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.