Sunday, November 09, 2008

From Zero to 70.3 in 9 months: Miami Man Half Iron Man Report

Its amazing what we can talk ourselves into doing. Back in February, sitting in a outdoor cafĂ©, running buddy John Clidas and I was debating the equivalent effort between a marathon and a half iron-man triathlon. We concluded that while a half ironman would take longer, it would probably beat up the body about as much as a marathon. Shortly thereafter, John talked me into signing up for the Miami Man Half Ironman in November. All this without either of us having done even the shortest distance sprint triathlon. Well, time passes and we both, along with wife Salome and other similarly deranged friends, did several sprint triathlons over the summer. For those that don’t know the distances for these events, the sprint triathlon involves a 1/4 th mile swim, followed by a 10 mile bike ride, and finishes with a 3.1 mile run. The half ironman is a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run.

During each of our sprint triathlons over the summer, our motto was “If we don’t drown in the swim portion, we’ll be fine. “ We all come from running backgrounds, none of us being great swimmers. We would usually come out of the water in well back in our age groups and have to work our way back up in the standings in the bike and run legs of the events.

After running the Berlin Marathon together in September, John & I decided we needed to step up the training distances for the November 9th Half. We got in some good pool workouts, were we would swim 50 minutes and started riding longer distances. Unfortunately, my longest rides to date were 40 milers, but I finally managed to get a 56 mile ride in the week before the event. Thus, we figured we could at least finish the event and not get the dreaded DNF (did not finish) designation next to our names in the results listings.

The day before the race, we traveled down to the park next to the Miami Metro Zoo that was the staging area for the event. We brought our bike to set them up in the transition area and get our race packets. After setting our bikes up, we walked over to the lake where the 6/10th of a mile swim course was laid out with buoys. I have to say the course looks enormous and we would have to swim it twice. The race is just late enough in the year to allow the race direct to call it “wet suit legal,” meaning the water temperature is at 78 degrees or lower. This is important because you can use a wet suit in the fresh water lake making you more buoyant and therefore able to swim faster, or in our case, at least easier.

Now, I have never swum with a wet suit in a triathlon. I had ordered one from a company in California, which arrive the week before the event. Unfortunately, it ended up being too small and I have to send it back. Thus, I decided to buy one on sale at the expo for the race the next day. During the Q & A portion of the race course discussion we were required to sit through on Saturday, someone asks the elite woman triathlete lecturer if one should use a wetsuit if they hadn’t practiced with it in training. “Oh, no,” said the lecturer, “Don’t try anything in a triathlon that you didn’t throughly try out during your training. Forget that, I thought, there is no way I’m attempting a 1.2 mile swim without the extra advantage of the wet suit I’d just paid $200 for. I’ll take my chances.

After getting up at 3:15 AM on race morning, picking up John and driving an hour to South Miami, we set up our transition area in the dark at 5:30 AM. Its amazing how fast time passes before the start time comes up for an event you question whether you are truly ready to do. John mentions that with an International distance event (about half of the distance of each leg we will be doing) being held that morning, that all the wanna-be’s are weeded out of the pack for the half iron-man. I mention to him that perhaps we too are wanna-be half iron-men, but were too stupid to not do the lesser distance event. I start riffing on revised lyrics to Green Day’s “American Idiot” singing: I don’t want to be a half iron-man idiot, don’t want to swim 1.2 miles.

After waiting in line for a last chance to lighten the load and squeeze into our wet suits, we just have time to get down to the beach area of the lake. We are in the fourth wave of starter in the “45 and over” wave start. As we line up along the shore, the announcer states: “Boy, don’t these guys look great for being 45 and older.” I think how middle aged crazy we must seem to the ultra fit athletes in their 20s and 30s that do these events. I think that it’s a good thing I’m doing this before turning 50 in January when people would definitely wonder if I hadn’t gone off the deep end.

If you’ve never done a triathlon, imagine what it would be like to swim amongst 30 to 40 crazed swimmers each trying to go as fast as they can and being somewhat directionally challenged. There is a lot of grabbing and knocking into one another. It’s the polar opposite of the calm relaxed swim you have in the pool training for the event. The splashing and churning of the water that a group of excited swimmers produces is an invitation to get claustrophobic and start breathing too shallow. It usually takes me about 5 minutes to get over the excitement and calm myself to relaxed breathing and good stroke technique, or at least by my untrained standards.

