Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The 2009 Helen Klein 50M

Have you ever had one of those races where everything just falls into place? Where all the things that could possibly go right, do, and it feels like the entire universe is conspiring to create your perfect race? I have. And I was really hoping for one of those days at this year’s Helen Klein Ultra Classic. Unfortunately, it simply was not to be.

I’ll start with a reflection on my goals for the day. (Yes folks, make sure the coffee pot is full, and settle in. This will certainly be one of those long, classically-Gretchen-style race reports.) When I put this race on my schedule last spring, I had one thought in mind: Run a big 50 mile PR. I am definitely a trail runner, but I was interested in posting a fast time for the 50 mile distance. In order to do that I needed a fast course, which inevitably meant a road race. Having previously run 8:39 at Helen Klein, I knew it was a fast course and chose sub-8 as a goal.

And then I put up a respectable season of racing. Most of my races were merely training runs, but nonetheless, by the end of August I could tell that I was essentially in the best shape of my ultrarunning life. In stark contrast to last year, when I felt completely burned out after July’s TRT 100 and didn’t race again all year, this year I was still getting faster into the fall. I started to reassess my goals.

It seemed obvious that I could run 7:30 at Helen Klein, and possibly even faster. And let’s face it, if you’re going to talk about low 7’s, then that 7-hour barrier just starts to sound tantalizingly close. Should I even be considering something that huge? It felt completely audacious. Arrogant, even. Maybe this whole “winning thing” had started to go to my head? On the other hand, it was deliciously exciting. I blame the head-spinning high of winning the Lake Tahoe Marathon, but I decided to go for it.

Unfortunately, October didn’t go as it should have. I didn’t recover well from the marathon, and couldn’t shake a nagging illness for three weeks. I tried to get in some quality workouts, but they all felt awful. I went down to run 25 miles on the HK course one Saturday. My plan was to run about 8-minute pace. I could tell in the first three miles that it wasn’t going to happen. I started at 8:15, and slowed down from there, finishing with an average pace of 8:25. I would need to average 8:23 for a sub-7 at HK, and this workout had only covered half the distance. My confidence was definitely faltering.

The week before race day I fell into what I’ve come to realize is my typical pattern before an important race: I got nervous and stressed-out. In my head, I ran over all the things that had gone wrong with my training and all the reasons things might not go well. I considered completely giving up on my goals so I wouldn’t suffer that whole “tried-and-failed” fate. Maybe I could just run for fun? But by Friday, I realized this stress was all silly. It was just a race, right? I may as well just go for it and see what happens.

The Helen Klein course typically starts on a dirt levee, and continues for nearly 25 miles on a paved bike path along the American River, before turning around to repeat those miles. The finish is a gradual half-mile uphill on dirt to Cavitt Middle School. My plan was to try to average 8:15 pace for the first 15 miles, and then reassess. If, at any point during that 15 miles, I could see that it just wasn’t going to happen (as I could tell early on during that 25-mile workout) then I would back off and go more conservatively. But if I still felt good at mile 15, then I would try to continue my pace and see what happened.

I arrived at Cavitt Middle School just after 6 am on Saturday morning. I sent a drop-bag to the 12-mile aid station so that I would have somewhere to put my long-sleeved shirt when the day warmed up. I took care of all my pre-race duties, said a quick hello to my friend Jenny who had just taken third in the ultrarunner.net series. Before I knew it, Norm was compelling us all to sit and listen to the pre-race briefing.

Norm tells us how it's going to be, then requests a round of applause for Helen.

Among other things, we learned that the course had to be re-routed at the beginning due to some construction. This, he said, would make it a quarter-mile longer. Darn, I thought. Well, okay, I would just have to deal with that. I had actually given some thought to this possibility before race day, since this has happened before on this course. Personally, I think this is just one of those things to be accepted in the world of ultras. Sometimes courses are a little long or a little short. That’s life. I mean, does anyone ever complain about the extra 0.2 miles at Western States? (Sorry, but I hope not!)

