Monday, March 12, 2007

Way to Cool 50k

I had dreamed of running the "Way to Cool" 50k as being my first ultra marathon. I had even registered for last year's, but I wasn't prepared for the wet and freezing conditions. This was the place where two and a half years earlier, my friend Dave introduced me into trail running, and there is no better. Auburn has a number of great trails that aren't that difficult yet offer amazing views around the American River. It is also home to the tail end of the legendary Western States 100 Mile Run, the Rose Bowl of all trail races. About a quarter of the 50k would cover the Western States Trail, so essentially this had to be my first ultra. While I had no idea what to expect, this was the place where I wanted to find it out.

For my first ultra, my goal was to finish in under five hours. I thought it was attainable because the course wasn't too steep and my marathon times comped with other sub-fivers. I had also run a 25k over the summer with a thousand feet more of elevation than this 50k course in 2:09, so I had some numbers to deal with. For more guidance, I was able to find splits of a runner from a previous race to gauge my pace, albeit about thrity minutes longer than what I was looking for. The first leg, which was essentially a 10k, I normally run in under forty minutes during a regular marathon. I figured I would safely add a minute a mile for good measure meaning that I would be about six minutes faster than his split. Guessing that I could beat the next three splits by about six to eight minutes a piece, I would have a fair shot of meeting my goal.

One of the most important issues I had to tackle was water consumption. I had a long talk with Laren, one of my oldest friends who's now gotten the running bug, and helped me guestimate that I would need about 200 ounces of water for the race. My reservoir holds about 100 ounces, but I didn't want to carry all that weight. I did the math that my water bottle with refills would provide about 120 ounces for the race, so I filled by reservoir with about 65 with the idea that I'd refill my reservoir at the mile 20 aid station.

Eating before the race has always been an issue and I continued my trend of pushing back my final meal to the fourteen hour mark before the race. We stopped into a Buca Di Beppo and I went straight for the spaghetti on the menu. Normally, I probably eat too much before fearing that I would be undernourished for the race, but Barbara stopped me before my gorging got out of hand. About four hours later, I went for a fifteen minute jog that really helped move things around. This turned out to be my best prerace meal yet.

Lastly, the biggest thing on my mind the last two weeks was how to handle the thirteen river crossings. I really dreaded having to run with blisters for the duration of an ultra. Since I heard that stepping in them was unavoidable, I had to really look at my shoes before the race. I had two new, but perfectly broken in pairs of shoes to choose from, both asics. One was a bit heavier and sturdier, but had better tread on the outsole. Instead, I chose my Gel Trail Attack shoes because the material looked lighter and would dry better. Of course, this decision was made without those useful pieces of information we call facts. I also would take a couple of extra pairs of socks, even though I was unsure they would do any good.

Race Day
I got up at 5 am, three full hours before the race. Not much to do at that time, but to make sure you stretch, get dressed and use the bathroom. I made a quick run to fill up Barb's Prius(don't get me into this) and a little Diet Coke to help wake me up. Going outside, the temperature seemed a lot colder than what was predicted on the whether report. This told me that I would probably have to run in more than just a shirt.

Barb rolled out of bed in time for us to get to the race about an hour before start time. The lot filled up fast, so we were lucky to get a spot as some people had to park a half mile away. I ran in to grab my timing chip and goodie bag, when I noticed I received a frog sticker on my race number meaning I had won a prize. The only stipulation was that I could only collect it after I finished.

Since I was pretty well packed, I hung out in the car with Barb until close to race time. At about twenty minutes before race time, I got out and was able to ask some questions with the other runners. While it warmed up a bit, the runner next to me was having the same debate about how much clothing we should wear. We both left deciding to wear the extra layer and I even went so far to put on gloves. Before I knew it, I put on my last layers of bug spray, lubricants and bullfrog and I was off to the races.

Start to Highway 49(6.1 Miles)
This was the strangest start of the race I've ever had. No one was giving any instructions out prior to the race, just a bunch of people standing in front of a big countdown clock. Once it hit zero, a small buzzer sounded, the clock started counting upward and people started running. Okay.

I started about midway in the pack. Most trail races are typically pains at the start because most are done on single track trails that are inevitably jammed with slower runners up front. Fortunately, this race started on a twenty foot wide road for the first mile and a half until you hit the trails. Unfortunately, once I started to run I realized that I hadn't tied up my shorts when I lubed up just before the race. I tried tying it while I was running when I discovered a bigger problem that by backpack was dripping.

I pulled over, addressed the shorts issue and then examined my backpack. I tried tightening the lid and contemplated running back to the parking lot to get a second water bottle. Through the feeling that my race was already doomed and overcome with panic, I decided to throw rationality out the door and let fate take its course, so a minute later I was back out on the course.

