Sunday, July 24, 2016

King Salmon (Marathon) Caught Hook, Line and Sinker! 3:39 in Cordova Alaska for State 41!

Birthday 49 challenge updates (2 pm, July 25 update):
Marathons Complete! Read below about Alaska. Utah coming soon.  Fundraiser going strong - just over $23,500 at and with personal checks being sent in. (The justgive site only shows the total through them.) We match ever $, so that’s $47K - less than $2K away from the $49K goal. Only $1000 more since we double it!

3 complete which was the July goal. Need 3 more in August!

Alaska was 41. Smashed Utah today in 3:41:04 time - state 42 done!

Still going strong! Currently at 1,279. After today's running. I am 25 days ahead of schedule.

The team is nearing 550 miles complete - over 15% and on track for a November 22 finish, 6 weeks ahead of our schedule!

Onward to the post itself…

Looking out of Anchorage into the Bay
After sparkling blue skies in Anchorage, Saturday, July 16 dawned with a light rain and overcast conditions. Little of the natural beauty of the Cordova area showed itself as I walked from my basement apartment rental to the gathering point for the King Salmon Marathon. Prepared for the possibility of moisture, I had with me a rain cover I could run in - Cordova is in a rain forest area - and rather than be disappointed, I was excited what cool temperatures and a lack of direct sun could offer.

Blue and white skies from the plane
A bus ride and less than 5 hours later, I found out. My best time in nearly 3.5 years and in 30 marathons: 3:39:17 and state 41 completed and in the books. I also found the charm of this small town running event and the people it attracted to the mouth of the Copper River.

At the end of this post, I’ll go into the combination of factors why I feel I did so well. In short, the conditions were perfect (weather, course), I was well trained and once I decided to aim for 3:39, I ran the plan perfectly. Let’s focus on the people - all 18 of us in the marathon - instead of the statistics. 

Cordova (left), Eyak Lake (middle) and the Copper River Delta (right)
Cordova sits in Prince Henry Sound about 200 miles SE of Anchorage. Plane and boat (a 5 hour ferry ride from Whittier, itself a 1.5 hr drive from Anchorage) provide the only scheduled access; there are no roads to area. In fact, one of the key people involved in building Alaska Airlines, “Mudhole” Smith, was from Cordova and his small carrier became part of the group that formed the state named airlines. He ran the combined company for many years. His name adorns the large shack that serves as the gateway to Cordova.
Merle "Mudhole" Smith
The area is famous for the Copper River which provides exceptional salmon to around the world. Spanning nearly 20 miles at its widest, the Copper River Delta sits a few miles from the town center of Cordova. Cordova itself is a harbor and town built up a slope of a steep hill. That hill and another form the edges of Eyak Lake, a Y or T shaped body of water between Cordova and the Delta.

Roll Call
Runners were asked to gather at the local hospital on the banks of the lake. Kristin Carpenter, the race director for the last 10 years, took attendance. To my delight, I found that I was not the only person celebrating a birthday. Michelle, originally from Kansas, but now living in LA, turned 30 on the race day, Jennifer, from Arkansas, turned 39 the same day I notched 49 on July 12. The other 15 runners were silent as to their birth anniversaries, so I think 17% of the field was enough above expected averages.

For some reason, I through we would have about 40 people in the race based on previous years, but actually when I looked at past results, I am not sure where I found that assumption. In any case, the 18 of us plus 4 half-marathons who were starting early so they could walk their 13 miles, boarded a school bus for a 45 min ride to the start.
Jennifer (left) and Michelle, fellow birthday celebrants

The Marathon route begins 15 miles past the airport at the far end of the Delta. Almost entirely run on Alaska 10 (Copper River Way), the nearly straight and flat gravel road becomes paved near the airport and then rises slowly to get over Eyak River as it exits the lake. The last few miles curve slightly around the lake edge before the one 90 degree turn of the race turns into the finish area at the local hospital.  

Expecting the Star Spangled Banner and a big balloon arch for a race start? Not here. How about a small orange cone with the word “Start” on it? Need a port-a-potty. Try one of the myriad of bushes. Easier for men than women but equal all the same. Pomp and circumstance were reduced to a handful of instructions and then a “Go.”

