Monday, September 8, 2008

(Barely) Avoiding the Cramp'n'Crump at the Stevens Creek 50k

In years past, race director Steve Patt would hold the Stevens Creek 50k in March as a birthday present to himself. The race was often cold, windy, and wet, and I guess in 2006 one runner was crossing the torrential river on a slippery log and went into over his head. (He didn't drown.) But all the volunteers including the head volunteer, his wife, Debi Jamison were cold and wet too.  So last year he decided to do it in September. It was a beautiful day apparently. The only danger about a race in early September is that it can get really, brutally hot.

Joe Swenson and I decided to carpool to the race. Since he and his wife will be driving me up to Rio del Lago later this month, I offered to drive him to this race.

At 8:45ish, he calls me on my cell from the race start in the parking lot at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve off of Skyline Boulevard in the mid-peninsula. "Uh did I get the date wrong?"

"Uh, dude, yeah."

Apparently he'd shown up at my house, and after I didn't answer my phone, had the good judgement to not ring my doorbell and wake up my whole family. Then he drove another 70-80 minutes to the start.

Sunday, he arrives at 7:30, a little later than I'd hoped, but we make it there as Director Steven Patt is giving his pre-race speech. I fill prepare my water bottles, drop off my check (in lieu of an entry fee, RD Steve asks all runners to make a voluntary contribution to the Santa Clara Audobon Society), get a bottle of S-Caps at wholesale price from Pierre-Yves Couteau, running his first 50k (although he completed Firetrails 50 mile last October) then figure out who showed up.

The sun's bright and it's already approaching 80 degrees before the race starts. I'm glad I'm wearing my Sportiva tank top, although I suspect I might get some sunburn.

listening to race instructions (photo by Craig Heinselman)

Because there are only 3 aid stations during the course, and the first 2 stretches are 10.9 and 8.4 miles long, I bring 2 water bottles, but decide against a hydration pack. My shoulders and arms are already sore from having schlepped tons of stuff up and down our stairs to my car and to from the parking lot to this local swim hole for my younger son's first birthday party the day before.

We walk to across the parking lot and then Skyline Boulevard (route 35) to the start. I quickly pee in the bushes, wondering if I had had the time to use a toilet (I didn't), if I could gave produced something more solid and substantive, and then wonder if I'm going to have GI problems from all the catered Filipino food I ate the day before-- lumpia, egg rolls, pancit and barbequed meat skewers--not exactly pure carbo loading.

Steven uses me as an example of a fast runner who should make his way to the front since the course starts off with a lot of narrow single track. I see Ron Gutierrez, who finished 2nd at the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 (in which I finished 36th) and beats me about half the time we run the same race, and we catch up on recent race stuff.

I'm soon having trouble keeping up the conversation, especially on the uphills, which Ron does very well. He's been suffering from shin splints, and sounds like he's been training as suboptimally as I. Pretty soon this older guy I'd never seen before catches up with us, looking very relaxed, and then passes us. We both work to catch up with him. I find out he's Bruce La Belle, and that he's 53 years old, 12 more than Ron and me. He keeps losing us on the downhills (and the first 5 miles are more down than up).  I ask Ron "who the hell is this guy?"  At one point Ron is almost up with him and I'm lagging behind. Okay, so now it's not just Ron, but this guy 12 years older. If I thought I had any chance of winning this race, it just went down below 33%.

Bruce La Belle, after finishing in 3rd overall

A few miles in, Ron starts lagging and soon I can't see or hear him behind us. Bruce admits to having come in 2nd at Western States in 1984, so I feel a little better. He took at decade long break from ultras, and just started running them again.

The course starts ascending more than descendingm which isn't Bruce's forte and soon I'm running alone.  Okay, so maybe I can win this thing, I tell myself, and I try to keep a steady effort, while not feeling I'm killing myself trying to keep up with anyone. In between all this are hoards of mountain bikers, some of whom comply will the rules of the trail "bikes yield to hiker (and runners) yield to horses", but some, well, just suck.

