Sunday, April 28, 2019

Big Sur Marathon 2019: some pressure for a first

A marathon, a first? For one thing, I ran Boston 2 weeks ago! And Boston was my 26th marathon, not counting the 163 ultra races since 2006 or cumulated 410 ultra marathons when including the training ones. So what could be new and a first after 20 years of competitive running? Pacing a road marathon!

A few weeks ago, just before Boston, Chris Calzetta called me to see if I'd be open to make up for his partner to pace the 3:10 group at the Big Sur International Marathon. This other runner had injured his foot by doing too much vertical while preparing for UTMB. After the crazy 100K Nationals and Boston double over 2 days, then last week Trail Half Marathon in Napa, it was supposed to be a weekend off, something Agnès was very much looking forward to, especially before the other crazy 3-peat of May: Miwok 100K next week, then Quicksilver 100K, followed by Ohlone 50K...

And, yet, I did bite into the tempting apple and said yes to Chris. Great opportunity to run Big Sur again, get a redemption after a disastrous asthma occurrence back in 2000 (still managing to walk a lot for a 4:00:25 finish) and, more importantly, help the running community. After all, how hard could it be to run another 3:10 marathon...
By the way, I don't have a great recollection of my 2000 Big Sur Marathon because I wasn't blogging yet, but I went back on the course to run it solo and take many pictures in what I called a marathon-rama (unfortunately, I had put all these pictures into a Picasa album which Google dropped and erased, proving that the Web doesn't remember everything after all, in this digital world... --I do have personal backups at least, but not enough time right now to recreate online albums, that will have to wait for some retirement!).

With this crazy racing schedule, long is gone the time where I was taking a day or two to enjoy the experience including the expo and, in this case, a getaway weekend in such a unique location, Monterey, California. No, we drove just in time for a very short night at Chris', still getting to the Ocean for 15 minutes with Agnès. One of the ugly thing with Big Sur is that you can not drive on Highway 1 to the remote start. The race was starting at 6:45 but we had to hop on a bus at 4 am, yikes! I slept more or less 5 hours and really look still sleepy on that bus (just kidding, I'll blame the flash, it was so so dark outside! ;-).
The bus dropped us at the start at 5:10, we still had 1.5 hours to kill. Well, thankfully, if I dare to say, the lines at the porta-potties were insanely long and slow to move, Yet, there was a good vibe among the 5,000 or so marathon participants in particular thanks to the perfect weather this year: overcast, mild temperature, no rain and, equally important as we found out later, no head wind on Highway 1, phew! The rolling course is challenging enough but it was great to have the weather with us at least!
And the very cool Schnaitter-Winkler couple again, super serious contenders in the running frenzy competition: the three of us ran Boston 2 weeks ago, ran the Napa Valley half last week and now Big Sur!
With our 3:10 signs, we had to make our way through the entire Wave 1, which was defined by anyone aiming at finishing under 4 hours. We ended up 3 rows behind the elite and I managed to get a selfie with the Masters legend of marathon running, Michael Wardian, whom I paced on one of this North Face 50-mile in San Francisco a while ago.
We had a handful of runners who declared their interest to run with us after this 3:10 goal. By the way, that was the fastest goal among the pacing teams, the next one was 3:20, then 3:25, 3:30, and so on up to 5 hours I think.
We told them that, given the many down and uphills, we didn't plan on keeping a 7:15 min/mile pace, but for instance start faster in the first 4 downhill miles, to get some slack for the climb to Hurricane Point in particular at mile 12. Chris had also tried a negative split last year but ended up having only one runner with him crossing the line in 3:10 in 2018. By the way, it was Chris' 6th BSIM and he ran a 2:42 on that course in 2015! Oh, and he is also 18 years younger than me... ;-)

Anyway, I took the lead in these first 4 miles and we clocked a few 6:40-6:45 which was actually even less aggressive than in my flight plan. It felt easy and we were definitely not the fastest. Yet, once we were out of the downhills, I felt the pace laborious, even going above 7 minutes, now. At mile 7 and 8, there was a longer uphill and I slid behind the group as I had issues breathing and getting enough oxygen to my quads. Oh my, that didn't look good at all. Thankfully, the next section was a long downhill to Little Sur River Bridge (love the name), before the famous and steepest 2-mile uphill to Hurricane Point.

We were less than 2 minutes ahead of plan and when I admitted to Chris after the bridge that I was falling apart, he said not to worry, he'll wait for me. I replied "oh no, catch up with the 3 guys ahead and get them to the finish!" I slowed down to the 9 minute/mile pace I had in my Excel chart, then more, out of breath, down to a walk in mile 11. At the time I left Chris go ahead, Rob Boyce passed me and started chatting with Chris. I had met Rob at Boston where he ran 3:16. This time he clocked a solid 3:12, great Boston 2 Big Sur performance!

Before Hurricane Point, when my average pace fell over our 7:15 goal, I stopped on the side to hide the 3:10 sign I was carrying in my light backpack. I actually discovered that I had sweat quite a lot, overheating because of the additional effort without enough oxygen to my muscles.

At the half marathon mark, I stopped to take a short video of the Piano Man. Here is the anecdote about him. In the first 17 years of the Big Sur Marathon, Jonathan Lee was the Grand Piano Man, playing for 3 hours at that exposed spot, above the Ocean. When he passed away, his protégé and prodigy, Michael Martinez took over. Michael was then 15 he is now 29, what a tenure!

At this point, I started walking all the uphills and... I hate walking, I'm so bad at it! I could still jog the downhills but even that was becoming harder with the lung irritation. Not to mention the mental disarray by having all the other pacers pass me: the 3:20 guys were moving very nicely when they passed me around mile 17 I think. The 3:25 pacer had fallen behind. Around mile 20, I was contemplating dropping, wondering if I would be even able to finish. Yet, it looked like I could still break 4 hours if I was at least jogging the down and flat sections, and stopping feeling sorry about myself...

Also, wearing this special Pacing Team t-shirt, the least I could do was also to give encouragements to other runners, those I was passing but also those passing me although they were also struggling in this final 10K stretch. That got me moving, I even gave 2 S!Caps to a runner who was suffering from cramping on the side of the road and distributed a lot of "you can still break 4 hours" messages, although I was even doubting about that for myself! ;-)

Mile 22 has a climb, mile 24, and even the final mile, ouch! I was so out of breath that I had to walk a significant part of the final half mile, despite it being flat! And I pretended I was still a runner in front of the crowd, finally crossing the finish line in a painful counter-performance of 3:55:50. Well, at least a Personal Best at BSIM...

In my profound disappointment, I was relieved to hear from Agnès that Chris had run a 3:11. He finished with three runners this time. 2 others had actually picked up the pace to finish a few minutes ahead of the goal, while a few others fell off, albeit not as badly as I did.

All results were promptly posted in the afternoon. I will highlight:

  1. Mike Wardian's impressive Masters win and 4th place overall in 2:35:18 (5:55 min/mile)!
  2. Ian Sharman's 13th place overall, after running from Monterey to Big Sur before dawn (double marathon)!
  3. Our M55-59 age group was won by Rami Ghaudour from Los Angeles in 3:05. 2nd place: 3:18, 3rd 3:26, even more regret for falling off the pacing cliff for me...
  4. Gene Dykes, 71, ran a 3:18:07, wow!

Karl was shooting for 3:05 but broke 3 hours with 2:59:34. Through the second half, I was wondering when Simone will pass me, or where I had missed her passing me. She actually finished just behind me in 3:58. And she is on the Miwok 100K entrants list too!!

As for me: 765th overall, 534th in Men, 36th in M55-59, out of 7,795 finishers, dang!

The falling-off-the-pace-cliff chart, when a picture is worth a thousand words...
And a nicer story on's 3D flyover because it doesn't take the pace into consideration! ;-) (click on this link, or the image below to see the animation):

Lungs are still hurting this Sunday evening, making me burst into coughing if I take a full breath. 5 days before Miwok, that will have to do. Last week I also probably made a mistake in doing strength training (for once) on the stationary bike and leg press, both Monday and Tuesday, then run 10 miles on Wednesday with our running club at the office, and 15 miles on Thursday. I'll taper more seriously this week!

