Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.
– C.S. Lewis
The experience of Rocky Ridge taught me a lot last October.
I learned it’s wise to approach the course with a healthy measure of respect. I Iearned that after 13.7 miles in the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness, I’ll have earned that coveted flaming-tiger finisher’s medal and post-race IT’S-IT. I learned the humbling frustration that comes from having to walk hills I had no intention of walking, and feel exhaustion I had no intention of feeling. And I learned (or rather confirmed) that although I’m a sucker for the trails, I’m no mountain goat.
But most of all, I learned that Rocky Ridge is the “Super Bowl of Brazen Racing” for a reason: because with roughly 4,000ft of elevation gain/loss, it’s the most challenging half marathon in the Bay Area, and the toughest half I’ve run aside from Pikes Peak. All within 2,000ft of sea level, courtesy of a whole lot of up-ing and down-ing.
So with that in mind and 5-Hour Energy in body, Katie and I parked and hustled to the start line at the Las Trampas Corral Camp on Saturday morning. We’d dragged a bit that morning and ended up cutting it close, arriving just as Sam was announcing one minute until the start of the half marathon (the 10K and 5K would follow 15 and 30 minutes later, respectively). Truth is, I have yet to find the race where the running part is as difficult as the getting-out-of-bed-that-morning part. But having carefully read Sam’s pre-race email and having run the course last year, I assumed I could safely dispense with any more pre-race announcements.
So after cycling through the CliffsNotes version of my warm-up routine, I ducked under the ribboned rope and into the start corral, as usual lining up among the front 20-25% of runners. Forty seconds later the familiar Brazen airhorn sounded one mighty blast, and Las Trampas opened its arms and bared its fangs to welcome some of the strongest trail runners in the Bay Area. And the rest of us, too.
I followed the leaders into the wild with one goal in mind: to beat last year’s finish time of 2:33:46. I was confident for several reasons. First, I’d learned some valuable lessons from my 2011 experience, lessons that as a now-seasoned Rocky Ridge veteran would help me… if not tame this beast, then at least understand how it hunts. Second, my half marathon PR of 1:34:02 was set at this year’s Oakland Running Festival the week after I’d run the L.A. Marathon, so I was hoping for a similar post-Chicago bounce. True, this would be a dramatically different race than Oakland; as Sam had pointed out in his pre-race email, Rocky Ridge is “known for forcing the fastest of runners down to a slow slog!” Nonetheless, I was psyched for this race and counting on another strong post-marathon performance. And lastly, weather conditions would be more favorable this year, with persistent morning fog holding the sun at bay, and temperatures hovering in the mid-50s.
So when it came to beating myself, I liked my chances. But placing in my age group would be another matter. As Brazen’s championship race with championship money at stake, Rocky Ridge attracts more than its share of talented runners, among them a number of Brazen first-timers including male newbies in the 40-44 range. Meaning that if I expected to place in my age group, I’d have my work cut out for me. Last year, for example, I’d placed a ho-hum 6th out of 20 runners in my age group. And I was pretty sure Brazen hadn’t extended their age-group medals to include a polydactylous six-fingered hand.
Not only is Rocky Ridge the Super Bowl race for all Brazen runners, but it doubles as the final race in Brazen’s more selective Ultra-Half Series. To qualify as an Ultra-Half Series finisher, runners must race in at least four of the nine series races, plus the series finale at Rocky Ridge. Scoring is based on each runner’s cumulative “time back” from the winner (the winner’s “time back” being 0) in their four best races, plus Rocky Ridge. The top three runners with the lowest cumulative “time back” after Rocky Ridge are the Ultra-Half Series winners, and earn the same prize money as the overall winners. Best of all for the rest of us, all Ultra-Half Series finishers earn a special finisher’s coaster to complement their Rocky Ridge race medal.
I missed out on becoming an Ultra-Half Series finisher last year through my own ineptitude… I’d misunderstood their Nitro Trail Half Marathon to be one of the qualifying races, not realizing until the week of Rocky Ridge that this wasn’t the case. So I was determined not to screw myself out of another shot at die-cast glory this year. That is, until tendonitis derailed my plans to run the Trail Quake Half Marathon in June, meaning I would have run only three (rather than the necessary four) qualifying races before Rocky Ridge: Wildcat, Bear Creek and Drag-N-Fly.
