Wednesday, November 29, 2017

PAUSATF MUT Grand Prix 2018 Schedule unveiled: to the next 25 years!

Disclaimer: this post is an open letter aimed at the current and potential participants of our Pacific Association MUT Grand Prix. But everyone is welcome to read to understand what this competition is about, although I then recommend reading my 2016 post about the Anatomy of an Ultra Grand Prix, before. Well, if you are dead serious about ultra running...! ;-)

1. Background

Yes, this local ultra tradition has been on for 25 years, it all started in 1992, with the awards being added in 1996 and the first banquet in 1997. Although our sport was much smaller and confidential back then, I'm told the passion was amazing and we owe a lot to the catalyst role which BAUR (Bay Area Ultra Runners) has played through this quarter of century. There is a book to be written about BAUR, and I'll likely do at least a post on it based on the information I already collected, for now one name is enough to capture the imagination, our local legend Dick Collins!
A huge thank you to BAUR for all they did and still do for our local ultra running community!

Fast forward 25 years then and it is time to unveil the 2018 schedule. Rather than just posting it, I wanted to share some of the background and process which led to it and a few key decisions.

2. People

Before we even talk about process, let's start with the people topic. First and foremost, the Grand Prix only exists thanks to YOU, because we have participants into it so, ultra runners are the number 1 force behind it. To participate you need to be a member of the Pacific Association of USATF (USA Track & Field), in good standing. You don't even have to join a club or a team, but a large part of the fun comes from the team competition so it is highly recommended. The yearly membership is $30, or $25 if you commit for 4 years, and comes with other benefits such as sport insurance and several discounts on apparel, rental cars, hotels and airlines. And the same membership gives you access to the other Grand Prix of cross-country (XC) and road (short and long), you set the limit! Other benefits include prize money and race entry discounts for top age group winners! Please consider joining then, if not already, or renew (online form).

Beyond the runners, we do have a MUT (Mountain Ultra Trail) subcommittee within the LDR (Long Distance Running) committee of our local association. This subcommittee has been chaired by Hollis Lenderking for these 25 years with Bill Dodson leading for the past 3 years. They have been assisted by Gary Wang who did the scoring for several decades before Bill took over. Now 82, it seemed fair to let Bill focus on not only his family life but his running: in the past years he broke every ultra running record, both on the road and the track, and won all the Grand Prix (XC, Road, Ultra) for his age group, phew!

The transition occurred in September and I'm glad other volunteers stepped up to form our new subcommittee in the following voting and active capacities:

  1. Scoring: Nakia Baird
  2. GP Administrator: Denise Williams
  3. Communication: Verity Breen
  4. Emeritus Chair: Hollis Lenderking
  5. Chair: Jean Pommier
Our first goal has been to ensure continuity of course and go through an extensive knowledge transfer. Although it was my 12th participation in the MUT Grand Prix this year, there were so many things I had no idea were happening behind the scene, fascinating! After some initial delay, Nakia has been able to publish the results of the last 3 races, and will now work on the last race of the season, Quad Dipsea. In the meantime, with the big race registrations coming up in December, we had to also work on finalizing the 2018 schedule so you could make the appropriate decisions.

3. Process

Before jumping to the outcome, here are a few elements which led to the selection.

