Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My First Ultra Marathon or The 50k that I almost won on accident

Me and my instant team-mate "the Professor" at the Almaden Hills 50k.

Every once in a while, I can get serious.

At least as serious as a dude in a Captain America t-shirt can get.

It doesn't happen very often, and in fact it usually happens as a function of getting shot at or playing poker.  But as of yet, it hasn't come as a result of anything I've done in my short and relatively unimpressive running career.

That being said, if there is one thing that the San Francisco Marathon taught me, it's that I can get really down on myself for not doing just the smidgen of thinking/planning necessary for an enjoyable outcome.  So though I joked and poked fun at myself for signing up for a 50k with 4 days notice, I really felt prepared to do things correctly and throw in just a pinch of experimentation for my race in December, the North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco.

The race I signed up for was the Annual Almaden Hills Run, just outside of San Jose.  The race is administered by Troy of Troy's California Trail Runs and let me tell you, for an organization that is running this operation on a shoe string budget and limited staff, the race was simply outstanding.

Obviously, this was my first experience at an Ultra and on a trail, but I don't know how Troy and his wife could have done things much better.  I'm often quite sheepish about my status as a member of the military but Troy is anything but quiet about his support for those who serve.  With a 15% military discount off of an already reasonable price for a 50k, his races are a fantastic value for any of the military folks in the Monterey area.  The hourlong drive up there was worth it in every respect and I would encourage anyone else to drive up there and experience his passion firsthand.

As for me, I started the day at 530 a.m. and had a couple of goals /  thoughts in mind.

  1. I need to get a handle on my nutrition requirements.  I know this was my problem in San Francisco and it's often something I neglect during training. . . often I "muscle up" and finish, rather than fueling and finishing strong.
  2. I need to "do no harm" and get my pacing figured out.  Clearly this destroyed me in San Francisco and I really didn't want to deal with this disappointment again.
  3. I wanted to set some hard rules and stick to them simply for the sake of discipline.  My "sideburns in the Army grooming standards" are a testament to how willing I am to push the limits of this and I felt like I needed the practice.  In poker, I have a hard and fast rule which is "don't go broke with one pair" which has kept me out of more trouble than I can recount.  I needed a similar mantra.
  4. Don't stress but push it if possible, toward the end.  I wanted to know what "trying to haul ass" felt like at the 30 mile mark.
So with that in mind, I arrived to the trail ready to get some kinks worked out.

Here's all the crap I elected to carry with me, and or wore, along the route:

  • Shoes: NB MT101
  • Shirt: The San Francisco Marathon "worth the hurt" technical long sleeve
  • Shorts: Some cheapo brand I bought at Champs for like 15 bucks
  • Garmin 305
  • Nathan Hydration Vest
  • Hammer Gels x 3
  • Stinger Waffles x 2
  • Buff worn in the "Sahariane" manner and making me look like the weakest member of the Sons of Anarchy
  • A Big goofy grin most of the time.
So, based on popular demand, here are a couple of short videos in which I talk about the first half of the race:

It wasn't very long after this last video that something occurred to me and the professor, we were actually in the lead.  Not that anyone was really taking this thing all that seriously, but the Type A personalities in the both of us couldn't help but get a bit competitive.  We pressed on, running smart but keeping in mind that barring a bonk, this thing was ours to lose.

Shortly after our stop at the 21 mile mark (which was also the drop bag point), we started moving in the wrong direction on the leader-board.  I take full responsibility for what happened next.

I missed a turn.


It wasn't until we were 1/4 mile up a section of single-track when it completely disappeared.  Sonofabitch.

Thankfully the professor had thought to grab a trail map at mile 3 (why the military in me didn't think of it first I have no idea) and after finally taking a look at the contour lines, I realized that we were screwed.  Looking back on it, I think it was the result of a couple of things.  First, fatigue was catching up to us.  Big P was pounding gels in an effort to stall his crash he felt coming on, and I had tunnel vision on the trail in front me, it never occurred to me to "look right and up" to get on the right trail.  Lesson here:  Check the trail map before you leave the aid station.  Had I just had the wherewithal to check for sections that might have been tricky, I might have been okay.

Regardless, after our Blair Witch Project moment, the professor and I got back on track and were curious about just how hosed we were when we got to the next aid station.  We asked the nice gentleman if there was anyone in front of us.

"Oh yeah, they left about ten minutes ago."

Oh, so this is what an ULTRA LOW feels like.  Not only did we just add half a mile, but we got the added insult of being behind.  Ah well.  It was fun while it lasted.

"Got any pretzels?" I said.  After I choked down my snack it occurred to me that losing kind of sucks.

So we spent the next couple of hours trying to catch 'em.

I'll spare you the manufactured drama, because the "Great Chase" really consisted of just the couple we were chasing, their dog, and us.  And I'm pretty sure the professor and I were the only ones pushing it.  Had they chosen to get competitive the couple in front might have smoked us.

That being said, I ended up trying to make a desperate two mile push during which I hit my high point.  Where I could run based on terrain, I was clicking off 630-700 min/mile splits.  This was easily the best I've ever felt while running, and it was a great feeling to know I could reach down and shift when I was exhausted.

I finished with a total time of 6:33 on a course that we think was about 33 miles, slightly longer than a 50k.  The trip down the wrong turn rabbit hole cost us about 30 minutes so I think it's fair to say that my time for 31 miles was something like 5:40.  Given the terrain, I'm really happy with my results.

Oh yeah, and I lost by about two minutes.  Awesome.

So that's the overview.  

In the next post I'm going to recount some of my lessons learned and see how the elevation profile of this course stacks up to the one that I'm going to see in San Francisco for the North Face Endurance 50 miler.

In the meantime, please feel free to let me know if you have a similar experience in a race.  Ever made a wrong turn?  What was your first Ultra like?

By Marcus with 7 comments


Can you post a link to the Garmin tracks? Love to see it.

Ed, here's the first look at this. Looks like my Garmin dumped the elevation for the first 16 miles for some reason.


Wow! Nice race, even with the side trip.

I did make a wrong turn on a much smaller scale once in a 5K. It was a windy course through a park. It probably only cost me about a quarter mile, and it was a very small 5K that was basically me in my first summer of racing, and a bunch of high school cross-country runners so I was so annihilated that my detour didn't even matter.

Yeah not only did it suck that it mattered, but I totally hosed by accidental running partner who was counting on me not to be stupid :-( Land Navigation isn't something Army dudes are supposed to suck at . .

Marcus! Awesome blog, and it's cool to be in the post. Good running with you Saturday, great prep for the North Face 50.


Great race man! So proud of your effort out there and even more happy that you kind of sort of had a plan and stuck to it. lol. Can't wait to see you crush TNF 50!

Thank you for taking the time to share! I am almost ready to sign up for this exact race, but have only completed a half marathon and other shorter races, but want to run the trails, this will definitely help me on my path. Thanks again and great job!

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