Saturday, September 22, 2018

Stevens Creek 50K/30K 2018. And an alternative.

[For the runners just looking for my pictures, here is the Google Photos album.]

"Did you run it again this year?"
Me -- "Nope"
"But you where there, no?"
Me: "Yes, but manning a water-only aid station"
"Ah, so you didn't run 50K then?"
Me: "Actually, I did!"

Thus can I summarize this confusing situation. After running and winning this race 3 times (4:15 in 2011, 4:32 in 2012, 4:17 in 2013), I've been helping out at the aid station hosted by my running club, Quicksilver. If you add that the club organizing this race is the one I initially joined in 2003 if I recall, that makes this event very special to me and, since I was in town, I didn't want to miss it. I might have to enter soon to take a stab at the M50-59 course record (the one I set at 4:15 was for M40-49) but, with all the racing I do, it's really cool to see the face of runners when they see me helping out on the sideline. A nice way to give back to a community and sport which gave so much to me these past 12 years!

Since I still wanted to squeeze in some training in, I decided to run up to Skyline from home, via the Stevens Creek Canyon Road, 13.5 miles with some gradual uphill in the second half. I had planned to leave the house by 6:30 but left 10 minutes later. Our aid station captain, Stuart, had asked me to be around 8:30 at the water-only aid station the Striders now ask us to setup at the confusing intersection of Charcoal Road (trails in 5 directions), about 1.3 miles from the Saratoga Gap main aid station. There was no such aid station when I ran this race but I remembered that I was reaching Saratoga Gap, around mile 9, at the bottom of the hour, so I thought the first runner might go through Charcoal 10 minutes before, therefore I should be there by then.

9.5 miles into my run up to Skyline, I reached Route 9 at 8:05, with 3 miles to go to the top. I really didn't want to be late so I decided to hitchhike, something I had never done before in my life! The minutes passed, and so were the cars too, without stopping, I had to wait for 5 good minutes for someone to stop and, of course, it was a runner, Michael Florence, from the Striders, who hadn't even recognized me but was going to stop anyway to help a runner looking in distress.

We passed Saratoga Gap at 8:15, said Hi to Stuart, whom I found really relaxed with no aid station ready yet (more on my timing mistake below), then Michael dropped me at the Charcoal intersection so I was all set at 8:20, as planned, phew!

Well, 8:30 and still nobody coming though... 8:40... 8:50... 9:00, not a single soul. I started thinking that maybe they had delayed the start, or that my watch was off an hour, when I saw Marty, from our club, coming in at last, at 9:08. I wasn't expecting him in the lead and he immediately said that he had gotten an early start at 7 am. That's when I realized that the aid station was between 9 and 10 miles and that the lead runner would then get though around 9:20, not 8:20! Duh, I could have taken it easier and completed my run earlier in the morning instead of stressing it out...

Right on target, another teammate, Gaspar Mora, who won in 2016 then placed 2nd last year in the 50K in 4:22, came in at 9:18.
Finally, some work to do on my end, between indicating the right trail and proposing some water to those in need before the main aid station, then indicating the mileage to that next aid station. Actually, I had something else to do as one runner dropped at the station so I had to find a volunteer and a car to get him back to the start area. Thankfully, and to my great surprise based on previous years' experiences, I had great cell coverage and was able to find Stuart's cell phone number in an old spreadsheet in Google Drive. That runner had had a bad fall on the left side and, with a bleeding and swollen knee, he preferred to quit as quickly as possible. Thanks to that new cell coverage in this area, that worked out very well.

Like last year, I was unimpressed with this participant running without a bottle, or a reusable cup for that matter. While getting your shirt dirty is kind of a badge of honor in trail running as it usually goes with a fall, getting yours dirty for laying down in the dust, not so much in my opinion...
Let's move on...

Although both races, 50 and 30K, started at the same time, the combined field was rather small, I'd say between 50 and 60 max. Many familiar faces with one I'm going to attribute the Oscar for the Most Emotional return on the trail today. The competition for this award was tough and deep (think Chris Garcia after his terrible bike accident which broke his back, Jim battling the years, Chau Pham, Peter, Peggy, Randy, Loren, or many I can't name because I don't know their personal challenges behind their commitment to trail running).

