As such, Beat and I agreed that we'd run the Ohlone separately, each at our own pace. Beat on his own is quite a bit faster than me, but I had yet to run an ultramarathon without him. During all four 50Ks and the entire 41 hours of the Susitna 100, for better or worse, we were only a few stride lengths apart. It was a fantastic learning technique for me and a decent relationship builder as well, but at some point here I need to learn to slog on my own. Since every single one of my bike races, from 24 hours to 24 days, have been overwhelmingly solo, I wasn't all that worried about a 50K alone. But I admit it's nice to have someone there to remind me to take my Vitamin I at an appropriate interval several miles before the big steep downhills, hand me salt tablets and help me lighten up when I'm being grumpypants.
But even with Beat out ahead, it was hard to feel alone at Ohlone. The East Bay classic is one of the more popular trail races in the Bay area, and attracted a sold-out crowd of 200 runners. It's also one of the more difficult 50Ks in the region, a one-way race across a relatively remote section of the Diablo Mountains with about 8,000 feet of climbing (and descent.) I couldn't be less concerned about 8,000 feet of climbing. That much ascent isn't going to break my legs, and it's not going to make or break a race. Really, at the grades we were climbing, a large percentage of the field walks. Some walk at 4 mph and others walk at 3. Not a lot of distance is being gained on the uphill stretches. Downhills, however, open the margin wide. Some fly down the mountains at 10 mph, others shuffle nicely at 6 mph. I prefer to tiptoe down at 2 or 3. Obviously, I was going to have to improve on this.
My main issue with downhill running is confidence. I kick rocks. I stumble. I wrench my knee or turn my ankle. Sometimes I fall. The probability of a mishap makes me extremely, irrationally anxious. My steps become more rigid, my breathing becomes shallow and I develop side stitches that range from uncomfortable to debilitating, so constrictive that I have to clutch my abdomen and take big gulps of air just to get oxygen into my system. Short of developing more confidence, which I've accepted will only come with time and experience, the only solution I've found is ibuprofen. If I take two brown pills about 20 minutes before a big downhill, I seem to be able to stave off the side stitches. Obviously, this isn't a long-term solution, but this was my plan for today.
This isn't to say the climbs aren't difficult. They are. But I was feeling extremely good today. Honestly, I felt fantastic. This was strange as well because I purposely loaded my training days just before this race. We rode 40 miles on Saturday, ran nine relatively fast miles on Friday, and time-trialed a 2,600-foot climb on Wednesday, to say nothing of my Banff/North Dakota week, which, on top of the 105 road miles and 15 hours of mountain biking, included 46 miles of trail running. The reason was to start the Ohlone on slightly tired legs. That's how you learn how to run 100 miles.
It helped that it was not hot today. This race is known for scorching temperatures and I don't think they rose above 70 today; plus, there was a nice breeze. The core group of Californians that I ended up spending much of the race with (we mostly hopscotched, with them flying past me on the descents and me catching back up on the climbs) largely complained about the "cold." I felt like I had dodged a bullet. Although I need to learn to run in heat as much as anything, that doesn't mean I want to.
The Ohlone trails were beautiful, and I was stoked about the one-way race course. It was more like going out for a long, scenic (fast) hike than running a race. The scenery was ever-changing and dynamic. The valleys were green and the hillsides carpeted with golden grass that rippled in the wind. We summitted two peaks (Mission and Rose) and two more minor ridges, effectively crossing a nice chunk of the rippling Diablo Range.
A race volunteer took a picture of me on top of Rose Peak, elevation 3,817. She said, "It's mostly downhill from here," and I said, "Oh, great, the hard part."
But I popped for vitamin I and started down at my conservative pace, which wasn't as bad as gingerly tiptoeing but probably averaged 4-6 mph. Other that taking it purposefully slow to avoid eating gravel or contracting the horrible sidestich, I felt really strong. I got to listen to my iPod, drop in the grass to shoot photos of flowers and slum at aid stations to my heart's content. I usually don't believe people when they say this to me, but the truth is there was never a moment when I wasn't having fun. Could I have pushed myself more? Yes, undoubtedly. But could I have possibly had a better-feeling, stronger-finishing and more confidence-building race? Not likely.
I ran my fastest pace in the final quarter mile and finished with a big smile on my face in 7:27, which is my second slowest 50K but given the elevation change and difficulty of the course, was really above my typical pay grade. (Garmin data here.) I found out that if I was younger than 30, I actually would have won my age group. The volunteer at the finish kept asking if I was "under 30" and in my post-race haze, I could not figure out what he meant. Under 30 miles? Under a 7:30 finish? Finally Beat told him I was "31." Oh, that 30.
For his part, Beat set his own Ohlone PR with a 6:37 finish. Our friends Steve and Harry also put in fast times, and Martina rallied to the finish so hopefully she'll rock San Diego (she's the person I'm supposed to pace.) A great day was had by all.