Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lake Chabot Trail 50K

Unless you count the Bizz Johnson Trail Run (and I think that one deserves an asterisk), Lake Chabot is by far the flattest race in the Coastal Trail Runs series.  Only Wildwood even comes close, though you might argue that Wildwood is a little easier.  Lake Chabot does have a couple tough hills, while Wildwood is essentially a long slight incline out, then a long steady downhill back.  Even if there's less climbing total, a tough hill 20 miles into a race can really do a number on you.

If you look at the course's elevation profile, it looks like it's peppered with a handful of nasty, steep climbs.


But then if you look closer, you see that the course's highest point is only about 400 feet higher than the lowest point, and it doesn't seem so bad.

I'd had a productive week of training, including a great run at The Dish in Palo Alto.  For the first time in over a month, I was actually feeling good about the shape I was in.  A sub-4:00 time sounded like it should be an expectation on a course like this, and a win sounded reasonable.  That is, until one of the volunteers told me that some other excellent runner was in attendance.  I guess we'll see what happens.

Before the race, I saw a guy wearing a black sweater with the name of a company on it.  I can't remember the name of the company, and I wish I could.  But that's not what made it stand out; it was the logo above the name.  Apparently this company's logo is - no kidding - the Triforce.  After seeing that, my mind immediately went "DAAAA!!!! Dadadadada Daht! da-DAAAA!!!!"  I should've handed the guy a Clif Shot and said "It's dangerous to go alone!  Take this."  I had the Zelda theme stuck in my head for the first five miles of the race.

Right at the gun, I was behind a fast, skinny guy in a bright yellow shirt.  He was running the half.  I just stayed with him, since he was holding a great pace, was nice and steady, and it wasn't taking too much effort on my part.  About three people weren't far behind me.  Surprisingly, the course was paved for well over a mile.  Also had a lot more shade that I'd expected.  It was still cold out.  Was glad I wasn't wearing my lightest shirt.

About two miles into the race, I was still right behind Yellow Shirt, when we got to a wide spot in the trail with a few hikers and a whole bunch of dogs.  They were friendly dogs, but were very, very interested in us.  All of them came running right at us full speed, then ran alongside us for a little while, like we were playing some sort of game.  I wasn't worried about them, but it's still kind of weird when you're in the middle of the race.  I definitely didn't want to trip over one of them.  They abandoned their game once we left the clearing, and we kept going.

About a quarter-mile later, we got to a narrow bridge.  Had to trot down a short staircase, only wide enough for one, and the bridge creaked and buckled under the weight of only two people.
"This is a crazy loop!" Yellow Shirt exclaimed.
"No kidding!" I answered.  I wondered how this would go when the larger bunches of people came through.

Only a little later, I was wondering where that first hill was.  There was supposed to be one about 2.2 miles in.  Was it one of those random rolling ones before the bridge?  If that was one of the "big" hills of the course, this was going to be a very easy day.

After about another mile of flat course along the shore of the lake, the course turned upwards.  Only three miles in?  Wasn't the next big hill supposed to come later?  But we made it to the first aid station having done only about 3.3 miles.  Wha...that's over a mile early!  I've never seen Coastal Trail Runs measure a course that inaccurately.  Sure, sometimes a 50K is off by half a mile or so (at least according to my GPS watch), but this is over a mile, and only a couple miles in.  Maybe they moved the first aid station from its original spot.

By now, a guy in a white shirt had moved ahead of me, during the hill.  It's truly the hills where you separate the men from the boys.  White Shirt was running the 50K.  Must be that really good guy.  I didn't worry about it.  Run your race.

The course did a little jumping and dipping here and there, but nothing bad.  Yellow Shirt and I were still fairly close together.  Ran through some heavily wooded singletrack that took us away from the lake, then finally made a turn and headed up the biggest hill of the course.  At the top, I stopped for the aid station.  Yellow Shirt just kept running.

As I put down an orange slice and some sports drink, one of the volunteers asked me,
"Did you go to UT?"
I wasn't wearing anything indicating as much, so I wondered how he knew.  But for whatever reason, I didn't ask.  I just confirmed that I did.
"Hey, me too!  Hook 'em!"
I raised my horns.  "Damn straight!"  I took off running again.
Only a few steps later, I remembered that volunteer was also at Bizz Johnson, where I wore a burnt orange running shirt.

