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April 29, 2009

TrailLeader 2 Watch Review

Ask any ultrarunner for his or her biggest complaint about GPS units, and you’re likely to get the following answers:

1) The unit is too large or bulky
2) The battery life is too short
3) The satellite signal doesn’t track consistently
4) They’re too expensive

So if you heard there was a speed and distance monitor that 1) was the same size as a wristwatch, 2) Had the battery life of a normal watch, 3) was unaffected by satellite signals, tracking under the heaviest tree cover or in the deepest canyons, and 4) costs about 100 dollars … wouldn’t you be excited to try something like that out?

That’s exactly how I felt when I received a TrailLeader 2 watch to review.

The TrailLeader 2 is made by a company called Tech4O (pronounced tech-four-oh), and is one notch below the top of the line – there is a more expensive model that also incorporates heart rate data – in their series of performance watches. The speed and distance data is obtained not by GPS, but by an internal accelerometer.

Prior to owning this watch, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an accelerometer – it sounded like some kind of make-believe gadget from an old cartoon, like Spacely Sprockets or Mr Peabody’s Wayback Machine. But it turns out that accelerometers actually exist, so I turned to my local science geek for a brief lesson. I asked him to explain to me, in the simplest terms possible, how an accelerometer works.

Here is part of his reply:
**
The accelerometer works by measuring acceleration in x, y, z axes. A good analogy is driving in your car: when you accelerate forward (the x direction) you are pushed into your seat. As long as you are accelerating, you stay pushed into the seat. When you reach constant velocity, you feel no more push. When someone smashes into the side of the car, you suddenly accelerate to the side (the y direction) and you feel pushed toward the side of the impact. In an airplane, you feel similar forces in the z direction as the plane lifts and drops.

A force transducer in your seat could measure your acceleration in these directions. The vector of these forces describes your net motion. If you know how long you accelerated in all three directions, you can calculate your position at any moment.

The watch is just like your car, and the internal workings are like a little man being thrown around as your arm swings. The little man's calculation would be something like: "I felt N newtons in my X sensor for S seconds, therefore I am now moving 6 minutes per mile forward (it doesn't know north or east, just its starting point with coordinates 0,0,0). Until I feel another force, I know that I am still moving forward at this pace. Now I feel another acceleration of N newtons in the X sensor for S seconds, so I know that I am now moving at 5:30mi/min. But now I feel a force of N newtons on the Y sensor, so I know that I have deflected to the left. Now I feel N newtons on the negative X sensor, so I know that I have slowed down..." etc....

If the accelerometer knows its mass accurately, it knows its acceleration simply from the force it feels. More simply, at constant velocity, the watch feels motionless. But any change in velocity can be tracked, therefore the watch can keep track of its position in x,y,z space. If you plot x, y, z often, you get a good estimate of distance traveled, the time it took, and therefore pace.
**
So, um … there you go. Be thankful I didn’t ask for the complicated version.

As for the watch itself - it’s packed full of features that seem tailor made for ultrarunners: speed, distance, pace, barometric altimeter (including change in elevation and net climb and/or descent), digital compass, barometer and temperature readings. This is in addition to all of the normal watch features you’d get in a Timex.

The TrailLeader doesn’t interface with computer software, so if you’re someone who likes making maps and graphs of every single workout, you’re out of luck. Personally, I’ve never been too interested in plugging my workouts into a computer program, so it’s no big loss. The simplicity is also a major factor in keeping the price point low: the list price on the Tech4O website is $150, but on the same page is a coupon code offering $50 off – so you can have all of these features for 100 bucks. To my knowledge, there isn’t a reputable GPS in the world that sells for anything close to that.

Since the accelerometer doesn’t rely on on satellites, it’s not dependent on overhead clearance for accuracy. It doesn’t even matter if you’re actually moving – in theory, you could run 5 miles on a treadmill in the basement of your health club, and the accelerometer would record the distance. (On the flip side, if you rode your bike 100 miles in your aerobars, the accelerometer would read zero, since your arm wasn’t swinging).

Another huge advantage over most GPS watches is the battery life. All of the functions operate with the standard wristwatch battery, which runs continuously and never needs to be recharged. Therefore, you can use it for 50-mile, 100K, or other events that would normally drain a 10-hour GPS battery. (There’s one quirky caveat to this, though: according to the user’s manual, the speed/distance measure automatically resets at midnight – so if you’re doing a 100-miler, you’d have to check the distance at 11:59 and remember to add it to whatever you start accumulating at 12:01. No, I haven’t tested this specific situation.)

