Sunday, August 10, 2008

Headlands 50 Miles -- a difficult 9 hours 47 minutes

Yesterday, somewhere around mile 30, I found myself thinking, "What am I doing out here?! I have bad cramps and 20 miles left to go." It's true, I was seeking more of a challenge and had trained for and entered my first 50 mile race, the Headlands 50 Mile whose course runs a tortuous route up and down hills in the beautiful Golden Gate National Recreational Area in the Marin Headlands, just north of San Francisco. But I'm still fighting the demons of dehydration and electrolyte deficiency.

The good news? I did successfully complete my first 50 mile race, mostly running and oftentimes walking for 9 hours 47 minutes, coming in 17th place out of about 120 runners. There were an additional 60 runners or so entered in the 100 mile race, which was held simultaneously.

Back to the beginning of the long day...

The weather was cool and foggy in the morning, with the sun coming out in the afternoon with a predicted high of 72. I had carpooled with my friend, running club member, and prolific ultrarunner, Eric and his very supportive family. At the race site, I met two more running club members, Franz and Mike. So, that's 4 of us from the Coastside Running Club in a 50 mile race!

We got to the starting area around 6:15, giving us plenty of time to get our bibs, put on sunscreen, use the bathrooms, and otherwise get ready for the big day. After some instructions about how to follow the course, the race director started the race at 7am. And we were off! How was the day going to go? 50 miles! Yikes! I tried to start out nice and slow. It was going to be a long day and I wanted to last!

The nice thing about ultramarathons is that you have to run slow and typically walk the uphills and so there are plenty of opportunities for socializing, especially early on when people are bunched together. I chatted with my running buddy Eric for a while until his heart rate monitor told him he was going out too hard.

Then I slowly caught up to a gregarious woman named Meredith from Austin, TX, who said "hi" and we talked for a few miles, mostly about how our spouses don't like to run with us. She said her husband runs a marathon in 2 hour 35 minutes!

My friend Eric passes me, flying down a hill around mile 8. "Crazy!", I thought.

The first aid station came quickly and easily at mile 8.6. My watch read 1 hour 20 minutes. I can't reliably report on any other times past this point since I only realized afterwards that my friend Eric's watch that I was borrowing (I had sent mine to be repaired) was set to pause when not in motion. This meant that at every aid station, or when I took a pee break, or walked too slow, or stopped for any reason, the timer stopped. At the end of the race it reported 9 hours 25 minutes whereas my actual time, as I learned this morning from the results, was 9 hours 47 minutes. Did I really spend 22 minutes not moving?

After the first aid station, I finished off my Gatorade Endurance that I had brought with me and began using the sports drink provided by Pacific Coast Trail Runs. It tasted like lightly flavored water. I wondered if it was not mixed to the recommended concentration. Hmmm......

Somewhere from mile 10 to 14 or so, I chatted with an older guy, Mike Nuttal, who ran the challenging Big Sur Marathon in 3 hours 5 minutes at age 57!

After about mile 16, I felt like I could pick up the pace a bit. Part of me wanted to catch up to my friend Eric, which I finally did and I was feeling great so I kept on going, passing maybe 5 or 6 more people.
Finally, I slowly caught up to the first place female at the time, Beth Vitalis from Livermore. She was also passing slower runners and we started passing people together. She was breathing hard and really pushing herself. A little voice in my head said, "maybe I shouldn't pass her just yet; I'm probably running too fast right now." We chatted for a while, learning that we were both friends with the amazing runner, Prudence L'Heureux. We broke through the fog together and were both very impressed with the beautiful coastal views of Muir Beach. She offered me a Clif Bar that she said she wouldn't need, which was very generous of her, but I declined, not wanting to take a chance with unfamiliar foods. Eventually, she recognized one of the few bystanders along the course and stopped and gave him a hug and I passed her.

Coming in to the Bolinas Ridge Aid Station at mile 28, it was great being cheered on by Eric's family again. I may have been in 5th place overall. I was feeling good, but had some warning signs. I had a very brief feeling of a cramp in one of my calves. Leaving the aid station, returning back on the trail, I almost immediately felt much worse. I had to step over a log and one of my hamstrings locked up agonizingly. "Nooooo" I thought. "This can't be happening! I have 22 miles to go!" I slowed down a lot and completely walked all uphills, even slight ones. I took another salt capsule and ate some more food and drank some more water. A couple of runners passed me. Beth passes me and wishes me luck.

It took me maybe 4 miles to get the severe cramps "under control". I had stopped several times. Once, to pull a pebble out of my shoe, the cramps set on immediately. It was like if I did any unusual movement or even if I simply stopped running or walking, the cramps would hit. Weird! I shuffled along, much more slowly than before.

The miles ticked slowly by. At the next aid station, I met Eric's family again and I told his wife, Denise, that I was having lots of cramps. I badly wanted to lay down. I was feeling hot and my breathing was heavy even when I stopped. I kept on going. I would hate myself if I quit!

