Into the Mist – San Francisco 50-mile race report

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After finishing!

As some of you know, I’m training for Pine Creek 100-miler, a flat 100-mile trail race in northern Pennsylvania in early September. As part of my training, I like to get in some long, hard runs – so the San Francisco 50-miler in the Marin Headlands seemed like a great fit.

The out-and-back 50-mile course covered some familiar ground in the gorgeous hills just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It also included quite a bit of climbing, with almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain over the 50 miles. Check out the course profile:

 

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My theory behind tackling this race was that if I could handle this much climbing over this distance, I’d be pretty well prepared for a flat 100-miler in September. For me, hill climbing can be psychologically devastating; you’re working very hard and moving very slowly. For this race, I was prepared for the worst.

There were 72 registered runners for the 50-mile race, and 18 runners taking on the 100-mile race. We’d all run together for the first 50 miles, after which the crazy people would stop, and the crazier people would keep moving for another 50 miles, on sightly different but equally challenging terrain, to finish their 100.

This was basically what it looked like at the start line. Our first ascent was up those hills on the far side of the beach. Source: http://forallmyfriends.com/page/309/

The morning was characteristically foggy. We followed our intrepid race director out of the parking lot, and he laid out two orange cones as our relatively informal start line while explaining how to follow the ribbons to stay on course. “We’ll have a mat at the finish line to record your time … we haven’t put it out yet, but it will be there.” “You’ve got plenty of time!” one of the runners called back. The course record for the 50-miler was just under 8 hours, which, while fast, certainly left them some time to set up.

We took off on a flat road, heading south into the fog. It’s always tempting at the beginning of a race to run quickly – after all, it is a *race* – but in ultras, speeding up that early can tire you out really quickly. I reigned in my enthusiasm for the first mile or so, listening to a couple of runners chatting behind me.

A few of them were using this race as a training run too, as they were preparing for various 100-milers around the same time as mine. Training for a 100 can logistically challenging, as there are very few people to compare training plans with. Marathon training plans are pretty well-established and straightforward in their mileage, frequency of runs, and distribution of long runs, but there’s no formula like that for a 100. It was good confirmation to hear that other runners had the same idea I did about this race.

Ultrarunners have a very particular way of running that is pretty easy to identify. There’s zero wasted motion, and the range of movement is also very tight – again, the goal is to conserve as much energy as possible. We spotted one runner way out in front – he had a big backpack on, and it looked like he had to overcompensate his body movement to keep it in place. I learned that he’d biked almost 20 miles to get to the start, and, today, was taking on the 100-mile distance. Internally, I raised my eyebrows (actually raising them would have taken up a lot of energy ;) and wished him luck. We passed him at one point, and despite much speculation amongst runners on the course, I’m not sure how he ended up.

In ultras, my mantra is “if it looks like a hill, walk it.” This gives me permission to interpret any surface as a hill – even if it isn’t one – and walk it. The surface only has to *look* like a hill, not actually *be* a hill. So, when we hit an easy hill very early in the course – it was a shallow, 200-foot climb – and I knew I could run it, I dropped to a brisk walk – I’d need that energy later.

One of the runners behind me caught up and started walking, as well. We shared the same hill philosophy – walk all of them. He introduced himself as Rick, and was using this run as a training run for the exceptionally challenging Wasatch 100; it has something like 27,000 feet of climbing at ~5,000 feet of altitude. This guy was a speed demon hiking up hills – I kept telling him to take off when he’d inch ahead, but we ended up running together for the rest of the race, which was really cool!

The first 8-12 miles weren’t bad at all. The fog was incredibly thick – one of my friends once likened these conditions to running inside a ping pong ball, because all you can see is the ground in front of you and a greyish orb everywhere else. Having run those hills before, I knew the views of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge could be beautiful and expansive. However, it was a relief to not see the huge stretch of trail extending miles into the distance, knowing that I’d have to run it. Instead, I focused on the trail just in front of me and the deep, vibrant greens and browns around us.

As part of the race, we had to descend, then climb on the way back, this ladder, a famous feature of the Dipsea trail. Source: http://adventurerun.wordpress.com

Around mile 20, after a few aid stations and a lot of climbing, we hit a the high point of the course and an aid station. We then left the rolling hills and plunged into a wet, green forest. This was part of the infamous Dipsea Trail, which is known for its challenging climbs, including 688 steps over 7.5 miles.

The turn-around was at mile 27, at Stinson Beach. On the way in, we had some beautiful views of Stinson’s long stretch of white sand. While the sun was clearing out the clouds a bit, it still wasn’t too hot, which was also great.

