Sunday, February 24, 2013

Montara Mountain Trail Marathon

I’ve mentioned how I hadn’t run well in the two weeks leading up to this race.  Part of it may have been in my head, but it was clear that I also had trouble recovering from my previous marathon two weeks before.  With that in mind, I was a little worried about this marathon.  Especially considering it had an additional 1,000 feet of climbing compared to my last.  5,840 feet of climbing.  More than a mile.  400 more feet than running from sea level to Denver, and back down.

After not sleeping well all night, I checked my phone in the wee hours just out of boredom.  5:45.  My alarm was set for 6:00.  Might as well get up now and give myself an extra 15 minutes for my breakfast/snack to settle before the race.  After getting down some food and bundling up a little bit, I thought I’d at least wait until 6:30 to call my dad and ask if he wanted to tag along.  He beat me to it.  Headed over to his hotel and picked him up.

Had little trouble getting there, but just like last time, the hills had a formidable look as you approached them, even in a car.  We got there just a little later than I would’ve liked, in part due to the parking lot of the county park filling up, forcing us to park at a nearby church and walk over.  Had just enough time to pin on my bib, use the toilet, and finish stretching about two minutes before the gun.  At the start line, we were informed that we had to grab a rubber band off a bush at the top of the big hill to prove you ran all the way to the top, and since it was a double loop, you can’t just grab two the first time.  Ditched my warm-up clothes, and we’re off to the races.

Nearly the first four miles of the race were all one big uphill, then another nearly four miles downhill - the first section was an out-and-back.  For the first half-mile or so, the trail was wide enough that two people could easily run side-by-side, and in some places, maybe three could fit.  But that was quickly replaced by narrow singletrack.  Might be an issue when people are trying to come back down while others are still on their way up.  I got stuck behind a small group, but they were holding a solid pace up the hill, so I hardly minded at all.  A few were talking about other trail runs they’d done, and while I couldn’t hang on to every word, I did catch “belt buckle”.  The only race which I know for a fact awards belt buckles is the Leadville 100.  If he’s done that, well, look out for this guy.

From the get-go, I tried paying attention to who was out in front.  Early on, it was a tall guy in a white tank top, not a big guy, but a little thick and well-built for a runner, kind of more like a basketball player’s build.  Halfway up the hill, he got passed by a thinner guy in a bright orange shirt.  Only a little later, he slowed down significantly and moved to the side to let my little group pass.  I guess he got tired pushing his larger frame up the hill.

My gait was different than normal, by necessity from pacing up a long hill.  Weird parts of me felt sore already, namely the arches of my feet.  I hoped that didn’t become an issue later.  Now halfway up, the singletrack trail turned into a gravel fire road.  By now, we had seen almost every natural surface imaginable: firmly packed dirt, barely-damp almost-mud, dusty singletrack full of golf-ball-to-orange-sized rocks, and now a gravel road with patches of exposed flat rock.  Wider breadth should make it easier to pass people on the way down.

My group thinned out to only two other guys and myself, including Belt Buckle.  Both were running the 50K.  Only one guy, Orange Shirt, was in front of us, and he might be doing the 50K as well, or maybe just the half-marathon.  It was entirely possible that I was in the lead among the marathon runners.

The final stages of the hill provided a challenge, only a little steeper, but mostly just because you’re STILL going uphill after 3.5 miles, with almost 2,000 feet of climbing already under your belt.  Didn’t feel too bad, but I knew I might the next time.  Half a mile away, you could tell where the top was due to the presence of the radio tower perched there.  Just before we got there, the leader in the orange shirt passed us heading down.  Probably only a minute behind him.  Do-able.  He might flame out the next time around, or maybe I can catch him on the downhill.  Made it to the top, grabbed an orange rubber band, slipped it on my wrist, and headed back down.

It wasn’t until then that I noticed the swirling winds at the top.  Most of the way up, there was essentially no wind at all, but at the top, it was in full force, coming from all directions.  Only a couple minutes of running later, we were back out of it.  By that time, I moved around my two companions and stormed down the hill on my own, passing uphill runners by the truckload.  As I went, more and more of them had hydration packs and extra clothes.  Most of the other good runners were only wearing a short-sleeved running shirt, though one had arm warmers and another had a beanie.  I was in a singlet and doing just fine.  The way you saw so many with jackets or long-sleeved shirts tied around their waist, you’d think they never go running and haven’t discovered that exercise warms you up.

Not long after I left the two 50K guys, one of ‘em passed me handily, and not a lot after that, the tall guy who had trouble climbing the hill absolutely blew past me on the way down.  I guess he trains for downhills.  Somewhere along the way someone else passed me as well, and when I got to the bottom, another two were right behind me.  I was now in 5th place, but still possibly leading the marathon.

