Tuesday, March 24, 2015

2015 Oakland Marathon

2015 Oakland marathon race start
photo from Oakland marathon Instagram page
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sixteen miles into the 2015 Oakland marathon and I had a comfortable lead in the Master's (40 and over) competition. Yet, I was feeling anything but comfortable at the moment. My legs were really starting to hurt and I was paying the price for having gone out way too hard... yet again. Now here I was, on one of the most mentally challenging sections of the course, the very place where I had quit and dropped out last year in 2014.

"Never make a decision when running up hill". That's the advice I routinely dole out to other runners, usually muttered in my best Yoda zen-master voice. Quite literally it means don't decide to quit when you're suffering on a tough uphill climb. Wait until the downhill section of the race; then, if you still feel like quitting... yeah, you're totally screwed and should probably throw in the towel.

This advice  is similar to other nuggets of wisdom like "never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach" or "never text an ex while completely drunk off your ass". Cliched, but true. I could probably add to that list, "never go out so hard in a race that your first mile is your fastest mile". Unfortunately I'd ignored that advice... yet again.

"Running into" fellow ultra runner Chihping Fu at the expo
photo by Chihping Fu (obviously)

Oops I did it again

As I stood at the starting line, about two hours earlier, waiting for the race to get underway I keep repeating to myself out loud, "Don't go out too hard. Do NOT fucking go out hard." I got more than a few strange looks from other runners, along with a knowing nod or two. Yet, just a few miles into the race I found myself doing just that.

I had been tucked in behind another runner who, based on his salt and pepper hair, was clearly also in the men's Master's (40+) division. He was running strong and I knew that if I wanted a chance to win the Master's title I would need to stay with him. "Just be patient," I told myself. "Tuck in behind him. Let him do the work. Whatever you do, don't attack yet." And then, suddenly, I was attacking.

Flying along early
photo by Noé Castañón

It wasn't my fault. At least not completely. Another runner, though clearly not in our 40+ master's division, accelerated past us. I should have just let him go. He wasn't in our age group; there was no point in trying to go with him. Yet, there I was, speeding up and tucking in behind him.

After a couple of miles we began chatting. His name was Sasha and he had read my Oakland race report from 2013. He was a fellow ultra runner with a comparable marathon PR to mine. It was nice running with someone and the miles flew by as we powered up the long climb from Temescal up to Claremont and Montclaire.

Running on empty
Hitting the wall (already at mile 16)

Unfortunately as we reached the top of the climb it became clear that Sasha was too strong for me. Despite stopping to pee in bushes, jogging a hundred yards with his young son, and making a wrong turn, he still pulled away from me. Luckily I found another guy named Don to run with.

Don wasn't much of a conversationalist. During the 6 miles or so that we ran together he only spoke one word. And that word was "Don", after I asked him his name. In that respect, Don reminded me a bit of the character Groot from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy.

But I'd been in his shoes before and I know how annoying it can be when the person you are running with insists on trying to hold a conversation while you are at your breaking point. One time on a training run with my friend, Caitlin Smith, in the Marin Headlands I found myself trudging up hill and gasping for air while Caitlin bounded along effortless trying to chat me up. I think I faked an ankle injury and excused myself that day, sending Caitlin on her own.

Eventually Don dropped back and I was left running by myself for the rest of the race (with the brief exception of when the second place woman Kimberly O'Donnel came rocketing past me). I looked afterwards but didn't see Don's name in the results list; I fear he likely dropped.

But I really am thankfully for his company, as he helped me get through what I consider to be the most mentally draining part of the course -- a boring two mile long completely straight and flat section along International Blvd. That's where I dropped out in 2014 and found myself prancing through the heart of Oakland in boy shorts and super-hero cape.

Big Johnny putting on a show
The final push

I was really suffering in the last 8 miles of the race. The voices in my head were engaged in a lively conversation. I don't consider myself crazy per se... well, at least not clinically. But I do have a bit of a split-personality alter ego who takes over when things get too tough for me to cope with. His name is Big Johnny. And he's one bad-ass motherfucker. He doesn't quit... ever. If you shoot him, you better kill him. He's a G like that :)

"I can't do this anymore. I want to stop," I feebly muttered. "Shut up bitch!!!" Big Johnny retorted. "We 'bout to get paid my ninja. Check yo'self before you wreck yo'self. #ThugLife #WestSide" Big Johnny quipped, referring to the $150 prize money on the line for Master's champion (Yes, Big Johnny seems to think he is a '90's rap star). At this point, I was willing to write myself a $200 check just to be allowed to quit. Thankfully Big Johnny wasn't hearing it.

