Thursday, October 22, 2015

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Miler

I’ve had a hard time this summer and fall trying to decide what to do next, what to commit to.  My initial plan earlier in the summer was to run Mountain Lakes 100M up in Oregon in late September, but it turned out the date didn’t work out.  My running has been as consistent as it’s ever been including six 20 milers and a 50K, and several weeks with 5K-10K of climbing, continuing even without a race on the calendar.  What has been lacking without that focus race has been my diet and nutrition, so I knew I wasn’t in peak shape.  But I still wanted to get in one big effort before the year was up, or I kind of felt like I would be “wasting” the endurance I’ve been building all summer.  So on the last day of registration and six days before the race, I finally pulled the trigger and registered for the Firetrails 50M.

This race was my second 50 miler back in 2013 so I knew it has five good climbs but nothing too steep, and being in the East Bay in early October that heat would be a factor.  It’s an out and back and the biggest climb is coming back out of the turnaround – a 4 mile, 1,250’ slog up mostly exposed fireroad in the heat of the day.  Heat, climbing, exposure, dust – sounds awesome, right?  And it was all exactly what I was looking for.  With my ultimate focus being Western States, opportunities to continue to experiment and gain experience with heat management, long climbs, nutrition, aid station management, etc., were really what pushed me to sign up.  My time in 2013 was 10:55 so I set a stretch goal of 10:00 (that I knew was unlikely with my lack of focus this summer), a backup goal of PRing the course, and as always with an ultra, the ultimate goal of just finishing still upright.  I put together my pace chart with the 9:59 and 10:55 Aid Station splits, assembled drop bags for the turnaround and the finish, and had the gear all ready to go.

Trying not to overpack
Race morning I drove out to Lake Chabot Marina about an hour away while sipping on a coffee and a slurry of UCAN Superstarch and chia seeds, picked up my bib, took care of pre-race bathroom business, and waited for the 6:30 AM start.  It was still a little dark as we gathered near the start, but the first couple of miles are on bike path so I didn’t bother with a light and just settled into an easy pace.  Things felt pretty easy as we hit the first 500’ climb, and I chatted with a few other runners as the sun came up.  It was really muggy, actually foggy and in the mid-60s, so from the start I worked on keeping up on hydration.  I was wearing my Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest with one bottle of sports drink (Tailwind to start, refilling with GU Brew on the course) and the other with water so that I could use it to help keep cool.  My nutrition plan was to aim for about 200-250 calories an hour, and to keep it limited to sports nutrition products for as long as I could to see if that helped prevent the late race stomach issues I’ve had in the past.  This race has 13 aid stations so I figured on one GU gel at each one, take 2-3 more during the few spots on the course where it would take more than an hour to get from one aid to the next, and to just keep drinking sports drink out of the one bottle throughout the day.

Runners in the mist

Things really went according to plan for the first half.  I was moving comfortably at a pace right between the two splits on my pace chart, so I knew that the sub-10 goal wasn’t going to happen.  But that didn’t really bother me as I stayed focused on trying to manage effort, manage heat, manage nutrition, and move efficiently up the trail.  As we made the climb up to the high point of the course in miles 19-22, the leaders in the marathon that started at our turnaround started streaming by.  It’s always inspiring to see those guys and gals at the front of the pack fly up and down the trails.  Up and over the top and down the fireroad to the turnaround was a steady stream of encouragement both ways, and the leaders of the 50M coming back up the hill, running something that most of us would be power hiking.  I’ll never know the fitness it takes to do that.

Singletrack heading up to Steam Trains
I got to the turnaround at Loan Oak at about mile 26 at just under 5:23, a few minutes ahead of my pace from 2013 and feeling good, with my IT bands and quads holding up great down that 1,250’ downhill.  The Aid Station here is a fun Western-theme with a ton of great energy.  Even though it can be hard to appreciate the themes when I’m trying to get in and out quickly, this race has great aid stations and volunteers throughout.  I am always sure to thank everyone, as they put in a ton of time and effort to support the runners.  I haven’t yet done this, but I will be volunteering at a couple races next year to experience that side of things and give back to this sport that I love so much.  I didn’t have crew for this race, but a volunteer brought me my drop bag and I got to work cleaning and re-lubing my feet with Run Goo prior to changing socks.  Pouring water on myself all day to this point had me dealing with wet feet all day, but the Run Goo did a good job of keeping my feet in decent shape.  I refilled the bottles, put ice in my bandana, in my hat, and in my rolled-down arm sleeves, downed a gel, and began the long climb back up to Steam Trains.

