Last Saturday I kicked off my ultra racing season with the Dirty 30 in nearby Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Unofficially, the 31.8-mile course has 7,800 vertical feet of gain, with elevations ranging from 7,750 to 9,500 feet.
For me, this race was a perfect season-opener. It was conveniently local. The late-May date guaranteed at least a few nice days beforehand for long training efforts. Recovery will be quick, thus not compromising any summer plans. And, now in its seventh year, it’s a well directed event.
I finished in 5:26:33, an average pace of 10:11 minutes/mile. Last year, this time would have put me on the finishers podium in 3rd place; this year, it netted 19th, which is a testament to the significantly deeper field. (Full results)
My performance was about what I expected — very mediocre. In contrast to The North Face 50-Mile Championship in December, I never got serious about this race: I showed up under-trained and overweight, and mentally I was less ready to suffer.
Rather than get too frustrated by a sub-potential performance, I’ll instead take it as a fitness benchmark and as a wake-up call. Before my biggest race of the year, Run Rabbit Run 100 in mid-September, I’ll need to invest much more time and energy than I did this winter and spring. Thankfully, I should be able to — I intentionally front-loaded my guided backpacking trips, which constitute at least half of this year’s workload, so in just a few more weeks I’ll be able to focus almost entirely on my training.
Compare my training volume — in terms of distance and vertical — last October/November before TNF against January-May before Dirty 30. It’s not even close. Moreover, relatively speaking, my TNF training was merely okay: I put in six strong weeks, but many other elite runners had put in six strong months.
As a general rule of thumb, 1 percent extra body fat results in a 1 percent decrease in running performance. But in a mountainous trail race, I suspect the effect is more significant — versus running on flat surfaces, it costs additional energy to carry extra weight uphill and to slow it down on descents.
Conservatively, I can afford to lose 4.6 lbs pounds of body fat off my 160-lb frame, or 3 percent. In a 5.5-hour race, this translates into a 10-minute savings, which at Dirty 30 could have been the difference between Top 10 and Top 20. And this improvement did not require one extra long run, workout, or shake-out session!
On the brighter side
While I have raced hundreds of times, my ultra racing experience is still thin and any additional experience is a plus. With each event, I learn more about pacing, race-day nutrition and hydration, and preparation (course scouting, competitive research, and tapering). I also learn what not to do — like making a last-minute pack swap and accidentally leaving behind salt tablets and caffeine!
I can also take comfort in my finish. Once I sorted out my calories and fluids around Mi 20, I started to gain back time. Only two runners finishing between 6th and 18th place bested my 1:12 split for the final 7 miles between Aid 4 and the Finish. Official data for the top 5 is unavailable, but Strava suggests that I at least stopped hemorrhaging time to them during this segment.
Finally, a quick thanks to a few spectators and other runners for recognizing me, including Scott Spillman at the start line (nice race, BTW), Cory near Aid 3, and a 12k runner shortly after Aid 4. On a day when I wasn’t feeling especially great about myself, it was a nice boost.