Wednesday, May 26, 2021

USA Triathlon Age Group Olympic-Distance National Championships Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 15; 3rd Edition 
1900 yards swum, 38 miles biked and 22.3 miles raced in 2020 races
Race: USA Triathlon Age Group Olympic-Distance National Championships
Place: Fort Worth, TX
Miles from home: 200
Weather: 75 degrees; 100% humidity

I have standing rule: if a national championship race is held somewhere near me, and I am free, I will race that race, regardless of how unprepared I am for it. It led me to taking part in the US Mountain Running Championships six years ago when I was woefully unprepared for a trail race three times up a mountain. It pushed me to take on newish territory at both the Duathlon Championships in 2013 and the Aquathlon National Championship in 2009 in North Carolina (which actually wasn't close to me at all) and just up the road in Austin in 2017, just two months after I was attacked by two guys who fractured my face and broke my thumb. My theory is that triathlon and its permutations as well as some running events offer the opportunity to take part in National Championship races for us mortals and passing it up would be silly. In fact, my current 50km PR is at the 50K Road Championship Race where I was the tenth fastest 50km runner in the nation that day. Sure, I knew that there were oodles of runners who could beat me but only 9 of them showed up. To finish top ten in the nation in something is a proud moment I know can never be taken away from me.

So when I saw that there was this triathlon three hours away in Fort Worth a few days after me jumping into a local tri in Austin that would allow me to compete against top triathletes in the nation, I decided to sign up. I threw myself into a crash course trying to get into shape by doing a triathlon workout five days in a row two weeks before the race. Considering from June 1 2019 to the triathlon I did on April 25th of this year I had ridden my bike a grand total of twice, this was an epic amount of cycling for me. I am not going to get too deep in the weeds here about cycling but it is not my favorite sport. I just don't like relying on a machine first and foremost and I really loathe relying on one that people who pour more money into can have a better product. I will try to keep the extent of my comments on cycling to that.

I spent ten days before this triathlon visiting my mother in my hometown and as always the case when I go home, for some reason, I have trouble breathing for the first few days. I felt like that set me back a bit but you do what you have to do. By the time I returned I just had a few days  to get back ready for this race. I was pleased with the effort I had put in and hoped to finish in the top three of my age group. A podium finish in a national championship race would be a nice feather in my cap.

Race Morning:

A 5 a.m. wakeup call awaited me to be ready to race at 7 a.m.  Ooof.  God bless you early morning risers, but I am not one of you. Loading up my bike to take it to the start of the race, I was happy the deluge of rain from the previous day seemed to have abated but it was clear we were going to have a fully-saturated, 100% humidity day.

Arriving at the parking lot I got into a line of about 50 other athletes waiting to get body marked and/or pick up our timing chip. Pickings were slim for bike placement in the transition, but I found what I considered to be a not-so-bad spot to place all my gear. A longish line to the bathroom awaited and before much longer it was time to head down to the water to get ready for our swim.

I have only done like 15 triathlons in my life. Some people finish that many by May of each year. But the one thing that has been constant in those races is each swim start seems to start late, seems to be a puzzle as to where exactly we go, and seems to leave most people shrugging and thinking “Well, just don’t be first and follow the wake!”  This one wasn’t much different.

Swim: 23:30 (39th out of 202)

We lined up to start by the honor system of roughly where we thought we would finish. Then one by one we would give our number to the timer, run off the edge of a dock, and dive in. This was one of the most fun swimming starts that I have done. I thoroughly enjoyed sprinting at full force and then diving into the water. I noticed I was one of only a handful of the 200+ people that was not wearing a wetsuit. The last wetsuit I had didn’t fit me properly and I haven’t purchased a new one yet. I’ve also never been bothered by the coldness of the water and in fact feel quite invigorated by it even on the odd chance I’m actually cold. (I never am.) The swim was rather uneventful with me passing a handful of swimmers and feeling like I did a fairly decent job of sighting. I definitely have a long ways to go to get back into the strong swimming shape that makes me a better natural swimmer than runner but felt pleased that I gave all that I had on this day. I was surprised to finish as slow as I did, at least according to the overall swimmers, but it put me right about where I was when I entered the water so I guess I gauged my starting position correctly.

Transition 1: 2:38 (24th out of 202)

This transition was a long one because we had to exit the reservoir and then run up a long paved steep parking lot just to get to the bikes. After we got all our bike gear together we had to run out of the transition, then run all the way around the transition paddock before making a U-turn to get on the road and start the bike. I lose a lot of time on these transitions so was doing my best to speed them up. I am more than pleased to have finished as high as I did in this one. Nearly top 10%? I’ll take it.

Bike: 1:14:10 (80th out of 202)

Because of the rain all the night before and even into this early morning I was extraordinarily wary of how wet the roads might be. Along with not being the strongest cyclist in the world I’ve had two bad bike crashes in my life that make me quite fearful of any type of turn. I was happy to see that for the most part the roads were relatively dry and also smoothly paved. I knew that this bike would be twice as long as the one I have done in my previous triathlon last month so I was simply trying to conserve my energy as we went through the first loop. I like loops because they allow to know what is coming ahead of you. I could see that the front part of this course had more uphill than the second half so that allowed me to plan accordingly.

Throughout this first loop I was playing cat and mouse with a young female cyclist who really surprised me with her athleticism. She would not be considered the thinnest of athletes or what you would normally see at the front of the pack of race and therefore it was wonderful to watch her push me and the other competitors and breaking stereotypes along the way. We passed each other numerous times on both loops as it was clear that we each excelled at different parts of the course. It was on the second loop where I really started to feel my groove and began to pass a few cyclists which was quite a surprise. That’s not normal for me. I had probably 10 to 15 cyclists pass me which, to be honest, I

thought there would be much more. A final push at the end had me passing two cyclists who had just passed me and after the dismount and the run to the transition I was ready to see what I have left in me for the run.

Transition 2: 1:30 (39th out of 202)

I was surprised during the transition when one of the cyclists ran past me like I was standing still and was quickly onto the run. As I racked my bike I decided to take a couple extra seconds to take a big swig of cold drink before heading out myself. I could tell that this run was going to be very difficult simply because of the humidity and it really got into my head knowing there was very little I could do about it. The transition wasn’t as good as the first one because of this break but it was still better than usual for me.

Run: 46:53 (45th out of 202)

I knew the run was going to be a challenge simply because it ended in the last mile with quite a steep hill that we would have to climb back up. It was also a winding and undulating course that would also raise a challenge for my already tired legs. However in the first mile I passed more than a few of the cyclists who had beat me into and out of transition and was narrowing the gap on more than a few in front of me. It was kind of hard to exactly tell who was running what race because they were a multitude of different distances in realize going on so my attitude was try to pass as many people regardless of who they might be. The footing was a little difficult in some places even on the paved trail simply because there was still lots of water running from multiple sources all over. My shoes are a little too old to be still being used for racing and the tread is not the greatest. I did a couple of slips and slides here and there as I headed towards the turnaround but didn’t pay much mind. 

As I hit the 4th mile was just a little over two miles to go I was closing in on one last runner that I thought I could make a charge at. After I passed him with a mile and a half to go I tried to put on a surge but he definitely was feeling his oats and was willing to give me a chase. Soon thereafter I went through another watery area and slipped pretty good this time. I felt a little bit of a twinge in my hamstring and almost came to a dead stop. The next few steps were ginger as I attempted to make sure that nothing was askew. The gentleman behind me was kind enough to ask me if I was OK and when I applied in the affirmative, he gave me a “Let’s Go!!” to urged me to get to the finish. I could tell I didn’t really have that much more left in me as the humidity was sapping my energy and as he wasn’t in my age group I wasn’t in the biggest of hurry to push my luck on what felt like a slightly tweaked muscle. 

As we began the steep climb to the last mile of the race I was reduced to a walk as my body just drizzled sweat from every pore. Any last gasp attempt to pass the runner in front of me, who was obviously feeling it as well considering how often he looked over his shoulder to see if I was pursuing, was for naught. I just wanted to finish strong and hopefully take a top three in my age group. Only one person in my age group had passed me during the bike so I was hoping that there would still be a chance. I pushed it hard on the last little stretch finishing a very disappointing run to the best of my abilities, crossing in 2:28:39. My overall place was 44th overall and unfortunately two spots off the podium with a fifth place finish in my age group.

While I didn’t even finish in the top third on the bike it was a huge improvement over my last triathlon which was half the distance but slower at 17 mph as opposed to 20.2 mph today. The swim was surprisingly low in terms of my placement but the Olympic distance definitely brings out the swimmers as it is the most generous in terms of percentage of the distance that is actually in the water. My time kind of bums me a bit because even if I had just had a decent run time I would have finished 3rd in my age group. Alas. 

All told it was less than I had hoped for but right in line with what I could have actually expected realistically. I will say one last time, however, that if going to continue doing this, I need to get a better bike!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Cal Tri Austin Sprint Distance Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 15; 2nd Edition 
400 yards swum, 13 miles biked and 16.2 mile raced in 2020 races
Race: Cal Tri Austin Sprint Distance
Place: Pflugerville, TX
Miles from home: 20
Weather: 50-60 degrees; sunny, humid

A Facebook notification came across my view about a triathlon just up the road a piece a week from then and I looked ta the weather report. This might be the last time in Austin in six months where I won't melt in the sun. Sure, I haven't completed a triathlon without incident in five years. Sure, I have been on the bike twice since June 1st, 2019.  Sure, I am dealing with some inexplicable weight gain and lethargy lately.  But it will be 52 degrees on race morning!

Not this race; but that's Leeroy

So I signed up, made sure their was air in the tires of Leeroy Jenkins (my ten year old Cervelo) and plunked down my quid (plus tax, plus convenience fee, plus destination fee, plus eye color fee, plus whatever extras fees ended up adding an extra $10 to the total cost) and realized I was the absolutely last one to register.  How did I know this?  Because when I went to check something else out on the webpage, it was all sold out.  Good timing I guess! 

Look I don't say I am out of shape and not in racing shape as an excuse.  It is a fact. I have well-meaning friends tell me I will do great and I can do this.  Well, great is relative and I know I can do it.  I mean it was a 400m swim ,a 13 mile bike ride and a 5k run.  If there comes a time where I can't complete that on any given day woken up from a drunken stupor, that will be a very bad day in my life.  But if my motto about how completion alone is rarely enough for me wasn't emblazoned in my mind pre-pandemic, it sure is now.

As I rapidly approach my 45th birthday I feel like the past half-decade has been wasted to some extent athletically. First with the obvious pandemic but then with a change in my attitude and focus in the previous four years spending way too much time trying to use what I had to stop the atrocities which were going on around me in government. I just feel tired. But I know races invigorate me. I love to compete. I love to challenge myself. And taking on something like a sprint distance tri, where sprinting never was my strong point, when I am out of shape, would be a good challenge. I don’t get a kick out of entering long-distance races when I am out of shape to stumble along in generous cut-off times and accept a medal for showing up. For me, often, fun follows suffering.

Race Morning:

Getting up at 5 a.m. is standard for many people. Going to bed at 3 a.m. is standard for me. The two do not go well together when preparing for a race. But I had gotten myself to bed at 11 the night before which was one heck a victory for me. As I got my gear together to make the relatively short drive to the race, I was exuberant that it was mildly chilly. I do not experience mildly chilly much here in Austin.

Setting up my bike and run gear in the transition, I was a little uncertain where would be the optimum place to put everything to cut down on my transition times. I know my transitions leave something to be desired in these races and wanted to cut down on an unnecessary time additions. I chose what looked like a decent spot and readied myself for the swim.

In place with plenty of time for the swim start I could see we weren’t quite ready to begin. The buoys (which I learned the British pronounce “boy” - weirdos) weren’t in place and the course wasn’t quite being relayed to us competitors. While precautions were being taken to battle COVID, they were sort of throw out the window here as we waited impatiently in groups, trying to talk and then remembering that we should stay away from each other as well.

Finally it was all sorted and a triangular swim course with a running staggered start into the pleasantly cool 68 degree Lake Pflugerville is how we would start our day. I positioned myself about 15-20 people back and got ready for the plunge!

Swim: 7:42 (9th fastest out of 122 finishers)

As expected, the first few strokes of the swim were a bit chilly as I eschewed the wetsuit others were using for both buoyancy and warmth and worn my skin-thin US National Team Aquathlon Qualifying suit (Brag brag. Hey, I dropped an exorbitant amount on this baby. I am going to use it as often as I can!)

Nothing much to report in this short 400 meter (or so) swim other than I felt quite good, passed around three or four swimmers and had no one pass me. I hit the sand, had an weird falling-to-the-right, my-balance-is-out-of-whack thing but other than that, all went well.

I think I am one of these swimmers

Transition 1:38 (32nd fastest)

We had a little bit of a run from the water to the transition area but this game me time to start the GPS for my bike. I hadn’t started it for my swim as the watch I enjoy using doesn’t have the greatest triathlon features. No great shakes.

I did take a little bit longer than I would have liked getting through here and saw I hadn’t chosen the best place to put my bike. In fact, I had chosen one of the worst sports. It was about the furthest from the entry form the swim and furthest from the exit for the bike as possible. Good work, Rauschenberg.

Bike: 39:23 (33rd fastest)

I had seen from the course profile that this was a rolling course at best with some nice steep little climbs. I am sure others will disagree how steep or how hard it was but, for me, it was a challenge. Not horrible, but not easy.

I stayed in the back pocket of one cyclist as we started but after dodging one car who sorta made me a bit nervous around the first mile, I found I had it in me to pass this fella. I cycle so infrequently I don’t know how much to push or what is being winded or anything else about how I should go. But I felt this was a good pace and decided to keep going as long as I could. Around the fourth mile I heard the telltale “whirr-whirr” of a fancy bike and sure enough the first cyclist to pass me did just that a few seconds later. I did my best to keep him sight on the long straightaway but I was more focused on just keeping my eyes o the road and passing a few cyclists out on the road for exercise. They must have been enjoying the fruits of our closed/monitored roads.

Another cyclist passed me around mile 6.5, as we were going around a turn. I am just so uncomfortable on the bike and will give everyone a wide berth in any such circumstances. Two bad bike crashes in training many eons ago have removed most of my fearlessness in this arena. But that wasn't the case with this guy. He probably didn't even think twice.

Around mile nine I had three pass me in quick succession including a woman on a bike that looked as old and actual “bike-like” as my own. I was quite impressed at her skill level. (I am unsure if she was in my race or in a relay or what and will have the check the pictures later.)

Finally around mile 11 one last cyclist passed me on a long flat straightaway. But as we approached an uphill I soon found myself right on him again. As I passed him, he jovially announced “We don’t have these mountain in Houston!” I couldn’t think of any more definitive proof of how much a bike can help someone than this instance. When all things were equal on a flat, I couldn’t stand a chance against a guy on a much nicer bike. But the minute we hit some hills, even undertrained, I was able to over take him.

Soon thereafter, he (Tom) passed me again and with just a few hundred yards left and car traffic to navigate, I was in no hurry to overtake him.  So I just eased into the transition.

Transition 2: 1:15 (48th fastest)

Nothing much to add here other than noticing my poor placement of my gear again and how I lollygagged a little getting out of the transition.

Run: 19:17 (14th fastest)

Exiting to the run, I was excited. Even though with far less swimming practice it is clear I am just fundamentally a better swimmer than anything else, I do spend most my time running. In addition, I had run this loop previously, even if it was nearly two years ago (May 26th, 2019, to be exact, or just one week before the last time I had ridden my bike until a few weeks ago. Hmm.) As such, the familiarity gave me great confidence.

I passed the affable Houstonian cyclist who let out a mockingly derisive “You again?” and a quarter of a mile later passed another runner, Yan. Now it was a little difficult to tell who was running what as we had pedestrians out enjoying the morning, runners out for their workout, and the various races going on around us. Therefore, I simply tried to catch everyone in front of me regardless of who they were and this helped me motor on.

About halfway through I saw two guys with matching outfits running in close tandem. One was slowly but surely gaining on the other and I was gaining on both of them. I suddenly began to feel a twitch in my right calf which gave me pause. I have been dealing with a left calf/heel/achilles issue for a year, but this was not only the other leg but definitely up in the calf region alone. As much as I wanted to track these guys down, I knew there was nothing worth hurting myself for. So for the next half mile I backed it off a touch to see how it would feel. Luckily, it didn’t protest any more.

With a slight bit of acceleration, I narrowed the gap between the three of us. The runner who had been behind the other was now in front. I soon was in their shadow. With half of a mile to go, I made a definitive move to pass them both and kept on pushing. I saw absolutely no one else in front of me for the remainder of the race. I knew this didn’t mean that people might not still end up in front of me because of the staggered start but for now I had passed everyone I could.

I crossed the finish line in what looked like 9th place in a time of 1:09:17. I would end up 15th overall. Four competitors would finish less than a minute in front of me time-wise, including the two nice guys who I had just passed in the final half-mile. Good thing I didn’t sprint harder at the end and tear a calf muscle or whatever.

The race was well-run and followed the exact same course of the Lake Pflugerville Tri run here in June. I have thought about doing that one occasionally but it is usually eleventy billion degrees centigrade by that time of the year so I never have. I wonder if they are no longer running it or this race had an agreement with them or what exactly. Regardless, other than the late start, I thought it all went very smoothly.

I was fairly pleased with my overall result. I don't think I could have been much faster on this day given my training and fitness level. Perhaps I will throw a few more tris on the schedule and try to get myself into shape for them this summer!

Friday, April 9, 2021

Three Creeks Half Marathon Recap

 A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 15; 1st Edition 
13.1 mile raced in 2020 races
Race: Three Creeks Half Marathon
Place: Denver, CO
Miles from home: 949
Weather: 50-60 degrees; sunny, windy

A week before this race, I had no idea I would be racing. After a 2020 where I only squeezed in a half-marathon in the last few weeks, it had now been a year and a half during which I had only put a race bib on once. For someone who used to run 30 or more races a year on the regular, that is an odd thing to type. However, 2019 and 2020 had been the years where I had run the most miles ever in my life. When you aren't racing, and aren't traveling, you don't have to take days off to recover or prepare, in order to stay sane, you run.

In January I felt a twang in my achilles on a rather routine run. I had to shut down my longest running streak ever: 306 days. I took a few days off and fortunately, while the heel/achilles pain I have had for over a year now is persisting in some ways, I am very glad I took that break. Not only did it allow what seemed to just be a minor injury heal (or not get worse) I was getting a bit obsessed with the streak, something I think happens to many people who start to focus too much on making sure they run every day, and not what the running is doing for them.

Since taking those days off, I had backed of my mileage overall from last year as well. Part of that was because, in spite of a freak snowstorm in Austin in February, the overall weather this year had been warmer than last. As such, I couldn't run as hard or as long.  Plus, I think the toll the last year (or last four really) took on my psyche was finally beating me down. So I wasn't even looking at races to run.

Then, a business opportunity arose in Denver that had me getting on a plane for the first time in over a year, the longest non-flying streak I have had in probably 15 years.(This is the All-Streak Race Recap, folks!)  I figured if I was going to be in a city I hadn't been in for close to a decade, I should try to find a race. When I noticed there was a half-marathon in a park that didn't look to difficult (I would be coming from just above sea level to 5500 feet) I saw a perfect opportunity to add to the list of states I had run a half-marathon in. Then I realized I had in fact already run one half in Colorado and had simply forgot.  Given it happened just two weeks after a solo running of the 202-mile American Odyssey Relay, maybe I should cut myself some slack for not remembering. But I had paid the entry fee and was going to run it regardless.

You see, I do best when I race myself back into shape. I am not that great at training for races. I thrive on competition and in hindsight it is not surprising that my first ever sub-3 hour marathon came as my 42nd marathon in a row in 2006 during the middle of my 52.

Race Morning:

After an absolutely wonderful business meeting the day before the race, I was in exceedingly good spirits.  It felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. To be quite honest, I wasn't exactly even wanting to race as my friend Heather drove me to the start of the event. What I had come to do in Denver had been a success and this was just an early morning distraction somewhat. Yet as we got closer to the start, I knew what I had been missing lately and that was the competition of racing.  

In the past few years many of the races I had run had been glorified training runs. Often I would be on trails or in sparsely populated areas, rarely surrounded by all that many runners. The races weren't the huge events many seem to prefer and I am blessed enough to be fast enough that I usually don't have that many people around me. As such, it tends to lead to lonely racing conditions. As we pulled into this event's parking lot, and I looked around at the small amount of competitors, I realized in order for it to be as safe as possible given the pandemic, it was likely I would be experiencing more of the same.

As the minutes counted down for my wave of runners to take off, I looked around at my environs and was at least pleased it was dry, relatively cool, and I was healthy enough to race on this day. The metaphorical gun was fired and away we went.

First Three Miles:

I had NO idea how this race was going to go for me. I was under-trained, at elevation, and on an unfamiliar course. The race website touted the course was "as flat as it is scenic, with a total elevation gain of just 291 feet spread out over the 13.1 mile course." While 300 feet of elevation change is not a mountain by any stretch of the imagination, it is not, by any means, flat. We started off by leaving the parking lot starting area and after a short uphill had a slight downhill for a quarter of a mile or so.  Immediately three guys took off and I knew I had zero chance of keeping them in my sights today.  Next up two other guys were bit further behind them, and then another fella a tad behind him. I sat soundly in 7th place.

The first mile passed in 6:51 and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't feel like I was pushing it too hard and I thought I might actually go sub-1:30 (6:52 pace) today.  As we continued on the winding paths, which to this day I have never understood why winding golf-cart-esque paths slow me down so much, I was just trying to keep runners in sight. We had a bit of a wind in our face and the sun was surprisingly warm and bright. I concentrated on my breathing the best I could, especially as we began to run up some small hills. I could hear some runners behind me but they didn't seem to be catching up just yet.  That's good.

The second mile was a bit slower in 7:10 but I was hoping maybe the mile markers were a little askew and I was still running the same pace. I could feel it a little more in my lungs on this mile as approached 5700 feet above sea level. The first set of runners were nearly out of sight. Man they were going to kick my butt today. 

As we approached the third mile, which would be a very disappointing 7:2x, signifying I was indeed slowing and the markers were perfectly fine, we began passing a few of the people who had started running before us. They were taking 0n the marathon and I couldn't even fathom doing that today.

To the 10k:

I began to climb upward at this point in the race and around mile four we left the paved roads and began running on trail.  This is my fault for being ignorant of this terrain as it was listed on the website. Nevertheless, the racing flats I had on were not doing very well on this dirt. I laughed because these shoes had never been worn but were at least eleven years old. I am trying to use all the shoes I had accumulated over the years and this pair were pristine when I put them on that morning. Lord knows how I would fare in them even without the difficult terrain given the last time I had worn the same style was at in a triathlon 6 or 7 years ago.

Down a dusty dirty path we went when suddenly I saw saw pock marks in the surrounding dirt.  something darted out of one of them am stood tall and high. Prairie dogs! They were every where!  Zipping and running, surveying the runners from what was obviously avast network of underground tunnels, these chunky little rodents made me smile through the thinning air. I don't recall having ever seen prairie dogs in the wild before and this was quite a treat.

The lead runners were coming back to me now and now it was down to two guys in front with a third trailing by a bit more. I can see from the results the top two guys were just a second apart through the first 5 miles of the race, trading places even at one point. The eventual winner would only build a few second lead through 8 miles before finally beginning to make a move at mile 10 to win outright by a minute.

I hit the turn around on the dirt path and was a little bummed to see one runner a little too close for comfort behind me. Another was a little bit further back and didn't seem to be a threat. Soon after though, the first female runner came into sight and I knew she had started in a different wave. I was fairly certain her chip time would be faster than mine today once all hings were said and done. I just ached to be back on solid ground with a slight downhill to help my lungs.

To Mile 10

Not long after the 6th mile I heard footsteps behind me and knew the closest runner was about to pass me. Most of my miles had been a disappointing 7:2x or 7:3x and I as just doing my best to not run my worst half-marathon ever.  OK, it wasn't that bad but it wasn't great. When that runner, named Ryan, did pass me, I just thought I would do what I could to stay with him without putting myself in a position that would be too difficult to recover from.

We turned off the bike path and onto a paved road. As much as I don't understand why golf cart paths slow me down, I will not understand how running on a paved road that stretched on straight for a while gives me life.  Ryan had but a good ten yards or more on my but soon I was in his back pocket.  and just like that we were back on a path again. Soon thereafter we began climbing not only a pretty steep hill bit one on dirt. Drats. But as we crested the hill, I was still hanging onto Ryan. In fact, according to the timing mat, I was only two seconds behind him.

Now we turned and headed back and the downhills were giving me life. I didn't want to pass Ryan here as I didn't feel it was time to make my move. But it was starting to get a little tough to hold back.  If I am good at anything it is downhill running. Soon the downhill slowed, we were on those twisty paths again and I held my position. That was until we got back on the road again. I could tell Ryan was slowing and holding back any further was not a good choice. So I bit the bullet, made a definite passing move and steamed towards the tenth mile.

Coming Home to Finish:

Even though this had been a tough race for me, I saw that if I maintained what I had run the past couple of miles I still had a chance to go under 1:35. Far from what I wanted but respectable. I knew the course did not follow the same route back to the finish as we had run out so the unknown was how much uphill would be. The answer is a lot of uphill.

Right at the 11 mile mark, we turned and immediately went up a big hill on dirt. In fact, most of the last 5k was on dirt. Having made my move on Ryan, I knew I wasn't going to run a time I wasp leased with but I was going to do my best to keep him behind me.This is hat I had been missing. The racing. The small battles with the runners around you. The surges. Seeing what they have and trying to figure out what you have to battle it.  

Normally I would sneak a glance behind me to see where my competition was but as the hills grew under my feet, I was too preoccupied with getting oxygen to worry about anyone else. There were a few on-racers out on the paths and they were mostly polite enough to get out of the way. We had to cross over a few roads here and there and the volunteers were excellent and making sure we knew which way to go. Someone, of course, had a cowbell and it made me laugh to think that April 8th would be the 21s anniversary of that cowbell skit on SNL. Yep, you are THAT old.

I could see the finish line arch in sight but it was way too far away. Another hill popped up in front of me and this might have been the worst of them all. Eyes on the prize, I kept chugging. Finally cresting this beast, we were back on sidewalk and soon running downhill.  I gave it all I had to make sure I would not get passed in the final quarter of a mile and finished the race in 1:37:12- my 94th slowest half marathon ever (out of 106.)

But it sure was nice to be out racing again. I thanked Ryan for pushing me along when he finished about a minute after me.  It turns out that he had come from even lower in elevation than I had - Los Angeles! In fact, he mentioned he came to Denver to watch the Rockies-Dodgers game that I would be going to later as well. I spoke to him and a few other runners, some from the area, who all agreed this was neither flat nor easy course. That made me feel better about my own conclusions!

When it was all said and done, counting the superb business meeting setting up some massive changes in my life and  getting another race under my belt, it was one hell of a successful stay in Denver!

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Stars at Night Half Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 14; 1st Edition 
13.1 mile raced in 2020 races
Race: Stars at Night Half
Place: San Antonio, TX
Miles from home: 68
Weather: 50-60 degrees; windy; dark halfway through

A week ago I found out the only marathon I thought I may be able to do to continue my streak of running a Boston Qualifying time for 16 straight years was filled. I was more than a bit miffed. I am not exactly one who celebrates streak unless those streaks are ones that also include a touch of personal excellence. By that I mean, simply running, or racing, just for the sake of doing so to keep some arbitrary streak alive has never been my bag. But to race hard, get a time every runner at least knows about, if not hopes for, well, that is something different entirely.

But with that option out the window, and me refusing to endanger myself or others by needlessly flying or traveling hundreds of miles just to chase even this goal, I was resigned to reality. Hell, far worse things have happened to far many more people this year. So, as I cooled my heels on Monday after a 17.5 mile run, I happened to find this half-marathon in San Antonio just a few days later. While the BQ streak was out the window, lesser streaks of running a race every single year since last century (yep, 1999), running a half-marathon very year since 2004, and winning a race every year for 7 years straight were still up for grabs. The first two were accomplished simply by crossing the finish. The last one would take more effort.

I had been writing a post about how this would be the year with no races. Now I had to scrap that entire thing. But writing it further instilled in me why I race as opposed to why I run. I race to run as fast as I possibly can on that day. I had been listening to a podcast earlier this week when for the eleventy billionth time I heard some pandering person talk about how those at the back of the pack are both
a. working harder than anyone else; and
b. having more fun than anyone else

My simple question is, unless you have been at both the front and the back of the pack, how would you even know? Of course, this is extremely delicate territory. Unless proper genuflection is done, any such opinion is seen at elitist. My point being that very few people are the best, but you can be the best you and that truly is all that matters. I just had to figure out what the best me would be on this day.

Race Day:

First and foremost I could not have been happier that this race started at 5:15 p.m. I am a person whose body clocks skews toward the night. Even being undertrained, overtired, and having not raced in over a year, this start time would help me greatly. I was also very curious how a race would be handled in the COVID-ness of our current society. Without going into a great amount of detail, I feel how the race handled all the precautions was about the best one could possibly hope for in an event of any size over a few people.

It was obvious the entire experience here was a streamlined version of what it normally is and I can see how it would indeed be one fun adventure for racers and spectators alike when it was in full bloom. As it was, it was still a rather festive affair, being held on and around the grounds of the JW Marriott Resort north of San Antonio. It was quite clear that normally this was more raucous occasion but given the circumstances, it was still quite enjoyable.

First Three Miles:

The race started with runners making an immediate right off a dirt path we were corralled in onto a golf cart path which would comprise about 60% of the race's surface. Runners would be sent out in groups of about 20 or so every few seconds to help maintain safety protocols. I wore a mask (I reviewed here) for the first half mile or so until it became quite clear I wouldn’t be around many other racers. I had made an Ocular Patdown of my competition and I guessed I might have 3-4 people who would be vying for the overall win with me. Unfortunately, unless they started in the same 20 people as I did, I wouldn’t know how far back they actually were. I assumed that most trying to run for the win wouldn’t seed themselves back too far but people have done trickier things to win a race.

I passed by the staging area/finish line for the race and a runner passed me. I knew there was half-marathon relay going on at the same time but had no idea who was running in it. If I wanted to win, I had to at least keep this fella in my sights until the exchange.

Running on the golf cart paths for these first few miles we were treated to some rather formidable hills. I passed the first mile right around seven minutes and I was relatively pleased with that given all the things listed above. When I saw a mile marker 10 I remember that this course looped around on itself often so this hilly section is what I had to look forward to in the final 5k. Ooof.

We crested one hill and the setting sun was blinding in our eyes. How odd that this would be a race which would have required sunglasses at one point and would also necessitate a headlight later. Speaking of the latter, I had forgotten it would get dark but luckily the race sold $10 headlights for the forgetful ones like me. It didn’t look the best quality but for ten bucks, can one really complain?

The second mile went by in 6:36 and I had a feeling one of the first two mile markers was off. I have always said that mile markers are neither certified nor are they required. So when they are present it is a nice addition. Unfortunately, while I normally know what my pace is by effort, being so out of racing shape, I was going to have to rely on these to know if I was really tired or just tired as I hadn’t run sustained sub-7 mile pace in quite some time.

As the path twisted and turned, I could see some of my competition behind me. I had a little more breathing room than I had expected but was also surprised to see an older chap nipping at my heels. With a nice long downhill in front of me, I used one of my few running strengths to not only put a little space between us but also close in on the leader, now just about ten seconds in front of me. The third mile had me at a 6:26 on my watch. Could I really be doing this well?

Onto the 10k:

Coming off of the golf course and down into the hotel area, we were greeted by cheers from spectators. An ankle-breaking but visually pleasing jaunt through some Christmas lights and Santa’s sleigh display in the back courtyard of the hotel was followed up by a quick chin-scraper of a hill. Down the other side of that hill, and through the parking lot, with a little bit of dirt trail running popped us out onto the roads surrounding the complex.

I am a road runner. When I get even concrete under my feet, I am happiest. With both lanes of traffic blocked off, I could save the mental energy spent on thinking about my run and switch it all to the quads. I could hear the footsteps of a runner behind me but wasn’t quite ready to let him pass me. The lead runner turned around some cones and I soon followed suit. A few hundred meters later, Chris, the older fella I mentioned earlier, popped up beside me. “I think we can catch him. He is slowing,” he said.
“No, you are just picking up the pace,” I replied.

We stayed together for a few seconds, exchanging a pleasantry here and there but still in racing mode. Another turn on the road had us climbing an incline again on another blocked off two-way street. I let Chris go but fell in not too far behind him. He separated a bit from me and cut the distance between me and the lead runner in two. We all went around the cones to send us the way we came just a few seconds apart. I was surprised to see a younger fella far closer behind me than I expected. I decided to use the downhill here to close the gap on the two guys in front of me and hopefully stop any charge the young fella had in mind.

We turned back onto the road we had come from and it was clear we were going to take it all the way back to the cones again. The sun, having been set for about ten minutes was finally completely extinguished by the hills around us. It was time to grab the headlight.

To Mile Ten:

As Chris passed the leader they both did not do a full turn to head back the way we came but rather were directed down a side path. They plunged into darkness and disappeared. The last thing I saw was both of them reaching to turn on their torches (shout out word to my British readers.) I took my lamp off of my hand (I didn’t trust this on my head the entire way having never worn it on a run), slipped the strap over my head, and pushed down hard on the light to turn it on. I must have had the lamp on upside down as pushing down on the top to turn it on instead completely removed the light from the strap and sent it onto the path below me, shattering into a million pieces.

“Well, crap,” I said except I didn’t say crap and I didn’t just say it. "I best catch up to the guys in front of me," I thought. I could at least kinda sorta use their light to help me see in the dark. I knew this effort  wasn’t going to work very well after the first few steps, however, as the twisting path also undulated at unexpected intervals. 

But I pushed on best I could, as we passed runners still doing the 10k. Luckily some of them were lit up like Christmas trees and I used them to guide me. I next slid into this under-bridge tunnel which, given a rain shower earlier in the day, had some standing water in it. Some runner were mincing around in the few places where it looked dry so I was forced to splash through on the far left and hope there wasn’t a bottomless moat.

Coming out the other side, up a steep embankment, across a little bridge and the up another steep embankment had me right on the heels of the former first place runner. “Ooof, this is a toughie!” he said and I agreed. About a quarter of a mile later, I could tell he was done being in front of me and I slipped on by. I wasn't ready yet to pass him but it was time for that to happen. He looked at my head and I said “dropped and broke my headlamp!” He laughed and replied “Well, go get the other guy and use his light!”

Now completely in the dark, with fortunately, or only, a sliver of moonlight to guide me, I could make out Chris, a bit, in the darkness ahead. He had two different bike guides, which had previously been leading the guy I just passed. Every once in a while I would see him turn off his headlight and as impressed with his racing technique. Earlier I had seen him do the same thing as he was approaching the leader. It was clear he didn’t want to alert him to his presence. Smart tactics. I could tell this guy didn’t just know how to run, but he knew how to race. I guess if anything, not having a headlamp would at least not alert him to my presence. Maybe I could catch him napping.

Up in the dark I saw the leader make a right hand turn at a lighted-up intersection. I had lost my bearings a bit and as such didn't know where on the course we were. But as I passed this same spot I realized we were now back at the starting line heading somewhat in the direction of the golf course. Running by the spectators at the hotel, I heard a few hearty cheers. Then I heard the cheers for me. I ascertained they were cheering for the leader and by the time difference between the two of us I could tell I was a gaining ground. 

But just as quickly as we stepped into the well-lit golf paths, we left them again, Now I was in the dark. I mean, I usually am figuratively but now so literally. As we climbed the hills from earlier , I knew running them in the dark would be that much more difficult.

To The Finish:

For these final three miles I was basically running blind. I could juuust about see the golf path (or the grass or trail we ran on occasionally) but from the previous loop, I knew it had some cracks in it, had tons of little bumps, and was not something I could ignore and simply try to catch the runner in front of me.

And in front of me he stayed. I somewhat closed the gap but was wasting precious energy looking where my feet went for the remainder of the race. Every time I would lose a bit of focus I would do one of those “I thought-there-was-one-more-step-left-on-this-staircase-throw-out-your entire-knee-and-hip"spasm step which would bring me back to the task at hand.

I could see, as we looped around areas we had just ran through, that there was no one behind me unless they too were a fumblefingers fool who broke their headlamp as well. A rather treacherous path in the dark spit me out onto the golf path for the last half of a mile. I shockingly saw the leader runner just a few yards away and then realized I had to do the little out and back on the hotel yard again to catch him. A brief and fleeting thought of perhaps still winning the race gave way to a sad trombone noise in my head.

In the last 100 yards I had to dodge some pedestrians who, even though one runner had just came through, thought there would be no way another runner, here on this race course with lots of runners, might also be coming by. Granted I didn’t have on a headlamp but come on, people.

