Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ruth Anderson ultras 2015: quite a few loops, again...

Since I started running ultras in 2006, that was my 9th consecutive participation to the Ruth Anderson ultras (2007-2015), a long ultra tradition per Stan Jensen's records on his informative website. This event is quite special in the sense that it has 3 distances to chose from, 50K, 50-mile and 100K, and you can do so during the race. The only trick though is that you can't revert to a shorter distance in case you kept going and not reach the next one. This brings a very interesting mental challenge which I must admit, I have struggled myself repeatedly. Subsequently, and for various reasons, I've run a variety of distances here, respectively 50M, 50K, 50K, 50M, 100K, 50M, 100K and 50M. In 2011, I even missed the start, still being on the tarmac in Phoenix, AZ with the whole family after a missed connection on Friday night, yet managed to finish the 100K that day! I titled my race report: DSL (Did Start Last)...! ;-)

By the way, the race is held in San Francisco, on a very scenic 4.5-mile around Lake Merced. The 100K option was the first one and has been offered since 1986 making it 29 years this year (the event didn't occur in 1999)! The 50-mile since 2001 and 50K since 2002.

This was also my 3rd of a back to back to back race series this month. I must say that was quite aggressive given the 3 events: American River 50-mile, MadCity 100K Road US Championships and Ruth Anderson. I decided to play safe and not go for 100K but "only" 50 miles today, and I now look forward to one (!) weekend without a race before another monster back to back to back in May with the grueling Miwok 100K and QuickSilver 100K, and my favorite race, Ohlone 50K.

What I didn't see coming though when I put together this ambitious race plan is that I would be traveling almost every week from February to June. This is exhausting and certainly tests my limits, beyond the ultra running ones. And that's I often talk about living an ultra life... This week I was in Ohio again. I actually didn't come back home last weekend as I was racing in Wisconsin. I saw Agn├Ęs for a few hours before she left this Sunday for Europe for a week, and I'll see her for a few hours next Sunday between two planes, another tiring sub 4-hour red eye to Chicago...

Anyway, with the race starting at 6:30 am, I was good for yet another early wake-up call at 3:30 am, mind you some Sunday rest. It was still quite dark when I got to Lake Merced and I wasn't even the first one. As a matter of fact, the time to chat with a few familiar participants, I barely had 10 minutes to prepare and I even had to come back to the car before the start because I had forgotten my sun glasses. In a typical San Francisco fashion, the sky was cloudy but last year it dissipated and turn to a very warm day. I was expecting the same although it didn't happen today, keeping the temperature ideal for a long run and avoiding sun burns.

Race Director, Rajeev Patel (along with co-RD Anil Rao), gave his colorful and humorist briefing. This year, that included a life-time award to RD Emeritus Steve Jaber who has volunteered hundreds of hours to this even and many other. And a "tired loopy" award to Barbara Elia, now 70, for countless participations, Rajeev mentioning about 190 laps of racing on this course for Barbara (below, in white).
We started at 6:30 am indeed and Chikara Omine and Enrique Henriquez took off at a sub 7 min/mile pace. I wasn't surprised for either of them, guessing Enrique would go after the 50K win again, but unsure about which distance Chikara was rushing to. I was in third and lost sight of Enrique first then Chikara in the second lap. I was trying hard to slow down but couldn't get my pace lower than 6:52 in the first two laps which I knew was too aggressive (I was aiming at 7 at most). At least, I was pleased to run at ease: no trace of the heel injury which got me to stop training for 3 weeks in March, no trace of the knee pain after American River, and not even any apparent fatigue from last week's 100K Nationals. I actually went for 9 miles on Thursday and I felt really good. With that, I had even formed the ambition to run a sub-6-hour 50-mile today...!

I clocked about 31:40 +/- a few seconds for each of the first 5 laps. In the 6th one, I did a quick pit spot (pit as in pee-t...) and Karl Schnaitter passed me. I stayed behind for the remainder of the lap but lost him in 7th lap as I was unfortunately slowing down. My average pace was now right on 7:00 min/mile and I couldn't even hold this. Getting close to the 50K mark, I was tempted to call it a day but first, my second goal was to at least improve the age group course record which I had missed by a few seconds last year, after a fail attempt at the 100K M50-54 American record, and not even knowing what the M50-59 50-mile course record was (6:21:28 by Joe Schieffer in 2002). Second, our team strategy was quite muddy this year, with very few participants, but, since I had committed on the 50-mile, I didn't want to take the risk of jeopardize our scoring.

