Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Busting out at the Ohlone 50K

Photo by Joseph Swenson
If my confidence wasn't already tenuous enough, my body had to go and zonk out on the shuttle bus. Under normal circumstances, I'm a picky sleeper. I need horizontal silence, and no matter how much I want to, I can rarely take naps in vehicles or on planes unless I am: a) drugged; b) on at least hour 36 of sleep deprivation; or c) so physically spent that I lose consciousness involuntarily. After sucking down a large cup of coffee on the way to Lake Del Valle — the finishing point of the Ohlone 50K — I sat next to Beat on a tiny hard-backed seat of a school bus for an hour-long shuttle to the race start. After what seemed like three minutes, we were there and my neck was really sore. But rather than improve my energy levels, the nap left my head feeling like it was sinking into the deep end of a flu-addled haze. I never feel stellar before 9 a.m., but on this morning I was fully distraught about my physical state. Hazy head, lead legs, sour stomach, the knowledge that I had run only a few more miles in the past month than I expected to run on this single day, a forecast calling for temperatures in the high 80s to low 90s, and now this — apparently uncontrollable sleepiness.

Beat left to wait in the Disneyland-worthy line for the toilets and I plopped down on the grass, resting my chin on my knees like a pouty child and stewing on how much I really wanted to DNS the Ohlone 50K. Of course I could not, for multiple reasons, but the main one is the reality that if I'm not ready to run a hilly 50K now, in late May, then I surely won't be ready for UTMB by late August. The hundreds of hard miles I've biked in the past two months have left at least my head if not my body feeling overworked. But for all of that pedaling, I've only run a few dozen miles in that same time period, largely as slow recovery jogs. So I was overtired and undertrained. Perfect. But my big goal for the summer is a near-impossible foot race, so I needed some kind of physical and mental benchmark. I stood up to slather on necessary sunscreen, and my knees nearly buckled under the strain. I expected the Ohlone 50K to dole out some hard lessons.
 
The Ohlone 50K, now in its 25th year, is a storied event in the annals of Northern California trail running. It attracts a sold-out field of 200-plus runners and is widely regarded as one of the toughest trail races in the region. The point-to-point course traverses the Sunol Wilderness, summiting two prominent peaks and more than 8,000 feet of relentlessly steep climbing in the process. But the elevation gain alone isn't what makes the race tough, it's the sun exposure. Shade is scarce, steep canyons block any hint of breeze, and temperatures often stretch into the 90s during the five-plus hours that most everyone is on the course. (Even fast runners are told to take their best 50K times and add at least an hour for the Ohlone 50K.) But the region has a soft kind of beauty — rounded topography, clusters of broad trees, and golden hillsides that shimmer in the sunlight.

The course gains 2,500 feet right out of the gate, on the four-mile climb to the top of Mission Peak. I started out with fellow back-of-packers who were "taking it easy" in order to save themselves for the really brutal stuff later in the day. The difference between me and them was I kinda was giving that climb everything I had to give — which was a slow plod. My stomach gurgled and I regretted not waiting in the bathroom line, not that it would have paid off anyway. It took me an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the top, which I figured was slower than my casual hiking pace, but still better than full-on death march pace. Late-morning sunlight sparkled on the suburban grid of the valley, now far enough below to register as geometric patterns. Despite the rapid rise in temperatures, I was finally starting to perk up.

"Maybe I'm finally starting to warm up," I thought. I've noticed in the past that when my body is accustomed to go-all-day endurance, it can take an hour or more before I even get up to speed, like starting a diesel truck on a cold day. Still, I ran down Mission Peak at a mellow clip, figuring I didn't want to press too hard on the gas and risk flooding the engine. At the first aid station I discovered this race supplied jelly beans, which was a good omen. I had already decided pre-race that I was only going to consume simple sugars in order to keep heat-related stomach unhappiness at bay, and I always worry that I might have to subsist on gels. I refilled my water — a 70-ounce bladder already largely depleted after only six miles — and stuffed a handful of jelly beans in my mouth. The problem with Jelly Belly is there are just enough revolting flavors to ruin any handful. Every time I jogged away from an aid station I always had a hit of "Ew, peanut butter." "Gross, coffee and fruity don't mix." "Arrrgh, buttered popcorn!" Still, it beats gels. 

By the time I reached the bottom of Sunol canyon, mile ten, the heat was beginning to take its toll. Fellow racers were sitting in the shade or having volunteers pour water over their heads. I didn't feel overheated yet, but when I pulled out my bladder it was again only a quarter full, meaning I had sucked down another quart and a half of water in just four mostly downhill miles. I took a couple of salt tabs, ate some more jelly beans ("Ugh, coconut") and started up the next steep ascent. 

As I climbed, one of the first thoughts that occurred to me was, "This isn't nearly as tough as pushing my bike up Oriflamme Canyon." When the trail leveled out and cut across sideslopes on its rolling traverse, I thought, "This is way less work than hike-a-biking down Noble Canyon." The Stagecoach 400 comparisons, and the fact that I was passing quite a few people, boosted my mood and I responded by running harder when I could run, and marching forcefully on the grades that my calf muscles refused to lift from. Because it was so hot, and because the scenery was similar, I spent a lot of time reminiscing about the Stagecoach 400. Apparently, in my memory, I hike-a-biked the whole thing, because I was thrilled that I only had 31 miles to cover in the Ohlone 50K. "I only have to do seven hours of this. Yay, biking is hard, running is ea-seeeee." (Note: I do not actually believe this. But I'll play any mind game with myself in order to get through a tough challenge.) 

Photo by Joseph Swenson
Still, my body wasn't willing to listen to the tricks without protest. My hamstrings ached, a persistent side-stitch stabbed at my kidneys during the descents, and my knees were just sensitive enough to keep me from letting go on the flatter sections even though my energy levels remained high. I continued my Jelly Belly/ salt tabs/ ridiculous amount of water regimen. It was too much water and caused me to feel extremely bloated, and I eventually stopped taking salt because I felt that way, but it did keep the sweat layer flowing nicely. I usually wither in heat and never imagined I could survive, let alone thrive, in a fifty-kilometer run in 90-degree temperatures. I probably have the heat acclimation of the Stagecoach 400 to thank for that as well.

The final ascent to Rocky Ridge nearly did me in, though, as it did to many of the racers. The narrow, windless canyon had trapped a pocket of air that felt hotter than a hundred degrees, and the exposed climb left me feeling dizzy enough that I had to stop and take a few breath-catching breaks. The people around me weren't faring much better, and as soon as I reached the top I really just wanted to take off and get this race over with. My leg muscles and joints were surprisingly not achy, despite my lack of run-specific training in the past few months. For this I really have to credit the Hoka shoes. Those things are awesome, and no, the company doesn't sponsor me. Hoka One Ones are fat bikes for feet — all of the fun, less of the impact.

About a mile from the finish I realized I might actually be able to come in under seven hours — which was way better than my early race estimation of "hoping to break nine." I kicked up the gears and ran the last half mile at 6:20 pace — which for me, because of my neglect of speed work and awkward gait that limits leg turnover, is full-on sprinting. I came in at 6:59:29. I shaved nearly a half hour off my 2011 time, even though the heat was significantly higher this year. I found and surprised Beat, who had finished just a few minutes earlier. "Goes to show that specific training is overrated," he joked.

But I did have a good day at the Ohlone 50K, and I'm grateful for that, because it probably helped my confidence more than any amount of resting could do. Not that I'm going to jump full bore into run training just yet, but at least I have a positive benchmark.

Results from the 2012 Ohlone 50K.