Firetrails 50M

Breaking all the rules and escaping intact

October 13, 2001

Saturday I ventured into terra incognita - 50M at the Dick Collins Firetrails 50. With a long run of 50K at races this July and August and nothing longer than 14M since then, and a TOTAL of 98.7 miles of training in the seven weeks since that last race (14 miles/week), I was definitely well rested but undertrained. Not only was I breaking the "if you can run it in a week you can run it in a day" rule, I was close to breaking the "if you aren't running it in a month, you're out of your mind to run it in a day" rule.

Adding insult to injury (actually injury to insult as we shall see) were the two new pairs of shoes purchased on race week. The first, an ultra-supportive (anti-over-pronation) shoe the salesperson convinced me to buy, might well be best for me in the long haul, but after two test runs early in the week they were just too different from what I have been wearing for me to be comfortable with them on Saturday. So on Wednesday I bought another pair, these more like what I have been wearing, and managed to work in a 3M track workout on Wednesday night as the only miles on those shoes before race day. Risky, but since the shoes I had been running in had self-destructed at my last race, and my other training shoes were too lightweight for a real long run, there simply wasn't any alternative. The new shoes were very roomy in the toes, which was definitely a good thing.

I had only decided to do this race a week in advance, basically because I had been wanting to do this since I turned 50, and after two good races in the summer I figured it was as good a time as any, nothwithstanding the lack of training. If I couldn't train properly, at least I could prepare. Preparation consisted of heavier than normal eating for three days prior to the race, with a special emphasis on salty foods, and, for the first time in my life, preparing a "drop bag" to be left at the turnaround point (26M), containing every possible contingency - a spare pair of shoes (the first new pair of shoes) in case the ones I was wearing weren't working out, a pair of long thigh-length tights in case I was chafing from the running shorts I was wearing (in the old days I couldn't run more than 5M without chafing while wearing shorts, but things have changed), a shirt in case my shirt was soaking through, a dry headband, a hat in case the sun was getting to me, a bottle of sunblock to reapply, a tube of Body Glide to reapply to prevent chafing, and a host of food items and Advil to replenish any stores I had gone through. Better overprepared than underprepared! In the end I used hardly any of it.

The race starts at 6:30 and I arrived at 5:45, flashlight in hand to find my way to the registration table where I checked in. By the time I went to the bathroom, walked back to the entry kiosk to buy a parking ticket for my car, walked to the truck to drop off my drop bag, and stripped down to my racing clothes, it was nearly 6:30. Suddenly I realized that my drop back not only had a hat but also my form-fitting headgear (a.k.a. "do-rag") so I'd be running the first half of the race with nothing on my head but a headband. I don't like to expose my head to the sun, but I really didn't have any choice, and anyway I'd be taken care of for the sunnier afternoon return trip, so I figured I'd be ok.

A low-key "go" and we're off at 6:30. In mid-October it's dark, but I like to run with sunglasses so the first 15-20 minutes are definitely challenging. A few people have flashlights, though, and the first few miles are also on a paved bike trail along the west side of Lake Chabot, so I manage ok. After the paved trail comes a very hilly section, which I'm familiar with since the Skyline 50K ends on these same trails. Immediately I establish a pattern which will continue the entire day. I'm walking almost all the uphills, but racewalking like a demon and passing people with regularity. Then I'm absolutely hammering the downhills, running them as hard as I can. This can be hard on your quads, of course, but in recent races with lots of tough uphills like Headlands 50K, my quads have never been my weakest link, so I figure I'm going to give it (hammering downhills) a try as a way to make up time lost elsewhere. I'm also using the downhills to mix up my stride length, sometimes running with short strides and quick turnover, sometimes with longer strides and slower turnover. The roominess of the new shoes (size 14) was definitely a plus on the downhills; even by the end of the day, my toes were just fine going downhill, which isn't the usual situation.

