Monday, October 31, 2011

Yeah, Yeah, Oh Yeah What Condition My Condition Was In: The Holy Family Spooktacular 5K & A Monumentally Long Run

This week was sort of crazy beyond my normal level of busy. It was the end of the school quarter, so there was the onslaught of related conferences and off-days, end of my son's soccer season, and the performance week for my daughters who were dancing at our downtown "Spooktacular" festivities. Still, I'd been pretty disciplined with my running, shifting all my runs onto Rim Rock Drive, the road over the Colorado National Monument where the Rim Rock Marathon takes place in 12 days. I got in several shorter runs as well as a good medium-long run at what is a pretty nice clip for me. I think it probably kept me from blowing a gasket on a busy week, and it sort of gave me an added boost in confidence to feel the muscle memory coming back on the route. All runs were either early morning or evening as well, providing some cool views of Grand Junction, and an added chillax factor. Yes, it keeps you on your toes to be on that curvy road in the dark, and one has to be alert, head-lamped and reflective-geared to do it safely. I'd say there's an added benefit to that as well. The focus is good, and maybe something that has been lacking in my running at times in the past few months.

I was aware of two 5Ks taking place locally on Saturday morning, and thought about doing one or the other. I wasn't sure how well I could race, though, after a busy week and quite a bit of up-and-down on the Monument. I decided to make a game-day decision, and had a very fun, relaxing night with some neighborhood runner friends. I hadn't intended to stay late or go costumed, but somehow I found myself throwing together a last-minute Maude Lebowski costume from The Big Lebowski.

I'm a huge Coen Brothers fan, it's one of my favorite movies they've done, and I'd wanted to do the "Gutterballs/Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" scene's Maude viking costume for years. I didn't think about racing the next day, and didn't put pressure on myself to decide the night before. It wound up being a fairly late night, but I went home and slept like a log afterward.

Getting up around 7:15am, I was still totally undecided, dorking around for a few minutes on Facebook while drinking my coffee. There, I read that my friend Suzanne from up the road in Rifle would be coming down to run along with her new baby daughter (her first race). Besides thinking it would be good to do some racing speed work, I wanted to visit with them a bit. I finally decided what the hey, I should go and try out racing without a watch. I'd run the Holy Family School's 5K two years prior, and it was a well-organized, smaller race. We'd finally crossed over into our late fall/early winter crisp-cold weather in the past week or so, and it feels so good for racing.

I drove over just in time to register ($10 option if I didn't want a tee-shirt, since they were out of mediums-yay!), warm up briefly, and visit with Suzanne, her baby girl, and some of her fellow teachers/colleagues I'd met at other races. It felt strange to not have a Garmin, but it was sort of exciting to be winging it without having the option for even an occasional pace check, or glance down at my mile splits. A few people were costumed, but for the most part, the costumed/recreational running kids were waiting for the fun run after the 5K. Lining up just prior to 9am, we heard a runners prayer/blessing from one of the school's priests. I'm not Catholic, but the message about being able to come together in celebration of running and health really resonated regardless of one's faith or non-faith. I was standing in a sea of 10- to 12-year-old boys, and near a couple of the usual suspects at races in Grand Junction. A minute later, the start was announced and off we went.

Right away, many of the little boys shot out to the front of the pack, along with a few of the local men. Coming out of the school lot and onto the main road, I was running first woman but knew there were several fiercely competitive local ladies who were probably right behind me, and just starting to fire their engines. We turned into a residential neighborhood, ironically called "Paradise Hills"-they didn't feel like paradise at 5K pace, but I did at least feel like I was getting that "good burn" in the lungs and legs. This felt like a pace I could maintain and maybe pick up today.

My first need to pick up came pretty early. One of the ladies I've raced several times locally was soon right next to me, and beginning to pull ahead. I focused on shortening my stride and increasing my turnover, and managed to slide back ahead coming out of the neighborhood, but knew I'd have to keep it here and try to pick up even more speed. The whole time, it felt really bizarre to have no clue regarding my pace, but it actually felt a little freeing in a 5K. I've had issues with "second mile sag" at some 5K's, and this was just forcing me to be unaware of where I was on the course and just keep pushing. Somewhere near the end of this first mile, another familiar runner made her move past me and into the women's lead. I worked to increase my turnover as much as I possibly could. She was pulling away, but I felt like I was doing a good job of keeping up my pace, and picking it up a little here and there.

I passed one or two of the men in what must have been early second mile, and found myself still smack in the middle of a sea of boys. I couldn't believe they were still holding this pace; often, the younger kids go out like a shot and then fade. These guys were running strong, with about four ahead of me and two right behind. There seemed to be this almost comical "Dangit, I'm still running with these little guys," and "Dangit, why is our MOM still pacing with us?" energy that had us all hurtling through that second mile. I knew as well that the woman running third was really strong, and that I had to pick it up as much as possible now.

Making an uphill turn into the last mile, I was still with the boys, and trying to disconnect from the fact that I was, in fact, running uphill and hurting. I brought my gaze to about five feet in front of me and tried to run within that space. The gap between the first woman and I had widened, but it seemed like it wasn't quite as wide as it's been at other races. I wasn't sure how close the third woman was but just assumed it was CLOSE.

