Saturday, August 20, 2011

My First Barefoot Ultramarathon: The Skyline 50K - Part II

So, I left off with me heading out from Skyline Gate realizing that I had not even bothered to grab my drop bag.   I was mildly concerned whether or not I would have enough shot bloks to last the remaining hours of the race.  Being only a half hour ahead of the cutoff, I chose to push on because it was likely that I had enough to get me through.
About a mile or two down the trail, I started to realize that my head was really getting down in the weeds.  I was starting to feel like crap and my focus was poor.  My fingers had begun to swell and were starting to look like red sausages.  I felt like I had mild tunnel vision.  I swung my pack around and pulled two Hammer Electrolyte pills out and downed them with water and Gu2O.  After about 10 minutes, my head cleared up and I felt incredible.  Even my fingers felt a little less swollen. 
I starting moving steadily down the single-track trail through the gorgeous redwood forest.  This was some of the best trail running I’ve done to date (not that I’ve done a lot).  The ground was soft with the dirt and needles from the trees and it was gorgeous.  I felt like the guy from the trail running video from, effortlessly gliding across the trail, over rocks, down shallow dips, surrounded by redwoods, ferns and creeks.  It was truly my favorite part of the course.
Pausing for a pic among the redwoods

For reference, Skyline Gate is roughly the furthest point out on a figure-8 course from the start/finish line.  The beautiful redwood section runs about 6 miles as it winds its way back towards Big Bear aid station through and across many intersecting trails.  The race officials had really taken care to mark the course well considering the many trails that seem to crisscross the parks in the area.  Yellow ribbons were present to reassure you that you were on course.  At every possible trail intersection there were white chalk arrows for the correct trail and a line with the word “NO” across the front of the wrong path.  They also had race officials seemingly in the middle of nowhere to point out the correct course at certain junctions.  

As the morning wore on, there were more and more hikers on the trail – many of them had dogs.  I can’t remember the last time I ran around so many dogs.  Fortunately the dogs were all well trained and did not seem to pay much attention to the runners.  There was one section of trail where I passed a few people running the trails with their dogs.  The dogs got ahead of them and started running along with me.  As they called back their dogs, the dogs looked back with a bit of confusion.  They joked that the dogs must have thought they were running with their barefoot pack leader.
Later on, a couple of runners caught up with me and said, “We’ve been following your foot prints, but I thought you were in Vibrams not actually barefoot!”
I came back out of the redwoods just before lunch – crossing the road and hitting the Big Bear aid station for the second time that morning.  I had run just over 20 miles at this point.  I was reaching my furthest distance ever run barefoot (20.41 miles).  I popped a couple S! Caps to keep my head clear.  After refueling at the aid station I headed back onto the trail.  The trail passed back through the parking lot at MacDonald gate staging area.  This parking lot is gravel and now my feet were beginning to feel a bit tender.  I navigated through the parking lot without too much trouble since it was maybe 30 yards across.
A long way down to the trail below

