Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mount Tamalpais 50K (11/11/12)

When I visited the Marin Headlands above San Francisco for the Coyote Ridge Trail Run, it was love at first sight and I couldn't wait to go back.  When I learned that Inside Trail Racing, the same folks who put on the Folsom Lake race, were holding a race at Stinson Beach/Mount Tamalpais, I jumped at the opportunity.  Mt. Tam is the prominent feature of the Marin Headlands, and Stinson Beach is the location of the trailhead to the famous Dipsea Trail.

When I thought it couldn't get any better after Coyote Ridge, this race proved me wrong.  In terms of the course, Mt. Tam 50K is probably the hardest I've ever run, rivaled only by Mount Disappointment.  In terms of scenery, I don't think any other race I've run can rival this one.  Half of it was climbing or descending huge hills in the deep pine forests and the famous Muir Woods, and half of it was doing the same on the coastal hills open to sweeping ocean vistas.  Additionally, it was a clear sunny day and the temperature was perfect.  

This was by far the largest NorCal race I've run so far.  There were hundreds of people there for the four different race options (10K, half marathon, 30K, 50K), and quite a competitive turn-out as well.  There were a couple of La Sportiva athletes, including the virtually unbeatable Leor Pantilat, and a few North Face runners as well, including Devon Yanko (Crosby-Helms).
Start, with Pantilat on the right (beast mode)
The race was a blast.  It begins with a ~3-mile climb through the forest, which I tried to take pretty easy to feel things out.  My calves were actually pretty stiff from the previous weekend's climbing.  On the long descent after the first aid station, I ended up latching on to a small group of runners which included a guy named Lucas and Devon Yanko.  We took the descent as a group, basically, and then on the next climb I found myself running just with Lucas.  We were running essentially the same pace and energy level, it seemed, so it was good company and we really enjoyed all the fantastic views and trails.  

Lucas and I ran together for several more miles, down the next big hill, through the second aid station, and then to the next big up hill, which was 3 or 4 miles long.  It started with a mile or two of switchbacks, and then opened up into longer stretches high up above the ocean.  It was a long, seemingly endless climb, but never too steep.  Half way up this climb or so, Lucas and I caught up with another guy named Charlie.  The three of us ran together or close to each other for the last  2-ish miles of the climb probably until the next aid station at the top.  After that aid station came my favorite part of the course.  It was about three miles back down to Stinson Beach on the Dipsea Trail.  When it entered the woods, there was a nice section of soft trail through the pines that curved gradually downhill.  It was so pretty and smooth, I couldn't resist opening up a bit.  So I started flying down the hill and having a lot of fun doing it.  Soon enough, I hit the stairs that the Dipsea Trail is so well known for.  I bounced down those feeling great until I reached the 30K mark back at the start/finish area.

Charlie and I coming into the aid station, ocean in the background
From there, I headed back out to run the half marathon loop, which was 14 miles and the same as the 30K loop except with one section taken out.  On the first climb up through the woods, I felt better than I had felt running up it the first time earlier.  I was running by myself now and really enjoying the solitude on these stunning trails.  Soon enough, I was back on the big hill near the ocean leading to the last aid station.  I assume it took me a little bit longer to run up this time than it had the first, but I still kept it pretty steady.  It took 40 minutes to ascend, and definitely beat up my legs pretty good at this point.  So I was really excited when I got to the top to the final aid station, which meant my favorite section of the course was all that remained.  Again, I went flying down through the pine forest and bouncing down the steps, often two at a time, until I reached the parking lot leading into the Stinson Beach finish line.  

It was awesome to see my good friend Eric there, who had made the trip to San Francisco with me to run his first half marathon at this race.  He couldn't have chosen a more difficult course to run as his first, but he did it and loved it, which is awesome.

I can't get enough of the Marin Headlands...can't wait 'til I find an opportunity/excuse to go back again!  And ITR definitely knows how to put on a fun and quality event.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Folsom Lake 50K (10/28/12) and Outdoor Outreach Endurance Race (11/3/12)

My second trip to northern California this year was a quick one to take the opportunity to jump into a 50K at Folsom Lake, just northeast of Sacramento.  After Cuyamaca, I had been feeling good and doing more road/flat runs than I had all summer.  Running was going well, but with all the hilly/mountainy trail running I'd been doing, the notion of running a 'fast' race, like a road marathon or 50K or one on a flatter trail, seemed rather daunting.  I still can't imagine myself touching my marathon PR.

The Folsom Lake Trail Run was an opportunity to run a 50K on a faster course than anything I've run since coming out to California.  With only 2,000 some feet of elevation gain, this course would be an out-and-back on rolling single track.  To be honest, I expected to run a 50K PR with relative ease and break 4:00, which I've never done in an actual race.  I was a little surprised, then, when I reached the turn-around at about 1:58.  I was feeling pretty good, but felt like I'd been running faster than that.  On the way back, probably 3/4 or 2/3 of the way through the race, I started feeling pretty drained and began to slow.  I had decided not to run with a water bottle for this race, which was probably a mistake and may have affected me a bit.  By mile 25 or so, I was very tired and slogged my way in for the remainder of the race, the return trip being about 19 minutes slower than the way out.  I think it was a combination of not being used to running long on trails like this one, and just not being on my game that day.  It was still a fun morning though on a nice rolling trail along Folsom Lake.

the end of the race. Photo: ITR
The race was put on by Inside Trail, a group of folks that puts on a bunch of races in Nor Cal.  They were a bunch of really nice people, enthusiastic about the local trail running community.  It was fun to hang out around the finish area for a while after the race and take a bath in the lake before heading back to the airport.  

The San Francisco/Sacramento area is amazing in terms of trail running.  There is an ultra quite literally almost every weekend, it seems.  They are organized by any of a handful of fun-loving, close-knit groups.  This all fosters an extraordinary and deep running community, which I am quickly becoming a little bit addicted to.  