And here we are with our "start cone" on the left 

And we were off. Despite the cloud conditions, the scenery was great. Splashes of water from the river coursing through the marshland. Views of distant peaks and the Childs Glacier. At one point, I ran over one of the dozen bridges and felt a blast of 10 degree cooler air that could only be blowing off the ice. The water was so blue too. Birthday girl Michelle confirmed she felt and saw the same, so we were even equally hallucinating or the experience was real.

Turquoise blue water from the glacier
Later, when talking to my landlord for the weekend, Bill, I learned that Cordova has gone three winters without much snow. The 4th year back had 30 feet of snow. From eastern Washington, Bill had chased adventure up to Alaska 38 years ago, and he has not looked back. He now splits his time running a very successful boat salvage and rescue business and serving as mechanic on ships and vehicles. He likes anything big and bigger! His wife Shelly works on road construction projects as a flagger - she is one of those people flagging traffic along. They actually end up spending a lot of summers apart because she goes off to these projects, and he gets called to weeks long rescues or salvage operations. He told me about a 6 week project were they raised a boat out of the water, got it on a beach and then camped amongst bears and wolves while they dismantled the boat for a 10 mile sledge to the only nearby airstrip. A WWII era DC-3 was used to fly loads away. Bill was never far from his shotgun in case of animal attack. Bill told me all this without any desire for the experience to be different. Growing up in LA and living in big areas like London, San Francisco and Boston, these stories sound like modern adventure tales.

Click to read!
With only 18 people in the race, it’s easy to include here the full finisher list. 5 of the 18 were from Alaska and only 1 from Cordova. I spoke to John, the winner, and his wife after the race. No one disappeared quickly from the finish area so in fact I pretty much spoke to everyone! John and I will be running the Desert News Classic in Utah tomorrow as I type this. John blasted the sub 3 hour mark. Even with the straight road, I never really saw him. His wife, also a runner, had decided to only do the 1 mile race (more of a kids affair), and John joined her after his finish. Another runner, Rick Wood finished his 49th state. He’s running his 50th in Hawaii next June in the same race I am planning. Jim Moore from Illinois finished his 50th in Alaska. Jessica Glass, who I ran with for about a mile, finished her first marathon in style by beating 4 hours and winning the woman’s side. (I was 4th for the men as well as overall.) Vincent Ma, another Marathon Maniac, and I chatted on the flight from Anchorage and on the bus. He and I have run at least one other race toughener but neither of us could remember which. I spoke with everyone in this paragraph and others as well on the bus, during the race and at the airport the next day! It was as if a small community had formed.
Wild flowers along the road
As we ran back in from the start (the drizzle had stopped so we could strip down to basic running shirt and shorts), we occasionally saw the bus bringing out people for the shorter distances all of which started on the same route but at closer in points. The half marathon bus was pretty full and a second smaller shuttle followed. There were multiple buses for the 10k and 5k. They all cheered us as we passed them driving out. Around mile 19, I caught up with the four people walking the half who had ridden with us and then been driven back 13 miles to that start point. I chatted with them for about a minute. We commented how much we were enjoying the natural scenery.

Normally in a race, you see mile markers telling you how far you have run. Here, the markers were counting down how many clicks were left. This made sense for all the race distances. No matter which you were commencing, the distance to the finish would always be correct since the races shared the same end point. Initially finding this odd, I actually enjoyed the set up.

A mobile water stop
The only “hill” in the race came as we neared Eyak Lake. Interestingly the humidity was noticeably higher by that large body of water, and I had to push air in and out of my lungs with more effort. But I talked myself through the brain telling me to slow down and take it easy. Then I turned onto Chase St and into the parking lot of the hospital finishing ground. The person tracking times showed me what she had written down to confirm my ok. (I did so as the total amounted to within seconds of my Garmin GPS watch.)

Despite the fast time, I did not feel too badly. I was tired but was quickly revived by post race food. Later that day, I took a short 2 mile hike up above Eyak River into a meadow in the hills. With little wind, it was so quiet I could hear my heart beating. The sun was making some appearances finally revealing more of the natural beauty.
The trail through the woods, high above Eyak River
The next day, I did a final 10k run along another side of Eyak amongst crystal clear skies glad to have those conditions on the shorter day than during the marathon.
Sunny Sunday Run along Eyak Lake
I am often asked which is my favorite marathon. I’ve just about enjoyed almost all of the 67 to date. My fastest, the Lost Dutchman in Arizona and the one in Antarctica rank at the top. New York, Boston and London were amazing. But Cordova is one I would do again. I have run smaller races - but only in and around LA with local run organizers. This area and the state of Alaska gave me a sense of the adventure Bill had sought when he moved there. Certainly the race provided plenty of excitement for me due to the great time, but I think what turned effectively a solo run into a strong memory was the sense of people involved and getting to know more about each of them.

