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I met up with Jean Pommier at 3:30am to carpool up to the race in Granite Bay, CA. 3am wake ups are nothing new to me these days (thank you, baby Sophie), but I was pleased to have some company for the drive. Jean, a 42 year old French road marathoner, was running his 2nd 50-miler after his spectacular debut at the Dick Collins Fire Trails 50 just two weeks before (3rd place in 7:25). He was hoping his road marathon experience might eke out a even faster time on a paved course, while I was hoping to get under 7 hours if all went well. In the end, however, we were both here to have a good time and enjoy the ideal weather.
We arrived to a packed Cavitt School gymnasium just as Race Director Norm Klein was telling everyone that there are 40% more runners this year than last (with half signing up for the 50-miler). With all his repeat visits to the local Safeway to buy supplies for aid stations, he was becoming quite a celebrity! Norm took some time to recognize some of the everyday heroes in the audience, such as Barbara Elia, running her 326th ultra (it was 300th last year, so she's still going strong!), HK course record holder Michael Buchanan, Rena Schumann (presented with a 10-year belt buckle for her 10 runs at the Sierra Nevada double marathon), Mark Tanaka (harassed for making a 37 minute phone call to his wife during the Rio del Lago 100-miler and still getting 2nd place), and of course Helen Klein, who at age 82 was in her running gear and ready to defend her 80+ age group title in the 30k. Norm and his volunteers do an amazing job making everyone feel welcome and celebrated even before the race starts. Perhaps it is this sense of community that keeps everyone coming back, and more signing up each year.
Although hugs did abound, it didn't mean there wasn't a healthy sense of competition in the air. HK doubles as the final race in the Ultrarunner.net Series and the 2nd to final race in the PA/USATF Grand Prix, so there were plenty of folks ready to go hard. Jon Olsen and Mark Tanaka were neck and neck in the Ultrarunner.net Series, so every minute would count for both of them. PA/USATF Grand Prix contenders Mark Lantz, John Mintz, Molly Pelton (also a leader in the Ultrarunner.net Series), and Eric Skaden were also among the crowd of runners lining the front of the pack. The Buffalo Chips running club was EVERYWHERE, and were going to be contenders in every distance for sure.
Norm sent off the runners about 4 minutes early, leaving 50 of us scrambling to the start (note to self - next year, FOLLOW Norm to the starting line!). Starting from the back has its advantage though - I got to say "hi" and "good luck" to a lot of familiar faces.
I settled into a 7-min/mile pace with Jeff Barbier and Lee McKinley, as we took advantage of the early downhills. We quickly realized we had all been at the Tahoe Rim Trail race, where Jeff had done 50k++ (the 50k course plus an unexpected extra Red House loop) and Lee had done the 50k as training for his 9-day fastpack of the John Muir Trail last month. Jeff was trying his first 50-miler, while Lee was in the lead pack for the 30k runners. We slowed down to an 8 min/mile as the path flattened out, and within the first hour, it felt like we were the only ones out there. Lee was itching to speed up, so he wished us luck and kicked into overdrive.
The first nine miles went quickly, and we saw the 30k runners coming back. Frank Capello and Frank Mariscal were up front, with Lee 30 seconds behind running smooth and confident (Lee would later win the 30k in 2:16). Jeff and I talked about our pace, which was still pretty fast, and well ahead of what Jeff would need for his target 7:30-8 hour time. As we each took pit stops, hit aid stations, etc., we managed to keep catching up to each other. I was wearing my hydration pack (not needed for this course, but I really enjoyed running with it all week so what the heck), so the aid station stops were brief. It's so easy to make friends with so much time to kill!
I spent a few miles running with Peter Lubbers, who had won the Tahoe "Super Triple" last month (that's two marathons in two days, followed by a 72-mile lap of Lake Tahoe on day 3 - whoa!). He gave me the blow-by-blow on the race, which sounded like a true survival of the fittest. At 14 miles, Michael Carlson of Boise, ID, went SCREAMING by to lead the 50k runners. About 5 minutes behind was Eric Skaden, running a casual pace (for him anyway). Jeff caught up with us again, and we gave our high fives to Peter as he turned around in pursuit.
