Sunday, April 15, 2018

Boston 2018: I'm in! As in... invited, at least!

Boston is such the holy grail of marathon running, it's often an epic journey to get there. I still recall when I cried at the finish of the San Jose Marathon where I first met the qualification standard required for my age back then, breaking 3:10. What a story since then, running Boston in 2001, 2003, getting on the podium (top 10 Masters) in 2005 then 2007. After that, my focus turned to ultra marathon but the urge was too big to come back again on the mythical course and that was definitely worth many chills, not only to rejoin the field after the terrorist attack but also get on the podium again with a second M50-54 place. Which was so unexpected after I had missed my 100K Nationals race a week earlier.

Being the oldest in the M50-54 age group, I wasn't going to register this year. But, late August, I received this email from the organization:

Dear Jean Pommier,We hope this note finds you doing well this Summer.The 122nd B.A.A. Boston Marathon is scheduled for Monday, April 16, 2018, with 30,000 athletes anticipated to compete.Based on your outstanding age-group performance at the 2017 race, we are pleased to reserve you a non-transferable complimentary entry for the 2018 race.If you plan on competing in 2018, please respond to this email by September 9 and the appropriate entry application will be e-mailed to you in late November. [...] 

Oh, my, I thought only a few handful of olympian-worthy runners were invited! Now, still being picky, I checked if the invitation could be postponed by a year, when I would be young(est) again, to no availability. So, Boston 2018, here I come, for #6!

Now, what a difference a year makes! I'm so unprepared for this, it's embarrassing... In addition to the major change of diet which still raises many questions in my mind, I had a few physical setbacks the past 6 weeks which have seriously impacted my training. In case you haven't checked my last 5 posts, here is a graphical summary/timeline:

It looked like such an unfortunate series of events that, this past week, my key goal was to be extra careful when just moving around, while keeping the lights on, in particular going through four airports this week for a business trip then get to Boston. Extra caution when carrying something, walking up or down stairs, getting out of a car, like an old man...

To add to the uncertainty, I was waiting for the confirmation of a business trip to optimize my travel and that came at the last minute, for Cincinnati, OH, this time.

What is the state of the body leading to the race?

  1. Back muscle pull: 99% gone, just feeling it when I pull my carry-on over my head in the overhead compartment;
  2. Top foot tendinitis: 95% contained, still can feel it in certain shoes;
  3. 6 bruises from tripping down: wounds still painful (hands) but now closed;
  4. 2 3rd-degree burns on the right calf: still oozing but skin reformed at about 80%; will tape for the race this time (didn't for the mud fest last week...);
  5. Elbow and side bruises from new fall at American River 50 last week: okay...

Anyway, it's now Sunday, less than 24 hours before the start and I'm really wondering what will happen tomorrow. Starting with the weather which, typical of New England, keeps changing every minute. It was sunny on Friday and Saturday morning, it's now chilling down and overcast, so much that they announce snow flakes for today, then a lot of rain and headwind for... race day, yikes!

I'm actually just back from a 5K run during which I even clocked a 6:20-min mile, like in the good ol' days. Just need to do this 26 times in a row tomorrow, how hard can that be! When I resumed training after my back injury, I said it was going to be a steep hill back up 6 min/mile, thankfully I still have a good base. Will getting the race adrenaline to soak in be enough?

Snow in April? That's really not surprising the locals who have had such a tough and long winter. And there is still piles of snow here and there, around (here is St Augustine Church where I went to mass on Saturday morning in Andover):
Oh, one more excuse to sand bag for tomorrow's run: I just realized I even forgot to take my Vespa pouches with me. Without my magic potion, better show that I'm fat-adapted after 4.5 weeks on the OFM/keto diet!

Given all these circumstances, the goal of just finishing may have to predominate tomorrow, we shall see in a few hours.

That caveat being on records, if you still want to follow my progress, you can text 819 (my bib number) to 234567 and you should receive updates along the way (last year, it only sent notifications from 30K on, every 5K, versus the additional 10K and half-marathon checkpoints advertised this year). I believe that number/procedure only works in the US.

There is also a "Boston Marathon" app (Apple and Android) from the Boston Athletic Association, offering live tracking. That app is advertised as providing many more alerts (Start, every 5K point, half-marathon, 20, 21 and 25.2-mile marks and finish), quite a fine grain tracking!

By the way, at $30 for one hour and one minute of parking near the expo, I literally zipped through the expo for picking my bib, race shirt, but still managed to walk through all the aisles of the expo floor which looked to me smaller than last year. Last year I had volunteered for a few hours on the GU booth but I haven't been selected in their advocate program this year.

Same thing for Brooks, they ditched me from their sponsoring program, so they didn't reach out to give a hand (or a foot?) on the booth.

That being said, after having run in Brooks for 19 years and 64 pairs, I'm still so attached to the brand, I couldn't resist wearing my "I love running" Brooks t-shirt as well as a new pair of Boston-themed Launch 4.

