Wednesday, May 25, 2011

John Gets "Big Wood" at Ohlone 50K Trail Race

I had the pleasure of experiencing "big wood" while running this past weekend at the Ohlone 50K trail race. Now hold on, it's not what you're probably thinking. No, I didn't take some Viagra or another vasodialotor before the race in order to improve the blood flow to my lungs (and other organs). Rather, for the first time in my four attempts at Ohlone, I finished in the top 3 of my age group and came home with the coveted large 4x4 piece of lumber (i.e., "big wood") given to the age group winners instead of the much smaller 1x4 sliver of wood (i.e., "little wood") given to all race finishers.

There I was at the finish line, firmly grasping my enormously large piece of timber with both hands while everyone stared in awe. I couldn't have been any prouder. What a day! Not only did I take 3rd in my age group, but I finished 10th overall and ran 5 minutes faster than I had ever run on this particular course before. Here's a link to the official results. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning...

I'd gone to sleep ridiculously early the night before, climbing into bed around 8:30 pm (which felt so wrong considering that it was still completely light out). But when my BlackBerry started chirping at 4:45 am I actually felt pretty well rested. There was none of the usual stumbling around in the dark, accidentally kicking the family dog and waking up the whole neighborhood nonsense. No, just some quality time with my good friend and confidant, Don Francisco. He makes a mean Vanilla Nut coffee in case you were wondering.

And of course, as per my usual race morning ritual I meticulously prepared a gourmet breakfast designed to ensure maximum athletic performance: cherry Pop Tarts! Two minutes and four hundred calories later, I was high off my ass on caffeine and high fructose corn syrup. But seriously, don't knock Pop Tarts. NCAA national cross-country champion Adam Goucher swore by them. And hell, check the ingredients, they've got dried cherries and dried apples. So they must be good for you, right? Anyway...

Ohlone is a somewhat unique event, presenting some unique logistical challenges, in that it is a point-to-point race starting in Fremont and ending 31 miles away at Lake Del Valle in Livermore. So while the race itself doesn't start until 8:00 am, you have to be at Lake Del Valle before 6:30 am in order to catch the bus to the starting line. According to Google Maps, it is a 1:15 minute drive from my house. But apparently the Google driving-time estimates are based on the average law-abiding Californian citizen driving a hybrid Prius. But take a wild back-roads Michigan boy in a Ford Mustang with a wicked sugar high, and well... 28 minutes later he's sitting outside the gates of the county park chanting, "open, open, open".

Needless to say, I was the first runner to board the shuttle bus and I snagged a prime front row seat. Not only does sitting up front help keep me from getting car sick, but much more importantly it ensures I will be the first guy off the bus and the first guy in line at the restrooms when we arrive at the starting area. Apparently another guy had the same idea because he sat down next to me in the front row.

As we started talking I soon discovered he was Harris Goodman, a new teammate who had just recently joined our Quicksilver Ultra Racing team. As we chatted, I also learned that Harris is quite the accomplished ultra runner, having completed the Grand Slam of Ultra Running in 2010 (which involves running four of the oldest and more difficult 100 mile races all in the same calendar year including Western States, Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch Front. Having not yet successfully completed a 100 miler myself I used the opportunity to pick his brain on a variety of topics from hydration best practices to strategies for preventing altitude sickness.

However, once we arrived at the starting area it was every man for himself and I dispensed with the pleasantries and started throwing elbows as I dashed for the front of the Porta Potty line. Luckily the race directors waited an extra ten minutes to start the race, ensuring that all the runners were able to take care of business and find their way to the starting line.

As we stood around waiting for things to get underway I was able to chat a bit with some fellow Quicksilver Racing team members and even pose for some nice group photos. These pre-race photos always turn out so much better than the post race photos were everyone's faces are caked with sweat, dirt, snot, Gu, or who knows what else.

As we were standing there getting ready to start running, I realized that I hadn't really prepared a race strategy or plan for Ohlone. Typically I have some idea beforehand of how I plan to run. Usually it is something along the lines of "Go out easy for the first 10 miles, stay calm and controlled for the next 20, and then pick it up the last 11 miles if you are feeling good". Though to be honest I don't know why I ever bother with putting together a pre-race plan since I invariably always end up throwing out the plan after the first 200 meter and just trying to run with the race leaders.

Today was really no different. Alarm bells should have gone off in my head as I found myself sprinting uphill past my teammate Mark Tanaka (note: Mark is a much faster runner than me and he ended finishing 15 minutes ahead of me). More alarm bells should have gone off as cheering spectators yelled, "you're in 6th place". Eventually the adrenaline wore off around mile 5 and I came to my senses and slowed down, letting Mark and another runner fly off into the distance as we made our way down the backside of Mission peak.

After that, things pretty much became a blur, with the notable exception of mile 8.5 where a bee flew into my sock and stung me on the ankle (which was surprising painful actually) and somewhere around mile 15 where I ran into teammate Chihping Fu who has re-marking the course). Aside from that it was just 5 hours and 30 minutes of running up and down big nasty hills in the Ohlone wilderness area. I pretty much ran on my own the entire way, entertaining myself by reciting my favorite Kid Rock songs.

At one point towards the end of the race my hamstring cramped up as I tried to hop sideways through a partially open cattle gate instead of just taking the time to open it properly and run straight ahead. This caused me to fall to the ground in pain (there may or may not also have been some shrieking, cursing, and rolling around). At this point, I was passed by a guy in a blue shirt who had been consistently running a few hundred yards or so behind me all day. He was courteous and friendly, asking if I needed any salt or sugar pills. So I did my best to be cordial and mumble "I'm OK. Thank you. Have a good one" instead of "Go to hell motherfucker! If I ever see you on the street I'll cut your ass." Did I mention I'm a bit of a sore loser?

Also, at one point Gary Wang came flying by me on a downhill. But honestly, he was moving so fast that I didn't have time to even say hi, much less think of anything menacing to say. Plus Gary is a great guy who does a lot for the sport, so it's hard to hold a grudge against him for making me feel like I was standing still. Nice job Gary!

Anyway, I eventually made it up the last of the hills and then down the extremely steep and extremely painful last two miles of downhill to the finish line. My feet were on fire from the heat generated by the friction of all that downhill running. I was pretty sure at least two of my toenails had already turned black from smashing against the toe box of my shoe. And there were some annoying blisters that would need to be popped. But right now all I could think about was the BBQ and cold Guiness draught beer waiting at the finish line.

With the scent of chicken apple sausage in the air, I hammered the last quarter mile and sprinted into the finishing chute relieve to be done. All in all it had been a good day. I finished. And aside from the one cramping episode I stayed on top of my fluids, salts, and calories pretty well. But somewhere in the back of my mind I was wondering, "This felt pretty hard for just 31 miles. You have a 100 mile race coming up in just over a month. Are you really going to be able to run another 70 miles on top of this?" Hmmm. That's a very interesting question!

To be continued I suppose...


Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Nice report, great job, Half Naked John! Yeah, as long as you don't go as fast as you ran this, and especially the first 5 miles, you can do well.

Good thing you were nice to Charles!

Jean Pommier said...

Great job, John! And, assuredly, a 100-miler isn't 3 times a 50K at his intensity! Given that you are in such a great shape, you'll have to take the first 50 miles really easy and I know it's tough (not to go out too fast). But so important to get a good second half. In the meantime, all the best to train smart and remain healthy.