Soon we were headed through the darkness on the quarter-mile walk to the start. Because of the re-route, the start would now take place on a narrow dirt trail. Norm was quite apologetic about this, but I just made sure to line up near the front.

It was at about this time that I realized that I hadn’t put on any sunscreen. Crap! Oh well, what’s a little sunburn in pursuit of a crazy-ass, ridiculous goal, right? I let that worry go, and ran off into the bushes to take one last pee.

It didn’t concern me to be the only woman on the front line. It didn’t intimidate me to be standing directly behind Chikara Omine and a few other speedsters. I wasn’t even really paying attention. At this point, all the focus, all the worries and thoughts that had been building for the past several months were culminating in one idea—the rapidly impending start.

The first mile and a bit (part of the detour) involved single-track and a good, solid hill, which felt like a significant change from the original course. In spite of being at the front, I was somehow still trapped behind a few people walking up the hill. It was early, so I tried to relax, but as soon as I had the opportunity, I scooted past them.

We entered the bike path along the American River to witness a beautiful sunrise. I tried to settle in to a steady pace, but every time I looked down at my GPS it said crazy things for “current pace.” Things like 7:40, and similar stupid numbers. Still, my average pace was reasonable, and I worked on staying relaxed and running well.

I fell in with a local runner named Chris, and we seemed to have a similar pace. He was an experienced ultrarunner, and we exchanged the usual what-races-have-you-done pleasantries. He had run TRT 100 earlier this year, so we traded horror stories on that one as we made our way down the bike path.

There are a lot of aid stations on this course, and part of my strategy to run fast meant skipping many of them. They were located only about 2-3 miles apart, and when running faster than 9-minute pace, that many aid stations just aren’t necessary. I blew through the first one completely, and paused at the second one just long enough to grab a couple of potatoes with salt. I had plenty of GU’s in my pockets, and they would provide the majority of my calories throughout the day.

I was averaging well under 8:23 pace, but all of my projected splits were behind. It appeared that the distances were off due to the re-routing of the first part of the course. I hoped the turn-around would be moved in order to compensate for this, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I just had to keep running and not worry about those things over which I had no control.

I made what was probably the world’s quickest pit-stop when I spotted a restroom that was located about 5 feet off the bike trail. I ran straight in, (fortunately not crashing into anyone on her way our) and specifically picked the stall with no door. No door to latch/unlatch=faster! I was quite pleased with my efficiency, if I do say so myself.

I felt relaxed but uncertain. At the Sunrise aid station at mile 12.5 I dropped my long-sleeved shirt and grabbed a few more GU’s from my bag. Again, time was of the essence, and the whole process took me maybe 15-20 seconds. Things felt good.

The 50K runners, who had started 5 minutes behind us, started to come by. Soon I heard someone calling my name, and I looked back to see Jenny Capel leading the charge in the women’s race. Jenny and I will be sharing the trails together in Zion next weekend, and we spent a few moments commiserating on the probable state of our legs only a week after this race. It was sure to be a slow (but beautiful!) weekend. She cruised ahead looking strong, and went on to win the 50K in an incredible 3:59!

I turned on my ipod in an effort to relax. One of the events I had forgone in order to run this race was an epic 4-day music festival in Yosemite featuring all of my very favorite Bay Area jam bands. I was heartbroken to miss it, so as a small compensation to myself, I queued up a number of songs from the very bands I was currently missing, including ALO, Hot Buttered Rum, The Mother Hips, Blue Turtle Seduction and Surprise Me Mr. Davis.

My potential turning point at mile 15 came and went, and I still felt good. I couldn’t see any reason to back off at this point, so the decision was made. It was time to go big or go home.

And then, at mile 18, the pain started to creep in. I noticed my butt and hamstrings were much tighter than they should have been. That kind of thing is to be expected for me in a road race, but this was way too early to be feeling it that strong. I was a little worried, but my game plan said to stay with it at this point, so I did. I was definitely concerned that things had changed so much in just the last three miles though.

