Friday, December 27, 2013

Training Reset: Begin at the Beginning

Sabino Canyon with Twirly
After the North Face Endurance Challenge, I took a well deserved break from training. FOMO had my 2013 schedule pretty packed with training; I began the year with six races scheduled, plus a couple of pacing gigs - as the year comes to a close, I have completed ten races plus the pacing gigs, and the injury-causing Zombie run. Not too bad compared to the 2012 schedule, but still more than I had planned. The first half of 2014 is booked solid, and the back half is vacant. I can already feel the vacuum waiting to be filled after Western States.

Red Star Ridge was a bit too icy

Fall Colors
The holidays find Twirly and me in Tucson visiting family. The temperate weather made it easy to get out and explore the craggy desert trails almost every day of our trip. Twirly got her first Garmin from Santa (Twirly's idea, not Santa's) and we put it through the paces. I don't get to run with Twirly very often so I really enjoyed the week of recreational running through beautiful places. The fall colors in Sabino Canyon were bright, and the views from Mt. Lemmon were inspiring.
SFRC on the AT

Our flight out of Sacramento to Phoenix had a layover in Salt Lake City, and as the plane ascended eastward, we looked out the window and found Auburn. The flight path took us directly up the Western States course, giving me a preview of each canyon (they look just as steep as the elevation profile). I was able to identify the course from end to end, finishing at Squaw Valley, which had pitiful snow cover for this point in the season.

Training begins with the New Year, and I am chomping at the bit. The week off and relaxed volume/pace of the holidays has allowed my toes to recover (mostly) and my legs to get heavy. The Pacifica Foothills Trail Half Marathon looms three weeks from now, and I'm eagerly anticipating the plans that Mauka Running has in store. Stay tuned for the year in review and my goals for 2014.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

New Coach: Mauka Running

I am excited to announce that I have lined up new coaching staff for the first half of my 2014 racing season. Jorge Maravilla and Laura Kukta at Mauka Running have agreed to support my bid for a silver belt buckle at Western States 100 this June. We begin in earnest on January 1st. The winter training phase should put me in good shape to break my PR at Way Too Cool 50k in March, followed by three months of States-specific training in preparation for the sub-24 hour 100 mile attempt.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Race Report: 2013 North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco - Gore Tex 50 Miler

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in San Francisco was my "A" race for the second half of 2013. The race is part of a six race series that includes similar "North Face Endurance Challenge" events in New York, Washington DC, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Missouri. Since its inception in 2007, the San Francisco race has become quite popular, as it incorporates some of the finest trails the Marin Headlands have to offer. A $30,000 prize purse also helps to attract some of the fastest trail runners in the world. The course crosses three separate parks: the start/finish is within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at Fort Barry while the middle miles explore Mount Tamalpais State Park and Muir Woods National Monument. A nice mix of fire road, single track and stairs (yes, stairs) awaits those willing to toe the line at 5 am on a chilly December morning.

Gore Tex 50 Mile Course

50 Mile elevation chart
My training over the prior two months was spotty. A few quality mileage weeks were interrupted by a bout of food poisoning in November and a chest cold the week of the race. Fortunately, my long runs had been on the race course. I rested in the days before the race, hoping to show up healthy, if a bit under trained. My goal was to break 11 hours, and have fun doing it.

Twirly and David were crewing for me, and Victor Ballesteros graciously agreed to pace me for the last 23 miles. Race morning went smoothly: a couple Picky Bars and a banana for breakfast, and a cup of coffee to bolster that final trip to the honey bucket. Thankfully, the porta-potties were plentiful, and the lines were short. It was cold, around 40 F, but the air was charged with energy.

The scratchy PA system made it somewhat painful to be in the chute, so when my starting wave went off, I was happy to be underway. Four hundred runners trotting off into the dark along a gentle down slope was a nice way to start. The stream of lights stretched out as we began the initial climb. Everyone says it, but it is pretty cool seeing the string of lights ahead and behind. A glance up at the leaders made a fellow runner ask if mountain bikers were leading the pack! A surprising number of people elected to run up Bobcat Trail. I could understand the desire to generate some heat on this bitterly cold morning, but with 48 miles to go, I found it a ridiculous proposition.

