Sunday, September 29, 2013

Berlin Marathon

The Berlin Marathon could hardly be more contrary to most races I do.  It's paved.  It's flat.  It's fast.  The world record is often set there.  It's held in a city of 3.5 million people.  There are 40,000 participants.  And my chance of winning was worse than a new college graduate in the job market.

I landed in Berlin on Friday, two days before the race.  I went to the race expo later that day, then watched the speed-skating marathon, particularly to cheer on the always lovely Luise.  She broke her own PR!  And the world record for a skating marathon was set in that race, breaking the one-hour barrier for the first time.  I think it's pretty cool that Luise will always get to say she was a part of the race where they beat 1:00 for the first time.

After two days of doing marathon-related activities, I felt mentally prepared, even in a foreign country where I don't speak the language, running an event that's very different from my normal one.  And I hadn't even adjusted to the nine-hour time zone difference, about as big as it could possibly get.  But still, I felt ready.

One notable thing - you get next to nothing in your race bag at the Berlin Marathon.  Not even a T-shirt.

I woke up early on race morning and took the train into downtown, where the race would start.  It was cold.  I piled on some clothes and tried to stay warm.  Just as we arrived, the sun came out.  Made a huge difference.  I said good-bye to Luise and walked into the athlete's area, almost immediately heading to the line for the port-o-potty.  And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Why are there never enough of these?  Do they ever learn?

10 minutes before the gun, with still at least 15 minutes before I'd finally get to pee, I got out of line and dropped my clothes off, then headed over to the start area.  Turned out to be a lot farther away than I thought.  In one area of the park, there was a row of bushes and a lot of men turned towards it.  Well, if I'd known that was there in the first place...
20 seconds later, I resumed walking.

I could hear pre-race announcements winding down and knew the start couldn't be far away.  I looked at my watch.  No more than a minute or two.  I still couldn't even see the start line.  I started seeing signs pointing people to their starting blocks.  G, then 20 seconds later, F...  I was in B, the second-fastest.  If I was going to make it, I'd have to run.

I was incredibly thankful I was going to be in starting block B, because I had a goal of breaking 2:40 for this race.  I knew it would be difficult, improving my previous best by almost four minutes, and maintaining an average pace of 6:06/mile.  If you had mentioned that to me half a year ago, I would've said it was impossible.  But after running a 2:44 in San Francisco, a much tougher course, and after a couple surprisingly fast training runs in the past couple weeks, I was believing.  It would just take an error-free race: no bathroom stops, solid pacing, and I can't get stuck behind slow runners at the start.  Starting in block B took care of one of those, but I was now in danger of missing out on that.  I ran faster.

I had logged probably over half a mile before I made it to the start area.  When I got there, the race was already underway.  Rather than go back around and get behind the very slowest runners, I squeezed through a hole in the fence right in front of the start.  A guard nearby noticed, and when he saw my bib with "Block B" written on it, he even helped me.  I jumped into the crowd, hit the start button on my watch, and took off as best I could.  I was walled in behind slower runners, but they weren't too terribly bad.  I looked around at other bibs and saw the letter 'D'.  Could be a lot worse.

Since I didn't have any time before the race to stand still and get my watch to get a satellite reading, it didn't work right away.  I kept letting it search for a signal, but it's very hard to lock on your location when you're moving.  After 10 km, I gave up.  I didn't even have my time, since it won't record anything without a signal.  For the remainder of the race, I just went based off of time-of-day, since I knew when gun time was.  But since I jumped in after the gun, I had no idea what the difference was between my chip time and gun time.  I guessed about one minute, even though I thought it was more, just to be safe.

For at least the first five kilometers, I spent at least as much time on sidewalks and medians as I did in the street.  There were so many people and there was rarely a good way to get around them.  Not only was I losing time by getting stuck running something slower than my pace, but I was probably adding extra mileage by weaving back and forth, and burning out juice by surging ahead when I could.  Still, I felt like this was my best option.  I couldn't afford to get too far behind early on, and if I didn't find a way to get around these people, I'd only spend more time stuck behind them.  I needed to get around them ASAP.

Things got a little better as the D's slowly turned to C's, and by the 10 km mark, I was able to run normally most of the time.  I was still passing almost everyone I saw, but slowly.  My strategy, most of the time, was to get behind a small pack, follow them for a little while, then surge ahead to the next one.  Follow them, then once my legs recover from the last pseudo-sprint, run ahead again.  Repeat.  I kept my eye on my watch.  If I wanted to break 2:40, I would have to run each kilometer in just under four minutes.

At the halfway mark, I noted my time.  I was almost perfectly on pace.  That might be good news, only you usually slow down in the second half.  Of course, in my most recent road marathon, the opposite happened.  And maybe in this one, there was a major difference since I was stuck at a slower pace during so much of the first half.  I kept my hopes up.  It was still possible, maybe even probable, but certainly wouldn't be easy.  Just then, my stomach started acting up.

As I approached kilometer 27, where I had planned to grab one of the free gels being handed out, my stomach was hurting enough that I debated whether I should even take it or not.  Aside from my bite-sized pack of peanut butter, which I also had second thoughts about, it would be my only sustenance the entire race.  But I knew that if I stopped for a toilet, I could probably kiss 2:40 good-bye.  I took it anyway, and the peanut butter too.  If I didn't, I'd probably burn out in the last half-hour.  We're going to have to take some chances to make it happen.

But by 31 km, though I was still dead-on pace, I stopped for the toilet.  My stomach was starting to affect my running, and if I didn't stop now, I wouldn't have enough time to make up for the time lost in the toilet.  It was now or never.  I wanted to make it a 20-second stop, but it, um, just kept coming.  Good news to get it all taken care of at once, but I was losing time.  In the end, I spent at least a full minute in there, and probably more.  I got out and immediately started passing loads of people again, just after I'd gotten to the point that I wasn't anymore.  I looked at my watch.  2:40 was still technically possible, but might realistically be out-of-reach.  But hot damn, I was flying now...

At one of the many musical spots on the course, a family had set up a canopy tent and some big speakers.  They were playing a great song by Boston.  My head started bobbing.  My feet moved a little faster.  A grin spread across my face as the riff led into the chorus.  Though there was a chance I would irritate every runner nearby, and quickly label myself a foreigner, I burst into song:

"It's more than a feeeliinnn'..."

The guy three meters in front of me, in a red shirt and a backwards hat, turned his head halfway around, a big smile on his face, and sang the backup part: "More than a feeeeliinnn'!"

I smiled bigger and launched into the next line: "When I hear that old song they used-ta plaaayee-aaaayy!!"
Just about then, I caught up with him.  He was Jeff, from Boston, and obviously a solid runner.  I told him about my Boston experience, and how I thought folks from Boston were pretty cool.

"Yeah, the whole city gives you the rock star treatment all weekend when they find out you're running the race," I recounted.  "About 50 Red Sox fans gave me a standing ovation in the subway tunnel, and once I got on, the whole car got up to give me a seat."

"Oh, that bullshit, man!!" he responded.  "When I ran New York, I took a three-hour train ride home, and not one New Yorker gave me their seat.  I had to stand up for three hours after the marathon."

I told him I was trying to break 2:40.  He consulted his watch.
"I think you're gonna have to run 6:00 miles from here on out to make that happen."
"Well, I know I can run that fast, but will I?"  There was still about nine km to go.
"I mean, if you wanna go for it..."
"I'm not gonna make any strong decision.  I'm just gonna run as best I can.  If it happens, that's great, and if it doesn't, that's OK."
"Alright, that sounds good."

He didn't say anything else after that, but he noticeably picked up his pace.  While I was about to pass him earlier, I was now having trouble keeping up with him.  He stayed about a stride ahead of me, and every now and then, flicked his head back to see if I was there.  It finally dawned on me: he's trying to pull me to my goal.  My heart warmed.  Here's a guy who was already running a great race, was perfectly happy with the pace he was holding 80% of the way through, and he's changing his strategy to help a stranger reach his goal.

Friends and neighbors, that is why you sign up for races.  That's what makes the $100+ registration worth it.  And that's what long-distance running is all about.

I picked up my pace and stuck with Jeff.  His watch beeped.
"We just did that last mile in 5:54."
I'd noticed we were moving a little faster, but it hadn't taken a toll on my legs just yet.  "Damn, man, we're cookin'!"
"Yeah, well...yeah!"  He responded like it was just something we needed to do.  He kept running.  I kept up.  I figured if I broke 2:40, I was going to give Jeff the biggest, sweatiest hug in recorded history at the finish line.

At about the 37 km mark, though, Jeff just got away from me.  I could no longer hold the pace he was at, the pace that would be necessary to break 2:40.  In the last 4 km, each step got worse.  My legs burned.  My abs ached.  And I was just running out of energy.  For the first time in the race, a few people passed me.  My pace sagged more.

With 2 km to go, I looked at my watch one last time.  It was clear that I wasn't going to make it.  I stopped worrying about running fast and tried to run strong and manage to enjoy it.  I only kind of did.  I kept counting off the minutes until I'd be done.  I looked around at the thick crowds cheering us on.  I wished I could manage a smile and a better performance for them.

After a ton of turns in the last couple km, the course straightened out and I ran through the Brandenburg Gate to the finish.  I didn't bother sprinting for the end; didn't see a point.  I must not have looked well, because a volunteer immediately rushed over to me and asked, "Are you OK?"
I managed a weak half-smile and a thumbs-up, then muttered, "Yeah."  I kept walking.  I noticed they didn't do that for any other finishers.

Only about 10 seconds later, I saw Jeff.  He must've waited right there for a couple minutes just to see how I'd finish.  Hadn't gone well for me since I saw him, but I smiled when I did.  Turned out he was going to Oktoberfest with his girlfriend too, only they were taking trains, not bikes.  And they were going on a different day.  Shame.  I woulda bought him a beer.

