Friday, May 31, 2013

The Gauntlet

This weekend marks the first of four marathons in a row.  Yikes!  In a strange way, I'm looking forward to it.  I think that's because they all have something different to offer.  Here's the rundown:

Canyon Meadow:  I did this one only a couple months ago, and ran a great race.  The course is challenging, but by Coastal Trail Runs standards, maybe a little easy; only one of the climbs is brutal, and it comes at the beginning of each loop.  My goal is simply to beat my own time, which is the course record.

Big Basin:  If I'm not mistaken, this is the only point-to-point marathon in the entire Coastal Trail Runs series.  That alone makes it interesting.  Add in what I understand is gorgeous scenery (read: TONS of redwoods) on the Skyline-to-Sea trail, and it becomes that much more appealing.  And as the cherry on top, it's overwhelmingly downhill.  Having a Boston-qualifying time on a trail marathon could be possible, and would freaking rock (even if it's not an official qualifying course).

San Francisco:  The only urban marathon I plan on doing for the rest of the year, it's my chance to showcase my speed.  Even though San Francisco has a reputation as a hilly, challenging course, it has less than a third of the hills that Canyon Meadow and Big Basin do, and those are among the easiest of the Coastal Trail Runs.  Light, fast shoes, firm pavement, full support, I'm looking for a fast time. If I'm not under 3:00, I'll be disappointed, and below that, the faster, the better.
I normally wouldn't care about my time so much, but there's unusually high interest in running Boston in 2014 after the attack this year (take it from a Googler - "Qualify for Boston" and similar phrases are at an all-time high).  I am no exception.  Not only has the Boston Marathon tightened its standards in recent years (which I approve of - you should earn Boston, not pay for it), but they now do staggered registration.  The more you beat your BQ time, the earlier you get to register, until it's finally sold out.  Since I only beat my BQ time by about one minute in LA, I'm hoping to do a lot better in San Francisco and earn a spot in the world's most prestigious footrace.

San Lorenzo River:  Another very scenic marathon, near where my uncle lives.  And for whatever reason, I'm excited about wading through waist-deep water four times during the course.

I normally don't eat meat, sweets, or drink alcohol for a week before a race.  Since all these races are one week apart, that would mean I couldn't do any of those things for a solid month.  I think I'll make an exception and give myself a chance to indulge immediately after every race, in celebration, then abstain for the following six days.

The weekend following all this mess is a four-day weekend, the 4th of July.  I have a feeling that weekend will be epic.

A Little Tweak

Monday, towards the end of my brick training, I was moving at a swift clip, pumping my legs with purpose, and I ran strong through a right turn, leaning into it.  Yeouch!  A very brief, but very sharp pain in the middle of the arch of my left foot (essentially the softest spot of your feet).  Not so good.  I was less than a mile from home.  I changed my gait slightly and just finished the run.  No problem.

The following day, it didn't happen again, but my left arch just started to feel weak.  I noticed myself slowly changing my gait throughout the run, trying to put less weight on my left foot and stay more on the outsides of my feet.  Even if you're doing that kind of thing to try and avoid injury, it's never good when you're running improperly.  My arch continued to feel weak for the rest of the day, and even still felt just a little strange the following morning.  Knowing what plantar fasciitis is, and having watched it keep one of my co-workers from running for months at a time, I erred on the side of caution and took a day off on Wednesday.

I'm guessing that I just over-stressed my feet a little on my backpacking trip last weekend.  20 miles/day, rough terrain, and an extra 25 pounds on your back can probably take a slow toll on your body.  I figured it would be my knees or ankles, but apparently it was the arch of one of my feet.

Thursday I got back in business and took off for an all-paved 12-mile run.  I almost never run on pavement these days, but with the San Francisco Marathon coming up in a few weeks, I want to get used to the surface, and also get used to my road shoes.  I was hoping to stay under a 6:20/mile pace, but I guess I forgot what a difference light shoes, flat topography, and a firm surface can do for you.  When the 12 miles were up, I had averaged a 6:01/mile pace, skewed upwards by a slow start (6:41 in the first mile).  I guess my feet are strong enough again.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Hangin' In There

After an inexplicably good-feeling brick session yesterday, my run this morning started off uninspiringly.  I felt sluggish, slow, weak, bad all-around.  And I was trying to do one of my hardest training runs, 14 miles, mostly hill repeats.  This might have to get cut short.

After three summits (this route has 12), I didn't feel that bad anymore.  Repeated glances at my watch told me that I was slow today.  So what?  I kept going.

At the end of the run, I finished all 14.1 miles and all 12 summits, all without even pausing to catch my breath (this has been happening frequently lately, even when I don't need it).  I was significantly slower than usual, but I managed to stick it out, and finished strong.  And when it comes to long-distance running, that's really what it's all about.  Runs like this one aren't sexy, but they're the runs that make the difference.  Running when it's not convenient and pushing through the tough days are when you become a good runner.

Monday, May 27, 2013


After doing a three-day hike in two days, a lot of people would consider that good reason to take the day off.  But I guess that's where I'm different.  When I get an opportunity, I take it, and when I get an edge, I like to keep it.

So Monday morning, on my day off, I got up at 6:00 AM and went for a 45-mile bike ride, followed immediately by a 12-mile run.

Throughout the ride, hills were doing a number on me.  I had to shift down more than I normally do, and even then, it was a challenge to keep going.  And by the end of the ride, even in the flats, I felt tired.  I started to wonder if going for the run was a good idea.

About 2/3 of the way through the ride, I caught up with a guy on a loaded touring bike.  I pulled up alongside him.

"Weekend tour?"
"What?  Oh, no, I'm just training.  I'm thinking of doing a Vancouver-to-San Francisco tour later this summer."

