Saturday, August 12, 2017

Skyline 50K 2017: another gut story!

64th 50K race, 11th Skyline 50K participation, 146 ultra races under my belt, you'd think this is routine. Well, what I love about ultra running, os simply running as we've seen with the World Championships in London these past 2 weeks, is that ever race, every run is different.
So many stars have to align for the perfect performance, it's humbling: temperature, humidity, terrain, competition or emulation, race weight, stress level, pre-race sleep, tapering and training. And the guts... feelings.

I'll try to stay within the PF-13 realm in this race report but will likely step outside the PG grounds once in a while. Like they say on NPR from time to time, in case you have children listening, this program may contain some disturbing or explicit language, you may want to joins us back in 10 minutes... ;-)

Let's get at it right away as a matter of fact. I had plenty of time to get prepared for the start as I forced Pierre-Yves out of his bed with a super early car pool so I could get a great parking spot and watch the early start at 6 am.

So early that, like last year, I was on time to help Brian setup the sturdy finish line arch.

Yet, early wasn't enough, I was still in the bathroom as Adam was gathering the runners for the official 7 am start, oops! And it wasn't pretty but I thought I had emptied my bowels enough that it will hold for 4 hours... I rushed to the start line and had a quick chat with the other M50-59 age group contender this Sunday, Cliff Lentz.

I first met Cliff exactly 10 years ago actually, at the 2007 US 50K Trail Nationals organized by the Tamalpa Running Club in the Headlands (yes, I've been blogging for 10 years, and it's cool to be able to get back to these documented memories). Cliff dominated our Masters division back then, before switching to other priorities with family, work and even politics. I placed 2nd to him in the Masters at these Championships in 2008 but won our friendly duels in 2013 and 2014. He seemed well prepared this year and ready for a good fight!

Right off the bat, I was stunned by the level of the competition this year. Half a mile in, I was still running behind 20 or more runners, a sea of bright fluorescent yellow tops, mostly from the Excelsior running team, with many speedy youngsters I had never seen before. This is not atypical of this race with many rookies wanting to experience both trail running and ultra running after great performances on the road. With such fast starts as we go along Chabot Lake on a paved bike path, the results vary. Yet, at this point, I told Cliff that I'd be happy to make the top 10 this year!

I did pass a few runners in the first climb but I never felt at ease trying to keep up with Karl Schnaitter and Cliff in the up hills. Besides, I was kind of discouraged that I had lost track of the leaders so quickly. I pointed runners 2 minutes ahead at mile 3 (Marciel aid station), and they were not even the leaders! World-class athlete, Yiou Wang, whom I did pass at this race for her 50K trail debut, had taken off so fast that I lost hope to avoid being chicked today! ;-) After a win at the 50K Trail Nationals in February, then at the very competitive Lake Sonoma 50-mile in April, she had a tough Western States (DNF) and announced son Facebook he was leaving the competition for at least a year while roaming the globe with her boy friend. Well, she changed her mind at the last minute and the two of them decided to run this last race before boarding for their double around-the-world trip.

We traded places with Cliff as he was stronger in the uphills and me faster in the downhills. However, and he could probably not tell, I was in much distress to hold my intestine together as we reached the Big Bear aid station in the lead. I quickly looked if there was a porta-potty there but couldn't see any so decided to keep going. The volunteer at the intersection after the road crossing indicated that I was in the top 10 now, that was encouraging.

As I was focused on avoiding what would have been an embarrassing leak, Cliff passed me and said "Until the next down hill..." Knowing the difficulty I was experiencing, I almost replied "unless..." and, sure enough, in the next down hill which was around the corner, I spent so much effort controlling my diarrhea that I could barely keep up with Cliff. I remembered restrooms on that section of the course, somewhere in the redwoods, but it was a long and painful mile to get to them. I couldn't even wait for the more comfortable ones, I rushed to the more rustic ones, just in time...

With this stop, I had lost sight of Cliff and decided to ease up a little as that pit stop didn't seem to have fully gotten rid of my GI issue. Damned, this isn't the first time it happens this year... I did walk a bit on the climb to Skyline Gate and reached the aid station without much motivation and conviction. I would have eaten some banana but there wasn't any. I drank a couple of super tiny cups of Coke (was it soda testing??), and went on the new section of the course getting us on the Tres Sendas trail first this year, before getting back on French Trail later on. On that steep down hill, I had to do an emergency stop again and there wasn't much opportunity to hid. Fortunately, I was alone, no hiker or runner to be seen, phew! I grabbed a dusty dry leave to wipe off and my shorts were quickly up as I saw Jay Hsu flying down the trail. Just in time to get moving and I hold through the steep climbs on French Trail, before Jay passed me at mile 16.

