Thursday, August 28, 2014

Best Running Shoes For Travel

So let's say you're going on vacation for an extended weekend or so.  If you're like me, the first thing you pack into your carry-on is your running gear.  Okay, well at least you know where MY priorities lie.  Anyway, running clothes are easy.  Shorts and tech shirts fold down so small that you could fit them in a side compartment if you really wanted to.  The real question for us shoe geeks is "what shoes am I going to take?"  For those that have a running shoe for every occasion (you know who you are), this is one of those questions that can give you the shakes.  It's not very practical to pack 3-4 pairs of shoes into one carry-on bag (even though some of us have tried), so you really need one--maybe two--pairs that will suit your needs for the whole trip.  I've gone ahead and compiled a list of what I believe are good travelling running shoes for various categories of runners.  Even though each shoe in this list caters to a slightly different audience, there are a few things they all have in common:

1) They're relatively* light and low profile.  This makes them easy to pack or wear at the airport.
2) They're suitable for many purposes.  If you're in the middle of a training cycle, you want some kicks that can support your long run but also be suitable for speed work.  Besides, maybe you'll decide to look up a local race while you're on holiday.
3) Except for one (the F-lite 195), they're all relatively* cheap.  You shouldn't have to worry about messing up an expensive pair of running shoes on your vacation.
*"Relatively" may mean something different for each category.  Obviously, "light" and "cheap" might mean something different between maximalist runners and minimalist runners.

For the Road Runner: The Saucony Kinvara 5 (or the Mirage 4)
I'll be honest.  I never used to be a big supporter of the Kinvara.  The fit and the cushioning were never to my liking, and it just never turned into the marathon shoe that I wanted it to be.  However, Saucony has been listening to its loyal Kinvara followers, and the 5th iteration of the shoe has come out with an overhauled fit and an underfoot feeling that really makes it scream "performance trainer."  The Kinvara keeps its sub-8 ounce weight, 4mm offset, and low profile that define its personality.  For those that feel a little more comfortable with a medial post for some light stability, the Mirage 4 is a guidance counterpart to the Kinvara.

For the Trail Runner: The Montrail FluidFlex 2
Trail runners often have a hard time getting a satisfying run in while traveling.  The FluidFlex is not only lightweight, but it's soft and versatile.  The Gryptonite rubber under the forefoot and heel is super grippy on all surfaces, and the soft foam makes it flexible and bouncy for the long haul.  It's a great road-to-trail shoe that can hold its own on either or both surfaces.

For the Minimalist: The Merrell Barefoot Road Glove 3 (or Trail Glove 2)
I still do at least half of my runs in zero-drop shoes, and Merrell always seems to have at least a couple of models that don't disappoint me.  It's hard to find a minimalist shoe that's not an easy travel shoe, but the Road Glove 3 is my favorite.  I hearkens back to the smooth feeling of the Road Glove 1, but it has a better outsole that handles more surfaces.  It's a pretty snappy shoe for kicking around town too.  For those that want a dual purpose shoe that's a little more trail specific, the Trail Glove 2 will not disappoint.

For the Maximalist:  The Hoka OneOne Clifton
The maximalist trend has boomed with as much gusto as the minimalist movement that directly preceded it.  However, most maximalist shoes are not easy to pack.  Enter the Clifton.  At ~8 ounces, the Clifton rivals the Kinvara and other light trainers in feathery weight.  Unlike some other light-ish maximalist shoes that sacrifice their characteristic cushion for weight, the Clifton maintains is floaty-ness while feeling light on foot.  The blown rubber on the outsole only exists in high abrasion areas, and as many Hoka enthusiast will attest, this road model would be just fine for all but the most technical or slippery trails.

For the Runner/CrossFit Enthusiast:  The Inov-8 F-Lite 195
I always enjoyed this shoe as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none kind of shoe.  I've used it for 20-milers, track workouts, light trail runs, and several hours in the gym.  I don't do CrossFit, but this shoe is definately geared toward that crowd.  Like most Inov-8 shoes, it's low-profile, it looks cool, and it weighs in at a svelte 195 grams (hence the designation).

That's my list, and I'm sticking to it.  What are your traveling running shoes?

Friday, July 25, 2014

If You're Gonna Be Dumb...

Over the course of 8 days in the middle of July, I attended three very different events that made up a total of five different race distances.  In order, I'll recap the XTERRA Whitewater Center 7.5 Mile Trail Race, the CRC Track Night Under the Lights (at which I ran three distances), and The Scream! Half Marathon.  Yes, the exclamation point is part of the race's official name.  I like that.
Saturday, 7/12: XTERRA Whitewater Center 7.5 Mile Trail Race
It was hot and humid, but otherwise, the sky was clear and the trails were in good shape.  The event had a 4 mile distance and a 7.5 mile distance.  I had to run the long course to keep my standings up in the Carolina Trail Series, but I ran the 4 mile course as a warm-up so I could get my long mileage in for the weekend.  The field was large and competitive.  I was hoping to get top 10 and maybe grab an age group award.  That would prove difficult.
Much like the CRC Trail Race in January, the course started with about 0.7 miles of open dirt/gravel road before plunging into the sweet single track.  This allowed the field to string out nicely.  I ran hard on this first part, clocking a sub-6 minute/mile pace for the first half mile, but I was barely in the top 12 runners.  The top three were pulling away very quickly, and I was at the rear of a chase pack that was working awfully hard to keep them in sight.  Once we hit the trails, I forgot about chasing and position and focused on a steady, fast-but-flowing pace.  The course was a challenging collection of trails.  There were plenty of climbs and descents throughout, but one could burn out easily in the first couple of miles for want of trying to keep a fast pace.  I was tiptoeing close to that line myself.  I passed one runner at mile 3, and another runner at the top of notorious Goat Hill at mile 6.  I was not trying to pass the latter of the two.  I was just trying to low-gear it up the hill.  His low gear just happened to be even lower than mine.  Another runner passed me shortly thereafter.  Aside from that, there was no place-shifting for the whole race.  We all ran hard, and we all suffered equally.  Having set an arbitrary goal of 55 minutes for this odd distance, I found myself running out of breath during the last mile as that time came and went.  I finished in 55:40 and left it all on the trail.  Chase Eckerd and Chris Lamperski--both of whom usually threaten to win most of their races--finished 3rd and 4th, respectively.  I finished 10th (for which I was totally satisfied) and won 2nd in my age group; Lamperski was 1st AG.  I do not have pictures from the event, but Tim the RD captured and compiled a video on his GoPro.  You can catch me running by at 4:10 and at 7:00 into the video.
Tuesday, 7/15: CRC Track Night Under the Lights
My focus for track night was to run a best effort for the 1500.  It would be a PR since I had never raced the distance before, and it would give me a good idea of what my best mile time would be.  However, I was also there to run the 4x400 relay with fellow DARTers Carl, Dave, and Dustin.  We were racing for fun as it was evident that most of the other teams looked way faster than us, but I was hoping to get a PR for 400 out of it as well.  Every other 400 I had run was part of a speed workout.  Those were the only two events I had planned on running, but we all know about best laid plans.  More on that later.
Carl was our lead-off man.  Tall and broad-shouldered, one might think he would be a better linebacker than a runner, but he's been known to clock some quick times, and he as enough raw strength to bust out a fast lap.  Carl burned out of the gate with a hard 200.  He was visibly hurting on the back 200, and our team was in 6th place as he made the hand-off to Dave for lap 2.  I paid little attention to Dave as I was busy psyching myself up for my lap.  This would be my first race that was technically a sprint.  Dave bored in on the last 100 with the baton outstretched to me.  I took the baton and dug my spikes into the track with as much torque as I could muster.  The first 100 was all about acceleration and finding turnover.  The following 100 meter straightaway was a wide-eyed euphoria of running as fast as I could on adrenaline.  The 3rd 100 was when the anaerobic burn started to set in, and the last straightaway was all about target fixation (on Dustin) and trying to ignore the pain.  I did not catch anyone as teams 1-5 were far ahead, but I did not get passed either.  Dustin continued to maintain our place with and equally fast lap and preserved our pride in not being last.  Our splits per lap were:
Carl: 60 seconds*
Dave: 67*
Chas: 65
*Due to a possible miscue in recording splits, Carl's time may be 1-2 seconds slower and Dave's may be 1-2 seconds faster.
Dave handing the baton to me.  All ahead flank!

DART 4x400 team: Carl, Dave, Me, and Dustin, in lap order.

After changing singlets and jogging around the track to keep warm, I lined up with about 10 other runners for the 1500.  This was my focus event.  My significantly faster friend Mike Moran was racing this event, so I had no realistic aspirations of winning, but I was shooting for a flat 5 minutes for the 3.75 lap race.  At the start, I felt like I slipped right into my goal pace.  I slid in behind Mike while Ryan and Cory Sundeen took positions ahead of me within the first 200 meters.  I came around the first lap in 78 seconds; 2 seconds faster than goal pace (thanks, adrenaline), but not really sustainable.  The second lap is where I found my comfort zone.  I cruised, but I still felt fast.  I came through 800 meters in around 2:41 or 2:42, still feeling more smooth than I thought I would.  Lap 3 is when I really started to get lactic.  The pain was building not only in my legs, but in my arms and core too.  I know my pace faded on this lap.  The only thing that kept me from fading more was the fact that I was reeling Cory back to me.  I kicked the last lap and passed Cory (and lapped the back-of-the-pack runners) with 200 meters to go. I was not going to break 5, but I would be close.  Final time: 5:03.5.  That's just under a 5:26 pace for a mile, which would beat my previous, unofficial time trial PR.  All in all, I was happy with my 1500.
The 1500 field near the start of the race.  I'm in the Cyan blue singlet.

Open 5000
Less than 10 minutes after the 1500, I changed singlets once again and hopped in on the open 5000 meter race.  This was totally unplanned, but I figured I might as well get one more good run in since I was out there.  I had no real expectations, so I just thought I would see how long I could hold a 6 minute pace.  Although the 6 minute pace felt only moderately difficult in the context of having just run a VO2max paced effort, all it took was 2 or 3 laps let me know that those 90 second laps were just not going to hold up.  Ok, maybe I could still salvage sub-19 minutes...that would be 92 second laps...  It was a good effort, but halfway through the race, I knew sub-19 was a no-go as well.  I decided to focus on even effort, even pace, and racing for position.  The first one or two runners were way ahead, but I was in the midst of a dynamic chase pack of 4-5 runners, including Nathan Leehman, an accomplished local ultrarunner.  The final 800 meters were painstakingly awful, but I still managed a decent kick and finished with an 83 second final lap.  Final time: 19:07.  I was not fast enough to beat Nathan, but I was satisfied with my 5th place finish, especially with a bunch of spectating friends keeping me honest.
Saturday, 7/19: The Scream! Half Marathon
This is a race I had been wanting to do for a long time.  Starting at the top of Brown Mountain in Jonas Ridge, NC, the point-to-point course makes use of a 9-mile stretch of service road down the mountain for a screaming descent of over 2000 feet of elevation.  There are a couple of rolling miles to start the race up top, and a couple of miles of flat to test your quad-busted legs at the end.
I set ambitious goals for this race.  I knew it would be my fastest 13.1 (though I will not count it as a legitimate PR), but I was looking for a time in the low 1:20s, perhaps between 1:22 and 1:23.  One of my training buddies, Sam Mishler, was racing on a transferred bib from a mutual friend.  He had no expectations going into the race, especially after a hard run and impressive time at Grandfather Mountain Marathon one week earlier.  However, some smack-talking exchanges--instigated by yours truly--I think lit a bit of a fire under Sam.  I guess that's what I get...
The hot summer had not prepared us for the cold, windy rain at the top of the mountain.  I knew we would warm up within the first 5 minutes of the race, but it still felt more like a Fall race than the middle of July.  At the start, I once again locked into place within the top 10.  Sam caught up to me ran most of the first mile with me.  "I thought you were just chasing today," I said.  He replied with "If you're gonna be dumb, might as well be tough."  These words would resonate with me for the remainder of the race.  I clocked two 6:40 pace miles on the rolling section at the top.  When we hit the downhill, things started to heat up.  I was speeding up.  6:40s became 6:20s, 6:10s, and even sub-6s, but Sam was still pulling away.  Before the mile 6 marker, he was out of sight for good.  I honestly figured he would blow up and I would catch him on the flats at the end.  I ran my ass off down that mountain, passing a couple of totally-shot runners and shattering my leg muscles in the process, all to keep alive the possibility of out-kicking Sam within sight of the finish line.  It was to no avail.  As I kept kicking on the flat, muddy, final couple of miles, maintaining a 6:30ish pace, I never caught Sam.  He finished 4th overall, which earned him 1st overall Masters with a smoking time of 1:24:03.  I dragged my broken body and shattered ego across the finish line at 1:25:45.  I was 5th male (7th overall finisher), and I won my age group, but my real award was the serving of humble pie I was forced to eat.
Oh well.  As Sam knows, this isn't over!
Until next time, if you're gonna be dumb, stay tough, my friends!
DARTers at the Scream! finish, from left to right:
Me, Dave, the Long Baki, Sam, Bobby Aswell, and Sarah Ferris and Katie Hines in front.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

CSD Half Marathon Recap

The past couple of years, I have done the Run For Green 10k, which is part of a combined 5k, 10k, and Half Marathon event.  Each year, I ponder doing Half since I train on the course fairly often, but the hilliness and mostly out-and-back nature is not that endearing, so I usually shoot for the 10k podium instead.  This year, however, the Spartan (not the obstacle race series) 5k, benefitting the Community School of Davidson (CSD), was adding a Half-Marathon distance to their event.  Not only that, but it was the same certified HM course as RFG.  With no appetizing 10k being offered, I decided I would finally race an official Half on that course.
The Spartan was a much smaller event than RFG--maybe 1/5 the total registrants--so I entertained thoughts of a podium finish, maybe even a win, which would be my 4th win in as many races.  Surely, a spot on the overall podium was in reach.  However, you never know who's going to show up, so I also set a goal of finishing the tough course in under 1:30.  On my warmup, I recognized Kevin, another runner against whom I'd raced at one or two other local races.  He was faster than me in a 5k, and he looked to be a shrewd enough runner to be a threat for 13.1 as well.  A couple of other fast-looking, unfamiliar faces also swaggered around, sizing people up, just like I was.  I would have to be on my toes.
When we lined up at the top of South St--before the largely downhill first mile--the predicted contenders all shouldered themselves beside me.  With the field of 75 runners punctually assembled, the RD, who had an actual starter pistol, fired the start signal.  Kevin and I started shoulder-to-shoulder, neither of us interested in gaining position over the other.  A 30-something named William and a 13-something named Jake strode ahead on the downhill, and after a couple of minutes, a lithe young lady named Katie--who was wearing a long-sleeve top and listening to her iPod...carried in her hand--easily flitted ahead of us all.  Kevin angled into a calculated pursuit, with Jake and William following a few strides behind.  With some space between William and me, I was in a comfortable 5th by the time we hit the greenway at the bottom of the hill.  There was no reason to worry.  If my heavy racing schedule had taught me anything this season, it's that the race won't be won in the 1st mile, but it can be lost in the 1st mile.
The first 50 meters.  Kevin (yellow shoes) and I (cyan singlet) are side-by-side.  Photo courtesy of Bobby Aswell.

6:17 was my split for that 1st mile, which was predictably fast considering the downhill, but if I were running the 10k course, it would be 6:00, or 5:45 for the 5k course, so 6:17 sounded about right.  The hill on Avinger tended to cool things down up front.  Katie was still ahead, and Kevin was looking very smooth, but young Jake was fading behind, and William was closer still.  I started closing on William.  We turned right on Pine at the top of the hill, and I pulled up alongside him.
"What're you shootin' for?" he asked in loud and labored breath.
I shrugged.  My inner voice said "a win," but my out-loud voice said, "90."
"Okay," he said, "I try to do 90 too."
This may sound callous, but I wasn't particularly interested in running with William.  I really wanted to run my own race, and I had my doubts as to whether or not he would keep the pace I was looking to run.  Sure enough, William steadily faded behind me a half mile later on the continuation of the greenway.  Katie's and Kevin's leads were growing like bamboo, but I had my sights set on young Jake.  When we turned from the greenway onto Robert Walker Rd, we hit our next notable hill.  Here is where I overtook Jake.  I listened to his lenky footfalls grow quieter, and then I focused on the two runners left way ahead of me as we entered the River Run neighborhood.  Around this time, my running buddies Allyson and Kristin cheered me on as they crossed paths with me on their regular weekend run.  "She's fast!" I yelled to them, referring to Katie, whom I was having a hard time keeping in view.  They acknowledged that fact and bade me to give chase.  Somehow, I was beginning to realize that this lithe young woman, who was overdressed and casually jamming to her iPod, was not going to make it easy on any of us.
I settled into a groove on the next 3 rolling, residential miles.  I was maintaining splits that hovered around 6:40, and I was learning not to look for Kevin or Katie.  On the few turns at road intersections, I glanced behind me to find Jake and William running together, but still at a healthy distance behind me.  They were keeping me honest, though.  Before too long, I had reached the 3/4-mile section of greenway that led to the turn-around.  Soon, I would see the two leaders and find out how much of a lead they had.  Sure enough, Katie came running back towards me with what I surmised was a 1/4-mile lead on me.  Aside from some sweat on her brow, she was not showing signs of exertion.  Kevin was about 45 seconds behind her, also looking pretty strong.  We traded thumbs-ups.  I finally reached the turn-around and tried to reverse my bearing as quickly as possible without losing too much speed.  When I happened upon Jake and William, they were about as far behind me as I was behind Katie.  That was reassuring, but there were still more than 6 miles left in the race.
It was nice to get a look at the outbound field of runners as I continued on my inbound leg.  Most were cheerful and and encouraging.  That made the rolling hills a little less arduous, despite my accumulating fatigue, and the growing desire to use the restroom.  I knew there was a Port-A-Potty on the course, but I was not sure how far away it was.  I was about to hop into the residential woods and bushwack my way to a suitably concealed spot when the Port-A-Potty shone ahead like a Golden Shangri La at the top of a hill at the mile marker 9 water station.  Ahead, Katie and Kevin were out of sight and beyond reach, so I glanced behind sight of Jake or William.  This was my window.  I hit the lap function on my watch, which informed me that the entirety of my potty break was 41 seconds.  I glanced down the course from whence I came.  "You're still in the same place," the water-proffering volunteer reassured me.  Relieved (in more way than one), I took off to continue my race.  That interrupted mile was about 7:15, counting the 41 second stop, so I had lost very little time in regards to the big picture.
The rolling hills continued, and I maintained my effort and pace.  There was no one in sight ahead or behind, so I focused on racing for time.  I was ahead of pace for my sub-1:30 goal, so I started to do the mental math for sub-1:29, which was well within reach if I kept my foot on the gas.  I was glad to finally be out of River Run at about mile 10.5.  I glided down Robert Walker and used the length of the greenway to psych myself up for the impending climb up Patrick Johnson--everyone's favorite hill in Davidson.  When I popped out of the greenway, I grabbed a cup of water at the aid station, actually stopped to drink the whole thing, and proceeded to shuffle-run up the hill.  There was no sense in charging all-out; the few seconds I would gain would not be worth the resulting agony that would linger through the last 1.5 miles if I did.  I reached the top of the damn thing, and I started turning the legs over again.  By the time I made my right turn on Pine, I was nearly at race pace again.
Pine was 3/4-mile of gradual uphill, but it was close enough to my running group's home base that I didn't really mind so much the incline.  I made my last real turn on Lorimer about 1/2-mile from the finish, and I poured on everything I had, just as I do with every Davidson race that ends along this side street.  Everything I had didn't amount to much faster than 6:50 pace at that point, but at least I could maintain it.  When the finish line came into view (up one more little hill), I was able to knock my pace down into the low 6's.  Allyson and Kristin were cheering me on for the last 100 meters, as were some other fellow DARTers who had run the 5k or were just in the neighborhood.  Official time: 1:28:31.  The course was predictably tough, and the day was fairly warm, so I was more than satisfied with that time.
Photo courtesy of Bobby Aswell.

Katie extended her lead on Kevin to get the outright win in 1:25:03, looking effortless at the finish, as all reports confirm.  Kevin squeaked in just under 1:27, which meant my necessary potty stop would not have made a difference in my standings VS him.  I was the 3rd finisher and 2nd place overall male, so I achieved my other goal of making it onto the podium.  Jake finished in 1:30 flat, and William crossed the line at 1:31:20 after what must have been a late-race fade.
That course was no joke!  It was not the hardest Half I've done--not even the hardest Half this Spring--but it certainly took its toll on you if you intended to run fast.  After I finally cooled down, I found I had awoken a two-pronged ankle injury with a vengeance, and even if I hadn't, I would've felt like I was breathing through a coffee straw if I had tried to run the next day.  I don't know if I'll do that Half course this September at about a nice 10k?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Run the Rock 50k: Hunter and Hunted...

The rain fell all night and continued to fall through the early morning.  If the race had been a day earlier or a day later, the weather would have been perfect.  But alas, we DARTers--John, Tim, and myself--were destined to run a hilly, technical 31 miles of trails at Raven Rock State Park in the rainy muck.  We spent the 2.5 hour drive to Southern Pines discussing how "awesome" it was going to be.
I packed light as far as 50k's go: a bunch of gels, some solid energy bars, a lightweight gear vest, a 20oz water bottle, and some dry clothes for after the race.  I came into this race with an eye to win, so my plan was to be totally self-sufficient and not rely on aid stations.  Since we would see the single aid station at the start/finish five times before the race was done, I decided I would shed gear and layers as the race went on.
The course was sort of a figure 8.  The start/finish seemed to be at the highest point, so both loops of the figure 8 would take us down in elevation before making us climb back up, with several undulations therein.  The first 5.5 mile loop was rolling and not too technical, consisting of runnable single track and stretches of wide double track for the most part.  The second loop, although half a mile shorter, was much more technical, with many treacherous climbs and descents and precarious footing ranging from ankle-deep, standing water to mucky quagmires to tangled knots of roots to jagged, exposed granite sawteeth.  This second section also began with a steep, half-mile descent that would be a steep, half-mile climb to get back to the finish.  We would do the figure 8 (made up of both loops) three times.
At the start.  I'm in the middle.  Tim is to my left, and Green Shirt is to his left.

At the start, I stayed close to the front of the field, as did Tim.  A young, fit, stoic runner with a green shirt shot off to an early lead, clocking what I guessed was a 7:30 pace on the trails.  I kept him in sight as a handful of other young runners from nearby Fort Bragg passed me and gave chase.  50k is a long way, and it leaves plenty of time for pacing and strategy, but I kept an eye on the leaders from a safe distance regardless.  After the first 4 miles or so, some of the Army runners had faded back to me, and I knew I was in 4th place.  At about this point in the first loop, there was a mile-long out-and-back section that led straight downhill to the Cape Fear River and then straight back uphill to the Raven Rock Trail.  I gauged how far I was from the leaders on this out-and-back.  I was maybe 1 minute behind them.  I made up some ground on #3 on the uphill, but I could not bring 1 and 2 back into view.  Emerging from the out-and-back, the trail continued uphill for another half-mile before bringing us to start/finish/aid.  I ran straight through without stopping and made my way for the second loop of my first figure 8.
The initial downhill in this section was very fast and treacherous, and I pondered how my legs might feel the next couple times I would have to run it.  After crossing a wooden bridge at the bottom (and smiling for the photographers), I settled in for 3-4 miles of uneven footing and nasty little hills.  After zigging and zagging and tiptoeing over several water crossings, I finally found a long, runnable downhill that led to the river (across from the other loop's out-and-back).  I was relieved to spend 15-20 minutes running at a good clip, but I was ready to be out of this loop.  Finally, I made it to the long hill I had run down, and I ran up the whole thing without a walk break.
The wooden bridge, smiling for the photographers.

Moving quickly over one of the more runnable sections.

When I swooped into the aid station, I spent 20 seconds filling my water bottle and then wasted no more time getting back on the trail.  That would be the only time during the race I would stop for aid.  The first few miles of the second lap were fairly solitary and uneventful.  It wasn't until the out-and-back that I caught sight of my query.  On the downhill, I caught #3 and made sure to pass him at a quick pace to seal the deal.  The green-shirted leader was maybe 5 minutes ahead of me when I saw him on his uphill climb.  The 2nd place runner, I found out, was running the 25k option, and therefore of no concern to me.  That meant I was the 2nd place runner.  That left me with an elevated sense of vigor, but I still was not in sight of Green Shirt as I made my uphill climb, so I settled in for the long game.
Ditching some unnecessary weight at the halfway point.

Once again, I flew through start/finish/aid without a backward glance and made my way for the other side of my second lap.  As I charged down the big hill, some of the back-of-the-pack walkers cheered me on and assured me that the leader was only a couple minutes ahead of me.  I was in no hurry to catch him--yet--but I certainly planned on maintaining a competitive pace.  At around mile 18, Green Shirt appeared ahead of me on the trail.  He was slogging up a hill, almost walking, and he did not look happy.  I believe there's a great significance in passing competitors with confidence, so I took the hill in a brazenly brisk run and maintained that pace until several moments after I had passed him.  With a little over 13 miles left to go, I was in the lead.
I was beginning to pay the toll for the quick pace I maintained at the beginning of the race.  Nearly 20 miles of rugged trail in inclement weather can wear one out on any given day, but I knew I had to suck it up and keep moving.  Losing the lead would hurt worse than any side stitch or muscle cramp.  I walked only the very first part of the last half-mile, and I shuffle-ran the rest.  I called out my number as I came back into aid and proceed directly to the trailhead for my 3rd and final figure 8.  The trails were familiar now, and I knew which sections I could push hard and which sections I could dial back and conserve energy.  As I ran quickly down the hill on the out-and-back section, I saw many walkers still on their second lap.  They cheered me on and I returned the sentiments.  On my way back up the hill, I saw Tim, who had gained 2nd place.  I estimated he was maybe 4-5 minutes behind me...and looking strong!  With nearly 7 miles left to race, that margin was a little too close for comfort.  I thought to myself, "at least I was running when he saw me!"
I spent the next few minutes racing with a new sense of urgency.  I had a feeling Tim was showing up to compete today, so I, who played the hunter for the majority of the race, was now being hunted.  I breezed by the aid station for the final time, this time ditching my water bottle (I had ditched my vest over an hour earlier).  At this point, I had run a hair past a marathon on challenging terrain, and my legs were protesting.  Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth as I bounded down the half-mile hill to start my last 5-mile loop.  I saw John at the base of the hill, and he encouraged me as he started his climb back to the aid station.  The predictability of the 3rd time through this trail did not make the footing any easier.  In fact, my compounding fatigue was making me less and less stable.  I did not fall, but I certainly came close several times.  I had to walk the short, steep, jagged climbs, but I forced myself to run the rest, promising that the race was, indeed, finite.  After the longish descent towards the river, I had a good view behind me for a short while.  No sign of Tim.  Surely he was getting tired too, right?  "No, Chas," I chided myself, "you can't count on someone else to bonk!  He's chasing you down!  He's as hungry as you are!"
I kept the pressure on, trying to expand, or at least maintain my lead.  When I finally got to the steep bottom of the half-mile hill for the last time, I bit the bullet and hiked the first 50 meters, looking over my shoulder every few steps.  With no sign of my pursuer,  I dug in and ran the rest of the hill.  I knew that as long as I ran, I would have the win in the bag.  Once I reached the top, I was a scant quarter-mile from the finish.  I broke out into as much of a sprint as I could manage.  My finishing time was 5 hours, flat.  I was 1st place, overall, and it was my very first ultra-distance win.
I could barely walk by the time Tim finished with a solid 2nd place.  I had expanded my lead to 10 minutes, but it was evident that he maintained a predatory pace, and he looked a lot more energized than I did.  It was a good day for DART with us going 1-2!  John finished in 12th place--still in the top 1/3 of 50k finishers, and he was completely satisfied with his performance on the less-than-hospitable terrain and footing.
Having taken a 12+ month hiatus from Ultras after my one and only 100 mile race, it's a serious boost to my confidence to jump back into the ultra circuit with a win at a homegrown event.  Hopefully, I can stay competitive at these various distances as I start to plan my fall marathon season.
My first ultra-win!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Moonlight Double Feature!

