Sunday, September 25, 2022

Running in Austin, Texas: Town Lake & Barton Creek

I used to travel to Austin for work, visiting IBM. Then visiting family, Max, when he was working at IBM Design in Austin. Since we don't travel for work much more, and Max moved to another career path, how about visiting friends?

It felt great to be back albeit only for a weekend, but a busy one, and a hot one with temperatures above 90F, unusual even for Austin according to many locals. On Sunday we even went to a French festival where one of the booths was serving the famous traditional onion soup! That chef acknowledged they had set on a menu weeks before they knew it was going to be so hot! He was also serving samples of a delicious Opera cake, that was much more appropriate. But I digress, let's get back to some running.

On Saturday morning, 19 miles, downtown. On Sunday morning, 10 miles on the Southwest outskirts of Austin where our friends have settled, principally along SH45. And many ounces of sweat lost, that was tough! It didn't help that, in that heat, I ran the first 10 miles at 7:10 min/mile along Agnès and our friends on rental bikes, some good emulation! At least a good 67-mile week overall. And finishing the run with a swim in the natural pool of Barton Springs was quite a treat to cool down!

My only regret was to miss Dick Collins Firetrails this Saturday and the traditional Trailblazer 10K organized by the Friends of the Stevens Creek Trail, a race I ran 13 times already between 2002 and 2018 and which I was excited to get back to after the pandemic hiatus. That will have to wait for next year! Meanwhile, between the busy booth of the Trail Conservancy and good signage reminding us about the importance of keeping creeks healthy in multiple places, I felt some communion with my Stevens Creek community this weekend.

I've some important work milestones this week so let's keep the post short and leverage the many words which a video may be worth, here is the fly-over of my downtown run (click on the link or the screen shot below). Now, it of course can't convey the heat, nor the many runners met on the trail: Austin has runners! And this circuit is really a great place to log a few miles, between outstanding views over the lake and a lot of nature, especially continuing on with the trails along Barton Creek. Just a caveat: these ones have some technical rocky sections!

A couple of interesting ideas gleaned on the way:

1. An invitation to tip the trail!

2. Neighborhood mailbox hubs to optimize/minimize the USPS stops:

'till next time, Austin, Texas and your Longhorns!

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Post #700: the ultra journey must go on!

I was already one year into my ultra running journey when I jumped on the blogging bandwagon, a trend which many have left since for other micro post social platforms. 15.5 years, this is another form of commitment, and endurance. For 11 of these years I posted every week in average. Between the pandemic and my recent 3.5-year long injury, I went for weeks, sometimes months, without posting, short of running-related updates. At times I thought I might be done as my sport medicine doctor feared the injury was going to turn chronic. I've still so much to rebuild but I'm at least getting back to some solid running which is encouraging.

We are only mid September and I already logged 2,000 miles this year, much more than the 1,260 in 2019 or even last year's total 1,800. For 8 years (2011-2018) I logged 3,200 miles a year, or an average of 100K a week, but maybe it became too much, in my mid 50s. Some actually log much more, but maybe not at the same intensity. Or, again, at that age. I'm right above 85K/week right now and not trying nor risking to push farther this time. I wish there was more formulas and analytics out there to figure out the right goal, but our body is so complex, it's the perfect time to remind ourselves that "ultra running is an experiment of one." A useful quote for the coaching business as well, as it states the importance of personalized training strategies.

Without a specific training plan but always races in the future to set my mind on, I decided to celebrate this milestone with... an ultra of course! While many may need either aid station support or motivation to complete an ultra, I have the chance to actually run and enjoy ultras on my own. Out of 485 ultra runs I have in my log, only 181 (39%) have been races. The other 300 have been mostly solo, a few group runs, like Fat Ass format. For these past golden years I used to run between 30 to 38 ultras a year. Then it fell to 15, 12 and 19 during the injury. I'm back at 20 year to date, steadily rebuilding up...