Soon, we were cresting the hill and could see the school ahead. Two of the boys in front of me started pulling away hard. I kicked it into the highest gear I could find, and started easing past the third boy who had been with them. It was obvious he was hitting a tough spot mentally and starting to let up a great deal. I didn't say that awful "almost there" that nobody wants to hear at this point in a race, but managed a "c'mon!" Crossing the street and turning the corner toward the finish at the school, I was still running second woman. I ran toward the finish full-out, and could hear feet closing in. Flying toward the finish chute, that boy who was starting to sag two minutes ago came through like a lightning bolt, crossing about a second ahead. I came in right behind him, and as I walked through the chute, the third woman came through, less than ten seconds back. We did the out-of-breath high fives, feeling that runner's high that I swear only comes after you've fully spent yourself.

I checked the table where the bottoms of bibs were being lined up by age group, and really couldn't quite believe my eyes-21:32, my best 5K in about two years, and I think probably 3rd best of all time if my recollection is right. All on a day when I wasn't tan, rested, and ready for 5K action. It was an age group win, and felt good after my Other Half cluster-run. The 5K in general has not been a consistent strong suit of mine, so to run with consistency at two of them in a row makes me think I ought to do more of the no watch/no watching the watch short distance racing.

The next day, I had a planned long run with Sandra, and this was to be our last prior to the Rim Rock Marathon. Yes, we'll do 15 or so next weekend, but this was kind of the big one before the taper. It was decided, since we've done a bunch of stuff on the first 5 miles of the course (with steadily climbing, curving road) that we would run the rest of the course, starting from Cold Shivers Point on the Monument, and running to the finish area at the James Robb State Park in Fruita. This was a roughly 21 mile route, and required some car logistics that took a bit of time in the morning, leaving my car in Fruita and riding up to Cold Shivers. It is the "flat" section of the course, but there's really nothing flat about it with some rolling upward for several miles before finally hitting the fun, fast descent off the Monument and onto Highway 340.

This would be another watch-free run, and a test run of sorts. I am pretty sure this will be my first watchless marathon ever, so this would be entirely on feel. I didn't feel much fatigue from the day before, and in fact, was kind of excited at the prospect of running really long on the race course. I was practicing with a different hydration strategy as well. I've mostly used the aid stations on marathon courses for the past two years, choosing to carry nothing. I don't like holding stuff while running, so what I was practicing with today was a waist pack spun around with the bottles/bottleholders in front. I thought this would annoy the heck out of me, but this set-up felt surprisingly good. I won't decide until right before the race, but think this system will be used to avoid slowdowns for fluids at the aid stations.

Chatting away for much of the run, Sandra and I were oblivious to our time and distance, but the pace felt good-kind of in that long run sweet spot with a gradual increase in pace coming down the Monument. We passed another runner going the other way whom we did not know. He knew what we were doing, though, and yelled out "See you in two weeks!" Though we mostly stayed where we should-against the traffic-there were a few blind curves where it just was safer to move into the other lane, especially with the very limited car traffic early on a Sunday.

Of course, on one of these shifts, the next vehicle to 'round a corner heading east was a park police vehicle. He blinked his lights at us and slowed to a stop. Crap, we're going to get a ticket. "Training for the marathon?" he asked. "Yes sir, getting in our long run," we answered. I thought he was going to read us the riot act for being on the wrong side of the road, but he just reminded us that we needed to run in the correct place. We agreed and did let him know we'd been doing that most of the way, but shifting over on some of these scary blind curves. He was very cool and understood we weren't just going out of our way to be rogue runners, smiled, and waved us on. Phew-no citation today. I know they can't have us flagrantly flying in the face of the law, but I think the various agencies on this route are good about accommodating runners, and not coming down too hard on us for shifting a bit on that road when we can't see around a blind curve.

Getting off the Monument, we had our last two mile stretch down to the park in Fruita. I was kind of stoked to know that we were already 19 miles in. The time had flown by and I felt tired now but there was no struggle to the run. I couldn't have hoped for a better weekend of running. When we hit the park, it was time to enjoy some tangerines, water, and coconut water. It had warmed up, and the sun was glistening on the water near the finish. Checking our approximate start and finish times, we were pleased to have dialed in on a near perfect long run training pace.

Once we'd refueled, it was time to drive back up to Sandra's car, and stop off for her small bag or "aid station" tucked behind a wall and bush at one of the scenic overlooks. When we pulled up, we discovered someone had taken her bag. It hadn't been greatly concealed, but that's just not something people tend to do up there-especially for a bag that just had water, gatorade, and an old race shirt. LAME. Sandra wasn't that upset, though, and said "next time I'll hide it better!"

Now, I'm starting to geek out a bit about race day. I'm a little tired today on my day off, but generally feel pretty good. My S-Caps are ordered; I think I have a plan for what I'm wearing that day. I'm going to continue to run on the Monument until race day, but just taper off on the overall distance. I was feeling a slight lack of confidence about how my conditioning was for race day, so the weekend's good running came at a perfect time. Or, maybe it was just dressing up like a viking and playing competitive Halloween puzzle assembly or having balloon blowing and popping races that did it. Yes...this is what competitive runner types do for fun. Either way...the FUN was there, and it made the run that much better.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ray Of Light: Run To Whitewater (18 miles from Grand Junction to Whitewater...The Pretty Way)

And I feel like I just got home
And I feel

After my ten minute pity-party for my ugly running fest through the canyons in Moab, I was already thinking ahead to making the most of my little bit of time between now and the Rim Rock Marathon, with the Winter Sun 10K and February's Moab RedHot 55K in my head. After a few days off following The Other Half, I resumed running with a nice sunset "recovery medium-long run" with Sandra, one of my frequent running partners, and another shorter recovery-ish run with Laura, my early morning headlamp show running partner for about two years now. The good thing that came out of the crappy race was that it lit my fire to bounce back, really get accountable about my time spent running, and enjoy the process of getting ready for the bigger races. What worked so well for me last fall with my string of PR's was just running a lot, but for enjoyment, and picking out routes and courses that would make me WANT to run a lot but still provide a challenge and progress in my running.