We talked about touring for a little while, until our routes split only a mile or so later.  His method of training was to load his bike with panniers and put six gallons of water in them.  That's 48 pounds of water alone.  Damn.  I don't think I ever trained quite like that for a tour.  Good on him!

After arriving home, I laced up my shoes, wondering if I'd cut my run a little short.  I'd at least head out and see how I felt.  On the plus side, it was still cloudy and a little cool out.

I started a little sluggish, which is common for brick training, but I never seem to have the stiffness or pain that some people claim to experience.  I think that's just because I'm a better runner than biker, and most triathletes (most people that do bricks) are the other way aroun.  Two miles into the run, I felt great.  And then five miles into the run, I felt great.  And eight miles into the run, I still felt great.  And at ten miles, I still felt great!

I dunno what it was.  Maybe after two long days of backpacking, I got so used to traveling on foot with extra weight that now running felt easy?  Or maybe the 10,000-foot drop in elevation made it easier?  Maybe I wasn't actually going that fast, and it just felt good because I wasn't actually running as hard (I didn't have my watch, and I'm not exactly sure on the distance either). But whatever it was, I had a great run when I expected a horrible one.

Maybe I need to visit the Sierras more often...

Rae Lakes Loop - Day 2

Continued from Rae Lakes Loop - Day 1

I opened my eyes and looked out the side of the tent.  Frost on the grass.  I turned my head and looked at my socks, where I'd laid them out to dry overnight (hiking through snow yesterday had soaked my shoes and socks).  Frost.  I picked one up.  Frozen solid.  Aw, crap...

Rather than change back into my hiking socks, I left my sleeping socks on.  I crunchily forced my way into my still-frozen shoes, feeling them thaw, then soak my sleeping socks as they melted.  I piled on just about all the clothes I had and started tearing down the tent, which, like everything else, was covered in frost.  By the time I was done, my "waterproof" gloves had soaked through.  I switched to my mittens, not because I needed the warmth, but because at least they were dry.  Headed down the trail.

It was a bright, sunny day, but it would be about an hour of hiking before the sun made it over the mountains and started shining down in the valley.  Only about five minutes after I started hiking, I noticed there wasn't any frost on the grass.  So if I'd hiked an extra five minutes yesterday, I would've made it to a low enough elevation to miss out on freezing temperatures?  I dunno if that was true or not, but since it was only 7:30 and the sun wasn't out yet, it seemed possible that was the case, rather than the frost had melted in the last five minutes.  A frustrating thought.  But at least the view was nice.

Once in the sunlight, I shed most of my layers, keeping on a sleeveless base layer, a wool T-shirt, and some arm warmers.  Had there not been a lot of trees, keeping me in the shade most of the time, I probably would've gone down to just the T-shirt.  All descending, until I crossed one of the flimsiest bridges I've ever seen.

Even walking gingerly, it swayed like crazy.  But I wasn't so much worried about the cables snapping as I was about the wood planks breaking out from under me.  They were noticeably creaking and cracking, and I'm not even a big guy.

From here on out, ups and downs as I followed the river.  More downs than ups, but the trail did its share of meandering and rolling.  Saw a handful of people coming the other way.  A few of them were carrying fishing poles.  Most of them asked about Glen Pass.

It was only 11:00 when I was halfway back to the car.  I hadn't planned on finishing the loop until tomorrow, probably around dinnertime, and here I was on pace to finish it a day early, in mid-afternoon.  I crossed another river and found myself at Upper Paradise Valley.  If I wanted to camp out tonight, I would have to pick a spot in the next three miles.

Paradise Valley has three designated camping areas, and each time I passed one, there were people still at their campsite, after 11:00 in the morning.  Seriously, what do they do all day?  Just after noon, I was at Lower Paradise Valley.  Camp here?  Nahhhh.  What am I gonna do for the next eight hours until it gets dark?  I considered stopping for lunch, but I remembered that there was a waterfall about a mile and a half up ahead.  Sounded like a good spot for lunch, in my last few miles, have a minute to myself, enjoy the view of the waterfall, and take it all in before I head out.

Looking at the map, I'd had the notion that the waterfall was from a different river than the one I was following.  On the left was a nearly-vertical rock face, and the map showed water somehow coming down it.  Meanwhile, the river I was following had a little whitewater, but was relatively flat, though it did have a fairly high volume.  Then the terrain changed and I started wondering if the waterfall might actually be on this river after all.

Arriving at the waterfall, it was clear that I wasn't stopping at the top of the falls for lunch.  So.  Many.  People.  If I wanted to hang out somewhere with this many people, I wouldn't've gone to the Sierras.  And since we were only 4.5 miles from the trailhead, that's day hike range for a lot of people.  That meant large families.  Loud, obnoxious city-dwellers.  Kids!  The horror.
"Nope," I thought to myself, and kept walking.

There were a lot less people at the lower falls, probably since you had to scramble off the trail a little bit to get to where you could see them.  Not a bad spot for lunch.  I had to wait in line after a couple groups to get a picture without people in it.

I found a nice, shady spot at the base of the falls and started setting up for lunch.  It was then that one of the photo groups, about seven strong, decided to come stand about ten feet away from me for no particular reason, and talk.  And talk.  And talk.  And talk.  Why did they have to stand and talk here, while I'm trying to enjoy a lunch by myself?  Why couldn't they start down the trail and talk there, or, I dunno anywhere but ten feet from a stranger?  Especially when I clearly set up away from everyone else.  <long sigh> I think some people don't get that there are different rules of etiquette when you're not in an urban setting, when serenity is a viable option.

