Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Miwok 100K Wade-Slide-Walk-Run

Cynthia had some concerns going into this event regarding recovery from Diablo and illness. Though the lung injury incident didn’t seem to have much effect at Diablo, she was coughing and asthmatic all week after, and actually came down with a fever for the early days of the following week (and thought it was swine flu!). Trying to heal and prepare, we did very little running all week, and just tried to get Cynthia’s lungs settled down again (she kept using the steroid inhaler/bronchodilator and upped the vitamin D intake to 10,000 units for the week). This seemed to work, more or less, and we prepared drop bags containing an extra shirt and our Firetrails 50 jackets in case it was cooling off by the second time around at Pan Toll. Cynthia was trying some new food ideas this time as well (mashed potatoes and carrots and sliced turkey, along with more V8 juice!). We headed out as planned on Saturday morning, after getting what little sleep we could when the alarm is set for 3 am.

The weather forecast going into the race was for a mostly cloudy day in between a couple of bands of showers the previous day and the next. We started out in typical Headlands fog just as the sky was starting to lighten up a bit (5:40 am). We started with a brief run across Rodeo Beach: “See that light over there? Run to it, then follow the pink ribbons.” But then we were immediately bottlenecked waiting to get onto a single-track trail, and it wasn’t until we turned onto a paved road that runners were really able to start spreading out and sorting themselves out by speed—that made the first 10 minutes a pretty slow walk for those of us who started near the back of the crowd. Those first few minutes lost turned out to be critical to our day.

Most of the first 10K up to the first aid station was on pavement or gravel fire road, and the weather looked like it was clearing a bit as the day brightened. We kept the pace down (145 beats/min for Cynthia) in hopes of maintaining energy levels more constant during the day. We walked the steeper hills and jogged easily on the gradual ones, taking walking breaks to keep the energy output low. Finally there was some downhill, and we sped up to take advantage of it. Cynthia was going to try Olga’s advice to Rooster to run hard on the downhills, and for a brief while we cruised along at an 8-minute pace, though when we turned off onto trail, we slowed down to a 9-minute pace, despite an effort to keep the pace up. It’s just a fact—trail running is harder than street running.

However, weather-wise, things gradually worsened. Heading up from Bunker Hill, the cool fog was more oppressive than cooling, and the humidity seemed like it might be a problem. We headed up and over the hill and then down much faster toward Tennessee Valley, with Cynthia getting out ahead of David again on the slippery trail. A brief stop at the aid station there to make up new Cytomax drink (another experiment this time), and we headed off down the road and on toward Muir Beach. Here for a brief while, the views were gorgeous. You could actually see the ocean and the world around you (and take a few pictures)! But the first of the saturated trail conditions was making its presence felt as we detoured around a giant puddle in the path. Still keeping the heart rate in the 145 range, we continued up the hills toward Muir Beach, down the steep steps slippery with rain, and back up onto another ridge, before the steep descent toward the beach and the next aid station.

After Cynthia drank some coke and grabbed a few chips, we continued on the next leg, which was quite easy and pleasant, paralleling Hwy 1. However, the weather was going rapidly downhill as it settled into a steady light rain. Cynthia’s Garmin 405 started beeping wildly and switching screens constantly (water under the bezzel?), and there wasn’t much we could do about it. Slowing to a walk seemed to help it, and it quieted down going up the steep climb to Pan Toll. Unfortunately, this is where Cynthia slowed down to a resigned trudge (HR doesn’t lie—only 135), and we were passed by a few stronger walkers. Coming at last into Pan Toll, we tried to grab our food as expeditiously as possible, but our hands were fumbling and cold. Cynthia pulled on a long sleeved shirt for more insulation, but it was quickly soaked.

We continued on, but now we were socked in by cloud and pelted with driving rain by what felt like gale force winds, which threatened to blow us off the trail. Despite wearing a hat to keep the rain off, the wind blew rain on Cynthia’s glasses, both inside and out, and she had to keep stopping to wipe off the drops when the visibility was too poor to see where she was going. By now the trail was churned up mud from the previous 300 runners, and had become very slippery and hazardous with a stream running through the trail in most places. We gave up any hope of keeping our feet out of the water, and plunged through the mud and streams, staying upright as best we could. At one point, David slid off the trail and narrowly avoided straining his back trying to keep his balance. The front-runners began making their way back, and we stepped off the trail to let them by, at least when we could see them coming! Finally, we were back into the trees and out of the howling wind, and could see again at least. We made our way into Bolinas aid station, where they were valiantly trying to dig drainage ditches to keep the water away, drank some coke and continued on in a hurry, as this last leg had taken far more time than anticipated.

All the low spots in the trail along the ridge (and there were plenty of them) filled up with water, and many runners didn’t even try to skirt the edges of the lakes. Those of us who did try didn’t always succeed; we were all contending with soaking wet feet. Running through the puddles was the path of least resistance, but unfortunately, you can’t tell what is there, and might find yourself in a hole! Lakes alternated with rocky outcroppings, and you could never be sure whether to prepare for slippery mud or gripping rock. We were discouraged by the conditions, but trudged along the rolling hills toward Randall turnaround.
Since so much of the trail seemed different from the published altitude profile, we couldn’t tell how far along we really were. The Garmin isn’t that accurate under trees and in rough terrain, so we couldn’t be sure how far we had to go. All we really knew was that this was taking forever, and we had not yet encountered the expected steep downhill. Finally, we reached the turn, and knew that there was still 1000 ft descent to be made in this torrent of a trail. Cynthia took off in desperate hurry, sliding and pounding through the mud, but to no avail, we missed the cutoff time by 4 minutes. Chuck Wilson (aid station captain) pulled us for missing the cutoff (again!) and kindly let us sit in his car while they took down the aid station. Several more runners soon joined our ranks, and we got to talk with Hwa Ja Andrade and Don Wilkison while waiting, both also surprised and out of sorts for being pulled. So our day ended at the turnaround, and we were driven back to the finish to eat, warm up, and collect the extensive race swag.
OK, so much for the conditions! Miwok was a sharp contrast to the heat of the Diablo 50-miler two weeks earlier, but ultramarathoners have to learn to contend with whatever nature throws at them. Apparently, we still have a lot to learn. There was a relatively high no-show rate at the start, and quite a few were forced to drop out when they were unable to stay warm enough and found themselves with insufficient clothing, even some of the top runners. But surprisingly few people actually fell or hurt themselves; these were a tough lot!

But the conditions really slowed everyone down. You can’t run full out when you’re constantly struggling to keep yourself upright and not slide off the trail or zigzagging around puddles. Race management, however, did not see fit to take the conditions into account, and they continued to strictly enforce the predetermined cutoff times. A significant fraction of the runners who made it to the turnaround at 35 miles did so with just a few minutes to spare before the 8 hour and 40 minute cutoff, as judged by the steady stream of people we passed on the way down. Unfortunately, we missed it by 4 minutes (about 0.8%), even though the time allowed for the return trip to Pan Toll was 4 hours (next cutoff time was 6:30)! Even under these conditions, we felt we could have made it the 14 miles back to Pan Toll within the allotted time. Another runner who arrived at the turnaround a few minutes after us was even exactly on his planned race pace—he unfortunately had failed to notice that his planned pace brought him into the turnaround eight minutes after cutoff, even though he had both numbers carefully printed on his laminated race plan. The cutoff times were based on an assumption that you would be slowing down significantly later in the race. In this case, a bunch of us arrive at the turnaround in good condition and quite ready to continue at much the same pace—in fact most of us probably would have made the next cutoff had we been allowed to continue. Not surprisingly, there were significantly more runners who missed the cutoff this year than in previous years.

One of our difficulties with this event stemmed from our relative inexperience on the course. The elevation profile is so abbreviated as to be useless. The initial hill looks like a single climb and descent, but the hill is full of false summits and downhills. So we weren’t sure what the rest of the course held in store based on how the profile failed to fit with the reality. This became a problem later, when we were unsure where the turnaround was, and what to expect on the ridge. There really is no substitute for familiarity with the course, and we should have spent some time up there in advance, trying out the course.
David continued his now-standard practice of fueling himself before, during, and after the race on almost entirely fat and protein. Heat (Diablo) and cold (Miwok) did not affect his nutritional needs. Cynthia was pleased with how easy and satisfying turkey and mashed potatoes were (not much chewing required). Despite the asthma and illness from the previous week, there was little problem due to lungs. Maybe the clean moist air helped.

