John Muir Trail

John Muir Trail

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Sean O'Brien 100k

This past weekend, Sean O'Brien 50/50/100, known as 'SOB' to most, went down.  It's a set of 4 distances of trail races, with the 100k distance sitting atop the distance list.  The 100k is part of the Montrail Ultra Cup race series, which means that there are 2 slots at the Western States 100-miler up for grab for the top 2 men and top 2 women finishers and with a stated total ascent of ~16,000 ft. the race lives up to its abbreviated moniker.  I had a go at the 100k, and this is what happened.

The SOB Start/Finish Area and Surrounding Mountains.  Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.


SOB's first running was in 2014, but I did not partake because I was shooting for the Coyote Cohort Backbone Ultra that was taking place 5 weeks later.  When signups went up for SOB this year, I hopped on the train and signed up for the 100k.  Sometime after that, I also realized that most of my big fitness gains regarding running had come when I was training using a structured training plan, so I decided to write myself a plan, which can be pretty much summarized as follows:

  1. A cycle of 2 build weeks followed by 1 recovery week (I found that the 2/1 cycle has worked well for me in the past)
  2. 90 mile peak weekly mileage
  3. 30/20 back-to-back run on the peak mileage weekend
  4.  2 days of speed/hills/tempo run to get me some more speed, which I felt I had been neglecting over the past year while I attempted to get myself strong enough to run in the mountains
I also made a mental plan to focus on getting enough sleep, moderating beer intake, and eating the right amount of the right foods.

This all sounds well and good, but if I don't follow the plan, who knows how well it works, right?  Here's how it went:
  1. 2-weeks build/1-week recover.  Almost immediately after writing to plan, I then signed up for Red Rock 50 and had to modify it.  This resulted in a weird 1 week build/1 week recovery canter into mid December before I could get my schedule to re-sync with my planned schedule.  Overall, I'm going to mark this as a success, because I really wanted to run Red Rock and I made it work.
  2. Mileage.  Despite having a wonky schedule of weekly mileage for a month or so, the mileage and weekly ascent values were increasing, and I was feeling good about it, especially because the higher mileage weeks weren't leaving me completely wrecked; I would come out of these weeks ready for another week of training.  The 3 biggest weeks were planned at 80, 80 and 90 miles, and I hit them at 85, 80, and 103 miles, respectively, and felt really solid throughout with only a few really tough runs in there.
  3. 30/20.  This ended up 35/24 because of a group run on the SOB course and the desire to hit 100 miles in a week.  This dropped me into taper and I had a really good 24 to cap it off and double up with the 35, so I call this a success too.
  4. Speed.  This was by far the most helpful portion of my training.  I moved up to West LA last summer and after a few months, got hooked in with a group of fast, dedicated ultramarathoners.  These guys (and girl/panda/whatever) were always down to run hard, come up with some structured workouts, and sometimes be rabbits to chase during tempo or hill climb workouts (not rabbits by choice, they are just way faster than me!).  These workouts (combined with the rest of the mileage) enabled me to climb faster and run harder throughout SOB. Success.
How did the sleep/beer/food thing go?  Pretty well.  I was attentive to my own needs and it paid off.  No doubt that getting tossed after a 30 miler is not the best way to recover.  Write that down.

So all that stuff got me to the taper weeks of my training plan.  I planned in 3 weeks of taper:  1 week at 2/3 max mileage, 1 week at 1/3 max mileage, and 1 easy week for race week.   Because I had planned max mileage at 90 miles, this meant 60 miles, 30 miles and easy.  I hit these at 58 mile, 42 miles, and 15-ish miles.  Solid.  As most ultramarathoners experience, taper sucks.  For some reason we really like running, and having extra time on the hands and not putting it up into the mountains is off putting.


The night before the race, I camped out where the race was held (Malibu Creek State Park).  This included eating some tasty food, and sitting by the fire, drinking a beer (and water!!) and listening to Steely Dan.  Overall, a good way to prepare for the race.

In the past, my race plan is to go out easy and then increase pace through the race towards the finish.  There is a ton of advice to support this type of racing strategy, and it had worked out pretty well for me previously, but I always wondered if I left too much out there on the course.  Thursday before the race, I was chatting with my buddy on a final taper run, and his description of how he and other elites paced themselves made some pretty good sense to me.  What I took from it, and decided would be my race strategy, is: run hard, and let how much food I can eat dictate how fast I can go. I would run hard the entire race and see what happened.

