Monday, April 28, 2008

Big Basin Redwoods 17K - Boulder Creek CA

I drove down the backside of my Santa Cruz Mountains to Big Basin for another Pacific Coast Trail Runs classic. Just the 17K today. I hadn't run at all since getting back from Boston a few days earlier.

A smaller crew of regular ultrarunners were there, probably because Miwok is next week. Kevin Swisher, Ray Sanchez, and Thom Clarke toed the line as likely favorites for the 50K. Leor Pantilat was there as well running the 25K. Paul Taylor was there to challenge me for at least masters in the 17K.

Paul and I chatting before battle, with 50K winner Kevin Swisher in the foreground

I went out hard in the top few on the 17K loop that all but the 9Kers had to do. As we hit the first long climb about a mile in, I noticed that indeed Paul Taylor was hanging on my shoulder. As we crested and I made a customary wrong turn ("when in doubt keep going up?" Paul correctly headed down on the right course. I tried to keep him in sight but he's a faster descender. As we approached the next climb I caught back up and joined him in a walk, thinking it was better strategy to just hang with him and kick later. But I can't walk the hills. So I took off and run upwards.

This is a great course with a lot of runnable climbing (over 2000 feet) in just 17K. I kept up a run and didn't hit any more extended downhill until the last mile or so. I bombed down as hard as I could at the end thinking Paul had to be close. I finished in 1:29:21, good for second overall and first master. Paul came in at 1:35 even.

I hung around chatting with Paul, his friend Alistair Adams and 25K winner Leor Pantilat briefly afterwards, before heading off to nearby Felton to La Bruschetta Sicilian restaurant for a fantastic brunch in the warm sunshine.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Boston Marathon - Boston, MA

Well every reasonably serious runner wants to do the Boston Marathon one day right? I guess that I am no different. Although I have become more and more ambivalent about road marathons over time as I grow more attached to trail ultras, I decided late last year that I would qualify for Boston, run it and then be done with road marathons. At least in North America (I would like to run Berlin Marathon some day to visit my sister there and maybe run sub 3 hours).

So I ran 3:15 at Silicon Valley to qualify last October. Then some young friend said "oh you old guys get to qualify so easily!". So then I had to go run Vegas in December in 3:10 and change to do the open standard for anyone. So.. given that I qualified I pretty much had to do the race, despite the fact that it fell right I between a lot of important (to me) trail races.
I flew out after winning Skyline Ridge 10K on Saturday and arrived very late on Saturday night to the Park Plaza hotel right near the finish area. Waking late thenext morning I caught the end of the women's marathon before going into the thronged convention center to pick up my bib.

Monday morning I woke up at 4am, despite the late race start of 10am. Just a habit before big races I guess. After eating a leisurely oatmeal breakfast (probably too much for just a marathon) I caught the 6:30 am bus out to Hopkinton. It really is quite a production number getting 25,000 runners shipped out of the city to the race start. If there is ever a natural disaster Boston will be more prepared than any other city to handle the logistics.

Although Boston itself was reasonably warm for the early morning, Hopkinton was bitter cold and windy and there was no heat in the tents. I was dressed only in a couple layers of t-shirts, and I realized that I'd be hanging around for a couple hours with no warmth. My bus seat-mate was kind enough to give me his disposable rainshell. But it was still cold even with that on.

A stupid move not having a jacket. But its rare that I have a race that I really have to wait so long for. And I hate dealing with drop bags. There was a line for a "pre-race massage" that was done indoors. Oh well, I guess I'm going to experiment with having a massage before the race. This would turn out to most likely have been a mistake. They worked my habitually tight calves and hamstrings, which felt great (as did being inside in the warmth).

After braving a 20 minute wait for the porta-john (police were patrolling the woods on the lookout for rogue urinaters - I knew there was a reason I liked small trail races better), I hiked with a few thousand other Wave 1 runners to the starting line. I was in corral 7 after being "seeded" as runner 7055 based on my 3:15 qualifier. I guess I would have been a corral forward if they had used my Vegas time instead. As we waited the sun started to peak out. This was cheering after a very cold and dreary morning wait.

The gun went off and after not too long for such a big race, I crossed the starting line. A crowd was cheering for the first mile or two alongside the race (as they were for almost the whole course). This is one race where it would be quite difficult even for me to get lost on.

I wanted to clock eight minutes for the first mile and then settle into seven minute miles. For some reason, I found myself in a 7:15 mile rhythm. I was a bit baffled by this as 7 minute miles seemed so easy and natural in last winters road marathons. Perhaps I was feeling the effects of last week's 50 miler and Saturday's 10K after all. Still I ran easy and felt good for the first 14 miles or so.

After stopping to kiss the girls at the Wellesley Wall, I found my calf twinging on the slight incline (I hadn't even reached the Newton hills). I stopped to stretch it out and started up again. Every time I tried to push the pace back to 7:15 at least it seized up again. Finally I settled into a stiff-legged "nocalf" gait of 9 minute miles I was able to continue. At the first several aid stations I begged for electrolytes (I hadn't brought any for this seemingly cold day) but noone knew what I was talking about. This was pretty frustrating, although I guess I should have some pills with me given my proclivity for cramping. Still cramp or no cramp there's no way I wasn't finishing a race with tens of thousands of people screaming and encouraging me from the sidelines.

