Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Skyline To The Sea 50k

Going into the Skyline To The Sea 50k, I expected that this would be a fast race. With 3000’ of climbing and 5500’ of descent through the Redwoods on the Skyline to The Sea trail, it had the look of a race that would test my quads as well as my ability to maneuver on tight, steep trails. I had been warned ahead of time by Rick to position myself well from the outset since the single track trails would get tight early and often before opening up onto a few scattered fireroads in the middle. It ultimately opens up at the bottom of the hills where the final 5 miles is mostly flat and rolling fireroad with a few single track connector trails thrown in.

My initial expectations were to go for a Top 5 finish under 4 hours. It had been 3 weeks since the Lake Sonoma 50 and I felt that much of the residual effect of the calf strain which limited my training from early February through late March. The only thing that concerned me going in was a sporadic bout of inflammation in my PF which caused some minor discomfort. In order to finish well, a major key would be my ability to manage the race on a course that I had never run before. I wanted to give myself a shot to let the wheels go over the last 1/3 of the race. I spent some time before the race looking at the elevation charts and a few previous race reports to identify key climbs and key descents. There are three major climbs to take note of: 1) Just after the first aid station for 1000 ft., 2) The Gazos Creek loop from miles 16-20 and 3) Mile 22ish, during the final long stretch down to the ocean.

One of the more deceptive features of this course is its endless array of obstacles (fallen trees, rocks, etc.) and tight trails which can take away straightaway speed at times and can act as a detriment to runners who haven’t run it or seen it previously. While the quick drops can help a runner pick up a good amount of speed in a hurry, they often leave you with the choice to treat upcoming obstacles with a) respect, for fear of injury or b) indifference, looking for the quickest route past. While this description shouldn’t deter a runner from embracing the challenge of this race in a fabulous natural setting, it will at least inform you that in order to do well one needs to be proficient at making quick decisions with their feet.

After a relaxing Sunday morning drive (courtesy of my wife) with Rick and Billy to the starting area at Saratoga Gap, a nervous energy came over me while waiting for the race to start. It’s that anticipation of racing again, knowing that for the next 4 hours I would be focused and zoned in on simply moving through the redwoods with a smooth, consistent effort. The time I had spent studying the course and putting together my splits would be put to the test. It’s one thing to study an elevation profile; it’s a whole other thing to study a course in person.

After a quick 5 minute warm-up followed by a brief stretching session, I was ready to go. Once the pre-race briefing was completed, we were off down the trail. I had the gospel and rock blaring in the earphones and I was ready to go. The course began on a downhill slope with the trail narrowing to single-track for 6.5 net downhill miles (1000 ft. of elevation drop) to the first aid station. There is enough room to pass for at least the first couple of miles. I was in the 7th or 8th position, although the number of runners also included those in the marathon race. Leor Pantilat took the lead from the outset and slowly distanced himself as the redwood forests with its myriad of twists and turns made it difficult to see very far. In the early 2-3 miles, I let me legs go on the downhills and ultimately moved up to share the 2nd position with Kevin Swisher. He and I were only about 10-15 seconds ahead of a main chase pack of 4-6 runners, but continued to maintain our distance in the early going.

As we wound our way through quite a bit of hanging brush in particularly windy section on the hillside, my headphone cord kept getting knocked to the left or right. At one point, 19 minutes into the race, the cord came undone completely. I looked down quickly and though I had lost my iPod. I stopped, allowing Kevin to pass in order to look for it quickly. Within 10-15 seconds, I was passed by the train of other runners in the main pack. All in all, I spent a minute and a half looking for that darn iPod only to feel embarrassed to see it still clipped to my shorts.

As I started up again, I found myself alone in my own space. In one way, I considered it a bit of a blessing which forced me to focus on my own race. I didn’t feel particularly inspired to be out front, since I tend to run best at the back of a pack and don’t like the feeling of being pushed on a course which I had never seen before.

However, being in your own space brings with it other challenges. I had no one else around me with which to judge my pace against. Keeping contact with the main pack would also help me keep my fellow competitors (particularly those who were veterans on the course) in sight. This could have been a valuable resource since my Garmin had been reduced to a big stopwatch by the tree cover overhead. At that point, I just kept moving and figured that I simply needed to work on my own race.

One rather harrowing moment was having to cross Highway 9 in order to continue on the trail. A number of cars zoomed pass me, including a red Lotus, which had no intention of ever stopping. It took 15 seconds before I had an opportunity to cross. When I did, I put me head down in a full sprint to avoid becoming the latest road kill.

