Saturday, April 21, 2018

That was a long time between Half Marathons!

Back in May of 2017, I ran the Coastal Horseshoe Lake Half Marathon.

There really is a horseshoe-shaped lake there!
It was my third consecutive weekend running a Half, and it turned out to be my last Half for almost a year. My dodgy knee was starting to complain so I started doing shorter distances.

Then it was time to volunteer at Western States. My knee was feeling much better by then, so I was no longer wearing my brace. (You should be hearing that kind of music now that precedes a bad thing happening.)

After the Last Chance aid station closed, I headed down to the least technical bit of the course - the track that the runners use to get to the finish line. I knew a ton of people in the race, so I spent a lot of time taking pictures of them as they came in the gate and ran the track to the finish. On my second to last runner, I ran on that grass bit and managed to step in a small hole that tweaked my nearly healed knee in a way that caused more pain than that knee has ever known. It was a total shock - just a very freak accident.

I ended up spending the next three months hobbling along doing a bare minimum of races (we were streaking at Brazen, and even their 5Ks can often be really challenging). I started working in some 10Ks in the fall and winter, and finally decided in late January that I could try to do another Half.

The Brazen Coyote Hills Half turned out to be really special. It was Mrs Notthat's 100th lifetime Half. (She had been sitting on 99 for several years!) At the race, she was significantly ahead of me, and I was really dragging (my fitness was shockingly lacking). The course is two laps of a 10Kish course, and I decided to drop at the end of the first lap since I really wanted to be there when she came in (Not a Canadian had warned me that she had something up her sleeve), and there was no way I was going to finish within an hour of her.

Note the scratches on her clip-ons. It's not that easy to do that while wearing them. 
Then everything changed. Mrs Notthat took a nasty fall - other runners coming back at me on the out-and-back bit of the course were warning me that it was not good. The fact that I didn't see her going past me on that bit of trail confirmed that things were not great. She turned out to be at the aid station getting bandaged up. "It's only a flesh wound" was what I imagined her saying. She was seriously hobbled, but still determined to get the Half done. The problem was that she was now going to be pushing cutoffs if she wasn't able to move reasonably well.

So now my Half was back on - I was going to stick with her and keep her moving well enough to get past the cutoffs and get this done (or make her stop if she was really struggling). We started out pretty slow as she worked out how bad things were, but started to pick it up a bit. Now I was back to worrying whether I could keep up with her, but was determined to stick it out.

Not a Canadian being an amazing trail angel!

Near the end of that first lap, we were fine on the first cutoff. And Not a Canadian was waiting there. We explained what was going on and she volunteered to pace her around that second lap (even though she had already run a fast 10K). I vowed to follow along, but soon realized I had no hope of keeping up with the two of them. So I cut my second lap short and headed back so I could catch her finish.

This was truly an amazing accomplishment given the pain she was in. Sadly, she is still paying for that effort a bit, with Achilles pain that is being very slow to heal.
Enough about her - back to me. This DNF convinced me that I needed to up my training before I took on another Half. The good news was that my knee did not rebel too strongly at the nine or so miles I did get in.

All of which made me decide to target the Brazen Diablo Challenge Half Marathon. If you use elevation gain to judge whether one Half is harder than another, this Half comes in at Brazen's seventh hardest - just barely beating out Lagoon Valley and Wildcat. But something about it always makes it harder than it should be.

Double-click to see this simplified course map a bit bigger.
The fun thing about this Half is that there are so many creek crossings, and this year, most of the creeks had significant water in them. We had significant sun too, although it wasn't that hot (low to mid 70s). All I wanted to do was to finish, and to do that, I had one cutoff I had to make. Three hours to get to mile 7.9 seems absurdly generous, but so many of those miles are uphill. And it goes without saying, my fitness was still not suitable for a race like this.

So I gave myself a couple of outs - if things were going badly, I could turn around at the 5K or 10K turnarounds.

Brave Ymmot (not his real name) keeping that boulder from crushing us runners.
The race started fine, and I kept my speed well under control (like I had any other options).

The first aid station, about mile 1.1, headed up by my arch-nemesis. She would later kick herself for not running this Half since she would have given me a massive beatdown.

When I arrived at the 5K turnaround, I was feeling fine, so I kept pushing on to the 10K turnaround.

Shortly after the 5K turnaround, we jump off the wide more or less flat trail onto this single-track, and our first of two small warm up climbs. These would largely determine whether I was going to finish this Half or not.

The second aid station, about mile 2.8, before starting the second warm up climb.
That first small climb (about 400 feet) was tougher than I would have liked. The second small climb (also about 400 feet) was also tough. Things were looking grim for my Half.

