Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inaugural Cuyamaca 100K - October 6, 2012

Pre-Race Build-up and Thoughts

After Coyote Ridge, the trend to returning to normal running continued gradually.  In the weeks between Coyote Ridge and Cuyamaca 100K, I ran a 5K, a track workout, and two interval workouts.  It had been months since I'd done any of those things.  The 5K was the first time running sub-6 pace on flat road since April, and it had been just as long since my last track workout.  These runs gave me confidence that my knee and body were ready to gear back up and run fast again.

I continued to carefully run more.  By the time Cuyamaca got here, I still hadn't worked my way up to any kind of high mileage, but did manage several runs in the 15-22 mile range.  The two weeks before Cuyamaca, with about 73 and 65 miles, respectively, were my highest mileage weeks this summer post-injury.  The weekend before Cuyamaca I went to Point Mugu State Park, camped on the beach and enjoyed a beautiful jaunt for about 4 hours on the Ray Miller Trail, Boney Mountain, and the connecting trails.  It was as beautiful as I was hoping it would be.  Stunning views, difficult climbs, fun descents.

So anyway, going into the Cuyamaca 100K, there were lots of things on my mind.  I had been feeling healthy, so I was confident that I was past my injuries and would be able to finish the race.  The rest was pretty uncertain, though.  I was glad to be definitely on the upward trend again with my running, but I was nowhere near the level of fitness I was at in Fall 2011 or late Spring this year.  The fact that the only other 100K I've run (Bandera, January 2012) was a complete disaster left me feeling a bit uneasy about going that same distance again.  Cuyamaca would have more elevation change than Bandera, but better surface.  The big problem at Bandera, though, was that I had overestimated my fitness, underestimated the distance, and just recovered from an injury that returned halfway through the race.

I planned to use the uneasiness from Bandera to help me run a smarter race at Cuyamaca.  And Bandera was indeed on my mind several times throughout the race.

Oh yeah, the other thing that I was really anxious about was heat.  One of (if not the) worst encounters with heat I've ever had was when I ran the second half of the Cuyamaca course with a group in late July.  It was terrible, and San Diego had been experiencing much higher than usual heat in the weeks leading up to the Cuyamaca race.  I was very thankful, then, that the weather cooled down JUST in time for race weekend, so the heat was no longer much of an issue.

trying to recover from post-run heat exhaustion back in July
Of course, there was a ton to be excited about this race.  I was really looking forward to being part of an inaugural event.  And now that it's over, I'm sure it is one that will be around for a long time and become very popular very quickly.  Also, my dad flew in for the race weekend to crew for me.  Thanks to the fantastic race organization and relative proximity of the aid stations to each other, I was able to see my dad probably about every hour on average - at all but one aid station.  I have issues sometimes forcing myself to fuel properly.  JFK 2011, probably the best race I've ever run, went so well largely due to a regular, disciplined fueling routine.  My dad was there at Cuyamaca to ensure I took all the gels, electrolytes and food that I needed to avoid crashing.

The Race

Wow...since moving to San Diego in late June, this was my third ultra, and it felt like truly complete immersion in the California trail scene.  The race directors were truly experts.  It was one of the most well organized events I've run -- and it was the first time it's been held!  Every aid station was well stocked and staffed by cheerful and exuberant volunteers.  It's always nice when you can tell that the volunteers are having a great time being out there, AND they do everything they can to make sure the runners get what they need.

It was quite a chilly morning before the start - kind of refreshing to start running with the temperature still in the high 40s/low 50s F (that's a guess).  I said goodbye to my dad and joined everyone else on the starting line, where I ran into the one person that I knew who was also running: Joel, who I'd become acquainted with at the training run.

The first 8 miles were pretty fast terrain, generally downhill.  I fell into a long line of runners on the singletrack, which gradually thinned out into smaller groups.  I recognized a couple others from the July  training run.  With Bandera in mind, I made sure to maintain a feeling of reservation in this first segment.  It was a beautiful morning!