The heat at Diablo of course dramatically increased the need for water intake. Electrolyte needs are less clear. David used salt capsules regularly at Diablo and not at all at Miwok. At Miwok he had no muscle cramps or other symptoms of electrolyte imbalance. Cynthia got her usual lower leg cramps, but nothing insurmountable. We tend to believe that it is much more effective to treat muscle cramps with plain calcium carbonate antacid tablets, at least when running under normal conditions. Excessive heat and sweating can increase the need for salt, especially if you are a salty sweater or drinking a lot of water. It makes sense physiologically: calcium ions (not sodium ions) mediate muscle contraction, and our experience, with both ourselves and others that we’ve convinced to try it, is that a quick fix of calcium is more effective for managing muscle cramps than downing a bunch of salt capsules. But, of course, that wouldn’t give much of an opportunity to sell a high-priced specialty product…

Besides calcium carbonate (and salt/”electrolytes” in hot weather), our other standard carry-along item is ibuprofen. Cynthia usually starts out with it (or Aleve) to prevent the achiness catching up too early; David can get through easier 50K events without needing any at all, though he does take ibuprofen at the first sign of significant muscle fatigue if there’s a long way to go yet (typically at least 20 miles after the start).

Another innovation we successfully tested out at Miwok was field recharging of Cynthia’s Garmin 405. The standard charging cable connects to its 5 V charger using a USB connector. (You can therefore charge it directly from any computer USB port, if you want to, though that’s not particularly helpful on the run.) But you can also buy “USB batteries.” Ours is made by Lenmar and is a compact 2.5Wh Li-ion battery with a USB connector built in that weighs in at a little over an ounce. When the Garmin internal battery started to run out after around 7.5 hours, we connected the battery and charging cable for a half-hour or so, and were ready to go for several more hours. (Repeat as needed; the USB battery capacity is much greater than the internal Garmin battery.) The only drawbacks are running with the wire wrapped around your arm and securing the battery (in your hand or a pocket), and the functions are not accessible while it’s charging (though it continues to collect data). If you remove the charger for a brief period, you can check your progress, then continue the charging process. In principle, this practice could allow use of the Garmin for 100 mile events or longer (no, we’re not ready for that yet!)

The aftermath and lessons learned: Cynthia’s muscles are (surprisingly) still sore three days later —must be due to the faster downhills. Also, lower abdominals are very sore (iliacus and psoas). David—no pain at all as usual (really, really unfair). Feet survived ok—hot spots seemed much happier running wet and cool. No falls, no injuries. David is still satisfied with his fueling strategy, Cynthia is not—what food she had stayed down well and kept fatigue and nausea away, but was eaten too little or too late to keep her energy levels high. Cytomax was fine, but she got too little of it too apparently (only two bottles).

It seems that trying to keep the pace down at the beginning was the wrong strategy—at least it didn’t seem to prevent Cynthia’s slowdown near the 20-mile mark, and instead just resulted in lost time. Perhaps the biggest mistake was taking it easy on the climb to Pan Toll, where we lost time and got chilled, and once chilled, it was harder to use our hands to put on clothes at the aid station, harder to get at our supplies, harder to move at all. Cynthia is a lousy walker on hills, and needs to learn how to run them or at least walk faster! We expected to perk up and make better time after Pan Toll, but the weather interfered with that bit of strategy. It would have been better to make good time earlier and not hope to make it up later.

So, Miwok remains another piece of unfinished business. Maybe next year will be better, assuming we even get in. Meanwhile, we did get cool race swag as you can see. The women’s shirt has a built-in bra, and the men’s shirt is handsome and manly. The caps are nice and have curved brims (maybe to keep the rain out?! Where were they when we needed them?) We’ll have to try running someplace actually cold to make use of the gloves. The coolest goodies perhaps were the Miwok Trail Ale and glass to drink it in. There was also a nice water bottle that we forgot to include in the picture.