It was really painful to get going... and slowing down. But, although I'm ashamed of the slower pace, I'm proud that I didn't walk a single time today. I thank the other runners who encouraged me on the way, returned a few encouragements as well, and kept moving.

2 miles before the end of my 10th lap, Chikara flew by me. In other words, he had lapped me and I thought he was sprinting to a blazing 5:32 or so 50-mile finish. To my surprise, he didn't turn around at the 50-mile mark and kept going for the 100K win instead. At least, since I had another lap to complete myself, that was better for my UltraSignup ranking, phew...! ;-)

It was a relief to be in the last lap and, although I couldn't really run faster, at least I was able to now stabilize the average pace at 7:24, at least that was what my Garmin GPS was showing. 7:30 min/mile was enough to get me the age group course record so I did check my watch quite a few times in that last lap. As I started the final out and back of the 50-mile, I see Karl coming back and letting me know that the 50-mile turn around was nowhere to be found. I replied that we had ran over it (the marking and 3 flags) 10 times already, so I knew where it was. Poor Karl ended up running up the hill to the old 50-mile finish, for probably 2 additional kilometers. Thanks to a comfortable lead though, that didn't prevent him from winning the 50-mile (I thought he'd go for 100K today), but, with this mistake, he missed breaking 6 hours (6:05:56). I took second in 6:14:12 and Brian Purcell, also from Excelsior, took 3rd in 6:25:42.
Excelsior's captain took 4th, rounding up another Excelsior team win.
I had time to change and see a few other runners passing through the finish aid station before seeing Chikara finish his 100K in a blazing 7:06! I believe this is the 3rd fastest time on this course (both Jon Olsen and Joe Binder both qualified for Team USA here). Unfortunately, this may not be enough to make it to the team this year as quite a few runners already qualified at the World championships last year with fastest time.

Far from the 32-year speedsters (Chikara and Karl), Bill Dodson, at 80, was again shooting for a M80-84 American record, this time for the 50-mile distance. Last week, he shattered 2.5 hours off the previous record for 100K. And, today, he shaved more than 3 hours of the 50-mile record! See these M80-84 records, I bet Bill has also an eye on the 67 hours (!!) for 100 miles!

Many thanks to Rajeev and Anil for putting up such a friendly event, and for volunteers extraordinaire, Dave Combs and Stan Jensen for the many hours keeping count and track of all our laps and times!

For our QuickSilver team, it wasn't what we used to score a few years ago, but we managed to get a mixed team on the 50K (Kat Powell who PR'ed, our Captain Loren Lewis who came one week after running Lake Sonoma to round a team up, Harris Goodman who took 3rd and Stephen Strauss who dropped after 8 miles with an injury), and a Men team on the 100K (Mark Tanaka, Charles Blakeney who joined our team yesterday, and Jim The Shuffler Magill). Here is Keith Lubliner who ran the 50-mile.
It was another wonderful ultra experience and I now look forward to returning to the soft trails after the 135 or so miles on asphalt of these 3 races this month! See you on the trails then!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

MadCity 100K Road Nationals: not even a PR

It's barely the second quarter and already my 3rd Championship and 6th ultra race this year, what a start! I know I'm playing with the fire but what can I say, that ultra running is a big experiment indeed... As a matter of fact, I'm not the only one to race and run intensely, Michael Wardian race 3 times more than me last year and much much faster! Ian Torrence actually interview us as part of a story he published last week on about ultra racing and recovery. This is a great piece although it may appear that we all figured it out, which is certainly not the case at least for me. A lot of work and guts but also a lot of guessing to play at the limit without breaking the ceiling...

Back to the title, this was a new event for me. I had heard about MadCity 100K a couple of years ago and was intrigued by such a city weird enough to call itself... mad! As I was working on the logistic and planning for 2015, I learned that this was Madison in Wisconsin. I must admit that, not being born in the US, I'm still quite far behind with my US geography, although I have probably visited more places, cities and states in the US than most average American. Anyway, I had also heard about amazing performance ran on this course so I was excited to see how fast I could run 100K on a course flatter than our local Ruth Anderson loop at Lake Merced in San Francisco (the race is next week!).

