Monday, December 17, 2012

The Marathon That Took an Entire Week to Finish!

I'm unfortunately not a particularly fast marathoner. And while I am convinced that I should be able to crack 3 hours, my current marathon PR is actually only just 3:09 or so. Nonetheless, I was shocked when it took me an entire week to finish my latest marathon! Here's the catch... I ran it on the installment plan.

On Saturday, December 8th, I ran the Summit Rock half marathon in Saratoga. The following Saturday, December 15th, I ran the Hoover Dam half marathon, outside Las Vegas. So, two half marathons... a week apart. Combine them, and I it took my an entire week to run one (relatively slow) marathon.

Summit Rock (Trail) Half Marathon

Beautiful Sanborn Skyline County Park
The Summit Rock trail half marathon, put on by Brazen Racing, takes place at one of my favorite trails in the San Francisco Bay Area -- Sanborn Skyline County Park. This place is a real hidden gem. The park is hidden away among the Redwoods at the foot of the Santa Cruz mountains, on a little traveled road just outside downtown Saratoga.

I have a season parking pass to the park, so I try to run there as often as possible to recoup my investment. However, to be honest, unless you go on a weekend you rarely need a pass as the park is usually completely empty during the week with nobody working the entrance booth. So I was pleasantly surprised two years ago when Brazen Racing announced that they would be holding an event at the park.

Trying to intimidate the competition with my physique

I ran the inaugural 1/2 marathon at Summit Rock in 2010 and finished in second place, with a time of 1:50:05, a few minutes ahead of the third place guy, but over ten minutes back of race winner Lon Freeman. I didn't run the race in 2011 due to a scheduling conflict, but looking at the results I noticed the first and second place runners from 2011, both of whom ran faster times than me, were also on the entrants list for this year. Considering that I was just getting back into shape and not yet in peak form, I knew it was going to be difficult to try and get up on the podium this year.

Trying to muster "good form" for the camera

I decided to go out conservatively, reasoning that if I restrained myself on the first four miles (which were all uphill), I would have more energy left to run the last four downhill miles hard -- and hopefully reel in as many front runners as possible. It was a great plan... but the execution fell a bit short. I did manage to pass several other runners during the last few miles but ultimately I ran out of real estate (and energy), finishing in 4th place just off the podium. My time of 1:50:49 was 46 seconds slower than my PR from two years prior, but not too shabby for a guy who has only been running an average of 15 miles a week.

Hoover Dam (Trail/Train Tunnel/Bike Path) Half Marathon

Hoover Dam
Having never seen the Hoover Dam before, I was excited when I learned that Calico Racing was going to be running a race from Lake Mead to the Hoover Dam and back the same weekend that I was going to be traveling to Las Vegas!

Looking at the course profile, I had no idea what kind of finishing time or average pace to expect. The course seemed to be comprised of a combination of grades and surfaces including a few miles of hilly paved bike path, several miles of wide dirt road that passed through six or seven mountain tunnels (that used be part of a railway line), with a few flights of winding concrete stairs and some parking lot loops thrown in for good measure.

As the race started, I went out with the front runners for the first uphill section. However two strong-looking runners soon went off the front. I glanced down at my watch to see what kind of pace we were doing. Seeing that we were already doing 6:30 pace (for a tough uphill section) I wisely decided not to pick up the pace any further and eased off a little, letting the two front runners go.

Running in the desert

Somewhere around mile 2 I got passed by one runner, and then another. If I wanted to try and finish on the podium with a top 3 spot, I figured I better try and hang with these two guys. And I did. At least for a few miles. However as we approached the mile long uphill climb to the turn-around point at the Hoover Dam, I decided to ease off and run a bit more conservatively. I wanted to make sure I saved something for the way back.

Tunnel vision!

I ran the return section pretty hard, assuming that I was probably gaining on the front runners. So I was quite surprised when another runner caught me from behind, moving fast. I tried to jump in behind him and stay with him, but cranking off a sub 6 minute mile I decided the pace was a little too rich for me.

Just as I was starting to bonk in the last mile I heard the furious horn honks of a passing car and looked over to see my brother Erik and his son Tony cheering me on. I gave everything I had trying to catch a runner about a hundred yards in front of me, but I came up short, finishing 7th overall. However, I did manage to squeeze in just under an hour and a half with a time of 1:29:44. Not bad for a course with over 2,000 feet of vertical gain!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Return of Running John

As I look back, 2012 was an amazing year for me in terms of my running. Working together with my new coach, Caitlin Smith, I basically achieved (and exceeded) every goal I had set for the year! Some of my highlights included:
  • 1st place at Ruth Anderson 50K (shaving nearly 13 minutes off my 50K PR)
  • 7th place at Ohlone 50K with my fastest time ever on that course
  • 3rd place at North Country 50 Mile (taking 20 minutes off my 50 mile PR)
  • 9th place at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile with a sub 24 hour finish time
  • 1st place at a couple of small, local 10K races
Yet despite all my success, I felt I needed to take a little break this winter as the ultra racing season wrapped up in the fall. While I managed to finish the Bear 100 in October, it was quite a suffer fest and my heart really wasn't in it. Similarly, I pretty much felt the same about Dick Collin's Firetrails 50 mile a couple of weeks later. I ran respectably, but didn't really feel motivated or strong.

After talking with my coach Caitlin I decided to take some time off from structured running and racing, and let my body heal up. I must admit, I hit the beer, ice cream and pizza pretty hard. And I put on a few pounds. I didn't stop working out completely though. I was still running 10 - 20 miles a week. And I was biking 100 - 200 miles a week. But it felt nice, like being on vacation.

However, all that came to an end when Caitlin asked me if I would be willing to pace her for the last 25 miles of her 50 mile race at the The North Face Challenge championship in San Francisco. I was honored! But I was also scared shitless. Caitlin is FAST. She qualified for and ran in the US Olympic marathon trials in 2012. And she won almost every road race and trail race she entered, often setting the course record as well. If I was going to stay with her, much less provide any useful assistance, I needed to get back in shape -- quickly!

Luckily, all the bike riding had kept my cardio fitness in decent shape. I just needed to drop a few pounds and get some leg speed back. I modified my diet, added some track workouts, and did hundreds of push ups and pull ups every day. My life started looking a lot like a Rocky Balboa training montage.

I showed up at the race feeling nervous but hopefully. Caitlin had won this race in 2009 and she was hoping to repeat in 2012 after being away from the sport for the last two years while focusing more on the Olympic trials. I knew it was going to be tough as an elite field from around the world had been assembled in San Francisco this year, all hoping to take home the $10,000 prize for first place.

Pacing Caitlin at The North Face 50
photo courtesy Brett Rivers

I'm not going to write an actual race report since it wasn't my race. Caitlin had a tough day but hung in impressively for 4th place. I was incredibly proud of her for gutting it out. While she didn't win and ended up finishing just off the women's podium, she still ran an amazing race and finished ahead of many of the top names in an international field of elite ultra runners. You can read all about the race on Caitlin's blog here.

Silicon Valley Beer Mile Championship

Each year at Thanksgiving I like to sit down and give thanks for the blessings in my life. The Universe has bestowed many gifts upon me including great friends, a loving family, and a fulfilling career that lets me put food on the table.

I've also been blessed with a few rather peculiar physical talents including the the endurance to run stupid long distances, the leg strength to propel myself on a bicycle at super high speeds for super short distances, and the surprising ability to consume large quantities of alcohol in rather short periods of time. While the first two skills have come in useful for bike racing and ultra running, I never imagined the latter talent would prove useful outside of a college fraternity setting.

However, I firmly believe that God does not play dice with the universe. We are given our gifts for a reason. And when I saw a post in my Facebook feed about the upcoming Silicon Valley Beer Mile Championships on Nov 21, it suddenly became clear that this is why I was put on this Earth. Here was an event that combined my two greatest skills -- running fast and chugging alcohol. My destiny had found me!

In order to make sure I didn't embarrass myself on race day, I did a couple of practice test runs on the street outside my house. I got a few odd looks from my neighbors as I set up a table with four cans of beer on the curb and then proceeded to take my shirt off and chug beers and sprint up and down the block. But luckily no one called the cops. In return, I graciously made an effort not to puke on anyone's lawn.

On race night I showed up at the track with my four cans of beer, wondering how fast I could run and hoping to finish in the top 3. My goal was to run break 7:00 minutes, and hopefully to go under 6:45. This includes drinking time (four beers) and running time (four laps around the track). I'd run a 7:09 in one of the practice attempts outside my house at 80% effort. So I figured that on race day I should be able to run close to 6:30. I figured that this would give me a shot to win, depending on who else showed up, and would at least put me on the podium.

The race officials gave us our instructions and then sent us on our way. I popped open my first beer and slammed it down in seconds. As I tossed the empty can and started running down the straight-away I assumed I was first out of the blocks and in the lead. But I noticed a guy about 50 yards ahead of my on the track. Was this guy in the race? And how the hell did he get so far in front of me so quickly?

I slowly reeled him in during the each lap, but then he would regain his lead during every beer. Apparently he was slamming his beers much more quickly than I was. I had met my match. After finishing the race in 2nd place with a 6:39, I learned that the guy who won -- in a blazing time of 6:14 -- was 2010 former beer mile champion Chris Weiler.

I left feeling both ecstatic and disappointed (as well as a bit tipsy). I'd run a PR and thrown down an impressive time, but I'd come up a bit short. Perhaps, as my wife remarked, "if you're not puking afterward, you're not running hard enough". Did I run too conservatively? Should I have spent more time polishing my beer chugging technique? In the end, I was left with only questions. Questions that will haunt me for 365 days until next Thanksgiving.

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Mile - Race Report

A mere two weeks after running the Bear 100, I found myself standing at the starting line of Dick Collins Firetrails 50 wondering what the hell I was doing.  Was it really wise to try and race 50 miles so shortly after having suffered through one of the hardest 100 milers I'd ever run? Would my legs, (which seemed fairly well recovered) hold up for the entire race, or would they fail me on the second half of the hilly course?

Conventional wisdom, as well as previous experience, both suggested that I should probably skip Firetrails and take a couple of more weeks of rest. But my ego had a different opinion. My ego suggested that conventional wisdom and prior experience were a bunch of pansies who should mind their own business. And so, on race morning, I stood shivering (shirtless), in the front of the pack, armed with only my ego and a handheld water bottle.

The starting gun sounded and I took off with the lead pack, running fast -- faster than I had any business running. As I tore along the trail with the front runners in "attack mode" I started having fantasies of a top 10 finish. However, somewhere around mile 4 those fantasies came crashing down. Suddenly my legs started complaining and I shifted from attack mode to survival mode. It was somewhere around this time that my Quicksilver teammates Toshi and Jeremy blew past me, as did women's front runner Jenny Capel. They would all go on to run great races!

Somewhere around mile 8 I decided to call it quits and drop out at the next aid station, Skyline Gate at mile 11. It just wasn't my day. My pace was slowing down and I was feeling like crap. A group of 5 to 10 runners flew by me like I was standing still. Yep, best to call it a day.

But then a funny thing happened at about mile 10 on the uphill section approaching Skyline Gate. I looked ahead and saw that I was gaining on the group of 5 to 10 runners that had passed me earlier. They were all walking the uphill, looking rather ragged. And I was somehow running it -- and rather effortlessly in fact. I was a bit annoyed. I wanted to DNF. But one of my golden rules is to never drop from a race if I am moving well and passing other runners. So unfortunately I had to continue on.

And so it continued for the rest of the race. Every time I came to an uphill where everyone else was walking, I somehow managed to run it. For some reason, the uphills felt easy and runnable. I didn't have any leg speed or turnover and would lose a bit of ground on the flats, but every time the course turned upwards I would regain the lost ground.

photo by Brett Rivers

As I approached the last aid station before the finish line I knew that I only had about 5 more miles to go, and much of it downhill. I had been running a bit conservatively and saving some energy for this last push home. Now was the time to unleash it! I glanced back to see if anyone was behind me and was surprised to see Quicksilver teammate Clare Abram, who had moved up into 2nd place in the women's race. I gave her a quick shout of encouragement and then hit the gas, hoping to reel in a runner or two in front of me.

In retrospect I probably stepped on the gas a bit too hard, and a bit too early. With about 1 mile to go I found myself out of energy and walking the last little uphill section of the paved bike path. I coasted into the finish in 20th place overall, running on fumes and just thankful to be done. My finishing time of 8:23:33 was about 5 minutes slower than my previous best at Firetrails. But all in all, it turned out much better than it could have!