Sunday, October 11, 2015

Inaugural Folsom Lake Ultra Trail: which lake?

First, and breaking my tradition of thanking the Race Director at the end of my race reports, let me start with putting the spotlight on Paulo Medina and his co-race director, Clint Welch. Paulo worked on this project for 3 years and I must say it was a brilliant idea to come create this event, circumventing the entire Folsom Lake. I'm amazed at the guts it takes to organize an event of that scale, requiring 4 permits, all on the same day of course, and manning so many remote aid stations along the way. It was also original to combine an individual format with a 3-leg relay.
With such technical trails, including the famous 'meat grinder' (which I called 'feet grinder' in the past), a start at 5 am and a cut-off at 1:20 am, this also make a very long day for the organizers and certain volunteers, kudos to all! With 68.8 miles or 110K, the distance was a bit odd, but it definitely made for quite a challenging course. As for the lake, here are two pictures which sum it up: no more lifeguards needed, unfortunately...

With that, when Paulo invited me to run his event instead of Julie Fingar's more traditional Dick Collins Firetrails 50-mile which was held that Saturday, I did hesitate a bit but I already logged a record 580 points in our Pacific Association Grand Prix (9th consecutive Age Group win!) so I got really excited to run this inaugural event instead. Given the length of the course, Agnès cancelled a few of her Friday afternoon classes so we could leave Cupertino early. Well, that wasn't enough we got into quite some traffic so we missed the Friday evening briefing. Given the low number of participants though, I wasn't too worried about getting my bib in the morning.

It was pitch dark at 5 am and my new Petzl Tikka RXP worked wonders (after bad experiences with Black Diamond, finally switched to this French product! ;-). And, yes, with more than 200 lumens, this small thing shines, so long for Agnès' traditional pre-start photo!
At some point I thought I had seen Bob Shebest so told to myself 'oh well, so long for a win today...' Indeed, I had the second highest ranking behind Bev Anderson-Abbs, so I thought I had a shot at winning my 3rd race in 4 weeks! Fortunately, a few miles in the run, I realized it couldn't be Bob because he wasn't in the lead.

Right off the start, I took the lead alongside a young and tall runner who was on the 68-mile, and we got quickly joined by two relay runners which became very handy as I wasn't sure about the course but one of the two had run rehearsed his first leg recently. And it was good to have him because I had heard Paulo say that we had to be under the levee and we weren't in the first 4 miles. The first ribbon was at mile 1.5 and the second at mile 3, you had better know we needed to stay on the American River bike path at the beginning, running the American River 50-mile course in reverse.

We had a few hesitations at mile 4 as we reached that levee and couldn't see a ribbon. Again it was great to have our guide with us (sorry, I didn't pick the name)! Running on the lake bed was like what I imagine would be running on Mars: sharp rocks, dust, uneven ground, sand. At that point, our pace increased from the (crazy!) 7:30 min/mlle to a more sustainable 8:00 when our guide and I reached the second aid station, Brown Ravine at mile 6.7. Carrying 2 bottles, I didn't stop and took the lead, creating a gap in the next 8 miles. I did a long stop at the New York (where does that come from ? ;-) aid station where I got David Lent and two volunteers refill my GU2O and water bottles (special kudos to David for manning that aid station in the morning, then Granite Bay in the afternoon!!). My pace went down from 8:06 to 8:13 with that 1 minute 40 second pit stop, yikes! I pushed in the next miles on a great shady single track but only regained 1 second for my average pace. The first rays of sun hit me when I was at mile 20.5 and I was thinking of the back of the pack runners who were going to be in the heat for many more hours than I intended to be (another perk with the gift of running faster, I often say that I have a lot of respect for these runners who are on their feet for much longer).