A banana and an alcohol-free beer later, I was feeling right as rain again.  I danced through part of the athlete's area, then went back and got another alcohol-free beer to bring to Luise.  Took a train back to her place, showered, and finished the day with a couple beers, roast beef pizza, and surprisingly good chicken nachos.

My gun time was 2:43:00, which means my real time was probably somewhere around 2:42.  So I missed out on my goal, but still set a PR, and I'm pretty happy with that.  Overall, the race went well.  I did catch myself playing a lot of what-if, like what if I'd started on time and didn't get stuck behind so many at the start, what if I'd been able to properly draft off people going my pace for the entire race, what if I'd gotten a port-o-potty before the race and managed to do #2, thereby eliminating my toilet break?  But I don't like what-iffing; anyone can what-if.  My finish time is 2:42 or so, and that's that.

But my chip time?  That's where it gets interesting.

Apparently my chip didn't work properly at the start, and for some reason, instead of just using the gun time as my start time, it assumed I started 16 minutes after the gun.  Officially, my chip time is an astounding 2:26:36!  That's good enough to get on the Olympic team in some countries.  Somewhere in the books, it's on record that I'm that good.  I know I'm not, but it's kinda cool just to see that number next to your name, I guess.

With my results, official, imagined, or otherwise, I'm generally satisfied.  Hard to be upset with your fastest race ever.  And the rest of my trip; bikes, beer, and bratwurst, was an awesome time.  Exceedingly glad I went.  And I've knocked off my second of the six major marathons.  I'll probably never do all of them.

And Jeff, if you ever read this, thanks again.  This maß is for you.  Prosit!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Second Gauntlet - A Look Back

I guess I never really did a retrospective on the Second Gauntlet after its last race.  Might as well take a look at all of them.

Wildwood Trail Marathon:  Held in Forest Park in Portland, OR, kind of had to travel for this one.  Posted my fastest trail marathon ever, breaking 3:00 by about a minute and a half.  Also managed to beat one Chuck Engle, who had previously beaten me at my first-ever trail run.

San Francisco 50-Mile Endurance Run:  In the Marin Headlands just across the Golden Gate Bridge, a very hilly course.  50 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing.  I signed up for it just to see what would happen, and wouldn't you know it, I wound up winning.  Possibly the hardest thing I've ever done, and one of my proudest accomplishments.

Crystal Springs Trail 50k:  Held on "The Peninsula," just outside of Woodside, CA.  Two long, tough hills, one of them right in the middle of the race.  Other than that, a pretty fast course with lots of tree cover and singletrack.  A sub-4:00 50k and another win, putting me at 3-for-3 so far on the Second Gauntlet.  Had I run the marathon, I would've been destroyed by one Oliver Bear Don't Walk.

Cinerella Trail 50k:  In the wooded hills east of Oakland.  My nemesis.  Was looking for revenge after last time, when I got lost twice, crashed at the end, and got passed with less than a mile to go.  Instead, I stayed on course, but crashed even harder, slipping from 1st to 5th in the last four miles, and finishing 45 minutes out of first place.  This course just has it in for me.

Hood-to-Coast Relay:  A 200-mile relay race from Mt. Hood to Seaside, OR.  I was part of a 12-man team made up entirely of Googlers.  We covered 200 miles in 19:30, averaging over 10 mph, or better than a 6:00 mile!  Finished 3rd overall, Google's highest finish ever, in the largest and one of the most prestigious relay races in the world.  As far as my personal performance went, I held my own on a very good team.

So aside from Cinderella, I'd say it went about as well as could be expected.  Of the four personal events, I won three of them, setting course records at all three.  And the relay, while we didn't win, we did do better than our team ever had before.  And I might add that it was a blast.

But I was also a little relieved when it was all over.  I might avoid doing races on five consecutive weekends again.  And to think earlier this year, I was telling myself I'd never so much as race two weekends in a row...

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Coastal 50k Trail Run

Since this was a point-to-point race, that meant we had to take a shuttle from the finish to the start.  And that meant you had to show up by 6:30.  And since the finish was an hour away, that meant I had to wake up pretty early.

I kept a sharp eye on the weather the day before.  Was supposed to rain today.  Last I saw, there was a 10% chance of rain at gun time, but that jumped to a 50% chance around 10:00.
"That's not too bad," I thought.  "So that means it most likely won't rain at all until halfway through the race, and even then, it's only a 50/50 chance."  Still, that meant that there were at least two hours that I'd have a 50/50 chance of rain, so I basically counted on running in the rain at some point, and running in soggy clothes and a wet trail even more.  That might constitute a change of wardrobe.

The night before the race, I agonized over what to wear.  I was strongly considering triathlon clothes, or at least a triathlon jersey, since they're designed to be wet.  I eventually decided on my lightest running shirt and shorts, even though it would be cool and wet out, just because I figured they'd be good at shedding moisture.  I switched back to synthetic socks from wool ones.  I'd originally used the synthetic socks since they're the lightest ones I have, but switched to the wool ones since they compress my arch better, add a touch more padding, and barely weigh any more.  But this time, I went with the ones that I thought would be best when completely soaked.

