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.

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Monsoon Marathon in Hilo, Hawaii

Part of the first half of the marathon in Hilo, HI.

This morning I ran my 34th marathon – the Big Island International Marathon, in Hilo, Hawaii.

Hilo, on the east coast of the Big Island, is one of the wettest places in the world. Some weather stations in Hilo report an average of 200 inches per year of rain. For comparison, Philadelphia, where I currently live, receives about 40 inches per year. Our marathon day in Hilo was predicted to be no different – serious downpour.

In the event of extreme weather conditions, my phone will send me a weather notification. The day before the race, this is what I got:

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From further down the page:

Winds this strong can result in damaged roofs. Broken and falling tree branches, downed trees, downed power poles and power lines resulting in interruptions to power. Flying debris if outdoor items are not properly tied down.

So, not only would we be running through pouring rain, but we’d be battling a very strong wind. And, in case it didn’t seem like this marathon would be challenging enough, there would be hill climbing – probably about 1,000 feet in total. All of it at the beginning, in the dark. Continue reading

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.

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100-miler

[originally posted at gametheoryninja.com]

As some of you know, I ran 100 miles this weekend.  Here’s the race report.  Also, I know it’s not related to game theory at all.

The race I ran was Rocky Raccoon, a five-lap race in Huntsville, Texas. You can see the results here. I finished in 24:58:28.  Only 43% of the 415 runners finished. (Does anyone have updated stats on this?)

Lap 1: It was a dark and stormy night …

About an hour before the race started, Dad and I were sitting in the rental car.  Rain was coming down in sheets. Per the normal clichés about storms, lightening zig-zagged through the sky and thunder echoed through the forest.  We don’t get storms like this in Northern California, and I hadn’t prepared for it.

I hacked some holes into a black plastic trash bag, and used duct tape to get the extra plastic away from my legs.  In my mind, the end result looked like a superhero combination of a Catwoman costume and a steampunk bustle. In reality, it probably looked like a house getting tented for termites.

The race started at 6am. Much of the first lap was in the dark.  It took less than a mile for me to trip over a tree root, a hazard the course is notorious for.  I was already bleeding, and we hadn’t even been running for ten minutes. Somehow, this early wipe-out didn’t dampen my spirits any more than the storm did.

Every two or three miles featured an enormous, impossible-to-avoid mud puddle. I was regularly up to my ankles in mud and water. My shoes were at least damp, if not drenched, for the entire race. This would prove to cause problems later.

I don’t remember much of the first lap. There was so much running left to do, and I didn’t want to think too much about what was to come.  I do remember, around mile 8, having a bit of a panic attack.  I still had 92 miles to run.  92 miles seems a lot longer than 100 miles.

Lap 2: The Man with the Sea Dragon Compression Socks

Every so often, in a race, runners will fall into step and pace off of each other. The two runners acknowledge each other and run in silent camaraderie. No words required.

For lap 2, and some of lap 3, I found such companionship with a man whose name I still don’t know. All I know about him was that he had running spandex and compression socks that looked like sea dragon scales, so that’s how I mentally referred to him.

Somewhere during lap 2, I also met a man named Bruce. He was wearing a blue shirt with cat paw-prints on it, so, being a cat person, I had to ask about it. I learned that Bruce was from Toronto, and told him I’d be visiting in July for World Futures 2012. Bruce had heard of WFS; he’s a CIO for a large school district near Toronto with 7k faculty and 54k students, so he’d been thinking about attending.

Best part: Bruce is in the middle of deploying Google Apps for Edu for his school district. [For those who don’t know, Google Apps is the part of Google I work for].  Bruce and I talked about everything from Gmail to Chromebooks to centrally-managed Android tablets. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I drilled him for about an hour on his opinions on our products.  He seemed happy to oblige my curiosity.

Lap 3: Lothlorien in Light and Shadow

About midway through this lap, I saw the sun for the first and last time during the race. It was a wan orb, low on the horizon, mostly obscured by emaciated tree trunks. Spindly shadows reached across the dirt path.

Seeing the sun made me unreasonably happy.

Around mile 52, I realized that it was going to get dark before I got to the turnaround and could pick up a headlamp.  I ran the last 8 miles of this lap very quickly to avoid getting caught in the dark.

Lap 4: Trust

This was the lap I had been looking forward to for the last 60 miles. My thought had been that if I could just get to this lap, I’d make it the rest of the way.  This is the lap when my pacer, Georgia, joined me.

The first two-thirds of this lap were great.  It was fantastic to have someone to talk to, and Georgia was an excellent pacer. Real friendship is carrying extra caffeine Gus and a jacket for your runner.

