Sunday, March 13, 2022

Back to Black Mountain, again: carried by the Ukrainians' spirit and their Black Sea

Last week I finally pulled myself up to Black Mountain again, phew! 2002 marked the first time I dared to explore our local little summit, a fate for me back then when I was carefully testing the waters of trail running. Since, I went back a total of 125 times! During my peak seasons 5-10 years ago, I would run up there at least twice a month. But, still recovering from the hamstring tendon injury, I visited only once since May 2020, last August.

Last week I couldn't help myself not to worry and be inspired by the valorous Ukrainians fighting for their lives and freedom. When I was thinking of their courage, I could keep running the uphills; as soon as I was realizing the impossible task they face, I had to walk. Talk about mental strength and weakness...

This Saturday, I decided to make a stronger statement by wearing their colors. And immediately thought of getting into my box of Boston collectibles and souvenirs. See for yourself the perfect yellow and blue top, 2019 edition. As for the short, I had to get to the bottom of my drawers to unearth an old RaceReady royal blue one.

While I was at it, I extended both the runs with the waterwheel trail plus a loop on the other side of Black Mountain (going down on Bella Vista and back up to Black Mountain on the steep Indian Creek) for a total of 31.1 miles (50K). Although the pre-injury speed isn't back yet, I have to admit that the injury isn't bothering me know, I've start working again on my glutes, hamstring and quads at the gym in the office where I got back this week. It still bothers me to run that slow but having some trail running sensations and joys back is uplifting! And thinking of these Ukrainian fighters help put things into perspective, forget about the discomfort, embrace the efforts and appreciate the gifts we have and too often take for granted.

An opportunity to give you an update on the area, especially with regard to hydrology. First, the Stevens Creek Reservoir isn't empty but so low for March. Since the big rain fall of the last 2 days of December, all January and most of February didn't bring a single drop. While the spell got broken a few weeks ago, there was barely enough rain to wash our cars.

As you can see on the picture below, the container of the kayak rentals is so off the water and it's not going to open before May anyway. Poor guy! (Click on the picture to see the annotations.)

There is some water flowing in Swiss Creek but not much at the end of our winter season. Similarly, higher up, the water is sparse. Thankfully, still some at the Campground where we even got new faucets from Park management.

2 miles away, a few drops still flowing from the pipe on Waterwheel Trail:

My favorite trail section, a section offering a shade tunnel all year around (sorry for the bumpy ride, the clip can be used to promote video stabilizers...):

And, after my own pounding running downhill, a sense of the silence we enjoy on these trails (push the volume up! ;-)  ):

A vulture having some business on the side of the trail...

On my way down, I spotted the first poppies of the season. While Wikipedia talks about a blooming season from February to September, I doubt I've seen poppies that early in this area.

A view of Apple Park in Cupertino, from Montebello Road:

Last but not least, never leaving home for 50K without my Vespa Power!

And last week, in addition to the Ukrainians, I was also in spirit with the more than 500 Way Too Cool runners! (

Here is a flyover of my 2nd 50K courtesy of (click on the picture or this link):

I realize this post isn't as captivating as a race report could be but I want to believe that, in 10 or 20 years maybe, it will provide useful memories when looking at the effect of global warming and droughts. For instance, I had pleasure finding and reading this description of Montebello Road from 10 years ago, and seeing pictures of the full reservoir. My post of April 2019 also shows a full reservoir not that long ago.

I have to admit it, I'm really struggling letting go and have faith in our future. I'm so frustrated with the mistakes I see us, humans, doing despite all the knowledge we have at our finger tips today. From internal politics at work to trashing our only livable planet and now, reenacting world wars... Dang!

