Thursday, August 31, 2017

UTMB 2017: so close to the start, how did I even get here?

UTMB, Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a beast I tried to avoid for so many years, and it is now around the corner. yikes! I am even deemed ready for it, not injured, all the mandatory requirement gathered, checked in as of yesterday, and even with the privilege of an elite start, so really no way to escape at this point. Even for the bad weather ahead.
But... how did I get here, this is actually a long story... shortened into the 6 following vignettes.

0. Prehistory

It started many years ago as a matter of fact. First, my wife has spent vacations in Chamonix every year since she was a baby so, when I met her in Geneva, we got accustomed to stay together here. Leaving in California since 1998, we only spend a few days every year but it always feel good to visit, this is such a unique place for people loving the mountains. I only wish I didn't lose my agility on the trails after I broke my shoulder 5 years ago. Since then, I've developed a fear of falling as soon as the trails turn technical, and there are plenty of them on the UTMB course, even more so dangerous with rain, snow and at night.

1. UTMB multi-year prelude

My first encounter with the course and the idea of running this beast was actually pretty amazing as I had the opportunity to tag along with the Lafuma ultra running team in August 2007; what a blast it was to share the trails with such experienced and talented runners! I titled my blog post UTMB training camp: trail review for 2008? But I then decided to focus on North American races since then. Due to the bad weather on day 1, we covered the whole course in 5 days instead of the 3 in the original plan.
In 2008, the excitement went up a notch as I joined Team Lafuma again but with a notable addition, Scott Jurek! However, I had a train to catch on day 2 of their program so only covered the first third that time (UTMB training with Scott and Team Lafuma).
In 2009, I ran almost the whole course in two days, but had to call it a day at Le Col de la Forclaz, fighting GI issues after eating a delicious cheese omelette at La Peule. I assure you, I won't touch any cheese during the run this year!

In 2010, I ran my own CCC, albeit missing the final climb to La Tête aux Vents and coming back to Chamonix through Argentière.

And, this Monday, 4 hours after landing in Geneva, I took the train from Chamonix to Vallorcine with my Silicon Valley mate, Mike Kreaden, to run the final section which I didn't know, up to La Tête aux Vents and through La Flégère. (Next three pictures are from Mike.)

With that, I can't say I don't know how tough the course is, I've been warned as we say... ;-)

2. The elite corral, really?

The news came by email last week, I was invited to join the elites at the start of the race, what a cool honor and perk. With 2,300 registered runners, I wasn't planning on standing for an hour or more in order to start at the front. Well, now I'd better start fast if I don't want to get hurt by 2,000 charging bulls behind!

How is the elite status determined? With the ITRA (International Trail Running Association) ranking which has almost a million runners in its database (close to 997,000 to be more exact)! It is actually this ranking which got me to run UTMB this year. I must admit, I wasn't found of the idea of running a single trail with 2,300 other runners, furthermore in bad weather conditions potentially. But, last year, I discovered that my ranking (785 points at the time) made me eligible to bypass the lottery (runners between 750 and 849 points get in and pay, those above 850 points don't even pay!).

I knew I couldn't maintain this level for too long. As a matter of fact, the ranking doesn't take the age into account so I'm the oldest of these 118 elite men, which is a fate in itself.
With that though, I really don't have other expectations than finish so I can put a check next to UTMB. Still such a daunting task ahead tomorrow and Saturday, and maybe even a part of Sunday...

At the expo, I met Jeff Browning who, at 46, thought he was the oldest in the group. Sorry, Jeff, in a few years maybe... ;-) Besides, you are still way too fast and strong!! Here we are in front of the booth of our sponsor, GU Energy (Made in Berkeley, California!).
23 nations are represented in this elite group, led by the host country, France, then USA and Spain. Many duels in perspective among these three leaders, and Hoka and Salamon. To my dismay, my sponsor, Brooks, despite having 5 different models of trail shoes, wasn't represented at the expo.

3. The inbound flight

After the good news of the elite status, my luck continued with an upgrade on the flights from SFO to IAD and IAD to GVA. On the second leg I met a few members of the Western States Board, Donn Zea and Race Director, Craig Thornley, here with his wife as we wait for our shuttle.
Great opportunity to sleep so I could have this run a few hours after landing, then be rested enough to keep working my first job in the afternoon and evenings this week.

4. The check-in and expo

Again, got super lucky on Wednesday because I was counting on staying in line for at least an hour and went for the checkin at 1 pm, while it was scheduled to open at 2, only to find out they had opened early, sweet!
For the non insiders: we have to carry a lot of mandatory equipment for the race and here is the way they check you have it, by random sampling. At check-in and potentially anywhere/anytime on the course during the race.
I spent the next two hours chatting with a few race organizers and vendors, most especially RaidLight which is now part of the Rossignol/Dynastar group and plan on expanding in North America. Even met with one of the employees, Sergio Fernandez from Spain, who told me he was an avid runner of my blog! Small and connected ultra world! ;-)
 Overall, except for the absence of my sponsor Brooks, quite a show of ultra and trail brands!

5. And, last but not least, the weather...

It's changing so fast, I'm going to summarize the randomness of mountain weather in three pictures, they speak for themselves.


Panorama from our balcony (with a trick, Mont Blanc being the lowest peak in the middle):


Oops, the trend isn't toward my favorite weather conditions which are dry and hot. What about rain, snow and freezing cold instead...?

Anyway, almost midnight on Thursday, time to go to bed and, for once before such a long ultra, with the opportunity to sleep in tomorrow morning since the start is so late, at 6 pm. Pasta party for lunch then and see you at the start or on line! Bib #164, here I come to the wet party!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Last UTMB-prep long run: Playing in the Club's backyard

That's it, I have to be ready for the UTMB beast now, just need to survive 2 weeks of tapering and, guess what, these are not the easiest ones! ;-) Besides, the pressure is on as I just found out that I'm on the Elite Men list, oops! Oh, well, second, from the bottom, quite an old underdog, lol. (At least I didn't get noticed by Meghan in her preview on iRunFar, back in January, phew! But look at the stars showing up.)
I started the week taking it really easy with 10K on Monday and Tuesday, 5K on Wednesday after a good strength training session, and even a day off on Thursday. 15K on Friday and this morning before another flight to Dallas, but I still managed to squeeze in another ultra training/long run this Saturday morning in our Quicksilver Running Club's backyard, the hill Almaden Quicksilver County Park. That makes for 1 ultra per week for the past 4 weeks, albeit barely ultra distances for Andy Jones-Wilkins who doesn't consider 50K as an ultra if I recall.

Anyway, I've been racing 10 times in this park in club races ranging from half marathon to 100K distances and people must think that, being part of the local club, I must train a lot on this ground but I actually don't live that close, so don't visit that often. I actually checked my running log, it was my 10th training run there so 20 runs total in 10 years. One every 6 months, yet enough course variety to know all the trails and be able to improvise.

This Saturday, I started with the trail our club has adopted, the convoluted New Almaden Trail. Then right on Mine Trail toward the McAbee Road entrance, left on Senador Mine Trail, right on Guadalupe, up on Mine Hill including the detour on Providencia Trail, continuing on Castirello Trail after the Bull Run, continuing on the left down to English Camp, right on English Camp Trail the crossing Mine Hill to go on the Hacienda Trail and its steep roller-coaster, returning to the Mockingbird parking lot on Virl O. Norton. That first loop circumventing the park made for 16.2 miles which I had covered in 2:20. While the temperature was very nice at the start at 8 thanks to the foggy layer, it was getting quite warm now at 10 am. I refilled my GU2 and water bottles, ate a banana, grabbed a second Snickers bar and I was back on the trail, albeit having to walk on the steep Hacienda Trail. I was hoping to cover 30 miles this morning, before our Club picnic at noon but, with all the walking and the heat, it looked unlikely. I did push to maintain a reasonable pace but, thinking of UTMB, I was also less embarrassed to walk when I felt the urge as there will be a lot of walking in 2 weeks. I left Hacienda mid way to take the Capehorn Pass Trail to get back on Mine Hill, then the April Tunnel detour, back on Mine Hill, right on Prospect #3 as we do on the new Quicksilver 50K/100K course, left on Randol Trail then left on Mine Trail again to go up Bull Run, Castillero, English Camp, and finishing with Mine Trail, Capehorn, right on Hacienda and left on Vir O. Norton for a total of 29 miles, 5,700 feet of cumulative elevation, in 4:21 (9:00 min/mile). Not a spectacular run but a good long one. And I only twisted my right ankle once, albeit rather badly, a good opportunity to check that it is still super flexible and tender, phew! (It is that same ankle that I rolled and trigger my fall while training for Montagn'Hard early July, when I broke and badly twisted two fingers, one still being a mess after 6 weeks...)

Sorry that didn't manage to pick this run, that would have been a great flyover (short of having Jeff C following me with his drone! ;-). And a less boring walkthrough of my run than the above litany of trail names... which I went through for those wanting to do this long run and who are not familiar with the park (Strava activity).

I changed and washed in the restrooms so I could appear normal at the picnic at the nearby Almaden Lake Park. Great party organized by our Club Officers (Greg, our President, Keith, our Treasurer, Stuart, Members at Large and Loren, our Ultra Racing Team Captain), with a special mention to Stuart and Ellen, Stuart being BBQ Chef again to our delight!
Among 80 or so attendees were many kids from Coach Marc (Klemencic)'s youth team and also guests from our brother club of the Stevens Creek Striders of Cupertino, the club I joined initially in Cupertino and where I learned so much about ultra running.

The raffle was quite exceptional this year, with more prizes than participants, so everybody won, woo woo!

With that, I'm super glad to report that I don't have any injury after this long and diligent training, yeah! Just that the energy level doesn't feel like to the max, but I have 2 weeks of rest to work on that part. For one thing, I will try to get more sleep, this never hurts! We say that a big challenge running a 100-miler, beyond getting in, is to arrive healthy to the start line, time to dial down, it reminds me my first Western States, in June 2007, the same intimidation and apprehension in front of something I've never done before, a way to remain motivated and on my toes!

Speaking of energy level, did you see the sadly comical or stupid statement and believe of our apprentice POTUS about exercise? Here is an excerpt from a Washington Post article in May:

President Trump reportedly eschews exercise because he believes it drains the body’s “finite”energy resources, but experts say this argument is flawed because the human body actually becomes stronger with exercise. 
Trump’s views on exercise were mentioned in a New Yorker article this month and in “Trump Revealed,”The Washington Post’s 2016 biography of the president, which noted that Trump mostly gave up athletics after college because he “believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted.”

Exercise does deplete stores of glucose, glycogen and fats from the body’s tissues, but these fuels are restored when a person eats, said Michael Jonesco, a sports medicine and orthopedics specialist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
Rather than thinking of energy stores as a battery, “a better analogy would be like the fire that you continue to fuel with more coal or wood,”Jonesco said. “You need to continue to add fuel, or your flame will die. This is true whether you exercise or not. . . . Simply by existing, we are burning energy.” 
What’s more, although exercise puts a temporary stress on the body, the body adapts to that stress so that the heart and muscles become stronger and more efficient. “If we can create a battery that, every time it’s used, actually becomes more powerful and efficient, then sure, our body is like that battery,”Jonesco said.

With 75,000 kilometers in my running log, I hope I was born with a 1MW battery (10^9 watts, or ~ 239 thousands kcal!) so I can keep going for 95 years without eating... Seriously, this is just an insignificant piece compared to the disastrous rollbacks of environment preservation regulations, but this adds to the insanity our country is going through on the political and institutional sides. It is baffling that we managed to lose the collective intelligence and reason to run a real democracy nowadays and that interests or craziness of a few overrides the sustainable future of the majority. When are we going to wake up and act as it is enough, or rather, unbearable...?!

After this political rant, time to get back to work with yet another business trip, so I can free up my desk before the big dance around the majestic and intimidating Mont Blanc in less than two weeks now!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Black Mountain and Bella Vista/Indian Creek repeats: that goal checked!

