Sunday 9 May 2010

Last big training weekend - Quicksilver and Redwood 50ks

San Jose sunrise

Always worth getting out of bed for

This aid station is passed three times as a crossover point

San Jose

The tower is about the highest point and can be seen from my apartment window...but it wasn't part of the course unfortunately

Quicksilver Lake

Mud in Redwood Park, after the rain had stopped

I thought I'd not have to deal with mud as much over took one week of living in California

Misty Redwoods

Rare sun in between the rain

Although Miwok can still be felt in my legs, I purposefully planned another weekend of trail runs to help me get ready for Western States. Conveniently, there are two 50ks over the weekend of 8th-9th May in or around San Jose - the Quicksilver 50k in Quicksilver Park with 5,500ft of climb on Saturday and the Redwood Park 50k (near Oakland) with 4,500ft of climb on Sunday. So, it was similar to last weekend with another 100k and another 10,000ft to force my body up...and down.

The races were complete contrasts - beautiful sun for Quicksilver, then torrential rain starting a couple of minutes before the gun at Redwood. Foolishly I only opted for trail shoes on Saturday so ended up sliding all over the place on Sunday.

Both races were organised excellently and had feasts at the aid stations. Quicksilver also had a huge bbq at the end and that was a great chance for runners to mingle, especially as there were multiple distances, and hence finishers spread out over more time, both days.

I really enjoyed Quicksilver and had my camera out again to capture the great views of the hills around San Jose. As expected, there was a great atmosphere and runners passing in the opposite direction made for an extra level of support for all. I managed to keep up a reasonable pace without having to raise my effort level high and finished in a respectable 7th in 4h19m, feeling fine to keep going for much longer. Leor Pantilat won in an impressive 3h30m and I met him the next day as he was directing the Redwood race.

At Redwood, it was interesting to have a few people come up to me and who knew who I was from Miwok. Not sure how they recognised me, but it was good to be getting into the local scene and meeting people so soon after moving down from Oregon. It promised to be stunning too, with Californian Redwoods everywhere. But the heavy rain meant visibility was down and even the initial 500ft climb at the start had me losing my footing and sliding around.

Redwood had an interesting concept for a course. It also offered a 10k, 20k and 30k race, and each option was built of combinations of a 10k loop and 20k loop. So the 50k involved the 20k, 10k then 20k again. I kind of liked this, especially as it gave me a chance to see the 20k loop in the sun as well as the rain. The second time round was certainly easier as the rain clouds had temporarily gone and much of the course had drained to make it more solid. I still didn't appreciate the sections with my two least favourite things in races - mud and sand. At least these were short, even if the long, narrow, muddy downhill miles were more like a luge track and almost made me fly off the course.

I was glad to finish Redwood and had hips as tight as a Scotsman. Some stretching and the good, old (new) recovery tights will hopefully fix me right up. And it was a nice bonus that I won with my 4h31m time, something I'd not expected. The next guy was 29 minutes back and third was another half hour. Clearly the slippery conditions and lack of prize money had led to slow times. But a win's a win, so it rounded off another confidence booster for the race to Squaw Valley. Three weeks 'til Comrades so I hope I can have a good taper and not lose anything. Then we'll just have to see how much I can recover from that in the four weeks 'til Western States. It's come around so soon, but I'm about as ready as I could be this year.

Sunday 2 May 2010

Miwok 100k in the sun

The Golden Gate Bridge just after sunrise

All ready at the start but with a lot of sports drink all over me

Worth getting up early for

I had a big grin as soon as I started seeing stuff like this

Great trails to complement the weather

Just one of many great coast line vistas
Up and down the whole way - barely any flat sections

Running through the narrowest path through the high grass

More of the narrow paths

Got to stop to pose for a photo when a marshal offers to take one

The aid station around 28 and 44 miles where Scott Jurek showed up to help out

I'm 5'8" but feel like a dwarf here

Fellow Bend resident Kami Semick running along in the last few miles

The finish, plus my nose

Yesterday I had the hardest single day race of my life, on paper anyway. The Miwok 100k is longer than any race I've finished before. I have entered two road 100ks before but turned up to one very injured, stopping at halfway, and decided to stop at the marathon mark of the other since I was off par and didn't want to post a time outside the qualification mark for the British team. Plus I DNFed the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler in February after two months off due to injury. I've generally had injuries just before the longest races, but it's been coincidence rather than over-training.

So, although I covered 80 miles of the 100 miler in February, I didn't finish. I've also had plenty of races from 50-56 miles but none as tough as Miwok, given the 10,000ft of ascent on the trails north of San Francisco. That meant Miwok should have been the toughest single day race I've ever done.

