Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Still Running Against The Wind"-- The 2012 Canyonlands Half Marathon

In a training cycle during which my focus had been on two ultramarathons rather than a spring marathon, my tradition since almost the beginning of picking up running, the Canyonlands Half Marathon weekend snuck up on me with little worry or overly nervous energy. My focus had largely been on long, slow trail miles on the weekends, supplemented by shorter weekly trail runs, and a weekly track workout. Though I was up probably a good ten pounds over my best racing weight, I felt calm and confident going into the race, and this was despite a forecast that looked uncannily similar to the 2011 Canyonlands Half Marathon.

Heat, high winds, and dust were expected, but I felt all the tools were in my bag this time around to make the most of the day. I knew the mistakes I'd made the previous year, how to correct them. I'd paid dearly for a "bombs away" first mile the previous year, never recovering and steadily crashing and burning down the canyon and onto the highway. I intended to show some restraint in the first mile, and run with a consistently hard effort rather than attempting to bank time, with just a little bit in reserve to be able to handle the highway in the wind. Our weekly track workouts back in Grand Junction also provided the opportunity to focus on form, and good race technique. I knew that in the wind I would need to regularly check in on my form, making sure the stride was short, and cadence high. Running with a slight forward lean, focusing on the area of pavement immediately in front of me, rather than down the road, would give me a huge mental edge in the wind as well. When I got up in the morning, it was warm and breezy, but just a beautiful morning. Boarding the bus to the start, I felt about as zen as I've ever been at the start of the race. I knew what to do, and the pressure was off.

Getting off the bus at the starting area up the canyon, it was definitely quite warm, and breezy. Sometimes gusty. Ilana, who was feeling quite nauseous, wandered around with me, and we eventually made our way up onto one of the big boulders on the cliffs going up the side of the road near the race start. We eventually saw our friend Kevin on another large boulder, moved over there, and continued to acquire friends onto our perch. It was nice to unwind and joke around. I pulled out my iPod when I heard the Rocky theme playing-something I'd captured on the iPod the year before.

I also walked around and took many shots of people standing, sitting, leaning, or laying on the rocks, waiting it out until it was time to move up the road to the start.

As race time approached, we started thinking about getting moving. Elizabeth and Marty were off the boulder first, and there was a brief collective gasp when Marty took a good spill on his way down, falling, smashing the water bottle in one of his hands to pieces, and bloodying his hands. No major damage done, though, and soon the rest of us were up and on our way to the start, taking care on those dry, slippery rocks with our road shoes. Ilana and I chatted with Ernie and Andy from Grand Junction for a bit, and got ready to get the show on the road. It was definitely the warmest I ever remembered temperatures being at the start of this race. The wind would come and go in short, angry bursts, but there were some calm moments as well. The wheelchair division had its start at 9:50am, and right on schedule at 10am, we were on our way.

The first mile of this course drops in such a way that it's easy to bomb away. I've done it every year to some degree, and have never been able to match that early effort later in the race. Add the stampede of runners coming down the canyon, and it's just easy to go much faster than one has planned. The world of hurt I put myself in during the 2011 race was quite the learning experience; today, it was pretty easy for me to find that hard pace, but stop short of balls-on-the-table 5K PR pace. I resisted the urge to go out like gangbusters, and just let my breathing and stride settle in.

Mile 1: 7:36

As the road flattened out, I was pleased that I'd gotten through without laying myself out on the pavement, stumbling, or any other major blunders. As the race was taking place on St. Patrick's Day this year, there was a lot of green on the course. In this second mile, a couple of young dudes in flowy green tutus ran by hollering "Yay Geology! Yay Geology!" They were sort of kicking my butt here. Ah, to be young and tutu-d. I'm going to have to research this "Yay Geology" phenomenon, because there's a great video from the Imogene Pass Run in which the runner/narrator can be heard exclaiming "Yay Geology" after describing the types of rock formations in the mountains above Ouray.