I slipped on my mask again, made the final turn to the finish and saw the clock ticking away. I was pretty disappointed with the time I lost in the final 5k but accepted that a 1:32:18, in the dark, on a tough course, was a heck of a good comeback race. This was my 105th lifetime half-marathon and my 75th fastest. In addition, since moving to Texas I can think off the top of my head of three marathons, two half marathons, and a 25k in which I have finished second. I think the rest of my life I have only finished 2nd in three other races.  I am almost destined to JUST miss out on the brass ring. Boo hoo, I know, but when you are only moderately fast, the chances of winning are not much better than if you are moderately slow. It only takes one person to beat you and that has happened a great deal in the past few years for me!

The winner, Chris, exchanged elbow bumps with me and I saw he beat my by about 45 seconds. That's close but not really all that close at the same time. He asked me what age group I was in (not sure why, since he won the damn race) and when I told him I was 44 he replied "I'm 61."  (Oh, that's why. A little well-deserved bragging.) Normally I would hang around and congratulate other runners but then I remembered "Pandemic".  Instead, I trudged through the finish, around a lazy river, a pool, through the back yard, across the big ass hotel, down three escalators, through a parking lot and to my car. I toweled off at my brand new Mustang, making it's first drive of any length, and made the hour plus drive back home.

This has obviously been an exceedingly awful year for many of us. As much as I love running and racing, and some of my livelihood is tied to it, I know how mostly unimportant it is for most of us who still enjoy doing it. Having said that, and having had some amazing races that I had planned for the year get cancelled, I had accepted that I might not race for the foreseeable future. I had come to grips with that and didn’t think I missed racing that much.

I was wrong. I miss it intensely, especially when it is a real race, with competitors doing their best to use their skills and racing tactics to one-up their competitors. I have also run so many races lately where I was alone for miles and miles without seeing another soul. Granted that is how the last few miles of this race were and complaining about being at the front where there aren’t a great deal of spectators is rarely going get you much sympathy. Oh, the poor guy winning the race didn’t get lots of cheers. Boo hoo again.

But given everything that had to go into making this race as safe as possible, which the organizers did an excellent job of, it still felt like an actual race. Not a virtual run. Not a fun run. But a race where people were pushing to not only best the clock but best their fellow racers. It felt so good.

After a year of none of this, I definitely didn’t realize how badly I craved it. I can’t wait to get out there again soon and hopefully experience it tenfold in 2021.

Wear a mask, and get the vaccine, people. Then, let's race.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

How to Lose a Marathon - A Book Review

*I was fortunate enough to exchange books with the author of this book I am about to review.  That means, of course, given how I plan to totally use his limitless contacts, I will only laud praise on Joel and his tome.*

If you believe my review will be based on receiving the book from the author, you know nothing about me and how I operate. Which, given this is the internet, has never stopped anyone from doing just that. But on with the review!

I dove into this book immediately after receiving it, needing to just lose myself in reading. Three hours later, with a little texting to friends to interrupt me, I was done. How To Lose a Marathon by Joel Cohen, a writer on The Simpsons, was a quick-read delight.

Mostly written in a tongue-in-cheek tone, with great turns-of-phrase, Cohen recounts how he undertook his first marathon and his voyage there. I say tongue-in-cheek because he mentions how he couldn't find any books out there for the beginning runner and, sweet fancy moses, beginner running books are a dime a dozen. So, thinking I was about to read another first-time runner book filled me with a tad bit of trepidation. No offense to any newbie runners whatsoever but there are few jokes about fartleks or Phidippides "dying" I haven't heard yet. Fortunately, just a few pages in my fears were waylaid. (A reminder that good storytellers are good for a reason and how many athletes don't necessarily make the best speakers/writers.)

After deciding to do some running and putting in a few miles, Cohen figured he would make the New York City Marathon his first foray into the marathon distance.  However, he soon found getting into a race that everyone else wants to get into can be a bit difficult.  He then learned about the charity route and his next decision enamored him to me. Instead of asking others to contribute to his fundraising, he wrote a check himself to cover the entire amount. Obviously not everyone has the means to do that (and he readily admits as such) but "the idea of asking people to donate to a charity I chose so I can do something I wanted to do didn't sit well." Given how I have often bristled at how "raising money for a good cause" has been code for "pay for my vacation to run a marathon in Hawaii or feel like a bad person" this was music to my ears. *insert Benedict Cumberbatch hat tip gif*

The book is filled with humor as Cohen quickly progresses from barely being able to run a mile to planning his first marathon. To be honest, while he is self-deprecating in his ability, Cohen's progression is quite impressive. With his main stated goal to beat Oprah's marathon time of 4:29:20, I wondered if he would. That's not a fast time. But it is also not a "bad time", either. Hell, my first marathon was a 4:12. So I was hooked into reading whether he would have a glorious first marathon or a crash and burn (like mine was.) Given he was going from the couch to the marathon in just the span of a few months, I thought it might be the latter.

This is not necessarily the book one will want to buy for training tips.  But it is if you want to laugh. We type "LOL" in conversation and rarely mean it.  However, I literally laughed out loud at multiple times while reading. I won't ruin them all but when he described "chip time" as "What I scream out every time I open a bag of potato chips", I guffawed  How, in 20 years of running marathons, has "chip time" never once sounded to me like an exclamation!?  Kudos, Joel.

As the book concludes with an almost mile-by-mile recap of his first marathon, you find yourself cheering for Joel to get his goal. Whether he gets it or not, I will leave for you to read yourself.  (Seriously, buy a book for god's sake. Support the arts. Get a few of mine while you are at it.) Suffice it to say that it appears that in spite of not considering himself a runner or really enjoying running during the act, he ends up being a runner nonetheless.

A belated welcome to the club, Mr. Cohen.