Sunday, May 25, 2014

Returning to Ohlone 50K as Mere Mortal

Did I Ever Tell You the Story about that One Time...

Runners ascending Mission Peak
Last year I ran the race of my life at the 2013 Ohlone 50K where I was utterly immune to the effects of gravity and flew effortlessly up the hills enroute to finishing 2nd overall behind my Quicksilver teammate Jean Pommier. This year however I got to again experience what it feels like to run Ohlone as a mere mortal. I found myself hiking up hills with hands on knees, breathing hard and thinking, "this sucks". Ah yes.

Last year I came into Ohlone in the middle of my Western States ramp up, having several 100 - 120 mile weeks under my belt. I was in amazing shape: veins were bulging out of my muscles and erythropoietin (the natural stuff, not the junk you buy from your cycling buddies) was coursing through my blood.

This year unfortunately Ohlone feel during a down period in my training where I was recovering from my Spring racing campaign (Way too Cool, Boston Marathon, and Miwok 100K) and resting up before my ramp-up for Hardrock 100 in July.

Off and Running

Ohlone Wilderness
Initially I though I might have a shot to win Ohlone this year after I found out that defending champion Jean Pommier would miss this year's race in order to attend his son's graduation from Yale. But my dreams were dashed when I saw local stud Lon Freeman's name on the registration list. In fact, looking at the list of fast guys who were running this year, I suspected that I might not even be able to crack the top-three.

Standing at the starting line seconds before the start of the race, I was still debating which strategy to employ. Should I go out ridiculously hard on the first climb like a maniac and try to get an early lead, or should I hang back a bit and run conservatively saving my energy for later in the race? As usual, I opted for the ridiculous/maniac approach. Unfortunately for me, so did Lon Freeman.

Lon jumped out to an early lead and I had to work harder than expected together with George Torgun from Berkley to slowly bridge back up to Lon. Together the three of us crested the first mile and a half climb together. Unfortunately that would be the last I would see of Lon as he eventually pulled back away, running away with the race in a winning time of 4:52:30.

George, who would eventually finish second in 5:08:32, showed an act of great sportsmanship when he stopped several miles into the race to try and help another runner/hiker (who had taken the early start option) who had gotten stuck waist deep in a mud-pit sinkhole! Unfortunately, even with four or five people helping, they weren't able to extricate the runner. Hopefully he managed to get out at some point! Otherwise the mountain lions may have gotten a tasty treat later that night.

Cruising and Cursing

5th overall and 2nd in my age group
With Lon and George safely out in front, the rest of a race became a four-man fight for third place between me, Kevin Sawchuk, Erik Wilde, and Remi Delille -- all of whom would finish within minutes of each other. At one point on the hike up out of the river with only 3 miles to go, Erik, Remi and myself all pulled even with each other for a brief moment. It was pretty cool. But we were all still a minute or so behind Kevin. If one of us wanted third place, he would have to make a move now!

My hopes for third place were dashed when Erik mad a strong move and pulled a few seconds ahead. I knew that this would be the deciding the move and that if I wanted a chance at third place I would need to stay with Erik now and hope to bridge up to Kevin together. But knowing and doing are two different things and I just didn't have the will power to push hard. I watched somewhat apathetically as Erik pulled away, leaving me alone in 5th place with a slight 30 second or so lead over Remi.

Crossing the finish line in 5th place at 5:15:33, I shrugged mile shoulders and smiled as if to say, "I just didn't have it today... but don't worry, I'm saving myself for Hardrock". Of course, my shrug could have also been interpreted as, "Oh man this race sucks. I'm never going to run it again". Both interpretations could be equally valid.

The Women's Race

I had a nice front-row seat to the women's race as I got to witness the battle for first place first hand at the turnaround point on top of Mt. Rose. As I was running down the mountain I saw women's leader Darcy Africa (a Hardrock veteran and hero of mine) followed only seconds behind by local legend Prudence L'Heureux. And although I didn't catch a glimpse of her at the time, slightly further back was Quicksilver teammate Lisa Hughey who was running a strong steady race.

Darcy Africa held off the competition and come home with the win in 5:27:35, good for 8th place overall! Teammate Lisa Hughey finished 2nd about 8 minutes later in 5:35:50, just outside the top 10 in 11th place overall. Prudence, who struggled with leg cramps, still managed to hang on to 3rd place in 5:57:32.

Other Facts, Figures, and Weirdos

Women's winner Darcy Africa
photo by Joseph Swenson
Karl Schnaitter, who many felt would be a threat to win or at least finish on the podium, had a rare off day and finished 10th in 5:34:45. Having just run the grueling Quicksilver 100K the weekend before, he probably wasn't fully recovered and never was able to tap into his energy reserves. However, he will hopefully be recovered and ready again for Western States in late June.

