Sunday, December 8, 2013

Coastal Trail Runs - A Final Review

Less than a year ago, I got into trail running.  Oh sure, I'd run a trail before, and I spent a couple semesters in college running on Austin's Town Lake Trail nearly every day.  But I'd never done any kind of serious trail running, and I'd definitely never done a trail race.  I'd barely even heard of one.

At one point a few years ago, a friend asked me if I'd ever do a marathon again.  At the time, I was unsure.  I'd completed every running-related goal I'd ever had, and the appeal of urban mega-marathons had somehow worn off.  I figured the only marathons I'd do from there on out would probably be destination races.  I might as well make it a trip; maybe I could go to Hawaii, or Tahiti or something?  Do they have a marathon there?

Then I started hearing about trail running.  It sounded like the best things about running, leaving out what I don't like about large events.  Definitely something I'd like to try someday.  But when?  And what race?  There aren't a whole lot in Texas to choose from.

I discovered Coastal Trail Runs by randomly riding past a race on my bike one day, and managed to remember their name long enough to Google it when I got home.  Not only did the races look like they'd be a gas (and a great challenge!), but they had a thing they called the Blazer Awards - you earn points by placing high in races, and at the end of the year, the highest point total wins.  Multi-race challenges like that are addicting to me.  I was in.

I signed up for a race only two weeks before it was held, despite not quite being in marathon shape.  Much to my surprise, I was able to hang in there on a difficult course, and I even placed third!  If I could actually improve, I'd have a chance in the Blazer Awards!  On top of that, I had an awesome time.  Yeah, I should definitely do more of these.

In my very next trail marathon, only two weeks later, I won!  The addiction was now solidified.  I wound up doing nearly every race in the series, only missing a couple when I was out of town or forgot to sign up on time.  I had done six marathons before this year.  I have now done 27 races of at least marathon distance.

There are a lot of things I could say about trail running that make it different from "normal" running.  The surface is softer, so you don't pound on your joints so hard.  The surface is also more uneven, so your stabilizer muscles get nice and strong, giving you stronger joints and making injury less likely.  It's tougher, and you're more likely to deal with hills, making you a (literally) stronger runner, and much more versatile and capable to boot.

But perhaps the most important thing is it's fun!  Rather than running around a few boring city blocks, you get outside, and I mean real outside, not just on the sidewalk.  That's not going outside, that's the equivalent of going into the courtyard of one gigantic building.  You don't have to listen to obnoxiously loud cars, you don't have to choke on their fumes, you don't have to stop every quarter-mile for another intersection, you don't have to weave your way through dozens of humans.  You get a chance to go into a zone, maybe have a little quiet time to reflect.  It's almost therapeutic, that one hour a day you get just to yourself.  And the uneven trail presents little challenges all along the way, making it more interesting; you're never just running a little farther, you're taking on a new challenge that's different from any other part of the trail.  And your approach to running becomes less goal-oriented and more process-oriented.  Sure, you can still set goals for yourself, but trail running is about the run.  You actually enjoy the training runs, and after a race, when someone asks you "How did it go?" you're more likely to say "The course was beautiful, kinda tough on that one hill, and really fun!" instead of "My time was 3:21."

During the year, I finished nine trail marathons (winning six), eight 50Ks (winning two), and a 50-miler (which I won).  I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and trail running made me stronger than I had ever been before.  I managed to qualify for Boston in LA despite having an absolutely disastrous day, then set a PR in San Francisco, the hardest urban marathon course I've ever run.  Then broke that PR a few months later in Berlin.  Honestly, what made me so fast on flat pavement was forcing myself to run over technical hills.  Everything became easy after that.

But what I really want to talk about is Coastal Trail Runs.  Of those 27 races I've done, when it comes to creating an enjoyable race experience, their races take spots #1-18.  No race I've done comes close to how much fun their races are.  Well-organized, low-key, beautiful courses, great volunteers, and an impressive spread at the finish line (oodles of snacks, soup, barbecue, and beer!).

I credit this to the fact that it's run by runners, not businessmen.  And it shows - these are truly runners' races.  The people that take on these races aren't the type that just want to say they've done a half-marathon or show a medal to their friends.  They're the type that want to challenge themselves.  People that actually like going outside.  But most of all, people that love running.  And the sense of community and camaraderie among trail runners is stunning and contagious.  Of all the races I've run, all the hills I've climbed, all the results I've gotten, I feel like my proudest accomplishment is becoming one of them.

And the actual race courses?  My goodness, I can't think of one I didn't like!  Every single one was unique and interesting in a different way, and presented a different challenge each time (I've previously written a breakdown of some particularly memorable ones that stood out).  You never knew exactly what the course is going to throw at you, or exactly how you'll handle it.  No two races are alike, so you never feel like you're doing "another" race.  And you start to learn that in trail running, anything can happen.

I think I owe a lot to Coastal Trail Runs.  Not only did I have a blast running the races, but I'm in the best shape of my life.  If I hadn't had such a great time, I wouldn't have kept coming back for race after race, week after week, training non-stop in between to make sure I'm up for the daunting challenge presented by each and every race.  Coastal Trail Runs helped me re-awaken my passion for long-distance running, and also brought it to new levels.  Marathons are my first true love, but trail running and I are soul mates.

If you live in California (or plan to visit) and want to give trail running a try, start with these guys.  They have races of all different distances, so you can have a race suited to you no matter what your level is.  Some people even just go for a hike!  And for $40, going for an all-morning hike that's planned out for you, with the course clearly marked, free water stops and snacks along the way, and a big lunch at the end (and a free T-shirt), that's not such a bad deal.  Whatever distance you choose, and whatever you make of it, I promise you'll have a good time, and I bet you'll try it again.

As for me, my time with Coastal Trail Runs is coming to a close.  I've moved back to Texas, and unfortunately, trail running just isn't much of a thing here.  I'm considering finding one to run in the spring, but I dunno.  The problem is I'm starting training for another challenge: biking around the world alone.  And since my trail running is just about done, so is this blog.  If you'd like to keep reading about my adventures, check out my new site detailing my circumnavigation by bicycle.  And to loyal readers, thanks for reading.