Bounded down the last 4.5 miles.  After seeing people about once every three hours for the last day and a half, I was now seeing people about once every 30 seconds.  Must be a popular day hike.  Most people were polite.  Some weren't (sat down for a water break in the middle of the trail, made no attempt to get out of the way).  I figured it would get even more crowded when I made it to the junction that closed the loop, but just the opposite happened.  Weird.  The last two miles were very quiet and uneventful.  Somehow, from two nights ago, I didn't remember this part of the trail going on for so long, nor did I remember the trail being that sandy.

Made it back to the car at 3:00.  I'd get home in daylight.  A nice, long drive back, followed up with meeting Ruben's parents, visiting from Pennsylvania, and I even got treated to pie.

So I'd set off with the goal of cramming what's usually a four-day hike into three days, and I wound up finishing in two.  45 miles in 44 hours.  I guess I forgot that I make good time when I'm on my own.  Still, I was moving at a slower pace than I did on the AT and PCT (at least most of the time).  Probably coulda ditched some of the gear I brought, but oh well.  Next time, maybe.

Can't decide if I should do another backpacking trip for the Fourth of July, or a short bike tour.  We'll see.

Rae Lakes Loop - Day 1

Continued from Rae Lakes Loop - Day 0

It was a cool, but not cold, morning.  I hadn't slept particularly well, since I didn't pick the best spot for my tent.  I was on a slope, wisely tilted down towards my feet, but it was a strong enough slope that I kept gradually sliding down and had to wiggle myself back up repeatedly.  Other than that, comfortable, and it didn't even seem too bad getting out of the sleeping bag.

Managed to break camp fairly quickly and started up the trail.  The vast majority of the early hours was nearly flat, just a minor and consistent incline.  Almost no downhills to speak of, and pure flats were rare too, just lots and lots of gentle incline.  After a while, I saw a few people still at their campsite.  At 10:30 in the morning.  I'd been walking since 7:30.  What were these people doing all day?

Here and there, when there was a break in the trees, you could look around the canyon and get some great views of the mountains enclosing you.

Then I realized that as high as those peaks seemed, as insurmountable as those walls looked, the elevation of Glen Pass, which I would have to cross, was above that.  Yowza.

It was still well before lunch when the trail took a turn and the climbing began.  Climbs are always deceptively long, not only because you slow down and don't cover as much ground in the same amount of time, but because the trail will start to do switchbacks, making it look a lot shorter on the map than it really is.  What looked like less than a mile of climbing turned out to be at least two.  And every time I saw a ridge and thought the climb was almost over, getting over the ridge only revealed a brief flat spot, followed by more climbing.  Every so often, I stopped to catch my breath and looked back.  Fantastic views.

And to think: I used to be at the bottom of those mountains.  Now it looks like I'm on a level that's about halfway up!

At just about noon, I arrived at a break in the climb, a flat area at just over 10,000 feet of elevation.  My initial plan for the hike actually had me camping here on Saturday night, and instead, I made it there before lunch.  Getting over Glen Pass this afternoon was not only possible, but would now be easy.  And the weather couldn't've been more perfect; warm but not hot, and not one single cloud in the sky.  I might as well take on Glen Pass today, and camp at scenic Rae Lake on the other side tonight.  I was even ahead-of-schedule enough that I took a 1.4-mile detour just to hike down to Charlotte Lake for lunch.

Not a bad lunch spot

With a little rest, plenty of water, and some food in my belly, I headed up for the final assault on Glen Pass.

Here and there, there was snow across the trail, usually in a particularly steep slope where I'd rather not worry about slipping.  On went the microspikes (think chains for your tires, but for your shoes).  I went ahead and left them on for good, even though the majority of the trail was bare rock, probably the worst possible surface for microspikes.  But I'd rather not have to keep stopping to take them off and put them back on, and like hell I was walking across a dangerous slope without them.

It wasn't until I'd reached about 11,000 feet that the elevation started to bother me.  I just noticed that I kept slowing down, even stopping to catch my breath.  Around this time, I got passed by a few hikers, all of which I'd passed earlier in the day.  Seemed like they were just handling the elevation better than I was.  None of them had microspikes, or anything for the snow other than trekking poles.  I was eventually stopping close to once every two minutes.  I had a headache.  I looked up.  Was that the top?  There was no way there were more than 1,000 feet to go.  I might as well suck it up and make it happen; going down the other side will be just as good as going back down this side.  How bad could another 20 minutes and another 1,000 feet be?

After a slow but well-paced effort, I found myself on Glen Pass.  I stopped and took a few pictures, quickly though, since it was ferociously windy.  12,000 feet and a gap in the peaks means you're quite literally in a wind tunnel.  It wasn't until after I'd finished taking photographs that I really took a good look at the trail.  Ho-ly crap.  Now on the north face of the mountain (the side that gets the least sunlight), it was completely blanketed in snow.  And by that, I mean the trail was completely obscured, invisible.  There was nothing to do but follow footprints, which weren't even bothering to make switchbacks.  Those before me must be much braver than I.

I like it when you're high enough to look down on peaks.

After looking forward to descending for over an hour, I found myself in a situation that was much worse than the climb.  Snow gives me the heebie-jeebies.  You see, to a kid from Texas, snow is a substance whispered about in legend, that presents itself every four years, only in just enough quantities to close school for a day.  It certainly never causes any problems, and there's never so much you get sick of it.

Even putting my foot exactly in existing footprints, I was pausing between every single step, practically hyperventilating if my foot managed to slip one centimeter.  I was probably moving about 10 meters every minute, if that.  In some places, walking wasn't possible; the best option was a controlled slide.  I hated it.  Hated hated hated hated hated it.  More than once, I slid into an unseen rock just below the surface of the snow, or else postholed and caught a rock in the shin on my way down.  I was still in shorts.  My shins have seen better days.

After an unreasonably long descent, I was finally on flatter ground again.  Less snow, but still some over the trail here and there.  I concluded that I would never do this loop again before the Fourth of July.