One of the key components to good training then had been back-to-back weekend runs, typically consisting of a long road run on Saturdays and a medium-long to long trail run on Sunday. I hadn't done this for awhile, but I know my running improved at all distances with it as a regular part of my running schedule. While this would have been ideal in my head this past weekend, Saturday was just too jam-packed with triple-booked kid stuff and my stuff to even consider that option. Sandra and I decided we'd do an easy up-and-down early Saturday on Serpent's Trail, at the base of the Colorado National Monument, and then something for a long run on Sunday. We did it around 5:30 on Saturday, and it's amazing how this run has gone from being really painful the first few times to something that one craves, and enjoys. It's still hard, but I can feel the strength that comes from just doing it, and practicing that continuous climb followed by "how fast can I go in the dark?" descent back down.

We'd kicked around running on Rim Rock Drive (the road that runs across the Colorado National Monument, from Grand Junction to Fruita) as a long run, looking to get in a good 18-20 miles, on Sunday, but left it open. Some time Saturday, though, we started thinking seriously about one of the few Mesa Monument Striders run/races I have not done-the "Run to Whitewater," starting at the Bangs Canyon staging area, and running the Tabeguache Trail for 18 miles to a trailhead in Whitewater, Colorado. I'd never done this run before, and it's probably one of the most sparsely attended races. It's a self-supported gig, crossing slick rock, dirt, and rock fields which vary widely in condition from year to year. No aid stations, no Rock and Roll Marathon bands. You have to pay attention to the course instructions, and keep yourself going in the right direction because no one will be flagging or directing for you out here. The beauty of this event is the beauty of this event, though. It's a trail that's a little less populated than a lot of other ones in this area. There's also that thrill of going point-to-point, like the Imogene Pass Run, "Seventeen miles from Ouray, Colorado, to Telluride, Colorado, the hard way." And, as I've learned, the Beer Cooler of Awesomeness and real food always seem to appear at the end of these no-frills running club deals. When it looked like we could make pretty easy car shuttling arrangements between Sandra, me, and Ray, another local racing regular, I said yes, let's do this thing.

I'd been up later than normal the previous night, attending a small gathering with some friends (hosted by Julie, who was one of my 24 Hours of Moab Dirty Girls teammates, and her husband Mike, ultrarunner and Mad Dog team runner at that same relay) just south of town in Olathe, Colorado. I'd eaten dinner before heading down with three of my kids for this fire pit and Dr. Seuss reading party, eating what amounted to a second dinner, and also partaking in some peach moonshine provided by Bryan and Elizabeth, fellow runners and generally outside-type folks who came here by way of Kentucky. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but I slept like a log for a good six hours. Getting up in the morning, I didn't even bother to look at the weather forecast. My muscles were still sore from last weekend's race, so I figured I'd go with some lightweight tights and a lightweight tech shirt, even though I knew it would probably be pretty warm by the time we were wrapping up this race.

I picked up Sandra and headed out to Whitewater, which is straight south out of town on Highway 50. We had rough directions from Ray on where to park, but were not sure where exactly to go. As it turned out, he was only a few minutes back, so we just pulled off and waited for him, following his truck over to the lot where we'd finish later in the day. We left his truck there, and shuttled back to the Bangs Canyon staging area in town in my car.

As we pulled into the lot about half an hour before the starting time, we saw several other runners and the regular race director for this gig there in the parking lot. Signing in, I was beginning to regret my choice of tights. It was clearly going to be warm today. Upon pulling out my Garmin which has been duct-taped to my wrist for two races now, I realized that it was just about time to have a proper burial for the thing. I zeroed out the previous run, but then couldn't get any of the buttons to work. Oh well...I think I knew this was coming. I tucked it in one of the pouches of my Nathan pack in case the thing decided to work at some point, and I wanted to calculate elapsed time. Sandra and I both agreed we'd just treat it like a training run, and try to run on feel without regard to pace and time. It was a brand-new course for both of us so might as well keep ourselves guessing.

I'd remembered that very few people ran this race the year before when I'd gotten the club newsletter with results. As I found out later, there were a whopping seven runners the previous year, and the course had been sloppy as hell. As starting time approached, I was surprised to see that there appeared to be about two dozen runners here. It was a beautiful, crisp, cool, and bright Western Colorado morning, though. Most runners were folks I knew, and the few unfamiliar faces were quickly introduced. One of the runners showed up about two minutes before the start, which was held off long enough for him to make a quick pit stop (one of the great perks about small, local deals where everybody knows your name). Once he was out, Kim, one of the co-race directors, said "okay, you guys can start now!" as our official start.

For a minute or two, everyone was fairly together, but we quickly strung out across the early ups and downs over slick rock and rocky trails. This was to be a good training run for us, though, and we'd never seen the course, so it was just about settling in to the run now. I was kind of tired from the previous weekend, and putting in a good effort over the past few days in training, but things felt pretty good. We worked our way over some pretty regular climbs, took in the view, and I marveled at how freeing it was to have no clue on my time or pace. Five years of running, and this was my first race, other than a Thanksgiving prediction run in '07, when I would be running without any gauge of pace or time.

