Monday, May 30, 2016

Getting Older and Slower, but not Quite Dead Yet: 2016 Ohlone 50K Race Report

Ohlone 50K
photo by Nina Giraudo
Poets, drunks, and ultra runners

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas certainly had a way with words. "Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight... Do not go gentle into that goodnight." Ah good stuff! But my man Dylan Thomas (D-Thom for short) also had a way with Whiskey. And sadly, at age 39 he was dead.

I turned 43 this month -- already somewhat of an old man compared to D-Thom who never had to suffer the indignity of sitting across from a birthday cake with 40 or more candles on it. And, as has been my tradition for much of the last 12 years, I chose to commemorate this milestone by running-hiking-stumbling through the grueling, exposed, rattle-snake infested hills of the Ohlone Wilderness.

I'm not exactly sure why I choose to celebrate my birthday in such a masochistic manner each year despite the annual protest from my poor legs. (Shut up Legs, no one asked you). Perhaps I relish the pain, struggle, and suffering as poignant visceral reminders that I'm still alive and, "raging against the dying of the light." Or maybe I just lack common sense. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Team Quicksilver
photo by Agnes Pommier
In any case, since I'm not quite dead yet, I decided I might as well continue the tradition and run Ohlone again this year even though I'd been injured and unable to train properly most of the year; even though up until a couple weeks ago I hadn't done a run longer than 12 miles all year; and even though I just raced 62 miles at the Quicksilver 100K the week before, from which my legs still hadn't even begun to fully recover. Sorry Legs :(

However, I took comfort from the fact that I wasn't the only fool attempting to run the Ohlone 50K only 8 days after having run Quicksilver 100K. My Quicksilver Running Club teammate Jean Pommier, who finished just ahead of me at Quicksilver was toeing the line at Ohlone too. If that wasn't crazy enough, Pamakids runner Chris Jones had not only run Quicksilver 100K but had also run the Silver State 50 Miler the day before Ohlone and was now attempting his third ultra-marathons in 8 days!

Big Johnny leads the pack while Jean wisely hangs back
photo by Zack Steinkamp
Getting older; trying not to get too much slower

This past weekend marked my 9th time running the Ohlone 50K in the past 12 years, with my first finish being back in 2005. While my finishing times have varied considerably over the years depending on the weather and my wildly oscillating fitness levels, I've always finished between 5 and 6 hours.

My slowest race was in 2007 where I finished 24th place in 5:57:57, while my best performance was in 2013 where I finished 2nd in just over 5:01:15. But typically, on most years, my finishing time is usually between 5:25 and 5:35. That's pretty consistent, especially when you consider my erratic racing strategy and tendency to, more often than not, fly up the mountain in the lead on the first 4-mile long steep climb of the race.

Coming into the race this year severely under-trained and still somewhat beat up from Quicksilver the week before, I was naively hoping for the best, but realistically bracing myself for an epic-suck-fest. Surprisingly, I managed to finish in 5:25:19, which was actually my third fastest race ever at Ohlone. Thanks Legs!

Year Time  Place
2005 5:54:39 11
2007 5:57:57 24
2009 5:35:06 16
2011 5:30:12 10
2012 5:28:45 7
2013 5:01:15 2
2014 5:15:33 5
2015 5:35:00 3
2016 5:25:19 7

Five-minute summary of a 5+ hour race...

I won't bore you to death with all the excruciating details of the race, which basically consisted of me repeating over and over to myself under my breath, "f**k, this sucks" and "f**k, I should have trained harder". Occasionally during the less-hilly, less-sucky sections of the course I would think, "This isn't so bad," followed almost immediately by "Oh never mind, this definitely sucks," again as soon as the trail turned back up hill.

I like to think of Ohlone as consisting of three distinct 10-mile long sections: 1) the initial stupid climb up to Mission Peak and descent down into Sunol, 2) the long, stupid 10-mile climb back up to Rose Peak, and 3) the final ten stupid miles of rolling hills and steep descent down into Lake Del Valle. They key to doing well at this stupid race is to make sure that you hold back a bit in the first 10 miles so that you are really able to move well over the last 10 miles. But, like anything else that's easier said than done... it's, um, a lot easier to say than to actually do.

Jean Pommier and Mike Helms tangled up in blue
photo by Vladimir Gusiantnikov
This year I can into the Sunol aid station at mile 9 or 10 just a few feet behind a few others runners including my neighbor Mike Helms and my teammate Jean Pommier. Yet, over the next 20 miles they both put 25 - 30 minutes on me by the finish. So, while I felt like I held back on the first section and moved well over the last two sections, clearly I must have pushed harder than I thought during the first section if they were both able to put nearly a mile per minute on me over the rest of the race. Thanks for nothing, Legs.

