Friday, May 31, 2013

Lincoln National Guard Race Report

I have little to say about the Lincoln National Guard Marathon.  It’s the marathon time trials for the National Guard marathon team and while I am able to make it onto the New Mexico team, because nobody else is submitting times, there is virtually no possibility that I could actually make the All Guard team.  I don’t mean that to sound as negative as it does, I’m actually enthusiastic about being able to get onto the New Mexico team as long as I’m able and I like to get paid to go do a marathon and, as marathons go, the Lincoln marathon is a good one.

What I mean by my apparent negativity is that I am a realist when it comes to my marathoning abilities relative to those who are actually built for marathon racing.  Believe me, as far as I’m concerned for a 200 pound guy, give or take 10 pounds, to be running marathons and consistently finishing in the top 7 to 20%, depending on the size of the marathon, is plenty satisfying for me.  I frequently get a kick out of thundering up behind someone at mile 22 that I outweigh by 60 pounds and seeing the puzzled look on their face as I roll on by but the fact of the matter is that moving my bulk at those speeds takes an incredible amount of power and stamina and I’m just not quite there.

In any case, this was my second Lincoln marathon and one really cool thing about this one is that not only did the GeekGrl come along to run but so did our friends Mark and Miki.  Miki was on the New Mexico team with me and Mark was running to make his third attempt at qualifying for Boston.  It was like a couple’s weekend out and we all had a good time.  The weather was also a lot better this year, cooler and overcast so everyone had a good run.

I ended up running a 3:37, which was a fully six minutes slower than I ran last year but I’m also like 15 pounds heavier and was not as well trained.  I have seriously struggled with getting back on track after running the Slam last year.  As I  said in an earlier post I think I tapped some reserves that normally don’t get tapped except in life threatening emergencies and so I’ve been flat all year despite my trying to both diet and train.

Anyway, the GeekGrl also ran her second fastest marathon of the season, missing her Army marathon time by only 31 seconds, Mark finally ran his BQ and still had fuel in the tank and Miki placed third in her age group and made the All Guard team.  The other two New Mexico runners also made the All Guard team, one placing third in his age group and one wining his age group.  Both of then ran sub-3 hour marathons.

I’m not sure if I’ll be back in Lincoln next year or not.  It depends on the New Mexico Guard’s budget and on who submits times but I can tell you this, I have to do something to shake up my training.  There is no way that I should have to stay at my current weight and I still don’t think that I’ve run my fastest marathon.  I qualified for Boston with a 3:28 and change a couple years ago and that was the weekend after I had run back to back marathons in Death Valley and Las Vegas.  The next year Boston dropped all its qualifying times by five minutes and I now have to run under a 3:25 and I sincerely believe I can do it on fresher legs but somehow I need to find a way to come back from the beating I gave myself last year.

So, here’s what the plan is.  I’m going to give the Hanson’s marathon method a try to build speed and I’m going to take up Olympic Weightlifting to build power.  If the lifting results in more mass but a lower percentage body fat and on the whole I don’t get much faster then I guess I’m fine with that too, After all, my good friend John Vigil does call me Big B, I may as well live up to something.

Army Marathon Race Report

This was the inaugural year for the Army Marathon and to be honest I didn’t have very high expectations.  It’s not that I didn’t think that and inaugural marathon could be good, I’ve run a few, or that a marathon representing the Army could be good.  It really had more to do with the location of the marathon itself, Central Texas, specifically from Killeen to Temple.

If you have read, for reasons beyond my understanding, several of my race reports you know that I love Texas, or more specifically, I love going there to visit and race.  I’m not crazy about the heat and humidity and therefore I don’t live in Texas.  In any case, I didn’t have high expectations not because I have a low opinion of Texas I just have a fairly low opinion of that part of Central Texas.

Before any Central Texans break out the pitchforks let me explain.  In my experience that part of Texas is simply not very scenic.  It’s not ugly, sorry El Paso, but it is really just kind of green and brown rolling hills covered in grass and various scrubby trees.  There also isn’t much to do there other than just be there.  However, I was pleasantly surprised.  Both the towns of Killeen and Temple were a bit nicer than I had remembered, there was a huge variety of a potential places to eat and our hotel, which was the host hotel, was very nice and very accommodating.  In fact, we requested a late checkout, I don’t remember if it was for 12:00 or 1:00 but it was an hour after normal checkout and we ended up getting to stay until about 2:15 so the GeekGrl could shower before our drive back to Dallas and our flight back to Albuquerque.

