Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Race Report: 2015 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run

I squatted near a tree at mile 45 of the 2015 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run, trying to expedite an emergency pit stop. I turned to my right and realized there was a Poison Oak bush hunkered next to the tree. Now, I have never had any symptoms of Poison Oak exposure, and as a result do not look for it before I, well, leap, so-to-speak. I didn't think I had touched it, but my arrival next to this tree had been somewhat rushed, given the circumstances, and I couldn't be sure. I did not have too much time to reflect, as I was chasing my 50 mile PR. I finished my business and got back on course, focusing on the final five miles ahead.

After last year's successful execution at Lake Sonoma, I wanted to go back to Healdsburg. Alas, the lottery gods only had enough energy to gift me Western States and Miwok this year. I had not run the new American River 50 Mile course yet. While it lacks the vertical I need as States training, it does offer an opportunity to practice leg turnover and sustained running. It feels like a really, really long marathon.

AR50 Course Map
AR50 Elevation Profile

My training in the previous weeks had been lukewarm. Twirly's birthday party the weekend prior ate into my volume, enhancing the taper. I had hoped to have more speed work under my belt, but it was all I could do to eek out two long runs of 20 and 26 miles after the Marin Ultra Challenge 50k. I hung my hopes on the fact that I was healthy and without serious niggles standing on the start line.

Taking a lesson from my experience in Marin, my strategy was to go out at nine-hour pace (10:49/mile) and try to negative split the race. Usually this is a great strategy, but the AR50 course has the technical trail and the bulk of the elevation gain coming in the latter half of the race. My "A" goal was to break nine hours, followed by my "B" goal of breaking my personal record of 9:49. As always, my "C" goal was to finish. As in 2013, I would go without lights. The crowd is thick enough in the early miles, a pool of light was never far away.

We stayed at the Larkspur Landing Folsom. Super easy. I had a suite for a hundred bucks and they gave us warm chocolate chip cookies at check-in. I caught the shuttle in the parking lot at 4:15 am. I sat in the back, hoping to see some of the lunar eclipse that was coinciding with the race start. I forgot how bouncy the back of the school bus can be. I balanced my tea while protecting my pack and bottles from the blast heater at my feet. Twenty five minutes later we arrived at the race start.

I much prefer the new course to the old, especially at the start. Gone are the days of crowding onto a levee bike path and running a two mile out and back to start the event. The parking lot at the Browns Ravine Marina was stellar in comparison. I braved the chilly breeze to watch the eclipse, which happened to be the shortest eclipse of this century. Five minutes! The parking lot was invisible. The phone lit faces of those huddled in their cars gave some depth, but I found it difficult to navigate between the warming tent and the porta potties. It turns out the light of a Garmin 910xt works in a pinch.

The warming tent buzzed with the nervous noise of hundreds and the parking lot began to swell with people. David found me standing in the lee of the tent just as the full eclipse was happening. He planned to go out quick to get some running room and settle in after he warmed up. He would go on to have a great day. I saw many other familiar faces in the crowd but focused internally as the clock wound down.
The race starts near the lake and climbs for about a mile before turning onto single track trail. I kept my effort easy and settled into the conga line, sticking near those with head lamps lighting the way. The waning eclipse hung over the steel grey lake surface, and the birds began signaling the impending dawn. At mile 5 a clover-leaf series of loops at Folsom Point provided a good look at those in front and behind me, and offered a few little hills to get the blood pumping.

Historic Walker Bridge (source)

Rucky, my 28 hour Cougar
By mile 6 I knew I had gone out about a minute per mile too fast. I felt great. The single track gave way to surface streets and sidewalk running for a few miles. I reigned in my effort and reminded myself to stay loose and relaxed. My nutrition was going well, and no niggles were speaking up. After crossing the American River near Folsom Dam the course joined the American River Parkway. A fellow runner began chatting me up about States, a common occurrence since the addition of "Rucky" to my left calf. Amidst the banter my pace crept below 9-minutes per mile. I kept trying to figure a way out of the conversation, as this guy was running faster than my plan. On the other hand, talking about States is a worthy distraction and reminds me of my goals for the season. We encountered a group containing some people he knew, and while he chatted them up, I drifted off the back, resuming my planned pace.

