Sunday, October 31, 2021

Quicksilver 50K 2021: could have I emerged from the dead farther?

Death is really no joke, especially as we advance in life and start losing more of our friends or relatives, and continuing on the realization journey that this is one of the most certain outcome of… life. But it’s Halloween season, All Saints, All Souls, so I couldn’t resist using the theme to convey it was an opportune time for me to get out of my running tomb!

Now, what could the connection to Halloween be for a race which, over 35 years, has been almost consistently providing one of the best heat training opportunities prior to the estival 100-milers like Western States and Tahoe Rim Trail? Halloween in May, is the world really that upside down? Well, the pandemic is of course the culprit of such imbroglio: after 3 reschedules, the 2020 and 37th edition of the Quicksilver Running Club Ultras finally occurred last week, thanks to the tenacity of its co-Race Directors, Pierre-Yves and Loren, and the support of the rest of our Club leadership. Quicksilver in October reminded me of the past Quicksilver Challenge of 2012, for which we had a great weather too!

Running tomb? I used to be so active and voluble about my running, it feels odd and uneasy to completely disappear from the blogosphere, Facebook and even Strava. As we can read about the bad impact Instagram has on teens, some of us have become accustomed to live and connect through reactions to posts. No post and you don’t exist or matter anymore. Unless, mind you so-newly-called Meta, you have connections through and with the real world, with tangible family members, colleagues or friends. I feel so lucky for having such connections but, still, my belonging to the trail and ultra running community has been challenged. First it was the lack of competition due to the pandemic since March 2020. But my issues started earlier: I’m actually getting close to a unwanted celebration of a 3-year injury, after I fissured the tendon attaching my hamstring to the pelvis at the Turkey Trot 2018. 3 years of pain at every step which slowed me down so much as I kept persisting through the 2019 and 2020 seasons. A slight improvement last Spring until I slipped and fell in a staircase in May. Some easy running through the summer with finally a few ultra training runs to prepare for Headlands 100. Yes, a 100-miler without proper training, why not, right? The pain was so intense at Headlands, I dropped after 50K. While in France in September to visit my parents, I had enjoyed running the Balcons de Rouen, a course I discovered in 2008, bringing the Fat Ass tradition and concept to local ultra peeps in Normandy. Actually, running that 50K loop twice, 8 days apart. But, at the end of the second, mid September, I could barely get back home on foot because of a new intense and sharp pain in my right calf, dang. Too long story short, that completely screwed up my season. I went for a run the Friday before Firetrails 50-mile but stopped before completing a mile. A week later, No’to’Mom 100K Road Nationals was closing registration on Thursday so I went for another trial, that one aborted at .75 miles. And same fate the Friday before Ruth Anderson 50K/50M the following week. With these three consecutive mishaps, I was really pessimistic about Quicksilver although there were 2 weeks between these races at least. I let a week pass after Ruth Anderson, went for 5K on Monday and the calf more or less held on, phew! 15K on Tuesday, with only some little pain so I decided to give it a try, but still switched from the 100K distance down to 50K on Wednesday since the RDs offered this generous option that close to race day, another perk of our Club race! Photo credit, David Foote:

At least I was finally toeing a start line! Even better, at a more decent time than 4:30 am… 7 am. We didn’t even need our headlamps at the start, one less logistical problem. I still used that headlamp though, as I arrived around 5:30 am. Like a newbie after several DNSs (Did Not Start), I was 20 minutes away from home, on the quiet 85 South, when I realized I had forgotten my Garmin watch, oops! For a few seconds I weighed in the idea of running watch-less, to release some pressure, but I'm still way too attached to the comfort of that instrumented feedback. With the bib distribution on Friday afternoon at Sports Basement, the start area was really quiet before 6 am and I was able to even chat with Pierre-Yves and a few volunteers, notably Chris who was guarding the drop bag yard with his colorful skeleton hands (picture, anyone?).

The picture doesn't give justice to the beauty of the moon light just before dawn!

Bib anyone?
Drop bags safely guarded!
It's not even 6 am but the co-RDs have been up for quite a few hours already!

