Oakland Triathlon: Race Review

Obviously, I did not finish this race. But I had a ton of friends doing it. (I think I knew 1/4 of the people there.) And I watched most of the parts I didn’t do and did the other parts, so I feel like I have a pretty good sense of it overall.

Also, of note: I knew about 1/4 of the people there and usually they would be all up on the social media posting softly-lit photos about how #blessed they are and how amazing the race was. I did not see a single thing posted after the race among all my friends. Since, in the current triathlon climate, so many “amateurs” are shilling for current sponsors or future sponsors or potential sponsors, and so many people are advertising online for the life they wish they had, the fact that no one posted anything says volumes about what they weren’t saying. In my opinion.

The Expo/Goodies: Honestly, I think this was the best part of this race. Since I was “done” early, I had a few free beers in a very cute mason jar with the Oakland Triathlon logo on it that, unfortunately, didn’t have a top so I’m not sure what I can re-use it for besides drinking. I also had an OK burrito and apparently I could have had free wings. And, if I had been up for it, I would have been able to get a massage. The expo wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t tiny, and it had all the stuff you actually want. Plus, the t-shirt was cute. So, you know, A+ for the stuff that comes on the side of the race, which generally I don’t care much about, but there it is.

The Course: The swim is in the Oakland estuary. And I thought it was fiiiiiiine, but apparently other people didn’t? It tasted a little oil-y right at the start, but then it was totally good. The major reason people seemed all up in arms was because 1. it was long, like for sure definitely long, no question about it (and also people’s GPSs confirmed it was super long) and 2. it was all zig-zaggy at the beginning.

This is the course:

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See that part where there’s a weird U-turn before you go straight for a long time. Yeah. Basically you were swimming back into people who were swimming out into you. Also, with the sprint waves starting first, this was around when you ran into the back of them too. Evidently, this bothered a lot of people. And, yes, I did get kicked hard in the face twice. But I also figured I’m better at weird swimming stuff than other triathletes, so while everyone else was breaststroking and freaking out, I just put my head down and swam over them.

At the end you had to climb up onto this pier — which I was doing just fine, thank you — and a super enthusiastic volunteer reached down to pull me out. But, since I wasn’t expecting that, I landed weird and hard on my thumb, and dislocated it. Which was a nice extra injury.

Then you had to run up these two flights of stairs (or take the elevator?) and across a bridge over some train tracks and then back down the stairs. Then you got on the bike.

Now the bike course was my major problem with the race. It was not safe. Period. It still would not have been safe if it hadn’t rained. The rain simply highlighted existing problems.

Those problems were:

  • Way, way too many turns — and sharp turns at that
  • On roads that were not entirely closed, so that you were turning in a narrow portion of them
  • And on roads that were very bad, so that you were coming around a sharp turn in a narrow bike lane, basically in the shoulder and there’d be all kinds of potholes and cracks
  • Plus, people of far too varying speeds trying to navigate all this at the same time — with the sprint waves starting first, that also meant you’d come around that sharp, narrow turn, avoiding the potholes, in the rain, and run right into the back of someone going drastically slower than you

It was a bad combination.

There’s a reason I saw multiple people wipe out (and I only saw those crashes on the first half of the bike before I wiped out too), and that reason isn’t that it rained, and it isn’t that it was an “urban” course. I have done lots of races in the rain. I have done lots of races in big cities. They did not have this high a crash rate.

I think/I hope that the race organizers realized this, because it was sort of a mess. And I think/I hope that they’re planning to change the course some for next year. You could have a good triathlon in Oakland, you just need to plot the bike course better.

Then the run, which I clearly didn’t do, went around Lake Merritt before finishing back over those same two flights of stairs and back across the train tracks. Lake Merritt is a nice park with a nice running path and lots of races go around it. Like, apparently, another unaffiliated 5K race on the same path at the same time as the triathlon??

