Saturday, March 28, 2009

Chesebro Half Marathon

The alarm goes off at 5:15am. Thanks to accommodations provided by Justin (my former coworker and ex-training partner), I am now only a short 15 minute drive from the start of the race. If I had been at home, I would have had to wake up at least an hour earlier. Well rested and with enough time to enjoy a bagel with coffee, I feel ready to race.

Justin and I arrive a half-an-hour before the race because we still need to sign in and claim our goodie bags from the registration desks at Chumash Park...a half mile walk from the parking lot. Though we get our stuff quickly, we detour further into the park for a much needed pre-race pit stop. We still have 20 minutes before the race begins, but we have no idea how long it will take to reach the front of the line. We are cutting things close.

We return to Justin's car to drop off bags and jackets, pin on bibs, and attach timing chips. I do not feel we have enough time to put on sunscreen because the start line is uphill more than a half mile away and the race begins in 10 minutes. We power on our Garmin Forerunners and jog back towards the start. As we climb the hill, I notice our pace is already 7:30/mile. Earlier this morning, Justin and I discussed averaging this pace over the first two miles of the race, not during our warm up!

Shortly after we turn up Carell Ave, Justin and I hear a horn sound. The race has begun without us! Justin and I pick up our pace and cut through the crowd lining the sidewalks as the first runners descend down the middle of the street. Fortunately, the advancing herd of nearly 1300 participants is still funneling through the starting gate by the time we arrive. We cross the first timing mat long before the back of the pack, but roughly a minute and a half behind the leaders.

Justin and my strategy is to use the first two miles as a warm up, restricting our pace to no faster than 7:30/mile. Never having run this course, I have no idea what I will be able to maintain over the next six uphill miles, but Justin encourages me to push for sub 7's on the descent. He thinks I should be able to finish this race in less than one hour and forty-five minutes. I recorded a 1:45:46 at Disneyland last year, but, given that this course is far from flat, I do not expect to PR today. That said, I am fairly confident that I will go sub long as I do not push too hard too early.

Justin and I have no issue maintaining our target pace over the first mile since the course is mostly downhill, but, with the ascent beginning during the second, our pace soon drops closer to 8:00/mile. The scenery becomes more pleasant as we get our first view of Cheesebro Canyon from Chesebro Road (spelling is correct in both cases)...and we catch our first glimpse of the rising sun through the trees as we enter the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

As the course transitions from pavement to dirt after mile 3, I begin to pull away from Justin. The grade of incline on the Cheesebro Canyon Trail is gradual enough that I can comfortably maintain a pace that is only slightly slower than 8:00/mile. There are a few steep dips followed by quick rises along this trail, but nothing that is significant enough to affect my average pace. I have found my breathing rhythm, so I do not want to push it. That said, this trail is a fire access road, so I want to take advantage of its width and overtake slower runners whenever possible.

The grade of ascent increases over the fifth mile and I sense my pace fall. Fortunately, this gives me a chance to better appreciate the beautiful scenery. And the weather is perfect...crystal clear sky with a gentle breeze, temperature now probably in the mid-50's (today's high is forecast for 80, but I expect to finish long before it reaches 70).

As Cheesebro Canyon Trail transitions to Sulphur Springs Trail at mile 6, I am extremely glad to see small water bottles being handed out. I use this opportunity to consume Gu, but decide to drink only half of the water in the bottle at this time, rationing the rest over the next mile or two. On road races, water stations are usually quite frequent, but this is primarily a trail race...and the next hydration station won't be for another 2.5 miles. The trail is steeper here, so I am definitely working harder now. In other words, being able to take a refreshing swig whenever I feel the need is more than just appealing.

The trail narrows to single track and becomes a lot more rocky, making it much harder if not impossible to overtake slower runners. My pace continues to drop, but I figure it is probably a good thing not to push too hard just yet. I have already seen two runners trip today, so I am being very careful with where I step. I never stumble, but somehow drop my water bottle as I attempt to sip from it mid stride. Oops.

One of the things I have enjoyed thus far is that the course has been twisting its way through the canyons, keeping the trail ahead out of view. As I approach Sheep Corral Trail, however, I reach the first real vista showing the significant climb ahead. Seeing such an ascent adds a mental challenge to the physical reality of being more than halfway into a long race. I just keep reminding myself that, after the peak, it is all downhill. I stop paying attention to my pace, focus on the runner immediately ahead, and attempt to pass when the opportunity presents itself.

Around mile 8.5, I receive another water bottle, the course turns on to Palo Comado Canyon Trail, and the steep descent begins. My pace immediately accelerates below seven minutes per mile yet my heart rate drops significantly...I love running downhill! This trail is much wider, so I can easily overtake. The eighth and ninth mile are my fastest of the entire race. As I glance at my time, I start entertaining the notion that I might be able to achieve personal record today after all.

I turn right on to the Doubletree Connector and then hit a unexpected steep incline starting around the mile 10 marker. Where did it come from? I do not remember reading anything about it. As my pace drops back towards 14:00/mile, my hope for a personal record fades.

The course resumes its descent and soon exits the park at Doubletree Road. The asphalt feels a lot harder on my legs than it did at the beginning of the race, but I am still able to regain my peak downhill speed. Though my tenth mile may have started slow, I complete it in 8:05. I may not PR today, but I may come very close.

One final climb remains as we turn from Kanan on to Thousand Oaks Blvd and then I sprint down Argos Street to the finish line at Chumash Park. I cross the finish line in 1:46:12...less than a minute slower than my PR on the flat Disneyland course, but much faster than I have ever run with such significant elevation changes. And, despite the effort, I feel unusually great as I collect my finisher's medal, grab a bottle of water, and then return to the finish chute to look for Justin.

Justin crosses the line in 1:50:49. Yes, I have finally beat him during a race! In all fairness, Justin has been dealing with plantar fasciitis since we last ran together in February. In fact, he has only run 20 miles over the past month (I have been doing more miles per week).

I am surprised how much I enjoyed the Chesebro Half Marathon. While I do enjoy the post-race festivities (including chocolate crepes courtesy of Whole Foods), the race is definitely the highlight. A good trail run beats a road one any day...and this is 13.11 miles I strongly recommend.

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