Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Big Sur Half Marathon Race Report

In mid-November I ran the Eighth Presentation of the Big Sur Half Marathon on Monterey Bay. This was a later addition to my race calendar; my sis and bro-in-law were coming to town for an event that ended up getting canceled so we took advantage of our vacation times and went to Monterey for the weekend. And since the timing was right, I registered for one of my favorite races in one of my favorite towns. I ran this half marathon in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and enjoyed myself each time.

In the days leading up to the race I was thinking I might end up with a DNS. My knee had been bothering me, and sometimes even walking was a pain. It was sporadic and unreliable and I wasn't going to take any chances of permanent harm (assuming that permanent harm hadn't already occurred). We did a lot of walking and took a hike the day before the race and my knee was slightly swollen and sore. Uh oh.

This year we stayed at the Hotel Pacific, a wonderfully odd conglomeration of buildings thrown together to make an all-suite hotel. We had great mini-suites next to each other on the top floor of one of the end buildings, away from the street. Little did I know that being on the top (4th) floor would give us clear access to hearing the sea lion barking frenzy each night. It was so incredibly annoying that it finally was just funny hearing the loud exclamations from the local wildlife all night long.

The expo was held at the Conference Center right across the street from our hotel, very convenient. We went there Friday afternoon and packet pickup was very quick and efficient. Race shirts were tech fabric; gray for men and a purplish-red for women and as usual, their XL women's shirt was too small for me. Since I expected that, I wasn't upset (I haven't yet gotten a BSIM shirt that fits). The timing chip was the disposable D-tag that so many races are using these days.

back of shirt

front of shirt

The expo was so complete that my sis and I managed to shop 'til we dropped - a bad habit we have when together at race expos. One thing I bought that ended up being wonderful was a pair of 2XU compression calf guards. Sis had a pair of their tights and was singing their praises so I decided to fork out the pile of dough and give them a try. This turned out to be a great idea. I also got a good deal on Gu and one or two (or four) other things.

Race morning dawned very early for me after being kept awake all night by exclaiming sea lions. I had no idea how my knee was going to react so I decided I could bail out at any point with no regrets, even if it was before the race started. Since it was supposed to get warm I dressed in my running skirt and the new compression calf sleeves. I topped that with a long sleeve shirt and throw-away gloves, and my usual hat and buffs. I thought about wearing a disposable poncho but already at that hour it was warm enough not to.

The course had a little revision since I had last run it, mostly having to do with placement of the start. Instead of being right outside the hotel it was a couple of blocks away, nearer the Bay. That gave me the chance to walk and feel out my knee. So far, so good.

My corral was towards the back, as usual. I had hoped to be seeded before the majority of the walkers and that ended up happening. Of course, there were walkers scattered throughout the crowd but that always happens when you use the honor system to give your estimated finish time (I'm not sure if there's any other way to do it). I stood around, watching the sun rise, watching the very energetic crowd, and waited for the start.

The crowd of about 6,000 people started off fast at the gun. Despite being way back in the "H" corral I was across the start very quickly. I ran at the side, determined to go carefully and slowly and trying to see how my knee was reacting. Still fine. We made a little loop around a park with a lake, through downtown, back past the hotel. I had thought this would be where my race would finish but my leg felt surprisingly good so I continued on. One thing that helped was the crowd was thin enough that I wasn't having to jig and jag around people everywhere.

We ran to and along Cannery Row, on Oceanview and then up the hill to Pacific Grove and Lighthouse Avenue. The Pacific Grovians were out in force (including, I think, the mayor) and we got a very warm welcome. Neighbors were on their porches watching or cheering, drinking their morning brews and wishing us well. I was still running with restraint, still feeling good. We headed back down the hill to the water. Memories of my first triathlon floated through my head. Glad this run didn't involve swimming in kelp!

The next part of the race was out-and-back along the Bay, exactly the same as the cycle portion of the triathlon. From Oceanview to Sunset Drive, watching the faster runners going the opposite direction. The course is a little rolling here, with a definite upgrade in the outward bound direction. At the top of the hill at the turnaround, about 7-1/2 miles, they had a bottle refill station. This is something I haven't seen at any race before and was a welcome addition. Since I'm so poky I always carry my own bottle and fill it with my own Ultima Replenisher and course water. Often this means stopping to pour water from several cups into the bottle. This time there was a crier with warnings of the upcoming station, giving me enough time to pull out the bottle and the Ultima packet. Another volunteer walked along side of me and poured water from a pitcher into the bottle so I didn't have to stop. Very nice.

I felt good at the half, very good indeed. My knee didn't feel exactly right, but it wasn't hurting either. I decided I could pick up the pace a bit without danger to myself. The weather could not have been nicer; sunny, clear, warm-ish but not hot, slight breeze. The view of the shoreline was great and I enjoyed seeing all the people who were, surprisingly, slower than I was.

Lots of times I can go a whole race without talking to anyone except for thanking the volunteers at the water stops. This race I chatted with several people as we ran along. I did my normal 9:1 run:walk and noticed many other people also running intervals. I guess most back-of-the-packers these days throw in some walking. At least they do toward the end of a race.

At almost mile 11 we ran onto the Rec Trail. I was feeling very good, no pain at all. I also was feeling surprisingly energetic for being 11 miles into a race. According to Mr. Garmin and my rapidly deteriorating math skills, it was possible that if I knocked myself out I could PR. One problem was that I wasn't exactly sure what my half marathon PR was, I just guessed. I also wasn't sure I was adding up the mileage correctly. But I decided to go for it, the worse that could happen would be having to hobble the last couple of miles.

I picked up the speed until I was huffing and puffing. Down the trail, back along Cannery Row, back to the trail again. I kept revising the time I needed, kept forgetting what I had just decided, realized I had no idea if I could make it in time. Then I realized that I might just possibly have started my finish line sprint a couple of miles early. Uh oh.

I cut my walk breaks down to a half minute and kept on running, kept wheezing and puffing. I started counting all the people I passed but then I'd forget and start trying to do finish time math again. I realized that my brain was no long reliable since I wasn't getting any oxygen. So I ran hard, tried not to do anything except watch my foot placement and look ahead, and finally saw the finish line. I gave one final extra push and crossed the line. I stopped Mr. Garmin, took and look and saw PR, Baby! At least I thought so.

I got my ceramic medal, gathered up my sis and bro-in-law and walked through the food lines while recovering my breath. I was terrifically excited about my fast time and the lack of knee pain. In fact, the total lack of any pain. I got water, a bagel, a banana and a cookie and we walked back to the hotel while I munched on the food.

It turned out that I had beat my 2002 half marathon PR by 2 full minutes. I beat my previous course times by 6 minutes, 6 minutes and 12 minutes. I can't think of anything I had done differently from any of my other recent runs, which made my knee hurt like hell and were slower, except for the compression calf sleeves. Yes, that means I'll always wear the darn things now.

The BSIM organization puts on a fabulous race. I may have some issues with their hoity-toitiness ("Eighth Presentation" anybody?), price ($95-$115 for a half marathon) and belief that women runners only come in very small sizes, but they sure know how to set up a race course. They benefit from two of the prettiest courses around (the full and the half) but they also get wonderful and knowledgeable volunteers and course support. Well done. I'm very proud to say that both of my PRs, full marathon and half marathon, are from Big Sur races.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Marine Corps Marathon (delayed) race report

It seems like it was months ago that I was in Washington, DC to run the 35th annual Marine Corps Marathon along with about 22,000 of my good friends, including Bree and Sandy. The fine details have escaped into the mists of other, more recent races. What I remember of this Halloween day race follows.

Bree and I took a red-eye flight and got into town early enough on Friday to get to the expo not long after it opened. Packet pickup was uneventful. I don't remember much of the expo except it was big and complete. A variety of goodies were in the bag or given as handouts. I had bought lots of stuff at my last race expo so I didn't need to buy much here.

The race shirt was the MCM traditional black long sleeved cotton mock turtleneck. And very very large. I don't like tight shirts so I tend to order an XL, whether it's cotton, tech, unisex or otherwise. Once in a while this turns out to be a poor choice, as in this instance. It will make a very nice mini-dress. Too bad, since it's a nice shirt.

front and back of shirt

Our hotel was in Arlington so it was just a hop, skip and a jump to the start. We walked the couple of blocks to the Rosslyn Metro station. Unfortunately thousands of other runners had the same idea at the same time. I'm vaguely claustrophobic at the best of times and the way we were packed into the train, with more and more people trying to cram on, was horrifying to me. I think if there had been room I would have run screaming through the train. Of course, if there had been room I wouldn't have needed to. Luckily it was a very short trip to the Pentagon Station.

In that dim pre-dawn hour it was hard to see anything, but clearly the enormous building next to us was the Pentagon. Marathoners were herded along the path, this way then that way, then the other way. Marines lining the paths told us which direction to go and kept the massive crowds moving smoothly.

We reached the pre-staging area and were a little confused where things were located; the Marines were helpful but the signage was poor. We found a rather underused bank of porta potties and hung around there for our first and second visits. We tracked down the baggage check trucks and had to decide which layers to check and which to keep on. It was very cool but forecast to get warm. I decided to check my sweatshirt and my throw-away jacket but to keep my throwaway poncho and gloves. Sweat check was very smooth and easy.

Then we had to find the start line, which was another short walk. The starting area seemed to be a multi-lane road, with paces clearly marked along the side. Sandy and Bree decided to make one last stop so I went on alone. I decided to start just behind the 5:30 pace group since I was hoping that if it was a good day, I could stay by them for at least half the race. Then I observed that the other side of the grass median was also being used for starting although very few people were standing there. So I hopped the low border and walked over to that side.

I knew the race had started and the crowd slowly walked forward. My side of the road moved much faster than the other side and I found myself parallel with much faster pace groups. I edged to the side and slowed and still got to the start before the rest of the people in the back of the pack. Oh well, that meant less weaving around slower people. I tossed the poncho and started running.

It was very crowded, for the entire race. Wider roads allowed freer running but corners and narrow roads packed us in. Even as far up as I started I was keeping up easily with the others around me. I was feeling good except for a slightly aching stomach that I decided to ignore (since I couldn't do anything about it anyway).

For a good part of the race I paid as much attention to the other runners as I did to the scenery. Sure, I noticed and admired the landscape (brilliant fall colors just fading to brown), the history, the monuments. It was a prettier area than I had expected and a very interesting course. There were a couple of bigger hills in the first part of the race but the rest of it was flat to rolling. Except for the finish.

I warmed up immediately and it got warmer as the sun rose in the sky. There were some scattered clouds but mostly the bright sun shone. A very brisk breeze helped cool us down but sometimes got pretty annoying when it was in our faces. I was wearing my running skirt, a short sleeve top, my buffs and a hat. The gloves got tossed very early on.

I had a very good first half, not my fastest recently but far from my slowest. I was well within the cutoff times for the race and hoped to keep close to that pace for the entire race. That's when my stomach started acting up more than it had been. I've found that a Gu every 40 minutes keeps up my energy and that the Ultima Replenisher keeps my electrolytes in balance. Normally I can tolerate both of them quite well but the gel I ate mid-race kept threatening to come right back up. I slowed down.

The second half of the race runs past many of the famous monuments and the National Mall. The White House is totally off the course and out of view, but most other DC highlights are passed once or twice or could be glimpsed in the distance. Unfortunately I was feeling quite nauseous by then and was paying more attention to moving forward than to the surroundings.

As a Halloween day race there were a significant number of people running in full costume. I alternately admire and laugh at those running 26.2 miles while burdened by excess accessories or clothing. After a couple of running hours I get tired of my necessary clothing, let alone anything decorative. There were superheroes and monsters, cartoon characters and fantasy persons. People with big rigs on their shoulders and runners in full makeup. They made the many groups of Marines running in full uniforms, boots and packs look positively sane.

My grumbly tummy and I finally reached 14th Street Bridge; the "Beat the Bridge" landmark at about 20 miles which you had to reach before the 1:15 pm cut-off time. I couldn't remember where I had to be at what time, just that I had to be across a bridge at some time. I had slowed considerably but that bridge kept going and going and going so I sped up just to get the hell across it.

I knew that I needed to keep drinking but every sip of water or Ultima was nauseating. The gels were worse but I forced myself to take at least one each hour to keep up my energy. My 9:1 run:walk deteriorated to a run:stagger: walk:plod. At least I kept running, although slower.

Finally it was apparent I was reaching the finish. I had heard there was a nasty hill at the end and I thought it was the grade I was running up to mile 26. My mistake. The hill was AT mile 26 and went straight up. I had been trying to run the last bits but just shook my head in disgust and power walked up. The way was lined with encouraging Marines shouting at us to keep running. I ignored them. I reached the top of the hill and then started to run the last .1 to the finish. According to Mr. Garmin I had run 26.66 miles. I got a cold bottle of water, my space blanket, my medal and walked along. Finisher pictures were taken in front of the Marine Corps War Memorial.

More Marines moved the crowd along toward the food. I think we were given a bag with the normal after-race foods, plus offered more water and some energy drink. I was glad to just be done running, and I was quickly cooling down. We had planned to meet at the beer tent so I walked that direction although I preferred to find the baggage check first. Once again as at the start, the signage was poor and the distances far.

The finisher area encompassed several blocks. Unfortunately the UPS baggage trucks were in one direction downhill, and the beer tent was the other direction downhill. It would mean going back uphill to get to the beer after getting my sweatshirt so I gave up on the beer. I texted Sandy and Bree to let them know where I was and then plopped down on the curb.

Once they finished and joined me, we walked back to our hotel. Luckily Tom knew which direction to go. The security was incredible; there were vehicles from every branch of the armed forces and every emergency responder agency. Cars, trucks, fire engines, ambulances. All surrounding the vast finishing area. And ohbytheway, the entire time we ran through the Mall area there were helicopters overhead. I had thought they were media choppers but apparently they were security. In a way that made me feel very secure, in another way it made me think things were very sad when a marathon causes so much extra security in our nation's capital.

We got back to the hotel and I headed straight to the bar - with my friends trailing behind. I wanted something hot to drink and my heart was set on an Irish Coffee. We sat there in our grungy damp running clothes, draped with our medals and space blankets, and ordered drinks and munchies. My stomach was feeling better since I was no longer moving so I felt free to gulp down my very hot drink before ordering a nice Manhattan to go with the food.

Overall I thought this was a wonderfully organized race. Except for the confusion at the start and vast distances at the finish, everything was well done. Course support was good, water stops were frequent and efficient, premiums were good. I would recommend that you run this one!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

... and don't forget the hat

My busy fall schedule of half marathon following half marathon following marathon and so on, is over. I'm a little (!) behind in reviewing all the races, but they have mostly been fun, entertaining, quick (for me) and enjoyable.

I just spent a few days on a vacation in Vegas. The purpose really was to get away on my own, pretend that real life had gotten easy and smooth, kick back and relax. In place of the normal Vegas-gala show, I spent my money on a half marathon and a Santa Run 5k. Running is my joy and my hobby and I'd rather throw my money there than at someone who sings or dances or pulls rabbits from his hat.

This was my 6th race in the past few months (and well over the 100th since I started running marathons in 2001) so you'd think I've learned how to prepare. I have a list that I normally check while I'm packing but this time I started packing earlier than the night before the flight and thought I'd throw things in as they occurred to me. Bad mistake, as it turned out. To my list I'll have to add "don't talk on the phone while placing items in suitcase."

Since I don't think well in the morning I always set out my race gear the night before. Clothing and accessories, in the order in which I'll need them, all neatly placed for easy grabbing. In a hotel room my habit is to raise the ironing board and use that. I did the same this past weekend. Once I decided that it would be crispy cold at the start but warm by the end I picked out my clothing from the piles of choices I had brought with me. Running skirt, sports bra, long sleeve top, compression leg sleeves, socks, shoes, hat ... hat ... hat??

I checked through everything once. Then again. Then emptied my suitcase and checked again. Once more for good luck. No hat. I have a gazillion running hats since I collect them from most races. I forced myself not to buy a hat at this expo since I have a RnR-Vegas hat and many other RnR caps from other races. So for the one of the very few times, I didn't even have a new hat from the expo.

Further checking revealed that I didn't have a buff either. I use the buff on cold mornings to not only cover my ears, but to breathe through so that cold air doesn't exacerbate my asthma. No hat, no buff. But that wasn't all. I have many ear warmers, all of them in my garage at home. Lots of scarves, many of tech fabrics. All at home. The morning was forecast to be about 40 degrees and I had nothing whatsoever to put on my head.

Since the little cancer scare last year my sun paranoia is sky high. I can tell myself that between abundant sunscreen and a rim on my hat that the sun doesn't touch my face. My hat is not only to keep the sweat from flowing into my eyes, not only to keep the little ends of my hair from flying all over my face, but to keep my sun exposure anxiety from driving me nuts. The thought of being hatless for a half marathon on a day that was supposed to be mostly sunny pushed buttons I wasn't prepared for.

It turned out ok, the world didn't end and I had a good run. Lots of squinting, lots of wiping the sweat from my eyes, lots of pushing my hair away. It didn't make me run faster but it didn't slow me down either. I didn't get sunburned but I did worry while I was out there.

Reminder to self for next time: pack TWO hats.