Sunday, April 13, 2014

Carlsbad 5000: Mastering the Masters

There's a respectful reason why runner's over 40 are referred to as Masters.  It's not a term used to place them into a "lesser" category, but is a term used to define their honed skill, experience and grit.  They are Masters of running!  There are tough gritty runners in every age category, but the concentration of these qualities seem higher among Masters runners.  I assume part of it is because the less gutsy runners quit when they're still young and what remains in the Master's category is the cream.  A company of "the survival of the fittest."

So it was, once again at this year's Carlsbad 5000.  An amazing group of Master's runners toed the starting line.  Strong, competitive, survivors with experience.  Carlsbad has many unique and special qualities and one of them is that it presents an opportunity for Master's women to run in their own separate race (with the exception of a few guys who are running the "All Day 20 K") which means the winner gets to experience that true feeling of winning - breaking the line first.  It also provides the opportunity to be a spectator for much of the morning as there are 4 different 5K races, a wheelchair race and the two world-class elite races at the end of the morning.  It's an action packed day with a lot of speed and the hope of watching a world record be accomplished!

This year our Carlsbad experience began on the Friday before as we drove down two days in advance of the event.  We wanted a less stressful experience this year so opted for the extra day.  Having survived the apparent earthquake that evening (we didn't feel it but others did), we were able to do our workouts on the course in preparation.  The Carlsbad 5000 course:  some say it is a fast course and indeed it has some fast features, but I've not found it to be a particularly fast course for me.  There are two hairpin turns, lots of ways to mess up the tangents, and depending on how a person runs on false flats, it could actually be a bit of a challenge.  The race is fast, yes, but not necessarily because the course is fast.  It's a fast race because those who come to run it are fast and because the competition is so high level, it draws something a little extra out of each competitor.  That's why I love this race.

In preparing my race plan and determining my goals, I knew that if I were to be competitive enough to place in the top 3 overall Masters (that was where the money was) I would have to run a bit faster than my PR.  I set my PR of 17:46 just a few months ago so it wasn't a completely far-fetched goal, but again, I had to take into consideration how I run on this particular course.  For me, the course was not as fast as the one on which I set my PR.  But top three in the women's race were predictably always around 17:35 or faster.  It's tough setting up that type of goal without feeling a great deal of pressure and quite a bit of doubt.  My time on the course last year, a mediocre race, was 18:19 and I had little doubt I could go faster than that, but to dip down as far as I needed was going to take another "race of a lifetime."  So a PR of 17:35 was my upper goal, and my lower goal was to at least break the 18 minute barrier.  I felt like that would be fully realistic and in line with my other recent accomplishments.  If I could at least do that I'd consider it a good race.  Besides the time/place goals, I also had people goals.  There were a number of exceptional masters women entered as always and there were a few particular ones I really wanted to beat. 

Moving along in this little story, race day arrived on Sunday, March 30th and we arose very early to get John warmed up for his race (I used his warm-up as my pre-warm up).  The Master's men's race goes off first, at a very early 7:00 am so we warmed up on the course in the dark, taking deep breaths of sea air, trying to keep the nerves under control.  We were joined by Nash in the warm-up and we plodded along quietly and silently in the dark, feeling the contour of the first and second miles before heading back over toward the start line.  The weather was hard to predict.  Cloudy with a chance of rain, but was expected to clear.  As the sun rose, the clouds were heavy and we began to feel a few sprinkles.  Rain and moisture weren't too difficult to deal with.  I was just hoping the wind would stay calm.

The men's race went off right on time, with a damp road under their feet, but otherwise perfect conditions.  It was hard to really enjoy watching their race because I often came close to being overwhelmed with nerves as I had heaped quite a lot of pressure on myself for my race.  I couldn't quite keep my mind present for the men's race and continued to think through my race plan, and prepare my mind for the stress of the pain I was going to ask my body to endure.  But in between my mental hemorrages I cheered for the guys who were out there doing their thing and doing it very well.  The front end of the Master's men's race was blazing fast and included a bit of a pack.  A little farther back were our guys, including Joe DeVreese, Nash, John, Larry Brooks and John Brennand, with Dave Odell doing the full 20K.

I watched the guys finish, which was a super fast 16:44 by Joe, 18:03 by Nash, and 18:26 by John.  Gulp, now it was time for the girls and the men just left us a lot to live up to.  Nash and I run very much the same speed and I was trying to decide what his 18:03 meant for me.

Our Santa Barbara running ladies fielded a team for Carlsbad this year so I was thrilled to be there with some great friends, Monica and DeAnna.  I caught sight of them hanging out near the starting line just after I finished my second warm-up.  Just behind them I saw the competition doing strides and drills and I had to take another deep breath and suck in rich strength and confidence.  At some point in the past I used to look at these women and wish I could run as fast.  I would see them not so much as competition as just a privilege to run with them.  I have begun to alter that thought process just a bit and it has come about as a natural response to my better running.  I now see them as viable targets and I see myself equally as capable as they.  It's an important shift and it isn't a "thing" I try to tell myself, it is how I actually see it now.  I am one of them, they are one of me.  If someone is going to win, why not me just as much as they.  I feel finally that I've earned my place on that starting line and I know that they see me and feel a sting of nerves just like I do when I see them.  This was going to be a fun race.

My race strategy was still a bit unsure.  It really depended upon how it played out.  I often try to hold back on the first mile but this time I wanted to push it a bit if it meant staying tucked in with the leaders, so I would have to see how fast they go out.  I learned from past experiences on this course that if you want to be in the running for the prize, you can't hang back at any point.