The TrailLeader 2 is also a decent looking contraption, and not much larger than a standard sports watch. I’m stealing a photo from Rainmaker (who also reviewed the TrailLeader 2 a few months back) of a Timex watch, TrailLeader 2, Garmin 405, and Garmin 305 to show a size comparison:


On your wrist, it doesn’t feel that much different than a sleek Ironman wristwatch. So far, everything sounds great, right? Let’s get to the drawbacks:

The primary frustration I’ve had in using this watch is the reliability of the speed/distance function. In addition to the internal accelerometer, the watch utilizes a pedometer to calculate distance. You don’t attach anything to your shoe; instead, you program separate values for your walking step length and running step length. There is a link on the website with instructions on how to do this, and it only takes a few minutes. However, in the months that I’ve used it, I find that the accuracy seems to vary in different circumstances, depending on what type of running you’re doing.

At the track, after some tinkering with the stride length, the accelerometer was accurate to within a few hundredths of a mile. It was on the trails that I started having difficulty.

Like most ultrarunners, I vary my pace quite a bit during a typical trail run, as much of the terrain I encounter includes very steep climbing. One of my regular climbs features about 1800’ of elevation gain in less than 3 miles; the slope is so steep in places that I alternate walking and jogging throughout the climb. Invariably, by the time I reach the top of the hill, the accelerometer’s distance is off, and not just by a little bit – sometimes by as much as two-tenths per mile.

My hypothesis is that there are two primary sources of error: 1) my stride length when jogging up a steep hill isn’t the same as my stride length when calibrating the watch on a flat surface, and 2) although there are different values for walking step length and running step length, the watch doesn’t bounce back and forth between the two modes in perfect rhythm with my actual movements. There may be a delay in switching from one value to another, or a very slow jog might be measured as walking.

Since almost all of my running is on trails like this, I’ve adjusted the stride length values one notch lower or higher about 100 times, then seeing if the distance numbers came close to a GPS reading. Here’s how determined I was to make it work: on several runs, I wore both my accelerometer and a GPS, and recalibrated every one or two miles. (Yes, I looked like an idiot. Thank God I do most of my running in the dark.) To my enormous frustration, I could never get the numbers to jive when there was a combination of running and walking.

I managed to get the numbers accurate for runs on rolling terrain, or where I could keep a fairly constant pace – say, only varying one or two minutes per minutes per mile instead of five or ten. In those circumstances, I found the accelerometer to be reliable for runs of more than 10 miles.

There are a few other downsides, but they’re relatively minor in comparison to the distance issue – so I’ll wrap this review up with a quick summary:

Pros:
* Compact size, comfortable to wear
* Multiple functions for outdoor data gathering
* No need to recharge battery; no battery drain for ultra-duration activity
* VERY affordable
* Accelerometer technology works in all conditions, not satellite dependent.
* Accurate when running or walking at relatively consistent pace

Cons:
* Stride length may need to be recalibrated a few times during initial use
* Inaccurate when running/walking with great variability in speed
* Since the accelerometer is useless for measuring cycling distance, the watch can’t be used for bike/run transition workouts.
* No uploading of workouts to your computer.

The TrailLeader 2 certainly presents an intriguing option for runners or hikers who are looking for an affordable alternative to using GPS devices on the trail. I would recommend it to anyone who just wants a general idea of the mileage they’re covering along with time, temperature, and elevation data. I wish the technology were a bit more refined to address the distance discrepancies I found; perhaps a future generation of this line will do a better job.


See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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April 28, 2009

Big Sur Marathon Race Report

“It’s a beautiful day – don’t let it get away …”
-U2, “Beautiful Day”

For me, the 2009 Big Sur Marathon wasn’t supposed to happen. I had prepared to sit out this year’s event in favor of my ultramarathon schedule for the spring – but then I became the beneficiary of good connections and good luck, and a race entry basically fell into my lap.

Given my history with this race, this was an offer that was pretty much impossible to decline, but I didn’t want to disrupt my overall training buildup by doing a taper or having an extended recovery period afterwards. I also knew there wasn’t a chance that my long, slow trail mileage (or last week's 50-miler, for that matter) would enable me to run Big Sur at nearly the pace I’ve kept in the past. In other words, I had to take things pretty easy.

So my goals for this race – and for this report – were pretty straightforward: run in a way that wouldn’t destroy me, and try to capture some of the sights (and sounds!) that make this one of the most wonderful events in running. Remember how I said that John Steinbeck often referred to the epic East of Eden as his love letter to the Salinas Valley? Think of this as my love letter to the Big Sur Marathon – except with about 1000 times less writing talent.

