Women 1st : Roxanne Woodhouse of Weaverville , California – 8:00:15
We gathered in the spotlight glow of a few check-in tables at the Pine Grove picnic area for the start of the Firetrails 50. Just before 6:30 AM, Julie Finegar, the new co-RD along with Mark Gilligan, herded us onto the dark, paved trail on the east shore of Lake Chabot. A few headlamps highlighted white-capped runners and feet shuffled in the chill as Julie counted down to the start. Months of preparation now in the past, the group of 220 runners surged forward, I patted my brother Darren on the back as we joined in competition for the first time. I would see him once in the next ten and a half hours.
My strategy was to keep steady and easy for the duration, hoping I'd have a little left in the tank for some of the overall downhill on the way back to Lake Chabot. The eastern sky brightened as we climbed from the lake to the first "liquids only" aid station at Marciel Road (3.2 mi). I didn't stop although I only carried a single bottle and planned for two to three gels between each aid station; the stations are nicely spaced and well-staffed along the route. I was a little ahead of time at Marciel due to the flat start and pack mentality that gets things moving. Things spread out at the first small climbs. In the cool of the morning, I was happy to have my "arm warmers" which were actually my extra pair of McDavid compression calf-sleeves; my black pair would save my legs, while the nicely versatile white pair would warm my arms in the chill of the early morning.
I started my routine of one gel (I prefer GU, but provided Clif brand worked well today) at each half-hour mark and stuck to it all day. I arrived at the first full aid-station at Bort Meadows about ten minutes ahead of my projected splits, the first eight miles slipping by rather quickly. We were climbing a little over two miles on a ridge on the MacDonald Trail, a smooth fire road nicely dampened by the recent rains. It was warming up so I popped a S-Cap (sodium), restocked my gels, and filled my water bottle. As we ran, small clouds of fog where clearing from the valleys and promising a perfect day for the Firetrails.
Descending to Big Bear I was now 15 minutes ahead of schedule and feeling like I really wasn't pushing too hard at all. Just before the 10.5-mile aid station, after descending a steep and rough downhill (that'll be fun later) we began our single trail adventure. Damp trails and close-in brush were nicely cool after the more open ridge. A rocking boombox greeted us and the welcoming volunteers urgently met our needs. I'd start a habit of a couple potato bites and a S-Cap, two little cups of electrolyte drink (GU Brew, I think), checking the gel count, and topping off my one hand-held bottle. The routine would stay basically and successfully the same all day.
Things got a bit interesting soon after leaving Big Bear. I turned a corner to see a stopped runner, a cloud of steam rising from his head in the backlight of the rising sun. He was pulling on a mask and saying something about bees. As soon as I passed him a dark little cloud swirled above the trail. Ouch! Damn! Run away! I sprinted down the single-track running into others who were pulling off shirts and waving hats. I was stung seven times in the swarm, and once about a half-mile later by a hanger-on exploring my shorts. Immediately thereafter, as I scratched and searched for extraneous bees, I ran for a while with Drew Beesing who actually didn't get stung at all! (I was very careful later when I ran with Dan Sharkattack). But the pain of the stings was lessened by the beautiful paths and fern-lined single track to the Skyline Gate aid station (15 miles). I was still nicely ahead of schedule and feeling really good.
I heard some complaints about the bees from various runners, but only a few were very vocal. Some were simply worried about allergic reactions, a significant concern to be sure. Although I was popped eight times, and can still feel them today (Monday), it seems only another obstacle to be overcome in an event covering 50 miles of varying terrain and environment. No one could have predicted that the early runners would stir up the swarm. I hope everyone managed to get through without any bad and race-altering reactions, and I'll add it to my list of external forces that might impinge on an otherwise perfect day. Hey, it made me quicken my pace twice!
After Skyline the good climbs began. Some wooded sections of ups-and-down and I quickly arrived at Sibley aid-station (18.4 miles). A bit foolishly and ahead on my splits by over 15 minutes, I started thinking that my goal of a 10-hour finish might be in reach. But I'd lose that advantage over the next two hours, exposed by the middle section climbs and the only real teeth of the Firetrails. A couple speedsters in the Golden Hills Trail Marathon (doing the same course but only the in-bound section) passed me right after Sibley. And then there was Dave Mackey floating down the single-track (tough climbs, no problem), I cheered him as a passed headed for his third first-place finish exactly four hours ahead of me!
Just before the Steam Trains aid-station (21.7 miles) the trail got busy with the marathoners. There was almost a constant chatter of "good job", "nice run", etc. as the participants crossed paths. All the kindness could get a little distracting, especially on the steeper, root-laced sections above Grizzly Peak Blvd. But I wasn't moving too fast on the climbs and it's good to see so many giving it a go.
The steep drop to the turn-around at Lone Oak/Tilden (26 miles) really took it out of me. I need to improve on the downhills. I would catch and pass people, even at my walking pace on the ups, but would be caught and dropped on the downs. My memory of the IT pain at Lake of the Sky probably leads to my conservative approach. I wasn't really hurting on this descent, but I could feel the uncertainty in my legs growing with each switchback. Nevertheless, I reached Lone Oak at exactly five hours; I was on-target but had the biggest climb of the day ahead of me.
Darren had passed me about three miles before the turn-around, my descent only slightly faster than his climb. He looked good and I figured I'd passed about twenty or so since seeing Mackey so I was sure he'd score a good finish. It was a highlight to see him moving upward.
At the turn-around I had a drop-bag waiting with a new bottle of Nuun electrolyte drink and sunglasses. I didn't need to change shoes as the Wildcats were performing perfectly. I also grabbed changed from my Eclipse Running T-shirt to a singlet and added my Eclipse hat, I was ready for the afternoon. The climb out was steep but didn't seem as long as I expected so I felt I was making good progress and not expending too much energy. But when I reached Sibley again (33.6 miles) I was almost a half-hour over my projections; my exact finish time would reflect the subtle demons of this 15-mile section of climbs and descents.
On the climbs from the turn-around and throughout the afternoon I was mostly alone, only occasionally matching up with a runner or two for a short section. I felt steady and could see I was mostly just above an 11 minute/mile pace. The breaks at aid-stations were never too long and it is simply rejuvenating to stop for a moment grab a coke and a few other things and feel the encouragement of the assisting volunteers. The Firetrails can be proud of that group of people. My only critique would be a few items in surprisingly short supply from Sibley on in; possibly due to the combination of marathoners and ultras hitting the stations hard on the in-bound. Although I didn't suffer from any of the shortfalls, I noticed that the stations were completely out of soda (coke, sprite, or whatever) and gels were also missing. Gels every half-hour are critical to my success, I believe and this worried me a little. At Sibley, the station was in a bit of a bind, no sodas, no gels; although all other items were plentiful and handy. When told there were no more gels, I simply said "you gotta be kidding." I didn't really mean it as a complaint, it was just making me think harder than I wanted to just then. But then one of the volunteers came over from their car and handed me a couple from their personal stash. All of the Sibley staff where dressed as super-heroes, but this was an unadorned angel. Thanks, whoever you are.
I cruised on, seeing friends from Reno at the Skyline station (37 miles) where pacers could join in the fun. Not sure what a pacer might bring to a 50-miler, and though it might be nice to run with a friend, I think I prefer the solitude of the endeavor with the occasional, fleeting camaraderie of other racers. Although short on soda and gels, Skyline had noodle soup that has never tasted so good. I'd grab more soup at Big Bear, a nice addition near the end of the effort.
Now that we'd passed through the stations with S's (Steam, Sibley, and Skyline), now came the B's, er, bees. I'd have to dig deep and get past them to reach Big Bear and Bort. But, to everyone's relief (I'm sure), a small re-route with tons of flagging and a precisely placed fallen tree, kept the bees away from the returning runners. I got in the brief sprint without any stings, and I'd completely forgotten about the steep climb out of Big Bear (41.5 miles). It was steep, but yet again, this seemed shorter than expected.
After the climb I tried to stay consistent, but it grew more difficult to keep pace on the rolling climbs. I was happy with how I was feeling, but was afraid to push when I probably could have. A few other runners, those that I'd come to know in the little cluster within a few minutes around me, were having a hard time. Puking became a slightly more common sight. I've yet to experience any stomach or digestion issues while training or racing. It was that suffering group, a couple would pass me in the end, who could have really used some soda at the last stations. After Bort Meadows (44.1 miles), I linked up with Eric Rescorla and we'd yo-yo our way to the finish encouraging each other as we inched our way along. Gels returned at the Bass Cove, pirate-staffed aid station (45.5 miles) so I grabbed a few for the last miles, better safe than sorry. After a brief little climb from the station we descended to the lake and eventually gained the paved bike trail. The bike trail around Lake Chabot seemed forever, and as soon as I crossed the dam, my Garmin told me I'd hit 50 miles. Knowing that the finish was close, I decided to reach deep and finish this great day in style. I encouraged Eric to go and kicked it in to my only sub-8 pace of the day! Somebody yelled, "Go man, only 100 yards!" But I couldn't see anything familiar or something that looked like a finish line. A few people appeared and then I burst into a grassy yard and a 90-degree turn to a finish shoot and the big clock. I could hear some nice cheers and Darren whooping it up. 10:34:04, back where it started. Nice.
Darren reeled in a 50-mile best at 8:13:25 for 25th place. Some cramps slowed him down in a few spots, but he thinks he left a little bit out there. Great run bro, proud to chase you.
We hung around the picnic area congratulating our new friends, those people you seem to group-up with as we yo-yo along the course; catching some, dropping others, re-grouping at aid-stations to start again. The post-race food hit the spot, though we added a pizza later at the hotel. The swag bags were generous and I was almost teary-eyed as I was handed my first "finishers" award, a nice Patagonia pull-over. The race T's were also simply adorned (i.e., not tattoo'ed with various logos) Patagonia garments. With only a few glitches, Julie and Mike put on a great event, carrying on the good reputation of the Firetrails in their first year as directors. A few key items may have been missing from the otherwise fantastic, well-staffed aid-stations and, though scary to some, the bees were an unfortunate addition, I can say I will use this as the benchmark of how a successful event should be experienced.
Thanks to Julie and Mike and all the great volunteers, especially the GU-angel at Sibley. Thanks to Darren for taking one more step with me; we are going to 100 now! (metric first!) Thanks to Tim Long for pointing me to McDavid compression gear. Thanks also to Chuck at Eclipse Running, I'm proud to fly the flag for Reno's best running store. A special cheer for the early winter-like rainstorm that freshened up the trails and cooled the air for a great Saturday.
Gear: La Sportiva Wildcats, Eclipse T and singlet, McDavid travel bag, compression sleeves, and "arm warmers", Patagonia 9-trails shorts, Injinji socks, Garmin 310XT, Ultimate hand-held bottle, Oakley shades, 2 Nuun electrolyte tabs, 18 gels (various GU and Clif flavors), 12 Succeed Caplets, and two fast-acting Tylenol.
Reno-area notables (congrats for bringing it from Nevada):
Jennifer Benna - 2nd Women/22nd OA 8:09:00
John Trent - 50th 9:17:56
Chris Guintoli - 151st 11:35:19
Stephen Capel - 157th 11:45:56
Tommy Gallagher - 174th 12:14:45
Al Maestes - 186th 12:39:26