Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Race Report: Berkeley Half Marathon

Berkeley Half was my first post-injury double digit race AND the farthest I've run since M2BM in May by nearly 2.5 miles, so I'll just get the suspense out of the way & say that yes, I finished pain-free & feeling good, which in all honesty was the only thing I really really really wanted out of it. Back in the summer I'd hoped to be back in racing shape & ready to rumble by now, but honestly, I'm just feeling grateful to be healthy and able to run this far again less than six months after my injury.

I knew going in that I wasn't in any shape to run a particularly fast race, but I'd still been toying with the idea of going all-out anyway, just to see what I could do at this distance. By Saturday night, though, I'd come to my senses & finally acknowledged a not-that-short list of reasons why that was an epically bad idea:

  • I haven't been training for it--not even close, distance-wise or effort-wise.
  • My most recent "long run" was only 10 miles, just a week before, and only the third time since May that I'd run more than six.
  • I'd done exactly two (very short) tempo runs.
  • I hadn't tapered, relative to my (very low) recent mileage.
  • I hadn't prepared nutrition-wise.
  • I hadn't prepared sleep-wise.
  • I was utterly exhausted after being out at the Stanford game most of Saturday.

Even if I were to run all-out, there was just no way I was going to get a good performance indicative of anything, on top of which, I'd also end up losing a bunch of mileage to recovery time.

On the other hand, for all that it probably would've been the smartest thing training-wise, just using it as an easy long run felt super lame. If I'm getting up at 5:30 in the morning & going to the trouble of driving somewhere & figuring out the logistics, I at least want to pretend like I'm kinda-sorta doing something semi-challenging and have just a tiny bit of fun.

(Before you ask: No, easy long runs are not fun. Yes, I hate them. No, the irony is not lost on me.)

So. I decided to compromise & do it at goal marathon pace / effort & see how that felt, and I think I succeeded more than I failed.

For reference:

(For reference)

The Big Downhill Section

Mile 1 - 7:51
Mile 2 - 7:30
Mile 3 - 7:44

It wasn't SUPER downhill, just significantly more than the rest of the course, which was basically flat. These miles felt really easy, like long run pace easy, and I actually spent a lot of it intentionally slowing down. That 7:30? Did NOT feel like a 7:30. (I'm sure the grade does explain a lot of this.)

The Freeway

Mile 4 - 7:44
Mile 5 - 8:00
Mile 6 - 7:43

Fun to run with this speedy lady for a bit, however briefly!
This was my least favorite part of the course. It was the first and longest of three out-and-back stretches and ran basically right along the I-80 frontage road, which meant breathing car fumes for ~3 miles. After a while I started feeling really nauseous & was afraid I was actually going to have to stop to throw up. Seriously, the exhaust smell SUCKED. This was also where the sun came out and I went from being comfortable temperature-wise to uncomfortably warm. On the other hand, early in this section I got to see Cate & chat with her for a few minutes before she dashed off at a pace that I was not going to try to match today.

The Marina / Cesar Chavez Park

Mile 7 - 8:16
Mile 8 - 7:53
Mile 9 - 7:55

This part of the course had some nice views. Unfortunately, it also had the worst footing. (I did feel fortunate that I at least knew this ahead of time after running Let's Go 510 last month, which followed a lot of the same route.)

Let's Go 510! 10K Course Map
There were some gravel and dirt stretches in the park as well as some muddy spots, and the blacktop road going into the Marina was pretty beat up & broken. At this point, I also think the monotony of the out-and-back by the freeway and the lameness of not racing a race had taken its toll on me mentally--I still felt fine physically but was just bored to tears, and the thought of two more out-and-back stretches along the frontage road was utterly demoralizing.

(I've been trying to remember if there was any reason why Mile 7 was my slowest of the whole race, and I can't think of any. It was slightly downhill, and I was feeling fine, so I kind of wonder if there's maybe more Garmin error there than usual. It's possible that Mile 6 was actually closer to 8:00ish & just ticked off early due to satellite shenanigans or something; I do remember somewhere along that stretch that the 'pace' field on my watch was fluctuating wildly between 6:30 & 9:30, so I wouldn't be surprised.)

The Marina / Cesar Chavez Park

Mile 10 - 7:53
Mile 11 - 8:04
Mile 12 - 8:06
Mile 13 - 8:07 (giant hill, see elevation profile above)
.1 - ???

