Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sustain the Pain: Ellerbe Marathon 2015

Last year, I ran the Ellerbe Marathon and had loads of fun.  It was six days after I had run--and blown up at--Wrightsville Beach.  This small, rural race was very old-school, like many of the other events hosted by the vaunted Mangum Track Club.  The field was small, the atmosphere was homey and friendly, and there was homemade chicken and dumplings waiting for all runners at the finish.  In a way, it's the complete opposite of big city Rock 'n Roll Marathons with expensive entry fees, retail-driven sponsorship and expos, and tens of thousands of runners.  I had such a great time that I vowed to come back and patronize such an awesome race.
A brief word on the course: Ellerbe is an all-road marathon, but it is very hilly and pastoral.  Far hillier, in fact, than any of the routes my local running group frequents.  The course is one large, beautifully orchestrated loop that starts and ends at a small, cinder-block constructed church, and somehow works out to be a certified 26.2 mile distance and Boston qualifier.  Few runners would seek out this course as a target BQ.  The long, relentlessly rolling hills make it very difficult for fast times.  It's futile to count all of the hills, but the most notable of them are at miles 9, 16, and pretty much all of the last 5 miles.  There are some equally dramatic downhills to zap the quads too, so it's an equal opportunities leg-crusher kind of a race.
Having completed my focus marathon goal back in October, I originally intended to run Ellerbe as a fun run like the year before.  However, after having some great races and workouts as of late, I decided to run hard and be competitive.  That never seems to take a lot of convincing for me.  The weather was less than desirable, but not all bad: chilly rain that varied from light, broken drizzles to cloud-bursting downfalls.  So chafing, blisters, and soggy shoes were in the back of runners' minds, but at least the cooler temperature wouldn't bake us late in the race.
And we're off!  I led the race for about 10 feet (bib #71).

We lined up at the start a few hundred feet from the church, and Mark Long gave an informal briefing, recognized some race veterans, and joined us in thanking the generous volunteers.  With a casual "on your mark, get set, go," we were underway.  I shot out with five or six other runners that comprised the front row and fell into a comfortable marathon pace.  The first two miles are the only consistently flat part of the course, so it was easy to dial in a pace and see how I felt.  Brian Kistner--a four time winner of this race--shot out way ahead after the first few meters.  I settled in with a tightly locked chase pack that included Rich Riopel (winner of Hinson Lake 24-Hour Classic), Levi Vanuga, Charles Bruchard, and Aaron Loder.  Everyone seemed content to let Brian gain ground for the time being.  We spent those first couple of miles shuffling positions but always staying locked together.  As we turned off the main road into the side streets of the small town of Ellerbe, Levi and Charles began to break off and give chase to Brian.  Aaron, Rich, and I stayed together not far behind and observed while maintaining a very consistent low-7s pace.
Brian (foreground) takes and early lead.  From left, Charles and Levi start to give chase, while Aaron, Rich, and I stay clustered together.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Spradlin.
Moments later, Rich (left) and I wave to photographer Kevin Spradlin.
After the easy first few miles, the course began to roll and things began to shake up among the lead packs.  After a long downhill, Brian had opened up over a minute on us, and Levi and Charles were about halfway between him and my pack.  Levi was looking to move up.  By mile 5, in the middle of the first real uphill, we could see in through the rainy gloom that Levi had taken the lead from Brian.  Charles was holding his own in a no-man's land.  Rich and I were still shoulder-to-shoulder, and Aaron was in contact, but drifting behind.  At a break in the terrain near the second water stop at mile 6, Rich made his move.  He broke away decisively and caught up with Charles in the space of less than a mile.  Our pace group had disintegrated, and the leaders were beyond view, but we were all still very aware of one another.  Between miles 6 and 9, the terrain rolls a bit more and trends uphill, with one significant climb in the 9th mile.  Here is where I started to gain some ground on Charles.  He would pull away a little bit on the downhills and I would reel him in on the uphills.  There were more and more uphills, so I was closing.
Me chasing down Charles.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Spradlin.

I was 10 seconds behind Charles when we reached the third aid station at mile 9.  We shared three or four miles together after I caught him.  Charles was running strong, but he admittedly was having a hard time with the hills.
On this part of the course, between miles 9-13, there were some of the best views last year, including one spot before a downhill plunge where you could see pretty much all of Richmond County.  This year, all of those views were shrouded in fog.  We were running through a cloud.  We even lost sight of Rich ahead of us, and we would not see him again.  I hit 13.1 miles in 1:33 and change, which I thought was a great split for this course, albeit a little reckless.  The second half would be hillier and harder.  I ran through the halfway aid station and settled in for the most challenging climb of the course.
Mile 14.5 is one of the lowest elevations on the course, and mile 16 is the highest point.  In fact, it's the highest point in Richmond County.  Naturally, between those two points is 11-12 minutes of hell.  I recalled this climb from the previous year, but it was worse than I remembered.  It's just one of those that goes on forever and gets steeper along the way.  You turn a corner only to see more up, up, up.  I was relieved to finally see the aid station at the top of the hill and grab a quick cup of water, but I was surprised by the unexpected ice in the water that nearly choked me as I took a swig.  Race photojournalist Kevin Spradlin snapped some shots and let me know that I was two minutes behind the runner ahead of me.  Was is Rich, Brian, or Levi?  Hopefully, time would tell.  I really wanted to get a top 3 podium spot, but with 10 miles left in the race, I would need to gain 12 seconds per mile on the third place runner.  And that was just to catch him at the finish.  I would have to do even better if I wanted to secure that spot with any confidence.  Although I was tired from the long hill, I still felt like I had the gas to keep the pressure on for those last 10 miles, so I pushed on.
Me taking a much needed drink...
...and spitting out some surprising ice cubes.  Photos by Kevin Spradlin
I turned over my legs to shake out the brickish feeling from the climb and chased an invisible runner.  Long before I had expected, Brian appeared before me.  I had cut into that two minute gap a bit, but he was not giving ground easily.  For at least 20 minutes, it seemed as if I was gaining no further ground on Brian.  I reminded myself that there was plenty of race left and to be patient.  In 2014, I passed no fewer than a half-dozen runners on the final, uphill five miles, and I was hoping that might be my window of opportunity this year too.
As we passed the infamous dog pen (meeting place of the traditional MTC shirt run)at mile 21, I noticed I was finally gaining on Brian.  We had just 5 miles left, and they were pretty much all uphill.  There were not many discernible landmarks, but when I saw an odd branch or rock on the side of the road, I used it to time the gap between the two of us.  It was less than a minute and closing steadily.  I finally caught up to Brian shortly after the last turn of the course onto Grassy Island Road, just over 3 miles from the finish line.  He was visibly tired, but so was I.  I focused on grinding out the remaining hills to try and build on my lead and protect my 3rd place position, but I could still hear Brian's faint footfalls on the wet asphalt for quite some time.  He was still very much a threat.
Grassy Island Road took one final downhill dip with about 1.5 miles left in the race before a last, agonizing climb.  The 8th and final aid station was at the bottom of this dip, and I bypassed it for want of saving every precious second.  30 seconds later, I risked a glance back, and Brian was running through the water stop.  It would be very hard for him to catch me, but he certainly could if I didn't keep charging, and I was nearing the end of my rope.  I glanced at my watch, which was just ticking over the 3-hour mark, and I realized I had a chance at a sub-3:10 (a BQ) if I just sustained the pain.  Originally, I thought it would be cool to get a 3:14:15 (for Pi Day on 3/14/15...you know), but a BQ on this course, while not needed, would be a much more fulfilling accomplishment.
Those last 9 minutes were sheer agony.  I was trying to hold off Brian while racing the emotionless, tireless clock.  When the church and the finish line came into view, I mustered as much of a kick as I could, but the result was not any perceivable acceleration.  The finish line just seemed to float there without getting any closer.  The eternity eventually passed and I found myself resting my hands on my knees while Mark Long draped a medal on me.  I finished in 3:09:22.  Brian finished 40 seconds later; I didn't even notice him cross the line.
The finish.  Full suffer mode. Photo by Kevin Spradlin.

Levi held on for the win in 3:00:26, and Rich finished strong with a 3:03:xx.  Chad Randolph, who was my ride and compatriot, finished in 8th place with 3:44, second in his age group.  Fellow DARTers David Moore, Sarah Ferris, and Joe London had good-but-tough races too, but just missed the homemade pottery age group awards.  Man, this race was tough!  But I love it, and odds are I'll be back again next year with some other loyal DARTers.  Run Reckless!
From left: Chad, Sarah, David, me, and Joe.  Go DART!
Kevin Spradlin wrote a recap of the race for the PeeDee Post that can be seen here.
My Strava data can be accessed here.
Enjoy!










Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Charlotte 10-Miler Recap: Truly Running Reckless

10 miles had always been something of a cursed distance for me.  Before last weekend's Charlotte 10-miler, I had registered for three 10-mile races and had to DNS all of them, either due to scheduling or inclement weather cancellations.  The first time I ever attempted to run 10 miles in a training run five years ago, I became sidelined with my first ever running injury.  From then on, even when I trained for my first marathon many months later, I would avoid the 10-mile distance.  I would run 8 or 12 miles, but not 10.  I needed to break the curse, and this year's Charlotte 10-miler was my chance. 
When I registered for the race, I figured it would be good, long workout.  However, after having some better-than-expected finishes at the half marathon and 10k distances, and some promising mid-week speed workouts, I came upon race day feeling fast and competitive.  At first, I set an arbitrary goal of 65 minutes.  Then, after checking with the McMillan Pace Calculator and using my recent race times, I found that 64:40-65:00 was right in my expected range.
The weather was what I like to call "trans-freezing (below freezing at the start; above freezing by the end)."  I historically race well in those temperatures, so I was content.  After warming up, I stripped down to a thin singlet and arm sleeves while most of the field wore tights and long-sleeved tops.  I knew I wouldn't feel the cold after a few minutes.  Many familiar faces were at the event.  Running the 4-miler were Sketchers Performance Rep Chris Lamperski, Charlotte area Running/Triathlon Coach Kelly Fillnow, and fellow DARTer Tara Owens.  Fellow 10-milers included morning running pals Hope and Michelle (mPod), Roberta Villnef (who is always a threat to win a masters or grand masters award), Chris Joakim, John Richards, Charlotte's most famous "wrunner (writer-runner)" Theoden Janes, Richard Hefner, early morning training buddy Kristy-Ann Joyce, female elite Meg Hovis, and fellow Reckless Running brand ambassador Bobby Aswell.  I love races with friends!
The race kicked off and I immediately fell into a smooth rhythm.  I glanced at my pace, willing myself to slow down to a mid-6s pace as the front-runners strung out ahead of me.  A long hill in the first mile helped to regulate the pace and thin out the herd a bit.  I counted heads; I was 13th or 14th once the positions had settled.  As always, I was shooting for  top-10 finishing spot (and maybe an age group award), but there was a lot of race left, and I usually make my moves late, as long as I don't do anything stupid early on.
I reached the first mile marker at 6:28, which was about as fast as I wanted to go for the whole race.  I was behind the then first place female (named Jessica), when Meg Hovis passed me with a fixed gaze on her.  "Go get'er, Meg," I urged.  Not long after, Will Isenhour (another common Charlotte racer) passed me but stayed in arm's reach.  Jessica, Meg, Will, and I formed a tacit pace group that would feed off each other for the majority of the race.  When we hit the second mile marker at 12:48, a 6:20 split, I could tell we were only going to get faster.
The next couple of miles were on the flat, arboreal McAlpine Creek Greenway.  The hard-packed dirt was a great surface on which to run, and trading places with the other three runners like a pack of Tour de France cyclists kept me running ever faster than I had planned.  When we emerged from the greenway and did a lollipop loop around a residential section, we got to see most of the field coming out from whence we came.  It was only then that I realized just how many people were running this race.  I later found out it was close to 700 runners.  I saw Chris J., Hope and mPod, Roberta, and several other folks cheering me on as I chased Meg, Jessica, and Will back down into the next, long section of greenway.
I passed the mile 5 marker at 31:40ish, which was faster than my 8k PR.  I was still feeling smooth and fast, but I couldn't help but think that the pace was a bit reckless.  Our group gobbled up a few other runners on the greenway, and each pass gave me a jolt of confidence that no doubt edged my pace faster each time.  Jessica and Will were still with us, but they were starting to lag behind.  Meg was determined to hold on to her 1st place female spot, so she kept the pace up.  I stayed on her shoulder so we could continue to work together.  We breezed through the 6th mile marker in 38 minutes and the 7th in under 44:30.  Generally, it's a good day when I race a 10k in under 40 minutes, and I had just done so by quite a lot in the middle of a 10 mile race.  After the 7th mile at sub-6:20 pace, I decided that there was no use slowing down.  I would just have to continue the reckless pace until I either blew up or finished the race.
"I'm going to push it for 8 miles and then just try to survive," Meg joked.  She was alluding to the infamous hill in the 9th mile, which gains 100 feet of elevation in under 800 meters.  When we got to the base of the hill, I pulled ahead.  As Meg drifted back, I shouted back to encourage her.  The climb sucked.  I resisted looking at my watch.  Each time I turned onto a different block, I was hoping to see the top of the hill, but no, it just kept going up.  For the first time in the race, I was having a hard time maintaining a rhythm.
After I reached the top of the hill, there was one straight, fast mile left.  It took me a minute to find my turnover again, but when I did, I let it out in a long, 1600 meter kick.  I could hear Meg's footfalls faintly behind me.  I wasn't competing with Meg directly, but I didn't want to get chicked in the last mile either.  I ran my last mile in under 6 minutes (which was aided by a very gradual downhill), and when the finish line came into view, I found another gear and ran the last 200 meters in about 35 seconds.  I watched the LED gun clock go from 1:02:59 to 1:03:00 seconds before I finished.  My official time was 1:03:06.  I had beaten my goal by nearly two minutes!  Lamperski was there to congratulate me and take my picture after I finished.  I was 8th overall and 2nd in my age group; right about where I was shooting to be.
Me after a fast finish and a very happily destroyed goal.

