Saturday, October 19, 2013

Coyote Ridge Trail 50K

Since I missed Diablo earlier this year, Coyote Ridge, with 7,350 feet of climbing, would be the most technically difficult trail run of the year.  Well, the San Francisco 50-Miler has it beat, with over 10,000 feet of climbing, but I feel like that gets a different category.  And mile-for-mile, Coyote Ridge actually has more climbing.

The day started off cool and foggy, not so much that you couldn't see very far in front of you, but enough that you couldn't see the hills in the distance.  The forecast called for a clear day and 70 degrees by noon.  We'll see what happens.

As the race started, a clump of solid runners took off with me.  I slid in place behind about six of them.  I kept trying to look at their bibs and noticed that most of them were only running the half-marathon.  One was running the marathon, and another was doing the 20-miler.  None in the 50K.  That's a good sign.

Once the hills began, I separated myself from all but two of them, both doing the half, and by the time the first round of hills were over, I was well ahead of all but one.  Some people were walking the hills already, only a few miles into this thing.  I happily trotted up the staircase coming out of Pirate's Cove, and it didn't even feel that hard.  Weird!

Along the ocean ridge, running on the side of plunging hills, above the Pacific Ocean, it was still really foggy outside.  Kind of a shame, because that's one of my very favorite parts of any course in the Coastal Trail Runs.  I just love scenic points overlooking water.  Maybe it would clear up and I'd get to see it later.

Arriving at Tennessee Valley (I feel like I should build a house there), I was still feeling pretty good, and as I climbed the hill leading away from it, as it seems I do every other weekend, I noticed that it just didn't seem that bad.  Normally, that hill is really tough and it takes it out of you, but I was doing great today.  I reached the top and bounded down the singletrack path with the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, then ran through the fire road that leads you back down to the valley floor.  Probably could've made better time here and there, but 12 miles in, and things still felt pretty easy!  Maybe not running much for the last few weeks recharged my legs or something.

A 20-miler caught up to me at the 12-mile aid station, then took off before I did.  I wound up passing him on the next hill and chatted with him a little bit.  Nice guy, and seemed like he was going to finish a good race.

Went back down the hill and made it to Tennessee Valley again.  I was finally starting to feel a little tired, 15 miles into the race.  But covering 15 miles in two hours, I was on pace to break the course record of 4:16!  I knew I wouldn't run the second half as fast as the first, but I had 16 minutes to play with.  The record was definitely possible.

At least, that's what I thought until I took on the hill leading back to the ocean.  Good gravy, what a hill!  Only 16 miles into the race, and I had to walk it.  Didn't feel too bad; the 20-miler guy, who had now passed me again, was walking it too.

By now, the fog was only lingering in the bottoms of a few select valleys.  Here and there, I would see a patch of smoke just above the ground off in the distance, and my first thought was that someone was having a barbecue.  Outside of those few spots, the sun was bright and shining down on us.  Going uphill, it was enough to make you feel hot, but on downhills, the extra wind (and lower effort) cooled you off just as quickly.  At the oceanside, though, I was hoping for that stunning view I love so much, and the coast was still completely fogged over.

Heading down the hill back to Muir Beach, my legs weren't cooperating.  I was having to ride the brakes more often than not, when usually, I'd be able to run through it a little more often.  I don't know if it was raw leg strength I was missing, or strength in my joints (my ankles were starting to really hurt).  Or maybe it was just the extra five pounds I was carrying, making it a little harder to bound over the terrain effortlessly.

By the time I hit the turnaround at mile 20, I could tell things weren't going very well.  My legs had found some strength again, possibly only because the course was flat for the past two miles.  I downed a little water and a Clif Shot and headed out again.  Slowly, but feeling a little better.  I had yet another two miles before I'd have to climb again.  The sun had fully come out, and it was getting hot.

Only about one minute after I left the aid station, a guy passed me coming the other way.  I didn't see a bib on him.
"50K?" he asked.

"Good going, brother!"
Was he doing the 50K too?  Or something else?  Or was he maybe just going for a run, had heard about the race, and was asking what I was doing?  I hoped it was anything but the 50K.  Seven minutes elapsed before I saw anyone with a 50K bib, meaning I was 14 minutes ahead.  With only 10 miles to go, that should be an insurmountable lead.

This time, I wasn't able to run up the staircase leading out of Pirate's Cove, so I walked the whole thing.  I was sweating bullets.  I started to wonder if I should've worn something other than black.  But considering that my black shirt is my lightest one, maybe it would've only come out even.