One last big thank-you to the good people at Coastal Trail Runs.  I had fun out there!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Berkeley Half Marathon

I normally don't do half marathons, but I was kinda roped into this one.  Whenever I see a "Do all these races and complete the challenge!" thing, I always fall for it.  To some degree, I feel like that demonstrates that I didn't just do a race, that this is more of a lifestyle for me.

I only learned about the Berkeley Half Marathon when I heard about the Berkeley/San Francisco Challenge - run both the San Francisco Marathon and the Berkeley Half in the same year and you "complete the challenge" and get a special medal.  I'd already done the San Francisco Marathon, and I'd done something similar called the LA/SF Challenge - run both the San Francisco and LA Marathons in the same year.  All I had to do was show up and complete what is essentially a training run and I get rewarded with a small sense of accomplishment.

The start line was only half a mile from my friend's apartment, so I stayed there for the night and just walked over.  Ditched my warm-ups and put them on a bus about 15 minutes before the gun and headed over to the start line.  Based on my time in previous races, I was able to line up at the front as an elite athlete.  Bumped into Nick and Ben, two of my Google teammates at the Hood-to-Coast Relay.  Ben is way faster than me, so I knew I wouldn't be seeing him much.  Nick and I lined up near each other and got to talking.
"So what time you aiming for today?" asked Nick.
"Oh, well, I haven't been training seriously or even eating well lately, so I dunno, anything under 1:20 will make me happy.  I'm just trying to have fun today.  I mean, 1:20 is good by any objective measure..."
"Yeah, that's what I was hoping for!  I might just try and stay with you!"

Nick later revealed that he'd be in Dallas to run the Dallas Marathon in a few weeks.  I told him that's where I was moving to and gave him a few pointers about the course.  Dallas was actually my first-ever Boston qualifier, and I've always run well there.  Fond memories.

The Berkeley Half's course starts near the UC-Berkeley campus and heads straight downhill to the bay for four miles.  After that, all flat, mostly out-and-backs along the water.  A fast course, and very different from what I'm used to.  A lot more people, too.  4,680, to be exact, seemingly a very high number for an inaugural event.  Then again, half marathons are now the most popular running distance.  Maybe that's normal.

Right out of the gate, Ben got far away from me and I couldn't see him at all.  Nick took off like a light too, and after a minute or two, I wasn't close to him either.  Seemed like there were a lot of people that could run fast!  I wasn't sure if I was just running unusually slow, since I didn't have my watch with me.  But I felt like I was putting out a solid effort, so forcing myself to go faster probably wouldn't be a good idea.

After a couple miles, the crowd started to stretch out and I started passing people more often than I got passed.  At one point, it looked like we were running directly into a thick fog, but once we got near the water, it cleared up and turned into a bright sunny day.  After four miles, the course flattened out and we turned south for the first out-and-back.

I must have been hitting my stride right about now, because it was right about now that I started passing people exclusively.  Not that I was passing people left and right, but I would pass someone every couple minutes, and no one was ever passing me.  Every time I asked someone, I was told we were right on a 6:00 pace, right where I wanted to be.  Just keep it up!

About half a mile before the turn-around, I saw the first runner coming the other way.  Holy crap, a whole mile ahead of me already??  That would mean he's faster by almost a whole minute per mile!  Only about 15 seconds later, I saw Ben, in second place.  Goodness gracious, that guy's fast...

Nick was only about 30 seconds ahead of me when I reached the turnaround at mile 6.5.  A few minutes later, I caught up to him.  He stayed with me for about half a mile before I got away from him.

About eight miles in, the course turned to do a short loop around a park.  I passed a tall lanky guy and asked what our pace was.  Still 6:00.
"I'm dyin', by the way," he added.
"Hang in there, man.  It's only another 30 minutes.  You can do anything for 30 minutes!"
"Yeah, that's what I'm trying to tell myself."

The course through the park put us on an unpaved crushed gravel trail.  Well, that threw me for a loop!  Didn't expect that at all.  Lucky for me, I'm perfectly comfortable on the trail.  Carried on.

For whatever reason, these miles seemed to take a long time.  They weren't grueling and I didn't feel that tired, but everything just went on for a lot longer than I expected.  After a couple miles, we did another out-and-back section, then ran across some more gravel to the final stretch.

For the first time in several miles, someone passed me, a very tall guy in a yellow checkered shirt.  In the last mile, the course did some zig-zagging in a parking lot, marked off by cones, then did one last hill just before the finish.  I must have paced the race pretty well, because I was just starting to get tired in the last half-mile; it was hard to maintain my pace at that point.  Forced myself to hold strong up the very last hill, then cruised downhill for the last minute of the course.

I finished under 1:20 like I wanted, but had a 6:02 pace when I was hoping for 6:00 or less.  Still, I wasn't taking this one too seriously, and I think I did well and had a good time.  I wound up finishing 38th; Ben finished fourth!  If I'd known that 2-3 miles would be unpaved, I might've kept my light trail runners out of retirement for one last race.

Oh, and the goodies after the race?  Superb.  Tons of samples of granola, trail mix, bars, and a free beer.  And since I was registered as an elite athlete (though I don't quite consider myself an elite athlete), I got to go into the VIP area.  All the beer you want, massage, donuts, muffins, and a food truck!  I took advantage of almost all of that, including a short rib sandwich, cup of tortilla soup, and a vanilla shake from the food truck.

Most importantly, I had a good time running this race.  A fitting send-off for my last day in California.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Breaking Down the Coastal Trail Runs

Now having run 18 races with Coastal Trail Runs, on 15 different courses, I thought it'd be fun to take a look back at the races.

