Monday, October 12, 2009

2009 Firetrails 50 Recap

The details of the days prior to the race mostly consist of the same old, “I trained, I carbed up, and I showed up”. However, one of the more interesting things that played into my approach to this race was the cancellation of the Angeles Crest 100 in mid/late September. Without a race since Badwater in July, I saw Firetrails as an excellent benchmark race going into the Javelina 100 on Halloween and CIM in December. With the three week gap between Firetrails and Javelina, it was more than enough time to recover fully from a 100% effort.

In support of my effort, I got Uncle Andy to handle crewing until Skyline Gate (mile 37 aid station) where my wife Wilma and brother-in-law Wilfred would take over. Wilfred ran his first marathon in January and since then, has added two other marathons to his “running resume” including a PR at the San Francisco Marathon of 3:55 in August where I ran with him the final 10 miles. Uncle Andy has crewed me at numerous races and although this race doesn’t require a crew, his and Wilma’s services to pre-prepare water bottles with NUUN water as well as GU tucked into the bottle holders would prove invaluable at helping me shave precious minutes off of my final time.

The morning of the race, Uncle Andy and I arrived at Lake Chabot just before 6 am for a 6:30 am start. Having been up since 4:15 am with 5.5 hours of sleep the night before, I was surprised with how energized I felt in the morning. Usually, I’m a sleep-walking zombie clamoring for that last few minutes of sleep. I didn’t want to speak to many people before the race because that would eventually lead to conversations about what I’m shooting for and what’s my game plan. I didn’t need to rehash what I had been obsessing about for a week and I felt like most of the pre-race small talk would take my focus away. I just wanted to start running and start hitting those time splits I had printed out onto my homemade pacing band on my right wrist.

Going into Firetrails, I talked about using the previous year’s splits of another runner; that runner was Ron Guiterrez. I wanted to use as a starting point the splits of someone who was consistent in their performance. Even though I felt like he’d be a better climber than I based on sharing a short segment of one of my runs on the Headlands trails with him, I felt that my performance on the flats and downhills would even it out. Even though I wasn’t sold on using Ron as my “standard-bearer”, I felt I at least had a decent shot to hit them based on 2 key double-digit mile runs on key segments of the course to gauge my fitness against the splits. It also sounds rather weird to be using someone’s ghost from 2 year prior as my performance guage without telling them. Hehe. Oh well. I’m sure there’s a more calculated way to predict performance, but this is a start. :)

With the ultimate ultramarathoning couple Ann Trason (14-time women’s champion at Western States including 10 consecutive) and Carl Anderson (record holder on numerous ultra courses) to set us on our way, we would be in good hands with experienced volunteers to greet us ever step of the way. Just to boot, there was incredible swag and BBQ spread awaiting us at the finish to look forward to. I tucked myself into the third row of runners at the beginning of the bike path around Lake Chabot, inconspicuously blending away in the sea of headlamps. I turned the iPod on softly to keep tabs on the countdown. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go! We were off into the coming dawn, a sea of humanity released from behind the dam.

I tried to keep myself from getting sucked in to the plethora of runners who always seem to push forward in the first couple of miles before settling in. After the first half mile, I started to quietly wade through the crowd. Up ahead, in a red and white singlet, was my good friend and training buddy Rick. Rick is known to be deliberately slow in the first ¼ of races only to surge ahead later in races. I had been in races past where I’d gone out too fast, only to be passed by Rick later in the race. While I probably have greater linear speed, Rick’s discipline and strength late in races are to be desired. I parked next to him briefly before he said the one thing I think I needed to hear. “Kill it.”

Two simple words that seemed to release me from going out too slow and emboldened me to take my 2009 surge to a new level, which started at the Angel Island 50k in late June and continued at Badwater in July. I can’t completely put my finger on it, but I’d compare it to an experienced competitor putting on the stamp of validity on your own race plan. I like to pride myself on running my own race and having my own internal fortitude, but even the recent successes came with the asterisk of not pulling all the way through at the end which relatively detracted from the overall result. I felt like I had never run a full race. Crazy, huh?

With that, I was off but still patient in my approach. I moved swiftly through the flats and downhills while employing the standard intermittent run/walk on the hills. The greater the grade, the more power walking to be done. Approaching the second aid station Bort Meadows at mile 7.9, I passed a couple more runners on a mild grade climb who came out of the chute wayyyy to hard. My band had 1:03; I came rolling through at 1:01:30. Right on target.

