Back in December, I had the good fortune to go for a run in the Marin Headlands with Mark Richtman and a group of his ultra running friends. We were discussing which races we had coming up for 2012. I had the Olympic Marathon Trials, and then I had a good three months to train for the World 100k Championships on April 22. The “Worlds” is one of my two “A” races of the year (the other being Western States 100) and I have yet to really nail it. With that in mind I had considered running Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile in early February, held on a loop course in Texas. I justified/rationalized that I would have 100 miles to figure out my nutrition/hydration/sodium intake requirements and hopefully figure out how to be stronger in the second half of the 100k. The idea of traveling to Texas again shortly after the Trials wasn’t too appealing, and when Mark said “I’m running Jed Smith 50 Mile, going for the American 55-59 age group record – you should go for the 50-54 women’s record”, I was immediately intrigued. The idea had a lot of appeal – a mere day trip from Oregon, a five mile loop on pavement, and “only” 50 miles, so a shorter recovery window. And thus, I decided to join him 2 months later in Sacramento on the American River bike path to practice for the 100k.
Race day arrived with fair weather – no wind, predicted highs in the 60s. Craig and Laurie agreed to crew for me, and on the less than 5 mile loop, they were at the two aid stations on the loop – Craig at the start/finish line, and Laurie about halfway around the loop. With my very specific instructions to them both (yes, I even advised Laurie on how to hold the S!Cap – I have knocked too many to the ground in the past – and advised Craig to lift a tab on the carton of coconut water but not to completely open it) that would mimic the passing of food/fluids/salt to me at Worlds. The road ultras are run with the aim of very seamless supplying of aid – something like a bike race – the goal is to not break stride as you pick up your goods. And, as Laurie is on board to be on my crew at Worlds, she got the opportunity to practice her job!
It was a bit chilly at 7:30, but I was able to drop all outer clothing a few minutes before the start. I felt decent – I hadn’t tapered much and I had barely started any focused training since the Trials. I knew the women’s 50+ American record was 7:47, which is around my 100k time, so I didn’t feel pressure to have an “on” day. It was perfect to practice all those things and on not real fresh legs.
The initial part of the race was a short out-and-back dogleg to make up the shortage due to the loop being less than 5 miles. It was the only time I would have a chance to high-five Mark on his endeavor to run 5:52. It was a nice gentle warm-up and ease into the pace, and Joe Palubeski – fellow Team Sunsweet-er – and I, fell into lock step together. We finished that section and then started into the loop course of 4.9+ miles, and gradually fell into a 7:11 pace, and felt comfortable enough. My heart rate wasn’t being picked up yet as I hadn’t been sweating, but I tried to stay relaxed. The course was advertised as flat and fast, but it was really a roller. The loop started westward, crossed the American River on the Guy West bridge after a couple of miles, and headed east on a little downslope – my favorite section of the course – and under a bridge to the far aid station, where Laurie and fellow ultra runner John Catts (Richtman’s crew) were. Laurie deftly handed me a bottle and an S!Cap. With little break in stride, I hit the “treacherous” portion of the course. We left the bike path and ran on a dirt path that was somewhat cobbly, somewhat rutty, and not that quick. I worked on consuming the 8 oz of GuBrew, and succeeded within a half mile, so was able to dispose of the bottle and continue running unencumbered. My heart rate was now being picked up and I was steady at 155.
At the end of the dirt we reached the Watt St bridge, ran under it, and climbed up to cross the river, took a 180 degree turn down an incredibly steep road down, a sharp 90 degree turn, and then passed the numerous supportive runners/crews, to Craig who handed me an opened gel, and a coconut water with the tab just lifted ever so much. Indeed, I was high maintenance in my requests, but I wanted to mimic the routine at Worlds as best as possible. I crossed the timing mat in just under 35 minutes for the first lap – around 7:10 pace – which was probably too rich for me to maintain, but as usual, I was a little delusional about what I could maintain. I got the gel down, and worked on the carton of coconut water, spilling a good amount – so another note to self about drinking from aseptic packs without a straw – about 75% success, but the 25% spillage was annoying. Eating and drinking in these events is SO HARD! All that swallowing and splashing and stickiness while trying to breathe makes it easy to convince oneself that you have enough when you don’t.
