Monday, January 8, 2018

My first ultra? Almost... a fat ass!

It was January 1, last Monday, and I ran... my first ultra, whoopee!

Hmm, those who have been following my blog for the past 10 years are going to wonder: "did Jean start smoking some weed, leveraging the brand new California law...?" Nope, not at all, no chance! Ok, that was only my first ultra run of... the year (how timely!). Not even the first ultra since I switched to the OFM (Optimized Fat Metabolism) diet at the end of last November, but my third. And certainly not my first ultra overall in my log but 370th!

Why this title then? First because I was thinking of all the super brave souls which took the resolution of running an ultra this year, and even those aiming at running a marathon since it is so close (just one more step makes it an ultra, technically)! But, second, because I experienced this week some of the feelings I remember from my first ultra. The thing is, I ventured in the ultra running world in 2016, one year before starting this blog. What I've discovered since is that, after 3,700 lines in my log, I don't have such a strong and vivid memory of all these runs and it helps to have write them down as posts or looking back at pictures to activate the corresponding neurons and synapses... And, no, I don't attribute that to age yet, but to living an ultra life, overflowing with experiences and memories.

What was my first ultra? I thought I had run a Fat Ass, one of these informal, low key, 50K runs we do at the beginning of the year among friends to kick start the season and get back in shape after indulging more food than needed over the Holidays! But, not quite, my first ultra was an ultra race indeed, the famous Way Too Cool 50K in March. And, as there is no better source of learning than trial and error, let me share a few things I got wrong the first time. So you get them right if you are just starting.

1. Respect the distance and the challenge. I was way, not to cool but, over-confident. I remember my main thought being "I ran sub-3 marathons, how can 5 more mile be, I can easily do this!" I event remember thinking that the times for previous years looked slow and thinking of making the podium in my first ultra. To show off, I even wore my Boston marathon outfit. Oh my, read on...


2. Take what ultra veterans tell you, with a grain of salt: everything is relative in ultra running. To make the over-confidence matter worse, my Stevens Creek Striders club mate, Charles Stevens, whom I learned to much about ultra running from, had told me that the course wasn't challenging, a fast and almost flat one! Oh, my, I remember how hilly the course appeared to me as it was my fist time running on the Western Sates trail and around Cool and Auburn! Of course, if you've run Western States, or Hard Rock, or UTMB, then, yes, Way Too Cool is an easy course. Comparatively. As the elites show by getting closer to the 3-hour mark, every year. Yet, 3,000 feet of cumulative elevation counts when you come from years of road racing.

3. Pace yourself. I started too fast, then bonked. Ultra 101. As Western States 100-mile founder frequently joke about, "Start slow, then slow down" is a very safe and conservative strategy. Unless you are sponsored by a major brand and run for the money (if there is any to win in that ultra race), better not trying setting your PR in your first ultra. Run your first ones conservatively, enjoy the experience of not bonking, then the experience of even improving over the years. If it's any encouragement, I set my half-marathon PR at 49, finally breaking 1:15 after trying hard for 15 years, and 50K at 52, breaking a 30-year standing age-group American record along the way (which has been improved again last year, but that's life).

4. Beware of the time spent in aid stations: every second may not count, but minutes add up! I spent a lot of time in aid stations. It took me a few years to get that, more advice from Charles Stevens who excelled at it, and also switching to Vespa Power to skip the food buffet during races, it's amazing the time you can lose at aid stations. Of course, there is great things to say about the social aspect of connecting with the volunteers and other runners while you stop to refill and refuel, taking pictures, asking for news about people you may know, change socks or shoes, enjoy the restrooms, wait for a super hot soup or coffee or tea to cool down but, as you can see, the list is long and, if there are 6 aid stations (at a minimum) and you spend 10 minutes at each, 1 hour just got added to your finish time. I learn to save time by running with 2 Ultimate Direction bottles (1 fill one with Gu2O, Gu Energy Brew, and the other with water), that typically covers 15 to 18 miles. And carrying Gu gels and S!Caps with me saves time too, in addition to having them right when I need it.

As an illustration of all the points so far, here I am, getting in the first aid station of WTC 2006, just before Mark Ritchman, who I didn't know at the time.
And Mark now with a good lead after my stop to refill my bottle and enjoy some food, after only 6 miles! I won't see him again from there, finishing 35 minutes behind in my first 50K.
Mark had just turned 50 and was going to finish in 8th overall, second Master to Roy Rivers, in 3:55! Despite being 7 years younger, it was going to take me almost 10 years to learn enough to beat him at races although I must say that he is in his own league, having made Team USA for the 100K in his prime time and, a few decades later, still a beast who is now killing the M60-64 age group!

5. Believe in yourself, remain positive! This one is interesting because, as I just mentioned, I was over confident so, of course, things didn't turn out as good as I expected, this is the basic law of ultra running. Yet, additionally, I didn't believe in myself enough and my doubts just amplified the fatigue I experienced after starting too fast, into a bad downward spiral. I learned over the years that when it's getting hard, you just have to keep going and push harder or at least, until things improve, eventually. This is the incredible power of mental will, which gets your body to do things you never though it could do. I'm not a client but, reading his publications and hearing him speak at the Tussey Mountains 50-mile Road Nationals, this is clearly the essence of David Roche's coaching philosophy.

6. Be very thankful to the race directing team and the volunteers. I have to confess, I initially didn't appreciate all the work which Race Directors, their team and the volunteers put into setting up and running a successful event, not to mention the work after the race. Certainly, not a value we are taught when running road races. As a matter of fact, when I thank volunteers for being there at road races, now, they typically look at me like I've lost my mind, yikes! And I'd say, be grateful even if the race director does that for a living; given the length of an ultra, the special permit it requires for instance and risks involved, it's a very tough and demanding job and responsibility, worth to be very thankful for when you are a runner.

7. Don't be afraid of running an ultra outside a race. First, I thought that ultras were only for races. Coming from 8 years of marathon training and running, I had never heard about running a marathon when training for a marathon. The longest I had seen in training plans was 20 miles, just to experience what the wall could look like or, more positively, to train how to fuel correctly to avoid that wall. My best doctor, on of my sisters in France, had also told me not to run more than a marathon, or two, a year. That's what the Fat Ass events are meant for, no race or time pressure and great time to be more social.

8. Make and enjoy friends! Last but not least, ultra running is much more about friendship than other types of running are, and friends are great running partners when you have to log many miles. Looks at the peeps from 12 years ago, they haven't changed and are still great friends despite the distance: Penny now back in Australia, Robin in England and, still around, Peggy, Christina, Dennis, and many many more!

After 370 ultras, I could go on with more lessons I learned these past 10 years to make ultra running more sustainable like how to remain injury free, keep the fire on, plan a season, or the fact that speed work at the track still matters even if you focus on longer distances, but... gotta run as we say here. Literally.

But, before, three more things, coming back to the title.

First, I mentioned that it wasn't even my first ultra on my new diet. I did two short ones in December (I use the word short because, according to Andy Jones Wilkins, 50K are barely ultras, too short), but on flat courses. The one I ran on Monday was only 27.3 miles but with 4,000 feet of elevation. It was my first test at running hills on fat calories and it worked really well, I climbed to the top of Black Mountain twice and even PRed in the final 3-mile long descent (Strava activity).
And, speaking of friends (#8), I even met another long-time one last Monday, out in the woods, Chuck Wilson!

Second, I use the shocking ass term in the title because it is Fat Ass time, although I'm going to be missing our first one in the Bay Area, racing a 12-hour in Auburn next week. If you are in the Bay Area next week, check the Steatopygous Quinquamillia one, or look on FaceBook for the "Second Saratoga Fat Ass" which may occur in February (these events can't be official, they don't have permit so the more spread by word of mouth, the better). If you are not in the Bay Area, and don't have a Fat Ass organized in your area, then set one up. That's what I did one year in France when I was away and missed our Saratoga Gap one (see the original version of Les Balcons de Rouen and a snowy version of it 3 years later). Although this run was an ultra, technically, it was not quite eligible for a fat ass as it felt short of 31 miles and wasn't a group run. Almost...

Third, still relating to the title, I ran these hilly 27 miles one 1 Gu gel, 2 pouches of Vespa and 2 bottles of Gu2O, getting the rest of the calories from fat since I switched to the Optimized Fat Metabolism approach a month and a half ago. Looking forward to seeing the benefits in my next race in a week (12-hour at One Day in Auburn).

With all these thoughts, wishing you the best for your first or next ultra, remembering that, no matter how many runs you've done, there are new things you can experience, see, hear, smell or learn, like on your very first jog! Run Happy and all the best for 2018!


Saturday, December 30, 2017

USATF Runners of the Year 2017: better be USATF!

Our National USA Track and Field officials, most of them volunteers, met in Columbus, OH, a month ago for the 2017 Annual Convention. If, like me, you are particularly interested in MUT things (i.e. Mountain, Ultra and Trail running), you can consult the meeting minutes of the National MUT Council.

One thing which isn't in the minutes, however, is the result of the vote for the coveted USATF Runners of the Year titles. I must admit that this process was a bit obscure to me and I was stunned to discover that, this year, I had gotten three automatic nominations thanks to my three Master wins at the three Nationals I competed in (Fourmidable 50K Trail in Auburn, the epic 100K Road one week before my Boston podium, and the 50M Road in October). On FaceBook though, I admitted that this was just the result of a poor participation in these Nationals (lack of elite showing up at the Championships nowadays), and I was sure there would be plenty of additional nominations in the meantime, more worthwhile.

Personally, in the Masters Ultra Trail category whose competitiveness I know too well, I was thinking for instance at:

  1. Jeff Browning who finished 20th overall at UTMB, won the Bear 100-mile, and finished 4th overall at Western States, all this at 45!
  2. Michael Wardian who raced more than 50 times this year and placed on the podium most of the time;
  3. Paul Terranova: overall win at Bandera 50K, 22nd overall at TDS (Chamonix)
  4. Jesse Haynes: 5th at HURT 100 mile, 8th at Western States, overall win at Chimera 100-mile, 4th at Miwok 100K;
  5. Dominick Layfield: overall win at Montane Spine (UK) and Quicksilver 100K, 5th overall at Leona Divide 50-mile, 14th overall at Western States and 3rd at Rio Del Lago 100-mile.
But I must confess it's hard to keep track of who is doing what, every year, given the large number of ultra races around the world today, so I'm certainly missing key names.

Looking at the results, I became intrigued about the process and spent some time on the phone with Joe Fejes who stepped up to give up his time to administer this vote. I learned that 40 or so representatives of MUT Councils around the country were consulted (something I was surprised to learn since I now represent the Pacific Association for MUT, the largest USATF constituent in the US, but I did get the message).

Now, per Richard Bolt's post and call for nominations, that part of the process, the nominations, is actually very open since everyone can propose a name. I'm making a note of getting in the loop earlier next year and advertise this capability. I also suggested to Joe to ensure that each association had enough notice to nominate their best local candidates as they should know best what their local USATF members have achieved during the year.

Last but not least, as for the selection criteria, the number one is that, as the USATF RoY titles says, candidates have to be serious about USATF. Number one, be a USATF member in good standing ($25 yearly fee, or $20 if you register for 5 years). Number two, participate to USATF events, ideally at the National at least, and possibly at the International level for the best who are making Team USA. Number three, perform well at these events, if not in absolute with a National-class performance, at least relatively to the rest of the field.

With that, congrats to the 2017 USATF Runners of the Year whom you can find in Richard's post.
  • Mountain Runners of the Year:
    • Lyndon Ellefson Memorial Mountain Runner of the Year: Joseph Gray, 33, Colorado Springs, CO
    • Master’s Man: Chris Grauch, 45, Boulder, CO
    • Women’s Open: Addie Bracy, 31, Longmont, CO
    • Master’s Woman: Sara Wagner, 45, Flagstaff AZ
  • Sub-Ultra Trail Runners of the Year:
    • Men’s Open: Mario Mendoza, 31, Bend, OR
    • Men’s Master: Chris Grauch, 45, Boulder, CO
    • Women’s Open: Renee Metivier, 35, Bend, OR
    • Master’s Woman: Corinne Walton, 47, Portland, OR
  • Ultra Trail Runners of the Year:
    • Men’s Open: Max King, 37, Bend, OR
    • Men’s Master: Chad Lasater, 45, Houston, TX
    • Women’s Open: Courtney Dauwalter, 32, Golden, CO
    • Master’s Woman: Caroline Boller, 42, Solvang, CA
  • Ultra Road Runners of the Year:
    • Ted Corbitt Memorial Ultra Runner of the Year: Patrick Reagan, 30, Savannah, GA
    • Men’s Master: Olivier LeBlond, 45, Arlington, VA
    • Ruth Anderson Memorial Ultra Runner of the Year: Camille Herron, 34, Warr Acres, OK
    • Master’s Woman: Pam Profitt Smith, 43, Salem, OR
  • Contributor of the Year:
    • Tracey Outlaw
Why did Chad Lasater made the Ultra Trail Masters over the other names I mentioned above? Because he competed in two USATF Nationals this year and won the Masters division at the 100K trail and 100-mile trail championships in his local Texas. And not the others.

Anyway, thank you especially to Joe and Richard for organizing this vote, it was really cool to get nominated next to legends such as Max King, Olivier LeBlond, Pam Smith, Camille Heron or Courtney Dauwalter. At 54 next year, I don't expect that to repeat so let me savor the moment and capture it in a blog so I remember when I get too old for this... ;-) But, at a minimum, the process shows that it is open to many who are dedicated to USATF and its races which abound in age group awards at every National Championship around the country. Check the list of the MUT 2018 Nationals and plan accordingly then!

If you live in North California, and are not a member already, consider joining our Pacific Association and competing with one of our local teams, either in Cross-Country, ultra or road races!
With this ultimate post for the year, all the best in 2018, go full speed with MUT and USATF!