Monday, April 19, 2021

Race Report: BioFreeze San Francisco Marathon

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 edition of the San Francisco Marathon was rescheduled to a November date, then ultimately canceled.  All registrants were given the option of running the race virtually, or transferring their entry to 2021 for a fee. The 2021 edition was also rescheduled from its traditional late July date to September 19, 2021.  The course will largely stay the same, other than some revisions to the course - adding mileage within the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge, subtracting mileage within Golden Gate Park, and slightly less mileage in Potrero Hill.

In 2016, I completed a major goal of finishing my first ultramarathon - the San Francisco Ultramarathon, where I ran two loops of the San Francisco Marathon course, the first with about fifty other runners in reverse from the finish line to the start line (with a few detours) beginning at midnight, then the second with thousands of runners completing the actual race from the start to the finish. I ended up with a 5:33:47 and 6:30:47 for the two loops, slow but considering that it was my first and I was still fairly "fresh" to the marathon circuit, respectable.  I wasn't too fond of the course during the morning hours, either, so it wasn't at the top of my list to return.

In 2019, however, I began to experience a surge of faster times, breaking my marathon PR three times within the course of eight weeks, chopping it down from a 4:27:00 that held from September 2017 until April 2019 to a 4:11:02 in June 2019.  Several friends had decided to take on the ultramarathon or marathon that year, and with that in mind, I began to consider looking at it as well.  I have only returned to some cities to repeat marathons (or halves) for a handful of races, but the idea of cutting down my existing personal course "record" by what could be as much as an hour was appealing. During the weekend I spent in Calgary for the Calgary Marathon with my friend Febry and her husband Leo, it took some convincing, but a week later, I was signed up for my second San Francisco... or technically, third. It also helped that two of my friends from Germany who I met in Jordan in 2018, Tom and Rafa, were making their way all the way to San Francisco for the race as well, along with Rafa's sister Magda, coming in from Poland.  It would be a great opportunity to reconnect with them once again!

I booked flights for a Friday afternoon trip direct from JFK to SFO, and thankfully about five days before my departure, I was upgraded into the Delta One cabin, meaning lie flat seats and late lunch service on the nearly six hour long flight! It was a nice and easy trip, and despite a late departure, we arrived early to San Francisco. I took BART into the city, getting off at the Embarcadero where I walked up to Febry and Leo's Japanese restaurant, Kirimachi, located at the Embarcadero Center.  Despite the restaurant having closed already earlier that evening, Febry had a nice dinner waiting for me when I arrived.  We walked back to her apartment in Yerba Buena Gardens, just fifteen minutes away, where I promptly crashed for the night, as the time change started to rear its head on me.

Lombard Street
I woke up early the next morning ready to get my day started, as Febry and I did our own 3 mile shakeout run from her place to the race expo at Fort Mason.  She took us up Montgomery Street to the Transamerica Pyramid, the iconic San Francisco Building in the Financial District.  We then veered northwest up Columbus Avenue past other important relics of the city's past, including the Sentinel Building in North Beach (a photogenic building that survived the 1906 earthquake and is home to Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope film studio), Coit Tower enveloped in fog up on Telegraph Hill, Saint Peter and Paul Church (cultural center of San Francisco's Italian-American community, as well as the iconic location where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio took photographs after their civil ceremony at city hall), and Washington Square. We turned left onto Lombard Street, where we tried our best to conquer its very steep hills, then took some photos at the famed "crookedest street" photo op. We then made our way down Hyde Street toward North Point Street, where we stopped by Ghirardelli Square, before taking on the hill from Municipal Pier up into Fort Mason.  We arrived just as the doors were opening to the expo at 9am.
Doors opening at the Marathon Expo
Brunch with Lara and Cloud
After retrieving my bib, I spent a good hour and a half at the expo. Most of the booths there were more of the same that I've seen at so many other race expos, but I stuck around moreso to wait for friends who were coming in that morning. On my way out, I ran into my friend Claire, who was planning to run the ultramarathon later that evening for the second year in a row.  We left the expo together, as I walked down the Marina District's Chestnut Street, to meet up with my friend Lara and her boyfriend Cloud for brunch at The Tipsy Pig.

With Orlando at the top of Twin Peaks
After a delicious meal (chicken and waffles for the win!) I got an Uber to take me to Cole Valley, where I would meet with a friend from my high school days in Kansas, who I haven't seen in eighteen years - basically, half my lifetime ago! Orlando moved to San Francisco only a few years ago, and caught wind of my visit to the area via social media.  He reached out and asked if I'd be around to grab a drink, and told him I was considering doing a free hike that some other friends had suggested up to Twin Peaks, one of San Francisco's highest points.  He had a free afternoon, so he told me he'd meet up with me and join in! When we got there, it was a fairly large crowd, maybe 50 of us altogether, perhaps more - and my friends who suggested the hike were nowhere to be found. We joined in anyway, and got to make our way up to the peaks by heading up the Farnsworth Steps, passing through the Sutro Forest to the Fairy Gates and up to Clarendon Avenue, continuing up a muddy trail to the Sutro Tower. From there, we made our way over to the top of Twin Peaks summit, 925 feet above sea level, with spectacular views of the Bay Area in all directions.