The surprise break-out performance of the race goes to buddy Andy Belk who shocked the world by running shirtless (albeit with a liberal dose of 100+ SPF sunblock) and cracking the top 10 with a 9th place finish in 5:32:34 just ahead of Karl.

Also of note were a couple of brave/crazy/misguided souls who ran the Ohlone 50K on Sunday after having raced the Silver State 50 miler the day before on Saturday! Congratulations and/or condolences to teammates Toshi Hosaka and Sophia Shi for their amazing acts of bravery/foolishness.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Tale of How I Almost Cracked the Top 10 at 2014 Miwok 100K

Miwok 100K logo
Indians are Terrible Navigators

"Native American Indians must have been terrible navigators" my friend (and Quicksilver Running Club teammate) Loren Lewis likes to jokingly proclaim. He's referring of course to two local ultra marathon races, the Miwok 100 and Ohlone 50K, both of which traverse mountain trails named after local Indian peoples who once inhabited the San Francisco Bay area.

Both of the races, Miwok and Ohlone, contain ridiculous amount of elevation gain (12,000 feet for Miwok 100K and 8,000 feet for Ohlone 50K) and both seem to go out of their way to traverses the most difficult and direct (albeit beautiful) routes possible rather than taking the easier, longer way around. And both of these races are held in May each year, just weeks apart.

Being part Indian myself, I identify closely with these indigenous peoples who ran these same footpaths, hundreds and even thousands of years before I was even born. Sure, we may have some differences. My diet probably consists of fewer grasshoppers and acorns, and more beer and pizza. But even so, as I find myself flying down these treacherous rocky trails, I can't help but picture myself running shirtless, long hair flowing, in my moccasins.

This year in 2014 will be very special for me as I am running both races, with just two weeks rest in between.

Miwok 100K Race Morning

Amy and I woke up at 2:00 am on race morning, somewhat apprehensive -- not just about the long grueling day ahead, but also about the long grueling drive through the twisty mountain roads. Luckily, thanks to my Mustang GT, an awesome selection of driving music, and a pot of black coffee, we were able to make it up to the starting line in Stinson Beach in record time, making the hour-and-a-half drive in under an hour.

In prior years Miwok 100K had been one of the most competitive 100Ks in the country, drawing top professional ultra runners from around the country and the world. However, with the advent of new races like UROC 100K (Ultra Race of Champions), this year Miwok had more of a local feel drawing mainly top California and Washington based runners from the Pacific Northwest.

Looking a the start list before the race I counted about five people who would certainly beat me no matter what kind of day I had, and then about another five or so who would probably finish ahead of me unless I ran the race of my life. Nonetheless, I decide to hope for the best and shoot for a top 10 finish!

I self-seed myself right up at the front of the pack along with familiar faces Gary Gelin, Chris Wehan, Joe Sanders, Thomas Reiss, Bree Lambert, Mark Richtman, Ricky Russel, and others knowing that the race begins with a long single-track uphill where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to pass anyone for the first few miles. I definitely don't want to lose valuable time getting stuck in a long conga line.

Running John
photo by Marc Klemenic
Heat of the Battle, Heat of the Day

The first 25 miles of the race, which is basically an out and back section along the Bolinas Ridge after the initial climb up the Matt Davis trail, go very smoothly. I go out rather aggressively on the opening climb in about 11th place overall, but quickly realize that I am pushing too hard to sustain for 62 miles. So I back off a bit on the climb back out of the turnaround on Randal trail. A few people pass me, including Quicksilver teammate Joe Sanders and LaSportiva runner Thomas Reiss, causing me to slip back to 16th place overall.

As the sun comes out and the temperatures warm up, several of the runners ahead of me start cramping up and slowing down a bit, opening the door for me to move up into 13th place by the first pass through the Cardiac Hill aid station. I am also starting to hurt a bit by this point, but trying my best to hold it together. However, I really start to struggle on the next section down to Muir Beach which involves quite a bit of road running on hot flat pavement. Call me a trail snob, but I hate road running.

Somewhere just before the Muir Beach aid station I really begin hurting and overheating and have to sit down in Kent Creek to cool off and regain my composure. The icy cold water feels great on my cramping legs and sore feet, and it definitely helps lower my body temperature which had been gradually creeping up. I could have (and perhaps would have) sat in that river all day, but I am shamed into getting back on my feet as at least 3 or 4 runners ran past me during my ice bath and give me scornful and sympathetic looks as if to say, "I feel sorry for that poor dude. Put a fork in him, he's done already".

