Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Beauty at a Price

A somewhat delayed blog.....

Each lamp post on the Golden Gate Bridge has a hidden significance. One the tourists thankfully do not see or acknowledge.

22 years after I first visited San Francisco I'm trying to remember the walks and highlights from that visit unsuccessfully. I'm staying on Vallejo in Russian Hill where Chinatown and the Italian quarter seem to merge into other, naturally. This morning I ran to Golden Gate bridge, across this astonishing structure and back along Union Street home. There's no logical reason to run all the way across a bridge, stop on the other side and run back. But the GG is such an imposing structure that you are drawn to it, and to look at SF from the other side. The view from the Marin Headlands actually isn't anything special. Its the bridge that's special. Although it's a rust rather than golden color, it has a flow and lines that are beautiful. It seems to bend from the peninsula to the headland, arching out across the channel until it reaches land again.

Running the bridge isn't exactly a peaceful experience, with traffic thundering across. Nor is it a particularly romantic one, as I think of the average of one person a week who takes their life jumping. The Bridge is the second most common suicide site in the World behind the Yangtze River Bridge in Japan, with over 1200 suicides and counting. Well not actually counting as official records were stopped in 2005. The 'success' rate is 98% (one woman survived only to try again successfully a second time) and the most common place is in the middle (the locations are mapped by the position of lamp posts). There is a french phrase l'appel du vide, which literally means the call of the void, and is used to describe that feeling when you are on a high ledge and have a desire, feeling of 'I wonder what it would feel like to jump'. Apparently it's very common. Up on the Golden Gate Bridge, with it's low handrail, 80 meter drop to the sea and stunning vistas, it's easy to think, even for a second 'what if...' This is very different to the traumatic and bleak place you would have to be to seek out a place to end it all, despite the strong urge for all humans to live.

Nevertheless, police, workers and volunteers estimate that they save 70-80% of those planning to jump by vocal or physical methods. There seems only a minority who want to see the bridge 'suicide proofed' as it will spoil the aesthetics and cost a fortune apparently. The rest accept the toll as a bi-product of this piece of architectural beauty. As you run across the only indications are strategically placed phone boxes suggesting you reach out before you step out. Would a higher barrier really spoil the view of the bridge from the headland and not be worth 50 lives a year? Suicide isn't an terminal disease. Those talked down from attempt DO have a 10-15% chance of completing their mission, but that means 80-85% will live. Is the cost of a strategically positioned fence and the loss of aesthetics not a small price to pay for saving 40 lives a year?

Maybe I'm alone in these macabre thoughts, and the majority of tourists just go 'wow', but I felt a feeling of emptiness imagining someone's last thoughts as they made that fateful, mostly irreversible decision.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Scrambled Legs

I thought I had this climbing thing sorted. 10,000m of climbing a month for a year, always catching other runners in races on climbs, and flying up to Pittock or Council Crest almost daily. But I got complacent. I didn't have Table Mountain to really give my quads a bashing. I've been running and racing in the low country, literally.

That changed last weekend when I tacked onto a group of 'proper' trail runners and headed into the Columbia Gorge, an hour drive from Downtown Portland,  for some 'vert' on the wonderfully named Rock of Ages trail.  It winds up from the Falls, joins Nesmith trail, tops out at 1180m (3872ft) and descends to John B Yeon Park and the Columbia River. This was no fancy pants, equipment laden group of trailees, this was hardcore and included a Western States podium finisher and multiple trail race winners. However, I had been running well and sort of holding my own in this sort of company. It was also a training run, where there is some etiquette attached to these runs; Wait for the slowest runner. It's only a training run. There's no hurry, etc, etc

Horse Tail Falls
We started at sea level from Horse Tail Falls (aptly named) and went up and up and up, to above Maclears Beacon level in about 6km. The first 2km was at best scrambling, at worst vertigo inducing ridge line running. At least for this klutz. Much of the time on our hands and knees, bundi bashing on a barely used 'path'.  Then at last we could run, through beautiful woods, hardly used trails and melting winter snow. The problem was my legs hadn't climbed this much in one go since a Larch Mountain run/hike last year, and as we topped out at almost 1200m and descended to the turnaround point at sea level below, I was toast. Running downhill, over rocky trails, with shot legs isn't anymore fun than running uphill with shot legs. In my case worse, as my innate clumsiness is amplified and picking my feet up, as my mother used to berate me for not doing, becomes less of an instinct and more of a chore.

