Sunday, August 5, 2007

Chasing My Ghost at Skyline 50k (or, Oh No! The Beginning of The End)

You look fast," I say to this guy I've never seen before, at the start line, hand on his watch, looking like he is ready to sprint.

"Well, I guess I'm here to find out if I am," he tells me.

The fast-looking dude, well, he sort of does start with a sprint, and actually ends up winning.

Maybe his story would be sexier, but this is my blog, and it has some lessons about mortality and tragedy, so listen up.

I came with to this year's race with 2 goals (besides run hard and have fun), either one of which would've made me inwardly feel like a badass:
  1. Beat last year's time, to continue my 2007 streak of setting new personal records in every race to which I've returned.

  2. Get some age-division extra swag. The long-sleeved pine-green tech shirt I barely eked at last year's 25th anniversary race is one of my favorites.

But, since I guess I have a lot of shirts and will only continue to accumulate more, I really want the first goal more. Not that anyone cares if I tell them I've PR'd every race this year. But because as long as I continue to improve my times, it's clear that I haven't started to decline. It's my way of defying the inevitable, of putting off death. How can I say I'm dying if I keep getting faster? With every PR, I grow younger; I defy time.

This spring I turned 40 and cut an hour of my flat 100k, 26 minutes off my American River 50 mile, 24 minutes off my Quicksilver 50 mile, and 16 minutes off my Ohlone 50k (the last one really surprised me). So, I think, it would only be reasonable to cut 10-15 minutes AT LEAST off this early August race on my home course. Furthermore, I have not repeated last year's mistake of again signing up to run the SF Marathon the previous weekend. I bring a little print-out of all my aid station splits from last year, and anticipate shaving a minute or two off each.

As the race starts, I am chatting with Jean Pommier, just back from running and travelling in France. He is very fast at 50 km, and does not appear to be jet-lagged. In fact, I try to hold a conversation with him and Ron Gutierrez, whom I saw last at Quicksilver in May. I run well above lactate threshold on the paved trail that is the first 2 miles of the West side of Lake Chabot. Perhaps I do this because I know they are both in my age-group, and so I'm unconsciously worried about not getting age-group swag. Soon enough I figure out that this is stupid and insane, as they surge ahead. Before the 1.8 miles of pavement gives way to hard-packed firetrail, they and a few others, are out of sight.

My wife and first child, a week after he was born. She was a little unhappy I used this photo, but I think she looks great, 1 week post-partum.

I look back and see or hear no one on my tail. I figure if I keep a decent pace, no one will catch up. I'm wrong.

First footsteps I hear is a surprise: Chikara Omine, the rookie record holder, taking a break from ultras this year. He started the race 3 minutes late. It's good to see him back.

Then a shirtless Juan passes me as we climb the summit around mile 4 just before the first aid station. I am feeling hot in my shirt, and consider shedding it. If his knee has been bothering him, he's still much faster than me.

Finally, after the Bort Meadow aid station (mile 6.3) as the MacDonald trail descends into Redwood Regional Park, this guy I think maybe I've seen, but have never met, wearing a dark blue 2006 Quad Dispea shirt, flies past me, obviously very good at downhill running.

So now I'm in 9th I think, already lower than last year's 7th. I could care less. Overall place was not one of my goals.

Through the 11 or 12 miles around Redwood Regional Park, I see no other runners. Mountain bikers, hikers, dogs and their owners. The outward half to Skyline aid station goes on the firetrail at the parks eastern perimeter. I enter fog and it is drizzly, windy, even cold, and I long for my arm warmers, which I initially was glad I hadn't brought. Coming back, it's mostly single track, fairly technical, with lots of ups and downs. Last year my left shoulder was cramping, so I thought this year, lacking that problem, I could gain a few minutes. Plus, perhaps from the 3 or 4 caffeinated Gu's I've intentionally downed, I'm finally feeling awake. (To understand why I was feeling pretty sleepy for so long, as well as passing so much flatus, see my previous post. [Wait, the gas thing probably isn't evident. There was hummus, these meatballs that my son would scream for, but then not eat, so not wanting to waste food, I'd eat it. And this salad with walnuts and peaches. Maybe too much fiber for the night before, dunno...])

So what I've noticed at each aid station, is that with uncanny consistency, my splits have been almost the same as last year, just a bit faster (2007 time vs. 2006 time):

32:24 vs. 33:09 (4.31 miles)
32:24 vs 33:09@ Grass Valley, 4.31 miles

15:29 vs 15:33 (1.98 miles)
47:54 vs 48:41 @ Bort Meadow, 6.29 miles

22:47 vs. 22:54 (3.06 miles)
1:10:41 vs. 1:11:35 @ Big Bear, 9.35 miles

44:12 vs. 44:17 (5.05 miles)
1:54:54 vs. 1:55:52 @ Skyline, 14.40 miles

53:07 vs. 53:04 (5.87 miles)
2:48:01 vs. 2:48:56 @ Big Bear, 20.27 miles

At the return to Big Bear, I fumble as I stash my Gu. An amused volunteer tells me, "Relax, you have 11 miles to go." Of course, I do not attempt to explain to her the reason I don't relax, give my heartfelt but quick thanks, and boogie out of there. The problem is that I am feeling more tired than I would like with 11 miles to go.