Knowing that my swim is my weakest link in these events, I decide to use a mental trick to keep the throng of swimmers from messing with my head. I decide to keep telling myself that I love to swim. By golly, swimming is my favorite portion of the triathlon. Funny thing is, it worked. As we enter the water and I’m getting slapped by stray arms and kicked by legs, I tell myself that this is fun. I notice the water is clear and you can see the lake bottom with fish and what looks like coral. This also help me from lifting my head too often to look for the next buoy which I find to be inefficient and takes me out of my rhythm. While the buoys seem far apart, it’s the only way to break the course up into manageable portions. Before I know it, I’m completing the first lap of the lake. To register that you’ve done two laps, we have exit the water, cross a mat and get back into the lake for the second lap. As you come out of the water, you think “Alright, I’ve finished my first lap.” Of course, the thought that comes right behind that is “Oh crap, I’ve got to get back in the water for the second lap.”

After working my way around lake a second time, I’m on my last leg approaching the lake shore. I think, “The swim was enjoyable. Perhaps it will end up being my favorite part of the course. Do I have to get out of the water.” Before I know it, I’m back on shore climbing out of the water. The wet suit worked great. Take that, Ms. elite triathlon lecturer. My time in the water: 51 minutes. Nothing to brag about, but I survived the 1.2 mile swim. The odds of me finishing the event just got considerably better.

I get to the transition area and notice that a lot of the bikes, which are group according to age groups, are gone. Thus, as usual, I will have to work my way up in the standing by passing the better swimmers on the bike or the run. I look over and spot buddy John’s bike still in the rack. John is swim challenged for reasons we can’t figure out. Prior to the event he was telling another buddy of ours that I would beat him out of the water. I replied that while I would beat him out of the water, it was really an issue of whether John would overtake me on the bike of the run stages. I have a history of going out too hard in races and having John overtake me in the later miles. There is an infamous half marathon story that involves jingle bells on John’s running shoes, but I digress. As I leave the transition area, I wonder how John is made out in the swim and how far back he is form me.

The initial miles of the bike ride are great. The whether is still somewhat cool and there appears to be a slight wind at our backs. I planned to try to average 18.3 mph on the bike, but am hitting 20 to 21 for the first 5 miles. Was I riding too hard. It didn’t seem so. I try to ride by perceived effort and not worry too much about the bike computer speed reading. Either I’m stronger today than I thought or I’ve getting some wind assistance. Sure enough as the course changes direction, my speed slows into the upper 17s and lower 18s. The bike course has many turns so we were getting the wind from all directions throughout the course. When the course faced directly into the wind, I slowed to an average of about 15 mph. During those portions, I thought “This sucks. I feel like a sail.” Adding to the wind issue was that fact that other riders would slow to an even greater degree. This was an unwanted opportunity to work even harder.

In triathlons, you are not permitted to draft off another bicyclist. If your distance from the rider in front of you becomes less than 3 bike links, you are obligated to either fall back to 3 bike links or pass the rider in front of you within 15 seconds. Otherwise, you are subject to time penalties and possible disqualification if observed by race course officials. Normally, when you pass people, it feels great. You are moving up your place in the race and you feel you are stronger than the other rider. This is also a necessity for people like me that are not as gifted in the swim. However, it is a less welcome gift heading into the wind. One must dig deep to summon the added speed to pass the biker that slows more than you as you ride into the wind. Thus, when these other riders dropped pace, I was forced to exert a level of energy I didn’t want to expend.

As I got to around mile 40, I realized that the last 16 miles were going to be the opposite of the ride out. Instead of being wind assisted, I was struggling to keep a reasonable pace into the wind. I also note that its getting hot out and the back of my legs are starting to feel sun burned. With about 5 miles to go, I’ve sucked the last of my two water bottles dry. This could make for a miserable last leg of the event.

In the last miles, I start to wonder how I’m going to get off the bike and run a half marathon. As I finish the ride, I think “That was about 16 miles longer than I wanted to ride.” I got sore in the knees, my hamstrings started to get sore, and don’t get me started about my butt. Let’s just say that I enjoyed riding harder at times just to get up and out of the saddle. It doesn’t help that the shammy in the tri shorts are thinner than regular bike shorts.

As I remount my bike back at the transition area, I notice that John’s bike is still out. He is still behind me, but I expect I will see him on the run portion. My total time for the 56 mile ride was 2:59:57, a pace of 18.67 mph. Better than I had planned. I switch out my bike shoes and helmet for my run shoes and runners cap. As I start to jog to the transition area, I think this is going to be rough. I had done some great bike/run brick training blocks with a 25 mile bike ride followed by a 10K run. I felt strong on both legs in those training blocks, but my legs feel like lead starting the half marathon. Fortunately, there is a water stop with sponges about a 1/4 mile into the run. Squeezing the water from the sponge on my head and neck never felt so good.

