Monday, May 12, 2008

Saving the Sacrificial Calf--Exceeding My Expectations and Faking a Heart Attack at the Quicksilver 50-Mile Run

Not since my rookie days as an ultrarunner a few years ago have I approached a race seriously thinking I might not finish. Deciding to go ahead and run Quicksilver 50 mile this year was definitely the stupidest running decision I've made all year. But somehow, instead of "DNFing" I "DNC'd"--did not crump. If stupid and risky, my decision yielded in certain respects my best performance of the year.

Post-Miwok, Pre-Quicksilver

Even without injuries, Miwok 100 km would have left me beat up enough. But the right calf strain and the resulting biomechanical problems including right knee pain, which dashed my hopes of a sub-9:30 time and PAUSATF points (or simply, an enjoyable, "good" run) continued all week. I couldn't even fully stretch my right calf until Thursday, 2 days before Quicksilver. Walking up stairs remained a workout all week, especially when carrying my chunker baby. Running was out of the question. "Training" was limited to bicycle commuting: sub-4 mile bicycle rides to and from BART on Monday, and 7 miles each way to my other worksite on Wednesday.

On Friday at the playground to which I often take my toddler after his preschool, I taught him the numbering of bases and the order you run them in, having witnessed kids older than him playing organized T-ball and not having a clue about what to do after they hit the ball. My son enthusiastically ran about 10 "home-runs," but wanted his daddy to round the bases a couple of times too. Heading toward 2nd base at a slow 15 minute mile jog and not feeling quite right, with that lingering pain in my right knee, I had to convince myself that tomorrow would be a new day, and I would be a new person, with new legs.

Transportation Issues and Hybrid Cars

The family plan, enabling me to run this race, was that I had to find someone close to home to carpool to the race (thanks, Chihping!), and then convince our friends in Mountain View to have us over for dinner (thanks, Song and Tim!) My wife would pick me up in afternoon in our Prius, my older son napping during long car ride (thanks, Honey!)

Once again, I get up early-- this time 3am-- and can't get back to sleep. I drive off in our Rav and head toward Chihping Fu's house in Fremont. I think I'm early, but trying to get onto I-880 south, I hit a construction detour, which makes me do 3 loops before diverting me north to exit and reenter the highway so I can go south. It is like a deja-vu of my hell ride to Miwok last week, but fortunately, the highway itself is not closed off, so I don't have to do anything desperately illegal or dangerous.

Chihping is all ready in his driveway and I get into his Prius.

Chihping, driving. I took 3 photos by his car when we arrived, and for some reason the flash didn't work for any of them. For another lame photo of him (of his rear-end), see my Ruth Anderson race report. For pictures Chihping took during the race, click here. Chihping always takes photos of me running during races, and I return the favor with these lame shots. Don't I suck?

I thought I used to get great mileage with our Prius, even before the hilly commute to my older son's preschool every day, but Chihping is a master. Sorry to geek out on you all, but check this out:

Fascinating photo of Chihping's consumption display panel after we arrived showing his average mileage of 61.5 mpg since last filling up 515 miles ago. He probably can go another 80-90 miles before his tank empties. I don't know any other Prius drivers who get this. He does have the mileage advantage of forced low-velocity local street flat miles in his daily commute, but still over 60 mph average is damn good. He is a hardcore ultrarunner in more ways than one.

Despite arriving at 5:25, we can't park in the lot. It seems the number registered for both the 50 mile and 50 kilometer races increased more than 30% in one year, probably partially due to Miwok filling so fast. Despite the minor inconvenience, I'm glad this great, well-organized race is finally getting the enrollment it deserves. I have plenty of time to organize my start/finish drop bag, use the Porta-potty. My first year, 2 years ago, I arrived late, and despite getting a lift to the start, got my number AFTER the clock started, and found myself pinning on my bib-number bib over the first mile, which required a lot of finger coordination.

dawn at the start, full parking lot

I go to get my race number, and it's supposed to be something like 318, but it's missing, so they have to give me another. I'm a little disappointed they didn't give me 3 for coming in 3rd overall last year, but less for missing the mini-ego boost (remember, I'm expecting to run badly today) than for a practical reason. The numbers are huge and the bib feels almost as thick as cereal box cardboard and I can't fold it up small like I usually do. Little do I realize that the 344 I get as a replacement is very fortuitously portentous.

will name the front row only: Devon Crosby-Helms, Sean Lang, me, Jady Penko, Victor Ballesteros. photo by Scott Dunlap, ripped off his blog report

Steeplechase or 50-Mile Trail Run?