I donned my sweats so I wouldn't get chilled and went out on a cool-down run with my phone so I could snap some pictures of my friends.  Hope and mPod finished well, Roberta and Richard won their age groups, and Bobby, Theoden, and I each got age group awards.  Kristy-Ann demolished her expectations, which is a great note to go into her peak marathon phase for her race in three weeks.  Meg finished a few seconds after me and was the 1st overall female.  Lamperski destroyed the 4-mile race in an unfathomable 21:35, which was 90 seconds ahead of the 2nd place finisher.  Kelly Fillnow won the overall women's 4-miler, and Tara Owens won her age group.
Hope and mPod were a little too perky for the last mile of the race...

Technically, this was my 10-mile race debut.  But in this 10-miler, I set unofficial PRs for 8k and 15k, and I ran my 3rd best 10k, but since there were no officially timed splits for those distances, they don't count.  I plugged my results into the McMillan Pace Calculator, and my 10-mile time rendered far faster race predictions for all other distances from 1-mile to marathon than I had done.  Therefore, when distance and pace are taken into account, this 10-mile race technically was my best race performance to date.  Curse be damned!  Sometimes it pays to Run Reckless!

You can find my Suunto GPS data here.
Fun times with mPod and Hope.


Roberta won her age group.  Doesn't she look happy?

Bobby and me.  Reckless Running represents with AG awards.



Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Battered, Broken, and Beaten," or "A Fun Race at Uwharrie!"

I had never run at Uwharrie before.  I once had aspirations of doing the Uwharrie Mountain Run (UMR) 40-miler, but it always seemed to fill up before I could get in (before they switched to a lottery).  However, since Umstead a couple of years ago, I've been focusing a lot more on sub-ultra distances, particularly when trails are concerned.  I figured the 20-miler would be right in my wheelhouse to provide a nice, competitive challenge.  After last weekend's UMR20, I'm officially thankful I never got into the 40.
Packet pickup.  Photo courtesy of Dave Munger

The day could not have been more perfect for a long trail race.  It had been at least a few days since the last rainfall, and the temperature at the start was slated to be right around freezing.  Dave Munger and I carpooled to Uwharrie National Forest since he was running the 8 mile option, which would start an hour after my race.  The 40-milers would have an hour head start on me.  Having only heard stories about the trails at Uwharrie, my plan was to run fairly conservatively--harder than a leisurely mountain run at Crowders Mountain State Park, but not nearly pushing the pace as much as I would at the Whitewater Center.  I had heard that a good effort for the 20-miler should yield a time fairly close to one's typical road marathon results, so I set a lofty goal of being as close to 3 hours as possible.  That goal would prove to be lofty.
The elevation chart for UMR20.  It appears to be a cartoonish exaggeration, but it feels accurate when actually rinning the course!

Since I had heard that he first mile is something of a bottleneck (understatement), I toed the line fairly close to the front so I wouldn't be caught behind too many people.  At the start, I eased into position somewhere in the top 15 or 20 runners out of about 150.  There were about 50 meters of road before hitting the trail, which went immediately straight up on rocky, technical single-track.  I had to watch every step while maintaining a steady and consistent climbing pace.  I wasn't going to win the race here; I just had to low gear it to the top of this first mountain in the first mile.  Each subsequent switchback gave way to more rocky footing and more steep climbing.  I took my first walk break about 1/2 mile into the race.  The first and second females loped past me, continuing to run all the way up the hill and out of view.  I ignored them and walked for a good 100 or so meters.  Already, I was regretting registering for this race.
When I finally got to the top, about a mile in, I was pleased to find some relatively smooth running trail.  I should stress "relatively," because so much of this entire course is rocky, rutted, or steeply rolling.  I settled into my long-haul pace and ignored the runners that were widening the gap ahead of me.  I convinced myself that I'd probably catch up to at least some of them later in the race.  The initial long climb led to the inevitable long descent, so I tried to relax and not bomb the downhills too hard like I normally would do.  There was a lot of race left, and a lot of ups and downs still to come.
That's how the race continued for a while: a hard, steep climb followed by a treacherous downhill, the occasional upward glance to spot the white blazes on the trees to make sure I was on course, and the occasional trip, toe-stub, or all-out fall.  I didn't tumble on the obtrusive rock outcroppings or the downed trees on the trail; I more often stumbled on the less technical parts due to complacency and lack of concentration.  It took a lot of focus and brain energy to stay on trail and upright for the duration of the race.
About 5 or so miles into the race, I started seeing the back of the pack for the 40-mile racing field.  I didn't envy these tough bastards.  I already was struggling with the terrain, and they had a much longer day ahead of them.  Or perhaps they were smarter for approaching these trails slowly and carefully and I was the dumbass for trying to run hard.  Nonetheless, it was heartening to start seeing other runners on the trail, and trading greetings and encouragement beats staring at an empty trail ahead of you.
A couple hours into the race, as I neared the 13 mile aid station, I came upon my friend Jason Rose, who was running the 40.  He looked very relaxed--he wasn't even breathing through his mouth yet.  I hadn't expected to catch up to Jason at this point, but I later learned that he had been fighting illness in the week prior to the race, so he was running very smartly to have been looking as good as he was.  By this time, I was seeing many 40-milers, and I was gradually advancing through the front of the 20-mile field as well, one by one.  I continued to trip and fall, and I got lost a couple of times, but luckily, I was trading positions back and forth with a more experienced UMR20 racer--also named Jason.  It made me feel better that Jason was as turned around as I was.  Being from Boone, Jason was no stranger to the elevation challenges of the course, so I doubt he walked a single step of the course.  I ran almost the whole thing too, but there was a combined total of probably about a 1/2 mile that I walked over the 20-mile course.  Jason also stopped at all the aid stations, whereas I was self-supported with my gear vest and stopped at none.  So we traded places back and forth all day, using each other as motivators.
Miles 15-16 were the real crux of the 20 mile race.  There were many stream fords throughout the course, but the largest water crossing was three fourths of the way through.  This one was 4-5 strides across, with water up to the knees.  I dashed through it and hoped for some refreshment, but instead I profanely screamed "F*** me, that's cold!"
"refreshing..."

My shoes had drained of most of the moisture by the time I reached the last long hill--there would be plenty more short climbs--of the 20.  Boone Jason had warned me about this in our ongoing, mid-race banter, as had the Somewhat Legendary Ultra Runner (SLUR) Jeff McGonnell.  I settled into a low gear jog for the long climb.  After 2.5 hours of hard trail running, I knew I would not be able to run the whole hill, so I threw in some brisk hiking.  I passed and greeted SLUR Jeff about halfway up the hill.  Jeff was looking good on the climb.  He informed me that I was in 10th place and not far back from #9.  Later, I would find out from Jeff that a couple of other 20-milers behind me overheard him and started gunning for me after that tidbit so seek a top 10 spot.
I reached the top of the hill at a reasonable pace, but it took a lot out of me, even with the walking breaks.  With the worst of the race behind me, I just had to keep moving forward at a consistent pace.  That consistent pace was taking a lot more energy to maintain than it had a couple of hours prior.  I was feeling the aches and pains of overused stabilizer muscles (from the uneven terrain), bruised feet and joints (from various tumbles), and rubbery quads (from treacherously rapid descents).  I knew that the worst of the pain wouldn't arrive until the following day, so there was no point in dwelling on it presently.  I focused on my form and the trail ahead of me.  I caught a few more 20-milers in the last couple of  miles, but Jason eventually caught me and passed me, leaving me in 8th position.  I sensed the 9th place runner sometime during the last mile, and he steadily was advancing.  I didn't know who could have been behind him, and I wanted to maintain my top 10 ranking, so I surged to a pace I thought I could hold for the remainder of the last mile.
It was enough.  I finished in 8th place, 6 seconds ahead of my pursuer.  Less than a minute separated Jason (7th overall) and the first female (10th overall), so I certainly had people knocking on my door.  I was glad to hold them at bay, but I was even happier to be done!  I finished with a 3:14:03, which I think is very respectable on that terrain.  I was more tired and battered than I had been after any marathon, and after some ultras.  Katie Rose was at the finish (which was that halfway point for her husband Jason) and was able to snap a decent photo of me crossing the line.  She congratulated me and inquired about the race, but I had a hard time conversing with her without being doubled over with my hands on my knees.
An exhausted me crossing the 20-mile finish line.  Photo by Katie Rose.