Ran across the parking area to the aid station.  Approaching it, I reached into my pocket.  Ah, crap.  I’d pre-ripped my little packet of peanut butter to make it easier to handle while running (it takes two hands and some effort to open, more than I want to deal with on the run), and it had smooshed inside my pocket, putting peanut butter in my pocket, not the packet (I could see a Dr. Seuss book about this).  Gobbled a little food at the aid station, took in some water, and headed off for the loop.

The loop section only had two smaller hills, but they weren’t any less steep than the big one.  Handled the first one OK, and was closing in on a few of the guys in front of me in the flat section between the two hills.  There were three within my line of sight, and by glancing at my watch when one of them passed a landmark, then looking again when I passed it, I could tell that the first one was only about a minute ahead of me.  One of ‘em was the guy having trouble with the uphills.  The other two were both carrying a water bottle on them one way or another.  I optimistically figured the extra weight would help them wear out on the second go-’round.

Didn’t have to wait that long.  Less than halfway up the second hill, I’d passed all three, two of them easily.  The last one stuck around for a while, running right behind me most of the way up.  We got to talking, and it turned out he was a physicist.  I looked to my right and saw, in the distance, on top of a considerably taller hill, a radio tower.  The one at the top of the big hill.
“Look at that!” I pointed.  “That’s where we were earlier!  Can you believe that?!?”
“And where we’re going again!”
Don’t remind me.

By the time we got to the top of the second hill, the last one of the first loop, I was dog tired.  This would be a hell of a test 13 miles later, with 23 miles behind me.  As soon as the trail turned back downhill, I cruised down quickly and easily.  Two miles later, I was back at the bottom, halfway through the race.  Didn’t feel too bad at the moment, but that probably had a lot to do with the long downhill I’d just run.  If the big hill and the last one were a challenge the first time, they’d be a whole lot more to deal with the next time around.

After some more snacks and water, and a quick bathroom break this time, I headed back up the big hill.  While I was stopped, all three of the guys I’d just passed got in front of me again.  Dammit.  It didn’t take long before I passed the first, and I caught the second about 1.5 miles up.  Ran behind him for just a minute before passing.  We exchanged a few words, and he revealed that we were the two leaders for the marathon.  Excellent.  I was now in first place, and I know who my closest competition is, a slim 5’8” guy I now called Red Visor.  Valuable information, to be sure.

On one of the tougher slopes near the top, I finally passed the third guy who had passed me at the bottom.  He was walking.  Must’ve been only for a second though, because when I got to the top, he was right behind me.  Two guys, both running the 50K, passed me a few minutes before the summit.  The same two I ran up with the first time.  I wouldn’t be catching them today.  But notably absent was the guy in the orange shirt, who had been out front in the early going.  He must’ve only done the half-marathon.

I made a note of my time at the top, and remembered to check again when I passed Red Visor on the way down.  1:30 had elapsed.  So I was three minutes ahead.  At this point in the race, that’s about 18 seconds per mile.  Normally, that’s a ton, but this isn’t a normal race.  Variations in the terrain can really throw you a curveball, and some people might handle different parts of the race a lot better than others.  Case in point: the big guy who was slow on uphills, but annihilated the downhills.  And for the past few miles, I’d been distancing myself from Red Visor by about one minute per mile.  Could he do the same to me?

The guy who’d stopped to walk strongly outpaced me on the way down, to the point that I wrote off catching him.  Since he was doing the 50K, I didn’t mind.  This time around, I could tell that I wasn’t able to charge down the hill at full speed; my knees just didn’t like it, and by the time I got to the bottom, my lower abs started to feel tight.  I decided that it was OK if I didn’t go all out on the descent, as long as I held a decent pace, running effortlessly was just as good as running fast.  Besides, I probably needed to save a little gas for the last two hills.

Stopped a final time for snacks and water and headed out for the final challenge.  Six miles and two hills stood between myself and glory.  Heading up the first hill, there was a view of the start/finish area and I chanced a look back.  Red Visor was leaving the area.  I was probably no more than two minutes ahead, if that.  I deduced that he was probably faster on the downhills, and I was better at climbing.  I also got the impression that he didn’t stop much at the aid station, if at all, considering he was carrying his own flask of water.

I pushed myself up the first hill, reaching the top without too much trouble.  As I started down, I pushed myself into an upright stance, stretching out my back and trying to run with the straightest legs possible.  Uphills and downhills both force you to bend your knees more than normal and hunch over a little for balance, so running in a different way can give some of your muscles a needed break.  Felt great.  I was back in business.  Headed down the hill at a solid pace and kept it going at the flat bottom between the first hill and second.

