Sunday, April 15, 2018

2018 Rock and Roll San Francisco Half Marathon - Race Report

I wasn't planning on running Rock and Roll San Francisco Half Marathon for 2018. As luck would have it though, I won a free race entry through a raffle in a run hosted by WeRunSF and Rock and Roll SF Half a few months ago, so I figured I should run it, as the lottery gods have bestowed this gift on me which any runner would be quite thankful for (my odds of winning this free entry at the time was about 1 out of 50, as those were the number of runners in attendance for the event held that day). Thanks WeRunSF and Rock and Roll SF Half!

Fast forward to race day, I was planning to run the half, but I wasn't really quite sure how fast to run it. I was running only once a week for the past several weeks, but I was doing at least five bootcamp style workouts as well at a gym called the P2P Transformation Center in Brentwood. I had lost over 30 pounds as of this time, and the weight loss has made my long runs very easy compared to years past, as I was pacing 12-13 minute miles but no longer having to catch my breath, and for good or bad, made me a very chatty pacer to my trainees at Run 365, The San Francisco Marathon training program for the full marathon distance.

I arrived super duper early for the race, as I opted to park using the Parking Panda iPhone app and not the parking recommended by the race. While the parking recommended by the race was convenient, as it was a garage just next to the start line, it was also $30. I figured that I didn't want to negate the freebie I got, so I opted for the cheaper but farther parking for a measly $10 instead. The downside to this was since I was super early, I was outside and it was quite chilly at the start line. I quickly looked for the nearest Starbucks and it was about a half mile from the start line and there was still about 10 minutes or so before it would open. I bemoaned the fact that if I parked at the $30 garage, I could just have stayed at my car until it was closer to the start time, but I was still okay with my decision.

The start line had the waves, but it seemed they were not strictly enforced. I looked for a pace group that I wished to run with, debating between 2:10 and 2:20. My personal best for a half was 2:23 at the Rock and Roll San Jose a few years back, but that was a less hilly course. I found the 2:10 pacer with his sign, but not the 2:20. I just made a mental note to keep a decent distance from the 2:10 pacer so that I would hit somewhere around 2:15, which suddenly became my goal finish time for the race.

A 2:15 finish would be an average of about a 10 minutes and 20 seconds per mile, for 13.1 miles. I can run a 10 minute mile, but at the time I was only confident of doing that for a 5K, maybe a 10K. Having done all my long runs at a 12-13 minute mile pace would be a sudden shift for me. I'm not sure how my body would feel throughout the race, but I just decided to go for it. If I crash and burn somewhere in the middle or in the end, so be it. I haven't chased a PR for so long (I usually just go for a finish), I began to want a PR for this half, even if it was just by a measly minute or second.

The start for the wave I was at seemed later than usual. For this year, the race had us running on the pedestrian path and not the roadside. I believe this was due to the possibility that a truck or vehicle in the wrong hands can maliciously mow down runners for this race, and given how vehicles have been unfortunately used in this manner in other countries, the Golden Gate Bridge board had decided not to allow the runners to run on the road (Note: This is unconfirmed, from my end, and merely hearsay from other sources. I apologize if this is incorrect).  At any rate, due to running on the pedestrian path, the waves have been given more ample space between each other to avoid crowding on the bridge. While the start was delayed, in my opinion, it seemed like the crowd spacing of runners was just perfect (but more on that later).

When our wave started, we started running from Fisherman's Wharf or Pier 39. It was pretty flat for the first mile or two until we hit Bay Street, where we promptly encountered some hills. Looking back at my Strava data, it did seem that I slowed down on some of the hills, but not so much. I did a 10:45 for a 151 foot climb and a 10:09 for a 78 foot climb, each one a mile in distance. Not too shabby!

I was actually surprised at how fast my pace was. I was letting my body guide me. I went with what seemed to me like a 7 or 8 in effort. Something that I have to work on. I can't be chatty and I have to swing my arms to push myself further in distance, and I use my feet to propel myself further. Usually I don't do this type of running on my pacing runs as I run more leisurely during those times. I was happy that I had this ability in my back pocket, that I could use for some of my future runs, and maybe aim for a 5K and 10K PR for my next races.

Running up to the bridge was as hilly as one would expect, but once we got to the bridge, the uphill climb wasn't too bad. Most who haven't visited the Golden Gate Bridge thinks it is flat, but it is actually not. There's a climb up and down from one end to another. Once on the pedestrian path, I started overtaking runners. I would do a surge of speed here or there on the left or on the right, depending on where the opening was. I felt good overtaking other runners. At this point in the race, we were almost at the half point, and it gave me more confidence to know I still have a lot of gas in the tank. I didn't want to overtake too many of the runners to the point that I was going at an uncomfortable pace, so I only overtook enough to get me to where I think I'm still running at a good clip.

Once we reached the other end of the bridge, we reached an area that was conducive for picture taking. I could totally understand why runners from out of town would stop for a selfie or a photo, after all, this was their run-cation, but I had other goals in mind. What was more amazing for me than not taking photos is I haven't yet visited any porta potties. I figured it would add a few minutes to my time and as of the halfway point, I wanted to save all my time for the last few miles.

We were taken down an unfamiliar route to me after that. It was a bike route to go to the other side of the bridge. It seemed more like a trail run at that point as it was definitely not a smooth fire road and it was even more narrow than the pedestrian path. I was still able to bob and weave my way through the crowd of runners, but I was more careful this time and slowed down a little. I also slowed down a little bit more once we reached the point where we had to go back UP the bridge on the other side! I was just glad that all this time, I am still running. I could just have easily started walking, but that would kill my PR dreams right then and there. I put all my hill training from past Run 365 runs into action, with more oomph and speed as this was no long slow distance run! We ended up on the other side of the bridge and I did a rinse and repeat of the surges in overtaking runners.

As we got to the other side of the bridge and head back to the finish, I thought that was the end of the hills. We ran downhill towards Crissy Field and then towards Ghirardelli Square, where the finish line was. Little did I remember that were going back through Bay Street and a hill surprised me at the end!

I was starting to cramp at the very last mile. My right calf was cramping. I would stop for a second when it would twitch and keep going again. Looking back at Strava, my last mile was 11:35, but I wasn't too disappointed with that given that I was still clocking 10:10 and 9:49 on the miles previous to that. At the 12 mile mark, with under trained legs, I was happy that I was on track for my 2:15 finish!

I crossed the finish line with even a few more minutes to spare. My unofficial time is 2:12:25. A PR by over 11 minutes from my fastest time, which seemed like decades ago. I was elated at the finish line as it is mind blowing to me to be faster when I am much older than I was when I did my fastest half marathon. This is hopefully a good omen of things to come, and that 40 is most probably the new 30! Thanks again to WeRunSF and Rock and Roll San Francisco Half!

See you next year?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Spartan Sprint "San Jose" - Race Report

Location, Location, Location

First things first, let's get one thing out of the way: Spartan Sprint "San Jose" is not actually in San Jose. It's technically in the city of Patterson, California, which is 100 miles away from San Jose. But just like your friends who say to others when they travel that they're from "San Francisco", when they live all the way in Sacramento, I understand how Spartan uses San Jose as a marketing scheme to make it easy for those to somewhat relate to where the race is, especially if they're out of state (or even from another country).

Having said that, I thought that Diablo Grande was a great location for the Spartan Sprint. They had a vast open area with monster hills, great views, and a big enough area to host the start, finish, as well as the all important parking lot for the parade of cars traveling from all over the Bay Area and beyond.


I decided to sign up for my very first Spartan race to try out new things. I turned 40 in 2018, so I wanted a lot of new experiences, as much as possible. I've already checked off a lot of bucket list items when it comes to running and other endurance events: my first marathon, my first ultra marathon (50K and 50 miler), my first triathlon (sprint and olympic), my first century (100M) bike ride, and my first endurance bike ride (SF to LA, 545M). 

It's taken me a long time to sign up for Spartan because while I have the enviable quads and calves of an ultra runner, I still had the upper body of a couch potato. It wasn't planned at all leading up to Spartan, but I happened to participate in a 6 week weight loss challenge at P2P Transformation Center in Brentwood. It involved working out an average of 5 days a week with "boot camp" style workouts. So even though I didn't sign up for the 6 week challenge to prepare for Spartan, it worked out perfectly that it somewhat prepared me for the race.

I say somewhat because even though my upper body was now much better than a couch potato, I had never really practiced any obstacles prior to my very first Spartan. Zero. Zilch. Nada. And so, of course, this gave me pause and concern leading to race day, where I somewhat debated whether I should even cross the starting line, but having already paid my money for the race way back in 2017, I opted to show up and just see what happens.

Race Day

Most first timers for the race seem to be teams of participants. While I knew a few friends doing the Spartan Sprint on race day, our start times were not the same. Most of them had started in the morning, while I had a late afternoon (12:45 PM) start. I chose the late afternoon time slot when I signed up because it seemed the most inexpensive option at the time (I think I paid a total of $80, discounts, taxes and fees included). 

I'm glad I followed the instructions to aim to arrive an hour and a half earlier than my race start, as there was already a big line of cars going into the parking lot by the time I got near the start/finish. One can pay for VIP Parking ($40) to park near the start/finish, but I'm not sure if there would have been a way to circumvent the line going towards both parking areas. VIP does save you quite a bit of walking, as it felt like I walked about half a mile to a mile just to get to the entrance from where I parked my car.

Upon getting to the entrance, they scan your bar code (it's almost a must to print your bar code on paper, as cell service was non existent for me, and I'm guessing most others, being in the middle of nowhere, and being with T-mobile, which has stronger reception in urban areas). I was given an envelope with my headband, which contains my race number (the equivalent of a bib for runners). I was also given a chip and something to tie it around one of my wrists, a wristband for a beer (which I opted out of, given I'm still on my weight loss challenge), and a wristband with my starting time (which they check when you're at the finish, but they let the 12:45ers start at 12:30 because there was still enough room at the start).


After checking your wrist for your start time, you are allowed through to the start corral, but you already encounter your first obstacle. We had to climb over what seemed like a 5 foot wall to actually be with the starting Spartan racers. I was flummoxed! What if I can't even get over that damn wall? Is my race over before it even started. Once I was in line to climb the wall, I hesitated. One of the runners, Pete (his shirt said so), asked if I needed help or a boost. I wasn't sure so I let him go first and then surprisingly was able to hoist myself with ease over the wall afterwards! I wonder if a certain president built this course, because it seemed to have so many damn walls! 

Note: I could have grabbed pictures from the Interwebs in order to describe these obstacles easily, but I'll just leave it to you to google them, so that I don't infringe on any copyrights. Once I get my own pictures of certain obstacles, I'll be happy to update this page (Note to self: Use a Go Pro next time, perhaps?).

Obstacle 1: Overwalls - PASS

After running for about half a mile from the start line, we encounter our first obstacle. Surprise, surprise, it's a wall! Luckily, my confidence was boosted by the previous wall climb, so I was able to climb this one with ease.

Obstacle 2: Mud Misery 

After climbing over the wall, we had to trudge through what seemed like a swimming pool of mud, which grew thicker and nastier as we trudged more into it. Quite a few racers were going towards the left and towards higher ground. Some were brave enough to forge through, but were screaming as they felt their legs and feet sinking (and worse, maybe lose their shoes!). I was one of those who chose the higher ground, thinking that was it for the mud, but boy was I mistaken, just a few "Spartan miles" later!

Obstacle 3: Monkey Bars

I don't think I ever played Monkey Bars as a kid. Even though I have bigger biceps than I had when started 2018, I didn't feel confident enough about it. I got from one rung to another before I quickly dropped. Instead of burpees, those who didn't complete this task were made to roll and/or crawl beneath barbed wires on dirt. Most of the times we rolled over through the course, but at times we had to crawl as there were rocks which would surely hurt anyone who rolled over them. So much for trying to stay neat and tidy throughout the course. I was already covered in dirt three obstacles in!

Obstacle 4: Hurdles

Hurdles weren't a wall, but were beams supported on both ends and the height seemed like my entire height, which was 66 inches. I think they were doable if I were in a team, or at least in a duo, but I just had me, myself and I so opted out and moved along the course.

Obstacle 5: Sandbag Carry - PASS

At the base of a small slope (maybe 100 meters up and 100 meters down), we had to place a sandbag on our shoulders. I'm not quite sure how heavy it was, but it felt like it was at least 20-30 pounds, if not more. It was not a big deal given the weights I've been lifting lately, but you do have to watch your footing going downhill and with that weight. I thought to myself that I've been 30 pounds overweight at the start of the year, so technically I just temporarily became overweight again for that entire time.

Obstacle 6: Barbed Wire Crawl - PASS

Having done this already as the "Plan B" for Monkey Bars, it wasn't a tough obstacle. It does seem like real barbed wire though (I wasn't planning to find out otherwise), so I really dropped on all fours. I was glad that I didn't carry a hydration pack with me that might have given the possibility of a snag on one of the wires. I seemed to be slower than the other racers, but I thought to myself that I wanted to play safe, and that I would usually gain back time during the running parts of the course (which I did so, anyways).

Obstacle 7: Bucket 2.0 - PASS

This was WAY WORSE than the sand bags. We had to carry up and down a bucket full of rocks which seemed to weigh 40-50 pounds. I placed them across my upper body and thankfully I have gloves, but the weight of the bucket caused me to shift my right leg up to plod it along. This didn't seem to be the form of the elites doing the race, but I was improvising at this point. I also had to stop several times and put down the bucket to recharge my arms as they were on fire the entire time! 

It was also one of the first times for the free official photos of the race. I just hoped I looked cool enough on this one, if not, the other pictures on later obstacles!

Obstacle 8: 6 Foot Wall - PASS

There was no way that I was going to be able to do this. I tried to run and jump once but after almost deciding to skip it, a hot shirtless Spartan racer came to my rescue and gave me a boost! (Thanks hot shirtless Spartan racer!). When I got to the other side, I wondered if I should go back and help him, but in hindsight, he probably already climbed over without me noticing and already sped up to get his hot finishing time!

Obstacle 9: Yokohama Tire Flip

You basically had to lift and flip this gargantuan tire that I don't know what vehicle even uses (if any). I tried to get a sense of the weight and then just opted for burpees at this point. I didn't want to hurt my back. Maybe if I can practice this safely and conveniently in an obstacle course training gym, I would attempt it again.

Obstacle 10: Plate Drag - PASS

At the opposite end is a container with heavy plates. You have a rope and are supposed to drag it to you, then pull it back to its original position. I was able to do this quite successfully, although I did have to pry the container loose a couple of times because it was stuck in the dirt (probably due to the rain the day before). 

Obstacle 11: Atlas Carry

Nope. A big ball of stone which seemed like 70-100 pounds, and we are supposed to carry it from one end of a 20 meter spot to another and do 5 burpees in between. A whole can of nope after trying to lift that damn ball. I opted out, climbed a short but super steep incline and moved on to the next obstacle.

Obstacle 12: Olympus

I saw this in one of the preview videos and it is a wall at a 45 degree angle with holes and chains to prop you as you "climb" your way sideways towards the end to ring the bell. I was able to hold a chain and a hole before promptly falling and doing towards the burpee zones to do my 30 burpees as penalty.

Obstacle 13: Herc Hoist - PASS

I was surprisingly able to do this one, although I'm not sure if I chose the bag that was meant for women instead of men. It was a square station with lots of ropes and you're supposed to hoist up a sandbag which seemed to weight to me to be about 30-40 pounds. I had to brace myself on the surrounding metal fence, but I was able to use my almighty biceps to power through this one!