In the early miles, my body felt kind of slow to warm up to the running thing, but it was waking up, little by little. There was quite a bit of climbing in the early miles; I'd say that this is my area of running that is always in a "state of progress." We were moving along at what felt like a consistent pace, though. We chattered about upcoming races, past events and runs, Zombie Prom (which I said was Sandra's official descent into running madness...skipping a local event she'd attended with her husband for several years in a row in order to have a more productive and run-filled weekend), and anything else that came to mind.

Now it was definitely warming up. Shorts would have definitely been a better move for me, but I was getting some cooling from rolling up the sleeves on my tech shirt. I'm not sure if there's any science to it, but I'd slathered myself in sunscreen so I didn't feel like my face or head were overheating and burning, and was only mildly bothered by wearing those lightweight tights. We hit what felt like was about the hour mark, and were kind of rambling through more narrow, tree-lined trails now. Passing another runner for the first time, he said to us "Oh, I was wondering where you were. I thought you stopped for lunch." Hehe, wise guy. We saw our friend Ray,who had car-shuttled with us, on several occasions up ahead. It seemed like every time we got a little close, though, he'd be out of sight when we crested the next ridge.

Continuing on our way, I kept wondering to myself why I'd never run this race. It was so pristine and quiet out here; we'd occasionally pass cool landmarks, like an ancient, flipped jeep that had been used for target practice, and at one point, there was a funny voice in the trees behind us. It wound up being the mountaineering partner of the guy who was now running right behind us, and who happened to be camping out there. We kind of laughed about the "talking bush," and moved along until we hit a bit of a crossroads with two different directional options. We'd been told to keep meandering right after one initial left, but the way that it seemed we needed to head was toward the left. We decided to wait for the guy behind us to see which way he thought was right because we just didn't feel like getting lost.

When he caught up to us a few minutes later, we looked for tracks on both trails, and just were not sure. It seemed like there were more tracks on the left trail, though. Coming back to the crossroads, I finally noticed the post near the left trail with an arrow and "Tabeguache" on it. We were relieved to confirm the correct route, and headed on our way. I was running in front, Sandra a few feet back, and our trail buddy behind her.

After about a mile, and moving into a rocky downhill section, I heard the distinctive "thump" of body hitting trail. Turning around, I saw that it was the guy. He'd eaten it pretty good. We asked if he was okay, and he replied with an "Oh, I'm fine," as he picked himself up and began to run again. Sandra and I kept moseying along with his "all good." Soon, he wasn't right behind us anymore. We didn't know if there were any other runners behind him and were a little concerned at how he was doing, but he also one of those old trail runners you know will make it in one way or the other.

Faster than the speeding light she's flying
Trying to remember where it all began
She's got herself a little piece of heaven
Waiting for the time when Earth shall be as one

The sun was still shining bright, and lighting up the bright autumn colors on trees near and far. We'd get views here and there of Mt. Garfield, the Grand Mesa, and back toward Grand Junction, and it felt pretty sweet to see how far we'd already come on foot. There's something cool about these point-to-point races that are off the beaten path. We were gathering a little bit of momentum and starting to loosen up into the run now, and it felt pretty good. We still didn't have a clue on time or pace. I was imagining, since we weren't really "racing" today, that we might be on pace for about a four hour finish. It didn't matter much, though. We hit a point that felt to me like it was probably about ten miles, and rather than wanting it to be all over, I really just wanted to take in every bit of the run and hard work. Our next encounter with another runner was somewhere in this stretch-a guy who came bounding along and said "Boy, am I happy to see you guys! I took a wrong turn for a mile or two" before running on ahead.

We were getting more frequent downhill and flat-type sections now, and it felt good to open up and fly down little stretches. My other "area of progress" on the trail stuff has been the opposite problem of sometimes building up enough speed that I loose all control. This leads to those rolled ankles, falls, and awesome bruising or other body marks. It was feeling okay today, though, with no out-of-control hurtling down rock fields. We kept gathering a bit more speed here and there, backing off a bit at times on the climbs, but staying consistent in the effort.

Coming over one of the hills, we passed another runner, this time one of the ladies we'd seen at the start area. Sandra knew her from one of the local outdoor stores. We said hello and moved along. Not too far up, we encountered Tom, who is kind of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to outdoor activity. He runs, puts on all the cross country ski races with the nordic council here, does adventure races (one of which involved a mechanical bull ride for one stage earlier this year), and anything else outside that seems fun. He was running more slowly and carefully than he normally would, and seemed to be backing off to just finish without hurting himself in a tired state. We said hello, and he said "save a beer for me!" as we ran along.

Next, we saw a funny, out-of-place looking landmark we'd been told to watch for-some fenced off retaining ponds that kind of look like a random tennis court in the middle of a Colorado wilderness area. Sure enough, there was the tennis court oasis. We laughed at how much it did look like a tennis court on the approach, and kept moving along. It was nice that I'd started this thing a little sleepy and not really warmed up, but just kept warming up and feeling stronger as we continued.

Coming over the top of another hill, we saw a guy on the edge of a trail with a jug of water. I recognized him right away as one of the local running club's older, long-standing members. "Need some water? Trail mix?" he shouted as we came down. Sweet! An aid station of sorts? I was still pretty good on water, but I happily accepted a top-off. I figured it would be good to have a little something extra to rehydrate. Sandra had a smaller flask in her hydration pack, and was near empty. She refilled hers, and we thanked him for being out there. "Only 3.9 miles left!" he told us. "Some sections you'll have to hike, but mostly runnable." Off we went again. Turning left toward Grand Junction, it was awesome to see how far we'd come. We were running through more open-type space now that kind of rolled nicely but didn't climb a ton.

