Monthly Archives: March 2012

Oakland Marathon 25th March 2012

Oakland Marathon

Sunday March 29th 2012

So talented - finishing Oakland Marathon while playing imaginary piano

It was Richard Ervais’ fault (Hamish’s work colleague at Bite who suffers so badly from marathon addiction he is close to completing 100 ). He mentioned Oakland was having a marathon and I thought, good for Oakland .. I should support that. I live in Marin, 26.07  miles (almost precisely a marathon) away but a world apart from Oakland.  Marin features in charts of places most Americans want to live (the most aggressive things here are real estate agents) while Oakland has been number 5 on the FBI’s list of America’s most dangerous cities for  years

most-dangerous-cities-according-to-fbi/. I grew up  near Belfast so I know what it is to love a community with a bad rep.

Oakland’s organizers requested no headphones and if you wear them you are ineligible for awards/prizes….and there were cash prizes five deep in the ladies positions and for the masters (first lady over 40). So …mmm..ok no ipod. Darn. I normally run trail, kinda grim prospect ..roady stuff without ear escapism.

The weather was 100% chance of rain but I arrived to clear skies and worries about where to park also also evapourated as  street parking was free on Sunday.  I dented Oaklands economy but secured good karma by sharing this joy with line of drivers who were  queuing for pay parking  right beside a row of   free-on-Sunday meters.  Shortly after that a rat ran over my foot. Well let’s have that as a good omen –   he kept up a strong pace as he rounded the corner.

The race was interesting. I eyed the guy with a 3.10 pace sign on a stick ( if you stay with him you should complete the race in 3hrs 10mins) at the start and wondered if I should try to join his group. I’m a bit funny about numbers when it comes to running. I never time myself on mile splits,  I rarely want to know how many miles I have done.  I just run a squeeze beyond what is comfortable  and keep going until someone offers me wine or I see a finish line.

Start of Oakland Marathon - Mr 3.10 is behind me

After the first few miles they do send you up some surprisingly challenging hills. I could see there were some uppy bits building to mile 11 but nothing over 8oo ft ish. I wondered (mistakenly) if perhaps I might not notice them as my trail marathons often exceed 5/6000 ft. I passed Mr 3.10 and his cronies early on but they nibbled away at the ground between us as the hills continued and swooped by me, as did a perfect specimen of feminine beauty and athleticism which turned out to be Ms Monica Zhuang. This was my first and final chance to meet her before she glided over the finish line as second lady. I resisted the temptation to chase them, believing in my natural feel and remembering the races where I have pushed too hard at the start only to fizzle later on.  Really any marathon is about surviving first, times later.  I don’t know why I found those hills so tough, you can’t dig your toes in and lean forward as you can on a steep trail and I wasn’t sure if I should be doing shorter or longer strides. All in all I began to feel rather small about my ‘ oh I’ll just cruise this little flat thing in 3 hoursish ’  thoughts. They did not return.

Eventually we crowned the top of the last big hill around mile 12.  A cheerful group of people with balloons shrieked ‘It’s all downhill from here’. This always  amuses me in races for two reasons. 1) in any other context this expression would be bad news and 2) people who shout this are invariably unwittingly lying unless they are about an inch from the finish. I was chatting to two runners at this point, one of which  knew the course well. He assured me there was a dramatic big long down from this point for 5 miles. One was a hills man, the other like me tends to do well on downs. Mr hills bade us goodbye as if he was dying and assured us we wouldn’t see him again as we crested the hill. And aha I could see Mr 3.10 ahead. My new friend and I both started thundering down to annihilate him. Just then I felt my back jolting and sparks of pain sprinkled down my right leg so I had to pull back. That was a bit sad. I seem to need to let my back sort of settle when I change from steep up to steep down on road. (I had 5 months off running with two torn discs in my back last year and am now on an active recovery where I treat them badly by running marathons  then cajole them with heavyweight anti-inflammatories and by slathering on the Icy Heat. I do have to respect pain though and the repeated hitting on hard road is worse that trail stuff for it) My new pal also found his big downhill moment less fun than expected as he suddenly announced ‘oh dear’ and dropped out.  I was however delighted to spot  Mr hills positively cooking later on around mile 20.

I did enjoy the local people and sights and sounds of downtown Oakland – loved the bit where  you run through a flaming bridge. There were A LOT of policemen, and there were also more dogs  – police and otherwise  – than I have ever seen at a marathon before (which is hard for me as I want to stop and cuddle them all..I did pat a few). I wondered which streets were the ones that I would be ill-advised to walk down come nightfall. We had been lead to expect  live music on virtually every street corner and that was certainly not the case and made the no headphones thing tougher for me – but I enjoyed what was there was and as always there were one or two little comments/exchanges with people that made the day memorable.  A husky voice from an upper apartment said ‘Moma got tail’ …it may mean I have an impressively large behind but I didn’t ask for clarification. Sometimes it is hard to show you appreciate all the shouts of encouragement, but every single one helps a little when you are going through a tough time motivating yourself and I must say I did find this  hard.  I liked the sign  ‘Pain is temporary, pride is forever’.I’m sure my back surgeon would like a little chat with the lady holding it.

Alas purple water carrier. It was to be our last adventure together.

By accident I overheard some people talking about Mr 3.10 as we hit mile 21 sign. It appears he had had to drop out due to suspected rest room needs. The news  cheered me as I had been feeling a little glum he was not even in view in places where I could see well ahead. It turned out these people were running the 3.10ish pace so I was doing better than I had thought. To celebrate I decided to ditch my water carrier as it was empty and was hurting my hand. What an old fool I had bought a jaunty purple one at the expo …(I know, never race with something new, but it was  pretty and had nice big zippy pockety bits). I lobbed it towards a group of children. Wonder what they made of my emergency contact lens and tampon.

warning  – I’m off on a history lesson here!

Ohlone Indians in the good ole days -um sorry guys, no boats.

It’s  a good sign when you can see the lake Merritt in this marathon. Funny to picture the  Ohlone Indians who used to  fish and hunt in wetlands here. As an archaeologist I do like knowing the early history of places like this.  (with no ipod I was trying to get my mind on something). The Indians were chucked out when the land was deeded to one very happy Sergeant Peralta in 1810. He got his comeuppance in 1848 when squatters moved in during the gold rush and battled for nearly ten years to get a judge to get them off. After that his children started bickering over the land and the drama continued ..just recently of course the land was encamped by Occupy. It was called Lake Peralta until Mayor Merritt funded an operation to turn it into a center of civic pride in the 1870s. Now wait for it..he pushed for it to be made a hunting free, wildlife refuge (the first in North America) as the place was teaming with wildlife and he wanted to avoid ‘the danger of gunfire so close to the city’. Oh the irony.


Last bit ...gritting teeth and thinking about Indians

Suddenly the course was lined with people shouting things like ‘you can smell it’ and people doing the shorter events became increasingly evident, adding  a lovely burst of speed and energy.  The race asked marathoners to put a ‘full’ sign on their backs. I’ve not been in a race that does this before but it was good, it helps to know who is doing what.  It popped into my head while I was running how poignant it would be if you suddenly saw one saying ‘empty’.The last half mile was tough. I tried to appreciate the beauty of the lake-side path and bridge over the water, but was starting to dig for the will to go on by singing ‘The Eye of the Tiger’ in my head when I was suddenly refreshed by a moment of comic relief. With .2 of a mile to go Mr 3.10 hurtled by me with his little sign, he was making death throe type noises but he was really going for it and I cheered him on. I spoke to him later and he had been stopped for a full 5 mins so he had really done well to make it so close to his time. He had not particularly enjoyed his morning.

And then it was over. My time was 3 hrs 12m – not bad for an old carcass like me on a course with a bit of hill  – and to my delight I was third lady. The first lady had been home for nearly a quarter of an hour, playing with the baby she gave birth to six weeks before. Good grief! I don’t know what is more impressive, her run or her luck in acquiring a husband that will look after three children including a new born for three hours!I was delighted to spot Richard later on. He wasn’t feeling too good and hadn’t had a great race but he had done it in a little over four hours and had taken another step towards doing 100 marathons…awesome! It was lovely to see a friendly face as I was by myself and even lovelier to see his friendly hand offering me $10 with which I was able to buy some startlingly good espresso coffee from a little food wagon.  At the little prize ceremony I recognized the much lauded name Sarah Lavender Smith from various trail events – she  and the lady who was 4thcame in

Very sexy - both Sarah and trophy

a just a few minutes behind me. I got an excitingly shiny trophy for being third lady and as this race sensibly doesn’t give masters to position winners, Sarah won the masters trophy which – I enjoyed teasing her afterwards –  was a great deal sexier than mine. I think she should have it made into a hat for the next royal wedding. Reading her blog I was delighted to recognize a blind addiction to running defying medical advice and tendancy to  regard physical pain  – especially during this event – as an irritant rather than a reason to stop that makes me look tame and sensible. She is training for a 100 k run, I suspect she will nail it. 

It looks like I will receive $300 prize money though it’s not in my paw yet. If I do I look forward to putting some of this back to support Oakland through the Ella Baker Center. This is a very fine organization, one I had not heard of before attending the marathon expo. It is really impossible not to be humbled by the importance of their work with young people on the streets and in the prison system in Oakland and California.


Montara Marathon, March 2012

Saturday, March 3rd 2012. San Pedro Valley Park, Pacifica.

Traditionally I start Costal Trail events with some mishap. At Crystal Springs I squirted Icy Heat gel into my eye while investigating how to open the tube moments before the race began. At Montara I lost my hanky.

A minor thing for most people, this is a disaster for me as (bizarrely) I only have half a functional nose and it streams as soon as I start running. No hanky means no breathing.  I was auditioning various items in the car to be replacements …tissues are useless as they become saturated with sweat…a diaper was a serious contender…then I  found  the hanky lying under my car..I mean how on earth did it get there?? with two minutes to go.

So starting the race with hanky was quite a relief.  The pre-race tension melted away as the half marathon, marathon and 50k runners kicked off at 8am and soon plunged into beautiful dark comforting forest. It is worth pushing yourself towards the front of the herd at the start so you don’t get trapped behind slower runners on the single track uphill. For many of us it is always a fine balance between fighting to get breathing under control and staying in a good position – good to know you can afford to go for it on this one as while it is a long hill the first mile or so is relatively comfortable.  (I missed the start at Steep Ravine a month ago (I was chatting duh) and sprinted to get to the head of the pack to be free on single track near that start. Not a good idea, I was still sucking in air like a hyperactive vaccum cleaner 5 miles later.)

The course ( is a series of hills forming a half marathon course.  A big hill, a teeny one and then a medium one. Marathoners repeat them all, 50K runners do the same and then hit the medium one again. This really is the kind of run where you can help yourself by being strategic when you deploy your energy gels. At least with a repeating course you can learn from your mistakes. (Here I learned to fuel up for that third hill as I  fizzled out on it during the first loop).

The first and big hill one is like a friendly giant. It is a long hill but divides into clear sections which give you a wonderful sense of achievement and anticipation as you gradually rise to North Peak. The top section is glorious. An open expanse of fire road slashed in rock, much of it is gleaming white in the sun  – almost like a glacier. The views are stunning and you get to soak them in while you are running, even if you are not the kind of runner who likes to stop. I found it rather sweet that we got to pick up an orange rubber band on the first visit to the top and a purple on the second. (Note on this, like most people I put them on my wrist initially which for me was a mistake. My wrists are not particularly big but my hands do tend to swell towards the end of a marathon and I was startled to realise I had given myself a huge throbbing hand an hour later. So I moved them to a finger which was fine and then ..a  fun option for ladies …to the end of my braids). 

Flying back down from North Peak (above) is tremendous fun.  For serious competitors it’s a chance to see how hard you have to work to catch the leaders and to eyeball how fresh the meat is creeping up behind you. But that really isn’t the style of these events overall.  There is always good banter when runners get to pass each other and it is important to stress just what a lovely mix of people join in at these events. Everyone benefits from being encouraged by each other. The sense of competition is just right, enough of a race for the lead people to be pushed but the type of event where first timers or people who intend to hike parts feel in good company. Everyone has their own challenge and everyone is respected for being there and achieving their own goals.

The lower section of the descent from North Peak is a blast – you hurtle around gloriously pungent Eucalyptus trees in a fast series of switchbacks. At the bottom you have an odd little portion on flat ground (it is hard to adjust after being downhill for so long), there is time for a tantalizing glimpse of your getaway car in the parking area and the finishing line before you pass the refreshments table and head up the smallest of the three hills. As runners pass this station on every loop and are visible for a decent length of time it makes the event more interesting than some for supporters. Small children will find it fun to sneak the candy, energy bites and gels!

Jason Wolf and I finished as first man and lady a little over 4 hours  – and are the current course record holders ( have to stress  we were rather lucky with the conditions, it was a perfect day  – I can imagine the course would take a great deal longer with extremes of wind, rain or heat)

On a repeating course I like to name things and pick features to revisit as little mental goals along the way. I named the first hill the Gentle Giant, the second The Pimple and the third The Zit. The second is not a big deal, up up up, down down down, you can cope with that. The third, charmingly named Hazelnut is hideous. Absolutely hideous. I suppose by that stage your legs are tired so it is unfair to blame the hill entirely but I will anyway. The gradient is more difficult to get comfy on, there is an endless series of similar looking evil switchbacks which lure you into thinking you have reached the top over and over again. I started naming the switchbacks ‘Git’ , ‘Frog leg’, ‘Rat Face’ etc  towards the end and searching for distinguishing signs to entertain myself. Then, oh joy, it is all suddenly over and you can relax into bouncing along a delightful downhill, interrupted only by a stunning excursion through a grove of Eucalyptus trees. On your final loop this downhill makes for a joyous finish.

If you are thinking about doing this race do it. I would push you to consider the half marathon rather than the 10K which doesn’t have the nicest bits of course. Forgive the Zit and form a memory to cherish zooming down North Peak. I gave Wendell a big kick on the shin for making me run up The Zit twice, it made me feel much better. You might like to try this too.

No hazelnuts were hurt in the making of this blog, though a few may be slightly offended.