Monday, February 19, 2007

Palm Springs Half Marathon

I ran the Palm Springs Half Marathon this weekend. It's a great race that I've wanted to run for several years but haven't been able to do so. Last year, I was suffering from a hip-flexor injury and missed the race. This year, I was using this event as a good tune-up race in my training for the Boston Marathon in April.

I didn't have the highest expectations for this race because I kinda overdid it this week in training and didn't taper much at all (82.5 miles; 8x1mile in 6:10 each on Tuesday; 21 miles on Thurs, last 5 @ 6:52 each).

We had perfect weather (50s, overcast which is rare in Palm Springs, no wind) slightly hilly course (see note about course map below). No need for sunscreen or sunglasses. Just a nice cool day for racing.

Race started at 7:00am. When my watch read, 7min 5sec into the race, I realized I was either running pathetically slower than I expected or I had missed the first mile marker.
Fortunately, it was the latter, not the former. (The opening mile marker to me is the most important one to catch to make sure my pace is not too fast or slow.) A person running near me told me their splits at that point.

Here's my splits for the entire race. You can tell where the hills were because I ran a relatively even paced effort and pushed it at the end which has a little bit of uphill also.

Mile 1 - 6:20 (6:20)
Mile 2 - 12:49 (6:29)
Mile 3 - 19:09 (6:20)
Mile 4 - 25:36 (6:26)
Mile 5 - 32:10 (6:34) - starting uphill
Mile 6 - 39:02 (6:52) - climbing
Mile 7 - 45:16 (6:13)
Mile 8 - 51:29 (6:13)
Mile 9 - 57:29 (5:59)
Mile 10 - 1:03:45 (6:16)
Mile 11 - 1:09:55 (6:09)
Mile 12 - 1:16:34 (6:38) - slight climb
Mile 13 - 1:22:57 (6:22)
Finish - 1:23:32 (:35) [6:22 average pace overall]

I must have run a negative split. If I split mile 7 in half (3:07) and add 19sec (.05 @ 6:22 pace), I'm guessing my first/second half splits were 42:28 and 41:04 (in other words, 6 miles + ½ mile + .05). But the climbs were mostly in the first half.

This is a huge PR (personal record) for me. My pace (6:22 per mile) would also be PR's for 10K and 15K since my paces in my PR runs for those distances were 6:33 ten years ago and 6:42 last summer, respectively. I'll be running a 15K and a 10K in a few weeks so hopefully I can reset those PR benchmarks as well.

It's also nice that this race completely resolves my PR dilemma for the half marathon distance. Until 4 weeks ago, I considered my PR Half to be 1:29:31 (San Dieguito Half 2005). I didn't count my 1:26:46 at Fontana Days Half in 2004 since that is an extremely downhill course that I ran only 4 weeks training. On January 20, 2007, I ran 1:25:15 at Diamond Valley Lake Half, but I suspected the course was short and I thought I ran something more like the equivalent of 1:27:40. Today's race supercedes all of those times so it's nice to have that PR situation rectified. BTW, I now suspect that the course at Diamond Valley Lake Half probably was a complete 13.1 miles and that the mile markers were off. Palm Springs is a tougher course than Diamond Valley Lake and I ran 1:45 faster today.

I also couldn't help but think on the way home that I missed qualifying for NYCM by only :32 (or by 8 months... whichever way you want to look at it since I turn 40 in October).

I can honestly say I'm stunned that I ran that fast today. I was hoping to run 1:25 so I'd know I had reasonable chance to attempt running under 3:00 in Boston. I didn't think I was capable of getting to 1:24, yet alone to 1:23. I'm pleased to say the least. It just felt good, all the way to the finish.

I ended up finishing 12th overall (out of 652), but only 4th in my age group (M 35-39).

Happy Chinese New Year everyone (which was Sunday)!

Note: The course map/elevation chart linked above is not completely accurate. There were so many turns on this course that I never could plot it correctly. I'm sure the course was accurate (and not 12.64 miles like my feable attempt at plotting the course is).

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Life in Death Valley

Death Valley Trail Marathon
Saturday, February 3, 2007

I like a tough marathon in a scenic locale, especially a national park. Death Valley Trail Marathon is just such a marathon. My last marathon at Crater Lake this past August was also such a race. Gorgeous places to run.

Hottest, driest, and lowest are superlatives often used to describe Death Valley, not exactly the kind of conditions most marathoners desire (except for that “lowest” part). But Death Valley in the winter (which is more akin to summer anywhere else) is a great place to run. The first weekend in February for Death Valley normally averages 70s for the high and 40s for the low, but it has been known to be as high as the 80s or as low as the 20s. This is the desert after all.

Technically, DVTM is a two-state marathon. The point-to-point marathon course is simply all of Titus Canyon Road from start to finish, from east to west. This is a 26-mile, one-way, four-wheel-drive, dirt road from Hwy 374 in Nevada to its termination at Scotty’s Castle Road in California. Roughly, the first 8 miles are in Nevada and the rest in California.

