Monday, September 13, 2010

Drag-N-Fly Trail Half Marathon - 9/12/10

I left my house when it was still dark outside. The lack of cars on the road so early in the morning made me wonder, like I always do, what everyone else was doing up and where they were headed. Maybe they were going to work, or maybe they were getting a head start on a road trip, or judging by the way some people were driving, maybe they were finally heading back to their houses after a long night out. I, on the other hand, was headed out to Antioch in the East Bay. I hadn't been there since high school, and only then a handful of times because I had a friend who lived there. Driving through it, it was a lot nicer then I remembered, but I also didn't doubt that there were still a lot of unsavory people living there.

After taking a slight detour because I got lost, I finally pulled into Contra Loma Regional Park. I didn't even know this park existed until I discovered that Brazen was putting on another trail race. I hadn't run a race since the marathon and I knew I was ready, and being that I had such a good experience with my first Brazen race at Lake Chabot, I figured why not. I picked up my bib, t-shirt, and goodie bag. The t-shirt was just as cute as the one I got from the Lake Chabot race, and once again I was so impressed by all the samples that were included in the goodie bag. The nice thing about these small races is you can pretty much arrive 20 minutes before the race, pick up your stuff, dump your bag, and still have plenty of time before the start.

I knew I was in for a tough race when the race director told all of the half marathoners to gather around the start coral, and then proceeded to tell us in a very straight forward way that we were all in for a very challenging course. This wasn't really news to me, I had looked at the elevation chart for the course and I knew there was an elevation gain of 2700 ft. Even the race I did in Switzerland was only 2300 ft and I thought that was really hard. He continued to tell us that no one should even try to run the hills because going for time on this course was going to be impossible. He said the only goal everyone should have is just to finish. Even though I was fully aware of what I was getting myself into, it didn't do anything to ease my nerves hearing it from the race director as well.

Contra Loma is a 780 acre park that includes an 80-acre reservoir for fishing and swimming, along with an extensive trail system for hiking, running, and biking. There were 63 of us and we started off in a park area with picnic tables near the reservoir. We headed out to the familiar large, dry, hills of the East Bay. The first two miles were mild enough, but it was clear that there really wasn't a whole lot of coverage on the trails and that the East Bay sun was going to be out in full force shortly. After giving myself a pretty severe sunburn the weekend before I was thankful that I learned my lesson and gave myself a good coat of sunscreen before taking off. As we ran up to the first aid station which must have been at mile two, you could see a huge hill with little specs of people running up it. I gasped. So did the guy next me. He said that he doubted it was at bad as it looked. He was wrong.

(see the little specs of people running up the start of the hill)

I drank down a cup of gatorade and then headed towards what looked like Mount Everest. OK, maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but it was very intimidating. I ran up as far as I could, and at about the same spot as everyone else, I knew I'd be walking the rest. You could see a curve up ahead and I pushed on. As I closed down on that curve I could hear the other runners (or at this point, hikers), start groaning. Sure enough, we realized that this was only the start of the hill. It ended up being a 700 ft climb in what was probably less then three quarters of a mile. I remembered the race director telling us that we'd probably be cursing his mother for having him when we hit this hill, but I didn't. I actually started getting slightly pissed off at myself for deciding to do this race and not just the 10K. I hadn't even hit mile 2.5 and I, like many of the other runners, were spent. When we finally reached the top of Lark Trail, looking at the view, my attitude definitely changed. The view was incredible. We were so high that I felt like I was up in the clouds looking down on the entire East Bay. With the skies so incredibly clear and blue you could see all the way out to the bay. I saw others steal a picture or two and really wished I had a camera to capture that moment as well.

We continued along View Trail and had a much needed downhill section as we headed towards the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve which was connected to Contra Loma. The preserve is nearly 5,375 acres and was once California's largest coal mining site in the 1860s that consisted of five coal mining towns in the Black Diamond area. The coal mining operation eventually shut down due to rising production costs, and in the 1920s, near two of the old deserted coal towns, sand mining began until its end in 1949. After another aid station where the volunteer took a soaked sponge and squeezed it out all over my back, I was ready for the next hill. As we ran uphill we came to one of the old deserted coal mining sites called Somersville Townsite. The only thing I saw that reminded me that this was once a thriving town was a small cemetery off in the distance.

When we hit Somersville Townsite we started on the Black Diamond Trail which was a loop section of the course. On completion of the loop we'd follow the path we'd just completed back to the finish. After another downhill section we were nearing mile 6. I remember seeing the mile 6 marker and thinking, dear god, how can we not even be half way yet. The next two miles comprised the longest portion of uphill on the course. We ran from 750 ft to 1615 ft through a route that was thankfully, very well marked, otherwise people surely would have gotten lost. It was a long, tough climb, much of which was on single track path curving here and there through rocks, trees, and fallen branches. Luckily there was a good amount of shade in this area and I had filled up my water bottle at the last aid station. At the top, we were again treated with some spectacular views for our efforts. At this point we'd climbed four hills, with three of them being substantial. I was really pleased with how fast I was recovering from them. When the flats and downhill sections came, I was able to pick back up with a quick pace without much trouble.

For the majority of the loop, I was running in a pack with 6 people. Three men, and three women. As I said, a good portion was a single track path, so we ran in single file line one after another. It was nice to have a group to run with, you felt each others pain and had others to commiserate with even if you could barely talk. Often times the lead runner, who often changed, would call back around a turn and yell, "we've got a flat up here". So many times in trail races, you believe that when you get to the curve, or the top, that then you'll get to go downhill, and while sometimes that's true, more often then not, it's not, so it's alway great to hear it when you know you've got a break coming up. The name of the race is Drag-N-Fly. As in you drag yourself up one side, and you fly down the other. We definitely all joked that there was a whole lot of dragging and not much flying.

We had a nice large downhill section as we came out of the loop back to the point where we'd retrace our steps back the reservoir. I remember being thrilled to realize we'd reached this point. Our group of six had spread out by this time. While people go somewhat the same pace on the uphills, peoples pace definitely varies on the downhill sections. Some people fly down them, some take it easy. In our group of six, I was in the middle, with two people ahead of me, one guy running with me, and two others running behind us. When we came out of an aid station, which I'd religiously been indulging in the gummy bears they had at each station, I put my head down and ran on. Luckily my running partner who was right behind me, yelled out to me that I'd missed the turn. Thank god. We joked that the last thing either of us wanted to be doing was running any extra steps then we had to.

We came to the other side of that large hill that started us off in the beginning. It wasn't nearly as bad climbing it on this side than it was the other, but being 10 miles in, I was also a lot more fatigued. I knew once I got to the top the worst of the course was done. I started up it, I was obviously not running it, but as with any part of the hills I couldn't run, I walked at as fast a pace I could. It must have been nearly 80 degrees at this point and there was no shade. I wasn't really sweating anymore though, everything turned to salt instantly. This usually happens at around mile 10 for me, but this race it started happening as early as mile 5. I'd been doused with water at the aid stop before and it dried off within what must have been about 10 minutes. There was a photographer at the top of the hill. I saw him and couldn't be caught in a walk so joked with him to hold on while I mustered up enough energy to run to the top. He caught the whole sequence on camera which was pretty hilarious to see once they were posted.

When we reached the top, we also hit the steepest downhill of the course. Just as running up it wasn't easy on the way out, running down it wasn't easy either. My heels were on fire from the friction as they slammed into the ground step after step. I was close to being out of control with my arms flailing about trying to keep my balance. Please don't slip, please don't slip, I kept thinking. I didn't, but this was yet another of the many times on the course I decided that without a doubt I needed trail running shoes. I think even my Nike Free Runs would've been better than my road shoes. I lost my running partner on the downhill section. He was faster than me on the uphills and I would pull ahead of him on the downhills. We went back and forth like this for awhile, but I wouldn't see him again till the end.

I reached the last aid station and the volunteers were there with big smiles asking how they could help me. I handed them my water bottle and asked for a refill while they handed me an ice cold cup of water. I ate a handful of gummy bears as they filled up my water bottle, and then took off as they yelled after me "only 1.5 miles left". There was one last small hill and when I reached the top of it, I ran down to the finish line as fast I could. Finally in the distance I saw the race finish. I looked at my watch and I could just make it in under three hours, so I sprinted to the finish and crossed the line with a a big round of applause by the other finishers and volunteers.

One of the other girls who was running in our pack of six who finished just before me had a pretty amazing surprise at the end of the race. Her boyfriend, who had finished the race earlier, got on his knee and proposed to her right as she crossed the finish line. I'm not a cheesy, gooey person when it comes to that stuff by any means, however, I think that might possibly be my dream proposal. Talk about multiplying a high you already have just from finishing. Shortly after, my running buddy finished. I've never met him before, I'm not even sure what his name is, but we gave each other a big hug. I thanked him for keeping me on course, and he thanked me for setting a good pace.

The atmosphere of Brazen races is really like no other. There's the same core group of people that do the races. I definitely recognized a number of them from last time. The race director is there with his pregnant wife talking to everyone, and everyone is so friendly and encouraging, it really is a tight-knit community of runners. The food is abundant at the end of the races, with everything from watermelon on ice, to bear claws, bagels and It's-It's ice cream. After the race, I was sitting down in the grass in the sun, listening to Madonna over the loud speaker, and once again I had that feeling that makes me run all these races. It's indescribable. All I know is that I'm addicted to it.

I finally started cooling off and reached up to touch my hair, and came to the conclusion that it actually felt more like a chocolate magic shell crust then actual hair. Awesome. This race was no joke, even the race director said it was the second in terms of most challenging courses they offer. I hated it in the beginning, but it really was worth all of it. He was spot on when he said you shouldn't be going for time. We were told before we signed up that the course was actually 13.5 miles due to the limitations of the trail, but at the pace we were going, that additional .4 miles didn't mean a thing in so far as your overall time. I came in in just under three hours, 2:59:51 (yes, I sprinted for this time at the end), and I was just happy to finish. I can only get better at these trail races. I do have to say though, I'm really looking forward to running a nice and flat road race again!