About a mile out from the aid station, I came up on the first runner who had passed me. He looked as if he had slowed significantly and I quickly moved past on the slightly uphill slope on the edge of a small basin. Coming into Aid Station #1, I was right on time at 46 minutes sharp. I was in fairly good condition and kept this stop brief in order to grab a couple of gels and get my bottle refilled. A big advantage of coming into the aid station alone was the ease of which I was able to get in and out quickly. 15 seconds later, I was off to tackle a 1000 ft. climb before descending again into Aid Station #2 4.7 miles later.

This 1000 ft. of climbing in the second section really highlighted one of weaknesses exposed with a calf that I didn’t have 100% confidence in. I allowed the psychology of being alone to somewhat dictate my physical exertion and walked steeper portions of the climb. It was a bit of downer, wondering if any of the other front runners had chosen to walk during these small sections. I was fatigued, but generally considered that to be par for the course since I tend to get into a groove after mile 10. While I was able to push through that fatigue at times, I clearly allowed it to take me out of my game in the early going.

Once I reached the top, I once again took off on soft, slowly rolling downhill before a quick climb to the 2nd aid station. The soft surface, blanketed by pine needles, provided a needed rest bit absorbing the impact of the downhill. My PF was giving me some minor discomfort, so the soft surface seemed to calm it down. I came up upon another runner during this section, a young Indian runner who was running the marathon. He was one of the first to pass me when I was looking for my iPod and looked as if he was pushing for a podium finish. After exchanging pleasantries as I passed, he kept fairly close to me for the remainder of the section.

I eased into Aid Station #2 at mile 11.2 in 1:28, about 5 minutes off of my appointed goal time. I knew that I had lost time with that walking episode, but was generally ok with the early paces. I needed to continue to work within myself to maintain a good rate of speed overall. I picked up another couple of gels and some water before scampering away for this long 4.6 mile downhill jaunt to the bottom of another basin. Two other 50k runners came up on us, leaving the aid station just after I did.

The four of us continued to push the pace as the top half of this section was filled with major rock formations and narrower trails. On a couple of occasions, I had to catch myself before sliding down the slick and sometimes wet rocks. You could tell a number of these formations had been there awhile

About 1/3 of the way through, I allowed the three runners behind me to pass as I re-tied my shoelaces (which would happen another couple of times). We continued to stay fairly tight together, although I dropped back somewhat when I fell on my backside prior to a creek crossing. I got a bit frustrated with my early pace, imploring myself to keep at it.

The section ends in a basin which was filled with numerous mud puddles, roots and large logs. The roots blend in quite well, which is a big reason I did a face plant at one point onto the trail. I was shaken a bit as I wiped the front of my sleeveless shirt, but all in all found the experience to be a bit of an awakening. Besides, this is a trail run so you need to get dirty every once in awhile. I also got onto my hands and knees to quickly slide under some of the logs. It was about then that I was starting to enjoy this race, which was starting to resemble an adventure races as much as anything else.

To my surprise, I entered aid station #3 at Gazos Creek in 2:02, which was now only 2 minutes off my pre-race goal splits (for a 3:50ish). I felt like I was losing time, but apparently I was picking it up once again. It was a pleasant surprise, putting me at 7:20ish min./mile clip for the last section. After a quick check-in with volunteer and trail runner extraordinaire Will Gotthardt, I departed northbound (the race goes east to west) on the 4.5 mile loop back to the aid station.

While leaving, I saw one of the 2- 50k runners in a yellow SCRC (Santa Cruz?) singlet who had passed me earlier. The third person, being a marathoner, had already departed not needing to do this add-on loop. I surmised that I was probably around 7th or 8th place and would probably need to pass at least two more runners to ensure a top 5 finish. We were now beginning the second of the three major climbs and this one also brought with it 1000’ of climbing. We started out on a fire road for less than a mile, which is a nice and steady grade. Fire roads are much easier to climb due to the firmness of footing and general predictability of the grade which allows a runner to get into a rythym.

I kept a steady rythym as my legs started to feel warm again. I sort of lost sight of the overall time goal, although I figured if I could get back to the aid station at 2:45 with 10.5ish miles to go that I would have a fighting chance at a sub-4 hour finish based upon the final section’s layout. Although the splits were developed with 3:50 in mind, they left a fair amount of buffer to shoot for that 4 hour time. Although I ran quite a bit of the uphills, I still walked the fairly steep grades near the top. The course opens up on another fire road near the top where the route gets fairly exposed. While most exposed sections are loathed by runners looking to stay cool on an otherwise warm day as this, it was a very nice change. The damp, cool air below the redwoods’ canopy had given way briefly to the warm, bright glow from the sun up above.