Here, I happened upon Ben, who had skipped dinner with our group the previous evening, feeling exhausted, and then stopped by our hotel for the outdoor hot tub soak, arriving later than planned due to some pretty severe gastrointestinal distress. This wasn't good to see him here; we can train long runs together if I pick it up a bit, and he slows down a bit, but in a race he shouldn't be caught by the likes of me. I asked him how he felt, and he said he'd been throwing up all night. I couldn't believe he was out there running at all, but it was cool that he'd decided to go ahead and just run since he was here. We ran and chatted for a mile or so, and continued on with our races, with me drifting up ahead first before he eased back and drifted slightly ahead. I was still feeling good, and wasn't looking at my mile splits. I tried to run on feel, and hit a consistent cadence. The first five miles were rattled off at what was a surprisingly consistent pace when I checked the splits later. Learning to feel my pace in track workouts was paying off today. At mile four, there was a dude randomly set up, playing fun, cheesy keyboard music. As natural in the canyon as fish on a bike, and I was digging it.

Mile 2: 7:46
Mile 3: 7:52
Mile 4: 7:43
Mile 5: 7:49

By now, it was really warming up. That wind would whip furiously at times, but other times, it did settle down somewhat, allowing some calm moments of recovery. At one point, when I was climbing a bit, I foreign feeling hit my back....was it....it WAS! A tailwind! It didn't last more than a few seconds, but there was a collective whoop from runners around me as we got a little bit of help. Somewhere in this stretch, I saw Quinn, who was smiling and chugging along. I was entering the beginning of what was my run of steady decline a year ago, and gradual decline other years. The wind was picking up, and I tucked my head, leaned slightly forward, and ran with my gaze on my shadow in front of me, bringing me into this almost hypnotic place of being able to run and focus on my race, tuning out the wind and all others around me. The next several miles went by with moments of fatigue and feeling tired, but with me being able to find my focus and form every time I started faltering a bit, or battling the wind.

Mile 6: 7:49
Mile 7: 7:54

Hey, there's an unofficial "aid station" with guys set up with Pabst Blue Ribbon. They saw my "Almost There" beer singlet and green plaid skirt, and figured I'd be their girl, pointing and waving, and trying to entice me over for a sample. Sorry guys...that's not until later. There was still unfinished business for me to handle on the race course.

Mile 8: 7:52
Mile 9: 7:50

I was still feeling remarkably even-keeled. I knew, though, with zero good runs on the stretch of highway at Canyonlands, even in my PR run, that I had to keep working until I crossed the finish. The wind was picking up, it seemed, and it was getting hotter. I kept the head tucked and soon reached Michelle, another local whom I see sometimes at track, and who has joined in on one of the group long trail runs before. We chatted for a bit, and then I moved on down the road. All of a sudden, a runner to the right of me says "Rim Rock!" I turn, and see "Pink Girl," or Tennille from New Mexico, who led for 20 miles at the Rim Rock Marathon in November before eventually dropping off but fighting her way back into third place overall. I asked her if she'd run Canyonlands before, figuring not, since she'd told me at Rim Rock that she was a pretty new runner. When she said no, I told her "just like Rim Rock in the last stretch of highway...tuck your head, focus, and run!" I continued on ahead, and soon was at the Taiko Dan drummers...always one of the great highlights of the Canyonlands Half Marathon, and other assorted races. I was getting tired but didn't let the wind get into my head. With just 3.1 miles to go, I wanted to do something I'd never done, and run strong on the highway off the canyon. I reached Ilana, and asked how she felt. "Awful" or "terrible" or something along those lines was the reply. Well, shoot. I've been there, and don't wish anyone else to be there.

Mile 10: 8:01

Running under the bridge and up onto the highway, the wind was just brutal. In prior years, I'd seen the occasional runner walking this stretch, but today I'd already seen more in the first half mile on the highway than all previous years combined. Focus was more important than ever now. I found that hypnotic place of looking a few feet ahead to the ground with a slight forward lean, and resisted the urge to look up. I knew I had a long way to go, and looking up was only going to remind me of that, and break my form, which was about as good as it had been all race. Holy crap. I was passing people! Knowing how badly I've blown up here, though, I just kept working, no counting chickens before they'd hatched.

Mile 11: 7:45

And then it really hit. The wind was trying hard to win the battle against the runners. I made the mistake of looking up briefly. Uh, duh. As expected, nowhere near the finish, and still a long way to go. I put the head back down and found the happy hypnotic spot on the road again. The wind was kicking my butt a bit.