Obstacle 14: Spear Throw

I pointed my spear in the general direction and if I just gave it enough force, it might have actually made it all the way to the hay. Anyway, 30 burpees it is!

Obstacle 15: 7 Foot Wall

Given I was competing individually, I skipped this wall again as there was no hot shirtless runner to rescue me this time!

Obstacle 16: Rope Climb

Carry my 165 pound frame all the way to the top? I made one attempt and quickly dropped down to do more burpees (so many burpees...)

Obstacle 17: A Frame - PASS

I was able to surprisingly climb this despite my fear of heights. I did wonder at times if the bands would break, or if the structure would somehow topple with all the racers going up and down it. The hardest part was climbing over and positioning yourself to the other side. Once that's done though, it's nothing but going down from there!

Obstacle 18: Rolling Mud Dunk - PASS

I think some racers opted out of this for fear of getting too dirty, but this was I think one of the most fun parts of the race. You pretty much really have to get mud all over you as you slide towards a 3 to 4 feet deep mud pit and wade across, and climb up (photographer on course, so smile!). 

Obstacle 19: Slip Wall - PASS

I feared this one but was surprisingly able to hoist myself up with rope as my body was at the perfect angle and my foot was planted firmly on the wall. The hardest part was the last bit where I had to pull myself up to the top. I think I banged my left knee in the process as it's still a bit bruised, but we do have our battle scars, right?

Obstacle 20: Inverted Wall

Another wall which required a team, so I opted out.

Obstacle 21: Multi Rig

It's pretty much like Monkey Bars, so this was a fail for me. I did burpees for what seemed like an eternity, but then ran across the finish line with a smile!

So there you go. I think I completed 10 of the obstacles in a successful manner, in a way that didn't involve having to pay for it by doing burpees. Could I have done better? Sure, I can with more practice and maybe being part of a team next time. But I think I did way better than I expected, and I am proud to have completed this monstrous race!

Even if you remove all the 21 obstacles, this would already have been a tough 5 mile race, by the way. It totaled almost 1000+ feet of elevation, based on other racers' data and it had some pretty ridiculously steep hills (and I know steep, given my trail running experience!).


Monday, November 20, 2017

2017 The North Face Endurance Challenge California 50K - Race Report

GI Issues, Pulled Calf, Quad Cramps. I had a lot of obstacles to my finish at this year's The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) California 50K, but I wasn't about to let any of them stop me!

Finish line at Crissy Field with a superb sunset at the background! PC: Philip Lee
Race Week

Pro Tip: Avoid eating fried and oily foods on race week, especially if it's under cooked spam.

I should have learned from past experience when I paid dearly for eating chicken curry the night before a 20 mile run at Western States Endurance Run Training Camp a few years ago that you should eat clean and simple the day before a long run. I just thought eating a few days before would have allowed my body to eat pretty much anything. I was pretty much dead wrong.

The Thursday and Friday leading to my race at The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC), I was a ball of nerves. Not only did I have to deal with the usual tightness of my heels and back that I notice whenever tackling hills (due to being well over my racing weight), but I was now dealing with stomach issues. Having visited the restroom at work on Thursday so many times due to what I think the whole can of fried spam that I consumed Wednesday night, I decided to take a sick day at work as my stomach was clearly not recovering from my maladies. I ate simple carbs on Friday like oatmeal and pasta with marinara sauce to hopefully set my stomach on a course correction. It seemed to be getting better, but apparently I wasn't out of the woods.

The 2017 TNFEC wasn't announced until later in the year. Some had speculated it was cancelled due to permitting issues. Thankfully, the trail race party still came to be, although some course changes this year might have potentially turned off some trail runner purists, as the race for the 50 mile, 50K, and marathon all have you running down SCA trail towards the Golden Gate Bridge. From there, it's a 2 mile run wherein you have to contend with a potential horde of tourists, happily snapping pictures and walking at two, three or four persons abreast, at times potentially blocking the whole path towards the course finish.

Miles 0 to 3.5 (Sausalito to Tennessee Valley)

The start of the race changed to Sausalito. Buses still took runners from previous gathering points in the Marina Middle School and Larkspur, and they were plentiful and quick (at least to me, as I was on board the first bus, being the usual early bird). The weather for 2017 TNFEC was a little chilly at the start, so I was thankful to bring my warm jacket, gloves and beanie. I hung on to my drop bag until about half an hour to the start time. I also pretty much visited the porta potty a whopping four times, including one time to take care of business. I felt that I took care of some business, but my stomach still felt funny at times. I didn't like the feeling, as GI issues were one of the things that took me down at my first attempt at TNFEC 50M.

Part of the new course have runners going up Alta, and while the views were fantastic all throughout (evidenced by quite a few runners stopping to take pictures), we did have to work for the views. as based on my Strava, we climbed a whopping 749 feet, enough to start inducing cramps for those not used to doing a lot of climbing, much less climbing from the very start of a race.

As we reached Marincello, we saw the 50 mile runners coming up from Miwok, and joining us for the rewarding jaunt downhill. I was running down and encountered a runner who I later learned was 70 years old, and kicked my butt by finishing several minutes ahead of me at the finish. I told him I was in awe of him for doing such a tough race at the age of 70, and I would be ecstatic to just be able to run at that age.

Miles 3.5 to 6.5 (Tennessee Valley to Muir Beach)

As we hit Tennesee Valley, I promptly refilled one of my two water bottles which I had water mixed with Tailwind on. I was on point with my nutrition then, having finished one bottle in an hour, which was about 200 calories. I liked Tailwind in that I took care of drinking and eating in one step, rather than have to do them separately. It pays to be an efficient runner, especially when minutes and seconds count (especially for me, as a back of the pack runner). I didn't put Tailwind on the newly refilled bottle, since I had one other bottle and I could just consume that for the next 3 miles heading towards Muir Beach.

After we exited TV, the 50K runners went up Fox trail while the 50M runners headed further and then up Coastal Fire Road. The 50M runners did so to tack an extra 0.5 mile. While we saved on distance, going up Fox trail is quite a bit of a climb (420 feet, according to Strava). As we were going up, I saw what was quite possibly a runner who's never done a trail race. He had no water bottle, wore absurdly long basketball shorts, which he kept on having to lift up to prevent from giving a show, and he wore sneakers. I'm not sure if it was smart to ask him, but I said, "Is this your first trail race?". He said no, not seemingly defensive. I was going to give him the unsolicited advice to ask for a water bottle at the next aid station, and to get trail shoes next time, but I held back. I have a feeling he didn't finish the race, but I can't be sure as I didn't note his bib number.

After a nice long climb, we were rewarded with a nice downhill run towards Muir Beach. Again, the views were fantastic and lots of runners were taking pictures, some even videos. I had to distance myself or slow myself down from a few of them, lest I run into them while I abruptly stop to take pictures.

I saw my friends Marcia, who was 18 miles into her first 50M, at a good clip of 4 hours. She seemed to struggle a bit, but I was glad to learn she conquered this beast of a race successfully in 12+ hours. I also saw Peach, who kiddingly asked me if I took any pictures yet. I quickly said no. I have made it a rule to not take pictures doing a race, as they take precious minutes and seconds, and I need every single minute and second if I was to finish this race! Peach was lined up for the single porta potty at that aid station. At times I wish we ran through the Muir Beach parking lot, which had 4 real rest rooms for use, but I have a feeling it's due to permitting issues that the route doesn't have us go through that area.

Miles 6.5 to 11.8 (Muir Beach to Cardiac)

I still felt great exiting Muir Beach, running through Redwood Creek Trail and heading towards Heather Cutoff. My plan was to just speed hike Heather Cutoff. I was expecting to be constantly overtaken by other 50M and 50K runners going up the single track for this part, but I was surprised to have very few of them do so. I'm guessing at this point, the 50M/50K runners I was with decided to either adopt the strategy I was using, or that was also their plan from the get go (or an adjustment to their plan). It took me about 1.5 hours going up Heather Cutoff and Coastal Trail to Cardiac, and while it was a long slog, I was surprisingly not tired and still upbeat.

