2016 Ohlone 50K -- Caffeine and Blisters Edition

May 24, 2016

Well, the 2016 Ohlone 50K is in the tie-dyed goodie bag. This year was such an experience in learning, growth, and overcoming adversity.

The story starts toward the end of last year when I started running with "Club Nina" -- a loosely organized group of about 20 local trail crazies led by the gregarious and motivated Nina G. My routine went from "a couple short neighborhood runs during the week and a weekend trail run" to "pre-dawn weekday trail runs with Nina and friends and a longer weekend run." My weekly mileage went from 20 to 30 to 40 through this year, still only running three days a week. Since we were running trails, we were running hills, so my weekly elevation more than doubled too. Nina and I are well matched, not only in pace, but in our motivation for trail running. Feeling like a part of nature and observing its ever changing faces is a big part of why we choose to do this. Nina's enthusiasm for miles, feet, and nature photos have kept me honest in training for this race. Other friends in Club Nina share this zeal too, and so we all get along really well. It's been a real pleasure to get to know some of these folks like Beto, Jeremy, Jamey, Donnie, Paul, Alex, Larry, Matt, Jeff, Jeff, Tim, and others, and I hope that continues.

Ok, back to the race...

I've cut out most caffeine from my routine, which has the added benefit of making me really sensitive (in a good way!) to full-power coffee. Out of bed at 5am, popped a couple of ibuprofen to ensure my ankle that I rolled two days before on an easy taper run stayed pain-free, and into the kitchen to hit my secret stash of caffienated coffee. Nina came over at 6:45am, and I was feeling GOOD. I knew at that point that this would be a great racing day.

We drove to near the trailhead and hiked up to the registration/start line. It's always so awesome to feel the energy of so many fellow trail crazies before Ohlone. It's the toughest 50K in this area, and so people are simultaneously excited and scared.

The Start

We chatted with fellow Quicksilver Running Club members Jean, Johnny, Harris, Alex, and Kat, and met a few others.

QRC Crew

We lined up toward the front of the pack. "Three, two, one, go!" it was kind of a surprise start, but I was ready. I tried my best to stick with the lead pack in the first quarter mile where the trail is mostly flat. This is different than my approach from prior years where I would hang back at the start, with the intention of passing people up the hill. I liked this new approach, since it kept me from getting complacent with running with a pack of slower runners. There were only 8 other men in front of me, which was a really energizing feeling.

2 minutes in

I ran for a bit with Erik from Germany/Switzerland in yellow shirt above. He told me about some Swiss races he had done, which sounded absolutely incredible. I'd love to get out to that part of the world one day.

I made it to the top of Mission Peak on the 4.5 mile O50K route in about 52 minutes, which was a few minutes faster than I had ever done before, even on shorter runs. No slowing down at the top of the hill, I PR'd the rocky descent from the top of the peak as well as the flat singletrack behind the peak on the way to the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. Despite this pace, I was feeling really good, and didn't feel like I was pushing myself hard.

I stopped for a quick gel and potato at the Laurel Loop aid station (mile 5.5) and to say hey to my friend Jerry, in the black jacket on the right side of this photo. Jerry taught me how to run fast downhill. Even at 68 years old, we were holding 6m20s pace down Mission Peak's steep slopes. Salud!

Laural Loop Aid + Jerry!

I was feeling great at this point, and was really surprised to hear Strava on my phone announce a couple of sub-7 minute mile splits. I was keeping the energy expenditure low, so I was stoked that I was keeping that pace.

About 1.5 miles from Sunol (mile 8 in the race), I started to feel some burning from my left foot. It was a pre-blister feeling coming from the ball of my foot. I considered stopping to adjust my socks and shoes, but I decided instead to stop at the Sunol aid station and put some vaseline on that area and refill my water early -- I had been planning on waiting until the Backpack Area stop at mile 12.5. The vaseline didn't really help, and I felt like my foot was sliding around in my shoe even more. I stopped to tighten my forefoot laces thinking that would help. Eventually my foot went numb, which was fine with me. The numbness would occasionally subside, and that's when I proclaimed to myself that the foot pain was my burden to bear for this race and I needed to overcome it mentally. As the pain came and went, I managed to convince myself that the pain was helpful to me. It showed me I was still alive, and it let me know when my foot hit the ground. It went from a distracting aggravation to a helpful companion, as crazy as that sounds.

If that wasn't enough, I started to feel a tinge of cramps in my inner thighs, calves, and quads throughout the rest of the race, starting at the steep wall climbing out of the Backpack Area (mile 12.5).

Starting the Backpack Area climb
Heading out from the Backpack Area aid station with a mouth full of salty potato. Photo by Vladimir Gusiatnikov.

The cramps were easily mitigated by taking salt capsules. For being a cool day, I went through a lot more salt than I ever had. I swallowed 9 capsules in total through the race, sometimes as little as 30 minutes apart. This is strange for me, and I'm curious what led to this condition. Previously, I wouldn't need more than 4 capsules, even on a hot day. Thankfully I had brought enough so as to not totally seize up in a writhing ball of cramp on the side of the trail.

