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50* Miles In Moccasins: Quicksilver 50M Race Report

Posted May 10 2010 12:00am

*It was actually closer to 54, but that’s part of the longer story that follows.

As I indicated in my preview post , I wasn’t quite sure what to expect heading into this year’s Quicksilver 50-Miler. While the race might have been a destination in itself, I had all kinds of hesitation about the gear I wanted to take along for the journey.

Specifically, I really wanted to run in my Soft Star RunAmocs , to test my recent minimalist infatuation in the real-world laboratory of ultrarunning. It would make a nice point of comparison with last year’s race , which I did in standard running shoes, but more or less cruised at a comfortable pace – and after 50 training miles in the 5 days prior - instead of flat-out racing. I’ve always presumed that running in mocs makes me a little slower, and this race would be a great opportunity to quantify exactly how much.

However, despite all the miles I logged in the RunAmocs while cruising around my home trails, relying on them to get me through a hilly 50-miler seemed like something altogether different. Events like Quicksilver, with its 8500' of climbing, quickly chew up and spit out anything – or anyone, for that matter - that’s not built with a healthy dose of toughness, durability and resilience. Add that to the fact that my previous long run in the mocs was only about 30 miles, and you can see why I was a bit uncertain.

Ultimately, I decided to go for it. And thanks to my being an idiot, I actually got a little bit more than I bargained for with the mocs – but I’m getting ahead of myself here, so we should probably just start the report.

After deciding to wear the RunAmocs, I made a few strategic adjustments in my normal approach to the race. One was them was to travel lighter than usual and move more quickly through aid stations; fortunately, Wilderness Running Company set me up with some items (which I’ll review in a separate post later on) expressly for this purpose. Another was to start towards the back of the pack, and try to keep my effort level low through the first half of the race.

One more change for me was that I seemed to do a lot of talking during the race; for example …

We were only six minutes into things before hitting the first major climb of the day - where everyone’s gaze tends to drift downward to the shoes of runners ahead – when I heard the first of many inquiries: Hey – what are those things you’re wearing? I ended up talking to several people about minimal running in general, Soft Star in particular, and what my chances of finishing today’s race in one piece might be. Obviously, since we were still in mile 1, I felt fairly confident – however …

… about 20 minutes in, I confirmed what I thought would be the most challenging aspect of the day: coping with the long, steep downhills that Quicksilver (along with most other Northern CA ultras) is known for. Downhill running generally necessitates a heelstrike for braking, so I really have to slow down and focus on my stride and foot placement to tread lightly through sections like this. I’m hoping it will come more naturally to me with continued practice – but at this point, it’s definitely a struggle.

To make matters worse, I used to be one of those guys who would recklessly bomb downhill sections of races, passing people like crazy while barely keeping myself upright. Being in a position where everyone pulled away from me on slopes like this was, um … difficult.

If you’re a single track guy like me, the most beautiful section of Quicksilver comes early: a 6-mile single track stretch that meanders through heavy tree cover, crosses several wooden footbridges over creeks and streams, and passes in and out of secluded little meadows like this one. If there’s one suggestion I have for this race, it’s that I’d love to see more narrow trails like this one sprinkled intermittently throughout the race.

During mile 10, runners get their first glimpse of scenes that will become very familiar by day’s end: fire roads which comprise the remainder of the course, the reservoir that they’ll see from above and below and left and right for the next several hours, and the ominous Mount Umunhum looming over everything in the distance. Settle in, folks … the heart of Quicksilver begins now.

On the first climb away from the dam, I was kind of mesmerized by these off-road unicyclists. Some people might think running 50 miles is hard - but I can’t even imagine keeping my balance on one of these things, let alone trying to ride one up a steep, bumpy hill. To mention nothing of going downhill. I chatted the riders up a bit on this hill, and also encountered another guy I’d end up spending some unexpected time with.

This is Carl . (Sorry Carl, the picture’s a little blurry.) He was running the 50K, ended up on the same climb at the same time as me, and was equally entranced by the unicyclists. While I was snapping some pictures, he vanished ahead into the distance – and after the unicyclists paused for a break, I continued up the trail on my own.

At mile 17, I passed the abandoned rotary furnace … which only sounds strange if you know that the structure isn’t supposed to show up until mile 37. In hindsight, the whole situation was one of those moments that seemed odd, but I couldn't figure out why: first there was a trail that I didn’t remember from last year, then I passed an aid station (for miles 27,36, and 48) that hadn’t even been set up yet. Then I saw that furnace, and things clicked into place: something was totally wrong.

And yet, up ahead in the distance I saw Carl. I sped up a bit to close the gap, and told him I thought we were off course. Ironically, the fact that both of us were out there – could we have both missed the exact same turn? – caused us to doubt our instincts for a bit longer, and we went another half-mile or so down the trail before coming to our senses.

Here’s another good indication that you’re off course: as far as you can see in every direction, there’s not another person in sight. Carl and I stood there for a minute in disbelief, then headed back the way we came, with our continued solitude confirming the fact that we screwed up. At least there wasn’t anyone there to laugh at us …

… but we couldn’t escape the cold gaze of Mount Umunhum, which kind of gave me the creeps.

It’s impossible to say exactly how far off course we went, but Carl and I estimated it was almost 2 miles in each direction. We eventually backtracked to the turn we missed, where I calculated that I lost about 35-40 minutes of time for the entire out-and-back. Honestly, I amaze myself with the new and unexpected ways I can be an idiot sometimes.

Once we figured out what happened and rejoined the other runners, the trick (for me, at least) was to refrain from trying to make up the time and distance all at once. The urge to “catch up” to where I had been before was overwhelming, but I settled back into a nice rhythm by sharing some walking breaks with folks, and answering the What are those things on your feet? question a few more times. Even so, after our four-mile detour, the Dam Overlook aid station in the distance was a welcome dam sight.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been so dam happy to see an aid station in my whole dam life as I was after seeing this one, and knowing I was back on the right dam course.

(I know, I did those jokes last year ... but c'mon - they're too easy.)

The 4-mile loop that takes you away from and back to the aid station is deceptively tough. The hills aren’t severely steep – especially in comparison to what lies ahead – so they seem perfectly runnable if not for the fact that you have more than 20 miles on your legs already. It’s also a popular exercise loop for locals, which always seems to add pressure (since you’ve got a race number pinned to you and all that) to at least break into a light jog and pretend like you’re running. And when you finally make it back to the dam station …

… you’ve got the longest climb of the day waiting for you, before you face these super-steep rollers on your way to the 50K mark.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with my race ... but this guy was also at the 3-mile mark of the race, dressed in full pirate garb and ringing his cowbell like crazy. So I just made a rule: if you’ve got a broken arm, and you still feel like waking up at 5AM to dress like a pirate and ring a cowbell to cheer on runners for 8 or 10 hours, I’m putting you in my blog - no questions asked. And you thought the runners were crazy.

More importantly, at 50K I had a decision to make: should I stay with the RunAmocs, or switch to the shoes I had stashed in my drop bag? Beyond this point – especially with the four “bonus” miles – I would be hitting distances I hadn’t tried before in moccasins. My feet were starting to get achy, but on the whole, they weren’t any worse off than the rest of me, so I decided to press on.

It was either that, or pull up a chair to change my shoes in the shade while the barbecue for the 50K finishers was going on … and I didn’t like my chances of being able to walk away from a scene like that.

Leaving the 50K aid station is one of the longest 4-mile stretches I’ve ever done: you go back up and over the same roller-coaster hills that finished the first 50K, then begin a seemingly relentless climb to the mile 36 Englishtown aid station. However, shortly after leaving the station, you’re met with beautiful views across the valley, as you begin a long out and back stretch to finish the race.

Believe me - it felt MUCH better to see this thing at mile 37 than it did at mile 17. I almost even came to peace with the fact that it was actually mile 41 for me. Almost.