It had been a while since I got asthma this way. At MadCity 100K 2 weeks ago I attributed that to the freezing temperatures. This time, I think it was more the stress of making sure I won't miss the pace.

Since Agnès was stuck at the finish, while waiting for me for 45 minutes after Chris' finish, here is a collection of pictures of all the sub-4-hour pacers. Special thanks to The Treadmill in Carmel, which sponsored this Pacing Team program! And, no, it has nothing to see with the French Yellow Vests, duh! ;-)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Napa Valley Half Marathon: much different plan!

Quite some change today! First, we had added our first Trail race in our MUT (Mountain, Ultra, Trail) Pacific Association (PA) Grand Prix. For 25 years, our MUT schedule only included ultra races, from 28 miles at the grueling Quad Dipsea to more than 100 miles with 24-hour events. From trails to roads to tracks, quite a range of formats! Yet, this isn't even representing the full variety of our MUT sport which includes three types of running: ultra of course, with an easy definition, anything longer than 26.2 miles. M stands for Mountain Running whose definition is a bit lose, with a consensus around this metric system-based specification: 10-12K long with 100m of positive elevation per km. Then T stands for Trail, typically any event run exclusively on a trail, shorter than a marathon and longer than cross-country distances, so let's say more than 12K.
We are adding three of these sub-trail races then, and we had our first one scheduled for this Easter Sunday, close to Napa: Angwin to Angwish Half Marathon. Unfortunately, due to low registration, the event fell through early April. Thankfully, Adam Ray, from Scena Performance, had a half marathon option to his Napa Valley 50K event, conveniently in close by Calistoga and one day earlier, this Easter Saturday. Great response from our PA members and the half marathon quickly filled up. Back to the change mentioned in the title, I was myself looking forward for a shorter run, after my MadCity 100K Nationals (cut short to 80K for me) and Boston Marathon double last weekend.

My legs still felt a bit tired but that wasn't a good excuse as I wasn't the only one at the start line who had run Boston on Monday: Jason Reed, David Tran, Karl Schnaitter and Simone Winkler, Chris Jones, and maybe others. Well, I might have been the only one running 80K just 2 days before Boston though...
Agnès and I left home at 5 am to drive to the start which we reached at 7 am, leaving ample time to check in as other runners had checked in the day before.
Adam sent us off on the trail at 8 am, after his usual briefing full of humor. When he mentioned that the trail was technical, especially on the ridge (Pallisades), I thought he was joking too. After all, we weren't in the Alps! I've never ran something really that technical in California, and I was just here for a hilly yet fast half marathon.

Chikara took off and the lead right away, as usual. Followed by his teammates, Jason, David Tran and Karl Schnaitter, the yellow jacket singlets. Plus one fast dude from the Pamakids, Erik Gobbell.

I had seen in the entrant list someone from South Lake Tahoe, not only in my age group but with the same UltraSignup score/ranking, Alan Reynolds, running for the Tamalpa Runners club. I scanned all the runners at the start (they must have wondered why... if I was officiating as USATF Certified Official! ;-) ), looking for Alan's bib, #11. To no availability, although I noticed a runner who could fit the bill, wearing Salomon shoes and a wind breaker, hiding his bib. Other runners in my age group were Jerry Flanagan and J.R. Mintz, two prolific runners, Jerry with USATF in particular, and J.R. typically racing 100 times a year. Yes, that means 2 races every weekend... (You see, with 18 races a year, I'm still quite reasonable, am I not? ;-) ).

After the first flat mile to cross Calistoga, we reached the 5-mile uphill on which we'll gain 2,000 feet. I tied up with the lead 50K runner and was impressed by his pace. We got ahead of Karl, I was now in 5th place in the half. We were clocking 9:30 to 10-minute miles, not only because of the slope, but all the rocks on the trail. It wasn't a fire road indeed, or rather one requiring quite a solid 4-wheel drive, and a small one because there were a few narrow sections. By the way, Adam had promised gorgeous views of the Napa Valley but we couldn't see a thing as we were running through a cloud.

