Friday, April 30, 2021

Jackpot 100-mile Nationals 2021: back to digging deeper, again.

One week has passed and quite a few asked how my race went, short of a same day race report, time to make time for an account of this major event...

The build-up

2 years and 5 months after that infamous stride which ended up on a slippery crosswalk at the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot 10K in November 2018, I still consider myself in the injury-recovery phase. While I can now sit for hours at work without feeling the pain in my butt (the attach of that fissured tendon to the pelvis) and I don't feel the pain anymore when running slower than 7 min/mile, I must have lost quite some leg muscle during the 7-month break last year, not to mention the mental stamina, equally important in ultra running (and the COVID break didn't help with that either). I don't put as many miles into training anymore. For the 8 years before the injury I averaged 62 miles a week (100K). I'm way below that nowadays, which may not be that bad if I could compensate with high intensity speed work at the track, and intensive strength training (which I didn't find the motivation yet to do with consistency at home). With all these conditions and excuses, I was hoping I could at least run long at a slower pace. And I got excited to enter the 100-mile Road US Nationals scheduled for February in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb. I had missed the 2020 edition as I was in Israel, one of the many countries and places I went through before they close shortly after (over 6 weeks I visited Austria, France a couple of times, Israel, New York, Las Vegas, Minnesota, and believe I even got COVID before running the 50K Road Nationals in March...).

A few introductions

For readers not used to our sport, let me list a few of the participants to give additional context for this year's edition, a very competitive cast for a good change! While I got on the podium in 2018 and 2019, with much less competition, that wasn't in my wildest dreams this year based on what I shared in the preamble especially.

  • Zach Bitter: world record holder for both 100-mile (11hr19') and 12 hours (104.9 miles). 3 selections on Team USA. The safest bet! From Arizona.
  • Rajpaul (Raj) Pannu: ran the 3rd ever American fastest time on his first 100K run last year (6:28:31), placing second to Jim Walmsley who missed the world record mark by 11 seconds last January. 2:17 marathoner and 6th at this year's super fast JFK 50-mile (6:00:24). From Colorado.
  • Patrick Reagan: among other stellar performances, 3 overall wins at the Javelina Jundred (100 miles). From Georgia.
  • Jacob Jackson: a top Masters with several overall wins including Javelina Jundred 100M. 157.5 miles at Desert Solstice 24-hour invitational and 164.7 at the World Championships in France (2019, 8th overall). Another Team USA member. From South California.
  • Jonah Backstrom: another speedy and rising Master! From San Francisco.
  • Ryan Montgomery: only 27 but so many podiums already, a fast rising star! Made to Team USA for 24-hours with a mark of 154.7 miles. From North California.

Then a few celebrities from the past decades: 

  • Roy Pirrung: a member of the Ultrarunning Hall of Fame, I've met Roy at many Nationals this past decade, he does them all! And with success has he already got 95 National titles so far. And, now in the M70-74 age group, still counting, albeit with less competition! From Wisconsin.
  • Chad Ricklefs: ex member of Team USA on the 100K at least. Multiple overall wins at renowned races (Leadville 100, Miwok 100K, Way Too Cool 50K, American River 50M). I assumed Chad was here to go after the M50-54 age group record (the one I improved in 2019 with a 14:47:43 while being injured and without a crew, and which Bob Hearn beat by a minute, with a crew, last year). From Colorado.
  • Eric Clifton: I've met Eric at a few races, for instance the Ruth Anderson Memorial Runs in San Francisco. You can certainly be called a legend when a major vendor like Hoka names a model after you, and even more so through 8 editions (if I'm not mistaken, it seems Eric runs in Altras now). From South California.
  • Ed Rousseau: I've met Ed at this race 2 and 3 years ago. This time he was back as a young M80-84 and eyeing a new age group record, assuming no back pain like in 2019. From Minnesota.

More specifically in my age group (M55-59):

  • Garett Carolus, from Indiana
  • Ed Ethingaussen, from South California. Also called the Jester, you can't miss Ed on the course, with his... jester hat. But also his tall size, his communicative smile and enthusiasm, his loud and sincere encouragement. And, this time, a fancy red suit. To run in the Las Vegas heat, just think about that! If that wasn't enough to make Ed out of the ordinary, Ed had raced a 100-mile the previous day (call that a day job!) and was also in the non championship 100-mile race of Saturday (call that extreme ultra running, beyond dedication!). With these 3 100-milers, he was going to close on 200 lifetime 100-mile finishes. And guess what, there is still a British lady ahead of him, so far, with 206 of these finishes! What I love in this ultra running sport is that, no matter outstanding things you do, there is always someone who has done more. Longer, or tougher, or faster (distance wise), or quicker (time span wise), or longer (over more decades), or younger, or older, or...

