Friday, May 6, 2016

The Western Pacific train isn't taking me to Boston

OK, I know that not even a train would likely be enough to get me a Boston qualifier time, but it's fun to run a race where there are real runners that really do have a shot at a Boston qualifier time, train ride or not.

The Brazen Western Pacific Marathon concluded my spring of long and flat races (remember Riverbank and Ruth Anderson?). It also represented the first time since early 2012 (!) that I finished a real Marathon (I got a DNF at one in 2012 and dropped to a shorter distance at one last year).

My A goal coming into this race was to get a PR (which isn't saying much since my current Marathon PR is 5:58); my B goal was to beat 6:30 and the C goal was to beat 7:00. Based on my previous long races this spring, I thought there was an outside chance of the PR, but I knew it was a long shot since I'd have to go significantly faster than those earlier races, and there was no logical reason to expect that to happen, especially since it was going to be warm.

Double-click to see this bigger, but only if you are brave. There be sharks! And not the kind with missing teeth and a hockey stick!
I was never really interested in running this race - it's all on trails, but they are flat and a bit monotonous. There are lots of aid stations, and really, the trails are fairly scenic, especially considering that you are spending a LOT of time right outside of people's backyards. Granted, they are fairly scenic backyards.

Weather sun screen manufacturers love. 
We started at 7:30 AM, and it was already hinting at the warmth to come. What wasn't hinted at was the aggressive breeze that was supposed to kick up in a few hours. We were warned not to freak out if the arch was missing when we came back, and to provide GPS info if we happened to see it floating past us overhead.

The slowest Marathon pace group was for a 5:25 finish - that's her just ahead of me. I knew that if I tried to keep up with her, I would explode spectacularly at about the halfway point. So I kept behind her, which made me the last runner for the first few miles.

"Which way do we go?" I want what that volunteer had for breakfast.
"Which way do I go?"
It's really pretty hard to get lost on this course, but there are intersections where different distances do different things, so it was fun to have volunteers directing us. Especially since I could badger them into posing.

The first aid station (mile 1.8) would also be our last aid station, much much later.

We had twelve aid stations for this race - the idea was that you could run carrying minimal or no water, which is unusual for this long of a trail race. In my case though, I was drinking my Tailwind, so I wore my vest and carried two bottles and ended up skipping about half the aid stations.

"Which way do I go?" at the Bermuda Triangle intersection of the race.
Still right behind the 5:25 pacer. Dang.
After that Bermuda Triangle intersection, we were on the long Alameda Creek trail. This would be our home for the next 22 miles, and it looked a lot like this for most of the way.

The second aid station, mile 3.35, and the 10K turnaround. Note the shade - I was surprised (and thrilled) by how much shade there was along this trail, at least in some sections.

When you run a road Marathon, the best thing are the people that line chunks of the course and cheer you on - it's the closest I will ever feel to being a rock star. So I really loved the few places where there were a few people cheering us on. Granted, it was likely because they had family or friends running the race, but still, it was awesome!

Our third aid station, mile 4.6. It was just before this aid station that the faster Half runners, who started 30 minutes after us, started passing me.

"Hey Racso, not your real name, which way do I go?" The world's most subtle directions.
There is one odd stretch of the trail that's actually paved, and has a short bit out to the road to cross a creek, then head back to the main trail.

The lead Half runner coming back at me after his turnaround.

The fourth aid station, mile 6.75, and the Half Marathon turnaround. After this point, I would not see any other runners outside of the Marathon runners, so things were about to calm down a bit.

Still the fourth aid station. I really hated to leave here.
The Marathon rabbit!
Not long after I left that aid station, the lead Marathon runner came back past me. Yikes!

Another random group of people cheering on the runners - they couldn't believe I paused to take their picture. They didn't realize how hard I was looking for reasons to pause.

The fifth aid station, mile 8.3. By this point I was stopping at each aid station just to get myself wet to help keep cool. It was getting pretty warm, but there was a nice breeze that thankfully was coming at us from the side, so if you were wet, you stayed cool. I also had to stop and mix up a fresh bottle of Tailwind at about every other aid station - I was determined to drink a bottle and hour and it was working out perfect.

Picture by Retep, not his real name, who was pacing the 4:55 group. That I still look a bit like a runner is due to this being only mile 11 or so. And his camera skills.
The 5:25 pace group was about a half mile ahead of me, which is about right. That's the turnaround off in the distance at that white awning.
After that fifth aid station, there is a pretty big gap (at least for this race) before the next aid station, and the trail was completely exposed as you headed out towards the bay.

