Thursday, March 28, 2013

2013 Oakland Marathon

"Gummy Bear Cadillac" at Oakland Marathon
Photo by Scott Dunlap
City of Oakland

Prior to running the Oakland Marathon last weekend, the only thing I knew about Oakland was what I'd pieced together from watching Too Short videos during the 90's.

So I went into the race completely expecting that someone might try to jack me for my running shoes, or that at the very least I would have to run through a group of pimps in fur coats playing craps on the street corner drinking 40's of St. Ides. But no...

I must say I was quite impressed by Oakland the race, the city, and the community. At no point did anyone shoot at me! And, I was only accosted once or twice by crazy disheveled-looking homeless dudes mumbling to themselves (Or who knows, maybe they were just unshaven hipsters singling along to their favorite Bon Iver songs).

And no... if you're wondering I did not stop and eat any of the "free gummy worms" from the strange looking folks driving the white Cadillac pictured above. But who knows, maybe some LSD infused gummy worms would have helped?

A Brief Digression (I Want to Run Boston)

I guess I probably need to answer some basic questions before we go any further. Like, “What the heck were you doing running the Oakland marathon? Aren’t you this fancy trail snob who turns up his nose at running sidewalks and bike paths? And what’s with this wimpy marathon nonsense anyway? I thought you were supposed to be some bad-ass ultra-marathoner who doesn’t bother to put on his shorts for anything less than 100 miles? And Oakland, of all places, really? Why not some place safer and more scenic, like Compton?

It’s true, I confess… I’m not particularly fond of running on pavement, running in cities, or running races with thousands of other pedestrians. I prefer the solitude, serenity, and beauty of running alone in the mountains or forests. But I must also confess, it is rather embarrassing when I tell people that I’m this crazy obsessed long-distance running nut job and then they ask the obligatory questions, “Oh, you’re a runner? What’s your marathon PR? Have you ever done Boston?”

Ah yes, Boston. There’s actually something about the Boston marathon that calls to me. It’s steeped in history and tradition, with stories about Frank Shorter and Bill “Boston Billy” Rodgers. And as if by fate, my wife Amy grew up in Hopkinton, the small city 26 miles outside of Boston where the race start. She’s run Boston numerous times and still has family in Massachusetts, including an uncle who still lives in Hopkinton just blocks from the start of the race. So it’s the perfect destination race for us.

And there’s also the small matter of revenge. The first (and only) time I have run Boston, I cramped up after the hills of Newton and ended up hobbling the last 6 miles. It was one of my slowest marathons ever (though I did enjoy chugging a beer with some college kids at mile 24). While I struggled, my wife had a great race that day and ran a PR (beating my time by 5 minutes). And it was frustrating to watch my buddies Hermann and Bill run by while I was forced to walk, unable to run the last few miles with them.

I’ve always wanted to get back to Boston for a shot at redemption. So when my buddy Bill Pritchett, who’s run Boston every year for the past few years invited us to join him and some buddies in 2014, I looked at the running calendar and picked the first Boston qualifier I could find that fit into my schedule. “Oh, there’s a marathon in Oakland. Cool, sign me up”.

Skip Here to Read... The Actual Oakland Race Report
Caitlin Smith and I showing off our abs
Photo by Scott Dunlap

I arrived in Oakland about half an hour before the start of the race, quickly found parking, used the bathroom without having to wait in any line, dropped my warm clothes off at the bag check area, and walked to the starting line. While not a small race, with about 900 entrants in the marathon, Oakland isn’t an overly large race either. I was impressed with how well organized and smooth everything was.

As I made my way towards the front of the pack at the starting line I saw some familiar faces including Caitlin Smith (one of the favorites in the women’s race) with whom I had just done a track workout a few days before, as well as local ultra-runner and part-time roadie Scott Dunlap (who finished 5th overall at Oakland last year). A few photos, a little chit chat, and we were off and running.

I went out conservatively, or at least what felt like a conservative pace. And while the first mile was downhill, I was still surprised when I looked at my watch and saw that I’d run a 6:00 first mile. I consciously backed off the pace a bit, slowing down to a 6:30 second mile. I felt good, but I was worried that I was going out a bit too fast as my pre-race plan called for me to average about 7:00 pace.

Flying along
Luckily the next 8 miles were all up hill and my average pace slowly fell to about 6:55 as I logged a couple of 7:20 and 7:30 miles on the climb up the hills of Montclair. When we reached the top at mile 10, I tried to stretch out my legs a bit with a 6:00 minute mile on the steep downhill.

That’s when I felt the all too familiar sharp pain in my right calf, an issue I have been struggling on and off with for quite a while. I backed off the pace a bit, hoping that if I slowed back down to 7:00 minute miles I could get through the race without (re)injuring myself.

The rest of the race went pretty smoothly. It was really just a matter of keeping my feet moving and grinding it out. When I finally made my way out of the residential neighborhoods and turned on to the bike path around Lake Merritt for the final two miles, I was definitely hurting a bit.

And although I slowed down a bit to slightly over 7 minute per mile pace, I guess everyone else was hurting just as bad if not worse, as I was able to reel in 2 or 3 runners who had been in front of me all day.
Finishing kick

As we made the final turn into the downtown business district and up the steep hill toward the finish line I sprinted the last quarter mile as hard as I could, trying to make sure I finished in 3 hours and 5 minutes or less – which would hopefully ensure that I get into Boston in 2014.

After crossing the finish line in 3:04:39, I collapsed on the ground for about thirty seconds. Then I got up nonchalantly, collected my finisher’s medal and proceeded to ravenously devour two cartons of Dole pineapple fruit cups at the food table. The guy from Dole was seemed to love this. He took quite a few photos and posted one on Dole's Facebook page.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in addition to taking over 8 minutes off my official marathon PR, I'd also finished quite well in 16th place overall and 4th in my age group!

I caught up with Caitlin afterwards at the beer tent and learned that she had finished 2nd woman and in the top 10 overall in 2:56:14 behind women’s winner Devon Yanko (Crosby-Helms) after struggling a bit in the last miles. Devon had apparently had a great race and crushed the women's course record by seveal minutes with her 2:47:24.

New marathon PR 3:04:39
I also ran into a few other ultra-runners including Mark Tanaka, Ron Duncan, and Sarah Lavender-Smith, all of whom had run the race as official pacers. I didn’t get a chance to talk with Scott Dunlap after the race, but I heard that he'd also run very well, finishing 6th in 2:53:42. Click to here to read his great race-reap.

While I originally only signed up for Oakland to get a Boston qualifier, I really enjoyed the race and am actually thinking about doing it again next year in 2014 as a Boston tune-up. With over 800 feet of climbing in the first 10 miles, it is a hilly course that suits me well. 

And after running those kinds of hills, hopefully “Heartbreak hill” won’t ever kick my butt again!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Red Rock Canyon Half Marathon

Red Rock Canyon with snowy peaks
Welcome to Vegas

When you hear the words "Las Vegas" the first thing that comes to mind probably isn't mountains or snow. Fat guys dressed like Elvis? Sure! Casinos shaped like the Eifel Tower, Statue of Liberty, or a giant Pyramid? Check! But, there's actually more to Las Vegas than all-you-can-eat buffets and drive-thru wedding chapels. Drive just ten miles outside of town, and you will find yourself in the beautiful Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

This was the second straight year that I was able to run the Red Rock Canyon half marathon put on by Calico Racing. I'd first run the race last year in 2012 while in town visiting my family (my mother and two brothers both live in Vegas). This year the race date luckily happened to coincide with a business trip that brought me into town for a work conference.