On the ladies' side, the bets were split on these three phenomenal runners:

  • Camille Herron: world 2020 champion and current record holder for 24 hours (both road and track formats), 12 hours (idem), 100 miles (idem) and 50 miles Road.
  • Stefanie Flippin: a 2:54 marathoner, she won Tunnel Hill 100-mile in 15:55. From Colorado.
  • Micah Morgan: with a 148-mile mark, she placed 8th at the World Championship of 24-hour in 2019. From Alabama.
  • Marisa Lizak: 11 overall wins out of 16 races in ultra signup!

And our two USATF Officials to monitor this Championship, Meghan Canfield and Lin Gentling.

Last but not least, all of us responding to the amazing call from the Co-RDs (Race Directors), Ken and Stephanie Rubeli.

Here are a few faces, pre-race, as a post card full of friendship!

Race day conditions

This race is typically held mid February for a reason: the best Winter conditions for such a distance. Another consequence of COVID, the late April timing was much different. ON 4/14, 9 days prior to the event, Ken sent us a heat advisory including a strong advice not to aim at any record, official or personal. On 4/21, 2 days before race day, he sent another warning, a wind advisory this time! With these two, that looked like a miserable day to spend in the dry desert... While I used to manage the heat much better than others (e.g. my age group podium at Boston in 2017 and 6 Ohlone 50K wins), the wind is a much different story especially with 1-mile loop which makes you run against the wind every 4-5 minutes. At least the wind wasn't much of an issue at the time of the start.

In good spirit before the start, and great company, although that makes me look really short, doesn't it? When I grow up, I want these long legs... ;-)

A neat aid station before a 3-day storm!
Timer extraordinaire, getting for his own 3-day ultra marathon!

Marathon #1

The goal wasn't to qualify for Boston on that one! On the contrary, my main objective was to get as close to a 9 min/mile pace. When I resumed training back in November, holding 8 min/mile was difficult. With practice, I managed to find 7 minutes comfortable enough for training runs. At Jed Smith, I hold a 7:15 pace for the first 50K. At Jackpot I started at the back of the pack for a change. After half a mile, after passing Ed, I was running behind behind Eric Clifford who was chatting with two other runners, including Chad. They were talking about some personal controversy in Dean Karnazes' latest book, not the first time I hear folks complaining about Dean's tendency to distort reality to market his self and ultra pitch... And, yet, he is very successful at it!

Anyway, just before them was Garett Carolus, the other runner in my age group, from Indiana. I forced myself to stay behind him for a couple of laps. As we were 5 miles in, and chatting, Zach and the other lead runners lapped us for the first time. Of many many more times! 

I was carrying 2 bottles at all times, one with GU Energy electrolytes and the other with plain water, so I didn't have to stop at every lap to hydrate. This proved important as I was running screwed again today. Screwed is an expression I learnt from Mark Tanaka when I stated running ultras back in 2006, meaning that you don't have a crew supporting you at the aid stations (given the 1.178-mile loop format, there was only one aid station at that race, which we were crossing 85 times so it was important not to stop at every passage.

Garett had an active crew, actually with his Physical Therapist herself (and his coach, Suzi Swinehart, was also running the Championship). Here is a picture from Meghan Canfield, which she posted on twitter with the label "@JeanPommier looking relaxed" 55 minutes in the race.

I passed the 25 miles mark at 3hr35 and complete the first marathon in 3:45. Mathematically, that looked like on the perfect trajectory of 7h30 for 50 miles and 15 hours for 100. But the heat was already painful as we were approaching noon, and it was forecasted to keep rising until 6 pm... Also, the first miles on fresh legs are typically easier and faster than the last ones...