One of the fun parts of this lap was being able to share my newly-acquired, yet very intimate, knowledge of the course. Having been around the course three times times already, I could tell her where all the turnoffs were, where the tricky roots were, and the easiest way around mud puddles.  The aid stations were at 3.1 miles, 6.2 miles, 12.2 miles, and 15.6 miles. The hardest bit was the loop between 6.2 and 12.2, because that’s a full six miles without aid.  The far timing mat was a little less than 10 miles into the loop.

There’s one stretch of the course – less than a 10th of a mile – that’s right along the lake. It’s the only part of the course with an unobstructed view of the sky. On lap four, we had front-row seats to the stars.

That short stretch is also difficult, because just a few hundred yards away, across the lake, is the finish line.  You can hear the shouts and cheers of spectators urging their runners across the timing mat. It throws into sharp relief the fact that you’re just about halfway through the lap.

If I learned anything this time around it’s that, in long distance races, mood swings happen unpredictably and with no discernible cause. Miles 72 to 78 were very tough, and I’m not sure why. I had to sit down for a minute on a mound of dirt, where I spent two minutes contemplating the meaning of life with Georgia before finishing the lap.

At the impromptu rest point, I was about three-quarters done with the race. Sounds impressive, but not when that means I still had another full marathon until the finish.

Lap 5: Silence

Georgia and I finished lap 4 around midnight. I had been running for about 18 hours at that point. A sub-24 hour finish was still possible, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t very likely. I haven’t done a lot of research into this, but my intuition tells me that negative splits don’t often happen on 100-mile races.

After inhaling a chocolate donut and my first-ever mocha [which was delicious – thanks Dad!], I grabbed my iPod and took off for the last lap.

It was dark. Profoundly dark. And very, very quiet.

At this point, runners were either by themselves or running with a pacer. Everyone was spread out along the course.  Runners were exhausted, focused, and not interested in talking to othe rpeople.

All I could think about was the next step I was about to take.

When I talk about running, I often get asked about my music. Usually, I don’t listen to music. It’s distracting. When you’re this tired, any additional outside inputs or stimuli – even music – seem complicated, confusing, and overwhelming.

On this lap, I think I listened to about 45 minutes of music before I had to turn off the iPod.

The most frustrating part of this lap was that my muscles and joints felt fine, but I was unable to run. The constantly wet shoes finally taken their toll. Mud puddles had nurtured blisters on every single toe and the entire front pad of both of my feet. Each step was excruciating.

This lap reminded me of the Ave Maria sequence from Fantasia. Individual runners – little pools of light – painstakingly making a pilgrimage to the finish line. Not quickly, but inexorably, as if pulled by some external force.  And the sky is slowly turning grey.

The finish line.

There was no big celebration at the finish line. I walked across the timing pad, we took a picture, and that was that.

Epilogue: You Have My Sword, and my Bow, and My Axe

I finished the run in 24 hours and 58 minutes. I think that’s the longest I’ve been awake. I consumed more caffeine during that period than in the previous six months combined. There were highs, lows, and a lot of learning.

The hardest part of this race was not the roots, although that’s what the course is known for.  The hardest part was running in the dark. One of the reasons I like running is that it provides the opportunity to be fully immersed in nature. No technology, no distractions.  In the darkness, all you get is a tiny pool of light: just enough to see the path in front of you. There’s an entire forest, and all you get to see is some dirt and roots.  And a few headlamps twinkling in the distance. It’s hard to describe how frantic I felt at times, not being able to see anything around me.  Physically, 100 miles didn’t feel substantially different than 50. Mentally, the challenge was the darkness.

When I crewed for Mike at Badwater, he mentioned that picking a good crew is one of the most important components of a successful race. I didn’t think about it much at the time, and I didn’t understand why that would be the case until the end of the 4th lap of this race.  Going into the 5th lap, I felt like I was suffering from information overload, even though the number of ideas I had to hold in my head was very small. Case in point: I had to choose which jacket to wear on the final lap. Despite being a binary decision, this seemed like an insurmountable task, so I deferred to Georgia to help me decide. Decisions like that, so late in the race, can make or break a finish.

To sum up: I had a great crew. Dad and Georgia were incredibly supportive, upbeat, and helped me make good decisions.  Thanks so much, you guys. I could not have done it without you.

After finishing, I promptly pronounced I would never run another 100-mile race again.  Just over 24 hours later, I’m taking less of a hard line towards that assertion. While I have no immediate plans to run another 100, I could see doing it again, sometime in the distant future. Just to see how it compares to this one.