However, what I lack in literary merit, I’ll try to make up for in photographs. On that note, we may as well jump in. As usual, click any of these to enlarge:



Probably the worst aspect of running Big Sur happens right off the bat: the long wait at the start area in the pre-dawn darkness. The logistics of getting hundreds of schoolbuses up and down a 2-lane coastal road dictate that runners are dropped off in Big Sur as much as 2 hours before the 6:45AM start time. If you’re looking to have a good race, you have to find a place to huddle from the cold and conserve your energy as much as possible while killing time before the race begins.

On the other hand, if you’re an ultrarunner who’s just looking for a high-volume training day …


You take off running. I estimated how much time I had to burn, then ran from the start area in my warm-ups, eventually making it about a half-mile past this marker before turning around.




One huge benefit of running three miles down the road before the marathon is that there aren’t any lines for the porta-potties.




When I returned to the start area, there were signs of life, but I still had about 20 minutes to kill, so I did another mile before stripping off my sweats and hopping into the start corral.




8 miles down, 26.2 to go. Life is good.




This girl inspired my favorite comment from the first mile, courtesy of my friend Bill: “Whoa – I almost wore that exact same outfit today!”




The first miles are gently rolling, but generally downhill through the redwood forests of Big Sur. If you didn’t know what lies ahead, you’d be tempted to push the pace and knock out some fast split times. Some folks do that anyway … they’re usually the same folks you see walking during the last 10K.


I like this shot: runners exiting the shade of the redwoods, heading to the wide open, sunny pastures that lie ahead. Of course, at Big Sur, “wide open” also means “this is where the headwinds start slamming you,” but it sounds much more enticing the first way I said it.



Emerging from the trees, runners see the first of an endless series of ocean vistas. They need all the serenity they can get, because …


… this is where the race becomes very challenging. Most of miles 7 and 8 are a long, gradual climb into the wind. On the plus side, the historic Point Sur Lighthouse remains in sight on the left throughout most of this section. And on the right …


… cows! I’ll just go ahead and make a rule: if I see cows during a race, they make it into the race report. I’ve mentioned before that I like cows, haven’t I?


By mile 9, you crest a hill and get your best vantage point of Point Sur – but if you look farther down the road …


… you get your first glimpse of the climb up to Hurricane Point. The good news is that you’ve got a mile of downhill to rest up and build your courage for the challenge ahead.

You’ve also got the taiko drummers – and this is the first of a few video clips I’m including to provide a better sense of the race day energy:

video

I absolutely love these drummers. I’ve written a whole article about them. In my mind, they’re the defining feature of the Big Sur Marathon - even more than the Bixby Bridge or Hurricane Point. Here’s what I wonder, though: do you think any of these songs have names, or sheet music? It seems like every song could be called “The One Where We All Drum Quickly in Rhythm”.



The drummers sit at the base of the climb, so their drumbeats help motivate you while pushing up the first portion of the hill. Before long, though, you realize how lengthy this 2-mile climb really is.


What’s worse is that the road bends around so many curves that you always think you’re getting near the top, only to find that the hill just continues around the corner. If you’re not expecting it, this stretch can be quite discouraging.


Approaching Hurricane Point, the road barely hugs the slope of the hill – in many ways, it’s amazing that they can build and maintain a road along this kind of topography. Above is a shot looking up the hillside …


… and here's one looking down. Not much margin for error if you’re a reckless driver or meandering cyclist.


At the summit, headwinds were sustained at about 20mph – which is about average by Big Sur standards. Occasionally, the wind up here is so bad that it knocks people sideways. The winds and the exposure also make this section very cold …


… as these two poor volunteers will tell you. If you ever think calling out split times is an easy gig, come volunteer at Big Sur someday.


It’s from the top of Hurricane Point that you get your first glimpse of the Bixby Bridge, and the long downhill plunge you’ll take to get there. Heading down the hill, you’ll start to hear notes from the grand piano across the bridge drifting closer in the breeze.


Bixby is the Big Sur Marathon’s most famous landmark, as well as its halfway point. Once you cross the other side, you’re on your way home. But if you’re not in a huge hurry …


… you can have your picture taken with the piano player. They actually have a team of volunteers assigned to do this for you. And if you’re REALLY not in a hurry …


video

… you can stop and listen to the music for a while. As my luck would have it, “Chariots of Fire” – one of my favorites – was playing right as my batteries went dead. By the time I changed them, he was on to Simon and Garfunkel. Kind of disappointing - but that’s just me being picky.


