Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My Last Hurrah! - Pear Blossom 10 Miler - 2012

The biggest road race of the year in the Rogue Valley came and went last weekend with the 36th running of the Pear Blossom 10 Miler. Hey, why are all the fruit tree flower races 10 miles long? The Cherry Blossom in DC, the Pear Blossom in Medford? Anyway, since this was to be my last race in the valley with my move to Washington coming two weeks later, I wanted to put it out there and feel good about having raced hard and giving it my all, especially in the masters division, for which there was even a cash prize on the line.

Also, my friends Louis LeBlanc and Bria Wetsch were travelling down from Portland to stay with us and for Bria to race. From discussions with Louis, Bria’s coach, and from racing with her in two half-marathons last year, I knew that Bria and I were fairly evenly matched and that we would likely work together for the first part. In my mind, it always helps to have someone there to work with in the early stages of a big and longer race. So, it was important to me that I take this race pretty seriously.

Going into the race we (Bria and I) thought we knew what to expect as far as competition and race conditions. For me, it was a battle of the local masters runners and I would be chasing Bob Julian and Neil Olsen. For Bria, based on the race confirmations, she looked like the favorite. Somewhat surprisingly, last year’s winner Marci Klimek was not listed among the entrants. Imagine our surprise when, as we were doing our final strides, my training partners Mercy Ray (who just won the 5k) and Bree Ray ran up and told us that Marci was here and was running. Alrighty then, there will be a race for the ladies after all.

Start of the Pear Blossom 10 Miler with all the wannabes crowding the starting line.

The gun went off and I settled into my target pace of 5:45-5:50 for the first mile. But for some reason it didn’t feel very comfortable. I kept checking my Garmin to see if it was off, but I was pretty sure it was correct. Oh well, I just worked on staying relaxed. Bria pulled in next to me and we ran along picking off the posers that go out fast and fold up after the first couple of miles. Right away we eyed Marci about 30 meters ahead.

Clicking along, Bria and I slowly worked our way closer to Marci until we were only 10 meters back going up the hill at the turn around for the first time. It was my plan to run relaxed and stay conservative for the first half and then go for broke once I got over the hill on the way back. But as I usually do, I attacked the uphill and leaned into the downhill. As we got over the hill and made the turn around, I surged and got right on Marci’s heels. Unfortunately Bria wasn’t able to go with me.

Bria Wetsch and I working our way up the hill at four and a half miles in.

Up the hill again we were hit with a bit of a head wind as I ran along side Marci for a few strides but kept digging in and moved ahead. Right after passing her she did the smart thing and immediately tucked in behind me. But I was having none of that and surged hard to open it up as I thought to myself, “sorry, but I’m got going to make this easy for you and help you beat my friend.” Marci, if by some odd chance you read this, no hard feelings. I’ve never met you and it’s not personal. It’s just that I protect my friends and want to help and not hinder them when and where I can. I think you’d understand.

I should note that by this time I knew Bob Julian was way ahead and long gone. At the turn around I did the normal thing and surveyed who was close by behind me who I knew was a masters competitor or at least looked like one. I was surprised to see Neil Olsen behind me by around 20 seconds, but he wasn’t that far back and who knows how his race was going, I only knew that he was tough and he was close by and we still had 5 more miles to run.

Coming down the hill the last time I dug in and dropped my pace to around 5:45, passing about 3 guys. Nobody around me was going with me and I was gaining on the bodies in front of me. As much as I wanted to know how the ladies race would unfold, I had my own race to run and I kept pushing harder. With 3 miles to go I closed in on my own personal cheering section with Bree and Mercy Ray screaming loudly from the side of the road. It was like running through Wellesley College at the Boston Marathon. I could hear and see them from 100 meters away. That gave me a great shot of adrenaline and I dug in some more as we curved around for the long 3 mile straightaway into the finish.

I could hear a few folks hanging on behind me, but only one person caught me the last half of the race, and it was Neil Olsen. Neil pulled up next to me with 2 miles to go and then a step or two ahead. I tucked in behind, not so much to draft, since there breeze was minor here, but to get pulled along or more accurately to try and hang on for dear life. Clearly Neil was running faster than me, I was pushing hard and dropping the pace and he caught and passed me, which nobody else did. I hung in that spot for almost a mile until we got to the Black Bird, the infamous icon marking one mile to go in the race. But Neil just pulled away.

The infamous Black Bird, icon of Pear Blossom racing pain.

We both kept gaining on a guy in front of us and passed him with about 400 meters to go, but the gap between Neil and I got bigger. As we came into the thicker spectators near the finish I reminded myself that this was it, this was my last race in the valley. I also said to myself, “dammit, you have speed and you have a kick, use it. It won’t hurt any more, you are already hurting, just flip that damn switch. You know Neil is an ultra-marathoner, he can’t have a kick (I have no idea if he did or not, this is just me talking to myself), you race on the track for god’s sake, sprint!” We rounded the corner with about 150 meters to the finish and Neil was ahead by 30-40 meters. I took off, and I sprinted…..and I sprinted. I was closing the gap but I was going to run out of road, I pushed harder and just made it by half a stride right at the line. As I crossed the line I heard the announcer say my name and something or other, but I don’t know what it was, I was just determined to catch him.

Relief after crossing the finish line with the best sprint I could muster.

Truth be told, I would probably have sprinted that hard regardless of who it was in front of me. It wasn’t just because it was someone who I knew was in my age group and I respected as one of the best masters runners in the Rogue Valley, but that most certainly helped. But one of my new year’s resolutions this year was to never give up at the end of a race and if there was someone to catch or race I had to try to beat them no matter what. Neil just happened to be the target this time.

My final time was 58:31 and I was the 11th runner across the line. I figured I got second in the masters race and was feeling pretty good about that. At the finish I turned and watched to see how the women’s race unfolded. Sure enough Marci came around the corner 1st and won the race with Bria only about 20 seconds behind. I later learned that Bria did catch Marci and run with her for a bit, but in the end Marci was stronger over the last couple of miles.

Later that day, when checking the race results online, I was shocked to learn that I actually finished 12th overall and was the 3rd masters male. It seems that, even though I crossed the finish line ahead of Neil and had a gun time one second faster than his, he had a chip time that was 1:20 faster than me. What? I may not have gotten “chicked” in this race but I got “chipped”! Apparently, Neil missed the start by over a minute and had to run like hell to catch up, which explains why he was behind me at the turn around. I’ll admit that it annoyed me to think that I sprinted my ass off to try and beat someone only to show up behind them in the results because of a difference in chip timing. I mean, come on. I crossed the line ahead of them didn’t I? At first I thought there must be an error with the timing system, but then after reflecting on it, I had to admit that, no, Neil is really that fast (and faster than me) and he had to have absolutely hauled ass running through and past all those people to get back up towards the front. That is simply amazing when you think about it. So, hats off to him for an amazing run.

Now that the race is all over it makes me chuckle that, in a way, I screwed myself out of the $100 for first masters runner, since I informed Bob Julian a couple of days before the race that there was actually $100 being awarded for the first masters runners who were USATF-Oregon members. Apparently Bob had let his membership lapse and with the news of a cash prize smartly renewed that day. And as I expected, Bob ran a fantastic race and went home $100 richer! However, with the age-old conflict in official results for chip time versus gun time, it would have been interesting to see how the USATF-Oregon folks would have handled it if Bob had not renewed his membership. Without Bob in the mix, and based on gun time I would have been the first masters runner, but based on chip time, Neil Olsen would have been first (assuming his USATF membership was up to date too). In the past, USATF has been pretty clear about the rules, stating that races are about competition, and are won by the first person across the line and not necessarily by the person with the fastest time. For this reason, they recommend that race directors clearly state that awards will be given based on gun time, but as we all know, most races and race directors these days (Pear Blossom included) do not clearly articulate such details for the benefit of the participants, nor does USATF-Oregon clearly state that on their Long Distance Running Blog which announces the Grand Prix Series prize money.

I should emphasize that in my writing about this, I in no way harbor any ill feelings towards any of the folks I race against. Bob is a friend and a training partner, and Neil is one of the best masters runners in the valley against which I was always going to try my hardest. For me, it is part of finding the pleasure in running through being competitive. I simply see these guys as my peers and my rivals, in the best sense of those words, and maybe if I really get lucky, one day I will triumph!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Prefontaine Masters Classic - Coos Bay, Oregon

I recently ran my first track meet of 2012, opting to tackle the 5000 meter distance at the second annual Prefontaine Masters Classic in Coos Bay, Oregon. Since I am hoping to race on the track a fair amount this year it was time to get things started and lace up the spikes. The thing is, the last time I raced that far on the track was 1988, nearly 25 years ago! Nevertheless, I was mentally and physically ready.

Coos Bay is not really in the neighborhood of Ashland, Oregon where I currently live, and since one of my car pool mates was racing the rarely run 10,000 meters at nine that morning, we opted to drive over the day before. In this case, we consisted of me and Team Sting-Ray, namely Suzanne Ray, running the 10000m, and Mercy Ray, running the 5000m. This was a special race for Suzanne since she was at the tail end of the women's 55-59 age group (turning 60 the next month) and it was a rare opportunity for a masters 10000m race on the track. Moreover, this was her last chance to break the Oregon state age group record in that event.

Mike Fenelli, Jeanette Groesz, and
Suzanne Ray ready to roll in the masters 10000 meters.

Come start time Saturday morning, Suzanne lined up with two other runners to bravely run in circles 25 times. Her companions on the track were Jeanette Groesz of Portland, who was also running for a Oregon State age group record in the 60-64 division and Michael Fanelli who travelled from San Francisco to the meet. The weather for these three was perfect with cool temperatures, virtually no wind and overcast skies.

Suzanne Ray all smiles as she guts her way to
a new state of Oregon 55-59 age group record in the 10000 meters.

As expected, Suzanne accomplished her goal and demolished the old women's 55-59 state record by over 5 minutes, running 43:01.29. If anyone is unsure just how fast this really is, here are a few comparisons to consider. In the 2011 world rankings for her age group at 10000m on the track, this time would have put Suzanne at 8th in the world and the third American. If you bump it up one age group to 60-64, which Suzanne will soon move into and be running in one months from the time of this race, her ranking for 2011 would have been number 2. Second best in the entire WORLD for that age group. All I can say is Wow, I'm honored to be able to know and run with Suzanne and to share some of the fun of seeing such great performances happen.

Jeanette Groesz bringing it home for another
state of Oregon 60-64 age group record in the 10000 meters.

Suzanne wasn't the only record setter in the race as Jeanette Groesz also put a new mark in the books for the women's 60-64 age group finishing in 46:55.52.

After watching these great performances in the morning, I was antsy to get my race started. Unfortunately, over the ensuing couple of hours the weather went from nearly ideal to a little warm and sunny, to overcast with a strong breeze on the curve off the 200 m starting line.

Early in the race, head down into the wind.

I got off to a reasonable start with my goal of clicking off 80 second laps to bring me home in 16:40 or better. But from the get go I was just a tad off pace at 81-82 seconds and was feeling myself lag each time I turned into the wind. Knowing I was going to be all alone out there, I put my head down, literally and figuratively and tried to focus on my form and breathing. In that regard, I really feel good about the race and felt like I was running smoothly and on my toes the whole way.

Trying to stay relaxed and keep
my breathing controlled as I continued to roll along.

My training partner Mercy Ray was also in the race and our pre-race plan should we both execute our individual races as we had hoped was that I should not see her until I am coming down the final straight away. Unfortunately it was not Mercy's day and she developed some breathing issues that slowed her in second half of the race. But she stuck it out and I came by her right as I hit the bell. Since Mercy was running in second (they combined the men's and women's heats) and I was passing her, I had just lapped the entire field. Once again (see my previous blog post) I was on a solo run.

Rounding the curve with about 500 meters to go.

In the end, I clicked off laps in the 81 to 83 second range going through 1600 at 5:25 and 3200 at 10:57. I slowed a bit in the last mile, but did keep my form and even managed to muster a sort of finishing kick, albeit, with no one to match it against. The final time was 17:03.67, a bit off the goal of 16:40, but all things considered, a satisfying solo effort that I am happy with. I am happy because I stayed focused, in spite of very little to focus on, I kept my form comfortable and fluid and smooth (trying to channel the form of some of the smooth runners out there like Evan Jager and Galen Rupp and Jordan MacNamara), and was not ideal conditions with the wind for setting records. It wasn't the PR I was chasing, but it wasn't very far from my PR on the roads of 16:55. The time will come and this was a good step towards making that happen.

Oh, and since this was my first 5000m on the track in many moons, it was also the first time I raced that far in spikes in a long time as well. I was sure my achilles would be shredded afterwards, but much to my surprise my new Nike Matumbos did great and I was not especially sore (more than I am after any race). I was worried about that considering my plans to race on the track more this year. I won't declare victory over my chronic achilles tendinosis, but I will say that I think I have managed to find away to train and race with it.

Bringing it home to the finish.

Since this was the Prefontaine Masters Classic track and field meet named in honor of Coos Bay’s most famous runner, Steve Prefontaine, it was only fitting that Steve’s mother Elfriede Prefontaine was the guest of honor. Mercy Ray and I were lucky enough to get our photo taken with her.

Matt and Mercy with Elfriede Prefontaine.

Also, since Pre was the theme of the day and we were in Coos Bay, it was only fitting that we should make a pilgrimage to his house and stop for a photo on our way out of town. Fortunately one of great folks from Coos Bay that we met at the meet kindly gave us directions.

At the home in which Steve Prefontaine grew up in Coos Bay.