I was running at a pretty good pace to get back into the pack which at the same time made me discover that it was going to be too hot down the line to wear the jacket, but decided to take it off later at an aid station. Once we made the turn onto the trail, I was in a pack of runners running a comparable pace until we hit our first hill a mile later. About half way up, I started seeing people stop and walk it, even though I knew by course standards that it wasn't that steep of a hill. These people aren't really trail runners yet.

Once we hit the top of the hill, we crossed our first stream. It was significant in size, but easy to jump. It wasn't on the course map though, so I knew that the marked stream crossings were going to be significant.

After another brief hill, we turned left at mile 4.5 onto the western states trail. At mile five, we hit our first downhill that was hard to navigate with the rocks and mud. That wasn't my concern though as much as how hard it would be to run up it when we were coming up at mile thirty. After a couple of minutes we hit some flatland and before I knew it, I came up on the first aid station. It had more than lived up to the reports that they were better run than NASCAR pit stops as there were plenty of people there waiting to run with you to fill up your water bottle while you were running. I barely broke stride and at 45:34, I had completed my first leg at expected pace.

Highway 49 to Auburn Lake Trail(8.35 Miles)
Just feet after the aid station, we crossed Highway 49 with the help of the CHP and then back onto the western states trail. This portion was a little muddy and hard to find a pace until we made our way down a wider trail that hugged the American River. I was running very good when a guy commented that I had good shoes, code for that he had the same ones. This was reassuring since I thought I might have been wearing the wrong type of shoes for this race. Apparently, he has already bought four extra pairs. I just bought my second last week. In the middle of our conversation, we hit our first river crossing. I was able to jump it, but the second one moments later saw my left foot go all the way in. Surprisingly, my shoe didn't retain that much water, so I definitely felt at ease for what I could deal with the rest of the race. Seconds later, we hit Brown's Bar,our first significant hill, and my new friend faded behind me. I took this hill with relative ease, so I felt pretty good about facing all the obstacles before me.

The next five miles were back on a single track that didn't have an severe gain or loss. I was hitting it pretty fast until I came up upon a pack of nine runners. They were running just slightly slower than my pace so I was content on hanging back, but a mile and a half later I realized that I had been gradually lulled into a much slower pace. When I decided to pass the group, I had separated from them a lot faster than I had anticipated. From that point on, I decided that I would never hang back again because I would just be wasting energy, which really did work.

There were a few river crossings in this portion, but my feet seemed to be handling the water very well. Seeing how I was running such a good pace, I had anticipated that I would reach the next aid station sooner, but I was still happy reaching it at exactly the two hour mark. Just fifty feet before the station was the deepest river crossing that got me wet calf high. At the time I was more concerned about taking off my jacket than the wetness. An attendee got me water while it took me a couple of minutes to stuff it in my bag. At 3:02, I was off to face the toughest climb.

Auburn Lake Loop(6.39 Miles)
After a short steep hill things flattened out for a couple of miles to keep the pace up until we approached a downhill with many switchbacks. It's one of the things I won't forget because as I was near the bottom, it looked like bats coming down on you. Unfortunately, the reward was another river at the bottom. The terrain flatted out, but as I returned to my pace it was becoming far more noticeable that my socks we folding under my heel from being too saturated. I pulled over to hike up my socks before making my way, but while my left foot felt Otherwise, I was real happy with my pace so far and felt good about fine, my right felt like I had done nothing to improve it. I had an extra pair of socks, so I decided to address the problem then.

hitting my goal for this portion until I descended down the Waterfall Trail. All I could think about with everyone of those typewriter steps that I'd have to make it up the Main Bar Trail, the steepest portion of the course. Once I hit the bottom, I was so overcome about hitting that hill that I sprinted the next mile not even noticing the waterfall. Then suddenly around a sharp left turn, there it appeared.

It even had a sign announcing its presence, but looking straight up there was no doubt about it being the Main Bar Trail. All the reports were true. It just seemed to be going up and up and up, just like when you start a roller coaster. Only there were people trying to walk up it. I started at the 2:48 mark, hoping I could make the top in fifteen minutes. I tried running, but it was feeble. It was too steep and muddy to make it worth wasting the energy. The people ahead made it look like it was the march of the dead and while I felt like I was doing no better, I seemed to be scaling it faster than others. After seven minutes of climbing, the hill seemed to flatten out giving me hope, but in all actuality, it was still deep. Unfortunately, this was just a tease as soon it was back to going vertical. It really seemed endless until it suddenly ended. Even better, I was already at the aid station at exactly the three hour mark. Now I thought breaking the five hour mark was possible.

