Sunday, November 22, 2015

2015 Rio Del Lago 100 Race Report

Beards: fashion statement of ultra-runners and homeless
It's always darkest before the dawn

You know you've hit rock bottom when you find yourself drinking beer on a park bench in the wee hours of the morning, shivering cold and unable to remember when you last showered or had a warm meal.

A scraggly homeless-looking man with a long disheveled beard that would make a 17th-century pirate proud shuffles past. The wind whips at his beard like a tattered flag that's been left hanging outside for a few too many seasons. His face is covered with what appears to be a mixture of equal parts dirt, dried snot, and food crumbs (possibly cookies, but it's too dark to tell).

He's wearing two garbage bags that have been fashioned into some kind of makeshift hooded windbreaker. He limps past in slow motion, each step seeming to take an eternity. As you look into his dead eyes you can feel the weariness of his soul. You begin to question your own life and to lament the decisions you've made that have lead you to this point.

"Why did I click that damn 'Register Now' button on," you muse to yourself. You're an ultra runner and you've just finished a grueling 100 mile race. As you take a sip from your fancy bottle of expensive Oregon craft-beer -- and a myriad of juicy citrus hop aromas and flavors envelope your mouth -- the throbbing pain of the giant blister on your big toe fades into the background.

"Hey Brendan, good race," you shout to your red-bearded compatriot as he hobbles past, clutching his finisher's belt buckle tightly, the metal glowing, almost magically, in the first light of the breaking dawn. A bird begins to chirp and you close your eyes and drift off to the sleep, the comforting smell of freshly-cooked bacon wafting through your dreams.

UFO preparing to abduct us?
What the fuck am I doing out here?

"Seriously, what the [bleep] [bleep] [bleep] am I doing out here Jeff?" I ask my pacer Jeff Clowers, only somewhat rhetorically, for probably the hundredth time as we make our way over a brutal section of the course that's known affectionately, and for very good reason, as the "Meat Grinder". We are eighty-seven miles into the race and I am so ready for it to be over already.

But Jeff knows the drill; he's no newbie to this pacing shit. He spent nearly 20 hours slogging through the mountains with me during the last 50 miles of my Tahoe 200 race last year where he had to explain to me, on more than one occasion, why it probably wasn't a great idea to lay down and take a "death nap" on the top of a 8,500 mountain at night during a freezing rainstorm. So I had relatively "full confidence" that he'd get me to finish line again this time despite any bonehead antics that I may or may not attempt.

"Hey, what the fuck is that up in the sky," I say, pointing up at the white beam of light that appears to be an alien spacecraft hovering above us, undoubtedly fidgeting with their tractor beam as they ready their instruments for a series of exploratory anal probes.

"Oh, it's probably just one of those searchlights that car dealerships shine up into the sky," Jeff tries to reassure me. "Or maybe Mattress Discounters is having an end of the month sale." This last notion intrigues me; a soft pillow-top mattress would be amazing right now. But, like Robert Frost wrote in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, "But I've got promises to keep / And thirteen miserable more fucking miles before I sleep."

That time I abducted Steve Patt the night before the race

Steve Patt suddenly realized he'd made a terrible mistake. As I peeled out of his driveway, squealing tires and burning rubber down his quiet residential street, Steve immediately regretted his decision to carpool with me up to Rio Del Lago. Out of the corner of my eye I saw see him surreptitiously text his wife. Something about alerting the authorities if she didn't hear back from him every hour. It was difficult to read over his shoulder, especially at such high speeds.

Eventually, after several unplanned stops for potty breaks (where Steve had ample opportunity to escape and flee I might add) we arrived safely at our hotel in Folsom. We drove over to the race headquarters and picked up our race bibs and listened to the mandatory race briefing. [I should write "listened" in quotation marks, because I spent more time chatting with Quicksilver teammates than actually listening to the briefing. But let's assume the briefing contained a bunch of super useful stuff that I would later regret having missed.]