In a curious twist, though, I’d also run the Mount Diablo Trails Challenge in April… except that there, I’d chosen to run the longer 50K rather than the qualifying half marathon distance. Fortunately (and sensibly), the Brazen folks posted on their Facebook page in late August that the Diablo 50K would be accepted as a Series qualifier, though with a caveat: runners using the 50K as a qualifier would not be factored into the final standings and thus would not be eligible for the prize money, due to the differences in “time back” scoring between the 50K and half marathon distances. I was fine with this decision, since the governing body’s (i.e. Sam’s) reasoning made sense. My real disappointment lay in my own inability to run Trail Quake… had I run it in a time consistent with my other three finish times, I would have found myself at least 5th, and potentially as high as 4th, in the Ultra-Half Series standings in the week leading up to Rocky Ridge.
Back to race-day reality, and all these musings amounted to little more than neural debris as the trail rolled gradually upward toward its first steep ascent, beginning just after the midway point of mile one. Rocky Ridge wastes little time in muscling up, and the last echoes of the airhorn had scarcely faded when we reached the first leg-searing uphill of the course. Sticking with my usual Brazen modus operandi I hugged the left side of the trail and began to pass other runners, many of whom chose (willingly or unwillingly) to walk this uphill section. I passed about a dozen walkers before I spotted Julie Neumann, the women’s Ultra-Half Series winner in 2011 and eventual second-place finisher this year. For a brief stretch she and I were the only two runners maintaining a jogging pace, as I trailed roughly ten yards behind her all the way to the top of that first hill. Just before the mile 2 marker we crested, the trail began its first extended downhill and she kicked off the parking brake and left me in her dust. Literally. Oh downhills, why must you insist on following uphills?
If I told you that miles 2-6 of Rocky Ridge were predominantly downhill, you may be misled into thinking the course can’t be that tough. And if I then copped to the fact that the final 2.5 miles are mostly downhill as well… well, you may conclude that for a grown man who seems to enjoy punishing his body, I sure do whine a lot. But Newton wasn’t kidding: what comes down must first go up. And Rocky Ridge earns its stripes as the most challenging of all Brazen races for five reasons: miles 7-11.
As Hall of Fame golfer Bobby Locke once remarked, “Drive for show, putt for dough.” By analogy, if the other 8+ miles are for show, then miles 7-11 are for dough (literally, for those runners vying for a share of the prize purse). Those five life-affirming miles are the reason I didn’t give in to early adrenaline and attack that first downhill more aggressively. The experience of 2011 had taught me that my real race would begin at mile 7, and that the strategic (i.e. gravitationally challenged) runner tries not to do anything too heroic, too soon.
Further complicating this initial descent was the muscle on the medial/inner aspect of my left arch (abductor hallucis, I presume?), which suddenly and sharply began to feel over-stretched. After a quick on-the-move assessment, I concluded that the pain was limited to my arch and excluded from my previously injured tendon, and I self-diagnosed that I wouldn’t risk further injury by continuing to run. Based on my experience with other Merrell footwear, I attributed the pain to the new Merrell Mix Master 2 shoes I was wearing for only the second time. The twinge in my foot came and went over the next several miles, though fortunately it never evolved from fleeting discomfort into full-blown “your body’s trying to tell you something” pain. So on I ran… it wasn’t as though I’d been expecting a comfortable morning in the best of circumstances.
As the trail widened a bit in its descent through mile 3, a shorter gray-haired fellow asked me in a Russian accent, “Excuse me, how many more hills are there?” I contemplated this for a second, not sure how to break the news to him. “Two long ones, really,” I breathed roughly. “But miles 7 through 11 feel like one long extended hill.” He nodded forcefully twice. “So then one more hill? Thank you!” he replied, and accelerated down the hill. I was pretty sure I’d be seeing him again before the finish line.
Over the next four miles I maintained a steady pace of ~8:15/mile on the downhill sections, as my foot continued to protest intermittently. The downhill momentum of the course was briefly interrupted by a short-but-strenuous uphill jag near the mile 4 marker, before continuing its rolling descent through miles 5 and 6. The final 0.1 miles of this descent were particularly steep, and I kept my own momentum in check to ensure I didn’t stumble over a root and slide the rest of the way down on my face.
The trail then bottomed out at what appeared to be a dry stream bed. By that time, the downward momentum I’d gained made it that much harder to switch gears as the course abruptly began its grueling climb up to mile 10.5 and a peak elevation of 1,950ft. But switch gears I did, forcing myself to maintain whatever semblance of a jogging pace I could as slowly, with tortoise-like efficiency, I caught and passed many of the speedy downhill folks who had passed me in the previous four miles. Among these folks was the older Russian fellow, whom I quickly passed, this time for good. I never got to ask him what he thought of that one more hill.
Having experienced Rocky Ridge before, the anticipation of miles 7 to 11 initially triggered in me the same sort of anxiety a child might feel on hearing his agitated mother promise “Just wait until your father gets home!” Sure the reality would probably be unpleasant, but the psychological distress inflicted by the anticipation itself would always be worse. What I needed was a more productive strategy. So I channeled my own anxiety into a respectful appreciation for what lay ahead of me, and resolved to maintain as fast a pace as possible for as long as possible.
Like most of the course, miles 7-9 featured plenty of soft dirt and prominent roots along singletrack trail. This kept me on my toes knowing, as I’d slide past someone walking uphill, that he or she would likely be right on my heels trying to pass me once the trail leveled out or headed back downhill.
One of my greatest triumphs at Rocky Ridge was that only twice did I have to slow to a true hiking pace: once during an infuriatingly steep stretch just before the mile 7 marker, when I felt like a bowling ball on legs; and again during mile 8, when my legs refused to turn over and the sand-like quality of the dirt rewarded maximum effort with minimal progress. Understanding the dangers of inertia, though, I kept my hiking to a minimum (less than 0.1 miles in each instance) and picked up the pace again as soon as possible.
During the uphill portion of mile 8 I also encountered a Brazen first for me: a fellow runner’s stomach reversing gears (i.e. vomiting) on the side of the trail. Assuming he would be fine I soldiered on, which turned out to be a good call since he passed me on the next downhill. We then switched places again as I caught and passed him for good on the next uphill. After the race I found him sitting near the finish line and congratulated him on a strong showing… though now that I think about it, I probably shouldn’t have shaken his hand. Purell, anyone?
Unlike the two miles on either side of it, mile 9 is largely downhill and a welcome reprieve from the uphill grind. Which may explain why I’d forgotten one of the more sadistic aspects of the course layout. As I reached the mile 9 marker, I could clearly hear Sam’s disembodied voice booming from the PA system at the nearby finish line, a finish line I wouldn’t be seeing for another 50 minutes. Adding insult to injury, I was just in time to hear him announce the men’s half marathon winner across the finish line. The trail then turned away from the finish line, Sam’s voice was engulfed by fog, and I transitioned on to the paved section of the course at aid station #3 – the gateway to mile 10 and the most relentless uphill yet.
Around this time I had an epiphany of sorts, as I realized that the beastly beauty of Rocky Ridge lay not just in the severity of its hills, but in their strategic positioning as well. The most lung-busting, gut-churning and soul-squelching uphills on the course – those beginning at miles 7 and 10 – immediately follow steep extended downhills. And if you haven’t experienced it for yourself, this abrupt shift in both momentum and muscle groups can be exhausting. In effect it’s this transition from downhill to uphill, and the stark contrast between the two, that deadens the legs and makes the uphills seem even nastier than they are. It’s also a major reason why strength training for trail runners typically emphasizes the gluteal (butt) and core (abdominals, back, hips) muscle groups. I’d reached the same conclusion about hill placement and this “roller coaster effect” as I’d struggled up and down the Marin Headlands during the 2008 and 2009 North Face Endurance Challenge half marathon.
