Monday, November 05, 2007

A Beautiful Day at HK Classic

Saturday was the running of the last event in the trail series, the Helen Klein Ultra Classic. Named after the ultra running legend herself, the race is put on by Helen and Norm Klein, and follows an out and back course along the American River in Sacramento.

My journey began Friday afternoon as I headed “down the hill” from Truckee to spend the evening at a friend’s house in Orangevale, very near the start of the race. Upon hearing that I planned to run 50 miles the following day, my friend exclaimed, predictably, “I wouldn’t ride my bike that far!” I gave her that placating smile that is the usual response to this sentiment (or even better, the statement ‘I wouldn’t drive my car that far!’) But after pausing to actually think about it, I had to agree, “I don’t think I would really ride my bike that far either!” I said. She laughed, but hey, my back and shoulders get really tired from cycling!

The race began at Cavitt Jr. High School, and runner check-in was in the gym. I arrived early for once, at around 6:00 am, to check in and get my race goodies. The brightly lit gym was already full of runners pinning on race numbers, adjusting hydration packs and prepping drop bags. It was a great place for the start and finish, as the gym provided a warm place to wait, and the use of the locker rooms and showers was wonderful after the race.

Norm explains the course

Norm had breakfast ready, and I was comfortably sipping my coffee and eating a bagel when Catherine found me. She would be running her first 50 miler today. We finished all our pre-race duties, and gathered with the crowd in the gym to hear Norm’s briefing about the course. It was pretty straightforward, since we would be following the bike path the whole way, but he did mention that there was a small detour at one point. He said they put up an excessive number of signs to mark the detour, and that there was “absolutely no way in hell anyone could get lost.” This statement was met with a roar of laughter from the crowd, and some smart remarks from a few folks seated near me.

Catherine and Me, waiting for the start

Everyone listens intently to Norm

Soon we headed out the door for the half mile walk to the start. Catherine and I caught up with Peter Lubbers and Scott Dunlap just outside the gym, and spent the walk sharing running stories from the summer. Peter had the foresight to bring a flashlight, which was helpful on the dark trail. By the time we reached the starting line there was just enough light to see by, and Scott and Peter moved up to the front. I looked around, but somehow I had lost Catherine already.

Bloggers, super speedsters, series champs and all-around nice guys, Scott and Peter

We set off into the rising sun, and I made a point to take in the scenery. Living in Tahoe, I am lucky to have breathtaking scenery on most of my runs, but I really appreciate running someplace different. I think every trail has something beautiful to offer, and this one was no exception. As we ran across a small dam, the sunrise reflecting on the water appeared as a pool of lava. It lent an eerie glow to the usual excitement in the early stages of a big race.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the first several miles are a gradual downhill. The running was blissful, and I chatted with another runner named Kenny. He was training to attempt a Boston qualifying time at CIM in December. I was a little puzzled until I found out he was running the 30K. “Oh my God, I’m running too fast!” I declared. I wished Kenny good luck as I watched him speed off into the distance.

I spent much of the first 15 miles with an internal monologue debating my pace. Am I going too fast? It feels fast, but it feels great. I didn’t really train hard enough to run fast. But I’m rested and it’s a flat course, so I can probably run well. I don’t want to go too fast too early though. Am I going too fast??

Soon Catherine came up behind me and saved me from this circular conversation with myself. We ran together for a while, and I told her my plan was to take a short walking break every 40 minutes. She was considering a similar plan, and I encouraged her not to skip the early breaks when we would still be feeling good. I feel that’s what saved me in my first 50 and allowed me to feel good at the end. I wished Catherine good luck as I made a quick detour into the bushes.

Running alone again, I plugged in my ipod and began chugging along at a steady pace. I’m pretty sure bluegrass music is the best thing to listen to during an ultra. It has a great, steady beat that is motivating, but not so crazy that you start running too fast. The sounds of South Austin Jug Band and Hot Buttered Rum kept me going for the entire first half of the race. You can have the whole “headphones vs. no headphones” debate if you want, and most of my races are run without headphones, but at this race I think the music was a godsend. While beautiful, the scenery was still rather homogenous. Running to my own soundtrack kept me smiling all day, in spite of the lack of significant landmarks.