The special recipient? Charles Stevens who was himself so happy yet surprised to be back to trail running. Charles was President of the Stevens Creek Striders when I joined. He is the one who taught me so much about ultra running, starting with the fact that there were some crazy runners covering 50K or 100 miles in one go! ;-) He is the one who taught me not to waste time at aid stations, that every minute counts. He is the one who told me that Way Too Cool wasn't hilly (to this day, and after running 10 consecutive ones from 2006 to 2015, I still consider that a friendly lie! ;-). He is the one that gave me the 2008 Western States entry he had won in our Club lottery, when he estimated he wasn't in his best shape and I could make a better use of it. By the way, he finished Western States 6 times! Then, in 2012-2013, he disappeared from the ultra scene because of serious issues with his pelvis. It was so moving to see him back, and smiling despite the fatigue, half way in his 30K today. Welcome back, Charles, what an inspirational story of will and resilience!

Speaking of Stevens, are you wondering if the race was named after Charles (and same for the nearby creek, and the canyon, and the reservoir)? Of course not, the creek has had this name for more than 150 years, and it's actually a funny coincidence that Stevens comes from a typo, just read this:

As for the creek, which the race is named after, it is still flowing at the end of September, but really not much, as you can see in this video:
At least, there still is this soothing sound, so relaxing when running up and down Stevens Canyon Road, in addition to the shade. What a great place we live in!

With this tiny flow, no wonder why the Stevens Creek reservoir is so low. When you think of the surplus of water they have on the East Coast, we are going to have to build serious pipelines through the Rockies to balance the situation at some point...

Back to the race and the runners, I think I captured everybody although I'm quite disappointed with the quality of the pictures overall. Besides, I heard there was a professional photographer elsewhere on the course, so you probably got a much better shot of you already! Anyway, here is the album (link).

After the last runner, Christina, passed through my mini aid station for the second time, just after noon, Stuart released me so I could run back home. As I was leaving, Mandie was sweeping the course, collecting all the little colored flags used for course marking (instead of the traditional ribbons).
Earlier, Anil had done the same on the first 9 miles of the course.
I decided to go down to Table Mountain and Stevens Creek Canyon. After a 2.5-mile long descent to to Table Mountain, it got very sunny and exposed so I decided to put my sun glasses on. Oops, there were not over my cap and I realized I had forgotten them at the aid station when changing top. It was 1 pm and, after a 5:30 am wake-up call and just a few of my own GU Blocks mid morning, I was quite tired but decided to run back up to Skyline to get my glasses. By the way, the detour wasn't a complete waste because I had found 2 remaining yellow flags at the Table Mountain trail intersection (Hugo, I took them back home, like last year).

From the top, this time I went on Skyline Boulevard then retraced the morning route back, adding my local 5K loop in Cupertino to make the run 31.5 miles. Much more cumulated elevation that I need for my October race, and a tough run overall with 4 hours standing at the aid station in between, then the heat. But, at least, that makes my 4th 50K run in 4 weeks since my 90K at TDS. And a 2nd 100-mile week, back to back.

I hope the elegant Christina didn't feel too much pressure from the course sweepers and was able to complete her 30K.
Same for all the other runners, except the injured one we gave a ride to.

Thank you to the Striders, and Race Director Hugo de Groot in particular, for perpetuating a tradition set by Steve Patt several decades ago. And very glad that our Club returns the huge service you provide to our Club by manning the busy Bull Run aid station at our 100K and 50K Quicksilver races in May!

Speaking of which, many big and sincere thanks to our own Stuart for directing these races, plus the September trail ones, and captaining this aid station, and cooking for all of us at the annual picnic, and sitting on our Club Board, and, and, ... You rock, Stuart, have a great run at Rio del Lago in November!

4 hours to serve about fifty runners going through twice, there has been a lot of idle time, some of which I used to script a couple of upcoming blog posts, stay tuned! ;-)
And see you maybe on the other side (of the sideline!) next year, who knows. In the meantime, Run Happy out there!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Good to be back to the track discipline for a few more laps!

As I often say, what I like the most in running is, well, the running part, meaning the speed. Not the shuffling, walking, hiking which I got reduced to in my recent races in the Alps this Summer...

