Monday, June 20, 2011

Zombie Runner / Coastal Trail Runs Half Marathon San Francisco

Zombie Runner Half-MarathonI felt confident going into the Zombie Runner Half-Marathon last Saturday. Under advice from a friend I'd pre-run the course the Sunday before, and I was immediately really glad I had. Navigation was far from trivial, and having worked these potential snafu hotspots out already, I could focus my attention on running and less on orienteering.

The only question was speed. I'd done very little approximating "speed work" this year, and with my run-specific training consisting of an average one run per week, I wasn't sure how I'd handle the increased pace that race day invariably inspires.


Conditions were essentially perfect at the start line adjacent to Crissy Field as Wendell gave the starting line instructions. The course was simple, he said: just stay on Coastal Trail. But I realized from last week's preview run it wasn't that simple. One point of clarification: I asked whether we were going through the low-headroom tunnel at the top of the stairs from Fort Point. He confirmed we were. But I worried about the other runners, as Coastal Trail has several scenic out-and-back spurs along the way. These are also marked "Coastal Trail", and runners might accidentlly et a few more miles than anticipated. At least they'd get to enjoy extra view.


Wendell at the start. Coastal Trail Runs photo.

The race opened with a short southern leg, totally flat and mostly paved, then a return northward on the same route. I settled into what felt like a fast but sustainable pace: sustainable for 10 km, certainly, but maybe not the 21 km I'd need to run today. But I didn't need to sustain it for 21 km... the many staircases along the way would enforce rest: walking up the stairs shifting the load to different muscles, while descending the stairs giving my cardiovascular system a break. So I was willing to invest a little more here than I might have otherwise.

And it payed off, I felt. Soon after the turn-around on Marina Green, I was passed by another runner. I glanced at my GPS and saw 15.2 kph: faster than my best guess at my sustainable 10 km pace (around 4.1 min per km, or 14.6 km/hr). I got onto his heel (if it was a bike race I'd say "wheel", so in a running race it must be "heel") and echeloned to the left, with the wind coming off the water to the right. I estimated this should save around 1% of my power and therefore increase my sustainable speed by close to the same fraction. That's around 25 seconds per 10 km: not to be squandered.

I hit 5 km 21 min after the start. Soon after the race would leave the lowlands by the water and begin to climb. I'd fallen back from my leader at this point, but then slotted in with a group of 3 others. We'd almost closed the gap on the other runner, so there was a decent group as we reached the base of the stairs; I was slightly gapped off from the rest.

But I closed that gap when the rest were slightly confused by the turn to the stairs, and so we took the stairs together. Nobody wanted to try them two at a time, so I ran as I had in my preview run, one at a time. It's not really running, actually, more of a power walk. The pace felt good, not too hard but decent in the context of the race distance. I was surprised, therefore, when I later looked at my data and saw I'd taken this section faster the week before. On that run I was being chased up the stairs by someone; this was more tactical.

At the top we turned right and ran toward the tunnel. It's dark with a low ceiling on the exit so I warned those around me. Nobody seemed to have an issue, though, so on we went.

We scrambled under the bridge, then over some paths, then down some stairs due to a section of trail being closed. I was slower then some of the other here and I lost the sense we were a group any longer.

Some more climbing, again where I tried to pace myself, and I was on the singletrack adjacent to Lincoln. A respite from navigational issues... just run, run run.

We passed Sand Ladder. I'd thought so... too bad because the sand ladder is fun.

A twisting descent to Baker Beach. I did my best to lengthen my stride here. The guy I'd been following during the early kilometers passed me here. I'd thought he'd been up the road. I have a short stride and it impedes me on downhills where it really helps to open up.

At the bottom, a short path, then the sand. I tried to float over the sand like Legolas running on snow, but to no avail: the sand feels a bit like running in place. Where I could I used plants infringing on the path for superior traction (I felt a bit guilty about this; poor plants): every tenth of a second counts.

Not That Lucas
Near Baker Beach aid station. Not that Lucas

I was getting parched, but just as I thought this might be a concern I saw the tent of the Baker Beach aid station ahead. I decided to place hydration above speed here, so instead of trying to grab and go like a road runner, I stopped and downed in succession three partially filled cups of sports drink. It maybe cost me three seconds but better that than to risk spilling water on the following stairs and falling behind on liquids 8 km into a 21 km run on this warm morning. I'd decided at the start to not bring a bottle with me, as the time lost from the extra weight would exceed a few seconds spent grabbing cups, some fraction of that time returned due to the recovery gained. This was probably the best choice and I saw very few of the runners around me carrying water.

Up the stairs, then I was on 25th Ave. Here I was very happy to have pre-run the course because I didn't hesitate in where to run, once I'd made the initial left. Signs proclaimed "runners in the road" so I took this as justification to use the full road to apex turns. There was virtually no traffic and line of sight was excellent so there was no issue with this, and the difference between optimized versus circumferential trajectories adds up.

Camino del Mar doesn't seem to be much of a hill but when I rode it the day after the race I was seeing 5% and 6% on the grade display. I felt as though I should be moving faster... but I was doing fine relative a runner ahead of me so I didn't worry about my pace.

The sign said "Lands End" marking the opening to the trail again. A volunteer was posted here to make sure runners didn't continue up the climb to the Legion of Honor. Here's where the real fun begins: the stairs.

The stairs are an interesting feature. Going up is just a matter of maintaining a sustainable cadence and staying in sync with the stairs. I never took them two at a time and only rarely had to take two steps per stair. So basically the stairs called the shots here.

I was more worried about going down. Here I tried to dance as lightly as possible on the stairs, using them to stop my acceleration but not my progress. I did better than expected relative to other runners I saw -- I'd expected to be massively slower and I was instead only slightly slower At one point I was able to run next to stairs on a dirt shoulder, which was faster.

Signs were posted all along the route warning about a "Trail Marathon" this morning. I was thus slightly impatient with trail walkers who let their dogs run free. But although I had to slow for maybe a half-second once, there were no other issues here.

The views are spectacular along this section, so when I was able to glimpse out to the water I was instantly rewarded with a wonderful, clear view. But my priority was on running so I didn't do this as much as I had the week before.

The trail to Sutro baths arrived more quickly than I remembered (probably because I was running faster) and I scampered down the steps as well as I could. I'd anticipated the aid station would be down at the level of the baths, so was slightly surprised when a runner ahead turned up the stairs going from the bath to the parking lot above. That was obviously where the aid station was.


I heard Cara's voice from above asking me what I wanted to drink. It was really nice having Cara here. Naturally I wished she could run herself, but that's not possible for her right now. "One Coke, two water!" I shouted, and they had Coke and water available when I reached the top of these stairs. I chugged these down, then a third drink (which turned out to be sports drink), and I was off, chasing the guy ahead.

More stairs, then we'd completed the Sutro Baths loop and were retracing our steps towards the start. This was fun because outbound runners were coming toward us, providing nearly constant opportunity to wish encouragement and receiving plenty of encouraging ourselves.

I caught the runner ahead... I was a bit faster going up, he a bit faster down, but we pretty much stayed together until we'd cleared the trails and returned to the roads. He ran on the sidewalk, but I went out onto the roadway to take advantage of the more direct route through turns. I think this is where I dropped him for good, although it's possible in the chaos approaching the finish he passed me again.

I stopped for two more cups (filled higher now) at the Baker Beach aid station. Then it was time again to wade through the sand (I forgot to use the plants this time) then begin the climb back to Lincoln. It was in this section I was caught... I thought initially it must have been the guy I'd passed but it turned out to be another runner. I wondered how he'd gotten behind me because he seemed strong. I tried to hang with him but no luck -- he pulled away.

Then the Lincoln singletrack, past the Sand Ladder trail, and then the section approaching the bridge.

Here's where things are very fuzzy. 10 km runners and at least a few half-marathoners somehow came together here in a small pack. I knew from my run the week before I needed to make the left to stay away from the parking lot, but in the twists and turns I was too focused on following. All of a sudden people slowed: we were at Merchant's Ave. "We did something wrong," someone muttered. Things seemed bleak.

But I knew the way, so led the others on the sidewalk adjacent to the road, then next to the cafe, and eventually down back to the trail.

Now the question is: was this wrong? We all ran together, and from the GPS data the distances are almost the same: within 50 meters which is the best I can resolve. None of us had seen a course marking, and when I later talked to people at the finish many others had also missed it. Someone said there was a marking, but it was a single ribbon along the left hand side of the course and runners at that point were running along the right. Another runner suggested there had been trail "vandalism": I'm not sure picking up what appears to be a discarded ribbon on the side of a popular hiking trail is exactly vandalism. Whatever the reason none of us had seen the marking and taking this route seemed the reasonable thing to do at the time. On the other hand, it spared us having to duck to run under the tunnel near the picnic area, and that's an obvious slow point, but on the other hand we spent some time trying to decide what to do, so I think it was a wash.

So we found ourselves back at the top of the stairs down to Fort Point. I ran these one at a time, as best I could, although more skilled descenders took them quicker. At the bottom, I returned the way we came, around some fencing ahead. But others turned right, taking a more direct path. Maybe they did the intended thing; I'm not sure. I didn't see any markings either way.

From here it was a flat sprint back to the finish. It was further than I expected, but it didn't matter, I was just in that zone of zeeing how far I could push my speed. Speed's about efficiency, about fluidity, and about relaxing. My form's not good enough to not be the limiting factor.

It was a bit surreal, as there were so many people on the path going in both directions: 10 km runners, a lot of non-participants just out for a run, and one half-marathoner I managed to catch.

At the finish I was handled a medal, which was nice. Results 14 deep were posted amazingly quickly (I'd barely caught my breath when Wendell taped them up) which meant I was last on the list. My time: 1:41:47 seemed impossibly good considering all of the impediments from km 5 to 19. I was really pleased with that. I got another medal for being second in my age group. Between men and women and with age groups every 10 years if you finished in the top 20 there was a really good chance of being top 3 in whatever age group you were. But that was nice, as well.

The finish was fun: just hang out and enjoy the wonderful day while I waited for Cara to return from her duties.

So what next? Dare I think about a 3:20 road marathon? Maybe possible. But I will need to pay more attention to my running in coming months.

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