Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hey, it's Saturday, I think I'll run a trail marathon this time

About two weeks ago, I decided, on a whim to run the Surfer's Path Marathon in San Jose. I did well, I felt great and I recovered pretty quick. I'm two weeks out from the SF Marathon and was due for my 20-mile training run - the longest I train before a marathon but most of my SMS Running Club buddies were either out of town or committed to run Rock n Roll San Diego that weekend. So I said, "huh, what if I ran a marathon instead of my 20 miler? That would certainly be a good substitute. There's a trail marathon happening tomorrow in Oakland that would fit the bill. I can still register, it's got some hills (which I'll certainly encounter in San Francisco). Hmm, this might be perfect." And so was born a very bad idea.

The race I chose was the Canyon Meadow Marathon in Redwood Park in Oakland. It was put on by Coastal Trail Runs a great local race manager. I had run their Golden Gate Trail half marathon a couple years back in the Marin headlands, so it seemed perfect. The course was a double loop through gorgeous hills I had never been on before and Saturday had been a warm but not too hot day. Heck, I could always give it a shot and if after 13 miles I was tired or the heat got to be too much I could always quit. After all I had done a 26.2 run just two weeks earlier. Let's go for it.

I rose at 5am Sunday morning feeling good but not well rested - pretty typical for me as I never sleep well before a marathon. After obliging the dogs on a short walk (rarely can I leave the house without succumbing to their insistance) I loaded up the car and took off for the Oakland Hills. Google maps clocked the drive at 1 hour. With little traffic at 6:15am I got there by 7. After registering and prepping my gear for the run I decided to take a look at the course map just to get my bearings and see where the aid stations would be located. Unlike road races, trail runs require you to carry your own nutrition and have a good hydration plan, as they are usually very limited in where they can place an aid station. On this course there would be two such spots, roughly a third of the way through the 13 mile loop, each. The loop didn't look too challenging until I saw the elevation chart. The first 5 miles were pretty much uphill the whole way. Not one, long crazy climb like Pike's Peak Marathon or even the PG&E Trail at Rancho San Antonio Park, but more of a quick climb, leveling off, then long climb succession. In total, the race would give me about 3,000 feet of climbing per loop. I got my head around this, sort of.

Shortly before 8am the race organizer got on the loud speaker to gather the troops and explain course marking, race rules and other things. This race had 5-mile, half marathon, 30K, marathon and 50K options so if I weren't up for the full 26.2 I had outs. But who was I kidding. I'm a marathon man. While we were waiting for the start, I overheard a few veterans of this race describing the course to a few newbies - so I listened in. "You're going to be pretty much climbing the whole first half of the loop and those hills will take their tool, so I recommend walking them," he said. Good advice. "Watch out for the poison oak out there, too. It's everywhere." Yikes. After my bout with poison oak last month I wasn't excited at all about cross its path again. Good thing I brought a bottle of Tecnu. Now I'd have the chance to find out how well it really worked.

"Five, four, three, two, one...Go!" And we were off and running. Sort of. More like slowly climbing as the start was indeed uphill. It was a relatively gradual dirt climb so most people were running slowly, jockeying for position and passing those who were taking the hill more slowly. I passed a few people but was determined to heed the wise advice I had heard. When the hill got much steeper, after about 500 yards, I was walking.

Just as advertised, the first half of the first loop was a lot of up and very, very little down or totally flat. I walked all the steep ups and switched to running anytime the course flattened out. The morning was cool and overcast so there was little risk of overheating.

About two miles in, we flew past the yellow ribbons denoting the turn for the 5-milers and the runners ahead of me started climbing yet another hill. They were following the signs and ribbons designated for the half and full course and so I followed suit, until I saw those ahead start coming back down toward me. Turned out some Boy Scouts, thought it would be funny to turn the sign and send us up to a parking lot, rather than on our designated course. Thanks, kids. I was just glad I hadn't gone more than 30 yards up this detour.

I reached the first aid station in just 45 minutes, which I think was pretty good given the slow pace. I wasn't wearing a Garmin or using iSmoothRun on my iPhone so I had no idea the mileage. Since I had my own nutrition, I ran right past the aid station, putting several more runners behind me. After this stop, the course started to decline a bit and seemed to be more shaded. I propped my sunglasses atop my Honolulu Marathon visor and picked up the pace considerably.

One of the more recent lessons I'd learned about running was how to avoid braking when running downhill. It's very tempting to brake when running downhill so you don't get out of control and get going so fast you run out of energy. But braking actually costs you more endurance as your muscles have to engage in the braking motions and in doing so degrades your momentum and cadence. To overcome this, it's actually more efficient to not brake but to shorten your stride length and increase your cadence. You, at least this is how has been for me, gain better control at speed this way and let your body and gravity work together to determine your actual pace. It's much easier on the body, I felt.

So with each downhill I flew down passing folks each time, then would recover on the flats and climbs (I know, recovery on climbs? Sound strange but was actually true for me. Remember, I was walking the hills - thus the recovery).

After about the half-way point in the first loop the course got significantly more wooded and the trail more narrow. At one point the trail got so thin and had such high banks that I had to put my feet directly in front of each other. Overgrown poison oak and dry grasses sporting foxtails stuck out at all angles and you couldn't help but brush your legs against them. I think I ran through these parts a little bit faster. Come on, Tecnu, you gotta work.

I hit the second aid station 45 minutes after the first one and was feeling good. So I ran past it, leaving another two runners behind and started hearing cheering. Was I that close to the finish line for the half? Turns out, no, the cheering was for a game taking place at a family picnic just off the trail to the left. Oh well, I still told myself the cheers were for me.

From this point forward the trail was not deep in the woods but running along some picnic areas and camp sites in the park. And these trails had significantly less non-race traffic on them. Canyon Meadow wasn't closed for race day, so there were multitudes of hikers, walkers and dogs on the trail with us. Not having the competing foot traffic on these narrower trails was a good thing, though.

With about two miles left in the first loop the course ran East along the picnic grounds and far below you could see runners ahead going the other way, towards the finish. This is usually a good and bad sight. Good in the sense that a turnaround point must be ahead soon and bad because, "where the heck is that turnaround? I've been running East for twenty minutes now!" Or so it felt at the time.

We finally turned around on a very steep and technical turn. It was definitely an ankle twister so I had to be careful and take it slower than normal. After that it was flat, wide and straight away to the finish.

As I approached the half marathon finish line I was feeling great so with just under 2 hours on the clock, I confidently turned left and restarted the loop course. I ran confidently past the aid station that was here, thanking the volunteers for being here but not needing anything from them and then after they were out of sight behind me, slowly began walking up the steep hill once again.

It was around 10 am now and most of the early cloud cover had burned off. I pulled my sunglasses back off my visor and told myself to be calm and comfortable walking the hills because I still had 13 miles ahead of me and would need every ounce of energy. Yes, I could take the 5 mile cut off and just do 30km today, but no, that just wouldn't be my style.

I passed the 30k turnoff, stayed straight at the Boy Scout detour (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me) and kept climbing. It was definitely warmer this second loop but was still in the low 70s, so doable.

By the time I hit the first aid station again, only 45 minutes had passed so I was on pace with my second loop so far. Good news. I stopped here to refill my Amphipod bottle and at least peruse the food items provided. They had the usual gummy bears, M&Ms, nuts, Reese's Pieces and other ultramarathon staples. But none of these are part of my race regimen. They also had baked potatoes which are surprisingly good race food. I didn't need anything and still had a ClifShot left in my bag so I moved on.

About a mile or so past the aid station I started feeling like the second loop was longer and definitely more exposed to the elements than I had remembered. I also realized my recollection of the first loop being mostly downhill at this point was wrong. We were still climbing most of the time and I was definitely tiring of the ups. About 30 more minutes in came the downhills. On much more tired legs these technical downs were much more treacherous. I kept to my goal of not wasting energy braking but was taking the descents far more carefully. I also started cursing my Skechers running shoes as the front toes caught on rocks or roots a few times causing me to stumble and nearly go down. My worst fear: a forward fall face-first into poison oak. Not good at all. So I kept the pace well under control.

I was about a mile out from the final aid station and feeling very tired. The hills kept coming and the downhills seemed shorter, more uneven and less forgiving. I stumbled a few more times but always caught myself and kept going. But I was definitely much slower now and got comfortable with those I had passed in the first loop catching me and drifting by. I was running my own race, and just a training race at that, so falling behind wasn't going to bother me.

Shortly before the final aid station was yet another uphill. Was this here the first time around? Sheesh! I walked up, using strong arm swings for better momentum and to assist my tired legs. By now I was also noticing that the second half of the loop which I could have sworn the first time through was all wooded and shadowy, proved to also be mostly exposed to the sun which was quickly warming the park. On a particularly sunny section, on a slight downhill, my worst fear came true. The Skecher on my right foot caught once again on a rock and this time I wasn't able to get my left in position to stop the fall and went straight down. I landed full-body down on the trail before me. Thankfully there was no poison oak here as this section of the trail was in full sun. But there were plenty of foxtails, burrs and other things there to catch my fall and inject themselves into my clothing and body. I got a nice road rash down each arm and my right leg too. What fun.

The fall sapped the energy from me and felt like I laid there about half a minute before mustering the strength and emotion to get up and get moving again.

At the final aid station I was low on energy so stopped for another full refill of the Amphipod and a couple potato wedges. I also grabbed a cup of Coke for a quick caffeine injection and found that it wasn't flat and thus would not sit well in my stomach. Oh well, too late. I thanked the volunteers who told me I had only 2.3 miles to go. Thank goodness. I couldn't take much more.

All that remained was the mental challenge of the wooded trail heading East while I watched the few ahead of me on the lower trail heading for the finish. Normally such a sight would give me a boost of energy to get it over with but I was sapped and the lower trail felt more like it was teasing me when I really wasn't in the mood. There were a few spots where I could have shimmied down the hill and cut to the lower trail and home but as tempting as that seemed in my current state of exhaustion I would never do it.  So I plodded on to the ultimate turn for home.

No acceleration to the finish was happening today. I was spent. The course had gotten the better of me for sure but I was going to finish one way or the other. I'd love to say I ran that whole last mile in but I didn't. I walked about half of it. But I ran the last 100 yards and finished in 4:25. It was sunny and hot when I crossed the line and few participants were still there so there was no cheering, except for a gracious 8 year old and his mom who were sprawled on a blanket under the tree. I smiled a thanks to them, lowered my head to receive my medal and starting walking to the car. I had only one thing on my mind -- Tecnu.

I slathered my entire body with the stuff when I got there, then changed out of the Skechers and into flip flops. After stretching a bit I walked back to the finish line to see how I did and found I finished 7th overall and second in my age group. I was super pleased and just as I was wondering who had finished first among the 40-somethings, I turned around to see an Englishman with a steel medal stating "1st" on it. We exchanged congratulations and war stories about the hills. He too had decided on Saturday to run this race, so I guess I'm not the only crazy one.

I left desperately seeking a hot shower and cool ice bath. Marathon number 44 was in the books.
And yes, Tecnu did the trick.

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