The weather report on race day was somewhat confusing, but the short story was that it was probably going to rain at some point.  To accommodate, I brought along a Buff for the start, a hat for rain, and a ultralight shell for if things got nasty.  I also ziplok'ed up some spare socks in the mile 13/36 aid station bag for if my feet were getting mangled by wet socks.  There is a stream crossing at mile 2, and I wasn't sure if my feet would get cheese-grated or what.
The SOB Start/Finish Line circa 4:58am.  Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.
The gun went off right at 5am, and all of us took off into the darkness by headlights.  The elites were hammering and soon gone from sight, so I settled in and ended up running with a buddy of mine from the Kodiak 100.  He's a strong runner, and I assumed he would soon forge ahead on his own, which he did, about 4 miles in.  I had gone through the stream crossing at mile 2 without much fanfare and started the first big climb of the race, where I was trying to keep my heart rate where it needed to be, run when I could, and stay on top of calorie consumption.  The mile 7.5 aid station came into view at 1:15 (race time) or so and realized that I hadn't touched my 2nd water I pretty much lugged the thing up the hill for nothing.  I resolved to not over-fill again and, on the plus side, I did not have to stop at this aid.

I continued to run hard through the next section, which is downhill, flat, rolling, and runnable.  This is my favorite section of the course because it's single track, beautiful, packed dirt, and super fast.  I was stoked to get on it and I soon caught my friend from the start and we ran together some more.  At about mile 11, I filled half a bottle of water at the aid station, and pushed on to the first drop bag station to calls of  'Allez! Allez! Allez!' from my friend's girlfriend, who I don't know, but recognized our team's jersey that I was wearing.

The mile 13.5 aid station  showed up around 2:21 and I filled my bottles with Tailwind for the next 6-7 mile section of trail which included more rolling, and a fire trail climb and descent.  Again, the single track was rolling and fun, and the section breezed by, leaving me at the foot of a fire trail climb. I saw my buddy Pedro here and he took a pretty funny picture of me and helped me get out my sunglasses from my vest.  I said peace out, threw up some high-fives, climbed the fire trail and then descended smoothly into the aid station at mile 19.1 at 3:17.

The course then enters 'the lollipop loop' of the course, and continues to descend to the furthest point out on the race at mile 22.7 (3:48).  I ran down this with a dude I had just met earlier named Tyler.  He is a friend of some of my friends and we chatted all the way down.  Here, I was disappointed to see that my friend Dom had rolled his ankle badly and, after 10 miles of attempting to race hard through the pain, had dropped.  It sucks to see a buddy in the pits and not be able to help them out, so I did my best with a fist bump, some kind of words of encouragement after I had filled my bottles and took off up the trail.
The 2nd descent on the 'lollipop loop' as seen from the first descent.  Photo taken during my peak week of training (don't be confused by the sunshine!).
This is the first section of the course where I was pretty wary of my race strategy.  The preceding descent is 2200 ft. over 5 miles, and is followed by a 1500 ft. climb, a 900 ft. descent, and a 1600 ft. climb over the next 10 miles.  It is the first protracted set of descent/ascent combos that start to do some work on the legs.  I felt like I was running on the edge of too hard, sometimes climbing into the red zone and needing to recover a bit below the sustainable threshold.  This was resulting in some great feeling moments and some less great feeling moments, with an overall feeling of mildly out of control pacing.  I could feel my hamstrings tightening up, which made it hard to open my stride, but after a quick stretch break at the top of the first climb, I was able to open up a bit on the flats a descents to keep speed.

Up until this point, my strategy of 200 cal/hr of Tailwind and some supplemental aid station grub had been working out great, but coming down the descent of this loop, I was getting really thirsty, and drinking Tailwind was having no effect on my thirst!  I'm not sure what the deal was...perhaps too much salt for such a cool day? Or palate fatigue and all I really needed was a different tasting liquid?  I'm unsure about this, but when I reached the mile 19/30 aid station, I chugged some water and felt much better!  I also switched to Clif Shots & water to keep getting calories in while I figured out this nutrition issue.

By the time I reached Buzzards Roost at the end of the 1600 footer, the skies had opened up a bit and it was raining lightly.  I threw on my shell for the descent, but when I got back down to the single track towards the mile 13.5/36.5 aid station, I felt like I was sweating too much, and took it back off.  I probably should have left it off to begin with...oh well, live and learn.

