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.