Monday, 30 May 2011

Comrades 2011

Well, not quite to plan this time around. Comrades is always such an overwhelming experience and that was the case again, but this time in the sense that the race humbled me and left me heartbroken after spending so long focusing on it.

My race went bad after around 35km before even hitting the marathon mark and I could only jog from that point, losing motivation given that a sub 6h time was clearly not on the cards, never mind a gold medal for top 10. Luckily I perked up a bit nearer the end after seeing Kami Semick charging along as if it was the first few miles and with a shot of chasing down the Russian twins for a win. 6:25 was my final time, which was well off the 5:51 needed to get a gold medal this year.

But the real story, which I'm really glad I got to see first hand, was the set of amazing performances by the top Brits and Americans. Before I mention the names and times, I'll just lay out the stats of the course so people can appreciate how good their performances were.

  • 87km (54 miles) long, from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in South Africa
  • 7,000ft of ascent and 5,000ft of descent along the road between those cities (reverse those numbers when it's the down run in every other year)
  • Up to $100,000 available for a win, based on sponsor/time/local bonuses and plenty more for the rest of the top 10s
  • Men's course record of 5:24 and women's of 6:09
  • 19,000 entrants with the deepest and strongest ultra field in the world
  • Strict cut-offs with a finish line cut-off of exactly 12 hours, not a second longer
So, it's a tough race and those roads hammer the legs over the distance, especially at the pace the leaders go at. The men's winner was Stephen Muzhingi for the third year in a row, in 5:32 and the women's winner was Elena Nurgalieva for her sixth and slowest win in 6:24, with her twin sister Olesya a few seconds behind. These twins have marathon PBs under 2:30 and have won eight of the last nine Comrades, just being beaten once.

However, the twins were supposedly a bit tired from racing very hard at the Two Oceans 56km race five weeks ago (it's always over Easter which was particularly late this year) and they did look slightly weary when I ran with them for about 10k in the latter stages of the race before dropping off their pace. Kami Semick (The North Face) was chasing them hard and finished in third, only two minutes back in 6:26. If it had been a 100k, I'm certain she'd have caught them. And fellow Brit, Ellie Greenwood (Montrail), was overtaking people through the second half to finish in 6:32 for fourth, who may also have caught them given more distance. These two are on fire and now have a 1-1 record against each other after Ellie's win at American River 50 last month. Anyone want to bet who'll win their next showdown at Western States?

Kami and Ellie are both former 100k World Champions (in 2009 and 2010, respectively), but we also had the 2006 winner running since Lizzie Hawker (also a Brit running for The North Face) was out there and took it out hard. Lizzie was in third in the early stages but fell back a little to finish in seventh in 6:48. So Kami gained a position from her 2010 fourth place and Lizzie was one lower after sixth last year. Looks like it was a hell of a race out there and much closer than usual. I think all three ladies will be back to take down those Russians and it'll be good to see those battles over the coming years.

On the men's side, Mike Wardian and myself (both for The North Face) had our sights set on gold medals. The girls were all but certain to break the top 10, but the exact positions were what made it interesting. But Mike and I were 14 and 13 minutes off a gold last year, respectively, and even 10th would be a huge victory (or ideally both of us top 10). Mike had a storming race and our pre-race estimate of needing to run sub 5:50 to get a gold wasn't far off. Mike had the painful pleasure of coming 11th in 5:52, just over a minute off 10th. That is a ridiculously good run, even given his pace at the shorter distances. I'm pretty sure he'll go for and get a gold next year.

So, that's just the top end of the field and the remaining thousands included tales of victory and despair as people hit goals they'd never thought they'd achieve (for many, just to finish in the 12 hours is the pinnacle of years of training and attempts).

One other excellent British run was from Scot (hmmm...I think you're really English) Jo Zakrzewski who ran 7:14 in her first ultra (excluding Atacama Crossing). World domination for the British ladies? Also, Amy Sproston (Montrail) squeezed in the race while on a work trip to Africa and knocked out a 7:34, just missing the silver medal cut-off at 7:30. She'll be yet another person attempting the Comrades/Western States double.

All these people had fantastic Comrades runs on a course that was hillier than I remembered from my 2008 up run. It wasn't my day and the seven consecutive weekends of marathons or ultras at a decent effort level, which culminated in Miwok 100k three weeks ago, just pushed me over the edge of overtraining. My legs have felt heavy for a while, but particularly over the last month so it just made it an impossible struggle to get them to function well. Even with everything going perfectly it's a big ask for me to run fast enough for a gold and my marathon time (2:32) is significantly slower than the other guys who aim for that.

