Sunday, November 16, 2014

And Athens Makes 50

I’ve been running marathons for the last ten years and with this, the grandaddy of them all, I mark the milestone of 50 races. What better way to mark the occasion than with the event that started it all, The Authentic Athens Marathon. Now all I had to do was have a better finish that the man, Pheidippides, who inaugurated this crazy obsession so many of us have.

For those who have been following my blog posts, or at least their dates of publication, you have undoubtedly noticed a significant lag in postings in 2014. This is because I have been fighting an emotional and physical battle with running this year which had me doubting myself and unwilling to document this year. In fact, I wasn’t sure this day would come as planned because of it. The year 2014 started with a sense of mortality for me, a partial injury that set back my running, put me at risk of potential season-ending surgery and dispelled a false belief I had in myself and the human body. Over the past six years or so, I had been running injury free as I slowly adjusted my body from traditional running shoes to thinner and lighter shoes as preached in the book “Born to Run.” I felt its teachings were a revelation, as I was logging longer and more frequent runs with greater love and appreciation for running. With each success, I took its teachings farther but never to the true barefoot running it spoke of so highly. I had run in Vibrams and even XeroShoes but never for longer than 6 or so miles. Beyond that made my feet hurt and I felt I needed more cushioning. Good thing because a lack of cushioning bit me in the beginning of 2014 as I learned I had slowly eroded away the natural cushioning in my knee and was risking bone-on-bone contact at this point. Make it worse, and my running career was over. 

Every athlete faces the mortality of their athletic career when they push it too hard or too far and I had hit that mark, unknowingly at the end of 2013. I was facing possible knee surgery at this point and that’s what put my Athens milestone at risk.

Eleven years ago, a coworker at Sun Microsystems and I were out for a run in Dallas, Texas, during a business trip when we got to talking about taking running beyond the warm up event to a business trip. She challenged me to take on a half marathon which I accepted in January of that next year. It nearly killed me. I finished that race with a great sense of accomplishment but vowed to train better the next time so the feeling of complete exhaustion didn’t accompany it. 

That led me in late 2003 to join Team in Training and push, not for a half marathon, but the full thing, in Anchorage, Alaska in the spring of 2004. I finished that race like many first-timers do, sore, exhausted and asking when can I do this again? I was a wreck for the next two hours but the following day was ready to take on the next challenge. This turned into a passion bordering on obsession. And that fall, when I turned 40, my great friend Stephanie suggested I make it my goal to run 50 marathons by the time I turned 50. I accepted her challenge knowing it would mean 4 to 5 marathons per year for the next ten years. A lofty goal but I love a challenge. 

Seven years later (three years early), here I was, arriving in Athens, Greece after a two-week business trip in Europe for what would be that lofty milestone. 

Athens was more than a racing milestone for me, it was also the very first place I had come for a beachfront vacation with the women who would a year later become my wife. Reesa and I had met in graduate school and both signed on for a European studies program that summer. I shyly failed to approach her with my admiration during our initial two weeks in London but got up the courage in the capital of romance, Paris. We kissed for the first time along the banks of the Seine - all too poetic - and after the program finished up in Switzerland, traveled together down the boot of Italy and across to Greece. 

Everyone knows the history of the Athens Marathon, so I won’t recite it here. It is for this reason the race serves as a key milestone for so many marathon fanatics like myself. In fact, while touring Delphi, a key historical site in Greece, I shared the bus with a man from the US East Coast who had come for his 100th marathon. 

While it is unlikely the race course is precise to the steps that Pheidippedes took that fateful day the Athenian army beat back the Phonetians, the course does run from the village of Marathon to Athens. What makes it doubly historically significant is the fact that it starts on the track in the Marathon Arena where the marathon flame is lit each year in honor of the sport and finishes on the same track where the 1896 and  2004 Olympic marathons finished. 
For me, this race was an additional milestone in my charitable work for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and its endurance racing program, Team in Training. through ten years with the society I had helped raise over $60,000 in the fight against blood cancers including a $10,000 campaign in 2010 when I ran the entire Rock n Roll Marathon Series. This year would prove especially important however, as my best friend John was hit very close to home by the disease. His young granddaughter (his first) is a beautiful young girl named Liana who just two weeks earlier Reesa and I had met for the first time. John was planning to come to Greece with me to run this historic race but called, in a panic, to let me know that he wouldn’t be able to make the trip because little Liana had been diagnosed with childhood Leukemia

What initially was a personal milestone, quickly turned into a fight for her and all children like her. I had been planning to raise funds for the LLS once again purely in honor of 50 marathons and the role TNT has played in my life but I had a higher calling now. By race day the generosity of so many of my friends, work colleagues and those in our industry had helped us raise over $17,000 in her name. This alone, I knew, would be all the strength I would need to cross that finish line.
Race day started at 6:15 in the morning in front of the Greek Parliament building in downtown Athens. We weren’t running to Marathon but boarding a bus for a half hour ride to the village. I rarely sleep well the night before a marathon but this evening was an exception, so I boarded the bus rested and ready to run. The trip gave me a preview of the course I was see later that morning which proved very fortuitous, because as the kilometers built up, I would pass a building or storefront I had recognized on that bus ride to the start.

We arrived in Marathon about 90 minutes prior to the 9am start time - European marathons tend to start at this much more civilized hour. The start was in a small track and field stadium with Greek flags lining the arena. Off in the corner, high upon a pedestal sat the official Marathon flame, burning in an Olympic-style torch pit. That was my first destination upon exiting the bus so I could get a photo with this important symbol of my favorite sport. Runners ascended the stairs to the flame in pairs so we could take each other’s photos. My partner was a German man who had lived in the US, among many other countries in his work for a large hotel chain. We chatted a while, sharing race stories, then took our pictures, admired the view and returned to the stadium.

Here I found my Team in Training colleagues. Over 70 people had chosen this event as their charitable cause for the year, including yet another runner marking a key milestone of 100 races. We chatted a bit, walked the track and prepared of the race ahead. About an hour later we descended to our corrals and awaited the starting gun. The Greek national anthem played, a prayer for runners was said and then we were off. The race took us first past a park containing a memorial to the fallen soldiers from the battle of Marathon where the Athenians had beaten back the heavily outnumbering Persian army. Presumably it was in there, because you couldn’t see it from the road. Pheidippedes, by the way, hadn’t simply observed the battle and run back to Athens with the news. He had fought in this battle and then run 26 miles. No wonder he collapsed and died (myth/reality?). Such would not be my fate today. I was taking it easy, nursing my knee and would finish, for sure, and walk away proudly.

After the loop around the tomb, we got a chance to see the lead runners who were doubling back to the main road and on towards Athens. I got to this point too late to see the lead men, but saw a pack of women runners with their names on their bibs, instead of numbers. The leaders were African with a few Europeans just behind. 

The course mostly went in a straight line to Athens from Marathon but not a flat one. The first ten kilometers when up and down through low hills before beginning a very long, slow incline that kept climbing, literally, until kilometer 31. From this point on there was nary a downhill, let alone a flat section. I knew this going in and thus prepared myself for what I thought would feel a lot like a Kauai repeat. thankfully it wasn’t nearly as hot or humid as that island day. 

There were about 13,000 marathoners in the Athens race this year, mostly Europeans, which means you heard just about every language along the course. The most common phrase heard was “Bravo” coming from the locals lining the course and between runners.
One of the most courageous runners chose to honor history, literally, as he ran in full Athenian robes with a helmet, shield and sword. I lost him at the finish so never saw if he actually logged the full 42 km in costume; and was glad I wasn’t running next to him as he wielded that sword.

Where Kauai’s climbs and heat had forced me to walk parts of the course, Greece did not. I ran the whole way, stopping only to refill my bottle a couple of times after 26 kms. It was warm, clear and, by the end, hot on race day, despite cloud cover and threats of rain the week prior. Accuweather reported, up until hours before the race, warnings of thundershowers midday on race day. It must be nice to have a job where you can be wrong 100% of the time, for it was clear as a bell from Marathon to Athens that day.
After the long slog, kilometer 31 finally came, bringing with it a level race course that slowly turned downward. We crossed under a gorgeous arched suspension bridge around kilometer 36 and in the distance you could see ancient Athens before us. I was straining from the long climb but had wisely taken the hill easier so I would have energy for these last few miles. At 32 kilometers I began self-talk saying, “just a 10k remains. You can do a 10k in your sleep.” This refrain fell to “just a 7k” and then “just a 5k” and worked its magic on my brain. 

We reached the park before the Olympic Stadium and my legs started to gain much more energy. The crowds grew thick with supporters all yelling “Bravo!” and clapping enthusiastically. As the Olympic Stadium appeared before me I immediate
ly saw flashbacks in my mind of the finish of the Olympic marathon in 2004 that finished on this course. I would be following in their footsteps. When my feet hit the soft track padding, a turbo charger kicked in and I blasted to the finish with all the remaining energy I had. 

Up to this point, I had treated this race like any other, focusing on my form, pace, strength and endurance. But after crossing this historic line the gravity of this accomplishment set in. This wasn’t just another marathon. This was my 50th. I had done it. A ten year goal accomplished. And I felt amazing.

Even better, Liana had been with me the whole time. I ran with her picture clipped to my back so she, in spirit, could experience this incredible race. When the course got tough, I thought of her and her fight against blood cancer. She wasn’t going to give up, so neither was I. My 10 year milestone can’t possibly match up to what she will accomplish in 10 years - a key milestone for cancer survivors that I’m sure she will hit. And with any luck we will eventually arrive at a day in which children like her no longer have to hear what she heard this summer. A world free of cancer is the milestone we all should strive for. 

On to the next 50! 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Kauai Marathon - Hot, Humid, Hills

After deciding to abort on the San Luis Obispo Marathon, it was time to plan its replacement run as I needed to get in another marathon this summer to leave sufficient time to recover and train anew for what would be my 50th marathon - Athens, Greece. There were many great races to choose from and I love making a race event into a vacation, so I concentrated my search on races in August or early September. This would coincide with the time of year Reesa and I normally go on vacation and still leave ample time to prepare for Athens Marathon in November. As I searched the marathon calendar web sites up popped my favorite island destination - Kauai. Its marathon fell at the end of August, right in the sweet spot of my target date range and what could be better than a beach vacation.

I had already completed two Hawaii marathons, the Honolulu Marathon was my second 26.2 and my all time favorite remains to this day, the Maui Marathon. Both are fantastic beachfront races that wind through great little villages, pass fantastic vistas and stay pretty much at sea level throughout the race. Once more like this? Sounds great.

However, Kauai isn’t like the other Hawaiian Islands. It’s beaches are rockier, its cliffs higher and the whole island is basically a sunken mountain. So you have fewer flat areas, much lush greenery and lots and lots of hills. The race would turn out to be much closer to my experience in The Great Barrier Reef Marathon, than other Hawaiian events. 

Thanks to a long endurance break since my last marathon in February and a lot of physical therapy and the hyrulonic acid treatments, my training for this race had mostly gone well. My knee I fear will never be the same. It creaks more now and crunches often when I flex it. And it nearly always hurts at the start of a run. But it quickly seems to get in a groove and leave me alone as I run, which gives me the confidence that I am doing all the right things to avoid injuring it. I had hoped this would all prove true in Kauai.

The week prior to the race, while vacationing on the island was glorious. Warm, dry and clear as a bell. All good things for a vacation; all not so great for a race. I jokingly asked my father-in-law to do a rain dance the night before the race, as Hawaii, like other tropical destinations specializes in humidity and heat, which become serious detriments to a runner by mile 20 or so. His dance must have worked because as I walked to the start line, down came the rain, scattering runners under palm leaves. 

The race starts very early in the morning on the main road in Poipu with local Hawaiian warriors bearing torches and giving a prayer in local language for a great day. Then, after the traditional singing of the national anthem we were off. No beach run here, the Kauai Marathon immediately turns inland and up the road toward Lihue, the largest town on the island. We started climbing, gradually, but almost immediately. After about a mile or so we came to a fantastic stretch of road called the tunnel of trees which is a section of road lined with local trees that form a natural canopy over the road. It’s quite the site to see and as it was still raining lightly, was a nice break from the wetness. From here the race moved along the highway only a short distance before heading into some nice inland neighborhoods. By this point I was running along side a woman who had flown in from Michigan for the race hoping to spend the week following the event with her boyfriend who was stationed on the island as part of his military service. She found out three days prior to the race that he wouldn’t be here, as his unit had been deployed to the Middle East. She would make the most of the trip enjoying the island, she said, but you could see the disappointment behind her eyes. As we were talking, a local Kauai resident ran up alongside us and joined the conversation. He was a transplant from Michigan now living on the island and working in agriculture. He had run this race before and gave us a valuable tip: Take it easy on the first half, as the second has more hills and is tougher. 

