Kittaka and the (never-ending)Trail

I haven’t successfully made the time or had the patience to do a race-recap of the Chicago Marathon yet, it’s pending, and in the meantime I want to share with you a race re-cap from another race and another runner.

Over the past year I have made huge changes to my running, it’s reflected not just my race times, but also in how I think about running, how I race, how I train, and how I think about running in relation to the rest of life. Running doesn’t fill  a distinct compartment in my life, it is just a  part of it that is sort of woven in.

The biggest factor to all this change is that I developed an insatiable curiosity for other runners,  what they are doing, thinking, and feeling when they train and race, and what do they do with the rest of their time? I am most curious when it comes to how runners who are more developed (read: have more experience, are wicked fast) than I am and how they reflect upon and frame their workouts and races, good or bad.

One of these runners is Dan Kittaka, I’ve not had the chance yet to complete a run shoulder to shoulder with Dan, but I’ve been a mile and growing behind him for a couple of group runs, and have with no exaggeration, never heard anyone say anything about him that was less than totally inspiring.

I was happy in early September when Dan decided to test out his hand at a person running blog, kansai kudasai. He already writes for his work blog, and I was following him on Dailymile.

One of his goal races is the legendary Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon  in Japan, which has a  qualifying standard of sub 2:30, and also has strict cutoff times during the race. If you’re not on 2:27:40 pace through 20km you might be pulled off the course. I have no doubt Dan will get there, his current marathon PR is 2:31:42 and he knows how to train smart.

At about the same time Dan began blogging we had what I thought was a hilarious Twitter exchange regarding not being able to navigate, or stay upright, while running a trail race. I immediately asked him to guest blog a race re-cap.

So without further blathering on, and hero worshipping, here you go (take notes, there are some serious wisdom kernels in here!):

Race Recap – SCOTT Cougar Mountain Trail Run Series: #2 – 13/14 Mile  by Dan Kittaka

First of all, hats off to the race organizers, Seattle Running Club and Northwest Trail Runs for putting on a high quality event!

 After getting lost in my first ever trail racing experience during the inaugural Paleozoic Trail Run 25k due to poor course preparation (Rich Heffron recapped on his blog here), I was disappointed, but figured it had to be some sort of freak inaugural event snafu. I had promised myself to study the course map before my next trail race which of course I tried to do, but when the map looks like this it can be hard to remember all of the turns. Particularly if it is in a venue where you’ve never run before!

 Thankfully, the courses (and where they split) were very, very well marked. Turn directions were clearly marked with flags. Flags on the right leading into a turn indicated a right turn and vice-versa. This system was intuitive particularly in the latter stages of the races when brain function was a major challenge. In addition to the turns, long, orange ribbon, “confidence markers” were used on straight or straightforward portions of the course in order to indicate that you were in fact still on course.

Look at how green it is!

photo credit: Seattle Running Club 

While I can’t help but smirk a bit at the name of the park, Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park was a fantastic venue for novice trail runners (me) featuring mostly dirt, single track and wider trails and switchback ascents and descents.

 I flew into Seattle the night before the race, joining my sister, Rachel, my dad, and Rachel’s friend, Kian. I was meeting Rachel who had spent the last two weeks driving from Memphis to LA, then up the Pacific coast to Seattle. Rachel and I would continue her road trip, turning east and south ending in Minnesota for our brother, Jonathan’s undergrad commencement a week later.

Upon arrival to the race site, we were greeted by, Seattle Running Club President, Win Van Pelt. Win offered up some pretty helpful advice, the one tip I really remember was this: make sure, particularly on descents that you toe out a bit to help prevent you from rolling your ankles. I would proceed to roll my ankles pretty badly at least 2 or 3 times as I tend to run toed in.

After a short warm-up jog, Rachel, Kian, and I got our bibs on then headed to the combined start area for our instructions. While we arrived early enough to use the 5 or 6 porta-johns that had been dropped for the event, there wasn’t really enough once the bulk of the participants had arrived. In total there were 249 finishers for both events which puts it at just about 41 people per toilet which is not enough 10-20 minutes before a race! This is my only gripe with the overall production of the event. I ran into the forest to “tie my shoe” just before the start. 

After the instructions, we were off. Rachel and Kian were running the 8 Mile while I chose the longer 13 Mile option to get in a nice longer run on the hills of the Northwest (I had also looked at results and figured I’d have a pretty good chance at winning). Both races started together and used a little flat, grassy loop to string out the runners a bit before sending them out onto the trails which was absolutely the right thing to do.

A colorful parade

photo credit: Seattle Running Club

 During the instructions, race organizers had communicated something to the effect of, “The 13 mile course is at least 13 miles long, but we don’t actually know how long it is.” I’m sure this statement would have driven some folks absolutely mad, but given that I had very few expectations other than that I would be running for somewhere around 90 minutes (my best guess) this didn’t really phase me at all. I had a sneaking suspicion that the pedestrian sounding 1:46:41 course record was an indication that this run wouldn’t be a walk in the park. All of this to say I started the race at what I thought was a conservative pace.

 Within the first mile, the front of the pack had strung out significantly with the speedy Joseph Gray (winner of the 8.2 mile race) leading from the gun. I found myself running with 5 or 6 guys who I suspected to be racing the 8 miler for the first 10-15 minutes or so of the race. I was impressed with the agility and speed at which one older runner displayed on the single track (I believe this was 54 year old Michael Smith who finished 4th overall in the 8.2 mile race).

About 10-15 minutes in we started to hit some significant switchback climbs on the single track. I decided that the wisest course of action was to not panic (about losing contact with the other racers) and run by feel (hoping that if they were running the longer course that I would be able to catch them in the later stages of the race). So I focused on running the hills with quick short steps and a high cadence. These climbs were pretty long. I’m not sure exactly how long, but when I would be running the downhill switchbacks, I had plenty of time to feel well recovered so I imagine the downhill sections took 60-90 seconds to run while the uphill sections had to be anywhere from 2-4 minutes of climbing.

At the end of each climb, I made sure to open up my stride and surge in order to shake the legs out of “granny gear” and help keep the pressure on. It can be easy to relax a bit when nearing the end of a steep climb, but I believe it is best to actually surge into the flatter section ahead. This shakes the tension built up in the muscles while running uphill and reminds you to keep running hard. You use different muscles running uphill versus on the flats so while mentally you might feel like the climb took a lot from you, at least some of your running muscles had a break while climbing and should be ready to roll once you’ve hit more flat terrain (at least that’s what I tell myself).

At the first point where the courses split, I was able to verify with race volunteers that the runners I had let go ahead where all running in the 8 mile race. I was in the lead of the 13 miler! I ran more comfortably for a bit until on one of the climbs I spotted a bright blue shirt no more than a minute behind me.


My blue shirted nemesis is just visible in the distance

photo credit: Tim Harris

 It was hard to tell how close this other runner was, but at a few points he probably was no further than 10-20 seconds behind me. For the remainder of the race, I focused solely on making sure I didn’t get caught. I would begin to create a gap on the climbs, but would lose much of that cushion on the descents. I decided the determining factor would be speed on the flat sections of the course. Having just run 1:15:41 at the North Shore Half Marathon back in Illinois, I was pretty confident in my ability to run the flat sections. 

Quite a few places on the course we shared the trail with the 8 milers. This got a little hairy a few times due in part to my total inexperience running on single track. I feel a bit bad about how I got around some of the other participants. This was the only issue I had on the well marked course well that and not knowing how far I had run. 

About an hour and twenty minutes into the race, I figured based on effort and my current fitness that the finish had to be coming up in the next ten minutes or so. I continued to push through the climbs and run the flat sections as hard as I could in order to break the runner behind me. The climbs kept coming. Before each one I would tell myself that this one was probably the last one. After about five or six big climbs this trick sort of stopped working. I was getting tired and this was turning into a pretty long run. 90 minutes came and went. 

I kept running. Each time the course flattened out I would surge hoping there wouldn’t be any more ascents and that the blue shirted runner behind me wouldn’t catch me. Finally, I started to recognize the area we warmed up in around the start/finish area. Bursting into the clearing where we had started the race, I stopped the clock at 1:49:44.8. I had managed to hold off Seattle residents John Berta (2nd in 1:50:27) and Patrick Mcauliffe (3rd in 1:50:35).

I hadn’t taken advantage of the aid stations thinking that this was at most going to be a 90 minute uptempo  run, and I immediately felt the effects of not hydrating or fueling on the course after finishing. I became lightheaded and sat down in the middle of the start/finish area for a few minutes before dragging myself over to where Rachel, Kian, and my dad had camped out with some of the other 8 milers. Soon I was feeling better and after a bit they proceeded with handing out awards to the top finishers, Rachel and Kian placed as the 2nd Female and 3rd Male in their race and received Cougar Mountain Trail Run Series pint glasses while I received a similarly branded Mason jar mug, a nice souvenir!

 I’m still a total noob at trail racing. What is the appropriate way to pass another runner on single track during a race? (Running in the same direction and opposite directions).  (AB here, I appreciated when a man behind me on a single track night race -see my next answer- said “when you’re ready I’ll pass”, I followed his example the rest of the race and successfully didn’t sprain an ankle or shove anyone into a tree…opposite direction? I don’t know, “Zena Warrior Princess” battle cry?)

What are some of your favorite trail races? (AB again, to date my favorite trail race is the El Chupacabre de Noche in San Antonio, I wrote about it here)

Your turn!

13 responses to “Kittaka and the (never-ending)Trail

  1. Great recap! Perhaps the author and the blogger should both make trail races in the NW a yearly habit! :-)

  2. Up here in Maine, we try to warn of passing by using a “biking” term.. On you left. Lets the person know you are looking to pass. And when that person gets to a spot two runners can navaigate they move over. Least most of the time this works.. Great report.

    • Oh, yah, we use that on our lake front path here in Chicago…oddly, in my (2 only) trail races, it never occurred to me to say that…hah!

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