After 110 ultra races since 2006, my goals have evolved:
  1. Finish? Indeed, there was a time where just finishing was the main goal but not anymore. At some point, I even made a point of not DNF'ing, like when I walked 2/3 of the course at American River 2008 with severe exercise-induced asthma, but, although I still don't like their bitterness, I learned to accept DNFs since then (6 so far). So, no, I didn't come to MadCity just to finish.
  2. Winning a national title? That was really cool when I got my first one last year (Caumsett 2014) but I learned since then that many of these events aren't so well attended by the elite so it's not much of a benchmark, especially with the many 5-year age groups above 40.
  3. Running a PR on that distance? 7 of the 10 100K I ran so far have been Miwok which is a very hilly course. My PR is 7:51:08 at Ruth Anderson which is a rolling course and I was pretty certain I could do better than that.
  4. Winning the Master division? That was a surprise at the Caumsett 50K Championships last month but, no, that wasn't a goal, I knew Kevin Grabowski, a local runner whom I met at Desert Solstice in December, would take care of that (he is 46).
So, what was my main goal then? Well, like I was running after a 32-year old 50K M50-54 American record at Caumsett (3:19:33 and I ran 3:21:16), I thought I had a better shot at another record that the same John Sullivan set in 1982, 7:38:43. Which meant to 3:49 50Ks back to back, how hard that could be on a flat certified course...?

I flew in on Friday afternoon from my client in Columbus, OH, and was thrilled to get a room with a kitchenette at the Homewood Suites, 15 minutes from the start. That was until I found out that the hotel was hosting 6 youth soccer teams, meaning dozens of 10-14-year old kids racing and jumping in the corridors and slamming room doors. It was so noisy and I was so annoyed that I had a very bad sleep, barely 5 hours. It was not just the lack of rest but, between that stress and the pre-race nervousness, I could feel my heart was beating too fast, which is never a good sign before a race.

I woke up at 3:30 to get my breakfast but went back to bed for barely 30 minutes of additional sleep. It was 5:30 when I left the hotel, with the driving directions I had found on the Facebook race page.

I arrived at the Arboretum visitor center and there wasn't a single light. Thankfully, in the pre dawn light, I saw someone hiking and asked of he'd knew when the start of the race was. He indicated the other side of the lake and it was not 5:55 am, with the race starting at 6:30, damned! I called the race director's cell phone but got a voice mail and tried Bill Dodson's cell phone but he didn't pick up. More stress... Thankfully, Bill called back 1 minute later and told be to aim at Drake Street. I must admit that I might have drove a bit too fast in Madison, I made it to the start by 6:10 am, completely stressed out now. Got my bib, said hi to race director Tim (Timo) Yanacheck, rushed to the car to get prepared as quickly as possible. I was still putting GU gels in my bottle handles when Timo gave the start, not before asking "Is anyone seeing a reason not to start...?" I almost mentioned that I wasn't ready indeed, but felt that rather inappropriate for a National Championship! ;-) To avoid such an hectic Chikara Omine or Mark Tanaka-like rushed start, here is a map to clarify the start area:
It was chilly and, with this haste, I didn't put my gloves on. But the sky was so clear, I knew it was a matter of minutes before the sun warms us up. I knew only 3 runners of the 18 participants:
  1. Bill Dodson, the Chair of our Pacific Association Ultra Grand Prix. Bill turned 80 at Caumsett and was here to set a new Age Group record, lowering the current 17 hours and 39 (he had a healthy 10-hour buffer compared the AG record I was after...)
  2. Kevin Grabowski (see above)
  3. and Mike Bialick whom I had also met at the invitational Desert Solstice in December. Mike was shooting for 100 miles under 13 hours and passed us quite a few times on the track!
After a few hundred yards, I had already lost sight of a few runners I didn't know and thought "That's going to be a fast race but you didn't come for that, remain focused on your goal!" I think Kevin was in 5th after a few turns and I was just behind Mike who I estimated was running at a 7 min/mile pace.

The legendary Roy Pirrung had share a few insights about the course with Bill and I at Caumsett. Roy has earned his 999 race finish at the 24-hour World event this weekend and he is going for 1,000th finishes at Boston this month. Anyway, Roy told us that there were 2 little hills that you barely notice in the first laps but feel in the last laps. As I was discovering the course on this first lap, I thought I must have been on the wrong course because I could already feel the hills... Must have been the fatigue from running (and cramping) American River 50-mile last week... I was still a few yards behind Mike at the top of the second hill by mile 3 and my GPS was indicating an average pace of 7:04, so I decided to back off a little. Anyway, Mike was accelerating on the down hill, and there was no point in trying to stick to him.

My goal was to run an evenly 7:15 min/mile pace which corresponds to 7:30 for 100K, that is 3:45 50K or right on 45 minutes per lap (10K course). The AG record corresponded to 7:23 which left a bit of margin. With the rolling course though, I had hard time tuning my pace and I finished the first lap 44:13, slightly too fast. 47 seconds may seem rather insignificant but the add up at the end, yet, I was rather satisfied with the pace and now serene after this stressful pre-race ritual (or lack thereof).

After 60 minutes of racing, I took a S!Cap but my fingers were still so cold that I had hard time opening my pocket. At the end of the second lap, I arrived to the finish/start area 2 minutes before the start of the 50K solo and 50K relay, having to find a way though the 100 runners or so ready to start. I had run the second lap in 44:22, slightly closer to the 45' mark.

On that third lap, we were now passed by the fastest of the 50K runners (one would run 3:00 on the solo race!) so, between the up and down hills and the emulation of these runners passing you, it was even harder to maintain a steady pace. Despite all that, I ran the 3rd loop in 44:49, almost on target!

I made a quick 30-45-second stop at mile 22 to refill my GU2O bottle then pushed the pace to make up for the lost time. By pure coincidence, and despite this pit stop, I ran that 4th loop in the same time than the second one, 44:22 (6 tenth of second difference! ;-).

My 5th loop was 45:34 as it included my second stop to refill my GU2O bottle. I was now at 3:43:22 for 50K, 38 seconds from my plan and was very satisfied with that. At this point, I was passed by a few runners but mostly passing other 50K relay participants, and I had no idea what was really going on the 100K race.

All my "vital" signs were good: no cramping at all, drinking enough GU2O although not quite as much water than my usual 20 oz/15-mile heuristic, 1 S!Caps/hour, 1 Vespa pouch every other hour, and 1 GU gel at the bottom of the hour. I was even pleased with quite some farting (sorry...), which indicated my GI system was all "clear." I ran the 6th lap 45:11 which was still OK.

The trouble came in the middle of the 7th lap tough when I felt the urge to leave the course for some urgent business and it wasn't pretty. At the end of the 5th lap, I had taken half a banana at the main aid station and it was so green and "al dente" that I had some doubts and almost didn't finish it, but did as I thought I needed the potassium. I can't tell for sure if this was the reason of my sudden GI issue --I also ate a couple of pieces of watermelon-- but it may.
Anyway, with this unexpected stop in the woods and wiping with dead leaves, my butt was now on fire. Thankfully, this was less than a mile to the second aid station and couldn't wait to get some vaseline there. Unfortunately, there wasn't any, I learned at the end that the two pots of vaseline were together at the main aid station.

Between these two lengthy stops, the record attempt was almost dead, not to mention that it was now painful to even run. I finished lap 7 in 49:25. Theoretically, it was still doable but the high spirit was gone. To make the think worst, a second diarrhea incident happened when I was on Edgewood Drive, at the beginning of loop 8. This one took care of the remaining of the buffer minutes, not to mention that I got a few hikers and dog walker either worried or upset of my business in the woods...

At this point, I even thought of dropping but thought that I should still just hang up for the Age Group title, having passed the two other M50-54 participants at least once. I ran lap 8 in 54:28, even lowering my PR was now in jeopardy. My intestine hold on in the last two laps which, given the circumstances, I was happy to run in respectively 52:23 and 52:13. I was less than a mile from the finish of lap 9 when Mike lapped me to take the overall win in 7:02:17, this first place securing him a spot on the Team USA 100K road for the next World Championships!

7:04 but one more lap to go for me (photo credit Karl Leas):
And finally crossing the finish line for the 10th and final time, photo credit Karl Leas:
I was so disappointed to have completely missed my main goal, yet the volunteers on the finish line uplifted my spirit by sharing a few good news: I had won my age group (this I had figured out, lapping Erik and Casper again in lap 10), was 6th overall, 5th men (I hadn't even notice that a gal was ahead at the start) and, more importantly, 1st Master again!

