Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Wildcat Half Marathon 2014 race review

 Looking back on last Saturday's race the one thought that dominates my recollection of this race is just how wrong I was about the level of difficulty this race represented. That seems to be happening a lot lately??? This course has 3 distinct climbs that are not to be taken lightly. Even though the elevation chart says 2200’ of gain, which is (for me) on the lower side of most trail half’s that I run, I soon realized that these climbs were really steep and long lasting.

I arrived early because of my last race experience where I cut it close to missing the race start. I pulled into the Clark Rd neighborhood in El Sobrante and again noticed cars parked on the side of the road, people walking up to the park and a long line of cars waiting to get into the Waldorf School's parking area. I’m not falling for that again. I found a chunk of curb to call home and started walking into the park to find the check-in. Turns out there was plenty of parking to be had (at that time) but it was a slow process of getting in and around and here I was half way to the check-in already, so I made the right choice. Check in was quick, bathrooms were slow. A few porto potty’s were brought in to the staging area, restrooms were available in the school and both locations were backed up with a fairly decent wait time. Once again the early arrival pays off.

Ivan Medina starts and finishes in 1st place!
The race started at 8am after the usual announcements were made and I purposefully started near the front of the pack. I read a few blogs reviewing this race since I had never run at Wildcat before and one of the blogs mentioned a bottle neck at the start due to a cattle gate. The full width trail gate was held open so the bottle neck never materialized as far as I saw. The announcer warned us that the starting chute to the trail was chock full of potholes and uneven terrain all covered up by grass and urged us to be careful and I appreciated that. I flew off the starting line and did the weirdest tip toe dash you could imagine to get past this 25 yards of ankle rolling hell. The course takes a hard right and goes through the trail gate starting with an immediate uphill challenge.

Top of the first hill
The out & back section
The first hill can probably be climbed all the way to the top without walking. I ran it all the way up but the entire time I was running it I was debating with myself as to whether or not I was burning too much energy in the first mile of this race. Many people behind me choose to walk up this early beast. Once you crest this big boy their are only a few decent rollers that come after that. Unfortunately those rollers are not the end of the climbing. Aid station #1 comes at about the 1.6 mile mark and aid station #2 comes just after the 3 mile mark.

Aid station #2 is the beginning of an out & back section that has a bit of climbing on it but nothing to write home about. When you come back up the trail you make a hard right turn at the aforementioned aid station and start the Conlon Trail, a.k.a. "The never ending climb #2". Honestly this climb seems to go on and on and on until you start mentally freaking out. Everyone I could see was walking large sections of this climb. The grade of the climb changed from very steep to false flats and that lead the runners around me to leap frog places back and forth quit a bit. I ran with the same 10 people around me for the vast majority of this race and we passed each other many, many times. One guy in a black & white outfit stood out all day long. We must have traded places 5 or 6 times and at some points I figured he was gone and I would never see him again but another little change in the course would work in my favor and bring him right back into my arena. I love it when I have a runner that I can pace off of and perhaps the competition pushes me to try just a bit harder.

 The exotic, far flung destination known as the summit is marked by an aid station and a paved bike path called Nimitz Way. You follow that for just under  a mile until it turns downhill left onto a very narrow single track. This is the Havey Canyon Trail that leads you right back down to aid station #2 again. The day was sunny and cool so I never stopped at any of the aid stations I just thanked the volunteers as I flew by. Once again the course turns uphill for another long sustained climb. This is not as steep as the previous long climb but it is later in the race and my legs just could not believe that we were going back up at such a steep angle, again! The top of this section is where you will find the most amazing views of the bay. A few runners stopped to take pictures and I was tempted to follow suit but I opted to capture a few race places rather than capture a memory.

Yet another  killer climb!
I’ve ran in lots of parks and I have seen the bay from all of the great vantage points (that I know of) but this one is different. The panorama is just spectacular and the water seems exceptionally close so it is not beauty from a distance but rather beauty right up in your face. The final 2 miles are mostly downhill which comes as a welcome relief. I started to really fall apart in this last section and my pace fell off dramatically. I was worn out and ready to call it quits when the cattle gate from the beginning came into view.

Falling to pieces at the finish line
I crossed the finish line in 2:22:53 taking 56th place overall out of 184 runners and 10th out of 19 in my age group. Not bad I suppose but not what I expected when I woke up that morning. The course runs like a 3000' beast and a couple people reported that their Garmins were coming in between 2800' & 3000' on the Brazen Facebook page. Brazen's reply was "You're right, it probably is a good amount higher than that 2,200 estimate. We will take a look at that. " I feel better about my performance given this little confession but I now have to question all of the elevation info on all of the Brazen Races. Not cool.

 Official results can be seen here. Congrats to Ivan Medina for crushing this course in 1:23:54 and Justine Owen for the females coming in at 1:55:49. As I made my way back to my car after hanging out at the finish line for a while I heard a voice say "How'd it go out there?" It was the guy I had been racing with/ against all morning. His name was Jason and what an exceptionally nice guy to talk to. He seemed filled with positive vibes and a cheerful spirit. We chatted for a bit and I congratulated him on beating me and he informed me that I actually beat him. I had no idea but I guess at some point I went past and bested him by just a few minutes. That's awesome but it does not prove anything. I'm convinced Jason is the better runner just based on his uphill performance. I could get him on a downhill maybe but he had me on the uphills all day long.

One last note on this race. Brazen, as usual, put on a good event but this course ranks as one of my least favorites. I say that despite the panoramic view that blew me away and I am not saying that because of the steep climbs. The thing that makes this park rank lower than most is the hard pack trails that were full of pot holes, completely rutted out in places. I especially disliked the long narrow stretch of downhill single track that was overgrown with grass and so uneven with potholes that it really felt sketchy. I feared for my ankles and that never happens. If you can't see where your foot is landing because of the overgrowth and yet you are flying downhill landing on the most even terrain possible all while trying to stay in this super narrow single track you would be scared too. I've run all over Northern California and the trail conditions here are just not as good as they should be or at least could be with a little maintenance. 

 The upside to all of this is that I got good practice in for next months Lynch Canyon Trail Run. I've been looking forward to this for a few months now because I really want to beat my last years time. Lynch Canyon is about a 3000' course as well so if my performance at Wildcat is any indication of what I can do I should expect to struggle at Lynch!!! I better get on the stick and get more hill climbing in my training.

 This race marks #3 for me in the Ultra Half Series which means I will now show up in the next update of the race series standings. Only 2 more races to complete to officially be in the Series Championship in October. #4 for me will be later next month when I run the Trailquake in Sanborn Park in Saratoga. My search for a sub 2 hour ultra half continues.......