Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rocky Ridge Ultra Half Marathon Championship 2014 race report

Starting arch for the Rocky Ridge
Brazen Racing's Rocky Ridge Championship was held on Saturday, October 4th  at the Las Trampas Wilderness on the outskirts of San Ramon. Up for grabs was $1,000 for 1st Place, $500 for 2nd place and $250 for 3rd place. Rocky Ridge is also the Championship Race for the Ultra Half Marathon Series that has been taking place all year long. The podium in the series also has $1,000, $500 & $250 cash prizes and if you are lucky enough to take a podium on the day and in the final series standings you walk with both checks! That makes it a possible $2k payday for the top 4 guys in the series Nick Scalfone, Harlan Lopez (+3:43), Lon Freeman (+3:53) & Selvin Henriquez (+4:53). Three of these four will definitely walk with the Ultra Series money but they will most certainly be challenged for the regular championship money by the top talent that always shows up. Guys like Leor Pantilat, Galen Burrel, Alex Varner & Sergio Reyes show up on race day and set course records not to mention earning a nice payday!

Hilarious picture from Not THAT Lucas's blog

#45 rockin the devil horns
 One of the first articles I ever wrote (and it shows) was on the Rocky Ridge 2012, my first exposure to the race. The course is widely accepted as the most difficult half marathon in all of the Bay Area with 4,000 feet of climbing and a slightly longer 13.7 miles. When I ran this race I could not believe it was as difficult as it was. I distinctly remember being under educated on the course elevation profile so that when the third big climb of the day came late in the race I did an insane giggle as I walked up the massive incline ahead of me all the while thinking about the sadistic mind of the person who designed this route. Since writing that article I've written about a lot of tough courses on this blog because I have an affinity for them but this race stands in a league of it's own. This race is the mile for mile toughest race in the Bay Area.

 The course record is held by Team Nike Trail Elite runner Alex Varner at 1:33:27. My first and only time running this course yielded a 2:46:40 which was 9th in my age group. I'm hoping to beat that time but I have my doubts going into the race because of the extreme weather differences. In 2012 it was very cool, foggy, misty and almost rainy at the top of the ridge. Today is likely to break heat records at the forecasted 95°.

I arrived at the race at 7am. There is not a lot of parking available at Las Trampas so if you have kids like me you will want to get there early. If its all the same to you then park near the corner of Bollinger Canyon & Crow Canyon and take the shuttle. Bib pick up was quick & easy but the porto potty lines were long. For a race of this magnitude I would suggest a few more. My wife, toddler son and our tiny Maltese Billy all came along this morning to cheer me on. They got themselves set up with chairs and toys and such as I made my way over to the starting corral. After a roaring rendition of Happy Birthday for Frank the Tank on his 80th birthday we got a few race announcements of the usual sort from Sam and the countdown commenced.

I started in the mid pack with the goal of running very conservatively for the first flat section so that I could run the first big climb rather than walk it like I know most will. My plan worked and about half way up that first big beast runners started walking and I passed on by. It was a tough climb but not so bad that it wasn't worth the energy expense. On the other side you have a quick drop and a rise and then it is all down hill (sort of ) for the next 4 miles or so. My downhill seemed to be in good condition, lucky for me. Sometimes you can't take all that body weight loading up on your quad so you lean back and slow down. But if your legs feel solid like petrified tree stumps then you can mash downhill at wicked speeds so long as you don't out run your feet and eat rocks. I flew past aid station #1 around the 3 mile mark and kept up a fairly decent pace all the way to the bottom of this downhill stretch where aid station #2 was setup.

 I did a quick bottle refill and grabbed a GU since I had already eaten the Sports Beans I had brought. I did a slow jog out of that aid station as I tore the GU package open and took a taste. Immediately my stomach went sour so I put my refuel plans on hold. Some of the steepest sections of the course are here between miles 6 and 8.5. Most of it can not be run and as you climb higher and higher into the sky the trail turns steeper and steeper until forward motion becomes really tough. About half way up this climb I took a big squeeze of that GU pack I had been holding and my stomach protested even louder than before. I spit out the GU and tried like hell not to vomit. I didn't let loose but I did start weaving back and forth like a drunk and for a moment I thought I might pass out. The sun was blasting down on us by this point and I was in a bad place. This is where I started to see people standing and sitting on the side of the trail looking absolutely vacant and well overcooked. I was about to be one of them. Passers-by would ask the weary "you okay?" and inevitably they would half-heartedly murmur "all good" or something like that but I never saw them rejoin the hiking procession up the hill. Accept one particularly fit looking female who had been killing it all day long. She passed me by early in the race and was cranking out some energy the last time I saw her. Now she's on the side of the trail looking like death. I passed by and asked if her and the guy next to her were okay and she immediately fell in line behind me as the guy stayed put and answered "all good!" in a much to cheerful voice. This particular section has a double top summit that will break your spirit. When you finally break over what you think is the summit and start heading downhill it doesn't last much more than a quarter mile or so and then turns back uphill sharply. This is just heartbreaking but the upside is that the climb is only 1/2 mile long and then the real descent starts. I felt better in my stomach by the time I got to the top and I could not wait to get to a trash can to throw away that GU packet.