Unlike the inaugural Navy marathon that we did earlier this year, the inaugural Army marathon had many more participants and no blasting winds.  It was also immediately apparent that the people from the Army were actually involved in the Army marathon.  The guy who won the Navy marathon was in the Navy and on a small section of out-and-back that ran alongside and up to the back gate of a Naval Air Station there were some Navy guards posted but that was the extent of it.  The Army marathon was loaded with runners who were stationed at nearby Ft. Hood, there were many Army personnel in uniform at the start, along the course and at the finish line and it appeared that Army personnel may have been in charge of logistics for the whole thing.  I could very well be wrong about that last part but it was certainly an efficiently run and well organized race.  In all fairness though, I am aware that neither the Department of the Navy nor the Department of the Army actually took responsibility for or put on either of these races, rather, it was civilian race organizers so there is no credit given or taken to or from either branch of service. (Disclosure – in my late teens and early 20s I was in the Department of the Navy in the Marine Corps.  I am now in the Department of the Army as a National Guardsman.)

Anyway, the expo was small but had everything you might need for last minute race purchases.  The GeekGrl and I decided for some reason that the best idea would be to buy new shoes and run the marathon in them the next day so that’s exactly what we did.  The town of Killeen had plenty of places to eat but we chose a Chinese buffet because it was immediately next to our hotel and we mostly wanted to just eat and chill.  The food was pretty good overall and of course there was a lot to choose from.  We both overate but it didn’t come back to haunt us the next day.

Race morning came and it was very pleasant weather wise and remained that way all day.  It started heating up a little at the end but for the most part it remained overcast and mild.  The energy at the start line was really high and there were a lot of really young folks who looked lean and fit.  That was undoubtedly the Ft. Hood contingent.  The crowd was actually noticeably younger than your average marathon but there were also the usual suspects, the old guys with hideous knees covered in ace bandages, the various women dressed in tutus and springy head ornaments and then of course there was the large group of middle-aged runners like myself who still haven’t given up on the idea of a new PR but who are not burning up the course by any stretch of the imagination.

There was one particularly weird thing about this marathon though.  At the starting line I placed myself at what I estimated to be about 15% back in the pack.  That’s generally where I expect to finish up and I wanted to minimize the weaving around that is often required to pass towards the beginning.  As soon as the starting gun went off there was a huge surge like I was in a local 5K and runners where just streaming past me.  I stayed focused on warming up and then settling into a good pace but after a mile rolled by and runners were still pouring past me I really started to wonder what the hell was going on.  I felt solid and on a good starting pace so I began trying to remember if there was also a half-marathon and a relay going on at the same time but as far as I could remember there was only the full marathon and then a 5K that took place at a completely different time and place.

Mile two clicked by and people were still passing so I asked a guy near me who looked to be at least close to my age if there was either a half or a relay going on and I just couldn’t remember it and he said, “No, just the full.”  Whatever, I then thought that maybe this race was just unusually full of young studs and studetts because of the proximity of Ft. Hood and so I was going to finish up a lot farther back in the pack than I expected.  I continued chugging along trying to pay attention first to my pace and second to other runners who looked like they might be in my age group.

The course was gently rolling for the most part.  I was initially thinking of it as really hilly but the GeekGrl was so emphatic that the hills were so mild as to be barely noticeable that I have downgraded my estimation from hilly to gently rolling.  Anyway, you go up and down and you do it all the time.  You actually start by going up and the steepest and longest hills are always in the upward direction not the downward.  However, I must admit, the elevation change isn’t significant.  I don’t think it even breaks 800 feet for the entire course and so put in those terms the Army marathon is actually one of the top 5 flattest marathons I have run.  Ok, so there is a second really weird thing about this race, it’s shockingly flat for such a hilly race.

So there I was chugging along, looking for competition and monitoring my pace when at somewhere around mile 4 I started passing people, not in large numbers but enough to notice and think that it seemed awfully early in the race for me to be passing people.  I’m a come from behind guy for the most part, a closer.  My expectation is that I ignore the first mile because for the most part nobody is where they should be and then from about mile two to maybe mile 18 I pretty much hold my position maybe passing and maybe being passed but the numbers are low.  After mile 20 I really don’t expect to be passed only to pass.  Sure, every so often someone will slip by or, as in the case of last year’s Lincoln Marathon where I had close to a complete meltdown, an army will pass but, like I said, mile 20 on is pretty much mine.

By the time I hit mile nine I was passing a lot of people.  By the halfway point it was like I was on a moving sidewalk and most everyone else was slogging along in the unaided fashion and by mile 18 I was actually already seeing what can only be referred to as carnage, people hobbling along the side of the road clutching at their stomachs or hamstrings, people sitting on curbs with their heads between their knees and people who were simply stumbling forward in a trance staring off into the great unknown.  Now I knew what was going on.  It’s not so much that the race was filled with a bunch of studs and studettes from Ft. Hood, it was filled with a bunch of studs and studettes from Ft. Hood who were long on heart but short on experience.

I think my conclusion was born out by my own race results.  In my age group at both mile 4.5 and 13.1 I was running in 9th place but at the finish line I was 6th; steady and closing.

