Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Comrades Marathon 2011

On Sunday I had the pleasure of running the Comrades Marathon (actually a 54-mile ultramarathon) in South Africa with 12,000 other runners. Yes, you read that right.  There's an ultramarathon with 12,000 runners. This is the worlds oldest (first run in 1921) and largest ultra, and the centerpiece of South African running culture.

All walks of South African life run this race - runners of all shapes, sizes, races, and ages.  Everyone who is a runner in South Africa aspires to run Comrades.  The question to runners here is not "have you run Comrades?" but rather "how many Comrades have you run?"  I had been talking about this race with my South African friend Gareth for at least a couple of years so it was exciting that he and I were finally running it.

The race this year started in the coastal city of Durban and ran up to the town of Pietermaritzburg.  I say ran "up", because this year the Comrades race was an "up" run.  Each year the race changes directions, so next year will be a "down" run that will start in Pietermaritzburg and finish in Durban.  And the "up" is not trivial.  For a road race there are some serious hills.  I had the chance to see the entire course the day before the race when we drove from Johannesburg, and not only did the distance seem long, but the hills looked tough.  There were long climbs, and even the "flat" sections were mostly undulating.

Comrades assigns different-colored bib number colors to runners for various situations, including:
  • Green = ten or more previous finishes
  • Green Stripes = twenty or more previous finishes (one runner was running the race for his 45th time!)
  • Blue = International runner (I wore a blue number)
  • Orange = back to back runs (i.e. ran last year, and running again this year)
  • Yellow = 9 finishes, going for a 10th
  • and probably others I am not aware of
As an international runner, many people saw my blue number throughout the day and asked where I was from, making me a bit of a celebrity.  The bib numbers, which runners wear on their front and back, also show which corral you started in and have the runner's name, which is nice so the spectators can cheer you on personally.

The Comrades race is approximately 95% South African runners, although the number of foreigners is increasing as the race starts to get more international attention (and now that the race offers some serious prize money also.)   The race only opened to black runners and women runners as recently as 1975.

The race started at 5:30am in the dark.  When I arrived the starting line was crowded, and a little chaotic.  All runners were required to be in their assigned corral at least 15 minutes before the start.  My qualifying marathon time (from the Napa marathon) put me in corral 'A' right near the start line.  I positioned myself towards the back of my corral so I wouldn't get sucked into a fast pace right at the start, as I've heard many runners like to charge out of the gate as if they were running a 10k race.

While we waited for the start the loudspeakers played the theme from Chariots of Fire for inspiration, and Shosholoza, an South African folk song which is the unofficial South African national anthem.  If you watched any of the 2010 World Cup you might have heard it. It's quite moving when the whole crowd is singing along.

The race began, and I ran a few of the first miles with Amy Sproston from Oregon whom I had last seen at Miwok.  Amy is in Africa for a work trip - she managed to sandwich running Comrades in between a week in Nairobi and a week in Sudan.  Amy got a lot of cheers "go lady!" "Good job lady!" There weren't that many other female runners up near the front where we were running.  After five miles Amy stopped for a bathroom break and I didn't see her again until the finish (where I learned that she had passed me near the end of the race when I stopped to use the bathroom myself, and she finished a few minutes ahead of me)

There were an amazing number of aid stations along the race course, one every 2km, or about every mile and a half.  The aid stations offered water, Energade, Pepsi (a controversial change this year from Coke), and sometimes some food - potatoes (which very salty), oranges, bananas.  It was more than usually offered at a road marathon, but less food than I'm used to at a (North American) trail ultra. Interestingly the drinks were given out not in paper cups, but in plastic sachets.  These are basically sealed plastic bags that hold about six ounces of liquid.  To open them you bite off a corner an squeeze the water into your mouth (it took me a moment to figure this out when I was handed my first one).  Sometimes if you're not careful they sort of explode all over you when you bite them open.  Also it sounds a little like a gunshot when you step on a full one.  Overall they're a good idea though, since you can grab a couple and easily carry them with you while you run and drink when you need to.

I ran with my camera, and am a little surprised it still works now considering the amount of water, Energade, and Gu I spilled on it during the race.

Have I mentioned the crowd support at this race?  There were spectators lined up along nearly the whole route cheering enthusiastically (and politely - I got called 'sir' quite a bit).  This is the sort of crowd support you only normally only see at a few big-city marathons.  Comrades is a social occasion for spectators.  The course passes through towns right in front of people's houses and many were making a day of it.  I ran past several BBQs (or as the South Africans would say, 'braais') and was tempted by the smells.  The race is broadcast on national television from start to finish, and a large portion of the country tunes in to watch at least a part of it.

Despite the uphill nature of this year's course, I found the early hills not so bad, especially after training in California.  The sun was strong once it came up, but there was a breeze and it didn't seem to get hot until the later stages of the race.

I passed the marathon (26.2mi) mark in 3:24.  I reached the halfway point of the race in exactly 3:30.

