Monday, September 16, 2013

Headlands 50 Mile; Just Another Day at the Office

Headlands 50 Mile
photo by Gary Saxton
Best Laid Plans...

Wake up. Glare at alarm clock and mumble incoherently. Drink coffee. Drink more coffee. Car pool to the "office". Punch in and zone out all day. Eight hours later, kick feet up and have cold beer. That pretty much describes my day this past Sunday at the Headlands 50 mile race up in Marin.

I signed up for the race a few months ago. I have no idea why I thought it would be a good idea to schedule two hard 50 mile races so close together at the end of a long hard season -- having just run a fast 7:10:23 fifty miler three weeks prior. Probably it had something to do with the fact that my training partner and good friend Joe Bistrain had signed up and would be attempting his first 50 miler (having previously only run two 50Ks). In any case, it was a bonehead move on my part.

Luckily I realized my stupidity, and rather than risk running myself into the ground or getting seriously injured, I made the decision to just use this event as a long training run. Rather than racing all out and pushing myself to near exhaustion for seven to eight hours, I decided not to even bother trying to battle pre-race favorite Karl Schnaitter for the win (it would have been a tall order anyway as he is faster than me and finished about ten minutes ahead of me at the Quicksilver 50 miler back in May).

Instead I planned to go out easy for at least the first twenty miles and then see how the day unfolded. If I was feeling good, perhaps I would pick it up a bit for a few miles and see how many people I could reel in. I definitely wanted to finish in the top 10, and I was hoping for at least a top 5 finish. If I could crack the top 3 and finish on the podium that would be ideal. But I wasn't willing to kill myself and try to outsprint someone down the mountain at the end of the race to do it.

Whoa! 10K of elevation gain in 50 miles!

What Actually Happened...

Thankfully (and somewhat surprisingly) I managed to keep my ego in check and execute my game plan quite well. I held back a bit on the opening steep climb, letting four or five guys run off ahead of me. Then, even more surprisingly, I didn't panic when another ten runners or so passed me during the next ten or twelve miles. I even kept my cool when teammate and buddy Adam Blum pulled up beside me (even though he was supposed to be taking it super easy and saving himself for The Bear 100 coming in two weeks). And I didn't even panic when Joe (who was attempting his first 50) pulled up beside, and then passed me!

I had warned Joe numerous time in the preceding weeks to take it easy on the first loop and to save his strength for the second half of the course, as this race would be 19 miles longer than anything he had ever run before. So when he passed me, breathing relatively hard and sweating profusely so early in the race, I assumed that his race was over and that he'd end up dropping at the end of the first loop at mile 25. Thankfully however Joe eventually settled down a bit and eased off the gas into a more sustainable pace. Nonetheless I was worried that the damage may have already been done.

A perfect day for running
photo by Gary Saxton
After mile twelve people finally stopped passing me and I settled into a nice pace. I wasn't sure exactly what position I was in, but I assumed I was probably somewhere around 15th overall. But I knew it was going to be a long day, and with around 10K of vertical gain during the race, I expected a good number of the front runners to become road kill by the end of the day.

Somewhere around mile twenty, as we made the turnaround at the bottom of the Golden Gate bridge and began our climb back up to the mountain ridge, I began passing other runners rather steadily. Admittedly I had picked the pace up slightly, but I wasn't working that hard and was surprised to be passing so many people so quickly. By the time we hit the turnaround at mile twenty five I think I had moved up to around 5th place!

A Brief Moment of Drama & Despair

As I came into the turnaround point at mile twenty five I got a fairly excited and probably pushed the pace a bit harder than I should of trying to reel a few other runners in on the only real sections of flat runnable road on the course. And suddenly to my dismay, my right calf starting hurting -- really bad. I briefly thought about dropping out and calling it a day. I think the only thing that kept me going was that in case Joe was struggling I didn't want to give him any additional incentive to drop. So I decided to just slow down a bit and see if my calf would feel better (or at least not get any worse). And luckily, dialing back the pace helped and the pain subsided a bit.

