Sunday, April 28, 2013

LA Marathon: From Walking Wounded to Winner

The weeks between the Sedona Marathon and Los AngelesMarathon should have been focused simply around an abbreviated training schedule but instead became a lesson in unintended consequences.

On a sunny Saturday morning I took my young cairn terrier Kelty with me for what should have been a short run through one my favorite hiking (and running) spots, Water Dog Park in Belmont. I try to take Kelty here about once a month as it provides tons of great smells for him,  challenging hills, interesting technical trails and sweeping views of the South Bay. Kelty’s been through basic obedience training and was very good at sticking by my side when walking off-leash in this park. We hit the park and took off at a run, six legs moving in stride, and then hit the switchbacks that take you up towards the back of the Hallmark Drive neighborhoods. Kelty fell a little behind but I looked back before taking each switchback to ensure he was making each turn. However, about half-way up he wasn’t behind me. I stopped and called him and heard him scurrying  and barking. I called him again but figured he had heard a rabbit or bird and was taking chase. However, when I reached the prior switchback he was not there, nor on the one below or anywhere on the trail below or above. I listened for him but now he had grown silent – not even the jingling of his collar could be heard. Uh oh.
I kept calling him, looking and listening for him and running up and down the trail in hopes of any sign of where he had gone. After twenty minutes with no sign, I began to panic. I called Reesa and she rushed down to the park to help me look. After twenty more minutes, we still hadn’t heard him. Not good. A few other walkers and runners went by and none had seen or heard a small dog either.
This was very worrisome as the woods and bushes in Water Dog Park get very thick the moment you get off the trail and if he had chased a rabbit far off trail the chances of finding him; and he finding his way back to me were slim. And a fact I tried to keep in the back of my mind was that Water Dog Park is also home to coyotes and mountain lions.

Kelty had disappeared just one switchback behind me and so I knew from where he must have disappeared into the bushes. Time was not on my side and so I decided I needed to go further off-road.  In my running shorts and technical tee, no gloves, no long sleeves and just a phone, I started stomping and pushing my way through the bushes where I surmised he most likely left the trail. I wished I had had a machete as working my way through the bushes was incredibly tough going. I went straight, or as straight ahead as I could, for five minutes calling Kelty then stopping and listening. No sound. So I pushed on. Looking back the bushes were as thick behind me as ahead. I could easily get lost in here, just as Kelty had. Five more minutes passed calling and listening and then there it was. The sound of jangling dog tags. I frantically tried to pinpoint the direction of the sound. I smashed bushes to the west, the sound waned. I switched to East, better but still faint. I pushed further south away from the trail, better still. I pushed even further south, lost my footing and went down in a heap snapping branches, snagging my shirt on thorns and scraping up my legs. But better, the jingle was right ahead. I grabbed a large branch and pulled it hard and behind was a small clearing and down on all fours looking back at me with a mix of worry and shame was Kelty. He knew he had done wrong.

I worked my way through the bushes the rest of the way to him and pulled him into my arms hugging him tightly while saying to myself for the millionth time that morning that I would never take him off leash again. After we both calmed down and greeted each other, I called Reesa to give her the good news and then turned around to see which way would be the easiest back to the trail. Uh oh. Which way was the trail? In every direction the bushes were thick. I was pretty sure I knew how to go North and that the trail would be found that way. After pushing through about 50 feet of bushes, I could find no trail. Was it left or right from here? I couldn’t see the clearing either direction and no one was on the trail this morning. And then someone was. A group of hikers went by and their sound pointed me out. I fought back the branches with one arm while cradling Kelty in the other protecting him from the snap back of each branch as we moved finally out to the clearing and back on the trail. Whew.
I took Kelty home, ensured he wasn’t hurt then took to the shower and to applying first aid to all my scrapes and cuts. There were a lot of them but I felt they were a small price to pay for getting Kelty back and I certainly deserved it for putting him at risk like that, I told myself.

The following day was back to normal and I went on a long training run in Pacifica. The following Monday I flew off to the east coast for work. As I sat in my seat on the five hour flight, I noticed a few of my cuts, especially on the backs of my legs were getting itchy and seemed to be oozing a bit. I didn’t think much of it until I got off the flight and the backs of my pant legs were completely soaked with it. I got to the hotel and took off my pants and found both my legs, from ankle to upper thigh were red, covered in welts and several were actively oozing clear yellowish liquid. What the heck? I felt fine the day before.