Soon we were on the starting line, listening to the singing of the National Anthem, smelling the moisture in the air and taking deep breathes.  My last thoughts before the gun went off were of hopes that my body would be totally "on" for me today and my second thought was, "why am I standing behind this weird girl with long ugly socks.  If she slows me down I'm going to trip her."  Boom the gun went off ... deep breath and go hard, go legs, run hard and smooth.  The first thing that happened was the ugly sock girl cut in to the left, right across my path, and I clipped both her feet.  No actual tripping occurred but I was annoyed.  She then proceeded to run out ahead of everyone else and took an unnecessary lead far ahead of the pack.  That was impressive.  It takes very little time for the pack to thin out and by the time we round the corner onto Carlsbad Blvd, we were free of the crowd and the positioning began.  I was disappointed to find that a pack never really formed and instead we began to string out several feet apart.  I had my eye on those I knew ahead of me and I knew a few fast ones were just behind me.  The first mile is always a bit stressful and it is here that you are able to get a sense of how you feel, whether you can maintain, how hard others are working.  A lot of thinking is going on while the blood is still somewhat oxygenated and all the while, the crowd is loud and everywhere.  I felt good at this point although I also was keenly aware that we were going really fast.  I feared going through the first mile too fast and paying for it later but I really had no options.  It was either stay in there now, or kiss all my goals and hopes goodbye.  This is a race that simply hurts from start to finish.  The first mile is marked by a huge inflated arch so you can see it from way back.  As I was descending toward it, I saw the ugly sock girl still way out in front, and back a bit was the race winner from last year, and a few of the ladies I was targeting.  On my shoulder and pacing off of me was another one of my targets.  Interspersed were a few who didn't quite belong and they began to fade out.  By the first mile (which oops was a way too fast 5:30) I was positioned about right, probably in 5th but not far back of those I was pursuing.  We took the first hairpin turn (I cut it a bit close and knocked over a cone) and then we headed back up the not so "false" false flat.  It was around this time that I was passed by my shoulder buddy (I'm purposefully omitting names).  By the way, my shoulder buddy was the most popular runner in the race and the whole time, I mean the WHOLE time, all I heard was her name being cheered and announced.  I tried to convince myself that was cool, but it actually wasn't.  She had this amazing home field advantage and I didn't like it.  Hmmmm, anyway, she passed me and I therefore got onto her shoulder.  This is where having a bit of mental toughness and self-confidence comes into play.  I had to KNOW I could run with her in order to do this.  If I doubted myself at that moment, I would have simply let her pass and then faded away.  When she passed me I actually thought, "excellent, now she can block the wind for me and I'll use her to go get my other targets."  So we ran back up the hill to mile 2 (sub-11:30) and we were inching closer to the girl ahead.  I also noticed though that one of the other girls I had hoped to beat just wasn't slowing down at all.  She had a large lead on me and this was a bit distressing.  The final mile is a bit of up and down, plus another hairpin turn so it really isn't the fastest section and of course lots of pain was setting in.  I hung with my shoulder buddy, and rounded the hairpin which left maybe 3/4 of a mile to go.  It was here that I passed her back up because she was clearly having a bit of trouble negotiating the slight uphill.  I passed her with attitude and focused hard on the girl ahead.  I had beaten the girl ahead just a few weeks earlier in the 8K by about 1 minute.  I knew she was having a great race today and she was so gutsy and strong but I wanted to catch her
in a bad way.  I was not planning on settling.  She was right there ahead of me.  Up over the little hill crest, past Grand Avenue and to the final left hand turn onto Carlsbad Village Drive for the final 400 meters.  This part of the race is a little fuzzy in my memory.  I had several thoughts but little control.  I remember feeling my legs tie up a bit.  I'm pretty sure I did everything I could to finish well.  I crossed the railroad track and then the finish line, hit my watch to stop my time and doubled over.  I didn't catch the girl ahead (she beat me by 2 seconds) and I felt a bit of disappointment.  I looked at my watch time - it showed 18:00 flat.  I wasn't sure whether to feel disappointed by that.  I did NOT get beaten by my popular shoulder buddy (I beat her by 3 seconds) but I still heard her name being announced as if no one else existed.  Deep breath, deep relief that it was over, a walk though the chute pouring water down my pants to clean up a bit, and feeling in the end - satisfied.  I was satisfied with my 2014 Carlsbad 5000.  I placed 5th overall and was 3rd in my age group (first time ever placing in my age group) and most importantly, I beat Nash by 2 seconds, LOL.  Just kidding Nash.  That was only of second importance.  My official time was 18:01.  I still have something more and better inside me.  There were two women ahead of me that are older than me - one ran 17:35 and placed 3rd overall.  I can do that.  I'm going to do that.  I love this so much!

My teammates Monica and DeAnna ran most of their race together and finished extremely strong within 2 seconds of one another solidifying a very strong team finish.  We placed 2nd as a team and we are very proud of that.

I enjoyed the rest of the morning immensely.  We watched the remaining open races and then settled into the best viewing spots to watch Bernard Lagat go for an American records and for a title.  As hard as I ran, it is beyond mind-blowing to think that these world-class men went almost 5 minutes faster and the world-class women almost 3 minutes faster.  And to watch them run is to watch poetry in motion.  Fluid, smooth, focused.  And they were pushing themselves to the very end.  What an amazing finale.  Bernard did in fact capture the American record - I have pictures of it!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

National 8K Masters National Championships

I blame my brothers.  Ah, the adventure and pressures of being a little sister with two older brothers who like to place bets.  My first memory of racing is when I was 5 years old (maybe 4), in a Santa Clara, CA neighborhood where my family lived.  My oldest brother, 7 years my elder, taunted another neighborhood boy who was also 7 years my elder, "Ha, I bet my little sister can run faster than you!"  Little sister Cindy observed two things.  1) My older brother believes in me, 2) therefore, I believe in me.  I was a tough little tom-boy like many young girls and that day, early in life, I learned that I like to win.  Not only that, I like to win against the odds.  I also like to make those who believe in me, proud.  What we have inside of us lives there and at some point we discover it.  It's nice to discover things early on.

Here I am ... many, many years later having lived with this internal flame that burned many different temperatures over the years.  I find it burning the brightest now.  And I'm not the only possessor of this flame.  You have it too.  All of us have something in us that wants to succeed at every level possible.  I enjoy running and competing every bit as much as I did when I was 5 years old, racing in a cul-de-sac against an older, stronger boy, trying just to make my brothers proud and help them win that bet. 

The Brea 8K hosted the Master's National Championships for that distance this year.  Location:  Brea, CA.  The course: rolling slopes with a few hills.  The competition: The Southern California Association of USATF offers the highest level of competition, combined with the nation's best masters runners from all over the country!  My goals:  My best chance of success was an age group win though I was down the list a bit as far as favored.

I want to do races that pull the very best out of me and this was one of them.  Masters runners are seasoned, experienced, smart, fast.  Today's 40+ year olds are proving that 40 is the new 30, and 50 is also the new 30, and what the heck, so is 60.  They just keep getting faster and are staying faster.  It is tumultuously inspirational.  I find myself more honored than ever to enter these high level races and to see these competitors grind it out, hang on through searing pain, grit their teeth and get it done.  The bigger challenge for a masters runner is not the race itself but getting to each starting line healthy.

So here we were, honored to be in Brea and looking for something special to happen.  For this race, myself, my sweet husband John, our fellow master runner and coach, Nash, my Boulder XC teammate T (Teri) and our old faithful, John Brennand were in attendance.  The masters race was run separately from the community wide Brea 8K.  We got to start at 7:30am when the air was still very crisp.  The conditions were absolutely perfect.  The temperature hung in the low 50's, the wind was clean and calm, the sky was clear and it just felt yummy out. 

We began our warm up about one hour before race start, taking our time covering the first 3 miles of the course and a piece of the final mile as well.  A nice long warm up it was, and I have learned here of late that this is a good way to prepare.  An 8K is about 40 yards shy of a full 5 miles, so our warm-up was close to the full race distance, but nice and easy.  It was a happy warm up meeting others along the way.  Some from Northern California, some from other states, many from So Cal.  Everyone clearly feeling a bit of healthy tension but also feeling a connection.  It was all somehow so comforting as I tried to keep my own nerves in check.

I kept my eye out for the "neighborhood boys" I was to compete against, namely those bearing the mark of 45 on their backs (signifying they age group of 45-49).  I already knew who they were and I already knew I was the underdog.  The great thing about that is because I was the underdog, they weren't keeping an eye on me.

Race time approached rapidly and John had already made his way over the starting line while I waiting in line for the port-a-potty ... again.  It was about then that I heard the National Anthem being sung and I realized I was about to miss the start.  I abruptly shot off toward the starting line, which was about 400 meters away.  The runners were already packed into the starting shoot solid with no gaps and although I mumbled a few "excuse me's" and tried to move up a bit, it was really no use.  There were about 200 bodies layered in and I was not where I needed to be.  With nothing more I could do about it, I relieved my anxiety by reminding myself I had a chip on my foot for timing.  My time would begin when I crossed the start line, not when the gun went off.  Or so I thought.

The gun went off and my group of "70 and older guys" in front of me didn't move very quickly.  There was about a 5 second gap between the gun and my crossing of the starting line, and then from there I had to make my way around the runners in front of me.  Because of my placement back in the starting pack, it was an inefficient start but I calmly went about my business doing what I could to get to where I needed to be.  I paid absolutely no attention to any other runner in the race.  I didn't know where the lead women were.  I didn't know where my age group contenders were.  I didn't know where my fellow Santa Barbara runners were.  I had one thing on my mind and that was to run this race by my race plan and not in reaction to any one or anything else.  My plan was to run conservatively to begin with (at my intended race pace of 6 minutes) for the first two miles.  I wanted to be feeling good when I attacked the hills in mile three.  The final piece of the plan was to come out of mile 4 having made up the deficit in time created by the hills and then find something deeper to pick it up in the final mile.

I loved this race.  From start to finish it was lined with cheering spectators and the atmosphere was electric.  There were wonderful interactions happening between the racers and the spectators as masters runner are also full of class and appreciation.  Mile 1 per clock time was right on at 6:00 minutes exactly.  My watch time was 5:55 which was also my chip time but I was at this point going off of the official gun time and what was being called out to me at every mile.  Mile 2 was slightly slower but the course created more strain in that particular section so I wasn't worried and I came through at just over 12 minutes.  From here it was a sharp left turn into a loop and up a long, steady climb.  It was here that I passed my first significant competitor as she struggled a bit with the hill.  I kept my effort steady and my pace slowed appropriately for this particular mile of the course and I came through 3 miles in 18:18.  Mile 4 was the other side of the hill and allowed for some recovery, relaxation and build up in pace.  It was in this mile I feel I really began to gain on those ahead of me and where I felt my conservative start was serving me well.  Toward the end of mile 4 is the turn back onto the main street that headed back to the finish line and in fact, the buildings and structures near the finish were clearly in view up ahead.  The final mile was not flat, nor necessarily fast but it was going to need to be my fastest mile of the race.  That was the plan and that's what I needed to do.

As I passed mile 4 in 24: ... something, I knew I was to that point not where I had hoped to be but I was still feeling so good and strong.  I didn't realize I was actually picking up the pace until I began passing runner after runner after runner, including my final age group competitor.  I passed her early in the final mile and by the time we finished I had put almost a full minute on her.  I still had no idea who was ahead, how many women, how far, but someone shouted to me, "now go catch Julie."  I know who Julie is and I wondered for several meters of increasing speed how on earth I could be anywhere close enough to catch her.  What I did know is that up ahead there was a battle going on.  Nash was in a group of men, two of which were in his age group.  As I approached from the back, closing in on about 800 meters to go, I saw him pass one of the men but the other lingered ahead of him.  Nash had his own cheering section at this race (his wonderful family came to support him) and I heard them cheering and yelling in desperation.  My consuming thought was then to get on Nash's shoulder and push him past his competitor.  Somehow or another I still had lungs and strength and I got right up onto his shoulder.  He
became aware of me and I know it ticked him off a bit.  That was what I was hoping for.  I moved along with him and just a bit ahead of him and he picked it up and came with me.  We kept the tempo and rounded the turns into the mall parking lot that housed the finish line and then made the final turn toward the finish.  That part is always and ever will be a blur in any race and this one was no different.  I had the vague awareness that the guy Nash was trying to catch finished right ahead of me, and Nash finished right behind me.  Not the outcome we were hoping for.  I also remember seeing my time on the clock.  I was sure I had missed my goal time of 30:00 (6 minute pace) and when I looked up and saw 29:40, I then and there, that was the final mile I had hoped and dreamed I'd have.  It turned out to be a 5:27 (which was 40 yards short of a full mile, so was at about 5:35 pace).  I never did see Julie but discovered she was only 7 seconds ahead of me when it was all said and done.  I also soon discovered that Julie was third female overall.  I therefore was the dreaded 4th!  Just out of the overall medals, just out of the money.  Go figure, but I soon also learned that I had in fact won my age group and that was a very big deal.  My watch time which matched my chip time was 29:38.  Though it didn't make any difference in the end, I also learned that in official national championship races and races that award money, they go by gun time not chip time so my official time was 29:42.  I had to eat those lost seconds that I accrued at the start but I was also glad.  Being caught behind gave me the ability to forget about anything going on ahead of me and gave me the opportunity to run a negative split and make it count when it needed to count.  I was happy.

John finished not long after and he found me jogging around in all kinds of excitement.  Ah, those So Cal/LA girls made a big mistake.  I talked with girl #2 in my age group after the race and she said, "man, I was sure I was set with one mile to go.  No 45 or older women were going to pass me and then, boom, you just flew by."  I explained how I went out conservatively and was just so thankful to have it when I needed it.  And as it should be, there was now mutual respect.

I earned a small amount of money, but more importantly, I own a patch that says USATF National Champion.  Wow, that is humbling, exciting, special and most importantly has made me hungry for the next one!!

Thank you immensely to you who cheered from afar or who participated in the post-race facebook excitement.  It just matters that much more if others share it and care.  I am forever appreciative and want to be there to do the same for you.  Blessings to you.  Thanks to God for the opportunity to run for when I run I feel God's pleasure.

Monday, February 17, 2014

USATF National Cross-Country Championships

Thus begins my tale of twisted endings, of expectations contorted into unsightly figures, of a journey traveled with intentional strides, destination known, but somehow unfamiliar when face to face.  I set out to do something special this year.  I stepped into a commitment to compete as far out of my comfort zone as possible in hopes of attaining something truly worthwhile.  It occurred to me as I embarked on this journey with a few other brave souls, that this is truly living.  Why do something easy and less challenging when you can have a moment of brilliance doing something spectacular.

John and I stepped into the realm of national championship competitions as Master's runners this past weekend.  Though we had done many USATF events within our Southern California association (which is easily the most competitive in the nation) we had not ever done a Masters national competition.  This past weekend we embarked on our first - The USATF National Cross-country Championships in Boulder, CO.

The story began several months ago.  In fact I had targeted this race for about a year and had also hoped to form a master women's team to go in representation of Santa Barbara.  I discovered there are some amazing, brave and motivated, not to mention talented, master women in Santa Barbara and in the end, we entered a team of 5 women to compete.  Myself, Monica DeVreese, Desa Mandarino, DeAnna Odell and Teri Malinowski.  I am forever bonded to these women after our Boulder experience and I am so very proud of them, their fortitude and strength, and their perseverance.

Training began in early December right on the heels of the completion of our regular racing schedule.  The Ventura Turkey Trot was our year's best race.  Actually for me it was my lifetime best 5K performance and all the stars aligned for me that day.  It was the perfect launch into a new challenge - that of cross country at altitude against the nation's best master runners.

Training moved us off the track and onto the grass.  Out of racing flats and into spikes.  Out of the known and familiar into the unknown.  On the grass, our interval distances were marked by orange cones and I could no longer judge my pace based on laps around the track.  The grass was uneven, full of ruts and obstacles, lumps around the palm trees, holes, tufts of crab grass: a soft, sinking energy sucking green carpet.  This surface was going to be our new training partner for 8 weeks so we got to know it well.  Tuesday mornings we hit the grass before the sun rose.  Saturdays were reserved for longer tempo runs looping around the grass as many times as it took.  Workout after workout, we sought to begin to love the grass and make it work to our advantage.  Another goal was to maximize our oxygen efficiency as much as possible here at sea level in an attempt to lessen what would be an altitude shock.

