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.

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