 The downhill between 8.5 miles and 9.5 miles is some of the steepest quad shredding descents of the day. Too bad I couldn't let my legs go like earlier.  They were just to beat up and so I had to do a shuffling hopping kind of gait to get down the hill. At the bottom is a short rolling hill section that ends at an aid station.

I quickly refilled my bottles at this aid station but decided not to grab any more sugar products. This aid station marks the beginning of the long paved path to the top of rocky ridge. From points all along the bottom of this very steep incline you can see your final destination way off in the distance with tiny little people marching along high into the sky. I was absolutely sure their was no way I was going to be able to walk up this hill. Nobody had the legs to run it and most people, myself included struggled just to slowly walk to the top of this ridge. One creative fellow walked a zig zag pattern back & forth on the paved path to lessen the steepness of the climb even though he increased his distance by a mile or more. When you finally reach that tiny place way up in the sky that you've been aiming at for the past half hour, the course levels off and you stay up on that ridge for about a mile and a half. This is the most welcome relief I have ever felt in a race. It is not exactly flat but the hills are manageable up there and around half way across the ridge, just after the 11 mile marker is the final aid station.

I came into this last aid station running on fumes. It is 2.7 miles to the finish and almost all downhill from here. I refilled my bottles and took a big sponge on the head and walked out of this aid station with another runner I had seen many times throughout the year, Jason Ngai. I met Jason at Wildcat and ever since then I have noticed that we always finish relatively close to one another. He has won a few and I have won a few. Now we are in the finale walking out of the last aid station together and neither of us look like we want to run up this little hill we were starting out on. Once we crested that hill the race was on. I opened up my stride on the downhill and gained ground on the few runners I could see up ahead of me. The course had another brief but steep uphill that most seemed to be walking. I didn't walk it. My strategy was to push hard and see who followed. Nobody ran up with me and I got right on the heels of two other guys in front of me. The course turned down sharply and I hammered it the best I could to gain some distance on the group behind me. When the course turned up again it was sharp and once again we were all forced to walk. I reached the top still holding my lead on the few guys I had just passed. It was all downhill from here but I was exhausted. I had nothing left. I tried running scared knowing that quite a few guys were just a few seconds behind but I couldn't do it. My quads couldn't take the massive pounding that would be required on a steep hill like this. I had to shuffle and break down the hill and yet try to go as fast as possible. Just as the hill began to bottom out I heard a runner say to me "Come on lets run it in!!!" Immediately I got hit with a surge of adrenaline that resulted in the fastest 50 yard sprint I have ever run and just edging out the mystery voice runner. We high five'd and both said "That was awesome!!!" as we came through the back end of the finish area. That surge of energy flipped my stomach and I aimed for the fence line immediately. I lost what little I had in me and then within a few minutes felt fine enough to go find my family.

 Just when I spun around my wife and son were coming up to congratulate me on such  a dramatic finish. I made my way over to a chair my wife had set up and within a few minutes I chatted with the mystery runner who turned out to be Steve Long. Steve said he had been tracking me for a while and "was able to pass all of those guys but you. I could have passed you at the finish but that didn't seem right so I warned you." That was super cool of him and I told him so. He certainly didn't have to warn me and I think it speaks volumes about the trail community when runners show each other some sportsmanship like this. My wife was kind enough to grab me an It's It ice cream sandwich and a water bottle refill. So I sat and regathered my marbles for a bit as I waited for the results pages to be updated on the display boards.

My finishing time was 3:00:22. Almost 14 minutes slower than my 2012 time. Overall I finished 72nd out of 198 finishers. That is 13th in my age group out of 33. The overall winner was David Roche at 1:39:51 which gave me a time back of 1:20:30. Even though I did not beat my 2012 time and I finished well behind the winner I somehow managed to move up in the Series Final Standings from 31st place to 24th out of 68 finishers. Not exactly the results I hoped for but given the effort I put into all of this I am happy just to have finished as well as I did. I don't know if I'm going to do this again in 2015 (the season starts this Saturday with the Tarantula Run) as I have my eyes set on a few road marathons and perhaps a step up to the 50 mile? Not sure about that one yet.