beach run with a kick

surf_festival_logoThe International Surf Festival Dick Fitzgerald 2-Mile Beach Run: that’s quite a mouthful for such a short race. I normally wouldn’t think to enter a two miler, except the event benefited my son’s high school cross-country team. In a show of support, I registered.coursemapThe Beach Run is an out-and-back that starts at the Hermosa Beach Pier, heads north to the Longfellow lifeguard tower, then doubles back to the start. With mile one in dry sand, and mile two in the surf, the course is uniquely challenging. Since it was such a short race, I decided to leave my training schedule intact and include the Beach Run as part of my Saturday long-run. I did not prepare or taper, and decided to race at my tempo effort.

Over 200 runners lined up for the start. Weather conditions were good, slightly overcast, not too hot. We set off at eight o’clock sharp, and that’s when my troubles began. My feet sank into the sand after every step and the loose footing prevented me from finding any rhythm. I had hoped to begin at my tempo pace- just under a 7:00 minute mile- but was already laboring. I checked my watch to make sure I did not go out too fast and it read 9:30. Crap. I had only covered a quarter mile. Double crap. The race was quickly becoming a salvage effort.start01With my shoes full of sand, I zig-zagged and stumbled to Longfellow, made the turn, and sprinted to the firmer wet sand. My feet found a bit of purchase and I began to recover. Unfortunately, the tide was in making the beach slope toward the ocean.  I was not aware of veering seaward until the first wave hit me, soaking my sand filled shoes. I course corrected but not before running into two more waves.DFBR_pace_blueOnly a half mile remained, and thankfully the race was about to end. I found myself running alone, in front of the pack but behind the runners who were better prepared to run on sand. I noticed only one person ahead of me but I was unsure if he was in striking distance. I decided to find out. Despite my earlier exertions, the short course left me with enough energy to kick. I began to close the gap. It was going to be a close finish, too close to call.

The last 100 yards were some of the most thrilling I’ve ever run. I had a chance to catch him, and it would go down to the wire. I didn’t realize until after the race that my opponent had the same name as me. His friends were cheering him so I heard, “C’mon John! Go! SPRINT!” That supplied the last bit of inspiration, and I surged and passed the other John inches before the finish line. It was electric. Never mind my overall poor race, all I could think about was the finish. My legs felt like they woke up and days later they still had some spring.


Turns out that John number two did all right. He placed first in his age group, a decade above mine. I came in 18th overall and fifth in my group. I ran my slowest race mile ever but also recorded my biggest negative split. If I race next year, I’ll need to practice running in the sand and maybe running barefoot. There’s a lot of room to improve my time but it will be tough to top this year’s finish.


mountains 2 beach marathon 2017


As I lined up at the 2017 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon, I could not help thinking back to last year’s spectacular crash and burn at mile twenty. My suicide pace, forgetting to eat and drink along the way, and inability to let the miles come to me sealed my fate. I managed to finish, but shambled through the last six miles while getting passed by other runners the entire way. When the dust settled, I doubled down on M2B and resolved to try again.

Mountains 2 Beach starts in Ojai, CA, and runs point-to-point to Ventura and the Pacific Ocean. The first six miles loop through the Ojai valley then drop steadily for another sixteen. The remaining four miles are flat and cross downtown Ventura before a final sprint along the coast. It’s a fast course and runners from all over the country enter for a chance to qualify for the Boston Marathon.


My 2016 training indicated I had an outside chance to BQ, but I fell short by twenty minutes. My strong preparation convinced me to repeat my plan and I began race specific workouts this February. I entered four races during my training cycle: two 5Ks and a 10K early on, then a trail half marathon midway through. I noticed a significant gain in speed and endurance. My long run pace approached my goal marathon pace of 7:45-7:55. The final long training run was a nice confidence builder when I completed miles 15-20 at tempo pace.

Back to race day. Ruby and I spent the night in Ventura and woke up at 3:30 to get ready. Ruby dropped me at a shuttle to the starting area and headed back to bed. A good night’s sleep helped me feel loose and relaxed. There were 3500 runners divided into three starting waves. I was in wave number two, the 3:20-3:40 group. At 6:00 am sharp the first wave started, and two minutes later I was off. We covered the first two miles before sunrise. I reached the first water station and remembered to take a cup even though I was not thirsty. I found the 3:27 pace group and settled in to the race.

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

The first thirteen miles remained steady and uneventful- exactly how I wanted them to be. I continued to stick with the pace group running consistent 7:45 splits. I made sure to eat a bite of Clif Bar every mile and a half and to continue hitting the water stations. We were running mostly downhill along streets and a bike path, shaded by large oak trees. I felt loose and strong.