Both the big hill and the second aid station came about a mile and a half early, just like the previous hill and aid station.  What was going on?  Maybe they moved the start line from its original location, and we've got longer to go before we get back there.  It was the only explanation I had going.

Not only had Yellow Shirt not stopped at the aid station, but he was absolutely burning up the downhill.  By the time I reached lake level again, my stomach was acting up.  And it kept getting worse.  And worse.  And worse.  By the time I got to mile 10, it was affecting my running.  That's the point at which it's worth it to stop for a bathroom.  I hoped that the start/finish was coming early like everything else had.  The course turned to pavement again and began rolling.  I kept looking at my watch.  Every time I did, it told me only a tenth of a mile had passed.  I tried to hold it together and kept moving.

After only 11.5 miles, I was back at the start/finish.  A mile and a half early.  I stopped in the bathroom, with only mild success.  Got back out started up again.  My stomach only felt a little better.  Still seemed like there was a lot going on in there.  I still couldn't explain why the course was so much shorter than it should be.  But hey, if that means the day will be that much easier, I'll take it!  Yellow Shirt had finished his half marathon, but White Shirt was now about five minutes ahead of me.  That far ahead after 11.5 miles?  Yeah, I think the day is his.

There were a lot more people outside this time around.  Had to run around them frequently for the first mile or so.  Just as I got off the paved part of the trail, with noticeably less people around, something shifted in my stomach.  I stopped for a second and put my hands on a tree.  All in one quick burst, I let out the biggest, most voluminous fart in recent memory.  OK, now my stomach feels better.

When I reached the clearing where the dogs were last time, I noticed something.  Something important.

We missed a turn!!!

The course does a virtual loop away from the lake, up a hill, then goes across the narrow bridge.  We just cut straight across and left out the loop!  That's why everything came a mile and a half early!  That's why the hill at mile 2.2 seemed so weak!  We didn't do it!

Instead of taking the loop in the upper-right, we cut straight across.

Realizing the mistake we made, I went ahead and did the loop twice this time to make up for it.  Had to do a hill twice consecutively, harder than spreading them out, and even added probably close to a quarter mile by doing the extra section to close the loop (and since we did that last time, maybe added a half-mile total).  But I'm going to say that's the price I pay for missing it last time.  Besides, I wanted to finish this course honestly.

When I got to the next aid station, I saw another guy just leaving it, about 20 seconds before I got there.

"You need to call Wendell," I said as I arrived.
"What's wrong?"  They looked alarmed.
"No one's hurt," I sputtered in between trying to swallow peanut butter.  I explained how at least five people missed the loop the first time, pointing it out on the map.  If the message got relayed to Wendell now, that means that the 50K leader (who missed it the first time and might've skipped it again) could still make up for it by doing the loop three times at the end of the race.  I could've kept my mouth shut until later, hoping he'd be disqualified or something, but I wanted to win the race fair-and-square.

"Alright, we'll call him."  I probably spent at least an extra minute at the aid station explaining the whole thing, but well worth it.

I'd forgotten how long the singletrack section of the course went on before the big hill and the next aid station.  Seemed like it was just going on forever.  Not hard, just much longer than I remembered.  I was now about 20 miles into the race, with only a couple hills left, and I was still feeling pretty good!  Much better than I felt 20 miles into Coyote Ridge.  For some reason, "Redneck Woman" by Gretchen Wilson was running through my head during that section.

When I got to the next aid station, I explained the situation again to those volunteers, just in case the other aid station didn't get a cell phone signal or something.  They mentioned that the second-place guy was about two minutes ahead, but first place was about 30 minutes ahead.  Obviously, he hadn't done the yellow loop twice like I had, if he went from 5 to 30 minutes ahead that quickly.

"Did you volunteer at Bizz Johnson?"
"Yeah, I did!"
"That's where I've seen you before."  The guy was wearing a Houston Marathon shirt.  He asked what part of Texas I'm from.  I used to say the Dallas area, but by now, I've spent enough time in the Austin area that I answer both.  
"I'm actually moving back soon, though."
"Oh, you don't like it out here, huh?" another volunteer chimed, with a smile.
"Actually, I do like it here!  Different reason I'm moving."  I fired up my legs again.  "Thanks, y'all!"