By mile 4 we closed on David, yet I couldn't get much faster and was thinking of keeping some energy for the downhill. Karl closed on us as well and passed me. Then, before mile 6, we hit the first bump in the trail, a super steep climb which reminded me the Hawk's Nest section on the Ohlone Trail. Then a big tree to go over, then slippery rocks, that became way too technical for me to run. Here is the thing: since I broke my shoulder falling on the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2012, I refuse to take more risks and trip. That made for some miserable counter performance at UTMB the past 2 years and resetting a few personal goals with regard to ultra trail. Now, I could tell that Adam wasn't joking at all in his briefing!

I was slowly and carefully hiking that section then when I heard a runner approaching behind. As I went on the right of the single track to let him pass, I hit a branch and lost my sun glasses. I stopped and saw a bib displaying that number 11 I couldn't find at the start! Dang, Alan had caught up with me as I was barely moving and he was moving with such ease in this technical section, there was no way I was going to keep up with him in that section! Besides, I had some other business to take care of first, finding my glasses... I retraced back the trail, nothing. After a minute or so, I saw them way below the trail and carefully went down to grab them. And then went on with more scary moments, sliding on rocks or the trail itself. To my surprise, I crossed Erik first, with Chikara not far behind. I don't recall exactly in which order the next three Excelsiors were (Jason, Karl, David) but I remember Alan was already on their heels. And still no sign of the aid station at our turn around. It took me a few minutes to finally hear the volunteers' cheering and remember a very alpine landscape there, although I didn't stop and was so focused on my footing. Now that my age group win was out of reach, my main goal was not to trip and fall.

On the way back we were crossing all the other runners. Like at Miwok, most of them went out of their way to let us pass, I'm so grateful for it. I actually lost my breath thanking them and return their messages of encouragement with my own, including many "good luck" ones... Among the runners I had crossed, Jerry then J.R. weren't too far behind, I had better keep moving to save my second place in our competitive age group!

After I got out of this treacherous section, I felt better. My ego was bruised but there wasn't much to do about it. Actually, there was one thing: enjoy trail running and the stunning view of that mythical valley as the cloud had dissipated: as gorgeous as advertised by Adam in his pre-race emails. I kept pushing the pace but I was paying so much attention to my footing, I had issues getting faster than 7:30-7 min/mile. In the last 3 miles of the trail, before the last mile on the road, there were also hikers to pay attention to (sorry for the lack of eye contact, that's key for me to avoid tripping).

I couldn't spot anyone ahead, not beyond, and was glad to glance at my GPS and catch a 6:30 min/mile pace finally! A few course monitors were guiding us through the crossing and turns of the last mile in Calistoga, and I finally reached the finish line in 2:09:39. Wow, so far from the 1:30 I had given to Agnès without knowing it was going to be a technical trail. Adam was busy so my arrival wasn't announced in the mic and Agnès missed my finish, focused on grading her students' tests.
Chikara had managed to take the lead back and win by 35 seconds, not without a bad fall somewhere and a bloody knee. Erik second, followed by Karl.

Then Alan passed Jason and David to take 4th and win our age group in 2:01:30, great performance!
My other M50-59 buddies Jerry and JR finished in 9th and 11th in the Men division, respectively in 2:17 and 2:18, close call!

On the women side, great news, the famous blazing fast Impalas joined us this time, jazzing up the team competition. As a matter of fact, it was also nice to see Elizabeth Gress from Pamakids, taking 3rd place on the podium, behind Angela Tieri and Lauren Creath, while 2 more Impalas completed the top 7 (Simon Winkler in 6th, and Kristine Barrios and Jeanine Holmlund from Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders in 8th and 10th, respectively).
At the finish area, there was some serious massage going on, see for yourself!
Overall, a great event and hat off to the 20-milers and 50K runners who endured many more of these technical miles on Palisades. I totally understand why the 50K earned its finishers 3 ITRA points, very well deserved! (ITRA points are required to register at certain international races such as UTMB, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.) Adam and his team put another very professional event, including full lunch and drinks at the finish, and a very cool custom wooden finisher medal.
I'm still bummed with my 82% performance which reflects how slow I've been on that technical section, which I didn't see coming at all. But at least I didn't fall and jeopardize the mission I have next week. It was supposed to me a weekend off from a racing standpoint, one week before Miwok 100K, but I just got in the Big Sur International Marathon to join Chris Calzetta to pace the 3:10 group. More tapering is in order this week then!

