Tuesday, November 11, 2014

XTerra Trail Run: San Tan Half-Marathon

Almost five years ago, I tried my first half marathon, the PF Chang's Rock-N-Roll. I finished, but it wasn't pretty -- but what should I have expected from minimal training, and a fitness level more suited to saddle time than foot time? I also -- not surprisingly -- managed to break myself along the way, finishing with a foot that was either very heavily bruised or stress fractured (no, I never went to a doctor to confirm either way...it has to involve arterial spray or dangling limbs for me to go to a doctor). So I finished, but I didn't feel like I had finished well...there was the satisfaction of having done so, but it sure hadn't been a whole lot of fun.

Fast forward to this season of trail running. My goal has always been to keep increasing the miles. I finally, finally managed to do this running thing right in gradually building up and not letting my enthusiasm get the better of me, and I've felt amazingly good with how I'm doing.

I'd signed up for the XTerra San Tan way back in the summer as a way to have a goal on the calendar to train for. Doing the back-to-back races last month in Cave Creek was a good physical and mental boost -- the two combined would add up to the same mileage as the half marathon -- the difference would be smashing them together without a multi-hour break in between.

Part of why I was excited about a race at San Tan was these are my trails. After riding down there for so many years, I know pretty much every dip, turn, and rock in the area. I know there is an end to the awful sand washes, I know where I can speed up and where to conserve for what's still to come, and the chances of getting lost were essentially impossible.

sunrise on my familiar mountains

This race was being put on by XTerra, another trail running organization that puts on multiple races a year. I did my packet pick-up ahead of time -- Sole Sports is close enough to justify me driving to it, plus I needed a restock on some supplies. Got my number and shirt, and they had a "create your own goodie bag" set up where you could grab PowerBar gels and bars.

Saturday morning, I was up even before the alarm went off -- I guess that's what happens when I go to bed early. I left myself lots of time to get ready, which was good when my tumbleweed cloud of hair would not cooperate into anything other than my standard pigtail braids. I also had time to stop in at the McDonald's drive-thru on the way down to the San Tans and grab a sausage biscuit -- the lack of egg means it's something I can actually stomach that early in the morning.

all taped up and ready to go...using kinesiology tape for extra
support in areas I know could be potential weak spots
Yes, those are nuclear warning symbols...
yes, I have a sick sense of humor

Phoenix weather has now gotten to the point where it's kind of chilly in the mornings, so I had worn sweatpants and a hoodie for the drive down, and changed into my race gear once I got to the park. This time around, I used:

geared up, complete with "what was I thinking?" look

Race start was at 7:30, and people started shuffling over to the starting line a few minutes ahead for the pre-race briefing. Course markings were red arrows on laminated signs attached to either small wooden stakes in the ground or existing trail markers. The race director warned that this was a tough course.

start line madness

There was a good-sized entry field -- 112 in the half marathon. I had one fairly large concern about this particular race, and that was the time cut-off. Course closed at 11:00AM, which meant a 3-1/2 hour time cut-off for finishing. I'm not a fast runner. In my sign-up sheet, I gave a predicted 3 hour and 15 minute finish time, with my "if it all goes really well" goal in my head of finishing in 3 hours.

Just based on the cut-off time and large entry field, I sort of predicted this would be a fairly competitive race, so I hung way to the back at the start. 7:30 on the nose, they released the pack, and I shuffled out at the back at my typical slow start pace.

It usually takes me about a mile to warm up, get control of my breathing, and settle into a comfortable pace, so I sort of like courses that are slow and technical at the start. Unfortunately, this wasn't one of them. The first several miles are extremely runnable -- a gradual, smooth uphill on mostly-doubletrack trail -- and this is the kind of course that, if it's runnable, you need to be running, because there are plenty of other parts where you will not be running (at least if you're me).