The scenery along the course was nice enough.  However, I have been miserably spoiled not only by the amazingly beautiful Vernonia marathon earlier this year but also by many other ultras that I have run.  However, the one drawback had to do with transportation from the finish line back to the start though part of that was caused by our own plans.  The website said there would be busses taking runners from the finish back to the start beginning at 10:30, which was something like 15 or 20 minutes after I expected to finish.  Because of that my plan was to take a bus back, shower up, grab our rental car and then head back to the finish line to get the GeekGrl so I could get her back to the hotel faster so she could get her shower.  The first bus didn’t leave the finish line until more like 11:15, which completely blew out timeline.  I tied to follow through with the plan but the late bus and the fact that the nearest parking to the start line was about 3 miles away completely messed things up and left the GeekGrl sitting around at the finish line for over an hour waiting for me.  She would have been better off taking a bus and walking the mile from the start to our hotel.

Anyway, it all worked out and amazingly enough we both got showered, got lunch and were able to drive back to Dallas in time to catch our flight back to Albuquerque.  We both enjoyed this race and despite our typical pattern of not repeating races we might go back and run it again.  It’s always kind of a novelty to be one of a few people who have run a race since its inception though I really don’t know about going back year after year after year.  It is, after all, during prime spring season marathon time.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Vernonia Marathon Race Report

Coming on the heels of the Squak Mountain Marathon I knew that Vernonia was going to be a real challenge but, at a minimum, I knew I was going to be able to finish I just didn’t know what kind of price I would pay for that finish.

In reality, if you are reasonably well trained for one marathon, doing two marathons in one weekend isn’t as stupendous an achievement as you might think but there are certain realities that you must be able to face.  The first reality is that the second marathon will be uncomfortable longer.  It won’t necessarily be more uncomfortable but your discomfort will most assuredly start much earlier.  For me at Vernonia I would say that discomfort started around mile six, maybe mile five.  I had the initial second-day marathon stiffness to run through for the first couple miles but after that I found my stride and then ran off course.

The first aid station comes at a little wooden bridge that spans a stream.  Just past that aid station there is a portion of the bike path where the marathon is run that loops around a small lake.  Past that bridge there is a juncture where you can pretty much go one of three directions left, slightly right or slightly harder right.  The race course had an chalk arrow laid out that suggested there was a right turn ahead and there was a listless boy standing near it who timidly gesture vaguely to the right.  As I was in third place overall at this point in the race and well behind number one and two I had no other runners to follow and the most promising direction seemed to be the slightly harder right because I knew that was the direction we would eventually have to travel to get from Vernonia, OR where the race started to Banks, OR where the race ends.  Within a quarter mile or so I arrived abruptly at a dead end next to what appeared to be a pumping station.  I stood there a couple seconds looking around to make sure I wasn’t missing something then turned on my heals and headed back.

By the time I had gotten back on course as many as 20 runners had gotten past me so now I was re-passing many people I had passed earlier.  The run starts in two waves, the early start and the regular start, which is an hour after the early start.  I took off with the early starters simply because I had misjudged which bus to take and ended up at the start line just in time to head out at the tail end of the early group and I didn’t feel like standing around in the damp and cold for an hour waiting for the regular start.  As I ran around the lake regaining my earlier position I eventually caught up with this one guy who seemed to be about my age, size and seemed to know absolutely everyone present.  He was dressed in a cotton t-shirt, basketball shorts and some kind of beat up looking trainers.

At first I didn’t take much notice of him.  He looked like a lot of pretty new distance runners I’ve come across in my travels and since I was gaining on him steadily I assumed I would just pass him and that would be that.  I’ve gotten pretty good at pacing myself in a marathon and probably 99 times in 100 if I pass someone they stay passed.  This is especially true if I’m passing them in the first three miles.  However, as I started to pull ahead of this guy he sped up a bit and remained in the lead.  As a psychologist this is a response that I expect no matter how early in the race it may be and no matter how irrelevant I may be as a potential competitor with that person.  In psychology it’s called the social facilitation effect.  Basically what that means, at least in this case, is that when another runner becomes aware of your presence they unconsciously perform a little better.  The idea behind the theory is that people respond to the pressure of social evacuation even if that evaluation is only perceived and not necessarily real.

In any case, this is something I’m really sensitive to because two people can get caught up in responding to each other’s social pressure and this will often lead to them both going out too fast so when I face situations like this I usually just back off a little and then re-initiate my pass a few seconds later.  This tactic almost always works because it gives the other runner enough time to really register that someone faster is coming by and it doesn’t make any sense to try and start racing against them with 23 miles to go.  So, with that in mind I backed off a little and then reinitiated my pass and boom, there he went again speeding up except this time he put some more into it and opened up about a 10 yard lead.

