Friday, February 28, 2014

Michelob Ultra El Paso Marathon, Ultra Fail

The Michelob Ultra El Paso Marathon was an abysmal, embarassing failure for the city of El Paso, and they don't even know it.

I first ran in the El Paso Marathon in 2009, when I first moved to El Paso.  I only ran the Half Marathon; my first full would take me another 10 months to train for.  I remember the excitement, the anxiety of running in a big city race.  Since then I've competed in 4 (now 5) full marathons and multiple road races.  This last week was my first time running the El Paso Marathon (full, that is) and I have to admit that I was sincerely disappointed in the overall production of the race.

The weather was awesome, the water stations had enthusiastic volunteers, and I was running (sort of) with friends.  What could possibly have ruined the event for me?

Well, let's take a look at what I think truly makes a successful marathon.

There are four things you need to successfully pull off hosting a marathon.

1. Decent pre & post-race support.
2. Ample water stations with goodies.
3. People to sign up and run.
4. A route with a view.

The Michelob Ultra El Paso Marathon failed at all three of the above.

Let's start at the top and work our way down.

1. Decent pre & post-race support.

The Pre Race Support:

The first thing you receive on behalf of any race event, once you register, is the goodie bag (technically called your race packet, but that's not very exciting).  It's where the race sponsors toss their swag (free promotional materials) and is a great way to experience new products.

The best El Paso could offer this year was the promised t-sirt, mandatory race bib, and some pamphlets for a couple upcoming races.  Not exactly exciting.

Typically, at other races, there's a selection of snacks, energy chews/goos/gels/bars, coupons for sponsoring businesses, promotional products for athletic industries (think lip balm, deodorant, sunscreen, etc) and a huge collection of advertisements for upcoming events.  It's a promotional product placement dream come true.  I ran races where I didn't have to bring anything with me for before or after care.  In the race bag was enough sunscreen, wipes, and snacks to fuel me, bathe me and prepare me to run/ride.

Very disappointing, El Paso.

The Post Race Support:

For weeks/months the El Paso Marathon website and Facebook page advertised that their post race care would include chocolate milk, burritos, Michelob Ultra beer, water, and a special post-race brunch menu at The Garden (swanky club/restaurant located at the finish line).  Chocolate milk is a big favorite among many endurance racers for its carb to protein ratio in post race recovery.

And let's be honest, everybody loves burritos, especially me.

Well, cross the finish line when I did and you would have discovered the burritos were all gone, no chocolate milk, and The Garden serving alcohol but no food.  According to their staff, the kitchen was closed; maybe they had no clue what was meant by a "brunch menu."  All that was left to a few hundred hungry, depleted, dehydrated marathoners was crappy beer and a full bar.  Exactly what you need to create a real medical crisis in a hurry.

Another fail, El Paso.

2. Ample water stations with goodies.

Not too bad here, El Paso.  There were water stations every two miles for the first half, and then a station every mile thereafter.  But, there was only race sponsored energy gels at miles 10 and 20.

Because we don't eat any other time in the race?

Are you that cheap, El Paso?

The one saving grace, and the marathon directors can't take any credit for it, were the volunteers at the water points that put on quite a show in motivating us to keep moving.

Still, for a large, annual, metropolitan marathon, why can't we afford some more carbs on the route?  Might see some much happier marathoners crossing the finish line.

Mild fail, El Paso.

3. People to sign up and run.

Let's all do some math.

Yay!  Math!

Marathon participation averages a ~2% growth across the nation, annually.  (go to RunningUSA for more details and their annual report so you can criticize my inability to read stats correctly)

*The NYC ING Marathon was cancelled in 2012 for Hurricane Sandy, and would have contributed an average of 40,000 runners (and they were already sold out when cancelled) which would have been substantial growth from 2011 to 2012.
The El Paso Marathon data I have been able to collect goes back as far as 2008.

*No data was available for total participants (the 5K and Half Marathon were recorded separately).
The El Paso Marathon was cancelled in 2011 for inclement weather (Snow'pocalypse 2011!).
The El Paso Marathon has seen a 53% growth in total numbers since 2008, far outpacing the national average.  However, that growth has declined to less than 1% total in the last 2 years.  Suddenly, people seem less interested in the marathon and the El Paso Marathon is no longer keeping pace with the rest of the nation.

I wonder why?

One more number game.

El Paso population (according to a 2012 survey) is 672,538.

The entire population of the island of Maui, Hawaii, (according to the 2010 U.S. Census) is 144,000.

