Monday, March 10, 2014

Way Too Cool 50K March 8, 2014 Race Report

This is a long race report, but I wanted to remember as many details as I could. I wrote it for me, but maybe you will get something out of it, too. So if you make it to the end, leave me a comment if you're so inclined.. I'd love to hear your feedback!

Leading up to the 25th Way Too Cool 50K in Cool, California was three months of wishful thinking that started after Thanksgiving. I wish it would snow, I wish it would snow, I wish it would snow! But it just didn’t snow much and so the trails were dry and we ran. But when it snowed, we skied. And it has snowed maybe 4 times this winter for a total of maybe 5 feet of snow, about 40% of normal. Our preparation for Cool was grounded in the firm belief that the intensity of mogul skiing as much as four times per week was good enough cross training to get us through 50K. Running always comes in second after skiing until mid-February when I realize that I had better get some quality running in to prepare for Cool, March 8. So me and Ron stuck a few 20 milers in there and I did some quality tempo runs. I think my longest week was 60 miles a few weeks before Cool. There was one week where I only ran 10 miles but skied 5 days in a row!
My last race had been the Apple Hill 8.5 mile run in November, 2013 and my last ultra had been the Dick Collins Fire Trails 50 Mile run in October, 2013. Cool would be my first race of the 2014 season and I was a little anxious to get back in the game after taking a break from focusing on running for the 3 months from November to February.

I did this race when it was
The Cool Canyon Crawl in 1991
The Day Before
My long time training partner, Ron, his wife Carol and I drove to Georgetown to stay at the American Inn the night before. A quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast where the beds are way off the floor and the d├ęcor is late 19th century, the American Inn is classic. Betty, has been the Innkeeper there for 25 years. She took great care of us even accomodating our need for an early morning race breakfast with a nice spread at a neatly set table in the dining room near a fireplace. We were only 10 minutes from the race start so being in Georgetown, only 10 miles away, we didn’t have to get up at 4 am to drive down the mountain to get to Cool. Friday evening, before we drove into the American River Canyon and up the windy road to Cool and beyond to Georgetown, we stopped in Auburn to pick up our race packets at the Auburn Running Company and eat at MonkeyCat, a wonderful Italian restaurant where I indulged in a pesto tortellini with grilled salmon. A glass of red wine went nicely with it.
Desert was frozen yogurt at Tango, a little place down the street. It was so warm we stood outside and listened to two kids playing saxophone near a fire pit while we indulged in our desert.
When we arrived at the American Inn in Georgetown that evening, Betty had open bottles of wine ready for us. We sat in the living area near a wood burning fire and enjoyed the ambience of Georgetown’s rich Victorian past. I didn’t drink anymore that night – one glass of wine at dinner was enough.

Kicking back at the American Inn in Georgetown
thanks to Michael for the intro in 2012
I woke up race morning at 5:45 am before the alarm went off and got up. I felt good having slept very well the night before and then a solid 5 hours before I woke up that morning.  I drank 4 oz of ASEA before I headed downstairs for breakfast. Race morning breakfast was blueberries and melon slices covered with yogurt; a hard boiled egg, orange juice and coffee. I was amazed that I could eat. No butterflies! I felt strangely calm and relaxed. I practiced reduced breathing drills, nose and belly breathing to stay relaxed as we drove to the start.
We drove to Cool and parked on the road near the start. My dad was there with Emily (his hyper Golden). Dave would drive down later to see us at the finish. Start time was 8 am and of course, the porta potty lines were very long. Ron and I found bushes nearby – the men took one side of a bank of brush and the women were on the other.

the short line - Ken Katserko photo
Carol held our sweats as we waited for the start. The weather was supposed to be sunny with a high of 68 for the day. It was around 50 at the start. I wore a ChiRunning tank with black sleeves for warmth during the first miles and lycra shorts. My trusty Altra Superiors were my wheels. A 22 oz water bottle was held in my waist pack and I carried my iPhone, S-Caps, a 4 oz bottle of ASEA and some dried fruit in the zipper pouch.

