Monday, September 16, 2013

PCTR Headlands Hundred: 100-mile redemption!

Not much suspense, the news already spread on Facebook, that has been a gorgeous and successful day. Here are some details to complement the pictures, short posts and update emails, making up for the lack of broader live coverage due to lack of connectivity at the start/finish area and Tennessee Valley. Enjoy the race report and Agnès' pictures!

The stage (course and format)

To really follow the action on this event, one needs to understand the format of the event. First and foremost, the race occurs just outside of San Francisco, in the amazing Golden Gate Recreation Area, just North of the most famous Golden Gate. It is a very hilly area, bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the West side and the San Francisco Bay on the East. When the weather is clear, which was the case this weekend, the course offers stunning views of the seashore, the City, the entire Bay Area up to Mont Diablo on the East and Mt Tamalpais on the North, the Golden Gate from above and beneath, Angel and Treasure islands, Alcatraz, Muir Beach, Pirates and Tennessee Coves, ... And, for those on the 100-miler, that means daylight and night views of the City by the Bay. I must say that I'm usually to focus on my footing when I do race, unless I'm carrying a camera, but, this time, I enjoyed more of these views as a way to relax and appreciate the wonders of this fabulous site.

The course is a 25-mile long loop and the format is what we call "washing machine" that is we run the loop first clockwise, then change direction. 50-milers run 2 loops, 100-milers 4 loops. With such a format, it takes some extra mental strength to get back on the course 4 times to climb what you just descended and revisit sections that you might have been struggling earlier.
There are 2 major aid stations, the start/finish area at Rodeo Beach which we visit 4 times, and the Tennessee Valley one which we pass through 8 times. The two lower key aid stations, albeit strategically located and useful ones, at Vista Point, under the Golden Gate bridge (worth a visit of Fort Baker if you've never seen the Golden Gate bridge from beneath), and one at Muir Beach. Due to major construction of the access road and parking lot, Muir Beach wasn't accessible to runner crews. I symbolically gave the "Aid Station Oscar" to the guy who was manning the aid station by himself through the Saturday night, is such a spiritful manner, what an entertainer!

While there is nothing comparable to the elevation or altitude of UTMB (Ultra Trail of Mont Blanc) or Hardrock 100 for instance, there is very few flat miles. We start at sea level and climb several times at 1,000 feet, not that high, yet the cumulative elevation is 20,000 feet overall for the 100-mile, more than the one at Western States. Trails contain fire roads and quite a few single tracks, as well as stairs, making for some technical tricks. Yet, nothing compare to some mountain races in France or Colorado for instance.
Another big parameter of that particular race is the weather. While we started under a cloudy sky, it cleared quite soon, leaving us with a very sunny sky all day. A few patches of fog wrapped the ridges through the night, but that was a wonderful weather overall (as you can see on the America's Cup images actually, including stunning views of the bay and the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands in the background: while we were running in the hills, Team New Zealand almost cap sized in race #8...).

The background

After my setback at TRT (Tahoe Rim Trail) 100-mile in July, I did spend more time preparing for this event, both physically, mentally and logistically. I went in TRT without a pacer, without spending time on the trail, without even a plan to run through the night. This time, I "hired" Toshi as a pacer, we went on the course together to run 34 miles on the loop, I successfully raced on some of these trails this year (Miwok 60K and Headlands 50K), so I was on a much more familiar territory.

Also, these Bay Area trails better suit me than the very technical ones in steeper and rocky mountains.

Last but not least, I had not realized that getting Toshi as a pacer was topped by having Judy and Sachin joining Agnès for such an efficient and entertaining crew. With that I was all set for a great day!

Lap 1

It felt a bit awkward to start a 100-mile that "late", that is at 7 am, instead of the usual 5 am (well, except UTMB which is really out of norms with a 4 pm start in Chamonix). But that allowed for a good night of sleep before a long day, and a smooth car pool ride with Keith and Dan.

