Monday, September 22, 2008

Skyline to the Sea 50k Race Report

The adventure started with a train ride to my car ride and the breakfast of champions - a Starbucks chocolate croissant. I'm experimenting with beer and baked goods as ultra fuel. Ok not really, I was in an indulgent mood as I passed the coffee shop on the way to the train station.

Santa Cruz, how I enjoy racing and playing in this place, from the mountain to the coast. I've done a handful of triathlons, a couple of 50k runs and participated in the Calistoga to Santa Cruz Relay 4 times which finishes at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. In fact the race start is the last van exhange for the relay on day 2, it's where an exhausted sleep deprived van 1 and it's 6 runners hand off to an almost equally exhausted van 2 for the last push to Santa Cruz and the finish. With good memories swimming in my head I walked into the fog filled parking lot and into the open arms of the ultra community.

To say I was excited about this race would have been an understatement. I did a mini little taper the week leading into the race, no weights, took an edge off the speedwork and spin and took Friday off. My body tried to psyche me out with little aches and pains like it usually does heading into a big race. Lastly I couldn't sleep much the night before, always happens when I'm itching to race. This was my first event since the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in July and it's been too long.

Santa Cruz mountains as viewed from the car, taken as we were heading to the start.

Bright eyed and ready; Marisa Walker, Jochen Horn and Jun Funaki.

Wendell advises everyone to arrange themselves according to their time goals. The race starts on a downhill on narrow singletrack. First up on the line was the folks who expected to go 4 hours and under. Normally my usual m.o. is to start towards the back because I'm a slow starter and I get a boost from passing people as I speed up. I took his advice however and moved a little closer to the front where Scott Dunlap spots me and calls me to move further up the front.

We start and the guys at the very front shoot off into the single track and I follow, I follow!!! I'm 10th from the front with a concerned voice in my head asking "What the heck are you doing? You don't become a fast starter simply by moving to the front of the line." I ignore it, it's downhill after all and I'm in my element. 30 minutes later I come to my senses when my body sends me the signals that I went out too fast, my heartrate is close to redline and my breathing starts to get ragged. Wisely I pull back and I feel better 15 minutes later but I lose sight of the 2-3 guys I was running with and get passed by 3 other runners. The problem with starting so far in the front is that I didn't have the thrill of passing many people and was in fear of being passed. That fear was like a whip on my back.

Lining up for the start. Should I line up in the front? Yes...No...Yes...No...ok yes already.

Feeling recovered I gun it again, this time for good as I was properly warmed up and everything is running smoothly. I pass Stuart before the second aid station. I also pass Ray Sanchez but there was no joy in it. Ray is a stud. He finished 23:07 at AC100 the weekend before and running Rio del Lago 100 this weekend. He runs to experience ultras but he ain't slow. Anyway my aid stations stop were quick, just long enough for a refill and an energy gel, very quick. On the second aid station I pass another simply by being faster on getting out and I'm on the tail of two runners who passed me earlier - Pierre and Paul. This part of the trail parallels the top of highway 9, meandering downhill and the footing gets a little tricky - smooth hard rock, even the dirt trails have get a little rooty and rocky. Haha so my element. I tuck right behind Pierre and Paul who were running very well. Feet dancing around root and rock is a beautiful thing to see. I redlined just catching up and tucking in behind them but as I sat back there I recovered. I pass Pierre when he pulled to the right at a particularly tricky section and tuck in right behind Paul. Paul and I pull away from Pierre but he surges forward to keep in front of me. This was good for two reasons: a) he was running my speed at this point and I didn't need to pass him because we are not even halfway thru the race and b) he could be over extending himself just to stay in front and was running my race and my pace. We've all done it, c'mon. I hoped for B and sat on his tail and watched him work. Nice moves, great foot work and we continue to move away from Pierre. Eventually he either slows down or I imperceptibly picked up the pace and I pass him. He shouts encouragement as I pass, I gave him my compliments and redlined it to put some distance on him. It was only when he was out of sight did I slow down and the way trails twist and turn it's not hard to be out of someone's sight. I wanted to seem "uncatchable" even though it was just an illusion - just smoke and mirrors.