David Combs at mile 11 (photo by Craig Heinselman)

At the first aid station, I recognize David Combs, and Rajeev Patel, who fills up my bottles (thanks, man!). I get some ice to stick in my cap and then set out the wrong way (I was supposed to go back the way we came, but I hadn't had time to study the course map beforehand.) I'm surprised that the first person I see running the other way is not Bruce or Ron, but a woman I don't recognize-- my lap split is about 2 1/2 minutes, so I have a gap of 5 minutes on her, not including time at the aid station, which is presumably longer than average for everyone given it's the first in almost 11 miles. I see Bruce at about 3:30 and then Ron shortly after. I think Pierre, who sold me the S Caps, is not far behind. The course finally crosses Skyline Boulevard, at the first turnaround aid station for PCTR's Skyline Ridge 50k I ran 6 months earlier. By this time, my left calf, which went into spasm over the weekend as I tried to pull the heel of my clogs over my heel while stopped at a red light going to my overnight shift on last Saturday night, is increasing feeling like it's going to go into spasm. Five or six times I stop to stretch it out, and once I retie my left shoe suspecting I had it tied too tight and that was making the problem worse.

coming to mile 19 aid station (the start/finish), photo by Jean Pommier?

My split at the start/19.3 mile/finish aid station is 2:55. Of course, I have no idea how far back my nearest competitor is, so I try to be efficient and fast.  After having one bottle filled, I dump the other along with my car key (one of those bulky smart ones) since I hate running with 2 bottles and it's only 6 miles to the next and last aid station, chug a cup of sports drink, then cruise out. In my haste, I forget to grab more electrolyte caps, I realize later. I finger my shorts pocket and note half reassured that I have one left.

Making my way up the big hill heading toward Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, I look back to see if anyone is catching up, while feeling my calf still about to spasm. Finally I reach the summit with a beautiful view you will have to imagine.

Normally, it feels really good to crest a hill and start running down.  Plus, there's often a nice breeze cooling things down. Today, not and not! Instead of just my calf, my whole body now feels like it's going to go into spasm. I would slow down a lot, but again, I have no idea where everyone is, and I suspect that my slower pace for the 2nd third of the course shortened my lead. I swallow my lyte cap sooner than I'd planned. I get a little psychological boost passing some volunteers checking the course.

I think the two with the white shirts were those volunteers (Matt Thau and John Behring?)  in this photo taken after the race, and the other 2 are runners.

My bottle almost empties at 3 miles. I save a little but even just as a psychological measure, it's futile.  Maybe dumping that 2nd bottle wasn't so smart.

Mile 25 aid station volunteers, including Jean Pommier, photo by another mystery volunteer

Finally I get to the 25 mile aid station. I tell them I am SO not feeling well, so they tell me I can take it easy, since I was WAY ahead of everyone at the 20 mile aid station. While another volunteer fills my bottle, speedy Jean Pommier takes my bandana (swag in our goodie bags, with a map of the parks in which the course runs printed on it) and dumps in water and ties in around my neck, then similarly with my cap. I down 2 caps and take 2 to go. They point me further down the trail, but apparently I'm just supposed to go a little ways to the gate and then come back. It's really short to the gate, so short in fact, plus there's no sign saying turnaround, so I'm not sure that's what they meant, so I try screaming to them "is this the gate?" as if they could hear me. I'm delirious and not thinking very clearly. After a few seconds deliberation, I just decide to come back and I ask if it was the gate and they tell me it was the gate.  Great.

maybe returning from the exciting gate episode (photo by Jean Pommier)

I head on out, eager to see exactly what they meant by WAY ahead. Since I was so behind on fluids, I may have drunk too much, or maybe what I drank I did too fast. I'm feeling somewhat nauseated. After 6 minutes without seeing anyone, I calculate at least a 12 minutes gap, so I can go 2 minutes per mile slower than the person behind me. 9 minutes--3 minutes per mile. Finally at about 12 1/2 minutes, as I end a series of uphills, I see Pierre coming. 5 miles to go, so I can go 5 minutes per mile slower and still win.  I can puke a few times and maybe still win.  What a comfortable cushion!

But I still have to get back without a major disaster, like getting way lost, or badly injured. Just one bad spasm and I'm done. I walk more of the uphills. Approaching the final large summit about a mile and a half from the finish, I look at my watch and it's 1:47. Can I finish under 5 hours?  Do I really care?  No, but I need any goal to get my butt moving.  With a new goal, I start jogging up the hill again. Suddenly I'm blasted with a wave of heat rising up against the windless hillside from below. Forget it.

about a mile and a half to go: "Should I start running?" I ask Craig Heinselman as he aims.

He tells me not to, since it's good to see me looking more human.  Nice compliment since I usually look like a dork.  Thanks, Craig for taking photos, and you get to deduct at least 20-30 minutes from your time.

The course goes down a different path to the finish, and once again, I don't get to enjoy gliding effortlessly downhill but run crippled to prevent anything from spasming.