And so the race progresses. Through Lake Chabot Regional Park, and then on to Redwood Regional Park, past Marciel Road, Bort Meadows and MacDonald Gate and finally up the Stream Trail to Skyline Gate at the northern end of Redwood Regional Park at the 15M mark. This is where the Skyline 50K turns around, so I've never been further than this; geographically speaking, I'm now proceeding to terra incognita. I've reached this point in 2:40, a 10:40 pace. Considering there has been 880' of net climb to this point, this is definitely faster than I expect to average the whole day, but I'm doing this intentionally, breaking another rule and making hay while the sun don't shine. Predictions are for temperatures in the high 80's, and I know I don't do well in the heat, so it seems sensible to get as far as I can while the temperatures are still cool. My "goal", after looking at past finishes of people whose pace is similar to mine, is to aim for 10 hours - 11 minutes/mile plus 5 minutes per hour noshing at aid stations, or 5 miles/hour. Since there are 13 aid stations, if I can cut the aid station time a little, I'll be down around 9:40, which is about as fast as I could possibly hope for. But 10 hours is really what I'm expecting, and of course if I finish in one piece I'll be thrilled with that.

The view West from Skyline Gate


From Skyline Gate we proceed on the Bay Area Ridge Trail north through Huckleberry Preserve, a beautiful wooded section where another of my strengths comes to the fore - I love singletrack, and just seem to come alive on it. A lot of this race is run on firetrails (hence the name!), but a decent amount is on singletrack and I always run faster on it. Ian Hersey once postulated that it only SEEMS I'm running faster because the trees are closer to me, so that they go by my eye more rapidly, and I'm sure there is some truth in that, but it's also definitely true that I DO run faster on these sections as well.

Running through Huckleberry Preserve

More Huckleberry Preserve

The view from Huckleberry Preserve


And speaking of aid stations, today I'm going with my newfound staple - coke. One full cup of coke at each aid station except the first two keeps me full of caffeine and calories during the day. The calories I supplement with yummy thick fudgy brownies that aren't a "usual" on aid station tables but are on every one here and I take full advantage. The last nutritional need is salt, and I have my own "Succeed" capsules with me, but the aid stations carry them too, so I soon switch to using theirs, one per aid station. My single biggest apprehension coming into this race hasn't been endurance, but cramping. In my last 50K at Headlands I was plagued all day with incipient cramping of the calves, and especially near the end. What if I have to spend the last 20M like that? But, as it turns out, for whatever reasons (I WAS taking Succeed at Headlands too, possibly too much even), today things just go right, and cramping is never a problem.

Running through Sibley Preserve



Out of Huckleberry through Sibley Preserve as we cross over the Caldicott Tunnel and then a long climb up to the southern end of Tilden Park, the "Steam Trains". Still going strong. From Steam Trains there's a short climb around the shoulder (not quite the top) of Vollmer Peak. I'm still pouring it on on the downhills here, but also, especially during some of the flatter or uphill sections, taking time to appreciate the incredible views on this stretch (SeaView Tr. in Tilden Park). The day is crystal clear thanks to early morning winds. To the west we look down on the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and of course the city of San Francisco in between. To the north San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Bridge; to the west various reservoirs and less populated areas, and to the south, Mt. Diablo. It's literally breaktaking. A sign on the top of Mt. Diablo (which, at 3000+ ft, is higher than where I am at 1700 or so) says that you can see more of the earth's surface from there than anyplace except Mt. Kilamanjaro, but I think the view from where I am is better. Truly worth the trip.

The race turns sharply downhill to the turnaround at 26M (slightly more than half the race distance because, although this is an out-and-back race, at the very end the route follows the eastern shore of Lake Chabot instead of the western shore, and is slightly shorter). I'd seen the race leaders go by me up at the top, now I start to see everyone else. Gary Wang, looking strong and on his way to a 9th place finish, then closer to the bottom I see Jim Winne, who had passed me back at mile 8 or so after predicting a PW performance. At this point that doesn't look likely.

At the turnaround I grab my drop bag and go to work. Off with the wet headband, on with a dry one plus the "do-rag" to protect my head from the sun on the return (I generally avoid hats, despite the shade offered by the brim, because they restrict my vision while running through the woods). My shirt and shoes are doing fine, so no need to change those. I do grab my #48 sunblock and reapply; no need to damage my body from the outside as well as the inside! I did forget to reapply BodyGlide to the inner thighs, but I remedied that at the next aid station with vaseline, and ended the day without a hint of chafing. Grab more coke and brownies and head off up hill. It's 4:53 into the run and I'm on the way back!