So it feels really good to get back to the track and its pacing discipline. Even when I run on concrete in my neighborhood, there is always some hoping on and from the sidewalk to cross a street, some slaloming to go around pedestrians, it's harder to keep a super even pace and keep pushing consistently.

I'm lucky enough to live in a country where high schools typically have great professional tracks which are open to the public when students are not in class. In addition to living not only in California, but right in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the weather is (still...) optimal!

And grateful to know Bob who has trained so hard to break 5 min at the mile the past 4 years, getting to 2 tenths of a second to his goal last month! He is my inspiration and lead in these track workouts to run under 6 min/mile.

By the way, running 50K on a track makes the most boring videos (click on the next two images to access the 3D fly-overs)! Well, on that one, you can at least have a peek to the new Apple Park campus a few blocks away (that's where this week's announcement occurred, in the brand new Steve Jobs auditorium, underneath the campus).
Slightly more interest in the washing-machine format we use for our speed workout with Bob (8 laps clockwise to warm-up, 12-lap worth of working out, either a series of 800s, or full miles, or pyramid (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 1 laps).
This morning's 123-lap workout was special as I was trying to remain relaxed by keeping the image of Eliud Kipchoge finishing his Berlin marathon in a world record time, so amazing! In this YouTube video, look at how high up his heels are still going after running 26 miles at a 4:40 min/mile pace...!
Well, I wish visualization was enough to run fast, but not quite, for me anyway. Running 50K at the track on my own at 6:59 min/mile still requires a great deal of effort as you can see with all the salt left on my top:
With that, I covered 270 laps at the track in 3 runs over the past 8 days, phew! As a matter of fact, to avoid wearing the track too much, I do my 50K training runs in lane 2, using this great online calculator to compute the actual distance:
It has all sort of computations; for instance, here are 3 which are useful to pace yourself when running in another lane than 1 (which, again, is a must to avoid wearing the track, hence the ask for joggers and walkers to use outside lanes, 7 and 8).
The key benefit of running at the track is that you can both remain focused on steady pace (my Garmin Forerunner 310XT tells me each lap time automatically), yet get in the zone and don't worry about either the traffic if you run in urban areas, or the footing if you run on a trail. I would definitely run everything there, but that's an essential preparation for my upcoming key races.

Note that newer devices, such as my Garmin Forerunner 230, also gives useful biomechanics stats, for instance the cadence (number of steps per minute) and average stride. Two other data points which I work hard to keep high. Given my short legs, leg speed and long stride are my way to keep up with taller guys, that will be a good topic for another blog post.
Anyway, as noted above, while running hundreds of laps at the track is rather brutal, it feels so good to get back to some speed, for a change from mountain and trail running. I'm looking forward to seeing new faces at road races this Fall, while still enjoying reading trail and ultra stories from my other buddies. Running has so many ways to be enjoyed, have a great end of the Summer out there, if you are not hit by some awful weather these days (in which case, stay safe, please!).

Monday, September 3, 2018

Working on Labor Day. And playing too!

It's labor day in the US (as opposed to May first here in France) and, by working, I'm talking about my second job, running!

After 10 miles on Saturday before leaving Chamonix, still with some soreness in my quads, 20 miles this Sunday on the Coulée Verte between Paris and Massy, I went back to Saclay Bourg again this Monday, for another 50K (31 miles), logging 100K in 3 days, a few days after my 90K at the TDS.

Click on this screen shot for the 3D fly-over:

But, this time, for those who read by post of July, Back to my Paris-Saclay-Paris 50K: a few more pictures, I made the time to stop to meet the incredible collector sharing his treasures in his front yard, Serge Blanchard (Facebook page).

Showcasing hundreds of artefacts from the last century (1900-1985), from old automobiles to kitchen utensils, license plates or musical instrument, Serge shares his passion through this free and open air museum. The location isn't convenient if you visit Paris, but worth the 10 miles to run from Paris to reach it. Here is the address to help you locate it: 95 chemin de la Motte Samson, 91120 Palaiseau.

Serge is also the main fixture of this eclectic place; make sure to interview him about how he managed to get our of addiction and he is now helping others to do so!

Also, don't delay your visit too much; after a century his family has been cultivating the nearby fields in Saclay, Serge is looking to move out for more space and less constraints than those imposed in such an urban area in the Parisian region!

