Monday, September 29, 2008

9/14/08 Maui Marathon

I cracked open my fortune cookie after eating a fairly yucky evening meal at Panda Express the night before the Maui Marathon. Why on Earth would I load up with Chinese food the night before a race? Because I was hungry! Actually, I had picked a cheap hotel on the more industrial side of the island near where the race starts. Across the street from my hotel was a mall. The mall is the starting area for the race... it's why I picked the hotel. And the mall has a food court. Rather than getting reacquainted with lots of the fancy, touristy eating places around Maui, I ate with the locals at the food court. A lot. It just happened to be Panda Express' turn the night before the race.

So, anyway, I cracked open my cookie. Lo and behold, here was my fortune:
Now is the time to set your sights high and "go for it".
Alright! Normally, this would be a mighty nice fortune to receive just before a big race. The problem was that this is a Hawai'ian race. I've gotten myself into trouble at these races before. Several times. There would be no going for it. However, I haven't run the Maui Marathon in a few years and the last time I was here (2005), I pulled a very painful 4:08. I did lots of walking and shuffling in the last 10 miles. I haven't done my best training in August and September, and I've had a few health issues... but I'm still in better shape than I was last time. I've also had several bad race experiences in Kona that taught me the hard way what NOT to do. Going for it? That's on the no list.

The Maui Marathon is a point-to-point course that starts on the north side of the island at a mall in Kahului. This is the city with the airport. Aside from flying in and out and perhaps taking a helicopter ride, most tourists tend to skip Kahului. The course cuts across the skinny part of the island to the opposite coast at the Ma'alaea fishing village. Then, starting at about M8, the course follows the highway up the west side of the island - Pacific Ocean and island views (Molokini, Kaho'olawe, and Lana'i) on one side, the West Maui Mountains on the other side. At M21, the course detours through the town of Lahaina... all the way down Front Street. Back up to the highway at M24 and onward to the finish at the Ka'anapali resort area. Here is a map.

The course is challenging. After a 3 mile long incline from the start to M3, the course is a constant downhill to the coast at M8. Then, hills. Steep ones. Long ones. Hills with false tops. Grueling hills from M8 to M12. This is followed by a screaming downhill to about M14.5. The rest of the course is flat, but this is the hardest section. Huh? Well, the race starts at 5:30a, and the sun doesn't pop over the mountain until 6:30. Maui is already warm at 5:30a, but the humidity hasn't kicked in. It starts heating up and getting sticky about the time that midpackers are hitting the big hills. By the time runners get to the flat 12 miles heading to the finish, it is HOT. The sun beats down onto runners' backs the whole way. And one of two things will happen. If it is not windy, it will be otherworldly humid. If it IS windy, the humidity won't be so bad, but the wind itself will be a challenge. Either way, the second half of the course is by far the harder half even though it is mostly flat.

In one form or another, the Maui Marathon has been going on for a very long time. I think this year was the 39th edition. When mainlanders ask me to recommend a Hawai'i marathon, Maui is the one I give them without hesitation. It is hard and it is hot. The middle miles are hilly. But it is spectacularly beautiful and the organizers do a great job. I contrast this to most people's initial choice, Honolulu. The Honolulu Marathon is held just before Christmas, and that attracts people. The problem is that it attracts way too many people; that race is crazy crowded. In fact, Honolulu in general is crowded at that time of year. September in Maui is off-season. The race is small. And... the sights and organization are both better. You might think that Maui in September would be hotter than Honolulu in December, and you'd be right. But Honolulu in December is still hot.

All that said, Maui is not the race in which to "go for it". So my Panda fortune was misplaced.

Or was it? I suppose there are different ways in which one can go. And there are different things that can be considered it. The weekend before Maui, I ran my fastest race since May... and I did it on suboptimal training and with stitches in my back. Luckily, I got my stitches out before I left for Maui and my health was declared good. Go for it. Huh. For race day, I decided that meant that I wanted to run a 3:55. This would represent a 15 minute penalty on my previous week's time; considering the difference in courses and weather, that seemed about even. It would be more than 10 minutes faster than my last Maui Marathon, and it would be a marathon besides Kona where I beat 4 in Hawai'i. Okey doke. 3:55.

I had stayed on the industrial side of the island near the start so that I could sleep in. Most people stay at resorts near the finish. The race supplies a shuttle from the finish area to the start. The race starts at 5:30a. The shuttles leave at 3:30. Catching the shuttle would mean getting up at 2:30. Yikes. Staying on the industrial side would mean a much crummier (but cheaper!) hotel, but it would also mean sleeping in until 4:30. Sold! Besides, I wasn't planning on doing lots of vacation-y stuff anyway. I came over specifically for the race, and I only arranged a long weekend. I just wanted to run and sit outside reading a book. Crummy hotel was fine.

In fact, it turned out that my crummy hotel was incredible, for a completely unplanned reason: vog. Vog (volcanic smog) is the noxious stuff that comes out of Kilauea besides lava. Now, Kilauea is on a completely different island, the big island, and usually it only causes minor issues over there. But Kilauea has been incredibly active lately. When I was in Kona back in June, I did not see sun for a week. It was overcast; this was vog. The increased activity has started to push the vog over to the next island... Maui. The touristy side of Maui was overcast, and the other islands were barely visible. Wind is the magic ingredient to blow all this away, but there hadn't been much of a breeze. So it just sat there. On my side of Maui, though, it was blue skies and sunny. Perfect weather for reading books and eating at the food court.

I suppose I should tell you about my race now.

Race morning came like most early mornings in Maui... 75 degrees and dark. It was already a little bit sticky, and this would be prophetic for later in the day. I walked over to the starting area and learned that the Maui Marathon has grown over the past three years! I met some Maniacs and found my friend Amy from South Dakota. We walked out to the starting line a few minutes before the race started and somehow lined up pretty far in the back. After the Hawai'ian blessing, which we could barely hear, off we went. Or more like... shuffle, shuffle, shuffle... off we went. Luckily, Maui now has chip timing.

Amy is an expert at running negative splits. While a negative split would be unlikely in a race like this, we definitely started extra slow and resisted the temptation to zigzag around everybody. The first couple miles were city streets leaving Kahului. It was very dark, especially after hooking up with the highway and leaving town to cross the island. There wasn't much to see yet, except for random guys peeing on sugar cane (tip: there's dark and then there's DARK. It was not DARK. If it is not DARK, duck a little further into the cane, yo). Amy and I had a good conversation.

Amy dictated the pace. I wasn't kidding about her skill at running negative splits. Here were our first six miles: 9:33, 9:03, 8:42, 8:32, 7:55, 8:21. I think M5 and M6 were mismarked, but the point is clear. I also knew that 8:20 wouldn't be sustainable, but as we entered Ma'alaea and hit the big hills, I stuck with her.

Miles 7 through 12: 7:55, 7:55, 7:54, 8:15, 8:35, 8:47.

Uh oh. We had run the first part of the hill way too fast for me. Miles 11 and 12 were slower partially because this was the steepest section of hill, but mostly because (bzzzzzzt) I had been running too fast before that. Not over-the-top too fast like I've done before at Kona, so I didn't expect a full meltdown. I knew the flat section was going to be tough, though.

And now the sun was all the way up. It was hot, it was still, and it was sticky. No islands to see because of the vog. Incidentally, vog is not very fun to breathe. Some people handle it better than others. For me, it just makes me breathe harder. I was breathing pretty hard.

I let Amy go. I didn't know if she'd pull off a negative split, but I knew that I had no hope of staying with her. Bye, Amy. Towards the top of the hill I caught my first Hawai'ianiac - Maniacs from Oahu. Wily Woo! To that point, he was having a good day. "I might PR." Go, Wily. About two minutes in front of him, I spied Les. Les was the original Hawai'ianiac and has worked hard to recruit a bunch of very nice people. We talked for a second, and then I slowly pulled away. He'd catch me again later (foreshadowing!), and then I'd catch him... and we'd leapfrog to the end. This is exactly what Les and I have done in Kona and at the Volcano Trail Marathon every time we run the same race.

After a potty stop somewhere during M13, I hit the half at 1:53. For a 3:55 finish, that was a bit too fast. It was violently hot and still by this point. Ugh.

Somewhere around M15, two guys caught me. One guy was quietly and patiently listening to the other guy complain. About everything. He didn't like the heat. He didn't like the hills. He didn't like the haze and the non-view. He didn't like the drink at the aid stations. He thought the course was boring. Dude. You are running in Hawai'i. Shut up. This was one time where slowing down as the race progressed actually served a useful purpose. The two guys pulled away from me, and I let them.

The course passed the mile marker 14 beach. Not the marathon's M14... I mean that the beach is next to the highway mile marker labeled 14. Some of the beaches aren't creatively named. Heh. For many years, we used to snorkel at mile marker 14. I remember when the tourist channel on Maui television would recommend it as a nice place to pull off the road and snorkel. I noticed that this has changed. Now the beach sports signs about sharks. Sometimes, a beach will post a shark sign temporarily when one has been spotted. But the sharks move on, and the sign goes away. The signs at mile marker 14 were 1) numerous and 2) permanent. Shark City, I guess. I don't believe I'll be snorkeling there.

Around the bend from this beach is the tiny little community of Olowalu. And for the race, Olowalu hosted a big group of taiko drums. Boom boom boom! I'm used to taiko drums at the bottom of a marathon's big hill - like at Big Sur. Olowalu was kind of a random location, and definitely not hilly. Still very cool. Boom boom boom! Maybe I won't melt! Boom boom boom!