I felt great and fresh.  I reached the first aid station in a bit shorter time that I had anticipated, but that was just because of the generally downhill first section - I was being careful and staying very conservative, so I wasn't worried that I'd gone out too fast at all.

from the race's Facebook - getting close to Green Valley (Aid Station 2)
Between miles 8 and 13, I started to pass people once in a while.  I had found a good rhythm, but it was still early and essentially all of the 10,000+ feet of climbing was still ahead.  The next aid station was at Green Valley Campground, and we ran down a road that went through the whole campground before actually reaching the aid station.  It was nice to be cheered on by the little groups of campers that had recently rolled out of their tents.  The volunteers at Green Valley advised that I have two bottles or a camelback for the next section.  It was 9 miles almost entirely uphill to the peak of Mount Cuyamaca.  Honestly, and in hind sight, that sounds worse than it actually is.  I don't know exactly, but my guess is that we had about 2,000 feet to gain from Green Valley to the peak.  So 2,000 feet in 9 miles is really a nice gradual climb.  Also, it was still nice and relatively cool out.  The climb up Cuyamaca exposed us to some nice winds blowing through the valleys, too.  But since I only had one bottle, I took in a good bit of nutrition at Green Valley, and the volunteers gave me a bottle of water to carry with me in addition.  My dad was there to help, but the aid station at the peak was the only one that was not crew accessible, so it would be about 13 miles and 2-3 hours until I saw him again.  

The climb to the top of Mount Cuyamaca ended up being my favorite section all day.  I had never been on that trail before, and it was wonderful!  Great views, awesome trail, and perfect weather.  I went on to pass a couple more people on the climb until I settled into what would basically be my position for the remainder of the day.  About 3/4 or so of the way up the climb, I passed a girl named Ashley who was sponsored by Pearl Izumi.  I was excited about this, because I love PI products, and I was wearing PI shoes and shorts.  I passed her then, which represented the beginning of a game of cat-and-mouse which would endure the next 7 hours.  

I was almost disappointed when this 9-mile section was over, but the aid station at the top was phenomenal and had a great view (big kudos to the RDs for getting such a complete aid station all the way up there!).  

Next up was a 4 mile descent, much of which was on an uncomfortably rocky trail down the east side of the mountain.  This section actually made me think about Bandera a lot.  The footing was similarly difficult to the rocks that cover half of the Bandera course.  I'd been feeling great all morning, but this section actually started to beat me up a bit.  The footing was frustrating, and my feet began to hurt.  Soon enough, though, I was at Paso Picacho, where I had camped before and my dad awaited me.  Ashley came into the aid station just after me and left just before me.  It was only 4 or 5 miles from here to the end of the first 50K, so I didn't spend too much time.  I then ran a good bit of the next segment with Ashley, chatting a bit - nice to have a little company after my rough patch coming down off Cuyamaca.  
entering Paso Picacho, feeling a little rough
Our cat-and-mouse game continued at the completion of the first loop.  Again, I entered the aid station before her, but she left before me.  I tried to eat and drink a lot here, because I had been feeling somewhat low and up next was an 8 mile segment.  I finished the first 50K in about 5:13, I think, and left to begin loop 2 at about 5:18.  I felt decent at the beginning of loop 2 (a 12-mile loop), but still not very good.  My plan/hope was that the second half of the race would be less painful and unpleasant than the training run on the second half of the course in July, which took about 6 hours total.  And honestly, although I wasn't feeling great at the time, I had a feeling I could run the second half in less than 6 hours, which would put me finishing at 11:20 or better - a time which I considered quite respectable!