I had a small collection of scrapes and bruises, and now that my body had stopped running, it didn't really want to start again.  Still, I count myself luckier than most.  Dave took a pretty bad spill in the first mile of his race (after climbing the same initial hill).  When he arrived at the 20-mile finish to pick me up, he already had changed, but he later shared a photo of his bloody knee.  Even worse, he badly pulled a glute muscle that has sidelined his running for the better part of a week.
Dave's bloody knee.  This wound proved to be relatively superficial, but the fall took an unfortunate toll for Dave.

 Jason Rose maintained his steady pace to finish the 40-miler with a smile on his face.  SLUR Jeff finished the 40 in just over 9:50, after a 15-minute loss of time due to some on-the-trail, DIY shoe surgery with a borrowed pocketknife at mile 23.  Ron Garsik, another fellow DARTer, finished the 40 in a fast 8:35--a 40 minute course PR for him.  I have profound respect for these and all of the other 40-milers.  I like to consider myself a decent, slightly competitive ultra runner, but I don't see a UMR40 attempt anytime soon for me.  UMR20 left me battered, broken, and beaten enough for one day.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

January 2015: "Ain't No Rest For The Wicked."

January was supposed to be a "down month" for me.  After having finished my focus races in the last months of 2014, I was looking forward to an easy month before gearing up for Uwharrie 20 and Ellerbe Marathon this February and March, respectively.  So much for that!  January 1st was the fourth annual Tightwad 5k, which is a tradition of which I love to partake.  The 10th was the Joe Davis Memorial 10k + 5k.  I had been looking to improve my 10k PR for a while, so I figured this might me a good opportunity.  Then, on the 17th was the CRC Trail Race 13-miler, which is a perennial favorite of mine.  So with the month a little more than half over, I had three races on the calendar.  Some down month.
Tightwad 5k:
This event is kind of like a DART family reunion.  A bunch of local friends all show up, tired from the New Years Eve shenanigans, ready to go out for an unsanctioned (but somehow officially timed) race to run in the new year.  I had planned to treat this free race as a workout.  A sub-19 would be fabulous.  However, with talk of some serious competition coming to race--namely my old DURT teammates Dave, Stan, and Bobby A.--I decided I had to bring some heat.  Dave dropped out before the race to play it safe with a dodgy hamstring.  Bobby, though predictably unpredictable, would be running with his daughter Nicole, so I figured I'd be safe from him.  Stan was a threat.  To add to the pot, fellow DARTer Dustin came strolling up to join on race morning and made his intentions quite clear.  Dustin had been following the rivalry between me and Sam.  He clearly wanted in on the action.  Suddenly, I had a feeling that there were cross-hairs on me.  Great.
Having run countless 5k races on this course, I knew how to play to the terrain: bang out the first mile fast to milk as much out of the long downhill on South Street, try not to lose too much time coming back uphill on Avinger, then open it up after the turnaround on Pine for the last uphill-to-flat mile.  With a traditional lack of ceremony, Chad gave us the go, and out I went, shoulder-to-shoulder with Dustin for the length of the South Street descent.  He was going out hard just like I was, but we heard nothing from the field behind us.  I tucked in behind Dustin as we turned onto the greenway and drifted ahead of him about 100 meters later.  He was running in my pocket, literally within arm's reach.  I cautioned about the slickness of the wooden bridge and called out our first mile split (5:51).  He acknowledged both with ragged, single-syllable responses.  As long as he was feeling more winded than me, that was fine.
I grunted my way up the hill on Avinger, and Dustin's footfalls became quieter behind me.  It wasn't until I made my way to the turnaround shortly before the 2-mile mark (or where it would've been if those tightwads had put a mile marker out) that I had an idea of where Dustin, Stan, and the rest of the field were.  Dustin was about 10 seconds behind me, and Stan was maybe 15 seconds behind him.  All I had to do was kick out the last mile fast, and it was likely that I would start 2015 off with a win.  So that's what I did.  I ran up Pine without looking back, and I surged after turning on Lorimer in order to put as much space as possible between Dustin and me before he made the turn.  I was still against the clock though.  If I was to break 19, I had to keep the pressure on for the length of Lorimer.  My last quarter mile or so ended up being just as fast as my first downhill mile.  I broke the (imaginary) tape at 18:54 with an overall win.  Happy New Year!  Dustin came in about 20 seconds later, and Stan followed him by 10 seconds.  Since Dustin was a bandit, Stan was the official 2nd place finisher.  Stan's wife Jinnie was the first (official) female as well...pushing a baby jogger!  Dustin congratulated me, but for some reason, I think he still has me on his hit list.
Happy New Year!  First race = first win of 2015.  Picture courtesy of Chad Randolph

Joe Davis Memorial 10k + 5k:
I rode down to Fort Mill, SC with Bobby and his daughter Nicole.  Nicole was doing the 5k, but Bobby and I planned to do the 10k and the 5k.  Since they started at 8am and 9:15 respectively, racing both was an option.  It was a cold 19 degrees at the start.  The field for the 10k was large and competitive.  Charlotte running friend Mark K. was there, and I expected him to be leading the pack with a 36 minute finish.  Also present were high school twins Jared and Jacob C., who just plain looked fast.  From scanning the crowd, I figured I'd be doing well to finish in the top ten.  The goal, of course, was to PR and go sub-39.
This was be a tough course for the task.  After the race, I later would hear from another Charlotte friend (Rob), that there were 57 turns.  That's significantly more turns than most city marathons have. One section near mile 1 (zoomed in satellite image below) took us off the road, turning sharply down a coarse gravel path,turning even more sharply towards a short tunnel to the other side of the road, then sharply turning a couple more times before coming back up to the other side of the road.  To add insult to injury, we had to do the same section again in reverse during mile 3.  In addition, the course was full of rolling hills and very little flat.  It would prove difficult to find and maintain a rhythm on this course.
Seriously?

Once we got underway, I never really noticed the cold.  A lead pack with Mark, Jared, Jacob, and a couple other contenders broke off and clearly would be out of reach.  I stayed within a strung-out grouping that comprised the rest of the top ten.  There was very little passing throughout the race.  My position in the first mile was pretty close to my finishing order.  There's very little I can recall about this race.  Most of what I remember is: turn, turn, climb, descend, turn, climb, turn, descend, ad nauseum.  I did however find a rhythm.  According to my GPS data, I kept pretty even splits.  So even though the course was twisty and hilly, it was consistently twisty and hilly.  I was running sub-6:15 pace and waiting for my lungs and legs to give out, but they held on.  I crossed the line at 38:40, accomplishing my goal and setting a long overdue 10k PR.  9th overall, second in a 10-year age group.
Somewhere in the first mile of the 10k.  Picture courtesy of Bill Weimer.