One of the most annoying things about the Oakland marathon, as a runner in the full-marathon division, is getting passed by a stream of fresh-legged relay runners in the last few miles of the race. Somewhere around mile 24 I got passed by a at least 5 or 6 dudes hammering 6 minute miles. I tried not to let it devastate me, but still it was quite demoralizing.

Thankfully right about this time I saw my friend Sarah Lavender-Smith who was out on the course to cheer along some of her coaching clients. Seeing a friendly face gave me just the boost I needed to gut out the last two miles.

As I rounded the final turn and headed up the hill to the finish line I unleashed everything I had, which at this point was admittedly not much, and sprinted to the tape. I was pretty sure I had the Master's win sewn up, and I could have just as easily jogged it in and savored the moment. But Big Johnny was in the driver's seat and being the total ham that he is, he decided to put on a show.

With sweat flying everywhere he dove across the finish line and collapsed to the ground. Several race officials and medical personnel came over to see if he was OK, but Big Johnny just waved them off and asked for directions to the beer tent. Such a clown.

Where's the beer tent?

Here's my Strava data for the race. My official finish time was 3:04:31, which is actually 8 seconds faster than the 3:04:39 that I ran in 2013. I think I was 18th overall. But most importantly, I won the men's Master's title! Now if I can just just keep whittling off 8 seconds a year, I might be able to break 3 hours in 28 more years... when I turn 70 :)

Posing post-race with Sasha, his son, and my trophy!
Me and the Mayor!

Shout outs

I would like to give shout-outs to the following people:
  • Sasha Waring, who I has the pleasure of running with for much of the first 11 miles.
  • Silent Don, man of few words, whose company got me through the toughest part of the course.
  • Chris Jones, a fellow ultra-runner who finished 23rd overall in 3:12:01.
  • Ethan Veneklasen, another fellow ultra-runner, who brought the 3:20 pace group home on target and somehow ended up finishing 3rd in his age group.
  • Chihping Fu, yet another fellow ultra-runner, who races more than any man I know.
  • Shiran "Shir Kahn" Kochavi, for shouting, "I'd recognize that body anywhere" as I ran by.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Hoka Challenger ATR Shoe Review

Hoka Challenger ATR 
I'm not going to lie to you. I'm a running shoe whore. I'm a running shoe slut. If there's a shoe out there, I've taken it home.

I just can't help myself. When I see a sexy pair of new running shoes sitting on the shelf of the local running store looking all demure and alluring,I have to have them. I've run in Altra, Adidas, Asics, Brooks, Hoka, Mizuno, Montrail, New Balance, Nike, Pearl Izumi, Puma, Salomon, Saucony, Skechers, Sportiva, and Vasque. I've run in shoes you've never heard of like Scarpa and Topo Athletic. I even did the minimalist thing for a while and ran in Vibram Five Fingers and Luna sandals.

Over the years I've found a few shoes that have really worked for me, namely the New Balance MT110 (the old now-discontinued version) and the Montrail Fluid Flex (again the old now-discontinued original version). Everything else has ranged from "Meh, OK" to "Ugh, this shit sucks" or somewhere in the middle. Today I will review the new Hoka One One Challenger ATR trail shoe.

I wanted to love the Hoka Challenger ATR as, at least on paper, the shoe had everything I was looking for in a trail shoe: namely something super lightweight and fast, but with a decent amount of cushioning to protect my feet.

First Impressions

There are certain things in life that will always make anyone feel self-conscious, like wearing a leopard-print speedo when everyone else is wearing knee-length board shorts. No matter how much you tell yourself, "I bet this suit is all the rage Europe right now" it doesn't make you feel any less like a pervert as you walk past families trying to shield the eyes of their children at the neighborhood pool or beach.

Wearing Hokas out in public is kind of like that. As much as you tell yourself that no one is going to care or even notice that you wearing fluorescent orthotic clown shoes, you can't help but feel like a cross between a young Forest Gump in knee braces and a psychotic circus clown.

I waited until dark to sneak out for my first run. Still, even in the pitch black of night, it was hard not to notice the eerie bright fluorescent green glow emanating from my feet. Also, I felt like I was wearing shoe lifts. Even though I am only 5' 10", I felt like I should duck when walking out my front door to avoid banging my head on the door jam.

What they lacked in style and appearance, the Challenger ATRs were made up for in comfort -- I'll give them that. If felt like I was running on a soft track made from ground-up Styrofoam peanuts. I wouldn't necessarily call them "mushy", as they still felt pretty responsive for such a cushioned shoe. But it was definitely a strange sensation. But in a good way. I think.

The Pros

After putting in several runs over various terrains from super-technical steep downhill single track, to paved roads, to rubber all-surface tracks, I have to say that I found the shoe to be very comfortable (as you would probably expect), but also surprisingly fast and responsive! I was able to run PRs on a variety of surfaces, including some fast intervals on the track. Not bad for a shoe marketed for technical trails!
  • Very soft and cushioned, even over rough terrain
  • Fairly comfortable with a roomy toe box (although somewhat narrow in the forefoot)
  • Surprisingly fast and responsive (even on the roads and track) for such a cushioned shoe


Compared to the more minimalist shoes that I log the majority of my miles in (such as my all-time favorite New Balance MT110s), the Hoka Challenger ATRs definitely took some getting used to. I found myself rolling my ankles once or twice per run, something that rarely if ever happens to me in other shoes.

Missing top shoelace hole!
The shoes were relatively comfortable with a fairly roomy toe box, but I immediately noticed that they were rather tight across the widest part  of my forefoot. Granted, I have fairly wide feet -- which, as an aside, is one of the things I loved about my New Balance MT110 which came in size 2E extra wide). If you have narrower feet, the Hoka Challenger ATR might work better for you. But for me, they started to blow out and fall apart after only 150 miles (see photos).

Which brings me to my next concern about the Hoka Challenger ATR. They seem to be very cheaply constructed. As soon as I got them home from the shop were I bought them, I noticed that one of the shoes had a minor defect: the holes for the two top laces didn't go all the way through the shoe. You could thread the lace in but it never came out anywhere. I had to grab a pair of scissors and and a screwdriver and make my own holes. Not the end of the world, but... come on man!

After surgery with scissors/screwdriver
Also, I noticed some weird loose threads sticking out of the shoe. Again, probably nothing that was going to slow me down and cause me to lose a race. But when you pay $130 bucks for a shoe that was probably made in China for $30 in materials, you don't expect a bunch of loose threads and half-assed shoe lace holes.

My biggest complaint about the quality of the shoes is that both the uppers and the tread on the bottom started falling apart around 150 miles. The material on the uppers (on the medial side) started pulling apart and disintegrating. This happened on both the right and left shoe. Around the same time, I noticed one of the lugs on the bottom of the left shoe near the toe started falling off. 

I know that some shoe company these days "recommend" that you replace your shoes every 250 miles (though it seems like just a few years ago the recommendation was every 500 miles). Both my wife and I routinely get up to 1,000 miles out of most of our running shoes. So for a shoe to practically disintegrate in less than 200 miles, especially a shoe as expensive as the Hoka Challenger ATR, was quite a disappointment!

  • Felt clumsy on technical terrain, caused me to roll my ankles often
  • Narrow forefoot not comfortable for people with wide feet
  • Poorly constructed; lack of attention to detail (missing shoelace holes, loose threads, etc.)
  • Cheaply made uppers started to disintegrate around 150 miles
  • Lugs on bottom of shoe started to fall off around 175 miles

Mesh upper starting to disintegrate
The Verdict

Light-weight, well-cushioned shoe that performs well on various terrains. 

Not ideal for runners with wide feet. 

Poorly constructed with cheap materials; tend to fall apart very quickly. 

With such a limited lifetime, these shoes provide poor value for a rather expensive shoe.

Monday, March 2, 2015

8th Annual Los Gatos Overgrown Fat Ass 50K -- Euro Edition

Euro Johnny

Did I ever tell you about that time I won a 50K trail race wearing dress pants, a collared shirt and a fedora? And how I cut nearly a mile off the course by taking a bunch of shortcuts? Oh yeah, and the beer I pounded at the aid station -- where they were serving wine? No? Well sit down and make yourself comfortable. Here it goes...

This year was the 8th annual running of the Los Gatos Overgrown Fat Ass 50K organized by Quicksilver runners Adam Blum and Sean Lang. While perhaps not the most well-known or most competitive ultra in California, it is however definitely one of the most fun!

With around 6500 feet of elevation gain, the course isn't as hard as say Quad Dipsea or Ohlone 50K, but it will definitely test your climbing legs. And unlike other races that have aid stations every few miles, this race has just one aid station! Luckily it is an out and back course, so runners pass through the aid station twice: once at mile 13 on the way out to the turnaround, and again at mile 17 on the way back. On a hot year, many a runner has found themselves drinking out of seasonal creeks along the course, or in extreme cases, out of a horse trough.

