Training: Trail Races and First Races

View of the Bay Bridge and SF from the trail, 2011.

On Tuesday night, I managed to completely misconstrue the point of tempo running (slower than 5k pace, not faster!) and went all out for four sets of 3-minute intervals. The result was that I hit my land speed record of a peak 7:49/mile, which for me is absolutely ridiculous. It’s as if I went out with a jet pack on. I realize that this isn’t exactly Kenyan sprinter speed, but for me, it’s the closest I’ll ever come to it.

I tried to give my legs a break for the rest of the week, doing an easy 8-mile bike ride on Thursday and not much else. After all, I had Angel Island to run on Saturday.

I ran this race last year, a first for me for trail racing. This year, I had three goals: don’t wipe out on the downhill, try to beat last year’s time, and even if I couldn’t beat 2010, to do my best not to miss the first ferry and have to wait an extra hour in the chilly cove. I achieved all three goals.

And the view from a similar spot in 2010.

Last year, the weather was beautiful: clear, sunny and beautiful views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. This year, I left my house (62 degrees with morning clouds) at 6:00, and by the time I got to the ferry at Tiburon 90 minutes later, it was 52 degrees, drizzly and gusting wind, and I swear that it was even colder on the island. The Golden Gate Bridge was invisible in the fog. The silver lining? When you can’t see the top of the island, it’s easy to minimize the 700-foot climb to the top.

One thing that I noticed as we waited for the outbound ferry: this year’s crowd was filled with Serious Runners. Dipsea. Boston. Running clubs in matching gear. Marathoners. Ultramarathoners. Ironman triathletes. I have to admit, it was a little bit intimidating. Last year seemed to be a much more casual crowd, one that made me feel a little bit more comfortable from the start.

The course takes you on a quick loop around the parade grounds, then starts you up a steep, narrow trail. By the time you level off at the fire trail, you’ve climbed from sea level to a 435 foot elevation in a little over a mile. Someone who actually remembers high school math could calculate the angle of the trail, but I can summarize it by explaining that it just goes straight up. I can’t remember much about it from last year, but this year, the steepness took my breath away; quite literally, it was like someone punched me in the chest. I couldn’t imagine how I made it up before, nor could I remember why it seemed like a good idea to do it again. (Note to self: remember this and don’t sign up again next year, ok?)

This part of the trail is one body width wide, and we’re all huffing and puffing and watching our feet to avoid tripping over a root and sailing straight down the hill, which drops off steeply to the side.

As I ran, I heard a noise. I could describe it as a thunk, but that doesn’t really capture it. When I looked up, I saw that a guy — no doubt watching his feet as I had been — had collided headfirst with an overhanging branch. The branch won in bloody fashion. There was much chaos as we simultaneously attempted to aid the wounded runner and find whatever could be gathered up to hang from the branch to mark it for the runners coming behind.

Looking back at the lone runner on the trail, a short downhill stretch before we would climb again.

Somehow I managed to huff and puff my way to the fire trail, which seems almost flat compared to the initial uphill. That’s where I met up with a woman who had run the SF marathon six days prior, and had evidently done a pretty good job of injuring her hip. She was limping along, trying to keep going. I walked with her for a while, talking her through the course (finally, I had some useful experience to share!) and suggesting that maybe she’d be better off bypassing the last climb and just taking the loop around the fire trail, if she wanted to give her hip a break. I stuck with her for a while, but eventually broke away to head uphill to the summit.

Going above the fire road is deceiving. You can’t actually see the peak, so there are two or three times where you’re convinced that this is absolutely the final climb. It’s not. I fell in with a group along another single file path (poison oak on all sides; yay!) and fielded questions about the course, our pace and Team in Training as we shuffled to the summit. It was a good distraction when my legs were already pretty much spent.

We hurtled downhill for the final two miles, dodging 25k runners coming uphill, fast 25k runners lapping us on the downhill, and regular old Angel Island tourists who were fresh off the ferry, unaware of the race and crowding the trail — yes, the same single-file trail that we’d come up an hour earlier. It’s insanity. Being a Team in Training runner, I’m used to calling out obstacles (“Bike!” and “On your left”) to keep the traffic flowing. I instinctively did the same here, and it was evidently appreciated by those near me who had a few extra seconds to look for a place to pull over and let the others pass.

I crossed the finish line in 137th place out of 174 runners. Not exactly a stellar showing, but two minutes faster than last year. I was disappointed until I realized that I still ran a 12:47 pace — not at all bad for these sorts of conditions — plus I stayed upright for the full course, and managed to make myself useful to other runners in the process. In fact, one of the runners that I’d been pacing with for the last three miles stopped me on the ferry to thank me for my guidance and keeping her going. You know, I have to admit that this was probably the best part of the race.

"It wasn't as crowded as I expected." That's because you were up front.

And I just have to put a little note in here about the Tiny Kitchen Assistant. He’s wanted to run a kids’ race for a long time, but it’s tough to do on a day where I’m racing, too. But this year, the Fast and Furious Pleasanton festival was in town, and since I certainly wasn’t going to run a 5k on my rubbery day-after legs, it was the perfect race for him.

I could tell that he was nervous beforehand. For weeks he’s wanted to make a “race plan” (he’s been paying attention) and discuss things like GU and hydration, but I managed to convince him that he wouldn’t need any of that for a quarter mile race.

They had 150 kids registered for the run, and broke them down into three groups: 8-10, 5-7 and 4 and under. He paced nervously, his little hand sweating in mine. “Run your best race,” I told him as I led him to the starting line. 5-4-3-2-1… he was off like a shot. I had to pause to avoid stepping on a kid who fell, then I had to navigate around a guy with a golden retriever. By the time I looked up again, he was way out in front, a tiny orange blur hurtling towards the finish line.

He actually earned that medal. Great work, kiddo!

We don’t know if he finished first or second — he told me “that green shirt kid was really close at the end,” but that doesn’t really matter to me. What delighted me was his big smile at the finish; his ability to channel his nerves into energy; and the fact that even though he said that the pre-race was “kinda scary ’cause I didn’t know what would happen,” he didn’t back out. He’s already hung his race bib and medal in his bedroom, “just like Mommy.” Never underestimate the influence that you have on your kid.

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7 Responses

  1. Jason says:

    Oh my god, the picture and story about E’s race make me excited for if/when AB wants to run a fun run. So awesome! And great work by you, too… 🙂

  2. Greg O. says:

    Can I just phone in my race reports and have you compose them?

  3. Alisa says:

    Sure! I kept the details of this one to a minimum for the sake of the squeamish, but the guy who met the tree branch even freaked me out a little.

  4. Alisa says:

    The best part, for me, was that I never said, “Hey, I want you to run with me.” This has all been his idea, his interest. And up until the guy shouted, “Go!” I was really wondering if he’d bail out (he’s been averse to trying new things lately). But he toed the line and I could see all of the nerves turn to concentration. Now that I’ve seen the pictures, I just love the fact that he was in his own zone, running his own race and not paying any attention to the kids around him. It’s everything that I try to do and can’t quite seem to manage. 🙂

  5. gigi kennedy says:

    LOVE IT! how cool is that! i know my oldest is itching to run a race. when she did the mile this year at school & ran the whole way she was SUPER proud of herself. i’ll have to look into getting her into a race. thx for the inspiration!
    & kudos to you speedster! a PR! awesome!

  6. Alisa says:

    The hardest part of the race: he needed me at the start and I wanted to be at the finish. I would have loved to see him cross the finish line!

  7. Congratulations to you both!

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