I'm not in this pic, I was taking the low road! Photo: Brian Donnelly
Last year I DNF'ed (did not finish) two races, both at altitude, which was my excuse anyway. DNFing a training run became a great idea as I eventually hit the road after tripping, kicking and cussing my way down the technical trail, after 1278m up and 1278m down in 14km and almost 3 hours. The others were heading back up the mountain to run it in reverse as I covered the last few hundred metres back down. We exchanged semi embarrassing chatter, and they offered words of encouragement, concern and surprise that I'd been reduced to bailing halfway through a relatively short run. I hit the road with immense gratitude and jogged the 5km or so back to the car we'd left at Horse Tail Falls along the road, sure that I wouldn't have made it back over the mountain without being completely broken, and waited for their return. It was cold, so I jogged up and down the trail, huddling in a sunspot, and eventually they came whooping and hollering down the trail, with those unbridled expressions of joy of doing something simple you love, running.

A reality check
It felt like DNFing a race. That sense of quitting whilst everyone else around you has achieved their goals. Skulking around waiting for others to finish, with no happy story to share, and the lack of questions about your run.

It was also a sobering experience from a training and fitness perspective. To come up so short, so quickly has led me to the realisation that despite the 10,000 metres of vertical a month I'm now at best a flattish 50k racer. I've lost the endurance base, or maybe the mental desire to grind it out for longer than 4-5 hours at a time. That doesn't concern me normally, but in this company it felt inadequate. I could try and point to a more rounded life that doesn't revolve around the next run, but I'd be kidding myself, because as Masters Champion Noel Ernstzen would say 'We love this shit'. So it's into April with a new goal of at least one 1000m+ one day a week and more time in the Gorge. Not such a hardship I guess.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Not So Cool

Two weeks ago was the Way Too Cool 50k (WTC) in Cool, California. It was my target race for the first quarter of the year. In 2013 I'd finished 17th in a good field of 850 runners. I felt that a top 10 would be an improvement and evidence that I could ALMOST mix it in a quality field. Last month I ploughed through the mud to 4th at the Hagg Lake 50k within touching distance of some good (albeit local) runners.

Sunrise in Cool, CA
Rather than stay nearer in Sacramento I decided to spend a few days in San Francisco, do the tourist things and hopefully enjoy some sun. I haven't been to SF since 1992 when i arrived in the middle of the Rodney King riots. It was a more relaxed trip this time!

I walked and ran and enjoyed being in a bigger city again. Maybe too much walking, running and enjoying it seems.

On raceday I drove the 2 hours to the start and felt the chill morning air common in the Auburn area. WTC utilises some of the immaculate Western States 100 miler trails, most of which I'd ran at night when pacing UK friend Dave Ross to a sub 24 hour finish last June. The weather was cool, but warmer than last year with a promised late morning high of 68 (20c). I was feeling good as I warmed up.

Beats GU as a sugar rush!
The first mile or so of the race is downhill road before you hit single track. It thins the field out, but also ensures you go too fast. My first two kms were 3.44 and 3.54, more like 21km pace than 50km pace. But, i knew from experience that you can just about get away with this as the trail will slow you down and hopefully you wont blow. As we hit the single track I settled into a nice position just ahead of the leading women and churned out the 8 miles to the first aid station. I was running 'naked' with no water bottles or hydration pack as the aid stations were marked to be 3-5 miles apart after the first long stretch.

This wasn't really uphill, that's my late race shuffle
I felt good. I was keeping my place and knew there was a long flat stretch coming up, as we came off the mountain and onto the flat. As we dropped down to the river and onto wide jeep track I hit the accelerator and pushed. I took maybe 7 or 8 places in those 5 miles or so and felt strong. But the next aid station didn't appear where I thought it would, or for the next 3 miles. My decision to run 'naked' was starting to look very dumb, and the sun was breaking through the clouds. Suddenly I was labouring and losing places. Two women flew past me as we made our way along the Western States single track. The Speedgoat Karl Meltzer was on course and told me I was 19th. 19th! I wanted to be in the top 10. Normally, this would have spurred me on, but my legs were heavy and I wasn't going to blast these last 10 miles, so I kept my head down and just prayed a gel and water at the long awaited next aid station would help restore some vooma. GU'ed up I crawled up Goat Hill, one of the two steep hills and ambled along towards the finish. The tank was empty, literally and it was a relief to see the finish banner and the chance to just STOP. The clock said 4.03 compared to 3.59 last year. Not a disaster by any means but a dent in my racing ego as I felt that I should have been in the low 3.50's which would have secured top 10.