A look up at a slope I had to descend

Glen Pass, from the bottom

Rae Lake though, that just turned my day right around.  I won't even bother describing it, here:

Glen Pass is that saddle a little off to the right

It was still only about 5:00 in the afternoon when I made it to the opposite end of Rae Lake.  No reason to stop now.  I took my time leaving the lake, but kept hiking.  After going through hell over Glen Pass, now I couldn't keep a smile off my face.  Just so happy to be here.

Stopped at Arrowhead Lake for dinner, planning to stop at Dollar Lake for the night.  When I got there, though, there was a sign posted prohibiting camping by the lake.  I looked at my watch.  7:00.  I still had at least another hour of daylight.

I wound up using almost that entire hour, descending the whole time, before I finally found a nice, flat, grassy meadow, perfect for camping.  When I first walked in, there were a few deer grazing.  I was finally under 10,000 feet again.  Probably for the best.  Tonight would have a little less chill and a little more oxygen.

Rae Lakes Loop - Day 0

Not exactly running-related, but in the same neighborhood and certainly an adventure on the trail.

When I first moved to California last fall, one of the things I was most looking forward to was going on backpacking trips.  There aren't many good backpacking opportunities in Texas (though I've always wanted to do the Lone Star Trail), and from my few experiences with backpacking, half of them in California, I'd fallen in love with it.  Now I could get away for a weekend of backpacking all the time!

That didn't happen though.  Saturdays in the fall are dedicated to cold beer, Longhorn football, and food with melted cheese on it.  And I didn't have any vacation days built up either, so by the time I drove out to the mountains on Saturday, it'd almost be time to think about turning around and going back again.  By the time there was a good weekend, it was too cold.  It would have to wait until spring.  And considering how high up the Sierras get, it would have to wait until late spring.

As Memorial Day started approaching, I started thinking about what I could do with a three-day weekend.  I didn't have a race, nor any other obligations, so the options were wide-open.  Backpacking was more or less the first thing I thought of.  I started looking for a ~40-mile loop, something that would be do-able in three days, and asked a few friends from work if they'd like to come.  Initially, three said yes, giving us a solid group of four.  By the time Memorial Day weekend came around, they'd all backed out.  No worries.  I'd go it alone.

I chose the Rae Lakes Loop - apparently a very popular, very scenic, and somewhat strenuous hike, 45 miles total.  I decided to hike it counter-clockwise, the opposite of the more common path, because that way the climbing would be steeper, but it wouldn't take as long.  I'd rather get a tough climb over with and then enjoy a gradual downhill the rest of the way; long steady climbs can be just as taxing in the end, and steep descents don't give you much back in return.  I liked that the trail was out in the backwoods enough that you have to get a wilderness permit, and the majority of the loop is too far out for a day hike.  The only way to get to most of the loop is by doing a multi-day backpacking trip.  Which means there won't be many people at all, and they'll all be the true outdoors type.  Beards, not fanny packs.

The view driving into the park

Expecting to cover about 15 miles/day, I took off from work early on Friday to get to the trail and log a few miles before nightfall.  Traffic was bad in some spots on the way, and I wound up getting to the trailhead later than I expected.  Only managed about four.miles, and that was only because I stubbornly hiked later than I should've, after it was getting dark.  In a way though, I had to cover those miles, because camping downstream of the creek I stopped at was prohibited.  The good news was I got a short-but-tough climb outta the way early on, and the next day, which looked to be almost all uphill, would have a little less climbing involved.

To be continued...

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sweet-lookin' Kicks...

One thing I didn't mention about the Horseshoe Lake Trail Run was the presence of a rep from Salomon (they make outdoor shoes and apparel).  As you might guess, he was showing off some trail running shoes.  One pair in particular caught my eye, the S-Lab Sense Ultra.  These things are just sexy:

I went ahead and tried 'em on.  They felt snug, even for me, and I generally like my shoes snug.  People with wide feet probably wouldn't like these.  For me though, I bet they'd be great, especially once a little broken in.  They're a hair lighter than the shoes I race in now (North Face Hayasa), which I find light, responsive, and fast.  These suckers are even more so??  And on top of that, they felt like they even have a little more cushion too.  The heel-toe drop is only 4 mm (normal is 10-12 mm; my trainers are 12, my racers are 10).  That'd be an adjustment for some people, but it gives you a more "natural" running motion, requiring you to stay closer to the midfoot or the balls of your feet.  If you're a hard heel-striker, these probably aren't for you, unless you're trying to break that habit and you want a kick in the pants to do it.

I'm perfectly happy with my current race shoes, but they'll wear out before the end of the year, so I'll need some new racers by the time I finish this series of Coastal Trail Runs.  The only problem?  The price tag: $180.  Yeesh!  Most good shoes run about $100.  Still, they might be worth it...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Horseshoe Lake Trail Marathon

Atypically, I woke up in my own bed and drove to the marathon shortly thereafter.  Very few Coastal Trail Runs have been on The Peninsula thus far, but this would be one of them.  In fact, the start line was right on the side of a road that I bike on regularly.  My neck of the woods.  My stomping grounds.  My house.  I must defend it.

I showed up in the same warm-ups I almost always wear to these things, but this time, I wasn't cold in the slightest.  In fact, I kept trying to find shade while I went through my stretches.  Considering I had problems with over-heating in my last race (and possibly dehydration too), that may not be a good sign for the race today.

I wisely lined up at the front, which I've only recently begun to do, and took the lead less than a mile into the race.  If it were a loop, that would signify that it could be a very lonely race (like Canyon Meadow), but this was an out-and-back, which meant I'd be seeing everyone in the race at least once.  And since it was a double out-and-back for the marathon runners, I would probably see a few people twice, if not three times.

