This is going to read a lot like a boring race report, and for that I apologize in advance. I promise the next post will be more entertaining or at least will be about something other than some dumb footrace. Since the PCT50 is the only real "race" I have this year prior to Western States on June 25th, I felt the liberty to overindulge.
When I think about the Pacific Crest Trail, I usually spend a moment or two thinking about Kent Bien, Rod's dad. Next, I think back to a conversation I had with Scott Mills, before I had any idea who he was, during my first year at the PCT 50 where I wound up crushing my legs to mush over the first 13 (while trying to stay with Scott) and limping home over the final 37 (after surrendering.) Last, I think of the RD, John Martinez, who is every bit as unusual and charismatic as anyone else in the ultra community, and thankfully continues to be willing to organize fun events for all of us. Thanks John!
Most of all, however, when I think PCT, I think of that first/last 13 mile stretch from the start/finish to Dale's Kitchen. The middle 24 is at 6000 feet and not exactly easy, but it's about what you come to expect from an ultra, some parts are beautiful, some are tough, most are runnable. However, that first/last 13 is really unique, and what becomes the most memorable part for me every year. You start at 3000' and climb to double that along some scrappy, rocky trails with only one aid station to break up the effort. On the way out, with fresh legs, it's doable but tough. This year I felt like I was running fairly well, but 4 or 5 guys passed me along those first two sections, even though I didn't even stop at the first aid station. Interestingly enough, in my training log I had written a few thoughts about comparing my training runs to my friends, Mike and Jeff who have been running really well, to which my coach politely reminded me to focus on myself and not anyone else. That is exactly what we need to hear as athletes, at least athletes who aren't racing for the win. I thought back to my days of racing Ironman, when I would plug away for 112 on two wheels, watching hundreds of strong cyclists pass me, and trying my best to avoid talking myself out of my race mindset.
What I find particularly interesting about ultra, at least about racing ultra, is that patience has many forms and is always a necessary ingredient for me to have a good day. I don't climb very well, so I know I'm going to get beat up the long grinders. At the same time, I descend like a rock, so I know not to hang back too much when gravity is in my favor. This attitude is totally different from how I approach road racing, particularly flat road racing. I'm much more of a "go out hard and try to hang on" type of guy on asphalt. I'm not saying I ignore pacing on the road, but I do not frequently attempt to negative split. In an ultra, however, the course dictates my pace much more than any "plan". Maybe the years of eating humble pie in triathlon have helped, or maybe I retreated into my shell a bit with each pass. I won't say that my confidence rose at all along that first stretch, but I felt I went out in the correct position and I felt like I was executing the correct pace for who I am and where my fitness is.
The racing for me doesn't start until 6000 feet. Last year, I started pushing hard at about mile 18, and ran out of gas somewhere very close to 40. I wanted to attempt to finish strong and avoid walking this year, so I thought maybe I should try to keep perceived exertion in the "moderate" realm until at least Penny Pines (~22 miles) or maybe the halfway point. That was the unconscious race "plan" at least as much as that word applies to anything I do while running. Todd's cabin came up quick, as did Penny Pines, and even though I wasn't progressing through the field, I felt like I was still running the right pace, starting to eat/drink more, and cumulative fatigue was well within tolerable levels.
At Penny Pines you pick up a playing card to drop in the box at the turnaround, which was a fun addition to ensure nobody cut the course and eliminate the need for some poor soul to sit at the turn and write down bib numbers. I was handed a Queen of Diamonds, which made me think a bit of Ben Harper. Along the 3 mile stretch from Penny Pines to the turnaround I got to see the guys in front of me. First (Graham Cooper) and 2nd (Mike Alfred) had a sizeable lead. Ben Hian was in 3rd or 4th (here is where I get fuzzy), looking comfortable. At the time when we crossed paths, I estimated (based on my garmin) that Ben had a 15-20 minute lead on me. However, when I hit the turnaround which was closer to 24 than 25 on my garmin (perhaps due to some sections with poor gps coverage?) I realized Ben was closer than I had originally thought. I've never been able to catch Ben in a race, he is a consistent performer, and I have a pipe dream of being able to run with him someday. So, at the turnaround, I picked up the effort a bit and managed to reel in what I thought at the time was the only guy between Ben and I. I was feeling OK, eating well enough, and my stomach wasn't bad either. I was remembering to take salt at the aid stations, and I was fueling reasonably well, less than I might have hoped for, but as good as I could get with the quick stops I was taking this year. In years past, I've camped out at aid stations for extended periods of time to regroup. That's fine if you don't really care about the clock, but when you're trying to race, every minute spent motionless is a wasted opportunity.
The section from Penny Pines back to Todd's Cabin is a bit of a challenge as the course goes back up and over Mt. Laguna. There is an extended climb, which I've walked in past years, but which I managed to run this year. That was an accomplishment in and of itself, something to be proud of, for a guy like me who often struggles on the climbs. I was trying to be measured in my efforts, keeping in mind how difficult the last two sections are for me. Reaching Todd's cabin was a relief because it meant that the majority of the climbing was over. With 17 miles to go, I took an extended break and washed my hands. Yes, you read that right, I went inside the cabin to clean up my face and hands. Yes, I am neurotic. Yes, I am a freak. It made me feel better. It was worth it. I grabbed some food and my bottles, made sure nobody had passed me, and started the trip back to Dale's. This is where experience paid off for me because I know exactly how long and difficult the section is from Dale's Kitchen to Fred Canyon road and I knew from years past that I would run out of water. So, I spent the time running back to Dale's trying to chug as much water as I could out of my 2 bottles. When I got to Dale's, I asked Keith Kirby, who was working that aid station for a time split to Ben. At some point, Ben would have passed the 2nd place runner, possibly right around this point. Keith gave me a number, I remember it as 10 minutes, which compared favorably to what I was told at Penny Pines of 15 minutes, even with my pit stop at Todd's Cabin.
So, leaving Dale's Kitchen, it was time to either start racing or decide to chill out and cruise. Up to that point, I had been sitting on the fence, not quite sure if the best plan was to build confidence for Western States by making 50 seem as easy as I could, or by pushing myself as hard as possible and measuring the objective results. Something about Keith's positive energy got my head squared on straight, and I decided to see how smooth and strong I could run that penultimate section back to Fred Canyon Road. In my prior attempts on this course, I've always walked some of that stretch. This year, I ran every bit of it and I kept pushing towards the imaginary person in front of me. I did run out of water, but it was a particularly mild day. My music had run out of battery by then, and the flies were buzzing a bit, but it was way more tolerable than I remembered it being before. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but which was far less of an eternity than I remember it being, I reached Fred Canyon road and the final aid station.
Jeff Coon was at that aid station and I asked him as I came in how far I was behind Ben. I'm not sure how well Jeff heard me, but the response was 5 minutes. I let loose a few obscenities at that point, knowing that my increased effort had paid off and realizing that now I had to double down or it would have all been a waste. I thought I was chasing Ben, so I was a bit surprised to have made up so much time, little did I know I was chasing someone else as he crumbled a bit. I told the aid station I wanted to roll out of there quick, so just a refill of my water and 3 cups of soda and I took off for the final 6 to the finish.
On this last stretch, from Fred Canyon road to the finish, I predictably suffer. Every year it's just painful. Kitchen Creek road is the only landmark to break it up, and while the views are beautiful, it seems to take forever to get back under the I8 freeway. I burn through both bottles in this section as well, although it's not nearly as long as the previous one. It's easy to underestimate it as far as difficulty goes because over the final 3-5 miles in an ultra, the mind is somewhat detached from the body and time starts to blur. I remembered last year, how Scott (who was pacing me) received a phone call just before Kitchen Creek road and how odd that seemed at the time. I also remembered last year when Iso caught me and dropped me and then waited for me, all of which was so very nice of him. I wanted to erase those memories of weakness along this final section and run it hard. I wanted to catch the guy in front of me, hoping to see Ben, even though my brain should have known Ben wouldn't crumble like that. When I finally saw a runner in front of me with a bib number, he was walking, which sort of made me feel like I didn't deserve the pass, but I took it anyway. Soon after that, as I was willing myself to the finish and taking a few risks along the way, I rolled my ankle a bit more than usual. At that point, I decided it was time to back things off a notch, I wasn't going to catch Ben after all, and I should try to save my joints for June 25th. I ran steady for the last 2 miles, hit the finish feeling better than I ever had before for that course, and proceeded to stuff my face with 2 turkey sandwiches, 4 Gatorades, and some dark chocolate.
One big difference with the race this year compared to years past was the improvements in flexibility, core strength, and balance from yoga. I had my first opportunity to gather an objective understanding of how my physical transformations would affect my racing performance. Specifically, because the PCT 50 has a lot of narrow, rocky, slippery trail, I trip upwards of 10, possibly as many as 20 times in this race. Happily for me, this year, I did not fall once during any of those stumbles. I credit a lot of that to my core strength, particularly from coba and warrior 3, along with the twists. I was able to correct my body position mid-air, without panic, and roll through those moments of uncertainty much smoother than I ever have before. Falling into rocks and dirt is a great way to lose confidence and distract yourself from your goals, so being able to make it through the entire course without a single encounter with the ground was a wonderful accomplishment for me.
The other big difference I think is equally worth mentioning. While descending, I used to worry about burning out my quads. At the same time, to be safe and avoid excessive speed and eventual slips/falls, I need to use the brakes on certain sections. When the trail goes down beyond a gradual descent, I switch my gait from a stride to a shuffle, and I use my heels more frequently, along with my quads as pistons to decelerate. Over the past few months I've noticed the gains yoga has made for my quad strength. There is no visible difference in my legs, but I feel much less limited during extended descents as my threshold for pain and burnout has increased substantially. This has the wonderful side effect of allowing me to continue climbing past 20-30 miles without resorting to a walk/hike as I have had to in the past. I finally feel like I can run steady down and slog my way up, like a real ultra runner does, at least for 50-ish miles.
Two days out from the race and I'm trashed but in a good way. Smashed as Hillary might call it. I didn't even think about a workout this morning. I have that post-race buzz as my cells attempt to return to the land of the living. 'm looking forward to seeing the official results and confirming what I suspect was a substantial course PR for me this year. The day ended up being exactly what I had hoped it would be, a good measure of where I'm at, and another step forwards towards the possibility of completing Western States.