As the morning grew to a more reasonable hour, the bike path came alive and the people watching was as much entertainment as anything. There were bikers, runners, families with strollers. On the river there were flyfishers, sail boats and kayakers. It was tuning out to be a beautiful day.

Catherine and I played leapfrog and ran together here and there. I was extremely glad that there were real bathrooms with toilet paper on this course, as I had to make use of several. Upon reaching my dropbag at the Sunrise aid station I shed my long sleeved shirt, but decided against picking up my second water bottle. It was supposed to reach 77 degrees, but the aid stations were so close together that I really didn’t think I’d need more than one bottle. Plus at the pace I was running, covering the 3 miles or so between aid stations didn’t take long at all. As it was, I still only topped off my bottle at about every other station. I realized that there were so many aid stations I would lose a lot of time if I stopped at every one, and it just wasn’t necessary. I was glad I had gone light, with my ipod and GU’s in my pockets, and my camera in the pocket on my water bottle.

I had given Kenny a high five on his way back to the 30K finish, and now seeing first Scott, then Peter heading back, I knew I was nearing the halfway point for my own race. I hit the turnaround at 4:12, well under 9 hour pace. I started to debate my pacing once again. If I didn’t slow down (highly unlikely!) I would run about 8:25. My PR for the distance was 9:28, run at AR50 in 2006. I had a pretty good cushion to slow down and still get a PR, and it was tempting. The day would be getting warmer, my hips were getting tight. Why push it? But then I wondered, when was the last time I’d had anything but the most modest goals for my races? It had been a while. I was in a position to run a decent time, why not go for it, instead of pretending that I didn’t really care. So my plan was to get as close to that 8:25 as possible. I knew some slowing was almost inevitable, but figured if I kept a goal oriented attitude, I could certainly break 9 hours.

For the return trip I indulged myself in 2 podcasts of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Listening to the NPR show had been so much fun at my last race, and once again it had me laughing my way down the trail. I settled into a pace I felt I could hold, started skipping my walking breaks, and slowly, very slowly, began passing people.

The day grew warmer, and I noticed a few aid station volunteers sipping cold beer. Now that looked good! I opted for ice in my water bottle instead. I also forewent my usual barrage of PB&Js and other solid foods. I knew the increased pace would keep my stomach from happily accepting anything like it usually does. Instead I ate GU and salty potatoes. I had a few ginger candies in my pocket, and those also went down well. But as I started the last ten miles, I realized I was probably working with a serious calorie deficit. Uh oh. Would I bonk? I shoved down another GU. Ugh.

I realized that my arms were turning a nice shade of watermelon at this point. I had started the day with 45 spf sunblock, but now it looked like I should have reapplied long ago. I told myself I would ask for sunscreen at the next aid station, but inevitably at every aid station I forgot. I would just have to add sunburn to the list of post-race enjoyments like blisters, tight hips and serious chaffing. Whatever.

I didn’t really feel like I was struggling until the last few miles. The music of Michael Franti and Spearhead was pulling me along with such enthusiasm that when the album "Everyone Deserves Music" ended, I had to listen to it again. I could see that I was going to finish close to 8:40, but unfortunately this is when I realized that the first few miles had been downhill. Now I wouldn’t call any of this a serious uphill. It certainly wasn’t anything I was going to walk. But trying to maintain my same pace was not the easiest thing I ever did. I was glad Peter had pointed out the trail we were on that morning because it really didn’t look the same in the daylight, and there were no course markings for the last half mile. I made my way through the school grounds and to the finish line in 8:39 and was stoked.

Both Scott and Peter were in the gym when I finished, and my first thought was, wow, I really must have been fast if those guys are still here! Of course they were both showered, changed, fed, and ready to go home. They were also both loaded down with prizes from the race series. In a dramatic finish, Peter had beaten out Scott for the overall series win by less than 2 points. I’m pretty sure they planned it that way just to keep us all guessing. Scott had to feel pretty good though with his fast finish under 7 hours!