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Jackpot 100-mile Road Nationals 2022: running for that patch

My wife has always had issues making her students understand the motivation of ultra runners. Especially when it comes to the prizes we get even when we make the podium. Getting a mug for winning a 50K, you must be kidding me! I do have quite a few coasters as well. For 100 miles, the tradition goes to belt buckles which fits better if you work on a ranch in Texas than an office. For USATF Nationals, the grand prize for age group winners is... a patch! I will come back to that one. Now, some rare races do offer prize money and the Jackpot Ultra Running Festival is a leader in this area. So much that I did make some when I placed 2nd and 3rd overall in 2018 and 2019 respectively. November 2018 is when I injured my hamstring tendon so a podium wasn't in my wildest dreams this time as every left step still hurts more than 3 years later... Besides, now that the word got out, the race attracts the best from all over the country. For quite a show the Rubelis put together with their BeyondLimits Running organization!

The cool thing with USATF Nationals for Long Distance Running is that they are open to any member ($40/year), nothing as hard at qualifying for the Olympics. And you have to play along the best ultra runners in the country! Like Race Director, Ken Rubeli, said in the live cast (@2hrs40), it's like playing golf at the Masters. Or be on the court with Lebron James or Steph Curry!

Although I started to write a few lines on the next day of my race, a week has passed, head down at work. And another... Why not completing on the first weekend? First I had to drive back from Vegas on Saturday, 8.5 hours of driving which I had the chance to split with my son Max this time (last year I stopped half way for a hotel night in Bakersfield). I then spent most of Sunday watching the reply of the live webcast. 15.5 hours of recording, this was new and is ultra coverage, phew! (First 8.5 hours, then 6.5-hour part 2.) One week later then, many details have already fade out, that will allow me to spare you --and me!-- of useless details! For my own records, I'll still capture an account of my own race, but I'd like to also include a few comments about the rest of the field of this ultra festival.

My race

That event is so different from trail races which you can for instance decompose into segments marked by key aid stations (think of names like Duncan Canyon, Robinson Flat, Last Chance, Michigan Bluff, Foresthill, River Crossing, Green Gate at Western States). Although not as boring as running for 24 hours on a 1/4-mile track, our Championship is disputed on a 1.178-mile lap which we need to cover 85 times. The biggest risk of all isn't to get lost on that one, but to spend too much time in the comfort of the aid station at each lap! If you forget to pick something at the aid station, you'll be back there in 10 to 15 minutes!

With that, and my current/lasting injury conditions, my race plan was to decompose the race in 10 segments of 10 miles, hoping to cover them in 90 minutes each (9 min/mile pace). In comparison, in 2019, I set a new record for M50-59 at 54 in 14:47, or 8:53 min/mile average, then got a M55 title 2 years later at Caumsett 50K 2 weeks later in 3:31, all while suffering from every left stride with the injury. These were the years... With the lack of training, 3 years later, you could argue that 9 min/mile was on the aggressive side; but I still struggle starting that slow...

A few days before the race, we were three competitors in the M55-59 age bracket. In the order of UltraSignup's ranking, it was Blain Reeves first, from Florida, I, then Ray Sanchez, also from California. Ray and I have competed in the same races in the past before he became a specialist of 100-milers and beyond. He has run 85 of such events and definitely chasing the 100 x 100-miles club which only has about 20 members so far. With that, Ray has developed an amazing endurance, both physically and mentally and I was anticipating some interesting battle in that race. Just that, with his 100 100-mile+ finishes goal, he had registered to run another 100-mile during the festival so I didn't see how he could push too hard on the first one. As for Blain, I didn't know much about him from his race history in UltraSignup, mostly with races in Florida. Interestingly enough, when I set my table at the aid station, I saw a runner in a nearby tent with a M55-59 bib in the back but it ended up being an extra competitor, last-minute entrant in our group, Hans Taylor (Hans walked most of the times and ended up completing 20 of the 85 laps).

I missed much of the briefing and was still preparing when Max pulled me in a brief video chat with the family in France. High and great spirits over there! :-)

I still managed to get the traditional Vegas shot and it was time to get behind the line.

