Friday, April 20, 2018

Gnarly - The Napa Valley 50K

gnarl·yˈnärlē/NORTH AMERICANinformaldifficult, dangerous, or challenging

I signed up for this a few weeks back as I was looking for a 50K three or four weeks out from the Canyons 100K coming up on April 28th.  I didn’t know anything about it, and hadn’t run on the trails up there at all.  But I could see from the elevation profile and 7,500’ of elevation gain and loss that it would be a tough one that should give me a good opportunity to get some climbing and descending in.  It also was an out and back course with the start/finish in downtown Calistoga, so instead of telling Heather I was taking off for an entire Saturday for a race I got to tell her I was taking her to wine country for the weekend….but I’d be gone for a “few hours on Saturday”.
7,500'  of ups and downs

A few days before the race I came across a link to a race report from last year’s inaugural event.  It was written by the female winner Penny Macphail (so by definition a bad ass) and included the following:

 " ....just fantastic, weird ' is this a trail?' running. You are leaping and bounding and slathering around rocks and creeks.  At times you are in dark, cool shadows, diving though rocky caverns, ducking around and under achingly beautiful twisted trees......stunning high drama vistas of craggy mountains stretching for miles should you dare to look up and take your eyes off your feet for a second....It's interesting how exhausting this stuff is mentally, I had to remind myself to breathe and unclench my teeth now and again I was concentrating so hard..."

That description of how technical portions of the race were got my attention, so I started looking at the finish times from last year and digging into to compare those runners’ times to other 50Ks they’d run.  Across the board, it was considerably slower.  This thing was going to be tough.  Instead of a six to seven hour day (pretty much the range of my previous 50Ks), I was looking at eight to nine hours!  A little more than I bargained for, but too late now.

First ten miles

After a few words from the race director we were off for about a half mile on the streets of Calistoga before heading up the trail.  My goal for the day was to 1) finish healthy and 2)…well, that was pretty much it.  Keep the real goal in mind, a 100K race (and Western States qualifier) in three weeks.  My calf has recovered pretty well but I’ve been fighting some mild plantar fasciitis, so that was the major concern – do no harm.  I settled in to a power hike as we headed up a fire road that after about three miles became more of a rocky doubletrack trail.  It continued to get rockier, and then we took a turn on to the “Palisades Trail”. 

Old school, low key start
It began innocently enough, some technical sections, mud, and while we got a break and the forecasted rain had stopped Friday night, the 3”-4” that had fallen the previous day was absolutely pouring down the trail.  I guess that’s what the RD meant by “these trails drain well”.  I might have said “these trails are the drain”, but that’s just semantics, I suppose.  We got to the first aid station at mile 6 or so and it was perched up on the edge of a cliff, and there was the previous-year’s winner, Penny.  She cracked jokes, took pictures (with her rubber chicken in frame), and sent us off on a section of trail that I can only describe as “gnarly”.  Barely-there muddy trail carved into the side of the mountain.  Crawling around boulders and trees.  Rocky sections that required lots of careful foot placements.  Waterfalls.  You know a trail is technical when your fingernails are dirty.  But the views were just incredible, as several times I came to a stop, in complete awe. 

Starting to get rocky

Having fun at the aid station, and a rubber chicken.  pc Penny Macphail
There's a trail there?

Hard to race and take pics, but those views!

We then came upon a section of huge lava flows, weathered by centuries of wind and water, that you had to pick your way across.  A final descent led us down to the aid station around mile 10 and the base of the major climb in the race.  It had taken me 3:15 to cover the 10+ miles, and I was starting to worry that this was going to be a 9-10 hour effort out here!

Working my way down the lava

The middle ten

But this section of the race turned out to be the easy part, as after a short technical climb we were on fire road for most of the 5 mile climb to the top of Mt. St. Helena. It was a nice and steady grade made for power hiking (or running for those beasts a few hours in front of me), so I just geared down and grinded the thing out.  A quick pic at the top, with unfortunately no views to speak of due to the (cold) fog, and then it was a long downhill run back to mile 20.  It’s the longest, easily runnable descent I’ve experienced in the Bay Area, and I may have to work it in to future quad-toughening training sessions.  Thanks to some 9-10-11 minute miles the middle ten miles was a full hour quicker than the first 10, putting me back at the aid station about 5:30 in, a time in a “normal” 50K that would have me in the final few miles. 
Proof I made the summit.  

Great runnable downhill section on Mt. St. Helena.  pc Chihping Fu

...and that first ten miles again

That just left another 10-11 miles of the gnarliest trails in the Bay Area.  But after that strong middle section I was in a pretty good mental space, and I just tried to embrace it.  It wasn’t even “the suck” I was embracing, as I just decided to have as much fun as I could out there, which was much easier knowing exactly what I was in for.  It was some slow going (23 and 24 minute miles????), but after getting through the mile 25 aid station and completing the final climb, it was back on to the fire road.  I hooked up with a runner named Scott who was also running Canyons in three weeks, and we settled in to a nice rhythm and knocked out the descent back down on to the streets of Calistoga, and finished strong.  Final time 8:35:29, 36th/50 finishers.
She asked for a flip, I managed a skip.  pc Penny Macphail

All the water
I came out of it feeling pretty good, probably because even though it was such a long day, there was so much hiking.  My foot hurt a few times, mostly during awkward foot plants as I picked my way through the rocks and mud, but it definitely didn't get worse.  The quads had that "good sore" of a solid effort the next day.  So other than the gnarly poison oak I have on both legs and arms, I accomplished exactly what I wanted to with my first big race of the year on the horizon.

All in all a really fun race, on some of the most scenic and challenging trails I've run on in the Bay Area.  Scena Performance put on a great event, the volunteers were amazing, and the beans and rice at the finish were some of the best I've ever had.  This isn't the race to try and set a 50K PR, but if you want to challenge yourself with a great long day on the trails, this is the race.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

2017 Western States - Not as Tough as I Thought

No, no, I'm not talking about the race itself.  Sure, I had heard from ultrarunners I respect that I'd already run "tougher" 100 milers in Cascade Crest and Pine to Palm.  And those races are tough, no doubt.  But Western States, the supposed "easier 100" was in no way that.  I have never had a better training block.  My diet was as good as it's ever been, I followed the Jason Koop plan of intensity earlier in the year and then had my most consistent volume and vertical ever in the two months leading in to Statesmas.   I took into account my racing over the past five years, what I had learned over four years of pacing and crewing this race, analyzing the Ultrasignup and Ultrasplits data, and I just knew I was capable and ready for a finish around twenty-seven hours. I was ready.

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." - Mike Tyson

And then the race started.  Fifteen miles of snow and ice bridges and mud that pulled the shoes off your feet.   It wasn't just me.  All 369 runners got punched right in the mouth.  Any buffer you had against your goals, whether that was a course record, silver buckle, staying ahead of the cutoffs, or my twenty-seven hour goal was simply gone by Red Star Ridge at mile 15.8.  So I found myself in a situation I really didn't imagine, fighting the cutoffs from the start.  But I didn't stress, just like I knew I was in shape for twenty-seven hours, I knew I was tough enough to get this done.  After all, I'd never DNF'd a race.  I've fought wrecked IT bands, trashed quads, a shut down stomach, heat, mud, smoke, and the mountains themselves.  And I'd always made it to the end before the cutoffs.


The University of Kent's Samuele Marcora has published multiple studies that show a common theme - fatigue largely isn't a muscular issue, it's a mental one.  From a December 12, 2014, New Yorker article titled What is Fatigue
"Marcora believes that this limit is probably never truly reached—that fatigue is simply a balance between effort and motivation, and that the decision to stop is a conscious choice rather than a mechanical failure......Considerations like heat, hydration, and muscle conditioning, Marcora says, “are not unreal things, but their effect is mediated by perception of effort.” In other words, they don’t force you to slow down, as happens with the failing frog muscles in the petri dish; they cause you to want to slow down—a semantic difference, perhaps, but a significant one when it comes to testing the outer margins of human capability."
I'd say 100 mile mountain runs in 100+ degree heat qualify for "testing the outer margins of human capability," especially mine.  Thanks largely to the tough conditions in the high country, my goal of a 27 hour finish, one that would have me comfortably ahead of the cutoffs the entire race, was out the window before I hit the fifteen mile mark.  I was behind the average 30-hour finisher splits all day long.  By the time I got to my first pacer, drained from puking on the climb up to Devil's Thumb and another tough climb to Michigan Bluff, I was almost exclusively walking.  I just couldn't run much, I was spent.

With my final pacer.  PC Richard Walstra

But as almost always happens, that external push from Jim got me running a bit more. "Dude, you have to run this part."  I switched pacers at Foresthill and Wally used cajoling and constant pace reminders in an effort to keep me moving faster that I wanted to.  And then Jim picked me up again at the river telling me, "you're probably going to hate me for awhile." He knew he was going to have to push me.  He negotiated, bargained, pleaded, ridiculed, distracted, joked.  Whatever it took to keep me moving faster than I wanted to.  And of course I could.  Oh I was physically fatigued, but my muscles weren't shutting down. "You can puke, but you have to walk while you do it," said Jim at one point Sunday morning near mile 90.  So instead of sitting (again) on the side of the trail, walk I did.  And then I ran, and ran a little more.


Tim Noakes first put forth the Central Governor theory back in the early-2000s.  From an iRunFar article written by Joe Uhan:

"Noakes’s model, the Central Governor Theory, proposes that it is the brain that dictates exercise intensity and duration in order to ensure its own survival.
The brain is inherently selfish: it only cares about itself. It will do anything necessary to ensure it gets a steady flow of oxygen and sugar, and a reliable mechanism for transport. That said, any physical effort that might jeopardize those values will be tightly regulated. If not, the conscious brain might team with the body to literally run itself to death by either destroying skeletal or cardiac muscle, or by starving the nerve tissue of sugar and oxygen."

I feel like I haven't yet shown in a 100 miler that I'm tough enough on my own to overcome my brain, my Central Governor.  So while I'm extremely proud of all of my race finishes, I want to test my own mental toughness, to prove to myself I can push through.  I'm not talking about putting my health at risk, just finding a way to keep moving, keep running when my brain is trying to convince me otherwise.

So with some first-time lottery luck, a few months back I got in to the Angeles Crest 100, solo division.  No crew. No pacer.  Just me and my Central Governor, battling it out.  I'm looking forward to the fight.