Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Jam on Tam: a classic I didn't know existed!

Does Jam on Tam resonate with you? Am I the only one who thought that was Greg or Todd's invention? I have to love that ultra running is so humbling, a never ending experiment in which you always learn something, a sport in which there are always people having done more and harder stuff than what you just did or thought was doable!

Living in the Bay Area, I had my fair share of seeing pictures of people summiting Mount Tamalpais, on a weekly basis, if not daily. And I've seen that mountain top many times, racing in the Marin Headlands for more than 10 years (Miwok 100K, Headlands Hundred miles or 50K, Quad Dipsea, Tamalpa 50K, etc.). But another super popular place which I felt embarrassed for not having visited yet.

My previous two posts were about two of the three Open Courses constituting the Bay Area Open Course Triple Crown, Streak to Mission Peak and Hum up Um. With Jam on Tam being the third one. All under 8 miles, how hard could that be, I thought... Let's do them over 7 days, Mission Peak on Sunday, Mount Umunhum on Thursday and Mount Tam on Saturday!

I had a chat with Greg (Lanctot) on Friday and he mentioned that a gal had just broke YiOu Wang's 38'30" FKT for the ascent (Fastest Known Time), with a new time of 37'03" (Bailey Kowalczyk). He didn't say Jim Walmsley clocked a 30'38" on that course. But he warned me it was a tough one, and asked I'd be careful. Run carefully, I can do! Since several bad falls in mountain races, including breaking my shoulder while training on the Tahoe Rim Trail, I know how to be slow and extra cautious on tricky trails! But Mount Tamalpais isn't a mountain in the Alps or the Rockies, right? At least all the races I've been doing in the area have been on typical smooth trails (except for the Dispea stairs). Well, Jam on Tam is different, read on...

After accompanying me on the two Open Courses, Max got hooked and was all in for starting from the bottom, at the clock tower in Mill Valley, while Agnès and Greg were going to hike from mid way. Max even let me start ahead but, like on Thursday for Hum up Um, that didn't last long. I just didn't have the stamina, started walking before the end of the first mile, still on the streets (the first 1.5 miles are on asphalt).

We reached the trail as Agnès and Greg had just found a parking spot, and what a trail for a first comer: straight up! And steep rocky ravine style or irregular stairs.

Oops, so much walking, slogging, barely power hiking. Not really running against the clock at that point, just trying to reach the summit, my first visit to the famous and emblematic fire lookout station! With gorgeous views over the City by the Bay, and the whole Bay as a matter of fact!

I remember checking my Garmin watch and seeing 46' when we were in the last switch backs, actually quite close to the station.

Just underneath though, I noticed on that we had to leave the trail to climb... oh my... a wall! I was definitely prepared for rock climbing. Nothing difficult but spent a few minutes trying to find our way.

Finally touching the door, 53 minutes in the run, ouch! I already felt like I'd have to come back and redo it on fresh legs.

The down hill starts with another technical trail before we reach a segment of road.

There was a good moving runner ahead who took a trail which didn't look like the one we were supposed to be on. Max and I tried a few other options as I was not sure how long we had to stay on the asphalt section from the trace. Coming back on that section of road, we crossed three hikers and I almost missed the start of a trail on the left side. I stopped abruptly but Max was still looking to the hikers on the side and hit me at full speed: I couldn't avoid a bad fall on my back, although I was happy my head didn't hit the asphalt. My right but hurt really bad, skin scratches on my back and a bloody hand, it could have been worst, nothing broken at least, phew!

With that, I did what I know best these days, being careful and slow on the next single track section, a wonderful trail if you aren't in a hurry! ;-)

On the fire road, we went all out, crossing quite a few mountain bikers.

Then, after a few other hesitations at the next fire road junction, finally found the trail going straight down to Mill Valley. 1:42:59 total (1:35:19 moving time), I can't believe how long this back and forth took us. Really interested in trying it again now that I know the course.

Here is the corresponding 3D flyover in Relive:

On a very practical matter, I loved the brand new super clean public restrooms on the back of the café and bookstore. We pick-nicked on the Depot Plaza then stopped by the gallery of our friend Emebet (whom we went to Ethiopia with at the end of 2009), the Desta Gallery, just by the course start (exhibits change every 6 weeks, check great artists out!).

A excellent way to start the day, before checking 3 more peaks off our Bay Area 9 Peak Challenge list, Tamalpa being #3 of 9.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Hum up Um: second Open Course and Peak #2/9

Humming up Umunhum. Mount Umunhum that is. Hard to believe I had never ran to this iconic top over our South Bay area, nor hike, ride or drive for that matter. The closest I've been to it was during grueling Quicksilver 100K races which provided great views of it, from beneath.