The following weekend was a little race I stumbled upon called Reach the Peak at Black Mountain, just outside San Diego.  There were a bunch of race options, including some mountain bike races and an adventure-type race.  The event was put on by a charity organization called Outdoor Outreach, which strives to change/improve the lives of underprivileged children by means of increased outdoor activity.  I chose to run the "endurance race," which was a 3 hour race, the first time-based race I've ever entered, to see how many times you could run to the top of Black Mountain and back.  It sounded like a lot of fun, and definitely a good way to get a good training run with a good bit of elevation gain/loss.  I ended up getting five laps in about 2:55, for roughly 19 miles and something in the ballpark of 4,000 feet of gain, give or take.  The other really cool thing about this race, was that there were a total of five people in the 3-hour event.  One of those was my roommate John who I came to the race with.  Another of the five was Jason Schlarb, an elite ultrarunner and totally cool dude who just got out of the Air Force.  It was awesome to meet him and very unexpected to see an elite runner at such a small race.

I had a lot of fun running this; it was a really cool idea for a race.  It was also surely a great training run, spending 3 hours always either running uphill or downhill.  Assuming my legs would recover easily enough, this would be a nice way to prepare for the following weekend's run at the Mount Tamalpais 50K back up in NorCal, where I would undoubtedly be spending a significantly longer amount of time doing the same thing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inaugural Cuyamaca 100K - October 6, 2012

Pre-Race Build-up and Thoughts

After Coyote Ridge, the trend to returning to normal running continued gradually.  In the weeks between Coyote Ridge and Cuyamaca 100K, I ran a 5K, a track workout, and two interval workouts.  It had been months since I'd done any of those things.  The 5K was the first time running sub-6 pace on flat road since April, and it had been just as long since my last track workout.  These runs gave me confidence that my knee and body were ready to gear back up and run fast again.

I continued to carefully run more.  By the time Cuyamaca got here, I still hadn't worked my way up to any kind of high mileage, but did manage several runs in the 15-22 mile range.  The two weeks before Cuyamaca, with about 73 and 65 miles, respectively, were my highest mileage weeks this summer post-injury.  The weekend before Cuyamaca I went to Point Mugu State Park, camped on the beach and enjoyed a beautiful jaunt for about 4 hours on the Ray Miller Trail, Boney Mountain, and the connecting trails.  It was as beautiful as I was hoping it would be.  Stunning views, difficult climbs, fun descents.

So anyway, going into the Cuyamaca 100K, there were lots of things on my mind.  I had been feeling healthy, so I was confident that I was past my injuries and would be able to finish the race.  The rest was pretty uncertain, though.  I was glad to be definitely on the upward trend again with my running, but I was nowhere near the level of fitness I was at in Fall 2011 or late Spring this year.  The fact that the only other 100K I've run (Bandera, January 2012) was a complete disaster left me feeling a bit uneasy about going that same distance again.  Cuyamaca would have more elevation change than Bandera, but better surface.  The big problem at Bandera, though, was that I had overestimated my fitness, underestimated the distance, and just recovered from an injury that returned halfway through the race.

I planned to use the uneasiness from Bandera to help me run a smarter race at Cuyamaca.  And Bandera was indeed on my mind several times throughout the race.

Oh yeah, the other thing that I was really anxious about was heat.  One of (if not the) worst encounters with heat I've ever had was when I ran the second half of the Cuyamaca course with a group in late July.  It was terrible, and San Diego had been experiencing much higher than usual heat in the weeks leading up to the Cuyamaca race.  I was very thankful, then, that the weather cooled down JUST in time for race weekend, so the heat was no longer much of an issue.

trying to recover from post-run heat exhaustion back in July
Of course, there was a ton to be excited about this race.  I was really looking forward to being part of an inaugural event.  And now that it's over, I'm sure it is one that will be around for a long time and become very popular very quickly.  Also, my dad flew in for the race weekend to crew for me.  Thanks to the fantastic race organization and relative proximity of the aid stations to each other, I was able to see my dad probably about every hour on average - at all but one aid station.  I have issues sometimes forcing myself to fuel properly.  JFK 2011, probably the best race I've ever run, went so well largely due to a regular, disciplined fueling routine.  My dad was there at Cuyamaca to ensure I took all the gels, electrolytes and food that I needed to avoid crashing.

The Race

Wow...since moving to San Diego in late June, this was my third ultra, and it felt like truly complete immersion in the California trail scene.  The race directors were truly experts.  It was one of the most well organized events I've run -- and it was the first time it's been held!  Every aid station was well stocked and staffed by cheerful and exuberant volunteers.  It's always nice when you can tell that the volunteers are having a great time being out there, AND they do everything they can to make sure the runners get what they need.

It was quite a chilly morning before the start - kind of refreshing to start running with the temperature still in the high 40s/low 50s F (that's a guess).  I said goodbye to my dad and joined everyone else on the starting line, where I ran into the one person that I knew who was also running: Joel, who I'd become acquainted with at the training run.

The first 8 miles were pretty fast terrain, generally downhill.  I fell into a long line of runners on the singletrack, which gradually thinned out into smaller groups.  I recognized a couple others from the July  training run.  With Bandera in mind, I made sure to maintain a feeling of reservation in this first segment.  It was a beautiful morning!