As the week wore on, it got progressively worse. More oozing, strong itching and growing redness were taking over my legs. Poison oak had struck me hard. I flew back home mid-week and immediately went to the doctor who said it was one of the worst cases she had ever seen and immediately prescribed antihistamines and a steroid cream. I got into a routine of nightly oatmeal baths and wore long underwear under all my clothes to keep my garments from rubbing the wounds and keep any ooze from ruining my suits. This went on for more than a month before getting significantly better. And of course I kept accidentally reinfecting myself which prolonged the affects.
Through all of this I had to find time to train and of course tolerate that training. Three weeks in, it was time for the requisite 20 miler before the marathon and it’s hard to find a course that isn’t near or through the woods. And as I had learned, once you have a bad poison oak attack you are overly sensitive to it for the rest of your life. So for the long run I covered every inch of my body and after it was over rubbed Tecnu all over my body. The run was okay, not too uncomfortable. It was sitting, walking and generally just going about everyday life that was worse.

A couple weeks prior to the LA Marathon, I was thoroughly frustrated with the weeks of poison oak attacks and was having a particularly bad day when, while exiting my car, I accidentally caught my thumb in the door as it closed. I jerked my thumb free and let out a primal scream of pain. It immediately turned dark purple filled with blood beneath the nail and swelled up to twice it’s normal size. The pain was worse than a bone break for sure. I immediately elevated it, doused it in cold water and reached for the iPad to research what to do. Oh boy, this was going to be another fun recovery.
So when it came time to travel to LA for the Marathon, here I was dousing my legs (and now my arms) in steroid cream, popping antihistamines and tenderly trying to make sure I didn’t bang my thumb. Heck of a way to prepare for a marathon.

Obviously I didn’t have any expectations for this marathon except to finish. We arrived at our hotel in Santa Monica around rush hour on Friday, which provided a quick reminder of why I don’t live in the LA area any more. We avoided the freeways of course but it still took over an hour to go twelve miles. When we arrived the Fairmont Hotel was a great oasis. Our room overlooked the pool and ocean but you couldn’t tell because the fog had rolled in. We rested in the room and planned for a nice day visiting family and friends, picking up my race bib downtown and shopping for a spell on the Third Street Promenade. Saturday evening we met up with our fellow LA Marathoner friends at a killer Mexican tapas restaurant in Santa Monica, Mercado. They served the freshest, most inventive dishes I had ever had in the Mexican genre. Everyone went crazy for the roasted cactus and the incredible desserts.

The following morning, I took the bus from Santa Monica (the finish line for the race) to Dodger Stadium where I again met up with my fellow racers. Yan, whom I had met through TNT in the Bay Area had moved to Brentwood so was the local in our group. Kent grew up in Brentwood and so was using the trip to see family, while the rest of us were looking forward to the tour. Having lived in LA while in graduate school at USC, I knew the town pretty well and knew the course would hit all the hot spots. After leaving Dodger Stadium, it wound South to downtown, past Olvera Street with its little Mexico City feel, and through various neighborhoods on its way to Hollywood. We got a taste of both Hollywood Blvd and Sunset Blvd and a short jaunt down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Through the first 16 miles Kent and I ran together and had a great time. We were reminiscing about things we had done in LA while living here, noticing what had changed and being surprised by a few things you don’t see when you are driving around trying to stay focused on traffic. Once of the things I will always love most about LA was very apparent during this race  - the oh-so friendly people. We said hi to many other runners and tons of spectators. Everyone was so supportive, encouraging and helpful along the way.

At one point I jokingly asked those running around us, “So how long is a marathon anyways?” and got several helpful replies as well as more than a few chuckles.

I was feeling fantastic throughout the race. It had been cool at the start and mostly overcast throughout which made for perfect conditions. Around mile 17 we headed into the grounds of the West LA Veterans Hospital which is home to one of the oldest, still standing buildings in LA. I hadn’t visited this huge park-like location before and was checking everything out and before we had left, noticed Kent was no longer with me. After seeing his family and pausing briefly for a hug and photos, we lost sight of each other as he, I later found out, had started to feel the effects of the distance and pace we were sharing.

In Brentwood I was surrounded by other runners holding a similar pace, so I stuck with them as we entered the 20s. I still felt great which is unusual for me this late in a marathon, and when we passed the 25 mile marker, I knew today was going to be a great day. My nutrition plan was working perfectly, I had the right gear, the right shoes and definitely the right mindset. I felt good enough in fact that I decided to pick it up for the last mile. Rarely do I have the energy and stamina for this but LA was different. So did a woman near me apparently as we jockeyed for the lead back and forth over the final mile and straight up the finishing shoot. I crossed the line at 3:39. It was a hard finishing sprint and I felt its effects as I cooled down in the finishers area. But the overwhelming feeling I had – all day in fact – was joy. This was a great race. And the poison oak and smashed thumb barely even registered in my mind.

After stretching and cheering on other racers I met up with the rest of our group at a classic Irish Pub in Santa Monica wear we toasted a fantastic course, great day and the sense of accomplishment with, what else, Guinness.  Man, I love running.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Is My Aura Glowing? Sedona Marathon 2013

With a tough, mentally challenging but at the same time rewarding year of running in 2012, it was time to start 2013 with new experiences and in the process I think I found my second favorite place in the world.

If 2012 was all about speed and a goal unattained, I felt 2013 should be about healing. Seemed appropriate then when my good friend John called up to say he had just registered for the marathon in Sedona, Arizona and wanted to know if I would join him. I’d wanted to go to Sedona since my wife and I hiked the Grand Canyon. On the bus trip to the biggest hole in the United States (outside of Washington, D.C.) we passed the byway to Sedona and everyone chuckled about having their aura read, mystic vortexes in the mountains and the wacky artists that populate the place. It sounded like a cross between Santa Fe and Haight-Ashbury. I had also heard it was home to some of the most renowned spas and rock formations in the world.

To make the trip more memorable we decided it shouldn’t be about the run but a chance to bring our wives and make it a vacation – with a short 3-4 hour Sunday morning interlude. Boy was this a good decision.
Reesa and I had spent the holidays with family and our work years had started off fast and furious so a break from the action in early February sounded like a great decision. We booked bungalows at The Enchantment Resort & Spa, not knowing much about the place other than its excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.

As for training, I had taken it easy after Santa Barbara and was running for myself, not the miles. I worked up to 16 because I felt like it, not because I had to. I had also started the year by focusing on reconnecting with the SMS running club and making running more social. When it was time for a 20-miler, I went back to my mainstay – San Francisco to Tiburon and on an absolutely gorgeous January morning 10 of us took in its incredible sites and a fabulous breakfast out of the patio behind Sam’s watching the sun rise over The City.  

It was a good omen.

My wife and I flew to Phoenix that weekend then had a wonderful organic breakfast at The Farm at South Mountain. The place is less than two miles from the airport and literally is in the middle of a farm. It was a perfect setting on a beautiful sunny day.

Heading North from Phoenix about 90 miles up we hit the same scenic byway we had seen that weekend with the hike team but this time we took the turn and literally no more than five minutes later I got a sense of what was in store for the weekend. Looking North towards some pretty standard Arizona desert mountains a crack appeared at the top and behind it was a rich red stone as we turned the corner further that crack turned into a valley ringed with rich reds and oranges that created a valley unlike any I had ever seen. I lost count how many times I said, “wow,” and “amazing.” I drove slow (which is a big deal for me, as those who have carpooled with me will tell you) looking for the best, any, place to pull over, step outside and take it all in.

Sedona’s red hills were everywhere we looked and created incredible formations. Now I know why so many people come here.

We hit the town and nearly ran out of town looking for the resort. Good thing we kept driving because it was past the town, down deep in a red rock valley nestled up against the hillside. Constructed in a deep red adobe, the resort blended in beautifully with the canyon and there were views of the mountains everywhere you looked.

Saturday we took simple hikes around the valley and visited the center of town. If you go, know that the attractions here are the nature, not the town. There’s enough town to sell gear to all the hikers, curios to take home to the curious relatives and galleries to show off what it seems everyone does for a living here – make art inspired by the surroundings. I mean no disrespect to the native economy; even Rodeo Drive would land a distant second to these mountains.

On race day morning, John and I drove from our resort up to the race start which sat on a plateau overlooking the incredible mountains. As the sun began to rise we saw hot air balloons in the distance gliding over the scenery making for some incredible pictures. The temperature was nearly perfect. Desert mornings, especially this time of year, can be very nippy but with no clouds in the sky and the sun rising quickly it was in the mid 40s by race time. We shed our layers, left them in the car and headed to the start. 

How’s this for an envious beginning: The start was a downhill slope overlooking the canyon so that everyone lined up to race could look straight ahead and see over everyone’s heads and above the Welcome banner to see the sun turning sandstone every shade from red to brown. If a gun hadn’t gone off, I might still be standing there staring in awe.

If there’s any downside to all this natural beauty it’s that there’s no flat in Sedona – anywhere. Certainly not for 26.2 miles. So the marathon was a constant up and down. No climbs were significant but the race starts at 4,000 feet and you go up and down every mile or so gaining 500 feet at a time.

The course is an out and back through the same canyon where our resort was located. It starts out on paved roads and about seven miles in switches to red dirt trails, which felt great on the feet and knees. John and I started off at different paces so we lost sight of each other after about three miles. No more than two more miles in and I found myself side by side with Pete a professor of Forestry at Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff. He had driven down that morning to run the race and turned out to be nearly my exact pace. We shared life and running stories for the next 15 miles. I’m sure he got sick of me ogling the mountains and constantly muttering, “just incredible” but if he did, he kept it to himself.

There’s a big reason I run with friends – the miles go by so much faster and easier. This was certainly the case that day. Normally in a race with so many ups and downs of this magnitude each subsequent climb would drain you for the next. But we held pace.

The race was very close to our resort and our wives simply had to walk about a third of a mile to the fork in the road to see us at around mile nineteen. As we rounded the bend, there they were and not just waiting. They had been drafted into the volunteer water stop and were cheering for everyone. I like to think they cheered a little louder when we went by. I’m pretty sure I was the only one to get a big hug. :)

Shortly after seeing Reesa, another hill came and I started feeling the miles. It was warming up as well but I don’t think that was as much of a factor as the 20-plus miles that were now behind me. During the next downhill, I slowed considerably wanting to maximize the recovery but that might have been a bad idea as the next hill was more than a mile long and I didn’t have it. Pete, and his fresher legs left me, which didn’t help and I found myself walking a bit towards the top of the hill. The course leveled off again with less than a mile to go then turned into the small village. I looked up ahead and there was the finish – up yet another hill.
Knowing I was close, I poured on what little energy I had left and finished strong. Okay, semi-strong. But felt great. In fact, I felt amazing. Not because I wasn’t tired but because I had regained what I had lost in 2012 – the love for running. Nothing beats the feeling of crossing the finish line after a hard effort and I remembered that this time. It was an incredible day, in an incredible place. I feel like it healed me.

Thanks, Sedona. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Santa Barbara Marathon 2012 - A Homecoming Marred

My first real college experience was UC Santa Barbara so running the marathon here was set to be special treat. It wasn’t for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s taken me a long while to return to this running blog because 2012 was a year I messed with my mental state about running. Second, Santa Barbara mapped the race around its best features – gotta fix that. Third, a revised nutrition plan failed.

I’m someone who thrives best when I have a goal and, as many of you know, a marathon alone isn’t good enough a goal anymore. So at the end of 2011, I set out to make 2012 the year of the personal record. And not just besting my Arizona Rock & Roll time of 3:17 but to break an elusive mark –3 hours. I asked a friend and former New Balance Running Team member to coach me. He set out a realistic plan mixed with long runs, speed work at the track and lots of hill work. It was a reasonable plan and one that helped me with speed for sure. If you’ve read my blogs from the earlier runs in 2012, I struggled all year to see the benefits of that training come earlier than planned and messed up my race plans a couple times. The goal event for that race plan was this one – Santa Barbara.

All my training runs since the ET Midnight Marathon had been good – sort of. Work travel had picked up in the latter half of the year and that had some effect on how much I was training. I was also forced to resign as a TNT coach due to work travel – I simply wasn’t able to be there often enough for the participants. Having been a coach since 2007 and a member of this incredible charity organization since 2003, this was a very hard decision for me. I feared I would lose touch with many of my friends – and sadly, I did.

Shortly after leaving the program, however, I was still staying in touch with a few TNT coaches, mentors and captains. One of the coaches told me about a new book he had read on endurance sports nutrition that drew the conclusion, backed by significant research, that endurance drinks and gels provided no greater endurance or energy effects during sustained activities (including marathons). It suggested that athletes using water and natural foods, like raisins and such would achieve greater performance than those succumbing to the marketing from Gatorade and its brethren. So I read the book (or at least the first several chapters) and decided to heed its advice in prep for this race and during it. I tested this new plan first at a half marathon inSanta Cruz, California where it seemed to work perfectly. Thanks to the extra speed work I was able to finish this race in 1:21, sustaining a strong sub-7 pace the whole way and achieving a negative split. This was a huge accomplishment for me as I rarely accomplished a negative split in a race of this length and the pace I held gave me great confidence I could hold this pace for longer – maybe even the full marathon, which would get me my 3 hour finish. My time at this race was good enough for third in my age group but sadly the race was just under a mile short of 13.1 so no PR. But the new nutrition plan had worked. I had good energy the whole way with just water and raisins.

With my success in the half I felt ready for Santa Barbara but noticed something else about my training that I really didn’t like. I wasn’t enjoying it. For me, running is a passion, stress reliever and motivation. I hate the days I don’t get a run in most of the time. Lately, however, I was hating getting up to go run. I knew the training would help me achieve my goal if I just did the work but I was finding that I wasn’t meeting the speed goals in my training runs and it was demotivating. As the race got closer, the pace needed in speed work and the pace needed to be sustained in long runs got lower. On the track I was meeting my goals but on the long runs I wasn’t. I don’t think this was physical – I simply wasn’t enjoying running any more. It had become work, rather than passion; rote instead of joy. It had become so much so that outside of my 20-mile run in Marin County, which is impossible not to enjoy, I just didn’t feel like being out there. On top of that I was finishing these runs far more tired than I felt I should be. Was it the pace? Was it the new nutrition plan? Was it the business travel? I think it was all of the above.

By the week before the marathon, I simply wanted it all to be over.

It was early morning the Friday before the marathon and I woke up in a strange bed. My friend and work colleague John Rymer and his son, Zach, the lead baseball writer for BleacherReport were carpooling  down to Santa Barbara to do the marathon with me and I had taken BART over to John’s home the night before. After waking in his guest bedroom, it was time to wash up quickly and quietly so we could get on the road early that morning for the 5 hour drive. We decided to head down Friday so we could spend some time with a company client and cloud computing leader, Rightscale at their headquarters. John hadn’t met them before and I was overdue for a refresher on the leading cloud-first DevOps management vendor.

We arrived in Santa Barbara to cool overcast skies, a good omen for the race. My wife and friends from the SMS running club came down later that day and we met up that night at a fantastic restaurant for the pre-meal well-wishing and hopes-sharing for race day. The following day we spent downtown walking State Street, visiting the beach and just relaxing and enjoying this great city. It had been 27 years since I had walked State Street yet it was still the heart of Santa Barbara. The street is filled with fashion shops, head shops, surf shops and the odd sandwich shop. We passed by the movie theater where I first saw Back to the Future, a fond early college memory. We didn’t make it over to the campus of UC Santa Barbara or over to Isla Vista or Goleta beach which were popular college hang outs. I figured I would see them all during the marathon. I was wrong.

I tend not to look at a marathon race course before race day. I prefer to be surprised by the scenery. I look over the elevation profile, however. Not an issue in Santa Barbara. On race day I wondered whether the marathon should be renamed the Santa Barbara suburbs marathon instead. We saw several outlying neighborhoods of Santa Barbara, skirted the university, passed through the town of Goleta but missed the campus, IV, State Street and everything else that makes Santa Barbara what it is. The finish was along the ocean, which was perhaps the main saving grace.  Or maybe it was just my mood.

Sadly, for me, Santa Barbara was supposed to be the fulfillment event of all my year-long training to break three hours. I wasn’t even close. After feeling strong through the first half, my new nutrition plan of water, raisins and a Cliff Bar at the start were failing me. My long run experiences of not being able to handle the pace, proved true as I slowed substantially in the second half. I had resigned to myself that 3 hours was likely out of reach even before I started the race but had said I would go out at the pace that felt good and listen to my body. My mind told my body, about 18 miles in, that today wasn’t the day and that if Santa Barbara would go as anything it would be the end of a year of training that, frankly, I just didn’t enjoy. At the end of the day I didn’t even try to break 3 hours. I instead, simple wanted to get it over with. It didn’t help that my hopes of visiting the campus, running down the bar-filled streets of IV and triumphantly flying down a downtown street would be squashed by an anticlimactic course.

To me, that was just icing on the cake. I was more relieved than happy when I crossed the finish line. It was a tough finish. I was much in need of nutrition. The new plan had slowly depleted me of what I needed and made the final five miles agony – a far contrast from the half just a month earlier.

It’s disappointing because a marathon should finish with an incredible sense of accomplishment. All my marathons prior to 2012 had been exactly that. My conclusion about 2012 was that pursuing an unrealistic goal (I know that now) took the love of running from me, instead turning it into a job. Sadly it was a job I really didn’t like.

That day was tough for everyone. It was hotter than expected and the lack of scenery seemed to sap John, Zach and others as well. We took our solace in a warm shower, great Mexican food on State Street and Guinness. If anything, the ending was perfect.