Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bonus: Last year's Bataan Death March

I just noticed that I never moved my race report over here for the 2006 Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon. So here it is... I'll try not to repeat everything in my report for the 2007 race :-).


I told people that I was going to do The Bataan Death March. Some gave me a knowing look. Some said "wow, what a cool name." Ok, first things first. The Bataan Death March was a real thing, a very terrible thing, in World War II. If you don't know about it, go read this. I'll wait until you are done.

Every March, the event is commemorated with a Memorial Death March Marathon at the White Sands Missle Range in New Mexico. It's mostly active duty military personnel marching in full uniforms, boots, and 35 pound packs. However, they allow civilians to run it... now, this isn't a hardcore technical trail marathon - but it is wicked hard. Alas, knowing about the actual event from WWII, and knowing that most folks are doing the "race" in full gear (though as a walk), I absolutely cannot complain about the difficulty. By comparison, I had it easy in my shorts and my nice shoes. That said, I think it's still the most difficult race that I've done in recent memory.

Side note. We were advised to be there between 4 and 4:30am because of traffic and parking. Then we waited until 6 for the opening ceremony. At 6:30, we marched past Bataan POW survivors... very very moving. And then we were off. But it meant that I had to get up at 2:30, factoring in, uh, forcing my body to do God's work, and the drive. See the food gap between 2:30 and a 6:30 race start? Yeah, that's gonna factor in later.

Oh wait. Let's not start quite yet. Side side note. Given that the majority of the marchers are active duty folks and some ROTC folks, the age of the people around me was skewed much younger than I'm used to at a marathon. Cool! And... before we started... for, like two hours before we started, a whole lot of people were smoking. I haven't seen this many people smoke before a race except in Europe. Not Cool!

Oh yeah, there was a race. It is held within the missle range proper... we started at the base on paved roads... at about M2, we turned down a tank trail. These are wide and can be nice for running. Or not. Aside from a few miles in the middle on nice paved roads, the whole thing was on these tank trails. The first 6 miles were mostly level or slightly downhill. We hit the first hill, and more importantly to me, the headwind from hell around M6. The first hill was big, but it was merely a bump. The second hill was a solid up between M9 and M13.8. And I don't mean a gentle, grandmother-likes-it incline. This was a HILL. A 3-STAR GENERAL ASSKICKER HILL. And the headwind. 20mph solid, with strong gusts of probably 1,000mph. Because of the proximity of the hills we were running around and the overall breeze, the headwind stayed with us for most of the day - no matter what direction we were running. Or walking. I managed to get to the top of the big hill at M13.8 by running. But my pace went from 8:20s before the hill to 9:30, to 10+. It's possible that I would have walked it faster. And then we hit a section between M14 and M20 that was net downhill, but had lots of sharp ups. I wish I could say that I blew through this. I did not. This is where I realized that between the altitude (4,000-5,500 feet... M13.8 was at the top), the wind, the heat, my approaching dehydration (yo, it's the desert), and my crappy eating the day prior and race morning, between alll that... it was likely that I was headed for a nasty crash into the wall. I didn't want to death march the Death March. But it was clear that 3:50 was out of reach. And so was 4:00. Yech.

Coming down the last section of hill between M18 and M20 was very inspiring. I saw troops. Thousands of troops. They were all going the other way up the hill. I was headed for M20 and they were headed for M9. And almost all of them hooted me, wished me luck, or called me 'sir'. I tried to return the favor when I could... I was breathing hard... but it was an experience I will remember forever.

Which is great, because M20 enters what the course organizers like to call 'the sand pit'. It isn't a pit. It's still tank trail. But for about two miles, the footing is horrid... not packed down... probably 10 inch deep sand that fills up your shoes and grabs you with every step. And in here, readers, in here is where my day went really poorly. But I will not complain. Whereas I had made it back to about 9:00s going down the hill (and should have done better, but I was cooked), I walked the pit. The whole pit. And it was hard work, because most of the sand pit was uphill. Exiting the pit, we continued uphill through M23ish, and then had a nice downhill to M24. I tried to get some kind of reasonable pace back. Couldn't.