The Goat Rock aid station was at mile 15, and I stopped very briefly for a gel and potato. I didn't realize that Jesse D was volunteering there, otherwise I would have stopped for two more seconds to say hey! Hey Jesse!

I ran a bit with a guy named John from Las Vegas who works in law enforcement for the Federal Government. He was on a tear, so he left me after a couple miles.

The Bluff
The view from near The Bluff

A mile or so before Rose Peak, a Fire Rescue truck motored past me on the trail. Damn, I thought, I really hope there isn't a medical problem with one of the runners ahead. Turns out they were just relocating from one aid station to another. whew

"Top o' the mountain to ye" I shouted at the folks working the tent at the top of Rose Peak (mile 20) handing out bracelets. From there, the trail descends a bit to the Maggie's Half Acre aid station, which historically has been my favorite. This year didn't disappoint, with a bowl of fresh strawberries (YES! LIFE!) and some ice for my water.

Let me take a moment to talk about the wonder of ice. Water is good, but ice cold water is incredible. Not only does it feel good in your mouth and throat, but it serves to lower your body temperature, and your intestines can absorb cold water faster than warm water. So take advantage of ice water whenever possible!

A little while past Maggie's Half Acre, I decided that this numb foot thing was kind of silly, and perhaps I'd been tightening my shoes too much. I stopped to loosen them, and voila! Happy feet. This, combined with the strawberries and icewater gave me a very strong second wind. I was so happy to be out there on the beautiful trail, doing this thing that I had trained for the past 6 months. With a new spring in my step, I pressed on through the few remaining valleys and ridges between Rose Peak and Lake Del Valle.

Just past Rose Peak

I ran past the Stewart's Camp water faucet without stopping. Last year, this was a plumbed savior in the 110F heat, dispensing with ice cold, high pressure water that I basically took a shower in. This year, the ambient temperature barely cracked 70F, and I was on a mission to PR Ohlone! No stopping!

I caught back up with Federal Law Enforcement John (I won't give more details in case this is sensitive information), and had a great time chatting. It was his first Ohlone, and he was looking good. When the trail got narrow and steep, I found some new speed and put some distance between him and I. Looking at the time, I did the quick math to see what my chances of coming in under 6 hours were. Given what was coming up, I knew it was pretty unlikely. But I was still stoked that I knew I'd finish in not much more than 6 hours, probably 6:15.

The last climb is a doozie -- It's a bit less than a mile long, but it's as steep as 25% in some places. I figured out that if I put my hands on my mid-thighs and leaned far forward, I could transfer energy from my upper body into my legs and make the steep stuff a bit easier. At this point, my legs were slightly cramping, but I was out of salt (I had given one to another racer about a mile earlier), but I knew that the final aid stop was coming up in less than 1/2 mile so that was OK. I forgot to grab more salt at that stop, but I chugged a few cups of Sprite there, and pressed on the final 2 miles of steep downhill to the finish.

The final sprint at the end is always awesome. The trail isn't too steep, so you can just go go go without having to put on the brakes. You can hear people cheering for runners finishing ahead of you, and that's such an energizing sensation. You come out of the trees, and the finish is right there. I crossed the line after 6h5m, a new personal best for me by almost 40 minutes.

Finishing Sprint

Seconds from the finish
Finish Line. Photos by Keith Blom.

I got to meet race co-director Chiping Fu at the finish as he handed me my finisher's plank and goodie bag. Good times!

Posing with Chiping

I met Nina's sister Vinh too, who was there to drive us back to the start in Fremont. I said hi to BJB who was chilling with his post-race beer in a comfortable chair. He looked like he had been there for a while -- in fact he finished almost an hour earlier. He took first place in our 40-49 age group, even after running the Quicksilver 100K the prior weekend. Amazing!

I hobbled over to the BBQ area find a cold drink and a cool place to wait for Nina to finish. Just after I filled a cup with ice water, I heard some cheering from the folks watching the finish. I looked over to see none other than Nina coming through the finish with a huge smile on her face! I yelped with delight, and ran over to welcome her. She was only a couple of minutes behind me, and was the first woman to finish -- in her first 50K ever! Double Amazing!

We sat in the grass and relaxed and chatted for another hour or so with new and old friends. Vinh was so sweet to bring us food and drinks and give us a ride back to the car in Fremont. All of the people working at the aid stations, the people who marked the course in prior days, and the crew at the finish selflessly give their time to make for a first-class experience for the racers. Thanks for that!

Elevation profile and aid stations
The elevation profile of the course and the aid station locations. Mission Peak (2500ft) is the first bump on the left, Rose Peak (3850ft) is the highest point. Overall there is about 8500 feet of climbing in this race.

The calm after the storm is always a mixed blessing. On one hand, the hard work is over. Without the pressure of a big race, there's a lot more flexiblility in weekly exercising activities. On the other hand, the level of fitness from doing consistent 24+ mile runs on the weekend is such a great feeling. There's balance in there somewhere, and I will find it. I am certainly looking forward to the 2017 Ohlone 50K and shooting to come in under six hours.