Saturday, September 29, 2012

Marathoning with Humungous Herbivores

My August marathon was the “Moose’s Tooth Marathon” held in Anchorage, Alaska.  While I wasn’t expecting giant herds of wild moose to give me yet another excuse for missing out on the elusive sub-3 goal, I did think it was a possibility that I’d at least see one – especially since photos from previous races included shots of a Mama Moose with her baby casually snacking as marathoners ran by.

Travelling to Alaska was an exciting prospect even without a marathon on the schedule.  I grew up in a family that places a high value on wilderness, and Alaska is probably the best state in the US to experience outdoor adventure.  My brother Darryl decided to make the trip with me and we planned a very fun “brothers weekend” which included the race on Sunday, August 19th.

August in Alaska is still close enough to summer that the weather forecast does not include snow.  The sun still dominates the sky, with a late sunset time of around 10 p.m.  Darryl and I arrived on Wednesday evening and decided to scout the area on Thursday on bicycle.  We rented a couple of bikes and spent about 4 hours cruising, mostly on the coastal trail.  The scenery was spectacular!  Green everywhere (something I’m not used to in Tucson), and overlooks to the Cook Inlet where we saw white whales (beluga?) surfacing.  Much of the marathon course was on this trail, so I got a chance to get a preview, and realized that although we were near sea level, this was actually going to be a hilly race.  We searched hard for moose, but they apparently had the day off.

We didn’t rent a car, so we did a lot of walking around.  Anchorage is a small town, and it reminded me of the region where I grew up in upstate New York.  It was evident that they depend on tourism, and by mid-August the tourist season has slowed down so things were fairly quiet.  Our hotel was next to Ship Creek, a pretty little creek where lots of salmon fishing happens.  Interestingly, the creek goes through cycles every few hours as the ocean tide causes it to rise and flow strongly, followed by a near-emptying of the creek.

I enjoyed a couple of nice runs from the hotel along Ship Creek.  It was tempting to go far, the trail system is very long in Anchorage and they are maintained very well.  I carried my camera on the runs and took plenty of photos.  It seemed like every curve revealed a new scene that begged for a photo.  I wish I could show them all here!  I kept an eye out for wildlife – unfortunately, no moose or bear spottings, but I did see a few smaller creatures including this beaver who was busy working on his dam:

On Friday, Darryl and I spent the day taking a glacier cruise.  This was such a fantastic experience, I could write a whole blog about it.  The cruise went into Prince William Sound, an area rich with history of famous expeditioners including James Cook and John Muir.  There were only about 20 tourists on our boat, and we had a great time cruising the bay and visiting glacier sites.  We saw some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on.  We also saw some wildlife, including sea otters, seals, sea lions, lots of birds, and even some whales.  We used binoculars to scan the shoreline, hoping to see bear or moose, without success.  We took hundreds of pictures.  I spent most of the day standing on deck in the cold, maybe not the best move 2 days before a marathon but it was well worth it.  Here is a photo of Darryl and I aboard the good ship Fairweather Express, in front of Surprise Glacier:

Saturday was expo day.  I was getting very excited about the race on Sunday!  We walked over a mile to the convention center to get our race packets.  I was signed up for the marathon, and Darryl was signed up for the Snow City 5k.  We enjoyed the expo, which was small but well organized.  I had a chance to visit with Olympian Jeff Galloway, who is now most famous for his ‘Run/Walk Method’, and he gave me a nice interview for my SunRunner Podcast project.

We also had lunch at the pasta feed.  I must say that this was by far the best pasta feed I have ever seen at a race despite being the least expensive.  First-class all the way!  We also spent some time browsing a local flea market.  Later in the day, we decided to have dinner at the race’s sponsor, the Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria.  It was about 4 miles from the hotel so we took a cab, and arrived to find a super-busy restaurant.  We waited over an hour just to be seated, and proceeded to eat some excellent pizza.

Sunday morning got off to a nice start.  The weather was cool, there was some drizzle in the air but it was not too bad.  I met up with some other Marathon Maniacs and we took a group photo a few minutes before the start:

My race began first, with Darryl’s 5k starting later.  It was a fast start but around a mile in, things settled down and we worked our way on to the coastal trail.  I was feeling good, the hernia surgery site was hurting but not too bad.  I kept a fairly quick pace for a while, but felt myself slowing as the miles clicked by.  For a relatively small race, I was very impressed by the crowd support and aid station quality.  At one point, there was an odd character playing a guitar in a random spot in the forest.  We ran by Earthquake Park, and next to the airport where jumbo jets took of directly overhead.  The cool air and beautiful scenery helped make the race fun, but the hills definitely took their toll, especially since my legs really did not get the proper rest in the few days prior when we biked and stood on the ship.