It was a spectacular day, and while we were warned that the ascent gets us to experience every microclimate possible that San Francisco is known for, we were treated to pretty nice temps, no rain whatsoever. After a few photos, we gingerly made our way down the mountain, making our way down Tank Hill into Golden Gate Park, where we got to see the dahlias in full bloom near the Conservatory of Flowers in the park's northeastern corner.  Orlando had to leave by that point to head to a barbecue, but I joined the rest of the group as we made our way past the California Academy of Sciences down into Inner Sunset for some beers at Social Brewery.  All in all, we ended up hiking a good 5.5 miles - not usually recommended the day before a hilly marathon, but I'm a different kind of animal, haha!

Pre-race dinner with members
of San Francisco Front Runners!
Afterward, I grabbed another Uber to head to the Castro District, where I joined San Francisco Front Runners for a pre-race dinner at the aptly-named Sausage Factory, an Italian restaurant.  We had a nice sized group including runners who came in for the race from the Denver contingent of the club (Colorado Front Runners), while I represented New York. It was an early dinner since the race would start so early the next morning.  I headed back to Febry and Leo's place, and started to wind down for the night.  Joining Febry and Leo were their friends Sophia and Hawk - and their "day" was just getting started.  After only a couple hours of sleep, Febry and Sophia were up by 9pm to get their things together and head to the finish line where they would start the ultramarathon at 11pm.  Another friend, Almi, was running the ultramarathon as well, and she dropped off her son Nate at Febry and Leo's place so he could walk over to the start with us in the morning and get some sleep himself. I drifted off to sleep not long after they left the apartment, a 4am wake up call in my near future.  Which overall didn't feel so terrible, since my body clock was still in eastern time zone, so it would feel more like a somewhat normal 7am alarm.

Almi ran the ultra, 17 weeks pregnant!
I woke up ready to go at 4am, throwing on my race clothes and preparing for the morning as Hawk, Leo, and Nate stirred. Soon, Hawk, Nate and I were out the door, and Leo went back to sleep, walking the quick 15 minutes down to the Hyatt Regency near the startline, where the ultramarathoners had a special room to wait in between races.  All of my friends who had started at 11pm changed into a new set of clothes, and were getting themselves ready for the morning loop with all the other runners that began at 5:30.  Having not seen Almi the night before, I got to hug her and check in with her - she was running the ultramarathon while 17 weeks pregnant! Luckily, her boyfriend Eddie was running the ultra with her, so all she needed to do was monitor her heartrate and keep her breathing stable, while he ensured that she got adequate calories and hydration throughout the race. Sophia and Febry looked fine, too, and soon we were back out on the street, ready for the marathon and their second of the day! I left my bag at the Hyatt, planning to come back here rather than deal with keeping my bag with the official gear check.  After all, the ultramarathoners were keeping their things here.

San Francisco's Bay Bridge, backlit by
the pre-dawn sky
I jumped into the corrals along the Embarcadero with the sky turning a pretty magenta/orange by the sun rising to the east, something made even more beautiful as the Bay Bridge formed our foreground. It was a fine 60° with a slight wind, and a little humid - not a surprise, considering the fog rolls into the city quite regularly. Soon, we heard the national anthem and the gun go off for the elite runners, and it took some 17 minutes before I finally was able to cross the starting line just before Mission Street, in the shadow of the iconic Ferry Building at the Embarcadero's intersection with Market Street.  It was nice and flat for these first couple miles, as we made our way past all of the piers along San Francisco's northeastern waterfront. It wasn't particularly foggy either, so we could even see Coit Tower to our left.
Starting the race before dawn!
Running along the Embarcadero, views of Coit Tower
Running alongside Fisherman's Wharf
Soon, the Embarcadero made its way into North Beach, as we passed Pier 39 and Pier 45, turning into Jefferson Street as we made our way through the popular neighborhood and tourist attraction of Fisherman's Wharf.  It was very peculiar to be seeing this area devoid of people other than us runners - but granted, it was 6 in the morning. We hit our second mile of the race, and I had registered my first two miles at 8:27 and 8:31.  Blazing fast.  We continued along the road until we entered the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, running alongside the concrete pathway right next to the water as we passed the Maritime Museum, then jumped off of the curb onto Van Ness Avenue. I had lost track of Febry earlier when we were at the Hyatt, but caught up to her here just before encountering our first hill of the race, that hill from Municipal Pier up into Fort Mason that we had run the day before.  It was a little tougher today, and I had to walk a short bit of it, but soon I was running again, gaining speed as we came downhill onto Marina Boulevard past the Great Meadow Park. Mile 3 clocked in at an 8:41.  Another fast mile.  I'd end up crossing the 5K mark in 26:23, one of my fastest first 5Ks for a marathon I've run. Pretty fast, but I feel good, like I'm not overdoing it.

A nice view of the Golden Gate
Bridge from the SF Bay Trail
We continue along the westbound lanes of Marina Boulevard, another nice flat section of course, passing some particularly beautiful homes to our left in the Marina District facing Marina Green and the water.  We pass by hundreds of yachts and boats in the harbor as Marina Boulevard turns into Mason Street, and the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen faintly in the distance.  We're running toward it, and strangely enough, it's not enveloped in fog like it normally can be. In fact, friends such as Febry, who have run this race twelve times, have always run the race with the section on the bridge being quite wet due to the fog rolling into the bay. We pass Crissy Field, approaching it even closer. I end up running past other friends, Mitch and Carlee, as we make our way toward the gravel section on the San Francisco Bay Trail beside the picnic area, with rock cairns strewn about on the shoreline. The Golden Gate Bridge is now in full view, and looking gorgeous this morning. We're now five miles in, and my last two miles were both fast as well - an 8:43 and 8:29!  What is going on!? Sure, its flat, but why am I not feeling like I'm putting forth so much effort and still pulling this pace?