Near the top of MacDonald trail, I see guy with the blue Quad Dipsea shirt bending over, maybe in pain, going slow. I ask if he hurt something, but can't hear what he tells me as I pass by. I was hoping that I'd be able to pick off a runner or two coming back, as an incentive to run faster, but this sort of didn't cut it--no joy in passing someone looking crippled. Plus, I don't care about overall place and he doesn't look like he's over 40, I just feel kind of bad for him. When I reach the gate near the bottom close to Bort Meadow aid, he actually catches up with me--very fast downhill even when injured. I take off without carefully checking what my split time is (In fact, I have lost half a minute and now am only a few seconds ahead of last year's time).

The next leg diverges from the outbound route, traveling on the opposite side of Lake Chabot on single track. I notice my bladder is full, but especially with my cutting the PR-thing so close, I don't want to stop and pee. I'm aware that the first part of the leg is all downhill. So I have to hold it in for 32 minutes (to be exact) before I hit the anticipated steep uphill to do my duckwalk. Relieving the pressure helps a lot, and I try to keep pushing it. I remember last year on this split I passed a faltering Mark Lantz, then passed and was pursued by John Mintz, who at the time appeared to be a lead contender for the Open male division of the PAUSATF Ultra Grand Prix. It was also rather warm by this time, whereas this year it was still cool. I was SURE that I could cut a minute or two, since it didn't seem like 41 minutes had passed when I saw the Honker Bay aid station.

I'm opt to be quick, decide not to fill my water bottle since only 3 miles left. I click my watch and it's 3:55:49. My paper says it was 3:55:18 last year. (Only later do I realize I actually lost time on the split and then wonder if it was the bladder.) Doable. I try to pour it on. Last year, I was being pursued by Mintz, so I was pushing it. How much to push? I wish I could see my ghost from last year, so I know exactly where I need to get to set a PR. All I can do is keep running fast and breathing hard. I start flagging.

Last year, on the paved trail in the last 1.7 miles before the finish, Mintz dashed past me, and I could not mount a response, and in fact he put more than another minute between us in that last mile. I'm hoping now that last year when it was apparent I couldn't keep up, I had eased up, so that I this year, if I don't let up, I can catch myself.

The paved path is marked every 0.25 miles on the ground measured from the start/finish. At the 1.0 mile mark, I look down at my watch and it reads just before 4:13. I'm supposed to defy reality and run a 5:30 mile after 30 hilly ones, but this isn't a fairy tale. I know I'm physically incapable of running that fast (I'm not even sure I can do a mile that fast fresh.) It's over. I come a few seconds before 4:20, a nice round number, but not one of my goals.


So there you have it. I've peaked and IT'S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE.

(See, I'm so over-the-hill, I can't tell the difference between up and down. Thanks, Joe for taking the pic.)

A few burgers and conversations with running friends later (2 hours worth), Race Director Bill White gives out the place awards. I realize that the fast-looking guy is 41 years old. So maybe, as the recipient of a nice jacket, a packet of Zombie coffee and other great winner swag, he'll be excluded from the age-division award, a nice light green fleece vest, and I can get one, even though I'm in 4th. But alas, the prizes only go to the 3rd place guy, Ron Gutierrez, who actually already left (he just had his 2nd kid in July, so I know getting to come out here and run all morning was a granted indulgence he can't abuse--I will that added pressure in but a few weeks.)


And the sun never came out!

But, funny, even as I confront my own mortality and go 0 for 2, I'm feeling pretty good as I head back to my Prius for a quick drive home to entertain some friends, while their toddler son and mine tear up the house.

I'm having a great day. Life is good. Thanks all the volunteers and RDs!

The standard swag, was very nice, nonetheless:



Some links:
Joe Swenson's post-race photo gallery.
3rd place finisher Jean Pommier's blog with post-race photos.


Jean Pommier said...

What a tale, Mark! With Scott, your demons and ghosts make running more psychological than physical. It's interesting to see what can pass through your mind in such races, thanks for sharing.
And be sure you are too young to have peaked at this sport. Try some speedwork, just to know what you are worth on one mile, I'm sure you are closer to 5 mn/mile than you think!


Olga said...

Wow, I LOVED it! OK, I agree, one goal would be nice to heat, but c'mon, things happen, and they absolutely DO NOT mean you are slowing down! Ha, I wish everybody would be getting this worse:) What a great run, and I really enjoyed the emotions recap!

Gretchen said...

Well I'm glad you enjoyed your day anyway, it was still fast! I solve the whole PR thing by continuing to run new distances and new courses, thus every new event is a PR! ;)
Nice recap Mark, and wishing you the best with the soon-to-be new addition to the family!

Rick Gaston said...

Man, I don't know about slowing down. Maybe you're just a little tired from the accomplishments this year. Your ghost from last year didn't have a win at Kettle Moraine or those other PR's. I hear you though, I'm trying to improve year after year myself.

Thanks for the support and I hope to see you soon at another race.

Scott Dunlap said...

Peaked?!? I don't buy it for a second. ;-)

Sounds like a great day on the trails to me, and you were close!


Anonymous said...


You better run RDL this year. I think it would be fun to duel it out again this year. Congrats on your break through at Kettle Moraine. Our paths haven't crossed this year but I have a feeling they will in late September. See you at the start line.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Jon, I'm sure you will thoroughly kick my ass again. If I can cut any time off your 2 hour lead from last year, I will be happy. Unless my wife delivers really really late, I should be there.