The course is sort of a “Y” shaped out-and-back, but it became difficult to gauge my position because we eventually were merging with relay runners and half-marathoners.  By mile 20, I was feeling poor but kept trudging along.  The worst part of the race was in the final mile, when the course exits the trail and turns onto what appears to be the steepest road in the world.  It’s only about a tenth of a mile or two climb, but it is a brutal blow to a tired marathoner.  I slogged up it and turned onto the final homestretch.  A nice cheering crowd brought racers in and I crossed the line in 3:21:02.

This was a bit slower than I had hoped for but I was satisfied and got a nice finisher medal.  I was 31st place overall, and actually got 2nd in my age group!  The age group awards were a mug and ribbon.

The greatest part of the race for me, though, was that Darryl ran the 5k.  He’s not a runner, and this was his first race.  He worked very hard and earned a nice finisher medal for his efforts.  Taking a vacation with my brother was awesome, but wrapping it up with both of us completing a race was just incredible.  I was so proud to be able to share the event with him!

So overall, it was a wonderful weekend with so many great memories.  There’s only one negative – WE NEVER SAW ANY MOOSE!

A Race Too Tough to Die?

A short race report as I continue my gradual catching up.  The Tombstone Vigilante Days 10k Run has become a Southern Arizona tradition, and August 12, 2012 brought us the 26th edition of this challenging race.

The course is slightly longer than 10k, it’s at about 4,500 feet elevation, and it has some pretty hard hills.  Returning racers know that this won’t be a PR event, but we also know that the reward for the lucky few is one of the coolest out there – a handmade tombstone trophy.  It’s also one of those unique events that has location appeal – a fun historical contrast is to see modern runners hanging out in front of the infamous OK Corral, where the Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday fought the Clantons and McLaurys.

 For those of us in Tucson, it requires a very early start to the day as the drive Southward to Tombstone takes over an hour.  The weather this year was warm and clear.   My last race was the San Francisco Marathon 2 weeks earlier, and while I was eager to run I also was still dealing with hernia surgery pain so wasn’t expecting a great run.  By the time we lined up at the start, I was tired from the drive and not in a full “ready-to-go” state of mind.

Once we got going I knew it wasn’t my day.  I felt sluggish from the start and when the first hills came, I was already struggling.  I kept on as best I could, but I certainly wasn't feeling like a tough cowboy.  There was one point where a huge snake was in the road – but on closer inspection it became clear that it had been run over so was no threat.  They put a couple of misting stations at the top of the major hill climbs and those helped cool me briefly, but the warm sun also took its toll.  The race finishes along Tombstone’s Main Street – here’s a photo of my friend Steve O. cruising towards the finish:

 I finally crossed the line at 43:13, over a minute slower than last year.  I was 10th place overall, but only 5th in my 10-year age group.  The first and second overall were also in my age group, but the organizers do things their own way and allowed “double-dipping” this year.  So, the winners got several awards and this year I didn’t get a tombstone (last year I won a tombstone for overall masters male).  I didn’t mind too much because I really don’t think I ran very well anyway, but I always think that it’s silly to give multiple awards to the same people, and I think that races should have a no-double-dipping policy to spread the awards out.

After the race, we tried to get all the Tucson runners together for a group photo.  We missed a few but here are most of us.

Tombstone is known as “The Town Too Tough to Die”, and it is now a fun tourist attraction.  But I have to wonder about the race itself – is it too tough to die?  I’ve noticed a gradual attrition in the quality of the race as well as the number of attendees.  This year’s race had just 100 or so runners.  The organizers do not appear to be runners themselves, and the event is part of the larger Vigilante Days weekend.  The T-shirt quality has declined, and for the past 2 years they no longer post results to the web.  I enjoy the race, and would be sad but not be surprised if they decided to discontinue it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Best Marathon Weekend Ever - San Francisco 2012

Some blogs are easy to write, and others are difficult.  This one was a challenge for me to write because I enjoyed the whole race weekend so much that I could write an entire book about it!  But I’ll try to keep it at a manageable size.

I’m writing about the 2012 San Francisco Marathon (SFM).  This year I was fortunate to be selected as a San Francisco Marathon Ambassador, so for many months prior to the event I was busy promoting the race at various other events.

Rather than fly in, I decided to take a road trip with my friends Terri and Bruce.  We hit the road on Thursday and drove for about 8 hours.  That may sound long but road trips with racing buddies are always a blast and we had a lot of fun.  We found an all-you-can-eat buffet on Thursday night and did some serious carb-loading!

On Friday we drove the remaining few hours, and by the time we could see the bridge the excitement level was pretty high.  We went straight to the expo to get our packets and have some fun.  I met up with a few other Arizona friends, including Aric and Jen, and Monica.  Here’s a shot of me and Monica, note the headline from a 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal calling SFM “The Race Even Marathoners Fear”!

The expo was a very good one, with plenty of vendors and seminars.  I picked up a new fuel belt called a “FlipBelt” from Level Terrain Apparel, and so far I really like it.  I also got to meet the Ultramarathon Man, Dean Karnazes and he gave me an interview for my SunRunner Podcast project.  I hung around the Tech Center for a while with other Ambassadors, and then we went to check in to the hotel.  On Friday night, we had a special Ambassador dinner.  It was a very nice gathering and I really enjoyed getting to meet the rest of the Ambassadors.  Runners World Chief Running Officer, Bart Yasso, joined us for the meal.

Saturday morning started off with a Shakeout Run sponsored by Lululemon.  Bruce and I both ran it, as did a bunch of the other Ambassadors.  We had a lot of fun running alongside Bart Yasso!  It was a nice jog along the final stretch of the marathon route, and I really enjoyed the beautiful scenery as we ran along the bay.  Here’s a photo I took during the run, which includes Bruce, Ambassador Alisyn, and Bart:

On Saturday afternoon, I returned to the expo for some fun and also to work at the Tech Center.  During the techno meet-up, I met some great runners including my friend from New Zealand, Kim.

I also attended a seminar, and later Bart and I recorded an interview for SunRunner Podcast.  I had a great day on Saturday, perhaps a bit more active than one normally should be the day before a marathon, but it was well worth it.

Sunday morning started bright and early, as the race has a very early start.  Terri drove Bruce and I right up the starting area (she was running the 5k, which had a later start).  The race starts before sunrise, and the excitement level was very high (as it always is before a marathon start).   Here’s a picture of me with some of my friends just moments before I headed to the starting line – many of them wore tutu’s but I could not bring myself to do that!

I was very happy to find my friend Joe Taricani, host of The Marathon Show podcast, right in my starting corral.  Joe and I chatted for a while and he even interviewed me briefly before the gun went off.  The start went smoothly, and the first few miles are very flat as they run along the Embarcadero.  Eventually we reached the Golden Gate Bridge and ran across – just one example of the unique aspects of this race that make it so special.

Some of the other highlights of the course include looking out on the bay, running through Golden Gate Park, through the Haight-Ashbury District, and back down to the Embarcadero.  It’s a hilly course, but the scenery makes it hardly noticeable.

My only negative has nothing to do with the race itself.  This year, I was running the marathon only about 6 weeks after having double hernia surgery.  My hernias were abdominal, and the only reason I knew about them was the pain that I was experiencing during runs.  The recovery was progressing, but the pain was actually worse than before the surgery – which had a very real negative effect on my ability to hold a fast pace.  Looking at my split times, it’s quite clear that I gradually slowed throughout the entire race.

Despite the pain, which manifested as a nasty burning sensation in my abs, I did manage to complete the race in 3:25:36.  SFM has an incredible finishing area, with plenty of drinks and food for the runners, so it didn’t take long for me to feel much better.  I received two medals – one for finishing SFM, the other for completing both SFM and the LA Marathon in 2012.

I enjoyed hanging around to cheer people in, and saw many that I knew – Ambassadors, Marathon Maniacs, Endorphin Dude, Marathon Goddess, and others.  The friendship culture that grows in marathon racing can’t be matched and it’s so much fun to watch and encourage others as we all achieve our personal victories.  SFM definitely provides an environment that fosters and grows those relationships.  I watched as my friends Bruce and Joe crossed the line:

San Francisco is such a perfect race.  The weather is always just right for marathon racing (even more so if you are coming from the hot Arizona summer), the city has a very special vibe, the race organizers do everything right, and the runners are all amazing.  I know I’ll be heading back, maybe next year you can join me!