Sunday, August 26, 2007

Post-Headlands 50k (Gastro Problem Revisited)

Maybe to understand what happened to me this year and why it happened, we have to go back to last year's race.

At Golden Gate Headlands 50k 2006, at the aid station shortly before the Pantoll parking lot (mile 12 or 12.5), I grabbed a potato, dipped it in salt and stuck it in my mouth, and eventually swallowed it with a few sips of sports drink--my usual race potato routine. Within a few minutes, I started getting water brash-- my mouth filling up with watery saliva, my stomach starting to churn. I slowed down to try to extinguish the nausea, but to no avail. Several times I hurled, first the potato, then some liquid, then dry heaving. When I should've been cruising downhill, I just vomited downhill. Several people passed me. I eventually recovered, but not without losing at least 5, maybe as many as 10, minutes between puketime and a slower pace.

(Since neither Scott Dunlap nor Chihping Fu was following me at last year's race with his camera, I had to steal this graphic image (unfortunately not of a trail running guy, but at least she looks Japanese) from the internet:) [PLEASE BE WARNED, EARLY READERS HAVE FOUND THIS IN POOR TASTE, BUT I NEEDED A GRAPHIC...CLOSE YOUR EYES AND CLICK PAST IF EASILY QUEASIED!]

So this year, no potatoes. Which meant no potatoes dipped in salt. Maybe it was the overcast skies, but I underestimated my losses to sweat. I should've taken an electrolyte cap every hour for security, but it seems I've becoming too fast at aid stations for my own good ("Fill it with sports drink please." Toss gel wrappers. Stash new gels. "Thanks." Run off.)

The other prerace event I neglected to mention last post, was my late-night calf spasm. Something like 3:30 in the morning Saturday, half-asleep, I stretched out in bed, dorsiflexing my ankles (pointing my toes). Perhaps I was low on potassium, perhaps I hadn't been stretching enough due to a tight work schedule, perhaps because I wasn't running enough due to a 2-day no-running taper, but my left calf cramped up suddenly --aaaaugh!-- and I had to breathe deep for half a minute and try to relax without waking up my easily stirred wife and only partially sleep-trained toddler. I end up getting out of bed trying to stretch out my calf. I'm not sure I really returned to sleep before my 6am shift. I knew that this could be a problem during the race the next day.

My race went well for the first 3 hours 45 minutes. I probably went out a little too fast over the sandy beach, but did get good position for the following single track (no one pushing me aside or holding me back), and did ease up and recover. Early on I dechicked myself of 2 of the top 3 women. I even for the first time ran without walking all the way up Miwok. I was cutting about 1 minute off each split from last year, and indeed at least 5 minutes off the pukepotato split down to Stinson Beach (about miles 13.5 to 16.5).

On the ascent back up to Pantoll, I started feeling tight in my calves, but didn't put 2 and 2 together. It was my body telling me something. I didn't listen.

Maybe because on the descent to Muir Beach (miles 20-25), I was able to really hammer it, passing Ron Gutierrez (we've been beating each other out with close times for 2 years), and gaining on the women's leader, Beverly Anderson-Abbs. I left the Muir Beach aid station at 3:39:21, almost 11 minutes faster than my split last year with a sub-4:40 well within my reach (since it took me less than a hour from Muir Beach to the finish last year).

So after the Muir Beach aid station, I whizzed past Bev. She told me "great job" and I answered "Well I didn't race 100k last weekend." (She did Waldo plus a couple extra miles and did very well.) I then ascended the hill and gained enough on her that I could safely and decently unload my distended bladder (the only other mistake was not doing this during the uphill from Stinson Beach).

I set my sites on my next victim, some guy in blue, when I felt 2 slight successive twinges in my left and right calves. Uh oh. The increased tightness didn't seem to go away, although no acute cramping. I had pinched a little salt at the aid station, but I realized that wasn't enough. I should've downed and stashed some of the lyte caps.

Cresting the first hill of the Coastal Trail to Tennessee Valley, I realized I'm in trouble. As the trail rolls along the coast, I knew I had to slow down since the sudden use of my calf to push off could set off a cramp. I didn't look back, but I know that both Bev and Ron are gaining on me. I looked up the final ascent of that split (at a little past mile 27), starting with a steep staircase of railroad tie steps. I climbed them without running. After fewer than 10 steps, suddenly my left calf spasms, like it did the night before. I put all my weight on my right leg so I can try to relax my left calf, and of course, the right leg suddenly spasmed. I went down, landing on my right side trying to relax my gastrocs and forcing large deep breaths.

Within a minute, the soon-to-be crowned USATF 50 kilometer trail women's champion, Bev, came up.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I grimace, my calves spasmed."

"Do you need anything?"

"Uh, yeah, do you have any lytes?...caps?"

Bev stopped, pulled out two. I asked her the completely irrelevant and stupid question "Is this legal?" Like it matters since I was in 18th or something place. She reassured me it is, as she stepped over me, rechicking me with grace and style.