It's no secret that Charla and I just ran the Maui Oceanfront Marathon in January.  Just see my last few blog posts for details.  So, I'm using the beautiful but small island of Maui as my comparison.

With only 20% of the population of El Paso, similar weather on race day, and a healthy group of volunteers, the marathons could have offered similar experiences.  The biggest difference would be the type of scenery (which El Paso can offer when it tries) and the logistics of attending each.

Easily, El Paso has more hotels, cheaper and shorter flights, and more affordable local logistics (rental cars, restaurants, etc).  Therefore, logically, it should attract more racers.

There were 349 finishers in the Maui Oceanfront Marathon in 2014 compared to 373 in El Paso a month later.

Hmmm, I think that's fail number 3, El Paso.

4. A route with a view.

This year's marathon started at the top of Transmountain Road, one of the most epic starts ever.  I won't describe in detail what it did to my quads, but let's suffice to say that I still have trouble walking.  However, that's about where it ended.  We were kept off the major roads, and even spent several miles running alongside the city landfill before entering Fort Bliss.

How about a west side route through the river valley?  How about taking us up onto Alabama and maybe even crossing over Scenic Drive?  It's name is Scenic, and it's already blocked off on Sunday mornings for pedestrians.  The El Paso Marathon will never gain ground as a scenic or worthwhile marathon until the city accepts its responsibility in producing the marathon and giving the participants something to remember the city by.  But then, El Paso has always been accepting of its role as a second rate town.

Time to conclude this argument.

What's most disappointing about the whole experience is that the City of El Paso has so much potential to do so much more than it ever accomplishes.  One of the saddest moments came when race participants were forced to pay for parking to pick up their race packets and then again for parking on race day.  I keep asking myself why a metropolis of more than 600,000 couldn't foot the bill or why the race registration couldn't include free parking for the two mandatory events for participants.

It's the little things that add up to eventually kill you and the El Paso Marathon seems content to continue to let things grow into mediocrity and stagnation while the rest of the nation leaves them behind.

Thankfully, this will be the last time I will be running the El Paso Marathon.  Perhaps, if I ever have the misfortune to visit again, they will have learned from their lack of success and devised how to work together to put together a more marketable product to the hordes of endurance athletes looking for interesting and fun challenges.

Here's a hint.

Deliver what you promise and take care of your athletes before and after their event.

Make sure they want for nothing during the race so they can focus on what your city has to offer while they pass by the beautiful scenery and cheering spectators that should be on the route.

Recognize that you are much smaller than a big city marathon should be, and do whatever it takes to change that.

Give us something to look at other than garbage and desolate run down businesses.

When you start attracting more runners, you will make more money and realize how much this marathon should matter to the city.  Until then, no one will care.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Maui Report Part III - The Run

Part Three – The Run


How to Run a Sub-4 hour Marathon? (Clue: don't stop and take pictures at every water point)


Whale Watching and Marathoning?  At the Same Time?  Sure!


Trust Me About the Sunscreen



A year ago, Char told me that she was ready and wanted to train up to run her first full marathon.  I was excited and really wanted it to be a special one for her, so I told her to pick out the run she really wanted and we’d make a vacation out of it. 

The Maui Oceanfront Marathon (MOM) was her response.

Maui?  Sure, why not.

We started training a few months out.  Since Char had been running half marathons almost non stop for the past two years, her mileage increase was pretty simple.  With the increasingly unpredictable and demanding nature of my work hours, I had a lot of trouble following suit.  Every week, Char was running two or three times the miles I was able to put in.

Not a good sign.

But we both hit a decent 20-mile training run about two weeks ahead of the marathon and decided we were ready.

We spent the first week in Maui relaxing, training, sight-seeing, and basically having a good time.  Having the pending marathon constantly weighing on our minds kept us from misbehaving too badly.  We kept the alcohol to a minimum, stayed hydrated, used plenty of sunscreen, and slept plenty.  It helped us to enjoy our time on the island even more, as we were healthy enough to really experience everything available to us.

5 days before the marathon we rode out bikes down to the town of Kihei along the marathon route to a small cafĂ© about three miles into the run route.  It was 25 miles down and back and allowed us to experience all the nuances usually missed in a route recon.

As Ernest Hemingway once said, "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them."
A mostly flat course at sea level, but with over 800 ft of total climbing.

We parked our car in Lahaina, near the finish line, at 3:30 am, the morning of the race and waited for the bus to Wailea.  When the yellow school bus arrived, we realized there wasn’t enough room for everyone on it.  Though there was a second bus coming, I grabbed Char and squeezed onto the first bus to make sure we didn’t cut it too close to the gun time.