On the plus side, everything I had ahead of me now I'd already seen before.  However, the climb at the beginning of loop 2 was significantly tougher than I remembered.  I was a bit surprised, really, and I walked much of it.  This was also the hottest part of the day, as it was early afternoon.  It was nowhere near as bad as that late-July training run, though.  As the trail dumped me out into a meadow toward the top of the climb, I began to feel a little better.  I saw Ashley again up ahead of me and counted her about two minutes ahead of me.  It was now a couple more miles, much of it back downhill, to the next aid station, and I started rolling again.  When I got to the next aid station and saw my dad (mile 39ish), I was feeling good.  I put lots of cold water in my head and ate some fruit.  Then it was only 4 miles back to camp to finish loop 2 and start the final loop.  I caught up to Ashley again at the aid station, but she left to begin loop 3 before I did.  Again, I was stuck around to fuel up a lot because the next segment was about 7 miles, and I remembered it being difficult when I ran it in July.  It included a pretty good climb for 3 miles or so.  

On a dirt path leading to the beginning of the climb, I saw Ashley up ahead again.  After a mile or so, I caught up with her and jogged next to her briefly.  I knew this was the last bad climb of the course and that there was a good bit of downhill to the finish, so I shared that with her.  I went ahead a little bit and got into a good rhythm on the climb.  My legs were tired and definitely feeling the day's miles, but I was all there mentally.  I remembered how miserable I was on this climb a couple months prior and was  perhaps motivated by how much better I was moving up it this time.  

I was then very pleased when I reached the Sunrise Highway aid station at mile 50.9 in just about exactly 9 hours.  All things considered, 9 hours for those 50 miles seemed pretty good.  Also, it was now about 11.5 miles to the finish.  The next 4-5 miles were relatively easy terrain, and then the final 6-7 were almost entirely flat or downhill.  It was here that I began to consider the possibility of running under 11 hours.

taken by a spectator - approaching Sunrise at mile 51
I left Sunrise just as Ashley was entering, as our game continued.  I began to run hard off and on during the next segment as the thought of 11 hours drove me forward.  I was a bit discouraged, though, as this section seemed to last longer than I was expecting.  It wasn't huge, but I anticipated reaching the final aid station, Pedro Fages at mile 55.5, at about 9:50 run time.  Instead, I arrived at 10 hours, but still feeling really good.  My dad was there, and everyone seemed to be in a great mood.  It was just under 7  miles from here to the finish, and I had just under an hour to do it if I was going to break 11 hours.  I left the aid station at a walk for a couple minutes while I ate, but then began to push.  I began some self talk at this point, telling myself not to leave anything out on the trail and making the conscious decision to run faster than I was at any given moment if I had it in me.  I couldn't believe how hard I was running for the last 3 miles or so.  I felt like I was running at marathon pace.  I didn't know how far I had to the finish, but I knew I was going to be close to 11:00.  The uncertainty made me push harder.
entering Pedro Fages at mile 55.5 - last aid station!
homeward bound - leaving Pedro Fages!

Eventually, I saw a trail sign that made me think I had about a mile to go, and my watch was at 10:52 I think.  I knew I could run an 8-minute mile at this point, so I was excited.  

There was a tiny little hill about a quarter mile before the finish that slowed me down drastically for the 20 or 30 seconds that it lasted, which I thought was kind of funny.  As soon as it leveled off, though, I was back at a fast pace.  And I had timed it just about perfectly, crossing the line in 10:59:08.

The RD, Scott Crellin, was there to greet me and I expressed my excitement about his race and how wonderfully impressed I was.  I was also really happy that I ran a good race and finished before sunset - so my dad didn't fly all the way out to San Diego to see me crash and burn and/or run into the night.  I definitely ran a much smarter race than I did at Bandera.  At Bandera, my 50K splits were about 5:00 and 7:30, whereas at Cuyamaca they were about 5:20 and 5:40.  Also, I met my goal of running the second half better than the training run a couple months ago.

And best of all, I felt great almost all day!  No injuries or nags whatsoever, and high energy almost the entire time.  And then, I was equally (if not more) excited about the running I did in the days/week right after Cuyamaca 100K.  While my legs were a bit tired and my joints a little stiff, I was going on normal runs and feeling good...that may sound kind of weird, but I don't really feel like explaining it.  The bottom line is, I finally feel like I'm getting back into good shape now and able to get into a regular running routine.

After Bandera 100K, I knew I didn't run a smart race and I paid for it dearly.  However, I did like the 100K distance.  Cuyamaca 100K reaffirmed that for me; it is a very enjoyable distance.  I'd really like to get into another 100K or 50 miler sometime soon, but I'm still looking for one that will fit into my schedule.
Good day - time for a milkshake at Descanso Junction with Dad

Friday, October 12, 2012

Coyote Ridge Trail Run 50K – September 1, 2012

On Friday, August 31, in the dark parking lot at Muir Beach, many groups of beachgoers were packing up their cars in order to get out of there by 9:00, the posted closing time of the lot.  I was hoping to find someone there who was involved with the race the next morning – maybe someone else just looking to crash for the night in the parking lot which was, after all, the starting location for the race.  The word I got was that they close the gate at 9:00 and if your car is still in there, you’re just stuck there until the morning.  Well, that was perfect then.  So I made room and laid down in the Corolla to get some sleep.  As I try to fall asleep, I hear a chirping kind of noise.  When I sit up and look out the window, I observe a couple of skunks scavenging around the parking lot, and a little coyote trotting by. 

I had just fallen asleep when I was awoken by a knock on the window, a bright flashlight, and the word “police”.  Turns out I was misinformed about my lodging option.  I did laugh, though, as I wondered what the police officer might have been thinking was going on in that car.  I assume he was hoping for something a little more exciting.

Anyways, the race turned out to be very small, but most excellent.  I had never run on trails like this before – huge hills and cliffs right next to the ocean and San Francisco Bay.  It was beautiful.  These hills were lots of fun to run on – they are what we would call mountains in Maryland.  I kept thinking about the course as an amped up version of the HAT Run back home.  Both probably have similar profiles, with lots of up and down, up and down.  Except these ups and downs were much bigger, and the views were of the Pacific Ocean and SF Bay instead of the Susquehanna.

I was still on the very gradual trend back to normal running, so I was there to just have a good time and enjoy this beautiful new setting.  I found myself feeling quite good and strong on the climbs, and barreling nicely downhill, all the time feeling relaxed and within my comfort zone. 

The most incredible part of the course was somewhere around mile 10, probably, when the trail took me to the bay side of the park.  I ran downhill for a few minutes with a view of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the San Francisco skyline straight ahead.  The cloud layer was still covering the top of the bridge.  It was one of the most inspiring man-made views I think I have ever seen. 

I reached a bit of a low-energy lull at about mile 23, but after the next aid station I snapped out of it and continued to feel pretty good the rest of the way.  Overall, I felt pretty excellent the whole morning.  The race ends with the biggest climb of the course, which we ran up twice, followed by a nice steep downhill for another 2 miles or so back down to Muir Beach.  I finished nice and strong and still felt good.  I really had a blast and was loving every mile of the race.

Turning into the finish - Thanks CTR!
This race definitely helped raise my confidence about being able to increase my training a little more and hopefully have some semblance of preparation by the time Cuyamaca 100k rolled around.

I had heard of Muir Beach several times before, probably mostly from following along or reading about the North Face 50 miler that happens in that area in December every year.  I remembered that Muir Beach was one of the aid stations at that event.  In fact, while we were running this race, I crossed paths with a fellow on the trails running with a measuring wheel – I later learned that he was measuring for the TNF50 route.  Anyway, a week or two ago I put my name in for the waitlist for TNF50, because I would LOVE any opportunity to go run those trails again.  Stunning, challenging and fun.

Mount Disappointment 50K – August 11, 2012

Mount Disappointment was my first ever California trail race.  It didn’t come under ideal conditions, but I was really excited to experience first hand what all the buzz is about.  I signed up for it because I couldn’t resist.  In the mountains just east of Los Angeles, it was close enough to drive to the night before and then be able to drive home after the race on Saturday.  And it would be my first taste of a California mountain race!

So there were lots of great reasons to do this race, and I couldn’t resist.  Due to a largely inactive summer trying to shake injuries, I was not in great shape.  This would also be my first attempt at a race of any distance since dropping out of TNF50 in early June.  My only concern, then, was to have fun and finish without re-aggravating my knee.  Only in mid-July had I begun to experience gradual progress toward being able to run normally again, so I was a little nervous and planned on paying close attention to how my knee felt throughout the race.