The circumnavigation of Lake Natomas on rolling bike path was meditative. The path is surrounded by piles of river rock, likely the remnants of gold prospectors dredging the river for a pay day. After crossing back to the North side of the river, the Hazel Bluffs provided another blood-pumping climb, albeit a short one. The trail felt more familiar now that we had rejoined the old course, and Mr. Mojo was in residence at the summit of the Bluff.

Nearing the 20 mile mark and the first time I would see Twirly, I took stock of my condition. My right hamstring was tight, but my gait was still symmetrical. My energy was good. I rolled into the Negro Bar Aid Station about 12 minutes ahead of my planned split and found Twirly. I dropped my pack and picked up two bottles of Tailwind, swapped my hat for a visor and popped a Vitamin I for good measure. I have been trying to avoid using it for runs less than 100k, but it felt like an appropriate action to mitigate my hamstring.

A few miles later, the Ibuprofen had kicked in and I fell into a nice rhythm. The trail wound up and down along the shore of Lake Natomas. I passed a few runners here and there and kept my pace fast enough not to get passed. The weather was heating up; I began craving ice water. These middle miles clicked by comfortably, but my hamstring was speaking up by the time I saw Twirly again at mile 29.

The Granite Bay Aid Station had buckets of ice water. I drank cup after cup while Twirly got ice in my replacement Tailwind bottles, and fellow hasher "Zucchini Bareback" provided some Motrin ointment to my hamstring. She was crewing for "Pussy Whisperer", who was running his first 50 miler.

I left the aid station feeling pretty good. A mile later I was back in the groove. The new course has a 2.5 mile loop on some pretty single track. I began picking up some carnage on the approach to the Meatgrinder section. These were my best miles of the race. I tackled the technical Meatgrinder section with determination. I would catch a conga line picking their way through the relentless rollers and do my best Kilian impersonation to pass them, using rocks and berms along the edges of the trail to leap around them. It took more energy than I should have spent, but it allowed me to continue at my own pace.

Rattlesnake Bar, photo by Jenny Lindberg
I got to Rattlesnake Bar in okay shape, but now about 15 minutes behind 9 hour pace. My feet felt confined in my Hoka Conquests, so I swapped shoes and socks. Hashers Bubble Boy and Edamame had joined Twirly and ZB. In the commotion one of my bottle tops fell into a patch of poison oak. While the crew was sorting that out, I took the MAP replacement baggie Twirly had handed me and put it into the bottle I was holding. Unfortunately, that bottle was empty and would exchanged for a fresh one. I got another application of pain relieving gel, and fueled up with some orange slices and potato. One of the volunteers told me that this was the last aid station to offer food. I had heard a similar falsehood in 2013 at Dowdins Post and told the volunteer I thought he was wrong. He argued that was the information he had, and we left it at that. I find it strange that this rumor about no food in the final miles persists, even though it has no truth.

The final 15k was a push. I missed having the MAP. I ran most of the rises in the rolling trail, and continued picking up some carnage. A few miles out of Rattlesnake Bar I felt a familiar rumbling in my gut, accompanied by gas pains. I began scouting the foliage for suitable leafy greens to facilitate a pit stop, but found none. Upon reaching Dowdins Post (they had plenty of food there) I asked if anyone had handi-wipes. I was in luck, as a volunteer provided me a couple from her personal stash. About a mile later, I found myself getting close and personal with the Poison Oak bush.

Folsom Lake is still pretty low from the epic drought we are mired in, and I figured that the riffles of the American River would begin to show sooner as a result. I knew from 2013 that the final three miles to the finish climbed out of the river canyon just above the lake, and the whitewater is a good landmark. Every time the trail rounded a bend I would expect to see the riffles; time slowed. Finally, the Auburn Dam excavation came into view and I could smell the barn.