That said, a soon as we gained Alta Trail, I picked up a jog. The descent of Rodeo Trail was interesting; I turned my flashlight on its brightest setting (680 lumens) to illuminate the rutted and overgrown dirt road. My light outshone those around me to the point that people were slowing down to let me catch up so that they could see better! I reached sub 9-minute pace on the descent, stretching my legs, before cruising through the first aid station. The constellation Orion hung above the black ocean at the foot of the valley. I was ahead of schedule, but I felt great. My cough had subsided, a body check yielded no niggles, and I was going through the Tailwind I had mixed in my pack. At the foot of Miwok Trail, I opened a Justin's Nut Butter pack and ate it slowly over the course of the climb. The sky was lightening to the east, and I kept glancing over my shoulder to take in the surreal scene of a string of lights coming up the valley, with the scattered pink clouds, barely discernible, hovering above a brightening horizon behind, and darkness and stars ahead. Along the way I met Kyle, from Spokane Washington, who was running his first 50 mile race. We talked a bit about the high desert, and our goals for the race. Kyle said he told his friends to expect him around ten hours.
"In that case, either I'm ahead of schedule, or you're way behind!," I said.
We bombed Old Springs Trail into Tennessee Valley, and I scanned the crowd for my crew. Mrs. CK yelled my name from the side of the timing mat, and I asked her if she'd seen Twirly, which she hadn't. Worst case scenarios began streaming through my head as I continued past the aid station. I finally spotted her at the back of the car, tailgate open, and ran up to refuel. My plan was to refill my hydration bladder, drop off my flashlight, and replace the nut butter I had eaten.

Tennessee Valley 1 split: 1:47/247th
I felt good about having a buffer on my splits, and jogged down the valley floor towards the Coastal Trail and the climb to Pirates Cove. Kyle ended up at my side again, although he dropped me on the climb. The sun was rising, and my headlamp was no longer necessary, even though the descent to the cove is pretty technical. I passed some runners on the descent, only to have them pass me on the climb out, complimenting my descending skills. On one hand, I totally appreciate the confidence boost that comes with other runners recognizing that I do, in fact, have some downhill skills. On the other, what good are downhill skills, if those I pass just pass me back on the climbs?!? I need me some climbing skills!
Pirates Cove conga line
Cresting the climb out of Pirates Cove as the sun rises
From the cove, I kept a steady state through the aid station at Muir Beach and into Frank Valley along the Redwood Trail. The volunteers and spectators were plentiful, and returned every one of my "thank you for being out here" comments with "thank you for RUNNING!" I held my place in a loose conga line all the way up Heather Cut-off Trail. I had wanted to run this climb as I had in training, but it was early and I was gun shy. Once I gained the top of the switchbacks, I did break into a run, and passed Kyle and Coach Ken on the way to Cardiac. The 50k leaders also came screaming by at a 7-something pace, which was cool to see.

Still ahead of my splits at Cardiac, I quickly found my drop bag, swapped packs and stashed my headlamp. A dry hat helped take the chill off, and I resumed an easy jog towards Pan Toll Ranger Station. About three minutes later, I realized I had left my ear buds and the zip lock bag containing my Ibuprofen and salt caps in the pack I had stashed. It was not the end of the world, as I was still feeling good.   I shrugged it off and made a mental note to grab the meds on the second go around in about 12 miles. The ear buds were only there for emergency motivation, and I could tell I wouldn't be needing that today.

Somewhere along the rollers of upper Matt Davis Trail, I realized I had to pee for about the 8th time, so I pulled over and let loose. I was hydrating well; a fine pilsner eluted as a train of runners passed me by. I latched on to the caboose end, and slowly passed each of them by before we took the out-and-back along Coastal Trail above Stinson Beach. The leaders had been through about three hours earlier and had fewer outbound runners to negotiate than us middle runners on the narrow single track. The rains of the night before the race made the downhill edge of the trail soft, and some sections were dicey. Outbound runners were directed to give way to returning runners, and my frustration over the 15-minute mile pace I was reduced to as I stepped to the uphill side of the trail was compounded by a biting, cold wind from the north. I tried to stay calm, finding solace in the fact that on the downhill return trip I would have the right of way and get back into my rhythm.
The leaders on Coastal Trail above Stinson Beach, photo by Galen Burrell
The McKinnon Gulch aid station had hot chicken broth, which took the edge off. I also began eating bananas with my nut butter here, something I would continue for the remainder of the day. I walked out of the aid station, finishing eating and texting Twirly my split and needs for the Stinson Beach aid station:
"Lving McKinnon at 9:50. Need Vit I, tums, hard candy, jacket and gloves"
I still had a 7-minute lead on my goal splits, and looked forward to the return trip along Coastal Trail. Going with the wind made it more comfortable, but the two way traffic continued to frustrate me. It seems about a third of the outbound runners had not gotten the memo about giving way, and it was difficult to determine who was going to step aside and who wasn't. I damn near body checked a couple of runners off the trail, as they took up the center line, forcing me to dance along the downhill edge, dirt sloughing off beneath my feet and shoulders askew. On a positive note, it was cool to see runners I knew, both to lend encouragement and know where I was in the pecking order. My elation at reaching the Matt Davis Trail and the end of the out-and-back bolstered my pace, and the descent to Stinson Beach (my favorite section of the course) felt positively awesome. I set a PR for the Strava segment, improving my best time by over half a minute. It helped that there was little hiker traffic. Either the unsettled weather or the race held the crowds at bay. The trails were blissfully vacant compared to my previous races.

Stinson Beach pit stop, photo by Victor Ballesteros

Stinson Beach aid station felt like a Nascar pit stop. Twirly and David helped me swap out my hydration bladder and clean up with a wet bandanna. Another dry hat, a couple of Tums and a replacement nut butter, and I was off again. The temperatures were so much more comfortable at sea level that I chose not to bring my jacket or gloves. I would rue that decision on the ridge lines for the next three hours. Leaving the aid station, I was still about 7 minutes ahead of my splits, which I knew would dissolve over the course of the ascent to Cardiac along the Dipsea Trail. Victor caught me up on the front runners and local favorites, doing an excellent job of distracting me from the climb. I filled him in on my nutrition and how the day had unfolded thus far. I was surprised by how strong I still felt, and he reminded me to take it easy on the steep climb when the adrenaline of having company had me pushing too hard. I passed a few en route to Cardiac, and remarked that I was feeling stronger than ever on the uphills.

About a mile out of Cardiac, I was passed by a diminutive boy who was just cruising along. Rather than try to keep up, I let him go. We would yo yo over the next ten miles, and I must say that the 13 year old from San Jose was looking fresh all day. It was pretty remarkable seeing someone so young out there crushing the course.

The second trip through Cardiac was brief; I grabbed my meds from the drop bag, and another cup of broth, which was too hot to slam. Victor, being a popular local runner, was greeted by a chorus from volunteers and runners alike ("he's kind of a big deal," says Jorge Maravilla). He flitted like a social butterfly while I added some water to the broth and we headed down the hill towards Muir Woods. Walking the technical downhill felt stupid, so I slammed the rest of the now-tepid broth and got back to running. Victor acknowledged his distraction at the aid station, which I shrugged off. He did an amazing job staying on top of my needs for the rest of the day.

The descent of the Ben Johnson Trail was probably my lowest point in the race. I felt tight, and began scuffing my feet on the technical, rock and root strewn single track. At one point, I caught my right toe and almost went sprawling. Victor counseled me to dial it back a bit, which I did, and try to get some more calories in me.