Now back in 16th place I do my best to focus on guy in the yellow shirt in front of me. Eventually I bridge up to him and strike up a conversation as we enter and exit the Muir Beach aid station at the 50K mark in 15th and 16th place. His name is Joe Ziegenfuss, a veteran ultra runner from Colorado. We start chatting about anything and everything -- from the fact that we both have six-year-old sons, to his adventure pacing Troy Howard to 2nd place at Hardrock 100 last year.

We work together helping each other up the long Middle Green Gulch Trail climb, an insidious climb that while uphill, is not quite steep enough to warrant power hiking, forcing tired runners to actually run much of the climb. Oh the horror!

We then have a close call on the Miwok Trail descent when we initially overrun and almost miss a barely marked right turn. (Note: while I have a lot of great things to say about Miwok, I definitely have issues with the course markings as I would later almost miss another turn on the return to Tennessee and then actually make a wrong turn coming back out of Tennessee). Thankfully I spot the one lone ribbon out of the corner of my eye and this particular potential crisis is averted.

Minutes later, while telling Joe about my adventures pacing my friend Marc Laveson at The North Face 50M Championships last year (where Marc got chick'd my both Michele Yeats and Magda Lewy-Boulet) we actually run into Marc hiking up the trail. He, like many others (myself included), seems confused and perplexed as to why I am wearing a shirt -- as I am famous for dismissively eschewing upper-body garments and the lamentable "hobby joggers" who wear them. Being an elitist snob, I often remark that real runners don't wear dorky tee shirts, baseball caps / trucker hats, or fanny packs. Note: friend and fellow runner Karl Schnaitter, who violates all of the above fashion guidelines, proves that there is an exception to every rule.

Big Johnny Starts Going Downhill Fast

After power hiking the long climb out of Tennessee Valley up Marincello Trail and Bobcat Trail, I suddenly start feeling an excruciating stabbing pain in my knee cap. I tell Joe to run on without me and I start walking, hobbling, and hopping trying anything to modify my form to alleviate the inexplicable pain. Luckily it is only another mile or so until the mile 41 aid station at Bridge View where Franz Dill and the good folks from Coastside Running Club hook me up with some good drugs (i.e., Mountain Dew and Advil).

Stoned out of my mind on a terrific caffeine and ibuprofen high, I quickly catch back up with Joe and run the next few downhill and flat miles together. As we approach the start of the long climb back up Rodeo Valley Trail I see Thomas Reiss up ahead. Joe tells me to go ahead since I seemed to be feeling good. I catch up to Thomas and we chat for a while as we power hike the climb together.

Eventually toward the top of the climb I pull away and open a bit of a gap on Thomas and Joe. This is where things start to get a bit fuzzy. I'm not sure if it is the climb, the heat of the sun, or the Advil and Mountain Dew cocktail, but suddenly I start feeling a bit dizzy and nauseous. I think I passed another runner somewhere around this point, but then again I might have hallucinated the whole thing. One thing I am sure of however is that Quicksilver teammate Sean Lang's brother Jesse Lang comes flying past me at this point sprinting at least 30 miles per hour up the hill. #BeastMode

Luckily, just as I am about to continue straight (and go horribly off course) I see Jesse veer to the left up the Miwok trail. This intersection was not marked and there was no volunteer stationed here to direct people. I am certain that numerous runners probably missed this turn later. I wanted to yell up and thank Jesse for his assistance, but he was now just a tiny figure receding off into the distance.

Unsuccessfully trying to drop my pacer Dr. Joe
photo by Glenn Tachiyama
My Pacer Joe Bistrain Saves the Day

I stagger into the Tennessee Valley aid station at mile 49 in bad shape, secretly hoping that my pacer Dr. Joe Bistrain won't be there and that I will be free to just shuffle-walk the last 13 miles at my leisure. Son of bitch, there he is -- holding my cold bottle of Mountain Dew and exuberantly bouncing around ready to go. Fresh-legged bastard.

I immediately do a little expectation setting, "My knee hurts, my legs are cramping, I don't care about top 10 anymore, I just want to finish this motherfucker." Like a good pacer, Joe smiles and  ignores everything I say. "Ok, let's start running and catch Sean's brother; he's just ahead." I nod while silently thinking to myself, "fuck you asshole." Hell hath no fury like an exhausted ultra runner.

Amazingly Dr. Joe somehow gets me moving. Unfortunately, less than a half mile into our journey we come to an unmarked intersection where the runner ahead of me (who I have been chasing since before Tennessee Valley) turns right. So I follow him and run for about a quarter mile before getting worried and yelling ahead to ask whether he sees any ribbons. Then to my dismay he turns around and yells no, but that he's not in the race. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Mother fucker. I turn back around. #BonusMiles.