In the early going, you only get a glimpse of Horseshoe Lake, until you're right next to it, near lake level.  Almost immediately after that, you start climbing.  For whatever reason, I've always been scenically attracted to water, so I was a little disappointed that the trail didn't embrace the lake a little more and give us a couple of vistas.

It wasn't until the course turned uphill, only about 1.5 miles in, that I really started losing people.  A couple miles later, I was able to look back after a switchback and not see anyone in sight, at least a quarter-mile behind me.  Early on, there were a few tricky hills, but mostly rollers, nothing too bad.  The few steep parts were short, and the few long hills weren't steep.  It reminded me of my beloved Hill Country, not only in terms of topography, but other factors of terrain and vegetation: warm and dry, short, scrappy shrubs, and oak trees outnumbered pines, redwoods, and eucalyptus.  I felt right at home.

The course took a dramatic turn at mile four, in the direction of uphill.  I was mentally prepared, having studied the course profile ahead of time.  About a mile of torture, and then it gets alright. I let myself be OK with slowing down, knowing it would end in only 8-9 minutes.  This would be the toughest climb of the entire course.  As I approached the end of it, I smiled.  Not too bad.  This would be a no-walk marathon.

I had thought that the big hill ended at 4.8 miles (I write the mileage of all the peaks on my hands), but it was almost exactly at 5.  An unpleasant surprise.  The slight decline that followed made up for it.  Easy running, the kind a trail runner dreams about.  A half-mile later, the course turned onto a fire road, with rolling hills all over the place.  None too difficult, really.  But a thought occurred to me.  In every trail run I've done, there's some part of the course where on the second time around, you think to yourself, "I don't remember it being this hard last time."  I anticipated that this would be that point.

6 miles in, a sharp hill took you up to the first aid station.  I was greeted with cheering.

"Whadaya need?"
"The pink drink," I stammered.  It's not like they don't already have everything out and easy to grab.  I'm not sure what the point of that question was, considering what a great job they always do with that.
"How ya feeling?"
I forced myself to swallow the sticky first half of a Clif Shot and answered, "Great so far!"
"You're killin' it man.  Didn't get lost this time, huh?"
I laughed.  Obviously this guy either volunteers a lot or reads my blog.  "Nope, not this time!  And since it's an out-and-back, I'm not counting on it.  Knock on, uhh..."  I knocked on the table, "...plastic."
"Hang in there, man, you're doin' great."  He gave me a pat on the back.  I'm guessing he didn't suspect how drenched in sweat it already was.  I headed back down the hill.

Possibly the best thing about out-and-back courses (even better than making it hard to get lost), is that it's easy to tell where your competition is.  When you backtrack, you see everyone who's behind you.  And if you keep an eye on your watch, you know how far behind.  I made a note of my exact mileage as I left the aid station and waited until I saw the first person coming up the trail.  0.3 miles had elapsed.  That meant he was 0.6 miles back.  Didn't see his bib though; what race was he in?  A flurry of runners came later, but almost all of them were doing the half-marathon.  From what I could tell, the next marathon runner was almost a mile behind me.  And that was only a quarter of the way through the course.  By the halfway point, it might be almost two miles, and by the end, four.  Of course, that's assuming I keep running like I am.  More motivation to keep it up.

The rolling hills surrounding the aid station weren't any easier going back the other way, but I did keep my head up a little more to enjoy the best vista of the course.  Looking west, you got a great view of the piney hills, far enough away to look blue in the distance (physics is awesome!).  Beyond that, you could see a general blue haze, with a flat line separating the sky from a deeper blue.  The ocean?  Or was it just a blue haze on the horizon?  Either way, it looked pretty.

Coming back down meant I was passing everyone still coming up.  Most of the time, it wasn't such a problem, but most of the course was singletrack.  Normally, I love that, because singletrack generally puts you in the thick of the woods, and makes you feel so much more like you're running across the Earth on its terms than a fire road does.  On this race though, that was occasionally a problem with people who weren't paying attention.  Most folks did their best to move to one side of the trail, but a few didn't.  In some cases, they had their head down to charge up a hill, and also had headphones in.  I'm a huge music lover, and rock and roll helps me do a lot of things, but I really thought that this run shouldn't've allowed headphones at all.  There's already a general rule that they're not allowed on singletrack, but since almost this entire course was singletrack, and out-and-back no less, I think they shoulda been banned altogether, just this one time.

After a mile and a half, I headed down the hill that had been tough to climb.  And lemme tell ya, it was one of the finest downhills I've seen in any of these trail runs.  The slope was just perfect, enough that taking each step required zero effort, enough that your pace skyrocketed, but not so much that you had to make an effort to stay in control, or tap the brakes to keep from going too fast.  Towards the end, the downhill got even steeper, and I actually had to lean back a little to keep things under wraps, but it was the kind of stretch where you feel better after a mile than you did when you started.  I hit the bottom at mile 9.  Back to the rolling hills between here and the start.  This oughta get interesting.

None of the rollers were terrible, but in a few spots, they were challenging.  I kept that in mind for the second time around.  At one point, I looked around.  I hadn't passed anyone coming up the hill in over a mile.  My best guess had the closest person about a mile behind me.  I didn't see anyone.  I turned to the side of the trail and peed.

Coming down the last downhill before the halfway point, I had hit my stride again.  I felt like I do on training runs, running like an unbridled horse.  On one of the very last switchbacks, I hurried through, thinking I could pivot on one foot.  Well, I could.  Too much, in fact.  I went down on one shin/knee.  My first-ever slip in a race.
"Ow!"  My knee and shin hurt.  I kept running.  Half a mile later, I decided I'd look at the damage.  A light scrape on my shin, a cut on my knee.  I've had worse in a soccer game.  Almost glad to get my first badge of honor.