Oh wait, the timer wasn't ready so we waited for at least 4 minutes, maybe 5. Given my conservative goal, I started way at the back of the pack, an opportunity to read all the back bibs upfront (in championships, we all need to display our age group on our back, at all times!). But after a few laps, it's getting so confusing to get who is in which lap... With that slow start, it didn't take 3 laps for me to get lapped, wow! The leader was sprinting like he was chased by a mountain lion, it was Paul Young, from the State of Washington. Later, he made quite a few stops at his aid station and I even managed to pass him a couple of times in the afternoon while he was casually walking and reading the book... Endure (he was caught by our USATF Official, Lin, with air pods, in the morning, something forbidden in Nationals). Anyway, he would finish 10th overall in 15:49 with his buddy Nick Eiben 9 minutes ahead.

For most of the first 10 miles I was able to maintain a 8:45 min/mile pace. A few hours in the race, Ray stopped at the bathrooms so I passed him but he quickly caught up, clocking miles between 8 minutes to 8:20. That got me a bit too excited and, although I wasn't trying to catch him, I still fell in the trap of ramping up the pace a bit, enough that my average increased to 8:30 after a few laps. The temperature was still very nice, in the 50s and everything felt comfortable, even the hamstring tendon which wasn't complaining with the short stride shuffle. 5 hours in, the first 35 miles always feel easy... (Photo credit: Santos Jose, Run2Improve)

10 miles at 1hr27 (close to 1:30 goal), 20 miles at 2:52, 30 miles at 4:19 (getting too much in the flow), 40 miles at 5:47, 50 at 7:21, still 9 minutes ahead of plan, what could go wrong, right? Well, by that time, it got harder to maintain even a 10 min/mile pace, it was going to be another long night, potentially. Last year, I fell apart after the 100K mark and had to walk the last 50K, which I hate because I'm such a slow walker. I didn't want to repeat that this year so I eased the pace to control the damage and keep running as long as possible. This time, I was 10 minutes behind plan when I reached 60 miles, still happy to cover 100K in 9:36 (nothing remarkable but I haven't run that long/far since Jackpot last year).

Ray still slightly ahead late in the morning:

Grabbing a refreshing towel at 1 pm (it never got above 70F I believe but it help alleviate the effect of being in the sun all day):

By the end of the afternoon, our USATF representatives, Meghan and Lin, confirmed that I was in the lead in my age group (Ray had some issues managing hydration and calorie intake) but that I shouldn't slow down as I only had a small lead. It was harder to smile... (Photo credit: Santos Jose, Run2Improve)

A few laps on my age group mates...

We were so far from the finish, I lost the mental stamina and made an unusual long chair stop to regroup (~15 minutes), feeling tired of fighting for the age group win, and ready to let it slip. Some soup and mashed potatoes prepared by Max helped and I was back on the loop, albeit with some walking now at mile 65 as I was struggling getting my Garmin to recharge on the move. I'm still using the 230 model which used to have a battery life of 14 hours 5-6 years ago, but it died at 10 hours this time. I'm afraid I'm getting so much slower that I'm now due to an upgrade to the Fenix if I want to persevere in this sport... As a matter of fact, I was carrying a much older Garmin Forerunner 310XT on the other wrist, to keep track of the laps, but I can't manage to upload the data, although its battery lasted a few more hours than the 230. And the chip timing isn't giving access to our lap times on RaceRoster. With this lack of essential data, it's much harder to remember and recount what happened during the wee hours of Saturday... Focusing on keeping moving forward through the night, while the Garmin is charging on my belt (Photo credit: Santos Jose, Run2Improve)

What I remember is that I put tremendous pressure on Max to keep me updated on what was going on in my age group. I didn't understand why it was so hard, I had assumed all the lap data was available online. Poor Max... At some point he told me that Blain had closed on me and was not 1 to 1.5 laps behind, yikes! And Ray, 2 to 3 laps behind. Shortly before that, I recall my upper leg muscles being so tight, I could barely shuffle anymore. Although we have the popular adage "never try something new during a race", I asked Max to pass my my latest toy, the Hypervolt GO, Alex's Christmas gift.