Eventually, a sharp turn off the fire road led to 2 mile stretch begun with a sharp, steep downhill and ending with a return to 1.5 mile rolling flats that we originally came into Gazos Creek aid station on. It was during this stretch that I had a chance to say hi to Steve Ansell and Harry Walther, who had yet to come into the aid station the 1st time to begin their loop. Steve and Harry looked good for a couple of guys who had run 50k prior to the race as training for an upcoming 100 miler. Steve asked me what place I was in, to which I replied that I didn’t know.

Shortly before I polished off the section, I finally passed that 50k runner in yellow, Stefano Parsado. I came into Gazos Creek at 2:45 with at least a shot at 4 hours. While I had fallen off the goal time of 2:36 (for a 3:50 overall) by 9 minutes, I still had a shot if I could get moving in a hurry. 30 seconds later, I was gone with 3 gels in my pocket and full water bottle. I knew I would probably have to be careful with the fluid intake with 9 miles until the final aid station and 10.5 miles total until the finish line.

Well, whatever visions I had of averaging 7:06 min./mile for this last section vanished when faced with the final long uphill climb that lasted for about a mile. I just couldn’t seem to get into a rythym and I decided to slow down in order to protect the right calf. Fortunately, once at the top of the climb, I knew the rest of the race would be a 3 mile downhill followed by 5ish miles on mostly rolling fire roads to the finish.

I had to stop a couple more times to take care of a loose shoelace as well as another faceplant. This final downhill is sharp and steep, punctuated by numerous obstacles. I was jumping over, under and sometimes around huge fallen trees and tree stumps. Other sections had fallen rock on the path, creating a potential slipping hazard with those that were wet. I rather enjoyed this section, taking care not to fall as I moved methodically to try and catch up to 1 or 2 others.

People on the trail told me I was 2-3 minutes behind the next runner, so I continued to try and gain time by jumping up and over obstacles every chance I got. At times, I had to be careful with quite a few Team In Training hikers along the trail. They looked at me inquisitively, probably wondering why I was moving so quickly on the narrow trails in this hiker’s paradise. I was in a hurry, but never in such a hurry that I got close to knocking anyone over. They seemed to know when to pull to one side or the other and I respected them by taking care to be deliberate with my own movements.

Once at the bottom and on the fireroad, I knew that I needed to get to the final aid station at 3:50 in order to get in under that 4 hour barrier. As the minutes rolled away, it seemed less and less likely. I had no Garmin reading and although I was moving quickly and smoothly, every turn seemed to lead nowhere on the endless road with limited forward vision. My fluids had long been tapped and my mouth was getting parched, although my gels were keeping me fueled sufficiently.

Passing one more marathoner, I cruised into the final aid station at the 4:02 mark to fill up on some electrolytes and down one final gel quickly. The quick 20 second stop was just enough to put my electrolytes back in balance once again. I took the next few minutes to marvel at the cool breezes and rustling trees signaling that the ocean was upon me.

With a half a mile to go on the final long straightaway, I finally spotted the next runner. It was too late for a pass, but I kicked it in strong finishing in 4:13 and good for 6th place overall. Not exactly the race I was thinking about, but still a good step towards restoring my lost endurance from injury. I needed that kind of race to get me back into the mindset of running fast, which requires strong, explosive calves rather than the passivity I’d been accepting during training lately.

Some of the key takeaways is the need over the next 2 weeks to loosen up my calves and my PF in the foot. I think the confidence to run up the hills I need to run at Miwok in order to hit 8:5x:xx will be huge. I’ve run a number of hills in training and the general strength is there; I just need to confidence to come through when it counts. Running at least 30+ miles for my long run each of the last 5 weeks (starting just before Lake Sonoma) is finally giving me the endurance back that I lost during that 6 week calf strain recovery period.

I don’t think the mental games that I allowed to plague me at this race will crop up at Miwok. I know the course inside and out and should be able to anticipate each and every turn, uphill and downhill. Knowing a course and the type of effort your body will tolerate as it progresses through that course can be a significant advantage. The best runners can often “feel their way” through a course, always tuned in to the subtle physiological cues about when to fuel, when to hydrate, when to back down and when to speed up. I don’t remember the last time I saw an elite marathoner wearing a Garmin on their hand. I feel like the additional miles I’ve put in on my long runs will ultimately lead to a much more relaxed and well-paced raced in 2 weeks. I’m going to need it at Miwok, which is a much more stacked race to score a Top 10 finish as compared with Firetrails 50, Rocky Raccoon 100 or Skyline To The Sea 50k. While somewhat disappointed in the consistency of my effort, I know that my time is coming and that I just need to keep working hard to meet it.

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