Sunday, March 18, 2012

I'm pretty sure badgers aren't afraid of mud

And neither were the nearly 800 runners that showed up the morning after several days of hard rain passed through the area, leaving the course for the inaugural Brazen Badger Cove trail race a bit muddy. The Half Marathon course was significantly altered from its original trails since there was no practical way to get supplies to one of the aid stations, so we ended up running two laps of the challenging 10K loop that included a bonus, decidedly not flat, out-and-back section.

As trail runners, most of us were eager for a bit of mud action. The fact that it didn't rain and there was no wind added to the pre-race excitement.

I had a LOT of running friends at this race - most of this group were taking advantage of the early start, hoping that having the first shot at the mud would give them an advantage. (Spoiler alert: It didn't.) Some in this group were also keen to set their inner badger free.

Shortly after I started with the rest of the Half Marathon runners, we came upon this tragic rock slide. Since it had apparently not damaged anyone, the race was allowed to continue.

We started by following the Del Valle Lake shoreline. I'd never been here before, but judging by the facilities they have to support large crowds, it was easy to imagine this area being very crowded on a normal summer, or even spring Saturday. Today, however, after all that rain and the threat of more, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

This was the first aid station. The Half runners ended up passing through it (and its strategically useful outhouse) three times.

The 5K runners mostly stayed out of the hills, but they weren't able to avoid the mud.

Surprisingly, with all the rain we had, the mud was not as slippery as expected. Instead it was more like peanut butter, only stickier (and likely not as tasty).

A short single-track section with two head-banging trees.

Not all of the course was muddy - there were a number of long stretches that were fairly solid gravel fire roads. And not all of the course was uphill - it just seemed that way. Note the second aid station off in the distance.

We spent a lot of time on mildly rolling trails along the top of the ridge. These provided great views, although the thought of how hot these trails must be in the summer made me glad this race was in March.

The bonus out-and-back for the Half runners. This was a bit less than six tenths of a mile out, but included more hills which made it feel a lot longer. 

As an added bit of torture, you could see the lake and the starting area and hear Mr Brazen calling out the finisher names from up here. Sadly, we were still a long ways from done. (And yes, my Way Too Cool frog hat made an appearance. I explained that the frogs were badger food.)

This brave volunteer stood here most of the day, making sure none of the Half runners went too far before turning around on the out-and-back bit. She was VERY popular and a most welcome sight.

Pictures really do not do justice to how challenging bits of this course were to run. This was a particularly nasty bit that, when looking at this picture, does not look all that bad. It was.

Our first lap of the 10K loop was nearly done by this point, with the lake (which turned green in honor of the day) back in view. And so was Werdna (not his real name), who I had been hoping to catch.

And then we were at that first aid station again. The 10K runners (and directionally challenged Half runners, cough, Mrs Notthat, cough cough) turned left here and headed for the finish line. The Half runners turned right for another shot at the loop. Alert readers will pick out Werdna's back (I really did catch him), Reffinej's front (not her real name, making sure everyone is hydrated), and Way Too Cool Nad and Charliedog (off to the right).

The second lap was actually a bit easier than the first lap since all the Half and 10K runners had pounded paths through the mud, except for this short stretch that refused to give up trying to suck the shoes off your feet.

Finally - the finish line. I was pretty slow for this race, and was fighting some knee issues off and on, so this was far from a PR. But it was great to finish this race and get my hands on some post-race cocoa.

All of these runners finished well before me, including my arch nemesis Yram (not her real name, on the left, gloating over my sound trouncing).

Another group picture, this time with The Endorphin Badger (who finally finished after wandering aimlessly through the parking lot - his inner badger seems to be directionally challenged).

And then in came Einre (not his real name) who had the honor being handed his medal by Brazen First Born (who is digging through the medal tub, looking for just the right medal to give him).

The race was a blast - lots of fun friends and a bunch of runners all out for some fun in slightly less than ideal conditions. I'd have loved to run the original course (theoretically this modified course had slightly less elevation gain than the original course, but that's a bit hard for me to believe), but this was a pretty good compromise. 

The aid stations were almost as great as all the volunteers manning them, bravely coming out on a day that could have had some dodgy weather. There were also the great volunteers that were strategically placed to ensure everyone stayed on course. And of course, the  Brazen Rabbit, who had to go out very early in the morning and completely replace the flour markings that the rain had washed away overnight.

And especially thanks to Mrs and Mr Brazen for putting on a great event! Ultra Woof  took this picture, where Mr Brazen is explaining that, while badgers look cute and cuddly, you shouldn't try to share your GU packet with one.

That's it - move along...

PS: Here's a link to some other pictures I took.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I was (just barely) Cool enough!

Earlier this week I wrote about my apprehension about how I would do in the Way Too Cool 50K. My main concern was making the various cutoffs. In the end my biggest issues were choosing the kind of pizza and flavor of frog cupcake I wanted.

The Way Too Cool 50K is an epic race on some of the best trails in the Sierra foothills, including chunks of the Western States Trail. There's a lottery to get in, and on a whim of sorts, I entered. And got in.

My last attempt at a trail marathon did not go well, and since that time, I've been working harder to get in better shape. Part of that work involves a core class that on Tuesday, almost did me in when one of my knees nearly gave out on me while doing side lunges. Which just added to my apprehension about the race.

Regardless, I was REALLY excited for this race. I've heard so many great things about it, and had a blast at last year's Golden Hills Marathon, which is put on by the same people, NorCalUltras.

Even the car got froggy with it. (For reasons that aren't well understood by me, a frog is the mascot of this race. There are a LOT of frog-based aspects of this race, including the cupcakes you get when you finish.)

Mrs Notthat and I drove up Friday afternoon so that I could pick up my bib and shirt at the Auburn Running Company. (We stayed the night in Auburn at the Comfort Inn, which was nice enough, but doesn't start breakfast until 7 AM on weekends, so we had to fend for ourselves.)

While we were looking around the store, a group of running friends showed up. Here Mrs Notthat is showing off some pepper spray that she is hoping will calm me down a bit. I really couldn't wait for the race to start.

On race morning we joined a line of cars heading to Cool CA. The first face we see is Nerak (not her real name) directing drivers to the nearest open parking space, which isn't so near anymore. The fancy hat gave her an air of authority though, so we complied.

A fun thing was getting to drive through the starting arch - cars were directed to park along the sides of what was going to be the beginning of the race course.

I've always wondered what gave Mr Brazen such great speed in these races, and I think I learned his secret - pre-race diaper changing (not his - second born's). It would make ME run faster.

Touching the Main Frog before the race. (Note the stylish Brazen Rocky Ridge hoody I was wearing - sadly, it turned up missing after the race. Maybe it will turn up in a lost and found, but likely I will get to go shopping at their next race and see what new ones they have.)

Ultra Woof and Racing Mama showed up stylishly late, pushing it a bit. Poor Kermit looks like he's fighting a nasty leg cramp.

These are most of the runners that I knew that were out for this race (Alegna, Brazen Rabbit, Nire, Aluap, Shiggy, Racing Mama, and Mr Brazen - not their real names). Missing was Nad (who is REALLY hard to get to stand still for more than a few minutes).

Once the race started, we headed out about a mile on that paved road, then made a left onto the trail. These two were prepared to do whatever was necessary to stop any runners that failed to make this turn. I thought about testing them, but they both looked like they could easily take me, so I followed the other runners onto the trail.

Shortly after getting on the trail, you have your first creek crossing. There were two ways to handle this crossing (and several others coming up): Wait in line and use the rock bridge sort of things to cross; or go around the line and splash on through. Which is the method I used multiple times.

One thing of note, last year was a wet winter, and this crossing was knee high. This winter has been dry so the creeks were not very high - you could actually avoid getting wet at all if you were willing to wait in line (at least for the early crossings) and try to balance on the rocks.

There was a lot of great single-track trail on this course. A drawback though is early in the race, when it tended to back up a bit, just like rush hour traffic. There were a few times in the first four or five miles when it would get a bit frustrating, but for the most part, it moved along well.

I loved running alongside this pond.

There were a lot of photographers at various points along the course - this was one I knew though; Famous Etep (not his real name)!

The course is a kind of figure eight. The first 8 miles make a small loop, and the next 23 miles make a larger loop. The fun thing is that, at the end of the 8 mile loop, you are back at the starting area. And these two were still making sure nobody got out of line.

And waiting for me there was Mrs Notthat, with a dry shirt and a hug. (Well, maybe a hug from a distance - I was already VERY sweaty by this time - maybe a nice handshake?)

Mrs Notthat picked up these frogs from the dollar store and we took turns sewing them onto my Zombie Runner hat. Amazingly, none of them managed to escape and they were not annoying while running - I got a lot of smiles, especially later in the race when I really needed them.

Three miles later we crossed highway 49 and dropped down to the American River. The crossing was well done, with only a very short wait.

And then were were at the Lower Quarry aid station, mile 11.1 with an 11:00 AM cutoff. I was not too worried about this cutoff since the course was pretty flat or downhill to this point, and I figured I would be fine. And I was, making it to this Hawaii-themed station at 10:19.

Once you leave that aid station, you spend the next 5 miles running along the American River. While this wasn't single-track, it was extremely gorgeous and a reasonably fast stretch of trail.

One of the things that kept me going was Racing Mama. She's an amazing trail runner who stopped twice along the course to put up motivational signs for me. I can't stress how cool it was that she did this!

This was the only muddy stretch of the course, and it was easy to go around. I'm told that this was completely different than last years conditions, when sloppy, muddy trails ruled the day. We were so fortunate to have great weather and great trail conditions for this race.

I made it to the Maine Bar aid station at about 11:21 AM. No cutoff here, but this set me up pretty good for the next stretch - after leaving this aid station you have a significant climb to get to the next one, which did have a cutoff that I was a bit worried about.

Oh, and yet more creeks to cross.

The climbing took its toll on me. I had to stop a few times to catch my breath, and felt like I was going ridiculously slow. But the trail was great, the scenery wonderful, and the  pull of the frog cupcakes too intense to ignore.

One great moment that I sadly didn't even know was a great moment until later was that, the Father of the Western States 100 trail race (also known as Ydrog, not his real name) passed me while going up this hill. While I didn't manage to capture the moment, Alegna, who was a bit behind me, did capture the moment he passed her, and got this great picture:

I'm insanely jealous that she got this picture!

Clueless as I was, I still managed to make it to the ALT aid station at 21 miles. It had a 1:45 cutoff, and I had been worried about it, but amazingly I was there by 1:18. This meant that I only had one more cutoff to make and I would get to finish the race!

There was a timing mat set up as you left that aid station. There was a fair amount of downhill after leaving that aid station, and I had hoped to make some good time through here, but I was starting to have tummy troubles. I sucked on a ginger chew and that seemed to help, but I was still struggling WAY more than I wanted to be.

That's about the time that Alegna caught up to me. It was great to see her, especially to see her doing so well. She had just done a Marathon the week before and had been as worried as me about the cutoffs, but she had nothing to worry about. We stayed together for a bit but I couldn't manage running down the hills so she took this great picture of me and headed off.

Still, I kept moving along. I was pretty sure the next cutoff would do me in since, before that aid station, there was Goat Hill (cue spooky music), where the trail went up a cliff.

But before Goat Hill, there were more great trails to run on (or in my case, shuffle on).

And creeks to cross.

And best of all, one more sign from Racing Mama. (This one I kept - it had not occurred to me to keep the first one. I'm not very bright once I get tired in these races.)

And then I was at the top of Goat Hill. These guys were great and encouraging. They called out "Runner coming" as I approached them, while I added "Very slowly." My stomach was in bad shape at this point - I hesitated before going to the aid station just in case I was going to, um, have to leave something on the side of the trail. But I pulled it together and made it to the last cutoff.

Goat Hill aid station is at mile 26.3 (a bit over a Marathon!) and had a 3:30 cutoff. It was 3:11 when I got there. These guys were great - very encouraging and helpful. Honestly, there was a tiny part of me that hoped they would pull me from the course - I was tired and still having tummy issues, but I wasn't hurting at all. The cool thing was that, if I headed out of this aid station, I would finish this race - no more cutoffs. Only a bit under 5 miles to go.

So I headed out. There was a fair amount of downhill out of this aid station which helped a lot. I wasn't doing much running, but I was walking reasonably well.

Then something happened that that had never happened to me before - a course sweeper came up on me. He was the 4:30 sweeper, which meant that if I wanted to make the 4:30 finish time, I needed to keep up with him. I tried for a little bit, but soon he was out of sight.

And then the real sweepers came up on me - I was officially bringing up the rear of the race! It was kind of exciting! The sweepers were great and motivated me to pick up the pace a bit, including a bit of running.

But there was one more significant hill ahead. The first half of the hill was not too bad - I was surprised at how well I got up it, and after crossing back across highway 49, there was the last aid station, at mile 29.6. It had a fun 80s theme going on, but all I could see was the sign that said 1.5 miles to go.

So I grabbed a bit of food and headed for the second half of that last hill. This part of the hill was not as easy as the first part, but knowing you are so close to being done is a great motivator.

These two were just ahead of me, and remarkably, I managed to pass them once we hit the top of the hill and I found out I could run again without a lot of discomfort.

Before I "took off" (which is a very relative term in this case), I snuck a picture of the two sweepers. I swear that they saved me at least 10 to 20 minutes off my finish time. They were so awesome!

The greatest moment of the race was seeing Mrs Notthat waiting near the finish. She ran out to meet me.

She took my hydration belt and ran the rest of the way in with me. (Note that the last two runners are just barely behind me. I was tempted to stop so that I could be a proper Dead Last Finisher, but once I got moving, I decided to be happy with Dead Last Male Finisher.

And I was done! My official time was 8:44:20 - a bit past the 4:30 cutoff time, but I'll take it! And my frog cupcake!

Shiggy (and Hoover the Wonder Dog or Wonder Bear - not sure which) were still at the race, waiting for me to stumble in! He had finished more than three hours earlier (his first ultra!) and was determined to hang around.

And Alegna had these great frog cookies waiting for us. (She finished a bit over 13 minutes ahead of me - totally awesome!)

And that was it. I got my pizza (it drove Hoover crazy that I wasn't eating it) rested a bit, then we headed back home.

It was an amazing day, a great race, and a fun time with a lot of running friends. Everything was run perfectly and the volunteers were wonderful. The course is magical (even with 90% of the climbing happening after passing the halfway point of the race - I suspect the race would be easier if it was run backwards, but I wouldn't like my chances going down Goat Hill).

There was a bit of debate over how much elevation there was on the course; the Ultra Signup page listed 3600 feet (which I believe), but a lot of websites showed 6100 feet (and the very reliable Wikipedia lists 7000 feet!).

In any case, I will likely throw my hat in the lottery again next year with the goal of actually making the 4:30 finish cutoff. (I'd like to thank Julie, her real name, the wonderful RD that let me finish after the official cutoff!)

That's it - move along...

PS: There are a lot of pictures I took while wandering around the course here. There are more that Mrs Notthat took here.