The DVTM route starts at 3,460’ elevation. The highpoint is at Red Pass (mile 12 at 5,250’). From there the road drops nearly a vertical mile over the last 14 miles to a finishing elevation of 200’ (yes, that’s an average grade of nearly -7%). Because the course traverses the narrows of a desert canyon, this event often has to be relocated to another place in the park. This was the first time in four years that the marathon was run through Titus Canyon since the last three years it was moved due to snow, rain, and rock slides from winter storms.

The event sells out rather quickly since space is limited to a few hundred runners by the NPS. Most stay at the Furnace Creek Ranch, which served as HQ for this event. But why stay in a hotel room when you’re in a national park? So I camped in my tent at Furnace Creek campground. I wanted nothing less than the full Death Valley experience. The skies above treated me with a gorgeous full moon and a sweeping array of stars. Of course, I was also giddy from oxygen intoxication since the campground has an elevation of -196’. I can honestly say, I’ve never had a more solid night’s sleep before a race than I did on Friday night in that campground. It only got down to the 40s that night.

Early on Saturday morning, we all assembled for our mandatory check-in and pre-race instructions at Furnace Creek Ranch. This was a most fascinating conglomeration of runners for a race. Trust me when I say, no one was a local runner for this race! Most of the runners were from the Bay area, many of whom wanted to use this event towards points in the EnviroSports series of races which are mostly in NorCal. Others were from Canada, France, Scotland, England, and Italy. I did manage to talk to a few people from SoCal, including the race director of the half marathon I won a couple of weeks ago. Pete was a super nice guy and a strong runner. He and I ran quite a few miles together on Saturday talking about this, that, and the other thing. We finished within a few minutes of each other.

Since this was a trail marathon, there were quite a few ultra-runners in this race. I find it funny that they use a race like this for “speed work” (no kidding, that’s what a lady who often does 100-milers told me on the bus). I learned a lot about this mysterious and enigmatic thing called ultra-running by talking to these people. I find ultra-running to be like some kind of underground cult. They keep a low-key profile out in public for fear of scorn and ostracism, but they infiltrate races like this and single you out on the bus ride to convert you to their subversive movement. They have a subtle way of making us mainstream marathoners feel like we’re less of a runner and missing out on something if we’re not out there doing 50- or 100-milers. I resisted these brainwashing techniques but still left with an inner draw to discover what they had experienced.

RD Dave gave us all our race instructions. He’s a great guy with a great sense of humor. Some of his humorous but helpful comments…
  • You can’t get lost… just stay on the road.” (This was true. There are no side roads for the entire route.)
  • If you want to stop and take pictures, do so. Just let me know afterwards and I’ll deduct it from your time.” (said with laughter because we were wearing chips on our ankles)
  • There’s a false summit on the way to Red Pass. When you get to White Pass (4,900') around mile 8, you’ll think you’re at the top. But then you’ll run downhill a long ways and look way up high and see a #%&@ hill. That’s Red Pass.” (This was true. Those censored words were the thoughts I heard runners express as they first saw Red Pass at 5,250' high above them.)
  • When you exit Titus Canyon, you’ll look out 3 miles ahead and see the buses way in the distance. You’ll run for a while and look up and you’ll swear we moved the buses, but I promise you, we don’t. You’ll run some more and look up and swear again that the buses are even further away now, but I promise you, we don’t move the buses.” (This was true. For the first mile after we left Titus Canyon at mile 23, it seemed like I was making no progress towards those shiny dots in the distance. But eventually we got there.)
  • If you have any complaints, just don’t come back next year!” (said with laughter and a funny story about some runner in the past who expected personal shuttle service at the end of the race. Since this race sells out early, he’s actually halfway serious. But this was a very well run event.)
  • "San Diego's Rock-n-Roll Marathon in June may have lots of rock bands, but we got lots of bands of rock!" (This was true. As you can see in some of my photos, the strata in the rock walls was gorgeous.)
  • Since we’re in a national park, let’s start with America the Beautiful instead of the National Anthem.” And we did.

We all then boarded the buses for the ride to the starting line in the Nevada desert. It took nearly an hour to get there.

The buses dropped us marathon runners off in Nevada about 8:30am. All of us were wondering what to wear since it was cold (low 40s with a slight breeze). We also knew we’d be going higher and through a narrow canyon with little sunlight. I’m a minimalist so I only wore a short-sleeved tech shirt, shorts, socks, shoes, and sunglasses. No hat (but I did have on sunscreen), no gloves, no Gu, no food, and no liquids (there would be aid stations at miles 5, 10, 15, 20, and 23). That was a good choice. Nowhere on the course did I ever wish I had something with me.

After the buses dropped us off, RD Dave assembled us marathoners. He called off 3 or 4 names, and then said, “It’s their birthday. Happy Birthday!” Nice touch. He then drew a line in the dirt road with his foot and announced, “Folks, this is your starting line.” And he was serious. “I’m going to drive ahead of you up the road. When you see my brake lights shut off, that’s the start.” And it was. There was no race clock here, but time was kept at the end of the course. There were no mile markers along the way, but that really didn’t matter because our splits on a course like this would be chaotic anyway. It was a rather unceremonious way to start a marathon, but hey, this is the middle of the desert. Dave drove up the road, and we were off.

