Sunday, May 12, 2013

Bustin out at the Quicksilver 50M

For what was supposed to be one of the early and therefore "easy" efforts in a succession of test runs before PTL, I was feeling an inordinate amount of dread for the Quicksilver 50-mile. Its "early test run" status is what made it so scary — I really needed Quicksilver to go well before I can approach the big efforts in front of me with any sort of confidence. If I couldn't hold it together for a fifty-mile race in May, what hope do I have for 200 miles in August?

It felt like fate was conspiring against my tenuous confidence. I'm already daunted by the 50-mile distance — it's effectively a 50K-level effort for nearly double the amount of time. But I'd been having a tough time finding consistency in my running this spring, even before I felt hints of a shin splint in my left leg. I played it conservative for a couple of weeks, but my shin was still bothering me after a short run on Monday. I effectively took the rest of the week off — bike ride on Wednesday, and nothing on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. I did all the little things I could for my shin — massage, ice, compression. But on Friday I was still feeling occasional sharp pains, and knew I'd have to take it easy on the descents to avoid aggravating it. In order to keep the consistent pace I'd need to finish, I thought, I'd have to push a little harder than usual on the climbs.

Saturday's weather — with its forecasted high of 92 degrees — did not instill confidence for a hard push of any sort.

The race started at the brutal hour of 6 a.m., just to add to the physical stress. We were standing around the start at 5:30 wearing only T-shirts and shorts and feeling completely comfortable. Harry said, "The last time I was at a race that felt this warm in the morning, it got up to 95 during the day." My friends teased me because I had frozen two liters of water to a solid block of ice, and then brought an extra bottle of liquid water to drink for the first few miles. They passed around my backpack and laughed about how heavy it felt, but I insisted that it was worth it. I'm a psychological racer through and through. Any physical disadvantage of an unnecessarily heavy pack is more than overruled by the mental boost of a shot of icy cold water during a climb into a 90-degree breezeless oven of a canyon. (As it turns out, Quicksilver is a luxury trail race and had coolers full of ice cubes at most of the aid stations, which were spaced an average of five miles apart. Once again, I remind myself that I should read race packets more closely.)

My week of rest left me feeling pretty sharp, but I could not escape the electric shock pain in my shin if I landed too hard during a descent. One of the issues with my downhill running form is that I tend to land directly on my forefoot while simultaneously braking hard. On steep descents my heel hardly touches the ground; I'm effectively running on my tippy toes. This puts a lot of pressure on the front of my legs, which I think is what makes me more prone to shin splints and also raises concern about stress fractures. During Quicksilver, I tried to make a conscious effort to land more directly on my heels and spread the impact. I can't say running like this feels good to me, but it did have the needed effect of holding me to small steps and slowing me down, reducing impact all around.

The Quicksilver race is one of the older trail ultra races in the Bay area, and thus is one of the more popular events. As a newcomer to the sport and the region, I tend to carry a bit of prejudice about the "old school" trail races in California — a belief that they remain hugely popular due to their history alone, and usually don't offer the most interesting courses. This is apparently a misplaced prejudice, as I've always enjoyed the ones I've tried — the Ohlone 50K, and now Quicksilver. The 50-miler makes three big loops around Almaden Quicksilver County Park, which is yet another one of those parks that is fairly close to my house, but which I've never explored. The sheer distance of the race makes Quicksilver effectively a grand tour of the park — we covered nearly every trail, passing by intriguing old mining equipment, bright yellow corridors of field mustard, and big views of Mount Umunhum and fog (okay, haze)-shrouded San Jose. It's a nice way to spend the day — feeling like I'm covering ground and making compelling new discoveries, rather than just plodding out miles for the sake of miles. It keeps my brain engaged, and my body is less likely to make whiny protestations about the effort.

I admit, I still insert the "well, it ain't Alaska" disclaimer into my outdoor experiences here. But this is a beautiful place and it does make me happy to spend a whole day chasing the dappled shade of these oak trees, even if it does have to be 90 degrees.

I'm not sure how high the temperature rose on Saturday afternoon. We checked the current temperature in the valley at 5 p.m., when it was 92 degrees. In some of those windless, heat-trapping canyons, I was convinced the ambient temperature topped 100. Heat is not my friend in any capacity, but it reached a tipping point where misery poured over into ridiculousness, and I am actually more okay with ridiculous. I kept a steady pace on the climbs, sipped my ice water, and snacked on Honey Stinger Chews that I carried with me, as well as a few choice morsels from the aid stations (jello cubes and quartered turkey-avocado sandwiches. The turkey sitting out in 90-degree weather was a risk but so tasty.) My skin was so drenched in sweat that I could wipe my hand over my forearms and flick visible droplets onto the dirt. The two liters of ice water went fast and I continued to chug nearly a liter between aid stations. I am a water hog. It works for me. (When I run out of water, though, I am a sad case indeed, which is why I'm inclined to carry more than I need.)

