Monday, October 12, 2015

Bustin' out at the Firetrails 50-mile

Mountain biking at Tilden Park outside Berkeley earlier this month. I really need to get back on a bike.
Every September, Beat returns from the Tor des Geants buzzing on run-bliss and eager to sign up for all of the fall races. This is also about the time he acknowledges he doesn't have any vacation days left, so the smattering of hundred-milers left in the year are scratched out, and we usually end up at a local 50K. My Ultra Signup profile contains a handful of October and November races that have caused me to wonder, "Wait, why did I run that one? Oh, yeah, Beat's TDG chaser."

October is also the month when I need to launch my winter training. It's the "on" season, when I need to mentally and physically prepare for the grueling Alaska slog that always comprises my favorite endeavor of the year. I haven't wanted to talk or write about 2016 because of the level of cognitive dissonance it takes to contemplate a thousand miles to Nome. Beat hasn't enjoyed hearing me talk about it either, because the conversation always devolves into sniveling about the many uncertainties surrounding my health and strength and resolve. He makes an inarguable point, though — my insecurities are pointless. The Iditarod Trail does not care. Either I'm all in, or I'm out. I need to decide.

It's difficult to decide how to train, because I want to be conservative but the goal is so audacious. I want to increase my muscle strength and endurance so I can manage heavy loads in deep or drifted snow, while continuing to build cardiovascular strength and endurance so I can travel long distances — or at least long hours — every day for most of a month. I want to stay conditioned for both walking/running and cycling, since taking a bike to Nome — if that's what I choose to do, and I want to keep my options open during this El NiƱo season — involves plenty of both. I've been reading books and blogs on strength training and trying to formulate a plan that won't interfere with endurance training — the many hours in the saddle that I know I need. Of course resting is a big part of building strength, so I need to figure out where and how to focus my efforts. Helpful guidance has been difficult to find. People have all kinds of things they train for, but a month-long, heavy-lifting expedition isn't usually one of them.

Meanwhile, summer inertia lingers, as I've been frightened of most workouts since the Tour Divide. Every time my heart rate pegs or my breathing becomes heavy, I panic just a little bit. Earlier this month, I was at Tilden Park in Berkeley for what was only my second mountain bike ride since the Tour Divide, largely because I'm so intimidated by mountain biking right now. Each time I started up a steep hill, I'd get nervous about my breathing, step off the bike, and walk. The thing is — I'm not even sure I have any kind of conventional breathing problem. I become less convinced of this every day. Maybe — probably — I'd be just fine at higher intensities, but I'm still a little too scared of asthma attacks to try. I'm going to see an allergist on Thursday, and hope some guidance in that regard will help.

This is turning into a long intro, but it's my attempt to summarize where I'm at. Cautiously optimistic? That's not really the right phrase, but I'm not so hopelessly pessimistic as I have been in the past few months. I do feel myself becoming progressively stronger, which is what I'd hope and expect if I was recovering from a bout of pneumonia. That's why, when Beat suggested the Dick Collins Firetrails 50-mile run as a fun TDG chaser, I jumped on board. It would be good for me, I reasoned, to take on a frightening and yet not too risky challenge. I've been doing a lot of hiking over the past two months, so my legs and feet are in good shape, and the cut-offs where tight enough to force a solid effort.

Then I thought, "Wait, those cut-offs are pretty tight. I've been hiking a lot but not running that much. When I do run, it's been fairly slow relative to my usual paces. Can I actually hit those cut-offs? What if I don't? What if I DNF the Firetrails 50? There goes my last shred of confidence."

On Wednesday, after my weekend in the Grand Canyon, I set out for a practice run on one of my regular loops — eight miles up PG&E and down the High Meadow and Wildcat trails in Rancho San Antonio park. I pushed the pace just a bit too hard on the climb and developed cramping in my hamstrings, which expanded to a horrible side-stitch on the descent. From there everything deteriorated into one of those "worst runs ever" that included shuffling awkwardly to a pit toilet and still needing to effectively walk the last mile of an eight-mile run. Oof. That was not a confidence builder.

And with that, I took two days off and woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday morning for 50 miles of hills in Oakland. Firetrails is one of the classic Bay Area trail races, dating back to 1983. It's more or less an out-and-back, from Lake Chabot to Tilden Regional Park through the redwood forests and oaken hillsides along the suburban communities surrounding Oakland. There are 8,000 feet of climbing over the duration, which makes for a tough but mostly runnable course. Given it takes place within shouting distance of such a large metro area, Firetrails is uniquely secluded — the course covers 26 miles of bike paths, narrow fire roads, and singletrack, all closed to motorized traffic, and only crosses two or three roads. It's scenic as well, if I do say so myself, although I don't have any pictures because I unintentionally forgot my camera (and it's funny how no photos deflates my desire to post on social media.) But there are miles of mossy forests, views of rippling golden hills and blue reservoirs, and occasional glimpses into the fog-shrouded San Francisco skyline.

