Wednesday, May 19, 2010

2010 Miwok 100k

The anatomy of a good race report is this: It is able to tell the story of your race in a thoughtful, engaging way that makes the reader feel like they were there. I will include splits and goal splits at the end of this report, but the real story for me lies in three key events which I will describe in detail. First, though, a quick summary of the mindset and goal coming into this race.

Coming off a rather vanilla 6th place performance at Skyline To The Sea 50k, I still came into the Miwok 100k with the idea that I wanted to take it to the course. I could not simply sit back on my heels and let the course wear me down, but I needed to assert myself and run with authority. Running with authority means running assertively, particularly in those single-track and small technical sections where it is easy to lolly gag and move gingerly. I needed to run hard, to help further dust off those calves in need of a more serious race to keep the training train rolling. I had a plan for a sub-9 hour race, but having slowly worked my way back from my previous calf strain, I was looking for consistent effort in my climbing as much as anything else. Still, there was the raw realization going in that while I would be very strong on the flats and downhills, the uphills would be where many of the top runners would hold a good advantage on me. If I could limit the lost time on the uphills, I would be in great shape coming back from Bolinas. Having run every section of the course except for a small 2 mile single-track section at the outset, there would be no surprises and no need to worry about anything else other than how I was running. Since Miwok has been a popular race as a precursor to the Western States 100, there are various theories for how one can take their Miwok performance and extrapolate a projected finishing time for States. Most people double their Miwok time, although there seems to be a some amount of variation depending on how one chooses to run Miwok and how well developed is one’s endurance.

I gave myself a range to run within which would tell me if I was on or off-pace. Each range came with it an absolute limit that, based on previous years’ performances, was the theoretical cutoff. I gave myself space to run faster on some sections and slower on others, knowing that my standing relative to the range would depend on the section being run.
The plan was solid and my capabilities had been tested against various sections of the course over the last 2-3 months. While at times during my training I felt incredibly lethargic out there, I had enough excellent runs that tracked well against a couple of other 8:xx:xx performances I was baselining against. It was the same strategy that used going into the Firetrails 50 last year which served me well last October when I cruised to a 7:25, 5th place finish.

The race at Miwok played fairly true to form, highlighting both my weaknesses (uphills) and my strengths (downhills and flats). I kept a brisk pace through the early going, moving continuously on the uphills and slamming the downhills, as I am prone to do. The race played out fairly close to my expectations, minus a few minutes here or there. Having reached Pantoll Ranger Station at mile 21.7 in 2:58, I felt a bit sluggish but nothing of any major concern. I had been drinking copious amounts of fluids and devouring 270-280 calories per hour in GU. Still, the uphills started to bother me and left me wondering why I wasn’t moving faster.

Key moment #1: After having been passed by a couple other runners and slipping out of the top 10, I seemed to find my groove again on the lonely single-track Coastal Trail which slithers tightly on the steep grass hillside overlooking the Pacific. While the views are stunning, the narrow trail makes it important to not lose focus. I was quietly ticking off the miles, but started feeling sluggish on the small climbs. To a Miwok runner, what I’m describing probably seems absurd considering the relative flatness of this section. However, even as I was moving along in relative solitude, I knew there would be other runners coming up faster than I was moving.

The silence was finally shattered by the swift, easy strides of Kami Semick. Kami may be much shorter in stature, but she is built like a rock and moves fluidly over a variety of terrains. Kami would go on to finish 1st woman and 10th place overall in 9:10:29. I would go on to follow right behind Kami into the Bolinas Ridge Aid Station (mile 28.4), but after that she would fade out of view until seeing her again near Randall Turnaround (Mile 35.6).

The significance of the moment had nothing to do with getting “chicked” ( a common, light-hearted ultra term for getting passed by a woman). It was the subtle beginning for what would become my crucial undoing during this race; my relative weakness on the uphills. While I would end up losing the most great majority of time against my 9 hour goal on the 1000’ climb back from Randall, this is where I could feel the race slipping from me. Sometimes we need to see what others are capable of in order to give us perspective about what we need to do better.

Key moment #2: After Tara came aboard to pace me, I spent the section from Bolinas Ridge (Mile 42.8) back to Pantoll (Mile 49.5) getting my head together and getting back into the race. It wasn’t that there was anything specific wrong with me; I just felt incredibly sluggish on the uphills. I could’ve been slightly dehydrated since I never did drain the kidneys during the race. Even that, though, is a bit of stretch since it wasn’t accompanied with the lightheadedness and general loopiness. Tara didn’t necessarily say anything; rather, she acted as a sounding board for all my meandering thoughts. I confess that I did feel bad that I subjected her to watching me curse out a solitary coyote on the hillside for no apparent reason. But in reality, the act of being pushed subtly and working to keep myself in perpetual motion worked to get the freight train moving again. And yes, at 170 lb., I was a freight train compared to some of the sticks out there.