Examining my split times, turns out that first mile was actually my fastest pace, but it felt really good. A very pleasant surprise awaited me on this section of the trail -- since the last time I had been to the San Tans, they had installed a new single-track section on the hillside above what had previous been a wash trail. This was exceptionally nice, and the trail itself was this very gradual uphill with some little dips and twists that made it very fun. With that much nice trail at my disposal, I ran the first several miles non-stop.

views forever
this is a short climb up before the trail descends towards the flat,
and has traditionally been a "pause for a breather and photo" stop
with the horses...had to keep with tradition, of course

There was another short section of re-routed trail -- another wash avoided! -- and then there was an aid station at three miles. I grabbed a cup of water and cup of gatorade, chugged both, then began the dreaded Malpais section, which is several miles of sand wash, broken up partway through by a climb up to solid service road, more climbing on rocky service road, and then a descent back into the wash.

ugh, this wash
not a fan on horseback, not a fan on foot

And most of the wash is the deep stuff that you slog through. Ironically enough, I discovered that it was actually easier to jog it -- sort of a snowshoe effect -- versus walk it, where you sank deeper into the sand and went even slower.

(Endurance riding note here: I have a new appreciation for the difficulty level of sand, and a new respect for the proper conditioning a sand-based ride takes. That said, I'm glad to live in the desert and have the sand to train in, because I would rather train in it than try to take a non-sand-conditioned horse to a desert ride.)

This was one of those sports where knowing the trail come in handy -- I knew that the wash actually did have an end. Mileage-wise, I was feeling a little discouraged, because they had signs posted at every mile, and I hadn't seen mile 4 yet. So imagine my surprise, when right at the end of the wash, was a "mile 5" signed posted! Talk about a boost! Apparently I hadn't been paying attention right around mile 4 or something.

Immediately out of the wash is a climb -- about 150' elevation gain in half a mile -- but you're so glad to be out of the wash and on solid ground, you don't even care that you're climbing. Unfortunately, once you're on the other side of a nice downhill, it turns into more sand for another mile or so, but once you're out of that, you're done with sand for the rest of the course.

Another aid station at 7 miles -- more water and gatorade, although my system started giving me some warning that it was not all that appreciative of the gatorade. 7 miles -- over half way, and in 1:26!! 

This section of trail is one of my favorites -- lots of up and down single track, and extremely runnable. Somewhere around mile 8.5-ish, I started paying the price for fun in that I had forgotten to bodyglide up thigh area when changing from sweatpants to shorts, and now was getting some chafing as a result of sweat + running motion. I tried sticking a piece of moleskin to my leg, but the running motion just peeled it up, so off it went and I ignored it. If that was the worst discomfort I was in, I could tough out a little bit of chafing. 

Another aid station at just about 9 miles -- I grabbed just water that time. Supposedly, at least according to the website information, it was advertised that the aid stations would have water, gatorade, power bars, and gels. Unfortunately, that wasn't actually the case, as the only thing I ever saw was water and gatorade. Disappointing, as I could have used some stuff to munch on. Fortunately, I was carrying gels and chews with me, and I went through two gels and a pack of chews, but I like my "real" food -- even a power bar would have been good, but I didn't bring any of those because I thought they would have them out at the aid stations.

The next section was one that was newer to me -- a recent trail addition to the park that I had only ridden a couple of times. There was one uphill section that was exposed, in full sun, and a bit of a slog, especially since the trail was full of people out for a casual hike that I had to keep dodging as they would stop for their scenic photos.

The reward for the uphill was an awesome section of mostly-shady downhill for about a mile and half -- all runnable -- and into the aid station at 11.5 miles. More water, and then the part I was dreading...the climb up Goldmine Mountain.

elevation profile from my race

See the elevation profile above? See that part where the grey elevation thing goes way high in a very short amount of miles? Yeah...that would be the climb up Goldmine. Not only is it insanely steep, it is very, very rocky. The park actually has a "Warning: Hazardous Trail" sign posted.

I'm not going to lie: This part sucked. Halfway up, I started pausing every 30 seconds or so for a rest, because my quads were threatening a complete mutiny. I all but crawled up the last part, and was so happy to finally reach the top. Funny thing, running felt great at the top -- actually stretched out the protesting quads and hamstrings.

