November 3, 2008

Racing the 2008 Helen Klein 50 Mile

Last Saturday I ran the Helen Klein 50 Mile for the third consecutive year. I had set my sights on besting my personal record of 6:56:39 from the Jed Smith 50 Mile earlier in the year, but my primary goal, as in previous years, was simply to finish. However, this year was quite unlike the last two, because on race morning, my Dad and I looked out the hotel room window and it was pouring rain. The rain would persist for the entire race.
But I like the rain, and there was no wind, and I would much rather race in a downpour than in the heat. Standing at the starting line, I spoke briefly with Jean Pommier, Benjamin Muradyn, Pierre-Yves Couteau, Don Charles Lundell, and others while standing in the dark and the rain until race director/ultra-legend Norm Klein counted down "3, 2, 1...""GO!" All 95 50-mile runners were then sent into the crucible that an ultramarathon is.
We started in the dark. I began at a conservative pace, determined not to start out with the leaders, particularly after being lectured by Norm not to do so. We immediately had to take a side trail to get around a levee on Folsom Lake that was undergoing construction, but after a mile or so we returned to the pavement which made up the rest of the out-and-back course.

I paced with 2006 and 2007 women's winner Carol Rewick in the initial miles. A fellow member of the Brooks I.D. team, Carol was hoping to defend her title and break her personal best of 7:10. We talked for a bit and it began to rain harder, and at the mile 5 aid station I pulled ahead. Carol went on to win the women's race for the third year in a row!

After that I was completely alone for a long time. Very few people were out on the bike path this year because of the rain, and they only people I saw were aid station volunteers and my Dad every 20 or 30 minutes. Running a 50 miler is so much different from an inner-city marathon in that respect; unlike the Austin Marathon I ran in February, where adoring fans lined the entire course screaming their lungs out, there were no cheering spectators here, just me, the race, and the rain. It was really quite peaceful, just me racing in the rain. I think I enjoyed the simplicity of those hours: if I got to the finish line in under 6:56:39, I succeeded. If I didn't, I failed. So I kept running, and fast.

Physically, I felt very good. My legs had a lot of energy despite not getting a lot of sleep the week before thanks to college applications, and in earlier times I would have been tempted to go faster. But, as a sign of racing maturity I maintained a strict, controlled pace of about 7:45/mi., using the 1/2 mile markers on the bike path to keep track. It was still raining.

(Coming into mile 18)

Around mile 18 I was beginning to feel a little woozy, so I took a few salt tablets at the aid station and within a few minutes I felt better. At that point I was still feeling good so I decided I was far enough into the race to increase my pace slightly. I sped up to around 7:30/mi and caught up to Ray Sanchez, who was having some cramping problems but nonetheless managed to stick with me for a while. We spoke briefly and encouraged each other, but mostly we just focused on staying consistent and getting the miles behind us. We came into the aid station before the turnaround at mile 21 together.
Soon after the aid station I noticed someone in the distance who appeared to be sprinting down the bike path. Since we were still 2 miles from the turnaround it didn't even cross my mind that it could be someone in the race. But I quickly realized that it was in fact elite ultrarunner Todd Braje hammering away the miles at sub-7:00/mi.! I couldn't believe my eyes. Braje went on to turn in an incredible time of 5:49, made even more impressive because of the long course (more on this later) and the conditions. He's my new hero.

I pulled away from Ray and saw only Jean and Pierre-Yves Couteau before reaching the turnaround myself in 3:14. Pace-wise, I was exactly where I wanted to be, and I was in 4th place! I still felt pretty good, so after choking on some salt and potatoes I sped up even more to about 7:20/mi. and chased after Jean and Pierre.

I caught up to Jean much faster than I anticipated. I soon realized that he was not doing so well, because he was alternating between a shuffle and a walk, and I was worried he was having problems with asthma like at the American River 50 Mile earlier in the year because he is normally faster than I am. Unfortunately he was, but Jean still stuck it out and finished in 8:51, and it is a testament to his sheer determination and willpower that he did. After passing Jean I set my sights on reeling in the small red singlet of Pierre, who was about 500 meters in the distance. I finally caught him at around mile 30, where we exchanged words of encouragement before I pressed on ahead.
There is a point in every ultramarathon where the pain actually starts to hurt. For this race I would say that this was around mile 32. My breathing was heavy, and my legs began to burn with the exertion of the past 4 hours. My pace slowed slightly-but only slightly. I was more determined than ever to succeed that day, especially after having had such a bad race at the RDL100. I was also pretty pumped to be in 2nd place in a major ultramarathon with nearly 100 competitors, on my way to a PR, and I used these thoughts to motivate myself to persist, persist, persist, persist...

(Leaving the mile 35 aid station...)
By mile 40 my legs were on fire. My pace was still okay and was enough for a PR, and I was still in 2nd, but the exertion of running 40 sub-8:00 miles had taken its toll. Each mile took an eternity. With 8.5 miles to go, it was willpower vs. body:

"This hurts!!!"
"Don't let up! You have come way too far to let up!"
"But I wanna stop soooooo bad!!"
"NO!!!! You are not allowed to quit! You're not just gonna give up so close from the finish! You have to stick it out, push as hard as you can if you want to PR!!!
"I can't!!!"
"I wan't it!!"
"I wan't it!!!"

Then I would have 8 miles to go.

Willpower was winning, but only by a little bit. With 5 miles left, the rain falling as hard as ever, I reached the aid station barely able to speak I hurt so bad. I exchanged water bottles with my Dad barely breaking stride for fear of cramping. After what seemed like an eternity, I saw him again with 3 miles to go. It was coming down to the wire: I had to crank out three more 9:00 miles to set a PR. Through the pain, I thought about all the hard work I had put in to this, how badly I wanted to PR, and I kept going, every step a monumental effort but a step closer to attaining my goal.

(Five miles to go!)
Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen my brain was receiving, but I'm still confused about what happened next. With about 2 miles left I reached the dirt trail to bypass the levees. About halfway through the trail I was caught by Ray Sanchez. He passed me but I stayed on his heels. Then, somehow, in the very last mile of the race, we ran off the trail and on to the road. I have no idea where we missed the pink ribbons marking the trail, but the next thing I knew we were on the road and we were going to have to take a circuitous route on the roads to get back to the finish line at Cavitt Junior High. I wasn't thinking that at the time; in a painful haze all I knew was to follow Ray. I did and got to the finish line in 3rd place, officially in 7:02:23. People were cheering as I stumbled across the finish line, but I barely noticed and collapsed in a chair, utterly spent. My Dad and Helen Klein herself were there and they had me lay down so I could recover, which I eventually did.

So here's the thing: I officially ran the race in 7:02:23. However, I ran that time on an overlong course. Firstly, the course was lengthened over a mile in total as a result of having to go around the levee, and secondly, the detour taken by Ray and I at the end added another half-mile to a mile to the distance. So in actuality both Ray and I ran somewhere between 51.5 and 52.5 miles. Considering I ran the race at 8:12/mi. this calculates to a 6:41:53 to a 6:50:05 50-mile split. For my own purposes I am saying that my new 50 mile PR was 6:50:00, even though it was probably faster.

I lay there for a while and made the same calculations. It was just beginning to sink in that I had at last had a hugely successful race. 6:50!!!!!!! I was unable to walk without using my Dad for support, but I was elated to bag such a PR, and having finished 3rd/95 was the icing on the cake. I am so grateful to have had the chance to do what I did last Saturday and am thankful for the support of my Dad, the race volunteers, and Norm and Helen Klein. I got up and ate some food, and was presented with an antique clock for winning the 17 & under division for the third year in a row. (Of course, I was the only person in the 17 & under division for the third year in a row!) After many handshakes and high-fives, I was ready to go home and rest. But before leaving, I received the ultimate honor: a handshake from Norm Klein.

My performances at the Helen Klein 50 Mile:

'06 HK50: 9:25:47, 66th/146
'07 HK50: 7:35:20, 9th/147
'08 HK50: 6:50:00, 3rd/95

Up until this race I'd been having a pretty rough season. But seeing these results make me really happy because they tell me that I am making continual progress towards my ultimate goals. This year's race has revitalized me and given me increasing resolve to train hard and go for another PR at the Jed Smith 50 Mile next February. Perhaps a sub-6:30 is in store for me? Only with hard training and smart pacing on race day. I'm gonna do it!

We got home a few hours later, and I needed help getting out of the car. After a few minutes of struggle I made it to my bed and lay down, the success of the race still sinking in. I looked out the window and it was still raining.

Race Results:
Other Race Reports: