So are ultra runners crazy? and what’s with all that food they have at their aid stations? These questions and more have lurked in the back of my mind for quite a while. While of the opinion that it is the job of ultra runners to make marathoners appear sane and normal, I have wanted to try one just to see how t was done. Who knows, I might even like it?
I think it was James, my online running friend from Pebble Beach, who first suggested running the 50K at Lake Chabot. This is not the Skyline 50 put on in the summer, but another race put on by Inside Trail Racing. As well as the 50K (31 miles), there are also 30K, half marathon and 10K distances. Unfortunately James came down with a knee problem and was unable to make it. I vacillated for a while, then pulled the trigger and signed up with a week to go.
I had not prepared for this race especially, no back-to-back long runs or anything like that. I had not even done much trail running lately. I just tapered for a few days and went for it, telling myself that it was not a goal race and I would just take it easy. It’s not just the distance that was a little daunting, but the hills. Here is the elevation profile:
The course was two loops around the lake, the first being extended by a trip up the river valley towards Oakland. That section is about from mile 9 to 13. If you look carefully at the second hilly section, it’s a repeat of the first loop without that extra bit in the middle.
And so a cluster of runners assembled at the appointed time. There was no start line, we just faced the RD who addressed us with a bullhorn, reminding us of the color sequence of the trail markers. Then he said “Ready, Set, Go” and we were running.
OK, Jogging. We began on a paved trail, at an effort level that could perhaps be sustained for several hours. Slower than 9 minutes per mile, what I would normally think of as “recovery” pace. After a hundred yards, the trail sloped up for a short way. A voice within the throng groaned “Oooh, a hill!” and I blurted out “It’s OK, there aren’t any more after this!” which got quite a laugh.
We were soon off the pavement onto a fire trail, then over a single-track suspension bridge that creaked and bounced under our feet, then more fire trail. Uh oh, my pace was creeping down into the mid-8’s. Remember how far you’re going Jim? Gently does it. The runners were spreading out. Already by mile 3 I could only see two or three in front in front of me, although generally In this forest I could only see 50 yards or so most of the time. We got to the first serious hill at mile 3, and I only walked the really steep part, maintaining a slow jog up the rest. It’s a trick I leaned by observing other trail racers. You maintain a normal running cadence but take very short steps. Rather to my surprise I was able to keep doing this throughout the race. I half expected to be walking all the hills by the end! We turned onto a single track and rollercoasted through a fairly dense eucalyptus forest. Some of these rises were quite steep but short, and momentum from the downs carried me over the ups. I was probably going a little fast on those downs though, which I was to regret later.
More uphill jogging, then we switchbacked up an exposed hillside. I was slowly gaining on a small group in front. I caught up while they took turns to wriggle under a fallen tree. At the next turn of the switchback the runner in front of me waved me through, and I recognized her. “Oh Hi Christine!” She is a fixture of the local trail running scene, and passing her worried me a little. She was running the 30K, and her speed on the trails is close to mine. Was I going way too fast?
We got to the first aid station. I topped up my handheld bottle and grabbed at the various foodstuffs, putting them in my pockets for nibbling on the run. I knew those shorts with pockets would come in handy someday. Half a banana, Peanut M&M’s, pretzels, boiled potatoes, stuff like that. I munched while going up a gentle incline way from the station. So far so good, even if my pockets were rattling for a while. Love those peanut M&Ms.
For the next few miles I could not see anyone in front and had to pay close attention to the trail markers. I have run these trails before, but not this exact route. This was mostly gentle downhill until I reached the turnoff onto the orange marked section. I could see a runner in front now, a youngish guy in an orange shirt. he was slowing and would bend to rub a calf occasionally. We passed though another aid station, and spoke briefly. “Cramping up?” “No, but I ran a 100-miler last weekend”. Well that answers that question. Ultra runners are crazy. Looking around, I was glimpsing Christine from time to time. She was pacing to keep me in sight, apparently. The sun was out, the temperatures cool,. It was a perfect day for running, in a rather beautiful valley. I started up another switchback, jogging the straights and walking the corners. Christine had closed up somewhat, and we made “Urrgh” noises at each other as I passed above her on the slope. Going down the other side I nearly missed two turns. I’m sure she noticed my sudden changes of direction. Things were uneventful for a while. Christine would close up on the ups, and I would go ahead again on the downs. I knew that at some point she would get to work and pass me. About 5 miles from the end of her race, I was going uphill and heard her signature “up, up, up” behind me. She came by and I urged her to “Go get ‘em!”. No need, as it turned out. She won her age group by half an hour.
Oh cruel fate, there was an aid station right next to the finish line and I had to do another 20K yet. Oh well, all in a day’s work. I was feeling pretty good. A little stressed, but well past halfway, wondering if I would see any runners at all during the remainder of the race. Well, here was one already. A young woman running without a bottle. She confessed to having left it at home, and was having to do all her drinking at the aid stations. I had been throwing back a couple of cups of flat coke myself at each stop, which answered another ultra question. What’s so good about flat coke? It’s the nectar of the gods. I left her behind on a downhill and was alone for a while. Still hammering those downhills.
I was still feeling OK at this point. A little stressed, but nothing out of the ordinary for the second half of a race. The pace felt natural now. As I got to mile 20 or so, the downhills became less comfortable, but it was a very gradual thing, no “wall” or anything like that.
I was keeping an eye on the Garmin as 26.2 miles approached. I missed the actual number because a rocky downhill was engaging my attention as the mark was passed. This was now my longest ever run, let alone race. I punched the air and let out a quiet “Yay!” Despite the fact that I was still jogging most of the uphills, I was fading quite a bit. The downs were becoming painful to my knees, although it was my quads that were getting the battering. The sensible approach for a non-goal race would be not to push hard against this, just plug away till the end. I would recover more quickly that way. The hills would not really let me do this though. There was nothing really steep enough to justify walking up, and I just had to grit my teeth for the downs. Three runners passed me in the last five miles but that was OK. I was going to finish.
And finish I did, in 5:35:01. A small group of people by the line whooped each runner in, and the RD told me I had come third in my age group. This was a slip, since I was listed 4th in the posted results. Oh well. I felt pretty bleh for the rest of the day, and my quads were extremely sore the next two days. Plainly recovery would take a while. Will I run another? Ask me again in a few months.