The shoes, though, I agonized over those.  I've just gotten new ones, which are just a touch heavier and more cushy than my old ones, which still have a race or two left in them, if I really want.  The old ones probably wouldn't absorb so much water, making them much lighter, but I decided on the new ones, if only because I thought they'd get better traction on wet trails.

It was still dark when I arrived at Rodeo Beach.  I climbed onto the bus only about two minutes before it left.  The young woman on my right stayed silent the entire 45-minute ride, but the middle-aged guy behind me talked boisterously the entire time, raising to a shout here and there.  Sure, he was in a good mood and trying to get everyone to join him, but it was a little too early in the morning for that, at least for me.  Something in between would've been ideal; an engaging, but reserved conversation.

I barely even drive, and ride in someone else's car even less often.  Riding on a bus can make me queasy.  And when it's 45 minutes over the hills, up-and-down, left-and-right, fast-and-slow, that just doesn't go too well.  About 30 minutes into the ride, I would've rather been running over the hills.  I was very thankful to get off the bus and onto solid ground in the fresh air.  I walked to the beach and watched the waves for a few minutes.

It was still chilly outside, so I waited until the last minute to ditch my warm-ups and put them in a drop bag.  I took a last look at the elevation profile.  Not only did it look different than the one on the website, but the distances to the summits were different too.  And aid stations were the same though.  I'd basically have to ignore everything written on my left hand.

This race was kind of unique in that it is the only race Coastal Trail Runs puts on that is only one distance.  Big Basin is kinda close, just marathon and 50k, but this one is a 50k only.  All 92 people in attendance were going for the long haul.  Normally, there will only be 40-50 people doing the 50k at any given race.  This was twice as many.  And there was no one there just trying to make it through a 10k.  Serious runners, all of us, or at least very determined ones.

After we had all lined up, just before the gun, it started raining.  Already.  This might not be an easy day.  A short description of the route, since there was only one.  3-2-1, go.  Right away, a few guys got in front of me.  No worries, it's a long race.  I stayed with them, for the most part.

The first three miles of the race are all uphill, and by far, it's the biggest hill of the race.  It honestly didn't seem too bad though; a few staircase sections, but no part of it felt like a tough grind-it-out.  I wound up passing people until I was in second place, and within view of first.  Difficult running though, since the trail was muddy and very technical.  Tons of roots and rocks, all of them slippery.  And the course was in full tree cover.  I laughed to myself.  To think that I'd gotten a new running shirt for warm weather and sunshine, mostly for this race and Diablo.  Instead, Diablo got postponed to a weekend I can't go, and this race turns out to be cool, overcast, and raining.

Though I was doing pretty well all through the first section, the ladder caught me off-guard.  Yes, a ladder.  Haven't seen that one before.

After the first three miles, the course more or less flattened out and got a little less technical.  Was finally able to really get in a groove.  Was still feeling great when I arrived at the first aid station, almost six miles in, even though I'd only climbed and held even until then.  Just downed one quick sports drink and kept moving.  The rain had let up to barely a sprinkle, and the trail was now well-packed dirt, almost entirely dry.  Great running surface.

The guy behind me in red, who had already demonstrated his descending ability on a short downhill a while back, absolutely obliterated me as the course plunged.  Could hardly believe how fast he was moving.  A few mountain bikers just barely passed us.
"Holy crap, you guys are flying!"
"Well, it's downhill."
"Are you professional runners?"
I had to laugh at that one.  "No."
The guy out in front though, I haven't seen him for a while.  It's possible he's sponsored, which means he gets a whopping few pairs of shoes per year.  A $200 value in exchange for training something like 500 hours.  What a deal!

I hadn't seen the guy behind me in quite a while, and I assumed that the guy in front just wouldn't be caught.  At this point, I figured it was a race for second place between me and Red Descent.  Sure, he was ahead of me now, but I just figured he'd wear down and I'd take him on an uphill late in the race, what tends to be my forte.

I arrived at the second aid station and downed a mouthful of food and a little sports drink.  While I did, the guy in third, a white shirt with a hydration pack, passed me.  Didn't stop at the aid station at all.  Sure, he has water on him, but I hoped that the lack of food might come back to haunt him later.  Then again, anyone doing this well 11 miles into a race generally knows what they're doing.

The rain had lightened up to barely a sprinkle, but not long after leaving the aid station, it picked up to a heavy shower.  I kept looking up the hill at the white shirt.  He showed no signs of weakness.  Dammit.  He wasn't going to be easy to catch.

The stretch of trail between Muir Beach and Tennessee Valley has become a favorite lately.  Couldn't fully enjoy it this time, though.  Not only was visibility limited, but you couldn't look to your right, out towards the gorgeous coastline.  The wind was coming in strong from there, driving the rain sideways, making me keep my head down and to the left.  The hill coming away from the shoreline had barely registered on the elevation profile, but it did a number on me.  A long staircase, followed by a long, steep uphill.  I figured that of the three people ahead of me, at least one walked this section.  If I was going to make up anything on them, now was the time.