First, we took the opportunity of the transition to conduct an extensive survey which 74 of you completed, almost half the 2017 Grand Prix participants! A big thank to those of you who took the time to go through the 17 questions, that provided a lot of insights on what you like in the GP as well as new expectations. To keep this post short (ahem, shorter...), I'll just summarize the findings with the following paragraphs:
Executive summary
More of the same (classics, multi distance events, races of same types, year-through), but with a few new races, less/no hard-to-get-in ones. Strong emphasis on team competition. Strong interest for additional sub-ultra-trail format. Some exclusive/special treatment for GP participants would be nice.
By the numbers
  1. GP 2018 intent: 95% yes to maybe
  2. If on the edge, why: 61% depends on new races, 20% depends on old races
  3. 19 events, 14 scoring possibilities: 47% about right, 38% a lot, 3% too many, 12% not enough (!)
  4. GP 2018 direction: 65% new races, 9% the same/classic, 26% either way
  5. Races of the same format (e.g. 7 x trail 50K): 77% ok, 23% no or less
  6. Inclusion of hard-to-get-in race: 24% ok, 45% against, 31% either way
  7. Spread over long period (current 10 months or even a year) : 90% favorable
  8. Top motivation: points for the team; camaraderie; motivation; goal setting
  9. Multi-distance events: 62% like them but 28% agree that it makes team scoring harder and 18% that it dilutes the competition
  10. Scoring availability expectation: from 1 to 2 weeks
  11. Sub-ultra GP interest: 83% yes/maybe, 17% no
A second element in the process was the commitment which Bill had already made to or gotten from the Race Directors that the 2018 schedule will pretty much be the same as the previous years. For this reason, don't expect too many changes although we have attempted to bring in as much novelty as the no-change constraint could permit. While we were are it, we started looking at more drastic innovations for 2019 and 2020, a key one being a rotation of key races over odd and even years since we are so rich and blessed with quantity of extreme quality races in our Pacific Association region.

Another rationale for more change is to better live by the MUT meaning: when I first joined this Grand Prix, I had the impression that all ultras where on trails and mountainous but that's not what MUT means. MUT is actually a group of three very different sports:
  1. First, and the easiest one to define, is U for Ultra running, which includes any race longer than a marathon, either on road (which used to be the main terrain for ultras in Europe for many decades), trail or even track (another traditional ground for ultra running purists). And the profile can be flat or hilly.
  2. M is for Mountain and has a more fuzzy definition (and I'm still learning myself as the international bodies still argue over the criteria): no distance limit but either a super steep uphill, or extreme foot elevation gain and loss if not straight up hill.
  3. T is for Trail and, like Mountain, doesn't have strict criteria either except that the course has to be a trail, and the distance is typically shorter than a marathon, yet longer than the typical cross country distances. Let's say in the 15-35K range.
As you can see our MUT Grand Prix has been U for 25 years and, given the popularity of trail running, we are going to look at creating a separate Trail Grand Prix, partnering with the dozens of events organized in our area as well. As for M, this is more challenging as you need Alpine terrain and that pretty much limits it to Squaw Valley within our perimeter (think Broken Arrow). What is clear is that, if or when we bring a Trail Grand Prix, we cannot continue having 18 or 20 events in our Ultra Grand Prix, hence the need for additional change for the years to come.

Beyond these considerations, here are additional criteria we have been considering in our selection, and will take into account for the following seasons:
  1. Classic status (tenure in the Grand Prix);
  2. Reputation and experience (versus brand new event);
  3. Balance between the Bay Area and Sacramento/Tahoe areas (to share the travel burden);
  4. Ease of entry (versus super competitive lotteries or events filling up in minutes);
  5. Registration fee;
  6. Support of the local ultra running community;
  7. Balance between race organizations (clubs or commercial race organizations);
  8. Qualification credentials for other notable races (e.g. Western States, Hard Rock, UTMB), including the offering of ITRA points which are becoming increasingly important to race abroad;
  9. Prize money.
Yes, that's a way over-constrained optimization problem and the sophisticated spreadsheet I created doesn't do justice of the subjective decisions we had to make. Also, we looked at a total of 37 events in the process.