Approaching the halfway point was the first time I felt like I was really noticing something that I'd missed the first time around.  At one point, we got a fantastic view of Horseshoe Lake, a beautiful, picturesque body of water in the middle of gorgeous, green-dotted golden hills, glimmering in the sunshine.  Only a little later, there was one of the coolest Oak trees I've seen in a long time; the kind that has about six trunks fanning out in all directions, covering a huge swath of Earth, the kind that I woulda climbed again and again as a kid.  It was probably a few hundred years old.  I was almost sad to run past it; I just wanted to stay there and look at the Oak tree.  Maybe it made me homesick without me realizing it.

I made it to the halfway point, devoured some peanut butter, and took in some more water.  I was about to run through it when they told me to go the other way.  The course had diverged at some point from where we started, and I imagined we did a small loop to start the second half the same way, but not so.  Had I gone that way, I woulda tripped the finish line sensor into thinking I'd already finished.

For the first few miles, my pace was already noticeably slower.  On the plus side, the first runner back was at least a mile behind me, and he was running the half.  For the second time (Canyon Meadow being the first), I beat the half-marathoners at their own game.  The first marathon runner was almost two miles behind.  Now a little farther into the race, the runners were much more spread-out.  I basically hung in there until mile 4, the beginning of the tough hill.  For the first time in the race, I was truly being tested.

The first half of the hill, the steeper part by far, was definitely tempting me to walk.  A win was in the bag.  Breaking the course record was likely.  What could it hurt?  Still, I didn't want to walk unless I had to.  I started up at a deliberately slow jog and figured I'd keep it up as long as I could.  No walking.  Success!  Managed the second half at a slow pace, but a little stronger.  At mile 18, I finally finished the toughest hill of the course.  From here on out, it can only get better.

As expected, the 1.5 miles on either side of the aid station were tougher than they were the first time around.  Probably woulda seemed even harder had I not expected it.  I did my best to distract myself by looking to the west and taking in the vistas.

I took in a little extra water at the aid station, knowing it was getting warmer.  As I've mentioned, over-heating and dehydration likely played a factor in my previous run, so I was doing my best to avoid that today.  By this time, I had passed at least four people heading up the hill.  In other words, I was three times faster than them.  Granted, they appeared to be simply hiking, not running at all.

Just like last time, I made a note of my time and distance at the top and waited to see where people were on the way down.  The first came a mile later, or two miles behind me, and he was running the 50K.  The first marathoner came almost another mile after that, which meant he was almost four miles back.  This one was in the bag.  With most half-marathoners done and the trail almost entirely empty, I gleefully ran down the long decline, but in the steep section, slowed to a controlled gentle trot.  My legs were starting to get a little too weak to run through a steep technical decline.  I hit bottom at mile 22 with sore knees.  Four miles of rolling hills and a few steep climbs stood between me and the finish.  The adventure begins.

I'd already run this section of the course three times, but this was the first time I noticed how exposed it was.  Every corner I turned, I kept hoping that the course went back into the the trees.  More than water, rest, or a downhill, I just wanted shade.  It was a comforting thought to know that most of the last two miles were in cover.

The final hill absolutely presented a challenge, enough to give me a second temptation to walk. Halfway up, I strongly considered it.  My pathetic jog was slow enough that it wouldn't make a big difference.  It might save my legs.  But then it occurred to me: save them for what?  The last mile?  The last 4% of a race?  That's like hoping to improve your time by taking it easy for the 96th meter of a 100-meter dash, or slowing down in the last 10 seconds of a one-mile race.  It made no sense.  To Hell with that "take it easy" crap.  This is the finish.  Own it.

Over the last hill, I once again hit my stride coming down the other side, running like I really meant it.  I noted the switchback that gave me the slip last time and was more careful on this go-'round.  All that was left was a little bit of flat, a gentle uphill, and a little more flat.  Just then, I almost stepped on a rat.  It was dead in the middle of the trail.  I wondered if it had been trampled during the race.

Made my way up the last incline, then absolutely charged through the flat last half-mile to the finish.  Smiled when I saw that Oak tree.  The final aid station, just before the finish line, almost makes you wanna stop there for food.  As soon as you cross the finish line, though, there are a couple more tents with an even greater spread of snacks.  I immediately downed a few cups of water, took a handful of trail mix, and started stretching.

As it turned out, I beat the course record by about ten minutes and also won by 38.  The next two finishers were within two minutes of each other.  I wound up hanging out for about two hours, just grazing off of snacks, and took in a beer as well.  I've gotten to know a few of the race organizers, and they're all great people.  And it's fun to swap stories with the other runners.  Besides, it wasn't like I had anything better to do that day.

It was one of the less challenging courses, but I also think this was one of my better runs.  Not getting lost certainly helped, but more than that, I maintained a mental toughness to the end like I hadn't last time.  Looking forward to taking on the next one.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Snakes on a Plain

Running a little better this week.  More consistent anyway.  Now that I have a watch again, it's easier to tell if I'm doing well or not.  I'm doing OK, but not necessarily showing improvement.  I guess when you're already pretty good, you should be happy to stay that way.  But I didn't get this way by not improving.  It's my nature to try and get better.

I'd hardly ever seen snakes at Shoreline Park before the last couple of weeks, but now I see one almost every day.  They're usually a gopher snake, and if not that, a garter snake.  Either way, non-venomous, so I'm not worried (OK, the garter snake is technically venomous, but non-threatening to humans).  I generally find them sitting in the middle of the trail, trying to warm up in the sun, and they slither away as I approach.  When I'm lucky, they stay put for a second, and I crouch a couple paces away to get a good look at them.  At that point, they'll generally wait a couple beats, then slide into the grass (on one occasion, it hissed first).  And lemme tell ya, the phrase "snake in the grass" is dead-on.  One they're in the tall grass, they're invisible.

