Last Saturday, I gleefully joined 125 trail runners for the return of the Rucky Chucky 50k in Foresthill, CA. Trail access issues had put this hilly out-and-back course on the sidelines the last two years, but now it was back! Such a perfect way to greet Spring and get in some good miles on the Western States trail with friends.
It was nothing short of a miracle that I made it to the start line on time. Just 12 hours earlier, I was skidding down a frozen highway outside of Chicago, IL, braving a snowstorm in a cheap rental car to get to O’Hare Airport in hopes to catch ANY flight back home from a business trip. A foot of snowfall coming in sideways and blowing down everything in its path - no wonder the runners from the Midwest are so tough! As luck would have it, United got me back to SF in time for a few hours sleep and the drive to Foresthill. I pulled up to the High School, packed my wool hat and scarf away, and put on shorts and t-shirt for a Spring run in the 70 degree canyons. I was really tired and wondered if it might be best to skip the race (and joined Catherine and the other volunteers), but I really, really wanted to do it. It was only three years ago I ran the Rucky Chucky 50k as my first ultra ever – now some 30 ultras later (zoiks!), I was ready to revisit the trails that started this crazy love affair and see how my perspective had changed.
There were many familiar faces, as is always the case at an Ultrarunner.net event. Mark Tanaka (also no stranger to running on no sleep) and Bev Abbs were dressed in gold, as if to project their final finish times. Peter Lubbers, Paul Sweeney, Diana Fitzpatrick, David Dean, Bree Lambert, Brad Lael, Jady Palko, Mike Savage, Mike and Karyn Hoffman, Ray Sanchez, Rena Schumann, Claire Gilles, Tony Overbay, and more – it was like an ultrafamily reunion with new and old members alike! At my first Rucky Chucky, I had that weird feeling that I was crashing somebody else’s party, although it quickly subsided when they all pounced on the new guy. I did my best to return the favor to the new faces I saw this time around!
At 8am, Robert Mathis gave us the last minute instructions before sending us off. There was one big modification that he hoped everyone heard – due to muddy access trails, one aid station was missing and we would have to do a 13.5 mile stretch with no aid EACH way. This explained the high number of hydration packs and extra bottles that made the starting line look like the kick off of the Eco-Challenge. There seemed to be three strategies among the front-runners to address the long, aidless stretch. First, carry all the water you can and quit yer bitchin’. Second, carry a bit too much and stash a bottle or two along the way for the return. Lastly, trust the creeks are full and bring one bottle and some iodine tablets (“old school” as Bev puts it…then again she likes the Plain 100 where the first aid station is at mile 60).
I went for the first strategy (carry as much as you can), which gave me a chance to test out the Inov-8 Race Pro 18 hydration pack I got a few weeks earlier. This was a “try new things” race for me anyway, so was glad the occasion called for something new. I hadn’t trained much with this pack (or any pack for that matter), but the two liter water pouch seemed like the right call for the warm day. I was also trying the Inov-8 RocLite 295 shoes (soft and flexible, lets you “feel” the trail), and the Vespa CV-25 Sport Supplement that Paul Charteris had recommended. I had tried each of these items separately in training runs, and they held up great. So today, I would throw them all together for a race.
The race started off fast as we cut through a cul de sac onto the Western States trail. Jady Palko, Bev Abbs, and Mark Tanaka set the pace, although we quickly found ourselves behind the “real” front runners after Jady stopped to pee, Bev instinctually followed the Western States 100 trail off course, and the rest of us followed like lemmings. We only lost a few hundred feet though. ;-)
The single track was fast, and everyone used the cool shadows to go as quickly as possible. I was noticing one thing about the full hydration packs – the weight was definitely holding us back from our usual pace. One forgets that two liters of water is pretty heavy! But I was glad to be erring on “too much”, and the conversational pace allowed me to catch up with Paul Sweeney (about to go for his 9th Miwok 100k), Peter Lubbers (prepping for an attempt at the Tahoe Rim Trail speed record this summer), and the many faces preparing for their first Western States 100.
Most of this trail is quite runnable, but every once in a while it would pitch up or down the canyon face and we would all be reduced to a hike or shuffle. I liked the fact that the long hikes gave me a chance to see who was ahead and who was behind. I still had the front pack in sight, although they were climbing and descending faster than I was. I did my best to pick up the pace on the flats, which I’m now beginning to realize is where I make up all my time. I’m still not sure how this happened, but this season I seem to be able to hold a fast turnover pace on the flat stuff that helps me gain some ground at a 6:50 min/mile aerobic pace. I have some work to do on the ascents/descents though.
At mile 7, a bunch of water jugs were tied together where the aid station would have stood. Thank you, trail angel! I was still plenty full in my pack, so I kept moving on. But I was sure a return runner was going to be very appreciative that some anonymous supporter had lugged a few gallons down.
Around mile 10, I considered letting some of the water out of my pack. It was doing a good job of distributing the weight, but there was just too much and my hips were beginning to gripe when I charged downhill. I couldn’t dump it on my head (unless one of you knows a trick with the hydra pack hose), so I did the “suck and spit” routine for about 10 minutes. I got pretty good at hitting the flowers on the way too!
As I came along the American River about mile 11, I slowed down and filled my lungs with the moist air. Butterflies were everywhere, dancing among the purple and yellow flowers that shot up from the river banks. It felt like Spring was turned up to 11, perhaps due to the fact that I was out on the Midwest tundra the day before. I seriously considered taking a break and sitting on the river bank just to suck it all in, but snapped out of it when Jeff Beuche, Eric Johnson, and Erin Luthy went flying by. Oh, yeah – we’re in a race! ;-)
We all came upon the first aid station (mile 13.5), where Norm and Helen Klein led a band of cheery volunteers to help us load up on goodies. Helen was fresh off her world record setting marathon at the Napa Marathon a few weeks ago (her second world record in less than a year, natch) and you wouldn’t have even known it. A shot of flat Coke later, I was heading down the access road again.
It didn’t take long before Mark Tanaka came blazing back, a good 90 seconds up on the second place runner. He was running smoothly, with no indication he spent the previous day snowboarding with his family. Bev Abbs was in third place, with a hungry pack of runners within 60 seconds of her. I hit the turnaround in sixth place, somewhere around 2:10 into the race. If I could keep it up, I might be able to clock a sub-5 hour time! That would be considerably faster than my last Rucky Chucky. I figured I would keep charging, hoping that the lack of sleep wouldn’t come up and bite me.
It was about this time it dawned on me that I hadn’t had to deal with any blood sugar spikes for nearly 16 miles. I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but it was similar to the previous time I had tried the Vespa CV-25 supplement. The package has all kinds of marketeze about bee propolis/enzymes/etc., and I didn’t understand much of it. But it was hard to argue that it wasn’t working its magic to make my energy level smooth out a bit (thanks, Paul!).
At the Klein aid station (mile 16.7), Norm helped me load up the Pro Pack. As much as I like the way the Pro Pack holds the water around your hips (instead of the middle of your back), I will say it is a bit more challenging to fill at the aid station. With a little assembly we got it filled, and I hit the trail with Chris Rowe. Chris is a local from Auburn, and is also training for his first Western States this year. He’s no stranger to ultras, having done the Tahoe 72-mile loop last year. We swapped some stories and tips, and quickly made our way to the climbs at mile 18. The heat was now a factor, as it was warming up to around 70 degrees.
I pulled out my iPod and summoned the help of Sevendust and the Foo Fighters to take on the climbs. I was slurping down water like crazy, especially while charging the switchbacks. I kept catching this nasty smell of recycled air and peanuts, and it took me a while to realize what it was…it was me! The lingering road warrior scents were weeping from my pores. Dee-sgusting! I would much rather smell of sweat and dirt any day.
I hit the marathon mark in just under four hours, so I was still on track for a sub-5. But a few steps later I heard that dreadful “slurp” of my last drop of water. Could it be? Could I have already consumed two liters in less than two hours?!? Too bad, ‘cause I will still awfully thirsty (also not a good sign). Perhaps if I had a fluid intake monitor, I would have see the “E” light go off. It didn’t take long before my stomach started to get uneasy, and my calves got that nervous pre-cramp twitching. I thought perhaps a Hammer Gel could tide me over at mile 28, but I puked it right up in a cloud of tunnel vision. The vomit was bone dry too – I was definitely dehydrated.
This oh-too-familiar place. How did we get here again, Scott? No water, no food, and a few dizzy miles to go. Immediately retrospect, there were plenty of things I could have done to avoid it like stashing some water, being smarter about consumption, etc.. Fortunately/unfortunately, I have found myself in this situation enough times not to worry. In fact, somewhere inside I was giddy knowing that I was stripped down to the most ancient of human conditions – nothing but your will, two legs, and fortitude to get you to the finish. I often wonder if we all have a secret desire for this to happen on occasion, just to prove to ourselves we can do it without all these fancy gadgets and aid. Live life to have good stories, no?
As I walked the last two mile climb, David Dean and Diana Fitzpatrick passed me, each of them kindly slowing down to make sure I was okay. Everyone was out of water, but we all knew Linda Mathis’ vegi chili, scalloped potatoes, and plenty of drinks lie ahead. When I hit the pavement (mile 30), I rallied enough energy to shuffle up the hill and cross the finish line in 5:17 for 11th place. Mark Tanaka had held on for first place in 4:43, while Bev Abbs set a Women’s course record 4:50 for 3rd overall. The Masters rule the day! I was pretty impressed with all the finish times given the long stretch without aid.
A quart of Gatorade later, I felt normal again (although ready for a nap!). As we caught up on hydration and stuffed our faces with homemade food, we all assessed the new gear options. I liked the Inov-8 Pro Pack 18, but definitely learned that just because you CAN fill it to the top doesn’t mean you should at every aid station. I also need to be more careful with monitoring my fluid intake when I can’t see it. The Inov-8 295’s were also a great minimalist shoe that did well on these trails with long runnable sections. The top is so flexible it feels like a sock, and I felt like I got a good workout of all my foot muscles. I would want something stiffer for a more technical trail, however. The Vespa CV-25 worked for me, although it’s a mystery why. I will have to keep experimenting with that.
My thanks to the RD’s and volunteers for putting on a great race. It’s a perfect place for your first or thirty-first race!
Next up, the Diablo 50m (shudder!).