I was dealing with a rotten stomach still, so when I knew I was about 15 minutes ahead of my target time (10:20 AM arrival, 10:34 AM target time), I decided to promptly use the porta potty to clean the decks and I was glad I did, as it would have made for a miserable climb later on through Muir Woods if I hadn't.

Miles 11.8 to 17.7 (Cardiac to Old Inn)

While Muir Woods is magical, this is the part of the TNFEC course that I always dread due to its difficulty. Going down Ben Johnson trail was a nice reprieve from the long climb to Cardiac Hill, but I know having done the previous TNFEC races, that "what comes down, must come up". After getting to the part close to where the Muir Woods Visitor Center is, we turn left, and start climb after climb.

As we reached close to the start of Lost Trail, where there was a bridge with a fallen log that we had to climb and push ourselves up on, I managed to pull my left calf. I let several runners through as I fervently tried to stretch it and rest it. It seemed like an eternity and I probably lost about five to ten minutes as I nursed it, wondering if this would be the start of my downfall on this favorite ultra race of mine. As I felt the left calf start to feel normal, I went back into going across the bridge. But when I ascended Lost Trail, I made sure to use my right calf to start each step, and then followed by my left. I had to two step each step several times to start with until I was comfortable alternating each calf with each step. The steps up Lost Trail seemed endless, not to mention steep. Several 50M runners continued to pass me along the way, but I kept going forward. I felt like my target time for reaching Old Inn would be way off pace.

It was way off pace as I arrived 20-25 minutes past my target time, and started to worry if any of the aid stations would start pulling 50K runners due to how slow they were running. I was discussing this point with another runner at Old Inn, when I overheard another volunteer ask if there were any cutoffs for the 50K. I saw that as a sign to bolt out of that aid station promptly.

I thought we were going down the road from there, but I was surprised we were detoured into going up Dipsea, unlike last year's race. I cursed through the climb, but it felt surprisingly short as I was going down Deer Park road in no time, the sketchy road since Redwood Creek trail across was crossed for a good section, and then back on to Redwood Creek trail as we ended up in Muir Beach.

I ate like a madman at Muir Beach, where I gobbled a few sugar bites that seemed like sugar coated Gu Chews (not sure what they exactly were, but they were delish), downed two half cups of Coke, and took three quarter slices of peanut butter and jelly to go. I figured I needed to down all of these as I felt I was in a calorie deficit, and I needed the energy to muster that climb up Muir Beach back to Tennessee Valley.

Miles 20.5 to 23.5 (Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley)

The climb up Muir Beach and down Fox was long but uneventful. My calves surprisingly behaved the whole time both up and downhill, but then my muscles above my right knee started flaring up. I wouldn't call it sharp pain, but they were excruciating enough to be worrisome. I mentally told myself "Shut up, legs!" as I bared through the injury. I was slightly worried that I was running myself to the ground, but I figured that as long as it wasn't sharp, it was okay. If my legs and suddenly seized and I can't move anymore, well, that's another scenario but I didn't want to even envision that happening.

I saw my friend Patrick who was running the 50M as I walked the small incline towards the aid station. We chatted and caught up for a few minutes, before he raced through the finish. He was having a hard time due to under training but he finished in a very good time nonetheless!

Miles 23.5 to 26.4 (Tennessee Valley to Alta)

While they didn't seem to think twice at holding me at Tennesee Valley due to being slow, I was beginning to worry that they might pull me at Alta. My goal time was to be there at 3:19 PM, and while the cutoff was only at the finish, they do have the fine print saying they can pull off any runner at any time if they weren't going at the "last runner's" predicted average running pace. I hiked up Marincello at a fast clip, seeing the strong 70 year old runner I was running down that same trail just this morning. We were playing frogger for a good time all the way up to Alta, up to where he disappeared as he headed towards SCA.

I was so glad to see my friends Karen (who seemed like she was everywhere), Erica, Jennifer and Zac (who I also saw at the start). I was more glad to sense they weren't going to force me to drop from there, and instead encouraged me on as I ran towards the finish.

Miles 26.4 to 32.4 (Alta to Crissy Field)

It must be my tired runner's math, but I somehow I thought I had EIGHT miles to go, as I was looking at my pace chart for this race. Obviously it was only SIX miles. What made matters worse (or maybe better, in hindsight), was that my watch died shortly before reaching Alta, so I started Strava on my iPhone. I was holding it for a while at SCA, but as I feared dropping it, plus annoyed at carrying it as I still had to drink from my water bottle at the other hand, I decided to place the phone back in my hydration pack and instead "run by feel" towards the end.

I saw what looked like the finish line from the Golden Gate Bridge. I couldn't quite visually assess where it was exactly. I thought it would be closer towards Fort Mason, and if that was so, that feels very far from where I was at. I was resigned to walking the "uphill" part of the Golden Gate Bridge (it's not flat, surprisingly), until another slow 50K runner walked ahead of me, looked at my bib, and smiled (as if to say, "nooninoo, I overtook you). This fueled a fire in me to run all the way to the finish.

I ended up run walking the Bridge, and running almost the entire way from the Bridge to the finish. As I was at the other end of the bridge, I overheard a 50 mile runner who was taking a picture of a tourist who asked him to take their picture that he had 11 hours and 38 minutes on his watch. This fueled my fire even further. I was actually resigned to finishing several minutes past the official finish of 10 hours. While I would still get a medal and probably an official result, I felt that anything less than 10 might not make it a result eligible for a qualifier for the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc - OCC, which I hoped to do again next year.

From that point on, I pretty much ran most of the way, with very short walk breaks, as I saw the finish line arch. I was happy to finish with what I thought was a 9:57 finish, only to find out, it's actually a 9:53 finish since I started with the 7:04 AM wave.

Congratulations to all the TNFEC runners for the 50M, 50K and Marathon! They don't call this race an endurance challenge for nothing!

GI Issues, Pulled Calf, Quad Cramps. I had a lot of obstacles to my finish at this year's The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) California 50K, but I wasn't about to let any of them stop me!

P.S. If you read this far enough, I have decided that I will try to eke out a finish again at TNFEC 50M, in 2018. I've had two "Did Not Finish" (DNFs) so far, one due to a hard cutoff at Old Inn, and one due to me calling it quits (due to bad and tired runner's math). Hopefully the third time will be the charm!

Monday, July 24, 2017

The 40th San Francisco Marathon - 2017 Race Report

A San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) car was looming behind me. A loud voice boomed saying, "We are opening the street, please run on the side of the street." Panic struck me, as I was just at Haight Street at this point, about 20 miles into the course. I only had 6.2 miles left, but as anyone knows, the last 6.2 miles is usually the hardest part of any marathon.


The San Francisco Marathon (TSFM) was celebrating its 40th anniversary of the race. Thousands of runners from all over the city, state, and country descended into this magnificent city on July 23rd, 2017. What's nice about TSFM is that it not only caters to marathoners, but also half marathoners and 5K runners. Half marathoners also get to choose from one of two courses: the "First Half", which starts near the Ferry Building in Embarcadero and finishes at Golden Gate Park, or the "Second Half", which starts at Golden Gate Park and finishes with the marathoners back near the Ferry Building in Embarcadero.

Runners were treated to spectacular, if not varying weather, during the race. The marathoners and first half marathon runners were treated to a spectacular orange tinted sunrise with the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island at the background, "Karl the Fog" blanketing the Golden Gate Bridge, and marathoners and second half marathon runners were treated to sunny but still mild 70s weather towards the end of the race.

