Sunday, April 28, 2013

Running my best half and pacing my sister to her first 13.1 finish at the Irving Marathon

Race day at the Campión Trails in Irving.
Anyone who has read recent blog posts is probably sick of all the bike posts. Cycling and related races have dominated this space as of late. Tunesday has taken a backseat, so too has Five Photo Friday. Even running posts are in short supply. Well, I can fix that last one today!

Saturday marked the inaugural GE Irving Marathon on the city's Campión Trails, a scenic greenbelt that traces sections of the West and Elm forks of the Trinity River. My sister and I have raced before (Lovejoy Country Run 5K), but this was a very special day — Anne's first half marathon.

We took two different approaches to get to this day. She trained hard — followed a plan, incrementally ratcheted up her distance and hydrated like it was her job. I, on the other hand, didn't have a training plan. With all the training on the bike, I managed to run once or twice each week in the past month. Not ideal, but I figured the cycling counted for something — physical and mental strength conditioning (more on that in a moment). But I also figured this would not be a PR race for me, which would be OK. The highlight of the day was going to be seeing my sister accomplish her goal of finishing her first 13.1!

Ominous, fat, gray clouds rolled above our heads about an hour before the race. It looked like my knack at running rainy races would continue. Fortunately, they rolled east and the weather turned for the better. It was even a bit chilly at the start of the race.

The race layout was something new for me — the start/finish was in the middle of the course and there was an out-and-back loop on each side (map). Half marathoners ran both loops. Marathoners ran both loops twice, and 1-mile fun runners, 5Kers and 10Kers had different turnaround spots on the first loop. (To say that there was an opportunity for a lot of confusion on the course is an understatement. Fortunately, the course was well-marked and it was clear where everyone needed to go.)

I started the race in the 7:30 mile pace corral, hoping that I could keep that pace for at least a few of the miles. I busted that plan straight out of the gate, running 7:00. Clouds overhead and not terribly hot, I felt good, but I knew I needed to ease off the accelerator a bit. My second and third miles were around 7:15. That was more like it, but I still thought I might be a bit too fast. As I approached the first turnaround, I paid attention to the number of half marathoners who had already reached the turnaround and were passing me heading toward the second loop. There were only 10. That made me feel really good about my effort and gave me a boost. At that point, I knew this day could be special.

On the return route of the first loop, the sun came out, and the heat started to pick up. So I employed my dump one, drink one strategy for water stations (was *this close* to dumping red Gatorade on my head). I apparently wasn't the only one because some aid stations ran out of water and/or cups. These things happen, especially at first-time races. Fortunately, I also had my handheld water bottle, Endurolytes (3 every 30 minutes) and a gel (taken around mile 10) to keep me from seizing up.

I saw Anne for the first time as I approached the second loop, around mile 5. She looked great and like she was having a great time — smiling and strong. That's just what I wanted to see! Once on the second loop, the trail was less congested — fewer people bunched together, and no runners running in the opposite direction. This helped a lot because I was able to run the tangents. Over the couple of years I've raced, I have learned that every step counts, so why take more than you have to?! (Thanks, TPG). I looked well ahead on the trail to position myself for each step-saving, direct route. There was a runner 5 feet behind me who seemed content to keep my pace and follow my strategy for about 3 miles. At first, I was sorta annoyed. But he pushed me, and that's what I needed. I wasn't going to let him pass. And around mile 9, he slowed his pace and that was the last time someone was directly behind me.

What followed was the most challenging part of the race. Miles 10 and 11 were on a dam's gravel road. I, and probably everyone running the race, didn't expect this change of surface. I struggled on the rocks and contemplated running on the grass. My pace dropped and the turnaround in the distance seemed miles away. But I was feeling strong and I was passing runners. I didn't let these two miles discourage me. I knew that I could suck it up and get finish them. The sooner, the better.

The final stretch of the race was back on pavement. I fought my mind (the one that wanted to slow down and walk and take a stretch break at the next aid station) and focused on catching runners ahead of me. I also focused on friends and even people I don't know who are facing tough situations — extremely sick children, a broken back, unemployment and addiction. Their ability to stand strong when dealt tough cards made my temporary pain feel so insignificant and completely tolerable. Thinking about friends training for next month's Ironman also pushed me. Thinking about my recent successful races races reminded me that I can overcome the desire to slow down and not push myself.

Third in my AG (first time I placed at a run) and 19th
overall. A damn fine day at the races!
When I reached the mile 12 marker, I was exhausted, but my watch showed that I was on pace to run a sub-1:40. I dug deep and kicked as hard as I could. I didn't slow down. I kept fighting and I crossed the finish line — 1:36:37. I credit staying mentally tough and focused on the task at hand for slashing 11 minutes off my PR.

