Sunday, July 1, 2018

Western States and the Last Chance aid station 2018

For the eighth year in a row, I managed to worm my way into volunteering alongside the Stevens Creek Striders, at the Western States Endurance Run's Last Chance aid station.

A few basics about this aid station for those of you new to this:

  • It's the best. Always gets great Yelp reviews.
  • It's mile 43.3 - just long enough for the runners to get good and warmed up.
  • It's the aid station before Deadwood Canyon and Devil's Thumb. If a runner has not warmed up, this will do the trick. (Or totally break that runner.)
  • We have no crew access and no pacers at this point. As volunteers, we have the runner's full attention.
  • Since part of the course is the "road" to Last Chance, you have to either get there Friday night (recommended since you get to run part of the trail if you'd like!) or by 9AM on Saturday. And you can't leave until the aid station closes, around 5:30.
  • But if you leave before 6:00 or so, you can get to the finish line in time to see the winner come in. (Unless the winner sets a course record.)

This year, Bonnie and I hauled about 1200 pounds of ice to the aid station. This was way more than in previous years, but Superstar Lon at the WSER warehouse insisted we take more than we thought we needed, just to make sure. (He was wise - we went through almost all of it, and it was great to be super generous to the runners, who continue to find more places to shove ice.)

Breaking in the new minivan - I'm sleeping in style tonight!
600 pounds of ice in there, with room for a lot more!
There was one big change at the aid station - for the first time we had a water tank brought in. The spring that we have used for years has been declared to be in an environmentally sensitive area, so we are no longer allowed to use its icy cold water to cool the runners.

An amazingly large trailer for a relatively small 125 gallon water tank.
An advantage of the spring was that we didn't really have to know how much water we used for cooling the runners. A couple of years ago, just for fun, I tracked how many times we filled the four buckets we use. That data ended up being used to estimate how many gallons of water we would need, and we were all a bit nervous about whether we guessed right. (Spoiler alert - we guessed pretty well, but came closer than I would have liked.)

The trail of signs.
My first task was putting up all the signs. This is one of my favorite bits of volunteering here - being able to make signs for people I know, people that I don't know but was asked to make a sign for, and generic signs to try to make the runners smile a bit is a blast.

This is a lie. The dragons don't help at all with the mosquitos.
Eventually, it starts to get dark and the campfire is lit. It's not needed much for warmth, but it does seem to chase the mosquitos away. (Or at least slow them down a bit.)

Sleeping in the minivan was great, and left me fresh for race day.

Most of the Last Chance volunteers. It's amazing how many people come out to this remote location to spend a day helping the runners.
This race has 21 aid stations, which means there are 21 groups similar to ours (including 10 that allow crew access). There are about 1000 people along the course helping 369 runners. And that doesn't count all the people at the start and finish lines and doing other tasks. It always astonishes me how many people are involved in this event.

And, in case you missed it, Last Chance is the best aid station of them all.

Eventual winner with an amazing record setting time, Jim takes his shirt off to soak it good.
As has become the tradition, Jim Walmsley was the first runner in, well ahead of course record time and the other runners, but not as early as he had come in the previous two years. He was also a lot more relaxed and fresh - he is learning about the 100 mile distance and really seems to have the lessons down. Just about everyone I talked to hoped he could keep it together and get the win. (Spoiler alert - he did. And set a new course record.)

"Make me an ice burrito!"
Every year there seem to be new twists to the ice bandana, from the classic basic neckerchief to complicated things with multiple pockets/openings and space age material. (Those with one large opening were the easiest to refill. Anyone that has a way to fasten them without having to tie a knot is a genius.) One challenge is figuring out each one of them, and often involves trying to figure out the knot the last aid station used to tie it around the neck. Putting ice in neck buffs was not always easy, but was also fairly common.

Lucy smiling because her hat's full of ice.
One new trend was the use of top-loading hats with an enclosed ice pocket - these worked much better than just putting loose ice under your hat.

Speedgoat trying for an interesting tan.
Another trend that was started by Walmsley a few years ago was cutting many small holes in your shirt, allowing it to breath better. I don't remember seeing a woman do this, but many men did. Speedgoat Karl said it worked very well, although he said he made the holes too big and wasn't able to hold much ice inside his shirt.

Lon rocking the crop top and Popeye arms!
Another trend was that MANY more people were putting ice in their arm sleeves. It looked really uncomfortable, but it real life, the ice melted quickly and it worked extremely well to get your core cooled.

Brazen Sam getting the works.
Almost all the runners took the time to get soaked before heading out. Some wanted to keep their shoes dry, but most didn't care, and welcomed the drenching. (The water from the tank was cool, but not cold. So we added ice to the buckets, which worked well.)

Cory, true to his "Nowhere Near First" book, being nowhere near first, but looking strong.
Each aid station has a card that lists four important times (with their Last Chance values):

  • Record pace: 11:17 (this will be updated next year)
  • 24 hour pace: 2:05
  • 30 hour pace: 4:20
  • Aid station cutoff: 5:25

The race cutoff is 30 hours, so it might seem odd to keep the aid station open for a bit over an hour longer than that projected 30 hour pace, but a lot can happen in that last 57 miles, so it's wise to let more runners through than the historical projections predict will finish.

Cory Reese was a poster child for that. He came in at nearly 5:00 - well off the 30 hour pace and seemingly doomed. But Cory has great 100M skills. He didn't panic, got iced up and cooled off, then headed off to the canyon. (A number of other runners coming in at a similar time were a bit panicked, and didn't feel they could take the time to get iced and cooled off - I suspect most if not all of these didn't finish.)

Here's some stats:

  • Runners in between 4:00-4:19 - 24, of which 18 finished (14 in the final hour).
  • Runners in between 4:20-4:44 - 22, of which 14 finished (13 in the final hour).
  • Runners in between 4:45-4:59 - 29, of which only 9 finished.
  • Runners in between 5:00-closing - 11, of which none finished.

We had five runners drop at our aid station, most due to missing the cutoff.

Once the aid station was closed and packed up, I headed down to the finish line in Auburn, but was too late to see Jim finish. My intent was to hang out until the race was over at 11:00 on Sunday morning, but I was kind of a mess. I think the heat really beat me up at the aid station, plus a couple of friends that I wanted to see finish ended up missing cutoffs and had to drop. In the end, I took a bit of a nap, saw a few friends finish, then headed home early.

"There's a guy in a crop top on the track!" Lon makes it look good though.
Mandie was the official Last Chance runner (each aid station is given a race entry), and got her second finish in a row! 
While it was good to get home reasonably early, it was sad to miss that golden hour - those runners that come in in the last 60 minutes before the 30 hours is up. An astounding 66 runners finished this year in that last hour. All of them had been pushing the cutoffs for many hours and had to spend a second day in near record heat (this was the ninth hottest year ever, and the second hottest since I started showing up).

Looking back at the Last Chance stats, Cory was one of the nine in that 4:45-4:59 group that finished. With over four minutes to spare (YIKES)! He was the last runner to leave Last Chance to get a finish, and only one runner finished after him. That's truly impressive!

Volunteering at Last Chance is a lot of work, but it's so cool to get to interact with both the elites and the mortals, to play a small part in their races as they all try to score a buckle.

Or at least Popeye arms.

That's it - move along…

PS: One of the most horrifying things that can happen at an aid station is for a runner to leave something behind. But it happens, especially when we get really busy. We try hard to avoid that, but we did have a few times where we had to chase down a runner to get them their sunglasses or a water bottle. We only ended up with one item that we couldn't get to the runner because he was long gone - an ice buff that was likely sorely missed. That's the first time in my eight years there that I remember this happening, but I suspect it's a bit more common than that. I really hope that runner made it and was able to use a backup.

PPS: Here are links to more of my pictures: The Signs and The General Shots.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Loopiness has its place

There are several events that take advantage of the roughly one mile loop around the Crissy Field Marsh, creating timed events for runners to test their endurance with little risk of getting lost or being far from aid. I like timed events and the views of that area seemed like they would be perfect for breaking up the monotony of endlessly running around that loop, but I had never managed to make it to any of these events.

So I was happy that it worked out for me to attend the Pacific Coast Trail Runs San Francisco One Day event, even if only for their shorter six hour duration. I knew a fair number of people running the race and knew it would be a blast, no matter how badly it went for me.

Simplified and wildly not to scale course map.
There are a number of challenges to this simple course - the mix of pavement and gravel, some very sharp turns, and some potentially bad weather (being right on the bay by the Golden Gate Bridge can result in very cold strong winds). And fog - always with the fog.

One other big challenge is that this area is heavily infested with tourists - the views of the bridge and Alcatraz are pretty stunning, and if it's a nice day, the beaches are a blast. The RD managed to schedule amazing weather for this race, which meant the tourists (and many locals) were out in force. Dodging selfie takers, many with bikes left scattered all over the place, made this a bit of an obstacle course, although it did help break up the monotony, and I'll take selfie congestion over bad weather any day.

The event started at 6 PM on Friday and went to 6 PM on Saturday. I think the Friday evening start was a new thing, but I'm not sure. It certainly added to the challenge for those in the 24 hour event since they either had to try to nap during the day or else start the race and immediately head into sleep deprivation issues.

For the shorter time runners, there was a bit of flexibility for when to start. Basically, a new race could start every 6 hours (6 PM, midnight, 6 AM, and noon). I took advantage of the noon start on Saturday, which meant I could sleep in a bit and would be on the trail as the 24 hour runners were wrapping up their races, meaning I had a chance to look fast by comparison. (I didn't.)

Apparently I'm now the "Crazy Cat Guy" - the remarkable thing was that she was able to get the cats to sit still long enough to make those portraits!
The start/finish area looked a bit like a homeless encampment - there were tents, chairs, coolers and a wide variety of other things randomly strewn about. Since I was only there for six hours, I had little need for much space - just somewhere to sit my bag with my bottles. The Amazing Karen was having none of that, and made me a really fun sign - I'm now officially the "Crazy Cat Guy" (which I was asked about by one of the other runners).

All Day Ken's ironing board aid station. It really helps to have a high "table" like that! And it's made him famous in Sweden!

 RD Greg: "If you see any sleepwalking 24 hour runners, don't try to wake them by yelling SNAKE! Unless you are recording video at the time."
I think there were seven of us that started our six hour event an noon. RD Greg explained how the looping system worked - we had to run our first five laps in the clockwise direction, and after that, we could change direction any time we crossed the start/finish timing mat by immediately recrossing it at the end of a loop.

Being able to change directions like this is pretty novel, and I think a great idea. What it meant was that you ended up seeing runners coming at you as well as going in the same direction, which made for a lot more interaction than normal at these sorts of events.

Ed "The Jester" was there doing his amazingly consistent pacing around that loop - it's always a blast too see him at these events.
Pen upstaging the Golden Gate Bridge with her awesomeness, on her way to second place in the 24 hour!
Getting serenaded while looking out at Alcatraz.
The midpoint timing mat and one of our biggest cheerleaders!
It's not really possible to cut the course (you could cut a bit off, but it would be very obvious you were doing it), but it is pretty easy to falsely trigger the start/finish timing mat, potentially giving you credit for a lap you didn't actually do. With the ability to change directions, you had to try to remember which direction you were going if you stopped to rest, use the toilet, or eat at the buffet. Having a midpoint timing mat took a lot of the guesswork out of the process since it served as a "second opinion" on how many laps you did, and was not subject to the false triggers of the other mat.

Also, I'm not sure, but I think if you crossed this mat and had time expire before you crossed the finish mat, you would get credit for half a lap. (After my last lap, I was a sure I couldn't complete another lap in the remaining time, but I could have gotten to the halfway point. Granted, then I would have had to come back without credit for the return. But maybe I could have talked some tourist into giving me a ride on their bike.)

Yes, there were a few puddles you could splash in, but you had to wait your turn.
This is Chikara. He ended up with nearly 130 miles in the 24 hour event. His speed after 23 hours was still way faster than my speed with fresh legs.
Someone was pretty happy with her 100K buckle!
A nice thing about these timed events is that you really only have to complete one lap to be considered a finisher. This means runners can set their own goals, which don't necessarily have to be all that related to the time. Alina had her sights set on reaching the 100K distance, and it was so cool that she made it with hours to spare (which made her more than a bit thrilled!).

