Thursday, July 19, 2007

07/15/07 Missoula Marathon

The Missoula Marathon was an inaugural event that many of us had been looking forward to (and signed up for) for a long time. It's difficult to describe why, exactly. It wasn't the outward allure of going to Missoula, Montana. Perhaps it was because it is one of only a handful of mid-July races. And with slim pickings comes bigger desire - especially since it was a new choice that we haven't had before.

They did a great job and I learned that Missoula is a very interesting and picturesque little town. Along with Swan Lake, this race provides an instructive example of why I do this. It certainly isn't because I'm trying to bring home trophies and prize money. It's all about discovery: meeting people and learning about cool places that I otherwise probably would never have visited. And Missoula certainly fits that description.

The race was a point-to-point starting in tiny Frenchtown, and utilizing backroads back to Missoula. This meant a 5a shuttle and a bit of a wait at the start. However, the nice thing about mid-July is that this wait was not bone-chilling cold. Then again, the flip side is that mid-July can get warm... and it had been 105 the previous afternoon. Island Boy like hot, but I've learned this summer that "like" is different from "performs better in". Past about 75, and heat saps me like it does anybody else.

Missoula sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. The race course skirted the edge of the valley. According to the elevation chart, the race would be 26 miles of gentle uphill, except for a steep up from M13-15, followed by a steep down to M16. The bump in the middle was certainly noticeable, but the gentle uphill was either really gentle or nonexistent. Most of the race seemed flat. A nice run in the country.

My goals for the race were simple, especially since I was under the impression that the course would be uphill the whole way: run evenly, finish somewhere around 3:45, and check out the sights. Just like Seafair last weekend, I was standing in the portapotty line way too close to the start of the race. An official came over and told us that we had nine minutes. No problem. Less than 30 seconds later, a different official came over and told us we had six minutes. Huh. I bailed from the line and snuck behind a building. After surprising two women crouched behind a dumpster... ooops... I waited until they left and then tried to go. Nothing happened. Time passed. I ran to the starting line.

The cannon fired (a BOOM that was felt as well as heard) and off we went. Right away, I knew this would NOT be one of those blessed days where everything felt good. I didn't feel badly, but I did feel 'blah'. There was a single portapotty at each aid station, but the first one was occupied when I went by. Somewhere around M5, we passed a pulp mill. In the distance, across a weed-filled ditch and a big field, in a parking lot, I spied a lonely potty. Off I went. And... nothing happened. Time passed. I rejoined the race. One of my Maniac friends, Linda, saw my offroad adventure and laughed at me.

The start through M9.5 was a straight-ish section of country road. Then we turned onto the Kona Ranch Road. The Kona Ranch? In Montana? I liked the name. I still didn't feel right, so when I spotted the green 'unoccupied' dot on the portapotty door at M11, I stopped again.

This was a funhouse portapotty. It had been placed on a slope... and a combination of my heartbeat and my breathing caused the portapotty to vibrate, slowly at first, and then more violently after about a minute. It was a lot like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge shaking itself apart in those old films, and I thought I was going to fall over. Yikes. Still though, I tried to potty. And... nothing happened. Time passed. I exited, and there she was. Linda. Waiting to use the facility. Before she could laugh at me, I warned her about the shaky portapotty action. Off I went.

Still sluggish, and now it was getting hot. As I approached the bump section, the 3:49 pace team caught me. The hill was actually the most enjoyable part of the race course. Oddly enough, the road on this hill was called Big Flat Road. Huh.

By M18, the 3:49 folks started pulling away from me. It seemed they were running a little fast for 3:49, but no matter what, 3:45 wasn't going to happen on this day. I just felt icky. Ok, so 3:51 (my time at Seafair the prior week) became my new goal.

Around M20, I started catching some folks I had seen at the beginning of the race. The guy from Chicago I had met at the airport. One of the two costumed women. Linda passed me in here. I tried to keep up with her for a little while. We passed lots of early starters and most of the back-of-the-pack half marathoners who had started at the halfway mark of the full. It seemed that the heat was getting to lots of people.

At M22.8, we passed over some railroad tracks and into a funky section through the mall's parking lot. This was one of the few points where there were spectators. Plus the Rocky theme. It helped. Linda pulled away from me in this section, although my mile splits show that I too was speeding up some.

A few of the last miles were along a bicycle trail with lots of street crossings. Most of these had good traffic control. Finally, we approached downtown Missoula and then the big finish.

3:53. Hmm. Factoring out the false potty stops and the offroad adventure... and factoring out the whole 'blah' feeling, and I guess I had an okay race. I definitely could have had a 3:45 race. But we don't factor those things out. My splits were pretty ok for me: 1:55/1:58.

The good news is that I beat 4 in Montana for the first time. I also felt really good. AND they interviewed me for the evening news - my very first time on television.

I'm a little bummed that I'm not running as well as I was last month, but my running logs may be pointing to the issue. In May and early June, I was doing lots of 800s (basically half mile intervals). I stopped doing them about the time I started flaming out while trying for a 3:30. I think I need to revisit my Pfitzinger-inspired schedule.

Overall, though, things are going pretty well. I've completed 30 marathons so far this year, and I feel good.

Next up: no marathon this weekend! Whatever will I do with myself? I'm running a local 10k - the Swedish Summerun, which I consider to be our hardest 10k. If anything interesting happens, I'll write about it. If not, I might write about something else.

My next scheduled marathon is the Volcano Marathon on 7/28. This is an extremely challenging race that punished me last year. It is run on the slopes of Kilauea, and unfortunately, Kilauea has been angry during the past month. Many of the trails utilized by this race have been closed since mid-June. Not sure what's going to happen.

Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

07/08/07 Seafair Marathon

Seafair is a month-long celebration in the Seattle area. It involves hydroplane races, air shows by the Blue Angels, a parade, and lots of other tie-in events. For several years, there has been an 8k race and a sprint triathlon during Seafair. In 2003, they added a half marathon. In 2005, they added a full. The half and full have been mixed bags. In the first years of both events, they were advertised as "flat". In fact, they were very hilly courses. They've changed a little in the past few years, but the races are still quite challenging - hilly and warm.

Seafair is one of my two "cursed" races (Grizzly in Montana is the other). In 2003, I was signed up for the inaugural half, but I showed up on race morning only to find out that I was supposed to pick up my packet the day before. In 2004, I ran the half with what I thought was a pulled right quad. Nope. I collapsed at the end of the race. It was a stress fracture in my femur. I ran the half with a broken leg :-(. I didn't run again for two months.

I skipped the inaugural marathon in 2005 so I could race Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. And that brings us to last year. In 2006, I started out with 50-in-50-in-50 Sam Thompson... and he's a lot faster than me. Because it was the second week of his 50-in-50-in-50, he was running a 3:45 pace, which was doable for me based on races during the prior month. One problem, though, was that I had just run the Leadville Marathon the week before Seafair. Leadville was... and is... the hardest race I've ever done. It chewed me up and spit me out. This was a big problem. Here I was, eight days later, running on the faster end of my comfort zone. It wouldn't last. Sam pulled away from me by M10. And that was it. The last 16 miles were rough, and it got really warm. 3:45? Nope. I pulled in at 4:15.

One skip, one broken leg, and one spontaneous combustion. That's a cursed race.

I should add that Sam had also run Leadville. Along with seven other marathons in between. He finished hours in front of me at Leadville and indeed nailed his 3:45 at Seafair.

What would this year bring? I had two goals: 1) run evenly and 2) beat last year's time. Assuming I didn't do anything stupid... like (cough) trying for 3:30 (cough), #2 wouldn't be a difficult goal to achieve. That's alright.

The Seafair course is a loop, plain and simple. The whole course is hilly, but most of the hardest hills are in the first half. There's lots of downhill in the second half - which I didn't even notice during last year's blow up. However, they throw in a really nasty trick on this course. The last two miles, right up to M26.1 are uphill. UPHILL. Boo, Seafair.

So, I was standing in the portapotty line with BRB (Best Running Buddy) when we heard the call on the PA: two minutes until the start! Ooops. We did what needed to be done, and ran towards the line. Before we got there, BOOM, the runners were off. Luckily, this race uses chips. We jumped in after everyone had gone by and we were off too.

Weaving, weaving, weaving. Unfortunately, I wasn't paying enough attention and I lost track of BRB. The first few miles of the course went through downtown Bellevue, so I looked at the buildings. I also said hello to a few Maniacs that I didn't know.

Somewhere around M6, I came across a Maniac I do sort of know - he has the interesting nickname 'coconutboy', and he apparently actually reads my stories. So, Hiiiiiiiii coconutboy. He was running with his wife. Now, I don't want to refer to her as 'coconutgirl' because that doesn't seem to be her approved nickname, so I'll call her Sherry. Hello, Sherry. When I am having a good day, they are roughly my pace or a little bit faster... but it seems that I'm not usually having a good day when I'm in the same race with them.

About M8, I had to make the first of several pitstops. This would bode poorly for my finishing time, but as always, it makes for a muuuuuch happier running experience to deal with such things in an appropriate manner and timeframe. As I closed the door, I heard coconutboy shout, "Make sure you lock the door." Ha. Coconutboy really does read my stories :-).

I did lock the door. And that was the last I'd see of Sherry and coconutboy until after the race.

The course went up hills; the course went down hills. I passed M13.1 around 1:54.

It was hot, so I drank the nasty Gleukos that they served, but my stomach didn't like me much for it. By M16, I had to stop again. I was not able to regain my pace afterwards, but the downhills in this section helped a lot. Most of this part of the course snaked through neighborhoods and parks. Not a lot of spectators came out to cheer, but there also wasn't a lot of traffic to dodge. Overall, I was having a lot more fun than last year.

Around M18, I started catching back-of-the-pack half marathoners. I also talked to a few full marathoners... it was one of those days that distraction seemed like a better fatigue management coping mechanism than focusing.

The nasty hill at the end was everything I could have hoped for. Up we went. Left turn, and...

Robert Lopez, from Seattle.

Woohoo, I got announced. 3:51. Well, like the previous race at Swan Lake, it wasn't 3:45. It was also a couple minutes slower than Swan Lake. However, this was a harder course. And 3:51 with a smile beats the pants off of 4:15 and feeling like I want to die. My split was 1:54/1:57. Not quite even, but that's about as even as I get. I made both my goals, hooray!

I spent about 10 minutes drinking water and eating cookies, then I decided to go back out and find BRB. I took a couple bottles of water with me, and out I went. I didn't have to go far - about .2 out, here was BRB and another Maniac, Rob. I turned around and we ran in. And...

Robert Lopez, from Seattle.

HA. I got announced twice! The other Rob got announced too, but either I was shielding BRB or her number was turned around because they didn't say her name. Later on, it looked like she was right behind me in the finish line picture. Sorry, BRB. Didn't mean to block you.

I gave them the bottles of water. Kind of a weird move on my part because we were standing right next to... lots of bottles of water. But hey, I tried.

Almost 25 minutes better than last year. I felt great. I got to talk to lots of Maniacs I know, and meet new ones that I did not previously know. The weather was good... and I didn't have to drive or fly for hours to get home.

It was a good day.

Next up: Already happened. The inaugural Missoula Marathon. Would I finally break 4 in Montana? Come back real soon now and see!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

07/01/07 Swan Lake Marathon

The Swan Lake Marathon is held at (and organized by) a Mennonite church camp on the outskirts of Viborg, South Dakota. And right next to Swan Lake - though I don't think it is the one from the ballet. The first thing to note is that while Viborg may not be the absolute center of the middle of nowhere, it isn't too far away. The second thing to note is that Viborg rhymes with 'iceberg' and not 'cyborg'.

Last year, this marathon had about 25 people in it. I intended to do it as a double with Marathon to Marathon, but the course made it far too convenient for me to decide around M8 that I'd switch to the half. My stomach was really bothering me that day. About two months later, I got a second place ribbon for the half, which is really funny. Little races are always funny that way.

This year, they changed the date of race. So while people couldn't double it with M2M, it was held on a weekend that was otherwise seemingly marathon-free across the country. The consequence, of course, was that registration more than tripled... and lots of 50-staters descended on Viborg. The church camp allows folks to bunk in their cabins or camp. I think they filled everything up. I chose to stay elsewhere, but it looked like people had fun at camp :-).

Now, about that course. It's a shamrock - three different loops (start-> M4.5, M4.5->M13, and M13->finish) around the start/finish. The first two loops make up the course for the half, which is why it was so easy to bail last year. Most of the course is flat, and most of it is dirt. The section around Swan Lake is shaded by trees, and runners forget for a bit about all those corn fields. But only a bit. The rest of the race, except for a few blocks in Viborg, is all about corn. And corn? Corn provides no shade whatsoever.

Last year, the race started at 6:30 or 7... I don't recall. I do recall that it got warm and then HOT quickly. This year, they moved the start up to 6a to help with the heat. Unfortunately for me, my hotel was 45 minutes away. It was a very early morning for Island Boy.

At 6a, we said a little prayer... cmon, it *IS* a church camp... and then off we went. I was coming off of two really awful weekends where I had pushed myself too hard trying to hit 3:30. My plan this week was to run a smarter race: run evenly and try to land a 3:45.

I caught my friend Amy around M1, so we chatted for awhile about various things. Amy is a breast cancer survivor and one of the faster Maniacs I know. I usually don't get the opportunity to run with her, and I managed to do it twice in three weekends - we ran a few miles together at Estes Park.

We ran by corn. We ran through Viborg. We commented on the gal in front of us running in a bikini, like I usually only see on really fast marathoners and triathletes. We ran by more corn. It was starting to get warm.

At M13, we passed my point-of-no-return. No bailing this year. Our time was right around 1:52; pretty close to what I wanted. At M15, I stopped to potty. Amy is really good about running negative splits, and I am not. I was able to see Amy ahead of me after I finished my business, but over the next few miles, she got smaller and smaller.

Corn. So much corn.

By M19, the heat was getting to me and the inevitable slowdown started. A few people passed me... including 3 teens running their first marathon. It was fun to see them working together to get to the end. At M23, I caught them at the aid station and made the mistake of saying, "Just a 5k left." The icy death stares I received convinced me that I had just been that guy. At M24, we went through a brief out-and-back and a guy in front of me yelled, "HOW OLD ARE YOU??" Er... 41. He thought I was gunning for his age group position. Not hardly. It would turn out that this guy is 56, so I was no threat even if I had been trying to catch him.

By M25, two of the teens had left the third behind. She was still in front of me, and she kept looking back. I'm not exactly sure why, but I suspect that she really REALLY wanted to beat the creepy old man who had made the stupid comment. She would succeed.

Around the corner, up the hill, and I was done. I didn't make 3:45... it was 3:49. Still though, I felt really good and I was close to my goal. Although a 1:52/1:57 split isn't great, it was way better than some of my recent races.

Amy did indeed run a negative split, and she was the first place overall woman.

The dude that thought I was trying to catch him? He ran a 3:45:00 exactly. I should have tried to catch him :-).

Incidentally, for a little race in the middle of nowhere that tripled in size, the organizers did an amazingly good job with it. I would seriously consider making this an annual excursion if it wasn't so far away. I really liked it.

Next up: it has come and gone. The dreaded Seafair Marathon, one of my two cursed races. Did I break the curse? Check back in soon. Be there. Aloha.

Monday, July 09, 2007

06/24/07 Kona Marathon

I got this picture from Johnny Landeza. This is the close-knit group from Oahu that I call the "Hawai'ianiacs". And me.

Well, I guess I'd better write about this race. I haven't really wanted to do this, but because I haven't, I'm backed up on writing about races that have occurred since then (Swan Lake and Seafair). So I need to get this out of my system.

I had been looking forward to Kona for over a year... last year, the race was a couple weeks earlier in June. Kona is my favorite race in my favorite place. I've done the full 4 times, the half twice, the 5k twice (including winning my age group), and the 10k once. My 3:52 last year was a good time for that course and the first time I'd managed to beat 4 in Hawai'i. However, I didn't run a particularly smart race; the next day I was already thinking about this year. I had dropped my times in recent months, including 3 sub-3:40s in May and early June. I PRed with a 3:34 on a hilly course in hot temperatures. My training had been going well; I had no dings or injuries. Finally, it was time for Kona (and my 41st birthday a couple days beforehard), and I was going into it in great shape.

Sort of. See, the weekend before, I had attempted to run a 3:30 in Iowa. I managed 15 miles at the right pace, but I suffered mightily after that. I wheezed to the finish at 3:46 with a 1:44/2:02 positive split. Not a great day. However, I looked at it as good heat training and besides, Kona would be next. The positive spin was that I was still ready to try for 3:30... and I could do it at my favorite race. The other side to that spin was something I didn't really consider: my body was warning me, "No, not yet. Too hot for that."

The Kona marathon utilizes the same basic course as the run leg of the Ironman World Championships, and that adds history and mystique to the race. It's an out-and-back course that starts in Keauhou, about five miles south of Kona. The first and last 6 miles of the race gently roll down Ali'i Drive - the main non-highway road on this part of the island. Lots of houses to look at; lots of shade. The middle miles of the race are something else entirely. After running through town, runners climb up to the Queen K highway and run the shoulder out to the Natural Energy Lab. The turnaround is at M13, and then everyone returns. This highway section rolls like Ali'i drive, but the hills are a bit longer. There is also no shade on this section. Additionally, the highway is blacktop, and the surrounding area is black lava.

Pretty much anywhere else on earth, this course would be considered fairly easy and perhaps "fast". But here? The race starts at 5:30 when the temperatures are about 70 and the humidity is high. Runners have exactly an hour before the sun pops over the mountain (Hualalai volcano). At that point, the temperature immediately spikes 5-10 degrees. Not a gradual climb - it is immediately hot. Within a couple hours, the highway section has heated up another 5-10 degrees. The humidity is dealable if there's wind, but there isn't always wind and your sweat just clings to your body.

Kona is a hard course.

5:30 came and off we went. It is a challenge to go out easy on this course because you know you have an hour before the sun makes everything more difficult. This is where I messed up last year... I cruised too fast through this section and was already dehydrated when it got hot. I tried to hold it back this year, but I also really wanted to see if 3:30 was in the cards.

I was running with Johnny and a couple other Hawai'ianiacs... they were in a great mood and just chatting away. Not me. I was puffing. This was a bad sign, but I ignored it. When the sun popped up, my pace was just a bit too fast for a 3:30. I let them pull away from me and found myself running with Jeannie Wokasch. Jeannie has won this race 7 or 8 times before, and it was really cool to run with her. As we headed down the big hill into the Natural Energy Lab, we started seeing the faster people coming back the other way. I counted 12. 12.

There were 12 people in front of me. That was it. Jeannie was the 2nd place woman at that point, but there was another gal just behind us (they'd wind up flipping spots later in the race). We hit the turnaround and then M13.1... 1:44. Right on pace. But holy smokes... I was at the front of the pack. And I was feeling it.

Returning on the out-and-back course, practically everyone going the other way shouted out for Jeannie. This was fun, and it helped me get my mind off the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, I was burning out too early. As we chugged along and I was waving to people going the other way, I also realized that none of the charities came to Kona this year. It used to be that Kona was a big charity draw... without them, the race was substantially smaller. I was a little sad.

At M15, we were up the hill out of the Natural Energy Lab and on the highway. It was baking now. There was no wind this year. Around M16, Jeannie slowly started pulling away. She was speeding up; I was holding my 8:0x pace. At M17 several other people started passing me.

It happened at M18. I won't call it "the wall". My experience with glycogen depletion is that when I'm out, I don't run anymore. I either sit down or I walk really, really slowly. I kept running at M18, but it changed from a nice, flowing motion into the old man shuffle. Someone hit me in the quads and hamstrings with a hammer. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get my pace under 10. Gu, coke, mental tricks, using another runner for a rabbit. Nothing worked.

At M19.5, we turned off the Queen K and headed back down towards town. Apparently, one of the Hawai'ianiacs missed this turn and continued straight. He figured it out, but he'd wind up running 27+ miles during this race. Ooops. I didn't miss the turn; I've done this race too many times. It was pretty clear, though, as I shuffled through town that I was becoming kind of incoherent. My thoughts wandered, and it was almost like I was dreaming with my eyes open. The Hooters gal at the Hooters water stop around M21 tried to help me out, but I was more interested in drinking a coke (I remember thinking "don't pour this coke on your head or your eyes will be sticky") than flirting with the Hooters gal.

Onward. I wish I had good stories to share. I don't remember anything specific. Apparently, I kept marking splits because they were all recorded on my watch.

At the finish, the announcer told everyone who I was and that this was my 27th marathon of the year. I think I waved.

3:55. An ugly 1:44/2:11 split... and considering that I kept the right pace through M18, that was a lot of pain and suffering in those last 8. I don't remember walking, but it was one heck of a slow shuffle. 3 minutes slower than last year, and I felt much worse than last year.

I hung around the finish for a bit to talk to people. Lots of the Hawai'ianiacs placed in their respective age groups. I said hello to Frank Shorter, who comes over to do the half every year. I think I drank a 2 liter bottle of coke.

And then I went upstairs and curled into a ball, motionless, for a couple hours. I haven't felt this badly after a race in several years... and this includes Leadville and Volcano last year.

In retrospect, I think I was running low on fuel towards the end... but it was the heat and dehydration that got me. I like running in heat, though it doesn't generally make me faster. There's a limit, however.

I hit it.

Also in retrospect, I'm very sure I could have done a 3:45 had I run the course better. That would have been nice. I tried for 3:30; I'm just not ready yet.

The worst part is that I don't know if I'll be able to come back next year to do better. This was my year, and it didn't work out for me. Some races are like that. There's always a bad race in the cards. I just didn't want it to happen here.

Next up: It has already happened. In fact, two races have come and gone. Swan Lake and Seafair. I'll write about them soon.