The real duty for the day was done, so I had no expectations for the 5k.  I'd still run hard, but I had no time goal.  After shaking out my legs with Nicole before the start, I was feeling surprisingly good; the soreness from the 10k had not had time to set in.  After a quick start and a few dozen people shooting out ahead of me, I felt rather comfortable at a 6:10ish pace, so I figured I've give sub-19 a shot.  I at least wanted to match or beat my pace from the 10k (6:13).  I passed a couple dozen runners in the first mile and continued to pick them off intermittently for the rest of the race.  Since the 5k course was pretty much the last 3 miles of the 10k course, it was still fresh in my mind, and the race seemed to go by quickly. At around 2 miles, I pulled into 7th place before being passed by a lanky 20-something who settled in about 5 seconds ahead of me.  I tied a mental rope around him and let him tow me for the last mile.  He faltered in the last 200 meters, and even though he saw me advancing on him quickly, he made no attempt to keep ahead of me.  I passed him to regain 7th place 50 meters from the finish.  The course was short (2.95 miles by my GPS), but I finished in 18:17, which would have played out to around 19:10 if I had maintained that pace for a true 5k distance.  But I won my age group, so I left the event with some decent swag!
Reckless Running Brand Ambassadors, unite!  Me, Nicole, and Bobby after a fun day of racing.  Nicole won her age group in the 5k too.

CRC Whitewater 13 Mile Trail Race
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I love this race!  Each year, I think I might take a break from it, or opt for the shorter 9-mile or 4-mile options the following year, but like Don Corleone, I always get sucked back in!
Every time I think about not doing the CRC Trail 13-miler...

One of the benefits to having done this race so much is that I remembered all the important parts of the complex trail course.  The first third was hard and fairly technical; the middle was the hardest due to relentless climbs and highly technical switchbacks; and the final third was the most tame--a good place to throw on some speed if you have any energy left.
I decided to run the whole race by feel.  I covered my watch with my arm sleeve and never peeked at it for the duration of the race.  I kept the lead pack within view for the first mile, before we got into the thick of the black diamond trail on the North end of the park.  As was with previous years, the first couple of trail miles were rife with calculated steps and aggressive, opportunistic passes.  It took a lot of brain energy to maintain good footing while trying not to get stuck behind other runners for long stretches of single track, losing precious seconds on the leaders.  I emerged from the North Main in what I thought was a favorable position.  I continued to pass runners here and there.  I resolved to pick my battles for this race; I was willing to use energy to pass people, but if someone tried to pass me, I wouldn't fight it.  As it turned out, no one passed me for the duration of the race, which makes this year unique among all the years I've run it.
About 5 miles in, the 13ers split off from the 9ers for an extra 500 meter loop while before rejoining the main trail (on which the 9ers had continued straight).  This allowed a few of the 9ers who had been behind me to be in front of me, which meant I had to make more passes in order to keep up my intended pace/effort.  I nearly busted my ass trying to get around my training buddy, AB.  He barked out some words of encouragement as I tried to open up some distance.  Hopefully, he and the other 9er with whom he was running would serve as a blocker for any other pursuing 13ers.
Before I knew it, we came upon Goat Hill, the longest sustained climb of the race.  Grunting through the switchbacks, I slowed to what seemed like a crawl.  I might have gone faster by walking, but I just kept picking up the knees and driving.  After three-and-a-half minutes of slogging, I turned at the top and tried to maintain my balance during a twisty descent on rubbery legs.  The climbing wasn't over.  The trail spat us out onto a muddy hill in the open, and I had to make my way back up to the top.  At least I could see some of the racers ahead of me in this exposed section.  Another treacherous descent ensued, and I made my way through the Carpet Trail to the Toilet Bowl.  This technical section was strewn with sharp turns and relentless climbs and descents that were just plain punishing after having exerting myself on Goat Hill.
The refreshingly pleasant Lake Loop made up the final third of the race.  Although I had been running quite hard and was feeling a little beaten up, I resolved to pick up the pace and finally find a rhythm on these last few scenic miles.  In years past, the front of the field had been so strung out that I likely would not see anyone near me on the trails at this point.  This year, I passed a couple of front-runners who were zapped from the 10+ miles of hard trail running already under foot.  At around 12 miles (there were no mile markers, and I had no reference of time), I came upon Cory Sundeen, who usually beats me handily at most local races.  He had looked so strong charging up hills in the beginning of the race, but now he made no retaliation to me passing him.  For the rest of the race, I just focused on keeping the tempo up and creating space.  When I broke out into the open on my way to the finish, I noticed some 9ers ahead of me.  Even though they were not competing with me, they served as a great visual cue to keep me pushing all the way to the finish.
I crossed the finish line at 1:38:25, which I thought was a pretty respectable time after not having checked my watch during the race.  Maybe I was in the top fifteen, or top ten on a good day.  As it turns out, it was a very good day; I was in fourth place!  That was good enough for first in my age group, and it was the best finish yet in the four years I had done this race and distance.  Next year, if they pull me back in, maybe I'll shoot for the podium!
1st age, 4th overall!  And I'm spent.


Monday, December 15, 2014

A Score to Settle: Huntersville Half Recap

"Revenge is a dish best served cold"
-Old Klingon proverb

It was a cold morning on race day for the Huntersville Half.  Good.  The chilly air would keep the senses sharp and the risk of overheating low.  I was on a mission this day, and I woke up with a fiery determination that I only bring to the most serious races.  This was my last focus race of the year, and even though I had accomplished many running goals this year, this race arguably was the most important.  My mission was to vindicate myself for the humbling defeat I suffered at the hands of my Nemesis, Sam Mishler, at The Scream! Half Marathon this Summer.  The air was cold, but the fire in my veins was burning hot.  
The Nemesis and I saw one another before the race and did a few warm-up miles together.  The mood was friendly and lighthearted; the real business would not begin until race time.  Dozens of our running friends had shown up, some to run the race, others to bear witness to the legendary face-off that was to ensue.  Had this been a pay-per-view event, we might have rivaled the latest Mayweather fight for viewers.
My custom made "BEAT SAM" shirt.