In the parking lot for the Shops of Wailea, we found the line for the latrines and realized how lucky we were.  Even though we had to wait almost 15 minutes just to pee, the folks on the second bus didn’t have enough time to do even that and had to jog to the start line just to not miss the gun.

Classic marathon experience, waiting in line for the porta potties.
The first 5 miles was in almost total blackness.  There were intermittent street lights, but mostly it was just the moon reflecting off the black water crashing along the shore.  When they said the run would parallel the coast for the entire 26.2 miles, they weren’t exaggerating.

I kept what felt like an easy pace behind a small group at first, trying to conserve energy.  I didn’t realize later that I was running about a minute per mile faster than what I wanted to start with.  We were breezing along in the dark at about 8:30-8:45 per mile.

At mile 3 something happened that still scares me.  I was following along behind a small group so I could watch their foot steps and not accidentally find an ankle snapping pothole or bump in the road.  I saw a dark line in the smooth asphalt but couldn’t tell the left side of the dark line was lower than the right.  My left foot hit the line, rolled sharply to the left and there was a SNAP POP sound.  I thought immediately to myself that I’d broken or sprained my ankle and that this run was over for me.

Right away I tried to self assess just how bad it was going to be.  I kept running, and didn’t feel any increase in pain or discomfort in the ankle at all.  There was a little tightness about a mile later, and I thought it felt a little swollen, but nothing that would scare me into stopping yet.  So, I decided to keep running until something happened that made me reconsider.

After the first 6 miles, the sun started to rise, and I began looking for an empty latrine.  I usually have to pee after the first 5 miles, but it wasn’t until the first real climb up the rocky coast of West Maui at mile 12 that I finally found one that didn’t already have someone waiting impatiently outside.

The sun rising over Haleakala Volcano from mile 12.  10,000 feet above sea level, it's intimidating even on the other side of the island.
At mile 13, I checked my watch to see that I was exactly 2 hours into the race.  The hope that I could break 4 hours on this marathon was still there.

Had to take the selfie to prove I was actually running and not just driving along taking pictures.
I still felt strong climbing along the coast, and the whale sign was picking up in frequency, so there was plenty of motivation to keep going.  It wasn’t until after the tunnel that I started to notice the signs of fatigue in my legs.  At mile 18 things turned further south for me, and by mile 20 I was regretting a lot of decisions in my life, foremost, that I was running a marathon.  The sun was blazing by now, and any break from it provided by the rows of monkey pod trees lining the highway was a welcome respite.  By mile 22 I was cursing Char’s decision to drag me out here and the whales were no longer entertaining.  With only 2 miles to go, I was walking more than I was running.

The 1 mile to go sign also signals the turn off the highway, with is rushing traffic and noisy engines, into the quiet seaside neighborhood of Old Lahaina.  I promised myself that I would run this final mile completely with no walk breaks.  The 4 hour mark had long since passed me by and I was just trying to finish with some small amount of dignity attached to my bib.

There aren’t too many feelings quite like crossing the finish line at a marathon.  You might barely notice the announcer shouting your name, or the photographer trying to capture your moment of agonized glory for posterity.  But, you never forget the screaming of the crowd of volunteers and runners, or the finisher’s medal being hung around your neck. 

I could barely walk when I found some passersby to take a photo of me behind the finish line.  Somehow, I had no trouble smiling for the camera, though.

I cooled down and stretched as best as I could.  I could only sip a little water and take a handful of snacks before I felt like throwing up.  But I could barely handle waiting for Char to finish. 

She had told me that she expected to run the whole thing in about 5:30.  So, just before the 5 hour mark, I hobbled down to our car and grabbed our post race bags with water, snacks and shirts to change into.  Nothing helps you recover after a long distance endurance event like having a clean shirt to change into.  When I got back to the finish line, I texted Charla to ask her to let me know when she was a mile out.

Proof that Char was nearing the finish line.
Sure enough, at 5:26 Char was crossing the finish line with a fist pump and quick shout to the announcer to correct his pronunciation of her name.  Of course, after running 26.2 miles through tropical heat and humidity, she'd still have enough energy to correct someone's English.

Announcer called her Charles, and it didn't end well for him.
Charla's first ever marathon, done!
 I had told Char that she’d probably cry after her first marathon.  Turns out, I had it backwards.  I was the one in tears when she finished and hobbled into my waiting arms.

