“Be nice to people and always respect your rivals. But when the gun goes off, flip the switch and come out swinging.”
– Mario Fraioli, taken from a recent issue of his excellent Tuesday missive, The Morning Shakeout.
Normally, I couldn’t agree more with this racing philosophy. Granted, I have a hard time not silently cheering on my fellow competitors for their efforts, even when they’re beating me. Ultrarunning is hard and deserves respect. Yet when push comes to shove, out comes the inner competitor in me, and I’ll fight to finish a step ahead.
Every now and then though, the situation calls for a somewhat different approach.
When the opportunity arose for me to race Mokelumne River 50k in Valley Springs, CA I jumped on it. That’s in the Sierra foothills to those who, like me, had never heard of it. Not only did it neatly fit into my build-up for June’s Western States 100 miler, but I knew my friend and Western States crew, Curt Casazza, would be running it too. We live quite far apart, he and his family in the Sacramento suburbs while we’re down the California coast just north of Santa Barbara. When the occasion arises and our families get together to share a weekend, we enjoy running together. We’re well matched, with similar marathon and 50k times.
So that’s how I find myself driving five-and-a half-hours to what felt like the middle of nowhere last Friday afternoon. As I get closer, I make a right hand turn and start getting glimpses of a large and quite beautiful lake, surrounded by mature oak trees and classic California rolling hills. Well alright, I think to myself, this is isn’t half bad. I make my way to my cabin on the north side of the lake. The race is on the south side, but accommodation options are slim and I didn’t book early enough for most of them. The cabin I’m staying in is older, complete with original 60s/70s fittings, but it’s well maintained and spotlessly clean. There’s plenty of space and just about everything I could ask for, including a large deck with a view and a barbeque. Since I arrive after 8pm, I’m not going to have much use for the amenities, but I can see returning to spend a few days here with the family and enjoying runs and family hikes along the lakes’ many trails.
With the 6am start, the next day I’m up early and quickly out the door. Along with a number of other cars driving in for the race in the darkness, we struggle to find where we’re supposed to be. Still, without too much hassle I find Curt and we make our way to the start line. Many runners are camping right there, some participating in all three days of the running festival’s events.
Before we know it, we’re off. RD Paulo Medina hops into the van to lead us out, but it takes him a short while to get ahead of the mass of runners and without markers we’re not quite sure where to go. Once we get on track, Curt and I naturally find ourselves running together at the front. There are many miles of single and double track on the course, as well as some shorter fire road sections. The climbs are rolling and plentiful, but there are also long stretches of faster terrain. None if it is especially technical, though the opening and closing of numerous gates costs a little time and momentum, there being perhaps a dozen or so on the out and back course.
The miles fly by, we’re chatting away, and I’m not even looking at my watch. When Curt mentions we’re over the 20 mile mark, it catches me by surprise. That’s usually when I have a low point during a 50k, but the whole race my energy was steady and constant. I had been careful to take a gel at the start and every half an hour thereafter, which seemed to be the right amount of fueling for the effort. VFuel sponsored the race, so there was plenty of opportunity to stock up at the aid stations. Whether it was the nature of the course, the right fueling plan, the pleasant distraction of having someone to run with, or whatever else factored in, we actually managed to negative split the race’s second half. That’s something I’m certain I’ve never done in an ultra before.
We made the decision early on that if we were both feeling good and running at around the same pace, we’d continue that way until the finish line. There was no ego on the line here, just two friends out for a run. I didn’t feel any pressure to compete and go to the well, and that was a decision that I made with my coach going in. The race came at the tail end of a substantial training cycle, but even with race week being a ‘down’ week I still managed over 80 miles. Moreover, I knew that the following week called for close to 100 miles, so I was conscious of not wrecking myself during this race.
In the end Curt and I tied for first overall, coming in together at 4:08:10. Setting the new course record was the icing on the cake of a perfect morning on the trails.
There was beer at the finish which is always a sign of solid RD-ing in my book. On top of that, the race swag was outstanding. Instead of another medal — because really, who needs one — all runners were spoiled with top quality half-zip pullovers from a major apparel brand and a super nice coffee mug that I’ll actually use, among other things. The whole atmosphere had a relaxed, family-friendly feel, with numerous little ones merrily hopping around in the grass or, as the day heated up, in kiddie pools, while they waited for Mommy or Daddy to finish their race.
It’s been immensely helpful for me to run a couple of low key races in the build-up to Canyons 100k and Western States. (In case you missed it, I ran a trail half marathon at Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, CA earlier this month too.) Since these races were scheduled as moderate efforts, their relaxed vibes ensured I didn’t overdo things. This meant I could quickly recover and get right back to training again. In a couple of weeks though, the training wheels come solidly off. I’ll test my fitness at the burly Canyons 100k, with its 14,000ft of climbing, all run along Western States trail. In terms of getting prepped for Western States, it doesn’t get much more specific than that!
Gear: Nike Kieger vest with two 10z hard bottles. Kieger shoes. Victory Sport Design drop bag.
Nutrition: VFuel gels (8), water