For the first 7 or 8 miles (who knows how far?), we were running up the straight dirt road with a slight uphill grade (1%??). Everyone is relaxed and taking it easy because of the steep climbs further ahead. I didn’t even look at my watch for 30 minutes because it really didn’t matter what it said since there was nothing by which to gauge our time or distance. Even the mountains ahead didn’t seem to be getting any closer. One lady remarked, “Forget the buses, I think they’re moving the mountains away from us!”

After 7 or 8 miles, the road started getting steeper as it winds its way up to White Pass. We had hit the “5-mile” aid station in 42:45 and the “10-mile” aid station in 1:23:46 (41:01 split). I use those aid station names loosely because we really didn’t know if the aid stations could serve precisely as a correct mileage check.

After the second stop, the road turned steeply downhill as we dropped hundreds of feet that we had just worked so hard to gain. It was quite steep and I couldn’t help but think, I sure hope the downhill on the back half of this course is not this steep. That’ll be painful.

As we were running down hill precipitously, we could look up and see the road to Red Pass high above us. It looked incredibly steep and high. It reminded me of the long, never-ending climb to Cloud Cap Gap at mile 14 (7,900’) at Crater Lake Marathon this past summer. Similar grade, similar view, and similar point in the race.

But as the road turned uphill, I kept an even-paced effort and felt fine. It honestly didn’t feel that steep at all. Without laboring, I ended up separating myself ahead from some of the runners I had been with. I hit Red Pass and threw my hands in the air and yelled, “Yes!” as I could see the downhill road ahead. The climbs were over.

The steepness of the descent was not that bad. I chose to run in the middle of the road. I wanted to use the soft dirt in the crown of the road between the tire marks as extra cushioning for my body. It would be a long but beautiful 14-mile descent.

The upper part of the canyon had beautiful red rock features. Around mile 15, we passed the ghost town of Leadfield. It had been deserted in the 1920s. After a while, we came across some petroglyphs carved onto rocks centuries ago by Native Americans. No time to stop and explore these sights though.

Somewhere after that (who knows how many miles into the race), the canyon closes in and becomes a narrow passage through tall cavernous walls of rock. This goes on for miles and miles. The walls of Titus Canyon are hundreds of feet high, and much of the road is wide enough for only a single car. The walls somewhat reminded me of the Virgin River gorge on I-15 in northern Arizona. Titus Canyon was carved by water which was evident at bends in the road where flash floods had cut caves into the rock walls.

As we were running, I couldn’t help but think. What an incredibly awesome place to run. How few people who come to Death Valley get to experience Titus Canyon. What a perfect day. Sunny skies, cool air, slight breeze, no cares or worries in the world. Just run baby run! And oh was it fun!

After running 20+ miles, I kept wondering, When are we going to exit the canyon and see those buses? I came upon bend after bend after bend in the road, but no exit. I had been running by myself for miles and miles now. I occasionally passed some stragglers from the 30K race, but basically I had the whole canyon to myself.

Finally, I saw sunlight and the canyon opened up into full view of Death Valley. I grabbed my last gulps of water and Gatorade for the closing 3 miles of the race. And down the road we went. The road had not been too steep. My pace had been nice and consistent throughout the descent. My breathing remained light and easy and my HR relatively low. I was relieved to have made it through this race with no cramps, aches or pains.

I descended into the finish line with a time of 3:35:41 (19th overall out of 241). That’s a bit faster than I had planned to run, but I could also tell that I had not overdone it. I still had plenty of gas in the tank to go harder or farther if I had wanted. A volunteer at the end put a finisher’s medal around my neck and commented, “Wow, you’re not even sweaty.”

I had done what I wanted… enjoy this beautiful race and use it as a good training run for Boston (without setting back my training or hurting myself in the process). Mission accomplished. And BTW, yes, like most folks on Saturday, I had run a negative split (my splits for 12 miles and the last 14.2 were 1:50:12 and 1:45:28).

Overall, it was a tough course, certainly not an easy one. But it wasn’t terribly intimidating to me because Crater Lake was tougher (much higher in altitude) and I wasn’t trying to push the pace today. It just felt sooooo good.

I’m really hooked on these tough, off-road, scenic marathons. To go out and experience the beauty of a place like Titus Canyon by running free-spirited and carefree down the road is one of the great pleasures of life. Just take off your watch, open your eyes, and run a marathon like this for the scenery and beauty. It’s an experience for the memory books.

Here’s my photos of Titus Canyon and my visit to Death Valley National Park. (Note: the first 14 photos of the canyon are not mine, and I have cited the source in the description. The last 12 pictures are mine.)

Here's my race photos from Brightroom. You can tell I was having a little too much fun!