Sunday, May 3, 2009

Miwok 09: is it May yet?

My first winter in Silicon Valley(1998-1999), I was amazed to hear some Californian say: "the reservoirs are full, rain can stop now!" What a special region where people dare to command the elements, so high tech! Sure enough, I became accustomed with these two seasons: some rain from October to April, then 5 months of blue skies and bright sun.

Our local Stevens Creek Reservoir has reached full capacity in late March. It seems like we have enough water now, although I know the drought is still harming our agriculture in Central California in particular.

So, why do I start my race report talking about rain, for an event occurring each year the first weekend of May every? Well, because it did rain a lot yesterday... After a perfect weather at Jed Smith, Way Too Cool, American River and Ruth Anderson, the elements took their revenge and throw at us the belated winter conditions which we somehow missed in the first quarter of the year.

Surprisingly the temperature at the start was not bad. We had a visitor from New York this year, David James. I ran the Coastal Challenge in 2008 with him and it was a pleasure to see him again, back on this course where he had to drop at the North Face Challenge last December on knee problem. He was wearing a singlet and told me with an odd look at my jacket: "is it cold weather for you?" Assuredly, I know I am doing better in hot temperatures than cold weather, and this Miwok edition was going to prove it again. After the first hill, by mile 3.8, I was glad to see Chuck (Wilson) on the side of the road to leave him my jacket as I felt really warm. Then I told to myself: "what if the elements change later...?"

On that first climb I chatted with Simon (Mtuy) who had just arrived the day before from his native Tanzania. Simon has competed in 9 Western States already and comes every year for a couple of months to train and run our local races before the big one at the end of June. Simon admitted that he was a bit sleepy with the jet lag. I invited him to join us next week at QuickSilver.

My main goal for the day was to finish and avoid another asthma crisis. I made sure not to get caught in the front competition and let Eric (Skaden), Graham (Cooper) and Mark (Lantz) go while settling down to an average 8:30-8:40 min/mile pace. I caught teammate Sean (Lang) up before the first aid station and we jogged and walked the second hill, in a thick cloud with visibility under 200 yards. I then ran the next 10 miles with Tony before I lost him on the way up to Pan Toll.

It was not really rainy at that point, but we were getting wet with the water dropping from the trees and the midst of the cloud. 2 miles after Pan Toll, I passed Mark (Lantz), to my surprise. We were right on 9 min/mile pace. The Coastal Trail was still in good condition, but it is so narrow that my shoes got quickly soaked by all the water on the high grass and herbs from each side of the single track. I felt good physically and mentally when I reached Bolinas for the fist time (mile 28) but asked Rajeev and aid station captain, George Miller, if they had soup ready. They said "no soup on the menu today" and I remember replying that it might be an issue for the rest of the pack. Retrospectively, I still do not understand how so many people have made it through the day with only a singlet or a t-shirt on! Here are some pictures of the wet scene, credit to Ron Little:

I took a few pieces of potato and banana and went on the Bolinas Ridge which I had bad memories from my first Miwok run (2007). Back then I was expecting a flat section from the approximate course profile, but it is actually more than what I call a rolling one. 2 miles after Bolinas I was walking up a hill when I heard a runner coming from behind: it was Mark who flew by me, not even caring about the huge water and mud puddles, just running and splashing through them. I was so cold and shivering, I did not want to get more wet and preferred losing a few seconds going round them. It was raining pretty hard at this point, with gusty winds.

I started seeing the front runners when I was at mile 31 (4 hr 48), before the "chute" down to the Randall Trail aid station. I was relieved to see Chuck there, with my jacket. I could not control my shivering, even when running, something which never happened to me. I was not disoriented, but distraught. I was pretty sure I had eaten and drank enough, maintained the right salt balance. But hypothermia was new to me and I didn't know what to do. Under the tent of the aid station, I found David (James) who had dropped, as well as Todd Braje, wrapped into a blanket. After his stellar performance at Way Too Cool in 2008, and his 5:30 50-mile at Jed Smith this year, Todd has joined the National US Team for 100K and will compete in the World Championship in 8 weeks in Brussels. Surely, he did not need to take more risk in this weather to get prepared, although I was disappointed to see him dropping. With Todd, Scott Jurek and Brian Morrisson on the entrants list this year, I was expecting Brooks to do well, but Scott and Brian did not even take the start. So Brooks was left with showing on the great finishers tshirts, and the many runners wearing Brooks shoes today (see below).

Getting my jacket back helped, although I was still soaked under it. Moreover, the 1,000-feet climb over 1.5 miles was a good way to warm-up. But, back on the ridge, the shivering resumed. Up there, I crossed the other teammates: Adam, Pierre-Yves, followed by Sean who was not feeling well. Actually, leaving Randall Trail, I also crossed John who was flying down, but dropped later eventually, as Adam and Sean did ultimately both suffering from calf issues.

I started walking a lot on the ridge, shivering and experiencing a very short breath. No coughing like my previous asthma attacks probably because, this time, I used the inhaler every 10 miles; I think it might have changed the symptoms and I'm afraid that was still asthma, on top of the hypothermia. Back to Bolinas, I asked Rajeev if I could get in his car to warm-up for 10 minutes. Ron Little was actually the volunteer on duty with this new aid station role: he told me he had the leader staying in his car after he dropped at mile 40. According to my Garmin, I spent 27 minutes at the Bolinas Ridge aid station, most of the time in Ron's car with the heater on, which my body could barely feel how deficient it was from body heat. I was feeling better but the shivering resumed as soon as I got out of the car. Wendell, who successfully turned the Pacific Crest Trail Runs into a business with his wife Sarah, was standing as an observer at the exit of the station. Wendell has accomplished so much in ultra, including several trips to the infamous Barkeley Marathons, I felt a bit embarrassed but dared to ask if he had an advice to deal with hypothermia. Without a word, without a blink, he took off his rain jacket to offer me his fleece, saying he will be at the finish to get it back, teasing me saying: "I know who you are!" I was 7 hours and 10 minutes in the race and I knew I had a few more to walk to the finish, 20 miles away, so it was a big relief to get this extra and dry layer on. A big THANK YOU, Wendell, Ron, Rajeev, George, Chuck for your combined help and critical support!

The way back to Pan Toll was long, wet and the trail was now extremely muddy and slippery. At some points the trail had transformed into a creek of running mud. I could not imagine how runners were doing it today with road shoes. I thought my Brooks Cascadia 4 behaved very well on this muddy terrain and I actually saw many runners passing me with Cascadias 3 or 4. Looking at runners' shoes actually became my activity to keep going with the many slow miles. I distributed some "Nice shoes!" to the ones wearing Brooks. Many runners were nice enough to stop by to ask how I was feeling, and I could not give a very positive answer except that I will finish! From feet to my neck, all my muscles were tired and soared with the continuous shivering of my entire body, something I had never experienced before. Several times, I thought I should appear better than I was feeling at the aid station to make sure nobody was going to pull me off the race... Apparently, I was not acting so well when you read the lines Rajeev wrote about my second passage through Bolinas:

"Jean looked like death warmed over. Like Lazarus he came back from the Land of the Dead and no doubt finished strong. Way to go all you warriors!"
Ouch! I must have felt better by the time I reached Pan Toll again, as I spent some time joking and thanking the volunteers for coming out in such a miserable weather. I also talked to Hal (Koerner) who was here to crew his girlfriend. I saw Hal again at Highway 1, then close to Tennessee Valley, running, or I should say flying, up the hill with his dog. Inspirational but, unfortunately, I was out of gas to run much at this point. At Tennessee Valley, Stan (Jensen) teased me that I have looked better at other races. I sat down for 30 seconds to enjoy a cup of hot soup (at last!) and a piece of pizza (yummy!). But Stand was not happy to see me on the bench and urged me to leave and keep going. I walked most of the remaining 4 miles except for the last down hill to the finish. I heard Dave (Comb) counting the seconds as I was approaching the finish line, for a special time of 12 hours, 12 minutes and 12 seconds. Not a good time for me, but a great time to remember. And definitely a Miwok which we will all remember for many years.

I literally felt into Tia's arms who was probably not expecting such a big hug... just offering the finisher medal. Fortunately Chuck was near by and supported me to walk near the gas heater under the tent, with the medical staff wrapping me in a blanket. I had car pooled with Scott (Dunlap) in the morning and Scott was nice enough to have waited for me despite finishing 1.5 hours before me. There was a lot of personal stories to be told and heard under the tent. For most of us, it was a slower run than usual but some managed to PR or to complete their first 100K. With a record number of starters, above 300, and the valorous volunteers working in such nasty conditions, that made many heroes this year.

Now, if you read my report down to this point, you must wonder what kept me going despite the conditions. Here are some answers, you will see that there were quite a few, enough to keep going. In no particular order...
  1. Avoiding a DNF (Did Not Finish) because of asthma. I wanted to terminate the series and I'm not sure I really accomplished that, with my breath being so short on Sunday, but at least I managed to cover the distance.
  2. Scoring points for our RhoQuick (Rhomobile and QuickSilver) team. We were 6 to toe the start line and I had no clue who will manage to finish, but I did not want me to be the reason for not scoring (we need at least three finishers in an event to get points).
  3. Scoring points in the PA USATF Grand Prix. Miwok has a a coefficient 2 and not everyone is registered with PAUSATF so, although that was a counter-performance for me, it is worth trying to finish once you are in a run.
  4. Counting and supporting the runners wearing Brooks shoes. No I did not keep track of the number, but looking at all these shoes kept me going!
  5. Fighting to get some pain training. Granted, this is a good reason for calling us, ultra runners, nuts! One of us said that his brain will remember that race much longer than his muscles. Indeed, I had no soreness in my legs the next day, just some in my neck and shoulders from the shivering, but I will remember this special Miwok edition for many years.
  6. Willing to get back to the start. What is nice with these out-and-back races, as opposed to the ones on a loop, is that you are not tempted to drop at every passage at the start. Moreover, I have been an aid station captain for several years at Last Chance (mile 43 of Western States) and I know the burden of having to get runners who drop back to the start or the finish. I do not know the final count but Tia talked about 60 people who had dropped when Scott and I left the finish line area around 6:30 pm. That must have represented quite some extra work for the volunteers to shuttle all these runners throughout the day.
  7. Thinking of others who cannot exercise because of sickness. Such as Dan (Moores), Tom (Kaisersatt), Pierre-Yves. Their own fight is an inspiration.
  8. Imagining my self walking on a tight rope. That is an image which comes to mind every time I am on this trail. It is so narrow that you sometime do not see the trail covered by the grass. And, this time, the challenge was doubled with the slippery mud after 300 runners used the soaked trail. The Rangers and hikers will not be happy with some sections being washed out with such traffic... Anyway, I as thinking of Philippe Petit on his high wire:
  9. Playing a little game in my mind. Some people ask what we think about when we run for so long. I usually respond that most of the time I'm focused on the trail when it is technical or narrow or going fast. Quite some time thinking about work and family too. And, this time, I got a new occupation which consisted in translating the conditions into imaginary traffic signs along the trail. Something like this puzzle:
I am in Las Vegas for one week now, attending IMPACT, IBM's conference on Smart SOA (Service-Oriented Architecture). An opportunity to taper before QuickSilver next weekend. Hopefully with a dryer and warmer weather. Indeed, back to the title of this post, isn't it May already?

PS: for the ones who missed my "pre-race report" as a poem, it was not visionary (Scott not showing up...), but check it out. Maybe for next year?


Eric Schranz said...

I was crewing/pacing a friend, and had a chance to see you quite a few times, most notably at Randall. You were obviously cold, but what was strange was the muscles in your calves and quads were shaking much worse. Very weird.
Next time at Bolinas I remember you saying "I'm hypothermic", but some of the volunteers couldn't understand you through your fatigue (and accent!), and again, you got back on the trail after sitting in the car.
Next, I was pacing and we passed you on the way up to Hwy 1. I was wearing my ID jersey and you tried to say something, but were obviously tired. Man, you deserve something special for finishing that!
Nice job, Jean.

Ron said...

Good job, Jean, I'm very impressed. I wish I could have offered you hot liquids or my jacket to take with you, but I was cold myself that entire day at Bolinas Ridge!

Rajeev said...


Hats off to you for finishing when most would have quit. We all know there is a fighter inside of you and he came up aces this past Saturday. You fought the elements and won!!

A bientot.

Sarah Lavender Smith said...

Hi Jean, I was volunteering at Bolinas Ridge AS so I saw you then, and I hate to say it but you looked terrible -- your face color was grayish! I heard you dropped due to hypothermia and I thought that was a wise thing, but I had no idea until I read this report that you got back on the trail after warming up in the car. I'm extremely impressed by the mental determination and physical stamina it must have taken to get out of that warm car and back on the wet, cold trail for the last third of the course!

Scott Dunlap said...

You were SO tough out there, Jean. Way to stick it out on a long day! So many folks dropped, but you kept with it. Next time we'll both bring more gear. ;-)


Victoria said...

Great job finishing on a really tough day when SO many things were working against you. Your positive outlook is rather inspirational!

Baldwyn said...

Way to go, Jean. This year's been tough so far, but I'm sure that means the summer will be great! Very inspirational account. I'm sure one that will come to mind when I'm whining about my quads or toes or blisters or something silly, and be able to use it as fuel to get to the finish.

Nancy Miller said...

Good run,Jean! I was getting out of breath just reading what you wrote! I would think all that running you do would push that asthma out of you. I hope you're feeling good now and looking forward to your next run.

Lina McCain said...

I continue to be impressed by your sportsmanship and determination. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Anonymous said...

Quels efforts, encore!
Je comprends que tes amis soient impressionn├ęs!
Le (long) r├ęcit est passionnant.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Way to persevere Jean! It was a hard day for everyone. At least you finished. I had an easier time than you, having more insulation, and was cold but not shivering as long as I was moving.

The whole experience is a blur to me now because all I could see all day was gray blurry mist or rain drops smeared on my glasses.

Love your traffic signs!


Andy B. said...

Wow, Jean, you really put up quite the fight out there! Congratulations on finishing under such difficult circumstances, and scoring points for the team. I'm sure conditions will be much more to your liking at Quicksilver, and Ohlone.