Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Way Too Cool 50K

Saturday March 10th was the running of the Way too Cool 50K. Some people say that the hardest part of this event is just getting in. I would definitely argue that point.Yes, the race filled online in about 8 minutes. But hey, there were no qualifying requirements, no lottery system. It ain’t Boston, and the run up the hill from Maine Bar is certainly harder than any online entry process.

Runners get ready with 8:24 left until the start

I did discover that there is a reason the race is so popular. It’s a beautiful course, not too slow, and the weather turned out to be perfect. I was initially a bit concerned about the heat. Normally temps in the low 70’s wouldn’t be thought of as heat, but it was considerably warmer than the temps in the 20’s and 30’s that I had been training in. The longest distance between aid stations was just over 8 miles, causing me some hesitation on gear decisions. How much water would I need? Figuring I would drink a little extra water leaving the aid stations, I decided to go light, and carried just one 20 oz bottle.

I wasn’t really sure what my goals for the race were. Due to a combination of work obligations and big snow storms, it turned out that I didn’t run for almost two weeks prior to race day. Even prior to that, my mileage hadn’t been extremely high (in the low 40’s per week.) What would this mean for my run? I wasn’t really sure, and decided to just see how it went.

Living in the snowy Tahoe area, I spend many Saturdays doing my long runs “down the hill” in the Auburn area. This gave me the advantage of being pretty familiar with most of the course. The first 6 mile loop from the Cool fire station was the only section of trail I hadn’t run before. Race morning began with chilly temps, but by the time the starting line clock had counted all the way down to zero, it was warm enough for my chosen shorts and tank. This simplified things, as I wouldn’t have to discard any clothing along the way.

The race seemed crowded during that first 6 mile loop. There are about 400 runners, and many of them are fast. Fortunately we were still on roads (some paved, mostly dirt) but I still felt an anxiety that led me to try to work my way through the crowd before we hit single track. The trail was pleasantly rolling and shady. I came to the first aid station entirely too fast, about 8:40 pace, but didn’t let that worry me too much. I felt like I had been holding back, and I also knew that the roads would be faster than the upcoming single track anyway. This was where we hit the 8+ mile stretch to the next aid station. My bottle was only half empty, but I filled it up with raspberry GU2O and downed a cup of liquid at the station as planned. I also grabbed a GU and a couple squares of PB&J. Turns out I should have been more focused on getting food than water.

I had forgotten how shady and cool the canyon trails along the American River are. Heat was never a problem, and I had plenty of water to last to the second aid station. I fell in with a large group of runners who seemed to be going the perfect pace. There were maybe 15 of us cruising along, no one feeling the need to pass anyone. People exchanged a few jokes, and comments about the course. There was a request for songs, but none of us were brave enough to try our singing voices. This is one of my favorite things about ultra races. Although we are all certainly working hard, there is more a feeling of camaraderie than competitiveness.

Although the water issue was fine, I realized that I was starving with a couple miles to go until the next aid station. My two mainstays for food are PB&J sandwiches and GU. Fortunately these were all in good supply at Cool, but I seemed simply to have eaten too few. I was focused on moving through the aid stations quickly and must have skimped on the calories.

All of the aid stations at this were great in my opinion. Volunteers lined the trail as runners approached. Instead of holding cups of water they had large pitchers in both hands filled with GU2O and water. I simply opened my bottle and they quickly filled me up. They practically ran along side me while pouring so I barely had to stop. After the hungry spell I did a better job of eating at aid stations. I always ate a potato with salt and left the stations with 3 GUs and 3 squares of PB&J. I occasionally downed a coke before leaving too. I must have been pretty efficient because I always seemed to leave the stations ahead of most of the people I had come in with.

pre-taped feet (It worked-no blisters!!)
Soon I was on a loop from the Auburn Lake Trails aid station which would come around back to the same station. This was the one section where I ran out of water. It was just over 6 miles, but the temperature was rising, and it included the killer climb up from Maine Bar. I have run that hill probably 5 or 6 times in the last two years, but I still found myself wondering when it would end. Not only is this hill steep, but the footing is rough. At several points I put out a hand to brace myself. A fast paced hike had me moving past 7 or 8 runners over the length of the hill. Finally we were back at the ALT aid station.

At this point in the race I started playing mental games with myself. I felt like I was almost there because I had made the turnaround and was headed back toward the fire station. In reality I still had 12 miles to go. That could hardly be called “almost done.” I kept trying to remind myself of that. But this section is also my favorite stretch of trail in the area. It feels like endless miles of flat and slightly downhill trail. The trail is shady, footing is great and it feels fast. Things had thinned out and I wasn’t seeing a whole lot of people anymore, but every now and then I would pass another runner. I ran briefly with two women from Santa Barbara who were running their first ultra. I was impressed, as I felt like I could barely hang on to their pace. Unfortunately one of them twisted an ankle and they had to slow to a walk.

By the time I reached the Goat Hill aid station, I knew I was not going to crash and burn. I had passed a number of people on the hill, in my opinion the easier of the two big climbs, and was feeling good. From there to the last aid station the trail is still moderate, with a lot of flats and easy down hills. The grass in areas was a brilliant green, and a few wild flowers were beginning to pop out along the trail. I was enjoying my last few miles.

When I reached the last aid station with 1.7 miles to go, my time was 5:10. I had no idea what kind of pace I was running, but I figured if it wasn’t all uphill and I didn’t totally die, I could finish in under 5:30. That would be huge for me, so I flew through the aid station with my hopes high. Almost immediately I found myself on a solid uphill climb. But this was a hill that I had run many times before and I knew it wasn’t long. Soon I was running the flat open trail towards the finish. My final time, 5:26, was a huge PR for me. My two previous 50Ks were 6:46 at TRT and 6:40 at Bishop High Sierra. Certainly this is a faster course than those and at lower altitude, but I was still psyched on cutting about 1:15 off my best time for the distance. There were still several climbs on this course that forced a walk, and several descents that were steep enough to do the same.

It’s clear why Cool is such a popular race: the beautiful trails, the great aid stations, the friendly runners. I have my calendar marked for the online entry next year! (December 9th 2007, 8:00 am sharp)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Great Ski Race

Last weekend I participated in a favorite winter event here in Tahoe, The Great Ski Race. A fundraiser for the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team, it draws one of the largest crowds of skiers west of the Mississippi. This year was no exception, with over 800 participants crossing the finish line. It’s a 30K race from Tahoe City (on the north shore of Lake Tahoe) to Truckee, and it’s absolutely beautiful!

Skiers gather in the starting area

I had waited to the last minute to sign up, as there was a good chance the race was going to be cancelled. With one of the driest Januarys on record, and February not doing much better, there was essentially no snow on the course one week before the race. Things looked grim. But then we got one of those big storms that this area is famous for, and suddenly there was 9 feet of new snow blanketing nearby Donner Summit. The race was on!
I am not exactly an experienced Nordic racer, and I had only been on my skate skis once this season. My technique is shoddy, to say the least, but I knew I at least had endurance on my side. I was joined in the race by two co-workers, Mike and Ambrose, along with Ambrose’s parents. Mike and Ambrose were definitely experienced Nordic racers, and this was reflected in their seeded starts, Ambrose in wave #1 and Mike in wave #3. I myself was back in wave #5. The starting line announcer referred to us as “the cruisers, just out there to have fun.” I sort of resented this summation, as I considered myself to be more “working my butt off, but just slow.” Maybe the cruisers were in wave #6?

