Posts Tagged With: ultramarathon

Mendocino Coast 50K

After a good night’s sleep, I awoke feeling okay. I ate my bagel with peanut butter, took a hot bath, and got dressed. We then headed off to the start which was less than 5 minutes by car. The weather was a little cool but it was expected to warm up a bit so I ran in shorts and a long-sleeve tech t-shirt. The race started at 7:30 and we were off.

Photo of start/finishMendocino Coast 50K Course Map

The fact that I started pain-free was a small miracle of itself. Three days before the race, I awoke to a nasty ache in the lower left side of my back. Great, I thought: we have to drive about 830 miles over the next two days and I have a bad back. Suffice it to say, Wednesday was quite painful in the car, even though I only drove for an hour or two. (Thank you, Suzanna, for doing the bulk of the driving.) Nothing made the pain go away and quite almost everything I did made it feel worse.

We got to the hotel in Ashland in the late afternoon and I finally found something that took the pain away: a hot bath. Unfortunately, the bath had to end and the bed was a bit too soft. I tossed and turned most of the night. In the morning, after another hot bath, and a quick breakfast and coffee, we took off again. The back was a better for sure but still pretty painful. Again, Suzanna did the bulk of driving, but I was able to contribute more since my back was feeling better.

Once we got to our destination and checked into our B&B, I again took a hot bath and experienced relief while I worried what was in store for me on Saturday. Thursday night’s sleep was definitely better and I awoke with a more positive outlook on Friday.

That morning, I emailed my coach, David Roche, and David suggested that I not race if I was in pain. I agreed and told him I would check in again after a 3-mile shakeout run. Packet pickup was only about a mile away from our B&B at the Stanford Inn, so I suited up and headed out the door uncertain how it would feel. While not quite perfect, I held up pretty well. (Great swag, by the way.) The run back along the beach was fun and I was starting to think that I might make it to the starting line after all.

Photo of the race swag

Race swag, including a tech shirt, mug, hat, racing cup, string bag, and a headlamp. Oh, and a very cool race number too!

Friday night we had a fabulous pre-race dinner at the Stanford Inn’s Ravens restaurant and I did my usual pre-race ritual (lots of gathering way too much gear and food and assembling it before ditching half of it) and then I took another hot bath.

Big River Trail

Sometimes things just work their way out. And man was I pleased Saturday morning to make it to the starting line with only the slightest niggle of back pain. For the first 10 miles we headed due east on the very flat and soft Big River Trail, which winded alongside the, you guessed it, Big River. The plan was to go out nice and easy and I executed that pretty well. After about a mile, I met another runner, Nicolette, who seemed to be running at the same pace and we struck up a conversation for a number of miles. Anytime you can run with someone else, even if it’s for a few miles, is a bonus in an ultra because, for me anyway, unless I am struggling to keep up with the other runner, it helps you to relax and take your mind off the long trail ahead. And that’s exactly what happened, the miles ticked by effortlessly as we chatted about our jobs, loved ones, and recent races.

A little after mile 10, and a brief hug from Suzanna at aid station 2 (who I was pleasantly surprised to see), we turned away from the river onto the Big Tree Trail, and climbed we did for the next two miles. About half way up this climb, I looked back and Nicolette had dropped back behind another group and I never saw her again. I continued up the climb, walking the steeper parts, and made it to the top at about mile 12. The wooded trail leveled off for about a half mile before it dropped most of the elevation we had just climbed. I ran the downhill moderately fast, passing a number of other runners who were more timid on their approach.

The Stream

At mile 14 we bottomed out and came upon a stream. Not thinking much about it — I guess I assumed we would soon come to a bridge upon which we would cross the stream — I suddenly saw a pair of runners ahead wading across. So after a quick survey of my options (there was only one), I waded on in. And after a few strides I reached the other side with some very wet shoes and socks.

The stream at mile 14

The stream at mile 14

At this point, I realized that my shoes were too loose on my feet, which exacerbated the sloshy feeling, but I decided I would wait until the next aid station at the top of the next hill before adjusting things. At the top the hill, I reached the aid station just shy of mile 17. I sat down in a chair, took off my shoes, removed the debris from them, secured the laces, and I put them back on. As I looked up from the chair, I realized that my drop bag was right in front of me. Nice coincidence. I grabbed the bottle of premixed Tailwinds, and emptied it into my hydration bladder, neglecting to bleed the air out (which I regretted for the remaining miles as I kept thinking the noise from the bladder was someone right behind me). I grabbed a few food items from my drop bag (most which I never ate), adjusted my pack, drank some aid station water and ate some aid station chips, and headed back out.

After another relatively flat mile, I came to a “rogue” aid station run by Healdsburg Running Company where the guy manning it, told me to take a hard left (which was good because the aid station was blocking the straight-ahead option), and head down for 5 miles. The next five miles was indeed all down, and during that stretch I never saw another soul. During one long portion of the down that went for miles, there were drainage dips in the trail every 50 feet or so, sometimes filled with rocks, which made the running difficult since there would be a steep down followed quickly by a steep up, which unfortunately aggravated an old abdominal strain I had on my left side.

Course elevation/gain profile

Course elevation/gain profile

I bottomed out at mile 23, had to jump across a few small streams and then head up the steepest of the three climbs, ascending about 600 feet over about a mile. While I did encounter a volunteer at the bottom, making sure I was headed the right way, still no other runners. At the top, just before aid station 4, I was happy to encounter a volunteer who was yelling “runner coming; number 100.” Even better, Suzanna was at the aid station asking me what I needed. I just grabbed some water, and we started walking while I finished my cup. I said goodbye with a kiss and headed off down the gravel path a couple of hundred feet before I turned right onto the trail and started down a two-mile descent.

Russian Gulch Waterfall

Russian Gulch Waterfall

The next stretch of trail was part of the Pacific Coast Trail. As I descended, I finally encountered and passed a few runners as the trail became the Waterfall Trail, which passed by the Russian Gulch waterfall.

As I got lower, I also encountered numerous hikers. The miles continued to tick off: mile 26, 27, 28. This race was coming together and I was in the moment. The dirt trail morphed into an asphalt and dirt trail and soon I was at the beginning of a parking lot, where I again encountered my sweet wife who informed me that the aid station was just ahead at the end of the parking lot. There was no stopping now, as I continued to cruise along at a good clip.

4.4 Miles to Go?!

Mile 29 ticked off on my watch as I arrived at the last aid station. Only 2 miles to go! Woo-hoo!

But wait, the sign hanging from the aid station table boldly stated 4.4 miles to the finish. Incredulous, I asked the aid station volunteer if that was correct – my watch said I only had 2 miles to go. He confirmed the bad news and intimated that others had complained too and that he suspected that the course was a couple of miles long.

I have to admit that the realization that I had an additional 4+ miles, was like a gut punch and really broke my spirit. Still, I gathered myself up and forged ahead. After the aid station, I had to scramble up a brief but steep and muddy incline before heading under the road onto the coastal trail. Pretty soon, some spectacular views of the coast started to open up.Spectacular views of the Mendocino coast

The miles started to crawl along and I finally came to the infamous rope-assisted descent. Volunteers were there to guide me, as I repelled down some slick rocks for about 40 feet. Around a turn and then I repelled down another section of rope. That was kind of fun but at the bottom, I had to scamper up another steep incline and head up alongside Highway 1. Amazingly, Suzanna was there yet again, having just pulled over to see if she could spot me one more time before the finish. For the second time, Suzanna offered to grab my hydration pack so I wouldn’t have to haul if for the last couple of miles. This time I said yes, and suddenly I was a little lighter and, incidentally, now without a phone.

In a little bit, I turned off Highway 1 onto Lansing Street as we headed into Mendocino and up a slight incline. I walked a stretch on Lansing Street. After another half mile, or perhaps a bit more, I turned into Mendocino Headlands State Park as a runner caught up to me. The path was narrow, no more than 1.5 to 2 feet wide in many places, and the wind picked up. After a couple of minutes, I let the runner pass me and then promptly started to walk as I silently whined to myself about the never-ending race and the wind whined by my ears.

We had walked in this same park on Friday, so I more or less knew what to expect here and for the remainder of the race, but even with that information, the trail through the park seemed to go on forever. At this point I did a lot of walking, intermixed with a little running. Another couple of runners passed me, and I tried to console myself with the fabulous views but they were mostly wasted on me. After what seemed a short eternity, we turned and came to a set of stairs that led down to the beach.

The beach sand was soft and my shoes quickly filled with sand as I proceeded to walk (again). We crossed under Highway 1 and another 2 or 3 runners passed me. Soon we came to an asphalt parking lot and I could now see the finish line. I started to run again, quickly picking up my pace as I passed Suzanna and headed hard into the finish.