The run is two loops of about 6 ½ miles through and around the Miami Metro Zoo. About a half mile into the run, there is a sign for the 7 mile mark on the second loop of the course. I guy running near me turns and says: “Only 6 miles to go.” “Unfortunately, this is my first lap,” I reply. I notice is really hot out. I figure its probably about 11:30 and I’ll be running for the next 2 hours or more. Whenever I see people out running at high noon in South Florida, I think: “This guy is nuts. He’s going to get heat stroke and die. What kind of idiot runs at noon?” I now have my answer.

The portion of the run between miles 2 and 4 in the first lap and miles 8 and 10 on the second lap are a long out and back route from the park to the parks main entrance. As I’m coming back on the first loop, I spot John. He’s about 3/4th of a mile behind me. We yell “Hey” to each other and continue on our way. I wonder if he’ll pull me in.

The portion of the route through the zoo was interest. You get somewhat distracted from you discomfort by the various animals along the route. However, the route through the zoo is a nightmare of twists and turns. Worse are the kids and parents strolling by licking their lemon-aid frozen popsicles. I offer a lady $100 for her popsicle, but she turns me down. Probably a good thing as I had no money on me.

As I approach the transition area, there is a split where you either keep going for lap 2 or turn off for the finish line. As you approach this area, they call out the finisher’s name over a loud speaker. As I approach, I hear the announcer call out my name. “Nope,” I say, and hold up two fingers to indicate I still have to do lap 2.

As I pass the water stop that had sponges for the second time, the group of cheerleaders working the water stop are as cheerful as ever. However, they are now out those water soaked sponges. Darn, they were so great on the first lap. Oh, well, I think, at least I’m on my last lap of what now feels like a run through the Hades. Around mile 7, the expected happens. Here comes buddy John, the guy who conned, I mean talked me into signing up for this mess. As he passes me, I start singing the refrain from the Rolling Stone’s song “The Last Time.” “This could be the last time, this could be the last time, maybe the last time, I don't know.” He shouts back, “Isn’t this fun?” I reply by finishing the lick: “Oh no!” Cheerful bastard. As we pass each other again on the out and back loop to the front of the zoo between miles 9 to 10, I notice he’s getting farther ahead of me. “You look strong,” I yell.

From here on to the finish, I note that lots and lots of the athletes are now walking it in. As a runner, I refuse to buckle into the peer pressure to walk. Come on, I think, you guys are in better shape than me. You can at least shuffle your way to the finish. I don’t know if it’s the that I’m doing better than these other runners or if the cloud coverage got better, but I seem to be running better and stronger. It helps that on the second lap, you know what’s coming up ahead on the course. As I keep passing the walking wounded, I start visualizing the next quarter to half mile to get down the next section. Don’t think about where you are, I take mental note, think about the next section just ahead of where you can see. Get to that point, and you’ll be that much closer to the finish. Finally, the finish line comes into view, and I see John near the finish line cheering me on. I give him a high five and cross the finish line. Whew! I’m glad that”s over.

My run time was nothing to write home about 2:22, for a total event time of 6:26:06. This was a little better than our guesstimate of about 6 ½ hours. John completed in 6:16. I tip my running cap to John. I believe you’re time in any event like this is a measure of your fitness level on that day. Today, John was the more fit man.

Afterward, John explains that he took off his timing chip in taking off his wetsuit and forgot to put it back on. Thus, he did his bike leg without a timing chip. He attempt to hand me a pyretic victory by claiming that he might get disqualified for not having his timing chip on during the total event. I explain to him that often a chip won’t register at a mat during a triathlon and that the race officials will simply look at the mats that registered to back in his bike time. Sure enough, this is what was done.

All in all, I’m glad I did this event. I’ve never done an event where you are exercising for over six hours. I try to complete my marathons in under 4 hours. Even on a bad day, I’m done by around 4:20. Thus, this event is a good 2 hours more than I’m used to doing. Does it beat the body up as much as a marathon? No. But at some point, I have to ask myself: what’s the point? I think I had merely adequate training to get through this event. Even at that, the training tends to fill up most of your free time.