Then at M24, the oddest thing happened. The course flattened out... woohoo... yet I absolutely could not run faster than a shuffle. I don't think it was The Wall... the glycogen-depletion monster. I know about that wall. This was different. Instead it was another kind of wall. The last two miles of the race follow(ed) a rock wall around the exterior of the base. It was sooooo monotonous. Psychologically, that was that. Finally, I rounded the end of the wall and saw the finish. And I finished.

I won't tell you my splits or my time. They sucked.

But at the end of the "race", I shook a survivor's hand, one more time. The guy was ancient. Could barely hear. But I feel like I owe my life to this guy and others like him. Very moving. Lots of things moved me today.

The support during this race was/is OUTSTANDING. Fluids every two miles, like clockwork. Army folks and volunteers at each aid station hooting. It was great. And portpotties for days. A necessity when 4,000 people are gonna be marching for 8 or 9 hours.

And chip timing. Are you listening Napa Valley? This race had chip timing. And. You got to keep your chip afterwards! :) The race cost 45 dollars, but you got to keep your chip. Shirt was so-so. No medal... but... we got a commemerative dog tag. Given the point of the event, this was way way WAY better than YetAnother medal.

Possibly the coolest/niftiest/neatest event I've ever done.

Definitely the hardest.

I can tell you more if you want to know more. I think I want to take a nap now.

Friday, March 23, 2007

03/17/07 Chuckanut 50k

This photo is by Glenn Tachiyama. He's the best photographer ever.

Chuckanut Mountain is located just south of Bellingham, Washington – up near the Canadian border. The weather this time of year is usually cold, windy, and wet, but that doesn’t keep people away from the Chuckanut 50k. Registration for this very popular ultra opens before Thanksgiving, and it is always full within a couple weeks. This race attracts the faster and more seasoned trail running crowd from around the Pacific Northwest.

Chuckanut wasn’t supposed to be my first 50k. It was actually supposed to be my fourth… but I missed the local “Pigtails Ultra” in December and a Mississippi 50k in March to play cancer buddy. I was also supposed to run Arizona’s Pemberton 50k in February, but one of my dogs decided to eat his leash on travel day. We spent that weekend at the animal hospital. And so Chuckanut, a fairly technical course sporting bad weather and very fast runners, turned into my introductory dance lesson with 31+ miles of mud and sheer terror.

Ok, it wasn’t that bad. In retrospect, I enjoyed myself. Somewhat. I was shockingly slow as measured against even the most conservative goals I had set. On the other hand, I did not spontaneously combust, and I learned a lot about myself… and my weaknesses on trails. I’ve run lots of trail races, including some really nasty trail marathons (I’ll come back to that at the end), and yes, I still can’t fly down the hills properly. I don’t do the whole speed up, slow way down, speed up trail thing very well. And, specific to Chuckanut, I learned about vampire mud. Not all mud is vampire mud, and you’ll know it when you encounter it.

So. The race. The rain started at 6a. Not hard, but steady. On the positive side of the weather ledger, it was not really windy, and it was not terribly cold – even by Island Boy’s standards. The race itself started at 8a. We were all kind of milling around the informal line and then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and we were off. The first (and last) 6.3 miles of the race are held on mostly… but not completely… flat bike trail. Except for a little single track by a creek somewhere around M3, it was all wide open. Weeeee. I hit the first aid station at M6.3 around 54 minutes. That would be the last “fast” running I’d do.

