Monday, May 26, 2014

When a Race isn't really a Race - Rock 'n' Roll Portland 2014

A year ago we were standing on stage at the Rock 'n' Roll Portland Expo talking to a crowd about the social aspects of marathoning. And by 'stage', I mean the space between two speakers and by 'crowd' I mean 8 people including our friends Kevin, Wendy and Ann who we pretty much begged to show up. Race day weather a year ago is cool and dry. Ron and Kevin, starting 6 corrals apart, both PR though the times were tainted because of a few police stops during the race to let traffic through. Wendy makes her best effort to finish the half marathon with a short training season and has a great moment with Ann at the finish line.

RNR Portland 2013. Honored to be sharing the stage with some of the legends of the sport.
Fast forward a year. There are no speakers at the Expo for RNR Portland. The weather forecast was for 70% chance of rain (and climbing by the day). Wendy took advantage of the new 10K distance with her niece Crystal. There was a race that weekend, but for some reason, it wasn't the thing that really stuck in our minds. Sometimes we travel and the race is the most important thing we look forward to on the weekend. For some reason, this trip was different. 

For short weekends like this, we barely have enough time to catch up with all of the friends we've made on the circuit. We stayed with Wendy about 15 miles east of the race start/finish. She's been having a pretty turbulent few years and we were really happy to see how much her life had gotten better since 2013. Her niece was doing her first RNR 10K and after talking to us and Al, I think she's gunning to be a Half Fanatic really soon. 

We picked up Al and Ann at the airport on the way into town on Saturday. It was a quick 20 minute drive to the expo with the five of us packed into a Prius and it was great to catch up with Ann since we knew her schedule gets crazy as soon as she hits the expo. She was so excited to see us that she forgot she had a rental car reserved. Oops.

Ron's favorite time of the weekend was actually just catching up with friends at the expo. We spent a while with Al, Shayne and Ann just talking about non-race stuff. We heard all about Shayne's engagement on her trip to Maui and she asked if she should wear her ring while she was giving out iced water bottles at the finish line (NO!). Shayne is also prepping for Rock 'n' Roll Seattle, her first half marathon in a while, as she tries to get back to Boston. Ann filled us in on her trip to Rome with her mom and a bunch of other parent-child pairings from church. She and Ron were dancing to "Shout", distracting Al who was trying to make a point (and failing miserably). 

Jennifer told us about how it felt to have front row seats to watch Meb win in Boston and how proud she was since she knew him when he was in high school. Susan gave Lori a travel foam roller, something she can really use since she'll be running RNR San Diego after recovering from a tight IT band. Somehow we missed Darlene this trip. We'll have to seek her out in San Diego for sure. We met up with Kevin at the Expo an hour later. This was the first of three straight Rock 'n' Roll weekends for him as he was headed to the Inaugural RNR Liverpool between Portland and San Diego. 

Our first look at the new Cascadia Heavy Medal. Pacific Peaks is earned by racing in Portland and Seattle. Cascadia completes the northwest trio with the inaugural Rock n Roll Vancouver race in late October.
As for the race? The 70% chance of rain didn't actually happen until after we picked up our medals (including the Rock Star Heavy Medal for the fifth Rock 'n' Roll race of the year. woot!). Ron and Kevin raced together and finished right around 2:29 with Susan hot on their heels at 2:30:17, her second fastest race ever. All three of us were totally smoked by a friendly race walker who passed us going up a hill at mile 7 on a sub 2:15 pace.

We said hello to Ann and John Bingham at the start, but some of us missed them at the finish with the rain closing in on us. We somehow missed Joe again this trip. Having to find shelter from the rain before the race limited our time in the starting area.

The Half Fanatics (and honorary members) always come out in force for the northwest races. Crystal joined us for the picture as a future member. Gary, Kevin, Al, Susan and a whole bunch of crazy people represent probably a few thousand half marathons for the group.

We were able to catch up with Kamika after his week of 5 half marathons in 5 states. Most races on this trip were smaller east coast races.
Sometimes the race is the reason we travel. We prepare for the event and shoot for a target time and it becomes the highlight of the trip.

But sometimes its everything else about the weekend. And the race really isn't a race.