I felt great and fresh.  I reached the first aid station in a bit shorter time that I had anticipated, but that was just because of the generally downhill first section - I was being careful and staying very conservative, so I wasn't worried that I'd gone out too fast at all.

from the race's Facebook - getting close to Green Valley (Aid Station 2)
Between miles 8 and 13, I started to pass people once in a while.  I had found a good rhythm, but it was still early and essentially all of the 10,000+ feet of climbing was still ahead.  The next aid station was at Green Valley Campground, and we ran down a road that went through the whole campground before actually reaching the aid station.  It was nice to be cheered on by the little groups of campers that had recently rolled out of their tents.  The volunteers at Green Valley advised that I have two bottles or a camelback for the next section.  It was 9 miles almost entirely uphill to the peak of Mount Cuyamaca.  Honestly, and in hind sight, that sounds worse than it actually is.  I don't know exactly, but my guess is that we had about 2,000 feet to gain from Green Valley to the peak.  So 2,000 feet in 9 miles is really a nice gradual climb.  Also, it was still nice and relatively cool out.  The climb up Cuyamaca exposed us to some nice winds blowing through the valleys, too.  But since I only had one bottle, I took in a good bit of nutrition at Green Valley, and the volunteers gave me a bottle of water to carry with me in addition.  My dad was there to help, but the aid station at the peak was the only one that was not crew accessible, so it would be about 13 miles and 2-3 hours until I saw him again.  

The climb to the top of Mount Cuyamaca ended up being my favorite section all day.  I had never been on that trail before, and it was wonderful!  Great views, awesome trail, and perfect weather.  I went on to pass a couple more people on the climb until I settled into what would basically be my position for the remainder of the day.  About 3/4 or so of the way up the climb, I passed a girl named Ashley who was sponsored by Pearl Izumi.  I was excited about this, because I love PI products, and I was wearing PI shoes and shorts.  I passed her then, which represented the beginning of a game of cat-and-mouse which would endure the next 7 hours.  

I was almost disappointed when this 9-mile section was over, but the aid station at the top was phenomenal and had a great view (big kudos to the RDs for getting such a complete aid station all the way up there!).  

Next up was a 4 mile descent, much of which was on an uncomfortably rocky trail down the east side of the mountain.  This section actually made me think about Bandera a lot.  The footing was similarly difficult to the rocks that cover half of the Bandera course.  I'd been feeling great all morning, but this section actually started to beat me up a bit.  The footing was frustrating, and my feet began to hurt.  Soon enough, though, I was at Paso Picacho, where I had camped before and my dad awaited me.  Ashley came into the aid station just after me and left just before me.  It was only 4 or 5 miles from here to the end of the first 50K, so I didn't spend too much time.  I then ran a good bit of the next segment with Ashley, chatting a bit - nice to have a little company after my rough patch coming down off Cuyamaca.  
entering Paso Picacho, feeling a little rough
Our cat-and-mouse game continued at the completion of the first loop.  Again, I entered the aid station before her, but she left before me.  I tried to eat and drink a lot here, because I had been feeling somewhat low and up next was an 8 mile segment.  I finished the first 50K in about 5:13, I think, and left to begin loop 2 at about 5:18.  I felt decent at the beginning of loop 2 (a 12-mile loop), but still not very good.  My plan/hope was that the second half of the race would be less painful and unpleasant than the training run on the second half of the course in July, which took about 6 hours total.  And honestly, although I wasn't feeling great at the time, I had a feeling I could run the second half in less than 6 hours, which would put me finishing at 11:20 or better - a time which I considered quite respectable!

On the plus side, everything I had ahead of me now I'd already seen before.  However, the climb at the beginning of loop 2 was significantly tougher than I remembered.  I was a bit surprised, really, and I walked much of it.  This was also the hottest part of the day, as it was early afternoon.  It was nowhere near as bad as that late-July training run, though.  As the trail dumped me out into a meadow toward the top of the climb, I began to feel a little better.  I saw Ashley again up ahead of me and counted her about two minutes ahead of me.  It was now a couple more miles, much of it back downhill, to the next aid station, and I started rolling again.  When I got to the next aid station and saw my dad (mile 39ish), I was feeling good.  I put lots of cold water in my head and ate some fruit.  Then it was only 4 miles back to camp to finish loop 2 and start the final loop.  I caught up to Ashley again at the aid station, but she left to begin loop 3 before I did.  Again, I was stuck around to fuel up a lot because the next segment was about 7 miles, and I remembered it being difficult when I ran it in July.  It included a pretty good climb for 3 miles or so.  

On a dirt path leading to the beginning of the climb, I saw Ashley up ahead again.  After a mile or so, I caught up with her and jogged next to her briefly.  I knew this was the last bad climb of the course and that there was a good bit of downhill to the finish, so I shared that with her.  I went ahead a little bit and got into a good rhythm on the climb.  My legs were tired and definitely feeling the day's miles, but I was all there mentally.  I remembered how miserable I was on this climb a couple months prior and was  perhaps motivated by how much better I was moving up it this time.  

I was then very pleased when I reached the Sunrise Highway aid station at mile 50.9 in just about exactly 9 hours.  All things considered, 9 hours for those 50 miles seemed pretty good.  Also, it was now about 11.5 miles to the finish.  The next 4-5 miles were relatively easy terrain, and then the final 6-7 were almost entirely flat or downhill.  It was here that I began to consider the possibility of running under 11 hours.

taken by a spectator - approaching Sunrise at mile 51
I left Sunrise just as Ashley was entering, as our game continued.  I began to run hard off and on during the next segment as the thought of 11 hours drove me forward.  I was a bit discouraged, though, as this section seemed to last longer than I was expecting.  It wasn't huge, but I anticipated reaching the final aid station, Pedro Fages at mile 55.5, at about 9:50 run time.  Instead, I arrived at 10 hours, but still feeling really good.  My dad was there, and everyone seemed to be in a great mood.  It was just under 7  miles from here to the finish, and I had just under an hour to do it if I was going to break 11 hours.  I left the aid station at a walk for a couple minutes while I ate, but then began to push.  I began some self talk at this point, telling myself not to leave anything out on the trail and making the conscious decision to run faster than I was at any given moment if I had it in me.  I couldn't believe how hard I was running for the last 3 miles or so.  I felt like I was running at marathon pace.  I didn't know how far I had to the finish, but I knew I was going to be close to 11:00.  The uncertainty made me push harder.
entering Pedro Fages at mile 55.5 - last aid station!
homeward bound - leaving Pedro Fages!

Eventually, I saw a trail sign that made me think I had about a mile to go, and my watch was at 10:52 I think.  I knew I could run an 8-minute mile at this point, so I was excited.  

There was a tiny little hill about a quarter mile before the finish that slowed me down drastically for the 20 or 30 seconds that it lasted, which I thought was kind of funny.  As soon as it leveled off, though, I was back at a fast pace.  And I had timed it just about perfectly, crossing the line in 10:59:08.

The RD, Scott Crellin, was there to greet me and I expressed my excitement about his race and how wonderfully impressed I was.  I was also really happy that I ran a good race and finished before sunset - so my dad didn't fly all the way out to San Diego to see me crash and burn and/or run into the night.  I definitely ran a much smarter race than I did at Bandera.  At Bandera, my 50K splits were about 5:00 and 7:30, whereas at Cuyamaca they were about 5:20 and 5:40.  Also, I met my goal of running the second half better than the training run a couple months ago.

And best of all, I felt great almost all day!  No injuries or nags whatsoever, and high energy almost the entire time.  And then, I was equally (if not more) excited about the running I did in the days/week right after Cuyamaca 100K.  While my legs were a bit tired and my joints a little stiff, I was going on normal runs and feeling good...that may sound kind of weird, but I don't really feel like explaining it.  The bottom line is, I finally feel like I'm getting back into good shape now and able to get into a regular running routine.

After Bandera 100K, I knew I didn't run a smart race and I paid for it dearly.  However, I did like the 100K distance.  Cuyamaca 100K reaffirmed that for me; it is a very enjoyable distance.  I'd really like to get into another 100K or 50 miler sometime soon, but I'm still looking for one that will fit into my schedule.
Good day - time for a milkshake at Descanso Junction with Dad

Friday, October 12, 2012

Coyote Ridge Trail Run 50K – September 1, 2012

On Friday, August 31, in the dark parking lot at Muir Beach, many groups of beachgoers were packing up their cars in order to get out of there by 9:00, the posted closing time of the lot.  I was hoping to find someone there who was involved with the race the next morning – maybe someone else just looking to crash for the night in the parking lot which was, after all, the starting location for the race.  The word I got was that they close the gate at 9:00 and if your car is still in there, you’re just stuck there until the morning.  Well, that was perfect then.  So I made room and laid down in the Corolla to get some sleep.  As I try to fall asleep, I hear a chirping kind of noise.  When I sit up and look out the window, I observe a couple of skunks scavenging around the parking lot, and a little coyote trotting by. 

I had just fallen asleep when I was awoken by a knock on the window, a bright flashlight, and the word “police”.  Turns out I was misinformed about my lodging option.  I did laugh, though, as I wondered what the police officer might have been thinking was going on in that car.  I assume he was hoping for something a little more exciting.

Anyways, the race turned out to be very small, but most excellent.  I had never run on trails like this before – huge hills and cliffs right next to the ocean and San Francisco Bay.  It was beautiful.  These hills were lots of fun to run on – they are what we would call mountains in Maryland.  I kept thinking about the course as an amped up version of the HAT Run back home.  Both probably have similar profiles, with lots of up and down, up and down.  Except these ups and downs were much bigger, and the views were of the Pacific Ocean and SF Bay instead of the Susquehanna.

I was still on the very gradual trend back to normal running, so I was there to just have a good time and enjoy this beautiful new setting.  I found myself feeling quite good and strong on the climbs, and barreling nicely downhill, all the time feeling relaxed and within my comfort zone. 

The most incredible part of the course was somewhere around mile 10, probably, when the trail took me to the bay side of the park.  I ran downhill for a few minutes with a view of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the San Francisco skyline straight ahead.  The cloud layer was still covering the top of the bridge.  It was one of the most inspiring man-made views I think I have ever seen. 

I reached a bit of a low-energy lull at about mile 23, but after the next aid station I snapped out of it and continued to feel pretty good the rest of the way.  Overall, I felt pretty excellent the whole morning.  The race ends with the biggest climb of the course, which we ran up twice, followed by a nice steep downhill for another 2 miles or so back down to Muir Beach.  I finished nice and strong and still felt good.  I really had a blast and was loving every mile of the race.

Turning into the finish - Thanks CTR!
This race definitely helped raise my confidence about being able to increase my training a little more and hopefully have some semblance of preparation by the time Cuyamaca 100k rolled around.

I had heard of Muir Beach several times before, probably mostly from following along or reading about the North Face 50 miler that happens in that area in December every year.  I remembered that Muir Beach was one of the aid stations at that event.  In fact, while we were running this race, I crossed paths with a fellow on the trails running with a measuring wheel – I later learned that he was measuring for the TNF50 route.  Anyway, a week or two ago I put my name in for the waitlist for TNF50, because I would LOVE any opportunity to go run those trails again.  Stunning, challenging and fun.

Mount Disappointment 50K – August 11, 2012

Mount Disappointment was my first ever California trail race.  It didn’t come under ideal conditions, but I was really excited to experience first hand what all the buzz is about.  I signed up for it because I couldn’t resist.  In the mountains just east of Los Angeles, it was close enough to drive to the night before and then be able to drive home after the race on Saturday.  And it would be my first taste of a California mountain race!

So there were lots of great reasons to do this race, and I couldn’t resist.  Due to a largely inactive summer trying to shake injuries, I was not in great shape.  This would also be my first attempt at a race of any distance since dropping out of TNF50 in early June.  My only concern, then, was to have fun and finish without re-aggravating my knee.  Only in mid-July had I begun to experience gradual progress toward being able to run normally again, so I was a little nervous and planned on paying close attention to how my knee felt throughout the race.

It ended up being an outstanding experience and a ton of fun.  I drove to the top of Mount Wilson, where the race starts and finishes, on Friday evening and was greeted by the RD and a group of volunteers still working hard to make all the necessary preparations for the race.  The vollies were all spending the night there under the pavilion on their cots.  I found a little secluded spot in the woods near the parking lot and set up my tent.  It was a nice relaxing evening, hanging out with the volunteers, who shared s’mores and wine with me, and enjoying a beautiful sunset. 

It was pretty warm sleeping in my tent that night…even in just my underwear and outside my sleeping bag, I woke up several times feeling a bit clammy and uncomfortable….

Early to rise the next morning, I rolled out of the tent and walked up to the pavilion to register, as other runners had already begun to do.  There was a lot of talk about how hot it had been in that area lately and how hot it was supposed to be that day.

Probably taken by Fausto, the friendly race photographer!
The race began with about two or three miles down the road that leads to the Mt. Wilson summit.  During this descent, we got a nice view of Los Angeles to the west, with the sunrise from the east casting it’s light over the mountains and on to the shiny buildings.

I was very uncertain about this race.  It had been so long, it seemed, since I had done a race, that I didn’t remember how I should pace myself.  On top of that, this was likely going to be the most difficult course I’d ever run.  And on top of that, I wasn’t really sure what kind of shape I was in – whether or not I had retained some of my pre-injury fitness, and if so, how much? 

So because of all that uncertainty, and the fact that I was excited to be in a race again, I think I went out at a bit too high of an effort level.  However, I think the biggest detriment to my performance was indeed the heat.

Two weeks prior, I think, I had gone to a training run on the second half of the Cuyamaca 100K course.  It got extremely hot (like 100F+) and I, along with several other runners, had insufficient water/fuel.  After that run was finally over, I felt some pretty serious effects of heat exhaustion.  I was dizzy, nauseous and light-headed.  After about a half hour of sipping fluids and sitting in my car with a bag of ice on my head, I started feeling better.  But it was enough to make me realize that I am not very acclimated to running for a long time in bad heat.

In the middle of the Mount Disappointment 50K, there is a 5 or 6 mile climb which ends at I think mile 22…or 24.  I forget, exactly.  The point is, it’s 5 or 6 miles of consistent uphill on a narrow dirt road that is completely exposed to the sun, which was a’blazin’.  I had been feeling great for the whole race, climbing quite well and descending smoothly, until about halfway up that climb.  There was then a quite precise moment when I just crashed.  My legs felt no different, but my energy level simply dropped through the floor.  And it never returned.  I walked basically the entire remainder of the race.  It was incredibly hot and my body just couldn’t handle it.  After that long exposed climb, there was a few miles of downhill in a canyon.  I even walked much of that, as it often felt like I was baking in an oven.  I was actually happy when I got to the final aid station after that and they told me the 5 miles of the race that remained were all uphill, because that meant I didn’t have to feel bad about walking the whole way :D  And they were, and I did. 

More thanks to Fausto for the finish line photo
When I finally did finish, in over six and a half hours, I was perfectly happy.  While it was extremely uncomfortable for the last few hours, I still loved the fact that I was taking part in my first California mountain race, where the volunteers were great and the climbs were serious.  It was definitely the hardest race I have participated in, mile for mile.  This particular experience was probably more difficult for me than any race I’ve done 50 miles or less.  Hell, it took me about the same amount of time to cover these 33 miles as it did to cover 50 at JFK last year.  Granted, I was not exactly prepared for this race, so this isn’t exactly an objective portrayal.  But the course is indeed very difficult.  I really don’t think there is any more than a half-mile or mile total of flat terrain in the whole race.  The entire course is either taking you downhill for anywhere from 2-6 miles, or uphill for 2-6 miles.  It’s awesome.  And I love it.  And I’d love to take another crack at it. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

May 10-13, 2012 - ~110 miles of the Appalachian Trail

This year was shaping out pretty well for several months.  With the exception of a few 1-2 week breaks from running here and there trying to keep that shin injury at bay, I still felt like I was maintaining pretty good shape.  I was definitely getting out to plenty of races to enjoy the sights and company and reap the benefits of those long weekend runs.  I also thought I was being pretty smart with the injury.  Two days before the Triple Crown, it bothered me on a run for the first time in a while.  I had been feeling very confident about my shin before that, as it had passed the rigorous test of racing Boston and then running a double marathon on the road in the Blue Ridge Mountains a few days later.  No issues whatsoever, until about 5 days later.  A couple miles into the Triple Crown, it started hurting again, but I was too excited to be back on the trails for the first time in a while.  I couldn't stop, so I pushed through it, deciding on the spot that the race was fun enough to justify taking another week off.

That was on April 28th.  On May 10th, I was scheduled to begin my first big adventure run since the Grand Canyon.  Two close friends and I had planned a four-day trip to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  Earlier in the year, we knew we would all have some time off in mid-May, so we began brainstorming possible adventures.  This one was one of the first ideas we came up with and also, conveniently, probably the cheapest and closest to home. 

Skyline Drive is a relatively famous and extremely scenic road through Shenandoah National Park (SNP).  It winds back and forth, up and down a chain of Appalachian Mountains for about 105 miles through SNP, point to point.  The Appalachian Trail also spans the park in the north-south direction, essentially paralleling Skyline Drive, and crossing that road many times, tagging lots of summits and overlooks along the way.  The weekend of May 10-13 was a lovely one weather-wise.  Great temperatures, sunny, clear.  Perfect for lots and lots of families and tourists to drive or bicycle Skyline, hike on the App Trail, and visit of the many picnic areas or campgrounds along the road/trail.  Unfortunately, all of those people were only getting a small portion of what SNP has to offer.  Sure, there are like 70-some overlooks along Skyline Drive, and you could spend a day driving it and stopping at every one of them, but there is so much more to it than those overlooks, especially for a group of close friends with an appreciation for the long run.