From here there is a 500-foot climb over about a mile before the long downhill to the finish.  I believe this was the point in which my quads went from a bit tired to completely trashed.  I pushed myself to keep a 15-minute pace on the climbs, but it was becoming increasingly difficult.  As I crested the ridge I thought I was out of the woods.  It actually became the point at which I started to realize that the last handful of miles (mostly downhill) might actually be more difficult than I had envisioned. 
I reached Bort Meadow at 23.3 miles and chatted with the volunteers there as they filled my pack with water.  After they filled it, I tried to take it back to close the cap.  My fingers were still slightly swollen and I had no real dexterity to put the lid back on.  Fortunately, one of the gentlemen there told the gal with my pack to take care of it so I could get some food and get out of there.  It reminded me of when I volunteered at Western States, taking care of bottles and packs for the runners.  The reason we were instructed to do this all made sense now because the simple things like twisting bottle lids becomes more difficult.
While I was eating a conversation broke out among the volunteers about my running barefoot.  They asked the usual questions about how long I had been running barefoot and if I had been barefoot the whole race. Then one lady made the funniest comment I had heard on the trail that day.
“I don’t know whether to be impressed or horrified,” she said.
I had a good laugh at that as I threw my pack back on and headed out across the parking lot.  The gravel and paved sections were pretty horrific but not too long.  I wanted to get back onto the dirt fire roads.  My feet were becoming increasingly tender which made the little rocks more painful and annoying than the larger ones.  I made sure to run through every mud puddle I could find.  This served a dual purpose – first, a nice cooling splash of water on my heated feet; second, and more importantly, it was FUN!
As I had mentioned before, I had realized that the last miles were going to be difficult going even though it was mostly downhill.  My trashed quads were becoming weaker as the miles wore on.  I was quickly becoming unable to run slow or fast downhill due to the fading strength in my quads. 
Despite the soreness that was building in my quads, I actually felt great.  I knew that I had about 5 miles to the finish.  I had basically run a marathon at that point.  I downed a couple more hammer caps and the last of my shot bloks.  Even though I had no doubts in my mind whether I’d be able to complete the 50K, this was the point at which I became excited at the reality that I was going to finish my first ultra and barefoot!
As I came out of the forest and up onto the ridge before Honker Bay, I got my first glimpse of Lake Chabot.  This was a real morale booster.  I knew that all I had left to do was to make it around the shoreline to reach the finish!  I was hiking slowly up a hill when I saw the Honker Bay aid station.  I broke into a steady run as the hill leveled off.  I remembered this intersection of trails from my day of mountain biking the trail.  This would be the last aid station before the finish.  It was also the top of  a 300-foot descent to the lake’s edge.  

First view of Lake Chabot on the return

When I reached the aid station, I pulled out my water bottle.  I had downed the last of my sports drink about a half-mile back and was seriously wanting more.   I passed it to a volunteer who dutifully filled it and passed it back to me.  I distinctly remember eating quite a bit at this aid station.  I had 4 chunks of banana, the equivalent of a snickers bar that had been cut up into cubes, and a handful of M&Ms. The volunteers informed me that I only had 3 miles to the finish.
The time was a little after 1:30 and the fog had rolled back and the sun was warming the ground.  I headed down the wide dirt fire road.  This last downhill proved to be extremely difficult.  I ended up walking most of the half-mile downhill.  My quads were thoroughly trashed and my feet felt every tiny pebble as if they were needles.  Once I made it to the bottom, I took off at a steady run.  I was able to get down to between a 10 and 11 minute pace.  I was quite amazed that I had the ability to gain that pace.  I really needed it though, since I had fallen back during the second half of the race.
While running along the lake a lady in Vibrams caught up with me.  I think her name was Joan.  We chatted and ended up running most of the final 2 miles together.  I told her about the BRS.  She told me about her transition to Vibrams.
Source:  Skyline 50K Website
When we reached this bridge just under 2 miles from the finish, I was worried.  On my biking trip, I had scouted this bridge.  The metal steps on the far side have oval holes with vicious looking teeth.  The bridge, or more precisely the staircase, was the main reason I was carrying my huaraches.  I told Joan I didn’t want to lose time getting my sandals out when we were so close to the finish.  So, I braced my arms on the handrails and stepped down lightly and evenly on the step.  It worked!  I maneuvered my way step by step, putting most of my weight on my arms while balancing myself with my feet.  I gained the top of the stairs with lots of stares from the numerous hikers and bikers at the top.
I had done it!  I had reached the final stretch.  Joan and I continued to run reaching the paved path that would take us to the finish.  There were a few steep switchbacks, which we walked and then resumed running as soon as we reached the top.   With less than a half mile to go, Joan’s knee started bothering her.  She told me to go on ahead.
As I rounded a small peninsula on the lake I could see the marina.  The excitement really started to build inside me.
“Keep running.” I told myself. “Less than a quarter mile to go!” 
As I approached the picnic areas, I saw orange fencing material.
“That’s the chute!“  I thought to myself.
I sped up.  When I reached the fencing, I realized it was only there to keep people off the bank of the lake. 
Upon passing the misleading fencing material I saw two signs pointing to the right.  I looked and saw the final bridge crossing.  I heard a cowbell ringing!  They were calling me in!!!
As I crossed the bridge I saw my family standing at the finish line.  My wife and my mom had their cell phone cameras up snapping pictures.  Amazingly, I started sprinting for the finish.  Thirty-one plus miles and here I was sprinting. 
I crossed the finish line and walked about ten feet past it.  I bent down and put my hands on my knees and exhaled a deep breath and stood back up.  
Approaching the finish line
I had just run 31.65 miles!  I couldn’t believe it.  I had completed my first ultramarathon and I’d done it barefoot!
Official time:  7:23:55
Post-race update: 