Still, I did at least manage to catch one other runner. And I held off two more runners (including Erik Wilde who ran me down in the final miles of Ohlone two years ago in 2014) as I managed to put over 10 minutes on the two pursuers during the last half of the course. So the race wasn't a complete disaster. While I was disappointed to finish off the podium and outside the top 5, I did at least kinda-sorta-technically win my 40 - 49 age group (43 year-old Troy Howard finished in the top-3 overall). And thus I came home with "Big Wood" again for a 6th time.

Women's winner, Nina!
photo by Big Johnny Burton
Shout outs

Amazingly, a pair of rookie ultra runners won the men's and women's races at Ohlone this year, Scott Trummer from Livermore, running his first 50K, ran away with the race, finishing in 4:24:10, which is one of the fastest times ever on the modern course. And huge congrats to Quicksilver teammate Nina Giraudo, who not only won the women's race, but finished 18th overall among the men.

If Nina hadn't stopped to take so many pictures along the course she might have even caught her Quicksilver teammate and training partner, Zack Steinkamp, who finished just a minute or so ahead of her. But congrats to Zack, not just for avoiding getting chick'd, but for improving his PR at Ohlone by around 40 minutes! Way to go Zack!

Congrats also to my neighbor and Strava-nemesis, 2:31 marathoner Mike Helms, who completed his first official ultra this year at Ohlone finishing 5th overall and redeeming himself for his DNF last year. Mike, you'd really look good in Quicksilver blue ;)

Big Johnny gets Big Wood
photo by Keith Blom
I'd also like to thank all the volunteers who made this race possible. One of the unique things about Ohlone is that it's a point-to-point course through the wilderness with very limited means of access to the remote aid stations in the middle of the course. That means that volunteers have to hike out the day before with all the water and supplies and then camp overnight in the wilderness among the rattle snakes, mountain lions, coyotes, and sharp-fanged carnivorous bunny rabbits!

At the finish line, my legs threw a bit of a temper tantrum and plopped themselves down in a chair in the shade, refusing to get up for several hour. However, that actually worked out nicely because, while my legs were pouting like a toddler, I got a chance to catch up with fellow runners John Brooks and Chris Jones, as well as Jessi Goldstein (who was supporting her friend Monique Winkler). And big thanks to Jessi for fetching me chicken-apple sausages and beer. Mmm.

Ok, well I guess that's a wrap. I'll probably be back again next year for another birthday jog -- assuming that I can again trick my stupid legs into it. And perhaps next year I'll look into this whole "training" thing that I've heard so much about.

Results and other links

Saturday, May 21, 2016

2016 Quicksilver 100K Race Report: A Guide to Racing 62 Miles with Almost No Training

New 2016 finisher's buckle
photo by unknown
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re planning to attempt to run one-hundred kilometers through the mountains, you should probably do a fair bit of training. A lot of training! A metric shit-ton of training! You should put in months of high-mileage weeks. You should do obnoxiously-long emphatically-slow runs on the weekend. Maybe even a few back-to-back long-slow runs where you trudge along, on tired legs, so slowly that even your own shadow says, “f**k this, I’m gonna sit down and check my Facebook messages”.

Or… you can do what I did and wait until just a month before the race to start training, and go into the race having not run longer than 12 miles all year. And instead of doing a bunch of long runs, you can keep all your runs under an hour and toss in a bunch of random sprints of varying distances. Yes, I’m completely serious. I didn’t even start training for Quicksilver until April, and my longest run all year was only 11.8 miles. And most of my workouts involved short sprints. “WTF,” you ask? Rightly so!

Ok, full disclosure. I’m not some cross-fit wacko who thinks cardio is worse for you than an all-bacon diet (though, damn, I do love bacon). Similarly, I’m not trying to promote a controversial new training book with some oxymoronic title like, “Zero-Running is More Running: Run Farther, Faster with No Training.” My rather counter-intuitive training approach wasn’t by design; it was by necessity after I found myself injured and unable to run (or even hike/walk/hobble) earlier this January after inflaming the bursa sac in my hip. I can’t guarantee that my approach will work for you. In fact, I’m still somewhat surprised that it actually worked for me. But in case you’re interested, here are the details.