With a couple of days recovery time, I’m feeling pretty good. Triathlon season has ended and I don’t have to think seriously about this until the Spring. It begins to occur to me that the real problem with the half ironman is that you end up doing the run portion in the heat of the day. Now, if you do the full ironman, the middle of the day is taken up in the bike portion. At least on the bike you get somewhat of a breeze going just by biking. By the time you get to the run its already 4 to 6 PM. It’ll be cooling off. Now you’re talking. Kool-Aid anyone?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Berlin Marathon

The Berlin Marathon is an event I've wanted to do for several years. This was in large part due to the fact that the world's record is often broken at the Berlin Marathon. It's not that I hoped to run a good time in Berlin, its that I wanted to have an understanding of why this course is a world record course. It's also a part of what is known as one of the 5 World Marathon Majors. The World Marathon Majors is a championship-style competition amongst the elite marathoners. It is comprised of the five most prestigious marathons in the world: Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City. Having run Boston, Chicago and NYC, Berlin was a natural selection. Running buddy John had also done London, so this event would complete his tour of the World Marathon Majors.

Before heading over to Berlin, we tried to figure out an extended stay after the marathon. I love the city of Munich and wanted to go there for Octoberfest. John, having previously experienced Octoberfest, wanted to go to another destination. As we could never work out an agreement, we eventually ended up booking a shortened trip that only encompassed Berlin. Our return flights would be the day after the marathon.

We flew out on Wednesday afternoon, getting us into Berlin on Thursday morning. After checking into our hotel located in the southwestern section of Berlin near the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church and the Berlin Zoo. I head out into the neighborhood and locate a bank that will exchange money. In walking around the area, I come across a protest by hospital workers. It was a very peaceful demonstration. More like a concert gathering than anything else.

A hospital workers protest/parade

I return to the hotel to pick up John for a walk to the Brandenburg Gate. To get to the gate, we walk through Tiergarten, the Berlin equivalent to Central Park in New York City. Tiergarten is bisected by a wide multi-lane street running east-west called Strasse de 17 June, named after a the day in 1953 when worker in East Berlin protested against GDR reforms that cut worker's pay in which numerous protesters where shot. At the midpoint of the street is a Victory Column called Siegessaule, which contains the goddess of victory atop the 154 foot column.

We come across more protesters as we walk east up Strasse de 17 June. There is a stage set up near the Brandenburg Gate and politicians speak to the crowd of protesters. John & I work our way around the crowd to cross through the Brandenburg Gate and take some pictures. We then try to decipher the subway maps in German to figure out how to get to the Expo to pick up our race numbers. Our inability to properly figure out which stop to get off the subway is rewarded with a couple mile walk to the expo location near the airport. The expo is OK, but the official race merchandise is nothing to write home about. The official shirts that we can purchase have the word "Finisher" promptly displayed on the shirt, which I always dislike. Why would I wear a shirt if I didn't finish the marathon? The Euro/Dollar exchange rate doesn't help either.

Bill at the Brandenburg Gates.

After returning to our hotel, we head out into the neighborhood and find a large traditional German food restaurant, that I jokingly call TGI Berlin. However, the food is authentic and very good. The German beer also helps.

Then next day, we meet up with the group from Marathon Tours for a bus tour of Berlin. Our contact from Marathon Tours, Cliff Jennings, is a friendly and informative guy. Our German tour guide is also pretty good. We meet several runners from other parts of the us. A couple from New York seem to have done all of the Marathon Tours offerings, having just traveled to Iceland for the Reykjavik marathon in August. A bubbly Mexican American runner, Rosa, from LA talks up the LA Marathon. Linda from Chicago brought along her friend Peggy to act as her travel companion and Sherpa. Peggy plans to subway hop the marathon course to hand off special drink bottles to Linda along the course. Now, that's service. There are a couple of young guys from Boston who are running their first marathons and expecting to tear up the course. As we stop outside the Reichstag I meet an Asian American wheel-chair participant who is a very upbeat, positive guy.

Bill & John outside the Reichstag

As we travel around the city having various site pointed out, John is glued to his "crackberry" seeking news on what is happening to his job back home with Wachovia Bank. This is during the wild downward speculation in bank and security stocks. He is justifiably trying to keep abreast of what's going on, but come on, we are in Berlin. Pay attention dude.

John focusing on the meltdown back home instead of the interesting wall art outside the bus window.

We pass by several sites that make me feel a bit strange: Checkpoint Charlie, remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, the plaza were books were burned in the 30s, the street where Gestapo headquarters used to exist, the parking lot above Hitler's Bunker, the Holocaust Memorial Plaza. I get the feeling that we are in an alternative reality in which all the tourist attractions are about dark periods in world history. So much bad stuff happened here and the places they took place become the attractions. Luckily, there are other periods of German history and some very beautiful architecture, both medieval and modern. The tour ends by dropping everyone at the expo, so John & I revisit the expo. I take a picture of our new running friends with a goofy shoe mascot.
Linda, Peggy & Rosa with New Balance "Shoe Guy"

That night our MT contact Cliff invites everyone to a German food restaurant. It turns out to be about 6 of us, all guys, and we end up back at TGI Berlin. No complaint from me as I loved the food. One of the guys is Eric Johnson, an endowment administrator for Tuffs University in Boston. He gives me a couple of good running book recommendations.

