Woodside 50k Race Report

On a weekend when many of my friends and fellow athletes were out celebrating the end of the racing season with a bang at headliner races TNF50 and JFK50, there I was quietly lining up at a small 50k in Woodside, California.

It had been so tempting to join in the fun at JFK. JFK had been a goal race of mine since coming in second there last year. It suits my skillset and I wanted a shot at running a faster time there. But it wasn’t to be. Injuring my foot and the weeks off that followed meant that I was only just starting to train regularly again. I wasn’t ready for a race like JFK. I wasn’t ready to risk being broken again.

Instead, I decided to focus on Brazos Bend 100 miler in December. Last year, I ran the 50 miler, which had been one of those races that delivered a gift beyond my wildest dreams. I still look back with wonder at how I did it.

You might have noticed, though, that 100 milers haven’t exactly been my forte. (Not yet?) They’re a puzzle I’m determined to get right one of these days. Stubbornly, I decided to take one more crack at it this year. This time on a course I’ve proven I can run well.

Which brings me back to Woodside. With Brazos Bend three weeks out, I needed a low key long run. Hilly trails tend to make me strong. I knew I’d need a good dose of strong at BB100. I signed up, knowing very little about the race.

When I arrived, RD Greg Lanctot told me I was in for a treat, and he was right. The Woodside trails (near Palo Alto) are fantastic. Padded with needles from the trees, the terrain was a shaded journey through tall redwoods for miles on end. On this mid-November day, conditions were perfect. Crisp, cool air. The rainfall from a couple of days previous had drained well but left everything fresh and earthy. I could have stayed out there for days.

I hadn’t done much of anything in terms of climbing for weeks because it irritates my plantar at the moment. Javelina 100k had a little, but this 50k packed in 6400ft of it according to Strava. It was almost all very runnable and nothing too steep, except for one short section of 26% grade added a few days before the race. Maybe Strava got it wrong though because I think historically the race has only had about 4700-4800ft of ascent and I don’t think too much has changed. At any rate, I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed running it all. Guess I still had a little climbing fitness left over from this summer when I was training for Headlands 50k.

A few miles from the end, I came upon a runner who had passed me before the halfway mark. I had kept it in my head not to push at the mid-point in the race. The purpose of being here was to have a fun long run, not to truly try to race it since I needed to get back to training without pause the next day. So, I thought I’d just see how things shook out and keep things steady and unforced. With a handful of miles to go though, when I saw the runner (and now new friend, Vincent), I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get in a few faster paced miles and go for it. I surged and passed him, but he wasn’t about to give up without a fight! I kept my foot on the gas and was thankful for how good my body felt. I probably felt better in those last few miles than I did the whole rest of the run. It was wonderful to run fast again. I was able to keep the momentum and finish first, winning the race outright. It was what I needed at the right time on the calendar to boost my fitness ahead of Brazos Bend. And now, to tackle the beast I fear most and turn my attention back to 100 miles. An interesting little Birthday present to myself: the gift of pain. Probably only an ultrarunner can really laugh at that one, but trust me when I say that I intend it with good will and humor. That, and the belief that one day, I will get it right.

Race day Photo Credit: Robert Rhodes

Way Too Cool 50k Race Report

Running with Stephanie Howe at the start (Photo: David Roche)

Running with Stephanie Howe at the start (Photo: David Roche)

“Believe that you can run farther or faster. Believe that you’re young enough, old enough, strong enough, and so on to accomplish everything you want to do. Don’t let worn-out beliefs stop you from moving beyond yourself.”

                – John Bingham, sent to me by my coaches in my training plan for race week (I know, they’re pretty fantastic).

A lot of people asked me in the lead up to the Way Too Cool 50k if I was still planning on running it after all of the early season racing already under my belt. They seemed a little taken aback when I enthusiastically proclaimed that I was.

Why? Well, if I were a normal person, I might have at least paused to consider the wisdom of racing for the following reasons:

  • Just ran a hard-effort 100k at Black Canyon three weeks ago. Bandera 100k was five weeks prior to that. Preceded by December’s North Face 50 miler, again five weeks prior.
  • Since my training has been focused on longer distance efforts, perhaps a fast 50k without time for specific training is not the wisest choice?
  • How about the crowd of impressively, and let’s face it, seemingly out-of-my-league speedsters that were toeing the line at the start? I mean, those ladies definitely had the potential to take the shine distinctly off what has been a very good year so far.
  • Finally, I made the Elite Women’s Start at the Boston Marathon (in a mere six weeks), which is an absolutely unbelievable dream come true. Also, the Western States 100 miler is at the end of June. My 100 mile debut. On the ‘super bowl’ of big stages in the ultraworld. Maybe there are bigger fish to fry.

Of the above concerns, it was the risk of being put to shame by a group of twenty-something shorter-distance screamers that gave me the most pause. I mean, it hurts to get totally spanked by the competition. And yet, the familiar gnawing pang. I wanted to see how I could do. On a best case scenario, to prove that I had what it takes. That my legs know how to go fast as well as far. Alternatively, I knew that no matter how badly things might go, it’s incredibly motivating to come away from a race like this seeing how fast it can be run and how much I need to improve to compete with the best of the best. (It’s pointless questioning whether that’s even realistic for me. I didn’t get this far by thinking rationally about things like that.) So I took the plunge.

Cool, California. 7:59am. Since I was going ahead with the race, I decided to say hello to Stephanie Howe at the start line and run with her. Hey, why not. I knew (eventual winner) Megan Roche was likely to dust us all from the gun and her bold 5:50 opening mile immediately separated her from the rest of the ladies. Stephanie and I led the way for the remainder of the women’s field (about 6:15 pace), but the fast start felt comfortable enough and we chatted a little.

Well, it didn’t take long to figure out that the freshness I initially felt wasn’t going to last at this hot pace. Four miles in, I knew that if I wanted to finish the race strong, I was going to have to back off a bit. I just didn’t have that floating feeling that portends a great race and can carry me through for so many blissfully effortless miles. Instead, it felt like a training run and my legs wouldn’t turnover much faster than that. Bummer.

Heading down to Highway 49, followed closely by Lindsay Tollefson and new trail friend Curt Casazza (Photo: Inside Trail)

Heading down to Highway 49, followed closely by Lindsay Tollefson and new trail friend Curt Casazza (Photo: Inside Trail)

The middle miles were the hardest. Passed by ladies a few times over, I started to have the sneaking suspicion this might have been a mistake. But then, the gorgeous trails, the fact that I was almost never alone in this 1,200+ person race, the fact that part of this trail was a Western States preview, well, I just decided to sit back and enjoy it. Before long, with a few climbs in the back half under my belt, my legs co-operated on the more gentle sections and I finally found a rhythm. I’d passed a couple of women along the way and as the last half mile approached, a male runner wearing, of all things, a Hawaiian shirt, pulled me towards the finish. In true ultrarunning community spirit, he encouraged me to run hard with him for the last stretch. After we crossed the line, I surprised him with a kiss on the cheek, happy to have clung on to my position in the ladies field.

The problem is, I felt like I had plenty left in the tank. My legs hadn’t co-operated with the turnover I need for a fast 50k run, but they were ready to go all day. Just when I felt it was time to dig in and suffer, the race was over. Even so, I actually feel pretty good about the run overall. I didn’t come close to the podium, but my 5th place 4:06:40 would have won in 17 of the race’s 26 years (though trail conditions were definitely favorable this year). It also represents the 2nd fastest ladies Masters time on the course, behind Olympian Magdalena Boulet (2014), and is in the top 20 fastest women’s times ever run on the course. Yes, I actually looked those stats up to make myself feel better!