First, it’s probably a bit disingenuous of me to say that I didn’t do “any training” before April. True, I was injured and unable to run. However, my particular injury (Greater Trochanter Bursitis) thankfully still allowed me to ride my bike. And so I rode my bike – a lot! Every day. Sometimes twice a day. Two to three hundred miles a week. With most of those rides involving high-intensity intervals and mad-crazy-lung-busting hill sprints.

When I was finally able to slowly resume running in early April, my fitness was thankfully already through the roof. I knew however that I still needed to put some miles on my feet to harden up my legs to handle the stress and pounding of running all day in the mountains. However, I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to ramp up my weekly volume very quickly or spend too much time on my feet without risking re-injury.

That’s when I decided that if I didn’t have time for the traditional long, slow “junk miles” that most ultra runners build their training plans around, I would instead focus on my “secret weapons” of thirty-second strides, short-steep hill sprints, and long-fast downhill repeats. The strides would improve my running economy and leg turnover; the short-steep hill sprints would build muscle and power; and the fast downhill repeats would harden my quads and calves to withstand the rigors of mountain running.

Early morning on the mountain
photo by I-Tao Tsai
Race Start: Obscenely Early, Hours before Sunrise

I woke up obscenely early on Saturday morning and started driving over to the park for the 4:30 am race start, carefully avoiding all the drunks still driving home from their Friday night festivities. I’m not a fan of pre-dawn race starts, though I certainly understand the rationale behind them. 

An early start not only gives the mid-pack and back-of-the-pack runners a better shot of finishing while it’s still daylight, but it also helps the front-runners avoid having to run the hardest part of the course in the afternoon heat. Though if it were up to me, I would start the race at dusk and make everyone run with a raw sirloin steak tied around their waist to better incorporate the native mountain lion population into the race. He he.

As I stand in the Port-O-Potty line chatting with my Quicksilver Running Club teammate Chris Calzetta, I hear a whirring sound above my head and notice that some jackass is flying his drone over our heads. Oh wait, never mind, that “jackass” is actually my buddy – and pacer – Jeff Clowers. He’d mentioned to me the day before that he was going to film the start of the race with his drone to try and capture the stream of runner’s headlamps making their way up the mountain in the pre-dawn dark. Shit, does that mean the race is about to start? Shit, I’m still in the line for the bathroom, really needing to… you get the idea.

Luckily I make it back to the starting line while Quicksilver Running Club president, Greg Lanctot, is still wrapping up his pre-race talk. Thankfully Greg is a very prolific talker. Finally he concludes his pre-race remarks (something about mountain lions having recently stalked a local mountain biker). And with that happy news we are off and running up the mountain – into mountain lion territory – in pitch blackness. This makes me rethink my usual strategy of taking the early lead. Instead, I figure it’s probably wiser to hang safely back behind the leaders, at least until the sun comes up and the mountains lions go home to sleep.

I spend the first dozen or so miles running and chatting with a small group of runners including Bill Clements, Chris Eide, and Matt Ward. Although we are running just outside the top ten or so lead runners, by the time we hit the out and back section on top of Bald Mountain, I’m surprised to see how far we’ve already fallen behind the race leaders who have already opened up a mile or so lead! Texan, Paul Terranova, is out front with about a three minute lead over a chase group that includes  a number of other speedy runners. As we head back out of the turnaround I spot, and wave hello to, women’s race leader Krissy Moehl who isn’t far behind.

Early morning cloud cover keeping temps cool
photo by Nina Giraudo
Special Guests “Big Johnny” and the Mountain-Lion-Thing

John Burton is mild-mannered business software professional who enjoys hiking in the mountains, photographing wildflowers, writing poetry, and playing chess. Big Johnny, if you’ve never met him, is John’s alter ego who shows up, unannounced and uninvited, where he is least wanted or expected. Big Johnny is high strung and highly competitive and will often mistake even the most innocuous mundane remark or greeting as an affront to his manhood and a declaration of war. Experts advise that if you ever spot Big Johnny in the wild, you should avoid making eye contact and back away slowly while making yourself appear as small and non-threatening as possible.

Somewhere in the hills of Sierra Azul, Big Johnny decided that the pace was too slow and decided to take things into his own hands. Suddenly I found myself passing several other runners on the descent down to the Lexington Aid station. Luckily I was able to temporarily distract Big Johnny by claiming to have seen a ninja death squad hiding in the trees above. As he began scouring the tree line for ninja assassins I was able to subtly reduce the pace without him noticing.