Yet somehow I may be getting blasé about ultras under 100 miles. I didn't get my logistics sorted out and treated the race partly as a necessary hassle (awkward to get to but essential training for Western States). I wasn't really looking forward to it because I had several things on the go right beforehand - moving house down to San Jose two days before and starting a new job two days afterwards.

In the end I opted to leave the house at 3am, drive a U-Haul truck for 90 minutes to the start then do the race on the tired legs due to spending the previous days shifting all my furniture up and down stairs and driving from Oregon. It also didn't help that I managed to spill my sports drink over myself when I parked at the start in the dark. I also forgot to pack the sun-screen even after seeing the forecast of blue skies and heat. I regret that now as I write this...

Luckily it's an incredible race and after just half an hour I was completely into it. Miwok was the perfectly timed and style of race for Western States, but it's also just four weeks before Comrades. I had a clear game-plan, to go easy and not race it, ideally with an even pace and running as much of the uphills as possible. So I started near the back of the pack and took a camera. During the day I took photos frequently because there were so many picture-perfect vistas. I kept doing that the whole way through which surprised other runners, but was useful for keeping me from slipping into a competitive mind-frame.

As the sun came up it was great to see the leaders come back along two consecutive out-and-back sections and they were really hammering it downhill. I didn't feel any need to try to go with them since they were already far ahead and it was good to just take in the course and stay at a comfortable pace.

The views along the coastline were very impressive, helped by the perfect weather and rising sun. I managed to spot several top ultra runners and legends so could tell that the race was a major event on the calendar for the best Americans. I got a chance to chat to plenty of other runners from all over the country and learned more about the course from those who'd done it before.

After about seven miles I caught up to Kristin Moehl, the winner of the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc last year who also runs in Bend every now and then and who I'd been on a group run with just a few days earlier. It's great that now I've been in the US for a few months I'm starting to get to know enough runners to recognise people at races. It's like the UK had been for me for the last few years.

A few hours into the race it was getting hot and my legs muscles were warming up nicely but not feeling too bad. The pace was gentle so I was still way back in the field, but I went through the half marathon around 1h50m, then the marathon around 3h54m after a long uphill from sea-level to 1,800ft (always handy to have the Garmin with me). It was surprising how easy I was finding the uphills given I've never been good at them, but it seems the last few months of training have really paid off. I found such a contrast to running the 50-miler in Paris which had smaller hills but really drained me and stopped me having any pace on the climbs. It certainly made the race more enjoyable.

Around halfway I felt fine and the course was undulating around the highest point for several miles through the woods. I ran up to a large group of local runners out for a 10k and chatted to a few of them as they ran. They were really encouraging to all the racers and left me with a boost. Then the course had a steep downhill for about 900ft over 1.7 miles to a checkpoint before turning round to run back along about 15 miles (that's a complete guess) of the course. I'd spent the past few minutes watching the leaders go past me in the other direction, with two big guns out front - Anton Krupicka followed by Michael Wardian. That 900ft climb was daunting but went better than expected and I noticed that I was just behind Kami Semick who was leading the women's race and adding to the roster of famous runners.

Running back to the checkpoint at around 44 miles, I stopped for a good feed and drank a lot, as I'd done at each of the other aid stations. The difference was that it was ultra-legend Scott Jurek who offered me the drinks. The race had turned into the equivalent of a red carpet celeb-fest for ultrarunners and so I made sure I said hi to Scott and got a photo with him. He thought it was a bit strange that I had time to stop for a photo shoot given I'd risen to just outside the top 10 at that point. But even that didn't make me switch from my game-plan and so I got some more food then jogged off at the same gentle pace.

That's one thing I do love about ultras, that tactics make the difference of hours to your time. Even though I wasn't going quickly, the fact I'd stayed at a slower pace from the start meant I hadn't burned out or slowed down. Some of the guys ahead of me had zoomed off and were paying for it so I was catching them. I'll definitely have to come back and race it as well, but for the first run it was good to think of it purely as a long, hilly training run. Plus I didn't want to jeopardise Comrades by getting over-enthusiastic towards the end of the race and wrecking my legs.

Around this point I had a great comment from a runner still on the out leg of the race as she went past - 'Don't get chicked!' I'd only learned the phrase recently, meaning to get beaten by a female runner. I like that phrase and I think that being beaten by women really plays on some men's minds. I admit that I'd rather not be behind any women, but it's definitely more important for me to beat the guys at the front :) However, not at this race.
As I wound back through the course I'd already run once, there was a real feeling of camaraderie as the runners coming the other way shouted encouragement or just said hi. It was just another uplifting aspect to an already brilliant day.

