Wednesday, February 11, 2015

CF San Antonio Run/Climb / Natural Bridge Caverns Trail Half Marathon

After two weekends of disappointing racing, I had a good weekend of back-to-back races in San Antonio, very unlike each other, and both a little different than anything I've done in the past. Saturday was a stair race, but starting with a 1-mile run (actually it was a little short due to construction); Sunday was a half marathon but on trails and a fair bit of elevation, a bit steep in a couple spots. I finished 17th overall in the combined run/climb, but I was ninth quickest on the stairs, a far sight better than last week in Dallas. While my time Sunday of 2 hours even was a little quicker than two weeks ago at 3M, the course was probably a mile short, so it would have been slower; it still was much better in that I put in a consistent effort throughout the race. While my weight hasn't dropped appreciably, it has been trending in the proper direction. Altogether, I feel this is a good indication my fitness is finally heading back in the right direction.

After far too little sleep I woke up at 4:30 Saturday morning and drove down to San Antonio. After picking up my packet and using the restroom, I scoped the place out. The pre-race material said the run would be two loops (closer to the start they informed us that it would be one loop and a little short of a mile) due to construction blocking their normal 1-mile route, so I was trying to figure out the flow between loops and into the stairwell. It was a cool morning, not so cold I really needed the two jackets and wool cap I had on, but cool enough I wasn't overheating outside. Unfortunately there wasn't a bag drop, so I left all my warm clothes except my lightest jacket in the car at 7am, closer to start time. Most of the time waiting for the start I was with my teammates Robert and Marsha, both of whom had done the Dallas race the week before as well. When they lined everyone up to start, I ditched my jacket off to the side. I lined up close to the front, expecting that I would not be super fast in the run, but would pass a lot of people in the stairs. Since we were standing around waiting for the firefighters to climb before starting, I got to chatting with my neighbors. Other than Robert, the two people I talked to wound up both being first overall for men and women, Duane and Kristen.
At 7:35, they started the race. I was quickly overtaken, by many people. According to my watch data I even started faster than I had intended, sub-7-minute pace for the first few hundred meters. But I had enough discipline to not get sucked into a foot race so early. I was pretty sure I would pass a lot of people once we got to the stairs. The run was on a fairly narrow sidewalk, hopefully nobody thought I was holding them up. There was room to run off to the side, but the sidewalk itself was mostly only wide enough for two people side-by-side. There were a couple times I had to maneuver around somebody who probably started much too fast. It really wasn't an issue for me, it's not like I was treating this as a time trial. Toward the end of the run, I did push myself a little bit to make sure I was ahead of a few people going into the stairs.
When we did get to the base of the tower and the start of the stairs, it was like everybody stopped. It seemed to me like the people in front of me were just walking up the stairs. Plus, unlike most stair races I do when I run with the elites who know the "rules," people showed no understanding of the etiquette of stair racing. The stairs were wide enough that I could shove through people and get going, but again and again I came up to people on the inside rail going slowly and not considering that they might be in my way. I started too fast in order to get past people, but I was determined to not fade too much as the climb went on. While it's nice to have a clear stairwell like I normally do in races, I get a competitive surge in passing people, so I probably wound up climbing this tower quicker than I would have if it had been empty. If somebody's in my way, it breaks up my rhythm, but psychologically it spurs me to pass that person, and then, just as important, stay ahead of them.