As I pulled into the Lexington Reservoir aid station at the bottom of the descent, I was greeted by cheers and smiling faces of my family and teammates. My wife Amy scooped some ice into my hat and into the rear mesh pocket of my hydration pack, a trick that I had successfully used a few years back during the second-hottest year ever at Western States. My eight-year old son John Paul, sitting on a chair in the shade, nearly almost made an effort to quickly look up from his phone. LOL.

Dreading the long steep climb waiting for me around the corner I procrastinated a bit at the aid station, pretending to search for some imaginary – but certainly very important – item in my drop bag. But sensing that the aid station volunteers were on to me, I reluctantly zipped up my bag and dramatically sprinted out of the aid station. As soon as I was safely out of sight around the corner though I immediately began walking. My plan was to continue walking, for the next six miles, all the way to the Kennedy aid station back on top of the mountain.

Alas, just as I was settling into a nice relaxing pace, Big Johnny re-emerged from the woods, his hands and face covered in blood, having apparently successfully slain dozens of imaginary ninja assassins in the Manzanita bushes. Big Johnny ratcheted up the pace, and we caught and passed a couple of more runners including Mike Hirst and Dario Zea. Finally, off in the distance, we saw the prize we had been hunting all day – our arch-rival, Karl Schnaitter, two-time defending Vertical Beer Mile Inter-Galactic World Champion.

Normally a strong and fluid climber, something appeared off today with Karl. His normal tall, upright gait had been replaced with a strange, bent-over list. Perhaps he was drunk? Or maybe he’d been mortally wounded by ninjas? Or perhaps just a bad case of menstrual cramps [that was supposed to say “leg cramps” #StupidAutocorrect]. 

Just as I was catching up to him, about a third of the way into the section of rolling hills on top of Kennedy, some kind of wild animal ran across the trail right between us. It was much larger than a bobcat (and had a longer tail than a bobcat). But it seemed too small and svelte to be a mountain lion (and its color appeared too grayish to be a mountain lion). Whatever it was, I decided now would be an ideal time to pass Karl just in case whatever-it-was was hungry and looking for a snack.

"Taking my time, I'm just moving along..."
photo by I-Tao Tsai
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

I trotted off ahead, running the last of the rolling hills, leaving Karl behind to do his best impression of a wounded Gazelle in the African savannah. Upon reaching the Kennedy aid station for the second and final time, I politely demurred as the self-proclaimed “Sierra Azul’s Most Attractive Aid Station” volunteers attempted to ply me with alcohol. 

They also presented me with an award for “World’s Second-Sexiest Pair of Calves”. [First place apparently went to the aid station captain Loren Lewis, though I’m currently petitioning for a recount of the votes due to suspected bribery of the judges.] In any case, me and my second-rate calves trotted on alone for the next few hours without another runner in sight.

Looking at my watch, I had cranked out the first 50K in 5 hours and 13 minutes, just slightly over 10 minute per mile pace. Woo hoo! After descending the 5 mile stretch down off the mountain alone I rolled through the Hicks aid station where got to see a few familiar faces of Quicksilver Running Club volunteers Scott, Claire, Sean, and company. Then it was back to solitude and open dirt road as I continued dropping down Woods Road, Yellow Kid Trail, Mine Hill, and Deep Gulch. 

#pushps challenge
photo by Qi Song
Near the bottom of Deep Gulch I came across two people walking their dogs. One of the dogs lunged at me and attempted to take a chunk out of my leg, but I swiveled my hips like I was dancing for money. Lesser men wouldn’t have survived. I trotted away with G-string full of dollar bills.

As I emerged out of the woods into the Hacienda parking lot aid station I was happy to see my elite team of pacers ready to go.  Thomas Anderson had agreed to pace me for the three mile section from Hacienda to Mockingbird. Then Jeff Clowers, who paced me at both the Tahoe 200 and Rio del Lago 100, was going to attempt to pace me the last 20 or so miles. And just in case we needed to go to the bullpen for a relief pacer, Jeff had also lined up our friend Tim Thompson to step in if necessary.

At the aid station they informed me that I was now in 7
th place and that the next runner, teammate Jean Pommier, was about 20 minutes ahead of me. With only 23 miles left to run, there was realistically no way I could catch up to him (unless I ran every single mile a whole minute-per-mile faster than him – which probably wasn’t going to happen). 

And sensing that I had put a bit of time on Karl and the other runners behind me, I hoped I could take it somewhat easy for the rest of the race without risk of anyone catching me. Not feeling a great sense of urgency, I even took a minute to crank out 22 pushups for my friend and massage therapist Kirra who was volunteering at the Hacienda aid station.

My pacer Jeff pretending to let me drop him
photo by Tiffany Trevers
My Pacers Both Pretend to Let Me Drop Them J

Thomas and I jogged out of the aid station and made quick work of the next three miles. Occasionally I would pull a bit ahead of Thomas on the steep climbs thanks to my strong power hiking, but he was able to catch back up to me on the down hills. And so ended my hopes of being able to claim that I dropped my pacer. As we made our way up the final climb approaching the Mockingbird aid station at mile 43, Thomas fell back a bit to text Jeff that I was arriving and that I had requested ice for my hat and vest. Although I’m sure he could have kept up had me pushed the downhill harder, I certainly appreciated Thomas’s gesture of letting me drop him to boost my ego.

As we left Mockingbird and made our way up toward the Bull Run aid station on top of Mine Hill, I was expecting to start suffering. We were now over 7 hours into the race and the run had finally broken through the clouds and started to really heat things up. However, instead of starting to feel tired, for some reason I started feeling stronger! Suddenly, no longer hearing the footsteps of my pacer, I looked back to Jeff falling a bit behind. 

“Hey, stop messing around and get back up here,” I laughed, knowing that he was only goofing around and pretending to let me drop him in order to boost my morale. Even when he announced that he was going to skip the next little loop and meet me up ahead so that he could catch his breath, I rolled my eyes, still certain this was merely part of his act to boost my confidence.

Act or not, it was definitely working; I was moving well and feeling on top of the world. Until suddenly I wasn’t. Expecting it to be a warm day, I’d decided to try and ward off any potential stomach issues by avoiding solid food and relying solely on gels and soda. My go to fuel source for the day had been Mountain Dew. But those bastards up at the Bull Run aid station didn’t have any Mountain Dew and they instead tried to poison me – somewhat successfully – with a can of Sprite. 

I spent the next 6 miles burping up foamy sprite and desperately trying not to puke. This is where my prior beer mile training and race experience definitely came into play. Although I knew that I was getting behind on calories and should probably eat a gel or two, I just couldn’t risk putting anything else into my stomach until I got the Sprite wet burping situation under control. 

Eventually I finally decided that it didn’t really matter if I couldn’t take in calories anymore. At this point there was only about 8 miles left to go in the race. So I decided to switch over to ice water and make sure that I at least kept myself cool, figuring that over-heating would probably be more potentially devastating to my race than bonking a bit.

Enjoying a well-deserved post-race beer with Jeff
photo by Amy Burton
Running on Empty

Tiffany and David and the folks at Tina’s Den aid station tried to fire me up by telling me that I was now only a three minutes behind teammate Jean Pommier. But a few miles later as I approached the dam at the bottom Guadalupe Reservoir I could see the blue shirt of Jean Pommier making his way up Mine Hill. He was at least 5 minutes ahead. 

And more importantly, he was still running (while I had been looking forward to power-hiking that section). I knew that Jean would fight to the death to prevent letting anyone pass him in the last miles. And since I wasn’t particularly interested in contributing to the death of either of us, I decided to back off and try to save what was left of my legs for the Ohlone 50K coming up in just 8 days!

When I next saw Jean as he was coming back up from the out-and-back section down to the Enriquita, his lead over me had extended to nearly 15 minutes, and he was still running strong. Confident in my decision not to try to chase him, I was content to coast in as long as no one tried to overtake me from behind. 

The last report I’d received from my pacer Jeff was that Krissy Moehl had overtaken Karl, but that she was still safely 20 or more minutes behind me. Krissy is an amazing runner – having won numerous races including UTMB and Hardrock, including having briefly owned the course record at the latter. However, as fast as she is, with only a few miles left to go, as long as I kept cranking out 10 minute miles for the rest of the race, she would have to run sub 4 minute mile pace to catch me.

As my pacer Jeff and I crested the final hill of the course with just a half-mile of downhill left in front of us, Jeff jokingly yelled up, “this is what you trained for,” – a reference to the fact that I’d run this last section eight times in the previous two days as part of my last-minute “training” on the course. 

At the bottom of the descent I turned the corner and saw Amy and John Paul. I threw in one final sprint for good show, crossing the finish line in 10 hours, 29 minutes, and 2 seconds for 7th place overall. Not a bad training for run Ohlone 50K just 8 days away, And I was pleasantly surprised to see my split for the second 50K of the race was only 3 minutes slower than my split for the first 50K!

Here’s a link to the official race results. And here’s my Strava data. And here’s a link to teammate Jean Pommier’s race report.

Race elevation profile