Exploring the Mysterious Marin County Half-Marathon

There are races to run because everyone you know has run them and they become a shared and familiar experience.  Then there are races to run because no one you know runs them which become slightly mysterious explorations.  Such was the case when I signed up for the Marin County Half-Marathon, a smallish half-marathon run on the roads and trails in China Camp State Park just east of San Rafael held yesterday.  A few people I know had heard about this race, but no one knew had actually run it.  I hadn’t been to China Camp State Park in nearly eight years and hadn’t been on any of the trails there, so didn’t know much of what to expect.

The view of San Francisco Bay from China Camp State Park
(Photo Credit Wikipedia Commons)
My fitness seemed pretty good.  A couple of 4 mile tempo runs in the last month at 5:50-5:55 per mile pace range, 7-12 seconds faster than last fall, were encouraging.  Plenty of 14 mile runs, with 15 and 16 mile runs thrown made the 13.1 mile half-marathon distances seem pretty manageable.  Coming off a 1:25:57 in last November’s Monterey Half-Marathon, which corresponds to a 6:32 per mile pace, the plan was to go out in 6:25 mile pace for the  Marin County race.  Especially since the last six miles of the Marin County Half-Marathon covered moderately rugged trails through the State Park, including the dreaded “Hammer Hill” mentioned on the race website around mile 11. My wife and I drove the road part of the course the evening before to scout out the course ahead of time, but we had no idea what awaited us for the last six mile once we got off the roads and onto the trails for the second half of the race.  So I kept telling myself, take it easy, keep the pace conservative at 6:25 in order to take on what the course was going to dish out on the trails. 
Of course, when the starting horn sounded, I blew out the first mile in 5:56.  I did my best to ease off the throttle, trying to relax and take in all the great views of the San Francisco Bay off to my right.  But I didn’t slow down much and came through first seven miles over rolling hills at 43:50, a little over 6:15 pace.   At this point, I’m in fifth place, maybe 45 seconds behind the first female runner.  The guys in front of me all look under 40 years old, so I figured at this point, I’m the top masters runner. That’s looking good if I can hold onto that, I’m thinking.
At this point, the course changes dramatically from a rolling paved road to a trail through the woods.  I look up and the first thing I see are switch backs ascending up a hill ahead and my legs are beginning to really feel those first seven miles.  I work through the switchbacks and come through the uphill mile 8 at 7:46.  I’m hanging in there but wishing I held back a little more at the beginning.  The next mile is downhill, but rocks, ruts, and sharp turns force my gaze to the ground to find good footing.  I come through mile 9 at 6:46 and look up to see glimpses of the top female runner ahead through the trees and underbrush.  “Let’s try and catch her”, I say to myself.
Every time I pick up the pace and pull her in, I start going heavier into oxygen debt, can’t sustain the pace, and fall back.  The hills aren’t getting any easier, and the next miles are all well over 7 minute pace.  I make it to mile 10, and around 10 1/2 miles, the course starts going uphill, and I figure that’s the vaunted “Hammer Hill”.  I keep working up the hill for another quarter mile before the trail descends.   That wasn’t so bad, and I’m thinking  “So much for Hammer Hill.”
Then I get to mile 11 and there’s a sign saying “Start of Hammer Hill”.  Hammer Hill is a series of three or four steep switch backs leading to a more gradual upgrade that lasts for another half mile.  Not a killer hill, but at this point, I’m pretty fried.  Getting over the top, it’s all down hill to the finish line along the San Francisco Bay shore at McNear’s Beach.  I’ve got a good stride going and can see I’m reeling in the top female runner ahead of me, but it’s clear I’m not going to catch her by the time she gets to the finish line.  The finish line clock says 1:26:03, but my Garmin watch says 1:26:59 and says “12.95 miles”, so it looks like the course is a little short.  I maintained fifth place overall, and finished first in the male master’s division.  Mission accomplished!
Enjoying an Alter Boy Belgian Pale Ale
at Marin Brewing
I tend to over analyze things, so instead of kicking myself for going out a little too fast, I’ll just say this effort was clearly better than the Monterey Half-Marathon where I ran a 1:25:57 last November over a much less challenging course.  And that race was definitely better than the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon I covered in 1:28:26 in April of 2013.  So over the past year, it’s clear my training is going in the right direction. 
So with the Marin County Half-Marathon in the books, it was time to enjoy some post-race beers at Marin Brewing, rest up for a few days, and start getting ready for Bay to Breakers next month.