It was my seventh year running the full marathon distance. I started in 2011, training with Run 365, the official training program of TSFM. While it wasn't my first marathon, it has been the one that definitely captured my heart as I had decided to make it my "annual" race out of all the other road and trail races that I have done over the past seven years.

I started the race as somewhat under trained. I had been cycling for the majority of April and May for a week long ride from SF to LA, called the Aids Lifecycle. I then switched back to running shortly to get some running back into my legs, but somehow chose to train on the trails, with my longest run being a 30K out in Pacifica.

Based on my performance at my last few long runs, I knew I was also slowing down for the past two years. I might have gotten into great shape cycling, but I think the weeks or so after that event led me to eat as if I was still cycling 60-110 miles a day for seven days. I had no else to blame but myself for my weight gain the past two months. I liked running as much as I liked eating. Were it not for my voracious appetite, I would probably be one of those skinny ultra marathoners climbing Everest and making a 100 miler throughout Colorado seem like a walk in the park.

The champion Cable Car bell ringer started us for the race, a very San Franciscan way to let us do so. I then settled into my rhythm. It was easy to fall into the trap of running fast and just running the entire length of the course from the start to Fort Mason, the first hill. Luckily, I had the company of other run/walkers so it made walking at certain points look more palatable and unembarrassing. It was my strategy to run/walk the race. I had thought of doing an interval, like 4 minutes of running, 1 minute of walking. Unfortunately, my Garmin watch was not charged after all (I probably left it on all of last week). I decided to just use my iPhone Strava app to track my run, but I put the phone at the back of my hydration pack as I wanted to "run by feel" instead. I would run whenever I can, walk whenever I felt like it. My best marathon time was actually using this method. Unfortunately, my worst course time (this year), would also be using this method.

Running felt sluggish for me, even for flats and downhill parts of the course. When I would usually be running 12-13 minute miles, I would be running at a 15 minute mile clip. I would definitely feel the weight of my beer belly (minus the beer) slowing me down the whole time. I would actually seem to put more effort when hiking the hills, like the one going up to the Golden Gate Bridge, and up Lincoln Boulevard after just finishing the out and back of the bridge. At certain parts of the race, I would also start feeling my feet cramping and the bottom of my feet having what felt like the start of plantar fasciitis. Having done marathons and ultra marathons didn't make doing this race easy, but at least it made familiar. I have the experience of slugging out tough moments, forging on despite constant setbacks. A marathon is also mental in addition to physical. Your brain can definitely mess with you throughout 26.2 miles.

What made TSFM hard as far as mental aspects go is seeing the first half marathoners split at around mile 12, make a left, and sprint towards the finish line. The marathoners, on the other hand, make a right and take a tour of Golden Gate Park. We got to see the water buffalos relaxing (and looking like rocks to some runners, until they looked closer). We got to do a loop around Stow Lake, which always felt like a long part of the race for me. It didn't help that just moments earlier, I was looking for the porta potties to do a number two. As a back of the packer, I was treated to one porta potty after the next not having any tissue paper left, and I felt like I had to go, really bad! Luckily the very last one out of ten porta potties had something. Not tissue paper, but paper towels grabbed from the nearby faux faucet and hand sanitizer. Not the best thing I would use, but desperate times called for desperate measures. I thought I brought some wipes from when I did the Aids LifeCycle, but apparently I didn't. I was relieved to relieve myself at that time. It might have cost me a few minutes, but at least there wasn't a porta potty line and those extra minutes is better than running with a bad stomach (and worse, crapping yourself while running like some nasty Youtube videos and still pics I have seen). I don't think I'm fast enough like the elites where minutes or seconds matter. I wasn't hoping to win, but I was definitely hoping to finish.

My fueling strategy composed of using just one water bottle with a hydration pack. I would have used two, but for the life of me, I can't find my two matching water bottles, and I know that gave good grief to one of my fellow runners (who might be reading this blog later, haha). I felt with the frequency of aid stations that two water bottles would have been overkill, but in hind sight, it's usually good to have one water bottle for water, and one for electrolytes. I planned to use a gel every hour, but I made the rookie mistake of trying a new gel for a long run, which probably caused my bad stomach issue. It also didn't help that the electrolytes on the race were not the exact mix I wanted (I usually want to be able to taste the electrolytes, and a strong ratio of water/powder), and the particular brand used, while working for some, made me usually bloated (and didn't have enough calories). Thankfully I also brought along some of the old gels I used to use at previous races, but they clearly weren't enough. I was bonking at Golden Gate Park, just right after doing the Stow Lake Loop. I asked to buy a can of Coke from a nearby vendor stand, but he wasn't open yet, but could have taken $2 in exact change. I had a $1 and a $5 and in hindsight, I should have given that $5 for that can of Coke, as I know that could have boosted my energy, given the sugar, caffeine and calories. Hindsight is always 20/20.

While I had no idea what time it was, or how my pace was like, I could tell by the thinning crowd of runners that I was in slight trouble. While there were still people behind me, and I can't see any sweep cars at all, I did see a motorcycle bike rider at Stow Lake who said he was part of the course sweep (but he never talked to us runners, so I just assumed he was early). I thought I was still okay. I was, until a police car was behind me, two to three blocks away.

A San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) car was looming behind me. A loud voice boomed saying, "We are opening the street, please run on the side of the street." Panic struck me, as I was just at Haight Street at this point, about 20 miles into the course. I only had 6.2 miles left, but as anyone knows, the last 6.2 miles is usually the hardest part of any marathon.

I decided to pick up my speed, if that were even possible, by running at least from block to block. The problem with closed down streets is now we had to dealt with stoplights. And as any runner in SF would tell you, it can be annoying to have to stop every single block when you're running. Unfortunately, it wasn't so bad for me, and maybe other runners, as it allowed us to catch our already dying breaths. It did slow us down even yet more significantly. I started to have a sinking feeling that I might not make it to the finish. Not that I can't complete 26.2 miles, but the fact that there might not be a timing mat anymore to cross, or people giving out medals. Despair was written on my face, as well as some others, but I quickly switched to the mantra of just moving forward. I was determined to finish this race no matter what, whether I get a medal or not, whether I get an official finish time or not.

I continued with my slogging (slow jogging) at parts, walking at parts. It was amazing to see some of the "Worth the Hurt" 52.4 ultra marathoners also "racing" towards the finish. These runners started at midnight, did the reverse direction of the TSFM course. Then they waited until at least 5:40, when Wave 2 starts and run the regular course with all the other marathoners. Pretty crazy, huh? If I was struggling, I can't even imagine what's going through their heads. One of them had a pacer, but he also ran with one of this fellow ultra marathoners. A lot of respect for these guys. It's hard enough running 52.4 miles, let alone on the pounding pavement!

What made the race even more interesting in addition to stop lights was the fact that aid stations were closing down. I had enough water for the last 6 miles, but I definitely still felt the lack of calories in me, and I even felt very slightly dizzy at times (not to the point of being dangerously dizzy, to those who would be concerned about me). What also made it "exciting" was we had to know what the course was. There would be volunteers kind enough to still be there to guide us, but they would only be there at key turns, and that wasn't something required of them. My knowledge of the course helped, but making a left at 15th street threw me off, as I was used to running down 16th. It turns out that 15th street is an alternate course. I whipped out my phone to look at the course map to help me, in addition to my memory. I think the other runners were thankful to have someone who knew the course. Getting lost while trying to race to the finish line is definitely not something any runner would like to do!

At the last mile or so, I had to battle the crowds who were walking towards AT&T park for a Giants game. There seems to be always a baseball game during TSFM, but that's SF for you, always several things happening at the same time in our beloved city. I was slightly thankful they let me run the last half mile (which seemed more like a mile), on the street. I was mildly lifted in my spirits as the passers by going to AT&T park cheered me on. I felt like a celebrity!