Now, with mile 10 and Rocky Ridge itself looming ahead of me, I recalled vividly the critical first-timer’s mistake I’d made here last year – allowing myself to look ahead at the paved trail stretching out in front of me, winding its way up, and up, and up some more, until it seemed to disappear into the clouds like Jack’s beanstalk. And in that same moment I’d seen all the other runners painstakingly hiking their way up toward the ridge like a caravan of snails. Understandably, my glimpse into the future had been demoralizing. The gut-wrenching promise of another punishing ascent, coupled with the heat and the crippling power of suggestion conveyed by so many others walking, had taken their toll on my psyche and led to a less-than-stellar performance the rest of the way.
So with the tough-love lessons of 2011 in mind, I hit the asphalt with my head down this time, only glancing up to thank the aid station volunteer as he pointed straight ahead and said, “That way! That’s all I’m going to say.” Staring at the ground two feet ahead of me, I plowed straight ahead at a labored but consistent jog. With this strategy I passed three more people on my way to the top, and before I knew it asphalt was once again yielding to more forgiving dirt. Which of course makes for more difficult footing… but still I kept my head down and stuck with the game plan.
During this stretch I also comforted myself by deploying one of my favorite mental pick-me-ups during a race, asking: If I’m feeling this ugh, how must the runners behind me be feeling? That thought usually helps me to wrestle aside fatigue and renew my focus on chasing down runners ahead of me.
And then, around mile 10.5, something glorious happened: the running gods smiled down, tiny angels danced on the heads of the safety pins holding my racing bib in place, and the course started… to level… out. Finally, I’d reached Rocky Ridge. And finally I started to enjoy myself. Unfortunately the view from on high was minimal thanks to the dense fog, but I’d gladly trade last year’s heat for this year’s cool. With the trail shrouded in fog and visibility at times limited to no more than 20ft, I half-expected the Black Pearl to emerge from the fog bank ahead of me. Eerie. The scene reminded me of running in the Marin Headlands, a favorite hangout for Bay Area fog.
Up on the ridge I could again hear Sam’s PA-amplified voice, though I still couldn’t see him or the surrounding scenery. Moisture from the saturated air began to soak my hair and drip into my face. As I approached the end of the ridge and one final uphill jag, a chilly headwind blasted me in the face. I hate running into a headwind – I’ll take heat, cold, rain, snow or a plague of locusts over a stiff headwind – and as I labored forward, I briefly toyed with the idea of hiking that short uncomfortable stretch. But I kept my head down and plowed on, knowing that significant downhillage (and soon after, the finish line) awaited me on the other side.
As I passed the mile 12 marker, the course turned off Rocky Ridge and on to Elderberry Trail for the home stretch. At that point my foot stopped whining and I was able to stretch my legs, lengthen my stride and actually run for a change. Although Las Trampas wasn’t about to go down quietly, as confirmed by a couple more short-but-sweet uphill jags en route to the finish line.
I ran more or less by myself for the last 4+ miles. And as I made one last downhill turn and saw the finish line laid out beautifully ahead of me, I had that all to myself as well. Basking in the last 10 yards between me and the finish, I could hear Katie and a few other spectators cheering, and the official clock welcomed me back with a reading of 2:29:14 (chip time 2:29:11).
When I say I ran by myself, I’m not kidding… I finished over three minutes behind the runner ahead of me, and one minute ahead of my closest competition.
As I thanked the volunteer who cheerfully handed me my finisher’s medal, I flashed back to last year’s finish line. There I’d been greeted with a look of horror from a fellow finisher, who’d handed me a cup of water and proclaimed “Dude, you need a salt tablet!” Apparently sunscreen mixed with sweat on a hot day had left my face streaked with a white residue that Mr. Well-Meaning had mistaken for my body’s weight in salt. This time I gulped down my remaining bottle of coconut water, which I’d carried the entire race but had only felt the need to sip from in the final two miles. Without the heat, my thirst had been minimal… that, and it’s tough to swallow when you’re using your mouth as an extra breathing orifice on uphills.
