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 fiancĂ©e 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: