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.

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