Late Summer/Fall 2021

Castle Peak in less smoky days

It turns out I am not good at maintaining a race blog. In my defense, I didn’t have much to report in the second half of 2021. It’s a cliché to say that races are a metaphor for life, but honestly, my 2021 race season felt a lot like the year as a whole. My early-summer races (Black Hills, Bigfoot), like the illusory end of Covid, promised a great year ahead. Then came the delta wave, the Afghanistan withdrawal, the West Coast’s now-annual fire nightmare, supply-chain woes and inflation, the Democrats’ never-ending (until they ended in failure) negotiations over Build Back Better, the omicron wave… Yeah. Admittedly, most of this had nothing to do with running, but the wildfires did: they led me to skip one event (Desolate Peaks), cast a pall over another (Castle Peak), forced the cancellation of my fall goal race (Ultra Trails Lake Tahoe), and generally made running unpleasant for a while. Between the smoke, cancelled races, and a busy fall at work, I kind of gave up on running. So, 2021 in a nutshell: promising start, disappointing end.

That’s not to say late summer and fall were a total loss. In lieu of real training, I signed up for a lot of small, local races in the hope that the occasional hard effort would keep me in shape. Those races turned out to be a lot of fun: it’s nice not to worry about travel, lodging, or your performance. In the end, I found–much like Candide–that things were not so bad, even if we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. At least, that’s how I felt about the running: don’t get me started on the other stuff.

Castle Peak 100k (August 14)

I’ve always liked Castle Peak. It’s beautiful, set in the mountains above Truckee and Donner Lake. It’s tough, with some gnarly technical parts and lots of elevation gain. It’s local, which means I can get there easily and usually have friends in the race. It’s well-organized and has a fun vibe. I had a blast at this race in 2018 and 2019 and expected the same this year. However, things did not go so well.

As the race approached, it wasn’t clear whether it would even happen. The wildfires were bad this year–they’re bad every year these days–and the RD said he’d cancel the race if the AQI was above 150. (For those who don’t obsessively watch the AQI for 3-4 months every year, 150 is the threshold between “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and “unhealthy.”) This seemed reasonable, and I was glad there was a clear rule (which is not always the case). However, the prospect of cancellation–and the alternative of running in not-necessarily-dangerous-but-still-unpleasantly-smoky air–made it hard for me to get that excited.

I felt even less excited on race morning. On the plus side, the race went ahead, as the AQI hovered right around 150. On the minus side, I didn’t sleep at all the night before. As a night owl, I often have trouble falling asleep in time to…well, sleep before a 3:00am alarm. This time, I took an unusually high dose of edible cannabis to make me drowsy, but to no avail. So, I arrived at the start feeling both exhausted and very stoned. I nonetheless chugged along half-awake for some hours, running the familiar course on autopilot, and taking cheer every time I saw Megan and Dan at the aid stations.

It got hot: mid-90s. The smoke got worse, with the AQI around 170 most of the day. The ridgeline from Basin Peak to Castle Peak, which usually offers spectacular views, didn’t offer much today but smoke. I kept running, not well but sustainably. Then, as I approached the Soda Springs aid station at mile 47, it occurred to me that I could drop. I was only a few miles from the start/finish where I’d parked my car, so this would be my last chance. If I kept going, I’d be committed to doing another mountainous 18 miles. I didn’t see the point. I’d done this race twice before, so I didn’t feel I had anything to prove. I’d seen those last miles in much nicer conditions. It was hot and smoky, and I felt as crappy as the air looked. Sleep deprivation, heat, smoke: I probably could have handled any two, but not all three. I saw Megan at the aid station and told her my thoughts. She encouraged me to continue, saying we could all run together. I replied “It’s not gonna be fun.” And with that, I watched Megan and her pacer disappear up the hill.

A spectator who overheard our conversation offered me a ride back to the start/finish, which I gratefully accepted. I grabbed my car and drove back to Chris and Tim’s cabin, where they graciously let us stay. I took a shower and lay down for a while, feeling ok about my decision. Then I drove back to the finish to wait for Megan and Dan to come in.

While waiting, I felt my first pangs of regret. It’s tough to hang out at a race finish after you’ve DNF-ed. The RD, Peter Fain, asked me what happened, as did Let’s Wander photographer Jesse Ellis. They were both nice and understanding, but it was hard not to feel some shame. The ultra ethos tells us to tough things out, and celebrates all runners who finish, no matter how slow. Sitting around at the finish showered and clean while Megan and Dan were still out there didn’t sit well with me. When I saw them come in, hours later and in the dark, I couldn’t help wishing I’d been with them.

It wasn’t a great day, but at least I learned why people hate to DNF. I’ve DNF-ed before and felt comfortable with my decision, but in every case I’d dropped because of an injury that left me no choice. This was my first “voluntary” DNF–the first time I’d dropped simply because I felt bad–and that felt bad. Lesson learned.

Double Dipsea (August 28)

The Double Dipsea involves running Marin County’s seven-mile Dipsea Trail twice, from Stinson Beach to Mill Valley and back again. This takes you through open coastal headlands, redwood forests, and up and down a lot of stairs. Like its forebear, the Dipsea Race, the DD is handicapped: runners get head starts based on their age and gender. As a male aged 50-54, I get a 14-minute head start. In 2019, that was enough to win the race with an actual running time of 2:06. I doubted I’d repeat that feat this year: although I’d run some decent mileage over the summer, I hadn’t attempted anything short and fast in some time. On the other hand, I did break a rib in 2019, when I collided head-on with another runner eight miles in. Perhaps I could squeak out a decent performance again if I avoided broken bones.

This race is usually in June, but Covid concerns pushed it to late August this year. This had a couple of consequences: it was hotter than usual, and also smoky, as fire season was well underway. This didn’t advantage or disadvantage anyone in particular, but I expected the finishing times to be slow.

Things felt pretty good for the first two miles, up the coastal stretch and the Steep Ravine steps. However, as soon as I crested those steps, I felt a blast of warm air. Seriously, the temperature probably rose 15 degrees in just a quarter-mile as we moved inland. It remained hot, dry and a bit smoky for the rest of the race.

I passed Megan, who started five minutes ahead of me, shortly before reaching the Dipsea Steps. I reached the Mill Valley turnaround in 1:04, three minutes slower than the previous year. I briefly hoped that the slower pace would allow me to run the second half faster, but I quickly abandoned that hope when I started back up the steps. My legs felt tired: maybe some lingering fatigue from Castle Peak two weeks earlier, or maybe just out of shape. I slogged through the second half in 1:11 to finish in 2:15, almost ten minutes slower than my previous time. Good enough for fourth overall.

As expected, this year’s times were slow. The fastest actual running time of 2:10 would have been the 18th fastest time in 2019. This partly reflected a weak field, but I suspect the heat also played a role. I’ll ascribe three minutes of my slowdown to the heat, with the other seven minutes due to poor training (and two extra years on my legs).

Megan finished shortly behind me in fifth place. She slowed down this year as well, though not as much as me. No matter: we once again nabbed the couples trophy and then went for a swim in the Pacific–one perk of doing the race in August rather than June.

Berkeley Trail Adventure 50k (September 17)

This race, in Tilden and Wildcat regional parks, is right in my backyard. I’ve volunteered there twice but had never run it, mostly because I run these trails all the time. But since I’d barely been running since my aborted attempt at Castle Peak, I figured this was a convenient way to get in a solid long run. And I do mean convenient: an 8:00am start only 20 minutes from my home! Really, I don’t know why I hadn’t done it before.

The course is pretty straightforward: a loop around Tilden, then a loop around Wildcat, then another loop around Tilden in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, everyone managed to go off course because someone had come out in the middle of the night and sabotaged the course markings. Whereas the yellow ribbons should have led runners straight down Seaview, someone had moved them all so they first took runners along the unnamed single-track that parallels Seaview and then down Upper Big Springs. Why do people do this? Your guess is as good as mine.

Due to my usual slow start, I was well back in the pack when we hit the course sabotage. Having looked at the course map beforehand, I was pretty sure we should just continue down Seaview. But everyone else was taking the single-track, and the ribbons were there, so I followed along sheep-like. Fortunately, I asserted myself when we reached Upper Big Springs, and told anyone who would listen that that was the wrong way. The runners around me followed my lead, but I later learned that many had run all the way down to the Arroyo aid station, where they were then told to go back up.

That was maybe the most noteworthy part of the race. Otherwise, it was just cruising along on familiar trails. I had no idea what place I was in until I caught the lead runner around mile 18. We ran together until we reached the Nimitz Way bike path, at which point I slowly pulled away. I ended up finishing first in 4:52, about five minutes ahead of the guy I’d passed. It was nice to win, but my time was objectively slow. That’s fine: my only real goal was to get in a good long run, and BTA was perfect for that.

IPA 10k (September 25)

The IPA 10k had not been on my radar–10k’s in general are not–but Megan and I noticed it while biking through Sebastopol. We’d been picking wild blackberries along the Joe Rodota bike path and decided to stop at The Barlow, an outdoor market in Sebastopol, for food and cider. While there, we noticed a flyer for the IPA 10k and beer mile. It looked like fun: the 10k was followed by a beer festival and a beer mile that promised world-class competitors (yes, there are world-class beer milers). We’d been hoping to add more short, fast races to our training schedule, so we signed up.

The race itself was not that memorable–I mean, it’s a 10k on city streets–but it was true to its spirit throughout. When we entered the starting chute at 8:00am, we found it lined with cups of beer and cider for the runners. We all took a celebratory shot and were off. I expected to be slow, and I was (37:41). That was fine: I was happy just to do something resembling speed work. Megan was more ambitious and hoped for a PR, but she suddenly felt sick only a quarter-mile from the finish and had to stop and puke. Not sure if the pre-race cider got to her or what, but that cost her the PR.

After finishing, we hung around the Barlow waiting for the main event. We grabbed breakfast with Megan’s friend Sophie, who happened to be in the area, then sampled some of the numerous beers on offer. At noon we headed back to the starting chute to watch the beer milers warm up. For those who aren’t familiar with beer miles, they require runners to chug a can of beer (no shotgunning or can-crushing allowed) before starting each quarter-mile lap. To be good, you have to be both a fast runner and a fast drinker: the best beer milers drain each can in less than ten seconds. (For comparison, my own drinking times range from 18 seconds on the first lap to over a minute on the fourth.) These guys were good: the winner, Phil Parrot-Migas of Canada, won the event in 5:45. That’s a far cry from the world record of 4:28, but in fairness, Phil had already run (and won) the 10k that morning in 30:59.

Would I do this again? Sure, why not? It’s a fun way to get in a good tempo run and try some new beers.

Diablo Summit Stomp 30k (October 23)

This is another local race I’d never bothered to try. I’m glad I did: it’s a great race. The 30k starts at Castle Rock regional park in Walnut Creek, then heads southeast to Mt Diablo via Rock City (a jumble of sandstone formations, not an actual city). From Rock City, it goes straight up the Summit Trail to Diablo summit, then comes straight back down. So, twelve miles of more or less continuous climbing followed by seven miles of fast downhill. Good for those of us who like to get our medicine out of the way.

I felt pretty good the whole way, leaving enough in the tank to bomb the downhill return. I was surprised when another runner passed me near the end of the downhill stretch: I typically pace more conservatively than most people, so I’m not used to being passed near the end. But, I hung with him on the flat finishing stretch and passed him with maybe a mile to go, finishing second. The race turned out to be surprisingly close–surprising because I hadn’t paid much attention to other runners–with the winner only a minute ahead of me and the third-place finisher only fifteen seconds behind. I was glad I’d been pushed over those last two miles, which I otherwise would have treated as an easy cruise.

This is a small, low-key race, but I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good 30k. It’s pretty single-track all the way; the long climb is a great workout, and bombing straight down Diablo at race pace is about as fun as trail running gets.

The Dipsea Race (November 7)

I have lots to say about the Dipsea, but maybe some other time. It’s one of my favorite races, but this year’s race, like many pandemic-era events, felt a little off. Maybe it just felt weird doing it in November rather than June; maybe it was the unexpected course change; maybe the lack of an awards ceremony and the usual pomp and circumstance. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right head space because I didn’t train for this race as I usually do. Whatever the reason, this year felt less eventful than usual.

For those not familiar with the Dipsea, it’s a handicapped race in which runners get varying head starts depending on their age and gender. As a 52-year-old male, I got a seven-minute head start, up from six last year. My main goal was to get a black shirt by finishing in the top 35. I’d black-shirted the last three years in a row, going from 22nd to 19th to 15th. I figured gaining a minute would allow me to continue my streak and hopefully improve my place.

My race didn’t go badly, but I felt sluggish the whole way. I kept thinking “I really should go faster,” but I was either unwilling or unable to do so (not sure which). The only really noteworthy thing happened about a mile from the finish, where we would ordinarily bear right to take the third official shortcut that bypasses “the Moors.” This year race officials had blocked that way, so runners had to continue on the Dipsea all the way to Stinson Beach. I’m still not sure what happened there, but the course change made it hard to compare this year’s times to previous ones.

I ran my slowest time ever: 1:00:54. The missing shortcut probably accounted for 30-45 seconds, but my time was unusually slow even taking that into account. I did maintain my black shirt streak, barely, finishing 27th. I was happy about that, though less thrilled to drop 12 places even while gaining an extra minute head start. But, you get what you pay for: I didn’t train much this year, and it showed.

The after-party was more subdued than usual, as the race organizers canceled the usual awards ceremony out of an abundance of pandemic caution. However, it was a nice day to hang out with other runners, and the organizers did gather a few black shirts (those who hadn’t left already) for a post-race pic.

All told, an enjoyable day, but lacking the usual buzz. I look forward to a more normal year in 2022.

Mt Tam Trail Run 50k (November 13)

This race packs about as much scenic beauty and diversity into 50k as it’s possible to do. Starting and finishing at Stinson Beach, it takes you through the redwood forests of Steep Ravine and Muir Woods, the coastal headlands of Diaz Ridge and Coast View, and gives you a great downhill finish on the Dipsea. It’s just a great course. I’d only done it once before, in 2014, and I remember having a pretty bad race. I started out too fast and died hard in the second half, finishing in 4:49. I was in worse shape now than in 2014–not to mention seven years older–but I hoped that smarter pacing might still allow me to improve on that previous time.

I started slow, as usual, and generally felt fine, although my legs were a bit tired from doing the Dipsea six days earlier. I caught up to my friend Dan just past Cardiac and ran with him along the uber-cruisy TCC and down Bootjack. However, he was moving too fast for me up Ben Johnson and soon left me behind. I wouldn’t see him again until the out-and-back to Muir Beach, where he passed me on his way back. A short while later, I passed Megan on my own way back, just a few minutes behind.

I hadn’t been feeling great since Ben Johnson, which took a lot out of me. However, I got a second wind on my way up Heather Cutoff, a series of sharp switchbacks that takes you gradually up to Coast View. I’m not sure I was actually getting stronger, but I passed a lot of runners who seemed to be getting weaker, which gave me at least the illusion of running well. I was feeling pretty good by the time I got to Cardiac for the second time. I maintained a good pace along TCC and Troop 80, both of which are beautiful, runnable trails. Down Sierra and Camp Alice Eastwood, back up Ben Johnson to Cardiac, and then down the Dipsea for the final stretch.

The last stretch of Dipsea has wide open views toward the coast, and I noticed another 50k runner walking an uphill stretch a few hundred yards ahead. He looked back and saw me as well, and started running. I caught him about 200 yards from the finish, but he turned on the speed and finished a few seconds ahead of me. Or so I thought until the chip times were revealed. Turns out he started well ahead of me, since I was tied up in porta-pottie lines and started at the back of the pack. So in the end, I finished 12 seconds ahead of him, in 5:00:44. Dan had finished 11 minutes earlier, and Megan crossed the line 17 minutes later. I didn’t manage to equal my previous time, but between my age and lack of training, I think I did about as well as I could.