The stairwell itself is unique, since this is a tower and not governed by occupied floors like most office buildings we race in. The stairs are metal, with a lip at the back but not a full riser. They make a triangular pattern, turning 60 degrees at each landing (I'm not sure the stair count per flight). I didn't realize this on the ascent, but there are actually two stairwells, an A and a B that form a double helix. The metal stairs go up 60 flights, and then it changes to concrete, presumably in the habitable space- a restaurant and observation deck. I'm not sure how many flights it was from there, mainly because I was tricked by the sound of the timing mat. The beeping sound of the mat must have some directionless quality, because I heard it for a several flights before I actually got to the finish. I kept thinking I was almost to the top, so I was running as hard as I could (which, admittedly, wasn't all that fast). Like some Sisyphean ordeal or a stairclimber's nightmare, the finish line was always one more flight away. Also because of the exhaustion, I'm not entirely sure of the configuration of the last stairs; I think it was basically still a triangle, but every third leg was flat at a floor level. Finally I did cross a finish line and grabbed for my finisher's medal and a bottle of water before collapsing on the floor to die, or at least catch my breath. I'm not normally one to collapse on the floor after a race, like some of my friends do, but this just took it all out of me and I barely had the energy to go the eight steps to the slightly out-of-the-way spot I collapsed on. I had pretty much caught my breath, but still not gotten up, when the cameraman came by and snapped a picture.
I went out onto the observation deck for a few photos. It was grey and overcast, and personally I didn't find the view that interesting. It was rather windy up there, which at first was nice but got a little cold. Before I got down there, I was concerned that the tower's stairs might be open to the elements and therefore cold and windy. The stairs are enclosed, and while there are openings that let air in, it's not enough to be windy inside; I wasn't cold at any point during the race. When I was ready to go back down, there was a big queue for the elevator, so Robert and I opted to take the B stairs down. I'm not prone to acrophobia, so looking over the railing down several hundred feet to the ground didn't bother me, but sometimes I do get a touch of vertigo and the uneven lighting that ranged from dark to artificial light to occasionally a bit of natural light played tricks with my brain. A few times I felt a little uneasy and held the railing a lot of the way down. It turns out the railing is filthy and I had a big black streak on my right hand at the bottom. Robert went back up the stairs for fun, I just milled about drinking water and sampling the free foods.
When I checked the results, it showed me as 17th overall and 6th in my age group, but didn't have splits. When I checked the results online later, it had me as 4th in my age group, two guys apparently had been marked with the wrong age originally. The results didn't show rank by run/climb split, so I had to grab the data and do it myself. My run of 6:13.3 (7:20 average pace) ranked 55th, but my 8:34.3 climb split ranked 9th. I had the quickest climb split of anyone in my age group, FWIW.
When I decided to do this "double" weekend, I decided to spend Saturday night in San Antonio. It turns out this was a bad idea, I would have been better off going home and driving to Natural Bridge Caverns from the house Sunday morning. It would have only added 20 minutes Sunday and about 60 miles of driving (round trip). The reason it sucked was that I couldn't get into my hotel room until 2 o'clock, so I had to go around San Antonio all sweaty from 9:30 after the event finished. Since I don't know of anything to do in San Antonio, I just wandered around the River Walk, which I don't care for that much since it's so touristy. The area around the Alamo was mobbed, there was some sort of cattle roundup type event going on. I walked back to the hotel at noon and still couldn't get into a room, so I drove more or less aimlessly to find lunch. I ended up eating at a place next to the San Antonio Museum of Art, and since I was there, I toured the museum. It's a far cry from some of the amazing museums I've been to in my life, but there were some nice pieces. However, my favorite, a Bouguereau, was in poor condition when I looked at it more closely.
I finally got into my room after 2 and took a shower and then a nap. I was so exhausted by that time it was very nearly the other way around. I drove to Natural Bridge Caverns to get my race packet for Sunday, and got dinner on my way back to the hotel. I wound up having a big dinner after having a small lunch, which is backwards from what I normally prefer. I spent the rest of the evening in my room on the computer. I also made the grievous mistake of not bringing my foam roller to work out my tired legs before the next race.