Also, with a combined 50-mile and 100-mile start, there were about 50 runners ahead of me at the start line. Our first mile was straight up on Coastal Trail. When I passed Mark (Tanaka) after a few minutes, he thought I had started late since he was expecting me to be in front. Being mixed with 50-milers, it was difficult to gauge our pace. Although I didn't want to start too hard, it felt good to be running again after a week of tapering since Austin, and I kept passing runners, settling in about 10th. I ran through Tennessee Valley, the fist aid station at mile 4, and here we were for another climb on Coastal Trail, above Tennessee Cove, then down to Pirates Cove before the steep downhill to Muir Beach. At the top of the hill, a 100-miler participant with bin #146 (Alejandro Mares) passed me. I didn't know him and was quite impressed. I figured out that he must have been the favorite in the UltraSignup listing, Ben Hian, who has won a handful of major 100-milers over the past 15 years (San Diego, Rocky Raccoon, Angeles Crest) and placed in a few others. Ben is now 44 so I thought that was the end of my goal of improving the Age Group M40-49 Course Record set by Joe Palubeski at 19:39 (Joe was running the 50-mile this weekend, along with his friends Bev and Alan Abbs who were in the 100-mile).

At the Muir Beach turnaround, I saw Jonathan Gunderson a few minutes ahead so I was now in third. I climbed the next steep 2 miles slightly faster than Alejandro, then passed Jonathan just before our second visit to Tennessee Valley. Now in first place on the 100-mile, I knew I was going slightly faster than what I had planned for. From our recon training, I knew I was able to run the loop under 4 hours, but my goal was not to since we had 4 loops to cover today. At the bottom of Marincello, I was just behind Karl Schnaitter from Mountain View. Karl won the Ruth Anderson 100K a few minutes ahead of me in April, he was in the 50-mile race today. Marincello is a 1.5-mile fire road and, thanks to a stronger mental and running the hill along Hal Koerner after I had paced Michael Wardian at North Face, I learned the way to run the steady climb without stopping. The trick is really for me to what Hal calls the Diesel mode, or lower gear, so you don't lose your breath. I was tempted to pass Karl but there was no point in the 100-mile and we ended up running the next 38 miles close to each other.

By the time we went down the Vista Point aid station under the Golden Gate bridge, there was only one 50-mile runner ahead of us and agreed with Karl that it probably meant 1 or 2 runners missed a turn. Quicksilver teammate Gary Saxton took this great shot as we were climbing up the ridge on SCA trail.
Our first 25-mile lap was 3:35, way way faster than what I had originally planned, at this point I thought it was going to be an interesting day. And I was already thinking of starting my race report with something like: "Sorry, folks, I would hope that I had learned better about pacing..." (Yes, I do think about my blog posts when I run, that keeps me busy! ;-) I spent what seemed like a long minute finding my drop bag, then I took a pouch of Vespa and was out of the aid station in less than 3 minutes.

Lap 2

A mile from the turnaround, I cross teammate John Burton who was then 3rd in the 50-mile race, and urged me to take it easy and slow down. I knew he was right and I was already trying hard to slow down so I made a commitment to myself to power walk anything steep upcoming. Which isn't really the case of the 2-mile stretch of Bobcat Trail which got us back on the ridge (Alta and SCA trails).

Coming back from the second passage at the Vista Point turnaround, the traffic started increasing on Coastal Trail and SCA. An opportunity to salute others and thank those letting us pass. And an opportunity to also see the gap with other runners. Jonathan was still in second place in the 100-mile, then Alejandro, then world-class elite Bev Anderson Abbs, with her husband Alan a few minutes later. Mark Tanaka and Julie Fingar (holder of the woman course record) were close to each other. And another club mate, Pierre-Yves Couteau, close behind with his UTMB finisher top.
I saw the same leading group again in my climb out of Muir Beach at mile 42, in about the same order.

Then it was time for a 4th passage at Tennessee Valley (TV), mile 46, where Toshi was all ready to fire it up despite my much faster than expected time. Judy, Sachin and Agnès were also quite excited to unveil the surprise that Toshi had worked on for this event, custom-made t-shirts with an original design advertizing my blog tag line and using the colors of our Quicksilver Ultra Running Team tops, how sweet!
Way to go "Team Pommier - Farther Faster", I think I now have a new extended crew for life, how cool! :-)

As a pacer, Toshi had to pick me at Rodeo Beach, 4 miles and a couple of hills away. He followed me 200 yards behind and we met at the start/finish area. To put our ultra lives into perspective, Toshi had completed the Wasatch 100-mile race a week ago, and he was now going for a 54-mile hilly pacing gig. What a commitment!
I completed the second lap in a much more reasonable and sustainable time of 4 hours and 9 minutes and was still feeling great. Karl had won the 50-mile race in 7:47 and I saw John coming in for 2nd as I was on Coastal Road.

