After finishing the Way Too Cool 50k on Saturday, I had an interesting conversation with another runner. This runner has been fairly proficient on the local Bay Area trail running scene for more than a few years and although he’s moved into his masters years, is still a rather proficient, strong competitor. Having just come off one of my more complete races (particularly the 50k races) in recent memory, he mentioned that this race seemed to be a bit of a breakthrough race for me. I agreed, having had one of those few races where I felt fully fueled and giving consistent effort from beginning to end. I even had enough leftover energy to push the pace down towards 6 minutes per mile on the last ¾ mile pleateau that ends the race. At this point post-race, my legs felt a bit sore but with plenty of energy to walk around and enjoy the post-race social atmosphere. While there were a couple places, in retrospect, where I could nitpick and lament not having pushed a little harder and possibly knocked more minutes off my time, that is neither here nor there. The point was that in the midst of this conversation, the topic of confidence came up.
Now, confidence is one of those tricky, hard to quantify factors in a race. Being overconfident or underconfident can lure one into a strategy not best suited for what someone has exhibited in training. Of course, there are those who thrive off of pushing their bodies to the limits from beginning to end and those who thrive off of running from the back only to strike hard in the later stages of a race. Very few of us truly know what’s gone into a runner’s training, so trying to extrapolate what actually happened from the race results can be tricky at best. That being said, I’d had my fair share of confidence-knocking races where things went wrong and the finishes have ended up feeling like a torture-fest. Even though I felt like coming under 4 hours was definitely more than doable from a fitness standpoint, I’d had enough poorly executed races to cause me to take a more measured approach. I’d really set up 2012 as something that I’d wanted to be another breakout, step up year. While I trained through Jed Smith and continued to tinker with the nutritional and fueling recommendations of the Paleo Diet for Athletes I had started at the beginning of the year, Way Too Cool was the first race of this year I had really set as a benchmark and wound down my miles over the two preceeding weeks to come into it fresh. Of course, winding down the miles was in part due to simply being sick with the flu for a week. Although I’ve still had some nagging congestion, I was much better during the last week before the race.
The goal coming in was to run under 4 hours (following 2011 splits of others) and I was going to stick to it with a re-evaluation half-way through the race. With 3,600 ft. of total elevation gain, it play faster than many of the trail 50k races out there. Realizing that the race’s flatter first 8 mile loop seems to bring out faster paces, my tactic was fairly simple. Hang in the back of that second tier of runners in the 15-20th position before opening it up in the middle miles of the race. I also kept an eye on the lead woman, Caitlin Smith. believing that based on past results would probably be shooting for a sub-4 time. Based on what I’d seen of her on the local Bay Area running scene, she never struck me as someone prone to going out too fast or too slowly. It seemed like a fairly sound way to put myself in a good position early on.
With my wife there to drive me up from San Francisco and provide support along with the folks from Injinji who were on-hand as a race sponsor, I ready to run. As the gun went off, people came storming out the gates early. With the first 1.5 miles run along a flattish, rolling road before turning onto the trails, it was a good opportunity to let the legs get warmed up early as well as position myself for the coming single-track trails. Even with the first mile ticking off at 6:15 pace, a lead pack as well as a secondary pack began to form. The lead pack must’ve had 6-8 runners in it with the secondary pack comprising at least 10-15 runners. I was at the back of this secondary pack, allowing the other guys to set the pace. With very little wind out on a mild, crisp morning in Cool, CA, the pack’s only function was to serve as a pacing mechanism. Once the race finally veered off-road, it became a bit congested making my positioning near the back a bit precarious on the downhills. Way Too Cool attracts a variety of road and newbie-trail runners, making technical downhills a bit of challenge for me in a group this big. While the pack stayed fairly close together, I found some of the runners in the group hesitated quite a bit on some of the more rutted, challenging downhills. I found myself stopping to prevent running into the guy in front of me. I would’ve loved to have simply scooted on by, but the 10-15 folks up ahead would’ve made the move somewhat pointless. The only move I made past a few folks was coming out of an uphill in order to keep within viewing distance of Caitlin who was at the very front of this group.
The plan was to come into the 8 mile mark at 56-58 minutes, so when I came through at 54:48 (chip time), I was pleasantly surprised. The distance came up 1/3 of a mile short on the Garmin, but no harm no foul with that. Just before the timing mat, there was the first aid station. While the others stopped, I scooted on through quickly and efficiently while picking up a pre-prepared bottle of NUUN water w/ extra gels for the rest of the race. After the congestion at the mile 8 aid station at the Start/Finish area, I found a nice little niche on the 3.1 mile somewhat flat fireroad and technical downhill to the American River. The field began to spread out somewhat, although I continued to peer ahead to sight Caitlin when the terrain opened up. The focus was solely on making sure I’d hit my next mark of 2:00 or under at the 16.7 mile aid station along the River.
