Monday, April 23, 2007

Wind and Rain at the First Annual Sunsweet Tehama Wildflowers 50K

Last Saturday I joined 21 50K runners and 30 50K relay runners in Red Bluff, CA to run the inaugural Sunsweet Tehama Wildflowers 50K/50K Relay trail run. This race was the second race in the the 2007 Fuel Belt Series. I had recently picked up 61 (out of 62) points in the first race of that series, the Pony Express 100K, with a second place finish six minutes behind Scott Dunlap.
I did not get a lot of sleep the night before the race, because we had my wife's birthday party on Friday night and I had to get up at 3:30 a.m. to get to the race. I could have left later, but wanted to allow plenty of time in case something went wrong along the way, since I had never been to Red Bluff before. When the alarm rang, I jumped out of bed, mostly out of fear that I would fall asleep and wake up just a few minutes before the race was about to start without any hope of making it there in time. This has never actually happened to me, but I am always afraid it will.
I went through my usual prerace morning routine of eating toast with honey and jam, drinking coffee, and preparing my feet for the race. I use Bag Balm, Bodyglide and, most importantly, a new pair of Balega socks. These South African socks are really amazing. They are the equivalent of high-thread count sheets for your feet. I have never had a single blister with these socks and this time, with a good chance of rain and four creek crossings, I was going to put them to the test.

I arrived at the start early and met Jeremy Reynolds, who had won the 50 Mile race at the Pony Express. He had arrived the night before and slept in the back of his truck. I picked up my race packet, which included a bib with my lucky number 7, and was told that a bus was going to take us to the start about two miles away. Since it was freezing cold, I was happy to find out that the race packet's goodie bag doubled as a drop bag that could be used to return our warmup clothes to the finish line.

Beverly Anderson-Abbs handing out race packets at race headquarters at the Bend Boat Launch parking lot

I talked to Jeremy for a bit. He rides and trains endurance horses. He and his wife have actually won the Tevis Cup (run on the Western States 100-mile course) as well as the Hagen cup, which is given to the horse who looks best the day after completing the 100 mile race. Now there's a novel idea! Some race directors could add that to a 100 mile running race and they could use a 5K race or a lap on the track to determine the winner :)

Jeremy Reynolds at the finish

It is actually surprising how much endurance racing has in common for horses and humans. It is ultimately all a matter of fueling, pacing, training, and strategy. There are differences in sweat rate, electrolyte replenishment needs, forced rest stops (In the horse races, the race clock is actually stopped for all horses for a few hours), and so on, but in a foot race you are also managing an animal (your own body) throughout a race.

A small bus transported all the 50K runners to the start around 7:30, and the race directors Alan and Beverly Anderson-Abbs, who also happen to be two great ultra runners, gave us the final instructions: wet feet were unavoidable due to four creek crossings, the front runner would most likely have to open a series of gates, and watch out for lots of rocks and technical terrain.

My aims for this race were simple:

  1. Try to maintain a pace similar to the pace I ran in February's Jedidiah Smith 50K, despite the tougher terrain (4:16:50-8:16/mile pace), despite the tougher terrain.
  2. Try out a new, consistent fueling strategy by taking half a Hammer gel package every 30 minutes with water from my 20 oz hand bottle, as well as one electrolyte tablet every hour.

I did not bring an iPod, digital camera, or any other electronic devices, due to the possibility of rain and, more importantly, the need to stay alert for course markings on this new course.

Since it was freezing cold, we could not wait to get started and the 8 a.m. start was fast and furious. Jeremy took the lead right away. The course was full of lava rock and I was really glad I had picked my Nike Air Zoom Vomero shoes for the race, because without proper cushioning, I would have really trashed my legs.

After about two miles, a group of five, including Jeremy, Raymond Sanchez, a relay runner, a runner from Reno, and myself, built up a good lead. Jeremy was leading and we had to look carefully for flagging. Most turns were marked very well, but in a few cases the wind must have blown the pink and yellow tape away. We would have taken a wrong turn and ended up at Mount Shasta if it wasn't for Jeremy's eagle eye, spotting some pink ribbons a few hundred yards downhill from us.

The quiet and concentrated lead pack was followed by two runners, including Todd Larson, who was running his first 50K. In fact, he skipped the marathon and went straight from the half marathon to 50K (welcome to ultrarunning, Todd).

We blew right past the first aid station and continued running approximately 7:30 miles to the next aid station. I had my own gel and water, so did not need to stop yet. Possibly worried about losing ground, none of the other runners stopped either and we continued the fast pace.

The course ran parallel to the Sacramento river. Mostly gentle rolling hills on single track volcanic rock trails as well as some old wagon trails. There were many small ups and downs and a lot of the race was run on some fairly flat meadows. It was very windy on the flats, so it was good to run as part of a pack. Jeremy suddenly pulled over to use the restroom and shortly after that, we lost the guy from Reno, so our lead group shrunk to three, including the relay runner.

The first creek crossing was not bad. Jumping over some strategically placed rocks, I was able to stay dry and this made me think I might be able to stay dry altogether. As we were running down the most technical descent of the course, towards the next creek crossing, I noticed a barbed wire cowboy-style gate up ahead. Raymond Sanchez, who was running a few feet in front of me was so focused on his footing that he would have plowed right into the gate if I had not yelled out to him. I quickly opened the gate and found ourselves at creek crossing number two, where my dream of keeping dry feet instantly vanished. Alan Abbs was right; there was no way to stay dry. The creek crossing was a long marshy wet mess. We splashed in and ran across as fast as we could.

After having opened the almost fatal barbed wire gate, I was now in the lead and thus in charge of opening the rest of the gates (four or five more). Fortunately we did not have to close them behind us. Raymond and I cruised to the relay hand off point aid station, which would be passed twice, because it also marked the start of an extra two-mile loop. I left my water bottle at the aid station for the two-mile loop and when I came back it was topped off. At one point, Raymond almost took a bad fall, but fortunately he managed to catch himself with his head only inches away from a few dangerous rocks. Quite a few other runners tripped and fell on the many loose rocks as well.

The relay runner that had been part of the pack of five passed us just before the halfway point and his teammate charged up the hill ahead of us. Soon after that, another fresh relay runner passed us. Todd Larson caught up to us and Raymond broke away, soon followed by Todd, leaving me in third place, without any other runners in sight.

I focused on my fueling and getting from aid station to aid station, but my pace was slowing down a bit. I was still putting in 8:30/8:40 miles, but the rocky terrain was tough. It also started to rain lightly. Occasionally, a confused wildflower raised its head into the wind-swept meadows, but overall we were not treated to the spectacular views that this area is famous for. Even if we had though, we would not have been able to enjoy it while running, because the rocky terrain demanded complete head-down concentration. I might come back here for a nice (untimed) family hike some time, because I have heard a lot about the beautiful wildflowers.

Miles 18 through 24 were pretty tough, but I kept running, except for the steep technical ascent after the large creek crossing. I did not see anyone in front of me or behind me and a few times I thought I had lost the trail, only to spot a familiar yellow ribbon in the distance. The aid stations were about three miles apart and the people were great. The volunteers filled water bottles faster than you could say "Sunsweet Tehama Wildflowers 50K."

As it started raining heavier, I actually started feeling better. You can blame that on being Dutch, I guess. My oldest son Sean also loves to run in the rain and actually tries to get his feet wet in as many puddles as possible. This would have been a perfect day for him!

I got to the last aid station with five miles to go. I filled up my water bottle for the last time and charged off hoping I could still catch Todd or Raymond, or both. I was now running on a fairly flat gravel road, that lead to a large meadow. By now I was soaking wet from the pouring rain, yet thoroughly enjoying it. As I ran into the meadow, I saw Todd up ahead. I was closing in on him rapidly, running sub 8 miles again and after a few minutes I passed him. I picked up the pace a bit and blew by the last aid station with two miles to go.

The final two miles of the race were on the road back to the boat launch parking lot where we had parked in the morning. I ran a 7:30 mile followed by a sub 7 mile, looking over my shoulder a few times just in case. I felt great and arrived at the finish at 4:08:30, about 7 and a half minutes behind Raymond, who finished in a well-deserved first place (4:00:50).

It turned out that Raymond was fairly new to running, having switched from boxing only last year and now running a few marathons a month. He fell twice on the course and only narrowly escaped the barbed wire gate, so maybe boxing was safer after all :)

Raymond Sanchez -- in the black trunks, undefeated champion of the wildflower

Todd Larson came in third place (4:13:45), and Jeremy came in about 11 minutes behind me in 4:19. He had to leave right away to get to a wedding, so he decided to take a quick swim in the Sacramento river.

Jeremy's cool down

On my way home, I stopped by Luigi's Pizza and Pasta restaurant in Red Bluff for lunch. I met Nevada City's Frank Plucker there, who finished 10th in the 50K. Frank and I had both run the Daffodil Run 10K last week, so it was fun to see him here. Hopefully I'll see him and his family at the Nevada City Spring Run 10K on Saturday.

Finally, I stopped at Peet's coffee in Chico. My Lake Tahoe Ultra sweater caught the eye of the Peytons from Incline Village. We talked for a little bit. They were in town for the Chico Wildflower Century (100 mile bike ride) that was going to be held on Sunday. Michael, an avid road biker, had actually paced the Tahoe marathon front runners on his bike two years ago. I told them about my Tahoe triple adventure last year and found out that Les Wright, the Lake Tahoe Marathon race director, used to be Michael's PE teacher. It's a small world.
As for the Balega sock stress test, they held up great. No blisters. Next up, the Nevada City Spring Run 10K on Saturday.


Scott Dunlap said...

Congratulations! 4:08 is a great time. Sounds like you guys tamed that new course!


Rajeev said...

Great race report. 4:08 on that course is incredible. What's next?

Chihping Fu 傅治平 (超馬阿爸) said...

Congratulations! Great run and nice report.

Can't imagine how you managed to run that fast on the technical part of the course and water crossing. But what a great idea to have a short splint right after an ultra to see who is the best.

Glad to read your encouters on your way home. Besides the run, the entire trip is full of fun and rewarding.


Anonymous said...


Austin Violette said...

Hey Peter its Austin Violette from the gold country grand prix.Anyway wow what a run, that is an amazing time!
PS: haha it took me forever to find how to talk to you on this blog, im new to it. Could you send me your e mail on my blog so we can talk about going on a run some time?

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