Sunday, August 12, 2012

Race Recap: The Crater Lake Marathon

Before this week, I had two memories of Crater Lake National Park. The first was a drive-through visit with my Dad when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. The next was a somewhat more extended visit with Greta about 20 years later when we had a week-long trip without the kids. Each time I've been very impressed. On my first visit, the park was covered in about 10 feet of snow, and I only remember driving up through a snow-lined trench, and my dad's disappointment that the Rim Drive wasn't open. To me it was simply awesome that any place could have so much snow, in June!

On the next visit, Greta and I had the chance to hike down to the lake and take the boat ride to Wizard Island in the middle, seeing the lake from an entirely different perspective.

Now, nearly 20 years later, I've had a chance to visit again, and what I've been struck with is how big the place is. That may or may not have something to do with the fact that this time, I was getting ready to run around the lake, but to me it was just amazing to see mountains towering over the vast blue lake sparkling in the sun, to walk up to precipices that dropped hundreds of feet to the water below.

As I previewed the course on Thursday, I wondered whether I would be able to take the time to enjoy the vistas around the lake as I ran past during the Crater Lake Marathon, two days later. But I also took note of the dramatic hills I'd be ascending, and, more importantly, descending during the race. While the race starts at an elevation of 7,600 feet, it ends around 6,000. 1,600 feet of descending would be tough on your quads in any marathon, but this race also included about 2,500 feet of climbing, which meant the total descent was over 4,000 feet!

My goal was to try to complete the race in under 4 hours, which previous-years' results suggested would put me in the top 20 of around 100 competitors. To do this I had constructed an elaborate spreadsheet plotting out my splits for every mile. For the most part this meant running uphill at a 10:30 pace and downhill at an 8:00 pace, but there were a few exceptions for steeper or flatter sections. I had memorized the whole spreadsheet, which after talking with some of the runners on the bus to the starting line, put me in a distinct minority of competitors. While I had spent hours poring over the elevation profile of the race, the more common approach appeared to be to ignore the elevation chart entirely and just run by feel.

When our buses arrived at the start line about 45 minutes before the race, I expected to feel very chilly. I had prepared by buying some "disposable" sweats at Goodwill, but it turned out they were probably unnecessary: The warm morning sun had already crested the rim of the lake, and I was quite comfortable in my shorts, compression shirt, and calf sleeves. I began to worry that it would be uncomfortably warm by 11:30 when I hoped to be crossing the finish line.

With little ceremony, we lined up on the road, and after a ranger explained that only the outside lane of the Rim Road would be closed to traffic, the race was started. I had lined up about 100 runners back from the start line because this race also included a 6.7-miler and a half-marathon, and I figured they would start off much quicker than me. I was surprised to find everyone running quite slowly, so I ended up weaving through traffic for about the first 90 seconds of the race. Fortunately, with the three events capped at a total of 500 participants, there wasn't much traffic to weave through, and I found myself in the clear quickly.

The first six miles of the race were primarily downhill, and I felt pretty good, so I took them comfortably fast. As I ran along I tried to keep track of how much time I had banked, because I was definitely running faster than the plan. Here's the chart for the first six miles:

I was feeling pretty good and was able to chat with a couple of the other runners. One guy sounded like he was in my age group -- he also looked like he was planning on running a lot faster than me, so I let him go. I consoled myself with the fact that I got to see spectacular vistas as I ran along. I was carrying a camera, but I didn't manage to take any photos during the race, so I'm including a few I took during the preview two days before:

Crater lake 1
Imagine it like this, but with bluer skies and calmer water

The next stretch was a few miles of rolling hills. A woman ahead of me was doing the Galloway plan, and I seemed to be gradually gaining ground. Meanwhile behind me I could hear a man telling someone "happy birthday." A minute or two later, he was passing me: he was a portly man, running shirtless, and was full of advice about how to run the race. "Watch out for that hill after Mile 22," he said. I was amazed that someone his size was maintaining a pretty decent pace. But soon after he was headed to the side of the road to take a leak, and I passed him back. A few minutes later I passed Galloway Woman too.

Meanwhile the birthday girl had caught up to me, and we chatted briefly about our plans. I told her that I was hoping to run sub-4-hours, and she said she was too, but that she, like apparently everyone here, hadn't looked at the elevation profile and was just running by feel. Then she promptly left me in the dust!

Here are my splits for Miles 7-9:

I was still adding to my banked time, but I was also noticing that my Garmin seemed to be measuring the course short. Each mile marker seemed to come a minute or so after the Garmin had beeped signaling the end of a mile (I hadn't used my usual system of manually tracking miles because I wasn't sure the course would have actual mile markers!). So in reality I had only banked about 6 minutes at this point, but that didn't seem too bad.

