Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Snow on the Mountain!

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we don't typically get much snow. In fact, the last time it snowed in my town of San Jose was umm... Feb 5, 1976, at least according to local legend. However, once or twice a year (if we are really lucky) we get a couple inches of snowfall up in the surrounding mountains (Mt. Hamilton, Mt. Umunhum, Black Mountain).

The snow usually ony sticks around for a day or two before it warms up and melts, so it's always a special treat to throw on shorts and tee shirt and head up into the mountains to celebrate. It's not uncommon to see grown adults doing snow angels and having snowball fights.

So it was with great excitement that I headed out on Sunday afternoon with my camera in hand to see if I could get up into the mountains before all the precious snow melted. I'd heard from my wife Amy that Sierra Azul had quite a bit of snow on it when she ran her 14 mile loop earlier in the morning. But now it was mid afternoon and already warming up a bit. I'd better hurry! I quickly grabbed my gear. Running shoes? Check! Shorts? Check! Tee shirt? Nah, let's get go topless. Woo hoo!

I decided to drive up to the Wood's Road entrance of Sierra Azul (adjacent to Quicksilver Park) in order to run up the back side of the mountain. This route contains the very steep and rocky section of trail that I'd had to walk up the previous weekend during the Los Gatos Overgrown Fat Ass 50K. I wanted to see if I could actually run the entire 6.5 mile climb on fresh legs, as opposed to last week when I began the climb after already running 18 miles of tough hilly trails. Hopefully the snowline would be up near the 3,000 ft summit, and not on the lower steep, rocky section. The only thing harder than trying to run up a super steep incline with loose gravel and rock footing is trying to run up a super steep incline with loose gave and rock footing in the snow.

Luckily for me, the steep section was indeed snow free and I was able to run the whole thing relatively easily. The snow didn't really start to make it's appearance until the last mile or so. It started off rather dusty but it quickly became ankle deep. I'd worn my Gortex Salomon SpeedCross shoes, which did a good job of keeping my feet and warm and dry. Now, if only I had brought a shirt...

As I was running through the snow, grinning like an idiot and laughing out loud, I couldn't remember the last time I'd had so much fun running. It was a nice reminder to remember to enjoy each run -- and to enjoy each day. Of course, that's easy to say living in California where it stays sunny and warm all winter long, with the occasional rainy afternoon. And yes, I would probably be clinically depressed and heavily medicated if I still lived in Michigan (or anyplace else) where Winter means months of cold, ice, snow, and gray skies. But then again, that's exactly why I moved to California. So suck it ;)

Here is a short video clip that I shot with pocket camera showing some highlights of the run. I hope you enjoy it. And in case you were gonna ask -- no I wasn't cold, and the name of song playing in the background is Jackie Greene - Gone Wanderin'.

Monday, February 21, 2011

4th Annual Overgrown Fat Ass: Race Report

View of Mt. Umunhum from Mt. El Sombroso
Intro: Last Sunday (Feb 13th) I had the pleasure of joining some good friends for the 4th annual running of the Los Gatos "Overgrown" Fatass trail (ultra)marathon. This year the course had been lengthened from 26 miles to 31 miles (50K), making it a true ultra-marathon.

This friendly, by-invitation-only event is organized by Adam Blum and Sean Lang of the Quicksilver-Rhomobile Racing Team. Most of the invited runners are either members (or friends) of the Quicksilver Running Club.

For people who are not familiar with the history of the Fat Ass movement, a Fat Ass is a low-key, loosely-organized run that adheres (more or less) to the mantra, "No Fees, No Awards, No Aid, No Wimps." Typically Fat Ass runs are held early in January -- after everyone has put on a few pounds of adipose tissue in their derriere. This particular Fat Ass event is named in honor of a particularly steep and very technical section of trail called Limekiln on official maps, but which is simply referred to by locals as "Overgrown".

Unlike typical trail ultramarathons that offer aid stations every 5 miles or so, this event has only one aid station -- and you have to run up and over the 3,000 foot peak of Mt. El Sombroso to get there. However the effort is well worth it, because this aid station has an open bar! Run by Sean's wife Heidi, the aid station has a different alcohol theme each year. Last year they poured Guinness and whiskey. This year they were mixing up margaritas and tequila shots!

The Start: The race was scheduled to begin at 8:00 am, but perhaps due to the casual nature of the event, runners were still nonchalantly strolling up to the starting line as Adam was finishing his pre-race instructions, causing for a few minutes delay in getting started as he repeated the directions to make sure no one got lost out there. Going off trail could be deadly. If the mountain lions, rattle snakes or poison oak don't get you -- the illegal marijuana farmers might!

