How to Fake It for 50 Miles

Some times you just need to fake it and that’s just what I did for 50 miles at the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 this past weekend in the Berkeley Hills east of the San Francisco Bay. Simply put, I needed a Western States qualifier by November 6 and this was, logistically, the easiest race for me to attempt. So, I toed the line, started running, and crossed the finish line 9 hours and 23 minutes later. The experience was completely worthwhile and, despite some bumps in the trail, I don’t think I’ve ever been so consistently happy during a 50 mile race as I was at Firetrails.

After sharing a bit of background as to why this was a dumb idea, I’ll share my my experience, what I learned along the way, and what gear I used.

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 2010

An early view from the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 course.

Background
As some of you know, I had a long bout with plantar fasciitis beginning last Thanksgiving. The PF loomed over me for 6 months before finally clearing up in early May. During those 6 months, I continued to run, but mostly in the 25-35 mile per week range and I avoided running hills.

Once over the PF, I couldn’t get into a training rhythm. I was out of shape and largely unmotivated. Many, if not a majority, of my runs were suffer fests… and I’m talking 5-6 mile runs here. I slowly reincorporated hills into my training, but rarely more than 3 times per week until recently. My only training week with more than 45 miles in the 10 months since my injury was a 59 mile week in February… but 32 miles of that were hiking in snowshoes.

With all that, my fitness and my calves have atrophied. As the spring progressed, my ultrarunning schedule for the year atrophied, as well. I’ve run enough ultras not to feel compelled to run one when I’m not fit. In accordance, I put racing on the backburner in favor of building a base for a return to racing in 2011, including Western States for which I had a guaranteed entry as the last of the two-time losers.

And, then, in early September I received an email from Western States regarding the process for accepting my two-time loser entry. As I read the details, my heart sunk. What I had thought was my qualifying race, the 2009 Leadville 100, wasn’t recent enough to count. I would either have to forgo WS ’11 or run a qualifying race before November 6. The shortest qualifying distance for States is 50 miles and it needs to be run in under 11 hours. I hadn’t run longer than 16 miles in a continuous effort since November the previous year!

At the same time, I was figuring out the details of a pending move, so it was hard to plan travel to a particularly easy 50 mile course, like the flat Chicago Lakefront 50. Instead, I’d go with a race I could easily attend. That would be the Dick Collins Firetrails 50.

As a coach, I would have told any student not to attempt 50 miles on so little training. It’s a bad idea. However, before entering I promised myself that while I’d work hard to finish, but I would not push through a serious injury. Being able to run for the next few months is more important than running a particular 100 miler when there are so many other great options out there.

Running the Firetrails
In the days before Firetrails I felt like a complete rookie. I had no idea what to pack. In the end, I overpacked. I brought three packs, two waist packs, and a handheld. I brought more fuel than I’d need for a 100. I had four pairs of socks, three pairs of shoes, three shirts, and two pairs of shorts. I had trekking poles. (Yes, trekking poles for a non-mountainous 50 mile.) What the heck! I ended up spending an hour resorting gear on Friday night and sent a backpack full of gear to the turn around aid station.

When we set out around Lake Chabot in the pre-dawn darkness I carried only a handheld water bottle and a small waist pack. The pack contained only a few gels, some salt tabs, an iPod shuffle, and my iPhone (for taking photos and voice notes). I settled into an easy pace and had plenty of light from others headlamps to make it around the lake’s paved bike path. The weather was pleasantly cool and dry. I walked even the small rolling uphills on the bike path, as that was my plan all day.

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 2010

Pre-dawn at the Dick Collins Firetrails 50.

Once we hit the singletrack, I ran from aid station to aid station. I saw some familiar faces – Donald of Running and Rambling, Mark of UltraSignup, and Ted of UltraLive – and chatted with whomever was near me in these early miles. Around mile 10, a 50-mile rookie, Peter, and I settled into a comfortable rhythm together. We talked a good deal. The miles and aid stations flew by. Before we knew it, we were approaching the turn around at mile 26. The only thing I took from my drop bag was a swig of bourbon. I was thrilled to have been able to run problem-free past the half way point. I’d expected to be suffering by mile 20 at the latest.

The half dozen miles before the turn around had been exposed and once we turned around for a 4 mile climb back up, we got quite warm. I ran out of sports drink on the climb. I thought little of it other than to pound two or three cups of sports drink at the next aid station, which I did. Peter and I continued running on.

Bryon Powell Dick Collins Firetrails 50

Peter (l) and Bryon Powell (r) running back uphill from the turn around. Photo by Chihping Fu.

Somewhere between 30 and 35 miles I started feeling a little tired. Actually, it wasn’t so much tired as needing a higher heart rate to keep the same effort. I could still run the same flats, descents, and shallow inclines. However, somewhere in here, I went a bit wide on a final downhill turn into an aid station and in correcting my course, my left calf grabbed a bit. Even though I wasn’t 100%, I considered myself fine.

At the Skyline Gate aid station (mile 37), Peter took a brief break while I continued on. I cruised downhill mostly alone until Peter and his pacer caught back up just before an unofficial aid station around mile 40. I wasn’t running all that fast, so I encouraged him to go ahead.

Soon after I began a walking climb. It was a bit over two miles long and much of it was exposed. Despite that, I walked strongly up the hill passing a few folks along the way. As the stiff hill gave way to flatness, I started running and both of my calves started grabbing. They didn’t fully cramp, but a few quick tests showed me that I couldn’t run on flats or even descents. As noted, I’d had the calf grab a while earlier and I’d also had some other smaller calf grabs and, on inclines some, hamstring tweaks. These earlier incidents and bilateral calf cramping reassured me that I hadn’t totally screwed up my calf on PF side. My calves were tired and my hydration was off. I could continue without significant injury risk so long as I forewent running…. and so I walked on down the hill. I knew could walk the eight and a half miles in three and a half hours and still reach the 11-hour Western States qualifying time.

Leading up to the calf issues, my stomach felt off. I kinda wanted to puke, but never came close. I’d stopped eating gels and was getting by on Coke at the aid stations and sports drink on the trail. My stomach wasn’t draining well and as a result I wasn’t drinking enough or staying hydrated. Fortunately, the downhill walking break significantly lowered my heart rate and let my stomach do it’s thing. With about four miles to go I was feeling much better all around and gave yet another running test (I’d been doing so every 10 minutes or so). After an hour of walking, I found I could run again and so I did. It wasn’t fast, but I ran everything that wasn’t an incline. I wasn’t worried about pace, running would just get me to the finish line sooner.

Dick Collins Firetrails heart rate

My heart rate through the race. Notice the drop late when I'm walking.

I happily crossed the line in 9:23:37. Far from my fastest 50 miler (I ran a faster first 50 at Leadville last year), but not my slowest either. I’ll chalk it up as a resounding success. I got my qualifier, didn’t injure myself, had a great time running the race, and proved to myself that I’m still a runner.

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 San Francisco

How could you not enjoy the race when there are stunning views of San Francisco?

Lessons Learned (or Re-Learned)

  • Just Do It! – Cliche, for sure. It’s not like I’ve never attempted a run far beyond my training, but it’s great to be reminded that you can do more than you think you can.
  • Have Fun – Not once during this run did I think “this sucks!” Having company for much of the race helped, but it was also my plan to have fun as long as I could. I succeeded entirely in this effort.
  • Slow and Steady Equals Success – From “go,” I set an easy running pace and walked hills right…. and I was still running with ease a full marathon longer than I’d run in 10 months. But for my cramping, I could have run through the finish.
  • Never Stop Thinking – I did a poor job of diagnosing some slow gastric emptying, which ended up contributing to my calves cramping. This is normally one of my strong points and shows that I was really out of practice.
  • Hydration is Crucial – I made a last minute decision to carry a single 20 ounce handheld. Given that I was not heat trained, I should have erred on the side of caution. Same goes for salt tabs. When I finally took salt, it was too late and in too large doses. Again, I blame much of this on lack of recent practice.
  • Patience is Paramount – My calves gave out at mile 42. I walked four or so miles while occasionally trying to run. An hour of most downhill walking later, I could run again. In ultrarunning catastrophe is rarely permanent.
  • Know you Weaknesses – I knew going into the race that my calves were likely my weakest link which is why I so strongly avoided running uphills. The race also reinforced my need to rehabilitate vigorously through the winter. I’m not anywhere near 100% yet.

Gear

7 Reasons Why I Might Not Run Western States
Since you’ve gotten this far, I’ll share that I still might not run Western States. Here’s why:

  1. In my current life, $370 is a whole heap of money. In days gone by, I wouldn’t have thought twice… but that’s changed.
  2. Western States is crunch time at iRunFar and I don’t do well at balancing. I can imagine not wanting to slack off on coverage while I’m in Squaw Valley ahead of the race and not getting any sleep because of it.
  3. I’m f’in out of shape. Yes, I just ran a 9:23 50 while needing to walk, but I’m along way from having a base with less than 3 months until training season. So much for aiming for Top 10. That said, if everything goes well, I can enter training season in a position to get into reasonable shape. I’d still like to hit 21 hours on the current course.
  4. I have no idea what my winter and spring training will look like. I’m moving to a wintry mountainous environment and might not have the option for big days in the mountains until late May. Heck, I don’t know if I’ll have any desire to run consistently through December, January, and February.
  5. Closely related to the two above points, it’s almost certain that I’d be in a better position to perform well at 100 miles late next summer or early fall. I’m more certain that I could have a good base in, say, five months and I know I’m itching to run big time mountain miles once the trails melt out next summer.
  6. I’m scared. 100 miles is a long way.
  7. I hate the heat. I was reminded in the moderately warm conditions on Saturday that I don’t enjoy running in the heat and I realized that there are many remarkable races that are virtually assured not to have heat.

Any one care to add another point or suggest why I should enter Western States?

There are 48 comments

  1. Nick

    In regards to your 7 reasons you may not run Western States, perhaps you should go back and look at numbers 1 and 2 of your lessons learned from this race?

  2. JayfromRaleigh

    Nick stole my thunder…..as he stated see points 1 & 2

    Question as well, (I am a ultra novice)calves are also my weakest point and the issues you faced with your calves are identical to what I have experienced. Is there specific work you do to minimize this "weakness"?

  3. adam fitzgerald

    totally understand #1 i have to choose my races carefully as money is a factor.

    I'm sure you could find people that you trust to help take some of the burden off of you and handle some of the coverage of the race.

    I'm sure your out of PR shape but i bet if you put your mind to it you could still at least finish with a respectable time. Your last 50 proves that.

    just go with the intention that you are running and see what happens training wise. I wouldn't decide not to do something because i'm not sure how my training will go. you can always alter plans later.

    The question you have to ask ourself is how bad would you like to run. sure there are plenty of other races you coud run but there is only one Western States.

    If you are not nervous about running 100 miles there is something wroing with you.

    I'm not fond of the heat either but wouldn't let that be a factor in giving up a chance at such an awesome race.

    Im done.

    adam

  4. Tarzan Sutton

    You are my Hero! Way to go Bryan and way to inspire us who are trying to go further then we thought we could! Your the best! irunfar ROCKS!!

    Good Luck in your prep for WS and I'm looking forward to this yrs awesome coverage!Some yr I hope to toe the line of this Historic race!

  5. Kim Neill

    Bryon:

    You just have to assess the real reasons you want to run WS. Sure, it has prestige and a big name. But there are so many amazing ultra events out there, both more difficult, more beautiful, more….than WS. Only you can decide. Good luck.

    PS: For several years I have been supplementing with extra magnesium (400 mg of mag glyconate dalily) in addition to a multi vit/min I take. It has helped my calf problems tremendously.

  6. Jason

    way to get a finish done who cares how long it took.. Run Western States you have done well there before and you like being part of these huge events also who knows if your vere get this chance again. Have fun with your training plenty of time

  7. Heidi Dietrich

    Do Western States. It's so hard to get into, that it seems like you should seize the opportunity and go for it. Worst that happens is you have to drop, right?

    Maybe I'll make it down there next year (as spectator) and help you out with coverage!

  8. Devon

    Excited to hear that the XR's worked well for you. I finally got my pair and feel like for 90% of trail races out here they will be perfect. Very nice.

    Sounds like a good experience. Congrats on the finish.

  9. olga

    Wasatch, may be? I liked the lessons you summed up, but I also hear you on "why not" loud and clear. After all, it's your decision. I am past just going and cranking out a distance myself. Fun – yes, locally and cheap. Big money demand big performances. You have 1 month to figure it out. Don't ask advice from readers, only from those really knowing you and your situation. Good luck.

  10. Sara M

    Great recap Bryon. Glad to hear I'm not the only one that fakes it sometimes. Given all your reasons not to run WS… if you did, would you still enjoy it? If you couldn't provide the coverage you wanted to, if you couldn't go as fast as you wanted to, and if you hate the heat, etc. would you still enjoy the race?

    1. Bryon Powell

      I've managed to enjoy it in the past. What goes unstated is that I do have an affinity for Western States. It was my first 100 and the one I've run more than any other (3 times). I don't want to show up in jog through 100 miles shape, but I wouldn't mind on improving my time on the traditional course… and I've got wiggle room on that. My main issue with my fitness is that since I'd long known I could run the race next year, I'd built it into my opportunity to really go for it. I need to remember that I can change plans and still run a strong race even if 18 hours isn't in the works.

  11. Mariko

    Congratulations! I really appreciate your honesty, and you know, you seem to have a great attitude. So many runners I know are obsessive psychos. Good for you for being realistic! And having fun! As for WS, listen to your intuition. Seems to have worked for you before!

  12. Martin

    Great piece Bryon. While I really enjoy all the in-depth coverage of the Ultra-running elites, it provides great balance to your site to hear the tale of someone running 50 on mileage which, for many of us with jobs, families, etc., is about as much as we can squeeze in. You're obviously no slacker, just saying that it's great to hear how you did it and know where you're coming from-as opposed to reading about someone running a 50 in 6.5 hours and have no clue what it must feel like to run that fast.

    So, thanks!

    Martin

  13. Eric Sherman

    You could get saw awesome race coverage from right inside the race- you can share the experience and appreciate the conditions that you hear about in your interviews…….

  14. Britta

    Loved to read the story….I am signed up for an easy 50 miler (my first) and have been plagued by injuries on and off and had all but given up on trying (they have a 50k also). I might have to reconsider now and see how I feel at the turn around. Thanks a lot for sharing.

  15. Stacy

    Thanks for sharing your race day experience and downloading your thought process before and since. That really is a huge service! Pretty impressive result for "just showing up."

    I hope the countdown to PC is going smoothly, and am really looking forward to a few nice, long chats on the trail (and off it) here in a few weeks.

  16. Ian Sharman

    If you can get to the starting line in half-decent shape without breaking the bank, it's clearly something that means a lot to you. Others can cover the race on irunfar as the site's getting big and you have plenty of people who already help you out (and I'm sure most of them will be intently focused on WS anyway). Good luck!

  17. Blaine Moore

    No advice on whether to run WS100 or not – that's up to you and whether you feel it's worth the money and effort for whatever goals you feel are available to you.

    I just wanted to share I had a similar experience (but much lower key) this Summer. For the 3 months prior to a 50k, I only ran over 12 miles twice, once during a 25k race and then once a week later during a mountain run that was barely over 12 miles.

    No worries, I'd be fine and just have fun and not go out too fast like an idiot (despite seeing a friend on the starting line that wanted me to pace him at 6:15 pace, which is about my marathon PR pace.)

    That said, I ran well, had a lot of fun, and recovered quickly. Not only that, but my wife had a similar experience despite having never raced over 25k and without having ever run much further than 25k. She accidentally ran the entire 50k after only intending to go out for a 16 or 20 mile long run; thankfully, the race director let her post register.

    She ran well, had a lot of fun, and recovered quickly. And, she now has a lot more confidence in her running.

    (Our experience w/the GCI 50k is linked through my name just above.)

    As for training in the Winter, here in Maine I stop running on the roads and go to the trails. Sheet metal screws and a great snowmobile network make running off the roads much safer and (as long as its cold enough) not much more difficult than being on the roads. I usually log a lot of time on my feet and sometimes some high mileage.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Great stories, Blaine.

      As for trail running in the winter, I'm pretty sure that snow mobiles aren't permitted on the trails near where I live and I doubt the Nordic skiers would appreciate me on their trails. I'll have to see what the locals do.

  18. Alex M

    Your post is motivating to me since i am running my first fifty miler (AR50) a month after my first marathon (LA). I am glad you pushed through and good luck at the Western States.

  19. Tony Mollica

    Perfect timing with this article. I am running the Bobcat Trail Marathon on November 7th and I'll be under trained due to injury. I am going to run anyway. A female friend of mine (who is faster than I am) has her doubts about whether I should. I was injured last year too and ran under trained. I was hoping to be in great shape and run really well. Oh well. My choices now are run under trained or don't run. Assuming I'm healthy I'm picking running and I will have fun! The course is beautiful. The race is well organized, and the runners are great, friendly people.

    I really enjoyed your article! I hope you get your running mojo back, and I hope you end up loving where you are moving! Good luck Bryon!

    I'd like to see an article about running snow shoes; with some suggestions on what to buy.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Thanks, Tony. My one piece of advice would be willing to drop if at some point during the race you are on the verge of worsening your chronic injury. It's not worth it. However, if you going into it accepting that and are willing to take whatever the day will give you, why not go for it.

      I'll see what I can do re running snowshoes. I've used them for all of 20 minutes, but I've learned a good deal about them.

  20. Nick

    Thats amazing! Still a good time! I like the way you described the race, it sounded fun! I guess you know what to pack now when you go race a 50miler. Your equipment sounds really good. Good job!

  21. sam bosworth

    Take it man! The heat got me in 09 and now I gotta get in again. Gettin in will never be easy, so ya might as well head up an getherdone!

  22. Natural1

    Great article and an inspiration for my upcoming 50 miler – I'm still coming back from an achilles injury and can't log the type of milage that I'd typically do for a race of this length, so it's great to hear how you ran a smart race and came through with a solid race and strong finish.

    Selfishly, I'd love to have you covering the WS100 for the site (I always look forward to your interviews and race recaps) but I'd also kick in a few bucks to help pay for your entry fee – if you put up a PayPal link to "Send Bryon to WS100" I'm sure many of your readers would ante up.

  23. Eugene Smith

    Great job! Thanks for the inspiring post Bryon, I'm 9 days away from my first 50 miler, the Deadman Peaks 50 and I'm all nerves and coming out of a long 7 month battle with IT band issues. I'm feeling healthy and mentally ready. I'm hoping to rise to the occasion much like you have in the Firetrails 50.

  24. Jorge Fernandez

    Great race recap…I cant graph my heart rate but is funny to see that i am not the only who peaks at the beginning of the race…i think its the excitement!! i am at 185 bpm at the starting line!!!

  25. Tony Mollica

    Bryon:

    I meant to ask you why you prefer the Garmin 305 over the 310. I have the 305 but was considering getting a 310 to more accurately measure the miles I run on hilly trails.

    Thanks,

    Tony

    1. Bryon Powell

      Tony,
      Unless I'm missing something the 310XT will not be more accurate that the 305. Both use the SiRF Star III chipset for the GPS component. Perhaps there could be differences with antenna placement, but unless you've explicitly heard that has changed, it won't be any better.

      My biggest issues with the 310XT have been software failures. The version that mine shipped with crashed whenever I used the Back to Start feature and while a more recent version of the software fixed that issue, it still crashes on occasion. I've never had that happen with my 305.

      The only improvement I see with the 310XT is with the battery life and it's not a big a difference as advertised. I've routinely got 10+ hours on my 305 and upwards of 12 hours when it's new while the 310XT died around 19:35 during Leadville last year. All use was with GPS enables and a HRM on.

      In my opinion, it's just not worth the money.

  26. stack

    great write up… glad to see the race report and that you made it in under your goal.

    i hate to add a point to the reason not to run but if you don't take a spot then is one opened up for someone else?

  27. Jen

    I trained for the Vt 100 in Vermont.. lots of 20 + mile runs in the winter. The roads get plowed, and there are plenty of other runners out there. You just need to dress smart and then it's all good.

  28. Tatiana

    Nice, Bryon, faking you say? Well, I've been faking my way through *all* the races I've done… For two years in a row I did not have more than 2 months of consistent running…

    Good news are that after Swiss Alpine k78 (July 31) I am feeling better and stronger and still legs/feet are fine (fingers crossed). Hope to find out what does it meant to train for the race.

    Best,

    Tatiana

  29. PhilGilbert

    Regarding number 7, I don't really favor the heat either. Can you list the "remarkable races that are virtually assured not to have heat."

    BTW, I think you should go for it. You know the course. You can ride the bike indoors or row if you can't get out because of the weather.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Phil, That's be a long list… many autumn races in the northern half of the US are pretty safe. Add in Leadville in August.

      Not sure about spinning or rowing indoors. I'll probably brave the cold rather than face a wall while working out. :-)

  30. Bryon Powell

    Thanks, Ian. I think I can get to the WS starting line in decent shape. It won't be my chance to aim for the sky with a Top 10 finish, but I can still have a go of bettering my time on the current course. Hope to see you on the line, as well.

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