Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Working Cardiac at the NFEC plus Bonus Dropbagology Thoughts

The North Face Endurance Challenge in the Marin Headlands is the last big trail race of the year. The amazing trails and $30,000 in prize money attract many elite runners, making this a great race to spectate at if you are a bit of a trail runner groupie.

I had never managed to run or spectate at this event, but this year it worked out that I could volunteer at the Cardiac aid station, where the 50M runners come through twice and the 50K runners once.

The 50M race starts at the very dark hour of 5AM, and I thought it would be fun to watch the start, then head out to the aid station. I figured it would take an hour to drive to the start, but I really was not sure what to expect congestion-wise (there's a one-way tunnel that can really back up traffic); the cool part was that as a volunteer, I had aVIP parking pass (which turned out to be worth WAY more than its weight in gold).

So I set my alarm for 2:30 AM, left the house at about 3 AM, and was parked by 3:50 AM. About the same time as the Ultrasportslive.tv crew.

"Bring us one of those 5 gallon orange things filled with coffee."
I was early. Seriously early. The encouraging part was that it wasn't raining. It rained on me all the way up to the Golden Gate Bridge, then stopped, and never rained on me again the whole day.

The clouds were breaking up and the moon was made a brave effort to lighten things up.
The elites headed out first.
Eventually, 5 AM and the start of the 50M race arrived. The runners were broken into four waves, with the faster runners heading out first. I had hoped to recognize and yell at a few of the elites and friends when they started, but it was dark, and the headlamps made it really hard to see faces. It was fun to watch the start (it took about 8 minutes to get everyone out on the trail), but a bit of a disappointment since I was unable to locate most of the people I knew who were running. (Here's a link to a video I took of the later waves heading out.)

I managed to run into Asset, who as a complete surprise, had managed to talk Rehtaeh (not their real names) into coming along to work at Cardiac. I also ran into Nek (not his real name) who was also working at the aid station. We drove up to the Pantoll parking lot where we were to pay $8 to park, and then have to walk 0.7 miles to the actual aid station.

A really great surprise was being met there by a race official who paid for our parking and gave us a nice muddy ride to the aid station.

I think there is a rule that at least one canopy at every aid station I've ever worked at must have a mis-matched base and cover.
Normally, the Cardiac aid station is a bit of a confusing intersection of the trails, with runners going in different directions depending on the distance they are running and whether they had already been there (for the 50M distance). The week before this race though, had been really rainy and had forced a couple of course changes, the biggest being abandoning going down to Muir Woods due to a bridge that had washed out.

As we were setting up, one of the trail marking runners appeared and told us that a brand new change had just been made due to three trees that had fallen overnight, blocking the Dipsea trail from Stinson Beach. As you can sort of see in the above drawings, all these changes actually simplified our aid station significantly.

Veejar (not his real name), the aid station captan, and Rehtaeh discussing how to make a Milky Way. Seriously.
All runners would first get to our aid station with this view. That small creek ran down the trail the whole day.
The Dipsea trail that heads off to Muir Beach. It was a bit ironic that it was the driest trail in the area, and we could not use it.
Three porta-potties!
The Dipsea trail coming up from Stinson Beach that we could not use without requiring the runners to carry a chainsaw. The fun thing was that this meant the runners came up Steep Ravine and got to climb the infamous ladder.

Nek and I volunteered to be the primary drop bag guys. The 50M runners had the option to provide a drop bag for this aid station. There were about 600 50M runners, and we had about 50 bags (those from runners that had turned then in on Thursday or Friday). Not all runners provide a drop bag, but most do, and it was obvious we were missing a LOT of them. (The rest of them, those turned in just before the race, showed up a couple hours later in two vehicles. Unfortunately they were too late for the faster runners.)

Sunrise over San Francisco. Probably.

Since you cannot park at the aid station, I figured we would have very few, if any, spectators show up. I was wrong. Some were there for specific runners, but many were just groupies like me.

