FKT: Chris Thoburn - East Bay Skyline National Recreation Trail (CA) - 2020-11-28

Gender category
Route variation
one way
Start date
Finish date
Total time
3h 59m 1s

On Saturday, 28 November 2020 I set out to break my unsupported "out" FKT with the intent of turning around and also setting the "out-and-back" FKT. The goal was to go under four hours for the out with my target splits setting the pace for 3:53 for the ~32 miles and ~6k ft of vert involved.

I chose to go supported on this effort in part for the race practice, in part to free myself from the ~2L of water and other gear otherwise necessary to carry, and in part because knowing I was going to attempt the "back" where I wanted support anyway I might as well take advantage the entire trip!

I intended to start from Alvarado Gate at 8:15am, but a few small delays meant I started just before 8:30am. I was crewed by Katy (the current women's FKT holder whom I met because of her awesome run here!) and paced for the first ~5.5 miles by Eddie Owens. Similar to my last FKT here I pre-programmed a workout on my Garmin with a step for each notable section that contained notes about the distance, goal time, pace, elevation etc (pressing the lap button advances you to the next set of notes, this is incredibly useful when you can't trust distance based splits too much and works nicer than a laminated split sheet for keeping the mental math in check). Before starting I downed a gel and then carried a 500ml bottle of Maurten with me.

To Inspiration Point!

Through the first climbs I felt smooth and with Eddie's company to take my mind off the early grind I ended up splitting 24s ahead of goal pace (22:51 vs 23:15)! From there to Inspiration Point I backed off a little to try to avoid pushing too early knowing. The climb had felt easy but I didn't want that to end my day. However, my shoe choice (the Hoka One One Rocket X) was made in part due to stretches of the course like this one (paved and "flat") which meant I soon got rolling. In the end my split at Inspiration Point was 5 seconds ahead of my goal (27:35 vs 27:40). Just before the turn I dropped the consumed bottle with Katy and grabbed Maurten Bottle 2 and a caffeinated gel to fuel me for the next stretch.

To Skyline Gate!

From Inspiration Point I took the connector trail onto Seaview and began the ~3 mile trip towards Steam Trains. The climb up to the ridge here was the first real test of how the day was going to go, if I'd pushed the first bit too hard, this is where I'd notice. Thankfully I found myself climbing steadily and smoothly. On this stretch I began encountering more people and dogs. In the final portion circling Vollmer Peak on the single track I passed 3 couples with multiple dogs each, a few of which dogs were not happy to encounter a runner. A couple of quick side steps and jumps and pauses and I got through and into the parking lot headed towards the gate on the other side of Lomas Cantadas road. I split 23:42.5, 17.5s ahead of the 24:00 target I'd set out.

The next bit of downhill single track was the first test of my shoe choice. If wearing a fast road shoe was going to be an issue, the more technical terrain and sharp turns from here until Skyline was going to be where I paid for it. Possibly because of this I held back a bit more than I should on the descent, but I still found myself around 6:30ish average pace for the split when I began the climb up into Sibley and ended up splitting 23:51 (51s behind my 23min target for the split). I knew this meant that overall I was still on goal pace almost to the second and the climb had felt alright.

From Sibley down to the creek and up to the stairs in Huckleberry is the most technical portion of the course, I'd set a target of 15 minutes for this 1.9 mile stretch, and despite three more dog interruptions I split 14:38. This was a monkey-off-my-back moment, the shoe choice was solid, the hardest portion behind me, I was hitting my splits, the day felt great and I was excited for the cruise on the back half.

The final mile to Skyline Gate held 4 more dog encounters, one of which lunged out of its harness and chased me. I split the final mile 7:56, 26 seconds slower than the 7:30 target but overall within 8s of my planned goal through Skyline Gate. At the water fountain I handed my (consumed) bottle over to Katy and picked up another caffeinated gel and Maurten bottle #3. This was probably the hardest handoff of the day as she had little time to see me coming and the crowd of people was thick at the trailheads here.

To Parkridge!

From Skyline Gate I cruised the half mile along West Ridge to the start of French Trail. This section is sneakily slow, it winds, it has weird footing, and despite seeming flat it's a constant slight uphill. In the past I've found myself losing 30-60s here by accident. Despite the crowd on the trail and a near collision with a young biker that zipped tightly around a blind curve I got to French in around 3:30ish, a pace I was more than happy with. The first quarter mile down French has some of the worst footing of the day outside of the Sibley section, but the confidence from Sibley allowed me to cruise down comfortably. I power hiked most of the three ascents in the early portion of French wanting to avoid burning out too early, and cruised to the junction with Orchard in a total of 35:36, all of 6s behind the 35:30 target I'd set out to hit. Hitting so close to the split despite hiking all three hills felt awesome, but I knew the next section would let me know if I'd gassed myself early or still had it.

The climb up Orchard went smoothly. A little power hiking but mostly steady running, and the descent down West Ridge the the connector I felt like I was running vs the plodding that I've sometimes ended up doing down that hill. I hit Golden Spike and started pushing, knowing that effort levels on that trail are highly deceiving and to hit my split I had to feel like I was working. As I crossed Redwood Rd Katy was there playing Crossing Guard and handed me my fourth (and last) bottle of Maurten. I exited the second parking lot onto Macdonald with a 13:30 split, a solid 30s faster than my target of 14min. The last big climb of the day staring me in the face.

