I hadn’t originally expected to do the Angel Island 50k, but after the cancellation of Western States I eagerly signed up for 100 miles worth of other races to feel “whole” again. My goal for this race was to see how close I could get to evenly splitting the first and second half of the 50k (which I have never done), plus get some good pics and meet some new faces (natch). There’s an old adage among marathon runners that says “for every mile you run too fast in the first half, it costs you 2 minutes in the second half”. I suspect the ratio is more like 1:3 for 50k’s, and perhaps 1:5 for 50m/100m (maybe even 1:infinity if you go out really hard). The Angel Island 50k course has an ideal layout to test this theory thanks to a 2x3 loop format where each of the three loops gets shorter and steeper. I just need to find a way to hold back my excitement to get back on the trails enough to find that negative split.
On the ferry out, I saw many familiar faces and had a chance to catch up with Mark Gilligan, whom I hadn’t seen since our Death Ride/TRT100 week a year ago. He let me know that his 2nd place finish at the TRT100 had torn some leg muscles that required quite a bit of healing time, and he was just now getting back into training (and targeting the Angeles Crest 100, so I guess he’s not scared off!). His girlfriend was also ready to run, tackling the 25k. As soon as we hit the shore of Angel Island, we rushed to get our gear ready. Around 8:40am, all the runners lined up together and we took off into the foggy hills.
About a quarter mile in, we hit some Dipsea-like stairs that we would get to know intimately on each loop over the next few hours. The short-course runners bolted up like gazelles, with 17-year-old David McDiarmid, Jason Wolf (tapering down for Ironman Lake Placid in a few weeks), and Rasmus Hoeg from Wisconsin leading the pack. Anirban Chowdhury and Jacqueline Tarrant, also 25k runners, kept them in sight as we topped the stairs and broke out along the perimeter road. Among the 50k runners, it was Ray Sanchez out front in his Badwater Ultra training gear (just a few weeks away!) closely followed by Juan Sanchez (not related), Carson Teasley (now getting ready for the Rio 100) and Troy Howard (one last run before tackling the John Muir Trail next weekend). I paced along with Will Gotthardt (fresh off his win at the Pacifica 50k), Mark Gilligan, and marathoner Arne Eiksund who came all the way from Norway to do his first 50k. What fun to run with such an amazing group of people!
The fog was still thick as we hit the far side of the island (mile 3), keeping the temperature in the high 50’s. The first (and fourth) lap was mostly road running, so the 8 min/mile pace felt quite conservative. It all changed as we found the single track about a mile from the aid station, and the 25k runners broke into a sprint with 50k runners Juan Sanchez, Ray Sanchez, and Mark Gilligan chasing after them.
I came in to the aid station (mile 5.6) with Will Gotthardt and Troy Howard, and I refilled my one water bottle (with a Nuun tablet) and headed into the second loop. We joked that the stairs felt like “lunge intervals” since there were just enough steps to feel the burn deep in the hamstrings. Yip! That’s gonna sting in a few more laps.
Will paced us up the climb on the second lap, showing us proper technique for high speed stiff-arming of shrubs along the way. The sun met us halfway up, burning its way down through the fog and exposing an anthill full of runners. For one day, this island was ours! We got a good chuckle out if it.
As Will and I descended the last section of single track, we were caught by the speedy Juan Suarez. That meant either he took a wrong turn or was about to crush the course record by a half hour! It didn’t take long to figure out that Juan had accidentally skipped the second loop, but no worries, he could just take the second loop next and be back on track. We came into the aid station (mile 10.6) together, refilled, and headed up the stairs again. Juan was clearly going faster than us, but he stuck with us until he knew he was on the right path this time.
Loop three had some great single track all the way to the top, and it was so much fun to bounce around the trail that I found it difficult to stick to a slow pace. Luckily there were plenty of runners to talk to along the way, and the view was getting clearer with every step. I ran slowly right to the peak, took a pic, and picked up the pace for the way down. I didn’t have any other runners around me, so I snuck on the headphones and cranked up some Allman Brothers to keep me company. Ramblin’ Man, indeed!
