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+

What to Do When Weather Ruins Your Workouts

The storm about to hit the Bay Area, according to the weather people.
The storm about to hit the Bay Area, according to the weather people.


#Stormaggedon is coming. Tomorrow.

Since this is the biggest storm we’ve had in five years — ignoring the fact that we’ve mostly been in a drought for the last two years — people are freaking out a little bit. If it’s as bad as they’re saying, then we could get four to six inches of rain, 20 to 30 mph winds, mudslides, flooding, power outages, and worse. (It is not clear yet what “worse” is.) We’ll probably get some of that, but it’s hard to believe we’ll get all of that as bad as people think, since people seem to think this is The Big One, the one that’s going to wipe us out — and I always sort of felt like The Big One probably wouldn’t come with enough warning for every store in Marin to sell out of sandbags.

But, when the weather gets bad, it can throw training up in the air. Yes, you don’t want to bail at the first sign of a drizzle. And, we’ve all done that, been the person sitting inside arguing with ourselves that ‘I dunno, it looks like it might be cold out.’ But, I’d also argue that athlete-people too frequently try to tough it out, thinking that it’ll toughen them up. It might. Or, it could slowly wear them down and break them.

Besides the last two years, every winter I’ve trained in the Bay Area has involved a lot of riding in the rain. Because of this, I go out of my way to not ride in the rain. I will get enough toughening up on accident or when it can’t be avoided. I do NOT deliberately bike in the rain. When we were at training camp back in the spring and everyone wanted to ride, even though it was raining, I was like, “Nope, sorry, I get rained on too much to ride in the rain in Arizona.” Seriously. No.

While biking in bad weather is incredibly terrible — risks include hypothermia, possible major injury, or death — running isn’t that bad. (I mean it’s not enjoyable, but it’s do-able.) I’ve run in some pretty insane rain. However, that wasn’t always a great idea actually. In retrospect. Sometimes, you really should know when to not be stupid.

Tomorrow, I am trying to not be stupid.

#Stormaggedon has already prompted school closures. (I know. Weird.) The usual flood spots are barricaded, hopefully. People have bought out all the bottled water and flashlight batteries. Most of the gyms are closed for the morning. Social events are cancelled. Everyone is just going to batten down the hatches and sit inside, apparently. Given that, it seemed like a bad idea to get in my hard run in the midst of a mini-hurricane.

That’s why you’ve got to get creative and be flexible with your training sometimes. This is one of the best things about being your own coach. If you trust yourself, then you’re probably the person who knows best what you can and should do.

So, today, I did my hard run workout, even though my legs weren’t exactly ready for a hard run after massively underestimating on Monday how long it would take me to run to meet Steve and having to go full-out for 20 minutes to make it. But, I had to do the hard run today, so oh well.

The only problem is I was going to swim tomorrow (since I’d already be wet), but now all the pools are closed — even the indoor ones. Guess I’ll take it easy tomorrow with some yoga at home, wait and see if it stops raining by Friday to ride, and figure it all out as I go.

Here’s what I do when I’m trying to figure out my training in bad weather:

  • Evaluate how bad it really is.
  • Do not start a ride in actual rain, if it can not be avoided.
  • Re-arrange your schedule as best as possible to get your rides in before or after the storming.
  • Stop being so rigid. Good rule for life too.
  • Try not to do hard workouts in crazy weather; it’s just not going to go well.
  • Know that any workouts in the rain or snow or a storm are going to take more out of you. It simply is more stressful.
  • Dress appropriately. That especially means gloves. (I know, duh. But, some of the worst rides I’ve ever had were because I was stupidly under-dressed and refused to go back for more clothes.)
  • If things get bad bad — like you need to help with flood control, pitch in at neighbors’ house, or clean up the streets — then do that! Training is still just training.

Do you train in the crazy bad weather?

Nike Women’s Half-Marathon: Running a Race for Training is Weird

I ended up running the Nike Women’s Half-Marathon on Sunday sort of last minute — like Saturday night decision. Primarily, I wanted to go over to the race to interview some people and feel it out for a story. (Which by the way, you should all go over and check out my story about how races profit off free labor at Beacon Reader. It’s a new journalism platform where you can subscribe, get access to all the reporters on there and the money goes to straight to the writer — me!) But, also, I wanted to get in a long hard, marathon pace type run.