Upon starting the second hill, the last of the course, I guessed that this could be the last chance to put some distance between myself and Red Visor, if it was in fact true that I was the better climber.  I started up at a strong pace, trying to work my advantage to the fullest.  This may or may not have been a good strategy.  All I know is that halfway up, I was already pooped.  As I passed hikers on the trail, the best I could approximate my normally chipper “Good morning!” was a gutteral “morning” as I passed, without bothering to lift my head.  The trail just got steeper and steeper, and every time I looked at my watch, only 0.1 miles had gone by.

But the most demoralizing thing about the hill, which I’d forgotten last time, was the switchbacks.  All the way up the hill, you keep thinking that you’re about to head back down.  After every other turn, you’d be pointed in the direction of the start/finish area and figure you’re headed back, and the hill is almost over.  And the shrubbery on the hill was thick enough that you couldn’t see that far in front of you, so it was easy to believe.  But nope, every time you reach that corner, instead of turning down the hill, you just switch back again and keep going up.  This went on for a very long time.  I grew more and more frustrated with every left turn, more exhausted with every step.

After an eternity of switchbacks, the trail straightened out in a funny direction.  This must be it!  A little bit of a tease, as the trail continued uphill for about another quarter mile before finally heading back down.  I won’t lie, I was sorely tempted to walk when I realized I wasn’t heading down yet.  But I thought about Red Visor catching me.  And I thought about my grandma.  No matter how hard I try, it would be impossible for me to make myself as weak as she was in those last few days.  If she could take it, so can I.  I kept running.

After one last turn, the trail flattened out.  I involuntarily let out a cry of joy.  I looked down at my watch.  Two miles left, all downhill.  I had no way of knowing how far Red Visor was behind me, but I knew I wasn’t letting him catch me.  I tried stretching out my back and legs again, then moving faster.  It didn’t work this time.  I had to run almost a quarter mile downhill before my legs started responding normally again.  Finally, I was able to start moving.

Running downhill was even more difficult this time around.  A perfect decline, the kind that lets you run effortlessly, but not so steep you have to tap on the brakes.  And an easy surface to run on. And it still sucked.  I would’ve liked to jog easy for those last two miles, but I didn’t want to risk getting passed at the end.  I had to win this one for grandma.

Seeing the wooden fence at the bottom, knowing I only had to run a quarter mile through a flat area to finish, what a great feeling.  And that was the point at which I knew it was in the bag.  Somehow I felt safe about not getting passed in the last two minutes.  As I approached, the organizers all looked at me.
“Marathon?  Second loop?”
I continued smiling and nodded.  “Yeah!”  I held out my wrists, both with a bright orange rubber band on them.
“We got a marathon finisher!  First marathon finisher!” he called out to the volunteers in the finish area.  People started cheering.  I crossed the line with a big grin on my face and took my finisher’s medal from a volunteer.  Then I walked.
“Ow.”  I saw my dad.  “Would you believe my legs hurt?”

I finished in 3:37, 28 minutes faster than the course record.  And this time, no one broke it by more than I did, so I actually came in first.  So for the first time ever, I won a marathon, and also for the first time, I hold a course record.

I spent the next few minutes groaning and eating snacks off the table near the finish line.  Red Visor finished three minutes after me.  I went over to congratulate him, and he introduced himself as Franz.  His wife and kids were there.
“Where’d you learn to run hills like that?”
“Uh, Texas, I guess.”

The two guys in the lead were apparently about 10 minutes ahead of me at that point, and were running a 50K.  Significantly faster and running about five miles farther.  They were on pace to obliterate the 50K course record.

I stuck around to have a little more food and a beer.  My legs were sore enough that I didn’t even want to bother pushing in the clutch, so my dad drove us home.  Showered and went to a deli, where despite being “allowed” to eat meat for the first time in a week, I got a vegetarian omelette.  Dropped my parents off at the airport and went home.

The funny thing is that I walked on four different occasions in the Golden Gate Trail Marathon two weeks ago, and still finished ten minutes faster than I did this time, despite not walking at all.  I guess the hills weren’t any harder, and weren’t as steep, but there were more of them, and that slows you down.  It’s very notable that in these trail runs, you pace entirely by feel, not at all by your watch.

Three weeks off, then the LA Marathon on St. Patrick’s Day.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Space Between

Immediately after running the Golden Gate Trail Marathon, I really didn’t feel too bad for the rest of the day.  And the day after, not too bad either, well, sorta.  Starting to move after sitting still for a while was difficult, and walking downstairs was quite the opposite of pleasant.  But I had the notion that a short, easy run that morning would’ve loosened me up and I’d be right as rain once I got back on track.

