Have you run a half marathon lately? Let me tell you, it’s a great distance, especially for challenging trail runs.
I decided last Sunday, while racing a 13.5-miler on Mount Diablo, that I love the mix of hill climbing, fast descents and steady running on the rollers that a course like this offers. I ran much faster and harder on the hills than I would have if I were more conservatively pacing myself for a 50K—and that makes it fun as well as tough!
It’s a reminder to me, and perhaps to you too, that longer isn’t always better. Every distance presents its own challenges. (I know, I’ve suffered to achieve sub-20-minute 5Ks and decided they’re harder in their own way than 5-hour 50Ks.)
Over the past few years, I’ve become so ultra-focussed that I catch myself thinking, “it’s only a 50K” when I look at race distances. I’m one of those people who rolls my eyes when someone repeats the cliché, “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” and I say under my breath, “a marathon is a sprint.”
When I came to terms with the burnout and ambivalence that led to my first DNF four weeks ago at a 100K, I realized I needed to take a break and add some variety to my racing. I decided to do Brazen Racing’s Diablo Trails Challenge on April 19, because I’ve enjoyed this event in the past and appreciate how it supports Save Mount Diablo, which has been instrumental in protecting the East Bay’s great mountain from suburban sprawl.
But I faced a choice: 50K or half marathon?
I did the 50K last year and had a great, fast time (see race report). Ordinarily I would feel compelled to do the meatier 50K again. This time, however, I said, “I’m gonna go hard for 13.5 miles and be done in around 2 hours. What a great idea!” It was such a nice change to feel excited about a shorter race.
But shorter doesn’t necessarily mean easy. This course climbs and descends about 2500 feet, featuring two significant hills on singletrack through oak woodland before starting the monster climb up Wall Point Road (a dirt fire road, mostly exposed). About a dozen creek crossings make for wet feet in the first miles and toward the end.
I’ve done different versions of a half marathon race on Mount Diablo six or seven times over the years. The first time, 2003, it was an easier course, and I was—let’s face it—faster and skinnier back in those days as a 34-year-old road-runner who did lots more track work. That year, I won it with a time of 1:38.
The most recent time I ran a half marathon on Mount Diablo was in November 2012, on the current version of Brazen’s half marathon course. That time, I was super fit and several pounds lighter, since I had finished the 2012 Grand to Grand Ultra stage race six weeks earlier. At the 2012 edition of this race, I finished 2nd female and 1st in my age group with a time of 2:01.
So how would I do this year?
I went in with a stretch goal of breaking 2 hours, which would mean an average pace of just under 9 minutes/mile. That pace is difficult given that I slow to an 11 to 13 minute pace on the steep uphills, when I alternate slow running with power hiking. Therefore, I would need to go extra fast on the downhills and flats to average 9-minute miles.
Here are two photos that show typical climbs on this course (I’m not in the photos; these are from Brazen’s public gallery):
I wore my trusty Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta, with just the right amount of liquid (two 10oz bottles) so I didn’t need to stop and refill at aid stations.
I’m pleased by how I worked the hills—I feel I did the fastest, most efficient pace that my condition allowed. But, doing the math on my watch, I knew that a 2-hour finish was slipping out of the realm of reality. I tried to make up for it by bombing down the two-mile hill between miles 8.5 – 10.5, my pace somewhere in the 6:30 range. I was flying and proud of myself for having quick enough turnover to manage the speed, rather than putting on the brakes to keep from wiping out on the loose footing.
Once I returned to the flatter canyon floor for the final three miles, I tried to keep a strong pace in spite of the fatigue from the downhill hammering. I pushed away the thought, “I used to be fast,” with, “I am fast!” I did pretty well but dragged in mile 11. I knew I wouldn’t make 2 hours, so I made 2:05 my goal and had as fast a final mile as I could manage.
I finished in 2:03:57, which was good enough only for 7th place in the women’s field (2nd in my age group, 23rd overall out of nearly 300 entrants). There were a lot of fast women out there! The women’s winner, Ashley Ryan French, finished 9th overall in 1:55:56. The men’s winner, Doug Letterman, finished in 1:38:44.
I’m impressed by Brazen Racing’s organization of the event, and I appreciated the inspirational little signs they posted along the course that gave pertinent facts about Mount Diablo’s environment and preservation. If you’d like to do the November version of this event (with the same half marathon course), check out the November 8 Diablo Trail Adventure.
I hung out for a while to enjoy the family-friendly picnic and barbecue at Castle Rock Park, where 5K/10K/Half and 50K runners mixed. It was a treat to see two Bay Area friends and ultrarunning stars win the 50K: Brett Rivers (4:18) and Magdalena Boulet (2nd overall, just behind Brett in 4:34).
Out of all the tough people with whom I shared the trail, none impressed me more than my client and friend, Denise Basso. I began coaching Denise in mid February to help her come back from injury and return to ultrarunning. A few weeks later, she and her husband suffered an unthinkable tragedy: their son was killed in a motorcycle accident. Denise has been using hiking and a little bit of running to cope with grief. She came out for the 10K—her first hard run since her loss—and ran the whole thing. I hugged her at the starting line and thought of her as I ran. Her attitude and situation shrunk my angst over being four minutes over goal time. I knew that what mattered was making the most the moment, appreciating the day, and giving my son a big hug when I got home.
More than anything, I appreciated the beauty of life, the gift of health and the support of the running community as I ran this half marathon and enjoyed the scene afterward.
If reading this makes you itch to do a trail half marathon soon, and you’re in the Bay Area, then Inside Trail has two good trail half marathons coming up May 16 and 23; check ITR’s calendar. Brazen Racing’s calendar features three Bay Area half marathons in May, as does Coastal Trail Runs.
I also just found out about this trail half marathon (which, like most of these events, also has a 10K and 5K) taking place June 6 up in Solano County, the Lynch Canyon Trail Run. Like the Diablo events, the Lynch Canyon run benefits open space preservation.
I began this post by describing my need for variety in racing. I’ve also learned not to race too much. With that in mind, I cleared my May calendar (I decided not to do Silver State 50 in Reno or the Born To Run festival near Santa Barbara). Instead, I will shift my training to flat and steady for a big, new challenge in mid-June: my first timed event. I’ve signed up for the San Francisco Summer Solstice race, which features one-mile repeat loops in Crissy Field for 24 hours.
I’ve watched friends attempt this challenge in years past, and now I’m eager to experience it myself. The only way it will work—that is, the only way I’ll keep going without concluding it’s crazy and pointless and dropping out—is to have a clear goal and strategy for reaching it. I’m working on it!