My feet post race (next morning)

I hobbled around my house for about 2 days.  Unfortunately for me my house has stairs.  It was quite a feat to maneuver up and down the stairs the first day or two.  My feet did remain somewhat swollen and tender for about 4 days.  I had pictures of the wasp stings, but they did not come out too clear.  However, nearly 2 weeks have passed since the race and I still have itchy traces of the bites.

I have to say that I really appreciated all of the runners and volunteers at the Skyline 50K.  They were all very positive and supportive of me running barefoot.  I did not get one ill comment the entire day.  Most people were excited to see me and cheered me on.  It really made the day all the more memorable.
I’m truly amazed that I finished a 50K ultramarathon.  Five years ago I would have never guessed that I would be at this point.  In fact, if you had asked me if I’d run an ultra, I’d have told you that you were crazy. 
Next stop 50 miles!

Monday, August 15, 2011

My First Barefoot Ultramarathon: The Skyline 50K - Part I

The Skyline 50K is a trail run held the first Sunday in August in Castro Valley, California.  I knew it might be a tough one.  First of all, I knew that the course was very hilly.  Second, I live in a flat town.  There are no hills in the immediate area in which to train regularly.
A few weeks prior to the race, I headed out there with my wife’s cousin to scout out part of the course on mountain bikes.  I realized quickly that there were some steep hills.  Reviewing the course profile, I realized that there were some stretches that lasted a mile or more.  So, after seeing the course first hand and reading about other ultramarathoners strategies for racing, I decided that my plan of attack would be to walk as fast as I could on the uphills and make up time on the downs and flats.
In the weeks leading up to the race I had fallen behind on my training due to the general demands of life with a family.  The longest training run I was able to manage was 20.5 miles mostly on flat asphalt.  (I was supposed to hit 24 miles as a peak run.)  I tried to work at least one run a week on trails.  However, the trail that was closest to me was, again, basically flat.
Despite my training flaws, I was feeling confident that I could complete the 31.65-mile course in under the 8-hour time limit.  I did have a secret goal time, but we’ll get back to that later.
I had officially signed up for the race the Tuesday night before the race.  Up until that point, my nerves hadn’t really kicked in.  After registering I felt a looming presence every time I thought about the race.  Fortunately, I was able to overcome those feelings with positive visualization of me completing the race.
The day before the race I organized my gear.  This was my first race where I’d be allowed a drop bag (stay tuned for more on that).  I packed my second bandana, extra salt caps, pretzel sticks, and CLIF Shots.  I also made some bags of Cytomax powder to mix on the run just in case the course sports drink wasn’t agreeing with me.  Lastly, I threw in my VFFs.  This last-resort precaution was in case the trail became truly barefoot unfriendly.
That night, I was still running around the house making sure everything was packed in the right bag.  Then about bedtime, I realized I had not repaired and re-tied my huarache sandals.  I pulled up a couple of videos from Invisible Shoes and got them situated.  My huaraches were my immediate backup if sections of the trail where I suspected gravel were un-bare-able.  These I placed in the slip pouch of my hydration pack.
Considering my normal sleepless night before a big race, I slept pretty well.  I woke up at 4 a.m. without any grogginess.  I showered, applied generous amount of Body Glide in all of the necessary areas and then some – then tossed it in my drop bag, just in case.  I cooked some oatmeal and tossed in a bit of chia seeds for good measure.  I packed up the remaining goodies, pulled my water bottle, containing Cytomax, out of the fridge, loaded up the car and headed out.
The drive to the race took just over an hour.  As I was exiting the freeway I began to feel a bit nauseous.  I started wondering if I was going to toss my breakfast before the race.  I arrived at the park without incident, parked, then headed over to the check-in table in picnic area.  After I got my bib, I noticed something that I had seen at Western States – many runners had folded their bib to a small rectangle bearing their number only. 
“Hmm . . . Is this how the ultra-crowd does it?