The course goes slightly down for about a quarter mile before going up up up on fireroads. I talk with 2 consecutive year course record setter and 2006 Western States Graham Cooper. He asks about the guy who literally sprints way ahead at the start, and I tell him he's Jady Penko, and that he will pass after a few miles. Graham says he feels he's in better shape than last year, based on his Wildflower performance last weekend. After about a minute or two, I call it quits with conversation with a true elite while running. I won't see him until around the mile 41 turnaround, on his way to breaking his course record again with a 6:35:28.

Graham Cooper later, when in 2nd place, photo by Chihping Fu

So far, minimal pain. As the course starts heading up, gobs of runners bolt up. I'm quickly out of breath. I feel somewhat demoralized. Obviously I'm going to be tired from my 100 km race 7 days earlier, but instead of accepting my fatigue and chilling out, I feel compelled to get left too far behind. It's not quite panic, but insecurity I feel at not being front pack or right behind. Sean Lang starts chatting with me, we're both breathing real hard. I'm thinking this is crazy. I hear Scott Dunlap and Devon Crosby-Helms chatting it up first behind, then ahead of me. They don't sound at all out of breath. I'm way too strained to even think of trying to join a conversation. (Scott would write in his blog that I was smartly pacing myself--whatever-- I was about to die!)

Sean Lang, lubing up pre-race

The sustained uphill finally ends, and as the fireroad descends, I find I can pass several runners, and then maybe a mile later there is a turnoff to rolling single track. I'm always happy to get on the very fun, gentle and well trimmed single track of New Almaden Trail (click for photos). I pass Adam Ray who I know is in my 40-49 age group, and catch up with Jady Penko. We run off and on with Sean Lang too. I am careful not to bowl over the skinny, anorexic-appearing Jady with my massive hulking body. :) We approach another runner, who unexpectedly pulls to the side to let us pass. Some people really hate to have people running right behind them, I surmise.

After the single track, it's a fireroad again, mostly uphill. I ask the guy who'd stepped to the side if I know him, he says he's Ian Torrence, from Ashland, Oregon. He actually works at Western States 2007 winner Hal Koerner's running store. Only after the race do I find out how chocked his running resume is-- about 90 completed ultras, a sub-9 at last year's Miwok, a 3:36 PR at Way Too Cool, eight sub-6:30 of JFK 50 mile finishes, a sub-18:30 PR at Western States, just to name a few. He's 35, so I tell him I'm not racing him.

We join with another runner. I ask his name, be says he's Tony D'Alessio. I recognize the last name--"yeah, you were the guy running right behind me at Rucky Chucky--great job." (He finished 6 1/2 minutes behind me. Since there were so many people I'd never met and didn't recognize at that race, I never learned what he looked like.) He gives me an "are you on crack" look, and a brusque "I wouldn't say I was 'just behind you.'" Hmm, maybe he's pissed I beat him? "So I think I saw your name was Joseph in the results...." He cuts me off, "That's just my legal name."

Well, I guess race etiquette does not require anyone to engage in chatty conversation.

Ian and I soon recognize a pattern, in which he passes me on the uphills and I pass him on the downhills, which will hold for most of the race. If you want a good course description, there are several good ones in the reports I list at the end of this posting. It's funny that even with my 3rd straight year running this, I run most of this race mildly disoriented. Following the course's written descriptions with a map of the park is like doing a maze puzzle. Yet despite all the looping back and turning in a different directions and not knowing exactly where all the trails are in relation to each other, I've never come close to getting lost or off course. Amazingly, when I check my splits against my times from 2007 (7:17) and the 2006 (7:51), I am only 1-2 minutes behind last year's faster times.

