Saturday 23 October 2010

Big Sur River Run 10k and Training Thoughts

Nice views in Big Sur.

Post-race fat loading at Nepenthe along Route 1.
After not running a 10k for over a year, I decided I should try it again and learn how to do it properly. Luckily, I chose the Big Sur River Run in Pfeiffer State Park.

The park is in the famous Big Sur area and gave Amy and myself a chance to see the a long section of coastline used in the Big Sur marathon (which I'm now really excited about doing next year), including the 1932 Bixby Bridge.

Even though the race was in the park, it followed the river and was on the roads instead of trails so was a fast course. It's also fairly old and established, with this being the 30th running.

Anyway, I've felt more normal in training for the past week so tried a 5k on the treadmill on Thursday and almost collapsed during it, but managed 16:29 for a PB. Wasn't sure whether that would leave me too tired for Saturday morning (it was a really tough session and I've avoided hard sessions for a while), but today went well with a new 10k PB of 34:38 and third. Had to run myself into the ground to not slow down and spent the whole time trying to hold on to the coat tails of the guy in third until I just squeezed past near the end.

So it was satisfying to have two mentally and physically tough runs close together. From what I've been learning from Tim Noakes' 'Lore of Running' (am still getting through this bible-sized tome), teaching the brain's 'central governor' how to push harder and allow me to run faster is the key to improving. That should mean that every hard run I do where I don't give in and allow myself to slow, even as my heart rate soars, would make it easier for next time. This isn't just improving mental toughness, but teaching the mind's natural mechanism for protecting the heart muscle from oxygen depletion how to accept higher effort levels (it's too conservative and has been shown by Noakes to be more of a limiting factor than oxygen and energy stores to the legs and arms).

His book is fascinating and completely science-based, explaining the flaw in the generally accepted paradigm that an athlete's performance is determined mainly by VO2 max. He shows how performance drops off even though there is still energy and oxygen enough for the outer muscles. Instead, it's the oxygen available to the heart that sends triggers to the brain to force the 'central governor' to kick in and force the body to feel more fatigue than the arms and legs justify. I've butchered the explanation and shortened many chapters into two paragraphs, but I can appreciate the logic and science he uses to back it up. Plus I'm sure I'm not the only one who knows how much easier it is to do a particular time or performance for the second time. This was very clear to me in my second sub 3-hour marathon, which was much easier than the first because my brain was willing to accept I could take it, so it didn't try to hold me back to protect the heart. It had been taught that that level of effort was ok, even though I hadn't got any fitter in the intervening month.

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur
I'll be taking on board what I've learned from Prof. Noakes to hopefully significantly improve my running in 2011. Step one will be to race hard in long races less often. It's a tough one, but I'll force myself to jog more long races and just focus on the ones that count...well, I'll try.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Mt Diablo 50k - great views and big climbs

View from Mt Diablo.
Another Pacific Coast Trail Run this weekend, again near Oakland. This time an even hillier one and I hadn't realised just how hilly the Mt Diablo 50k was until I checked out the profile a few days before (8,900ft of climb by going up and down Mt Diablo twice). I think I'm right in saying that Mt Diablo is the highest point in the mountains surrounding the Bay Area, too.

Plus the fact the best times on the course were by some very fast guys and yet only one person had broken five hours. Five hours? For a 50k CR? Hmmm...looked like it might take a while, especially since I've not been able to train much and wanted to 'take it easy' so I could get back to training mid-week.

The event also includes a single loop of the course (25k) and a slightly different course for 8k, the latter starting 15 minutes after the longer runs. So the single and double loopers started off together and went straight uphill, which was almost non-stop from around 600ft to the summit at 3,849ft.

Start line.

I'd hoped to run most of it, but the race was basically a long hike followed by a fast downhill, then the same again. And the second lap certainly felt like a harder hike, particularly when I got my nutrition wrong by not eating enough or taking in any salt. I cramped a bit near the top, but the views made it worthwhile.

On the way up.

The Observatory at the top of Mt Diablo.