Ron and I at the start
Race Strategy
I had given some thought to my race strategy and was excited and anxious to see if it would work for me. I felt that I was fit enough and experienced enough as an ultra runner to carry it out. But I was anxious because my training had been so haphazard with skiing taking a priority over the last few months. I had also suffered a minor right hamstring strain about 4 weeks earlier while skiing and was a bit concerned about that. Ironically, my left hamstring had started talking to me Thursday morning and I had no idea where that came from! I couldn’t identify a situation that would have aggravated it and I rarely have issues with my hamstrings. (I did run a very fast run with hill surges the Sunday before, but had no pain or issues with my legs that day or in the days following.) Trigger point massage on both legs for the two days before Cool seemed to relieve the tenderness. But I was a bit worried. Was this just an annoying niggle, or something I really needed to pay attention to and not run?

For the last two months, I had scheduled my training around the good skiing conditions, or trained when the skiing was poor. I was excited about this race because I knew I was fit and knew it was possible to run a good race if I felt good. I also held the possibility that I would use this as a training run if I didn’t feel good and my body wasn’t ready to push. I would work it all out in the first 5 to 8 miles where I would body sense how the hamstrings felt and how my overall energy was.
The last time I ran Cool was in 2012, I went out too fast and paid dearly but still finished well despite having to walk for 3 miles. This time I wanted to hold back for the first 8 miles which is a loop that takes you back to the Start/Finish line. After the 8 mile loop my plan was to keep my effort and pace steady and push through perceived fatigue through good ChiRunning technique so that I could really run the last 20 miles at the edge of my envelope – third gear, race pace, not survival pace. My plan was to gain every advantage I could by running mindfully fast downhill, which is where I excel, run a strong third gear whenever I felt good, stay steady on the flats and during low points focusing on relaxation and form, and efficiently transition back and forth from ChiWalk to ChiRun on the uphills. Also, I wanted to waste no time in the aid stations. I planned to eat salted potatoes, PB&J sandwiches, bananas and orange slices and refill my 22 oz water bottle as needed. I also had 4 oz of ASEA with me which I planned to drink somewhere around mile 18 to 22.

The Race
Timing was chip time so Ron and I ran across the start line about 2.5 minutes back of the leaders. Our pace was somewhere around 9:30 min/mile and it felt very easy since it was a slight downhill. I could feel the jolt of pain in the knot in the middle of my left hamstring and hoped that it would work itself out as it got warmer. We knew it was a fast start, but let that thought go and eventually eased into the 10 min/mile range. My hamstring eased and the legs felt good. Bottlenecks leading into single track further kept my pace in check and I resisted the urge to bolt around people as they slowed on up hills or crossing creeks.

Ron and I less than a mile in
photo by Kathy Duarte

Cool is famous for its mud and multiple creek crossings. The first creek was at mile 2. It was hilarious watching some runners pick their way across the creek over the rocks in an effort to keep their feet dry. Knowing that dry feet were an impossibility for today Ron and I ran through the water feeling the icy cold splash on our legs and soaking our feet cold for the first time that day. By the end of the day, I had crossed at least 20 creeks or drainages, and ran through so much mud and mud puddles that I just really didn’t care anymore! And that was so cool not to care how muddy I was! My feet were never dry. Once they got warm after a dousing in a cold creek, there would be another mud puddle or 20 foot stretch of muddy trail again or another creek crossing and the feet would be soaked. It would take more energy to avoid the water and the mud than just run through with a relaxed stride and steady cadence. My Altra Superiors were fine, but did get a bit heavy with all the mud and water.

 Ron Nageotte took this after we crossed our first creek at mile 2

The first mile or so is on road and then it funnels into single track. For the first 3 miles, my thoughts were all about how long a day this would be; did I really want to do this? How was my body going to do? Were my hamstrings going to flare up? Could I relax enough into my form to prevent issues? Could I really do 6:30 again? And on and on and on in an endless stream of mind chatter!! Clearly not in the present, I struggled with answers to my mind’s questions for the first hour. Finally, by the fifth mile, I had settled in, warmed up and realized that yes, Cheryl, you are a runner and this is what you are doing today. My focus on relaxing and positive talk about my strength and confidence as a runner began to connect with my body. I listened to music in one ear and smiled and chatted briefly with other runners and Ron as we ran. I began to feel good and my legs were fine. I was in the present and thoughts of the past and future were only brief intrusions. Soon, they would disappear or change into happy thoughts about a strong finish.
At the end of the 8 mile loop is the first aid station (and the finish line) and I was pleased with my time of 1:30. Slow enough to start and yet fast enough to meet my goal to run under 6:30.

