Sunday, March 9, 2014

2014 Way too Cool 50K

25th annual Way too Cool 50K
Contemplating dropping out -- on the car ride up the race!

"I don't even know why why I signed up for this race. There's a good chance I'm going to DNF," I told my buddy Jeff Clowers as we drove up to Way too Cool together that morning. Luckily my wife Amy didn't hear me mumble that. She was in the backseat, head slumped over taking a short and rather awkward and painful looking power nap. Amy doesn't like it when I pay money for a race and then don't finish.

Admittedly, as Amy can attest to, I'm a bit unpredictable as a runner. You never know -- regardless of my fitness level or the amount of training I have been putting in -- whether I am going to crush a race or drop out inexplicably. More than once she has packed our 6 year old into the car and started driving to the race finish line only to get a text message or phone call from me saying, "Turn back around. I dropped. I'm on the way home."

This year Amy and I had both put our names into the Way too Cool lottery, figuring that only one of us, if either, would get into the race. So we were surprised, and somewhat alarmed, when we found out that the race was expanded to allow 1200 runners and that nearly everyone who put their name into the "lottery" had been selected. Oh no,  we both got in. Now we needed to find a baby sitter.

Amy and drove up to the race with our neighbor, friend, and Quicksilver Running Club teammate Jeff Clowers who I have been coaching this year. Jeff, a former Marine, only began running two years ago after his doctor told him that needed to lose some weight. After dropping 70 pounds and increasing his training base, Jeff jumped into the world of ultra running. He ran his first 50K in 6:48:04 (Siskiyou Out Back) and has since been slowly whittling down his times with a 6:31:32 (Whiskeytown) and a 6:15:11 (Los Gatos Overgrown Fat Ass). He was hoping to finally go sub 6 today at Way too Cool.

Amy, who has run a 4:08:37 PR for 50K on a flat, paved course at Ruth Anderson was looking to better her trail 50K PR of 4:50:37 that she set last summer at the Skyline 50K. Way too Cool is supposed to be a relatively fast course, with only around 4,000 - 5,000 feet of elevation gain. However, it had been raining the week prior to the race and the trails looked to be very damp, if not muddy in spots with numerous flooded creek crossings.

Initially leading up the race I had been hoping that if I had a perfect day with perfect conditions I might be able to break four hours. But now, sitting in the car, biting my lip in pain after having just accidentally dumped scalding hot coffee into my lap and crotch, I was re-assessing my goals. Perhaps I should just focus on trying to finish. Perhaps I should skip the race and head to the local ER burn and trauma center?

Tucked in back behind Caitlin and Magda
Running with reckless abandon

With over 1200 people in the race, this was a huge field for a trail race -- especially when you consider that much, if not most, of the race is run on narrow single track. To help ease congestion, the race organizers divided the race into two waves with faster runners in the first wave. They also put up big road marathon style corrals with signs for 7 minute mile, 8 minute mile, 9 minute mile, and everyone else. I of course walked up to the front of the field near the starting line in the 7 minute mile corral, even though I knew that there was no way in hell I was going to be able to run 7 minute miles for a 50K on hilly, muddy, technical trails.

Standing at the starting line I chatted briefly with some running friends and acquaintances including 5th place Western States stud Dylan Bowman who came over to wish me luck, friend and arch-rival Karl Schnaitter, and former Vasque Trail Team captain Ethan Veneklassen who now runs for Hoka. I looked around quickly hoping to spot friend and former coach and training partner Caitlin Smith and her coach, 2008 Olympic marathoner Magdalena Lewy-Boulet. I hoped that they were up in front, hidden from view behind some of the taller men in front of me, and not stuck in the porta-potty line somewhere.

The race starts with about one and half miles of wide paved road before funneling into narrow technical single track. I knew that I needed to go out hard if I wants to get out in front of the main field and avoid getting stuck in a conga line for the next 8 miles. I hit the first mile in 6:15, which would normally be a bit fast, but which seemed to do the trick. I hit the single track in the top 25 of 30 runners, just behind Caitlin and Magda (who I was happy to see). We were stuck in a bit of a conga line in a group of about 6 runners with a fairly large gap opening up to the next group of runners ahead.

Although I knew it was probably a foolish, impetuous move which I would later regret, I stepped on the gas and sprinted around Caitlin, Magda and the other men and started chasing down the next lead group ahead. I wouldn't necessarily describe my pace, at only four miles into the race, as "suicidal" but I certainly wouldn't call it "restrained", "smart" or "sustainable" either. But like I always say, "If you're not going to run a smart race, do the next best thing and run an aggressive race". And to be quite honest, I figured what the hell. It's not like this was a race I really cared about or wanted to do well at. If I went out too hard and blew up and had to jog it in... so what, who cares?

I continued running like a nut job, with reckless abandon, not caring or worrying about the fact that at some point it was all going to blow up and come crashing down on me. Somewhere around mile 18 or 19 we began a long climb and I passed quite a few other runners including Quicksilver teammate (and USATF men's 50 - 55 50K national champion) Jean Pommier who was having a rare off day. But then it happened. The engine room ran out of gas.