The "winners" of these categories are only among the races I personally ran.  I can't speak for the ones I missed.  Which, if you're curious, are Steep Ravine, Grizzly Peak, Diablo, and Malibu Canyon.  That includes three of the very hardest courses in the series.

Oh, and I'm not counting the San Francisco 50-Miler either.  I think that gets its own category.

Hardest:  Coyote Ridge - 7,350 feet of climbing pretty much says it all
Most Technical:  Spooner's Cove - loose scree on steep slopes, deep sand in places, and tons of firmly embedded rocks
Easiest:  Wildwood - very flat, almost no real climbs, entire second half is steady decline
Fastest:  Bizz Johnson - first half flat, second half ALL DOWNHILL
Most Scenic:  Coyote Ridge - beautiful vistas all over the Marin Headlands (Golden Gate is a close second, and is a very similar course)
Prettiest Forest:  Big Basin - the Skyline-to-Sea Trail is a very popular hike in its own right, and it's not hard to see why
Favorite for Running:  Canyon Meadow - just feels great to run on those trails, poses enough challenge, and no big hill at the end
Most Unique:  San Lorenzo River - wade across a waist-deep river four times!
Greatest Nemesis:  Cinderella - got the best of me twice

A more in-depth retrospective is coming soon...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Spooner's Cove Trail 50K

After a long drive down Highway 1 the day before, my Volkswagen Beetle thankfully started and I made the slow drive from my hotel to the start line.  The road was winding and twisting, passing over gnarled coastal terrain.  A preview of what was to come.

Upon arriving at Spooner's Cove, I finally had a chance to look out on the ocean instead of the road in front of me.  Gorgeous.  Short white cliffs right up to the sea, and a beautiful morning for running.  I turned around.  Oh my goodness, those hills.  I wondered which one we had to climb.  Pretty though.

This race didn't have a marathon or half-marathon.  The only distances were 5 miles, 7 miles, 25K, and 50K.  So you were either doing short, long, or REALLY long.  At the gun, there was a large cluster that immediately got in front of me, two of which kept widening the gap.  A mile in, I was still running at the back of a group of about six, and two guys were at least 30 seconds ahead.  We were running 6:30 miles, and while the terrain was entirely flat, that's still pretty fast for a trail run.  Another flat mile later, we were still at the same pace, and those two guys were even farther ahead.  I tried not to worry about them.  The way I saw it, there were three possibilities:
1.  They're not doing the 50K (most likely).
2.  They're doing the 50K, but they have no idea how to pace themselves, and they'll fall apart later in the race.

3.  They're doing the 50K and they're really that good, in which case I'm not going to beat them anyway.

Two miles in, the hill finally started.  Not too bad, some up-and-down, and the steep parts weren't that hard.  About a mile later, I passed the guy in red shorts, one of the front-runners.  He was struggling mightily with the hill.  A lot of that first cluster was still ahead of me, and by now, I had learned that just about all of them were doing the 25K.  I was fairly certain that I was leading the 50K crowd.

About halfway up the big hill, the 5-mile course split off and the trail absolutely shot upwards.  Not only that, but it became the most ridiculous terrain I've ever seen.  Exposed rocks made up the majority of the trail, and loose scree was everywhere.  It was all I could do to keep running, which I think would be better described as little hops from one flat spot to the next.  Almost everyone else was walking.  Already, I half-expected to walk it the next time around.

I finally made it to the summit, grabbed a rubber band, and looked up.  We had crested a major ridge and you could see a full range of hills past this one, almost all of them with summits that we could look down on from here.  I turned around and looked out at the ocean.  It seemed so far away.  I remembered I was in a race and ran back down.

Like always, I got passed repeatedly on the ensuing downhill.  Wasn't as bad as I had expected, but was still enough that I was unable to take full advantage.  There were so many people still around me!  In a few other races, I've managed to beat all the half-marathoners to the halfway point, but not today.  There were some very talented runners doing the 25K.  And it seemed like the field was very young!  I think most people were in their 20's.  I wondered if it was a running group over at Cal Polytech nearby in San Luis Obispo.

7.4 miles in, arrived at the first aid station.  Took in nothing but a little water, then stopped in the bathroom.  I probably ate too much last night.  Headed back out.  The next section of the course was a little longer, but the hill was supposed to be not as bad.  I think I got this.

For three miles, a long, long steady incline.  No true climbing really, just a very long incline.  I started passing people again.  I was honestly handling the hill pretty well.  At one point, I passed a guy in a grey shirt, who stayed behind me for a little bit.  Not long after I passed him, we found ourselves running along some saddle-shaped pass.  Looking both left and right, you could see an endless supply of gorgeous California hills.
"Whoa, look at that!" he cried out.
"That's what I live for!" I smiled back.
"Beautiful day for a run!"

I had thought the course headed back once it reached a high point, but we had to run past that for about a mile, descending all the way, before we got to the turnaround point.  With such a long out-and-back, this would be a good chance to see how close behind the next 50K guy was.  I kept looking for bibs, but the problem was so many people wore them on their shorts, off to the right side.  I couldn't read the numbers and therefore had no idea what race most people were in.  It wasn't until I'd backtracked a full mile that I saw a guy with a bib starting with 5.  That would mean I'm two miles ahead.

It wasn't until I had to run down the long incline that I noticed how technical it was.  Lots and lots of embedded rocks in the trail, the kind that hurt when you kick or step on them.  It was starting to get pretty crowded too, with lots of people now heading up.  A few more people passed me going down, all of them trying to finish strong in the 25K.  As I kept dodging rocks and humans, I found solace in the fact that I'd basically have the whole trail to myself later, so that'll probably make it easier.  Maybe.  At least, that's what I wanted to believe.

When I arrived at the aid station, my watch was showing 16.3 miles.  If this were a 50K, it should be about 15.5.  Great, so the race is even longer??  What are they trying to do, kill me?!?  Downed some more water and a little peanut butter and headed back out to do it all over again...

