Monday, March 9, 2015

Way Too Cool 50K 2015: so fast, yet so slow...

In 2006 Way Too Cool was my first 50K and ultra race. I did this race every year since so that's the event I ran the most out of 110 ultras. Although I wasn't blogging yet in 2006, I started a year later so you've heard a lot from me on this event (see all my WTC race reports). What can I add then? Well, between the weather and trail conditions, and how the (ultra) stars get aligned or not, every race is different. In the context of Way Too Cool, even the course changed several times over the 26 editions. Then there is the potential change in race management and directing, this last point being very meaningful as Julie Fingar's NorCalUltras made this race the largest trail 50K in North America with 1,200 entrants! I wasn't born to ultra running back then but I bet that Tim Twietmeyer saw a lot of change through the 24 participations he has had at WTC since 1990!

Another big parameter or variable which influences an ultra is how fit, trained and rested you get into the race. Back in 2006 I was still listening to my best doctor, my sister Marie in France, who was telling me I shouldn't race more than 2 marathons a year. Time has changed and I significantly pushed the limits on that aspect as you know if you regularly check my blog... ;-) I went from running a couple of ultras in 2006 to now running more than 35 ultras a year, including training runs, and up to 3 ultra races in a single month at the peak of the season in May and April. This year, I repeated the Caumsett-Way Too Cool back to back double (like Bill Dodson did this year, at 80), with a much stronger focus on the 50K Road Nationals than this second race of our regional Grand Prix (I still love the hardware... ;-).
Yet, I rarely toe a start line without an urge to run as fast as I can... Here I am with Bill (and ultra legend Roy Pirrung who was running his 1,000th race there) in the much colder Caumsett Park last week:
I spent the week leading to Way Too Cool on a business trip between New York and New Jersey then Oklahoma City. I left Newark (EWR) just after the weekend snow storm but to fly right into a major one... I was supposed to connect through Chicago (ORD) but, after 3 changes of planes and gates at EWR (so long for a restful tapering... ;-), I was sent to Houston (IAH). That flight was late so I missed the connection but was put on another flight to OKC which United created since they had a plane ready to leave for DC where the airport (IAD) was shut down. Let's say that was a good experience and taste of what a real winter is since we have been missing one for the past 4 years on the West Coast. I arrived at SFO as scheduled on Friday morning to hop on my car and drive to Sacramento where I worked for a few hours at our local office before driving up to Auburn to pick my bib. With 1,200 participants, it helps to have Thursday and Friday afternoons as options to avoid the rush on race morning. Thanks to that, I was impressed to see how smooth the race day pick-up was on Saturday morning.

Another kudo to Julie and her team for such a professional race management, all that with a smile! Julie is so into her element when directing that she appears way more relaxed despite the scale of such a race, than when she runs an ultra herself... ;-)

While all these business trips are rather tiring, I had a relaxing evening with my roommate and teammate, Marc Laveson. Marc has had issues with his racing last year and, after multiple tests and doctor visits, it was determined that his blood protein level is too low. Although an explanation/cause hasn't been found yet, he appreciates knowing the effect. After dining at Pete's at the corner of Foresthill Road (I only wished their pasta portion was 3 times larger...), we managed to get a good 8-hour sleep! I was up since 3 am Pacific, so really looking forward to catching up with that sleep. We left the hotel at 5:35 am and, no, we weren't the first ones to get to the Cool Fire Station, but still got parking spots close to the start line (later, there were cars parked a mile away from the start!). All that contributed to a relaxed pre-race preparation, I even managed to work for an hour on my next consulting gig!
We had quite a contingent representing our QuickSilver running club this weekend, 25 runners! Not all of them made it to the frog for pre-race group picture, but still a few, here we are:
This race became so competitive over the past years, it attracts a bunch of super fast runners who are giving ultra rail racing a try. It's not that there is even money to make but Way Too Cool has become a benchmark, a way for some to show their competition how strong they already are, that early in the season. For many others, though, Way Too Cool is their first ultra (I think more than 500 this year!), and for other veterans, this is more of a kick off of the season. With so much disparity, it's good that Julie groups runners into two starting waves, and that the first mile is on a paved road so the pack can stretch before getting on the single track trail. Thanks to a 6:00-minute first mile (oops!), I could still manage to see the 4 lead runners when they got on the single track but that was the extent that I'd see from them today. I was probably in 30th position by then and that was really going fast. I could now even keep up with 2 other runners of my age group, Rich Hanna (50) and Brian Pilcher (58), both notoriously faster than me anyway. Flying at 6 min/mile pace, and feeling chased... (Photo credit: Kyria Wilson)
I finished the initial loop (~8 miles) with the second and third women, Stephanie Howe and YiOu Wang. (Photo credit: NorCalUltras)
I didn't know Stephanie but I had "battled" YiOu when she won Skyline 50K last August and I knew she was really fast. Stephanie was leading our sprint down to Highway 49, but YiOu seemed even more agile and at ease in the rocky section. (Photo credit: Inside Trail)

After 7 min/mile at mile 8, our average pace was now decreasing as we pushed on the long stretch along the American River. YiOu actually left us in the dust and Stephanie stayed beyond me. Last year, I was feeling well in that section too and regretted pushing too soon, I was really not sure if it would work better this year but I decided to keep going on and I was still on a 7 min/mile pace by mile 15 at Maine Bar. I actually passed Victor (Ballesteros) just before the climb and we joked about the crazy fast pace.