I take racing seriously, but its seems I'm a novice when it comes to pre-race, and should have learned by now that walking all day for two days and running in a race without any instantly accessible fluid is just dumb. Winner Chris Vargo (an amazing 3.16) has it better tapped, as he writes HERE

This must be one of the bigger trail races in the US with 1026 finishers this year. Its easy to see why. A great course with a variety of terrains, no massive climbs, great support and everything you can want at the finish; massage, beer, pizza, fruit, soup, more beer, comfy seats. Somehow they manage to accommodate this many runners without it ever seeming crowded or congested. I'm loathed to do the same race three times given the variety and number of races here, but this is one of the best, and I want that top 10...

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Cradle to the Grave

I came across one of the more interesting lists of records I've seen. As runners we generally run against the rest of the field and then as we get older in age groups, mostly in 5 and 10 year blocks from 40 upwards. I'm now 46 so am technically racing against men in the 45-49 age group, but most races in the US give an award to the first 'master' ie runner 40 and older. Then there are age group awards (normally a ribbon) for 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, and so on.

You never just race against other 46 year olds. Race presentations go on long enough with the 5 year age batches (sometimes presenting awards to the top 5 in each group!). However, there IS an age record for each age from 5 years old and up. Until common sense prevailed, "runners" as young as 5 ran marathons. I'm finding it hard to get my head around a parent letting their 5 year old run a marathon, but apparently it happened in the not too distant past. The complete list is here

Bucky and Jennifers parents; well....
Now you can play a neat game; When would your personal best have earned you a world best, both retrospectively and into the future. So my marathon PB/PR is 2.50.47. Pretty speedy I thought. But not as speedy as 11 year old Wesley Paul who ran a 2.47.17 in 1969 (incidentally when i was two and readying myself for my race debut as a 5 year old, no doubt).

So I can't feel THAT bad about that, as I was a late starter and therefore hadn't reached my peak at 11. I do still run marathons and am in reasonable shape for a 46 year old. Maybe I'll have a crack at it this year either before my May birthday or in my 47th year, when I might have an even better chance? Unfortunately the then 46 year old Reuben Chesang Kambich ran 2.15.24 in 1960 (who said Kenyans have only been running fast marathons for 20 odd years?) and the 47 year Jackson Kipngok Yegon ran a 2.16.20 in 1962. I'm 40 minutes off the pace not likely to make that up anytime soon.

So lastly lets see how long I have to keep my current PB form to content for a world best. 50, 60, 70? At 67 I can have a crack at Luigi Passerini's world best of 2.51.07. Only 20 years to stay in PB shape; A very lofty goal. And then theres the redoubtable Ed Whitlock who has the oldest sub 3 marathon, aged 74 years and 35 days. Beyond belief!

92 year old Gladys Burrill finishing a marathon
Try this yourself. It's fun to see how far we are off of the elite young and older athletes.

This chart surfaced following a column by Geoff Roes on the racing lifespan of ultra runners HERE. Looking at the list again there are very few runners with age best many years apart or even who appear numerous times in the list (Ed Whitlock being a notable exception). Durability at distance running seems a problem. Right now there are many examples of ultra runners who have just crashed and burned after a number of high mileage, high intensity periods of training and racing. Geoff Roes was one. Three or four years ago he seemed unbeatable at 100 mile races. Watch Unbreakable if you get a chance, it is (even for a running film) a great account of the 2010 Western States where Geoff was out for the count and somehow managed to claw his way back. It gives me goose bumps now just thinking about it. It's shot beautifully and gives the essence of trail running.

Fauja Singh a 100 year old marathon runner and holder of 90 year old marathon best of 5.40.04
Geoff, and I have the same opinion that the human body is like a car which only has a certain number of miles on the clock. Once you've used up those miles, it's over, or at least your days of speeding around are gone. I haven't seen any specific studies, other than a few using muscle biopsies of elite athletes. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence of previously elite athletes losing a massive amount of speed. Not from tradional injuries but rather from extreme fatigue or just a lack of being able to get anywhere near the numbers they used to. As a later convert to running (1996-2014?) I'm hoping my body is at least a Ford and not a Trabant....