Sunday, February 17, 2013

Racing at night in the mountains: Carrera Nocturna

  I needed a long run in the mountains this weekend, and when I saw that the 12 hour night race was offering a six hour option, I thought, why not?  I ran my first 50k on February 2 at Ray Miller with Jeremy, and my focus for the next three months is getting ready for the Jemez 50 Miler on May 25, which will be my first 50 miler.
  I didn't have any experience running at night other than the first 50 minutes of the Ray Miller race. So on Thursday I got out to the Mountain in Desierto De Los Leones and ran up in the light and came down in darkness. My headlamp is a very basic Petzl model which provides just enough light to run and just as I was finishing that run I wiped out pretty hard (about 1 minute from the end of the run) on a root that left an ugly bruise on my thigh. It served as a good reminder to take it easy at night.
  This race was the first "timed" race that I've run, and it consisted of two loops, only the second of which would be repeated. The first loop I've run many times in other races (Camino Largo y Sinuoso) and in training. It starts in El Zarco (a little outpost about 2 kilometers before Marquesa) and climbs on some winding singletrack to a smooth ridge road that descends slightly for about six kilometers before crossing a wooden bridge and then it climbs up a rocky fire road that winds to the top of the Cerro de San Miguel (12,500). This out and back section was billed as 25k, but my Garmin showed a bit longer. The second loop began with the same singletrack climb to the smooth ridge road, but then we would veer off to the right and follow the road as it slightly climbed to an aid station about 7.5 kilometers which was the turn around. The 12 hour runners would keep running this second out and back until morning, but my goal was to run both loops once, getting in 40k or 25 miles. At this elevation, with over 4,000 feet of climbing, I knew there was no way I'd finish the 40k under the 5 and half hours which would have allowed me to continue on a third loop. I also knew I really didn't need to be running 55k at this point in my training.

  The Ray Miller race went really well for me, but I struggled with the Nathan pack. It's such a hassle to get into an aid station and have to deal with removing the pack, opening the bladder. And then repeating this again and again. It's a time killer. I knew there was an aid station at the top of the mountain (12.5 kilometers), and then we would return to the aid station at the start, and there was a small aid station at the second loop turn-around, so I went with one handheld (Ultra Direction, 20 oz.). It was perfect. I stuffed gu's in the pockets of my shorts (and kept a few more in my car at the start/finish) and I wasted zero time in aid stations. I'm done with the pack except for longer, solo training stuff in the mountain. 
  Mexicans tend to overdress for the cold, and most folks were wearing running tights, multiple layers and jackets. Standing around getting cold before the race, I started to second guess my choice, but I stuck with the shorts and two thin layers (long sleeve Ray Miller Race Shirt/and a thin pull over base layer) with the Patagonia Houdini jacket. When the Houdini jacket arrived in the mail, I was a little put off with just how flimsy it seemed considering the 99 bucks I spent on it. However, the only thing I can say now about the jacket is that it is genius. Tie it around your waist or stuff it in a pocket and you forget about it, but it was the perfect light weight layer and I was never cold, even on the long, slow, steep climb up to the summit. A buff around my ears and a thin pair of Nike gloves and I was dialed in: the perfect amount of gear: not too much, not too little.

  Finally the race started and we began the ascent to the ridge trail. I kept it to a fast hike, which was about all that could be done anyway as the trail is so narrow there is nowhere to pass. Once up to the road my plan was to keep it steady, but comfortable until the climbing began. A handful of folks passed me here, but I knew they were either front runners catching up with the lead pack or people who I was going to see on the climb. On the climb I just hiked hard and steady. Except for a couple early sections that flatten out or descend a bit, I didn't run. I saw some runners trying to maintain a running cadence on the hill and eventually I hiked past them. It's just too long of a climb and too steep to gain anything by running for anyone but the super stars.

  The descent was all about not biting the dust. I felt good and I was catching a few people and trying not to drift as I ran in a little cone of light. A few more night races might convince me to upgrade my Petzl headlamp. I think the one I have would be perfect for those late nights reading in a tent. The night sky was stunning. Not a lot of opportunities to for star gazing when living in a city of 20+ million, but out here on the other side of the mountain, the view was incredible
  After the descent it was a slight climb back to the final descent to the start. This section seems to always kill me, and during the carrera larga y sinuoso a number of people caught and passed me here, which was miserable so late in a race. I passed some folks in the first section and then just focused on running and not slowing down. For a long while someone was right behind me, but I never looked back to see who it was and finally he drifted back. 

  I made it back to the start, got some gu's and few hits of coca cola from my car, grabbed a bag of M and M's, went to the bathroom, refilled my water and  headed back up to the trail for my second, and last loop. It was pitch black and I had never been on this trail before, but the route was obvious and well-marked with glow-in-the-dark reflectors. I was struggling to run here, and was reduced to a walk at some points. I did catch up to the eventual winner of the 6 hour race at at one point, who seemed to be struggling a bit, but then she was gone. After the turn around I started to feel better and played a game where I would run hard to a distant glow-in-the-dark marker and then shuffle for a bit. One guy flew by me in this section, but other than that I was alone: run...shuffle...walk a bit, repeat.
  And then I was done. I didn't feel horrible. I was tempted to head back out there, a part of me was caught up in the 12 hour idea, but my plan had been 40k/6 hour race, so I called it a night. I'm usually racing away after races to go somewhere else, but I had the luxury here of changing into warm clothes, eating some incredible caldo de pollo and hanging out with the Solo Para Salvajes crew and watching the 12 hour runners come in and then head back out for another loop. 
  I felt a sting in my foot, but didn't think much of it, but when I got home and showered I saw that I could have slid the skin off my long toe like a used condom. I've never had any blister issues, so I can only attribute it to the thin dust which just works its ways through shoes and socks during this dry season.

  A solid training run for the Jemez 50. Got some gear decisions figured out and just over 4,000 feet of climbing, and everything over 10,000 feet, topping out at 12,500. Here's the Garmin Data.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Tale of Two Races. The Ray Miller 50k/Surf City Half: The L.A. Double

After the race with (from R) Tom, Craig, Jeremy, the author, and of course, Sofia.

  I'd been looking for a trail race to run in the U.S. with my brother-in-law Jeremy for some time, and the Ray Miller 50/50 was the perfect choice: beautiful trails, fantastic organization and it fell on a long weekend. However, when I first mentioned it to Jeremy he had already signed up for the Surf-City Half Marathon, sort of a tradition for him and his running partners, Craig and Tom. Additionally, my sister, Meggin, was running the half this year as well. Presented with this piece of news, I pondered for about 45 seconds and then stumbled on the obvious solution: let's run both!
The LA Double was born.

  It would be a study in contrasts. The Ray Miller race is in its second year, but has already established itself as a go-to early season race that is run by Kiera Henninger. Impeccable course marking, friendly and helpful volunteers (I was running mid-pack but as soon as I arrived at the first aid station I was greeted by a volunteer asking me "What do you need?" with a sense of urgency that one would expect guys like Dylan Bowman and Timothy Olson --who were running the 50 mile race-- to be received with) The trail was beautiful, varied singletrack with six climbs adding up to just over 6,000 feet for the 50k version of the race. All 300 spots were sold by January 1.
  The Surf-City half in Huntington beach is also well-attended. A couple thousand folks run the marathon, but the real draw is the half: nearly 20,000 runners run up and down the flat road that runs right along the Pacific Ocean. Bands along the way playing beach-themed tunes. Water/sports drink every mile. Lots of personalized t-shirts and carefully prepped outfits. I saw some folks so decked out with hydration packs, water belts and other gear that they looked like they were doing a self-supported run on the John Muir Trail.

Pacific Ocean Sunrise about an hour into the race at the Ray Miller 50/50
Gear check the day before the race
At the 6:00am start
 The alarm was set for 3:45, but I was already moving around at about 3:30 getting ready. We arrived at the race with plenty of time, especially considering the breezy check-in (30 seconds) and two-minute wait for bathrooms. The race director counted 1-2-3 go, and we were off. I was in no hurry for a couple of reasons. One, it was my first crack at the 50k distance and two, I knew that the course narrowed from two-track to a singletrack climb very quickly. The line-up formed quickly and we hiked at steady clip for most of the first climb. Jeremy stayed with me at this point, as I had a headlamp, but he began to pull away, as I knew he would as we approached the top of this climb. The sun began to rise and I felt great.

  My goal for this race was to find a pace that did not feel too difficult and walk the first three climbs and run the final two if I felt good. Once the runners got sorted out a bit I found myself in a sort of "group" where I would be passed on the downhills and gain my position back on the climbs. Unlike the previous (and shorter races) that I have been in, everyone around me seemed to know what they were doing. No one was breathing heavily or bombing the downhills at silly paces. I focused on drinking, eating my GUs and just enjoying the scenery. I stopped to snap photos. As we hit the third major climb I still felt great and I was impatient and tired of being passed on the downs by the same runners, so I deviated from my plan and ran up most of the climb. 

Tim Olson, charging up the hill behind me.  It's probably not necessary to clarify that he was running the 50 Mile race and I was running the 50k. From this point on I'm just going to stick with this version of events: I had a great race but Tim Olson blew by me at kilometer 45 and I just couldn't hang on.
   The only way I can explain what is was like to see Bowman and Olson charging up that hill with 47 miles on their legs is to compare it to an experience I had in high school when I lived in Tokyo: I went to see a professional tennis match (Ivan Lendl vs. Mats Wilander) and my friend Troy Palmer conned our way down to the family/coaches section using his fluent Japanese and personal charm. We were 20 feet away or so from Lendl and while I had seen him on television, nothing had prepared me for the jaw-dropping power of his forehand in real life. 
 Watching Bowman and and Olson move up that hill brought me back to Lendl's forehand. 
  It also brought me back to the fact that I had a bit of a climb left and then the downhill to the finish. I put away the camera and got it done, finishing strong and feeling good. Here's the Garmin Data.

After the race I hung out for a while before heading down the coast to Huntington Beach. I was looking forward to chilling in the Governor's Suite that Jeremy's friend Craig had hooked us up with, but the thought of running 13 flat pavement miles on tired legs did not have me too worked up for the race. I choose to put it out of mind and enjoy the evening hanging out with Jeremy, Tom and Craig. 
  There is not much scenery to look at during a half-marathon. I read t-shirts [two favorites: "wedding dress here I come" and "Bye-bye Baby Fat] and was reminded that the USA is the undisputed personalized t-shirt capital of the world. I was on the verge of shin-splints and my knees hurt, so I ran on dirt/grass/sand whenever the option presented itself. I never could get the legs turning over too quickly, and I realized that my goal of sub-two hours was not going to happen. I never felt winded, but just couldn't move the legs any faster. Or didn't want to. 2:09.
 I drifted mentally. I dumped water on my head every mile. I wanted to kiss the woman who had a big bowl of M&M's (and I apologize for taking so many.) Later on someone had potato chips. I took another large handful and ran contented for a while. Forgot about my knees and shins for a short moment.
  Far in the distance I eyed a mountain range. Here we were, nearly 20,000 of us crowded together, running on straight, flat, unrelenting black-top: out and back.  Yesterday, 300 of us were spread out --often alone, or with two or three other runners-- in the mountains. 
Why the overwhelming preference for pavement? I don't know, but I'm done with pavement outside of the occasional 5k or 10k with my students. Back to the trail.

Room with a view

Meggin: "why let a broken rib stop me?"


In case you had any doubts I was really in Southern California
video of the finish line.

Final thoughts: I was worried about by fitness for the Ray Miller as I was light on long-runs and had lost a couple weeks in training: one to a calf issues and another to the flu. It didn't seem to matter much. On May 25 I am running the Jemez 50, which is going to be a huge step up, both in distance and elevation. My plan is to run the local 63k Carrera de Resistancia in preparation for that, as it falls on April 27.