This time, with no one around, I spent a little more time looking at my surroundings in those first two miles.  I can't believe I missed the beautiful coastal scenery last time.  More than once, I was sorely tempted to stay in place and watch the waves breaking on the rocks.  There were a few more people out going for a hike by this hour.  I wasn't doing 6:30 miles this time.

I was doing surprisingly well heading up the big hill the second time.  When I got to the steep part, it didn't even seem as bad!  Surprisingly, I was able to run up the entire thing without walking.  It wasn't until I got to the top that I realized how tired I was.  Oh well.  20 miles down, and most of the climbing is done, including the hardest hill of the course.  Not bad!

Running down the hill was when things started to go south.  I couldn't do much other than plod along, and for some reason, I kept feeling like I really needed to pee, even though I knew I didn't.  I stopped four times, and each time, barely anything came out.  Then one minute later, I'd have the overwhelming urge to pee again.  I finally decided I'd "hold it" until the next aid station.

23 miles in now.  I've felt worse before.  I wasn't falling apart just yet, but I wasn't at my best either.  I took in four dixie cups of water this time.  It was hard to get my legs going.  I finally didn't feel like I had to pee.

I finally started seeing other people on the course again, maybe one person every five minutes or so, the last few people finishing up the 25K.  I realized it was going to be very lonely at the finish line; all the 25K-ers will have already gone home, and I'm likely to be the first 50K-er.  And there weren't many people doing the 50K in the first place.

Everything in me started falling apart.  I still wasn't walking up the long incline, but everything hurt.  My stomach was acting up, my legs were sore, and my feet were a wreck.  Not only were my light trail shoes no match for the rugged terrain, but the shoes I was wearing were past their prime and have very little "boing" left in them.  By now, it seemed like any irregularity in the trail caused major pain.  But most of my trouble appeared to be internal.  My insides were aching and it felt like I was just out of energy.  Once or twice, I stopped and put my hands on my knees.  Weird, because I wasn't so tired I had to walk.  I kept turning around to see if anyone was behind me.  Once, I could finally see someone in the distance, looked like they were about half a mile back.  That got me going.  If they've made up 1.5 miles already, and I'm doing this badly, they oughta be able to catch me if I don't get it in gear.

Once I passed the saddle-shaped pass and headed downhill again, I tried opening it up and running hard again, but it didn't quite work.  I tried to remind myself of things that convince me to try harder: songs, running mantras, or the idea that I'm running "for" something.  And I gotta say, while those can be effective at getting you off the couch to go running when you feel just fine, they have a way of becoming insignificant when your insides hurt that bad.

About a quarter-mile before I made it to the turnaround, a guy on a mountain bike passed me.  When I got to the turnaround a few minutes later, he was stopped there, and at about the same time, two other mountain bikers showed up.  I stayed in place for a second just to stay in the shade.  One of them offered me water.
"So how far are you running?"
"50K.  How far back is the next guy?"
"You mean the next mountain bike?"

"No, runner."
"Oh, I didn't see any, did you?" he asked another guy.
"No, I haven't seen anyone."

I smiled.  That means the next guy is probably three or four miles back!  That guy I saw behind me a while ago was probably one of these mountain bikers!  I decided I might as well hang out here for a minute and gather my strength for the final assault.

I probably hung out there in the shade for a full two minutes, maybe more, talking to those guys.  When I started up again, I walked at first to get my legs to ease into moving.  About 20 seconds after I started running, I saw another runner coming the other way.  What?!?  Oh, so the next guy wasn't three or four miles back.  He was right behind me, and I let him catch up.  When he ran past, I noticed he was one of the guys who had his bib tucked away to one side so I couldn't read it.
"Hang in there and we can break five hours!" he exclaimed as he ran past.

I actually did fairly well heading back uphill to the saddle pass, and he caught me just as I got there.  I finally walked a section of the course, the very last steep part before the trail heads back down again.  He walked it too, but much faster.  He was about my height, probably in his 40's, and very slight.  I probably have about 10 pounds on him.  Just looking at him, you could tell his body is a model of efficiency.
"All we gotta do is get up there and then we can just cruise!" he chirped.
"Yeah, well, that's easy to say..."
He smiled, "Oh, I know!  Have a good finish!" as he disappeared away from me.

I walked all the way up to the saddle pass, even the part that smooths out to an incline.  Just as I got to the top, three more 50K-ers passed me going the other way, one-by-one, with a minute or so separating each.  I was two miles ahead with only three miles to go, and all of my miles were downhill.  Normally, that would be a lock, but things weren't going so well.  I started my trudge down the hill.

Even going downhill, I was still doing each mile in about 10 minutes.  It didn't help that I kept stopping to put my hands on my knees, sometimes for over a minute at a time.  Again, it was weird, because I was still jogging, not walking.  Why did I feel the need to keep stopping?  I tried to suck it up and just make myself get through it.  It only kind of worked.

Only about half a mile from the finish, I saw a couple people on horses.  Normally I'm supposed to yield to them, but they both got their horses off the trail and told me to go ahead and run through.
"Naw, I'm looking for an excuse to not run," I explained as I slowed to a walk.  "Besides, I have no interest in spooking a horse."
"You won't scare them.  Hang in there, you're doing great!"
"Ehhhhh...." was my reply to that.  "...and I'm not even carrying a human on my back."

Looking at the horses made me realize what a wimp I was being.  Such powerful, noble creatures, and they can routinely carry another large animal on their back for hours at a time.  I gave each one a pat on the flank as I walked by.  I started up running again.

When I crossed the finish line, I immediately found a canvas chair and collapsed in it.  A volunteer brought me four consecutive cups of water.  Normally, I hit the snacks right away, but not this time.  I must've stayed in that chair for about 10 minutes before I even bothered to get up, and it was only for more water.  I sat back down for another 10 minutes.  I didn't feel cold, but started shivering.  I got up again and slowly made my way to my backpack to put on a jacket and jeans.  I kept shivering.