For those that are not familiar with Vac & Dash, it's a combination running retail and vacuum cleaning store in Albemarle, NC.  A bizarre combination to say the least, but Peter Asciutto, the owner, goes the extra mile to ensure that his specialty store hosts a slew of equally quirky and awesome road races throughout Stanly County.  One of these is the Moonlight Half-Marathon, 5k, and Movie, which takes place at the Badin Drive-In on the edge of Albemarle.  Participants can participate in the 5k or the Half; or they can register for the Double Feature and do both races.  I chose the Double Feature.
7pm: The 5k
Although the sun was getting low in the sky, the temperature for the evening 5k was still hotter than I would've liked it to be for any road race.  My plan was to go out hard for the 5k and adopt a Devil-May-Care attitude for my performance in the Half.  I sized up my competition.  There looked to be a couple of quick kids there, but Vac & Dash's young, lanky Seth Utley was my pick to be the ringer.  Having done a short warm-up run on the first mile or so of the course, I knew to expect a flat, fast race, with not much more than the occasional gentle rollers one might find in a residential area.  Casual as ever, Peter gave us the "read-set-go" and we were off.  Seth cruised out into an early, commanding lead, and two of the younger runners shot out ahead of me.  Alicia, who would be the overall female winner, kept pace with me, not wanting me to get out of reach.  Within the first kilometer, the youngbloods had run out of bravado and faded back to me.  I settled into a comfortable but distant 2nd place.  Despite the heat, I maintained a fairly quick 5k pace.  I would not PR, and I had almost no shot at winning, but I certainly would have a respectable time and an almost guaranteed 2nd place.
The course was pretty much out-and-back, so I got to see the whole field on a long straightaway after the turnaround.  Seth had nearly a minute on me, but I had nearly as much time on the 3rd place runner.  I saw fellow DARTer Sarah Ferris on her way to the turnaround, and she looked to be running strong and having fun, despite the fact that she admittedly hates 5k's.  The rest of the race was an exercise in lonely pace keeping.  Still wanting to have a good time, I pushed to negative split the last mile.  As I loomed closer to the last turn, I saw that I had an opportunity to go sub-19, so I poured on the gas for the last couple hundred meters.  Official time: 18:53.  Considering all the racing and hard training I had been doing, I was very happy with that.
Running hard on the last mile of the 5k.

The final stretch of the 5k.  I would be here again 3 hours later...
Sarah made a last mile pass and gained 2nd place female.  I was 2nd place male.  Seth had crushed me by over a minute, and Alicia was not far behind me for 1st place female.
Sarah (2nd overall female) and me (2nd overall male) after the 5k
After finishing the 5k, I had about an hour and 40 minutes before the start of the Half Marathon.  I grabbed some water and food from the car (a Bonk Breaker bar and some mini-bagels) and a change of racing clothes.  I donned a fresh singlet, swapped out my ultra-light 5k racing flats for my marathon racers, and I pulled on some compression calf sleeves.  With the sun having just set, I layered up with my warm-up sweats to keep from getting chilled.  The drive-in was getting crowded and it was starting to get dark.  I made sure I had my headlamp and reflective vest and proceeded to meander around for a while, half watching the movie, half shaking out my legs.  The Half was set to start at 9pm, so I went for a shakeout jog at about 8:40, keeping my hoodie on so that I was good and warm for the start of the race.  After one more pit stop, I rushed over to the Badin Drive-In's main entrance for the start.
9pm: The Half-Marathon
A handful of other runners from the 5k were participating in the double feature.  Sarah and Alicia were among them.  However, there were a few runners who were coming into the Half with fresh legs.  Among them was Rob, who I had met the previous week at the City of The Arts Half-Marathon, though I did not know his name then.  Rob was disappointed at CoTA, and I think he was shooting for a top 3 spot at this race.  There also was an intimidatingly tall runner who had a lean, svelte runner's build who looked to be taking his warm-up drills fairly seriously.  So, there definitely was some competition present.
The course was daunting.  Unlike the 5k, the Half Marathon would be rolling hills the whole way, with a mountain in the middle.  Not to mention the fact that the whole race was in the dark, and the waxing crescent moon provided very little moonlight.  We lined up on the road and waited for an appropriate break in the traffic.  Peter briefed us on the course, which would have very few turns, but also very little civilization.  Then, with the same "on your mark, get set, go," we were off.
Rob shot out like a rocket, and Tall Man was not too far behind him as he breezed by me with long, confident strides.  Alicia stuck by my side for the first mile or so.  We each had planned to keep a respectable pace while going more easily than we would for a usual Half.  That plan was failing.  We were doing a sub-6:40 pace without really thinking about it.  Alicia was the first to tap the brakes.  She gave me an encouraging salutation and settled into a more conservative pace.  I slowed too, but only by about 10 seconds per mile.  Rob and Tall Man were lengthening their lead, and I was finding it difficult to make out the features of their persons in the distance.  I could identify Tall Man by the blinking yellow light he wore on the back of his waistband, and I could see the blue-white glow of Rob's headlamp beyond him.  When I glanced back, aside from Alicia being close astern, the rest of the field was far behind and scattered along Highway 701 leading out of Albemarle.
About 1.5 miles into the race, we turned off of the state highway and onto Morrow Mountain Road...and into the darkness.  From here on out, I could count the number of cars along the course on one hand.  The road was rolling, dark, and silent.  As I rounded each curve, I looked out ahead for the distant blinking yellow light and the soft, blue-white glow ahead of it.  I did not always see it.  I had no visible landmarks for reference, so I had no real idea how far behind the leaders I was.  My best guess was a quarter mile...maybe more.  The next few miles reminded me very much of the night legs of the Blue Ridge Relay.  It's not for everyone, but I can reach down and find exhilaration in running quickly in solitude into a dark, arboreal void.
As I passed through the stone gateway leading into Morrow Mountain State Park, the rolling hills began to trend steadily upward.  I caught glimpses of one or both of the leaders here and there, and although I tried to ignore them and pay attention to my own pace, I could not help but notice that I was seeing more and more of them.  I guessed that I was closing the gap steadily.  Despite the dim moonlight, I could make out the profile of Morrow Mountain ahead of me, and I could tell by my GPS watch that I was approaching the race's halfway point which lay at the summit.  The road switched back and forth as the gradient became steeper and steeper.  I knew Seth Utley was volunteering at a hairpin turn that led to the final, steepest part of the climb.  I saw what must have been Seth's flashlight ahead, and I could spot the lights from both runners ahead of me.  When Rob's light reached Seth's, the headlamp turned left and appeared to go straight up.  Great...
I was not too far behind Tall Man when I made the hairpin turn.  Immediately, I settled into a Littlest-Engine-That-Could style short step to just focus on getting to the top.  My pace slowed dramatically, and with the stagnant air, I felt like I was overheating despite the cool temperature of the evening.  My breath was ragged, but consistent.  When I glanced up, Tall Man was right in front of me and fading back.  I was not trying to pass him--certainly not on this stinker of a climb--but I was overtaking him nonetheless.  When I passed him, he uttered a labored "good job," and I managed a gasping "thanks!"
After another 150 meters, we had reached the aid station at the top, and our running had been reduced to shuffling.  Moments before, we saw Rob coming back towards us, also shuffling.  I grabbed a quick cup of water and turned straight around.  Halfway done.  From here, it would be down the mountain and then back from whence we came.  It took me a good 100 meters for my stride to open back up.  Once I broke out into a full downhill run, I found myself going so fast and hard that I was developing a side stitch.  "Breath, Chas!  Plenty of race left," I told myself.  When Rob came into view, he was making a hard right on the hairpin turn, also running fast.  I could not tell how far Tall Man was behind me, but I was fairly confident I had a firm grip on 2nd place.  I shone my headlamp on the corner of the turn so I could cut the tangent as quickly (and safely) as possible.  "20 seconds," Seth shouted, informing me of the gap between the leader and me.   I shouted a thank you back to him but focused only on the road ahead.  20 seconds...I was still very much in this for the win...
The winding road through the park seemed to go a lot more quickly than on the outbound leg.  Sure, I got to enjoy a little more downhill, but I also got to see the rest of the field and hear their encouraging cheers of "Go get'em," and "Reel him in!"  When I passed Sarah, who looked like a neon Christmas tree with her illumination, she gave me a hearty high-five.
I could see Rob now, and I rarely took my eyes off him.  He was close enough that I could time our gap by whatever landmarks were visible.  I was gaining on him.  I appraised myself; the pace was hard, but I felt like I could sustain it.  As long as I had incentive in the form of a blue-white glow ahead of me, I was going to maintain this pace for as long as it took.
I caught up to Rob at about mile 8.  "I knew you'd catch me," he seemed to lament, "I'll try and keep pace with you for as long as I could."  I didn't speed up or slow down.  I just kept the same, aggressive pace.  I was content to let him tire himself out if that's what it took.  When he said "I'd be ok with 2nd place," I shot back with "C'mon, Rob, there's plenty of race left.  Anything can happen!"  I wanted him to keep pushing, partly to lift his spirits, but also because I didn't want to be a sole front-runner with so much of the race left.  When we reached an aid station at mile 10, I found that I did not need water, so I shot straight past it.  Rob slowed down  to take a cup, yielding sole possession of the lead to me.
3.1 miles left.  Now all I had to do was keep my foot on the gas.  This rolling section had a downhill trend in the beginning of the race, so now it was steadily uphill from here to the finish.  I could not hear footfalls behind me, so I just focused on my own effort, reminding myself that everyone had to run the same hills.  "Sustain the pain," I reminded myself, channeling one of the Reckless Running mottoes.  At 1.5 miles from the finish, I made the left turn off of the park road and back onto 701.  I glanced behind me and saw...something.  It could have been a headlamp, or it could have been a volunteer's light, or it could have been nothing at all.  But I didn't like the look of it, and it was not far enough away for my own comfort, so I dug in for my last 10 minutes of running.  It was not just a straight shot back to where we started.  We had to make a couple more turns off the main road to get to the back side of the drive-in where the previous race had finished.  Each of these turns seemed to add another gentle hill.  I was ready to be done!  When I saw the red glow of the LED lights on the gun clock approaching, I gave one last glance behind me.  There was nothing.  I breathed a sigh of relief...well, actually a gasp of exhaustion, and made a beeline for the finish.  I ripped off my reflective vest on the last dash and threw up my arms in victory!  Official time: 1:31:27, of which I am extremely pleased given the difficulty of the course.  This isn't the first race I've won straight out, but it certainly was the win of which I was the most proud!
The final stretch of the Half Marathon...looking a lot worse for wear than 3 hours earlier.