Exiting the aid station, we curved around the euphemistically titled “sewer lagoon”, back up the bike trail a little bit, and then the world changed. Honest to Pete trail time, climbing up to something called Fragrance Lake. Given that we had just passed the sewer lagoon, I had higher hopes for Fragrance Lake. It would turn out that I was far too concerned with my footing to enjoy the lake. We climbed. We descended. People ahead of me claimed to have turned the wrong way. People behind me claimed that we were on the right path. The people behind me, who were now the people also in front of me, won the battle and we continued. At M10.4, wahoo, we found aid station #2.

My Maniac friend Kurt caught me here. “This next part is the most boring part of the course.” Indeed. We were on a wide gravel/mud road. We climbed. We played chicken with some cars. We climbed some more. I got a little muddy.

Wahoo, M13.6 and welcome to aid station #3. I checked my watch. 2:30. Huh. I knew I wasn’t going to break 5 hours on this course, but I was hoping to break 6. I could still do it, theoretically, but what I didn’t know was that the next section was over-the-top twilight zone another dimension harder than the previous sections. What I also didn’t know was that this much harder section was free of any aid stations. 7.6 miles before we hit the next station… which, surprise, was actually this one. Had I paid more attention to the map, I would have seen that this upcoming section was essentially a trip around the circumference of upper Chuckanut. Up and down and all the way around, and we’d come out… here. The thing is, I didn’t know this. So I didn’t fill up my mostly-empty bottle. I didn’t eat anything. Me and my stud self just took off running.

More climbing. Only the climbs were steeper. More descending. Only the descents were briefly terror inducing. More sliding. And, kaplooey, my first fall. Right into a soft bed of ferns. I got passed a lot in this section, and the main thing I noticed was that when people passed me on the downhills, they seriously burned rubber and disappeared. It was foggy and my glasses steamed up. On a nice day, I was told that there were good views to be had up here. But it wasn’t a nice day and I was too busy looking at the trail. Up and down we went. Surely there’s an aid station coming, right?

Heh. No. We dumped out onto an old logging road. It was raining noticeably harder here. I thought to myself “well, this is a road, so it’ll be easier” and off I went. It was not easier. This became my new personal vision of hell.

Hell is inhabited by vampire mud. Vampire mud is sentient. Vampire mud needs your essence to live, and so vampire mud steals your soul. And how? It takes your soul through your soles. Because, you see, vampire mud eats your shoes. Allow me to quote something that I should have read in the course description:

The road will become a trail and the trail will become a mudhole then a stream. Wet feet guaranteed! Don't bother trying to stay dry...tighten your shoes and just power through the slop.
Yeah, buddy. About a mile into this mess, the vampire mud removed my right shoe. I tried hopping on one foot, but it was not to be. Splunk. Right sock, sunk in the mud. Fine. I dug out my shoe, put my muddy foot back in, and took off. But I think I lost my will to live on this road. Vampires will do that. Except for a brief downhill section later, I could not run fast after I lost my shoe. Couldn’t do it. And the mud went on. And on. And on. The climb went on and on. More people passed me.

Could it get harder? Yes and no. I hit a downhill and passed a sign that read “hammer this section, chinscraper is near!” Chinscraper. Now, I didn’t know exactly what this meant, but it didn’t sound happy. So I hammered. Unfortunately, it was like Curly and Moe hammering. After a bit, I came to another sign that read “hills are fun”. And welcome to chinscraper. Chinscaper, as you might guess from the name, is a very steep climb. A long one. And in the middle is something called “little chinscraper” – the steepest section of the very steep climb. About 3/4s of the way up little chinscraper, I slid back down. And almost took out another runner like a bowling pin. Technically, this was the hardest section of the course, and falling down was not fun. On the other hand, hey, I was out of the vampire mud.

The single track dumped out on a road and wahoo, M21.2 and welcome to aid station #4. 7.6 miles. My watch read 5:00 exactly. Three things: 1) 5 hours to go 21 miles!, 2) 2 ½ hours to go 7.6 miles!!!, and 3) 10 miles left. So much for beating 6 hours, and based on how I felt, 7 wasn’t going to happen either. I was soooooo hungry. I ate an orange. And 3 handfuls of M&Ms (side note: when wet, they do, in fact, melt in your hand). And 2 handfuls of animal crackers. And another scoop of M&Ms. And 2 cups of coke. Plus 2 endurolytes, and 1 Sudafed. The only thing that didn’t go into my stomach was the partridge and the pear tree. I would have considered a pear and a partridge, though. Me so hungry!

7.6 miles in 2 ½ hours. Wow. I don’t have a good joke for that.

I refilled my bone dry water bottle. 10ish miles left… 3.6 on supremely steep quad-busting downhill and 6.3 across the same flat bike trail on which we had started. It was really foggy here and I couldn’t see anything. 5:04 on my watch… hey, it takes time to eat an entire picnic… and down the hill I went. I passed shadows of other broken runners. Some I talked to, and some I didn’t. Go back and scan what I ate at the last aid station. You know how we always say “don’t do anything new on race day!” ? Do you think I had previously practiced eating 3 people’s worth of party food in the middle of the race? No siree. Did I pay the price? Thankfully, no. My body must have really needed the sugar. At the bottom of the hill, wahoo, M24.8 and welcome to aid station #5. As I’m eating yet another handful of slimey peanut M&Ms, a woman runner pulls in and exclaims, “Hey! My panties are wet! Chuckanut was my 98th marathon-or-longer event since being sick and I have to say, I hadn’t heard that one before.

5:40 on my watch, so I made 3.6 in 36 minutes. That may sound slow, but it felt like a sprint. 6.3 miles left. Even Tergat, The Flash, and Mercury/Hermes weren’t going to help me beat 6 hours. But I had a fairly good chance at beating 7, and I set another goal for myself: except for the little singletrack section in the middle, run every step of this last part. Wet Panties Lady and I left the aid station, but she wasn’t as into the whole “run every step” business. I was on my own once again. Chug chug chug. This part was back on the flattish bike trail, and it even had some mile markers. I knew I wasn’t flying, but I felt like I was running a respectable pace. The mile markers disagreed. Chug chug chug. Back across the last little single track section, which included, rather unfortunately, a wide, cold, shin-deep puddle. Sploosh sploosh. My shoes? I had exited the vampire mud a good 10 miles behind me and I just went through an ice bath… and even so, my shoes were still coated in thick vampire mud. It was eeeeeevil.

Chug chug chug. Final turn. Down the hill. Wahoo, M31.1 and I was done. 6:54 on the clock.

6:54. I beat 7. And aside from the giant puddle, I did run that whole last part. 74 minutes to run 6.3… the same 6.3 that took me 54 on the way out.

6:54. Almost as long as it takes me to run two road marathons. Oh. And it was still raining.

Whew. I ate some soup. Talked to lots of people, including MM Hippo.

I have lots of room for improvement. I will say, however, that this was certainly not the hardest race I’ve ever done. Last year, I ran the Leadville Marathon in 6:53. One minute faster, but about 5 miles shorter too. And I was seriously trashed after Leadville, whereas I was fine the next day after Chuckanut. I consider the Volcano Marathon to be harder than Chuckanut too. I finished that one in 5:10, but I would have been closer to 4:15 had I not twisted my ankle. Volcano absolutely punished me and those around me, whereas Chuckanut just kind of messed with me.

Well, except for the vampire mud. That stuff has scarred me.

Next up: Back to Bataan, a race I once considered “the hardest”. Not even. But plenty hard. See you there.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

03/04/07 Napa Valley Marathon

Real life has been kind of busy (though not altogether unpleasant) for the last couple weeks... so this report will be a bit shorter than most. Many people would call this a positive :-).

The Napa Valley Marathon is one of my five favorite races - entirely due to the beauty of the course. The organization is fine, although it is the biggest race I know that still doesn't use chip timing. The expo is small, but adequate. You get a nice technical shirt and a really nice bag. Napa is getting to be a crowded place, even in winter. You probably need reservations for meals if you want to go somewhere nice... and dinner will take awhile. Service in the Napa area is friendly, but universally slow. But... the scenery of this race still puts it up near the top.

Also, this race has great spectators. They aren't wall-to-wall for 26.2. It's a race in the countryside. However, at every major intersection, the crowds are large and LOUD.

The course is a point-to-point between Calistoga and Napa down the Silverado Trail. The downside, of course, is an early ride on a school bus - in this case 5a. The upside, and it is a BIG upside here, is 26.2 miles of beautiful scenery. Per the elevation chart and map, this is mostly a downhill course. I'm not talking Tucson or St George, though. From top to bottom is about 350 feet. Additionally, there are several challenging ups along the way, particularly M2-3, M5-6, and M19-20.5.

I've done this race a few times. In the 29 years of this race, it has rained twice. Unfortunately, one of those times was last year. And I was there. 23 miles of headwind, 26.2 miles of miserable cold rain... and a 4:01 for my efforts. Based on my past few races, I have been stuck in 4:0x land recently, so I was interested in whether I could beat last year's time - especially because the weather was supposed to be (and did turn out to be) nice. So my goals were simple: race somewhat evenly and beat 4:01.

I had one thing working against me. It was called "Saturday". I visited a winery, a brewery, and a champagnery (is that a word?) on Saturday. And, yes, I sampled. And I ate. And ate. Sunday morning arrived hangover-free... I didn't drink that much... but my belly was not happy.

The weather was perfect and I enjoyed the sights. I kind of stuck to my own thoughts for this race, so I can't offer up any great stories of the people I met. The weather was awesome for me, though maybe a little warm for most. The scenery was perfect. I just soaked it all in.

I hit the half around 1:51 and was feeling good. 4:01 seemed reasonable.

Then my belly decided to participate. Unfortunately, my brain was trying to concentrate on "marathon" and my belly wanted to do "interpretive dance". One potty stop. Then two. Then three. And these were not the express kind of stops. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. I guess I could have tried to hold it, but, oh, who am I kidding? Better out than in for me.

Around M20, I started hearing someone tooting on one of those wooden whistles that kind of sounds like a train. I thought it was a spectator, but it kept happening. I figured it out about M22. It was a guy running the race. He brought a whistle... I think to encourage a friend or something. It was clear that he was running slowly for his level of fitness. He'd shoot ahead and play his whistle for the water stops and spectators. He hung near me for the rest of the race; I assume his friend was running my approximate pace.

I could have done without the whistle blower, but it wasn't super annoying. I'm happy that I didn't have to endure this for the full race. I bet the friend wanted to choke him.

At M23, we pulled off the Silverado Trail and into the neighborhoods of Napa's north side. I hadn't slowed too much, so I tried to speed up and make the last three miles as fast or faster than the first three. I got close.

M26.2. Robert Lopez - Seattle, Washington. Hot dog! I got announced again.

3:48. Va-voom!

My best time since last June (a 3:45 in Iowa).

My splits were not good for my "run somewhat evenly" goal... 1:51/1:57. Then again, if I subtract out my potty time, it was more like 1:51/1:53. Still not perfect, but that's about as even as I get. And a 3:44 overall makes me feel pretty good.

Dean K also ran this race (3:05ish). As did Dick Beardsley (2:45).

Next up? My first 50k. Up, down, and around Chuckanut Mountain in Bellingham, Washington.

I'll see you there.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

02/24/07 Cowtown Marathon

Once upon a time, there was a marathon in Ft Worth. The course was boring, and it had a long history of poor organization and adventures in "no water" aid stations. So I put this race on my bad list.

I ran the Cowtown Marathon this past Saturday. And it was pretty darned good. The organization was good-to-great, and the aid stations were plentiful and stocked well. And while Ft Worth isn't the most scenic city on earth, the course ensured that we saw most of it - certainly lots of the good parts.
The forecast for race morning was grim - pretty common at my races. Thunderstorms, damaging hail, high winds. The only positive was that the temperatures were supposed to be mild. Mid-40s at the start, mid-60s at the four hour mark. I doublechecked the radar as I was getting ready to leave, and there it was... a line of "red" thunderstorms chugging into town. Sigh. It was going to be one of those days.

Or was it? It started sprinkling, but it never rained. I would find out later that this band of storms parted as it entered Ft Worth. Some headed north, and some headed south. Good luck for us in terms of precipitation. We wouldn't have good luck with the wind.

The race itself started at 7:30a. The skies were clearing up and the wind was moderate. The start was packed with full marathoners and half marathoners. Last week at Birch Bay, I just did an intentional long, slow run. At Cowtown, I wanted to bring my time back to 4 hours. I knew the course would be somewhat hilly and I was still unsure about the weather... so I wanted to run 'even effort' as opposed to precisely timed 'even splits'.
It turns out that Cowtown is really hilly (though because it is a loop, fair) course. And the first 2 miles were a gentle downhill. In fact, it was a straightaway with no trees - so we could see allll the way dowwwwwn. Very interesting psychologically. Big Sur is a viewed as a hard course by most people. I think it is, but I also think that the course plays mind tricks because you can see all the way up the big hills. Cowtown's start was a bit of a reverse. A nice long downhill to get you all comfortable.

And then we turned. The hills started. The breeze picked up. Most of the middle miles snaked through neighborhoods and skirted parks. Not a ton of spectators, but a few people were out. That was nice. At M4, we went by a big cemetery. At M8, we clipped the edge of a country club golf course, and the half marathoners split off. The breeze now became wind.

At M11, we passed the Cowgirl Museum. I wish I'd had time to linger there. Instead, we turned into the Ft Worth Botanical Gardens. This is a very cool place... though I have to say, it's neater in spring, summer, and fall. In winter? Well, it was still nice, but kinda brown :-).

We ran by the Trinty River. We ran through parks. We ran through neighborhoods. Around M17, we turned back towards the general direction of the start/finish. This was when the wind became more than just an annoyance. It was gusting somewhere between 30 and 40 mph from the west. We were running mostly north, so the cross wind caused me to stagger occasionally.

I hit M20 at around 3:04. I felt okay, but with the wind, I didn't think I'd beat 4. At M22, we crossed back under I-30 and ran on a trail next to the Trinity River again. Although to be clear, we were on a trail at the top of an embankment (the Trinity tends to flood) way above the river itself. The wind was blowing hard, and I actually got a little scared that I might fall down the embankment. That would be a weird way to end my day. I didn't. But now the gusts were over 50mph and the dust storm started. I staggered, but I did not fall.

At M24, we turned out of Trinity Park and headed back to downtown. It was warm and windy and dusty and I just wanted to be done.

At M25, we hit the bottom of downtown and started the final set of turns to the finish. At M25.5, I was caught by a woman who said simply, "I wanted to see what your shirt said." She took off. I tried to sprint, but I couldn't catch her.

Robert Lopez, Seattle Washington. Woohoo! I got announced! Finish time, 4:04:38. Sigh. The wind was a factor, but I thought I'd do a little better.
Afterwards, I ate Mrs Baird's donuts and cinnamon rolls. I haven't had those since I was 14, but they were quite tasty. I was sitting in a big tent when the whole thing started rumbling from the wind. It was time to leave. As I passed the start/finish portapotties on my way back to the parking garage, some portapotties blew over. And the bloo stuff splashed me. Ewwwwwww!


4:04. Blah. It is taking me a long time to get back to where I was last year (3:35-3:45).

Next up: Potentially Napa. I'm signed up. We'll see how real life goes.