found a shuttle between downtown Sapporo and our first hotel in Noberibetsu Onsen.

Our first stop in Noboribetsu was at the tourist center when I asked for a map of the trails. We were helped by a Japanese person speaking a perfect English which has been quite rare during our week in Hokkaido. While she was very nice, the indications she gave me were quite disappointing as she kept pointing to the 'trails' of the Hell Valley, trails which length were given between 229 and 599 meters (Japanese like precision, don't they?). When I mentioned that I had run 30 kilometers the day before, she almost rolled her eyes and added that that's all it was in the area, that even the road going up to the famous Lake Kuttara was closed because of the bad weather and danger of mud slides.

Well, a couple of hours later, I left the Hell Valley and hopped on that road which was actually better than any of our roads in California. The asphalt was so slick it made the climb up that first volcano quite smooth and easy, it felt like being on a Formula 1 road circuit! However, yes, the weather was quite bad, alternating between pouring rain and fog; so long for the view and the pictures... Here is the view I got of Lake Kuttara, from the shore of the lake and from the ridge of the crater. I told you, I couldn't see a thing...

Not quite as nice as the picture of that lake you can find on Wikipedia:
I was also excited to run in circles around this almost perfect round shape (see below on that terrain map from Wikipedia too), but I was disappointed that there wasn't any trail along the ridge as a matter of fact. No wonder why the water of this lake is so pure, humans can barely access it, that's the way to protect the environment and the key to sustainability!
With that, this lake remained mysterious indeed to me, like the posting was indicating anyway...
As for the fire danger posting, that looked really weird; I'm really not convinced any fire could start in such a lush vegetation which looks more like a rain forest! Mind the observation of a Californian who feels sad for the terrible wild fires going on in California this summer again...
Anyway, after the initial 3 miles to get to the lake, I continued for another 36 miles on this road and turned back at the large gate protecting me from any car and bus traffic which I imagine would be important on a nice day.
From a running recommendation standpoint, there are a few narrow sections on that road where you'd have to be careful if two mega buses cross each other. But otherwise, there is a good marking on each side which leaves some room for foot and bike traffic.
And the danger doesn't seem to be bears in this area, but fox! ;-)
On my way back down, I found a few signs, in Japanese, indicating a trail passing by another lake (from the picture), and a 4.4km distance.

Too tempting to pass on the invitation, I went on that trail, which looked really nice, at the beginning...

I was already soaked from the rain, humidity and sweat but that got worse: running creeks, wet leaves on each side of the trail and mud swamps got the soaking to another level! I had to spend some time in the evening drying my running shoes with the hair dryer at the hotel...

With the approximate picture of the above trail map in my mind, I ended up on the wrong trail and turned back when my GPS watch indicated that I had missed my target by at least a mile. On my way back, my phone got coverage and I was able to send a Whatsapp text message to Agnès to tell her I was still ok and on my way back. To be honest I had no idea about the way to get back to the hotel at that point and glad that, short of showing a trail, Google maps was showing me which side the onsen was. After some wandering, I got back to the wrong turn I had taken and on the right trail.

Uploading my Garmin data on Strava, I could see what I did on the map and what to do to get to this lake, Lake Tachiba, the next day...
Overall, with more than 3,200 feet, some good elevation for 20 miles.

With dried shoes that Friday morning I went back in the... rain and got drenched again as I approached and did a loop around Lake Tachiba. The trail was easy to find this time but quite damaged by the heavy rain which fell all week. Luckily, as I was finishing the one-mile loop, the fog opened up a bit so I could get a glimpse of the amazing turquoise color of the shallow water.

While the nearby Lake Kuttara is said to be the second cleanest water in Japan with under water visibility up to 20 meters, Lake Tachiba has a flat bottom and the depth doesn't seem to exceed 3 or 4 feet so the water looked crystal clear. I was surprised to see quite a few fish enjoying this super quiet place. Here is a short video, sorry again for the lack of sun and blue sky...
And a few pictures of that area which must look even much nicer with more light.

In this weather, I certainly didn't see anybody during my run but, given this looks like the only major hiking trail in the area, albeit 4 mile-long, I assume a few hikers must go through this area when the weather is better. At least, and despite the obvious recent damage due to the rain, the trail looked somehow maintained.
90% done with the loop I actually found this sign indicating another trail to climb out of the volcano's crater, toward another nearby onsen (in Japanese onsen means a resort with hot springs).
And this map again which is a key resource if you want to explore the area:
This other onsen though, Karurusu Onsen, was a tiny one with only one hotel. I was looking forward to finding a 7 Eleven to get some water and ice cream, but there was not a single shop to be found around. I did stop by the tiny post office where the nice owners accepted to fill up my water bottle. I came back to Noboribetsu on the road, yet another very smooth asphalt with ample room on the side to run safely against the traffic.

Back to Noboribetsu, I joined the flocks of tourists and ran and stopped by all the recommended spots, starting with the famous natural foot bath (natural spring of sulphur water between 100-110F, 40-43C):
The sulfurous Lake Oyunama:
The picturesque Hell Valley where the sulfur prevents any vegetation to grow.
And the episodic geyser Tessen-Ike with boiling water and steam:
Here is some live action in this short video! ;-)

Are you getting confused with my report yet? Here is an annotated map of my second run, mapping out some of the aforementioned names and locations...

On Saturday, our third day in the Park, we spent 3 hours to switch places, to Lake Shikotsu Onsen, on the eastern side/entrance of the Park: 1 bus down to the Noboribetsu train station, one train to Tomakomai, another train to Chitose, and a bus for the remaining 25 km up to Lake Shikotsu. Same drill, a stop by the visitor/tourist center to get local maps on which I quickly spotted an interesting challenge, running to the top of Mt. Tarumae which is a volcano still in activity, exhibiting some flumes. With a detour though the Morappu campsite, it took me 9.5 miles to get to the bottom of the volcano but, again, not seeing a thing due to the dense cloud. What a disappointment for the missed picture opportunities, yet I was glad I was able to do this quick climb before night fall as we were visiting the place for less than 18 hours...
Quite a spike on the elevation chart, up to 3,200 feet! Not for much of a view again at the top, the visibility on the edge of the crater was barely 10 feet...
And two more videos to give a better feel of the foggy experience...

You see, not much to see up there this Saturday...

Here is view situating my run on the East side of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park:
Indeed, glad to have squeezed this 18-mile run in as we had to leave early this Sunday morning to fly to Narita (Tokyo International Airport) to join Max at his Gakko camp.

90 miles in 5 days while on Hokkaido, not too shabby given the bad weather we had, and the public transportation commutes between the three places we stayed at. My reports would have surely been different would have we enjoyed blue skies and stunning views of this volcanic area. Overall, the trail running and hiking opportunities weren't as abundant as in Scotland for instance. For one thing, the Japanese are very serious about security as you can see from the road marking and the comments from the visitor centers' staff advising against venturing off the beaten paths. Second, there is obviously the language barrier which prevents from asking for directions or even reading the signs, all in Japanese. A bit disappointing in a country so addicted to ultra trail running. Speaking of which, I had considered running an ultra race last weekend but the website and registration process were all in Japanese and the race director never replied to my emails. Yes, Japan is quite a special place to visit, and not an easy one with this language barrier. More than anywhere else, you have to ask a lot of questions here...