Next headed over to the restrooms to . . . well, we’ll skip that part. 
I head back to my car to get my gear.  I did one last check of my bags to make sure everything was there.  I put on the hydration pack and my water belt. 
Hmm . . . Now where to affix my bib? 
The area on the front of my shirt was now crowded by the shoulder straps of the pack and my water belt covered my waist.  I did see someone attach the entire unfolded bib to their shorts.  That looked way too awkward as the bib practically covered the entire front of one leg. 
“Well,” I thought, “if I’m going to become one of these ultra guys today, maybe I should fold my number.”
The folded number looked much more manageable on my shorts, so I kept it that way and headed back to the staging area with my drop bag.
While waiting for the start of the race a gal named Micky asked if I was going to run in my huaraches.
I said, “No, I’m taking them off for the race.”
“You’re going to race completely barefoot.”
“That’s great!”
That was probably the first time at the start of a race where someone was not completely puzzled by my racing barefoot.  This was actually a sign of many great conversations to come along the course.
I wandered over towards the grass area by the marina and awaited the start.  A couple more people asked me about racing barefoot.  And then, after a few minutes of chatting someone stood up on something near the front of the pack and said, “GO!”  It was kind of anti-climactic.  I was expecting an air horn or some RAH RAH speech over a bunch of loud speakers before the start like at most races. 
So, we were off.
The first couple of miles of the Skyline are along Lake Chabot on a paved bike path.  The start is fairly smooth but it deteriorates the further away you get from the marina.  It never breaks down to something completely barefoot unfriendly, but it does not maintain a consistent surface.  By the time you reach the dam, the asphalt has turned into something more like chip seal, but again nothing unmanageable.  (Note:  I have run barefoot on 9 miles of pretty rough chip seal during a previous half marathon – this wasn’t that bad.)
As I mentioned before, my strategy for the race was to walk, fast, up hills of any significant length while bombing down the hills and across the flats.  In the opening few miles, there were a few moderate hills that many people chose to walk.  The good part about this was that even though I was fresh, I was able to maintain about a 15-minute pace while conserving energy, then blast down the other side.

Not long after crossing the dam the thinning group moved onto a nice dirt fire road and trails.  While running on the Goldenrod Trail, I noticed several people stopping and shouting about something.  As I passed by I realized wasps or bees had stung them.  Just as I made this realization, a fiery sensation sunk into my left shoulder. 
Damn!  Wasps!
This happened to me the last year at my first barefoot 10K trail run in an area not too far from here.  I started running faster to move out of the area where they were apparently swarming.  After I had gone a hundred yards or so, I slowed down to check my shoulder.  I found a nice half-inch welt at the top of my shoulder.
“Great!” I thought.  “I’m only at something like mile 3.”
And as I was thinking that, another fiery sensation hit me in the outside of my right thigh.
Shit.  More wasps!
I started running faster again.  A few others around me were dealing with the same thing.  Throughout the rest of the day I spoke with others who had been stung on their arms and legs.  One poor guy had gotten stung or bit multiple times on his back. 
As things settled down, I reached the first aid station, Grass Valley at 4.3 miles, with water and Gu2O only.  No problem – oh wait, no cups, they were only filling bottles.  Well, since my pack and bottle were still full, I plowed ahead.  I think at this point I was chatting with a guy named Gary, I think he was running with TNT.  As we were quickly running down a hill towards a cattle gate, I realized that there was a patch of large gravel at the bottom before the gate.  With a quick shifting of lanes I managed to maneuver around Gary and the gravel and arrive safely at the gate.  After another mile, the trail opened up to some nice rolling, grass-covered hills. 