Auburn Lake Trail to Goat Hill(5.40 Miles)
While I was at the station only briefly, I made a couple of major decisions there. First, I decided not to change my socks as the problem improved from annoying to semi-tolerable, especially in light that there was that calf deep river crossing waiting. Second, I felt that I wouldn't reload my reservoirs since I had been mainly relying on my water bottle refills. I also grabbed a handful of potato chips that got quickly stuffed in my mouth. As I headed back on the trail, there was a photographer snapping photos as I went through the river with a mouthful. Classic.

The rest of the race spans the Western States Trail, except for the last mile. Mile twenty is where I start to look for signs that I'm fading in normal marathons, so I became more aware to look for signs of fading. My pace was slightly slower, but I still felt I was running strong. I stepped up my gel shots to every twenty minutes last hour, but to be safe, I was going to go every fifteen minutes for the rest of the race.

The rest of the race spans the Western States Trail, except for the last mile, but since I had already covered this five mile stretch going out, I was confident that I could keep a good pace since there weren't too many obstacles until the Goat Hill turnoff. I kept my mind occupied by calculating what pace I needed to run to break five hours. Leaving the aid station, I needed roughly an eleven minute mile, but I kept roughly recalculating for every minute ran. These are the things that help occupy my mind.

Right before the turnoff for Goat Hill, I pulled something on the inside part of my left leg crossing the river. I could blame most of it for having to change my motion to get across, but in actuality, I didn't stretch that part of my leg out adequately before the race. Or at all. I was able to work the cramp out, but as my pain eased, I started up Goat Hill. It wasn't as tough as any of the prior hills in steepness or length, but the people in front were walking it, so I decided to conserve some energy. The aid station was once again at the top of the hill, so hitting it at 3:52 made me think that I had a chance slipping under five hours if my body would hold up.

Goat Hill to Highway 49(2.95 Miles)
I thought I had five and a half miles left from this point, so I was greatly concerned about running twelve minute miles from this point. The concern was brought on because I thought the last portion was a mile shorter than I actually ran, making me think I ran an 11:30 pace instead of the 9:15 that I had pulled off.

The trail started out with a nice descent down the first two miles, so I was feeling better about reaching my goal despite the fact that I felt a slight twinge in my left hamstring. I was able to avoid it snapping until once again, I had a cramp triggered by a river crossing at the bottom of the hill. There was a muddy little uphill following, so I walked it to stretch it out until a point where I could slightly jog with it. Fortunately, this worked and I was almost back to my previous pace in a couple of minutes, although I could still feel a little twinge in the background.
Right as I hit full speed, I came across a runner who was just screaming in pain from his charlie horse. I had never seen a man cry like that before and he couldn't even move. For the next two minutes, we could hear his cries when before I knew it, I could hear cars again. This was a great sign, because I had forgotten that I had returned to the western states trail and was near the highway 49 crossing. Even better, my watch showed that I was at the 4:22 mark. I could walk the rest of the way and still finish under five hours. It was then I realized I must have messed up the distance of the previous leg in my favor. Whoops.

Highway 49 to Finish(1.70 Miles)
I stopped for water, but the crew encouraged me to just go since there was less than two miles left. After negotiating the refill, the rest went pretty fast. I scaled the final hill quickly that I thought would be painful after thirty miles of running. I had another charlie horse soon after hitting the peak, but I was so close to the end that I didn't care. I ran it out right in time to look good near the home stretch. There were about fifty spectators clapping and Barbara was in perfect position for me to see seconds before I crossed the finish line.

I completed the race in 4:36 in 57th place, way better than I had expected. Even better, I felt great(as evidenced by the photo) to the point that I could have ran more if I had wanted to. I decided to go to the support tent instead for chips, a hot dog and a massage. I then picked up my prize which was a GU giftpack including a box of GUs, a hat, an electrolyte mix and running gloves which would safely retail for $80. Surprisingly, I wasn't that hungry, so after taking a quick shower(someone had somehow set up a couple of private tents with hot water) so I told Barb to hurry up, we're going to Reno!

What I Learned from the Race
There were training runs that I have felt worse after finishing, but the reasons why weren't hard to find. Normally, I train wearing warmer clothes than the circumstance call for. Consequently, the heat has also caused me to run with a full supply of water. So basically running at about ten degrees cooler and having to carry at least three less pounds made a huge difference. I even had a few ounces of water left in my reservior. My strategy of comsuming more energy gels before I thought I needed them was largely also responsible for me feeling strong throughout.

Suprisingly, this was the best I had felt after any marathon I've done. I'm not sure for the reasons why, but I'd start pointing to the fact that trail runs feel better than pounding the asphalt and the undulating terrain forces you to use different muscles. Bottom line, my joints felt like they had only been on an hour jog while my muscles felt twingy, yet still like they had some juice in them. Pretty much, this is my goodbye to marathon running, and I'm looking forward to my next ultra!