The Organizational Details: I had been genuinely excited about this race, because I like local races and I like the Morgan Hill race these organizers put on. I also missed the inaugural Oakland Triathlon last year and everyone did it, so I felt like I was missing out. And I usually like wacky race courses, so the fact that this sounded all kinds of crazy was a bonus. Plus, since everyone was doing it that meant good competition on a fun course right near home. What could go wrong.

So I was a little disappointed that it was not super well-organized. Even before the race started, I was annoyed about things not being marked well. The expo is in a different place than transition, which is a different place than the start. This is annoying, but fine. Lots of races are that logistically annoying, but they all have signs and clear maps and directions. Instead, nowhere would tell me where packet pick-up was on race morning. I eventually had to ask another random racer. Actually, asking people where things were was kind of the operating procedure for everything before the start, but since opinions tended to vary you had to take more of a general crowd poll.

I think if things were a little more organized with people not being directed the wrong way on the bike, with lots of clear signage, with full (or at least heavily partial) course closures, then it would have been a lot better. There just seemed to be a lot of little details that were missing. Like, after I crashed, there was no system to get me or ALL the people who were crashing back to the finish/start, no SAG wagon or race support or anything that I saw. (It’s entirely possible there was and the volunteers by me just didn’t know about it or it was coming much later. I don’t know.) That seems like a bad plan. The volunteer who gave me a ride back was very, very nice. And the med tent people who cleaned out my cuts with “the only antibiotic cleansing wipe they had” were very nice. But there should have been more antibiotic wipes, you know.

Grade: C-

Spartan Race AT&T Park: A Race Review

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A couple weeks ago I did the Spartan Race Sprint in AT&T Park. Despite the fact that I did a Tough Mudder way back when it wasn’t even cool yet and despite the fact that I know everything about obstacle course races after working on my documentary this spring, I’ve never actually done a Spartan Race. I’ve never actually really raced one of these obstacle things either, because the few I’ve done have always been casually and with friends.

So, I just wanted to try one actually hard. Unfortunately, the only one that fit my schedule was the sprint in AT&T Park—which really does not sound like the kind of thing I’d be good at. Short and heavily strength-based? Definitely!

I realized exactly how over my head I was when I was lined up with the elite heat of women at the start. These were some seriously intense and ripped women—the sort for whom this was exactly the kind of thing they’d be good at. And the announcer guy was making a speech about penalties and warnings on certain obstacles and “when you get to the traverse wall, it’ll be like the standard traverse wall you’re used to seeing…” (hah, right) “…except there will be a gap in the middle. do not put your foot on that gap or you’ll be penalized. and of course you all know how many burpees are the penalty.” (uh?)

I went in the second group of 15 women, so that at least maybe there’d be people in front of me when I got to the obstacles so I could see how to do them. And then I enacted my plan: run hard, because the running is the only thing you’re going to be good at here.

It worked ok. As in, I would get a decent gap when we had to run up and down and up, up, up, and around the stadium, and then I’d have to take my time figuring out what the hell I was doing on some obstacle. I mean, I got the gist, but my technique was off. At one point, on the 8-foot wall climb, I was hanging upside down backwards from both my knees and the official/volunteer guy was looking at me like he wasn’t sure if that was penalty or not, because he’d never seen anyone do it that way before. And, of course, 6-7 women passed me when I missed the target on the spear throw and had to do my penalty burpees. (FYI, it’s a 30-burpee penalty.) But, and this is a huge but, the spear throw was the only obstacle I missed. I got through the weird monkey bars and the rope climbs and the Herculean hoist thing (even though it was basically my body weight that I was trying to hoist and the weight kept dragging me around through the sand instead of me dragging it).

It was really an exercise in deliberate-ness. I mean look at how deliberate I was being:

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I really, really didn’t want to get hurt. And, at one point, I was running down concrete stairs, between hard plastic chairs, and then down across the benches in the outfield seats, so that I was stepping from bench to bench, and I thought, “You could really mess yourself up on these; it wouldn’t even be hard.”

Expo/Goodies: Spartan Race isn’t really about the goodies? I think. I dunno. At least not at these stadium races. You got a t-shirt and a sweat armband and a medal for finishing. And I think that was it. There might have been some bananas and water somewhere too. But part of the problem with these stadium races—as opposed to their usual ones outdoors—is that there simply isn’t that much room. Everything is a little cramped in the stadium halls, so there’s no big expo. And it was hard to even find water. The woman at one of the concession stands told me she couldn’t give me a cup of water, but she could sell me some. Awesome.

Course: It’s more or less what you would think it would be inside a stadium. You run up a lot of stairs. Like, if you don’t want to run up and down stairs, do not do this race. And then, in between running up and down stairs, you do some pretty standard strength obstacles: push-ups, heavy jump rope, stone carry, box jumps, rope climbs, walls to get over, etc. It’s cool being able to run on the field, but it’s sort of a mess running through the stadium rows. It’s fun, and that’s what you signed up for, but concrete is not particularly forgiving.

Organizational Details: On the one hand, props for putting on a 5k race inside a major sports stadium inside a major city. That takes some organizing. On the other hand, it was a bit unorganized. Where is the start? Where are results? Where is water? And I was there really early, so I was able to park on the street immediately in front of the park and still be done before the parking restrictions went into effect at 9 a.m. I’m not sure how parking and logistics worked out for other people later. The main problem was that because you were running all over the stadium there was a lot of yellow tape up to direct you in and out of doors and around columns, etc, but it was still a little unclear at times—and you’re running full speed, because this is only 40 minutes long—and some of the stadium staff (as opposed to the volunteers with the race or the Spartan staff) could not have been less happy to be there. They did not care that you were running a race. So it was more than slightly frustrating to be charging hard down the concrete walkway and have the person standing there shrug when you asked which way to go.

On the whole, though, it’s a fun race and a good kind of wacky mix-up from your regular races. If you want to race hard, then go in the elite wave at the beginning, but know that means you can’t get any help on the obstacles. And, because they can only send off 15 people at a time in the cramped corridors, you still won’t really know how you’re stacking up as you go. (ie. I went off in the second group of 15 and I ended up 12th woman overall. So I guess I beat some people ahead of me and a couple behind me beat me? Maybe.)

Also, there’s an attitude to Spartan Race that I sort of respect. Like, you might hurt yourself running across benches over concrete. Guess you should be careful. And, when I would catch guys in front of me, they’d move over and get out of the way or let me go first, because let’s be real: if I’m catching you, with your 10 minute head start, then you’re not in contention to win anything, and it would considered very bad form to not get out of the way. At one point, we were just running up and up and up, and usually when things hurt in a race I think, ‘well, they wouldn’t make something that I can’t do,’ but then I thought, ‘this is Spartan, they might.’ At least more than most mass commercialized races. And I sort of respect that.

Grade: B-

Ragnar Relay Utah Review

I was not super excited about doing Ragnar Utah this past weekend. 36 hours sitting in a van? With a bunch of sweaty people? Running when you weren’t sitting — with my right leg totally crippled last week? It was so not exciting to me that Steve and I were laughing last week, after I wasn’t able to run four miles without limping, that it was so bad it was funny. Here I was crippled after the Dipsea, dealing with injury and needing to train for Ironman, exhausted from traveling, and sick of people. Continue reading “Ragnar Relay Utah Review”

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.

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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+

Boston Marathon: Race Review

Having run the first 12 miles of the race last year before I had to pull out and then running the last 9 miles this year with Ilyce, I feel like I can offer a fairly fair review of the Boston Marathon. In case you were wondering: running the last 9 miles of a marathon with a friend is 100% the way to go, and way more fun than doing the whole thing. I really enjoyed myself. She did not enjoy herself as much. (It was also painfully clear that not doing the whole thing was a good decision for me, since my bone spur foot and my torn muscle foot both started to give out after 9.)

This will be a review fairly devoid of pictures, because, even though I had my phone stuck in my bra while running, I didn’t want to be that person taking pictures/video during the race. Actually, I sort of did want to be that person, but instead here is the sum total of photos I took in Boston: a bag of KitKat minis so big it had a handle and was basically a purse; the deluxe cookiewich at Harvard Square; Fenway Park when they opened it for the runners to check out and drink after the marathon. Clearly, you can see where my priorities were.