Somewhere in here, I started taking advantage of something I've never ever utilized before in a hot weather marathon: sponges. Sponges filled with ice cold water. I do not like stuff like this usually. The cold is too much of a shock, and the wet usually makes me clammy. Not today. These sponges were The Best Thing Ever.

Around the next bend is a good surfing break. This was about M18 on the course, which I passed somewhere around 8a. Lots of surfers getting in a pre-work or pre-Church ride. It was a great distraction from melting. I also started doing the math to see how likely 3:55 was. I seemed to be right on target.

I hit M20 at 2:57. Hmm. If I could hold my pace, I could beat 3:55 for sure. However, I was slowing down. It was going to be tight.

At M21.5, the course turned left off the highway and onto a road down into Lahaina. This town has a very interesting history. Once upon a time, it was the capital. It was also the hub of whaling in the islands. Now it is a mix of older buildings and super touristy places like the Hard Rock Cafe. Oh man, it was hot through Lahaina. The Maui Marathon does not have a lot of spectators, but a few folks were rooting for us through town. Miles 22 and 23 ran down Front Street. Normally, the best view of Lana'i would be here. Too much vog today.

Yes, indeed, I had started too fast. Those early 8:20 and 7:55 miles gave way to lots of 9:45s. Sigh. The good news was that compared to 2005, I was flying. I remember the death march down Front Street very well. I wasn't doing that this year. I grabbed another sponge from the aid station. Still no melting. I was running. I was passing lots of half marathon walkers and marathoners who looked like me in 2005. I could tell that I was slowly losing 3:55, though. Now I was going to have to gut it out to beat 4.

At M24, the course popped back up onto the highway and headed for Ka'anapali and the finish. I tried to pick up the pace a little. Ugh. It was all I could do to hit M26 with a 9:28. The course turned onto the road up to the resorts... there was the finish up the long, curved road beyond the golf course. Ugh. I had not melted yet.

And then I was done. Zoom. 3:57. I did not make my 3:55 goal, but it was close. Anyhow, I did beat 4... and I beat my 2005 time by 11 minutes. I was also completely coherent and smiling.

I found Amy and a couple of the faster Hawai'ianiacs, Jeff and Johnny. Amy had gained 10+ minutes on me over 14 miles, and she finished at 3:46. Unfortunately, she had had some breathing difficulties at the end... I blame the stale, humid vog... and puked. Yuck.

Maniac Cowboy Jeff (he's not really a cowboy; his nickname is 'Cowboy Jeff' because he runs in a straw cowboy hat) had finished right in front of me, Les finished a little bit behind me, and Wily Woo did indeed get his PR. Woo hoo! I spent a couple hours talking to folks and cheering finishers. Then it was time to catch the school bus back to the other side of the island.

It dropped me off at the mall, and so I ate lunch at the food court. Maui Tacos.

Later on, I came back to the food court for dinner. More Maui Tacos food.

The next day, I did some swimming in the morning and then flew back to Seattle. Certainly not the tourist's version of Maui, but I had fun. Considering my recent training, I guess I'm ok with my 3:57. It is time to improve.

Next up: after a weekend off (9/20 was J-Lo's anniversary of her mastectomy), it was time for the Bellingham Bay Marathon. Bellingham is a very pretty city located about 90 miles north of Seattle near the Canadian border. Located amongst mountains and right on Puget Sound, Bellingham is hilly. The race itself? Hilly. More on that Real Soon Now.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

9/7/08 Skagit Flats Marathon

A long time ago, before Real Life asserted itself the way that Real Life likes to do, I had considered the Skagit Flats Marathon as the right place (at the right time) to try to repeat Eugene's 3:28. Then Real Life did its thing. Actually, before that, I did a really dumb thing - I ran the White River 50 and hurt myself. This impacted my training. I can't blame Real Life for that. Era estupido.

But then, Real Life decided to add insult to injury. Or maybe it was adding injury to injury. I had a hole punched into my back for a biopsy. The biopsy came back good, although I did do the sitcom routine:
The results were negative?? Negative! Oh no.


Negative is good, right? Yes? Whew.
Heh. So the results were happy, but I had stitches holding my back together. They had held up at a half on Labor Day Monday, so I decided to head up to Skagit six days later. Even though I had been registered for the full for a long time, I told myself that I'd decide between the half and the full when I got there.

I felt pretty terrible when I pulled into the parking lot at the high school where the race starts and finishes. I decided to walk around for a bit and see if that made things better. It didn't. It also didn't really make things worse, and I was scoring lots of "poor baby" points from people for looking so pitiful. I made my decision... to delay the decision.

For many years, the Skagit Flats course was an inverted balloon on a stick (or upside down keyhole) - basically, a loop with a long out-and-back section in the middle. And "Flats" was an accurate description. The only hill on the whole course was a highway overpass in the first mile. Because of road construction, the course was changed this year. It would be completely out-and-back and completely flat. No overpass.

The half and full start at the same time, and the half's turnaround would be 6.5ish miles into the course. This meant that I could start the race, warm up, and THEN decide if I was really up for a full. If I decided to turn back at the half's turnaround, I would need to be careful at the end... nothing like "winning" the full marathon with a sub-2. However, my Best Running Buddy (BRB) was signed up for the half. If things really went wonky, I could attach myself to her with one of those kid leashes and make it back in. Actually, half turnaround aside, I realized that I could turn around just about anywhere I pleased.... provided I didn't try to officially finish in the chutes UNLESS I did the whole thing.

So I delayed my decision. BRB wasn't sure how fast she wanted to run, but I was betting she'd go out at a sub-2 half pace (so, 8:30-9:00/mile pace). I figured I'd run some miles with her. IF that's the pace we started at and IF I felt like continuing and IF I had a reasonable day, then "about 3:45" would be my goal. However, I was more interested in running an even race on this very flat course, so if we went out a little faster or a little slower, my time goal might need to be adjusted.

Incidentally, some of you have asked me how I pronounce BRB. Is it "Barbie"? Oh no. I think that if I called BRB "Barbie", she might cut me. She's good with knives. It's B-R-B. This is the same as the online acronym for "be right back", of course. So sometimes, it's just "Bee".

The weather on race morning was phenomenal. It seems like it is always a nice day at Skagit Flats... cool and blue skies. The usual weather penalty is wind. This year, there wasn't much wind. It was also a bit warmer than normal. A great day to try for my 3:28, actually. Oh well. Before the race, I had on my typical multiple layers of shirts and gloves. I was smart enough to cut that down to ONE shirt before the start, but I was dumb enough to make that one LONG SLEEVE shirt. This would get me later. I also kept the gloves, but I knew I'd just pocket them when I got tired of wearing them. Or when my hands felt boiled.

After several trips through the potty lines and a bit of gossip and observation regarding a few other Maniacs, off we went. Me, BRB, and Maniac (and transplanted Hawai'ianiac) Gary. We hit M1 at 9:33. Kind of slow, and something was wrong. I was breathing really hard... I could still hold a conversation, but it didn't feel like a 9:30 mile. We hit M2 at 7:55, and we hadn't adjusted our pace. Aha. The first mile marker had been a little off; we were indeed running faster than 9:30. Strange mile markers would be a recurring theme, unfortunately.

We came upon a woman running with four safety pins on the back of her shirt. They weren't attached to anything other than the shirt. No packets of gel, no sign, no oddly placed diaper. I asked BRB and she had no idea, so I sped up to ask the woman about this. The significance of the answer isn't nearly as important as the significance of me asking. See, in real life, I am quiet and fairly introverted. For some reason, I transform when I run. This is one of the things that I enjoy about running; I become much more sociable. The reason for the safety pins: she had a sign attached to her back at one time, but it had been removed. Okey doke.

Onward. We got to the turnaround for the half. It seemed like we had been running 8:00-8:15 miles, so I wished BRB well on speeding up and hitting 1:45. She downplayed this and off she went. I decided to continue. HOWEVER, I knew that I was running too fast. I dialed it back. Or tried. I only wanted to slow from 8:15 miles to 8:30-8:40 miles. But the mile markers were wonky, so I had to try to do this by feel. And most of my feeling was concerned with "dang, my back hurts". I tried to get into my breathing and my perceived heart rate (coupled together: perceived exertion) which would have the nice side effect of blocking the back pain.

The Skagit course is a bunch of east-west and north-south straight lines connected by 90 degree turns. A lot of them. On and on I ran. Turn and go. Turn and go. By M10, I was cooking. Off came the gloves. I considered going shirtless too but did not. I'm sure that the people near me were happy with my decision.

Aside from the true leaders, I didn't start encountering my faster friends until I was in the final section before the turnaround. Huh. The 3:30 pace group went by me heading the other way. The pace leader, Maniac Bob, commented that I was right behind them. What? No way. I shouldn't have been. And a few minutes later, I hit the turnaround and then the halfway point at 1:48. Too fast. Especially because I was now steaming in my long sleeve shirt. Apparently, I hadn't dialed it back that much. I would now.

About M18, the 3:35 pace leader passed me. This was also Maniac Bob. Different Bob. At this moment, I realized that I should have volunteered to pace a group... although I would have stuck with Maniac Robert as my name. I thought about hanging with Maniac Bob, but I really didn't think I had 3:35 in me and I didn't want to fall over dead.

I hit M20 at 2:46. I was cooked, but I was keeping an ok pace. Unless I crumbled beyond the 10:00/mile barrier, my "about 3:45" goal was going to happen. On a normal day, a 2:45 check-in at M20 means that 3:40 is the better target. Alright then. My new goal became "about 3:40". For a few minutes. It has been a long time since I've run a 3:3x. My new new goal became "beat 3:40".

About M22, I passed a few people who had been running with the 3:30 group. No, I was not speeding up. The heat was getting to everyone. I wished them well, but I was focused on my goal. I was more focused on not focusing on my back.

The course comes back into town about M24. I was still alive. M25, still alive.

And then I messed up. The big course change involved ditching the loop in favor of the out-and-back. But that wasn't the only change... and I didn't notice the other one ahead of time. In the past, the last bit of the course rounded the whole high school and onto the track. As I was trying to hold my pace, my brain factored this into the calculation. I held back. I hit M26 a bit before my brain was ready for it. I figured it was another mismarked mile. It wasn't... all of the sudden, the course turned. Instead of going around the campus, the new course cut through it. I had been holding back too long. There was the finish. And so I did.


Considering all my issues lately, I'm pretty pleased. On the other hand, the only reason I didn't hit the doubly revised "beat 3:40" goal was because I held back at the end when I didn't need to do that. 27 seconds!

And. I felt really good. I think I could have stuck it out with Maniac Bob... the second Maniac Bob... and gotten close to 3:35. I just didn't know it at the time. That's alright.

Speaking of The Bobs (that's an Office Space reference), they both hit their pacer targets. Woohoo.

I sprawled onto the football field's grass and didn't move for an hour. I could have run further or faster, but once I stopped, my body clicked off. I hung out with Maniac Dave and Maniac Q-562. We should have discussed gardening.

And BRB finished her half in 1:47. More Woohoo!

Next up: already happened. Last weekend's Maui Marathon. I got my stitches out between Skagit and Maui. Plus, the race was in Maui. It didn't matter that I didn't run lightspeed. I was in Maui. More on that Real Soon Now.

Monday, September 08, 2008

9/1/08 Super Jock N Jill Half Marathon

I can run a 1:36 half marathon. Some people would say that this is fast; many people would say that this is slow. But at any rate, I know I can run a 1:36 half because I've run three half marathons this year and my times have been 1:36, 1:36, and 1:37. The half marathon is my favorite distance because it is short enough that I still have a whole productive day left afterwards, it is long enough to feel like a distance challenge, and it is TOO long to run at puke-at-the-end pace. Actually, this is why I almost never run 10ks. I manage puke-at-the-end pace when I run 5ks. A 10k is essentially the same pace, but it is twice as long with twice the pain. Halves are cool.

I'd like to improve upon good ol' 1:36. Early in the year, I targeted the Super Jock N Jill Half Marathon (SJJ) as my attempt to go faster. Specifically, I wanted to run a 1:30. Why 1:30? Mostly because it is a nice round number. Also because it would represent about a 30 second improvement on my per mile pace. SJJ is held on Labor Day each year. I've never done it because I'm usually in Texas for our annual family reunion on Labor Day weekends. The past couple years, I've been running marathons on this weekend. This year, I decided to stay home and run the half.

Too bad that I'm an idiot.

I had known for months that SJJ would be a goal race. In fact, I had also wanted to utilize a full marathon on the following weekend (Skagit Flats) as another target race. Throwing in the White River 50 miler... not a target race of a distance I stink at... one month before my goal races was not smart. And sure enough, I hurt myself at White River. Not only did I need to heal, but this seriously curtailed my training afterwards.

I also happen to be an idiot with a real life outside of running. Real life is funny. Ha-ha funny sometimes; strange funny other times. The Tuesday before SJJ, I had to have a biopsy. A nice big hole punched into my back. Stitched up afterwards, the punch stopped hurting after a day. But the stitches themselves and the associated bruise were no treat. Anytime I bent, twisted, or lifted my legs too high, my skin would stretch and OUCH.

I got used to it after a few days. I learned the do's and don'ts of moving with stitches in my back. As long as I stuck to "Robot Frankenstein" moves, I was ok. After a few days of no activity, I was able to get in several 4-6 mile runs. I did fine. Slow. Lumbering. But fine.

And so I showed up at SJJ undertrained and with a new style of Robot Frankenstein running. No chance for a 1:30. Oh well. But maybe a good chance to put in some miles and talk to people. Besides, one of J-Lo's friends was running the half (this is the friend I ran with at last year's Portland Marathon) and J-Lo had decided to come out and do the 4 mile walk. So I showed up. Domo arrigato, Mr. Roboto. Frankensteino.

SJJ has been around forever. It is a very crowded race. I had heard that the course is flat, and so I didn't bother to do any homework. I knew that much of the course involved a paved bike trail. That's the picture I had in my brain: lots of people on a pancake flat bike trail in rural Western Washington. This was sort of true, and sort of not.

SJJ's start and finish are at the Red Hook Brewery, which is on the edge of Woodinville, Washington. The area is indeed rural. There's a brewery, a bunch of wineries, and a sod farm. The course is a loop on mostly roads (with a little bike trail mixed in), but picture a loop where the outermost portion has been pinched by Aunt Annie of Aunt Annie's Pretzels and twisted several times into one of her famous creations. But without the sugar. And while the race's first and last miles are gently roly poly, the pretzel miles are quite hilly. Thanks, Aunt Annie.

Labor Day in the Seattle area usually comes with nice weather, and this year followed that trend. Blue skies and cool for race morning. Actually, several of my friends complained about the heat and humidity. I was in two shirts and gloves. Heh. In my last half, I raced in a singlet even though it was cold - very out of character. For this race, I just wanted to be comfortable. So I kept the shirts and gloves.

What to do about a race goal? Hmm. My stitches held up for the easy runs, so I decided to try a semi-tempo run during this race: 2 miles of warm up, 6-8 miles at 7:30ish pace, 3-5 miles at an easier pace. Those 7:30 miles would definitely be a bit slow for a true tempo run, but I didn't want to push it too much. Nothing like blowing out stitches in the middle of the country. The math pointed to a 1:40-1:45 finish time. It turns out that this wonderful plan came with a huge "however...". At the time I formed it in my head, I still thought the course would be essentially flat. And I didn't know about the pretzel.

The pretzel.

After 182 marathons and ultras, 50ish halves, and I don't know how many shorter races, certain memories stick with me. Most of these are not about my "good" (that is, fast) races. They are specific visuals or sounds (audials?) that were extremely vivid and either stuck out or completely augmented the concurrent race experience. For example, at M25 of the Twin Cities Marathon, the course crests a long, challenging uphill. At the top of this hill, the runner is presented with a wonderful view of the course's final downhill mile to the state capitol building. But the memory that sticks with me is a sound. At the top of this hill is a huge church. On race morning, the church rings its big bell - a deep, Big Ben sounding bell. Bonnggggggggg. Bonnggggggg. The noise of 100s of spectators cheering and this bell made a specific moment in time very special, and I will never forget it... even though my race at Twin Cities wasn't very good. There's a similar hill towards the end of the Mt Desert Island Marathon. I have a memory from the top of this hill too. In this case, it's a visual. MDI is a rural marathon with hellaciously bad weather. There are no bands, no taiko drums, no dude playing a grand piano. But at the top of this hill that year was a dude playing an accordian! It was SO random. Whereas the bell at Twin Cities augmented the experience, the accordian at MDI stuck out. It's just as meaningful, but for totally different reasons.

I stuck that strange tangent in this report simply to restate: The pretzel. I will never forget the experience of running the pretzel for the first time. When I run this race again, the pretzel will merely be an aspect of a strange course. No big deal. But this first time, I didn't know about the pretzel until I was IN the pretzel. It was disorienting. It was interesting. And it was very very strange. Now what the hell is going on here? Heh.

Let's briefly talk about the first 6 miles of the race. I started way back in the pack so that I'd go out slowly. This sounds nice in theory, but in practice this is a tactic that can backfire horribly. One not only needs to be disciplined enough to 'go slow', but one also has to resist the temptation to zigzag around the big pack of people. The zigzagging, with its sprint, side-to-side, slow down repetition can really come back to bite later on. I was good. Early on, I was passed by a very pregnant lady. She was probably 7+ months in, judging from the size of the buddha belly. However, she was in very good shape - very skinny everywhere except for that belly. She went flying by me at a 8:00/mile pace or faster. And I never saw her again. She was racing for two!

By M2, the crowd had thinned down and I was able to find a faster pace and pass people without all the zigzagging. I felt good and I was very pleased with myself. The first few miles hadn't been as flat as I was expecting, but they weren't too challenging. I had started slowly, I had picked it up where I wanted to, and I was running well. I was able to mask the nagging sensation in my back. Felt weird, but it didn't hurt. Much. Somewhere in the early miles, the course jumped from the road onto a bike trail section. This part matched what my brain pictured for this race.

And then everything changed at M6 when we got to the pretzel. The middle of the course runs through a satellite campus for the University of Washington. Whoever designed this part of the course was either very clever or very drunk. Or maybe it was Escher. Anyway, at M6, suddenly all the fast leader runners popped out from another road and were headed back towards me. No problem; nothing really out of the ordinary. This quickly changed. We started passing the walkers who had started an hour before us. No problem. Except I also saw other walkers headed off on a slightly different road at the same time. Huh. Then, out of nowhere, here came some more runners on an even different road. This didn't appear to be the same group of leaders nor a group that would be near them.

The course turned a corner onto a monster uphill that dumped into the campus. This was the course designer's masterpiece. To the left of me were runners coming at me. These were definitely faster folks because I knew some of them... runners who are ALWAYS in front of me. To the right of me were more runners coming at me. These seemed to be slower runners, perhaps? And if so, this meant that I had run down that part of the course already? Yes. My part of the course looped back around and headed down a hill. Suddenly there were runners above me. And then up the backside of the hill and I was on the part of the course where my faster friends had passed me earlier. Going down the hill that I had already run up, I got a panoramic view of the pretzel. In all its glory on a warm blue skies morning, I saw runners heading in five different directions at one time. It was like some kind of highway cloverleaf.

