Our goal this year is to run a lot more trail races and a lot less road courses. When we are running down a road, some part of us is always wishing for a beautiful single track winding through the redwoods. But some part of us also knows that we're not strong enough for the trail runs around here and the thousands of feet of steep elevation gain (and loss) they bring. It's the former hikers and backpackers in us that love being on the trails.
Our lead up to this race was actually a build up for the Napa Valley Marathon. Since the half marathon in November last year we've increased our long run up to 20 miles and our weekly mileage peaked at 32 miles. We've run about 260 miles since then. It wasn't ideal. There was the usual winter sickness. There was travel. There weren't enough mid-week runs because work squeezed them out. But for us there was a good sustained set of miles stretching back to last October, and it's nice to head into the year with as many miles as we have and being in probably the best shape of our lives.
A few weeks ago Patty and I talked about what our goals were as we felt ourselves being swept towards another road race (Napa Valley Marathon). We thought about what and when we enjoy running, and it's always running in the hills which makes us happiest, so we scrapped the marathon plan (at least as a goal race), and set our sights on doing what we need to do to finish our first 50K ultra this year. The first step was to jump right in and see how these things work. That led us to this race, which is held practically in our backyard and on trails we've run many times.
We arrived early and picked up our bibs. Our friend Eric was there and we chatted a bit. He was running the 50K, us just the 30K (18.6 miles). There was little of the usual pre-race craziness, just people greeting old friends and getting ready to go. The lines for the bathroom were there, of course.
It was chilly, but I shed my long sleeve shirt and reluctantly discarded my fuzzy sweat pants. But soon we started and off heading out of the meadow and towards the first climb. From our back of the pack position, the field came almost to a halt as we were funneled into a narrow track that climbed up to Sequoia-Bayview. Most of those around us walked and so did we. In fact, we couldn't have run if we wanted to. It was a road block.
At the top people started to settle into their pace on the gently uphill trail that is one of our favorite runs. Around us people chatted about if they were planning to do Western States this year, or this or the other ultra. Below us we could look across the bay towards a foggy San Francisco. In front of us the trail followed the hillside trying its hardest to stay level as it ducked into gullies of redwoods and trickling steams and then out again for bay area views. We crossed over Skyline Blvd (were a volunteer made sure everyone crossed okay), and arrived at the Moon Gate aid station. Being our first run of this type we checked out all the offerings, dug into some of the potatoes and I filled up my bottle and drank two cups of water. I knew it would take us close to 1.5 hours to get to the next aid station 7.3 miles away. With just a 20 oz bottle to work with, better top up!
From there we dove down into Redwood park towards the French Trail. It was just steep enough to fly down, and I was feeling strong at this point and didn't need to brake much. Even cruising down as fast as I was we were caught by the 20K lead runners who flew by 'on ya left!'. They had started after us. I tried to stay roughly to the right, but figured if they were going that fast into traffic while plummeting into the valley, they'd have to be the ones to make sure they were safe.
As soon as we hit the French trail (one of the nicest trails we know), we slowed down and started to power walk the steep parts and run the rest. People continued to pass us running the shorter distance, but mostly we'd found our place in the 30K field. I felt like the trail was more runnable than I remembered from training runs, but perhaps I would have felt better later if I'd not moved through this section as quick. At the time it was just fun and hard and beautiful.
At the end of the French trail we climbed up to the west ridge (walking), and then headed onto the out and back section for the 30K and 50K runners. This took us down a long hill section of fairly tight trail. Here we encounted the first of the lead runners running up the hill at full speed. Steve Stowers was headed for a 50K course record (at a 7:36 min/mile pace!) followed closely by Victor Ballesteros, who wasn't going much slower. For the good runners, these hills clearly aren't a problem like they are for us.
At the bottom we took Golden Spike trail into the main Redwood park area. Along the way we had to keep jumping off the trail for runners headed the other way. We greeted Scott Dunlap along here, whose blog I've read for the past year. We also ran into Eric who was placing well.
Eventually we made it to the mid-run aid station (at around 9.5M). I filled my bottle with cliff sports drink, drank another couple of cups, ate a cookie (which didn't work too well), so went back for the potatoes and bananas. It did feel good to break the shot bloks with solid food. After that break we headed back the way we came. I was happy to see there was plenty of folks headed towards the aid station still, so my fear of us being the last one there hadn't actually come true. Of course I didn't really know how many of them were 30Kers.
