Monday, March 16, 2020

2020 50-mile Trail Nationals: brutal test with a Pioneer Spirit

Less than 2 weeks after the 50K Road Nationals on Long Island and already writing about another National Championship, gasp! Short of being back to serious training with this 16-month hamstring nagging injury, maybe these races can be seen as some training. Besides, and I want to do a separate post about it for other reasons, I ran a solo 50K last week, back on Black Mountain. With that, I know some of you must not believe much of my injury complaints but I assure you I'm running at 75 to 85% capacity, with some pain on every left stride. Mild physical pain that is, compared to the pain of not running for 8 months without much healing. With that, I decided to give this season another try, then fly to France for 4 weeks right after the race to get a special shockwave therapy treatment over 4 weeks there. Well, that was the plan before the COVID-19 pandemic. So long for a hope to accelerate the healing...

Anyway, back to the joy of running, I was stocked to have the opportunity to run a USATF Championship in our backyard. Organizing such an event is a huge challenge for Race Directors and I'm very grateful Paulo Medina is a strong supporter of USATF for accepting that challenge, year after year (FOURmidable 50K Trail the past 2 years and now Pioneer Spirit 50M Trail Nationals). Very few (if any!) people don't realize for instance that the $5 to 10,000 prize purse for Championships do NOT come from USATF but the RD's pocket. I was stunned when I learned about that. While it may make sense for races with thousands of runners, like 5Ks, 10Ks or marathons, it's a tough requirement for an ultra championship with a few hundreds runners, or less. At this point, I need to digress and talk about COVID-19, since that's the inevitable topic of discussion. And, like most of any topic nowadays, the response to the pandemic became a divisive issue. For one thing, politics are highly divisive and the response to battle the virus is managed by... politicians, not scientists and doctors so... here you are! The more I'm thinking of the situation, the more it reminds me of an evolution of our world based on a complete lack of trust. Trust in the institutions, trust in the leadership, trust in the news, trust in the facts (!), trust in others. Unless it arranges us. I have a friend who shares a piece of wisdom every morning, with a quote, and I chuckled with two of hers, this week... The first one, from Descartes: "In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things." And the second, from Paulo Coehlo: "When I had all the answers, the questions changed..." Think about it... what do we really know to be that sure about our opinions...?

Our local ultra running community was split on that event. A camp was for cancellation. Another one, for the confirmation. And the balance was impacted by news popping every hour from various levels of agencies, from federal, state down to county and cities. For the no-go camp, it wasn't even up to the Race Director but our local Pacific Association was to intervene to block the even from happening. As the Chair of the LDR MUT committee (Long Distance Running, Mountain Ultra Trail) I had to remind some people that we are only a grateful customer of RDs when it come to having their race on our Grand Prix (LDR Road goes through a bid, as there is money involved, but not for MUT). As for a Championship, it is awarded by our National body, USATF. As a matter of fact, USATF has cancelled a few championships because of COVID-19 (Youth and Indoor Masters) but gave Paulo a go ahead given the outdoor nature of the event as well as the small field (~110 entrants meaning likely less than 100 starters). One rule I learned early on in my ultra running life, 14 years ago, is that RDs have full power on an event. Well, not even now, they are still under the mercy of many jurisdictions (e.g. permits or health concerns, and we've see the effect of the California fires for instance the past 2 years), when not weather elements (UTMB, Ohlone, Miwok, Tor des Géants, ...). In consultation with local health experts and last-minute regulations, Paulo decided to go on with the event, but cancel the shuttling service in the morning. To me, it's still surprising that events are cancelled 3 months in the future when we see that China, despite being the first country hit, so caught by surprised, was able to curb the pandemic in less than 2 months. And we are the developed countries, with all the knowledge available, yet unable to learn from it...

