First, I debated with myself about whether or not to bring a camera along, but then decided that on race-day I want it to be about the race. As little distractions as possible. But as most trail ultra-runners know, these races are not only about the race. There are plenty of distractions: Views, fun people to meet, nice hangout afterwards, etc. This will be kinda boring, because no pics.
The Short Story:
I had a fantastic day. I was fifth overall with a time of 7:18. There was nothing in my prior races or anything that I can point to in my training that was indicative of this type of performance. I suppose everyone gets their day sooner or later. The trails were in great condition and the weather was about as good as it gets.
The Story within the Story:
Last year, this race was my first 50 mile race. I had a great day that day too. I ended up 7th overall with a time of 7:33. I even got the "Dick Collins Award" which is given to the fastest rookie 50 mile runner. In that race I started out really conservatively because I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and I just wanted to survive the thing. Turns out I was able to hold that effort through the whole race and it ended up playing in my favor. So this year I decided to apply a similar strategy.
I took it easy on the bike-paths that go around lake Chabot and let the speedsters take off in front of me, hoping that I might catch up to them later. I paid attention to my breathing and made sure that I was holding back because at the beginning of these races it is so easy to let the adrenaline at the start fire you up and take you out at a pace that is ultimately unproductive for a race that is 7-8 hours long.
After the first climb I came up to and then passed a group of runners that included Jenny Capel, the eventual womens winner, who finished with an incredible time of 7:37. To put that performance into perspective-that is the fasted womens time since Ann Trason in 1987. And she bettered her performance from 10 years ago when she was 29 by 12 minutes! Who says things don't get better with age. I remember she jabed at me that I was looking quite peppy- but I tried to convince her that I was already tired-which after that first climb made me wonder how I was going to keep this up all day long.
On the next section, which included some gradual, and steep downhills, I picked it up a little bit. I started to close in on my Quicksilver teammate and buddy John Burton. John was two weeks removed from a 28 hour 100 mile slogfest at the Bear. Not quite recovered obviously, but being the tenacious racer and competitor that he is, he gave it his all. I paced John the last 50 miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, so I know he is tough. We exchanged some convo and he told me to go catch Toshi, so we parted ways. One of the men from that pack that I had passed decided to pick it up and stick with me. His name is Loren Newman. We shared the next maybe 7 miles together and chatted away about running stuff. He is a young guy, 25 years old, and this was his first ultra last year. I was impressed with his graceful running stride and overall relaxed demeanor as we cruised along, I suppose this should have been a clue to the fact that he was going to have a monster day himself- he ended up finishing the race right behind me in 6th with a time of 7:23(in his second ultra ever). We parted ways after we got to some steep downhill sections that I decided to bomb. This would be a reoccurring theme for me this day. I tend to try to make up for my weak climbing strength by flying down the downhills- long legs seem to be helpful for this...
Next I was closing in on a man named Dominick Layfield. He had a british accent, which might mean he is british, or maybe he just does it for the chicks, but he seemed very intent on not letting me catch him. We hit some technical downhill where I finally did catch him but then we ran together for a while on the stream trail exchanging convo. The stream trail is a very pleasant wide trail in the shade of giant redwoods and surrounded by ferns. He asked when I decided to start going hard- it looked like he was very organized about his pace and knew exactly what he had to do to have an even race and not completely fall apart at the end- which happened to him in his last 50 miler where he had to have IVs administered. I discovered that he was shooting for a 7:15 which was considerably faster than I though myself capable of. I don't know if it was because of this revelation, or because he decided to pick it up a bit(or because we hit an uphill), but I started to fall off of his pace a bit. He ended up having an incredible day himself, finishing 2nd with a time of 7:05.
We were headed up the hill to Skyline Gate aid station, and I couldn't believe my eyes when I thought that I saw Toshi ahead of me. Toshi is another Quicksilver teammate and buddy who I went fastpacking with in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He is faster than me and usually beats me by a pretty good margin at these races. I finally caught up to him at Skyline and we exchanged pleasantries while Dominick pretty much skipped the aid station-as was his style-he didn't spend too much time not running. Toshi took off while I filled up on water- I told him maybe I would catch him later.