Mile 12: 8:29

That last mile was rather off from the rest of the run, but it could've been a lot worse in the wind. As we turned down the side street that runs off the highway, I cranked up the turnover and tucked the head. Everyone was struggling, but I managed to slide past a few more runners here. This was nuts...my history at this race has typically involved me dropping off, and people passing in this stretch. I was reaching my "spent" point but still had something left. Making the final left turn toward the finish, AKA "The Longest, Most Unpleasant Finish Chute Ever," as I affectionately refer to it, I resisted the urge to look up the block toward the finish line about five city blocks away. Well, that's until..I looked up. Whoops. Yep. It's still a long ways away, ya dummy. I tucked the head again and increased my turnover.

Mile 13: 8:01

Finally, I was a short distance away from the finish, and allowed myself to look up as I ran past the orange barriers near the finish. I'd gotten a personalized bib with my name, so between the "Go Karah"s and the "Almost There" shouts with people laughing at my shirt, I was really feeling pulled along by the crowd. As I crossed the timing mat just outside the finish, Jeff, who regularly does the finish line call from the scaffolding, called me out as I was about to finish.

(added with permission from Jeff...he was quite the jolly Leprauchaun, and a brave one at that, to be up on the scaffolding in the wind))

This time, instead of shaking my head as I crossed the finish, I charged through with a big smile.
Final .14 miles as registered by Garmin: 1:03:7 (7:24 pace)
Final Garmin time:
1:43:31 (7:53 average pace)

This wasn't anywhere near a course PR, but given that my second- and third-fastest half marathons ever were run on this course in calm, cold conditions, and my best was a magical pixie dust run at The Other Half, I was stoked. These were not ideal conditions, I was not at ideal racing weight, but I prepared to race, and executed about as well as I could have considering all factors. When the official race results came out, I was surprised to see that I'd logged my highest placement ever in age group at this race, finishing 8th out of 359 in age group, 38 out of 1917 women, and 239 out of 3240 overall. My official chip time was 1:43:26, and gun time was 1:43:40. When it came down to it, I'd handled myself ably on the parts of the course that did me in previously, and was able to follow through on my intention to reign in on the first mile, and run a controlled, evenly paced race all the way through.

It was great, again, to be on the course with my friends from the "Running Abomination Of Grand Junction" (thanks Tom Ela for coming up with that answer to the "Running Nation of Flagstaff") and other parts of our region. We celebrated first-time finishes of some, high-placing finishes of others, and in still other cases, the victory of simply finishing with illness in tough conditions. This is the one Moab race where I have yet to score hardware, and this weekend showed me that it's within reach, and a goal to target and train for over the next twelve months. As always, the Moab race crew, volunteers, and race director made it another special day; the conditions made things challenging at their end as well, and I'd be remiss if I didn't comment about how they kept things moving and put out fires (not literally, but just about) right and left to make it a good day for racers.

After some rest and chillax time with friends, I headed back home, but not without stopping with the camera to see Moab off properly. I am looking forward to participating in the inaugural Thelma & Louise Half Marathon in Moab this May, and seeing how the next chapter reads on the roads in Moab.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Synchronicity & Sunday Shining: Relay Racing and More

With one breath, with one flow
You will know Synchronicity

My first week returning to running after the RedHot was a decent one, with pain from my IT band largely subsiding. I got in several nice, flat gravel loops around the Connected Lakes in the early morning hours with Laura, did an early double-up on Serpents Trail with Marty and English Elizabeth, and led weekly track after skipping it for the first time in the week prior. Thursday brought a killer yoga class with Danny, the instructor I call the Deceptive Taskmaster, and I was pretty darn sore from that. Taking Friday off, I was feeling "back," and ready to train hard again. I thought my Free or Cheap Race '12 Tour ended with the Valentine's Prediction Massacre, but I was wrong. One local club run I'd never done took place this weekend, entry was only a dollar, and it was a relay of an unusual type. So, I dug up a dollar and headed over to Larry Ingram's house on Saturday for the Tortoise & Hare relay.

