Thursday, April 21, 2016

Awful and Awesome: Boston Marathon 2016

For most sub-elite marathoners, the opportunity to run the Boston Marathon is  peak goal, or at least a perennial one.  I'm no exception.  When I started running races fast enough to believe I could qualify, and then actually started qualifying, Boston became a Golden Shangri-La in my running mind.  That said, during the years, I developed a competitive streak (with myself as well as with peers), so I came to Boston this year not only with the intention of participating in the world's most historic marathon, but of giving the race my very best.  Despite a nagging injury at the beginning of my 4-month training cycle, I trained for Boston as hard or harder than any other PR marathon attempt I've done.
The day before the big race.  That's the finish line and arch on Boylston.

When the mid-April weekend before Marathon Monday came, I was pumped.  I came off a fantastic training block, I had high, high spirits (though I tried to keep most of it on the inside), and everyone around me--family, fellow runners, co-workers, my 3rd grade students--was lifting me up with cheers and well wishes.  I felt like I was going to crush it.  I even dismissed the looming weather reports that called for warmer temperatures and headwinds.  I had raced in warm weather before, and the winds didn't look too bad, right? 
Me and Coach Greg McMillan

The day before the race, I attended a small race meeting held by Greg McMillan of McMillan Running and his team of coaches.  I used a custom made McMillan Plan for Marine Corps Marathon in 2014, and have trained off of his plans (or variations thereof) ever since.  Coach Greg was extremely approachable, and his info session solidified the race plan I already had in my mind.   Like a true running geek, I scribbled notes.  Here's a partial transcription:
          Gear Check
          Sleep (or don't...)

                    Weather tomorrow consistent 60s, headwind
Race Day
          5-10 minute warmup
          Stay loose in corral
          First 12 miles = Autopilot
                    -->Follow Plan          
          Wellesley = wake-up call
          Newton --> lean into the hills
          FLY into Boston
               --no pity parties
               --use crowd, use Citgo sign
               --look up, ahead
               --BE THE PASSER
               --right on Hereford (hill)
               --left on Boylston
               --LONG finish straight
These notes went through my head in the evening and morning leading up to the start, and at various times throughout the race, so they kind of serve as headers for the actual sequence of events.
Morning of.  Pumped  up and ready to go!

First 12 miles = Autopilot
                    -->Follow Plan
I met running friends John, Mike, Tommy, Rick, and Jose at the bus loading area in Boston and we passed the pre-race time together in the Athletes' Village in Hopkinton.  I felt great.  My head was right, and everything was good physically.  All of us save Rick were in the first wave (departing at 10am), but only John and I had the same corral assignment. Of that group, I had spent the most time training with John, and we had very similar plans for the day, so we intended to race together for as much of the race as possible.
After the race announcements, the national anthem, and the hyped-up crowd in Hopkinton, I was getting tingles.  I almost wanted to shoot for an outright PR while waiting in the corral, but the fact that we were already sweating at the start line checked that fleeting aspiration.  When we did cross the blue-and-gold start line, John and I settled into a rhythm right away.  I like to think we're both pretty shrewd racers, so having each other there was especially comforting.  We wouldn't get too far out of hand on those sharp, early downhills, and we almost tacitly agreed on when we could afford to give a pinch more effort to steal back some seconds.  Despite being surrounded by thousands of people who were pace peers with us, we avoided weaving around and wasting energy, and we figured out a fairly minimally damaging way of getting through the over-crowded aid stations. Every time we crossed over a timing mat, we were aware of all of our friends back home tracking us through the B.A.A. website or Boston Marathon app.
The day was hot, and there was no cloud cover, so the bright sun beating down on us  seemed to add to the taxing effort.  But before we knew it, we were through 11 miles in just a hair under 76 minutes.  We were on pace for a 3:01, which was a pretty solid goal, given the temperature.  Both John and I would have preferred a sub-3, but the conditions and course made chances of a negative split slim to none.
Just after that mile 11 mark, I faced the truth that I was going to have to stop and relieve my bladder.  Maybe I would catch up with John, maybe I wouldn't.  After my 15-20 second break, I got back on the road.  John was still in view, but far ahead.  I could barely make out his red shorts and blue D9 Brewing singlet.  I was feeling physically relieved, and I had a little pep in my step, maybe too much pep.  Maybe I would catch up with him...