The other day, at work, someone mentioned on an internal mailing list that they saw a six-foot snake on the trail.  Wow!  All the ones I've seen have generally been 60-100 cm long (2-3 feet).  He also said it was either dead or dying; not moving, and birds were circling.  Kinda wish I'd ridden my bike over there after work just to check it out.

I keep thinking of trying to catch one.  I probably won't.

Tried swimming for the first time in over a year on Friday.  One thing I forgot is how easy it is at first, and how hard it gets as you go.  At work, we have a couple of "endless" pools, the swimming equivalent of a treadmill; it's about the size of a hot tub and you can set a constant current at whatever speed you like.  I like that you never have to turn and it forces you to hold a steady pace, but the major downside is that there's no good way to keep track of how long you've been going or how far you've gone.  There's a clock off to the side, but you have to stop to look at it.  I might try wearing a watch (you can swim with the one I have) and see if it's possible to look at it on the fly.  I kinda doubt it.

Looking forward to tomorrow's race in a big way, for some reason.  I have high expectations.  Will potentially be my first time winning a race in over two months.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Cinderella Trail Marathon

The race was outside of Oakland, starting in Joaquin Miller Park and venturing a little into Redwood Regional Park, even sharing some of the course with the Canyon Meadow Marathon from a couple months ago.  This course was considerably hillier though.  Race was on a Saturday, a little unusual, but I kinda like it because that allows me to not worry about an upcoming race for the entire weekend.  I stayed at Athan's place Friday night, on his foam sleeping pad, then borrowed his car Saturday morning to drive myself to the race.  Didn't sleep well for some reason.

Got there awfully early.  I guess it didn't take as long as I thought it would to get going and drive there.  Had plenty of time to stretch.  Chatted with a few people.

This time, I lined up close to the front.  Before the gun, I looked around at the folks up there.  Tried to size up who the stronger runners were.  You can sometimes spot them, just on how they carry themselves and what they're wearing (usually less than your average runner, even if it's cold).  Tried to pick out a few and get a look at their bib number so I could tell who was running the marathon, and therefore, who I would have to worry about.

Almost immediately after the gun, I was in the lead.  0.3 miles in, no one was even that close behind me.  "Wow," I thought to myself, "there's a chance I'll spend pretty much the entire race this way," (which is exactly what happened at Canyon Meadow).  A couple miles later, I got caught from behind by a tall skinny guy with long hair, wearing red shorts and no shirt.  His name was Jamil and he was running the half-marathon.  As there was no one else close to us, and he was running the half, I thought to myself, "Well, I win."
Just about then entered the hilliest part of the race, and possibly technically the hardest.  He was walking up some of the steeper hills.  I wasn't, so I'd pass him, and he'd usually get past me again on the downhills.  We kept going like that for at least a mile, never more than about 10-20 seconds ahead of each other.  Every time there was a switchback, we'd see each other face-to-face.  Until one in particular.  I was in the zone going down a long hill, pushing myself and taking full advantage of the free speed, and when I rounded a corner, Jamil was just gone.  I looked around.  There were no ribbons (course markers) in sight.  I stopped and waited.  No one came.

I was lost.

I tried calling out "Helloooo!!" and didn't hear anything.  I waited just a second longer, hoping against logic that I wasn't lost somehow, until I finally gave in to the fact that there was nothing to do but run back up the hill until wherever I got off trail.  When I found it, it was very clearly marked.  In fact, I didn't miss a turn, I took one unnecessarily somehow.  I looked at my watch.  My best guess was that I added about 0.5 miles, and due to stopping for a little bit, about ten minutes (edit: a half-marathon finisher felt the need to correct my estimate three weeks after the race, and on further inspection, it turned out to be much closer to eight minutes).  There were now at least 4-5 runners ahead of me, doing a variety of events.  Over the next several miles, I started passing them one by one.

I'd studied the elevation profile before the race, and I knew there was a gargantuan hill coming at mile 9 (lasting until mile 11, climbing 1,000 feet).  Reaching the aid station at mile 8.5, the lowest point in the course, I finally realized, "You know, it doesn't seem like we've really gotten that much downhill."  Nevertheless, I drank a little and headed up the hill.

To give you some context for this huge hill, here's the course's elevation profile:

Yes, they saved the huge-ass hill for the end of both loops.  This course was EVIL.

The big hill was where I really started to shine.  I passed the runners currently in fourth and third position, both of which were doing the 50K, leaving only Jamil and one other guy ahead of me, both of which were only doing the half-marathon.  And, of course, I didn't mind getting beat by someone who's not in the same race.  Ian, who is sponsored by North Face, was walking some parts of the uphills, but passed me when we headed down a particularly steep, technical descent.  He was just bouncing down it like a friggin' mountain goat.  Finished the first half in 1:43.  Not bad, especially considering I "shoulda" been ten (edit: again, it was really eight) minutes ahead.

Ian ran with me for the first couple miles of the second loop, until I eventually got away from him, holding a slightly stronger pace.  Once again, I thought to myself, "I win."  All I have to do is hold pace, and barring disaster, I got this.  No one even in my neighborhood was running the marathon.  I started taking full advantage of one of the only flat areas in the race, with a slight downhill.  Went into the zone.  All of a sudden, I was in front of a parking lot that I recognized.  Not from this race, but from Canyon Meadow.  We didn't come here in this race.  I looked around.  No ribbons.

I was lost again!!!

This time, I didn't wait, just turned around and ran back.  Added another full mile into my race.  And like last time, I had to climb out.  When I found the spot, just like last time, it was clearly marked, but I'd missed a turn, rather than taking one erroneously.  For the second time, 4-5 runners got ahead of me.  