This event has been going on for quite awhile, and is one of two that Larry race directs. He was the track coach (now retired) for many years at Grand Junction High School, a national class Masters runner, and the guy in charge of pairing up teams for this race. It's a little confusing at first to understand what happens, but Larry has it down to a science. When I arrived, he had some recent newspaper clippings with results from local races, with the names of many regulars penciled in on a sheet of paper, highlighting our names as we arrived. When someone arrived who was without a recent result or new to the area, he'd ask what their most recent race time happened to be, and then wrote down a predicted finish time. Once all sixteen runners had checked in, he started matching up teams of runners, putting the fastest runner together with the slowest, and then working his way in to create teams that in theory should be pretty evenly matched. Looking around at the crowd, I thought to myself, "hmmmm, I may wind up being a Tortoise in this race." There were a bunch of speedy guys, and Suzie, there. Larry confirmed my suspicions a few minutes later when he said "you might be a tortoise today, Karah." I was cool either way, and just waited as he diagrammed out the teams.

When Larry got the teams together, it turned out I was one of two in the dead center of the list, and was paired as the hare with "tortoise" Grayson, a new guy at our track group from Arkansas. I use the parenthesis because we are a pretty dead even match, and he'd actually done his intervals at Wednesday track a lot faster than me that week. The other time I'd seen him at track, we were more or less synchronized on our intervals as well, with one of us being just ahead of the other each time. I joked that it was quite likely the hare would be slower on our team. This was good, positive motivation, though, to hammer my lap hard.

The way the race itself works is pretty cool. All the tortoises start from Larry's house for a three mile lap, running down neighborhood streets and around the golf course. Grayson, barring any unusual happenings during the first lap, would in theory be the first runner in this group since he was the fastest of the tortoises. Then, I, as the slowest of the hares, would be chased down by all the other hares on the second lap, with the fastest runners coming all the way from the back. Jay was the fastest guy there, so I knew I'd likely see him at some point on my lap. Ben was second fastest so I expected to see him at some point in my lap as well. Coincidentally, Grayson and I had both dressed in orange and black, so it was fitting we wound up as teammates today. A few runners were given an early start based on Larry's calculations, and then the other runners started en masse for their first lap. I hung out with the other hares, jogged a few more times, and got ready to do my thing. Sure enough, at less than 20 minutes, we saw Grayson turn the corner on his return to Larry's house. I got ready to run, and as he approached, I thought wow, he ran a great pace. I could see the second runner just turning the corner almost half a mile away as he tagged off to me.

Getting off to a good start, I fell right into a zone, keeping myself turning over at a high cadence and relaxing my body. I knew I couldn't magically become a sub-18 minute 5K runner so I wasn't going to stress myself out about getting caught by the fastest runners; just wanted to do my best and push my own pace as much as possible, and hopefully hold off as many runners as possible. Grayson had really killed his lap, giving me a good buffer to start. I focused my gaze just a little bit in front of me, not looking far ahead or turning back.

Running by myself was kind of weird; I took a turn that I thought was correct but did not notice any cones at the corner. For a minute I thought I'd gone the wrong way but just kept running. Soon enough, I saw a cone. Phew. Didn't screw this up. I'll say one thing; I think those of us who run our smaller, minimally supported races in this area learn to be sharp and attentive to course details. We've all gotten lost or taken a funny turn at some point, and if we haven't, it's only a matter of time before that occurs. I ran down the first short stretch of this rectangle-shaped course, and turned. I did take a look back here just to see if I could see anyone charging ahead yet; there was no one behind me.

Heading down the long stretch, I really had no idea my pace but felt like I was moving well. I saw a cyclist approaching; as he got closer, I thought, he looks familiar. I got a smile and wave from the cyclist, and realized it was Kevin, our friend who won the RedHot (he blogged about his race, and I would urge all to go check it out over here) and then proceeded to ride his bike the 110 miles home to Grand Junction from Moab. Several friends mentioned seeing him out there after the race in the rain and snow, and feeling, well, less manly. It was fortuitous to see him right there, and think for a second about his training work ethic. It caused me to pull up from any bit of slumpiness I had going, and regain the best form I could maintain now at two miles in.

I turned off the long stretch onto the second short stretch of road, and there was still nobody audibly creeping up. Not wearing a watch really freed me up to run hard and fast and just focus on holding off any other runners as long as I could. Knowing we still had a chance to win had me digging for every little bit of kick in my system. This stretch had the one gradual, steady uphill on the course, and it is right when one is most tired. Coming to the top of the short hill and making the last turn back to Larry's, I was still leading. Somebody HAD to be close, but I wasn't about to turn around and waste energy. Pushing down the road, I saw my teammate Grayson, who asked how I felt...."Like s#it!" I hollered back as I plowed forward.