I knew the race was going to be hilly but wasn’t really sure how hilly it would be when I signed up. I was sensitive to the hills at the time I selected this event because I knew they might be tougher on my ailing knee. I guess I must have misread the elevation profile or simply carried too much confidence when reading it, because his warnings seems misaligned with my expectations. “At the half way point we’ll start to climb again, and it will keep climbing for the next 8 miles,” he said. Ooh, kay. 

The two Michigan youths were younger and stronger than me today, so I let them go on as I joined other runners passing along. One very cheery runner and her boyfriend came along doing the strides of a half marathoner (feeling good that only a few miles remained). She said hello and we got to chatting, all the while both thinking we had met before. Turned out she owned a small bakery that exhibited at a local farmer’s market three days prior. Reesa had bought cookies from her which were some of the best ginger cookies I had ever eaten. Once I put two-and-two together, I told her of my recognition and love of her baking. She smiled with appreciation and came to the same recognition. Her supportive boyfriend had also been at the farmer’s market and was again being supportive today, as he confessed she had talked him into today’s half marathon. It was clear from his tone that this was the longest he had run and was feeling a bit overwhelmed, but still supportive. Love makes you do strange and wonderful things, i thought. I wished him well through the next mile as we had topped the last hill in the first half and it was all down hill for him from here. For me, however, that long climb lay dead ahead. 

Up to this point, my father-in-law’s rain dance had proven to work but too early in the race. About six miles in the rain clouds cleared it was turning out to be another fabulously gorgeous, clear, sunny day. Normally I’d smile at this but as we full marathoners took the next turn I found myself looking up at a long climb and a full sun overhead. 

Prior to my knee injury I lived for hills. I could climb for days and cherished the pain and challenge that came with them. Today, however, the feeling a shifted to a bit of dread masked with confidence in myself and my training. The hill was indeed as long as the local had said. About six miles in, I was running low on steam and sadly had to walk. I rarely walk during a marathon. Even though many people successfully execute a run-walk method and even do so and turn in better times than mine. I find walking drains my energy and makes restarting a run tough. But this time the heat, humidity and incline got the best of me. Each time the hill leveled off, I returned to running, hoping that at the next incline I’d have the energy to return to a full run but each time, I was beaten back by the heat. I think I walked about five of the final 13 miles. After the big, long hill, the course didn’t go right back down, it went into a pattern of climbs, declines and more climbs for about the next four miles. It wouldn’t relent and fall into a steady decline until nearly one mile to go. While this might sound miserable, the views were spectacular. You couldn’t see the beach that often but the ocean was always in view and the gorgeous mountains, covered in spectacular greenery were ever-present. They don’t call Kauai, The Garden Isle, because it sounds good. As the course wound its way through the hills there were many friendly residents who came out to the road to wish us on. I was running low on water when I came upon a cute young boy who had set up a makeshift water station in front of his house. Good timing and a friendly smile were all I needed to partake of his hospitality. 

The race passes through farmland, cattle ranches, horse country and back down toward the beach. All beautiful and worth the pain. 

As the course finally declined consistently I was eager for the finish line. I had thought it would wind back onto the same road where it started; and where my wife and in-laws would be waiting, but then the course turned from that road and proceeded closer to the beach. A bit confused and worried that it might just climb back up again, the always welcome 25-mile marker made its debut. There wasn’t enough distance to return to the higher road where we started so it must be staying down along the shore here. I was right. The race ran through some pleasant condo complexes and past a few resorts before I began to here music in the distance. I was worn out by this point and looking forward to the finish, which came on a flat road with a view of a sandy beach. I crossed the line, winded and sweating. After getting my medal, I was handed a bottle of water which I immediately lifted over my head and doused myself. Next up were cold, wet rags which went right under my hat, followed by cup after cup of cold water released over my body. After what felt like ten minutes of dousing I was finally feeling cool. That humidity was killer. 

Right across the street from the finish line was the Sheraton beach resort which had a very inviting sandy beach. I immediately walked over and attempted to stand in the waves to give my legs an ice bath. But 26 miles had sapped my strength and the strong Kauai waves took me right off my feet. I didn’t care because the water was cold and comforting, so I battled the waves with what strength remained in my body as the cooling sensation flowed over me. Recovery took a bit longer from this one but it’s hard to argue against the need to play in the waves. 

Victory was tough coming but well worth it as today marked 49 marathons completed.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Marathon Aborted - SLO Much For This One

In February, after the Surf City Marathon, I returned home from SoCal feeling good knowing I was just two marathons away from a 10-year goal -- 50 marathons. I was feeling good but had challenges with my right leg and left achilles the past two months leading up to that race and thus had little confidence in this respite from pain. 

Next up on the marathon schedule was a nice break from marathoning until May when I would run a race I had supported as a coach for Team in Training, in a city I fell in love with at first sight. The San Luis Obispo Marathon gives runners a great tour of the downtown area of this classy little college town, then takes you up into the hills for an out and back through wine and cow country. I supported mostly the first half of this race that year and was eager to see what the rest of the course had in store for runners. 

But up first was a return to the Sports Medicine Institute for a diagnosis of the pains I had felt prior to Surf City. I nearly cancelled this appointment because I was feeling so good right after that marathon but felt it was probably prudent to get the check up. And my favorite therapist had fit me in. She had helped me through a painful IT band problem early in my running career and was a star therapist for TNT and the Stanford Track Team. 

She laid me on the table and got to work immediately feeling for tight spots and irregularities. She found them rather quickly and went to work smoothing them out. It was painful, as expected, but I was hopeful it would put an end to my problems earlier in the year. The following day, pain shot through my right leg. I called her back, got a quick follow up appointment and at her advice reached out also to Dr. Amol Saxena, the sports podiatry wizard at Palo Alto Medical Foundation. He knew me well, due to my on-going achilles issues and had put the kibosh on that pain a couple years earlier with an experimental shock wave therapy procedure. I was hoping for similar miracles. This time, Catherine from SMI was in coordination with Dr. Saxena, communicating her diagnosis as she worked on me in the follow on appointment. Her assessment: Unclear but appeared to be related to the knee. Uh oh. 