Along with the grass workouts, there was my long run which I extended out to 15 miles (which is a lot for me), two days a week were double workouts combining a run and a swim, and then there were the accessory workouts such as weight training.  The 8 week period was relentless and I kept in mind that my competitors were doing the same or more and they were going to have a huge altitude advantage too.  Besides the training, I began to obsess over the race entries - who was entering and could I beat them?  I obsessed over the weather - would it be too cold, too windy, would there be snow, how would the course be affected?  The weather in Boulder was all over the place and clearly unpredictable.  The pinnacle occurred the week prior to the race when Boulder weather started setting records for negative temperatures.  My final obsession was over the race plan - how would I handle so many disadvantages and still do well?

The pain of training was lessened by a few factors.  1. We have had solid and persistent coaching and guidance from Nash Jimenez who is very familiar with this level of competition and knew exactly how to prep; 2. By the addition of a few more running buddies to join us in the pain - Desa and Amy.  Hurting through workouts with others is so much more fun.  It really is!!

So it went that we did everything we knew to do to get ready for this high level competition.  We capped it off with the Super Bowl 4 Miler which was used both as a time trial and a tempo run and provided the opportunity to practice our race strategy.  The Super Bowl went super great.  We had a headwind to deal with but apart from that, we ran the first two miles "easy and controlled" and picked it up the final two miles.  It played out perfectly and felt great.

Onto the final chapter - John and I left for Colorado one week prior to the race so that we could spend some days above our race altitude.  We were in Colorado Springs and did our final interval workout and taper along some amazing paths.  Everything felt good for me.  I think I felt the altitude but it never seemed to be that much of an issue.  The intervals were the hardest part but were doable and were done at a reasonably high level of speed.  After 4 days in Colorado Springs we headed to Boulder and had our first experience with the location of our race.  We went on an out-and-back path along Boulder Creek and ended with a nice hard tempo.  All I can say about that was when I finished the run, I was race ready and confident.

The rest of our ladies team arrived on Thursday to join us in Boulder and we previewed the course on Friday.  That was a nice run, comfortable and easy and we marveled at how great this course was and how miraculously the weather improved.  The race day forecast called for a high of 54 degrees, low of 37 degrees.  That sounded a lot like Santa Barbara really.  And the course was just amazing - velvet smooth fairway grass on Flatirons Golf course.  Yes there were some twists and turns and some slushy, soggy areas as well as a sick muddy curve, but it seemed so much better than what we had been training on.  Again this filled my heart with confidence that we had really done the right things to prepare.

That night, Friday night, a high-wind warning was issued and it was going to extend into the morning.  This was the first hiccup I felt in my confidence.  With other things to factor in, I didn't want to have to face gale-force winds.  That night I lay awake listening to the gusts hitting our hotel windows, rattling our loose door from the outside hallway (a hallway that was fully inside the building).  Not that I would be sleeping anyway, but I was wishing that wind to go away.  It gusted all night and at some point I dozed off to sleep for a short while.  When I awoke, I peeked out the window to see how hard the trees were blowing.  It had indeed died down a bit but there was still movement.  The shocking and odd thing was the pre-dawn temperature at 6:00 am was 54 degrees.  It was HOT OUT!!!  This was like some kind of Santa Ana episode and it left the air warm (relatively speaking) and dry. 

We took a shuttle from the hotel to the course and arrived to find our Athlete's tent had not survived the night and was in a broken heap.  The snow that remained on the course the day before, was now gone.  It was just an odd scene and coupled with the nerves and tension, it was just surreal.  The organizers had already implemented plan B and directed us to a brick building which was now the new athlete's tent.  I jested as we walked into it, "I see this baby is made out of brick.  Ain't no wolf gonna blow this one down." 

I started out with extra layers of clothing and quickly headed out for my long warm up.  The first thing I noticed was that I felt awful.  My chest was tight, I didn't feel comfortable in my stride, my running bra felt too tight around my ribs.  This was nothing like how my week had been.  I continued to jog, pulling off layers of clothing as I needed to.  I decided to change into a looser bra but even still, I found it harder to breath.  Was it just nerves?  I couldn't tell and there wasn't much I could do about it at this point.  After 3 miles of warm-up we finally slipped into our spikes, and removed most of the layers and our ladies team headed over to the starting line to present ourselves to the line judge to have our uniforms and race numbers examined for compliance.  From there we did strides and drills while the last few minutes ticked off until start time. 

There were about 70 women lined up, each team in a designated starting box.  We were in a far right position which meant we had to angle in a lot to get into the best position during the race.  There was still a wind blowing around too, and it was so oddly dry.  I felt thirsty and couldn't swallow.  I was able to strip down to my shorts and singlet, no gloves or ear covering needed.  I took deep breaths and an attempt to push out the negative thoughts that began to build.

The gun went off, the runners went off and I ran out ahead of those around me and made my angle toward the inside edge of our course where the leaders began to form a pack.  My goal was to finish top 5 and I knew exactly who would be ahead of me and which one of those I needed to beat.  The absolute ONLY thing I could not do in this race was go out too fast.  I knew what I wanted to do, I thought I knew what I definitely could do, and I pulled myself back from all of that into a pace that was slow.  I let the lead pack have their distance and I stayed with the others around me.  Not more than 800 meters into the race I knew something wasn't right.  I was clearly going very slow but I was having trouble maintaining even that.  By the time I hit mile 1 of this 6K (3.73 miles) race my quads began to tie-up with lactic acid.  I had gone out in 6:11 pace, hit the 2K right on but in all of that, I apparently had totally miscalculated what "going out easy" meant in this scenario.  I came around the first of 3 loops in the exact position I needed to be in but the problem was I was in distress already.  It was not long before I began to give up on one goal after another.  I already figured out I was not going to make my time goals, and I was not going to be able to beat the women I thought I could.  From there I began to go into survival mode.  With every step I took, the lactic acid continued to build and my quads screamed at me as if I were doing 300 pound squats.  I felt strain and pain and it made no sense to me.  Here I was running on a flat grass surface which I had trained for, yet my body was shutting down, yet I had felt great all week.  My race, the part that included my heart and soul, was over before I got too the final lap and I spent the remainder of it being passed by women who should not have been passing me.  It was like a nightmare and I just wanted it to be over.  I knew that when I reached the finish line, I might be done with the race but this feeling of agony was going to extend.  I was merely just moving forward so as not to completely quit.  My legs were totally gone, no strength, hardly the ability to pick them up and move them forward.  Each step felt like I was hefting 30 pounds of mud on my soles.  As the crowd cheered and the men's team shouted encouragement, there was just nothing I could do to respond.  Another woman passed me.  Would this ever end?  Finally I reached the finish, crossed it, clicked off my watch, walked a couple of steps, bent over and massaged my quads just so they wouldn't collapse on me.  That's all I needed.  To finish and collapse after running so poorly.  I would love to collapse after a great race, but to collapse after this one would have only been one more humiliation. 

Somehow I got through the chute, timing chips removed and John greeted me with my jacket.  He had to get going in preparation for his race so he left quickly to warm up.  I stood around and waited a short while for the remainder of my teammates to finish and I realized my hands and face were numb.  Somehow during our race the temperature dropped 15-20 degrees.  It was now in the 30's and I was cold.  I quickly began to shiver.  The girls came through in close proximity and we soon huddled together for a quick picture.  One by one we relayed pieces of our experience - my legs, Desa's heart rate soared and kept her from running hard, Monica was unable to breath.  It was just ultimately not what we expected.  Still we all made it and here we were.  On the other side of that finish line.