I could see the finish line and it appeared I was going to make it without getting caught. Still, I didn't know. I hurtled toward the finish and made it in. Turning around, I looked and could see Ben not more than about 30-40 seconds back. He and his teammate Nan were second, with Ben apparently tracking my orange shirt the whole time and making up a lot of ground, but just not enough on such a short loop. When awards time came, Grayson and I got our official winner certificates and chocolate bunnies.
We'd run a total time of 42:42, nearly synchronized in our efforts, with Grayson at 21:28 for his lap, and me at 21:14.

My observant middle daughter was the only person to notice that we'd apparently run this race in the middle ages, with the little typo on the date. Obviously, we runners were distracted by the chocolate.

It was turning into quite the nice day, and several of us made plans to do 2-3 hours of trails the next day. It was SO nice, in fact, that a lot of the racers headed down the road for extra cooldown. Grayson and Ben decided to go run the Tabeguache next on top of the race. I thought about both options, but with my IT band being a little funny since the RedHot, opted to skip anything extra today

Sun is shining,
The weather is sweet, yeah
Makes you wanna move your dancing feet

Getting up the next day, I was kind of dragging. It was set to be a beautiful day, though. I coffeed up, had some food, and still wasn't quite with it. This is the great thing, though, about track night, and with coordinating group runs with the Ultra Dogs and other friends who like to hit trails. I could have easily settled into the couch and done nothing for the day, but I kind of organized this puppy and wasn't going to back out of a group run now. Jerry, Grayson, Ben, and I all caravanned out to Mary's Loop (with Jerry and Grayson first heading the wrong way on I-70, ha...when Ben got them on the phone he said "I should have said 'head toward Utah'"), and we kind of lollygagged our way into starting, eventually selecting a route that would take us onto Mary's Loop, then drop down to Horsethief Bench (AKA Where You Might See Five Dozen Cows On The Trail Bench). I was in shorts for a training run for the first time this year, and started in long sleeves, but less than a mile in I peeled that off to wear the short sleeved shirt I had on underneath.

Everyone claimed to be "tired" and wanting to "take it easy," but I could see that was a bunch of B.S. today. The pace was a nice, steady clip. I was feeling like I was running sluggishly but the guys were really chugging along. This was good because I probably would've phone it in more on my own today, honestly. There's never an ugly day out at Mary's, but it was especially spectacular today, with each of us saying a camera would've been a good idea. I ran with Jerry for awhile, with Ben and Grayson running ahead, which was good because I kept him from steering off-course when it was time to drop down to Horsethief Bench. The guys all really started flying through here, and I upped my pace again, lagging about a minute back but still where I could see them. We made a planned "play stop" down by the river; Grayson got brave and put his feet in the freezing cold water, and I got good and muddy jumping back up from the riverbanks onto higher ground.

It was a little hard to start again now but I moved on along, with the guys now flying ahead. I thought I was dragging but then realized, hey, they're getting all testosterone-y and racing one another in training. Oh, okay. So I wasn't moving slowly after all. I wasn't going to join in racing the run, especially since they all top out at a faster pace than me anyway, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to push enough to keep just a minute or two back from them. I treated my run like a trail tempo run for a little bit but not worry about whether I'm right with them or not. I pushed along at a good pace for me, and as it turned out, I really wasn't all that far behind them.

Finishing out the run back up Mary's to our vehicles, I was glad we had a group going today. It took me about ten miles to warm up and really feel good in my running, but it was a great run with about 12 miles covered a lot faster than I would have done on my own. Ben said he'd realized it was the last time he'd have to run this trail really fast before Canyonlands and Desert RATS and just sort of started running really fast out there. We "feasted" on bananas at the finish, and then headed back to town, feeling that good post-trail run bliss that comes from the combination of sweat, dirt, sunshine, and good, all-over tiredness.

It is now just two weeks before the annual rite of spring for runners here; the Canyonlands Half Marathon. I ran an epically bad race there last year so anything *should* be an improvement. I would, however, like to turn in more of a redemption run rather than just improving upon a race where I really bottomed out. The Desert RATS 50 miler also looms around the corner, so training is going to be about walking the fine line to get in the miles for that, while still resting properly for Moab.