The little detour only costs me a few minutes, but now I am suddenly back behind my new buddy Joe Ziegenfuss whom I had pulled ahead of earlier. Oh well, that's what I get for not studying the course maps better. And honestly, it could have been a lot worse. But still, I'm pissed. I do my best to harness that energy and power hike up the Coastal Trail Climb.

I am suffering like heck and certain that we are absolutely flying uphill. I glance over at my pacer Joe hoping to see him sweating and breathing hard. But no, he's walking comfortably and typing on his phone. Fresh-legged bastard.

Joe and I keep moving. I am able to glance back and see a group of 3 or 4 runners a ways behind me. Although I am holding them off, they are still moving well and I'm definitely not gaining any ground. As we drop down the steep descent to Muir Beach I am a bit worried that they will catch me on the flat paved road section after Muir Beach where I tend to struggle mentally.

I'm still in 14th place, (or so I think), but with no one insight ahead of me and a pack of runners chasing me, I've given up on my dream of top 10 and am just trying to keep moving well and get this torture fest over with. Around mile 56 we cross back over Kent Creek again where I had taken my ice bath earlier. Much to the dismay of my pacer Dr. Joe, I plop back down into the river again and lay there like a dead man. It feels wonderful. I decide to make the best use of my time and do a little multi-tasking by peeing my pants while I float on my back.

Finally another runner comes flying down into the river, so I get up and start running again out of embarrassment. Luckily, I think he stops to cool off in the river as well. Hopefully he didn't sit down in my "warm spot".

Just let me die, please...
The Final Push

After a sucky mile of running on the stupid paved road we finally reach the trail head for the start of the last long climb up Muir Woods Road that parallels the Dipsea Trail back up to Cardiac. Joe futilely tries to convince me to do some running, but I am having none of it. "Fuck you, I'm not running any hills" I scream over and over like a mantra.

After several miles of power hiking we reach the top of the climb at Cardiac aid station. Now it's only 2.8 downhill miles to the finish line in Stinson Beach. Thank goodness. I drop the hammer, throwing down my first sub-10 minute mile in the past hour. Joe employs every trick he can think of to drive me on faster. "Uh oh, I hear someone behind us" and "Hey, I think I see someone up ahead". I know he's probably full of shit, but just in case he's not pulling my leg I speed up a bit more. Surprisingly, we actually catch another runner, 53 year-old Kevin Rumon of San Rafael with about a mile to go.

Somebody tells me that I am now in 11th place! I doubt there is anyone else up ahead who I can still catch in the last mile, but just in case I give it everything I have. Joe is shouting encouragement and driving me on. Finally the finish line comes into sight and I break into my 5:30 minute/mile pace sprint. I cross the finish line in 11th place in a time of 10 hours and 20 minutes which is about 9:59 minute/mile pace average. This is my fastest Miwok 100K ever, and in fact my fastest 100K ever. Of course, it is also the first Miwok 100K (and the first 100K in general) that I have ever finished after DNF'ing at Miwok in 2009.

I'm not quite dead yet... I think I'll go for a walk
As soon as I cross the finish line, pain comes crashing down on me. Everything hurts. I'm dizzy, disoriented, and out of breath. My wife Amy congratulates me and takes my picture. "Oh no" I exclaim realizing that Amy must have had a bad day and dropped out. But she is in good spirits and seems OK. I stumble around in circles for a while looking for a cool, comfortable place in the shade to pass out and die. But Dr. Joe, being an ER doctor and all, finds a cold garden hose and helps me get my core temperature back down.

Surprisingly, I don't actually die as I half expect. Rather I spend the next few hours slumped over a table in the shade feeling like crap and binge eating sausages and potato chips hoping they will resurrect me. Aside from half a glass of Pliny the Elder that I split with my buddy Tony Lafferty, I can't even will myself to drink any beer! That's how I know I was hurting!

All in all, not a bad day though. Despite having a bad day I gutted out the finish, ran a PR, and punched my ticket for the 2015 Western States lottery by running a qualifying race. And I got to hang out with all my Bay Area ultra running friends including Quicksilver teammates Gary Gelin (1st place), Lisa Hughey (1st woman), Bree Lambert (2nd woman), Jean Pommier (3rd), Clare Abram, Kat Powell, Stephen Wassather (8th), Harris "the Younger" Mason, Harris "the Elder" Goodman, Stephen Strauss, Loren Lewis, Andy Benkert, Jeremy Johnson, Chris Wehan, and Melanie Michalak. What a day!