I know people do races for training all the time. But, it’s not really my thing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done it. I’ve done races where I didn’t expect to PR because it wasn’t a target race, but I still put everything out there on that day. When I race I race. Probably my number one skill in sports is being scrappy/bringing the race face. I’m not saying I’m super fast, but if we just measured the difference between how you perform in training and how you perform on race day, I’d probably be at the top.

So, I don’t usually waste that.

AGH, so many people and lights and speakers.
AGH, so many people and lights and speakers.

And, I guess, well, I didn’t. I definitely did NOT bring my race face to Nike Women’s. I got to the parking garage, about a half-mile from the line, at 6:08 for a 6:30 start. My regular race panic kicked in and I started bolting down the street before I remembered I was going to use the first few miles to warm-up. Also, everyone around me looked at me like I was crazy. Evidently, among the majority of the 30,000 racers there is less of a sense of urgency than I usually feel. After I got my bag dropped at bag check at 6:20, I spent the next 14′ scouring fancy hotel bathrooms for feminine products.

When I finally walked out of the St. Regis at 6:34, I realized we still had 6′ until my corral was scheduled to cross the start line. Because the bib I got from a friend of a friend came with a pace bracelet, I was in the 9:00-9:59 pace corral. It was interesting. I didn’t realize this is what the race looks like to most people doing it: more casual, more photos being taken, more stopping to talk and gossip.

Even running relatively easily, I had to weave like I was drunk. Lots of people did, though it is downtown San Francisco, so it’s possible some of them really were drunk. In the dark, nobody was out yet, so most people just jumped up on the sidewalk to run. This policeman was trying to shoo everyone back into the street, but it was a losing battle.

I sort of enjoyed the scenery and ran 8:23, 8:00, 7:48 for my first three miles. Then, my plan was to pick it up for the next mile (7:18) and run marathon goal race pace (7:00-7:05) for the last nine miles. I think I managed one mile actually in that range.

Since I didn’t bring my race face, I hadn’t really looked at the course. That meant I didn’t really realize, or I only sort of realized, I would be running my marathon pace miles over this:


I did a 6:55 mile along the water and then a 7:15 mile that included the big climb up from Crissy Field. Then, there was a 7:55 mile while we were going up and a 6:45 when we were going down. Somewhere around then I started to worry that this was really hard. Should it be this hard? It did not feel easy. And it definitely did not feel marathon pace-y. Then I did like another 8:00 while we ran uphill and a 6:35 down to Ocean Beach.

At that point I started to get really worried. My legs hurt and I just wanted to be done. I’d been hungry since mile 4. I was going, in theory, 45″ slower per mile than my half-marathon PR. But, it wasn’t easy. What the hell is that about?

I even had to buckle down, zone out and grit my teeth for the last three miles. Since they were flat-ish — up through the park and then back down and into the finish, I was the closest to the actual pace I meant to go: 7:15, 7:00, 6:50. But, when I finished in 1:36:47 I realized I didn’t feel wiped out at all. I felt fine and completely coherent. I changed clothes and started interviewing people.

So, I guess that’s the difference between a training race and a race race.

Running up, up, up.
Running up, up, up.

The race is really well-done, but also totally weird. It caters specifically to women runners — or rather a caricature of what women are supposed to be. They had chocolate at one aid station. What am I supposed to do with a chocolate bar in the middle of a race? (I stuffed it in my sports bra.) They were handing out baby wipes at other aid stations. I think to wipe off the sweat. Did no one tell anybody that women are supposed to sweat when they run? There were actual firefighters dressed in tuxedos handing out Tiffany necklaces at the finish. If that doesn’t scream me, I don’t know what does.

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.

Belvedere Lagoon

The lagoon is a different color because of something the Belvedere people put in it. I think.
The lagoon is a different color because of something the Belvedere people put in it. I think.

This is where I swam today. The Belvedere Lagoon. I had heard rumors, talk, whispers of such a place. But, you have to know someone who lives on the lagoon to let you use their dock off the back of their house. I don’t know lots of people in Tiburon/Belvedere (shockingly). Today I got an invite. The lagoon is fed from the Bay, but it’s cleaner and treated by some chemical for algae and it’s like 10-12 degrees warmer than the Bay — no wetsuit needed — and you can do long 45′ laps around it. If you can, wrangle an invite from someone.

