The San Francisco Christmas Relays: Race Review

The Christmas Relays are miserable. Everyone knows it. And, yet, everyone still does them every year. I raced the relays again this past weekend, for probably the fourth or fifth time.

It’s hard to explain why it’s so miserable. It’s supposed to be a fun holiday relay race, but there’s something about it that’s slow and long and uphill both ways and it’s mid-December, so everyone’s out of shape in mid-December. It just hurts. Steve did the race for the first time this year — we did it with another couple — and I tried to explain why it sucks. “It’s only 4.5 miles,” he asked, “What’s so bad about that?” Yeah, but it’s a mysteriously slow, terrible 4.55 miles.

After he finished, he basically had to admit that it is mysteriously awful.

Still. It’s the only $18 race where the field will be evenly split between people in costume and Olympic hopefuls. It’s a classic. You have to do it at least once.


The Expo and Goodies

This is a running race classic. That means you better not expect the same kind of scene as at the super-fancy big marathons. There was a brunch truck this year that you could buy food from. And, there are always a few Gatorade containers with water in them. The big new perk in 2014 was the beer tent: everyone got two free beers from 21st Amendment. (I even got three. Don’t ask.) And, they were good beers. Since you have all this time to kill while you wait for the other runners in your relay to finish their 4.55-mile leg, the beer was a nice touch. Who cares that it’s 9:30 a.m.?

The other cool feature is that you can opt to pay less and not get a t-shirt with your entry — which is a nice option if you have too many t-shirts. Winners get mugs.

The Course

The course is what makes the race so miserable. Allegedly, all you have to do is a run a 4.55-mile loop around Lake Merced, but there’s something about that loop that is all uphill.

Actually, it starts out slightly downhill, so you go too fast and blow up. Everyone does. It can not be avoided. Then, it’s all false flat up — just a small enough incline that you don’t notice it; all you notice is that you’re going a lot slower and it’s a lot harder. And, the run is all on sidewalk around the lake, which can get sort of annoying, especially as you dodge dogwalkers and Sunday morning joggers.

The first year I did it, we all wore costumes (see above) and I went out hard — really hard. Within a couple minutes I was overheating and wheezing. Since I was the last runner in our foursome and the field gets really spread out over the full 18 miles, there weren’t many runners around me. I was sprinting down a sidewalk by myself, in a very non-breathable leotard, weaving through walkers, and I looked over at the cars driving down the busy road next to the park and realized that this whole thing must look ridiculous to the drivers.

The Organizational Details

It’s a four-person relay, with each person running one 4.55-mile lap around the lake. Being the Bay Area, there will be lots of disgustingly fast relays. There will be one women’s relay made up of Olympians and future Olympians. Then, there will be another ten women’s relays that all still average under six minute mile pace. Be prepared for this.

Also, be prepared for spending a lot of time hanging out. It’s usually cold and it’s often raining, so two hours standing around in a parking lot may not sound like the most fun idea ever. (This is why the beer tent was such a nice addition this year.) If you go first or second, then you’ll be done and can hang out — extra bonus: if you go first or second, then you’ll probably have more people around you to run with too.

Grade: B-/C+

Not Even Showing Up to the Start Line

Yesterday, I was supposed to run the Pacific Association cross-country championship race in Golden Gate Park. And, by “supposed to” I mean that I hadn’t exactly signed up yet, just that it was on my training schedule and I fully intended to go.

But, I didn’t go.

It’s not that I dislike the PA XC Champs race. It’s terrible fun and I’ve done it most years. And, usually, it falls the day after the high school cross-country sectional race, so I’m all invigorated to go out there and run some crazy stuff over logs and up hills and through sand. This year, though, I just wasn’t.

I was worn out and tired and things hurt. The combination of a few days of TRX, Crossfit and my last/only 20-mile run left my body pretty beaten up this weekend and running around the high school meet didn’t do much to help. In fact, it hurt my toe more, with all the sprinting back and forth across the field in random shoes without the orthodic, etc. So, when I woke up at 7 a.m. yesterday to eat breakfast and head to Golden Gate, instead, I just didn’t get up.

This isn’t exactly a strategy I would advise and it’s left me with more than a few doubts going into CIM, which we’re just going to not talk about, and a little sad I missed the terrible fun. But, when you know it’s going to be a hard race and you know you’re going to spend a lot of the race questioning why you care about coming in 43rd or 39th, you kind of have to be all in at the start and not asking those questions beforehand — or it just isn’t going to go well. (And, the last thing I need right now is another shitty race.)

So, instead, I slept until 10 a.m. and went for a mountain bike ride. Hoping that was the right decision, right coach?

Race Report: Pacific Association Golden Gate Park Cross-Country Open

The Pacific Association races are hard to explain to people. No one knows about them and they’re insanely stupid painfully fast.

The Pacific Association is just the regional section that covers California, etc, of the USA Track and Field national governing body. But, it’s also shorthand for their sanctioned series and races that are stupid hard. “Doing the PA race this weekend?” “Are you kidding? I can’t deal with that shit.” Because, to be an official PA race you have to offer some money — typically small, like $1000 total over three races — and you have to have points for teams. So, it tends to draw athletes who are trying to make money running or who are doing the running bum thing or who are fast enough that regular races aren’t quite exciting, but not quite fast enough to make it on the international circuit or some who actually are making it on the international circuit (ie. at a world or Olympic level) but they live in Northern California so they come out to these races. Also, there are a lot of fast people in Northern California.

