Wednesday, December 10, 2014

That time Hawaii tried to kill me: Xterra World Championships 2014

Last March, Caitlin Smith and I both ran in the Oakland Running festival. Caitlin ran in a marathon relay with some other fast folks. I ran the half and besides a nice tempo run, got a tour of industrial decline in the late 20th century. We both won our events. I won this plastic cup. 

But Caitlin’s relay was rewarded with airfare points from Hawaiian Airlines for any trip between Oakland and Honolulu. Suh-weet. After dragging our heels a bit, Caitlin and I decided to use the tickets for the “Xterra World Championship Trail Half-Marathon: Presented by Paul Mitchell Shampoo.”

I’ve run a couple of the XTerra races. They are generally tough with a fair amount of steep climbing. Although the NorCal Xterra series closed shop a few years ago, I’ve kept my eye on the World Championships, watching Max King, Joe Gray, and Pat Smyth claim some picturesque looking victories there. My lead up to the race was far from ideal. After taking about ten days of active recovery after the half marathon in Washington, I started the build-up to some longer efforts this spring. I finally resolved the persistent hamstring issues that dogged my summer and fall, but am not in any sort of form. Also, I am ostensibly supposed to be writing a book about religious spiritualism and materiality in seventeenth-century England. Even graduate students waking up at the crack of noon have time constraints on training. 

Hawaii sits very uncomfortably in the nationalist narrative of the United States. Even that weird quasi-mystical phrase of American jingoism, ‘manifest destiny,’ struggles to describe why we had any right to claim some volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific. I grew up in the South and most of my high school textbooks were edited by historians that made George Lincoln Rockwell look like Jimmy Carter. I recall watching the editors’ acrobatic ratiocinations to justify the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. The short history is that wealthy businessmen overthrew an indigenous Hawaiian monarchy. This facilitated American annexation and a more favorable tariff regime for Hawaiian sugar plantations. Cagey operators those wealthy businessmen.

The US Navy sent a ship to make sure things were tidy.

So Hawaii is an odd place, less a state than a for-profit venture. But whatever your politics, the islands are a neat testament to the fact that human beings are an innately improvisational group of beings.  After all, these places only exist because of a small leak in the earth’s crust.

We hopped on an Hawaiian Airlines flight in Oakland. Hawai'ian Air is pretty much like every other airline except they serve guava juice, force you to watch video of buxom ladies dancing the hula, and end every service announcement with ‘mahalo.’
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Hawaiian Airlines Flight 433. Mahalo!’
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we shall soon be coming around with a beverage service. Mahalo!’
‘Also, this is a cashless flight so please have your credit cards ready. Mahalo.’
‘Ladies and gentlemen, the plane is apparently venting fuel. Mahalo.’
‘Folks, this is the pilot. We are going to have to make an emergency water landing in the Pacific. Mahalo.
‘Don’t panic… Mahalo.’

But, we landed without issue. Shaking out on a trail near a marsh on the eastern side of Oahu I began what became a dramatic decline in health over the next 24 hours. I had picked up a cold during Thanksgiving travel and this progressed into a pretty serious sinus infection. After the run my face hurt. My teeth, jaw, and parts of my skull were throbbing. Furthermore, some tendonitis flared up in my knee making running a sniffling, achy mess. 

Anyway, I ended up in an urgent care where I had to get a script of antibiotics. The next day, feeling not that much better, I tried to get a morning run in but my knee was not enjoying the pretty Pacific scenery. I stopped after a couple miles, venting gunk out of my nose like people were paying for it. Walking back to our room I stepped in dog shit.  Jeez, Hawaii! Later that day things actually got worse as the antibiotic besieged bacteria built up into my jaw and started draining into my mouth. Fantastically gross. Eventually things levelled out. The pain in my face abated and my knee actually felt a bit better. I still consumed so many tissues that people started short selling Kleenex stock.

I was feeling much better that evening. So much so that I started contemplating actually running the race. Not to compete, mind you, but just to run. Get a solid effort on different terrain. Even this seemed a disappointing concession, I had wanted a top three finish! But I decided to make it fun, enjoy the location, not push through too much unnecessary pain, and maybe get hopped up on Sudafed during the race.

The Xterra race is on a privately owned ranch in northeastern Oahu. The Kualoa Ranch's major claim to fame is that a number of television shows and movies have been filmed there. Jurassic Park, Battleship, Lost, and Journey 2: featuring former WWE wrestler Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. 