The following day, I was in the office of a work friend and fellow endurance athlete conveying my recent woes when he grabbed a card, copied down the personal mobile number of his doctor and insisted I call him. “He fixed me up and is the best in the business,” he said. This friend is far more the athlete than I will ever be and has certainly maintained a high level of fitness, so I don’t know how I could refuse him. So off to his orthopedic surgeon I went. He sent me for an MRI and the following week I entered his office with films in hand. His diagnosis: Thanks to the guidance I was following in the book “Born to Run” I had aschewed cushioning in my shoes to the detriment of the ligaments in my knee and had created tears and scar tissue which were causing the pain. Arthroscopic surgery was his recommendation. Uh oh. The SLO Marathon was off.

He also recommended a return to cushioning in my shoes. I quickly sought out the most cushioned shoes I could find but was still a believer that flat and flexible shoes were partially responsible for my last 6 or so years of injury free running. And the doctor did not disagree. This led me first to try the Hoka One running shoes. They were relatively new on the market, very popular with runners coming back from injury yet retained a mostly zero drop. On the flip side they looked like Frankenstein’s running shoes. They were bright yellow, humongous and had padding running under the entire shoe that looked to at a quarter inch to my height. I tried them on and found them relatively comfortable but the lift was more than just an impression. The reviews were strong and so I gave them a try. That lasted about a day. I took them for a trial run and found them stiff and awkward. The cushioning, while nice, raised me way too high off the pavement making me feel a bit unstable and with knee and achilles issues already in place, the last thing I needed was to feel unstable. Back to the store they went.

Next up was a new brand of shoe, Altra, that seems to be the Goldilocks choice of running shoes. They had ample cushioning - about half the Hoka but still around 20 percent more than the average running shoe, and a commitment, like I had, to zero drop and flexibility. And they had a highly confident return policy. Where most running shoes, and running shoe stores will only take back “new” shoes with no major marks on the sole, this brand of both running shoe and running store, Road Runner Sports, took back the shoes no questions asked. That gave me confidence to give them a long test drive and their confidence was rewarded. 

The Altra Torin isn’t the most handsome of running shoes but looks should be meaningless in this sport of endurance running; performance should be all that matters. And that proves just to be the case with these. Running quickly felt more comfortable. I was still having knee pain and the occasional achilles flare up but these issues seems minor compared to the flare up that sent me to the doctor. I pulled back quite a bit on running distance and added a lot more cross training to strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee as I prepared for surgery.

As the surgery date approached I shared my worries over the procedure with my friends on Facebook who mostly wished me luck and shared their success stories with the procedure but one friend’s comment caught my attention. Ellen questioned the procedure by asking if I had tried a new therapy called hyaluronic acid injections. I followed the link she sent and began wondering if I might avoid the knife after all, as the process seemed to fit my symptoms. Rather than go off the facts of the Internet, I decided to get a second opinion so I visited the office of Dr. Frank Chen at PAMF, a colleague of Dr. Saxena. He looked at the same MRI films and drew a very different conclusion. “Given what I see on this film, I don’t think arthroscopic surgery will help,” he said. This was an orthopedic surgeon talking and I had not prompted him with my interest in an alternate therapy so these words threw me aback. He then said, “I think what might be more successful in your case would be a relatively new procedure, hyrolonic acid injections. What? Had I heard that right? He explained what I had read on the Internet (I’m paraphrasing here - follow the links for more detail): Your knee’s natural protections from bone on bone injury were your ligaments and some natural fluids that fight friction at the muscles and bones move back and forth. My MRI, he said showed that most of that natural fluid was worn away due to over exercise and it needed to be replaced. Hyaluronic acid is this same natural fluid and could help prevent bone on bone friction and help the remaining ligaments. It wouldn’t be a permanent fix but could be conducted every six months and had been used successfully in Europe for years on people with similar joint problems.

The prevailing thought that remained in my head throughout his discussion and the days that followed: no surgery required. I’ll take that option. So I immediately started the procedures. 

None of the shots hurt, the needle went in easily and there was pressure at the insertion point as the fluid pushed into my knee. The bursa quickly went down as the fluids spread out across the joint. I laid off the knee for a day, then, per doctor’s advice, went for a short run the day after. So far so good after one shot, still some pain but certainly no worse. After the second, the pain receded a bit and by the third shot was down significantly. Wow.
Come May, I still didn’t trust the knee fully but had already registered for the SLO Marathon and had our hotel, so Reesa and decided to go down for the race with our friends. For the first time in my life, I switched from the full to the half, wisely treating SLO as a test run for the knee, as this would be the longest run I had done since the injections. 

There’s a famously tacky hotel in San Luis Obispo called the Madonna Inn that serves as the race hotel and host to the expo and finish line of the race. The hotel itself is pink, inside and out and uniquely architected from wood and massive stone boulders that mold its shape into something of a Swiss Chalet folded into a river bank. The hotel has a famous restaurant inside that is also overflowing with pink, a massive pink cake that local’s line up to buy and themed rooms that make each visit unique. Some of the rooms mirror a cave, others a fairy tale but all feature massive intruding stone work that. honestly is the coolest architecture I’ve seen. Our room had a Peter Pan theme and our stone work lined the bathroom and shower. It was like walking into a perfectly shaped cave that was at once bold and intimidating, and cozy and enriching. This is the kind of contradiction that makes the Madonna Inn so famous. Tacky might sound like a turn off, but I highly recommend staying here at least once. I’m glad I did. 

Race day was cool and comfortable at the start, which was a short run from Madonna to downtown SLO. The race loops through the classic college town streets of this beautiful little town. It takes you past some gorgeous 1940s-era homes, past old storefronts that look right out of It’s a Wonderful Life and intermixed with truly California style architecture. The half marathon course winds up and down the streets giving you a good mix of climbs and declines. As it starts to leave town, it slowly climbs a hill heading toward the wine country and away from town. This is a tough hill and you get to do it twice as the half turns around after it. As I approached the turn point, I was sad and conflicted. Part of me wanted to carry on, and do the full marathon course. It was what I had signed up for, I was feeling strong with eight miles behind me the hills had not tasked my knee too much. But the longest I had run prior to this race was 10 miles and I had enough experience as a marathoner to know that such training was nowhere near sufficient for a full 26.2. My friends had tried to reassure me that the second half of this race really wasn’t worth it anyways, since it simply kept climbing off into the hills providing little scenery or distraction before returning to this same point for the last seven miles. So with disappointment in myself but wisdom as my guide, I turned around and returned down the half marathon course.

From here the race returns to town before then exiting and heading for the Madonna Inn. But rather go back the way I came to the start, the race moves out of town another way, along the railroad tracks where there is a nice bike and walking trail. It winds alongside the tracks with some nice greenery lining the trail. I tried to run on the dirt as much as I could, to limit the pounding on my knee by the pavement. From here the race goes up and over a spiral staircase and bridge suitable for bikes that takes you over the tracks and down to the train station on the opposite side. It’s an odd feature in a marathon and after the ups and downs of the prior miles can be a significant challenge. Once past the train station the run carries under the freeway and on an underpass before rising up to the fields behind the Madonna Inn. By this point you’ve clocked nearly 13 miles and with the end in sight you start to feel optimistic about a strong finish. But that’s before you see the final hill. Yes, this race ends with a last, long, slow climb. And I was feeling it. While I’d completed 48 marathons by this point, half the distance can still remind you the importance of proper training. All the rest and recovery for my knee had prepared me for a half, but any regrets I was feeling about not doing the full quickly subsided as I struggled up this last hill. 
Once you reach the top there’s just 0.1 mile to go and the full downside of the hill is lined with cheering friends and family. I quickly caught site of my bride which always puts a spring in my step and down the finish I strode. It was certainly not my best time at this distance but definitely the most humbling. 

The knee held up well confirming my decision to forego the full and I still had six months in which to fully recover the knee, get in my 49th marathon and prepare for Athens, which would be number 50.  

Surf City Marathon - A SoCal Challenge to Cure All Ills?

The year 2014 started with a mix of emotions, milestones and roadblocks as I prepared for the official marathon of Huntington Beach, California - Surf City. Yes, there is an on-going battle between Huntington Beach and NorCal’s Santa Cruz over the claim to the name but for now it resides here. ’Nough said. 

In 2013 I had what I thought was a fantastic year of running. I stayed in marathon shape nearly the entire year which let me drop in on a marathon, on a whim, which is quite an accomplishment if you understand how much training and preparation is involved in getting ready for a 26.2-mile run. I completed eight marathons that year, the most in one year in my running career thus far. And I finished nearly all of them feeling good, if not worn out. Over the past six or so years I had been running injury free. I thought my success was due to changes I had made in running shoes, progressively moving to thinner, lighter and more flexible shoes. I was a student of the book “Born to Run” and was reaping its rewards; or so I thought. 

I ran most of 2013 in a mix of Skechers and Inov-8 shoes with zero drop from toe to heel and very thin cushioning. I even ran several shorter distances in XeroShoes, basically Jesus sandals with a string to hold them to your feet. I have a very natural running stride; I don’t heel strike and my form involves lots of achilles and foot flex giving me lots of natural injury protection. I exited 2013 injury free like all the earlier years and was feeling very confident about 2014. I exited that year having run 47 marathons, leaving just three until the big 5-0 which I had already planned out to be the original marathon from Marathon to Athens, Greece. That race in is November leaving me an entire year to get in two marathons and do lots of cross training. 

My early training in January was feeling good as the miles were coming along strongly. My new Inov-8 shoes I received for Christmas felt lighter than air and I ran that way too. Until early February. It started on a 16-mile training run during which I started to have pain in my lower right calf muscle. During long runs its typical for various muscles in my body to wake up and alert me to their presence but then calm down and keep doing their job. That’s what I thought was going on here but the calf kept talking to me. It wasn’t the kind of pain that screams injury, just the occasional bite that says soreness. What worried me more was when the calf kept talking to me after the run and the next day too. Rolling it, stretching it and ice weren’t doing the trick so I decided to up the prevention with a few rounds of physical therapy. The therapist concluded that it was muscle weakness, not in the calf but in many of the small muscles surrounding it and gave me a few exercises to fix it. I asked her to look at my left achilles as well, as it had developed a lump and was a bit sore too. Needless to say i kept up the running with what I thought was little ill effect but the problem wasn’t getting better. 

So with just a week before my first marathon of the year, I upped the therapy again to a sports massage from Sports Medicine Institute in Palo Alto. I got turned on to this clinic during my first year of Team in Training and they worked miracles on my body as it adjusted to the marathon distance. 

The therapist who took me on, gave me a thorough leg massage which hurt a lot (you expect that) and the leg did seem to feel better afterwards. But the next day I now had pain radiating up my leg. No longer was the calf the problem but the pain kept moving from my thigh muscles, to the achilles, to the knee and back again. And the pain level was definitely above the “saying hello” stage. Worse still, I now had weakness in the leg too. I didn’t know what to do and was running out of time to get another therapy appointment. So I kept rolling it, stretching it and icing as I prepared for my flight to Los Angeles. 

After a couple days the pain subsided but I still had some weakness in the leg, so I pulled back the running significantly in Southern California hoping rest would cure me and if not, I would take it easy on the marathon to ensure I didn’t get injured. But for the first time since my very first marathon, I had a seed of doubt as to whether I would finish. 

After a few days of work in LA and Orange Country, a drove down to Huntington Beach after picking my wife up from the airport and we checked into the Hyatt Regency beach resort for race weekend. This is a fantastic hotel right across the PCH from the beach. The race expo and starting line are literally right in front of this resort. My good friend John and his wife joined us for this race and we hit the expo together which had a great beach theme. The night before we kept the beach theme going with dinner at Duke’s the Hawaiian restaurant chain named for the famous surfer.

The following morning the race began under an early morning fog. It was cool and there was a light breeze - perfect for running. The crowd along the beach was smaller than some of the bigger races in the nation which made for a clean and simple start. We kicked off along the PCH in the pre-dawn morning. I took it easy to start, torn between fearing a tough day and hoping for the best. The course turned inland to give us a view of Huntington Beach away from the ocean. It was a great mix of local stores and restaurants, condo complexes and charming homes with high windows hoping for a view of the water. As we kept going inland we came onto the Golden West College campus, something I didn't know was here and thus I didn’t expect to see. It’s mix of 70’s style buildings and ample parks was a great setting for a run. The trails were thinner here but the racers had spread out so that most of the time you were no more than 2-3 people thick - good enough for the trails. By this point the sun was rising, the fog had lifted yet it was still cool and comfortable. The runners were in a good mood as many were thanking the supporters and sharing good wishes for each other. To my surprise, my calf and the rest of my body were protest free.

From here the race looped through some nice neighborhoods some small inclines and past some quaint shopping areas before working its way back to the PCH. Still no physical ailments and as such my mood greatly improved. By mile 20 I began to tire, however and my pace declined quite noticeably. I didn’t let it bother me until my left achilles decided to say hello in a rather loud way. I kept this slower pace hoping to work through the pain. It subsided as usual and my calf took over the talking, then my quads, then my hamstring. Each in turn decided now would be the time to greet me and protest the distance as if each was passing the baton of complaint to one another. By mile 24, however, all had said their peace and settled in for the final miles. I crossed the line a bit slower than my usual marathon, sore but not broken. 

The sun was high in the sky at this time but kept a cool in the air, making for a great feeling of both accomplishment and pride to be in this gorgeous place with the people I love, doing what defines me. I cheered John across the line with Reesa by my side.
After the race, and a good bit of stretching, plus a quick dip in the ocean to ice-bath the legs, I was sore but feeling good.

I had made an appointment back at SMI for the Thursday after the race, fearing I would need it given my declining health prior to the race. The Monday after the marathon, I woke up feeling fantastic (despite the Super Bowl that took place that Sunday night; we won’t talk about that). I had client meetings in Orange County that day before my flight home and despite the tough run was walking fine. No marathon shuffle, no protesting knee and no pain from my achilles. One prevailing thought rest in my head: can a marathon cure all ills?
So it had seemed.    

Friday, November 8, 2013

Great Barrier Reef Marathon: A beachfront marathon isn’t without its hills

Or so I learned about 13 kilometers in to the Great BarrierReef Marathon in Port Douglas, Australia. This marathon, my 47th and last for 2013 was in the middle of a two-week Asian business trip and couldn’t have been a more beautiful respite. Port Douglas lies about an hour northwest of Cairns in Queensland, Australia, which is a gorgeous tropical state at the top of the continent down under. This quaint little fishing village turned top-notch vacation spot when Sheraton bought up several acres for a luxury golf resort. Since then several other resorts and vacation rentals have moved in along with a collection of admirable chefs to satisfy the foodie tourists (like me). The best part is that the resorts haven’t overtaken 4 Mile beach which is the main attraction here. Instead they have left it pristine with only palm trees and rainforest hills visible from this gorgeous stretch of sand. And it’s here that the 42-kilometer challenge began on a foggy pre-dawn morning at 5am.

Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas

When I found this treasure of a marathon I looked over the course elevation map on the event web site and saw a mostly flat course with a bump in the middle that rose a few hundred meters. It looked like an overpass or bridge at the most, so I signed on thinking this would be a nice, flat easy way to finish off my running year. Oops.

The race started on the sand of Four Mile Beach and covered about 80 percent of this distance. It was a glorious start as the sun barely rose over the water’s horizon and lit up the clouds that barred it from our view. The prior year’s race had started with clear skies which was a bad thing as that meant quickly rising temperatures that peaked in the high 80s and humidity above 60 percent nearly the whole time. Keeping the sun at bay was key to keeping this year’s race cool.

Near the end of the beach, we turned inland toward the outer suburbs of Port Douglas and from there faced the rainforest. There’s a small highway that runs along the coastline linking all the beach towns to Cairns. Instead of the headache it would be have been to close and cross this road, the marathon ducked underneath it giving us our first taste of why the term rainforest starts with rain. Thanks to ample showers the Saturday before, our underpass was completely flooded. Anyone with clean shoes at the start of the race was out of luck just 6 kilometers in.

Past the underpass the course stayed flat as it ran inland past several large farms and over a bridge crossing a murky creek – if you come to Queensland stay away from any waters like these; crocs love them. From here we ran further inland to a turn around point at 11 kilometers. We only backtracked about 3 kilometers before heading back toward the rainforest hills and up what was definitely not a bump, as I had perceived it on the elevation map. Instead we started climbing a steep, muddy hill at about a 30 degree angle. The Bump Trail as it is called is used in local triathlons, mountain biking events and other local activities. It’s steep, rocky, uneven and after a rain, definitely hazardous. The hill quickly got too steep to justify running up the hill, given the over 25 kilometers left in the race, so everyone switched to a walking pace. We slowly climbed for about 3 kilometers before it started to flatten out, climb again, then flatten. It was about 5 kilometers in before you could run consistently. At this point we were high in the rainforest surrounded by thick palms, vines and eucalyptus trees. The trail gave us some nice downhills, flats and short climbs the rest of the way toward the second turnaround point.

As I approached the turn, the leaders came streaming by. Local marathon hero and past Olympian Steve Moneghetti led them all by a wide margin on his way to a 3:15 finish – not bad for a guy in his mid 50s. Before you think that time’s a bit of a slouch for a marathon finish, remember the hills and mud I talked about. This is definitely not a PR course. Every runner who passed gave out a word of encouragement, “Good on ya, mate!” “There ya go,” “Great job,” were heard often. Many of the participants were local and knew each other, so you heard lots of first names and teasings in the banter too. An Aussie was on my tail with the turnaround just 200 meters ahead when a vine sticking just a bit too far out onto the trail grabbed my leg and held on. It wrapped around my lower thigh and dug in its barbs, bringing me to a near standstill. My new Aussie friend caught me and helped steady me as I unwound the offending plant. I had no idea what kind of vine it was nor what poisons might lie within its barbs so at the turnaround I asked if it was poisonous. The officials told me no and that the pain would subside quickly. A wiseacre local added, “only to tourists.” Guess I deserved that.

I smiled, sped up my gait and started the return along the muddy trail. I would have loved to pick up some time at this point and certainly would have down the hill but wasn’t able to do so fully due to the slippery conditions. Running on the trail itself was the most hazardous as the mud was thickest here. So I ran along the edges of the trail, footfalling on the leaves and plants that gave more grip. It’s this edge running that led to the vine catching me so I kept a watchful eye on the plants around me and hopped over any vine I saw for fear of being entangled again.

When we hit the bottom of the hill a practice more races should consider was seen. Instead of mile markers (kilometer markers in this part of the world) counting up to the finish, the signs counted down starting with 13 kilometers remaining. It was mostly flat from here on out and a repeat of the course back to the beach. The hills had wiped out my energy so I needed a few kilometers of flat to build back up my reserves. But even this was slow as the sun peaked out at this point for the first time all day.

We couldn’t have had better conditions for a topical marathon. Morning clouds kept the sun at bey most of the day and brought cooling rain showers four times during the run. As a result the full sun at 39kms was very short lived.

We returned to Four Mile Beach at high tide and most of the beachfront was gone which meant we had to run in the soft sands or at the water’s edge. I chose the latter as the surface was more firm but my shoes got soaked by the waves a few times. We didn’t go back the full length of the beach but cut in near the Sheraton resort. The course designers didn’t plan a visit to the center of town for us but instead skirted the main road for a different approach to The Esplanade where the finish line was placed. But it was here that the course got mentally cruel. As you entered the neighborhoods near the finish you could hear the finish line cheers and see the 2km to go sign before you. It felt good to be nearing the finish but once you could see the line you could also see the cones directing you right past it. Yep, ahead of you was the length of the Esplanade which you would be traversing first, going right past the finish line, turning at the end and then finally running the last 20 meters to the actual finish. For those of you who have completed the Nike Women’sMarathon, you know how cruel it is to emerge from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, look to your right and see the finish, then turn to your left to run the length of Ocean Boulevard. This was a similar feeling except running right past the finish felt worse. You could literally see the faces of the runners flip from relief to frustration as they went past the line. I wanted to reach out and knock over some cones so badly.

But there’s few feelings better than the one that comes from finishing a marathon – despite the pain, agony and frustration that comes in the final miles. And I wasn’t about to cheat myself by cutting it short. I crossed the line at 4:31 and a happy finish to a great running year. 

After stretching and taking in a few boxes of fruit juice, I stripped down to my shorts and walked into the ocean. Unlike San Francisco’s beach, the northern shore of Australia ain’t no ice bath. The water was in the low 70s but felt right. Trying to hold myself upright in the face of the waves wasn’t easy but it felt great to play in the waves after a hard run.

Jellyfish warnings and in the back, the white line is a jellyfish net
By the way, for those who are curious, yes I was safe in the waves. Spring and summer in Queensland (and most of Australia’s coasts) are jellyfish season which can be very dangerous. The stingers down here can be deadly if not very, very painful. However Port Douglas, like many other beach towns strings jellyfish nets in the waters or marks clearly the safe spots to swim. I chose a safe spot. And I clearly chose a gorgeous, challenging and fantastic marathon. While I still think the Maui Marathon is my favorite, The Great Barrier Reef Marathon is a very close second.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Double Dipsea - Body to James: Time for a break

