Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Great Race of Agoura Hills

Here's where my mind goes in any 5K right around mile 2 - "Oh crud, I think I'm going to die.  I'm going to literally pass-out right here and now, they'll be scraping me off the pavement."  Racing on a fast course is no different.  At mile 2, the same thought creeps into my mind, as my face is turning blue from O2 debt.  Such is the pain in a 5K.  Last weekend, seeking one last build up to the CBad 5000, John and I, along with a talented handful of Santa Barbara runners, ventured south about 1 hour to race in The Great Race.  The Great Race is really a lot of great races as it features 6 different options, including a 5K (known as the Deena Kastor 5K), a 10K, two different 1/2 Marathons (Road and Trail versions), and a family fun run and kids mile!  They put together a very well organized event, with each race starting from a different location, but all culminating at one finish line at Chumash Park.  The expo is fabulous and the post-race activities are worth hanging around for.  For our race day, the weather was exceptional, as in sunny, no wind and temps in the 60's.

The Deena Kastor 5K course is considered to be PR friendly.  A "fast" course.  Let me emphasize that this in no way means it's easy.  If you want your PR you better arrive willing to work for it, dig deep and hurt.  There are a few key downhill portions but they are nicely off-set by uphill portions, making it essentially a rolling course.  The race begins on a very significant downhill (significant enough that it requires energy to hold back), and ends on a nice downhill slope.  I love reading race reports with lots of "during the race" details so I thought I'd write this race report in similar manner.

As there are thousands of participants in the events, it is important to arrive early to the venue.  We arrived at 7:30 am for our 9:00 am race and still had to park a mile away.  This works well for me though because I prefer a nice walk as a pre-warm up.  So we found our parking spot in the neighborhood of Agoura Hills, and walked with the masses toward Chumash Park for packet pick up and a look at the finish line.  We picked up and pinned our chip-timed laden race number, switched into our racing flats, checked in our bags to be baby-sat in our absence, and began our warm-up.

The 5K starting line is about 1/2 mile around the corner and up the hill so we jogged our way in that direction, along the course of other races that were already in process.  The race starting line was perched up at the peak of a hill and we jogged over the crest, down the hill, around a portion of the first mile and then made our way along the end of the course back to the park.  The air was still chilly, particularly in the shade.  I was finding it difficult to work up a sweat.  Unfortunately, because our bags and gear needed to remain locked at the finish line, and we needed to be up the hill at the starting line, we had to take off our warm clothing earlier than I would have liked and hoped to stay warm with movement.

Off we went back up to the starting line where we did our strides and drills and kept in constant motion until the "go" went off.  Thankfully they do the 5K in two waves which allows for fewer accidents at the start.  With a steep downhill start, my expectation was that too many people would be pushing forward at the start and it could be easy to be tripped.  Then also there were the speed bumps to be aware of.  But our start went off without a problem and down the hill we proceeded.  It wasn't too difficult to get into a rhythm and it seemed that most runners were making a reasonable effort to not overdo it on this first section.  Very smart.  I tucked myself in behind Rusty and Drea to help me gage my pace.  Clearly the first 400 to 600 meters were going to feel fairly easy, but soon after, the course would take a slight uphill slant and reality would ensue.

Because of that initial hill, I expected the first mile to be faster than usual and it was.  I came through the first mile in around 5:30, but at that point my pace had already headed back the other direction.  We were on a long gradual climb and the runners in front of me were beginning to thin out, most falling off the pace and dropping behind me.  There were a couple of younger looking females that I soon passed but up ahead remained Drea and another woman (the woman in orange).  Picking and using your pace at this point is important.  By running my own race I am able to gage whether those ahead of me ought to be ahead of me or whether I should be aiming to pick them off.  Drea began to pull further ahead, which was not at all a surprise, but I noticed too that the woman in orange also began to put more distance between us. 

We continued slightly up through the neighborhood and passed around a hair-pin turn which more or less marked the 1/2 way point.  Glances at my watch indicated my pace had slowed but still remained under 6 minute pace.  In my mind I focused on getting through the middle mile as I knew that the final mile had more downhill than uphill and I looked forward to that.  The second mile passed by in 5:56 which was both expected and a bit distressing.  It meant that my pace needed to pick up considerably from here on in but I felt like I was basically done, ready to pull off the course and suck in oxygen.  As we turned onto the long straight away that made up most of the final mile, we began encountering 1/2 marathon participants that were headed to the same finish line.  Thankfully they were fairly thinned out and although it required more mental energy than I had to give, it wasn't too difficult to make my way around them.  It did make it more difficult however to keep the woman in orange directly in my sight.  I had caught up to the man running ahead of me (a 5K'er not a 1/2 marathoner) and he and I competed from that point on.  We hit the sharp right turn both having to take a different line due to slower runners blocking the best path and then up the final hill we pushed.  This hill was, hmmmm, hard.  It lasted maybe 400 meters, crested and then shifted with a left hand turn into the final decent to the finish line.  I ran this hill as if the finish line was at the top waiting for me.  In doing so I was able to pull ahead of my male competitor, breaking him mentally.  He must have been focused on the length of what remained whereas I tried to forget that more remained.  I came up over the hill and more or less fell forward into the downward slope.  My mind was elsewhere looking for a happy place and my body seemed to move in a detached feeling.  A final turn onto the grass finish, with 1/2 marathoners all over the place, I gave it one last effort to the finish line. 

I have to be honest, I had hoped to finish under the 18:00 minute mark and without a finishing clock to look at, I had no idea what my time was as I approached the finish.  But as I strided toward the line I heard the announcer talk about one of the men ahead of me finishing just under 18:00 minutes, and it registered in my mind at that point, before I had crossed and checked my watch, that I didn't quite make my goal.  I ended up with an 18:06, which is my fastest true 5K ever.  Chip-timed on a USATF certified course, my watch confirmed the distance as 3.16, meaning it was very accurately measured.  I wanted to be really, really happy but I just took it for what it was.  I didn't feel elated but I felt satisfied.  My first thought was toward Drea who had finished up ahead of me.  If I ran 18:06 I knew she must have thrown down a keeper, and she did!  Way to go!  And the woman in orange whom I never caught up with, who was she?  Rumor was that she is a former Olympic triathlete from Canada.  I was impressed.  She was older than me and faster than me.  This always gives me hope that there are strong days ahead!

I had only a short time to wait for John to glide through.  His finishing time was excellent but didn't reflect the advantage of the beginning hill.  His journey down the hill was with caution and therefore he wasn't able to fully take advantage of it.  But he ran a solid race and has been consistently finishing in the low 19 minutes.

So that was The Great Race!  It was fun after the fact, painful during!  It was great preparation for what's to come.  On our journey back home we stopped along the way to "ice" our legs in the Pacific ocean.  Thankfully we remain injury free, mentally fresh and looking forward to the next race.  But first, one more hard week of training and then a taper.  Carlsbad 5000, Sunday April 7th.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Advice from the Front Runner

Steve Prefontaine had a philosophy about racing that I love.  He was a front runner in his track events because he didn't believe in sitting back on someone's heels and then stealing the race from them at the end.  He felt that if he was going to win, he needed to earn it. He ran with his heart from start to finish.  Could this be one of the reasons he is still relevant and admired?  I realize that strategy exists, especially on the track, but I have to admit:  I hate watching the best in the world running a slow race because everyone's saving it up for the last lap.  Pre had it right. 

Likewise, for me, I don't want to beat someone because they ran a bad race and I ran the same as I always do.  I don't want to win a race because the faster people didn't show.  I've always said, I'd rather run well and lose than run poorly and win.  I had one of each over the past month.

Run Poorly and Win:  After taking some time to recuperate mentally and physically in my short off-season, I came back to running with a couple of goals.  1. Do NOT get injured  2. Increase mileage and endurance above what I was doing last year   3. Get faster.  A part of accomplishing this plan was my purchase and use of the Hoka overstuffed shoes, which I raved about in the past few blogs.  These shoes feel so good to run in and I used them exclusively for 2 full months.  During this time, I ran two short races, a 4 miler and a 5K.  My fitness level is good and solid, so my expectation was to be able to run comparable to what I typically do, keeping a sub-6 minute pace while controlling the race and not let it control me.  Race #1 caught my attention when I failed to run even close to my past speeds.  I was well over a minute slower.  I felt confident that race #2 would fare much better with the additional weeks of training and speed work.  For race #2 I decided not only to train in Hokas but to also race in them.  After all, I discovered that after wearing these shoes, switching back to normally cushioned shoes was painful.  Race #2 was Roses en la Playa and I knew very well that I could and have run 18:18 or better on that course.  This was going to be a real test.  A test to see if my speed was returning; a test to see if the Hokas make good racing shoes; a test to see where I am in preparation for the race that matters.  The result:  I ran poorly but won the race.  I hated the race and I hated how I felt as I dragged my body up and down the hill.  Crossing the line as the first female yet knowing I shouldn't have is really not a good feeling.  That day, I really didn't win.  I ran 18:53, over 30 seconds slower than my previous efforts on that same course.  I felt inefficient, like I was fighting my body, fighting the ground.  And I finished shaking my head and wondering "what was going on?"

Hoka on the Left; Regular Reebok on the Right.
I made some discoveries that day and this is why we race and practice and train and know our bodies.  We have to listen to all of it and adjust.  What I discovered was that as much as I love the cushioned ride and feel of the Hokas, they were slowing sucking my running efficiency out of my legs.  The shoe does way too much of the work.  They take tremendous pressure off the calves and Achilles tendons but in doing so, they also weaken these essential tools.  My strength as a runner has always been my strong, efficient foot strike/push-off.  I am a mid to fore-foot striker naturally and therefore I use my calves and Achilles tendons a lot, which is why this tends to be my area of injury.  The Hokas were weakening my stride and I even noticed muscle atrophy in my calves, and the muscle definition was becoming blurred.  Additional evidence that this process was happening was the pain and difficulty that came every time I gave my old shoes a go.  Without the thick marshmallows doing the work, I felt all the pressure again on my body.  It was a shock and made it impossible for me to easily switch between shoes for speed work and racing. 