Subtract something like 10 seconds from the women champion's time. Thanks Bev!

Beverly Anderson-Abbs receiving her national championship award (photo by Joe Swenson):

I down the tabs, wait maybe another quarter minute for the spasming to subside on its own. Obviously I didn't absorb the lytes that fast, but it would help prevent further cramping and another fall to the ground, and probably allowed me to finish minutes rather than an hour behind schedule.

On the descent, Ron Gutierrez, who'd I'd passed so fast, returned the favor. After Skyline, that's 2 races in a row he's edged me. I hobbled down the trail to the final aid station, which unfortunately is limited-- no salt, no lytes. I deliberately made doubly-concentrated Gatorade (the drinks were different at each aid station) in my bottle and set up the final hill.

Caren Spore (photo at finish above by Joe Swenson) then redoublechicked me near the top. I could not totally blame my injury for this one, since Caren suffered the entire race with a quad and hip that cramped up the first mile (and would hurt her for at least a week later); this was a legitachicking. I stopped several times to stretch my gastrocs, but I'm least I wasn't walking. At this point, it was survival and preservation--the last thing I wanted was the rupture my Achilles' tendon or gastrocnemius +/- soleus muscle outright running down the hill to the finish. Normally I really pound the descent, but this year I was too crippled.

Ironically all the well-meaning hikers and volunteers told me I'm looking and doing great-- I knew better. I came in at 4:49:50, which I later learn was just 14 seconds off last year's time. Maybe this was a divine omen (God giveth, God taketh away....) Good thing I already blew this year's PR streak at Skyline.

The first thing I did after crossing the finish was hobble to my car and call my brother's house fairly close to the race, where my family and I had spent the night before. My sister-in-law finally answered her cell.

"Hi, did my wife go into labor?"

"No, not yet."

Another break for me. It was my son's nap time, so I could hang out for a couple hours.

I'll take this as a valuable lesson. I'm going to be more diligent about stretching my calves (maybe I'll do Downward Facing Dog with my son every night), and during races pay attention to my lytes (I should've already known better about the lytes). If anything, I'm very lucky this happened at the end of a 50k, and not in the middle of a longer race.

with 8th place overall finisher Chikara Omine (photo by Joe Swenson)

Some links:

More photos at the finish line courtesy of Joe Swenson (1st place in the 50-54 year age division).

Photos taken during the race by Mark Haymond.

Jean Pommier's (11th overall) race blog with photos he took on a training run a few weeks earlier.

Ed Baker's (4th overall) blog including his race account.

Devon Crosby-Helm's (3rd place woman) blog account.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Pre-Headlands 50k

Wow, lots of fast runners for tomorrow's race. Should be interesting who makes top 10 and in what order. I already made a comment on Scott Dunlap's blog about the people to watch for.

I'm just happy that I'll be making the race. Although my wife isn't. She'd rather have gone early, but, dunno, though I'm no obstetrician, maybe there is an advantage to staying in the womb for the full 38-40 weeks. If I had missed the race for that reason, I was going to still get the T-shirt and then print "DNS" with the date & time of delivery, and his weight and height.

My last good training run ends up being last Wednesday, 15th. That day I drive the car to the dealership for the pre-paid 5,000-mile maintenance, take their shuttle into snotty, gated community at base of Mt. Diablo, run up to the summit and down a different way. Return missed calls from dealership that car is ready, keep losing reception. Driver says he wouldn't pick me up in Alamo, only Danville. I call my wife, she confirms the Hap Magee Park along the Diablo to Trampas regional trail borders Danville, so call the driver back, tell him I will be there, and kick butt for 45 minutes through Alamo and barely make the day's penultimate pickup, and before 680 gets too nasty-crowded. Great 4 1/2 hour run!

Friday 17th is supposed to be another long run, before I do overnight shifts all weekend. Unfortunately, my son gets a febrile illness Thursday, is sent home from preschool and has to stay home Friday. He's up a few times at night screaming. By the morning he's more than recovered and bouncing to play. I cannot justify leaving him with his mother all day, so I scrap that plan. During his afternoon nap, I sneak out to do a loop on the trails near my house. At the bottom of a gentle incline, I suddenly wipe out, my filled bottle explodes Gu2O all over my face, and I get trail-rash all over my L side including a large gash on my left palm that any deeper would've needed stitches. Luckily no orthopedic issues. In retrospect, it happened because there the sun gives way to shade, the dirt is a little loose, and I am not watching very close.

My first two overnights are tough. Sunday I wake up late morning, and I'm back during my son's naptime to do the same trails as Friday. I'm really careful not to wipe out. I come back and shower as my son wakes up. We start playing. I start getting chills. He starts playing harder. I start feeling nauseated and weak and tired. Plus my shift that night starts at 9pm instead of 11pm. I bail and feeling guiltly go to bed. I wake up sick. But barring death or dismemberment, I must work. Every chance I get, I lay my head by the computer, and I even lie down on a stretcher a couple times. Luckily the shift starts slowly and by the time things pick up I'm not feeling as sick.

