Sunday, October 12, 2014

Cake and tears at Rocky Ridge

But mostly cake.

(Note: This is going to be long, and even worse, finish with way more pictures of me than should be inflicted on innocent readers. I apologize for both of those things in advance.)

The Brazen Rocky Ridge Half Marathon is in my head. It's taunting me and calling me rude names.

To be clear, it is one heck of a Half Marathon, with a tad under 4000 feet of climbing, most of which is really tough.

But still - it's just a Half Marathon.

So why does it have a knack for ripping me a new one every time I run it? I've started the race five times now and finished four, although I would not have finished the first time if I had had my way ("Hi Coach Luap, not your real name!"). Only once have I come into the finish area not feeling like I had just survived a near death experience - that was the cold year, in 2012, when that final hill was covered in the coldest, wettest fog I've ever seen.

One thing that makes the course tough is that it's a figure 8, offering a very easy way to drop from the race at about mile 9.3 - just before that last mean hill. For a lot of runners, hitting that point is a big decision point. Last year, I chose to stop there. Of course I second guessed that later, but at the time I was absolutely sure that was the thing to do.

So coming into this year, I was determined to do things right and finish without the standard near-death experience.

And then the heat started up.

But first, let's start with cake.

Frank's nickname is Frank the Tank. That's why his cake has a tank on it. Well, that, and it's a cool thing to do.
Frank (his real name) is a Bay Area legend, and he just aged into a new age group. Or would have, except once you get to a certain age, most races just lump you in an age group called 70+ or something like that. But not Brazen - they take their 5-year age groups all the way up to 95-99. And I'm sure they'll update that once Frank gets to that milestone.

The Brazen Rabbit, a rabbit cake, and bunny ears adorably supplied by Acire (not her real name).
The Brazen Rabbit has been a fixture at Brazen races forever. She has worked to develop many of the Brazen courses and pioneered many great trail marking techniques. All while being the most fun loving ultra runner you've ever met.

That rabbit on the cake has no chance.
Unfortunately for us, she has decided to try something a bit different, and this was her last official Brazen race. She is going to be very missed but not nearly forgotten. (And I have a mean little wish that she now should have to run some of those courses she has tortured us with.)

OK - let's get going with the actual race. Cake time is over.

Both Mrs Notthat and I chose to take advantage of the early start. This gave us a bonus hour on the cutoff, making it not a problem, and also allowed us more time in the cool early morning, which for me, was easily the biggest win.

Racso (not his real name) and his daughter were being the gate warriors near the start of the race. Racso was supposed to run this race (two bibs? really?), but was instead forced into a recovery mode, so volunteered and took pictures instead.

Photo by Racso. This was really early in the race.

Photo by Racso. It was so early that I was still smiling.

One thing the early start does not help with is the climbing. You still have to go up those hills.

One thing you will be told over and over is that the fun thing about the hills is that they give you lots of views. After several thousand feet of climbing I would gladly trade the views for an escalator.

The first big climb is actually kind of fun. It's not all that steep and has some entertaining trails. It also doesn't hurt that you are still fairly fresh at this point.

Mt Diablo is mocking me.
Then you start on a fun and fast downhill.

The first aid station is at mile 3.2, and about halfway down that first big climb. I had been very determined to not push too hard up that hill or try to run too fast on the downhill, which put me at this aid station a bit later than usual. All was going well so far and it was still pretty cool.

Annahs and Aicirt, not their real names, were within striking range.
The first half of this course contains about 80% of the course's total shade. Which is a shame since that shade would be much more valuable later, once things start getting really hot.

A bonus of this course is that you will always have a cow or two on the course with you. Some of these cows have an attitude as well - this is their trail and you better not forget it.

I love how this looks like Nafets (not his real name) has a pacer.

To me, one of the best things about doing the early start is that you get to see all the fast runners as they pass you. Normally, I would never see these guys once the race starts since they would be a mile ahead before I crossed the starting line. I was passed a bit earlier than normal by the lead runner, but that was to be expected.

I was executing my plan to perfection.

The first place woman flying by me. She was first by a LOT!