The next day, I go on a walking architectural tour with Linda, Peggy and Rosa, while John goes to the Berlin Zoo. We go back to the Reichstag to climb the glass dome constructed atop the nineteenth century building. The interior structure of the dome reminds me of a Star Trek warp drive.
The interior of the glass dome atop the Reichstag. "Beam me up Scotty."

We walk around the Potsdam area and end up at the Sony Center, a building with an open air plaza. The building is designed to look like Mt. Fugimori in Japan.

On my way back to the hotel, I pick up water bottles for hydration during the rest of the day. I get back to the hotel and take a much need nap. I've not caught up with my jet lag and go down hard for a couple of hours. John comes in just before dinner time. He had a great day at the Berlin Zoo and capped it off by watching the Rollerbladers zipping by on the marathon course. Unlike most marathons, Berlin has a separate event the day before for Rollerbladers. His pictures and video of these guys drafting off one another as they speed by made me jealous that I missed out on seeing them.

We meet for a group dinner, at the hotel. At our table is a guy in his 70s name Wes, who has run a bunch of marathons. He tells us he is honored to sit with us; we tell him that the honor is ours. We revere his dedication to running. After setting out our running gear, John & I turn in for the night.

The next morning, we dress and meet our group and Cliff in the lobby. Cliff set the time for the walkover to Tiergarten so that we would be at the start in time. As we arrive at the start area, we all split up to drop our bags with extra clothes for the finish. We agree to meet at a tree in the park. As I wonder further away from the start area, I realize my bag drop is in an out of the way part of the staging area, one with a whole bunch of people trying to get in and out of at the same time. I'm in a human traffic jam with no where to go. I finally make it to my drop of location and have to jog a good ways back to where we agreed to meet. No one is around. I realize I've taken too long getting my bag dropped and will not be able to find my group. We were all looking to run about the same pace, so I was a bit miffed that I would not likely find John, Linda and Rosa to run a controlled pace. Getting separated just before a marathon with the package drop off happened to me in Dublin the year before. I chalk it up to karma and that the big man upstairs wants me to do these events alone.

It's now getting late and the crowds trying to get through the bushes at the side of Strasse de 17 June and into the proper time corrals is inducing a sense of near panic. I finally break through the narrow gate and into my corral. My running friends are nowhere to be found. I figure to simply run my proper pace and hope to come across my friends. With some 30,000 plus people running, I realize I'm once again on a solo run. I figure I'll strike up conversations along the way until I realize most of the runners speak either German, Italian or French. As the gun goes off, I vow to simply enjoy the race.

The race itself is a very pleasant tour of the city of Berlin. Given the large numbers, the crowd of runners never thins out. Fortunately, neither do the crowds cheering along the sides of the road. Peggy, Linda's friend and sherpa, told us she would have a cow bell with her that she would ring. Thus, whenever I hear a cow bell, I turn to look for Peggy. Of course, since this is Germany, many of the small children ring cow bells as a way of cheering. I laugh thinking about the Christopher Walken skit in which he keeps asking for "More Cowbell." Next time Peggy, bring a whistle.

I keep passing and getting past by the same runners. I think I'm running fairly even splits, but I feel like my pace is slipping. Its a nice course, flat and scenic. The crowds are plentiful and enthusiastic. Around mile 20, we pass near our hotel and I see Cliff, who cheers me as I go past. Well, I figure, at least I saw someone from our group on the course.

Near mile 24, I end up feeling some cramping in my hamstrings. I'm forced to stop and stretch. I stop and start as the hams keep threatening to freeze up. I keep watching my time and realize its going to be tight for me to get finished in under 4 hours: my benchmark for a good marathon. As I run the last mile coming toward the Brandenberg Gate, I see a guy dressed up in a frozen lasagna package. He's holding a giant knife and fork. The sponsor of the race is a grocery chain and he is one of the company mascots. I vow not to let lasagna guy beat me. I pick up the pace and beat him through the Brandenberg Gates.

The last half mile to the finish is jam packed with crowds of supporters in bleachers. They are signing German songs. I feel great and pick up the pace. I pass over the finish line in 3:59:52, needing almost every second to get under the 4 hour mark. Not my best performance, but one I'll take.