The first 50 miles

With the heat and so many passages through the aid station, the second marathon has been a bit of a blur in my memory already. I recall having gotten 3 laps on Garett. One thing that I remember crisply, reinforced with this picture is when I saw Raj walking. I was bummed to see him struggling now and we had a short chat as I walked next to him for a bit. He was suffering from GI issues. He was already at mile 46 when I only at 38 if I recall, and not feeling so well already myself, with the heat. Photo credit: @kevlvphotography

I had slowed down and didn't see Garett for a while so kept moving forward as well as I could. From my GPS recording, my pace got down to 9 min/mile and I was making more frequent stops to get ice both in my bottles, my ice bandana and hat. A few times, I thoughts of the Western States 100-mile pioneers who didn't have aid stations, much less ice every 6 or so miles when going thought the burning canyons. What a comfort for us today with so much ice available as well as towels dumped in ice water! Every time Zach was passing me, and that means many times, he looked like having just taken a full bath or shower!

Meghan posted that second picture on Twitter: "@JeanPommier trying to keep cool at #jackpot100 #usatfmut #nationalchampionships mile 43.5 in 6:45"

I reached the 50-mile mark in 7hr57, well behind my optimal flight plan already, almost by 30 minutes. According to my GPS recording again, that included 26 minutes of stops at the aid station already, not good at all! 4:34 of elapsed time for the second marathon, ouch!

Third marathon

At some point, after what looked like such a long while without seeing him, I did catch-up with Garett again and, as we were finishing one more lap, spotted that I was now 8 laps ahead, a big difference compared to the 3 of my last checkpoint, oops! A few laps later, I saw him on a chair at his aid station. He had told me about his lack of heat training, I felt for him to be another victim today (I could spot a few other runners in the shade of their tents from time to time too). A few laps later, I don't exactly recall when, his aid station was gone... With Ed 17 laps behind, and mostly walking as he was in a complete different league of his own, aiming at completing 3 100-mile races in 3 days, that removed a lot of pressure and both my body and mind let go. I mean in a negative manner, like falling apart. My pace plummeted but I kept moving. And drinking. And joking about the slow pace with our USATF reps, Lin and Meghan. When you have a bad day, what else can you do... Photo credit: @kevlvphotography

According to my GPS recording (I'm particularly thankful to that piece of gear to keep track of my movements on such a loop format), the 67th mile is the first one I walked (19:28, might have included another aid station stop). Photo credit: @kevlvphotography

I got back to some jogging for the next miles and mile 78 is the last one I dared to get some shuffling in. Got to the 75-mile mark in 13 hours and 15 minutes. And I started being afraid of computing an ETA based on having to walk the last 25 miles... Photo credit: @kevlvphotography

What about a walk-a-thon?

This is no secret, what I love in ultra running is, well, the running part! I actually hate walking, I'm so bad at it. If it hadn't been a championship, I would have called it a day but, what would I do for an age group patch... That's one reason I feel ok without a crew, that's one less worry about taking much more time than expected, you don't make someone wait for you. Otherwise, I would have been embarrassed and ashamed to now clock 25 minutes per lap. Unless I could bounce back and resume running, that was going to me a much longer night than expected. Longer night running, I mean, and a much shorter night sleeping at the hotel! As I was walking at my 18 min/mile pace, now, I was passed not only by other runners but those walking too! A few times, I tried to tie along but getting to their 14 min/mile pace felt like race walking, a pace I couldn't sustain. And that's not counting the stops by the bathroom! Excuse the detail but it's the first time that happens to me: through the night, I had urge to pee at every mile, like I had several liters of extra fluid in my body. For one thing, I felt better this way that the other, when you don't pee enough, a usual sign of kidney failure risk

Getting to that finish line felt like a delivrance, a liberation! Despite the insane late hour --it was now 5:30 am and the sky wasn't dark anymore-- I was welcome by super volunteer Lee, and the Race Director himself, Ken; way to provide special treatment through a 3-day event!

I missed taking a picture of Ed taking a few minutes of sleep on a simple folding chair by the side of the course in just his fancy red suit. 3 times 100 miles over three days, this is insane! But here a a few pics taken just before taking my aid station down.

Ed Rousseau, calling it a day because of three open blisters.

Roy Pirrung still going strong at 5:30 am, on his way for another sub-24hr finish in memory of his late wife. And his 96th National title, this time in the M70-74 category! He will surely not even stop at 100 wins...
With Bala Subramanian, who hold me company on one of my night laps. She did complete 107.5 miles in the 48-hour race!
And the tireless Jester, smiling on his third sun rise, on his way to completing his 200th 100-miler!!!

By the way, the elites had long gotten to bed by now. Zach really killed it, winning in 12:52:14, a new course record. Jacob Jackson took second in 14:12 and Patrick Reagan completed the Men podium with a 14:51 mark. Now, between Jacob and Jackson, there was so much excitement with the top three Women placing 3 to 5 overall, within 9 minutes to each other! And, drum roll, the winner was... Stefanie Flippin in 14:35! After a particularly tough day for her (I saw her puking at the aid station, a few laps after also seeing her drinking beer, an intriguing fact highlighted on her Wikipedia page), Camille finished 7 minutes behind and 2 minutes before Micah, phew, that was close! All of them were in for some well deserved cash money, thanks to the generosity of the Rubelis.

Another very impressive performance in my opinion was Larry Stephens, from Oregon, winning his M60-64 age group in 16:51.


This is of course quite a bag of mixed feelings. On one hand, this is the longest I've done since the long injury break. To counter my disappointment, many of you reminded me "but you did it!" Yes, it wasn't pretty, but I got to the finish line. One more sub-24hr finish (out of 16 100-mile races, I'm at 6 DNFs and 10 sub-24 finishes, not my sweet spot from a distance perspective). And, short of more competition, even gotten my 15th National title, the only goal which kept me moving forward through the night, that's that. Besides, I wasn't the only one to have a bad day. The wind was actually not as bad as we could fear, it really pick up on Saturday instead (poor 100-mile, 48 and 72-hour runners!).

Now, from an athletic standpoint, it was quite a disappointment, if not a failure. Way too much walking, and not even good walking. And I screwed up my hydration apparently. I consistently took a pouch of Vespa every 3 hours, and followed my traditional and proven plan of drinking one bottle of GU Brew every 15 miles. I also took one S!Caps every hour, doubling up for a few hours in the afternoon heat. 1 GU gel at the bottom of the hour after 90 minutes (the time for fat burning to kick in). Now, I lost track of the water intake and I might have overdone it. My lips were burning and I interpreted that as thirst. But they burnt and peeled for the next two days, so it was only sub burning (it's the only part of my skin which I didn't protect with a layer or sun screen; I was just hoping the shade of my cap visor would do, but that wasn't counting in the dryness of the air and the wind). I also drank a few cups of chicken broth through the night, adding to the fluid intake. For sure, it was the first heat training of the year for me and, apparently, for a few others, especially those coming from the East Coast or Colorado. We had been warned! Of course, I also didn't have the high mileage I used to have a few years ago at that time of the year. We'll see if that comes back, I'm reading quite a few sources advising to leave high volume to the youngsters...

I did lost a ton of salt. Maybe not a ton, but several grams...

The only good news is that, at this low pace, I did't feel my injury anymore; there is that, at least. And that include not feeling it anymore when I sat down for hours, including the 16 hours of driving it took me to drive to and back from Vegas (with night stays in Bakersfield). I had not realized how many millions fruit trees we had in California, this is mind boggling to see such trees for hundreds of miles. On both ways, I passed by a major trail derailment which got 15 BNSF cars rolled over in the middle of the desert (as the BNSF owner, Warren Buffet must not be happy!). One the way back, a truck was got on its side on the other side of Hwy 15, creating a jam of 12 miles for those coming from LA to Vegas for the weekend. More people having a bad day...

Special kudos to Ken and Stephanie's crew of cheering and dedicated volunteers. Manning an aid station for a few hours is one thing; doing it for more than 3 days is mind boggling. Most especially with a smile all the way!

Overall, another good learning experience, an opportunity to ramp up my ultra and heat training, and the pleasure --pain included! ;-)-- to get back to the competition and reconnect with our ultra running community. I look forward to the next edition, back in February if possible. And to more races in 2021 in the meantime.

PS: since I got you to travel that far to Nevada, a few road trip pictures as a bonus!

Major drought after major drought, the San Luis Reservoir getting lower and lower...

The controversial Ivanpah solar power facility, before leaving California
The small commercial city of Jean, Nevada. 100 years old and a population of... zero!
Heavy winds on Saturday morning before leaving (poor runners still on the course...):
Dust tornadoes in the desert:
Above 90F in Barstow, the entrance of the Death Valley:

Others having a bad day: how to recover from a major trail derailment with containers upside down on the side of the track.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Cupertino-Fremont 50-mile: a blip back into ultra training

After 4 posts about PCTR's Bay Area 9 Peak Challenge, back to flat and many more miles. I attempted this run back in February, while ramping up my mileage after the aborted Jed Smith 50-mile where I dropped at 35 miles. One week after that race, I did manage to run from Cupertino to Fremont, crossing the Bay on Dumbarton Bridge but, on the way back, I felt lazy and called Max for a pick up in Palo Alto, ending up with 38 miles. Progress.