But it didn’t happen that way.  More than any other time I can remember, it’s been difficult recovering from this last marathon.  Ever since then, I haven’t even come close to a 6:30 pace.  Not a single “good” day.  And more often than not, I wind up stopping in the middle of a run, not necessarily because I’m tired.  My legs aren’t sore.  I’m not out of breath.  I just stop anyway.  I think it’s mostly mental.  But I also get the idea that my knees might be a little weak.  This also happened in the weeks leading up to the Boston Marathon, and I wound up setting a PR there.  So I dunno if it’s really a bad sign.

On my only long run since, on the only weekend between my last marathon and the next one, I set off for 17.5 miles.  For the first 11 or so, I was doing alright - holding about a 6:35 pace.  Not bad at all for a long run!  At that point, total failure.  I spent probably as much time walking as running for the last 6 miles.  I couldn’t tell if I was in a caloric bonk, or if my legs didn’t have it in ‘em that day, or if I’d just lost my grit and gave up when things got tough.

Just to add to that, my family lost a duly loved and respected matriarch this week, putting all of us into a bit of a funk.  I know some people might consider it a little strange to still run a marathon only days later, but I think it’s exactly what I should do.  Show strength.  Carry on.  And live while you can.  This one’s for you, grandma.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Golden Gate Trail Marathon

I woke up at 6:15 AM, having spent the night sleeping on my self-inflating pad in my aunt’s walk-in closet.  I drove up to San Francisco the day before to spend the night with her just so I wouldn’t have to wake up an extra hour earlier.  The two of us went out for some great Chinese food, a good pre-race choice (a light meal with a lot of rice), though it may have been good enough that I ate a little too much.  When I finished downing my pre-race large snack - a granola bar, a banana, a handful of trail mix, a dollop of peanut butter, and a bottle of sports drink - I was full.  Good thing I had a solid hour-and-a-half to let it settle in.

Made my way across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Marin Headlands.  I’ll admit that just looking at the hills was a little daunting.  There wasn’t enough parking at the start line, so the majority of us had to park about a mile and a half away and take a school bus to the start.  I started talking with the guy next to me on the bus.  Was his first trail marathon too, though both of us had done marathons before.  We started comparing the courses we’d done, and in what conditions, trying to get an idea for what we were up against today.  The girl across from me chimed in, “Now I’m getting a little nervous!  This is my first half, and listen to you, you’re pros!  Done all these marathons before...”
“This is your
first half?!?” I expressed with surprise.  “I’d probably do a flat one on nice, smooth roads first.  Good on you for coming out for this!”

“Yeah, but now I don’t know if I’ll do well.  I mean, maybe I’m not prepared, the way you guys are.”
The guy next to me gave legitimate tips on how to run in the hills.  I felt like I should say something too, primarily because she was cute (athletic girls with short hair, I’m putty every time).  “Uhhh, just run a lot!”  I smiled really big.  She gave a weak smile back.

Got my bib, pinned it on, stretched, etc.  There was a table set up with a map of the course and an elevation profile.  The marathon was simply the half marathon, run twice.  It would be awfully tempting to finish the first loop and call it quits.  Right next to the maps were the course records.  For the marathon, the record was 3:33.  “Um, that’s not that good,” I thought to myself.  “I mean, that’s a good time, but not exactly a great time.  Certainly not a course record kind of time.”  If 3:33 was the best anyone had ever done, well, I was starting to get a little intimidated.

It’s entertaining to see what people are wearing at the beginning of a race when it’s cold outside.  Some people layer a lot.  Some people are practically wearing a parka.  Some are just wearing their shorts.  Arm warmers, leggings, vests, and jackets of all kinds abound.  It’s like an athlete-themed Halloween party.  My favorite are the guys who are wearing a beanie, gloves, and no shirt.  I was wearing only a sleeveless shirt and a normal pair of running shorts.  Had it been much warmer, I would’ve gone with a lighter singlet.  But I kept a jacket and loose pants on until about five minutes before gun time.

Just before the gun, I squeezed into the crowd, already mostly lined up.  The 30K and 50K runners had already taken off 15 minutes before.  This was now the half-marathon and marathon runners only.  Wouldn’t you know it, that cute girl from the bus lined up right behind me.  We exchanged a few cheerful/hopeful words of good luck, and just before the gun, she added, “Maybe I’ll see you at the finish, or out on the course somewhere!”  She was still wearing earrings.

Like most marathons, from the get-go, I was passing people left and right.  Only a couple hundred were starting in my wave, but on a narrow trail, it was still hard to pass, making me very frustrated.  But maybe I should’ve taken it as a hint - only a couple minutes in, the adrenaline wore off and I noticed that the hill we were climbing was steep.  REALLY steep.  And not easy to climb.  I pressed on anyway, figuring I’d set a strong pace, and I knew the hill was less than two miles long.  That’s nothing, right?  If I could ditch everyone else on the first hill, maybe I could set myself apart from the pack early on.