Wow, I can happily report that this was a great move and it works! While it surprised quite a few other runners to see me with a kind of vibrator on the course, I managed to untie quite a few knots deep in my glutes and even in the adductors (getting to that part of the leg is much more challenging though). All that while still walking to avoid being passed. That really gave me a kick and I managed to rebuild and grow a lead in the next 10 miles. After more than 14 hours of racing, now down to 15 or more minutes for each lap, I only remember the pressure to keep moving forward, with the occasional distraction of still being lapped by the leaders, although more had finished by that time.

I do remember the uplifting rise of the moon though, and thinking that, last year I had walked so much I was still on the course when the sun rose, but wanted to be done much earlier this time (and it was helping the race was back to February this year, as opposed to April last year!):

Then I have this crisp memory of the time I only --everything is relative-- had 4 laps left to complete while Ray and Brian had 7. While this looked like a comfortable lead, I lost my stamina again when Ray flew by me like he was just getting started! This sent such a chill through my body that I literally froze. The next two laps turned awfully pathetic for me as I felt like running in some sort of cotton ball, or a pool of powder or water; it was so hard to keep moving forward. I forced myself to bend forward, paying extra attention to make full strides, nothing would do. A couple of times, I threw my foot and body forward, only to fall in place, scary! With 3 miles to go, Brian passed me too, asking how much left I still had. I was so worn out and numb I couldn't even reply and later apologized to his wife as I found that so rude. With 2 laps to go I told Max I was losing balance and was scared of being pulled for safety reasons. And then came the idea to try walking. As much as I hate that part of ultra... running, that saved the day. With extreme focus to avoid falling, I could manage to power walk and I was so happy to see that I could even get to 16 min/mile doing so. Race walking is what I did for the last 2 miles and, it was enough to... win my age group again, 19 minutes ahead of Ray and 43 minutes ahead of Blain, phew! While this can't be called as "down to the wire", it still translates to only 11 seconds per mile between Ray and I. So much more pressure than last year, these guys kept me on my toes. Better heal for good and get back to training soon!

One of my best post-race moments is that Max handled taking down my aid station all by himself while I was warming up next to the pit fire, chatting with Lee who stayed up all day, night and next morning to handle us finisher's medals and buckles! I have so many bad memories from last year, having to grab all my stuff on my own at dawn...

And that ends my festival experience for 2022, 4th participation in 5 years (I was in Israel in February 2020, after France and Austria then continuing on New York and Las Vegas, probably participating to the spread of COVID, literally, oops!).

A festival of remarkable personal stories

Expanding the aperture on the rest of the field, let me first highlight a strong show from our Pacific Association this year. When I first participated in 2018, I was an outlier, although this isn't that far from home. Indeed, our Pacific Association territory covers both North California and Nevada, from San Luis Obispo on the South West side up to Reno, on the North East. This year, I'm glad to report others took advantage of the chance of getting a Nationals in the West for a change:

  1. At 48, and from West Valley Track Club, Jonah Backstrom managed to win the Masters Division, starting with his M45 Age Group of course, and Top 4 Men.
  2. I was second in our Association, 1st M55-59, 5th Masters, 11th Men (missed that top 10 medal by 30 minutes, no regret!).
  3. Just behind me came Franco Soriano to claim the M50-55 National title.
  4. Ray was second in our M55-59 Age Group.
  5. Behnam Kamrani (Excelsior) took 2nd in the M45-49.
  6. Beth Townsend, from Buffalo Chips, finished second in the W45-49.
  7. Jose San Gabriel (Pamakids), 4th in M50-54.
  8. Then returning and defending M75-79 National Champion, Jim Magill from our Quicksilver of San Jose Running Club won his age group again!
In addition to these finishers, Jean Suyenaga completed 65 laps, Ken Hurst, 62 and Robert Mersereau (Pamakids), 54.

Beyond our Association, so many other amazing stories among the field of 78. With such extremes, notably between the first and last finisher, Camille Herron and Jameelah Abdul-Rahim Mujaahid, respectively. On one hand, Camille literally killed it, breaking 10 (!) American and World records, starting with her Open division World Record, although she just moved into the Masters division. Such a fabulous feat on this rolling course with close to 3,000 feet of cumulative elevation. 7:37 min/mile for 100 miles!! On the other end of the spectrum, Jameelah finished in 38hrs41 (the race has a 39-hour cut-off/limit) but please read her story in that article for instance. 6 kids, working 6 days a week, over 3 jobs to meet the ends and logging miles more than anyone else! Mind boggling.

