Sunday, November 16, 2014

PAUSATF XC 29th Championship: sane running variety!

Sorry for all the acronyms in the title, let me expand for the non insiders: PA stands for Pacific Association (North California and Nevada), USA you probably know(!), TF for Track & Field and XC for Cross-Country. In other words, it was the 29th championships or finals of our local cross-country grand prix. And, although I didn't compete in the cross-country season, having enough in my plate focusing on (and winning for the 8th time) the ultra running grand prix (running 12 of the 15 events so far), I thought I'd give a second try at this regional championship.

Indeed, I ran it a while back, 11 years ago to be exact. I was then 39 and it was one of the most humiliating experience as I was the oldest and finished after the middle of the pack in the open division, way behind the leaders. The course was measured at 5.80 miles and the race was won by David Cullum of the famous Nike Farm Team in 28:32. I placed 118th out of 161 in 33:37. A few #tbt (Throw-Back Thursday) type of pictures from this pre-blogging times ;-)

I had promised myself I'll never come back, that cross-country wasn't meant for me, but such foolish wows are meant to be broken, especially as you move up "the age group chain..."

I arrived at the Polo Field of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to pick my bib and settle just before the women (open + masters) race started right on schedule at 9 am. (See more pictures at the bottom of this post.)
Our race started at 9:45 on the longer, 10K course. The start line reminded me of the times Max and Alex were running cross-country in high school. There were quite a few large teams, wearing their own tops, that made for a colorful field. The only representative of my Quicksilver team, I got teased --very friendly--, by a few members of Tamalpa which we compete with in the ultra grand prix (white tops). I squeezed between Tamalpa and the intimidating Aggies, one of the fastest teams in the region, from Davis. There was also a large contingent of red uniforms, the Rebels from Sacramento.

Like in other official and national championships, we were all wearing a bib with our age group on our back so we could see who was in which. We crossed the green meadow of the start area as a large pack and reached the polo field track after about 400 yards. The start was so fast (about 5:15 min/mile pace) that the pack quickly stretched. The course can actually accommodate large fields as we only hit the single track around mile 2.

Unlike my ultra rhythm, I had to push hard right off the start in order to just keep visual contact with the leaders. Despite this insane pace, I could see about 3 or 4 runners from my 50-59 age group ahead and thought to myself "you see, cross-country is still way too fast for you..." By the end of the first mile, my GPS still indicated an average pace of 5:25 and I was close to the red zone if not in the middle of it, yikes! I think I let 1 or 2 "younger" Masters go ahead but, when another M50 passed me, I decided to keep pushing. After all, we only had 4.5 miles to go, just a long sprint compared to an ultra... ;-)

Every runner I was with got encouragements from spectators since they were from one of the "big" teams. I got a boost when another team member, Kat, surprised me with a "go Quicksilver" and a few other kicks when speedster Alex Varner called my name as we passed by him 4 times (Alex is back from New York where he ran a 2:25 marathon and he also owns many course records in Marin County in particular, starting with the famous Dipsea).

I kept pushing hard, then, thinking that, at the very least, this would provide some good speed work training before the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot 10K (please consider joining the flock - Representing IBM, one of the sponsors, I'm part of the Steering Committee and we hope to get a record 28,000 registrations and raise up to $1M!).

While my average pace was now down to 5:40 by mile 3, I wasn't loosing too much ground and could still see the leaders and estimated that I was in 13 or 14th. I slowly caught up with another M50 runner (white top) and had another one in sight (red top). In the 5th mile, I passed 2 M40 runners then, with less than a mile to go, finally caught up with that other M50 runner who seemed to be out of gas as we were climbing back onto the polo field track (it's just a 10 yard "hill", or rather a bump, but that surely kills your speed!).

With half a mile to go, I hesitated passing him but went ahead anyway. Much taller than me and with longer legs, I got convinced that I made the wrong choice and that he'd counter on the final flat section. I kept pushing and that was good enough to hold on and even made the top 10 of the Masters race quite a good outcome. For a few seconds, I even thought that I had won our age group, only to discover Rich Hanna a few steps ahead in the finish chute, dang! Actually, it was better that I didn't know Rich was running as he is so fast so I probably wouldn't have pushed that much. His marathon PR of 2:17 is 20 minutes faster than mine, so I'm not sand bagging, he is super fast! You can read about Rich from our last encounter at the Jed Smith 50K last February when he ran an astonishing 3:13 a few months from turning 50 (he is going to destroy the US age group record next year!).

I crossed the finish line 30 seconds behind Rich (8th) and 1:59 behind winner Jaime Heilpern form the Asics Aggie. What I didn't realize is that I had passed Iain Mickle, 53, River City Rebels, who I learned afterwards, had not lost a single race this year. At least, as a consolation, the only cash award for our group ($25...) was won by one of his teammate. Here we are, Rich (center), Iain and I, the M50-59 podium.
I was impressed how quickly the results were posted after the race, despite the organizers not using a chip timing system (sorry Rich! *). For $19.99, you had an unlimited access to the posting of the results (just kidding, but couldn't resist noting on this picture ;-):

I left after the start of the Open Men race, very glad that I came back to compete in a race with a pace more suited to my "old" age! ;-) Seriously, these young guys are so so fast, it's amazing to watch, from the side line!

It was great to experience another type of running. I'm actually glad that the Championship is run on a longer course, that suits me better than 5 or even 8K (slightly more time to get the engine running... ;-). In addition to the short(er) distance, the mix of running in uneven grass, on soft dirt trails, under a tree (twice), over or down a couple of small bumps, some winding single track with sharp turns. Oh, we just missed the mud this year (yes, still a severe drought out here). But, this running variety is what keeps me motivated and... running! It was actually great to see a few (very few) familiar faces from our ultra running community and family. For instance:

George Rehmet and the ultra dude and ultra volunteer, Noe Castanon, among an amazing representation of their local club, Pamakids:

And also, Bill Dodson, Co-Chair of our Ultra Running PAUSATF committee who, at 79, is going to be happy to move up a less competitive age group!
A big thank to the many volunteers (registration, timing, finish chute, course marking, course monitoring, water station, tshirt distribution, ...) and special mention to Race Director, Tim Wason, for organizing an event of that scale with great participation from across our Pacific Association area!

And, now, the scoop: I knew it, there was a catch, it was only a training run!! No, seriously, the big deal is going to happen next year with both the 30th anniversary of this regional championship as well as the National (!) XC Team Championship. A few more check boxes to... cross, keep training! ;-)

See you again on the trails, or the road, or the track then, keep enjoying the variety that our sport offers, it's good to remain motivated and keep the injuries away!

(*) Rich Hanna is the Founder and CEO of a chip timing company, Capitol Road Race Management.

Short of having a crew or even teammate covering my race, here are a few random pictures from the other 2 races:




















Sunday, November 9, 2014

Running in Malta: North West Malta and the Victoria Lines

No, I didn't go back to Malta this weekend! This is just an old draft I have meant to come back to for a while but had other things to discuss about on my blog.

As I mentioned in my other post about the other island of the Maltese archipelago, Gozo, Malta's main island is much more crowded than it's little sister. Yet, I was surprised by how much country side you can find once you leave the capital, Valetta, the tourist areas such as St Paul's Bay, or the busy bus routes and car traffic on the main roads.

There is actually one very particular place where you won't see any vehicle, that is on the trail along the impressive Victoria Lines, a China wall-type of project aiming at protecting Valetta from invaders, but a huge civil engineering endeavor which proved useless at the end of the nineteen century and was abandoned a few years only after being completed. I don't know if that's one of the human artifacts that you can see from space but, several miles long, that may be. As long as astronauts know where to look at to find Malta in the Mediterranean Sea...! ;-)
Now, it has been so forgotten or abandoned that some sections of the wall have fallen since and the trail is barely practicable in places. Here is a great website with great detailed instructions and pictures which will help you find your way would you be visiting Malta and up for such a hike. I couldn't print them out before my run but I had read them enough to get the principle which is to follow the natural fault line the wall was built along. Sounds like pretty simple instructions, but Mother Nature has put some obstacles in the way to make the run, or hike, more interesting.

Before reaching the west end of the Victoria Lines, my loop started in Bugibha. I first ran through Burmarrad and stopped first in Mosta to have a quick look at the very impressive Domo.
I could feel I wasn't welcome to get inside in shorts, so I just had a peek from the entrance of the church:
Then a few more miles up to the spectacular Medna, an ancient fortified city which is worth a day to visit and appreciate. Here are a few pictures but see more in my Picasa album:





Agn├Ęs had found a flier describing a hike from Medna to the cliffs of Dingli. This is part of a program promoting "Malta going rural" so I was hoping for some trails. It was all asphalt instead but on a much quieter road at least.




The cliffs weren't as impressive as the ones I saw on the North and West sides of Gozo but still worth it if you can only visit the main island.

I wanted to continue along the coast but a local dissuaded me, claiming that I will have to go across private fields, something I didn't find appropriate from what I read on a few websites and guides. Needless to say, I didn't see any other runner on my long runs, so there is still much to do for Malta to promote "going rural" to tourists...

From Dingli I ran on the road to Rabbat then West again toward Bahrija. It took me a few failed attempts, field crossings and bush wacking to find the Victoria Lines and I was relieved when I spotted the first major landmark, Fort Bingemma (which is actually inhabited, albeit without the canons nowadays!). A superb 360-degree view position above the whole island, the English had found the perfect spot to defend the island!


Going though rocky or overgrown sections, I slowly made my way back toward Mosta.


On the other hand, I was very impressed by the great conditions of the Dwejra Lines, a double wall blocking a narrow valley which invaders would have had to go through.




With the high temperature and slow progression due to the terrain and photo opportunity stops, I did sweat a lot and didn't follow the Lines beyond Mosta as they continue all the way down to the Sea on the East Coast of the island.

Instead, I came back to my starting point in Bugibha for a 27.8-mile loop (Garmin Connect activity):

Long enough run 5 days before my 100th ultra race which I completed on the following Saturday, the PCTR Summer Solstice in San Francisco. It was my first 24-hour format ultra and, back in June, I was quite excited to figure out how far/long I'll be able to go in a day (I ran 10 100-milers, finishing 7 of them, but never ran for more than 21 hours).

Anyway, based on this week spent on Gozo and Malta, I strongly recommend a visit to these amazing islands, if not for the limited trail running opportunities, at least for its unique and amazingly rich history heritage!