Making my move!
The crash and the recovery

I heard footsteps behind and looked back to see Caitlin, Magda, and another male runner queuing up behind me. I stepped aside and let them pass and braced for an epic meltdown. Suddenly I was feeling low on energy and my right inner quad was starting to spasm. This might be the end for our hero. So I swallowed my pride and did the unthinkable: I slowed down a bit. I also took a gel and couple of salt pills and washed them down with some sports drink.

Oddly, a couple of minutes later the cramping subsided and I started feeling good again. I picked up the pace and eventually caught back up to and then passed Caitlin, Magda, and other male runner. I apologized as I passed, acknowledging the ridiculousness of my sprint/jog/sprint strategy instead of just running a nice even steady pace. But as they say, "the legs want what the legs want". And mine wanted to fly!

At some point earlier I had come across "Speed Goat" Karl Meltzer (who has more 100 mile wins than anyone else in the world) spectating on the side of the trail. He told me that I was in 18th place. So having caught a few more people since then I figured that I was now in 13th place or so. If I could just reel in a few more runners in these last 6 miles I could do the impossible and finish in the top 10!

But it was not to be. As we approached the steep, twisty, rocky "Goat Hill" climb, Magda launched a beautiful attack and surged effortlessly up the hill disappearing around the bends. While she ascended graceful I shuffled up, hands on knees, praying that a mountain lion would jump out of the bushes and put an end to my suffering.

Celebratory post-race brew with Amy
Finally, the finish!

Finally, as I hit the highway 49 crossing with only 1.5 miles to the finish, I looked down at my watch and saw that, barring a mountain lion attack, I was definitely going to finish in under 4 hours. I could see and hear Caitlin only 20 or 30 seconds behind and I was hoping that she would catch up so that we could run the last mile or so together. I thought about stopping to wait for her but my legs were hurting so bad that I worried that if I stopped I might not be able to get the started again.

I crossed the finish line in 14th place with a time of 3:55:55, a new trail 50K personal best for me, about 26 minutes faster than my previous trail 50K best of 4:22:08 that I ran in Woodside. And I had somehow even beaten my "best case" goal of 3:59:59 that I was secretly hoping for. It was an amazing day! But unfortunately I have no idea why I ran so well, or how to replicate it in the future.

Quicksilver team photo (by Jean Pommier)
But I wasn't the only one who had a great day. Magda won the women's race and finished 10th overall with the second fastest time (3:53:09) ever on that course. And Caitlin finished 2nd woman and 15th overall with a personal best and the 4th fastest time (3:56:25) ever run by a woman on that course. My wife Amy also shattered her own trail 50K personal best by 18 minutes with a blistering 4:32:56. And not to be outdone, our buddy Jeff Clowers absolutely crushed his 50K personal best by 27 minutes with an impressive 5:38:26.

And not that I was able to witness it, having finished nearly 40 minutes back of the leaders, but apparently the men's race came down to an exciting sprint finish with Chris Vargo edging out his Nike teammate Alex Varner by only 13 seconds with a 3:16:51 and 3:17:04, the 2nd and 3rd fastest times ever run on that course respectively.

After the race Amy, Jeff and I had a great time eating, drinking, and chatting with our large contingent of Quicksilver teammates who also made the long trek up for the race. It was an amazing day in which I ran too hard, drank too much post-race beer, and sat in the hot sun several hours too long. But trashed legs and funny suntan lines are a small price to pay for a wonderful day or running and celebrating with good friends.


Jean Pommier said...

Great account, John, glad to see you going so strong at mile 19! Your hard training is paying off, stop over analyzing your improvement! ;-) Just kidding, you had a great fueling recovery at ALT, great move!

John Nguyen said...

Congrats on the huge trail 50K PR, Big John! It's an honor to have you as a teammate! I am really enjoying your blog. Good luck with your big plans in 2014! I got a nice PR at Cool too, and I'm also hoping for an epic year. I'm looking forward to racing with the team and sharing some beers with you!

Jeremy said...

Seriously, what drugs are you on?

Big Johnny Burton said...

Thanks Jean! I do indeed hope that it is a permanent improvement and not just a one-time fluke performance. But in either case, it was a pleasant surprise. Best of luck with the rest of your season!

Big Johnny Burton said...

Thanks John. Congrats on the great race and the PR. And yes, I'll see you out there again at some of the next races. I think Miwok 100K is my next trail race, followed by Ohlone 50K. What else have you got coming up?

Big Johnny Burton said...

Thank you Jeremy! That's the ultimate compliment. You definitely know that your training is going great when your friends and family start asking you what kind of performance enhancing drugs you are using. LOL.

John Nguyen said...

I got AR50, WS Training Camp, and Western States. I might be volunteering or running Quicksilver 100K. Good luck with your races! I'll be stalking your blog from now on.

Big Johnny Burton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Big Johnny Burton said...

Hey John, best of luck at Western States. It's definitely good that you are planning to attend the training weekend. Of course, you won't get a full picture of actual race day conditions as it will likely be much cooler and much less dusty during the May training camp then during the late June race. But at least you will see the course.

Also, here's my Western States race report from last year which has some insights into my training/preparation and race-day strategies and tactics regarding pacing, calorie consumption, and heat management.

trailmomma said...

Congrats! Love the race recap as well. Everyone had some great PRs out there it seemed this year. :)