Around mile 16 I caught up with Karl (Schnaitter). With the steep climb to mile 19, our average pace was now down to 7:15, still a fast one. When I passed Karl around mile 20, before the ALT (Auburn Lake Trail) aid station, Karl ask me if I was indeed on a PR pace. To which I replied that the course had changed so much over the years, I wasn't sure. And, indeed, I knew I had broken 4 hours a couple of times, but I didn't even know what was my PR at this event.

Anyway, ALT was my first stop at an aid station, to refill my GU2O bottle, and Karl and Stephanie passed me then. It took me at least 2 miles to catch-up with Karl, and Stephanie was nowhere to be seen, so I knew I was losing some steam. Karl and I managed to trot most of Goat Hill's wall, just walking in the last switch back. We were at the marathon mark in 3:15 and I was thinking that the lead runners might have already finished by then. On our way back to the creek, we passed teammate Marc (Laveson) who was cramping badly but was still in good spirit to at least finish.

I wasn't in the mood to push more than just trying to keep up with Karl at that time. Without stopping at the last aid station, Hwy 49 Crossing, we passed a few runners in the last hill, including YiOu who was now cramping too. I crossed the finish line in 3:50:42.

The weather and trail conditions were exceptional, definitely the year to have an outstanding experience and PR. Which leads me back to the title, "So fast, yet so slow..." Did I PR myself? Actually, not, but I was darn close, 17 seconds exactly!
And that was in 2013, with perfect Spring conditions too and a dry course which allowed Max King to set an amazing 3:08 course record then. Well, defying my belief that Max's record couldn't be improved, Patrick Smyth, 28, of Salt Lake City, UT, proved me wrong: he won in a blazing time of 3:04:48, WOW! If the course was effectively 50K (it is close to 1 mile shorter actually), this would be a sub 6-minute average pace! How embarrassing, that made my great performance a poor 80% for UltraSignup, yikes! I also was "slow" enough to get chicked twice: Megan Roche (24, Sunnyvale) was 10th overall and won the Women division in a very impressive 3:41:56. Stephanie (Howe) took 2nd in 3:47:14 and YiOu 3rd, 26 seconds behind me. And it it was not enough, I didn't even win my age group: at 50, Rich Hanna finished 9th overall, 1st Masters, in 3:41:40. Our previous M50-59 age group record was 4:04, he destroyed it! Brian Pilcher was shooting for 3:38 himself but dropped at mile 9 on a hamstring issue. So, yes I was fast, but still quite slow compared to the lead folks: I placed 21st overall, 19th Men and 2nd M50-59. The problem with Way Too Cool is that the level keeps rising! It's not good to get older...

Yet, I was very pleased with my run: still strong despite racing hard 6 days before, no cramp, almost no walking and even a huge smile at the end, something I haven't experienced often at this race (thank you Jena for the picture!). And my Brooks PureGrit worked perfectly on these soft trails.
On our team, Stephen Wassather, who works and trains with many of the fast dudes on Mt Tamalpais, finished in 3:48, 15th overall. I'm super happy for him and it's good for the team that we have runners faster than me! ;-) With courage and determination, Marc finished in 35th, just above 4 hours. Like me in 2013 when I had to rush for a red eye to Mexico, he had an evening flight to Hong Kong, way to live an ultra life!

Huge kudos again to Julie, her crew and army of volunteers for such a flawless organization (well, I didn't experience what it was to go through aid stations after 1,000 other runners...). It's hard to feed 1,200 hungry ultra runners but the small sandwich and the traditional cup cake were enough for me to drive back home. I stayed for an hour to connect with a few, but I admit that, after being away for a week, I was also eager to get back home for 36 hours before my next business trip to Columbus, OH, this Monday. I still managed to get an amazing treatment on my legs from the Monsters of Massage, so good that I was able to run 14 miles at 7:28 min/mile on Sunday, and 9 miles before my flight this Monday morning. Not even recovery runs, I'm back to training already! ;-) But 4 weeks before my next race (American River 50-mile), that looks like a huge break and vacation! Just need to keep training smart and stay healthy. Just...

Wishing you all to stay healthy as well!

PS: I did wear a big 89 in my back in memory and to honor Steve Avilla, his family and his trail running friends. Steve was supposed to run Way Too Cool this year, as his first ultra, but tragically passed away a week before while running on the trails (from a heart situation which he didn't know). As the bib was saying, Run In Peace, Steve...


Big Johnny Burton said...

Jean, you are amazing! You continue to defy the laws of aging and the laws of gravity. You're an inspiration to all of us other masters runners! ~ John

Jeremy said...

You might be getting older, but you aren't getting slower! Great race Jean.