Steve generously invited me to join him for dinner after the briefing at the local brew-pub, but I reluctantly informed him that I was on strict diet of cocktail peanuts and Greek yogurt, which pretty much limits my dining-out options. So yeah, I ate a bag of peanuts alone in my room like a weirdo and then got ready for bed. It wasn't even 7 o'clock yet and was out for the night.

Nine hours later I popped up out of bed, made a surprisingly decent cup of instant coffee, and successfully managed to correctly put my right and left running shoes onto the respective feet.

Hey, at least he's "sponsored"
What the what???

"Don't do anything stupid. Don't do anything stupid. Don't do anything stupid," I repeated like a mantra to myself over and over as we stood in the dark waiting for the race to start. But "not doing anything stupid" has always been a challenge for me. I'm known for my erratic pacing and proclivity for making bold race moves at tactically questionable times. Like earlier this year at FatDog when I attacked on the first climb of a 120 mile long race... and ended up dropping at mile 78.

Speaking of stupid things, I couldn't help but laugh as I looked over and saw a shirtless dude (note: it was so cold that the rest of us were all wearing shirts, jackets, hats and gloves) who had his sponsor's name written on his bare chest... with a sharpie. Talk about low budget. LOL. But hey, at least he's got a sponsor (I guess).

Also, perhaps more amusing is that his sponsor is a company who markets "high-end luxury lubricant" that promises to "transfer sensation while reducing friction". So naturally I had to Google this stuff. Let's just say that the company's homepage could easily be mistaken for a soft-porn website. (Side note: I wonder how one goes about getting sponsored by anal-lubricant manufacturer anyway?)

I definitely was not surprised when this guy immediately bolted off into the lead in the first hundred yards of the race. Similarly, I was also not surprised when somewhere around mile 45 we passed him and then never saw him again. But I don't want to sound too dismissive; I'm grateful for the sharpie-chested gentleman. For the first time ever, I wasn't the shirtless jackass who went out in the lead and then blew up :)

Cold morning race start
The "conservative-yet-fast" pacing fallacy

I had told everyone who would listen (and even some who wouldn't) that I wasn't planning to actually "race" this race; instead I was just going to take it easy and make sure I finished. Having dropped out of my only other Western States qualifying race back at FatDog, this was my last chance to get my name into the Western States lottery (Rio Del Lago is literally the last race on the 2015 calendar of Western States qualifiers).

Instead of hammering the first half of the race and then trying to hold and survive, which is my typical race strategy, I decided that I would run at a "conservative-yet-fast" pace -- as if that's an actual thing. So when Luke Garten, and the anal-lube-sharpie-chested guy, and a couple other of the early leaders charged off out of sight, I checked my ego and resisted the urge to do anything incredibly stupid -- which took a surprising amount of will power.

There I was, running my patent-pending "conservative-yet-fast" 7:30 minute-mile pace for the first twenty-mile section of asphalt bike path from Beal's Point down through Folsom and back. The addition of the hard unforgiving asphalt loop was a new "improvement" for this year's race, and unfortunately an "improvement" that I neither approved of nor prepared for. I can tell you that my poor quads -- or what's left of them -- certainly didn't approve!

I definitely would have gone a bit slower on this section if I had been alone, but I found myself running alongside Quicksilver teammate Ricky Russel, who was making his hundred miler debut. Ricky is a much faster runner than me and the sensible thing for me to do would have been to ease up and let Ricky run off ahead on his own. But no one's ever accused Big Johnny of being sensible!

After the bike-path purgatory section of the course, we thankfully got to finally run on actual trails. I was struggling a bit with some mild GI issues, but I managed to keep moving pretty well despite a few impromptu visits off trail to the bushes. I was surprised to learn that Ricky and I were in 4th and 5th place, which was higher than I expected (or wanted) to be at that point. My "conservative-yet-fast" strategy was tilting a bit more toward "pretty-fucking-fast-and-not-quite-so-conservative".

Which should I drink: this stuff or my pee?
It was only a matter of time until I did something else stupid

Ricky had been moving well all morning, but then suddenly around mile 26 or so he fell back mentioning that a lingering toe problem was throwing his gait off and causing quite a bit of muscle tightness. I wished him well, hoping that maybe he would loosen back up at some point. But unfortunately I didn't see him again after that, and I later learned that he dropped at Rattlesnake Bar at mile 36.

Left to my own devices, I started to slow down a bit. That's when I was caught and overtaken by another runner, Dominick Layfield, moving me from 4th down to 5th place. Even though I supposedly wasn't "racing," I never like being passed, and I instinctively picked up the pace in order to keep Dominick in sight. The change of pace actually felt quite good as my legs had been getting a bit tight. At this point I was moving efficiently and everything felt great...

... And then suddenly I was completely fucked. I'd made a questionable tactical decision earlier that morning to not wear my running vest (which holds two water bottles) and to instead just carry one handheld bottle (you know, to save weight or some silly shit). This proved to be a very poor decision on the 9 mile long, exposed section with no aid between Granite Beach (mile 24) and Horseshoe Bar (mile 33). Only 5 miles into this segment and I had completely drained my bottle.

As I thirstily eyed every muddy little slime-filled puddle on the last 4 miles of that hot exposed section of the course, I began seriously debating the pros and cons of drinking my own urine. Pro: it's probably rich in vitamins and electrolytes. Con: it probably tastes like piss. Pro: it's probably more more sanitary than a bacteria filled mud puddle. Con: it probably tastes like piss.

#Showboatin' #Stuntin' #Flossin' #OnFleek

You can't fix stupid with more stupid

What happens out on the trail stays out on the trail. But I can at least tell you that I made sure to bring an unopened can of Coke with me as I left every aid station after that, just to avoid running out of fluid again. And for some reason, I also avoided drinking Mountain Dew or any yellow-colored sports drinks at the aid stations for the remainder of the race.

After just a short three mile jaunt between Horseshoe Bar (mile 33) and Rattlesnake Bar (mile 36), we began a long climb up to Last Gasp (mile 42) and Auburn Horse Assembly (mile 45). It was on the base of the steep climb up to Last Gasp where I caught back up to Dominick and another runner, thus leapfrogging up from 5th to 3rd place.

 At this point, for reasons that are still not completely clear to me, I decided to show off by running (rather than power hiking) the steep mile-long climb. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. That superfluous bit of showboating, while rather amusing, was probably ill-advised so early in the race. Several miles later Dominick caught back up to me again on the long descent down to the iconic No-Hands bridge.

Dominick and I bridged up to the previously mentioned shirtless-sharpie-sex-lube dude, who apparently claimed to have just had a "life-changing encounter" with a bear on the side of the trail! I didn't catch all the details, so I can't speculate as to whether any high-end luxury lubricant was involved. Dominick and I were now running together in 2nd and 3rd place, but still quite a ways back from the leader Luke Garten.

My pacer Jeff, kilted up for battle
Jeff Clowers to the rescue

Dominick and I backed off the pace a bit and started chatting on the climb up from No-Hands bridge to the Cool Firestation (mile 52). He entertained me with a great story about his epic battle with Jesse Haynes for 2nd place at the Bear 100 in September. I reciprocated by launching into a detailed account of all my hard-won Strava CRs at the local park near my house.

Dom told me about the time he held off Timmy Olson at a race in Europe. I told him my story about almost getting run down by Timmy Olson at Hardrock. By the time we arrived at Cool it felt like we were old friends. And then the bastard dropped me! LOL. He got in and out of the aid station like a Nascar pit crew, while I screwed around posing for selfies, signing autographs and chatting with my fans -- all three of them.

I really struggled on the next section, an 8 mile loop on the Olmstead Trail through Knickerbocker canyon. Even though I made sure to bring an extra can of coke with me in addition to my water bottle, I still ran out of fluids pretty early into the warm exposed loop and ended up hiking most of the last few miles. About a mile or so from the turnaround at mile 60 I got to see the two race leaders -- Luke and Dominick come running back out past me. Luke was still in the lead, but Dominick was only a minute behind and closing fast.