Charging up the hill, I noticed a kid.  Yes, a kid.  An older kid, but a kid.  He was wearing ordinary sneakers, not necessarily running shoes, and a plain white T-shirt.  He was running at least a half-marathon, and he was holding a great pace, ahead of most of the pack.  Granted, we were only a half-mile into the thing, but I was impressed.  I ran alongside him for a second.
How old are you?”
“Damn, man”  I gave him a high-five.  “You’re awesome.  Run hard!”
I ran past him and heard his distinctive breathing right behind me for at least a quarter mile.  This kid was tough!  As I finally heard his breathing gradually fade out, knowing I was pulling away from him, I hoped he had a great race.

Less than a mile into the race, there was a staircase.  No, really.  It was a staircase.  Not one of those “staircases” you see hiking on a trail, where there’s the occasional log about eight feet apart, but a staircase like you see in a house, made of stone, that would’ve put you on the sixth floor of most buildings.  I was the only idiot that decided to charge up the thing at full speed.  Yes, I passed a lot of people, but at the top of the stairs, less than a mile into a full marathon, my legs were already going “Are you kidding me?!?”
“You know,” I thought to myself as I forced my legs to keep moving at the top of the stairs, “When I do the second loop, maybe I’ll walk it that time.”

At mile 1.2, the slope increased to the point that it might as well have been a second staircase.  But with no stairs, and in their place, gravel and loose rocks.  I attempted to run up the thing for about 2.3 seconds before I realized that while I might be able to do it, it wouldn’t be worth destroying my legs for the entire rest of the race.  1.2 miles into a marathon, and I was walking.  That is absurd.  Possibly even more astonishing was the fact that everyone else was walking, too.

Only a couple miles into the marathon, I started passing folks who were doing the 30K or 50K.  I was 15 minutes ahead of them after running about two miles.  In other words, I was faster than them by about seven minutes per mile.  Were they walking the whole thing?

It wasn’t until I started passing people that I noticed how many people were carrying hydration packs (like a Camelbak), or at least a hip belt with a couple of flasks.  It wasn’t exactly hot out (about 45 degrees), and there were aid stations every 4-5 miles.  You can’t go 4-5 miles without water?  It’s nice to have water whenever you want it, I guess, but not even close to worth the extra 5-10 pounds you’re carrying on your back, especially when you have to lug it up all these hills.  I guess for the slower crowd, 4-5 miles means a lot more time, but if they’re not running, then they’re not sweating as hard either.  I think some people just have a notion that they need more stuff than they really do.

About three miles in, I was charging down a long, steady downhill - the kind that’s steep enough that it requires virtually no effort, but not so steep that you feel like you have to tap the brakes to maintain control.  I only just started noticing the stunning scenery.  You could only see hills from this spot, but it was a far cry from about the only other “scenery” I’ve been subjected to during a marathon - glass, concrete, and steel.  Give me the hills over a city any day.  It was at this point that I got a stitch in my stomach, close to the center, a little to the left, right behind my abs.
“WHAT?!?”  I never get a stitch.  But maybe the varying terrain was forcing my core to work harder than normal.  It was still very early in the race, and stitches generally don’t just go away - they usually get worse.  “NOOOO!!!!   NOT NOW!”  I tried my best to just relax my core, especially the left side.  After about another mile, it managed to ease away.  Good fortune!

4.5 miles in, just past a horse corral, was our first aid station and the spot where the marathon route splits from the 30K and 50K.  It was at this point that the trail would get a lot lonelier.  I initially turned to skip the aid station, feeling great after the long downhill.  I second-guessed myself and turned back around to get a small cup of water, knowing there were another 4.5 miles and two solid hills between me and the next aid station (I wrote down the mileage of each peak on my hand the night before).  Glad I did - the next hill was almost as tough as the first.  No “holy crap” moments, but long and fairly steep.  Around one of the first turns, I saw a figure in red up ahead.  Was he running towards me or away?  Too small and far away to tell.  A few minutes later, I still couldn’t tell.  Dammit, the curiosity in me wanted to know, coming or going?  Embarrassingly late, I finally deduced that if he hasn’t gotten any bigger after a few minutes, he’s going the same direction, and at about the same speed.

About halfway up the hill, I was passed by a 6’3” guy with long hair and a grey shirt, with legs up to his face.  He was barely moving any faster than me.  The guy in red was finally a little closer by this time.  As the grey-shirted guy passed me, his watch started beeping.
“Your TV dinner’s done?”
“No, I’m late for work.  I overslept!”
“Well, you better run!”  He laughed.
He got away from me on the hill, but once we finally reached the first peak and the terrain started rolling, I was able to catch back up to him.  The two of us starting talking a little.  Seemed like a good guy.  Just at the second peak, we finally caught the red shirt, after chasing him for almost three miles.  I led the charge down a narrow singletrack trail on the side of a hill, a section that included the best scenery to that point.  Breathtaking views of Sausalito, the bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge with the San Francisco skyline in the background.  It was a clear, sunny day, with no wind and cool temperatures that were perfect for running.  I could hardly be doing anything better at 9 AM on a weekend.

Halfway through the long downhill, I finally pulled away from the other two.  The terrain got gnarled and tricky, and I think my short legs were able to scramble over it better than the other two.  Made a brief stop at aid station 2, where the other two guys caught up to me, though I took off first.  A short-but-steep hill, then more down.  This was great.  At mile 10.5 though, another short-but-steep hill, and muddy.  I knew this would be a challenge 13 miles later.

Immediately after the muddy hill, we hit asphalt for the first time since the first mile of the race.  Felt weird, like stepping on dry land after being on a boat for a few days (cruise ships don’t count).  Just a few more miles of cruising downhill, and I was at the start/finish.  Halfway there.

I felt great though, thanks to the generous amount of downhill in the last five miles, and running farther didn’t sound so dreadful.  I started back up that first hill in high spirits.  Less than half a mile later, I was brutally reminded of something: this hill was hard, and a full marathon is not easy.

By the time I hit the staircase, which I walked this time, the grey shirt was just behind me.  At the top, I started up slowly, and he just kept motoring up the hill.  On the slope a half-mile later, I started trying to power walk up the thing and saw him near the top of the slope, almost ready to start running again.  By the time I finished the slope, he was pretty far ahead of me.  No worries.  I try not to compare myself to other people.

The downhill felt just as great though, and I had a smile on my face when I arrived at the first rest stop for the second time.  I downed a packet of peanut butter and some more water, then started off towards the hill in high spirits.  Just as I was leaving, I thought I heard one of the volunteers calling out to me, and thought I heard the words “Number three.”
“Nothing!  Well, uh, you’re a minute and a half behind the guy in front of you.”
“And he’s in first?”
“No, that guy’s WAY out front.  You’re in third.”
Not bad!

I had thought that the second loop would be almost completely empty, devoid of other people.  Something about the 30K and 50K routes starting 15 minutes off, as well as the difference in distance, I figured that was to separate us so we wouldn’t run into each other.  But as soon as I passed rest stop #1 for the second time, I was passing people on a frequent basis.  The 30K was a single loop, meaning the folks I was passing were roughly eight miles behind me, despite starting 15 minutes earlier.  Almost all of them had hydration packs.  All of them were walking.

The hill between miles 4 and 7 was tough the first time, but the second time, it was damn near diabolical.  Steeper, longer, more difficult in almost every conceivable way.  At least it seemed that way. Somehow I especially didn’t remember it going on for so long the last time.  I kept looking down at my watch, expecting to see it jump up by something like half a mile, and it would only be 0.1 miles higher.  I deliberately changed my gait to make climbing easier, mostly by taking smaller steps, knowing it would slow me down but still save my legs in the long run.  After what seemed like an eternity, I finally made it to the peak, the most significant of the entire course.  It helped to know the landmarks so I knew when I was getting close.

If the downhill made running easier last time, it felt like turning on the afterburners this time.  Almost immediately, I was running like those first 19 miles didn’t happen.  Just then, the trail made an inconspicuous turn.  Having done it once before, I found the right trail with no hesitation, but while approaching it, I saw two walkers up ahead, both with hydration packs on, turning in all directions like they were looking for something.
“Are y’all in the race?”
“Here!”  I pointed, then ran.

I looked at my watch again.  Wait...I’m at almost 20 miles?!?  Really?!?  I should be hitting the wall now.  I should feel like I’ve been running forever, and these last six miles should be hell.  But I didn’t feel like that.  I kinda felt like I was in the middle of a normal, slightly long run.  A good sign, to be sure.  I’ve never felt that good at mile 20 in a marathon.

This time, instead of leading the charge down the hill, I kept getting stuck behind people on the descent.  The trail in this section was just too narrow to allow safe passing.  But you know what?  That was alright.  The walkers were now jogging on the downhill, and it felt good to run easy for a minute or two.  Every so often, there would be a wide spot where I could pass, and I’d just catch up to the next group a minute or two later.  One particular section of tricky terrain had me scampering over the scree like a mountain goat.  I turned towards the view of the bay, the bridge, and the city.  I spread my arms out wide and let my face make a borad grin.  This was my turf now.  I am in the act of conquering it.  I brought my hands down to my sides, bobbed my head a few times, then beat my chest.  Ow.  That hurts when your heart is racing.  I made a note not to do that again.