I had invited my buddy and regular training partner Dr. Joeseph Bistrain to join us. Joe and I run and bike ride together a few times a week. He had just done a 50 mile bike ride the day before, so he said he would try to join, but would probably only run 20 miles or so. I figured it would be nice to have some company, even if just for first 10 mile out section. Not just to talk to. But also to increase my odds of successfully fending off a mountain lion attack. But it looked like Dr. Joe was going to be a no show. That is, until he sprinted up to the starting line, nearly out of breath, seconds before the race was about to start.

Eventually everyone showed up, got settled down, and the race began. Adam, Joe, and I quickly found ourselves running out in front as everyone was running very cautiously, wisely saving strength for the long climb up and over Mt. El Sombroso, only to turn around at the bottom of the other side and climb back up and over from the other direction. It was going to be a long day!

I decided to back off a little bit and run my own pace, letting Adam and Joe run ahead a bit. I'd had a bad race two weeks prior where I went out too hard and ended up dropping out of the Jed Smith 50K at mile 16. So I didn't want a repeat performance of that fiasco. Plus my knee had been giving me some troubles lately. So, my plan was to go out slow and easy for the first half, and then try to pick it up and run a negative split on the way back. I think Adam and Joe had the same plan as they seemed to back off a bit and settle into a nice conversational pace, just a few seconds ahead of me.

The Attack: However, as we approached the top of Mt. El Sombroso about 7 miles into the run, Adam suddenly pulled a Lance Armstrong/Alberto Contador/Andy Schleck and launched an awe-inspiring attack at the top of the summit. While Joe and I jogged over the top and took it easy on the downhill, Adam was flying down the mountain opening up a several minute lead. Apparently Adam was looking to win the race -- and to win it early.

Not wanting to abandon my cautious plan of running the first half of the race easy, Joe and I continued to run at a comfortable, conversational pace. However, we approached the 10 mile point turns around as he planned (which will give him his planned 20 miles for the day). Now I was on my own. Instinctively I occasionally start picking it up just slightly, hoping to close down some distance between myself and Adam. Wait, this wasn't the plan. Knock it off. Slow down. I've still got 20 miles to run.

As I approach the aid station at mile thirteen I blow right through. Both my bottles are each still about 1/4 full so I figure they should easily get me through the next 5 miles of relatively easy terrain before I come back to the aid station on the return. More importantly, where the hell is Adam? As the fire road straightens out I can see a quarter mile ahead (or more) and he is no where in sight. However, as I start getting close to the turn around point I see him running up the hill towards me. Ok, so he was just a minute or two ahead.

And as I run into the aid station at mile 18, Adam is still there (chugging down the last of his margarita as I later learn). While a cold beer would have hit the spot, there was no way in hell I was going to drink warm Tequila!. Seriously, who drinks Tequila on a 31 mile run? (I am later informed that fellow runner Mike Mahone drank 5 shots of Tequila at the aid station. WTF? Wow!). I quickly refill my two bottles with water and head back out, trying to see if I can catch Adam.

A few miles go by and then finally I catch a glimpse of a tall, shirtless slim figure striding up the trail. Eventually I finally pull up beside him and then throw in a mock sprint, which he matches. Luckily we both come to our senses and realize that we are not going to be able to run sub 6:00 minute miles up this steep, rocky mountain.

"Ugh, This Sucks": Despite the rumors that were later circulated, I did not actually run a 5:00 mile up the cliff-face of the mountain. It was more like a 15 minute mile. But it hurt as much as any 5 minute mile I've ever run. And yes, at one point I did mumble something to the effect of "Ugh, this sucks" to a group of cub scouts who were coming down the mountain. It didn't help my morale that I had run out of water at that point and had to "wash" down my salt pills with a Gu gel packet. Probably only a peanut butter and dirt sandwhich would have been harder to swallow.

But eventually I made it back up to the peak of Mt. El Sombroso. And then eventually I made it back down to the Limekiln trail head. And eventually I made it back down to the road. And then eventually I made it back up that stupid steep little dirt hill. And then eventually I made it back to the start/finish point at Novitiate park.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I cross the finish line in first place. My final time was 5:01:54. Not quite as fast as I was shooting for (I kinda wanted to go under 5 hours), but not nearly as bad as it could have been. And, looking further on the bright side, I wasn't eaten, bitten, or shot. So a definite win-win all around.