The second aid station is at mile 6.5, and is always run by the Forward Motion team and The Blur. A bit before this aid station you turn off the fire roads and get on some nice single-track trail. Well, nice until it turns and starts going up that second big hill. At this point, you are maybe a fifth of the way up that hill, with the worst bits to come.

It's with a heavy heart that I said my goodbyes and resumed going up that hill.

Tnek (not his real name) was having a rough race, but there was no way to tell that just by looking at him.
The one fun thing about going up that hill is that you start seeing more and more friends catching up and passing you.

Werd (not his real name) on his first shot at this course.
After a bit more time on the single-track, you make a right turn and start up a trail named Del Amigo. This trail is nobody's Amigo. It's steep and largely in the sun (other than the bit seen above). It's the bit of trail that generally begins my downfall. I was determined to slow down even more and not let this bit of trail get to me. And it worked, mostly.

I can't tell you how much fun runners like Naitsirc, not his real name, can make bits of trail like this.
It was seriously warming up by now and the sun was taking a toll on me. I've had warm versions of this race in the past, but nothing like this. And heat is my Achilles heel.

Retep (not his real name) missed breaking three hours by seven seconds. Him pausing for this picture with Niwhsa (not her real name either) directly led to that failure. 

The mean thing about that second big climb is that there is a short downhill bit in the middle of it. A very steep downhill section that, with my ruined legs, was very challenging. And then you start up the final bit of the climb.

Heavy sigh.

But the climb does end, eventually. Two rather rude things happen at that point though: You suddenly can hear the finish line and Mr Brazen announcing the names of all the runners that are done, and you get a great view of what lies ahead of you; you get some nice downhill but then face the third big climb, which for me is the worst. Seeing the runners way off in the distance and knowing that you would have to get there at some point is a bit intimidating.

Still, you get to enjoy a reasonably fun trail along the ridge top before charging down the hill.

Acire (not her real name) showing me how to take advantage of this downhill stretch.
Every time I've run this race, I have had nearly dead legs by the time I got to this downhill. A goal for this race had been to be able to actually at least jog down this trail for the first time. And I did manage a little bit of that, but very little. It was really hot by now and I was pretty trashed. Already.

This was not a good sign.

Lyrad the volunteer gate monitor!

This is really where you need to make up some time on this course, and as usual, I was failing at that. But I was also OK with that since I was still way ahead of the cutoff and, while I was really tired, I was not feeling nearly as bad as I had the previous year, even though it was much hotter out.

Alameda Det (not his real name) grabbing pictures at the bottom of the hill.
"Hi Ecinreb and Sirhc, not your real names!"
This is the crossing point of the course's figure 8. A good thing about this particular point is that there is a bathroom, and to my surprise, I needed to use it. This was a good sign for me since, when things start going south, one of the first things that generally happens is that I never need to pee.

And then there was the third aid station, about mile 9.4. This is the aid station with the cutoff, and amazingly, I was a bit over an hour ahead of the cutoff, which meant that, even as slow as I was going, I would have made this cutoff even if I hadn't done the early start.

But this is where you need to make a decision - there is a shortcut to the finish area from here. If you keep going, there are no more shortcuts and no way to drop from the race; you have to commit to the race if you leave here.

The guy taking my picture is Coach Luap. Last year we both dropped at this point. This year, he volunteered here, and one of his stated goals was to make sure I kept going. I was pretty determined to keep going, but it was HUGELY tempting to stop. It was absurdly hot by now (mid 90s) and almost none of the rest of the course had any shade.

Yes - I got wienered again. But Truman (his real name) is awesome and I'm OK with that.
The Dirt Diva has an amazing wiener dog named Truman. When you see people running with a dog, the dog is usually something with at least moderately long legs. But what Truman lacks in leg length, he makes up for in heart - that dog is an amazing trail runner.

I had predicted that he would catch me at about mile 10, and he took that as a challenge and caught me about a half mile early.

The Dirt Diva getting hydrated. Truman was ready to go and was getting a bit antsy waiting for her.
I loved that Yloy (not her real name) was taking pictures with her wacky selfie stick while running the race. 

I had seen Otter Pops at various races previously, but had never tried one before. So I decided this was a perfect race to try something new, grabbed one, and then spent about a mile trying to work out how to eat it. (And wow do those things make a sticky mess. I really need a lesson.)