I had about 45 minutes to climb three miles and beat my PR of 9:49. I put on my best power hike for the steep ascent from river level, and ran whenever my heart rate dipped into zone 2. By the time I hit Last Gasp Aid Station I knew I had a PR in the bag. I had the station runner fill my bottle with ice water and ran through without stopping (they had food at this station too). I jockeyed with a "bro-team" for a while, both runner and pacer wearing identical kits, haircuts and beards. The runner was negotiating run/walk breaks with his pacer, which I found hilarious.

I shuffled up the final mile and into the finish line festival, ten minutes ahead of my PR (9:38). I felt pretty good as I collected my finishers jacket and swag bag. Twirly and David greeted me at the end of the chute. He finished in 8:2x! I signed up for a Monster Massage, got my grub and started re-hydrating.

The take home lesson from this race? I still go out too fast. I may not have been able to execute the negative split, given the trail and elevation in the later miles, but  my hamstring may have been in better shape. After my massage (I finally got one from the master, Ve Loyce), I felt a little stiff, but no significant niggles screamed at me. I had experienced some pain at the base of my neck, which has happened in the past. I think it is residual stress. I just need to relax my shoulders more.

Jesse Jay, Twirly and yours truly at the finish festival
As always, Julie Fingar and the rest of the NorCal Ultra team put on a stellar event. The hundreds of volunteers do a great job catering to the runners. Despite the red herrings that seem to have taken up permanent residence at the final few aid stations, the run is supported well. The new course is an improvement, in that it has more trail and less exposure in the early miles. I could do without the long, pavement pounding descent to Folsom Dam, but it is still much better than the half marathon of bike path they removed. I'll probably do it again. I have my sights set on that 9 hour mark. Besides, the jackets are cool ;)

I did end up with an itchy ass, by the way. It could have been worse! I set my sights on Miwok 100k as my next training race. The stakes are getting higher as the 2015 Western States 100 approaches. I am beginning to realize that a silver buckle will be... uncomfortable to attain.

Here are the deets from my race:

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Race, Rest, Repeat Redux

Recovery from American River 50 Mile goes well. Hamstrings are still sore, and I picked up a little poison oak as a keepsake. I have never been bothered by it before. Hopefully it doesn't develop into an ongoing concern. I had enjoyed my immunity; it allowed me to not care that it is everywhere I want to train.

My adapted ketogenic diet continues to perform. My energy levels at AR50 were steady, and my body fat% continues to decrease:

Wednesday Weigh in, April 8th:
  • Weight: 184.2 (-3.5 lbs)
  • Body fat%: 16.09 (-0.62)
  • Ketone level: 0.5 mm
I plan to continue the same routine through the next couple of weeks. I am considering using Vespa at Miwok 100k, but I want to be in optimal ketosis (1.5-3.0 mm) to take full advantage of the Optimized Fat Metabolism approach. I am finding it difficult to get 200 calories of Tailwind down every hour, and if I can lower my hourly requirement, I think I'll have my nutritional plans for States ironed out.

Short update today. I am working on the AR50 race report. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

622 Days, 16,300 Miles, 1 World Record Run

Tom Denniss finished his run around the world in 2013. I just found out about it this morning. He did a tremendous job documenting the journey. Runners World has put together one hell of a website outlining every step. Check it out here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sleep, Rest and Tapering

Sleep cycle statistics
"Rest days are when you become a better runner"

An adage I adhere to, in paradigm more than practice. My volume increases as I march towards Squaw Valley. Rest becomes more and more important. To ensure adequate time in the rack, I decided to add rest as a metric in my training log. In a serendipitous Facebook posting, Bryon Powell of iRunFar mentioned he had been using an app called "Sleep Cycle". I have been using it since the night before Marin Ultra Challenge 50k, and so far it has provided some great information.

To use the app, you set the time you would like to wake up ("weekend mode" allows you to track your sleep without a waking time) and place your phone face down on the corner of the bed. They recommend you place it under the fitted sheet corner to keep it secure, but I have not had problems with it on top of the sheet.

The app monitors your sleep cycle, and as you approach your desired wake up time, it waits until you are in a waking period before it sounds a soothing tone. The result is that you wake feeling more alert and refreshed instead of groggy and tired. It measures your "sleep quality" against your history, and you can tag each night with your days activities, providing some correlation between lifestyle and rest. 