At the half, our pacer turned around and said, “Sorry everyone, I’ve been running too fast. We are on pace for a 3:24.” Cue my flashback to 2016 when I ran the first half too fast and sabotaged my finish. A wave of panic coursed through me. My heart rate shot up. I needed a bathroom stop. With the now 3:24 group in front of me, I pulled myself together and continued, trying to focus on relaxed running. My heart rate returned to normal, or at least normal for having raced fifteen miles. At mile sixteen I started eating glucose tablets- according to my plan- and resumed racing at a steady clip.

When I reached twenty miles I saw the exact spot where I hit the wall in 2016. I prepared myself for an internal motivation session, but I did not need one. I felt good. The course flattened out and I was running in the 7:50s. At the same time, the trees thinned, leaving me exposed to the sun. My test was about to begin.

The final six miles fell into three two-mile sections. From 20-22, I was aware of my increasing fatigue and occasional pain in my hips, quads, and feet. Somehow, I detached from my body, rationalized the discomfort, and kept going. I ran 7:50 and 8:03 splits. I was tiring and paying for the first half’s aggressive pacing.  During miles 23 and 24 I started negotiating with myself and forced myself to keep going. When I reached the final water station, I walked through and grabbed a cup, just like I’d done at the other stations, but then I kept walking. My watch beeped 8:29, by far my worst split. I had enough presence to realize that if I slowed down I was in danger of missing my goal time of 3:27. I had spent a year staying healthy, four months training, and I was 24/26 of the way through this race. There was no way I could quit now and if I could hold on for another 15-20 minutes I’d be done.

I ran 25 at 7:59 and 26 at 8:03. I had enough energy left to sprint the final point-two. As the finish came into view I was on auto pilot. The stragglers from the half marathon were finishing at the same time, and I passed at least a dozen runners, giving me an illusion of speed. The next thing I remembered was leaning against a fence with a bottle of water and finisher’s medal. Ruby joined me. Thirty minutes and one bag of ice later, we got up and began our trip home.

My final time was 3:26:15, a 7:52 pace, and enough to qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon. It’s been a week since Mountains 2 Beach and the step by step experience is beginning to fade away. I am enjoying some rest and starting to go on short easy runs. While looking ahead to the 2018 Boston Marathon, I’ll have plenty of time to recharge and begin another round of running and racing adventures.



A quick trip to the San Francisco Bay Area gave me a chance to keep a new year’s resolution: run when I travel. We spent three days up north and went running every day.

Day one: Lake Merritt, Oakland.

merritt_01After a day of driving and a good night’s rest, I woke early and ran two miles through Oakland to reach Lake Merritt. Fortunately, I remembered to pack my gloves. Temperatures were in the low 40s, a good deal cooler than Southern California. I ran a brisk three mile loop around the lake just as the sun rose. My run ended with a two mile climb that took away the morning chill.

merritt_02Day two: Tiburon.

On the other side of the San Francisco Bay, we spent an afternoon in Tiburon. Ruby and I ran the bike path downtown, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I continued on my own and turned back at Blackie’s Pasture, at the edge of Richardson Bay. I headed home with San Francisco’s skyline in the distance.tibuon_blackies

Day three: West Ridge Trail, Oakland Hills.

What started out as a short run on my last day turned into an adventure. From the trail head I entered a redwood forest and ran steadily uphill. When I reached the ridge, the trees cleared and I started to loop back. I soon found myself surrounded by more trees and losing elevation in the wrong direction. Five miles of wrong turns and doubling back later, I reached a road that was still a few miles from home.

What was supposed to be a four mile run turned into ten. Not what I was expecting but a great way to end my trip.

chesebro half marathon


The Chesebro Canyon Half Marathon is part of the Great Race of Agoura Hills: two HMs, a 10k and a 5k with different start locations that converge at a shared finish line. Chesebro has the distinction of being a trail race with over 1000 feet of elevation gain with some technical single track sections. I raced here in 2015 and promised to return to the spectacular and challenging course.

After running three half marathons and my first ever marathon in 2016, I emerged from my recovery period focused on speed work and shorter races. I broke the 7:00 minute barrier for the 10K last fall then again (6:38) in February, which led to a sub 20 minute 5K (19:38) on St. Patrick’s Day. My new PRs gave me racing confidence but where I noticed the most improvement was in my training. My relaxed pace dropped by almost 30 seconds and I saw similar gains in my tempo and speed workouts. I wanted to test my legs at a longer distance and Chesebro Canyon was waiting.

To prepare for the race I added a heaping dose of hills and trails to my weekly runs, practicing going downhill as much as going up. My calves and quads were the most obvious beneficiaries (or victims) of my training. I started to notice an improvement running uphill especially my breathing and heart rate. Two weeks before the race, I ran the course as part of a long run and reacquainted myself with its rocky trails. I’m in striking distance of running a seven-minute half, but the hilly course did not favor a fast pace or even a consistent pace. I wanted to beat my 2015 time of 1:43:52, and I wondered if I could crack 1:40? I decided to keep things simple by running what felt like a consistent 7:30 effort.

Race day began at 4:30 am with breakfast- a banana and Cliff bar- and carpooling in the dark with some running friends. We arrived with enough time to warm up and find a spot at the starting line. We were still waiting for sunrise as the runners bunched up and the anthem played. It was 45 degrees but there was enough body heat to stay warm. Then we were off!


I ran a very generous (-119 ft) first mile at my 10K pace then the course leveled and began to rise through the streets of Agoura Hills. I was unaware of the racers surrounding me. The roads were closed to traffic and the pack had plenty of space. I concentrated on maintaining a steady effort. Miles two and three were right on pace and I felt like I found my stride. Just in time- the road ended as we turned onto the Chesebro Canyon Trail and the start of our five-mile climb.

At its start, the trail was wide enough for two or three of us to run abreast. Of greater concern was the tree roots, stones, and erosion underfoot. I tried to remain upright to  hold a balance between controlled and reckless running. We were climbing almost 100 feet per mile and the pack rapidly began to thin. As we approached the halfway point the dirt road turned to a dirt track and then to a steeper single track. My pace was dropping by 15 seconds per mile, which was part of the plan, so I pressed on.


The final climb was steep, narrow, and rocky. I found myself in a group of a half dozen other runners. We stuck together since passing (or getting passed) was difficult. The runner in front of me was starting to slow down, and when the trail widened a tiny bit, I surged past him. I noticed an Iron Man tattoo on his calf and congratulated myself for passing an Iron Man then wondered if he’d be coming after me later. Another runner began to fade but there was no way around him. Somehow I gasped, “excuse me, I’m on your left!” and he gave me just enough room to get by. I was right behind a younger woman- this is where I realized that most of the field was younger- and we stayed together for the last mile up. We were both panting and wheezing as we crested Palo Comado peak, then in a flash she took off and began sprinting down the hill. Humbled, I watched her go and let gravity help me recover.


With five miles to go the race was far from over. I clocked just under nine minutes for my final mile up (203 ft) and I worried that I used up too much energy. Miles nine and ten convinced me not to worry. The descent rewarded me with two sub seven minute miles. It also rewarded the Iron Man as he barreled past me! I was feeling recharged and ready for a nasty little half-mile hill before the 11-mile mark. Since I was prepared I passed the Iron Man again, this time for good. I also caught my uphill partner but just like before, she took off when we reached the top of the hill.


Back on paved roads, I gathered myself for the final two miles. Twelve and thirteen followed a nice and even downhill route with a slight rise and little zig-zag at the end. Somehow, I found another gear and began to accelerate. This had never happened to me before- I’m usually hanging on for dear life at the end of a race- and I wasn’t sure if I could maintain the effort. I decided to give it a go and held myself to a 6:45 pace. As I sped up, I began to pick off runners who were fading. Right at 13 miles I caught a group including my uphill partner and sped by. I was in a full sprint, I turned the last corner and hit the chute!

I finished in 1:38:12, good enough for second in my age group and five and a half minutes faster than my 2015 time. I was gassed but elated. The race felt like a breakthrough, especially my energy over the last miles. After some thought I concluded that it was two years of consistent, injury-free training that helped me improve. I recommitted to my core and strength exercises following my running workouts. I’m eight weeks away from my marathon feeling recharged and confident. At the same time I am not shying away from the work ahead. If you ever get a chance to run Chesebro Canyon I highly recommend it. If you ever get a chance to race it you won’t be disappointed.

the luck of the irish


When Ruby told me she wanted to run the St. Patrick’s 5k in Redondo Beach, I jumped at the chance and signed up both of us. We’ve been running Sundays for over a year and now we were going to race together. I’m right in the meat of preparing for the Chesebro Canyon Half Marathon, so I set my expectations to casual. I had no idea it would turn out to be one of my best races ever. What started out to be a fun run ended up as a massive PR and a sub-20 finish.

A week before the race, I logged over 60 miles including a hilly 19 miler. Most of my current training includes hills since Chesebro’s course runs up and down a mountain. The miles caught up with me. I received the gift of heavy legs struggled to pull myself out of bed each morning. I managed only two runs instead of my usual five or six, somehow believing that I was tapering, but wondering if I would be prepared on Sunday.