I haven't ever felt the challenge of getting to the start line as this time, this has become like a small obsession. 16 hours to start time of wave 1, never been that close! ;-) My mental image has been to be careful enough not to trip over that line this time, materialized by the cordage I tripped over in Honduras 2 weeks ago...
In addition to being my 6th Boston marathon, this will also be my 300th race in my running log, quite a milestone!

With that, alea iacta est, see many of you tomorrow between Hopkinton and Boston, on the legendary course, along it, or online! Boston Strong! Rain or shine...

Monday, April 9, 2018

American River 50 2018: raging waters for a change!

I ran my first American River 50-mile in 2008 and every subsequent year but last year when I ran, or rather walked, the 100K Nationals that weekend. I was therefore excited to toe the line for the 10th time, although it wouldn't have been for my 10th finish as I had a DNF there with a pretty severe asthma crisis in 2009. I actually had a few bad years with respiratory issues but still managed to break 7 hours 3 times, quite mixed results then.

I have to say that I've never felt so unprepared for the ramping up of the season: some crazy schedule on the business side as usual, but a few injuries these past 4 weeks which have really perturbed my training: pulling a muscle in my back, on my motorcycle, early March, then a tendonitis on the top of the foot as I logged 73 miles rushing back into training, a face plant last Monday in Honduras with 6 bloody bruises, and 2 3rd degree burns on my right calf as I started sliding on a steep gravel road, on a motorcycle again, and touched the exhaust pipe to avoid falling... Phew, what a series!

Then this wonderful vacation we had this past week on the island of Roatan, in Honduras: amazing place but not the best conditions for running. Agnès booked us on a flight through Houston on Friday and I had told her back in January that I might continue on to Chicago and Madison to run the 100K Nationals as I did last year before Boston. Given the circumstances, I decided not to but to register for American River instead, just before we left San Francisco last week. And I'm glad I didn't go to MadCity because it turned out to be sub freezing conditions, not suitable at all for another record attempt, would I have been in shape anyway.

Our flight was supposed to land at SFO just before 9 pm this Friday evening, with the car waiting for us to drive to Folsom right away, for an arrival there around midnight. Still much later than I would typically go to be before such a big race, but doable. Well, as we got into Houston, we learned that our flight was going to be delayed by at least 4 hours due to bad weather (read: rain) in San Francisco. At that time, I cancelled our hotel room and decided to DNS (Did Not Start), which I'm not sure has ever happened to me before. Huge disappointment but I thought of going to the track on Saturday to do some of the tempo running I missed so much so far this year.

Agnès attempted, and succeeded, in getting us on the earlier flight which was only delayed 3 hours and supposed to get to SFO by 11 pm. We hopped on that flight and, indeed, touched down, amid heavy rain conditions, on the SFO tarmac at exactly 11:00 pm. While we rushed to the long-term parking lot, I found another room at the original hotel in Folsom and Agnès was kind enough to let me be crazy to go for it again. We arrived at the hotel at 1:30 and got to bed by 2 am, for a short 3-hour sleep.

While I typically aim at finishing breakfast 3 hours before any race, that didn't work at all for this one: woke up at 5, ate 3 hard eggs and a brownie, took a shower, prepared my stuff while hearing the pouring rain outside and we were off the room by 5:35. Agnès dropped me at the entrance of the park at 5:47 and I rushed to the start line where I found Race Director, Julie Fingar, already delivering the pre-race briefing. As I couldn't find the tent and table where my bib was supposed to be, I interrupted her and she rushed in the rain to get it to me with 2 minutes to spare, so nice of her! Enough said, I think you got the picture, I had a good dose of stress to start the day, and that never does me much good...

The start line was filled with young runners in singlets. Actually, the favorite, Zach Ornelas, was even wearing a speedo, I had never seen this before at a trail ultra race! For one thing, the temperature was already high for an early Spring morning at 6 am, around 58-60F. Yet, I was wearing my super Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest v2, like I was going into bad weather in the Alps...

I let this group go, I believe they were about 10 going sub 7-min/mile. At about 1 mile in, I actually passed the lead woman and run alone for the next 2 miles, happy to be protected from the rain and wind with my jacket and hood. Since it was so cloudy and still dark, the PETZL headlamp was very helpful too.

At the first aid station one volunteer proposed to take my headlamp but I was convinced we'd have another station to drop it, just a few miles later. It was at 13 miles though, much later than I thought, and I was relieved to drop both the lamp and the vest with the Buffalo Chips, as the rain had stopped by then. We were 1 hour and 40 minutes in the race and I had the Excelsior team on my heels with Brian Purcell and Karl Schnaitter. On the asphalt and down the American River, which was raging this year, I got the pace down to 7:15-7:30 still much slower than previous years.

