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.


  1. Hey, I was there with 2 other barefoot guys just running trails that day, walked by the start line/finish line a couple of times. (We met at the Workday 5k in Danville) 50k with hills barefoot is crazy!

  2. Hey Matt! Too bad we didn't see each other. Aren't the trails around Lake Chabot awesome for barefoot! There's a lot of great single track trail in the redwoods sections. The fire roads aren't too bad either. Maybe I'll schedule another BRS run out there this fall. The hills do get a little crazy, but it's all fun.