The next few miles were solitary time of me with the hills, I just remember having a nice time cruising and hiking some steep stuff. At some point I did finally catch up to Toshi and we ran together for a while. He was telling me that Victor Ballesteros wasn't running as fast today-perhaps planning on a massive negative split(faster second half of race than first half). Victor is a popular, very fast runner, and is a constant presence in the PAUSATF ultra events that our running clubs compete in. He is also a member of our arch rivals: Tamalpa. There was another steep downhill that I decided to bomb and I realized Toshi was comfortable at his own pace, so we parted ways.
On the climb up to Steam Trains Aid Station(the aid station right before the monster downhill to the turnaround) I saw Victor and another guy up ahead, and it fired my spirit a little bit. I put together a pretty strong climb which put me within striking distance for the downhill. They still had a pretty good gap on me going down to the turnaround- but as is my tendency, I started running the downhill harder and came up on them and then passed them on a pretty steep section. I remember telling Victor that I heard he was going for a big time negative split today. I hit the turnaround in good spirits and got a jolt of energy form the spectators at the bottom of the hill. But I knew what was coming next: a massive slog back up the hill. I realized I was in fifth or sixth place because on an out-and-back course like this you get to see all of your competitors. I was being pretty conservative on the climb and knew with pretty high confidence that Victor was probably going to catch me, but that was ok, because after that climb, it is more downhill than uphill to the finish line.
I am doing a combination of running and hiking up the hill depending on how I am feeling and how steep each of the sections are. There is a constant stream of racers coming down the hill at this time, and there is a lot of encouragement and greetings as people pass by, but at some point I realize they are greeting the person coming up behind me. I realize Victor is on his way. One person actually said: "Victor, running the uphill as always", which definitely put me in my place. Gradually he gained on me, each time I started hiking I looked back and saw him a little closer. He then pulls even with me, and I offer encouragement on his nice climb, and the fact that he seems to be cashing in on that negative split. I know that I could run the whole climb too, and probably keep a gap on him, but I also knew what the consequence to the rest of my race would have been, so I stayed content to let him pass me by. Every time we hit a slight flat or small downhill during this climb I would catch up to him or even pass him, and that is how it continued for much of the climb. The last time he passed me I remember him telling me that I will probably just pass him back in a while. I said: "yeah, maybe on the next downhill". But that downhill was not going to be for a while...
He continued to put a nice gap on me before the crest of the climb and probably picked it up on the other side of the hill. A common strategy in these type of races is to try and "get out of sight" of your competitor, so that your competitor thinks that they are no longer in contention for your position in the race. Well, he definitely got "out of sight", but I kept trucking, because we were going downhill.
There was another span of solitary racing, me and the hills, and passing a few marathoners now and then. The golden hills trail marathon happens in conjunction with firetrails. They begin at the turnaround for the 50 miler and finish at the same place we finish. Generally they start just as the first 50 milers are starting down the hill. In my position in the race you get to see all the people climbing the hill who are racing the marathon. As you might expect, the fast 50 mile runners start catching a lot of the marathoners on the way to the finish. This becomes important because of what happens to me later in the race.
As I begin the descents to the finish line I realize that I am starting to cramp pretty bad(sometimes to the point where I am afraid my legs are just going to seize up on me). There are various theories for why cramps happen during physical exertion, but I think there are primarily two reasons: muscle fatigue, and inadequate electrolytes(including sodium, potassium, and things like that). I start to fear that maybe I have been too ambitious in my pace for this race and that I have basically worn myself out prematurely. There are multiple ways you can wear yourself out as well. You can run out of energy(for instance glycogen, for which you have limited stores), you can fatigue your muscles to the point that they will no longer do their job, or you could have a lack of sleep that will discontinue your activity. I was afraid that shortly after 30 miles into a 50 mile race that I was toast. I knew that the issue was not energy or water because I had been drinking and eating Gu regularly. When I got to the aid station I grabbed a handful of S-caps. Salt capsules are the tried and tested electrolyte replacement for endurance events. I never use them during training, and have always been of the opinion that if Geronimo didn't need them(and he evaded his pursuers by running miles and miles of technical terrain that the horses couldn't follow), why would I need them? Well, when you are desperate, you will try anything. I took a couple at the aid station and kept popping them every 10 minutes or so along the trail, and backed off of my pace a little.