Eventual winner Sage Canaday (his real name) arrived first.
The first runner appeared at about 7:45. Asset (in yellow) had the job of putting an "X" in a tiny square on the runner's bibs as they showed up. This proved to be totally futile since the bibs were wet and even a Sharpie was unable to leave a mark, and the runners generally arrived in bunches, and with $30,000 on the line, they were not inclined to wait in a line. So the bib marking was abandoned very quickly. (A better idea would have been to have a hole punch. An even better idea would have been have timing tag readers here since there was no practical way to deal with the crowds.)

When the rest of the drop bags showed up, we had no time to do any proper sorting, and instead had to be happy with just setting them in groups of 100. This made finding the proper bag significantly harder than it should have been, but we quickly learned a few key questions to ask to help in the search (our goal was 10 seconds or less). This made the day harder than it needed to be, but most runners were understanding and were thrilled when we were able to find their bag.

We had sunshine until about 9 AM when the fog rolled in. We were all so thrilled to not have to deal with rain and wind that a bit of cool fog was not an issue at all.

I'm sure there is a good reason for this, but this fire truck doing a practice run down the creek/trail was not exactly convenient.
Note the small cliff the runners had to climb to get to the drop bag area.
I've worked many trail race aid stations, including at Western States and HURT, and came into this race figuring it would be about the same.

I was wrong.

The sheer number of runners was shocking - for most of the day we had a crowd at the aid station. It was a challenge tracking their bib numbers and pointing them in the right direction, and that doesn't begin to count the complexity of the drop bags (since we saw the 50M runners twice, we often had to go looking for a bag we had found about three hours earlier).

The thing that boggled me was how much harder this would have been if the course had not been forced to be simplified - just directing the runners was a big task.

Fortunately we had just enough volunteers and we had Veejar running the show efficiently with his own particular charm and perkiness that kept everyone chugging along.

We ended up with far more runners dropping here than I would have thought (the lack of easy access made this an inefficient place to be driven out of, not to mention you had just climbed a huge hill - hence the name Cardiac - with some big downhill from here (especially for the 50K). The trail conditions though were very challenging, which I'm sure helped many of the drops to decide to be done.

As far as supplies, there were very few slip ups in addition to the drop bags arriving so late (we were supposed to have baggies to put the runner's headlamps in for returning to the start area, we had no salt caps, and came close to running out of cups), but we never ran out of any of the important things like water, soda, soup, and toilet paper. A nice, thoughtful touch was bringing sandwiches for all the volunteers.

The biggest disappointment working this aid station though was that I missed seeing several friends due to just being so dang busy.

A big question is whether I would volunteer to do this again. I think so, but I would probably skip going to the start first, just to get a bit more sleep. It was a huge blast watching the fast runners fly through there (and there were a LOT of them), with the huge bonus of seeing so many friends.


Most long (50K or longer) trail races offer the option of a drop bag - long races can have multiple bags. The idea is that a runner can put things in a bag, like food, clothing, a headlamp, and such, that they might need once they get to that point in a race. They also offer a place to stash something you no longer need, such as a jacket.

For this race, a lot of runners changed their socks and shoes since the wet and muddy conditions made a mess of the ones they started with. The obvious problem is that it takes time to change your socks and shoes, and it's not like the trails were suddenly dry - your dry, clean shoes were going to quickly match the ones you just changed out of.

The only other aid station I've volunteered at with drop bags is Last Chance at the Western States 100. There were three things that made that a lot easier than at NFEC:

  • There are far fewer runners (about 300) and they are much more spread out.
  • We only see the runners once.
  • The bags are much more clearly marked. 

Just about anything can be a drop bag, including ziploc and grocery bags. By far the best bags were the Victory bags (the red rectangular ones you see above) since these could easily be marked on their top.

If you look really hard, you can see the small green tags that were used to label the bags. These made it really challenging when trying to locate a particular runner's bag. Obviously, the more unique the bag, the easier it is to find, and if you want to speedily get through an aid station, that can be a big help. The other big help was that some runners wrote their bib number in nice big digits. (On the other hand, some runners had several numbers from previous races written on their bags, which was the opposite of helpful.)

A better view of the green tags.
One problem I saw often was that the green tags fell off when the bag was opened. This makes it tough to locate your bag later, whether on your second pass through here or at the finish line (the bags are all hauled to the finish line once the station closes). A good alternative was to use a strip of duct tape and to write your bib number in large numbers.

Another problem was that a lot of the bags were not secure, and things fell out of them. Once that happened, it was impossible to work out where they belonged, and those things ended up going into a lost and found box.

There were also a number of random pairs of shoes and socks left out that I suspect runners did not want to put back into their bags since they were such a mess. Some wise runners put empty plastic bags in the drop bags just for this reason. Others tidied up their bags when they returned.

It was a bit of a learning experience working with these drop bags, and hopefully one I've learned from.

Awwww, who am I kidding - learning like this is not my strong suit.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Blown away by the Malibu Canyon views

Once in a while, Mrs Notthat and I decide to go on a minor road trip and run a race where we've never been before. Being in the Bay Area, we're blessed with a ridiculous number of amazing trails and races, and it can be easy to forget that there might be other areas with great trails.

It's just that it's really hard to imagine LA as one of those areas.

The opportunity to run our first So Cal trail race presented itself in the form of the Coastal Malibu Canyon race. A bonus for us was that it was just a bit north of LA, which made getting there easier. We knew there would be a river crossing and an aid station where bits of the TV series M*A*S*H was filmed, but that was about it. It was a 25K lollipop with a really short stick and a few serious climbs (just under 3000' of climbing total). Mrs and I signed up for the 25K distance (there were also 10K and 50K options).

We drove down Saturday afternoon and stayed in the historic town of Calabasas, home to many actors, sports heroes, musicians, and Meat Loaf.

I'm happy to say that the post-race BBQ had absolutely nothing to do with the golden arches.
The coolest thing though was seeing the Coastal Van in a grocery store parking lot.

The next morning we got up and drove the ten minutes to the race start, in Malibu Creek State Park.

The thing about running an out-of-town race is that you end up not knowing any of the other runners. Well, almost none of them, as it turned out, since Retep (not his real name) was there to run the 25K. Retep  had run a road Marathon the day before, so he said he was mostly just walking this course. (Ha. We never saw him again once the race started - he finished over an hour before me.)

"On your marks!" A pre-race race.
One fun thing was that Coastal First Born recognized Mrs Notthat and I and Mrs got to spend a lot of time with him before and after the race. I love how grown up he's getting and how funny he is.

Mr Coastal: "How many of you have heard of Meat Loaf?"
There was no chance of rain, but there was a great chance of wind. The infamous Santa Ana winds were starting up that morning, which put the entire area under a red flag warning (red flags are apparently vulnerable to these winds). Being a Bay Area guy, I assumed that these winds, which originate in the dry deserts to the east, would be warm or even hot.

I was wrong. The desert gets really cold at night, so first thing in the morning, these winds were actually quite cold. At the race start though, the winds were still getting themselves together, so it was actually reasonably pleasant.

Mrs Notthat thoughtfully wore a bright yellow top so that I could easily spot her out ahead of me. For a while, anyway.
There was a small climb in the first two miles that got us nicely warmed up.

Again, the bright yellow spot is Mrs Notthat, her lead on me growing.

At about mile 2.2 we came to the river crossing. In a normal year, this would be at least mildly formidable, but not this year. Many chose to hop across on the rocks, but I've learned that I'm not that coordinated, so I just stomped through the water.

The first aid station, about mile 2.7.
The first aid station marks the start of the real climb.

I don't know for sure that we climbed that peak, but I think we did. Or at least its mean cousin.
It was along this climb that we started to really get some cold wind gusts to deal with. Most of the time we were pretty protected, but then you'd round a corner and get blasted with a sandy gust. I quickly learned to hold onto my hat when reaching turns.

For the most part, the trails were a mix of wide single-track and nicely graded dirt roads, although you had to pay attention on these roads since there were many rocks with a single-minded desire to trip you up.

These rocks were harder to trip over.
As you climbed, you started to see some great views and rock formations.

One good thing about the winds is that they really cleared the air, and you could see for miles.

It's not easy to make out, but that's the ocean on the horizon. We got to look out over that for many miles as we ran along a ridge top.

A few of the famous Malibu Migratory Rocks.

As you can see, there was a LOT of exposure on this course. It was sunny, but with the highs only in the mid-70s, it was not hot, and we had the winds to keep us cool in any case.

Wait, what? We really go up there?
When I first saw that climb above, and saw runners going up it, I assumed that they were just going on a side trip - there was no way the race course would make us climb that thing.

But it did.

It wasn't nearly as bad as it looked from a distance, and it was actually pretty fun (since I wasn't in a particular hurry).

Coming down the other side was a bit treacherous though - LOTS of ankle-twisting opportunities! What made it worse was that you really wanted to look around and soak in the views.

If you look carefully, you can see the next aid station in the distance.
It should be pointed out that we were not actually done climbing yet, so this bit of challenging downhill was about to be rewarded with some more uphill.

The hugest surprise of the whole race was getting to the second aid station, about mile 8, and seeing our very own Bay Area Yrral (not his real name) running the joint!

Unfortunately, they were in a very windy area and had to improvise a bit.

No, that's not too much starch in the trail ribbon.
About a half mile after that aid station we were at the top and ready for a long dash down the hill. It was mostly very runnable trail, and I knew that Mrs Notthat would be flying. What I didn't know was that, about two thirds of the way down, the ground gave out under her as she rounded a corner and she ended up with some nasty trail rash. And no, that didn't begin to slow her down enough that I could catch her.

At mile 12.4 we arrived at the M*A*S*H aid station.

This signpost was rebuilt in 2008.
The 10K course was an out-and-back that actually headed the opposite way around the lollipop loop than we went, so this was pretty close to the 10K turnaround point.

I was using my Tailwind Nutrition so I didn't need any of the food here, but they were very insistent and I ate a potato. (The Tailwind worked great, by the way.)

According to Wikipedia, that's an ambulance that was used in the TV show.

Leaving that aid station, there are about 2.8 miles of fairly flat trail left. It turned out that this was a pretty popular stretch of trail though, with lots of normal people hiking out to see the M*A*S*H area.

I spent time looking for these ribbon nubs left behind by evil people that rip the ribbon down. 
Historically, this stretch is highly prone to course marking vandalism, so it's the last to get marked. Fortunately, there aren't a lot of intersections, so it's pretty straightforward where to go.

When I first looked at this picture, I thought I must have had dirt on the lens, but then I remembered that I took this during a big wind gust. The worst thing about the wind was the sand and dirt it blew into your face. The good news was that this only happened occasionally.

The wind was blowing over the traffic cones! (Probably not really, but it sure looks that way.)
Eventually I made it to the finish line! My original goal was to finish in around four and a half hours, so I was happy that I got in with a 4:12. I was also dead last out of 82 runners.

My other goal was to not get lapped by a 50K runner (they ran the 25K loop twice), and I succeeded (but just by three minutes - he was hot on my tail!).

When I finished, Mrs Coastal asked if I had seen Mrs Notthat and CFB cheering for me. I hadn't - somehow I had gone past while they were busy doing something else, so I headed over to where they were to let them know they didn't need to keep waiting for me.

CFB's hat blew off so he decided it was safest to just carry it. He was more than a bit surprised that I had already finished; he knows me well enough to keep expectations low. Really low.
The age group award was for the Coastal Lake Chabot 5M race I had done the week before, where I was not DLF and did not win the award by default! Really!
This race was a blast! The trails and views were amazing - it's still hard to reconcile them with the fact that we were so close to LA.

It was about a six hour drive for us (with stops), and the drive back home Sunday after the race was not exactly pleasant for my tired muscles, but the weekend was a lot of fun and a nice change from the normal.

In talking to some of the local runners, apparently last year's version of the race was very different, with a storm moving through leaving behind some very muddy sections of trail. All were much happier to have to deal with the wind instead.

But it wouldn't have surprised me to see a tin man, scarecrow, and lion skipping down the trail - Hollywood's not that far away, after all.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.