Now, in these statistics, I'm using the mathematical definition of ultra, that is any run longer than a marathon. For some hard core ultra runners like AJW (Andy Jones-Wilkins), a 50K, even an hilly one, is barely an ultra. Since I'm a few years older, I'll dare to disagree. With such thinking, and the advent of 200-mile races for instance, where to draw the line? I get he is teasing us, certainly there is a wide range of variability within our sport, most notably between the terrain and distances. With this preamble, and the fact that my upcoming races will be on asphalt, I went for one of my local favorite flat easy 50K, from Cupertino to Palo Alto's Baylands, mostly on the Stevens Creek Trail and through Shoreline Park.

Nothing epic and worth a long post, just another good training run, for the love of... work! I even managed to not have to stop my watch for the first half, a bit of a fate with some major artery crossings. For that reason, I only stopped to take pictures on the way back. The out was actually much harder because of some strong head winds along the Bay. Not counting the time stopping to refill my bottles and take picture, I ended up right on an equal split (twice 1:58). With the first mile being the first one (8:04) as it takes me more time to get the machine going these days and mile 30 being the fastest at 7:10.

7:10 min/mile... Close to the pace that Aleksandr Sorokin hold for 24 hours to improve his world record to 198.6 miles, this weekend, at the European Championships! For 25 years we all thought that Kourous' record was untouchable and there you are, a late comer to ultra running, someone I've heard might have been a smoker even, killing all records from 100 miles, 12 hours, 24 hours and more. He already has a Wikipedia page which is sure to get longer! You see, although I felt I had a good run given the circumstances, speed is relative...

Even after more than decades in the Bay, I'm still like a kid when seeing pelicans. Such majestic birds that I rarely saw live, if ever, in my childhood in France.

Another blessing of living in the Bay Area, Steve Patt could tell you how many hundreds of these North American birds he has spotted in the area. (Sorry for the poor light reflection, picture taken through the window of the historic Sea Scout Base.)

Here is fly over video to situate this run in the parks, with a few pictures on the way back (click on this URL or the image below). By the way, I have no idea how Relive is displaying an elevation of 2,000 feet while he highest point on this run is 250 feet. Even Strava's 570 feet is suspicious enough. Room for improvement! As for the calorie count, 1,700 seem on the low side for 31 miles (I just compensated with 400 calories, #fatisyourfuel as we say with Vespa Power!).

I'll miss those running Dick Collins Firetrails 50 next week but hope to see many at our Grand Prix finale at Ruth Anderson on October 8. Most likely an October Fest for my beer drinking buddies! ;-) And a Speed Fest for a handful, I'll write more about this shortly.

PS: 90,000 solar panels on this carapace over Google's office.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Stevens Creek Striders Reservoir Trail Half 2022: shorter and faster!

Since I started blogging in March 2007, 1 year into my ultra running journey, I set my mind on one mission: if I couldn't run faster since I had passed the theoretical athletic peak typically around 30 years for long distance running, I could always go farther, hence the blog title. While that looks like a dangerous mantra in a sport which has no length limit by definition (anything beyond the marathon distance), many rankings use 10 or 5-year increment age groups which means that we have many opportunities to reset the bar then get faster among our peers without necessarily having to go that far. Having started running competitively in my late thirties, that gave me opportunities to get faster through my forties and fifties like finally breaking 1:15 for the half marathon at 49 and my 3:18:05 PR on the 50K at 52 (with a mini stroke as a bonus, no less!). Now, today's hilly course, wasn't suited for getting faster than 10 years ago, on a flat and asphalt course in San Jose, and before this nasty injury which took more than 3.5 years to heal.

Although it was my first run of this event which is now in its third year, I did write about the course in my previous post, after running it twice in last week's blazing heat. And I've admitted I had completely misread the course description, and the amount of cumulative elevation in particular. With this insider knowledge, which I made available to all as a matter of fact, I ran the first miles with some reserve and intimidation.

At least the heat wave had finally passed, just in time, not just for us, runners, but also for all the firefighters combatting several major wild fires across California. From what I understood, the weather is so messed up that the extreme heat created some major condensation which resulted in major storms especially in South California which, in turned helped with pouring rain over the local fires down there (but not on the Mosquito Ridge fire which has destroyed part of the Western States trail this week). While it was cooler, I still got a good sweat running the 4 miles from my home to the Stevens Creek Park. I reached the Villa Maria parking lot just before 8:15 and there was already a good buzz going. While preparing, I did chat with a guest from Sweden, used to leveraging business trips to race abroad (Jonathan Borrill).

For a big change, it felt really good to get back to a blue wave with a strong show of our Quicksilver Club. Not everybody made it into that shot but we had 4 women and 9 men registered, representing the potential to score across the three team divisions: Men, Women and Mixed.

A few fast men from Excelsior returned, in particular from their dominance at Skyline 50K. But a good contingent from Pamakids was also present to protect their comfortable team ranking leads toward another likely Grand Slam for 2022.

A few Impalas were returning to show off their speed, after a strong start of the season at our first race, Mountain format, on Mt Diablo, in January.

With the remaining heat, I wished we would have started earlier, at least at 8. As we were approaching 9 am, I was surprised by the lack of readiness and urgency to get lined up at the start. I learned that the Rangers had notified Robert, the Race Director, of some backup at the Pay Station, and the consensus was to delay the start to all for everyone to get in, very fair. It ended up building a delay of only 10 minutes, that was very fair and worth it.

Michael Dhuey, a long-time Strider, and pro-am photographer, covering a huge spectrum of topics like big safari game in Africa, local animals from bees to birds or at local zoos, the Moon or shooting stars, offered his skills from the pre-start group picture to action shots at two spots on the course, then covering the finish line from 10:30 to 1:30. A long volunteering shift, thank you Michael! And Michael definitely confirmed he was also expert at shooting wild human trail runners too, great shots. Not to forget a super fast processing and same-day publish turnaround! Look at this original pre-race picture, gorgeous!

How do you call a picture of the race photographer? A selfie! ;-)

I asked Robert to add to his briefing a warning about the dangerous tree blocking half of the single track, after the 3 switchbacks right off the start (you can see a video in the flyover in my previous post). I was probably in 20th position in that section, I can imagine it took a few minutes for the conga line to clear. Meanwhile, I lost sight of the leaders within 2 tenths of a mile, wow! But, again, I knew what was on the menu in terms of climbing, so was fine with even letting 3 Impalas in front (the Impala Racing Team is a fast women-only club based in San Francisco).

The top 3 runners in the first short climb (Photo credit: Michael Dhuey). What do I see in this picture? Youth for sure, but more importantly, super strong glutes!

Per our nice private tradition, I did catch and pass Jason Reed (Excelsior) by the end of mile 2. Jason is just back from 10 days in Argentina where he represented the US at the World Championships of... snowshoeing. And he is getting closer to enrolling me in that other running sport. Last winter and spring I was still feeling my tendon injury too much to risk it again but, based on the great progress over the summer, that would provide some additional good glute strengthening. Tempting...

I passed a couple of runners in that Tony Look Trail section which I know so well for having run it dozens of times when I was a Strider myself. So, yes, I was having fun, even jumping in front of Michael's camera, despite the uphill (in Shiran's absence, someone had to do it!):

I admit I was a bit surprised about the lack of protection while crossing the somehow busy Stevens Creek Canyon Road. There was a course monitor for sure but it was mostly up to us to gauge the risk and best spot for crossing that tricky road curve. Special thanks to the Park Rangers for allowing us to cross this road 4 times!

I had walked a lot in the climb to Mt Eden last week so I was really impressed that Stuart kept his solid jog up the first steep climb (0.6-mile long). I walked less this Saturday but, still, too much to my taste for such a short race. Sure enough, I crosse the leader before I was even at the top, I was at 4.6 miles, he was at 5.9, already a 1.3 miles, that's huge! I crossed the next two runners at the top (4.7 miles) and, by the turnaround, I had counted 10 other runners, including the lead female. I kept sight of Stuart all the way back to the aid station on Tony Look Trail and passed him as he made a quick stop to refill his bottle.

Stuart was stronger on the way up, that put some pressure on me to keep pushing all the way on Lookout Trail, one of the most challenging parts of the course with numerous switchbacks, lot of poison oak on the side, some roots and stairs but, most importantly, an irregular slope with steep sections. Before getting on Fern, I looked behind and couldn't see any other runner than Stuart.

On Coyote Ridge, I crossed a Park Ranger truck with lights on and avoided making eye contact with the Ranger in case they asked me to slow down! ;-) I already had to stop and walk in order to pass a horse, now was the time to get some speed toward the plunge into the Fremont Older Preserve. Needless to say, and carrying my usual two bottles anyway, I didn't stop by the aid station, which allowed one of the volunteers to catch these action shots.

Before the end of the downhill on Hayfield Trail, I crossed the leader again on his way back. This time I was at mile 9 in 1:24 and he was at 11.2 or so, another wow!

I made some time up in the downhill, so much that I got sight of another runner before entering the Seven Springs Loop and caught him by the end of the downhill. As he seemed to be struggling, I approached to pass on the left but he made an acceleration, that was bold! I used a few hundreds yards to slow down in order to swallow a GU Energy gel and paid extra attention not to trip in case a coyote would show up (right?). Before getting to Hunter's Point, I approached that runner again and, taking advantage of him taking down his glasses, made my own acceleration and, this time, built a good lead (that was Ryan Ruiz of San Jose). Actually, I was gaining on 2 other runners, catching the lead women, Jennifer Bayliss right when we got back on Coyote Ridge. (Photo credit: Stevens Creek Striders volunteer at the Coyote Ridge aid station.)

Then I closed the gap with Excelsior's Victor Skorapa, passing him shortly into the steep final downhill. I kept pushing so hard that I clocked 5:54 for mile 13. That being said, my GPS ended up with 13.48 miles so maybe that mile was short as others ended up reporting between 13.2 to 13.4 later on Strava. Still, that looks faster that most others, although Strava didn't grant me any trophy on that run. :-(

Although I couldn't see anyone behind now, I kept pushing hard in pursuit of my first and main goal for the day, at least breaking 2 hours. I started the final climb back to the Villa Maria parking lot with 1:57 on my watch and managed to cross the finish line in a time of 1:58:36, phew! (Photo credit: Michael Dhuey.)

At 51, Jennifer took the overall win for the women with a time of 1:59:33. I told her that she exploded the previous course record but I was wrong, Samantha Moore ran 1:58:44 in 2019. Still, amazing performance, with the Impalas taking 1, 2 and 3, go gazelles! As for the men side, I was 7th overall, 3rd Masters and 1st in my age group, but so far behind Patrick who had won in 1:37, almost 6 minutes faster than the course record Chris Schwab set in 2019. That blazing performance translates into a 82.34% Ultrasignup race score for me, dang, so little for the big sweat and what I thought was quite an honorable performance otherwise. After 3 editions, I'm 10th on the top times, this isn't going to last long...

Pre 2021:

And you had to break 2 hours to make it to the new top 10...

1:37 is REALLY fast on such a course, a race which has enough cumulative elevation to represent two (2!!) Mountain races in one! Mountain races are typically 10 km long with 500 meters of cumulative elevation, the sum of D+ and D-. Today we probably climbed, then descended about 2,800-2,900 feet, that is 1,700 meters for the overall sum.

Top 3 men were 25, 32 and 29, followed by 2 Masters, teammate Gaspar Mora Porta in 1:47:51 then Excelsior's Karl Schnaitter who killed it too with 1:48:45. I still feel bad for falling so much behind but, at 58, maybe I do have a problem for wanting to chase these youngsters! ;-) Practically, what this means is that I need to keep working on my glutes because that's my current limiting factor after this 3.5-year injury. And it's not getting easier to build or rebuild muscle after 50...

Successful fueling strategy today: 1 pre-race Vespa pouch, 1 pre-race GU Energy waffle, 2 GU Energy gels (mile 4 and 10), 1 GU Energy Brew bottle, 1 Succeed S!Caps.

With our Club President, Stuart, taking 10th in the Men in 2:03, our club have a potential Men win. Interestingly enough for a good fight with Excelsior, Gaspar finished just ahead of Karl, I finished just ahead of Victor and Stuart just before Oliver Chan. It helps when Chikara doesn't show up! On the women side, we did have 3 finishers but the fourth recruit by Laura got distressed in the last miles and dropped before the finish for medical reasons. It was her first trail half marathon and she got her hydration off balance unfortunately. Thankfully I heard on Sunday that she had recovered, phew!

The Striders offered a nice hamburger afterwards and, short of any drink, the icy popsicles got quite popular. Also a nice assortment of candies and bars for extra carbs. But the best was all the tables in the shade, providing a great opportunity to catch-up with the community. Many thanks to my ex fellow Striders for this event which I hope, as a USATF Pacific Association club-organized event, becomes a new cornerstone of our MUT season. I can't name all from course monitors (hey Charles) to aid station volunteers, but special kudos to Robert for a flawless and professional race direction and Mandie who got some good additional heat training before this month's Spartathlon, from running the course in the morning to fix the marking after it got vandalized over night, to the extra heat of cooking a few burgers for us! I also enjoyed a short chat with course sweeper, Mike Kreaden, who is just back after 3 months in Chamonix and a successful completion of UTMB 2 weeks ago! Happy birthday Mike!

At 75, teammate Jim Magill wasn't the last finisher but the eldest. He took second in his age group to another teammate and Strider, Steve Patt, 73.

For once, I left after the last runner made it, i.e. after 1:30. It was actually so weird to feel a few drops of rain on the way back home, albeit nothing much to save our backyards from the nasty drought. Overall, including the commute on foot, 21 miles logged this Saturday and lot of social time at a cool low key but very challenging event. Looking forward to the 4th edition next year!

Monday, September 5, 2022

Burning 50K on Stevens Creek Striders' Trail Half course

Let me start with an apology... No, not to Dean after my rant in last post, but to the readers of my post in our Pacific Association USATF Mountain, Ultra, Trail Grand Prix group on FaceBook. Indeed, 2 weeks ago, I posted an invitation to run our next scheduled event, the Stevens Creek Striders Reservoir Trail Half Marathon. A half marathon for a change, how could that be difficult after our previous 100-mile (Headlands), 50K (Skyline) or 100K (Quicksilver), right? So my invitation advertised a "very accessible" race. First, I meant geographically, Cupertino being quite accessible from the Bay Area. But this was rather insensitive to our members living in Reno or Auburn for instance, while this park is in my backyard. The thing is that, when designing our Grand Prix schedule, I pay a lot of attention to select events from most places across our wide Pacific Association which includes all North California and North Nevada, technically from San Luis Obispo on the South West to Reno on the North East. And, yet, most participants are still Bay Area-based...

My second thought regarding accessibility was the distance. Our MUT Grand Prix has been exclusively about ultra running for its first 20 years. When I took over, I made a point to expand the content to the two other sports/disciplines which MUT stands for: Mountain and Trail. Mountain being short but super steep races, Trail being sub-ultra races, on trails obviously.

With that, I was excited to preview the course and, since it's Labour Day weekend, typically a weekend I put into practice my concept that running requires a lot of work, in addition to the fun and pleasure, I decided to run the course twice. Plus a few miles to run from home to the Stevens Creek Park. Which is home to the Stevens Creek Striders, the first running club I joined 20 years when I wanted to explore something other than road marathons. It's from illustrious members that I heard about ultra running: Mark Williams who was the first to finish the infamous Barkley Marathons (that is an impossible 100-mile), Brian Robinson who was the first to complete the 3 cross-US trails within a year (hiking triple crown), and later would also be a Barkley Marathons finisher, and Charles Stevens, who gave me one of his Western States club entries when I didn't get picked in 2018.

The temperature was really nice when I left the house at 8 am in order to be at the reservoir for the club's business meeting and gathering. But we even got a heat wave alert at work so it was meant to be another deal later in the day. Although I'm not a member anymore after I joined Quicksilver's Ultra Running Team in 2008, I've run these trails for many years, much more than the Almaden Quicksilver's ones which I mostly hit for the Quicksilver races as I'd rather skip the 30-minute drive. Yet, there were some sections of next week's course which I didn't remember. Thankfully, Robert, the Race Director, was with us again this Saturday morning so I got a personal briefing, which proved valuable as I left the group after 3 miles at the end of REI/Tony Look Trail.