 The inventor of Tour de France:

Sunday, September 2, 2018

TDS 2018 (part 3 of 3): these Alps are tough!

Finally getting a break to write this race report, while sitting on a TGV for Paris. It's Saturday afternoon, 3 days have passed since the TDS race, Xavier Thevenard just won his third UTMB (his Wikipedia page has an impressive record of achievements), taking an amazing revenge on the mishap at Hard Rock a few weeks ago where he was going to win with a comfortable margin but got disqualified for meeting his crew 2 miles after an aid station. What an amazing way to save his season by benefiting from a debacle across the other favorites.
A few (!) words on my TDS then, for this third and last episode. In my previous two posts, I mentioned that, while being ready from a logistical standpoint, I felt grossly undertrained for such a beast. Why had I decided to sign up for this event then? First, as it is customary in the ultra world, it was many months ago, in January if I recall. Second, I did it because my ITRA ranking guaranteed me an entry, something too good to pass on with such a tough lottery to go through otherwise. Then, I had great intention to do some good hill training in the meantime. But the year turned out differently, and, apart for some hilly ultras in the Spring most of the 2,200 miles I ran so far in 2018 have been on flat ground...

But I was still glad and willing to be part of this amazing week and international event, knowing that it was going to be hard but resolute to cover what I thought were 100 kilometers before I discovered a few days before the race that it was closer to 122 kilometers (plus 7,300 meters of cumulated climb). To tell you how well I was actually (not) prepared psychologically...

I was also excited about getting an elite status, especially after what happened 2 months ago where I completely missed the start of the 90K of Chamonix, where I could have also started at the front, instead of the very back...

With all this excitement, I had a rough night and hadn't even slept 5 hours when my alarm woke me up at 2:40 am. My shuttle was set for 4:15 am and, when walking a mile to the bus stop, I was stunned to hear at 4am from a Japanese runner, that the shuttles and the start got delayed by 2 hours, apparently because of the bad weather on the Italian side while the weather forecast was indicating a sky as clear as on the French side of Mont Blanc; that was weird. Anyway, I walked back to my apartment after this false start. I learned later that most runners had received a text message on Tuesday afternoon, announcing the delayed start as well as a detour after Bourg-St-Maurice, suppressing about 500 meters of brutal climb. Seems like foreigners who had entered their number according to the international standard, prefixing our country code with a + sign, should have entered 00 instead. You would think that the organizers had figured that out after several years of mass notification, or at least double the notification with an email...
At least, with an 8 am start, we won't have to start with our headlamps. The weather was indeed gorgeous on the other side of the tunnel, the assurance of a warm morning. Here is the moon and the clear sky over Courmayeur:
I got to the start line at 7:40 and tried to get in the elite corral, only to learn that, while my bib was lower than some of the elites, my ITRA ranking was now too low to get in. Damned! I started to walk along the start area now packed with more than a thousand runners and walked back to try again. Same rebuttal at 7:50 it was now time to find a solution. I asked some runners in the back if I could hop over the fence and got denied twice. At the third attempt, back in the pack, 2 Frenchmen accepted to let me in when I told them my story... I'm very grateful to them, we were probably in the top 400 runners at least.

Not to far from the start line...
 The rear view of an infinite sea of runners...
The first mile is actually down through Courmayeur so the start looked like a sprint or a corrida where we were trying to escape bulls set free on the streets! I was fearing we would end up on a single track on the other side of the valley, but, as opposed to the treacherous trail we take to get into Courmayeur in the UTMB race, we were climbing to Col Chécrouit Maison Vieille on a wide service road/ski track. Much better than the climb to Le Brévent in June, phew!

The climb was quite steep and almost everybody was using poles but I decided that mine were solidly attached, that I would only get them at Lac Combal, mile 10. It took me almost an hour to get to Col Chécrouit (only 7 km!). I was probably already 15 minutes behind the leaders, but I could care less because I couldn't go faster or breath more. From there, it was a single track indeed but the pace was good and the climb to Arête du Mont-Favre gave everybody a good sweat, so much that I had already drunk my bottle of GU Brew when I got to Lac Combal. The next aid station was 13 miles away, so it was important to refill anyway. As planned, I got my poles out there, and it helped a lot in the next steep climb to Col Chavannes. I stopped there to admire the 360-degree views and snap a few pictures.