I had lost Chris at an aid station somewhere and was running solo, when a woman came up beside me to say hello. It turned out to be Janelle, another runner from Tahoe. We had met earlier this year at Lake of the Sky, which had been her first ultra. She was down for a training run with a little oxygen in preparation for December’s CIM. We shared a few moments on the trail together before she went on ahead for the rest of her run. I find it so much fun to happen across runners like this in unexpected places!

Packs of people were out in organized groups for training runs, most of them women. They cheered me like a heroine. It was amazing, really. I wasn’t feeling so hot, but the sheer volume and sincerity of these women inspired my own smiles and enthusiasm to cheer them in return. Somehow, when you’re the first woman, you get way more cheers from the crowd than when you’re farther back in the race. I noticed this at the Tahoe Marathon, too. Cries of “First woman! First woman!” ring through the air, as the spectators share the knowledge with each other, and their encouragement soars. It seems silly, but I’ve been such a spectator many times myself. You’re watching the race, and the fast men run by and you cheer. More men come, and you keep cheering, but then, finally, there’s a woman, and your exuberance seems to double. It’s just exciting, and you can’t contain it. I felt honored to now be the one receiving the cheers.

Somewhere through miles 20-25 I started to fall off the pace. I was making a conscious effort not to, but it seemed I was powerless to stop the slow, inexorable decline.

Chikara Omine came flying by in the other direction, leading the race and looking strong. It was quite a while before the second place runner appeared, and it turned out to be Ray Sanchez, who also looked strong. Soon a few more faces came toward me, and I cheered them on as well as I could.

I reached the turn-around point at the Guy West Bridge with another runner who promptly informed the aid station crew that his GPS said it had been 25.5 miles. A glance at mine confirmed that his was accurate. I could tell by the response from the crew that they’d already heard this from other runners. I felt bad for them because we were the very front of the pack, and they were clearly going to have to hear complaints of a long course all day. Damn that technology!

My watch still said I was averaging 8:21 pace, but I felt like hell. I knew without a doubt 7 hours was off the table for the day. I accepted the fact without much disappointment, mostly because I knew I couldn’t let myself dwell on it. I knew I had bigger problems ahead of me.

The graffiti was bright, all over the freeway underpass, and it said a few things loud and clear. It said that A) things were only going to get slower from here on out, and that B) it was going to hurt. A lot.

I pushed through the miles to 30, thinking it was a significant mile to get through. Then I realized all it meant was that I still had 20 to go. Oh God. Twenty miles never sounded so far. Every muscle in my body felt tighter than it had ever been. My ass was tight; my hamstrings were on fire. My hips cinched down like a pair of hydraulic clamps. My form started to fall apart even as I focused all my mental energy on holding it together.

All I could think about was walking. Twenty miles still to go and I was ready to be done. Couldn’t I just call it 50K for the day and go home? It hurt so bad, and it was only going to get uglier. One step at a time, the miles slowly, slowly crept by.

I decided I needed a change of music. No more of this oovey-groovey, hippie, jam-band crap. I needed an adrenaline kick in the ass. Spearhead, The Raconteurs, Nirvana and Green Day became the order of the day.

The only thing that did seem to be going well was my nutrition. I had no problems staying hydrated, and the GU and potatoes seemed to be keeping my energy stable. I never bonked. I just had every muscle from the waist down on-freaking-fire!

Now the music had a good beat, and I tried to focus on it, let it drive me. “Desperate, but not hopeless.” Somewhat ironic lyrics I suppose, but desperate I was. Sadly though, the well of hope was rapidly running dry. As my average pace dropped toward 8:37 and then 8:40, the only emotion I had left was despair. The internal argument went something like this: This whole thing is a disaster! And then, No! You can still salvage something out of it! It was like the angel and the devil on my shoulders, except they both felt like the devil.

The only splits I had on my bottle were for 7-hour pace, and they had long since become irrelevant. I really didn’t know what kind of finish time might be possible, but I knew I’d kick myself if I let things get bad enough to run slower than eight hours. Winning hadn’t been on my radar at all as far as a goal. All I wanted from this day was a fast time. But at this point, I couldn’t think of much else to motivate me, so I figured I’d better start caring about hanging on to the lead.