Electricity was in the air as Nemesis and I toed the line.  Other training partners--Dennis Livesay, Jeremy Alsop, Matt Cline--and very fast Charlotte area runners were up at the front with us.  As RD Bear Robinson blasted the air horn, we took off too fast.  At least a dozen runners were ahead of us, and the natural reaction was to keep them in reach, but the rational thing to do was to let them go and focus on our own race.  So we backed off, but not by much.  Nemesis was in front of me, but I was running in his pocket.  I was close enough to tap him on the shoulder, but I chose to stay right behind him, let him set the pace for the time being, and make sure he could hear the proximity of my footfalls.  I consciously monitored my breathing to make sure it was smooth and rhythmic.  Again, this was for Nemesis to hear; I wanted him to think I was running effortlessly.  
My plan for the race was simple.  There were three main elements.  First, I wanted to get in Sam's head and stay there.  Anytime he could see me, hear me, or be aware of me, I had to make it appear as if I had more in the tank than he.  Second, I had to avoid making the race about the hills.  Sam is a strong hill runner, and the course was hilly, so I had to keep us from playing to his strong suit.  The third part was the tricky part.  After the Scream!, Sam had mentioned that the downhill course had battered his body, but it wasn't overly taxing on the cardio.  So for this race, I had to find that sweet-spot of a pace that was just uncomfortable enough to be beyond his reach for 13.1 miles.  If I locked in on that, I just had to outlast him. 
We passed through the first mile at around 6:18, which was too fast.  "That was stupid," said Nemesis.  I agreed.  From time to time, I would pull up alongside him or drift in front.  Usually, he would quick-step and get back in front of me.  I was content to let this happen.  That was more energy he was using.  When we passed through the mile 2 mark at 13 minutes on the dot, I heard Sam mutter something to the effect of "right on" under his breath.  I smiled.  "Uh-oh," he said, "did I just give away my plan?"  So that's how it was going to be...if I had to run 6:30 pace for 13 miles, so be it.  I was ready.  Was he?
Dennis caught up to us and overtook us shortly after the 2nd mile mark.  "You guys shot off like a rocket," he remarked.  Nemesis and I exchange tacit looks.  We both knew that if it took Dennis--who was markedly faster that either of us--this long to catch us, than we were going to fast.  At around mile 2.5, we approached the first really challenging hill of the course.  I slipped behind Sam to see how he was going to play this hill.  Both he and Dennis turned over for a decently quick climbing cadence, and I stayed right in their wake.  Sam wasn't making his move on this hill, so I moved on ahead of him after the top of the hill.  Now, with a couple of reasonably flat miles, I would set the pace. 
 For a mile of Ranson Road, some residential streets, and a nice stretch of greenway that led us South of Gilead Road, I did my best to lock in on a 6:30ish pace and maintain my rhythm.  Sam was behind me, but he was close.  I could hear his footfalls, and I could glimpse his orange shirt in my peripheral vision on turns.  Dennis was a great visual cue ahead of me.  Without him to occupy my focus, Sam's pursuit would be the only thing in my head.  Sam's footfalls became quieter and quieter as we neared the end of the greenway.  I knew the following couple of miles on Wynfield Creek Parkway would be a rolling (but mostly uphill) slog, so I had to capitalize on my separation.  Upon reaching the top of the first real hill emerging from the greenway, I surged down the back side to put more distance between Sam and me before he reached the top.  Hopefully, he would see the gaining lead and get demoralized.  I continued like this for a couple of miles, surging after cresting hills and rounding the corners of blind turns.  In doing so, I was keeping within respectable reach of Dennis and maintaining an overall pace that was matching my PR.  At just over halfway through, there was a question as to whether I could maintain it.  Any lead I had on my Nemesis could dissolve if I blew up badly enough.  
The Hugh Torrence/Hugh McAuley section of the course (miles 7.5-10) was the most rolling.  On one section, the course plunged down a 400 meter hill only to round the block at the bottom and come straight back up the same hill on the other side of the block.  As I made the climb back up this section, I peered over the grassy knolls and between the trees to try and get a glimpse of my Nemesis.  Instead I saw Matt Cline, who also spotted me and shouted cheers in my direction.  I didn't think Matt had passed Sam yet, so I surmised that Sam was somewhere down at the bottom of that segment, out of view but still in play.  After crossing a side street from Hugh Torrence to Hugh McAuley, there was a long downhill to a little "lollipop" around a block, and then a climb back uphill on the next block over.  I opened the throttle on the downhill and let the momentum take me into a quick turn around the lollipop.  Before turning left up the hill, I glanced to the right and saw the orange shirt of my Nemesis, who was just starting the block-loop of the lollipop.  I estimated that we was a little over a minute behind me.  There came Matt tearing up the asphalt down the hill with a big smile on his face and cheering me on once again.  Matt was not far behind my Nemesis.  Could he be a Dark Horse in this contest?
For the rest of the McAuley section and in the rolling streets leading back towards Devonshire, there was little company of note.  I stayed 10-15 seconds behind Dennis, sometimes gaining, sometimes losing ground, but always in sight.  At this point, with every mile that passed by, the possibility of a PR was becoming more and more real.  My thoughts became less centered on my Nemesis, and more geared toward beating my best time from two years ago.  I ditched my homemade "Beat Sam" shirt and would run the rest of the race in my singlet and arm sleeves.  Again, the coolness of the air renewed my vigor.  I welcomed cheers from several of my running friends--and several people I didn't know, but who apparently knew me.  When I reached the base of the mile-long hill on Brentfield near mile marker 11, I knew it would be my last big challenge.  I was still locked in and waiting for the moment when my legs would protest and refuse to keep the mid-6:30s pace I had been maintaining from the start.  I half expected to slow down to 7s on this long hill, but the gradient was just steep enough to keep the legs turning over quickly without reducing me to a crawl.  Yeah, it hurt, but as they say, pain is temporary and all that.  
Me near mile 11.  Photo courtesy of Cliff Weston.

The mile 12 marker was not far beyond the top of the hill.  I checked my watch.  I had just over 7 minutes to run 1.1 miles in order to set a new PR.  It was going to be close, but I was hoping the largely downhill last mile would help.  I found another gear and locked in.  The minutes flew by as I raced down Birkdale Commons Parkway towards the finish.  Dennis was locked in too.  I would not catch him, but I was just surprised to stay with him for the duration of the race.  When I got within a quarter mile, I knew I was going to get a PR, but I had to push the whole way to follow through.  The last 0.1 miles did a half-loop around the large parking lot of the finish area, so spectators got an extended view of finishing runners.  I was pumped!  I ran alongside the crowd of friends with an outstretched hand for high fives and I pumped my fists into the air as I crossed the finish line.  With an official time of 1:26:13, I had set a 25 second PR!
PR...and victory...well, over my Nemesis at least.

I relished in the rush of the finish and then looked toward the driveway from whence the finishers would approach.  I looked for Sam's orange shirt, but I first saw Matt--still ecstatic--blazing into the finishing area.  Not only had his Dark Horse passed my Nemesis, but he ran an 8+ minute PR!  Sam came through shortly thereafter, also overjoyed with a 90+ second PR.  I greeted him a the finish line and he congratulated me.  The feud was over...the score, settled.  All was right in the world. 
My Suunto GPS data can be seen here.
In other news, several DARTers and CRC members became world record holders for most runners tethered together to finish a 5k, so that's cool too. 
From left: Me (2nd AG 30-34), Matt (1st AG 35-39), and Sam (3rd AG 40-44).  Not pictured is Dennis, who won the 40-44 AG.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mishler VS Willimon: 24/7

Shit just got real.  
I've just returned from running a preview of the the Huntersville Half Marathon course for next week's race.  I was with a large, fun group including Dave, John, Mike, Derek, Enrique, J-Ma, Matt, Tim, Terry, Wendy, and of course, my nemesis: Sam Mishler.  For those of you who don't know, Sam and I are having a little throw-down at the Huntersville Half next weekend.  This is a follow-up to the begrudging loss I suffered to he who henceforth shall be referred to as Nemesis.  A gentlemanly challenge to a rematch followed by some not-so gentlemanly smack-talk that ensued for months to follow led us both spirally toward this race. 
Some propaganda being spread by my Nemesis.
 