A Lukewarm Improbable at Miles for Migraines

This barren, foreboding gravel trail in the Shoreline Amphitheater
parking lot greeted the runners at the start of the Miles for Migraines 10k

Now that I started incorporating “Cool Impossible” author Eric Orton’s  Eric Orton’s strength and form exercises into my training, would it take my running to the “Cool Impossible” heights Orton describes that previously  I could only dream about?  I was about to find out in the Miles for Migraines 10k.

Since running the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon last April, I started focusing more on strength and speed training while lowering my mileage slightly.  In addition adding Orton’s exercises into my regimen, I started doing weekly track workouts Tuesday mornings.  They were pretty standard workouts of 2-3 miles through a combination of 800’s and 1600’s on a nearby track.   Six weeks after the San Cruz Half-Marathon, it was time to toe the line for the Miles to Migraine 10k and put that training to the test.

The race started in a dusty parking lot next to The Shoreline Amphitheater, with pleasant breezes from nearby San Francisco Bay keeping things cool.  The field was small, maybe a couple hundred people, and we quickly spread out into small groups on the gravel road before reaching the Steven’s Creek Trail at the other end of the vast parking lot.  Looking down at my Garmin watch half-way through this section, I was pleased to see my watch indicating I was running at a 6:10 per mile pace.  All indications from the last six weeks of training indicated my fitness level was in the 6:00-6:15 range for 10k, so I was right on pace.

Five minutes into the race, it was clear the winner was going to be either a tall athletic looking, 20-something with closely cropped blond hair, or believe it or not, myself running just behind him.  We came through the first mile in 5:58 as we ran along the bay front bike trail in Shoreline Park.

Runner finishing at the Miles to Migraine race
(photo from Miles to Migraine Facebook page)

All I could think to do was hang on, and we came through the second mile in 5:54, which felt pretty manageable.  And then, I noticed his breathing sounded shorter, as he was noticeably taking more gasping breaths.  It sounded like he was in trouble.  I was feeling fine and began wondering, “Could I actually win this thing?” I pushed to the lead, pulling away and he continued to gasp away, coming through mile 3 at a 5:44 mile.   “That wasn’t so bad,” I was thinking, “Just keep at it and pull away from this guy.”

Of course, you might be thinking running three miles well under my target pace would come back to bite me.  And you’d be right.   It soon became clear I was the guy in trouble and the guy behind me, gasping or no gasping, was doing just fine.  He quickly reeled me back in while I labored the next mile at 6:25.  Then he literally dusted me on a dirt trail section of the course on the and I fell further and further behind.  Miles 5 and 6 were both around 6:25 pace, and a finished in 2nd place in a time of 38:31.  According to my Garmin watch, the course was actually 6.28 miles, equivalent to a 38:05 10k effort.  Easily my fastest 10k in over 3 years.

Runners milling around after the race
(Photo from Mile to Migraine Facebook page)

I’d have to say this race proved my fitness was a lot better than my decision making.   Sub-six minute pace never felt so easy in a long time, but there was no reason to push the pace so early in the race.  More patience, and I probably could have hung on for another couple miles around 6:00 pace.  Sure, the leader sounded like he was in trouble, but if he was in trouble in mile 3, he would be in even more trouble at mile 4 or 5 if I had just patiently waited until then to make a decisive move.  Lesson learned.

So while this race turned out not to be some dreamy “Coo lImpossible” accomplishment, I’d say all that hard work in the last six weeks paid off.   And hey, for finishing in 2nd place, I won a bottle of wine.  Almost as good as a beer.


The Other Half: What just happened?

The finish line didn’t come soon enough

I’ve had a few races of near perfection where my mind is totally alert and in tune my senses, where I vividly recall exactly what I was thinking during every second of the race, can effortlessly recall each  split time afterwards, and even remember nearly every foot plant over the terrain from start to finish.  On the other hand, there are races like The Other Half Marathon in San Francisco I ran last Easter Sunday where I cross the finish line and think “What just happened?”.

I vaguely recall coming through the first mile in 5:42.  I was shooting for 6:30 opening pace, which explains why I exclaimed “Oh shit!” as I looked at my watch breezing through the Mile 1 marker.  But then, it didn’t seem THAT fast, and when I arrive Mile 2 at 12:41, it seemed pretty unlikely that I followed a 5:42 mile with a 6:59, confirming my suspicions that the mile markers were out of place.

I remember something about my left shoe feeling too loose right after the start.  It wasn’t so bad at mile 2, but through miles 3-6, mostly uphill to the Golden Gate Bridge, it began to start to bother me more and began to effect my stride.  Reaching the bridge at mile six and crossing over from San Francisco to Marin County, feeling more fatigued than usual at this point in a half-marathon was not a good sign.  I was hoping to establish a decent stride over the relatively flat section of the course, but over the next mile I still struggled to find any rhythm and the loosening shoe continued to be a hindrance.

Finally at mile 7, I stopped to retie my left shoe.  Unfortunately, the laces slipped through my sweaty fingers and after a couple aborted attempts, finally produced an awkward looking but effective knot that kept my left shoe on tight.  I figured it was worth stopping to tie my shoe, that I’d only lose maybe ten seconds and a couple places retying it, but the resulting damage was far greater, something like 30 seconds and countless people whizzing by my as a struggled to tie a knot any 1st grader could make.

Friends, if you put in all the hard work to run a half-marathon, don’t something stupid like waste some of that hard work over something silly like a poorly tied shoe.  It points to a pretty serious lack of concentration in my pre-race preparation, where you are supposed to check things like how your feet feel in their shoes.   Unbelievable.

Going back over the Golden Gate southward with two tightly tied shoes on my feet, I allowed myself to take in a few looks over the Pacific Ocean, a vast expanse a blue dotted with a few scattered boats on that clear, cloudless day.  Most people will marvel at the beauty of such a scene.  Others will feel blessed to take in this magnificent vista while running over an iconic national landmark.  But all I was thinking was “How soon can I get off this damn bridge?” as I struggled to keep pace 8 1/2 miles into the race.

I could tell how the last 3-4 miles were going by what I wasn’t thinking.  Usually I’m thinking “Get this guy!” or “Keep your legs moving!  Work your hands!” but instead, the last few miles were spent mainly in numb contemplation of what went wrong.   Was it the perfect storm of several extended work, family and personal commitments over the previous week?  Or maybe that crash and burn 12-mile run nine days ago, even though I seemed to fully recover from it two days later.  Did I blitz last Tuesday’s tempo run too fast, and leave some of my race on the track?  Have I not recovered from that sore throat I had last week?

You do your best to avoid them, but off days happen despite your best efforts.  It would be easy to blame going out too fast on the inaccurate mile markers, but that’s a poor excuse.  Pacing involves basically zoning out all the runners around you and concentrating on form and breathing, and I wasn’t doing any of that.  And besides, everything else about the race organization was near perfect, and they organized the race a lot better than I ran it.  No, I just wasn’t sharp, didn’t concentrate well, made a stupid mistake with the simple act of tying my shoes,  and didn’t do the little things that really add up over the course of the race.  Yes, I am proud of what I accomplished that day and finished in a time most people would think was pretty good, but complacency is the enemy of any runner.

Seconds after I crossed the line, the announcer bellowed, “You just completed a half-marathon!”.  Oh, that’s what happened.

The picturesque finish line area.  Trust me, there are runners finishing the race down there.
Look closely off in the distance and you can barely make out the Golden Gate Bridge.

We’re still going at it at the Juana Run

A couple days ago, someone asked me what my favorite race was.  What a hard question, having run so many races for over 30 years in so many places, all of which held a significance at one time.   I was tempted to answer “my next one”, but after giving it some further thought decided to that my favorite race was The Juana Run, which indeed was my next race.

What’s so great about The Juana Run, held every March at Palo Alto’s Juana Briones Elementary School?  Maybe it’s so great because it’s such a modest community race, with a small time feel but plenty of great competition that’s effortlessly well organized.  There was a time when my favorite race was  Wharf to Wharf, a super-intense six miler of 15,000 runners with a world class field clawing and scratching through the laid back coastal town of Santa Cruz each July, or the Dammit Run, a crazy 5-miler in Los Gatos in August that starts on a track crammed with 1,000 runners that leads to a gentle running trail for about a mile before you hit then three diabolical hills in rapid succession, each tougher than the last, before two miles of roller coaster down hills to the finish.

Held in March, The Juana Run is one of those early season races for gauging your fitness and finding your racing legs again.  It’s also a pretty flat course, making pacing pretty easy.  At the start, I held back but still felt a bit labored holding the pace, not a good combination.  But coming through the first mile at 5:56, I’m thinking “Well, this is OK” since a 6-minute per mile, 30:00 for the 5 miles was my “A” goal, with a 30:30 my “B” goal.

I ran the next couple miles with the top female finisher coming through mile three at 18:02 .  But then she started pulling away (I hate it when they do that) and I started falling off the six minute pace, finishing in 30:19, which was 10 seconds faster than last year’s time.  It’s nice to be a little faster as I get a little older.

After the race, a bumped into a runner I sometimes trained with and raced against during my college days during the 80’s Washington University in St. Louis.   We see each other once or twice a year now and catch up a bit whenever we do.

We both got married, divorced, and then remarried.  We both have two kids.  We both still have tendinitis, his in his Achilles tendon, mine in my left knee, except it’s a lot worse for both of us now.  Both of us wonder if some day, our failing body parts are going to get their wish, and we’ll hang up the racing flats for good.  We talk about our failed marriages in hushed tones, using stock phrases people use like “it was just a difficult situation” to avoid saying too much about the dark places we’ve endured.  We talk about the happiness our kids bring.

Two thousand miles away from St. Louis and 25 years later we’re still going at it.  And just like the old days, he beats me by over 30 seconds.  That used to piss me off.  Now it doesn’t matter.

The Great Race, and Recovering from It

Perhaps the best gauge of success of The Great Race is that nobody notices how highly immodest its name is. The race organization is great, the race has a long, great history, and everyone is so chatty at the start and finish line you know everyone is having a great time. And if you like running through old money neighborhoods, this race is for you, as it starts in downtown Saratogo, runs through Monte Sereno, before finishing in downtown Los Gatos.

But the greatest thing about The Great Race course is that it’s only four miles, and most of that is down hill.

Of course, running is a lot about taking on challenges, putting in the hard work day by day, building up for race day you’ve circled on the calender for weeks. But fighting through the valley of death doesn’t work for me most mornings, and you gotta love a race where you can show up, run around for a bit, finish, and then get on with the rest of your life without limping around for the next day or two.

So it seemed fitting that Linda and I spent part of our “recovery” at the curiously named Sonoma Chicken Coop in nearby Campbell, CA. Most craft beer drinkers will not be challenged by their beer, but many will find it enjoyable. Since I favor the maltier styles, I went for the Scottish Ale, while Linda, true to her hop-head nature, started out with their IPA. ( The Sonoma Chicken Coop evidently has no interest in giving their beers the typical clever or goofy names you find at most brewpubs.) The Scottish Ale was a solid example of the style, being a little smokey, a little caramelly, with a decent amount of complexity to the malt and a nice, easy sipping character. It won’t blow you away, but went quite well with my barbecue chicken pizza, thank you very much. And their IPA was a nice blast of straightforward, piney hops with just a smidgen of malt to hold it back, which worked for us. And perhaps my favorite Sonoma Chicken Coop brew is their ESB, a simple combination of nutty and well roasted malts with a slight earthy hop finish.

Nothing I’ve had at the Sonoma Chicken Coop ever challenged me, or changed my perception of beer, but was all something easily enjoyed. Sometimes, that’s a great thing.

A Blustery Day in Santa Cruz

The Santa Cruz Half-Marathon must be a picturesque course on good days. It starts by the Beach Boardwalk, heads out along the Pacific Coastline, traversing along roads and trails on high cliffs above the ocean. But these great vantage points also leave you exposed when a storm rolls in from the ocean. So when a late spring storm crept across the Santa Cruz coastline the same morning as the race, gusty winds and rain was thrown into the half-marathon mix.

It’s one of the things I love about running. The very complexion of the course changes dramatically by uncontrollable whims of weather. You have to be prepared on race day for whatever is thrown at you, and you never quite know what will happen. While I don’t like running in the wind and rain, there’s a heightened sense of accomplishment at the end when you’ve overcome these additional barriers. When you think about it, life’s personal and professional struggles are rarely carried out in pristine, clinical conditions. Many times, the things we deal with come are messy, complicated, and sometimes down right chaotic. Running isn’t any different.

