And all the girlies say I’m pretty fly for a white guy.
– The Offspring
I’ve fully bought in to the Brazen Racing ethic and crossed my share of their finish lines since my first Wildcat Half Marathon in April 2011. And of all the clever names in the Brazen catalog, my favorite is undoubtedly Drag-N-Fly… as in, drag yourself up one side of the hill and fly down the other (never mind that the scarlet letters “DNF” in a race usually stand for “Did Not Finish”). Now, after my experience at Brazen’s 3rd annual Drag-N-Fly Half Marathon last Saturday, I realize that my favorite of their race names may also be their most honest.
The Drag-N-Fly trail races are staged in the East Bay’s Contra Loma Regional Park and Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. Officially located in Antioch, Contra Loma and Black Diamond Mines comprise nearly 6,876 contiguous acres of largely rolling terrain covered by grassland, chapparal, woodland and mixed evergreen forest. Black Diamond Mines once played a vital role in transforming California from a rural to an industrial economy, as twelve coal (i.e. “black diamond”) mines and five mining towns thrived in the region from the 1860s to the early 1900s. Today, preserved evidence of this mining history remains, and the region’s extensive network of former mining trails are now appreciated by hikers, bikers, equestrians, and most importantly… runners.
So the region has a compelling history, but to say I absorbed any real evidence of that on Saturday would be a lie. I was there to run, no time to stop and smell the wildflowers. Maybe you could say the mines got the shaft? I wouldn’t say it, but you could.
As we approached the Antioch city limits via Pittsburg I was reminded that this was the East East Bay, thanks to the bumper sticker proudly displayed on the rear windshield of the massive pickup truck ahead of us. The black-and-white sticker featured silhouettes of several geese to complement its easy-to-remember message: “If It Flies, It Dies!” And it fries too, I assume?
But what Antioch lacks in profundity, it made up for in this case with its reliable suburban-ness. Having learned an important lesson about pre-race prep at Bear Creek three weeks earlier, a tactical mini-mart stop shortly before Contra Loma ensured that all (internal) systems were good to go this time around. That brief stop, though, coupled with a slow start from home, caused us to roll into the overflow parking lot within ten minutes of the scheduled 8:00am half marathon start. We parked and hustled to the Locust Grove picnic area, which on this day doubled as the Drag-N-Fly staging area.
Fortunately the start time had been pushed back five minutes, so I quickly cycled through my warmup routine and headed for the start corral. As Sam announced that we were about four minutes from the start of the half marathon, I realized that in my hurry I’d left my bottle of coconut water (strategically frozen overnight to keep it cool during the race) in the car. On the plus side, I’d have (hopefully) still-chilled coconut water after the race. Turns out I wouldn’t need the bottle on the course, because the day although sunny wouldn’t be overly hot, and as always the aid stations were thoughtfully located and manned by the best volunteers money can’t buy.
The Locust Grove picnic area lies adjacent to the 80-acre Contra Loma Reservoir. Both the 5K and 10K courses encircle the reservoir, whereas the 13.5-mile half marathon course heads immediately away from the reservoir toward Black Diamond Mines, before following a loop and returning along the same route. So unlike most (if not all) Brazen races I’ve run, desperate-to-finish half marathoners and slower 10Kers wouldn’t be sharing the homestretch on this course (would it be rude to cheer here? what the heck it’s my blog, HIP HIP…).
Game-time temperatures hovered in the mid- to high 60s with an intermittent breeze, and bright sunny skies dotted with sparse cotton ball-like clouds warmly caressed the browned-out rolling hills of Contra Loma. Similar to Bear Creek three weeks earlier, we’d gotten lucky in that heat (a potentially key variable in determining “drag”) wouldn’t be a major factor today.