I was always on the verge of complete meltdown, but somehow would recover enough to keep going. I enjoyed myself and indulged in the wonderful opportunity to share my struggle with the forest. It sounds weird, but when you are in that place, you understand, sometimes you are in such an uncompromising position, in such desperate situations, and yet you feel so alive in that moment, and you keep pushing to complete that quest, to reach the light of the tunnel, so to speak...
I kept pushing, and then hit the stream trail once again on the way back. I felt great at this point and started to really accelerate. Nearing the technical climb that I knew I was about to tackle(the same technical descent on the way out) I found Victor. I saw him look over his shoulder and I knew I had him. I jabbed at him that that was it, he looked behind him to see that I was coming, now he was done. I crept up along side and in an overly enthusiastic, and quite verbal mood, along with the knowledge that I was having a good day said: "In the final miles of Firetrails, Tamalpa vs Quicksilver, the ultimate showdown, who is going to come out on top?" He said: "Go ahead Quicksilver, take it". I think he just wanted me to go away. I passed him and then prayed that I didn't have to battle him again on that technical climb.
I was fortunate to put a gap on him and then descended into the Macdonald Gate Aid Station(mile 41.5), where Gary Gellin(fellow Quicksilver teammate who was volunteering-super fast guy) told me that if I pushed it, I could catch number four(Matt Laye), because he had taken a turn for the worse, stomach wise. Something you have to understand about these ultra-marathons, is that there is a fine line between giving your body just what it needs to put out the best effort over these long journeys, and forcing your system and initiating a backfire to the point that you are completely useless. Apparently I was in the chase to pick up the remains of one of these backfires. I kept doing what I was doing, and then on another downhill went flying past Matt and his pacer(you are allowed a pacer at some point in the race, not sure where). I knew he had a pacer for several reasons. The pacer was running with him(not that common this late in the race), his clothes looked clean, and he had a lot of bounce in his step. If you have ever been at mile 44 in a 50 mile race, you know what I mean. For some reason I got it in my head that it must just be another marathoner, it couldn't be the guy I was chasing(but I didn't really know what I was looking for). I tried to encourage him as I passed him, trying to pump him up for a good finish.
I went through the last aid station, and knew what was coming up, 4.5 miles to the finish, 1.5 downhill(done, cash in the bank) and 3 on bike paths up and down along lake chabot. On one of the little climbs on the trail section, Matt and his pacer passed me. It wasn't some kind of leisurely, lets have a nice finish kind of pass. They absolutely put the pedal to the floor and went past me as fast as they could. Another tactic in these races is when you pass, you want to make sure that there is no way that your competitor will even think about sticking with you. Their strategy worked out perfectly. They went flying past and I had a moment of hesitation. First, I still had a doubt about whether they were running the 50 mile race, second, I couldn't believe how fast they were running. I thought to myself, if I try and pace with them, it will be an ugly finish. It was a cowardly move, but I let them go by. I am not ashamed of it.
I had a comfortable run those last few miles, finished with a smile on my face, and was generally very happy with myself. I got to jab around with the guys that beat me, and discovered that Matt and his pacer really did put that decisive move on me to finish me off(how nice). I got some prizes, which is definitely cool. And then Joanne and the kids met me a little while afterward. A wonderful experience. Got to watch other Quicksilver teammates finish and cheer them on, and hang out afterwards. Toshi set up his slack-line, and totally impressed me with his other-ultra skills. It was a great day.