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!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

2016 Razorback Endurance Run - Race Report

The Razorback Endurance Run was held at San Martin, California, a small city about an hour to an hour and a half drive south from San Francisco. Runners had the option of choosing a two mile paved loop or a 4.75 mile "relentless" trail loop, both of which start and finish at Harvey Bear Ranch County Park. The race has timed runs, where runners can run for as long and as far as they want for 6 hours, 12 hours, or 24 hours. Hard core ultra runners also have the option to go for a 100 miles, assuming they can cover the distance of 70 miles within the first 24 hour cutoff.

I was supposed to run Way Too Cool 50K on that same weekend, but after a failed attempt at a 100 mile at Rio Del Lago in 2015, I felt Razorback would be a good first attempt at a 100K distance. I chose the 4.75 mile trail loop when I signed up, but due to the forecast of heavy rain and wind, and the race director's warning that the trails will be definitely muddy and slippery, I opted for the "easier" paved loop. While I think the paved loop was still easier for that day, especially given the 100 feet of elevation gain per loop versus the trail's 700 feet of elevation gain per loop, I was in for a rude awakening.

The race started at 6 AM on Saturday, March 5th of 2016. I drove that morning instead of staying the night before to save some money and to also have the comfort of sleeping (or staying awake) in my own bed. I arrived earlier than expected, but I would rather be early than late, even though I had a whopping 24 hour limit to cover 100 kilometers (62 miles). I really thought I had it in the bag, as I can walk if I have to, and since it was paved, not muddy, I wasn't too worried about the weather at all.

Around 70 runners were signed up for the event. I have no numbers on the ones in attendance, but it felt like around 50 people (dropouts are not uncommon for races, whether it be life events, weather, injuries or other circumstances that lead to runners not showing up on race day). The mood was that of excitement despite the impending rain. There were quite a few of us who switched from trail to paved when we read about the muddy conditions. There were still quite a few friends who braved the trail (even some who were gunning for 100 miles!), despite the forecasted trail and weather conditions.

The go signal from the race director came soon enough. People started running but there were a few (very few) like me who started off by walking. The first half mile was actually a slight uphill. Nothing crazy, more like a very slow 30 to 40 feet of ascent, but knowing I had to do this over and over again for 31 times, I figured walking it on my first loop was the smart thing to do. What wasn't smart was I ended up running when I saw the downhill and when I saw the others started running downhill. My plan all along was to walk the entire first loop as a warmup and I didn't listen to that as I got caught up with the "race euphoria". I didn't pay for it that early on, but I did pay for it later on the race, as I now whether I didn't properly warm up by walking those first two miles.

The weather in each loop was pretty dynamic throughout the whole race. It was raining on the first loop, but then it stopped, so I took off my jacket. In the fourth or fifth loop, the sun actually came out and broke the clouds, so I picked up and wore my sunglasses and wore my cap again. Afterwards, it rained again and I had to get my jacket and wear it all over. The aid station and our ability to "set up camp" next to it with our drop bags made the race very easy and accessible as we could always adjust as necessary every two miles depending on what was needed at that time. The food was also one of the highlights of this race. Every time I finished a loop, I rewarded myself with a snack of at least 100 calories, whether it was a banana, a quarter slice of bagel with cream cheese, a muffin slice, or even a small piece of chocolate! This is what makes trail races such as Razorback preferable to the simple water, electrolytes and gels for the road half and full marathons.

Even though I could technically reach my goal of 62 miles with just power walking at a 3 mile per hour pace (3 miles times 21 hours is 63 miles, so I would reach it prior to that), I opted instead to aim for a 15 mile per hour pace for as long as I can maintain it. I would walk up any form of a hill or ascent and run any down hills or flats. This course only seemed to have one or either. You start with an uphill, a downhill, and then another downhill. I also opted to run or walk on the dirt path rather than the pavement. I haven't done more than a 50K on pavement (Jed Smith Ultra), and a 100K on paved might be too much for my body that is used to smaller distances. Lastly, my strategy involved being in the "inner" loop. If I ran the outside loop, I noticed I was accumulating more than just 2 miles on each loop. I don't need any more bonus miles on this course! I'm just glad there is pretty much a zero impossibility on getting lost on this 2 mile loop course as it's just one big oval. I would have to be pretty delirious to somehow veer off and get lost (which never happened).