FullSizeRender (21)

Meanwhile daylight savings arrived, catching both of us by surprise. Race day found us grumpy and stumbling about in darkness that gave way to a  foggy and overcast morning. After parking and a quick warm up we were ready to go. Ruby and I fist-bumped and separated. I moved up to the front of the pack since I wanted to be clear of the starting crush. Somebody gave a speech. The national anthem played. Then we were off!

After so much long distance training, the race was a short intense blur. I remember a pack of kids sprinting out in front of me then falling back during the first mile. At the turn, a race volunteer yelled out our time, “6:11!” Crap, that was fifteen seconds too fast. Did I destroy my chances of a strong finish? My watch said 6:18, not much slower but closer to my goal pace of 6:25. I approached the next mile carefully- maybe too carefully. At mile two my watch beeped 6:33, too slow. I was in pacing limbo. I needed to run a strong third mile. But how strong?

I failed to realize the slightly uphill second mile contributed to my slowing. Plus it set me up for a downhill finish. In the moment, I was trying to maintain my pace through a consistent effort.  I was  unaware of any other runners. The thick fog became my ally since I could not see the remaining distance. With a half mile to go the finish line emerged from the mist and I pulled myself together for my kick. As I crossed the finish line I spied 19:38 on the clock, a minute faster than my previous best. After a dry heave or two I grabbed a cup of water and wandered back to find Ruby.

I spotted her about 200 yards from the finish and joined in for her kick. I made sure to let her finish ahead of me. After a brief recovery our post race relief kicked in and we high-fived our way to the water stand. This was when I realized that I had just crushed my PR. Now I could enjoy the post-race atmosphere and we congratulated the other runners, a leprechaun, and some faeries.

When the dust settled, my 19:38 placed me 26 out of 1166, third in my age group, and just under 6:20 per mile. Ruby also beat her PR handily.  I did not understand my results. Was my speed work for last month’s Superbowl Sunday 10K still paying dividends? I earned a shot of confidence as I train for the Chesebro Half in April and Mountains 2 Beach Marathon in May.


With the help of my PR, I regained my appreciation and enthusiasm for the 5K. I’ve tried to play the race back in my mind but the memory is fading fast. It only took a day or two for me to ask, why not 19:00? Maybe, but for now I will enjoy my results as I set my sights toward my upcoming half and looming marathon.


redondo beach 10k


When I run a 10K, I’m able to flirt with speed until I’m threatened by a flame out. My training and recovery cover a few weeks instead of months a longer distance demands. And if I balance my endurance with some strategy  I’m rewarded with a strong finish. So it felt natural to begin 2017 at the Redondo Beach 10K. My son Alex, fresh off his first season of cross-country, would be racing with- or more accurately- in front of me.

Redondo Beach 10k - Start

When I ran my first 10K in 2010, I hacked, gagged, and second guessed my way through fifty-plus minutes of agony. Since then I’ve knocked almost eight minutes off my time and finally broke a 7:00 pace at the Manhattan Beach 10K last October. Yet all my races were similarly inconsistent.  I start way too fast only to realize my mistake as I begin to fade between miles two and three. Then after a sequence of desperate speeding up and slowing down I fade again until my ragged and uncontrolled finish. Even during my MB10K PR my mile splits varied by as much as 35 seconds. This time around I wanted to run the complete package. I just wasn’t sure how to go about doing it.

Coincidentally I started subscribing to McMillan Running’s, Tuesday Training Tips, newsletter and one of the first articles I read was “The Best 10K Workout.”  A Cliff’s Notes summary:  build up to running a 3 x 2 mile workout with each interval at 10K pace. The splits will predict your race pace, 100% guaranteed.  Redondo Beach 10K was scheduled for the first weekend in February so I began my training cycle just after Christmas, during Southern California’s brief winter. I ran most of my workouts during the chilly predawn and my final predictor run started on a bracing frosty morning. It almost did not start at all because I crawled back into bed when I saw the temperature. I forced myself back out because delaying the run would not give me enough recovery time for the race. As I  journeyed to Griffith Park I tried not to dwell on the workout since the whole point was to use the performance as a no-nonsense pace predictor.

Winter gear in L.A. amounts to a long-sleeved running shirt, gloves, and chapstick- usually enough to keep me toasty until I’m a few miles into my run and properly warmed up. But not today. My gear quickly failed me and my fingers went numb followed by my toes and feet. Two miles later, I began my intervals. After the first mile I forgot about the cold and concentrated on my breathing and cadence. I averaged 6:35 for the first set and cursed myself for going out too fast. 6:50 was what I expected and I was worried about repaying my enthusiasm during intervals two and three. I managed another 6:35 over the next two miles but struggled to keep up. With one more set to go I dialed back my expectations and convinced myself to just finish the workout. My final interval was indeed slower but not by much. I finished at  6:40. I was spent and somewhat dazed throughout the day, so I knew I completed the workout without holding back. According to the plan, I would  run my 10K between a 6:35 and 6:40.