The other, possibly greater reason I should have gone home is that all the noises in the hotel woke me up many times in the night. I didn't feel like I got much deep sleep, in fact sometimes I wasn't sure I had been sleeping at all except that time had passed since the last time I looked at the clock. I got out of bed at 5:40 and started getting ready. I taped up my foot, which until recently had a thick callus; I also applied body glide as, in retrospect, I should have done for 3M. Breakfast was "traditional" muffin and Dr Pepper. I checked out about 6:30 and drove to the caverns. The parking lot was more full than I expected, there were more runners than I had thought. By the time I had my gear set and used the restroom, the 7:15 pre-race meeting for the half had already started. The start was the same as for the duathlon they used to have out there- time trial start down in the cave, going down one way and running out the other exit. I had lined up between the 8-8:30 expected pace and there were enough people in front of me that I couldn't tell the race had started except that the line started moving again. I didn't really expect to actually do the run at that pace, it's just where I figured I should be to get out of the cave without getting stuck behind somebody moseying up the climb out.
Well, it turns out the guy in front of me who was taking pictures the whole way down to the start didn't stop taking pictures once the race started. Fortunately he stepped to the side when he stopped to take a picture going up in the big room to the exit. Not only did I not have any photographic device, the race photographer's camera didn't get its exposure set in time to get my picture as I went by. The start is something like 135 feet below the surface, so it's not a killer climb; it's not even stairs, it's a ramp (probably too steep to meet ADA requirements however). It wasn't all that cold outside, but with a blast of wind the contrast coming out of the 70-degree cave to 55-degree surface was bracing at first. The humidity outside felt pretty close to the cave's near 100% level. I think the humidity helped to some extent, as it seemed I was getting decent hydration from the air, and not having to use the water bottle I was carrying too much (with aid stations roughly 2.5 miles apart, I felt the need to have my own water).
Most of the rest of the first mile was uphill as well, climbing up to the parking lot from the cave, and then further uphill along the cavern's entrance road. The course goes downhill briefly before hitting the 1-mile marker and turning off the asphalt onto a dirt road. Most of the course is on dirt roads of various levels of ruggedness. Almost none of them would be suitable for my car, but would be passable by any pickup truck. These roads were generally well graded, caliche with relatively small rocks. The half course adds distance with narrower double-track ATV trails. While these trails aren't even as technical as the trail I've been running in Austin, it's much more uneven than anything I've raced previously. The course was very well marked, and it would have been pretty obvious if you somehow got off the trail. The Caverns has a big piece of property, and it's quite pretty. There was a point about four and half miles in, just before the course dropped down into a little canyon along a river, that was particularly nice. I couldn't see anybody ahead of me, and I don't normally look back except to see if it's safe to pass but I did just to look and didn't see anybody behind me. It would have made for a great photo like you see in running magazines and such.
Not really knowing the course, but knowing the race director, as soon as I saw there was a canyon I knew we were going to have to drop into it and of course climb back out. The course went about three miles along the river before that inevitable climb. While I have been up that road before, it was pretty tough coming 8 miles into what had not exactly been a cakewalk up to that point. I didn't really make any attempt to run up the hill, which gains 200 feet in half a mile, but did a power walk. I still didn't start running when the grade lessened, waiting until just before the crest when it had almost flattened out. It was that point that the course joined with the 10k course for a little while, until the half course turned off the dirt road onto another ATV trail. The courses joined again for the last mile downhill to the finish. I'm not sure how much later the 10k started after the half, but there were quite a few folks finishing the 10k as I and others were finishing the half. According to my watch, the distance was more like 12.1 miles than 13.1, it seemed like every mile marker was 0.9 miles after the last. Even if it was short, with the elevation (my watch showed 900 feet, but that doesn't include more than 100 in the cave) and unevenness it was definitely the most physically demanding half marathon I've done.
After I finished my legs felt almost like they had just done a full marathon. My feet were mostly okay, other than finishing off my left second toenail that had taken a beating at 3M. It did kind of hurt to walk though, my legs being sore and stiffening up. I was soaked in sweat after finishing, and it was cool enough still that I felt a chill coming one once I stopped running. I went to the car to put on warmer and drier clothes. It would have been really easy to just head out, but Robert had placed in his age group and I wanted to stick around for the awards. I ate enough at the race that I could take a shower and nap once I got home before getting a late lunch/early dinner.

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