Erik and Matthew
Last year I ran the race on my own, but this year I managed to talk my friend Bill Pritchett into staying after the conference and running the race with me. Bill lives in Michigan, so the only time we usually get to run together is at work conferences. When I described Red Rock Canyon to him I vividly described the beautiful, breath-taking scenery. However, what I omitted to describe was the tough, breath-taking hills that climb to over 5,000 ft elevation!

Also, this year my brother Erik and my nephew Matthew Rice were hinting that they might show up and give the race a go themselves. While most people who sign up for this race are experienced veteran half-marathon runners with years of racing and training under their belts, neither Erik nor Matthew had done much, if any, half-marathon specific training. Matthew plays soccer. Erik ran the 800 meters in highschool and played college football. But soccer fields and tracks don't have 2,000 ft hills!

Mean Mugging

Bill and I got to the race early, with plenty of time to warm up, use the bathroom, pose for pictures, and most importantly -- take our shirts off and strut around intimidating the competition. It was cold out with temperatures hovering just above freezing beneath the snow-capped mountains. But frozen nipples are a small price to pay for getting inside the head of your competition.

As the race was about to start, Bill and I made our way to the front of the pack. Erik and Matthew were still nowhere to be seen. I'd later learn that they were still in the bathroom, having just arrived at the last minute, as the starting gun went off.

Last year I had made the mistake of going out a bit too aggressively, trying to stay with the race leaders in the early miles. This year I vowed to go out more conservatively, hanging back in around 10th place for the first few miles. Then, if I still felt good once we got into the hills, I would pick it up and try to reel in as many people as possible during the remainder of the race.

Surprisingly, I managed to stick to my plan. Even when I got passed by the lead woman a mile into the race I told myself not to worry about getting chick'd. "You're still in 8th place," I told myself. I was optimistic that I would hopefully catch and drop quite a few people once we got up into the hills.

Studying the runners ahead of me, I picked out a couple of guys who I expected to crack soon including a couple of bigger guys who seemed to already be working too hard (and breathing and sweating too hard) this early in the race.

By mile 3 I found myself up in 5th place. The lead runner, a guy in blue, had already opened up a sizable lead and was moving out of sight. But runners 2, 3, and 4 were all running together in a pack, just a fifty yards or so ahead of me. Sizing them up, I figured I should be able to beat at least 2 of the 3. That would put me on the podium in the top 3 overall -- my secret goal going into the race.

Holding on for Life

As we approached the steep hill before the halfway point I quickly reeled the group in and moved up into second place. "Sweet" I thought, "maybe if the lead runner cramps up or gets hit by a bus you can win this thing". But the celebration was short lived. As I glanced back behind me, I saw that one of the three guys I had passed earlier was clawing back distance and pulling back up to me.

Grimacing at the finish line
I tried every trick in the book to drop him. As soon as he caught up to me and slowed down to catch his breath I attacked with a surge. And when that didn't shake him, I tried altering the pace with a short burst of speed followed by a lull, and then another burst. But nothing worked. And then he counter attacked me! And it was all over. We had just run a 5:50 mile at mile 10 of the race and I just couldn't match the 5:30 pace he was throwing down.

As I watched him pull away building a 1:20 lead over the last 3 miles, I resigned myself to third place. But even that was going to take a fight. As I looked back, another runner in a yellow shirt was charging hard and closing on my 30 second lead. My legs were on the verge of cramping and I wanted to quit. That's when my mother drove by in her car cheering me on -- giving me just enough extra encouragement to keep moving.

I held on for 3rd place and managed to run a half marathon PR of 1:27:21, about 8 minutes faster than the 1:35 I ran on the same course last year! I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that I was the top American finisher, as the two guys who finished in front of me were from Ireland and Great Britain. Here's the official results.
3rd place overall, first American!
My buddy Bill Pritchett finished not long after me, in 1:45, claiming 2nd place in his 50-55 age group and taking home one of the coveted hand-made sand-stone awards! Erik and Matthew both finished as well, despite their lack of training, and crossed the finish line looking strong in around 2:20 (with a 2:19 chip time). So it was a great day for everyone!