On Wednesday morning I had oral surgery, getting an implant installed. Fun, fun. But the procedure was a lot easier than I had anticipated, so relatively easy I questioned my decision to get anesthetic, something I normally decline during fillings, for example. It hadn't even occurred to me to ask, as I expected such a scene of blood and gore that no rational human could survive the untempered pain and still maintain either consciousness or sanity. But I suspect it would have gone okay.
The worst part was at the end when I was strictly advised "don't do anything to raise your blood pressure for the next 5 days, including any vigorous exercise." No vigorous exercise for 5 days? But I was approaching the end of a recovery week after a solid block of work in Switzerland, and I was ready to get moving again. In particular, Saturday was the Low-Key Hillclimb up Welch Creek Road.
But that would be only 73 hours post-implant: too far short of the 120 hour recommendation for comfort. I really didn't want to compromise the success of the procedure, which given the lame nature of at least my dental insurance, was quite expensive as well as time-consuming.
So instead, I canceled my RSVP for Welch creek and volunteered instead, deciding I'd ride up relatively slowly ahead of the main field to help with results.
But I was extremely pleased when I got an email from the Dolphin South End Running Club of San Francisco informing me they'd be promoting a trail race in San Bruno Mountain State Park on Sunday morning (web page here). Perfect! DSE Running is sort of the "Low-Key Hillclimbs" of Bay area running, organizing a rich shedule of races year-round with low overhead (just a removable name tag you attach to your shorts) and a super-low entry fee ($5 for members, $7 for non-members like me). Most of their races are road, but they occasionally venture to the dirt. San Bruno Mountain offered some narrow, hilly trails which would be a great location for a short trail race. The distance was good, as well: 5 km nominal for the short race, 12 km nominal for the longer race. 5 km is too short, but 12 km would provde a nice quick opportunity to test my trail running legs for the first time since the Woodside Ramble 50 km.
The day of the surgery I rode my bike to/from the train to get to work. This was fine. On Thursday, the next day, I did the same, adding a relatively easy lunch ride. When I got to a short but steep climb, Mora, I tried riding it at slowly, but I tasted some blood in my mouth, so concluded the surgery site was leaking. I turned around and rode back to work. The next day, Friday, I did a flat ride at lunch instead, and was fine. Saturday was the Low-Key.
All went well. Welch Creek begins rudely, with a steady 14% grade. This went fine. Then there's a fairly easy km before an 18% 500 meter section which wipes the smile right off your face. After a short break, there's a 500 meter section at around 13.5%, which feels utterly sustainable after the 18%. Another break, then a final 500 meters at 15% to finish you off.
Perhaps this was a bit reckless, and I tasted just a bit of blood on the 18% section, but I didn't feel as if I'd exerted myself that much. Given the huge difference between Welch Creek Road and the short section of Mora I'd climbed 2 days prior I figured I'd be okay for Sunday morning's race.
I set out for the start on my Ritchey Breakaway just as the skies lightened with dawn, around 7:10 am. I followed the SF2G "Dawn of the Dead" route to East Market, which becomes Guadalupe Canyon which climbs to the ranger station at the base of Radio Road which is where registration was scheduled. I arrived there at 7:50, 10 minutes before registration opened, and so I was the first one checked in and ready to go.
With plenty of time before the start I decided to preview the course a bit. The race was only 12 km, and I knew I was good for at least 20 km based on my running in Basel, so I was willing to do a bit of light running to study the course.
This turned out to be an exceptionally good idea. The route consisted of two loops. The first was the 5 km course: Saddle Loop and back to the S/F area. Then there was a nominal 7 km second loop, a somewhat extended variation on the Summit Loop trail. I noted first how we exited the S/F area for the 2nd loop, then where we entered the trail. From there, I followed the well-marked route up the climb, which I noted was narrow and rocky. Passing in some sections would be a challenge. I ran slowly up to the intersection of the route with the actual Summit Loop Trail, which we'd follow up and to the left. I instead went down and to the right, to return to the S/F. Although I was now running a section of the trail which wasn't on the course, I figured this would be more representative of the actual descent, which was on an different portion. This turned out to be the case: it was still single-track but less rocky.
FInally I returned to Radio Road, which is where the course would also emerge. From here I was a bit confused. Did we cross the road and return on the trails or return on the road? I tried the trails, but it became clear this was just sending me on an unwanted second lap of loop 2. So it must be the road, I concluded.
Then back towards the S/F area, it wasn't clear to me how we reached the finish line, which was clear enough. Did we take the most direct route, or pass the aid station and loop around in the direction the 5 km runners would likely finish? I asked someone at the aid station, but she clearly didn't know. I decided to ask at the S/F line.
I had around 10 minutes until the race start, so I stopped my Forerunner 610 and hit reset, to lock in the warm-up as an activity. Then I'd hit "start" again on the S/F line itself so I'd have a good distance for the present activity. This was a big mistake. Later, I got a warning that it was going to enter power savings mode in 20 seconds... 19 .... 18 ... I hit a button to prevent this. But a later warning I must have missed.
One thing I discovered during this time was a text description of the course posted by sign-in. This was very useful: it pointed out that we'd be descending a bit on pavement at the summit, a section I'd not reached in my warm-up, and also that we'd be returning to the finish by the bike path along the road-side.
Another big win: I was idly chatting with another runner when he told me "the race begins in the canyon": the final climb in the last kilometers where Summit Loop trail emerges from a canyon into which it descends. I'd forgotten about this from my previous visits here, but recalled it when he mentioned it. Good for me, as it gave me a final chance to make up ground after the final descent, favoring both my relatively better climbing than descending but also my ratio of endurance to top-end speed.
But soon it was time to line up. The promoter corralled us, then gave us a description of the course. Notably missing from the description was the detail of the finish. So I asked about the finish: do we loop cut to the finish here or there? He repeated the entire description of the course, once again leaving out the description of the approach to the finish. I decided maybe it was good that everyone now knew the full course in such detail, but I'd need to figure out the finish stretch when the time came.
We then relocated to our actual start position where we reversed direction. I was maybe 3rd row. I don't like starting at the front due to the usual surge of enthusiasm, where I don't want to be in the way.
Countdown, then go.
As I noted already, I realized at this point my Garmin was clearly not acquiring GPS, with the timer ticking but the distance stuck at 0. I'd been here before, and the most straightforward approach is to shut it off, back on, and hope I get GPS signal on-the-run. This unwanted attention devoted to my Forerunner caused me to lose more places: I was in the middle of the herd.
But then we arrived at the decision point where we could turn left to bypass the finish and enter the Saddle Loop trail, or turn right to go to the road from where we'd hit the Summit Loop trail. To my astonishment the pack went right. Once I'd snapped out of my shock at this, enhanced by the fact we'd been given the full course description not once but twice, I shouted "wrong way" and turned back to do the correct route.
Normally I'm a navigational train-wreck but despite my lack of self-confidence, I was sure this was the correct way. And it was, of course. But as a result I found myself running at the front of the pack.
Up the first climb of Saddle Loop I rank, seeing just a few runners immediately behind me. Apparently there was some delay in people getting back-on-route. But approaching the top, I was caught by a group of 4. They extended their lead as we hit the first descent. Then I was passed by one then another solo runner.
A glance at my watch showed my pace was brisk by my standards, so I didn't worry. The race was short, around 12 km nominal, but with the hills I expected it to take close to an hour, a substantially longer effort than a road 10 km, for example. Still, one hour is short enough that I had to stay just out of my comfort zone. I had to be pushing the pace the whole way. I didn't want to slip into some sort of steady-state as if I were on a longer trail race or a training run.
The lead of the guys immediately ahead of me stabilized not long after, so their rapid pass was early-race surge, as I'd expected. I wasn't sure of the leaders but I never expected to follow them.
After Saddle Loop, we turned a surprising right at the bottom of the descent, toward Crocker Road. It quickly became obvious this was an out-and-back to add some distance. Distance is good for me. The surface is "paved", in theory, but is so heavily potholed it's far worse for both running and cycling than decent dirt. As I tried to adjust my form to deal with this, I saw the leaders returning from the turn-around. They weren't that far ahead, actually. Then came the two other guys. Then came the turn-around.
Now the roles were flipped: I was the one with the lead as I surveyed the runners behind me. But I had enough confidence in my ability to handle the upcoming singletrack climb that I wasn't too worried about the gap I had. It was good enough.
Another course feature I'd not caught: rather than stay on the main trail/road back to the S/F, we diverted for the far more scenic bog trail. This drops down to what isn't much of a bog right now approaching the end of dry season, then climbs back. This allowed me to gain on the runner ahead of me, who when we exited the trail was just a short distance ahead.
We now approached the aid station near the S/F. As I got closer I shouted "electrolyte!" since I knew from my pre-race inquiries had an electrolyte drink and water. This would be my only replenishment of any sort during the run, my breakfast having consisted only of espresso and decaf tea with plenty of honey or maple syrup. I like doing races without much in my stomach, and for races this short, it's never been a problem.
The volunteers were on top of their game, and they pointed me at a cup pre-filled with blue liquid. Good runners can drink in full stride, but after some messy experiments in this I decided walking is better for me. So I slowed to a brisk walk, grabbed the cup, drank it all, and deposited the cup on the side of the trail as I started running again. It didn't take much of a surge, a natural response to the recovery I got from the few steps of walking, to get back to where I'd been relative to my friend ahead of me.
We then hit the road from the left side. There was an immediate right turn. He followed the left edge of the road while I apexed the road to the inside. I didn't see anything that this was out of bounds of the course. This allowed me to pass him before we entered the trail. The turn to the trail was marked and since I'd previewed this part of the course before the race I was fully confident of what I was doing. After the race some runners reported having problems making this turn.
I extended my lead as the trail started climbing and soon I saw the next runner ahead: fifth place. I was a bit worried about passing him. First I had to catch him, then I had to get past which might be challenging with the tight singletrack. But then he started to walk. Deja-vu to the final kilometers of the Woodside Ramble 50 km where I passed a runner ahead of me who also started to walk. I had no interest in walking: my legs felt refreshed after the mental break of finishing the Saddle Loop, and I ran past, greeting him as I did so.
He followed me a bit but then when I glanced back he was gone.
The course here was well-marked with chalk, but I was glad anyway for having previewed it before-hand. Soon I was past the point I'd diverged from the race route on my warm-up, the summit in close sight. Another runner was visible on the slopes ahead. Could I catch him as well to move into 4th?
There was a long straight, then a turn, then a straight to the gate to the parking lot at the summit. This might have caused me some concern except I'd read the course description posted at registration, that we had to run down the road to get back to the course. I knew roughly where this juncture with Summit Loop was in any case.
But first the gate.... as I approached the gate it was clearly closed, as usual, leaving me the option of going to the right, going to the left, going over, under, or through one of the gaps. But then I saw there was a warn foot-path to the left, so that's how I went. Minimal time lost...
Through the lot, up theshort hill to the finish of the New Year's bike race, and then I was on the paved descent. I focused on using the whole road, cutting the tangents of the corners, an important optimization so few trail racers seem to do.
The turn to Summit Loop trail wasn't far along the descent. It was well marked, I thought, if you were looking for it as I was. There was a moment of confusion as there's a paved portion which is essentially a driveway for cars, the trail going to the left. This caused me to come to a complete stop to correct my course, but I didn't lose much.
Onto the descent... this was indeed like the portion of Summit Loop I'd previewed, not nearly as rocky as the Ridge Trail and Dairy Ravine trails which we'd climbed. Still, it wasn't trivial: I still had to watch my footsteps. I was worried about being caught from behind, but also thinking about catching the runner ahead.
Finally the descent ended as I entered the canyon. I'd long since lost sight of the runner ahead. It turns out he considers himself a strong descender and was busy gaining ground on 3rd place, leaving me further behind. And it wasn't until I later looked at the Strava Labs activity replay that I realized how close at this point was the pursuit from behind. The runner I'd caught to move into fifth had steadily made ground on me on the descent. Had this final portion been flat, he may well have closed the gap, but with the climb I was able to pull away for good.
I felt good here, keeping a good pace on the climb, knowing there was no need to hold back since the race was close to done.
Once it leveled, I was soon back to the road. There the optimization began once again. I saw no indication that we were to remain on one side or the other, so I used the full width, apexing the two principle corners before we passed under Guadalupe Road for the final few hundred meters. Then there it was: the finish, and I was across, under 1 hour on the clock.
After hanging out near the finish, eating some grapes and drinking some sports drink, changing into my cycling shorts, then finally collecting my 5th place ribbon, I was ready to head home. So I got back on the Ritchey Breakaway, rode back over Saddle Loop dirt trail, descended South Hill Road, and from there crossed Geneva to Italy, worked my way back to Mission, Valencia, and eventually back to Noe Valley.
Overall, I was very pleased with how the race went. My running has been ad hoc, basically running when cycling wasn't convenient. I got some solid run blocks in during my stay in Basel, feeling some decent speed kick in when I wanted it. But I'd done no trail running, in particular no serious descending. I was really happy my quads survived the descents on this race seemingly intact. Indeed, the next day I felt slightly tired, but only slightly.
Perhaps most importantly, despite a full race effort, my mouth was fine. So evidently the surgery site had essentially healed.
I don't know what my next trail run goal will be. Maybe a half-marathon will be a good test. If I focus on getting in 1-2 runs per week during Low-Key Hillclimb series, I think this is doable. Half-marathon is a great distance: more time to enjoy the trails than the 13 km distance I'd run today (according to GPS), but not far enough that I need to worry about the distance too much. I've bonked during 30 km races, but I've always handled half-marathons okay.