I managed a good push in the final two flat miles to finish in 3:39 and change. I looked everywhere at the end for electrolytes and still couldn't find one. On the walk back to my close by hotel I ran into Steve Yee, president of the Marathon Maniacs. I hadn't seen him since running with him at the Mount Si 50K. What a contrast - I had set my 50K PR at that race, and today I was lucky to finish, Steve had a tough day as well but finished a couple minutes ahead of me.

Given that it was Monday I was eager to get back to California for a bunch of work happenings. I rode a cab right from my hotel at the finish to the airport. At the United counter I was told that I had won at least one division today: first runner to check in for a flight.

With the cheering crowds, long history, and fine fellow competitors, Boston is a one of a kind experience. Despite the mixed results, its a good potential last road marathon for me.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Skyline Ridge 10K - Palo Alto, CA

With Boston coming up on Monday, I should really have slept in today before my flight. Instead I drove the ten miles up to Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve for another Envirosports race. It was on the same course as the Stevens Creek 50K and the Pacific Coast Trail Runs Skyline 50K. The course is too nice and too close to me to skip,

While waiting for the customary EnviroSports late start in the brutal sub-40 degree cold and wind, I chatted with Kelly Emo (another compulsively frequent competitor) making a rare venture onto the trail doing her first of two races this weekend. She's back to competing in triathlons seriously, doing masters sprint triathlon nationals soon.

I also saw Ralph Lewis, a fast short distance trail runner who has usually bested me in such runs. So much for an easy day before Boston. The half marathoners were sent out first, with Leor Pantilat leading out and eventually winning by a wide margin.

Then we 10Kers were sent off. We circled a loop in the parking lot twice before heading through a narrow gate onto the trail. In the lead, I took my customary wrong turn at the first fork. Ralph yelled at me to get back onto the trail, where I had to pass another runner to get back up to him. We ran for a while together before I passed him on the upward climb. Then coming to the top onto the first downhill he passed me and tried to put some distance between us. On the next long climb about two miles in I caught up and pulled away. Then there was a rocky downhill before the aid station turnaround. Getting to the bottom it was unclear if I had to go to the aid station or just turn. While I hesitated Ralph caught up again.

On this subsequent climb back up I pulled away again and decided that I'd rather not be passed again. So I put some distance between us, hoping to give myself a buffer before the last mile of almost all descent. I didn't see him from that point on. I finished in 47:20, good for first and the infamous Envirosports rubber chicken and a free pair of Vasque trail shoes. Ralph came in about 30 seconds later.

We talked about upcoming short trail runs while I waited to cheer Kelly in, before I headed off to SFO for the long flight to Boston.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler - Bear Mountain NY

Wow! This is the most extreme "trail run" I have ever done. And I would guess its the hardest sub 100 miler ultra in existence. Please let me know if I'm wrong about that. Because I'll enter any such other race immediately after finding about it.

I had done the first year of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K in Seattle last fall. I had a great race that day, and I loved all the climbing they managed to squeeze in. The Bear Mountain race was billed as far more technically challenging. So I knew I wanted in on this one, and made plans to fly to New York City as soon as I saw the race posted in January.

Make no mistake about it: this was actually not a trail run. It was fifty miles of primarily bushwhacking. How is this possible you might ask? While there were some sections of single track, some deer paths, and even small segments of fireroad, the majority of the course was following white ribbons amidst the woods. After a certain point it became clear to everyone I was running around that if you really knew where you were supposed to go potentially hours could be saved cutting tangents and not following the white ribbons precisely. Since there really was no trail to speak of it would be hard to even call that course cutting. But if you're not familiar with the course, not only will you not be able to do such optimizations, you will be lucky to end up going in the right general direction at all.

As it was, the wrong turns that I ended up making were _after_ stopping and consulting with other runners at some length about which way to go. And we all went together on these wrong paths. When you do that and end up visiting the same aid station twice, it can be quite deflating. So...if you want to do this race (if they even hold it on this course again) the biggest single thing you can do is to go run the course beforehand (which I have no doubt the top finishers did). Ideally do it with a GPS and slap down some waypoints for later analysis. I do plan to do that next year.

But more challenging than the direction-finding was the nature of the terrain itself: the ribbon-marked so-called paths went up and down hollows and washes and rocks and crags, with dozens of knee deep creek crossings, and a bevy of rain-slicked moss-covered rock slides alternating with wet leaf slides. This no doubt explained the high prevalence of bloody limbs amongst the other competitors. I did fall five times onto my butt, making snowboard runs of the black diamond variety. But despite many minor scrapes and bruises I was nowhere near "best blood" for the day. Thankfully I didn't hear of any truly serious injuries.