An out and back on Marine Drive
Just past the Warming Hut, we are directed back onto the asphalt at Marine Drive, running on the westbound lane.  Runners are coming back toward us on the eastbound lane, so we head straight out for a turnaround point just before the span of the bridge. We head back along Marine Drive in the other direction, and I reach out to Mitch who I see on the other side for a quick high five, before the road begins to ascend again for our second big hill of the race along Long Avenue.  It's here where I take my first real lengthy walk break.  The road switches back as we run along the Battery East Trail, slightly rolling as we make our way up to the bridge level. I hit the sixth mile of the race in 9:24, and cross a timing mat about 0.1 mile later in 55:19 (why it wasn't at the 10K mark of the race, I don't know.)  We've ascended from 19 feet to 177 feet over the last mile, a 158 foot climb, in just under ten minutes.  Still making good time!
Looking down from the viewpoint at the top of the Battery East trail
Running on the sidewalk of the
Golden Gate Bridge
Now, we've made our way onto the bridge span. For years, the Golden Gate Bridge District (who owns and operates the bridge) had allowed the annual marathon to cone off two of the northbound lanes to accommodate the runners. The bridge couldn't be completely closed off because this was the only direct crossing from San Francisco into Marin County, without having to cross into the East Bay. But all that changed after a series of car and truck terror attacks in Nice in 2016 and in London and Barcelona in 2017, and the subsequent need for increased security. For the 2018 edition of the race, the marathon organizers were forced to recalibrate the race and move the marathoners onto the sidewalk, separated by a barrier from the roadway on the bridge, which would make the course much more narrow; this also prompted the organizers to require the start times to be staggered and limit the actual running across the bridge to just the marathon runners. I made my way across the bridge, noting that still, there was no fog on the bridge! For the first time, I'll be able to run across this bridge without emerging wet.

The gravel path on the Marin County
side of the bridge
Running across the bridge's sidewalk was surprisingly quick.  Despite the slight incline to get over the center part of the bridge over the Golden Gate (the strait connecting San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean), I maintained a steady pace under 9 minutes a mile over the bridge's over one mile span. It was a pretty direct straight line too, with only the small diversions around the bridge's two 746 foot tall towers.  The towers also indicated with signage when we crossed from San Francisco into Marin County. When reaching the other side of the bridge, we made our way along the slight incline toward the parking lot at Vista Point.  We crossed a mat here in the parking lot, at what I later found out was the 8.3 mile mark (another random location), crossing in 1:13:52, for an 8:54 pace.  Surprisingly on par for a sub 2 first half! We rounded the restroom buildings and the Lone Sailor statue, before being directed toward the gravel trail that rounded Vista Point from a slightly lower vantage point.  It offered some beautiful unobstructed views of the city from Marin County, though the terrain was a bit uneven and slightly perilous.  We continued along the path underneath the bridge's deck and past its massive piers.  The course then returned us along the asphalted Conzelman Road as we ascended back to the bridge's span level. My 9th mile was slow, pulling in the split at just above 10 minutes.

Climbing uphill on the
California Coastal Trail...
We were guided back to the bridge's sidewalks, this time on the other side, and experienced some tough headwinds as we made our way back into San Francisco.  Still, the straightaway and the relative slightness of the ascent, and managing to gun it down the descent kept me on a fairly steady pace through the 10th and 11th miles, clocking them in at 9:12 and 9:13 on my watch.  Still good!  The runners in the 1st half marathon joined us by this point, having started an hour after our gun at 6:30am, and were halfway through their race.  Their mileage markers, mixed in with ours made for a little confusion.  It was then we hit the hill along the Presidio on the California Coastal Trail.  I took a walk break and spotted a spectator with TWO corgis on the left side of the road and stopped for a quick selfie, learning that their names were Noodles and Lily!  I crossed a 11.3 mile mat in 1:44:11, enough for 9:14 pace, and knew I still had it in me to potentially go under 2 hours for the first half. We reached the highest point of the entire race at 282 feet along Lincoln Boulevard, then began a steep downhill down from the Presidio into the tony neighborhood of Sea Cliff.  I managed some sub-8 minute pace careening down the road, banking a bit more time as I crossed the 12 mile mark at under 9 minute pace. It read only 1:48:34 on my watch -- a sub 2 was definitely in the picture.
Corgi spotting on the Presidio!
Speeding downhill on
Lincoln Boulevard
Lincoln Boulevard turned into El Camino del Mar, before we turned left onto 27th Avenue, beginning the tough ascent through the Richmond District.  It was also here where the first "runner valves" opened and closed, a system of rerouting runners onto alternate streets to keep traffic flowing. Thankfully, I got through this part without having to make the turn which would've cost me "valuable" seconds for keeping my half marathon under the two hour mark.  Eventually, my watch hit the 13 mile mark, passing it in 1:58:27, with the course's 13 mile sign only a matter of seconds later. In my mind, that was just enough to get over the halfway point, where there was a timing mat with seconds to spare before the clock hit 2.  My split time? Just under.  1:59:37.  Only the third time I've ever gone under two hours for 13.1 miles, and my second in two months for the first half of a marathon. I was thrilled.