I also had an epic near-wipe-out at the top when my tired feet didn't lift high enough to clear a rock. I felt myself go airborne, and was prepared to totally eat dirt for the first time -- something I'm dreading -- but miraculously, I landed on my feet and kept going. That actually gave me quite the adrenaline boost, and I motored down as best as I could. The down was fairly technical as well, although it was mostly made up of large chunks of solid granite -- my shoes clung to that granite face most excellently -- but it still wasn't a great place to make up time until it leveled out some.

It's all downhill to the finish, and you can see it from a ways out, being up on the foothills of the mountain. When I hit the 13-mile sign, the finish was still a ways away. And while I may not be the greatest ever at judging distance, even I could tell that was more than 1/10 of a mile away. Hmmm. Well, the fine print had said distances may not be exact...

And then I hit the 13.1-mile sign. Well, there's the official half-marathon distance! And I reached that point in 2:51, so I actually did hit my time goal that had been based on 13.1 miles!

And I still hadn't reached the finish. I really hit a mental wall at that point -- finish was visible, but I still had a comfortable time buffer, my legs were tired, and quite frankly, I didn't want to break myself for finishing a couple of minutes faster or not. So I did a combo of walking and running the last 0.9 miles and crossed the line with a time of 3:06 for 14 miles!!!

I came in 105th out of 112, and 37th out of 41 for women.

They handed out medals to finishers, so that's kind of fun, having an official race medal.

They had a small food spread, so I grabbed some orange slices, a piece of muffin, and half a banana and nibbled on that as I headed back to the suburban. I ditched my race gear, pulled on compression calf sleeves and flip-flops, then headed home where a shower awaited.


Two days later, I'm feeling really good. Both Monday and today, I took Artemis out for a walk, a couple miles each time. Low impact, but the stretch felt really good. My overriding goal, aside from just finishing, was to not get hurt. Historically, I haven't had a great track record of this, which doesn't inspire a ton of confidence in my future race goals (just keep moving up the distances).

This time, the only lingering soreness is some tight spots on my left quad and hamstring, which I can feel pulling on my knee a little bit, but I keep stretching and using the foam roller, plus I've been wearing compression tights during the day since Sunday, and sleeping in compression socks at night. Muscle soreness I can definitely handle, since everything else feels great. I don't even have any blisters, and the chafed area was minimal and healed overnight after an application of aloe lotion.

I'm taking it easy this week -- trying not to be the Queen of Overdoing It for once -- so no Wednesday night group run, and will continue the morning walking through the week. I'm signed up for the Pass Mountain 10k on Saturday put on by my beloved Aravaipa Running group, and I think that will actually be a great leg stretcher since it's a comfortable, easy course.

At the time I signed up for this race, I didn't know who the different companies were that put on these races. Aravaipa put on the first three races I've done, and I have to say, I really like their style. XTerra put on a good race in that it was a well-marked course, and they seem competent and professional, but their emphasis is obviously on faster racing. I was disappointed by the lack of well-appointed aid stations, and honestly, it just didn't have quite the family-like, welcoming atmosphere that I feel at the Aravaipa races.

I also saw an extreme disregard for trail care and littering -- there was a constant trail of dropped gel packets along the trail, so much that I wouldn't have even needed course markers to follow. :(

The whole thing reminded me a lot more of road race mentality than ultrarunning mentality, and ultrarunning is what I gravitate to -- it's not just about the race, but about enjoyment of the trail and the experience.

Aravaipa is putting on their own San Tan race in January -- I'm going to sign up for the 26k, which is only 3k longer than what this one ended up being. And while the Aravaipa course goes up over Goldmine, they don't use the Malpais section, which means my quads won't be already trashed from the sand before having to do that climb. Plus, it's a multi-loop course, so the Goldmine climb happens earlier in the race as part of the first loop.

With the total mileage being 14 miles, that's officially the longest I have ever run. And I ran a lot of it. I've finally gotten to the point that I'm not even really thinking about it...I just run. Back in the spring, I could barely run 1/4-mile non-stop on flat ground. And now? Now I'm finally finding my stride.

(Yes, I'm aware my horse blog is turning into a running blog...but the horse life is being uncooperative at the moment, so this is very much a real-time reflection of how to cope with "not everything goes according to plan.")