The rest of the race went pretty much like that. I wallowed around in some of the darkest places, trying to forget about where I was. A 50 mile race never felt so long.

The worst part about ultras is that you stop at the finish line, but the pain doesn’t. I finished in 7:39, which didn’t really register as either good or bad. I was a little disappointed, and a little relieved, but mostly I was just empty. And in pain. Ugh.

Amidst the crowd of 30K and 50K finishers eating their Thanksgiving feast, I found an empty corner of the dirty gym floor, and lay down with my legs up the wall. It was all I’d been dreaming of for the past two hours, but it gave me no relief. I lay there for a few minutes staring up at the ceiling in wonder, a few silent tears leaking out of my eyes. They didn’t come from disappointment, pain or even self-pity. It’s just that I had completely scraped the bottom of my barrel, and I had nothing left but a couple of tears.

I shifted restlessly around the gym, trying to find some sort of position that was comfortable. I couldn’t think about eating or changing or anything until some of the pain subsided. I was completely anti-social and had no idea what to do with myself. Finally, after about an hour, a shower in the women’s locker room sounded like a good idea, and it did go a little ways towards bringing me back to life. I got some food and became capable of some actual conversation.

In the men’s race Chikara Omine won with an amazing 5:45:41, missing the course record by a painfully-close 3 seconds (made even more painful by the knowledge that the course was long). Ray Sanchez also ran well, posting a 6:45 for second place. In the women’s race, I managed to hold on to first and just got edged out of the top ten overall, taking 11th. Tia Gabalita of Corvallis finished second in 7:57.

Chikara said he’d been injured all month and not really expecting much, but that he could tell early on in the race that everything was just clicking. He felt good and seemed pleased with his time. Jean Pommier seemed to be feeling more in my camp—it was a rough day out there.

There’s a lot I could say about why things turned out the way they did at this race. I could talk about the long course (51.4 miles by my watch), or the October illness. But these things have to be accepted as a part of racing, and even if absolutely everything had been working in my favor it was still a very questionable, very reachy goal. It took a surprisingly small amount of reflection for me to feel at peace with my results.

I know what you’re thinking. I won the race and set a PR of exactly one hour. Only a crazy person would sheepishly refer to the day as a disaster. But you know, I’m used to being called crazy, even if I don’t really like it.

It’s just that, I had bigger things in mind. This was made obvious by the early pace that I set. It was aggressive, and apparently slightly crazy. But do I regret it? Nope. Not one bit.

The thing is, I am typically a pretty conservative ultrarunner. I was known to go out too fast at times back in my days of shorter races, but ultras scare me too much for that. I’m chicken. (And starting conservatively has worked well for me in this genre of running, so I think I’m going to stick to it from now on.) But you know what they say: Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So, now I know.

I suppose I could have been more realistic and set my goal at 7:20. I would have probably finished with a faster time, and I would have certainly done it with less pain. But that would have been sealing part of my fate before I even got to the starting line. That would have been saying “I can’t do it” before I’d even tried. So, I gambled big, and I lost. Even by the time I was in the car driving home, I was already giggling a bit at the hilarious beauty of it. This running thing we do—it is pretty awesome. (And crazy, did I mention crazy?)

I’ve got plenty of reflecting left for my autumn days, but I do want to say one more thing here. In many ways, I am proud of this race, even though I do feel like it was a disaster. I have never crashed and burned so hard. I have never experienced anything like it. I watched all my goals fall to pieces around me, and still summoned everything I had to salvage what I could even though it felt like getting all of the pain with none of the reward. I’m proud of not giving up, because I really, desperately wanted to.

Thank you so much to the awesome volunteers, and to Norm and Helen for putting this on. I also feel so grateful to all of my running friends. (Yes, that means you!) You guys have really supported and encouraged me, and I really felt that out there on the course. Your faith in me was no small thing in my mind and heart. So, thank you.

Helen and me after the race


  1. Congratulations on breaking 8 and demolishing your PR by a full hour!

  2. Hey Gretchen,
    I'm proud of you for gutting this one out to the finish. With the re-routing of the course, that really is not too bad of a time. A long time on the pavement, that's for sure.

    I really enjoyed this post (made sure I had a full pot of coffee!). There were some very recognizable parts in it (The graffiti!). The problem with ultras is that once you're having a hard time, it is usually a long suffer-fest to the finish.

    Now, rest up and have fun!

  3. Wow. I'm proud of you as well - not so much for the time (which is super speedy), but for the all-out effort and completely draining yourself to where there's nothing else to give. That's not a pleasant place to get to. I also loved all the insight into your race strategy - and I'm sure it makes perfect sense to any of us who have ever pushed hard after an ambitious goal. I hope you have no regrets about how this one played out.

    Way to go, chica.

  4. Way to go, Gretchen!! You are certainly the speedster these days. Congrats on the win--you've come a long way since our 50 mile "hike" at TRT a few years ago....it's inspiring!!

  5. Thanks, y'all!

    Peter, Thanks again for all your support. Sincerely appreciated. You're right, it WAS a long time on pavement. I don't know how you do that whole Super Triple thing. Yikes!

    Donald - I definitely have no regrets. I mean, it really was an incredible experience. Not just another race for me, that's for sure.
    And you, too, have given me so much support, which I truly appreciate. So, thanks, kid.

    Tate - Oh but our TRT 50 was so much fun! More real fun that this race, let me tell you. :)
    Hey, I'm thinking Waldo next year, so let's make some plans! Plus, I need to pick your brain about CCC.

  6. Gretchen, amazing. It's redundant, but - I'me in awe. Awesome job. OK, what is that, tri-dundant?

    CCC? Had to google it. Are you going to France? To run? OK, begin jealousy...

  7. Oh Gretchen! You have so much strength and will-power! If I'm hurting that bad, I start playing the walk-run-walk-run leap frog game. Kudos to you for pushing through through the hurt when you wanted to stop that badly. I can't imagine running that many miles in one day~ :) And thanks again for running with me last weekend! YOU ROCK!

  8. 7:39 and first woman is definitely still an awesome accomplishment. Way to aim big! Just think what you could do next year! You are faster than the 7:39 suggests considering the weeks leading up to the race. I know the feeling though. I sulked for a bit after San Diego 100, it was my fastest time in a hundred but I could not stop thinking about missing the time that I had been aiming for all day. My one crew person wanted to choke me to silence. Well what else is there to say. You felt empty at 30 but kept fighting for the last 20. You finished, PR'ed, came first and yet came away knowing you are still capable of more - all good things I think. Congrats and recover well.

  9. Gretchen, I truly don't know what to say. I'm very impressed with you, as a runner and as a person. You have so much strength and guts. I know those feelings that this race was a "disaster" will stay with you to motivate you in the future but quit beating yourself up. You're an incredible runner and I can't wait to see what next year brings.

  10. Turi - France, I wish! No, CCC is Cascade Crest 100 in Washington. Don't ask me why there is an extra C in the acronym. I'm sure there's a reason.

    Amber - Thanks! We should definitely do some running this winter in Reno. Athough, it is dark so early now! Such a bummer! But still, time for some short runs, maybe.

    Rick, I think you pretty much just summed it all up. A good experience for a lot of reasons, even if the final result wasn't as hoped. Pretty sure I'm not putting this one on my calendar next year though! :)

    Catherine, Aww, thanks, but don't worry...I'm really not beating myself up. "Disaster" was an honest assessment for a variety of reasons, but I don't feel bad about things. It was a brutal day, but the suffer-fest just makes you tougher, right? ;)

  11. DAMN!
    I had no coffee, even with the advance warning. Seriously impressive, though. I know you missed your time goal, but maybe accomplished even more in the process. Way to go!

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your story from this! That is such an impressive time, even through you were really hurting at the end. It sounds like you worked as hard as you could, and that is really something to be proud of :)


    Wow. Just, um, wow.