Usually I carry an Amphipod water bottle, which has a hand strap and is curved to fit into a palm so the runner doesn’t have to squeeze to carry it. However, I’d left mine back in Philly – traveling with carry-on only isn’t conducive to toting around lots of gear. Instead, I was using a cheap 16-oz disposable plastic water bottle and refilling it at the aid stations, to the confusion and consternation of the aid station crew. I also didn’t bring a jacket, arm warmers, compression socks, or a Camelbak backpack; I was definitely (and proudly!) the runner with the least gear.

After taking a quick minute to refuel, Rick and I turned around, looking forward to retracing our steps along now familiar trails. We’d done the first 27 miles in 6 hours and 10 minutes; not bad at all.

The third quarter of the race is always the most challenging for me. It’s tough to face the fact that I’ve got to do double the mileage I’ve already done. While I’m more than half way, there’s still so far to go.

To compound that feeling, we faced one of the steepest climbs of the course on the way out of the turnaround. The course profile shows it as vertical line, which inspires little confidence. I remembered tackling that climb around the same mileage at Northface and feeling completely defeated. I assumed I was going to be wrecked on this climb, too. However, the combination of my summer training mileage and having a fellow runner along for the pain of the climb made it completely manageable.

We re-climbed Dipsea, which was conveniently shaded. Once we hit the aid station just after that, we had a 4-mile downhill stretch. This was the first time my muscles started really complaining – the downhill can be hard on quads, and I was just starting to feel it. We had some switchbacks on this portion that were really brutal – I had to take some downhill walk breaks. However, it meant that the biggest climbs were behind us.

I’d done no hill training in the past three months; New York City is pretty flat. I’d been very worried about how I’d hold up during this race, but all the climbing seemed okay; I guess running in crazy heat and humidity will train muscles pretty well, too.

The last few hills were challenging; we encountered freezing winds on the ridges, which we’d also found on the way in. This time, though, we were running downhill and looking forward to being done, so we stretched out our arms as if we were flying down the mountain.

That being said, miles are miles; 12 isn’t a lot, but you still have to run them. When we only had 8 to go, it seemed like we were almost done – but we still had to actually run the miles. Mile 42 to 43 seemed very, very long to me. I was so lucky to have found a compatible running partner; we’d been sharing stories throughout the race, and our chatter really motivated me through this tough spot. Mostly, we were looking forward to finding the final “shortcut.”

As mentioned, the turn-around was at mile 27, and this was a 50-mile race. So, we weren’t perfectly retracing our steps; the last few miles would take us off of our original path along a shorter trail to the finish line. Even though 50 miles is 50 miles, we – Rick especially – were really looking forward to finding this shortcut.

The last aid station was 3.2 miles before the finish line, and they pointed us to the shortcut. We left the original out-and-back and trotted on the final stretch to the finish line.

We ran as much of the last ~5k as we could. With a bit over a mile to go, we could see the finish line, and, while still moving, spent several minutes speculating how we’d get there and where the course would take us. At one point, a 50-mile runner *blasted* past us – he was seriously flying. “I’m trying to come in under 12 hours!” he shouted, and blazed down the hill. We didn’t know what mile we were at, but we estimated he’d have to be doing an ~8 minute/mile pace or so to get there, which is really fast after ~48 other miles before it. (He made it in 12:01:49 – very close!).

Rick and I agreed he’d have to really push it to make it, and we kept our steady trot.

We descended into the beach area and turned off the trail and onto the road. The fog was still blanketing the area, and it was getting a little darker – it was about 7pm now. There were two runners behind us as we took on the final stretch.

Motivated to not be passed within a half mile of the finish, we “picked up the pace” – i.e. didn’t walk – and made the final turn into the parking lot.  The timing mat had, as promised, been laid out. Rick and I crossed the finish line simultaneously at 12:07:54. Pizza, soup, and hotdogs waited for us at the finish line. Delicious.

Lisa and Rick just after crossing the finish line. That fog’s still out there!

One runner we’d been trading places with back and forth took off; he was a 100-miler.

Overall results: 7 of the original 18 runners in the 100-mile race finished. 7 additional 100-milers dropped to the 50-mile. Of the original 72 runners in the 50-miler, 61 (excluding the 100s) finished. I finished right in the middle of the women’s pack, and came in 2nd for my age group (… okay, there were only two of us. She was about 30-seconds per mile faster than me).

