Monday, October 26, 2015

Race Report: Autumn Leaves 50K and Columbia Gorge Marathon

October 24-25 was a double marathon weekend.  On Saturday, I ran the Autumn Leaves 50K race in Champoeg State Park in Oregon.  On Sunday, I ran the Columbia Gorge Marathon in Hood River.

I scheduled this double to get back on schedule after cancelling my plans to run the Bemidji Blue Ox Marathon two weeks ago.  This was the only weekend I could add an extra race.  All the other weekends involved flights that were already booked, so my travel plans weren’t flexible.

I asked my friends for help finding two races on the weekend of October 24-25 that were close enough together that I could stay at the same hotel and drive to both.  Ideally, I wanted both to be marathons, but the best I could do was a 50K and a marathon.  I knewit would be hard on my legs, but I was determined to stay on schedule to reach my long-term goals for the year.

Before registering for either race, I checked to see if I could get an affordable flight to Portland.  I was pleasantly surprised to find an airfare under $400 for non-stop flights with convenient times.  This happened to be the same morning that the expo for the Twin Cities Marathon started.  I needed to get there before they opened, so I could register for that race at the expo.  I didn’t know how many race numbers they had left, so I couldn’t afford to delay.  Had I been unable to get into that race, I wouldn’t have had any hope of staying on schedule.

After getting home from the Twin Cities Marathon expo, I checked to make sure I could still register for both the Autumn Leaves 50K and the Columbia Gorge Marathon.  I registered for both races and then went back to Delta’s website to book my flight.  It was only a few hours after my initial airfare search, but now the same flights were twice as expensive!  As I started searching for other flights that might be more affordable, I was seeing options disappearing from one minute to the next.

Waiting to book my flights was a big mistake.  I’m used to booking flights a few months before a race.  When you book just three weeks before a race, prices are much more fluid.  I would’ve had nothing to lose by booking the flight first.  You can always cancel a flight without penalty if you do it within 24 hours of booking.

Instead of a non-stop flight to Portland, I had to settle for an itinerary that included a three and a half hour layover in Seattle.  I also had to pay quite a bit more than I wanted.  At this point, I didn’t have any other options.  This was the only double I could find that didn’t involve unreasonably long drives.  Also, I had already paid to register for both races.  From now on, when I see a good airfare, I won’t hesitate to book it.

I arrived in Portland Friday afternoon.  The Columbia Gorge Marathon is in Hood River, but I could pick up my race packet at one of the Foot Traffic stores in Portland.  I’ve been to this store before, and it’s not far from the airport, so I made a stop there before driving to my hotel.

I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Lake Oswego.  That location was 20 miles from the site of my first race and about 70 miles from the site of my second race.  It was also just a few miles from the Road Runner Sports store where I could pick up my race packet for the Autumn Leaves 50K.

After picking up one race packet and checking in at Hilton Garden Inn, I picked up the other race packet.  Then I grabbed some pre-race pizza at Pieology.

Because of the two hour time difference, it already felt late, so I did my best to get to bed as early as I could.  I didn’t sleep great, but I got more sleep than I usually do before a race.

The Autumn Leaves 50K is run on a 10K circuit through Champoeg State Park.  The course is mostly paved, but there’s a section on trails.  The 50K race consisted of five laps.  There was also a 50 mile race that ran the same circuit eight times.  Both races started at 7:00, but the 50 race had an early start at 6:00 for people needing more time.  Both races had the same cutoff time.  We had to start our final lap by 4:00 PM.  For the 50K, that was a pretty generous time limit.  I had nine hours to finish the first 40K.  I could do that even if I walked the whole way.

I would pass aid stations three times per lap, so I didn’t need to carry any fluids with me.  The beverages at the aid stations were water, Coke and Nuun.  I didn’t want to drink too much Coke, and Nuun has no calories, so I brought a supply of Gu packets.  Taking in enough calories was important, because I had another race the next day.

For some time, I’ve wanted to experiment with run/walk pacing in my marathons, but I’ve had some concerns.  First, I was experiencing pain in my left leg whenever I switched from running to walking.  I’ve also been having trouble with my legs getting stiff if I don’t maintain a fast enough pace.  My threshold seems to be about 10 minutes per mile.  Lately, that hasn’t been a sustainable pace, so I tend to start too fast and then slow down dramatically.

Last weekend, for the first time in months, I was able to switch from running to walking during a race without having any pain in my left leg.  That made this race a good time to experiment with walking breaks.  It also helped to know that I didn’t have to worry about a time limit.  My goal was to keep the pace as comfortable as possible and save energy for Sunday’s race.

The temperature was in the mid-40s at the start, but warmed into the low 60s.  Because I was mixing running with walking, I dressed warm.  I wore tights, gloves and a warm hat.  The tights and hat were cheetah prints.  I haven’t been wearing my signature cheetah look lately, because my pace hasn’t exactly been cheetah-like.  The organizers of this race were encouraging runners to wear costumes, so the cheetah look seemed more appropriate.

I had to drive for about 30 minutes to get to the park.  I arrived just before the early start.  After parking, I saw dozens of lights coming toward me.  Those were the early starters for the 50 mile race.  Seeing where they came from, I found my way to the start area.  There were two campfires at the start.  I sat down by one of the fires to stay warm and chat with other runners.

We started before dawn, so I carried a hand-held flashlight for the first lap.  To keep my arms warm, I started the race wearing a Tyvek jacket.  I lined up near the back.  I was thinking I might walk most of the first loop.  Everyone else started running, including the runners lined up near the back.  I followed suit, but ran slowly enough to stay behind most of the other runners.

About half of the course was alongside a river.  Near the river, it was colder.  Instead of walking most of the first loop, I ran most of it.  I needed to run to keep warm until the sun came up.  There was an aid station in the middle of the route that we passed twice per lap.  Each time I got there, I took a two minute walking break.  I also took walking breaks at each of the two turnaround points.  Initially, that worked out to about two minutes of walking for every 20 minutes of running.

After passing the aid station for the first time, I passed a campground where the family of one of the runners was cheering.  Their little girl said, “Good Morning.  Good Job.  You’re Almost There.”  Her father quickly told her not to say “you’re almost there.”  I was amused.  I was only 3K into a 50K race.  That may be a new record for the earliest “almost there.”

I ended up finishing my first lap in 1:25.  By then, I was warm enough to discard my jacket.  I also dropped off my flashlight and picked up my camera, so I could start taking pictures of the course.

The circuit consisted of a loop at one end and an out-and-back at the other end.  The intermediate aid station was near the beginning of the out-and-back.  As we left the picnic area where we started and finished, we got our first views of autumn leaves.

This side of the loop was a paved path.  It was mostly flat, making this a relatively fast course.

Later, on the out-and-back portion of the course, we sometimes had glimpses of the river, between the trees.

About midway through the out-and-back section, there was a bridge.  When I was wondering if I was getting close to the turnaround, I asked myself, “have you crossed the bridge yet?”

During this lap, I saw my friends Steve and Bob coming back.  They were already a lap ahead of me.  Steve went on to finish second in the 50K.  Bob placed second in the 50 mile race.

After completing the out-and-back, we did the remaining half of the loop.  This half of the loop was on a variety of trail surfaces.

Although the route was the same, each lap felt different.  The first lap was all about warming up and getting a feel for the course.  The second lap was my first chance to see the whole course in daylight and take pictures.  The third lap was the “middle” lap.  When I reached the turnaround, I could tell myself I was half done with the race.  I reached the halfway mark in 3:41.  Coming back, my legs started to feel more fatigued.  I finished that lap in 4:30, but I knew the last two laps would be slow.