So, let’s start this off with: If you’re not a fan of crowded big city marathons that are sort of insane, then you definitely shouldn’t do Boston. If that’s your thing or if you just want the experience, then you should do it at least once.

I’m also pretty sure that you will not be able to escape the constant feeling of missing out. It will constantly seem like everyone is hanging out at some bar, having the most fun ever, without you. The whole experience is just too much.

The Expo: I’m pretty sure that some people go to Boston just to go to the expo. It’s basically the center of the running universe for three days. And, there’s tons of other races — the mile, the 5K — to watch too. If that’s your kind of thing, then you’ll love it. There’s lots of stuff to buy and see and take for free. If that’s not your kind of thing, then you’ll hate it. I’m sort of split. It’s fun to see people and the newest gear, but you could easily spend a few hours just walking around and that’s not a fantastic idea before a race, right? And, besides, it’s hard not to feel a little judgmental about everyone trying to prove how super awesome they are. There’s certainly a reason I didn’t spend a ton of time there.

The Goodies: The BAA really delivers on the goodies. They don’t just hand over a bunch of bullshit coupons. You get a nice shirt, a fancy bottle opener, some bracelets and stickers, whatever free shit you got at the expo (or whatever you bought at the expo), a finsher’s medal — if you actually finished and take one — and tickets to the race dinner and the after-party. Not that those tickets will do you any good if there’s an hour line for dinner and they’re not letting anyone into the after-party.

Crossing the finish line. Sort of without actually finishing.
Crossing the finish line. Sort of without actually finishing.

The Course: You do the Boston Marathon because of the history and the crowds — not because it’s a fast course. It’s not. It’s hard. While everyone talks about the hills from mile 16-21, it really is the downhill the first 6 or 7 miles that kills me. You can’t avoid running too fast and pounding your legs, then you hit flats and it hurts and then you have to go up. Ugh. Even the last stretches that are long and flat into the finish line are loooong.

But, the crowds, man, the crowds. Both on the sidelines and in the race. Last year, I thought they were a little over-hyped, but I only made it through the first half, which is mostly suburbs and woods. This year, the second half was insane. That may have been more because of the year — there were twice as many spectators and so many at the finish that the police weren’t even letting anyone more in — but the second half also includes the crazy colleges and the huge downtown crowds. I was running with Ilyce, because she was having a shit day, and I was talking to her a decent amount of the time, but there were times where we couldn’t even hear each other. And, the last 1K, straight down Boylston or whatever, I felt like a goddamn Olympian. I wanted to wave to the screaming crowds.

(Keep in mind, though, that they’re just really enthusiastic and probably drunk. It doesn’t necessarily mean they know anything or care anything about running. I saw a woman scream at Joan Benoit-Samuelson that “way to go, she was running with the boys.” Yeah, I don’t think she cares so much about that.)

The Organizational Details: The organization is the biggest downside to Boston — beside the obvious over-the-topness of it all. Even though the race doesn’t start until 10 a.m. for most people, or 10:25 or 10:50 or whatever wave you’re in, you have to get on a bus in the downtown area at 6:45 a.m. or something. And then you have to take that bus out and out and out. They say the bus is the only way to get to the start, but it’s not. Lots of people drive or carpool or just stay near the start, but the bus is the only way to guarantee you’ll make it. The best option is really to stay near the start, fyi.

And, you better hope it’s nice out, because otherwise you’ll have to hang out for a few hours at the “start village” in the cold or the extreme heat. And, with the new restrictions on bringing anything with you, you have to do it in whatever you’re wearing or throwaway sweats. Ugh. And, then, the whole corral system and everything is so insanely crowded that it’s a bit of a shitshow.

Once you finally finish, you have to walk and walk and walk to get your stuff back and food and water and clothes. Forever. If you slow down and stop or look like you might throw up, then you get swarmed by eager medical volunteers. It’s almost like everyone forgets that these people just ran a marathon.

Grade: A