Monday, June 04, 2012

My first marathon

When we left the house at 5:20 a.m., it was already 73 degrees. We drove east toward the Devil Mountain, where the rising sun ignited a thin layer of fog with intense golden light. The sky was burning up right in front of me, and its red light was starting to creep down the hillsides. Beat flipped through a music playlist, searching for his favorite pre-race stoke anthem — "Walk" by the Foo Fighters. I made him stop on a Naked and Famous song that expressed my own feelings of trepidation — "Here it comes ... the unavoidable sun ... Where's my head? ... and what the hell have I done?"
 
For being the training race of a training race, the Diablo Marathon had unleashed an unexpected flood of anxiety. It was actually going to be my first race ever at the 26.2-mile distance. But in my mind, Diablo was a marathon only in name. The course had 8,000 feet of climbing, was comprised mainly of rugged and technical singletrack, summitted Mount Diablo twice, and promised six or more hours on harsh slopes exposed to relentless heat and sunlight. One day before the race, the temperature hit 96 degrees in Clayton, where the race started. Everything about the Diablo Marathon made the 26.2 part seem laughable and the rest like a purposeless beatdown. But I couldn't really ask for better training grounds.

Beat, crazy man that he is, opted for the 60K distance. His race started at 7 a.m. and mine started at 8:30, so I had an hour and a half to kill after the ultramarathoners left. I went to my car to slather my entire body in chamois butter, followed by multiple layers of SPF 50. I started reading my Kindle to kill time and accidentally dozed off, waking up about 15 minutes later when the car temperature had risen to at least 160 degrees. Have you ever taken a nap in a hot car with all the windows closed? I stumbled out of the vehicle in a flu-like haze, soaked in sweat, nausea, and what felt like a high fever. Fresh 85-degree air and several bottles full of water helped cool my core temperature just enough that I changed my mind about hiding in the shade until I had safely avoided starting this ill-advised race.

Mount Diablo is a prominent landmass in the Bay area, rising from near sea level to a summit elevation of 3,864 feet, with several sub-peaks along its broad ridges. I tend to laugh at the "Fake Mountain" jokes that non-locals make about this peak, but when you really get close to it, Mount Diablo is a rugged place comprised of loose, rocky slopes and abundant poison oak and rattlesnakes.  The steep trail to the summit often required a hands-on-knees march, and loose dirt made it all too easy to slip and fall, even while climbing.

The morning was already hot by the time the race started, but a stiff wind whisked along the slope. The wind carried air that was sometimes almost cool, and other times felt like a furnace blast — but the quick drying of sweat was a welcome relief. After I recovered from my nap-induced fever, I actually felt okay. In order to cope with the heat, I turned to an old trick I once used for long hikes — freezing my Camelbak bladder solid. I used a water bottle refilled with electrolyte drink as my main source of hydration, and whenever I felt particularly hot or dizzy, I took a sip of plain water from my ice-cold Camelbak. That strategy works wonders.

On our first trip to the peak, the race organizers required that we locate a secret message in order to prove we actually went all the way to the top. In retrospect, the location was obvious, but I arrived at the summit convinced the sign was going to be hidden somewhere. I wandered around the parking lot for several minutes until a road biker asked me what I was doing. "I'm looking for the top," I said. "Oh," he said. "You need to go up those stairs and the top is around the corner." As I said, in retrospect it was obvious — but the necessity of going around the visitor's center threw me off guard. That's just the kind of weird mountain that Diablo is. You can climb tough, rugged trails for two hours only to arrive at a parking lot, where you must use stairs to reach the proper summit. I was annoyed by how long it took me to find it, but I do think random scavenger hunts would add an interesting element to trail racing.