And Happy Easter to all!

PS: perfect opportunity to get a Napa Valley experience... We got a mud bath (a first), stopped by the Clif Family wine tasting room, then a French restaurant in Napa. A full day, thanks to a shorter than usual race in the morning. For a change! :-)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Boston 123rd Marathon 2019: what did you expect?

I ask the question in the title because, on my end, I was really unsure what to expect out of this edition. As I wrote in my last post, last night, I competed in the 100K Road Nationals on Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin, only to DNF and drop after 80K (~50 miles or ~2 marathons). On late afternoon yesterday, Sunday, I went for 4 sluggish miles and had issue maintaining a 7:30 min/mile pace because of short breath and still some soreness in my legs. And then, on the expectation topic, there was the weather forecast...
Ah, the weather at Boston, so unpredictable! 2 years ago it was warm and that worked beautifully for me, finishing 2nd if my competitive M50-54 age group with 2:44. I didn't want to come last year but the organizers invited me, an offer I could not refuse. And, my guts feeling were right, the weather was miserable. This year, that is back in September 2018 to add some context, I decided to register as I would have changed age group. Still dreaming about a good place as I was going to be the youngest again. Many things happened since then and I haven't been able to put enough speed work in since my gluteus issue of last November. As for the weather, a few days ago we received an email to brace ourselves for cold and rainy conditions again, something looking like a repeat from 2018. As of last night and even this morning, there was high chance of rain all morning (before and during the race), just that the temperatures were going to be much higher, 60 to 65F. Another big change from the 32-40F of Saturday's race in Wisconsin...

When my friend drove me to Hopkinton at 8:15, it was a deluge on the highway. And then, miraculously, the rain stopped.

Everything was wet in the village, from the pouring rain of the night, but, in the crowd of 10,000 runners I found a spot with friends from the Bay Area, a great way to spend the 45 minutes before the doors to the corrals opened. Here are Whit Rambach, whom I ran Western States with back in 2007, and Rob Boyce, an Ironman from Australia, both living in Monterey, CA.
Chris Eide was also with us, I'll see him again at Quicksilver 100K in a few weeks. Rob was bib #6131 and I was 6149 this year, quite close! We shared the same corral (#7) and saw each other in the first 2 miles. As for Whit, he had a higher bib so he pretended he wasn't offended that we left him alone... ;-)

I was supposed to meet with Vespa mate, Anthony Kunkel, bib 828, as he had lost his Vespa pouches in his car and I had a couple of extra ones from my aborted 100K of Saturday. I waited for 10 minutes at our meeting point but didn't see him and felt bad for his A race. I'm happy to report he still survived, on his own fat (we both follow Peter Defty's OFM protocol and science), and finished 55th in Open division in 2:27, quite impressive!
Seven thousand runners ahead!
 And one more thousand behind to complete wave 1...
 Oh, and my muddy Brooks Launch special Boston 2017 edition, after a stroll through the village:

It took me almost 4 minutes to cross the start line, walking, it had been a long time since I had done that. I have to admit I'm not a big fan of such crowds, I'm spoiled and now so used to the intimacy of the ultra races and ultra community...

As most of you know, it's easy to start fast at Boston because the first miles are mostly downhill. Two years ago, for my perfect race, I started below 6 min/mile. This time was much different: first there was a lot of traffic but, more importantly, I wasn't in shape at all to go as fast anyway. I was actually please to run at 7 min/mile, clocking 7:12 and 7:11 for the first two miles. However, it was actually warm and I got too hot with my long sleeves and Buff, having hard time to maintain 7:30 on the slight up-hills. And, although I had started at the back of the 7th corral, I was passing a few runners, but I was getting passed more. My main goal was really to finish so I didn't panic and tried to run between 7:15-7:30 min/mile where I could, thinking that conservative pace would do it. I felt a little uneasy to recognize the sections I was running so well 2 years ago but, again, it was foolish anyway to run 2 marathons 2 days earlier.