I saw the finish line and while I didn't sprint like I always do, I did run towards the finish. The finish line mat was on the sidewalk now and there was no announcer, but I was okay with that. I have an official finishing time and I also got my medal! While I was not proud of my time, I was definitely proud of my finish. I definitely need to go back into proper training with my Run 365 family and respect the mad distance that is the marathon.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Whistler Backpacker - Part 1

I have hiked trails. I have run trails. I have camped in tents. But I have never gone on a multi-day adventure hiking trails with a 20-30 pound pack on me.

This was the single most thing I dreaded in signing up for my first backpacking trip. My experience in ultra running, and experience hiking and running trails gave me the confidence in conquering trails with several thousand feet of climbing in a day. Adding 20-30 pounds on me though gives a different challenge to the whole aspect of hiking. I might have the legs of an ultra runner, but I felt like I have the upper body of a couch potato and professional beer drinker. 

Nevertheless, in my quest to check off backpacking as a bucket list item in life, I signed up to do a 3 day backpacking adventure with REI in Whistler. Whistler is in British Columbia, Canada, just 1-2 hours north of Vancouver. Summer was already winding down, so unfortunately the choices of places to go to for backpacking were getting slim to none. Still, I thought Whistler was a great choice, given I haven't been to Canada for a long time (I went once, but on a very short day trip from Seattle, Washington). 

Having never backpacked though, I had to purchase quite a few items from REI (kiddingly referred to as Really Expensive Items, I think). REI was my first choice, partly due to the Reese Witherspoon movie called "Wild" (book by Cheryl Strayed). I liked the fact that their return policy is very generous, but I had no plans to take advantage of it and return muddied hiking boots or used sleeping bags. I just wanted the expertise in choosing sturdy hiking boots (for ankle support, since I'll be using poles and carrying a pack, versus trail running shoes which might not be as sturdy for ankle support), and also choosing the right backpack (it turns out your body frame, height and even weight, matters in choosing the right backpack so you carry it with your hips rather than your shoulders). 

For the trip, I had to purchase the following:
* Hiking boots
* Compressible sleeping bag (15 degree rated)
* Sleeping pad (bought the non-inflatable one, but it's bulky in hindsight, and I should have bought the compressed one)
* Backpack (with rain cover and day pack, which I didn't know was in there, but really came in handy during the trip)
* Steel cup, bowl and mug (I could have both a compressible one, but I wanted a sturdy one that was also easy to wash)
* Hiking poles (turns out REI had some to lend during the trip, but I wasn't sure and figured I'll use it in future hikes)
* Tissue paper (for obvious reasons, I thought we needed a shovel for off trail duties, but thankfully none of us needed to do this)
* Toiletries (toothbrush, floss, toothpaste)
* Garbage bag
* Base layer (top and bottom, was listed as recommended, but I glad I bought for the cold weather)
* Rain jacket and pants 
* Down jacket (compressible)

REI Adventures provided the food for the whole trip. They gave us a bunch of bars to choose from since some in our group had peanut allergies (usually they buy a bunch of trail mix and have us scoop and put it in ziplock bags). They also had real food for our breakfast, lunch and dinner which was a welcome surprise because I was expecting the type of food that is just heated up that tasted like those microwave meals you see in grocery stores.

Day 0: Dinner at Pizzeria Antico

Our group met for the very first time at a nice pizza place in Whistler Village. We met our two guides, Hal and Christine, for the first time. Our group of adventures included Bob and Sean (father and son), Tanner and Peter (husband and wife), Ed, Cathy, Carmel, Guen and me (solo adventurers). We got to know each other over a hearty meal of pizzas, pastas, and appetizers. We also got to know what's ahead of us and collected group gear to add to our backpacks (I got the pots/pans and tissue paper, score!). We had a good mix of those who have done backpacking before (Bob, Sean, Peter, Cathy and Carmel) and those who have not done it at all (Ed, Guen, Tanner and me). 

Guen felt intimidated by the experience of the group. I reassured her after dinner that she was going to be fine and we're all new backpackers regardless of our experience hiking in the trails.

Day 1: Hike to Russett Lake

We met around 8:30 AM in the morning at Gone Village Eatery. I already had eaten a hot breakfast sandwich and drank my daily dose of coffee in the morning prior to "take care of business". REI took care of our breakfast that morning and also asked us to take a sandwich with us for lunch (also part of the trip cost). I took both my breakfast and lunch sandwich to go.

The start of the hike was actually preceded with the "Peak 2 Peak" Gondola ride, which took us to the top of Whistler Peak. It felt like cheating to take a gondola ride to the top of a mountain to me, but realizing there's no other trail to get to the top, according to our guides, I was more than content to take in the views with Peter, Tanner and Sean who were with me on that gondola (picture of me and Tanner below).

Once we got to the top, we got a chance to hit the last "real" restrooms before we took a ski lift to another peak before we started our hike in earnest. Our group took advantage of the restroom breaks to use them as well as to take the necessary individual and group photos (our first of many group photos below).

We started the hike after we got to the top of the ski lift (technically after another porta potty, which was the last porta potty between using the trails and getting to the "outhouse" at Russett Lake, which is at the end of our first day hike). When we started hiking, we started taking in all the views immediately. As I was when I was driving to Whistler, my mind just kept getting blown away with the breathtaking views!

Hiking with a heavy backpack on us didn't seem to be that heavy at all, given how we were all taken by our surroundings. Our guides were good to enforce a guideline where I noticed they had us stopping every 2 miles or so, with our pace being a leisurely 30 minutes per mile (not bad considering the starting altitude of 6000+ feet, and several hundred feet of climbing ahead of us). Below is a picture of us taking those said breaks and Christine helping some trail runners coming down from a hill we were going to climb up to. She gave them some advice for some scenic routes. It was nice to see some fellow trail runners in Whistler!

We were lucky so far in our first day of hiking. No rain forecasted for that day had hit yet. We reached Oboe Summit and took our lunch break while having good conversation and jaw dropping views.

After a nice lunch break, we went on our merry way down and then back up, before we hit our "basecamp" for our adventure, which was at Russett Lake. We reached it in time though, as the rain began to pour at that time. We still had to assemble our tents though and provide the group gear we carried to our guides.

I had a massive brain freeze at that point. I kept on playing around with the poles that my tent came with (REI provided our tents and I got an individual tent to set up). It didn't help that the wind kept on howling and trying to blow all my tent gear all over the place. Thankfully Christine helped me to assemble my tent! Otherwise, I would probably just be sleeping outside with my sleeping bag, or at the "Hut" accompanied by field mice (which happened at Day 2!).

The "Hut" is a welcome installation at camp. Otherwise, we would all be individually (or in twos, for the couple and father/son) in our tents, and have nowhere to socialize, huddle and chow down our nicely cooked meals from our REI guides. Some of us also thought about sleeping in the "Hut" because it seemed warmer, but our guides warned us about mice most probably crawling up our faces while we slept if we did choose to sleep in the "Hut". The possibility of the crawling critters discouraged anyone from sleeping in the "Hut" for our first night (the second night was a totally different question, based on the weather).

The "outhouse" pictured above was a welcome presence also in camp. Otherwise, we would all be doing our business all over the trails, which doesn't seem to friendly considering the "leave no trace" rules in Whistler. Our guide suggested that some could leave the door open due to the potential smell, but also due to the great views you could have while being in the loo! (see below).

After dinner, we all still stayed in the hut to have some more conversation and stories. We ended up awake until about 9 PM or so, which was a good time to hit our "bed" before we had our next full day of hiking ahead of us.

That concludes Day 1 of 3 for the backpacking report. More stories to come for Day 2 and Day 3 later on! 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

2017 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run - Race Report

I wasn't exactly supposed to run this race. I've been guilty as a perennial under trained runner since last year. It also doesn't help that the most I have run before starting was a 30K, although a tough and muddy one at that, around Lake Chabot. However, I have already failed to cross the start line at two other races I have signed up for earlier this year: Jed Smith 50K and Way Too Cool 50K. Part of me wanted to play it safe and just drop down to the "American River 25", which I have the utmost confidence of finishing. But another part of me wanted to go for it, and risk a "Do Not Finish", but notch another 50 mile accomplishment, having not done at all the previous year, but having done three 50 milers to date (American River 50, Dick Collins Firetrails 50, and Headlands 50).