Wellesley = wake-up call
Not long after the 12th mile marker, I could hear the ruckus that was the infamous ladies of Wellesley College.  Coach Greg had told us that we would hear this scream tunnel from a half mile away, and he wasn't kidding.  I was surprised at how long it took to get to Wellesley after first hearing them.  The ladies did not disappoint; they shouted loudly and crazily, calling runners out specifically.  Many cheered me on saying things like "Go Reckless, we love you!" after seeing my Reckless Running singlet.  I have to admit, I did pick up the pace a bit.
Throughout the town of Wellesley, I could still pick John out in the crowd.  He was still a ways ahead, but I was closing.  When I got to within 5 seconds of him, I went ahead and motored on up to close the gap.  Not my wisest move.  At marathon pace, closing a 5 second gap should take a lot longer than it did.  Come to think of it, I probably should have left John alone until Newton or Brookline--or not caught up at all.  But the camaraderie of racing/suffering together was too much of a draw for me.  John was a bit surprised to see me, but he did a good job of not telling me how much of an idiot I just was.  I didn't need the telling anyway; I had developed a nice little side stitch for my efforts.  I was going to have a long back 12 miles...

Newton --> lean into the hills
As John and I descended the last big drop before the infamous Newton Hills, I tried to repeat the "glide, glide" mantra in my head that kept me in line for the first half of the race.  Already, I could tell the the smoothness was gone and I was making my way toward a survival situation.  When we hit Newton Hill #1, I leaned in as Coach Greg told me, and John and I fared pretty well compared to the field around us.  Some folks were walking, and others were backing off profoundly.  John was looking too good in fact.  Well, too good for me.  This is where my antics in Wellesley were coming back to bite me.   We ran the whole first hill together, but I knew I had used too much effort for this point in the race.  John started pulling away, and I bade him to go on.  Here, I resolved to ignore my time goals and just try to "enjoy" the last 9 miles of the marathon and take in the experience that is Boston.  I wish I could say that I just took it easy and everything felt great, but after 17 hard miles in warm weather with some beat up legs, enjoyment was a very relative term.
The hills in Newton were legit.  From the pre-race briefing and countless conversations with Boston veterans, I knew just how many there were and where to expect them, but that didn't make them any more forgiving.  Still, I leaned into them, and even though I walked through an aid station or two, I ran up every hill.  Even Heartbreak.  I was not going to walk a single step on Heartbreak Hill.  The loud Newton crowds reached a new decibel level at the base of Heartbreak, which was 21 miles into the course.  I settled in and just started turning the legs over.  As I passed people, I beckoned some of them to come on, and some lifted up their heads and joined me for a while.  As long as Heartbreak was, I actually enjoyed grinding it out.  When I saw the sign at the summit that marked the top of Heartbreak, I jumped up with what I imagined to be NBA-caliber vertical to slap the top of the sign.

 FLY into Boston
               --no pity parties
On a good day, with a well-executed race plan, I would have some gas in the tank by the time I crested Heartbreak Hill for the descent towards Brookline.  Obviously, this was not that day.  I actually dreaded the the downhill that followed Heartbreak because my legs were trashed.  There were 5+ miles left, and I wasn't going to get through them without walking through at least a couple of aid stations.  There was no way I was going to fly into Boston like Coach Greg said, but I sure as hell was not going to have my own pity party.  I forced myself to run and made myself earn my walk breaks.  If I walked every time I wanted to, then I may not have done all that much running.

             --use crowd, use Citgo sign
               --look up, ahead
               --BE THE PASSER
After walking through an aid station, I made sure to get all my fluid down, then I waved my arms at the crowd, and they would make damn sure I was running again.  On that, you can count on the people of Boston.  Racers ahead of me and behind me were walking in droves now, but more of them were running, and I was going to be a runner, not one of the walking dead.