Leaving the bridge, there’s another long downhill stretch ahead, but you can also see the road climbing again in the distance. Although you’ve gone up and over the biggest hill, the roller coaster has just begun.


At least you’ll have great views to keep you company the whole way.


You know how some people like to leave presents for Santa Claus? Sometimes I like to send photos to the Marathon Foto people. I e-mail them a very small, grainy version of a shot like this, and tell them that I’ll send the full-size picture if they send me 30 bucks. So far they haven’t bit, but maybe one of these days I’ll get lucky.


Usually by the time you cross the Garrapata Creek bridge at mile 17, one of two things have started happening: you’re either running strong and trying to plot out your strategy for attacking the final 10K, or you’re starting to feel the effects of the miles and the hills – the first wobbles of wheels that are coming loose and threatening to fall off a few miles down the road. Or perhaps, a combination of both.

Fortunately you've still got musical accompaniment along the way:

video

This is a group of middle schoolers playing some pretty tight classical tunes. (That’s what the kids say, right? Tight means good, doesn’t it? I’m pretty sure that’s it.)


Here’s where the real challenge begins: Carmel Highlands, where the hills get steeper and the miles get longer. Logically, only one of those things is true, but it sure doesn’t seem that way when you’re out there.


The views are still pretty through the Highlands – but by this time you’d gladly trade them for a glimpse of the home stretch.


The houses are fairly nice, too – although a lot of the neighbors aren’t home today …


… because they’re all at the neighborhood party, hosted by the local convenience store. You know why they pick this spot for the party?


Because it’s across the street from the strawberry aid station! The owners of the gas station and residents of the Highlands all pitch in to buy the strawberries and staff this heavenly waypoint on the toughest section of the course. It’s independently owned and operated; during my few minute visit there, I tried to talk these kind folks into franchising out to serve some nearby ultras – sadly, I’m not sure that I convinced them.


Eventually you leave the Highlands – and when you start seeing Carmel Beach in the distance to the left, you know you’re finally getting close.

This lady is at Big Sur every year, and I’ve tried to describe her before, but words never seem to do her justice. That’s why I was glad I brought my camera:

video

I look forward to seeing her every time I run Big Sur – because aside from the obvious reason, it’s also an indication that you’re almost home …


… but you still have one good hill left to climb. That’s the mile 25 marker, with “D Minor Hill at D Major Time” in the background. I’ve walked up that hill far too many times than I care to admit; this year, it felt great to cruise to the top of it with a spring in my legs and a smile on my face.


Just a little farther along, and you’re there! The finish chute is always a huge celebration – but at Big Sur, it seems all the more dramatic because of the noticeable lack of spectators during the previous 25 and a half miles. But all of a sudden the road is packed with fans, you can see the finish line, and you feel like an absolute rock star.

In fact, the only thing that could make you feel better is …


A massage! Remember last year, when I was denied admittance to the massage tent because I had only run 23 miles as part of a relay team, instead of being an official marathoner? Well, after 34 miles of (mostly) official marathoning under my belt for the day, this massage felt amazing.


Perhaps the feeling was mutual – was I accidentally giving off some kind of vibe? - because my massage therapist told me I had “well-trained legs”, with very nice muscle tone. Then she gave me her card and told me to call her sometime. I’m pretty sure she meant for a massage.

Regardless, I had exactly the kind of morning I hoped for: a big mileage day, and a memorable run on one of the most beautiful roads in the world during one of the greatest endurance events in the country, in a manner that didn’t leave me completely debilitated. This week it’s back to training as usual, and my attention turns fully back to preparations for Western States at the end of June.

I’ve been fortunate enough to run this course more than a dozen times – and each time, I’m completely inspired by what a wonderful event we have right here in my backyard, and grateful for all the experiences I’ve enjoyed here over the years. I don’t think that Big Sur will ever be on my “must do” list again, but it will always have a special place in my heart.

Whether I’m racing or just cruising along, whether I’m gunning for a PR or just shooting a lot of pictures, any day that I can spend at the Big Sur Marathon is a beautiful day indeed.

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U2, “Beautiful Day” (click to play)


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April 26, 2009

Scenes From a Marathon

The 24th Big Sur Marathon is in the books.

This was a different experience in many ways for me: I had absolutely no expectations for the day, and didn't care about how long I was on the course or how much time I wasted taking photos or being social. (Really.)