June has been a busy running month for me and it finally took it toll at The Double Dipsea. On Saturday, June 29th I found out that there wasn't as much endurance left in the tank as I had hoped.
The Dipsea is a Bay Area legendary trail run. It is the second oldest organized run in the US, second only to the Boston Marathon. It runs from Stinson Beach, up through the Marin Headlands and down into Mill Valley where it descends an insane set of very vertical staircases. The Double Dipsea runs the same course from Stinson Beach to Mill Valley, then back. It's only 13.7 miles but has some very challenging hills and is rarely flat. And after 3 marathons in the past eight weeks it kicked my butt.
The morning started off very promising. It was going to be a very hot weekend in the Bay Area. Friday reached 92 degrees on Friday and in Marin it was going to be topping 85 by the afternoon. But at the start of the race it was in the low 60s. The skies were clear which meant a lot of sun and it was already out. The Double, like the original Dipsea, is a handicapped race, which means that the start is broken into waves based on your age and gender, with the oldest participants getting a generous head start. My wave, 45-49 year old men was third from last and we started 8 minutes before 9am. I'm used to earlier starts and on a hot day that would have definitely been preferred, but as I said it was in the mid-60s by start time, so the temps were promising.
The start is uphill right away from Stinson Beach into the headlands. The initial climb includes some stairs which made for easier footing but a slow take off. I was feeling good and it was only a half marathon long, so I went ahead and ran as much of the climb as I could. This was probably not smart in hindsight but seemed necessary at the time as the course was a bit crowded, and it was easy to get caught behind someone going really slow if you didn't. Plus you kind of always felt like you were holding up others if you walked too much, as there were younger, more fit runners coming up from behind. Passing was a bit challenging though, as the trails were narrow and there was poison oak along the trail nearly the whole way.
Having been bitten badly by poison oak earlier this year, I had taken extra precautions for this race. I ran in tights and a long sleeve but very breathable shirt, and did my best to ensure all my skin other than hands and face were covered. And I had a bottle of Tecnu at the finish, just in case. The plan worked. Although the black running tights were maybe not a great choice. They were breathable but black and sun don't go well together.
Back on the trail and after the first major climb we were above the trees and in an open field with great views of the coast line. The trail was still narrow so I spent most of my time (here and throughout this race) looking down at my feet. It was a good thing because nearly every time I looked up or out at the view, I tripped over a root or rut in the trail. Thankfully I never went down (but saw a few folks who did). 
In this clearing there were a few Dipsea short cuts. I didn't know where they would be but followed the faster, more experienced Dipsea-ers as they cut off the main course. I felt a little bad taking shortcuts but I don't think they saved that much time or distance. Mostly they just paralleled the main trail so they were less crowded. We were in direct sun most of this section but it still wasn't much above 70 degrees...yet.
After the clearing it was back into the shadowed woods and again, a climb. This time up to the summit of Cardiac Hill, which tops out at 1350 feet. The climb was mostly pretty gradual which made it runnable but you really had to watch your step as large roots popped as much as half a foot up creating natural but very uneven steps. 
At the top we were greeted by a team of very enthusiastic volunteers handing out water, Ultima and a buffet of runner-friendly foods. I was feeling good and had my nutrition on me, so I waved them thanks and pressed on.
The backside of Cardiac was a steady and often steep decline, again filled with roots and the occasional set of man-made steps. On a couple occasions I stepped way up onto a root and literally leaped off and I couldn't see the landing site on the other side. A lot of 20-somethings were now caught up to me and passing rapidly. I stayed as far right as possible to let them pass and so we didn't collide and tumble down together. But there were times they felt the need to pass when there really wasn't enough room. I got into the habit of announcing myself before passing anyone with a friendly, "passing on your left," then a "great job."
After Cardiac it was more down as we approached the Mill Valley stairs. I was definitely feeling good and feeling fast. Shortly before the stairs there was another uphill this time on the road to Stinson, not on the Dipsea Trail. This made for easy footing and a chance to see the first place runners coming back from the stairs. They looked strong and ready for the rise up Cardiac. 
The stairs in Mill Valley are legendary. They aren't a single long set of stairs but a collection of stairways between the windy hillside roads. There are 671 stairs in all, if you count down and back up. When I got to the rest stop at the bottom of the staircase, I ran into my buddy John who was getting a quick drink. He had started 10 minutes ahead of me. It was good to see him. I gave him an encouraging shout out, ran under the makeshift shower a volunteer was providing from a garden hose and headed back to the stairs. No running now, everyone was walking back up. A few hearty folks were taking the stairs two at a time but I knew I had a long climb ahead of me so I needed to conserve energy. I double-stepped only when I needed to pass a slower participant. 
As I got about half way up the stairs I started to realize just how much harder the double would be compared to the original Dipsea, where you only go down the stairs. Going back up and then facing down Cardiac Hill was going to be a serious challenge. Why did I want to do this, again?
I made it through the stairs and was seriously winded. I was beginning to regret having run the first hill. After a short level section between the stairs and the beginning of the Dipsea trail that ran into Muir Woods, I got a welcome breather as I mentally prepared for Cardiac Hill. I needed it because the constant down we had on the way out would be a grueling up this direction. And it took me down.
I smartly chose to walk all the hills and run if flattened out. But there was a lot of climbing on this hill. About three quarters of the way up, I was getting exhausted. I could no longer run the flat sections, I needed them to recover for the next climb. Everyone was passing me at this point. As I got about 400 yards from the top, my buddy John caught up to me looking way too fresh for this point of the race. John clearly had been doing more hill training than I had and definitely had legs that hadn't been on three straight 26.2s. He was greeting everyone he passed and sharing cheery statements of encouragement. He asked me how I felt and sadly I didn't have the optimism we shared at the start of the race. 
He went on his merry way and I continued to struggle. With about 200 yards to go my legs were super heavy and each step was a push. I dropped to a very slow walk at this point and was beginning to wonder if I would make it to the finish. But I plodded along. About 100 yards from the top I was passed by an 80-year old who was gasping as well but clearly had fresher legs than I. That didn't help my mental state.
When I got to the top of Cardiac Hill, it clearly had earned its name and I was out of gas because of it. I hit the aid station to add water to my Amphipod bottle. On the way up the high concentration of electrolytes in my bottle was starting to upset my stomach a bit - this often happens to me on hot runs. So the water thinned them out. I drank about half the bottle and contemplated another hose shower but noticed that I was actually very cool. The dri-fit shirt and tights I was wearing had wicked the sweat away from my body but stuck around on the fabric creating a cooling moisture barrier around my skin. Plus most of Cardiac Hill on this side was shadowed so the water from the first hose shower was still with me. 
Having chose to pass on the second hose shower I stumbled over to the food table and grabbed a few watermelon slices. After this it was my intention to start the long decline from the Cardiac Hill ICU but I was now a bit dizzy. I slowly walked over to the medical tent and initially just stood there hoping the feeling would pass but then an aid worker asked me how I was feeling and I felt obliged to tell the truth. He quickly created an opening to the tent and ushered me inside and to a seat. It felt good to sit for a while but I was hunched over and this started to upset my stomach. I had a bout of stomach upset Friday night from too much Greek Yogurt, which I thought had passed by early morning but it was back now with a vengeance.
I leaned way back in the chair and that helped a ton but the dizziness was still there so I settled in for a while. I think I was laying this way for about 10 minutes before the bad feelings subsided. While resting I saw my buddy Kent at the aid station, getting a hose shower and some water. I wanted to call out to him and cheer him on but didn't have the strength. 
A few minutes later, an aid worker checked in on me and I said I felt better and started to get up. He looked down at me, not very encouraged and said, "Are you bored and pissed off yet?" I said no and he replied, "Then you better sit back down. We don't let people leave here until they are fully ready and you know they are when they're bored and tired."
His order was easy to follow. I wasn't bored or pissed off but nor was a really up for the 1.7 miles I had left. Had it all been downhill, maybe, but I still had Swoop Hollow, Steep Ravine and Insult Hill ahead of me, which all had significant climbing this direction. So down I went for another 5-10 minutes.
I was finally getting bored and didn't want to get pissed so I got up, refilled my water bottle, ate some more watermelon and took a deep breath. It was time to go. John and Kent now had at least 20 minutes on me and I knew I could do 1.7 from here now.
Cardiac Hill has a gradual down from here in mostly direct sun, so I walked/ran until I felt able to run/run. That lasted until Swoop Hollow, then it was back to walking up the hill. I had recovered a bit at the top of Cardiac but definitely wasn't more than 60% from here. I definitely walked more than I ran the rest of the way. After Swoop, I hit Steep Ravine and was back to walk/run - or really walk, walk, run a little, more walking. After this was the wide open flat stretch from the start that had a few short cuts. I definitely took the shortest route I could, running slowly and getting far to the right for those who weren't hurting like I was.
Then came the last up that definitely earned its name - Insult Hill. This isn't a steep climb but comes with just about a half mile to go and was very much not wanted at this stage of the race. John told me after the race that he was definitely insulted by its presence but wouldn't tolerate the insult and ran up it in spite. I had the spite but not the spirit, so I walked. 
Thankfully the rest of the course was downhill and mostly in the shade. I passed up the 80 year old who had passed me earlier but he caught back up to me at the very end and crossed the line before me. At this point I simply applauded him and crossed few moments later. I've never been so glad to finish a race.
If the Double Dipsea taught me anything it was that there is a limit to my endurance and need for recovery one race to the next. I probably didn't do enough hill training for this either. And that's the last time I scoff at a 13 mile race. 
Big congrats to John and Kent who finished strong. I'll be back for the Big Sur Trail Marathon in September - guaranteed.