Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Western States Dream

As runners, we have goals and then we have dreams. Our goals are usually very realistic and are short term. Our dreams, however, can be lofty and borderline insane. I think its important for runners to have goals and to have dreams. Short term goals help us focus on the present, and dreams help inspire us to believe in ourselves.

My dream race is the Western States Endurance Run. I qualified for it in my first 50-mile race this year, by running a 50-miler in under 11 hours (10:21). The race is held in June, 2011, and the only way I can get in is through a lottery. With 3 days left in the application period, there are 1490 applicants. About 300 applicants will be drawn in the lottery. If picked, the applicant's credit card will be charged $370, which is no small sum of money!

Sounds like a no-brainer for me, right? Wrong. My 10:21 qualifying time is "soft", since it was run on a relatively flat course, in perfect overcast conditions. The Western States race has over 18000 feet of elevation gain and is held in the summer, where temperatures can easier soar over 100 degrees. So if I were to be lucky enough to be picked, I would have to train like a madman to feel worthy of toeing the starting line of one of the most prestigious ultra races in the world. And to further complicate matters, my wife is due to give birth to my second daughter at the end of March!

I still have 3 days to decide, and to convince my wife that I shouldn't give up on my dreams, no matter how difficult or challenging. Without her approval and support, I don't think it would be wise to pursue the dream this year. There will be other years, hopefully, even though it will only get more difficult in the future. The clock is ticking. What would you do?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Stinson Beach 50K Race Report

I signed up for the North Face Endurance 50-miler on December 4th, so I planned on using a 50K race, to use as a training run for my 50 mile race three weeks later. The Stinson Beach 50K seemed like the perfect choice, as long as I didn't get carried away and raced it at full effort. It has 7097 feet of elevation gain, and is run in the same area as the planned 50-mile race.

The Wednesday before the Saturday 50K, my 3 year old daughter developed a cold, complete with restless nights, a nasty cough and congestion. Of course I develop sore throat symptoms shortly thereafter. But runners will usually run, rain or shine, in sickness and in health. When you have a passion for something, you find a way to just do it.

The race is held in Sausalito, California at Stinson Beach, where the Dipsea Races are also held. It was going to be a sunny day with a high of 70 degrees and a low of 48. The 50K race starts at 8:30AM, the 25K starts at 8:50, and the 12K runners start at 9:10. Before the race I got to chat with Ian Sharman, an elite runner who runs the Comrades Marathon in Africa every year (he came in 24th place out of 16,000+ runners this past May). Since he relocated to San Jose, California from the UK, he runs a lot of the same races I run! And like many of the elite ultra runners, he's just a swell guy to chat with! Of course slower runners like me only get to chat with the fast runners before these long races, because by the time we're done, the faster runners are long gone!

The first section of the race (3 miles) is run through an enchanted redwood forest where you could imagine Ewoks roaming. I had overheard that this was "Ewok Forest" where they filmed parts of the Star Wars trilogy.

That sounded really cool, but upon further research after the race, Return of the Jedi was filmed in a different Redwood forest further north. Still, the thought of running through "Ewok Forest" conjured up some pleasant thoughts. These few miles were all uphill, with many stone stairs, babbling brooks, wooden bridges and even a ladder!

Is this really a race course? Or is it a lost world in another universe?
My first 3 miles would have been more fun if I didn't feel so miserable! My anterior tibialis muscles (shins) felt extremely tight and my heart rate seemed out of control. Going directly uphill at the start of a race sucks.

Thankfully, an aid station is positioned right at the 3 mile mark. It gives me a chance to "regroup". All runners know that some days you "got it" and some days you don't. The beauty of long ultra races is that even if you don't "got it" at the start, you have plenty of time to find "it"; the groove, the mojo, or whatever you want to call it. The next couple miles are downhill, and my body finally starts to warm up, and the tightness in my legs go away.

I'm just cruising along at an easy 9:20 pace, when the speedy 25K runners started to pass me. I couldn't help but speed up and consequently found my groove. Surrounded by 25K racers on a gentle downhill, I logged a 7:46 and an 8:02 mile (miles 6 and 7). It probably wasn't the smartest move, but it sure was fun.

Once we hit some wider, flatter trails, I slowed down and let the speedsters pass without a fight. I had a longer way to go, and couldn't sabotage my "training run" by trying to push the pace. My legs were feeling good though, so even the uphill portions felt easy to speed walk.

Around mile 12, I struck up a conversation with a fellow runner by the name of David. And as with many of the runners that I have met and talked to, it was "friendship at first sight". We talked about everything. Stories about our kids, our running, and our dreams came pouring out as we ran through a forest filled with rocks, roots, fallen trees, and other tripping hazards. He is fairly new to ultra running, and yet he has already completed his first 100-mile race! His dream race is the Badwater Ultramarathon - 135 miles of pure torture! I love it! And maybe when he's ready to run that monster, I'll be ready to crew for him. Ahhh, this is the stuff dreams (or nightmares) are made of...

David and I parted ways at the halfway point where I met up with another ultra running friend (Myles) who was having a bad day. I met Myles in my first 50K, 11 months ago (feels like a lifetime ago), when we both officially became ultra runners. Even though this is only the second time we've raced together, it feels like we're old buddies.

Miles 16-19 feel much more comfortable the second time up the same section. It felt so comfortable that I skipped the next aid station and forgot to top off my one bottle with water. Oops. Miles 19-24 are tough. I'll spare you the negative thoughts that crept into my head. Nothing was hurting. I was just tired.

The uphill hiking also became more laborious in the afternoon sunshine. I heard that only about 10 percent (the elites) of the field run the whole way. The rest of us mortals walk up these inclines. And when conditions are tough, we "crawl"!

It was during a "low" point of my race, when I got another injection of positivity. It came in the form of another new friend. When you're tired or hurt in a long race, find someone to talk to - it can really break you out of a mental funk. It doesn't matter if the person is a runner, volunteer, or complete stranger. It helps if they're smiling and in a helpful mood though.

Let me introduce to you Martin. A 57 year old gentleman, who seemed to know everyone there. He's been running ultras for about 7 years and has completed 5 100-milers. He's not blazing fast, but he is consistent and constantly moving with a natural fluidity. His positive attitude and passion for running was infectious. "All these runs are training runs", he says. He doesn't wear a watch, and he's not in a hurry. You can imagine him running a 100 miles with the same carefree attitude. I decided there that I wanted to hang on to his heels (if I could) and finish with him. It was like chasing a master and wanting to emulate his wisdom, humility, and positivity. I told him of my intention to finish with him, and he of course, welcomed the company. We ran to the finish together, side by side, with a strong kick at the end. It was a great way to end a great race, filled with great people, great weather, and a great course. Thank you, everyone.

Elevation chart, with mile splits, and aid stations:
Other notes:
I wore my LaSportiva Crosslites again. They're becoming my favorite shoes on long trails like this one. I didn't wear any compression tights this time, which I have worn in my last 4 ultras. And I forgot to take any Vespa servings (amino acid supplement) since I forgot the first serving before the race. I took a total of 6 scoops of Perpetuem (3 servings). I ate some leftover lasagna for breakfast before my 1.75 hour drive to the race location. My final time was 7:28:09, good for 49th place out of 64 finishers. This was my slowest 50K, out of the 5 that I have done, but it was also the toughest. It was also one of the most enjoyable races I've ever had. The cold finally hit me hard on Monday, and I've been at home sick for the past two days, which allowed me to finish this long report. If you're ever considering a trip to California and want a nice trail run, I would look up Pacific Coast Train Runs ( Their races are great for all levels of runners AND hikers. I can guarantee an amazing time with some amazing people.

Other pictures: