Friday, September 21, 2007

09/16/07 Lewis and Clark Marathon

Now, that's a grim picture. Am I mad? In pain? Having a bad day? Actually, I wasn't any of the above. They took about 10 pictures of me at this race and I have the same exact grim face in all of them. So, kids, your sister was right. If you make an ugly expression, your face really will freeze that way.

A significant race like Air Force takes a lot out of the runner. Not all races involve that level of symbolism. Not all races involve helping injured runners or running across ski slopes or setting a new PR. Many races.... actually, when running tons of races, most of them... don't involve nearly so many thematic story elements. You go out, you try to meet your goals, and that's that. Lewis and Clark was one of those days. While it may not make for a dramatic page-turning (or mouse-scrolling) read, it was perfectly okay by me that this race was merely a "let's go run" race. After Air Force, I needed something much more basic.

Right. The Lewis and Clark Marathon. Turns out, there are at least three different marathons known as "The Lewis and Clark Marathon". Those guys covered a lot of territory. One is in Montana, another is in Iowa, and the one that I ran is in Missouri.

The Missouri version is a half point-to-point, half out-and-back course held in St Charles, a suburb of St Louis. The race starts near a concert amphitheater, winds through 7 miles of industrial park boredom, crosses the Missouri River, and then meanders through 5 miles of countryside. The 13th mile is through the old downtown area in St Charles. After passing the finish line (why is the finish line around M13? I'll get back to that), the course dumps out onto a rails-to-trails path and heads along the river for 6.5 miles before turning around and tracing the same path to the finish. The course isn't pancake flat, but there's really only one hill in the middle... aka, a bridge... and just a few longish inclines in the second half.

I originally signed up for this race because the logistics seemed pretty straightforward when coupled with the Air Force Marathon. The website and the people I asked led me to believe that Lewis and Clark was a smaller affair - 600-800 runners. This was true for the full marathon, but I missed an important piece of information. The real race here is their half. And 4500-5000 people register for the half! As a point of reference, the race is held on roads which have lanes closed to traffic, but they are not particularly wide roads. 5500+ people on this course made for some seriously crowded running during the first 13 miles... not the type of running I enjoy. Check out the picture at the top of this page. It was added after the race; had I seen it in advance, I would have known what was in store. But it wasn't there, and I didn't know until I showed up. The course started out crowded and stayed crowded until the half marathoners finished at the end of the point-to-point section. Then, a much smaller group of us ran the out-and-back.

The forecast for race day had changed a lot over the preceding days. It was supposed to be cool but not cold. It was supposed to rain unless it did not. Race morning showed up pretty chilly and overcast, but without rain. My hotel was walking distance from the start, which was nice. However, they had accidentally given my room to another guy with my last name... and all they had left for me was a smoking room. That wasn't so nice.

I walked the 10 minutes to the start, and that's when I noticed the huge swarm of people. Uh oh. My goal for the race was a simple "about 4". I ran a 3:44 the previous day at Air Force. Breaking 4 hours on both ends of the double seemed like a reasonable goal. The weekend before, I ran a sub-4 on the Sunday after slogging through a very challenging 5:38 on the Saturday. So I should be able to beat 4 the day after "only" spending 3:44 on my feet, especially on an easy course. On the other hand, there was this large swarm of people. Plus I've only broken 4 on both ends of a double once. PLUS, this was the last race in a three week chain: 7 in 3 weekends. That's a lot of racing and a lot of travel. More, in fact, than I've ever done before. Finally, this was my last long run in a series leading up to the Quadzilla (4 in 4 days) at the end of September. I decided not to be aggressive. I would be fine with "about 4", meaning if I was a little over, I'd be ok with it. Just a long run.

The race did not start out on the best of notes. Despite all the warnings on the website requesting that racers get to the parking lots early to avoid congestion, the police asked for the race to be delayed because the roads were still packed with inbound cars as the start time approached. A 15 minute delay wasn't that long, really, but it was a very cold 15 minutes. Just before the new start time, the announcer told us that we had "90 seconds" and reminded us to listen for the sound of an air horn, not a gun. Maybe 15 seconds later, the gun fired and we were off :-). Not sure what happened there. At least it wasn't raining.

It was crowded and the industrial section was boring. There was a brief out-and-back section between M3-M5. I recognized a few people and said hello. Somewhere in here, Dean Karnazes and his entourage passed me. This guy has a larger-than-life personality (and in writing, a larger-than-life ego... but in person, not so much), but he's a small dude like me. I almost tripped him when he went around me. Ooops. No, it wasn't on purpose. The course was really crowded.

And the crowd was really bugging me. I felt ok, but I struggled with my pace. I needed to run 9:0x miles to be around 4, and I was running lots of 9:15s. We crossed the river at M7. The map of the course does not do this bridge justice. It is a crowded highway far above the river, and the traffic whizzed by at top speed. And there we were, running against traffic in our little coned-off lane while cars and big trucks did 60 mph in the other direction. Yikes. It was a long bridge too!

As we exited the bridge and approached M8, the spectators urged us on with a "only 5 more miles!" cheer. Yes, this race was really a half marathon with the full marathon feeling like kind of an afterthought. Around we went. Somewhere near M10, a lady passed me and complimented me on my tan legs. Normally I wouldn't write about this, but it was funny. A few feet in front of me, I could see the wheels turning in her head. After an odd pause, she added "I'm not coming on to you", and then she ran off. Heh. It was one of those situations we all find ourselves in... as we're saying something out loud, our brain hears it and says "What are you saying? That sounds weird!" And so we quickly come up with a way to cover and/or explain our seemingly inappropriate comment. "I'm not coming on to you." Well, okey doke. My legs are tan.

As we entered downtown St Charles, more spectators encouraged us to push hard to the end. The end? I wasn't even halfway done. There was the finish line. Practically all runners were siphoned off, and then I was on the rails-to-trails path in the trees. This was a totally different race. I hit the half at 2:01. A little slow, but not horribly slow. However, I could tell that I was slowing down even more. People started passing me.

The "out" part of this out-and-back was a nice wide trail through the woods. The river was nearby, but the trail didn't offer many views of it. I struggled. My 9:15s had become 9:50s and 10s. Fooey. About M18, Dean K passed me going the other way. His entourage must have been running the half because only one guy was chatting him up. I did the math in my head; Dean was running slowly for Dean. Turns out, he'd finish in 3:28 (he can be a sub-3 marathoner, though his claim to fame is running hundreds of miles at once). Had I been trying for a PR... basically a 3:30 attempt... I could have run this race with Dean. That would have made for an interesting story.

I hit M19 at the 3 hour mark. On a normal day, I'm usually at M21 by this point. On a PR day, M22+. On an "about 4" day, I should be at M20. Hmmm. M19 implied a 4:10 day, which is not "about 4".

As I approached the turnaround, lots of people were coming back the other way. I recognized a few more people I hadn't seen previously. M20 was just after the turnaround. I wasn't exactly angry, but I was a bit bummed with my day up to this point. I decided to salvage it by turning the rest of this race into a workout that I'm planning for my October races: a "fast finish" long run. In this type of workout, one runs the first miles of a long run at the slower long run pace, and then attempts to run the rest at marathon pace. In my October version, I'm going to try the fast finish in the last 10k of a double weekend (actually, two different double weekends), which will make for a very challenging workout. For me, this means fast finish miles in the 8:15 range. That's for October. For this race, I wanted to readjust my pace from the 10:0x it had become back to anything under 9:30.

I pushed it. And interestingly, I felt better. It is amazing how mood can affect running. I like out-and-backs because I like to see people going the other way. I provided encouragement to the people still heading out, and I saw a few more people I knew. I also started passing people. Lots of people.

I sped up a little more as I got closer to the end. M25 was 9:00 exactly. M26 was an 8:42, my fastest mile of the day. Running my last mile faster than the rest is a fun little quirk I developed earlier this year. I had been doing it in most of my spring races, but I got out of the habit during the summer months. I've been trying to add it back to my routine.

There was a right turn 100 feet before the finish. This is where we merged back with half marathoners, and there were still a few half walkers coming in beyond the four hour mark. I almost ran into a lady carrying a big pumpkin. I did not hallucinate this - check the picture at the top of this page.

4:06. Well, huh. As a time, yuck. This wasn't "about 4" and I struggled for much of the day. However, I felt good about the last 10k, and I felt really good about that last mile. Considering my 4:10 prediction at M19 (and really M20), I made up 4 minutes in the last few miles. That's good.

Next up: after a weekend of recovery (taper?), it'll be time to face the Quadzilla.

I have no idea what will happen. My running goals will be "finish upright and not hurt." I'm doing it, though, just to experience it. Hopefully I will remember my thoughts and emotions, especially during the 4th race. I have no idea what will happen.

Friday, September 14, 2007

09/15/07 Air Force Marathon

That is my father. He was in the Air Force from 1948 (the Air Force itself came into existence in 1947) until 1968. He left soon after my mother was diagnosed with cancer to take care of her. As well as my sister and me. September is a very busy race month, and this particular weekend offered several intriguing runs, including Maui. I chose to do the Air Force Marathon specifically to honor my father and his service - both to the United States as well as to my mother. Dealing with cancer is a situation I've come to learn lots about.

As part of the weekend, I ditched this year's pink outfit and went with much more subtle Air Force blue and gray. On the back of my shirt, I wrote:
For Dad
German E. Lopez, Puerto Rico

The Air Force Marathon is held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. This is the home of the Air Force Museum, and considered to be "the home" of the Air Force. WPAFB covers a lot of territory; 25 of the race's 26.2 miles are held within the base. The course itself is a "balloon on a stick": the first and last miles are an out-and-back, and the middle miles are a giant loop around the perimeter of the base. The organizers added a second brief out-and-back section this year that took runners out of the base into the small town of Fairborn. This allowed for non-military spectators to briefly glimpse the race. Aside from that, AFM is a pretty lonely race because civilians aren't allowed onto the base.

Many people find the course to be fairly boring. The out-and-back section is roly poly, but the hills aren't too traumatic. The loop is pancake flat. The sights are exactly what you might imagine on a big military base... buildings that are kind of spread out. Lots of fields. Some trees. However, this race offers something that no other race does: really cool airplanes. Runners not only get to see planes sitting by the runways during the flat loop section, but... and this is uniquely COOL about AFM... starting at about the 2 1/2 hour mark, the Air Force does flyovers. Big planes, all kinds of planes, make low level passes over the base. Fighters, transport planes, refueling planes with their booms extended. Wow.

The organization of this race is excellent, as one might expect from an event involving the military. Well, one might expect this. I actually don't think that the Marine Corps Marathon is organized terribly efficiently. Then again, Marine Corps involves double or triple the number of runners. In any case, the Air Force did a great job :-).

The expo the day before is held at a university sports arena. It was small, but it did have everything that a runner might need. It was also very efficient, which is something I've grown to appreciate after dealing with so many race packet pickups that were not. Before the race, the parking was plentiful and there were portapotties without long lines all the way up to race time. The race itself started on time.

And during the race? Of 132 marathons, this is the only one that made me say "wow, they have too many aid stations". Usually aid stations are two miles apart, and this is a fine interval. For races held in hot-and-humid locations, sometimes they will have aid every mile. At Air Force, the aid stations were generally less than a mile apart. In some cases, they were a few blocks from each other. Each one had a sign posted that indicated exactly what amenities would be offered. They all had water, sponges, and portapotties. Most also had sportsdrink and first aid. A few had gels and food. In all cases, this was indicated on the sign. I skipped aid stations because there were simply too many. I would have gotten sick if I'd tried to drink at each one.

The weather on race morning started out perfect - bright blue skies, almost no wind, and crisp-but-not-freezing temperatures. The wind would pick up later in the day, but it never became a problem. Two weekends ago, I did my first triple. Last weekend, I did a double. AFM was my first race on this weekend of another double. I've never run so many races this close together, so I wanted to be slightly conservative with my goal. On the other hand, the conditions were perfect and I felt fairly spry with none of the pesky digestive issues that have been dogging me this year. I decided that I'd attempt to run this race fairly evenly and go out with an "about 3:50" goal. If I wasn't feeling that great around M20, I'd slow slightly and settle for "about 4:00". My biggest training goals overall right now involve putting in the miles, irrespective of speed. I want to be ready for the quadzilla (4 in 4 days) at the end of the month, so it is no time to push it to the limit trying to set a PR.

Right before the race started, we went through The Star Spangled Banner process. Usually, this involves some music and runners milling around. Some people take off their hats, some people sing along, and unfortunately, some people continue talking. Not so at AFM. Hats came off, everyone snapped to attention, and it was quiet. This is how "The National Anthem" should be!

Off we went. This is a medium-sized race, and luckily they stagger the starting times. The chair athletes went off promptly at 7:30a, and we followed them at 7:35. Some time later, the relay started (which had a bad side effect... relayers whizzing by tired marathoners throughout the day), and then the half started. Starting the half later was a good news/bad news proposition. The good news was that our start was not clogged with that many more people. The bad news was that faster marathoners would have to zig zag through slower marathoners in the final miles.

No matter. Off we went. It was crowded, but not over-the-top awful. I tucked in with the 3:50 pace group. I never run with a pace group, and this brief experience reminded me why I do not. As people settled in, everyone was talking, which is fine. Several folks were a bit twitchy and nervous. This started rubbing off on me. Uh oh. In the first couple miles, a few different people recognized me and said hello. Chuck Engle, who would eventually finish second overall, passed me about M1. Wow. This meant that he must have started in the very back; perhaps he was in the portapotty when the gun went off. That's a bad way to start off your day.

The pace group folks had a hard time understanding the mile markers. First, we came to the aid station that was marked "Aid Station #1". Several folks thought that this was the first mile marker, but their watches told them that it wasn't a mile yet, unless we were all running too fast. And a pacer should never ever run too fast. Then a person with a GPS noticed that he had gotten to the first mile before we had seen a real M1. More discussion about that (see, with turns and the weaving that happens in a race, this ALWAYS happens). Then, the real M1. I figured that everyone would now get in a groove as we headed towards M2. Nope. Aid Station #2 freaked out more people, and then the guy's GPS chirped because he had hit M2 "early" and people discussed this and, well, it was time for me to leave. I sped up.

It is very interesting to consider how different races seem to flow differently. I've had races where I kind of zoned out and the miles flew by. AFM was not one of those races. I felt fine, and once I got away from the "energy" of the pace group, the scenery and conditions were perfect. I was running at the right 8:35-8:50 pace. But the time seemed to be passing like molasses. So very slowly. I wasn't feeling terribly sociable... perhaps this explains my reaction to the pace group, or was it caused by that?... so talking to other runners didn't seem like a great way to pass the time. Instead, I started thinking about my dad and the whole Air Force experience.

The miles did indeed tick away, albeit slowly. I was skipping every other aid station. We passed Wright State University and went over a highway overpass around M6. Then we passed through a golf course. I needed to go to the bathroom, but the first set I came across had a line. I didn't want to wait in line. Around M8.5, we exited the base and started the little out-and-back section through Fairborn. Maniac Dan Marvin caught me as we headed into town. I wasn't wearing maniac colors, but he told me that he recognized the "Lopez" on the back of my shirt. And more importantly, he recognized my running style. Had I been in a more gregarious mood, I would have explored this statement. I'm not sure what it means :-), and I wish I had that 10 minutes back. We chatted briefly, hit the turnaround, and then I spied a village of portapotties behind a bank. I bid Dan adieu and went to do what needed to be done.

After re-entering the base around M9.5, the course turned to head around the runways on the north side. At this point, the wind started kicking up, right in our faces. It wasn't strong, but it was enough to make the miles SEEM to go by even slower. I think my dad was stationed here at one point. Maybe he was stationed nearby in Columbus for a little while. I tried to remember the name of that base, and couldn't (it was Lockbourne, which I remembered much later. In the 70s, it got renamed Rickenbacker, and then it got turned into something else).

I hit the halfway point at 1:53, and I felt good. The course curved out of the wind, and the miles started going by a little easier. By M17, I could tell that I probably wasn't going to fade today. This was also the section where aid stations seemed to be mere blocks apart. I was skipping them, but thanking the volunteers as I passed.

At M19, I went through the half-marathon turnaround. As I passed half marathon walkers, I tried to say hello or offer encouragement. Some seemed to be happy, and others seemed to be pretty beaten down. I was worried that the course would clog up as I continued. I was right to be worried, but it never got awful.

I hit M20 at 2:52. This was my check-in point. Did I feel good? Yes. In fact, I felt really good. I decided to push it a little. Instead of "about 3:50", my goal became "about 3:45". This would mean a 53 minute 10k, just slightly faster than I had been running up to that point. And I would have to do it on the roly poly part of the course.

I passed more and more half-marathoners. The flyovers got more frequent. The scene was cool, and also fairly intense. M24 was a screaming downhill that also offered up a good view of the finish area and the museum in the distance. More flyovers. My dad was not a pilot. He was a medic. More half-marathoners. My dad spent several years in Spain working at various hospitals.

At M25, we turned the corner at the bottom of the hill. This was getting challenging. My dad had to do more and more to take care of my sister (age 13) and me (age 2) as my mom got sicker. That's a real challenge.

The course came up a side road that paralleled the finish area. I could hear music and people screaming for finishers. A loud transport buzzed the site. A year after my dad left the service, right before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, my mother died in July 1969. It would be all up to my dad now.

The course curved at M26 and went down a flight line of historical Air Force transport planes (and one Luftwaffe plane, huh).

People were cheering for me.

My dad's world had changed from what he had spent 20 years doing to becoming a single-parent of two in the civilian world. My sister was becoming a teen right at the end of the 60s... probably not an easy time for a dude who was used to a regimented military existence.

I was zig zagging around people. I think. I don't really remember.

My dad took me to kindergarten every morning. He and my sister shared making all the meals. Thumbs up for Friday night Dorito casserole. Thumbs down for Tuesday night liver. And carrot-and-raisin salad. Ew. I kind of wonder if my dad knew "the rules" of being a parent. I wouldn't have. I would have been zig zagging around. I wouldn't have any idea how to do it.

Blam. Finish line. I don't know if they announced me. I wasn't paying attention. A 3-star general gave me my medal and shook my hand.

I have pictures of my dad getting medals and certificates. Some guy is always shaking his hand. I have no idea what any of these pictures truly mean.

And... I will never understand what my dad went through in the Air Force, or what he had to do when my mother got sick.

But after this past year, I surely respect it more.

My dad's pretty awesome.

Oh. And I ran a 3:44, beating my goal slightly. I ran a 1:53/1:51 negative split.

If I could repeat this experience, I would have chosen this as an all-out go-fast race. As it stands, the last six miles of this race were pretty cool. And the last two miles were an otherworldly experience I will remember... but will never ever be able to repeat.

Next up: The next day, I ran the Lewis and Clark Marathon. I'll report on that soon. It'll be much shorter, I promise.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

9/8,9/07 The Mountains and Flat Double

I am mad at Indianapolis.

On Saturday, I ran the MidMountain Marathon in Park City, Utah. This was a very challenging trail run that, in retrospect, I had no business attempting five days after the triple. But I was there because the original race I wanted to do, the new Indy Classic Marathon, got moved three weeks before the event. That was mean (and disrespectful and stupid) of the organizers, and I lost some travel money on that deal. Plus I had to scramble to find a replacement race - and MidMountain was there. However, I did not realize in advance how hard it would be. On Sunday, I ran the Skagit Flats Marathon. Ah, back in my comfort zone.

Side by side, these two races couldn't be more different. MidMountain is a point-to-point trail marathon. It goes between the various ski resorts near Park City (Deer Valley to Park City to The Canyons). Most of it is at 8,000 feet, 25 miles of it is single track, and it has lots of climbing and scary descents. Meanwhile, Skagit Flats is a completely pancake flat out-and-back course run on farmland roads about an hour north of Seattle. On its own, this makes for a very nice double because the courses are so very different. The weekend after the quad-killing triple was a different story altogether.

I got to Park City on Friday afternoon, which gave me enough time to figure out how to find the start at "Silver Lake Village". This was a very good thing because it would have been hard to find in the early morning darkness. It turns out that Silver Lake is a little resort area about halfway up Deer Valley's mountain. As I checked out the starting area under a ski lift, I began to have a bad feeling that perhaps I was in over my head. I kind of was. Check out the course.

Saturday morning showed up with perfect weather. The race organization before the start was phenomenal, and we had access to the resort's shiny and spacious bathrooms. Then we got a pre-race briefing that was basically "look for the blue chalk", and off we went. The first half mile circled Silver Lake on the road, and then we jumped onto the Mid-mountain trail, which is how the race got its name. This is a well-maintained single track hiking trail between all the resorts that had been closed for the previous three months. In fact, it was opened specifically for our race. Cool.

That first half mile on the road allowed us to spread out a little, but things were still pretty tight as we started on the trail. This is a good place for me to restate my proficiency with trail running: I have none. Seriously, I am a terrible trail runner. The idea of trail running always sounds nice to me, and when I re-read my description of the MidMountain Marathon's course, it seems fun. But when I'm actually doing it, this type of running isn't always so fun. And it is always slow. For one, I am a tripper. This trail is rocky in places, and it has lots of roots in other places. Running a trail like this in a pack of other runners is a weird experience for me, and it is frustrating because I can't really see in front of my feet to pick a non-trippy path. That was exactly the situation in the first miles of this race. I was completely paranoid in the middle of a small pack. Slowly, people passed me, and the pack... which looked like a little human choo choo train... pulled away.

Up I went. Down I went. Around I went. I should have tried to walk some of the climbs in the early miles, but I didn't. I certainly did later :-). The first two aid stations came and went. There was a section where I had to climb over some pipelines. The blue chalk marking the course was helpful, but it wasn't marked quite as frequently as I'd like. I read reports for various races from real trail runners where they mention getting lost because of an unmarked turn. This is one of my two biggest fears. This race was marked ok, but several points weren't ("when in doubt, go straight"), and as the miles wore on and my brain got fuzzier, it got a little more frustrating.

My other biggest fear? Plunging to my death. The Mid-mountain trail offers some incredibly scenic vistas... views that would be hard to match. It is a trail that winds up and down the sides of mountains. It also crosses many ski runs, including black diamond runs. It was interesting getting the perspective of the pitch of these runs from the middle of them. Unfortunately, the views came with a price. Any time I tripped on a rock or a root, which was a lot of times, I got scared that I might tumble over the side. This fear built up. And the altitude brain-mush built up too. By about M10, I was running mostly by myself. I was getting cranky and somewhat petrified. For the first race since Leadville, I thought about bagging it. But just like Leadville, I knew there was no easy place to drop... so I continued. My pace had become snail slow, and on the descents, it was clear that I was abusing my knees and my quads. I am amazed by trail runners who can blow through trails like this. I can't.

Anyway. More up and down. The aid stations weren't very frequent given the terrain, but that was ok. I saw four mile markers in the race: 5, 10, 20, and 25. There was probably also a 15, but that was the zenith of my panic attack and I missed it. Every time I came to an aid station, I'd ask them where I was mile-wise. Every time, every time, I was not as far along as I had guessed. This frustrated me. I really wanted to enjoy this race, but I was not in the right frame of mind. So I really wanted to be done... but at each checkpoint, I was not as close to done as I thought. Argh. The aid station volunteers were all very encouraging. Again, just great race organization.

I could tell from my watch that I was really having a hard time. I didn't list a race goal at the top of this report because I had no idea what to expect. I knew I wouldn't be faster than 4:30, but I was hoping to beat their cut-off of 5:30. As I saw my projected finish time drift closer and closer to 5:30, I got more depressed. It was kind of a chicken-and-egg thing regarding my mental state. Was the altitude-inspired brain mush making everything else worse? Or was the tremendous difficulty of the course and my low emotional state making my brain mushier? It didn't really matter.

There was lots of very steep downhill in the last six miles. I wanted to run these miles like I run the downhill at Haulin Aspen, but I couldn't. This was a very different trail and my legs were shot. If I wasn't crashing my toes into rocks and tripping, I was slipping on top of them. I learned how dangerous switchbacks can be while running. The little u-turns were hard to negotiate with gravity assisting me downward.

5 hours came and went. Then 5:15. At 5:30, the trail came out into a clearing (maybe a ski bowl, I'm not sure) and switchbacked all the way down to The Canyons resort. I did the best I could.


They were still set up, passing out awards, taking times, and giving out water. I got an official finish, even though I was over the cut-off. A friend had been waiting for me at the end. For a very long time. Sorry about that.

It became clear to me how far back I was when I went to get my drop bag. It was one of the last 10 drop bags left. Officially, I finished 107th... but out of how many, I don't know. The paper said that "about 200" had registered, but I have a very hard time believing I was right in the middle. It is more likely that "about 200" was overstated and that quite a few people either didn't start or dropped.

I wasn't expecting to win... I am not about winning... but it is weird to be so very far out of my element. I am just a poor trail runner. I didn't die. I also didn't have a lot of fun, which is sad. This was/is a supremely well organized trail run, the trail was/is well maintained, and it provides some of the best scenery you could possibly imagine. But on this day, it wasn't my cup of tea. Or Kona coffee.

My friend was nice enough to give me a ride back to my rental car, but I had been so slow that we didn't have time to eat before my plane. Thanks again, friend. I flew back to Seattle.

The next morning, after getting up at 4a, I drove north to Burlington for the Skagit Flats Marathon. Despite all the gloom and doom I wrote about the previous race, and despite completely clobbering my toes and feet on that trail, I felt spectacular on Sunday.

The Skagit Flats Marathon is organized by a fellow maniac and his running club. The course is ok; the big draw is the word "flat". For runners in the Seattle area, this is a rarity - Skagit Flats is about the only opportunity to run a flat local half or full. The organization is great, and the weather has always been quite good (though windy) in the years I've done the race.

I didn't do any rocket science for a race goal. This race is a great go-fast opportunity, but that would not be a reasonable goal for my fifth race in nine days. And even though I felt great, I knew that MidMountain had taken something out of me. Though hopefully not my soul. I decided to just relax, go out easy, and if I felt ok after the first few miles, I'd go for "about 3:50". If I didn't feel ok, it would be an intentional "about 4:15" kind of day.

Off we went, and I actually felt pretty good. Lots of maniacs showed up, so I talked to some people. Best Running Buddy (BRB) had recently completed a 100 miler. She was spectating, so I saw her a few times too. As we headed out, we had a stiff headwind that got worse as the miles passed. Towards the turnaround, I saw the lead woman coming back the other way. It was Annie, so I crossed the road and we slapped five. Go Annie. She would go on to win the race. In fact, maniacs cleaned up - a maniac won the men's race too.

Around the turnaround. The headwind became mostly a tailwind. On the way back, I was passed by a few people. I passed others. Played leapfrog with many. One guy commented on my squeaky orthotic every time we changed places. Another guy recognized my pink from other races and gave me some kind words. That was nice.

Robert Lopez, Seattle Washington, running his 130th marathon.

Cool. 3:52. When I say that I wanted to finish "about 3:50", this fits my definition. I could have pushed it a little harder, but not much, and I didn't really realize this until the end anyway. I felt completely normal afterwards, which was more important to me. It was good day, and a nice way to readjust after the previous day.

And I won a random drawing gift certificate from a deli!

Skagit Flats was my 40th marathon+ultra in 2007. I'm very happy to have gotten here healthy.

Next up? Another double. The Air Force Marathon in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday. The Lewis & Clark Marathon in St Charles Missouri (suburb of St Louis) on Sunday. My training right now is going a little better than it did in June and July... my focus through the quadzilla at the end of the month is mileage. After that I will work on getting faster and pick a goal race. I'll probably try a go-fast one more time before February's National Marathon to Fight Breast Cancer... which IS my ultimate goal race.

See you after Lewis & Clark!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

09/1,2,3/07 The Triple Marathon Weekend

See my smile? That picture was taken five minutes after finishing the third race of the triple. That gives away some of the potential drama in the report below, but I'm ok with this. I'm smiling.

Lake Tahoe hosts a marathon and a variety of other events in early fall. One of these events is the "Tahoe Triple": 3 marathons in 3 consecutive days that take the runner all the way around the lake. Although individual Maniacs have different goals, the Tahoe Triple has always been a cornerstone Maniac event. The Triple is held on a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. For several years, there was another marathon nearby that was held on the Sunday. Completing the Triple followed by the Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon was known as the "Quadzilla"... and only a handful of Maniacs (and non-Maniacs, I assume) have done it.

I want to do it. Two problems. The big one is that the organizers of Bizz moved the event to a different weekend a couple years ago. So there isn't a logistically simple way to do the Quadzilla. Only a few people (superstar Van Phan and Hawai'ianiac Les Omura that I know of) have done it since Bizz moved. And the races they used aren't on the same weekend this year either.

The second problem is a lot more personal. I'm not sure I'm ready to run 4 in 4 days. Before I try that, I might want to complete a triple without spontaneous combustion. Which finally brings me to the point of this report :-).

A local race, the Gateway to the Pacific Marathon, changed its date to the Sunday following the Triple. Given that I'd be coming home anyway after the Triple, here was a logistically doable opportunity to resurrect Quadzilla. That will all be at the end of September. The beginning of September means Labor Day, and there are several marathons which are held on Labor Day Monday. With a little digging, I found a way to try a triple on Labor Day weekend. Trying this would let me know if the Quadzilla is even a possibility AND with four weeks in between, this triple would provide really good training.

If the logisitics worked out. And if I survived.

The three marathons: Saturday's Pocatello Marathon in Idaho, Sunday's New Mexico Marathon in Albuquerque, and Monday's American Discovery Trail Marathon in Colorado Springs. I found flights and cars that would get me to where I needed to be, provided nothing got delayed or canceled. And provided the traffic wasn't so bad that I missed a flight along the way.

Friday before the race, I was supposed to fly from Seattle to Salt Lake City, and then drive 2 1/2 hours to Pocatello. My plane was three hours late which got me to Salt Lake during Friday's rush hour of a holiday weekend. The 2 1/2 hour drive turned into a 4 hour epic adventure. I finally got to Pocatello in time to stand in line at Subway for 30 minutes (yeeks!) and then I went to bed. Five hours later, I was awake and ready to run.

Pocatello Marathon

Idaho is a really interesting state that most people have not visited. These people know about the Famous Potatoes, and this is what they think Idaho looks like. In fact, there ARE a lot of potato fields, but Idaho has lots of more scenic areas. It also has one less scenic area - parts of southern Idaho are gigantic lava fields with absolutely nothing for miles. Pocatello is sort of a cross between mountains and a lava field, which means it has round, stubby mountains with sage brush instead of trees. It is very pretty in a very unique way, but Colorado it is not.

The marathon course is extremely challenging. It is a point-to-point that starts with 14 miles of screaming downhill. About a mile after passing the start of the half marathon, the course levels off and rolls somewhat all the way to the end. The race starts about 45 minutes before sunrise, and this serves as the only "shade" on the course. Once the sun is up, it gets warm. No shade. It is very hard not to hammer down the hill, and pressing down this hill only serves to punish the runner in the later miles after it is hot.

It is easy for me to write about what a runner should not do; it is harder to ACTUALLY not do it. However, knowing that there would be two more marathons afterwards... one with even more downhill... made it a little easier to be convince myself to be conservative on the downhill.

What were my goals for this race? Well, I really had to look at it as part of a bigger thing. What were my goals for the triple? As stated above, I really wanted to get in some good training runs and feel out whether the quadzilla would be conceivable. I focused on "training runs" and decided to be conservative. I wanted to finish the triple with a smile (now go back and read the first paragraph of this report). Aside from that, I knew that the courses were each challenging affairs and that all of them involved altitude. Two of them, including Pocatello, involved quad-crunching downhill. I set most time goals aside. I wanted Pocatello to be below 4:00, New Mexico below 4:15, and Colorado Springs below 4:45. I wanted to minimize any "death march" walking. And I wanted to have fun. So, for Pocatello: sub 4, don't do anything stupid, finish strong.

Usually, a pre-race shuttle gets runners to the starting area very early. We all mill, we all potty, and we all shiver in the cold. Not at Pocatello. We got there with just enough time to potty, throw our bags in the back of a van, and GO.

Time to be conservative on the downhill. My first mile was 5:38. Now, if you've read any of my reports, you know that this is anything but conservative. Unless I'm in a 5k, I don't run sub-7. Ever. I have never, in any event, run sub-6. Yes, that first mile was mismarked :-). However, I was running very fast. Down, down, down we went. My first half split was a very un-conservative 1:43.

It wouldn't last... partially because I was (and AM) in no shape to run a sub-3:30 marathon. But also because there was no way at all that I was going to get super aggressive and put on my game face trying to run a PR. Not on this course. The triple was more important to me than a PR. So, I went into long run mode.

That's when things got interesting.

Around M18, the first half marathoners caught me. Their race had started at the full's halfway point. The very first guy went by me and said something like "looking strong, SR!" What? Ok, first off, I wasn't wearing the pink at Pocatello. Secondly, I didn't recognize him. So someone knew me from behind even though I wasn't in costume? Curious. I would find out after the race that this guy... who did indeed win the half outright... knows me from the coolrunning message board. How cool is that?!?

I need to back up to tell the other story. Starting about M4, there was a spectator guy who kept randomly popping up on the side of the road. He always had a brief word for me. I'm used to this, and I knew what was going on. He was a significant other or a family member of a runner who was somewhere near my pace. He'd stop to cheer that person, then head down the course and repeat. Soon after the half marathoner had greeted me, I saw spectator guy again. His runner must have been gaining on me, because as I passed him, I heard him call out "way to go DIRTBALL!!!"

Dirtball. Interesting. My memory rolodex of race stories flipped back to a race I did in New Jersey in 2005. I had run the majority of that race with a nice lady whose husband spectated the race and called her Dirtball.

I spun around, and there she was. Dirtball. A person from a southern state who I had met two years ago in New Jersey. Running just behind me in Idaho! We exchanged greetings, and then she passed me as I continued my long run/slog. Hee. I love it when something so incredibly random (think "it's a small world") happens. But this is only part of the story.

The run continued. The run got hot. The last miles were pretty brutal. Around we went. And then we were done. I don't recall whether they announced me, but that's alright.

3:50. Not good considering the 1:43 first half, but I made my sub-4 goal and I was perfectly fine and smiling. That's when Dirtball came up to me and told me she also knew me from the coolrunning website. Wow, two meetups in the same random race with people from the same place. I love running.

Then I drove 2 1/2 hours back to Salt Lake, and I got on a plane to Albuquerque. The one thing that I don't like about running lots of races is that sometimes I have to leave before I have a chance to enjoy the places and people as much as I'd like.

New Mexico Marathon
Nonetheless, I went to Albuquerque. Race day would start very early... 3a so that I could catch a 4a shuttle. After I checked into my hotel, I had just enough time to scout out some food before it was time to go to bed. My choice? Some of Old Town Albuquerque's finest Mexican food. If you are a runner, you might wince to see that as my pre-race meal. My body is weird. I can eat "the right" stuff and be sick the next day. On the other hand, my PR was obtained the day after I ate pizza-and-beer for lunch, followed by pizza-and-beer for dinner. I just never know. Some race days will be good potty days, and some will not. And I can't seem to nail how to affect this.

So, of course I woke up at 3a with an incredible stomach ache. Oh my. I think I'll skip the pre-race Mexican food for awhile.

The New Mexico Marathon is a bit similar to Pocatello: a point-to-point course that starts up in the mountains and winds down to the city. Like Pocatello, it also starts very early to minimize the heat. Hence the 4a shuttle. Unlike Pocatello, this race has a pretty challenging 8 mile climb before its 6 miles of screaming downhill. The remaining miles are flatter than Pocatello... but it is the same basic story. The runner needs to beware of the downhill. Go too fast, and the rest of the race will hurt.

At the New Mexico Marathon, the portapotties were few and far between. To the race org's credit, they laid this out explicitly for runners. I knew the score.

So there we were in the pitch black. The race started and immediately after crossing the chip-timed starting line, I knew I needed to visit the potty. Not the bushes, I mean the bad kind of potty. Right then. The next portapotty would be M6. There were empty ones at the start. I couldn't wait. So I jumped over and did what needed to be done.

Three minutes later, I was out the door... and everyone was gone. Dark, I mean DARK, and there was no one left. Oooops. Off I went. I don't like running at night. Finally, way off in the distance, I saw a little blinking light. This was the sweeper van BEHIND (what they thought was) the last runner. I caught the van right before M1. I started zigzagging around the back of the pack. It was no fun in the dark, but I did get lots of encouragement and friendly greetings from people.

Potty stop, bush, M5. By the top of the hill at M8, the sun was coming up. At the crest, I could see all the way across Albuquerque; several hot air balloons were hanging around, silently watching the day unfold. Maybe they were watching me potty. The hot air balloons are supposed to be the signature sight at this race. The scenery was tranquil and made the massive downhill a little easier to deal with. 6 miles of downhill. They weren't quite as treacherous as the Pocatello downhill, but these miles were plenty hard. At M13, still in the downhill section, we passed the starting area of the half and its portapotties, now vacant (I was slow and the half had already started). Potty stop.

At the bottom of the downhill, the race veered off the road onto a bike trail by the river. Normally, I enjoy race sections like this. Not today. It was hot, there was no shade, and the bike traffic was sort of annoying. But really I think I didn't enjoy it because of a big mental mistake. This section didn't have mile markers, and somewhere in here I lost count. At the end of this section, I thought I was at M22. Nope, M21. GAH. Hated that section! It did, however, have a bright side. Being bummed about my inability to count made me forget about my stomach, and my stomach forgot about me. It didn't hurt anymore.

The last five miles of the race were along city streets. Then we all cut under an interstate - I was amazed that they stopped traffic at this intersection for runners. They did. Around several corners, and finally, finally that was that.

Robert Lopez, Seattle Washington. 4:24.

4:24. OUCH. I was wiped, too. I had wanted to beat 4:15, and it simply did not happen. I did spend a ton of time doing potty-related activities during this race, so I tried not to let it bug me. At the end, I talked to a couple maniac friends, ate some of the scant food, and it was time to head out. No time to eat, just enough time to get to the airport. I flew to Denver and then drove 90 minutes through awful traffic to Colorado Springs...

American Discovery Trail Marathon
...and proceeded to eat at Dennys. Yum. Not really. But it was there, and they cheerfully fed me, and I was appreciative.

Of the three races, this one had the easiest logistics by far. The course consists of two out-and-backs: one from the start in a park (America The Beautiful park, to be exact) to about M6, the second from M6 to about M26, and then a little dash around the perimeter of the park. No early shuttle. And no nasty downhill. Although it has "trail" in its title, this race is held on a rail-to-trails bike trail that's wide enough for a truck. The surface isn't paved, but it is mostly easy, soft dirt and gravel. There are some roly polies between about M13 and M19 (basically, near the second turnaround), but the rest is flattish.

My hotel was 10 minutes from the park, and I left for the race about 15 minutes before the gun. I had just enough time to get there and tell some maniacs and 50-staters hi... and then off we went. Ouch. I was slow. The good news was that my stomach as a-ok. The bad news was that the altitude of this course was the highest of all three. At 6500 feet, it wasn't high enough to hurt, but it was high enough to make me breathe hard. And make my tired legs feel completely dead.

Most people do not like out-and-back courses all that much. They are my favorite. I like seeing everyone. I like saying hi to my friends and encouraging others. I like it when people say hi to me. That said, I was pretty grim during the first out-and-back. I could not get comfortable, everything hurt, and it was no fun. It didn't help that I had to make a potty stop at M5. I was worried that the problems from Albuquerque might be coming back. They didn't. My stomach was honestly a-ok.

The people working the aid stations really helped. Everyone was very friendly. By about M10, I was feeling a little better. The sky was blue. The breeze was just right - just enough to be cooling without being annoying "wind". And a great view of Pikes Peak. The half marathoners passed me during this section. Their course was a bit different, and their turnaround was by our M12. Here they came, and then there they went.

As we approached our turnaround, the course got hilly. I saw my faster friends go by the other way; they all provided me great encouragement. The turnaround was at the perimeter fence of the Air Force Academy. Nothing to see but a big fence, so I turned around.

By M17 I was feeling a lot better. By M20, I was actually kind of giddy. It wasn't exactly flow (or "runner's high") and I wasn't running a blazing pace, but everything was more enjoyable, and my splits show that I did speed up some.

Someone ahead of me was tipping off aid stations that there was a dude in pink who was running his third marathon in three days. I know this because every time I came to an aid station, some of the volunteers would mention it and huddle around to help me. I never figured out who told them... I was sure it was a maniac friend (the guy on the left in the picture above), but he told me later that he did not. Go figure.

The last six miles of the third marathon were certainly not my fastest overall, but they were perhaps my most enjoyable miles of the whole weekend. The LAST mile of the weekend... M26 of this race... was one of my fastest non-downhill miles of the weekend. That was great. Earlier this year, I had made it a quirky habit to run the last mile of each race as the fastest mile that day. It was fun to take that almost to the next level.

As I circled the park, my maniac friends met me and one took some pictures. I did it. I finished a triple. I was upright, and I was happy.

My time? 4:28. Ok, ew. Sort of. But not really.

For one, I beat my 4:45 goal AND I was upright and happy. This certainly made up for the time I lost the previous day.

And dig this. I ran a negative split. 2:15/2:13. I grant you, compared to my normal pace, a 2:15 half is not a mega-awesome day. It would be an icky day on its own. But this was the last race of a triple. Go me.

Then I drove 90 minutes back to Denver and flew to Seattle. And then slept for a very long time.

Running three marathons in three days was hard. The logistics were TOO hard. I will definitely try the quadzilla. I may even do the Tahoe triple in future years. But I don't think I'll do *this* particular triple again.

Incidentally, see the guy at the left in the picture at the top? That's maniac Steve Supkoff. He's the guy who took pictures of me at the end of the triple. He's also the guy who had kind, encouraging words for me at various points during the weekend. The reason? He also ran two of these races - Albuquerque and Colorado Springs. He managed a 3:58/4:02. Go Steve!

Next up: It has already happened. I had a trail marathon in Park City - the MidMountain Marathon. Oh my goodness, was it HARD. The next day was the Skagit Flats Marathon north of Seattle. And the name did not lie. It was F-L-A-T.

I'll be back soon with a report on those!