There was still plenty of shade on the trail and, with that, I reached out the Salmon Falls aid station still in the lead. 22.4 miles in just above 3 hours (8 am), an average pace around 8:30 by the time I left the aid station after refueling a bit and, more importantly, getting more ice in my water bottle. It was great to see Agnès there; who rushed after a quick breakfast at the hotel to grab my precious (well, expensive) headlamp. What stunned me is that, while I imagined being welcomed by dozens of runners waiting for their teammate finishing their first leg, I only saw one! Oops, maybe I was way too fast then... But I knew the next section had a grueling profile, so it seemed ok to have run the initial 22-mile leg faster, at least there was no way to run an even pace all along on that type of course.
From Salmon Falls Bridge, we went down the boat ramp (with an empty lake, certainly no boat loading this year unfortunately) then, on the lake bed again.

This time, it was a field of uneven pebbles making our progression quite challenging. I had seen a picture of runners crossing a river on the race website so I was wondering what was coming up, seeing the rushing American River on our right. As you can see on Agnès' pictures, the colors of that early morning light were amazing.

Thankfully, we only had to cross a very shallow, but that was enough, as well as two previous creek crossing where I missed the rocks meant to keep our feet dry, that was enough to fix all the dust on my relatively new Brooks Racer ST5 (the ones I also used at Ohlone). Speaking of which, there were so many rocky sections that I got quite a few free foot massages today in these racing flats! So long for the matching Royal Blue color with all the dirt:
With that, I was glad that the course got us on a large bridge in the middle of nowhere to cross the American River. I couldn't see anyone behind anymore, yet free from that pressure, decided to keep pushing the pace in the next section, including the first super steep climb at mile 26 in which I admit I walked for the first time. That side of the canyon was quite exposed to the sun so I was glad when I got to Flagstaff Hill at mile 28.4 (at that point, my GPS was off the course description by at least half a mile). We reached that station after a mile on a rare fire road, yet, such a rocky one that I wouldn't want to drive my car on it! More ice at that aid station as the temperature had increased significantly, and my second GU2O refill. Yet, there was some nice refreshing breeze from time to time. I was surprised when the aid station staff sent me out with the message 'stay on that road until the next aid station.' I thought they meant the fire road but it was a paved/asphalt road instead. Wow, what a change from the trick trails we had been on earlier! Being a polyvalent runner, I certainly enjoyed that relief and took the opportunity to get my average pace down to about 8:24 on the long downhill. Now, I had not dared to ask how many miles away the next aid station was and too busy running to reach out to my aid station chart in my pocket so, after a few miles of this without seeing any ribbon, I started doubting. I crossed a pickup and the driver was kind enough to tell me 'yes, keep going up, you'll see a bridge and sign "Runners on the road"', that was comforting. Well, maybe not the uphill part though, because it was a few miles long, phew! Thinking of all the training I do on the 7-mile climb to Black Mountain on Montebello Road in Cupertino, I was well prepared and managed to run--and gut out-- all of it! Although I was relieved when I reached the Oak View Drive aid station at mile 36 (37 on my GPS), thinking it marked the end of the climb. Well, not quite, the following 2 miles before we reach the Cool trails were hard to run after that, so I did some walking, except when chased by two barking dogs, yikes!
It felt really great to be back on these smooth and flat trails which I ran on in a few occasions (Way Too Cool, Rio Del Lago, ....). And, even more so to see Agnès waiting for me at the Cool aid station, along with 3 very nice volunteers who gave me more ice to... cool (!) down a bit.

My pace was now 8:38 (8:41 after exiting the station) and, at that speed, I was trending on the overheating side, yet feeling quite good physically and mentally.
There were barely a handful of spectators, quite a change with the buzz on Way Too Cool race day!
Leaving with a few ice cubes in my hat.
Between the heat and the fact that I had still to cover 29 challenging miles, I certainly didn't run my best time for going down to the river. I was excited to get back to the famous No Hands Bridge on the Western States trail and even more saw by the subsequent climb. The aid station had limited ice but I got some and they were going to get more (I was still in the lead so, surely, there would be quite a few followers requiring ice in the peak of the heat). It wasn't even 10 am for me, I was moving and, again, my thoughts went to the rest of the pack.

Enjoying every second of the bridge crossing, I went on the traditional climb, the one we get for the Western States finish. But, bummer, after a couple of miles, and half way up, we were sent down a sandy, slippery, dusty and super narrow trail, so narrow in places that horses are washing it out with their horseshoes. After going down again to the river, the subsequent climb up to Auburn was exhausting. It was great to see Martin Sengo (photo credit) and Paulo, near the top.
I had to walk several times and my pace was 8:58 when I got to the Gate 142 aid station in Auburn, which was also the transition area between legs 2 and 3.

Agnès was there, as well as Ian Grettenberger, who offered to pace me, on Thursday. I had not planned to get paced, but Ian contacted Paulo with this offer and I replied 'why not?' Out of 120 ultras, I only got paced less than 10 times and I certainly learned to take care of myself, plus build even more respect for the 'screwed' format of ultra running, as my teammate Mark Tanaka puts it, that is when you have neither a pacer or a crew. Well, today was both crew and pacer, for a change! I didn't know Ian except for some professional information gleaned over the Internet. Now, as other have figured out in the past, I'm certainly not a talker when I run (well, in life in general), one more reason I enjoyed the solitude and silence of these long runs. Besides, with my accent and soft voice, and me running in front, it's actually impossible to hold a conversation while I race. Long story short, we didn't talk much for the next/final 23 miles, but it was great to get company, most especially to check the course marking which, after being excellent in the first half, was now getting less consistent and sparser. A good thing we were finishing on the American River and Rio Del Lago trail which I know so well after having raced on it 15 times or so.

The last climb up to Auburn had its toll and I started feeling really tired but it was good to go back down to the river. The next aid station, Oregon Bar, was only 2.4 miles after Auburn but, thankfully, we stopped to fill up my bottles as the next section was 6 miles to Rattlesnake Bar. It was now early afternoon and getting hot when not in the shade. I was so tired but still moving at a reasonable pace that I felt twice in that section. Nothing bad, but too tired to avoid getting down. In the second fall in particular, my legs cramped and it took me a minute or so to get back up, my average pace falling from 9:09 to 9:11 min/mile. Back on the trail, things were different, I was still running most of the uphills but everything was becoming really painful and my stride shorten. After 7 hours of running, and this change of allure, I started losing exact track of my Gu and S!Caps intake. I think I got the sodium intake mostly right, but I ended up low on the carb side. Thankfully, Vespa was handling the fat burning for me so I could keep moving.

The marking before Rattlesnake Bar was quite confusing and I hope nobody got lost there (Ian moved a few ribbons to make it more obvious, and we asked volunteers of the next two aid stations to notify the race director). After 6 miles, I certainly didn't want to miss that strategic aid station. Even if the next one, Horseshoe Bar, was only 2.7 miles away, I'm glad that I refilled because it seemed like taking for ever to get to it and I had to drink way more than usual with this heat. We had now reach the infamous 'meat grinder' section, which I can still get a hold on after 15 times. When I used to get exercised-induced asthma (before getting it under control thanks to Singulair now), that's the section I had my worst death mark in my first American River, with half the participants passing me. While it looks almost flat on a course profile, it's actually more than 6 miles of shorts ups and downs but, more importantly, countless large round boulders which you have to hop over. With my short legs, not to mentioned tired ones at that stage, walking was even difficult! I couldn't imagine how the last runners would have to go through this at night!

I had slowed down so much now that I had emptied both my bottles after just 3 miles, and there were 3.4 miles to go before the Granite Bay aid station. I kept looking at my GPS that didn't make the distance move faster, just the pace going down to now about 9:45. Clint had told Agnès that I had created an hour gap by mid race but I had lost an hour in that 3rd section already so I became worried about getting caught. Assuming the followers weren't going through the same nightmare as I was now in... It was such a relief to get to the Granite Bay aid station, with only 4 miles left! I was out of GU2O powder and filled my 2 bottles with fresh water, which I needed so much, being so thirsty after running the last 3 miles without drinking. We were finally on very runnable trails, including the three flat levees we were finishing on, and where I even pushed the pace, to the point that I managed to lower my average pace from 9:54 to 9:52, yeah!