With my 2nd place in the 5k and my 1st place in the Half, I also was the overall winner for the Double Feature competition, a compilation of times for those who competed in both events.  Alicia was the 1st overall female in the Half and 1st place for the women's Double Feature, and Sarah was 2nd in the Half, earning 2nd in the Double Feature.  Tall Man (who I later found out was named Adam) had overtaken Rob to claim 2nd place in the Half, and Rob finished 90 seconds after him for 3rd.
Now, I have to come back next year to defend my title!

From left: Tall Man Adam (2nd place), me (1st place), and Rob (3rd place).  Usually, the winner is on an elevated pedestal.  Here, it looks as if I'm standing in a hole, but I'm not!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Busy Racing Weekend (Double Recap).

This was a busy weekend for me, race-wise.  After coming off a tough marathon training season, and some equally tough marathons, I was ready to race some different distances on different surfaces.  March 29-30 provided back-to-back opportunities: Sticks & Stones Trail 10k in Matthews and City of Arts Half-Marathon in Winston-Salem.  Game on!


Nothing livens up a quick trail race like some inclement weather leading up to the event.  Saturday morning, the overcast sky had not started leaking rain, but a rainy Friday had left the trails slick enough to be interesting.  Upon arriving at Col. Francis Beatty Park, I met with fellow DARTers Chris Lamperski and Carl Haynes to preview the trail conditions on a quick warm-up.  While the footing would be a bit slippery, the trails looked to be very conducive to some hard, fast running.

As the 10k started, the field covered the first half mile or so on paved roads and paths in order to string out the crowd before hitting the single track trail.  As I expected, Lamperski took the lead from the very start.  Quickly, a lead pack of 6 or 7 runners pulled away, and I was not part of it.  By the time we reached the trail, the leaders were out of reach, but I found myself at the head of a smaller chase pack of about 5 runners.  Minutes later, 2 runners (Mr. Blue and Mr. Silver) passed me courteously in fairly quick succession.  2 other runners’ footfalls remained within earshot, but I never got a very good look at them. 

After a mile, I was pretty confident that the other pursuers would pose no real threat.  Mr. Blue was about 15 second ahead of me, and Mr. Silver was ahead of him and opening the gap.  Both stayed in my view for the next few miles, but I focused mainly on my own effort.  Looking at one’s pace is useless on switchbacked trails, so I planned on maintaining a tempo-ish effort for the first 2/3 of the race, and planned to hammer the pace for the last 1/3. 

“Flow…flow” was the mantra I repeated in my head.  I tried to enjoy the trails without relaxing too much, and I glanced up occasionally to keep tabs on Mr. Blue and Mr. Silver.  The gap they had been opening had stopped growing, so I reminded myself to stride wisely and focus on myself. 

At mile 4 (I think), I noticed Mr. Blue fading back to me.  There weren’t too many killer hills on this course, but some of the switchbacks made for gradual ups and downs.  Mr. Blue kept fading on the uphills.  At around mile 4.5, he finally was fed up with my looming footfalls, so he motioned for me to go ahead and pass.  When I did pass, I could tell by his breathing and his expression that he was burning up far more quickly than me.  I doubted he would be any more of a threat.

Mr. Silver had opened up a large gap, and even though I had picked up the pace, I didn’t think I would have a chance to reel him in.  Instead, I focused on putting space between me and Mr. Blue.  When Mr. Silver came into view, I started counting the seconds between us using landmarks on the course.  15 seconds here…12 seconds there…10 seconds…it was happening very gradually, but I was closing on him.  Would I have enough real estate to get to him?  When we reached a familiar section of trail that Chris, Carl, and I had scouted on our warm-up, I knew we were close to the finish, and I knew there was some technical footing ahead. 

I overtook Mr. Silver with abouta quarter-mile left in the race.  He looked tired, but not yet out of the fight.  I’m always nervous trying to make a decisive pass this late into a race, because it’s at this point where competitors smell blood.  I pushed the pace, but I focused very keenly on the tricky footing, and I tried to look very confident and strong in my stride to discourage Mr. Silver, just in case he had any funny ideas about passing me back.  When I emerged from the trail and onto the paved path, I knew I had less than 100 meters left, so I sprinted to solidify my finishing place. 

I finished in 7th place overall, which was good enough for 2nd in my age group. Carl, who raced the 5k option, earned 4th place overall in his race, and Chris was the overall winner of the 10k.  It was a good day for DART, and this race was the perfect departure from my recent marathon mania.  After a brief cool-down with Carl, I went home to rest up for the next day’s race.

From left: Carl, Yours Truly, and Chris.