But of course... there was still another 13.1 miles to go.  I caught my breath, taking a quick walk break, as we continued running southward along 27th Avenue. We turned left onto Fulton Street, right at the northern edge of Golden Gate Park, before curving into the park at Crossover Drive and the Transverse.  At JFK Drive, we turned right, and officially began a little over 5 miles of running through Golden Gate Park, San Francisco's huge urban park that's even larger than New York City's Central Park.  Having run this park before, I knew that its roadways were not as cut and dry as Central Park's were, and it was misleadingly NOT flat. Unfortunately, I also started to feel a slight tinge in my left hamstring, potentially from trying to push too much to hit that sub-2 half. My pace began to slip slightly, and I liberally began to take walk breaks.  Mile 14 was my slowest mile thus far, at 10:35, which included the walk after crossing the mat, but also a pretty steady amount of incline - nearly 106 feet worth. But mile 15 had a nice drop of 114 feet, so I managed just under 9 minutes for that mile.  Feeling strong, I barely even noticed that we ran alongside the park's famous Bison Paddock, a small herd that has been maintained within the park's confines since 1891.  San Francisco Front Runners managed an aid station here, and I gleefully yelled out my thanks to them as I continued on.
Golden Gate Park
We made a sharp left onto Bernice Rodgers Way onto MLK Jr Drive along the park's south end.  Here's where the road started to slightly ascend, and I felt it.  My walk breaks were rather liberal through here, and my pace slipped because of it.  A 10:03 mile 16 followed, and a 12:23 mile 17 (which included a bathroom break).  Rafa and his sister Magda came up right behind me (Rafa greeting me with a well intentioned, but unfortunately timed ass slap, lol) and looked quite strong, as they passed and kept on going. The course zigzagged slightly as it maneuvered itself onto Middle Drive, cutting through the park's center. With the 1st Half Marathoners within a mile of their finish, we heard a lot of "you're almost there!" cheers, which for us marathoners did not help one bit. The course turned left onto Transverse Drive before turning right onto JFK Drive again, right at the intersection where we had essentially entered the park, and after passing underneath Crossover Drive's overpass, they split off to their finish line on the left, while we continued on along the drive in smaller numbers on the right. We also had a timing mat to cross here, which at 17.5 miles in put me at 2:46:20, or 9:31 pace.  Yeah, the last 4.4 miles dragged, but not terribly.

I clocked in another just over 10 minute mile at mile 18, and reached the aid station managed by the San Francisco Road Runners Club (SFRRC).  My friend Lynne is a club ambassador for them and was volunteering by handing out water and electrolytes here; it was really nice to be able to see a familiar face at this point of the race.  At this point, I kicked it into gear; having passed the 4:20 pacers quite early on in the race (even before reaching the bridge), they had caught up -- and knowing they started in a corral ahead of me, I knew I was roughly seven to eight minutes ahead of them in time.  If I kept up with them, that could make me EXTREMELY close to my PR time - possibly ahead of PR pace - and for this hilly course, would be quite impressive for me.  I kept up as best as I can, and though the hills didn't end here, I carried on.  We were routed onto a smaller pathway off of the main road into the park, passing mile 19 as we crossed under the overpass at Kezar Drive.  My watch clocked a 9:41 pace for that mile, a slight improvement, and we had just passed the three hour mark of the race.  We finally exited the park onto Haight Street at the park's eastern end on Stanyan Street and stared at the slight uphill meeting us for the next block. Thankfully, it was shortlived; the road flattened out significantly, and I feel like it was there where I magically picked up my pace. I passed the 4:20 pacers once again.

Running down the Haight
I felt strong as we passed through the district of Haight-Ashbury, continuing on eastward as we passed Buena Vista Park. I spotted the two corgis, Noodles and Lily, once again as I passed Divisadero Street. Though the course continues on through the Lower Haight before turning right onto Buchanan Street, a runner valve had been turned on, directing us right onto Scott Street and left onto Waller Street. We were on another steep drop, and my pace quickened as we continued eastward. Another dogleg down Buchanan Street onto Hermann Street and onto Guerrero Street followed, as we ran into the heart of the Mission District, the cultural nexus and epicenter of San Francisco's Mexican/Chicano, and to a lesser extent, the Bay Area's Nicaraguan, Salvadoran and Guatemalan community.  My 21st mile returned to a 9:11 pace thanks to that downhill, as I continued on through the neighborhood. We turned left onto 16th Street, one of the neighborhood's primary corridors, beating a runner valve that would've had us dogleg through the neighborhood.

Once a largely immigrant neighborhood, the 90s and early 2000s, especially the dot-com boom, brought young urban professionals into the area, as well as a reputation of being artist-friendly. Their movement into the area initiated gentrification, raising rents and housing prices.  In a day and age where those rents continue to go sky-high, the area has become a shell of what it once was.  Running through here early on a Sunday morning still brought about activity, especially near the 16th Street Mission BART station, but you could see how depressed it's become - there's an eerie stillness, nonetheless.

Climbing up Mississippi Street
in Potrero Hill
We continued eastward, with the road starting to go uphill past Harrison Street, so I ran up to that section before walking up the hill.  I threw in some quick spurts of running despite my tiredness, eventually led to turn onto Florida Street as we entered another runner valve, then continued eastward on 17th Street, realizing the crest of the hill came after we passed by Franklin Square.  We continued on past the US-101 overpass, entering the neighborhood of Potrero Hill. Clear in the distance was a massive building, part of the UCSF Medical Center, whose campus was on the other side of I-280, so the building was a good landmark to run toward.  The area became much more industrial before we eventually turned right onto Mississippi Street, then left onto Mariposa Street.  The 4:20 pacers had caught up again by that point, so I pushed myself to continue on as we entered the neighborhood of Dogpatch for the last 3 miles of the race.