I was actually happy with that, thinking it would make the second half easier. I had a good climb up to the right bank but, on the subsequent steep and slippery downhill, I tried to escape a gully of mud on the right to get to the other greener side but slipped and had a bad fall on my left side again, the same I fell on last Monday in Honduras, yikes! My elbow was bleeding pretty hard and my hip was super painful, but I went on, counting on the nearby aid station to clean the wound. Well, another miscalculation, the next aid station was much further, it used to be one at this location but not this year. By the time I arrived at Negro Bar, mile 20, the blood had dried up, it will have to wait for the finish to get washed up. As a matter of fact, that made me realize that, in the haste of the start, I had forgotten to take my blood thinner pill (which I have to take every morning since my TIA incident 2 years ago), as well as my asthma-control medication, Singulair, the night before. When it occurs, my exercise-induced asthma typically kicks in around 14 miles and I could feel some at the bottom of my lungs but it was manageable at this slow pace anyway. I kept going up toward Beals Point which I reached in 3:14 and 9th place.
Agnès handed me a Vespa pouch and off I was, while hearing a few cheering for incoming runners.
Matthew Logan, 28, from Seattle, was the first to catch me as I was now struggling and started walking the uphills, passing through Granite Bay. Here he is, getting into the Granite Bay aid station at mile 29.5.
I came in 2 minutes later, albeit not in the same positive spirit.

At 50K, I was passed by Brian and Karl, along with the lead woman, Emily Hawgood, 23, from Zimbabwe. I remember seeing her bright and clean yellow shoes but, on this picture taken by Agnès, I must say that it looks like we weren't in the same race! I had mud all over my legs and even stuck in the blood along my arm and here she is, like she had covered 30 miles on a clean track, not a spot of mud to be seen, thanks to the agility of the gazelle!
From this point, I hadn't it in me and my legs anymore and I couldn't breath enough to run the uphills so I started logging 15 to 20-minute miles, a pace I've really hard time coping up with. I managed to reach Horseshoe Bar at mile 38, hoping to find Agnès and drop there. But, again, I had forgotten that crews weren't allowed there because of limited parking so I had to keep going for 3 more miles Rattlesnake Bar. By then, and after struggling through many more huge puddles, stretches of muddy sections either uphill or downhill and avoiding hundreds of poison oak branches, I had made my mind to drop to avoid spending 3 more hours to cover the remaining 9 miles. I could have done it but I was so eager to get my open wounds cleaned, I didn't even have any regret the following day as I was writing this post.

A special note to Ray Sanchez who is now in my age group and had very kind words when he passed me around mile 33. Ray not only won our age group but took second Master and 9th overall in 7:44.

And a mention to the Excelsior Men team which killed it this weekend, taking 10, 12 and 13, with, respectively, Karl Schnaitter, Paul Broyer and Brian Purcell.

Overall, the trail conditions were so bad that, despite a record pace in the first half according to some spectators, Zach won in a time of 6:22, way off the record. Despite a great and warm weather after the initial two hours of rain.

While getting some care at the finish line, I actually had a great chat with Rod Bien who had finished 3rd overall and 1st Master. He had bad GI issues after struggling with road shoes on the slippery trails in the second half. He is so modest that he was almost apologetic, stating that it was probably the slowest time for a 3rd place in the race history. We'll have to check with ultra statistician, Gary Wang... ;-) But, clearly, it was a testimony of the struggle we encountered in the second half. Here he is at Beals Point, with Race Director, Julie Fingar:

Here is my favorite Monster of Massage, Ve Loyce, helping the medical staff with his handy car wash.
And, mind you, the two burns after the initial cleaning on site
and after a shower, back home, a few hours later.
I now have a few days to replace the skin before Boston in just a week...

As for the hip, here is a view after two falls on it, in the same week...

While Cheri, from Julie's NorCarl Ultras team, was checking on me by email this Sunday, I took the opportunity to ask about the rest of the field and she had nothing too bad to report, thankfully! I count 382 finishers out of more than 500 registrants if I recall, not bad indeed in such conditions, kudos to all the finishers who gutted that one out! Including the legendary Tim Twietmeyer who completed his 39th American River out of 39 editions, in 11:44. This is quite a model of sustainable running!

Many thanks to the volunteers who assisted us along the course, and the sponsors and vendors supporting this event, including my friend Victor's Victory Sportdesign.

12th DNF in 152 ultra races in 12 years, it can't work every time or that wouldn't be ultra running. Or ultra racing I should say. Besides, this could have easily be my first DNS if I had answered Agnès question when we were in the shuttle to the parking lot on Friday night: "Is that reasonable?" No, it wasn't, but still worth the try, it almost worked out.

My main goal for this week is to survive the 3 flights which it will take me to get to Boston next Friday, with a business trip to Cincinnati first, then a connection through IAD. No more tripping, I have enough bruises to take care of this week!