The intersection of the single track and the fire trail is where the 50k course turnaround is, so I began to see both outbound and inbound 50k runners.  Everyone was super friendly and I was exchanging words of encouragement pretty regularly.  Lots of good vibes!  I also felt good because I was moving along pretty well at 35 miles into the race, which meant the race strategy hadn't backfired yet!  At mile 36.5 aid, I filled water again, grabbed a few more gels and continued to hammer on through the next awesome single track section.

A side note here: I had been running with a pair of women, Megan and Darla, on and off for about 10 miles at this point.  I believe they were running in 6th/7th position or so.  Someone then informed me that it was Megan Arbogast, who is a no joke fast lady.  Darla turned out to be screaming-fast Darla Askew. Her reputation had not preceded her to me, though maybe it should have, because her race resume is pretty amazing.  Over the course of the day I learned that she's running in her 3rd Hardrock this year...nice!  I was pretty stoked to be in good company!

The rest of the single track section back to mile 7.5/42.5 aid was a breeze and the watch clicked over 7:44 as I passed through the aid.  A few of my buddies were spectating here and threw in some words of encouragement while I mowed down on some food and refilled water.  Seeing friends is always a great mental boost, and I was pumped up to tackle the next section of the course, which is arguably the hardest section.

From mile 42.5 the 100k course splits off the 50 mile course for a 12 mile out-and-back that includes a 1800 ft. descent over 3 miles on the Bulldog trail which the runner must climb up again about 5 miles later.  To seal the deal, this section throws in some fast flat stuff on the back stretch of the out-and-back, just to make the runners work hard after a steep descent and before climbing back up it! SOB indeed.
Some of the terrain surrounding the Bulldog Trail.  Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.

This section was my first and only really low point.  My stomach started cramping on the gels, so I couldn't eat much on the way down and was feeling pretty fatigued by the bottom.  I had Tailwind powder with me, and I figured that the issues from earlier had probably run their course, so I filled up with that at the turnaround for the climb back up the hill.  I also saw my other buddy Guillaume at the bottom of the hill.  He was dealing with really bad cramping issues and would eventually chalk up his first DNF for the day as well.  I tried to get him to come climb the hill with me, but I think his legs were too far gone to make it.  More words of encouragement and I took off.  The flatish portion of the course before the climb was painful.  Having no energy wasn't stopping me from trying to run hard, and it resulted in just feeling shitty and really wanting the climb to start so that I could hike instead of run.  Finally, the climb arrived and I started to hike as hard as a could manage and drink the Tailwind to get some food in me.  Somewhere on this climb, I remember thinking that I never want to run again, haha. Oh make me think some crazy things.  The good news was that the Tailwind was working! By the top I was feeling pretty rejuvenated, and I took a Mocha Clif Shot that has 50mg of caffeine in it...rocket fuel!  I smashed the small descent to the aid station at mile 54.5 (10:06) and filled up on chips, goldfish crackers, and Reese's peanut butter cups.  So delicious.  My friends were still there, so I took in some encouragement from them and hammered off to try and run out the last 7.5 miles hard.

The last section is a repeat of the first section, only backwards, so I just ran down hard and hiked/ran up as fast as my legs would let me.  When I hit the final descent to the stream crossing, I opened up and just let gravity pull me all the way down the hill.  That caffeine must have been working because I felt strong!  I ended up passing my friend that I had run with at the start, and so I was running a bit scared after the stream crossing because I didn't want to pass strong and then blow up and get caught!  I pushed up the small climb back into the State Park where the finish is located and let myself relax a bit at the top, though I tried to run hard in to finish strong.  This section is super fun because, again, it is packed single track and totally runnable!  It dumps the runners out onto some gravely road and then onto more trail and pavement to the finish.  I crossed the finish around 11:16 and was pretty stoked to be done!
Me at the finish line.  As Crista said, "One satisfied runner." Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.

Post Race

At the end of the day, it appears that the race strategy worked out!  I think I have some core work to do to support my legs running strong and loose for the whole race, but overall, I was pretty happy with the gains that the last training buildup yielded!  After trying to rehydrate a bit, I drank a beer or two at the finish line and then headed off with the girlfriend to Rancho San Juan to watch some racing, drink some more beer and enjoy the vibe.  To cap it all off, while I was racing on Saturday, I was accepted into the Wasatch Front 100 in September!  Stoked!  What a great weekend!