Running by the still-in-construction
Chase Center
We passed through a not-very-pretty section of town as we continued southward to the furthest south point of the race, where we turned left onto 22nd Street, where we ran past a more residential area of the neighborhood.  Dogpatch was once a gritty working class area which has experienced some rapid transformation in the last couple decades, and you could easily see that once we made it to 3rd Street, where we turned left.  3rd Street is the neighborhood's main commercial artery and is served by a light rail line.  We ran up to 20th Street, where we turned right, then followed Illinois Street northward, which was undergoing a bit of construction. With two miles left in the race, I began to take a couple more walk breaks as the 4:20 pacers then passed me for the last time. Now in Mission Bay, we then began to run along Terry A Francois Boulevard northward, as we ran past the very busy construction site of the Chase Center, the arena where the NBA's Golden State Warriors will make their home in the upcoming season.  The arena looks very nearly done, but there was quite a bit of activity with workers onsite as we ran past.
Mile 25!
The Bay Bridge in the distance
marks the finish line!
The final 1.5 miles had us running straight north toward Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team.  Known as AT&T Park from 2006 to 2019, thankfully there was no game occurring that day unlike in 2016, when I was having to run past hordes of Giants fans soujourning toward a game.  There was a fair bit of construction around here, too, as we passed the 25 mile mark of the race.  We turned right onto the Third Street Bridge, then followed the promenade adjacent to the baseball stadium and McCovey Cove, before running on the pathway alongside South Beach Harbor. We then joined back onto the asphalt onto the Embarcadero with the Bay Bridge in the distance. Only a couple blocks after the bridge was the finish line, and while my PR time passed by in the last few hundred meters of the race, I was thrilled with potentially finishing well under my 4:30 goal.  Eventually, I crossed the finish line in 4:15:30, enough to make this hilly course (with a whopping 1,175 feet of elevation gain) my second fastest lifetime marathon.  It's only 4 1/2 minutes off of my PR from a flat course. More than that, I had beat my times from 2016 considerably... my speedy run took off almost 79 minutes from my fastest San Francisco Marathon.
Can't believe I sub-2'd at the halfway point of this hilly race!
It felt like the heat had turned up bigtime in the last few miles of the race, but in reality, it was only seven degrees warmer than the start. I grabbed some of the post-race treats offered, gobbling up two of the Dole fruit cups quickly.  I got my medal, and proudly walked down the street, making my way past the end of the finish line chute.  I beelined over to the Hyatt, and went up to get my bag.  Only two other people were in the room when I arrived; obviously many of the runners were still out on the course.  One of those runners was Lisa, who ended up being the female winner of the ultra; turns out, she was running the ultra for the second time, the last time being the year I ran it! After catching my breath, I headed back out and found Rafa and Magda in the beer garden; they had only finished about thirteen minutes ahead of me in the grand scheme of things.  But it was enough to be a massive PR for Magda, by something like 20 minutes!  We enjoyed each others company for a little while before walking back to their hotel, where we met up with Tom, who finished his blazing fast race in just over three hours.

With Tom and Rafa
After using their place to get rinsed off, we headed down the street to get a late lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, then grabbed an Uber to take us back to Crissy Field and the area where we could get some prime "finisher" photos with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.  The fog had started to roll in by then, so parts of the bridge were enveloped in fog, but it made for a beautiful effect in our photos.  I had my headstand photo taken here, in what is probably one of my most favorite headstand photos to date.  We took a group photo out on Torpedo Wharf, which was incredibly windy, then threw clothes back on before we grabbed another Uber to take us back downtown.  The rest of the group made a stop at Fisherman's Wharf, which was insanely busy at this time of day, a total 180 from how it was when we ran past earlier that morning.
With my European friends, for an optimal Golden Gate photo op!
Victory Headstand!
I ended up heading back to Febry and Leo's where I rested my feet for a little while until they got back from lunch.  I left at around 7pm, heading to the Montgomery BART Station to meet up with my friend Alex, who was on the same flight as me headed back to JFK that night.  We enjoyed one last meal at the airport before boarding our flight, where we both zonked out for most of the six hour redeye back.  Groggily, I made my way to my office after landing, and slept for another hour and a half before beginning my Monday at work!

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Race Report: Big Sky Marathon

The 2020 and 2021 editions of the Big Sky Marathon are on a revised route, so as to not have to deal with highway traffic for the two miles of the race along Highway 287 and to not adversely impact the town of Ennis in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  Instead of finishing in the Lions Club Park within the town of Ennis, the new course has runners finish on the Varney Bridge after an out and back section past the Madison River.  The 2019 edition was the last edition (to date of publishing this race report) to finish within the town of Ennis.

The Big Sky Marathon is the second race of an epic weekend of running in the Gravelly Range of southwest Montana.  I ran the half at the Madison Marathon the day before, posting a time nearly thirty minutes faster than when I ran the first 13.1 miles of the Madison Marathon in 2017.  Now, I was to attempt 26.2 miles of the largely downhill Big Sky Marathon, a totally new course for me - and one to bring me to a nice 39.3 miles for the weekend in one of the most picturesque states in the US.