As I hobbled into the showers, I found myself wondering how fast I might have run if my training had consisted of an average weekly mileage that was more than 30 miles per week for the last 3 months. Although I generally prefer courses with dirt trail and more hills, I can really see the allure of this course for running a fast time. If I was ever going to run sub-8 it would be at Helen Klein.

After getting down a little food and a lot of water, I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Robert and Linda Mathis, who put on the race series and direct several of the races. They were busy calculating the results of the series, and loaded me down with prizes too. Going into HK I was in 2nd place in my age group and 5th overall. I knew I had a good shot at winning my age group, but as it turned out, a couple of the women ahead of me didn’t run this last race, so I won my age group and took 3rd woman overall. This garnered me 2 pairs of trail shoes, $150 in gift certificates to Fleet Feet, and a bunch of other cool schwag. How fun! Scott had given me one of his pair of trail shoes since he was already sponsored by Innov8 and had all the trail shoes he needed. Now I needed to pass this gift on since I had won shoes of my own. I thought I would give it to Catherine for finishing her first 50. Although I got anxious about the drive home and left before she finished, Catherine crossed the line in 9:51. Congratulations Catherine!

On my drive home I enjoyed a relaxed state of post-race bliss. I love running ultras! I love the people, I love the events. I actually love all the time spent alone in my own head, running down the trails. I had such a great summer and fall of running, even though at times I completely blew off my training. I ran more ultras this year than ever before, and came through it all uninjured. And to be honest, I am really ready to take some time off until the spring races start. If this weather holds, I’ll be rock climbing on Donner Summit, and when we get the huge storms that I am hoping for I’ll be skiing the sierra pow!

I do have to give a big thanks to Norm and Helen and all the volunteers for putting on a great event, and to Robert and Linda for RD-ing and volunteering at so many races, as well as putting on the race series. That’s a lot of work! And to the rest of you, as Robert said to me as I walked out the door of the gym, “See you in March at Rucky Chucky!”


  1. Hi Gretchen,
    It was great to see you again at HK50. Nice strong finish!

    And, Yes, of course Scott and I were in constant cell-phone contact during the series' many races to keep everyone guessing ;)

    I could not agree more with what you said about running ultras -- it's fantastic!

  2. I have really enjoyed reading your blog the last few weeks. I have plans for longer trail runs here in the SE, and your race accounts really help to inspire.


  3. I'm going to have to try Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me on the iPod - looks like it worked well to carry you to a PR! Congrats!

    It was great to see you again. I fully expect to see Rucky Chucky and States on your 2008 plan. ;-)


  4. Congrats on your PR and for winning all that loot! : ) Well done!

  5. congrats gretchen!!! that's awesome-hope you get a spot at western!


  6. Hey Gretchen,
    Wow, you really turned it on during the return. I'm very impressed with your strong run. It was a lot of fun (and also a confidence booster) running with you. And now, like you, I'm looking forward to some cross training. I'll have my own report up today.
    Hope to see you around this winter.

  7. Nice job, Gretchen! I enjoyed the report and the photos. I certainly agree that listening to podcasts is a great way to make the miles fly by. Congratulations on a new PR and a job well done.


  8. Wow, 1st in your age group and 3rd woman overall? You Rock! Plus, free shoes.

    I thought I was the only dork who listened to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. Well, not the only one, since obviously, they don't have the Lida Radio Network just for me, but you know what I mean. Don't tell anyone, but I also love Says You! on NPR. You should get those podcasts if they're available. It's dorky word games. But no spelling ;)

    Hope school is going well. I am still available to grade papers. Make all your students email them to you.

    Love, Lida

  9. Nice swag harvesting, congrats on a great year with strong finish!

    I should've seen Wait Wait when I still lived in Chicago. I've never listened to it running. I wonder if in trying to think of the answer to a question, I might look up or to the side and then snag my foot on trail and go down.

    I hope it dumps this winter too!

  10. Nice report! Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

    Have fun climbing and on the slopes!

    Hopefully I'll see you at Rucky Chucky next year too if I get picked on Dec. 1


    Trail Scat

  11. Your posts never fail to make me want to go out and run forever and ever! Congratulations on a great race and a great season. I'm sure the prizes were nice too! You've inspired me so much with all your race reports! Thanks. I can't wait till next season!