Thursday, April 9, 2009

Saved by the Gel-- Overcoming the Wall at the Lake Sonoma 50

Since I might die this weekend during my ridiculously long run (or at least freeze my California balls off-- weather forecast: rain first day, then low first night of 31 degrees with winds 10-20 mph), I figure I should get this report out now, lest it never get published.....

Since the Lake Sonoma 50 was my 17th shot at the half-century distance, you'd figure I'd have it all down-- training, tapering, pacing, hydration, nutrition. Finishing? No problem. Even 6 days after my last ultra.

Hee hee hee....

The drive from my brother's to the lake early morning Saturday, March 28th, takes about 70 minutes. The last 13 miles off Route 101 winds through beautiful wine country, though it's too dark to see anything.

Chau Pham checking in, John Medinger, Lisa Henson, ?, Stan Jensen

After check-in and a trot to the bushes when it's apparent the wait to the double Port-a-lets is longer than the 10 minutes until the start, I'm ready. No water to put in my bottle, but since I drank a bottle on the drive and it's still chilly, I figure I'll be okay running dry until the first aid station.

As always, Jady Palko darts off way ahead of everyone, and maybe 1 or 2 others behind him. I intentionally try to keep up with Ron Gutierrez, whom I haven't seen since Stevens Creek 50K last September, when shin splints (I think) prevented him from finishing. Ron ran the inaugural Lake Sonoma last year when it hit over 90 degrees, but with only one bottle he was forced to drop on the return. He pushes the pace, running with the determined intensity of having a score to settle, and soon enough I can't keep up with him, despite running faster than I think I should be. Too fast for 6 days after a 50k, and too fast for the terrain that is mildly technical while the lighting still dim. Around this time, eventually winner Jon Olsen passes me, obviously better able to control his pace at the start than I.

Jon Olsen, new course record holder

I soon realize that this race is a great complement to the Diablo Trail 50K (actually 54K) I ran 6 days ago. Where Diablo has lots of expansive views over ridges, Lake Sonoma involves weaving in and out of forest, on more technical single-track, with changing views of the same lake.

photo by finisher Anil Rao

After the first stream crossing, I see two very fat downed trees above with 3 ribbons tied onto them. I climb over them, banging the front of my left ankle, which I soon realize produces the same effect as mildly straining it-- it's tight the rest of the race. Over the logs, the trail heads both left and right, and I hesitate. The guy right behind me says "it must be this way," heading right. Only 45 miles later on the return to do I realize that the trail to the left was simply the trail winding around the downed trees, and that my clamber was a waste of time, energy and ankle comfort.

The first aid station, Island View (mile 4.7), is accessible to volunteers by boat, and to runners via a quarter mile detour off the main trail. Because I carried an empty bottle from the start and the next aid is 7.3 miles, I down two cupfuls of Gu2O and a Gu gel, in addition to stasing a gel in each pocket and getting my bottle filled.

Heading out, it seems the many heading into the aid station behind me are closer than I'd thought, perhaps compelling me to push the pace a little. Two guys stick close behind me for the next few miles. One tells me "Thanks for doing all the're setting a great pace!"

Great pace or not, I balance my mild left ankle pain by inverting my right ankle on some uneven surface hidden by leaves. I limp only briefly, figure I'm okay for this race, but decide that I should take it down a notch, lest it cause problems in the upcoming weeks.

One of the guys drops back, and I start chatting with the other, a newbie defector from road to trail running, Nathan Yanko.

Near the end of the long 7.3 mile stretch are several small stream crossings, at which we nimbly dance on rocks to avoid getting wet. But soon, that exercise seems silly as we get to a wide creek over our ankles.

photo by Steve Patt, 2008 race

Soon after is the long awaited Rancheria Creek aid station (mile 12.1), named after the creek. Not long after we encounter another creek, but without any hesitation, just run right through it.
I always suspect that any runner who is a rookie at the distance still running with me several miles into a course is a 2:30-2:45 marathon runner, and Nathan confirms his PR is 2:40, to which I reply "whoa, you're fast....once you get this ultrarunning down, you have the potential to be really good, a true elite runner." Perhaps with all my blathering of my recent and upcoming races, and this "you're fast" comment, he pulls ahead well before the Wulfow aid station (mile 17.4), but I actually keep him occasionally in sight up to the halfway turnaround.

Nathan Yanko a year ago, still running roads. photo by Martin Taylor.
The trail becomes less treacherous after the first 15 miles, with more open stretches, and the rapid up and down give way to more sustained climbs and descents.

To illustrate, here's the elevation profile for the course:

The Liberty Glen aid station (miles 20.2 and 29.8), like the Rockpile Road halfway turnaround aid station, is atop a large hill.

Near the lake at the 22 mile trough, I see 2 guys in military fatigues carrying crossbows, which is slightly disconcerting....
As usual, my Garmin Forerunner undermeasures mileage, so the turnaround comes closer than I expect (it reads about 24 1/2, rather than 25 miles). Jon Olsen is probably less than 1.5 miles ahead of me, and 2nd through 4th (last year's winner, Dan Barger, Ron Gutierrez, and Nathan Yanko) are actually not that far ahead. I finally pass Jady Palko, after passing and getting re-passed by him in the previous miles. We chat one last bit, before he sends me ahead. Second race in a row that I didn't pass him until after mile 25; previously this would happen much earlier.

Jady Palko finishing just under 9 hours and 10th overall

Although I think that maybe I can catch the guys in places 2nd through 4th, I'm pretty happy with how I'm running. I figure that seeing how close everyone is behind them, they are going to hammer it down the hills. Thirteen days before a 150 mile race, I figure I should give my knees a break.

me coming down one of the hills after the turnaround, photo by Anil Rao

Apparently those guys ahead of me feel good enough to pick up the pace, since I don't see them ahead of me, even when climbing bigger hills. With no runner to reel in, I decide to relax a bit, listen to my body, and make sure I end this race able to recover in 13 days for my next one, 3 times longer.

The nice thing about out-and-back courses is you get to see, face-on, everyone running the race. I say "good job" or "same to you" to everyone. Unfortunately, I don't know the names of everyone who greets me with "Great job, Mark." I am racked with guilt.

As I turn a corner and suddenly hear a sudden loud noise-- mountain lion?!-- it turns out to be two mountain bikers, but I'm still alarmed and have to veer out of the way. Other than this incident, I do a good job relaxing and enjoying the beautiful scenery.

photo of the far side of the lake by Steve Patt, 2008 race

The views indeed are great. Although it's warming up, it's not unbearably hot, and I help stay cool by soaking my sleeves with the sponge bucket water at the aid stations.
At one point, I start feeling queasy and am hit with a wave of nausea. My mouth fills up with water brash, which I spit out, dreading a sudden urge to hurl. It doesn't make sense-- I've eaten nothing but gels, feel balanced with my fluids and lytes (I was remembering to take lyte capsules), and am not pushing the pace. Fortunately I'm able to get over the nausea spell. Perhaps unfortunately, I think to myself that it was good I hadn't eaten anything solid.

At Rancheria Creek (mile 38) is awaiting my extra bottle, an insulated Ultimate Direction bottle, and I have it filled witch ice water. The bottle I've been carrying gets filled with Gu2O. I stash 3 gels, but no more since 4 in the back starts flopping up and down too much. I feel I am prepared for the long 7.4 miles before the Island View station. The splash through the creek feels good, as it is warmer, and I know my feet will dry quickly, especially with my fast-draining Sportiva Crosslites.

I finish the Gu2O in about 3 miles as planned, and fill that bottle up with cool stream water to spurt onto my head and neck to keep cool. The drinking water in the extra bottle is still cool. I then plan the consumption of my 3 gels--at miles 4.5, 5.5 and 6.5, more frequently then normal since I have water and no Gu2O.

RD John Medinger had given me bib #41, I am guessing because I am 41 years old. My 42nd birthday is in a few days. So perhaps it is only fitting that in the transition from mile 41 to 42 that I get into big trouble. Within the span of a minute, my tank empties, I am unable to run, then I get lightheaded and almost pass out. Happy birthday!

I stop, avoid becoming horizontal, but don't feel too much better. Almost due for my first gel, I take it out, suck out every last molecule, swig some water. Still dizzy. I'm standing on level ground, but can only walk. I still want to space out my gels, but I realize that if I were in a video game, I'm flashing red and about to die. So I take another gel out, and carefully squeeze it dry.
Two regrets-- 1: not carrying caffeinated gels-- I had suspected that I sometimes can't sleep well the night after races because I'm so wired from caffeine, to which I'm fairly sensitive. So I had decided to avoid too much caffeine after the turnaround, taking care to ask for gels without caffeine. 2: bigger regret: not carrying more gels.

I no longer feel lightheaded, but I'm totally drained of energy. After a mile or so, I decide I need to get moving and I finish off my 3rd and last gel. I can now run a little up the gradual uphills, but only slowly. I fear my tank will empty again any second now, still surprised no one has caught up with me yet.

No one does until I'm at the last aid station (mile 45.3), which comes none too soon. Joe Palubewski comes shortly after me, then leave, telling me I will probably catch up with him. "No I won't," I tell him, but he's gone before I can explain.

Joe Palubewski (5th) & Ron Gutierrez (4th)

Screw 5th place. I'm hungry. I am SO not leaving anytime soon.

For those unfamiliar with Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which is a pretty good children's book, aside from the unforgiveably huge biological inaccuracy of saying a caterpillar turns in a cocoon before emerging as a beautiful butterfly (only moth caterpillars turn into cocoons; butterfly caterpillar change into chriysalides), the protagonist, after a gradual increase in his intake from Monday to Friday, goes on this feeding frenzy on Saturday, eating through about 12 food items, mostly high calorie stuff like a sausage, a pie, and piece of chocolate cake.

Well, like him, I basically go all-out at the aid station, eating about 4 of the little PB & jelly sandwiches, a handful of pretzels, 4 pieces of watermelon, and washed down with 2 bottlefuls of Gu2O-- a lot for the last aid station of a 50 mile race. I would never recommend this to anyone, but I as I do not want to tank again in the 4.7 miles to the finish, I can't control myself. I do all this in about 5 minutes (my average aid station stay is under a minute). I grab a huge handful of pretzels and energy chews, wrap them in a napkin, and stick them in my largest back pocket. It's ridiculously bulky, but since I'm so full and bloated from my feeding frenzy, I figure I can manage. As I head out, I continue to work on the stash, popping 2-3 gels and pretzels each at a time every 5 minutes, the whole way back.

Amazingly, no one else catches up with me during another positive split. (For the 7.4 mile stretch, it took me 98 minutes on the return versus 64 minutes on the outbound; for the final 4.7 mile stretch, 68 minutes return versus 40 minutes out.) I am prepared to sprint if someone starts approaching from behind, but having endured enough exhaustion, I figure I'm allowed to be relatively a little lazy.

Heck, I'm just happy to finish, and to learn that I can still screw up my nutrition on 50-mile run #17. I actually don't think I've hit the calorie wall nearly that bad during an ultra (prior catastrophes due to low sodium). And I'm still wondering, does having just raced 34-35 kilometers 6 days earlier have something to do with it or not? Questions, mysteries..... Ultrarunning rocks!

As it turns out, I came pretty close to being chicked, as talented local Suzanna Bon finishes less than 2 minutes after me.

Suzanna Bon, female winner, 7th overall, and race volunteer organizer, with wine bottle prize

Nathan Yanko ended up passing all the 40-something runners, coming in 2nd place. I told him too bad no rookie award. I don't feel too sorry for him, though, because he'll have a nice collection of overall and age-group awards in a few years.

