My heat-running skills are a bit lacking, to say the least. Short of the Mt. Diablo 50m I did earlier this year, every other hot run I have started has ended with me limping across the finish in some cramp-induced version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame (the Hunchcramp of Notre Dame?). I keep trying, however, hoping to assemble some sort of strategy before Western States in a few weeks. This time I would tackle the most obvious culprit – running out of water on the course. No matter what my finish time today, if I can stay on the water, salt, and food in the heat, I’ll consider it a great day.
I carpooled with 2-time Ohlone 50k winner Jean Pommier, and it was already nice and toasty when we arrived at 7:30am. I told Jean I expected big things from him today, but he just smiled and pointed out Western States winner/Quicksilver course record holder Graham Cooper and holder-of-all-Diablo-records-but-this-one Jasper Halekas lining up at the start. Race Director Wendell Doman had his money on Jasper too, as evidenced by his “just follow Jasper” explanation of how to stay on course.
The 25k and 50k runners started together at 8:30am, and immediately pitched up into the hills. It wasn’t scary hot yet, so the front runners kept a strong pace, with Jean Pommier leading Jasper, Graham, Jeff Emery (25k), Andy Holak (25k), Jady Palko, Will Gotthardt, and a few others up the canyon single track.
I paced along with Jady Palko, and we swapped States-prep stories. Just when we thought we were macho tough, Kim Holak from Duluth, MN, caught up to us saying she had a great time last year finishing in the top 10 for the second time and was now training for the Hardrock 100. Dang! Kim was really friendly, and I got a kick out of how she got faster the steeper it got. She’s quite the mountain goat!
We hit the first aid station (mile 4), and I was feeling good and staying on my fluids and salt. I had brought my big gun bottles (20 oz each), which were a bit heavy, but were allowing me to drink ~40 oz/hour. Jady and Kim took off ahead of me as the awesome volunteers loaded me up for the trek to the summit. Eric Chitwood, Whit Rambach, Joe D’Alessio, and a group of four others were right behind me, and we rallied down the single track that hugged the mountain peak. About a mile into the single track, Jean Pommier came flying down on his way back. I literally mean “flying” - each stride was gaining 15-20 feet as he tore town the tricky terrain like a demon possessed. My guess is he was already 15 minutes ahead of us, and a solid three minutes ahead of Graham and Jasper who came down soon afterwards. Some records will certainly fall today!
I caught Kim Holak just as the summit was within reach. Her partner in crime Andy Holak (25k) was coming down told us “don’t go inside the building to get to the top” – I bet that was an interesting detour! I took a quick stop at the water fountain in the parking lot and refilled a bottle before heading back down, noting that I was somewhere around 6th place with 5-6 runners within two minutes of catching me. Holding the big guns out in front of me, I let the weight pull my body down the hill.
It felt hotter on the downhill, which can only mean one thing – the temperature was rising quickly. All the runners headed up had big bright smiles cutting through their dust- and sweat-glazed exterior, keeping that observation tower at the peak in sight. The 25k folks were definitely pleased there was only one lap!
I soaked my bandana in the trough before the aid station, and gulped down some Coke and pretzels as soon as I pulled in. The S! Caps were keeping me on track for salt, but there’s something magical about Coke and pretzels on the trail. I had caught Kim Holak on the downhill, and had Jady Palko and Joe D’Alessio within site, while Will Gotthardt was another 2-3 minutes ahead of them. I probably should have held back more, but the fast descent was the only thing cooling me as the heat rose with every step into the canyon. Joe was playing it safe with a steady rhythm down the steep fire road, but Jady was not (he never does on the downhill) so I did my best to stay on Jady’s tail. Dave King (25k) came in with his flying kick, and he and Jady went mono-y-mono to the finish. Don’t forget, Jady, one more lap! After what seemed like an eternity of downhill, I pulled into the halfway aid station (mile 15) in about 2:35.
My water bottles were on “E”, but only had reached that in the last mile so I was pretty close to pace. Still taking in a remarkable ~40 oz/hour, and no sloshing. The second lap would be like a toaster oven for sure, especially in the first canyon, so I loaded up on Gatorade while the volunteers packed my bottles with ice water. Joe came in just behind me, and with his much more efficient aid station stop, he took off with Jady for lap #2.
Within a few steps of the second lap, I could tell I had gone too hard on the first lap. Joe charged the hill as fast as his first lap with Jady staying on his tail, so I walked a bit and put on my iPod for some go-time music. I ran what I could, but by the time I reached the single track it felt like I was in a microwave. Actually it was more like a convection oven with the way the heat came off the rocks. My core temp felt awkwardly high and my ears were popping, so I thought it best to fast-walk until I could get a break from the breeze.