I still had my sense of direction, and coming away from the ocean, something didn't seem right.  I thought I was supposed to head east, but I kept heading north.  For a LONG time.  To the point that I thought I might be doubling back on a section of trail I'd already done.  Or maybe Coastal Trail Runs failed to take down old ribbons, and I was following an old course?  They couldn't be that sloppy, though, they never have been before.  Every time I found a hiker, which were few and far between, I asked if they'd seen other runners with numbers on them.  Every single one said yes.

One particular intersection managed to puzzle me though, and I stayed put for about 30 seconds while I debated which way to go, or turning around.  A nearby sign said that if I followed the ribbons, I'd be heading towards Muir Beach and away from Tennessee Valley.  I'd just come from Muir Beach, and the next aid station was supposed to be Tennessee Valley.  Was I going the wrong way?  Then I looked at the mileage, and then at my watch.  I was supposed to still have almost three miles to Tennessee Valley, and if I went the way the sign said, it would be only one.  Now it makes more sense.  I'm just taking the long way.

Still, I gave 30 seconds away.  I probably wouldn't win or lose by 30 seconds, but then again, the San Francisco 100 Miler came down to eight seconds.  You never know.

I kept telling myself that even though I was in fourth now, I'd make that up.  Sooner or later, someone would get tired, and I'd pass them going up a hill.  But then again, I was on a hill now, and they were still ahead of me.  They'd only get farther ahead as we go down this hill.  And the race starts and ends at sea level; for every uphill that I have a chance of gaining on them, there's a downhill where they'll get away from me.  I tried not to worry about it.  Just run your race.

I made it to Tennessee Valley just as the rain kicked up to a strong shower again.  Seriously, Coastal Trail Runs is in love with Tennessee Valley!  This was the tenth time I've been at an aid station in the same spot, in less than a year.
"What do you need?"
"Pink drink!"  I grabbed one of the small cups and gulped it down.  As I was refilling it, "Can you believe this crap?"
"I know!"
"And I bet this is someone's first trail run.  I hope they don't hate it after this."
They informed me that a few people were running their first 50k.  That's not so much what I was worried about; If you've run a trail marathon, you can picture that a trail 50k is the same, but longer.  But if you'd never done a trail run before and this was your first, you might think that getting off pavement is always this bad.

I left the aid station and headed up the long, grueling hill out of Tennessee Valley for what seemed like the 80,000th time.  Luckily, the wind was behind me at this point.  The rain backed off to a light sprinkle again, and I looked to my left.  A clear view of Sausalito.  Maybe the rain was about done!  I kept plugging up the hill, until the trail curved a bit.  I looked ahead, then to the right, where the wind was coming from.  Darker skies.  No, it's probably not done.

The rain picked up steam again just about as I started down the hill.  I felt tight, in my thighs and especially my lower back.  It was like I couldn't get things going right.  I passed a certain curve with a tree nearby and flashes of the San Francisco 50-Miler came back to me, most notably being challenged going the other way.  I looked around.  Aside from the rain, the weather was very comparable.  Overcast, same temperature, clouds covering the tops of the hills.  Major difference was that I was all wet and so was the trail.

Heading down the hill, I saw another runner coming up.  He had long sleeves and a visor, and looked very strong coming up a hill like that.
"What race is this?"
"It's a 50k!"
"Go get it, man!"
I don't know why, but his very simple comment lit a fire in me.  I hadn't transitioned to a downhill gait yet, and I was still just plodding along, not using the downhill to my advantage.  I changed my cadence and stride and instantly opened it up.  I was moving a lot faster now, like I should have been all along.  I was running like a man.

The downhill bottomed out and I ran on flat ground.  At some point, I came to a split in the trail.  It was obvious which way to go right now, but it also looked like we'd be coming back to this point, going the other way.  I made the turn, and about a quarter mile later, found the quick turn-off to the aid station.  It had stopped raining.

The aid station's canopy tent was a sad, crumpled mess.  The table was out in the open, with nothing on it.  Approaching, it seemed like no one was there.  Suddenly, a volunteer practically materialized near a car.
"What do you need?"
I was taken aback by both the despondent scene and the sudden appearance of a human, seemingly from nowhere.  "Uh, pink drink, I guess."
She rushed over to the cooler, but I got there at about the same time and poured one for myself.
"I have stuff in the car!" she chimed, gesturing towards the car about 10 meters behind her.  Both the front and rear passenger's side doors were open.  I took a couple steps towards them and saw all the usual snacks laid out on the seats.
"Ohhhh, I see what you're doing."
"Yeah, I figured I'd get everything covered by something before it came down again."
I looked to the south.  It seemed to be lighter than the clouds to the north.  Since the wind was coming from there, I had high hopes.  The rain was just barely a light sprinkle again.  Maybe this was the tail end of it.  I grabbed an orange slice and headed out.

There were still over 10 miles to go, but I preferred to think that there were only two hills to go.  As it turned out, I was to turn a different way than I expected when leaving the aid station.  The ground stayed flat for a while, and slowly headed upwards, eventually turning into a full-fledged climb.

