Saturday, June 22, 2013

San Lorenzo River Trail Run

I guess I haven't written anything since San Francisco last week.

San Lorenzo would be my fourth marathon in four weekends, and on top of that, it was on a Saturday where all the others were on Sunday, giving it a shorter turnaround than normal.  I've gotten into the habit of making Friday a speed run (only three miles) followed by a swim, then a day of rest on Saturday before the race on Sunday.  With the quick turnaround, I felt like that approach, with one less day to work with, would result in not nearly enough running during the week.  So I did normal runs through Thursday, then Friday I swam only.  Enough rest, I hope.

San Lorenzo River is one of the more unique trail runs, considering the waist-deep river you have to cross - four times.  The course has a relatively moderate amount of elevation gain, maybe a little on the high side, but peppered with an obscene hill you have to climb - again, four times.  This marathon was a race of big moments.

As I've started to do lately, I took off strong and got out in front in the early going.  Heard chatter behind me until the hills started getting big, when everyone got quiet.  I led the charge up the hill, and less than a mile in, tripped over a root and fell forward.  Well, that's embarassing.  Got right back up and kept going.

For the majority of the first mile, I wasn't feeling it.  My legs felt stiff and sore, and I was already doubting how well I'd do as the race went on.  I wondered if all the races in the past month were finally catching up to me, and maybe today wouldn't be my day.  Started feeling better when the course flattened out only a mile in.  Alright, this I can handle.

A guy named Pat caught me on a descent (as I've been learning, apparently my weakness).  He was running the 30K.  Very friendly guy, we talked a little while.  He could really scoot!  We arrived at the river crossing more or less together, him in front of me, and just forded it, leaving our shoes on.  The water wasn't nearly as cold as I thought it might be; in fact, it felt great!  I did my best to hurry out and started running again with soggy shoes.  They were noticeably a little heavier.

Immediately after the river crossing is the big hill.  I passed Pat fairly quickly and headed up in my trademark fashion, quick short steps and an even rhythm.  At one point where the trail switched back, I looked for Pat.  I didn't see him, but through the trees, his navy blue shirt would be hard to notice.  It was entirely possible he wasn't that far back.  Or he could be walking up.  Not that it mattered too much as far as my race was concerned; he was in a different one.

After a grueling uphill with a couple of false summits, the trail finally headed back down, steep enough that you had to stay on the brakes more than the gas.  As I headed down, I thought to myself, "Man, that hill was pretty tough!  Glad it's over.

...oh mannnn, that was only the first time!"

After nearly a mile of descending (I'm surprised Pat didn't catch me), the course flattened out and ran along the same river for about a mile before I arrived at the first aid station.  The volunteers, sweet as could be, apologetically told me they didn't have cups yet for one reason or another, so with a smile, I took my water out of a bowl, thanked them, and headed back.  Noted the time on my watch and waited to see the first runner headed back the other way.  About three minutes had elapsed, making me six minutes ahead.  A handful more passed soon thereafter.  Then I realized I hadn't been noting anyone's bib number, so I had no idea how close the nearest marathoner was.  Oh well, I'll have another chance at the halfway point, and with twice as much data.

This course being an out-and-back, I wound up having to pass several people for the next three miles.  Just about all of them were great about sharing the trail, and the few that weren't were mostly just caught off-guard, not being a jerk.  Gotta say, I really love the people that come out for these; the level of kinship is greater than you'll see at almost any other outdoors/sporting event.

After crossing the river again, I didn't see anyone else on the course, until I got near the end and found people finishing up the 10K (they started later than us).  I'd forgotten that there was a section that must have pointed downhill for a while in the early going; it seemed like I was running up an incline for miles (because I was).

Hit the downhill to the finish, ran strong again for a mile.  Took a little more time than normal at the aid station, eating a little slower and chatting with a volunteer.  Apparently Wendell had come by just 30 seconds earlier and specifically asked if I'd made it through yet.

Made myself move back up the hill.  This time, a little slower.  Just like last time, I made a note of the time when I left the aid station, but this time I remembered to look at people's bib numbers.  The first few, predictably, were only doing the half marathon.  When I saw the first marathoner, seven minutes had elapsed.  I was 14 minutes ahead.  Over one minute per mile.  Pretty hard to make up.  Barring disaster, it looked like I had this one.

The river crossing was a lot more busy this time around with people coming the other way, so I wasn't able to use the rope.  It was only waist-deep anyway, and hardly moving, so going around wasn't really an issue.  Heading up the big hill for the third time, I wasn't sure how long I'd last before I'd have to start walking.  Only one way to find out.

There were still quite a few people on this section of the trail, but much more spread-out.  Since the 30K and 50K routes had an extra loop that they had to tackle right in the middle of the race, that resulted in the runners all over different points of the course at all times.  That has the notable benefits of making it easier to pass and also means that there's always someone nearby on the trail, so it's hard to get lost.  The only downside (and this is nitpicking) is that it's hard to tell exactly how far ahead or behind someone is, or how well they're doing, when they did a different amount of mileage than you at some point on the course.  It doesn't matter really, but I'm curious by nature, and doing math about pacing and gaps gives my brain something to do during a long run.

After cresting the hill, I was noticeably having more trouble with the downhills.  Not a problem really, better to stay in control than risk anything.  When the course flattened out, I saw a few people riding horses.  I'm not sure if their "Howdy!" response to my typical "Mornin', y'all!" was meant to be humorous or if that's just how they talked.  One of 'em was wearing a cowboy hat, after all.  At one point, I got stuck behind a couple horses, and they were kind enough to move off the trail to let me by.  I just walked past; I had no interest in spooking a horse.

After hitting the aid station and turning around, I noticed I wasn't running "my" way.  It was much closer to a jog.  Considering this was one of the few flat spots on the course, I considered that unacceptable, even 19 miles into the race.  I picked it up and ran like a man.

Took on the hill for the fourth and final time.  Not having walked yet, I was resigned to make this a no-walk marathon.  Coming up from this side was a little shorter anyway, so I figured it should be do-able.  Concentrated on short, quick, even steps, like always, and didn't mind moving slowly, as long as I kept moving (walking would take twice as long).  On my way up, I saw two guys with marathon bibs on.  They were now 20 minutes back.

"Jesus Christ, man!"

They were actually looking really strong, running down the steep, technical hill with confidence.  Probably faster than I did.  In no way were they having a bad day.  Still, with a 20-minute gap, they would need to make up nearly four minutes per mile at this point to catch me.  Not happening.

Managed to get up the last big hill without walking.  Nice!  Had this race taken place a few months ago, I'm not sure it would've worked out that way.  More and more, I can count on finishing these trail runs without walking.  Which is probably my greatest strength.  I'm not that fast really, and I often get caught on a descent.  But I keep moving, no matter what the Earth has to say about it.

Coming down the hill again, for the first time in over a year, I had that feeling I used to get with my old, half-a-size-too-small (but damn sexy) racing shoes.  Where towards the end of the race, it feels like my big toenails are getting shoved backwards into my toe.  In a few cases, that resulted in toenails going entirely black and very nearly falling off.  I still hung onto those shoes for a while though, because I always ran so fast in them, and, well, they were sexy! (I like bright-colored running shoes).  I think that big toe effect tended to happen when my form got sloppy at the end of a race and I didn't roll through properly; I was just plopping my foot down over and over.  Luckily, this stopped when the downhill did.


I started smiling real big when I crossed the river for the last time.  By now, it was just getting fun.  Got out and trudged my soggy behind up the last big hill of the race.  Some parts of my thighs were now getting pretty irritated from running in wet shorts all day.  I wondered if I should've worn something more spandex-like or neoprene-y.  Like a pair of running shorts I have where the liner is more like boxer briefs, or almost like tri shorts...

Tri shorts!!!  Why the hell didn't I wear tri shorts?!?  Or even my whole friggin' tri suit??  If there was ever a time to do that (and some runners do all the time), this would be it.  Oh well.  Next time, I guess.

Of the last four miles, three of them are uphill.  Two of those three are a slow, mild incline, but 22 miles into a race, you feel that.  I actually did alright coming up the steep hill that kicked it off, but in the flatter section that went on for two miles, I was really feelin' it.  Almost wanted to stop and walk.  One thing that kept me going was seeing other folks on the course, either walking in the end of their half, or jogging easy, slow enough that I was still able to pass them, even as tired as I was.  If I'm still passing people, there's no way I'm so tired I need to stop.

The turn downhill thankfully came a little earlier than expected, though it still seemed to take forever to get there.  I'm not sure why, but not long after I turned downhill, I started getting light-headed.  My eyes had trouble focusing, my head just felt...weird...and my arms were tingling.  I think it might've just been that running easier caused a rush of blood from my legs to my head.  Or something.

"You know," I thought to myself, "Maybe it'd be OK to just jog easy to the finish."

The first time around, I was able to charge down the hill, but I didn't see how that was necessary this time.  A first-place finish and a course record were completely assured, even if I walked it in.  But I still wanted to finish this thing without walking, and I figured with only one mile to go, all downhill, a light jog would be just as easy and would get me there faster.  Even at my deliberately slowed pace, I still managed to pass a guy.  Crossed the line to applause from a bigger crowd than normal and sat down for a while.

The second-place finisher turned out to be the guy who previously held the course record.  For the race, he had three goals: beat his old time, break four hours, and defend his title.  Hated to make him only succeed in two.  He was a great sport though, and a really nice guy.  He managed to find the only beer in the cooler, probably left there by accident (this park didn't allow public drinking), and shared it with me and the third-place finisher.  I looked around for Pat since I wanted to congratulate him (he wound up winning the 30K), but it looked like he'd gone home already.  Somehow, it seemed like a lot of the race organizers had heard about my performance at San Francisco the previous weekend.

In the end, I wound up breaking the course record by 40 minutes.  Not bad!  Was a pretty challenging course, but again, a fun and unique one, with the killer hill you have to conquer repeatedly and the river crossings to make it interesting.  That guy certainly could've chosen an easier course to try and break four hours...

I should also mention that there was a group of at least a dozen 12-14-year-old girls all wearing lavender, doing the half marathon.  I never got the whole story, but they're apparently all from Milwaukee, WI, in town to do this thing together.  I guess they were a cross-country team and wanted to toughen up for next season?  After running 13.1 miles on this kind of terrain, a flat 5K would seem like nothing.

So the end result of The Gauntlet: Four marathons in four weekends, two outright wins (both course records), a second-place finish to an Olympic marathoner (by only five minutes), my fastest trail run ever, and my fastest marathon ever.  I have seized the month of June and throttled it.

I think next weekend, I'll do a nice, long, moderately-difficult bike ride.