The pretzel lasted for more than 3 miles, from M6 to a bit before M10. I didn't know that the pretzel was coming, and similarly, I didn't really know that I was leaving the pretzel behind as I passed M9. Had I known, I might have stopped at the cloverleaf to soak it all in. Ok, probably not.

The rest of the course was flat-ish bike path all the way back to the brewery. Mostly flat except for some path bridges. It seemed we needed to take several turns onto these bridges during the race, and each turn involved a short (20 feet?) steep up to get to the bridge. 20 feet certainly does not qualify as a hill... but these definitely acted as pace disruptors.

Anyway, on and around. I was passing walkers throughout much of the last section. Also, the trail was open to everyone and by 10a, lots of families had come out to do a nice holiday bike ride. They didn't seem to enjoy the race so much. Ooops. I passed lots of these folks. And I got passed by lots of faster runners too. While I did not slow my pace to the 'easy run' that I had planned, I definitely slowed some. Most of the people that I had been running with did not slow.

Up, around, and back to Red Hook. The last .1 of the 13.1 is an uphill into Red Hook's parking lot. And then I was done. 1:41. Nothing like the 1:30 I wanted to run, but exactly in the 1:40-1:45 range that I planned. My back kind of hurt. Not badly, but maybe I hadn't picked the most appropriate activity six days after having a hole punched into my back.

J-Lo had finished her 4 miler and we waited for her friend. She finished somewhere around 1:58. I wish I could say that we sampled some great post-race Red Hook ale, but the race didn't offer this. Plenty of food and jamba juice... but no beer at the brewery race. Hmmm.

Next up: yesterday's Skagit Flats Marathon. Originally, it was going to be my first followup attempt since Eugene at "beat 3:30". That changed. Two goal races in two weeks, both derfed. Oh well. I considered not running Skagit, or switching to the half. Ultimately I did the full and all things considered, I did ok. More on that Real Soon Now.

My friend Coconut Boy says I'm not getting these reports out fast enough. So perhaps Real Sooner Now. Gotta keep the Coconuts happy.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

8/23/08 Park City Marathon

Park City is a ski resort community located in the mountains outside of Salt Lake City. "Ski resort community" means that it is up pretty high. The scenery around Park City is an interesting mix and backwards from what I'm used to seeing. My Colorado and Pacific Northwest experience is that the lower elevations are where you find trees and lots of green. As you move higher and get above the treeline, things are sparse. Still quite pretty, but very different. Park City is the opposite. Down low, the scenery is basically high desert - scrubby vegetation with absolutely no trees. Then, as you move up past Park City towards the higher ski resort of Deer Valley, you find trees.

The Park City Marathon is a small event (with a bigger half marathon) held in late August. Late August in Salt Lake City can be 90 degrees. Up at Park City, it'll be quite a bit cooler. In fact, race morning can be very cold. I ran this race last year. It was the weekend before my first triple; I ran it as a long run and intentionally didn't push things. Without knowing much about the course, I figured this would be a 4:00-4:15 finish. I was popsicle-frozen at the start (no gloves!) and didn't really warm up much. I had more difficulty with the 6500-7300 ft elevation than I thought I would, and I really underestimated the hills along the way. I finished at 4:15 which was close enough to my goal, but it beat me down.

Let me tell you about those hills. The course is a basically a loop, but with an out-and-back section in the middle. It's like running three wholly different races consecutively. The first race is a challenging, roly poly 10k on the roads below Park City. "Don't go out too fast" is important advice for any marathon, but it is particularly true here... as you are trying to thaw yourself and find your rhythm, this first 10k is busy taking all of your energy. Then just past M6, the course turns onto a rails-to-trails conversion.

Here we go. My standard spiel on rails-to-trails. By definition, these are wide bike trails that were railroads at one time. Trains can't go up or down steep grades, so rails-to-trails never have steep hills. But trains DO need to get where they are going, which may be up higher or down lower. And so, rails-to-trails have gentle ups and downs that can be very long. Ridiculously long in running terms. They are completely runnable; the hills are never so steep that you say "wow, I think I'll walk this". But after miles and miles of running up and up and up, or down and down and down, your legs will be tired of the whole rails-to-trails scene. And your brain will be mush.

Especially on this trail. Where possible, rails-to-trails go thataway. No sharp turns. Not even curves unless curves are absolutely required. The Park City Marathon turns onto the Union Pacific trail just past M6 and heads up. 10 miles up. Straight as an arrow, except for a couple zig zags along the way. Actually, only 8ish miles are on the trail. As the course nears Park City (wave as you go by!) and M14.5, it jumps back onto the roads for the 2 mile each-way out-and-back push up to Deer Valley. This is the steepest part of the hill.

At M16.5, the course turns around to head back to Park City. Per the elevation chart for this race, you'd think that the last 10 mile section is a look-out-below downhill to the finish. In fact, the few spectators and all the aid station volunteers along the way provide tons of "it's downhill from here!" encouragement.


Ok, the general tendency is downhill. Generally. But there are a couple ups along the way, including one incredibly steep hill inside Park City. The kind of steep where you run it, the guy next to you walks it, and you both get to the top at the same time. Also, a lot of what looks like downhill on the chart seems flat when you are on the course. This last 10 miles could definitely be harder... but starting at 7300 feet after 16+ miles of hills, it's plenty challenging even with gravity helping out. "It's downhill from here!" Yeah.

That's the course. The weather on race morning was basically the same as last year: dark for the first 30 minutes, then dawn, then blue skies. The light breeze made it chilly, but it wasn't nearly as cold at the start as last year. Great running weather overall. Of course, I was in two shirts, those trendy (but really geeky looking) sleeves, and gloves while most people were in singlets. Heh. At least I didn't have on long pants.

As I mentioned, last year I chose to run this course conservatively because of the following week's triple. This year, I had nothing like that in my schedule. Then again, what I thought of as 'conservative' last year turned out to be plenty hard what with the course's challenges. Plus I'm still recovering from a skinned heel. I decided not to be tricky with training goals - I just set out to beat my time from last year ("beat 4:15"). I also wanted to run a more even race. Last year, I was completely wiped out afterwards. This year, I wanted to be more coherent. Knowing the course in advance, I figured that I could run it smarter and not get psyched out by the long hill and everyone lying to me about the downhill. I was a little worried about my heel.

I won't give a mile by mile recap. I managed to run the first 10k evenly and without incident. The 10 mile hill went by. Slowly. Part of the trail runs through open range, and sure enough, there were cows on either side of the course. I suppose I could have stopped to pet a cow, but nah. I hit the halfway point at 2:00... one minute faster than last year. That 2:01 last year meant that I finished the race with an ugly 2:01/2:14 split. And I felt like crap. This year I wanted to be more even, but as I hit the halfway point, I realized that this meant I'd need to be a lot closer to 4:00 than 4:15. Maybe I went out too fast.

Last year, I wasn't expecting the steeper grind up to the Deer Valley resort. I think I walked a bit of it, and I know I shuffled a lot of it. This year, I ran the whole thing albeit slowly. I was certainly in a much better mood as I headed back towards Park City this year.

It's called the "Park City Marathon", but the start/finish is about 6 miles outside of Park City proper. The course does cruise through town near M18, including the steep hill. Like last year, I walked this hill. Theoretically, I was on the downhill now. I hit M20 at 3:06. I'd have to stay steady to finish somewhere around 4:00. I was out of the trees and back down into the high desert area. There's a famous white barn in Park City. The Marathon even incorporates the barn in their shirt's design. I think I passed the famous white barn at M21. I'm not sure, though, because there's another white barn at M25. I was confused in my report for last year's race. I wrote about a band playing at the white barn near M21. That was incorrect. They were actually near the second white barn at M25. And they were there again this year. 14 or 15 year old guys playing a blues riff. I know it was early on a Sunday morning and God bless them for being awake, but they needed a lesson in music theory. The guitars were playing their not-really-in-tune riff in one key while the electric piano guy was noodling around in a wholly different key. It made me run faster, though. I needed to get out of earshot :-).

My last 6 miles were fairly even, around 9:00/mile pace. This was a big improvement over those last miles up the hill between M13 and M16.5. The last two miles were pancake flat and wandered around the perimeter of a couple condominium complexes. It seemed more like 10 miles.

Finally, under bright blue 60 degree Utah skies, I hit the finish. 4:02. Well, I beat 4:15. I also ran an even race: a 2:00/2:02 split. I felt basically normal too. Of course, 4:02 is far too close to 4:00, and so I immediately began wondering if I could have beaten 4. I don't know. This is one of the very few races I've done without any potty stops at all... so I couldn't say "well, if I hadn't had to stop..." because I didn't stop. And aside from the steeper uphills, I ran evenly. No magic places from which I could have compressed time. 4:02 will have to do. My heel held up too, which is great.

Next up: The Super Jock N' Jill half marathon on labor day near Seattle. Super Jock N' Jill is the original Seattle running store with the really weird name. There are lots of great marathons to run on labor day weekend, but I signed up for this half because once upon a time, this was going to be my go-fast attempt to break 1:30. Too bad I screwed up that plan and other plans by running the White River 50 and messing up my heel. Slowly my heel has gotten better... but I've had to skip important training during the last month. And then a few days before the half, I had to have a little "procedure" that left me with stitches in my back. These stitches pulled (ok, as I write this, they still pull) if I stretched my back or my legs too far in any direction. Wonderful.

So Super Jock N' Jill did not work out as my warp speed run. I did finish, though. Nowhere close to 1:30. More on that Real Soon Now.