Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ohlone Wilderness 50K

Photo courtesy of Tanford Tahoe
"I'll never run this damn race again!" That's more or less what I said back in 2005 after finishing the Ohlone 50K for the first time. That's also what I said after finishing the race in 2007, 2009, and 2011. It's a brutal course – rugged and exposed with around 8,000 feet of elevation gain. On a hot, sunny day there's little shade and no place to hide. And then there's the rattle snakes!

Yet somehow I keep returning to this race. There's just something about this incredibly punishing yet exceptionally beautiful course – which runs point-to-point through the Ohlone Wilderness from Fremont to Livermore – that calls out to me. Perhaps as an American Indian myself, I'm drawn to this area where the native Ohlone people once lived. Or maybe it's just because the race date falls on, or near, my birthday every year. In any case, this is one of my favorite races each year!

This year however I wasn't sure whether I would be able to run Ohlone. I'd been injured, unable to even walk without pain for the past three weeks (much less run), due to a sciatic nerve issue in my piriformis (glute) muscle. I'd been forced to sit on the sidelines as my friends and teammates ran the Miwok 100K on May 5th, a race that I had been looking forward to running. And now, here I was about to miss Ohlone – one of the two or three "A" races on my calendar this year.

Luckily, the running gods took mercy on me and restored my leg to working order just in time for the race. I had started feeling better a few days before the race. I did a 1 mile test run on the treadmill, which went fine. Then after taking a day off, just to be safe, I did an easy 4 mile run on a flat dirt path next to a bike path near my house. That also went OK. So, with only one day to go before the race, I went out on my birthday and hammered 8 miles in the hills at race pace to test things out. And everything felt great!

Normally I wouldn't do such a hard workout the day before a race. But on the other hand, one of my teammates (Toshi Hosaka) had just raced 50 miles the day before. So I figured what the hell! While I wasn't 100% confident that my leg was going to hold up for the whole race, I was willing to give it a shot.

Quicksilver Racing Team
After posing for a few team photos and making numerous visits to the restrooms, I was ready to rock. The race starts out with a very aggressive 2 mile climb that immediately tests your legs and your lungs. I figured that at the top of the climb I would know, one way or the other, whether my leg was going to be up to the task. My plan was to run the first hill somewhat conservatively, but to push hard enough to stay within the top 10 runners.Thankfully my leg felt great and never bothered me at all.

The rest of the race is kind of blur. I just kept moving at a nice steady pace, trying to stay ahead of the train of runners behind me. Aid station volunteers and hikers would occasionally give me updates. "You're in 8th place and there's another guy just 3 minutes ahead". I was thrilled to know that I was running strong, yet I could feel some cramps sneaking up on me in my left calf and left quad. And then around mile 22 the cramps attacked with full force and I had to stop and sit down on the side of the trail to massage my legs.

From that point on, the cramps would come and go. I tried to drink as much water as possible. And I swallowed salt pills by the handful. I even broke my own general rule of not taking ibuprofen during a race and popped a couple pills at mile 27. At this point I was "all in". I was willing to risk a little kidney renal failure to secure my top 10 finisher position.

During the last 5 miles I managed to catch up to Gary Wang (who had passed me around mile 22 when I was cramping), only to later fall back behind him again during another bout of cramping. He and I worked together to hike up a steep climb out of the canyon that some people affectionately call "Satan's Pit" due to the extremely warm temperature.

Photo courtesy of Noé Castañón
After letting Gary go ahead, I eased off the pace a little to ensure that I would be able to finish and not get stuck 2 or 3 miles from the finish line with bad cramps. While I would have liked to have been able to push harder and contend for a top 5 spot, I was more than happy with my 7th place finish!

And, as an added bonus I again this year experienced "big wood", finishing 2nd place in my age group and receiving the coveted 4x4 inch wooden trail post award (as opposed to the "small wood" 1x4 inch award given to all finishers). Also, I managed to take 2 minutes off my PR for this course, finishing in 5:28:44.

While I had an amazing race, I was reminded of the dangers of ultra trail running when a teammate and friend of mine collapsed half a mile from the finish line with heat exhaustion and had to be airlifted out to the hospital via helicopter. Our thoughts are with him and his family as he recovers!

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