“Well it’s a hot one
Like seven inches from the midday sun”
- Carlos Santana/Matchbox 20
Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of joining 250 trail runners for the scorching hot Redwood Park 10k/20k/30/50k put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs in Oakland, CA. This multi-loop course through the Redwood Regional Park (4,500 feet of gain) would be challenging in any weather conditions, but throw in some 100+ degree heat, and it would be guaranteed suffering for all. The good kind of suffering, that is. ;-)
That “good kind of suffering” was exactly what I was hoping for. My work/life balance has been leaning to the work side lately and the 15-hour days were weighing on my soul. Imagine a see-saw with a gleeful child on one side (life), and an angry 600 lb gorilla on the other (work)…not much seeing or sawing going on, that’s for sure. When it gets like this, I turn to Mother Nature for remedy. Just sign up for a long run or race, and she will usually dish out just the prescription I need. Sometimes hours of quiet introspection, sometimes a tour of distracting beauty, and when the time calls, a good old fashion beating that gets my perspective back in line.
It was already 80 degrees by 8am, so today was definitely going to be a beating in the form of heat and hills. Runners at the start were shellacking themselves in sunscreen, putting ice in their water bottles, and sharing tips for staying cool. The course consisted of two loops, one 20k and one 10k (the 50k would do the 20k loop a second time), and the first loop had a lot of exposed sections along the ridge. Most of the locals had the same advice – drink as much as you can, and take advantage of any spigot you see. I still haven’t nailed my heat strategy (but do we ever?), but felt comfortable I could get through it if I paced well.
I saw the familiar faces of some very fast ultrarunners at the starting line, but soon found out that many of them weren’t there to race. Troy Howard was just putting in a quick 10k before the Angeles Crest 100 next weekend (along with a few others), Kevin Swisher was out on a solo 50-miler before getting married next weekend (congrats, Kevin!), and Graham Cooper was heat-training to get ready for Ironman Kona in five weeks (he qualified with a smoking 9:35 at Ironman Canada this year). Suddenly I didn’t feel so tough running a 50k. ;-)
At 8:35am, RD’s Wendell and Sarah Doman sent us off into the hills. The 20k and 50k runners started together, and we filled the fire road with dust as we charged up the first big climb of the day. I paced along with 21-year old David Jordan, who was tackling his third ultra and looking really strong. His stars and stripes bandanna made it easy to pick him out of the crowd as we crested the climb and weaved through mountain bikers, hikers, and plenty of off-leash dogs…so great to see so many people out enjoying the park!
The 20k runners took off in a sprint when the fire road flattened out for about a mile, and we all had some space to move about and tackle the bedrock and sand trail. A descent into the redwoods at mile 3 gave us some shade and led us to the steepest climb of the day back to the ridge. David bolted right up, but I slowed to a walk. I climbed along with Caitlin Smith from Oakland, CA, who was leading the women in the 20k race by about a minute. She set a great pace to get us up the climb and we broke into a fast run once we reached the ridge, trading off the pacing duties all the way to the aid station (mile 6). Caitlin has had a great streak of Half Marathon trail wins, and I did my best to convince her that her efficient running style and cross-training as a doula (ie, sleep deprivation and thinking on your feet) were just the kind of ingredients for a stellar ultrarunner. But as the temperature pushed to the high 90’s on the long ridge run back to base camp, I began to wonder if the 20k was the right call. We caught up with David again, and together paced down the single track to the final stretch back.
I came into the aid station (mile 13) with empty water bottles and a desperate need for a sponge bath, and the awesome volunteers were happy to oblige. David Jordan and Graham Cooper (despite his head-to-toe black heat training outfit) came in right behind me. When David took a longer stop to fill his Camelpak, I figured this was the best time to break out and try and put some distance on he and Graham. The 10k loop had some steep sections, but at least most of it was safe from the sun (my kryptonite). Plus this strategy had the added advantage of going fast while I still felt good. ;-)
I cranked up the tunes (Bob Marley Remixes, Beck, and The Allman Brothers), and got my climbing groove on. When the heat slowed me down, I just repeated a Norman Mailer quote – “In motion, a man has a chance.” Keep moving forward and we will find the finish. After one laughably steep push to the peak, I turned around and charged down the hill with all I had. I looked behind me on the long sections and saw nobody. When I got the bottom of the hill, I polished off the water bottles and loosened up my stride. The aid station should be right around the corner.