The miles passed the same way, still runner passing me, and me thinking I'd better keep the pace before the blue wave catches me (they started 23 minutes behind us, or 19 minutes given the time it took me to pass the start line). I had quite negative thoughts in my mind, doubting I would even be able to maintain that slower pace all the way. Breathing and stride were ok, I could feel the gluteus but it wasn't the issue, I wasn't into it.

Then I got to mile 12... Wellesley and it's prestigious women-only College, and scream tunnel. All the way, I had hard time returning smiles from spectators but I decided to make a stop right in the tunnel and get a video so you get some sense of the uplifting feeling, right before the half marathon point. It can actually be quite a trap: it's so uplifting to have all these girls yelling encouragements that it gives you some new wing and you risk on picking up the pace way too early in the race. It has happened to me in the past, I know better as it's my 7th participation! ;-)

I spent about 45 seconds there, and that gave me my slowest mile at 8:14. But it was so much worth it: from that point, the dark clouds in my mind cleared up and everything became so much easier. For one, after passing the half marathon in 1:36:25, maintaining a sub 7:30 pace wasn't a problem anymore. I even clocked 7:45 for the infamous Heartbreak Hill, now passing many runners back, recognize many tops I had seen earlier in the morning. And now acknowledging spectators' encouragements.

I stopped at mile 16 to refill my GU20/GU Brew bottle and lost a few seconds but I save more by carrying two bottles. I took my 2nd GU before Heartbreak Hill, then a 3rd one around mile 22 to avoid the mistake I had made in that section last year. Running Boston on only 3 GUs shows the power of the powerful combination of OFM and Vespa, your body fat bringing the rest of the energy. Not to mention the recovery benefits allowing you to race and train more.

From mile 21 to 24 I clocked sub-6-minute miles and was passing many more runners, hundreds if not thousands: 7:01 for mile 22, then 6:54, 6:52, 7:00 and 7:05, then it was time for the last sprint on Boylston street. Finish time (chip time): 3:12:30, a negative split by a few seconds, my first time at Boston. Ok, much easier to do when you start slow, but still... ;-) My best hope was between 3:10 and 3:15, right in the middle! And so much the push and second wind in the second half. After my first 3:11 marathon on Saturday, two good tests before pacing the 3:10 group at Big Sur Marathon in 2 weeks! (With the Napa trail half in between, in 5 days...)
Not a disappointment at all but to illustrate the competitiveness among the old guys, I took 63 in my age group, the top 3 times being respectively 2:46, 2:48 and 2:52; I may have to come back, these times are still reasonable at our old age... ;-)
And to illustrate the depth, Rob finished less than 4 minutes behind me (3:16:22) and ended up 306th in our M55-59 group, yikes, what a bell curve (statistic jargon)!

Here is a 1-minute 3D flyover of my run (click on this link, or the image below).

The conditions ended up gorgeous, at least for the sub-4-hour runners. I don't know if the course got the heavy rain we got near Waltham around 3 pm, I wouldn't have wanted to still be out there. Although, again, rain with warmer temperatures is less of an issue than it was last year.

After soaking my legs in an epsom salt bath, I actually feel much better in stairs tonight than I felt last night. Looks like it was worth recovering with a (short) marathon after all! Still, I feel I deserve a week off. Running that is, I'm getting back to work now...

Was great to see so many people today, both on the course and along the course. What a 123rd edition, Boston lived up to it's reputation again! Number 7 for me, I'll likely be back, maybe not next year as odd years worked better for me (I ran 2001, 3, 5 (top 10 Masters), 7, 17 (top 2 M50), 18 and 19). Nothing compared to the fate which Mark Godale accomplished with his brother today: 26 consecutive Boston finishes! Or what about that other one he posted on his timeline: Dan Larson who completed today his 49th Boston, including 45 consecutive ones. That's another level of life commitment, and running sustainability, wow!

Hope you had a good experience today, either running, spectating, or following our progress on line. And see you on the road, trail or online again soon!