remnants of the old mercury mines--I can never remember when these will show up. photo by Chihping Fu

About a mile after the 2nd visit to the Dam Overlook aid station at mile 19, I try to pee walking up the trail, but all these female hikers start coming down. Hate it when that happens. Soon, I notice a pack of about 3 or runners closing in from behind, including (I think) Sean Lang, Jon Kroll, and Scott Dunlap. I hadn't seen Scott since I left him at the crest of the first hill. Didn't he just run a 2:47 marathon in Eugene, Oregon last Sunday? I'm blown away. Oh well. I try to pick up the pace, expecting everyone incuding Scott to catch up with me. I want to chat more about his marathon, and maybe get my photo in his very heavily viewed blog. Unfortunately, he doesn't keep up.

I finally catch up with the Asian guy ahead of Ian and me earlier in the race. His name is Toshi, and he actually recognizes me from this blog (you reading this are not alone). This is his first ultra. He tells me his girlfriend won't read my blog anymore because of the potty humor of previous postings. I tell him to let her know I've refrained from explicit defecation descriptions for months. Come to think of it, I think I did briefly describe a pitstop in my Rucky Chucky report from March.

Toshi (full name Toshikazu Hosaka) would finish 5th for the 50 km race in 4:27:49. (Too early for him to stick around long enough to get a post-race mugshot). Great job, especially for your first ultra! And you finished 12 minutes before the very fast Michael Buchanan.

It's up up up back to Dam aid station and then the huge hill overlooking the dam and I get to say hi to all the mid and rear pack runners as they come down. Chihping, as always, graciously takes a few seconds to shoot me.

apparently too fast for Chihping's camera, but I'd rather look at the pretty dammed lake anyways

The return to the Mockingbird start (and end of the 50k race) involves what is known as the "roller-coaster hills," a gauntlet of steep ups and downs in quick succession before running the final mile-long descent to the finish. It's pretty brutal. I approach this section carefully, but can feel the strain on my calf and knees.

At Mockingbird, I go to my drop bag and quickly dump my gloves, fluorescent green Moeben arm sleeves I got as Miwok swag, and put on my Julbi sunglasses, which fit over my glasses without making me look geeky. I am ready for the sun!d

After the 50k mark, it's up up up to start basically a 19-mile out and back into Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. I pass by Ian as he relieves himself like a true gentleman at the side of the trail. Fifty mile racers actually have to do some of the roller-coaster hills again going out. On one of them, my calf comes the closest all race to spasming up. In fact, at this point, it's not just the right I strained at Miwok, but both. I have to slow down to a walk. I think Ian and Tony D'Alessio both pass me while I do this. Then the long ascent to Englishtown--I really have to take it easy to keep the calves from tightening. I add 2 minutes to split from last year. It's easier for Chihping to photograph me at my slower pace.

Finally arriving at Englishtown (mile 35.25), I'm surprised to see Mark Lantz, whom I assumed was 30 minutes ahead of me. "You're all alone now--I'm dropping." I'm in disbelief. He explains his ITB is flaring--it's too painful fighting it. No shame here, after his 9:10 at Miwok last weekend.

Rena Schumann and Mark Lantz, shivering at the race start. If you can't tell, Mark is sort of being dramatic here.

I feel bad for him, but don't cry too hard because wow, now I'm first in the master's division!

On the fairly flat single track coming out of Englishtown I catch up with Ian yet again. We stay fairly together throught the next aid station, Hicks Road only 2 miles farther.

I am able to stay with Ian on the runnable uphilll to the Sierra Azul aid station at mile 41.4 and highest elevation of the course, and we turnaround. After seeing Graham Cooper and then Chikara Omine about 20 minutes later, I am surprised we reach the turnaround without seeing Victor Ballesteros, Firetrails 50 mile 2007 winner, who I knew was ahead of us. As it turns out, lots of people, many quite fast, drop from the 50 mile race.

