Monday, August 6, 2012

ET Midnight Marathon Lit Up the Sky

Back in 2009 I first heard about The ET Midnight Marathon, this wacky marathon being held in the Nevada Desert at midnight along the notorious Extraterrestrial Highway -- the spot in the US that has the most reported UFO sightings. It was held at midnight each year, during a full moon cycle. It was strange, geeky and challenging all at once. How could I say no. Well it took me three years to find room for it on my running calendar and it lived up to all the expectations.  

I convinced my work colleague and fellow marathon fanatic, John Rymer, into joining me. We flew into Las Vegas Saturday morning and were immediately hit by the summer heat that was pushing past 100 degrees. This would normally be a warning sign that a marathon on this day was a very bad idea. But for anyone who has lived in the desert you know that temperatures can swing wildly from day to night. And Rachel, Nevada, which is in the high desert, above 4000 feet, the temperature there can be up to 15 degrees cooler. That meant 100 mid-day in Vegas and sub-70 degrees come race time. 

After getting lunch at Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Cantina and watching the thrilling Men's 10,000 meter Olympic final from London, we headed over to the expo which was filled with similarly crazy people - about 600 or so -- who also wanted to run in alien territory. The majority of participants were there for the 10K or half marathon but about 150 hearty souls signed up for the full marathon and about ten more for the 51K. You can't have just a 50K when running alongside Area 51, after all. 

We went back to our room to get a short nap, dress our chairs, eat a little dinner and relax before the 2.5 hour bus ride from Las Vegas to Rachel. Since the race is at midnight and no lighting is provided, everyone is required to wear reflective material, a headlamp and glow sticks. That's the minimum. Plenty of people went over the top, of course. 

When we got to the bus stop at the Hard Rock Cafe, John and I both had alien heads bobbing above us and sticky little aliens dangling from our belts. I joking told people they were there to ward off any possible abductions. But we were no match for some of the other costumes we saw. Marvin the Martian from Looney Toons fame was there in full regalia - including the full helmet and mask. As was a Power Ranger, and several Hollywood-style aliens. As for illumination, I was thoroughly impressed with the women who wore a blinking bridal veil, the man who's whole back blinked and the walkers who were so covered in glow sticks that they lit the road wherever they stood.

The buses dropped us at the "black mailbox" which signifies the start of the ET Highway. Way off to the right from here is the US Air Force base best known as Area 51 and suspected by many to be where the military is housing downed UFO spaceships. The "black mailbox." ironically is painted white and painted on its side, (in black paint) is "We believe."

This fun, wacky setting was a perfect setup for what would be a rather tough marathon. Starting at 4500 feet, the course went up roughly 1000 feet over the first 13 miles, then dropped the next 7, arriving at the town of Rachel and The Little A "lee" Inn. That's the finish line but since we're doing 26.2, not 20 miles we bypass the finish and continue along the ET highway 3.1 more miles and turn around. 

Sounds simple enough but this turned out to be a very tough course and a harsh conviction of my lax training over the last few months. Work has been very stressful and all-consuming over the last couple of months, so getting sick and not getting enough sleep over this time period really did me in.

I started out strong at 7:26 for the first mile as I broke free from the crowd of 150 or so marathoners. By mile two I pulled the pace back to 8:20 without really noticing it, as we started the climb. By mile 5 you could really feel the climb but I was holding 8:30s.

As the marathoners started to spread out you could really take in the beauty of this desert. As far as you could see to the left and right were fields of dirt and cacti that disappeared into purple mountains in the distance. Ahead of you was a flat road rising and disappearing at the horizon. It was a full moon with just scattered clouds so you could see thousands of stars overhead. This made the evening very special as I saw ten shooting stars throughout the race. And yes, I made a wish on every one. Mostly health, happiness and long life for those I love.

Around mile 8 I was getting mild stomach cramps. I had a PowerGel at 5 miles and was planning another at 10. So I decided to back off to every six miles and that seemed to help.

I was also steadily passing other marathoners every half-mile or so. By mile eight, we started catching up to the back of the pack half marathoners so you never really felt alone on the course.

By mile 11 the climb got more significant and pushed my pace back to 9:30, then above 10 for mile 12.

At 13 it leveled off, then started descending but I had burnt a lot of energy climbing and so couldn't pick up the pace as much as I would have liked. I was around 8:30-8:45 each mile through 21. Then I hit the wall. Miles 22 and 23 were rough. 10 min miles. I was tired. The last 6 miles are out and back, turning at 23.1. When I turned the volunteer told me I was 21st overall, and there were two people ahead if me that I felt I could catch, so I picked up the pace and got a second wind. Their blinking lights and reflectors made them beacons in front of me that drove me forward. I wanted a top 20 finish! 

But pacing was still not great, I could only muster 9:15-8:40 but by mile 25 I had caught and passed them both. Now I wanted to keep that lead so I kept the pace strong through the finish and ended 19th.

Time wasn't great - 3:56 but I'll take it given how I felt.

I definitely don't think I'm fully recovered from being sick the last few weeks and obviously a midnight start put me at a sleep deficit. It's now Monday and I'm definitely feeling a bit off. John and I crashed on the bus ride back to Vegas and in our hotel room after we got back but I'm definitely still feeling it today. 

I know I could have run this stronger under the right conditions. Oh well. Now I have 12 weeks to get sleep, prepare properly, get in more consistent speed work and shoot for the magic 3:00 mark I am seeking at the Santa Barbara Marathon in November. Wish me luck!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Finally, a negative split - Capitola Half Marathon

After my self-proclaimed disaster of a test marathon in Napa, I finally got my head on straight at the inaugural Capitola Half Marathon. I know, I know, this race was back in May and now it's July. Suffice it to say that I have been buried with work and just couldn't prioritize writing this up so apologies if it sounds like old news. But to me, it is a very big deal to have finally - after 9 years of serious running - run a negative split in a race of this length.
Receiving the prize for 3rd in my age group

As many of you know my goal for 2012 is to see if a man of my age can actually improve his time in the marathon and more-so, take off nearly 17 minutes and break the 3-hour mark. I started this journey back in January of this year and have been making steady if slow progress towards this goal. I started the year in marathon shape and after adding in several weeks of speed work, thought I'd test my training with the El Paso Marathon in February and the Napa Marathon in March. In both cases, as is often my mode, I went out feeling great and thus went a bit too fast resulting in a much-declined pace by mile 25. For Napa, I was determined not to do this but ended up doing it anyway, ugh. Ok, so an old dog can learn new tricks. Or so I hoped that would be the case as I lined up at the start of the Capitola Half Marathon. I knew the course -- it was roughly the Wharf to Wharf course, (which I will be running in July) times two (out and back). the weather was good - sunny but cool. I had a plan - hold back and keep the pace above 7 minutes per mile until the turn around, then let it go. This would be the (psychologically) hardest thing I've ever done. 

This race was small and felt pretty informal as we all roughly gathered behind a small inflated starting line arc. To ensure I didn't take off like a banshee, I stayed well back from the arc and chatted with my friends Spencer and Kent all the way up to the gun. I then casually turned to the arc and started running. First mile: 7:01. Right on plan, I decided to pull back a bit more so I wouldn't be tempted at all to speed it up. This run has a fair amount of hill climbing so I figured that too would keep me from pushing it too much. What was working against me was that at this pace I was still passing a lot of people and the urge to chase down the leaders was rising in the back of my brain - because I could see them ahead.

Thankfully as the miles accumulated so did the lead they had and so I was able to surpress that desire. I stuck to the plan as we weaved our way from the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk and into the cute town of Capitola. The course was nearly the same as Wharf to Wharf except for one turn we didn't make which would made this course a bit shorter I thought. As we entered Capitola we passed right down the street where Reesa and I had taken her mom and step-dad several years ago for what would turn out to be his last vacation before succumbing to cancer. I immediately thought of our time there sitting on the beach watching the waves and waves of bikini-clad girls go buy, which always brought a smile to his face. 

We turned right toward the wharf in Capitola and off to our left were the leaders who had rounded the town square and were coming back. I started counting them just to see how many were ahead of me. Not that I could catch them, they had well over 5 minutes on me but just for fun. As I lost sight of them as I started to round the town, I had counted 15 runners ahead.

When I hit the straightaway climbing the beach road away from Capitola, I turned on the jets and pulled my pace well below 7 minutes per mile. when I hit the 8 mile marker I was running 6:25; too fast. I pulled it back but only a little, as I was feeling good and was quickly catching and passing runners in front of me. What a thrill!

I kept the pace up repeating a mantra to myself of "keep pushing" while remaining conscious of how I felt and ensuring I wasn't tipping into exhaustion which would ruin my finish. The speed work was paying off as I was able to stay below 6:50 as I hit mile marker 11. I had passed several people by this point and if my calculations were correct there couldn't be more than ten people ahead. This would be my first top ten finish in a half marathon. Amazing! I kept pushing and was reeling in the first-place woman I had seen fly by in Capitola. Within 200 yards I passed her, said "good job" and then realized it was fellow TNT alum Riya. 

Riya with the award for faster woman

I pushed on with the boardwalk now in sight and calculated when I should push the pace even more, for a strong finish. I wasn't sure if the finish was back through the same arc and we hadn't hit the 12 mile marker yet so wasn't sure. By the time we got to the boardwalk I couldn't see the finish in front of me, so figured it must be a bit further ahead, but couldn't be much more, so I put the hammer down. There was another runner ahead and I wanted to take him before the tape. 

We passed the boardwalk and I still couldn't see the finish. Had I pushed too early? Could I catch this last runner and stay ahead of him. I wasn't sure. then I started hearing the crowds and a volunteer directing traffic. It had to be close. I pushed the hammer down even more and flew past this last runner. The course turned to the beach (which explains why I couldn't see the finish) and just as it dropped to the sand it was over. 

Finisher results from Capitola Half Marathon. My first top 10 finish!
I had done it - a negative split. And I felt fantastic! i was definitely tired but couldn't have been happier with my plan. Turned out the course was a bit short of a full half marathon - 12.88 miles but I still had finished strong, landing a top ten finish and third in my age group. I was ecstatic. Now I know I can stick to a plan and overcome my own stupid brain. I could go out slower than I think and not suffer as a result. Now I just need to put it all together again at twice the distance. 

Next try: In August at the ET Midnight Marathon in Area 51. Now that should be fun.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Go Out Like A Cheetah, Die Like a Pig: My Napa Marathon

They say that doctor’s make the worst patients and I think the same must go for coaches. In Team in Training we have been preaching for years that runners need to pace themselves in the marathon, going out slower than you might feel up to, so you have energy left over for the final miles which are always the toughest. You’d think after 36 marathons that this learning would have sunk in and become second nature to me. Oh well.
After several years of coaching our TNT participants through the Napa Valley Marathon it was finally my turn to run it. I certainly knew the course well enough – it is one of the most scenic marathons you can do in the Bay Area. TNT had rotated NVM out of its event list for the winter/spring season to introduce other events and so that weekend I was finally free to try it out myself.
Kelty, Scout & I in Napa
We started the weekend by piling our two dogs into the car, driving up to Napa, getting my running bib and finding a place to take the dogs for a run. Reesa had found a fantastic park in Napa, Alston Park. It's just off Redwood Road and turned out to be the highlight of the weekend. This park was dog friendly so our kids could play freely off leash and run around in over 30 acres overlooking the hills along The Silverado Trail, where the marathon takes place. It was an absolutely gorgeous weekend with temperatures in the 70s and crystal clear skies. It rains on Napa Marathon weekend pretty much every other year and I was running it in the right side of this binary sequence, it seemed.
Living just a couple hours away from Napa we rarely stay overnight there and so it was a pleasure to do so, especially knowing what time I would have to get up the next morning for the race – 4:30am. Before going to bed, Reesa and I went to Fum├ęBistro, a fantastic organic restaurant in Napa for a romantic dinner. We had excellent food in this small gourmet place and a touch of wine (I think it’s a crime not to have wine with dinner up here – or it should be).
The following morning, Reesa graciously got up with me and drove us to Vintage High School where I caught the first bus to Calistoga and the starting line. Sitting a few rows back was fellow TNT staffer Davina who had driven up from Menlo Park that morning. And I thought 4:30 was an ungodly hour! We chatted on the 25 mile ride and were fortunate to be able to stay on the bus from the time we arrived until just minutes before the start. It was in the low 40s in Calistoga at this hour and so we cherished the warmth. I had hurt myback working out Saturday morning and it was aching badly sitting in the school bus bench seats, so I exited a few minutes early to run around and test it out. On finding that running hurt like crazy, I  decided to lay down in the middle of the street and stretch it out. Very bad timing to hurt my back but thankfully the stretching did the trick.
As you may know from my last post, my goal this year is to run a marathon in less than 3 hours, which is shaving 17 minutes off my currentpersonal best. Napa was the first test marathon of the year and so far the speed training had been working well. The weekend prior I had completed a 10 mile tempo run at my target marathon pace of 6:50 per mile and felt like I could have held this pace for at least 5 more miles. That gave me confidence that the 7:25 per mile pace I needed for Napa (which would lower my PR to 3:15) was definitely doable.
Here’s where my heart got in the way of my brain. I know that to hold the 7:25 I really should start out at this pace and store energy so I could still be running this pace the final miles. But I took off feeling great and decided to listen to my body for the first couple miles. It felt great at a 7 min/mile pace. It felt so good in fact that the emotional part of me started bargaining with the logical side. The argument was, “this feels great and is 10 seconds per mile slower than the tempo run last weekend. I held that for 10 and could have for 15, so this slower pace should be achievable for, what, 20 miles? That would give me a 3:08 and propel me much faster toward my goal. Wouldn’t that be fantastic!?” Of course it would, but as it turned out, it was also foolish.
As miles 6 and then 7 went by I was holding the 7 min/mile pace with easy confidence. I had slowly passed a few folks who looked around my fitness level who had clearly pulled their pace back as I should have. One in particular was a 30-something brunette whom I would see later.
I was still holding this pace at the halfway mark, turning in a 1:31 for 13.1. At this point a collection of runners around me, started to pick up the pace. Clearly they were stronger runners than I and had held back so they could register a negative split. I don’t think I’ve ever done one of those and certainly was smart enough to know not to follow them. I was still feeling good so I stuck to my plan and the 7min/mile pace.
By mile 15, however, I began to fade. I still felt good and so at first the slowdown escaped my notice. I checked my Garmin at the mile marker and saw 7:25. So I picked it back up and hit 16 miles at my prior pace. That was a mistake as by mile 17 I was clearly getting fatigued. I passed that marker at 8:25 per mile and could not maintain anything faster the rest of the way. By mile 24 I was dragging big time and had lost another minute per mile. And the 30-something brunette who had pulled it back early on, sailed right by me looking clearly stronger. I passed Reesa and our kids looking very beaten and crossed over the line at 3:19:42. This was still my second fastest marathon but clearly not one of my best efforts. As I grabbed a water and stumbled through the finisher’s area I passed the brunette who was smiling and looking relaxed. Her time: 3:15. Ugh.
Well as I’ve said before, I tend to learn all life’s lessons the hard way and this was clearly no exception. I have 5 months before my next marathon and clearly this experience will prepare me for that race: The ETMidnight Marathon in Rachel, NV. Join me by following the link to the left.

Monday, February 6, 2012

What is it with freezing Texas marathons?: El Paso Marathon

After my Rock n Roll season in 2010, then 2011's Down, Up and Around, I decided to pull back on the number of marathons for 2012. On deck for this year I decided on the Napa Valley Marathon in March, the ET Midnight Marathon in August and the Santa Barbara Marathon in November. But on a training run in January my friend Kent mentioned he was planning to run the marathon in my home town in February. How could I possibly refuse the opportunity to show him the town I grew up in. That's how I found myself shivering and huddling in a school bus with about 300 other folks in sub 30-degree weather 5,840 feet up the Franklin Mountain pass facing down a 20+ mile an hour headwind. 

It had been nearly 4 years since I was last in El Paso, the Mexican border town where I was born. While some of my family had scattered, my favorite aunt and uncle still live there as does my middle cousin with her family. I love them dearly and feel bad every time I talk to them that it has been so long since we have been together in person. To make the trip extra special, my youngest cousin Emily and her family were coming into town from Albuquerque that same weekend.  

After rising at 4am for our Friday flight out of SFO, we arrived in El Paso at 11am and started the trip the way I recommend everyone start any visit to El Paso, at Avila's Mexican Restaurant. This institution, which is about 10 minutes from the house I grew up in, is an El Paso institution, serving up the greatest traditional Mexican food in town, as it has for over the past 50 years. My favorite dish there is their chile con queso, which is made from Mexican white cheese and long green hatch chile strips. None of this Velveeta and salsa stuff here. 

The whole family gathered for this first meal, so we took over their long table in the back. Reesa, I, and my aunt and uncle were first to arrive, followed by Katy and her three kids and Emily and her two boys. Their husbands Jay and Dan showed up shortly after; they had been busy loading up the trucks for their annual "Knucklehead Hunt." This is their annual male bonding event over guns, beer and campfires. After lunch they were off to the airport to pick up my other cousin, Kevin from Austin who flew in for the trip. 

If you come to El Paso, you have to take in three things at least: the incredible Mexican food that is plentiful everywhere, the views of three states and two nations from Scenic Drive and the incredibly colorful sunsets each evening. We did just that the following day when Kent arrived from San Jose.

 If you think you know Mexican food but haven't been to El Paso, you know nothing. Nearly every good place here makes their own tortilla chips and salsa, uses whole green chiles (not Jalapenos) and is very liberal with the cheese. It's a great place for your tastebuds - no so much for your waistline

After Kent got off the plane we drove downtown to a small local favorite called L&J's Cafe. Predictably it was packed with UTEP Miner fans and out of towners who had heard of the place from Texas Monthly, Food Network or other outlets who have helped make it famous. Kent had the mole enchiladas, covered in their homemade chocolaty chile sauce. I had tapatias, a favorite dish from my childhood. If you haven't had them (they are sometimes called Tostadas), these are fried corn tortillas, laid flat then covered with layers of refried beans, guacamole (homemade or course), shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Growing up as a kid, this was one of my favorite dinners.

After this awesome meal we hit the race expo where helpful volunteers were everywhere assisting in finding our bib numbers, getting our shirts and ushering us through the hall. We then went to the local museum of art where some cubist works from Mexico's Diego Rivera were on display. It was the first time these paintings had been shown outside of Mexico and they were part of a large collection from Mexican artists of the same era.

After this we took a driving tour of El Paso which covered the first part of the course that started at the top of TransMountain Road, a very scenic pass through the Franklin mountains that shortens the drive from east to west El Paso by a ton. It also takes you from 3,200 ft above sea level, where most of El Paso lies, to nearly 6,000 feet. The marathon would start at this highest point the following morning. 

When we arrived in El Paso, it was a gorgeous warm day in the 60s - perfect for a marathon. By midday Saturday, the famous El Paso winds had swept in and temperatures weren't getting below the 50s. Come Saturday night, these cold winds were howling. From there it just got worse.

Race morning I arose in a slight panic at 4:38am because my alarm, set for 4:15, hadn't gone off and so it was scramble time to get ready. I had to get downtown to meet Kent and get on the buses to the start line by 5:30am. Made it. Barely.

In it's sixth year, the El Paso marathon is still a small event with about 3,000 runners spread across a marathon, half and 5K fun run. Only about 350 hardy soles were on the buses with us heading up TransMountain. We arrived about an hour before the start and were very worried the buses might leave us there, because the winds were still howling, it was pitch black out and the temperature had dropped below freezing. Add on the wind chill factor and even the woman who had come in from Minnesota for the race was cold. 

I don't know what it is about me and Texas marathons. My first, in Austin, also took place during a freak winter storm that put that start line below freezing too. 

Thankfully the buses stayed put with the heaters on to shelter us until the start. With just five minutes before the gun, we piled out of the buses and became a huddled mass in the middle of the road. We were tightly grouped, seeking each other's body heat as we listened to the national anthem then waited for them to find the starting gun and fire it off. Then we were off. As we started to spread out so we could run, the winds ripped right through us. I ran the first mile breathing into my gloves to keep my hands and face warm. 

The sun was just rising as we headed down the hill giving us a fantastic view of east Texas and, to the South, Juarez Mexico. The race course dropped over 1,100 feet over the first 4 miles and we were all running faster than we probably should have just to stay warm. I traded leads back and forth with a woman who eventually would win the race as we came down the hill. I was able to stay with her until around mile 8; by mile 10 she was completely out of sight. 

As we came off the mountain, we snaked around the highway and over to Fort Bliss, the local army base, which is in heavy use due to its terrain that looks so much like Iraq and Afghanistan. Cheering, friendly El Pasoans were stationed every mile or so along the course making us all feel welcome. Volunteer groups set up some really creative and fun water stops. Among my favorites were the Wizard of Oz stop where the Cowardly Lion was handing out high fives while Dorothy and the Tin Man passed out Gatorade. Just past the entrance to Fort Bliss the soldiers manned a rocking station with big speakers blasting out hip hop toons while troops in fatigues and holding M-16s bopped to the beat. It looked like a scene right out of Apocalypse Now. A few overly-enthusiastic soldiers gave us the basic training routine, so I wasn't sure if I was being yelled at or yelled on. 

As the race headed through the main post I started to feel the affects of blasting down the mountain and slowed from 7 minute miles to the mid 8s. But I picked up the pace at each water stop. The Sun City Roller Girls were super enthusiastic and dressed in vintage (and way over the top) 70s garb. The Humane Society had an arch for us to run through along with great upbeat rock n roll blaring. Atop their arch was the name, Shelbie, a local rescue dog available for adoption.

The course wasn't a complete down hill as there were some rollers as we passed by the Radford School for girls. I cherished the downsides of these and took advantage to pick up some time. As we turned toward downtown, the winds moved from in our face, to cross winds in Fort Bliss to now, at our back. As I came down the hill along Wyoming street, I came upon the Six Guns and Shady Ladies water stop, filled with a team of folks in vintage old west duds, replete with horses and a jail. Their water stop was fittingly opposite the Concordia Cemetery. Established in the 1880s this is the final resting place of John Wesley Hardin, the Buffalo Soldiers and many Texas Rangers who fought the rebel Pancho Villa and settled West Texas. 

We turned the corner past the cemetery and headed back towards L&J Cafe. A taco stop would have been great but we sadly turned away one block before the restaurant and headed into the main town. The tailwinds made the final 4 miles much more enjoyable until a final blast in the face crossing over I-10. When we passed by the downtown square I picked up the pace to below 7 minute miles and began looking for my family. I found them at mile 26, huddled in the still cold morning but enthusiastically waving their homemade signs and cheering me on. I dumped the last of the cold weather clothing I had with them and sprinted for the finish line, coming in at 3:26. Kent came in just after I did. The marathon organizers thankfully had chocolate milk waiting for us - you can't beat that recovery drink.

After a warm shower and lots of stretching we returned to my uncles house to get ready for the Super Bowl. It was still windy and cold at his place and I needed an ice bath to speed the recovery of my aching legs and hips. So I put my race shorts back on and several coats and sweaters and stepped into the pool. Yikes! The Pacific Ocean has nothing on a freezing cold pool in El Paso winter. I lasted only about 10 minutes before I could no longer feel my feet and legs. But today I feel great as a result.

As they say, pain is temporary - and so is numbness. And it was nothing a good cold Negra Modelo couldn't fix. 

On to Napa.