After a good night's sleep at the Sportsman's Lodge in Ennis, Montana, me and my roommates got up to make our way to the Exxon station just up the street.  Seth and Amy decided to sit out the second race, so Katya, Jennifer, and I geared up for that morning's race, which included another bus ride up the mountain, but this time not as far.

Sam making announcements
before the race start.
As soon as the bus was loaded up, well before the sun rose, we made our way up Highway 287 back to Gravelly Range Road.  Like the day before, I napped as we went up the mountain.  The starting line for that day's race was within the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, not far from the turnaround point for those who ran the Madison Marathon the day before.  We would be largely running along the Gravelly Range Road, which would be downhill on gravel roads for more than 14 miles of the marathon. After Sam, the race director, made some announcements, he called me up to sing once more, regaling the runners with my rendition of "God Bless America."


The slight uphill after the start.
We began on a fairly flat looking section, but in reality, it was slightly uphill - the only uphill we'd have on the route.  My watch measured us traveling from an elevation of 8,447 feet at the start, reaching 8,552 7 1/2 minutes later.  Nevertheless, I took it easy, knowing I needed to grow accustomed to the thinner air.  I kicked off the first mile in a conservative 10:30, then appreciated the start of the downhill, following it up with a 9:06 mile 2.  Shortly after the second mile, we turned right onto Call Road, and a 10 1/2 minutes later, hit mile 3.  Not bad hitting the first 5K in 31 minutes at this elevation. By then, we had dropped to just over 8,000 feet above sea level.

The morning sun is strong!
It was after the 5K mark that the real downhill began to kick in.  And with that, a reduced need to walk, and gravity helping me to in let the downhill momentum take control. I would end up gaining some decent speed - not terribly fast, considering I was still nursing whatever tiredness I felt from the Madison half the day before, but enough to feel pretty good about how I was progressing with the race.  Mile 4 was an 8:47, followed by a 9:48 mile 5 and 9:23 mile 6.  I'd reach the 10K mark in just about an hour!  And by then, we had dropped another 600 feet to 7,400 feet in elevation.  A tiny climb over the next mile got me to rest up and control my breathing, so I clocked a slower 11:44 mile, which would be the slowest of the first half of this race for me; but soon, the drop in elevation would be a little more significant.  

5K in, with the Madison Range in the distance
Some of the beautiful expanse we ran alongside
Down one of the steepest downhills,
on a gravelly switchback
Almost immediately leaving the National Forest, we crossed a cattle guard gate then reached the steepest part of the race. At mile 7, we were at 7,400 feet; in only two more miles, we had dropped another 900 feet in elevation to 6,500 feet above sea level.  Both miles 8 and 9 would be under 9:00 pace, with parts that had some switchback roads, the first of their kind in the race.  Around here, I ran into Jennifer and Katya, who were running together.  We played a little leapfrog before they sped off past me on one of the longer downhill sections.  While we would drop another 200 feet over the next 1.5 miles, there were a few short uphills along the way that after some steady downhills felt like huge mountains to climb; my pace slowed for mile 10 to 11:33, then would slightly improve again thereafter.  We then turned to the true "quad burner" part of the race, into a view where we could see all the way down to the bottom of the hill.  It was super gravelly in this section, and we needed to exercise a little more caution to try to not slip on the dusty roadway.

The slight climb after mile 9
Looking back at part of the edge of the forest
The steepest descent
After going through the lower part of Bar 7 ranch, we reached a flat section. The drop was significant; by the time I hit mile 12, we had dropped to 5,645 feet.  Another mile, and we were down another 100 feet, with a nice 9:32 split. We would pass by the half marathon finish line, alongside an alfalfa field, where we had a nice cheer section of runners pushing us as we began the second half of the race.  I also spotted the yellow school bus where half marathon finishers would board to head back into town.  I would guess I clocked in my first 13.1 miles in 2:10.



Further down the road, you can see how steep that descent really was!
Clearly, we're in a valley.  Mile 12.
Alongside Bar 7 Ranch
Turning left after mile 14.
The elevation continued to drop, but less significantly, as we soldiered on.  A little after the 14th mile, clocked in at 10:08, we made a left turn along another gravel road, which we continued on for about 2.5 miles. We were now smack dab in the middle of the Madison River Valley, nestled between the Madison and Gravelly Ranges. Along the way, we passed signs for the turn off to the Ennis National Fish Hatchery, specializing in rearing farm raised rainbow trout, which is actually what the town is most known for - producing approximately 20 million rainbow trout eggs annually for research facilities, universities and federal, state and tribal hatcheries in 23 states.  Finally, 16.5 miles into the race, we turned onto asphalt on Varney Bridge Road.  By then, we had plateaued in elevation, reaching roughly 5,200 feet.  I slowed down a bit, logging in a couple miles that hovered just above 11 minute pace.

