Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Muddy Mayhem at the FOURmidable 50k (2017 USATF 50k Trail National Championships)


Formidable (Fohr-med-a-bull) – Causing fear, dread, awe, or discouragement as a result of size, strength, or some other impressive feature; commanding respect; causing wonder or astonishment. Difficult to defeat or overcome.

FOURmidable 50k – the above, plus 31 miles of mud and 6,000' of climbing. 

From the moment I added the FOURmidable 50k to the race calendar two months ago, I have enjoyed how its clever-but-daunting name injected a twinge of fear into my workouts. The all caps “FOUR-” cleverly represents the four insanely steep climbs between Auburn and Cool, CA, that anchor the course with nearly 6,000’ of vertical gain. The lower case, but not to be underestimated, “-midable” refers to the fast runnable single track in between those climbs. Put them together, and every workout of the normally slow winter season is frightfully blessed with purpose. Climbing, downhills, speedwork…FOURmidable would demand it all.

(Note the inverted profile chart with aid stations at the bottom of the number - genius!)
As the race approached, Mother Nature raised the stakes with the highest year-to-date rain on record in California, guaranteeing miles of shoe-sucking mud that could break spirits and ankles with equal ferocity. This year, it was also the 2017 USA Track & Field (USATF) 50k Trail National Championships, so we could expect speedsters such as world champion Max King, national champion Andy Whacker, power couple (and national champions) David and Megan Roche, YiOu Wang, Ryan Ghelfi, Cole Watson, Jennifer Devine Pfiefer, Meghan “the Queen” Arbhogast, Jean Pommier, and a couple hundred more ready to define their best.

(Jessi Goldstein gets ready with her fellow warriors)

(Addie Bracy, Andy Whacker, and David Roche are ready to roll)

(YiOu Wang makes a few adjustments while Team Hoka's Cole Watson and Ryan Ghelfi stretch out)

(Ray Sanchez, just ahead of the best singlet ever from Ian O'brien)
It was the first competition of my 2017 season, and I yearned for the release of the start gun with a manic intensity. Races are such a gift, inviting us to adventure with fellow warriors and leave our “normal” life behind for half a day. Lately, my “normal” is 11 power outages in five weeks as Woodside struggles in the windy storms, launching a brand new company (Brilliant, who makes the worlds smartest light switch), and the inescapable cacophony of Trumplandia permeating the will of the world. Five hours of sweaty quiet along the gorgeous hills of the American River valley? Heck, that’s the most sane thing on my calendar these days.

(Who's ready to roll?)
(And we're off!
The relief came at 8am, as Race Director Paulo Medina and the gang of Single Track Running sent us down from the Auburn Dam Overlook towards the American River after the 35k runners. Andy Whacker led Max King, David Roche, and Ashland, OR's Cole Watson down the first descent at blazing speed, while YiOu Wang and Colorado's Addie Bracy tucked in about five places back. I set up about a dozen people behind them, trying to keep my Masters competition in sight. Somewhere up there was Jean Pommier (who just ran a sub-3:20 50k two weeks ago), and I had seen Mark McManus (defending Trail 50k National Masters Champion), local Peter Fain, Alan Abbs, 200-miler king John Burton, and a few other names on the start list that could clean my clock any given Saturday. But I was fit from a solid 8-week block of training (thanks, FOURmidable!), and knew in these conditions, patience would be my best ally.

(Cruising the towpath, photo courtesy of Theseus Augustus Felonius)
 By the time we got down to the river and back again (mile 5), it was clear that the mud was going to be a bigger factor than the hills today. Every mud condition imaginable was here - sloshy mud up to your knee, bone breaking hard clay, murky bottom creeks, sticky rooted climbs, saturated cow fields….even No Hands Bridge had a four inch puddle on the top. The downhill switchbacks were downright suicidal in some sections, but the kid in me was having a great time slopping it up.

(The mud would be the big factor today)
(Megan Storms shows off her buddy's new gaiters)

(There's a creek ON TOP of No Hands Bridge!)
As we stomped across No Hands Bridge and tackled the 22% incline of K2 (mile 11), I heard that Andy Whacker had taken a fall and was off to the hospital to get some stitches. Yikes! This course takes no prisoners. Max King had a 2-minute lead on Cole Watson, with David Roche and Ryan Ghelfi right behind them, all going at well under the course record pace. Addie Bracy and YiOu Wang were leading the Women’s race, well ahead of the pack (I found out Megan Roche had not started to take care of their dog who snarfed down some ibuprofen for breakfast - good doggy Mom, Megan!).

(K2 is looking crazy)
My playmates for this race were all from the Bay Area. San Francisco’s Sebastian Duesterhoeft was here for a “training run” (but looking pretty damn good), 22-year-old Michael Basuini and his rainbow hair was climbing everything, while Mill Valley’s Chris Castleman led us down the descents with his effortless gait. Ryan Smith from Fair Oaks joined us as well, chuckling that the muddy conditions would be his 2-year-old sons perfect day. The pace was quick, that is, until another thick field of mud had us spread out, laughing out loud, and grasping for anything that resembled traction. A smile cracked through my mud mask, humbled by the pure joy of my fellow warriors. Glorious, this mud be!