The aid station area (mile 15.3) was glowing in the sun when I arrived, and the lawn was full of resting runners soaking it all in. I took a slightly longer aid stop to refill Hammer Gels, Jelly Bellys, and slam a Vespa before running past the now-open bar/restaurant and tackling the stairs for a fourth time. My split read 2:03…still a bit fast, but I sure felt like I had energy left. I took my time up the stairs, but let my wild horses run as soon as I hit the road. The wind was a bigger factor at this point, but on this island, headwinds quickly become tailwinds if you just keep running. ;-)
My legs thanked me for finally having permission to go fast, and responded by increasing my turnover and pushing the pace. The wind and fog rushing by made it feel like I was running 60 mph! I passed Ray Sanchez, who was saying something about “I thought it was only three laps” while easing up. I eyed another runner ahead and it took a few miles for me to catch him…and then realize he wasn’t in the race at all. I let him know that next time he wants to run that fast, get a race bib and t-shirt to commemorate it!
Before I knew it I was pulling into the aid station (mile 21) again for more water and some tasty peanut butter crackers. My watch said my split was 90 seconds faster than the first lap, so I was on track. I asked the volunteer how far behind I was, and he just pointed to my left and said “you’re even with that guy for first”…there was Juan Sanchez filling his water bottle! He had just pulled in 30 seconds ahead of me, now fully caught up on the distance. We headed up the stairs AGAIN, and both got on the right trail this time around.
Juan was keeping a phenomenal pace, so my attempts at conversation were short and focused just to stay with him. When we got to a flatter section, I was able to chat with him a bit more. It turns out that Juan was doing his 5th ultra, and lived up in Napa Valley after living previously in Mexico City. We trading off the lead so he could pull us up the hills and I could pace the flats, squeezing in conversation when it fit. Juan took the last half mile of single track with tremendous speed, and it took everything I had just to keep him in sight. We entered the aid station (mile 26, 60 seconds faster than the previous loop) where the volunteers loaded us up on water and Coke. Then we gave each other that steely-eyed “high noon” look, and launched up the stairs as fast as we could. The game was on!
Within minutes, we were running each other into the ground and forcing walk breaks every 5-6 minutes. Juan would pass me, have to take a break, then I would pass him. He was an absolute gentleman, thanking me as he passed each time. When I wasn’t gasping for air, I did the same. Juan went hard on the last climb, and by the time I got sight of him, he had gapped me by about 30 seconds and was giving it all he had on the return trip. He was “all in” as they say in poker terms.
I tagged the summit one last time, cinched down everything, and tore down the hill. Troy Howard and Andrew Anglemeyer were just a few minutes behind, kind enough to shout out the time gap as I went by. It sounded like I was keeping pace but not making any time, so I opted for some focused surges of 1-2 minutes. At one point, I saw Juan along the ridge as he passed a picnic bench, so I counted off the seconds until I reached it. I was 38 seconds behind. That was enough to keep going hard, so I kept on surging.
I hit the last section of single track, now flooded with tourists (who kindly stepped out of the way and gave a cheer). I used every open gap I had to go hard, but I wasn’t seeing Juan on the upcoming switchbacks. It turns out he had taken a short wrong turn, then used his fear-induced energy to sprint down the hill a good minute ahead of me. I came into the final stretch to finish in 2nd (4:08), with Troy Howard (4:13) and Andrew Anglemeyer (4:15) right behind me. Juan greeted me with the biggest smile, and we thanked each other for keeping us going strong in the last few sections. I didn’t quite get my negative split (2:03/2:05), but was very close and probably could have done it without the tourist traffic.
As we ate chili and soup and caught up on calories, there were lots of smiles coming across the finish line. Will Gotthardt came in 6th (an age group win), which puts him in 1st place for the Pacific Coast Trail Run Ultra Series. Norwegian Arne Eiksund clocked a respectable 4:36 PR in his first 50k (9th overall), and was greeted by his wife and three daughters (many of whom ran the 8k).
and Pierre Barsalou from Montreal, Canada who both ran the 25k)
59-year-old Mike Nuttall ran 4:56, cracking five hours for the first time ever and looking fresh at the finish. Some guys just keep getting faster! Juliet Morgan from Redondo Beach, CA, was right behind him to net the Overall Female win (4:58) and blasting her to a huge lead in the Pacific Coast Trail Run Ultra Series. In fact, it seemed like every 3-4 runners was shouting “PR!” as they crossed the finish. You can’t ask for much more than that. (all results here)
I loaded up on snacks and caught the ferry back home, ear-to-ear smiles the whole way. I wasn’t sure if it was the even split goal or coming off of all the Western States training, but that run felt controlled and awesome from start to finish. My soul was full of fireworks, refreshed by the Island of Angels and the fantastic RD’s and volunteers of Pacific Coast Trail Runs. Can’t wait to get back!