I get my medal and wonder back to the gear pickup area to get my extra clothes. Again, with the large crowd, I don't meet any of my friends. I get in line at the free beer truck and take two glasses of German beer in the hopes I'll meet up with some of my friends. I finally run into Linda and Peggy and give them one of the beers. Linda ran a good time, somewhere in the low 3:40s. She had started with John and Rosa, but they all broke apart from each other early in the race. John ran a 3:50 or there abouts. Rosa broke down a bit and came in well over 4 hours, but did manage to dance with some cheerleaders around mile 18. When you're not having a good time, you might as well have a good time.

As Linda, Peggy & I walk/hobble back towards our hotel, we come across a beer garden. We sit down and order some beers and food. Other runners are mixed around the crowded beer garden. As we all get deeper into our beers, another marathoner comes in. We clap for our new arrival. We start clapping louder and more excitedly for each new marathoner that arrives. The atmosphere has turned into a party. I may not make it down to Octoberfest, but this afternoon Octoberfest has come to me.

That night, our group meets at an Irish Pub Cliff knows of to celebrate. Being part Irish, I have no objections going to an Irish pub in Germany. In the pub, a German rock band sings American rock with a heavy German accent. Rosa's brother, shows up with a bottle of taquilla. Against John's warnings, a bunch of us do taquilla shots. We get up and dance to a couple of songs. A German girl joins our crowd and makes us dance some more. Afterwards, we go back to the hotel and make a stop in the hotel bar for a couple of rounds of schnaps. John declines the offer and goes out to a McDonald's to pick up a couple of smoothies. For a single guy, John keeps a very level head. I accept the smoothie he offers on his return and we turn in for the night.

The next morning, John & I pack quickly and head out to the airport. The flights back home were a bit of a problem. I stiffened on the flight to NY, which only got worse on the second flight from JFK to Fort Lauderdale. John & I got seated in a section that was a boarderline insane assylum. There was a family of extremely pushy and loud Russians that spoke little to no English. They were only matched by the overaged hippy that wouldn't leave me alone trying to get free legal advice on how to save his mother's condo from Medicaid claims; or the guy who dyed what was supposed to be a soccer ball design in his head that looked like a yahmicka. Meanwhile, my legs are screaming for more leg room to move around. Lesson learned. Next time I take the train to Munich for Octoberfest.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Big Sur Marathon April 2008

In preparation for the Big Sur Marathon, I did many hill workouts on the treadmill and the 17th Street Bridge. Man, was I ever glad I did.

Salome & I flew out to San Francisco on Friday, getting in around 11 AM. We drove down to Monterey and after a quick lunch on Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, we headed to the expo. Not a bad mid-sized expo. I met Bart Yasso and bought his new book. He gave me some pointers on the course. Salome & I stopped by the Marathon Tours booth and spoke with one of the guys who will be on the Berlin trip in September. Jeff Galloway was to speak the next day, but was not at the expo on Friday as hoped.

Saturday morning we drove the Pacific Coast Highway down to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Salome immediately starts thinking of ways she could have improve on her plans for our now completed house. Fellows, I don’t recommend taking the misses on this tour if you are considering any house remodeling. The drive over the marathon course didn’t look so bad on the outbound trip, which was the reverse of what I would run Sunday, but it sure gave me concern on the return drive. While I was aware of and had proper concern about the climb to Hurricane Point with its 2 mile continuous climb, I had no idea of all the hills included in the stretch from miles 18 onward. Knowing I was a flat-lander in hill country, I had expectations of running this course for the views and forgetting about time. Now, seeing the course, I’m adjusting my expectations to at best a 4:30 marathon time and hoping I don’t just blow up on the hills in the later miles. After a nice seafood pasta dinner at the Monterey Fish House, it off to bed early for a 3:15 wake-up. This is another of those early wake-up marathons since everyone has to be bused out to Big Sur from Monterey before the start.

In order to try to not go out too fast, I place myself about 2/3rds back in the pace of 3,200 marathoners, plus who knows how many other runners doing the relay. Big mistake. There are no corrals for this race and as usual for such situations, the less experienced (or perhaps just less considerate) runners line up way too far ahead in the lineup. It take me 3 minutes to get to the start. I also spend the first couple of miles working my way past slower runners. Though these first couple of miles run primarily downhill or flat, I clock a 9:10 and 8:57 miles. By mile 3, I’m where I should be. With some nice down-hills in this part of the course, I’m able to make up some lost time with some 8:15ish miles. The first 5 miles are though the lush forest of Big Sur. Shaded and cool, with the wind blocked by the trees. A very sweet start.