After that second climb, you get a nice downhill that's just long enough for you to forget the nasty things your brain was telling you back when you were slogging up that hill. The 10K turnaround was coming up quickly.

Sometimes trails make excellent creeks.
The 10K turnaround - time to decide.
By the time I made it to the 10K turnaround, I had largely forgotten how those small climbs had taxed me. So I pushed on. From here on, there were no easy outs until you finished the real climb, and if you can manage that, there is no good reason not to finish (assuming you make the cutoff).

This was about mile four, and it had taken me 75 minutes to get there. I now had to go four more miles in 105 minutes. But that four miles had about 1400 feet of climbing. The climb did have a few small breaks (and LOTS of false summits), but you would find yourself swearing every time you gave back some elevation, knowing you were going to have to make up for it shortly after.

An example of a creek crossing, and the base of the big climb (if you look at the simple course map above, this is where that big loop meets the stick).
I got a kick out of the two runners taking a selfie.
This trail is challenging - it's completely exposed so, even though it wasn't really hot, the sun took its toll on you. But the clear skies and climb rewarded you with astonishing views. (Not enough of a reward, but it helped.)

Not a mirage - that really is the third aid station, at the top of a hill, naturally.
I had hoped to do this stretch without having to pause, and I did pretty good, but did end up pausing a couple of times to catch my breath (and convince myself that this wasn't really the stupidest idea I've ever had). When I finally spotted that third aid station (the one with the cutoff), I was thrilled. Near death, but thrilled.

"Would you like a complimentary cup of water sir?" I've never been so happy to see The Endorphin Dude.
It ended up taking me about 85 minutes to cover that four miles, so I was well within the cutoff (and I wasn't last either!). I was happy that I would be able to take a few minutes here to gather myself.

Me gathering myself. Picture by The Endorphin Dude. Misery by Diablo. This is the classic pose of someone who is about to "reset their stomach." Fortunately, I was having no stomach issues at all - I was just dang tired.
"You want ANOTHER complimentary water?" Miss Chris Bliss was way more angelic than those horns lead on.
Total surprise seeing so many rock stars here, including Ecarg, Aynwat, and Mas (not their real names). They were getting ready to sweep the second half of the 50K course.
"See daddy? See those runners way up there?" (He was actually pointing at a helicopter that had been circling me, assuming I would keel over at any moment, which was a fair bet.)
I left the aid station about 12 minutes before the cutoff, and of course, started going uphill. There isn't a lot of climbing left though, but by now these small hills seemed daunting.

I was so thrilled to get to turn left here. The 50K runners at this point are now facing the hardest part of their race.
Once I hit the long downhill, I was happy that I was able to run, even if it was very slow.

It wasn't really all single-track like this, but it was all very runnable downhill for about  two miles.
After about a mile though, I started having a sharp pain in my inner thigh, no doubt caused by me compensating for the knee. So I started walking for a bit, and the pain went away. Once I was closer to the bottom of the climb, I tried running again and all went fine. Well, other than me being totally exhausted.

This is at the end of that big loop. The Search and Rescue volunteer was recording bib numbers to help keep track of us runners. I was encouraged that he didn't immediately radio for a helicopter to extract me.
From this point, I'm heading back mostly on trails that I came out on - net downhill but some rolling and a LOT of creek crossings.

50K runner Nhoj getting his picture taken by Yaj (not their real names) who had finished his Half a couple of hours earlier.
Yaj had finished his race a bit over two hours earlier and was now out taking pictures of us mortals. He got this shot of me that does an amazing job of making me look like a real runner!

"Don't fall don't fall don't fall…" Picture by Yaj.

And then finally, the finish arch. It was all I could do to avoid giving it a big sweaty hug.

The thing on the right was on the bottom-back of my shirt. Not a Canadian brought it back from Greece since she knew I would make it useful (as long as you have a loose enough definition of "useful").
And then I was done. I had survived the Half. My muscles were amazingly sore, but my knee held up fine. This was my seventh finish of this Half course (there are two Brazen races a year that use it), and a bit more that 20 minutes longer than any of them at 4:27. I was number 272 out of 286 finishers. (I was the only one of six in my age group to not finish in under three hours  - old trail runners are tough and fast!)

It was awesome to get this finish. I'm not sure it was wise, but a week later, I'm feeling recovered and happy to have that Half monkey off my back. Getting farther than the Half distance might be a bit out still, but I'm more confident that that's just a training issue, which can be fixed.

It might not be easy though.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.