The sixth aid station, mile 11.9. It was our first turnaround and the only real cutoff for this race, and I was at least an hour ahead of the cutoff. (And you really do end up in the bay if you don't turn around here.)

If you look hard, you can see the seventh aid station (which was the fifth aid station in a previous life) just ahead. In between the time that I left there and came back, Yllom's (not her real name) crew (her squeeze Nhoj, not his real name, and their 5 or 6 kids) put this message on the trail! It was so awesome!

The seventh aid station, mile 15.5. I had a goal of running the whole first Half Marathon, then seeing what I could do after that. As it turned out, I nearly made it all the way to this aid station before my legs started to let me know that they needed a walk break. I was pretty happy with that and was determined to keep my walking pace pretty fast and to mix in many running bits. All of that went pretty well for quite a while - I would pick out a tree or rock and tell myself to keep running to that point, but I was often going farther than that, which really surprised me.

The eighth aid station, mile 17. The wind was a bit stronger so some of the awnings had been taken down.

At this point there were about 6 or 7 runners behind me. I was determined to keep them there, but was a bit nervous about my chances. All of this meant that these volunteers, who had been out there a long time, could see the end of their day. Finally.

"Which way do I go?" 
Remember this point from a few miles ago? It really helped seeing milestones on the way back - it made you feel like you were really making progress.

The ninth aid station, mile 19.2. Way to go Ylrac (not your real name)!

There were a number of small branches that the wind had blown down since I had last been through here. And me without a chainsaw.

What you love to see - a volunteer with an ice scoop on a hot day!
The tenth aid station, mile 20.5. At this point you could look off to the left and see the finish area and hear the runners getting announced as they arrived. But I still had almost six miles to go. Heavy sigh.

See those two runners? I caught up to them and even passed them for a bit, which was enough to inspire them to pick up the pace - nobody wants to get beat by me, especially getting passed so late in the race.
Back at the Bermuda Triangle. The 10K and Half runners got to turn left and storm the finish line. The Marathon runners had to stay on the trail and keep going to a second turnaround.

"Hey mister. Wanna get wet?" That kid had been busy squeezing the sponge over his own head when I walked up - I loved it!
The eleventh aid station, mile 22.9. By now I was really dragging. My walking speed was slowing and I wasn't doing as many running bits as before. I knew that a PR was not going to happen, but that I still had a pretty good shot at beating 6:30.

Hi Miss Chris Bliss!
So I got my last bottle filled, sucked it up, and stormed out of there. I liked the idea of maybe catching those two runners again, although I think they were determined to not let that happen.

Back at that Bermuda Triangle, but this time I get to go right and head to the finish. And just before I got there, and amazing thing happened - I passed two runners! Not the two I had hoped, but me passing anyone at this point was outstanding. I also knew that it was likely to be short-lived if I didn't keep the pace, such as it was, up.

The twelfth, and last aid station! Mile 24.8. Less than two miles to the finish, although the two most significant hills of the whole course were ahead of me. (Granted, they were not significant at all under normal circumstances, but after 25 miles, they were nearly cliffs.)

The finish line, minus the arch.
So, a really cool thing happened on my way up the second of the hills - the really mean one that you have to go up, with the finish line in sight. I was met at the bottom by Alilak (not her real name), who really wanted to pace me up to the finish! (I'm not going to say that her mother had put her up to it since there was a good chance I would have gotten lost, but maybe.)

Picture by Nosaj, not his real name. Pacing by Alilak. Victory pose by a dork that was so ready to be done.

All done.

That really shouldn't have been as hard as it was, but I managed to finish it in 6:21 and was not last. I also managed to stay ahead of those two guys I had passed, although one of them was very close behind me and I suspect had pity on me and let me beat him (you can see him just behind my pacer).

This was my ninth Marathon finish, and my third fastest. An odd thing - my Garmin showed a distance of 26.8 miles, which was a bit dubious since it also showed an elevation gain of a bit over 900 feet, which was not remotely possible. (I think the Garmin just assumes if you went that far, there had to have been hills. The corrected elevation turned out to be 183 feet, which sounds about right.)

I've got a theory about this course that makes a bit of sense, I think - as you head towards the bay you must be going slightly downhill since the creek you are following is flowing that way. That means that, after you turn around, you are going slightly uphill. I think the key word is "slightly." But it's still there.

That was a really fun event. By the end of it I was really sore, but I liked that I had gotten it done. Given my current training, it was well out of my comfort zone, but I was determined to hang in there and squeeze out a finish.