I have many friends who make it a point to avoid inaugural races.  Perhaps I should have followed their examples…

The RD of City of Arts Half Marathon had posted on the event website that heavy rain leading up to the event may flood the Salem Creek Greenway on part of the course and cause the Half-Marathon route to be changed and significantly shortened.  While no one wanted this to happen, it would still beat a cancellation with no refund.  At packet pickup, I learned that the greenway was indeed flooded, and the race would be on an alternate course.  Estimates for the new length varied between 15k and “about 12 ½ miles.”  No one knew what to expect.  The start line was almost 2 miles from the finish line and packet pickup, so the RD arranged for buses to shuttle runners to the start.  Only, the two buses were short, 16-passenger airport-like shuttles, and the drivers kept making wrong turns to get to the pick-up location.  The conditions were not optimal; it was cold, there were sustained 20-25 mph winds with 40 mph gusts, and inclement weather was imminent.  I didn’t know if there was a bag check at the start, and I grew tired of shivering while waiting for a shuttle that might not have room for me, so another racer and I decided to run the 1.75 miles to the start in order to get our warm-up in.  Our timing seemed perfect.  We arrived at 7:50 for an 8am start.  However, due to the bus situation, the race did not get underway until 8:18am.  So, several other runners and I tried to avoid shivering by doing strides and jumping around.  The frustration was evident on everyone’s faces.  A light wintery mix began to blow upon us from the overcast sky.  Well, that’s just great… 

When the race finally started, the signal was very abrupt.  The man with the bull-horn said “Ready—BWAAAANG (as he sounded the horn’s siren),” with no warning or pause.  So we all went from a casual upright stance directly into a jarring, straight-to-race-pace run.  Seriously?   3-4 frontrunners shot out and opened up a big lead.  Within minutes, a chase group of 6-7 other speedsters packed together and started pulling away from me.  I was already at a quick pace, so I reminded myself to ignore them and settle in for the waiting game. 

Shortly before the 1-mile mark (according to Garmin, since there were no mile markers), we made a turn onto a paved path leading towards the Salem Creek Greenway.  As soon as we hit the path, a chilling, gale-force wind blasted us from the front.  “F*** me!” I cursed as the freezing air assaulted me and doubled the difficulty of my pace.  Another runner named Hernan crouched behind me and drafted me during this windy stretch.  I couldn’t blame him.  Hernan passed me as we turned onto the greenway proper, and he quickly caught up with the chase pack.  2 more runners—to whom I will refer as Ken and Ken’s friend—caught up to me.  They half-stepped me for about a mile and then passed me, but I settled in right behind them, trying to take advantage of their draft.  After another mile or so, a tall, Vibram-shod runner named John closed in on us and began to orbit our trio.  We formed a third pack, so to speak.  Each of us took turns at the lead, blocking the wind and letting the others conserve energy in the slipstream.  The double-out-and-back section of this greenway allowed us to maintain even splits.  I reached mile 3 at 20 minutes and mile 6 at just under 40 minutes, so I was averaging just under a 6:40 pace.  This would have been my target pace for a Half, so I figured I was doing alright—even for the ambiguously shorter distance—given the wind and the conditions. 

At mile 7, shortly before leaving the greenway, we could see that the chase pack ahead of us was beginning to falter and disintegrate.  The waiting game was playing out.  We crossed a short wooden bridge and closed the distance just as we reached the base of a long, steep hill leading back to the main roads.  Everyone’s pace slowed on the hill, and a chase group reformed, only now it was larger, and I was part of it.  Running en masse were Hernan, John, Ken, Ken’s friend, and a couple of other original chasers I’ll refer to as Joe and Mr. Hoka.  The hill was tough, and everyone was working hard and breathing heavily, but I felt relatively good compared to others around me. 

When we reached the top, I could not see Mr. Hoka with us anymore.  One down.  Here, we had a decent downhill on which to catch our breath.  From the warm-up run, I knew there was another climb approaching, so I resisted the urge to bomb the downhill.  After said climb was an even longer and steeper downhill, so I saved my breath on the hill, and 5 of us let loose on the big descent.  Ken’s friend could not keep up with our rapid descent.  Two down.   When we got to the bottom, Hernan pushed the pace a bit, so John and Joe settled in behind him.  I let them have a few meters and remained content to follow.  I could not see Ken, but I knew he was there without having to look for him. 

We passed within 50 feet of the finish before turning what would be our last 3+ miles.  A different stretch of greenway allowed the group to reform, albeit in a more single-file fashion.  We passed runners from the event’s companion 5k, and often these runners were the only indication of where we should be going.   At the mile 9 mark, we ran straight up a gravel hill in Washington Park that nearly reduced our group to a walk.  When we got to the top and hit the asphalt again, it was tough to get the legs to turn over at race pace again.  The road kept going up…

…And up.  There were no course markings, so we had to follow the blinking lights of whichever traffic control officers we could see in the distance.  By the time we made a ¾ mile loop back around to Washington Park, we were a bit spent.  Running down the gravel hill from before was a bit jarring.  From then on, we had little over a mile left, and most of it was on flat greenway.  The group was still tight.  Joe, Hernan, John, Ken, and I were still within a radius of mere meters.  Knowing the end was near, we all tacitly picked up the pace.  Joe kept running hard, but he did not appear to have the energy for an endgame move.  Moments later, he faded back.  Three down.  A quarter-mile from the finish, we could see our destination, and the pace quickened yet again. 

The rest of the race was like the bell lap of a long-distance track event.  Everyone was waiting to see who would make the first move.  200 meters out, I surged, but not for the kill; I was trying to provoke one of the others into committing too early.  Hernan took the cue and shot out ahead while John stayed on my shoulder.  Ken had had enough of this game and let the three of us go.  Four down.  I kept pushing and closed in on Hernan.  With 30 meters left, I made my last move and jumped out ahead of him.  Hernan was tenacious, though, and he let out one more explosive kick to pass me again within 15 meters of the finish.  John was still right there and threatening!  I didn’t have enough space to retaliate to Hernan’s final sprint, but I could keep John at bay…

In overall ranking order, Hernan finished 7th, I finished 8th, and John finished 9th, all within the narrow span of 1.5 seconds!  Ken crossed the line a mere 5 seconds later to round out the top 10.  We greeted each other with vigorous high-fives and congratulatory hugs.  We had dug hard the whole way and stayed tightly competitive down the wire.  The satisfaction of that finish was worth the debacle that was the rest of the event.  Some of my training buddies wonder why I race so much.  It’s for moments like these.  By the way, my 8th place overall earned my 2nd place in my age group for the 2nd time in as many days.

From left: John (9th overall, 2nd age group), Me (8th overall, 2nd age group), and Hernan (7th overall, 1st age group).  We all finished within the same span of 1.5 seconds.
The Garmin-measured distance for the weather-shortened City of Arts Half-Marathon was 10.87 miles, which was nowhere close to the previously predicted 15k or 12.5 miles.  My time was 1:12:34, which works out at a 6:40 average pace.  Considering the difficulty on the back end of the course and the demoralizing wind and weather, I’ll take it.  Maybe next weekend, my Half will be more like a Half…  Until then, Run Reckless!

8th overall, 2nd age group, and a bit chilly.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Times, Bad Times: Wrightsville Beach Marathon Recap

Having not posted for a while, I'll briefly bring everyone up to speed.  I recovered from an achilles injury, raced some here and there, went through a tough, grinding winter training cycle, and most recently, made another attempt to re-qualify for Boston at Wrightsville Beach Marathon this past weekend.  That race is the subject of this post.
The hay was in the barn.  I had trained hard--perhaps too hard, and had a logistically perfect opportunity to meet my sub-3:05 goal on an undoubtedly fast and flat course in Wilmington, NC.  Running buddy Joey Noto volunteered his dad's beach residence at Kure Beach (~30 minutes from the race) as a home base for a group of us who would be running the Half or the Full.  That group included Joey, Roberta (running the Half as a Boston training run), Amy (looking for a Half PR), Johane, and Jenn (both looking for BQ's).  Johane's husband Marc graciously chauffeured us on the road trip, and Joe Noto Sr. gave us the utmost hospitality, including a delicious, homemade pasta dinner.  After a pleasant, crisp evening walk on the beach, and a decent night's sleep, I was as set up as I was going to be for success.

