Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cool Running: A Race to the Finish.

A clear, crisp morning was upon us in Cool, California.  I opted to run my season opener in the 2014 Way Too Cool 50k, after getting in through the lottery in December.  A race with a storied history, on beautiful trails around the American River in Northern California, this was the 25th anniversary of the race.

This was the first ultra I would race without my family there for support.  Every other race I've done (with the exception of a semi local 16k Xterra race last year I did with a friend), I've had my wife and son there, but not this time.  Part of me really wanted them there, because that's what I'm comfortable with, but another part of me was excited to do one on my own and see how it went.

I flew to Sacramento Friday morning, after a less than enjoyable traveling experience.  Generally, we drive the family to all the races, but going on my own this time, it was just as cheap and more sensible to fly up the day prior, and get a rental car to use while I was there (shop around, folks!  I got my round-trip ticket, rental car, and two nights in the hotel for SIGNIFICANTLY less than it would have been to drive up on my own.  Having some hotel points to use always helps!).

The morning flight was a near disaster.  One thing that makes me apprehensive about flying, is making sure I get all the race gear I need to the race location at the same time as me!  I'm able to pack all my kit in my carry-on, but nutrition had to be checked.  I arrived at the airport plenty early for my first flight out of Palm Springs, but it didn't make any difference.  About 5 minutes before our flight was scheduled to depart, we were told that the aircraft had some "computer issues" and would be delayed for an undetermined amount of time.  I wasn't too worried to begin with, since I had a 30 minute flight to LAX, and then almost a 2 hour layover before my next flight, so I knew I had some time to play with.

Eventually, after almost rebooking to a different flight, our flight boarded an hour and a half after it's original departure time.  A short hop to LAX, and I would still have about a half hour before my next flight left.  I thought for sure my checked bag with my nutrition was not going to make it.  To make things worse, when we landed in LA, we had to wait on the tarmac for another 15 minutes because our gate wasn't open yet (explain that one to me...we arrive an hour and a half late, and the gate wasn't ready???).  Anyway, we finally get to the gate, and I have 15 minutes to get to a different terminal and get on my flight.  After what became a little pre-race shakeout run, I made it, and for once I was happy to find that my second flight was delayed about 20 minutes as well.

I caught the second flight to Sacramento, and caught some amazing views of the snow-capped Sierras on my way, with a nice early morning view of Mt. Whitney in the distance.  I landed, and much to my amazement, my luggage made it with me.  Score one for the airline, I was happy about that.  A short drive from Sac to Auburn Running Company for packet pickup, and it was still way before check in time for the hotel.  I called just to chance an early, check in, and much to my surprise, I got an early check-in, and a room upgrade.  Nice!

After some lunch, I headed over to one of the conference rooms where Trail Runner Nation was doing live podcasts all afternoon.  I showed up about half-way through Don, Scott, and Sally interviewing the legend, Gordy Ainsleigh.  He is a character, for sure!  If there is one thing Gordy can do ultra style besides running, it's talking!

Gordy with Trail Runner Nation.

Next up was an interview with another ultra-running legend, Karl Meltzer.  Karl is for sure an interesting guy, with some great advice to be given.  He's also super approachable.  I don't know why, but as a mid-pack runner, I always find myself kind of star struck by the elite ultra crowd.  I realize they are people just like us, but I think I am more nervous to talk to elite runners than I would be with a movie star.  I think part of it is just that I really look at most elite runners as people who really are role models, and not so much for someone who makes a living pretending to be someone else.

Karl with TRN's (and Nike Trail elite runner) Sally McRae

Me with Karl Meltzer.  Legend!

After Karl's podcast, was one with the Nike Trail Elite running team, which is new for this season as Nike is just getting back into the trail scene (with quite a bang, I might add).  There was Sally McRae, Chris Vargo, Alex Varner, and the team manager Pat Werhane.  They had some very interesting insights into training, nutrition, and racing.

From left to right:  Alex Varner (Nike), Chris Vargo (Nike), Scott Warr (TRN), Sally McRae (TRN and Nike), Pat Werhune (Nike team manager), Don Freeman (TRN)

TRN also gave out some good swag, and I ended up with a Petzl visor, and a TRN buff (you can never have too many of either).  There was another podcast to follow with the Patagonia team, but I decided to pass on that one, to get some dinner and make sure I had everything ready for the morning.

Sunrise over Cool.

I managed to get a good nights rest, before waking up early to head to Cool for the race start.  It was pretty chilly in the morning, somewhere in the 40s, but I knew I would warmup quick once the sun came out and I got racing.  I got there about an hour and 15 minutes before race start, which was good, because with 1200 racers in this one, parking spots were at a prime, and I got a good one abut 100 yards from the start line.

Start line from my parking spot.  Get there early folks!

