Monday, October 9, 2017

Tussey mOUTaiNBACK 50-mile (forest) Road Nationals: pushing Vespa and levitation to the edge

I'm really happy I could squeezed these 3rd Nationals in my schedule this year: it was really tight, but I was able to stop by Pennsylvania on my way to a conference in Berlin where I'll be speaking twice this week. I even think that was my first visit and stay in this state, certainly at State College, the home of Penn State University. They even have a reasonably sized airport with many flights to the major hubs (ORD and IAD in my case, for United).
I landed at 5:10 pm, got a rental car, checked in at the hotel at 5:40, drove to the race headquarters on the other side of town and got my bib by 6 pm, that was quick. And look who was the USATF official volunteering again this time, no less than Roy Pirrung, who was inducted in the ultra hall-of-fame last year after running 1,000 races and winning more than 80 National ultra running titles! What an honor and pleasure to see him again.
At 6:30, we had a nice pre-race dinner, with an open buffet which allowed me to carbo-load much better than going to a restaurant where 3 or 4 portions barely make it for me.

While David was the first to speak, let me mention three other interventions before coming back to the coach's tips.

This year's race was benefiting the Jana Marie Foundation (JMF), an organization setup by her sister in memory of Jana who suffered from mental illness between the age of 12 and 30. Jana's sister explained the struggle her family and so many other families go through with this illness and how JMF provides support to young women in particular through art and self-expression activities. And, with the low attendance of the event due to a calendar conflict with a half-marathon race close by, they can definitely get more support and funds from everybody! Again, please visit

We then heard from George Etzweiler which the race brochure describes as "a youthful 97 years old and team captain of "The Old Men of the Mountains", an over-65 relay team which has been competing for the past 12 years." With a lot of humor, a character trait which definitely helps you getting through so many years, George shared his love for this race and uphill racing in particular. You would think that, at this age, George would pick the easiest leg but, on the contrary, he successfully ran the infamous leg #6, the toughest climb which I mentioned above, called the Stairway to the Stars. Well, George and his joyful teammates won their category once again and they definitely are inspiring shiny stars at this event!
Race Director, Mike Casper, also played a video providing a recap of the 2016 edition to get us in the mood, recognize the race sponsors, and highlight the long list of the 2016 volunteers, the life blood of such ultra races.

So now back to David. Through 3 success stories taken out of his very successful coaching program, David gave us 3 key insights (David is so passionate and expert in the field, he speaks so fast that I missed a few things and, besides, I wasn't even taking notes so these are not quotes or a transcript, I just hope I got the essence of his points right).

Know your whys. Through introspection and discussion, figure out what really drives you to run, what motivates you. Hopefully, you'll find something broader and more meaningful than just performance and results, or you'll likely get disappointed in the long run.

Be happy and smile. That's the area I'm struggling so much when I push hard and give it all, but I'm certainly convinced of the power of positivism, and David shines so much in this domain!

Believe in yourself. This is a corollary of the previous point, be positive about what you can achieve, get negative ideas out of the way when it's getting tough and you want to quit.

As, like a good orator, David was concluding his speech by summarizing again what he had just told us, he threw a last minute bonus tip given the wet conditions we were meant to have during the race this Sunday: lubricate! He was talking about the way to avoid painful chaffing getting in the way of getting happy and smiling...

David is such an accomplished runner but also coach, with this rare ability to master both the physiological and psychological aspects, be this essential confident to his athletes to get them through the hard times and his skills translate in amazing performances and turn-arounds for the folks he coaches. I know I could benefit as well, although I've done pretty well by self-coaching myself. Or rather self-pushing... But I do read David's precious insights he publishes in Trail Running Magazine every week (e.g. Tips to reduce perceived exhaustion).

As a matter of fact, while trying to get to sleep, I rehashed these three points and decided to leverage them during the race. And it proved really useful, read one! ;-)

Well, it surely helped to remain positive as the rain was pouring when I woke up at 3:30 am and until a few minutes before the start. I didn't really want to get wet so I even decided to start with a light rain jacket which proved useless after a mile. Actually, I got wet because we start with a 3-mile hill and I quickly got sweaty underneath the jacket. Thankfully, Scott Dunlap had his Mom, Diane, crewing for him and I was able to drop the jacket to her at mile 11.

Let's talk about the crews. And the course. Since this was a road championship, we did run on a road, but a forest one, 80% gravel, and 20% of asphalt (several sections). And because it's a road, cars can get on it, including crews. Also, the event includes two races on the 50-mile course: a classic solo ultra, and a team relay with any combination of runners to cover the 12 legs (from 2 to 12 different runners). Kind of the same format as Doors Fall 50 which, interestingly, was also the 50-mile road Nationals a few years ago, albeit all on asphalt. Thankfully, the relay is staged, with the first wave starting 1 hour after our 50-mile race so, if you are fast, you don't get too bothered with the car traffic. Here are the cars getting on the course, 15 minutes ahead of us:

Back to the race: we started at 7 am, 15 minutes before sunrise, under a light rain and temperature was already 70F. Between the drops falling either from the sky or the trees and the humidity, it was really hard to figure out what was coming from the sweat but, as David had judiciously warned us, we got wet. Definitely wet. And with that, it was harder to figure out how much to drink so I stuck to my usual plan of drinking 1 20-oz bottle of GU2O (or GU Energy Brew I should say now), and one of water, every 15 miles or so.

The leaders disappeared pretty quickly, running at a blistering pace. After a few hundred yards, I settled maybe in 15th, with Scott behind me who was chatting with another runner who happened to be M50-54 like me, who had run this course last year and looked ready to push the pace today. That forced me to push the pace in the first climb, just forming a 300-yard gap by the first relay exchange at mile 3. On the next downhill though, I really flew by a few runners and passed about 9 runners as I was going close to 6 min/mile. I knew that was bold, so early in the race, but, as usual, it felt good to get moving fast, I will never get wise early in a race! ;-)

A little anecdote: just as I was getting to the second relay exchange, mile 7.2, a huge tree was blocking the road. I found that unusual but just hopped over the trunk like we wold do in cross country and didn't even think about mentioning that to the aid station volunteers. But, a few hundred yards later, I remembered that I noticed some branches still moving in the nearby trees, still up, which indicated that I probably just missed the tree falling on me, phew! At the finish, the race director told me they had to send someone with a chainsaw to clear the passage before all the relay cars could go through. As for the ultra crews, there were not allowed to stop at the first and second aid stations, but had to go straight to the third one. Thankfully, no car got hit either, it gives me a chill to think about what could have happened.

After the blazing descent before the second aid station, we had 3.8 flat miles and I settled on a 7 min/mile pace. As I was exiting the station, I crossed a group of about 8 runners, now including Scott but not Mike. With so many runners just 400 or so yards behind, it didn't see a good time to slow down so I kept pushing on the next 3-mile climb. For the next 20 miles, the same ritual would occur, with the car of the crew of the runners passing me a couple of miles after the previous aid station we had just left, so that was giving me an indication of the gap, although it was hard to do much math with the convoluted course profile.

With that came the famous leg #6 called the Stairway to the Stars, getting to the highest point of the course after a 3-mile climb, and almost to the half way point. Although my pace slowed down, I was able to remain under 10 min/mile, not without some effort and wondering how I would fare for the remaining 25 miles... But like David said, you have to believe in you and it felt good that the cars were getting longer to catch-up with me now.

I got to the top and refilled by water bottle, grabbed a piece of banana and was excited to continue on the following downhill. As I was exiting the station, I saw a runner with an Open bib, then David and his parents next to him, on the side of the road: wow, talking about a deception for them. I learned later that David had cramp issues and, his A race being the North Face 50 in San Francisco in December, preferred to drop. Indeed, you have to know your whys. Speaking of which, I also learned at the finish that his wife Megan had decided not to race, 4 days ago, for the same reason/focus.

That was mile 25 and it's only later that I learned that all this got me 'in the money' that is in the top 5, actually in 4th place (and I assumed top Master as well). But there was still such a long way to go, and so many opportunities to burst in the last 20 miles... My stride was definitely uncomfortable by mile 30 but I could keep moving, even in the uphills. And the following cars were barely catching me between aid stations now, meaning the gap was increasing. Although not everyone had a crew, there could still be others catching up.

I saw Daniele for the last time at mile 32. At that aid station, I had to refill my GU2O bottle for the second time, as well as my water bottle, and take a Vespa concentrate as I was already late (I was planning on taking it after 3.5 hours of running, and we were 4 hours in). A couple of volunteers helped me, then I grabbed a piece of banana, a cup of Coke, and off I was. 500 yards later I realized that I forgotten my Vespa pouch on the table, damned! I didn't think it was wise or worth to return and decided to... smile and be positive about it, that there was only 18 miles to go and I would just double up on carbs to survive. In case you don't know about Vespa, this is an amazing drink which accelerates the metabolism to get energy from fat instead of carb (being native of France, I call it my magic potion, like Asterix! ;-). That allows me to race while ingesting very few calories, that really helped me tremendously since I've used it, now for over 6 years.

But, geez, how hard it is to stay positive when you get a setback. I will never know if it was more physiologic or psychologic but the last mile before that station was my last 6:36 min/mile of the day, and from that point, I cruised around 7:30-8 min/mile in the downhills and 9-10 min/mile in the uphills. I was checking behind from time to time and did see anyone coming so it looked like it was enough to secure a podium today. I just got passed by a relay runner in the ultimate long climb, at mile 44. I really appreciated the last 3-mile section of super smooth pavement, finally a real road! And, with all that, I crossed the finish line with a time of 6:39:10. Looking at the profile upon registering I had predicted a 6:30 (they ask in the form), which I thought was a bit on the conservative side but this is indeed a serious and challenging course for a road 50-mile. Which makes Mike Wardian's Masters record of 5:46 so impressive. But then, it's Mike... And since he wasn't in town this time but, according to Roy, maybe in a crossing of the Gobi desert, and short of much competition not to forget a few elite drops, that slow time was good enough for 4th place overall and first Masters (and, yes, first M50-54 of course)!

Here is a great live overview of the entire course, thanks to (click on this link or the image below):
The race was won by Anthony Kunkel in 5:43. To his typical fashion, and thanks to his hard Colorado training and conditioning, Anthony set the initial blazing pace which led a couple of leaders to drop after the Stairway to the Stars. Such poker moves don't always work, but kudos to Anthony for getting the title this time!
On the women side, Elizabeth (Liz) Howard got both the overall and Masters win!

And, here with Roy, another ultra legend, Connie Gardner (with her own Wikipedia page!) had a similar podium outcome than I had: 4th overall and 1st W50-54.

All the results available on Falcon Timing's website.
The second M50-54, Mike Ryan almost broke 7 hours, shaving 30 minutes off his time at last year's race, that's something!

Before the award ceremony, Alexa, here with her newly established practice partner, Sean, gave my legs a great and most needed massage, much appreciated! If you are local, you should pay them a visit: Revive Modern Massage.

See at the bottom of the post a few pictures of the award ceremony, with challenging lights as we were under the pavilion by the lake, with not much light given the overcast conditions.

And here are few pictures to show you how this ski resort looks like. Unfortunately, the light doesn't make justice at all to the fall colors of the trees.

That was my 148th ultra race since 2006, 33rd 50-miler, 13th participation to a USATF National event and 10th age group National title. Still so far from Roy's amazing track record! More hardware to stock on the shelves, and travel with to Germany and France the next 10 days...
Between some laundry, blogging, emails, packing on Sunday evening and a 4 am wake-up call to be at the airport by 5 am, this has been a very short night but it's time to get back to (the other) work and it was cool to see Scott and Roy before we got on our respective flights.
Overall, I'm thrilled with the podium outcomes albeit slightly ashamed with the slow second half, and also wondering how long these USATF Nationals will last with such a minimal participation. Maybe we should rotate ultra distances and formats over the years and have 1 or 2 Nationals a year (e.g. 50-mile road one year and 50-mile trail the other, or 100K-road every other year). And although I'm thankful to Diane for grabbing my rain jacket at mile 11 and getting me my cap and sun glasses at mile 32, I'm proud for having run strong and crew-less, or screwed as my teammate Mark Tanaka says. For me, no crew means carrying more on me but also less opportunities to whine when it's getting hard and painful. Less temptations to get negative, as David would likely point out.

Back to the title, by missing my mid-race take, I certainly pushed Vespa to the edge, only relying on the two pouches I took 45 minutes before the start and at the start. But I still managed to cover the full distance on quite a few calories, considering: 6 GU Energy gels, 3 pieces of banana, 5 cups of Coke, 3 bottles of GU Energy Brew, 8 S!Caps. Far fewer calories than the 6,000 or so calories expensed.

The other part of the title talks about levitation and you must wonder what this is about. No, it's not another reference to David's mantra but to Brooks latest shoes, the Brooks Levitate, which finally got released to the public this week (I got a preview pair mid August and was able to race a 10K 2 weeks ago in them). You don't need that much responsiveness on a forest road, but this is really an amazing shoe, give it a look and a try!

Before concluding, a big shout out to the friendly volunteers at the 12 aid stations along the course. Taking Vespa and carrying my gels, I skipped most of them and didn't stay for long at the few I stopped by to refill my bottles, but so grateful to have you spending your day out there for us!

I was also very impressed with all the information provided by the website and the outstanding course description in the printed brochure. And I want to highlight how useful the course profile has been for me during the whole race: I had one printed out and taped on my Ultimate Direction bottle and it was like reading a musical score (for one instrument! ;-), I was amazed at how precise and realistic the profile ended up to be, and it helped me to get mentally prepared for the next hill. Thank you Tom Hilands!

And it closely matches what my Garmin 230 recorded, per my Strava log entry:
The course marking was good, and it was great to have the mile markers to validate our GPS data, although a few signs didn't quite make it through the rain and misty conditions. I only had a few hesitations with regard to the course but still can't comprehend how the lead woman took a wrong turn between mile 30 and 35, that hurts!

I must say that I remain intrigued with the road label of this championship. Certainly, with no single trail at all, it isn't a trail race either but, at 80% gravel, this isn't what you imagine for a road race. Just intrigued by the Mountain Ultra Trail criteria which were applied in that case.

Most of all, I'm really glad the fallen tree at mile 7 didn't crush a car, we have enough casualties in the news these days. I'd really would like to see a picture of it, so I can show that I'm not exaggerating about the size of the trunk and how bad it could have been.

Unless I sign-up for something else in the meantime, my next race is supposed to be a fast flat 10K at the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot in 7 weeks. Looks so short and far away, that makes me thinking... ;-)

Be safe all, and #RunHappy!

--- Award ceremony

Top5 women
Cramping badly from mile 30 Scott had a very tough finish but still managed to win his M45-49 age group!
 The overall winner and 2017 USATF 50-Mile Road champion, Anthony Kunkel:

And a double round for me (4th place overall and 1st M50-54), plus one more opportunity to get a friendly hug from Roy, priceless! ;-) (Photo credit Emily Collins.)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great run as usual, great report too. There actually was a tree down across the road, in the first 1/4 mile. It was removed by chainsaws just prior to the start. After Transition Zone 6, there was another down and the crew of the lead runner came back and said cars could not get through. I told the aid station captain to not release any cars until I assessed the situation. Luckily, I had 2 photographers riding with me and the 3 of us managed to shimmy it off the road. I used my walkie talkie to call and have the crew members proceed in their vehicles. We got there before the lead runner, Anthony Kunkel, so he did not have any hurdles, just hills. The definition of a road course is one that is completely driveable and although the surface is not asphalt, it is still a road. Most runners like the fact they do not hammer their legs on asphalt on all of those long descents. Enjoy your European "vacation". Congratulations on your national title. I guess I'll have to start running these instead of being the liaison for USATF or you might catch me! See you in a few miles...roy