Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"First Half" Half-Marathon

On Sunday, I ran the "First Half" half-marathon, right here in Vancouver. It's probably one of the best road races in the Lower Mainland. Admittedly, I'm a little biased, as it's put on by Pacific Road Runners, one of the two running clubs that I belong to - a nice side-effect of this is that I never ran more than a few hundred metres of this race without someone shouting out my name. Nevertheless, it sells out over 2,000 spots within hours of registration opening, always draws a very strong field and donates around $50,000 to Variety every year. Pretty cool, right? People often talk about the beautiful course, too, but frankly I've always been in far too much pain to really notice.

I also had probably my best ever race here last year when I ran a freak 1:18:08, a feat which baffles me to this day. I was under no illusions of a repeat performance this year. I'd switched my focus to running up and down mountains all day, and as a result I'd lost a bit of speed. And I was perhaps still recovering a touch from the previous weekend's 50 km trail race. Still, I'd run a couple of 8k races recently and done some speed-work, so I was hoping that my body wasn't going to completely reject the idea of running fast and that I could run a respectable time. Of course, I was being deliberately cagey about what that might be. Somewhere around 1:20 I'd mutter to anyone that asked.

We were blessed with perfect conditions for the race. While cool, it was uncharacteristically dry for a winter's day in Vancouver and there was little wind. Arriving at the Roundhouse Community Centre to a scene of bustling efficiency I bumped into a number of my fellow runners from VFAC, including my FITS Socks Co. team-mate Alex.
Hint: I'm not the one wearing tights.

After wandering around chatting to the various superstars of PRR who had been hard at work since 4 am, I decided it would probably be a good idea to do some kind of warm-up. I spotted Ellie Greenwood, who despite being better known as The World's Greatest Trail Runner, is pretty handy on the roads too, having won this race in 2011 and also the Vancouver Marathon last year. She confided that she really wasn't sure if she had any speed in her, but she had taken a couple of days off to taper; an ominous sign and an indication that this was a race she was taking seriously.

Before long we found ourselves at the start line, eager to get moving. The gun went off, and we surged forward, as usual everyone trying to find themselves a bit of space and attempting to settle into some kind of rhythm. I had an idea that the elite women might be running at a pretty good pace for me - probably a little fast, but I thought I should be able to keep them in sight for a while. In addition to Ellie, two of my good friends from VFAC, Catherine Watkins and Anne-Marie Madden were also in serious contention. Some uncharitable types have suggested that I just like chasing women.
A bunch of super-fast people.

The initial pace seemed aggressive, and within moments Ellie had pulled several metres ahead with Catrin Jones (who I narrowly beat at the 2012 Victoria Marathon, but the MC only talked about her because she was the third place woman or something, while about twenty guys had beaten me, not that I'm bitter or anything) and Lisa Harvey all battling it out at the front. I checked my Garmin as we passed the first kilometre marker. 3:36. Yep, that's fast, I thought. Not stupidly fast, but not sustainable, either. We passed the one mile mark, and coach John Hill barked out "5:53!". I shrugged the indifferent shrug of someone who has embraced the metric system. As we completed the 2 km loop around the stadiums that returned us to the start area, the field started to spread out a little. It was nice to get a mention from my friend David Parker who was on announcing duties and also to find out that Nick was close behind me, no doubt keen to redeem himself after a disappointing race at the Orcas Island 50k the previous weekend. David also mentioned that Nick was running backwards. I later found out that this was momentarily true. Oh to be so relaxed...

As we dropped down on to the sea wall heading towards English Bay, I gradually started to gain on Ellie, who'd dropped off from the lead pack slightly. We hit the 5k mark together in 18:30. It felt about right - a hard effort, but manageable. I didn't feel like I wanted to throw up just yet. Encouraging. As we cut past lost lagoon I was joined by Roy, another of my VFAC cronies. We ran together for a few kilometres, Ellie having fallen back slightly. I was still feeling pretty strong, so pushed the pace a little harder, pulling ahead of Roy. The miles clicked by. This was going okay. I hit 10k in 37:15, so okay, the pace had slowed slightly, but that's fine considering how hard we'd gone out intially.

A few minutes later a voice behind me yelled: "She's coming after you!". I glanced over my shoulder and recognized Ellie's distinctive powder-blue outfit bearing down on me. Before long, she'd caught up, and as she passed me I saw the look of fierce determination in her eyes. It was prertty scary. I want no part of this, I told myself, and backed off. I offered what I thought would be some encouragement: "You've still got 5 miles to catch them!", but as I found out afterwards, the thought of running another 5 miles at that kind of pace wasn't exactly inspiring. Oops. Still, I had an excellent vantage point to watch as she hunted down Lisa, who despite putting up a brave fight, couldn't keep up.

Somewhere around 15 km things started to become hard. I wasn't having fun any more. I was running on my own, and lacking motivation other than wanting it all to be over. The pace was definitely slackening off. Roy caught and passed me, and then Catherine, who I'd not seen since the start of the race. But I was pleased to be dropped by her - she was having a superb run and clearly had her sights on taking down Lisa in the battle for the Master's race. As she disappeared off into the distance with Roy, I just focused on grinding away the last few kilometres. Katie, part of the VFAC cheer squad, reminded me to "Pound It Out!". So I did. Sort of.

After leaving the sea wall, there's an ugly little climb past the Aquatic Centre. It was horrible. Still, I consoled myself, now that I'd got that unpleasant section out of the way, it's all flat and downhill from here. Until I arrived at the other nasty incline underneath the Granville Bridge that I'd somehow forgotten about. I swore inwardly but tried to outwardly project some kind of appreciation to the cheering crowds. I doubt it worked. I grimaced and pushed on.
Photo credit: Rita Ivanauskas
Emerging back on to the road I finally hit the last few hundred metres that gently sloped down towards the finish line. As the clock came into view I could see I was going to be in under 1:20 and allowed myself a somewhat over-the-top celebration as I crossed the line.
All done.
Chip time was 1:19:28, 37th overall and 5th in my age group. I was happy with my time, happy that the pain was over and happy that my friends had had such fantastic races. Ellie finished in second place with a 5-second PB. Catherine was third (first Master) with a huge PB, smashing the VFAC master's club record. There were many more PBs and podium placings. I celebrated with beer, wine, and at least five different kinds of pizza.

Massive thanks and respect to everyone in Pacific Road Runners that puts in countless hours to make this event happen. You're all amazing.

Global TV news item featuring a brief embarrassing appearance by yours truly.
Full results.
My Strava entry for the race.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Orcas Island 50k

In February 2011 I ran the Orcas Island 50k as my first ultramarathon. I learned many things from the experience. For example, it's not a good idea for me to try and run for six hours fuelled only by full-strength orange Gatorade. The memory of my futile efforts to expel the noxious fluid from my stomach - by any available orifice - haunts me to this day. But despite this, the weekend was enormous fun. The race is set within Moran State Park on Orcas Islands; one of the San Juan Islands just off the Washington coast. It's a bit of trek to get here from Vancouver, involving a couple of hours of driving, a ferry ride and then another car journey around the horseshoe-shaped island. But then this all adds to the sense of adventure. A gang of six of us from Pacific Road Runners made the trip; I, David, Nick and Doug were running the race; Amber and Julia came along to support, cheer and help us drink beer. Last time we'd stayed in a 12-person bunkhouse within the park; which was cheap and convenient, but perhaps a little too "rustic". So this time we rented a condo for a couple of days with spectacular views over the ocean and lots of bathrooms.

 After a relaxing evening consuming pasta, Tillamook cheese and a good variety of Pacific Northwest beers, we turned in at a reasonable hour. The next morning we awoke to cloudy skies, but a distinct lack of rain. By the time we'd made it to the bustling start area those clouds were rapidly dissipating; it was shaping up to be a beautiful day. An impressive array of runners was assembling at the start line including a decent selection of local speedsters. Once again, Jenn Shelton appeared to have forgotten her clothes.

Inadvertently advertising the Squamish 50 race all day.
All too soon, the race began and the crowd surged down a short downhill section of dirt road, the keener runners jostling for a good position before we entered the single-track trails. As we were forced into single-file, the pace immediately slowed, which suited me just fine. I'd had a solid start to the year, logging my highest ever monthly mileage in January and around 118 km in the six days leading up to the race. Which is to say, I wasn't really approaching this as a race per se, but more of a "training run with aid stations". What I'm alluding to here, is that this wasn't going to be a race where I hammered out of the start at a blistering pace. Which, when running ultras, is rarely a good idea anyway.

As we snaked through the early kilometres I was joined by some friends, old and new. First was the little ball of pain in my left calf that had been accompanying me on runs for the past week or so. Shortly afterwards the inflamed right Achilles who'd been my run buddy for the last couple of months joined the party. Then the dull aching shins, with whom I'd not run for some time, entered the fray. None of this was hugely surprising, so I just plodded on, waiting for everything to calm down a bit. After a couple of miles, we emerged on to the only section of the race run on roads. It was a pretty gruelling three-mile climb, but the grade looked comfortably runnable. And it would have been had my right calf not completely seized up at this point. I slowed to a walk to try and give it a bit of respite. That didn't seem to help. I stopped to stretch it out. Nope, nothing happening. Bewildered, I plodded up the hill at a snail's pace, as other runners streamed past me. Still, it gave me a chance to enjoy the spectacular views over the island. Having already given up moving at a decent pace, I stopped by the side of the road for a pee-break, only for a fellow runner to encouragingly call out "It's like a penis, only smaller!". Thanks.

Amber and Julia drove past during this ascent. I tossed half my wardrobe into the car - arm sleeves, hat and gloves - and told them that I'd probably be dropping soon and that I'd see them at the finish line. This was not how I'd envisaged my day going. Still, I was stubborn enough to trudge on a little further, and after what seemed like an eternity we crested the hill and re-entered the trails. As we began an enormously fun downhill section, things loosened up a little and I was no longer running in quite so much pain. Things still felt far from good, but I thought that I could at least continue a bit further. Gradually, I passed more people who'd left me behind on the climb, but I was lacking any motivation to race hard. But it was a nice day, the flowing single-track trails were fantastic, and I was starting to enjoy myself.

Finally, about 27 km and three hours into the race I realised that I was at last starting to feel good. All the aches and pains seemed to have receded into the background, I was moving a lot more fluidly, and not only was I passing more and more people, but I was surging as I passed them as the competitive jerk in me wanted to break their spirits a little. I posed cheerfully for a photo when RD James Varner popped up; the distraction was enough for me to take my eyes of the trail and promptly rolled my glass-like left ankle on a rock seconds later. I swore, hopped around on my good foot and limped along for the next ten minutes, annoyed at myself for being so stupid.

After about another fifteen minutes, I spotted a familiar green shirt ahead of me. Nick doesn't really consider himself a serious runner, but a couple of weeks earlier he'd run a 1:22 half-marathon. He frequently leaves me in his dust when running uphill and had surged ahead in the early stages of the race. After those disastrous early miles I seriously doubted whether I'd see him again. "Nick!" I called out cheerfully, happy to see my friend. "Barry", he replied flatly without turning round, his voice that of a broken man. I caught up to him just as we entered a small aid station - basically a pick-up truck with a selection of drinks in the back. He sat down on the back of the truck and told me that he was in trouble. I tried to encourage him to join me for the next section; he said he needed five minutes to recover, but I could tell his day was over. He'd run a strong first half of the race, but perhaps his lack of experience and endurance training had finally caught up with him. I'll be honest and admit that part of me was relieved to have caught him, but I'd much preferred it if he'd been able to carry on and at least finish the race. Just not ahead of me.

After a couple more kilometres I came to the next major aid station manned by North Vancouver ultrarunning legend Gary Robbins. Amber and Julia were waiting there and it was great to see them again in much higher spirits. I appraised them of the Nick situation and then quickly headed out to what I knew was to be the most unpleasant section of the race. There are no words to do justice to the horror of the Powerline climb. It's very steep; at times you're scrambling up a near-vertical grassy bank, it's exposed and it seems like it's never going to end. Somehow, with the sun beating down on me on that early February day, it felt like the middle of summer. Still, I'd climbed it once before and I was determined not to whine about it quite so much this time. I trudged up it stoically, exchanging unpleasantaries with other runners as I passed them or they passed me. After a number of false dawns, the climbing ceased and there followed a couple of miles of delightful downhill trail. It took a little while for my legs to re-adjust to running once more, and I decided not to push too hard as I knew there was another big climb coming up.

Arriving at the start of the climb up Mt Constitution I noticed a sign helpfully stating "Summit 1.2"; so a couple of kilometres to the peak. Not so bad, I thought and started to climb. Somehow, after the ordeal of Powerline, this climb seemed a delight and the time seemed to fly by. I emerged on to a short section of road and soon arrived at the next aid station. I paused here, not to take on food or water, but because the views were simply jaw-dropping.

Seriously. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama.
 I quickly checked with a volunteer that there were indeed five miles left to go and headed off down the partly snow-covered trail. Soon, I encountered photographic genius Glenn Tachiyama working his magic. Somehow, this man manages to take pictures of ordinary runners that make us look heroic. A good part of this is down to his excellent sense of composition and on a day like this it was easy to be upstaged by the scenery.

Why yes, I am having fun. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama.

Once again, I was distracted by my own sense of vanity, and while trying to look photogenic failed to notice a large branch to my left which I promptly slammed into my arm.

Nah, that didn't hurt. (Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch).

The trails continued flowing downhill for several more miles and I found myself thinking that I could carry on like this all day. I was now 46km into the race and feeling fantastic. It did cross my mind that I should probably be feeling a little more tired than this if I was truly racing, but I was just glad to be finishing strongly. I passed a few more runners who wished me well, then emerged on to a road near the start of the race. Rather than a pancake-flat finish, the course had a couple of minor surprises left with a couple of small climbs before the final sprint down a grassy bank to the finish line.

I crossed the line grinning, perfectly happy with my 5:42 finish time after what had initially looked like a disappointing day. The post-race festivities were probably the best I've ever enjoyed. Piles of excellent food - freshly-cooked lasagne, limitless supplies of freshly-baked cookies, fruit, hot soups, a variety of sandwich options, and several kegs of Island Hoppin' Brewery beers. I gorged myself shamelessly, pausing briefly to chat with other runners I'd met that day and at other trail races over the previous year or two. The atmosphere was fantastic - no doubt enhanced by the live band and the great weather we'd enjoyed, but also from the sense of camaraderie that develops from sharing such a special experience.

In case you can't tell, I loved this race. I'll be there next year. You should too.


Official web site.
Results on
Glenn Tachiyama's photos.
My Strava activity for the race.