Loren looked like he could keep on going for another day.
Loren had as his goal to hit 100 miles in less than 24 hours for the first time. He really pushed himself as was able to get it done with enough time left over that he could make several cool-down laps. (Those laps pushed him to fourth place overall!)

"Which way do I go?"
A funny bit - on one of my laps, as soon as I hit the bit that goes along the road, I heard "Pick it up NotThatLucas" over a loudspeaker. I worked out that it came from a passing Park Police vehicle. Tourists stared at me and nervously gave me lots of room to go past them. Ace was on duty that day and was able to spend a bit of time encouraging us while answering tourist questions ("That can't be the Golden Gate Bridge - it's so red!").

Picture Ace took of me. Indeed, the Golden Gate Bridge is not gold.

Two pictures of me in a row - sorry for that. Once I drained the bottles I brought, I switched over to rocket fuel.

Shrina and Ed handing out at the food tent.

The food that was available was really great (regardless of what that chicken's expression might make you think). Shrina and Karen made sure nobody went hungry or thirsty.

The start/finish arch.
I may be the "Crazy Cat Guy," but I'm not wearing a chicken on my head! (Although I also didn't get nearly 83 miles out here either.)
Soon The Jester is going to need a bigger chair to hold all his race buckles!
The yellow wrist band made it easier to figure out which runners were doing which times out there - a nice touch!
I ended up with 21 laps and a tiny bit over 22 miles, which was the furthest I had run since way back in August of 2016. This was pretty encouraging, especially since I came out of it with only normal soreness. It was extremely sunny and warm, which made the afternoon breeze actually fairly welcome. (And the sunburn unexpectedly fierce.)

This is from my Garmin. The little handle on the right is not part of the course though.

That handle shows my two trips to the bathroom. (I like how it looks like I had trouble finding the toilet, or escaping it.)

The course is reasonably flat.

But if you work at it a bit, you can make that "reasonably flat" look much more challenging. (This shows the one time I decided to try the counter-clockwise direction. I was surprised at how many people in the race that I almost never saw just because they were going the same direction as me.) Clockwise worked better for me since I was able to hug the "inside lane" and it seemed a bit easier for tourist management.

The race was a blast! It was fun seeing so many friends hit their goals and other friends pushing their friends to hit those goals.

Even those wearing chicken hats.

That's it - move along…

PS: Here's a link to more of my pictures from the day.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

13.1 under 3 at 200 = 300!

Trail running is not really about math, but you don't have to look hard to find that it's reasonably infested with math. Especially if you toss in a few milestones.

My Half Marathon at Brazen's Western Pacific trail race had the milestones that brought on some math.

First, the race.

I've run and written about this Half a number of times (here's my 2017 report), so I'm not going to get heavy on the details. It's flat, wanders around some small lakes before a long out-and-back, then wanders around those small lakes again.

Two weeks earlier I had a non-inspiring 4:27 finish at the creek- and hill-filled Diablo Half Marathon, so I had no reason to expect this Half to be very inspiring either. Last year I ran it in 2:42, and for this year, I decided on a wildly optimistic "A" goal of breaking three hours, with sub-3:30 as a much more realistic "B" goal.

But I had a super power for this race - for the first time in quite a while, I was facing off against my Arch Nemesis.

I asked her to make a mean face. She failed. She's just too nice.
Yram (not her real name) was pretty pumped up before the race. She was sure I was vulnerable and that she would whip me. I was actually pretty sure she would too - the longest run I had done before this was a 10K at Hellyer a month ago (there was a LOT of walking at that Diablo Half). That 10K had left me as a quavering puddle. And it was not a fast 10K. I figured at best I would be able to run 8 or 9 miles, and then have to walk the rest.

My Arch Nemesis would not be walking.

I loved all the kids handing out water!
I quickly lost sight of her after the start, and by the first aid station, about mile 1.8, I had no idea how far ahead she was. I was still moving fine though, so I just kept up my slow and steady pace.