The Day I Failed at Biking 29 Miles

Yesterday, I rode my bike to the ferry in the morning and then planned to ride all the way home from KQED in the evening. It should have been just under 29 miles. I should have no problem riding 29 miles.

I had some problems.

This is what it should have looked like. The red arrow is where I stopped, gave up, got a beer, and made Steve come and pick me up:

That's still like 75% or something. Totally a passing grade.
That’s still like 75% or something. Totally a passing grade.

I’m not exactly sure why I failed. I started out riding through SOMA, by AT&T Park. I only got sort of lost and ended up in a sketchy dead-end under the freeway once. It was a nice day and I thought, ‘Hey, this is sort of pleasant.’

Then, I hit Pier 39, which the tourists flock to for the seals (or sea lions, always unclear to me) and for the people who hide in bushes to scare them. It is, apparently, European tourist season right now. Sometimes, it is Asian tourist season. It seems to have something to do with country holidays and seasons and schedules and economics. European tourists are really into tourist-y biking. They also have a different attitude about biking. That attitude appears to involve hanging your helmet over your handlebars, riding four abreast, and taking pictures while you weave in and out of traffic.

Then, I rode over the Fort Mason hill into the Marina and came to a dead stop. The wind has been bad this week and that area is always windy, but I don’t know enough about the city to have remembered this. It took almost as long to bike across Marina Green and Chrissy Field as it usually takes to run it during Escape from Alcatraz.

By the time I finally got to the bridge, which was still stupid windy, I was realizing this was going to take significantly longer than I thought it was going to. But, hey, the bridge, the sun, the birds chirping in trees, etc.

Just like this.
Just like this.

I thought the other side of the bridge would be better. It wasn’t. It was wall-to-wall, stopped traffic. I wasn’t sure if it was always this bad, so I asked someone and they said, no, this was weird. Coming down into Sausalito, there is no shoulder and it’s all tour buses — one of which tried to pass me and then make a right turn before having completed the pass, nearly taking me out. By the time I got through Sausalito, I was ready to be home.

My emotional and physical collapse came pretty quickly. At the start of the Sausalito-Mill Valley bike path, I felt ok, but hungry. By the end of the bike path, I was starving and wanted to lay down.

In classic bonk fashion, I was day-dreaming about all the things I was going to eat when I got home, but then I realized we didn’t have hummus or chocolate-chip cookie making materials or fries. I also realized I had no food on me, since I’d eaten it all at the office. Super awesome plan: stop at Safeway.

I may have even taken a wrong turn on my way to Safeway — even though I’ve ridden this route probably hundreds of times. I was tired.

At Safeway, you probably think I got a bar or something. No. I ate a Kit-Kat and a donut. Then, I gathered up: two things of hummus, two avocados, a bag of chocolate-chips, vanilla extract, brown sugar, and regular sugar. Just as I was cramming all that in my backpack and starting to wonder if this was not my best idea ever, Steve called and said he’d be getting in about 25′ later if I wanted picked up.

No, I said, I’ll keep going. I can bike 29 miles.

Then, I made it a wobbly 10′ farther to the ferry, realized I still had at least 30′ to go, almost crashed into a couple trying to cross the bridge over the freeway, and gave up. I sat down at Brew Co, ordered a beer, and waited for Steve to get me.

Apparently, I can’t bike 29 miles. I’m not sure why. It’s just one of those days.

What To Do If You ‘Run’ Into a Mountain Lion

This is a specifically requested follow-up to ‘What To Do If You ‘Run’ Into a Rattlesnake.’

Mountain lions are also quite common around here. People are always seeing them wandering down from the hills — even all the way into the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley. Steve swears he saw one at the top of Fairfax-Bolinas Road, by the golf course. He also says he wasn’t worried about it because the lion was eating a deer, so something in that story doesn’t sound totally right.

Whenever anyone says they saw a mountain lion, the police always assume it was really a bobcat (which are, evidently, less dangerous), because they’re easy to confuse. You’re supposed to look at the tail to tell the difference. So, if a large cat is running at you, remember to have it turn around.