Last few feet of the race

Last few feet of the race

The race director shook my hand as I crossed the finish line. Another 50K was completed. My time: 6:49:37. A 50K, as you know, is supposed to be 31 miles long, but my watch said I had run 33.3 miles (and incidentally, never went off course). Now I understand that GPS watches can be wrong, and perhaps mine was wrong, but man, that race seemed long and my finish time, even with a mile or so of walking in that last few miles, seems high for a 31 mile race.

But it was a good race. In fact, most of the race went flawlessly. Yes, I shall declare it was a good race.

Lessons Learned

Hopefully, every race is a learning experience as much as a racing experience. And Mendocino taught me a few things:

  1. The Mendocino Coast 50K is a beautiful and moderately easy course as far as 50Ks go (except for the fact that it might be a couple of miles long).
  2. Going out slow is the key for me to having a good race and not bonking. If we ignore, for now, the last 4 miles, I nailed this race!
  3. I became too caught up in the miles left as told to me by my Garmin Fenix 5x watch. This was a critical end-of-race mistake and when reality came crashing through at the last aid station, I let it get to me and let myself get “psyched out”.
  4. Stop looking at your watch! and stay conservative on all “miles to go” estimates!
  5. Don’t get ahead of yourself and don’t get cocky! Mile 28 (or was it mile 26?) was way too fast. My Garmin says it was 7:32. Even if the split is off by a minute, that mile was way too fast with 4 miles to go. I got ahead of myself and the race, and this combined with the aid station reckoning led to a somewhat less-than-satisfying finish.
  6. My wife, Suzanna, is awesome.

 

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Categories: Fitness, Running, Sports, ultrarunning, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Sun Mountain 50K

Although Fall training had been a bit tentative because of a lingering left ankle sprain (which I rolled a few steps from the end of a hike with the kids back in July), the Deception Pass 25K race (December 2015) went okay and training for Orcas 25K was going well. Unfortunately, I rolled the ankle hard at the Orcas race on January 31 and, while I was able to “run it in,” I had suffered a pretty bad sprain, and I ended up taking 6 weeks off from training. I was scheduled to run the Chuckanut 50K in March but  was able to obtain a refund from the race director (the RD of Chuckanut, Krissy Moehl, was wonderful I might add) and set my sights instead on Sun Mountain 50K in May 2016.

 

Back on the Mend

Slowly, with the help of my coach, Alison Naney of Cascade Endurance, I was able to put in place a training program that would get me ready — though far from optimally — for Sun Mountain. Now, for me, an optimal training schedule for a 50K trail race would involve a slow buildup of mileage with a peak of the longest run being in the 20+ mile range (or 5-6 hours) occurring around 3 weeks pre-race day. But Alison came up with a plan that would have me a bit under-trained but more or less ready with a peak long run of 4 hours at 2 weeks prior to the race. Sub-optimal, yes, but it would have to be good enough given the 6 week layoff for the ankle.

Not So Fast

So all was going pretty well. Four weeks pre-race, I had a great 3 hour run on the Chuckanut course near Bellingham and a week later had a good 3 1/2 hour run at Cougar Mountain. Unfortunately, the good running karma took a break when two weeks before the race I rolled my ankle again on what was supposed to be 4 hour run from Snoqualmie Point to Rattlesnake Lake but ended up being only 2 hours with some collateral damage. The good news, though, was that I was able to run 3 days later and had a few good one-hour runs later that week. That Sunday (6 days pre-race), I set out for a 2-3 hour run at Discovery Park but ended it early when my ankle started feeling stiff and then hurting whenever I landed after scaling a log.

Now any runner will tell you that this was not going well. Your ankle should not be hurting with less than a week to go before a major race. Furthermore, if by some strange miracle, my ankle was okay on race day, there was this little matter of being under-trained for the race.  Still, I decided not to panic just yet and was thankfully able to snag an appointment with my wonderful ultrarunner physical therapist, Alison Gillespie of Real Rehab (yes, both my coach and PT are named Alison). Thankfully, Alison was reassuring. She worked on my ankle, suggested I take a few days off from running and that I try instead some spinning or biking to get the blood flowing to the injury without bearing weight on it. Best of all, Alison told me she thought it was okay to run the race on Saturday, and worse-case-scenario, there were several points during the race that came by the start so if I needed to drop, I easily could.

At this point, my confidence was less than spectacular, but I nonetheless followed PT Alison’s advice and rode my bike Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and held off doing any running. To make matters even worse, my ankle was hurting on Thursday riding home from work, which I figured was not a good sign. Because of my concerns of keeping the ankle from swelling any more, I decided not to run the entire week.

