Tuesday, September 22, 2015

2015 Ohlone 50K Race Report

For once I'm not the shirtless jackass in the team photo :)
photo courtesy Agnes Pommier
Turn up the heat

If you read my (heavily profanity laced) Silver State 50K race report from this May you will recall that my annual birthday race, the Ohlone 50K, was inexplicably cancelled due to bad weather... or rather to the threat of bad weather... or more accurately, to the threat of a possible light sprinkling of rain -- which never actually materialized. Nobody really understands what the "brain trust" at the East Bay Regional Park District were thinking.

But long story short, the race was moved from May to September this year to avoid "bad weather". Ironically, the originally scheduled race date, May 18, turned out to be a beautiful day with clear skies and perfect 68 degree temps. Whereas the rescheduled date, September 18, fell in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave where mid-day temps topped out at well over 100 degrees.

Don't get me wrong though. I'm not complaining. After all, I am the same guy who publicly posted a Facebook prayer asking God to deliver a heat wave of epic proportions for Western States two years ago. "Dear merciful and compassionate Lord, please turn up the thermostat on race day so as to burn my rivals to smithereens. May the sports drink in their water bottles boil over. May their shoes melt into small puddles of rubber and/or other synthetic chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm." Yes, I'm an asshole.

So race morning rolls around and we all show up at the starting line. Well, most of us show up. Apparently around 60 of the 200 registered entrants had the good sense to stay home rather than even attempting to run 31 miles through the drought-stricken Ohlone Wilderness over nearly 9,000 feet of hills in 100+ degree temperatures.

I'm not sure how hot it actually got on the course. The temperature at the start of the race in Fremont at 8:00 am was pretty mild. And although it certainly warmed up as the day progressed, it never felt particularly hot or uncomfortable to me. Though, full disclosure, I sometimes sit in my parked car in the hot sun with the windows rolled up and the heater on listening to podcasts during my lunch break -- wearing a wool sweater. And a scarf.

Anyway, depending on who you ask, the high temp of the day was somewhere between 101 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit. However, I'm going to guess that it was at least 103 degrees (Celsius) out on the course -- which is the temperature at which sucrose melts. I say this because I had an open package of uneaten Cliff Shot Blocks in my pocket, but when I reached into my shorts to grab one, all I found was a handful of hot, wet, sticky goo.

The good news was that the temperatures were so hot, that all the rattlesnakes that usually hang out sunbathing themselves on the course also decided to stay home and call in sick. I didn't have to jump over a single rattler this year, which kinda takes some of the fun (and challenge) out of the race.

Slowly making my way up Mission Peak
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Off and... hiking?

In previous years I'd hammered the first climb up to Mission Peak as if there was a cash prem for the first person over the top of the hill. It's actually not a terrible strategy -- if you've got the fitness to pull it off. One year it worked well for me as I finished 2nd overall in 5 hours and 1 minute, just 6 or 7 minutes behind my Quicksilver teammate, and race winner, Jean Pommier. But this year my heart wasn't in it.

I'd pushed myself pretty hard at the North Country Run 50 Miler in Michigan a few weeks ago, just one week after racing 78 hard miles through the Canadian Rockies at FatDog 120. So I wasn't sure how much more my legs had left, and I decided to play it safe and  take it easy at Ohlone this year.

I knew going into the race that it was going to take a miracle (or an act of God, like a record breaking heat wave) for me to get onto the podium. According to the ultrasignup.com rankings, I was predicted to finish 15th overall. But I wasn't worried. Looking at the (long) list of fast young guys ranked ahead of me, I figured that at least half of them would probably go out hard and detonate in the final ten miles, giving me some roadkill to pick off on my march toward what would hopefully be another top 5 finish.

As the race started, I watched a blur of about a dozen guys take off ahead of me charging up the hill. Among them was Quicksilver teammate Ricky Russel as well as my neighbor (and Strava nemesis) Mike Helms and his buddy Chris, who were making their ultra racing debuts. But instead of running the climb with the leaders like I've normally done in past years, I decided to power hike the steep sections. I was pleasantly surprised to see Jean doing the same.

My strategy was to just take it easy for the first 20 miles, hiking the hills and running the flats and downhills. I figured that the real race wouldn't start until the last 10 miles. That's when the heat and hills would be taking their toll on anyone who had pushed too hard in the early miles. So I just focused on keeping my heart rate and breathing steady and under control. As much as it pained me to do, I avoided throwing in any of my patented Big Johnny style berserker attacks.