Adam (2nd place, 5:28:00) and John (1st place, 5:01:54)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Jed Smith Classic: Race Report

Sometimes races go badly. Sometimes they suck. Sometimes they suck so badly that you don't want to think about them again, much less blog about them. That's how I feel about my performance at Jed Smith last weekend on Feb 5th. And I use the word "performance" lightly. Other, more fitting terms could include: spectacle, debacle, melt down, meh-blah, apathy-fest, etc.  You get the idea. Obviously, things did not go well.

The Jed Smith Classic is held every year in Sacramento. It's know for being a very flat and very fast course. And this year's newly revised course promised to be even flatter and even faster than in previous years. Unfortunately, flat and fast is not my necessarily my forte. In fact, you could probably even say it's my nemesis. The problem is that I'm accustomed to running on trails in the mountains with thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss over the course of the race -- where the pace is around 8:30 minutes per mile. So when I find myself running on flat, fast, well-groomed running surfaces my body has no idea what kind of pace to run. And invariably I end up going out much too hard and then dying after 16 - 18 miles. It's happened to me more than once. More than twice. More than three, four, or five times. But, I digress.

There I was, standing at the starting line with ten seconds to go before the gun goes off. No wait, let's back up a bit...

There I was, sitting at my computer 3 months before the scheduled race date trying to decide whether I wanted to do the 50 mile or the 50 kilometer distance (Jed Smith Classic offers three distances: 50M, 50K, and 30K). Hopefully 2011 would be the year that I finally run (and finish) my first 100 miler. I'd tried (and failed miserably) on two other occasions in previous years -- dropping out of the Umstead Endurance Run at mile 72 in 2005, and again calling it quits at mile 75 of the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2009.

If I am planning on completing a 100 miler this season, it would make sense to do the 50 mile instead of the 50K option at Jed Smith and just use it as an easy training day for my 100 miler later in the year. On the other hand, my 100 miler isn't until late June, so maybe it doesn't make sense to already start ratcheting up the distance so early in the season. Plus, I've been having some knee pain lately, so perhaps it's best to just do the shorter, wimpier 50K option. But what the hell, sign me up for the 50 miler anyway!

However, as the race drew closer I started questioning my bold decision to try and do the full 50 miles. I started hedging my bets. Maybe it would be better to do the 50K instead so that I could potentially score points for my ultra running team, Quicksilver RhoMobile (the 50K event is part of the PAUSATF Ultra Running Grand Prix while the 50 mile event is not). Never mind that we already have 3 guys (Jean, Sean, and Jim) who will certainly all finish well and win the maximum 10 points for the top-scoring team. I should do it for the team! Yeah, that's the ticket.

Then, Friday night as I am driving up to Sacramento the night before the race something happens to solidify my decision. I'm stopped at a red light in busy traffic on Mission Boulevard in Fremont. I see a fast-approaching car in my rear view mirror. But they don't seem to be stopping (or even slowing). The car is getting closer, and definitely not breaking. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6... crash. What the hell? Oww, my neck. My head. My car! Ok, now it's official. I'm lucky to still be alive (actually it was a pretty minor fender bender, but still...), so I better just take it easy and do the 50K.

So there I was at the starting line with ten seconds to go before the gun goes off. My neck hurts. My head hurts, My back hurts. My knee is probably going to start hurting. It's too cold out. But it's gonna be too hot later once the sun comes out. I hate races that go around in circles, on bike paths, with throngs of iPod wearing walkers/joggers/baby strollers/bicyclists/dogs. (Ok, the dogs  weren't wearing iPods, but you get the idea). Obviously I had already given up before the race even started.

So, the race starts. I figure I should start running or something. I go out at 7:00 minute/mile pace for the first two miles -- probably a little too hard in retrospect, though certainly slower and easier than my teammates Jean and Sean and the other race leaders. The miles start slowly ticking off. I slow down a bit and get caught by a small pack of runners that included women's front-runner Jennifer Pfeifer (who would go on to win the women's race) as well as  J.R. Mintz who seems to enter EVERY race that I run. We all chat for a mile, logging a few more miles.

Slowly we start spreading out and running on our own. And that's where the voices in my head take over the party. "I could sure use a cold beer." "Dude, why are you running in circles on this stupid bike path?" "Hey, you're starting to slow down. This is going to turn into a 4 or 5 hour torture-fest" "This sucks, let's go get some lunch." "You're just gonna get injured if you keep this up."

The voices had me at "cold beer". I decide to quietly duck out of the race after my fourth lap at just over 16 miles. Another defeat for me. Another victory for stupid bike paths everywhere.