Still feeling good early on (photo by Facchino Photography)
I passed probably a dozen runners as I just kept grinding it out for an hour, all while trying to stay cool as the temps were in the 80s by this point.  I got to the Steam Trains Aid Station just shy of the 50K mark in about 6:32, still ahead of my 2013 splits. I loaded up on more ice, popped another gel, filled the bottles, and down the trail I went still feeling good.  About three miles later I hit one of the steeper climbs of the course, not brutal but a good 450’ in about a mile, and for the first time all day I started to struggle.  I was barely managing a power hike, but my breathing was really hard.  I poured water on my head, water on my arm bands, took some GU Brew, but it kept getting worse.  I bent over and put my hands on my knees, and all the people I had passed on the big climb out of Loan Oak came streaming by, with every single one of them asking if I was ok or needed anything (did I mention I love this sport?).  “Yeah, I’m good, just struggling, thanks”.  By the time I reached the top I was lightheaded, and was even experiencing almost a tunnel vision where things in the periphery were a little fuzzy.  I popped an S-Cap thinking it might be electrolyte related, kept pouring water on myself, and kept sipping calories.  But even going downhill I was struggling now, with an almost 16-minute mile split there.  My head started to come back a little as I focused on just making it to the 37-mile aid station at Skyline Gate, where I would either regroup and figure this out or I would have to drop.   To make matters worse I caught my toe and went down, tumbling through the dirt.  I got up and checked to see if I had any injuries and not seeing any blood kept moving.  I finally stumbled into Skyline almost exactly on my 2013 split of about 8:21.

I cooled myself with the ice/sponge bucket, wiping down my face.  I grabbed some Coke and another S-cap, and just sat down for a bit trying to regain composure.  I knew a course PR was now out the window, but after about 10-15 minutes of just sitting there and getting some sugar and salt back in me, my head felt pretty clear so I decided to continue.  I figured if the light-headedness came back, I could either turn around or just drop at the next aid station 4 ½ mostly downhill miles away.  So I got back on the trail and headed down the hill.

Good to be off the ridge lines and back in the shadows of the trees

After my 100 miler last year my buddy Jim put together a race video that captured well the experience and the struggle I had out there.  The song he picked for the second half of the video, covering mile 50 to the finish, was Surrender by Angels and Airwaves.  I had never heard it before, but it’s obviously become one of great meaning to me (just watch from about the 4:50 mark).  Sure enough, 30 seconds after I left the aid station my iPod shuffles a five hour playlist and lands on that song.  “No I, I will not surrender.”  You can’t make this stuff up, and I instantly teared up - followed by laughing out loud and smiling for the first time in a couple of hours.   I knew then that it was going to be a slow time, but I was finishing this thing.

The rest of the race was really pretty uneventful, it was just a matter of moving forward for another three or so hours and getting it done.  I was moving slowly but I was moving, and I was able to keep hydrating, eating, and slowly hiking the ups and slowly running the flats and downs.  The last couple of miles of rolling bike path on pavement kind of suck, and as I was for probably a good third of the race I was completely by myself for most of it.  I actually passed two runners for the first time in hours in the final mile, and tried to run it in strong and crossed the finish in 11:38:45.
Relieved to be finished (photo by Facchino Photography)

I laid down after I crossed the finish and gathered myself for a few minutes.  I got up and took off my shoes (just one small blister), cleaned my feet, changed out of my wet shirt, and kept sipping water and walking around.  My stomach wasn’t ready to partake in a burger or beer yet, so I had some broth that seemed to go down ok.  I gathered my stuff and started to walk toward the car, and all of a sudden the light headed feeling came back and I immediately laid down on the ground.  A volunteer came over to check on me and then brought over a medical volunteer who talked to me for a bit.  As I sat up, out of nowhere I started puking, first the soup I had just put down but then completely emptying my stomach.  Medical brought me some Sprite and a couple of S-caps, and stayed with me for a good twenty minutes to make sure I was ok.  After another ten minutes or so I felt good enough to stand up, and slowly walked the 15 minutes back to my car for the drive home.

So while the race didn’t go as planned, I had seven great hours out there before having to gut out the rest.  My best guess on the problems I had are around electrolytes – I was cramping pretty severely all over when I got home, and I kept taking S-caps for a few hours (along with some pickle juice) until that finally stopped.  I didn’t really take any early in the race, relying upon the GU Brew to get what I thought would be enough.  As a salty sweater, the research by Tim Noakes would seem to indicate that I have plenty of electrolytes on board and don’t need to supplement, but I just don’t think that works for me on a warm day – next time I’ll be doing one per hour from the start and up that to two in the heat of the day.  I also think that as my diet hasn’t been on point the past few months with too many carbs, my fat burning has been suppressed a bit.  This leads to the 200 calories or so I was taking in being probably a little low, so blood sugar may have been a factor as well – especially considering Coke (during) and Sprite (after) both seemed to help.  I think getting back into a more metabolically efficient state and ramping my fat burning back up where it was last summer will make the biggest impact there, as when I try to go above 250 calories per hour during the heat I tend to have stomach issues.

Thanks to Julie Fingar and NorCalUltras for another great event, and a special thanks to all the volunteers out there!