Race Day

Well, the hotel was booked, I had always wanted to visit Winthrop and the Methow Valley, and I wasn’t going to get refund from my race entry fee, so I figured I’d give it a whirl despite my misgivings. Those last few days, I worked hard on staying positive while remaining realistic. Listen, I’m not some crazy ultrarunner hero; I wasn’t going to keep running if my ankle was really hurting. But on the other hand, it was a no brainer to at least start the race. We took off for Winthrop Friday morning and the drive there along Highway 20 was beautiful. I sat in the back seat with my leg propped up while Suzanna supportively did all the driving.

Suzanna and I discussed race strategy, prepared my drop bags, discussed where she would be able to see me on the course, and how I would communicate to her if I dropped. Saturday morning arrived and I was the first runner to check in. After chatting with some runner friends and coach Alison, and visiting the porta-potties at least 3 times, I was ready to start the race.

flowersThe race started at 10 AM and I have to say right off the bat, I felt crappy. At mile 3, I seriously contemplated turning around and heading back to the start. I just wasn’t feeling it. About that time, Coach Alison’s husband Sam (also a Cascade Endurance coach) was there cheering me (the first of three times I saw him on the course; thanks, Sam.) A little after that, a voice in the distance from above shouted “Paul, I see you” which surprised me, especially since I couldn’t see where exactly the voice came from but I was pretty sure it was Suzanna which made me smile. I clamored on and finally settled in a couple of miles later with a a pair of runners (Kari and Broeck). Having other runners to chat with was great and really helps when one is thinking of how horrible they feel. We made it to the first aid station at Thompson Ridge at mile 8. I grabbed a few grapes and headed back out. At this point the ankle was feeling okay and while I wasn’t feeling great, I was okay. A few miles later, I fell back and lost touch of my two new friends. My thinking soon devolved into whether I’d drop out at the second or third aid station, or maybe there was the slightest of chances that I might tough it out I finish the whole darn race. The ankle continued to be fine but now my right side which I had strained a few weeks earlier doing some plyometrics drills started hurting.

Lest I only whine about the pain and hardship, I should mention that the course was beautiful. Yellow and purple wildflowers were everywhere; the valley was so colorful surrounded by gorgeous mountain peaks and sweeping views.

Digging In

The second aid station, Homestead, was supposed to be at mile 17 but my watch was telling me that it was mile 15. Nevertheless, I was happy to make it and see Suzanna and Porter (our black lab). I sat down for a few minutes, refilled my hydration pack, ate a few grapes, kissed her goodbye, and headed back out onto the trails.

Soon, we began a long climb up Black Bear trail. I got my running poles out which helped ease the ascent. It was tough but what really hurt was the descent down Black Bear. At first my right side pain came back and then my hips. With each step down the hill, my hips and pelvis screamed with a bone-jarring pain. A nice woman who introduced herself as Laura ran with me for a bit, encouraged me and then took off. I slowed down, did a little walking (which I never do on the down hills), and took a few deep breaths. And then I just continued going forward. At this point, I was sure I would be dropping out and debated whether I would drop when we ran by Sun Mountain Lodge at around mile 22 or at the last aid station at around mile 25. It was just a matter of time.

The trail bottomed out and was flat for a bit before climbing very steeply to Sun Mountain Lodge. I saw my running friend, Nicola run by looking strong (she finished 5th) as I struggled to make it up the ascent. Once again, the poles helped as I struggled up, but it was the fact that in a few miles, I would turn around and descend this very steep incline that worried me the most. At the top, we then flattened out and ran by a bride and groom having their pictures taken on the lawn in front of the lodge.  The course continued down past the lodge for another mile before turning around at small white sign in the middle of the trail. On the way down I had spied a large root with a loop that was raised several inches above the ground. I yelled “root” to the runner right behind me who yelled it to the guy behind her. About a minute after the turn around I looked up to see a guy trip and fly through the air. He must have missed the root. Fortunately, he tucked and rolled perfectly and was fine. We headed back up to the lodge and then back down the earlier very steep hill. Ouch, it hurt, but a little less than it hurt on Black Bear, for which I was thankful.

SunMountain-420-LAt various points in the race, you would come up to a spring-loaded gate that you would open and let snap shut behind you to stop livestock from going where they were not supposed to go. But at some point between Sun Mountain Lodge and the last aid station, I looked up and saw a runner ahead of me climbing what appeared to be a step ladder over the fence. And indeed, I had to do the same. Now, suffice it to say that 20+ miles into an endurance race, one of the last things you want to do is climb a ladder over a barb-wire fence but that’s what we had to do. I yelled to the runner who had just performed the feat “That’s interesting.” She yelled back, “No, that’s rude.” I chuckled as I next hobbled painfully up and down the ladder, steadying myself on the tree that thankfully was there to assist with this trying feat of strength. I thought about stopping to photograph this absurdist of mid-race obstacles, but I was too tired to take my phone out. (Thankfully, I saw that someone else had posted a photograph of the obstacle in question when composing my story.)

