Thursday, January 23, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Pacifica Foothills Trail Half Marathon

Montara Mountain beckons
"Pacifica Foothills 50k kicked my ass last weekend," a coworker told me one Monday morning in early 2013. And so, the grueling but beautiful trail race was on my radar. In mid October, bolstered by a successful strategy in the San Jose Rock-n-Roll Half, I signed up for the Pacifica Foothills Trail Half Marathon. I was in excellent half marathon shape, and wanted to find out how fast I could push myself on rugged terrain. It would be six weeks after North Face 50, giving me plenty of time to recover. The half marathon is my favorite distance to race; far enough to warrant a strategy, but short enough to blow up and still finish well. A rare opportunity to go all out.

That was before I had gained entry to Western States. Race day came smack at the beginning of a solid base building phase, and my coaches advised me to keep it mellow. "Power hike the first climb, and keep the heart rate in zone 3 for the remainder", which I executed flawlessly. I could have finished quite a bit faster, but I likely would not have been able to train very well in the days that followed. Instead, I finished feeling fine, and training continued as planned. These 'training races' are getting easier to wrap my head around.

The weather was gorgeous, just like the course
The event, offering five distances (10k, half marathon, 30k, marathon and 50k), attracted over 200 runners to San Pedro Valley Park in Pacifica, a quaint seaside town just minutes south of San Francisco. The weather was outstanding, if a bit warm; record temperatures were predicted. Waves of warm air washed down the mountain and across the cool, dewy park as runners began to assemble for the start. It was a strange sensation, and foreshadowed warm temperatures approaching. The 50k, marathon and 30k runners went off around 8:30, and the half marathon began 15 minutes later. The 10k, using only the second loop of the course, started sometime after I had left the area.

Pacifica, and the Pacific
I jogged with the herd for the first half mile, along a gravel footpath. Soon, the trail constricted to single track and began ascending. I followed my coaches advice and power hiked as much as possible, only opening up my stride when the grade became obviously runnable. I did an okay job holding my place in the conga line, but let dozens of runners pass as they huffed their way up the hill. My right calf cramped severely during the climb. Never having cramped while running before (I usually cramp after finishing) I was unsure why it happened or how to fix it. I knew salt might help, and I had some dilute Tailwind in my bottle, but no S!Caps. I chalked it up to starting cold, and tried to leave my heel on the ground as long as possible in each stride to stretch out the muscle group. Short spells of running did not loosen it up, but overall it didn't slow me down much. By the time we gained the ridge and the trail opened up into a dirt road, I had forgotten about it all together. I'll have to remember that trick.

Two way traffic made for some dicey passing opportunities

Some upper sections were steep
The views from the summit of Montara Mountain made the climb worthwhile, but I was looking forward to the descent! Three miles of semi-technical downhill lay before me, and as I had kept it easy on the way up, most of the two way traffic I had to negotiate was above the single track. I had one parade of about eight runners to pass on the narrow trail, and then it was off to the races. I got my cadence up around 190, and clicked off effortless seven minute miles on the way back to the park, and the second loop.

The upper sections were nice and wide, allowing easy passing

The views were hard to appreciate on the downhills!

After following a train of runners who missed a turn at the bottom of the hill, I regained the course and ran confidently into the aid station. I felt great: no niggles since the calf cramp, I'd finished 20 ounces of Tailwind, and I was ahead of my goal split. I refilled my bottle, got a quick kiss from Twirly and set out on the third of the four climbs with just over five miles to go. The temperature seemed to climb as the wind out of the East brought the heat from inland.

I'd been oscillating with a small group of runners who would pass me, slowly, on the climbs. Only a few of these runners made it out of the aid station fast enough to catch me, and I caught all but one of them on the next descent, a short downhill back into the valley. Then, the final four miles was a grunt up a series of switch backs followed by a final fast descent through Eucalyptus groves to the finish line. I had been shooting for a modest finishing time of 2:45, but ended up crossing the line 37th out of 131, at 2:29, just barely edging out another 40-49 age group man at the line (for 8th in my AG). I don't usually kick in a trail race, but I had lots of gas left in the tank, and, well, sometimes the urge to compete can overwhelm, right?

This race course is absolutely stunning; views of the ocean, Pacifica, San Francisco and the Bay all compete for your attention. Fortunately, there is enough climbing for one to appreciate them, because on the descents, taking in the view is a recipe for bloodied knees or worse! The volunteers were supportive and helpful, and the course was well marked (I would not have taken that wrong turn if I was leading - the trail was obviously marked).

My favorite part about running this event was that it was free for me! I used a volunteer credit I had earned at the 2012 Woodside Ramble. Twirly and I followed the spectacular morning with lunch at a friend's house on the beach, where we grilled up some Gorilla Barbecue chicken, and soaked up the sun. Despite the brutal elevation, I'll be back for this one, if only for those screaming downhills!

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