We hit the valley floor in Muir Woods and once again I found myself in a conga line. The climb that followed incorporated a lot of stairs, and I was able to make a few more key passes as I kept gulping calories from my Tailwind-filled bladder. I had premixed the powder 50% stronger than recommended, as I knew the cold temperatures would decrease my hydration needs. Soon enough, we had crested the steep climb and were clipping off a comfortable but quick pace along the Redwood Trail above Muir Woods. I was trailing a guy running in a lightweight shell, and his hood billowed out behind him like a dragster's parachute. Victor caught some video, and I must say, I was feeling pretty good for 35 miles in.

Passing through the Tourist Club was a bit confusing, as we all thought there would be an aid station there. So, we continued on to the Dipsea Trail and the descent to the Muir Woods visitors center, where the Old Inn aid station was actually located. In hindsight, it was actually ironic, as the aid station was marked on the course map as being in yet a third location. I joked with Victor about taking some of the famous Dipsea shortcuts, and rolled into the aid station needing only a banana and broth. I caught and passed the 13 year old there, as he was stuffing candy in his mouth and soaking up the compliments of the volunteers. I quaffed broth on the short climb of Dynamite Hill, and regained my pace along the floor of Frank Valley. The return to Muir Beach passed a trail junction we had seen earlier in the race. It was attended by hundred miler hallucinations.

Cookie Monster and Lego Man guiding the way, photo by Victor Ballesteros
At Muir Beach, I grabbed a zip lock full of banana and another cup of broth. I was feeling good again, and we ran the road to the hill, then power hiked up Coyote Ridge. It was here, hours earlier, that the front of the race was decided, as Rob Krar sprinted away from Cameron Clayton and Chris Vargo. I suffered a similar fate, as the 13 year old from San Jose trotted by going up the steep fire road. Once again, I let him go, as I alternated banana with Tailwind, and popped an S!Cap about halfway up the hill. The wind had built, and anytime the trail turned north I was wishing I had my jacket.

The climb out of Muir Beach. Coyote Ridge rises to the left, Pirates Cove behind. Hill 88 dominates the horizon.

Gaining Miwok Trail was invigorating, and I ran the descent to Tennessee Valley with good pace, although keeping my form for these few miles was uncomfortable; a blister on my right toe had popped, making for a painful push off. Victor told me to stay symmetrical and ignore the pain, it was temporary. I recognized JB Benna hiking up the trail and managed a quick "Hey JB" as we arrived at the aid station.

Tennessee Valley 2 split: 9:46/191st

After quickly changing into a dry shirt and hat and swapping my pack for two handheld bottles filled with Tailwind, I put my jacket on, grabbed another banana and cup of broth. The last climb of the day, Marincello Trail, stood between me and the finish line. Eleven hours was within reach, but I had become apathetic about the goal, and just wanted to have fun while the race lasted. I hiked at a good pace, although I was passed by a couple of people. Once I gained the Alta Trail, I agreed with Victor that I should run it in for the final four miles, which I did.

Alta split: 10:35/194th

The sun was nearing the horizon, reflecting off the Pacific Ocean, as I descended Rodeo Trail for the second time of the day. My pace was considerably slower this second time around, and a couple people blazed past me in search of a sub 11 hour finish. If the race were still a qualifier for Western States, I would have been right there with them, pushing hard. However, the arbitrariness of 11 hours made it an easy call to simply enjoy the end of the race, so we cruised along at a comfortable pace.

Finish: 11:02:49 198th place

I joked with Victor about where I could have shaved 3 minutes off my time as we approached the finish line. I couldn't believe how good I felt after 11 hours of running. The relief of finishing washed over me as I tried to comprehend the fact that I no longer had to run.

I was extremely pleased with my performance; no significant pain or GI issues, and high spirits for most of the day, except for a couple bouts of apathy, which passed quickly. Tailwind performed spectacularly, especially at the stronger concentration. I felt good, steady energy all day long and only needed two S!Caps in addition to the four cups of broth and two bananas. I wish I had grabbed my jacket at Stinson Beach, but I survived.