Jeff is from nearby Rancho Cordova, so he knew the same trick that I did about this trail - use the dirt path on each side of the pavement as soon as possible to save your knees. The dirt also offered some variability to our leg muscles, which was critical for making sure we had some kick at the end of the race. We cruised by the 19-mile aid station with no problem, and quickly found ourselves at the 22-mile aid station just in time to see Michael Buchanan heading back. He was out front all by himself, running about a 5:55 race pace.
Jon Olsen was about a half mile behind, and Jean Pommier was 3rd, setting a fast pace for the Master's athletes. Mark Lantz was sticking close to Mark Tanaka for 4th and 5th. I hit the turnaround in 3:16 in 9th place, which was faster than I had expected. Jeff was right behind me, still looking strong. If we could hold on, a 7 hour finish was well within reach. I slowed down to take in some food, and Jeff led us out.
It seems like I'm always trying to convince myself that my 50-mile time can be calculated by doubling the first half and adding 20 minutes. Does it ever work out that way? No. But do I still think it will? Of course! And the moment I do that mental math is typically right about the time when something goes wrong.
For this race, that was at mile 29. As I was gazing over the river, I tried to hop from the bike path to the dirt trail but instead caught the edge of the pavement and "windmilled" into the park lawn as I tried to catch myself. I didn't go down, but I definitely overstretched my hip and IT band in my ungraceful attempt to stop. Once I halted, I laughed out loud. After a season of hills at Miwok, Ohlone, Tahoe, the Sunsweet Trail Festival, and Seacliff, I decide to fall on the flattest course all year?!? That's just classic.
I did my best to walk it off, but something didn't feel quite right. I had strained an already-overworked muscle, and it wasn't coming back into shape easily. Anytime I went from a jog to a run, my left IT band would hurt a little more with each step. I did a walk/run for the next mile, but couldn't get it to subside. My head started filling with excuses - "just think how much it will hurt in 20 more miles", "don't be an idiot and lose your whole season", "this is your chance to drop" - damn you, conscience! Always there to take advantage of any misfortune.
But my conscience should know this much - it's going to take a lot more than that to stop an ultra runner. Would it stop Helen Klein at age 82? Her hips probably hurt this much getting out of bed this morning. Would it stop Peter Lubbers from moving forward at the Tahoe Super Triple? Not a chance. Would Lee have bailed on his 9-day John Muir Trail hike if his hip hurt? Nyet. Would a little pain stop Jeff from crawling to finish his first 50-miler if he had to? HELL, no. Thus with the thoughts of my cohorts, I perservered. Within a few miles, I found a modified shuffle that kept the pressure off if I ran on the left side of the road. It appeared to be a 9:10/mile pace which would get me to the finish. Perhaps this is what a 100-miler feels like? I cheered on the runners coming the other way to stoke up my psychological reserves.
At mile 31, I caught up with Jeff again who was proactively slowing down after seeing he hit 50k in 4:16 or so. We ran together for a bit, but he soon found his rhythm again and was pulling ahead. It was good motivation to keep him in sight, and he pulled me through the aid stations at mile 35 and 39. When we saw the last of the 50-mile walkers, we knew it was the home stretch. That was enough motivation for Jeff to pull off into the distance for good.
I cranked up my iPod (Cake, Theivery Corporation, Ben Harper), which along with the Advil, helped me pick up the pace to an 8:45/mile. Steve Itano went by on his bike a few times and let me know I was still in the vicinity of a top 10 finish. The hills were a welcome relief that worked some new muscles, and gave me a boost of energy to cross the finish line in 7:28:12, good enough for 10th place. My hip was sore, but it couldn't dampen the joy of getting across the finish line.
As I chowed down on my turkey dinner, I found out that Michael Buchanan had successfully defended his title in 6:00:28, with Jon Olsen coming in 2nd (6:05:19), just enough to edge out Mark Tanaka (3rd in 6:22:36) for 2nd, but not enough to beat him in the Ultrarunner.net Series. Jean Pommier was 4th and won the Master's division (6:53), with Mark Lantz right behind him (6:57). Jeff Barbier held on strong for 9th place (7:22), so I suspect we will see him in more 50-milers to come. Carol Rewick came in soon after me to win the Women's Division (12th overall, 7:32:16).
My thanks to Norm and Helen Klein, as well as the many volunteers, for putting on a great race. I would highly recommend this one if you're looking to get started in ultras. You will get a great crowd, good weather, and (hopefully) a fast course that is not difficult to navigate. Just do Norm a favor and sign up early so he only has to make one trip to Safeway. ;-)