I wanted it so much and was overzealous with my training, but I'll learn my lesson and regroup. One day I know I can get a gold and it'll mean so very much to me. The race is like no other and always lives up to its billing as the 'ultimate human race.' Full results here and you can filter it for Americans, Aussies, Brits or whatever you're searching for.

It was a great trip and a lot of fun (for the most part), especially meeting old and new friends from around the world. Special thanks goes to Dave Pearse for being the best host and crew in the world, even when doing so for more people than can fit in his house.

I also ran to support the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, which helps AIDS orphans around the Comrades course amongst other places (see my Miwok posting). Brits can donate here and everyone else here. Any donation is much appreciated.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The 100th Bay to Breakers 12k

Living in the Bay Area means I'm spoilt for choice with the races held locally. Last weekend there's the most historic/prestigious/scenic trail 100k in the US with Miwok, then this weekend there's the 100th Bay to Breakers 12k. I believe it's got the record for the most people in a race when it had 110,000 around the time I was born (I read that in the local paper so may be wrong). And it's a huge party of costumed, drunken and nude debauchery...normally, anyway. This year they said no drinking and no nudity and I saw both.

Now it may seem like this is the perfect race for me to wear one of my costumes, since most people do, but I wanted to race it as fast as I could so didn't opt for that route. However, I felt a little flat after the hard training for the past seven consecutive weeks. The whole year to this point has been aimed at getting in shape for Comrades, which is just two weeks away and it's going to be close whether I'm overtrained or not. Such a fine line to tread and I was probably pushed over it by the Big Sur marathon two weeks ago. However, all the races were fun, unlike today.

I wanted to run fast, hit a 10k PB and stick to that pace for the last 2k. However, it felt like I had anchors attached to my heels. And at around 2.5 miles was an 11% gradient hill, called Hayes Street Hill, with 200 ft of vertical climb. Sounds easy if it's an ultra, but I hit it at speed and my legs virtually gave way. I crawled up and knew that my jelly legs weren't going to give me a good time.

It had been great to get to start with the front guys and to walk past Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist. But after the gun fired, it was just a hard slog of feeling slow and sluggish with little fun and not even helped by the party atmosphere, since most of that was way behind me. I was surrounded mainly by serious runners although they must have looked happier than my grimace.

At least I saw fellow ultrarunner Scott Dunlap around halfway and he cruised past me as I struggled to stick to almost a minute/mile off pace. I decided to take it easy to the finish and not work my tired legs too hard, but then I saw Scott on the horizon and thought that maybe I'd be able to keep him within eyesight without having to wreck myself. A slight downhill made everyone speed up and I was suddenly going at a decent pace, but so was Scott. It became a game of trying to stop him getting further away, which mixed in with a mainly downhill finish to the race.

I felt much better, pushing hard and wishing I'd have been in this groove earlier in the race until I caught Scott and just pipped him to the post. My final time was 44:30, averaging just under 6 minute/miling. Disappointing, but after how negative I felt mid-way and the minutes I lost off my target, it was a good save and may have turned out to be a useful training run. But I'll be resting well for the next 14 days.

Luckily I found out the real fun of this race after the finish line. Due to the fact that the (pointless) shuttle bus ticket I purchased didn't leave until midday and my race was over at 7:45am, I decided the quickest way to get back to the BART station would be to jog. However, the closest station was basically right next to the start line, 7.5 miles away. So why not watch the whole race in reverse (and have about 10,000 people tell me in varyingly rude ways that 'You're going the wrong way')?

I got a great view of the costumes and music along the route, plus an eyeful of the handful of naked fat guys running it. No nude women for some reason...No photos, I'm afraid as I didn't have my camera, but here're some race photos through the years.

Finally I got an enjoyable run in, just by jogging along the course and seeing everyone have so much fun. As I got nearer the start line the people were less likely to have entered the race and have a bib number, plus they were generally more drunk. Somehow it took two hours for the last people to cross the start line and I almost made it back there before they did. So that makes the delay at races like London or New York seem speedy.

And I wasn't the only one to do the reverse route since the winning 'centipede' team (i.e. 13 people linked together) were jogging back too. They had also won the previous year and were a team from the networking site, Linked In. So, how quickly do you think 13 guys could run 7.5 miles linked together?

I bet you didn't guess sub 5 minute/mile pace in a time (and world record) of 37:00! And that's with a hill that would cost even the elites 30+ seconds extra. They finished in the top 10 overall (well, the ones at the front did), a fair way into the professional solo runners. These guys were fast.