One of the hardest parts of running long distances is the psychological challenge. There can be some serious, serious lows, where you feel completely demotivated to continue and even doing another mile seems completely out of the question. I was fearing that I’d face that on this run, but this was actually one of the easiest races, mentally, I’ve ever run. I chalk it up to good company, good weather, great scenery, and long, solo training runs over the last several months.

I’m not quite sure what my training plan is for the next five weeks. I’d like to get a couple of 20 or 30 mile runs in without overdoing it. Since I’ll be traveling through the southwest with my equally crazy boyfriend, who is also training for this 100, I’m sure we can fit that in – the challenge will be making sure to get the rest and the taper.

Overall, great race – I feel well-prepared for what comes next.

Delicious post-race meal. California, you rock.

Just keep Swimming … How to Finish a Marathon in the Rain

CIM startline. Look how reflective the pavement is – it was wet!

Yesterday, I ran California International Marathon, reputed to be one of the marathon fastest courses in the world. With gentle rolling hills and a net downhill elevation, runners sign up to run CIM in hopes of a PR, a Boston Qualifying time, or just a fast day.

Unless it’s raining.

The last week, Northern California saw unprecedented amounts of rain, and Sacramento was no exception. The start line was buffeted by wind, and runners were hiding against walls and underneath gas station awnings to stay dry. Thousands of trashbags glowed in the artificial light.

This marathon was a reunion of sorts – six of us who ran the Inca Trail Marathon converged on Sacramento in the hopes of running a race slightly easier than Inca Trail, and spend some time together. We’d eaten dinner together the night before and discussed race-day tactics, such as wearing trash bags, hiding in pace groups to block the wind, and wearing short sleeves, long sleeves, no sleeves, jackets … the permutations were endless.

Trashbags glowing in the pre-race artificial light.

Despite the rain, the start line was festive. 8000 runners couldn’t believe how ridiculous the weather was, and the only thing to do was laugh and run.

My goal in this race was to run somewhere in the 4:00 range. I’ve been running a 50k or marathon a month for the last few months, and I have another 50k in early January, so I didn’t want to go out too strong that I couldn’t recover in time.

The first few miles of the race featured the rolling hills, and we were fortunate that the wind wasn’t terrible. I dropped my trashbag around mile three, and was soaked through moments later. Running in the rain was actually exciting. A hat kept the water mostly out of my eyes, and, once I mentally committed to being soaked through for the next several hours, running through ankle-deep puddles didn’t seem so much of a hardship.

The strangest part of the race wasn’t the weather oddly – I grew to like that component. every so often, I would hear a dog barking … eventually, I realized it was a racer making those sounds. I was keeping pace-ish with a member of “Team Ah-some,” who was wearing a vibrant neon yellow shirt, and he seemed to be randomly barking every five or ten minutes. Around mile 18, I heard an actual dog barking, which was even more confusing.

Those cheering on the slidelines were amazing. Not only were they out in the rain, but they were creative and enthusiastic in their encouragement. One group was handing out beer. One woman was holding a “Just Keep Swimming” sign – so appropriate. My favorite was a guy who was yelling out things like “I’m making loud noises!” and “These are words of encouragement!” and “You are running, I am standing here watching you run!”

The last 8 miles were pretty rough. Road races aren’t my forte – the pounding of the pavement and the monotony of the terrain make it easy to get sore quickly (I qualified for Boston on a trail marathon – my favorite!). Around mile 21 I ran into one of the other Inca veterans, and we ran together for about a mile or so.

At mile 22, I saw a teeny tiny strip of blue in the sky.

A flooded Sacramento street a few blocks from the race.

The last three miles of a marathon, I don’t give myself any excuse to walk. Even slow running is better than no running.

Trail runners are strange creatures. Even though we run extremely solitary races with sometimes fewer than 60 runners, we tend to glom together for vast stretches, sometimes up to hours. We talk, exchange stories, and encourage each other to keep moving. This camaraderie doesn’t crop in in marathons; there are just too many people trying to go fast, and runners tend to keep to themselves and leave other runners to their own goals.

At mile 24.5, off to my right shoulder, I saw a runner slow to a walk. Without thinking, I turned to him and encouraged him to join me – the race was almost over, and he could definitely do this last bit. He fell into step with me and we started running.

The last few miles of a race are always a bit strange. I want nothing more than to be done with the race, but at the same time, once it’s over, it’s over, and gone forever. In my mind, I play this game where I tell myself it’s only forty more minutes of running … only twenty more minutes of running … only ten, five, three, two … and suddenly the finish line is there.

At the finish line!