I'll explain more and have a regular photo essay/race report in another day or two; in the meantime, here's a Monterey Herald article I banged out for tomorrow's paper.

**
Running Life 4/27/09 “Scenes From a Marathon”

Donald ran the 24th presentation of the Big Sur Marathon, while Mike did the 5K and worked at the finish line for an hour in his capacity as a race board member. Here are some observations from inside the lines and behind the scenes:

Real men wear … lavender? We’ll get this one out of the way early: The color of this year’s race shirts seemed awfully girly. So much so, that it triggered a conversation between Donald and the expo volunteer handing them out:

Volunteer: Here’s your shirt.
Donald: OK, but … can I have the men’s color please?
Volunteer: Yeah, um … that’s the one. Sorry.
Donald: Me too.


It never gets easier: No matter how many times we do this race, the 3AM wakeup call is always the hardest part of the day. You’d think we’d eventually get used to it, but we guess we’re still waiting.

Are we there yet? Part 1: As soon as the course left the trees at mile 5, someone near Donald looked at the road ahead and asked, “Is that Hurricane Point?” Not yet … but keep running. You’ll find it.

Most unexpected dose of hipness: was provided by the Palma High School band, overheard playing a Violent Femmes song at mile 9. Sure, the song was “Blister in the Sun”, which isn’t the most promising phrase for a group of marathoners, but the simple fact that they know that tune is pretty darn cool.

The beast is back: For the last couple of years, runners have been lucky to enjoy very mild breezes – but this year, the wind roared back with authority. It slowed everybody down by several minutes, and even pushed some folks around near the top of Hurricane Point. We kind of like it when the wind flexes its muscles – we don’t want anybody tempted to call this race easy.

Are we there yet? Part 2: At two different points on the Hurricane Point climb, a group of runners crested a hill around a curve and shouted “Woo Hoo! Made it!”, only to peer around the bend and realize that the hill keeps going. Here’s how you know you’re at the top: when you’re leaning downhill, but not moving because the wind is blowing so hard. Until then, it’s better not to ask.

You’ve heard of us? Having names on race bibs ensured that nobody was anonymous on the course. We’d like to think that the people yelling “Go Donald!” and “Nice job, Mike!” happen to be fervent readers of our column, but we know better. The bibs were a nice touch.

If you want a lot of friends, carry balloons: there were huge swarms of people around each of the Clif Bar pacesetters, who carried balloons indicating their estimated finish times. In between, there were long stretches of open pavement. The pacesetters did a great job bringing hordes of runners home right on their predicted pace.

Ask an obvious question … : the most common answer by finishers when asked "how do you feel?" by Mike: “Tired!”

However, by Mike’s estimate, 98% of the finishers crossed the line with a smile. We’re guessing that the other 2% were happy, but just too tired to smile.

We hope your experience at this weekend’s marathon was a good one. Congratulations to everyone who finished. Rest up for a while, then get training – there are only 52 weeks until we get to do it all over again!

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April 23, 2009

Big Sur for Dummies (Plus a Bay to Breakers Promotion!)

Before today’s post, I have one administrative note that might be of interest to some Northern California runners.

A marketing rep from the world famous Bay to Breakers 12K race recently contacted me with an offer of discounted race entry fees for readers of this blog.

If you’re familiar with the race, there’s really nothing else I need to say. If you’re not, then you owe it to yourself to find out. Bay to Breakers is an absolutely legendary race; it’s also absolutely insane. It’s one of those sporting events that everyone should experience someday.

This year’s event is on May 17th – and if you’ve been thinking about entering and would like an additional 5% discount off the early entry price, go to the race website and use the coupon code 5RUNRAM09 on the registration page. The offer is valid until midnight on April 30th. No need to thank me – but if you’d really like to, you can pay me back by springing for a Diet Pepsi someday.

**

As for today’s post: since this is Big Sur Marathon weekend on the Monterey Peninsula, and since newspaper and TV coverage of the event always gets ratcheted up over the few days that precede the event, it’s inevitable that local runners will have questions asked of them from our non-running acquaintances.
Such questions are as predictable as the calendar, and often range from the innocent to the bizarre. They were also the premise of my article from Thursday’s Monterey Herald, which follows below.

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Running Life 4/23/09 “The Big Sur Marathon for Dummies”

Sometimes it’s hard for non-runners to understand what all the excitement is about when it comes to marathons. Here’s a primer on basic facts about the event, and this weekend’s Big Sur Marathon in particular, so you can dazzle your friends with your newfound knowledge.