The miles went by agonizingly slow. I kept on glancing down at my watch to see how far I had come and sometimes I was terribly disappointed to have gone only a tenth of a mile since the last time I had looked down. I was constantly on the edge of cramps in my legs. My side started to hurt. I tried to force myself to drink and eat salty food. I worried about the fact that I hadn't peed since about mile 16.

I had become noticeably more clumsy. At least twice, I saw a rock poking out from the ground and I intended to step over it, but instead I directly kicked it, stumbling over it instead. Another time, I intended to rotate my body around a branch sticking into the trail, but instead I solidly connected with it, which caused my whole right side and shoulder to go into a spasm of painful cramps. Finally, while turning a corner, I somehow managed to firmly step on my left big toe with my right heel. Ouch! I thought I might laugh about that later, but it hurt my toe and it was a dangerous maneuver since if I fell, I could've toppled down the hillside. Although I had several close calls, I managed not to fall to the ground. I saw a couple of other runners who had tumbled, one of whom had a big bloody bandage on his elbow.

Finally, finally, after walking up one last huge incline in between the last aid station and the finish line just 4 miles away, I started slowly trudging downhill and the finish area was in sight. I was having a major sense of deja vu, too. I felt like I was reliving both my recent Mt. Diablo ordeal plus I had recently, last May 3, paced my friend Prudence for the last 20 miles of the Miwok 100K, which covers many of the same trails. Even though I ran only 20 miles that day, again, I suffered from bad cramps over the last two miles and I couldn't even finish the race with her.

It was wonderful seeing Eric and his family at the finish line. They cheered. I was so relieved and somewhat emotional. We waited a short while for Franz to finish. Eric had just a fantastic race, finishing in 9 hours 16 minutes. Franz had great execution and was strong at the end, finishing with a sprint. Here we are in our Coastside Running Club dry-weave t-shirts.
What went right:
  • I finished my first 50 miler.
  • I don't think I'm injured.
  • No chafing and only one small blister that I didn't feel during the race. Yay, Body Glide!
  • My shoes, water bottle, hat, shorts, etc., all did well. No equipment problems.
  • I didn't get lost. At least a couple of others did, though, including one of the top runners.
  • No digestive problems. Yay. I tried not to eat very much fiber the day before and I got up early enough (4:15am) to get everything "cleared out" before the race.

What went wrong:
  • Yet again, I've done a long run and got dehydrated and didn't take in enough salt. I suspect the sports drink provided during the race was not at the recommended concentration.
  • Given that I wasn't taking in enough salt, I was running too fast in the first half. I think this might be two sides of the same coin, but I'm not sure.
  • I only peed twice in the race, both times prior to mile 16. I didn't need to pee after the race either. Finally when I got home, nearly 12 hours after the race began, I had to pee and my urine was a dark yellow. I weighed myself afterwards -- 160.4 lbs, down 5.0 lbs since before I ate breakfast early that morning. So, weight-wise the day went: 165.4 + breakfast + coffee + sports drink - 50 miles + lots of race-provided "sports drink" + 16 oz chicken noodle soup + 12 oz diet Coke + 8 oz soy milk + ~12oz of my own sports drink = 160.4 lbs.
  • I had borrowed my friend Eric's Garmin GPS watch, but hadn't double-checked all the settings. However, it was still very useful to have during the race. (Thanks, Eric!)
  • I had attached a piece of tape to my water bottle and wrote on it with a permanent marker the distances between aid stations and my goal times for each one, but it rubbed off immediately at the beginning of the race. Someone showed me the idea of using a laminated card instead. Or if I had put another layer of clear tape on top of the writing, I think that would've done the trick.
  • I should get a pair of "gaitors" that are not socks. These are sleeves that go on the ankle and then wrap down over the shoe so as to not allow trail debris to get in. Twice I stopped to pull out a twig or pebble. I didn't want to wear the gaitors that I had because they contributed to me losing a toenail on one of my middle toes about 3 months ago.
My feet, post-race. Sheesh, these black toenails take forever to grow out. One was from Boston and I think the other one was even earlier. My left middle toenail I lost in May due to pacing my friend at Miwok 100K. So, basically, my feet look as bad afterwards as before. :-) I got one blister on the right side of my right middle toe which I never felt and didn't know was there until I took my shoes off.
Thoughts on the future...
I'm just not getting a handle on these really long runs. I can't seem to take in enough fluids or salts or something. Am I also running too fast early on? It's been getting frustrating. Also, while training for this race, I did two 30+ mile runs, a bunch of 20 mile runs, and a top week of 78 miles. This takes a lot of time. It took me 5 hours 45 minutes to run 30 miles in 90 degree weather in Walnut Creek. It took me 5 hours 25 minutes to run 30.8 miles in the cooler coastal climate, going from Montara to Daly City, and back. Including recovery time, that's about an 8 hour process. That's time not spent with family. So, in addition to the execution problems of the race itself, I'm struggling with time and motivation issues. Things to think about.

As usual, all this running wouldn't be possible without the support of my wonderful wife. Thanks, Jennifer!
A big thanks to Eric and his wonderful family for giving me a ride to and from the race and cheering me on at various aid stations along the way.