Basically, it’s skinny, stupid fast girls and some Olympians.

One time, I convinced my aunt and my best friend from high school to do the PA race in Marin when they were here for our wedding by telling them it was “just like a local 5K.” Which, I suppose, technically was true. It was 5K and it was local. But, we ended up coming in like fourth to last and I probably should have warned them more about what they were getting into.

Right now is cross-country season, so yesterday I did the Golden Gate Park cross-country race. It’s actually the exact same course that the cross-country championship is on in November, which I’ve randomly done like four times, so I more or less knew what I was getting into.

I’m also practicing looking like a stupid fast skinny runner girl by wearing tiny spandex shorts for races. My logic is that if I wear tiny spandex shorts maybe people will assume I’m fast and then they will become discouraged and stop trying to drop me as hard. In Steve’s bike races they always work extra hard to drop the guy who doesn’t have shaved legs. So, my logic is not as shitty as you thought at first. But, I’m not 100% sure it worked.

And, yes, that is Tupac the Cat trying to lick the dirt off my legs.

The race pretty much went like this: I ran 6:15 miles for the first two miles and thought I was going to die. I still got passed. Then, I ran like 6:40s for the second two miles + change and also still got passed, but managed to pass a couple people who were running slower than 6:40 miles.

The course is two loops that are, in theory, each two miles. But, if all the GPS watches that were beeping at the mile markers are any indication it’s more like 4.2 miles total. It starts on a long open downhill field and then a long, wide-ish downhill trail for about a half-mile. People go hard. You tell yourself you’re not going to go too hard, but you sort of have to, because after that it turns sharply into single-track and you start running through bushes and over logs and in sand. My mantra for the first mile was: “Oh, fuck, I am not prepared for this.” Because, well, I wasn’t. Physically, mentally, or emotionally. It was painful, really painful and I felt like I was full-on sprinting, except, you know, for FOUR MILES.

My mantra for the second mile was: “I’m not going to make it through a second lap.” In the second mile, I sort of lost contact with the girl from my team who I’d been running with. She got a couple steps ahead of me and I never quite re-connected.

The second lap wasn’t quite as bad, but that may just be because I slowed down. Evidently, you have to keep running hard the whole time. I started to work my way back up to the girl from my team, was almost right on her shoulder, and then she pulled away again. A couple of girls from other teams passed me and I would go with them and then lose them and then they passed her and she’d go with them and then lose them. My mantra for the second lap (miles 2-3.5) was more or less: “Well, really, what’s the point?”

You can see I’m working on the whole positive thinking thing.

But, really, when you’re 30-something out of 140-something women and there’s not a whole ton riding on this race, it’s hard to care much if you run 27:00 or 27:20. And, when it’s cross-country, it’s hard to get too worked up about pace. I mean, you DID just jump over a log. So, I had one of my existential race crises, but in the scheme of those, it wasn’t my worst.

The last half-mile I tried to stay with a woman who passed me, tried to pick it up and fight the last hill and descent, but she got a few steps on me and I figured, everyone sprints the last quarter-mile, of course she’ll sprint, you won’t be able to catch her. But, I did. I pulled her back in the last 50m. And I ran a 27:23.

Aren’t you supposed to take glamorous shots of your legs/shoes all the time.

I thought I had run a 27:08 or so back in November, so I was eh about my time yesterday. But, it turns out I ran a 28:08 in November, which was still a minute faster than I ran it in November 2011 (when I fell in the mud twice and then opted to ‘jog’ it in). And, it’s like minutes and minutes faster than when Justin and I randomly did this race during school back in 2005. So, improvement?

It was also a good race-seal breaker to remember that running fast is painful and to keep it together when it does hurt (which I mean, really, I did much better than I used to). And, I must have run hard because the rest of the day my stomach had that painful empty feeling that no matter how much I ate wouldn’t go away. Usually, that only happens with longer races.

Ready to Race? Running a Road Mile

Sunday, I am going to run a mile. I suppose, since I went for an easy run this morning, I also ran a mile — five of them — but Sunday I will run a mile FAST.

I’ve done the San Rafael Downtown Mile (now called the Miracle Mile) a couple times, maybe last year, maybe the year before it. My PR is 5:32 (which is my mile PR period), so obviously I’d like break 5:30. But that’s not going to happen.

Here’s the only photo of me racing it previously:

Do you see me at the very very back of that line of people? Looking squat and not very fast.
Do you see me at the very very back of that line of people? Looking squat and not very fast.

The race is typically filled with Olympic qualifiers and elites, etc. The women’s course record is like 4:49. And, it’s not a particularly fast course. You blast through the first two turns and then for a little under half-a-mile you run up 60 feet of elevation — just enough that it burns and hurts and slows as you hit the peak. Then, you turn around and go part of the way back down.

And, then you try to not throw up on anyone.

For four weeks after the Dipsea, I didn’t run. I did one 30′ easy jog with some friends one weekend, but that was it. Since starting up again in the last week-and-a-half, I’ve done three 30′-50′ slow, slow runs. And, Wednesday, I did one tempo workout with some efforts at half-marathon(ish) pace to remember that I do know how to theoretically.

So, theoretically, I should be able to get through this mile on Sunday. My plan is my standard plan: go out hard with the fast girls and hang on for as long as possible.

Have you run a road mile? Any ideas how much it’s going to hurt?