With the 4 miles from home to the Park it was now 8 miles when I hit the first serious climb of the course on Canyon Trail, toward Mt Eden. Short, 0.6 miles, but not sweet, at least in this weekend's heat wave, phew! Moreover, when you reach the top, you get good 0.6-mile downhill to the turnaround, only to have to climb it back. Seriously, who designed this course? Just kidding, welcome to trail running, the XL version of XC (cross-country)! The climb, from the top of Lookout Trail on the other side of the canyon:

Once you've retraced your steps down to Creek Trail, you get back on Tony Look Trail, this time continuing up on Lookout Trail which is narrow, has a good amount of poison oak, countless switch backs. On race day, you may not have much time to enjoy the views at the top, but you may gasp for air anyway and stop to catch your breath. From there you'll leave most of the woods shade, now finishing the climb up to Coyote Ridge Trail, using the Vista Loop and Fern Trails.

Views of the ugly quarry disfiguring the Cupertino hills:

A lonely horse rider on Coyote Ridge (heading back to the Garrod Farms).

On Coyote Ridge you then turn right on a steep descent into the Fremont Older Open Space Preserve for a loop on Seven Springs Trail. This one brought back great memories of club runs, I probably hadn't run it for at least 10 years though. The trail is quite smooth but don't get your mind lost in the great views of the valley, there are quite a few turns, you don't want to fall in the downhill under Hunter's Point. You'll finish the loop with a gradual climb, then the steep climb up to Coyote Ridge (more gasp!).

Finishing Coyote Ridge can get you some significant speed this time! It's so steep that there is warning sign for bikes at the top, although no speed limit! Hopefully we won't encounter bikes or horses on race day next Saturday. Once back at the Stevens Creek park headquarters, you finish on the only asphalt section with another short but good climb back up to the Villa Maria parking lot. Last gasp!

Overall, this course has all the best ingredients for some serious trail running: a mix of single and fire roads, only two road crossings albeit 4 passages, a mix of shaded and exposed sections, lot of dead leaves, some lose rocks, a few roots, a good amount of poison oak on the trail edges, two creek crossings albeit all dried up, a few wood bridges, amazing views of different angles on Silicon Valley's South Bay, a few water stops albeit the one on Canyon Road wasn't operational, and TON of elevation for such a short distance. 

For this 50K run, Garmin gave 5,850 feet of cumulative elevation versus 6,000 for Strava. Look at some classic 50K elevation in comparison: Way Too Cool: 4,830 ft; Skyline 50K: 4,770 fr; Quicksilver 50K: 6,000 ft; Ohlone 50K: 7,800 ft. And yet, I'm not proud of so much walking, explaining a time of 5:20 (not counting three bathroom stops to cool my head off in the sink). The top 3 times of the event (since 2019) break 2 hours and range from 1:43 to 1:52. While this sound slow for a half marathon distance, that's some serious good moving for such a hilly course! And Andrew Catanese just got in so that should be another fast year!

By the way, I still had 3.5 miles left to get back home but, between the heat and poor planning/estimation, I called Agnès for a pick-up. I had lost a lot of sweat and salt again, had taken only 4 S!Caps with me, one Snickers bar and 2 GU Energy gel. And no Vespa... Hopefully the heat wave will break sometime this week, all this makes me wonder about the future of trail running if average temperatures increase by so many degrees every year! And I'm one who tends to fare better in the heat, just saying... Actually, when I was finishing by second loop through Fremont, I didn't see one soul for almost an hour, that felt surreal. The temperature was above 90F and I thought that it would have been quite dangerous if I had gotten some heat stroke there. I did see a lone biker barely moving up in the climb toward Coyote Ridge, who ended up turning back before even reaching the top. Yes, the temperature made exercise rather grueling this weekend. Not Burning Man's naked 50K in the desert, but salty tee and shorts...

To conclude, here is a 3-minute video summary, enjoy the movies!

Hope to see many of you next week. If you had registered based on my previous invitation, you'll know how important pacing yourself at the start is going to be. If you haven't registered yet, I'm hoping my warning isn't deterring you, you can even register on race day!

PS: looking back at the course published on Garmin Connect after I posted this, just realizing that I did the Seven Springs loop in the wrong direction (clockwise instead of anti-clockwise).