The arches of my feet were starting to hurt by the time I made it to the bottom of the hill.  They hurt worse when I got to the bottom and the course became paved again.  And while the course was more shaded than I'd expected, the day also got warm faster than I'd expected.  I guess that evened out.

The section between the big hill and the start/finish didn't seem to go on quite as long this time, but felt much harder.  Lots and lots of short ups and downs.  I saw a few other runners finishing their first loop, some of them walking up the hills and running down, which is a little funny to watch when the hills are about 40 meters apart.  A whole lot more people on the trail by this time of day, nearly noon, with great weather, going for a hike along the lake.  Can't say I blame them.

When I arrived at the start/finish and hit the aid station, with only a five-mile loop to go, I asked the volunteer,
"So you heard about people missing the yellow loop, right?"
"What?"
Oh, crap.  That means the guy in front didn't get the message.  He might wind up disqualified.  I felt for the guy.  I've gotten lost on a course too, but it only made me add unnecessary mileage.  This could be much worse.  I would hate to run 28-ish miles only to be credited with a DNF, and I felt bad that the guy was following me when he missed the turn the first time.  Nothing I could do now, though.  Now that it was warm, I took in plenty of water and set out for the final leg of the course.

I might add that ever since I made up for the yellow loop, all the aid stations and hills came exactly at the distance expected.

Only about two minutes after I left the start/finish area, I saw the guy in the lead, wrapping up his race.  He was clearly the superior runner, so I applauded him as he approached, and he gave me a fist-bump.  In the back of my mind though, I pondered his fate.  There was still another guy in front of me.  I wondered if he had skipped the yellow loop too.  I saw a bunch of people finishing up the 30K and gave them a few encouraging words.

For the most part, I just got through those last few miles.  Kept counting off each half-mile as I went, and after cresting the hill, I knew I had only a little more than two miles to go, and the worst was over.  The trail was now pretty crowded, and a lot of people seemed to be aware that a race was going on.  I kept getting congratulated.  When that happens, I often wonder, do they actually know I'm out towards the front?  Do they know I'm almost done?  Do they even know what distance the race is, or which distance I'm running?  In general, how much do they know?  Are they just congratulating everyone they see with a number pinned to their shirt?  Encouraging, cheering, that makes perfect sense, but when I hear "congratulations," I ask myself those questions.

I was still delivering my traditional "Good morning!" to most everyone I saw, and then caught myself.  Is it still morning?  I looked at my watch.
"Uh, let's see, 29.6 miles at a 7:54 pace, that means, uh...OK, this is hard.  Let me think."
Then I remembered that I can change the mode and look at elapsed time instead.  Oh yeah.  That's easier.  3:54 had elapsed.  It was still before noon.  I should still say "Good morning!" instead of "Good afternoon!"

Then something else hit me.  There's three-quarters of a mile to go, and now - I looked again - about five minutes left if I want to break four hours.  It's gonna be close, but I could do it!  I shook off the "just get through it" pace I was holding and ran like I normally can.  It wasn't easy, but it wasn't as hard as it could've been.  Could I have been doing this earlier?

I reached the parking lot with a minute to go.  Couldn't possibly be a full minute from here; I can already see the finish line.  Wendell was standing at the beginning of the flags leading to the finish.
"You're gonna break four hours!"
I smiled.  "By this much!" I shot back as I ran past, and through the finish line.

As usual, I slowly worked my way around the finish area, taking in all the goodies: trail mix, water, crackers, beer, and nowadays, they've added barbecue and pumpkin pie.  Love these guys...

It was determined that the first-place finisher didn't do the yellow loop the first time, but did the second time.  What Wendell did was extrapolate his pace, add time to it to make up for the distance, and rounded up to make up for the hill.  He still finished first after that, and not even by a tight margin (more than 15 minutes).

The second-place guy had done the course correctly all along, as evidenced by being 20 minutes out of the lead at the first aid station.  That could only happen if some people skipped the loop and he didn't.  He wound up beating me by only two minutes.  ARG!  If I'd known he was that close!  Of course, had I managed to catch him, he probably would've found another gear too.  So I came in third, even though I didn't have a bad day.  Not my very best, I'd say (for example, I had a near-identical time at Crystal Springs, a harder course), but certainly not a bad day.  I just got beaten by better men.  And that's OK.