Many miles this week! First, those I'm not so proud of, 200 miles of commute to the office, South of San Jose. At least, I'm glad I changed car because I averaged 42.2 miles per gallon with my new Hyundai Elantra. That's 6.69 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers, not much to brag about in Europe, but on the right path in the US. There is the car of course, but also the fact that it's mostly highway and against the traffic, seeing the sea of cars coming to work at Apple in Cupertino on 85. And the feedback loop of the live data on the dashboard (like we now have when running with a GPS watch).

As some bumper stickers say, "I'd rather be... running" all these miles. At least I did run a few miles this week, 110.9 miles to be exact. It has been a long time since I logged so many training miles in a week, although I'm still far from my 2007 and 2008 max weeks when I was ramping up my training and racing volume.
As a matter of fact, I'm possibly in the red zone, at least from a big data/analytics standpoint: out of many gauges on my dashboard, there is one metric which I've gotten out of bound this year. While I actually pledged for not averaging more than 100 kilometers a week this year, I'm at 120 km as of this Sunday evening, oops! That's 624 kilometers too many, although I like to finish the year with a few weeks completely off, like 3 or 4, so 300-400 kilometers in the bank by early December would be ok. I also need to take a couple of weeks off to taper before UTMB, I've certainly room for this in my running log. As you can see below, it's not even mid August and I already ran as many miles as in all 2007!
This Sunday, I finally managed to run 3 consecutive Bella Vista/Indian Creek loops after running to the top of Black Mountain. Well, I say run, but the steep climb on Indian Creek was mostly power walking actually. Which is fine given all the walking I'm going to have to do at UTMB. I just wished I had my poles with me but I left them in Chamonix after my successful trial at the Montagn'Hard last month.

After my failed attempt the week before Skyline 50K, this time I left home at 7:30 instead of 10 am to avoid being on the loops at the peak of the heat.

Got to the top of Black Mountain just in time to see a group of hikers watching a huge rattle snake crossing the area.

Here is my route and profile on Strava:
And a cool 3D fly-over of the three-peat (click on link or picture to activate it):
Lot of power walking on the steep uphills and a few stops where water was available at the Black Mountain campground and on the way down on Montebello Road. Here is my favorite 7-feet tall water wall (or shower), mid way on Montebello Road. It had dried up last year, it is a blessing to have this cooling station this year! Hope this video is refreshing! ;-)
Speaking of Montebello Road, repair construction has started and the road is closed during weekdays.

I noticed they even got a team come from Colorado apparently, Geo Stabilization Inc., serious stuff.

Overall, some good physical and mental UTMB training, and a much needed escape from the terrible news of Charlottesville, VA, this weekend. Wishing so hard for our country to go back to the poll and backtrack 9 months... What a pity, please tell me we can go back to progress for our society and our planet, please...!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Skyline 50K 2017: another gut story!

64th 50K race, 11th Skyline 50K participation, 146 ultra races under my belt, you'd think this is routine. Well, what I love about ultra running, os simply running as we've seen with the World Championships in London these past 2 weeks, is that ever race, every run is different.
So many stars have to align for the perfect performance, it's humbling: temperature, humidity, terrain, competition or emulation, race weight, stress level, pre-race sleep, tapering and training. And the guts... feelings.

I'll try to stay within the PF-13 realm in this race report but will likely step outside the PG grounds once in a while. Like they say on NPR from time to time, in case you have children listening, this program may contain some disturbing or explicit language, you may want to joins us back in 10 minutes... ;-)

Let's get at it right away as a matter of fact. I had plenty of time to get prepared for the start as I forced Pierre-Yves out of his bed with a super early car pool so I could get a great parking spot and watch the early start at 6 am.

So early that, like last year, I was on time to help Brian setup the sturdy finish line arch.

Yet, early wasn't enough, I was still in the bathroom as Adam was gathering the runners for the official 7 am start, oops! And it wasn't pretty but I thought I had emptied my bowels enough that it will hold for 4 hours... I rushed to the start line and had a quick chat with the other M50-59 age group contender this Sunday, Cliff Lentz.

I first met Cliff exactly 10 years ago actually, at the 2007 US 50K Trail Nationals organized by the Tamalpa Running Club in the Headlands (yes, I've been blogging for 10 years, and it's cool to be able to get back to these documented memories). Cliff dominated our Masters division back then, before switching to other priorities with family, work and even politics. I placed 2nd to him in the Masters at these Championships in 2008 but won our friendly duels in 2013 and 2014. He seemed well prepared this year and ready for a good fight!

Right off the bat, I was stunned by the level of the competition this year. Half a mile in, I was still running behind 20 or more runners, a sea of bright fluorescent yellow tops, mostly from the Excelsior running team, with many speedy youngsters I had never seen before. This is not atypical of this race with many rookies wanting to experience both trail running and ultra running after great performances on the road. With such fast starts as we go along Chabot Lake on a paved bike path, the results vary. Yet, at this point, I told Cliff that I'd be happy to make the top 10 this year!

I did pass a few runners in the first climb but I never felt at ease trying to keep up with Karl Schnaitter and Cliff in the up hills. Besides, I was kind of discouraged that I had lost track of the leaders so quickly. I pointed runners 2 minutes ahead at mile 3 (Marciel aid station), and they were not even the leaders! World-class athlete, Yiou Wang, whom I did pass at this race for her 50K trail debut, had taken off so fast that I lost hope to avoid being chicked today! ;-) After a win at the 50K Trail Nationals in February, then at the very competitive Lake Sonoma 50-mile in April, she had a tough Western States (DNF) and announced son Facebook he was leaving the competition for at least a year while roaming the globe with her boy friend. Well, she changed her mind at the last minute and the two of them decided to run this last race before boarding for their double around-the-world trip.

We traded places with Cliff as he was stronger in the uphills and me faster in the downhills. However, and he could probably not tell, I was in much distress to hold my intestine together as we reached the Big Bear aid station in the lead. I quickly looked if there was a porta-potty there but couldn't see any so decided to keep going. The volunteer at the intersection after the road crossing indicated that I was in the top 10 now, that was encouraging.

As I was focused on avoiding what would have been an embarrassing leak, Cliff passed me and said "Until the next down hill..." Knowing the difficulty I was experiencing, I almost replied "unless..." and, sure enough, in the next down hill which was around the corner, I spent so much effort controlling my diarrhea that I could barely keep up with Cliff. I remembered restrooms on that section of the course, somewhere in the redwoods, but it was a long and painful mile to get to them. I couldn't even wait for the more comfortable ones, I rushed to the more rustic ones, just in time...

With this stop, I had lost sight of Cliff and decided to ease up a little as that pit stop didn't seem to have fully gotten rid of my GI issue. Damned, this isn't the first time it happens this year... I did walk a bit on the climb to Skyline Gate and reached the aid station without much motivation and conviction. I would have eaten some banana but there wasn't any. I drank a couple of super tiny cups of Coke (was it soda testing??), and went on the new section of the course getting us on the Tres Sendas trail first this year, before getting back on French Trail later on. On that steep down hill, I had to do an emergency stop again and there wasn't much opportunity to hid. Fortunately, I was alone, no hiker or runner to be seen, phew! I grabbed a dusty dry leave to wipe off and my shorts were quickly up as I saw Jay Hsu flying down the trail. Just in time to get moving and I hold through the steep climbs on French Trail, before Jay passed me at mile 16.

Jay is a young local runner, from Taiwan, with a recent 2:44 performance on the marathon, showing amazing progress. His last Skyline 50K time was 5:20 two years ago, he was on a roll this year! I managed to keep sight of him and did reach the Big Bear aid station a few seconds after him. Another M20-29 runner, Andrew Manaster, was there and they left together as I stayed behind to get some Vaseline in a place I can't name but which was burning after my second pit stop in the woods, you can figure out... That was such a relief that I was able to pick up the pace and I caught-up and passed Andrew and Jay before the end of the climb up to Macdonald Trail, back on the ridge/skyline.

Having refilled my GU2O bottle at Big Bear, and running exclusively on Vespa and 4 GU gels this time, I didn't stop at the Bort Meadow aid station and that allowed me to catchup with David Weisgerber who passed me at the very end last year to take 2nd overall.

A noticeable episode happened on that flat section of Brandon Trail, on our way to Stone Bridge. I was a few hundred yards behind David and Jay was close behind so there wasn't much time to stop to grab and take an S!Cap. I often hurt my oesophagus when I swallow an S!Cap too quickly while running but this time, it was a different sort of pain. All of a sudden, I realized that I felt the S!Cap way on the left, closer to my heart. Oh crap, it had gone in my lungs instead. As a reflex, I blew so much air out that I might have won a competition of S!Cap throwing, the small thing flew a few yards away, phew! This time, I stopped to calmly swallow another S!Cap, while Jay passed me. You see, there is always something new with an ultra race, even after hundred of them!

At this point, the diarrhea had passed, I was feeling so much better thanks to taking Vespa and a handful of GUs, I was ready for the final charge up Brandon Trail. Brian had announced a much tougher finish with this new climb but, sincerely, after coming back from running insane slopes in the Alps, this looked really easy in comparison. I pushed as much as I could in the last 5 miles but, apart for Jay and David, I couldn't close on any other runner. I had no idea who was still ahead, apart for Cliff and Yiou and, ironically, there had finished less than 3 minutes ahead of me, in that order, close call!

I had no idea I was so close, although I don't think I would have shaved 3 minutes off in these last 6 miles. But that makes me think of the future time where we'll all have to run with satellite trackers and could see who's is where (like trackers are mandatory for Moab 200 for instance).

3:48 in 2007, then 4:17 (quad injury), 3:54, 3:43, 3:46, 4:07, 3:57, 3:52, 3:59, 4:07 last year and... 4:10:16 this year, my second worst. I had missed most of my goals (podium, age group win, breaking 4 hours) so, when Agnès welcomed me with a "Hey, you just got chicked!" I was not so happy and replied I would happily take that with the bad diarrhea I had gone through. Except Jay who improved his time by one hour (!), seems like everybody else got slower on this new course.

Yiou's boyfriend, Sean Pont had won in 3:46. Impressive of course, but  slower than typical winning times here. He was even the only one to break 4 hours this year.
Marc Tamanini, from Chamonix Mont Blanc in France, took 3rd and found the course way easier than the grueling Montagn'Hard we both ran last month (me on the 107K, him on the 44K)!

Greg, our third son, was returning from an internship in South Africa on Sunday so, for once, we had a few hours to enjoy at the finish line before getting to SJC by 2 pm. Great opportunity to catchup with many, and see more finishes for instance, Pierre-Yves's daughter's, Clemence, who took 3rd in the overall women division for her first 50K, whew!

Pierre-Yves is training for a much longer distance and slower pace for his second 200-miler, at Moab 200, which is actually 238-mile long this year! (Who really cares about throwing another 50K after 200 miles, right?).

The legendary Errol Jones, aka the Rockett, didn't make his debut but a most anticipated return here, after doing the same at Ohlone 50K in May. Rockett, this is YOUR year and, I know, this is YOUR story, and you are sticking to it, per your saying. Delighted to have met you again and served you a couple of glasses of lemonade with the lemons life gave us last Sunday! (Super good idea from the organizers to include lemonade in the drinks at the finish line, I know I'm not speaking for the majority, but I much prefer it to beer, oops!)

Special thanks to Adam and Brian for perpetuating this long-running Bay Area 50K tradition. Some people claim that this has been the longest strike in the 50K trail races in North America, with 36 or 37 editions, but this hasn't been proven. But definitely true for North California at least. Great support at the aid stations, with many familiar faces and experienced ultra runners which is a great plus when it comes to assistance. Always very appreciative to the many park volunteers for providing abundant course monitoring and radio transmission. And, of course, thank you to the ladies cooking the barbecue for us and our families at the finish!

Thank you also to the sponsors, including this cool goat milk-made yogurt company from Sonoma County, Bellwether Farms:

With that, looking forward to #12, with much more racing in the meantime, starting with the intimidating UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) on September 1. Another beast to tame... with patience, persistence and humility. And most of the ultra stars aligned hopefully!

PS: for those who didn't have the opportunity to race, here is an overview or flyover to give you an idea of our run along the skyline ridge, courtesy of, enjoy! (Click the above link or the image below.)