It ended up being an outstanding experience and a ton of fun.  I drove to the top of Mount Wilson, where the race starts and finishes, on Friday evening and was greeted by the RD and a group of volunteers still working hard to make all the necessary preparations for the race.  The vollies were all spending the night there under the pavilion on their cots.  I found a little secluded spot in the woods near the parking lot and set up my tent.  It was a nice relaxing evening, hanging out with the volunteers, who shared s’mores and wine with me, and enjoying a beautiful sunset. 

It was pretty warm sleeping in my tent that night…even in just my underwear and outside my sleeping bag, I woke up several times feeling a bit clammy and uncomfortable….

Early to rise the next morning, I rolled out of the tent and walked up to the pavilion to register, as other runners had already begun to do.  There was a lot of talk about how hot it had been in that area lately and how hot it was supposed to be that day.

Probably taken by Fausto, the friendly race photographer!
The race began with about two or three miles down the road that leads to the Mt. Wilson summit.  During this descent, we got a nice view of Los Angeles to the west, with the sunrise from the east casting it’s light over the mountains and on to the shiny buildings.

I was very uncertain about this race.  It had been so long, it seemed, since I had done a race, that I didn’t remember how I should pace myself.  On top of that, this was likely going to be the most difficult course I’d ever run.  And on top of that, I wasn’t really sure what kind of shape I was in – whether or not I had retained some of my pre-injury fitness, and if so, how much? 

So because of all that uncertainty, and the fact that I was excited to be in a race again, I think I went out at a bit too high of an effort level.  However, I think the biggest detriment to my performance was indeed the heat.

Two weeks prior, I think, I had gone to a training run on the second half of the Cuyamaca 100K course.  It got extremely hot (like 100F+) and I, along with several other runners, had insufficient water/fuel.  After that run was finally over, I felt some pretty serious effects of heat exhaustion.  I was dizzy, nauseous and light-headed.  After about a half hour of sipping fluids and sitting in my car with a bag of ice on my head, I started feeling better.  But it was enough to make me realize that I am not very acclimated to running for a long time in bad heat.

In the middle of the Mount Disappointment 50K, there is a 5 or 6 mile climb which ends at I think mile 22…or 24.  I forget, exactly.  The point is, it’s 5 or 6 miles of consistent uphill on a narrow dirt road that is completely exposed to the sun, which was a’blazin’.  I had been feeling great for the whole race, climbing quite well and descending smoothly, until about halfway up that climb.  There was then a quite precise moment when I just crashed.  My legs felt no different, but my energy level simply dropped through the floor.  And it never returned.  I walked basically the entire remainder of the race.  It was incredibly hot and my body just couldn’t handle it.  After that long exposed climb, there was a few miles of downhill in a canyon.  I even walked much of that, as it often felt like I was baking in an oven.  I was actually happy when I got to the final aid station after that and they told me the 5 miles of the race that remained were all uphill, because that meant I didn’t have to feel bad about walking the whole way :D  And they were, and I did. 

More thanks to Fausto for the finish line photo
When I finally did finish, in over six and a half hours, I was perfectly happy.  While it was extremely uncomfortable for the last few hours, I still loved the fact that I was taking part in my first California mountain race, where the volunteers were great and the climbs were serious.  It was definitely the hardest race I have participated in, mile for mile.  This particular experience was probably more difficult for me than any race I’ve done 50 miles or less.  Hell, it took me about the same amount of time to cover these 33 miles as it did to cover 50 at JFK last year.  Granted, I was not exactly prepared for this race, so this isn’t exactly an objective portrayal.  But the course is indeed very difficult.  I really don’t think there is any more than a half-mile or mile total of flat terrain in the whole race.  The entire course is either taking you downhill for anywhere from 2-6 miles, or uphill for 2-6 miles.  It’s awesome.  And I love it.  And I’d love to take another crack at it.