Now, with such a slow time (7:57:05) there wasn't much glory in all this. Most of the 100K elite weren't here because they had either already qualified at the World last year (team win), racing at the World 24-hour Championship in Torino, Italy, this weekend, or Lake Sonoma 50-mile in California this Saturday, to name a few events and excuses. But I was still quite pleased with the hardware from the USATF folks as well as Tomi and his team, in particular the sumptuous crystal vase:

Last time I got a crystal vase was when I made the Boston Marathon podium for Top 10 Masters back in 2005, that brings back great memories, 10 years later!

The women race had been won by Camille Heron who was thrilled to also make Team USA:

All this time, Bill was all smile and managed to shatter 2.5 hours off the AG record, finishing at 9:35 pm. A very smart race, alternating walking and running, we can all hope that we can cover 100K this way at his age! Keep going, Bill, you are an inspiration to us all!

Big thanks to Timo, Rick and their team of local volunteers for putting up this official, yet low key, event. This wasn't the flat course I was expected, I look forward to comparing the elevation with Ruth Anderson. The irony is that, from the plane, this area of Wisconsin seemed really flat yet, when I mentioned the hills, the locals replied this is definitely flat. I believe I need to find some course in Chicago then, where the record I had an eye on was actually set in 1982.

To conclude, and for my records, here is a quick "balance sheet" after this 6th race of 2015


  1. No cramps this time! Seems like American River 50 provided some good training! I also doubled on my Magnesium supplement on race morning in case.
  2. No trace of injury! Seems like the 3-week rest in March took care of that, short of getting enough training miles.
  3. Still quite an accomplishment! Another ultra finish, breaking 8 hours for 100K, a good training and learning experience for another attempt, 5th Men, 1st Masters, a 4th national title out of 5 championship participations, a very nice crystal vase, some prize money, perfect weather, ... what to complain about, really??!!
  1. Completely missed my goal
  2. GI issue I need to better understand to prevent
  3. Lack of sleep
  4. Too much nervousness (I'm getting better at controlling it, but still...)
  5. Irritation (hotel noise) as a derailment factor
  6. Slightly too fast pace (6 to 8 seconds/mile)
  7. Lost time with refills (no crew/crewless or screwed as Mark Tanaka says)
  8. Insufficient water intake (20 oz/30 miles instead of 15 miles, and it was hot my mid day)
  9. Overall, likely too much assurance and self-confidence going into the race
I'm still quite optimistic that I can run 100K faster than this, will all the (ultra) start aligned, and the alignment was quite close, thanks in particular to a few key products I use and like: Vespa Power, GU Energy (gel, brew electrolytes, recovery), Succeed S!Caps and Brooks shoes of course (although I'm not sponsored anymore):

Yes, ultra running is a big experiment, hope everyone running got some insights to keep getting great experiences while pushing the envelope! And spectators or readers got some inspiration to give it a try!! Farther Faster is the name of the game...! ;-)

PS - Before driving back to the hotel, I went on the course to take pictures (and encourage a few of the last runners including Bill), here is a course "postview" for those of you who weren't there this weekend, or a preview for those interested in running MadCity in the future. I've also crafted a few maps, ©Jean Pommier, (and Bing/Microsoft for the map)! ;-)

The start on Vilas Park Drive
 Lake Wingra
Rear view toward the final mile (6)
 The end of Edgewood Drive (mile 0.5)
 First hill, up Woodrow Street
 Woodrow Street

 Turn from Monroe Street into Wingra Park (mile marker 1)
 Arbor Drive
 First aid station (water only)
 Shortcut back onto Monroe Street
 Monroe Street
 Nakoma Road
 Turn from Nakoma Road onto Manitou Way
 Manitou Way
 Along the Nakoma Golf
Manitoo Way

 Up Manitou Way, toward Seminole Hwy
 The top of Manitou Way
 The turn from Seminole Hwy onto Arboretum Drive
 Arboretum Drive

 Mile marker 3
 Yes, "Way to go!" says the balloon! ;-)

 The first downhill (mile 3)
 Another slight uphill from the Arboretum visitor center
 You can see as far as the Capitol between the trees
 Slightly up toward the aid station at mile 3.8
 Approaching the aid station
 The aid station!
 From here, it's all downhill, finally!
 Mile marker 4

 Oh wait, another slight uphill...!

 The turn before mile 5
 The mile 5 marker

 The flat last mile
 The bridge over Wingra Creek, before the last turn (left) to the finish