Given runners were coming the other way, I got several updates of where the people ahead of me were, especially Kami since she was the only woman and also the next position. I wanted to chat to her anyway so it was convenient that I was gradually catching up at my current pace. I lived in Bend for about eight months, which is where she also lives, yet I never met her there. A real shame since it's not every day you get the chance to chat to a world champion plus she's running Comrades this year.

I caught Kami a few miles later then spent most of the rest of the race running and chatting with her. The time flew by and suddenly Michael Wardian and another runner ran up to us, coming from the other direction. They'd gotten lost and turned round so had given up on racing hard. Mike said he'd wasted 27 minutes but had been in fifth so had stopped caring about the position any more. Still not a bad run after a 2h25m marathon in Boston two weeks previously and second in 2h26m at Big Sur just a week before.

So now I found myself running with the current US 100k/50k champions as well as Kami being the world champ at both those distances (someone correct me if I got any of that wrong). Not bad for a training run. Mind you, Mike was lost and jogging and Kami had such a huge lead that she was basically jogging too and not wanting to over-exert herself.

Another hill came up with switch-backs and I went slightly ahead just due to everyone's pace being different on the hills, plus Mike was out of water and really taking it easy. The next checkpoint was at 7.5 miles to go, with one more checkpoint halfway to the finish from there. I loaded up as usual and Kami caught me up as I chatted with the volunteers. Then we both set off to continue climbing.

It was a hot day by this point and I'd run out of water so was glad it was only a short distance to the next aid station. After the peak of that hill it went steeply down to almost sea-level and I ended up going ahead of Kami again as I tried to limit the shocks being absorbed by my thighs. As we approached 60 miles I was tired and starting to feel sore so was certainly glad to be near the end. But if there'd been another 38 miles to go, I think I'd have been no worse off to continue than people generally are at that point of a mountainous 100-miler. That was a comforting and also worrying thought - i.e. it will be a long, hard slog to finish Western States. But I can't honestly say I ever thought otherwise.
With just 3.8 miles to go, I had a couple of drinks then couldn't quite see Kami behind me so set off and immediately got lost going into a farm instead of taking a right back on to the trail. It certainly helps to be running with someone who's run the race four times previously and won it each time. It was well marked generally and this was about the only point during the whole day where I felt the route was slightly confusing.

The race has an evil finish to it, with one of the steepest climbs of the race going up from about 100ft to 800ft then coming back down sharply to the finish. As on the last few harder climbs, Kami and I were jogging at our own comfy paces but were out of breath more so weren't chatting as much and split up. I didn't want to just race her to the finish as that felt almost rude after chatting and running together so long, but I also wanted to run everything that I could uphill, so I just happened to end up ahead of her at the top, even after some short walking sections (it really is a bitch of a finish). Then I cruised down the other side, or rather I just focused on taking it easy and saving the legs. With the finish in sight I had to vault over a snake on the track, which shoved a load of adrenaline into my system. Don't get that kind of thing back in London.

I finished in 9th, I think, in 9h08m and had run it fairly evenly, with about a 4h30m/4h38m split for the two halves and a personal best, given it's my first completed 100k. So at least I hadn't needed to slow down, other than when the terrain was too steep. It was a well organised and spectacular event with huge support in the ultra community. Anton Krupicka won and I'm sure there were several other well-known ultrarunners there who I missed in the crowd of running stars. I felt like I'd really joined the US ultra community with that race, with it being the first proper ultra I'd done over with there (I don't really count the 50ks and the rest of my American races have all been marathons).

All I can say is that I'll be entering the lottery for this again next year and I'd recommend any ultra runner to do the same. These days lotteries dictate which races we can and can't do to some extent, so I've got the general philosophy of entering every lottery for races I want to do at some point, then I can do them the year I get in. Of course, if I can qualify or get in via another route then that makes it simpler, but some races just don't allow that.

Now I can get down to starting work again and sit back knowing that I've done the heavy lifting for both Comrades and Western States. A rule of thumb I heard is that if you double your Miwok time, then that's your Western States time. Given that would spit me out at just over 18 hours, it's yet another confidence boost for that race (and I need as much mental help as possible). And if you allow for the fact I had something left in the tank, then it's not unreasonable to aim for top five this year. Just so long as I can get my tactics, logistics and resting correct. None of this deciding how to get there at the last moment after knackering my legs with house moving again. I didn't pay enough respect to Miwok in advance and got away with it, but I doubt that would be the case in a longer, hillier and higher altitude race.