As we come out of the trees to open fields and breathtaking views of the Pacific after mile 5, I realize the winds are in our face and are gusting pretty good. Too bad Garmin hasn’t figured out a way to register wind speeds yet. Trying to avoid the crowd at the start of the 2nd water stop at mile 6, I mistakenly blow by the water thinking they would have more than two tables. I’m forced to down my goo sans water which leaves a nice dry sticky coating in my throat that the wind starts to rub raw. But surprisingly, I’m feeling pretty darn good. I’m starting to reel runners in and keep moving ahead to the next set big guy I can find to try and block some wind. This strategy is not really effective in that the winds tend to swirl at these heights and there is no real draft effect.

From miles 6 to 9 the hills start. Unexpectedly, I’m actually enjoying the terrain variation. The up-hills are off-set by the down-hills. I find I do pretty well on climbs. I also focus on trying to glide on the down-hills and not over-break. My mile in the stretch between miles 5 to 8 are in the mid 8:30. Mile 9 contains a pretty good climb, which slows me to a 8:55 mile, but mile 10 gives a nice decline giving me an off-setting 8:01 mile. However, I know it will get worse with the 2 mile climb starting at mile 11. The imposing start is highlighted by ten Japanese Taiko Drummers pounding away at their drums.

What can you say about a 2 mile climb? It seems to go on forever. Lots of folks start to walk. My strategy is shorten the stride and just keep at it to get to the end of the two miles. Passing people helps to put me in a positive mood, and at last I crest the top. I stop to look back on the climb and take a photo. I’m glad this hill isn’t later on the course. The sign at the top says “Let it Fly” for the downhill to the Bixby Bridge. In relative terms, I do just that for my fastest mile of the marathon in 7:41. The half marathon point is midway across the Bixby Bridge, a visual highlight of the course. At the top of the opposite climb off the bridge is the grand piano player. He plays the Vince Guaraldi Peanut’s tune, Linus and Lucy, which I could hear all the way back from about half way down the descent to the Bixby Bridge. As one of my favorite piano pieces, I cheer on piano player who is dressed in full tuxedo.

From here on out, the music is pretty interesting. There had been a harp player early on, but the music was too ethereal to appreciate. Now, we start getting high school bands, some jazz bands, and even a Greek guy on a keyboard. At one point, there was a guy in Irish garb playing a flute. Ah, reminds me of the Dublin Marathon trip. Nice distraction. Any chance you’ve got a pint of Guinness on you? Around mile 23, one of the jazz groups was playing “Fool on the Hill.” I got it right away. This was probably the best marathon for music on the course.

I am feeling good and keep up the pace. From mile 14 to 17, I go from a couple of 8:30s to a couple of 8:15s. I am somewhat psychologically assisted by a course marshal on a bike that keeps runners on the left side of the two lane highway. He tells me I’m looking strong and we joke back and fourth whenever he comes back to my part of the course.

Starting at mile 18, the hills start getting serious again. These are no longer rolling hills, but about one serious hill climb per mile. My pace slows to an average of 8:42. A woman runner I’m running with comments on the beauty. I say, “It’s drop dead gorgeous; I just hope I don’t drop dead.” Mile 22 has what seems like a killer hill, but that may be due to the shear cumulative effect of hill after hill on each mile. I take a short walk break on the excuse that I need to call Salome to correct her on my expected finish time. One of the nice things about the event is that they have two volunteers at each mile split. The first calls out the cumulative time, the second calls out your expected finish time based on where you are on the course. This helps in that my expected finish time kept getting lower from the start to about mile 22. In the early part of the race, my projected finish time was 4 hours plus. By mile 22, they were calling out a 3:50. As Salome & I had projected a 4:30ish finish, I called to make sure she could be at the finish line when I arrived.

From mile 22 on in, the hills are starting to beat me up. None of my famous cramping, but my leg muscles are just fatigued. Now, not only is the road going up and down, it’s also twisting at pretty good alternating left and right slopes. I begin to feel like a drunken sailor walking around on deck during a storm. It’s hard to find level ground. To add to the confusion, they have a walkers division that starts about 9 mile out from the finish. Now, I have no idea how I’m doing relative to other runners. Are they walkers or wiped out marathoners I’m passing? Kind of confusing, and by this point, I’m not thinking my clearest for the day. I’m slipping into the high 9:00s for miles 22 to 25 and force myself though my slowest mile at 26 with a 10:54. By now, I see the finish line. The road straightens out and flattens for the finish. I cross just after the official clock strikes 3:57. I think I’ve run a 3:56, but later find out my chip time is 3:54:21. I am thrilled with my time and see Salome just before the finish.