Chikara Omine, just undeR 7 hours, 2nd overall

Bringing it home: running like a scared chicken

Heading back down is suspenseful, as I finally get to see who's behind me and how close. My main concern is fellow 41-year old, Adam Ray, whom I had last left at behind at the first visit to the Dam aid station. I was able to open a decent gap on the shallow long uphill after that, but knew that my calf problems were slowing me down and he might be close. Still, I was sort of hoping he wouldn't appear for another 10 or 15 minutes.

Lap time reads 2:44 when Adam appears, running up the hill, looking pretty strong. That translates to just under a 6 minute gap--Crap! I was hoping for a nice relaxing finish, since I'm already injured and am running the very hilly Ohlone 50k next weekend. I tell Ian "sorry, there's my main competition, gotta go." Ian probably thinks I'm overly worried, but tell me to go do what I gotta do.

The whole run down is this constant balancing act. I run as fast as I can sustain, breathing very hard, but I continue with each step to monitor my calves, ready to act if they start to spasm. Many more runners appear. I'm running scared, trying to calculate the likelihood of Adam being able to run, say 7:30 mintue miles if I'm running 8:15 minute miles, where I'd be able to turn around and see if he's closing in.

I'm pleased to find I've cut off more than a minute off the 34 minutes I took last year from the Sierra Azul turnaround as I approach the Hicks Road aid station (mile 45.6).

My bottle is still half full, so I swig some Cytomax from a cup, grab a gel and bolt through. On the slight upgrade I hear footsteps right behind me, and I momentarily freak that it's Adam, although that would've required that he run 6 minute miles down the whole hill, but who can think rationally in these situations and didn't Scott Dunlap just cut 10 minutes off his marathon PR last week? Of course it's not Adam, but Ian, who managed to match my surge. He encourages and then passes me, and for the first time all race, our pattern is broken-- I can't catch him on the downhill. He would finish with a very strong kick, 3 minutes ahead of me, and I mind not in the least. Eighteen minutes to the last aid station (3rd visit to Englishtown) and again, no bottle fill just grab a cup, spill half of it on my shirt, one last thanks, and start booking down the hill.

blog author with the speedy and accomplished Ian Torrence post race

I'm sure if I could stay with Ian, he would tell me to chill and stop looking back so much, but I look back every time I crest a hill or clear a bend. I play in my head the plan if my calf spasms. At the finish line, I'm so happy I do one of my stupid bottle tosses. I'm so happy to be able to snap the following photo.

Adam Ray, coming in a mere 6 1/2 minutes after I did

Time to socialize and eat, and take various mugshots for my blog, most of which don't fit with the narrative since I ran with relatively few runners. So I've stuck them here. But please don't skip over the LITTLE MISHAP INVOLVING AN EVALUATION BY A PARAMEDIC below.

volunteers satisfying our stomachs. John Burton on the left. ID's appreciated.

Jon Kroll, 7:42:53, 6th overall (managed to pass the decelerating Tony D'Alessio)

women's 50-mile winner and 8th overall, Suzanna Bon in 7:45:53 (an indispensible endurance athletic tool) master Gary Wang finishing his 13th Quicksilver race in &:57, 9th overall

Top quality finish line food, although they ran out of tri-tip before I knew they were serving it.

again, forgot his name, with my perfectly grilled turkey burger with cheese (Thanks!--worth the wait!), someone please help ID

Rick Gaston finishing, less than 3 minutes over 8 hours, but an impressive 48-minute PR and 10th overall

After an hour or so of hydrating, grazing, stretching, and chatting, I think while talking with Rick Gaston, I start to get worried about my wife and family, scared something bad happened. Just at that moment, I see them! But that also means it's time to go soon.

my wife with Amy Burton & our baby boys (not the moment I first see my family)

911 Code 3? Ultrailnakaman almost....collapses and dies?

So right when we are about to leave, I figure I should relieve myself and walk behind some trees to recycle some nitrogen. As I reach over with my left hand to pull up the lower right part of my shorts (maybe because of that 344 ounce race number bib, but more likely because I usually carry around my infant in my left arm), my left chest goes into sudden sharp spasm. I can barely move my left arm or breathe. People see me grimacing, clutching my left chest. I actually have to grab my left pectoral and squeeze it really hard, because the pain feels it would get tons worse if I let go. Gosh I hate muscle spasms! As I TRY to relax (not so easy), the on-site paramedic guy comes over, recognizes something potentially very bad he's seen often before, and then I get the barrage of questions similar to that I ask my chest pain patients, although I have the advantage of usually knowing their medical history. I know exactly how to answer so can get through it quickly, and tell him I'm SURE it's muscle spasm and not a heart attack. After throwing the name of the Santa Clara County EMS medical director overseeing all the paramedics who used to work with me, he convinced I'm okay and brings me an ice pack.