I don't have any more long races planned for a while (Brazen Dirty Dozen?), but we'll see. Right now, 10Ks sound great and I would love to take a serious shot at an "Ageless Wonder" (running a 10K in fewer minutes than your age).

It's not like I really wanted a trip to Boston in any case.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ruth Anderson Memorial Endurance Run - Heat in SF?

I'd heard of the Ruth Anderson Memorial Endurance Run, but all I knew for sure was that it was flat and paved. And loopy - you had to run multiple times around a lake.

It turns out, I really didn't know that much about the race. It's not flat, although the hills are very mild (my 50K ended up with just under 900 feet of climbing). If you like pavement, you could be on it for about 99% of the course. If you don't like pavement, you can be on dirt for about 95% of the course. If you don't like loops, well, that could be an issue, although since each loop is somewhere around 4.5 miles, and each loop has a wide variety of scenery and normal(ish) people sharing the trail, it really doesn't feel as loopy as you might think it would.

After my experience at the Riverbank One Day, running loops around a high school track for six hours, I figured this would be a good next step in testing my recovery. So I signed up.

An interesting thing about this race is that, although it has three distances (50K, 50M, and 100K), you just sign up for the race - you don't specify a distance. You get to pick your distance live, as you are running the race. When you get to the 50K finish, you get to decide whether you are done or want to go on for the 50M distance. When you get to the 50M finish, you get to decide whether to go on to the 100K. The trick is that, if you decide to go for a longer distance, you better make it, or you get credit for a DNF. (Another peculiar thing that can happen is if you lose track of how many laps you've done and overshoot your goal distance - you are now going for the longer distance.)

In any case, I knew that a 50K was all I had in me, and that was being a bit optimistic. I'm pretty well trained for a 10K, and could survive a Half Marathon pretty well, but a 50K? I haven't gone an ultra distance since the Brazen Dirty Dozen last July. Even so, I went into this race hoping for a 50K PR. Granted, that's not saying much since my PR was 8:24 at Way Too Cool a couple of years ago. But I figured if I had a good day, a 7:30 time at Ruth Anderson was possible. (Spoiler alert: Ha ha ha.)

The course. Note the positions of the race headquarters, the race start, and the 50K finish. There will be a test.
The distances at this race are all certified, which leads to some complications. Such as a start that's a half mile from the main race area (making the first loop a bit shorter than the others). And for the 50K, you go through the main race area and hit the actual finish line a quarter of a mile into the next loop.

The loop is pretty much flat, but as the day wore on, the hills grew.

The race started at 6:30 AM, but because we had to hike out a half mile to the start, we had to get there pretty early to get our bibs and set up our stuff. Fortunately, I was smart enough to bring a headlamp for the pre-race porta-pottie visit.

Hiking out to the start area. Some were wondering if we were doing a pre-race warm up lap, NASCAR style.
It was starting to get light out as we wandered to the start. It was nice and cool, but there were no clouds in the sky, so there was a promise of a LOT of sun later on.

There were many view-infested stretches along the course.

This was the unmanned mid-loop aid station. I figured I'd never really use this, but I figured wrong. That porta-pottie was very handy on the second loop, and the water became useful on the later laps. Some runners would leave bottles here so they wouldn't have to carry them for a whole lap. It was awesome that nobody seemed to mess with the stuff here - we were in a very urban area with a lot of people wandering around that were not part of the race. That the toilet paper survived the whole day was very cool!

Note how calm it is. Fortunately, that would change later on with a nice breeze helping us to stay cool.

The TPC Harding Park Golf Course clubhouse was inside the loop. While we never had to cross any roads, we did have to cross their driveway, and it was often pretty busy. But the golfers were very accommodating and almost never tried to run us over. Even more amazing, they somehow managed not to laugh out loud as they saw me "running" by.

One interesting thing about loop races is that, eventually, the faster runners will pass you. I had hopes of getting at least two laps in before getting passed. HA! Chikara blew past me shortly after I headed out on my second lap - he was on his third, and was running about twice as fast as I was.

There was one short stretch of single-track. It's a little hard to tell, but it was also slightly downhill.

Getting passed again.
The course was in a very urban area of San Francisco - there was almost always a road just off to our left, and the trails we were on were very popular for the normal people that live around there. But crowding was never an issue. The dirt path along right side of the trail was a blessing. There were a few places where the shrubbery had overgrown the dirt trail, and even a few places where that shrubbery included poison oak, but mostly it was like this and very runnable.

