Monday, September 30, 2013

Race Review: Berkley Trail Adventure 35k

Inside Trail Racing held their Berkeley Trail Adventure event this past Saturday the 28th at Tilden Regional Park in the hills above Berkeley. The event consisted of a 10k, half marathon, 35k and 50k. Sidenote: Have you ever noticed that outside of the Bay Area the 35k event is almost unheard of but around here it is almost a standard? Anyway, that was the distance for me on this race day, the 35k. It has been over a year and a half since I last ran this race distance and in that time I think I improved as a runner. My best time for this distance was 4:12:00 set on a course in Huddart Park with 3000' of elevation gain. This race in Tilden Park has 4600'of elevation gain so in theory it should take me longer but since I have improved I'm hoping to set a new PR!


Elev Profile and aid station points along the course
Four aid stations and 4,600 feet of climbing was the challenge du jour. My game plan was to go easy for the first 4.8 miles due to the  three tough climbs I saw on the elevation profile. The red & orange coloring is obviously for the steeper climbing and those colors mostly dominate this section so that dictates a very conservative start. The next 6 mile section I planned to let my legs go and bomb down that hill being sure to save a little for the nearly 1 mile climb of red near the end of the section. The next 4 miles appear to be flat so I'm going to cruise these at an easy pace and hopefully recover from the first 2 sections. I also want to build up some strength to tackle the 3rd section. 2 miles of red & purple climbing between stops is going to be tough when your 15 miles into your race. The finish will be a downhill dream come true. Mostly light green, so very runnable. No matter if I'm tired or not I should be able to finish with a strong kick because of this light green descent. That's the plan and I had it locked into memory. I kept repeating 4.8, 6, 4.4, 2 & 4.4; helping me remember the distance to each aid station. I followed that with slow, fast, easy, hard, fast; committing the "effort strategy" of each section to memory as well.

I was serious about setting a PR and with my plan committed to memory all I had to do was execute. I arrived early to get my bib so as not to be rushed and stressed and that was a wise choice. The check-in area had one line that moved as slow as could be. To ITR's credit they did open a second line for 35k & 50k runners so that everyone could get checked in before the start time. A few of the usual announcements were made about course markings and such and after that we were off and running. The course immediately started to climb but I was prepared for that. I stayed calm and ran slow remembering that the first section was "4.8/slow". After running for a half hour or so I started thinking about the elevation profile and expected one last climb before hitting the aid station and then bombing down hill for a long stretch. I felt good and made up my mind to skip the first aid station and just fly downhill to gain some time. The last climb never came! We ran down and down and down for so long that I started to wonder if I was already on the second section. How could that be? Did they forget to setup the first aid station?  My answer came as the long hill bottomed out and the aid station was there. That's weird I thought but figured they must have moved the location for whatever reason.

I stuck to my decision and flew past the aid station expecting several more miles of downhill. That was not the case at all. Once past that aid station the course turned up and we began some serious climbing, again. Now I was truly confused. I am a fairly good downhill runner and was looking forward to a good long stretch and this uphill was definitely not on the elevation profile. The distance to the first aid station was pretty close according to my watch so I had to assume that the next aid station would be 6 miles out. It was but again the ascents and descents were nothing like I anticipated. I made it into the second aid station much more worn out than I figured I would be and really hoped the third section would be as flat as the profile said it would be. I mowed down quite a bit of food at this aid station hoping to get back some energy, refilled my bottle and headed out for section three.

In keeping with the status quo the elevation chart was wrong again. Section three is 2 miles out and back to the same aid station I just left and it was far from flat. The good news was that none of the hill climbing was extreme and surface was paved asphalt which was a welcome relief. Most of the trails up to this point had been extremely rocky and root strewn making for a hard run to get a rhythm going. I was averaging 10 minute pace up till this point and was able to hold on to this average for the entire section but to do so required some effort. Effort I hadn't planned on putting out. I counted the number of people wearing green bibs (35k racers) coming back at me on this section and determined I was probably somewhere between 15th and 20th overall. I hit the turn around and passed a guy exactly at the turnaround. I came back into the aid station and again fueled up for section four.

The distances I had planned for between aid stations was accurate but the effort strategy I came up with based on the elevation chart was all wrong. Why I thought the next section would be accurate is beyond me but I did. The chart said 2 miles of uphill climbing and for the most part it was accurate. It wasn't ALL uphill like it was suppose to be but the part that was uphill was exactly as the chart said, deep purple! (Insert Smoke on the water joke here_________)

I was spent coming into the last aid station. This course so far was nothing like I thought it would be. Two of my four goals, a top 10 finish and a top 3 age group finish, were likely shot at this point. My other two goals, a PR (sub 4:12:00) and an average pace of 11 min (4:00:00 finish) was still possible but I had to get on with it. I left out of that aid station thinking the last 4 miles were all downhill and of course it was not. A couple of the climbs on the way back were tough but it was the last big one that slowed me to a walk. Just then a girl came hiking up behind me in a yellow bib. "50k!, Way to go!" I said to her. She quickly replied "No, I turned around at the 35k. But it has been fun messing with people on the way back." She said this as she hiked on past me. "Brutal hills out there today." I said, trying to make her feel better about the decision. "I think the elevation chart lied to us." I furthered. She didn't reply but a few minutes later she turned and said "Yeah!!! I thought the last 4 miles were downhill?" To which I said "And here we are hiking!"

That hill broke me. All I could do was trot the last mile or so into the finish and miss my sub 4 hour by 3 minutes. I got the PR at least of a sub 4:12:00. I hung around the finish area just long enough to see my results posted. 16th out of 40 and 6th in my age group with a 4:03:16. I can't say that I'm super happy with these results because I was so sure that I could do much better than this. Keeping it in perspective I did set a PR on a course with far more elevation gain than the course I set my former PR on. Part of me wants to blame the lousy elevation chart and this post spells it out that way but honestly that's just an excuse for poor performance. If your as good as you think you are then it shouldn't matter what circumstances get thrown at you. You should be fit, strong and able to overcome or else you are weaker than you thought or setting unrealistic goals. I think it's also a bad idea to try and PR a distance on a course you have no first hand knowledge of. Elevation charts can be very deceiving and I study them in depth for every race I run. The lesson I should take away from this race is to get on the course prior to the run if you really want to have your best race.

ITR volunteers were very nice and helpful. The aid stations were well stocked and efficient as usual and the course markings were an 8 out of 10. ITR always puts on top notch events and I would highly recommend running with these folks if you haven't. This park is on the one hand, beautiful with stunning views of the bay and on the other hand a really difficult place to run because of the rocks and roots that dominate certain trails. I've run in most of the parks around the bay and have never been in such long stretches of rocks and roots. One section in particular was frightening and thrilling all at the same time. Me and this guy were flying down this super steep mine field of rocks and roots for what seemed like a mile or more. We were going super fast and it was scary as hell knowing that if you went down with one wrong step you were hitting some gnarly looking rocks. Catching a toe on a root would be disastrous. Coming out the other side of that makes you breath a heavy sigh of relief and think THANK GOD!!!

I'm going to put this down as a potential redo in 2014. I know what I'm in for next time and I think I will knock a few more minutes off my PR on that alone. My next race is the Skyline to Sea Marathon in two weeks. I got a sub 4 hour goal on that one too even though I have never run that trail. I've been meaning to for a long, long time because it's iconic but I just never got around to it. Let's see how that works out for me!