4. Finally, the Schedule!

With that, drum roll please, here is what we came up with:
  1. Jed Smith 50K (the classic season opener to get you legs moving on a safe flat course);
  2. Fourmidable 50K (a bid for the 50K Trail Nationals, like last year);
  3. Way Too Cool 50K (the largest 50K trail race in North America and the largest Pacific Association contingent of runners in a single trace race);
  4. American River 50M (another classic mixing road and trail and finishing in the mythical Auburn);
  5. Ruth Anderson 50M and 100K (but not the 50K as it was too many events for teams to score, yet these are our only Road 50M and 100K);
  6. Quicksilver 50K and 100K (two classic races to kick off heat training for the summer ultras);
  7. SilverState 50M (but not the 50K since we already have so many 50K trail races, including a few in the North East);
  8. Ohlone 50K (30+ years and another great heat training opportunity, guaranteed!);
  9. Summer Solstice (our 24-hour event replacing RiverBank One Day which has been cancelled in 2018), with both a 100-mile and 100K scoring option;
  10. Skyline 50K (one of the oldest trail 50K races in North America, if not the oldest, and a safe course for rookies);
  11. Tamalpa Headlands 50K (ex National Championships course and 1/3 of the field was from the Pacific Association un 2017);
  12. Headland Hundred 100M (making great use of the amazing views and hills of Marin Headlands);
  13. Lake Folsom 100K (addition of a 100K trail in the North East, with this 4th edition);
  14. Rio Del Lago 100M (the ultimate Western States qualifier which also goes through several times through the capital of endurance sports)
14 events total, including 17 opportunities to score in the individual categories, and, for the large club, (3 categories [Men, Women, Mixed] x 17) = 51 potential scores!!

All this is subject to proper PAUSATF sanctioning of the respective events of course but all Race Directors do have prior experience with the process so that shouldn't be an issue.

If you are curious, here are a few other associated KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), as we say at work.

The pros will immediately spot that, to make room for newer races per the wish of many, we had to make tough decisions to drop a few events, like our predecessors had to do with Western States and Tahoe Rim Trail 100 because of the difficulty to get in, a few years ago. That being said, we still strongly encourage you to enter and run them if you can or prefer these distances, these events are of very high quality and we hope to find ways to get them back, alternatively from year to year at a minimum.
  1. Most notably, Miwok 100K, which is increasingly hard to get in (lottery), but a Western States qualifier which we hope to re-include in the rotation based on lottery odds;
  2. Ruth Anderson 50K as noted above;
  3. Same for SilverState 50K;
  4. And the legendary Quad Dipsea.
Again, strongly encourage you to still enter Miwok and Quad in addition to competing in the Grand Prix events. If you manage to get in which isn't always the easiest part of running an ultra, nowadays! ;-)

Another clarification, as noted above, is that this doesn't mean the schedule will remain the same in 2019. There are several key drivers to bring more drastic change after a quarter of a century and so much evolution in our sport; some races may come back, some may go. But we'll work at giving more advanced notice than this year, which means we have to have a 2019 schedule by October 2018, phew!

Most of the rules will remain the same although we are considering slight amendments to the scoring system to make the season more exciting, for instance flattening the coefficients between shorter and longer ultras (to avoid the overwhelming impact on 100-milers). Stay tuned!

By the way, our easiest and most efficient way to communicate around this Grand Prix is through our PA Ultra GP Facebook page, please make sure to request to join if you are on Facebook. Otherwise, I'm sure you can find a buddy within your team to keep you posted; which is one more reason to join the fun of running for a team/club!

Also, please make sure to thank the Race Directors of all these events for the time and energy they are putting into their races (registration, permits, recruiting an army of volunteers, the logistic, ...), as well as the extra administrative burden they have to go through to sanction their races so they can be part of our Grand Prix.

Last minute! We had almost finalized the schedule and were told that the 2 bids for the 50K Trail Nationals will be considered at the Annual USATF Convention on December 2 and 3, for a vote there, but we just learned that these Championships were awarded to New Hampshire instead for 2018, and to Fourmidable in 2019. One more reason to run Fourmidable and Skyline this year to support our local Race Directors! More details about all the Mountain, Ultra and Trail Nationals for 2018 can be found in this TrailRunner article.

And now, you can finalize your ultra 2018 planning! We certainly hope to see all of you on our amazing Pacific Association trails, between the Coast and Reno, around the Bay Area, the Sacramento Valley or over the Tahoe mountains, bring on the friendly individual and team emulation and competition!

Cheering to your success in the 26th Ultra Grand Prix!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Silicon Valley Turkey Trot 2017: so many blessings!

What a way to end a long season! While I started right away with a fast ultra at the beginning of February (Jed Smith 50K in 3:19:59) and ran 18 races this year, including 1 marathon (podium at Boston!) and 12 ultra marathons, I like to get back to some speed before my yearly break.