Well, that's another long introduction but I couldn't avoid the topic and at least all the incertitude which got us to the start of this event. Including the weather: after months of alarming drought and lack of rain, the forecast had 100% rain starting at 5 am and for the whole day. We are such in dear need of rain, there was nothing to be upset about, but that promised an interesting day on the trails. This race has an average of 55% finish rate, really low in our sport. An excerpt from the home page:
This race is not for you if you do not like a challenge. The high heat and climbs of Northern California keeps the finishing rate of this race under 55% every year. Come test yourself.
We had been warned, this would be a brutal test! Since our Pacific Association award banquet last month, I had two plaques to hand over at this event. One to a participant, Tim Tollefson, whom we picked as our 2019 MUT Male Runner of the Year. Tim was a favorite today and didn't look like feeling any pressure at the start. Our 2019 MUT Female Runner of the Year, Meghan Laws, was officiating this Saturday as the USATF Liaison for the Championship. She also happens to be a local from Cool, California, short drive for her!

On the start line, I also met another favorite, Max King. We got to know each others at Chuckanut 50K in 2012 where, after a very unfortunate event, I caught up with him and shared a gel, after he was sent off course by a volunteer, while being in the lead. I met him again when he won Fourmidable 50K in 2017 in a blazing time of 3:30! At 40 and with 97 events in Ultrasignup, he still has an almost perfect score of 97% if it wasn't for that race and a couple of other exceptions. I was surprised he was voted only 9th ultra American runner of the last decade by the UltraRunning Magazine panel, but one of the kings of our sport in any case!

Apart from Tim and Max, that's all what I was going to see from the front of the race today. Not just because it was pitch dark at 6 am (mandatory headlamps) but because the competition was so high. Even with Agnès crewing for me today, she didn't manage to catch pictures of the top 10 men during the race.

How did my race go? Well, in short, it was long... During the first miles I was memorizing details of the trail, particular branches of poison oak, particular rocks, holes or roots while I was following Mark Tanaka, many details which I felt was going to make for a very long post, albeit not an interesting one... I'll get back on a few highlights but let's first talk about my goals to give more context:

  1. First and foremost, I was here for a patch. Yes, except for the top 5 spots with prize money, the high prize for the older guys in a National Championship is, in addition to a shiny golden medal, a coveted... patch! I'm a collector with already 13 of them, and counting... ;-)
  2. That meant that, to win my M55-59 age group, my second goal was to... finish!
  3. And to finish, my goal was to start. While I wanted to run Jed Smith 50K on no training, that was my first ever DNS (Did Not Start) because of a sharp pain in my knee which had caught a cold while running in freezing temperatures in Austria (I'm not kidding). Adding the COVID-19 incertitude, start wasn't a given this time.
  4. While USATF goes with 5-year age brackets, we go with 10 in our MUT Grand Prix. My 4th goal was then to do well in the M50-59 age group to get points (given the 1.5 factor for the distance, 60 points for 1st, 46.5 for 2nd, then 36, 28.5, 21, 18, 16.5, 15, ...).
  5. Not too much pain. With the injury, pain was a given but I was hoping it wasn't going to become excruciating with the longer distance as I haven't run beyond 50K for a long while.
What about the fun which Agnès always want me to have in races? Sure, given the persistent pain in my hamstring, and this wet conditions, why not...

