Monday, February 21, 2011

My First 50K Ultra

The first thing I did when I woke up Monday morning was count my toes. After the brutal race I did the day before, I was relieved to find myself still in one piece, nothing missing – toes complete. It was my first ultra after all – a 50K trail race, distance I never imagine I could finish.

Described in their website as one of the most grueling race in Southern California, the 3rd annual Bandit Trail run was held last Sunday, February 22nd in Simi Valley. The course wound through the steep terrains of the Santa Susana Mountains where 50K runners will climb the 2700 feet elevation three separate times, a backbreaking task for anyone, especially for me - a first timer in this sport of ultra running.

The idea of doing an ultra occurred to me last year when I helped crew a member of our running group at the AC100. Since then, the thought of running beyond the marathon distance intrigued me. I wanted to try an ultra of my own, test myself if I could go the distance beyond 26.2 miles. I figured out that 50K (or 31 mi) was a perfect rookie distance to begin with. Besides, I was training consistently for different marathon races year-round; all I need to do was tweak my training a little bit to accommodate the 50K distance.

All were going smooth until I caught an infection three weeks before the race. A bit concerned that I might not make it, I decided to concentrate on getting well and taper my training early than planned. It became more challenging as the race day near because the rain hasn’t stopped for days, and a 3.2 magnitude earthquake hit Simi Valley Saturday afternoon, one day before the race.

A good number of people still showed up for the race. I guess no threat of rain, snow, or landslide could stop them from beating this course (crazy ultras!). Temperature was at low 40’s so I put on an extra layer and my gloves to keep me warm, I anticipated the weather to play a big factor in this race. 

There were about 50 of us huddled at the start line. I could immediately tell that most of them are seasoned runners for this type of race. It's still winter and yet you cannot mistake that their sunburned faces were the result of long hours spent on running outdoors. For a moment I felt insecure – did I train hard enough, run long enough, dang, I’ll probably be the last person to finish the race. Took a deep breath and reminded myself that I am here not to compete but to experience it. Since this is my first ultra, my goal was simply to enjoy the race and finish it… and take whatever the day gives.

As the race started, the surge of adrenaline was overwhelming. I was trying to control myself from going too fast to avoid bonking early in the race. I stayed at the back of the pack to help maintain a steady pace and to conserve energy. Around the 2nd mile, I could see from a distance some runners down on all fours climbing up a very steep and rocky trail. This I think is the most technical and dangerous portion of the course - one slip and you’re out.

What follows next is a gradual ascent to the first summit, Rocky Peak, which also provided runners a spectacular view of the valley and the surrounding communities. The course then goes on a downhill slope past mile 7 at the Chumash Trail junction. One definite incentive of running uphill is downhill, and this I enjoyed very much. Although the narrow trails here are strewn with roots, boulders and splintered rocks, the ground held and felt solid in each step. So, I loosen up and rolled down the trail without stopping, never mind the cliff just a few inches to my right, I let gravity picked up my pace.

I made mental notes of the terrains from here on because mile 16 will later connect back here to start the second loop of the race.

Many portion of trails were still muddy because of the previous days rain. My shoes by this time were 2 inch thicker and 5 pounds heavier. I veered on the grassy side if I can, and run right through the mud if there’s no other way. The course now briefly cut through a residential community at Mile 10, location of the Marr Aid Station where the drop bags are held. After refilling my water supply, I immediately went back running in an attempt to advance my time and to avoid lagging behind.

The next part of the course (Las Llajas Canyon) is a long gradual ascent to the second peak. I could see the faces of other runners by this time because the trail has become wider and the pace more relaxed. I caught up with the only two people I knew, but as soon as they saw me coming, they surged forward and left me behind. Geez, running friends in the literal sense.

Half-way up, as the trail started to get steeper, I began to gas out. I couldn't catch my breath, so I shifted from run-walk to power walking to “simply just” walking ;). This 3 mile stretch to reach the summit is nearly impossible to walk much less run without stopping. And that’s just what I did, sort of in a way - I walked a little bit and stopped a lot. There were times when I felt like my lungs were ready to explode, and yes, in those moments I could picture everyone’s faces telling me how stubborn I am for doing this.

After reaching the second peak, the course connected back to the Chumash Trail junction for the start of the second loop. I ran the next three miles without stopping until I reach the Marr Aid station where I took a breather and decided to rest. It's been more than 4 hours since the race began, and I barely covered half of the course. I haven’t felt this tired and exhausted from running before. I ate a bit, replenished my gels and forced myself back to the trail. I walked the ascent of Las Llajas Canyon like a zombie and runners were just passing me one by one.

As I reached the last and final summit, I caught my second wind and hell it felt good! I found myself back to a comfortable running pace, so, I dug deep and hit the trail like I never did before. I ran downhill with intensity of a desperate man being chased by a mountain lion, I’m a Gato, remember – a Wild Mountain Runner (ha, ha).

My last push towards the end was pure adrenaline. About a mile or so to the finish line, I felt a vibration at the back of my legs, my calves were starting to cramp. I knew this would result to injury if I didn’t slow down. The pain eventually dissipated when I saw my 10-year-old son among the cheering crowd urging me on. My wife, Janet, was there too snapping pictures of me. I made it finally to the end and crossed the finish line at 6 hours 44 min and 33 sec. See Race Result.

The medal was small in size compared to the ones I collected over the few years since I started running. I certainly didn’t ran an ideal time for my first ultra. Still, without a question, Bandit Trail run was my best race ever. The medal, the most meaningful award I got so far.

For a local race, Bandit Trail run is a very well organized event. The course and the trails were well thought of by the organizers. The aid stations were fully stocked from food, gels, electrolyte tablets, water and power drinks. The volunteers were well oriented on the needs of long distance runners. I wouldn't be surprised if this event will catapult to a major ultra destination event in the west coast the coming years. Thanks, guys!

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