I let him go and just watched his back.  I figured that he may be a stronger runner than I was giving him credit for and the only reason I was catching him earlier is because he was waving to all kinds of people.  We had now left the populated portion of the course and were on the isolated bike path that runs in a direct line from Vernonia to Banks.  I was considering that he was now ready to settle in and roll away from me, however, as I started to accept that possibility I noticed that I was reeling him back in and I wasn’t trying to speed up I was just trying to settle in to a nice, sustainable pace.

Once again I pulled up alongside him and once again he sped up leaving me in his wake.  I think of myself as a nice guy and I certainly don’t hope for anyone to do poorly in a race but really, you are going to race me in a marathon when I am already easily catching you at mile three.  Not happening.  I’ve spent a lifetime involved with various competitive sports so unless you are ready to bring it don’t wave the red cape pal.

I made the decision then and there that I was going to use his insistence on staying ahead of me to my advantage.  I decided to roll up right behind him and draft.  This guy was one of a very few distance runners that I could actually draft off of because he was as big and broad as I.  Any time I felt the pace was slowing too much I would simply pop out from behind him, pull up next to him and boom, he would pick it right back up.  This went on at least through mile eight but then he began to falter.  His pace would slow and I would pull up next to him, he wouldn’t respond so I’d look over at him.  He was looking kind of grim so then I’d begin to get ahead of him but he found it somewhere to catch back up and pull ahead.

At each of the aid stations we went through a man and a small boy met this guy and cheered him on and at each of those aid stations I was anywhere from a few yards to a few feet right behind him.  He always sped up as we approached an aid station.  I have to give the guy his due.  I flogged him like a cheap mule and he kept it up for a good 10 miles but the course took a slightly upward slant and he just couldn’t hang on.  I left him behind and by the time I came in to the half-marathon aid station he was nowhere to be seen.  The man and the boy who had grown used to him leading me into aid stations at first looked hopeful, presumably assuming they guy would be right behind me, but that look turned to one of being perplexed because the only runner that was behind me was a female that was maybe a quarter mile back.  My windbreaker was nowhere to be seen.

At the half marathon point the bike path crosses the main road between Banks and Vernonia and there is a sharp descent prior to that road and a steep climb afterward.  The half marathoners all finish up just past that road and I discovered that I was the front running marathoner from the early start.  This was a weird experience because there was literally nobody around.  It was just me and the bike path and the aid station workers every couple miles.

Fortunately, if you are going to be running alone the Vernonia marathon is the one to do it at.  Vernonia was my 68th marathon or longer race so actually probably something like my 35th straight up marathon and it was hands down the most scenic one I have done.  Here it’s important to say that my wife and I live in Albuquerque New Mexico so I suppose it’s possible that if you actually live in the Portland area the scenery may be old hat and not particularly great compared to other places you might know about but to us it was pretty awesome.  Pretty much the entire bike path runs beneath a canopy of moss covered trees, flowering trees and shrubs and giant wild ferns.  There is also a large section towards the end of the course where you are out of the native forest and into cultivated farmland but here the canopy turns from lush green to white flowering trees, possibly Bradford pears or at least that’s what they reminded me of.

In any case, it’s a beautiful run but despite its beauty the second reality that must be faced during day two of a double marathon weekend hit me square in the face.  I had a lot of fun racing with that guy for the first 11 or 12 miles but now that I was running alone I was much more aware of the severe fatigue in my legs and it was hard to maintain a descent pace.  I did my best to push through but by mile 22 I had to start taking some walk breaks in order to keep the wheels from completely falling off.  It was about mile 23 when the first place marathoner, who had started an hour after me, passed me.  He chirped out “only a 5k to go!” and zoomed by.  Shortly thereafter three more marathoners passed me as I continued to grind out the final miles.  I had been hoping that my one hour head start would be enough to allow me to be the first marathoner to cross the finish line but it was not to be and so I was now hoping that I could be the first marathoner from the early group to cross the finish line.

I figured I would know I had accomplished this goal because anyone who passed me, if they were in the later start, would be passing me at a pretty fast pace because they would be running a sub-3 hour marathon or thereabout.  If someone passed me slowly then I would figure they had started with me and were just moving a bit less slowly than I was moving.  The slow pass occurred probably at mile 24.5.  A woman pulled up alongside me and slowly slid by.  Any attempt on my part to retain the lead would have been both pointless and futile.  I had nothing left with which to fight back and even if I had been able to regain my lead it would have been meaningless.

The end of the race was really starting to feel brutal.  I had given it my all and it was going to result in about a four hour and nine minute finish.  When I finally reached the school in Banks where I had begun my morning with packet pickup and a bus ride I discovered that the finish line was at the back of the school on their running track and like Western States, the final leg of the race was one lap around the track.  Under other conditions I think this would have been pretty cool but in my state of disrepair it was just one final ordeal to bear.  Was I being paid back for messing with that guy earlier in the race? Maybe, I tend to think not but it’s possible that despite the way I was looking at things at the start of the race I had actually deluded myself into going out too fast just to mess with someone.