I should've gotten a photo of the paramedic, but I guess I wasn't in the right position. At least I didn't pee in my pants, since come to think of it, I never did get to pee.

My wife is looking at me the whole time with this bored expression on her face. I get the feeling that she thinks this was a lame tactic to delay leaving so I could eat and chat more (she would confirm this later), so I try to hurry out, and get in the driver's seat.

my older son (behind) and his friend later that day. I though the T-shirt was too coincidental to leave out.

So I came in 4th (7:22:20, only 5 minutes slower than last year, when I came into the race uninjured and fresh). Here's where the bib number, 344, predicted my finish. Since I came in 4th overall in 2006 and 3rd overall in 2007, it was my destiny to come in 4th overall this year, even though 434 would've been cooler. Had I thought of this earlier, I could've relaxed more and not run so paranoid at the end. Sheesh!

race swag: T-shirt for registering with BBQ stains 5 minutes after I put it on that evening, medal for finishing, plaque for placing in my division

race results

OTHER BLOGGED RACE REPORTS, alphabetical by last name, link to the specific race report posting, please let me know of your so I can add it

Adam Blum, birthday boy apparently
Scott Dunlap
Ronald Horii's excellent unofficial park website

first published Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 4:25 pm (sacrificing a great heat-training opportunity!)


Jenny H. said...

Mark, I would've slammed some adenosine into you. That would've been fun to watch.'re heart rate's 150?? 6mg comin' up!

Congrats, dude you're so hard core..

willgotthardt said...

Holy crap, that's the most gigantic bib I've ever really seen...they should have just printed the huge numbers directly on a shirt and made you wear that.

Nice race, I'm pretty sure your calf will feel great on Ohlone course. See you out there.

Will G.

rick said...

Yeah Ian Torrence is a pretty mean racer, mean as in fast and strong not grumpy. I thought it was him when I saw him on that down and back stretch. This was my second time and like last year I thought I got lost at some point during the race. Too many loops around that Dam AS. Anyway I was almost late to spin class earlier reading your gripping your report. Something about the way you write that makes me feel like I'm running. I also like the creative way you said I missed sub-8: "finishing, less than 3 minutes over 8 hours, but an impressive 48-minute PR and 10th overall". Very nice, thanks for the plug and shout out. I'll see you at Ohlone and please no more antics to get more attention.

Sean Lang said...

Mark, you are as tough as nails! I am inspired and humbled by how you gut out these races week after week..

Good luck at Ohlone!


Rajeev said...


Thank you. Thank you. Did we run the same race? :)) Congratulations on your 4th place finish.

See you in Ohlone.


Baldwyn said...

I have to say, that pun in your title was spectacularly top notch. Great job, and great run, and way to save the calf! I'm sure if you really were having a heart-attack Rajeev would have been along to help pump the chest. I hear he was just waiting for that opportunity that day.

Rogue Valley Runners said...


Nice to finally meet you. Enjoyed your blog post, but enjoyed that see-saw "battle" out there much, much more. You looked tough a week after Miwok. I'll look forward to your Ohlone post as well, good luck this weekend!

Though not at all as indepth as your report, I do help out with our store blog at:
There you'll be sure to catch up with all the lastest with us, southern Oregon boys/gals!

Take 'er easy. See ya at Tahoe!

Chihping Fu 傅治平 (超馬阿爸) said...


I enjoyed reading your every report! Very exciting. I felt like having the rare chance of staying with you front runners.

I always admire how you could write the race report in details. The quality is high and with a lot of puns.

Recover well (?) for Ohlone and have another PR performance. I expect you pass me somewhere.