So you see how the journey began and ended with some twisted finale.  I haven't had time to process it all but when I do, I'm sure I will conclude the same thing - we did everything right in preparation.  The altitude affected me differently than I expected and my race plan was harder to implement than I thought.  A lot of lessens learned I suppose but still I woke up the day after and wished the whole thing was just a bad dream.  I wished I could wake up on race day again and do it all over.

In the end, I placed 13th overall, 4th in my age group and our team placed 4th.  My time is not worth mentioning since this is after all cross-country and in cross-country your final time is a non-issue.  But I will say that my time was 2 minutes slower than my conservatively thought out goal time.

So here I am back home and at sea level and I allowed myself to feel down-hearted for a few hours.  Now it's time to move on.  This coming weekend, mercifully I have another national championship race in which to compete - the USATF Master's National 8K Road Championships - and this one is in Orange County.  The competition will be very tough but at least I will have more control over how I do.  I'm just hoping my legs will begin to work by then since they are currently all but seized up with lactic acid.

Oh the joys of this new journey and yet I am still so very thankful because this race and this experience has made me feel that much more alive!  I am going to keep pursuing the greater things and am going to enjoy the journey.  I am forever thankful that John is on this journey with me, and Nash is too!  And now too we have some master's ladies who have tasted the sweet nectar of higher level competition and they may want to join me for some more soon!!!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Santa Barbara Bathrooms - Best Places to Stop and Go

Regrettably, I have become an authority on "during the run - pit stops."  I'll do you a favor and skip the messy details and suffice it to say, I intimately know every public bathroom and private thicket in Santa Barbara.  When one spends so much time on the porcelain throne, there's a lot of time to contemplate favorite "stopping" grounds and compare the various features one may enjoy during their visit.

Before I get to the review - My mid-run/mid-race pit stops date back a few years and I have a favorite story that I love to share about a particular incident.  It is rare, but on occasion I have had to stop mid-race to use a porta-potty or cluster of bushes.  One such occasion occurred in 2010 when I was competing in a grueling, dusty, hot half marathon held on Camp Pendleton in North San Diego County.  The race was aptly named Heart Break Ridge.  The course is in a rural area of Camp Pendleton (not surprising because 98% of Camp Pendleton is rural) and the jovial race director announced very specific instructions at the start.  Most notably, he warned to stay on the road and avoid the bushes at all costs.  There in lies rattlesnakes, scorpions, and an occasional buffalo, not to mention perhaps a training exercise that involves bullets.  It's not good to visit the bushes in Camp Pendleton.  The race director was happy to announce that there is a porta-potty located on the course which we pass twice (it was an out and back course).  Fine, I thought.  Works for me, no worries.  I had no plans of GI issues.  So off we went and I had a lovely, enjoyable jaunt down the course on the dusty, dry road all the way to the bottom of the canyon to the turn-around point.  Then there was the climb back up and out of the canyon.  By the time I dragged my body up that road, I had amassed at least a mile lead on the next female in the race so when my body decided to begin to have issues around the 11th mile, I contemplated my options.  I had just passed the single, solitary, humane and dignity saving porta-potty and I wasn't about to back-track.  Since there was no one directly close to me on the road, my eyes started scanning the forbidden bushes for a good spot as I went through the race directors instructions one last time in my mind.  Do NOT go into the bushes.  In doing so, many are never seen again.  But, as they say, when you gotta go, you gotta go, so I ran off the road at a 90 degree angle into the cloaking sage pulling my shorts down while I ran.  There is an art to getting this done quickly and I knew the clock was ticking.  There wasn't anyone around to see me at that point, but even if there was, my focus wasn't on modesty.  It was a quick pit stop.  I got all my tires changed in less than a minute and began running back to the road.  Again, modesty wasn't my first priority and this time I wasn't so lucky.  Coming out of the bushes I had an audience and there I was bounding along while still pulling up my pants.  One of the guys was rounding the bend and witnessed the tail-end of my ... um, that was a poor choice of words.  But it's a race so somehow none of this matters and I join my new "friend" on the road to finish the last few miles of this bad boy.  He chuckles a bit in jest and pain (because this was a brutal race) saying something like, "aren't we supposed to stay out of the bushes?"  I tried to apologize between labored gasps for the little display and explained, "I had to go."  All runners understand what that means.  After the race, my "potty friend" had to approach me one more time with friendly comments and we laughed a bit about the situation and again I apologized.  What the heck, in San Diego, a location full of people, the odds of me ever seeing this guy again were very slim so I never gave it another thought.  But here's the rest of the story.  The very next Saturday when I arrived to meet with the runners that I often train with, there he was.  Jeff.  Jeff, my "potty-buddy" somehow heard of our little meetup group and decided to join us.  I mean, what are the odds?  Hi Jeff, it's me Cindy.  Remember ... from last weekend ... the bushes ... caught with my pants down?  Ha ha ha!  Yah, of course.  Hi Cindy.  Oh hey, I have to tell you.  When I first saw this person (you) randomly running out of the bushes I thought it (you) was a guy.   Ha ha ha!  Hmmm.  Gee, thanks Jeff.  That makes me feel a whole lot better.  Well, the conclusion of the story is that Jeff has become one of my very best and beloved running buddies and I have enjoyed many, many great training runs with him.  Every time we visit San Diego, we run with Jeff.  I have absolutely no problem asking Jeff if he minds if I stop at the bathroom along the way.

Now back to the best places to Go on the Run here in Santa Barbara.  Since, as I mentioned, I am an unfortunate authority on the topic, I've decided to name the best and worst according the various IMPORTANT categories.  Disclaimer: These categories may be more important to females than males.
  • Least Private - The bathroom at the top of Shoreline Park wins this category.  Both toilets boast an "open space" concept and are therefore door-less.  When I stop here I make it fast and make a lot of noise.  This bathroom is ideal for quick in-and-out.
  • Best Smelling - The bathrooms at the Cemetery easily win this category.  While technically joggers aren't allowed at the cemetery, I am a runner so it's ok for me to stop here.  I somehow feel guilty entering this floral smelling rest area while dripping with sweat but the melodious odor beckons me.  This bathroom is not so good for the quick in-and-out because one wants to stay a while.
  • Most Energy and Resource Efficient - The bathrooms at the Westmont track.  This bathroom features automatic lights, automatic flush, and automatic water so nothing is wasted here and you don't have to get your hands dirty.  Just make sure you don't lean forward while still seated, or else you'll get a localized shower.  This bathroom is great for frequent visits during the same training workout.
  • Wettest Toilet Seats - The bathroom at East Beach.  For some reason, those who visit this bathroom have poor aim as evidenced not only by wet seats but also sticky floors. 
  • The Most Conveniently Located but Not Really Allowed to Use - The bathrooms at the private tennis courts on Las Positas.  When visiting this bathroom, make sure you look like a tennis player as you approach it.  If questioned, apologize profusely for assuming these were available to you and then let them know you'll go ahead and use the bushes behind their building instead.  But, oh, can I borrow some of the toilet paper?
  • Use at your Own Risk - The harbor bathroom near the boat launch.  This seems to be the home of a "not mentally stable" woman who sings loudly and talks to imaginary friends. She gets mad at her friends a lot too.  This is another good one for quick in-and-out.  Don't make eye contact and don't bother washing your hands. 
  • The Best Toilet Paper - The bathroom at Los Banos Pool has quilted, super-soft toilet paper and cool toilets that give you the option to flush up for liquid waste and flush down for solid waste.  I always flush down.
  • The Good Luck Trying to Find a Usable Commode - The Chase Palm Park bathroom seems to get a lot of use.  Among the three toilets, it can be a challenge to find a workable combination of a) Toilet paper available, b) no floaties, c) a door that actually latches shut.
There it is.  Santa Barbara Bathrooms in review.  Now you know the best and worst places to Stop and Go. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving for PR's and Things that Really Matter

"In a race, all the runners run but only one gets the prize. Run in such a way as to win the prize." This remains to be my favorite verse in scripture and I often quote it in my head not only as a way to approach running, but even more importantly, as a way to live my life. The Apostle Paul, who penned this verse, wrote it in the context of spiritual living; the race being our life, the prize being eternal life. I love it because it inspires me to be the best runner I can be and also the best person I can be. I would never want to be one without the other.

This year on Thanksgiving Day, like so many others, John and I, along with a few fellow Santa Barbara runners, competed in a turkey trot - the Ventura Turkey Trot. I targeted this race early in the year, hoping to reach it healthy and ready to run fast. I had a goal. In fact I've had this goal my whole life. Quite simply, I wanted to break the 18 minute barrier in a 5k. This is something that had eluded me too many times without mercy. When assessing my performances at other distances, all signs indicated an ability to reach this. Earlier this year, on a speedy course I came close with an 18:06 but that result felt empty having fallen short of the goal.  I hadn't run to my potential yet.  It wasn't my day, but I hoped "my day" was still ahead of me, waiting for me.

In the months leading up to Ventura TT, there were positive signs that my fitness and potential were improving just a bit, to the point that I felt I had a good chance of finally dropping a perfect race, in perfect conditions, at the perfect time.  In training, my quality workouts were feeling good and generally getting better.  To take full advantage of this, I eased off on my other training days so that I always had the legs and lungs to hit it hard when I needed to.  Most of my recent races had gone well, and I was feeling stronger in the closing miles than I used to, breathing was easier and I felt finally that my base of endurance was working in my favor.

Although the Thanksgiving Day forecast threatened rain, we were met with dry, partly cloudy skies and a moderately cool temperature. Winds were mild on this notoriously windy course. My spirits were also lifted by the presence of my husband John, who likewise was ready for a fast race, and by my friend and teammate Jessica.  Nervousness electrified the air around us as we focused on our goals for the day, putting pressure on ourselves and asking ourselves "why do we do this?"  I listened closely to my body as we warmed up, waiting for tell-tale signs of what I should expect. I ran through the race plan in my head and recalled the mile splits I would have to make in order to break 18. Deep breaths filled my lungs and I pushed all negative feelings out with each exhale.  I would soon know with each passing mile whether it was within me to hold on for the race of my life.

One of the qualities of this particular race that makes it fast is the nice flat course, void of sharp turns. The other quality is found in its participants. There is most always a fast field and I was hoping to use that toward my goals. It meant possibly having to run differently than originally planned and from there I'd have to remain calm and focused. I was happy to have the presence of my Oiselle SBRunCo blazing fast teammate Drea. Drea is in her final preparation for a marathon so her goals here today were a bit different but I felt strength in her presence and knew she was going to be leading things out for a fast day.
Getting ready on the starting line.

Runners gathered at the start and after a few comments from the race director, the gun went off and into a fast first mile we all went, like we were caught in a tidal wave of momentum. I immediately worried that this was a bit too fast but I already was seeing a small pack of women gather just ahead of me and next to me. They were all keying off of Drea's pace and for me it was either stick or be dropped. I stuck, and our first mile rang out in a silky 5:33. I felt settled and comfortable with the pace at least for the moment. Positions jockied just a bit among our pack of 5 women and I continued to assess myself along with assessing what I could of my fellow competitors. One seemed not to belong as she was pudgy and didn't look the part (it seems a part of racing to size up your competitors - I wasn't trying to be judgmental, it was just an observation). But she proved strong and capable as did all the others. Everybody was clearly running within themselves at this point as breathing was steady and the pace remained strong.  No one dropped off.  Before too long, one girl began to pull away. I tried to react with an attempt to go with her but her pace was not sustainable for me. This left me in a no-man's land when we turned the corner and found the head-wind.  What else could I do at this point but push on. I reached the second mile with a 5:43 split and tried hard to feel elated by the reality that I was still ahead of pace, but the elation was squelched by a growing feeling of exhaustion. I had another mile to go and my prevailing thought was "don't fall apart now - find a way to hold it together." It is amazing the mental component involved in racing.  The body may be willing but if the mind is weak, the body will fail.  A lot of intense thinking occurs in the dark moments of a race, and every race, if it is truly raced, has a dark moment.  It was during this thought process that I was passed by one of the girls in our pack and as we came into the final 800 meters, I was keenly aware that the others were right there not far behind. The blond pudgy one was close behind as evidenced by her coach yelling at her to catch the pink girl - me. At mile three I remained under pace though I had clearly faded. I came through in 5:52. I rounded the corner to race for the finish (a finish line I had long since wished I'd already reached) and with my focus seared into the ticking clock I crossed in 17:46. As I unceremoniously wobbled through the chute, I felt nothing but pure relief and unbridled satisfaction. Then I doubled over in search of oxygen.

In no time at all, John had breached the finish line with his century PR of 18:23 and Jessica soon after. We were all there, gathered with Drea and Tim Strand, a very happy group of Santa Barbara runners, all of whom represented very well on this day.

As I mentioned, breaking 18 minutes in a 5k has always been a goal. I began running competitively when I was 9 years old.  In my college years I focused mostly on cross-country, so never managed it then, and my middle years were devoted to raising my family, so too, it was not achieved then.  My strength grew in my early 40's but injury interfered.  Here at 45 years of age, I finally grabbed hold of it, achieving with it, an 89% age grade. This PR was a 20 second drop, albeit on a smoking fast course, but having this under my belt presents new goals, dreams and opportunities. In the moments and hours of reflection since, many things come to mind.

1. I had always worried that I would some day regret giving up my "best" competitive years as I opted to focus on raising my family through my late 20's and all of my 30's. Not that I'd ever regret putting them first, but would I regret never reaching my potential as a runner?  However, my master years have been my best years and I am still able to explore what I am capable of in the context of my age.  My plan and hope is to continue to get faster as I grow older and when I crest that limit, make a graceful and strong decent.  I remain incredibly inspired by women who are older and faster than me.  It gives me hope that it's not time to slow down just yet.

2. What brought me to this day and this achievement: a loving, supportive husband, who not only encourages me and believes in me, but also trains and races with me. The help and guidance of a veteran master runner and phenom - Nash Jimenez. Nash has gently guided John and I and has believed in us, giving advice that has fortified our experience, and putting wings to our dreams and goals. This has multiplied our joy in training, running and racing.

3. An increase in mileage this year, along with a long span of injury-free running. I have found that I have been able to hold on to a hard pace longer because I finally have a solid base. After facing two years of debilitating injury, the last year and a half have been devoted to gaining back.  Thank you to Dr. Ferrel for working on us and nipping would-be injuries before they take us down.

