October 9, 2010
Dick Collins Firetrails 50 (when I finish) will be my 10th completed 50-miler. I previously ran this course in 2006 and it was a doozy… but I am also fairly familiar with the course because 50 kilometers of it is the Skyline 50K (in a slightly different direction). The one other notable thing about this year’s event is that it is the final year with its race director, the famous Ann Trason.
The last time I did this event, I got my friend Kevin Krajewski to pace me for the last 6 miles, but he isn’t around this time. I am staying with my parents in their Oakland condo, and the race start is about 15 miles away, so it is ‘convenient.’
The one “major” difference in the Firetrails and Skyline course is that they start out in opposite directions around the lake. One of my favorite parts is the suspension bridge at about Mile 2 (or Mile 29 of Skyline). In Skyline 50K, it is towards the end of the race, and you are separated from most runners. If you happen to hit the bridge at the same time, there is little chance that you will be jockeying for position and one will probably defer to the other.
On the other hand, hitting the bridge at Mile 2, EVERYONE is jockeying for position and the bridge really isn’t wide enough for people to run 2 abreast (maybe skinny people), so to a certain extent, there isn’t any value for the slower folk to rush up to the bridge… because you will still have to wait. I walked to the bridge, and even when I got there at a VERY slow (14-15 minutes/mile) pace, there was still a 10-15 person line to get across. Once cleared, however, you are back on a decently wide paved path, so it is advantageous to run a bit before you are totally on trails. My slight pace pick-up gets me to the first aid station in 40:21 (at around 3.2 miles, a pedestrian 12:15 pace).
The next section mirrors the Skyline course, traversing a few hills and traveling through a few wide open spaces (on single-track, of course) to Bort Meadows. I cover this section in 53:33 (11:36/mile) and drop my overall pace a little bit.
Continuing on from Bort Meadows, we continue to follow the Skyline course, which ascends and descends over a small mountain on a wide fire-road. It is rocky in sections, but not technical. The downhill descent allows for some fast running, and in my case, I like to skip or gallop down the hill because it lessens the impact on my knees, while allowing me to go pretty fast. At the bottom, you cross through a parking lot, and then take a short single-track section to the Big Bear aid station. This short, but mildly challenging 2.6 mile section takes me 36:47 (and slows my overall pace slightly).
My goal in this race (and every ultramarathon) is to finish, and to finish I must also make all of the cutoff times. The first one I am worried about is at mile 26.0 at 6 hours 15 minutes (a little over 14 minutes per mile). At this point, I am at about 12:15/mile, but I have not gotten to any serious climbing yet, and I WILL slow down on the uphills.
The next section has some of these hills and I am just going to pace walk as best I can. For the most part, I don’t like to run on the flats up long hills because I don’t think there is any value to it… it just gets me breathing heavy, I gain 10 seconds and now I am winded continuing up the hill. So… I walk.
Out of this aid station, you cross a road (the old road that can bypass the Caldecott Tunnel) and traverse a bit of single-track up and down back to a park road (no traffic) and around a small dirt parking lot. This shunts us into the uphill trail… and some of it quite steep and then it transitions into a less steep section, but with constant uphill motion for at least 3.0 miles. At the top is the Skyline Gate aid station (the “halfway” point for Skyline 50K. I finish this 4.5 mile section in 65 minutes (14:30/mile) and have slowed my overall pace to 13:00/mile. Ack.
From Skyline Gate, we now head up into the Sibley Volcanic Park (I just like the name, but you don’t really see anything cool looking). It’s basically another 3-1/2 miles of climbing, but on single-track. At some point, I am going to start seeing runners coming in the opposite direction, either the leaders of the 50-miler (I know, already?) or the participants in the Golden Trails Marathon, which started at 9am from the 50-mile turnaround point.
At the next aid station, I have dropped another net 30 seconds per mile and am coming up close to being slower than I need to be in order to make the first timing cutoff.
About 1-1/2 miles from the aid station, I spot a familiar face. It is Yolanda Holder (the soon-to-be World Record “Holder” for most marathon-plus races run in a year). I think today is marathon #85. We stop (very briefly, because I am worried about time) and chat for a bit, and she takes my picture for her blog. I have seen her at probably 5 marathons or ultras this year.