And I feel
Quicker than a ray of light she's flying
Quicker than a ray of light I'm flying

Finally, we could see that we were near the road where we'd left our vehicle to take back to town. Our pace may not have been blazing, but it sort of felt like we were flying now with the finish in sight. We came over one last hill and around a bend, and could see right down to the lot. They could see up to us too, and started hooting and hollering. This was great. We weren't expecting a cheering section, and it was cool to descend the final switchbacks from above to reach them. Getting to the edge of the trail and hitting the last bit of road, we weren't sure if we were supposed to get on the road and just come to them the easy way, or if there was some trail on the other side of the street into the lot. They saw our confusion and waved us down the road, and in we came. As it turned out, we were well under four hours in our fun long run on trails, coming in at around 3:43.

I went back to the vehicle and changed my clothes, grabbing some camping chairs for the finish area. There was a full spread of pasta, bread, zucchini chips, grapes, water and Gatorade, and of course, the Beer Cooler of Awesomeness. As we sat down with our post-drink refreshments, stories were swapped about wrong turns and getting lost. Turns out that we'd done well to not go totally off-course, and find our way in that moment of confusion. Several runners ran a little bit out of their way, and our friend Bryan wound up getting so off-course that he decided to turn around and go back to the start. Another runner, a previous winner of the Leadville Trail 100 with a streak of about 19 finishes in a row there (sans pacers), added a bunch of extra miles somewhere, and wound up coming in behind us due to his extra long run. Someone yelled "Ah, here comes Kirk and that walking stick!" and we hooted and hollered for him as he finished. Most runners continued to chat, eat, and rehydrate on various beverages until all were in, and then hung out and talked a little longer on this beautiful late October day. Usually, I'm the one saying "let's go do X, Y or Z race or run today." This was a day when I was really thankful that others suggested something totally different, because it wound up being one of those days when I re-charged and hit the old re-set button.

I'm looking at a week ahead of solid running and training, and then will figure out some sort of two week taper plan for the Rim Rock Marathon. Upon thinking about what went wrong at The Other Half (and there was a LOT), I think I need to be careful that I'm not building or doing some sort of reverse taper in these last few weeks. I may have gotten a bit overexuberant leading up to that race, and just didn't taper enough. It was just one of those days, too, but I'm going to make sure I fix the things for Rim Rock that stand out as things in my power to change. If I make the most of my preparation, then I'll be ready for those things that are not in my power to change.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I Was In The Right Place, But It Must've Been The Wrong Time: The 2011 Other Half Marathon

Or, sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, well, it eats you. Pick any expression along those lines, and visualize that kid meandering around, physically and mentally checked out in the "party at the moon tower" scene from the classic movie Dazed and Confused, and you've got my race at The Other Half. Upon going through four years of race results, this was my second slowest half marathon ever, and goes onto the training log as one of the worst races I've ever run.

I knew I wasn't quite in the shape I was in a year ago, but between my recent training and most recent race result at the Anna Banana 5K, I had optimism that I could run this race well. It is one of my all-time favorite races, and I've run it well ever year for whatever my level of training and experience has been at the time. Experience is something I have on this course, too, running this course three times already since starting to run in 2007. There was no reason NOT to expect a good race, or to anticipate that things would get as ugly as they did on the run from the Dewey Bridge to Sorrel River Ranch outside of Moab, Utah.

Warming up for the race, things felt pretty good. I was a little bit punchy with race day energy, and I got up to race pace with no problems during warm-up, and even overshot a little bit, needing to slow down and keep that pace in check. I'd had some rice for breakfast, which goes down nice and easy for me. My body felt a little tired, but that wasn't unusual. Often, it's just that my body's not warmed up and in a running rhythm. I've run plenty of other races when I felt like this beforehand, but the second that starting gun sounded, the body and mind would slide easily into racing gear.

The weather was not too hot and not too cold-kind of perfect, really. Lining up for the start, I put myself in position with the other 7:xx/mile racers, where I'd paced and finished in my previous two runs at The Other Half. The traditional Taiko Dan drummers started sounding the call to start from the back of the truck, rhythmically pounding as runners moved toward the Dewey Bridge. The sun was rising over the red cliffs behind us, warming us and lighting the start area. Ranna, the race director, got on the megaphone for final pre-race comments. I laughed when her final words to runners, "....and you know what's waiting for you at the finish line?" were met with a a loud, resounding "BEEEEEEEER!" response from the crowd. It was time to go. I lined up with my finger on the start button of the Garmin that was duct-taped together on my wrist (no, I'm lazy, I haven't called Garmin yet to ask for a replacement strap), and then off we went.

Starting off, I found myself in just about the same position as the prior two years early on-in about the top dozen or so women. Things felt pretty good. I was loose, and just kind of went with that, trying to run relaxed but with a high cadence and short strides. I looked down at my Garmin, and was displeased to see that it was freaking out, starting and stopping itself even though I hadn't touched it since the start. There was clearly a problem with the internal workings of the thing, and that start button, since it had also jammed up at the race two weeks prior. Oh well...not the end of the world, I told myself. The guy running the stopwatch at the end of the first mile was shouting out "7:25....7:26......." as I approached and came through that mile marker. Good-first mile is done, and about where I'd wanted and anticipated being.