The race started in pre-dawn darkness at 6:30 a.m. It was foggy and warm, already over 70 degrees. I opted to bring a headlamp because dawn was still 30 minutes away, and I fully expected to be out after the 6:30 p.m. sunset. This race is well-structured for more limited daylight with paved bike paths at both the beginning and end, so most runners forgo headlamps, but the last thing I needed was to trip on a curb and break a wrist at mile 0.5.

Firetrails is fairly large for a trail race — last year there were more than 300 people at the starting line, and probably a similar number this year. The group fanned out and after eight miles I caught up to Beat and also Iris, a woman from Calgary who I frequently see at these Bay Area trail races. Iris and I have run together at the Woodside Ramble and Golden Gate 50K, and it's gotten to the point where I almost expect to see her out there, even though she travels all the way from Canada and we never plan these meet-ups. She was running with her friend Scott, and I made an effort to keep up with them, chatting the morning away. I felt really good. I wasn't about to push my luck with a 50-miler, but by mile 20 I was cautiously optimistic that I might finish this thing pretty well.

Temperatures rose into the 80s and the fog burned off, but humidity stayed high. After Beat ran ahead for the last time, Iris commented on how drenched he was in sweat. Her hair was soaked, and when I looked down at my own sweat-beaded skin and dripping shirt, I had to conclude that we all looked like we had jumped into lakes. The hot humidity made things difficult, but there were aid stations every five miles with Clif Shot Bloks, ice and salt tabs. I was enamored with these luxuries that really took the edge off.

At the 26-mile turnaround, I changed my socks and made the mistake of eating one of those boiled potatoes, which tasted rotten. I had shoved the whole thing in my mouth, and the garbage can was surrounded by runners, so I made myself swallow it, which was a larger mistake. I stuck around for five or so more minutes gagging and trying to wash the horrible taste away with Coke. Should have stuck with Shot Bloks. Always stick with Shot Bloks.

Despite a now-iffy stomach, the next section coming up was the only one for which I was reasonable trained: a 1,300-foot climb. I marched up the steep fireroad that was harshly exposed to the hot, hot sun, and actually felt better by the time I reached the top. I coasted into the 31-mile aid station thinking I had this race in the bag.

The problem is, most of my long trail runs have been 50Ks, and my body seems to have this pre-set kill button once 50 kilometers have passed. Fifty miles is really a whole lot further, so struggles out of the blue with 19 miles to go are frustrating. Just as soon as I left the aid station, my IT band started acting up. This didn't come as a surprise, since I had IT-band pain in Europe, but it certainly wasn't welcome. I started shuffling the downhills more slowly, then walked a few. Climbs were my only relief. I wasn't about to turn this IT band aggravation into a more long-term thing, so I kept the pressure off, but I continued to monitor my watch. DNF might still be worse. Yes, it might.

Iris and Scott caught and passed me, and I became more and more grumpy toward the end as my knee ached and aid station after aid station told me they had no toilet (I really wanted one, but knew I could keep going without, so I didn't go rushing off into the suburban woods.)

I arrived at the finish in 11 hours and 35 minutes. It was mildly disappointing after I'd briefly convinced myself that sub-11 was within my reach, but at the same time I can only shake my head at these thoughts because it's all so arbitrary. Beat finished an hour before me, and fetched me a cup of peach gelato as I rubbed my aching legs and complained, "So much running. That was just so much running." But it was all gone within a few hours; even the IT band pain had settled, and all that was left was that warm glow. "You didn't DNF. You're still okay. Hopefully." 


  1. Jill, I got into a Lynda Wallenfels bikepacking program for the TD this year and I never felt stronger. The mild strength training complemented the bike training and I could man-handle my fully loaded bike on some really tough training rides with no issues at all. This was 5 months of consistent training but it really paid off. I must say that this was my first real, structured training ever and it really opened my eyes to what great progress could be made.
    Good luck with your prep.

    1. My friend Liehann recently started training with Lynda and has been really happy with her program so far. I suppose I'm a little skeptical about what any coach would say if I went to them with my desires:

      "Okay, I'm planning to take a bike to Nome in Alaska but the focus isn't really on riding the bike, but rather the pushing and hoisting of the bike, and it's going to weigh 60 pounds or more, and I need to be able to lift it out of thigh-deep drifts, possibly at regular intervals for 12+ hours at a time, and last year when I tried this, my arm and shoulder muscles effectively failed, so I need heavy lifting to bring up my baseline strength as well as muscle endurance.

      Also, if El Nino really sets in and there are heavy snows followed by thaws all winter long and a forecast for more of the same, I don't want to bring the bike at all, so I need to have the fitness for dragging a 35- to 40-pound sled while walking for a thousand miles, as well. Can you help me with all this? THNX. :) "

    2. Lynda is excellent and if anyone can figure out a program for your unorthodox needs, it's her.

    3. I just used two generic training programs (veteran xc and 5-10 day bikepack racer) that only cost $100 so I was ecstatic with the results. I am sure she can develop a training program that will tick ALL of your boxes. It will cost you - but it WILL work. You can also cut and past your above post into her forum and she will recommend something. That advice will be free at least. Otherwise, go with a custom package. It WILL be worth it if you want to achieve your goal and have no regrets. Now this is easy for me to say, but stop making excuses!
      Please note - I have no affiliation with Lynda, I'm just a satisfied customer. ;)
      Good luck. Dave.