"You want some barbecue, Rob?" Wendell asked.  I shook my head.  "How about a beer?"  I shook my head again.  "Wow you must really be hurting!" he laughed.  I managed a smile.

With some non-painful feeling returning to my legs, I decided I'd get up and stand in the sunshine to try and keep from shivering.  But more than my legs or my stomach, it was my head that felt like it was recovering.  I think I was getting pretty dehydrated during the race, having only drank nine dixie cups of liquid the entire time.  And it was fairly warm and sunny, too.  I think something similar may have happened at Coyote Ridge and Cinderella.

A few other 50K-ers had finished by now, and I found myself smiling and joking with a few of them.  OK, that means I'm doing fine now.  Time for that beer and barbecue!

This being my very last race with Coastal Trail Runs, I was hoping for a win, but it didn't happen today.  Of course, there were a lot of "what-ifs" going through my head: what if I hadn't eaten too much the night before, what if I didn't stop in the bathroom, what if I didn't stop to pee four times, what if I hadn't talked to the mountain bikers after they told me no one was behind me, what if I didn't keep stopping to put my hands on my knees, what if I'd drank enough, what if the course wasn't almost two miles longer than a 50K.  But as I've said before, everyone can "what-if."  I got beat.  I was basically my own undoing in this race, and someone else did better.

The third-place finisher, who I'd merely though was short, was 13 years old!!!  Holy smokes!  I'm impressed that a 13-year-old would even sign up for this, let alone finish, let alone come in third!  Watch out for this guy...

Overall, yet another great race put on by Coastal Trail Runs, and I think an alright resolution to my year as a trail runner.  Stay tuned for a retrospective look back at my first year of trail running, mostly as it involves the races put on by Coastal Trail Runs.

Official announcement for my next adventure is coming soon...

Friday, November 15, 2013

Even More Little Joys for Runners Only (Illustrated)

Continued from two previous posts

22.  Adjusting to altitude in about 10 minutes.

23.  Not getting "one-upped."

24.  That first hot meal after a long run.

The world's richest man can't buy a meal that good.

25.  Taking the stairs and beating people on the escalator.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Shoe Review: North Face Hayasa

Advertised weight:  9.0 oz. (M's size 9)
REAL weight:  9.2 oz. (M's size 9.5)
Heel-toe drop:  9 mm
Tagline:  "Run faster on any terrain with a high-performance running shoe designed with an ultralight, seamless upper construction that doesn't sacrifice protection."
Miles logged:  ~450

Notable Races
Nearly every trail race I've ever done, including the San Francisco 50-miler.  All of my races have been marathon distance or longer.  I have set nine course records in these shoes.

Holy crap, where do I start with these?  These shoes RULE.

First off, the fit.  Holy crap, it is perfect.  I have never worn any shoe, of any kind, that fit as well as this one did.  It was like a friggin' second skin, only with some wiggle room just to make you extra-comfortable.  The shoe feels like it moves with you, and not just the upper.  It's truly an extension of your foot.  It's like my feet were meant to be in this shoe.  And when you lace them up, every instinct in your body tells you to run - fast!

I feel like I want to go on about how great the fit is, but I can't think of words that are appropriate, outside of "perfect" and "best."

The outsole is more flexible than you'll usually find on a trail runner.  Some people may find that a little strange, and one of the shoe's few weaknesses is the lack of a sturdy rock plate.  On occasion, you'll feel a larger rock poke you.  In my opinion, that is well worth the ability to feel the trail under you and make adjustments as necessary.  The outsole is actually flexible enough that you aren't forced to hit the ground the exact same way on every stride, which can be a huge advantage on varying terrain.  You just have to be paying attention.

The tread is grippy enough, but the lugs are fairly shallow.  On most surfaces, it's suited me just fine, but I could see it being an issue in wet conditions, loose scree, or other situations where you just want huge, deep lugs.  I might add that the tread is light enough that combined with the flexible feel of the outsole, you can run on pavement and forget that you're wearing a trail runner.

As far as support/cushion goes, these are perfectly adequate.  You're simply not going to get a luxury cruise in a nine-ounce shoe, so don't go in with that expectation.  That being said, these have plenty of cushion and support to get you through a marathon or 50K, provided you have good running form.  I used these for a 50-miler, and while my ankles and arches were starting to hurt by the end, it wasn't enough to affect my running, and I felt fine later the same day (try getting through a 50-miler with no joint or foot pain, I don't care what shoes you're wearing).  Still, a little more cushion might be an improvement, at least if you're intending to do longer distances.

Above all, these shoes are ungodly fast.  Light, quick, responsive, nimble, these things are friggin' speed demons.  Yes, there are lighter-weight, more minimalist shoes out there, but few of them even count as shoes; to me, they bear a closer resemblance to slippers.  These suckers give you the full support/cushion of a lightweight trainer, the grip of a trail runner, and have speed to burn.  Hard to beat that combo.

Aside from the lack of a firm rock plate, one of my only complaints is the heel-toe drop is a little high, especially for a neutral shoe that's built for speed.  9 mm just seems like a little much; 6 mm, or even 4, seems more appropriate for this type of shoe.  This is more of a personal preference though, so I'm nitpicking.  The 9 mm drop is still perfectly comfortable to me, and I'm sure a lot of people would be glad to have a light, fast shoe in a more traditional drop.

Oh, and they look badass!

Does this look like the face of mercy?

These things are so good I brought them out of retirement to run a few more races on them, after their replacements just couldn't live up to the previous standard.  I'm worried that I've been permanently spoiled!

A second version has since been released, and from what I understand, not many changes have been made (that's a good thing!).  If I were changing this shoe, I'd probably level the heel-toe drop to ~6 mm and add just a touch more cushion, even if that means adding half an ounce.  Oh, and the shoelaces are unnecessarily long.  But that's getting reaaalllly picky.  These shoes absolutely rock.  Can you tell that I like them?

Seriously, why are the laces so friggin' long?!?