Entering the steep hilly section in the thick of the woods, I walked a few of the steeper hills this time.  Better to save my legs for the long one.  But after a while, they just kept getting harder and harder.  I really didn't remember them staying this hard last time, I seem to remember the hardest hills being done after a mile or so, and getting easier after that.  And while I thought the long hill wasn't as bad as I expected it to be the first time around, I certainly remember it still being challenging.  If the non-challenging section is this hard now, then the long hill is going to be....?  I tried not to think about it.

By the time I started the long hill, my stomach and lower back weren't happy with me.  Tight and sore.  I could tell I wasn't even running with my normal gait anymore.  And on top of that, it was hot.  I was now neck-and-neck with a guy running the 50K, and we both walked large sections of the uphill.

"I don't remember it being this steep!"
"I can't believe I ran this whole thing last time!"
"Oh man, you were flying up!"

Once it started flattening out here and there, I ran some of the less-steep sections, but even that started waning.  I just started walking more and more as we went, until I was walking almost everything.  I think I could've run more, but I was having such a hard time getting my body to start back up once I let it relax a little.

I mercifully arrived at the final aid station, done with the long climb, only 1.7 miles to go.  I hadn't planned on stopping, but did.  I took a couple waters, then poured one over my head.  Just as I was leaving a guy came charging down the hill, asking "Any marathoners up ahead?"

That got me going.  I was back on, full strength.  For the first time in 45 minutes, I was running my way again.  I took off hard and didn't look back.  If this guy wanted to beat me, he was gonna earn it.

With less than a mile to go, in the middle of a ridiculously steep technical descent, I heard footsteps behind me.  Then I got passed.  About ten seconds later, the wind came out of my sails.  There was only about 0.6 miles left, and I probably walked half of it, even though it was almost all downhill or flat.  I just lost my will to run.  I weakly jogged across the finish line, headed over to the food tent, and laid down.

I had to force myself to eat and drink, which is a little unusual for me after these races.  I did not feel well.  Almost everyone who saw me asked if I was OK, and more than one said I looked pale.  I was really OK (well, that's a relative term), I just felt like crap.  This course had kicked my behind, and running an extra 1.4 miles didn't help.  I laid down for a while.  When I finally got up, I noticed that a few things actually made me smile.  OK, I'm fine now.

Getting passed with under a mile to go, when I'd already done more than a marathon by that point, all but confirms that I "should've" won.  But I really don't like saying that.  Following the course is part of the race, and as a wise man once said, "What should've happened did happen."  It's nobody's fault but mine that I didn't cross the finish line before someone else.  And even after getting lost twice, I was still in front of that guy.  Had I run my last four miles at a pace better than 10-12 minutes, I would've beaten him.

So I'm a little disappointed, but hey, I still came in second, I still won my age division, and I even beat the old course record.  The competitive side of me, though...well, you know how it is.  Even when you do well, it's frustrating when you know you could've done better.  The best cure?  Buckle down and do better!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Head Back In the Game

After a few bad runs last week, culminating in a particularly horrendous hill training session on Wednesday (took about 2 hours to cover ~12.5 miles, and I stopped several times), I've had nothing but good runs ever since.  Didn't manage to get a long run in on the weekend, since I went on a camping trip with some friends from work.  Did get in a 6-mile hike on Saturday and a 6-mile run Sunday morning, which included a few significant hills and spectacular views.  A lot like the Coastal Trail Runs, to be honest.  So even though I wasn't doing the right type of distance, at least I was doing the right type of running.

This week, my running has just been on.  Or at least it feels that way.  It's hard to tell when you don't have a watch.  So I might just be doing "well" because I'm slowing down, but I suppose it's more important that I feel good.  For the long run, sustainability is much more important than power or speed.

Thursday, two days before the Cinderella Trail Run, was Bike to Work Day.  I always bike to work, so I wanted to do something special for it, something out of the ordinary.  So instead of my normal 2.5-mile ride to work, I did a wholly unnecessary 40-mile ride to work, swinging out into some of the foothills near where I live.  Some other Googlers were doing completely ridiculous 60+ mile rides that included 5,000+ feet of climbing, but I decided to save my legs for the marathon.  A long, moderate ride actually seemed like a nice taper activity.  Along the way, I saw at least four "aid stations" randomly set up to hand out snacks for riders.  Most were being run by cycling organizations, but one was actually put on by Tesla.  Weird that a car company would encourage bike commuting.  Wouldn't bike commuting illustrate the degree to which their product's necessity is overblown?

Of course, Google practically had a carnival for everyone that rode to work, complete with pedal-powered amusement park rides.

Naturally, I rode them both.

After a six-week hiatus, glad to be racing again, and especially glad that I got things together just in time.  In related news, I finally threw in the towel, declared my watch officially lost, and bought a new one.  There goes $120...

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Honk and Hiss

Shoreline Park, where I do the majority of my training runs, has a lot of Canadian geese, year-'round.  And they seem to be used to humans.  They're fearless.  Run right at them and they'll barely move.  Occasionally you'll see a few flying over the water, honking away, but most of the time, they hang out right next to the trail, if not on it, and pay no mind to their bipedal visitors.

A week or two ago, I came around a corner and didn't see a goose in some particularly high grass adjacent to the trail.  He decided to wait until I was RIGHT THERE to fly away, and for whatever reason, flew across the trail, directly in my path.  Had I not managed to take a stutter step and then hop to the side, his wings would've smacked me right in the face.  As it was, the feathers and the tips gave my hands an unintentional high-five.

A few days ago, though, a new experience.  I rounded a corner to see two geese in the trail with a couple ducklings in between them.  Neither flinched, but they both immediately turned their heads right at me, opened their beaks, and started hissing!  I didn't even know they could do that!  Lucky me, I wasn't taking that turn, and therefore did not incur the wrath of the geese.