And so after Linda and I finished the race with two T-shirts, two finisher’s medals, and a nice, plump and purple blood blister on my right index toe to show for it, we headed over to Seabright Brewing for some post-race recovery. It’s located in a blocky, two-story, white retail building a short drive from the Beach Boardwalk. Plenty of other finishers had the same idea, and the place was pretty full of people in a celebratory mood, but at the same time too tired to get very boisterous. Linda and I were not eager to go back outside in the rain, or even get up once we sat down, so took our time checking out what Seabright had to offer.

Stouts are one of my favorite styles, so decided to start off with their Oatmeal Stout, while Linda, ever the hop-head, went for their Blur IPA. As stouts go, the Oatmeal Stout was rather smooth and light for the style, with a light milk chocolately-ness to the roasted malt. A stout is not the sort of beer one would usually call refreshing, but after a day at the beach, this might be something I’d reach for. Their Blur IPA was the classic West Coast IPA, with a whisper of light malt and lots of citrussy, grapefruity hop flavor, and give them credit for easing off the hop throttle a bit and delivering something flavorful, not assaulting.

The Salmon Fish and Chips I ordered was a nice Asian riff on the classic pub dish, complete with a couple spicy dipping sauces, and enjoyed a Loose Lucy Scotch Ale with it. If memory serves me right, no less than nine malts were used in this one, which gave it really easy sipping, bourbon and toffee character to it. Good that one of those malts was a peat malt, which added a nice little woodsy note to the whole thing. Linda had an enormous tuna melt with Uncommon Brewer’s Serendipity Sour Ale, which has a great sour, lemony tang to go with a tingly carbonation. Come to think of it, a tuna melt with Belgian Sour Ale, or salmon and Scotch Ale are hardly ideal beer and food pairings, but when you’re just tired and want to get out of the rain, good beer with anything is perfect.

Early Spring Optimism

There’s something about a sense of optimism surrounding the first race of the year. You have some idea what kind of shape you’re in, but until tested by the unforgiving stop watch, you never quite know. If you’re faster than you expect, you’re off to a good start. If you’re slower than you expect, you learned something valuable and there’s still plenty of time to catch up in your training if need be. But of course, it’s just great to be out there running with lots of other folks again.

And so it was with Linda and I running the Going Green St. Patrick’s Day 10 k Run last Sunday. For a first time race, it was pretty successful and everyone seem to have a good time, even if the mile markers were a bit off. I just hope the course was long, judging by my time. It was a good tune up for the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon next April, and good to know your fitness level four weeks before the race, rather than finding out the hard way at mile seven of a half marathon.

While January is often the traditional time to make plans for the upcoming year, it’s people often early spring when people look hard at what they want to accomplish for the year. Whether family, career, money, or fitness and recreational goals, early spring is often when we look at what we want to accomplish for the year with a sense of optimism.

So after battling injuries and dealing with the associated frustration for nearly two years before getting things literally straightened out with a chiropractor, I’ve set very general goals for the year of to run with less pain and work on needed core strength, balance and flexibility to make this happen. My 42 year old body does not take as pounding around the track for the morning interval workouts, and so will focus less on finishing time and place than in years past. Given that there’s a lot I’d like to accomplish outside of running this year that will require time, effort, and mental focus, this seems to be the way to go.

I’ll take a similar attitude with home brewing. There was a time late last year I was all gung ho about getting into homebrewing competitions. Then, I began to realize there was this small issue that I barely had the foggiest idea about how to take care of yeast, impart the hop flavors into the brew, get rid of off flavors, and the other “little” things required to make a good brew. So I’m going to take the time to learn some of these things while making enjoying the brewing process and the results. And I’ll be homebrewing with a friend of mine I don’t see often enough this year who’s been looking to get back into home brewing again.

That evening, Linda and I went to our favorite brewpub El Toro, a small celebration of sorts for a job reasonably well done that morning at the races. We have a lot of plans for the year together and there’s lots of hard work to be done after a tough 2009, but we’re looking forward to the upcoming year. These are good times.