Bottom line
Thumbs up!  Possibly the best running shoes I've ever worn.
Pros:  Light weight, good grip, outstanding fit, surprisingly capable of long distance, looks awesome!
Cons:  Heel-toe drop a little high (personal preference), weak rock plate, a little light on cushion
Best Uses:  Lightweight trainer, trail racing, all distances, door-to-trail runs

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lake Chabot Trail 50K

Unless you count the Bizz Johnson Trail Run (and I think that one deserves an asterisk), Lake Chabot is by far the flattest race in the Coastal Trail Runs series.  Only Wildwood even comes close, though you might argue that Wildwood is a little easier.  Lake Chabot does have a couple tough hills, while Wildwood is essentially a long slight incline out, then a long steady downhill back.  Even if there's less climbing total, a tough hill 20 miles into a race can really do a number on you.

If you look at the course's elevation profile, it looks like it's peppered with a handful of nasty, steep climbs.

But then if you look closer, you see that the course's highest point is only about 400 feet higher than the lowest point, and it doesn't seem so bad.

I'd had a productive week of training, including a great run at The Dish in Palo Alto.  For the first time in over a month, I was actually feeling good about the shape I was in.  A sub-4:00 time sounded like it should be an expectation on a course like this, and a win sounded reasonable.  That is, until one of the volunteers told me that some other excellent runner was in attendance.  I guess we'll see what happens.

Before the race, I saw a guy wearing a black sweater with the name of a company on it.  I can't remember the name of the company, and I wish I could.  But that's not what made it stand out; it was the logo above the name.  Apparently this company's logo is - no kidding - the Triforce.  After seeing that, my mind immediately went "DAAAA!!!! Dadadadada Daht! da-DAAAA!!!!"  I should've handed the guy a Clif Shot and said "It's dangerous to go alone!  Take this."  I had the Zelda theme stuck in my head for the first five miles of the race.

Right at the gun, I was behind a fast, skinny guy in a bright yellow shirt.  He was running the half.  I just stayed with him, since he was holding a great pace, was nice and steady, and it wasn't taking too much effort on my part.  About three people weren't far behind me.  Surprisingly, the course was paved for well over a mile.  Also had a lot more shade that I'd expected.  It was still cold out.  Was glad I wasn't wearing my lightest shirt.

About two miles into the race, I was still right behind Yellow Shirt, when we got to a wide spot in the trail with a few hikers and a whole bunch of dogs.  They were friendly dogs, but were very, very interested in us.  All of them came running right at us full speed, then ran alongside us for a little while, like we were playing some sort of game.  I wasn't worried about them, but it's still kind of weird when you're in the middle of the race.  I definitely didn't want to trip over one of them.  They abandoned their game once we left the clearing, and we kept going.

About a quarter-mile later, we got to a narrow bridge.  Had to trot down a short staircase, only wide enough for one, and the bridge creaked and buckled under the weight of only two people.
"This is a crazy loop!" Yellow Shirt exclaimed.
"No kidding!" I answered.  I wondered how this would go when the larger bunches of people came through.

Only a little later, I was wondering where that first hill was.  There was supposed to be one about 2.2 miles in.  Was it one of those random rolling ones before the bridge?  If that was one of the "big" hills of the course, this was going to be a very easy day.

After about another mile of flat course along the shore of the lake, the course turned upwards.  Only three miles in?  Wasn't the next big hill supposed to come later?  But we made it to the first aid station having done only about 3.3 miles.  Wha...that's over a mile early!  I've never seen Coastal Trail Runs measure a course that inaccurately.  Sure, sometimes a 50K is off by half a mile or so (at least according to my GPS watch), but this is over a mile, and only a couple miles in.  Maybe they moved the first aid station from its original spot.

By now, a guy in a white shirt had moved ahead of me, during the hill.  It's truly the hills where you separate the men from the boys.  White Shirt was running the 50K.  Must be that really good guy.  I didn't worry about it.  Run your race.

The course did a little jumping and dipping here and there, but nothing bad.  Yellow Shirt and I were still fairly close together.  Ran through some heavily wooded singletrack that took us away from the lake, then finally made a turn and headed up the biggest hill of the course.  At the top, I stopped for the aid station.  Yellow Shirt just kept running.

As I put down an orange slice and some sports drink, one of the volunteers asked me,
"Did you go to UT?"
I wasn't wearing anything indicating as much, so I wondered how he knew.  But for whatever reason, I didn't ask.  I just confirmed that I did.
"Hey, me too!  Hook 'em!"
I raised my horns.  "Damn straight!"  I took off running again.
Only a few steps later, I remembered that volunteer was also at Bizz Johnson, where I wore a burnt orange running shirt.

Both the big hill and the second aid station came about a mile and a half early, just like the previous hill and aid station.  What was going on?  Maybe they moved the start line from its original location, and we've got longer to go before we get back there.  It was the only explanation I had going.

Not only had Yellow Shirt not stopped at the aid station, but he was absolutely burning up the downhill.  By the time I reached lake level again, my stomach was acting up.  And it kept getting worse.  And worse.  And worse.  By the time I got to mile 10, it was affecting my running.  That's the point at which it's worth it to stop for a bathroom.  I hoped that the start/finish was coming early like everything else had.  The course turned to pavement again and began rolling.  I kept looking at my watch.  Every time I did, it told me only a tenth of a mile had passed.  I tried to hold it together and kept moving.

After only 11.5 miles, I was back at the start/finish.  A mile and a half early.  I stopped in the bathroom, with only mild success.  Got back out started up again.  My stomach only felt a little better.  Still seemed like there was a lot going on in there.  I still couldn't explain why the course was so much shorter than it should be.  But hey, if that means the day will be that much easier, I'll take it!  Yellow Shirt had finished his half marathon, but White Shirt was now about five minutes ahead of me.  That far ahead after 11.5 miles?  Yeah, I think the day is his.