"Which way do I go?"
Once we finished with the lakes, we had a long, fairly straight stretch - the out-and-back bit. I would certainly see her then, and I knew I couldn't be that far behind - I was moving well (for me).

There she is!
By the second aid station (about mile 3.3), I had her in my sights. This was the 10K turnaround - unlike at Diablo, I was not tempted to drop down to the 10K; I had an Arch Nemesis to track down!

Caught her! Well, maybe…
At about mile four, I came up beside her. I thought I had her! The right thing to do would have been to put on a bit of a sprint and open up a gap on her. I told my legs this was going to happen. My legs told me I was crazy. And while I was arguing with my legs, Yram decided to open up a gap on me. Before I knew it, she was out of sight again. Her turbo boost was really impressive!

The third aid station, about mile 4.6. And I think one of those two people way ahead of me is Yram. At least, that's what I told myself.
Catching up to her again. 
The trail has a short paved bit that dodges over to the road to cross a bridge before coming back to the creek. My Arch Nemesis was right there. I was hoping that her sprint to open up a gap on me had tired her out, but I wanted to make sure and pass her this time. So I managed a small burst of "speed" and "whipped" past her.

I'm not that far ahead of her, but for the first time in this race, I AM AHEAD OF HER!
We were at about mile six by now, and I knew that my legs could fall apart at any moment. But they felt good for now, so there was hope that if I could keep up this pace, I could continue to open this gap.

Picture of me by Hcaep (not her real name) just before the next aid station. I think that's Yram back there a bit.
The fourth aid station, about mile 6.7, and our turnaround point!
I was anxious to turnaround and see how far she was behind me.

"Not far at all" was the answer. My passing her had not broken her spirit, and I knew that I was now heading into territory I had not gone into for a long time (almost a year) - every mile I was still running was a new best for me for the last 11 months. And having to take walk breaks could start happening at any time.

The fifth aid station, about mile 9.1, was captained by Refinnej (not her real name). I asked her to tell Yram that her shoe was untied when she came through. It turned out that she has a reasonably devious mind - when Yram showed up and asked how far ahead I was, Refinnej said "we haven't seen him yet." What an excellent mind game!

In any case, I was feeling pretty confident now since I was still feeling OK, and feeling like running the whole Half was actually a real possibility! I had slowed a bit, and my calves were starting to feel like they wanted to cramp at the first excuse they found, but the flat, straight course gave them no excuses.

The sixth aid station, about mile 10.3. Less than a 5K to go!
"Which way do I go?" "Back to the lakes for you!"
I could almost smell the It's-Its.

The last aid station, about mile 11.7. I could hear Mr. Brazen announcing finishers now! 
The finish! Finally!
And I did it! I managed to run the whole course and finish just barely under three hours! And more importantly, beat my Arch Nemesis! (She showed up shortly after me.)

Now for some math.

The first fun thing was that this was Brazen's 200th race! They started in 2009 and have built up a fine stable of races and a fiercely devoted following.

The second fun thing was that this was my 300th race!

I found two notable things based on the number 300 - a car by Chrysler and a movie. I'm pretty sure they are not actually related.
I ran (hah - actually walked) my first race in 2009. Like most people after their first race, I was pretty sure that was it for me.

Then I learned about trail races.

Among those 300 races are a 1 mile and a 1.5 mile race, but the rest are at least 5Ks. This is also including my DNFs (9), which some purists might argue shouldn't count, but I'm hardly pure.

  • Average race distance: 10.9 miles.
  • Average time per race: 2:54
  • Average elevation per race: 1340 feet (that really surprised me)
  • Average number of races per year: 35
  • Average entry fee cost per race: $50 (considering a number of races were free after volunteering and DSE races cost only $5, that number seems really high)
  • Races volunteered at (not counted in the 300): 47
  • Races crewed/cheered (not counted in the 300): 17
  • Total number of races I've been involved with in some way: 364 (almost an average of 43 per year!)
These numbers astound me. They also show that maybe this hobby has gotten a bit out of control. 


It's still under control.

Mostly. Kind of.

That's it - move along…

PS: Here's a link to more pictures I took at the race.