But that last hill.  It’s always that last hill, isn’t it?  It wasn’t long.  It was only kinda steep.  It was still kinda muddy.  I tried just pushing through the thing, forcing my way through one last hill.  But it didn’t happen that way.  Twice, I just couldn’t pull the strength together and walked for a couple steps, then almost immediately started up again.  Once at the top, I moved onto the pavement, which didn’t feel as weird this time.

Looking at my watch, I probably had no more than two miles left, with about 20 minutes left to break the course record.  I hadn’t passed the guy in the grey shirt though, nor anyone else that was probably running the marathon.  I was probably still in third.  A chance to break the course record, and yet in third place.

Those last two miles actually felt great.  I was probably running a slower than average pace, but I was perfectly happy with them being effortless, rather than fast.  Coming down that last hill, the little beach cove that served as the start/finish area looked so beautiful.  As I approached the finish and started passing people walking back to their cars, most of them cheered me on.  I wondered if they deduced I was running the marathon, based on my pace and my time, or if they could tell by my bib number.  It didn’t really matter.  Crossed the finish line smiling in 3:27, beating the course record by six minutes.

There was no one there at the finish line.  I grabbed some snacks off a table, then started asking around about finisher’s medals and T-shirts.  This is a different kind of marathon, very casually run.  I like it though, it felt more personal.  Wanted to wait and see the official results, and had to wait for a shuttle back to the start line anyway.  So I just hung out for a while.  Ate some more snacks.  Met the guy who finished first.  He obliterated the course record by about 20 minutes.  The grey shirt was nowhere to be found.  I don’t know why we had three people break the course record the same day, but the perfect conditions might’ve had something to do with it.

Some people were just starting their second lap.  I don't know how they do it.  Sure, I ran fast, but these people were putting themselves through a loooong day.  In a way, they're the real heroes.  A few other people had taken nasty falls during the marathon and had bad scrapes on their hands and knees.  One guy in particular had both his hands entirely soaked in bright red.  Hey, my legs are sore, but at least I’m not bleeding...

The results came out, and wouldn’t you know it, the guy in the grey shirt was in my age division.  Broke the course record, but came in third and couldn’t even win my friggin’ age division.  I hung out a little longer, enough for the organizers to break out the cooler of beer.  I happily took one in, then hopped on a shuttle to my car and headed home.

I honestly had no idea what to expect from this, but I knew there was a good chance that this could be chalked up as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”  And on a technical level, one could make a case for it.  But you know what?  I felt about the best after a marathon that I ever have.  When I got home, I wound up walking about three miles with my roommate to go have a dinner I wasn’t even hungry for, and wound up not having.  A walk just sounded nice.  Had an easy evening of leftover bison chili, frozen pizza, and a movie.  My legs were pretty stiff and sore the next day, but not horribly.  If I weren’t so tired that I needed the sleep, I would’ve still woken up early and gone for my normal morning run.

I’m definitely doing another one.  I might be hooked.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Waking Up the Echoes

Every so often, someone asks me, “When was the last marathon you ran?”  A few months ago, I came to a revelation: it had been over three years since my last (it’s now almost four).  I started wondering what had caused that.  Over the past nine years, long-distance running has become one of my more notable talents, and it was strange that I had gone so long without participating in its signature event.  I’d done a half-ironman triathlon, but that required minimal running-oriented training (I placed in the top 2% on the run split despite running maybe once a week to train).  At one point, a friend asked if I planned on ever doing one again.  My honest response was, “I would like to do one, but I wouldn’t wanna go through the training it requires, and I wouldn’t wanna half-ass it either.”

One of the biggest problems was that I’ve already achieved every marathon-related goal I’d ever had.  I broke the three-hour barrier.  I ran Boston.  And I won my age division in a major marathon, something that sounded so unrealistic it never dawned on me to set that as a goal.  What was left?  I guess just run a little faster, but that’s hardly exciting.  No other marathon is more prestigious than Boston, and its little brother, the New York Marathon, well, I just have no desire to visit New York, and the fact that they cancelled it at the last minute this year only gives me one more reason not to run it.  Maybe I could do one somewhere I’d like to visit, like Italy or Ireland?  The only other thought I had was running a different kind of marathon, maybe somewhere scenic, somewhere unorthodox, somewhere other than a major city.  And that’s when I discovered trail running.

I was first alerted of the idea by somehow discovering that there’s a marathon on Catalina Island (probably saw an ad in Competitor Magazine).  Almost all of it is on trail.  I was immediately intrigued.  A peaceful, quiet marathon?  Away from people, with great views?  Just you and the elements?  It was like combining everything I love about backpacking and running into one.  I was still living in Texas, where trail runs are few and far between, but the seed was planted.