There was also ultra-volunteer William Dai, omnipresent at races this year, such an example of give back while being injured and recovering (hopefully!). All in all, 100 volunteers allowed us to enjoy the trail last Saturday, many we saw on the trail and could thank directly, but many behind the scene. I especially missed not seeing the volunteer queen, Kristina, who was stationed with her truck at the aid station headquarter on the other site of the hill, at Mockingbird. I regret the current stress at work which prevented me from giving a hand on Friday, in the rain, and even not making the detour through the parking lot when going through the Mockingbird aid station at mile 13 on race day. I’ve done better in the past… Photo credit: I-Tao Tsai (who also swept 19 miles of the course later in the day, with his young son!)

The start was tough, all steep and uphill for a few miles to reach Bull Run. I was happy to see at least 20 runners ahead, including a few gals, I wasn’t here for the points, the 50K distance not being on the Grand Prix. My main goal was to test my calf and see if I could get beyond a few miles, hilly ones to make the matter more interesting. I chatted a bit with Jonathan Bretan in the first mile but he was moving well uphill, so I backed off a little. I would catch up with him again on our way down the Cemetery as he was taking pictures of the amazing views, with the hills bathed by the sun rise light. With his wisdom and optimism, he shared and imprinted in me some positivity which was going to help me going through the day: he was simply questioning why some people could whine despite all these wonders! Spot on, Jonathan, your students are so lucky to have you to learn science, I hope they realize their blessings!

The out and back to the Cemetery is cool because it gives an opportunity to see quite a few runners. For the 50K, we also have this opportunity with another turn around at Hicks Road, at mile 6. I was quite impressed with the gap that the front leaders had created, more than a mile already after less than 6 miles! But, again, I wasn’t here to kill myself, especially that early. More remarkable was the presence of a female runner among the leaders, along the top 3 men. Carrying enough fluids for 15 miles, I just waived at my fellow Quicksilver club mates at the Hicks Road aid station, such a nice crew led by Clare. All these miles, I was trading places with Dave Braden, him being faster on the uphills, me on the downhills. While I closed on Rob Guttierrez, another M50-59 runner, by Hicks Road, I would only catch-up with him at mile 10, where we chatted about our respective running injuries and struggles. I was sorry for instance to hear that his had prevented him from competing in the TDS he was in this year, and where he would probably been ahead of the accident which cancelled the rest of the race with this awful runner’s death.

Slightly ahead of us was the female in 2nd place, Vanessa Dueck, a mother of 3, and quite vocal about pushing the envelope to make the Olympic Trials. I shared a few miles with her in the second half and was astonished how she kept running on her toes, not only on the uphills, but flat sections and downhills as well! I’ve never seen this before, at least it worked for her to get on the podium.

In the second half, the highlights included seeing representatives from my first running club, the Stevens Creek Striders, at the Bull Run aid station. So precious to see familiar faces there, and have such ultra experienced volunteers, this club having manned the Last Chance aid station at Western States for more than 3 decades (I did captain there and that what hooked me into ultra racing in 2007). Among these special friends, two, Chuck and Peter, were the course monitor at the Catherine Tunnel lollipop. Which was a busy section as 2 runners, including Ron, were exiting when 3 of us got on this short out and back. Seeing Chuck raised my spirit but, to be honest, the legs were feeling rather tired. Still, I couldn’t be happier to still be running at mile 16, with the calf injury under control so far.

From there, it was all downhill, at least literally. What’s not to love running flying down Prospect #3 Trail. It reminded me my run with blind runner, Simon Wheatcroft, back when we had the project of getting him to be the first blind runner to compete in and conquer Western States.

After turning left on New Almaden Trail, and despite my decent pace, I heard some heavy breathing from a runner coming from behind: it was Ron who had gotten off course and catching up. I stayed in his footsteps for a couple of miles, wondering how his difficult breathing would play for him in the last 12 miles. Well, actual troubles came on my end with both legs cramping pretty bad. I had drank water and GU2O consistently, I decided to double on S!Caps, and work better on my breathing; getting extra oxygen to muscled have helped in the past. That worked more or less and helped keeping some visual contact with Ron but he was more than a minute ahead when Vanessa and I ran through the McAbee aid station without stopping. And, from there, the gap kept increasing, I could spot Ron 3 minutes ahead as Vanessa and I started on the long climb up Mine Hill. On Providencia we also got passed by Nick Shea who looked fresh like he was just getting started. That reminded me when Chris Calzetta passed me on Bull Run to win the race on his first run, back in 2011, with three of us breaking 4 hours that year.  

