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  :-)