The next two miles weren't blazing, but they weren't terrible, either. I slowed down slightly but wasn't far off the mark. I wasn't feeling very springy, though.

Mile 2: 7:32
Mile 3: 7:32

Well, this wasn't quite like last year when I was regularly doing a Saturday long run on roads and a hilly medium-long run on Sundays. I was beginning to lose momentum in a way that felt like I had to fight for it because I wouldn't get it back if I started dropping off my pace too much and too early.

Mile 4: 7:53
Mile 5: 7:49

Oooof. I was starting to feel not good. At ALL. I was vaguely nauseous, which made no sense. I wasn't on any "run 'til you puke" kind of 5K race pace, and although it was a warm October day, it certainly didn't qualify as hot. This wasn't good news so early in the race. I usually find myself in "exquisite pain" on the hills later in the race, but the first seven miles stretch has typically been a place for me to be uncomfortable but strong, and pushing my pace.

Mile 6: 8:10
Mile 7: 8:23

I was really fighting now, and we were only beginning the hills on this challenging course. That nauseous feeling was welling up inside me; my legs felt heavy, and steps flat-footed. I started focusing my attention on the scenery around me, or the space immediately in front of me, trying to disconnect as much as I could from what was now an overwhelming urge to stop running. At least at the Canyonlands Half, there was a little bit of humor in the whole situation with the hot wind blowing up the canyon. Today, I was plain frustrated, and didn't know what the hell my problem was. I felt like I was moving through quicksand.

Mile 8: 9:50

That above split is correct. I was on the verge of a DNF in this mile, with that nauseous feeling growing, and people flying past me right and left. At one point, I took a step that was on the verge of turning into a walk on the uphill, but something in my brain screamed "DON'T DO IT. You won't be able to get going again if you do." I pushed on, and attempted to get some turnover happening on the flats and downhills. I was merely digging myself out of a hole, though, and not gaining momentum.

Mile 9: 8:40

We hit the next hill climb, and again, I just wanted to lay down and be done. This wasn't an option so I played the "disconnect your brain" game, looking around, and keeping in mind that it's a gift to get to run here. I needed to pull out some energy from somewhere, and it was going to have to come from around me today.

Mile 10: 9:17

I was moving in the entirely wrong direction again on pace, and moving really ugly, for lack of a better description. No natural flow over the hills, the ever-present nausea, and legs in quicksand. What's sad is that the year prior, when I set my half marathon PR on this course, I felt bulletproof. I'd been in that really uncomfortable zone the whole time, but felt strong in every way a runner can feel that way in a race. I'd spent lots of time at altitude and on hilly training routes this summer and fall, and had taken two days off to rest prior to this race. I wasn't going to let this race day funk get the best of me. NO.

Mile 11: 8:47

And then....the lovely sound of those Moab Taiko Dan drummers. I fought the fade and pushed toward the rhythm of the drums. If you've never seen or heard this group, it's an amazing thing to hear it echoing through the canyon, and then to come upon this group of women and men, raising these huge sticks high and coming down on huge drums. It's always at a cadence that causes one to pick it up just a little bit, or fight to hang on if struggling. They pulled me up to the top of that last hill, and I had to give them a little clapping in time to the drums as a thank you for the mojo when I didn't have any.

Mile 12: 8:54

This has always been my favorite section of the course...a rapid "bombs away" drop, and then long, curving horseshoe route to the finish at Sorrel River Ranch. I needed to hammer in with whatever was left today. I was clenched up all over by now, gritting my teeth, and feeling crappy, but working to flip that "faster you run, faster you're done" switch. This was where I locked in that NYC Marathon qualifying time by the skin of my teeth last year, and I pushed to find that effort.

Mile 13: 8:07

I could see the time clock now. I hadn't been watching my overall time on the Garmin between it acting up, and knowing that it would only be discouraging in that second half of the race. It was pretty discouraging to look up and see a 1:49 on the time clock, though. With previous times of 1:58, 1:41, and 1:36:xx, this was nowhere near what I'd realistically hoped or expected to run. There was some definite anger in me as I threw myself toward the finish with a final split of 7:37 for the last .1, Wonky Garmin final time of 1:49:08, and official race time of 1:49:31. In other words, in the time it took me to run the whole thing last year, I was barely past 11 miles this year, and fighting the urge to throw in the towel the entire time.

After the race, I just lay down on the grass for a good ten minutes. What the hell happened out there? I'd expected the best, didn't start too fast, and seemed to have all the components in place lately for a real shot at another PR. Sure, those don't always happen, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I'd spend eight miles feeling gross and wanting to stop the entire time. Racing IS very fun to me, though...I love it. My friend Ilana from Durango was kind enough to go grab me some water, so while I lay on the grass, I just closed my eyes and kind of flushed out all the pissed off-ness, frustration, and tense feelings.

By the time I was having that water, the "shake it off" was setting in. I found my way to other runner friends, and to the 3.2 Utah beer line. Sipping a beer, in the sun, by the river in this beautiful spot is sort of awesome, definitely took away most of the sting of what was a total mess of a race for me. The nausea and sick feelings had subsided, and the food at the finish area, pretty much entirely from local producers, tasted about as good as anything I've had to eat. Watching familiar and unfamiliar faces collect awards, it was cool to realize I was hanging out with runners from twelve years old all the way up to the fabulous Julia Barrett, now close to 80 years old and still getting out there to cover this course. I joked that at least I should get a door prize out of this day, and we were surprised with a trivia game on top of the regular prize drawings. When it was asked "Who is the Masters course record holder, and three-time winner of this race?" my hand shot up. If you live on the Western Slope of Colorado, and run, you've seen Bernie Boettcher a race or ten, and know that he's won most of them at least a time or two. I got a pretty sweet pair of Sock Guy socks for my quick thinking, which seemed to be the only thing moving quickly today for me. I would have rather raced for hardware, for sure....but hey. Really awesome socks.