Today was my 51st 10K race in my log but only my 8th one at this event, although I'm proud these were consecutive (2010-2017). I say only because nobody can beat Carl Guardino at his own game, Carl being the founder of this wonderful event for our community. As the head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, he can be really proud of the tenure and impact of this race which is gathering close to 25,000 participants year after year, and raising close to 1 million dollars each year for local charities. A double dip of getting us healthier and sharing our wealth with others in need! Leading by example, Carl has run each of the 13 editions, competing in the CEO Challenge (5K).

I don't recall why I missed the first edition, I was just back from a business trip to Europe that Thanksgiving weekend but the race wasn't on my radar yet. As a matter of fact I had run the Home Run 10K in Palo Alto 2 weeks earlier, then CIM (California Internal Marathon) beginning of December, that was already a lot back then.

In 2006 I started running ultra marathons and got hooked with the Pacific Association Ultra Grand Prix which includes the famous Quad Dipsea race, 2 days after Thanksgiving. I was still learning a lot about ultra running and wasn't going to push it on a 10K two days earlier!

In 2007 I was in France for the popular Saintélyon, a 69K race by night, between Saint-Etienne and Lyon. Back to Quad Dispea in 2008 but, in 2009 I went for the double, running both the Elite 5K race at the Turkey Trot and Quad Dispsea 2 days later, phew! So that makes 9 consecutive Turkey Trot participations actually, may well go for 10 next year!

Back to 2017, the main new news is that I had missed getting IBM to sponsor the race, after a successful 4-year round at it. To my surprise though, while warming up and jogging toward the main field to see the elite races, I discovered that the main stage banners still had the IBM logo on them so I think this is a strong message from SVLG that we have to come back... I'll pass the non-subliminal message to the people now in charge!

As the tradition goes, Mark Winitz was overseeing the proper execution of the women and men elite races while the 23,000-strong crowd was gathering in their respective corrals. I must say that it's too bad people don't realize there are world-class athletes to watch in town that morning (few spectators), but how inspiring to see these athletes flying and zipping by, before we get to push the envelope ourselves.

Even more impressive and inspirational was to see Jose Pina Jr now part of this elite field (2nd yellow top). I did compete with him when he was younger, along with his father, Jose Pina Sr, I'm super impressed to see him now running for San Jose State and clocking a 14:49 (4:47 pace) today!

I just had a glimpse of the women race, but was able to see the men twice, before it was time for me to warm-up and get to the remote start line. See this short video clip from the second lap:
At 8:25 the only wheelchair competitor was sent off by himself, then it was our turn at 8:30, after Carl was asked to leave the mic and stage to get lined up with us. This year again the 5K and 10K were both ran simultaneously, making pacing super tricky at the start since you don't know who is going for 3.1 miles only versus the whole 6.2 miles of the 10K. I admit I got caught into the excitement this time and was astonished when I realized my Garmin GPS watch was indicating 5:10 min/mile after the first turn, yikes! No wonder why I was gasping for air already! Sometimes we say "and from then, it was all down hill!" Well, for me today, from there it was all up hill. Not the course profile which is super flat except for 2 dips under a bridge at mile 3.2 and 5.5, but the perceived effort.

Resetting a pace is really tough when you start too fast, not to mention when you don't know who you are racing against (between the mix of 5K and 10K runners on one hand, and all the unknown faces at these popular races). To make the matter worse, the mile markers looked to me, or rather my watch, quite off this time, on the short/early side, like by 0.08 to 0.06 depending on the mile. If 8 or 6% don't seem a lot to you that may be because you are not trying hard enough! ;-) When you are running hard against the clock, 80 or 100 yards make quite a difference. As it turned out, though, I think the course ended up 0.1 mile too short so that was a great opportunity to get a PR!