Karl Schnaitter and Jean Pommier tearing it up
photo by Gary Saxton
Somewhere along the next ten miles I caught a couple of more runners and moved up into 3rd place. Karl had predictably moved into the lead and was looking strong. He was putting distance between himself and the guy in second place who seemed to be fading hard. While the 2nd place guy still had at least a mile or two lead on me, I was fairly confident that I would reel him in.

On a side note, while I had moved up into 3rd place in the 50 mile race, I was actually still well behind two of the 100 miler runners including fellow Quicksilver teammate Jean Pommier who leading the 100 miler and on course record pace! Jean, who will be moving up into the 50 year old age group next year, is an absolutely amazing runner and I was only slightly embarrassed of the fact he was running twice as far as me and was still kicking my butt!

The Anti-Climatic Conclusion

I kept moving well and eventually reeled in the second place guy, Armando, on the downhill into Tennessee Valley at mile 37. He seemed to be struggling a bit with leg cramp and fatigue. I was still feeling great so I knew that I didn't have to worry about him catching back up to me. At the same time, I also knew that Karl had an insurmountable fifteen minute lead so there was no point in running hard to try and catch him. That was actually fine with me! It was so nice and mentally relaxing to be able to jog the last 13 miles with no pressure to run fast and no fear of getting caught.

Thirteen miles later I crossed the finish line in 8:03:25, securing 2nd place overall, about 16 or 17 minutes behind Karl. I bowed to the crowd at the finish line, collected my winnings, and then lhobbled off to the car in search of my camp chair and ottoman and my pint of Pliny the Elder waiting for me on ice. Not a bad way to relax after a long day of work :)

Friend Joe Bistrain finishing his first 50 miler!

My buddy Joe triumphantly sprinted across the finish line in 9:16:23, knocking down his first 50 miler (and qualifying for Western States if he is interested in putting his name in the lottery)!

Our other buddy Adam Blum got in a good training run but wisely called it a day at mile 37, saving himself for The Bear 100 coming up in just two weeks!

And special congratulations to Quicksilver teammate Mark Laveson who won the children's fun run (i.e., marathon) race!

Additional Reading

For a very thorough and detailed account of his 100 mile victory and new course record, check out teammate Jean Pommier's blog and race report here:


Jeff Clowers said...

Great race report again!

Here is a fun view of your run from Velo don't know if you have tried the 3d viewer yet - since it kinda loops around it is a bit messy but still fun to look at.

Talk to you soon!

Andy Benkert said...

Even taking it easy you killed it! Great job and great run, John.

Big Johnny Burton said...

Thanks guys! Andy, I hope you heal up soon man. That patch of missing skin on your hand looks so painful!

Jeremy said...

I need your drugs. What are you using?

Big Johnny Burton said...

LOL. I do spend a small fortune on supplements including iron, B-complex, vitamin D, Emergen-C, fish oil, Zyflamend, Echinacea, Calcium/Magnesium/Zinc. And I am sure sleeping/working in the elevation tent at 11K probably helps too.

But I think the biggest thing I have done differently the past couple years is just keeping a consistent high weekly training volume (usually a combination of running and biking) while doing crazy-mad-bust-your-shit-open hill sprints (both running and biking) to boost VO2max. Also, doing most of workouts in the heat of the day.

Jean Pommier said...

Thanks for the cross-reference between our blog posts, John. You seemed particularly relaxed and I appreciate your effort (or injunctions! ;-) to slow me down, it was wise indeed.
You are doing amazing as well in the M40-49, you shall have great years ahead!

Unknown said...

hi, thank you for posting this! i am local to california and am in search of a 50 mile race to run aug-sept my first. last year i completed my first 2 marathons and a 50k.. would you suggest this race as a first 50 miler? thanks in advance!

Big Johnny Burton said...

Hi! Headlands would certainly be a very challenging first 50 miler. It is a pretty hilly course with some good climbs. And, unfortunately is involves doing two loops (though you run the second loop in the reverse direction) so you can be tempted to drop out at the half-way point when you run back into the start/finish area at mile 25. If you can wait until October, Dick Collins Firetrails 50 is a little more runnable course with less elevation and more gradual climbs. Plus it is basically an out and back, instead of two loops.

Unknown said...

hi thank you for your response!!! i will look into the dick collins firetrails 50 for sure.