The following downhill to Alperta was really cool and I managed to log a few sub 8-minute mile on the rocky service road. And I also enjoyed the climb to Col du Petit Saint-Bernard, the border between Italy and France. When I got there though, I had emptied both my bottles again so I stopped for a while to refill as well as get a couple of cups of soup and Coke. While there, a storm hit the large tent we were under, I felt bad for those who got caught in the heavy rain before or after this aid station. I first put my rain jacket on and packed to get going again but then I saw many other runners putting their waterproof pants on as well, so I did that too. The problem is that I'm so unused to changing like this, that it took me quite a while and, when I left the station, it was barely drizzling for a mile, then the rain stopped and I got really too hot and wet under these layers. I stopped on the side of the trail to change in an ad hoc manner, imitated by half a dozen of other runners. 10 more minutes lost, after about 30 at the aid station...

The weather was sunny again and I had a good descent to Bourg-St-Maurice at mile 31 (51K). That being said, with all this downhill, I was starting feeling a blister forming under each of my big toes, so I stopped again for a while at this key station. Taping my toes at the medical tent, refilling my bottles, getting a couple of cups of soup, and enjoying quite a few slices of dry sausage.

Ron Guttierez, a fellow ultra runner from San Francisco, had run TDS last year and was in CCC this week (he took 5th in his/our age group!). Here is what he had to say about the course:
“From the start in Courmayeur to Bourg St. Maurice the TDS course is a little harder than Ohlone 50k.  Then the 2,000-meter climb that follows is off the charts.  The last one Tricot is also ridiculous.  Even the last 8k is gradually uphill.  Reaching Chamonix will never feel so good.”
I was warned that the second half would be tough... Although, the new course looked much easier that the original one.

The revised course with the gradual climb, between Bourg St Maurice (km 51) and the Cormet de Roselend  (km 70)

The original course profile:
After such a long stop in Bourg St Maurice then, I felt much better and I even switched on my phone to let the (Facebook) world know that I had a rough day in the mountains but I was resolute to finish this race! In such high and positive spirit, I literally attacked the next section, remembering that we were not getting on a detour much less difficult than the original course. I passed about 50 runners in the next 20 uphill kilometers to the Cormet de Roselend.

As a matter of fact, I ran most of the last 3 miles on the uphill road, rushing to reach the station before the sky fell on us. It turned to such a dark grey, we were sure to get some heavy rain again.

Still feeling my big toes burning, I made another stop at the medical tent to retape my feet. During the 15 minutes required by that, the tent started shaking and the speaker announced at least one hour of rain. Leveraging the only drop bag we had on this course, here, I decided to change, then put on my rain gear again. With the refill, I spent about 50 minutes in the station and, after all this time, the rain turned to a light drizzle but I wasn't ready to get drenched while we were now getting into the night at 9 pm.

The climb to Col de la Sauce got quite muddy and the poles really helped controlling or stopping the sliding. On the other side of the pass, we got into a technical descent which I recognized from my two Montagn'Hard races. All the bad memories came back and broke my mental, getting me down to a super careful and slow pace. I did slide hundreds of times in the next 3 miles but managed not to fall. As I approached a section where a faster runner had yelled "Beware, slow down" I did slow down even more and got distracted by a gal who slipped and fell just behind me. That made me fall too, very unfortunately on my left pole. The bad wasn't that bad except that the pole broke and that is very bad on such a hilly and muddy course! Ironically, I had put in my drop bag a pair of spare poles in case, but they were 6 kilometers behind now...

I continued through the rocky and slippery section for a few yards, with one pole, only to fall again, this time heavily on my right hip, pivoting so much that my head ended up down the trail. I had much trouble moving and getting up, so much that the four runners behind me stopped to provide assistance. I left them quite puzzled when they saw the American flag on my bib but heard me swearing both in English and perfect French! ;-) I told them I was ok, but, in my mind, I decided that was enough and I was going to drop at the bottom of the descent, at La Gittaz. But, first thing, I had to get there, it was still about 2 miles away and, with all this mud, in the dark, it was going to take another 20 minutes or so.

