Monday 25 April 2011

Ruth Anderson 50k

After using a double-header weekend in April last year to get ready for Comrades (Salt Lake City Marathon on a Saturday then Boston on the Monday), I wanted to do the same this year. But the closest I could fit in was Boston on last Monday then one of the Ruth Anderson Ultra distances on the Saturday. It was just a case of choosing what distance would be the best for me as well as the most fun - 50k, 50 miles or 100k. All I knew was that previous times were fast and it involved running around a lake in San Francisco, although I wasn't sure whether it was on a trail or if it had any hills.

Lucky, Race Director Rajeev Patel was really helpful and I opted for the 50k (on a basically flat bike path, it turns out) since I didn't want to be too tired to train well for the last few weeks before Comrades. It's against my general principle of running the longest distance if there's a choice, but 100k was really a bit much and something shorter and faster made more sense.

The course is around Lake Merced and all the distances involve combinations of laps and part laps of the accurate 4.47 mile route. I'd never been before so it was a good excuse to see somewhere new and not too far from home, plus it's a really fun race with a great, friendly atmosphere (well, it's an ultra so this isn't unexpected). Rajeev definitely knows what he's doing and it's a very efficient and effective operation.

All the races started together soon after sunrise and I found myself running in the lead with a French guy, Martin, for almost three laps. The trusty Garmin was there to keep me honest around a 6:15/mile pace (3:14 in total for the 50k) but Martin was pushing me faster and I couldn't help but stick with him.

Laps flew by and the legs seemed to be fine, even after a run up and down Mt Diablo two days before (Western States fear is kicking in as it's not far away). I managed to keep the pace even throughout, which is the main aim of a training run, but I couldn't settle down into Comrades pace at the 6:15s. It was weird but every time I tried to correct my pace I'd go too slow so I just had to stick with something a little closer to 6s since then I could then keep it even. As issues go, this is certainly better than if I could only settle into a pace that was too slow, but the main aim was to focus on learning the right pace.

The aid stations were great and everyone was really supportive as the laps ticked off until I got to the finish feeling a little more tired than I'd intended and having tried harder than I meant to. But I got a course record in just under 3:11 and felt like I could have kept going, although not for 40k more, as at Comrades. However, I'm really happy with my progress so far this year and it was very enjoyable. I did feel a bit left out when I saw everyone keep going but I'll wait a few months before doing a road 100k. Joe Binder knocked out an impressive 7:00 and a few seconds for a great win although I'm sure he's disappointed to get so close to breaking 7h. Full results here.

I've been mentioning Comrades more on the blog recently because I'm definitely getting more obsessed as it gets closer, and now it's just five weeks away. But if I can hit the target time of 2:41 next weekend at the Big Sur Marathon (to fill in one of two remaining gaps in my marathon minute game, as mentioned in earlier posts) then I'll feel like all's perfectly on track after about six weekends in a row of long races at a decent pace. Which will just leave the Miwok 100k the following weekend, but that's going to be at a much more comfortable pace and the leaders will have washed and showered by the time I finish. It was one of my most enjoyable runs last year and this year should be equally as good, plus I'll know a lot more of the guys this time around.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Boston to Comrades

Looking keen at the start

Backwards running to avoid being run over by a wheelchair, like at Honolulu

With a single night in Boston, I had a way too short trip to my favorite road marathon. And what a ridiculous year it was for speed and records. In case you're reading this (i.e. have at least some vague interest in distance running) and don't know that the elite men rewrote the record books, Geoffrey Mutai ran 2:03:02 and Moses Mosop ran 2:03:06, both smashing Geb's 2:03:59 from Berlin a couple of years ago.

However, it doesn't count as a world record since the course has too much gradient (a net downhill of around 400ft) and the start is too far from the finish. The official requirements are discussed in an interesting article in the Boston Examiner here about whether it should count as a record. My two cents are that Boston is typically harder than other major courses, so even though there was some tailwind benefit for some of the race, I was there and it wasn't enough to make up for the slower course. Yes, it was a great set of conditions for Boston, but both those guys ran the best, most impressive marathons ever. Ryan Hall's American Record of 2:04:58 should stand for the same reason.

Anyway, although there was a lot of other interesting stuff I could write about in the men's and women's elite races, I'll switch focus to the rest of the event. So this starts with me flying in on Sunday morning and watching the looped mile races. The school boys/girls races were good, but the elite men and women put on a great show with photo finishes in both. I mainly mention this because it's an excuse to include my photo of British Olympian Andy Baddley just pipping a high schooler (Lukas Verzbicas) on the line. Andy took it a bit too easy and this kid will go on to great things given what he showed against pros.

Andy Baddley winning the invitational mile race...just

And as ever, the actual marathon for the masses was a seriously fun race with fantastic, enthusiastic support, often from intoxicated students. The morning was cold thanks to the light wind, which was a pain for the long wait after getting the official buses to the start in Hopkinton. I started to think how much more relaxed and fun the start of an ultra is and why I make sure I do stuff other than just the huge city marathons. But even though there were too many dead-pan faces, too much lycra and more stress in the air than necessary, there was also a great excitement and nervous energy. Many people take years to get a qualification time and you can tell how much the event means to both the racers and the locals.

Once I got into the starting pen I tried to find Brett Rivers, who'd just gone off to join a toilet queue minutes before. We'd agreed to run together for a 2:44 pace but I couldn't find him and so hoped to somehow spot him in the deep crowd as I ran.

2:44 was for two reasons. Firstly to continue my slightly pointless, yet excellent for pacing practice, marathon minute game (with gaps of just 2:34, 2:41 and 2:44 from 2:32 to 3:12). Secondly to get training in for Comrades, which will require that speed for 54 miles of hills if I hope to break into the top ten this year. So I needed to feel comfortable the whole way, run the Newton hills strongly and finish feeling fresh.

When I randomly caught up to Brett at about eight miles, I was sticking to this plan but he was struggling slightly to keep on pace. So we only ran together for a minute before he told me to go on ahead. Halfway  meant the screams of the Wellesley girls and their demands for kisses. I only high-fived them, but that still increased the pitch of the screams and I didn't see anyone who didn't smile as they ran through.

The weather was perfect without a doubt and the wind only generally made things easier, so I was able to feel fine the whole way through to the Newton hills, which start from around 16 miles and go through to the top of Heartbreak Hill just before mile 21. People started to flag around the hills but I didn't see more than a couple of walkers.

Then, as I approached Heartbreak Hill, I decided to see what I had in my legs, with the aim of then taking it easier to the finish line through the biggest, noisiest crowds of locals. And what a great feeling it was to switch pace that way, although not a great race tactic if that had been my goal. It didn't cause any problems and actually made it easier to run the final miles faster, which meant I had to continuously look at my Garmin and pull back off the pace or I'd miss 2:44.

Those last miles were almost as enjoyable as last year, when I'd sped up and had a zen-like run through for the last 5k. And my final goal was achieved when I crossed the line since I was genuinely fresh and ready to keep running. Maybe not a double marathon at that pace, but I have a bit more time and a taper to hopefully help with that.

It got me thinking about how I want to feel running Comrades. It's a far harder course than Boston, with 7,000ft of climb but if I can do the first half like Boston then it'll set up a race in the most satisfying sense of the word. It takes a huge mental effort to focus throughout a race and never give in to those internal voices that say you can't do it, you're not fit enough or any other excuses. I can't focus that hard too often or I'd feel burnt out but I've been saving up for Comrades this year and want to see where I'll end up. Whether that's where I want to be or not I can't tell, but I'm determined to make it be at my absolute limit so I have no regrets.

Then there's the little matter of racing Western States four weeks later. But one thing at a time.

In the meantime, it's just a few days until Two Oceans 56k in Cape Town and it looks like Mike Wardian is really focusing on this one, so good luck to him in the fastest 50k race in the world (followed by 6k extra).

Saturday 9 April 2011

Grand Canyon and American River 50 miler

RD and top four men at AR50.

Busy week with a few days at the Grand Canyon (nice excuse for some pretty photos) then straight to Sacramento for the prestigious American River 50 miler.

Sunrise at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

I wasn't scared, honest.


Posing at the GC.

Those are some sweet trails.

Very windy, but what a view.

Amy and I got home at midnight on Thursday from the GC then headed off to Sacramento the next day. Was great to run and hike around such a beautiful place and I've now definitely got the Rim2Rim2Rim on my radar.

Then we had a tiring night at a motel with a party in the next room for much of the time before the 6am start on a bike path. The race is basically in two halves, with a flat and road-style bike bath for most of the first 28 miles or so, then single track the rest of the way. So I ran off from the gun in the dark with Colorado-based fellow Brit Nick Clark for a few miles as Jady Palko and Jason Loutitt flew off into the distance.

Jady faded after a few miles but Jason was flying and went through the 26.5 mile time check in 2:41, ten minutes ahead of me in second then Dave Mackey another minute down. Dave had passed me around 22 miles but then dropped behind again for a few more miles of bike path. He passed me for good at about 28 miles as I had to nip into the bushes with my stomach feeling dodgy.

Apart from those first couple of miles at the start of the day as I chatted with Nick, I hadn't got into a groove at all and the pace on the bike paths had felt much harder than it should have. I wanted to race hard but it looks like the previous month of tough training for Comrades, plus the trip to the GC, had left me feeling a little tired.

So when I hit the single track, I was suffering and couldn't enjoy the fact that it was a great trail, with comfortable temperatures and great views, especially near the end of the race. Instead of jogging through and taking it all in, I was counting down the miles and couldn't wait to finish. That was compounded by a turn at 30 miles that had lost its marking so I spent a couple of minutes trying to work out where to go before a cyclist pointed me the right way. I was almost ready to drop out then but am very glad I stuck with it to avoid the DNF. From what I heard, all of the lead men lost various amounts of time here and it may have even affected the end result since Jason says he lost around seven minutes and he ended up in second with less than that deficit. But at least someone went back from the next aid station and marked it again so that everyone else would be fine.

The remaining 20 miles felt like a huge effort but I told myself that as long as I kept moving you never know what can happen in an ultra. Also, I expected Jason to struggle after such a fast first half. Instead, I kept moving along the riverside trail, up and down over the countless short, sharp rolling mini hills. The only notable event I had was a trip, tuck and roll a few miles from the end. Luckily it was just a scrape and I was straight up again without a limp.

Then the race became really interesting for the final three-mile climb. After going solo for almost the whole distance except the brief exchanges with Dave, I suddenly saw Nick "I live in the mountains and run uphill ten times before breakfast" Clark behind me. I hadn't seen him at any point behind me and knew I had 900 vertical feet to climb, while feeling pathetically slow on the uphills. Just what I'd hoped to avoid.

I held him off for about a minute and he was much faster up the steep first climbing mile. But I was still within sight and only 20-30 seconds behind as the climb eased out to a gentler angle. I wasn't going to give in without a fight, no matter how lame my legs were acting, so I started chasing and was able to close on him, even as he sped up and looked over his shoulder. For some reason I thought the hill ended about a mile from the end and that it'd be a flattish finish so I kept at it and Nick and I sped up briefly to a 5:20/mile pace with maybe a five second lead for Nick.

We saw Jason come into view and were closing on him, but couldn't tell if there'd be enough distance left. A sign showed us we were a mile from the end and we still kept up a fast pace, but then it got steeper again and I couldn't stick with Nick, even as we both slowed. So the last half mile was an interesting show for me to see whether Nick could catch Jason. I didn't have the legs or enough distance to pull them in so ended up in fourth in 6:00:29, within 30 seconds of those guys and less than five minutes behind Dave, who'd run a great race to take the lead from 38 miles.

My immediate reaction was disappointment, especially at losing a position so close to the end, but the time was still pretty respectable and it'll strengthen the legs for Comrades (where I'll have a proper taper).

The course was great and it had a quality field so I'll be back for more at future AR50s, although the day was packed with so many races to attract ultrarunners (the last day of the MdS, the Bull Run 50 and the USATF road 100k championships, to name a few).

Congrats to Ellie Greenwood and Kami Semick for their 1-2 at AR50, which was also a 7-8 overall. And to Devon Crosby-Helms for becoming the Women's US 100k champ. Oh, and to everyone else who ran an ultra today, while I'm at it - this race certainly reminded me that just finishing can be a bitch.

Full results here.

Monday 4 April 2011

PCTR Tilden Trail 50k

Lake Anza and the reservoir, Tilden Park

SF and the Bay Bridge

Mt Diablo

SF and the GG Bridge

After dropping out of the last three PCTR ultras I've entered for various reasons on the theme of injury or lack of  recovery, I decided it'd be nice to finish one this time. And since I recently moved to the East Bay, it's convenient that the next available one was the brand new Tilden Trail 50k in Berkeley (only half an hour from home).

6,100ft of climbing on what I expected to be dry trails after a scorcher or a week with highs around 80+ degrees F. However, much of the lower trail network was shaded and the previous weeks of torrential rain had left it boggy and slippery.

That didn't make it any less fun, although I did lose both (road) shoes in one section on lap two of four (with the last loop being different) and had to walk through the mud to retrieve them. And once up to the highest section there were blue skies and perfect views of Mt Diablo as well as most of the Bay Area, with a great vista of SF.

After several months where I've been meaning to get my a@% in gear and run more trails uphill, I think I've finally got a start on the road to uphill fitness so the aim was to not walk too much. Oh, and to not pull either of my calves again. I think I managed it and probably had a running motion for maybe 4,500ft of the total ascent and a decent power walk for the rest.

As always, Sarah and Michael of PCTR put on a great event and were kind enough to leave the hardest climb to the last 400ft of ascent. I didn't ache during the race, felt recovered from last weekend's race and seem to fine the following day too. So all in all it was a 'sensible' way to train and get in a long, hilly run. Plus the 50k was fairly small with just 25 entrants so I was able to win too, in 4h19m.

Next up is American River 50 miler in a week and it looks like the elite field has thinned slightly (Chikara Omine out with a broken foot and Anton K has, I think, opted to give himself more time to get ready for the bigger, longer races of the summer). However, there's still a lot of guys who would generally win anything they turn up to, so a famous race like this will bring out the best in them. Should be fun.

I also just found out that the official rock of California is Serpentinite, which is particularly apt given my London club is Serpentine RC.