I turned in a performance at Golden Hills Trail Marathon that I'm pretty happy with (4:46:16, 34th out of 132). This was a 41 minute improvement from my horrible performance in this same race 5 years ago at age 29. I only entered this year because a) I had just finished my round-the-Bay effort in August and needed motivation to train and b) my friend and noted Vancouver, B.C. ultrarunner Baldwin Lee told me he was running this thing, and I'm sure as hell not letting some damn Canadian run a race unchallenged in (almost literally) my own backyard. The stakes were of course pride, and as it turned out two margaritas the night after the race at a Tartarus show, because I needed the salt, as you can tell by the after-race pictures.
As it turned out, Baldwin didn't make it to the start on time due to a series of hilarious (to everyone but Baldwin) mishaps, including accidentally running eleven miles from Castro Valley to Pleasanton. As a result he was a little tired at the starting line, where he arrived a full hour and five minutes late (he may post the full story at his blog). Despite this handicap, he says I would have beaten him soundly anyway, but I would rather have done it in a race that was more enjoyable for both of us. Even still, on the course I could only know that Baldwin must have started at least one minute behind me; assuming anything more would have been baseless speculation given the limited information I had. So in the last two miles where the trail around Lake Chabot sometimes offers good views of the trail behind, and the runners on it, every single runner for a full mile behind me started looking like an Asian guy with a crewcut. So the competition did help my time, even though it was imaginary!
I paced myself very well, and felt fantastic at the end, despite checking my voicemail after the finish to find a confusing 7:06am message saying that Baldwin was in Pleasanton. (Huh? Why would he be in Pleasanton? That can't be right.) Several other runners commented on my pacing, which isn't usually my strong suit, so here are my ruminations on why I turned in a strong performance.
1) I trained on the course, and only on the course. I think this was the single biggest factor; in a marathon with 5800' of elevation, you have to do this. That way I knew which hills would kill me in advance. Macdonald Trail, an extremely rude climb of 500 feet in a mile (at mile 18 no less) had done me in back in 2003. This year I passed at least a dozen people both going up and coming down and felt great when I topped out. A lot of it is psychological too. From the starting line to about the halfway point in Redwood Park, the race is going through my home territory - places where I never have to consult the maps. Once I get to the southeast part of Redwood I don't have all the trails memorized. Except this year I did, because the majority of my training was in the northern part of Lake Chabot.
2) I noticed about two weeks before the race that if I eat honey on bread in the morning then head out for an afternoon run, I don't get tired. In my few conversations about training regimens with other people, I don't know of anyone else who uses honey, but I do know there's a product from Japan that consists of weird sugars that wasps produce, and a few people I know swear by it. I had honey the morning of the race. (Update: thanks to Mike Palmer for engaging the ultra community in a discussion about everyone's routines with odd forms of complex carbohydrates.)
3) Two days before the race I hiked to the summit of Mt. Charleston near Las Vegas (11,918'; check out my summit log entry; photos came out pretty nice too.) I wondered if the altitude's effect on my RBC count would offset the tiredness of my legs. My legs weren't noticeably tired when I started the race.
4) While I was in Vegas I consumed a carne asada burrito which at the time of this writing is still playing games with my GI tract. I had to stop twice during the race as a result. The second time I stopped was around mile 15; when I sat down, I felt terrible. When I got up, I felt great, and I kept feeling great until the end of the race. Maybe it was taking a break and sitting for five minutes that did it; I hope so, because I'm not deliberately getting diarrhea any time soon to shave 2 minutes off my time.
5) Typically in marathons I take 2 x 200 mg ibuprofen and 2 x 200 mg caffeine at mile 12. (Doping scandal!) This time I waited until mile 14 for no good reason other than until then I was enjoying French Trail and started feeling bad on the descent into the canyon to get to Stream Trail. At the mile 20 aid station I still felt great and took 2 x 200 mg ibuprofen again. I'm putting this here in the interest of full disclosure, but then again, since I always do it, I'm not sure why it would have had a Popeye-eating-Spinach effect this time.
Once I was on the flat trail around Lake Chabot I was banging out at least 8 (if not 7!) minute miles to bring it in; I was actually a little annoyed at myself for having so much left. I also noticed at mile 19 (the descent on Macdonald Trail) my hands were tingling, which I only experienced once before, in the 2004 Ohlone 50k. Enkephalin release? In any event I'm not sure how to engineer this so it happens every time.
Most importantly, it was a fun day, the weather was perfect, the views were outstanding, the racers were all enjoying themselves (even the 50-milers - shout-out to Whitney, Mike, Jerry and Mark) and it was great to see everyone out there on the course. Thanks to the RD and volunteers who made it happen.