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

  • Salomon Crossmax XR – These door-to-trail hybrids are due out early next year. Solid throughout the race.
  • GoLite Wildwood Trail Shortsleeve Run Top – The lightest shirt that I enjoy wearing. The right call on a warm day.
  • Brooks Element shorts – There are my go-to shorts, which are no longer made. The Brooks Infiniti II Short currently fits the same roll… I just don’t have any.
  • Salomon Exo IV Calf – My lower leg compression of choice. The iRunFar store will carry them next year. For now, you can pick up the Exo III Calf.
  • Drymax Maximum Protection socks – These are the socks I wear for almost ever important trail ultra I run.
  • Nathan Quickdraw Plus with Ultimate Direction waterbottle – My standard handheld setup.
  • Nathan 10k Elite Pack – A simple waist pack that’s no longer made.
  • Garmin Forerunner 310XT – I prefer the 305, but was afraid I’d need more than 10 hours of battery life.

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?