Fast forward 3 weeks, on Saturday March 27, I left with the strong resolution of covering the distance, what ever time it will take. Kind of taking one full day off for a change! This time the plan was to stick to a 8 min/mile pace, instead of the 7:15 I had run the first 25 miles at previously. But even 7:45 was an uncomfortable pace, way too... slow. Every time I was getting under 7:40, I was slapping my mind and trying to run in slow motion or very short strides. I still have so much to learn to run slower when I feel good!

In general, I don't like to drive to run, at least for training runs, so that means I have to first go through some urban areas. This course is actually quite cool: after crossing Stevens Creek Blvd, De Anza Blvd, Homestead Road and Fremont Ave, 4 major arteries, I'm 4 miles in and there is no more road crossing, 21 miles of bike path!

After Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Mountain View (Stevens Creek trail and Shoreline Park), Palo Alto (Baylands, airport, golf), East Palo Alto and Fremont. Not quite the terminus, just turning around at Coyote Regional Park.

In 2015, I had run over there to cheer for Greg who was running his first half marathon, and ended up running 50K that day. Back then, I had to run on Embarcadero Road, the entrance of the busy Dumbarton Bridge, which was definitely the low of that course. To my surprise this March, I believe I ran right after a new trail section got open there. The asphalt was pristine, like it was applied a couple of days before. Very cool, a great addition to the Bay Trail!

Crossing the bridge is definitely doable albeit not the highlight of this run, with nearby traffic going full speed on the cement. Cool to see Fremont's city border starting halfway, they own a lot of water surface from the Bay!

Just before the bridge, two signs reminding us of the evolution of the watershed of the centuries. I particularly like the map showing all the Native American tribes established here before the Gold Rush. I've so much respect for their osmose with Mother Nature and love the tribute we pay them with events such as Miwok and Ohlone for instance.

On the way back, I noticed this odd construction project: a super mini site for testing self-driving cars, in Palo Alto. Not an entire circuit, just one curved 4-lane road section finishing in... the trail fence! Beware when this opens and operates, duh!

As for Shoreline, Google's new office and mega project continues taking shape, not sure about the geometry, but figuratively speaking at least! ;-)

I ran each of the first 45 miles under 8 minutes, then I  finally found a way to run slower miles than 8 minutes, phew! Apart from taking Vespa, I didn't prepare well for this run and had packed only 1 Snicker bar and 2 GU Energy gels so I got tempted to make a detour to stop by In and Out Burgers in Mountain View on the way back. With such a name I've always thought that they would be the perfect sponsor for aid stations: in and out!

But, geez, running after eating a burger (even one without cheese, cheese I've done while training on the UTMB course, and that didn't work well), a portion of French (go figure) fries, and a Coke... pathetic bloating! I was reduced to jogging a few hundred yards, then stop, then repeat, for the next three miles. Blurp! But I managed to hold everything up and barely break 8 minutes for each of the last 2 miles. Avoiding that stop for a full menu and taking just one gel would have been a smarter idea. By the way, all these sub 8 min miles don't count stops to refill my bottles or take pictures. As a matter of fact, except for the last miles, I don't really explain why it took me 2 more hours than the 6:24 of running time reported by Strava.

At least I finally managed to cover 50 miles on one go, first time in a year, after the very last race before the COVID shut down, Paulo's Single Track 2020 50-mile Trail Nationals, Pioneer Spirit. While there is so much to rebuild physically and mentally, at least the tendon of my left hamstring isn't yelling any more. 2 years and a few months, that was so long to heal. Oh, and some preliminary heat training too!

Here is for the traditional 3D flyover (this link or a click on that image) so you do 50 miles yourself from your couch! ;-)

For those paying close attention, I have no idea where the 3,100 feet of elevation comes from! Starting from Cupertino's elevation of ~220 feet, most of the run is at sea level, except for the Dumbarton bridge climb. Strava already gives 850 feet which I believe is extra generous. Weird.

Anyway, it feels good to get back to some ultra training, even if that shows the hard road ahead for getting back to more speed and endurance. If ultra running was easy, then it wouldn't be as fun, right? ;-)