The 4M climb out of Lone Oak is long and exposed, and its getting hot but far from deadly so. I push on aggressively, running sometimes, walking at others, but always when I'm walking doing so very forcefully, passing people who are walking at a more "normal" walking pace. I see Richard Pon and Dave Wright on the way down, both looking good. By the time I reach the top the fabulous views have returned, a little hazier than before but still spectacular. I'd say they were enough to take my mind off the pain, which they would have been if I had been in any, but at this point, nearing the 50K mark, I was still feeling quite fine.

Back through Sibley and Huckleberry, still pushing the downhills although certainly not as aggressively as before, still feeling energized by the singletrack and also by the continuing, albeit rare, passing of runners as I go. I'm slowing down, to be sure, as the numbers at the end of this report show, but evidently not as much as a number of others. One of those, unfortunately, is Jim Winne, who I pass on an uphill in Huckleberry Preserve. Despite his claims to be out of shape and predictions of a PW, Jim had passed me around mile 8 and had been way ahead of any kind of PW pace. But he, like 18 others out of the 120 starters, was to fall victim to the day's conditions and didn't make it to the finish.

Strangely enough, the heat never really got to me. A lot of the run back is in the shade, and what was exposed was hot but definitely not deadly; not the "blast furnace" kind of effect one can definitely run into. I was carrying one water bottle; I had a second in my drop bag at the turnaround in case I felt one wasn't enough, but I left it there. On the way back I did run out of water a couple times between aid stations, but always pretty close to the aid station so one bottle was really just right (for me). As the day got hotter I did make sure I got even more to drink at the aid stations, sometimes two (small) cups of coke and two (small) cups of Cytomax while I was there, and another cup of Coke "to go" as I ran or walked away, and I made sure to keep ingesting the Succeed tablets. Whatever I did, it was just right.

As I returned to terra cognita at Skyline Gate, I also moved into terra incognita as far as distances go; I was now at 37 miles and still going, well, if not strong, at least "going." I ran down Stream Trail, enjoying the downhills and trying to hold some semblance of steady forward motion on the more level spots, and knowing that there was an uphill at the end and holding myself out the carrot of being able to walk a little once I got there. I did. Then downhill to MacDonald Gate, once again knowing that a major uphill lay ahead and actually looking forward to it for the opportunity to walk. And once again to pass a couple more people in the process.

My one problem of the day surfaced here. For the last few miles a blister had been developing on the inside of my right heel. I had actually been feeling this BEFORE the race, it was just some kind of slight irration caused by either the shoes I was wearing (and had worn for 3 miles of track workout), or I think more likely the OTHER new pair of shoes I had worn earlier in the week. Anyway I had greased up this spot in anticipation of a problem, and was even carrying Compeed in my pack to deal with the problem if it arose on the trail, but until this point (around 40M or so) it really hadn't come into play. Now it did, and got increasingly worse.

Actually, a second problem came to my attention here as well, which is that my whole upper body (rib cage, etc.) was getting quite sore from all the pounding (not that I'm a "heavy" runner, really I have a very low shuffle stride with little pounding). That, compounded with the blister, compounded with general exhaustion, started to slow me considerably, to the point of walking the flats and even at one point a short downhill. I was in the "single digits" as far as miles to go, and my spirits were definitely good and I knew I was going to make it to the finish, but a hard effort was pretty much out the window.

When I reached Bort Meadows aid station I'm only 5.9 miles from the finish, less than a 10K, but there's no way I can continue without attending to the blister. Unfortunately there's also no way I can reach my own foot; if I try I'll cramp up and it'll be all over. Fortunately the aid station personnel are there to help, and a volunteer helps me remove my shoe, peel back the sock past the heel, and applies the Compeed. That was the good news. The bad news - to me it felt like the problem was about halfway between the ankle and the bottom of the foot. Of course I couldn't look to verify this, and she just put the Compeed on where I told her to. Unfortunately the real blister turns out to have been much lower, almost at the bottom of the foot, and the Compeed proves to be almost totally ineffective. But I don't realize this until I'm out of the aid station, and anyway I'm not going to go through the process again, so it looks like I'll be toughing it out.

I was feeling pretty much done in at this point, and figured if worst came to worst I could walk it in from here, so I left Bort with that plan in mind. But, as before, serious racewalking, with arms pumping and a very quick turnover, much higher than when I was running. I was breathing hard, but for some reason I could sustain this kind of walking when I just couldn't run. One runner passed me at this point, and after about 1/2M, I thought I'd give running a try again, and sure enough, I could! I literally amazed myself; all I could think was "Wow! 45M and I'm still running!". Then we got onto some singletrack as we neared Lake Chabot and things got even better, I passed a couple more runners in here. Then there was the last aid station, just 3M from the finish, and I'm thinking, "it's all downhill from here."