Passing the turn off for the Ennis National Fish Hatchery
Running on asphalt, finally!
On Varney Bridge Road, aka Highway 249, we ran along the road's shoulder.  While there was no real separation from oncoming cars, it was broad enough that we could keep ourselves hugging the edge of the road, and the rare car coming toward us could give us wide clearance. The road rolled up and down with very slight elevation changes for several miles - I clocked in my 17th mile at 11:10 and 18th mile in 12:23, my slowest thus far.  I had been running for 3 hours and 5 minutes by then,  with still a little over 8 miles to go, and a 4 1/2 hour finish still in my sights.  It got pretty lonely out here, too, with other runners doing the marathon within sight but still a significant distance away, both behind me and in front of me.  After all, there were less runners that day completing the Big Sky, compared to the Madison the day before.
Runners ahead of me, but still within view!
Welcome to Ennis!
The road did finally flatten out a bit, and I was able to pick up the pace, clocking in the next three miles in a consistent 10 1/2 minute pace.  At mile 21, the road started to parallel the Madison River to our right.  I clocked in my last "relatively fast" mile at 10:46 at mile 22, with just over four miles left to go.  This was when I began to tire out and slow down - I struggled to maintain that steady pace as we inched closer and closer to the town of Ennis.  Just before mile 24, we merged onto the busier Highway 287.  It was slightly precarious, as the shoulder was much narrower, so at times I had to run in the grass.  The "Welcome to Ennis!" sign came into view, and we had bottomed out in elevation at 5,000 feet.

Mile 25!
As I had earlier mentioned, we had been running along the shoulder of the southbound lane (against traffic, as is always recommended when running on the shoulder of a road), but just before the 25th mile, I had to cross over to the other side of the street, to pass the last aid station of the course before turning right past the town's post office and onto Armitage Street.  I probably could've crossed earlier, where a pedestrian path seemed to exist, but I didn't spot it until I saw the mile marker cone, and a course marshal on the opposite side of the street. My watch registered my slowest mile, at 13:03, before I continued on along this residential road.  Along this street, we ran across the entire east-west length of the town - just under 3/4 mile - and I spotted Jennifer and Katya not that far in front of me.  They had been long gone since that early downhill around mile 8, but I had caught up!  I picked up the pace as we made a left turn onto 3rd Street and continued further into town.

Just before reaching Ennis' Main Street, my watch clocked in a 10:37 split for my 26th and last mile, with the last 0.2 left to go! I crossed the street, and turned right onto the sidewalk, with the parking lot of the Lions Club Park straight ahead.  Turning left into the park was the finish line, and I crossed in 4:38:44.  Jennifer and Katya crossed just 62 seconds ahead of me.  I happily received my medal for the day, and was thrilled to be 14th overall to cross the finish line out of an eventual 42 finishers and 4th in my age group (once again, just like the day before).  In addition, I improved my fastest marathon for the state of Montana by 2 1/2 hours, since my only other full in the state was 2017's Madison, my current PW at a glacially slow 7:07:52.

Victory Headstand with race director Sam Korsmoe

Post race lunch with
Sam and Winnie!
The Lion's Club Park had a nice little gazebo, where I could rest in the shade out of the sun, and snack on some much needed food after running for 4 1/2 hours down a mountain.  I stuck around and waited for other finishers, namely, my friend Winnie, who used both days' races as elevation training for her multi-day TransRockies Run in August.  She, Sam (the race director) and I would head into town to get lunch before Winnie dropped me off at the airport for my flight home.  It was a fun, yet grueling weekend - cementing my status as a glutton for punishment, having returned for one of the hardest set of races one could ever do, but coming home with two more successful finishes!

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Race Report: Madison Half Marathon

It's been nearly a year since I've posted a race report here on Victory Headstand Runner. The coronavirus pandemic has now been part of our lives for just as long, and with the racing scene at a standstill, I decided to halt my writing here - it was depressing to reminisce of these wonderful travel moments, and have no freedom to leave my apartment for fear of infection.  Additionally, I liked to treat these race reports as "free advertisement" for upcoming editions of these individual races, so I thought that it was better to hold off until the races would return.

When I last left off, I was writing about races that occurred in July 2019.  After running my 109th lifetime marathon in Wales, I decided to return to do a couple domestic races (in addition to getting some NYRR 9+1 races out of the way for NYC Marathon qualification), having spent the better part of 2 1/2 months traveling internationally - to the Czech Republic, Belgium, Finland, Latvia, Sweden, the UK twice and Canada three times. In 2017, I completed the Madison Marathon in southwest Montana, a race which currently stands as my PW - or personal worst - marathon time. All runners start the race at a jarringly high 9,200 feet in elevation, and within a few miles, peak at 9,600 feet before undulating up and down, before finishing at 8,550 feet.  After a lung searing 7 hours and 7 minutes, I finished 26.2 miles of easily the hardest marathon I had completed to date (the Petra Desert Marathon I'd do a year later would be more difficult, in my mind... basically, take Madison and add 97ยบ of heat to it!)

Sam's new book,
available to purchase
on Amazon!
I ended up booking a national anthem gig at the Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half in 2018 on the same weekend, but when 2019 came around, the Madison's race director, Sam Korsmoe, had a book coming out called A World Gone Mad for Marathons, where I was a runner profile featured in one of the book's chapters. Sam begged me to return and tackle his race once more, in addition to singing at the start for both races in exchange for complimentary entries. With friends Seth, Amy, and Winnie separately planning to head to Montana for the double that weekend, I was able to secure some flights to head back out west, and do the same... though knowing full well how difficult Madison was, I opted to run the half on day 1, and then attempt the full at the Big Sky Marathon on Day 2.  Seth was flying into Salt Lake City from Fort Lauderdale with Amy, and they were planning to drive up to Ennis as soon as they landed, so I opted to join them, rather than pay a few extra hundred dollars to go direct to Bozeman and also book a rental car. Despite the 5 1/2 hour drive, I'd be saving some money.