One of the rare sections where I did some actual running
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Slow and steady wins the race lands you on the podium

There's really not much to say about the race itself other than I kept steadily plugging away, occasionally catching up to and passing some of the early leaders who had started to fade. Somewhere just after Sunol, around mile 10 or 11, I came across my neighbor Mike's friend Chris, who had apparently blown a gasket and was sitting in shade under a tree. I tried to cajole him into continuing with me, but he wasn't having any of it.

A few miles later, heading into the next aid station at Goat Rock, I caught up to Mike who, as I mentioned, was making his ultra debut. Although his early break-neck pace had obviously slowed, he was still moving relatively well and appeared to not be in any real distress; yet I would later learn that he'd seen the writing on the wall and decided to call it a day and jogged back down to Sunol rather than trying to push on into uncharted territory and risk severe bonking and cramping.

Just as I was about to leave and head out of aid station, out of the corner of my eye I spied a giant bowl of bacon. I instantly shot my wad in my shorts The cliff block shots in my shorts pocket immediately melted. I love bacon. I'm the founding member of the Strava Bacon Runners Club. I grabbed two slices and thanked the aid station volunteers profusely. It was so yummy.

Getting "big wood" at the finish line
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Fueled on by the magical powers of bacon, I caught up with a few more runners over the next miles, gradually improving my position. I got occasional spotty reports that I had moved up to 7th, 6th and then 5th, and that the next runner was just a few minutes ahead. However, I wasn't particularly motivated to try and chase anyone down for 4th place. I mean, no one wakes up in the morning and says to them self, "I'm racing for 4th place today. It's 4th place or the infirmary".

However, I was, for some reason, oddly motivated to hold on to my 5th place spot. But, unfortunately, every time I glanced behind me I could see a runner in a long-sleeve gray shirt charging up the hill, gaining ground on me. This went on for hours. I started to wonder if it was perhaps just a heat-induced hallucination. If he was real, why hadn't he actually caught up to me by now? It was very bizarre.

Then suddenly with only about 4 or 5 miles to go as I was descending down the switchbacks in the only section of shaded forest on the course, I saw my Quicksilver teammate Ricky (who had been leading the race earlier) sitting down on a log in the shade. I poured a bit of water from my bottle over his head and neck hoping it might revive him a bit. He jumped up and started running down the trail with me. I knew that the gray-shirted runner/apparition was chasing, so I unfortunately couldn't afford to slow down and jog it in with Ricky.

The last few miles went by quickly and uneventfully until, with about a mile to go, a got stung in the ass by a wasp. But not to worry, I've been stung in much worse places, so I just laughed and kept on keeping on. When I arrived at the finish line I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I'd actually finished 3rd overall and that teammate Jean had won the race (his 5th win at Ohlone).

A few minutes later the gray-shirted phantom, who I learned was actually 52 year old Jeff Boutte, came sprinting in shirtless (or rather with his shirt tied around his waist), which momentarily confused me. We were excited to later see teammate Ricky come across the line in 5th place, thus giving our Quicksilver team 3 of the top 5 places. Also cracking the top 10 overall was teammate Stuart Taylor! The full results are here.

Ricky, John, Jean, Yujung, and Stuart
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Beer (and other stuff)

As soon as I crossed the finish line and collected my "big wood" award, I sprinted to my car hoping that the ice in my cooler hadn't all melted and that my beer was still cold. Thankfully, the beer was still ice cold despite the 100+ temps. And somehow, to my amazement, race director Larry England had successfully talked his son into standing over a hot grill on an already hot day, grilling some burgers and sausages. The food was amazing. Even the yellow jackets, who tried to fight me for my burger, seemed to agree).

Jean, Ricky and I kicked back and cheered on the other finishers including Quicksilver teammates Stuart Taylor, Yujung Wang, and Tim Thompson (who finished just in time for me to hand him my last beer before I had to take off to drive Keith Blom back to his car at Mission Peak).

Congrats to all the other runners who persevered out there in the heat and made it to the finish line!


John Nguyen said...

That was an entertaining race report! I was there, but had to get a ride to the finish line after blowing up in the heat. Everyone who finished are simply amazing in my book. That heat was unreal. Congrats on the podium finish!

Jeremy said...

You men are very impressive with your big wood.

tsbjf said...

"I'm the founding member of the Strava Bacon Runners Club." LOL. Dude, I totally thought Jeremy was telling me a joke the first time he mentioned that club. Then I found out it was real.

Paul said...

Great blog Johnny. I felt like I ran it. Last year i discovered the sauna. Also I have been running mission Peak in the afternoon in the heat. I wish I had signed up to go. If you didn't kill yourself up to rose Peak you could just jog the rest of the way out. Anyway great job out there, thanks for not sitting this one out.

Jeremy said...

You may not have been the shirtless jackass in the picture, but add a little tuft of a mustache under your nose and you could win a Hitler look-alike contest...