All of this leads me to my key moment. Coming out of Pantoll, my pep had returned and I warned Tara that I would be cranking it for the next 3 miles of mostly screaming downhill. After warming up over the 0.5 mile flat, we started cranking it over the next 0.2 mile transition trail before over 1000’ ft. of decent over 2.2 miles down Deer Park Fire Road that can best be described as an out-of-control barrel race. We took the brakes off and kept cranking with ease. Soon enough, a little more than half-way down the Fire Road, we spotted two runners about 0.2 miles ahead. Even though one turned out to be a pacer, not too much seems to motivate more than seeing “ducks on the pond”. A couple minutes later while slightly cranking the arms to get a little more momentum going, I eased on by the two guys with a polite “On Your Right”. At that moment, one of the runners looked back to his right with a shocked look on his bearded face. I’m not sure if he was shocked just to see anyone or shocked at how quickly I was coming up on him; regardless, the look was priceless. It’s the kind of look that as a competitor, you love to see. It had the exact opposite effect that Key Moment #1 had on me; downhills and flats are definitely my strength. I feel like if I had to run a marathon right now, I would definitely be in the 2:40s coming off of my 2:51 PR run last year. My quads feel strong and my ability to navigate downhill trails with ease is definitely high. Part of it comes with my simple approach to downhills; why fight gravity when it feels so good to let it ride. This will become a key point at Western States, a net downhill course.

Key moment #3: After 58.5 long miles, it was 1000’ ft. up and 1000 ft. down to the finish at Rodeo Beach. 3.7 miles of dirt between the finish and I. After righting myself somewhat on the way to Pantoll, I stayed steady the rest of the way. Yes, I was still relatively weaker on the ups and stronger on the downs. But while there was some passing and being passed, I was in 19th place overall which was right where I was coming into Pantoll. The hardest thing for any athlete is maintaining focus when the original goals are out of reach. I had reached a point where top 10 and 9 hours were not in the cards, but I still had an opportunity to maintain my position in the top 20 in this ultra competitive race (no pun intended). The final 3.7 miles is over 2 miles of climbing 1000’ and about a mile and a half of hard, steep decent to the finish at Rodeo Beach. To make things more interesting, there are a number of steps and logs to go over at various times during the descent to mix in with asphalt roadway and winding dirt switchbacks.

Starting the climb, I was in 19th place and simply wanted to maintain my position. While 18th was just a minute in front of me and still well within my reach, I simply wanted to stay ahead of any pursuers. I told Tara that if we made it up to the top of the climb first, we could cruise on in from there. This first 1.4 miles up Old Springs Trail provides fairly good footing and many parts with gradual grades allowing someone to run/jog quite a bit. Some sections have dirt stairs built into the trail to help firm them up against erosion. A couple minutes into the climb, I spotted my nearest pursuer wearing a white sleeveless top and red ball cap. I didn’t feel like climbing much, hoping that the gap between myself and the next runner was enough to allow me to coast in. Tara, though, pulled a play from my own pacing playbook to get the ball rolling. “Let’s try and run for 30 seconds.” I’ll admit; this is one that I use quite a bit to have a reluctant runner getting the legs moving again on an uphill. It’s a simple request that helps speed up the inevitable grind that uphills can become and also help a runner find their legs again.

The first few cycles, it was a bit of grind to put in the full 30 seconds of running before 30 seconds of walking. But after a few cycles, I started to feel better about the rate I was moving at. My posture become more upright, I was slouching less, and I seemed to be able to pick up my legs with a little more gusto. On the flattish ~0.4 mile section near the top, I even stopped the walking altogether and kept a nice 10 min./mile jogging rythym. This carried over to the 0.2 mile connector section on the Miwok trail and the first slight downhill before two brutally steep ascents on the Wolf Ridge trail over the next ~0.7 miles. On the first of these two ascents, I peered back to see “The Man In White”, as I took to calling him, continuing to close in with less than a quarter mile between us. I knew that with the climbs, the time difference was more significant, but I still needed to hit the top of that final ascent first.

I moved quickly on the quick 0.2 mile downhill dip before the final quarter-mile climb to the top. I could see the 2nd place woman just ahead on the climb, but once she crested I simply retrained my focus on holding off my pursuer. With scree littering the trail of this quad-busting ascent, good footing was always hard to come by. My hands latched firmly to my quads as I kept driving through each step and turning over my burning legs more quickly. Those minutes felt like a lifetime with the only thing holding my attention being my upward gaze at the end of the rocky earth under my feet and the beginning of light blue skies at the summit.