As hilarious as these escapades were (and I had a smile on my face the whole time), it was abundantly clear that North Face didn't even make a head-fake attempt to time the course. The "projected times" for leaders and mid-pack were off by many hours, even halfway into the race. Also, I followed several runners into a pointless loop that had us all hitting aid station one a second time (among other small wrong turns that I would guess a majority of the participants ended up making).

As a result this gives me the most mixed emotions of any race that I have ever done. On the one hand I love these kinds of courses. It reminds me of my "secret stash" of trails around my Los Gatos Mountains lair (albeit East Coast bushwhacking is quite a bit different overall than West Coast shwacking). On the other hand, it became very clear during the race that people had no idea what they would be up against here. And despite the competitive venue I couldn't help but empathize with their sufferings.

As I started to figure out ten miles in, it was quite evident that the vast majority of runners would have to be pulled from the course. There was no way that the organizers were ready to do night-time monitoring of a 50 miler. And despite the 5am start, most runners would indeed have finished well past sunset. It seems that the 65 people (out of the 81 starters for the 50 miler) who got past 26.5 miles were counted as finishers, with their places recorded as of that milestone.

I continued past that point and passed at least five more runners.I was told by volunteers approaching mile 33.5 miles, at around nine hours into the race, that I was in the the top 20. I felt strong and was enjoying the afternoon. I had been passing people all day since my initial double visit to aid station 1. So I felt like I could have got back up to the top 10. But I was pretty sure they were going to start pulling everyone from the course soon anyway (which turned out to be true). And we had theater tickets in Manhattan for the evening that would not have been makeable with even the best of finishes. So I called it a day there, overall very satisfied with the day's adventures, although perhaps a bit frustrated by the unnecessary extra loops and thus the missed opportunity for a breakout race, given a terrain that I really enjoy. If this is a DNF, I'll take this particular one with no shame. I would do this race again, though I would definitely run portions of the course beforehand (especially if they modify it at all) and not make any plans for the evening after the race.

I'll be posting pictures and blow by blow details soon. In the meantime see this
better blog post from Scott Livingston
(whose wife is a monster on the order of Krissy Moehl or Beth Vitalis).

Waiting for the 5am start

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Malibu Creek 25K - Calabasas, CA

I enjoy running in the hot desert climate of the mountains around Malibu and Santa Monica. I had done earlier races in Exterra trail series here as part of the Trail Runner Trophy Series a couple of years ago. So, despite having done the Golden Gate Headlands 7 Miler on Saturday, I hopped the one hour flight down to LAX on Saturday evening to do this Pacific Coast Trail Runs race. The day broke a little overcast and cold as I drove from the hotel to the race site in Malibu Creek State Park.

A surprising number of Bay area athletes were there: Ray Sanchez, fresh from the American River 50 that day, Will Gotthardt, Ryan Commons, who's been on assignment in LA for a while. All of them were doing the 50K. Having run the Golden Gate Headlands 7 Miler on Saturday, and with next week's North Face 50 Miler in New York, I only planned to do the 25K. With 3000 feet of climbing, I thought 2:30 would be a great time.

Wendell warned us about a river crossing that was supposedly thigh deep. I didn't really want to get that wet so Will and I both thought we would take the road option. At least that was the plan.

Olver Obagi, Ray Sanchez, Ryan Commons, Will Gotthardt and others at the start

Wendell started us off at 8:30am. The 9Kers turned off after half a mile for their own loop. The rest of us continue on. I was running with Will and Ryan. The Obagi brothers, who I had finished behind at the Morro Bay 25K, were a bit ahead. We all hit the river about the same time without seeing a road option. The rest of the lead pack splashed through. Will turned back to look for the road. I followed Ryan across some rocks to the right, staying relatively dry.

After the crossing we came to the first aid station about 20 minutes in. Then the climbing started in earnest. Up, up and up on fireroad. Ryan pulled away, and eventually Will caught back up after making the road crossing. He pulled ahead as well. I had Oswald Obagi in sight, less than a minute ahead of me, for most of the climb.

Catching up to Oswald Obagi on the climb

As we got onto the ridge, and did a number of rolling slightly technical descents he pulled away. And Martin Brooks started to come up within sight behind me.

On the most technical rocky descent down to the aid station at mile 8, Martin pulled in as I was leaving. OK, I better step it up. On the subsequent climbs I pulled away more. But as we got down to the continuous descent at mile 10, Martin eventually pulled alongside. We ran for a while together. Hearing even more footsteps behind us, I picked up the pace and put some distance between me and Martin and the next guy, Bennett Ouchi. Coming out onto the flats, I put even more distance between us. With a couple miles to go, the trail turned to rocky single track which I knew would slow me down. Out of that stretch with about a mile to go, I could see Martin behind me again only about 100 yards back. Climbing up the road back to the start area, I had to push to keep that gap. I came in in 2:11, far faster than planned for a 25K with 3000 feet of climb, good for fourth overall and first master.

I hung around chatting in the now emerging sunshinewith Martin, Bennett, Wendell, Sarah, and Jon before heading to the Burbank airport and a quick flight home. I like these Malibu races and will be back for more of them later this year.