One of my favorite features is the resting heart rate monitor. In the past, my morning resting heart rate proved difficult to measure. I would either have to sleep with my HR strap on, or fumble around putting it on when I wake up. Neither is optimal, and the latter provides data corrupted by the simple act of putting on the strap. The Sleep Cycle app handles this with a novel solution. When you turn off the alarm, it turns on the led flash on the back of the phone. You place your finger over the flash and camera lens, and the phone determines your pulse as you lay motionless. It works pretty good, and provides data within the range I expect to see for my current fitness. A jump of 10 bpm over my average on any given morning would indicate potential over training, so I am watching that trend.

Then there are the other trends I am monitoring. My weight/body fat% and ketone levels:

Wednesday weigh in, March 25th, 2015:
  • Weight: 187.7 (- 1.3 lbs)
  • Body fat %:16.73 (-0.14)
  • Ketone level: 0.4 mm
Despite avoiding carbs all day and during my weekday workouts, I am struggling to stay in ketosis. It doesn't help that I am in the midst of Twirly's birthday week. Yet, I am feeling strong and energetic, and the weight loss continues. I am on track to toe the line in Squaw at least 15 lbs lighter than 2014. That ought to be good for an hour improvement, I figure. The other three hours will have to come from training, grit and efficient crewing and planning.

Another side effect of Twirly's birthday is this week's schedule, which includes sailing our ketch Kuani this weekend. To make room for her party on Saturday (Angel Island from noon to three, if you're in the Bay Area), I put my long run on Thursday night. I hope to get a marathon in along the Bay Trail around our marina, using my truck as an aid station. Oddly, I am looking forward to seeing what kind of time I can put up for the pancake flat course. I look forward to another sunset like this one we enjoyed last night.

Home sweet home

After that, I have a nine day taper to American River 50 Mile. I hope to improve my 50 mile PR (9:49) by a good measure. Maybe sub 9-hour. Time will tell ;)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Word Porn and Suffering

As I delve further into the pain cave, my perspective deepens. Darkness creeps into my peripheral vision. Light dwindles, and hope teeters on a precipice. Occasionally something comes along and frames my new world in a way I hadn't even considered. I found this on Facebook the other day, and it resonated in my heart like a harp string. I'll just leave it here for you to ponder.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Race, Rest, Repeat

Despite blowing up at the Marin Ultra Challenge 50k last Saturday, I feel pretty good this week. The legs are not protesting my recovery runs too much. My hamstrings are a little sore four days later, but an A.R.T. session this evening should have everything ready to resume training in earnest for the American River 50 Mile in under three weeks.

I continue to adhere to a low carb diet all day and during workouts, allowing for some carbs with dinner and no-holds-barred during races. My weight loss continues, albeit at a slower pace than when I was limiting carbs all day.

Wednesday weigh in: March 18th, 2015:
  • Weight: 189 (-1.3 lbs)
  • Body fat%: 16.87 (+0.16)
  • Ketone level: 0.7 mm
I will likely limit the dinner carbs as well in the next few weeks. I'd like to get back into optimal ketosis for AR50. My A goal is to go sub-9 hour. My B goal is to beat my 50 mile PR of 9:49 (set at AR50 in 2013). It sounds good on paper, but with the pain of last Saturday fresh in my mind it isn't low hanging fruit either! I doubt two weeks of speed work will pay very large dividends. None-the-less I plan to begin incorporating tempo runs and fartleks into the plan next week. Hill repeats and hill trail runs will round out the weekly routine.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Marin Ultra Challenge 50k

2015 marked the fourth edition of Inside Trail Racing's Marin Ultra Challenge. Runners tackled courses ranging from 25k to 50 miles covering the most beautiful trails in the Marin Headlands. I ran the 50k. In years past I have chosen to run Way Too Cool 50k as my winter race. The MUC course offers more vertical and views, making it a better tune up for upcoming races like Miwok 100k and Western States 100.

I used a couple of volunteer credits to gain entry; Tim and Tonya Stahler put on top notch events and it is always a pleasure to work with them. I spent a Saturday helping out at the Lake Chabot Trail Runs in February to earn my keep. 