My favorite thing about this particular race is that it has a different theme each year. One year the aid station was a set up as a Mexican cantina serving margaritas. Another year it was an Irish pub with Jameson and Guinness. Then there was the Cops and Robbers theme where I made the mistake of drinking liberally from a jar of cherry moonshine that Sean Lang offered me. I can't recall too much about the last 13 miles of the race that year :)

Race briefing
photo by Mark Tanaka
Euro Edition

This year the race was branded as the Euro Edition, meaning of course that the aid stations would be serving cheese, salami, and wine! Also, as per European custom, it was announced that the course would not be fixed, meaning that runners would be free to cut the switchbacks or take any shortcuts that they could devise. In addition to a prize for the overall winner, this year there would also be awards for "biggest cheater" and "most Euro".

The shortcut aspect would definitely promise make things interesting this year, particularly for experienced veterans familiar with the mountain range. While the established course does take the most direct route through the mountains for the most part, many of the race entrants started scouring old mining maps and aerial imagery looking for secret lost trails that might shave off a few minutes here or there!

As you can see from the photos, race director Adam Blum came dressed to win in his resplendent Euro kit complete with knickers and trekking poles. I decided to go less for the techno-dork Euro look and more old-school Euro hiker look with my long pants, collared tee shirt and fedora.

Big Johnny san Fedora
photo by Keith Blom
And They're Off

My strategy going into this race, I explained to my wife the night before, was to go out ludicrously hard in hopes that my main competitors would take the bait and come with me. I knew that we'd eventually blow up. In fact this was what I was counting on. I routinely practice "blowing up" and recovering during my long runs, so I figured I would have the edge in terms of getting my legs back under me.

Alas, no one took the bait. Larry Neumann wisely hung back biding his time. His buddy Matt Ward initially gave chase for a mile or so before letting me go and settling down into his own rhythm.

However, the advantage of opening an early lead was that it provided me an opportunity to take an early shortcut unseen by my competitors. (Also, this gave me a good opportunity to stash my fedora in a secluded spot as I was already starting to sweat profusely just a few miles into the race). Instead of following the official course and taking a left turn onto Limekiln (Overgrown) trail, I instead turned a 100 yards earlier on the paved road into the rock quarry that parallels the trail on the other side of the river.

Larry Neumann giving chase!
photo by Keith Blom
Unlike the trail that meanders a bit and gains some elevation, the paved road is perfectly straight and perfectly flat. The only downside is that you have to scramble down a river bank, through the river, and then up the other side of the bank to regain the trail. Still, I estimate this little detour probably gained me at least a minute over my competitors. And of course, I would also later take this same shortcut on the return back.

Toshi Moshi the Pimpin' Chickin' Hosaka, who is famous for eschewing established trails in favor of bushwhacking through poison oak, rolled the dice and ventured completely off trail, meandering across the mountains along animal game paths and overgrown trails no longer on any maps. In the end, he conceded that his shortcuts didn't save him any time and if anything, significantly added to his finishing time.

I reached the first aid station still in the lead and stopped quickly to fill my water bottles. I hadn't seen anyone behind me so I figured I had at least a few minutes lead, if not more. I must say that I was surprised, quite pleasantly, to see Larry Neumann running strongly towards me only a minute or two after I'd reached the turnaround. Apparently he had hammered the down hills and made up quite a bit of time, passing Matt and Toshi and moving into second place.

Winos at the aid station
photo by Keith Blom
The Second Half of the Race

The second half of the race was pretty uneventful aside from seeing Amy and John Paul at the outbound aid station at mile 17 and slamming a nice cold IPA that Amy brought me. That was definitely the highlight of the race :)

I never did see Larry again, so I assumed that I put a lot of time on him on the long climb back up over the backside of Mt El Sombroso. There were a couple of good vantage points toward the top of the mountain where I could look back down for a good half a mile or so, and I didn't see anyone.

At that point, knowing I had the race in the bag, I decided to run it in on cruise control rather than trying to push and go for a personal best. I ended up finishing in 4 hours and 28 minutes, which was 5 minutes slower than my fastest time on this course (from the infamous cherry moonshine year). Still, I was happy with my effort and considered it a good training run for the Ohlone 50K coming up in May.

The men's podium
photo by Keith Blom
Larry charged in just ten minutes later for 2nd place in 4 hours and 38 minutes. His buddy Matt held on for third, finishing just a few seconds under 5 hours. Several beers later, Toshi finally arrived bloody and disheveled, looking like he'd been alone in the wilderness for days with no food, water, or razor.

I wanted to stick around and wait to cheer on the other finishers, but alas I was out of beer and had to go off in search of more!

I'm already looking forward to next year and whatever new theme Adam and Sean come up with. Word on the street is that it might be a formal black tie affair!