Sam’s emails had warned us about the many gopher holes dotting the picnic area around the start line, a fact that – given my history of ankle sprains – caused me more pre-race anxiety than any threat of poison oak or territorial wildlife could have. And certainly there were a number of gopher-esque holes around the staging area, but more worrisome was that the picnic area, like the desiccated trails we would run in Contra Loma and Black Diamond Mines, consisted of extensive networks of spidery cracks. It crossed my mind that this might be a more appropriate venue for Brazen’s Trail Quake race. But turning gophers into gopherade, Sam verbally reminded us at the start line to be ever-vigilant of our footing, so that I had no problems during the race.
With my usual shot of 5-Hour Energy and the familiar blast of the airhorn, we were under way. Along with ~20-25 runners ahead of me I tentatively jogged the first few yards out of the picnic area with my eyes fixed on the ground. But once we hit the paved park entrance road things opened up, and a quick right turn on to Old Homestead Loop pointed us in the direction of Black Diamond Mines.
Unlike other Brazen trail races, the first 1.7 miles at Drag-N-Fly offer a relatively flat warmup section that allowed me to get my blood flowing and find a comfortable cadence. I also took the opportunity to ready myself mentally to tackle the first serious uphill of the course, just beyond the first aid station at mile 1.6.
I’d read and heard about this first hill, a fully sun-exposed section about a mile long that over the course of its 700ft climb eventually reduces most runners to hikers. This being the first extended “drag” of the race, I was determined to maintain a non-walking pace. Fortunately I must be training on the right roads and trails, because I was able to jog the entire ascent at a reasonable pace (sub-11:00/mile). Given the relative comfort with which I made the ascent, I was somewhat surprised that nearly all of the runners in my pace group ended up walking to some extent. So ’twas that I was able to pass (for good, as it turned out) roughly ten runners… of those I passed on that first hill, only two leap-frogged me later in the race, including one long-legged rock hopper who bounded by me at a precariously fast clip on a rugged boulder-strewn downhill section of mile 10.
Luckily what goes up must come down, especially on this course, and the immediate “fly” down the other side of that first hill was shaded and fast. I don’t typically cut loose on downhills, but I did a lot more flying down the hills of Black Diamond Mines than on any course in recent memory. And it was adrenalizing. Even while my legs were pounding downhill in high gear, I never felt out of control. It helped that despite the extensive cracks, most of Drag-N-Fly’s downhills are well-maintained widetrack trails with firm, even footing.
The course contained a few brief paved stretches – primarily leading into and out of Black Diamond Mines – and three aid stations located at five points along the course. Two of the aid stations were set up along the out-and-back section of the course (miles 1.6 and 3.7 on the way out, miles 9.9 and 11.9 on the way back). The unique third aid station served runners at mile 7 of the Black Diamond Mines loop.
Unlike that first ascent, the second (starting at ~mile 3.6) and third (starting at ~mile 5.5) uphills comprised a lot of gnarly, more technical single-track with a few switchback-type turns. On the plus side, both ascents were largely shaded. The second uphill began immediately after entering the loop of Black Diamond Mines and passing the second aid station. As I worked my way up the twisty, root-riddled trail, the two female runners immediately ahead of me vanished from view, and I found myself running alone. Things stayed that way for much of the next 5 miles, and I negotiated/appreciated the tranquil wilderness of Black Diamond Mines at my own pace. At one point it struck me, that after focusing on the winding singletrack terrain for some time, I couldn’t really judge whether I was going up or down anymore.
Shortly after mile 4.5 the trail forked left and right, and I experienced a first for me on a Brazen course… I took a wrong turn. Fortunately the damage was negligible – less than 0.1 miles and nobody passed me – as I realized and corrected my mistake almost immediately after not seeing any red ribbons marking the route. Turns out the correct route leading up and to the right was clearly red-ribboned, if I’d taken the time to glance in that direction. But in retrospect I chose the left fork because the trail in that direction wasn’t clearly blocked off by the usual flour-drawn barrier in the dirt – a key indicator my brain looks for when operating on low power.