I was able to maintain an average of 15 minute miles until close to the fifth hour. After I finished my ninth loop (18 miles), I felt a severe tightening at the back of my hamstrings. I suddenly could no longer flex my left leg without pain rearing its ugly head. This was a totally new injury to me as I had only had IT band injuries, shin splints, calf and achilles injuries (which gives me instant empathy to whomever acquires these said injuries). I had this as I was approaching the end of that ninth loop. A flash of alarm went through my head. I had about 44 more miles or 22 more loops to go and while I could technically walk it, it will be a slow walk akin to a death march at this point and more rain and wind was on its way soon.

I decided to walk back to my car where I had brought my stick. I used my stick roller to work on my hamstrings, my calves, my IT band, but to no avail. I thought I brought my icy hot stick that I can also apply to alleviate the pain, but I realized I had forgotten it. Panic and disappointment suddenly came on me as my now "easy shot" at a 100K was now a "long shot" if not an impossibility. 

After sitting at my car thinking through everything, I decided to at least head back to the aid station to eat one of their bigger meals. They were serving meals every 6 hours for the 24 hour plus race and so they had something more than the usual trail fare. Before I can reach the aid station, I saw my friends who were doing the trail loops. They were in good spirits, enjoying the mud, but also taking their time doing so. They were unburdened with a goal distance like mine so this was really just a fun run on the trails for them. In some ways I was envious, and I wish I had joined them. In some ways, I also wished I just stuck with running Way Too Cool, which I most probably had a shot of finishing. But I reminded myself that I signed up for Razorback because of that darned buckle!

A friend offered or asked if I wanted to take some advil, which I quickly declined. I have deep reservations of taking advil, ibuprofen or any pain killers during a race. My belief is that pain is a sign that your body is telling you something. Either you fight it and recognize it (while you can). If the pain is too much, to me that means it's probably a sign that your body is telling you to stop. I told my friends that I would do one more loop and see how it goes. After I have a bit of grilled cheese sandwiches and doritos being served, of course! My friends boosted my spirits, as well as runners out on the course. 

One loop became two, three, and four. After five loops though, my right leg started showing the same signs of tightness. I saw another runner in front of me limping. He was headed to the massage tent like I am and he was in front of me, so I let him go and didn't overtake him. I figured I wanted to do at least 30 miles anyways before I saw the massage therapist. It would be an unofficial 50K on my part since I already had 29 miles on my watch and I figured I would do one more 2 mile loop before I saw her.

After I finished the total of 15 loops, I saw the massage therapist. It was actually with the hope that she can "fix" me and I would be up and running to do another 15. But after being worked on and screaming (literally) at times when she was working on me, my hopes definitely vanished. She had the same opinion after giving me some relief through working on my IT band, hamstring, shins and hips. She was actually the one that made me realize it was my IT band all along that was the problem. Of course everything was interconnected, but the hamstring pain was somehow connected to my IT band being severely tightened. 

I hobbled after I had been worked on by the massage therapist. I walked to the aid station tent next to it and gave my verbal decision to end my race. The timing staff asked me if I wanted to go a half mile out and back to make it an official 50K but I begged off. I already had an unofficial 50K on the books with my watch and I was happy with that.

The race director Tracy Johnson and her staff had a fantastic race for Razorback Endurance Run. The food was incredible. The staff was friendly. The weather went wild shortly after I ended my event, with non stop rain and wind for the next several hours. Although I didn't reach my goals with Razorback, I still ended up an official finisher considering it was a timed race. 

Thirty miles is nothing to scoff at. Of course, it's 32 miles short of what I wanted, but it's all in perspective. I have decided though, that based on this event, I had confirmed that I was under trained all along. I was waiting for something to happen as I had only been running 1-2 times a week since the start of the year. But yet, with my tenacity, I still managed to finish a 50K and a marathon back to back earlier this year. It was, alas, not enough to squeak in a 100K. 100K, like a 100 miler, is a distance to be respected. It needs the focus, time and effort required to really reach those distances. While I believe I mentally could do either distance, my body was in no shape to do either as of right now.

