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October 12, 2010

50 Miles in Evos: Firetrails 50M Race Report

“All the memories make me want to go back there, back there –
All the memories, how can we make it back there, back there –
I want to be there again … “
-Weezer, “Memories” (video after post)

This year’s Firetrails 50 was all about memories, and paying back a couple of debts of gratitude.

Most importantly was the race itself, which has always held a special place in my heart. It was my very first 50-miler, and I was virtually intoxicated by all the joy, pain, and just plain craziness to be found in the world of ultrarunning. Two years later, it was also the site of an existential crisis about what I really wanted from this sport – and by extension, from myself – and whether or not I really had the inner fire to pursue the 100-mile ambition I had somehow latched onto several years earlier.

Since that debut Firetrails race pre-dated my website, and the existential struggle took place before I was accustomed to carrying a camera with me, I felt like I had never given this race the accolades it deserves. I have all kinds of great memories from this event, so I wanted to go back there again, giving it the proper R&R race report treatment this time around.

The second item of overdue appreciation involved the footwear I used: my VivoBarefoot Evos, which have been through the ultrarunning gauntlet with me quite a bit this year. I wore them for my ill-fated 100K this spring, and for my 50-mile night of pacing at Lake Tahoe this summer. However, each of those races had more compelling storylines than what shoes I happened to be wearing, so I purposely kept them out of the conversation – and Firetrails seemed like a great time to make up for those oversights.

So that’s how we’ll set the stage for our story: a somewhat seasoned ultrarunner revisiting one of the most meaningful events in his life, with minimal shoes and maximal gratitude. And … cue darkness:

Race Directors Carl Anderson (as usual, click any of these pictures to enlarge) and his wife, ultrarunning legend Ann Trason, know a thing or two about ultras, and there are several aspects of this race that simply couldn’t be designed any better. The first is apparent right off the bat: even though the race starts in darkness, most of the first two miles are on a wide, smooth, asphalt bike path. Some runners wear headlamps for this section, but they’re largely unnecessary.

The smooth bike path shortly gives way to equally smooth fire roads that wind their way up and up into the pink/orange sunrise …

… and by the time you see first daylight, you’re on top of the ridgeline to enjoy distant views of the lake you started from a few miles ago.

Firetrails is a race of patience; it’s easy to feel great on the long, gentle, tree-lined descents of the first 10 miles, but it’s also easy to get yourself into trouble if you’re not smartly conservative here. It’s best to just stay comfortable, enjoy the sights, and settle into a baseline effort you can sustain for several more hours. In fact …

… in my mind, Firetrails doesn’t even begin until you leave the Big Bear aid station at mile 11 and hit your first stretch of single track. A short, steep climb is followed by a longer, steeper descent where too many people try to be heroes by flying down at a pace that will tear their quads up. I always get passed by tons of runners on this stretch, and end up passing at least 75% of them back later in the race.

A couple of miles later, the single track bottoms out and expands into an extremely gentle path inside Redwood Regional Park. The air is cool, the morning is quiet, the trees are breathtaking, and it’s early enough in the race that you can still appreciate it all, even though you’re beginning a very slight climb. This is one of the most scenic stretches of the entire course, but not exactly the most accurately signed …

…take, for instance, this sign marking “Trail’s End” that you pass by with at least 35 more miles of trails still to run.

Then there’s this sign, instructing you not to exceed 5MPH. It’s at the base of a steep pitch of road, so I felt no shame about walking most of it …

… until I got to the Skyline Gate aid station at mile 15 and heard the volunteers yelling, Hey – pick it up! This is a running race! That’s not a knock against the volunteers, all of whom were amazing; it speaks more to the fact that many of the aid station personnel are veteran Bay Area ultrarunners themselves, so the bar for “hill sympathy” out here is set frighteningly high.

Leaving Skyline Gate you encounter the longest, prettiest section of single track on the course heading into Sibley Preserve, which one of my training partners accurately described as Jurassic Park on our muddy run here last spring. Eventually you pass a couple of patches where the canyon trail loses its tree cover …

… and you get a glimpse of a nearby hillside that strikes you as really beautiful – at least until you realize, “Wait – we have to go up and over that thing soon.”

Before you do that, however, you have to climb out of the canyon you’re in, which is one of the steepest pitches on the course.

You also have to pass through the central portion of Sibley Preserve, where the footing is very technical with extensive root and rock exposure. This was the first time I became conscious of the Evos I was wearing, only because I had to pay more attention and “pick my line” through the trail like I would on a mountain bike. Speaking of my shoes …

… this is Bryon Powell, a blogger extraordinaire and super-fast ultrarunner who I heard approaching me from behind, because he kept telling the guy alongside him how overweight and out of shape he’s been lately. (There are some things I really wish I could unhear.) He eventually left me in the dust, but before he did, we spent several miles talking about minimalist footwear, barefoot running, and the prospects of this small niche finding long-term success in the ultrarunning community.

Our talk was actually very similar to discussions I had with at least 4 or 5 other runners on the course at Firetrails – and I noticed one major distinction between this race and my springtime ultra in moccasins. Back then, I was greeted almost unanimously with a, Whoa! What the heck are you wearing? Why are you doing that? reaction, but last weekend it was more like, How long have you been doing that? or, How do your races now compare to those in regular shoes?, or How hard is it to adjust your running style?  In other words, the whole minimalist thing seems to have gone from a freak absurdity to an intellectual curiosity, at least in my limited opinion polling. But I have to think that’s a good sign.

(Meanwhile, back at the race …)

Mile 21 brings you to Tilden Park, up the face of the hill you stared at from the Sibley trails. This is where you’ll ultimately reach the high point of the course, with awesome views to the east …

… of this well-known peak, which used to host a great little 50-miler of its own …

… and the most beautiful city in the world in the distance to the west. The only thing that detracts from the view is knowing that you’ll be in this exact same spot about 8 miles from now …

… but only after going four miles downhill to the turnaround point of the course.

This stretch, with its steep downhill grade, large rocks, and loose footing, was one of the trickiest parts of the course for me in my Evos. I had to slow down a lot more than I wanted, and this section seemed to go on forever – and no, the fact that it’s all downhill doesn’t make that a good thing.

Eventually, though, you reach the Lone Oak aid station, which is a welcome sight because 1) it’s the turnaround point of the race, and 2) it’s actually at mile 26, so you’re already more than halfway done. Only by one mile, but trust me – it makes a huge mental difference.

Last time I was here, this section of the race nearly devastated me: the 4-mile climb back from the turnaround point, as the day becomes warm and the miles start to take their toll. Seeing it again a few years later – and with the mental strength gained from several more ultras under my belt – I saw it for what it is: just another long hill on another long journey on another long day. And this time around, it wasn’t nearly such a big deal.

I guess what I’ve learned over the years is that these places I fear in ultras are also the same ones I’m most thankful for later on. If the trails were flat, or gentle, or easier to conquer than I anticipated, they wouldn’t mean nearly as much afterward. So the best thing you can do is to embrace the suffering as well as the pleasure, and commit yourself to nothing other than fully experiencing the moment.

And if the climb doesn’t teach you that lesson, perhaps this Zen labyrinth can help you out. It’s right there at the top of the hill …

… so you can reflect on how far you’ve climbed again, while remembering that it’s all just a part of your longer journey.

(This is getting kinda deep for an ultra report, huh? And yes, it’s getting quite lengthy. I’ll try to stay focused from now on.)

The Zen climb to enlightenment rewards you with a long, steady downhill stretch back through Tilden Park …

… and into the refreshingly shaded single track of Sibley Preserve again. Remember when I said this course rewards patience? If you’ve paced yourself well, this is where you can really begin to reel people in …

… and even pick up your pace under the smooth, gently descending trails of Redwood Park. As beautiful as this area is on your first time through, it’s about 10 times as wonderful when you’re closing in on mile 40 while feeling good and keeping a steady pace. You can’t get too carried away, though …

... because there are still several challenging climbs that await you in the last six miles of the course. This one eventually tops out with a beautiful overlook …

… that initiates an extended downhill plunge into the Lake Chabot area.

This long, sweeping downhill was something of a delight for me. Given that I was wearing my Evos, I couldn’t really hammer the pace and maintain proper form too well, but I was able to maintain the effort I had kept for the majority of the day – which is something a lot of other people were struggling with. Consequently, a ton of people came back to me on this stretch of fire road …

… and even more on this lush single track that seems to get prettier the closer it gets to the lake.

Of course, even when you see the water, you’re not quite out of the woods yet …

… as no fewer than 6 steep climbs await you in the last three miles that meander around the shoreline of the lake. By this time, your physical pain is quite real, but the mental pain starts floating away …

… because you know the finish line is nearby, complete with a full-service all-you-can-eat barbecue to enjoy alongside your fellow runners.

My final time was 8:57, which is virtually identical to my very first ultra here several years ago. It’s about 12 minutes slower than my PR on this course, a result that’s somewhat tough to attribute. I’m probably less fit than the last time I was here, and – although I refuse to officially acknowledge this - I’m a few years older now. You also might have noticed that I took a fair number of pictures along the way, which probably tacked on a few extra seconds here and there.

One thing I don’t attribute it to is my shoes. One of the most common questions I received on course was “Doesn’t that hurt?”, and honestly … yeah, OK, my feet hurt a little bit towards the end of the race. But it’s an ultra, for crying out loud – if there wasn’t any pain, it wouldn’t be worth the price of admission. And the discomfort I had in my feet wasn’t any more severe than the pain in the rest of my body, and it wasn’t the weak link in my race time being slower than past outings. I had to run differently, but as a result I was able to pace myself very consistently – which is always a great way to finish any endurance event.

What’s more noteworthy is that the pain that I feel with the Evos – primarily foot muscle soreness and mild impact tenderness – is far better than the pain I used to have in regular shoes. I don’t get blisters anymore, I don’t have hot spots where my feet are confined within the uppers, and I don’t have callouses that rub themselves raw over the course of several hours. All things considered, my feet feel better after an ultra in Evos than they ever did in traditional shoes.

(It’s also very likely that much of this comfort and protection is thanks to my Drymax socks, which go with my minimalist footwear like peanut butter and jelly: it's like they were just made to be together.  They've become mandatory accessories for me in all my ultras.)

Whatever the case might be, you can be certain that I wasn’t too preoccupied with my overall finish time at that point. All I really wanted to do was sit in the grass and soak it all in for a while … so that’s exactly what I did.

There may some more things to say about this race at some point, but for the time being, I think I’ve said more than enough. I came back to Firetrails hoping to recapture some of the great memories I had from my early days of ultras, and to make some indelible new memories along the way. In that regard, I consider the day an overwhelming success – and I’d love to be there anytime again.


Weezer, "Memories" (click to play):

*See other race reports under tab at top of page

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Angie Bee 10/12/10, 8:32 PM  

As always, an amazing race report!
I am sold and putting this on the list of races to consider for 2011!

Sarah 10/12/10, 8:57 PM  

I loved all the pictures! This one has been on my to-run list for a long time. I grew up in Castro Valley and remember getting lost on some of those trails! :)

I saw on his blog that Jon Vonhof, author of Fixing Your Feet, which you mentioned (actually dissed imo) in a previous post, was working an aid station at Firetrails and noted some of the minimalist shod runners. The upcoming edition of his book will contain info on minimalist/barefoot running. You should check out his blog! http://fixingyourfeet.com/blog

Johann 10/13/10, 4:01 AM  

Fantastic report! 8:57, while taking so many photos on the way, well done!Your report makes me want to go run there right now. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Fitz 10/13/10, 6:42 AM  

This is the best race report I've ever read! I think considering the pit-stops you made for photos makes your time all the more impressive. How is your recovery going?

Kovas Palubinskas 10/13/10, 8:16 AM  

Redwood Regional Park photos are amazing! You are right, the minimalist shoe conversation has come out into the open, definitely not considered too far out there any more.

Stacy 10/13/10, 10:13 AM  

Something about this report really conveyed the special place Firetrails has in your heart. Really nice. Studly result, too.

Looking forward to (hopefully) a fun day on the trails with you (and Bryon) in a few weeks!

My Life and Running 10/13/10, 10:52 AM  

Amazing all around. Congrats Donald.

JimDog 10/13/10, 12:41 PM  

Great report! Congrats!

John Nguyen 10/13/10, 2:06 PM  

I'd like to grow up to be more like you - fast and a great writer! It was my first Firetrails 50, and it was nice seeing you out on the trails. One of these days we'll have to chat a little more. With my slowness, I'm wondering if I'll ever do 100's, but I believe you can do it!

dug deep,  10/13/10, 2:14 PM  

I've not noticed any mention of using racing flats as a more minimalist shoe. It seems the availability and price should make a racing flat the go-to shoe. What are your thoughts?

BTW, after reading the report I laced up and headed for the trails...thanks!

Donald 10/13/10, 5:46 PM  

Thanks for the nice comments, everyone!

Sarah: thanks for the tip on Fixing Your Feet. I stopped by there and said hi.

John: speed has nothing to do with finishing a 100. Trust me.

Dug: You make a great point about XC shoes, and I know several runners who use them as "almost" minimalist trail shoes. There's a lot of merit to it, with a couple of caveats: 1) the toe boxes of standard XC shoes typically aren't as wide as good minimalist footwear, and 2) from my observations, XC tend to be a bit less durable over several hundred miles. Otherwise, I think it's a great idea - and I hope you enjoyed your trail run.

Keeley 10/14/10, 1:18 PM  

Was just about to mention how awesome is was reading your RR when a friend of mine had run the same race...and then lo and behold there he is in the comments. Hi John! =D

I loved your Zen deep rambling thoughts & have saved them. I also appreciated the beautiful photos. You made the course come alive.

Gretchen 10/16/10, 10:51 AM  

Beautiful report, kid. Thanks for all the descriptions and photos. I love running through the redwoods!

So, I'm guessing those shoes will make the cut then for any 100 milers in your future? I'm just curious because, although I really do hate thinking about shoes, I spent plenty of time on those considerations for each of my 100 milers. In my first, I had moderate success in my Inov-8's--only minimal blisters, but the bottoms of my feet felt like someone had been pounding on them with a pair of very large sledgehammers all day. I was not happy about that! So in my second 100, I went with a more cushioned shoe. Well, you saw the blister nastiness that resulted. I would definitely not call that a success, although they did alleviate the whole sledgehammer effect. You seem hardcore enough to make in through 100 miles in those Evos though, sledgehammers be damned!

Anyway, nice job on the race. Glad you were able to get out there for this one and that it went so well!

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