After American Canyon 25k I had taken some extra rest to mitigate some tightness in my right knee. I regained my composure via strength training and hill climbing. A final workout on the Wednesday before the race had my confidence high. One of my goals for this year is to experiment with my pacing. Thus far in my trail running career, I have managed to complete my races comfortably. I have been conservative and slowed down whenever I was faced with discomfort. I decided to go out strong and hold on, trying to best my average Headlands-area 50k pace of 12:30/mile. That meant a 6.5 hour finish.

Race morning was warm and muggy. Twirly and I made our way across the Bay, arriving at Fort Baker with about a half an hour until race time. I got squared away with my bib and wandered around seeing who I knew as we waited for the 6 am race start. Due to some technical difficulties we started about ten minutes late. Not a big deal. We all had a long day ahead of us.

 Most of the 50k course

I felt strong from the start, and enjoyed talking with some friends as we climbed to the single track. I got a decent spot in the conga line: not too fast and not too slow. San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge made for worthy distractions from the torch lit trail. Switchbacks above and below glowed with hundreds of bobbing LED lights. Sights like that make early morning race starts worthwhile.

I crested the two mile, 750 foot climb feeling great. No niggles and my energy levels were high. A front runner was already hurling in the bushes on the side of Coastal Trail. A little early for that, I thought. He must have really hammered the ascent! I felt confident from the previous training cycle, and I clicked off a few sub-9 minute miles on the dark descent into Rodeo Valley. By the time I reached Rodeo Lagoon, the sun had risen. I could tell I had gone out too fast. Not because I felt worn out, but because runners in singlets surrounded me!

I hit the climb to Wolf Ridge hard, just like I had been in training. Near the top, Kara Teklinski called out my name. She was out cheering on racers. Hearing my name snapped me out of my focused determination. I reeled a little bit, trying to regain my senses and shake off the fog. I had eaten a Clif Shot (the new baby food variety, not the traditional sugar bomb), but I definitely burned a match on that climb. I kept my momentum up through the ridge and on to Old Springs Trail, my favorite descent into Tennessee Valley.

Cruising Pirates Cove, photo by Nate Dunn
I refilled my bottle with Tailwind, dropped my light and I was back on the trail. I kept it easy along the valley floor, eating some MAP and Pocket Fuel. I climbed strong again up Coastal to Pirates Cove. Once there, I found myself racing to keep my spot. Nate Dunn hunkered on the side of the trail with his dog Rosie, snapping pictures. 

Sun kissed Cove, Nate Dunn
I hammered the descent into Muir Beach. The trail there is not technical, per se, but it is rather steep. By the time I saw Twirly at the aid station I was feeling a little spent. Just over a half marathon and about 2000' of climbing in about 2.5 hours left me with little in the tank. If I could keep up the pace I was looking at a sub 6 hour finish. Twirly asked how I was, and "tired" was all I could say. I swapped out Clif Energy Food packets and refilled my bottle for the 7.5 mile loop of Redwood Creek, Miwok and Dias Ridge trails.

Redwood Creek is deceptive. The bouncing footbridges and skinny single track winding through toe-catching grasses make the otherwise runnable trail tricky. About halfway to Miwok, my legs began to scream. I had asked too much of them. They felt like they were full of molten lead. I ate more MAP and soldiered on. My fueling strategy of Tailwind plus Clif Energy Food was working well; I suffered no GI issues. The sticks were running low on muscle glycogen though, and my momentum was flagging when I hit Miwok Trail and began climbing.

I'd never gone up this stretch of Miwok, only run down it in the 2013 Tamalpa Headlands 50k. The runnable grade surprised me. I ran/walked the climb, keeping my heart rate at a reasonable level. I could have run more, but I could feel the wheels coming off. Having only a few 15-16 mile runs this year, I felt my stamina dissipating. Quite a few runners passed me before I topped the hill.