2014 was the third year for Rock 'n' Roll Portland. It's one of the few races that Ron and Susan are legacy racers. There were 7035 finishers in the half marathon (median finish time of 2:16) and 1809 finishers in the new 10K distance (median finish time of 1:10). Total finishers was up from 2013's numbers 8087. Weather this year was in the mid 50's at race start, warming to the low 60's with drizzle and rain. Basically, it's Oregon. None of that should surprise you. 

This year's course had some slight modifications from 2013. In 2012 and 2013, local police stopped traffic in several points to let non-emergency vehicles cut through the course, frustrating runners even in the 1:30 - 1:40 pace groups. They were doing a better job letting only a few vehicles through at a time, minimizing the amount of wait time. The start was delayed for about 5 minutes due to a train crossing later in the course. At least two bloggers reported having to stop for a minute after the gun sounded (one for a train, one stopped four times for cars). Pre-race press mentioned having timing mats on both sides of the tracks to help runner adjust for stopped time, something we had seen The Biggest Loser implement in Springfield 2013. 

The course is reported to be a bit hilly, but the total ascent/descent is less than 700 feet. Most of the climbs are the approaches to the Hawthorne bridge (CGI did the usual good job carpeting over the mesh on the roadbed just before mile 3, the Steel Bridge at mile 12 and along slow painfully annoying hill on Hawthorne Boulevard at mile 7.

Public transit is excellent in Portland. In addition to the Trimet Max light rail system that opens as early as 5 AM on race morning, Go By Bike offered a bicycle valet where participants can ride in and park their own bikes.

We signed up for the North American Tour Pass 2015 (somehow we never got the email!), Rock 'n' Roll Arizona 2015 and of course, Rock 'n' Roll Portland 2015. 

About the town:

Nonna:  ($$$)
Pre-race dinner was at this small, tavern style eatery next to it's upscale sister restaurant DOC. DOC has only two seatings (6:30 and 8 PM) and the early seating was booked. Our delicious dinner at Nonna included roasted brussels sprouts, chili flake and lemon cream appitizers, trout cioppino with squid, mussels, tomato, parsley; traditional spaghetti polpette (meatballs!); farro, green garlic, maitake mushrooms and hannah; grilled focaccia; and linguine, olive oil, vegetable broth, mint and snap peas. Portions were medium sized and the food was absolutely delicious. The menu is seasonal.

Taco's and Cream: ($)
Chester runs a couple of of food trucks - a Portland staple. Susan and Wendy happened by one on a shake out walk on Friday night but forgot to bring cash. We drove back just as he was ready to close up at 9 PM and got three orders of mango habenero gelato. The cool burn and fresh flavor sticks with you for about an hour. Chester will go on about his theory of how he prepares his meats to remove the fats and toxins. While I don't know that I believe all of it, he has a loyal following. He calls his customers 'family' and greets everyone with a hearty "Welcome Home!"

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Race for the Age (Group)s

Age Grading is a system that calculates a percentage of the absolute time for a race relative to the world record for your specific age. If you race a distance in one hour and the world record happens to be 30 minutes, you have a 50% age grade. The beauty of this system is that it allows you to compare performances across gender, a wide age range and even by sportWhile it's not a perfect system, it's a good way to see if you're actually getting slower as you age or if you're keeping up with your age graded performance. The Boston Marathon qualifying times use a similar logic. Qualifying times for older runners are typically longer.

The American River Parkway Half Marathon features a walk-only division. Unlike Fresno, the walkers have a completely separate course, so the folks who finish in the top 20 are very visible and they can be monitored so that they don't actually run. The race is not JUDGED, meaning that the straight-leg requirement isn't enforced, but 'lifting' off the ground, the other racewalking rule, is quickly self-enforced by the field.

Last year, Ron placed third overall, winning his age group (which sounds good until you hear that the closest male competitor finished 38 minutes behind him). Susan placed 8th overall last year, first in her age group by 11 minutes. We were looking to improve on last year's finishes one way or another.

The course was an out and back on pavement with only 230 feet of total ascent and descent. It was about as walker friendly as you can get and unlike last year, there was no loop at the end where you couldn't see the people ahead of you. It was also a lot cooler than the 85 degrees in 2013! This race was all business. Pictures just didn't happen.

Our friend Al knows the Sacramento area well and warned us of ongoing road construction that could easily turn our 30 min morning commute into over an hour increasing our chances of possibly missing the race start. Against his better judgement, this non-morning person kindly got up before the crack of dawn to pick us up at our hotel promptly at 5 am and escort us in pea soup fog. With some quick thinking and backroads navigating, we got there within 20 min and then had about 1.5 hours to wait for the race to start. We got a great parking space at least!

Al pulls out his bike from the back of the SUV and assembles it so he can provide us with mobile course support that day. He's even color coordinated his outfit with ours so that we looked like a most patriotic red, white, and blue team! Susan should have known she could trust veteran Al to do the right thing but she couldn't help but worry that the other walkers were going to exile them next year for bringing a biker along who could have easily disrupted the race on the narrow parkway path. Before the start of the race, the course monitor pulls Al aside and asks for his help since none of the other volunteers showed up that day. Al quickly changes his game plan and simultaneously becomes real-time race support for the front of the pack ensuring that no one got lost while also calling out the mile splits for the top ten participants. 

Ron's race: 
Just after the starting gun, a dozen of us made a pretty decisive move to separate from the pack. In the first 100 yards, Nikki and Joe (1st and 2nd last year) took the lead with Greg, Karen, a guy in a white shirt, Linda, Terri, Paula, and Susan close behind. Before mile 1, people were telling Linda she was lifting so she slowed considerable to hold form. I passed the guy in white by mile 2 and never saw him again. Greg and Karen pulled away by mile 3 at just over an 11:05 pace with Joe and Nikki not far behind. I didn't see Susan again until the turn.

Last year, Joe and Nikki were less than 30 seconds ahead of me the entire race so I was determined to keep them in my sights. At the turn at 6.5, it was Greg in the lead, followed by Karen maybe 50 yards back, with Nikki and Joe 100 yards behind. Joe admitted he wasn't having a good season. I was able to pass him just after the 7 mile mark on the way back. The 11:15 pace was actually surprisingly easy to hold, but I had trouble going any faster.

Time to get more tempo training in. I know, Al. I'm trying.

I kept expecting Joe to push it in the last half like he did last year, but I didn't see him. The second half of the race was more me talking to Al who was our mobile cheer squad on his bike before he was recruited into helping the official race monitors kick recreational bikers off the course. Al mentioned that I didn't sound like I was even working hard for the first six miles. I'll take that as a point to improve for San Diego and San Jose. But for me, the race was over by then. I came in 4th behind Nikki, Greg and Karen. Second male overall, first in my age group (out of 8) by over an hour. The real drama was happening in front of me for the first place finish and behind me with Susan.

Susan's Race
My goal for this race was to place better than last year and to set a new walking PR. Thanks to Al's heart rate training plan, both goals were accomplished this day. He and I debated how fast I should go out. Al thought I should start out at a 12:15 and drop the pace from there. I knew that if I could sustain a sub 12:00 that I would have a good race. When I saw Al at the first mile, he called out my split time of 12:01 - I smiled, I guess this stubborn Taurus is going to work her plan for this race. However, dropping the pace in subsequent miles proved to be more difficult than I expected. For some reason, I was having difficulties breathing. Perhaps it was the high level of humidity in the air from the rain the day before. It also could be an indicator that I probably need to do more tempo training as well.

One of my buddies from last year was there again this year. Paula who is an awesome Sierra Racewalker and someone who I met at Tim Seaman's racewalk clinic a few years ago. She was feeling under the weather but managed to stay ahead of me for the first half of the race. She didn't have a race plan and I was determined to stick to my race plan even if it meant being the last person in the group of lead walkers for the first 6.5 miles. 

I made my move around mile 6. First, I had to pass Paula who kindly cheered me on. I love it when other racers can support each other on the race course! Then I caught up to Terri. Terri and I had walked together for the first half of last year's race so I remembered her well. This year, however, Terri was walking much faster than last year. I told her how well she was doing as compared to last year. Terri can be a tough competitor and she doesn't make it easy to pass her so I had to make my move quickly. With all due respect, she was having a great race. What she didn't know was that I had also trained hard over the past year and I was also faster than last year. I look forward to meeting up with her again next year at American River Parkway and motivating each other to yet another great race finish. 