When I got back to the aid station at Cool, my pacer Jeff Clowers was standing by in his kilt -- apparently ready to lead us into battle on the Scottish Highlands. Just having somebody to run and chat with again did wonders for my morale; we made great time on the second reverse-direction loop. This was also my first chance to see all the other runners behind me. Everyone was looking pretty strong, including women's race leader Erika Lindland, which was great -- but which also meant I would not be able to slack much if I wanted to hold on to my podium spot.

Jeff and I made quick work of the second loop and powered up the paved road back into Cool at mile 68. It was pretty chaotic with hundreds of people standing around cheering. Everyone kept yelling that I was only ten minutes back of the leaders and that I was looking stronger than those two guys.

I heard a few people yell my name, but everything was kind of a blur. I did manage to pick out my friend Jessi who is hard to miss with her cowbell and big red hair! I also briefly spotted my buddy Karl Schnaitter who helped pace me last year at Tahoe 200, but then I got distracted my the smell of a grilled cheese.

I'll take that can of coke to go please!
And then things start to go downhill (in more ways than one)

The three-mile descent from Cool back down to No-Hands bridge (mile 71) was pretty awesome. I was surprised to see quite a few runners still coming up on their way into Cool as we headed down. It was at that point that it really started to sink in just how well I was doing. Everyone was so friendly and kept shouting out encouragement. I felt a bit like a celebrity. It was so cool to have a small taste of what it must feel like to be an elite runner.

After the fun descent down to No-Hands, Jeff and I started the long hike up Robie Point back toward Auburn Horse Assembly (mile 75). Somewhere along this section the sun went down and my shirt and headlamp came out. It got surprisingly cold, surprisingly quickly. I felt bad for the runners we passed who were still coming from the opposite direction, already some 25 miles behind us with a long cold night in front of them.

We made great time on descent from Auburn Horse Assembly down the paved road to Last Gasp (mile 78) . But then everything started to go downhill (figuratively) for me as as soon as we (literally) stopped going downhill. I'm not sure if I fell behind on calories, or if maybe the early conservative-but-probably-too-fucking-fast pace on the asphalt bike path was finally catching up to my quads? Jeff did his best to keep me motivated and moving, but that section of technical rolling single track along the American River back toward Rattlesnake Bar (mile 84) seemed to take forever.

I spent a few minutes at the Rattlesnake Bar aid station refueling and tending to business in the bathroom. Suddenly, to my horror I heard everyone start cheering again while I was in the bathroom. I safely assumed that they weren't applauding my bowel movement (as spectacular as it might have been). Shit, that must mean another runner had just arrived. So much for my 3rd place podium spot. I didn't know who it was at the time, but I later learned it was fellow Bay Area runner Ray Sanchez closing strong.

The rest of my race from this point on was basically a colossal shit show. While I had been previously averaging 10 minute miles for most of the race, the miles that followed were in the 16 - 18 minute per mile range. I walked any slight incline that even remotely resembled a hill. I stepped carefully over every rock and pile of horse poop as if there might be a hundred foot drop off on the other side. It got real ugly, real fast.

Run. Forest. Run.
I'm not quite dead yet

As Jeff and I slowly shuffled along the interminable 9 mile section of horse trails from Rattlesnake Bar (mile 84) back toward Granite Beach (mile 96), I kept looking back, wondering who was going to pass me next. I was thankful that Ray Sanchez had already passed me and taken over 3rd place so that I no longer had the pressure of having to defend a podium spot. Now I could saunter back as leisurely as I liked.

And then, inconceivably, I saw two lights of a runner and his pacer up ahead of us on the trail. Who could possibly be moving slower than me? Surely it must just be two random hikers or equestrians out in the woods in the dark of night in the middle of nowhere (yeah, because that makes sense). But no, it turns out it was former race leader Luke Garten whose legs had given out on him and who was now just trying to hike it in for his first 100 mile finish.