I was stoked! I hardly could believe it. I stretched, took some shots, made the accomplishment FB and Twitter official and then turned my attention to the the important task of the day — meeting Anne for her final miles en route to completing her first half marathon.

I removed my timing chip from my shoe and removed my bib (didn't want to jack up my results or confuse racers as I ran the wrong way). I had a good idea that I would probably meet her at the worst place on the course — that gravel road. I was right. I was glad I could reassure her that this section would be over soon and that she could do anything for two miles. She was relieved to plant her feet back on the stable concrete. Although she said she felt bad, she looked good for a first-time half marathon runner. She was keeping a good pace, was hydrated and able to talk while moving. She didn't stop once. Even when the desire creeped in, she kept going. All. The. Damn. Way. In the last half mile, spectators and 10K finishers lined the way. I announced that my sister was about to finish her first half. The dozen-or-so people erupted in cheers. It was AWESOME! With the finish line in sight, I sprinted ahead so I could capture the moment. Anne, finishing her first half marathon.

13.1 in 2:37:29! Congrats, Anne!
It was an amazing moment! I was thrilled I got to see it and be a part of it. It was an outstanding day for us. She accomplished a big damn goal! So proud! And I managed to podium in my age group! It was outstanding and so too was the post-race Tex-Mex meal!

We are capable of big things, y'all. Don't let anyone — including yourself — tell you otherwise.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Riding hard and smart at Austin Rattler 100K

Pre-race posing. Lots of black for a 70-degree day.
Whether you run or ride dirt trails, there's a good chance you've heard of the trail races in Leadville, Colo. The most vaunted of the races are the 100-mile trail run and mountain bike ride. Not just anyone can compete in these ultimate endurance challenges.

The Austin Rattler 100K, set at Rocky Hill Ranch in Smithville (42 miles southwest of ATX), was the first of this season's qualifying races for the Leadville Trail 100 MTB. Outside of watching trail clips riders posted on YouTube, I had very little knowledge of the course. I heard it was hilly and that sections were technical; but I entered the race only knowing that I had to ride the 15.5 mile loop four times in fewer than 7 hours if I wanted to qualify for the Leadville lottery.

The Friday night before race day, TPG drove us to our weekend home base — Bastrop State Park, just about 13 miles from the race course. For those who don't know, a wildfire ravaged 96 percent of the park in 2011, burning thousands of loblolly pines. We saw acres upon acres of charred pine trees at the park. But there also were pockets of green sprouting from the ground that made us hopeful that in a couple of generations' time, the park would be returned to its stunning glory. The weather was ideal for camping — just cold enough for a sleeping bag, but not too chilly (or windy) to be uncomfortable. Best of all, no rain!
Straight outta the gate. Hook 'em!

On race day, we headed to Smithville with bikes in tow — my fat mountain bike invading the personal space of TPG's svelte tri-bike on the bike rack. With Ironman Texas just about a month away, the race location afforded her plenty of hilly, pave options for a good 3-or-so-hour training ride.

I estimated it might take me 6 hours to finish the race. I didn't like not knowing the course, but what can you do? So when the race began, it was all fresh trail to me. And it was awesome!

I hadn't entered a mountain bike race (excluding gravel grinders) since 2005, but my recent training has been predominantly on trails. So I was confident from the beginning. The first half of the trail was mostly jeep and fire roads — plenty of room for all the riders to avoid each other and avoid logjams. These were the sections where I excelled, especially up the hills. And there were plenty of hills. Many were separated only by 50 yards or so of flat or downhill relief. So it seemed like we were constantly climbing.

But we weren't. There were some fun and fast downhills. I confidently flew down these sections, many littered with fist-sized rocks and featured puddles from recent rains at their bottom.

The start/finish line was awesome. An announcer
calling your name and spectathletes yelling and
ringing cowbells can boost the spirits. The
organizers of the Leadville Race Series clearly
know what they are doing. 
Overall, the singletrack sections weren't incredibly technical. Compared to Big Cedar or even Rowlett Creek Preserve, the course didn't have quite as many switchbacks as I imagined it would. The first lap of these sections, however, were painfully slow. There were a few bottlenecks where racers struggled to climb and descend, which slowed the rest of the field. This didn't concern me too much. The slower pace the first go-round afforded me more time to get comfortable with the terrain. So comfortable, in fact, that during one of those bottlenecks I plunged into the dirt when gravity won its battle with balance. No harm, no foul. I collected myself and pedaled onward. 