On the prowl. With a shorter tail.
On the prowl. With a shorter tail. From Tory Kallman

Mountain Lion:

With a long tail.
With a long tail.

With a rattlesnake, the main things you need to know are about what to do after you’re bitten while running on trails. With a mountain lion, the main things you need to know are about not getting bitten. Once you’ve been attacked, there’s really only one thing to do: call 9-1-1.

1. Not that many people get killed by mountain lions — just 20 in the last 100 years. So, you know, not a huge problem. Mostly, it’s small children that get attacked, suggesting that the best way to not be attacked is to not be small. In recent years, more adults running, hiking, biking, skiing in lion territory have been attacked, suggesting that the second best way to not be attacked is not to wander into their territory.

2. Avoid mountain lions in the first place. Which sounds stupid, but, well, apparently needs to be said. If you’re on a trail in the hills where there is nature and shit, you really shouldn’t be wearing headphones. Mountain lions are more active at dusk and dawn. They also like to go after small things — children, dogs, people by themselves. Don’t run on trails at night. Run in groups at those times — large cats are less likely to attack herds. Stick to trails, especially frequently used trails, instead of wandering into undergrowth. If I do end up stuck on a trail at night (thank YOU Steve and Justin), then it’s always helpful to yell or talk loudly while you go, so as not to surprise any animals out. This led to one instance where I was running full speed, sprinting to get back to my car as dusk fell, and yelling at the top of my lungs, “DON’T EAT ME,” the entire time.

3. If you happen upon a mountain lion, back away. Be large. As is always the advice with these kinds of things: stay calm.  You’re supposed to essentially convince it that you’re the scariest thing out there, which means raise your arms, talk loudly but calmly, pick up any kids or dogs with you so they don’t run. If it starts to behave aggressively, you should throw things and yell –while backing away. But, don’t bend over or crouch to pick up things to throw, because then you’ll look small and it’ll attack. (How you’re supposed to throw things without picking them up is a mystery to me. Presumably, you carry rocks for just such an occasion.)

4. Don’t run, but don’t stand. Traditional logic has always said that if you turn and start to run, then the lion will instinctively chase, which has caused me to be afraid that a lion in the brush will mistake me running on the trail for me running away and try to chase me. New research is suggesting that ‘Don’t Run’ may not be the best advice. If you can run quickly on relatively even ground, you have a decent chase of escaping, but if it catches you then you’re more likely to be killed. If you run on uneven ground, it may mistake you for limping or being weak, which encourages it to attack. If you turn your back, it may go for your spinal cord. But, if you stand totally still, you are almost definitely going to be attacked. Make sense? Good.

5. Fight back. Again, this also sounds stupid, but some animals, supposedly, are less likely to kill you if you play dead. That is NOT the case with mountain lions. You need to convince it that you are too much trouble to eat. If a lion attacks you, hit it. People have been successful in getting away after hitting it with sticks, rocks, gardening tools, etc. This is partially why many people carry a walking stick.

Really, when I think too hard about all the things that can attack me, I start to lose my shit. I generally just take comfort in the fact that if I get attacked by a mountain lion, I will be the first in Marin County and it will definitely be big news.

Tour of California!

Steve and I are headed over to the East Bay to watch the Tour of California stage that’s finishing on Mt. Diablo. (Fun fact: I can bike up Mt. Diablo in 1:03. Steve can do it in something under 50′ — I dunno 46 last time he did it a few years ago? He’ll probably be mad at me now if I got that number wrong.)

Mostly, I’m just going to cheer Nate on, hopefully get some beers and burgers and maybe a free ice cream again from people setting up tents on the side of the mountain, and meet up with Courtenay to ride up the hill. It’s like a cyclist version of a parking lot pre-game rager. If you want to join, the road up the south side of the mountain closes at 2 p.m. to cars. North side stays open the whole time to the ranger station halfway up, where the two meet. The riders are supposed to hit the bottom at 3 p.m. I’ll be somewhere around 3/4 of the way up?

Sunday, the race comes through Marin for the last day’s stage. I wrote all about what the general viewer needs to know (roads will be closed!) and where to watch.

I’ll be out covering the race and spectators and the scene on Sunday. So, you can also find me if you want to make it into the paper or something.