A woman runner says to me at the finish that she’ll never do that again. I tend to agree after those last hilly, twisty miles, but reconsider immediately upon entering the refreshment tent. The food line is full of fresh California fruit. I take extra strawberries and grapes, knowing Salome will be pilfering from my take. With ten minutes of recovery and sharing some fresh fruit with Salome, I reflect on the better than expected day I had. Yeah, I’d come back. Given that the men’s and women’s winning times are about 20 and 30 minutes slower than most winning times at marathons, I’m quite pleased with my result.

After showering and chilling at our hotel, we did the 17 mile drive in Pebble Beach to get a final glimpse of the beauty of the Monterey peninsula. This was clearly the most challenging marathon topography I’ve ever run, but the course beauty can’t be beat. We had near perfect conditions, except for the winds in the first half of the course. My philosophy of running is to “run in beautiful places,” and this is probably the most beautiful place I’ll ever run. I highly recommend you consider running the Big Sur Marathon. Just be sure to let me know, so I can consider doing it again myself.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A1a Half Marathon 2008

My experience at the A1a Half Marathon taught me a valuable lesson. You can’t run faster over a half marathon than your fitness level obtained from training. The training must come from two components: overall weekly milage and speed work.

At the West Palm Beach Marathon I was pacing a friend who was trying to make a 3:30 finish time. This required 8 minute miles. So, we clicked off the miles as close to 8 minutes/mile as we could. I slowed off this pace slightly for the last 3 miles. My finish time 1:45:49. At the A1a Half, I decided against running the full marathon due to the expected higher temperatures in the third and fourth hours of the race. I had run a 20 miler two weeks before, so I felt that I should have obtained some fitness benefit and therefor I should run at a 7:30 min/mile pace. I hoped to break 1:40. While I did run the 20 miler, my average weekly mileage was not much higher than usual.

For the first 3 miles of the race, my pace was 7:10, 7:20, and 7:30. From there on out, my pace slowed to around 8:10 min/mile. My running buddy John had decided to go out at over 8 min/miles and pick up the pace as he went along. He was to pace a woman runner with whom he had trained. They went out at around 8:15 min/mile, also faster than the 8:30s he planned. The pace caught up with the woman and she fell back after about 4 miles. I saw her at a triangular turn around area where we were separated by between a half mile to 3/4th of a mile. I know John was between us and had 6 miles or so to close that gap. This caused me to keep focus on my form and try to keep my pace up. I ended up staying about 38 seconds ahead of him at the finish. He had been closing on me the entire time. While my pace in the second half of the run varied from 8:10s to 8:20s, his pace now quickened to sub 8s. A chart would have shown him converging on me as the race progressed. Fortunately for me, he ran out of real estate. If the race had been 14 miles, he surely would have passed me.

My lessons from this race are several. First, as John has told me repeatedly over the last year, it pays to go out slow and do a negative split for the second half. I’ve always fought this thought. I feel that if I’m ever going to hit 7:30 miles, I have to start at 7:30 miles. This is true, but I have to have 7:30 mile fitness to do so. I clearly did not and had no reason to think that I did. I had not trained a higher average base. I had not done any speed work.

My time differential between West Palm and A1a were exactly 2 seconds apart. The difference is that in the second race, I had to really strive to maintain what was easier to maintain as an average pace. I ended up with soreness the next 2 days after A1a similar to if I had run the full marathon. So running beyond my fitness level those first 3 miles and trying to hold onto 8+ pace for the second half took a much bigger physical toll on my body. My energy levels were also drained like I had run a marathon. I most likely exhausted my muscle glycogen like I had run the marathon.

All in all, I think I have to assess my race pace based on my training. On average I train from between 24 to 35 miles per week. At these levels, I can run a half at about 8 miles per mile. I can probably run a full marathon at anywhere from 3:45 to 4:00 (between 8:30 to 9:00 minute miles). To try anything more aggressive simply invites unneeded stress and cramping. If I want to shoot for a faster pace, I would need to up my average weekly mileage to probably 40 to 50 miles per week. I would also need to do speed work.

As my next scheduled marathon is at Big Sur, which is both hilly and curvy, I plan to go out at 9 min/mile pace and slow down on the hills. I plan to do incline work on the treadmill and some bridge work on the Sunrise bridge. Big Sur has a 2 mile climb from miles 10 to 12. So, time is not a goal. I will hope to finish in 4:30 to 5 hours.