Sunday, 23 January 2011

PCTR Pacifica 21k

View of Pacifica from 1/3 of the way up

Pacifica and San Francisco in the background

Really lucky today with amazing weather again for a PCTR race. No rain in the preceding week and bright sun with temperatures up to around 70 degrees Fahrenheit by the finish (in January! I knew there was a reason I came to California).

I opted for the half marathon, not sure how I'd feel after racing hard last weekend, and felt surprisingly good. It's a fairly tough course, with over a 1,600ft climb up Mt Montara, then back, followed by two smaller climbs of about 400ft and 800ft. There were also 30k, 50k and 9k (without the mountain) options, but the other courses basically involved duplicating parts of the 21k route, so I got to see everything

My aim was to try to avoid walking at all and to hammer the downhills, given I've had a chance to start hill training, but still have a long way to go. And I'd been challenged to a race by Will Gotthardt, so expected him to lead on each climb, then to play catch-up on each downhill.

Instead, I was in a pack of four (including Will and Leigh Schmitt, and Leigh was running the 50k) to the top of the mountain then ran on my own for the last bit of the climb and back down. There were dust-free views for miles out to see and towards San Francisco, although I was starting to feel the climb by the point these got really spectacular. Luckily, I have some photos from hiking there a few weeks ago.

After that I really went for it on the downhill and felt good on the funnelled single track which was still full of people on the way up. After that the track got wider for a really fast running surface and I went about as fast as I ever have, comfortably running sub 5-minute mile pace (never thought I'd be able to say that...even if it was downhill) and getting closer to 4:30s nearer the bottom. This made it hard on the thighs for the switchbacks given each involved braking completely to do a 180, but I didn't have 50k to pace for, so it was worth the effort.

Then the 400ft climb came along, which I'd expected to be easier, yet I ended up walking several times even though it wasn't steep. The first climb had sapped my uphill fitness. I cruised down the other side to catch my breath and dreaded the final ascent ahead.

Luckily I could see a fair way back on the course when I started that last hill and couldn't see Will, so I thought I'd be safe as long as I didn't walk too much. In the end I did jog most of it at a crawl, but still had to walk many times for short sections. Not because it was steep, just because climbing is still feeling very hard, but hopefully runs like this will change that soon.

The last two hills didn't have the vistas for miles and miles, but were still in pretty sections of parkland. And the final downhill was wide enough track to race at a high intensity (10 minutes for the last two miles...technically a PB, especially given the switchbacks taking pace off every now and then), passing 9k runners, some of whom I'm sure I scared the crap out of  (especially the ones with earphones).

I'd hoped to get somewhere close to the CR of 1:32, which would have required some sensational downhilling to make up for the time I lose on each climb. So 1:34:52 was a real confidence booster. Will came in in 1:40 and Leigh won the 50k (I think...but haven't seen confirmation), with fellow PCTR Team member Caren Spore breaking yet another CR in the 30k.

I think my flat and downhill running is better than ever, so if I can just sort out the uphill stuff with a few months of intensive training then I reckon I could be in for a great season. It'll also make these races so much more enjoyable - currently I'm struggling so much uphill that it feels much less fun than it should...or did last summer.

But overall a great day out in the Bay Area and lots of people to meet at the finish. Michael Popov (PCTR management) was there looking ridiculously fresh for 1 week after the HURT 100 in Hawaii and he had nothing but good things to say about that race. So it just confirmed that I want to enter the lottery for that beast for 2012. It'll even keep my wife happy to have an excuse to go to Hawaii again :)

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Angel Island 8k then the Phoenix marathon

2011 has started well so far. The first thing was a trip to Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay with Amy. I opted for the shortest distance in the PCTR race there as part of a taper before the Phoenix marathon on the following weekend. The PCTR 8k was excellent and there were plenty of others running the 16k and 25k races, which started just before.

Really glad I showed up to this, since it's beautiful and we were really lucky to get perfect weather, even if it was a bit cold. It's basically an 800ft climb then an 800ft descent and had great views along most of the way (although I only really enjoyed them after the race). I wanted to see if I could run uphill yet and found that I can't really, but at least I didn't have to walk, just go slowly. And I almost managed to get the course record, so that would have been a nice bonus, but maybe that's something for next year since I missed it by four seconds, running 33:17. And since I've mentioned it, I have an excuse to include some photos of it, since I don't have any from the next race.

Then I continued the taper with the aim of breaking 2:30 at Phoenix, something that I've wanted to do for a while but I haven't managed to turn up to a marathon start line feeling fresh for ages (all these races may have something to do with it...).

The conditions were almost perfect in Phoenix - not hot and maybe just a bit too much wind, although it was calm really. I started off at 2:30 pace (5:43/mile) but after 2 miles of trying that, I could see I didn't have it in me on the day. Just not enough pace yet.

I got into a pack after a few miles and tried to draft as much as possible, especially as they pushed the pace up. Somehow I stayed with them as they started clocking miles splits bang on 2:30 pace and at halfway (1:15:43, although the mat was maybe 100m before the half way sign and basically next to the 13 mile marker) I wondered how long I could stick with them, thinking every extra mile was money in the bank. Given I'm generally good at not dropping much speed even when exhausted, this seemed like a better plan than trying to do an even pace to the end. But very soon afterwards the pack broke up and I found myself pushing on with just one other guy, Matthew, who was a bit older but seemed very steady and strong. Again I just wanted to hang off his coat-tails for as long as possible, but he slowed too, so I had to go it alone for the remaining 11 miles or so.

I'd altered my target from 2:30 since I'd really put in a hard effort to halfway and couldn't see how I'd do the second half even faster. Instead, I wanted to get as far below 2:35 as possible, so kept slogging away at a high intensity. In the last few miles I kept going through stronger and weaker patches and was caught at around 22 miles by a masters runner, who seemed very comfortable.

I kept on his shoulder, hanging on once again (this is not a fun tactic at all and I'd much rather feel good myself and push the pace, but it worked this time round) until the final mile when we turned a corner, he went wide and I decided to sprint on to the finish alone and try to out-pace him.

Luckily for me, he'd tired himself trying to drop me so I broke free and could see one more guy ahead, who seemed way too far away to be catchable. But by 26 miles I got to him then flashed past without him reacting, which surprised me. I later looked up his result and he'd run the first half in 1:11, so had bonked badly to let me catch up.

I was exhausted, but was on for my second fastest time so didn't want to give in at all, particularly with two guys only feet behind. Then the finish was a big relief, and the other two finished just seconds behind after a great battle for positions (the 1:11 guy just stayed ahead of the masters guy). And as another surprise I was in the top 10, with a respectable 7th in 2:33:34 (four minutes behind 6th, who ran the time I wanted - 2:29).

The biggest positive was that I didn't give up, so it was a great training run, both physically and mentally, for the ultra season. But now I need to find another marathon in the Autumn to race for a personal best.

The marathon was part of the Rock 'n' Roll series, but was better than the San Jose half marathon, just. Still overly expensive and with several issues (listed below), which seem to apply to all their races, but there aren't many fast courses to choose from in January and this was fairly close to home, plus Gebrselassie got the half marathon WR here a few years ago.

These are the simple things they could do to improve it:

1. Accurate mile marking - although the total distance was correct, some mile markers were well off, like the even paced miles I did at the start which gave me a 6:30 mile followed by a 5:00 mile off their markers.
2. When there's tens of thousands of runners, corrals are great, but what's the point when the times aren't verified? As I picked up my number, an overweight lady also picked up her number which started her in the first pen. Odds are she wasn't running a sub 3h marathon (or sub 5h judging by her size).
3. The bands along the course are generally bad and the speakers are so loud that as you run past you're blasted off the street - I can't see how this is appealing to many people (at least not after experiencing it).

But I did like the expo this time round since there were plenty of freebies and great running celebs. I got Meb Keflegzighi's autograph and any chance to meet world class elites is always a pleasure. Then I even bumped into Blue, who ran the 2009 Tahoe Triple and is the RD for the Malibu marathon, which he was promoting.

I doubt I'll return to these R 'n' R races since they aren't good value for money, but I had a good time pushing myself and enjoyed meeting people before, during and after the race. It was also interesting to see Josh Cox go for the 50k WR by running the marathon then on to a track to finish off the distance. He already had the American Record at 2:47 but he broke that and just missed the WR by seven seconds, in 2:43:45, after winning the marathon too. Wonder if he'll give Comrades another go after it not going to plan for him last year.

Heading over to Angel Island

View of the Golden Gate Bridge

Downtown San Francisco and Alcatraz

SF and Alcatraz again

View NW of the island - Tiburon and Marin County

Nice trail for a run

The ferry port on the island