The next section takes a long, methodical 1.2ish mile uphill followed by a short 0.3 mile flat section before a mile-long screaming downhill. It was here that I started to settle in, passing a few more folks before beginning the day long duel with Greg Katzbauer, better known as “Red” to me for his red cutoff technical shirt since I didn’t know his name until after the race. He was moving slightly better than me on the downhills while I was faster on the ups. After hitting McDonald Gate at mile 10.5 at 1:23 still 2 minutes ahead of the band, about a mile worth of rolling ups and downs before opening up on a larger fireroad leading to Stream Trail in the valley of Redwoods behind the Oakland Hills. With Red out in front of me and Victor Ballesteros (who finished 11th at Western States, 2nd at Miwok 100k and winner of numerous 50k events) a little ways past, we continued to make good time. We passed one other runner, Ron Guiterrez, who I chatted with briefly before creating some separation focusing solely on Red and Victor in the distance. This was probably the first time I realized I was really in The Race. I figured Victor was probably running 3rd with Chikara Omine and Dave Mackey off like banchees out of sight since the start. In my head, I did the math placing Red in 4th place and myself and Ron tied for 5th place. However, the competitive aspect was still about hitting splits rather than chasing individual runners. I merely using these other runners to help pull me along as long as the pace felt sustainable.

Red and I passed each other before the final mile long climb to the Skyline Gate aid station off of Skyline Blvd. along the Oakland ridgeline. Knowing that I would get into the aid station at 15 miles below my pacing split of 2:03, I relented a bit on the final 0.25 miles of climbing to come in at 2:00:30. While Red went off to the left to the aid station table, I grabbed a fresh water bottle of NUUN water with gels loaded in the carrier and gave him my empty one as I scooted off.

We continued to trade places through Sibley Preserve (mile 18.4) and then the Tilden Park Steam Train aid station at mile 21.7. Each section was marked by a shaded downhill into a green valley before gradually climbing back up again. The cool morning mist kept things rather comfortable while waiting for the impending sunshine. I met Uncle Andy again at Tilden Park, quickly swapping water bottles with carriers and barely glancing at the aid station volunteers before announcing my number while leaving. I was 5.5 minutes ahead of the pace band at about 3:00:30 and still feeling solid in spite of a little stomach instability caused by the gel only approach. Popping a few Pringles and a quick switch to the Chocolate Outrage GU instead of Vanilla helped to settle it down quickly.

A windy 0.5 mile climb up a paved road gives way to another 0.5 mile downhill before opening up on fireroads which wind quickly downhill with a couple gradual hills to Lone Oak campground and the 26 mile aid station. At the top, I even tried to make small talk with Red with a “Getting Hot” comment while smiling as the sun started to shine overhead. The lack of response was like, “Ok, guess he’s not the talkative type”. About this time, we also encountered the marathon runners who started from Lone Oak 2.5 hours after we started the 50 miler. I gave a few of them “Good job”s and gave my running friend Joe Kelso a fist bump and a smile as I descended and he ascended a cruising rate of speed. He knew I was having a good day already, ready to keep rocking the course. At times, I even let myself go while aligning my arms like the wings of an airplane. I hit the 26 mile mark (which ended up being the turnaround on this mostly out n' back course (except for a slightly modified finish as compared to the out bound starting section) at just a shade under 3:35 and still 5 minutes ahead of schedule.

After an unusual 1 minute long pit stop due to a refueling issue, I finally got back on the trail back up to Steam Trains. One of the interesting features of the race is that with an out and back, you get to see all your pursuers come towards Lone Oak while you’re climbing the hill back to Steam Trains and guesstimate your gap on them. Ron came by about 1 and a half minutes after leaving Lone Oak, which represented approximately a 2.5 to 3 minute gap (considering I was going up at a slower pace than they were going down). I briefly lamented taking the full minute at Lone Oak, but didn’t dwell on it further while focusing on getting up the hill and hitting that next split.

About the time I got to the top of the hill along the ridge and began the windy 0.5 mile descent to Steam Trains, I started thinking about Red again. 30 miles into the race, I gave myself a minute to think about the what ifs. Before this race had even begun, I thought a 7:25 would be good for a top 10, but even I had told a couple co-workers that a top 5 was a stretch. Here I was with 20 miles to go, 5th place in hand and 4th place up ahead a little ways. This felt good; this felt really good. I was just going to keep cranking the tunes and trying to hit the splits. After meeting Uncle Andy at Steam Trains for one last exchange, I was still only 4:22:30 into the race, 4.5 minutes ahead of the pace split. The split difference was tightening, creating a dual race against the clock and Red.