 You know you want a dog-sized elephant.
It’s an odd venture, a grass-fed cattle ranch that features ATV and bus tours of the decaying remnants of movie sets. 

The Xterra races are polished. But in many ways this reads as corporate veneer.  The off-road race series is run by Team Unlimited LLC, a television and event marketing company. It is similar to Competitor Group in that, to quote the company's language, ‘TEAM’s primary business revolves around the licensing and merchandising of its XTERRA® brand, the sale and syndication of its television shows.’ That’s all well and good but, like Competitor, TEAM has helped carve out the market of ‘running-qua-festival’ that has developed since the 1990s. The events are less races than they are feel good, moving parades.

So at Kualoa ranch there were big shiny tents everywhere. Muscle Milk was giving out samples. Energetic DJs spun hits from Katy Perry. Paul Mitchell was on site cutting hair for charity. But as we did some pre-race strides David Roche, Caitlin, and myself struggled to figure out which side of the starting line we needed to line up on. 

But you can't beat the view.

I don’t mean to sound like a sour sport. Obviously a great deal of energy and effort went into this race. I am thankful to the organizers for putting on a safe and interesting race. There were no problems on course and I’m very thankful for the volunteers who took the time to stand in the sun and give my dehydrated ass some Gatorade™.  But, I’m ambivalent about the increasing decline of races into spectacles and for-profit ventures.

It was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, something I had not realized until the morning of the race. In typical form, I was sitting in a portable toilet when the MCs asked for a moment of silence in commemoration of the attack. As I sat, trying to take a moment to be grateful for the fact that my life is good and peaceful when for many people war and hardship are a fact of life, I wondered why profundity kept sneaking up on me in the shitter. 

So we started with some fanfare. Pat Smyth devastated the field. Seriously, someone needs to program a drone to follow Smyth during a trail race. There are many good cross-over runners doing trail runs. There are only a handful in the world however who have 13:30 speed over the 5K. Also, keep an eye out for Brett Hales, a Weber State steeplechase All-American, who finished second this weekend. Hales won the Xterra national championship this year, besting Mario Mendoza, Bret Ferrier, and Bay area elite Nick Scalfone. I’m not sure of Hale’s PRs, but he does boast a 1:03 half time from this year… at elevation. Jeez! David Roche ran studly for third, though mentioned afterwards he felt off his best. Here is Strava data from David's run.

Upfront in the lady’s race. Kimber Mattox took the ‘W’. Kimber actually was next to me at the start of the race and eventually working up from Allie McLaughlin’s and Megan Roche’s vicious opening pace. Actually, I think the ladies might have gone out a bit harder than the men. Caitlin struggled with leg issues in the first couple miles before moving up through a third of the field into the 5th female overall spot. She actually finished only a minute or so behind me!  Caitlin’s been dealing with a peculiar cramping issue that has plagued her races for a couple years now. It has eluded diagnosis, but we are drawing nearer to the causal problems and I’m optimistic next year she’ll be able to tweak things to have more solid races like she had at Bellingham.

My race was not a race. It was barely a run. Of course, I knew that with an ache in my knee and pain in my face I’d just be out cruising. But I figured I could at least cruise at 7 minute pace!  Alas, it was not to be.  The course was difficult with the warm temperatures and humidity, but not absurdly so. The only bit that was wild was an odd descent down into the start valley which featured the slickest mud I’ve ever seen. I actually spent most of the climb down on my back, sliding my way back to the fire roads. It was silly, but made me smile. 


But it was a mistake to run. And yet another mistake not to stop running after the first loop. The sad bit was that I did not enjoy the race. I tip-toed the downhills to spare my knee. I hiked up the uphills because my meager fitness was ravaged with illness and the slash-and-burn therapy of antibiotics. I was drained and unhappy with myself. So, it is difficult to create much of a narrative out of my run. Not much happened. I jogged. I did not really pass anybody. I finished with this happy lady running the 10K.

I certainly felt like a grey smudge.
But the rest of the trip was great! We had a beautiful beach near our rental in Kailua. Indeed, we were a quarter mile from the President’s vacation home. 

POTUS's vacation digs.

 Not a shabby view for the President.
We visited the U.S.S. Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. If you are on Oahu you simply must do this. The huge battleship exploded when a Japanese bomb exploded the ammunition stores on the ship, killing nearly everyone on board.