Now I had a week and a half to recover, taper and find reasons to doubt my results. The weekend before the race I did some recon that included the 10K course as part of my long run: hillier than I expected. The last mile was net downhill and I hoped to reach it with enough gas left for a strong kick. As race day approached I sorted out my strategy. Plan A was to match my workout pace and prove the experiment a success. If I miscalculated, I might be able to get a new PR- a worthy Plan B. And if I completely fell apart I could try to break 7:00, a salvageable Plan C.

Sunday morning arrived with perfect running conditions, cool and overcast. After a banana and some loosening up Alex and I ran 2.5 miles to the starting line, enough to get us warmed up and ready for the race. I said hi to a few locals and then it was time to line up for the anthem and starting horn.  I moved up to the front since there were over 2000 other racers and I wanted to avoid getting bunched up too early. We started on time and my plan worked. The pack stretched out after the first quarter mile. Mile 1 was a blur and when I heard dozens of watches beeping I looked at my own watch: 6:30. Too fast but most of the speed came when I broke free at the starting line. I settled into the race and held a steady effort for the next three miles. I was so focused on my breathing and pacing that I did not pay attention to any of the other runners. My 5K split was 20:36, two seconds away from my 5K PR. Somebody was playing “Highway to Hell” from their window, and I was trying to maintain good posture to keep my hips loose. That’s about all I remember before reaching mile five. I still felt strong and started to build up to my kick. I began checking my watch: 6:40 became 6:25 and then 6:15. With less than a mile to go I tried to hold my faster pace. I knew I was in the running for Plan A.
Just then, somebody yelled, “Cheeseburger Hill!” and my plan was under attack. What was a short climb when I practiced the course seemed to stretch out forever. I made it to the top- the hill was only a block or two- but my heart rate was out of control and it took longer than I wanted to regain my racing form. I soldiered on and built up to a sprint for the final quarter mile. I spied the finish line and passed some other runners, even a couple of Alex’s teammates. Just before crossing, somebody sped past me but I didn’t care since I had just run my best 10K ever.
When the dust settled, I ran a 41:46, over a minute faster than my previous PR and a 6:38 pace- EXACTLY what the workout predicted. I was happiest about my splits which remained steady for the entire race. I finished 59th overall and 7th in my age group (the guy who passed me got 6th), while Alex ran a 41:22 and won the under 14 division. Needless to say, I am sold on the 10K workout and I hope to try again later this year. 6:38 is close enough to 6:30 that a flatter course might get me under. I’ve begun training for my next race, a trail half-marathon, but I’m itching to take on the 10K soon.

vancouver seattle portland

Our family traveled to the Pacific Northwest this Summer. I’ve always had trouble fitting in my runs during vacations but this trip was different. My son Alex joined his high school cross country team and has to maintain a weekly mileage count. So we teamed up and explored all of our stops.

Vancouver Harbor: our first run was seven-miler in downtown Vancouver. It was raining but since rain rarely visits LA it felt like a gift. We had an excellent workout. A network of paths surround the bay- leftovers from the 1986 world fair- and we seemed to join all of Vancouver’s runners this morning.


Stanley Park: the next day we headed along the same path in the opposite direction. Our route took us north along the Seawall and into Stanley Park.


Soon we were looking out to the Pacific Ocean and spied Victoria Island in the distance. The fresh air energized us and put some extra spring in our steps.


Vancouver was a perfect city for running although some of the locals cautioned us to test perfection in February…

Seattle: at our next stop we stayed in the Queen Anne neighborhood, a hill just north of downtown with a great view of the skyline:


Since we were on a hill, there was plenty of elevation change and even a few flights of stairs. As in Vancouver we marveled at the green surrounding us. Our run took us mostly through residential streets plus a cemetery and was a great way to explore the city.


Portland: our final destination and another great running city. Portland is compact enough that on our first run we crisscrossed the Willamette river, explored downtown, and made it back home in time for breakfast.


Exploring while running is a great way to understand the character of a place, and Portland’s neighborhoods were very green and a pleasure to run through.


Adding running to our trip made it one of my favorite vacations ever. As a bonus I was able to train with Alex. It won’t be long before he leaves me gasping if I try to keep up with him. From now on I’ll remember to pack my running shoes when I travel.