I felt like there was a small rock under the ball of my right foot.  I stopped and took off my shoe, knowing that I was risking having more grit stick to my wet socks as I tried to scrape something out.  Couldn't find anything.  I looked at the bottom of my foot.  Nothing there either.  Curiously, I'd worn a hole in the toe of the sock.  That's weird; these socks weren't showing any wear before.  I put the shoe back on and it felt exactly the same.  Oh, now I remember this feeling.  I'm getting a blister.

I knew we were headed for the windy singletrack ridge that I'd now done many times before.  No matter what the weather's been, there's always a strong wind up there, usually a cold one.  Reaching the point where I would turn onto it, I was happy to know that I was done climbing, but I braced myself for the wind.  I was about to be wet and cold.

Luckily, the rain backed off again, so I wasn't being pelted by stinging shards of liquid coming from the side.  Still, the wind was strong enough to push me off the trail if I didn't account for it.  I made an effort to lean into it and kept moving.  A couple times, I've been at this point and felt ridiculously fleet of foot, effortlessly bounding through this stretch of trail.  Not this time.  I wasn't on a death march, but this wasn't my best moment either.

I found a split in the trail and headed down.  This was the part of the course that was nothing but an out-and-back to the Golden Gate Bridge.  Suddenly, the heavens opened up in a downpour.  I was soaking wet already, and had been for hours, so I wasn't sure I even cared anymore.  Every time I thought the rain was almost, over, it would come back just as hard as ever.  By now, it was easier to give up hope.  I slogged down the hill and started seeing the guys ahead of me pass, coming back up the other way.  Each one was only about a minute apart.  Considering I was neck-and-neck with two of them for about ten miles, I somehow thought I wasn't that far behind.  Then I kept going down.  And down.  And down.

The trail spat me out onto pavement, and I went down some more.  It got to the point that I wasn't sure I was still on the course.  The Golden Gate Bridge, far below me not so long ago, now towered above me, and I was still going.  Did I miss a turn?  Did I just not see the canopy tent?  Where is that aid station?  I heard a shout and a whistle behind me.  I stopped in my tracks and turned around.  Had the aid station spotted me down the hill?  Was that them, telling me to come back up?  I stared at the hill  behind me and couldn't see anything.  Finally, I saw it: on the top of the hill, a guy waving his arms.  There were about six other runners on the ridge, clumped together.  He made a gesture like I should turn around.

The guys ahead of me were only three strong, and they weren't clumped together.  And I had huge doubts that there was a group of six people that close behind me.  He probably thought I was one of the guys in his running club, and I just got lost.  I started down the hill again.  Just to double-check, I asked the next cyclist I saw if he'd seen a canopy tent.  He said yes.

I finally made it to the aid station, well under the bridge (I did wind up running under the entire thing), and on a platform only about four meters raised from the water.  They really do make you run all the way down.  I figured I might as well jump in the ocean to make it official.  I looked at my watch.  Based on when I saw the guy in 3rd place, I was 15 minutes behind.  I'd have to gain almost three minutes per mile to catch him.  Basically impossible.

15 minutes...15 minutes...How on Earth were three guys that far ahead of me?!?  I've been beaten before, but usually by small margins, and usually by just one guy.  On one of the few occasions I got beat, it was by an Olympian, and only by five minutes.  Today, there were three teams as many people beating me, and all by at least three times as much.  Sure, I wasn't having my best day, but I wasn't having a horrible day either.  These guys were just that good, I guess.

I took my time at the aid station, knowing fourth place was all but assured.  Joked around with the volunteers a little bit.  Had some peanut m&m's.  More and more, I find myself trying to convince myself that peanut m&m's count as trail mix.  They don't.  But I eat them and tell myself they are.

I headed back up the hill in a slow jog.  The rain had not abated.  I kept telling myself that this was the last hill, and I might as well keep moving and get it done.  I finally realized that a hill this tough 27 miles into a race should really be killing me, but today, it wasn't.  I think I might not have truly pushed myself, since the conditions made it such that if you really tried to dig in and run hard, you just slipped.  So I had been holding back all day.  I wonder how those guys out front did it.

Mile 27 still kinda gets to me.  That's the point at which I finally realize that I've already run more than a marathon, and I'm still going.  At that point, I generally wonder what the hell I'm doing.  Isn't a marathon enough?!?

Not far from the top, I saw the next guy behind me coming down.  I looked at my watch.  At least 15 minutes.  So barring total disaster, there was no way to move up or down even one spot.  I kept up my methodical march up the hill.  Upon finally cresting it, I smiled.  I knew these trails.  From here on out, just four miles to the end, and it's all downhill and flat.  And the downhill is one of those perfect long, steady declines that makes running easy without making you have to work for your speed, or worse, hit the brakes.  Had this been the Golden Gate course, there would still be one tough, but short hill to go, but this one cut that out.  Two miles of downhill, two miles of flat.  That I can do.

In a good mood, I made it to the last aid station.  Same as the one I'd been at nine miles earlier.  Only 1.5 miles to go, all flat.  The rain had backed off to a sprinkle again.  Everything seemed to be getting better.  I didn't really need anything, but since I wasn't going to move up or down in the standings no matter what I do, why not slow down and enjoy it?  I hung out a little bit and ate snacks I didn't need, mostly because I was already thinking about recovery.  I was a little bullish on peanut m&m's again.  With my wet fingers, the colors rubbed off and dyed my hands.
"We got paper towels, if you wanna wipe that off..."
"You're acting like I give a crap."
She laughed.  "Yeah, I guess it's that kinda day, and that point in the race, huh?"

Leaving the aid station for the finish, I found that spot where much earlier, I figured we'd be running through again.  Finally, it dawned on me: I haven't run this distance, or anything even close to it, in a long time.  My last 50k was five weeks ago, and it didn't go very well.  I haven't even had a long training run since then.  In fact, I haven't even been running as much as normal; I've been biking more.  Kind of a strange thought.  I wonder if that made me better or worse.

I very happily found the road that leads to the finish, knowing there was only about a mile to go.  Just held on to my normal pace and finished it.  All three of the guys in front of me had finished this race, a very challenging course and in tough conditions, in under four hours.  Holy smokes.  I was modestly 24 minutes behind third place.  It had finally stopped raining entirely, and stayed that way.  Of course.  NOW it stops raining...

I had intended to head home soon, but didn't for whatever reason.  I dunno why.  As enticing as a warm shower, soft dry clothes, and a big comfy couch sounded, I hung out at the finish area for almost two hours.  I guess I just really like the folks at these races.  And the snacks at the finish area sure don't hurt.  It's really hard to leave anywhere that has all the food you want.

Overall, I'd say I'm happy with how I did.  I feel like I could've done better, but not 24 minutes better.  No amount of effort I could've summoned would've changed my result.  And considering the conditions, as well as the challenge of this course, it was a decent result.  A no-walk 50k on a day like this is pretty good all by itself.  And compared to the last 50k I did, which had about the same amount of climbing and much better conditions, but ended in disaster, this could be called a huge success.

Next week, the Berlin Marathon, followed by 10 days of biking through Bavaria during Oktoberfest.  Prosit!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Wine Tour, Day 3

Continued from Day 2

Another breakfast prepared by my host, which was...eggs and toast.  Funny coincidence.

Started the day off with a rough climb.  Vic had even advised against it, but it looked like it would be a scenic road, and it would cut at least five miles out of my day.  And I knew that I'd kind of just want to be done by the end of the day.  Glad I took it, because as much as the hill was a challenge, it was a gorgeous road to ride.  Still, it was a little worrisome that I was actually tired, in a very real way, only about an hour into the day.

I had figured the wind was likely to be the same: calm in the morning, from the west in the afternoon.  My general direction for the day was east, then south.  So at worst, I'd deal with cross wind, and at best, I might even get some tailwind early on.  Sounded pretty good.  But in a random southward section heading into Sonoma, a surprise: tailwind from the NORTH.

Oh hell yes!  About 2/3 of the day, including almost the entire second half, was heading south.  Was I about to have tailwind all day?!?  That would be sweet justice and a great ending to the tour.

Arriving in Sonoma, it was already warm.  I found a city park in the middle of town and figured there was probably a drinking fountain nearby.  I asked someone where to find one, so I could drink a whole water bottle, then refill it.  Instead, they handed me a full water bottle.  Thanks!

I didn't notice anything about the wind as I headed east to Napa.  Was supposed to be from my side anyway, so no worries.  On my tired legs, I made it over what were probably not very difficult hills, then got out of town, pointed south for the remaining 45 miles of the day.  The wind had shifted.  It was now from the south.

My heart dropped.

You've got to be kidding me.  After the last two days, and after teasing me this morning, I have to ride 45 miles into a headwind?!?  It was just unfair.  I stood there and stared down the road for a long while, just thinking ahead at what I'd have to go through.  It was like I didn't know what to do.  But then I managed to tell myself,
"The only way to have it be over is to start pedaling."

Though they weren't easy miles, they were very flat and the wind wasn't gusty (nor as strong as yesterday, only about 15 mph), so I was eventually able to get in a groove and just hang on, though it was slow and I was wearing down.  It almost came as a surprise when I arrived in Vallejo and only had to cross the bridge to make it onto the land mass that contained Berkeley, my final destination for the day.  Once across the bridge, I found a shady spot and had a quick lunch.  Got back on Freebird.  Only...30 miles to go?

Somehow, I had the notion that once I crossed the bridge, I'd be "almost there."  30 miles was still kind of a lot, especially when it involves headwind, and also possibly the toughest hill of the entire tour.  As I headed south, the road just kept going up-and-down, up-and-down.  I wasn't even close to the hilly part yet, and I was getting licked.  I kept looking at the map.  Maybe there was another way, without the hill?

Only a couple miles later, I made the decision.  No hill, and 15 miles shorter.  Yes, it was a wimp-out, but I didn't see how destroying my legs was going to get me in better shape.  Nor would it be fun.  I took a few back roads, some of which still had ridiculously steep hills, and found my way to Berkeley on an easier route.  It still wasn't easy, and still took quite a while, but I thankfully made it without bonking, or getting to the point that I hated everything.