Time to turn back and go down...then do it all again.

The checkpoint half-way up.

What a great course and what perfect training for the mountain ultras. Well organised and very friendly too, like all the PCT runs. I ended up taking a bit less time than I'd expected (5:09 and 1st) even with the slow crawl up to the top each time. But the long run back was such easy running, even if it left me with sore legs for the next day.

Got two more of the PCT runs this year so am looking forward to them too. This run will help get me back in shape for the North Face 50 miler final in San Fran at the start of December too, which has over 10,000ft of ascent.

Oh, and Will - if you read this, drop me an email at as it'd be good to sort out some training runs like we discussed after the race.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Golden Hills Marathon

Stunning views along most of the course.
 Had a really chilled run yesterday in the hills around Oakland for the Golden Hills marathon. I've run on sections of that course and knew to expect a load of single track and great views along the way. Luckily, it was also a sunny day, although a bit hot for racing (but fine for an easier pace). Given my tiredness over the last couple of months, I decided it'd still be ok to run this as long as I didn't go too quickly. And with almost zero running mid-week, I'd had a chance to rest as well.

The Race Director is Ann Trason, although I think this is her last year before she hands it on. Every ultra runner has heard of her and there isn't anyone more accomplished (14 Western States wins, two at Comrades, and course records at virtually every race around). So it was a real honour to meet her and couldn't resist a photo (am sure I wasn't the only fan who did this).

RD and ultra legend, Ann Trason

In addition, there were virtually all the fast Bay Area ultra runners, but most were doing the longer version of the race - the Dick Collins' Fire Trails 50 miler. So even with the heat, course records fell in both races. Leor Pantilat ran 3:06 for the marathon and Dave Mackay did 6:19 in the ultra. So some really fast running given the marathon had around 5,000ft of ascent and the ultra was something like 7,800ft.

I felt a bit guilty to choose the shorter version of the race options and would have loved to race against the fast field, but this wasn't the right time for it and it would have just been a bad idea and stopped me from getting back to normal again.

The marathon starts off with around 1,400ft of climb over a few miles and I started mid-pack with a gentle jog, taking a few photos when the views were particularly good. I purposefully didn't want to have any idea what position I was so I couldn't get competitive, but there were plenty ahead of me.

After a couple of miles, Dave Mackey flew by in the other direction, almost half way through the 50 miler in under three hours. Chikara Omine was just behind, then plenty of other local faces.

Some of the descents were steep and I couldn't help going down fast and hammering my thighs, which wasn't the plan. The middle of the section went along the French Trail in Redwood Park, which I've seen in a few other races, all 50ks. It's such a great section with the forest all around and beautiful single track undulating enough to slow most people, but it's still a fairly fast trail. At this point I was really able to enjoy the run, but had to make sure I held back and avoided running hard, which is difficult when you're having fun. There was still 12-13 miles left and I wanted to finish strongly, feeling fresh and not exhaust myself.

View of San Fancisco across the Bay.

The French Trail in Redwood Park - some of the best single track running around.

Lake Chabot near the end of the marathon.

Over the remaining miles I was prepared for more big climbs, but after a high point of the trail around 19 miles, it was mainly downhill and flat. So anyone not too tired would clock much faster miles here even without extra effort.

Lake Chabot was on the left for the last few miles and the sun glinted off it to make for a pretty finish. However, it was also more exposed and warmer, which I knew would really effect the 50 milers, but was not too tough after the shorter distance.

I finished in 3:38, thinking I was around the top 10, but pleased to find out I'd come 3rd. It had been a perfect day out with a chance to chat to a lot of runners, many of whom I already knew. Great course, well organised and really couldn't have been much more fun. Trails are just better than roads, if enjoyment is the aim. The contrast between last week's road half and this couldn't be greater, although that's a slightly unfair comparison given the road race is all about a time trial, which isn't a great idea on overly fatigued legs.

Anyway, it's good to have a fun run and hopefully some more rest will pay off with full recovery so I can train again.

Sunday 3 October 2010

San Jose Rock 'n' Roll Half

Oh crap! Lots of women about to overtake me.
 Since receiving an email with last minute race details, I haven't been particularly enamoured by the Rock 'n' Roll race series. It included a couple of annoying tips and rules. Firstly, it suggested running very easily and not pushing yourself - not what racing is all about. For a flat, sight-free race round San Jose, it's not like you can take in the views. But I suppose it does have bands at several parts of the course for 'atmosphere' of sorts.

The other thing in the email really showed me that it's only about making money and not about creating any kind of enjoyable running experience. It said that for those who can't make the expo, there's luckily an alternative for picking up the bib and chip. But only 350 people could pick up on race day instead. And they ONLY had to pay an extra $30 for the privilege. On top of up to $120 to enter the race...a half marathon (some of their halves cost even more if entered at the expo and aren't much cheaper even if entered a year in advance).

I have no issue with organisers making money from races instead of just doing it for love of the sport or charity. But these guys take the piss and must turn a lot of people off races when they see the mercurial attitude of the organisers. Admittedly, they do attract big crowds and focus on getting beginners to run, which is a very good thing when obesity is such an issue, but these events are only half like the mega events of the London/NYC etc marathons and don't have the courses, spectators or experience to offer, even though they do have the scale (and toilet queues, congestion etc associated with it).

So, although it's certainly good to get people involved in running, it doesn't help deal with obesity or get people healthier if they hardly train then never run again. This is also shown by the fact that, apart from the elites, hardly anyone runs these races and most power-walk. As I came into the last mile, I passed people on the way out at mile four. Lots of them.

I have barely run in the last three weeks, just doing the three marathons at Tahoe, so had a bit of a chance to recharge. But I was still run down at the start line and not in the mood for any mistakes by the organisers, given what I wrote above.

In fairness, the event was well run with plenty of volunteers at water stations (do they realise they aren't helping the community but offering their free services just so the company in charge can make more money?). The start corrals could be entered by anyone, meaning there was little point to them, especially when you could state any predicted finish time anyway. Mind you, I easily squeezed in to the front with just a couple of minutes to spare, so can't complain that it mattered.

Then we all went off and Meb Keflezighi zoomed off to defend his title, one month before attempting to defend his NYC marathon title too. I could see him for a couple of miles (just) and started off as I meant to, but could feel my legs were heavy.

After three miles I decided it wasn't going to be my day and I should just settle in for a jog, so people started to overtake. Another mile and I saw Amy, so I tried to tell her I'd be slowing down, but she was next to one of the bands and clearly couldn't hear. Oops.

I took it a bit easier then found about four or five of the elite women overtaking me. I stayed at my pace and was feeling fine so thought that maybe I'd not let them get away, after all who likes getting chicked? Even if I wasn't going to have a good day, I could focus on gaining those positions back.

Seemed like a good idea while I went through half way in around 38 minutes. Then I felt the heavy legs again and just settled into a pace behind a guy, then a girl. Not too fast, but I managed to hang on for 1:17:29, which isn't too slow, even if it's a few minutes off what I'd aimed for.

Can I stop now?

The course was just roads and showed off a chunk of San Jose but not anything particularly pretty to take my mind off the pain. I didn't end up taking it easy, except the middle couple of miles. I'm sure a lot of PBs were achieved as it is a fast, flat course, but not for me. And Meb won by a couple of minutes in 1:01:45, just slower than last year.

Meb high fiving after his win.

However, it all feels a bit empty - a hard and mainly unsuccessful effort in a not very memorable race. Trails are more fun, but this sort of thing is needed to work on speed.

Probably no running until next weekend's Golden Hills marathon in Oakland. Might have to jog it to continue my resting, which at least means it'll be a relaxing and fun race. I'll also get to meet Ann Trason at the event, basically the biggest name in female ultra running ever. She's the RD.

Anyway, that's the end of a slightly bad tempered posting. Apologies, but when you see the contrast between today's event and some of the excellently organised trail races, which have really passionate people trying to make sure everyone gets the best experience possible, this type of road race can seem soulless.