And though I’d carried my own bottle and bypassed the well-stocked aid stations, I’d made sure to gasp out my thanks to the volunteers at all four stations. They’d offered plenty of smiles and encouragement to supplement their selection of GU, Ultima and M&Ms.
I reunited with Katie and we made our way toward the one table set up for just this occasion, where qualifying runners could claim their hard-earned coaster as a (say it loud! say it proud!) Ultra-Half Series finisher. And though admittedly I’d been dubious about the idea of a coaster rather than another hangable medal, Brazen’s artwork does not disappoint… it’s an impressive piece of die-cast craftsmanship with significant heft. In the event that a Wizard of Oz-style tornado hits Berkeley anytime soon, I’ll be perfectly confident dropping this anchor in my pocket and waiting out the twister in my living room.
As for the final Ultra-Half Series standings (for which you’ll recall I didn’t qualify): not that I’m keeping track, but in this the Series finale I finished nearly seven minutes ahead of the eventual Series 4th-place finisher. Fourth place, as in one spot out of the prize money. I can live with that.
As I helped myself to the always excellent post-race spread and exhausted finishers continued to trickle in, Sam played the role of trail racing’s Ed McMahon and presented oversized sweepstakes-style checks to the first- ($1,000), second- ($500) and third- ($250) place men’s and women’s finishers for both this race and the Ultra-Half Series. CONGRATULATIONS to all the winners, it’s a kick to race alongside (ok, behind) some amazing trail runners.
Also saw hardcore Brazen-ophile Isak, wearing his familiar black skullcap, cross the finish line in just over 3½ hours. True to what he’d told us at Drag-N-Fly, he apparently hadn’t looked at the course elevation map before Rocky Ridge. Honestly, I’m not sure whether to label that decision “ballsy” or “reckless.” But I have to admire his attitude and respect his reasoning: to his mind, he’d already registered for all of Brazen’s races this year anyway, and he intends to run every step of every race as well as he can, regardless of what the course he can’t see looks like. At any rate, he survived Rocky Ridge and received his own well-deserved coaster. Having had the opportunity to chat with Isak at several Brazen races, I’ve no doubt that if it’s up to him, he’ll be back at Las Trampas next October to do it all over again. And I’ll be lining up next to him.
Before I finished my race Katie witnessed a 4-year-old and his father, each wearing a 5K bib, cross the finish line… almost. Apparently the father crossed first, then retraced his steps to retrieve his tiny son, who had stopped juuuust short of the finisher’s mat and stood rooted to that spot, hugging his stuffed animal. “We’re pretty sure he won his age group,” Jasmin offered over the PA.
As the finish area filled with tired but triumphant runners, Sam urged everyone to chow down on the IT’S-ITs, challenging each person to eat two. I limited myself to one, never being sure how and when my stomach will respond to post-race snacking. But that one was frozen perfection as usual… and hopefully my frugality allowed someone else to enjoy three of their own.
Making our way toward the parking lot, I shook hands with Sam (not to worry Sam, I found the Purell) and thanked him for another great outing. Jasmin was still moving quickly and purposefully around the finish area so I didn’t want to bother her, but now I can take this opportunity to say… if you’re reading, thanks again Jasmin! Look forward to seeing you both at another Brazen start line soon.
After the race Chuck texted me to ask how it went, and I texted back: “3 words: brutal. brutal. over.”
But again, I learned (and re-learned) a lot from Rocky Ridge. I learned that although I’ll never be a mountain goat, it won’t be for lack of trying. I learned that those Bay Area folks who don’t know about Las Trampas are missing out. I learned that Brazen’s championship race may be brutal and grueling, but it’s precisely that brutality and, um, gruel that keep me dragging my uncooperative body out of bed on race mornings. If 4-year-old legs can conquer Rocky Ridge, then I have no excuses. And I learned that no matter how many times I see ’em, giant prize checks will always be cool… and presumably even more so if one has your name on it.
Most of all, I was reminded that although huge, adrenalizing road races like Chicago certainly have their place in my racing schedule, nothing beats the cathartic solitude of lacing up my trail shoes and hitting the dirt. What some would call the middle of nowhere, I call the middle of nowhere-I’d-rather-be. No concrete. No traffic. No road (or trail) rage. No 7-Elevens to spoil miles 7-11. And… no way, is that another steep uphill ahead?