Still, it takes a few days to completely recover, so Monday and Tuesday, when I'd normally do training runs, I don't run. Wednesday's too close to hammer a lot of miles. I run the same trails for 100 minutes. Thursday I run 50 minutes to work, and drive home the car I left there Wednesday.

Much more than a taper than I'd normally like. Maybe it will work to my favor-- I'm probably too fidgety with running to taper enough. On the bright side, I didn't get right BEFORE the race. In any case, Headlands 50k is too competitive a race to expect to place highly.

It'll be great seeing everyone there. As long as I don't check my phone afterwards with a message that my sister-in-law drove my laboring wife to the hospital...

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.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Typical Pre-Race Scheduling Hassles

My "ER" job involves shift work, and the shifts are all over the place. I ask my scheduler to only schedule me for morning shifts the day or two before a race. However, as a frequent racer, with disproportionally specific date and shift requests, I don't always get what I want. Then I have to hang out with George Clooney way too late, sometimes only a few hours before a long run. (That's me on the left.)

So, a week before Skyline 50k, I look at my August calendar and notice a very suboptimal pre-race work schedule. It's not heavy, just all evenings:

  • Monday 7/30-- 1:30 pm to midnight (7.5 miles from home)

  • Tuesday 7/31-- 2:30 pm to 1 am (15 miles)

  • Wednesday 8/1-- 1:30 pm to midnight (7.5 miles)

  • Thursday 8/2-- on call, meaning I could get stuck with any shift

  • Friday 8/3-- 3 pm to midnight, not in ED, but at regional call center in Solano County (45 miles)

  • Saturday 8/4-- OFF, wife's cousin's birthday party downtown SF, starts at 5 pm for those like us with little kids

  • Sunday 8/5-- RACE starts at 7 am, short drive from my house

I'm supposed to have home-course advantage, but this schedule bites. From the point of view it would be better to have to travel two hours to the race but not have those evening shifts. I don't always leave on time, I have to shower and eat before I climb into bed, and often I'm wired from my shift and need time to chill before I can get to sleep. Although I'm not working Saturday, it's almost an hour's drive before I'm home on Friday. So I'll go to bed on Friday no earlier than 1 am and then my son will wake me up as early as 6:30. And remember, it's supposed to be the night before the day before the race when you are supposed to sleep well. And no matter how tired I'll be Saturday night, it will be hard to go to bed early.

So, the big problem is Friday night. The problem, if it not already obvious, is that none of my colleagues is a complete loser. No one will happily volunteer to work 3pm to midnight on Friday, even if they like me.

So early in the week I call and email Ralph (name changed to protect his innocence), who's working the morning 7 am to 3 pm shift at the call center. I might have a chance, since like me, he has a baby-toddler and therefore no party-life.

Dude. Anyway I could get you to switch shifts, or take my shift? Make me an offer. No pressure, though, if it's a problem.

Ralph gets back to me. He's cool with it, and he doesn't extort me by asking me to take an overnight in return, but his wife is going out with her Mom'n'Tots group Friday night, so he'll have to be home to watch his son starting 9 pm. I then am really irritated that the hours for this call center shift, which used to be 8 am to 10 pm, were increased just this month to 7 am to 12 midnight, and split into two.

We recently have been able to do half of our shifts remotely from home. The only reason we sometimes have to drive way up north across the Carquinez Bridge is there needs to be a doctor to sign off on phone prescriptions for certain common ailments via protocol screening questions by the nurses.

I call/email the scheduler, who also is the liaison with the call center.

Is there any reason one of us HAS to be up there write Diflucan for cheesy vaginal discharge at 11 at night?

The answer, fortunately, is that the clerk still goes home at 10pm, so if I can find someone to cover remotely then, I don't have to stay the last 2 hours. I offer to cover Ralph's morning shift, so I'll work 7 am to 10 pm, as well as fulfill his condition that I cover the first 3 hours of Ralph's shift starting at 10 am on Saturday, which is the urgent care clinic before the 9 hours in the ED , so he can get enough sleep after working until midnight for me. Yes, for the race, I'd rather work all day Friday and 3 hours than have to drive 45 miles home on Friday.

ALL SET, MUCH BETTER! (not ideal, but better...)
Fifteen hours straight taking calls from nurses 2 days before. (I would take an unpaid break and go jog, but it's taper time. Call center workers have one of the highest burnout and suicide rates, and indeed I usually start wanting to kill myself. Running 15 hours is FUN, but 15 hours taking calls is HELL.)

The only other controllable variable is that I have to make sure I do not drink too much Saturday evening, just because I have a designated driver with my pregnant wife and the bar and food spread, as always, will be excellent.