After a quick rinse in the Pacific, we sat on the beach and ate Baja Fresh burritos–Inside Trail’s post-race standby these days–and drank a few beers. We talked about Dan’s upcoming move to Switzerland and discussed races we could all do there. A few days later, Dan and I had both signed up for the SwissPeaks 100k, and Megan later followed suit. I’ll take it as a positive sign that we all finished this race wanting to do…another race.

California International Marathon (December 5)

I’ve done CIM a bunch of times. Not sure exactly how many, but a lot. I like this race because it’s a fast course at a cool time of year that takes me through my old stomping grounds in Sacramento. I’ve PR-ed on this course several times, but I wasn’t expecting much this year. All things equal, I expected to be at least five minutes slower than my course PR of 2:48. All things were not equal, however: this would be my first time running CIM in the Nike Vaporfly, the shoe that returns so much energy that it prompted World Athletics to institute new running shoe regulations. Relative to my previous road shoe–the minimalist Altra One–I’d guess the Vaporfly buys me around five minutes. I ran a 2:47 at Napa in 2020 despite not being anywhere near PR shape (and Napa is a slower course than CIM). So, I figured I might “PR” at CIM this year even if I couldn’t PR.

My training leading up to the race was not encouraging. I’d done a few tempo runs and struggled to run even a few miles at my marathon pace. I also hadn’t done much mileage in months, relying on races for the occasional long run. Given that, I was pleased to find myself maintaining a respectable pace quite easily in the early miles. I hit the halfway point in 1:24 still feeling good, and I thought a “PR” was in reach, since I’ve always run negative splits on this course. Unfortunately, my lack of mileage began to show around mile 20, when I began to struggle. The last few miles were really hard: it’s been a long time since I felt this weak in a late-stage marathon, and I was steadily slowing down. I was relieved when I finally saw the capitol and Megan cheering me on near the end. I finished in 2:50–not a bad time, but after adding the Vaporfly minutes, probably seven minutes off my course PR. That’s ok. CIM will always be there, and I think I have at least one more PR in me. Or at least a “PR.”

Woodside Ramble 50k (December 18)

I have a soft spot for Woodside. I ran these trails–in Huddart and Wunderlich parks–frequently in college and always loved them. Huddart’s cavernous redwood forests are just as beautiful as Muir Woods, but much quieter and more peaceful. I did my first trail race (a half-marathon) in Woodside, so that’s where my trail adventures began. The Woodside 50k was the first race where both Megan and I placed first, which is a nice early-relationship memory. I imagine I’ll keep coming back as long as this race sticks around.

Before this year’s race, Megan noted that my previous two times on this course were 4:04:17 (2013) and 4:04:15 (2015). She asked jokingly if I expected to run 4:04 again this year. My short answer was probably not, as I wasn’t in that kind of shape, but who knows?

Me, now. My race was fine: I felt good throughout and enjoyed every mile. It was a beautiful, clear and cold day. Megan volunteered at the King’s Mountain aid station (miles 11 and 18), so I got to see her twice during the race. But my time of 4:35 was definitely not up to par. On the plus side, it felt pretty good not to kill myself, and to pass a bunch of people in the last five miles. So I wouldn’t have run it differently, even if I could have–which seems doubtful.

Because we’d arrived late in the morning (my fault, as usual), Megan had to take my car to her aid station. That was fine except that the car contained all my warm post-race clothes: a concern, since it was cold and windy, and Megan wouldn’t return for some time. I found a sheltered and sunny lawn behind the bathrooms, where I meditated for 30-40 minutes. With the wind blocked, the sun was intense enough to keep me warm until Megan returned. We got lunch in Palo Alto, met up with our friends Kate and Noel, and made a brief detour to Stanford’s main quad, which I hadn’t seen in ages. A perfect end to my racing year.

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