In the final analysis Rocky Ridge 2011 was a valuable learning experience, based on which I reworked my strategy and expectations for 2012, and cut 4½ minutes off my finish time. Nothing mind-blowing, but certainly better than adding 4½ minutes. Along the way I extracted some beauty from that beast, and ultimately had myself a successful morning in Las Trampas. And really, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
After all, I had the best teacher.
PRODUCTION: With each race of theirs I run, I find another reason to pat the Brazen crew on the back. During Rocky Ridge I had plenty of time to think, albeit not particularly deep thoughts, and it struck me that for the Brazen trail races I’ve run, each course has many potential turnoffs where trails converge and diverge. Meaning many potential race courses. Yet Sam and Jasmin do a terrific job of mapping out some of the most challenging and scenic half marathon courses (or a 50K course, in the case of Mount Diablo) in the Bay Area, while always keeping them within limping distance of 13.1 miles. Amazingly, my Garmin after the Diablo 50K (= 31.1 miles) read 31.4 miles. At the same time, none of these courses consists of three flat loops around a marshy duck pond, or four out-and-backs along a single trail so you see way too much of your fellow runners… they’re well-designed loop courses (the Diablo 50K is point-to-point) that typically incorporate the steepest hills in the area. Kick-ass (literally and figuratively) courses like these don’t design themselves, and I don’t imagine they happen without some serious planning and execution. I might not be singing their praises so loudly if the Brazen crew held their events in the Marin Headlands, or in other well-worn trail-running hot spots as do other race organizers in the Bay Area. Instead, Brazen has carved out an impressive niche among local racing companies by doing their research and taking advantage of less-appreciated parks (or wilderness, in the case of Las Trampas) in both the East Bay and South Bay.
If race attendance is any indication, it’s clear that Brazen’s star is on the rise. And I hope Sam and Jasmin continue to grow and expand their operation to become the premier racing company in the Bay Area, if that’s their long-term goal. Fortunately, one of the (many) positives of a Brazen trail race is that they tend to be held in smaller regional parks where park guidelines restrict the number of runners. So Brazen aficionados can rest assured that the singletrack sections of Rocky Ridge won’t ever end up looking like the sidewalks outside the Apple store on the eve of a new iPhone release, with runners holding spots in line for other runners.
GEAR: My Merrell Mix Master 2 trail shoes, which I wore for the first time in race conditions, performed admirably with regard to grip and traction. They’re comfortably light but have enough of a heel to provide some braking capacity on steep descents. On the downside, I tend to think the pain in my arch during the race was due in part to the Mix Master 2’s minimal support on downhills… I’ve experienced a similar ache only once before while running in my Sonic Gloves, so I attribute it to the shape of the shoe last in these models. Admittedly I want to like the Mix Master 2’s because I think they’re a well-conceived, not-quite-minimalist trail shoe (and because I invested in them), and I’ll log a few more miles in ’em before making a decision. But at this point I prefer my more minimalist Road Gloves, based on how they contour to and support my midfoot and arch.
And hopefully this is the last time I’ll address this topic… my Injinji Midweight socks, which I wore at Chicago and on one other asphalt 30-miler before Rocky Ridge, survived the ups and downs of the trails better than the Injinjis I’ve worn in past Brazen races. The only obvious casualty is a very small hole developing in the middle toe of my right foot. So the Midweight toesocks do seem to hold together better than their more lightweight counterparts, but it may simply be the case that toesocks of any weight are more vulnerable than normal socks to the stresses of trail running. I’ll probably stick with them for races because even though I dislike their short lifespan, I dislike blisters caused by running on uneven terrain even more.
October 20, 2012
13.6 miles in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness
Finish time & pace: 2:33:11 (4:35 improvement over 2011), 10:58/mile
Finish place: 38/170 overall, 4/20 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: foggy and cool, mid-50s
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 3,577ft ascent, 3,558ft descent
(Garmin Training Center software): 4,426ft ascent, 4,303ft descent