Akiro: Why do you cry?
Subotai: (S)He is Conan Charla.  (S)He will not cry, so I cry for him her.
I may be a softie, but I saw humpback whales crashing into the ocean while I was running a marathon in a beautiful tropical paradise.  What did you do for MLK day?

MOM done, it was time to celebrate so we headed back to the local burger joint to replace the more than 7,000 calories we lost together that morning.

Longboard lager and the marathon banner in the background.  The finisher medals had an octopus on them, very unique.
But the grand finale was the sunset dinner cruise sponsored by the Pride of Maui.  We spent the evening watching whales breaching, spouting, and lob tailing so close to the boat that one tried to climb in.  He must have smelled what was cooking in the kitchen.

Sunset dinner cruise with whale watching, open bar, live music, and, you guessed it, dinner and a sunset.

The Maui Report Part II - The Ride to Kihei

Part Two – The Ride to Kihei


There and Back Again


Thar be Whales!


Fish Tacos?  Sure, why not?

I survived the ride up and down the Haleakala Volcano, mostly.  And in accordance with our strict vacation itinerary, (yeah right) the next day was an easy 50 mile ride to the seaside town of Kihei and back.  I say easy, but nothing is easy after you spend more than 7 hours in the saddle and leave your body and legs depleted of all hope and happiness.

The idea was to preview the marathon route before Sunday, get a little cross training in, and enjoy a pleasant ride along the Maui coast. 

What we did not anticipate were the Kona winds (traditionally, Maui enjoys the benefit of the much calmer tradewinds) or the amount of whale watching we would experience this time of year.

We started after breakfast, the sun already well into the sky.  Our pace was light, with Charla in the lead, and me doggedly plugging along behind her.  My legs felt like jello, but I was determined to make the most of what looked like a beautiful day.

Signs along the road were constant reminders of why we were on Maui to begin with.
We had been warned by the B&B owner that the traffic could be intense and not bicycle friendly with all the tourists in town.  What we actually experienced was altogether different.  Drivers were courteous, and obeyed the rules almost without exception.  While not protected or guarded, the expansive bike lanes gave us plenty of room to maneuver and kept us far enough away from traffic that we actually felt quite safe.

The bike lane symbol is even wearing a helmet!
The tunnel along the coast of West Maui even had a bicycle button to push that would activate a light warning vehicles that you were passing through the tunnel.

Of course, we have been riding the past 4 years in El Paso, where every driver seems to have a homicidal urge towards all forms of life around them and traffic laws are just suggestions. 

Something else that I had noticed on my ride up the volcano was evident today.  The roads everywhere were like butter.  They were so smooth that I can recall every bumpy spot of the previous day’s 72 miles (there were 6 total, 4 of which were cattle guards near the Haleakala Park).  

Buttery smooth roads with wide bike lanes made for incredible riding.
We cruised around the coast and down towards Kihei.  There was some light rain and a breeze off the ocean that propelled us along.  In Kihei, we enjoyed a brunch of fish tacos before perusing the local market. 

Grilled mahi mahi with all the taco fixins.
My first fish tacos ever, and they are awesome!

Our ride back was a little more interesting.  Once out of Kihei, the Kona Winds that had given us a push in the morning were now blowing harder rain and a strong breeze off the ocean into our faces.  The uphill climb past Ma’alaea was a lot harder, but my legs had regained some of their vigor and I was able to easily spin up the coastline.  The headwind easily measured 15 mph that afternoon, but, and I can’t explain why, it seemed so much easier to handle than back in El Paso.  In EP, any headwind over 10 mph makes any ride miserable and sucks the fun right out.  Apparently, even a stiff headwind can be fun in paradise.

Into the headwind I felt strong enough to pull for Char for a bit.
Back along the West Maui coast Char and I had to stop several times.  Just off shore, the whales were playing. 

Never in my life have I experienced anything like it.  We had, apparently, chosen the right month to visit Maui as there were whales everywhere you looked.

"Admiral, there be whales here!" - Scotty
Cell phone pics don't do them justice.  They were hurling their entire bodies out of the water (called breaching and lunging) and lob tailing just a 100 yards offshore.  Close enough that you could hear them over the traffic that had just ground to a halt to watch.

We eventually left the whales behind and cruised into town.  Our recon of the marathon route complete and our bike riding in Maui finished.

The only thing left to do (other than have an awesome time on a tropical island) was to get ready for and then complete our first tropical marathon.  Too easy!

Training in style!