I get to Gazos Creek aid station to a smiling Catra who marks my number. From here you leave the Skyline trail to do the Gazos Creek loop, they mark your number so they know if you've done the loop when you come back to the station. Most of the climbing is here on this loop; climb up to a ridge, roll up and down there for a bit then come down. The way up and the top of the ridge is fire road and the way down is soft, non-technical singe track. As I left Gazos Creek station no one was behind me but only a little while later I noticed a runner closing in on me - Pierre! He was chewing up the uphills, so that's his strength. I smiled even waved at him but I kept walking the steep uphill sections and he continued to close. He got to within 40-50 yds. before I eventually turned it back on and when I entered the single track trail for the way back down to the Gazos Creek aid station I lit up the afterburners. I did my best running on that single track, a little too much but I've never let a sensible pace get in the way of a blissful over driving moment:) I even took a video snipped of this section but it's quite shaky. That's how good I was feeling and how clear and non-technical the path was.

Gazos Creek.jpg
The loop.

Unfortunately I was so in the zone that I forgot all my manners. The Gazos loop reconnects to the Skyline trail a little over a mile before the aid station. You can see how it loops on the map. As I re-entered the Skyline trail I merged with a long train of runners heading for their first stop at the aid station. I gunned it. I passed on the left (the only thing I did right, always pass on the left if you can) and I passed the whole train without any greeting or warning like "passing on your left!" or a "hey guys!". At the head of the column were two guys crossing a muddy section on raised wooden steps spaced neatly across the mud and I ran across the mud right next to them, not wanting to wait my turn. I undoubtedly splashed mud all over. Rick was being a bit of a dick and I felt bad about that not too long after it happened. Not wanting Pierre to catch up to me was the dominating thought in my mind as I pulled into the now very busy Gazos Creek aid station for the second and last time.

Fleeting past trees.

I pass another runner lingering at the Gazos Creek aid station but I was in such a hurry that I only filled one of my two water bottles and half that bottle was consumed shortly after I left the aid station to wash down the energy gel that I just ate. It would be another 9 miles or 14 kilometers to the next aid station. Greeting me on the trail head was Will Gotthardt, a very speedy runner who is on an injury time out at the moment. Heal well Will. The downhills continued, the energy gel was kicking in and I was yet oblivious to my lack of water. I catch up to Scott Dunlap on a long downhill and my first thought was "Should I be catching up to this guy? Did I over extend myself to a dangerous point?". You see Scott is a faster runner than me, I've been tracking some of his race results. Yet there he was and I was gaining so I swallowed all self-doubt and kept going. I pass another runner who had no water bottles, who I later find out was Joel. He seemed exhausted but in gracious spirits.

The last 6 miles or so of the race is on flattish fire road, in great condition mind you. You could close your eyes and not worry you'll twist an ankle but flat is boring to me and I don't have great speed on flats. At this point I had three problems. One, my hamstrings felt like they were about to seize up in a cramp. I've been drinking and taking my salt so this was definitely from the strain of running the downhills hard not nutrition. Two, I had run out of water and I knew it was only going to add to my problems and lastly, I was slowing down. I'm not as fast on the flats and I had expended most of my energy on the downhills. Remember my note on the Gazos Loop.

A mile or so before the last aid station Scott catches me which surprises me not one bit. He's not only a great trail runner he is also a sub-3 hour marathoner. Believe me, this is why I go to track workouts, to improve my speed but I'm still not a sub-3 marathoner. He catches and passes me. I eye his sloshing water bottles with a little envy, just a little. Poetic justice for my rude behavior earlier? Maybe:) We arrive at the last aid station seconds apart. He greets Beat and Harry and takes off. I on the other hand was slightly dehydrated having run out of water 25-30 minutes before and in need of some pampering from Beat and Harry. Kevin was shirtless and on the table stretching his legs. I thought he was only cramping but he told me later that he was having a little mini meltdown.

Scott takes off on me and keeps right on going, he was ahead and out of my sight. Not too much fun being on the receiving end of someone's else running tactics, nicely played Scotty. The last 1.8 miles was flat and dusty but they were the last 1.8! I almost get run over by two ladies in mountain bikes because I was hugging the inside of a turn and completely in their lane. I didn't even see them because I was looking behind me seeing if Kevin had gotten back on the course. You don't see the finish line until you are about 15 yards in front of it. You pop out of the trail and there it is. I heard the clapping before I saw it, they were for Scott finishing. I got my own love 20 seconds later. Good enough for 8th overall and 4th in my age group with a 4:24:53. I finished feeling like I couldn't have run any faster. Should I even tell you the winning time, shared by Lon Freeman and Leor Pantilat because it's insanely fast. Alright I'll tell you, 3:38:33. They must have been just flying. First woman was Kelly Cronin from Yosemite with a time of 4:37:45.