               --right on Hereford (hill)
               --left on Boylston
               --LONG finish straight
After passing the Citgo sign, which marks about 1 mile from the finish, it was all about surviving and maintaining.  I was counting down minutes.  Still, even a mile can seem like an eternity in the right (or wrong) context.  When the course passed under the Massachusetts Avenue overpass and away from the screaming spectators on each side, there was an eerie silence except for the footfalls and labored breaths of the other runners.  I admit that I gave in a little bit here and allowed myself one last walk break.  Sure, it would make my last mile last even longer, but I wanted to finish with a smile on my face.  Once I came out of the underpass, I used the crowd once more to bounce me back into a full running gait.  I turned right on Hereford and didn't even notice the bit of incline leading to Boylston.  When I got to the final left turn onto Boylston, I remembered what I always tell my 3rd and 4th grade run club runners whenever they run a 5k: "explode through that last turn!"  And I did.  The crowd was deafening, and the giant scaffold arch loomed far ahead of me.  Coach Greg's words rang true again; this last straight was LONG!  I soaked in every bit of it, screaming and beckoning the crowd as I went.
The moment I crossed the finish line, 3 hours, 16 minutes, and 3 seconds after starting, I went from an elated fireball of emotion to a withered husk.  Instantly, I felt the pain of the whole race, and I had nothing left to hold myself up.  I threw my arms on the scaffold and puffed out breaths that were a strange mix of laughing, sobbing, and dry-heaving.  One of the pink-jacketed medical volunteers appeared next to me and offered me a wheelchair.  "Do I need that?" I asked myself, "do I look that bad?"  I declined, but stayed doubled over on the structure for another moment.  When I finally rallied myself for the long, long, walk down the finishing chute, I thought about how nice that wheelchair would have been.
I thanked every volunteer I saw.  Literally, every one.  It took me nearly 15 minutes to hobble the couple of city blocks out of the chute with gear in hand, but it seemed like hours.  I had no idea where John or anyone else was, and I couldn't muster the dexterity or mental capacity to call or text anyone.  I kept walking until I found a traffic light post to prop myself against at Stuart and Arlington.  There I lay for the better part of an hour until I could gather my bearings and meet John, Tommy, and everyone else at the Commons to begin our celebration.
Me after getting some color back in me.  That finish totally killed me.

The heat and headwind affected everyone.  Many of the Boston veterans, John included, ran much better times in 2015 with relentless rain, and daunting headwinds, but much cooler temperatures.  In fact, in 2015, over 12,000 runners re-qualified for Boston.  In this warm 2016 race, that number was about 1/3 as large.  I was over 16 minutes slower than I would have hoped, but that margin was consistent with many (I daresay most) of the racers that day.  Tommy, who also had hopes for a sub-3, finished with a high 3:16 as well.  John finished strong with a 3:04, including a nice negative split on the last 2 miles.  He was the exception to the rule.  Even the winners were a good 3-4 minutes slower than an average winning Boston time, and that's quite a large margin at the world class level.
As I've said to my family and friends, this was one of the toughest days I've ever had as a runner, but the experience of running Boston is still unmatched.  The stories we marathoners hear and tell about the crowds, the history, and singular personality of this race are all true.  It's too early to say whether I'll run Boston again, but one thing is for certain: it's not just another marathon!
Nearly 27,000 finishers received coveted BAA medals on Monday, but none of them had this waiting for them when they got back to their 3rd grade classroom!  My students are the best!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Tobacco Road Half Marathon Race Recap