I have canceled my registration for the Lake Sonoma 50 miler and in the process of downgrading my Quicksilver registration from 100K to 50K. My goal race is now The San Francisco Marathon. I figure that I need to now rebuild my base first, run 3-4 times a week and aim for at least 20-30 miles each week for the next few weeks. For the fall, the focus will be The New York Marathon and The North Face Endurance Challenge.

It took me a race called Razorback Endurance Run to remind me of where I'm at. I should be proud of it, actually, as not many people can do 30 miles with very little training. I would like to credit my experience in ultras with that. I will come back again to my fitness level. I just need to recover from my IT band injury first and respect the process of building, peaking and tapering for running. 

Thanks Razorback Endurance Run! I shall come back and get that buckle one of these days, and maybe on the trails next time!

Monday, December 7, 2015

The North Face Endurance Challenge - Half Marathon Race Report

"Smile, and celebrate each mile!". This was what I was telling myself as I power hiked some of the toughest climbs during The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) Half Marathon: Miwok, Coastal Fire Road, and Marincello.

Race day on Sunday started with virtually no rain despite the weather forecasts (it was a tease though as it started raining about a mile into our run). I arrived at the start line festival covered from head to toe with my beanie, jacket, gloves and sweat pants. As the clock ticked down to the race start though, I quickly ditched all of them, including the windbreaker I wore back in TNFEC 2012 50K when it rained for pretty much the entire race.

There were 495 runners for the half marathon that day, which is a staggering number for a trail half marathon. Similar trail races I have done, especially ultras, were mostly with smaller or medium sized racing companies which would be thrilled or lucky to have that number for their entire racing event and not just a particular distance. I was in Wave 7, but my running friends convinced me to run a wave early at Wave 6. Since all bibs were chip timed, I don't think it mattered, so I went ahead and started with them.

I usually hold back when it comes to racing as a back of the pack runner and as an ultra runner, but since I was doing a half marathon, I decided to push myself early on this race. I ran with some of this year's trainees at Run 365 and it took me a medium effort, not relaxed, to just keep with them. The start was a flat to down hill part of the course until you hit magnificent Miwok.

When I hit Miwok, I decided to keep pushing a little by running for one minute and walking for one minute. I was debating about this race strategy even while I was running, but I felt like I should try to aim for a good finish time since 13.1 miles is not a foreign distance to me. I started overtaking quite a few runners, but I abandoned the run/walk strategy when I was three-fourths of the way on the top as I can feel my energy getting spent and I do still have about ten more miles to go once I reach the top of Miwok.

On the descent to Old Springs Trail, I paid the price for even running a small portion of Miwok. The same runners I overtook (some, not all) now gleefully ran down Old Springs having reserved their energy for the uphill. I was still running down Old Springs Trail but I wasn't running down fast, it was more like a nice jog.

The Tennessee Valley (TV) aid station quickly arrived and I saw volunteers shouting that they had water and electrolytes. Since I had three bottles of tailwind with me (two on my pack, one I carry), I think I have enough to do the four mile loop before I hit this same aid station again. I did decide to grab one of the clif blocks for the additional calories. I had two scoops of tailwind per 20 ounce bottle, but somehow the calories weren't enough for me that morning and I had already emptied one of them as I arrived at TV.

I ran to Coastal Fire Road with zest and pep to my steps. I was clocking in at an 11 minute mile pace, which is a somewhat fast pace for me, but I felt good and wanted to take advantage of the flat run to pick up some speed. I knew when I hit Coastal Fire Road that I will just power hike it, given how steep the climb is. Coastal Fire Road came and most of the group I was racing with power hiked it, except for maybe one woman who was running it. She was slightly ahead but like my time at Miwok, I think she was expending way much energy to just be ahead of me by thirty seconds to a minute. She was a faster runner though as I don't recall seeing her again after that portion of the race.

Going down Fox trail after the climb up Coastal Fire Road was a fun romp in the mud. It wasn't as muddy as I expected, where I would slip and slide but I still made smaller steps going down to have quicker turnover and put my arms out to balance myself on the way down. I wasn't going super fast that I would risk face planting, but I was going fast enough for my comfort level (apparently not fast enough as my pace was 13 and 16 minute miles for that 2 mile downhill segment, I need to clearly work on my down hill running to get my average pace up for these trail races). I still overtook some runners who seem to be more wary of the muddy trail than I was so at least that gave me some boost during this middle part of the race.

Going back to TV, I had emptied all three of my bottles of tailwind (ahead of my goal calorie intake) and decided to only have one bottle refilled by my friend and volunteer Tracy Corbin. I decided one bottle was enough to take me to Alta and I can always refill there if need be. I also made a quick pee stop after having chugged a lot of water since I was feeling bloated (but not hyponatremic, thankfully). From there, I started to power hike Marincello.

Marincello came and went without too much fanfare. I made a decent power hike and some injured runners hiking slowly up (one with a bandana wrapped around his left knee, probably an IT band injury?). I'm surprised to see some runners without even a single water bottle, but either they're experts or they're new to the trail racing field, which one, I'm not so sure.

As I got to the top of Marincello, I started running again towards the Alta station. I even started run/walking again the climb up Bobcat to Alta Trail surprising some other runners. When I reached Alta, I saw friends and volunteers Ken Michal and Laura Bello, but I just waved my hand to signal hi at that point as I was on a mission to see if I could do a sub 3 finish, in addition to just finishing.

I might have regretted bypassing Alta about a mile in as I started cramping. My left and right calves were already twitching after I hiked up Coastal Fire Road, but now they were complaining on why I'm torturing them so much this fine morning. I continued to take salt stick pills and even downed a gel or two as I mentally and physically fought the cramping. I even changed my gait for a while to use my left leg since my right calf cramped first but then both of them started cramping.

At that point, I was debating my strategy for the last two miles of the race. I can either just slow down, walk and ensure a finish, or push through, risk a cramp but still aim for a sub 3 hour finish. I decided to do middle of the road, not enough of a push to risk a full on debilitating cramp, but just enough to fool my legs that I'm taking it easy from this point on. I shook my legs every so often somehow thinking it would shake off the cramp. As I walked on a certain segment when it was twitching again and teasing a full on cramp, another runner egged me on to run. "You have to keep on running, especially with those big muscular legs of yours!". I flashed a big grin and it gave me a temporary boost, and then I wondered, was he hitting on me? I can't tell for the life of me, but at that point I didn't really care to wonder any further.

I kept on running while I reached the end of the downhill portion of Rodeo Valley Trail. I still kept on running a decent pace and even pushed it further when I saw the wooden bridge which signaled the finish was near. I was about a mile away and I had about ten minutes. It was still within the realm of possibility but then I remember that small little hill that we have to climb up again before we reach a flat to downhill finish.

I started overtaking runners again. I kept on running, but a few seconds here and there I slowed down to a quick walk to catch my breath. This is the last trail race of the year for me, and at this point, I wanted to give it my all, sub 3 finish or not. I stopped glancing at my watch and just pushed it.

I crossed the finish. My watch said 3:00:27. It was still a pretty decent time considering I had not run too frequently after my last trail race a month prior. My official time was 3:03:32. I'm not so sure where the additional minutes came from, but I vaguely remember it auto pausing when I stopped moving as I cramped at Rodeo Valley, so that could have been it. Even then, that's still pretty close to where I wanted to finish, even with the cramping issues.

I'm thankful I switched to the half when I crossed the finish line. I was signed up for the 50K initially, but after not finishing a goal 100 miler race, I knew I was mentally out of the game of doing another ultra so soon.

Even if I only ran a half marathon, this race was a tough half marathon with about 2538 feet of elevation gain and loss. I really should be and am thankful to end this year with a great finish and a fun weekend of celebrating with friends from the trail running community.

"Smile, and celebrate each mile!"