Just win, baby.
– Al Davis, former Oakland Raiders owner
Bear Creek… a name that evokes nature’s power! beauty! and grace! in mental images such as:
But the East Bay isn’t southern Alaska, and Briones Regional Park isn’t a likely place to find a hungry gathering of grizzly bears enjoying the final salmon run of the season. Fortunately though, what Briones is is a wide-open area for trail running sans bear bells. So I had a pretty good idea of what I’d signed up for on Saturday, as race volunteers directed us into the makeshift grass-&-dirt parking area at the intersection of Bear Creek and Briones Valley Roads – the staging area for Brazen Racing’s Bear Creek Half Marathon.
As the sun struggled to break through the sparse, puffy Simpsons-esque clouds that weakly held it at bay, I realized with relief that heat – although poised to play a role – wouldn’t be the deciding factor today. Race-start temperatures hovered in the high-60s, a far cry from the 100°F heat that according to Sam had plagued a previous year’s race. The dry dusty landscape and sun-baked rolling hills around us appropriately punctuated the end of his sentence.
Cycling through my pre-race routine, it struck me again that this would be an atypical race for me; it’d been several years since I’d gone this long (3 months) between races. A post-Wildcat bout of posterior tibial tendon dysfunction (cause unclear) had forced me to scrap my racing plans for the Brazen Trail Quake half marathon and, more disappointingly, the Leadville Heavy Half Marathon in Colorado. Fortunately I’d realized in short order that this wasn’t a simple run-through-it type of injury… and from the moment of that epiphany to the time I was running pain-free again (thanks in part to Neil, my physical therapist at the St. Francis Center for Sports Medicine), I’d lost roughly 5 weeks of training. Granted not a huge loss in the grand scheme of my running career, and it probably felt more like 5 years to Katie and a few others who absorbed my daily anxiety and frustration. But add on to those 5 weeks the extra time needed to 1) regain full confidence in my stride, 2) safely ramp up my mileage and 3) regain racing form, and you’ll understand why Bear Creek was more than just another 13.1-mile romp in the dirt.
Being in the midst of marathon training, I’d also run a hilly 20-miler and a hard 6x800m track workout in the previous six days, so it was unclear whether training fatigue would affect my performance (or whether I’d even notice if it did). So my pre-race goals for Bear Creek were twofold: 1) most importantly, to survive and advance, injury-free; 2) to finish in under two hours. I based this second goal on the fact that – crazy factoid ahead – the winning time in this year’s Wildcat half (1:36:42), which I finished in 1:59:19, was exactly the same as the winning time for last year’s Bear Creek half. And both times were posted by the same runner, Lon Freeman. So I figured I’d have a strong shot at the two-hour mark today. Cue my GI tract’s offbeat sense of humor, as my stomach started to act up less than ten minutes before race start. Surprisingly given all the races I’ve run, I’d only once had any real GI issues during a race. So with no time to ensure my stomach’s comfort, I had no choice but to trust that today wouldn’t be twice.
The well-prepared (some might say… obsessive?) runner does all he/she can to account for and control as many race-day variables as possible. But no matter how well-prepared you are, two variables that can spoil the best-laid plans are 1) weather and 2) your own physiology. And sometimes both.
As I trotted back from a final attempt to calm my innards, one mighty airhorn blast signalled the offical start of the race, and I ducked under the starting-line flags and into the starting corral a bit farther back in the pack than I would have liked. Luckily I was able to make up the deficit quickly by passing several runners on the initial stretch of fire road. Unfortunately, as I did so, I quickly realized that due to my distracted start, I’d stupidly forgotten to pull up the compression sleeves on my calves. Still trying to free myself from a fairly dense pack of runners, and with no desire to surrender the position I’d worked so far to gain, I decided to leave them tightly wound around my lower shins, which would hopefully be enough to combat the Briones poison oak that was the real reason I’d worn them in the first place. Besides, I figured, there’d be plenty of time for them to work their magic during the post-race recovery phase…
As I diligently tackled the first extended hill up to mile 3 at an ~8:30/mile pace, my goal for this first stretch set itself: get to the top of the hill before the sun broke through. Though not a blisteringly hot day, the temperature difference between sun and shade was noticeable, and with almost cinematic timing (where was that John Williams soundtrack when I needed it?) I crested the first hill at mile 3 just as the sun burned off its cloud cover. This first ascent reminded me at times of the Marin Headlands, but the better comparison on several levels was of a mini-Mount Diablo. Not as hot to be sure, but still the same sense of arid hill country around us. My initial impression of sun-parched hills and dusty, rolling landscape was borne out as I pushed along, and one brief stretch of hard-baked terrain late in the race showed wide, tendril-like cracks that struck me as more Texas than California. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a rattlesnake sprawled out across a trail sunning itself. Distressed yes, but surprised no.
Also reminiscent of Diablo were the many cattle gates we passed through. Having learned my lesson during the Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K, I paid closer attention this time to the runners ahead of me so that 1) I’d know in advance whether each gate opened in or out; and 2) where possible, I’d save time and energy by accelerating and quickly sidling through an opened gate before it slammed shut.
Who woulda knew, as I crested that first hill at mile 3, that the easy part of this race was behind me. Because I’ll remember Bear Creek more for its downs than its ups… to my mind, the ascents were oddly unremarkable compared to the descents. With its relentlessly rolling terrain and uneven footing , the course provided a sink-or-swim testing ground for my recently healed foot. I kept close tabs on the foot’s status and tempered my desire to attack many of the downhills more aggressively, since I didn’t want to do something stupid that might cause me to re-aggravate the foot, twist my ankle or bonk later in the race. And it struck me during one descent, as I kicked up a Pigpen-like cloud of dust around me, just how much energy I was expending in downhill braking. Greater familiarity with this course would have helped to optimize my racing strategy… and if I have the opportunity to race Bear Creek again next year, I’ll benefit from this year’s trail trial run.
Soon after the 3-mile mark I found myself running mostly by myself. The next 10+ miles I’d spend chasing (with limited success) a blonde ponytail attached to a runner in a pink tanktop who showed consistently strong form, particularly on the downhills. In keeping with my usual Brazen M.O., I’d catch and momentarily pass her on uphills early in the race, only to have her fly by me on the downhills. “Nice job,” she’d puff as she passed me on the downhills, and I’d return the sentiment as I overtook her on uphills. Her foot-on-the-gas pacing definitely helped me maintain focus as I struggled to keep her in sight on long downhill stretches.
I reached the slowest section of the course, a dusty and root-riddled single-track ascent roughly 50 yards in length, just after mile 7. I might not have thought twice about this short stretch if it weren’t for the fact that I slowed to a literal craaaaaaawl, with the runner in front of me painstakingly working his way uphill Spider-Man-style on his hands and knees using the roots as handholds, while simultaneously trying to squeeze past two walkers who (amazingly) were moving even slower than he was. At that moment my goal of finishing in under two hours seemed laughable, and I really just wanted to escape this clusterf@*# as quickly as possible.
Overall the course was probably more shaded than exposed, and despite recent heat-training runs I could feel the sun-exposed sections sapping a bit of energy. So I slowed my pace through the middle two aid stations (miles 6 and 10) to quickly catch my breath and grab a few sips of water, something I rarely do in half marathons. Of course, other half marathons are more forgiving.
Throughout the race my mind encouraged me as always to trust your training, though in this case that was easier thought than done. Because truthfully I couldn’t be confident that I had trained enough since my injury to attack this course the way I wanted to. Adding to that uncertainty were others: would my quads keep pace for 13+ miles after my mid-week track workout? Would my now-unpredictable stomach hold up its end of the bargain? Although I felt myself fading a bit in the second half of the race, I was heartened to catch and pass several runners as the course began its final extended ascent around mile 9. Misery does love it some company.
At the mile-10 aid station I once again pulled up alongside the pink ponytail in the blonde tanktop (or was that the pink blonde in the tanktop ponytail? I was getting a bit hazy…). I followed her closely up the final extended ascent, only to lose ground predictably after mile 11 as the course crested one last time and headed back downhill toward the finish. She seemed to have a sense of familiarity with this course, so when (after speed-walking several of the previous uphills) she barely slowed her pace on the next uphill jag between miles 11 and 12, I trusted my instincts about her instincts and attacked the uphill myself. Luckily I didn’t regret that decision, as plenty of downhill awaited on the other side of what turned out to be a short-lived ascent.