But not as fast as the winner, who wasn't the favorite, Meb, but was Ridouane Harroufi in 34:26 of Morocco. Meb was a minute back in sixth. Full results here. I'll be back to redo this one the right way, starting further back and dressed like a tit (that just means dressed stupidly, not like an actual tit).

If you'd like to donate to the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, which I'm raising money for since they help AIDS orphans around the Comrades course (see my Miwok posting) then Brits can donate here and everyone else here. Any donation is much appreciated.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Miwok and raising awareness/money for AIDS' orphans in South Africa

It was a bit windy.
Photo courtesy of Doug Bond at mile 51.

After my fellow Bend resident (where I lived at the time) and ultra running superstar, Kami Semick, raised money for the Starfish Greathearts Foundation for last year's Comrades marathon, I was inspired to help her and the charity out this year. They support children who have been orphaned or made vulnerable by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa and have projects in the KwaZulu Natal Province where Comrades is set.

Given the extremely high rates of infection in South Africa and the many orphans resulting from this, I thought it'd be a great idea to help out. Therefore I've set up a justgiving site for UK residents who wish to donate at: as well as a donation website for anyone wanting to donate in dollars at: Both these links also have more information about the work the charity does.

So rather than just dedicating my Comrades run to fundraising, I thought that all my big races this year could be used to raise awareness. And the traditional way to do this in the UK, particularly at the world's biggest fundraising event, the London marathon, is to run in a costume. I've already run the Napa Valley marathon this year dressed as Spiderman (see posting here) but I've never run an ultra in a restrictive costume. I didn't want to announce it too far in advance in case the unpredictable Bay Area weather was too nasty, but I did run yesterday's Miwok 100k (with 10,000ft of climbing) dressed as Elvis. This seemed like a good idea at the time, although it was actually a lot more annoying to run like that than I'd expected. Previously I've used the costume for marathons (see here), but the prospect of nine hours or more in the sun and hills was a completely different endeavor.

In short, the race was as fun and competitive as ever and I think I got a lot of unexpected smiles from runners and spectators alike who enjoyed my costume more than I did. It was meant to be more relaxed than a full race effort but running that far on that terrain will always take a toll and it was still a hard day's work. The costume was hot, caused some chaffing and the wig kept getting in my eyes, especially with the really strong winds on some of the higher points. But I had a great day out with old and new friends and had one of the best conversation starters possible for meeting new people.

Oh, and I heard the best line anyone's ever shouted out at me while in a costume. Seven miles into the race, back at the start area of Rodeo Beach was a guy dressed as a pirate. He said, "I may be the captain, but you're the KING!" Couldn't help but laugh at that one.

The Golden Gate Bridge soon after sunrise.

Full results are here and I managed a respectable 10th place while avoiding the hard running at the front. There's also a great video following the leaders here and it also includes a few seconds of interviewing me mid-run right at the end of the footage.

If this story entertained you or maybe even just made you think a bit about the effects of AIDS in a much poorer country, then please donate something. Every little helps. This year's Comrades will have a strong North Face (and other sponsors) team again from the US and UK and the others are also behind the charity. Also, please let me know your thoughts and comments.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Miwok pre-race thoughts

The Miwok altitude profile

Last year the Miwok 100k was the longest race I'd ever finished as well as being on only the second day of me living in California. I loved it and immediately knew that I'd found a great place to live with some of the best trails I've seen just on my front door (well, a short drive away).

It was one of the most enjoyable races I've ever done, partly because I had no intention to race it hard and so had no pressure. Instead, I really took in the views and just breezed through the trails taking it all in.

This year will be similar and should also have very hot and sunny conditions, which isn't always the case with San Francisco's temperamental weather. Once again, it's very close to Comrades so I have to treat it as a training run, but it's also essential for me to get a quality, long and hilly run in as part of Western States training. Balancing training for both of these is not an easy task, but I think I've just about walked that tight-rope well so far (fingers crossed).

Anyway, Miwok should be one of the most competitive trail races out there yet again. Unfortunately I don't think we'll see the Geoff Roes versus Anton Krupicka rematch from last year's Western States since Geoff ran a 100-miler last weekend and Anton's off racing until an injury heals. But there's still more than enough trail talent to make this one to watch. The full list of entrants, which still includes Geoff and Anton, is here, but at the least there should be fast times from many of the guys and girls shown in that entrants' list. It's one of the most competitive fields of the year, and I'm sure there'll be some great stories from the front runners, as well as everyone else involved.