For the most part the course was well marked with red ribbons and flour, but this was admittedly the first time I’d thrown a wrong turn on a Brazen course. I hesitated momentarily on a couple of more technical single-track sections as well, where the red ribbons were widely spaced. My hesitation in these sections was due in part to the uncertainty of running alone: am I alone because I’m way ahead/behind, or because I took a wrong turn somewhere? As a directionally challenged type, I’m a handy canary in the coal mine for potential course-marking mishaps.
The third extended uphill included the only segment of the course I walk-hiked: two or three short (less than 50yd each) singletrack stretches around mile 6 that required high-stepping over large rocks or wading through soft sand. I quickly decided the energy expended to pseudo-jog these sections would have exceeded the payoff.
I also found myself pulling my sunglasses on and off several times during both Drag-N-Fly and Bear Creek, since the shaded sections of each course featured stretches of mottled sunlight that made it tough to track my footing.
At mile 10 we exited the loop of Black Diamond Mines and passed the fourth aid station. After a gradual ¾-mile climb back up the first shaded downhill, the planet tilted one last time, and the next mile was spent blissfully flying down (at a 7:50 pace) what had been the first uphill of the course. As another runner passed me I fell in step behind him and nearly kept pace, so that I probably got back down faster than I would have otherwise. During my flight I even had a chance to glance around and soak in the wide-open, sun-bleached expanse of mining country. Then I bid farewell to Black Diamond Mines and set my sights toward Contra Loma.
Reaching the bottom, I gratefully accepted a cup of water from a volunteer at the fifth and final aid station, drooled most of it carelessly down the front of my shirt (what, no photographer to capture that?), and focused on getting back to Contra Loma as speedily as possible. The thought of another runner overtaking me at the finish as I gingerly side-stepped gopher holes was motivating. As were the distant strains of Tool’s “Sober” calling to me from the Brazen PA system (“I am just an imbecile…”).
By crossing the finish line in 2:10:54, I failed to break the one-hour mark or set a new course record like my running buddy Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) did so effortlessly last year. Nevertheless, I did manage to place second in my age group, albeit a whopping 12+ minutes behind the top male 40-44er. Overall I’d characterize Drag-N-Fly as a strong effort, particularly for my first shot at a challenging course.
Katie’s 5k was also a success, having finished 16 seconds under her time goal of 35:00. So she was good-N-ready to hit the IT’S-ITs by the time I reached my own finish line.
Congrats as well to Jen and Tim (aka the Gypsy Runner), who each won their age group in the 10K race, with Tim finishing an impressive 3rd overall. Somehow his Merrell Road Gloves seem to run a lot faster than mine; I can only assume they’re a newer model. Jen joked that maybe it wasn’t the shoes, but that if I’d just cut my shirt sleeves off like him….
As I diffused around the finish area in cooldown mode, I listened in amusement as Jasmin greeted incoming finishers over the PA system with pronouncements like “I think you beat your wife, mate.” I approached Sam to congratulate him on another uniquely Brazen experience, and to my surprise he recognized me and told me he’d just recently discovered the blog. That was cool to hear, and reassuring to know I’m not writing entirely for myself here. Hopefully, if I can keep this up, I’ll be worth bribing in another 5 years or so. Thanks again to you and Jasmin for another fantastic Saturday morning, Sam.
So in summary: I dragged, I flew, it was better than Cats. Which coincidentally is the mascot for the upcoming Brazen Half Marathon Championship race at Rocky Ridge in less than 5 weeks. To be continued….
So how does Drag-N-Fly rate among Brazen trail races? Is it tougher than Bear Creek? The two courses are similar in their amount of elevation gain/loss, at least according to my Garmin Training Center software. Drag-N-Fly, though, felt like we were running along a stegosaurus’s back, with more of a “hill goes up, hill goes down, hill goes up, hill goes down” feeling than Bear Creek. The consensus around the finish area seemed to be that Drag-N-Fly is second only to Rocky Ridge for sheer masochistic potential. I’d certainly agree that Rocky Ridge is The Big One (that’s why it’s Brazen’s championship race), and I reckon my faster overall pace at Bear Creek (9:21/mile vs. 9:39/mile) would suggest that Drag-N-Fly is the more challenging course.