I took the opportunity between miles 11 and 12 to glance up from my shoetops briefly and appreciate the rugged, burned-out beauty of Briones. As we headed downhill toward home, my quads and calves continued to do yeoman’s work on the uneven and variable terrain, my toes slammed repeatedly into the front of my Road Gloves (name! that! blister!), and my pink pacer pulled away on the final steep descent just before mile 12. Fortunately, the predominantly downhill final mile featured some brief uphill jags, which allowed me to shake any pursuers who might have made up ground during the mile-12 descent.
As with other Brazen trail races, we shared the final 2-3 miles with the 10K runners… gotta thank the many heads-up 10Kers who remained aware of their surroundings and stepped aside to allow faster runners to pass. I always appreciate not having to mumble a woozy “skooz me” at every energetic walker over the last 3 miles of a race.
Winding my way past the mile 13 marker and along the final tree- and root-lined stretch, I felt one last surge of adrenaline on hearing Jasmin’s voice projecting over the finish line PA system. “Just up the hill!” yelled the last course photographer as I weakly waved and passed. Huh? Based on a cursory glance at the elevation profile I’d mentally prepped myself for a downhill finish, but the Brazen folks are nothing if not shiny happy sadists. One reason their races are addictive. And so, after descending several steps and hop-stepping a still-wet-but-just-bearly creek, I pounded up several more steps built into the trail, turned the corner and heard Jasmin announce my name as I crossed the finish line with well-compressed shins and fidgety stomach in 2:04:36.
With its 3,700ft of net elevation gain (and loss), the Bear Creek course epitomizes the now-familiar ethic of all Brazen trail races: what doesn’t kill you makes the post-race IT’S-IT that much sweeter. On road or trail, the half marathon distance usually breaks down mentally for me into three logical stages: beginning (miles 1-4), middle (miles 5-9) and end (miles 10-13.1). But Bear Creek felt more like 13 smaller races, probably due to the mental and physical demands of the rolling terrain as well as my being out of normal racing rhythm. Fortunately my stomach held up well, its own race having played out in three distinct stages: a comfortable beginning stage (miles 1-4), a more unsettled Clash tribute stage (“should I stay or should I go?”; miles 5-10), and a comfortably triumphant end stage (mile 11 to the finish).
And though we’d been made aware in pre-race emails of the possibility of poison oak, bees (15-20 runners reported being stung during the 2011 race) and other potentially fun-retardant wildlife (i.e. rattlesnakes) out on the trails, my own encounters were limited to one very bored-looking cow that easily could have doubled as the mile 12 marker.
Soon after finishing I sought out the now-familiar blonde ponytail/pink tanktop combo (she had indeed run Bear Creek before), and we congratulated each other on a race well run. And speaking of fellow finishers, kudos to the aptly named runner of the day, Michael Payne.
I also bumped into fellow finisher Isak as I was diffusing around the post-race spread… first met Isak last month when Katie and I volunteered at the Bad Bass Half Marathon at Lake Chabot. Maybe it was his exhaustion talking, or his clear frustration with the trail shoes he’d removed and was now carrying, but he declared Bear Creek to be Brazen’s toughest half marathon so far this year, tougher even than Diablo. Isak is an interesting fellow and a hardcore Brazen-ite, so I look forward to comparing notes with him at future races.