At this point, we are in Tilden Park. If you have never been to Tilden Park in the Bay Area, you have really missed out. It is a large regional park with loads of trails and lots of activities for adults and kids alike. As a kid, we picnicked in the park, rode the old-fashioned carousel (I think they even had the ring-grab, but I never paid attention to that as a kid.) My favorite part is just past the next aid station… the Steam Trains.
I guess the Steam Trains could be compared to the Casey Junior ride at Disneyland… basically a small version of a real train, where kids look natural and adults look cramped into seats… except that these WERE also real trains that ran on coal and steam, and had a dark, smelly tunnel (maybe 2) that it ran through. You can’t really see the Steam Trains from the race course, but it always brings back warm memories of my childhood. The Steam Trains are at Mile 21.7, and it takes me 56:47 to go 3.3 miles, putting my overall pace at 14:12, and putting me in danger of making the cutoff. I have 4.3 miles to the next aid station and 70 miles to get there. I basically have to move at the same average pace as I have been going (albeit faster than I have been going). At least, it is not a lot of challenging uphill and part of it is a paved road!
In this section, there is also something that I did not enjoy the last time I did this race, which is basically a trail over roots of about 20 consecutive trees… especially because the other racers are returning on this course, and it is not particularly wide and easy to lose my footing tripping on roots (and easy to get cramps tripping). I am also trying to push the pace a bit, without overdoing it, tripping and missing the cutoff.
Finally, I get to the Mile 26 turnaround and first cutoff. I have covered the 4.3 miles in 59 minutes (I was able to accelerate) and my net time is 6:04:04. I made the cutoff by just over 10 minutes. That’s cutting it close!
Now I have to consider the next cutoff, which is 9-1/2 hours at Skyline Gate, 11 miles away. That’s doable, but there is a tendency to slow down in the second half, so I have to be mindful and not waste too much time at aid stations.
Since this is mostly an out-and-back course, I will be able to compare my times on each segment of the course. Of course, even though I am covering the same distance, in most cases, it will be different because a section that I could sprint through the downhill, will most likely be a difficult uphill slog. In fact, that is what I am facing right now. In the 4.3 miles to the turnaround, there was an 1100 foot descent. Now I have an 1100 foot ASCENT… and I am somewhat pressed for time. At least I have the roots to look forward to (and then the paved section right before the aid station).
There is a world of difference in the two sections. Whereas I did 59 minutes heading out (and descending), it takes me 85:20 coming back (and climbing). After working so hard to get my net pace back to around 14:00/mile, the 20:00/mile on this section has ballooned my net pace to 14:48/mile. Not good.
From the Steam Trains, I am heading downhill to the Volcanic Preserve. This section has a considerable bit of downhill, though I would call it “technically technical.” Usually “technical” means that there are a lot of loose rocks on the trail. For me, any section where you really need to watch your step probably should be called technical as well. The downhill sections here are loose dirt/sand. It was hard to get footing on the way up, and it is difficult to keep balanced on the way down. I get to Mile 33.6 in 8:25:15 (around a minute faster than outbound), leaving me with just over an hour to cover 3.4 miles of downhill. I should be good, but given that I covered the last section not particularly faster than when I did the same part uphill (albeit fresher), I am concerned.
I hustle as much as I can on this section. I am starting to get tired; my feet hurt. But I do get to Skyline Gate under the cutoff in 9:17:56 (9:30:00 was the cutoff). Again, I have covered a mostly downhill section at a nearly identical time to the uphill section earlier (this time, I was 20 seconds SLOWER).
For the most part, I have maintained my margin of error from cutoffs. At the first one, I was 10:56 ahead, and now I am 12:04 ahead. There are two more cutoffs waiting for me – the first is at MIle 44.1 of 11 hours and 45 minutes; and the second is the overall race cutoff of 13 hours. I think, however, that I read that if you make the Mile 44 cutoff that they let you finish. In fact, I believe that I am probably good to go and that the Mile 44 cutoff is when they HAVE to close the aid station, per park rules… but I will still prefer to make all of the cutoffs.
