Friday, December 21, 2007

"I hope 64 was enough"

If you came from here, part of this post is a repeat... but with more thoughts mixed in.

If you came here looking for a report on 12/16/07's Christmas Marathon, here it is: Out and back course, the weather was supposed to be bad but early starters got a break on that, I finished in 3:52 and did not make my race goal.

As for 2007... well, I did it. I was attempting to run 50+ marathons in 2007 for breast cancer awareness and as a tribute to a special family member.

I hit #51 on 10/21.

I've gotten to #64, and even though I have a couple weekends left in 2007, and even though I am registered for 3 more races, I am going to close out the year at 64. I have mixed emotions about that, but it'll have to do.

As my little odyssey progressed throughout the year, I had lots of time to really consider WHY I was running all these races. It became less about breast cancer awareness and a lot more about being a tribute. I said this morning, "I hope 64 was enough." Right after I said it, I realized how self-centered it sounded.

64 is a lot of running. And traveling. It was cool... and I am pleased with what I did. I met a TON of great people along the way and heard great stories about people's battles with cancer. And running stories too.

I'm fond of saying that running a lot of marathons and gaining Maniac "stars" don't make you (or me) a better person... but really? I learned a lot along the way. Hopefully that WILL make me a better person.

It started as a tribute to a family member. I KNOW what it means to battle something like that. Believe me, running a marathon is easy. Helping HER go through it, though, was a humbling experience. She's been through a lot; she's tried to control/own the experience the whole way through. The word warrior is attached to this experience, and I understand it. I wanted to run for her.

But along the way, I heard so many stories and met so many other people who have been affected by cancer. Within the Marathon Maniacs, we have a few cancer survivors. I won't list them because I don't know who wants to be listed. We have a great many more Maniacs with family members who are also warriors. And 64 times this year, I met at least 2 random people with similar stories. They tried to tell me thanks. No... thank YOU.

Some of these stories had happy endings. Some did not. Many stories are ongoing. It is very hard to know how to respond sometimes when you hear these stories.
  • For J-Lo.
  • For my mother, Sylvia MacDermaid.
  • For your mother (who know who you are).
  • For Terry Fox.
  • For Bruce Katter.
  • For all the other warriors who are battling, battled and won, or battled and did not.
For the public record, this year has been demanding and challenging. Nothing like what a person goes through when battling cancer, though. Still... along the way, I burned certain bridges and damaged relationships. One in particular was especially bad.

The cost was high. I am going to take a break from being a Maniac for an indefinite period. There are other aspects of my life that I need to improve. I want to be a better person, and I need to work off some bad karma associated with being x, y, and z (fill in your own pejoratives; I probably did them).

I was a fair runner, but sometimes I've been kind of a crappy person. Right now, I'd rather become a fair(er) person.

Run well, but please remember what I sometimes forgot: it's just running. It's more important to be well and be good.

Thank you for reading this and mahalo plenty for your support this year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

12/9/07 Dallas White Rock Marathon

Sunday was the Dallas White Rock Marathon. This is one of several races that I consider a "home course" because I grew up in the Dallas area, and my parents still live there. That said, I've only done this race once before; there are so many great races in early December and I've been to most of them. Back in 2004, I ran this race just after I started training towards the then-mystical "beat four" goal. I didn't beat four at White Rock... I wasn't ready... but I had a fun race on a gorgeous day. I outkicked the 4:15 pacer at the very end (4:14:50). Ok, maybe she let me outkick her :-).

This is a well-organized big city marathon, and while the crowds can't compare to NY or even Houston, the city does come out to root for the runners. They also broadcast the marathon on local TV... 3 hours of coverage. And people seem to watch it!

The course is a pinched loop that starts and ends at the AA arena (where the NBA Mavericks and NHL Stars play). After blowing through downtown, the course offers runners views of spectacular "old money" neighborhoods in Dallas. M8 through M19 go around White Rock Lake, and that's why the race has its name. Now, the race plays up White Rock Lake as a very scenic place. It is not. There's not much to see at all, really. However, the lake section is mostly flat and that's nice, because the miles leading to the lake have lots of uphill, and M19-M21 after the lake is the course's famed hill. Technically, I guess it is considered multiple hills because it/they is/are called "The Dolly Partons". That should indicate two very large hills, right? Having run this race twice now and studying the elevation chart with an eye for detail, I can tell you that I only remember one hill. But it IS some badass hill. Two miles long and relentless. At the bottom, there are always men dressed in drag with large Dolly Parton assets in place. Serving up beer. Also somewhere in this section (I honestly don't remember where) is the Hooters water stop. Gotta love Dallas. The last 5 miles are gentle downhill through more nice neighborhoods, into downtown, and back to the finish. All in all, it isn't a hard course. In good weather.

We had good weather in 2004. This year was another matter altogether. I could write several pages on how the weather forecast jumped all over and was completely wrong even at 5a on race morning. I'll just provide the summary: it was 48 degrees at the start and that was the warmest it would be all day. A cold front plowed through just as the race was about to start, and temperatures dipped to the mid-30s by the end. The cold front brought a stiff breeze from the north that made it feel much colder... but most of the course runs east and west, so runners only had to deal with the Arctic blast to the face for a few miles. We got very lucky in terms of rain. 10 minutes before the race started, the rain came. It was strong and it was cold. And wet. It was also amazingly brief... as the Star Spangled Banner wrapped up, so did the rain. It drizzled lightly a few times during the day, but it never dumped like the forecast said it would. No thunder, no lightning. No locusts. The lake did not boil with fire. But it was very cold, and I spent the whole race in fear of the impending storm. I later found out from my parents that it rained hard to the south and to the north... but not in Dallas. It rained super hard just 5 miles west in Irving... but not in Dallas. Wow.

Dallas was my 63rd marathon+ultra this year. Looking back over my races, I've had very good luck weather-wise overall. Not perfect, of course. Birch Bay way back in February was the most miserable... but "miserable" is the general condition at Birch Bay in the winter. It was very wet at Chuckanut and the course's vampire mud stole my shoe. And it has been really cold a few times - namely Glass City in April where I dressed like the little brother in Christmas Story. I had to run on ice (yuck) for day three of the Tahoe Triple. There were a couple other races that have been rainy and/or windy. And some hot races. I like hot, though. All in all, I recall lots of races where the weather was supposed to be cruddy, but turned out fine. It was fairly cruddy in Dallas, but compared to what it could have been like, it was juuuuust fine. In fact, some people thought the weather was perfect. And Little Leslie, one of my Maniac friends, set a PR.

Ah, but this is hindsight. Beforehand, I thought the weather was going to turn awful during the race, and I dressed for that - which means I was in my Sherpa look: 3 shirts, a raincoat, and pants over my shorts. And gloves. But no chemical glove warmers. That's an odd thing. Island Boy hates to be cold, and chemical glove warmers have become my secret weapon. I forgot to bring them.

That brings me to the start. I had chosen to take the DART light rail from the outskirts of Dallas into downtown and over to the AA Arena. This worked really well, although I had to factor in extra time. It also meant that I'd need to check a bag with my car keys and spare clothes. No problem; this race had a simple bag check. No problem before the race, that is. It would turn out to be a near fatal mistake afterwards. Ok, I'm overstating AND jumping ahead... but if there's one thing I'd ask the organizers to adjust, it would be the bag check. I'll come back to that.

Where was I? Oh yeah, I was lined up at the start. I had run a very challenging Sunmart 50k the day before. It had beaten me up and I was certainly still dehydrated from that experience. What a difference in the weather... from 70 and 100% humidity one day to mid-30s, wet, and blustery the next. And what a difference in races... from a trail race with lots of elite, hardcore ultrarunners to a big city road marathon with tons of spectators and runners with all kinds of different goals.

Still lined up at the start. MY goal, based on how I was feeling, was simply "about 4". These days, my normal race has moved to "about 3:40" territory. But not today, and certainly not with the Impending Weather of Doom situation. So... "about 4".

Every year, Marine fighter jets from the Naval Air Station in Ft Worth (formerly Carswell Air Force Base), buzz the start. Then a couple guys on horseback fire confetti shotguns, and the race gets moving. This year, there were no fighters because of the cloud cover. Like Las Vegas, the elite women left 15-20 minutes early. Then the rain and wind blew through. As I mentioned before, it disappeared by the end of the Star Spangled Banner. Confetti shotguns, and... we were off.

I was hurting. Because of the rain before the start, I had my coat on. I was cooking by M4, so I took it off. I've run a few races with that coat wrapped around my waist. It can be annoying when it gets wet because the knot comes loose easily. So I have to fumble and retie it... then a mile later, fumble and retie, etc. That's exactly what happened in this race. I wasn't cooking anymore, but the annoyance factor was high. That didn't help the way I felt.

Potty stop by M6. Grrrr. I hit M6 right at 54 minutes. Too fast for an "about 4" goal. I slowed a little, but not dramatically.

At M8, we started the slog around the "beautiful" lake. Ugh. The organizers did the best that they could to make this part bearable (not that they consciously tried to make it "bearable": as I mentioned, the lake is viewed as the gem of the course. Not.). Plenty of aid. Music stops. Spectators. Even though the lake section was the most exposed to the blustery weather, it WAS bearable.

On the far side of the lake, I crossed M13.1 at 1:56. Still a little aggressive for "about 4". I didn't feel great, but I wasn't feeling any worse. Mostly, I just wanted to be done. I started talking to people around me to pass the time.

Unfortunately, I was running about the same pace as a guy who really wanted to tell everyone else how his day was going. This wasn't a bad thing, except that he'd surge and then drop back to us. And every time he dropped back, he seemed to develop temporary amnesia, and he'd tell us the exact same stuff, using the exact same wording. Heh. I think he was flirting with girls... which of course is a fine thing :-)... and he had developed what HE THOUGHT was a good set of lines. And so he was using them on various different women. What he didn't seem to quite grok was that these women were all in the same group. And so we got to hear about his race strategy and his problems going pee pee six different times as we went around the lake. He also talked as if he was a race expert. Too bad his insight and advice, which we heard six different times, was poor. GAH. At first, he was kind of annoying. By the third time, he was VERY annoying. But by the fifth time? Some of us were kind of getting a kick out of it. When he'd surge ahead, we'd discuss whether it was coming again. Ultimately, it was kind of sad when we all pulled away from him around M18. So much for his expertise.

At M19, it was time to make the big pull up the hill. Up and up. Spectators telling us "you're at the top!" when we totally were not. Then, at M21, we were. Midway up the hill, my group and I had hit M20 at 2:57:10. For me, this generally means that "about 4" can become "beat 4".

Dallas is a nice course because it heads downhill from M21 to the end. I checked in with my body. Still felt crummy. Still wanted to be done. Didn't feel any crummier than I had at the beginning except for the typical mummy legs. Downhill. Ok. I decided to see how close I could get to an even split, which meant a 3:52 finish. That would require a 55 minute final 10k. Downhill. Totally reasonable. For a second, I thought about pushing that... and in retrospect, I wish that I had. In the moment, though, I just decided 55 minutes was fine.

This section of the course runs down Swiss Avenue... a straight shot to downtown that crosses tons of busy streets. The police did wonderful traffic control, but the traffic was heavy, so the police were letting cars through with little room to spare. Despite the downhill, it was difficult to really speed up wondering if I'd clip the back of a moving car (I didn't).

This section is also where the half marathon course merges back in with the full. The half starts an hour after the full. Even so, by the time I hit the merge, it was mostly half walkers. Time to dodge. Like the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field in Empire Strikes Back! Ok, not really. The end of Las Vegas and Seattle were both like that because I was running a little faster. (sorry about the Star Wars reference too)

M24 was 9:03. I started playing leap frog with a woman in white. We were both focused on finishing and we were both tired. We had words of encouragement for the people we passed, but we didn't say anything to each other. It was pretty clear that she knew we were leapfrogging.

M25 was 8:23. She took me around some walkers, and I did the same for her. And at this pace, we were now passing marathon runners as well.

M26 was 8:03. And... say it with me... it was my fastest mile of the day. I love it when I can do that.

Finished. 3:51. Certainly not the greatest day recently, but given how I felt AND remembering the 50k 24 hours before, it was very nice. It was also a nifty 1:56/1:55 negative split. Woman in white gave me a finger point attaboy (like Elvis!) and disappeared into the crowd.

Oh, and was it ever crowded. Yikes. I went into the AA Arena and down the stairs to the post-race food. Tons of food. And beer. And people. I tried to be sociable, and I tried to eat, but it was overwhelming. I learned that the elite male leader had overtaken the elite female, but then it was time to leave.

Except that it wasn't really time to leave. I went to grab my bag. They made us wait outside in a single line. By this point, the weather was taking a sharp turn downhill. 34 and windy. It felt like it was 20. I was in pants and my coat... but they were soaked with sweat. I was really cold. Everyone else was too. We waited. Finally, a half hour later, I had my bag. I was a popsicle.

And that was that. I took the light rail back to my car, ate at Taco Bueno (one of my high school memory places), and went back to my parents' house.

It was a good weekend. I experienced all forms of weather except lightning. All types of running except running on ice. And I got to bet other people who I've never met whether a third person I've also never met would say the exact same thing seven different times to seven different women.

I lost that bet.

It was a good weekend.

Next up: Yeah, it has already happened. The Christmas Marathon in Olympia. I was supposed to run this race last year, but a huge wind-and-snow storm messed up the race start/finish area, and it got moved to a day I couldn't do. Now I've done it. Don't expect great tales of running... it was super low key. Nonetheless, I'll write it up realsoonnow.

Happy Holidays... whichever holiday works for you. If none do, then please support Festivus.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

12/8/07 Sunmart 50k

Early December offers up a ton of great marathon choices, and the second weekend of the month is always a hard decision for me. There's Honolulu, Rocket City in Huntsville, Alabama, and Dallas White Rock. I've done these three... they are very different races, and I like them all. There are other races that I have not tried yet, like Charlotte's NASCAR-themed Thunder Road Marathon. I also learned about an ultra that's held this weekend every year: the Sunmart Endurance Run - a 50k and 50 miler held outside of Huntsville, Texas. I guess if your town is named Huntsville, you are supposed to have a race in December.

Because this is the year of doubles, I waffled between a possible Rocket City/Dallas selection, and the Sunmart/Dallas pairing. The logistics were about the same for both, but Rocket City would require extra flights... so it would be more expensive. Sunmart and Dallas made a drivable double, although Sunmart is weird because the packet pickup is in Houston, which isn't really near the race site in Huntsville. So the drive would be even longer, and Friday afternoon in Houston rush hour (which lasts much longer than an hour) isn't that appealing.

I've done Rocket City. I have not done Sunmart, but have heard glowing reviews of it... so I went with Sunmart. Specifically, the 50k. Now, the logistics didn't seem too terrible, but I did notice that neither Sunmart nor Dallas allow day-of-race number pickup AND I wasn't sure I could make it to the Dallas expo after Sunmart on Saturday. So I had to pack a lot into Friday: fly to Dallas, get to the Dallas expo right when it opened and grab my stuff, drive to Houston, pickup my Sunmart stuff before that expo closed, drive to Huntsville, and sleep. Lots of steps, and they'd only work out if everything was on time, the weather was good, etc.

It worked out. I could write a long section about Friday's travels, but they weren't that interesting. They happened. It was quite warm on Friday... in the 70s both in Dallas and Houston. As I drove into Houston, I saw a major accident on the other side of the road that had the freeway closed. This boded poorly for Houston rush hour, and getting back to Huntsville was going to be ugly. I decided to hang out longer at packet pickup and the free dinner.

When I got to packet pickup, I quickly learned the first reason why people gush about Sunmart: the stuff. Here's what the runner gets at packet pickup: a very large duffel bag, a technical running shirt, a polo shirt, a hat, gloves, sunglasses, bandana, notebook portfolio thingy, a little travel kit with TSA-unfriendly scissors, and a teddy bear. No, I don't understand the logic behind this set of goodies, but it was definitely cool.

But that's not all! After the race, finishers also would get a medal and a choice between a blanket or a tyvek jacket.

This is an ultra. Usually they don't even have medals.

But wait, there's more! The race also had a free pasta dinner with tons of yummy choices, a hot pre-race breakfast, AND a post-race feast with hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken.

Don't say that there's even more! Yes! Chip timing. At an ultra. A well-marked course. And aid stations with all the standard ultra junk food.

It turns out that Sunmart is a very big deal. While Western States is considered the Boston of ultras, I think Sunmart deserves consideration too. Let's call it the NYC Marathon of ultras. It is large as ultras go, and it attracts elite runners from all over the world. Apparently, Sunmart is (or at least was this year) the world championship for the IAU - the International Association of Ultra Runners. The best part of Sunmart was seeing this group... I've never seen so many people run six hour 50 milers. Wow. And they were all in country-specific singlets. It was kind of like being at the Olympics.

Alas, this group was also the worst part of Sunmart. At a high level, the Sunmart 50k course is easy to describe: a 6 mile out-and-back on single track trail, and a 12.5 mile loop (with a few miles of out-and-back in the middle and at the end/beginning) done twice. This loop is partly single track, and partly wide dirt road. However, the course is actually much more complicated. The 50 mile's course utilized a 12.5 mile loop done four times... but it wasn't exactly the same as the loop in the 50k. About halfway through the shared loop, the 50 mile course veered off God knows where... and then merged back in. It was that out-and-back section at the end/beginning of the loop that was dicey. Lots of runners negotiating a very tight single track space in both directions during the first wave of 50k runners. Unfortunately, this was also when the fastest 50 mile folks were trying to come through as well. And the elites? They did not give right-of-way. They passed when they wanted to pass without regard for people... say me... hauling ass in the opposite direction. In 5 minutes, I almost got nailed twice. Thanks Poland. Thanks Canada. Luckily it was only high stress and dangerous during the first hour or so of the race. After that, everyone was pretty spread out. Final verdict: it was really fun being so close to all the truly fast folks.

The course was well marked, and the trails were very well maintained. The road sections had been recently cleared and graded. Roots were a continual tripping hazard, but no worse than the Louisiana 50k that I ran a month ago. No ankle busting rocks on this course, thankfully. The course was roly poly with a few switchback sections... but not as hilly as the Louisiana race, and not in the same ballpark (or even the same city as that ballpark) as the Mid-Mountain Marathon in Park City. Overall, while Sunmart is certainly a more challenging course than, say, Autumn Leaves, it probably rates as a less demanding ultra. Especially with great aid stations every 3ish miles.

Except for one thing. The weather. It was 60ish degrees at the start of the race, and in the 70s for most of it. Island Boy kind of dug that. However, it was 100% humidity and there wasn't much breeze. Ugh. Outside of Honolulu and January's freakish conditions at Disney, I don't generally go with singlet-and-shorts in the middle of winter. I did at Sunmart... and my clothes were loaded down with sweat by M5. Ugh.

So... my race. I almost missed the start. The 50 mile race started at 7a, and our packet said that the 50k would start at 7:45. I arrived at the race location (Huntsville State Park) very early to get reasonable parking, and then I took a nap. I vaguely remember the 50 milers chugging past my car at 7. Around 7:25, I woke up and leisurely headed towards the potty and the start. I heard a race announcement. It sounded like the guy said "we start in 3 minutes". Sure enough, the packet was wrong. The 50k was starting at 7:30 *and* the official time was 2 minutes faster than my watch. Uh oh. I still went to the potty, sprinted to the start, and got there right at the gun. Phew.

I had been coached by a long-time participant that one really needed to blow through the first out-and-back or risk getting stuck behind a very long line of walkers. My goals for the race were a simple "don't get hurt" and "compare the course to the Louisiana race". I had run a 5:28 in Louisiana, and I wanted to match that time... but without knowing anything about the course beforehand, I didn't know if that was reasonable. If the course was close in difficulty (it would actually turn out to be *easier*), I figured that my extra month of training would balance against the oppressive humidity and maybe, just maybe, I could run 5:30ish. But even given this, I knew that getting trapped would frustrate me... so I made the conscious decision to go out fast.

That was a mistake, of course. But... as always... it sure was fun while it lasted.

Off we went. Through the out-and-back and then back towards the start/finish. As we started our first loop, this was where I encountered my brushes with both fame and potential pain as the elite 50 milers blew by me.

I made it through the 6 mile out-and-back in 52 minutes. For a trail run, that's cooking for me. The first loop went fairly well too, until I got to somewhere around M14. It was very clear and very abrupt when my body decided to downshift from 4th gear into 2nd. It skipped 3rd entirely. I tried to keep up with the folks I had been running with, but they lost me within a few minutes. I also noticed that my stomach was really sloshing. Uh oh. I had probably lost 5 pounds in sweat, but my stomach wasn't processing incoming fluids. I knew I couldn't switch from gatorade to water because straight water for 5 hours given the temperature and humidity meant risking hyponatremia. But it was an ultra, and they had pepsi and sprite. I tried those.

I hit the end of the first loop, M18.5 at 3:08. Not bad. Factoring out the 52 minute out-and-back, the first loop had taken 2:16. If I could match that for another loop, I was looking at a nice 5:24. But there was no way... that 2:16 had included 8ish miles of faster running. This wasn't going to happen. Still though, aside from "don't get hurt", I just wanted to do the best I could. Unfortunately, my legs were mummified by this point and I was having trouble lifting my feet very high off the ground. I started tripping over roots I hadn't noticed at all during the first loop.

Somewhere around M25, I lodged my big toe under a root going full speed. I kept going, but my foot... then ankle... then leg did not. WHAM. I launched into an f-word tirade. That really hurt.

Sigh. I kept going. By this point, I was lapping the 50k folks who had been mostly walking. It was really weird trying to finish my second 12.5 mile loop knowing that this group hadn't finished their first. I reeeeaaaaalllly felt for them. It meant they would be on their feet for 10 or 11 hours. And the end of that would be in the dark. A person who can run a six hour 50 miler is hard core. But a person who guts out 11 hours on the trail, some in the dark, well, that's pretty hard core too!

Where was the turn? Where was the turn? I had remembered from the first loop that the course turned onto the out-and-back section which led to the finish. But I couldn't remember where it was. I kept thinking it would be around the next bend. Then the next one. And so on.

Finally. I made the turn. Up, around, over a hill, across a street, more trail, another crossing, up, left turn, and.... woohoo... Sunmart actually had a nice crowd of spectators at the start/finish. And I was there.

5:41. Didn't make 5:30, but I was wiped. Just WIPED OUT. That second loop had taken 2:33. Which was a bit quicker than I thought it was going to take. I remember considering the six hour mark several times during the second loop. I was ok with my 5:41.

I ate two chicken sandwiches, got my tyvek jacket, cleaned up, and started the 3 hour drive back to Dallas. I was completely dehydrated and my stomach was wonky.

Sunday couldn't have been more different... and not just because it was a big city road marathon.

I'll be back with that story soon!

12/1,2/07 Death Valley/Las Vegas Double

December began with a very intriguing double proposition: The Death Valley Borax Marathon followed by the Las Vegas Marathon (or more specifically, the "New" Las Vegas Marathon). The logistics for this double didn't seem insane, Death Valley would give me the opportunity to visit a cool place I've never been as well as the chance to sample a short section of the Badwater course, and at Las Vegas I could banish a ghost from my marathon past.

Unfortunately, it would also mean I'd have to take back a blood oath. The "New" Las Vegas Marathon was introduced in 2005. It replaced a strange race where runners were bused 23 miles out of town on Las Vegas Blvd. You ran and you ran back towards the city, always seeing the strip hotels in the distance, but you never got there. It was a big tease: just before getting to the excitement, the course made a right turn out by the airport. The race always seemed to have gale-force winds and it was kind of a drag. The "New" version promised to be better - starting on the strip, the course would take everyone up the strip, near the downtown area, out through some neighborhoods, and then back to the strip. The "New" version was being organized by a professional race management company that promised tons of hoopla along the way. 2005 went off fairly normally, but 2006 was a disaster. Most of the mile markers were incorrect or simply missing. There was no food at the end. I swore that I would not run this race until they had a good year.

But here I was registered for it. It was the double's fault. I wanted to do two, and this opportunity was too hard to pass up. Ok, that's not entirely true. My adventure on the old Las Vegas course was something I've wanted to rectify for awhile. Back in 2002, I ran it as my third post-sickness marathon. Well, "ran" is subject to debate. I didn't train for it. I was in the middle of some baaaaad family issues. I ran the first half, threw up, shuffled for a few miles, threw up again, and then walked the rest. And walking for miles in the desert when it is 29 degrees and blowing wind ain't no fun. 5:02. I didn't keep mile splits back then, but considering how much I walked and how long I spent puking, I must have run the first half pretty lickity split. Which probably 'splains how I felt in the second half. Anyway, it was yucky and I had a terrible time.

And so here I was on Friday, arriving at the Las Vegas airport. We had circled for an extra hour and finally landed in the middle of a blinding rain storm. And wind. Welcome to Las Vegas!

All the casinos have free parking. Unfortunately, the roads are very crowded and the free parking isn't so well marked. I drove to the expo for the Las Vegas Marathon at the Mandalay Bay and spent some extra time behind the hotel wandering through various Do Not Enters and Keep Outs. Eventually, I found the parking. Coming to the expo on Friday was important... the race did not offer day-of-race packet pickup, and the expo would close on Saturday at 5p. I wasn't sure I could make it back from Death Valley before then. So I picked up my packet on Friday. It was a nice expo with all kinds of stuff. But it was all stuff I already have, so I got my number and my shirt, and I split.

Four hours later, I was in Death Valley. The trip was supposed to be 2 1/2 hours, but google maps doesn't seem to know about the traffic on one of those roads. And google maps didn't know about the blinding rain and fog. Silly google.

You know what's halfway between Las Vegas and Death Valley? The little town of Pahrump, Nevada. I went to the town's website to learn the population count because I wanted to give them an old-time Hee Haw sal-UTE here, but I couldn't find that information easily. You know what IS easy to find? The town's mission statement. Huh.

Pahrump. I think that's The Little Drummer Boy's first name, right? He's grown up. These days, they call him Mr. Uhpumpum. I didn't know he had a whole town named for him.

The picture at the top of this report is of Death Valley, of course. It pretty much tells you what you need to know. Road Runner country. If you require trees, DV is not for you. Heck, if you require *water*, DV might not be for you. I thought it was pretty cool. Lots of neat mountains in the distance too. I checked in at my hotel, ate a sketchy dinner at the hotel restaurant (it isn't like there were choices), and went to bed.

Race morning came early. And dark. However, as the sun started coming up, it looked like it would be a blue-sky day. It was also supposed to be cool-to-warm... so a day for layers, and a day I had to consciously make an effort NOT to overdress. My consciousness has not achieved the appropriate state, I guess, because it would turn out that I overdressed. Island Boy.

The Death Valley Borax Marathon course is easy to describe. It's a Better Off Dead course:
Go that way, really fast. If someone gets in your way, turn.
Seriously... the course was an out-and-back. Runners left a place called Furnace Creek Ranch, ran down the highway 13.1 miles, turned around, and came back. No turns, no getting lost. Aid stations every 2 1/2 miles. Mile markers painted on the ground. I thought the course would be flat, which was a weird assumption. Just because it is a valley (actually? Death Valley isn't really a valley) and is below sea-level doesn't mean "flat". In fact, the course was very very roly poly.

My goal for this race was even-effort... not evenly timed.. splits and "about 3:40". I was having some trouble keeping fluids down. It wasn't that they came back up, it was that they didn't stay in long. Two potty stops in the first 12 miles. Gah. Nevertheless, I hit the half at 1:51.

Turning around, I got blasted by the headwind. Luckily, it didn't last for the entire 13.1 miles back, but it was strong enough to leave me caked in my own salt. It helped dehydrate me... I could feel my pace slowing and there wasn't anything to be done about it. When I get dehydrated, sometimes my bladder doesn't quite keep up with that, and it'll still send the "you need to pee!" signal to my brain. Sure enough, I stopped to potty (third time!) at M17. I tried and I tried. Tick tick tick. Nothing. My brain was telling me that I had to go, but I couldn't go.

I hate it when that happens.

Out the door, and off I went. My brain still playing the pee pee song. By M20, my pace was closer to 10 than the 8:20ish required for "about 3:40". The wind wasn't so bad, but it was kind of warm. I was definitely dehydrated. One of my Maniac friends, coconutgirl (see my Lake Tahoe reports for more information about the coconut family), had passed me about M18. Trying to keep her in sight occupied my brain, toned down the fake pee pee song, and kept me on the right side of 10. She lost me by M24. I was able to get my pace back around 9 for the final mile, but I certainly wasn't going to make it my fastest mile of the race, which is what I like to do.

Done. 3:48. Given how I was feeling in the second half of the race, this was totally fine. I got an interesting finisher's shirt after the race (made out of cotton, which I've now decided is much much MUCH preferred over most technical fiber race shirts). And I ate the best oranges I've ever had outside of Ka'u, Hawai'i anywhere. Maybe it was because I was dehydrated :-), but they were amazing oranges. Yum. I talked to a few of my Maniac friends... and then it was time to drive to Las Vegas.

...and get ready for the banishing of some demons. The wiping away of a black mark. Balancing the books. Ghost busting. Blah blah blah. Mostly I was very nervous that the race organization would suck. HA. I was also nervous about the weather. When I got back into the city on Saturday afternoon, the rain was gone, but the wind had cranked it up to supersonic speed. Yikes. Another year, another windy Las Vegas Marathon. Maybe it would blow over.

I was staying at the Monte Carlo. Little tip about the Monte Carlo: it looks a lot nicer from the outside than it actually IS. It's a fine place, but my room was certainly showing wear and tear. If you are going to Las Vegas, don't book the Monte Carlo if the rates are high. It's closer on the fancy scale to Excalibur than it is to Bellagio. I ate dinner at their Mexican food place. The crowd was thick, and the music was way too loud. Not my thing. But the food? Incredible, and worth the atmosphere. The last time I ate Mexican before a marathon was in New Mexico, and I paid a high price for it. However, I've done this many times before without issue. Hopefully, that would be the case.

Time to go to bed.

Time to get up. The Las Vegas marathon was scheduled to start at exactly 6:07. Odd, huh. They were doing a fun little trick that many big city marathons do these days - starting the elite women 15-20 minutes before everyone else. At the end, the overall winner gets a bonus... so the women get a cushion roughly equivalent to the difference between the current men's record and women's record. The first woman tries to stay in front of the first man.

The starting area was well organized, but it was only once I was there that I realized they were doing two special corrals: sub-3 finishers and sub-4 finishers. To stay ahead of the sea of humanity... and including the half, this race was large... I needed to be in the sub-4 corral. No luck, though, because I didn't arrange it ahead of time.

So I put myself in the first line at the front of the sea of humanity. It was here that I noticed a couple things. First off, there was a third corral off to the right side that was filled with Elvis people. All of them, male and female, dressed like Elvis. Turns out, the marathon was trying to set a world record for the number of Elvises running. And... huh. Who knew there was a record for that?

I also learned that members of the local running club were allowed to start up in the sub-3 and sub-4 corrals, regardless of their intended pace. "It's ok, they are instructed to move over to the side." Yeah.

About two minutes before the start, the organizers dropped the netting that separated the sub-4 corral from the sea of humanity. There had been an empty space of about 50 yards between the two groups. When the net came down, the organizers expected the volunteers to hold everyone back. Yeah, that didn't exactly happen. Everyone, me included, did a 50 yard dash to mesh in with the sub-4 corral... and then BOOM we were off.


Fireworks. It probably took 20ish minutes to get everyone across the line, and fireworks were going the entire time. Running up the strip was pretty cool, especially in the pre-dawn hour. Running up the strip with a constant boom boom boom behind me for almost 4 miles was extra cool.

And I learned that the strip is indeed 4 miles long, from Mandalay Bay on the southern edge to the Stratosphere at the extreme north end. Along the way, there were all the hotels you know about. And The Blue Men! They were performing across the street from The Wynn at M3.

Of course, I got caught up in the energy of the strip and the boom boom boom action behind me, and my first miles were smoking (for me) 7:50s. Hmmm. My goal for this race had been to get the "about 3:40" that I missed at Death Valley. However, last week, I had pulled a 3:36 out of my hat... or my legs... in my 3rd marathon in 4 days on a hilly course. The weather this morning was *perfect*. A little chilly, perhaps, but the wind was long gone. It was calm. And the Las Vegas course was mostly flat. Dare I try for 3:30?

Back in the summer, my goal had been 3:30. I seriously tried twice and flamed out both times. I had picked two races where the temperature was 95 degrees, so oooops. Was I ready to try it again? Probably not. The reason why I didn't nail my 3:40 on the previous day was dehydration... and I was pretty sure I hadn't caught up from that. But I was having fun running my sub-8 miles.

I decided to stick with it for a few more miles. If I blew up completely, that would suck... but I hoped that I'd just dial it back to 8:20-8:30 for the rest of the race and everything would work out.

Just past M5, there was a little bypass section for runners who wanted to stop and get married. Gotta love Las Vegas. The coconut family did this, and wrote later that it added about 30 minutes to their time. But still - how cool is getting married or renewing vows in the middle of a marathon?

At M6, the half marathon course split off. I think some people missed this because I saw several people running the other way later on the full course. This was also where we ran near the original casino area - downtown Las Vegas. We didn't get to run under the Fremont Street Experience's roof, but we saw all kinds of cool casino signage.

And then, once the course veered away from downtown, it became "just another suburban marathon". M7 through M21 could have been basically anywhere. The neighborhoods were pretty, the spectators were loud, and the water stops were great. During this section, I noticed the only blip regarding mile markers for the whole race - M11 was way long, and M12 was short. In any other race, this would have bugged me. Considering the problems last year at THIS race, it was a-ok.

My 7:50s came to an abrupt end around M9. My half split was 1:49. I wasn't feeling all that great, but I also wasn't hurting too much. I could tell that I wasn't going to have a magical day, but it seemed like I was holding together fine for a good-level day. As I approached M20, "about 3:40" became more like "work hard and beat 3:45".

Throughout this section, there had been bands and cheerleader stations periodically. They were all good. But somewhere in here was a Kiss tribute band, in full-on Kiss makeup. They were really, really fun. Too bad I only got to see them for about 10 seconds...

At M21, the course turned back towards the strip. M21 through M23.5 still could have been in any suburban marathon... except for the view. How cool. And vaguely, sorta, maybe a little downhill. I didn't get back down below 8:30, but I also didn't drift above 9.

At M23.5, we turned onto the road that parallels the strip behind the hotels. We also merged in with the half marathon course, and at this point, it meant navigating the hoard of walkers. There were tons. Gah.

M24. M25. My pace was holding up well. I tried to kick it in for the last mile, but I couldn't find much there.

Until, at M26, the dude next to me pulled out one of those chemical cold packs and winged it right at me. I dunno what he'd been icing, but he wanted to sprint to the finish and he was done with the pack. He simply tossed it, and hadn't noticed that I was there. But I *was* there. WHACK. It hit me in the back and then bounced off the back of my legs. I didn't see it coming, so it scared the crap out of me. And it hurt a little. Then my brain processed what had just happened as I saw him start his sprint. I was pissed.

Las Vegas was my 151st marathon/ultra. During the first 150, I can recall actually racing a person at some point during a race... maybe... three times. I race the clock, and I race myself, and sometimes I will push it to help another person push it. I don't tactically race against specific people.

But I was pissed.

And so, in the last .2 miles of my 151st marathon, I raced a guy. Everything I had went into catching him, which included navigating the walkers and other marathoners who weren't sprinting. When I caught him, I ran behind him for about 10 steps, then pulled up beside him, and did the whole Road Runner "meep meep" tactic. I found 6th gear and sprinted on top of the existing sprint.

Got him. Yeah, it was petty and it certainly doesn't make me a better person.

But it was fun. :-)

3:40, just like I wanted. I covered that last .2 in 1:08. 68 seconds x 5 is 340 seconds... a 5:40 mile :-). Not bad for the last little chunk of a double weekend. I hyperventilated for a bit, which the volunteers did not like. It didn't last.

I guess the Mexican food worked this time.

In summary: I was overwhelmingly pleased with this year's edition of the "New" Las Vegas Marathon. I don't think I'd run it every year because the frenetic energy of Las Vegas is not my thing... but I will suggest it to others now.

Next up: Yeah, already happened. An ultra+marathon double weekend... the Sunmart 50k coupled with the Dallas White Rock Marathon. An example of both ends of the extreme weather spectrum. I'll be back with that report realsoonnow.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

11/22,24,25/07 The GA/WA Almost Triple

Thanksgiving weekend is generally the worst weather weekend of the year in Seattle. One year, the weather was so crummy that one of our famous floating bridges actually SANK into Lake Washington. And... it happens to be Seattle Marathon weekend each year. I don't know why the organizers picked this weekend for the race, and last year was a particularly brutal year weatherwise. Wind and relentless horizontal rain that then turned into a big snow storm later in the day. Yuck.

Nonetheless, it is the home race, and so I've done the full or the half every year since 2001. I ran it with a friend that very first year. He is one of those life list people who needed to mark off "run a marathon"... and so we did. Of course, the weather was terrible. We had fun, including a Guinness stop (he's Irish), courtesy of another friend at M24. We finished at 5:03. Only then did he reveal his sub-5 goal. Whoops. I guess I shouldn't have organized the beer surprise.

Last year, I ran it as my fourth marathon after my break. As I wrote above, the weather was terrible even by the standards of "worst weather weekend of the year", and I limped to the finish at 4:25. I was somewhere between wet fish and frozen popsicle. My skin was gray. Ugh.

NOW... it turns out that this weekend provides the extreme runner with a double opportunity (two marathons in two days) that, for a Seattle resident, offers the easiest logistics imaginable. There is a very low-key marathon/50k held on Saturday called the Ghost of Seattle Marathon. It is named oddly because it utilizes one of the old Seattle Marathon courses. And it isn't like this old course is out in the sticks; it's really the middle miles... the easy miles... of the current course. So, a motivated person can run two marathons in two days in the same area. How cool is that?

BUT THAT'S NOT ALL... you also get a set of steak knives. See, Thanksgiving week presents a special opportunity for running an extra marathon. The Atlanta Marathon happens to be on Thanksgiving morning. The logistics of this race would be dicey because 1) the race does not allow day-of-race number pickup and 2) flights out of Atlanta after the race on turkey day basically end at 2p. The race starts at 7:30, so this would mean a strong finish, a quick shower, a power-hike to the closest MARTA (light rail) station, and fingers-crossed, no issues along the way. I found suitable flights, although my return flight was scheduled to leave at 1:30p. No stress!

So I signed up for all three races. Officially, this was not a triple because the races weren't on consecutive days. I got a rest day on Friday. It was an intense weekend nonetheless.

I didn't know what to expect from the Atlanta Marathon going into it. The web site made it seem like a small race, and I figured that as a track club thing held on a holiday morning, it would be laid back and not really supported that well. All I knew for sure about it was that it was supposed to be "kind of hilly".

I flew into Atlanta on Wednesday and ate a late lunch with a friend. Because of my flight schedule and a horrible sinus and/or migraine headache that punched me out in the evening, that late lunch (a CPK pizza) would represent all of the calories I consumed before the marathon. I could write what my original goals were supposed to be for this race, but I don't need to do that... you can tell what happened based on my food intake.

On a positive note, when I woke up on Thanksgiving morning, my headache was gone. I've begun to get these fairly consistently after flights lately. After many years of traveling, I think my body is finally tired of it. But I felt ok when I woke up. On another positive note for the residents of Atlanta, the morning started with light showers interspersed with periods of heavy rain. Why is this good news? Because Atlanta had been suffering through months of serious drought. This was the first measurable rain in, like, forever. On race morning. Oh goody. Yay for the residents of Atlanta, but boo for the runners. On the other hand, the temperature was mild and the rain helped with the swamp-like humidity.

I'll be brief with my race comments:

1. I was wrong about the organization of this race. It was a bigger deal than I expected... tons of runners in the accompanying half, great aid stations, porta-potties, and even some spectators. Very friendly volunteers and police considering the holiday morning.

2. The course was an upside down balloon-on-a-stick... meaning that it was a loop with a long out-and-back section in the middle.

3. The website noted a 5 hour cutoff, and the organizers weren't kidding. As I ran the back portion of the out-and-back, the city was already picking up the cones on the out lane. And I was running at a pretty fair clip.

4. Saying that the course was "kind of hilly" is a bit of an understatement. The course was quite challenging.

5. Originally, I was going to use this as a go-fast attempt, but my food from the day before wasn't going to allow that. Plus the course was quite difficult and the weather was crummy. I decided to go for "about 3:45"...

6. ...and that lasted until about M8 when my body decided that it needed to conserve fuel. I had to switch from 4th gear to 3rd. And my goal became "about 4". That goal was reasonable, and even though I really had to press through the hills in those last miles, I achieved it.

3:55. Overall, a bit of a blah finish. I was completely wiped - I gave it everything I had just to beat 4. The power hike to the MARTA station afterwards was rough. I made it.

That brings us to Saturday's Ghost. The Ghost course was a loop from the start/finish area followed by an out-and-back. Half marathoners did this once, full marathoners did it twice. There was also a 50k: the full marathon plus an extra loop. The course was essentially M8-M18 of the current Seattle Marathon course, and it was flat flat flat. Ghost is always a "fun run". No numbers, no mile markers, and two aid stations. Oddly, the night before the race, I noticed on the website that the organizer had made some adjustments to the course. Apparently, it had been long in years past, so he chopped some off. But, huh, it looked like he chopped A LOT off. 1.5 miles. Strange.

Race morning was crisp but clear. And no wind. A few people had started an hour early. I started 30 minutes early. By myself. I knew that a few medium-fast runners would be there, so my goal was to use that 30 minute cushion to stay near the front. I'd try not to get overtaken until I was headed towards the finish. I had absolutely no time goal in mind. I pace poorly on courses without mile markers, and since the organizer had changed the course, I couldn't even go with a "beat my last time on this course". I just ran and tried to keep my cushion once the regular race started.

At the end of the first half, I knew something was up. I ran a 1:47, which is a good first half for me, but I knew I hadn't been running that hard. I did the next loop and as I passed the start/finish on my way into the out-and-back section, I overheard a half marathoner at the finish say that her Garmin had measured it as 12.55 miles instead of 13.1. I did some quick math in my head... yeah, that fit with how I felt during the 1:47 half. The course was short. Sigh. I don't know why he cut out what he cut out. Nevertheless, I kept going. Officially, I finished at 3:37. Then I ran an extra mile to make things add up.

I wasn't too bugged about it... it was billed as a fun run. So I stayed and talked to people and had fun. UNTIL...

...I gave a friend a ride back to her car. As she got out, I was absentmindedly chewing on some food when I bit into something hard. My mind flashed "ew, bad peanut", and I spit it onto the ground. Then I drove off. About 10 minutes later, I realized that my mouth felt strange. I said ahhhh into my rearview mirror, and the horror presented itself. The horror! That was no bad peanut. One of my crowns (I have two) had popped off. And I had spit it onto the ground. I saw a little nub of a tooth in my mouth. The horror! And it was starting to hurt. Crap.

So I turned around and drove back to the park. 20 minutes had passed. Would my crown be on the ground somewhere? I had spit it into a parking lot. Would it be crushed? I started looking for it. The owner of the SUV I was rooting around spotted me and came over to see why I was messing with his truck. "I lost my tooth." (From a creative writing perspective, it would be more fun to quote myself as having said "I loth my toof"... but it came out pretty normal)

I found it. Yuck. I put it in my pocket. Every inhale of cold air was painful. I called my dentist. Holiday weekend. No one around until Monday. Awesome.

And that brings us to Seattle Marathon morning. This course is a HARD course. It isn't hilly throughout like the Atlanta course... but Seattle has some very tough hills between M18 and M25 - right when the tired runner is in the mummy-leg zone. By the grace of God or a stroke of good fortune or just random chance, the weather was amazing on race morning. THIS NEVER HAPPENS.

I've never run Seattle fast, and I wasn't planning on running this year's race fast. As my 3rd marathon in 4 days, I just wanted to beat 4. If I could do that, it would be a first on this course.

Seattle is Maniac Central, so a ton of Maniacs do this race. I saw lots of people I knew and as we headed out onto the course, I kind of got swept up in the moment. By M4, I'd put in a couple 8:0x miles. We headed out onto the floating bridge for the race's neat out-and-back section from M4 to M8. This is my favorite part because I love watching the leaders coming back, and I like seeing all the other runners I know in front of me and behind me.

There was Maniac Annie in 3rd or 4th place. I jumped over to the back side (I was still heading out) and gave her a high 5. I think I surprised her. I hope it was ok. She would later lead the women's race until being overtaken in the final miles. Ultimately, she came in second. Go Annie!

I talked to lots of people. I ran too fast. I realized coming off the bridge that I was still doing miles between 7:55 and 8:05. Hmmm. This probably was a bad sign. Probably. Except that I didn't feel badly. Yet. I felt really good. I decided to see if I could hold it through M15. At that point, I'd check in with myself and see if I could stretch it to M19. The mean hills start around M19, so I had no visions of a 3:30 and even splits. However, if I could hold the pace until M15 and not slow too much, I thought 3:40 would be possible. And if I could hold it through M19, maybe 3:36-3:37. Maybe. If I didn't completely break down and walk.

My tooth was really hurting. Breathing in cold air was painful. Drinking a cup of ice cold gatorade was torture. By the 3rd aid station, I'd learned to cock my head sideways so that the gatorade would stay away from the bad side. It only kind of worked. Ouch. On the other hand, I looked kind of like a dog looks when he hears a strange noise. That cocked-head "huh?" Hee.

Spectators were hollering for me at M8. It is common for people to yell "Robert" or "J-Lo" because those names are on my shirt. But this group was yelling my last name too. Ahh! People I know in real life! WOOOOOO.

Onward. This part of the course was the Ghost course. As I hit the park loop at M11, one of the founding Maniacs, Chris, caught up with me. We talked a little and I told him that I was just trying to keep this pace through M15. I mentioned my stretch goal of M18-19.

M15 came. Still 8:0x. He asked me "what now?" "One more mile". M16, still 8:0x. It was starting to catch up to me, though. I kept the pace, but my breathing was getting a little harder and my legs felt like planks. Chris would catch up to me, say a few words, and then fall back a little. Then he'd catch me again. He really kept things loose.

M17. M18. M19. He was side by side with me now. I was wheezing. My mouth was throbbing. I remember him clearly saying "That last mile was 7:48. Why don't we keep this up until the end?"

"I can't. I gotta cut back to 9s now. But that was great. This was the most fun I've had running in a long, long time."

He smiled a little and started pulling away. I kept him in sight for another mile or so, but I did consciously slow. The key was to slow in a controlled fashion to 9:0x miles and not continue slowing and slowing. And it was hard too... the hills started at M19.

Oh, those hills. Up and down and up and up and up. There's an infamous two block hill on Galer. I ran the first half, but I had to walk the steepest block. However, Galer is a short stretch... the problem is that this hill keeps going after turning onto the next street, Madison. And this isn't the worst hill. After some nice downhill, the course heads through the Arboretum (which is much prettier in other seasons) and then up Interlaken. This is the hard hill. Up and up and up, for over a mile. Twisting around blind corners, the hill never seems to end. The 9:0x pace suffered a little through here. My mouth too. Ouch. I want my binky!

The mile marker at M24 was the location of the famous Guinness stop in 2001. I felt like I was running past phantoms... and for the first time in many attempts, I really WAS running through this section.

I passed lots of half marathon walkers. The full had started 15 minutes after the half walk, and it was obviously twice as long. These folks had been on their feet for a very long time. I was ready to be done.

Just past M25, the course turned onto the final stretch back to the finish at Seattle Center. I tried to pick it up... I like to make my last mile my fastest mile of the race. However, I had run quite a few fast miles (for me) already. And it was my 3rd in 4 days. Fast was not in the cards.

I did the best I could.

Check the picture at the top of this page; I'll wait.

Yeah. 3:36. My fastest race of the weekend was my last one. On a hard course. 49 minutes faster than last year. Almost an hour and a half faster than 2001. And officially, it was only 96 seconds slower than my PR.

WOOHOO! But it was a tad... just a tad... bittersweet. Had I been paying attention, I am quite sure that I could have found 97 seconds in there somewhere. It would have been very cool to set a PR at the end of the Almost Triple.

But still? Pretty cool. This is what I call a "negative split double"... the second day of my double was faster than my first. I never... ever... dreamed of being able to do that. And close to my marathon PR too.

The 3:37/3:36 pairing would be a double PR, except that the first day's time was wonky due to the short course. I'm not counting it as a PR. Still great fun.

I wasn't kidding when I told Chris "But that was great. This was the most fun I've had running in a long, long time." Despite my tooth. Speaking of, I got the crown reattached the following monday (Yay), and a big chunk promptly broke off two days later (Boo).

Side story: I have spent a year writing about my races, but I have very carefully and intentionally NOT written about the inspiration for the big pink schedule: the mighty J-Lo. She is a private person, and so I've chosen to respect that. But I will say this. She walked her first ever half marathon at Seattle. She trained hard for it and she did it. She was actually pretty fast, too. 9 months after chemo. How cool is that? Go J-Lo go.

Next up: It has already happened. Apologies for being a little tardy on these writeups... it is getting harder each week to come up with interesting things to say :-). Next was the Death Valley/Las Vegas double weekend. I had sworn not to run Las Vegas after last year's terribly organized race, but I was there. And I did ok. More on that soon!