4. Friends and running partners that care and believe in you. I'm thankful for you!  I don't place trust in people easily, but you have made it easy and worth it.

"In a race all the runners run but only one gets the prize. Run in such a way as to win the prize." Think about that for just a moment and what it means in life. The description of achieving a life-long goal also means something to me in how I have chosen to live my life. Not without failure but with the intent to live with the highest level of integrity and pursuit of Godly character. My goals in life are to be a positive force in the life of everyone. This is a high calling and an ongoing race. May we all finish the race well, having done everything to run in such a way as to win the prize. The prize in life worth winning is even better than a Personal Record.  Today I am thankful for both.  From The Gladiator: "What we do in life echoes in eternity."  Thank you God for another race, another day to train, another day to make a difference.  Praise be to You for all of this.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pacing the Race

On a bright, crisp morning in November, I find myself gearing up in anticipation as the SMIVM (Santa Barbara International Veteran's Marathon) lead runners approach the half-way mark.  I'm watching at the half-way mark because I will be taking over the Official Pacing for the 3:30 pace group.  It will be my job to carry them from mid-way to finish ensuring they'll break a 3:30 marathon.  For many in the group, this will qualify them for Boston.  Though I'm not racing today myself, I feel the typical pre-race tension.  In this case it may be due more to the pressure I feel of accomplishing the task at hand, not for myself, but for those who are relying on me.  The pace I will be keeping for them is not a difficult one for me, but keeping it straight on for them will be difficult.  My warm-up is minimal.  I'll warm-up some more once I take the 3:30 Pacer Sign and settle into the feel and rhythm. 

Several spectators have gathered at the half-way point, and we clap and cheer as the first two male competitors move through.  I note that they don't look particularly good at this point but perhaps their pace will be manageable and they can stay with it to the finish.  Next through was the first female.  She came through the 1/2 marathon mark in 1:19 - an amazing third position overall.  She looked focused and smooth but she was working.  I wonder if hitting the half-way mark is a positive or negative.  One might say, ah, now I can begin counting the miles back down to ZERO.  Another may worry that they have to cover that same distance again before reaching the finish.  If it were an out-and-back course, it's easier to mentally work it out that once you are half-way, you are headed back home, but for a lot of these folks coming through on this point-to-point course, a look of dread seemed to linger.

The first Pacer group (3:00) came through.  In nice even increments of 5 minutes, soon there was the 3:05 group, the 3:10 group, the 3:15 group, and on it went.  In some cases, the same pacer journeyed on, and in other cases, the duty was handed off to the fresh new pacer.  I was happy to be a fresh new pacer.  I saw in the distance, a dancing "3:30" sign and my eyes widened as I jogged backwards on the course to meet up with my pacing partner Dan Rudd!

Dan and I had this perfect plan of continuity.  So that we didn't lose track of a single second, Dan wore my Garmin watch and started it at the race start line.  Our exchange consisted of transferring my watch to my wrist while jogging through the half-way point, and the sign was put in my hand.  There were quick introductions and with a simple nod and thanks, our little pace group said goodbye to Dan and hello to Cindy.

Dan had the group perfectly ahead of pace by one minute.  Our plan was to ultimately have them ahead of pace by two minutes at the base of Cliff Drive (mile 23) in order to fully factor in the difficulty of climbing that hill in the final miles of the race.  We didn't want our 3:30 group to crest the top of that hill and have to scramble to get back on pace and possibly miss it in the end, so we planned to bank it and any left over could be spent gliding on the final descent.

My first observation was that the sign was difficult to keep up in the air.  Some of the other Pacer groups dumped their signs and went on only with the Pacer t-shirt announcing them.  I had it in my mind that I would rather keep the sign and use it as a beacon to those lingering behind; a target bouncing along in front of them.  The sign also came in handy every time we passed a group of spectators.  It showed them that this group had a goal and they cheered them accordingly.  I soon found that the sign wasn't so bad after all and I held it high with pride most of the way. 

My second observation was that with the variations in the course, it was not practical to run a straight 8:00 min/mile pace.  The down-hills allowed for a pick up in pace and the up-hills caused an obvious slowing.  Along with this, the GPS watch is inaccurate to an ever increasing degree so it could not be fully relied upon.  I had to keep the projected and required mile times ever present in my mind and make mental notes every time we passed another mile marker.  In this way, it was difficult to perfectly judge the pace and I worried constantly that I was either too slow or too fast.  Either one could kill the day for these runners.

My third observation was that when I first took over the Pacer sign from Dan, there was a notable group of runners hovering close by.  Within a few miles, the number of runners hanging in there with me was dwindling.  I worried if my pace was much altered from what they had been running with Dan.  As we ran along the bike path, past miles 15-19 I still had a group and though I opted not to talk during the race, I took a moment to recommend they grab a gel from the aid station at mile 19 so that they could consume it a bit later on.  Somewhere between that bit of instruction, and mile 19, I lost most of my group.

There were a few running along with me still and I saw that our 1 minute banked time had grown to 2 minutes of banked time and we hadn't even gotten out onto Modoc yet.  I announced to those laboring along-side me that we had all the time banked that we need and now we can afford to take it easy when we got back out on the road!  Which we did.

On Modoc I was aware that I only had maybe two guys hanging in there but we were going nice and easy and they seemed to be handling it fine.  We chatted just a bit up the incline and when we approached a water station I suggested they take their gel at that point.  From there, I watched every mile very carefully, actually trying to pull it back a bit so as not to continue at a faster pace than was required.  We hit the nice bit of downhill on Las Positas and I lost one of the guys.  He slowly drifted back.  I was hoping he'd recover before the hill.  At mile 23 just before the climb, we were exactly where I had planned, 2 minutes ahead of pace.  When I began climbing the hill, I lost the other guy and hoped he'd come back to me at the top.  In the meantime, as I had caught up to others along the course and a few hung onto me as a guide.  Although I had lost the initial group, I was able to pick up others who had gone out at a faster pace and were still hoping to make it in under 3:30.  I found that the Pacer sign did a lot for those around me, including the spectators who were anxiously awaiting their friend or loved one.  They asked as I went by if I was "on pace" and used that as a gauge.
Hoping my couple of guys would catch up, I made my way slowly down the hill toward mile 25 and came across it only 50 seconds ahead of pace.  I couldn't afford to lose any more time in waiting and coasted on down.  I came into the La Playa Stadium alone with my little 3:30 sign feeling a bit odd that I was the only one in my Pacing group - my Official 3:30 Pacing group.  But there were a few who ran ahead and a few that might still make it behind.  As for me, I crossed in 3:29:03. 

Walking through the chute I immediately doubted that I had done a good job.  I had pictured the whole experience would be quite different than how it turned out.  My whole purpose today was to help others achieve a goal and really nothing else mattered.  I had the "mother hen" mentality as we ran along but this mother hen didn't have any of her chicks with her in the end.  It was a tough day for some of the chicks - was there more I could have done to help them?

This will be my question until the next time comes.  Like anything else, experience makes us better and wiser and this was my first time as an Official Pacer.  I was so happy to have done it and will certainly do it again (if they let me).  It was an honor.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Avocados and Foxes

The signs of Fall are upon us!  The shadows get longer, the days get shorter, the air just a bit cooler and drier, football has begun, and you can just feel the change.  Like we've just rounded a corner into the next season.  Fall also means there's a slight shift in racing, from roads and tri's, to cross-country.  Last year John and I did a full set of cross-country races, just for a change of pace.  This year we did just two cross-country races so that we could take a bit of a break before training hard for a big target race coming up in February.

The hot, dry air hit us in early October with some out-of-the-blue sweltering days with low humidity.  Running hard in those conditions usually spells disaster for me.  In hot, dry air (even cold, dry air) my lungs seem to have an adverse reaction which resembles asthma.  I often will wheeze my way through a race in such conditions and deal with painful breathing for the week to follow.  I was a little nervous as the Big Avocado 5K off-road race approached and temps were in the 90's.  But what are you going to do?  You have to deal with what's dealt and I rather resigned myself to what I thought would be a painful race and lingering lung inflammation.

Ricky Ho with Ollie, Cindy with shoes, and John just looking awesome!
The morning of the race, as we feared, was clear, sunny, warming very quickly and drier than beef jerky.  But I was going to be racing in a brand new pair of flats (Adidas Adios Boost) so that gave me a spark of hope (brand new as in, "I bought them the evening before the race and didn't put them on until the warm-up" brand new).  Just as a point of sound advice, never run a race in a brand new pair of shoes that you have not broken in.  Lucky for me the shoes fit great, felt great, more importantly looked great, and became my new best friends.  The Avocado course is not a fast course.  It is fully on dirt (packed and loose) or grass, has many awkward turns, some hills and poor footing.  But since I had run the course before (2 or 3 years earlier) I had a fair gage for what time to shoot for.  It would be one of those races in which my GPS watch was more of a fashion statement than a useful tool.  This one needed to be by feel.

Our morning began with a warm up jog, covering most of the course and I felt great.  How I feel on any given morning prior to a race makes no sense to me.  It's unpredictable and uncontrollable so I just go with what I've got.  When it's good it's like something has aligned in the stars and I just marvel and enjoy.  Even though it was 0% humidity or something like that, I was not only not wheezing, I was breathing easy.  This made me happy because when the gun went off a few minutes later, I had a fun first mile.  The narrow course is crowded at first.  Crowded mostly by folks going out too fast so there ends up being a lot of dodging and having to work your way around those ahead of you.  Within 1/2 mile things cleared out a bit and I could see the small group of speedy dudes up ahead and my race buddies around me, making up the chase pack.  I rounded one of the sharp, loose-dirt turns and breathed in and out easily and thought, "wow, I'm almost 1/3 of the way through this race and I'm not even breathing hard."  This was so weird.  I knew there were tough parts ahead so it wasn't like I picked up the pace at that point, but I was very pleased when I came through the first mile in 5:45.  Since I was able to breath, the hill back up from there went well, felt strong and I was happy to be hanging with Geof Gray.  I could tell by his persistent pace and watch-watching that he had some goals and was going to be running hard all the way to the finish.  Across the top of the course then back down the other side we went and as we were well into the 2nd mile, the downhill section was perfect timing for a good recovery before hitting a hard final mile.  Mile number two was a bit slower, 5:51, but that was understandable as it contained a harder section.  The final mile would be the hardest as it was 3/4 hill and 1/4 "kill your legs" grass.  We turned into the final hill and air was definitely becoming scarce now but my feet were still happy in the Adios boosts and I leaned into the angle of the slope and pushed the pace.  I was very happy to crest the top and make the sharp left toward the finish.  But there was still that dreaded circle around the grass that teases you to near death.  You look at the finish line the whole time but it takes FOREVER to get to it.  I was set in my pace though and just kept up the effort, thankful that I didn't have to fight to the end against a close competitor.  That is until I heard foot falls and heavy breathing approach from behind within about 10 meters of the finish.  I was passed by a puppy (20 year old dude) and we ended up clocking the same time - he passed me as we crossed ... whatever. 

It was a fun race.  I definitely slowed down in the final mile but finished in 18:45 which was an 8 second improvement over my last race on this course.  I was happy with that ... real happy!  My lungs did end up giving me trouble afterwards but they recovered by the end of the day.  John was only about 1 minute behind.  A great race for him as well.  We picked up our succulent and fresh cut flowers from the race directors (they have one for everyone!), hung around with some great running buddies, cooled down and were off to the Avocado Festival for some avocado sorbet.

Cross-country race #2 was two weeks later.  The Fall Fox XC Classic held on a beautiful course around Lake Los Carneros.  Carneros always reminds me of beef, but the theme of the event is Oktoberfest - Brats and beer.  I don't drink alcohol but hmmm, brats and ... how could I forget, Chocolate Chip pumpkin bread baked fresh be Drea.  The morning of the Fox XC race was the exact opposite of the Avo.  It was foggy and soggy.  That just happens to be the other weather condition that can make breathing a bit difficult - soggy air.  I often wheeze in these conditions too but for different reasons.  In soggy air water can collect in my lungs and create wheezing and difficulty breathing because of fluid collection.  This again caused some uncertainty in my expectations of how this one would go.  This course was more technical, and quite narrow, very sharp turns, unexpected rocks and roots all over the place, and it was a 5 mile course.  This called for shoes that were slightly more rugged, so no Adios Boosts today. 
Follow the BIG arrow Cindy!

I wanted to have fun on this course but I still needed to race it.  I wanted to relieve myself of some pressure and the atmosphere among the other runners, and race volunteers was helpful.  There were a lot of smiles and encouragement.  The course was fabulously marked and there was really no way to get lost - that was nice because it allowed the runners to enjoy it that much more.  Just follow the white arrows and Tim Strand issued one reassuring remark before starting us, "If you get lost out there just run around for about 5 miles and come back."  Sounded good to me.

Off we went and I found myself racing too seriously at first.  There were a bunch of puppies in the race (again this means guys in their 20's) and I wanted to run with the puppies.  I held my girl among puppies place (4th overall) and stocked the one non-puppy who lurked just ahead.  He looked to be more my age and darn it, I wanted to catch him.  But as the race and course bore into my body and psyche I made the conscious decision to pull back and keep it fun.  So miles 1 and 2 were about equal in pace (6:11 and 6:10) but the next two slowed a bit.  I was close to catching the non-puppy but in the process of slowing, I was passed by another puppy.  Where were these guys coming from?  It was all good though.  I truly enjoyed the race and held my slower but still respectable pace all the way into the finish, completing it just behind 3 puppies and a non-puppy for 5th overall and just at 31:00 minutes (31:03 on my watch) which wasn't too bad considering the course, the day, and my mental lack of effort.  I then enjoyed watching the others come in all seemingly with some semblance of a smile on their faces.  They were probably smelling the brats cooking.

Cindy can you JUST BE SERIOUS?
We looped back through the course for our cool-down and arrived back to receive awards of fresh baked Chocolate chip pumpkin bread (which lasted about 5 minutes after we got home).  I wish I could have managed a brat but I just can't seem to eat after that type of exertion.  So I didn't end up participating in the Oktoberfest part but it was festive none-the-less and such a fun race.

With these two final races, John and I are taking a bit of a break (except Thanksgiving - there has to be a Turkey Trot) as we will begin prepping for the USATF Cross-Country Championships to be held in Boulder, CO in February.  It's been a good year of racing and although I completed about 12 running races and 3 triathlons, I feel far from burned out, but for sure happy for a mental break.

Happy Fall to you and Happy Fall running!