My crew and I checked into the Marin Headlands Hostel, I got into dry warm clothes and laid down for a fifteen minute massage. The party got underway as we huddled around a warming fire drinking Auburn Alehouse beer and cheering in the remaining runners.
Overall, the day was beautiful. The weather, despite being very cold, provided crystal clear views of the stellar course. The volunteers were numerous and supportive. The race organization was good, but faltered in a few spots; aid stations ran out of salt (I heard it all blew away!) and had no S!Caps, and the finish line festival ran out of hot food at 5 pm, which I consider to be unacceptable. I registered a complaint with the organizers, who somehow managed to produce more roasted chicken, but in the end the food should have been plentiful, especially for the back-of-the-packers.

Finish line with Victor, feeling good, photo by Chris Jones

I finished almost exactly middle of the pack overall and by age group, and was a little slower compared to all of the men. I know I could have put up a faster time, but I am happy with the results of my second 50 miler.
I am not sure if I will return to North Face 50, but I did enjoy the event. Fifty miles has yet to bring me to the edge that I am seeking through ultra running. Either I must find a more difficult event, I must push myself harder through 50, or I must try longer distance. 2014 holds opportunities for all that and more. Once thing is for certain: running is in my blood, and I hope it continues to open my doors of perception so that I may see what lies beyond.

The Garmin Data:

Monday, December 9, 2013

The North Face Endurance Challenge: T-minus One Week (the Taper)

The week's training plan went out the window after I woke up with a chest cold on Wednesday. A hacking cough made it apparent to everyone but me that I should rest up for the big event, and after some gentle encouragement from friends, I did take the week off from running. Not running related events, however! Wednesday night was the Salomon Team community run at San Francisco Running Company, Thursday night I went to the Union Square North Face store for packet pickup, followed by another Salomon Team event at Sports Basement. Friday night was spent preparing with my crew, and of course, Saturday was The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship "Gore Tex 50 Mile" race.
Kilian Jornet is an inspiration to me. His downhill skills are amazing. (photo by Chris Jones)
It was exciting to meet so many talented runners, and the event on Thursday included grub, beer and films documenting Salomon team members Anna Frost, Ricky Gates and Kilian Jornet. I grew my ultra autograph collection and headed home for the all important night-before-the-night-before the race rest.

Knocking out the 50 miler, with pacer Victor at mile 27
The race went really well; I finished within 3 minutes of my goal and felt good all day. No lows, just a little apathy in the early afternoon. I'll have my race report up later this week.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why Run Ultras? Why Not?

Matt the Angry Jogger wrote a post today regarding entering his first 100k. He provides some interesting perspective on running, and life in general, courtesy of film maker Kevin Smith. Check it out here.
In a nutshell: why not run ultras? On his deathbed, he " ... won’t think back and think ‘shit, why did I run that 100k race, it was a complete waste of time!"
I myself am not suffering the same crisis of confidence, but the perspective is welcome. Staring at my first hundred miler next summer does make me question my motives. The notions in Matt's post reflect a lot of my inner dialogue, though in an Irish accent.
On a related note: North Face 50 is less than two days away, and I am suffering a righteous chest cold. The forecast is for freezing temps at the start, and possible snow at the higher elevations on the course. I'm rethinking my time-based goal. Honestly, I'll be happy to finish! It should be an adventure, regardless.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Race Report: 2013 MEB2 Turkey Trot 10k

2013 was my fourth running of the Michael E Bratton II Turkey Trot. In 2009, it was my first 5k; I was elated to go sub-30 minutes. In 2010, I repeated the 5k and dropped my time to 25:43. In 2011, I was nursing stress fractures in my left tibia, but still managed a finish in 34:38. In 2012 I stepped up to the 10k as I ran my tenth race of the Gold Country Grand Prix (GCGP), cementing third place in the race series with a 48:42. I ran my first road marathon a little over a week later.

Pre-trot: the weather was beautiful in the foothills Thanksgiving morning
For the 2013 edition, I came back to the 10k, with a 5k running Twirly in tow. I was in the midst of a taper for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile race in San Francisco, but I had a tempo run on the training plan, so I kept it in the 8:0x range after a nice warm up mile spent running with Twirly.

The MEB2 Turkey Trot is by far the largest race in the GCGP series, and it is always good to catch up with other members of the Sierra Trailblazers Running Club. Word had spread that I would be representing the club in the 2014 Western States 100, so that dominated much of the small talk before and after the race.

We got a late start, likely due to the 500 or so runners registering on race morning (total participants was estimated to be over 2000). A new timing system meant that the start/finish line was narrower than previous years, which actually helped spread everyone out before funneling through the gate as we left the track.

By the time we reached the single track, Twirly and I were cruising at an easy pace. As we climbed towards Sierra College Drive, I wished her well and upped my pace to tempo range, between 8:00 and 8:30. Running uphill felt good, and I began passing people.

I kept my pace steady through the rest of the first loop, and wondered if I should ease up to adhere to the tempo workout on my schedule. I was supposed to do 2 tempo intervals of 15 minutes separated by 3 minutes of easy. After some quick mid race calculations, I figured that 40 minutes of solid tempo wouldn't wreck me. I was feeling good, and having a blast. Maintaining tempo pace on a hilly course was feeling easy, and my confidence for the 50 miler was bolstered.

I wished each runner a Happy Thanksgiving as I passed them, and crossed the line in 51:28. No PR, but a great training race. I cooled down with 25 minutes of jogging on the football field as the back of the pack finished.

When I compare the Garmin data from the 2012 10k to the 2013 event, I can see that I am in similar shape. That bodes well for the North Face 50.

Reno resident Chris Badolato brought his ringer-ness and won the 10k; beating second place by over a minute and a half. I have been trying to coordinate a run and/or beer with Chris for a while now. Alas, it wasn't in the cards this time.

Cruisin' on a Thursday before noon...
And, the details:

Monday, December 2, 2013

The North Face Endurance Challenge: T-minus Two Weeks!

The taper for North Face 50 is in full effect. An easy run, a Turkey Trot and a couple of hilly miles rounded out the week and left me in a weird limbo of confidence. I'm feeling a little under trained, but healthy.

Monday: Easy 60

Thursday: MEB2 Turkey Trot 10k

Saturday: 120 hilly minutes

Totals: 27.7 miles, avg HR 143

8 minute pace felt good during the Turkey Trot. Twirly ran the 5k, so I hung out with her for a mile or so before getting in the tempo on my schedule. I clipped off 1500' in ten miles over two hours on Saturday, keeping my pace about two minutes faster than this Saturday's race pace. I'm fit, and I feel strong. My endurance is the unknown factor. Can I keep it together long enough to pull out a sub eleven hour finish?

I really want to finish in daylight, and I have about an hour to spare if I miss the eleven hour mark. Smart pacing in the beginning and having the support of Victor Ballesteros as a pacer on the back half should make it pretty straightforward to get across the line before 4 pm.

The final week is rich with opportunities to hang out with the Salomon Team, which is a nice consolation prize. The only time I'll get to see the elites this weekend will be in the dark before the start. They'll be finished long before me, and I doubt I will cross paths with them on the out and back sections; I'm too slow to catch them off Matt Davis Trail, and if I see them in Tennessee Valley, it will be because I dropped at mile 12!

So, Wednesday I'll participate in a community run at San Francisco Running Company, where Kilian Jornet will be leading the run, and Thursday is a meet and greet with Kilian and the rest of the team at Sports Basement. I'll pick up my bib and swag at the North Face store in Union Square before heading to the Presidio for some autographs.

I'm nervously anticipating my biggest race to date. Sharing the trail with so many elites is novel, but won't effect my race at all. I go in with a focus on form and energy conservation. If my nutrition plan works well, I feel like I can put in a decent performance.