The score will be settled.  Pain will ensue.  Yes, after running the course today, the Nemesis and I both agreed that no matter the outcome, much pain was assured.  The course itself is the ubiquitous third player in this duel of death.  It lures you in with a couple of easy miles--not without their hills, but easy enough.  In miles 3-5, there are a couple of notable hills to rein you in.  From miles 5-7, Wynfield Creek Parkway provides incessantly rolling terrain that trends uphill.  After that, there is a brief respite before a sadistic run downhill followed by a U-turn coming back up the same hill on the other side of the block.  Recovery from this section is brief as the course winds through a few loops for the next couple of miles, throwing ups and downs in at several places, making it hard to develop a good racing rhythm.  At mile 11, runners forgo the notorious hill on Devonshire (from previous years' courses) in favor of the longer climb on Brentfield.  By the time you reach the mile 12 mark, after more than a mile of steady, relentless climbing, you will be lamenting the missing Devonshire hill.  From this point on, it's a downhill finish, if you have anything left.
Throughout today's preview, the Nemesis and I were taking note of the where the challenges were, each of us silently plotting our strategy, no doubt trying to predict the other's moves.  Do I have a plan?  Sure, but I'd be a damned fool to write about it here while my Nemesis is watching.  I'm playing my cards pretty close to the chest on this one.
The stakes are real.  Just today, not one hour ago, my Nemesis and I agreed to the terms for the loser.  Dave was a witness to the agreements, so it is therefore binding.  I won't make the details of the bet public yet, but if I do lose, it will involve me shopping for a new piece of running apparel.  
If you're not racing Huntersville Half, or the companion 5k (at which there will be an attempt at the world record for a tethered 5k), come out as a spectator for the ensuing bloodsport...er...friendly competition.  
Ward VS Gatti...
Cubs VS Cardinals...
Marques VS Pacquiao...
Yankees VS Red Sox...
Hector VS Achilles...

Mishler VS Willimon...a duel for the ages!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Recaps: Couple of 5ks and a Marathon.

Since running Marine Corps Marathon, I've been on a bit of a confidence high, and I've been trying to extend my peak fitness window to include just a few more races.  In the past three weekends I raced (in respective order) the Spencer Mountain 5k, the Thunder Road Marathon (for which I was a pacer for the first half), and the Summit Twilight 5k.  I was not looking to break any PRs with these races, although I did plan to put forth serious efforts in each.  Here's how my November races went.
Spencer Mountain 5k
The Spencer Mountain 10 miler is a race I've wanted to do for a long time, and there usually is a cadre from DART that goes to the event as a group.  This year, Chad Randolph, Mark Ippolito, and young Nate McGivern were my company.  All three of them were doing the 10 miler.  Since I was responsible for pacing a fast first half of Thunder Road the following weekend, I elected to do the 5k instead of the 10 miler.  Unlike the 10'er, the 5k course was known to be a relatively flat and fast out-and-back course, with a slight, gradual incline in the first couple kilometers, and a rewarding, fast finish as runners went back into town on the descending direction of the same road.  Finishing time was not a concern for me as my friend Dave Munger ran the course the previous year and found it to be short.  I just wanted to get in a solid, 5k-effort run.  Maybe I had a shot at the win...
It was a cold day, so I did my warm-up run in full sweats.  By the time I was warm, I stripped down to a singlet and gloves with split shorts and felt a bit underdressed among the crowd who mostly wore tights and long sleeves.  I noticed three or four runners who looked like they would challenge me for the front of the pack.  A couple of high-school hotshots who may have been XC athletes stepped up next to me, as well as a wildcard who looked to be in my age group.  Sure enough, at the start, the hotshots flew out in front, with one of them in an honest-to-goodness sprint for the first 20 meters.  A couple of other racers drifted in front of me as well, but not too far.  The fellow thirty-something, who was called Franklin, floated past me in a relaxed and calculated manner.  I could tell he was fast and shrewd, and therefore he was the greatest threat.  Hotshots 1 and 2 already were beginning to fade halfway through the first mile.
After four minutes, everyone was behind me except for Franklin.  Suddenly, he stopped to tie his shoe and I sped past and took position behind the lead police cruiser.  It was a lackluster way to take the lead, but I took it nonetheless.  Now the pressure was on to keep it.  The gradual incline made it a bit more difficult to maintain my 6 minute/mile pace, and I found myself searching behind a couple of blind curves in the road for the turnaround.  Before I could get there, I heard the telltale footfalls of an advancing pursuer.  Sure enough, Franklin caught up to me and regained first place before we hit the turnaround.  That was bit of a blow to the ego considering he had done so after stopping to tie his shoe.  Thanks, buddy.
Upon reaching the turnaround, I realized two things: 1) The course would not be short this year; in fact it was going to be long, and 2) barring a catastrophe, I had second place or better locked up.  When the hotshots died, they really died.  Other runners had taken their places, but none it seemed with the leg speed to close the gap between themselves and me.  I broke into a very comfortable and fast rhythm for the inbound portion of the course.  On the slight downhill, I was maintaining a sub-6 minute pace.  Franklin must have been feeling as good or better than me though, because he just continued to pull away.  With about half a mile left, I conceded that he was well out of my reach, so I just focused on maintaining my respectable pace.  Surely that would give me a nice sub-19 minute finish, right?
A little over a mile from the finish, shooting for a sub-19.

Wrong.  As I suspected, the course was long.  Not just "hey-my-GPS-says-three-hundredths-of-a-mile" long, but nearly (or over) a tenth of a mile long.  Kicking as hard as I could at a 5:45 pace, I saw 19 minutes come and go shortly after passing the mile 3 mark.  I had not even made the last turn into the parking lot and the short dash toward the finish line.  I finished with 19:12, solidly in 2nd place, but for a 3.2+ mile race.  Had the course been accurate, my 5:59 average pace would have put me in the mid-high 18:30s, which is faster than all but a handful of the 5k races I've ever run.  Oh well.  2nd overall is still legit, and Nate, Chad, and Mark all had great 10 mile races, in that respective finishing order.
Spencer Mountain DARTers.  From left: Mark (PR), Chad (PR), Nate (PR, 1st 10-miler), and yours truly.