There were a lot more people outside this time around.  Had to run around them frequently for the first mile or so.  Just as I got off the paved part of the trail, with noticeably less people around, something shifted in my stomach.  I stopped for a second and put my hands on a tree.  All in one quick burst, I let out the biggest, most voluminous fart in recent memory.  OK, now my stomach feels better.

When I reached the clearing where the dogs were last time, I noticed something.  Something important.

We missed a turn!!!

The course does a virtual loop away from the lake, up a hill, then goes across the narrow bridge.  We just cut straight across and left out the loop!  That's why everything came a mile and a half early!  That's why the hill at mile 2.2 seemed so weak!  We didn't do it!

Instead of taking the loop in the upper-right, we cut straight across.

Realizing the mistake we made, I went ahead and did the loop twice this time to make up for it.  Had to do a hill twice consecutively, harder than spreading them out, and even added probably close to a quarter mile by doing the extra section to close the loop (and since we did that last time, maybe added a half-mile total).  But I'm going to say that's the price I pay for missing it last time.  Besides, I wanted to finish this course honestly.

When I got to the next aid station, I saw another guy just leaving it, about 20 seconds before I got there.

"You need to call Wendell," I said as I arrived.
"What's wrong?"  They looked alarmed.
"No one's hurt," I sputtered in between trying to swallow peanut butter.  I explained how at least five people missed the loop the first time, pointing it out on the map.  If the message got relayed to Wendell now, that means that the 50K leader (who missed it the first time and might've skipped it again) could still make up for it by doing the loop three times at the end of the race.  I could've kept my mouth shut until later, hoping he'd be disqualified or something, but I wanted to win the race fair-and-square.

"Alright, we'll call him."  I probably spent at least an extra minute at the aid station explaining the whole thing, but well worth it.

I'd forgotten how long the singletrack section of the course went on before the big hill and the next aid station.  Seemed like it was just going on forever.  Not hard, just much longer than I remembered.  I was now about 20 miles into the race, with only a couple hills left, and I was still feeling pretty good!  Much better than I felt 20 miles into Coyote Ridge.  For some reason, "Redneck Woman" by Gretchen Wilson was running through my head during that section.

When I got to the next aid station, I explained the situation again to those volunteers, just in case the other aid station didn't get a cell phone signal or something.  They mentioned that the second-place guy was about two minutes ahead, but first place was about 30 minutes ahead.  Obviously, he hadn't done the yellow loop twice like I had, if he went from 5 to 30 minutes ahead that quickly.

"Did you volunteer at Bizz Johnson?"
"Yeah, I did!"
"That's where I've seen you before."  The guy was wearing a Houston Marathon shirt.  He asked what part of Texas I'm from.  I used to say the Dallas area, but by now, I've spent enough time in the Austin area that I answer both.  
"I'm actually moving back soon, though."
"Oh, you don't like it out here, huh?" another volunteer chimed, with a smile.
"Actually, I do like it here!  Different reason I'm moving."  I fired up my legs again.  "Thanks, y'all!"

The arches of my feet were starting to hurt by the time I made it to the bottom of the hill.  They hurt worse when I got to the bottom and the course became paved again.  And while the course was more shaded than I'd expected, the day also got warm faster than I'd expected.  I guess that evened out.

The section between the big hill and the start/finish didn't seem to go on quite as long this time, but felt much harder.  Lots and lots of short ups and downs.  I saw a few other runners finishing their first loop, some of them walking up the hills and running down, which is a little funny to watch when the hills are about 40 meters apart.  A whole lot more people on the trail by this time of day, nearly noon, with great weather, going for a hike along the lake.  Can't say I blame them.

When I arrived at the start/finish and hit the aid station, with only a five-mile loop to go, I asked the volunteer,
"So you heard about people missing the yellow loop, right?"
Oh, crap.  That means the guy in front didn't get the message.  He might wind up disqualified.  I felt for the guy.  I've gotten lost on a course too, but it only made me add unnecessary mileage.  This could be much worse.  I would hate to run 28-ish miles only to be credited with a DNF, and I felt bad that the guy was following me when he missed the turn the first time.  Nothing I could do now, though.  Now that it was warm, I took in plenty of water and set out for the final leg of the course.

I might add that ever since I made up for the yellow loop, all the aid stations and hills came exactly at the distance expected.

Only about two minutes after I left the start/finish area, I saw the guy in the lead, wrapping up his race.  He was clearly the superior runner, so I applauded him as he approached, and he gave me a fist-bump.  In the back of my mind though, I pondered his fate.  There was still another guy in front of me.  I wondered if he had skipped the yellow loop too.  I saw a bunch of people finishing up the 30K and gave them a few encouraging words.

For the most part, I just got through those last few miles.  Kept counting off each half-mile as I went, and after cresting the hill, I knew I had only a little more than two miles to go, and the worst was over.  The trail was now pretty crowded, and a lot of people seemed to be aware that a race was going on.  I kept getting congratulated.  When that happens, I often wonder, do they actually know I'm out towards the front?  Do they know I'm almost done?  Do they even know what distance the race is, or which distance I'm running?  In general, how much do they know?  Are they just congratulating everyone they see with a number pinned to their shirt?  Encouraging, cheering, that makes perfect sense, but when I hear "congratulations," I ask myself those questions.

I was still delivering my traditional "Good morning!" to most everyone I saw, and then caught myself.  Is it still morning?  I looked at my watch.
"Uh, let's see, 29.6 miles at a 7:54 pace, that means, uh...OK, this is hard.  Let me think."
Then I remembered that I can change the mode and look at elapsed time instead.  Oh yeah.  That's easier.  3:54 had elapsed.  It was still before noon.  I should still say "Good morning!" instead of "Good afternoon!"

Then something else hit me.  There's three-quarters of a mile to go, and now - I looked again - about five minutes left if I want to break four hours.  It's gonna be close, but I could do it!  I shook off the "just get through it" pace I was holding and ran like I normally can.  It wasn't easy, but it wasn't as hard as it could've been.  Could I have been doing this earlier?