"Fuck," I whispered to my pacer Jeff. "We're back in third place again. Looks like we'll actually have to do some running," I sighed as we broke into what felt like a fast gallop or canter, but which probably more resembled a slow trot. When we finally arrived back at Granite Beach (mile 96) I was so happy to almost be done that I nearly started crying. I confidently assured my buddy Jeff, "It's all downhill from here."

"Where the fuck did these hills come from," I shouted in disbelief as we made our way over several stupid uphill sections that I swore hadn't been there this morning. I gave up mentally and decided to just hike it in. And with that decision, I slipped from 3rd place to 5th as two sets of runners and their pacers ran past me in the last 4 miles.

"Don't worry Jeff," I said, "We're got less than a mile to go. There's no way anyone else is going to catch us now." Of course, the very second I finished saying that, we looked behind us and saw another light approaching fast. "Fuck. Shit. Son of bitch," I mumbled quietly. As we crested the final climb and emerged onto the levy I could see the finish line just two hundred yards away. "No one can beat me in a 200 yard sprint I proclaimed," as I took off in an all-out sprint, desperately trying to hold off the hard-charging headlamp behind me.

I think this is slightly uphill; let's walk!
Trying to out sprint the undead

Unfortunately, while the physical finish line itself was only 200 yards away, I discovered, much to my fucking dismay, that we still had to run a half mile superfluous loop around the damn parking lot.

"Motherfucker. Cocksucker. Son of bitch," I mumbled again as I continued sprinting around the perimeter of the parking lot trying to outrun the headlamp behind me that I still hadn't managed to shake.

"How can this guy still be running so fast at the end of a 100 miler," I wondered incredulously in complete disbelief. "And wait a minute... it looks like he is taking a shortcut across the parking lot. What the fuck," I protested silently as I continued my all out sprint towards the finishing chute.

As I crossed the finish line in 5th place, over 6 minutes ahead of the next finisher, I later learned that the phantom headlamp chasing me through the parking lot was actually my very own pacer Jeff!  Rather than just stopping at the finish line when we initially passed it, he decided to continue chasing me the entire way through the parking lot. I can only assume this was to pay me back for my earlier post on social media saying that I planned to try and drop him.

In retrospect the silly sprinting nonsense was pretty funny -- especially since I had been joking with my buddy Matt Ward, who has making his 100 miler debut, that I hoped he and I finished together so I could out sprint him in the chute. So yeah, I guess the lesson here is to be careful what you wish for because you might actually get it :)

Despite all my whining during the last 10 miles of the race, I was still very pleased with my performance. Not only did I finish 5th overall and qualify for Western States, but I improved my previous 100 mile PR by over two hours with my 18:36:54 finish! Yeah!

Here's a link to my Strava data and here's the official race results.

Shout outs

First and foremost, a big shout out to JC who gave me the strength and faith, even in my darkest hour, to carry on. I'm talking of course about my pacer, Jeff Clowers. Thanks again dude. You're the best!

Congrats to Dominick Layfield for his impressive victory. He ran a smart, strong race all day and definitely deserved the win. And congratulations also to Erika Lindland who won the women's race in 19:24:24 despite getting off course and running some bonus miles!

Big ups to Matt Ward, Dave Moore, Lisa Decker, and everyone else who kicked butt and finished their first 100 miler!

And congrats to Quicksilver teammates and veteran 100 mile runners John Brooks, Bjorn Flatt, and Veronica Fujisawa who each brought home another buckle for their collections!

Condolences to Quicksilver teammate Steve Patt, who fought valiantly, and who will hopefully git er done next time. He should hold his head high; just surviving a three-hour car ride with Big Johnny is something to be proud of in itself!

And of course, crazy-mad-props to all the wonderful volunteers, crews, and pacers who gave up their day (and night) to help out a bunch of crazy, sleep-deprived, stinky runners. Special thanks to Jessi Goldstein for bringing me bacon and beer when I was too stiff and sore to hobble over to the food tent!