Monday, August 19, 2013

Bluff Trail

One of the things that I said I would definitely do more once we moved back to Chattanooga is get out on the trails. I've heard it said (though never verified) that we have 54 trail heads within 30 minutes of downtown Chattanooga. I do know that there are enough around here to make a 50 mile trail race possible (and a 100 miler in the works). In any case, some of the trails we have are converted rail trails, wide enough for a car and paved with gravel, some are less than a mile in the middle of the woods and more suitable for hiking, and some are anywhere in between.

I've fallen in with a group of runners in the neighborhood (dudes like me with kids and day jobs). We run three times a week, and pretty much stick to the roads.
It starts out nice and easy...
It's good to be running with other folks again, and it has really been good for boosting my mileage. However, I caught a serious itch to run a trail on Saturday. Maybe it was the amazing coolish snap we've had the past couple weeks after I complained about the heat. In any case, I laced up in my Trail Gloves, and headed out the door. Thinking that I might see some sights worth preserving in pictures (and just in case I ran into an issue on the back side of a mountain all by myself), I brought along my iPhone.

The trail that runs down to Cravens House is a little over two miles from our house. I seriously hate driving to the start of a workout, so it's a good thing that there are plenty of options like this nearby. I'd seen the trail head plenty of times driving up and down the mountain, but I'd never run it. It turns out that it's wide, well kept, bright, and paved with gravel. It even takes you up under the Incline Railroad tracks.

It's at this point that I should probably stop for a minute and comment on my shoe choice. The Trail Glove has a rock plate on the forefoot to help with surfaces such as a gravel road.
...but eventually turns to this.
The Merrell Barefoot line (like all good minimalist shoes) is known for having a wide toe box. I love the toe box on all my Merrell Barefoot shoes, but the thing is, I have long, skinny feet which don't even come close to filling that bad boy out. While this is great for toe splay, it also allows rocks to push the rock plate to the side if you land just right, causing you to realize just how minimal the shoe actually is. There is no rock plate under the heel either. I don't care how proud you are of your super efficient, running nerd, forefoot strike: sometimes there is a pointy rock that happens to be protruding just behind where you planted that forefoot strike, and it will catch your heel. You're not going to get a puncture wound or anything, but it is something of a jolt to be cruising along (and believe me, you absolutely can cruise along in these lightweight, low profile shoes) worry free, then land with a pointy rock towards the outside of your foot. The low profile also translates into basically no ankle support. As the shoes have a small base, the leverage against your ankle is never as big as something with a larger platform. I don't have sore ankles today, but if you are looking for roll protection, you won't find it in these shoes.

After about a mile, the trail abruptly ended into the Cravens House parking lot. I had heard that there were more trails around Cravens House, so I just kept running, and before long, I came across another one, albeit a wooded, single track.
One of the many rock faces along the way.
This was what I was looking for when I set out this morning. The trail started up and winding with a couple rolls on a mixture of dirt and rock. It got steep enough to make me walk a few steps here and there. Sometimes, there were rock steps. Sometimes, it was just dirt. At one point, I passed a group of three women and their huge dog (seriously, Great Dane huge) coming the other way. After a while though, the trail (mercifully) leveled out, and I began to sort of recognize where I was.

I was on what I now know as the "Bluff Trail." It runs around the western edge of Lookout Mountain. As the trail winds along, you run up next to rock faces, underneath rock overhangs, and cross what may even be the start of a mountain stream or two. The rocks get bigger and smaller, more dense and less dense as you go. Every once in a while, the trail turns out from the mountain and there's a break in the trees, giving you a pretty sweet view of the valley below. It's beautiful. It's also terrain and settings like this where the Trail Glove does its best work. Yes, you still have the issue of rocks sneaking around the rock plate, but the treads are great for gripping on dirt, and the ground feel means you can really plant your foot with conviction.
This is really someone's back yard.
I felt like I knew exactly what to do and exactly what I was doing with my feet the whole time.

I soon saw signs for Sunset Rock, a spot that I hiked to a few times when we lived here before. The thought crossed my mind that even though you can't see civilization at all out there, and I was technically in the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, I wasn't too far from someone's back yard. I do love how quickly you can get seemingly into the middle of nowhere in Chattanooga, and how quickly you can slip back when needed. As I rounded the base of Sunset Rock, I saw repelling ropes hanging from the cliffs above. Glancing up to make sure that a repeller wasn't about to sit on me, I rounded the corner and saw a couple of repellers who had just finished their decent. The girl was in the process of changing her shorts. No, I have no idea why. Yes, it was slightly awkward. All I could think to do was say "Howdy," and scamper on by. "Be careful of bees down that way," she said. "Bees. Got it. Thanks!" I replied.

From then on, the trail got thinner, as in undergrowth was starting to slap against my legs. I came upon a couple of other runners coming the other way.
You wouldn't know it, but there's a trail in there.
They looked way more like they knew what they were doing than me (Camelbaks and Salomons on the both of them), so I yielded and let them by. At one point the trail was completely blocked by a felled tree, and I had to nearly crawl under it. Eventually, I came to a fork, took the high road, and ended up back on a road that I recognized, at the trail head for the Ochs Gateway. A couple of less than thrilling road miles later, and I was back home with 11 new to me miles in my Garmin and little mud in the treads.

Not that you should take my word for it as I definitely haven't run in anywhere near enough trail shoes to have a completely informed opinion, but I like the Trail Gloves. They scratch my itch for lightweight, low profile, flexible and good ground feel in a shoe while still letting me cut loose a bit on varied terrain. Having made the mistake of running a trail or two in my Road Gloves and once (only once) in my Vibram FiveFinger Speeds, I can tell you that the rock plate does make a difference. As for the Bluff Trail, I hope to make it out there again soon. With so many other trails to run, it may be a while, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself out there. I'd be interested to see how much faster I run it when I'm not messing with my iPhone too.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Wendy's Wonderful Kids HM 2012

The 2011 edition of this event was my first ever race. It's also the only half marathon that I've ever raced twice. The group that puts on this race and a number of others (Wilkes-Barre Racing) is a non-profit that "organizes, promotes and conducts athletic activities for the purpose of raising money and awareness for child foster care and adoption." The $50 entry fee really isn't much of a donation considering what it costs to adopt or foster a child, but it is nice to know that it's going to good folks with a worthy mission.

I didn't have a running blog back then, but thankfully, the official results from the race are still available online, and I was able to scrounge up a few pictures from that day (taken by my dad with my mom's iPhone):

Ignore the pending heel strike. I had not developed the case of 
running nerdery with which I am now afflicted.

My crazy running mother (who won her division that day)

At the time, I remember being pretty proud of that 1:43:30, until my younger brother called to congratulate me on "finishing," and point out that his half marathon best was something in the low to mid 1:30s. Those of you with younger siblings know that I could not stand for this, and a month later (having now raced the distance and having a better feel for my ability), I set things right with a 1:31:08. He now does triathlons. Maybe in about 5 or 6 years, we can begin the cycle anew.

When 2012 came around, I decided to have another go and see how much faster I could run the same course on about the same calendar day of the year, but with a full year of regular running under my belt. I was 8 weeks into training for the Marine Corps Marathon, so while I wasn't really training for this race specifically, it was also a good test to see how my training had been going. I stated my goal at anything under 1:28 flat, thinking that the flat, familiar course would really help me out. I shifted my usual quality runs from Tuesday/Thursday to Monday/Wednesday and took two full days off going into it. I know that's not a full taper, but by Saturday morning, I was dying to run. The course is a basically two laps through town, the second 2/3 of each loop being an out and back. There is a 10K run simultaneously (same starting time, line and everything) which has it's own finishing line a little short of the HM finish line. The half marathon course also has a little extension on the second lap to make the full 13.1 miles.

The starting line was about a mile from my front porch, so just like the year before, I woke up a couple hours before the start, had a cup of coffee, did some last minute gear checks and then walked/ran down to the starting line. Now, I think I know why a lot of road races start late by my standards (8:00 AM in this case): safety (the "good" reason) and because they'll have problems getting people to turn out if they start earlier (the "real" reason). Unfortunately for this day, that meant temps nearing if not 70 degrees and the sun completely up over the horizon. Sure enough, the bank thermometer read 66 degrees when I ran by it at 7:15. No, it's not that hot, but add in a healthy bit of humidity and little to no cloud cover, and it's less than ideal, certainly if you are used to starting your run at 6:00 AM.

I think that the race director (a runner himself) realized this, and to his credit, hurried all 177 of us to the starting line and got us off and running a few minutes early. I had lined up near the front (though not on the front line, not that brave), and took off with a group at the front right away:

That's me in the gray shirt (#189) and the, shall we say, relaxed face.

Once that initial "Woohoo! I'm running again!" shot of adrenaline started to wear off, I realized a couple of very important things. First, the six or seven people in front of me were either faster than me or running the 10K, and second, I was running way, way faster than the 6:42 pace that my goal required. I knew that I should slow down, but well, I didn't, at least not right away. My Polar RCX5 soon chirped at me, and I looked down to see a 6:04 first mile. 6:04 is only 13 seconds above what I was typically running for 1600s in training at that time. The Polar "Race Pace" stick dude looked up at me and said "You're kidding, right?" (actually, he just said something like "-0:34," but that's about the same thing). This point in the course was flat, straight, and pretty well shaded by buildings and trees, so I wasn't feeling too bad. Still, I decided that it was about time to be responsible, and well, realistic, so I eased up.

Mile two: 6:20. "Are you kidding me!?!" I swear that 6:20 never felt so slow (especially after a 6:04), but I told myself to ease up some more.

Mile three: 6:29. "OK, I've really go to watch this." I realized just how much I rely on the audible target alarms of my GPS watch. I rarely train without one, but this being a race, I really didn't want to be the runner with the pacing watch yelling for everyone to hear. I backed off one more time and made a promise to check the actual display more than just at the mile chirps for the rest of the race. My 5K split turned out to be 19:42, not too far off my personal best at that distance at the time.

I finally did slow down and ran the next three miles near goal pace (6:41, 6:43, and 6:42). My second 5K split was 21:04 (10K 40:46), and I can't quite recall exactly what the clock read as I started the second pass through town, but I think that it was just under 42 minutes:

That's the eventual women's winner behind me. 
She caught me soon after this photo was taken.

However, the damage had been done. I had taken a Gu at about 35 minutes, and Gatorade at each of aid stations (5 times, but trust me, the portions were small), but by now, I felt the sun, and my quads were starting complain a bit. Most of the last mile of each lap was a very gradual uphill slope, and I knew that the second half of this race was going to be tough. I felt my gait start to lose it's smoothness. Miles 7 and 8 were shaded, flat, straight, and even slightly downhill, and I was able to pull 6:52 and 6:52 for each. After that, I lost the shade, and I really started to slow even more. Miles 9-12 went 7:04, 7:07, 7:00, and 7:05. My third 5K split was 22:51 (15K 1:03:38 by the timing mat).

By this point, I knew that 1:28 wasn't going to happen, but a PR (1:29:25) wasn't out of the question. Going in to the turn around, I had counted six runners in front of me (none close enough to have a realistic shot at overtaking), so an age group award was in the cards as well. I was pulling the mile long slope again, and running face to the sun. I heard some footsteps behind me, and I wasn't sure if it was another runner giving chase, or runners who were starting the out part of the out and back. I knew that one was about 20 seconds behind me at the turn around. I told myself that it had to be him about to catch me, and that I really ought not let that happen this close to the end of the race. True or not, it couldn't have hurt because I ran mile 13 in 6:52.

As I rounded the second to last turn, I looked over my shoulder to see if that runner was indeed about to catch me. Mercifully, he was nowhere in sight. I rounded the final turn and started accelerating towards the finish. By the end, I at least felt like I was sprinting. I think the announcer lady even said something like, "Wow! We've got a sprinter!" With about 50 yards to go, I looked to my left and saw my dear wife and 2.5 year daughter old smiling, cheering, and taking this picture: 

This is the face of a bow-legged man with a PR in sight. 
Also, he's wearing a heart rate monitor.

I crossed the line in 1:29:06, good enough for seventh overall, second in my age group, and a new personal best. It wasn't as fast as I had wanted to run. Maybe I had less than fully rested legs from marathon training. Maybe it really was hot and the sun got to me. Most likely I just wasn't in as good a shape as I thought. It wasn't a pretty, even split, or even a particularly well run race, but a PR is a PR and I'll take it. The post race festivities were low key (including free pancakes for all). The music wasn't so loud that you couldn't talk over it (I find it highly annoying when it is), and the crowd was small enough that I found and congratulated a few of the runners who had passed me on the course. I even made some new friends, one who happened to be my neighbor, and another who gave me some advice concerning the Marine Corps Marathon (himself having run it last year).

It was fun to have a local half like that to kind of call my own, and if we still lived in Wilkes-Barre, PA, I'd have run it again this year. We weren't locals. We're not even from PA, but on that Saturday, it kind of felt like we were. We hung out for a good long time, shook hands with a few of the new friends we met, then walked (much more slowly than before) back home.

The hardware

...and just because I still got it, here's 2011's hardware too.