(David Roche leading up the climb, photo courtesy of Eric Schranz)

(Try and stay dry! Ha, ha)
As Michael led me up Overlook Hill (mile 15), we caught up with 35k runners and all got a shot of adrenaline when two bucks went flying down the hillside right in between us. Phew! Now that’s what I call good downhill form. I scanned ahead for my Masters competitors, but even as we crested the hills above the fog, I could only see Ryan Smith’s red shirt in the distance. A good enough target for now. Sebastian joined me as we crossed the thigh-deep Knickerbocker Creek, and we chatted about how in decades of running up here (Way Too Cool, Western States, etc.) we had never seen the creeks running so wild. It was music to our California-drought dry ears.

(Max King and the epic face plant we all made, photo courtesy of Paul Berquam)

It wasn’t until the Cool aid station (mile 22), that I got an idea of the race ahead and where I was. Max King had come through at blazing speed, face planting in the four foot deep creek, with Cole Dayton two minutes behind him (and also face planting in the four foot deep creek). David Roche, Ryan Ghelfi, Ian O’brien (hands down the best race shirt), and Ryan Woods were all in pursuit. YiOu Wang had made her signature move, turning on the afterburners in the last 10 miles, and had already gapped Addie Bracy by four minutes. The volunteers guided me around the four foot creek, and a guy said “you’re first in your age group, Jean is about 8 minutes up for Masters…he’s going fast though, so you better get moving”. Wait...where is Peter Fain? Mark McManus? The guy shrugged his shoulders and said “looks like it’s your day”. Well, it's not over yet...

(We aren't done yet!)
Sebastian caught up with me as we rolled through Cool, and we joked about how perfect that volunteer’s update was. “You’re leading your age group” (you’re killing it, but don’t slow down) and “Jean is still ahead of you and going fast” (how bad do you want this?). I kept my pace rolling through to No Hands (mile 27), but Sebastian had a few more gears for climbing than I did so he pulled away. I recollected how great it felt to run these hills in the final hours of Western States, and let those memories lighten my heavy legs.

The last of the four climbs (mile 30) set my quads and calves twitching, and I power hiked the bottom just in time to watch Jean Pommier finish at the top. Chris Castlemen was able to run the entire last climb, and caught me in the final 200 yards, collapsing at the finish. I followed him in (4:39), nabbing 11th overall, 8th USATF Male, 2nd Master, and the M45-49 win. What a great finish to an amazing day!

(YiOu Wang is our new USATF Trail 50k Champion!)

(Max King talks strategy with his daughter after taking the win)
Max King (3:32, new course record) had held on for the win, with Cole Watson (3:39), David Roche (3:51), Ryan Ghelfi (3:55), and Ryan Woods (3:59) all going under 4 hours. Ian O’brien (4:15) took sixth, just ahead of the Womens champion, YiOu Wang (4:18), Addie Bracy (4:32), and Masters winner Jean Pommier (4:32). Sebastian (4:33) almost caught Jean! Guess I should have stayed with him. (all results)

(Womens Masters champion Jennifer Devine Pfeiffer and RD Paulo Medina)

(M40-44 winner John Burton and M55-59 winner Gary Saxton make good use of the finisher hoodies)

(Killer swag!!!)
As we enjoyed beer and brats, got our Monster Massages, and covered ourselves in the amazing swag (t-shirt, sweatshirt, hat, finisher medal, water bottle, yes!), we cheered in more happy and muddy racers. Jennifer Devine Pfiefer soon came in to take 3rd Female, winning the Masters category, just ahead of a flu-beaten Meghan Arboghast who was still all smiles. My cycling buddy Chris Devine had placed 3rd overall in the 35k, with his friend Ben Winters just behind him, and we joked that both could probably whip out a marathon and feel less exhausted than 22 miles of this insanity. With every muddy face that came up over the hill, we let out another cheer – John Burton (M40-44 winner), Gary Saxton (M55-59 winner), Tim Tweitmeyer, Ron Hess, Jerry Dischler, Megan Storms, and many more. This was an epic day, and worthy of a finishers yelp.

My thanks to Paulo Medina and his troupe at Single Track Running for this wonderful gift of a run. In my mind, it redefined what a USATF 50k Trail Championship race should be – epic climbs, crazy conditions, fast runners, great swag, awesome food, not too much pomp and circumstance, and all of it expertly organized. Best of all it was a perfectly good excuse to get muddy, and renew my appreciation for nature’s extraordinary range of beauty. Thanks Team inov-8 for making mud running fun (#getagrip), and Injinji for getting me through another crazy race with no blisters. Let the chalice of my soul spill over with gratitude.

See ya on the trails!

- Scott