This other runner and I kept each other going into the city, through tree-lined streets now streaming with shiny wet sunlight, and past the motivational music thumping through the air. He almost stopped twice, but we pushed through to the last 1/10th of a mile. When they split out men and women finishers, we grasped hands quickly and smiled, then split up to our respective finishing chutes. I didn’t see him again afterwards, and don’t know his name.

In elementary school, teachers say that when you point at someone, whatever you say to them comes back three times to you. Encouragement feels that way; sometimes, encouraging someone else is just as motivating to ourselves.

It was a mixed race for my friends. Several of them PRd despite the rain, and two of my girlfriends qualified for Boston. My Inca Trail team also did okay; a slow race for most of us, a DNF for one, and a wet (now non-functional) phone for another.

Overall, definitely a memorable, fun race. I finished in 4:06, which is close enough to what I wanted to do. The rain made it exciting, and getting together with friends, old and new, from all parts of my life, gave the weekend a festival-like feel. Not bad for marathon number 28.

Inca Trail Runners celebrating in Old Town Sacramento.

Inca Trail Runners celebrating in Old Town Sacramento.

50k Fun Run (Lake Chabot 50k)

Scenic Lake Chabot! Credit to ebparks.org for the photo.

Some runs are quiet, pensive, and lonely. During some races, you might not talk to someone for hours.

Lake Chabot 50k on Saturday wasn’t like that at all. The scenic and flat course attracted a lot of runners; I don’t think I ran a single mile without conversation of some sort. Sometimes, the lack of alone-time while running can be difficult – it’s hard to get in the proverbial “Zone” – but, in this case, that friendly camaraderie was just what the day called for. Beautiful scenery and friendly runners kept me moving to one of my fastest 50k finishes ever.

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Minimum Viable (Tri)athlete

Right before I wiped out – I look so psyched and have no idea I’m about to hit the pavement. Image c/o Chris Chabot

In the tech industry, there’s this concept of Minimum Viable Product. An MVP is a really basic, stripped-down prototype of the ideal final product. It’s got just enough to work – barely.

Yesterday, I competed in my very first triathlon – the California International Triathlon. Summary: triathlons are awesome. This was an Olympic Triathlon, which means 1.5k swim, 40k cycle, and 10k run. I finished in 3:21ish, which was in the middle 1/3rd of my age group.

Triathlons are very tech and logistic-intensive. Having never done one before, I didn’t know if it was something I’d want to do again. As such, I adopted the MVA approach – Minimum Viable Athlete. What was the minimum amount of gear I could invest in while still competing in this event?

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Boston Marathon Race Report: It Does Not Matter How Slow You Go …

This is a picture of Smoot Bridge in Boston, the bridge measured in Smoots (the height of a guy named George Smoot. Read about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoot )

Boston Marathon: I don’t even know where to start. In the style of Dickens, It was the hardest race I’ve run, and the easiest race I’ve ever run. It was the fastest, and the slowest. It was the most isolating race and the most friendly race.

To be sure, it was certainly the hottest race I’ve ever run. Temperatures were 90F towards the end of the race. The Boston Athletic Association offered an unprecedented option to defer racing due to the heat; about 4,300 people (15% of racers) deferred to run next year. 2,000 participants (10% of the field), received medical attention.

My finish time was 4:28 ish, which is about 2 minutes/mile slower than my qualifying time [3:35:05]. I’m just happy I didn’t end up on a stretcher. You can see my splits here (my bib number was 15030).

In terms of the actual race, I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. I qualified at the Santa Rosa Marathon last year, with a time of 3:35:05. As mentioned, I had no plans to run Boston at a pace even close to that. Continue reading

Why You Should Run Like a Super-Villain

Super-villains have capes, and so did our Lake Tahoe Relay team.

Who’s your favorite super-villain? Is there one bad guy who you’ve always been fascinated with?

Runners and super-villains have a lot in common. In fact, I’d say that the best runners would make the best super-villains. I’d go even further to say that we runners could have a lot to learn from the best super-villains.

Check it out:

Super-villains set lofty goals.  Magneto, of the X-men universe, wants to protect the world’s super-powered mutant race from being regarded as sub-human. He pretty much wants to change the way the entire world thinks – I’d say that’s a lofty goal.

Good runners set impressive goals, too. Our goals could be finishing a race, finishing a race quickly, hitting a weekly mileage goal, or something else. Good runners set tough, but realistic, goals.

Super-villains believe that, through hard work, they can get anything they want in life. Syndrome, from the 2004 animated film The Incredibles, was slighted by the main character as a child. Syndrome spent the next several years of his life plotting revenge and building an enormous robot, Omnidroid, to defeat his new nemesis.