At the finish, I feel as happy to finish as I feel.....finished.   I'm offered the chair. It takes a long while for my breathing to slow down, as I'm handed bottles of fluids and start to graze on zucchini bread and Togo's sandwiches.

the finisher's tent with some more awesome volunteers and the RD and his wife at right

We stage the ceremonial photo, of RD Steve handing me the winner's plaque.

Pierre comes in almost 37 minutes after me.  Great performance for a rookie on such a hot day! I start to get worried, because it's the sort of day where someone might collapse, like at Ohlone in May.  (Luckily no one collapsed.)  For less compassionate and more selfish reasons, I'm worried because I can't leave until Joe finishes.  If Joe crumps out on the last 12 miles, it would be a long time before I could get home. I was on a deadline, since I had promised my wife I'd babysit and put to bed both our kids and my niece, as well as make sure my twin nephews went to bed on time, while she and my brother and his wife went out to eat. I offered this as a way to get to do this race and be gone leaving her with the kids all morning.

The first female comes in almost an hour after me, but it's not the woman I saw leading at the 11 mile turnaround. Apparently Lina McCain's won this race before.

Fortunately, Joe come in 7th, a little over an hour after I.

We're all happy just to finish.  By the end 36 of the 59 starters would finish, most of those who dropped did so by mile 19. I never got a chance to find out why Ron dropped, but I imagine it might have been his shin splints. He is extremely tough, as I found out at Firetrails last year.

Before we get into the car, I make it a point to pee. I haven't peed all race. Not that much comes out. Whoops. I suspect that I never adequately hydrated out in the heat all day before for my infant's first birthday party.

Thanks for all the volunteers, who weren't exactly lazing around a pool on such a hot day! Steve is good to list them Debi Jamison (his wife), Dave Combs, Stan Jensen, Sanjay & Vik Waghray, Mollie Whisler and children, Rajeev Patel, Bob Power, Bob Hirt, Jean Pommier, Christine Miller, Tom Davis, Lisa Cogar, Brian Hawkinson, Penny Beeston and friends (course marking), Buddy Pohl (course marking), Matt Thau and John Behring (course checking). You all rocked!

So my work for the day isn't finished yet. To get to do this race without incurring any guilt or parental debt, I promised my wife she could go out to dinner somewhere nice with whomever and I'd watch the kids. So as soon as I shower quickly at home, we drive up to Marin and I put down our baby, my older toddler son and my nice, while eyeing my older twin nephews, one doing something pyromaniacal in the back porch, but their house doesn't burn down.

My baby wakes up in the middle of the night, and for over an hour is either crying or screaming happily, so no one sleeps well and I feel pretty sick the next day.  However, no regrets.  It's just another post-race ultrarunning hangover.

official results

first published Wednesday, September 10, 2008, at 2:15 am, 6 hours before a plane flight (so sorry this was a little raw....)


Bob Gentile said...

so I feel a little better. He took at decade long break from ultras, and just started running them again.
Not a bad pace for a 53 year old who took a decade off--lol

COngrats Mark great re-cap and way to grab the lead then finish strong.

awwww poor kids look beat & then the baby laughing in the background--great pic :-)

Recover well you stud. ...knock out a first place 50k finish then make it back for babysit duty ...your my hero !

John Behring said...

Good job Mark, you rocked! You are a good runner and writer. Thanks for giving Matt and I some props too. : D We'll check the course anytime for ya.

Dave - Atlanta Trails said...

Congrats on your win, Mark!

That was one hot Saturday morning!

Peter Lubbers said...

Hey Mark,
Congrats on yet another win! Noce work.
Take care,

Scott Dunlap said...

Way to brave the heat! I was up in the Oakland hills, and it wasn't any better. It's so tough to shake those spasms once they kick in.



Catherine said...

Great job Mark. Glad to have you back blogging, we've missed ya.

You and Scott should have been in San Francisco enjoying chocolate instead of running so far inland. Perfect weather and a lot less sweaty. :)

Lots of kudos for the babysitting. Love the give and take.

Anonymous said...

Another great run for you despite the cramping. Sorry I haven't posted a comment in awhile. I took a little break after Kettle and spent the summer running shorter races and spending time with the family. I'm back now and gearing up to set the record at the Heartland 50 miler on October 11TH. Glad to hear everything is going well for you and your family. Take care.

Alan said...

Congrats on yet another great victory! As always, I loved reading your report.