This time, already falling behind due to the cramps, I didn’t feel I earned the privilege to stop to chat with my fellow Striders. Instead, I finally gave all I had in the final 3 miles down to Hacienda; especially as I was seeing the clock getting dangerously close to the 5-hour mark. At least I wasn’t cramping anymore, relieved from the pressure of the climbs. With some sprinting, I managed to clock what I would call an honorable 4:59:15, given the circumstances. 15th overall, 13th Men and 2nd in my age group, 5 minutes behind Ron. For someone who just wanted to finish today, that was a good day! I had just made it before noon and stayed for another 2.5 hours to catch-up with other runners, cheer on the 100K participants who were going through the aid station at mile 41, assist a few, like our Grand Prix scorer (more on this soon, albeit so late in the season), Nakia, who got his Western States qualifier again!

Our own Marco Denson on the 100K:

Nakia who couldn't be happier for this suffer fest! :-)
With Chuck Wilson (photo credit I-Tao Tsai)
Victor Ballesteros's selfie (Victory Sport Design drop bags), with Jonathan

Could have I completed the 100K? Maybe since the calf injury didn’t trigger on the 50K, but most likely not from both a physical and mental standpoint. While I didn’t bonk, energy wise, thanks to Vespa Power, the lack of training showed in the cramps and 50 more kilometers would have been ugly! My legs were so sore for the next three days, I have no regret, it was too late this season to catch up with Shiran who has ran most of the Grand Prix events this year. I’m of course super bummed for stopping such a winning streak after 13 consecutive Grand Prix wins (2007-2019), but I still hope to get back on the saddle for 2022.

What about the injuries? With all the soreness, both calves were super painful after all the cramping, it took 5 days to get back to normal and assess was left from the pain. Unfortunately there are still a couple of sensitive spots as I resumed running later this past week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday for a modest and conservative total of 50K) so the problem isn’t completely solved. As for the hamstring attach, still equally painful. I do have an MRI scheduled for 12/2, hoping to get some light and hope out of it.

Huge thanks to Pierre-Yves and Loren for such perseverance and, the big cherry on the cake, for that perfect weather on race day, squeezed between two rainy days and avoiding the exceptional storm which hit the West Coast on Sunday. One day later and the event would have likely been cancelled, phew! Special thanks to Kristina for so much work before, during and after the event for this major logistics operation across multiple parks and over so many miles and hills. These are the times, while racing, when you don’t want to hear that there are some supply chain issues… And to all the volunteers, from preparation of food and fluids at the aid stations, registration, ribbon/course markings, sweepers, parking traffic, medals and awards distribution, course monitoring. On race day, I’ve seen more familiar faces on the side of the trail than among the runners: thank you club mates and the local ultra running community! It was great to have legendary visitors like Silver State RD and Ultra Running Magazine columnist, John Trent, from Reno, NV, and Charles Savage representing Tamalpa and coming back to this race 36 years later! Closer to home, our very own Jim Magill had the fate of being the oldest finisher at 75, even breaking 8 hours with 45 seconds to spare, and with a big smile of course!

Another local figure, Christine, was happy to get done with the 50K! Refusing her gold medal for winning her age group, I encourage her to at least consider taking it to give it to one of our Running for a Better Oakland proteges, but she declined that as well. Check RBO's mission and please consider supporting that amazing community project for underprivileged youths!

Ultra race #174, including 17 DNFs, the pace toward 200 has really suffered these past 2 years. Still planning on running Quad Dipsea, if nothing else breaks in the meantime, then hop on a plane to Europe like the good ol’ days. Then it will be time to turn a very disappointing 2021 page in so many aspects. Except that this Quicksilver 50K will remain an uplifting page in that 2021 book, grateful to all who contributed to the success of this race! Pierre-Yves is moving to the East Coast, he will be dearly missed after co-directing 6 editions, but the event remains in great hands with Loren remaining and Stuart coming back at the helm. Thank you all, so good seeing the whole community rallying up, great positive auspice for 2022!

PS: for a great race recap including pictures of the podiums, see Loren's own event report on our Club website! RD'ing to the next level! :-)