Agnès and Max had hiked to the top a month ago and said it was a must to do but also reported how busy the single track trail was on weekends. I decided to pick a weekday then and, after a fist morning 7-hour shift (most of my days start with calls with India or the East Coast at 5 am, nowadays...), we drove to the trail head with Max at lunch time.

The weather looked uncertain so I picked long sleeves for a change. A few miles on 85 and it started raining... Oops, it looked like I didn't pick the right day to visit the top of a mountain! March showers kept coming and stopping but, as we were climbing up Hicks Road (I've never driven to that aid station, had no idea about the significant incline), the clouds looked darker and darker and the only vehicles we were seeing were County Park Rangers driving down. That's always encouraging...

Not surprisingly then, the parking lot was empty. With the humidity, I felt chilly right out of the car. At least we had 3.5 miles of uphill to warm up! I took off ahead of Max but, after half a mile, the legs were still feeling tired from the Mission Peak effort and subsequent soreness, even 4 days later. I walked some of the 2nd and 3rd mile, since this was an Open Course race. The trail was turning into a running stream in many places. At the top, the course says you have to go around the mountain top, anti-clockwise. I hesitated as the gate was closed with a sign indicating that the trail was too hazardous given the conditions. But I didn't want to get off the official course, what a dilemma...

Eventually we reached the top in the cloud, so long for the wonderful 360-degree views of the Bay and Santa Cruz which Agnès had sold me, I'll have to go up again in better conditions. A quick selfie as an additional proof, and down we were.

Because of the trail closure, Max ran the mountain top, clockwise. Myself, I got confused on which trail or stair was going down to the parking lot and lost precious seconds. It took me almost two miles of sprinting downhill to catch him, such a great rabbit! :-)

At least we didn't see a soul so that was a plus from a speed standpoint. But I'll have to try again with fresh legs, I may be able to shave a few minutes. For sure, youngsters and speedsters can get well under an hour on that one, although maybe not on a busy weekend or holiday. 1:04:51 for me this round.

As a first experience, I was super happy to see such a well designed and managed trail. It has been open for more than 3.5 years already (September 2017), it seems to age well. And it was really time I get there, finally...

Check this Hum up Um Open Course out, the trip to the top is really worth it if you live in the Bay Area! And look at this 3D flyover to get a preview!

See you soon, virtually, on that... Open Course!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Streak To Mission Peak: my first Open Course race!

Enough hibernating, between COVID and a 2-year injury stint, it's time to get back on my toes and rebuild! On one hand, I can't believe how much fitness I lost, both physically and mentally. On the other, it makes complete sense. Indeed, I praised myself for putting a lot of hard work in training and racing, back then. In other words, there is no free lunch, I couldn't even train because of this hamstring injury, even less so work hard. Well, on the running side, because on the first job, that has turned insanely taxing.

COVID has seen an abundance of virtual races and challenges. Imagine telling Usain Bolt, go to the nearby track, race 100 meters at 110%, time yourself, and let us know. No spectators, no competition, no adrenaline to aim at a gold medal in fair terms, no assurance the weather conditions match other performances (e.g. wind, temperature, humidity), that's just not the same! Sure, it allowed many to get out of the door and maintain so motivation. What the heck, I even succumbed to the game, I entered Paulo Medina's Single Track Running 100 miles to Auburn back in June, to celebrate Western States but, more importantly, in honor of a dear friend couple, both battling cancer (Bob died a few weeks later). And I completed that event twice (once over 4 days, and another one with a series of 10Ks or so).

Fast forward 9 months, I offered to the boys an entry into PCTR's Bay Area 9 Peaks Challenge. I have already enough trouble training for faster and longer flat miles but, in case Quicksilver 100K is confirmed, I'd better work on some up and downhill skills as well! Two key things decided me to enter this challenge:

  1. Supporting one of our local race organization businesses which have contributed many key races to our USATF Pacific Association (PA) Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) Grand Prix in the past;
  2. Having a challenge to tackle as a family;
  3. Get some specific goals to bring variety in my boring training and come back;
  4. Discover places I'm ashamed for not having visited before; yes, that would include the top of Mount Tamalpais for a start, but also Mount Davidson, Slacker Hill (although I've been around many times, like Mt Tam), Montara Mountain, Mount Umunhum (double shame), Mount Vaca and Mount Saint Helena!
We started the 9 Peaks Challenge with Mission Peak, 2 weeks ago. Between all my runs of Ohlone 50K and my special connection and love for this race, and using the steep incline as a hill repeat course when I was in top shape, that felt like an easy way to start. Although I had never run up that mountain from that side, starting from the... Ohlone College. At least that solves the parking problem encountered when you start from Stanford Avenue (see the section Park entrance controversy in the Wikipedia article...).

