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.

Monday, June 24, 2013

San Francisco Makes Three Marathons in Six Weeks

There must be something wrong with me. In my training for the San Francisco Marathon I somehow convinced myself that it would be a good idea not to do an 18 mile training run, nor a 20 mile training run but to instead run two marathons along the way.

With six weeks to go until this my goal event, I joined my buddy John down in Santa Cruz for the Surfer’s Path Marathon. Four weeks out I nearly killed myself on the upper hills of Oakland in the Canyon Meadow Marathon. And now it was time to face down the hills of San Francisco for the event I originally intended for early summer.

After the trail marathon in Oakland my body was beat up. It took me much longer than usual to recover. My quads were talking and my ankle was crying uncle. I took it very easy the week after that one. Then I had a work trip to London the week prior to SF Marathon, so I decided to run again but super easy. My company put me up at the Lancaster London which is right across the street from Hyde Park, my favorite place to run in London. It has an endless maze of trails, all flat and all easy on the body. A perfect recovery course.

By the end of the week there I felt ready to take on another race. Or so I had hoped.

I woke on race day at about 3 in the morning. For some reason, the SF Marathon starts at the rude hour of 5:30am. This lets them clear the course and open the roads (especially the Golden Gate Bridge) to all traffic by 11am. But it still felt cruel to get up so early.

Kent and I carpooled into the city and were parked and in our corral by 4:45 and ready to go. It was an incredible morning in The City. At that hour the skies were clear and the lights on the Bay Bridge lit up the waterfront. It wasn’t windy and thus was warmer than expected. The gun went off to start the race and we were off. At this point I was immediately feeling the Canyon Meadow Trail Marathon - I was sluggish. I was barely able to hold an 8-minute mile, which is a slow start for me. Kent, quickly moved ahead.

The race starts along the Embarcadero waterfront, and follows the same course as our SF to Tiburon training run - out to Crissy Field, into the Presidio and up to the Golden Gate Bridge. The race takes the rightmost two lanes from the roadway, leaving the pedestrian pathway clear for spectators. When we hit the bridge it was still clear and calm and the sun had begun to rise in the East throwing gorgeous light across the water. About half way across, coming at us, were the first place runners. I’m always amazed at how relaxed they look, despite doing 5 minute miles. How do they do it?

When we had made the turn on the Marin-side of the bridge and were coming back, it was starting to get warm and I was beginning to worry about my wardrobe plan. The forecast had been for low 50s the entire morning so I had pulled out my SMS long sleeve running tee, PowerBar vest and black running tights. Here on the bridge it was already well above 60 degrees. But as we turned off the bridge and started heading toward Golden Gate Park, there was fog overhead and the weather turned colder. Perfect.

The next ten miles or so took place entirely in this incredible city park winding from ocean beach, through to the Haight and back a few more times. At mile 13 we split off from the half marathon runners and went West into the park for 4 miles before looping back to the half marathon finish. It’s kind of disheartening running past a finish line knowing you have about eight more miles to go. But a few of the spectators and runners who were finished, turned toward us and cheered us on. Thanks.

After the race left the park is where it got weird. This is the only race I’ve done where the course splits at several intersections. You’ll be running along and all of the sudden the volunteers who sent those before you straight ahead, now direct you to the right. The SF Marathon does this strange course splitting about 5 times. I don’t know if it actually serves any purpose. It certainly isn’t controlling runner crowds because there weren’t more than 10 of us at a time, going through. I don’t think it helped with traffic flow because while the split does shift us from Northbound to Southbound lanes, we ultimately have to cross those same lanes when we rejoin the main course. And at times it felt like these detours elongated the course. Kent said his Garmin showed 26.37 at the finish.

As I had successfully done during the Canyon Meadow Marathon, I was continuing to take advantage of my new technique for downhills - no braking. On this part of the course there was a lot of up, flat, then down. I would pass the folks around me on the ups, they would catch back up on the flats and then I’d leave them in the dust on the downs. I really like this new change to my marathon running as it really gives me a serious breather on the downhills while gaining speed and not taxing my leg muscles with braking actions.

Despite the gains of the downhills I never caught Kent. We were back and forth with each other the first 13 miles but then he was able to hold a stronger pace than I and off he went. He is really becoming such a stronger runner. Way to go, man!

The second half of the SF Marathon isn’t very scenic until you get past mile 22. It goes through some well known neighborhoods but they are mostly inland and there’s a fair amount of warehouses and body shops along the way. When it gets toward the water then it gets good. By mile 24 we were approaching AT&T Park. When I did the SF Marathon second half, a few years back, we ran on the Embarcadero to the finish moving along the road in front of the home of the SF Giants. This time we ran along the waterfront trail that encircles the park - definitely a far better trail. Being along the water always relaxes me and the views were great as there was no fog once again here in the east side of the city.

Despite the miles, my body was feeling good again as the final two miles came upon me. I held pace and pushed on as we put the ballpark behind us and could see the Ferry Building up ahead. I crossed the line in 3:36, a strong time for me. Kent, the stud, crossed 4 minutes earlier. Awesome.

Despite the hard training with the prior two marathons the SF Marathon was a very steady race for me. Usually I have a faster first half than second but in this race my splits were even at around 8 minutes a mile the entire way. I attribute a lot of things to this - good nutrition planning, the no-brakes downhills and solid, steady pacing.

Not a bad way to reach number 45 in my marathoning career.