Anyway, water under the bridge.  I had a fantastic time overall.  It was really tough as a follow-up to Squak Mountain but I think Vernonia is a very fast course so I’m going to keep it in mind as a possible future BQ attempt if I can’t seem to run a BQ at some race in a state that I don’t already have.  It never seems quite right to say “If you only do one race in (insert state here) the you have to do this one” because I have not done every marathon in any state, not even in New Mexico and we only have six more or less depending on the year.  However, I am sure that you could do a lot worse in Oregon than Vernonia.  Had my wife and I traveled from New Mexico exclusively to run Vernonia we would have been quite happy.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Squak Mountain Marathon Race Report

You know you’re in for quite a day when at the pre-race meeting the race director says “This is probably the toughest race we do with the possible exception of (insert random race name).” I registered the GeekGrl and I for Squak Mountain as part of a Washington – Oregon double marathon weekend in the hopes that she would catch up to me on Washington and we would both get Oregon in our quest to get all 50 states.  My previous experience running trail races in Washington comes from the Mt. Si 50K, where I set my current 50K PR of 4:18:47, and the Defiance 50K on Point Defiance in Tacoma.  Both of these are easy courses though Defiance is a lot more challenging trail wise.  Mt. Si is a straight-up speed race on a rails-to-trails path.

I assumed that, at worst, Squak Mountain would be slightly harder than Defiance.  Somehow the posted 7800 feet of elevation gain in the marathon didn’t register as hard despite the fact that mile for mile that represents more climbing than is found at Wasatch 100, which is the hardest race I have done to-date.

Needless to say, it was a much longer day than I had anticipated but I still had an awesome time.  Being from the desert, running in the Seattle area is always such a treat for me with the deep green, moss covered woods and naturally growing ferns and whatnot.  The Squak Mountain trail offers everything you want out of a Pacific Northwest race but it is not really for the uninitiated, though I did meet a guy there who did this as his first marathon and he loved it.

I honestly don’t recall a great deal about this race other than it was both awesome and very hard.  It was climb, climb, climb, descend, descend, descend, all day long.  We had fog, drizzle, rain and snow during the course of the day and depending on whether you are near the top of the mountain or closer to the bottom.  This race also offers a 50K but honestly, I think that is overkill because the 50K adds nothing new to the race other than distance; you simply repeat a particularly gnarly loop up on top of the mountain one more time.  As it stands the marathon consists of I think four separate loops that you complete twice though maybe it was only three.  If you run either the marathon or the half-marathon you see everything the course has to offer, which is a lot.  The only good reason I can see to do the 50K is that you are using it to train for something longer or harder or, of course, if you specifically select this race as an A race for competitive reasons.

In the end the GeekGrl was able to complete the half-marathon but needed to bail on the full because of time constraints.  She hadn’t really been training for something with so much climbing and descending.  I was able to pull off an age group victory but as I recall I was about in the slowest age group so it’s not like I was out there crushing the course or anything.

The only thing I got from the race by way of extras was a tech-shirt that had the names of all the races this race organization does, so nothing specific to this race and a $99 traffic ticket for not paying the $10 parking fee.  I did look around for a place to pay the parking fee, in New Mexico parks the fee areas have a prominent area with a lock box, several pay/receipt envelopes and instructions on how to pay.  I didn’t see any such thing at Squak Mountain.  However, I could have tried harder to figure out how to pay (like I could have asked someone) but I didn’t do my due diligence and just went racing off into the woods so I had it coming.

Anyway, the only point to that last bit is that you should come to Squak Mountain expecting a tough course, a beautiful course, a well-organized race, some super volunteers, some super friendly runners, some good post-race grub and a ticket if you don’t figure out, or investigate, how to pay the parking fee.  You should not expect all kinds of SWAG.  Some people are really sensitive about that but I would not pass this race up even if you do love your SWAG, it’s a cool race.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Navy Marathon Race Report