Ambrose takes off with the first wave (photo by Michael Roberts)

As I watched the first wave take off from my position back in wave #5, it was clear these guys were fast and competitive. Their technique was smooth and graceful, even while they were jockeying for position. They looked like figure skaters with long sticks on their feet. I couldn’t pick out Ambrose in the crowd, but I wished him luck as we all cheered them on. As the waves ahead moved up to the line, I spotted two girls in spangled pants with bunny ears and cotton tails. A man wearing nothing but a speedo skied up to join their wave. Even some of the faster people were still out there to have fun, (if you call skiing naked fun!)

costumed skiers are not an unusual sight (photo by Michael Roberts)

With three minutes in between each wave start, I set off 12 minutes after the first wave. Skiers are not allowed to skate for the first 50 yards or so in an effort to avoid crashing right off the starting line. This makes sense from a logistical standpoint, but I have to say that double poling really sucks. Those skis were meant for skating.
The first 5K or so is spent winding through the Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area, and trying desperately to stay out of the way of fellow racers. This can be tricky, because as with the start of a running race, you are trying to pass slower racers, while others are trying to pass you. The big difference is that we are all on skis and take up a lot more space. I think the key is to remember that it is a long race, and not to get too concerned about passing people. There will be plenty of time for that. That being said, I did manage to trip over someone’s pole and go down about 5 minutes into the race. Whoops! Fortunately I got up quickly and didn’t cause a domino affect of crashes behind me.
Soon after leaving the cross country center, skiers find themselves on the long climb up to Starrett Pass. It’s not an incredibly steep hill, but it seems never ending. Not being very graceful on the down hills, I also knew that this was likely to be my strongest part of the race. I dug in, and began slowly but steadily passing other skiers. I knew once we reached the top of the pass, the hard part was pretty much over. At the top, we were rewarded with stunning mountain views and a soup station (a.k.a., the aid station.) I was skiing with a very lightly filled camelback, so I just skied by and grabbed a Twix bar off a plate; a perfect sugar boost to munch on the downhill.
There are many comparisons to be made between ski races and running races, but I have to say, the down hill is not one of them. Going downhill is unquestionably easier on skis, and it’s faster. It’s like stopping to rest, meanwhile covering ground twice as fast as you were before. And it doesn’t hurt your knees! Truly, it’s like a miracle when compared to running downhill. The trail from the 10K marker to the 20K marker is a beautiful, not too steep, downhill that goes by so fast you have to remind yourself to enjoy it before you start huffing and puffing again.
The last 10K is rolling with a little bit of everything. Personally I enjoyed the small hills because it broke things up, but I think I was the only one. The biggest challenge of the course comes at the very end. Just when your legs have turned completely to jelly, you have to negotiate a steep downhill punctuated with a series of sharp turns; a section of the course termed “the luge” by some skiers. The steepest hill of course, is right across the finish line. I don’t know what sick mind thought this would be a good way to finish a 30K ski race, but it does draw a crowd of spectators at the finish area, who are guaranteed to see some carnage. I used my jelly legs to their fullest to stay in a controlled snow plow, not caring in the least that other skiers were passing me like mad. I was just starting to get up a little more speed than I was comfortable with when I came to the steepest part of the hill. “Oh great,” I muttered aloud upon seeing the last 100 yards to the finish line.
“You can do it!” said a laughing spectator. I could tell he was just waiting for me to eat it. Why else would anyone be standing at that icy corner? Sicko! I figured he would get his due when some out of control skier came careening around the corner straight into him. It wasn’t going to be me though.
Miraculously I made it in unscathed. My time, 2:09, sounded fast to me, but since I’m not much of a racer I don’t really know what it means. I finished 361 out of 812. Not bad I guess. Ambrose crossed the line in 1:28 for 33rd place, and Mike finished in 1:33. Now that’s fast! All in all, it was a beautiful day and a fun cross training event.We got some food and beer and listened to the band while we watched the rest of the skiers cross the line, hoping to see a few good crashes.

The End: the naked guy finishes with style. (photo by Michael Roberts)

Check back next week for my write up of Saturday's Way Too Cool 50K!