San Francisco Marathon Ambassador

San Francisco Marathon Ambassador
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Berkeley at Dewey Beach

Berkeley at Dewey Beach

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Not so lucky #7: Los Angeles

The Asics LA Marathon was my 7th since October 2011, and the 3rd of 2013 (also the 4th in 14 months). With the SF Marathon coming up in July, the race offered an unexpected opportunity to relive many past marathon experiences. Shifting through the wreckage and examining the black box from LA may be key to successful race strategies in the future.

The decision to run LA had nothing to do with running a PR or a BQ. On only one occasion, October's Mohawk-Hudson River Marathon (MHRM), was picking a fast race course a significant factor in choosing a race (although I expected the streets of Cleveland in May to be suitable to running fast). Improving by +11 min on my 3:21 marathon PR to qualify for Boston sounds easier than the reality of needing to shave off 25 sec/mile for 26.2 miles. The real driving force was to complete the LA/SF Challenge by running both the Los Angeles and San Francisco Marathons in the same calendar year. Unfortunately, shortly after registering and making travel plans, the Challenge was put on hiatus by the new LA Marathon organizers. At first glance, LA did not look like a PR course, but I committed to training harder than ever.

Los Angeles bills the race as the "Stadium to the Sea," and as the tagline suggests the course is point-to-point from Dodgers Stadium to the Santa Monica pier. I am a fan of point-to-point races simply because they are usually designed to be running tours as opposed to some marathons that are add-ons to (more popular) half marathons. In those cases, both races cover all the interesting sights in 13.1 miles and leave the marathoners a 2nd half full of monotonous nothing. Both the Redding Marathon and the MHRM are point-to-point as well. Each race running primarily along riverside bicycle paths. Redding sights include the Shasta Dam, the Sundial Bridge and Northern California's glorious Sacramento River Valley, hence the tagline "26.2 With a View." The MHRM follows the Hudson River and is highlighted by the arrival of fall foliage. Certainly LA rivals both Redding and MHRM, albeit nature is traded for an urban landscape (and a lot of billboards for TV shows and movies I did not know existed). The crowd support and volunteers were great. Taiko drummers pounded out the beat as we climbed the hill through Little Tokyo. With a personalized bib, complete strangers often cheered me by name – a nice feature since this was a solo trip. There was a noticeable lack of spectators in the approach to and after the finish line. A clear indication of increased security measures following the Boston Marathon bombing.

The main reason LA didn't look like a PR course was the elevation gain of approximately 772 ft (~30 ft/mile). At worst this is a moderately lumpy course since hills generally do not intimidate me. The flattest road runs I can cobble to together from my front door average 40 ft/mile, and typical routes are 5080 ft/mile. I have several favorite loops with 10+ miles at 100 ft/mile, and sustained climbs over a mile. Nevertheless, hills will cause some slowing in a race. An "average" marathon seems to be 500 ft of climbing (~20 ft/mile). Anything significantly less than that would be tagged a "flat, fast course," and if a course exceeds 1000 ft (~40 ft/mile) it approaches "challenging" territory. Nevertheless, I had experience on a course with a similar hill profile in Newport, RI. In addition to the hills I had managed to power through high winds, 15-25 mph sustained and 30+ mph gusts, so a good performance in LA seemed reasonable.
The second key feature of LA was an overall elevation drop from the start to the finish of over 400 ft. My PR at the MHRM also featured a nearly 400 ft drop from the start to the finish. Despite training to acclimate to downhill running, such courses are usually hard on my quads. While I pushed through the discomfort at the MHRM, the Redding Marathon starts with a >500 ft decent over less than 1 1/2 miles.


The Redding experience was humbling and the first marathon with any walking since my first attempt to cover the distance. It took well over a week for my legs to recover. Even walking was a comical sight for over 3 days. I did miss one long training run in the weeks prior to Redding and suffered from a cranky piriformis, but what this race really taught me was that running downhill is way harder than intuition would suggest. Plus, the overall downhill running is a combination of the point-to-point drop and the decents after the climbs. So Redding had a total of 1455 ft of decent and MHRM less than half of that (~650 ft). By comparison, LA with about 1280 ft of decent is closer Redding than the MHRM. I felt my quads starting to burn around 30 km, but never really felt like this was a major impediment to running. The little hills around 20 miles were certainly punishing, but paled in comparison to what really cause me to crack on my approach to Santa Monica.

I don't like heat. Double that distaste when it comes to humidity. Despite my best efforts, heat has always been my Achilles heel. I ran the 15 mile Charleston Distance run on Labor Day weekend 2012 in +80% humidity and temps between the mid-70s and 80s (fortunately it was overcast). It sucked. I ran the first 6.5 mile loop of the Big George Half IronMan on target for a respectable 1:45 minute half marathon split before wilting in the high humidity and temps in the 70s to finish the run in just under 2 hours. The forecast for LA on marathon day was for highs in the 70s to low 80s. I reasoned that the humidity was low (true) and that the sea breeze as we approached the Pacific would keep things reasonably comfortable (not so much). I remember glancing up at the sky around mile 15, noticing it was overcast and commenting to a fellow runner how lucky we were that the sun was staying behind the clouds (big mistake). A short time later, the sun burned off the cloud cover and things started to unravel. I watched the marathon coverage on TV later and the commentator stated that the "feels like" temperature increased by 15 degrees when the sun comes out. I've never heard that factoid so he might have just made that number upon the spot. I'm going to assume it is true because I got hot. Really hot.

This was an unwanted repeat of the Cleveland Marathon in the spring. The difference between Cleveland and LA was the humidity. I knew from the start that Cleveland was going to suck, and for some reason, I still tried to run hard. At the halfway point, I contemplated ditching the 2nd half. On the long stretch of unprotected city street in the blazing sun around mile 17, I cursed myself for having chosen to run the second half of the race. Over 140 runners were treated for heat-related issues, and I had seen many of them collapsed by the road.
In contrast, the onset suffering in LA was almost instantaneous. One minute, I felt great and the next, not so much. The sun came out in full force about the time the last hills popped up on the horizon. My internal governor forced a walk to cool down and doing so was no favor for my fatiguing quads. After a short break, I tried to get going again but started overheating almost immediately. It was not until the last couple miles downhill to the finish that a sustained effort was possible. Over 90 runners were treated by medical in LA. For contrast, over 21,000 people finished the LA Marathon compared to less than 2,300 in Cleveland.

I ran 481 miles in the 12 weeks prior to race week in LA (along with regular cycling and swimming for cross-training). I ran 359 miles in the 12 weeks prior to Cleveland, which is close to the average 350 miles of training for any other race. Nearly 500 miles and almost 150 miles more than usual. It turns out approaching 500 miles of training won't necessarily prepare you for tough race day conditions. Even more so if those miles were run at an average of 21 °F. I made that up, however, it was a brutally cold winter and I ran every mile outside. The only reprieve was a week running along Ventura Beach when I went to a conference in January.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Running for something more

This post also appears on the San Francisco Marathon blog.

There are many compelling reasons to run – fitness, fun, friendship. There are equally compelling reasons to sign up for a race – to compete, to challenge yourself, to keep motivated. Almost every runner’s reason to be in San Francisco this summer is some amalgamation of the above factors. For my first marathon, I wanted to prove to myself I could make it to the finish line. In the second race, I wanted to prove that I could make it to the finish line without cracking. When the time came to run a third, I found the need to run for something other than myself.

How Berkeley can you be?
My wife and I have owned greyhounds and been involved with greyhound adoption since we got our first in 2003 while living in Berkeley. Upon moving back to the east, we adopted our second, a beautiful blue fawn boy from Connecticut Greyhound Adoption, who we named Berkeley for obvious reasons. Unbeknownst to us, Berkeley would live up to his name. He was a free spirit who loved and loved to be loved. At much too early an age, Berkeley contracted osteosarcoma, which is unfortunately prevalent in greyhounds. He underwent an amputation of his affected leg and received chemotherapy to slow the spread of cancer. His chemotherapy drugs were provide free of charge by the Greyhound Health and Wellness Program at Ohio State. Dr. Guillermo Couto who ran the GHWP has since moved to State College, PA to continue his work as a private consultant and veterinarian. Since greyhounds are one of the few animals other than humans (primarily children) that are susceptible to bone cancer, Dr. Couto’s work may someday identify both the cause of and treatments for osteosarcoma in both man and his best friends.

The official Running for Racers team shirt
After Berkeley lost his battle with cancer, my wife and I wanted give back to the program that helped prolong and improve the quality of his life. We used Crowdrise to create a fundraising website for our next race. We even had special “Running for Racers” team shirts made for race day. Like many races, the San Francisco Marathon has official and select charities that need runner-fundraisers. All are worthy causes, but if something more personal inspires you, Crowdrise is also an excellent option in San Francisco. It’s easy to build a personal fundraising site and add members to your team. Crowdrise charges a small percentage, so my wife and I made an additional contribution so that GHWP received the entire amount given by our donors. 

In the Newport Marathon, I wore my “Running for Racers” shirt and carried one of Berkeley’s tags in my pocket. Running the race was therapeutic and when I crossed the finish line, it was definitely more meaningful than the time on the clock.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Not That Goofy Challenge 2014

Picking up bibs for the Jolly Jaunt on a cold but comfortable 
morning in Boston
As if racing wasn't difficult enough, a number of runners are addicted to bigger challenges. There's the popular Goofy Challenge (running the Walt Disney Half Marathon and Marathon back-to-back) and the New Years Double (back-to-back Half or Full Marathons). Then there are the extremists in the Half Marathon Fanatics or Marathon Maniacs inventing their own crazy race combinations. I've seen some of the latter do the Hartford and Newport Marathons back-to-back, and have always viewed these folks with some fascination. Head on over to the San Francisco Marathon page to learn about some other interesting opportunities.

Heading toward the Jolly Jaunt finish.
Photo Credit SOMA
I have yet to feel compelled to to take on one of these marathon challenges, in part because my approach to racing is not particularly conducive to success (or survival). Getting through the first race would be no problem, but finishing within the time limit for the 2nd might be an issue since crawling 26.2 miles takes a long time. After my 6 marathons, it took anywhere from 3 days to a week to feel somewhat comfortable running. In the worst case, I couldn't even walk properly for 6 days. I assume one must adopt a different racing strategy to complete one of these challenges - one that probably involves taking it easy during the first race. Despite always knowing I have a 0% chance of winning, "taking it easy" doesn't seem to be in my arsenal when the starting gun goes off. I fail miserably when attempting to use a races as replacements for training runs, so I don't even register for events anymore unless I'm racing.

By serendipity, I created a challenge for mere mortals like me 2 years ago. I've now dubbed it the "Not That Goofy Challenge" because running 5Ks back-to-back does not require anywhere near the amount of suffering that any of the aforementioned feats do. The Boston Jolly Jaunt, which raises money for Special Olympics Massachusetts, and the Blue Back Mitten Run, which benefits West Hartford's The Town That Cares fund, occur on the first Saturday and Sunday of December respectively. In 2011, some WPI students organized a Jolly Jaunt team and some of my friends wanted to do the Mitten Run. Confronting such a Sophie's Choice, I opted to do both. Since then, the back-to-back 5Ks are my final races of the year as well as a chance to assess my fitness after the summer/fall racing season.

The conditions at this year's Jaunt was by far the best of the 3 I've run. Although it rained/snowed overnight, the course was dry and temperatures were in the upper 30s. Last year's race took place in a cold drizzle, and it was bitterly cold in 2011. The course is fast, flat, and finishes next to Boston Common. The highlight of the race was being passed by a 16 year old girl, who won the women's division, right on the finish line.


It's like Christmas exploded on these four runners.

It was a much colder morning for the Mitten Run (20s), and we were joined by several friends. Both the Jaunt and the Mitten Run have the requisite number of people wearing holiday-themed costumes. It goes without saying that my outfit, complete with a 30+ year-old Cleveland Browns ski hat, was easily the most festive at either races. I am still waiting for my costume prize. Part of the "Not That Goofy Challenge" is seeing how fast you can finish the races. In 2011, I finished in 20:38 and 20:51 (Jolly Jaunt/Mitten Run). In 2012, 19:56 and 19:46. This year, 19:32 and 19:29. I placed 36th at the Jaunt in 2011, 23rd in 2012 and 10th this year. With that kind of progression, I fully expect to win the race easily next year (as long as no one runs any faster).
Thanks for the photobomb Guy Who's Not Running.

The Mitten Run course is significantly harder than  the Jolly Jaunt's, having about a mile of uphill grind in the first half of the race. Despite that, I've managed to run faster on Sunday for 2 years in a row. I can only attribute this to the larger field with more people to chase at the Mitten Run. Either that, or I should be running 5Ks every day until I break the world record. I narrowly edged out the top woman woman on day 2. While congratulating her at the finish, she expressed gratitude for having a pace runner. Helping a fellow runner, even if not by design, seems like a fitting finish to 2013.



Saturday, November 30, 2013

Morning in Manchester

Guess who has sworn off next year's MRR already.
On Thanksgiving Day, Amby Burfoot ran his record-breaking 51st consecutive Manchester Road Race. I ran my not-quite-a-record 2nd consecutive MRR, which means if Burfoot retires (he isn't) and I run every MRR until I'm 86 (unlikely), I'll still be a participation short of the record. It's looking increasingly unlikely that I'll be writing my name in the history books for this one; nevertheless, it's a fun way to spend Thanksgiving morning. Except for the painfully cold conditions for this year's race. Temperatures were in the low to mid-20s at the start, and dipped into the single digits with the wind chill. Thankfully, the downpours from Wednesday had passed though. Although at these temperatures, it would have snowed, which might have been more realistic for the folks dressed up as Santa's reindeer.

In its 77th edition, the MRR is steeped in history. It started out as a competition for high school cross-country runners, and remains popular with local students today. Although running technology certainly has advanced since the first race in 1927, there are always those who refuse to adopt good ideas. While waiting in the starting corral, I watched a high schooler, who had shown up over a half an hour early in shorts and a singlet, shiver ingon the brink of hypothermia. No arm warmers, no gloves, no disposable sweat shirt, no hat and his socks stopped at the ankle. I was freezing in my ski hat, wool socks, compression sleeves, thermal tights, triple layer of long sleeve tops and sacrificial gray sweatshirt. On another day, I might have been overdressed, but the stiff headwind over the last 1 - 1 1/2 miles of the run were sufficient to prevent overheating.

It was cold and brutally windy on street level, so this guy
must have drawn the shortest straw when security 
details were being assigned.
Unlike last year, this year's MRR (capped at 15,000) sold out early, although only ~12,900 finished the race (down by ~500 compared to 2012). The drop in finishers was probably due to the coldest race temperatures in 15 years. At 15,000 participants, the MRR is one of the largest and oldest Turkey Trots in the country. It's hard to track down good statistics, but here it's listed as the 4th largest in 2012; however, wikipedia lists at least two larger races. No doubt some of the uptick in interest was due to the Boston Marathon bombing, and the impact of April's tragic events were ever-present in this year's race. Trash cans near the starting /finishing line were sealed and there was greater security everywhere. Actually, the people in the SWAT gear had the most realistic looking costumes I saw. I wonder why they weren't running?

Runners lined up in the main pack on Main Street for the
MRR.

Condensing 15,000 runners and >30,000 spectators on a (less than) 5 mile circuit makes for quite a spectacle, even without the Avengers, the Minions and the Hanson brothers (the ones from Slap Shot not of MMMBop fame) making appearances. I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be Superman, not Supermans. I saw at least 5 impostors Thursday. Glaringly obvious doppelgängers since the real Son of Krypton probably wouldn't be that winded after running 4.748 miles. Yes, the MRR is 4.748 miles. As the legend goes, it was originally branded as a 5 mile race, but was later discovered to be short by just over 1/4 mile. It always seems strange to me that this was not discovered a lot sooner. If every Thanksgiving my 5-mile race time improved by nearly 2 min, I might start getting suspicious that the course measurement was a little off. Even without a Garmin.

Masses of runners coming down Main Street to the finish 
shortly after the wives crossed the finish line.
Both years that I've run the MRR, I qualified to start in the under 35 min corral. I also managed to secure my spot for next year by finishing in 31:43. Last year, I went to the MRR solo, but this year I convinced my wife and another couple to join the fun. The wives were relegated into the unseeded main pack behind the under 40 min corral. Hearing about their experience made me appreciate earning my seed card even more. Before the start they heard someone exclaim: "I haven't run 5 miles since last year's race!" Apparently running in the main pack requires its own set of special skills. The ability to stop on a dime when the person in front of you quits running without warning is essential, as is keeping your head on a swivel trying to avoid the guy running with a glass Sierra Nevada bottle. The ability to throw elbows in the scrum doesn't hurt either. As my wife said: "We didn't even break a sweat for the first 3 miles!" It can easily take over 10 min to reach the starting line if you start in the back. With race winner Sam Chelanga crossing the finish line at 21:32, the gap between the last runner/walker leaving and the first finishers arriving is quite small.
Don't blink or you might miss me

The race is broadcast on the local Fox affiliate, so it's interesting to see the elite runners. We recorded the race and watched when we got home. Particularly noteworthy was the scramble for information on the women's race winner, Alice Kamunya. Kamunya was not on anyone's list of pre-race favorites, and the broadcasters were left fumbling on live TV for several minutes after she finished before someone could track down her name. The MRR appears to be Kamunya's biggest win to date, but she's an accomplished runner who trained with a Kenyan talent development program. The real highlight of the broadcast, however, was a 2 second shot of me cresting Porter Street, a 0.8 mile climb at 3.6%. The MRR isn't flat. After 1 relatively flat mile, it's uphill to the halfway point, and then mostly downhill to the finish. If you can't win the race, I suppose this is the best way to get on TV if you're not prepared to run in a Speedo.

Monday, November 18, 2013

That thing by that guy who doesn't like running stickers

The Oatmeal's 0.0 Blerch sticker
Last week "He Who Should Not Be Named" published an opinion piece in the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country. Keep in mind that this media dinosaur is viewed daily by 400,000 fewer eyeballs (or 200,000 people without eyepatches) than reside in the entire state of Nevada. HWSNBN framed his contempt toward car decals, running stores and actual runners with the all-too-common meme that society is decaying into a morass of self-entitled narcissists. Many of the gripes are not so different from the (probably satirical) 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook from Wait But Why. Certainly there are too may pictures tweeted detailing Thursday's lunch, but humans have always sought to connect with others who have common interests. Runners' cars are no different from those vehicles with a '3', 'Click and Clack for President' or 'I   My Dachshund' decals on the bumper.

Not too surprisingly, the running world and blogosphere exploded with well-though-out and clever rebuttals including from the likes of Runners World. My personal favorite is Matthew Inman's 0.0 Blerch. I have reserved a spot on my bumper for when the Oatmeal inevitably offers this sticker for sale. The running world doesn't need another blog offering a witty dismantling of HWSNBN's drivel. What might be worth considering, however, is the amount of attention we direct toward these kinds of stories. As Mark Remy from Runner's World points out, 15.5 million people finished races in the United States last year. That's over 6 times the daily circulation of HWSNBN's website/newspaper. That's thousands, if not millions, of click-throughs from people who otherwise wouldn't bother reading an opinion piece from HWSNBN.

Increasingly social media is driving web traffic using enticing (and often misleading) headlines, provocative images and inflammatory opinion pieces. I don't think HWSNBN's piece was designed to corner the market on enraged runners (at least not in the same way that the Huffington Post uses youtube dog videos to specifically target me and make sure I visit their site every day), but the outcome is the same. Click-through data doesn't track content quality, just web traffic. I intentionally did not provide a link to the original piece. I did not, and will not mention the author or newspaper by name. Neither deserve the traffic, advertisement or publicity they received from this story. I liken this to my policy about a group that likes to picket funerals as a means to get news organizations to publicly disseminate their nonsense. If we stop paying attention, a lot of the attention seekers will disappear.

Read the hard news and stay informed, but beyond that I propose a simple policy when it comes to internet media. This policy could be applied to running or broadly. Unless it's informative or makes you happy, don't click on the link.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Welcome to the Running for Racers blog!

Since I've been running for 20 years, this first post detailing my entire career mile-by-mile is going to be quite a doozy. On second thought, the Chiefs/Broncos games kicks off shortly and I do have to work in the morning, so that's probably not the best plan. I'd probably lose steam before I started documenting all the excitement from 1998 anyway. In lieu of a complete history, I'll kick this blog off with an abbreviated background, some recent history and my plans for the 2014 running season.

Although I've run recreationally since college, I had only ran 3 5Ks and one sprint triathlon through 2009. In 2010 that changed significantly for reasons that will be the subject of a future post. In 2011, after a decade or so of cajoling from my girlfriend/fiancé/wife, I registered for and ran my first marathon in Hartford. The longest distance I'd raced before Hartford was a 10K, but that first marathon started an exciting (occasionally expensive and painful) journey. 

My philosophy on running races is to use them as a springboard to visit interesting and/or favorite places. Having lived in Berkeley between 2003-2005, the San Francisco Marathon has been on my radar for a while. Finally my wife and I decided 2014 would be a good time to visit the Bay Area again, and running the marathon would be as good an excuse as any to make the journey. On a bit of a whim, I submitted an application to the San Francisco Marathon Ambassadors after registering for the race and receiving an email notification about the program. I mostly forgot about applying and assumed my services were not needed until a couple weeks ago when I received the invitation to join the team. So here I am. For good or ill. Which, has yet to be determined.

I'm still in the process of learning about what SFMAs do, but I thought a blog would be a good way to start contributing. Along the way, I want to include some stories about my experiences running - why I do it, personal philosophy, interesting races I've run, training "tips" and whatever else seems relevant. Maybe this will be interesting and useful to other people. Or maybe not. We'll have to see.

2013 has been my busiest racing year so far, and I can feel it in my legs. I have completed 26 races already and have 3 more on the calendar. This schedule included 3 marathons and my first half ironman. Despite occasionally planning to the contrary, I always end up racing hard whenever I toe the starting line of a race. Since I always fail miserably at casual race participation, I'm planning to ratchet back on racing in 2014 (sort of). In addition to the San Francisco Marathon in July, I'll be looking to complete the LA/SF Challenge by running the LA Marathon in March. I've already registered for the Pumpkinman Half Ironman in September. The Willi-Whammer Half Marathon (April) and Soapstaone 24K Trail Race (May) are also in the mix. If my legs are still attached to my torso in the fall, I want to make my trail marathon debut in October's Nipmuck Trail Marathon. Pepper in a few local shorter races and I'll almost certainly fail in my goal to race less.

And away we go.....