This Saturday I had the unexpected pleasure of joining 450+ runners for the Sequoia 10k/20k/30k/50k in the hills of Oakland, CA. I hadn’t planned on racing this weekend, but part of my Valentine’s Day gift from my wife was an afternoon off for a long run, and I had been meaning to cross to bay to visit the redwood trails of Joaquin Miller Park that I had been hearing so much about. What better way then to sign up for a leisurely-paced 50k put on by PCTR?
As I arrived in the chilly glade, it was clear that many were here for more than a leisurely run. Steve Stowers was coming off a sub-5:40 50-miler at the Jed Smith 50, Quad Dipsea top finisher Victor Ballesteros was ready to rumble, and Eric Poole and Chris Rennaker had come down from Ashland, OR to represent the Rogue Runners Club. PCTR Series front runners Will Baker-Robinson (10k), Jason Wolf (30k), Leor Pantilat (20k), and Will Gotthardt (50k) were also here to ensure that pace would be fast in all races. But there were plenty of others here just out to have a good time, and a few first timers too.
I said my hellos to many at the start, including Rich Lapachet (who got married in this park “way back when”), Luis and Beverly Escobar up from SoCal, and local Garett Graubins who was hanging with his 1-year-old son. Technu was spread generously (as was sunscreen) as the sun began to warm the air into the low 50’s. At 8:30am, Wendell and Sarah Doman sent us off and up into the hills.
The pace was furious from the start, with a dozen folks blazing out of the meadow and up some single track to a nice fire road. I ran with 20-year-old Max Shchemelin, in what was only his second ultra (although he placed 2nd in his first 50k at Muir Beach just a few months ago). He was definitely out to race hard today and doing a good job of not letting the front runners force too fast a pace on him. We caught up to Bree Lambert, who was “only doing the 30k” as a warm up for the Rucky Chucky 50k next month. That’s still a solid day of running, Bree!
The rolling fire road was smooth and soft, and gave us a chance to spread out before we crossed the peak of the hill and hit the first aid station (mile 2.7). Bree, Ray Sanchez, and I made a quick stop in the sun before plunging down into the eucalyptus groves of the next valley. It didn’t take long for us to get to the French Trail, which took our breath away with the soft, rolling hills that carved a path through the redwood giants. Within a mile, we were all saying this is one of the most beautiful running trails in the Bay Area!
As it got steep, Ray Sanchez and I paced together and took the spur off the loop course for the 30k/50k runners. Ray had just finished a crazy 100+ mile race in South America, and I enjoyed living vicariously through his stories of being lost in a foreign jungle, night running without flashlights, and still managing to come in 2nd place overall. How does one recover from that? Well, by getting into the Badwater Ultra and continuing to train, of course! Ray is a madman.
My downhill running was a bit faster than Ray (honestly, it’s amazing he can run at all this soon after a 100-miler), so I hit the bottom of the hill running solo. It didn’t take long for the race leaders to come the other way, indicating they were already 1.5-2 miles ahead of us at the halfway point. Steve Stowers was charging up front with a 5-6 minute lead, with Victor Ballesteros, Jason Wolf (30k), Eric Poole, Chris Rennaker, and Will Gotthardt in hot pursuit. I hit the aid station (mile 12) in 7th place, which meant I wasn’t doing a very good job of holding back. Garett Graubins had told me that’s why it’s tough to do a race as a long run – you rarely can control yourself when mixing it up with your favorite runners! As fate played her trump card, Garett was at the turnaround to cheer us on, and I got the message. ;-)
There were lots of smiling faces along the single track as I headed back. I munched on a PB&J square and shed a layer of clothing to accommodate the rising temp (now in the low 60’s). As we rejoined the loop, we caught the rear pack of the 20k runners along the ridge. I slowed to talk with a few of them, and was glad to find them all in high spirits. These mid/back of the back 20k runners are always so impressive to me – you can tell that many aren’t natural runners, yet they are out here busting ass on a tough 20k course and enjoying nature. Their energy propelled me forward!
As I ran through the last aid station (mile 16), Max caught up with me and led us through the downhill to the start area. He picked up a bottle from his crew and turned on the afterburners, disappearing into the trees. It was tempting to stop and hang out with the families enjoying their picnics in the meadow, so I just charged right through to repeat the 20k loop again.
I put on some tunes to give the second lap a different vibe (U2, Daft Punk, and Icky Thump by the White Stripes), and decided to walk all the uphills to ensure I wasn’t going too hard today. A convenient excuse, for sure, since I was already feeling the 5,000’ vertical this course was going to dish out. At the aid station (mile 21), Marco and the volunteer crew got me set up with Coke, M&M’s, and water. We all chatted about the perfect day and the wondrous trail variety of both the Joaquin Miller and Redwood Regional Parks.
The French Trail was even more fun on the second loop. The rolling hills were smooth and run-able, with just enough roots to keep you on your toes. A few horses, hikers, and mountain bikers provided a new kind of obstacle, but all were gracious in stepping aside when needed. The equestrian saw my race number and asked “how far today?”, and I hollered out “50k, 15k to go”. His only reply was “you poor, sick bastard”. ;-)
The sun was HOT as I hit the ridge and started the slow climb back. Rob Silva caught up with me, having no trouble at all with his first ultra. He said the best part of the race was “you can do anything…walk, run, go fast, enjoy the view…I’ve never been in a race like this!”. With that, he charged down a section of downhill and gave me one last wave. I think he’s hooked. ;-)
With a quick stop at the aid station for a handful of Goldfish crackers, I took a slow and steady jog for the last two miles to the finish. I crossed in 5:04, good enough for 8th place and one whole whopping point towards the PCTR Series. I was nowhere near the front runners – Steve Stowers had won in a course record 3:55, with Victor Ballesteros just a few minutes behind. Will Gotthardt rallied for a solid third place (4:33), holding off the boys from Oregon. Max Shchemelin had gone strong right to the end, finishing in an emotional 4:34 for 4th overall. Nice work, Will and Max! Juliet Morgan, who had come up from Redondo Beach, CA, won the Women’s Division in 5:37.
The short course runners tore it up, with Jason Wolf (2:29:55) and Marianne Baldetti winning the 30k (2:51:53), and Leor Pantilat scoring another course record win in the 20k (1:22:35). Caitlin Smith won the 20k Women’s Division in an impressive 1:36:09. (all results here)
I ate more than my fair share of chili and snacks as the smiling runners came trickling in. What a great day in the Oakland hills! My thanks to the great volunteers and RD’s for another fantastic day, and an excuse to see a part of the Bay Area I may not have found otherwise.
I'm glad I had some energy left for the long weekend and on Sunday, Sophie and I checked out the Amgen Tour of California bike race that was in Palo Alto, CA. Those guys sure go fast!