Now, 3 of the 9 selected peaks have an Open Course associated to them. Since I'm more into running than hiking, I decided to also register for these and kill 6 birds with 3 stones. Having real races would help pushing the envelope and get in some much needed hill training after such a long break.

But, first, what is an Open Course? It's a race open for a few weeks on a very specific course which you can run when you want, but follow meticulously. Like a standard course but without any ribbon. Like a standard race but without seeing the competition. It's different from the popular Virtual Race format in which you basically run a certain distance but on a course you pick. To make sure you are not cheating, PCTR, trough its spinoff The Trail, partnered with PWRLab. PWRLab, a startup providing online automated coaching based on your GPS recordings, claims some patented technology to recognize who is actually running from a GPS track. I'll elaborate on the experience in upcoming posts.

Back to Mission Peak, the start from Ohlone College is really steep for the first 1.5 miles. The course eases up a bit when you get through a nice grove.
Then you get back to a large fire road with switch backs which reminded me of our motorcycle ride through the highest passes of the French Alps 3 years ago.

The last few hundreds yards up to the summit of Mission Peak are always epic, not just because of the rocky terrain but all the hikers. Starting at 7:30 am wasn't early enough to beat the traffic on a Sunday!
I took a selfie at the summit pole, nicknamed Mission Peeker, then rushed for the descent, still paying extra attention to my footing on the first yards, a section I fell badly in the early part of Ohlone 50K 2016, the first time I missed the overall podium after 9 participations.

I was really happy to fly down the fire road and get the watch displaying a 5:45 min/mile pace at some point! Fast downhill is good training too, makes different muscles work hard.
Overall, 48 minutes for the climb, 24 minutes for the descent, this is too symmetrical, I'm sure youngsters can do much better on the 3.8-mile climb, I did walk way too much! As I said, I'm just back at hill training, and it showed in my awkward walking for the following two days... As I said above, I can't believe how much a lost and what I need to rebuild...

Here is the 3D flyover (click on this link or this screenshot):
Max had started 5 minutes before me and I missed him while he was enjoying the views from the summit. Agnès and Greg did hike to the top in a power walking mode.

One Open Course done, 2 more to go in the Bay Area Open Course Triple Crown series. And one Peak done, 8 more to go!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Jed Smith 2021: back to the ultra lab!

6 month without blogging, I feel so bad. Hopefully this is a BR (Bad Record) I won't beat anytime soon. Because I don't want this blog to die, as much as I don't want my running experience to end...

And missing weekly posting is not the only reason I'm feeling so down right now. Yet, I am so much on the good side of life. Like some people said: "we may be in the same storm, but we are definitely in the same boat!" For me, the down spiral started with what I first thought would be an insignificant injury triggered by slipping just one inch on a wet crosswalk 5 miles in the 2018 Silicon Valley Turkey Trot. Not getting a good diagnosis for 7 months, I still ran half an ultra season on the injury, just enough to get a couple of National titles and winning a 13th consecutive MUT Grand Prix, in 2019, with our NorCal USATF Pacific Association. Then COVID hit...

A good excuse to give time for the injury to heal you'd think... When I finally met a sport medicine guru in France in July 2019 he said "this is going to take some time to heal, it's going to be long." Well, I had no idea long would mean a couple of years. All I can say now is that, after year of denial and pushing the enveloped, I finally realized aging was a thing, that tissues weren't as elastic, or resistant, and repair wasn't as quick as in your golden years. And a key advice: do not get injured!!

With this preamble, let's get back to the title. If I didn't do a same weekend report, it's because I had to much to say about this return to competition, and this event. Let's split into these 5 sections:

  1. The build-up
  2. My race
  3. Who is this Alex Ratelle?
  4. Rich Hanna's turf
  5. The social lab
1. The build-up

In good normal years, the ultra season and our Grand Prix need to be planned out mostly by September as some events open registrations as early as October. Needless to say, with the ultra racing world at a halt, there wasn't much rush to make decisions last Fall. Still, I surveyed all the participating Race Directors (RDs) in October and November. I was especially interested in Jed Smith since that has been a traditional opening event for the past 20 years or so. Without any response to my pings, including in January, I assumed the event was yet another victim of COVID. It was spared last year as the local counties only closed in March. To my surprise though, I received a notification from UltraSignup in the first week of February, stating the event will be held the last Saturday of the month, instead of the traditional first one. While it was too short notice to include it in our 2021 Grand Prix, not to mention that many of our counties were still in purple state, I was impressed by the Buffalo Chips club's work and investment to still sanction both the 50K and 50-mile distances (this year the event also included a marathon).