Physically, each lap is more difficult than the preceding lap, as fatigue gradually sets in.  Psychologically, the fourth lap is the toughest.  By then I was tiring, but I still had a long way to go.  As I started that lap, I expected to start doing more walking.  Instead of four two-minute walking breaks per lap, I considered doing a 50-50 mix.  Then I asked myself how I felt compared to the same point in my previous race.

I had 20K to go.  I was feeling fatigued from the first 30K, but I actually felt better than I did a week ago with 20K to go in a marathon.  That gave me a lift.  After starting the lap with two minutes of walking, I ran to the aid station.  After another walking break, I ran most of the way to the turnaround.  The turnaround is at the top of a short hill, so I walked up the hill.  After the turn, I resumed running, since it was downhill.

In the second half of that lap, I started to slow significantly.  The sun was higher in the sky, and I was getting hot.  I also noticed some soreness in my right groin.  To minimize the wear and tear on my leg, I walked until I reached the trail section.  At first I was planning to walk the rest of the race.  When I reached the trail, I decided to run.  On that section, it felt more natural to pick up my feet.  When I got back to the start/finish area, I realized I took an hour to do the second half of that lap.   My time after four laps was 6:18.

With one lap to go, I decided to walk the whole way.  Walking took less energy than running, and it was easier on my legs.  The only downside to walking the last 10K was knowing it might take as long as two hours.  I had already taken an hour to do the previous 5K, and that was mostly running, so I didn’t feel I had much to lose.

After a few minutes of walking, I picked up my pace.  I was now able to put some power into my power walking.  It took less effort than running.  I also no longer felt hot.  About a mile into the loop, I noticed another runner approaching from behind.  She was also doing the 50K.  She was also on her last lap.  She was also walking.  I picked up my pace so we could talk.

Her name was Jill, and like me, she realized at this point she could walk faster than she could run.  It was tough to match her pace, but I worked at it so we could keep talking.  Even though we were walking, that lap seemed to pass quickly.

As we reached the turnaround, I was curious to know how long it took to do the first half.  I was stunned to see it only took 46 minutes.  I was going much faster now than I had in the second half of my fourth lap.   If I could keep up that pace in the second half, I would break eight hours.

I was determined to walk the whole loop, including the trail section.  Jill was planning to walk until we were near the end and then finish running.  When we reached the trail section, we had to go single file.  Walking on the trails wasn’t as smooth as walking on pavement, but I pushed the pace as much as I could.  I didn’t realize it at first, but I was pulling away from Jill.  By the time I realized she was falling behind, I could barely see her.

My cheetah hat and tights were a big hit with the spectators and the other runners.  Through the race, I got lots of positive comments.  There was another runner wearing zebra tights.  As I was approaching the finish, I saw him talking with some of his friends.  I said, “You better not stop running.  I’m your natural predator.”  That got a few laughs.

I finished in 7:53:30.  In addition to my finisher medal, the race director gave me a water bottle filled with gels and electrolyte tablets.  That was in appreciation for my cheetah garb.

About five minutes after I finished, I saw Jill finish.  She had to slow down on the trails, but she also broke eight hours.

I was eating some sweet snacks at the aid station when I found out they had hot food at another tent.  They had teriyaki chicken, black beans, rice, and various toppings.  I ate bowl of chicken, beans and rice.  It was warm, it was tasty, and it was great recovery food.  I sat down by one of the campfires to talk with friends.  I stayed until everyone I knew in the 50K was finished.  Then I started the 30 minute drive back to my hotel.

Ideally, I should have taken an ice bath.  Too much time had passed to get the full benefit.  Instead, I took a quick shower and hopped into the hotel whirlpool.  After a hot soak and some massage, my legs felt surprisingly good.

When I was feeling up to going out again, I went to Pizzicato Pizza for dinner.  By time I got back from dinner, it was already 8:00, and I still wasn’t organized for my second race.  I double-checked the weather forecast, picked out my clothes, organized my other gear, and figured out what time I needed to get up.