Much to my surprise, I ran into a lot of 30k runners. But something wasn’t quite right – these folks were going much slower than I was. Shouldn’t they be putting in their final kick right now? Then the course started to look really familiar. Didn’t I just do this section? Uh, oh. Stop. Pull out the map. CRAP! I made a wrong turn at the bottom of the loop and I’m heading up the 10k loop again. Less than a half mile off course, but it still is frustrating. I ran back with that furiously fast pace that only appears when you know there’s only one person to blame for those extra miles.
It didn’t take long to pass the clearly marked section I missed and reach the aid station, and they said I was still in first place I arrived. But just as I reapplied sunscreen and chugged a Vespa, Graham Cooper came around the corner. He was still the Time Bomb (black shoes, black hat, Cadillac, yeah…the boy’s a Time Bomb). Man, how does he do that?!? I’m dying in the heat, and he’s cruising around in black wool. That guy just loves to suffer.
We headed into the last 20k loop, walking the first long climb. I tried to push the pace at the top, but anything over a 10 min/mile cooked my core temp a dizzying aura of heat waves. Soon enough, Graham’s slow and steady pace caught me just before the steep climb. He just smiled as he went by and joked that he needed to finish soon to make it to his sons 1:30pm soccer game. That is easily the best excuse I have ever heard for passing someone. ;-)
Graham gapped me about 30 seconds on the super-steep climb, but I kept him in sight along the ridge jumping from shade to shade like a wildebeest. I saw some mountain bikers filling up at a spigot, and they were kind enough to let me jump in for a quick fill up. I so desperately wanted to cool down I got on my hands and knees and let the water run over my head. It may have been socially awkward, but it felt AWESOME. Reborn by the campground baptism , my body said “run fast” and turn on the air conditioning that comes with water evaporating on your skin. So I ran! I now know what the locals meant by “taking advantage of every spigot”.
I ran everything from here out, hoping to catch site of Graham (or another spigot). I found the aid station (mile 25), and they told me Graham had been there a few minutes earlier and dropped from the race so he could take a shortcut back and make the soccer game. Good news is you’re in first place, bad news is you just got schooled by a guy in a heat suit. ;-)
A few mountain bikers coming the other way warned me that the temperature was over 105 degrees, and the bedrock was hot enough to scramble eggs. I drank everything I could get my hands on while the volunteers packed my water bottles with ice, then headed into Hades for a long, slow crawl on the ridge trail. Those mountain bikers were right – the heat was coming up from the trail, and my feet felt like two big hot spots. Just get through it, I thought. A man in motion has a chance.
By the time I reached the single track back down (mile 29), my bottles were bone dry and my legs were twitching with pre-cramp spasms. But I took it easy with a few small walk breaks, and soon found myself crossing the finish line in 4:57:06. That’s good enough for first place today, so I got the coveted coffee mug! I was soon joined by Ray Sanchez, David Jordan, Glenn de Claro (in his first ultra), and Darryl Haber who all finished close together around 5:33, and Clare Abram who won the Women’s Division in 5:40. The shorter course runners did very well too - Gary Gellin (2:19) and Holly Tate (2:59) won the 30k, Larry McDaris (1:27) and Caitlin Smith (1:37) won the 20k, and Jeremy Yandell (38:54) and Robin Quarrier (54:23) won the 10k. Given the heat, I think everyone who found the finish line deserves serious kudos.
My prescription was filled, and the heat seared my work/life balance right back into check. Once again, the perfect remedy. Thank you Wendell, Sarah, and Aaron Doman, and your fabulous volunteers for braving the heat and putting on a great race. I’ll see ya at the next one!