One day I'd really like to give this one a big effort, but it'll never happen in a year I run Comrades. Instead I have a little bit of fun up my sleeve although I have to hope that the weather doesn't get too hot.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Big Sur Marathon and Bart Yasso

View from Nepenthe Restaurant (typical along the marathon course)

Nepenthe restaurant

Perfect weather down at Big Sur this weekend as the summer has hopefully kicked off (I'm optimistic, anyway). Amy and I fitted in a great lunch at Nepenthe restaurant, which has about the best views of any building I've ever been to then we headed to the expo to see Bart Yasso's presentation.

It was very interesting to get to chat to him and to hear about his marathon exploits, with accompanying photos. Man, that guy can captivate an audience so it was great to hear (and see) about some of the places he's been to for the pursuit of new running challenges. I couldn't help but empathize and I was surprised how closely my own running desires seem to match his, since I love nothing more than finding exotic places to experience as a way to see and understand other cultures.

Plus Bart has a well-documented love for Comrades, which was the last race on his must-do list. Due to his chronic Lyme disease it looked like he'd never get the chance to run it, until he found himself running a marathon in late 2009 and questioning whether that meant he'd be able to get to the finish in Durban. Well, he did and Runner's World had several video and written stories covering his build-up and race in 2010.

He spoke about the race with such passion in his presentation and did a fantastic job of conveying the special atmosphere which really makes it stand out and makes me (and hundreds of others in North America) want to fly half way around the world every year. He even teared up as he read an email of support which he was sent before the 2010 race from someone he didn't even know in South Africa.

So that was a real buzz for me, especially when I got a chance to meet him on stage. I even bought his book, "My Life on the Run," which I'm really looking forward to reading.

Bart Yasso and his slide show of running memories

And on top of all this, I had one of the most scenic road marathons in the world to look forward to in the morning. I wish I'd taken my camera on the run, but I also wanted to hit one more marathon minute in my game - 2:41. Given it's a hilly and windy course and they basically tell people to forget about the time and enjoy the views, I suspected that I'd probably have to dig in hard to achieve this.

These photos are from an earlier trip as well as Nepenthe, but the whole coastal road is like this. However, the most memorable parts of the normal point-to-point course were missing due to an unavoidable course change to an out-and-back route from the normal finish line. This was thanks to part of the road falling into the sea last month, just next to the Bixby Bridge which is the most famous part of the course. Sadly the turning point of the new course was just before you could even see that bridge, but I have no complaints as it was still stunning to take in the views. The new course also avoided the biggest hill at Hurricane Point, so was a little easier than in a normal year.

In summary of my race, I ran eight miles with a guy called Neil who was a Scot living in Australia doing his second marathon. Then I let him go off as I felt tired, plus we were heading towards about a 2:38 time, which was quicker than I wanted. I then ran alone but had people from the many other race distances to see going along in the other direction. On the way back I got to see all the marathoners heading out so it really reminded me of the Edinburgh marathon in that respect.

With a few miles away I had a few seconds in the bag for my 2:41 time so cruised in a little slower to make sure I wouldn't arrive too early. However, the mile markers weren't all that accurate (probably due to the unusual course change) and I thought I had an easy jog left from the 25-mile marker. The only problem was that the last few mile markers were short so it was about 1.15 miles for the 26th mile and I suddenly found myself needing to sprint to have any chance of hitting 2:41. The drama didn't last long and, luckily, I just managed to squeeze in and hit my target in 2:41:58 (2:41:59 by the gun).

It may seem like a silly or pointless game to try to hit various marathon minutes but it's very satisfying to learn to pace different speeds and helps a lot in keeping a steady pace in ultras too. And I've enjoyed the added challenge it provides, now that there's just one gap in my minutes from 3:10 down to my best of 2:32 (only 2:34 missing).

So it was beautiful, sunny and an event I'd recommend to anyone. They even have a Boston2Big Sur Challenge for people to run both. I hadn't officially entered since that cost extra, but I did run both with a combined time of 5:26:12. Maybe that'd be a fun target for next year and an excuse to run the full course here.

Bixby Bridge, which we saw but not during the race this year

Big Sur also ended my long run training for Comrades on roads, which is just a month away now. I tried to do the marathon minute game around doing runs a bit faster than Comrades pace and have survived marathons (uninjured and hopefully not exhausted) in the last month in 2:37, 2:44, 2:41 plus a 3:10 50k and American River 50 miler. That's exactly what I'd aimed for, but there's never a guarantee and injuries, fatigue or numerous reasons could have interrupted it. So it gives me confidence that I can enjoy Comrades with my best shot. Three weeks until I fly out there and I'm even more excited after Bart's talk.

Full results from today are here and I'm particularly impressed by all the people who chose this relatively hard road marathon as their first one.