My goal was to bring enough pre-made bottles of Tailwind that I could just swap out my bottle at the end of each lap, and that worked out pretty well. As it got warmer, I did end up supplementing the Tailwind with water at the mid-loop aid station, but the Tailwind worked well and kept me going with no stomach issues.

Later in the day, crewing teams showed up on the lake, and it was fun listening to them yell out the strokes.

Yes, that's poison oak! 
William taking a short walk break with me up one of the "hills."
An example of a not so scenic bit of the course where the dirt trail ends for a short stretch.

There are several fun things about the above picture. First, this is my last lap, and there is only about two more miles to go for me. Second, that's Kelly blowing past me on her way to winning the 50M. She was very steady and determined - so impressive! Third, see that guy in the teal shirt just ahead of her? He turned out to be in the 50K race as well. I ended up passing him and beating him by a bit over two minutes. But he ended up getting second in his age group (20-29), and a nice plaque. But I took solace knowing that I beat a guy 30 years younger than me! (And I was solidly beaten by a guy 23 years older than me - 81-year-old Bill was amazing out there! I love how he makes the 69-year-old Jim and 64-year-old Eric look like kids!)

I really felt bad making this poor guy have to sit out here for so long, but found out later there were two others slower than me, which made me feel a bit better.
And this is it - my finish line, a quarter mile into the eighth lap. The Race Official didn't even have to ask whether I intended to go on to the 50M race since I was obviously totally wiped out. But now I had a quarter mile hike back to the race headquarters area.

My impromptu cheering crew!
My sixth lap was by far my hardest and least fun. I really struggled, and as I came in to the race area at the end of the lap, my intention was to stop and rest for a few minutes. Maybe a lot of few minutes. But as I went past these guys, who had all already finished their 50Ks, they started yelling encouragement at me, and it really pumped me up! I ended up doing a quick bottle exchange and headed back out immediately. My seventh lap turned out to be pretty good and significantly faster than the sixth. (And I feel confident that, if I had paused, a DNF would have been in my future.)

The timing and brain trust of the race.

Lap Details

As I mentioned earlier, each lap was about 4.5 miles.

  • Lap One (which was about 4 miles since we started out a bit): 49:50.
  • Lap Two: 54:10. I ended up completely running my first two laps. I was on top of the world!
  • Lap Three: 1:01:00. I wanted to run this whole lap, but ended up walking a few of the "uphills."
  • Lap Four: 1:10:00. By now I knew that there was lots of walking in my future. It was warming up. Also, by this time the charm of the course was getting a bit old since I'd seen it so much. An interesting thing (to me) was that, for a looping race, I was spending a LOT of time on my own. Normally at this kind of race, you see the other runners as they pass you (or you pass them, which wasn't something I was doing much of), but that wasn't happening that much here. One reason for that was that the loop was longer than the other races like this that I've done, which meant we were really much more spread out. In any case, I did something I rarely do; I broke out the iPod and started listening to music. That really helped on this fourth lap.
  • Lap Five: 1:11:00. About halfway through this lap the music got old, so I switched to listening to podcasts. Laps four and five were nearly identical times, and I felt confident I could keep up that pace.
  • Lap Six: 1:23:00. Yikes. I was wrong and I really started dragging. This lap was no fun. The sun was getting to me (although it was only about 71 degrees out), and my mental game was toast. During this lap I decided to take some serious rest at the race festival area, and decided that I was nuts to think I should be running the Western Pacific Marathon in two weeks. I was so done.
  • Lap Seven: 1:17:00. The impromptu cheering crew rescued me and I ended up with a pretty good lap. I put away the headphones and got back into enjoying the course. My legs were pretty shot, but I was still able to jog on the downhills.
  • That Last Quarter Mile: 4:07. I thought I had flown for that last quarter mile, but four minutes is not flying. Nonetheless, I got it done.
My official finishing time was 7:50:07. A pretty big PR, but not as good as I had hoped for. Based on how close I had come to all but giving up in this race, however, I was thrilled with the time.

The mug and coaster. The shirt is just to show the salt stains. The ribbon on the bib was in honor of the race's namesake, Ruth Anderson, who had died earlier this year.
A question you should be wondering about is who is Ruth Anderson and why is this race named after her. I know I was. If you do an internet search on "Ruth Anderson runner" you get a lot of hits. She was an amazing local runner that started running relatively late, and dominated ultra races while in her 40s and 50s. I'm sad I never met her, but thrilled that I got to run in the 30th edition of the race that carries her name.

A huge thanks to everyone involved in putting on this race - it was a lot of fun and a running memory that won't soon be forgotten.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see most of my pictures here.