It took all of one second of realizing this to decide I would immediately switch back to full-time in my regular shoes.  I'm not totally forsaking the Hokas, but I am reassigning them to recovery days and extra long run days.  Once I made the switch and got through the initial soreness that ensued, I found my strong stride again.  My running began to feel more efficient again and every stride felt strong.  Best of all, I felt my body doing the work.  I felt the pressure in my calves, and the strain against my tendons.  I felt the muscles in my feet firing.  I felt the ground again.  And thus is how I have been training over the past month.

Run Well and Lose: Last weekend John and I traveled down to Newport Beach to compete in the Newport-Mesa Spirit Run 5K.  For me it was another big test.  It had to be different for me this time.  There was no reason for it not to be better, with the exception of the fact that we were going into the race fatigued from hard training.  There isn't any tapering for these lead up races so we have to factor in the possible effect.  Other than tired legs, I felt this was going to be a better experience.  I also had the opportunity to compete against a phenomenal Masters female who beat me 5 times last year.  I chased her all year but she was just a bit stronger than me every time.  Maybe this year would be different.  I planned on it being different.

The weather was cool, overcast and calm, even a few drops of rain on the starting line.  The course was neither difficult nor easy.  The first mile and a half was a gradual uphill, and the journey through the remainder was some down, some flat, some up, and many turns.  But nothing too drastic except one unfriendly hairpin.  As is always the case, my blond master adversary took off from the start running, in my opinion, too fast.  Knowing this I didn't panic nor feel like I had to go with her.  I was not planning on draining myself needlessly on the uphill portion of the race, so I economized.  I was rather more focused on how good my stride felt and how completely different I was feeling as compared to last week's race.  Although it was the toughest mile of the three, my first mile clicked off at 5:52 and I felt fine.  There she was, blond ponytail bouncing up ahead of me but I felt in control of myself.  We turned up a new street, still no reprieve from the hill and made our way around a block.  I put no mind to what place I was in because often it is hard to know.  I was running for some prize money in the masters category and unless it's obvious, to me everyone looks young.  I had no way of knowing of the few women I saw up ahead, who was over 40.  I just focused on the one ahead of me.

After our go around the block, we were into the second half of the race, and heading down a slope.  It wasn't a dramatic slope, just slight, just enough to allow a pick up in the pace or a moment of recovery.  Mile two came and went in 5:53 and I still felt in control of myself.  I was getting closer to her.  My pace stayed the same while hers had slowed.  We turned off the main road again for another loop and when we finally came back out onto the main road and she was just ahead of me.  At this point I knew I could catch her but the question was, did I want to catch her yet?  We still had three-quarters of a mile to go.  Was I ready to battle?  I decided to let my pace dictate itself regardless of who was in front of me.  I eventually caught up to her and ran on her shoulder, waiting for her to pick up the pace.  I didn't want to pass only to be passed up again.  Our course turned uphill again and we approached one more excursion off of the main road onto a short out-n-back on a side street. I pushed it, passed her and put some yards between us.  By the time I got to our side street I knew I had her.  She couldn't respond to my move and I pulled away.  Somewhere in here, the third mile clicked off in 5:55.  Once back onto the main road we had but a few meters to the finish.  There were two women just ahead of me and I watched them cross the line, and soon joined them in that heavenly place of the finishing chute.  I took a moment to pose for the photographer and shook the hands of the women ahead of me, and waiting for her to finish.  She doubled-over and then managed a handshake.  She ran a decent race, I ran a better race.  I didn't beat her because she ran poorly, I beat her because I ran well.  This time.  I'll meet her again in a few weeks.  We'll see how that goes.  I respect her because she has been at the top before and she is fierce.  Incidentally, I was the fourth overall female, and third overall master female.  Masters women took four of the top five top women's spots in the race.

This was a USATF sanctioned event and the course was certified and chip timed.  I ran 18:34 on this day.  But the extra difference is this.  On this course, my Garmin showed that we ran 3.16.  On the Roses en la Playa course, which is not accurately measured, nor certified, my watch showed 3.09.  The difference between the two courses was .07 which is around 112 meters or about 20 seconds.  Taking this into account, this weeks race was almost 40 seconds faster than the race the week before.  Running with accurate timing, on an accurate course is so important if you want to know what you are truly capable of.  I have to say that because of this I am often frustrated by approximate courses  and old school timing techniques.  The inaccuracies make a big difference to me.

So I had a better race, beat a particular opponent for the first time, got a realistic idea of where I am.  We have one more build-up 5K in Agoura Hills in a few weeks and then it's on to the Carlsbad 5000.  I'm hoping the CBad brings the best out of me.  That's really what I'm chasing.  To just be the best I am able to be.