When I went to the Grand Canyon with Ted in March 2011, wanted to see as much of it as we could in the time that we had, hence the Rim-Rim-Rim run.  Same thing in Shenandoah.  Ben, Matt and I had four days to spend in SNP, and we wanted to make the most of it.  We started in the south, at Rockfish Gap, and ran northward on the Appalachian Trail to a predetermined stopping point each day, eating like kings at camp each night, until we reached Front Royal, VA.

I won't go into too much detail about each day, mostly because I can't (it was several weeks ago now), but it was an incredible and appropriately challenging experience.  There are a few highlights/mentionables:

1. Bears.  None of us had ever seen a bear in the wild before, and we saw several on this trip.  The first two encounters were while driving at dusk on Skyline Drive.  The black bears like to hang out by/on the road for some reason.  One of these encounters was with Mama Bear with Smaller Bear and Little Baby Cub Bear. Adorable and awesome.  The most memorable of these encounters, though, was of the rather large black bear we encountered upon rounding a bend in the trail on Day 3.  It was really cool to be standing maybe 25 yards from that thing, staring at it wondering what we were supposed to do as it glared back at us.  Luckily, the bear could tell by the muscular definition in our muddy legs and our salt-encrusted clothes that we were seasoned Men of the Trail, and that this was in fact our territory.  Rendering us proper honors, he reluctantly stepped aside and watched as we strode past.

2. Food.  Ben's wife, Erin, supplied us very generously with fuel to sustain our minds and bodies throughout this trip.  Dinner was the only real meal every day, but Erin made sure it counted for us.  I'm talking like a bucket of mac'n'cheese, a pile of spaghetti, hot dogs, pasta salad, burgers, and the biggest, juiciest, most succulent steaks I've ever had the luxury of eating with my hands.

3. Brown Gap.  One of the overlooks along the trail/Skyline Drive is called Brown Gap.  It was the source of many jokes over the course of the adventure.

4. Day Two.  The three of us were very tired after Day 1.  It was about 22 miles, but also included an early wake-up in the morning and the few hours of driving to get to Rockfish Gap from Annapolis.  We started running at about 12:30 and took 4 or 5 hours.  The way we had planned the trip, Day 1 and Day 4 would be the 'shorter' mileage days, making up for it on Day 2 and Day 3.  The thing is, we were basing our mileages off of the mile markers on Skyline Drive, since we could never find any mileage information for the App Trail.  We operated under the assumption that the Trail and the road were about the same distance.  It turns out we may have been wrong - or, at the very least, the section we ran on Day 2 was significantly longer on the trail than on the road. In the morning before beginning the run on Day 2, we stashed two sandwich stops at places where the trail meets the road.  It was 32 miles on the road, so we stashed one sandwich break at about 10 miles, and one at about 20.  Once in a while, the trail markers along the AT would have distances marked on them to certain campgrounds or gaps.  When we got to our second sandwich break on Day 2, we thought we were about 2/3 done with the day. We were about 4 hours 30 minutes into the run, and feeling pretty beat.  We saw a trail post that seemed to indicate we had several more miles left than we thought, but (I, at least) kind of tried not to believe it.  We had been running for about 4:30 at that point, and we would continue to run for about 4 more hours.  It turned out we were more like halfway through at our second sandwich break.  We finished running that day at 8:00pm, just as it was getting dark.  By the time we got back to the campground, it was Quiet Hours and we still had dinner to prepare.  It was a long, terrible, fantastic day.

5. The trail.  Those 105-110 miles of the Appalachian Trail are some of, if not the nicest trail miles I've ever run.  It might be hard to beat the Grand Canyon trails, but they are two very different trails.  Difficult climbs, long descents, some steep, some gradual, some rocky, some smooth.  Loads of spectacular views - it's awesome being rewarded after a long hard climb by stepping out on to a rock and looking down, seeing the road you just came from winding some 1000 feet below.  I hope the pictures below can do the trail a little bit of justice at least.

6. Injuries.  After Triple Crown, I didn't run a single step until Day 1 of this trip.  For some reason, though, my shin wasn't really healing or starting to feel better like it had after taking a week or two off at times earlier this year.  I couldn't abandon this trip though, so I had to at least start it and then help out in a crewing capacity if need be.  However, on Day 1 when we started running - I was delighted.  My legs and my shin felt great!  I tried not to get too excited, but I felt amazing.  After an hour and a half of running, though, the soreness started to crop up in my shin again.  By the two hour mark, it was hurting and I was limping.  I figured I would abandon the run after Day 1 and just crew for Matt and Ben for the remainder.  In camp that night, my shin was really sore.  We were all beat, though, from a long day of traveling and running, and a week of inconveniently timed sleep deprivation.  But tomorrow was to be the longest day of running.  I wrapped my shin tight with a compression band and went to sleep.  When I woke up on the morning of Day 2, it was hurting and I was still limping around camp.  But I got my running clothes on and decided to give it a shot.  If my leg was feeling fine and it was one of the other two that was injured, it would have been a bit of a mental blow to me to lose one of them for the long haul on Day 2.  I didn't want to leave them to it alone, making it even harder maybe than it already would be.  We started running, and it hurt, but after a while I realized that at least it wasn't really getting worse. 

Long story short, I limped for all but maybe 7 of 8 of those 105-110 miles in the four days we were out there.  My right leg was extremely tired.  Since it was my left leg that was injured, my limp was forcing my right leg to do probably 60 or 70% of the work.  Suddenly, though not surprisingly, only a few miles into the last day's run, I got an excruciating pain in my right knee.  It was almost completely debilitating, and the worst pain I've ever felt from running.  I found, though, that if I spent 5 or 10 minutes hobbling with it in a terrible and what must have been awkward-looking limp, it would loosen up very gradually and eventually allow me to return to my 'normal' stride and pace.  I thought it was at bay by the time we stopped for our next water break, but then I tried to run again and the same terrible pain was back.  So I did the same thing to allow it to loosen up.  This pattern continued for the rest of the day, until we reached Front Royal at the end of the trail. 

So that's that.  After the second day, the main thing that made me return to the trail each of the following two days was the value of this experience.  It was too good to quit.  I knew I was doing damage, but I thought it was worth the time off that would necessarily follow.  I had been training all year for the North Face 50 Mile on June 2nd, but that was already in jeopardy as it was. 

Each day of this run was different.  They lasted 4-5 hours, 8-9 hours, 7-8 hours, and 5-6 hours respectively.  I don't have more detailed information - that's just from recollection.  Oh yes, also of note: I wore the exact same shorts and shirt for Days 1, 2, and 4.  I wore the same shoes and socks for Days 1 and 2, and the same shoes and socks for Days 3 and 4.  Gross? Maybe. But I know which shoes, socks, and shorts I like the best for running now.  And the salt on that shirt was just epic.  Here are a bunch of pictures - hopefully they make you want to run on the App Trail!

Matt, me, Ben - the starting line
Ben showcasing some of the beautiful greens, soft dirt, and steep hills

Bent down real quick to snap this shot - kinda proud of it :)

Matty lookin' good


Brown Gap..

Summit of Blackrock Mountain on Day 1..or Day 2?

Best shot of a bear I got - unfortunately Day 3 was the only day I didn't run with my camera, and that was the day we encountered the bear during our run.

Start of Day 2. Notice my repeat wardrobe.

Day 1, I believe.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Boston Marathon and Double Blue Ridge Marathon

4/16/2012 - Boston Marathon

Boston was lots of fun, as usual.  I got up there on Saturday via bus with the team.  After a couple fun days in Boston, race morning came and, even in the early hours of the day, the predictions about the weather seemed to be proving accurate.  I wasn't really worried about that, though.  My plan was to try to PR, which I expected to be able to do - and I figured as long as I stayed hydrated and poured water on my head, the heat wouldn't be too much of a factor.

The gun went off at 10:00am and the mass of bodies began shifting forward.  I fell into a good PR pace around 6:15 or 6:20 I think.  My legs felt tired, which I thought was strange but maybe just due to the heat.  I expected they'd loosen up in a few miles.  I didn't have a specific goal in mind, but thought something in the 2:40s would be reasonable.  Anywhere from 2:43 to 2:48, I guess, is what I had in mind.  That sounded fast to me, but considering what I did at New York, I think it was a reasonable expectation.  Especially since I took the week leading up to Boston easy so that I'd be ready to run fast.  In these early Boston miles, I remembered my legs feeling the same way early on at New York (although for good reason, that time). 

Well, after 10km I started doubting my PR intentions.  I remember hitting that mark in something like 39:30, which coincided with my plan to run between 19:30 and 20:00 5k's.  But I was tired.  For the couple of miles after that my pace slowed closer to 6:45.  After 8 or 9 miles, I was essentially positive that it was not my day.  I knew there was a slight chance I could start feeling better and salvage what I had lost in those last few miles later on, but I continued to push at the same or higher effort level, and the miles continued to get slower. 

So by the time I got to Wellesley, I had slowed down considerably and was trying to just enjoy the experience.  I still had a little bit of hope to speed up again later on, but that hope was diminishing a little bit more with every mile.  I spent the entire second half taking in the energy of the crowds, which were amazing as always.  Boston really is second to none when it comes to fan support.  The atmosphere is so much fun.  I probably got close to 1,000 high-fives in the second half of the race. 

It was definitely hot.  I took a cup of either Gatorade or water at every station and poured at least one cup of water on my head.  After only an hour or so into the race, all the aid station water was already warm, and I soon learned that the trick was to take the cups of water from little kids and families between aid stations.  They had the coldest water, fresh out of the fridge or cooler. 

The hills in Newton were a little rough, but ended soon enough.  Then the last 6 miles were a blast.  I crossed the line in 3:03:57, soaking wet and sore.  Once the slow-down started early in the race, I remember thinking multiple times that, even though I wasn't having a good day, there was no reason I shouldn't run under 3 hours.  Sure it was hot, but I just ran a 3:01 on tired legs and a harder course a couple weeks ago.  Well, that expectation got trampled, as well.  I wasn't frustrated with the result when I crossed the line, though.  I figured it just wasn't my day, and that happens, and I made the most of it and had lots of fun.  Then I started hearing about everyone else's times, and almost everyone did relatively poorly. 

So I guess the heat really did have an effect.  It was mid- or upper-80s at the finish.  One thing I was thinking about during the race was that I'm glad I don't train all year specifically to PR at one or two marathons. 

Boston left me decently sore, but I felt pretty good on a shakeout the next day and had the Blue Ridge Marathon double to look forward to..

looks like Boylston Street, the best quarter mile in road marathoning

4/21/2012 - Double Blue Ridge Marathon

I'm really grateful to Kevin Green for organizing this unofficial event.  Randomly browsing the internet one night a month or two ago, I saw a link someone posted on facebook to the Blue Ridge Marathon.  I looked into it and thought it could be a fun little road trip and training run, with 3,620 feet of gain and loss.  As I was exploring the website, under Race Options, I noticed the "Official Unofficial Double Marathon."  Obviously, I was curious, so I emailed someone who put me in touch with Kevin.  After the HAT Run and Garden Spot, I was confident that I was healthy enough to handle 52 road miles and committed.  I talked to lots of people to try to recruit someone to make the trip with me, and had a single taker.  Josh Finger and I met halfway and then drove the last few hours to Roanoke together on Friday evening.

We got some pizza downtown and then parked his car (Hotel Highlander) on the roof of a parking garage, and tried to get a little bit of sleep before the 2:30am start of the first marathon.  Before the alarm went off at 1:30, I had managed 1.5 or 2 hours of rough sleep, and Josh had managed 10-15 minutes.  The warthog Josh keeps in his backseat was breathing very heavily, apparently.  That, combined with the aroma of leftover pizza and the symphony of ensuing pizza farts between the two of us, made for a wonderful pre-race beauty sleep atmosphere. 

Hotel Highlander
 At 2:15, we drove down to the bottom level of the garage and parked the hotel.  We only walked a block before we saw a small group assembled on a street corner downtown.  We met Kevin and the other doublers, pinned on our numbers, and got a group picture taken by one of the race officials who was awesome enough to show up at 2:30am to show us off. 

The plan was to run the first marathon in roughly 4:45, to leave about 15 minutes of spare time before the 7:30 start of the actual marathon.  My legs felt okay.  The main thing I was still feeling from Boston were just very stiff hips.  But the slow pace felt fine.

The course gives you almost all of its 3,620 feet of gain and loss in the first 20 miles before essentially leveling out for the last six.  The climbs are long, but runnable.  It was cool to be running up the first couple mountains in the dark.  We couldn't see ahead of us and I had no idea when the climbs ended, or how long the descents would last.  We stayed as a group or close together the whole way, as planned.  There were some nice views from up high over the dark city of Roanoke, and the giant man-made light-up star at mile 13 was pretty sweet. 

The early miles were fun, getting to know a few of the other doublers a little bit while heading up the first mountain.  Then, while rolling through the mountain hills to the next peak, I kind of zoned out for a while.  There were a few miles during which I didn't speak a word and just listened to the other conversations while falling into a lull induced by the bouncing spots of light on the road.  When I came out of that lull, I remember thinking to myself how incredibly random my current behavior was.  Thirteen hours ago I was sitting in Differential Equations class, and now I was running in the pitch dark in a place I'd never been before with 5 or 6 people I didn't know.  The only word I could think of to describe it was just...random.  But it was so casual.  You'd almost think we did this every weekend or something and it was just business as usual.

After the man-made star which shines over the city of Roanoke from 2,100 feet or so, there is a long, steep-at-times, ~2 mile descent.  My energy after that was pretty low, but then, about 16 miles in, a lady greeted us on a street corner with Dunkin Donuts, gummy worms, granola bars, and cold water.  I had a chocolate donut and some worms and my energy sky-rocketed.  Next came 2 or 3 miles of mostly climbing through some really nice neighborhoods.  By about 20 miles in, the sun had risen on a cloudy but pretty morning. 

The first marathon took 4:42, and we rolled into the streets of Roanoke as a group, using the starting line as our first finish line.  The same gentleman who had been there at 2:30 for our start announced our arrival on the loudspeaker to all of the marathoners who were getting ready for the race start 15 minutes later.  Josh and I ran over to the car, ditched our headlamps, shirts, etc., and got back to the starting line in time for some remarks from the RD and the National Anthem. 

The second marathon went by much quicker.  There were a few reasons for this.  First, obviously, it literally was quicker.  But also, I knew what to expect this time, knew where the climbs started and stopped, and how long the descents were.  Plus it was daylight, so I could see what I couldn't see 5 hours earlier.  The views from up high were real nice in the daylight. 

During the first marathon, we had taken advantage of the aid stations which were not yet set up.  We stopped at a bunch of them just to fill up water bottles.  I also noticed that this race had more porta-johns along the course than I had probably ever seen at a marathon.  It was awesome.  There was literally a pair of toilets like every two miles.  Awesome, because I needed to use them twice during the first go around.

Anyways, the second marathon was fantastic.  I had ditched my bottle because I knew I could just take my time and get some water/gatorade/whatever at the aid stations, which were more than plentiful.  Just like the toilets, the aid stations seemed to be every couple of miles and usually had GU Brew and water.  A couple of them had orange slices and gummy bears, which I loved.  I generally took a cup of fluid at every station.

I had a rough patch after the long descent from the star.  It lasted about 2 or 3 miles, but once I started heading back uphill at mile 16 or 17, I started feeling a little better again.  The last few miles were a bit hot and exposed to the sun, but not too bad and I felt fine.  My 'goal' for the second marathon was under four hours, which I did with a 3:53.  Josh smoked it with a 3:26. 

Strangely, I didn't feel like I ran two marathons.  I was definitely more sore and tired when I crossed the line in Boston on Monday.  The totals for the day were 52.4 miles with 7,240 feet up and 7,240 feet down in 8:36:00.  It's weird, really.  I definitely feel better now (two days later) than I did Thursday/Friday (one/two days before).  That excites me, as I've put a lot of road miles in lately and my legs are feeling as good as ever.  Definitely excited to hit the trails at White Clay for some Triple Crown action next weekend, though. 

The organizers of the Blue Ridge Marathon deserve a lot of credit.  They advertise their marathon as "America's Toughest Road Marathon," which I was hesitant to accept as true.  After running it though, I don't doubt it.  Sure there are plenty of tougher trail marathons, but as far as road races go, this one quite likely takes the cake.  The course is phenomenal, the volunteers and aid stations were excellent as numerous as the hills, and even the local crowd support was good.  I'm very glad I doubled the fun, and another big thanks to Kevin Green for that opportunity.