Summer Fridays at my office meant early dismissal, so I booked a flight out of JFK to head to Salt Lake City in the afternoon, and with us taking off without having to spend a long time taxiing down the runway, we landed nearly an hour early after the 4 hour flight. Seth and Amy wouldn't be landing til close to 9pm, so I spent the 2 1/2 hours of downtime in the Sky Club while also tracking their flight before meeting up with them at their gate.  We headed straight for the rental car center after they landed, and then Seth took to the wheel to start out the drive northward through Idaho into Montana.  I took over driving duties after Seth had driven about three hours, and we got to Ennis at around 2:40am.

Katya and Jennifer, who had spent a couple days driving up from Denver (11 hours total), were already sound asleep at the room Seth had booked at the Sportsman's Lodge, but left the door unlocked for us as we quietly crept into the room.  With race morning bib pickup starting at 5am and the buses loading up to drive up the mountain half an hour later, we only got about two hours of sleep.  The trip up the mountain took about 1 1/2 hours, a bumpy ride once the asphalt road turned into dirt and gravel.  The bus rocking side to side and manically vibrating over the uneven terrain managed to rock some of us (or rather, just me!) to sleep, but also pushed some folks to the edge of being able to hold in their bladders - our bus driver had to stop and let one of the runners out for an emergency pee! The air got thinner as the bus ascended some 4,000 feet into the Gravelly Range, and we finally reached Clover Campground, where we were able to be let out to use the facilities.  Half an hour later and with buses completely full (now that those who had chosen to drive their cars up to the finish line at the campground had parked, or camped there overnight), we'd continue further up the mountain another 13 miles to the start.

More bumpiness and side to side action on the bus ensued, and we were about 8.5 to 9 miles up when we encountered the first of the early starters, which included my friend Winnie, making their way along the edge of the dirt and gravel road as our bus pushed up toward Black Butte Mountain, towering over the distance.  We'd eventually reach the "bowl" just outside the purview of the mountain where the race would start, here at a whopping 9,200 feet of elevation, and despite being July, there was still remnants of packed snow dotting the landscape. Immediately, as everyone disembarked from the buses, people headed for the trees and bushes for one last bathroom break.  Katya laughingly remarked, "all I want is a photo of the snow!" but ended up taking one with unconcerned runners doing their business in nature!

Before long, we were ready to start. We had reached the startline a little later than expected, meaning we were starting late. Sam made his announcements, including an interesting fact that that day was the 50 year anniversary of Neil Armstrong's first walk on the moon, and then introduced me to sing - in 2017, I had sung the Star Spangled Banner, but Sam had suggested maybe doing America the Beautiful this time. Knowing full well that breathing at that elevation was tough, I took my time, and made sure to pick a key that seemed reasonable for my rendition - I did start off a bit too high when I sang here in 2017.  I managed through it quite well, complimented on how the echo reverberated throughout the area.

Soon, we were off.  Fully aware of the immediate uphill that was barely 100 feet ahead, I took my time, starting off nice and slow... but as soon as that uphill hit -- MAN, the difficulty in breathing was so evident! We all took our time as we not only took in the beautiful sights, but to get our lungs accustomed to the thin air, but we eventually got up to the top of that uphill, a gradual climb over one mile.  It was a 13:21 first mile, which I was not surprised with by any means.  Thankfully, it would be followed by a nice downhill over the next mile, dropping us about 400 feet from the crest of that hill - giving me an 8:29 pace once I hit the mile 2 mark!  THAT was a pace I never thought I'd hit on this course.  Granted, it was still VERY early, and many hills were still ahead of me.  We continued on, under the shadow of Black Butte.

Since this race was covered in great detail in the first 13.1 miles of my 2017 race report, I won't bore you (or myself) by rehashing practically the same experience I had from that race, so I'll instead do a photo dump, as that's what really makes this course so memorable!  It was even clearer this time around, with the skies clear from the haze that plagued southwest Montana area from nearby forest fires.









High point of the race.  Smiling, but barely breathing.



Beautiful Montana wildflowers


I did want to note, that about three miles from the finish, I ended up befriending Grace from Oklahoma.  We supported each other as we ran to the finish line, where the last two miles gave me a new experience in a race - being bitten by a swarm of horseflies!  They were so pesky, biting through my compression socks and my tech t-shirt!  It may have even managed to help me finish this half marathon in an exceptional time - nearly 30 minutes faster than the half marathon split from 2017!  

Misprint - it should say "2017" up top.  But look at my splits between the two -- I'm definitely at a better fitness level in 2019!

I crossed the finish line with Grace in 2:42:32, enough for 24th place overall in a field of 58 half marathon runners. I even managed fourth in the nine person Male 30-39 age group, which included the top two overall finishers.  My results from this race really emphasized how fit I had become over the past year, particularly with my faster finishes in races since April.  I stuck around to cheer in finishers from both the half and full marathons - with reports from marathoners who decried the horseflies for much of the second half of the race.  Call me lucky for not having to deal with that in 2017!  Occasional buses and race crew drove us back down the mountain into Ennis, and once my roommates had all arrived, we headed back to the hotel for much needed showers.  We then had dinner at the Sportsman's Lodge Restaurant, before heading to sleep relatively early, as several of us were planning to run the Big Sky Marathon the following morning. 
Victory Headstand!