I got to bed at 9:00, knowing I had to get up early again.  I slept well at first, but woke up at 3:00 and never got back to sleep.  I eventually got up at 4:00.

The Columbia Gorge Marathon started at 9:00, but they had an early start at 8:00 for runners who needed more than six hours.  I wasn’t confident I could break six hours, so I decided to take the early start.  I had a few friends who were also taking the early start.

The course was mostly out-and-back, but the start was about two miles east of the finish.  There was a large parking area at the finish with shuttles to take us to the start.  The shuttles began running at 7:00.  Since I was taking the early start, I wanted to be on one of the first buses.

Hood River was about 70 miles from my hotel, but it was mostly freeway, and there wasn’t much traffic on a Sunday morning.  I left the hotel at 5:15 and got to Hood River at 6:30.  It’s normally a scenic drive, but I wasn’t able to see any of the scenery.  It was so dark I could only see the highway.

There was a large tent in the finish area where they were doing race morning packet pickup.  People taking the early start were supposed to let them know at packet pickup.  I already had my race packet, but went inside to check in for the early start.  Then I learned they were doing that at the starting line instead.

While I was waiting for the shuttles to start, I bumped into four friends.  Those of us doing the early start rode over on the same bus.

Sunday’s weather was similar to Saturday, except it was a few degrees cooler, and there was rain in the forecast for the afternoon.  Looking at the hourly forecast, it seemed like it was going to start raining by 2 PM, but possibly earlier.  I wore tights, a tech T shirt, polypro gloves and a waterproof hat.  I started the race wearing a Tyvek jacket, which I could tie around my waist after getting warmed up.  In case the rain started before I could finish the race, I also kept a plastic rain poncho folded up in my fanny pack.

The early start instructions advised us that the first water station might not be set up when we get there.  We needed to bring whatever we needed for the first four miles.  I brought a bottle of Gatorade.  I drank about half of it before the race.  The rest would last me until the aid stations were set up.  Then I could discard the empty bottle at an aid station.

As we were riding to the start, the bus went up a series of steep switchbacks.  I was glad we didn’t have to run up that hill.  I think that’s why we started and finished in different places.

The start was at the Mark Hatfield State Park West Trailhead.  The visitor center was open, so we were able to go inside to get out of the cold wind.  On the walls, there were maps and pictures of different sections of the Columbia River Gorge.

I made sure there were other runners lined up in front of me.  I sometimes start fast, but I didn’t want to be out in front.  I didn’t know the route, so I wanted to follow the other runners.  I could see right off the bat that there were plenty of runners going out at a faster pace.  I ran my own pace, although the first mile was still too fast at 9:25.

In the second mile, we started getting good views.  The Columbia River was on our left.  To our right, we had views of a tall bluff.

Carrying a Gatorade bottle made it difficult to take pictures.  Each time, I had to stop and set the bottle on the road, so I had two free hands.  Then I could take the camera out of my fanny pack, snap a picture, put the camera back, and pick up my bottle.

As I passed the two mile mark, I drank some of my Gatorade.  I could see it would only take one or two additional stops to finish it.

At three miles, we reached an aid station.  I was surprised to see it was already set up, even though the race wouldn’t officially begin until 9:00.  I drank the rest of my Gatorade so I could discard the bottle at the aid station.  After that, it was easier to take pictures.

The first four miles were uphill.  I started taking short walking breaks to keep from getting tired.  After we ran through a long tunnel, the road turned downhill.  After about a mile of downhill running, we turned onto another road.  This was also downhill, but steeper.  I wasn’t looking forward to running this on the way back.

As we entered the small town of Mosier, the road leveled off.  I could see we were much closer to river level now.  As we left town, I knew it would be mostly uphill again.

By now, I was feeling warm, so I took off my Tyvek jacket.  Leaving Mosier, we ran past vineyards and orchards.  Then the road got steeper, and I once again had to break up the long climb with occasional walking breaks.