American River (AR) 50 was the first 50 mile ultra marathon I have completed, back in 2014. I had the benefit of experience going in to this race. I knew the course to an extent. I have also technically done the course "twice" (or even "thrice" if you count training runs), as I have attempted the Rio Del Lago 100 back in 2015, which uses the AR50 course (or most parts of it). However, my experience on the course came into question as we immediately dove tailed into a trail after just a quarter to half a mile from the start line. AR50 was all road for the first 25 miles when I ran it back in 2014. I began to doubt how much of the course we're about to run is still part of the course I ran several years ago.

AR50 is a good first 50 mile ultra marathon for those attempting it. The first half is mostly road but it makes up for that fact by having half the elevation of other 50 milers in the Bay Area, such as Dick Collins, The North Face Endurance Challenge and Headlands 50. It also is a well supported race, given that it is run by Norcal Ultras. It also doesn't hurt that you get a nice Patagonia jacket (wind breaker back in 2014, fleece sweater in 2017 and other previous years).

Like most ultras, I started at the back of the starting line. I think this is more poignant the longer the ultra you choose, especially when you do an ultra of the 50 mile variety or more. It's easy to get caught up in the euphoria of a race start line and run fast the first few miles and the first half of the race, only to fade away and only walk most of the second half, or worse, not be able to complete the race due to an injury.

I did run with the intention of doing a one minute run and one minute walk. But I quickly adjusted it to a four minute run and a one minute walk interval, as it looked silly to start walking so early in the race (but I do know that I shouldn't care whether something looks silly or not). And so, I maintained the 4/1 ratio for the first aid station or so. I also took the strategy of going from aid station to aid station, and not worrying about the daunting fact that I am attempting to cover 50 miles, roughly the equivalent of doing two marathons, in one day.

A lot of the runners I had brief chats with at the start were first timers. They were in awe that I had done the race before. I told them that they chose a good first 50 mile ultra marathon to attempt. Unfortunately, I think a lot of them didn't make it to the finish line. I saw one of them take their bib off at Beal's Point, at the half way point (25 miles in). I saw another take a seat at about mile 28, so close to making the cutoff for mile 30. I saw another runner at mile 38 who looked strong but didn't seem to make the third cutoff at Rattlesnake Bar (which I barely made as well). According to, there were 411 finishers and 123 "did not finish (DNF)". Assuming those 123 crossed the start line, that would be a whopping 23% DNF rate (I have a feeling it's less than that, and that at the moment, it included those who did not start the race as well).

I made the first half of the race near the ball park estimate of when I wanted to arrive at Beal's Point, at 6 hours in to the race. When I arrived, I quickly asked for ice and water for two of my water bottles. The first of which was actually filled by no other than Ann Trason herself! I wasn't sure whether it was her when I saw her and asked her for ice on my second bottle, but confirmed my suspicion only a day after when I saw pictures from other friends saying they saw her at Beal's Point as well. I think it's awesome that someone like her would volunteer at these races! I wish I could have taken a selfie with her at hindsight, but I'm not sure if she's the type that likes the spotlight.

It got warm quickly from Beal's Point onwards. So I stuck to my plan on having ice on my cap, ice on two of my water bottles, ice on a bandana from my drop bag. I also wore arm coolers (like arm warmers, but you can douse them with cold water and even put some ice in). I forgot to douse my arm coolers at Beal's Point but did so when I reached Granite Bay.

The run from Beal's Point to Granite Bay seemed way longer to me than in the previous time I ran it. The course seemed to stay exactly the same, but I guess having no pacer made the miles seemed longer. I chose to have no pacer or crew for the entirety of the race. I did ask a friend to potentially pace me a few days prior, but since he was already scheduled for something else, I decided to fall back into having no crew or no pacer.

The rails started to fall off when I made the same mistake I have done in Granite Bay when I did Rio del Lago. I was in a hurry to get in and out of the aid station. I had my two bottles with ice and water, downed two cokes, but that was all I did. I didn't take any additional fuel with me for the next 9 miles to Horseshoe Bar. I didn't get my spare water bottle at Beal's Point. I just prayed silently as I went those nine miles that my two bottles would last me the whole time, but just like last time I used it all up with about 2-3 miles left to go. At the very least, I had one tailwind packet with me to give me some extra calories. But even that I failed to remember, as I failed to reload my tailwind packets at Beal's Point. In hindsight, I should have just carried the entirety of my tailwind packets with me the whole way. It might have weighed more, but at least there was no chance of me forgetting them. At least that strategy helped for my headlamp, which I didn't have to remember picking up in Rattlesnake, as I just had it with me the whole time.

The infamous "meat grinder", miles 30-41 of the course, is called such because of the relentless ups and downs throughout. It makes momentum for running harder, especially if you've only done a 50K leading up to this race. Surprisingly, I found I can still "run" parts of this, compared to when I ran it with a pacer. But the "run" I did seemed more like a shuffle as my pace would only show 15 minute miles or slower when I complete the miles and see my pace on my garmin watch.

I almost got lost early on at the meat grinder as I ran surprisingly strong. Only to hear someone shout "red shirt, you're going the wrong way!". I looked back, double back, and did indeed miss a crucial right turn, which would have added several miles into my race if I didn't hear those runners. After that, my confidence got shaken as I would always doubt whether I was going the right way several times, only to breathe a sigh of relief when I do see the orange ribbon, a "confidence ribbon" to indicate that I was going the right way. But then I got my confidence shaken again at several times of the course when I saw another runner and her pacer going towards me, only to hear them say they're back tracking because they got lost (but still made me think whether I was lost as well).

At around mile 35-36, a safety sweep caught up with us, which also didn't really make my day. It was odd enough that I saw the safety sweep several times at the first half (which was very odd, as the safety sweeps were ahead of several of us runners, and they were running back and forth, probably bored of how slow we were going about, haha). I did ask the sweep whether we were truly the last runners and he asked if I saw the two other women sweeps for this part of the course. I said I didn't and reiterated that I'm pretty sure there were a lot more runners behind me. He stayed behind and I thankfully didn't see any sweeps again at that point.

Another setback I had at one point was having two horse riders behind me for several miles. They didn't seem to be in a hurry or want to overtake me until I slowed way down. But then I overtook them again when they stopped and chatted with another runner, who seemed to be delirious with the heat (but she moved fast again shortly after). I was getting a little dizzy and nauseous myself. It could have been heat exhaustion for all I know, but I kept on moving forward. I was also slightly low of fuel and I felt my body sorely lacking the calories (and getting hangry, in effect).

Horseshoe bar, mile 38, didn't come soon enough. When I got there, I quickly asked for my two bottles to be filled with ice and coke (yes, coke). I needed the calories and the sugar boost at that point. I took a quick pee and then started running again, holding two peanut butter and jelly sandwich quarters with me. My watch had died at that point but I was told I had 3 miles to cover 45 minutes. It doesn't seem like a lot, but if you're at 38 miles, that seems like a daunting task and it did to me.

It was at this point of the race whether I doubted that I could finish it. I made the first two cutoffs (1:00 at Beal's Point, I arrived around 12:05-12:10, and 2:00 at Granite Bay, I arrived around 1:30), but I really wasn't sure if my run/walk pace was enough to get to Rattlesnake Bar in time. It also didn't help that it felt like the longest three miles of my life! I ran when I can, but the aid station seemed so far away. I started slowing down, even as I came nearer. My watch had died shortly before Horseshoe Bar, so I had no idea of the time and pace. I could have checked my phone but I didn't want to see how near (or far behind) I was. I wanted the mystery to somehow push me further.