At the bottom of the hill, things flattened out again and the trail went by Patterson Lake. In the distance I could hear what sounded like the third and last aid station. The din of cheering and cow bells got louder and pretty soon I was there at the Patterson Lake aid station at mile 25 (or mile 23 according to my watch). Suzanna was there, of course, and took my picture as I was approaching the aid station.

I rested a bit, chatted with Jess Mullen, who was working the aid station and who proceeded to tell me not to be fooled by the first false peak up Patterson Mountain. Suzanna and I talked. I discussed with her my options, which included dropping now and walking back the two miles with her and Porter to the finish as a DNF, or maybe, even if I walked the remaining 6 miles of the course, I guessed it which would take me about 2 hours and get me to the finish in about 7 hours, which was plenty of time before the 8 hour cutoff for the course. I mean what’s 2 more hours of suffering anyway? Did I mention that miraculously my bad ankle was not bothering me at all? The fact of the matter was that I would much prefer to finish the race, as long as I wasn’t seriously injured than drop out. Suzanna agreed that I should go for it and so it was decided I would continue and not take the easy exit.

Doubling Down

Patterson Mountain was the steepest of the three steep climbs of the race, ascending a little over a 1,000 feet over about 2 1/2 miles. It was brutal, worsened by the fact that it was open so you could see all these runners in the distance slowly making their way up (and then back down) the mountain. I walked most of the way up and ran the few flatter spots. I made it to the turn-around and then headed back down the very steep decline. Amazingly, the bone-jarring pain I felt 7 or 8 miles earlier was gone. I mean I was exhausted and every part of my body hurt, but nothing like the earlier descent down Black Bear trail. I continued on.

I should mention that one of the nice things about the out-and-back nature of the peaks of the Sun Mountain course, is that you saw people going in the opposite direction as you went up or down and almost everyone was there cheering each other. The people coming down when you were going up would usually throw you some encouraging words. “Nice job.” or “Way to go.” And when you, in your state of absolute exhaustion and self pity, were coming down the mountain, the people who were behind you by 20-40 minutes were smiling and praising you like you were some amazing super ultrarunner, making you feel almost accomplished, like you were fast or something, when you were pretty sure you were way slow. That’s the beauty of the ultrarunning community — almost everyone is nice and friendly. And despite my not feeling up to it, I tried to reciprocate with some encouraging words of my own.

About half way down the mountain, I came to a T in the trail and instinctively, without reading the yellow sign, headed to the right to retrace my steps from earlier. Fortunately, a few steps later, I realized that I never looked at the direction of the arrow in the sign. I turned around, ran back to the sign, and saw that I was actually supposed to go left, not right and head towards the finish, not back to Patterson Lake aid station. A runner who was heading up the hill, yelled “good catch.” Boy was it ever.

From there it was about 3-4 miles to the finish. I was alone for the next two miles on some technically difficult single-track terrain. Not difficult because it was very steep or because of any sheer drop offs, but difficult because we were running along a narrow dry stream bed (about 2-3 feet wide) with a rut carved right down the middle. Suffice it to say, that the footing was difficult, and I was worried about rolling my ankle. Fortunately, I managed to avoid any injury and made it to the road. I crossed the road and headed toward the finish. Since my watch didn’t agree with the map of the course that I had studied and printed before the race, I wasn’t sure how long I had to go. I was thinking it was anywhere between a 1 and 4 miles at this point, though I was thinking–okay hoping, wishing, and praying–that it was closer to a mile. At this point, it didn’t matter. I was committed and I was going to finish! After about a mile, I saw a sign for Chickadee trail, which was the trail we had started on and which I was reasonably sure would soon lead me to the finish. I dug down a little deeper and ran the shallow inclines instead of walking them like I desperately wanted. After another half mile or so, I started to hear the cheers in the distance. I quickened my pace and spotted Suzanna! She confirmed that the finish — which I couldn’t see at this point because of a remaining turn — was about 50 feet away.

I accelerated across the finish, smiling big time, with a respectable time of 6:22. I did it. I stuck it out despite having a thousand excuses to quit. I simply refused to use any of those excuses. Not this race.

Categories: Running | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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