The trickiest section of the course was about 5 minutes from the start/finish line. I haven't a clue the name of this section, but the three whoop de doos, two with bridge crossings, made for an exciting race. (The first and second loops, I conquered them; the third and fourth loops, they returned the favor).

The first lap, I clocked in at about 1:15, significantly faster than I anticipated. I expected at least an 1:30 for the first lap.

The second lap was mostly uneventful. My confidence was elevated since I knew the course. The humorous race volunteers at one section of the course blasted late '90s and early '00s rock and rap (I recognized Cypress Hill and Limp Bizkit) and good-spiritedly mocked/motivated riders to pick up the pace. And that's exactly what I did on the second lap. I pedaled fast through the flat sections, passed anyone in front of me on the hills and conserved energy as I sped downhill. The sun poking through the pines and beating down on racers in the open sections of the course became a factor on the second loop. I had to stop for a two-minute Camelbak refill. Even with that delay, I crossed the line in 1:15.

Such a fun time splashing in the puddles. I think in this photo I am actually saying "Yeah, yeah, yeah!!!"

The third loop was the toughest one. My quads started cramping, and I couldn't attack the climbs quite like I did the first two times. I focused on engaging my hamstrings and glutes as much as possible — leaning my core forward and grabbing the bar ends of my Ergon GP2 grips. That made a big difference. I only hopped out of the saddle and relied on my calves two or three times the entire race, practicing my strategy for enduring 24 Hours in the Canyon in June. My pace was slower — not quite sure exactly, but at least 1:20.

This angle does the whoop de doo no justice. It was steep and fast. Oh, and the most fun you can have on two wheels
in Smithville.

Entering the fourth loop, I figured finishing in under 5 hours was going to be impossible, but, barring a complete meltdown or a mechanical problem I would finish well under 7 hours. I pushed and pedaled fairly hard, but not full effort until the end of the race. I enjoyed the final loop — soaked up the scenery and the spirit of a fun race. Approaching the final segment of the race, the crowd started cheering hard. as I approached the finish line. I thought that was pretty damn cool. And then I heard cheers of "Go girl!" and the like. As soon as I realized those cheers weren't for me, a speedy female racer blazed past me. I tried to catch her in the final 400 meters, but she had more in the tank than I did. I crossed the finish in 5:11, felt the sense of accomplishment when I heard the announcer call "Robert Tracy, Dallas, Texas, and rolled to the aid station where I congratulated the woman who passed me on an impressive finish.

Livin' Dangerously Fast. Proud of my race and the kick-ass badge/bottle opener. Muchas Gracias to TPG also for making a killer post-race sandwich and being the best Sherpa a racer could ask for. 

Overall, it was a great race. I performed well, didn't injure myself, felt great on the bike and could have ridden even longer. All of that's a great thing, because I have entered the buildup in my training for 24 Hours in the Canyon. This weekend, I will return to Palo Duro Canyon State Park for the first time in over two years to get in some solid miles and hours on the race course. It's supposed to be a perfect weekend for it, too. Great weather for riding and camping.

Final note 

My finishing time qualified me for the Leadville lotto. Fifty spots were up for grabs, but I didn't hear my name called. That 100-mile race won't happen this year, but I wouldn't be surprised if 2014 is my year to compete in Colorado. At the very least, I would gladly race Austin Rattler 100K again, and I recommend it for anyone who is looking for a well-run race that offers a good challenge and fun atmosphere.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Spinistry's Red River Riot — Muenster, Texas

Photo by Jessica Lee/Spinistry
The road to happiness isn't always paved. In the case of the 2013 Red River Riot, only the beginning and a few stretches of the 50K, 100K and 200K courses were paved. The majority of the roads were dirty, muddy, slippery, challenging and fun gravel.

Straight-up posin' for y'all.
Another weekend, another race that's down and dirty. The second installment of my all-things-dirt series (part one) brought me to Muenster, Texas — a small city just barely on the right side (read: correct side) of the Red River. Muenster is well known for its German heritage (strudel!!!) and ... well, that's really about it. Unless, you're a fan of football; then, by all means, read about the Kraut Bowl.

All kidding aside, there's much more in Muenster, actually. It turns out, there are the necessary gravel roads and significant hills for another Spinistry event — the Red River Riot. If you didn't read about Spinistry or gravel grinding in my Texas Chainring Massacre recap, here's the gist: Spinistry puts on kick-ass, tough races in farflung communities for mountain bike and cyclocross riders. The races are laid-back and an absolute blast. I intend to race as many as I can.