I hit the wall right around mile 18, just before another favorite descent: Dias Ridge into Muir Beach. I picked my way down the climb, gingerly protecting my leaden legs. A fleeting impulse to drop from the race crossed my mind. Then I asked myself what my reasons would be. My legs hurt? Duh. 20 miles ought to hurt. Especially after hammering the first half marathon. Was I injured? Nope. The pain was symmetrical and my gait, while slow, was even. I would have to keep grinding.

Upon my return to Twirly and the Muir Beach aid station, I had shifted into training run mode. I did not want to aggravate any niggles, and I felt horrible. I spent a few extra minutes drinking and eating before I set out for the climb up Middle Green Gulch, the biggest climb of the 50k course. Another runnable grade, I did my best to shuffle until it was over.

Cresting the climb, the course jumped over Coyote Ridge and followed the Miwok Cut-off Trail. I encountered a four way junction with blue ribbons flagging one of the directions. Unfortunately, the other two options had no orange course markings. I knew which way Tennessee Valley was, but without course markings I felt lost. I went the way I thought the course would go, and caught a glipmse of the runner I had been following, confirming I was still on the popular route. Not sure what happened at that intersection. Hopefully those not familiar with the area were able to negotiate the course.

Running down Miwok into Tennessee Valley is tough. Steep, rutted and dotted with hikers, I continued with caution. I was fighting off the apathy and just trying to stay on track for a 6.5 hour finish. Twirly helped me swap out my bottle for one I had pre-filled with raspberry (caffeinated) Tailwind for the final ~8k. I gorged on watermelon and orange slices as a fellow runner was telling the volunteers that he was planning on stopping at 31 miles. Someone would have to give him a ride the final half mile to the finish, because he had only come to run 50k! I assured him the extra mileage was just to ensure his Garmin registered 50k. I left before the volunteers stopped laughing. One more climb up Marincello and steady cruising to the final descent.

A few more runners passed me in the final miles. Once by a man who must have been over 70. He wasn't running in the race, and he kept a steady jog all the way up the trail. I hope to be running that well at his age. My legs were in bad shape. My right leg especially. Cramping hamstring and soleus muscles meant my gait was becoming more and more imbalanced. I walked a few times and tried to stretch it out before the 1.5 mile descent to the finish line, which looked impossibly far away from the ridge line. San Francisco Bay was full of sailboats, and the day was gorgeous, making it difficult to focus on the trail at my feet.

I continued my shuffle long enough to finish in 6:33. I was amazed that I was able to hit my goal despite blowing up. My pace in the last ten miles averaged over 15:00/mile! So kids, that is how you positive split a race and still hit your goal. The lessons I take away from this race are helpful. Despite feeling spectacular in those first ten miles, I was still going out too fast. I let my heart rate creep up into the anaerobic zone too often and for too long. I hope to execute my pacing better at American River 50 mile in three weeks.

Happy to be done! Photo by Nate Dunn

As always, Tim, Tonya and the Inside Trail Racing volunteers put on a spectacular event. Fort Baker is a gorgeous location for a finish line festival. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco compete with acres and acres of green grass. Bob Shebest won the 50k (after setting the 50 mile course record in 2014), and Paul Terranova won the 50 miler. The inaugural 25k had some of Marin's speediest contesting for the win (Galen Burrell took the honor). Some drama arose when local favorite Dylan Bowman collapsed on the course with a mile to go. He required medical assistance for heat stroke or dehydration. Word has it he thought he was running in the North Face Endurance Challenge when asked. Another oddity from the day were the two Tom Turkeys harassing runners in Tennessee Valley. I heard blood was drawn! Twirly and I lounged around and cheered in the 50k runners. We saw Paul win the 50 mile before retiring to my favorite restaurant in Sausalito (fish.) for lunch.

Gorgeous day on the Bay

I've never blown up in a race like that. While it was the most uncomfortable I have ever been in a race (including WS100) I realize that it wasn't as bad as I imagined. With more real estate I may have even been able to come out the other side. I understand how I ended up where I was, and I think I can apply that in future races. Learning exactly how conservative I need to be while still pushing for my best possible pace is something I hope to dial in before June. I have plenty of practice on the horizon. For now I rest and ramp back up to AR50.

FYI, Scott Dunlap took some great pictures of the course. Check them out here.

Here are the deets from Strava: