Saturday, January 18, 2014

Inside Trail Racing Pacific Foothills Half-Marathon

I was shocked when I looked back through this blog and observed that it had been two and a half years since my last trail race, the Golden Gate 30 km by Coastal Trail Runs. I remember that run well: the pain of the wrong turn, breaking down toward the finish. Two and a half years? Where had the time gone? Obviously, I've not been idle, but between cycling events, road running events, and a few unfortunate injuries focus drifts and suddenly you open your eyes and the year has jumped 3 digits.

Clearly I had to fix this.

And so after an extended period of bikeless December travel where running became my only outlet for self-exertion, I decided to continue the momentum through early 2014. Goals: it's important to have goals. With each year it's important to try for something new and challenging, something outside the comfort radius, something which will be hard. And an anomalous addiction to Ultra Running Magazine has me telling myself that a marathon distance is just a psychological limit, I need to break beyond, even if my two marathons so far have ended in hobbled pain. But life is short. The time for a 50 km goal is now.

The first step toward that goal was a half-marathon. Mid January seemed a good time, as my speed, as it is, has just been coming back with my solid block of run training. And I've more respect for the need to run trails to prepare for running trails. Run as much as you like, if you don't work the downhills, they'll bite you on race day.

Inside Trail Racing's Pacific Foothills race was a very attractive option. I'd done a race there with Coastal Trail Racing in March 2011, recovering from fitness down-time associated with a new job, and had run in the fog and rain to a time of 2:13:12. I wanted to beat that time this year. No fog, no rain to be seen. It was a crystal clear view of the summit of Montara as we gathered near the park entrance for the start.

The first wave consisted of the 30 km, marathon, and 50 km groups, which went off at a few minutes after their scheduled start at 8:30 am. My group, the half marathon, went next. With around two minutes to go, as I was lined up at the front of the pack, I decided to reset my Garmin Forerunner 610, to get true race distance. "Resetting in 3, 2, 1..." it said, then froze there. I didn't think much about this until I went to hit "start" with 45 seconds to go. Unresponsive. I've had this problem before, and fortunately new the solution: push the power button for 30 seconds, forcing a shut-down, then restart. I barely got this done before the race start, but then I hit "start" before it had acquired GPS. This tells the unit to stop worrying about GPS and just act as a timer. Obviously that wouldn't do. With seconds to the start, I didn't know what to do, so power cycled it again. But by now we were running under the trees and so it took what seemed at the time to be around 2 km to get GPS lock, but was actually only around 900 meters. I felt lucky -- it could have been a lot worse.

Cara Coburn photo
Start of the half marathon (Cara Coburn photo)

I knew two others in my race, both from cycling: Tim Clark from Low-Key, and Peter Rigano from SF2G. Peter I knew is fast. He was going to be up there contesting the win. Tim I wasn't sure: he's aerobically superb but I wasn't sure about his running endurance. I was coming at this from the opposite side: my speed was questionable but I had confidence in my endurance.

The course isn't subtle: it starts almost straight off climbing Montara Mountain. Despite the name, there's not much "foothills" about it: from the bottom to the top, straight up. Peter and Tim both went off fast in a lead group. I had to let them go, leading a chase group which was lined up behind me. First one runner passed me and disappeared up the trail, then another, and finally a third. But when this third runner's lead stabilized, I felt things were setting into a steady-state equilibrium. Eventually the gap started to drop. I felt this was a good sign for my pacing, since I felt, while strained, I could keep it up for awhile. Not too long after I passed him. Nobody else would pass me all day.

Still on the Montara Mountain Trail, before the fire road, a runner came blasting down the opposite direction. He was the leader of the first wave. It was remarkable, because their lead had been probably significantly less than the allotted 15 minutes due to their slightly late start. But it was a warning to stick to the right of the single-track trail from this point onward.

That wasn't always possible, as we started catching slower members of that first wave ourselves. In trail races, however, people tend to be particularly courteous about letting faster people pass. It's all very friendly.

Finally I reached the fire road, which I knew well from the recent Low-Key Hillclimb here. There are some soberingly steep sections of the fire road here, especially where it consists of exposed rock with a thin layer of sand, and I had to give up any semblance of running here. Typically when I run hills, I go from a true run to more of a power walk (more efficient than running at the same speed) when the grade kicks up to around 10% or so. But there was nothing "power" in my walk here. It was more of a "brisk hike".

But I got through, and eventually the grade leveled out, marking the approach of the summit. From the map, it had appeared we were to run to the north peak. This is where Wendell of Coastal Trail Runs had told us to look for a secret phrase ("long climb") written on a sign at the summit to prove we'd been there. But as I approached the intersection with Middle Peak I saw some runners standing around. A sign marking the turn-around was near the junction, with a white chalk line. And no secret phrase in this race. We had timing chips, but no mat either. Dutifully crossed the chalk line, turned around, and began my descent without delay.

The descent was a relief, shifting the load to different muscles. In the clear sunshine and warming air, this was a very different run than it had been three years ago in clouds. I had little problem with the descent, slowing substantially only for that steep, sand-covered granite where I didn't trust traction. The only real issue was, once on the single-track, my inherent lack of navigational confidence started infecting my brain. But Inside Trail Racing does an excellent job marking the course, marking not only corners, but also putting blue ribbons at the head of trails which shouldn't be taken, and putting plenty of ribbons along the trail between turns to let you know you're still on track.

I was surprised nobody had overtaken me to this point, as my past experience had been I get passed early and often on downhills. So it was some combination of descending faster, and perhaps climbing slower, such that there weren't as many fast riders behind. But toward the bottom of the descent, as I was contemplating my hydration strategy, a runner approached from behind. Fortunately I reached the bottom before he reached me, and I was able to redistance him on the short climb which opened a little loop added to the Inside Trails course relative to the Coastal course.

Coming into the finish, my stomach was complaining about the strawberry Hammer Heed I'd been drinking. I was carrying a Low-Key water bottle which I'd filled with a solution of two scoops of Hammer Heed. This is a fairly strong mix, in excess of the recommended concentration, and my stomach was rebelling slightly. I'd put a second such bottle at the start/finish, serving also as the single aid station on the course, but I decided to go for water instead for the rest of the race. To prepare, I unscrewed the top of my bottle and when I entered the aid station I headed straight for the water jug. I hit the valve and began filling, but rather than monitor the water level directly, I estimated time needed to fill the bottle 2/3 of the way, which was the amount I thought I wanted for the remaining close to 10 km. Not wanting to waste any time, I sprinted off before looking to see how much water I actually had. It was only half this: 1/3 full. This would need to do. Water is mostly a psychological crutch at this point, I told myself.

The second loop, marked with pink ribbons, consists of two climbs and descents separated by a short stretch on smooth dirt road. This is one of the few truly flat sections of the whole course. The first climb went well enough, then the descent, and I felt good on the road. But I'd underestimated that second climb. It went on and on. I'd been passing runners all the way, not able to tell if they were from the earlier wave or from my wave. But if you keep on moving eventually the top arrives, and as I'd remembered from last time, the top on this climb comes as a relative surprise. You're going up, then you're going down.

And it was a relief to reach it, as I'd finished my water before the climb began, and the increasing heat of the day was leading to my shirt (a wool long-sleeve) becoming soaked with sweat, something which is becoming a regular feature of this record-warm, record-dry January. I could feel my resources draining, but once again I was renewed by the transition to downhill.

Two runners were ahead, one wearing white and, ahead, another in yellow. Wait -- that guy in yellow was Tim. I paced behind the first runner until he offered to let me pass and slowed a bit. Then I caught and passed Tim, who wasn't so happy to see me. But this is trail running, all good fun.

Soon after passing Tim I caught Cara, who was merrily hiking along. In the 2011 event, she won her age group in the 10km race, also hiking, despite trying hard to not do so by stopping at her car immediately before the finish. Hiking is a great option at these events.

I felt good from here on, feeling the pull of the finish. I crossed the line with the clock showing 2:17, a disappointment, but when I saw the results soon after (chip timing is great) I realized I'd neglected to subtract the 15 minute difference to group 1. My time was 2:02. Solid.

At the finish I chatted with Tim and with Peter, Peter having finished in 1:51 to win the 20-29 age group and having finished, 4th overall. I was 3rd in the 40-49, a competitive age group, and 11th overall out of a remarkable 131 finishers. I collected my medal and my coffee mug. Cara finished a bit later.

Eventually, wanting an alternative to the Costco food at the finish line, Cara and I left the race scene and went to Guerrero's Taqueria in Pacifica, a friendly place with a nice salsa bar. Then it was back home where I spent the rest of the day trying to recover. As addictive as this race thing is, one thing I don't like is the hours of recovery after. I think if I'd drunk a bit more during the race I might have felt a bit better.


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