Team DARTbag!  From left, Joey, Amy, Johane, Roberta, Jenn, and yours truly, in our cozy trash bag tunics.

Race morning came early with the usual jitters.  The weather was good, though not ideal.  Mid-50s temps at the start and high humidity were in the back of my mind.  More on that later.  At least the wind was blessedly calm for a coastal race.  Near the front of the starting corral, I found fellow Charlotte area runner John McCormick, with whom I had connected on Facebook and found that we were both planning to run the same pace for the same goal time (7:00 pace for a 3:03:xx finish).  Olympic marathoning legend Frank Shorter took the MC mic before the start for some brief words of encouragement, and then we were off to a nice, punctual start.
Almost immediately, John and I settled into our planned 7:00 pace.  There was no adrenaline-fueled jump-then-pull-back.  We were relaxed, and my legs felt more fresh than they had in weeks.  Pacing with John was easy, and the time went by quickly.  Conversation was minimal but welcome, and we naturally followed one another through the tangents and tacitly took turns drafting, for which I probably fared better, considering John's substantial height advantage over me.  I could recall and list the splits, but it would be an exercise in copy-and-pasting.  We maintained 7-minute-miles +/- 1 or 2 seconds for every split.  We passed mile 5 at 35:00 and mile 10 at 70:00.
Me and John at mile 5.  John remained consistent throught the whole race and finished very well.

Miles 6-12 took us off the 4-lane thoroughfare that was Military Cutoff Rd (which we would run twice more) and into a residential area.  This winding route had the closest thing to rolling hills that one might find on the course, which were virtually nothing compared to our Piedmont region rollers.  John and I agreed that when we would have to run this section a second time in a little over an hour, it would be a lot more lonely and a lot less enjoyable.  By mile 10, despite my best pre-race efforts, I knew I was going to have to make a stop at a Port-O-Potty.  I told John of my plans and that I may or may not catch up to him.  Around mile 10.5, I found my salvation.  Sparing you of the specific logistics, I was out the door in about 30 seconds, and the brief rest and physical relief enabled me to run better.  Within a couple of minutes, I saw John ahead of me on the course.  I resisted the urge to catch up as that would have been an unnecessary waste of energy.  I was still maintaining the same pace as he, just from a distance.
My split at the half was 1:31:40ish, which was spot on considering my bathroom stop.  On a side note, fellow DARTer and running buddy Dustin Branham was finishing the Half at about this same moment in time to the tune of a 5 minute PR, though I wouldn't know it until later.  I completed the 2+ mile loop around the small Wrightsville Beach community where the first couple of miles of the race took place and then settled in for the course's second loop.  A hard left turn at mile 15 (1:45 into the race, still precisely on pace) steered me back in the direction of the course's larger loop.  On this second outbound section, I crossed a small drawbridge on which I had the opportunity to use the sidewalks before.  However, with two-way foot traffic and most of the lanes open to car traffic, I now was forced onto a coarse metal grate for about 30 feet, which was very uncomfortable on the feet.  At around this time, I crossed paths with Joe and Johane on their inbound leg--right where I predicted I would see them if we all were on pace--and they looked happy and strong!  We exchanged cheers and ran on in our respective directions.
The next mile of Wrightsville Beach Rd and the following couple miles of Military Cutoff Rd put me in a bit of a mental lull.  There was plenty of crowd support, and I was passing dozens of half-marathoners on their final leg to the finish, but my consistent pace required a little more conscious effort.  I was beginning to feel the warmth and humidity, and I was finding it harder to quiet the mind.  At mile 18, when I had separated from the Half-Marathon finishers completely and re-entered the residential section, I began to feel very lonely.  There were runners within view, but they were not in my space of influence.  The second loop of the course added a 1/4 mile out-and-back where Full Marathoners would pick up a sweatband that would be evidence of our completing our second loop.  On this out-and-back, I saw some familiar faces who were struggling, except for John, who looked strong, focused, and relatively relaxed.  Seeing the struggling runners made me more aware of my growing discomfort.  I was breathing quite audibly and actively pushing to maintain my pace.
Somehow, I hit mile 20 at exactly 2:20:00.  Up to this point, this had been the most evenly paced race I had ever run.  However, the cost for each mile was piling up too quickly.  I simply could not sustain my pace any longer.  Somewhere between mile markers 20 and 21, the wheels fell off.  My running friend Allen Strickland calls this point of the marathon "The Darkness," but what I felt wasn't exactly dark.  Rather, I was assaulted by a vivid, technicolor nightmare of agony and hyperventilation.  I broke down and walked.  I recognized my blow-up for what it was and admitted defeat.  Seconds later, I had made peace with it and decided to carry on.  After my 30-second walk break, I eased back into a running stride with a determination of enjoying as much as I could of the rest of the race and still finishing with a respectable time.
The last 5 miles of the race weren't exactly enjoyable, but neither were they excruciating or unnecessarily injurious.  I drank when I could, tried to throw up once or twice in vain, walked 2 or 3 more times, but kept a reasonable mid-7's pace when on the run.  Volunteers continued to cheer me on, including some of them who recognized the glazed over look I must have had on my face.  A few runners passed me, but only a handful.  Once I came out of the neighborhood and back onto Military Cutoff for the final time, I began weaving in and out of groups of marathoners who were on their 16th and 17th miles.  Fellow DARTers Lori and Ashley Ackerman cheered me of and photographed me at around mile 24.5.  I did my best to smile for them, but the long, straight, busy highway was just interminable.

Circa mile 24.5.  The tilt of the camera makes me look like I'm going so much faster than I really was!  Photo courtesy of Lori Ackerman

Even after making the turn into the Mayfaire shopping center, the driveway leading to the final turns to the finish just...carried...on!  One volunteer shouted "...doin' great!  Only half a mile to go!"  A quarter mile later, a different volunteer shouted "Only a half mile left!"  C'mon, people!
Somehow, I mustered the gusto to run hard around the final two turns and come across the finish line looking strong (I think).  Official chip time: 3:11:04.  Marc was near the finish and let me into the car so I could get quick access to my sweat clothes and food.  Seemingly in no time at all, I was in comfort mode and out on the course to help Marc cheer on the rest of the DARTers in our group.  Joey had a perfect race; he paced himself perfectly and felt great enough to pick up his pace at the end and finish with a 3:45, which was right at his A-goal for his first marathon.  He was smiling ear-to-ear!  Jenn had a rough day, similar to my own.  She did not make her BQ goal, but she ran a very respectable 3:48--not too far off her beaming Richmond time.  Johane gave everything she had and finished with a 3:48:59, BQ'ing by just over 6 minutes, and earning her 3rd place in her age group to boot!  Roberta's training run for the Half inadvertently won her 1st place in her age group, and Amy's Half time came very near to her PR, but fell just short.
I'm going to have to stew on this one for a while.  Was my goal just beyond my fitness, or was I not peaking when I should have?  Did the humidity play a large role?  Lots of questions remain.  However, even though the end of the race was a bad passage of time, 80% of the race was great!  This still was the 2nd fastest marathon I've ever run, and it's encouraging to think that I can blow up completely, and still manage a 3:11.  I can't complain about this just was what it was that day.  At least I'll get 5 extra minutes of wiggle room for a new BQ attempt in the Fall.  It'll happen...  Until then, Run Reckless!

...aaaaand here I am with Gumbi...because why not?  Photo courtesy of Marc Hirschfield.