Long story short, Buffalo Chips managed to pull all the strings to avoid an interruption in this ultra tradition now spanning 4 decades. I wasn't born to ultra running in 1983 to explain that only hiatus but I can testify to the resilience of this event, and it's growing significance. For instance, when I first ran it in 2009, that was quite a low key event, with the course even including a potentially muddy section at Gibson Ranch. We got more asphalt when John Blue had to find a course replacement in 2010. Then we switched to that new classic loop around the American River and over two bridges. Except in 2017 where that park was closed and we moved to a crazy fast loop around office buildings.

Despite the low key nature, Jed Smith has become a very respectable ultra lab, one of the very few certified and sanctioned 50-miles in the country. In 2009, Todd Braje ran an impressive 5:30 50-mile. Several records have been set on that course by Bev, Rich, Meghan, Billy (Mertens) and Bill (Dodson).

I've had quite a good run at this event. By 2018, 9 podiums out of 10 participations, and finally a win in 2018 (thanks in particular to Chikara or Rich not showing up...). I didn't run 2019 because, still in pain with the quad tendon tear, I had run the Redding Marathon the week before, to submit a better time for the Boston start. And I was traveling in Europe last year. This year, I slowed down so much, I didn't have the heart to compete in the 50K. Instead, I picked the 50-mile as a training and test run. Registration was closing at 6pm the previous Thursday. I got in at 4 pm. Followed by Rich just before 6 pm...

2. My race

Given the circumstances, my goals were simple: a. finish; b. see how long I could run at 7:30 min/mile pace; c. not get caught into the M50-59 competition (in addition to Rich, James Scalan who, at 50, won the 50-mile last year in 6:24, was back this year to defend his title; and Alan Abbs and Grant Carboni also joint our age group this year).

How hard can it be to run at 7:30 min/mile pace. Well, first, it has been really hard last year after I got sick in February. Was it COVID, I'll probably never know because, back then, we weren't even tested and my Doctor didn't believe in the efficiency of anti-body testing (the only I got was in September which is too late anyway). But, by July, I still experienced breathing issues in the first 1 or 2 miles of every run, so much that I could barely hit 8 min/mile anymore. Yet another hit on my morale, plus the fact that I almost lost my job at work. I spent 2020 wondering what to do with my training and, eventually, almost 2 years after the quad injury, finally getting a shock therapy done over 5 weeks in France in September. The positive effect started showing in November but full extensions are still painful, so much that I haven't resumed speed work at the track yet.

To my surprise given the small field, the start was staggered, one runner starting every 30 seconds. I arrived at the start area with Jason Reed and only one minute to spare, ready to get at the end of the line, but Rich wanted to take the third spot. I declined and took the 4th spot, just before Bev and Alan Abbs. Quickly checked on Rich's goal who knew about the road record of 5:53 for our age group (this record tracking page has a few errors which bring confusion). As for Bev, she is also back from injury (ACL), and was aiming at a 7-hour run.

With this race start format, you were on your own right away. After a week of tapering (just a 10 and 5K to get the legs moving), but more importantly the excitement of being racing again, and seeing other runners on the short initial out and back, I caught myself running under 7 min/mile, dang! I tried to slow down after getting on the 4.85-mile loop but it was hard to run slower than 7:10, it felt way too easy... Yet, even at that space, I lost sight of Rich around mile 4. Rich had told me at the start he was aiming at running 7 min/mile, still under the record pace, but he was even faster than that.

By the end of the second loop I could see a Team USA top ahead. I knew Meghan (Canfield) was in the 50K and that got me excited to keep the 7:05-7:10 pace for a little longer to catch her and say hi. When I got to her, I was resolute to slow down, yet kept going at around 7:15, so long for my most important goal...

A couple of pictures, the first from Eric Schranz ( then Alan Fuss who spend hours tracking all of us around the course with is tele lens!

I got to 25 miles in 3:01 (7:15 pace), then the marathon mark in 3:10 (7:15), then the 50K in 3:46 (7:17). Then from there, I had pretty much decided to drop as soon as it was going to get painful, which it did on the 7th loop. I walked several times on that one, enough to finally get the pace to quickly decrease, or rather raise close to 7:30. I decided to call it a day at the end of that lap: 4:25:39 for 35.7 miles, that will have to do for the test. The biggest finding on my end is that I need to retrain my brain to better handle the suffering coming with ultra. Oh, and work on that slower pace still... Otherwise, no cramping, I even ran a 10K at a comfortable 7:15 pace on Sunday morning. Nothing to brag about but, given how far I'm coming back from, it feels good to see Vespa is still doing its magic!