But at the same time I’d say I enjoyed Drag-N-Fly more than Bear Creek… the Drag-N-Fly course felt more wide open, and true to its name I was able to cut loose on downhills without the knife’s-edge-of-control-in-a-cloud-of-dust feeling that I had in several places at Bear Creek, and even on the final descent at Wildcat. And unlike Bear Creek, Drag-N-Fly left me with no residual calf soreness the next day… although my 23- and 22-mile runs along the Bay Area Ridge Trail the past two weekends no doubt helped to get my legs in better trail-running shape than they were three weeks ago.
GEAR: My Merrell Road Gloves performed like champs again, handling the varied terrain with relative ease. I realize that unlike other trail shoes the Road Gloves don’t have a built-in rock plate to protect against sharp rocks underfoot, but in four Brazen trail races so far (including the Diablo 50K) I have yet to notice its absence. Occasionally on longer training runs, but never during races.
I also blew through another brand-new, ne’er-worn pair of Injinji toesocks (Original Weight). By “blew through,” I mean this pair suffered the same fate as the pair I wore at Bear Creek… 10 toes, 3 holes. In response to my concerned inquiry after Bear Creek, a marketing coordinator at Injinji responded that they “typically recommend the Midweight sock for longer trail distance running. The extra padding in the heel and mesh compression top create a much more durable build for logging those extra miles.” I received a complimentary pair to try out this week, so I hope she’s right.
PRODUCTION: Certainly large road races and smaller trail races each have their own distinct production challenges, but given my druthers I’d put Sam and Jasmin’s crew in charge of every race I run. Brazen’s low-key yet ultra-organized approach once again carried the day at Drag-N-Fly. Even though we pulled into Contra Loma overflow parking even later than usual, Brazen volunteers quickly and efficiently directed us to a makeshift parking space, and less than 5 minutes later we’d followed the streams of arriving 5K and 10K runners to the Locust Grove picnic area. Luckily we’d picked up our race bibs and timing chips at RoadRunner Sports two days earlier, but even with a race-day pickup (our norm) we typically arrive no more than 30 minutes before race start. Almost too easy.
Which reminds me of another reason I prefer Brazen races… they’re Saturday events, unlike many races held on Sundays that require you to waste part of your pre-race Friday or Saturday driving to pick up race materials at some inconveniently located and bloated expo. Sadly gone are the days of race directors mailing out bibs, timing chips and schwag bags. Fortunately the Brazen folks do pre-race prep right.
Although speaking of schwag bags, I guess I’ll deduct half a point from Brazen’s Drag-N-Fly score for printing up t-shirts that read “Conta [sic] Loma & Black Diamond Mines” on the front.
Brazen’s practice of staging memorable races in scenic places has paid off in its almost cult-like following among some Bay Area trail runners; this includes fellow Brazen-ophile Isak, who after this race informed me that he’d already registered for every Brazen race remaining on the 2012 schedule. At the same time Brazen continues to attract and encourage the more casual trail runner, as suggested by their ever-increasing race attendance: for example, 72 runners finished the Drag-N-Fly Half last year vs. 149 this year, while 139 finished Bear Creek last year vs. 161 this year.
As both Brazen and the sport of trail running continue to grow, who knows how much longer we in the East Bay will be able to claim them as our dusty little secret.
September 8, 2012
13.5 miles in Contra Loma Regional Park and Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve
Finish time & pace: 2:10:54, 9:39/mile (first time running Drag-N-Fly)
Finish place: 13/150 overall, 2/14 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and breezy, mid- to high 60s
Elevation change (Garmin Training Center software): 3689ft ascent, 3772ft descent
(Garmin Connect software): 3125ft ascent, 3121ft descent
NOTE: The Garmin Training Center software, which I’ve used to calculate elevation gain/loss for my earlier races, reportedly overestimates this parameter compared to other algorithms.