We headed back to the hill where we'd seen the lead runners. It was our turn to head up. In my imagination, before the race, I thought maybe we'd maybe run this hill, and normally it was pretty runnable. It was long, but not horribly steep. But there was no way. We slipped into a power walk, which by the top was more of just a walk. Fatigue was setting in, and uphill progress had become painfully slow. I'd hit a wall. If I was on flat or heading down, I was beat-up, but okay. If I was going up then it had become a real struggle. My HR was high and my pace was slow and getting slower. Basically I was done, but I still had 4 miles left to run. I stopped and poured several rocks and small trees out of my shoes. It felt good to sit on the ground. Nice ground. Birds chirped happily. I noticed it was just warm enough in the shade for this kind of lazying around to be the ideal way to spend a Saturday. Then remembered I was in a race. Sigh.
The next couple of miles were great. They were all uphill. I loved it! Actually, they were pretty horrible. We walked a lot of the 500ft climb behind Roberts before arriving back at the West Ridge. I joked about being lapped by the lead 50Kers right as we were, in fact, lapped by the lead two 50Kers.
At this point I knew the climbing was basically done. We were back on a trail we've run dozens of times. Although I'd probably never felt so horrible any of those times, we knew the end was within our grasp. Patty took off, sensing the finish line was waiting for her. We stopped briefly back at the Moon Gate aid station and downed some more potatoes and other snacks, and for some reason I had my bottle filled. Then we were headed back across Skyline, back along Sequoia Bayview and then down down down. I did notice that when it came to some small uphills I did surprisingly better at running them than walking them. Perhaps I should have run more of the hills through the race?
Eventually the finish sign appeared over one last hill, a heard a couple of voices coming up behind me while Patty was 30ft ahead of me, clearly doing much better than I. I was pushing as hard as I could. My HR spiked up to 197, my GPS registered me at the break neck speed of a 10 min/mile! It was all I had. I crossed the finish line right on 4 hours and 15 minutes (about 75 people ahead of me, 25 people behind me). Patty finished 9th in her age group. I finished... well, lets just say I finished. We'd done it. And I was SO done.
- Trail runs are fun. And even when they aren't fun, they are still beautiful.
- People were super friendly and this event was really well organized and marked. I had a great time!
- Hills, hills, hills: We need to incorporate hills, both running them and power walking them into our training. There was over 3000ft of elevation gain. Much of this was in short steep bits on 'rolling' trail. I see walking up and down Mt Diablo, Lyon steps, and Lovers Lane many times in my future if I want to improve at this.
- Water: I was somewhat dehydrated at the end, but about what I expected. I need to drink more if the race is going to be longer. I need at least 20 oz every hour. The distance between stations and our slowish pace meant I couldn't get that much with one water bottle. I should think about running with two.
- Food: I stuck to my plan. I ate 100 calories in shot bloks before the race. I ate at the aid stations and liked the results. A ate 100 calories every 30 mins between aid stations (again, shot bloks). I drank 20 oz of sports drink between aid stations (Accelerade on the way out, Cliff on the way back). I don't know if it was enough. It didn't seem to be the problem, but perhaps more food would have helped.
- Strategy: I went through the French trail too hard as it turns out, but I was there for the lessons. I wasn't going to run it as slow as I ran it in training, I already know I can do that. But running it as fast as I did burnt me out on the uphills. The lesson is probably that I need to train for that better. Train to power walk the really steep stuff and to run the moderate hills. And keep doing it for 32 miles!
- What gave out: apart from uphill muscles, my upper back was pretty sore especially walking up hills. I also got a couple of good blisters, but I'am retiring those shoes anyway. On the positive side, I felt like my hip flexors held out better than they have in the past, so maybe the core work is starting to pay off. My other known weak points also held out: my IT band twinged around mile 3, briefly signaling the end to my race. Then didn't bother me the rest of the time. Outside foot and peronials also didn't present a problem. A case of runners knee we've both had this past few weeks also didn't present a problem.
- A couple of days later I'm a little sore in the quads and calves but in basically good shape. Yesterday afternoon I even went for a jog at the track. In some ways it was as hard as the marathon. Certainly the course was harder but the duration shorter. But I feel much better than I did after that.