After a few turns, I had lost sight of what was happening at the front. Once we passed the corner of the SAP Center at mile 3, a large chunk of the pack turned toward the finish of the 5K, phew! Way less people ahead but I was clocking 5:40 to 5:45 miles so I wasn't surprised when a volunteer said, if I heard correctly, that I was in 25th position. It was around mile 3.5 and a young runner, on my side, suggested we close the gap with the three runners ahead. I wish I could accelerate but we were already running 5:40-5:45 and I didn't have the stamina to get back under 5:30 this year. I'm super happy to report that, in the next 2 miles, he was able to not only close the gap but passed these older guys and finish 6th overall at 17, congratulations, Jeffrey Xu!

Ah, so if Jeffrey was 6th, there weren't 24 runners ahead of us after all. Indeed, looking at the results published this afternoon (kudos to Race Central for their speed in posting!), I finished 9th overall, 2nd Master, and 1st in the M50-54 age group with an age-graded performance of 88.22%. Very pleased with my time of 34:57 although slightly disappointed by the fact that I (and others) believe the course was slightly too short. Which would explain why this is my fastest time on this course (my times since 2010: 35:05, 35:20, 35:12, 36:09, 35:41, 35:49, 36:10, all within 35:35 +/- 40" for some consistency!).

Here are key stats to summarize my run (Strava activity):

And the 3D-flyover which will make you relive our quick journey through downtown San Jose:

After this great work out, and good sweat given the warm temperature for the season (65F!), it was time to socialize with friends!

I first ran into my IBM colleague, Jérôme, who had just finished his 5K and was waiting for the rest of the family.
Then we gathered near the main stage, to meet with the Run For Valentine group participating in memory of Valentine, Tanguy and Virginie's daughter who died in a tragic car accident 5 days before Thanksgiving, 4 years ago. (Photo: Anouchka Gaillard.)
I also had a long chat with Ethan Veneklassen who, among many endeavors around our sport, directs the super competitive and challenging Broken Arrow races in Squaw Valley, one week before Western States.
Then a few Stevens Creek Striders, Bill here with Agnès, but also Mike and Hugo at the 10K finish.

We drove back home and I went for another 10K in 42' flat. I'm 53 miles from my yearly goal of 3,240 miles which correspond to a 100 km/week average, but I'm going to take a break now as, big decision and scoop, I decided to go OFM (Optimized Fat Metabolism) with Peter Defty's help and guidance. A strict diet in the family of LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) and Keto, with adjustments to take into account the specifics of ultra running at high intensity.

I'll certainly share more about this significant endeavor over the coming weeks and months, the ultra experiment continues...

Overall, so many blessings to be grateful for on this special day: family, friendships, health, success, local opportunities. It's sad to say, we just need to take some distance with the politics happening in DC which get our country so many years backward, and look up at our Californian blue sky to keep hope in the future. Starting with wishing for more rain in December, or even starting this Sunday as forecasted. The people in Silicon Valley rock, keep leading and inspiring!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

PAUSATF Cross-Country 2017 Championships: getting my ego in check...

I didn't advertise my last post on Facebook so few people visited my blog 2 weeks ago where I was almost ashamed to... brag about winning a 5K! First because 3 miles look really short compared to what we are used to do un ultra running, but also because it wasn't much competitive (last year the winner clocked 15:05, this time I won in 17:47, how embarrassing... but like Frank Bozanich reminded us on FaceBook last week, you've to appreciate when winning a race at 53, and take advantage when the speedsters are not showing up, their fault! ;-) Or like the saying goes "Success is 95% preparation, 5% luck!").

Anyway, in that post I also shared how hectic my life was and it hasn't slowed down since, so much that I missed writing something last weekend (I may catch-up over the Thanksgiving break). Last Sunday I attended a Toastmasters workshop in the morning then drove directly to SFO to catch a flight for Raleigh, NC, flying back this Friday morning. And, this Saturday morning, I volunteered for 4 hours at the Berkeley Half-Marathon bib pickup to represent one of my sponsors, GU Energy, along with triathlete and coach Jake McDonald, and Agnès.

