On Sunday, August 6th, I ran the Skyline 50k, put on by Scena Performance. This was to be my first race with this group and my third attempt at the 50k distance this year.
I felt good going in. I felt ready. My body was cooperating, my training had gone well, and race day weather was shaping up to be as good as could be expected. The day dawned with an unusual layer of low hanging clouds, coolish temperatures, and oddly high level of humidity. Very unusual for the Bay Area.
My last race featured temperatures in the high 80s, which I was unprepared for, so in advance of this race I attempted a little heat training. I ran a few times in the heat of the day and I also did a number of sauna sessions at the gym. This may have been helpful on some level, race day temps peaked around 78, and I do feel like it added to my sense of confidence. I was ready for anything.
Well, almost anything.
Scanning the crowd before the race started, I couldn’t help but notice a large number of extremely fit looking people wearing racing team gear crowded up near the front. Oh boy. Fast crowd.
And is that…is it…holy cow! It’s YiOu Wang, professional ultra running bad ass and winner of this year’s Lake Sonoma 50 miler!
It was at that point that I kissed goodbye any dreams of a top ten finish, any hopes of winning (or even placing) in my age group. In fact, I threw away any conceivable goals that would relate to how I finished compared to the field. Time to focus on my race exclusively.
- My “A” goal: Sub 5:16:57 (my current 50k PB)
- My “B” goal: Sub 5:30
The overall winner of the Skyline 50k, Sean Pont, finished in 3:46:15…that’s a 7:17/mi pace!
YiOu won the women’s race in 4:07:59 (6th overall).
Yeah. Crazy fast. And on a course that features 4775 ft of climbing!
So. There I was at the start. I felt ready. The nervousness that I had felt the night before and earlier that morning was gone, turned into a focused determination. I was excited for the race to start.
And we were off.
I’ve run several races that started at Lake Chabot and one thing they’ve all had in common was a 2+ mile stretch of paved path right from the get go.
My Twitter handle is @RunDemTrails, not RunDemBikePaths. I love races that have 0% pavement, but I tried to keep a positive attitude. I was familiar with this path, there was very little chance of tripping and falling on the smooth blacktop, and I knew that it would eventually drop us on a dirty trail at the base of the day’s first climb.
And it was a joy to hit the dirt!
I was so excited that I continued to run (slowly) when everyone around me had dropped into power hike mode. It didn’t last long. I was soon grinding up the first steep hill along with the rest of my fellow runners.
In no time at all we navigated up the ups and down the downs and found ourselves at the first aid station, Marciel (3.17 miles). I was feeling great and it was way too early to need any aid, so I didn’t even spare a glance at the setup, choosing instead to focus on the next bit of trail, some delicious single track.
This section also passed quickly as we runners began to spread out from each other. I was running several yards ahead of the person behind me and the runner in front was only visible when the trail had a long straight stretch. I was focused.
I was so focused that I don’t remember much of this section.
When we emerged out onto Bort Meadow I was truly glad for the low hanging clouds that drowned out the sky. Having run this section many times, mostly on long training runs, I knew that the hard packed fireroad combined with zero trees could make this an intense inferno on even mildly warm days. Not today. I cruised through this section in perfect comfort…well, at least in terms of the weather.
I navigated the rutted trails and began climbing a short, but steep, paved section. I could hear cow bells and cheerful yelling and knew that I had arrived at the Bort Meadow aid station (mile 7.27).
Let me take a moment here to say that I felt like a damn rock-star trail-god all day long thanks to the amazing and abundant volunteers at every aid station. There were so many volunteers at a few of the aid stations that it felt almost ridiculous. It was wonderful. I couldn’t help but think that races like the Western States 100 or Hardrock 100 must feel just like this.
Again, I was feeling good. My food and water levels were sufficient to make it to the next aid station. I waved at the volunteers, thanked them for the enthusiastic greeting, and cruised on down the trail.
For a little while, anyway. Within a few hundred yards, the trail started to climb again and I dropped down into my “hiking with purpose” mode. This was, in my mind, the first real climb of the day, one of three that I had circled on the elevation chart. These were “walkers” and if I were foolish enough to try and run them, my day would have ended early.
I patiently made my way to the top and started running again. After a flatish section that was very runnable, I came face to face with my trail running nemesis: steep downhill.
Give me flat trails, muddy trails, steep climbs, gentle rollers…anything, anything but steep downhill. But there I was. I did my best to preserve my knees and not pound my quads into hamburger. We were less than ten miles in.
Like all things, the long downhill ended and we had a short flat section that lead into the next aid station, Big Bear (mile 10.3). Somehow, my water bottles were still pretty full (I was using a weak Tailwind mix) and I calculated that I had enough to make it to the next aid station. I waved a quick thank you to the volunteers, made my way across Redwood Road, and began another climb.
It was here that I began running with Ashley. I knew her name was Ashley because half the people at the aid station shouted it out as she ran by.
Ashley and I ran together for several miles and she shared some of her life story with me. I was floored. I forgot about the running, the pain, the miles, the focus on “my” race. Here is the story she told me:
Ashley was an unabashed road biking addict. Out riding one day, she was hit by a drunk driver who was going 80 mph. Her head (wearing a helmet) sheared the side mirror off the drunk driver’s car.