Just when I thought that was the end of the line for me, I heard someone shout "5:06". I wasn't sure of the context of it, but am thankful for hearing that as it probably saved my race. I knew I had 9 minutes to go and having run these trails I knew that was doable. I ran/walk as fast as I could given the state of my body and legs. I made it with 2 minutes to spare! The aid station volunteers asked me for what I wanted but all I wanted was to cross the timing mat and get out of there. I still had my one and a half bottle of coke, so I think I was good until the next aid station.

At that point of the race, I felt as if I had completed it. I knew, at least based on previous years, that the finish line wasn't a hard cutoff. Even if I finished past 14:00, which I did by 13 minutes, it was still an official finish for the race. They only have hard cutoffs for the first 3 cutoffs so that aid stations can wind down properly and for safety reasons as it gets dark and there is a mountain lion sign around the mile 45 point (although I have yet to hear anyone personally see a mountain lion, but I have seen a rattlesnake for sure!).

It was a slugfest to get to the finish line. I surprisingly was able to run on the flats and downhills but somehow I still felt super slow doing it. The last 3 miles seemed longer than when I first ran the race, and when I paced a friend for her last 9 miles of AR50. It also got dark with about a mile to go, and another runner, who forgot her headlamp, asked me to stay with her. I asked her if she could at least match my pace, which she thankfully did. I didn't want to leave her, but I also didn't want to hike up too slow that they could have taken down the timing mat (or decided to not consider us official finishers).

The last hike up was changed from when I ran it. Originally, there was one more big hill and you run the side of the road. They changed it where we went right instead. I wondered then if we were close, or if we had to do a roundabout turn just to add more miles to make it a 50 miler. Thankfully, the turn turned into one last hike up, which we took slowly as we were sharing my headlamp.

I finished and saw a friend at the finish, Beth Horn, whom I am eternally grateful for. Her friendly smile was a beacon in the desert. She walked with me to get my drop bags, get my food, and even drive me back to my hotel when I told her I was planning to get an uber. In hindsight, I should have booked the shuttle with AR50 which allows me to have my car near the finish. Now whether I could have driven myself safely back to the hotel, I'm not sure. Maybe I'll at least have a crew, if not pacers, next time.

It would be a good practice if I ever do AR50 again. Or maybe even Rio del Lago...

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Where To Train For Hills in San Francisco

"Hills are speedwork in disguise." - Frank Shorter

So you've signed up for the 40th Anniversary of The San Francisco Marathon (TSFM). Congratulations! But then, you say "Now, what?". You wonder what types of running you should be doing, how often to run every week, how many miles, and which hills are the best to train for the race. While those are all great questions and definitely things to consider for the race, this humble blog post of mine aims to help you answer where to train for the hills in San Francisco.

If you ask anyone living in the city, the answer would be "Everywhere!". Hills adorn the 7x7 square miles of this beloved city. But for those who haven't run any of the hills here in San Francisco, I list the top 5 hills that you can use for doing hill repeats, hill runs, and even hill hikes (yes, it's actually perfectly acceptable to hike up a hill or two, especially during race day, to save your legs for later on the race).

From the 5th best to the top hill to train in San Francisco (at least in my own mind), here are the five best hills to train for in San Francisco!

5. Fort Mason

Fort Mason Hill
Photo Credit:

Fort Mason is the first hill you will tackle in The San Francisco Marathon, if you're running either the full distance or the first half marathon (the second half marathon starts at Golden Gate Park, so it doesn't go through Fort Mason). This is a good hill for hill repeats as the length of the hill is short compared to most other hills in San Francisco. There are also no cars to contend with, but you do have to make sure you're looking up (or down) the road to make sure you're not on a collision course with any cyclists.

To train on this hill, I recommend a 10 minute warmup on flat ground, from the base of this hill towards the Aquatic Center or Embarcadero and back. From there on, you can do as many hill repeats that you can for about 10-15 minutes. You can focus on one direction if you wish to on certain days by either (1) running uphill, then walking downhill, (2) walking uphill, then running downhill. A 10 minute cool down run afterwards, plus some stretching afterwards is highly recommended.

4. Hayes Hill

Painted Ladies

While not part of the course for TSFM, this hill is a featured part of another iconic and local race called Bay To Breakers. Hayes Hill is an especially nice hill to climb because you are rewarded with spectacular views of the "Painted Ladies", a row of Victorian houses at 710-720 Steiner Street, as well as the Transamerica Pyramid building in the background.

If you're visiting the city from other parts of the Bay Area, you can simply take BART over to Civic Center and start running a mile and end up at the top of Hayes Hill. From there, I recommend that you keep running towards the end of Hayes Street where it dead ends and hits Stanyan Street. Turn around, take another helping of Hayes Hill up and down towards Civic Center. Congratulations, you've done a 4 mile run with a decent amount of hell! Er, I meant hill!

3. Lyon Street Steps

Lyon Street Steps

Technically, this isn't a hill, but I think you'll agree with the exception. Stairs are actually a great workout that mimic the toughness of a hill workout. In some ways, it can even be harder since you're forced to take more steps whether going or up or down. You can technically skip a step or two going up or down stairs, but I do not recommend it for these sets of stairs. In fact, I tend to keep an arm out for the hand rail when I go down these steps just in case I do a misstep or two along the way.

There are 332 steps to go down and up. You can start at the top, at the intersection of Broadway Street and Lyon Street. Or you can start at the bottom, near the intersection of Lyon Street and Green Street. Whatever you choose, be sure to take in the view and take in a snapshot or two. You're rewarded with views of the bay and the Palace of Fine Arts and the Marina.

2. Lincoln Blvd

Top of Lincoln Blvd

Lincoln Boulevard is a great road to practice hills since it's part of the course for the full marathon and the first half marathon. From the vista point of the Golden Gate Bridge on the San Francisco side, you can park nearby (parking can get full on nice days, but there should be spots if you start early enough).

Lincoln Boulevard starts with an uphill climb once you finish crossing back and forth the bridge on race day. There was one year that I ran the whole hill, but if you haven't been running hills, do remember that is totally okay to hike or walk up them, as you still have lots of miles to still go through, especially if you're doing the full marathon distance.

Be careful of cars along this road, as the road is only closed during race day. There is a trail behind the rails where you can run through, but it is a dirt path and there could be a smattering of rocks here and there, so just be careful of where you step when you do run it.

If you have the time, I recommend running this part of the course at least once so you're prepared for it on race day. I do highly recommend running with a group once you get to the longer distances for a full marathon (10+ miles) or half marathon (6+ miles). Run 365 ( is the official training group for TSFM, and that group is responsible for getting me to cross the finish line for the full marathon distance for 5 years now and counting!

1. Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks Summit
While not "the" highest point of San Francisco (Mount Davidson actually claims this title), running to the top of Twin Peaks rewards you with stunning views of the city at the top, with a 360 degree view. Make sure to pack a lightweight wind jacket at the top so you can stay for more than just a few seconds (and a selfie).

Running from Civic Center BART to the top of Twin Peaks and back is about an 8+ mile run, so this is a good hill to practice a long run with a hill involved. Just remember to conserve your strength and run slowly, but with purpose. You can also experiment with run/walk-ing up the hill. Try walking up a minute, running a minute, and alternate this method. It's a method I have used in some trail runs involving steeper hills, and you'd be surprised with how much faster you end up going. You'll also end up overtaking most hill hikers and even some hill runners who go out too fast to start.


So there you go, those are the Top 5 hills of San Francisco, if you want to train for hills. There are a ton more hills to train for, and I could have easily made this a Top 10 (or Top 20) list. Just remember to enjoy the view every now and then. Just don't take a selfie or snapshot and run away. Stop your watch. Take a minute (or two, or even three!).

Enjoy the views and enjoy the hills of San Francisco!