(I never know what to do about the .1 split. My watch said 1:21, but that would be a 13:30 pace (wrong); if I use the .27 from my watch, that's a 5:00 pace (also wrong). All I know for sure is that coming down that last big hill towards the finish chute, I was running ~6:15-6:30ish, because a) giant downhill & b) Jesus Christ, let this effing race effing END already.)

Making the turn onto the frontage road and going into the second out-and-back, two things happened. One, my lack of endurance / long runs finally caught up with me. (Coincidence that it happened right when I got to 10.5, my longest run prior to the race? Perhaps, but also perhaps not.) I didn't feel terrible, but I did go from "Meh, this race is whatever, and eventually it will end," to "Wow, I would really really really not object if the finish line were to magically appear two miles early." And two, I found myself swept up in a wave of okay maybe slightly irrational rage at out-and-backs and hairpin turns and freeway frontage roads and really just felt like there should be *someone* I could punch in the neck for it.

(If you are reading this, Berkeley Half Marathon course designer, I'm sorry. It's not personal. I know creating courses for long races through urban areas is really, really hard, and I'm sure there are reasons why it had to be this way. That said...it's tough to think of an alternative I wouldn't have preferred. Besides maybe just running laps up & down the frontage road.)

It was also quite warm at this point, and I was thirsty & still kind of nauseous from the gel / sports drink situation (more on that later), so it's worth mentioning that I was not in the most understanding & generous state of mind.

The footing on the last mile wasn't so great either. Again the pavement was treacherously cracked & pot-holed in placed, and there were also several large mud puddles that runners were doing whatever they could (sideswiping other runners, dodging on & off the course, leaping through the air) to avoid. I knew I was slowing down at this point, but not as much as the people around me, apparently, because I found myself still weaving in & out of knots of runners as I slogged my way up the final hill & careened down the other side towards the chute. I'd only been looking at average splits so didn't have more than a vague idea of what kind of time I was in for, so I was pleased and honestly a little surprised to see that even at what felt like marathon effort, I was still almost a full minute under 1:45.

(Still, though--very, very happy to be done.)

Garmin: 13.27 miles / 1:44:12 / 7:53 pace
Official: 13.1 miles / 1:44:09 / 7:58 pace

Overall: 750 / 4664
Women: 188 / 2516
A/G: 41 / 538

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*POST RACE~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Since I think just about everyone I knew was running in one of the three races, I was hoping I'd get a chance to meet up with some friends and say hi, but between the enormity of the finish area and the apparently overloaded cell network, I mostly just spent the first 20 minutes or so milling aimlessly around and desperately looking for a place to sit down. (I'd prematurely discounted the beer garden area since I hadn't put my ID in my bag; later I learned they were totally accepting the age group printed on your D-tag as legit ID. Ah well.)

Just when I had given up locating anyone & was heading towards the shuttles I finally ran into Cathryn, who was supposed to run the 10K but (tragically!) sprained her ankle Friday. She was still a great sport & came out to cheer & see her husband run, so it was good to see her & get to meet some other runner friends of hers.

Then on my second trip towards the shuttles I heard familiar voices calling my name & turned to see Courtney, Cate & her husband Mike, & Reneigh, none of whom I'd seen in ages.

We chatted & compared race notes for a while, & then I headed back towards the shuttles with Reneigh & her friend Meg. Due to some confusion about what was going on with the buses (see below), we ended up walking a good mile back to Berkeley proper, which maybe sounds like it should've sucked, but the weather was nice, I actually felt pretty good physically at that point, and it was lovely to catch up with Reneigh & chat with her & Meg for a little while. We met Cate, Mike, & Courtney at Picante, dropped Reneigh & Meg off for lunch, & thankfully Courtney's sister (who lives in Berkeley & was coming to pick her up) was kind enough to save me the three-mile walk (which *really* would have sucked) back to my car. THANK YOU LADIES!!!!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*LOGISTICAL STUFF~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Location: Berkeley, CA

Date: Mid/late November (November 24, 2013 this year)


Before Sept 1:

    * Half Marathon -- $75
    * 10 Mile -- $60
    * 10 Kilometer -- $50

Before Oct 15:

    * Half Marathon -- $85
    * 10 Mile -- $60
    * 10 Kilometer -- $50

After Nov 18: ??? The website just says "increase" for all three distances.

They also do complimentary entries for elites & discounted entries for sub-seeds. (I was sub-seeded & I think I got maybe half off.) There is also a 15% discount for registering in teams of 15 or more.