Running through that first aid station at mile 8 was quite a boost with the music, all the people and the finish line right there. I barely stopped as I glided past the tables, thanked volunteers for the first time of many times that day, filled my water bottle, and put a piece of banana in my mouth, some PB&J sandwich in one hand and a potato dunked in salt in the other. I smiled at my dad, glanced behind me to see Ron at the aid station and decided that it was time to go. I left knowing that Ron would either catch me or not, but also that he would want me to run my race and he would be ok with me going ahead. Ron has been my ultrarunning mentor, training and skiing partner and friend for several years. His experience and wisdom around ultrarunning has been a gift. His friendship is one of the most valuable I’ve ever had and I owe him much. I hope he knows how much he helped me get to be the ultrarunner I am today and how much gratitude I have for him that he has been there with me as I've progressed. Thank you Ron. I wrote about Ron a couple of years ago when we first started running together. A Running Partner - the Essential Element

As I left the 8 mile aid station I began to feel a growing sense of confidence. I settled in and began the middle portion of the race. I crossed Highway 49 at mile 11 arriving there just as the aid station volunteer had stopped all the cars and allowed all the runners waiting there to cross. Great timing for me! There was Carol, Ron’s wife, cheering for me and snapping pictures.

Feeling great at Mile 11
photo by Carol Nageotte
I ran down the hill to the aid station, stopped briefly for water, another PB&J sandwich, potato with salt and orange slices. The next miles were run on the gravel/dirt road next to the American River and I relaxed into a comfortable steady pace focusing on relaxed feet, engaged core and a nice easy second gear. The air was warming, the sun felt warm on my skin. My legs felt fine without tension or tightness, but I was wary and hyperfocused on relaxing my ankles, engaging my core and keeping my stride out behind me. As we moved over rolling hills and through single track, runners would pass me going up hill and I would often pass them running down hill or on the flats. I reminded myself that a steady efficient pace was important this early in the race and that I would make up time later. A primary focus I used during a few low points from miles 14 to 18 was y’chi where I focused my eyes on a point about 30 yards ahead and allowed the energy of my focus to pull me towards it. The few low energy points quickly passed because I was forced to put my mind into the present and focus on energy outside of myself. I observed myself running smoothly following an endless energy stream ahead of me.
As mile 18 approached, I realized I knew I was doing well. I was able to stay steady and run the runnable uphills and fly down hills without losing my quads. I wasn’t hungry and felt I was fueling and hydrating well. I decided that I would take my 4 oz of ASEA. As mile 18 rolled into 19, I began to realize that this was my day to do the race I wanted. I chuckled that maybe ASEA was just a placebo, but 20 to 30 minutes after taking the ASEA and starting the long rolling climb up to the base of Goat Hill, I realized that my energy had been kicked up to another level! I felt a stability and uncanny feeling of unshakeable power that I just can't explain. I knew ASEA helped with fat burning. And because I had stayed away from pure sugar at aid stations, and hadn't felt hungry I figured I was burning fat for fuel instead of sugar and that my insulin levels must be stable. I wasn't experiencing roller coaster energy and that was very very cool. I cautiously began reeling people in and found myself leading long lines of runners at a respectable speed. No one wanted to pass me. Transitioning back and forth from ChiWalking to ChiRunning on the uphills, my pace was steady and efficient. My nose breathing training kept my breath steady, efficient and aerobic. I felt invincible, like I could run as hard as I wanted to the finish.

Photo by UltraSportsLiveTV
The base of Goat hill is about mile 25.5. The next half mile is a brutal 500 foot climb that goes straight up. I met a man my age trucking along fairly well. We celebrated our achievement together noting that age makes one appreciate the finer things in life like finishing ultras! We chatted about how extreme fatigue forces you into the present where there is only the trail and your feet on it and some weird thing that drives you to keep moving. We parted as I started up Goat Hill ahead of him, grateful for the brief meeting and bonding as kindred spirits. Thankfully the trail was dry, but I’ve heard tales of it being so wet and slippery that runners had to pull themselves up by the branches! In the last few hundred feet of the climb, volunteers cheered and cajoled runners up the hill. Inspiring signage marked the trail and one in particular hit home for me. It said something like, “Don’t give up. Don’t sacrifice the gift.” I knew I would never have this moment again in my life. I vowed that I would run as if it were the last time because every time is a gift. 
As I crested Goat Hill, I looked at my watch and incredibly saw 5:15. I could break 6:15 if I could run the last 5 miles in an hour. Could I do it? YES! I spent only a few minutes at the aid station and succumbed to the sweetness of drinking 2 small cups of sprite. I downed some more orange slices, another potato, and a piece of banana and took off.
The downhill out of Goat Hill is steep in places with off camber technical turns so requires a bit of concentration and a lot of relaxation. It’s followed by some gently rolling hills before dumping out onto Highway 49 again, the last aid station. Dave wasn’t there and no one I knew was there, so again, I made a short stop and got out of there quick. Only about 1.3 miles to go and I knew I could break 6:15. I turned again to a focused relaxation and constantly checking in with my legs for tenseness and keeping them aligned (I have worked on my duck feet forever). My legs were fine and my mind was screaming to be done, but it wasn’t up to my head anymore; the chi was flowing, it was all about this day, this race, this moment – because I would never have it again. I climbed out of the aid station pushing hard, my breath coming faster now. I needed to keep giving it everything I had. Only 20 more minutes of running left. 

Running around the corner only 200 yards from the finish, it is a slight up hill, then down steep, then slightly up hill to the finish. I cruised down and focused on arm swing and letting my legs swing out behind me as I ran the last hill and straight section to the finish. Cheers from spectators brought a huge smile to my face. Carol screamed my name and cheered me in. I crossed the line with my heart full of happiness! The most I can remember since the last time I did an ultra! I looked at my time in astonishment. It slowly dawned on me that it was only a few minutes slower than I had run it in 1991 when I was only 32 years old. Wow. What a testament to ChiRunning and a mindful focus while racing. 
Moments after crossing the finish line and right before I gave Chris a big hug!
photo by Chris Jones
After hugging Chris and my dad, I walked up the road to find Carol and Dave waiting for Ron near the trail. He finished in 6:35 looking strong and happy that he had finished 25 minutes faster than last year. 
And thanks to the race organizers and all the volunteers! Julie Fingar and NorCal Ultras put on a first class event with first class people. Awesome job as always!

In looking at my Garmin data, I see that I ran some very fast sections and averaged about a 12 minute mile which is pretty great for me for an ultra with nearly 4200 feet of elevation gain. I also spent very little time stopped in aid stations which I'm very pleased with. My official time was 6:07:50, only 3 minutes slower than 23 years ago.

Lessons learned
Race strategies work. Visualization and mental rehearsal and self talk works.
This race reinforced my tapering strategy – less is better. My last run was Wednesday – a short 4 mile tempo run. My last intense run was the Sunday before – a 10 mile hilly surge run. My last long run was 21 miles about two weeks before which brought my mileage to a modest 44 miles that week. Skiing moguls is good for running. Danny Dreyer, the Founder of ChiRunning, describes this learning process as the “Upward Spiral of Chi” – building on what is learned and starting the training cycle all over again.
ASEA works. Drink sooner - around 12 miles and every 10 to 12 after that when racing. Drink ASEA immediately at finish line. Thanks David Stretansky.
Skiing for cross training is great training for running.
Never give in to the mind. Always check in with the body first.
Primary focus: Relax, relax, and relax.
Run my race.
Don’t sacrifice the gift.
Dad, Emily, me and Ron post race
Ron and I with Dave enjoying the best beer we've ever had!
Thanks for bringing the beer to the finish line Dave!
photo by Chris Jones

the famous WTC frog cupcakes

We skied the next day and it felt GREAT!

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. 
C.S. Lewis