Q: The marathon is a long race, right?
A: Ummm…yes, it’s very long. The standard distance is 26.2 miles.

Q: Who came up with that number?
A: The race commemorates a victory of the Athenian Army over the invading Persians at the city of Marathon in 490 B.C. The Greeks dispatched a messenger to announce the victory back in Athens, approximately 24 miles away. The messenger, Phedippides, died from exhaustion immediately afterward. Uplifting story, huh?

Q: What about the extra 2.2 miles?
A: At the 1908 London Olympics, England’s Royal Family wanted the course lengthened so that it would start in front of their residence at Windsor Castle, and finish in front of their viewing box at Olympic Stadium. The distance was changed to 26.2 miles and sanctioned as the official distance.

Consequently, it’s not uncommon for exhausted marathon runners to repeatedly curse the Queen during the final two miles of the race.

Q: Do the runners get any help?
A: Definitely. Several hundred volunteers work at aid stations along the course handing out water, Gatorade, and nutritional aids to the runners. Many others provide things like traffic control and medical support throughout the event.

Q: How come on the other 364 days of the year, runners won’t drink anything that isn’t in a factory-sealed, tamper-resistant container, yet on marathon day they’ll gladly grab unmarked open cups from any potential psychopath standing on the side of the road?
A: Good question. Maybe runners are inherently trusting. Maybe their judgment is impaired from glycogen depletion. Probably a little of both.

Q: Almost every city has a marathon. Why is Big Sur so special?
A: Easy – it’s because of the course. The coastline between Big Sur and Carmel features one of the most spectacular vistas anywhere in the world. The relentless hills and wind of Highway 1 make the BSIM very challenging (even by marathon standards), but most runners find that the beauty they experience is well worth the physical suffering.

Q: Why do local runners get so geeked over this weekend?
A: Think of it this way: if you could get a group of your best friends together to play a softball game at Fenway Park, would you do it? Local runners are a close community, and our hometown marathon is one of the most prestigious in the world. The friendly competition in such a famously beautiful setting is an opportunity that’s hard to pass on.

Q: Great, but I’m not a runner. Why should I care?
A: Because those people crossing the finish line at Big Sur aren’t professional runners – they’re everyday folks. They are your neighbors or co-workers who are giving a supreme effort on Sunday, then returning to work on Monday (OK, maybe not Monday…but probably by Tuesday) to resume their routine lives.

Many of them are fulfilling a dream by doing the marathon, and every one of them has overcome numerous challenges just to finish. Sure, by the time they reach Carmel, most of them look like hell and stink to high heaven - but each runner is a reminder that through hard work and dedication, great things can be accomplished by all of us. It’s an idea that anyone can get excited about.

Good luck to everyone who is running – or watching – the race this Sunday!

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April 21, 2009

Diablo 50M 2009 Race Report

"Everybody get dangerous, everybody get dangerous ... Boo-ya!”
- Weezer, “Everybody Get Dangerous” (video after post)

**
I guess if you’re entering a race named after the devil, there’s bound to be a bit of danger involved.

This year, it seemed like harbingers of doom were lurking around every corner and upon every hillside of the Diablo 50. Ultimately, I managed to fight through all of them and finish the race, but in some ways I’m still not sure how I did it.

The most clear and present danger that faced all the runners was the heat, which was oppressive from the very start. I knew it was a bad omen when I walked out to my car in San Francisco at 5:30 AM wearing a sweatshirt and shorts, and thought to myself, “Gosh, I feel pretty warm – I must be overdressed.” From there, it only got worse, with reports of 95 degrees from various locations on the mountain during the day.

There’s much more to say, of course … but there are also a ton of pictures to go through – so that’s the way I’ll tell the rest of the story.


View from the start line. Both the 50-mile race and the marathon were sold out, which brings up an interesting point: chances are, if you host an event that’s guaranteed to make people suffer, there’s no shortage of masochistic, obsessive-compulsive idiots who will pay money for it. Who says there aren’t any recession-proof business models anymore?


On one of the first climbs of the day, I got an early glimpse of some folks I’d see more of later on: fellow bloggers Gretchen and Rick, plus a dude (in the red shirt) by the name of Graham Cooper. You may know him better as the winner of the 2006 Western States 100. What was a guy like that doing so far back in the pack? Read on.



The first hour is spent climbing a narrow single track trail to the top of Eagle Peak – which is an impressive 2000’ climb, but only serves as a warm-up hill during the first 8-mile push to the Mt Diablo summit.