At Sibley, I found out I was about 10 minutes back of Red and 3.5 minutes ahead of the pace split before narrowing the gap with Red to 8 minutes at the 37 mile Skyline Gate aid station and expanding my lead over the faceless pace split to around 6 minutes at 5:23ish on the clock. I came down the 0.15 mile road leading to the aid station on the ridge with a big grin on my face, cognizant that for once, I was doing what I set out to do. I told Wilma and Wilfred I’d be there by noon and it was now coming to pass. I switched to a full water bottle/carrier with NUUN and Chocolate GU with Wilma while grabbing a couple of GU Chomps to chow on from her hands. I shouted to my ultra running friend Steve, who was working the aid station, “What place am I in?”

“Fifth”, he replied with a smile. “You’re doing awesome”. I gave him my thanks and let out a “Let’s Go!” as Wilfred and I descended into the redwood forest below. Wilfred and I methodically moved through the valley floor, clocking sub-8:30 minute miles as we cruised along. I just needed to keep moving and keep seeing sub-9:00 min/mile paces on my GPS watch, that is when I actually got signal. The Garmin kept intermittently going out of GPS signal, but that feeling of constantly moving well kept me from feeling that I might be off-pace. The need to be reaffirmed by a GPS was no longer there. The quick hitting intervals between aid stations gave me all the feedback I needed.

I smiled broadly, chatting briefly with Wilfred as the miles ticked away. I balanced the desire to push with the desire to maintain a constant pace. I wanted that finishing time more than I wanted that chase. Ignited by that constant motivation to “Kill It” and the mix of Gospel, Hip-Hop and Hard Rock blaring through my iPod, I knew I needed to finish strong. At times, Wilfred fell behind my pace but was still able to catch up. There was no time to wait; it was "GO" time.

I ended up maintaining the 6 minute cushion on the pace splits with an average 9 min/mile pace going into the 41.5 mile McDonald Gate aid station (and 8.5 miles to go) while again chopping Red’s advantage on me to 5 minutes. I just had to keep pushing with the final monster mile long, several hundred foot climb waiting to tear me down. With 2.6 miles total until the next aid station at Bort Meadows, I just wanted to keep moving.

The climb to the top of the hill out of McDonald was long and hot. The weather in the East Bay was heating up into the 70s and the highly exposed fire trails allowed the sun to bear down. Wilfred quickly fell behind but continued to encourage me to keep pushing forward. The pace splits called for an almost 11 minute/mile average in this section, about the same as the section from Lone Oak up to Steam Trains. I knew if I could just keep my feet moving, I still could move swiftly enough over the last 1.5 miles. I mostly power walked, with small sections of running. I kept looking back, for both Wilfred as well as Ron. I had done well to keep moving up to this point, but I knew I was leaving time on the course by intermittently walking some uphill sections of the smaller roller hills. I kept encouraging some of the marathoners I passed by, blasting "Remember The Name" by Fort Minor on the iPod. This was the 5% pleasure and 50% pain.

Before I knew it I was at the top of the hill 15 minutes later. I quickened my turnover and pace as soon as the hill flattened and the terrain took on a greater and greater downhill slant. 10 minute miles, 9 minute miles, 8 minute miles, 7 minute miles. On tired legs, I use downhills as a way to overcome inertia and generate the energy needed to lengthen the stride and get moving faster. I only looked back a couple of times without seeing Wilfred. Just focus on what's ahead, forgetting what is behind is all I told myself.

Slipping through the cow gate to the parking lot aid station at Bort Meadows at the 6:32 mark of the race, I saw Wilma there waiting for me with a new bottle and GUs. The aid station folks let me know I was still a number of minutes behind Red (they never said exactly). Still, I had a 6 minute cushion on my pacing splits and the end seemed closer than ever with only 5.9 miles to go! After chopping down on a few more Pringles for a couple of seconds, I began walking backwards away from the aid station. I was ready to go but there was no Wilfred.