  2. Likewise, as part of a Training Peaks program I was doing a couple of years ago, this thing called Fit Star was suggested to me. It's something I can schedule whenever I like, and I can avoid the diseases factory known as my local gym.
    My problem has always been tendon/ligament pain when tuning up neglected muscle groups (usually upper body). I like this very much because I can start out with very short (maybe 15 mins) workouts 2 days a week, and then step up the intensity as we get into the darker days of winter. Usually about 8-12 weeks sorts things out. My goal was to always have the strength to be a viable human being-there is nothing worse than these folks who train themselves so lean they lack the strength to do even everyday activities like moving a couch or any amount of weight. Being a one-trick pony is not getting as much out of life as you can.
    FitStar also has a yoga component which for me is mostly about stretching.
    YMMV, just trying to help.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll look into it.

  3. Jill, I've discovered two great tools this year. One is recalled from long ago and one is new. A) not saying no. If you feel like doing it, DO IT. Don't let yourself make excuses because of some big plan later in the year - you stop enjoying it. B) Yoga. Has changed my strength in running, cyclo-cross and mountain biking. The former I have noticed in better speed, endurance, strength and recovery in races. Last week when I took the MTB out with my new yoga bod, getting off felt different, riding over boulders that last year stalled me and the strength to keep jumping on the bike - even when I was tired. The stretching aspect of yoga is great for your muslces recovery and flexibility, yes, but the strength I've gained from sun salutations and squat-type poses like warrior pose and boat pose have given me great confidence and strength. There's then the added benefit that your mind is forced to be quiet for a few moments of the day and might help with some of the niggle-wobbles. What's more, when you've learned the basics you can do it at home with no more requirements than a non-slip yoga mat (or a good rug!). Don't mean to sound like an advert but I've never known such improvements. Put so much faith in it I have had to remind myself to do all the good aerobic stuff too just to keep going at all the aspects of what I do.
    Good luck with your training.


    1. Thanks for the suggestion. Many friends have recommended yoga and I am interested — that's probably a project for next summer, if I survive Alaska. Last fall, I started a mild strengthening program called "Strength Training for Runners" focusing mostly on body weight exercises such as push ups, planks, squats, etc. It was a good program for me, and I think did help with balance and core strength, as long as I stuck with it. (Admittedly I did not, as I loathe indoor exercise so it takes a lot of self-discipline, and when I went to Alaska last year I realized how inadequate my strength still was despite my "strength training" efforts.) Recently I've been reading about developing a heavy lifting program. Such recommendations never talk about how to integrate this into an endurance training scheme. My current plan is to start this week (gym membership starts Friday) and tread lightly.

    2. I've tried to get into lifting weights before and found I give up fairly quickly too.

      Yoga can at least be done outside but it helps to have a mat to avoid slipping on grass or dirt.

      Some of the advanced yoga poses contribute to more strength in minor muscles - core, feet, ankles, arms which don't otherwise get much attention from big weights. Combining the moving with breathing helps to get more from the moves. The stretches and relaxation under stress (if that makes sense) make riding more efficient.

      These last weeks I've found myself able to ride harder with less effort and breathe deeper and stronger. Running out of breath on big cyclo-cross climbs I just think, "Hang on, I've been practising this!" and I keep breathing and I keep going. Give it a go. 2 or 3 1 hour sessions a week have made a massive difference to me.

  4. I wish I'd known you were doing the 50 miler - I probably said "good job!" as we passed - I was doing my first trail marathon going the other way and was in awe of the 50 milers. Great job finishing - that is an impressive feat!

    1. Thanks Eric! Next time maybe. The Bay Area trail-running community is like a small town — familiar and friendly. It's one of the aspects of living here I like the best.

  5. I wish I'd known you were doing the 50 miler - I probably said "good job!" as we passed - I was doing my first trail marathon going the other way and was in awe of the 50 milers. Great job finishing - that is an impressive feat!

  6. Hi Jill,

    Been reading your adventures forever. Have a flavor to ask:

    I'd love to see a chronological listing of the rides/runs/hikes you've done over the past 3 to 5 years as a blog post.

    Something along the lines of:

    May xxxx Name of Event (s)Mileage Brief finish comment.

    Hope you can fit this in one of these days.

    Thank you.

    P.S. Have read all of your books (If that helps push you along!!! )

  7. Thanks for sticking around Slo Joe!

    I love quantifying life numbers, but a post of all my outdoor activities would be enormous! Strava tells me I have 125 runs and 94 rides in 2015 alone. :)

    I have considered compiling all of my race stats since 2005. Again, one of those things that would only be interesting to me, but I'd have fun tracking down that info. I'll post here if I do.


Feedback is always appreciated!