From Skyline Gate, it is now a 4.5 mile mostly downhill section (with a little flat). Here the trail differs from the Skyline 50K, because on that course, the trail does not come back on itself. (Note though that the Golden Trails Marathon DOES follow that same route, because it is slightly longer, which is necessary because the marathon start is 26 miles outbound from the start, and they finish like we do, on the shorter route around the lake. I am not really seeing any marathons at this point, though; if they are 6-1/2 hours into the marathon and only to Mile 11, well, that is pretty pretty sad.)
The weather has cooled off a bit now and I am able to jog a little bit down the hills, and gallop a bit down the steepest part about a mile out of the aid station. I struggle a bit with the single-track section, but cover the 4.3 mile section in 60:33, 4-1/2 minutes FASTER than outbound (though it is downhill!). I have about 97 minutes to cover the 2.6 miles to make the cutoff, but there is a sizable uphill section and I just need to stay consistent. Somehow I get it into my head that the cutoff is 11 hours even, and that I have just 42 minutes (which is about 5 minutes slower than outbound) – that stresses me out quite a bit.
When I get to the steep uphill section, I pace walk as best as I can, but I am struggling. I just keep telling myself, ‘Look, if you don’t make it, you gave it your best effort. So don’t stress. Stuff happens.’ When it flattens out, I go against my usual leanings and put a skip in my step to try to increase my pace a bit. On the downhills, I am running as fast as I can (without causing myself to cramp). I am right up against that 11 hour mark!
I get to the aid station and my watch says 11 hours, 0 minutes and 38 seconds. I plead with the volunteers and they tell me that I made it by almost an hour. Oops! I am almost 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff, and now have nearly 2 hours for the last 6 miles. I may need most or all of this time.
Most of the race I have been alone or had really brief conversations with people. Between Bort Meadows and the last aid station before the end, I get into 2 or 3 nice conversations. One is a gal my age who does Ultratriathlons. I understood that she would swim 7.2 MILES on Friday, bike 336 miles on Saturday and then run 78.6 miles on Sunday. I’m not crazy. She is!
From Bort Meadow, we take a different route than outbound, but it is part of the inbound Skyline Trail. On this section, I encounter Kat Powell, a 59-year old woman who is running in minimalist shoes. She is more talkative than I am. She has a pacer with her and I talk more to him than to her. She is just sort of talking AT me. I comment on things she says or ask her questions, and she just keeps talking like I am not even there. I don’t think she is being rude; I think she is just excited to have someone new to tell stories to. She is complaining quite a bit though, and after a while, I want to get on by her and push towards the finish.
When I get back onto the paved path (so about less than 3 miles to go), I am able to jog again. I briefly catch up with a couple of older male runners. One is a 58 year-old black man (Cyril) and the other is a 63 year-old Asian gentleman (Clement). We don’t really talk that much (other than ascertaining where we are all from and if we have done other ultras) but it is nice to have people to run with.
With about a mile to go, Cyril accelerates and Clement and I cannot match his pace. When I spot the finish line, I turn on the pace as well, and beat Clement by about 5 seconds.
At the finish line, we receive our schwag – an imprinted wine glass and a nice black fleece pullover. When someone asks me what my time was, I say that I came in “just before New Year’s Eve – 12:30:44.” (12/31 being New Year’s Eve.) My time is about 13 minutes slower than in 2006, but in the scheme of things, that’s less than 30 seconds per mile slower (like doing a 5K in 24:00 or 25:30). I am happy because I finished; the time doesn’t really matter to me.
I hung around the finish line for a while, hoping to see some of the people I met throughout the day finish. I was concerned because I was less than 30 minutes under. My concern was not necessary, because since this was Ann Trason’s last year as race director, she made sure that anyone who wanted to finish DID finish. That would be my mentality, too. As long as it wasn’t going to take all night and it was relatively safe, I say give people the benefit of the doubt. You can always say you accomplished 38 or 45 miles, but there is a special satisfaction in finishing the whole thing, especially if you are still moving forward and just a little bit slow.
I have great pride in finishing this event for the second time, because it is a challenging course, and also I take great pride in having completed 10 – 50 mile races. People were impressed when I did 10 marathons, and this is like 10 DOUBLE-marathons… on trails.