Lap 3

I stopped for 5 minutes at Rodeo Beach, I don't even remember why so long for... Maybe it was just to clear my mind and appreciate the achievement of having covered half the distance under 8 hours. And start thinking of what to avoid to spoil the rest of the day.

As we were climbing the steep Coastal Trail for the second time, I did slightly more walking yet I could alternate running and walking on Wolf Ridge trail as we were crossing the other runners, most of them in their final stretch to their 50-mile finish. Jonathan was running with Alejandro and there were about 25 minutes behind. Then I saw Bev still in 4th, as we were reaching the ridge before plunging onto Miwok Trail.

5th passage at TV, mile 54, with the special attention of my crew. This time, there were no more 50-mile runners ahead of me on Coastal and, with a lead of at least 30 minutes, I didn't cross any 100-mile runners in the climb out of Muir Beach. I was certainly not as fast or not pushing as much as in the first loop, but I figured out that would be the rule for the runners behind. Yet, I was curious to see how far I could keep up with a good pace in this race and how much I could improve the Age Group course record.

The 6th visit to TV was also the 100K mark (mile 62) and I was still in great shape and spirit. Not sure how long this would last, and long enough to not need my headlamp before Rodeo Beach, I asked Agnès if she would consider driving to Vista Point in case. As it turned out, Judy and her had spent some time trying to get Keith on the trail after he had considered dropping at mile 38, and they did succeed, but he eventually dropped a mile later, so leverage the drive with my crew to his car at the finish line.

It was great to see my crew at the Golden Gate Vista Point (mile 68), get my headlamp, a wind breaker jacket which appeared to be useful at the top of the ridge, and change my top.
We crossed Jonathan with his pacer, Rick Gaston, and estimated the gap to be around 35 to 40 minutes (gap which Agnès confirmed later at Rodeo). I don't recall if we saw Alejandro, but Bev was still going strong, without a pacer. Then there was this runner, bib 103, who appeared to come back from nowhere and was moving really fast. That was Dominic Andreotti who knew my name from American River. There were a few interesting permutations in the leading group on loop 3.

I completed the 3rd loop in 4:43, which I was happy with, and just in time before it became to dark to run without a light. Speaking of too dark, we crossed a few runners on the trail during the night, who didn't have any light. I don't know if it was on purpose, to leverage the bright moon before it disappeared around 2 am, or because they didn't grab their light in time from an aid station, but kudos to them for keeping moving in the dark.

Lap 4

We left Rodeo Beach around 8:30 pm, after having drunk some chicken noodle soup Agnès had brought in a thermos, and it was time to switch our lamps on. As a consequence (darkness), the description of this loop is going to be less picturesque. Actually, on the ridge, we got caught in the fog and, in addition to some natural fatigue, this slowed me significantly as I paid attention to every rock and turn to avoid falling. Going down Coastal Trail to Conzelman and Moore Roads, the views of the light of San Francisco were magical!

My crew was at Fort Baker again and I got a second cup of soup. With a few chips here and there, and half a dozen of small pieces of watermelon and banana, that's about the only solid food I would take for the whole race.

We alternated running and walking on our way up to the ridge and, between headlamps beams thrown to each other, and the mix of runners in their 3rd or 4th loop, it became more difficult to figure out who was who but it seemed like I was still having a lead above 30 minutes. Toshi urged me not to run too fast on the Marincello down hill to avoid crashing later.

It was now basically coming down to running 12 miles in 3 hours from TV. Unfortunately, the climb up to Coyote Ridge Trail on Miwok was starting wearing me down and even the steep downhill on Coastal. It was particularly frustrating to see my average pace now approaching 11 min/mile, even slowing down in downhills! But, again, one my major goals was now to avoid falling, so better be extra careful in the dark.

While going though the Pirates Cove, we did a few checks to see if anyone was closing behind but, apart from some moon light, the hills remained pitch dark. As we were approaching TV for the last time, mile 96, Toshi kept doing more maths around the Course Record. He thought the record was around 18:17, while I remembered Karl mentioning 18:44 when we ran together. I had printed out the site webpage so we were able to check for sure at TV. It was 18:44 indeed (Nathan Yako in 2009) and that left us with one hour and 17 minutes to run the remaining 4 miles. Never a piece of cake at this point but worth the try especially with the corresponding mental boost. Old Springs is a 1.3 mile moderate climb and it took me half of it before getting into a slow running rhythm which I was eventually able to find. I was even able to run a significant portion of the steeper Miwok Trail to the Wolfe Ridge. At this point, the trail had still a few tricks such as lose rocks and irregular stairs, but it was all down to the beach and the finish! I crossed the line in 18:22:25, at the sounds of my crew's cow bells and cheers of the dozen or so volunteers manning the aid station in the middle of the night.
Race Director and PCTR owner, John Brooks, congratulated me and gave me a very cool award: a custom made wooden box covered with the map of the course, and which will provide the perfect storage for my belt buckles.
Dominic came in second, about 30-35 minutes behind.
Results are not posted yet as I publish this report, I heard that Bev finished in 4th, also setting a new course record in 20:27, with her husband, Alan placing 5th overall in 21:15 (in Alan's words, he has been "wife'd" again! ;-).