At Mile 38 I was passed by Bruce Fordyce, the King of Comrades.  Bruce is a legend in South African running who dominated the Comrades race with a string of victories in the 80s. He is to Comrades what Lance Armstrong is to the Tour de France.  Now in his 50s, he's still fit enough to usually finish with a silver medal (although he just missed doing so today.)

Despite a strong first half, I started to slow later, and I knew by six hours into the race that my initial goal of finishing under seven and a half hours for a silver was out of reach. At that point I'd have to average 8min/mile or better for the rest of the race, including running up Polly Shortts (the last of the five big hills).  Polly is not the longest hill in the race (it's just 2km long) or the steepest, but at Mile 48, with just 10k left to run, it's known to break many Comrades runners.  It's the equivalent of Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon.  By then my legs were feeling pretty shot. I did manage to run a lot of Polly Shortts, but I had definitely slowed down from my starting pace.  I found that all the pavement and the pounding had taken a toll by the end.

I happily crossed the finish line in 7:41:24 (567th place).

Link to GPS track

Link to online results

A pair of Russian twins won the women's race again, finishing first and second (they have dominated this race for the past several years)  American ultrarunner Kami Semick finished third, with Canadian-based Ellie Greenwood finishing 4th.  The men's winner was a Zimbabwean who had also won the previous two years.

The international runners tent at the end had food (an free beer!) and it was good to catch up and chat with some of the other foreign runners there that I knew.

And yet the day was not over yet for the vast majority of Comrades runners, most of whom were still out on the road.  Gareth finished a bit later, and then we stayed with his family and his fiancee Aileen to watch the rest of the finishers continue to roll in.  There is a hard cutoff of twelve hours at the finish line.  Amazingly more than half of the runners in Comrades typically finish during the last hour of the race. It's quite dramatic watching runners attempt to finish under the wire.  You see runners helping each other across the finish line, other runners crawling to get to the finish.  One runner literally rolled across the finish line with one second to spare to make the cutoff for the 11 hour medal. We stayed till the bitter end to watch the final 12 hr cutoff.

People have been asking me "What's next?"  I still have one more week in Africa before I return to the States, but after that will be a bit of a break.  I don't have any races planned for this summer.  Instead I'm eyeing a variety of other things - cycling, backpacking, maybe some adventure running in the mountains. Then in fall I'm thinking about some faster, shorter races, and may try to improve on my marathon PR (I'd love to run a sub-2:45). Don't worry, I'll continue to blog about my adventures, whatever nature they may take,

I'll probably be back to run Comrades again though.  It would be nice to try the Down Run, and of course, to get the silver medal also next time. :-)

I cannot thank Gareth's family enough for all the support they've provided to me during this trip.  Special thanks to Gareth's fiancée Aileen and his Dad Neil for crewing for us during the race.  (Neil himself has finished Comrades twice.)

Next:  On to Botswana!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Have Running Shoes, Will Travel

My passport will expire in three years and I still have several blank pages left.  This is a tragedy.  In fact, it's been a couple years since my last international trip, but happily the drought has come to an end.  Today I leave for a two-week trip to South Africa where I'll get to engage in my two favorite pastimes: running and travel.

More specifically, I'm heading to South Africa to take part in Comrades, the world's largest and oldest ultramarathon.  This year 19,000 runners will make the 56-mile (89km) journey on the road from Durban to Pietermaritzburg on May 29th.  This is a Bucket List race.  I'm told you're not considered a real runner in South Africa unless you have completed Comrades at least once.  Many do it over and over again - if you finish the race ten times they assign you a special green bib number, which is permanently yours forever after.

Not being South African, and never having taken part in Comrades before, I don't yet fully grasp the cultural significance of the race.  It's sort of their equivalent to the Boston Marathon, but plays a greater role in the national consciousness.

Comrades was first run in 1921 and was started as a way to commemorate the heroic soldiers who had fought in World War I.  The race is run point-to-point, and every year they switch direction.  Because one end is at sea level and the other end is at a significantly higher elevation inland, each year the race is commonly referred to as an "Up Run" or a "Down Run" (the down run presumably being faster but also more difficult on your quads if you haven't practiced a lot of downhill running.)  This year is an Up Year.

But the race is just a small part of my trip.  I've got a full itinerary for my two weeks and will be trying to pack as much as possible.  Between flying into and out of Johannesburg, the main highlights of my trip will be:
  1. Visiting Cape Town.  I've heard great things about this world-class city, and am excited to spend a few days there
  2. The Comrades Marathon
  3. Visiting my uncle and aunt in Botswana. (also gets me an additional stamp in my passport!)
  4. Gareth's bachelor party in Jo'burg.  Surviving the bachelor party weekend might be tougher than running Comrades.

A whirlwind trip for sure, but I'm looking forward to it.  No trip ever goes completely as planned, but that's part of the adventure.  Time to settle in for a long flight now, more soon...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Miwok 100k

This past weekend I ran the Miwok 100k Trail Race.  As far as I'm concerned there's hardly a better place to run than the Marin Headlands.  Unlike when I last ran this race two years ago, the weather was perfect and the views - of San Francisco, the Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, Mt Tam, Point Reyes - were stunning.  There were many moments during the run I regretted not carrying a camera.  I shouldn't worry though -- I'm lucky to be able to run here whenever I want.  In fact the start line is just a ten-minute drive from my apartment over the Golden Gate Bridge.

3-D view of the course

I had checked my training log the night before the race and realized that this race would be my longest run since I ran the Western States 100 nearly two years ago.  It would also be my last big training run leading up to Comrades at the end of the month.  I had decided not to taper for Miwok, since it wasn't my primary goal race.  This meant I wasn't as fresh going in as I might have been, but I thought it would be interesting to see how I'd do under the circumstances.

Elevation profile of Miwok course

After a very early morning check-in and some time chatting and mingling with friends, the race started on the beach at Rodeo Lagoon in the dark.  The first stretch requires a bit of a sprint from the start, since the course quickly funnels onto a narrow single track trail, and if you get caught in the back you can get stuck behind a lot of people (I think there were around 400 runners this year).  Of course over a 62-mile race you'll have plenty of time to regain whatever ground you lost though, so I'm not sure it's that big a deal.

Coming into the first aid station (photo by Randy Katz)
The course starts with a 7 mile loop that includes a run up Conzelman Road, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco in the distance, and a descent down the Coastal fire road  towards the start.  It was nice to be familiar with a lot of the trails from previous races and from my regular Thursday morning pre-dawn trail runs with my fellow Ninjas.  I ran with Joel Lanz for much of this first loop.  The pace was quick, but it didn't feel like much effort.  Once we made it back to Rodeo Beach Joel took off and I never saw him again until the turnaround coming up Randall Trail.  He'd go on to finish for than an hour ahead of me.  Maybe in our second head-to-head matchup I'll be able to give him more of a run for his money.

Climbing Coastal Trail (photo by Brett Rivers)

The course next climbed up from Rodeo Beach, over and down to Tennessee Valley,  then up to Coyote Ridge and down the eponymous Miwok Trail to Hwy 1 near Muir Woods.  Then the longest climb of the course starts up Deer Park Fire Road.  At this point I had just caught up to Victor Ballesteros.  Victor was coming back from injury, otherwise he'd likely have been much further ahead of me.  It was nice to have some company during this stretch (basically a 1,200 foot climb over less than three miles).  I stuck with Victor and managed to run the entire way.  Had I been alone I'm certain I would have walked at least some of it.  Victor was feeling a twinge in his calf and decided to drop later in the race.  I'm sorry he didn't have quite the race he was hoping for, but was glad I got to run with him for a while and I'm sure he'll be back strong soon.

Next I passed through the Pantoll aid station, where I stuffed my face with food and continued on my way.  The next section is rolling along a long, high ridge without any big climbs or descents.  This section has some great views of the Pacific, which are nice on a clear day like this one, but the trail is also on the side of a slangy hill and the footing is not very good.  It's also pretty overgrown in parts.  This was not my favorite section.

Departing Pantoll Aid station (photo by Brett Rivers)
At this point I was running with Stuart Short, who was doing the race for the first time and would go on to crush the race finishing in 11th place, but for the time being was content to just coast behind me.  After a while I realized there was another runner coming up quickly behind us.  I stole a look backwards and said to Stuart, "looks like we're about to get caught by Elvis."  Sure enough, a runner in a full-on Elvis costume was blazing along the trail.  As I stepped aside to let him pass he nimbly leapt over a log and with a word of thanks was on his way.  It was local phenom Ian Sharman.  Sadly, this is the third race in a row he has beaten me this year, and two of those times he's done so now while wearing a silly costume (you may remember he dressed as Spiderman when he beat me at the Napa Marathon in March, and set a world record in the process.)  He'll be running Comrades later this month too.  I can already predict he'll finish at least an hour ahead of me there (probably more, actually).  At any rate, it was good to see him having so much fun at Miwok, and I know his Elvis costume brought a lot of smiles to the volunteers, spectators, and other runners.

I reached the Bolinas Ridge aid station (mile 26.7) in a few minutes over four hours.  This was a low point for me during the race.  I was slowing down and my stomach was starting to feel a bit queasy.  I remember something similar happening to me at the exact same point in the race when I ran two years ago.  Must be some bad voodoo for me in that spot.  Nevertheless, keep moving forward, right?

I was about 31 miles into the race when the first lead runners came past me in the other direction - a tight pack running together comprised of Dave Mackey, Mike Wolfe, Hal Koerner, and Dakota Jones.  Very impressive to see.  The entire middle section of the race is a long out-and-back, so you get to see basically everyone else in the race at some point, which is fun and a good chance to say hi and offer some words of encouragement to friends when you see them.  It also meant I was getting close to the turnaround.  Soon I had reached the left hand turn down the Randall Trail to the turnaround point.  As I started down Nathan Yanko and Joel were just finishing the climb back up, still looking pretty fresh.