At this point, there is no one in front of me and I'm pulling ahead of everyone behind me. The same thing happened last year where I was pretty much alone for most of the second half of the race. But this year we had Al! And he was there for us at every mile marker. It was becoming more and more difficult for him to catch up with Ron and then wait for me because the spread in our times was increasing but no challenge is too great for Al. Mentally, I was prepared for Al to be by my side through the end of the race. However, the race organizer had other plans in mind. The race director jogged up to Al and asked him to kick some people off the course who were blocking the path for the race participants. Al turned back to clear the way for the others and I was left on my own to finish the race. Before he left, however, I asked him if I was on pace to PR. (My half marathon brain had kicked in and I no longer could do math in my head.) He said, "Are you kidding? You could slow down significantly and still PR!" That gave me the confidence to finish strong but not panic. Al did make it back in time to see me finish and report out my final race time more accurately than my Garmin. Thanks Al!

Meanwhile, up ahead, the race for the top three was one of pride. After the 6.5 mile turn, Nikki saw that Karen had stopped to tie her shoe and decided to close the 50 yard lead. Nikki then saw Greg in front of her and decided to kick it into another gear. Greg, Nikki, Joe and Karen are all members of the Sierra Race Walker club and in the 8 year history of the race an SRW member has always won. Susan reminded me that Nikki was one of the athletes named in our Chronicle Article last year "Walkers Making a Run at Marathons." She was invited to try out for the Olympic race walking team and has a half marathon PR of 2:05. Walking. Consider that for a minute. 

Nikki closed the gap on Greg by cranking out close to 10 minute miles for the back half of the race. This is a little snippet from the May Sierra Race Walkers newsletter describing the pass:

"Soon I realized that Greg kept looking back over his shoulder. Aha! I thought, I’ve got him on the run (figuratively) now! I kept up the pressure, and before long I was just a few feet behind him. I said something to him, and he said something that sounded like he was accusing me of running. I pulled next to him and said, “Say again?” and he said, “You’re in the wrong race. You’re running. This is a race for walkers only and you’re running.” I said, “I’m race walking. I’m just fast. I haven’t been disqualified from a race in years.” Then he looked at me and said, “Oh, I recognize you. You were at the beginning.”


Al saw her pass and said that Greg tried to keep up for a few hundred yards but was clearly out of his league. Nikki finished in 2:18:49. The top 10 finishers are shown below courtesy of Chronotrack.

This was the Top 10 from the Sierra Race Walkers team. You'll see the Age Grade rank in the far right. Even though I finished ahead of Susan, I have a lot of work to do to be as good as her (that's fine with me!). If you compare the age graded performance to a runner for the same age for the half marathon, Susan's time would equate to a 1:52:35 half marathon. Ron's would be 1:48:15.

Sierra Race Walkers 'and friends'. 
When we all reconvened at the end for photos, the Sierra Racewalker exclaimed, "There's OUR biker! He provided us with amazing support out on the course today. Thank you!" Susan sighed in relief. She should have known. Of course, Al knew what he was doing out there and endeared everyone to him - racewalkers and race directors alike. You have an open invitation to come back next year Al if you're available!

The American River Parkway Half Marathon and 5K has been held for the last 8 years. The entry fees pay for park maintenance and the removal of non-native vegetation from this pretty stretch of river near William Pond Park. In 2014 there were 366 participants in the Walk Division (median finish time of 3:41) and 1381 in the open/Run Division (median finish time of 2:17:01).  Unlike 2013 when temperature started at 75 and climbed to 80 by race end, 2014 was a near perfect high 40's to start warming to the mid 60's with minimal cloud cover.  This year's course turned left to cross the a bridge which I think was a big improvement for those of us keeping tabs on the competition. The course had well-placed aid stations very few miles and on course entertainment by local bluegrass groups. I'd highly recommend the Walk course for anyone interested and I hear the Run side is just as nice. Post-race sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies, oranges, bananas and Gatorade were great for a small local race.

For more information and how to calculate Age Graded results for race walking, has some good resources.

Pre-Race dinner was at our usual place downtown, Pizza Rock. Get there early for the Pizza Margarita (limited to 73 per night!). The meatballs are Ron's favorite.

We're going to keep coming back as long as there's not another race conflicting with this weekend. Other than the Country Music Marathon (RNR Nashville) which we've already crossed off our list, we haven't had a problem being tempted away yet.