The upshot is I’m glad I ran the race. I hope never to lose sight of the fact that while it’s gratifying to do well, I’m ultimately doing this because I love it. Way Too Cool embodies many of the things that are hallmarks of the ultra scene. From first timers to course record setters, all are welcomed, celebrated, and encouraged in their efforts. I had a fantastic time meeting new friends both on and off the trail. From the jubilant aid station volunteers to the post-race vibe, Way Too Cool sure is a party! Regardless of whether it’s healthy for my ultrasignup score, I’ll probably be back to race here again.

Many congrats to my Nike teammates for their jaw-dropping performances. Megan Roche smashed the old course record by 7.5 mins. Patrick Smyth also took down a course record many thought untouchable, skimming 4 mins off Max King’s 2013 mark.

On the men’s side, it was a Nike podium sweep, with Ryan Bak in 2nd and Tim Tollefson in 3rd. On the women’s side, I ran to 5th and Lindsay Tollefson picked up 6th, in the deepest men’s and women’s fields the race has seen for years. Finally, a shout out to the awesome performances turned in by Stephanie Howe (2nd, also running under the previous course record) and YiOu Wang (3rd). Seriously nice work ladies!

Nike Trail Team members at Way Too Cool 50k (Photo, left to right: Team Manager Pat Werhane, Patrick Smyth, Lindsay Tollefson, Tim Tollefson, Megan Roche, me, Ryan Bak, Alex Varner, David Roche, Jarrett Tong (marketing manager at Nike)

Nike Trail Team members at Way Too Cool 50k (Photo, left to right: Team Manager Pat Werhane, Patrick Smyth, Lindsay Tollefson, Tim Tollefson, Megan Roche, me, Ryan Bak, Alex Varner, David Roche, Nike Trail Puppy Addie, and Jarrett Tong (Nike marketing manager)

Napa Valley Marathon Race Report

If the marathon was an exam, up until yesterday I would pretty much have scored an F. Like the Italian figure skater Carolina Kostner at the Olympics, in my own (albeit small-potatoes) way, I would prepare, prepare, prepare, then the big day would come and it was little short of disaster. All I have to say about that is, sister, ain’t redemption sweet.

Perhaps my former tales of woe will be helpful to some readers, so I’m going to elaborate with a list of what not to do. Thus, if you wish to have a miserable marathon experience, I suggest you train your butt off and then sabotage all your efforts with the following:

  1.  Don’t carbo load properly. If you think carbo loading means eating an extra bagel and a handful of jelly beans or a donut, think again. Carbo loading for the marathon is serious business and can make or break your race. Research on this issue suggests that ingesting 7-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilo of body weight in each of the days leading up to the marathon is about right. That’s waaaaay more than most people think. Moreover, in my experience, what you eat makes a difference too. I tried stuffing myself with carbs before previous marathons, but found the process so disgusting that I quickly gave up and went back to normal eating, meaning I basically failed to carbo load at all. Even stepping it down a notch and simply being more mindful of eating extra carbs in the marathon lead-up left me feeling like a bloated slug since I normally don’t eat a lot of carbs. At my last (trail) marathon, in which I somehow came in second after a difficult race, I won some pretty cool stuff, including a product called Carbo-Pro. You should know that I have no affiliation with the company whatsoever and was dubious about its usefulness in my life until I tried it. It dissolves in water, is practically tasteless, gluten-, preservative-, color-, dairy-, soy-, and sweetener-free and packs 50g of carbs per 2 scoops. It’s made of GMO-free rice and corn. It doesn’t leave me feeling bloated or full and I simply added it to water and drank two or three times a day for about four days leading up to the Napa Valley Marathon. It worked beautifully.
  2. Take gels you know can mess up your stomach. In case you think, duh, who would do that, consider that I didn’t know there were gels on the market that wouldn’t mess up my stomach. I thought it was normal for a certain sub-set of runners to suffer stomach issues when racing, that I was one of the unlucky ones and that the way forward was to train my body to accept said gels (which, incidentally, never happened). Then I tried ViFuel gels. Again, I have no affiliation with the company, although, in the interests of full disclosure, one of my coaches does and he recommended the product to me, thinking its unique formulation might help. No matter how I came to hear about it, I’m just thrilled that I found something that works. I feel so confident about their compatibility with by insanely picky stomach that in a pinch I will even take them without water, a concept that previously would have left me horror-stricken.
  3. Take gels and sports drink at the same time even though you have never practiced this before race day. Enough said. Just don’t do it.
  4. Be anemic. This’ll screw up your race (and your life!) but good, every time. Simply follow a vegetarian or pescatarian diet, ramp up your weekly mileage and then never get your iron levels checked. The complete and utter exhaustion that sends your dragging bones to bed at 7:30pm, makes a 9:00 minute pace feel as hard as a 7:00 pace used to feel and sucks all of the joy and motivation out of running? It might be overtraining . . . or it might be anemia. Get a bloodtest. (P.S. On a serious note, don’t take iron supplements without consulting a doctor and getting your ferritin level checked first because it can literally kill you  — especially true for men).