I forget when it came to me but I had the ideal that I’d love to do a Military Marathon Grand Slam, which would consist of doing all the military marathons in one year kind of like the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.  The only problem was that when I looked up the races I’d have to do there was no such thing as either and Army Marathon or a Navy Marathon.  However, I kept the idea on the back burner thinking that I could at least do the Soldier Marathon in Georgia for the Army and just not worry about the Navy.
I’ve wanted to run the Marine Corps Marathon for eight years now and last year I had a friend run it and was reminded of just how awesome it is so I was determined to run it this year come hell or high water.  This brought back my Military Marathon Slam idea and so I started searching for races and low and behold this year there was an inaugural Navy marathon and an inaugural Army marathon.  I was elated but our dance card for the year was already getting pretty full and both the Army and Navy marathons were in Texas, which is fine, except that we are trying to collect our 50 states and we have Texas like 15 times over and this would mean two more Texas races in addition to the two that we have already done this year.  I consulted with the GeekGrl, told her about my Military Marathon Slam idea and she said “Let’s do it!”
So, just a couple weeks after the mud fest in San Antonio we found ourselves back on a plane to San Antonio to rent a car and drive down to Corpus Christi for the Inaugural Navy marathon.
When we arrived in Corpus we were both amazed at the fact that it seemed like it was almost completely devoid of human inhabitants.  Apparently the downtown areas are basically vacated on the weekends and most everyone is out on the peripheries of the city.  We were able to come up with a pretty decent Italian dinner and our hotel was fair.  As I recall from a few childhood trips to South Padre Island it’s pretty hard to actually find nice accommodations immediately on the beach.  There’s always going to be a certain degree of rust and sand that makes things look slightly shabby.
We made our way to packet pickup at the convention center and it was also a ghost town.  The people were friendly though that may have been because they were starved for attention.  I doubt there was more than two other runners present when we were there and in wasn’t the final seconds of the expo either.  Ultimately we found out that there were fewer than 200 people running the marathon.   I think a huge problem may have been because the race took place the same weekend as Rock-n-Roll Dallas, which probably drew a huge number of Texas runners who otherwise might have come and done this race.  I have also come to understand that it wasn’t publicized very well.  Later this season at the Army marathon I spoke to a guy who was a native of Corpus Christi who said he would have loved to run the Navy marathon but he didn’t find out about it until the day before the race.
Anyway, on the whole I think the course is pretty fantastic.  The only kind of blah part of the course happens in the very early morning when it's still dark to dawn and you are winding your way through a business district but this is only about 3 or four miles of the course at most.  As the sun starts to rise the nice part of the course, which is the majority of the course, begins to unfold as you climb up and over a huge bridge that spans a shipping channel.  It’s a suspension type bridge and the cables that hold the deck to the super structure have alternating colored lights, it’s pretty cool.   I hit the peak of the bridge and there was enough light to see well out into the Gulf, which admittedly was mostly full of off shore oil rigs.  That part is actually a shame.  Some of the locals referred to the views as beautiful but I have faint childhood memories of the Texas Gulf Coast and what I saw was a dystopia version of that earlier day.  I was reminded of the Cyberpunk classic Neuromancer by William Gibson who wrote of a landscape that was utterly dominated by technology and the refuse of technology but I digress.
So after crossing the bridge you get a little more of a brief tour through the business district and then you head for the convention center and get on a road that hugs the Gulf Coast the rest of the race.  You spend most of the rest of the race running right alongside the coast line with a brief detour through a college campus.  Even though the course has a huge out and back I still didn't get tired of running along the coast and most of the neighborhoods you run through are really nice.  Also, apart from the bridge the course is flat, flat, flat.
While I loved the course I hated the wind!  Yes, this has been the year that has been plagued by bad weather and today was the topper.  We checked the National Weather Service and the winds at the start of the race were 43 miles per hour!  It was amazing; I thought the entire starting area was going to be blown away.  During the course of the day the winds apparently "died down" to 23 mph.  Fortunately for much of the race the winds were either at our backs or to the side, however, I learned that strong side winds slow you down and suck your energy about as effectively as headwinds and tail winds that strong give you a bit of a boost but not as much as you are slowed by the side and head winds.  The last eight miles of the course was directly into a headwind and so involved a lot of jogging mixed with bursts of running mixed with bouts of walking.
In the end I ran a 3:58:28, my slowest marathon since 2007 I think.  However, everyone was slowed and I ended up winning my age group so I guess I had a relatively good race.
I really liked the course and I hope this first time race grows but there were some real organizational issues.  The instructions for the busses were practically useless.  Essentially you knew there would be shuttle busses to take you from the convention center to the start and then from the finish back to the convention center but the rest of the information was either completely absent of useless.  Nobody I met really seemed to know how the morning busses would work out so that added a huge amount of unnecessary stress on race morning.  However, it did work out fine so it was really the communicating and not the planning.  The shuttle busses after the race were a different story.  The drivers didn’t even know what was happening and pretty much everyone had a different idea as to where the runners and the busses would meet.  This too eventually kind of worked itself out but the whole transportation thing needs a lot of work.
The aid stations were another area that needs improvement.  The aid stations were woefully insufficient and I was glad I brought my own water and gel but I still ran dry between miles 20 and 24 or so and there is no possible way I would have had enough fuel to carry me through the run had it not been for what I brought.  Maybe that’s why I won my age group; everyone else was too depleted to race effectively.  However, in the race’s defense I think that way fewer people registered for the race than was hoped for and so the organizer was operating at a significant loss and was struggling just to pull it off.  Aside from the transportation issue my impression was that everyone who ran the race enjoyed it despite the wind and relative lack of aid.  In fact, to the best of my knowledge, I’m the only one complaining about the aid but seriously, I’ve now done 67 of these things.  I know aid stations.
In any case, this race is well worth running and I believe that it will get better if people do show in larger numbers.  I hope to see it succeed if only so others will have a shot at running their own Military Marathon Slams.