As we climbed higher, we encountered more wind.  I eventually had to put my jacket on again.

Between 10 and 11 miles, we had a different kind of scenery.  These deer weren’t shy.  They walked across the road within a few feet of several runners.

Soon, the lead runners caught up to me.  On a mostly uphill route, it took them 11 miles to make up for my one hour head start.  By now, I was also seeing other early starters on their way back from the turnaround.

The last mile before the turnaround was downhill.  That was a welcome change after all the uphill running.  I paused briefly at a bridge, to look across a small canyon.

The turnaround was at the Rowena Crest Viewpoint.  I went around the loop slowly, pausing to take in the view.

Coming back, we had the same scenery.  Things look different when you’re running in the opposite direction, but I didn’t take any more pictures.  Now it was time to hunker down and work on getting to the finish.

I knew what to expect coming back.  There were long uphill sections and long downhill sections.  Very little of this course is flat.  On the downhills sections, I would do a slow steady run.  On uphill sections I would walk.

I reached the halfway point in roughly 2:43.  I was on pace to break 5:30, but I knew the second half would be slower.  I expected to do much more walking.

Going out, I realized the general trend was uphill, but I didn’t realize how long some of the uphill sections were.  As I started the second half, I began five miles that were almost entirely downhill.  I ran the whole way.  I didn’t run particularly fast, but I didn’t need to take any walking breaks.

Running downhill for so long became uncomfortable, even though I was keeping the pace slow.  As I got closer to Mosier, I was actually looking forward to the uphill section that came next.  Going uphill, I wouldn’t feel guilty about walking.

Just before town, I recognized an apricot orchard we had passed on the way out.  I got a craving for apricots.  As I ran through town, the road leveled off.  Running on the flat was more tiring, but I kept running until I got through town and reached the hill.

When the grade turned uphill, I started walking.  At a minimum, I was going to walk the whole hill.  I was entertaining thoughts of walking the rest of the race.  Because I took the early start, I effectively had a time limit of seven hours.  Even if I walked the rest of the way, I would easily finish within seven hours.  I’d be closer to six.

Shortly after I started walking, I started to feel drops.  The rain I knew would arrive by 2:00 was already here.  It was noon.  Since I was only feeling scattered drops, I waited to put on my rain poncho.  Instead, I put on my Tyvek jacket, and hoped for the best.

As I walked up the long steep hill, I was really glad I took the early start.  I had almost eight miles to go, and that’s a long way to walk in the rain.  Had I started at 9:00, I would’ve had an additional hour in the rain.

When I crested the hill, I forced myself to run.  It was slow and uncomfortable at first.  Then I reached the long tunnel.  This quickly became my favorite part of the course.  It was downhill, and it was dry!

As I emerged from the tunnel, I noticed the rain was no longer a few light sprinkles.  Now it was really raining.  It wasn’t going to get better.  It was supposed to rain all afternoon.

I knew at this point I needed to put on my rain poncho.  I regretted not stopping to put it on while I was still inside the runnel.  I couldn’t find the tie to hold the hood in place, so I put my hat on over the hood.  It probably looked funny, but my hat held the hood in place.

As I continued running, I noticed the poncho didn’t cover me completely.  I could still feel the cold rain from the knees down.  I could also feel it on my hands and forearms.  The parts of my body most sensitive to cold were the parts still getting wet.  My hands were getting cold, so I made tight fists to try to keep the heat in.  Under the poncho, my midsection stayed warm, but my cold hands made me uncomfortable.

Any notion of walking the whole way was gone.  It was four miles from the tunnel to where we started.  That was all downhill, and I was going to run all of it.  If I could gain a minute or two per mile, that would get me to the finish sooner.  All I could think of was getting under that huge tent.  I wanted to get out of the rain as soon as I could.