The impact caused brain damage and Ashley lost several months of memories. While in the hospital, she was told she would never walk again. She would never be able to pursue her biking passion.
She lost the ability to speak. She was broken.
But she learned how to talk again, she learned how to walk again…
And here she was, running beside me in a 50k.
She was running.
She was absolutely kicking ass on over 30 miles of rugged, dusty trails.
“When you get tired later,” she told me, “and the race starts getting hard, just think of me and realize you can do this. Keep pushing.”
Somehow, running beside this amazing miracle of a woman, I’d run four miles like they were nothing. After a short climb (where Ashley and I parted), I arrived at the Skyline Gate aid station (mile 14.4).
I stopped while a volunteer refilled one of my water bottles with electrolyte and I snacked on some cantaloupe. It was a quick pause and I was on my way, cruising into my own backyard. My home trails: Westridge trail to Tres Sendas to French and back to Westridge.
I’ve run this route a hundred times, or at least it feels like it.
Westridge is a wide fire road with a slight uphill grade. Tres Sendas is a steep downhill, not quite single track, but fairly technical in spots, the French trail is probably my favorite section of trail on the entire planet. There were no other runners around so I glided along in near silence. This section felt nothing like work, it barely felt like I was putting forth any effort at all. It’s moments like these that keep us trail runners coming back to the woods whenever we can.
Due to my altered state, I was surprised when I came upon a volunteer who cheerful guided me toward the correct trail at an intersection. He informed me that I was half a mile from the next aid station. I heard it before I saw it.
I was back at Big Bear aid station (mile 20.27), but it had changed, grown in size and volume. After my joyous solo miles, I was jarred by the overwhelming enthusiasm of crew, fans, and volunteers. They yelled and hooted and rang their cow bells.
It was a completely different kind of wonderful.
I stopped just long enough to get some water and some watermelon before thanking the volunteers and continuing on my way. Next up we had to climb back up the very steep trail we had descended not so long before. I dropped into my power hike and made it to the top in good time. The descent on the other side was gradual, easily runnable, and was my fastest mile of the entire race (7:57 according to my GPS).
The clouds had moved on or burned away, and the sun was now beating down on us in earnest. I was going through my water at a much quicker pace now. I was beginning to feel hot for the first time.
I cruised into the Bort Meadow aid station (mile 23.33) for the second time, knowing full well that I would need to stop this time. While a volunteer filled my water, I ate some more watermelon and chatted with a yet another volunteer. I think there were at least twelve of them at this aid station.
I thanked as many of them as I could and was about to head out when I noticed a bucket of ice water and a very large sponge.
I quickly squeezed some cool water over my head, chasing away the effects of the rising temperatures, and headed out with a renewed sense of vigor.
The next section was a long, mostly flat trail that was straight as an arrow. My feet were beginning to complain at this point and my mind kept trying to turn to thoughts of the finish line, being finished, eating some solid food, resting, sitting down, drinking something ice cold…
I did my best to stay focused on the mile I was running.
I was getting tired of the flat, straight trail and was pleased when I came upon another volunteer guiding us runners into a hard left turn that took us to the base of another climb. At this point, I was happy to drop down into a power hike.
The race followed a meandering bit of fire road for the next few miles. The day was warming up and, while I wasn’t worried it would get too hot, I did feel like the rising temperatures were slowing me down and affecting my mood. I had sucked my water bottle dry over the course of two miles and now began to worry about a lack of additional fluids.
I was mostly running with blinders on, not really taking the time to look around and enjoy the gorgeous scenery, but I did manage to look around at a very timely moment. Just as I was cruising through a little turn in the trail I noticed a water tap.
I stared at it for a moment, expecting that maybe this was a trick? A mirage? I blinked a few times. It didn’t disappear.
Then I noticed a sign on the tap: Cattle Valve
Cattle valve? What did that mean? Was the water safe to drink?
I thought I better not risk filling my bottle here. Instead, desperately hoping the water would be cold, I stuck my head under the tap and turned the nozzle.
Ahh…it was cold!
I replaced my cap on my head, hopped back on the trail, and again felt refreshed and ready to continue the race. It wasn’t long before I reached the final aid station, Marciel (mile 28.6). I refilled my water bottle and continued on my way.
“It’s all downhill from here,” a volunteer told me.
And he was right. Unfortunately, it was very steep downhill. At this point in the race, the last thing I wanted was steep downhill, my Achilles were getting very sore, my quads were unhappy, and my knees had just begun to complain.
After what seemed an eternity, I hit paved path again and knew I was only a couple miles from the finish.
I’d like to say that I cruised home in record time.
I’d like to say that I ran the entire paved stretch to the finish.
I’d like to say these last few miles were fun and easy…but, again, my Twitter handle is not RunDemBikePaths.
In the end I made it. I survived.
I did well.
And as I crossed the finish line, the PA announcer said, “Coming in, number 29, Run Dem Trails!”
I smiled and couldn’t help but laugh.
This was the first time I’d ever been announced at the finish by my Twitter handle.
I don’t imagine that will ever happen again.
Finish time: 5:19:19
Age Group: 8th
I missed my “A” goal by about three minutes, but I comfortably beat my “B” goal by over ten minutes.
I’d call that a success!
According to the updated standings posted on Aug 10th, I actually finished 40th overall & 9th in my age group.
My finishing time is unchanged.