Jay is a young local runner, from Taiwan, with a recent 2:44 performance on the marathon, showing amazing progress. His last Skyline 50K time was 5:20 two years ago, he was on a roll this year! I managed to keep sight of him and did reach the Big Bear aid station a few seconds after him. Another M20-29 runner, Andrew Manaster, was there and they left together as I stayed behind to get some Vaseline in a place I can't name but which was burning after my second pit stop in the woods, you can figure out... That was such a relief that I was able to pick up the pace and I caught-up and passed Andrew and Jay before the end of the climb up to Macdonald Trail, back on the ridge/skyline.

Having refilled my GU2O bottle at Big Bear, and running exclusively on Vespa and 4 GU gels this time, I didn't stop at the Bort Meadow aid station and that allowed me to catchup with David Weisgerber who passed me at the very end last year to take 2nd overall.

A noticeable episode happened on that flat section of Brandon Trail, on our way to Stone Bridge. I was a few hundred yards behind David and Jay was close behind so there wasn't much time to stop to grab and take an S!Cap. I often hurt my oesophagus when I swallow an S!Cap too quickly while running but this time, it was a different sort of pain. All of a sudden, I realized that I felt the S!Cap way on the left, closer to my heart. Oh crap, it had gone in my lungs instead. As a reflex, I blew so much air out that I might have won a competition of S!Cap throwing, the small thing flew a few yards away, phew! This time, I stopped to calmly swallow another S!Cap, while Jay passed me. You see, there is always something new with an ultra race, even after hundred of them!

At this point, the diarrhea had passed, I was feeling so much better thanks to taking Vespa and a handful of GUs, I was ready for the final charge up Brandon Trail. Brian had announced a much tougher finish with this new climb but, sincerely, after coming back from running insane slopes in the Alps, this looked really easy in comparison. I pushed as much as I could in the last 5 miles but, apart for Jay and David, I couldn't close on any other runner. I had no idea who was still ahead, apart for Cliff and Yiou and, ironically, there had finished less than 3 minutes ahead of me, in that order, close call!

I had no idea I was so close, although I don't think I would have shaved 3 minutes off in these last 6 miles. But that makes me think of the future time where we'll all have to run with satellite trackers and could see who's is where (like trackers are mandatory for Moab 200 for instance).

3:48 in 2007, then 4:17 (quad injury), 3:54, 3:43, 3:46, 4:07, 3:57, 3:52, 3:59, 4:07 last year and... 4:10:16 this year, my second worst. I had missed most of my goals (podium, age group win, breaking 4 hours) so, when Agn├Ęs welcomed me with a "Hey, you just got chicked!" I was not so happy and replied I would happily take that with the bad diarrhea I had gone through. Except Jay who improved his time by one hour (!), seems like everybody else got slower on this new course.

Yiou's boyfriend, Sean Pont had won in 3:46. Impressive of course, but  slower than typical winning times here. He was even the only one to break 4 hours this year.
Marc Tamanini, from Chamonix Mont Blanc in France, took 3rd and found the course way easier than the grueling Montagn'Hard we both ran last month (me on the 107K, him on the 44K)!

Greg, our third son, was returning from an internship in South Africa on Sunday so, for once, we had a few hours to enjoy at the finish line before getting to SJC by 2 pm. Great opportunity to catchup with many, and see more finishes for instance, Pierre-Yves's daughter's, Clemence, who took 3rd in the overall women division for her first 50K, whew!

Pierre-Yves is training for a much longer distance and slower pace for his second 200-miler, at Moab 200, which is actually 238-mile long this year! (Who really cares about throwing another 50K after 200 miles, right?).

The legendary Errol Jones, aka the Rockett, didn't make his debut but a most anticipated return here, after doing the same at Ohlone 50K in May. Rockett, this is YOUR year and, I know, this is YOUR story, and you are sticking to it, per your saying. Delighted to have met you again and served you a couple of glasses of lemonade with the lemons life gave us last Sunday! (Super good idea from the organizers to include lemonade in the drinks at the finish line, I know I'm not speaking for the majority, but I much prefer it to beer, oops!)

Special thanks to Adam and Brian for perpetuating this long-running Bay Area 50K tradition. Some people claim that this has been the longest strike in the 50K trail races in North America, with 36 or 37 editions, but this hasn't been proven. But definitely true for North California at least. Great support at the aid stations, with many familiar faces and experienced ultra runners which is a great plus when it comes to assistance. Always very appreciative to the many park volunteers for providing abundant course monitoring and radio transmission. And, of course, thank you to the ladies cooking the barbecue for us and our families at the finish!

Thank you also to the sponsors, including this cool goat milk-made yogurt company from Sonoma County, Bellwether Farms:

With that, looking forward to #12, with much more racing in the meantime, starting with the intimidating UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) on September 1. Another beast to tame... with patience, persistence and humility. And most of the ultra stars aligned hopefully!

PS: for those who didn't have the opportunity to race, here is an overview or flyover to give you an idea of our run along the skyline ridge, courtesy of, enjoy! (Click the above link or the image below.)

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