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28 Miles in Vibrams: Salinas Valley Half Marathon Report

Posted Aug 12 2010 12:00am

Framed by the Santa Lucia mountains to the west and the Gabilan range to the east, the Salinas Valley is known primarily for its flat terrain, fertile fields, and cool morning fog. It’s an ideal environment for crop development – not to mention a sweet area to host a road race.

That was the intent of the race committee for this year’s first annual Salinas Valley Half Marathon , which attracted almost 1300 runners from all over the country to experience a taste – literally and figuratively - of what Monterey County has to offer. This race wasn’t officially on my calendar, but when the opportunity arose to jump in at the last minute, I thought it would be foolish to turn it down.

Since I wasn’t really in race shape – and with very little asphalt running this summer, barely in road shape at all – I took advantage of the morning to enjoy a high mileage day against a scenic backdrop, with a little bit of aid station support thrown in for good measure. I was also anxious to test my new Vibram FiveFingers Bikilas , which had arrived in the mail two days prior, and which were custom made for cranking out high road mileage. I’ll post a formal review here later on, of course, but you’ll probably get a sense by the end of this post whether or not I was satisfied with the Bikilas.

In other words, a lot of pieces had fallen into place for a very sweet run – one that was worth waking up a little bit early for. I headed out into the pre-dawn darkness, under a heavy blanket of cool morning fog which would cover the valley for the majority of the day.

About 1.5 miles down the road, I passed the entry to Pessagno winery, which would serve as the finish area later in the day. From this point, I was on the half marathon course, and my plan was to cover the 13.1 miles in reverse before arriving at the start line.

Over the next hour or so, the sky gradually turned from black to gray to … well, to lighter gray. The sun never entirely burned through the fog - perfect race conditions for runners - but it gave plenty of light to start enjoying the sights of the valley while traveling down the road.

This isn’t some random jogger I found; it’s my friend Andrew, who accompanied me on my little pre-race down-and-back stunt. Here’s how you know you have a cool training partner: If he sends you an e-mail asking about your plans for the morning, and you tell him that you’re heading out at 4AM to run 14 miles before the start, and he replies with “That sounds cool – mind if I join you?” That’s Andrew.

Reaching this stretch of road about 2 miles from the start, I checked my watch and realized that I was ahead of schedule to reach the start line. I didn’t want to arrive too early and stand around getting stiff-legged, so I decided to kill some time by running an extra mile or so …

… and taking some goofy pictures by the side of the road. I like this one, but you can’t see my Bikilas as well in this picture …

… as you can in this one. Yes, I was sitting in the road to take this shot; like I said, I had a bit of time to kill.

One thing you can count on whenever running through the Salinas Valley is a stark reality check when passing laborers in the fields. At any hour of the day, in virtually any weather conditions, the amount of manual labor utilized up and down this valley is simply staggering. Seeing these folks preparing for their day well before 7AM, and knowing they’d still be working long after I’d gone home and showered was a nice reminder of how relatively frivolous all this running stuff really is.

Eventually I continued down the road and reached the Soledad Mission , whom Franciscan friars christened for Our Lady of Solitude, which now hosted 1300 runners eager to begin the race. I timed my arrival perfectly, and picked up my bib number with just a few minutes left over …

… to sneak away by myself for a moment and snap a couple pictures of Nuestra Senora de la Soledad in private.

Once the race was underway, I settled into a nice comfortable rhythm for a while, chatted for a bit with a few friends, and fielded a lot of questions from strangers about the Bikilas I was wearing. I also had a nice discussion with …

… this dude on the right, who was wearing a pair of Vibrams (the Sprint model ) as well. Other Vibram Guy and I compared notes on our minimalist running experiences for a few minutes, before I picked up my pace a bit and left him behind for the day. Or so I thought.

Up to this point I really hadn’t been paying attention to the clock, but when I rolled into the mile 3 aid station, I glanced at my watch and noticed my race time was somewhere around 22 minutes. I was not only making decent time, but I felt pretty darn comfortable while doing it.

I decided to see if I could maintain a nice cruising speed, and spent the next several miles enjoying the gently rolling terrain, keeping a steady 7:10-7:20 pace while pulling aside every so often to take pictures. I was feeling great, and didn’t feel the need to push the pace any further …

… until I was framing this picture at the 8-mile mark, and guess who should pass me? Other Vibram Guy! I knew that there were only about 40 other runners ahead of me, and I was reasonably certain that none of them were wearing Vibrams - which meant that I had a challenger for the title of First Vibram Guy. Sure, it's not quite as prestigious as an age group award, but it seemed like a pretty cool thing to brag about afterwards. All of a sudden, I had a race on my hands.

(Note: I also couldn’t claim to be the First Down and Back Guy for the day: that honor went to my friend Andrew, who smoked a 1:21 half marathon after running early with me. Have I mentioned that he’s a great training partner to have?)

I picked up my pace a bit and surged past Other Vibram Guy, but I couldn’t ever build a good cushion in front of him …

… partially because I kept stopping every so often to take pictures, like at this strawberry aid station. We all know where I stand on strawberries , right? Needless to say, this was one of the highlights of the course.

Somehow, even with the picture taking, I maintained a narrow advantage in the First Vibram Guy category … and nearing mile 11, I closed in on my friend Mike, the co-author of my Monterey Herald column. Soon I was in First Herald Columnist position as well; the day was looking up!

Mile 13: pretty fields, tired legs, pounding chest. I was working hard, and this part didn’t feel so great … but I knew it was a temporary inconvenience …

… because the finish line was right around the bend in the road. There were a lot more people here than the first time through, and I was way more than twice as happy to be here.

I crossed the line with a race time of 1:35 and change, and headed straight for the post-race area at Pessagno winery , which was loaded with everything a tired runner could ask for. Bagels, fruit, drinks, beer, music, massages …

… and a Jamba Juice booth! Complete with a guitar-playing banana, and free smoothies for all runners. I was in Jamba heaven.

Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time I had seen the banana guy; sometimes during the week he stands outside a Jamba Juice store on Main Street in Salinas and spends a couple of hours hollering, jumping around, and acting like a complete maniac.

So of course I had to get my picture with him. You’ve got to admire that kind of enthusiasm.

Given that we were at a winery, it made perfect sense to hand out wine glasses to each finisher along with their race shirt and goody bag. The only disappointing part was when the volunteer asked me what size I wanted and it took me a second to realize she was talking about shirts, not wine glasses. Because an XL of each would have been sweeeet.

Truthfully, there wasn’t anything about the morning that could have gone better for me; by the time I returned to the car I had knocked out a nice long run in the beautiful Salinas Valley, discovered a competitive spark that I wasn’t really expecting, and felt quite comfortable while logging more than 28 miles on my new Vibrams.

(As for how the Bikilas performed, stay tuned - I’ll have a brief update in my next post.)

It was the kind of day that makes you love being a runner – especially one in the beautiful Salinas Valley.

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