Who was in my age groups?
  1. M55-59 running for the patch: two teammates from my Quicksilver Club, Harrison Blackwood and Keith Lubliner, and potentially Richard Parr from New York, although I couldn't establish if he was a USATF member or not;
  2. M50-54 running in my local Grand Prix 10-year age group: Ron Gutierrez, Mark Tanaka, Shiran Koshavi, William Dai, Jeff Wong;
  3. And there were 9 other M50-59 in the entrants list, albeit not from USATF.
A few memories I'd like to capture for my own perusal in a few years...
  1. Cool to Cool (3.8 miles): as I mentioned, I lost sight of the front runners before the end of the first mile! Even Ron was ahead. I settled behind Mark, thinking that, if he had a good day, I would still be just happy to tag along. I ran the first short loop just behind him then, benefiting from seeing where footing was trickier to avoid tripping. Around 1.5 miles though, I fully twisted my left ankle, ouch! A few painful steps but I was super glad to see that it hadn't lost it flexibility (I can still feel the twist as I'm writing this post on Sunday, but no real damage at least). I picked my water bottle at Cool (I was just carrying my GU Brew one on the first loop), and here we were, still in the dark.
  2. Cool to Knickenboker #1 (9.8 miles): leaving the aid station was actually a bit confusing. We were supposed to follow yellow ribbons but there were also pink ones and the yellow looked like dark greenish in the dark. Shortly after the aid station, Mark caught up with his new teammate, Karl Schnaitter (Mark left our Quicksilver team last year to join Excelsior). It looked like Karl had missed a turn. After another mile or so, Mark went straight into a mud pit and cursed for good. He had lost his shoe in the mud, shoot! There was actually a way to avoid the pit and I waited for Mark for 20 seconds; not having seen yellow ribbons for a while, but pink ones, I thought we might still be on the wrong course and told Mark I will catch Karl to let him know. Shortly after I saw a yellowish/greenish ribbon and yelled at Mark we were on the course, then continued to eventually close on Karl. A few hundreds yards ahead was Ron and the three of us reached the Knichenboker aid station together, now with some day light.
  3. KB1 to KB2 (14.9 miles): with courses sharing start and finish or, worse, races on a 1-mile loop or 400-meter track, some people wonder why we even run ultras if it consists in coming back to the point we started... So, what about even running when the next aid station is the one you just left, right? Well, it wouldn't be a 50-mile if we weren't running the whole distance (or more as a matter of fact, see below). That was an interesting loop because not at all what I expected. A mile in, and seeing more and more pink ribbons, I thought we weren't on the right trail. I thought that we were supposed to follow yellow ribbons until our second passage to Cool, then go down the American River to No Hands bridge. Well, we were certainly going down the river but I thought it was way too early. With Karl and Ron now 300 years ahead, I had to spring and clock a 6:50-min mile to catch Karl and share my concern. He reassured me that this was the right timing for our first descent to the river and, thankfully he was right. For miles we couldn't see anyone ahead, nor behind, so he'd better be right! I thought to myself "what a rookie mistake not to have studied the course more!" The thing is that I was recognizing trails as we were going, from various races (Way Too Cool, FOURmidable then, later, American River, Western States, Last Chance, Rio del Lago) but that was making it even more confusing. I'd better keep up with these two guys for as long as possible... On the long way up to KB2, I passed Karl and stayed in Ron's footsteps as he was keeping a steady 10 to 11 min/mile pace. Karl was the 3rd to reach the station but he didn't stop!
  4. KB2 to Cool again (17.9 miles): we picked up the pace on this flat section. However, at a couple of creek crossings which Ron and I negotiated to keep our feet dry, Karl went straight through and left us like his Simone was waiting for him at Cool (and no, she wasn't as she was actually running the race too!). A barely saw him leaving the Cool aid station and that was the last time I would see him again today.