I was not disappointed, gazing out on the ocean and Rodeo Beach below with a sense of relief releasing some of the building tension. With over 25 minutes into this section, I had only a mile and a half to go until the the finish. While gingerly starting up on the steep, narrow road outlining the ridgeline, gravity quickly sucked me in to pick up the pace. A walk became a trot. A trot became a jog. Finally, a jog became a nearly out of control run with gravity as my fuel and my brake pads (quads) worn to the metal. This half-mile barrel race hits a dip, going slightly upward before returning to the dirt and fine sand. I began losing touch with Tara, focused on putting distance between myself and the “Man In White”. At the dip, I glanced back only to see him coming down the road himself about 200 yards away. I just couldn’t seem to shake him.

This is where the race becomes part obstacle course, part road race and part trail race. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but when I hit the first set of winding stone stairs, I just took off and left Tara behind with a mile to go. The coming pursuer was now close enough to see clearly but not quite close enough to touch. Tara is not the first pacer that I’ve “ditched” in the final 5-10 miles of a race; I have a clear pattern of being motivated by pursuing runners and the anticipation of the finish. My uncles earlier had clued her in that it may happen and my intimate knowledge of this section of the course makes it much easier for me to anticipate all the various pitfalls. As a more experienced trail runner, I also find that I’m much more willing to take chances on the trails than less experienced trail runners. I moved with a clearer sense of urgency, bounding down stairs and leaping over logs that left me precariously close to taking a fall. Even with a water bottle strapped to both my hands, I reigned myself in a bit half way down one set of logs to avoid a catastrophic fall.

Once away from the steps and logs, I hustled on the winding, paved fireroad leading down from the WWII-era bunker. My uncles down below watched the action with no idea that I was the runner in the black cutoff shirt being chased since they were looking for a runner in black with a pacer. Uncle Jose remarked to Uncle Andy, “Look, that guy in white is going to catch the guy in black”. The “Man in White” had closed to within 25 yards with less than a half a mile to go and although I briefly entertained the idea of coasting it in and finishing together in an show of sportsmanship typical of ultras, the speed with which he was closing made me believe that he was pushing for my placing. I responded by continuing to push as hard as I could as I entered the final 3 short switchbacks on the winding trails which lead to the parking lot.

I resisted the urge to look, realizing that I would waste more in time than I would gain in comfort. After each turn, I expected that now would be the time he would pass me. But each time, I simply got closer and closer to the finish. It wasn’t until the reaching the short, 20 yard L-shaped finishing chute at the Rodeo Beach Picnic Area that I realized I would hold him off. Making that final turn, I charged through the finish line in 9:37:09 and gave my customary silent props to the man up above.

While the official finish times reflected a 1 second gap between us, in reality the “Man In White” would come through the finish line about 10-15 seconds later. I clapped with a smile on my face, tired but happy to have had the experience. Once he crossed the finish line, I walked over to him and we both smiled before giving each other a big hug. We laughed at what a crazy journey that final 3.7 miles had been; he kept trying to hunt me down and I just wouldn’t let him have it. We pushed each other harder and were rewarded for it with a nice way to end the day. It was a great moment where two competitors, when it was all said and done, could just appreciate what had happened. The roles could’ve been reversed, but the ending would’ve stayed the same: respect for one another and a sheer joy for having been a part of an exhilarating chase to the finish line to end 9+ long hours.

In some ways, the finish line is the line between heaven and hell. It has this funny way of turning struggles into learning experiences and making triumphs grow larger. Somewhere in the retelling of the story, it takes on new meaning and foretells the necessary steps for future successes. Sure, I can needle my weaknesses from this race and talk about what it will take in the next 6 weeks to finish Western States in 18+ hours…..but I can at least take heart in the simple fact that with some well-timed words and a little push, I seem to have no trouble finding motivation. Thank you to my crew, my pacer and Tracy Moore.

God bless,


TonyP said...

Just a fantastic write-up Gundy. It reads such that I felt like I was reliving your experience out there. You may not have hit sub-9, but still a great effort and experience. I can't wait to see you hit Western.

Billy said...

Wow, the detail in this report is remarkable (.7 miles here, 3.6 mile there..). Haha, nicely done Gunderson. Great effort at the end to finish strong. I'm sure you were a little disappointed given your goal but here's hoping it all comes together at WS100.

Congrats again m'man.

Willem said...

I just stumbled over your report, and it brought back memories from my own race. My difficult phase was the last phase, likely due to mild dehydration. I did enjoy the whole experience and can relate to being chased on that last downhill, in my case by Rick. Hope to meet you some day on the trails in the Headlands. God bless you !