Still, staying on top of running was difficult.  For me to stick to a difficult training routine, a few things need to fall in place:

1.  A goal.  Sorry, I’m not getting my behind out of bed two hours early if I’m not training for anything in particular.
2.  A regular daily routine, even a busy one, so running can become a natural part of it.
3.  A great place to go running, so you want to go for a run.  When I lived in Austin, that was Town Lake, with Scenic Drive as an added bonus.  In Rockdale, I actually had some pretty good options on county roads.  San Marcos had the trail along the river, which was the only good place in town to run, making each run a little too repetitive.  Wasn’t long enough either, so anything over an hour was difficult to plan.  Plano, well....there are a few parks and trails, and they’re great for casual “bring the kids” recreation, but not the best for solitary running.  It doesn’t help that EVERYTHING is paved in Plano (I strongly prefer natural surfaces).

Once I moved to California, I had two of my three requirements.  A 9-5 work schedule means if I get up at 6:00, I can get in a run before work every day.  Routine.  Done.  Shoreline Park, right next to the Googleplex, is an excellent place to run, second only to Town Lake in my experience.  Unpaved, lots of twists and turns, lots of cutoffs, giving you different options for distance, and even two random out-of-place hills with trails all over them, giving you different options for how to attack the summit.  And after the run, I can take a shower in my building and get a free hot breakfast on campus.  Makes the routine even easier.

But I didn’t have a goal, so as much as I liked running at Shoreline Park, I couldn’t get into a routine.  All too often, I’d set my alarm for 6:00, hit snooze three or four times, then turn it off entirely and wake up about 8:00 and just go to work.  A few co-workers mentioned the San Francisco Marathon, but I felt like that would be “just another marathon”, not anything special.  But I recalled that the Dallas, Houston, and Austin Marathons have a joint challenge called “Marathons of Texas”: complete all three in one season and you get a finisher’s jacket and a special certificate.  I was curious if the bay area had a similar challenge for the San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose Marathons.  Nope.  They really should.

One afternoon, I was riding my bike through a foggy redwood forest (seriously, I live here?!?) when I saw a bunch of runners emerging from the woods and crossing the road, stopping at what looked like a typical marathon water station.  Even in the middle of a strong downhill, I did a U-turn and pedaled up to the aid station to ask what was going on.  One of the volunteers told me this was a race of every distance between 5K and 50K (more than a marathon!), put on by an association called Coastal Trail Runs.  I managed to remember the name long enough to get home and Google it.  Apparently they put on a run about every two weeks, year-round, and most of them give runners their choice of 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, or 50K.  Oh, and did I mention the ridiculous amount of hills involved?  No?  I’ll get to that later.

A closer look at their site revealed their challenge, the Blazer Awards.  By placing in the top 10 in your age group, in any distance, you get some amount of points.  At the end of the calendar year, an award is given to the individual with the most points in their age group and distance.  Oh, it is ON!  By the time I found out about this, I’d already missed the first race of 2013, and was too late to register for the second.  No worries, I could always make up some points.  20 races to go.  Plenty of time.

And so, with little preparation, I’m running my first marathon in almost four years, and my first trail marathon ever, this Sunday.  My longest run to date was just this past Saturday, an almost entirely flat 18 miles in just under two hours.  Surprisingly, I didn’t feel completely like crap afterward, but I was definitely slowing down in the second half.  Another eight miles and a lot more hills might change things a little bit.

So the Golden Gate Trail Run on Sunday.  It’s in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, sometimes also called the Marin Headlands, just outside of Sausalito, CA.  It involves 4,800 feet of climbing.  To put that in perspective:

The Austin Marathon is easily the hardest marathon course I’ve ever done.  Its total elevation gain is 591 feet.
The Leadville 100, generally considered one of the very hardest ultramarathons, has a total elevation gain of ~11,000 feet.  But it’s also four times longer.  Mile for mile, the Golden Gate Trail Run will have significantly more climbing.
4,800 feet would be twice as much climbing as an average day on the Texas 4,000 Sierra route, and three times as much as the average for the Rockies route.  It would rank as the third-hardest day of climbing on the Sierra route, and #1 on the Rockies.  All that despite being spread out over only a third of the mileage.

Normally, when preparing for a marathon, 60 miles a week is a normal training schedule.  I haven’t managed 45.  And I usually bang out at least a couple runs of 20+ miles.  I’ve only done one longer than 15.  And, oh, I usually don’t have to do the equivalent of climbing from sea level to Denver - and back down.

But the most daunting thing is that this series of races, along with doing the LA and San Francisco Marathons, will mean I have 13, count ‘em, THIRTEEN marathons between now and the 4th of July.  That’s a lot of weeks where I won’t allow myself to have any meat, sweets, alcohol, or anything fried.

It’ll be worth it though.