Once at La Gittaz, I sat down and let the aid station captain that I was dropping and needed to get on the next shuttle. After some negotiation, I realized it could take 4 to 6 hours to get on a shuttle, then down to the wrong valley, having to wait for another 2 or 3 hours for a shuttle to Les Contamines, then wait for another shuttle to Chamonix. The alternative? Continue up to Col du Joly... The captain assured me that he was a runner and the next section was in much better shape than the previous one. Well, as much as I was happy to get to the pass after 3 hours of scrambling over the next 6.5 miles, the trail was actually very muddy too and it was super hard with one pole. Ironically, I reached the pass with Eric, another runner who had broken a pole as well and had as much difficulty controlling the sliding as I had. And, at the Col du Joly aid station, I met another runner who had broken both his poles, but wasn't taking that as an excuse to stop; I’m not convinced how efficient that was, he even had fixed one pole with some tape!

It was now 1 am and I felt lucky to get on a shuttle at 1:30. Contrary to the comfortable shuttles of the morning, that one was a 20-minute bumpy ride down the mountain, to Les Contamines. As bumpy as it was, I felt so much better than having to run the next 10 kilometers of the course to Les Contamines!

Down there, my day wasn't over though. The shuttle for Chamonix came an hour later (3 am), we got to Chamonix by 4 am, where I got my drop bags and walked back to the apartment, crossing a handful of TDS finishers in Chamonix. I slept from 5 am to 12:30 pm and got back to the mill (aka work...) from 3 pm to 1 am.

I just had the time to wash my muddy gear before getting on the phone.
That's a lot of drop bags, isn't it?

I worked on Friday too but managed to run 10.5 miles around Chamonix on Saturday morning, a great way to grieve for this other embarrassing and painful DNF in the Alps. 2 UTMB races, 2 failures, not a great stat. Including 2 Mountain'Hard participations (DNF in 2013, a 3rd place in my age group in 2017) and the Chamonix 90K this year, the Savoie wins 3 to 2 so far.

From the Lac des Gaillands, here is a shot of the rare view we had on Saturday of the Arête du Goûter. With the fresh snow on it, you can tell that the UTMB runners didn't have a much better weather we had on TDS either...
The weather was still very cloudy when I left Chamonix at 2 pm (view toward the Aiguille du Midi). That was 45 minutes before Xavier closed the loop around Mont Blanc (yes, under 21 hours!!).
While the outcome is of a course a big disappointment, many things worked well. First, I still managed to cover 3/4 of the course (90K), including the major climbs, without breaking a bone, phew! I felt strong in the uphills, never bonked, no GI issue (thanks to my keto diet and the Vespa Power supplement, plus one GU gel per hour), no cramping (well, at that slow speed anyway...), I kept my hydration in check thanks to GU Brew and one Succeed S!Caps every hour. But I certainly lost an insane amount of time at the aid stations.

I have to admit that it is so much harder to run in the Alps, compared to the super neat trails we have in California. And I have too much fear of falling in the technical descents, I can't manage to take pleasure in racing here, especially in such a large field. There is also the bruising of the ego, with the feeling of being a Formula 1 race with a clunker car, no pit/crew and such a lack of experience running these hilly trails and in such bad weather conditions (for me anyway). Except when racing here, I never train with a back pack, never train with poles, never train in such weather conditions, what can I expect from racing here then... Just more learning experiences...

I know, all bad excuses, many have finished while going through the same conditions, but they probably had much different expectations, and a better mental preparation. Anyway, it is done, it's already time to move on and keep my eye and mind on the next one. Speaking of which, I just got invited to race a 100K race in China at the end of October, this is super exciting! And, yes, it's on the road, so better get back to some speed, which is the part I like the most in ultra running, and which I miss the most in trail running in the Alps...

Before concluding, and although I doubt any of them will read this post, let me thank the myriad of volunteers who assisted us in such conditions and for many hours, with smiles and encouragement! It feels really bizarre to not seeing one familiar face during an ultra; I knew only one person among the runners, YiOu Wang, but I learned after I dropped that she didn't start, actually. :-(
With that, it was another amazing experience to be part of this world summit of ultra trail running but I'm very much looking forward to getting back to my ultra family in California then, I miss you all!