Runners set goals, and then, through hard work and dedication, train to achieve them. We run, then run, then run more. We run sprints. We run hills. We run short distances. We run long distances. Some of us occasionally cross-train. Runners and super-villains both know that hard work pays off, and the only way to get the results we want is to work at it. Strong runners and strong super-villains have strong work ethics.

Super-villains will prepare for years to execute a cleverly-crafted plan. In the first Harry Potter book, Voldemort, whose end-goal is to kill the titular character, tries to do so by concocting an elaborate plan: borrow someone else’s body to steal a magical device, which he will then use to create his own, new bod, which he will then use to kill Harry.  Complex.

Runners’ plans are sometimes just as elaborate. We prepare for months, and sometimes years, for our races. Some of us have carefully regimented training schedules. In addition to training almost every day of the week, runners pay attention to the details: we read course descriptions and race reports. We pour over weather forecasts and course maps. We prepare mental strategies to help us through difficult parts of the race.

Super-villains have backup plans. Wile E. Coyote’s backup plans are numerous, and, despite their regular failure, he doesn’t hesitate to try again.

When I crewed for Badwater, my runner had two full minivans of contingency plans. These plans included extra socks,  several pairs of shoes of different sizes, boxes of medical supplies, crates of different snacks, gels, and bars, extra shirts, batteries, headlamps, iPods, chargers, GPS devices, radios – you name it. He was prepared for anything.

Super-villains ask for help. Darth Vader, of Starwars fame, was very willing to delegate tasks to his loyal, highly-motivated Stormtroopers. He somehow managed to recruit, and train an entire Imperial Starfleet of Stormtroopers, who would follow along with his plan.

For runners, these people could be the ones who cheer you on, train with you, give you advice, motivate you on rainy days, or meet you at the finish line with Dunkin Donuts (hint to my Boston Marathon supporters next week! ;)

On the other hand, heroes make pretty bad role models for runners. Heroes:

  • Are solitary .  They prefer to work alone, instead of relying on teammates.
  • Use their talents rarely. They don’t keep their abilities in top condition, instead opting to save them for emergencies only.
  • Are reactive. They wait until bad things happen, then try to solve the problem, rather than anticipating potential pitfalls.

In summary: super-villains would make awesome runners. And runners: we could do worse than looking up to some of the bad guys.

Who’s your favorite super-villain? Is it Jafar because of his awesome hat? Or Goldfinger because of his strategic shenanigans? Which bad guy inspires you?

How to Find Your Inspiration

The view from my parents' house in Southern California. I'm pretty jealous.

Inspiration is not sport-specific.  Inspiration is effective across activities; just because you happen to be running, swimming, or working through spreadsheet formulas doesn’t mean you won’t find people like Lance Armstrong or amputee Badwater runner Amy Palmiero-Winters inspiring .

In the toughest moments of a race, I’m inspired not by Olympians, even though they’re obviously very impressive.  What motivates me the are things that are closer to home. The scenes, moments, or events that I have a personal connection to are the ones that keep me moving during the times that seem most desperate.

When I need it dig deep for inspiration, the scenes that usually come to mind are about hills: climbing hills, seeing people I know climb hills, having climbed a hill, or running down the side of a hill I just finished climbing.

A few years ago, I had just come back from a long trip, at the end of which I had to say goodbye to some good friends. On returning home, I experienced the characteristic let-down of returning back to routine. Of course, the solution was a hard, fast, painful run.

There’s a route I like to run near my parents house in Southern California. It’s only 5.5 miles, but the first 1.25 miles are a brutal ascent up a very steep hill.

On this particular day, I pounded up this hill as hard as I could, given jet-lag and the associated exhaustion. At the top, I did something uncharacteristic – I took a quick breather.

The view at the top of this hill is stunning; it’s 360-degrees of rolling grasslands on one side, with mountains in the distance. On the other side is the Pacific Ocean, vast and steely grey.  On clear days, you can see Catalina Island. On clearer days, San Clemente Island is visible, too; a little grey hill of its own rising out of the ocean.

I’ve been taking some indoor cycling classes lately. They happen in the morning, and the instructor turns the lights off.  The darkness, while a bit strange, encourages visualization. When I’m looking for inspiration in those cycling classes, I sometimes think of this particular run – of vicious climbing up an impossibly steep hill, and of the beautiful reward at the top.

Inspiration comes in many forms, and from unexpected corners. Sometimes, the most inspiring stories aren’t the ones everyone knows; they are the ones nobody knows.

What inspires you? When you need a little extra juice, what do you think about?