Tuesday, April 12, 2011

RUNDown: 2011 Skyline-to-the-Sea 50km (#9)

My first Ultra!

Summary: Beautiful! Educational.

If you want to see all 116 pictures in my Picasa album look here.

For another report at Justine Tamaro's blog: EatRantRun.


This is the 6th race in my year of 8 marathons and my first ultra. 

I did my first  'trail marathon' in December...so for some reason I decided that I wanted to do the 50k rather than the marathon for my first hilly trail race. Don't ask me why.

Recall that my plan for this race was to go slow ("Snaily" was my pacing parter 8) and shoot for a 7 hour finishing time. I'd not done much running since LA (3/20) due to the recovery week followed by a mild cold that was still clearing out but I felt good otherwise.

I got the pre-race newsletter via email on Thursday and studied it closely. I made some notes on a printed copy of the elevation profile on what 7hr splits should look like at the 5 aid stations on the course. (see below).  The course is a marathon distance and to make it a 50k you add the "Gazos loop" which takes you to 50k. The race had an 8hr cutoff and if you were running the 50k but didn't make it to the Gazos aid station by 1pm (4 hrs) they would make you go straight and do the marathon rather than take the loop.

There was a special note: part of the trail was closed due to trees down and so there was a detour required that was going to add .5km and a bit of climbing. I found some online maps of the course and printed out the section that showed the Gazos loop as well as this detour and highlighted them...I was a bit worried that I'd get tired and zig when I should zag and end up on the wrong trail at some point. 

Saturday I got my stuff together..the was a pretty big gap of 14km between to of the later aid stations so I wore my double bottle belt. This was a good idea as it turned out.

Before the Start

Sunday morning I woke up just before the alarm at 5am. I had laid everything out, as well as my checklist and put on my kit quickly as it was cold in the house...43F outside! I had a toasted Izzy's bagel with olive oil and a banana to eat and put on some long nylon pants and fleece pullover and gloves to keep me warm until the start.

In the car I decided to drive to the parking area (which is on the ocean about 1.5 miles south of the race finish) via Half Moon Bay. This is way out of the way vs the direct route but that route uses very windy narrow roads right through the back country and the time ends up being around the same: 1:15. I pulled into the parking lot which was already almost full at 6:30, even though the busses weren't due till 6:45. I took a few pics and got back in my nice warm car until the three school busses showed up.

On the bus I sat next to a guy named Ben. It was his first ultra as well and he'd driven up from Orange County the day before. We'd been in a lot of the same races in the last months: SF, Long Beach, Surf City, LA. He had a friend that had run it the year before and recommended this race to him..even though said friend got lost on the course (yikes!). There was a young girl across from us that had also run LA (very fast) and had run S2S the year before and was training for a race with almost 9000' of climbing..GAK...she mentioned "S2S is a tough course". Urk. 

Finally!...we are at the starting area..we get our bib and a plastic garbage bag to put the fleece and pants in. I have to pee a bit but the line is very long to the 3 port-o-lets so I just figure I'll get a chance on the course behind a tree or something. We all mosey over to the official start which is down the actual trail about 15 meters and bunches of us hang back knowing there's no need to be up front. No chip timing here so you just lose the time...keep track of your real time yourself. The race director says a bunch of stuff into his megaphone but there's so much yakking going on in the back of the pack that we can't here a word. Hopefully it's not anything too important ;)

Elevation Profile with important points shown

Start to Waterman Gap aid station (6.2 miles)

Finally a horn sounds and there's a big cheer and we are off! There's lots of crowding so it's all walking for the first few minutes and gradually it opens up so we can run after 2-3 minutes. I know that it's going to be a long day so I'm not feeling any need to hurry. I also know that we are doing some massive downhill from here to the Waterman gap aid station.

There's a protocol for saying 'on your left' when you want to pass on single track trails and this gets used a lot in the beginning. At points I pass people only to get re-passed when I stop to take a picture. Already we are into the redwoods and the trail is very soft and easy to run on. there are little ups but mostly it is sustained downhill.

The track is padded with redwood needles...really soft and nice to run on..I remember thinking that if the entire trail is like this, it's going to be easy to make good time. The air under the redwoods is crisp, cool and fresh. I'm sure there's some extra oxygen around...

I started munching on my Cliff blocks..I really like thier tartness and they are more chewy than the GU chomps, which get really hard if they've been opened for any length of time. I don't eat either during a road race as you can't really chew very well and breath at fast paces, but these treats work ok during the uphills when you are walking. I probably ate about 12 of these during the day in 3 different flavors. 

A one point there is an old car down in hill to my left, the road is up to my right and I guess it smashed through the guardrail? I'm suprised nobody removed it but perhaps it was so long ago that nobody cared?

Rich Hahn
Along the way I hear some people and I turn around, say 'smile' and take a picture of the group behind me. I strike up a conversation with a guy named Rich. He's a member of a TnT group (Team in Training)..one of the coach types and he's done a bunch of marathons but this is his first Ultra too. We are both agreed on running any and every uphill so I end up seeing him a lot over the course of the day. He also has the remnants of a cold like I do, and we are both coughing here and there, especially on the uphills. He really bombs the downhills at one point and I don't feel want to do that much to my quads so I let him go ahead.

I started wondering how I was going to remember where each picture was taken and had the idea of taking a picture of the Garmin. 

I'm worried that the down so early on is going to leave me really toasted in the quads for later, so I try a trick I read about on an ultra site: If you have ever seen a dog or horse trotting semi-sideways rather than dead-straight-ahead you'll grok the concept. Basically you turn your body slightly to the left or right and then move your feet with a bit of sideways action to your body, rather than just straight ahead. I found that switching between right, center and left there were different quad/leg muscles being used. I used this trick for the rest of the run, especially on the downhills that are so very steep that you just can't run them normally at all.

Finally I get to the aid station, and I had about 6.4 on the Garmin which seemed typical overage for 6.2 miles actual. The aid station had the same kinds of foods I saw at the Bay Trail marathon...potato chips, little pretzels, gummy bears, P&J mini sandwiches, pastry things, cookes, MandMs etc. A nice person would fill up your water bottles for you but I had not drunk that much yet so didn't bother and left after half a minute or so.

Waterman Gap to China grade aid station (11 miles)

We started this leg knowing it was a big climb...probably 700' in 3 miles...then a small 'camel back' drop of 200' or so and back up to 2000' to the aid station.

The terrain starts changing here to chaparral and the trail becomes rocky in places..not rocky in the usual sense but large expanses of smooth rock. When it's a steep down, sometimes there are little steps carved into it, which is nice, but I don't feel comfortable barreling down at running speed. Rich had caught up and passed me after the aid station but now I caught up to him again. He was wearing a knee brace for a trick knee and I could see that he was being super uber careful on the rocky patches. I think it's best not to be behind somebody in this kind of situation as it adds pressure to go too fast so I passed him at that point. Later on I found out he did fall (but apparently not too badly) on this stretch and got some first aid at China grade.

At this point I was becoming kind of surprised how my muscles were feeling it even though we were so early in the race. After many ups and downs on the camelback.....

FINALLY we get to the China grade  aid station. Here I had my water bottle refilled (posh service!) by the nice volunteers and chowed down. I saw Rich show up but left before him.

China Grade to Gazos aid station  (16 miles)

Gazos has that pesky 1pm cutoff for 50km-ers...and I'm looking at my Garmin and getting concerned. Rich had told me that the Garmins under-read under the trees. Weird because usually they over read due to the noise of each reading making it look like you are bobbling around a bit, which adds distance ..I thought about this and realized that under-reading must be because it only gets a fix on you every couple of minutes and it then assumes you ran directly from fix-to-fix, instead of the wiggle path the trail actually took. 

3:19 to go 13.7?
Finally I heard some people and around the corner and there was the Gazos station. Lots of yummy food again and I chowed down a bunch. I tried a boiled potato here and took the small capsule of salt that goes with. I wondered if I was supposed to dump the salt on the potato? Didn't want to waste any salt so I just ate the capsule with the potato and swallowed it intact 8)

Our bib's yellow color showed we were a 50k-er and so they told me to take the right turn here..and marked the bib with a swipe so they wouldn't tell us to do it a second time after we showed up again from the first loop! Good idea as we might not be thinking too clearly.

Gazos loop to Gazos aid station (second time, 20.3 miles)

The loop starts by taking you up the paved fire road, which is uphill just enough to make you not want to run it..then you split off on to Dool trail which is fairly steep in places until you join up with a dirt fire road. It was at this point (4 hours into the race) I realized that I did still need to pee and there was really nobody around AND it was possible to even go off the trail (not on a slope). That felt pretty good ;).

sandstone path
The road become more like solid sandstone..very strange to see up here at the top of this hill, there were some little views around, but couldn't see the ocean. There was a side hike up 50' to the tippy top point but I wasn't inspired to do that.

Gobbled another PandJ mini sandwich things here, more salty potato chips, plus I took 1/3 of a peeled orange...really posh because you can take it on the trail with you and not have to carry any skins till the next stop. 

Banana slug..they keep the soil 
good for the trees
On the way down Meteor trail we stopped when we saw one of the University of Santa Cruz Mascots..the Banana Slug.

Gazos to Twin Redwoods aid station
Two miles of big climbing (the last big climb) and then it's all "mostly" downhill to the finish. Of course there are PLENTY of small uphills as you can see on the elevation profile.

Are you ready to cross over grasshopper?
My favorite river crossing is the two aluminum I beams (see photo). When I saw these I laughed. The water was COLD and rock strewn, so if you fell you could be in a big problem. And you'd fall badly because the I beams were positioned such that your feet were down inside the U shape. So you can't just jostle your foot to the side to catch your balance, you have to pick it up and put it down on the narrow rim. And to make it even more fun, you have to transition to the second I beam (at an angle to the first) to complete the crossing. 

I felt like Frodo or a very tired Ninja but I carefully placed each footfall and made it across ok.

Soon I came upon Rich again as he was pondering how to do the next crossing.

We ran together for a while after and eventually some people from his group caught up and while he was talking with them I decided to forge on ahead...I was getting worried we wouldn't make the cutoff.

The trail got flatter and easier to run on and I was able to keep up a steady run..as long as there were no uphills.

Ilya Shafir and mystery tire.
Soon two young guys caught up with me and I ran with them for a while, but eventually I decided I could not keep up with and so said adieu. One of them eventually slowed a bit himself and I hung with him. I never got his name but looking at his bib number I know he was Ilya Shafir. I took his picture next to this huge tire in the woods. (?!?)

Eventually my Garmin died and I didn't even know what time it was. I did want to make it under the 8 hour limit because the Marathon Manics require any finish to be 'official' i.e. under the cutoff time. So even if the race listed my time, MM could not count it. 

Finally, after what seemed like FOREVER, we got to the next aid station! 

Twin Redwoods aid station to Finish (29.5 miles?)

Waddell river 
So, at Twin redwoods I asked how far to the finish...the answer was 15 minutes to 5pm, distance 1.5 miles. I knew we started the race a few minutes after 9am, but not exactly how much. I started 'sprinting' (probably only 11 or 12 minute miles at that point), but the math did not look good. Eventually there was a sign telling us "1 mile to go, pick up the pace!" but I could not run the small uphills at all, only the flats.

I pulled away from Ilya because of my feeling of time pressure and at one point I remember him yelling to me I still had 5 minutes until 5pm. I heard some cowbells which spurred me on but coming around a corner discovered it was some spectators that had walked out on the course to cheer us on in, which was great and I thanked them, but secretly I was bummed it was not the finish!

FINALLY the finish was clearly around the next corner, I kept 'sprinting' (Snaily on my back) and saw 7:50 and change on the clock. Yes!!! Beat the cutoff!

Post Finish

While I was drinking a nice cold Coke, I heard the crowds start to cheer and saw my recent cohort, Ilya, for the last few miles approach the finish. His little boy..so excited to see his dad after waiting all day no doubt ran out to greet him as he approached. His dad just bent over (OUCH..I could not have done that!) and scooped him right up and proceeded to carry him to the finish in 7:51..the spectators cheering madly. It was very cute to see...but I think the boy wondered what all the fuss was about.

Soon Rich came in at 7:54 and I high fived him...he also made the cutoff!

The post race food was good...chicken noodle or tomato basil soup plus all the aid station stuff. Even though I was in the tail end of finishers there was still plenty of food.

The T-shirt was super (different for 50k vs marathon too)! I asked about the coaster we were supposed to get as a 50km finisher and was told everybody gets a medal this year..but..they ran out of them. Hmm? The race has been sold out for a long time. Then, when I was waiting for the shuttle a guy that finished early enough to get a medal pulls out a 'first time ultra' coaster that he got..(I remembered clicking a box "is this your first ultra" on the sign-up..this coaster was for those people?) Obviously the bling situation is not very well managed.
(UPDATE: they are sending these via mail)

Caught the shuttle back to the parking area and took a shot of the sea, now about 11 hours later. Drove the 1:15 back home and that was one loooong day!

The Day after..

Legs feel stiff and sore but in a more general all-over way than post-marathon. That's probably a good thing. I can go down steps without using the handrail (barely), this is a bit worse than my last marathon but not by too much.  HR sitting at my desk is 50...pretty much back to normal.

Speaking of HR's, my average for the race was 124. That's a good long aerobic workout (max HR for the entire day only 145).  My stride rate was very bimodal due to the walking/running:

While writing up this report the preliminary results came out and my name was not there!? Sigh. I sent an email and hopefully it will be fixed. If not, this race will be no good for Marathon Maniacs and I'll have to fit in another. (Update: this got fixed on the following Saturday)

Official result 7:50:01 clock time, 140/153 overall, 13/14 in 50-59 age group. Ultrarunners are ALL in very good shape.... Usually in a marathon there are a lot of walkers and such so I'm in the top half or third. But here, no such luck...here I'm one of the back of the packers making the rest of them all look good 8)

If you want to see all 116 pictures in my Picasa album look here.

Garmin data that stops 3 miles from the finish here:


  1. What a beautiful place to run and you got such lovely pictures. Well done on your official finish - hope they sort it out for you.

  2. Congrats on your first ultra too.

  3. Congratulations on your first ulra, Paul! You are now ready for the Bataan Death March run in the Philippines. Thanks for sharing the beautiful pictures.

  4. Sounds like an awesome experience! Great pics!!

    And this run looks like it was done through Pacific Coast Trail runs (I can tell by the snack tables alone, haha). I really like that organization, I've done other races through them:
    Woodside 10K
    Skyline 14K

    They always have awesome scenery and very tough courses!

  5. Congrats on your first ultra! You picked a beautiful one. I've run/hiked a lot in the area, esp. Big Basin (will be doing another event there on the 30th). Thanks for a great effort with pics and report. Sorry for all of the problems with the finish results and medals/coaster. You should have at least received a coaster on the spot, as someone who finished WAY behind you got one. Hang in there; they will make things right...eventually. Run well, Ann

  6. Congrats on the Ultra! Though it sucks about the bling, you know you did it and that's what counts. And, could it have happened on a more beautiful trail? Again, congratulations, it's an amazing accomplishment. Badwater 2012???

  7. Great report and fantastic pics.

    We'll be happy to send you a 'First Ultramarathon' coaster - just e-mail me at sarah@pctrailruns.com with your best mailing address. And I believe that the medals all went out in today's mail or will go out tomorrow. Last, I responded on FB and have asked that you be added to the results - I'm sorry that you were missed at the finish. I don't know what happened, as you seem to have been the only one missed that day.

    And I bet I know who Ben's friend was - a good SoCal friend of mine was the only person to get truly lost on that course...ever. :-)

    Pacific Coast Trail Runs

  8. congrats on your finish..i was the 'girl on the bus'...
    great report! beautiful run, eh? i took a header on the rocks and got a gash above my left eyelid this year, really expanding my tolerance for pain whil running long distances, 9000ft? no problem! haha. take care ultrarunner!!!!

  9. @all: thanks for your comments!

    @sarah: thanks fixing result and bling issues.

    @cari: ouch!? I can't imagine racing on those trails!? Hope your ding is all healed up before your next race!

  10. Great job with pics and going sub-8!!! Someday, I'd like to try the marathon on this one.


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