Monday, January 13, 2014

50K PR

After we returned from Fairbanks, I caught a touch of the training panic. Sled-towing was so hard, and I felt so slow, that I came back to California with a number of resolutions. I need more running! Less biking, more time on my feet! More back-to-backs! More hills! More weight! The weight goal is still in progress. I opted against running with a heavy pack because it's so hard on my knees. Then Beat acquired a bike cargo trailer that he is going to outfit with disc brakes to add resistance, and today I purchased 60 pounds of kitty litter for the purpose of hauling around in the trailer. As soon as he gets the brakes set up, we'll trade off a weight-training session here and there. If I can add just a little more strength-building and volume to my routine in the next three weeks, I'll feel more confident about my conditioning for the ITI.

On Saturday we ran the Crystal Springs 50K, a pleasant trail run through the redwoods along Skyline Ridge. The course is almost identical to the Woodside Ramble 50K that I ran a month ago (directed by a different race organizer), but I do love running these trails, and Beat and I enjoy participating in these events as fun, well-supported training runs. When I caught up to Beat on the first long climb, he had already found a cute girl to run with, Celine (Beat often makes friends during races, both male and female, because running makes him happy and thus chatty and friendly. I find this endearing, even when his new friends are cute girls.) Celine looked to be in her early 20s, was running her first 50K, told us her dad worked for Google, and seemed enthralled with Beat's tales of derring do. We all ran together for about five miles before they dropped me on the descent into Wunderlich Park.

As I padded the soft dirt along Salamander Flat, it occurred to me that I was nearly 15 miles into this race, and yet hardly felt it. Somehow the first half just coasted by, so I decided that for the second, I was going to put in a decent effort. Nothing crazy — I'm not trying to injure myself with untrained speed. But I could work a little bit for it.

Beat teased me when I passed them again on the second long climb. "I can't descend worth anything so I might as well run the uphill," I called out as I motioned them to follow. They nearly caught up when I was snacking at the 20-mile aid station, but I didn't see them and took off again before they arrived. The next section is six miles of rollers. I passed quite a few people during this segment, some running the marathon distance at a slower pace, but at one point I passed a woman who had slowed to walk one of the short uphills. She blazed past me on the next downhill, and after that I noticed that any time I got close to her again, she'd speed up. "She's racing me!" I thought, and then, "Okay, it's on."

We passed each other a few times — she couldn't quite hold me off on the longer ascents, but she was more willing to let go on the descents. Finally I started to feel embarrassed about our leapfrog game, and decided just to keep her in sight. As such, I sometimes got a little rest on the climbs, and her downhill speed would spur me to take a few more risks on the descents. It was a lot of fun — relaxing and thrilling at the same time.

The final five miles has two short climbs, but it's mostly a long descent. I assumed I'd never see her again, but thought I should at least try. I managed to maintain the shadow all the way through the final mile, a much more gradual descent on a gravel road. When it was nearly flat, she started to slow. My legs felt surprisingly fresh. I pondered engaging a sprint to the finish, but the prospect of racing a random woman for one less notch in the standings seemed too embarrassing. I just can't bring myself to behave that way, which is one of many reasons I'm not much of a racer. As we coasted into the finish, I noticed the clock read 5:36. My initial reaction was that I'd mis-read the number, because that would be 15 minutes faster than I've ever run a 50K, and that didn't seem likely. You have to run hard to run fast(er), right? But as I strode back around to watch for Beat, the clock was still in the 5:30s.

Celine came in a couple minutes later, informing me that Beat was a minute or so behind after she surged to the finish, wherein Beat accused Celine of disrespecting her elders. "Mid-fives, is that pretty good for a 50K?" she asked. "It's fast for me," I answered, "and I think it's great for a first 50K trail race on a hilly course." Beat came in at 5:42, and we headed to the barbecue table just as Celine's dad approached to pick her up. Beat recognized him instantly because he was Patrick Pichette, Google's CFO. In all those hours Celine didn't share that detail. She was very down-to-earth — just a young woman from Montreal who was studying in Scotland with aspirations to become a surgeon, visiting her Google-employee father at their home in San Francisco, and running a 50K for fun. She would be running a 15K with her dad in the city the following day. I encouraged her to check to see if she won an age-group award, and that's when I learned she was 19. Nineteen! Girl's going places.

Oh, the woman who finished 8 seconds in front of me was third female, 12 minutes behind first place. Missed the podium by that much, ha!

The plan was to finish the 50K with plenty left in the tank, and then put in another moderate run on Sunday. I fluctuated with my ambitions but ended up running a 13-miler on the steep PG&E loop at Rancho San Antonio. This "tired-legs" run mainly suffered from flagging motivation and subsequent laziness, but for the most part I felt good. Little to no soreness in the legs, no issue at all with feet, some "bonkiness" (sudden blood sugar crash, felt fine before and wasn't thrilled about low-energy running this time around), and subsequent minor gastro issues.

I am pleased that I was able to run a personal best 50K time, comfortably, having fun the whole time. Tonight I was able to meet with "Sea Legs Girl" Tracy, who was interviewing at Stanford, for dinner in Palo Alto. Amid engaging conversation about overtraining patterns and life in the Bay Area, the topic turned to what part of my winter training could have helped me become faster when my entire focus has been long-term endurance building. I speculated that I'm still feeling the after-effects of the Fairbanks training, where pulling around a 30- to 40-pound sled on difficult terrain helped build uphill strength. I can actually go back and compare mile-for-mile splits to previous races on the Crystal Springs course, and almost all of my extra time was gained on the climbs, and by effectively negative-splitting the final half. If pulling a sled makes me a stronger uphiller, I still wonder whether running lots of hills can make me a stronger sled-puller. My brain expresses doubt but my heart wants to believe. Mostly because I just want to keep running.