It was absolute pleasure to run with Joe for the first two laps, our pace slowing a bit with each lap. By the 3rd lap, Joe had pulled ahead, but I had told him I wasn’t going to try to stay with him by going faster, and my bowels had me making a dash into the bushes anyway. My overall average was now 7:13 (heart rate still bouncing around 155-160), and I still wanted to fight to keep it from dropping more than 1 sec/mile each lap. From that point I was running alone, but amongst the many 50k and 30k runners now on the course. That was one of the great things about this race – having someone to encourage and to be encouraged all the way around each loop. I kept doing math – if I didn’t slow too much I could average 7:20 pace for the 50 and run below 6:15. But my fitness and taper didn’t put me in a position to pull that off. During my 5th lap I was negotiating with myself, thinking if Craig could start running with me on the 6th lap, he could run 6, 8 and 10 – maybe that would help as I began to struggle. But, I didn’t take the time to propose that to him, continued taking the gel and coconut water from him, and the GuBrew plus S!Cap from Laurie.
On the sixth lap I had to make another dive into the bushes, and when I came back out I was running with a woman in the 50k -Amy – and we ran fairly close as we approached the Guy West Bridge. Suddenly I was plagued with sharp pains in my right abdominal muscles. I slowed a bit, got a bit of relief, and after I crossed the bridge and hit the nicest section of bike path it came back with full force. I uttered a few “oh craps!” and jogged slowly for a bit as Amy drifted by. Putting my hand over the cramping part helped stave off the pain, and when I reached Laurie at the aid station I hollered that I needed two S!Caps. She quickly and deftly responded and I was soon on my way with the doubled up salt and GuBrew. Again, as in each lap so far, I was able to consume all 8 ounces. The trail section here was really getting to be the dreaded section of the race. It seemed to get rougher each time – merely a reflection of the fatigue I was experiencing. John Catts ran with me for a bit – letting me know he would take over for Laurie so she could help at the start/finish while Craig was running with me.
Now more than halfway through, I was starting to count the laps down. I was slowing a bit, but I managed to pull through mile 30.5 (lap 6) in 3:42 – 7:16 pace. I asked for 2 S!Caps again, and told Craig he’d better be ready to run when I got back! The side ache gnawed at me off and on though lap 7, and my heart rate was drifting down to the low 150s. Craig was ready to go when I arrived. Mark Lantz and Laurie were both taking over the crewing for him, handing me the coconut water and gel. I told Craig about my side ache as I took nips of another gel. He worked at getting me to stretch and breathe deeper, but for awhile nothing seemed to help. After we crossed the Guy West Bridge, I told Craig this was my favorite section, yet I was still unable to relax. We got to the aid station where John Catts had taken over for Laurie, and he updated us on Joe, saying we were closing in. We hit the dreaded dirt and eventually finished up loop 8, my overall pace now around 7:25. Rats, but oh well.
Laurie and Mark were at the ready – which was a good thing as I barked out different demands – “no gel, no salt, but please open the coconut water here while I drink”… and then Craig and I were off again. At this point, my side ache had finally gone away. He stayed a half pace in front of me, keeping me going, occasionally making me hurt on the climbs. We hit John Catts again – took another S!Cap and bottle and hit the dirt. Just before the end of the loop I needed to make a pit stop and actually found a toilet rather than bushes. In less than one minute but at salt-chafe:30 I emerged and we finished loop 9, closing in on Joe.
Finally, the last loop had arrived. I told Craig it might be more like a fartlek – I was going to try to run hard, but was likely to fade. It was true – surge, fade, surge, fade. I made an attempt at one more gel with caffeine – it would surely give me another boost. Finally back to John Catts, one last bottle and the news that Joe was only one minute ahead both encouraged and frustrated me. We could see Joe, which meant I would try to close the gap, when I really didn’t want to push anymore.
He did get closer, but not enough. Craig and I hit the Watt St bridge for the last time and I started to really pick it up. Two final sharp turns and we were 100 meters from the finish. Craig said “you take it from here” and I wasn’t ready to have him leave me just yet – “come a little further PLEASE!” Who’d of thought I could be that tired and desperate? He stayed a little longer, and then, with the energy system developed on the short interval workouts, I found myself sprinting wildly to the finish – 6:19:06 -average pace 7:35. Joe had arrived 70 seconds before me, and Mark Richtman had finished 1st in 6:16.
My main goals had been met – consume 300 calories per hour and not get into a “slog”. Yes, I slowed quite a bit, but mentally I never felt disconnected. Whether or not it was different from Worlds 100k or if mentally I’m finally getting used to the length and intensity of running hard and steady for that long is yet to be determined. Setting a National Age-Group record by nearly one and half hours is, well, fun!
A huge thanks to Craig, Laurie, John Catts for crewing and pacing for me, and thanks to John Blue and Dennis Scott for putting on this race! It is a perfect venue to train for the 100k. Also, thanks to the many competitors and fans along the way offering their encouragement.