The girl in the tank top is Gretchen, with whom I shared a few minutes of the first climb. She and I first met each other last year in classic boy-meets-girl fashion: boy takes a picture of girl’s rear end, boy posts picture to his website, girl writes to boy and says “That was me!” It’s the kind of thing that happens every day, right?

We kept in touch by e-mail, and this year I finally got to meet her, um, face to face, so to speak. She’s extremely friendly, plus a great writer and runner to boot – it’s no wonder we get along. (And no, I’m not linking to her picture from last year … but it’s still in my race report on the right sidebar if any perverts out there want to search for it.)

Incidentally, the guy next to Gretchen is a newbie ultrarunner who took part in the following conversation with us …

Gretchen: How’s your training going for Western States?

Me: Pretty good, I think – I’m right where I want to be.

New guy: What’s Western States?

It sounds crazy, but I found his question kind of refreshing. It’s nice to know that the whole world doesn’t revolve around the WS100, like it often seems to at this time of year. Then again, by this time next spring, that guy may be as crazy as the rest of us. Insanity is contagious in this sport.



Eventually we reached the summit for the first time – but of course, even when you’re at the top, you’re not done climbing …


… because you still have to climb the stairs to the top.



As you’d expect, the views from the top are killer. San Francisco is visible here in the background at right-center.


I happened to reach the observation tower at the same time as Rick, so we exchanged pictures. There used to be a time when I could keep up with Rick, but not anymore – he’s simply too fast. So even though I bid him farewell for the day, I was still feeling pretty good about things – but keep in mind that the race was less than one-fifth over.



Descending from the summit, there’s a tricky balance you have to strike between enjoying the breathtaking vistas, but not straying too far off the narrow trail that hugs the side of the hill. One misstep through here could ruin your whole day.



Here’s all you really need to know about Diablo: it’s tempting to look at the course profile and think, “Sure, it has a lot of uphill, but you can make up the time going down.” Then you get to trails like this, which drop precipitously downward for several miles at a time, and you feel your quads blowing up with every step. In other words, the uphills are brutal, but the downhills can be even worse. Welcome to Diablo.


Another shot of the first descent from the summit, where you can see the trail continuing to wind downward in the distance. What you can’t see are the thousand or so black flies that decided to swarm me right as I took this picture. They would prove to be a problem for the entire day; in some places, it felt like we were running through a hailstorm – except, of course, that real hail isn’t nearly as disgusting as being pelted with hundreds of little bugs. But maybe that’s just me.


You know how when you’re on a roller coaster, and you’re cresting the first big hill, and the track is so steep that you can’t even see it below your cart? That’s what this fire road is like. The first hill you see here plunges downward faster than you can say California Screamin'. Have I made my point about the downhills yet?


I eventually made my way into a very pretty 5-mile loop, just as the heat of the day was taking a stranglehold on the race. There’s an aid station tent at the beginning and end of this loop; after the race, one of the RDs (Sarah) told me that the temperature in the shade of the tent was 90 degrees.


Have I mentioned before that I like cows? Even though they're off in the distance (under the tree - click to enlarge), you know they'd have to be part of the race report. These guys were smart enough to seek out the little bit of shade that was available – but not all the hoofed creatures were quite so lucky …


I can only guess this is the “Let’s ride our horses on the hottest day of the year” club. Maybe this isn’t a big deal for the horses – but with the amount of sweating I was doing in struggling with the heat, I kind of felt sorry for them. Of course, they weren’t the ones paying money to do this – so who’s the bigger fool?


Rock City is always a welcome sight, as it roughly marks the halfway point of the race. The trouble is, it always much farther away than it seems. From this point on the fire road, you think, “Hey – there’s Rock City! I must be getting close!” And then 30 minutes later, you wonder why in the heck you don’t seem to be getting any closer.



Normally, this rock would be covered with climbers and picnickers enjoying a sunny afternoon. When it’s 95 degrees outside, not so much.



Leaving the Rock City aid station begins a 6-mile out and back (12 miles total) stretch which is a nice place to regain your legs. The trail starts out shady, smooth, and gently downhill. Of course, you’ll have to come all the way back up these trails on the return trip – but that’s a detail you try to ignore on the long descent.


And since this is Diablo, just as you’re getting comfortable, another huge hill is always just up the trail.


The turnaround point is somewhere down underneath those trees. Remember those roller coaster downhills? They’re not limited to the first half of the race. Also by this point, the shade has vanished, and the heat was becoming overbearing.


