This section of my website used to be dedicated to triathlon training, personal race results and certification reviews, like Turbo Kick. I am expanding it to include more generic health & fitness topics. Also, I talk a lot about "D" -- he's my husband (Dave Liu)!

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Trail Marathon!

Before you get too excited, I'm not the one who ran the trail marathon.

It was D. He's amazing. But of course I knew that already, which is why I married him. He started running this February 2003 at a 10-minute mile. In the last eight months, he's improved it to <7 for a 10K. Given his progress, he wanted to try a marathon this year. I have trouble conceptualizing running 26.2 miles. Heck, I think that's a long distance to DRIVE.

I advised D to do a flat marathon since it was his first, but he couldn't find any local ones. Determined to complete a marathon this year, he focused on the Golden Hills Trail Marathon on October 11, 2003. Here's the course description:

"The point-to-point marathon course starts at the Lone Oak picnic area in Berkeley's Tilden Park and finishes 26.2 miles to the south at the Cove Picnic area at Lake Chabot. The course is mostly along the legendary East Bay Skyline National Trail, which includes fireroads and single tract trails that provide gorgeous views of San Francisco, Mt. Diablo and the golden hills of the East Bay from the ridge tops. The course also allows you to cross streams, run through a lush redwood forest and view the many different species of trees in the east bay, including oak, pine, bay and eucalyptus. Over 4,000 feet of climb. Be prepared for any condition. Can be hot, perfect or cold and raining. In previous year's, race week has included the following: fire, earthquake, flood, and stock market crash."

We drove to starting point where a bunch of runners had already congregated. It was fascinating watching the pre-race routines of the more experienced athletes. One woman rubbed Body Glide over her toes to prevent blisters. I happened to have Body Glide with me, so D used it on one of his feet. Another gentleman wore socks with individual pockets for his toes. He called them "feet mittens". D spotted a large tub of Vaseline on the bench, and smeared some on his nipples to prevent chafing. Apparently, men often get bleeding nipples (eew) during marathons because their shirts rub against their chests. Another solution is to cover your nipples with bandaids, but you have to shave first or else they won't stick.

While waiting in line for registration, D struck up a conversation with some dude (we'll call him Red Shirt Guy) in front of him. It was Red Shirt Guy's first time running the Golden Hills Trail Marathon as well. D told him that it was also his first MARATHON ever, and Red Shirt Guy's eyes widened with surprise. I can't remember what he said exactly, but it was something to the effect that it wasn't a wise idea to start out with such a hard one.

D went to the car to pick something up, and as he walked towards to the start area, he tripped over a root. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and then started stretching. But he looked worried. Really worried. He had twisted his ankle; "tweaked it" was the phrase he used. I asked him whether he still wanted to run and he said he did.

To make things worse, Red Shirt Guy was so intrigued by D's decision to choose a trail marathon as his first marathon, that he came by to ask why he came to that (insane) conclusion. D explained that he wanted to run a local marathon this year but couldn't find any, plus he was already comfortable running trail half marathons and wanted an additional challenge. Then Red Shirt Guy said that he too was cool with half marathons, but marathons took things to a "whole different level". Even with 20 flat marathons behind him, this was going to be by far the most difficult ones because of the hills. Moreover, there was a local flat marathon D could have done: California International in Sacramento in December 2003. Not only was it flat, but there's a net elevation loss so you're almost running downhill. It's such a fast course that people use it to qualify for Boston. I could see that D was getting bothered by Red Shirt Guy's anti-pep talk. I wanted to drop kick Red Shirt and he finally went away.

With doubts floating all around his head, D decided to carry his cell phone with him on the race. He told me to carry mine with me too in case anything happened. He was going to evaluate his condition at the halfway mark and call me if he was in too much pain to continue. He promised to take it easy and perhaps even walk the first 3-4 miles which had a punishing amount of elevation. He had only one goal: to finish.

The beginning of the race started without great fanfare. I shouted words of encouragement as I saw him trot off into the distance at a leisurely pace. I went back to my car and dug out my cell phone. I placed it prominently on the passenger seat and drove away.

I was pretty distracted while I headed towards Lake Chabot. So distracted, in fact, that I headed in the wrong direction and took I-580W instead of I-580E. I didn't realize my mistake until I paid $2.00 toll to cross a bridge. That clearly wasn't right. After I crossed the bridge, I realized I had taken a huge detour and was in San Rafael.

I turned around and went to Lake Chabot for real. En route to the park, I stopped at a grocery store to buy a disposable camera to capture D's first marathon!

I had intended to do some cycling and I did so for all of 15-20 minutes uphill on Lake Chabot Road. It was a complete haul on my mountain bike, especially without clipless pedals. I stopped at the top of the hill and turned around to go back. I had intended to cycle back but freaked out at the last minute because it was so so steep. I walked my bike down the hill. I am such a loser.

I went inside the park and quickly found the finish line for the trail marathon. Pink ribbons were used to mark the trail, so I followed them from the end of the course back towards the starting line.

My brilliant idea was to run the reverse course of the trail all the way to the aid station at the 20th mile. I was going to meet up with D there, and then pace him for the last six miles. He told me to get there at noon. Everything went swimmingly until I got to a fork in the road where it split off Goldenrod Trail split off from Bass Cove Trail. I couldn't figure out which direction to take so I made an executive decision to take Goldenrod. I should have known that something was wrong because I didn't see pink ribbons anywhere. But I kept on going because a pair of hikers reassured me that I was on the correct path because nobody ever went on Bass Cove Trail.

I was still unsure so I stopped a pair of resting mountain bikers coming from the opposite directions and asked whether they had seen any pink ribbons. "Yeah," they replied, "but a long way back at Stonebridge. There were pink ribbons and large white arrows drawn in chalk". A-ha!

I continued up Goldenrod with great confidence. Afterall, it intersected Skyline, and I remember reading that most of the Golden Hills Trail Marathon was going to be on Skyline Trail. I arrived at Skyline and saw a table laden with food and drink. I rushed over and noticed that the food consisted of pastries and other breakfast foods. It didn't look anything like what you would have at a marathon aid station. I asked one of the volunteers what the spread was for, and he replied that it was for a horse riding club. It had nothing to do with runners. Great. I also noticed that Skyline was a wide paved road, not a trail. I must have arrived at Skyline Blvd. or Skyline Road, not Skyline Trail.

I was still going in the correct direction for Stonebridge so I headed back on the trails. After traveling another half a mile, it was still nowhere in sight even though it was supposed to be close by. I took another look at my map and realized that I had taken yet another wrong turn. "FUUUUCCCKKKKK!" I screamed into the wilderness at no-one in particular. I looked at my watch. It was already 12:30PM.

By the time I reached Stonebridge it was around 12:45PM. I saw the pink arrows and large white arrows (they were made with flour, not chalk), but I had no idea how far it was to the 20th mile aid station or whether it was in front or behind me.

I stood there looking around, when all of a sudden, a runner headed towards me. It was a tall, lanky fellow who looked like he was on his morning jog. He wore a number that only had two digits. I stared at him, first confused, then open mouthed and slackjawed.

At the begining of the race, we were told that all the marathon runners had numbers starting with a "5" on their bib. This was to differentiate them from other runners. "What other runners?" I asked. "Oh, the people doing the 50 mile trail run that started at 7:30AM this morning."

So this guy, who was effortlessly bounding through the wilderness, was on the last few miles of his 50 mile run. I clapped and cheered for him, but he just gave me a bored look and continued running. Then I saw more runners. These guys had three digit numbers beginning with "5" so I knew they were marathon runners. I asked one of them whether he'd already passed the 20th mile aid station. He said that he had so I continued walking, praying that D had not already passed me.

I saw more and more runners at regular intervals. The farther I went, the more tired and disgruntled they looked. I shouted words of encouragement as I passed each of them, "Keep it up!", "Looking good!", "Almost there!" or "Great job!". They were all appreciative and those that had breath to spare thanked me. I even passed Red Shirt Guy. He growled, "The number of the Beast is 26.2!!" as he stomped by in a huff.

After I finally reached the 20th mile aid station, I asked the volunteers how many marathon runners had passed by. They said about 30-35 out of 70. They asked me whether I was meeting a runner there, and I told them that I was looking for my husband, "A big Chinese guy with a red bandana and a moustache." They hadn't seen anybody with that description. Then I told them that this was his first marathon. "Oh. Then he probably hasn't come by yet," they said with great certainty.

They suggested that I look at the table and pick up something to offer D when he came by. They had an awesome spread. There was water, Gatorade, Ibuprofen and other pain killers, potatoes, salt flakes, salt pills, Oreos, and all sorts of goodies just perfect for feeding endurance runners.

I was just loitering around, but felt uncomfortably hot because the sun beat down mercilessly and there was no shade. At least I was just standing there and I wasn't actually running in the unbearable heat.

It was fascinating watching runners come by, especially the 50-milers who didn't even look like they were sweating all that much. The volunteers greeted them by name. "Hey Chris! What would you like for your bottle? Do you want ice in there?" I guess it's a small and close community. I'm sure these ultra marathoners are the same crew that do the Western 100. Speaking of which, I was told that one year, for the Western 100, there was a volunteer pot luck dinner in the evening starting at 5:30PM. The first runner came in at 7:30PM and the last runner came in at 9:30AM the next morning.

One of the earliest 50-milers to come in was an older gentleman. A volunteer came over to point him out. "You see that guy that just passed? He's the world record holder for his age group. He's in his fifties. He's pretty good for his age." For HIS age? For ANY age! That guy was kicking serious ass. I think he was in third place.

I was worried that I had missed D so I kept on glancing at my cellphone in case he left me a voicemail telling me that he had already reached the finish line. But then I finally saw him! In the distance, D came around the corner in his unmistakable all black running outfit, red bandana and Camelpak.

D was exhausted. I could see that he was really relieved to see the aid station and was happy to see me, but he looked miserable. He headed straight for the table, ate some potatoes and grabbed a cold drink. He then went to sit down in a chair.

He told me that he had evaluated himself at the halfway mark, and kept on going because he felt pretty good. Then, at around mile 16, his ankle started bothering him. It got progressively worse until it completely flared up in full force at mile 18. He was really hating life at that point. But it was "only" eight more miles to the finish so he pushed himself to go on. I would have called it a day and packed it in, especially since they intermittantly took roll call at selected aid stations during the race to make sure everybody was alright. Some people dropped out of the race.

"Remember the Woodmonster? D asked me. "It was part of the course! I couldn't tell beforehand just from looking at the map!" The "Woodmonster" is a particularly hairy climb that appeared in one of his previous trail half marathons. Most people walk up that portion of the race because it's so ridiculously steep. I remember that D told me how hard it was when he did that half marathon... but to stick it in the middle of a full trail marathon? That's just evil.

D's body and clothes were covered with white stains left by the salt in his sweat. The volunteers recognized what it was and reminded him that there were salt pills at the station should he need them. Apparently you're only supposed to take one per hour. Some guy took three at a time and developed stomach pains.

I was worried about D but I didn't want my concern to show in case I depressed him further. A volunteer told him that it was three miles to the next and final aid station, and then an additional three miles to the finish. There would be no more big hills, just rolling hills, and more shade. D nodded weakly and got out of the chair to get continue the race.

I accompanied him and we started out walking to give his ankle a rest. I told him some of the interesting things I had observed. For instance, I noted that instead of a Camelpak, a lot of runners carried only one or two water bottles with them, and had them refilled at each aid station. D himself uses a mac daddy Camelpak that holds up to 3L of fluid. He said that his bag felt progressively heavier and heavier as he ran, until it felt like he was lugging around a ton of bricks.

After walking for 5-10 minutes, D started running again but then stopped shortly after because of his ankle. "No worries," I reassured him, "There's no rush". It amazes me that he was even able to walk on a bum ankle, much less run.

"I'm glad you're here," D said. "Sure thing! Where else would I be?" I answered. I told him I was really happy to be there with him and to provide whatever support I could. Everybody says that the last few miles of a marathon takes more psychological strength than physical endurance, and I was just being his personal cheerleader for that last stretch.

Tthe trail narrowed considerably at Stonebridge but the path was shady and covered by trees. I let D go ahead and kept up behind him. The ground was softer so he was able to run a fair bit, especially on the downhill portions.

The final aid station appeared like an oasis in the desert. The volunteers were peppy and enthusiastic. They exclaimed, "Another runner!" as we approached. While D ate some more potatoes, I shamelessly took a piece of banana and a couple of potato chips for myself. As we stood there, a distresesd female 50-miler came rushing through. She kept on looking at her watch and said "oh shit" as though she was late for a train. I guess she was trying to create a personal best time and was behind.

We didn't stop for very long at this station because D just wanted the race over and done with. There wasn't much bona fide "trail" left, and before long, we reached the paved portion of Lake Chabot, starting where the dam is. D was very excited when he got there because he was familiar with the area, and knew that there was only 1.5 miles left. I tried to encourage him whenever I saw a landmark indicating how close we were to the finish line, "See those boats? That's the marina. We're almost there!"

With only half a mile to go, D started sprinting. He must have pushed himself to run at an 8-8.5-minute mile because I had trouble keeping up. I thought he was going to slow down on the uphill but he didn't miss a beat.

We head towards the Lake Chabot picnic area, and there was a commentator at a picnic table holding a microphone. He announced D's number as we approached. We turned the corner to see a grassy green field with a finishing chute, flanked by two rows of orange cones. With a final burst of energy, D rushed through the chute and gave out a huge sigh.

"You did it!" I shouted, giving D a big hug. He was ecstatic. I led him to a picnic table to rest up while I went around to get some food. They had a full blown barbecue going on, so I hastily picked up some hamburgers, hot dogs, and salad to feed D. He said that without a doubt, this trail marathon was the hardest athletic endeavor he has undertaken. He said he knew it was going to be hard, and much harder than trail half marathons, but he had no idea that it would be THAT hard.

After we finished eating, we sat down on the grass. D tried to stretch but he couldn't because he had cramps all over his legs. I thought it was odd, so I asked him to extend his legs and then dorsiflex his left foot to stretch his calf. When he did that, his quadricep would cramp, and so did the bottom of his foot. That was a first. Until then, I had no idea you could get a cramp at the bottom of your foot.

As we sat there, D told me about the first part of the run. Everybody started out slowly because they wanted to conserve their energy for the steep hills ahead. They jogged slowly and started up conversations with each other. At this point, D met two guys who had trained on the actual course. They got as far as the 20th mile during their training runs. D asked him how long it took them to get to mile 20, and they said 5 hours. D passed them on one of the hills and never saw either of them again afterwards. He wondered how they did.

Once we got home, D spent the remainder of the day propped up on the Lazy Boy, icing his knees. At the suggestion of another runner, he also dunked his legs in cold water for about 20 minutes. It took him until Wednesday to feel normal again.

The official results are in! D's time was 6:27:56. He came in 55 out of 70 runners who started. Only 69 finished. The fact that he finished at all was a small miracle, although if he were to do this again, I think he could easily shave at least an hour off his time.

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