Gary was running a pretty good pace, so I dropped back on a hill so we each could run our own race.  This part of the trail was quite nice to run on – mostly dirt and only about 300 feet of gradual gain in elevation.   It was also the shortest section between aid stations - about 2 miles.  Bort Meadow was the first full aid station at 6.29 miles into the course.  I approached the Bort Meadow aid station I was greeted with a very broken paved path and the gravel parking lot.  The path and parking lot were manageable since my feet were quite fresh. 
I dumped the last quarter of my Cytomax and had my bottled refilled with Gu2O.  As I headed down the trail again I swung my pack around and pulled out some shot bloks, quickly downed a few, packed the rest into my belt and got moving again.  I was very conscious of staying hydrated and keeping my electrolytes balanced.  This always seemed to be my challenge in marathons and I did not want it to ruin my shot at my first ultra.
Leaving Bort Meadow the trail begins one of the steeper climbs – about 400 feet in just over a mile.  For someone who had not trained on hills, it seemed like a never-ending mile.  Along this section of trail, I chatted with a guy named Doanh.  He had done the course before and didn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry.  We took turns leading and falling behind for the next few miles.  I fell behind more, but caught up with him at Big Bear aid station. 
I reached Big Bear a little over an hour and a half into the run.  As I was getting my bottle filled and downing some bananas, the gal there asked us if we needed any S!Caps.  I had a stash of Hammer electrolytes in my pack, but didn’t want to dig them out.  So, I took my first ever S! Caps and headed out of the station and across the road to the trail.  My hope was that the S! Caps and Hammer Electrolytes would be the answer to my weakness during distance races – the dreaded dry heaves.
The first two miles out of Big Bear were a lot of nice single-track trail.  However, there was a section of gravel-strewn path that ran through a couple of gravel parking lots leading to the Canyon Meadow Staging Area.  It was more annoying than painful to run across and I was happy to get back onto the dirt fire roads leading out of Canyon Meadow.  Well, mostly happy.  The fire roads leading out are the start of a 3-mile, 750+ foot (that’s net) climb to Skyline Gate.
As I was approaching Skyline gate, the foggy mist was wafting over the trail.  I was looking down into one of the canyons.  I popped out my camera to take a shot.   It was then that I realized that the orange fencing along the left side of the trail was not just any fence, but electrical fence holding back a large herd of goats.  This lapse in focus actually was the hint of something more to come.  

I made my way past the goats and their goat-herder’s trailer.  At this point the trail became mostly gravel as it was leading to the paved path into Skyline Gate.  I looked at my GPS watch and it said I had gone about 13.7 miles or so.  Skyline was supposed to be at 14.4.  Later in the race I realized that my watch was losing count on miles due to heavy tree cover.  However, at the time, I couldn’t get my head wrapped around what was happening. 
I heard someone shout, “Welcome to Skyline Gate!” as myself and a few other runners were entering the area.  I wandered up to the table and again grabbed some bananas.  I also popped a salted potato for good measure (I had seen these at Western States and was curious).   Next I got my bottle filled.
Before heading out, I pulled out my cell phone to text my family my location.  I had given a chart to my wife to calculate splits for 10-minute, 12-minute and the cut-off 15-minute miles for each aid station.  The idea was to be at the finish with our kids and my parents at the finish when I got there.  The time was just before 10 a.m. - which put me about a half hour ahead of the cut-off.  To this point, I had been averaging about a 12-minute pace.  I had hopes for 10-minutes, but satisfied with 12s.  In my head, I guesstimated that I would be finishing over 6 hours, but in under 7.  Having sent out my message, I headed out of Skyline and back onto the fire-road.
Like I said before, this was the first race I’ve done that had drop bags.  However, I had been so preoccupied with getting some food in, bottle filled, and pondering what the hell was going on with my watch that I failed to get my bag before leaving Skyline.  It was about a half mile down the trail that I realized my error.  I decided that there was no way I was running back to the station.  I quickly catalogued in my mind what supplies I had in my pack.  I figured I had just enough shot bloks to get me to the finish.  Worst case, I had some Jelly Belly Sports Beans and there was always stuff at the aid stations.  With that I settled back into my run.