Scott and family. Sophie is pointing with both hands to the dog, Scott's wife is chronicling the whole thing and the dog is playing with Scott, the dog is not part of the Dunlap family. I had to add this picture because of Scott's daughter Sophie. Camera broke after this so no more pictures. It was my old cam on it's last legs.

Scott and I shortly after our finish. Photo courtesy of Scott Dunlap. Scott is sporting the race shirt designed by Miki Higuchi. Nice job Miki!

I got cleaned up quick, hung out with Scott and family and later on made my rounds chatting with other runners. Got to meet some of the really fast guys. I was fine overall, my legs felt great, no major stiffness and only one yellow jacket sting. My stomach was not doing good however, I must have been really engaging that core throughout the run. I had some chocolate milk afterwards that was offered at the finish line but it only made it worse so did food. Chocolate milk is supposed to be a good recovery drink because of the carbs and protein but this time around it only hurt me more. So I was in a liquid diet for the rest of the day. I had a coke a bit later then Mike Bohi gave me a beer while I chatted with him, his wife and his parents.

The day got more festive as more runners came in and we all chilled in the grass. I met lots of folks including Victoria who was another blogger. Victoria fell and hit her foot on a rock and ended up fracturing a bone in two places but with the encouragement of fellow runners and a walking stick she walked it in the rest of the way, fractured, swollen foot and all. Victoria we will miss you at Firetrails, heal well.

This was an inaugural race for PCTR and it's a winner. They sold out the race, filling all 210 slots and had a wait list going. Fast course, mostly downhill and beautiful. it's great for both beginners and veterans alike. The only problem is those yellow jackets, everything else was just great. Oh and I love my Patagonia long sleeve shirt, the design by Miki Higuchi is a great one.

Much thanks to the ultra community and PCTR. Thank you to my friend Ed Swanson and his wife Dawn who gave me a ride t the start. Ed participated and completed his second 50k.


  1. Sounds like an amazing race! Congrats on 8th place :D

    I'm glad this inaugural event so well!

    (that first place time is crazy fast :P)

  2. Rick -

    Always great to run with you. I didn't notice you were out of water - feel free to ask for a chug of mine next time!

    And I will gladly trade your some flat speed to get 1/5th the downhill speed you have. You were literally flying by! Next time I'll be chasing you for sure.

    My core was wicked sore the next day too...must be something about all those zigs and zags.

    Hope to see you again soon!


  3. Great race Rick! On the descent after the 2nd aid i was actually hoping to get ahead a bit! That was a really fun descending pace but i figured I had too far to go keep that up forever (this being my first ultra i wasn't really sure...). You looked comfortable, confirmed by your final placing, and i was trying not to get sucked into too fast a pace. Unfortunately later i cramped anyways but i enjoyed running with you. Hope to see you on trails again sometime!

  4. addy: I know exactly why you and Ed love running in Santa Cruz. It's just beautiful out there. So they are going to move the race to Spring next year to avoid all the stinging insects. It'd be a great race to do.

    scott: Thanks, mighty gracious of you. I wouldn't have slowed you down though. You were in a groove, maybe if I was dying of thirst I would have asked but it wasn't too bad. Besides it's part of racing right, handling your food and hydration. Great job pushing all the way to the finish, mishaps and all.

    paul: Didn't realize it was your first ultra until I read it at Scott's report. Great job! You were flying down those hills after the second aid and you handled the smooth rock surfaces just fine. Cramping might have been lack of salt like you mentioned when we talked after the race or just plain hard running or both. I certainly thought my hamstrings were going to seize up on the last 10k, the downhill running took it's toll. Sounds like you really enjoyed it, should see you in more races in the future.

  5. i LOVE your race reports. despite the pain, hills, bee stings, GI problems, weather, whatever - you make the ultrarunning experience sound so enticing. i'm thinking that's more you than the actual event but i tell you Rick, each time you get me thinking, "wow, that seems like a really cool thing to be a part of." and then Jessica tells me I've had too much wine and it's time to go home. :) still, and again, congratulations on another great race.

  6. Sammy!: ...but ultra is fun! Not just selling stuff here you know:) Well you'll find out come December with the 50k but you've been to the PCTR events, you know what I'm talking about.

    Thanks and c'mon don't listen all the time to Jess.