Wrong! To my amazement there was as almost as much uphill as downhill from there to the finish, and it was tough going. I "ran" the downhills, racewalked the uphills, nursed the blister by trying to land my foot differently, and generally pressed on. Distance was stretching on. The course is back on a paved path at this point, with every 0.25M marked off, and each one seemed further than the previous one (it didn't help that one or two of the marks were missing, or seemed to be). One runner went by me about 1/2M from the finish but I just couldn't muster the fight to hold him off; even the "show-off" effect of trying to look good while passing the various strollers coming from the picnic areas didn't charge me up. But then, finally, the finish line and someone yells out "Finish Strong!". "Finish Strong!" is what is written on the back of my shirt, and I had had dozens of comments all day long from fellow runners who loved the shirt; the person doing the yelling was one of those who passed me very early on (maybe mile 4 or so). His shout was enough to shake me out of my doldrums, and I sprinted the last 40Y to the finish, crossing the line at 10:22:18. It wasn't what I "hoped" for but given the unnaturally hot day I was more than happy with the time, good for 54/102 overall (120 starters), and 9/21 in 50-59. Nothing to write home about, but I'm writing home anyway. :-)

At the time, and with two days' hindsight looking back, this was a VERY satisfying race. One silly blister, but basically no real problems to speak of despite hot conditions. Ran MOST of the way, racewalked the rest, and in general was able to press pretty hard the whole day despite an apparent insufficiency of training. Beautiful day, great views, lovely trails, and I was able to enjoy pretty much the whole thing (save possibly the last 3 miles). Coke and brownies at the aid stations, some excellent sausages, soup, and carrot cake at the finish, a nice "SportHill" shirt to take home, got to meet legendary ultrarunners (and co-race directors) Ann Trason and Carl Andersen, all in all a wonderful experience. And one which I do NOT anticipate repeating any time soon! 50M is very definitely a LONG way, and I think "short" races (like 50K) will do me just fine. But I really had to see what 50M was like, and now I have, and I see that I can do it, but I think one was enough. Incidentally for those gluttons for punishment, a 10:22 finish IS fast enough to qualify me to submit an application for the Western States 100, and no, I won't be doing so. :-)

Steve "Undertrained and well-rested" Patt
in Cupertino, CA, where the soreness is lifting and the spirit is still soaring

For numbers freaks like me, the data follows. Note the importance of dealing not with "real" pace but with "effective" pace (compensated for elevation gain/loss) if you want to see a clearer picture of the race.

Aid Station  Dist.  Time   Pace   Elev. +/-  "Effective" Dist.*  Eff. Pace  Place
Marciel      3.2    35:02  10:57   620/150          3.9            8:59
Bort         4.7    44:15   9:25   460/660          5.1            8:41       59
MacDonald    2.6    27:50  10:42   470/530          3.1            8:59       57
Skyline Gate 4.5    52:46  11:43   900/230          5.5            9:36       56
Sibley       3.4    36:58  10:42   610/495          4.0            9:14       58
Steam Trains 3.3    48:16  14:37   730/465          4.1           11:46       58
Lone Oak     4.3    47:52  11:07   320/1420         4.4           10:53       62
Steam Trains 4.3  1:08:40  15:58   1420/320         5.9           11:38**     61
Sibley       3.3    45:35  13:48   465/730          3.7           12:19       59
Skyline      3.4    41:11  12:07   495/610          3.9           10:33       53
MacDonald    4.5    55:12  12:16   230/900          4.6           12:00       54
Bort         2.6    38:53  14:57   660/460          3.3           11:47       53
Bass Cove    2.9    40:39  14:01   230/590          3.1           13:07***    53
Finish       3.0    39:10  13:03   210/290          3.2           12:14       54
Total       50.0 10:22:18  12:27  7820/7820        57.8           10:46


* Add 1.2M for every 1000' of ascent, subtract 0.2M for every 1000' of descent
** Includes several minute gear change at turnaround
*** Includes several minute blister work at aid station


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