8 miles earlier I had told Ian that I had nothing left so, now, I had to admit that I was lying, since I could still run that way to the finish. But, it was hard to know for sure what was left in the tank during my low.

With that, I did get this third consecutive win I was after today, albeit in a non-competitive field. Yet, I certainly pushed as hard as if there was competition, creating my very own pressure.

I was hoping to break 11 hours today but obviously that didn't work out. After this hard push at the end, I fell in Clint's arms and I need this big hugs from the RDs! ;-)

I'm sure someone can improve my time in the coming years, but maybe the 50-59 course record will hold for a while, unless Rich Hanna is tempted to race around his backyard lake in the coming years! ;-) I didn't stop my GPS right away but I think my time was about 11:23:30, just below 10:00 min/mile pace with a 68.5 mile distance (my GPS ending up with 69.50 miles).

Very nice award, I certainly didn't have any trophy like that one on my shelves! And I'm glad I didn't have to fly with that in my suit case...

 Paulo even teased me and said that was my finisher medal to wear:
Short of a conversation, Ian had a nice last slow long training run before his upcoming 50-mile race next week (Twin Peaks 50 in Corona, CA). Hope that was worth it, Ian, and thank you again for proposing to volunteer this way!

While I was recovering and waiting for the next runners to come in, Agnès drove him back up to Auburn where he had left his car. The next runner arrived an hour after me, she was part of the winning relay team. We waited more but, Agnès and I both starving for an In and Out burger, we left around 6:40 without seeing any other runner coming in. It was going to be a long day for the organizers... And, maybe, I had put extra pressure on me when I was fearing to get caught in the last 8 miles... With that, I hope everybody made it back home safely (early Sunday morning, the results are of course not posted yet).

This Sunday morning, my legs are sore so I don't feel like racing hard at the 50-mile Road Nationals in 2 weeks, but 2 weeks is a long time, so who knows... I'm not in yet anyway, but I'm already registered for the New Jersey Trail Series One Day, in 4 weeks. Yes, as I mentioned in previous posts, that's a busy Fall season!

Big thanks to the volunteers, especially those manning remote aid stations, in the sun, all by themselves! To Paulo: I wouldn't change the start and direction of the course. First, since it's an inaugural event, the following have better to have the same format for comparison sake. Second, changing direction would mean much more running in the sun/heat on the East side of the Lake in the afternoon. Third, Beals Point provides ample parking and easy access. To the point of access, you may want to add to your event page more instructions for the crew to access the aid stations they are allowed at. Thanks to Vespa, I don't eat much but I felt aid stations could have been more stocked, especially those in the last section after Auburn since it is such a tough one that late in the race. Apart from a few turns before and after Rattlesnake Bar, I found the marking very good. It was especially important for me who had never ran the East side of the Lake up to Auburn.

Again, what an amazing opportunity to circle the entire Folsom Lake, I strongly recommend this event, kudos to Single Track Running! Of course, after these 4 years of drought, there wasn't much lake to be seen, but let's hope there will be plenty in the years to come, making this event an even more enjoyable ultra experience. And, for those vetting the Western States qualifier events, this is to me definitely a good one. Despite the few miles of road section which are matched by countless of rugged and rough single track miles, I found it tougher than Miwok 100K or Quicksilver 100K, just to mention two.

Run Happy all, and considering this great run around Folsom Lake, next year. Rain or shine as we say, maybe California should switch to a Rain AND shine version of it...


Jen Allen said...

Congratulations on your win!!!! It was nice to meet you. I only ran the last leg of the relay, but felt the same way you did about the section. That 6 mile stretch from Rattlesnake to Granite Bay took forever!!!! I also ran out of water 2 miles into that stretch. It wasn't pretty.

Good luck on your next adventures!

SteRuh said...

Great race... I was that one guy waiting at Salmon Falls ...ready to start the second leg of the relay (we were the "Trail'r Trash" team). Alan Roush was our Leg 1 runner who came in shortly after you. He's the guy who knew the route in the dark. He said you were "movin"... and "impressive". Congratulations and thanks for the nice summary... and for reminding me of the dogs that chased me.
Steve Ruhnau