Friday, October 24, 2014

Tapering in Belize: resting and relaxing as part of the training regimen

I'm going to make an exception and hiatus in my "Running in..." series; I discovered a new country with Agnès, but didn't run at all! 8 full days of tapering, I have not done such tapering in a long time, even before one of my 13 ultra races so far this year, and I'm "only" running a marathon this Sunday (the Marine Corps Marathon in DC, Alex' 2nd consecutive MCM)! We'll see if it pays off, very soon...

From a running perspective, I'm not sure Belize is the best place anyway but I'm all to hear otherwise (please leave a comment if you did find good spots). We first stayed inland, about 20 miles west of Belize City and the jungle is already pretty close. I'd say the safest is probably to run on one of the three main highways, knowing these highways are barely a strip of asphalt, about 3-lane wide but no road marking. We then spent 4 days in Caye Caulker (pronounce key like in Florida's Keys), which, referring to my thirst for long runs, Agnès initially introduced me as follows: "Will you be able to survive on a 5 by 1 mile island?" Well, Caye Caulker was actually split into two islands by a major hurricane back in 1961, and the inhabited part is barely 1 mile long and has 3 main streets. Dirt and many potholes for some good trail running, there isn't an ounce of asphalt on the whole island, golf carts are the only allowed vehicles on Caye Caulker, this adds to the very relaxing atmosphere.

So, what do you do in Belize when you are not running? Here are a few things we did...

Snorkeling. First and foremost, you have to love getting in the water when visiting Belize. Belize has the longest corral reef in the Northern hemisphere, only second in the world to Australia. With that, Belize is a paradise for divers and snorkelers alike. Like many other countries (including France!), tourism is the largest "industry" in Belize and many tours and activities are offered. The best snorkeling is actually near the reef which is about a mile away from Caye Caulker's shores. The best spots are actually North East, in front of San Pedro, a much larger and developed island. We were recommended two operators, Carlo's and Mario's and picked the latter just because it was the one open when we stopped by. We had a wonderful day (10:30a-3:30p), with another couple from Georgia, staying at the same resort as ours. We made four stops, looking for manatees at the last one but not seeing any. We snorkeled at Hol Chan, the Sharks Alley and the Coral Garden. Swimming with turtles, sharks and stingrays was an unforgettable experience, even more memorable as I captured with the GoPro the boys offered to me last year for Father's Day, the perfect opportunity to put to use.

Visiting, sightseeing and exploring. No, we didn't venture deep in the jungle, there is much much more to explore than what we did during the 22 hours we spent inland. But, 2 hours after landing, we were already at the Community Baboon Sanctuary, home of thousands of howler monkeys who, yes, howl, wow!
It was another incredible experience to have a monkey on our shoulders! We stayed at the Black Orchid Resort which we highly recommend. Very kind and helpful staff, superb room, good food and right on the Belize River. Although we didn't see any crocodile (like black bears or mountain lions in California, better miss getting face to face), the iguanas were quite impressive. And it was cool to also see families of monkeys playing and eating at the top of the trees. The next morning, our driver and guide, Richard, walked us through one of the 16 imposing Maya sites, Altun Ha. It was Sunday and the end of the low season, so we had the whole site for ourselves, an extra bonus! (Cruise ships stop in Belize City on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they bring boatloads of tourists on the 14-mile bumpy road leading to the site.)
We ended the morning by a tour of Belize City, which is still the most populated town in the country but not the capital anymore (now Belmopan, further inland and not subject to hurricanes and tornadoes as Belize City is). One of the oldest and original houses of Belize City:
And the oldest Catholic church in the Caribbeans:
By the way, here are a few facts about this small country which many people don't know much about: Belize became independent in 1981, after being a British colony known as British Honduras. Because of territory disputes Guatemala only recognized Belize in 1992. It is on the east side of Central America sharing a border with Mexico in the north, and a long one with Guatemala on the west and south. The population is around 300,000 people with a median age around 20. And, while English is the official language which is a great asset from a tourism standpoint, they also speak Spanish and a local form for Creole. After this quick tour of the city, we embarked on the water taxi for a 50-minute "ride" to Caye Caulker.

What else did we "do" to taper,  rest and... do nothing...? Some easy biking, blending in the local population zigzagging between potholes and puddles. More swimming and snorkeling at the end of the deck of our resort. Hanging out at the Split, the place where the island broke. Eating local food at a few of the 30 restaurants on Caye Caulker. Walking, photographing, videotaping, some bird watching (pelicans, seagulls, egrets, cormorants, ...), kayaking, sleeping a lot (quite some sleep catching!), and also some "hammocking", if we can make it a verb!

Here are a few recommendations on Caye Caulker:

Colinda Cabanas. You'll get a genuine local experience in these wood cabanas with just enough of our western comfort. The place is owned and managed by Colin and Linda who came here from Canada 4 years ago. We missed Colin who was out of the country but Linda was very welcoming and helpful with her recommendations. The place is kept very neat, which is a challenge in those humid conditions. We much appreciated the amenities such as bikes, kayaks, beach towels, fans, a small fridge and a strong and stable wifi access.
Pizza Caulker. Meet Greg, also from Canada, and his local family, serving delicious thin crust pizzas made with whole wheat. And that was our best rum punch too!
La Cubana. The best fresh fruit juices we had, for only $4BEZ ($2US)! And good local Caribbean food too. Right at the water taxi dock, near the small police station (or sub-formation as they call it).

Mendy's. Very simple and local family cooking.

Mario's snorkeling. Friendly instructor, good boat. $100-130BEZ ($50-65US) for the whole day, depending on the number of stops and the size of the group. (Trip Advisor, Facebook)

Iceland Ice Cream. Delicious homemade creamy ice creams with a great variety of flavors (Trip Advisor).

We also heard great comments about Coconut Reef and especially the homemade pastas from this other Canadian owner, but haven't tried it.

And, on the mainland:

Black Orchid Resort. See my comments above, and their website.

Richard Lord. Our taxi driver and accredited guide (tel: 664-6279).

I do feel rested for sure, almost too much so I'm looking forward to see how all this tapering and resting plays for the marathon this Sunday. There are many more stars to align for a great performance but proper tapering is definitely one which I took good care of this week! ;-)

Have a good weekend all! And see a few thousands of you, MCM runners, on Sunday!









Monday, October 13, 2014

Dick Collins Firetrails 2014: slightly too fast. Or too slow...

Yes, this is an ambiguous title, isn't it? Please read on... and down to the end of the post... ;-)

This was my first 50-miler 8 years ago and I was excited to be back on this "Fall Classic" course and event as new Race Director and NorCal Ultras owner calls it. Back in October 2006 I had only raced in one ultra, Way Too Cool, so I was completely unknown on our local scene (and I wasn't even blogging and... bragging about my running yet! ;-). Here is my finish with my pace and track workout buddy, Bob, and Greg:
It was an amazing experience to meet ultra legends and then Race Directors, Ann Trason and Carl Andersen, and receive from them my Rookie award (an autographed bottle of wine which is now empty but a precious souvenir!).


That year I took 3rd overall to Chikara Omine and Rob Evans, Rob who would pace me the following year for my first and best Western States. In 2008, 3rd overall again to Dave Mackey and Victor Ballesteros. In 2010, I was just recovering from a 100-mile so I took it easy, taking about 350 pictures of runners during the race; 8th overall. In 2011, I ran with Quicksilver teammate Chris Calzetta and, while far behind Dave Mackey again who clocked the then 5th fastest time since 1983 (6:34:26), we set a new PR in 7:02:55, phew!

As you see, I skipped quite a few years, mostly because of business travel conflicts. Being in a new age group, my main goal for this Saturday was to improve the M50-59 course record. According to Gary Wang's RealEndurance.com FT50 page that time was last improved by Frank Bozanich, 12 years ago (2002). And, while he was 58, not 50, you should know that Frank has been inducted in the coveted Ultra Running Hall of Fame last year! Among a myriad of other feats Frank is a 2:25 marathoner and sub-30 10K. Bottom line, this course record was set to 7:48:49.

Now, looking at the registrants, I saw international elite Jorge Marvilla and I told to myself "Shoot, that's not going to be good fr my ultrasignup ranking!" I know I need to let go of this obsession, it's not healthy... ;-) What is it about? For each race, Ultrasignup.com computes a rank defined as "For each race, we take the gender specific best time(winner) and divide that time by each participant's time. The result is a value less than 100% with winners receiving the full 100%." And you get an average for all the races that ultrasignup has in its database. As a matter of fact, while searching to write on this, I just found that Ultrasignup Founder and Owner, Mark Gilligan, added labels to categorize the rank values, with his usual sense of humor:
  1. 95-100% Super Human
  2. 90-94% Elite
  3. 85-89% Regional Hero
  4. 80-84% Solid Athlete
Sincerely, when I started running ultras, I couldn't care less. Like any "ultra mortal", my main goal was to just finish. As a matter of fact, with several occurrences of exercise-induced asthma before I found my remedy in Singulair, I had horrible races in which I barely made it to the finish, walking and crawling to the end. So, not only was I starting running ultras in my forties, but I made a point to finish, no matter what happened. For these reasons, I had quite a few races below 80%. But, as I was learning more about ultra, getting more hands-on experience (or is it rather "feet-on"? ;-), training harder and harder, and getting my asthma under control, I got a few good scores and slowly made it to close to 90%. For the past 2 years, I've been stuck around 89.75%, like 90% was my asymptotic barrier. And, of course, it's not getting easier as I turned 50... Better get used and satisfied with "regional hero" after all... ;-)

With that long introduction, you can tell that, between Frank's amazing reputation but a doable course record time based on my previous 4 Firetrails, and Jorge's excellent form this year, I was torn but knew I had to push either way.

Well, the day started with a little surprise. While it was still pitch dark, at the starting line, Karl Schnaitter asked me if I had seen Jorge. Since I had made it to the line with only 2 minutes to spare, I said no but that he shouldn't be far and he'll catch-up even if he gets a late start. But Jorge was not to be seen around Lake Chabot this Saturday. Speaking of start line, I arrived at Lake Chabot just in time to see the early starters go at 5:30 am (our start was at 6:30).

As we were sent off the trails, Jonathan Gunderson took off with a runner that I didn't know. Karl settled in third, with a runner with a black top. Not far behind, I was chatting with Eric Wilson (with Eric doing most of the talking as I'm typically not very talkative in races, primarily to save my lungs and breath).

Daylight came as we were climbing up to Marciel Road, the first aid station at mile 3, but we were still under the fog. I could spot the first two runners with a 1 minute and 30 seconds lead, that was 30 second per mile faster, quite an aggressive start! Karl was now running alone so I figured the guy who was running with him in the first miles had pushed the pace and I was now in 5th. I caught up with Karl on the flat section leading to Bort Meadow, our second aid station at mile 8. I passed Karl as he made a quick stop to get his water bottle refilled but he stayed close behind as we were climbing the MacDonald Trail, now passing quite a few of the early starters. It was still overcast but, with the climbing effort, I was already sweating a lot. I had my average pace down to 7:52 before the climb, reaching 8 at the top of the ridge then down again as I flew down to the Big Bear aid station (mile 10.5), still going through without stopping as I had enough fluids for 15 miles.

This section felt really familiar as we ran it a couple of months ago for Skyline 50K. And, without much rain which we miss so much of, the trail was in perfect condition. After Big Bear, we went on Stream Trail, my favorite section, in the shade of huge redwoods. Unlike 2011 though, the course wasn't using the fire road but a rolling trail on the side. Nothing dramatic but going up a few dozens feet here and there is certainly worth a few minutes on your overall time as this section was used to be so flat and one in which you could make up some time.

I pushed the pace a little in the climb up to Skyline Gate (3rd aid station at mile 15), mostly to keep the average pace as closely to 8 as possible. My GPS indicated 8:10 min/mile when I reached the station, 8:12 when I left after getting my Gu2O bottle refilled (with one of the pouches I was carrying with me). I was surprised to see Karl getting in the aid station as I was leaving, although he has been very consistently running at my pace this year. I figured out he was taking it easy and will wait for the turnaround to pass me. At 32, he can only improve and get faster while I should be on the other side of the bell curve, I expect he'll be consistently ahead of me in the coming years... ;-)

We were still passing a few early starters, now on Skyline Trail, a very narrow and winding single track, but everybody was very nice to step aside and exchange words of encouragements. This is also a great section, running along the San Leandro Creek and in the shade of many trees. However, it ends with a steep climb to the 4th aid station, Sibley Preserve, so steep that I almost trip over a rocky boulder and decided to walk a little. That's when I discovered that I was now followed by Travis Weller, a runner I met at Tamalpa Headlands 50K for the first time and who beat me by 7 minutes. Also 32 like Karl, Travis looks like Tony Krupicka, it's almost intimidating! ;-) Of course, my pace was slowing with the climb, but I didn't feel I was that slow, ah, it's not getting easier as years pass... Anyway, with 2 runners on my heels, I decided not to stop at Sibley Preserve and I thought I'd give another shot at pushing the pace to see if they'd follow, just worried that I may blow a fuse in the second section.

I lost sight of both of them in this tricky section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail but, after the crossing of Fish Ranch Road, saw Travis a few seconds behind and Karl a minute or so below us as we were now climbing up to Steam Train. I was the first to reach the aid station but, as I was looking for some Vaseline to of some chaffing again (that's killing me!), Trevis didn't stop, I was now in 3rd as we had passed Jonathan a mile ago and the runner in black with Karl at the start was probably not racing.

On our way down to the Lone Oak Picnic area, the turnaround of the 50-mile, we were now crossing the runners of the Golden Hills Marathon. Receiving encouragements from them gave me a thrill and helped me keeping Trevis in sight. The last runner was actually Catra Corbett who is not known to run marathons but 4, 6 or 8 at a time! I was surprised to see her in that race but she told me she was sweeping for the marathon, that explained.

We crossed the lead runner who, I found out later, was Ryan Neely, about 1.5 miles from the turnaround. That's the place where I saw Chikara in 2010 and I was taking it easy, while Chikara was pushing hard to stay close behind Dave when he set the course record. Ryan was definitely on a fast pace if he could hold it all the way.

I reached the turnaround after 3 hours and 30 minutes of running and left 2 minutes later, closely behind Trevis. To my second surprise, Karl wasn't the first runner we crossed on our way up, but another runner I didn't know, John Loftus. When I was Karl, not far behind, he was followed by the lead woman, Kimberly O'Donnel. I told Karl: "don't even think about getting chicked!" but he didn't seem to appreciate so much as he was probably feeling the pressure.

I closed on Trevis in the climb back to Steam Trains, and passed him before the top but he hopped on the bandwagon and we reached the aid station together. Teammates Shir Kochavi and John Burton were at the station, the former to take pictures but the second had dropped, still recovering from his amazing achievement at the Tahoe 200 (yes, 200 miles!), taking 3rd overall after 63 hours of running. Photo credit, Shir Kochavi:

I left first, but Trevis was just behind and that kept me on my toes as we say, going at a pace which wasn't comfortable but that's why racing provides great training opportunities to push the envelope! Here we are, at mile 31, while the other runners climb toward Steam Trains at mile 21, photo credit I-Tao Tsai from Taiwan:
I finally lost Trevis while keeping pushing the pace on the way up to Sibley Preserve, mile 33.6. I got more iced water there and kept going, started thinking how could it would be to place 2nd, after taking 3rd overall 3 times at this race. More importantly, going back to my long intro, I was worried about losing a lot of "ultrasignup points", being already 25 minutes behind the lead runner at the point I last saw him.

So, despite some tiredness in my legs and feel rather hot with the rising temperatures, I kept going, now passing the back of the marathon runners pack. At least, I could spot anyone behind so I relaxed a bit after Skyline Gate, now running Stream Trail downhill. With all the climbing of the last 10 miles, my average pace now up to 8:40 min/mile and it was hard to gain much on that section, as opposed to when I was running with Chris in 2011.

In my dismay, just before Big Bear, with 8.5 miles to go, I saw John Lofthus coming from behind. We stopped at the aid station together but he left first, me being helped by volunteers, he by his crew, and we climbed back up the ridge together, although he left me in the dust at the top, feeling so much fresher than me. So long for top 2, at least John was 37, so I was still in the Masters lead as a consolation... And way ahead of my age group course record if I could hold the pace.

I asked for more ice at the next aid station, Bort Meadows, mile 44, and started looking behind more frequently to see who could be next to catch-up with me... Pressure, pressure... In 2006 I was so tired that I hated the roller coaster of the last miles along Chabot Lake. This year, I was probably not less tired but much more prepared mentally, so I ran all the way, shaving a few second of my average pace. I passed Christine Chapon who was on the marathon and we joked --in French in the text!-- how we were running uphill after all these miles. With less than a mile to go, I realized I was really going to get close to 7:12 which I had in mind as my PR (only to discover while writing this blog that it was 7:02). Anyway, that wasn't the goal for today, I was so ecstatic to cross the line in 7:14:27, my second best time on this course. And to take an overall podium at 50, something to appreciate.

Victor Ballesteros and John were at the finish. They congratulated me with "way to show the youngsters how it is done!" then asked how I felt... I think I replied with an "outstanding!", not speaking of how I felt, but how I was pleased by my performance. Well, with all the marathon runners going through, they had missed the first two 50-mile runners and thought I had won the race. John Lofthus finished 8 minutes ahead of me (1 minute/mile faster after Big Bear!) and Ryan took first with the 7th fastest time in the 32-year race history with a blazing 6:35:02! Ryan won 5 of his 8 ultra races so far, that's quite a stellar start!

Although I couldn't maintain the pace in the last miles, I was actually pleased with my split, 3:32 and 3:44, knowing that it's harder to get back to Steam Train than it is to fly down the turn around. Regarding the famous Ultrasignup rank --which I know I should forget about-- that gave me 90.93% so I actually didn't lose on the average but gained one 1/100th at 89.78, phew! Mark was actually running the course to mark it and we had a chat about some age-graded ranking, he is going to think about it... just for those obsessed with rankings... We also joked about that with fellow Stevens Creek Strider Alison Boudreau who was running the marathon to celebrate her birthday, and "just" enjoying it so much. I admitted that it has been a while since I did a race just for the fun of running (but let me add that I do enjoy running while racing or training!).

So, back to the title, I feel that I run much faster than I wanted to just slightly improve the course record and have a chance to do it again next year, in case I need the extra points (for the non insiders, we get bonus points for new records). 34 minutes and 22 seconds off the previous record, that's more than what I was aiming at, oops! That may stand for a few years, it will take 6 more years for Dave Mackey to turn 50! Yet, I ran slower than 3 years ago and was definitely quite far from the winner so, to some measure, too slow, right? An unsolvable equation or dilemma anyway... ;-) As for being stuck with 3rd place overall (4 times!), that's going to be a challenging tradition to keep up with...

Karl came in 4th in 7:27, followed by Trevis, 2 minutes later. Both were not chicked, as Kimberly O'Donnell crossed the finish line in 7:31:47 for 7th overall. And, to put things into perspective, this is the second fastest time in the race history, only 23 seconds (!) behind Ann Trason's course record of 1987 when she was 26. And Kimberly is 24, looking forward to seeing what this leads to... Starting maybe with a wedding of speedsters as I discovered that Ryan and Kimberly were together!
On top of the most professional racing organization, Julie had put together an amazing team to keep up with the high expectations of this event's finish line Café. After giving so much during the race, it took me a while to regroup and get my body temperature under control but I really enjoyed get a freshly cooked burger, as well as this great scoop of sorbet!



By the way, speaking of food, I had 2 Vespa pouches before the start (-45 minutes and -5 minutes), then a concentrate at 2.5 and 5 hours. That allowed me to run on 4 GUs (strategically taken before the big hills), 2 pieces of banana, 3.5 bottles of Gu2O and a few mini cups of Coke. Less than 700 calories intake for more than 5,000 spent, all the difference coming from my body fat!

For those who have read that far, or that down the page, especially volunteers, let me say it was super cool to be called by name at every aid station along the way. What a change from 2006, I know so many people on our local circuit. Thank you so much to all, that gave me a great boost especially when I'm without a crew.

And, speaking about volunteers, a special shout out to those who did this amazing marking. I read on Noé Castañón's update on Facebook that he had to spend 9 hours remarking a few sections in which some people (called bandits or vandals indeed, for the danger that represents to us, runners) had altered.

A few people were actually here to work. First, the Monsters of Massage, Ve Loyce and his team, drained my tired calves and quads and that was perfect so I could run a 10K this Sunday!

Also working hard while having fun, here is the Ballesteros family, Victor, Jena and Lucy, so supportive of our ultra community, associating Victor's passion and gift for ultra running with the design of running equipment, Victory Sportdesign!
It was also a great gathering for our Quicksilver team. Although we had 18 registered, we had a few DNS for various injuries, that late in the season, but we had a very strong show on the men side with 4 women finishing which will get us to score in the three divisions (Men, Women, Mixed). Not to improve our ranking, but for the sake of the Club spirit and running together!


While I'm done with our local USATF Grand Prix for 2014 (what a year again!), I still have three races scheduled this year. I'll run the invitational Desert Solstice 24-hour in December --more on this in a few weeks-- and our traditional Silicon Valley Turkey Trot 10K on Thanksgiving morning, an event which IBM is sponsoring for the 3rd year.

Last, but very much not least, I'll run the Marine Corps Marathon in 2 weeks (crazy me...)! Agnès and I are stopping by DC on our way back from Belize and, being in town and Alex running MCM for the second time, I didn't want to stay on the side line... Thankfully, I was able to get in at the last minute through a fundraising organization, thanks to Michael Wardian's local connections. Although I did support quite a few of these running-related fund raising campaigns, I wasn't sure I'd ever do it myself. Well, that's happening, and I'm very glad to be running for a cause supporting at-risk kids getting an earlier education and programs to exercise, specifically in the Alexandria, VA, area. Incidentally, this is fully in line with the mission of our local Quicksilver Running Club. And with that, I'm calling on your generosity to help us build one more playground in Alexandria. I was going to suggest that even a dollar or two would help but the minimum is $10, I guess micro-credit isn't for the US... ;-) If you are so incline to it, please click on that fund raising page, and thank you very much on behalf of Running Brooke's organization (oh, by the way, nothing to see with Brooks Running, my favorite running shoe brand!). Again, please consider clicking on the images below and donating to: Running Brooke, thank you so much for her and these kids in advance!