Sunday 25 July 2010

San Francisco Marathon

A fun, mainly scenic and tough marathon today around San Francisco. The city's marathon is one of the few road ones in July so had plenty of ultra-runners showing up who clearly had a free weekend. I saw Mike Wardian at the expo, fresh off his indoor marathon World Record of 2:27. I think even he's lost count of how many times he's run around that time even just this year and he was out for a win and a CR (standing at 2:26ish).

I've felt sluggish since Western States and have tried to do some speed work a few times but had to cut back to a jog when I felt there was nothing in the legs. Given I happened to be reading Tim Noakes' 'Lore of Running' recently, specifically the chapter on overtraining, I was trying to weigh up whether I'm just knackered from recent races or overtrained. There was only one way to tell - try to go hard in a race.

It started early at 5:30am and was chilly with the first few miles in pre-dawn darkness. I stayed in a cheap Travelodge and managed to get bitten all night by bed bugs so barely slept and won't be using their brand again. But by the time I started I felt fine and ran off with the others at the front of the start line, going too fast. I also managed to forget my watch or Garmin so had less idea of how well it was progressing.

The course is fairly hilly and windy, with the first half having a particularly hard section up to the Golden Gate Bridge, over it and back. I tried to stay with a group of people and pace with them but it got strung out fairly soon around the top 20 and I had to run on my own. Running over the bridge was very cool, with a mist over it and everyone got to see the rest of the field coming the other way due to the out-and-back.

I got a time check at halfway and was pleased to see 1:18:30, which was better than I'd expected given the wind and undulation. Then the second half was flatter with more protection from the wind and I just tried to hang on even though I really felt less fresh than usual.

Overall it was a great race and I'm glad I was able to fit it in. I managed to just get a negative split, but that was mainly due to the second half being easier. 2:36:35 and 8th felt like a promising result and at least I seem to be knocking out ties around that frequently. Mike W broke the old course record with 2:25 but was pipped to the win by a couple of minutes. After chatting with others, we reckoned the course added maybe four minutes so he probably ran equivalent to near to his best time. The man is certainly consistent.

Definitely up for more of the same next year. I met a few local marathoners and ultra guys too so am glad about that. Although I do feel I missed out a bit on either the Lakelands 100 miler in England or 'The High' 100 miler in the Himalayas which were also this weekend. But every weekend is a compromise between all the amazing events which exist these days. Ultra-running is booming and that can only be good.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Headlands 50 miler

This year's course went through Tennessee Valley again and again and again.

Just back from another ultra and the first post-Western States. The Headlands 50 miler covers most of the same trails around the Marin Headlands as Miwok did and a whole load more races do too. There was also a marathon option with a 1.2 mile section added on to the start of the 25-mile lap.

This one was pure hills and a new course thanks to some road/trail work blocking off a section of the course. So instead of the accurately measured two-lap course with one out and back section, it was mainly the same but had an extra out and back bit so it looked more like the spokes of a wheel, centred on the Tennessee Valley Aid Station. And I'm sure it added a bit of distance too since each lap was almost 26 miles on the Garmin, which is usually accurate when there's no tree cover, as was the case.

So I turned up after the pre-dawn drive from San Jose through downtown San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge wanting a good training run. And a win. Oh, and a course record would be nice too, but the 7h03m time set last year was by one of the top US ultrarunners.

It starts on Rodeo Beach, just like Miwok, but goes the opposite direction, with the hardest section of Miwok as the start. Which means doing that steep up and down four times, being each way on each lap. But that's not the only hard section and basically the whole course is like that.

The weather was perfect for running with mist and clouds but no rain or heat. This made the first climb more comfortable and I sat back just behind a couple of guys to the top. By the time we started going down the trails I overtook them as they were being fairly cautious. Although I'd hoped to have people to run with, I then spent the rest of the day on my own, only seeing other racers on the way back from each out and back. At one point I ran along with Devon Crosby-Helms who happened to be out on her local trails after being pulled out of Western States just over half-way, meaning she didn't get any points and so didn't win the Montrail Ultra Cup.

At halfway I'd manged to not get lost even once and at least had the whole course in my memory so it would be unlikely I'd miss a turning. I had about a 10-minute lead and went through in 3h26m, comfortably under course record pace for the shorter, flatter course. However, I had tired legs and had probably pushed a bit too much. But with Western States still not completely out my system, I think I was always bound to slow down.

The second half involved more walking on the hills with walking breaks being minutes long, not seconds. But at each out and back I could tell I was gaining a bit more time on the rest of the field. The last out and back gave me around a 30-minute lead on second and around an hour on third, which surprised me. I'd slowed but clearly the unrelenting hills were taking a toll on everyone. I finished in 7h25m, just under four hours for lap two. Not ideal pacing, but I don't think there was much I could have done about it on fatigued legs.

The course was well marked and the aid stations were generally well stocked, although some weren't ready the first time I came round and it was lucky I'd brought my own gels and water backpack. I couldn't enjoy the scenery as much as at Miwok as I put more effort in and it wasn't full of sunny vistas. In fact, every hill-top was in mist the whole time I was out there, which was cooling but meant the views were blocked.

Weirdly enough it turned out to be good speed work, even with the big positive split. I flew down some of the steep, technical sections at sub 5-minute mile pace on lap one, and cruised down the easier downhills around 5:30 pace. That's probably why I'm so sore a day later, but it felt more comfortable than it used to. Just wish I could do that on the flat.

It was a race I'd recommend with most of the benefits of Miwok except the lack of fanfare and without the stacked field. Plus no issues about needing to be lucky in the lottery to get in. It was perfect training for mountain races although no climb was bigger than 1,000ft (300m), so that doesn't compare to the non-stop climbs of some races which can be five or more times the size (that 7,000ft or 2,000m climb at Transalps last year springs to mind). If I keep doing this stuff it should get easier and I'll have calves like Popeye's.

I didn't quite get into the zone and have fun, but once I'm recovered I'll be able to do that again. San Francisco marathon is next up in a week and it'll be fun to get an elite start there and some VIP treatment. I just hope I can run with some vague pace to justify it.

Monday 12 July 2010

Something a bit shorter - Smith Rock Half

The view from part-way up Smith Rock's main trail.

A nostalgic weekend but I managed to squeeze in a half marathon anyway to get my first post-WS race. I was back in Bend, OR, for the weekend to see Amy plus a fair chunk of her family, who were visiting. It's my last trip to Bend while still kind of living there (Amy moves at the end of the month to join me in San Jose) and the weather was perfect for summer fun and floating down the river.

Doing a half seemed a little anti-climactic after a 100-miler and with Badwater's 135-miler starting two days later, but I don't do many shorter races so it's good to mix it up. As I write this, Badwater is underway and I know a couple of people doing their first one, including James 'hallucinations' Adams. Rather them than me but I can completely understand the lure of such a ridiculously hard race. I better finish this write-up so I can get back to being the official Facebook poster for updates for James so people back in the UK know he's still going well.

However, the race that I cheekily squeezed in was the Smith Rock Sunrise Classic, a reasonably flat and fast half marathon in the shadow of Smith Rock, a famous hiking and climbing landmark north of Bend. As the name suggests, it was an early one with a 6:15am start, soon after sunrise. Definitely a great location and you wouldn't expect a flat race with Smith Rock in the name, but this one was well organised, fun and seems to be growing - there were around 340 finishers in the half plus more in the 5k and 10k.

I felt sluggish and had heavy legs with the 100-miler still leaving me less than fresh, so I thought I'd aim for somewhere around 1:17/1:18. That was good enough for the winner last year but I suspected that at least one of the local speedsters would show up to go way quicker. Plus I had tried a tempo run on the Wednesday and found that pace extremely difficult to maintain.

However, to my surprise I found myself running with one other guy at the start and plenty of footsteps just behind. But no obviously elite runners - 12 minutes for the first couple of miles would have been way too slow to be in the lead normally, especially as some guys were bound to go off too fast. So I just stayed in joint first until mile four before running ahead since the guy next to me kept varying his pace to zoom past me then slow down rapidly. I wasn't sure if it was a tactic or just a desire to keep recapturing the lead, but he faded after I kicked a bit anyway and finished well off the pace.

I'd hoped for a hard training run and got what I wanted. Keeping it around 6-minute miling was exhausting and my legs didn't have much in them. But I seemed to be gradually pulling away so had the incentive to keep going all out. As a consolation, I compared the hour and a bit of running here to the 17+ hours of WS and how an hour of pain isn't really that much.

Wind and slight inclines made my lungs burst but I had a good patch in the second half with a couple of 5:30 miles, which gave me a confidence boost that I haven't lost too much pace with all the recent ultras. It was also very cool to have my own police motorbike ahead of me to stop any traffic from squashing me. I've had a bike to follow in city marathons before, but never a cop.

I managed to hold on and get 1:18:05 for a win by about 1:40 and was very happy to have finished and won my first half marathon. This short stuff is a killer, although I don't usually mind this distance. I got an excellent training session in and it reminded me that it's time to start doing speed work again if I want to get that marathon time down below 2h30m. I think it's doable in a marathon at the end of August as I'll be nice and fresh and rested after my honeymoon and no races for the 4 weeks before it.

I'll miss Bend but at least I got a great last race in there before I left. I'll definitely have to come back for the odd long weekend and race since it's such a beautiful area. Next up is the very hilly Headlands 50 miler on Saturday then the San Fran marathon the week after, where I'd like to go a bit quicker than in this half to confirm that I'm in shape for a full pace marathon a month later.

Happy racing over summer everyone. So many beautiful races to choose from around the world.

Monday 5 July 2010

Reflection - one week after Western States

Just a quickie now. It's been just over a week since WS and so it's sunk in and I'm running again after forcing myself not to for five days (was meant to be a week but I felt fine).

When I finished I was generally exhausted and not too keen on doing that to myself again. It felt so slow to run all day long and even have walking breaks, but I learned some valuable lessons for future 100s. Yes, there will definitely be plenty more since I didn't screw it up and it is satisfying to complete longer distances.

It wasn't as fun as running shorter ultras and I'm pretty sure that the 56 miles of Comrades is about the optimum distance for me, as well as the most enjoyable. Although 100k (62.2 miles) would also fit in with that, which is lucky since I was honoured to be offered a place in the GB 100k team a few days ago. I can't make it this year due to work and next year the World Championships are at Winschoten in the Netherlands, but are two weeks after UTMB. So maybe not even next year for my debut representing my country, but I'm only 29 so have plenty of time to fit it in (not normally the way I think about races I have to admit and I'd rather fit in every race going this year if I could).

Ultrarunning is a funny world. The World/European etc Championships are very low key and attract a decent, but not always outstanding field. Comrades has a much higher standard and the male and female winner would only have to jog (almost walk) the remaining 10k or so to get a time which would win the World Championships.

And for trail running, there's high quality shorter races organised as Sky Races and World Cups but beyond the marathon there're no meaningful Championship races. Instead, races like WS, UTMB or Davos become the equivalent of the Marathon Majors to the marathon world - the best come to race even though there's no title (or much money for the ultras). That's why this year's WS did shine in one definite respect - it attracted a large number of, arguably, the world's best ultra trail runners. It felt like a championship, and not just a North American one thanks to Killian Journet. Being part of that was something special and something I want to repeat, plus the silver buckle was nice.

I've said it before, but I'd rather race against the best and see where I stand than win a race with no competition. There's something very appealing about testing yourself against not only a course or time, but against other people. That's why I think I'll have to run Comrades forever and will turn up to WS frequently too. UTMB should be a good option next year and one other race I haven't mentioned - the North Face Challenge 50-mile Championship Final in San Fran in December. The latter has the biggest ultra prize purse outside of Comrades and, maybe, Two Oceans - $10k for 1st. So it attracts hot competition and is conveniently local for me now. Definitely worth focusing on over winter. Hopefully I'll see plenty of familiar faces there.