Just as I thought that, Wilfred was slipping through the cow gate and getting a refill on his bottle. I quickly pipped in, "Come on", waving my hands for Wilfred to come. I wanted to go! I laughed briefly before he came over 20-something seconds later. One of the aid station volunteers briefed me on the race up front so far, walking with Wilfred and I for 45ish seconds as we left the aid station. Soon, we were off and running. This section was shorter on the way to the finish than on the way out, with mostly flat and downhill terrain. The trail quickly closed to a lush, moist area covered in vegetation. Once at the final aid station with 3 miles to go, it would open up to a fire trail with 3 miles to go and then to a bike path over the last couple of miles to the finish on the lawn at the Marina.

I only needed to average sub-9:00 minute miles to achieve the 7:25 finish, and 8:00 minute miles would get me a 7:19-7:20 finish. If I could do either of these things, I would probably maintain my top 5 finish. I kept eating the GU and felt like I was moving briskly, but still the GPS was only giving me readings of 9:00-10:00 minute miles. It even went as high as 12:00 minute miles, which I thought was probably an aberration due to the vegetation cover. Minutes ticked away as one turn lead to another, only to lead to yet another turn and more trail to run. Wilfred was now gone, a ghost runner pushing me forward with the mere idea of his presence. He had gotten me through the hardest hill and although he planned on making it through to the end, I had completely out run him with only the end driving me forward.

I kept glancing at my watch as the minutes ticked away. 6:42, 6:47, 6:52, 6:57. Closer and closer, I kept hoping that the next corner would be the aid station, only to be greeted by more trail and another blind corner. 6:58, 6:59. Then, there it was. 7 hours and 30 seconds on the race clock and the aid station personnel 50 feet ahead. rounding the corner, I shouted my race number, "108!", before kicking it into gear to the last 3 mile stretch. I was now only 1.5 minutes ahead of the pacing splits.

Out of the dense foliage, I popped out onto the fire trails and soon I saw Lake Chabot once again. Just hang on, I thought. Just hang on. I wasn't thinking much about Red, who I hadn't seen in almost 20 miles. I was still chasing 2007 Ron and that 7:25 goal, while being chased by 2009 Ron. Once on the road, my stride opened with 2.5 miles to go and the miles kept clicking off as I crossed the dam and followed the path adjacent to the lake's west edge.
I must've watched every 0.2 miles on my watch go by, but with the end so near the pain had subsided to a mere annoyance. 7:10, 7:15, 7:20. With every 0.2 miles to go by, the threat of 2009 Ron catching me faded and the closer I was getting to 2007 Ron. With about 0.7 miles to go, I still needed a strong finish.

Bearing down with my eyes forward looking for the grass ending, I thrust my arms while moving faster and faster. Sub-8:00 min/miles, sub 7:30 min/miles, and then sub 7:00 min/mile pace. More and more people appeared, letting me know how close I was. Elation and soreness overcame my body, each one pushing me further. I was so close to tasting a job well done and ending the perpetual soreness that was enveloping my leg muscles.

Then, it happened. To the left came the green lawn and the large race clock came in view. "7:25:35". I thrust my arms wildly in a full sprint with my chest and head forward from my torso. Go, go, go. With hands raised, I crossed the finish line in 7:25:58. A couple steps beyond the finish, I collapsed to the grass. I had done it. Officially, 5th place overall out of 231 starters. I ended up 5 minutes out of 4th place. It was by far my most complete race effort ever from beginning to end. Not a bad day's work and hopefully it portends of more to come as I get another step closer to my goals and dreams.

"Are you OK?", people asked.

"Yeah, I'm OK", I replied.

"He does this at every ultra. He's OK", Wilma quickly chimed in. I turned over and smiled.


Victor Ballesteros said...

Hey Jonathan,
Nice race and report! Way to race 'Ron07'. I'm not sure if you've ever read Mark Tanaka's Firetrails race report from 07- where he writes about racing against Ron, but it's pretty funny. Anyway it was great to see you at the turn around. I would have stuck around to say hi after the race, but I had to take off.
Congrats with the finish, I'll see you on the trails.

Rick Gaston said...

Man, you rocked that race. You pulled away and never looked back. When I saw you at the halfway point I was rooting for you to keep the intensity and speed all the way back to the finish. Sounds like your aid station stops were quick too even with the full minute at Lone Oak. Ron was less than 2 minutes back right? You held him off. So it was you they were talking about who collapsed at the finish. I was told it was the 4th place guy. Awesome, awesome race. Did you ever tell Ron you used his splits?

Billy Burger said...

An inspiring kick-ass race Gunderson. Great report and run brother - way to rock the course!