At some point, I realized I had a good chance of breaking six hours.  Before the race, my only goal was to finish the race – hopefully before it started raining.  When I realized I could break six, it occurred to me that even though I’ve had some slow marathons this year, I’ve managed to keep all my times under six hours.  I didn’t want this one to be the first one slower than six

When I passed the start area, I still had about two and a half miles left to reach the finish in Hood River.  The first part of it was flat.  By now, I knew I would break six hours.  I didn’t need to run.  I didn’t need to power walk.  Even a casual walking pace would be fast enough.  Knowing that, I walked the flat section, although I did make an effort to walk it briskly.

Next, I reached a steep downhill section.  This was the hill I remembered from the bus ride.  We never had to run up this hill, but we got to run down.  I ran here.  As I rounded a turn, I looked over the guardrail and saw Hood River through the trees.  I could see the freeway way below us.  I knew the finish was way down there.

I saw a road sign indicating a sharp switchback.  As I finished that turn, I saw another … and another … and another.  It was a steep descent, and it was uncomfortable, but anything that got me to that nice dry tent a few minutes sooner was a good thing.

After the last turn, we reached a busy intersection.  There were course marshals to stop the traffic for us.  After crossing, I saw it was still slightly downhill.  At the 25 mile mark, I checked my watch.  I was going to break six by a wide margin, but I ran anywhere it was downhill.  A volunteer said, “Almost there.”  No.  I couldn’t see the finish yet.

Soon we crossed a bridge over some railroad tracks.  Just beyond that bridge was a bridge over the freeway.  This was the exit I took in the morning.  I knew how far it was from there.  In the distance, I could see the parking lot by the finish area.  I was almost there … except … we didn’t cross that bridge.  Instead, we turned right and went down a ramp.  We had to go under the freeway and make a few extra turns.  It seemed cruel to let us get within sight of the finish only to divert us in a different direction.

On the other side of the freeway more course marshals stopped traffic so I could cross a street.  As I crossed, one said, “Almost there.”  I thanked him.  I could see the tent.  I really was almost there.

Even though I was close, I walked until I could actually see the finish line.  It was behind the tent.  Before crossing the line, I lifted up my poncho and jacket, to make sure they wouldn’t prevent the chip on my race bib from recording my finish time.  I finished in 5:41:26.

After I crossed the line, a volunteer gave me my finisher medal.  Because of my hat and hood, I let her hand it to me.  The ribbon slipped out of my wet hand.  It fell to the pavement … and shattered.  The finisher medals were ceramic.  She gave me another medal, but I felt bad about the one that broke.

I retrieved my gear bag.  They were outside, but there were under a tarp to keep them from getting wet.  Next I went into the tent, where they had hot food, beer, and tables and chairs.  Mostly, I just wanted to be indoors.

While I was eating, I met two of my friends.  Later, I saw a few more coming into the tent.  Two more friends were still on the course.  I wanted to wait for them, but I still had a long drive to get back to the hotel, and I needed to get started.

The drive back made me appreciate how much scenery I missed in the morning.  The Columbia River was on my right.  On my left, there were hills and cliffs.  The trees were changing color.   At one point, I glanced to my left and saw waterfalls above me.  The only thing that wasn’t beautiful was the highway.  In the morning, the highway was all I could see.

After another soak in the whirlpool and more stretching, I felt OK again.  More importantly, I was warm.  I had pizza for dinner again, this time at Round Table Pizza.  When I got back to the hotel, I was so exhausted, I went straight to bed.

Running a weekend double used to mean seven or eight hours on my feet.  This weekend, I spent almost 14 hours on my feet.  That’s a long time to be running.  It’s an especially long time to run when you’re nursing injuries.  I don’t feel any worse than I did before the weekend.  My right leg actually feels better.  I dodged a bullet this weekend, but there are more bullets headed my way.

These races brought my year-to-date total to 38.  They also brought my lifetime total to 293.  I need seven more to reach 300.  Then I’ll need six more to reach 51 for the year.  They’re all scheduled – 13 marathons in the next seven weeks.  What I lack in common sense I make up for in determination.

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