Race time approached, and I made my way to line up in wave 1 at the start line.  My goal (as discussed with my coach) was to make sure I didn't go out too hard, too early.  The first 1.5 miles or so is on paved road, so the start is fast.  This gave the pack a little room to thin out, but it was still pretty crowded.  From the start, I had mentally developed a tiered goal system for this race :

A goal:  Run sub-5 hours
B goal:  Run sub 5:17 (an arbitrary time listed as a projected finish on Ultra Signup)
C goal:  PR (which meant running sub 6:04, my Bootlegger time from November)
D goal:  As always, finish without total body destruction, regardless of time

As I was moving down the paved road, I checked my watch, and noticed I was running sub-half marathon pace.  I knew I needed to slow down, but being a slight downhill, and the race day excitement, that was tough.  I decided it would be a perfect time to stop and take a pee break in the tree line, to reign myself in a little bit.

After my break, I got back into it at a slower pace, and then we hit the trail.  Coming from a wide paved road, to single track, created an instant bottle neck and everything slowed to a crawl.  Leave it to me, 1.5 miles into the race, just getting on the trail, and I caught a rock with my toe and ate some dirt!  Thankfully, my handheld bottle took the brunt of it, and I was up and moving right away.

The first 8 miles of the race completes a loop on the Olmstead trail, and circles back to the start/finish area for the first aid station.  The first 10k of this, was a straight conga line.  There wasn't too much passing to be done, but I would pass going just off trail on the uphills since I was feeling strong.  The trails got pretty muddy in some areas due to the rain so that did slow things down a bit.  Even with the crowd and the mud, I must say, these trails are beautiful!

After just a little climbing, some mud, and some creek crossings, the pack thinned out, and we came back into the first aid station.  It was getting warm at this point, so I took off my gloves and ditched my arm sleeves, refilled my bottle with water and Tailwind, and was on the go again.  I settled into a pack of runners moving at a solid pace, and we began the descent down to the first crossing of Highway 49.

This downhill section was awesome.  It was wet, and muddy, but footing was still decent.  We were moving down the hill at around 7:30 pace, but I wasn't pushing, so I kept the pace.  We hit Hwy 49, and crossed down to the next aid station, which was a quick splash and go, and I was running along the American river.

This section provides really nice scenery, and very runnable trail, with no major climbs.  I kept pushing, running right on that edge of comfortable and too hard.  At mile 17 we started climbing, and the power hiking began.  I was well under pace at this point, and began wondering if I had gone a little too hard in the first half, even though I felt good.  Time would tell...

Somewhere along the American River trail. Photo courtesy UltraRunner Podcast

We got back into the woods, and after some good climbing descending, I rolled into the next aid around mile 20.5.  This was when I realized my legs were getting tired.  This is a fast course, and a great one to PR on, but the second half of the course is where the majority of the 4500' of climbing comes in.  Looking back, I probably would have run a little easier in the beginning so I had more gas for the second half, but, I had already made my it was time to lie in it!

I spent a couple minutes or so at this aid, as my stomach was a little iffy, not because of a lack of nutrition, but probably because of the opposite.  Post race looking back, I was probably pushing AT LEAST 300 calories and hour, which is just more than my stomach could handle.  A few orange slices, and a ginger chew tucked in my cheek, and I was feeling better already and back on the move.

Next up, after some more rolling single track, was the infamous Goat Hill.  I do pretty good on climbs, but Goat Hill is no joke!  It's only 1/3 of a mile long, but has something like 400+ feet of climb.  With all the runners that had gone through already, it was pretty muddy, too.  I grunted up with a few other guys, and was sucking air by the time I got to the top at the aid station.  I took a few to fuel up, top off, and collect myself, before starting down the trail.  I looked at my watch before I took off, and it was just short of 4:20 or so.  Only 5 miles left, but I knew that short of a complete turn around in my legs, I wasn't going to push out 8:00/miles for the rest of the course, especially with one more major climb left.  Time to revert to my B goal, which was still in reach.

Post Goat Hill, it's mostly downhill, and this is when I realized that my quads were pretty much shot (note to self, do more downhill training for my next race).  About a mile and a half outside of the GH aid, I fell again.  This time, it wasn't a stumble and back up, this was a hard fall.  Caught my foot on a HUGE boulder in the trail (okay, probably just a little twig sticking up) and went down, no hands, straight face plant.  This was one of those falls, where you get that tingly feeling throughout your body, and everything just tenses up.  I didn't jump back up after this one, instead just rolling to the side and letting people pass.  Several runners asked if I needed help, but I assured them I just needed a minute to assess and recover.  I did a quick self check, coming to the conclusion that the only thing that was injured was my ego, and the fact that I would probably be short at least one toenail on my foot (I was right, except it ended up being two...casualties of war).