In fact, even the snakes were seeking out some shade. If you’re keeping track at home, thus far we have a devil mountain with murderous climbs, infernal heat, swarming pests, and now serpents. Good times!


I first met these two guys early in the race: That’s Graham Cooper on the left, and Erik Skaden on the right. Last year, they did this race as a training run, and were co-winners while barely breaking a sweat. This year, they happened to do a 200-mile bike ride on the day before Diablo. At the mile 31 aid station, they were at least considerate enough to look tired for the rest of us – but by the end of the day, they would end up passing all but a few runners.

Many years ago, after watching Jack Nicklaus dominate the 1965 Masters, golfer Bobby Jones remarked that “Nicklaus is playing a game with which I’m not familiar.” That’s how I feel about these two: they’re doing a kind of training with which I’m not familiar. If one of these guys wins Western States this June, come look at this picture to see where the foundation was laid.

(On a related note, I totally respect those guys … but they’re completely screwing up the sympathy meter for the rest of us. I was going to start this post with some remark about having dead legs from a regular training week – but when I heard about the 200 mile bike ride, I didn’t even bother. Basically, none of us can complain with a straight face anymore. This is a bad development for me.)


After returning to Rock City, we begin a long, grueling climb towards the second summit trip of the day. I had been gradually slowing up to here, and on this climb, the wheels completely fell off. I was feeling lightheaded, and could barely muster enough energy to maintain forward progress, nevermind actually trying to jog any of it. I was totally and absolutely drained – and there were still 13 miles to go.


By the time I made it to the Juniper aid station at mile 40, I felt like a dead man walking. This was the first time I have ever contemplated dropping from a race, and the notion was only dispelled by a simple calculation that it might take me just as long to wait for a ride as it would to simply walk myself down the dang mountain.


Before I could go downhill, there was still about a mile and a half to the summit … which took me almost 40 minutes. I think I jogged about 10 steps of it. The trail seemed pretty merciless at this stage.



Finally, I reached the summit for the second time, where a tourist volunteered to take my picture. Since the shot is only from the waist up, you can’t see my legs quivering below. That’s probably a good thing.


Here’s more Diablo charm for you: the last 8 miles are unsupported, and billed as a downhill segment. But see that little hill below? We have to go up and over it as part of the “downhill”” portion. However, as I indicated before, uphill or downhill really didn’t matter at this point – the final miles were going to be painful any way you approached them.


I tried to distract myself with taking in the views for my final trip of the day, and was even able to break into a minor shuffle on the single track descent. I wouldn’t even call it running – my average pace was over 15 min/mile going downhill – but I was making steady progress to the finish, and I knew I’d ultimately get there.


One last look back at the summit on my way down. You know how former Alcatraz prisoners would sometimes return to San Francisco and stare across the bay for hours on end, contemplating their experience there? Seeing the Diablo tower one last time reminded me of that story. I was definitely in a weary state of mind.


I don’t know if I’ve ever been more happy to see a finish line as I was at the end of this race. Wendell (the other RD) was there to shake my hand, and I immediately sought out the nearest picnic table to collapse onto. It was a very long time before I had the strength to get off the table and walk around.



Rick had already been there for an hour, and he hung around long enough to take one more picture. I’m not keeping up with him in races anymore, but as you can tell, I’m much faster than him when it comes to putting away a slice of pizza. So there.

In the aftermath of this race, I wasn’t sure how to feel about my performance. On one hand, I ran a few minutes faster than last year, on what felt like an even warmer day, when a lot of other runners turned in slower than usual times. On the other, I crashed harder than almost any other time I can remember, and that’s an experience I’d rather not go through ever again.

What I keep coming back to is the lesson I learned at this race a year ago: that ultras are meant to hurt. They’re meant to batter your body and break your spirit and test to see if you can keep going when there’s no rational justification for doing so. There might be a bit of danger in doing so, but it’s generally not life-threatening or otherwise catastrophic – consequently, it’s the kind of danger that everyone can appreciate.

At Diablo, things got a little more dangerous than I had bargained for - but in the long run, that’s what makes it a truly memorable race.

**

I’ve been digging up some strange videos lately – first it was the Spanish language Metallica concert clip, and now this one featuring the introductory song lyrics. It’s some random dude’s home mash-up of action movies, but it actually goes very well with the music. If Weezer ever makes an official video for this song, I’ll post it here – but in the meantime, enjoy this very cool homemade version.

Weezer, “Everybody Get Dangerous” (click to play)

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