I'd set a very aggressive target for the Macdonald climb to parkridge: 9:30. Of all the splits I'd laid out for the day this was the one I most expected to miss, but I also knew that I couldn't give much time up on this hill. So I balanced giving myself a little rest for the final more runnable section and making sure I got up the hill at a good clip.10:39 split. The most time I'd given up all day anywhere by a lot, but I felt good and figured I could earn it back.

To Proctor!

The last 25% of Skyline is the most "runnable", which is a word I've come to realize means that runners think you can race it at high speeds with limited interruptions to flow. I think French Trail is "runnable" but something tells me most folks reading this would disagree 😆. My next split was a 9:30 target to the gate onto Grass Valley at Bort Meadows, where I'd meet Katy for the last time to collect a final gel.

I've come to realize that I have the distance of this split wrong, I've been counting it as 1.5 miles and my target was built on that but on most of my runs since I spec'd out the various sections it has measured closer to 1.6 and I'm starting to be pretty confident that it is in fact 1.6. This matters only because my 9:30 target assumed 1.5, I came flying through in ~10:06 (10:12 on the lap but I hit the button slightly late). 3:10:31 cumulative time. 49 minutes for the last ~6.6 miles to break 4 hours and I was targeting closer to 43.5 knowing I could bring even that down another few minutes if I truly needed to. Except... no.

In February of this year (2020) I had lung surgery to attempt to prevent continued collapses of my right lung, after suffering two collapses in 2019. A side effect of this surgery is my lung is now mechanically attached to things in places it did not used to be, and my lung volume was reduced significantly. Overtime it is expected that my lung function will return fully to normal, both in volume and in elasticity, but it hasn't fully done so yet (it might take a few years). It's something I've got to work through similar to any sports injury requiring rehab. Unfortunately, what this has meant for me is that long hard aerobic efforts sometimes hit a "cliff", fatigue builds up in the lung and at a certain point it just gives out with exhaustion. When I first started running again I'd hit this cliff after fairly short intervals (5-10min). These days on my hardest efforts I hit it around 30min. Today was not as hard as some of those efforts but it was a lot longer and intensity over time adds up. As I passed through the gate at Bort Meadows, I became aware of that feeling building rapidly. I knew I had 6 minutes to spare over my goal, I resolved to hold on to my target for as long as possible and then figure it out.

It helped that the first 1.5 miles after the gate are mostly a downhill cruise to the junction with Brandon Trail. I held a good pace (6:30ish), and turned onto Brandon to start the last series of small climbs. The energy wasn't there, my legs felt strong but my body screamed for rest. I alternated 25s of power hiking with a few minutes of running for a bit trying to hold off the cliff. My pace was tanking. the 6:30 average became 7:30, became 8, became 8:15. Sub-4 was about to be out of the picture. But I was also through the bulk of the last bit of up! I gritted, I pushed, I found every trick I could. I reminded myself of Coree's "10s at a time" mantra. I used it for a moment. I reminded myself of Tony's "just keep pushing" mantra, I used it for a moment. I reminded myself to smile, I used that for a moment. I walked when I had to, sometimes even on flats. But I got the average pace back down enough that I could make it.

As I passed the "savior" fountain on Brandon Trail I noted that the handle has finally been repaired! I didn't need it today but this made me excited, that fountain is a key player in so many runs for me.

I crossed Marceil Road and hit lap as I went through the gate onto the final 2 mile downhill stretch (I typically lap at the road, so this was another late split). 36:06. A far cry from the 32:30 I'd targeted and the ~31 I know I'm capable of here. I had 13.5 minutes to get downhill to break 4, and as safe as that might sound for this stretch I knew I was in trouble. My target for these 2 miles was 5:45 pace, I wasn't sure I could even manage 6:30. Most of the way down I hovered around 6:45, but with the golf course in sight I mustered just enough to get a kick, and I held that kick the whole way to Proctor, but instead of the emotional relief typical as you get close to a big effort, every step felt worse and worse. I passed the end marker and hit the road. Pressing lap (again a couple seconds late, 3:59:03 on the lap button press, ~3:59:01 based on the time I saw as I passed the finish). And promptly blacked out.


My plan was to spend 3-4 minutes doing a quick tune-up and then turn around to start the journey back and a more leisured pace. 10min later I was still dizzy and movement was causing more blacking out. I had a small coke (thanks Katy!), I drank some water. I hobbled over to the restroom and took a squat. I tightened up my shoes, donned a sweatshirt because I'd started shivering, grabbed a gel and a bottle of Rocktane Summit Tea, and 24min of "rest" later started shuffling back on the trail hoping to find something I didn't think I had. The whole time at Proctor and while running all I wanted to do was lie down and sleep. I have issues with low blood pressure triggered by stress, fatigue, and dehydration. Despite how that sounds like it might trigger often with exercise, I've until now never had it occur with running (I have had it occur once while playing basketball in a similarly long-duration high-intensity situation). I wasn't stressed, I wasn't dehydrated, but I was certainly fatigued. Blackouts, low body temp, and irresistible tiredness / need to lie down is the response my body often gives me in this situation and its hard to recover from until I've laid down for a bit and let my body reset. Couple that with the lung fatigue and I found that I had strong legs and no ability to do more than shuffle and power hike.

I'd hoped to make it back to Bort Meadows in about an hour, I rolled in 1:21:34 later and called it a day.