On the way down the other side of the hill, the same guy that I wondered was in the 50K passed me.  OK, so now it's obvious he's running the 50K.  No other distance in this race does this part of the course, and the odds that some random jogger would be following exactly the same course I am are virtually nil.  So I just got passed.  I'm in second place.  However, when the course flattened out for a mile or so before the aid station, I was able to keep him in my sights.  He was only maybe a minute ahead of me.

I reached the aid station, but spent too much time there.  Wasn't feeling well though.  I was at the point that everything felt like an uphill.  There were still two major hills to go, one of them starting immediately.  Reluctantly, I headed up.

I wound up walking a couple sections of the hill, even though I knew I didn't really need to.  At the top, I even stopped in place and looked around for a little while.  A great view, and very peaceful.  And my legs hurt like hell, so I wanted to give them a break.  I finally started back down, but couldn't maintain a good pace.  On the way, I saw the guy in second place, probably about 10 minutes behind me.

Once again, I spent too long at the aid station, and took in about 10 dixie cups of sports drink while I was there.  I might've been starting to get a little dehydrated, and probably should've taken more water throughout.  I finally left to take on the last, and hardest, hill of the course.  I walked at least half of it, then barely managed to get going on the downhill afterwards.  A cyclist saw me, and probably noticed I wasn't doing so well.
"You need some water?"
"You got some shade?"
"Shade?"  He laughed, "I mean, I got some extra water if you need..."
"I'm good on water, all I need is shade and a nap!"

He smiled and took off.

Not much later, the second-place guy passed me on the downhill.  We exchanged a few pleasantries.  I tried looking on the bright side of things, even pointing out to him that the fog had fully dissipated, and we were being treated to a gorgeous view of the ocean.  "That's what I live for!" was his response.

By the time the course had flattened out again, I no longer had him in my sights.  No big deal.  I let him take it and just focused on finishing the last two miles without incident.  In a little too much time, I was there.  Third place.

This race was an unfortunate combination of a very tough course along with me being kind of out-of-shape after spending the last three weeks not training much and eating a poor diet.  In that time, I managed to gain five pounds, which on me, is a LOT.  I've had worse races, but not many.  This certainly wasn't my best.  I feel like on another day, I would've come in second, and on a much better day, I could've won, or even broken the course record.  That still seemed like a possibility halfway through the race, and then I wound up running the second half a full hour slower than the first.

Nothing to do but prepare better for the next one, three weeks from now, and a much flatter course.  I'll get 'em next time.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bizz Johnson Trail 50K

33 hours after my plane from Berlin landed in San Jose, I woke up at 2:00 in the morning and hauled my behind to Susanville, CA for a race.  No, this is not normal behavior.  Neither is running a 50K in the first place.

The Bizz Johnson Trail Run is an overwhelmingly downhill course; only a few inclines for the first 12 miles, and all downhill after that.  There is essentially no climbing to speak of.  I was looking forward to a fast, easy race.

It was COLD.

I'd at least been smart enough to check the weather for a race that starts at an elevation of over one mile, so I knew the cold was coming.  For the first race this entire year, I wore sleeves.  Short ones.  No hat, no gloves, and normal shorts.  I guess this is how I was preparing for a 37 F start.  But I knew that it would be in the upper 50's by the time I was done, easily in sleeveless territory for me, and there was nowhere to shed clothes during the race, so I went with the best thing I could.  I looked around.  I could only see about three other people wearing as little as I was, and none wearing less.

Wendell's pre-race routine was noticeably short for two reasons:
1.  Everyone starting with me was doing the 50K.
2.  The course follows one trail the entire time, without even any others branching off it, so he hadn't even bothered to mark it.

Immediately after the gun, I wound up in front.  The 50K does an extra out-and-back that the marathon doesn't, up on the way out, down on the way back.  If climbing was going to be any advantage today, this would be my only chance to use it.  Not that it was a climb; it was barely an incline.  Still, I was holding a 6:40 pace for three miles, going uphill.  Not bad!  And to think for the entire rest of the race, I should be going faster!  I smiled.  Today was going to be a good day.

I reached the turnaround and looked at my watch.  When I saw the first runner coming the other way, exactly one minute had elapsed.  I was two minutes in front.  After only three miles?  That would mean that after 30 miles, I should win by 20 minutes.  Or perhaps more impressively, I was running each mile 40 seconds faster.  Of course, maybe this guy's just wisely starting carefully, or maybe he's an exceptional downhill runner, somewhere I'm known to show weakness.  But that was still a huge lead to have after only three miles.  I suddenly liked my odds.

I reached the start line again and Wendell gave me a high-five as I ran past.  After two-and-a-half weeks overseas, that was the moment that I felt home again.