Kim Holak caught me soon enough as she pranced up the single track. She didn’t seem to have much trouble with the “unexpected heat training”, but was wondering if she should have brought a second water bottle. We exchanged a few words of encouragement, then I went back to the grind. A half an hour later, I finally got off the single track and headed down the fire road. The breeze was hot, but still helpful. I saw Will Gotthardt power-walking up ahead, and figured I could catch him by the saddle and have some company.
On the final hike up to the saddle (I think this is the steepest section), Will was nowhere to be found ahead or behind. I thought about how delirious I was in this section of the race last year, and hoped he wasn’t passed out under a tree somewhere. Adam Ray caught up to me and gave word – Will wasn’t feeling well and headed back down. Adam, on the other hand, looked great per usual and led me up to the aid station. Adam is prepping for Western States as well, and had a great run at the Quicksilver 50m a few weeks ago.
It was screaming hot this time around, and although I was on track for water and salt, my legs were twitching in the heat. It was forcing me to walk more sections than I would have liked, and really playing games with my head. Jeez, if Western States is 24 hours of near-cramping like this, I am DEAD MEAT for sure. C’mon Scott, stay focused…no sense in worrying about the next race when you're IN a race right now.
Jasper came screaming through the single track, leading with a much stronger pace than the first lap. He was all smiles, and had a solid six minute lead on Graham Cooper, who in turn was three minutes ahead of Jean Pommier. I did a quick calculation and it seemed like all three would be breaking the course record if they kept their pace. Amazing!
Joe D’Alessio was the next one down, clearly making a ton of time on the second lap and gaining time on the front three. Kim Holak came next in a league of her own, a solid hour ahead of the next woman. Jady Palko, still holding strong, and Adam Ray came next before I made it to the top with some nutty runners doing a 75km training run today (three laps, oh boy!). The trip to the summit was fast, since the whole structure was covered in thousands of earwigs. I wanted to take a picture, but my Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan flashbacks were getting the best of me so I hustled it out of there.
By the time I filled my water bottles, Whit Rambach (training for his 7th Western States), Troy Howard, and Eric Chitwood (heading back to the TRT100, where he broke 24 hours last year) all passed me up. I took the first downhill section with Whit, but he soon left me in the dust when some uphill sections came up. My calves were whimpering in the heat, but I tried to calm them by saying this was the last descent.
I was so famished at the last aid station (mile 25) that I ate about three handfuls of trail mix, peanut butter Ritz crackers, and goldfish. I had been eating mostly gels today, thinking that this would go best with lots of water. But the solid food was restoring me quickly, and I’m exactly not sure how. It was enough, however, for me to keep a steady pace into the hot canyons. The air still felt toasty around me, but my core temp was staying in range.
I passed some Boy Scouts who let me know their temperature gauge was reading 102 degrees on the fire roads, but I was feeling okay. I walked a few more small uphill sections in the final stretch, and came into the finish in 6:10:47 for 11th place. This was about 20 minutes faster than I had thought I would finish on a hot day, but I had secretly hoped to break six hours in an epic victory over the Heatmieser gods. Alas, that would have to wait for my next trip up Diablo (I have three of the PC Trails Diablo coasters now, so I need to come back to finish the set ;-)).
Everyone was huddled in the shade at the finish, cheering folks as they came in and enjoying the grub. Jasper had smoked the course record by 20 minutes, become the first ever to complete the course in less than 5 hours (he ran 4:48:48). Graham had held on for second (5:03) with some minor cramping, but certainly well on pace for a strong run at States. Jean said he “blew up” early on the second lap, although he still managed to finish in a respectable 5:11:21, within seconds of the previous course record. Jasper said Jean’s 25k split was less than a minute off the 25k course record – now that’s fast! Joe D’Alessio was only five minutes behind Jean, which means his second lap made up nearly 20 minutes on the leaders, and 40 minutes on those who came in with him. Kim Holak handily won the Women’s division in 5:42:21, with more than enough energy to make an ice pack out of my hankerchief to help me cool down. Isn’t she great? Andy Holak (2:24:41) and Marianne Baldetti (2:43:54, 7th overall) won the 25k (all results here).
Jean and I were pleased to be finished, and even more pleased to begin the taper for Western States. I think Jean may have a sub-20 hour States if all goes well, and I’m hoping a sub-24 is in my future. This race capped off two 100+ mile weeks for me, which is significantly more than I thought I would ever do for peak training. I may have not aced my heat running yet, but I will certainly be showing up on June 28th in the best shape of my life. Let the taper begin!
My thanks to Wendell, Sarah, and Aaron Doman for putting on a great race, and the fabulous volunteers who braved the heat for us. This is a challenging race to run, and I can only imagine how tough it is to manage!