In the end, my result wound up placing me 12th out of 192 in my age group. I will fully own up to playing the "if I'd run last year's time this year" game in the age group for all of about three minutes....but the fact is that I DIDN'T so it's a moot point. You race who shows up on the day you show up, in the conditions you get, with what you've got. I wanted to win the age group but today I was 12th.

Where to go from here? The Rim Rock Marathon is coming up quickly. I'm going to take a lesson from The Other Half, and NOT put pressure on myself to move up in time or placement, but just work hard between now and then. No cramming for race day, but no slumping or bailing from workouts either. The real focus is going to be the Winter Sun 10K in December. I am a weirdo who likes that distance, but doesn't get to race road 10K's before often because they don't exist in great quantity anywhere. It's a net downhill course, and kind of consequences-free when it comes to running aggressively. By the time that painful finish at the track comes, it's okay, because, hey, it's just "one easy lap." Or something. This is the third of the annual Moab Half Marathon races every year, too, and somewhat of an annual tradition. Then, there's the Moab RedHot 55K in February. I'm not an ultrarunner, and had an experience that exceeded my expectations last year in running for fun there. This year, I think I'm doing "fun plus," and am going to plan hill and trail training with a faster result in mind. When I have problems and tough spots, I will just imagine drums and beer awaiting me at the finish.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Every Day Is Like Sunday

It's certainly not going to be silent and gray, but I am SO excited to trudge back over pebbles and sand around Moab before showing up at the starting line at the site of the historic Dewey Bridge.

It's Other Half weekend, and the pre-race scramble and taper madness have begun. This marks run #4 at the race for me (every year but 2008, when I ran my first marathon on the weekend following the scheduled race day). My friends have heard me talk ad nauseum about this race, but there's just no arguing that there's a little something special about this race. It's not a "flat and fast" course by definition. Something about that, along with the beauty of the course, really frees one up to run free, and with enjoyment and inspiration.

Enough of the deep thinking, meditative stuff, though...never have I seen a race medal quite like the one being offered at the finish of The Other Half this year. Typically, my party line on finisher race medals have been very neutral; I'd rather have a well-organized race first and foremost. Give me the ability to open things, and create the race medal equivalent of a multi-tool, though, and we're now we're talking. Aron Ralston may have been able to free himself in less than 127 Hours, AND enjoyed a refreshing beverage, with this. (Okay, I'm totally kidding, but this is a sweet medal.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Local Fruit, And The Magic of Duct Tape: The Anna Banana 5K Race Report

It's been awhile since I last ran a 5K, let alone a decent (for me) 5K. Since beginning to run several years ago, I've spent most summers doing a number of short distance races. Between focusing on running longer and higher this summer, and several local races being canceled or falling on weekends when I had prior commitments, I realized that it had been a good five months since my last attempt to run fast over a short distance. Some people think of 5K's as "easy" because it's over a shorter distance and get impressed by long distances. Well, I'm here to say that the long, slow runs are the ones that feel a lot better. To me, anyway. I don't recall ever feeling like I wanted to hack up a lung after a good 20-miler. On the other hand, I've never been able to go as fast in speed work as I do racing, so it's the perfect way for me to knock out good speed work sessions. Doing said speed work at an annual race that is near and dear to a lot of people locally, runners or not, and it's a no-brainer.

The Anna Banana 5K citizen race and high school cross country meet take place on the pathways and trails where I started as an adult onset runner at age 34. They commemorate and celebrate the life of Anna Janowitz, a student and runner at an area high school who died in a car accident on the way to cross country practice nine years ago. Her sister sings the national anthem at the race every year, her family, former coaches and classmates are still very much involved in the race, and her high school's art department still makes the coveted ceramic bananas that serve as age group and overall awards at this race. Money from the race generates scholarship money for a number of cross country or track student athletes from area high schools every year with at least a 3.0 GPA. Out of tragedy came this incredibly positive event where you see the full spectrum of participants, from young to old, and recreational walkers and hikers to some of the most competitive local runners in the area. Yep, it's safe to say that everyone who shows up for this race wants to put his or her best foot forward, and make it count.

This marked the fifth time I've shown up for this race. I've run it four times on my own, and it was my first ever solo 5K in 2007. I ran it in about 25:55, and thought I was going to hurl at the end. It was also the race that started my Boston Marathon pipe dream, because I ran it at exactly the qualifying marathon pace for my age group. I had no idea how I was going to get from 3.1 to 26.2 at that pace, but that's where the ridiculous goal started. The next year, I ran it with my oldest daughter, who decided at the last second that she wanted me to run with her as she paced toward the goal of one of those ceramic bananas. We ran about 29 minutes together, and she still hangs that banana for her 10-and-under age group win in her room even though she's moved on to being focused on dance. The next two years were good for me but not PR races, though last year it was the only race in which I was the top woman overall, which felt pretty good. If I could choose just one local race at which to do that, this is it.

