Thursday, October 11, 2012

Race Report: 2012 Bizz Johnson 50K

It all started at the finish of the "Other" US Half Marathon on Easter Sunday, 2012. My friend David and I had just completed our first half marathon on the spectacular San Francisco waterfront and Golden Gate bridge.

"I found our next race" he said, beaming. "The Bizz Johnson 50K in Susanville. It's downhill, it'll be easy!"
Mile 19
"Dude, that's two months before my first marathon! What are you doing to me?!?," I replied. The thought of completing an ultra before my first marathon seemed like it might be a bad idea for so many reasons. Was it not sacrilegious? Would it blow my marathon training? Would it diminish the marathon accomplishment? Could I even complete it on half a cycle of marathon training? In order to answer these questions, I realized, I would have to sign up and try!
As the summer progressed, I waited for David to pull the trigger and sign up for the race. I did not want to end up doing this race on my own, and no small part of me hoped that David might lose interest. Of course, in mid-July, David called and let me know he had signed up. It was on.
The Bizz Johnson Marathon was going on its seventh year, while 2012 would be the inaugural 50K. The course follows the Bizz Johnson Trail 25 miles from Mason Station to Hobo Camp day use area in Susanville. To accommodate the needed distance, the marathon begins with a 1.2 mile out-and-back along McCoy Road while the ultra out-and-back was stretched out to 6.5 miles.
The week leading into the race, I was still recovering from my 5K race effort and long run the previous weekend. Suddenly, running 50 kilometers in the middle of marathon training did not seem prudent. I cut the short runs and replaced a middle distance run with a day commuting by bike, and began to doubt my training. My longest run to date was 17 miles, and despite a "complete not compete" attitude, it seemed like a wheelchair might be in my immediate future.
Twirly, David and I drove to Susanville the day before the race and picked up the race bibs and t-shirts at the old depot, which was hosting the Rails to Trails festival. Then we checked into the hotel and triangulated the local brewpub, the Lassen Ale Works. The pub was full of runners and the pasta special sold out, leaving David and I to split the last portion. I recognized Coach Ken and we spent some time talking to him and Mrs. CK after dinner, then went back to the hotel to watch the Giants lose the postseason opener to the Reds (grrr).
The morning of the race, I had my ritual Bircher Muesli breakfast and made some coffee to get things moving. For some reason, I had Gangnam Style in my head. So to remedy the situation, and to enlighten David, I loaded up the video on my laptop. Unfortunately, instead of getting the song out of my head, it became a theme for the day!

Twirly drove us out to Mason Station, where the majority of the 50K runners were disembarking from the shuttle bus. Stands of ponderosa pines and an open meadow surrounded the trail head parking area and line of porta-potties. There were only 40 people in the 50K, and we lined up on be start line without much fanfare. Mrs. CK had red compression socks, which read "BACON" down the sides. That got her high fives from David and me. The race director told us that "no one had ever gotten lost on the Bizz Johnson trail", and outlined the out-and-back (don't turn around at the marathon turn around, keep going and get a rubber band to prove you went all the way). Then it was 8am. We were off. 

The out-and-back
David and I were not out to set an ambitious pace; we were more interested in having fun and finishing. So we had decided to do run/walk intervals of five minutes walking and twenty minutes running, beginning with a walk interval at the start to let the crowd thin out, which actually only took a minute. The course went out-and-back along McCoy Road, and before I knew it, the lead runners were coming back towards us warning us about a patch of road that resembled a sand box, with deep, loose dirt that kicked up into a cloud as we ran. We picked up our rubber bands at the turnaround aid station, got more high fives from Mrs. CK, and sauntered back to the trail head. Due to our pedestrian pace, we ended up running smack into the marathoners (who had started at 9am) as they rounded their turnaround mark about ¾ mile from the starting line. Fortunately, David needed to hit the head as we ran through the starting area, which allowed most of the crowd to disappear down the trail. I hung out with Twirly and gave her our gloves, etc. and did a quick body-check: no niggles (walk breaks are AWESOME), all systems go.

The first 10K out of Mason Station
The next ten miles were pretty uniform, and we got into a good groove. The trail was tourist-douche grade, yet I still managed to roll my ankle when I kicked a baseball sized rock with my left foot, and it landed precisely beneath my right Hoka. Fortunately, rolling the ankle is something that happens to me frequently when hiking and as a result I have pretty good proprioception, which saved my day. As we continued our run/walk intervals, we oscillated with the other runners, being passed while walking only to pass those same people while running. One pair of men was obviously on a 10:1 run/walk schedule, and we were close to them through the 12 mile aid station.
David and I were shooting for a 6-6.5 hour finish, and through the halfway point, we were right on schedule with high spirits and feeling great. There were lots of high fives and jokes, and the miles clicked by without much change in the scenery. I knew the course would top out and enter the Susan River canyon somewhere, but it never really provided any contrast as we shuffled along through the ponderosas. Twirly was cheering us on at the 14 mile mark, which was cool, as there was no aid station there, just some spectators. I got a quick kiss, and we continued on.
At mile 16, things started to get interesting. I had been eating a Gu energy gel every twenty minutes, and was still feeling pretty good, except for the dark storm brewing in my bowels. I began looking at the foliage along the trail, searching for green leafy plants or smooth branches, but there were none. The urgency of the situation grew over miles 17-19 as I scanned the trail side for potential locations and accoutrement's.
This location was missing a hole in the ground, and some TP
I was so distracted by my predicament, those two miles went by in a flash of clenching and the mantra: "don't pants your poop, don't pants your poop." As soon as I sighted the portapotties at Goumaz aid station I bolted:

I was already two miles into unfamiliar territory, and the final twelve miles would be everything I had imagined, and more. My GI issues did not abate, and began compounding when I realized something I had not anticipated; I could not stand to eat another energy gel! Eating every twenty minutes had worked for the first 3 hours, but the gels were not going down, and I had stopped caring. I had some Endurox 4:1 recovery drink with me, and mixed up a dose in my handheld bottle hoping that I could continue to take in calories without having to eat any more gels. It tasted alright, but my stomach continued a downward spiral into discomfort.

By the aid station at mile 22, I was again feeling the urge to evacuate my bowels, but I soldiered on. The course had obviously entered the river canyon and the last ten miles were much more scenic than those in the beginning. Meadow vistas, wooden bridges and volcanic rocks made for welcome distractions from the pain and discomfort we were experiencing. I had expected more Autumn color and water in the river, but I guess we were a few weeks early.

Miles 22-25 brought David and me to, and through, "the wall". Our pace slowed considerably, and we decided to change our intervals to 10/2 in the hope that walking more often, but less, would get us back on track. 

Somewhere around mile 24, our interval schedule fell by the trail side. Our pace was all over the place, as David would crack a joke which would force me to break into a walk to avoid losing control of my gut, and David felt better running than walking, so he would pick it up once the laughter had passed. The pain became an epiphany: I was finally pushing through boundaries and trying to find out what is on the other side. It had sounded like a better idea on paper.

The only real hill on the course (less than 200') came at mile 25 when the course crossed under the highway. The aid station at Devil's Corral trail head was a welcome sight (although there were no portapotties)! Twirly was blowing bubbles which drifted down the trail towards us as we crested the hill. I tried some potato chips and Coke and got some very encouraging words from Twirly, "I know you can do this, honey, you can do this!" I realized at that point that I had not doubted my ability to finish, but I had already accepted the fact that 6 hours was out of reach. I got another kiss, and we set off down the trail. Twirly told me afterwards that we were walking pretty slow as we left, but I think it was mostly due to David drinking his Accelerade straight from a zip lock baggie.

Bridge near Cheney Creek

About a half mile from the aid station, there was a trail head toilet, which I hobbled over to use while David stretched. Once I had that out of the way, it was only 6 miles to the finish, and "relentless forward progress" became the mantra for the home stretch. Our run/walk intervals continued to be random, and we both experienced our low-points between miles 25-29.

My fastest 26.2 to date
A body-check yielded bad news: form was ridiculous, the late-race lurch was all arms, each stride an awkward attempt to hurl the body forward. 

"YOU did this to me!" I would jokingly yell at David. Every time I slowed to a walk the pain would increase, so I took an ibuprofen, and gave one to David. The scenery continued to improve, and after a mile or two, David began to perk up.

"I think I've pushed through! I feel like I can run again! What they say is true! The legs do come back!" he said. "Are you feeling it? Oh man, I wish you could be here with me!"

"I'm right here, dude", I replied.

"No, I wish you could be feeling better, like I am", he said. I waited about five minutes, while he bounded down the trail thinking his body had miraculously repaired itself on the run.
Tunnel vision

"You don't think it might have had something to do with the ibuprofen, do you?" I asked.

"Oh... Well... I suppose that is a better explanation."

 "Shit, man, we should have taken those hours ago!"

The course incorporated two old train tunnels, which were cool and dark, and welcome distractions. The longer of the two (800') was somewhat lit by lanterns and glow sticks, and the mile 29 aid station at the end of the first tunnel signaled the final leg, and we were determined to run it in from there.
Second tunnel entrance

The final 5K seemed like it took forever, but the scenery improved as we went, and our pace, while slow, felt good. We finished strong at Hobo Camp, cruising the last little single track into the finishing chute, the irony of the end. I was done, it was over. 

In the chute

6:28:00, 24th overall, 10th in my age group, which included 3 out of the top 5 finishers. David took home third for his age group, which means he's gotten hardware in every race this year.

"Look at this guy"
The event, overall, was put together well. I heard that some marathoners complained about the lack of aid stations, but by my count they were all 2 - 4 miles apart, which was just right. The Boy Scouts were volunteering at the aid stations, which was cool, they were all genuinly helpful and eager. Putting up with cranky runners cannot be fun, but their spirits were high until the end.

I learned a lot in this race. Obviously my nutrition needs some attention, and I did end up with one tiny blister, although I did not know it until I took off the Hoka's. Also, the discomfort of the later miles was more significant than I expected, and in hindsight, I find it difficult to recall exactly how bad it was! I am really happy with my recovery; no lingering muscle soreness and no Achilles flare-up. In fact, my niggles seem to have improved, except for a new voice in my right hamstring.

I could not have designed a better ultra debut than the inaugural Bizz Johnson 50K. I had a blast and would recommend it to anyone looking for a fast marathon or first ultra.

Here is the Garmin data:

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