I reached the parking lot with a minute to go.  Couldn't possibly be a full minute from here; I can already see the finish line.  Wendell was standing at the beginning of the flags leading to the finish.
"You're gonna break four hours!"
I smiled.  "By this much!" I shot back as I ran past, and through the finish line.

As usual, I slowly worked my way around the finish area, taking in all the goodies: trail mix, water, crackers, beer, and nowadays, they've added barbecue and pumpkin pie.  Love these guys...

It was determined that the first-place finisher didn't do the yellow loop the first time, but did the second time.  What Wendell did was extrapolate his pace, add time to it to make up for the distance, and rounded up to make up for the hill.  He still finished first after that, and not even by a tight margin (more than 15 minutes).

The second-place guy had done the course correctly all along, as evidenced by being 20 minutes out of the lead at the first aid station.  That could only happen if some people skipped the loop and he didn't.  He wound up beating me by only two minutes.  ARG!  If I'd known he was that close!  Of course, had I managed to catch him, he probably would've found another gear too.  So I came in third, even though I didn't have a bad day.  Not my very best, I'd say (for example, I had a near-identical time at Crystal Springs, a harder course), but certainly not a bad day.  I just got beaten by better men.  And that's OK.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Dish

Now that my normal pre-work running routine has been scrapped, I've had to come up with a new one.  Shoreline Park, where I do most of my running, is still within running distance of my apartment, so it hasn't been that much of a change.  I still go running there, I just start and finish all my runs from my apartment instead of my office.  And I wake up whenever I want.

For months, almost since I moved here, I'd heard about The Dish, some hiking trail on the side of a hill over by Stanford.  Apparently it's a paved path that makes a three-mile loop, and I'd heard the hill is brutal.  Well, I heard that from a guy who told me he gets winded just walking one loop.  So I wasn't sure what to think about it.  I'd ridden Invictus past the place several times, so I knew where the gate was, but you can't see much of the path from the road.

Finally, in one of my last few weeks here, I thought I'd give it a go.  Something to do before I leave.  I put on my running shoes and rode Freebird over there, locked her up, and took on The Dish, intending to do three loops.

My goodness, that first hill...kinda caught me off guard.  Somehow, I didn't expect it to go on for a full mile, so I burned up the first quarter-mile, only to be greeted by more hill.  And around every corner, more, and more, until I was already tired only eight minutes into a run.
"Perhaps," I thought to myself, "I should calm down a little bit."

After that first hill, though, it's really not too bad.  Rollers throughout, no flat sections whatsoever, but nothing you can't handle.  The scenery was downright gorgeous, a look over Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay to the east, and the beautiful hills of the peninsula to the west.  It was a bright, clear day, a little warm, but not too much.  This was gonna be a good run.

I came down and around the other side of the loop, finding myself in more rollers at the bottom.  Somehow, I missed both the drinking fountain and one of the entrances on the way, not that I intended to use them this time, but I did later on.  I saw some sort of gate that looked like a private entrance instead, like it was coming out of someone's backyard.  I kept running past and found myself at the turnoff to go back down to the entrance where I started.  I headed down, wanting to get every last hill outta this run that I could.

I turned right this time instead of left.  I was doing "washing machine" loops, the kind where you alternate clockwise and counter-clockwise.  Keeps things interesting, and lets you see the landscape in a different way.  This time, I started off with some rollers near the bottom, and the hill to the top was a lot more gradual.  When I passed the "private" entrance again, I realized it was actually a gate that leads into an alley in a neighborhood.  It was the second entrance I was looking for.

Just before the big hill, I found the drinking fountain.  You have to split off from the trail and go down into this crescent-shaped path, obscured from the main path by a row of trees.  Honestly, it reminded me of a pit on a race track.  4.5 miles into the run, I stopped for a few gulps and kept going.

Dealing with a less-steep hill, and now well into the run, I was feeling pretty good.  It usually takes me a mile or so to get going, and when that first mile is a hill, it can do a number on me.  I was feeling better now than when I started.  I looked at my watch.  Slow pace for normal, but depending on how many hills I'm really dealing with, I'm potentially doing pretty well!  I picked up the pace ever so slightly.  Let's see what I'm made of.

It took some effort to stay in control coming down the steep hill.  This time, I went to the gate that leads to the alley and let myself through, just to run down to street level and come back up.  Not skipping any hills.  I headed up that first hill, the monstrous one I'd aggressively attacked the first time around, with a little more patience this time.  Even though I was running slower, it didn't seem to go on nearly as long.  Mental preparation can make a lot of things seem easier.

When I got to the top of the hill, I took another look at my watch and saw that my average pace was 7:02.  The competitive side in me came out.  I can get that under 7:00!  I only had about 2.5 miles to go, all rollers or downhill.  There was no reason I couldn't shed a few seconds per mile and squeak my average under 7:00.  I took off.

Possibly the hardest part of that last few miles was actually the downhill.  I hadn't fully run through it until now, but wanting to take full advantage, I went for it this time.  Man, I'm just not built to sustain that gait.  I kept thinking I was gonna trip.

By the time I reached the bottom, with only one mile of rollers to go, I was at an average pace of 6:56.  Knowing I still had to bike 12 miles home, I allowed myself to stop at the drinking fountain again, but only for 20 seconds.  I counted them off in my head as I gulped from the pitifully weak fountain as fast as I could.

I tore up the last 3/4 mile, including another sprint down that first hill, finishing with an average pace of 6:52.  Now that's getting it done.  Later, I looked at the GPS data and saw that my 11 miles had 1,600 feet of climbing.  That's about on par with a few of the harder Coastal Trail Runs, and that's saying something.  To think that I did it at a pace like that...!

Overall, it was a great run.  Tough miles, but that's what makes you better.  I only wish I'd started going hear a long time ago.  I'm trying to imagine grinding through a 20-mile long training run here.  How tough that would make you!  Love the place, love the course, love the scenery, only wish it was unpaved.