Somewhere around this stretch of fire road to the mile 42 Sierra Azul aid station, I surprised myself a bit in the way I was able to maintain a steady (albeit slow) pace to and from the highest point of the course – and I think it was partially due to the moccasins I was wearing.

Here’s what I mean: since I was wearing mocs, I had to go a lot slower on the steep downhill sections of the race. The tactic cost me time, but I think it saved me some muscle damage, in that my quads weren’t nearly as thrashed as they normally are at this point of an ultra. And despite the fact that my whole body was aching at this stage, I kept a fairly consistent shuffle going through most of the last 12 miles of the race. Slow and steady … someone should write a parable about that or something.

When you see the Hicks Road aid station (miles 38 and 46) the first time, it’s with a touch of apprehension, because you know it’s still a long 4 miles out to the race’s turnaround point. But when you return to it, you’ve only got 4.5 miles left in the whole race – and this is where you finally might start to smell the barn. It other words, it feels awesome to see this station the second time.

Two other quick observations about this scene …

1) As I was downing a GU at the table, one of the volunteers asked how my day was going, which led to the following exchange ..

Me: I’m feeling pretty good.

Her: That’s great. Some people are having a bad day. I heard a couple of guys even went off course for a while.

Me: Gosh, what idiots. Hey – did you notice my moccasins?

2) I’m no detective or anything, but I suspect the guy on the left in the photo above was one of the ones having a bad day.

Shortly after leaving Hicks Road, I passed the point where I had 4 miles to go - which meant that I had run 50 miles on the day. Strictly speaking, the 50 Miles in Moccasins experiment was already a success, but I had four miles still to run. If you remember last year’s report, I was frustrated because I wanted to run more miles on race day but ended up not doing it. This year, I ran extra miles and was frustrated because I didn’t want to. The lesson: I’ll never, ever be happy.

Not to mention, there were still some big obstacles between me and the finish line. Throughout the day, my feet had the most difficulty with 1) steep downhills, 2) rocky downhills, and 3) downhills late in the race. So to say that this long, steep, frequently rocky descent at mile 49 was a challenge is something of an understatement.

At long last, I made it to the finish, but not before getting passed by two people in the final half-mile. Judging by the way they bombed past me, I’m guessing that neither of them was wearing mocs.

Afterwards, it was time to relax … and you know what I didn’t want to do? Take off my moccasins. Normally after an ultra, the first thing I have to do is shed my shoes to relieve all the pressure points and let my feet feel normal again.

In my RunAmocs, there were no blisters (also largely attributable to my Drymax socks ) or pressure spots, and my feet felt as natural as when I’m walking around barefoot. So I just kept them on for a while.

Of course, I did eventually take them off, and they were really no worse for wear on the top. As for the outsoles …

They’re showing some signs of age. This race put me close to 300 overall miles on my trail soles, and they’re certainly wearing down in the heel area, as well as under the balls of my feet. The leather to the inside of the right heel is wearing thin as I naturally pronate worse on this side, and roll inward on the moccasin last. So while I’m confident that the RunAmocs have more mileage in them, I’m starting to think of 400-500 total miles as a ballpark estimate of how long they’ll last before I might need to replace them.

But those are other worries for other days (and other blog posts). For now, I was left to kick back and enjoy the barbecue, and ponder how my 9:33 finish time with a 4-mile detour should compare to a 9:06 time without the detour one year ago. Simple math would say that this year’s race was better, but I have to remind myself that last year I purposely took it easy at the end of a super-high mileage week. On the other hand, the fact that I was in better overall shape last year might score a point in favor of the mocs.

I do seem to be in quite a bit more pain right now than I remember after last year, but that might be simply because last year’s race was, well .. last year. My calves in particular are extremely sore, and I’m still having trouble walking normally almost three days after the race. It’s tough to tell whether that pain increase is attributable to the mocs, or simply because I haven’t done one of these ultras for a while.

I guess the only way to find out for sure is to keep on trying.

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