Prickly Pear 50K Race Report

The Prickly Pear 50K is probably the only ultra I had yet to run that I have been looking at doing longer than any other race.  I’ve been thinking about doing it since maybe February 2006 but something always seems to get in the way.  This year, however, I decided to make it a priority and it was the first thing on my proposed 2013 schedule.  I’ve wanted to run the race, at least initially, because it takes place in San Antonio, the town that I consider to be my home town and the town I love most second only to Albuquerque.  After joining the Army National Guard as a psychologist and having had several opportunities to go back to San Antonio and run McAllister Park during temporary duty at Ft. Sam.  I also became increasingly motivated to run the Prickly Pear because McAllister Park is a pretty cool place to run and I wanted the GeekGrl to have the chance to run it as well.  So, we paid the fees, made reservations and headed back to Texas.
As I said, the Prickly Pear takes place in McAllister Park and the course is three convoluted 10 mile loops.  Just because it’s a loop course doesn’t mean it’s boring either.  There are plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting.  The course is also very flat with only some minor grades up or down and for the most part there are few rocky sections.  When I have done training runs here under good conditions it’s easy for me to hold sub-8:30 paces and for me that’s nearing max long distance speeds on trail.  I was coming into this race not expecting a new 50K PR but I was anticipating something within 20 to 30 minutes of it.
However, by the time the race started it had been drizzling all night and was still drizzling on race morning.  The conditions were set for a mud-fest.  I decided I was fine with that but during the course of the first lap I discovered that I had no idea how to run in mud.  Whenever I could I kept running alongside the trail in the grass trying to prevent mud from building up on my shoes but invariably I would be forced back onto the trail by a narrow section of by the ubiquitous prickly pear cacti.
I was pretty proud of myself at first because I thought I had devised a sound strategy for maximizing my speed and I was passing people.  However, by mile six I was starting to struggle and people were starting to pass me back.  I pulled off the side of the trail and found a small tree and a couple sticks to try and scrape off the huge volume of mud that was caked on my shoes.  As I was scraping the mud I discovered that all I had really been doing was alternately adding some mud and then some grass to the bottom of my shoes making huge adobe bricks.  Duh!
I watched as other runners practically sprinted by and I noticed that they ran straight down the trail right in the mud so once I scraped the bricks off my feet and did the same.  To my surprise I found that as soon as the mud became heavy enough, since there wasn't any grass to bind it together, it just fell off my shoes.  However, I had already pretty much blown out my legs from trying to run fast with huge bricks on my feet so I continued to slow considerably and as I slowed I stopped enjoying myself.   I’ve gotten pretty good at acceptance during the course of an ultra but one thing that I still really hate is going into a race really expecting one thing and then getting its opposite.
I finally decided this was BS, that I was here to have a good time and that having a good time was completely under my control so I eased up and at the end of my second lap I sat around at the start-finish area waiting for the GeekGrl to come through so I could run the last lap with her.  It turns out this was a pretty good idea because she was feeling pretty whipped and one of her feet was in a lot of pain.  It seemed likely that had I not been there she would have dropped.
I told her my plan to accompany her and suggested that she try retying her shoe thinking that maybe it was hurting because it was tied too tightly.  She retied the shoe, the pain disappeared and we headed back out for the third loop.  I just spent the whole time acting like a pacer and tried to keep her fueled, motivated and moving.  We spent the entire lap pressed firmly up against the time limit but we kept pushing and kept passing people who were still struggling to make it.
In the end we crossed the finish line together just two minutes ahead of the 8 hour cutoff and got our finishers medals.  We then immediately hit the beer and fajitas and ate our fill.
Despite the bad weather we did end up having a great time.  Prickly Pear is a great race and San Antonio is a great place to visit.  According to one local who has run the race several times “the weather is almost always bad on race day” but it’s still a race that’s well worth the travel.  I’ll definitely be back running McAllister Park but I’m not so sure about the race; there’s just too much else out there.  Maybe if I could be guaranteed perfect weather.

El Paso Marathon Race Report

It was my intention to come to El Paso to run a Boston Qualifying time.  On the one hand I didn’t think this was realistic because I am about 15 pounds over what I have found to be my prime race weight (read that as I’m 15 pounds over the lowest I have weight I have actually raced at but I really have no idea what my prime race weight might be) and my training has been a bit thin.  I am just now only appreciating how much running the Grand Slam took out of my body.  I think to some degree it’s still in shock.
On the other hand, though, the course is listed as being downhill and fast so I thought maybe I could pound out a good time.  By now I should be far better at appreciating that my conjecture about possible race performance is at best 2 parts reality to 8 parts fantasy.  Of course this is great for my ongoing feelings of self-worth but it causes me to come up with some pretty unrealistic expectations.
The El Paso course is indeed a downhill course…in a way.  It drops a mighty 1100 feet in the first 4.75 miles give or take and if you have the quads for it you will indeed have a screaming fast time for the first quarter or so of the race.  However, beyond that initial drop the remainder of the course is very flat with a few reasonable sized rollers thrown in at the end of the race, maybe between miles 19 and 23.  In any case, the rollers come at you starting with a downhill just after you leave Ft. Bliss and pretty much wrap up 3 miles out from the finish line.  Everything after the initial plunge and before leaving Ft. Bliss is like a pancake.
Again, with the caveat, if your quads can handle it, you might actually be able to pull off a fast time in El Paso if you are lucky enough not to be hampered by wind.  We were not lucky enough to not be hampered by wind.  At the very beginning of the race up on Trans Mountain there was a light breeze but it was a non-issue during the descent.  However, as the day progressed the wind picked up and I spent probably a totally of 18 miles running directly into a headwind that was probably somewhere around 15 miles per hour by mile 6 and more like 25 miles per hour by mile 15.  However, me and my sub-3:45 friends didn’t get the worst of it.  The GeekGrl was out on the course longer and towards the end of her race the winds must have been sustained 35 mph and there was a full out sandstorm.  There is a picture of her with her arm protecting her face and her clothes flapping wildly about her as she forged ahead.  Visibility was probably down to 30 yards or so.
I spoke to a few locals and apparently this kind of wind is pretty common the time of year when the El Paso marathon talks place but other than holding the thing in December or January I’m not sure what the race director can do.  If they waited much longer, after the fierce winds of spring, it would be too hot for a race.  I guess they could market it as a blazing hot marathon; there are a few out there.  Las Vegas, NV at least has one I think it’s called Run with the Devil.
The other thing I had read on was that this race is scenic.  I have no idea where that came from but my guess is from a group of running masochists.  I suppose the descent off Trans Mountain has some mild appeal and there is maybe a mile section while on Ft. Bliss that is kind of a nice residential area but beyond that it’s a butt ugly course.  Now, I want to hasten to add that I honestly believe that the race director did their level best to pick a nice route but the raw material just isn’t there.  It kind of pains me to say that because people tend to take pride in their cities, which is a good thing, and I am loath to slam anyone’s home town.  However, I did make an effort to talk to some native El Pasoens (El Pasoites, El Passers) and they uniformly concurred, El Paso just kind of sucks.
On the upside though, I really enjoyed my hotel room, which I think was a Hilton Garden and it’s right on the UTEP campus so the immediate area seemed safe and clean.  We also had a good Italian meal at this little hole in the wall restaurant that had been fashioned from someone’s grandmother’s house.  I also have to mention that the post-race offerings, massage, food, beer, live music, was far superior to what I was expecting and to what I have experienced at other smaller marathons and as of this race I’ve done 65 marathon or longer races so I have a bit of background in this area.  In fact, it was like a Southwest Texas version of the Wisconsin (Kenosha) Marathon, which had beer, brats, and a live Polka Rock band dressed in yellow with purple sequins vests.  They totally rocked.
I also have to give the Race Director kudos for making the most out of what he had to work with.  One snafu, the GeekGrl was left out on the course by herself and without any course aid or markings.  According to her a van came by with some runners in it and the driver yelled something at her that she didn’t understand (being that the wind was howling and she is deaf in one ear).  She assumed that the driver was asking if she wanted a ride because it was so nasty out and she yelled back that she didn’t want a ride she wanted to finish and so the driver left her out on the course.  That was apparently the SAG wagon picking up all the runners because the course was closing down and man, that course folded like a cheap suit the second that van went by.
I honestly think that the course closed a little earlier than needed, they may not have anticipated someone being able to fight back and come in under the cutoff in the final couple miles but that is the GeekGrl’s specialty and they gave up on her too soon.  Anyway, she was left to try and search out the finish line and I was left trying to search the general downtown area for the GeekGrl along with fellow Outlaw Bones.  She eventually found the finish line after getting directions from one dog walker, two homeless people and one runner who had just finished the race.  She wrote the RD about her ordeal and he was very apologetic and updated the race results to show her as a finisher.
I won’t be going back to this race but then again, El Paso isn’t my kind of town and I rarely repeat races anyway.  However, I wouldn’t want to dissuade others from running the El Paso marathon I just think that you should really know what may be in store.  Anyone from the El Paso, Las Cruces, Juarez area should definitely be running this race though but then again, maybe I’m a hypocrite.  I’ve only run the Duke City marathon in Albuquerque once and I live here so…
My time ended up being 3:39 and change.  A far cry from the sub-3:25 I need to qualify for Boston but given my weight and the conditions I’m actually pretty happy.