On the men side, there was quite some action in the first half of the race before Arlen Glick killed the field again, finishing second behind Camille in 13:10. Only 30 races in UltraSignup but already 39 trophies!

With such a speedster, I got an embarrassing 69% UltraSignup score, still better than the 60% last year. Is it time to stop competing in Nationals? Although Vespa helped my recovery and I managed to run 40 miles this week, I wasn't up the big expense of competing in the 50K Nationals on Long Island this weekend, too close. I heard that it was cold and windy again, yikes! Winning time was 3:55 for our Age Group, not that fast. Again, still hoping to get back to some reasonable speed although the rebuilding is going to be tough after I fell from the cliff for so long. For me it was my 18th 100-mile race (but only 11th finish, still learning...), 335th race in my running log, 176th ultra race. Like many keep reminding me when I express my own frustrations, I really have to appreciate the ability to still run, when many others can't anymore. Point taken!

I can't exactly point to what happened at the very end. I'd put the muscular freeze issues on a blatant lack of training. I feel that I managed my hydration well although Paul Kentor didn't miss an opportunity to remind me that I looked stupid for carrying bottles all along, although we were going through an aid station every mile or so. I even heard one by-passer notice "look, his guy is even carrying weights!" The thing is that I like the peace of mind of knowing hoe much I'm drinking, consuming about 1 bottle of water and 1 bottle of GU Energy Brew every 15 miles or so. The trick I didn't anticipate though was that, when I was leaving my bottles at my table, Max was always filling them up. I was wondering why they kept feeling heavy this time, oops! One week later, the only muscle which is still sore is my trapezius! Speaking of issues, I also felt something in my shoe around mile 50, pressing on my middle toe. I didn't want to lose time stopping as I was still moving well and, sure enough, a huge blister developed, like one I had never seen before: under the whole nail, plus some on each of the four sides, including under the root of the nail, getting the nail to actually pop out. I pierced the blister after getting back home on Saturday evening, what a relief! I do have a picture but that would be way too gross and graphic, but can't resist to show you what the leader endured... ouch! (Photo credit: Kevin Young)

Nutrition and hydration wise, I took a pouch of Vespa every 3 hours (plus 2 before the start). One S!Cap every hour. One GU gel at the bottom of every hour, starting at 90 minutes. Although I think I forgot some in the afternoon. Burnt 8,000 calories overall probably took less than 2,000, the Vespa Maths! Here is a picture with my favorite products before the start (disclaimer: while I'm not sponsored by Brooks anymore, I'm still receiving discounts from GU Energy, Ultimate Direction and GU Energy):

I got to bed at 5:20 am on Saturday morning and woke up at 9:10 in order to attend the 10 am award ceremony (more pictures at the bottom of this post).

Got my 16th patch, still being a teen! :-)

Huge kudos to Ken and Stephanie Rubeli who put so much energy into their races and this 3-day festival in particular. Speaking of 72 hours, Canadian Viktoria Brown also broke a World Record with 464 kilometers (288 miles)! She was moving so fast all day and all night on the first day, hats off! And that was only a training and tuning run for her before a 6-day competition. We'll be watching. As I said, so many personal stories around the lake last weekend. I certainly hope to get back!

Before the start, with Hall of Famer Roy Pirrung, going for his 98th patch!
And Jonah Backstrom
Camille finally enjoying a break after breaking 10 World/National records in one race!
Wining the Jackpot, thanks to Ken and Stephanie's generosity ($4,500):
And $2,500 for Arlen's win:

Behnam taking 2nd in M40-45:
Ray, 2nd in M55-59:
Roy with his 98th well-earned patch (before getting his 99th a week later at the 50K Road Nationals on Long Island!):