On Saturday evening I spent 3 more hours working on the draft of our 2018 Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) Grand Prix schedule, in preparation of our Long Distance Running (LDR) committee meeting this Sunday morning. Which was scheduled after the Cross-Country (XC) Championships, another convenient excuse to race again!
It was 42F when I arrived at Lindley Meadow, just in time to register and see the start of the women race. Gals had 2 loops to cover (4 miles) while we, men masters then open, had 3 loops to do.
Our Masters race came in second at 9:45 am. Chikara had told me not to push too hard on the first lap but event a 5:30 min/mile pace did allow to keep up with the front of the race, wow. Like for any USATF Championships, we were wearing an age group bib on our back, blue for M50-59, and I even could see a few of these far ahead after just one mile. But I passed a few in the second lap and was happy to actually run miles 5 and 6 faster than the others. While I didn't feel like able to push harder, I was barely out of breath when crossing the finish line, just under 38 minutes (37:58), a proof that I had not given it my all. And, surely enough, it showed in the results, posted about one hour later: 25th overall and 6th in my age group, won by Michael McManus of the HOKA Aggies (34:43). Tough competition this time, I think it's the first time I'm not making my age group podium this year, hence the title of this post! After me came 4 runners all within my age group bracket, the first one just 11 seconds behind: so close, so typical of cross country, an entire different sport and experience than ultra running. To put things in perspective, the winner of the Men Open division clocked a time of 30:19 for 10K on an uneven terrain, wow! And also an Aggie. Although I should mention that West Valley Track Club took 8 of the top 11 spots in the Masters race, way to represent the Bay Area!
One screen shot of my Strava activity to complement the short recount of this short race:
And the 3D flyover which makes it like a short walk in the park... (click on the image below):

As I was finishing my 2-mile cool down lap, an incident reminded me of my first race here, in 2003 when the start of our Men Open race was delayed because one of the Masters runner from Tamalpa had died from a heart attack on the course, 2 days after visiting his doctor because of chest pain, with his doctor telling him: "Com'on, you are a runner, you are so healthy, no problem for racing!". This time, it was a runner from Pamakids who had a bad fall which ended up on his forehead so the paramedics evacuated him after place a neck brace. Our sport is rather safe but sometimes scary accidents do happen, stay safe out there!
Speaking of 2003, it was my last year in the Open division and I had finished 118th out of 162 finishers, in 33:37 on a shorter course (5.8 miles) won in 28:32 by David Cullum from the Nike Farm. I couldn't be happier to move up a division the following year! The Open division spans 2 decades and make you feel old when you are approaching 40 especially in these shorter and fast races...

Amidst this cheerful reunion of clubs from all over North California and Nevada, it felt odd to the be  the only one from my Quicksilver Club, kind of feeling naked or orphan...
By the way, I put the Hoka-sponsored Aggies in the middle of this collage because their presence was overwhelming, both from an athletic and size standpoint, not to forget the party-style music which was still on when I left by 2 pm! They certainly know how to live by their long standing reputation!

Fortunately, there were a few representatives of the ultra community which now feels like family to me. The Abbs, Alan and Bev, Bill Dodson, Noe from Pamakids, Jason and Chikara from Excelsior, Alex Varner and Jonathan Bretan from Tamalpa and I'm still missing others. (And Jason Reed added that Jonathan is actually with the SF Running Company, and Alex running XC for West Valley TC, something I may should consider too.)

I even met an IBM colleague from our Silicon Valley Lab, Patrick! Beyond them though, many unknown faces especially in the Open division; seeing all these speedsters make you realize you have moved up to another generation, literally! ;-)

Special thanks to Tim Wason and his team from SF Running & Walking for organizing this major event (and the other race in September at the same place too), and these tireless and committed USATF officials who make such Championships possible.
At noon, it was time for our LDR Committee to meet and discuss quite some topics about our respective 2018 schedules for XC, Road and MUT (see agenda).
After working on it for the past 2 months, we've never been that close to finalizing our MUT schedule and we should be ready to publish in on time, next week, before the registration of a few big ultras early December. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, enjoy this most appropriate license plate: repeat the phrase after me "I'd rather be running"! ;-)

PS: More pictures of the race leaders of this morning's Open races. And the no less impressive M80 guys at the bottom of this post.

2nd place, from the Brooks Hansons team, graciously congratulating incoming runners:

And in the much older divisions: