I ran the Sequoia 50K (31 mile) race last Saturday, which is a rather tough hilly trail race that winds its way around Joaquin Miller Park and Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, CA. This was only my 3rd race at this distance. The organizer of this race is a company called Pacific Coast Trail Runs and they hold about 2 events a month, mostly in the Bay Area.
My goal was to have a good 50K and to hopefully set a personal record at this distance, beating my time of 4 hours 53 minutes for an easier 50K I did three years ago. I was hoping to finish closer to 4 and a half hours but definitely not slower than 5 hours.
I finished in exactly 5 hours with a lot of slow-down towards the end. Oh, well! I didn't get injured or fall down or lost, although I did run the 2nd of these two large loops in reverse, because I didn't see one critical turn.
The day started early, with my alarm going off at 5:45am to give me plenty of time to eat and digest my food and get ready for the 8:30am start of the race. I picked up my friend and running club member Jen Wilcox along the way and we arrived exactly an hour before the race began. It felt good to not be rushed!
I was a bit disappointed when I saw the sign-up sheet for the 50K and there were so few runners -- I estimated 35. I hoped maybe some more would sign up that morning.
It was great seeing another friend and running club member, Franz Dill, and the three of us hung out for a bit before the race began. Then, we're off! It was us 50K runners and 30K runners together, heading off from this lovely meadow and soon up some steep trails.
The trickiest part of long-distance racing is to set the right pace. I want to finish as quickly as I can but I know that if I run too quickly early on, I'll set myself up for disaster later on. I wore my heart rate monitor and decided to not go above 166 beats per minute on the hardest uphills and then I would try to relax and recover on the downhills.
I settled into the back of the front group and the leaders soon were out of sight. I didn't know who in front of me was in my race or in the 30K. I think there were 7 guys in front of me at the time.
We soon hit the first aid station, called Moon Gate, at mile 2.8. I was carrying two 20oz water bottles but I had already drank maybe 15oz so I filled up one water bottle at the aid station and was soon on my way with about 30oz total. I didn't eat any food from this aid station or any other -- I carried my own energy gels.
Some of the downhills were quite rough and at times so steep that I was hopping down, braking at each step. It felt slow and dangerous and I tried not to think of what would happen if I tripped and crashed into some rocks or tree roots.
Soon enough I arrived at the "spur", flagged with orange flags. This is a 10K out-and-back that we were instructed to run once, which would give our first big loop a distance of 30K. Being out-and-back, this gave me a chance for the first time to see my competition running towards me. I could tell from their bib #s which race they were in and we greeted each other as we ran past one another. When the leader of the 50K ran by me, I checked my watch to see how far ahead he was. I was in 3rd place and about 3 minutes behind the leader. My 30oz was almost gone and I filled up completely at the Canyon Meadow aid station, departing in good spirits and with 40oz.
I soon came across Franz who was not far behind me at all. And then Jen, who was 1st place female! Way to go, Jen!
Returning to our large loop required a big climb (on the Toyon trail, I believe) and I ran almost all of this. I monitored my heart rate and although I felt the effort, I thought I could keep this pace for a long time. I didn't feel at all like I was sprinting or doing anything excessive. I continued drinking my sports drink and eating a Gu every 20 minutes. I passed 2nd-place runner, Mr. Hawaii (based on his shirt), on this Toyon trail and we greeted each other and offered encouragement.
Back on to the big loop, possibly on the West Ridge trail, I caught up to the front runner and we greeted each other and I asked how things were going. He said he felt terrible, and was repeatedly puking in his mouth, and had had diarrhea that morning. He said he was going to drop at the 30K. I offered him a ginger lozenge, but he said he hated the taste. I wished him luck and passed him. I'm now in 1st place.
I started passing more and more of the 20K runners who had started after us at 9am and who didn't have to run that 10K spur, so I was catching the slowest of them. I caught up to a 30K runner, named Hugh Bosely, and we chatted a bit. For some reason he pulled ahead of me on the flatter parts but then I would start to pass him on the uphills. I think this was because I was letting my heart rate rise and was pushing harder on the uphills but then I instinctively knew I needed to relax more on the flatter parts. I wonder now if a smarter strategy would be to perform more like I did at the Miwok 100K and just stick with a maximum heart rate.
Eventually, I passed Hugh and I didn't see him again. I ran through the Moon Gate aid station again and I knew I had a very short distance to the start / finish area where my food was stashed and where there was another aid station, so I didn't stop at all.
At the 30K mark, I asked a volunteer to please fill my water bottles with sports drink in one and water in the other, and I went to get my "drop bag". This whole process took 3 or 4 minutes which felt way too long. I wish I could've had my drop bag right at the aid station, but they set up the aid station after the race starts. Maybe if I had had replacement water bottles ready-to-go, I could've saved a bunch of time, too. Anyway, 2 hours 44 minutes have elapsed, and I'm beginning the 20K loop.
Right away, I feel like something is not right. I start feeling twitches and my right inner thigh clenches real hard briefly. Oh, no, not cramps! I stopped completely and rubbed and massaged my quads for a bit and then start running / walking uphill. I immediately took another salt capsule. To this point, I had only taken 3, which felt OK because the heat felt very manageable and I didn't think I was sweating profusely. From here on out, I took a salt capsule about every 20 minutes, to keep the cramps at bay.
My strategy quickly became one of survival and to just keep on moving as best I can and to avoid getting "lock down" cramps which would prevent me from running or walking. My average heart rate fell to about the mid 150s.
I reached the Moon Gate aid station and completely filled up with fluids since I was about to begin the longest stretch between aid stations -- 7.6 miles. There were many other runners heading towards me at this point. (I keep on calling our route a "loop" but it's more of a figure-8 with a small loop glued on to a big loop by a short stick.) I thanked the volunteer and continued on. Although I didn't yet realize my error, I made a wrong turn and had begun running my 2nd loop in reverse. There were no signs. The aid station volunteer didn't stop me or warn me. Although I had run correctly through this aid station earlier, there are a lot of turns in the race and I didn't remember this one!
So, more than a few runners ask me if they're running the wrong way and I said with confidence, "No, I'm on the 2nd loop of the 50K. You're not lost." Finally, after one guy insisted that I was running the wrong way, it dawned on me that I must have missed a turn. Crap. Well, there was no way I was going to run back who knows how far! The best I could do was to move on but now I had a significant new challenge. The course was flagged with a minimal set of flags to guide us to make the correct turns at intersections. But if two trails merged into one, there wouldn't necessarily be any flags there because we were instructed to run straight unless we see a striped flag. Unfortunately for me, running the trail in reverse frequently had me arriving at forks in the trail where I had to stop and look carefully both ways and try to remember which way I had come earlier! Sometimes I was lucky and I could see other runners coming from the right direction. Sometimes I could see that there would definitely be a turn coming from one of the trails and so the lack of flags meant that I shouldn't go that way. Once there was a hiker who pointed me the correct way. Another time I remembered some distinguishing feature. I think once I just had to guess. In the end, I didn't make any further mistakes and I stayed on the course.
When I encountered other runners (they were all in the 50K now), I started telling them I was running the wrong way by accident and I gave them my mileage so that they might know where they were in the race, relative to me. I came across Franz and Jen, who both looked good and strong.
I arrived at the Moon Gate aid station one last time, coming from the wrong direction and the aid station workers said they had heard about me. I asked if any 50K runners were in front of me. "One or two" she said. Oh, well, was to be expected. I filled up with water in one bottle; I wasn't thinking clearly and I actually probably didn't need any more fluids. I trudged along as best I could, still running slowly. I got another strong twinge on this brutal downhill, but I knew I was getting close.
Finally, the meadow opened up, and I picked up the pace and I saw the finishing area with a tent and flags. I saw a child get up from under a tree and start running toward me. Claire! And Jennifer my wife walking towards me. I was so happy! Claire started running with me towards the finish line, but I was moving pretty quickly and she couldn't keep up for long. Whew! Done! 5 hours and 40 seconds was my official time. (Results.) I finished in 2nd place. Franz finished shortly after me. I saw Jen finish, first place female!
Jen Wilcox, first place!
Ron, Jen, and Franz. There was a big smear on
my camera's lens that I didn't notice until later.
What went right
- I finished a tough 31 mile trail race, running almost all of it.
- I was uninjured.
- No blisters or chafing or sunburn or poison oak or blackened toenails.
- I came in 2nd place overall out of 31 finishers.
- My equipment performed well. I wore Inov8 trail running shoes in a race for the first time and they did great.
- I had a pretty good time!
Things to improve upon
- I should have run a little slower for the first 30K. I'm guessing if I had limited my heart rate to 160 bpm on the uphills that I would have been in much better shape for the last 20K. The cost of falling apart is so high!
- Maybe I should've taken more salt earlier.
- I need to be more careful about taking turns when I'm at an aid station. It's easy to get distracted and Pacific Coast Trail Runs has a lot of runners getting lost in each of their races. I'm guessing 20% deviate in some way, on average.
- Here is my Garmin GPS data. You can click on the little green icon to play back my run and see my 2nd loop being done in reverse. So sad!
- Weighed 165.6 lbs that morning.
- I peed once, briefly, during the race. Could I have been dehydrated?