Encouraging, in an embarrassingly selfish way, was seeing Ekim (not his real name) sitting and struggling with the heat. This was my image as I decided to head out and get this race done.

And here was my image a few minutes later when a recovered Ekim went flying by me. This climb is rough. It's not horribly steep, but steep enough to really hurt. To make it worse, it's paved and devoid of shade.

Picture by Brazen volunteer.
This picture, from well before I headed up this hill, shows The Tank and Mrs Notthat trash talking in the sunshine. Mrs Notthat adores the sunshine. She is not right.

Knowing that the Dirt Diva helped mark this course, you better make a good guess as to who this is.

After struggling up that paved hill for what feels like miles, you make a left and head on some single-track. You are still climbing, but at least there is dirt under your feet.

Shortly after you get to the top of that hill, you see an aid station in the distance.

Aid station number four, mile 11.2, is a lifesaver. You haven't even gone two miles since the last aid station, and there is only a bit over two miles to go from here, but this is such a great aid station location.

Leahcim (not his real name) hitching a ride.

I was in pretty rough shape at this point. I sat in the shade for a bit and thought wistfully about how wise it would've been to have stopped at that last aid station. The thing is, you can't stop here - there is no way to get a ride to the finish or any kind of a shortcut. The good part is that it's largely downhill from here.

But so dang hot.

After I caught my breathe, I got a great dousing by this aid station angel, and started towards the finish, with Leahcim pacing me. (He was a freelance volunteer photographer that had walked up here for fun. He's not normal.)

Nad and Ylrac, not their real names, passing me.
Along this ridge top it was really tough - I had hoped for a breeze, but there was none, and it was much hillier than I remembered.

Eventually you do reach a point where you leave the ridge and start the real downhill towards the finish. But I was in full zombie mode at this point, pausing frequently to catch my breath.

This mile marker is a cruel tease. At a normal Half Marathon, there would be a tenth of a mile to go. But with this one, there was nearly three quarters of a mile to go. And note that you are climbing yet another small hill.
But with Leahcim's help I was able to slowly keep going forward, pausing whenever there was a bit of shade, and even sitting at one point.

Naw and Racso (not their real names, but wouldn't they be awesome!) giving me a high five with about a tenth of a mile to go.

This is the picture that Racso got of me at that point. I can't believe I felt that energetic.

The finish line. Finally. It was about here that I started to get very emotional and teared up a bit. Maybe a lot.

Picture by Sirhc. And yes, I now know that that is a really bad look for me, with the handkerchief dangling like a really badly tied necktie.
I'm struggling to keep it together.

Picture by Brazen volunteer. I was so hugely relieved.

Picture by Brazen volunteer. Hug by Leahcim, who so bravely stuck with me all the way down that hill, making sure I didn't wander into the wilderness.
This made me feel better. As miserable and near-death as I felt crossing the finish line, I at least still managed to not trip over the timing mat. Like someone else I know did.

This race is an amazing test of a runner's determination, especially those like me that tend to take the longest to finish. It took me 5:46 (really!) to finish this race. (It took me 70 minutes to go that last 2.5 miles, which is largely fast downhill. Sheesh - zombie walking is not fast.)

Watching these three come in about an hour after me was so impressive - they had spent nearly seven hours out in that heat! Yes, that's a long time for a Half Marathon, but this is a special Half, and being that determined to keep moving under these conditions takes a special kind of runner. You three are ridiculously cool! (Well, not right at the moment I took this - I suspect you were wildly overheated at that point. But you know what I mean.)

I caused Retep to miss out on a sub-three hour finish, but that was not enough to keep him from winning his age group.

I loved the shirt design and medal for this race. (Mrs Notthat, not so much.) Since I had managed to complete the Brazen Ultra Half Series, I received the bonus coaster as well.

The three Ultra Half Series coasters. That's enough, right?
After last year, I was determined to not do this Half in 2014. I didn't need any more ten pound coasters and it would be awesome to actually get a good pre-race night's sleep. But Mrs Notthat convinced me we really did need another set of coasters and I figured I should atone for 2013.

I'm atoned now. I've got lots of coasters. I don't need to do this in 2015.

But we all know how that ends.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.