The swag is pretty amazing. Everyone gets a balck Brooks jacket (like the AR50 jacket from 2006), but they have leftover tech-fabric T-shirts from last year, along with socks and stuff, so I get a shirt, and they give me a skort to give to my wife. An Ultrarunning tech cap is always useful, and then lots of packets of the chews, 2 Vespa gels and other food products. I carry the loaded sack 50 yards to the car. Screw that!-- I then drive it back across the lot so I don't have to walk across it again, drawing chuckles from a few watching me.

Georgeanna Quarles with finisher's jacket

The post-race food hits the spot and is equally first-rate. Two varieties of freshly made tamales by a local vendor.

I stay to schmoozy and eat one plate, but decide I need to get home so stick my second one on the passenger seat. I could have kept eating these the rest of the afternoon.

close up of tamales

Likewise, I want to hang out and take pictures of everyone, but I've been gone all day and need to get back to my family, so I turned my camera off lest I keep snapping and chatting. Here's the lucky couple who got a photo:

Last time I photographed these 2, Darla (nee Brader) (2nd place woman, 13th overall) and Chris Askew (21st overall) I was past ready to go to the cramped backseat of my sister-in-law's Jetta after last year's Kettle Moraine 100 mile.
At home I enjoy this amazing multicourse meal made by my brother.

Gratitude to him also for letting me borrow his Prius-- I got over 60 miles per gallon on the drive back. Thanks, George!

Other blogged reports:

Jon Olsen (overall winner and new course record holder)
Kelly Ridgway (3rd place woman)
finisher Anil Rao's photo gallery

results with splits

Garmin Forerunner recorded map on Motion Based website

1st published Friday, April 9, 2009 at 3:30 p.m., Central Time, 21.5 hours before the start of my next race.


Sean Lang said...

Maybe you should of stuck to the tamer race that you are used to, AR50:)

Nice report, good luck this weekend!!

Dave - Atlanta Trails said...

Way to stick it out and run strong despite the, do this three times in a row.

You're a bad man, Tanaka, a bad man!

Baldwyn said...

Wow, the pics really do make it look like a gorgeous run. Nice job, despite the issues. I enjoyed the hungry caterpillar reference. I'm also pleased to learn that salvation can come in neat 100 calorie packages. Enjoy the Vespa!

Pam said...

Mark - Scott had a link to your blog a while back and I have continued to "lurk" because we had a bit in common (young kids, full time job as a physician - not that I would know anything about all night shifts - I am a pathologist!). It's nice to see someone balance job, family and ultra-running with such success in each.

Anyway, I was curious about the caffeine comment. I, too, am very caffeine sensitive and couldn't sleep after my first couple ultras. I thought it might be the caffeine, but in my last two I did un-caf only, but I still couldn't sleep, despite being dog tired. Did you notice a difference?

Anonymous said...

Great job!

As a biochemist/biophysicist who follows ultrarunning physiology/metabolism carefully, I can assure you (and Pam) it is completely normal to be very jazzed after a really long run (racing or training). Endurance exercise significantly raises your metabolism, and it takes hours for the effect to wear off. Caffeine might augment the effect slightly, but caffeine is gone in an hour or two—especially with exercise.

You probably want to be a little more careful about maintaining consistent (and adequate) carbohydrate consumption later in a 50 mile race (and at longer distances). Karl Meltzer claims that regularly eating a gel every 20 minutes really keeps him going, and that's consistent with known muscle physiology. Very moderate caffeine consumption (roughly 33 mg/hour) can also help you maintain pace in the latter part of longer races. In fact you can often avert a bonk (or even muscle cramping) by consuming a caffeinated gel. As you correctly noted, it is necessary to carefully balance gel consumption when you're also using something like Gu2O.

Good luck on your upcoming 150.

Bong said...

Congrats for winning the Diablo 50k. I think it is smart of you not to go all out in the 50 miler, the 150 miler is just too close. Your report of both races are great. It made the reader feel like he was right there watching the race unfold from the eyes of the writer.

Zach said...

Congrats on the 150miler. That's an epic adventure. Great race reports too. very interesting blog all around. See ya at one the events sometime I imagine.