41 Complete! 9 to go!

Why did I run so well?

My PR (personal record) happened on my 3rd race - the 2008 Lost Dutchman in Arizona. That 3:19 time qualified me to run my one and only Boston Marathon in 2009. I have said for years that conditions that day were just right. My next fastest time was my 4th race, this one in Japan, at 3:25. Then it’s 2010 Adelaide Australia one at 3:31. Cordova’s 3:39 was my fastest since a 3:37 in New Orleans in February 2013 - 30 marathons ago.

So what worked? Was it my birthday inspired 2649 bib? Probably not as any marathon race goes well due to any number of factors. Here is a list of the perfect combination from last week, some of which cannot be controlled.
Shirt and medal

1. Perfect Weather
While not great for the photographs, the cool 50 degree Fahrenheit weather with no wind and no sun is just about perfect running weather. The body is very comfortable at that level. It does not expend extra energy to stay warm (the run does that enough) and does not have to overly sweat as it does with the weather going into the 60s and beyond.

2. Straight, flat course, over half off pavement
Again, not a course people look at and go “neat!” The effectively straight line though means I did not lose distance (and hence time) to turns which are difficult to take perfectly to keep to the 26.2 miles. My total count that day was 26.25 miles. I have run marathons with over .5 miles extra on my watch. Each .1 mile takes about 1 min to cover. So, I only lost 30 seconds to the measured distance in Cordova. While a gravel road is not as nice as a dirt road, it still is softer than concrete or asphalt saving wear and tear on the body.

3. First marathon in 10 weeks
Because of my work and race schedule, I had not run a marathon since May 1 in Ohio. For me, that is an entirety! But the body likes the time off!

4. Great tune up races and training
I ran a number of tune up races since May 1 starting with a 10k and half in Disneyland, followed by a few other 10ks and a hilly half marathon. I also had been working on hills and longer distances a lot on my training runs. Hills are great for endurance because you can gain a lot of cardio without running as far. The work comes from the elevation gain. And finally, I've seen my training pace drifting down to 8:05-8:10. I'm not sure why, but if I don't think about my speed, I find myself running in that range.

5. Lots of sleep and decent food and the right supplements
I made sure to average 7 hours per night the week of the race. This was despite traveling to Alaska and getting up early a number of days to run and bike. 8 is the official goal, but I don’t seem to find much difference between 7 or 8 per night. I also took off July 13 and avoided email that day for a real day off as I flew to Alaska and explored a bit of Anchorage. Separately, I’ve been working with a chiropractor to keep the body set right and taking in the right vitamins etc.

6. I made a plan and went for it
My goal in any marathon is between 3:45 and 4:00. To get to the lower number, I know I need an 8:30 min/mile pace. So, with the conditions in great shape, I went out at 8:30 for the first half. I stuck to this plan and in fact hit the first half in almost exactly 1:52 - just under a 3:45 time. This is where I turned it up a notch. To beat 3:40 (as I was now wondering if I could), I ran from 13 miles to 19.2 miles - a 10K - in a sub 8:00 min pace. Basically a 49 min 10K (6.2 miles) in the middle of a marathon. I knew from my recent races that I could do a 45 min 10K (separate from a marathon), so this longer goal seemed doable and was. Once I hit 19.2 miles (and took that 1 min walk break with the half-marathon early crowd mentioned above), I then aimed for about 8:20 to close out. I had to push through miles 22-24 dealing with the heavier air, but I stayed with it. In short, 67 marathons will give you a lot of experience to know what you can and cannot do. I went for it.

7. Buoyed by your goodwill and wishes
Being my birthday week, I received an abundance of good wishes and cheer from all over the world - I think I got messages from five continents! Plus the fundraiser has been going well. In short, all of your put me in a great mood! Thank you!