This time, when marathon race day arrived, it seems I finally got it about right. I was carbo loaded, gel ready and had recent blood test results in hand showing everything was normal. The bad news? Race reports about races that went really well tend to be a tad yawn-inducing, so I’ll keep the rest of this one brief.

My coaches helped me to formulate a race plan based on recent performances. Since they’ve only been on board for less than a month, there was little they could do to make me faster in the remaining time until race day. Instead, we focused on building a plan that was conservative but aligned with my fitness. Given my previous marathon performances, I was in sore need of a confidence booster at the distance, and a conservative race was more important than taking a more aggressive and risky approach.

Race morning dawned overcast and cloudy but pleasantly warm (50’s) and dry. It did start drizzling about an hour into the race, but I found this refreshing more than a hindrance. The course is fairly winding, rolling, and in places cantilevered for the first half or so of the race. Since the road is completely closed for this section, it made for a lot of wandering back and forth across the lanes to try to run tangential lines as much as possible. On the other hand, the rolling hills were very gentle and the course had quite a bit of downhill, so I think this made up for the inevitable ‘long course’ from failing to precisely run the tangents. Also, the curves and changing elevation made the course interesting in addition to being scenic and it wasn’t until I reached a fairly expansive straight and flat section around mile 18 that these pleasant distractions gave way to the need to focus to maintain pace.

In terms of the event itself, the race is well organized and had some unique aspects that I had not, in my limited experience, seen before. Hot showers at the finish line, a personal and friendly escort from the finish line to the photographer and then out to the spectator meeting area, and my hands-down favorite, the ability for any runner to place their drink in a ‘special drinks’ bucket which was transported to the racer-specified water station for pick up during the race. I thought this might not work out in practice given the number of runners but it turned out to be seamless since few runners took advantage of it (which makes me think I probably shouldn’t be advertising it!). On the downside, there were not anywhere near enough porta-potties at the start. After waiting twenty minutes in line with little forward progress and having to skip my warm-up as a result, I dipped behind the row for relief with just minutes to go until the start. This served one purpose (if you know what I mean) but left my stomach cramped and uncomfortable for the first eight miles of the race as my body adjusted to the fact that no, um, secondary relief would be forthcoming. Some might also consider the lack of pace groups as a downside too. There were none, but it didn’t bother me. Everyone just had to run their own race.

I stuck closely to the race plan, though dialing the prescribed pace up just a hair as the race progressed since I felt good and it felt surprisingly easy. The day played out pretty much perfectly, with me running almost dead-even halves (1:32:58 to 1:33:05). I finished in 3:06:03, good for a morale-boosting 8th place in this Road Runners Association of America (RRAA) National Marathon Championship Race. There was no wall-hitting, no stomach-turning, just simple, even pacing. The fact that I’m barely sore on this day after the race is a touch bothersome, since it leaves me wondering, what if I had just run a little harder? To have done so, however, would have been a huge gamble and it was so important that I left the race feeling positive. Of note is that the success of the race has left me seriously hungry for more. Sub-three is tantalizingly close, but I’m setting my sights well beyond that.

Napa Valley Marathon, I will be back in 2015.

Watch out, ladies!

 

Napa marathon finish