Finally I began the first major climb of the race: Miles 10-14 would involve over 1,100 feet of climbing! Mile 15 also had some climbing, so I counted that in with 10-14. As I headed uphill I reminded myself that I could probably take one or two walk-breaks per mile and still hit my 10:30 projections. Since I had been training at a higher altitude and on steeper hills, I was finding the climb relatively easy, but after a while the miles began to take their toll. I took full advantage of walk-breaks. I was pretty much on my own on this section, passing no one but not getting passed, either. Finally I arrived at the top, a turn-around at a viewpoint about halfway through Mile 15. Here a runner caught up to me, and I figured he would be passing me soon. He was a young guy, and I figured his legs would be more resilient than mine on the upcoming downhill. I asked him if he was ready for it, and he said "in my head I am." Amazingly, I pulled ahead of him at the next aid station and never saw him again.

Here's another photo of the lake, once again not actually taken during the race:

Crater lake 2
Wizard Island and Crater Lake, again with slightly more clouds than on race day

And here are my splits for the climb:

I was still banking time, but not quite as much as I had been on the previous sections of the race. But amazingly, by mile marker 15, my Garmin had caught back up to the the markers, so I was legitimately over 10 minutes ahead of pace.

However, my legs were quite tired, and I was now facing seven miles of solid downhill. After just one mile it was pretty clear to me that I wouldn't be able to maintain my planned 8-minute pace on this section. Each step seemed to shake my bones, and although my highly-padded Hoka One Ones were helping, they couldn't fully compensate for the pounding I was taking. I did the best I could, but I was losing time with almost every mile. At Mile 19 we turned away from the lake, at a spot called the "Phantom Ship Viewpoint." We didn't get to see the phantom ship, but fortunately I had taken a photo of it two days before:

Crater lake 3
The phantom ship is the small island in the middle. It's ship-ish, but not terribly convincing

The road continued down, not quite as steeply, and I began catching up to a man who had slowed to take a drink. I was still losing time, but managed to hold relatively steady. It seemed like a 4-hour marathon was within reach. When I caught up to the man told me he had had a 4-minute bout with diarrhea at Mile 13. So things could definitely be worse for me.

Then Galloway Woman caught up to us both, and passed both of us, and Diarrhea Guy took off behind her. I felt like I had been passed twice, even though technically I'd just pulled even with Diarrhea Guy. I focused on solid form and tried to ignore the pain in my legs. For some reason I was able to comfort myself with the idea that I'd be hitting an uphill stretch just after Mile 22. Here are my splits for Miles 16-22:

I'd lost 4 minutes over the 7 downhill miles -- but at this point I had pretty much lost track and was just trying to hang on.

Just past Mile 22, we passed by the finish area for the race. Everyone seems to agree that this is the cruelest segment of the race: You pass right by the finish line, and then have to run two miles up a dirt road, turn around and return to the finish. I would imagine this would be especially dispiriting to someone who hadn't checked the elevation profile before the race, but I was expecting it. I took a sponge from an enthusiastic child volunteer, and was quite relieved by the cool water drenching my head and shoulders. I hadn't noticed until now, but the day had gotten very warm. Now I could run uphill, and since I was planning on running miles 23 and 24 in 11:00 and 13:00 respectively, I could take walk-breaks.

I told myself I could run 3 minutes and then take a 1-minute walk break, and that worked well on Mile 23. Mile 24 gained almost 400 feet, however, and I slowed even more, taking 1-minute walks and 1-minute runs. I knew there was just a touch more uphill after the Mile 24 marker, but I wasn't prepared for how long this would take. It turned out that there was over 100 feet of climbing in my "downhill" Mile 25 and I became concerned that finishing under 4 hours was going to be out of reach. Finally I reached the turnaround and started heading down again. While this was tough on my legs, I was consoled by the fact that there were only 2 miles of downhill. It was also motivating to see all the other runners still on their way up. At about Mile 24.4 it occurred to me that even though I'd lost track of how much time I had banked, I could check my total time. I switched my GPS to total time mode, and saw a total time of around 3:41. I had 19 minutes to run less than two miles, all downhill. This just might be doable!

I just kept running, occasionally checking my pace to make sure it was faster than 10:00 per mile, and it seemed like it was going to happen. I passed mile marker 26, and knew it was going to happen. There were a surprising number of people cheering at the finish for such a small race. I crossed the line, and stopped my watch. The time read 3:58:07. I had done it! Here are the splits for those last four miles:

As it turned out, I was 17th overall, third in my age group. I was very pleased with my result, and also very sore. I sat on a log and chatted with some of the other finishers, while refilling my water cup frequently. On the bus back to the rim, I ended up sitting next to Birthday Girl, a geologist who had finished first among all women. She said she had been surprised by that final hill, but it hadn't stopped her from winning! We both agreed that this was one of our favorite races, a challenging course in a beautiful setting. It was simply amazing to be able to run a marathon in such an awesome setting. Running it well was just a bonus.

Speaking of bonuses, here's a bonus bit of geekiness to add to the recap. I created a graph of the time I banked over the course, and compared it to the elevation profile of the race. As you can see, I banked time over the first 15 miles, then had to use up most of that time over the second half, as I couldn't maintain my projected pace over the major downhills near the end.

For even more geekiness, check out the Garmin plot of the race below.

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