The wind wreaked havoc on the course markings, blowing ribbons off trees and turning arrow signs in opposite directions. I reached a few confusing intersections that I simply couldn't figure out, so I just stood there waiting for the next runner to catch me so we could combine our heat-addled problem-solving skills. At one point there were six of us standing at a three-way intersection with ribbons going off in every direction. According to Beat this turn was obvious, but between the six of us — several of whom had printed out course maps — we just couldn't figure it out. One guy seemed certain of the general direction of the aid station and we agreed to follow his lead — figuring that if all six of us went off course, at least we were in this together. It turned out to be the right direction, but the resulting paranoia led to me spending way too much time scanning the trees for pink ribbons, and not enough time watching the trail. This, in turn, led to two big falls — one that was almost a full header, causing me to eat a fair helping of dirt and toss my water bottle twenty feet off the trail beside a healthy batch of poison oak. Luckily I emerged from these falls mostly unscathed except for a few scratches and a goose-egg bruise on my right knee. Later, during the steep descent from the north peak, I fell on my butt three separate times while baby-stepping down the loose, gravelly trail. But I consider it a personal victory that I only fell five times — such was the technical difficulty of the Diablo Marathon.

The crux of the race turned out to be an unmarked intersection about four miles from the finish. The dirt road we had been descending forked in two directions after a gate that indicated private property, and before the gate were two trails — one with a trail sign and went up the mountain, and another unmarked path that looked like a fading deer trail. I wandered around for about five minutes, traveling a short distance down each spur and finding no sign of ribbons anywhere. I went back to the gate a fumed for a bit, wondering if I should just take the main road and hope it lead to civilization if not the race finish, when a 60K racer named Kermit caught up to me. Kermit was a Diablo veteran, having completed several distances on the same general course. He also had a map, and even he couldn't quite discern which way to go. We settled on the deer trail and sure enough found a pink ribbon about a quarter mile later. Kermit was a faster runner than me, but I didn't want to let him out of my sight. I managed to shadow him for two and a half miles, which is probably the longest I've ever sustained a downhill pace that I didn't quite feel comfortable with. But, sure enough, when the trail started trending upward again, Kermit pulled away. I was on my own in a maze of sporadic ribbons.

My GPS said I had traveled 26.1 miles when I reached another intersection. The arrow sign had blown over but pointed distinctively to the left, and all of the pink ribbons went that way. When I looked down the dirt road, I could not see any ribbons. I figured I had to be really close to the finish, but GPS watches can be wrong, course distances vary, and I had traveled a small amount of extra mileage. I turned left and soon began climbing up a steep slope.

The trail just kept on climbing. I was convinced this couldn't be right, but there were still pink ribbons, and in trail racing, you don't question the ribbons. When my GPS registered 27 miles I was at nearly 1,500 feet elevation, which didn't seem right at all given the race finish was closer to 500 feet. A quarter mile later I reached a ridge and finally understood where I was — right back where I had started, climbing Mount Diablo. I idiotically managed to turn off course right at the very end — and consequently beginning — which is why there were still ribbons and signs on the trail.

Since I had already botched the race, I briefly considered just running another mile and half up the trail to register a solid 50K. But I knew I'd have to climb another 1,000 feet in the process, plus I was already out of water and nearly out of electrolyte drink. So I turned around, laughing at myself because out of all of the confusing intersections, this mistake really was my fault.

Sure enough, the finish was less than a quarter mile from my wrong turn. I finished the race with 28.5 miles and 8,300 feet of climbing. As I was explaining to Kermit why I came in more than a half hour after him even though he last saw me just a mile from the finish, the race director walked up and handed me this coaster. Despite all I was actually the first woman to finish the marathon distance, and the fifth overall of 18 finishers (probably about 20-22 starters. There were definitely a few drops.) Although Strava placed my marathon finishing time at 6:32, my actual finishing time was 6:58. A seven-hour marathon. I think Pearl Izumi would agree that's a pillar of excellence. Beat finished the 60K in 9:31, coming in sixth.

I am happy with how it went, because I managed all of these challenges that are really difficult for me — heat, technical descending, feeling horribly lost — quite well. I kept a solid but sustainable pace so I didn't screw up my taper for the big test next weekend. I ended up fueling solely on Clif Shot Bloks and the mysterious pink electrolyte drink. My fueling strategy for supported (and unsupported) races is usually just to pick the first thing that looks good to me and stick with it for the duration of the race. The surprise of what food that might be is a fun bonus, but as an actual fueling technique, it seems to work well for me. And I only fell five times! Oh, and I won the race. Even though it was a small race, that was a nice reward for the brutal beatdown of the Devil Mountain.