Moving again, on toasted quads, I just sucked up the pain as much as I could for the rest of the downhill, and then hiked the climb back up to Hwy 49 for the second crossing.  I came into the last aid station, and didn't even look at my watch, because I knew there was only 1.5 miles or so left, and I was just going to give it all I had.  A brief stop at the aid just to get doused with water, and I was through in no time!

I started the wet, rocky climb out of the aid, and back towards the finish.  Goal from here?  Just run as hard as you can, and you get what you get, so that's what I did.  I still managed to pass a few more people in the last stretch, so I took that as a good sign.  I came up to where the grassy meadow was, and I could hear the finish line, so I kicked it into high gear for the last 400 meters or so.  All done, and I crossed the finish at 5:15, ahead of my B goal!

That night, after some email conversation with my coach (Ian Torrence), I was still disappointed with my finishing time.  I'm not really sure why, except that I had it deep in my head to get that sub-5 finish.  I know it was attainable, and that's why I was second guessing my time.

There are several things I probably could have done differently to aid in that sub-5 goal, now that I look back on it:

1.  Stayed at the faster pace at the beginning to get ahead of more of the crowd before getting onto the trail.  Getting a little more out front would have used up more energy, but I could have settled into a better pace, ahead of many more runners.

2.  Ease back on the first half to leave more gas for the second.  I was feeling good in the first 17 miles, so I went with it, but maybe just saving 30 seconds per mile would have left me with much more energy for the latter stages, and still kept me far under goal pace.

3.  Work more downhills in training leading up.  A mistake I won't make again, I spent too much time on flats in training, and my quads just weren't ready for it.  A decision I made solely on my own, but something I won't do again in the future.  My next race has a significant amount of downhill, much of it coming in a very long stretch at the end of the race.  I'll be prepared for it.

4.  Practice running in wet shoes.  While my shoes performed well in the mud, I don't get much (if any) rain where I live in the high desert of Southern California.  In the future, if it's a race where I know it's going to be wet, I'll spray my feet with a hose before taking off on runs.  It may not seem like much of a big deal, but I did develop one blister that became an annoyance.  Also, had I known how the shoes were going stretch and fit a little sloppier when wet, I likely would have selected different foot wear.

A week removed from the race, I've come to be pretty happy with my finish, being as it's a season opener.  It was a good fitness check, it pointed out some weaknesses, and still showed that I'm improving fairly rapidly.  It's a good spot to be in, when you know you can improve upon a time that was still a PR by over 45 minutes.

As always, running with the Eagle. 

For the gear junkies, here's what I used for the race:

1.  Team RWB singlet
2.  SF Running Company trucker hat (perfect for running!)
3.  TNF Better Than Naked shorts
4.  Zensah calf sleeves
5.  Wrightsock socks
6.  Nike Zoom Wildhorse trail shoes
7.  Nathan handheld
8.  Nathan trail mix belt with one flask of pre-mixed Tailwind concentrate
9.  Cheap gloves
10. Free arm sleeves from a TNF race
11.  2Toms sportshield for those sensitive parts ;)


I used one Vespa packet 45 minutes prior to the race, and sustained with 200 calorie bottle of Tailwind.  Pre-mixed concentrate that was a combination of the Naked and Mandarin Orange flavors.  I occasionally supplemented with orange slices or potatoes at the aid stations.

Final Thoughts:

I want to give a nod to my coach, Ian Torrence, without whom I'm sure I wouldn't have done so well.  He's continued to introduce me to challenging training, which has shown in spades to be beneficial in my running.  Choosing him to coach me is the single greatest investment I've made in my running future, hands down.  I can't wait to continue with him this season, as the racing only gets more and more challenging.

Shout out to Team Red, White, and Blue.  I love to represent Team RWB at all my races, because it's an organization I believe in.  For more details, or to get involved, go to

Tailwind Nutrition (not a sponsor, used by choice) has proven time and time again to be the best race nutrition I've found.  I've come to points in races before (as I'm sure we all have) where I just couldn't stomach another gel, but Tailwind always goes down easy, with no GI distress.  Like their motto, it really is "All you need.  All day.   Really."

Thanks to Nathan Performance (no affiliation), for making a handheld bottle with an extra finger hole in the strap.  WAY more comfortable.  And that new easy squeeze bottle is the bomb.

Thanks to the NorCal Ultras crew, and specifically Race Director Julie Fingar.  You put on a hell of a race, with some of the best volunteers out there.  They wouldn't have let me fill my own bottle if I wanted to!  And they were super fast and crazy nice!  Not to mention, one of the best post-race parties I've, cupcakes, soup, beer...a recipe for success!

Also, as always, a thanks to my wife, whose support has allowed me to get where I am today with my running and my life.  She gets it, which is a rarity when it comes to people understanding why we do these crazy ultra endurance activities.  Erin, I couldn't do this without your support and understanding.  I can only hope to reciprocate as you continue your own journey into the endurance world (she's doing her first marathon this year!!!!!).

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