Thunder Road Marathon
I had a fantastic time pacing at Thunder Road last year, so I had promised to come back and do it again whenever I was given the opportunity.  Apparently, not many pacers (or faster local runners) are keen on pacing a 3:00 marathon group, even for only half of the course, so my job security is pretty strong on that front.  While I paced the back end last year, I wanted to pace the first half this year so I could continue running at my own pace after handing the group off to my reliever and enjoy a nice, full marathon with an honest finishing time.  Sam, my once and future nemesis, was kind enough to offer his vehicle for carpooling, so we got on site early, and he reaped the benefits of being associated with a pacer: admission to the heated, indoor VIP section before the race, which happened to be on an even more frigid day than Spencer Mountain.
After getting the pace team briefing in the VIP section, fellow 3:00 pacer Chris Czech and I politely elbowed our way to the front of the crowd.  Soon enough, we were off, and Chris and I were officially on duty.  Seeing as how the half and full marathon races started in unison, there were many, many people who shot out ahead of us.  I knew there weren't that many sub-3 marathoners in Charlotte, and I doubted there were as many sub-1:30 half marathoners as there were ahead of us.  We knew we would be seeing many of these folks again.
Aside from the 25 degree temperatures, the day was clear and beautiful.  It did not take long to get warmed up and comfortable.  Our first mile clocked in somewhere between 7:05 and 7:10, which Chris and I shrugged off, even though our prescribed pace was 6:52.  By this time, we had developed a sizable following, and all in attendance agreed that a slower, easier start was a better setup for the long race.  Sure enough, the next three miles saw us chipping away at our split times until we had a few seconds in the bank.  Also about this time, Meg Hovis--who was part of our group, but eventually would win the overall women's marathon--dropped us like a bad habit.  From that point on, our pace group was a sausagefest, so we were free to stop sucking in the guts and let the locker room humor fly.
With such a fun group, the first half went by very quickly.  We consistently banked a few more seconds every mile, even on the long climb up Morehead.  Unlike the previous Thunder Road course, the Morehead-Dilworth-Dowd  portion was around miles 8-10, rather than at the end.  The half course now included Southend, and the last mile was a long, straight, fairly boring shot into town on Mint St.  The finish was just beyond the football stadium, but on the wide openness of the thirteenth mile, one could see the destination from too far away.  Since I was only responsible for the first half, I talked up the half racers and urged them on for their last push. We picked up Brandon Lerch (my reliever) at about mile 12.5 and let him know that we had about a 25 second cushion.  As we came within sight of the finish, the half racers jetted on (at least one or two to a significant PR) while we bore left around the new baseball park and toward the starting area.  We passed the 13.1 split mat with a gun time of 1:29:34.  Mission accomplished.  I stayed with the group for another mile or so before I made a bathroom stop and bade them farewell.  Chris eventually would pace the full 26.2 with the group, finishing in 2:59:50ish.  I'd call that pretty spot on.
The rest of the race was a fun run for me.  I still kept a decent pace, spending much of the time in the mid-7's, but this felt fairly relaxed after 14 miles of 6:50.  I gave high-5s to kids, walked through water stops, sang along to curbside bands, and saluted familiar faces.  Despite some serious climbs and difficult sections on the second half, my fast first half still allowed me to coast in with a pretty respectable marathon time of 3:13:30.  And I finished with a smile on my face, which was most important.
High 5'n at Thunder Road.  Photo by Lee Neitzel.
Summit Twilight 5k
Even though this home turf race was in its fourth year, I had yet to race it, either due to injury or other race commitments.  This year, I finally dedicated the date to the Twilight 5k.  One week after Thunder Road, and a month after MCM, I did not have high expectations for this race.  I figured I could see a bunch of friends and get a nice 3+ mile workout in.  This race was more competitive than Spencer Mountain 5k or any of the other local Davidson 5k races due to its being the final race in the Summit Twilight racing series.  I would consider it a good evening if I landed in the top ten.   
Since I was making this my long run day as well, I previewed the course twice in the hour before the start.  I figured that would give me enough pre-mileage so that an abbreviated cool-down after the race would bump me easily into the double digits for the day's distance.  The course was not the hardest, but it had some challenges.  Within the first kilometer, there is a short, sharp descent on Spring Street that lead directly into a steep climb on Woodland.  From there, runners enjoy a good 1.5+ miles of mixed flat and descent before the hard finish.  The last 1000 meters or so is a climb up the length of the South Street hill.  Every runner in the Davidson area knows this hill.
I greeted several familiar faces, including my sometime nemesis, Sam.  Aside: although my score settling with Sam is scheduled for a later date, I kind of hoped to beat him at this race too.  When Brian Helfrich gave us the go, we were off to a quick start.  I don't know how many people shot ahead of me, but it was at least a couple dozen.  Of those that I knew personally, Mike Moran was up with the front runners, Sam was hidden in the crowd, I could make out Enrique well ahead of me, Matt Cline was in my peripheral vision, and I could recognize the often verbose Derek May's voice somewhere behind me.  
The crowd thinned out on the Woodland climb.  Handfuls of runners drifted back to me. Matt charged up the hill on my left, passing me near the summit.  Matt's a pretty fast guy, but I didn't expect him to pass me that quickly and easily.  I caught up to him on the flat stretch of Lorimer, but he stayed nearby...and in my head.  We reeled in Enrique shortly after, and the remaining runners ahead were spread out more sporadically.  Near the 1 mile mark, I peered through the darkness and recognized Sam's gait.  He must have recognized the sound of my stride, because before I even overtook him, he called out: "crunch, crunch, crunch...good job, Chas!"  Okay, I got a little satisfaction from passing Sam, but others were still knocking on my back door.  
A gradual downhill on Pine followed by a more steep downhill on Avinger really allowed me to open up and clock some sub-6 pace stretches en route to the greenway.  I turned onto the greenway shortly before the mile 2 maker.  This 1/2 mile stretch of paved path was lined on both sides with 1,000 luminaries spaced every 10 feet.  In the pitch darkness of the late Fall evening, the luminaries provided a serene beauty to the course.  I heard a runner approaching on my left, and I encouraged Matt as he passed me...wait...Matt?  Again...seriously?  Once more, Matt was looking strong, even more so considering the context of there being less than a mile left in the race.  I didn't try to retaliate, but I did keep him within reach.  
As we reached the end of the greenway, the course angled due North on South Street for the final, long hill.  There were maybe a dozen runners spread out  ahead of me on the hill.  Matt and I made quick work of one or two within the first 100 meters of the hill.  Now Matt was ever so gradually drifting back to me.  I was feeling the burn, but so was he.  Hell, so was everyone!  I decided to let it rip for as long as I could manage.  If I faded somewhere on the hill, so be it, but I wanted to put as much road behind me before then as possible.  I passed Matt about 1/3 of the way up the hill.  He said something encouraging to me, but amid our heavy breathing, it was unintelligible.  "Dig, dig, dig," I thought to myself, "anyone can hurt for just a couple more minutes!"  I resisted the urge to check my watch.  Had I checked, I would have been surprised to see that I was clocking equal splits or better up the hill.  I passed a couple more runners near the top, including Greig Jansen, Tristan's brother who was visiting from Africa.  Grieg didn't want to let me go, and the determination in his footfalls spurred me on in the final 50 meters or so to the finish.  
Final time: 18:42, good enough for 8th place overall, and an age group award for males 30-39.  I had run about equal pace on a much harder course than Spencer Mountain (and gotten the accurate time to show for it).  Grieg finished seconds after me, and Matt came in only seconds after him.  I don't know about Grieg, but I know that was a huge PR for Matt.  Sam came in a minute later in the 19:40s, and Derek and Chris Flaherty each finished with notable PRs, even though Chris had done a 13 mile long run that morning!  mPod (Michelle) finished with a solid enough time to lock down her age group for the series, and Hope finished her first race since having her gallbladder removed a couple months before.  DART made a solid showing for the hometown series, and the Summit Twilight 5k quickly took a seat as my favorite local 5k.  I'll be back next year.