Once along the river, the course opened up on an expansive dirt and gravel fire road that allowed runners to pass or drop back as they pleased. I tried not to drive too hard on the ups to maintain a pace or let loose too much on the downs to “regain time”. Caitlin remained just ahead as the miles seemed to tick away with ease. Even though I was shooting for an average time of 7:30 min/mile to the 23 mile mark, the pace seemed to fluctuate between 6:45 to 7:15 without a huge surge in effort at any one time. I picked up some more water quickly at Maine Bar (Mile 16.7) before dropping in another full NUUN tablet in my bottle on the way out. My watch indicated 1:44:XX, even though the watch was over a mile short of this posted distance. I didn’t really try to analyze it, but the time did bring a bit of a smile to my face. If I just kept moving even on the ups, I was going to be in good shape for the end. Beside, while the aid stations seemed to come a little quicker than the Garmin would indicate, I’d had a feeling it would all “average out” in the end as it seems to do in many races.
Average out is exactly what the course did, with the next 4.3 mile section seeming to go on much longer than the posted distance. After the last section, I ended up passing Caitlin on the hills which she walked (which was puzzling at the time) but picking up a new running partner. The woman who passed her for 1st place, Tyler Stewart, ended up playing leap frog with me for quite a few miles. She would scoot along the flats at a fairly brisk pace, while I was climbing the inclines with a smoothness and consistent effort that would bring us back together. While the competitiveness aspect of running with another runner in a race does tend to creep in, my sole focus was on maintaining a good pace and keeping myself in position for that Sub-4 hour finish. I knew that Sub-4 was good enough for top 15 the year before, so keeping on target would allow the placing to take care of itself. The Garmin ended up posting close to 5 ¾ miles for the next section, and as I stopped to re-tie my shoes for a minute after my bottles were refilled with water, Tyler took off ahead. No matter, since I left the aid station in ~2:30:45 which was right between my target times of 2:26-2:36.
On the way out while popping another gel, I felt a gagging feeling coming on that had just surfaced on the last section. Feeling that the full NUUN tablets (360 mg sodium) w/ 2 gels (125 mg sodium per gel) per 20 oz. bottle were probably giving me too much sodium, I went with straight water for the rest of the race to help settle things down. It wasn’t debilitating per se, but it was still one of those things that makes you feel off-kilter and a little more tentative with pace. On the way out, I knew all I had to do was stay a little faster than 9:00 min/mile for the final 10 miles to finish under 4 hours. With a
couple of nice little climbs before and after Hwy 49, I just wanted to make sure I had enough of a cushion to absorb slowing down going uphill. Miles continued to rattle off with the average pace staying around 8:00/mile. About the only thing that seemed to phase me was a face-first spill just before a creekway with 3+ miles to go that left me a bit disoriented for the next couple
minutes. In the end, I didn’t need to burn the uphills, the flats or the downhills as long as I was moving. With no one within shouting distance of me, I just kept trying to relax and enjoy the comfortably cool weather while thinking about getting to the next aid station.
The next to last aid station, 26.3 miles in at Goat Hill, couldn’t not come fast enough. With 3:15:45 elapsed, I just needed to finish the last 4.7ish miles in 44 minutes. Every mile from then on out brought with it the satisfaction of being that much closer and putting that much more of a cushion between myself and an epic collapse. Even being passed just before the 29.63 mile mark at Hwy 49 couldn’t keep me from losing focus. Although, it did seem to light my competitive fire somewhat as I worked hard to track on the heels of the competitor in 14th place. After opening about a 30-40 second gap on me, I would close it to 50 ft. on the final ¾ of a mile before settling for finishing 11 seconds back in 3:53:59 for 15th place. Although it seems like the official D-tag timing from Capitol Road Race Management has this right, it appears UltraSignup has reverted back to gun times which added 4 seconds (not consequential) to my time but quite a bit of time to some other folks finishes. The tags are a necessity in a race with so many runners and a narrow starting line area.
Coming off the race at Jed Smith where I felt rather lethargic and unable to push hard when I needed to, most things about this race just felt right down to the surge at the end where my pace dropped close to 6 min/mile glancing at my watch. I didn’t so much as attack the hills as I took each of them methodically with very short steps which left me much more satisfied with my times on the flats/downs that would immediately follow. A little too much sodium at one point? No problem as I made the right adjustment to go to straight water.
That’s not to say there weren’t flats or downs over the last 10 miles in particular that I wish I had a little more confidence to push harder to shave more minutes. In the end, though, it’s a blessing to lay the right foundation and build confidence for future races. With the Lake Sonoma 50 and its stacked field on the horizon in 5 weeks, it’s safe to say that I’m going to need to raise my game to keep knocking down the doors in 2012.