This year, I had a big question mark in my head because I hadn't raced short in so long, and have been kind of been freewheeling in my running for a good part of the last year. I was focused on a good race, though, and ready to take my best swing at the thing last Saturday.
Getting up on Saturday, I was encouraged by the cool temperatures and lack of wind. It's been warm and breezy other years but this was nice. My Garmin was charged up and I debated leaving it at home, which would have been a first for racing. I still hadn't replaced the strap that broke off in some unknown location prior to Imogene. I decided I would go with the oh-so-classy move of duct-taping it on. I wasn't going to be a slave to the Garmin but thought it would be helpful to check my mile splits. I rigged it to my wrist and headed down to the Connected Lakes section of the James Robb State Park. Initially heading to the spot that has been the registration area every year, I found the place deserted. Heading back toward my car, I learned that we had the first major change in the course since my first time doing this race. The course was going to be more of a true cross country course, and would allow runners to pass through the start/finish area midrace. A change will do you good, as Sheryl Crow says. I liked the idea of covering less pavement, and enjoying a more spectator-friendly course.

Lining up for the start, I felt a little bit fatigued, but I never put much stock into how I'm feeling beforehand. Sometimes, things open up and feel good at race time, and sometimes they don't, but I try not to beat myself in my head before the thing's even started. Anna's sister sang the national anthem (and I wondered if it was wrong for me to think that she had a totally bitchin' pair of boots on as she started), and I closed my eyes, trying to relax. A few minutes later, we were off. At the starting horn, I slapped "start" on my Garmin three times before it finally started ticking off the seconds. I tried to not let it distract me and finally got it going.

Right away, a small pack of men and handful of women were ahead of me. I focused on increasing my turnover early, and tried to push steadily ahead without dodging right and left, and moving past runners without side-to-side action. We turned off the dirt road onto pavement and headed down that road, eventually making the sharp right turn across rocks and onto the cement of the riverfront trail. Oh, man, it doesn't feel good to boomerang yourself across those hard rocks, but it's just a small stretch and then a chance to hammer downhill for a bit. I passed a few runners here, and could see two women not too far ahead of me.

High schooler runners arriving for the meet dotted the course, shouting encouragement and motivation. I'm used to, and enjoy our club runs which are largely without spectators, but come on, we all enjoy a little bit of this from time to time. Coming through the start for the first time, I was probably about 10-20 seconds off the two women. I don't have a history of being able to "kick" in 5K's, but was determined to catch them and not sag my second mile.

Mile 1 (or thereabouts...since my Charlie Brown Christmas tree Garmin didn't want to start): 6:57

The second lap now turned left down the road from the gravel road, and then hopped onto the gravel trail around the Connected Lakes. It's pretty flat but continously curves to the left, moving around one lake and then between two. I was gaining on the women now. I wasn't sure if I could hold on if I passed them, but knew I had to go for it without any comfort or breaks. I moved past the first lady, and about thirty seconds later, I passed the second lady. Increasing my turnover as much as possible, I worked to build a little space but didn't look back to see where they were. We rounded the edge of the second lake in the shade of trees on a dirt trail (beautiful), and then hopped back onto an asphalt section of paved riverfront trail, running flat- to slightly uphill now.

Mile 2: 7:28

Okay, now I was in "run the mile like it's your last" mode. Oh, yeah. It really was the last mile today. My breathing felt what I call "5K good"- the lungs were burning but I wasn't slowing down. I knew those ladies, and other runners, were likely not far behind, and pushed hard coming into that sharp, rocky curve from the opposite direction. The last stretch was now flat- to slightly downhill and turned over the legs as fast as I could, trying to do that relax/fall asleep in the head thing so I wouldn't think too hard about how much this hurt. The 5K, for me, is all about seeing how hard I can push and trick myself into running when I'm not thinking so hard about it.

Mile 3: 7:10

Turning left back onto the dirt and toward the finish, I could hear feet behind me, and pushed but to no avail. Someone was moving past. As it turned out, it was not one of the women but some guy who came flying through, finishing just ahead. I held on, though, for second woman overall, 27th overall out of about 168 runners, and first in my age group at what my post-race time card listed as 22:07. I say post-race time card because when I stopped my watch, I didn't REALLY stop it. In addition to being duct-taped together for this race, the start/stop button had stuck in the "on" position at the start after several failed attempts to start it, and now would not shut off. Picking and prying at the button didn't make it come unstuck. When my friend Sandra came through (her second 5K ever, under 24 minutes, and what I think was a top- 10 or 12 finish), she was able to help me unpry the duct tape, and then after awhile I was finally able to dig at it the right way to stop the clock.

When awards time came, a number of the local race regulars, whom I like to refer to as the Usual Suspects, managed to collect hardware-the coveted ceramic bananas. As friends took out their phones and cameras, and it was suggested that we all gather with our banana medals, I made the totally unwitty remark that we should be a "bunch of bananas" for a group shot of all of us who had placed. Luckily, nobody sent me out of town on a rail, and the bunch of bananas, spanning fifty years in age, got together for a few post-race shots. It was yet again another positive experience at the Anna Banana citizen race. Since I'd been planning on it anyway, and was also more or less boxed in with my car near the new start and finish area, I stuck around for the high school races. There were some serious speedsters there, but it was cool to see how many kids of all speeds had come from 20 different high schools.
(winners of the high school Boys and Girls Races...both from higher altitude mountain communities)

Anna's not here on this earth anymore, but her positive presence was all around today. I'm looking forward to coming back in pursuit of local fruit for many years to come, but above all, to celebrate a life by getting out to live some life.