Wednesday, December 10, 2014

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

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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.”

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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. 

 
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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.

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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.’
 
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‘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.’

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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. 

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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.

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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.
 
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It’s an odd venture, a grass-fed cattle ranch that features ATV and bus tours of the decaying remnants of movie sets. 

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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.

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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.
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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.

Anyway.
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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 


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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.
 
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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.
 
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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. 










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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.



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