Photo by Chihping Fu
Beat and I shared a fun moment on the eight-mile spur. I was about two miles behind him at that point, but still moving better than either of us thought I would. We were both buzzing on endorphins; grinning like idiots as we loped along the dusty gravel road. He reached out for a sweaty kiss, and then told me they had popsicles at the mile 42 aid station. Popsicles! The very notion sent a surge of desire through my cooked heart. I picked up my pace as the grade steepened, thinking only of the pure joy an icy chunk of sugar water would bring. Popsicle, popsicle, popsicle. My heart was racing and my vision was blurring by the time I reached the aid station. I really should have passed out or at least become nauseated from the hard push, but instead I grabbed a handful of grapes and panted "popsicle?" The friendly volunteer reached into a cooler and handed me a small icy treat, and it was purple, my favorite. I took a big bite that instantly numbed my mouth and gasped, "Cold, so cold," as though completely caught off guard by the effect (which I was.) Even now, no longer addled with endorphins, it's difficult for me to understand why I was so blissed out by a popsicle. Deliriously happy would be one way to describe it. The feeling seemed to carry me almost effortlessly through the next five miles. I wasn't moving particularly fast, but no slower than my usual fun pace. And I was having fun, even with nine hours on my legs already.

The final 2.5 miles was a roller coaster of predominantly steep descents, which brought back shin soreness and killed my buzz, leading to a slightly grumpy finish. It was short-lived, however, because I soon discovered the shaved ice station at the finish. For whatever reason, the snowcone didn't have the same life-affirming effect as the purple popsicle, but it was delicious nonetheless. My time was 10:50, with a 50K split of 6:23. The 50-mile course has about 8,800 feet of climbing. At the finish, I received a framed print signed by a local artist, and learned I was first in my age group. It was surprising, as usually the 30-39 age group is more competitive, but I'm not sure how many people dropped due to the heat. I wouldn't be surprised if the attrition rate was higher than normal — it wasn't a perfect day for fast. But it was a decent day for a steady run slightly slowed by a bum shin. I feel great a day later and slightly more prepared for the summer ahead.


  1. popsicle, popsicle, POPSICLE!!!
    It's the little treats in life that make all the difference.

  2. Black outfit! Wasn't that hot? I lust after those trails. I didn't see any rocks--were there?

  3. Congratulations on the first place finish. Not bad for having a gimpy leg and a hot day.

  4. Mary — Bay area trails are generally buffed out, not many rocks. It's nice in the spring but they tend to turn to moon-dust covered loose gravel in the late summer, which I find much more frustrating for running or biking than rocks.

    As for the black outfit, that shirt has some of the best venting of my shirt collection, and I like the longer tights to mitigate chafing. As a fair-skinned person I also find more clothing cover to be more comfortable than a lot of exposed skin. I prefer to wear long pants when hiking in all temperatures, but I need form-fitting stuff for running in the heat (due to chafing) and full tights can be a bit much.

    I don't really subscribe to the theory that black is necessarily "hotter" than white. If anything, black material seems to retain heat rather than reflecting it back onto me.

  5. I get blissed out by the thought of a Popsicle just sitting here at my desk....

  6. Nice job! Sounds like a fun day! I was going to suggest kinesiology tape for your shin, but I see in your pic that you're already using it. Nice!

  7. Your photos make California look so tempting...until I read the temps. Gadzooks!

    Congratulations on the race!

  8. Nicely done! What kind of hydration pack are you using? I'm brand new to the sport and am wondering about sticking with handheld bottles or making the leap to a pack. Also, what kind of camera are you using to take all these great pictures all the time (during a long run no less!). Do you have something super small or what? Inquiring minds want to know! Thanks for your posts friend. I find them inspiring.

  9. The hydration pack I usually use for runs is an Ultimate Direction Wasp. It's a good pack. I'm not a fan of running with bottles, so I use the pack frequently. I think it's a matter of personal preference, but I prefer hands free in most cases, unless I'm using trekking poles — which also preclude carrying bottles.

    These photos were taken with a Panasonic Lumix camera. I also use a Sony Nex-3 (I just acquired a new Nex-5.) I'm thinking about writing an "adventure camera" post for my Half Past Done blog. Check back for that.

  10. Ah, you're wanting the popsicle makes me chuckle. I say and feel the same way here in Austria, looking for the next dessert, be it gelato, cake or apple strudel...well, and kebap and kaesekrainer, but mostly desserts. Great job.

  11. It looks like i'm getting into the same situation as you. I love Alaska and have lived here for 12 years now, but it's time to move on. Unfortunately i can't think of anywhere that has what Alaska has to offer in terms of scenery and freedom. I'm taking a lot of exploratory vacations this year to scope out lower 48, and Utah is at the top of my list (i've lived there before). But still, i find myself often repeating the phrase "it's really pretty here, but it's not Alaska..." At least for me the Colorado Plateau does have something to offer that you can't get up here in AK.


Feedback is always appreciated!