  5. Cool to No Hands Bridge (21.3 miles): Ron and I ran the next descent to the river together, except for the last 500 yards to the bridge as I stopped to take my third S!Caps (after 3 hours of running). One highlight of that section was to see Western States Race Director, Craig Thornley with a few others, just before the bridge. In lieu of a high five, Craig extended his flexed elbow and, with my speed, I hesitated, fearing a brutal knock, but it worked out perfectly, with just a light touch, phew! ;-) At the aid station, I picked a small piece of banana and another GU before the big climb to Auburn. I would have taken some Coke but they didn't have cups...
  6. To Gate 142 (26.5 miles): ah, this mythical climb to Auburn! If you have run Western States (3 times for me), you can't be on that section without the chill of the dream of reaching the Place High School Track. That wasn't out goal today, but we did share a few miles of that course. As a matter of fact, Tony Nguyen, who will run Western States for the first time in June, COVID-19 allowing, missed the turn and went straight toward Robbie Point, that was bold, but costed him a DNF at the gate. Sincerely, I wished we had gone straight for all the great memories I had in that last WS section. But, no, Paulo wasn't letting us take the easiest and shortest path. Since FOURmidable, I know there is a much more difficult way up to Auburn and it includes going down back to the river several times! Straight up, straight down, and repeat. As we passed 3.5 hours of running in that section, me still a few strides behind Ron, it was drizzling again and I thanked the weather forecasters for being so wrong today. Yes, we had a few minutes of rain here and then for these first 3.5 hours but really nothing worth mitigating the drought. And then, all of sudden, and literally as I was thinking about that, pouring rain. Thankfully I had not dropped my light rain jacket and I did put my hood back on, impressed by Ron who kept going without any protection. As we were approaching the ridge and that gate 142, I told him that the lead gal was closing on us and that seemed to get him to pick up the pace. For me, I was already feeling so lucky to still be in Ron's footsteps at mid way, I couldn't push more and couldn't care less to get chicked. I stopped for a couple of minutes at the aid station, struggling to get some Coke as I had read the race instructions way too fast and lightly, and forgotten it was a cup-free race...
  7. To Oregon Bar (29.3 miles): with that long stop at the aid station, despite Agnès' assistance, I lost sight of that lead female runner and Ron. As much as the next section along the canal is my favorite one in hot weather, it was a different thing in pouring rain. The trail started getting slippery, especially the larger round rocks. Then Cardiac Trail... By the time I got there, it could have been renamed Cardiac Creek. There was so much water flowing on it that I couldn't see the rocks and holes. To make the matter worse, my inner tights started cramping and I thought that was it, that I will have to walk the last 22 miles or so, dang! With my feet in that impromptu creek, I stopped to take an additional S!Cap. I also doubled on water as well as inhaling more air. The combination seemed to do its magic (that's where you appreciate being older and not a rookie anymore) and I was glad we were taking the Cardiac Bypass to Oregon Bar instead of keeping down Cardiac. 2 volunteers there, with great smiles despite the pouring rain. To my surprise after such a slow descent of Cardiac for me, I saw Ron exiting the aid station as I was getting in. With 6 miles to go to the next aid station, I still stopped for a minute or so to take some water, a GU and a piece of banana. After 50K, and without any training beyond, I felt like entering an uncharted territory and having lost the stamina of keeping up with Ron. To my surprise, I saw him once more on the other side of the last big creek before Rattlesnake, and I was less than 2 minutes behind. On one hand that uplifted my (non) pioneer spirit; on the other, I felt like I had to slow down even more with 15 more miles to go. Well, 15 or rather 13 according to my GPS.
  8. To Rattlesnake Bar (35.3 miles): indeed, my Garmin was indicating 37.05 when I reached that aid station. A joy to see Agnès again, but a bummer to learn that I was off by 2 miles. At least it was good to hear that there was less than 3 miles until the next aid station, let's keep moving, albeit slower, at least steadily...
  9. To Horseshoe Bar (38.1 miles): 2.8 miles, yet not flat ones and I had more and more difficulty running the little uphills. I got chicked again in that section, but still no
  10. To Granite Bay (44.6 miles): one more gal passing me shortly after the aid station and, finally, one guy too, albeit not running the USATF championship (the 50-mile was open to non USATF members). This is the section I had my worst nightmares on, consistently (asthma at American River, DNF at Rio del Lago and many other sluggish crawls over these rocks and boulders). It has been more than 15 miles of trails transformed in creeks and bordered with poison oak all the way, my mind couldn't take it anymore. 6.5 miles at lower pace seem so so long, I was actually thinking of the struggle it would be for the back of the pack. With the walking in the uphills, I was clocking around 13 minutes per mile, yikes! My average pace was now approaching 10 minutes/mile... I was excited to see a guy waiting on the side of the trail and asked how far we had to go. When he said, about another mile, then 7 miles to the finish, while my GPS was indicating 53 miles, I thought to myself "this course seems elastic and getting longer as we keep moving, it has to be more than 50 miles..." Agnès cheered me up, just confirming that Ron was ahead, but no indication if someone in my age group was behind (there was some live tracking at Gate 142). All these miles I was running thinking Mark was going to catch me, like a ghost chasing me... When I stopped at the aid station, my legs cramped again, but that quickly passed, fortunately!