As per our Quicksilver racing team and club: Marc Laveson won the trail marathon in a blazing 3:12. John Burton placed second in the 50-mile followed by Adam Blum and Gary Saxton. In the 100-mile, in addition to Keith, Dan also dropped at mile 50 on GI issues which started mile 18. In the men Mark Tanaka, Pierre-Yves Couteau and Jim Magill (on his birthday!), all finished.

For her first ever 100-mile, Lisa Hughey had an amazing experience, covering the distance in 24:40. Here is Lisa's finish, photo credit Clare Abram:
Also attempting this distance for the first time, and with an amazing support from teammate Loren who paced her for 38 miles, Kat Powel did cover the whole 100 miles albeit missing the final 33-hour cut-off at TV.


First, I want to thank all the wonderful folks who made this experience so rewarding and enjoyable. Starting with John who directed this event, stayed up for so many hours and accepted to enlist this race onto our Grand Prix calendar. All the volunteers he has recruited to set the race up and down as well as cover the very long hours the four aid stations remained open throughout the weekend. The volunteers who did such great job marking the course with thousands of color-coded ribbons and those who added glow sticks at night. What a team effort to allow us to run in such an exceptional venue!

In addition to this support, I was particularly glad to get so many stars properly aligned. While I couldn't manage the weather and felt so luck with the range of temperatures and overall conditions, I got my hydration perfectly in check with 7 bottles of Gu2O (close to my standard one bottle every 15 miles rule), water, a few cups of Coke, 3 cups of soup, and one S!Cap every hour. On the nutrition side, I did the perfect Vespa game: one pouch at -45 minutes, then start time, then every other hour. I did skip one take at TRT at mile 35 and that did cost me some bonking eventually. I wasn't going to give it a chance this weekend and it proved successful. I did take quite a few GU gels, about one every hour, mostly to provide some quick boost before the major uphills. But nothing close to the calories I did expense in 18 hours: yes, the Vespa Math work, body fat made for the difference...! ;-)

Now, let's keep things in perspective: while an overall win is always a great source of satisfaction, this isn't one of the major 100-milers on the circuit. And I'm sure some youngsters will improve this Course Record in years to come. But, for me and in the meantime, what a great way to conclude my M40-49 "career" in our Pacific Association Ultra Grand Prix! Although there are still three other events on our calendar this season, I didn't need anymore point to win my age group for the 7th consecutive year. My main motivation for racing this weekend was to erase the counter performance of TRT, and keep learning about this distance which has still many mysteries or surprises to me. It was my 9th 100-mile our of 89 ultra races so far, and two DNFs (Did Not Finish) at that particular distance. Not my fastest (14:54 on pavement and 5,000 ft cumul. at Run d'Amore last year), but my most successful taking into account the challenging course profile. A 100-mile redemption...! And not much time to celebrate before jumping on my next business flight this Monday morning... This is an ultra life, hope you have your own fun and rewarding one! :-)

PS: again, more pictures from Agnès in my Picasa album.


Big Johnny Burton said...

Jean, congratulations on such a strong run! I always knew you were fast, and incredibly tough, but I was worried that you had gone out way too fast. Nice to see you hold it together and not only win, but break the course record! Congrats again. What an epic performance.

Jeremy said...

I can't believe you didn't drop Toshi!

Ron said...

Fantastic, Jean! Congratulations! I'm glad that PCTR seems to be doing well under the new ownership, too.

Unknown said...

What a race Jean! I couldn't believe it, you were running like a 25 year old. You totally deserve the win and course record. Thank Agnès for me: she boosted my spirit during a low at mile 81.

Unknown said...

What a race Jean! I couldn't believe it, you were running like a 25 year old. You totally deserve the win and course record. Thank Agnès for me: she boosted my spirit during a low at mile 81.