The course, nothing but a long, straight, flat fire road, turned into a shallow incline for the next several miles, slow enough that you didn't even notice it.  My pace barely even moved.  I kept looking down at my watch.  Seven, eight, nine miles into this thing, and I'm still running a 6:30!  I haven't even started down the hill yet!

At an aid station around mile 10, I chanced a look backwards.  I could see for probably almost a mile.  No one there.  I headed out in high spirits and a good position.  Still, it felt weird to be running again after two weeks off.  And it seemed like it was taking forever, like I'd forgotten that 50Ks are long.

After mile 10, it finally started getting a little hard to maintain pace.  I kept telling myself that the downhill was almost here, and when it didn't come in the next mile, I reminded myself about some other detail I saw on the elevation profile, and I'm sure the downhill is coming soon.  This went on for almost six miles, because I somehow hadn't realized what the course really does: turns to a shallow decline at mile 11.5, then the strong downhill really starts at mile 16.  The funny thing is I didn't speed up at mile 11.5, and barely sped up at all at mile 16.

The thing about a downhill race is that it's a whole different kind of challenge, one that sneaks up on you.  At first, you're thinking "This is easy!" as you fly down the course.  But running downhill uses a specific part of your legs, over and over, until they're beaten to death.  By the end of the race, you're dying for the course to go uphill again.  Actually, that's not quite true: I kept thinking "I sure hope it's all downhill soon."  Then I remembered that's what it is already, and my heart dropped.  There is no possible way for it to get easier, and it's already hard.

Once the downhill started, the wind was against us most of the way.  Annoying to deal with, but I considered it an advantage; the guy nearest behind me was tall and skinny.  It'd probably hurt him worse than me.  And by now it had warmed up; in fact, I spent the majority of the race just barely sweating, right where you want to be.  Those behind me in long sleeves might not be faring as well.

At mile 22, the course takes a slightly stronger dip to get under a highway, and then you climb out of it.  That is actually the biggest hill of the course, climbing back out to ground level after going under a street.  The course profile actually had to zoom in on it to make it noticeable.  I was even glad to do something else for a short time just to recharge a few parts of my legs real quick and give my core a break.  Immediately afterwards, there was an aid station.  I happily stopped and had a caffeinated Clif Shot.  I normally avoid caffeine, but I was just feeling tired, and I blamed the lack of sleep.  Maybe this was just what I needed.
As I was heading off, a volunteer called, "All downhill from here!"
I turned my head around and smiled at them, "I am sick of that!"
They laughed.  I'm glad they could tell I was just joking with them, and actually still in a good mood.

The course went on to weave in between some hills and follow a creek downstream, repeatedly crossing it on wooden bridges.  My thighs were starting to give out.  My pace started to slow, even though there was no reason to.  I still felt like I had plenty of energy, and I was still running downhill.  But my raw strength was gone.  Unfortunately, the downhill made it so you couldn't back off slightly; you were either going to run, or you were going to light jog, at best.  I had no choice but to run.

In the last five miles, things got ugly.  I slowed, and slowed, and slowed (as much as a 7:30 mile can be called slow, but then again, it was downhill).  Only 8 miles ago, it looked like 3:20 was likely and 3:15 might even be possible, but now it was looking like I'd be lucky to finish in 3:25.  Each step was agony.  I did my best to smile at the volunteers and deliver my signature "Good morning!" to folks on the trail, but I think they could tell that my full spirit wasn't behind it.  I repeatedly did math in my head to tell myself what percentage of the race was done, and was satisfied every time the amount left went down by a full percentage point.  By the last mile, I was very, very ready for the day to be over.

It wasn't until the last mile that I fully breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn't get caught.  At one point, I glanced over my shoulder and couldn't see anyone for at least one minute behind me.  It just seemed like after I opened a solid lead so early on, and held what I thought was a great pace throughout the race (until the very end), it was unlikely that someone was close behind me.  And if it was by more than a quarter mile, that would be exceedingly hard to make up in only one mile, especially a mile that's still downhill and still fast (but still hard).

I very happily crossed the finish line in 3:29, glad to beat 3:30, and easily my fastest 50K ever.  Still, this was probably the stiffest my legs have ever been after a race, even after ones that were much harder and more difficult to finish.  This course honestly needs to change its name from "Bizz Johnson 50K" to "Quadbuster 5000."

It was a while before I could walk even close to normally, and hours before I didn't have at least a slight limp.  But hey, I won a really cool frosted beer mug, even better than the normal coffee mug you usually get (especially since I do drink beer but don't drink coffee).  I immediately poured a beer into my mug and drank from it.  Ahhh, the sweet taste of victory!