Thursday, November 28, 2013

I'm as stunned as you! Maybe more! 50 miles!

[Warning: This is a long thing. And a bit rambling. Sorry.]

Uncharacteristically, last weekend had few trail races to choose from. But there was one that was very tempting, Run d'Amore down in San Martin:

  • It would be Catra's 100th 100 mile (or longer) race. I really wanted to see that.
  • It would be my first time to meet a few runners that I have never met in person: Ed "The Jester" and Colleen "The Nuts" (she's not really nuts, but if you saw the kinds of hikes/runs she does for fun, you would have to agree that she's at least not normal).
  • I would get to see a LOT of other friends that were out running this race. (Including many surprises!)
  • It would give me 36 hours to go a distance I've failed three times to attain during a 12 hour race - 50 miles.
  • The course was no longer a flat two-mile loop, but was now a flat two-mile loop with a one-mile out-and-back trail section that climbed a reasonably serious hill.

I had this race in the back of my mind when I ran the 30K at Coastal Lake Chabot. And when I struggled to get that race done, I realized that 36 hours for 50 miles might not be enough. But then the ITR Mt. Tam Half the next weekend went relatively well, and the RDA fire started back up a bit.

During the week leading up to the race, I started to seriously consider it, and made a deal with myself; if they would let me start late on Saturday (the real race started at 6 AM), I would sign up for the 50M distance.

My hope for a late start wasn't that I wanted to sleep in, it was that I wanted to spend at least a little time with the grandkids; my daughter Danni was going down to run the 100M race, and would be dropping off the grandkids, who we don't get to see nearly often enough, on Friday night. My hope was to get up with them on Saturday morning, fix them breakfast (French Toast!), and maybe do some gardening with them.

And just like that, the half a dozen or so race directors agreed to let me start whenever I made it down there. So I signed up, knowing that the later I started, the shorter my cutoff would be. And the more time I would have to run at night.

Saturday morning harvesting carrots from the deck pots.
Saturday morning started with getting texts from Danni asking me to bring her a pair of very warm gloves - it was about 32ยบ at race start time. But there was no wind down there, so I took that as a good sign (cold I can deal with; wind and heat can be troublesome).

After breakfast, we harvested a handful of carrots, I finished packing, said my goodbyes, and headed south to the race.

About the Race

RDA had 50K, 50M, 100K, and 100M distances to choose from. They all started at 6 AM Saturday morning, and the last runner had to be done by 6 PM Sunday night. I felt sure that I could at least get the 50K distance if something went wrong and I couldn't make the 50M distance.

As mentioned earlier, this course had previously been a simple, fairly flat, paved two-mile loop. (While the two-mile loop is paved, it has friendly gravel and dirt shoulders that make it possible to save your knees a bit.) Adding a bit of trail, in particular, a trail with a significant hill, helped make this race more attractive to me. Instead of 25 flat two-mile-loops, I would have to do 12 hill-infested laps (plus a bonus two-mile flat loop at the end).

GPS Death Point is where my GPS died on me during my last time down that hill.

I like now this shows my treks to the van in the parking lot and my slight side trips to the porta-potties. And the one time I wandered off the trail, at night shortly after starting my eighth lap, when I came across a trail I had never seen before. True, I had gone past it seven times, but for some reason, in the dark, it really felt like I needed to go that way. (Ironically, at the end of that lap, Danni laughingly said "At least the course is simple and you can't get lost!" Oh yes I could.)

This is that turn to head up the hill, but zoomed in to show the trips. 100M runners did this 25 times! (This also shows the vagaries of GPS tracking - I swear I was on the trail more than this shows.)

I like how the elevation chart from my GPS makes that hill look like a cliff. It also shows that the two-mile "flat" loop isn't really so flat.

And Now on to the Action!

I arrived at the place at about 11 AM. It was pleasant (mid 50s) with no breeze.

A couple of the RDs getting me signed in for my late start. Tracy thought snow was imminent. (Actually, it was still pretty cold in the shade, but out on the sun-soaked course, it was perfect.)
Donato, in the red cap, was already done with his race, having won the 50K.  Now he was just doing recreational laps occasionally.
Danni (holding up that awning pole) had just finished her fourth lap (mile 16) and was hanging out in the tent city. She had not been able to train much and knew that 100M was not going to happen, so she was happy to do an occasional lap and have fun being a part time volunteer/crew person.

I headed out to get a feel for what the course was going to be like. I had seen the elevation chart for that hill, but had no real idea how steep it was or what the trail would be like. So at 11:21 AM, I started my race.

Almost immediately I met The Jester, flying down the hill. This was the first time I had seen him in action. I hadn't realized I would also hear him in action - he must have had a couple dozen little bells that jangled as he ran; there was no way he could sneak up on anyone.

About half way up that hill I ran into these three. Lynnard and Bill I knew, Tan I had seen many times before at races but had not actually met. They were all going for 100M.

And then I came across one of the stars of the show - Catra! She was moving fast and of course was perky.

And then finally I got to meet Colleen. I've been following her adventures for a while now, so it was good to see her for real. Her and her boyfriend ran the whole 100M together, and stashed their trekking poles at the base of the hill. This wasn't her first rodeo, as the kids say.

I didn't know that Starchy was going to be here - that was a great surprise.

The other thing to point out in the above picture is that it shows the Cone of Turnaround. The way the hill worked out was that once you got to the top, you still had not gone a full mile. So you had to keep going a bit, downhill, to reach the Cone of Turnaround. Then you had to go back up to the top of the hill before you finally got to cruise down the long downhill bit. This wasn't a long ways or a lot of extra climbing, but after doing it a few times you started to take it a bit personal. Like the hill was taunting you.

Another surprise was seeing Jose in the race! I had not seen him since he blew through the Last Chance aid station in 2011 on his way to finishing Western States. (The fact that he was DLF there makes him practically a blood-brother.)

Also, this picture gives you an idea of how much we had to climb, and the sort of views we had once we were up there. It also shows how shaded the trails are - HA!

Naresh, a runner I had seen before but never met, enjoying the downhill. A lot.
Photo by RDA volunteer.
On one of my laps, I managed to catch up to Danni and we had this moving father/daughter crossing of the lap's finish line. (I swear she sped up a bit at the last moment to get there first, but that's OK, since I was pretty sure I was going to end up with more miles than her once it was all done.)

Photo by Colleen. I'm the one stumbling up the hill.
I love the above shot since it shows a couple to trees (!) and the setting sun. This would be my last lap in the Saturday daylight.

Photo by Danni.
At the end of my fifth lap (mile 20 - the longest I had gone in four months), it was getting dark and cooling off fast. So I changed into warmer clothes, put on a headlamp, and spent way too much time trying to find a missing glove.

I had brought a lot of stuff since I wasn't sure what to expect. I had a tent that I intended to set up so that I could get some sleep if need be, but I decided that if I needed sleep, I would just go lay down in the van.

Eventually, I got myself nighted-up and headed out for lap six.

My night pictures were pretty pathetic, but this is a shot looking towards Morgan Hill from the Cone of Turnaround. The stars were amazing, but looking at them caused me to wander off the trail a couple of times, so I stopped doing that.

One other thing about night running that kind of surprised me - it was almost impossible to recognize anyone. It's bad form to blind others with your headlamp, and everyone was so bundled up at this point that they didn't look normal in any case. (Obviously, The Jester was an exception since, in addition to the jingle thing, he wore a hat with blinking lights on it.)

A slightly freaky thing were the cows. The Hill had a few places where gangs of thug cows hung near the trail, just because they could. They weren't a problem, and there was a point where I wondered if riding one up to the top of the hill was specifically forbidden in the rules. But at night, all you could see were their green glowing eyes that seemed impossibly far apart from each other. That took some getting used to.

When I was about halfway through my eighth lap (which would get me to mile 32 - a bit over 50K!), my back started having issues. So I had decided that, once I was done with that lap, I would take some pain stuff and lay down for a bit.

Picture by Alvin "The Sneaky."
Two funny things happened on this lap:

  • When I was two thirds of the way through, a bunch of deranged coyotes started to howl like hyenas on bad drugs. It was astonishing the sounds they made (and no, I'm not going to bring up Yoko Ono, although the thought crossed my mind).
  • And then, as I was rounding the turn to get to the finish of that lap, there was a sudden loud clanging of a cowbell that caused me to nearly make a mess in my drawers. But it was just Alvin, continuing the string of surprise runners that kept showing up at this race. It was great to see him out there!

In any case, I saw Danni and explained that I was going to go rest, and headed off to the van.

It had taken me almost ten hours to go 32 miles. Granted there was some time lost here and there looking at hotspots on my feet, trying to find that dang missing glove, and eating pizza. (Time spent eating pizza can never be considered "lost" time if you ask me though.)

It was about 9:30 (my normal bedtime) when I trudged up to the van. I tried to go to sleep, but my mind just kept buzzing. I started checking emails and was stunned at the number of encouraging responses I was getting to my sporadic Facebook posts; I couldn't believe how many people were pulling for me and encouraging me to keep going.

Which made me nervous since I was pretty sure that I would have a hard time getting going again, even if the back was fine. I was pretty sure I had run my last lap.

Photo by RDA volunteer. Note the bits of trail stuck to The Jester. I'll bet that happened on that downhill bit of The Hill.
And then at about 1 AM, I heard a loud cheer go up. Kathy (on the right) had started fast. Really fast. She had built up a huge lead in the 100M race. She slowed a bit, but continued a quick pace. The Jester, on the other hand, started out a tiny bit slower, but managed to keep up the pace lap after lap, and managed to close the gap on Kathy until they came together on the last lap. They then decided to finish hand-in-hand, co-winners of the 100M event in well under 19 hours.

I didn't know what was going on up in the van, but I figured I had just missed something awesome. I was also surprised that it was 1 AM - that meant I had been there for three hours! I would have sworn that I got no sleep, but I also would have sworn that there was no way I had been there that long.

At that point I began a bitter inner battle with myself to work out what to do - should I get up and officially pull out of the race or suck it up and at least try to get one more lap? In the end I decided that I had to get up regardless, so I did. I put my shoes back on and stepped out of the van only to have someone wearing a headlamp approach me.

I figured it was the ranger telling me I couldn't sleep in the parking lot or that my snoring had been keeping the cows awake, but instead it was Starchy asking if I had jumper cables. (I didn't, but I had something that was supposed to be just as good - one of those portable jump-start battery packs. It wasn't just as good, and failed to work. Fortunately he was able to eventually find someone with proper jumper cables. The slightly ironic/surprising bit is that he drives a hybrid that has more battery power than any 40 normal cars combined. None of that battery power though can be used to kick start the car if the traditional battery dies. Sorry - that was a long digression.)

Here was the stunning part - I felt great. Really great. No back pain, no sore feet, only mildly tired leg muscles.

I was shocked.

And I headed out for lap nine. Then ten. 40 miles done now and it was an hour or so until sunrise. I was back to being really tired, but that was really the only issue. And cold - it was really cold now. It was about 4:30 and I was tired of the dark. I did not feel comfortable trying to run down that hill at night - it had just enough rocks and ruts that, even walking, I found myself getting tripped up.

So I decided that, since my time was a wreck anyway, to just go warm up in the van for an hour or so until daybreak and finish the race then. I had two big laps to go, then a short lap, and I would be done.  I was astonished that it appeared I was actually going to get this done.

The problem is that it didn't start getting light until much later than I had anticipated. (That's something I would have known if I had started with the real runners, who had to use headlamps for their first lap of the morning.)

So I ended up sitting for almost two hours before I started to see hints of sunrise. I headed out for lap eleven figuring that it should be light by the time I got to the top of that hill, and that I would then be able to actually run down it.

And that's what happened. Before I knew it I was on my last big lap - my last time up that hill.

I forgot to mention breakfast. I'm not a good eater at these sorts of events - my stomach is usually not anxious to have anything put into it.

Photo by Tracy. You can't imagine how good these tasted.
But this race consistently had some of the best food, and the breakfast was a bit unbelievable - you aren't supposed to try new things during a race, but I had to have some scrambled eggs and hash browns. The Best Breakfast EVER!

Now, back to our story…

And my last intimate interaction with that dang Cone of Turnaround.

As I was heading back down (for the last time!) I came across Catra heading up the hill.

Seriously? Still grinning from ear to ear? Sheesh.
I asked her how many laps she had left and it turned out that this was it - lap 25, the last one. This scared me a bit since I really wanted to see her finish, but I was afraid that she would fly past me before I could finish my lap. So I picked it up a bit. (At least by my standards.)

Danni had taken a nap too, but was now out knocking out another lap or two with Naresh. I was still well ahead of her though. No worries.
Photo by RDA volunteer.
I managed to finish my lap about ten minutes before Catra came in. It was a blast seeing her finish - 100  100 milers done!

You didn't think I'd go through all this without a porta-pottie shot, did you?
When I headed out on my short, hill-free lap, I noticed that Bill was not that far ahead of me. I had no idea how many laps he had left for his 100M, but I figured he was getting close. 

But he was moving too fast for me - I tried to catch him but failed. And then he stopped at one of the porta-potties scattered along the course. And I found out this was his last lap too. He then bolted for the finish line. I had no hope of keeping up with him, but was happy with the above shot.

Photo by RDA volunteer.
And before I knew it, I was done. It was an amazing feeling to have gone 50 miles like that!

There were still a few people out there pushing to get their 100 miles done, but I was exhausted and needed to get home to give Mrs Notthat a break with the grandkids. So I gave Bill a ride to the BART station and headed on home.

This race was something else. The only other looping events I have run are the Brazen Dirty Dozen races, where you have twelve hours to go as many times as you can around a reasonably interesting 3.5 mile course. I've always felt that any shorter/less interesting of a course would drive me crazy.

And I still think so. This course was fine though, and while I came to dread that hill, it made the race tolerable. (I ended up with about 5000 feet of elevation gain - the most I've ever had in a race.)

But having been through this now, I'm thinking doing a similar race with just the two-mile loop is possible. There are two other races here that do that: Razorback in March and Run de Vous in August.

Even Mrs Notthat, she of the "One 50K in a lifetime is plenty" mantra, is talking about taking a shot at one of these races.

Keep an eye out for wild flying pigs.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.

PPS: Danni kept going on Sunday, pacing several runners to their 100M finish. When I finished with a time of a bit over 22 hours, I figured I had DLF (Dead Last Finisher) locked up. ("Sub-24 hour 50M finish BAAYYBEEE!) Then Danni stole that from me with her over 32 hour 50M finish. And she did a bonus lap or two so she also got more miles in. Revenge will be mine. (Probably not, but I can dream.)

PPPS: About that late start; I would have liked starting with the others just to get more time on the course in the daylight. But a bonus of me starting late was that I had a full night of sleep before the race started - starting at 6 AM would have meant getting up at 4 AM or so, and a not very restful sleep. Come Saturday night, I would have had much more trouble staying awake. Which makes me even more impressed by the runners that started early and kept going all night - that's a skill all on its own, and one that I will need to hone in the future.

PPPPS: About the night running with a headlamp; I was surprised at how many people were out there with no lights at all. The moon was reasonably bright, so you could see a bit, but I would have really been in trouble without my headlamp. Especially on The Hill. I assume anyone without a headlamp was doing that on purpose, and maybe I would give it a try on the two-mile loop, but wow!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The new ITR Mt Tam Half course ain't like the old one

Last year I ran the ITR Mt Tam 30K course, which I chose because it had the bonus of dropping down into Muir Woods. For this year, ITR changed the courses around a bit, and now the Half course also drops down into Muir Woods, so Mrs Notthat and I signed up for that race.

Mas (not his real name) literally kick-starting the arch.
The weather was stunning and the skies very clear. This is always a great thing here since it means the views from the hilltops would be spectacular.

Mr ITR: "How many of you knew that "Tamalpais" was Canadian for 'If you thought that hill was tough, just wait'?"

There were many friends running the various distances at this race. Mr ITR said this was their biggest race ever.

The 50K and 30K distances started first. The shorter distances had to wait for 30 minutes before being turned loose on the trails.

The Marin Headlands, and Mt Tam in particular, are infested with steps. All kinds of steps, including crazy ones that are specifically there to trip you. It adds to the charm.

"Hey Dipsea Bridge! I'll see you (a lot) later!"
We started on the Dipsea trail. At this point, the Dipsea trail turns right, and going straight takes you up the Steep Ravine trail - a trail so dangerous it has its own warning sign. About a ladder. Trust me - that ladder is the least of your worries.

How about narrow, uneven steps? Clinging to the side of a cliff? (OK, it's not that bad, but it's a lot of fun to pretend it is. And it really is no fun to stumble in these parts.)

And then we got to the newly rebuilt ladder.

And squeezed through these trees.

After about three miles of steady uphill climbing, you reach the Pantoll parking lot. You now get some mild rolling hills to get you to the first aid station.

The first aid station, mile 3.8, is at the top of Cardiac Hill, whose name has more to do with coming up it the other way. It's also the home of some tremendous views.

Leaving that aid station, we began a long downhill sprint.

Which confused me a bit.

This is the elevation chart for the Half that was on the website:

We had gotten to the top of that first big hill, and we should have had a long bit of fairly rolling downhill, followed by a steep drop and a nasty climb.

But none of that happened. Instead, this is what we did:

We headed down a lot, then immediately started heading back up. My mind was prepared for the second nasty climb to start at about 8.3 miles - instead, it seemed to be starting at about 5.2 miles. By the time I got to 8.3 miles I wasn't so sure I was still up for a big nasty climb. As it turned out though, by 8.3 miles we were nearly done climbing and there was no last big nasty climb. (I refused to believe that until I made it back to the aid station again, mile 9.9. And to be fair, there was a short nasty climb once we rejoined the Ben Johnson trail, but by then I knew where I was and that I would survive.)

Since I walk the uphills, I don't mind so much if the trail has obstacles. Running down this though would be an opportunity for some expensive dental work.
Blue ribbons mean "Don't go on this trail!" You didn't have to tell me twice for this one.
Anil (not her real name), who was not part of the race but out just for some training fun, showing her surprise at seeing me still on my feet.
The great thing about getting to this Cardiac Hill aid station a second time was that there was no more serious climbing to do. Just a ridiculous number of crazy stairs to go down.

Working an aid station is seriously fun. These two made me a bit nervous though - what exactly was in that electrolyte drink?

I think I mentioned that there were views. Lots of them. The problem is that since I am heading downhill, I'm actually running a bit, and getting distracted by a view can lead to bad things happening.

Mr Michigan Bluff Photography lurking in the trees, taking awesome pictures of tired runners.
Selym (not his real name) was busy taking quality pictures all throughout the race. I managed to come across him here, during one of the few places that was downhill and step-free.

This is the picture he got of me at this point. Anyone that can make me look that much like a runner is a true artist!

This is the picture he got of Mrs Notthat a bit earlier, just before the woods.

There were a lot of steps to go down.

But then you get to the bridge that we saw earlier, make a left, and storm back to the finish line (which is still over a mile away, but most of the treacherous bits are done now).

And you get to see your destination, Stinson Beach, which looks distressingly far away still.

Eventually you really do make it to the finish line and are done.

Mrs Notthat had beaten me handily (naturally), but I was surprised to see her hanging out at the medical tent. It turns out she had fallen twice and had a fair number of scrapes to prove it. (Thankfully, her clothing wasn't damaged.)

And that's about it. It was a great race on a great course - I loved the new Half course. I get a kick out of coming into Muir Woods with tourists looking at you kind of funny then getting bug-eyed when they work out that you just ran over from the coast.

These trails are the best in the Bay Area - if you haven't done a race here yet you really should. They are hard and you will be thinking dark thoughts at times, but then you reach the top of a hill and see the glory of the area and feel completely rewarded.

And then you trip over one of those dang steps and go sprawling off the trail.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.