That's one clean bike. Not for long. 
The night before RRR, it rained heavily throughout the region. While the storms didn't hit Muenster too hard, the precipitation was enough to turn many of the roads into a muddy mess for the approximately 130 riders who dared to grind gravel for distances of 50, 100 and 200 kilometers.

I signed up for the 200K (route actually equalled 130 miles). I figured it could take me 10 hours to complete, depending on the terrain and weather. It would be a perfect training ride for 24 Hours in the Canyon and a good test of my recently purchased Orbea.

I started the race spinning fairly easily, not succumbing to the excitement of the race and overexerting myself early. The 29er sure does pedal smoothly — much more bang for your effort buck than my old 26-inch-wheeled MTB (my review of the rig coming soon). Still, I wasn't hauling much ass. I happily allowed the cyclocross riders and quick-paced MTBers to roll right past me. As wet as the roads were, they didn't kick up much mud. That's not to say it wasn't messy; it sure was. It took a few miles to get a feel for the way my bike handled on the terrain — getting comfortable with the way the rear tire would drift, following well-worn tracks and picking lines that would offer the smoothest ride. You can't ride these roads with your brain completely shut off. You have to be engaged. And it's a blast. Riding them on a bike is one thing, but I couldn't imagine the fun of driving on them. I figure tooling around in a 4X4 is good sport and cheap entertainment around Muenster — as evidenced by the varieties of light-domestic empties lining the sides of the roads.

Riders ahead and wind turbines on the horizon. As is the case for smaller races that cover considerable distances, most of the ride is a very solitary experience. This picture shows some decent elevation, but nothing close to the most challenging hill later in the race.
All smiles on the flat sections!
The sights of this part of the state are limited, but none the less interesting. The sky was endless and blue, punctuated by at least 50 wind turbines sprouting from the ground that used to be oil rich. Amid the few remaining derricks, there were plenty of cattle (even longhorn), horses and a couple of sheep "mowing" their owner's grass. But it's unwise to admire the surroundings too much during a gravel grinder. The route is marked with orange rectangles. I almost missed one while taking the picture on the left. Not my best moment of the race.

Need more incentive for paying attention and not mugging for an effin' picture: Apparently the locals can be troublesome during these kinds of events — either removing those orange arrows or turning them in opposite directions. Utilizing GPS is a good idea, as race director/Spinistry founder Kevin Lee advises. I had printouts of the route and the map on Google Earth just to be safe. Fortunately, I didn't need either. Thanks, Locals for not jackin' with the signs!

So, yeah, those hills. There were a few of those bastards. Dry gravel would have been challenging, but doable. A little bit of precipitation made them damn tough. I resorted to walking the last large climb when I realized spinning my granny gear was wasting more energy than pushing a bike would.

It's hard to tell from the picture, but that's a 17 percent grade (better evidence in subsequent shot). It kicked my ass. 

Throughout the race, I went back and forth in my head — "Will I do the full 200K, or will I call it a day at 100K?" Thinking about friends who have accomplished bigger, badder and tougher races kept me motivated at times. Then I would lose focus and daydream about being done. And then a well-timed Lara bar would revive my spirits ... and then dropping it in the gravel after a single bite would deflate me. (I almost stopped to pick it up. No lie. I wanted it soooo bad.)

Ain't that a sight! Well worth walking, too!
By the time I finished the first 100K in a little over 4 hours, I was 50/50 on finishing or quitting. It was sort of nice having the option. See, the route wisely led all racers back to the start/finish — 200Kers had to check in before starting the second half of the course. I built a bitchin' veggie burrito (respect to Spinistry for providing vegetarian-friendly food) and enjoyed it as I mulled my decision.

Sitting in the parking lot near Muenster High School, I watched other racers load up their gear and clean up before heading back to their homes for the day. All of that was very appealing to me, more so than completing the day's challenge, I'm afraid to say. In the moment, it was the right choice — I enjoyed the ride, felt strong and wanted to end the day that way. Finishing the 200K probably would have felt great. An accomplishment. But I pondered if finishing might be more punishment than training. We will never know. I'll live with it ... until next year, when I will finish the whole damn thing.

Up next

After spectating the hell out of Ironman 70.3 Texas in Galveston, the plan is to camp at Bastrop State Park before racing the Austin Rattler 100K. I have no doubt I'll be ready for that. I received extra motivation the other day when I watched the two "Race Across the Sky" documentaries about the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike race. I highly recommend both if you're looking to get pumped; however, I will say that the second doc is better because it highlights more everyday riders than the first (that 2009 doc is a Lance Armstrong highlight reel). If only I had watched them before RRR; those mountains make gravel roads look like child's play! See for yourself.