Finished up in mid-afternoon, enough time to spend the rest of the day relaxing.  Overall, a good tour, though the end of each day could've gone a little better.  Glad I got to pack so light for this one.  I'm trying to remember how I ever did it on a fully-loaded Freebird, probably 20-30 pounds heavier.  I think that's the thing about bike touring and backpacking; you remember how fun it is, but tend to forget how hard it is.  But I like it more that way.  I'll take the good memories over the bad ones.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Wine Tour, Day 2

Continued from Day 1

Toast and eggs, thanks to Jon, and a slightly chilly start to the day.

I had originally planned on what was apparently a really boring road that parallels the main highway in the area, and on Jon's recommendation, took another road instead.  Much more quiet, much more scenic, a gently rolling, well-shaded road past endless vineyards (I would see a lot of those today).  Found myself in the small town of Healdsburg around 10:30 in the morning.  Jon had recommended getting lunch at a brewpub there, and noted that they brew some fantastic beers.  But they didn't open until 11:00, I wanted to try some wine at some point today (and adding beer on top of that wouldn't be smart), and I wanted to eat some of the food I packed, just to lighten my load.  And it was going to be a long day, so minimizing stops would be a good idea.

The final destination for the day was...Santa Rosa.  I was just making a gigantic loop all over wine country.  I had wanted to stay in Napa or Sonoma instead, but couldn't find a WarmShowers host at either one, so this is what my plan became.  And it would be over 100 miles of riding.  At least it was the flattest day of the three.

Heading out of Healdsburg, I turned to the southeast and eventually made my way up and over one of the only major hills of the day.  Should be all smooth and flat after this, and slightly downhill.  I stopped in Calistoga for a snack and moved onto the Silverado trail, a more bike-friendly road that parallels the main highway and has nice, wide shoulders.  Set my mind on easy riding.

While there were no real hills, the Silverado trail did have almost nonstop inclines and declines, being at the edge of the valley, snuggled up against the hills.  Had I stayed on the main highway, it would've been much flatter, but most likely a lot less pleasant, with all the traffic.  Even the Silverado Trail had much more traffic than I anticipated.  Probably a lot of folks from the San Francisco area that had the same idea I did for Labor Day weekend, only with a car.

In St. Helena, I stopped into a winery, Velo Vino, owned by the Clif family (yep, the same one as the granola bars).  They'd recently done an event at Google, and a co-worker told me they were nice people, had good wine, and were into biking, so they'd probably be interested in what I was doing.  I got the cheaper tasting, only three wines, but they slipped me a fourth.  Back on Freebird.  Whoo...glad I didn't have any more.  Doing that much riding gives you the tolerance of a three-year-old.  But it also makes you sober up quickly.  20 minutes later, it was like nothing had happened.

By the time I hit the city of Napa, I was already fairly worn out.  My legs were mostly going through the motions, but were able to keep going, for the most part.  Had to ride through the majority of the town, then climb over a tough hill to get out.  And now just 25 miles pointed west, and I'm back in Santa Rosa.

The wind had picked up, in a big way.  Probably about 20 mph, gusting to 25-30.  It had been completely still in the morning, and was barely noticeable in the early afternoon.  But now, it was a gale.  For the second day in a row, I had to fight strong headwind in the afternoon, after receiving no benefit early on.  It took hours.  And the fact that there were a solid amount of hills to climb didn't help.  Nor was I happy that I had to ride on busy roads from now on.  I kept seeing limos and couldn't figure out why.  It finally dawned on me that people actually do what I'm doing, but in limos.  I'd seen that a guided bike tour through wine country, basically what I'm doing, but on a smaller scale, costs in excess of $1,000.  Here I am doing it for free.  I don't even want to think about how much it costs in a limo.

In any case, the wind, the hills, the noise, the traffic, the fact that my legs were already near exhaustion from the previous 75 miles.  I was very unhappy for about three hours.  I may have screamed a few words that would disappoint my mother.

For the last five miles or so, I was lucky enough to be on a road that pointed due north.  Not that it put me in the tailwind, but a cross wind was manageable.  To think that I was grateful not for help, but for merely not-complete-misery.  Those last five miles turned out to be up a slow, steady incline, but it didn't even feel like it.  It felt like I was moving fast and easy.  Goodness, just imagine if I had tailwind...

I arrived at my hosts', outside of Santa Rosa on a ranch with horses.  They warmly welcomed me inside and immediately pointed me towards the shower.  Had a great home-cooked meal and talked with them for a while.  Vic had long been into cycling and was a professor at the nearby university.  Once or twice, he mentioned going to grad school in 1963.  He looked about my dad's age (63), but couldn't be if he was in grad school when my dad was in middle school.  He had to be at least ten years older.  Good for him!

Another evening of friendly hosts, good food, and a very comfortable bed to sleep on.  Hard to beat that.  Turning into a good tour, headwind notwithstanding.

To be concluded...