Falling Down in the Land of Heads (Pirate’s Cove 30Km, 3/20/10)

Yesterday wasn’t my longest run to date, although it was by a wide margin my longest race. Nor was it my best placement or time per mile, but all things considered that was certainly to be expected. It was, however, easily my steepest long run to date, a bit of a personal victory in pacing myself, and a cheese-grater shaped object lesson in avoiding overconfidence on the steepest of downhill sections.

For those not intimately familiar with the Bay Area, the Marin Headlands are those rugged, coastal hills you see in postcards of the Golden Gate bridge that point away from the city. When it comes to the sorts of sights one might shove into a postcard, it’s a dense sort of place indeed, marking as it does the nexus of the Golden Gate itself, the Pacific coast, and the southern approach to Mount Tamalpais, all within view of San Francisco, Sausalito, and Tiburon. If you want a gorgeous, gentle stroll through some world-famous scenery, you can easily find that here.

That wasn’t what the race planners had in mind for us. The elevation profile looks more like a worrisome seismograph reading than a day’s jogging. We started into it at the same time as the 50K ultra-marathoners, who would follow the same course before looping back in for an additional half-marathon. In one big crowd, we climbed 800 feet in about a mile and a quarter, with some sections steep enough for actual stairs.

One of my goals on every run is to run every step, unless stopped by a crowd, footwear issues, navigation issues, first aid, emptying my bladder, or refilling my water bottle. I’m told by more experience trail and ultra-runners that when it comes to steeper hills, except for those at the front of the pack, this is surprising, possibly insane, and generally counter to accepted strategy. Nonetheless, I think of every run as a training run, and cresting a hill with an average 13% grade over more than a mile without giving up and walking feels like almost as much of a victory as crossing a finish line sometimes, even if it slows me down overall. I’m extremely proud to say that I accomplished this goal on the Pirate’s Cove run.

After cresting that first series of hills, things leveled off only briefly. If you take another look at the elevation profile for the course, you can see the trail almost appear to drop straight off leading up to the 3.0Km mark. I started down this section a bit conservatively — my major goal for the day was to improve my pacing, after all — but after a hundred yards or so, I just felt so good, so graceful… I had found the form I needed to just fly down the grade without hammering my knees, and I was handling the terrain with no issues at all.

Until just before things started to level off, that is, and my right foot must have caught on something, most likely a hay-filled erosion stop laid across the trail. I remember thinking, “Guess I’m going too fast to roll with it,” which was probably more constructive than a simple, “Oh fuck” but carried most of the same information. I got my forearms up and landed first on knees and elbows, but had enough momentum that I immediately flattened out. Still, I managed to quickly skitter off to the right edge of the trail to avoid potentially tripping up any of the runners I’d just passed.

For a couple hundred yards, I jogged very slowly, checking myself out, making sure first and foremost my joints were operating normally. My right knee was slightly banged up, but apparently dead on the patella and seemingly only cosmetically. It took me another couple minutes before I got to my left elbow, which had been hidden by the rainbreaker I’d worn through the heavy morning fog. Separating joint and jacket let loose a little splash of blood. I stopped to clean up with the handkerchief I carry due to my allergies, and another runner kindly took some time out of her race to provide me antibacterial cream and bandaids.

Two miles later, I cleaned up with alcohol wipes and traded up for a gauze dressing at the first aid station (doubling today as a first-aid station). On the way, I also discovered a nasty case of trail rash covering maybe eight square inches of my chest, but it wasn’t anything that would need immediate attention. Most importantly, my knees and ankles were doing fine, and I felt good to finish the remaining 14 and a half miles of the course.

The middle miles of a run are always hard to talk about. It’s not that they were uneventful (although relative to the start of this particular course, most of my runs are uneventful), it’s that they do not seem like a sequence of events. They are meditation. They are footfalls, hills, ocean, wild raptors, and the bashful intrusion of a friendly competitor calling out, “On your left,” or sometimes pulling up alongside to chat for half a mile. They are the intersection of post-workout endorphins and an endless workout.

At the third and final aid station, with six kilometers to go, I felt amazing. I felt good. I’d run fifteen miles of rugged hills, both the ups and the downs, climbing and falling hard, and I’d kept my pace well enough that I still felt like I was running, not just struggling to keep my feet from settling where they landed with each stride. After what I judged to be about a third of the remaining distance, I picked up the pace a bit more. As the trail leveled off, I fought to keep the pace up. A certain mixture of scenery and architecture told me I was just around the corner from the finish line, and joyfully, I shifted into the highest gear I still had–

And of course, I was wrong. There was still almost a mile to go.

But still, I made it across that finish line in 4:19:03, 81st of 91 runners, at 13:47 per mile. It’s hard to say what my time or my pace would have come out to if I hadn’t taken that fall, even assuming fifteen minutes lost to self-check and first aid. Surprisingly, it’s sometimes harder still to remember how that’s not even remotely the point. I’ll be damned if I didn’t run that thing, run it hard, and run it well, and until the day I’m in it for the competition (which I expect will never come), there isn’t much that numbers can add to that.