Deadlines/sellout factor: There were still a few spots left in all distances, I think, as of race morning, and they were taking race day registration. 2013 was the first year for this race, so we'll see what happens in the future.

Field Size: ~4,800 finishers in the half, and I think they said there were ~7,000 participants between the three races. So not that tiny, especially for a new race.


There are several garages near the start, though when I arrived at 7am, they all seemed to be full. On the other hand, free / unlimited Sunday parking appeared fairly plentiful. (I literally parked on the street right in front of the closest garage & walked a whopping two blocks to the start.)


  • Start - Well-organized, with everything laid out in a way that made things easy to find & navigate through, and a full city block of port-a-potties. I also loved that sweat check was a bunch of school buses labeled with ranges of race numbers. When you were ready, you just tossed your bag through the appropriate window to a volunteer inside & picked it up with your bib at the end. (Also, Harley Club volunteers? You are awesome. I heart you all.)
  • Finish - The finish area in the Golden Gate Fields parking lot was HUGE, & included most of the things you'd expect from a mid-size road race (bottles of water, massages, sponsor tents, free samples aplenty, beer garden, etc.). Alas, the GG lot lacks the number one thing I want when I finish a race: a shaded, out-of-the way spot where I can sit and recover within a few minutes' walk of the finish. There just wasn't any place for that except the beer garden, which I assumed I couldn't enter since I didn't have my ID. (If I'd known my D-tag was good enough, I would have gone straight there, just to sit.) Even just some chairs or benches would have been awesome.

Aid Stations: There were five on the half course, including one on the first out-and-back which we hit twice, so no problem with the frequency. One of the early ones had Gu Chomps, and one of the later ones had gels, which was interesting because I've only ever seen non-liquid carbs at aid stations in full marathons.

On the other hand, the aid stations only offered water and a sugar-free, zero calorie electrolyte drink. That's right; no pourable carbs anywhere on the course. At first I wrote more about the situation and why I think it's such problem, but after 4 paragraphs I sort of went, "Eh, screw it, this deserves its own post." But yeah; half marathon + no pourable carbs = big problem.

The Course:


I don't want to rant about the course too much because, as I mentioned above, I know designing a course for a double-digit race through a major urban area is a real challenge, and it's just impossible to meet all the requirements that have to be in place while also catering to every runner's particular likes and dislikes. I don't know what all the factors were that went into designing this course, but I'm sure there were many, and that the organizers did the best they could.

Having said that, I probably will not run this race again unless there are some major changes. Which is not to say it is an objectively bad course; just that there were a lot of things about it that made it hard for me to run my best race & enjoy the experience.

First, the fact that it was point-to-point. I have two guesses as to the reason for this: 1) Point-to-point means it can be net downhill, which is a draw for some runners, and/or 2) there isn't a great staging area in Berkeley proper for a finish area large enough to accommodate all the participants & supporters. (I suspect a loop course starting & ending at GG Fields wouldn't have made it all that far into Berkeley proper & thus kind of miss the point of the name.) But shuttle buses back to the start from the finish were an issue, which is why Reneigh & Meg & I ended up walking a mile back to town. When we went to see about catching on, we couldn't see either end of the line. I don't know whether waiting would have been faster than what we ended up doing, but we couldn't find anyone to ask, so figured we might as well just start walking. To me point-to-point makes more sense with a full marathon, but even then, my preference is still parking at the finish before the race & getting shuttled from there to the start. When a race is done, the last thing I want to do is wait around for transportation I don't have any control over & can't get any information about.

Second, the out-and-backs & hairpin turns. They are just the bane of my road racing existence. Obviously they're sometimes a necessary evil & I certainly won't nix a race just because it has one, but three is just a bit much. I also suspect that the hairpins add a good chunk of extra distance because it's so hard to run perfect tangents.

Third, the frontage road stretches. In theory, the course was "created to show off Berkeley’s favorite spots;" if that's the case, though, I can't help wondering why five and a half miles of it (by my count) were along the I-80 frontage road. I don't need to be constantly entertained with breathtaking views in a race, but those stretches just felt like a slog, and the exhaust from the freeway was nauseating.

Fourth, I'm just personally not a fan of running on tricky surfaces like gravel, mud, trail/road shoulders, & chewed up concrete & find it hard to run my best races when there's a significant amount of any of that. There were a lot of places on the course where I found myself needing to pay a lot of attention to where I was putting my feet than to the rest of my running and the runners around me, and that's never much fun. For people who, say, have a lot of trail experience or enjoy a variety of terrain, they might like this course better than I did. Having now run two races through the Berkeley Marina & Cesar Chavez Park, though, I probably won't do it again. It's just not my bag.

After the race, several Berkeley natives mentioned how disappointed they were with the course, given that it was marketed as "created to show off Berkeley’s favorite spots;" like most everyone else I talked to, they enjoyed the first three miles through downtown and would have preferred to have spent more time there than slogging up & down the frontage road. To quote Jen, it's kind of surprising that Berkeley's "favorite spots" wouldn't include beloved areas like Telegraph Ave, Gourmet Ghetto, Solano, and 4th St. I'm guessing there may have been logistical / legal / financial reasons why so little of the course was actually in Berkeley proper, but it's still a bit disappointing.

Swag: Beautiful forest-green long sleeves with small, tasteful race logo on the front & big, cool one on the back, plus a rather large, but still equally tasteful medal:

You may notice some shared DNA with the SF Marathon 2nd Half medal
(not surprising, since both races are run by the same folks)

Er...excuse the weird purple spot on the shirt, if you can.
I took these pictures kind of hastily in my badly-lit bedroom, &
my camera didn't deal with the color balance all that well.

Overall Assessment:

  • By & large well-organized and well-run, especially for a first-time event
  • Great volunteers & spectators
  • Nice swag
  • The course will not be for everyone and didn't really show off Berkeley all that much

I'm still glad I ran it, though, and since I'd made the decision not to RACE-race, the issues with the course were mostly just a minor annoyance, and it was kind of nice to get in a longer run somewhere other than Golden Gate Park for once.


  1. Thank you for the adjective 'tragic' ref. my ankle twist. Made me giggle :) Seriously - you ran such a good race. It was so good to see you healthy and pain-free and happy at the end. I also LOVE the race shirt (it didn't fit the Husband so I got to keep it) but the course has put me off signing up for it again unless they revise it! Anyway...onwards with your Napa training, you took a big step forward at the weekend!!

  2. Huh, I wonder if the car exhaust is what made my lungs give out. I didn't even notice the exhaust (probably because I've had stuffed nose/respiratory issues for about a month now), but that could be why I found myself at mile 14 of my long run, stopped on a sidewalk coughing, suddenly going from 8:50 pace to 10:00+ pace. Reading about the car exhaust is actually reassuring, because maybe I have an answer now.

    Anyway, I think this was a great comeback for you. To almost break 1:44 on sub-par preparation and after your lengthy injury recovery? Yep, that's a very good way to come back. 2014 is looking good!!

  3. The course sounded awful. Breathing in car exhaust is the fastest way to feel awful while running - not sure what is worse for me, car exhaust or BBQ smoke smell. Both make me nauseous. Besides the awful course, sounds like you ran a great smart race. I do like the shirt, is that a tech shirt? I would wear that running often if I had to wear long sleeves.

    And go Arizona Wildcats tomorrow!

    1. Yep, tech shirt! I like this one a lot.

      Sigh. Alas, I have elected NOT to spend hundreds of dollars & yet another weekend traveling to AZ. So I'll be watching from home Saturday night.

  4. Congrats on a good, solid effort -- from where I sit, that's a fantastic time for not racing! I think that what I learned from this course is that if you put me next to water, I will literally notice nothing else, because other than a fleeting thought of "oh, what highway is that?" I barely even realized we were on a frontage road. (I am in the VAST minority here -- every other person I've talked to HATED that stretch.) The gravel and turns, on the other hand ... blech.

  5. Congrats on executing your plan effectively and finishing without pain or injury! To add to my feelings about the course (BTW, I completely agree with your assessment), I'm hoping that this was just a first foray/proof of principle for the Berkeley Half, and that the next iteration will include some of the other areas of Berkeley that I mentioned. There are so many alternative routes in Berkeley that shutting down Telegraph and Shattuck should be plausible.

    My hypothesis about the slower 7th mile: headwind. It almost always hits me during that stretch.

  6. I heard recently SFM will be using Nuun this year. Isn't that what we had at Berkeley?

    1. Really? Where did you hear it? The website says that the electrolyte provider is still TBD.

      The Berkeley race director told me they were using Vega. It doesn't have any actual sugar in it, so it does taste kind of like Nuun.