Now, one of the reasons I wanted to stop was to see Rich's finish on this major record attempts. Apart from the 7:04 pace corresponding to the 5:53:08, which you have to hold for 50 consecutive miles, including any stop at aid stations, the record had been set almost 40 years ago, in October 1981. So long ago that nobody knows the holder, Alex Ratelle...

3. Who is this Alex Ratelle?

I even checked with the supra ultra historian, Davy Crockett, who didn't know either. Fortunately, well, in this case, fewer and fewer details escape Google nowadays... A search allowed me to actually learn a few things about this mythical Masters legend:
  1. First, to Davy's defense who only covers ultra, it looks like Alex Ratelle only raced 2 ultras in his life time: a slow 50K and this amazing 50-mile! This is confirmed by his DUV page.
  2. I did skip the Dr title, but he has been an anesthesiologist for almost 40 years.
  3. 67 missions on B-17 bombers during WWII, including being shot down twice! (source: TwinCities Pioneer Press).
  4. Although he ran in high school, he really picked up marathon running when he was a Masters.
  5. One of his feats is a 2:30:46 at age 56.
  6. All in all, his obituary mentions he ran 160 marathons (this page from the Association of Road Racing Statisticians also lists shorter distance races) and once held 8 world records and 32 American age group bests.
  7. He died in 2017 at age 87; his wife also died knowing this record resisted to the years, in 2020. Their daughter died in 2007 (source: (personal note: while not running for 7 months in 2020, I spent lot of time working genealogy, and I'm amazed the information that this page contains about Alex's family, from his parents to siblings).
  8. A few more details in Sherman's 2012 column in Sun Current.
  9. And, albeit less relevant for this blog, he was also an accomplished amateur car racer.
And two pictures found on the Internet to put a face on this legend:

4. Rich Hanna's turf

Back to Jed Smith where Rich still had two loops to complete after I dropped. At mile 40 he still looked super smooth, composed and so fast.
Looking more tired at the start of the last lap but he still had more than 40 minutes to complete just under 5 miles.
Once again, on his training ground, and while being time tracked by his own company and employees, Rich didn't disappoint at all: taking the 1:30 staggered start time off the clock, he completed the 50 miles in a blistering 5:50:52 (right on 7:01 average pace).

Outstanding performance especially given the headwind we had especially while crossing the first bridge, up to 10 times. Gave it almost all, that record should hold for quite some time!

By the way, yet another "carbon shoe plate" record, there is really something about these shoes, either from Nike, Hokas or Brooks (Hyperion Elite 2).

5. The social lab

While the event didn't gather the whole Pacific Association MUT community this year, it was great to see a few familiar faces again. Special mention to the big show from the Excelsior's team. Starting with Chikara Omine who clocked a PR, finally breaking 3 hours on the 50K (2:59:41 a 5:47 average pace!). And still, that wasn't even good enough for first place as Malcom Richards took the win in 2:51:49. 5:31 average pace, you see what I was talking about when I mentioned in the intro that Jed Smith was turning into a most respectable ultra event!

Dennis and Chikara:
Race Director, John Feeney, with Meghan, and Craid Thornley (Western States RD).
A selfie with Kevin Beile, the finish line aid station volunteer (it was the year to be anti-social, I didn't stop at any aid station this year, but at my car twice to change bottles and take a Vespa pouch at mile 25).
Enjoying a leg massage while waiting for Rich's finish:
Carl Jacob from the Tamalpa Runners club, in the 50K
Alan Abbs having a great day for a short 50-mile run (compared to his and Bev's recent win at the inaugural 500K HOTS).
Bev who'd win the 50-mile race again:
Verity Breen having both fun and speed on the 50K:
And Chief Endorphin Officer, Tony Nguyen, following Chikara's steps (almost!) with a 50K PR too!
I also chatted with Chiran Kochavi (ex Quicksilver teammate) and saw Steve Jaber several times on the course. And Martin Sengo who also PR'ed on the 50-mile, what a day!

Special kudos to John for having the guts to run this edition while the county was in purple state. What a feat which allowed many of us to see each other, and push the envelope again for quite a few outstanding performances. One optimistic news to bring hope for a 2021 recovery! Thumb up, John and Buffalo Chips!!