Background and Pre-race
Rio del Lago is a 100 mile footrace in the Sierra foothills. It’s been about 5 years since I’ve written up a race report, but it seems like one is in order this time.
This was not my real target race, which feels kind of snotty to say. My real target race is the one I have started three times but never finished, which is the HURT (Hawaii Ultra Running Team) 100 miler, coming up in mid-January 2016. But as it has been three years since I last finished any 100 mile race (Javelina in 2012) due to a stress fracture in 2013, it seemed foolish to go into HURT without a recent successful 100 mile finish. Or as I told some people, I needed to re-wrap my head around the 100 mile distance. That this wasn’t my target also explains why I ran a hilly 50K race just two weeks before this race.
Rio del Lago is a trail race, but it is on the easier side of the spectrum of trail 100 milers, primarily due to having less than 10,000′ of climbing. There I go, sounding snotty again. 100 miles on foot is never easy. Even trail 50K’s are never completely easy. But that combined with having a pretty good 12 months (with personal records at Quad Dipsea, 50 miles, 100K, and even the road half marathon), I was hoping to have a relatively fast time. My plan was for 27 hours, with a previous personal record (PR) of 26:11:53. The overall time limit was 30 hours.
I hadn’t arranged a pacer until fairly close to the race, but Norm agreed to help. He had run this race as his first 100 miler the prior year, though on a somewhat harder course than the one we had this time. The plan was for him to join me when I first got to the aid station at the Cool fire station, at the 52 mile mark. My wife Connie agreed to be my crew, at least during normal waking hours, and even more importantly to drive me home afterwards.
I got a ride to the start with another runner that I ran into on my way to the hotel elevator, which allowed Connie to sleep in. I got to the race in plenty of time before the start, and noticed that it was a little colder than I expected.
The race started on time at 5:00 am with roughly 327 runners. The early parts of the course were the easiest, including a lot of paved paths and only a few hills. At 19.2 miles we came back through where we started. I left my flashlight in my drop bag and kept moving, a bit over 30 minutes ahead of my plan. The next aid station, 5.1 miles later, is where I first expected to see Connie. But I got there at 9:33 am vs. a plan of 10:26 am, so I missed her. Besides not seeing her, that also meant that I couldn’t get the Vespa (a product that purports to enhance fat burning, which reduces the need to take in quite so many carbohydrates) I was planning to take at 11 am. Oh well, it wasn’t a showstopper, and in retrospect I should have put it in my drop bag just in case this happened. Forgetting that the next segment was 8.7 miles and not refilling my hydration pack was a bigger mistake, but also not fatal.
I got the the Rattlesnake Bar aid station (mile 35.8) at around 12:22 pm, which was just over an hour ahead of my plan. This time Connie was there. Yay! I resupplied, with George and Kristin of Coastside Running Club (there to crew another club member) helping refill my pack. I also grabbed a flashlight, since my plan didn’t have me reaching another point where I could do that (mile 52) until after dark. I was enough ahead of schedule that that shouldn’t be necessary, but better safe than sorry.
The segments from Rattlesnake Bar to the aid station at the Cool fire station included a couple of big climbs, which I had accounted for in my planned paces for those segments. It also included going across the famous No Hands Bridge, which is an iconic part of the Western States course. I generally kept on track or gained on my plan, arriving in Cool (mile 52) at 4:39 pm vs. my plan of 6:05 pm. Given Norm’s schedule I was pretty sure I was going to get there before him and have to run one 8 mile loop without him, but since Connie dropped him off before finding parking, he was there and ready to go. He talked me into getting my headlamp (in addition to the handheld light I had carried from Rattlesnake Bar). The parking was insane, but luckily the course followed the road that the cars were parking along, so we did see Connie walking from the car before we turned off the road onto the trail.
Despite being so far ahead of my plan, I had been moderating my effort all day, so I still had something left for the second half. Norm got me running a bit more than I had been, and we talked while the sun went down. And when it went down it did get colder, and I started to wonder if the arm warmers I had in my pack would be sufficiently warm for the middle of the night. My windbreaker was in Connie’s car, but given how far that was parked from the aid station, I thought it might not be an option.
But while we were running that loop, Connie was able to repark substantially closer to the aid station, though still several minutes away. In the spirit of “better safe than sorry,” and considering that we didn’t expect to see Connie again until the finish line, we did hang around longer so that I would have the windbreaker. As it turns out I never did wear it, but I would probably still make that decision if I had it to do again.
This was definitely the longest aid station stop of the race, with the combination of the wait for the windbreaker, taking in plenty of calories (around then might have been when I first tried the egg and cheese burritos, which worked great for me), and making sure I had everything else I needed from Connie or my drop bag. But eventually we headed out for the same 8 mile loop, though this time in the opposite direction. We made reasonable time (we didn’t memorize the splits, but Norm is pretty sure the second loop was faster than the first), getting back to the Cool aid station (mile 68 this time) at 9:13 pm vs. my plan of 10:32 pm.
Next was back down to No Hands Bridge, and then up to the Camp Flint Gate aid station (mile 75.3). This was the last big climb of the race, but definitely not the last climb. By then my first GPS finally started saying it was running low on battery, so I swapped to the second one, which I had been carrying since mile 60.
A couple more segments got us back to the Rattlesnake Bar aid station (mile 84.2) at 2:00 am vs. my plan of 3:15 am. Next was the Horseshoe Bar aid station (mile 87) a bit before 3:18 am (that is when I texted Connie that we had just left) vs. my plan of 4:03 am, so that segment was slower than planned. In that text I estimated finishing between 6:30 and 7:30 am.
Around this time Norm told me that if I needed to drop him and go on ahead, I should feel free to do so. This segment to the last aid station was a long one (8.7 miles), and we stuck together for a while, but eventually I did pull ahead and didn’t see him again until the finish. This was also a section with a lot of rocks, affectionately called the “meat grinder.” I had hardly noticed the rocks in the other direction, but they did get my attention now. But given my larger goal of finishing the very rocky (and rooty, and often muddy) HURT course, I pushed myself a bit harder than I would have normally. I reminded myself that accepting some pain, and even seeking it out to a small degree, was good mental preparation. Even so this segment took me about 25 minutes longer than planned, arriving at 6:02 am vs. my plan of 6:25 am. Part of that was caused by a twisty section that had me thinking I was going in circles and repeating the same trails. A later review of the GPS data indicates that I was not actually lost, but I know that that uncertainty contributed to my slowness.
A bit later I called Connie to tell her that even a 7:30 am finish might have been optimistic. She was already at the finish, though, so this didn’t help her get any more sleep. Oh, well, might as well keep pushing and see what happens.
The last section was listed on the web site as 5.7 miles. I should have noticed that the same section on the way out was only listed as 5.1 miles, and the shorter actual distance, combined with the much easier terrain than the prior segment, made a difference. As I got within sight of the finish I started to wonder if a PR might actually still be in reach. Based on what I could tell, it probably was, if I kept running. What I hadn’t counted on was that the course made a big loop around the parking lot before we actually finished, so I missed my PR by less than two minutes. My finishing time was 26:13:23.
All in all I was very happy with how things turned out. I finished. I held back enough in the first half to run well in the second half, moving up about 40 places from mile 52 to the finish. I pushed into enough pain to remind myself what that is like, but not so much that it required much downtime from training—I was running again three days later. I also didn’t fall.
On the “could do it better” front, I didn’t plan well for warm clothes, I took too long at several aid stations, I need to train better for the steep climbs at HURT, and I got a couple of blisters.
Bottom line: I’m back!