Re: my pre-race goals, I did fail to break the two-hour barrier. But given the warm weather and the fact that Bear Creek’s elevation profile exceeded Wildcat’s by roughly 500 feet, I was neither surprised nor necessarily disappointed. So why the brash quote at the top of this post? Because although I placed 12th overall, I did finish ahead of the 20 other finishers in the male 40-44 age group, nearly 12 minutes ahead of the runner-up. First time I’ve won my age group since the Malibu Half Marathon last November, and first Brazen race I’ve accomplished that since the Nitro Trail Half Marathon in 2011. In fact I was the only over-40 finisher in the top 20, male or female. The older lady behind the counter at the age-group awards booth looked up my name, smiled and cheerily proclaimed “Ooh, you get a finger!” I was all set to defend my honor when she handed me a shiny medal emblazoned with the Brazen Racing logo and a hand holding up a single index finger:
But the runaway victory of this day was that my foot not only held up pain-free after 13+ miles of sustained pounding over hilly uneven terrain, but still felt great the next day. Unfortunately my calves weren’t so lucky… having not raced any trails (much less hills like these) in my Road Gloves for 3 months, they tightened up after the race and remained pretty shredded for several days. But at least my lower shins felt great in the aftermath, so clearly the compression sleeves did the trick.
The real bummer in having missed Brazen’s Trail Quake and Bad Bass half marathons due to injury is that I’m no longer eligible (not having run enough trail races, since ironically the Diablo 50K doesn’t count) for the Brazen half marathon championship at Rocky Ridge in October. Never mind that I’d have as much chance to win Rocky Ridge on a pogo stick as I would running… but I’m pretty certain the “Brazen Ultra Half Coaster” that Ultra Half Series finishers receive will be just as eye-catching, cleverly conceived and artistically rendered as their other race medals.
So Bear Creek, like all the Brazen trail races I’ve run, comes highly recommended. And if Sam and Jasmin are looking for a company motto, I’d recommend the thought that seems to flash through my mind at the finish line of all Brazen races…
I think I’ll take tomorrow off.
GEAR: Despite the whoopin’ my toes took from pounding down hills, my Merrell Road Gloves felt good and performed well on what were probably the most demanding set of trails (based on both elevation and pacing) they’ve raced yet. With one reservation: given the considerable amount of downhill braking I did at Bear Creek, I’m now contemplating a part-time switch to a slightly raised heel (4mm heel-to-toe drop; the Road Gloves have a 0mm drop i.e. no raised heel), which should allow just enough braking to help slow my momentum on fast/precarious downhills.
On the other hand, my “Lightweight” Injinji toesocks badly underperformed. I’d worn this particular pair on only one shorter run before Bear Creek, so I was disappointed to pull off my shoes after the race and see three pink toes peeking up at me. Not necessarily surprised though, since I’d recently had the same experience with another pair, so evidently I couldn’t chalk this up to bad luck. I don’t have much in the way of toenails, and I’ve never had this problem with regular socks, so it’s not owner neglect. And I’ve been pleased with the “Original Weight” Injinjis I regularly wear on training runs and which I wore in the Diablo 50K, so this issue would seem to be restricted to their “Lightweight” toesocks. Hopefully they listen to their customers and correct this defect soon.
PRODUCTION: At the risk of repeating myself and sounding like Porky Pig, th-th-th-the Brazen Racing folks are the best. Briones is the perfect place to stage a trail race, and Brazen is the perfect crew to stage it. In previous posts I’ve expressed my enthusiasm for their pre-race preparations, volunteers (having been one at Bad Bass, I now have a better understanding of what that entails), photographers, sponsors (thanks Naked Juice, for the coconut water), course markings (ribbons, flour and mile markers), aid stations, post-race buffet, t-shirts and medals, and most importantly their choice of race courses. So given my own experiences, I was surprised to read in Sam’s post-race e-mail that “a few people took a wrong turn and got bonus mileage”. I’m navigationally challenged to say the least (I once turned the Muir Woods 25K race into more of a 30K), yet I’ve never to my memory had a moment of directional uncertainty on a Brazen course. But then again, that’s why Sam warns us to always carry a map….
August 18, 2012
13.3 miles in Briones Regional Park
Finish time & pace: 2:04:36, 9:21/mile (first time running Bear Creek)
Finish place: 12/161 overall, 1/21 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny, high-60s to low-70s
Elevation change (Garmin Training Center software): 3765ft ascent, 3736ft descent
UPDATE (30 August 2012): Brazen announced on their Facebook page yesterday that the Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K would in fact count toward qualifying as an Ultra Half Series finisher. T-minus 51 days and counting until Rocky Ridge…