  11. To Beals point finish! At this point, my legs were really tired but I was determined to keep moving to see if I could hold my spot. I know the final rolling section quite well, I had some good memories created on it, some bad, and was able to get back to a 10 min/mile pace. I got super excited when I saw the levée getting to Beals Point until... I saw pink ribbons going on the right. Damned, Paulo was definitely preventing us from taking the easiest path... I kept moving but I got really tired, even more mentally than physically, after running beyond 50 miles on my GPS. It was on 52.25 miles when I crossed the finish line, I was really glad that was over. And, yes, it was still raining, not always pouring, but consistently raining. The weather men had it right, finally!
If you got confused in my above explanations, you can see the course we followed, from thousand feet above (click on the image below or that link):
Oh my, 8:53, that seems like such an awful time. In the entrants list, UltraSignup had predicted 8:38 and I thought that was on the long side. Oh well, on little and inconsistent training... I rushed to a chair under the food tent, and Agnès handed me a small slide of cold pizza. Meghan brought me the medal for winning my age group, then the famous and coveted patch.
I asked Meghan who won and was blown away to hear that Tim had finished in 6:22, with Max just 5 minutes behind! So long for preserving my UltraSignup score... For many years I was a hair short of 90%. But over the past 12 months, it has kept lowering... to 89.2% (although the age-graded looks better at 96%). At least, and as opposed to the ITRA score, all past years count so it helps I have 168 results accounted for... ;-)

While I had missed the Men podium picture by more than 2 hours, a few gals arrived after me so I could see the Female (top 5) podium:
I thanked Paulo for holding the event despite so much adversity, and apologized to him and Meghan to leave right away as I had better to change and get dry and warm quickly. Not to mention Agnès had still so much work to do this weekend to get ready to teach her French classes on line starting this Monday. The ride back home was tiring too for her, at high speed on the highway in pouring rain. I had slept only 4.5 hours before the race, I got 9.5 hours between Saturday and Sunday, to make for a better average.

My sincere apologies to my teammates who were still on the course when I left, for not waiting for you. Kudos on your respective finishes, Chris, Dan, Martin and Keith, again, what a brutal test for all!

Overall, not feeling too sore this Sunday, and very happy to have met most of the goals but 13.5 points in our Grand Prix. The injury isn't worse. The knees hold one. The lungs too. I drank consistently both water and GU Brew, like in the good old days. Vespa kept my physical energy high enough to keep moving forward and finish with a pace not too far from my 10 min/mile goal, all that despite proper training and conditioning. No chaffing. No blister this time. I never got cold. Still feeling like 20% off my peak level, but, again happy to have checked a few more goals and be back at running.

Ron finished in 8:36 and Karl, 10 minutes before. I'm super grateful to Ron for setting a great and smart pace, leading me to the mid point. My ghost Mark finished in 10:13 with another 50-54, William Dai, ahead of him in 9:25. So Mark didn't have that good of a day but all my respect for his numerous 100-mile finishes and teaching me not just the expression, but also how to run screwed (i.e. solo and without a crew). And it's also Mark that I remember learning the term chicked from, no comment... ;-)

Sincere thanks to Agnès for giving up a day and a half to drive me around and wait at all the aid stations in this weather while grading as many tests as possible from her students so she could spend her Sunday preparing virtual/on-line lessons for Monday... While that experience brought back a few great memories from my early years in ultra running, along with the boys, I was reminded that crewing has to remain very occasional now, and this event took its toll on the quota... :-/
Still, celebrating both patches as I was away for my birthday...
Extra thanks to the volunteers who not only braved the elements and helped us through the day, in this chilly and wet conditions, but also the stringent health measures to keep all safe. For what we hear on this Sunday, that may be the last running event of the first half of the year.

Again, what a change from Thursday, to hear everyone cancelling events as far as 8 to 12 weeks ahead when it's so hard to figure out things over a day or two in advance. And, again, when China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong proved that a few weeks of diligent measures are enough to curb the alarming trends. Oh well, did I say in the intro that we needed more trust in each others. Here you go, back to the ones in charge to make the right decisions! On the Pacific Association leadership side, we are already alluding to having a white year, that is not scoring the whole year and keeping the Age Group champion status for another year. At least for the Road Grand Prix which may have too many cancelled events (if these events aren't rescheduled). On our MUT side, we have 17 scoring opportunities. One in April, which my well be cancelled, then Quicksilver which will not happen in May at least, Ohlone and Silver State in May and at least a race in June. Again, just a possibility for now, it wouldn't be reasonable to make a decision in a hurry when things can change so much within days, in either direction. We'll keep everyone posted as this develops.

PS: Paulo had suggested we take our swim suits as there was water in the lake. Maybe not the right day to go to the beach... ;-)

1 comment:

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Indeed, my legs shut down a bit after Rattlesnake,time slower than half of several Rio Del Lago 100 milers, go figure. Congrats on your race, Jean, stay healthy!