The Ten-Milestone

When you take up trail running, there are days when you just go out and run a few miles, maybe in a local park you already know pretty well, and there are days when you go out and push yourself to new limits, be it in terms of distance, time, or terrain. Time here is distinct from speed and only related to distance the same way it is to terrain; trail runners often try to run for longer without emphasizing distance. Yesterday I pushed myself by all three metrics.

I’d done a full loop around Lake Chabot one week before, for a total of about 8.8 miles. This time, I thought I’d go in the other direction, with a detour up to the ridge for a nice view across the Bay. The first two miles were a nice, easy warm up, mostly on a paved path thick with joggers, fishers, and dog-walkers, before I hit the longest steep uphill segment of my running career to date, climbing almost 500 feet in under a mile. I was glad to have recently read a good article on running steep hills, and impressed by how much of a difference a little advice really made.

When I hit the park’s biggest campground, I realized I’d made a wrong turn, so I stopped to study a map and suck down an energy gel (not recommended under most other circumstances). I made another wrong turn only a few yards away, and when I found myself all the way back down at the shoreline I decided, masochistically enough, to turn around and ascend the 300 feet back up to the trail I wanted. This kind of mistake is much harder to avoid than at hiking speed, especially when bounding downhill like a bisected gazelle.

Although this was hard, it wasn’t yet enough to wear me out entirely, and it brought me to my favorite part of the loop around the lake, a narrow trail that winds through a lush, dense eucalyptus grove, far from the roads, parking lots, and marina. By the time I was literally out of the woods and back to easier terrain, but not yet back to the paved track, my legs were halfway done for, hamstrings refusing to lift the lower bits as high as they should when without the advantage of downhill momentum. As rough as they had it, though, the rest of me felt just about fantastic, or at worst pleasantly sore. I could breathe easily and move freely.

Just down the embankment from the trail, fifteen feet away and hip-high, was a tree branch. As I approached, a flurry of motion blossomed into the distinctive plumage of a red tail hawk seeking a safer perch.

It was about there that I came upon a sign telling me I had 3.3 miles to go. By my estimate, I’d covered just about seven. I had no trouble with the rest, even if I was a little more slow and awkward than usual. In my one-man race, there would be no DNFs.

I got back to the car, after more than ten miles of running, under a light sprinkling of rain. I said to myself, out loud: “I am the only person in the world who just did that.” I mean, sure, there were many who could have, but only one who was actually me, and that would be the one who did. Maybe that sounds silly, but after a run like that, goddam, it seemed like something.

To Send The World Another Step Behind

I started running because I discovered I could.

I was maybe fifteen the first time I blew out one of my knees. I don’t remember doing anything in particular that time, but I got a prescription for some anti-inflammatory horse-pills and was told to change how I walked so as to balance out the strength of the muscles in my legs.

Three years later, I was sitting down on the bus with my girlfriend, I felt something go pop in my right knee, and I screamed. She looked at me, understandably, as if I was insane, but torn cartilage hurts. This time I ended up with several months of physical therapy and a cane.

In the fall of 2004, I was kneeling down to pick up a foam ball when I felt that telltale pop again, this time in my left knee. I could neither bend nor straighten it fully, and without health insurance it took almost two months to get the treatment I needed. I was lucky to be able to get a meniscal repair surgery through Medi-Cal. I was luckier still that when they sewed up my cartilage, it took. The success rate is only about 50%. I had about another two months of PT and crutches from there, and three months more with a cane.

You can imagine why I might have become reluctant about an activity like running.

This year, especially over the summer, hiking and backpacking and the occasional use of hamster machines at the gym had gotten my legs into reasonably good shape, but I’d still yet to venture onto the treadmill, let alone the track. Then came the day when I discovered I could.

I discovered I could run on the evening of Friday, September 4th, when I locked my keys in my car a mile and a half from home. In lieu of calling a locksmith, paying about $70, and possibly damaging the car, I decided to run home to grab the spare key before anyone unsavory might notice the keys were left in the car (in plain sight) and find that rarest of grails, a blunt object.

Fortunately, if disconcertingly, I was able to break into the house through a window without much trouble or causing any damage, although it was a royal pain keeping one hand free to toss the cats back inside while I climbed through. I also remained blissfully unarrested, but then I was under the age of sixty, not particularly cranky, and white.

Before heading back out, I changed my sweat-soaked shirt and sucked down a glass of water, my delight in that my gym bag and running shoes were still in the trunk of the car, and my deep joy that the return trip would be uphill most of the way.

Then something amazing happened: I did it. I might have been slow as shit, but I ran all the way back without stopping (except for one red light). And it didn’t even hurt.

When I talked to my doctor about it, she told me that running is far more of a concern for people who have ACL tears than meniscus injuries, so long as we still have cartilage. Build up slowly, she said, and ice my knees afterward if they get sore, but don’t sweat it too much. Except, you know, for the sweat.

Since then, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the trails in the woods around Lake Chabot. It’s hilly, which makes things a bit harder, but it’s quiet, it’s shady, and every now and then I stumble on a family of deer, or a rabbit, or pack of grazing goats.

Yesterday, I ran four and a half miles at the Hayward Shoreline, a strange landscape of serene salt marshes, high tension power lines, and unspoiled views of the San Francisco Bay. Charging into a brackish headwind while my feet got heavier and heavier, all I had to do — all I could do — was breathe, and keep on moving.

Which is pretty much all I ever do, anyway.