Dramatized rendering of the sinking of the Arizona at 2:00.

There were hundreds of tons of fuel on board much of which is impossible to reach. So gas and oil are continually leaching out of the wreck. So, despite the immobility of the wreckage, the water around the ship is a continually changing tableau of petrol fluidity. It is incredibly striking. 

In retrospect, it was an interesting trip. I will certainly remember it. Now it’s time to recover my health and start rebuilding for the spring. Fingers crossed for certain lotteries. Cheers.

Be calm. Like a North Shore lizard.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Quick Thoughts: Lake Padden USATF Trail Half-Marathon Championship

First off, the most important thing that happened yesterday was my brother got engaged!!! Woo hoo!! And Ben proposed atop Cold Mountain

Congrats Ben and Maxine!!

So, Bellingham! What a well-managed race. The course was beautiful and infinitely complex with dozens of turns, multiple loops, and dual directions run on single trails. Yet there was great work from the volunteers who kept multiple directions of foot traffic on course and heading in the right way. No easy task! Bellingham is gorgeous and reminds me of that town in the first Rambo movie. Actually we were not far away from Hope, BC where the movie was filmed. Thanks so much to Al Coyle and Tad Davis for a fantastic experience.

We started in a pleasant Northwest mist before heading out to damp and leafy trails. The course was a pleasant reprieve from the dusty California trails with their vinegar smell of fermented dog urine (one of the side effects when it does not rain for two years). I love dogs. But in a world that is increasingly urban, where more people are living in ever-closer proximity to one another, we need to have a serious conversation about pet ownership.

This now makes two races where I have had the pleasure of watching Pat Smyth fly up a trail for about 1.5 miles. One of my goals for the future is to keep him in sight for more than ten minutes. I’m not holding my breath on this one. Pat is a really nice guy. Leading wire-to-wire yesterday, he was a league above. But you would never know it from his gracious attitude and comments before and after the race. A true professional.

So, I went out in 5:08 for the first mile. You would think that having done this now for 16 years I would know better. But honestly, this race felt more like a Euro-style cross country race than a ‘trail’ run. Such categorical distinctions are arbitrary, but here’s evidence that I actually finished 9th at the ‘USATF Über-Long Course XC Champs’

1)   We started in a wet grassy field.

2)   There were American flags everywhere and a baritone sang the national anthem.

3)   After the gun went off I caught myself jockeying for position to catch the first corner. I fell into an old habit of whipping my head around to see how everyone was settling in after 75 meters. This is a terrible habit. I’m going to crash into a pole some day.

4)   I got mud in my nose. Mud-nose is no laughing matter.

5)   Everyone was wearing Nikes.

6)   There was that kid who went out too fast and dropped out two miles in, looking like someone stole his lunch money.

7)   What aid stations?
a.     Actually there was an aid station. But who stops? This is cross country! 

8)   I had absolutely no clue I was near the finish line and… oh, and now I’m done. 

 Seriously, bro? Just finish the race before you stop your watch.
Photo credit Richard Bolt.

Caitlin Smith is a bad-ass. Despite transitioning toward the faster stuff for this Olympic Trials cycle, she threw down a fantastic off-road effort. And a big congratulations to Maria Dalzot for a splendid win for the home team.  

Even Google Glass can't keep up. 
Photo credit Richard Bolt.

Flying back to Oakland I looked out the plane window and watched the big peaks drift by: Rainier, Hood, Bachelor, Shasta. The northwestern pines faded into Oregon scrub and then into California desert. Dried lakes pocked the land like rashes on ashen skin. Endless lines of freeway headlights stretched to the horizon in neon veins of highway. It looked as if they were pumping some alchemical concoction into the sprawl. We looped around Diablo, killing time on our flight path before we descended back into the desiccated heart of California.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Flagline: USATF 50K Trail Champs

“I wonder how many times a year the average American uses a port-a-john.”

This was the question that entered my head as I sat using the portable bathroom at the foot of Mt. Bachelor thirty minutes before the US 50K trail championships. For me using a port-a-john is nearly a daily affair. One of the things people rarely tell you about competitive running is that one’s life becomes weirdly oriented around a twofold process of consumption and excretion.  Couple this with the fact that running events often occur in places without plumbing infrastructure and over the years you will eventually accumulate an incredible number of hours sitting in plastic cubicles designed for bowel movements. 

A landscape of portability. Boston, 2014.

“Surely, this is not a normal experience for most people,” I thought, contemplating the neon blue color of the john and the curved aesthetic of the portable toilet’s door. (Why do manufacturers bother putting sculpting detail into the mold of a plastic port-a-john-door?)  I think most of my non-running friends hardly ever use a port-a-john. Perhaps for them such an experience is incredibly rare, gross, and contemptuously blue-collar. Unless you spend a fantastic amount of time outdoors, jostling around the contents of your intestines, why else would you voluntarily choose to void yourself into a portable repository?

 The inevitable pre-race queue. 

Anyway, after I finished musing about portable toilets I ran a 50K

Photo credit Richard Bolt.

I had been eyeing the USATF 50K trail champs since my lackluster run at Boston this spring. Wanting a change of pace (har har), I decided to spend the summer and fall running off-road, focusing on improving my climbing abilities and lengthening my longer runs. I’ve always run well in Oregon, so I figured the Flagline 50K in Bend would be a nice place to get a good result.

The race went out fast. Obligatory comment about trail running ‘paradigm shift’ or ‘new road fast people’ or ‘I hope the culture doesn’t change,’ etc.  In any event, the race went out super quick with tangible aggression. This was spearheaded by the incredible David Roche, who in his first run over twenty miles led a lead pack of Tim Tollefson , Ryan Bak, and Zachary Ornelas at a blazing pace. Tollefson would go on for an incredible win and CR, leading Bak by mere seconds. You can see a bit of data from his incredible effort on Strava here and David Roche’s debut here. David Laney would move through the front echelons to claim a well fought third.

For my part, I decided to play the role of the ‘wily veteran’ who would overcome these fast guys with my vicious accelerations over the last ten miles. At least, this is what I told myself at mile seven, as I sat in eighth place four minutes off the lead. With so much firepower in front of me, I was realistic that there was no chance for a win, but perhaps there would be enough carnage so that I could slip into the top three or four. Alas, it was not to be.

I ran a splendid race to mile 25, steadily moving up into 5th.  “Aha!” thought the wily veteran. “Now I shall reap carnage over the bodies of my opponents! I will destroy their expectations of victory and glory as I gallop up the trail! I shall consume their hopes and dreams with great anger and furious vengeance!”   

 "Where's my BAMF?"

Instead my calves started cramping.

So, as everyone in front of me started to slow, I did to an even greater degree. Interestingly, my left adductor muscle also gave out around mile 26 making descending and the slight lateral movements along the single track feel like agony. Instead of looking up the trail for more bodies I moved into damage control mode, trying to hold my pace somewhere between amputee turtle and sea snail. Having been channeling my inner Samuel Jackson, I switched into a more contemplative mode, comparing my current plight to late medieval self-flagellant mysticism.

It's pretty much the same thing as ultrarunning.

I survived and arrived at the finish line with battered legs, but without being in severe distress. I was glad to place near such fast folks in the race, but was a little peeved I was 0.5 seconds away from breaking 3:40, my time goal for the race. 

Thanks so much to the race directors, volunteers, and the USATF / US Mountain running folks who were on hand. The aid stations were great as volunteers were incredibly responsive as runners arrived. I’d like to thank one volunteer in particular at the (I think) mile 17 station who scrambled to get me a salt capsule. The course was well marked and I look forward to one day actually enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Flagline trail. Thanks to Richard Bolt of the US Mountain Running team for taking great shots of the day with his Minority Report techno Google glasses.

 Photo credit Richard Bolt

It was great sharing an AirBnb space with Richie, Magda, and Owen Lewy-Boulet as we had a great pre-race meal the night before. Sixteen years ago when I started running in Concord, North Carolina, I would have never thought I’d be breaking bread before a race with such amazing and talented people. 

 Photo credit Richard Bolt.

Biggest thanks however goes to the indefatigable CaitlinSmith who made the trip up to Bend and cheered me on to the finish. She also took the lion’s share of the drive home later that day in a car with an engine so small it struggles to run the AC in the Central Valley. 

Photo credit Richard Bolt.

All the race gear I used can be purchased at Transports in Oakland and Berkeley, California.

Nike Terra Kigers 2
Nike Tempo Shorts
Ultra Aspire Isomeric Pocket
Gu Lemonade Roctane