After the turnaround I started to feel better.  I got a nice push from Jimmy Dean Freeman and his pacer when they caught up to me just after my return visit to the Bolinas aid station.  Jimmy was putting out his usual energy and helping motivate everyone he came across on the course.  After running with me a couple miles Jimmy kicked up the pace, and he sped off after his sub-10hr finish goal, which he got achieved (and then some.)

Not too much notable happened for the rest of the race.  I continued to feel relatively good but saw few other runners.  I passed through Muir Beach, Pirates' Cove, Tennessee Valley (again), up and over to Rodeo Valley and the finish line by the YMCA.  I rolled in for a finish in 10hrs 8min (34th place) - a PR by more than half an hour.  Secretly I had been hoping to finish under 10 hours, but I'm not complaining.  I was happy just to have finished, and although I'm definitely still sore now a few days later, I feel like I'll be good to resume training and then tapering for Comrades, which is really my goal race for the first half of this year anyway.

When I run this one again I might try it with a pacer - I think that might help in the later miles.  I'd also focus on spending less time in aid stations - having a crew might help in this.  Doing a few more long runs in training and actually tapering for the race would probably help too.

Dave Mackey (who holds the course record for this race) got the win in 8:03, followed by Mike Wolfe, Hal, and Dakota not far behind.  Pam Smith won the women's race in 9:39, followed by Meghan Arbogast and Krissy Moehl (who just set a Grand Canyon R2R2R record with Devon a few weeks ago).  I was chatting with the women's fourth place finisher Amy Sproston after the race and learned that she'll be running Comrades later this month too.  Nice to know I'll have some American company there.

The rest of the day was spent hanging out at the finish, socializing and enjoying the post-race barbecue.  It was super cold and windy, but I got to see a few exciting finishes, including Clare Abram who finished just under 11hrs (10:59) and Larissa Polischuk just under 11 1/2hrs (11:29).  Congrats to everyone who finished on Saturday!

Thanks to race director Tia Bodington for putting on another quality event, and for maintaining the tradition of the Miwok Trail Ale beer for the finishers.

Complete finisher's results here:

GPS data from my watch:

Finally, someone shot this pretty cool video of the race leaders during the race, give it a watch here:

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

American River 50 Mile

About a month ago I ran the American River 50 Mile endurance run in Sacramento, CA.  Yeah, I've fallen behind in my blogging.  This will be just a quick post to record my running of this race for posterity.  In reality I'd chalk this one up as not one of my better races.  My time was ok, I just feel like I executed the race poorly.  I definitely felt much stronger during the first half of the race, and then fell apart during the second half.

I don't usually bonk during races, but it's been a while since I had raced a 50-miler, and I think I wasn't quite trained up that the distance on race day.  It's true that the second half of the race is harder.  AR50 is an unusual hybrid race -- the first half is on a paved bike path, and the second half mostly on singletrack trails.

I ended up running most of the first half with Jason Reed.  We crossed the marathon mark in 3:15, and I made it to 50k in exactly 4hrs (which would have been a 50k PR for me, had that been the end of the race)  Unfortunately just a few miles later I was feeling awful.  But so it goes sometimes.  Miles 31-41 are the most technical parts of the course and I was happy to be done with them.  There's also a somewhat nasty finish - after 47 miles of basically flat running you finish with a continuous 3-mile climb to the finish line, during which you gain 1,000 vertical feet in elevation.

I finished in 7:38 (39th place), which was technically still a PR for me, but I feel like on this course I should have been faster.  Maybe I'll have to come back and try it again someday.

Me finishing, via live webcast

Special thanks to Jesse Barragan who yelled to alert me I had made a wrong turn  (how does one make a wrong turn on this course?) and also to Ray Sanchez who provided some much-needed words of encouragement when he passed me towards the end of the race.

Sometimes having a bad race is a good learning experience and makes you appreciate the days that go well all that much more.  And it was still a beautiful day and I got to hang out with friends afterwards.  Oh, and the finishers' jackets were pretty sweet.

GPS data from my watch:

Complete results here:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Washington DC Weekend and Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Race

I spent the past weekend in Washington DC visiting friends and also ran the popular Cherry Blossom 10 Mile race. Spring is a great time to visit Washington, since the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the DC weather is neither as unbearably cold as in winter nor as unsufferably hot as in summer. It's a great place to visit, full of tons of historic, educational, and historic sites and attractions, many of which are free. I've been to DC before, so this time ended up doing a few touristy things (monuments, museums) balanced out with a few non-touristy things and catching up with friends.

My plan for the Cherry Blossom race was to just take it easy and have fun, and not care about my time. This was the first time I carried a camera during a race. I wanted to take many pictures as possible. Gareth and I decided we would run together, starting around 7min/mi pace and picking it up from there later in the race.

I learned quickly that photos you take while actually running come out as a blurry mess, so every time I saw a good photo opportunity I had to stop and try not to get in anybody's way. I'm sure many runners around me thought I was a real jerk as I stopped suddenly and stepped to the side to take a few photos while they kept running, and then sprinted back past them again several times during the race. Sorry other runners!

This was a great place to take pictures This is a truly scenic race, running past many of the most iconic monuments on the National Mall and gorgeous cherry blossom trees in full bloom. The weather coorperated fully on race morning this year, with temperatures in the 40s and clear skies. The course is fairly flat and fast, with a few out-and-back segments. It has possibly the biggest field for a 10-mile race anywhere (to be fair, 10 miles is not a super common race distance, but I think it should be - it strikes a nice middle ground between a 10k and a half marathon.) Fifteen thousand runners (!) ran this year. More would would have run too if they could have - like many popular races entry to the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile is now by lottery only. The race attracted runners from 49 states this year (c’mon North Dakota, get it together.) But even with such a large field the race didn't feel crowded, either before the start or after the finish.

The race was a fun experience, as was the whole weekend getaway. I'm sure I'll be back to visit DC again, and maybe even to run the Cherry Blossom race again (next time I'm going sub-60!)

The route from my Garmin GPS

Full race results here (the winner ran 45 minutes - wow!)

A few DC notes:

  • A visit to DC involves a lot of walking. Those monuments may look close together on the map, but the Mall is very long.
  • DC has an innovative bike-sharing program that you can join, similar to ZipCar.
  • I was staying within walking distance of the Dupont Circle, Adams-Morgan, and U Street neighborhoods, all of which seemed to have a lot to offer.
  • There is a cupcake bakery in Georgetown where customers line up for over two hours to buy cupcakes. This bakery has its own reality tv show on cable tv.
  • I developed an obsession with a falafel restaurant I read about in my guidebook. The menu has only three items: falafel sandwich, belgian fries, and brownies. On weekends the restaurant is open until 4am. Yes, this is the type of place you'd mostly go to for lare-night munchies after the bars close. For $5 I got a falafel sandwich that was so big I could not finish it.
  • DC seems to have a great running scene. I didn't get to do much running aside from the race, but I am told that there's a good network of trails in the area also.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Return to the Napa Valley Marathon

The Napa Valley Marathon was a breakout race for me last year, and I was hoping for some similar magic this time around, even though my training volume and fitness going into the race were not as high as before. In fact, looking back, despite hitting a couple weeks at 60mi/wk, I had been averaged only 40 miles per week in the three months leading up to the marathon. Definitely on the low site for a peak performance. On a positive note, however, I was healthy and rested going into the race.

What my training lacked in quantity it had been making up for in quality. Amongst other training I had been doing two weekly runs consistantly -- an early Thursday morning 12-mile loop in the Marin Headlands with a group of stealthy ultrarunning ninjas, and a long run on Saturdays at Sawyer Camp Trail with a group from the Palo Alto Run Club who were also training for Napa. Ideally I would have liked to have done more intervals and tempo runs leading up the the race, but overall I was satisfied with how the training had gone.

Gareth was back in town for the weekend visiting from DC to run the race, and while a recent injury had derailed his plans for a super-fast marathon he was still in good spirits and enjoying seeing many old friends. Ashish was running too; this would be his second marathon run barefoot. Christine had gotten a second hand bib number to use, so she was running too. With many other friends and training partners signed up too I was looking forward to a fun time in Napa for the weekend.

The check-in at the expo was mostly uneventful. Napa has continued the tradition of giving out high-quality duffel bags or backpacks (your choice) to the runners, which is some of the best race shwag I have seen. I ran into Scott Dunlap at the expo and had a chance to chat a bit about the upcoming race and other goings on. Scott was recovering from a bad cold and ended up not racing, but he also had plenty else to focus on - he and his wife welcomed their second child in the world a couple days later. Congrats Scott!

After a pre-race dinner of spaghetti and meatball (and beer) it was back to the Marriott for a good night's sleep. I woke at 4am to a steady rainfall. This was completely expected, as the forecast had been calling for it for several days. I wasn't particularly worried about the rain. I had run plenty of races in the rain before, and it's never seemed to affect my time very much. If anything, I feel I do better in the rain. It's certainly a lot easier than running when it's hot and sunny.

The race started at 7am, and I started at a steady, if somewhat fast pace. The leaders were quickly out of sight, including one runner dressed as Spider-Man. What, Spider-Man? Yes, that was local running sensation Ian Sharman, who just one month earlier had set a course record 12hrs 44min at the Roccy Raccoon 100 Mile, which was very nearly a world record time for a hundred mile race on trails. Today Ian was out to set another record entirely - the world record for the faster marathon by a runner dressed as a super hero. (I won't keep you in suspense - he got the record with a 2:40 finish.)

Starring Ian Sharman as Spider-Man

After the first few miles the crowds thinned out and I found myself running in a pack of five - myself, a Japanese runner, two women trying to run an Olympic Trials qualifying time (sub 2:46 pace), and Warren McAndrew - a runner who ironically I had just met the night before at dinner. Warren was the brother of one of a runner I knew from PARC; he had flown down from Seattle to run the race. We joked a little during the early miles that being from Seattle he must be used to running in the rain. Warren hadn't run a marathon in a few years, but he had finished several Ironman triathlons and seemed confident, and we seemed to be pretty evenly paced.

Photo by Eric and Ally Perkins

I was running faster than planned, but my choice was sticking with the group I was with or dropping back. At this point there was a fairly large gap behind me, and I knew that going it alone would be a lot harder, so I kept plowing ahead. We passed the half marathon mark at 1:22:50, about a minute faster than I had run that segment the previous year.

After we passed the halfway mark the rain started to die down but the wind started to pick up - a headwind - and became a nuisance for the rest of the race, slowing the pace down and making us work harder. I tried my best to tuck in behind other runners where I could to block the wind, taking occasional turns up front myself. By Mile 18 and 19 though our tight group had broken up, with the rest of the runners falling back and only Warren and I struggling on ahead. We attacked the small hill between miles 19-20 without slowing down too much. The next few miles are always tough - a long, flat straightaway during which I didn't feel like I was making any progress. My legs were starting to get tight too, and I could feel myself starting to slow down.

We made the right turn onto Oak Knoll Road - just three miles to go. Those three miles were a tough slog, and I spent a lot of time calculating in my head if I was still on pace to finish sub-2:50. My 2:49:41 finish came as a bit of a surprise, considering my lower expectations before the race. Afterward I enjoyed a complimentary massage, the free food, and the best part -- catching up with friends and swapping stories fom the race. Top it off with lunch afterwards, and you've got yourself the makings of a good weekend.

Warren and I at the finish (photo courtesy of MarathonFoto)

Detailed splits:

Mile 1 6:15 Mile 11 6:21 Mile 21 6:24
Mile 2 6:25 Mile 12 6:25 Mile 22 6:40
Mile 3 6:25 Mile 13 6:20 Mile 23 6:42
Mile 4 6:09 Mile 14 6:35 Mile 24 6:51
Mile 5 6:11 Mile 15 6:27 Mile 25 6:51
Mile 6 6:19 Mile 16 6:38 Mile 26 6:41 (+1:23 0.2mi)
Mile 7 6:16 Mile 17 6:36   -----
Mile 8 6:15 Mile 18 6:27 Total 2:49:41
Mile 9 6:18 Mile 19 6:32
Mile 10 6:25 Mile 20 6:32

Full race results here

Also of note -- this marathon saw a surprisingly large turnout of local ultrarunners, especially amongst the race leaders. Nathan Yanko ran an amazing 2:33 (3rd place). Ian Sharman (aka Spider-Man) finished 5th in 2:40. Bob Shebest 6th a few seconds later. 2009 Ultrarunner of the year Kami Semick in 2:49 (3rd woman, 17th overall) right in front of me. Brian Miller in 19th, finishing right after me. Erik Skaden and Graham Cooper, both also finishing sub-3 hours. Who says ultrarunners are slow?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Snowshoeing at Donner Pass

Unlike everyone else in the Bay Area, it seems, I'm not a skier, and I don't think I ever will be. Instead, my favorite winter activity for the past few years has been snowshoeing. I must be in good company too, since snowshoeing is reportedly the fastest growing winter sport.Now that I own my own pair of snowshoes I'm inclined to go more often, although it's sometimes hard to find time in my already busy weekends.

Since President's Day weekend was a holiday weekend for me, and since we had just had a strong storm roll through dropping several feet of fresh snow, I was determined to head up to mountains. My initial plan was to try to do a winter ascent of Mt. Lassen, but the conditions from the recent storm made the idea seem a little risky. Making it to the top and back in one day with having to break trail in deep powder seemed a bit too extreme, even for me. The Lassen visitor's center was closed in the days leading up to the weekend because of the storm so I wasn't able to get any current trail conditions, and I didn't even know if the road to the park had been plowed. I decided to shelve this plan and return to it at a later date.

My backup plan was to do some shorter snowshoeing around the Donner Pass area. I learned that Brent was also planning something similar, so we coordinated to head up together. His cousins' families had rented a nearby cabin where we would be able to spend the night, which worked out great. Brent and I had snowshoed near Donner pass before, on a trip to the Peter Grubb Hut and to Castle Peak. I wanted to try out a different hike on this trip so I picked a loop route on the ridge along the south side of Donner Lake. The entire loop was about 9 miles. Since we weren't able to start until the afternoon we knew we wouldn't be able to finish the whole route before it got too late, and planned to just go as far up along the ridge as we could reasonably get and then turn around and retrace our steps to get back the car before it got dark. We followed existing tracks up the ridge and saw only a few other snowshoers and a few adventureous snowboarders on the route. After a while the tracks ended and we had to start breaking the trail ourselves, which was hard work in the deep snow. Even with the snowshoes I'd sink down a foot or more into the snow with each step. This slowed our progress considerably. Soon we found ourselves in a dense thicket of trees which became more and more impenetrable the further we went. The trees made it difficult to continue, or even to tell which way to continue. That was about our turnaround time anyway, so we turned back the way we came. Although we had only been out a few hours, we were both wiped out for the rest of the day, and spent the evening refueling with pizza and watching the first DVD of 'The Wire' with Brent's cousins' families.

GPS Track of Day One here

On Monday we planned a shorter snowshoe hike before heading back to the Bay Area -- a short, but steep hike to the top of Donner Peak. Despite a few navigational difficulties (mine) we made it to the top, where I discovered I had cell phone reception after I got a call about rescheduling a physical therapy appointment. (Obligatory snarky iPhone remark: Funny how I often can't get AT&T service in San Francisco, but I can at the top of a mountain.) We called it a day after that and headed west on the 80 hoping to beat the rush of weekend traffic returning from Tahoe. We stopped long enough in Fairfax for some lunch. Since I can never pass up eating something exotic I had the yak burger, but I'm not sure I'd order it a second time.

GPS Track of Day Two here

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Snow, Mud, and Water on the Western States Trail

In 2009 I was lucky enough to run the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run as my first 100 mile race.  With ultrarunning and trail running in general exploding in popularity in recent years, and Western States being the oldest and arguably the most prestigious hundred mile event in the country, it's become harder and harder to get picked to run it.  I have friends who have dutifully, but often thus far unsuccessfully, entered the lottery every year hoping to get picked for their shot at running this race.  In most years 6-7 times more many runners apply than there are slots available, and while the number allowed to run is held constant by the forest service, the number of applicants keeps growing every year.

Although actually running the race is out of reach for most runners, either because of the distance or because of the low odds of being selected in the lottery, there's still plenty of opportunity to trail on and experience the trail itself.  The Western States  trail is a point-to-point course running through the California Sierra from Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe to Auburn, just East of Sacramento.  Every spring the race organization offers two formal opportunities to train on the course -- a one-day running of the final 20 miles of the route, and a three-day training camp over Memorial day weekend in which participants get to run on approximately 70% of the course.  These training runs are casual and informal, yet still offer transportation and a limited amount of aid stations along the way.

As we've done in previous years, Clare, Scott, Shane and I headed up to Auburn for the February training run, along with a couple hundred other enthusiasts.  A strong winter storm combined with an unusual cold snap had just passed through Northern California.  (There had even been talk that San Francisco might receive it's first measurable snowfall at sea level in 35 years, although that didn't seem to actually happen.)  What it did mean though, was epic conditions for our trail run.  When the bus dropped us off we got snowed on for the first two miles, then met with several miles of mud and knee-high stream crossings, and finished at the Auburn High School track in the rain.  I kept the run pretty mellow, just hoping to get a decent amount of miles in as I started my taper for the upcoming Napa Marathon.

GPS track here

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Indoor Winter Training at the Pettit Center

I frequently find myself back in Milwaukee visiting during winter, but running in Wisconsin during the winter can be dicey, between the cold and the possibility of treacherous, slippery ice.  I’m normally not one to shy away from running in harsh conditions, but what’s a runner to do when training for a marathon and you want to get a quality workout?

Closest I will ever get to the Olympics?

Local Wisconsin runners know to head to the Pettit National Ice Training Center, a US Olympic Training Center designed for speed skaters.  What makes this a good place to run is that the center has an indoor two-lane running/walking track around the outside of the skating area.  This is a great alternative when it’s below freezing outside, or the roads haven’t been plowed.  It’s still relatively chilly inside (this is a skating rink, after all) but it can be a lot more pleasant than the alternative.  The track is an odd distance (443 meters, or about 3.6 laps per mile) so I always end up doing a lot math while I’m there to figure out just how far and how fast I’m running.  There’s also a Zamboni crossing (!) on one of the straightaways.

On my latest visit to Wisconsin I needed to do my last long run building up to the upcoming Napa Marathon, so I planned a trip to the Pettit Center.  By my calculations my 23-mile run required 84 laps of the track, which sounds worse than it actually ended up being.  I had my iPod to keep me company and got to watch the skaters on the inside of the track during every lap.  I was pretty happy with my workout, and managed to keep all my laps in the range I was hoping for (1:52-1:54/lap)

I’ve heard they organize an indoor marathon on this track. I've never run it, but my biggest worry would be how crowded the track would get, since it’s only two lanes wide.  That would be almost 100 laps of calling out “on your left!”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon

I've run the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon more often than any other race I’ve done.  This year was my sixth (seventh?) time racing it.  I’ve always  liked it for many reasons:  it’s a fast course, it attracts a large crowd (10,000+ if you include the 5k) and so I see lots of friends, and it’s a good early-season gauge of my fitness level.  2010 had been somewhat frustrating;  although I had some successes (a new marathon PR) and some great memories (running with my brother during his first marathon) I spent much of the year sidelined by lingering running injuries that caused me to miss several planned races and adventures I had been excited about.  In the end I ran fewer than half the races I signed up (and paid) for last year because I was either injured or hadn’t been able to get in enough training due to injuries.  I am determined not to let this happen again in 2011.

So far the training is going well.  I am well into my training cycle for the Napa Valley Marathon in March (actually nearing the end of the cycle) and although I haven’t gotten my weekly mileage up quite to where I’d like it I’m trying to mix in more time on the elliptical machine at the gym and pool running, both of which I believe will help my training without increasing my risk for further injury.  I’ve also been doing semi-regular ART sessions which I seem to have solved the hip flexor probems I had at the end of last year.

So last Sunday I toed the line at the Kaiser Half healthy but with less of a training base that I had at the same time last year.  The other notable difference was the weather.  While most of the rest of the country was suffering through a series of especially bad winter weather (my parents, in particular, had received  four feet of snow the previous Wednesday in Wisconsin) San Francisco was enjoying what could only be described as summer-like weather.  The weekend of the race saw bright sunny skies with record-setting temperatures topping out in the 80s.  I knew it would be a hot one when I stepped out of my apartment at 6am and was already comfortable in shorts and my singlet.  For all the flack we get about our fog and our cold summers the city really does have a great climate, especially if you’re a runner.

I felt I was short on time Sunday morning, so I parked near the start instead of parking near the finish and taking the shuttle, like I usually do.  I trusted I’d be able to find a way back to my car after the race.  I arrived at the start line with plenty of time, did a quick warm up, greeted various friends, and got myself into race mode.

I started out a few rows back from the front.  Last year instead of starting out conservatively I went out hard from the start and that strategy paid off then.  I figured I’d try the same today and see what happened.  Mile one passed in 5:45.  Hmm, maybe a bit too fast.  That’s closer to my 10k pace.  Worse, I looked over and saw I was almost right next to Chikara.  Yep, too fast.  Mile 2 was almost as fast: 5:51.  Something I had noticed as soon as the race started was that I was incredibly thirsty, which was unusual, and not a good sign.  Dehydrated already at the start of a race?  I guess it really was going to be a warm day.  I made sure I drank as much as possible at the aid stations, more than I usually would.

As I reentered Golden Gate Park a girl on the side of the road called out: “Number 1406, you look HOT!”  Ladies, take note:  this sort of flattery is much more motivating than typical cheers of “good job!”, “keep going!”, etc. (or worse, the dreaded “you’re almost there!”)

The next few miles through the park went by fast.  I got passed by the first, second, and third place women between miles 4-5.  This middle section had a few turns that I had not remembered, and made we question is this course was really as fast as I had always believed.  I was also beginning to question my pace.  My sub-six minute miles were not going to be sustainable, but the gradual downhill miles through the park towards the ocean made it seem possible.

At Mile 7 the course exited the park and turned south onto the Great Highway.  Here there were no trees for shade and we were running more directly towards the sun.  Why had I decided not to wear my sunglasses?  I was here where I started to doubt myself.  I started to mentally catalog all the reasons why this race might end well.  Maybe I shouldn’t have gone out to parties both Friday night and Saturday night?  I didn’t stay too late at either, but the wine and heavymeals at both couldn’t be helping me now.  Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for that three hour bike ride the afternoon before the race.  That couldn’t have been good for me either, right?

My pace was holding steady at about 6:15/mi, but it was a struggle in the hot sun.  Most runners dread this section of the course, which seems to go on forever.  I usually like the out and back aspect, since you first get to the the race leaders coming back north along the great highway, and then you get a chance to see all your friends coming the other direction and say hi as you pass.  It’s something to keep one’s mind off those final few brutal miles anyway.

After I hit the turnaround at mile 10 I actually started to feel a little better, and although my splits show I started to fall off the pace, I felt stronger as I headed towards the end.  The organizers had moved the finish line slightly from previous years’ location, but the race still ends with a short uphill after you turn into the park.  I passed a couple runners during my last mile and almost caught a third within sight of the chute.  I could see the clock still read 1:19:xx as I approached, and managed to squeak in under 1:20 for an official finish of 1:19:51 (33rd overall, 7th age group).  A solid effort I was happy with, especially given the weather .

The race by the numbers:

Mile 1: 5:45
Mile 2: 5:51
Mile 3: 6:10
Mile 4: 6:03
Mile 5: 6:10
Mile 6: 5:50
Mile 7: 5:50
Mile 8: 6:06
Mile 9: 6:12
Mile 10: 6:10
Mile 11: 6:17
Mile 12: 6:27
Mile 13: 6:23 (0.1: 0:34)
Total: 1:19:51

Full Results Here

On a more somber note, this year’s race was marred by an unusual tragic moment when one a runner collapsed at the finish line and died.  This has generated quite a bit of controversy and investigation by the local media into the race’s medical support or lack thereof.  I don’t know all the details and didn’t see any of what happened so I won't speculate on what might have happened.  It’s always a sobering reminder of things that could happen though.  Condolences to the friends and family of this runner for their loss.

On a lighter note, as a Wisconsin native I have to give a shoutout to this fellow runner who was out there on the course supporting the Superbowl champion Green Bay Packers :

P.S.  If you saw me walking back to my apartment with 20lbs of ice after the race it wasn’t to get ready for a Super Bowl party – it was for my post-race ice bath  :-)