With Boston being my primary focus for this season, I knew well in advance that I was going to run a March half marathon as a tune-up.  My choices were Corporate Cup in Charlotte, Tobacco Road in Cary, and Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington.  Tobacco Road happened to fall conveniently at the end of a cut-back week in my training plan, and a bunch of my Davidson area running buddies were going for either the 13.1 or 26.2, so that was that.  After battling an achilles injury this winter, my goals for this race fluctuated over the past few weeks.  My A goal was to break 1:25, which would be possible on an "all-goes-well" day without a nagging injury in the equation.  My B goal was to beat my standing PR of 1:26:16.  Not the softest PR, but still in reach even if not everything went according to plan.  If neither A nor B were in the cards, I was just going to take advantage of the opportunity to book a 13.1 mile workout at anything faster than PR marathon pace.
Since so many DARTers and local friends were going to Tobacco Road, I took advantage of a chance to carpool with Dave (also doing the half) and Chad (doing the full).  11 of us got together for a nice pasta dinner the night before the race, and then Chad, Dave and I nodded off for some fitful rest after watching the USATF Indoor World know, to get in that racing mindset.  Even though Daylight Savings Time started that night/early morning, I was still awake an hour before my alarm and staring at the ceiling until it was time to get ready.
Race conditions were not ideal.  The predicted rain in earlier forecasts was going to hold off until well after the race, but the temperature at the start was still in the low 60s with some noticeable humidity.  This would come into play during the half, and it most certainly would throw a wrench into some of the full marathoners' best laid plans.  After a short warm-up run, I politely shouldered my way to the front of the chute.  There were over 3000 runners at this event, and I didn't want to get log-jammed.   Right under the arch was a taped off section where a couple dozen elite runners lined up.  I recognized Charlotte area runner Chase Eckerd among them, who also was racing the half.  At any Charlotte race, Chase would be a threat to win, or certainly place in the top three, but since Tobacco Road is advertised as a fast course and holds the USATF state championships for marathon and half marathon, Chase was going to have a lot of stout competition.  I lined up right behind the elites, alongside Carrie, a local friend of Dave's who was kind enough to let us park at her house.  Carrie was racing the full and looking for a top 5 finish.
At exactly 8:00am, we were off.  I settled into a brisk pace and let the elite field go, as well as a few folks who started near me.  By the time we climbed the first gentle hill out of the USA Baseball Training Complex about a half mile in, I was in about 30th place, right where I expected to be, and among what appeared to be my "pace peers."  The Tobacco Road course is one out-and-back, with the first and last 2.5 miles on rolling, four-lane roads, and the middle 8+ miles on the American Tobacco Trail (ATT), a straight, very finely crushed gravel/cinder path.  Compared to our regular training routes in the Davidson area, the rolling roads along the first two miles were fairly tame, but I still noticed the inclines while trying to maintain a PR half marathon pace.  The first two miles were in the 6:30+ range, which was too slow for a 1:25.  I was already starting to feel the heat, so the necessary negative split to reach my A goal was looking less and less likely.  I was feeling way too out-of-breath for an 85+ minute effort.
About mile 2.5, just before hitting the ATT.  I'm in the white singlet.  I was with a decent pace group, but the elite female runner in the left side of the frame dropped out of the race a few minutes after this.  Photo courtesy of Megan May

When we broke left onto the ATT, I was pleased at how nice the surface felt under foot.  I was a nice, semi-soft reprieve from the hard asphalt, but it was still a fast surface.   A couple minutes into the ATT, I had to stop off to the side and give up 15 or so seconds to relieve myself from over-hydration, but I could still see my pace peers when I set back to running.  I caught up with them without too much wasted effort.  The next 2.5-3 miles were the only stretch during the race where I felt like I had a rhythm.  Much of this had to do with the very gradual downhill that carried me toward the turnaround.  I knew it would turn into a long, gradual uphill once I doubled back, but I had to enjoy the rhythm while I had it.  I fell in with a couple of other runners here and there and we used each other for pacing, but as runners drifted back, I found myself in a no-man's land for much of the race.  After 6 miles, I saw the leaders coming back on the inward leg of the race.  Chase was 9th or 10th and visibly taxed.  A labored smile was about all he could offer me.
A few minutes later, I made it to the turnaround with a net split of 42:38.  If I were to maintain that pace, I would be in the low 1:25s, but the return leg of the course did not favor even splits, much less negative splits.  As soon as I made the 180 degree turn northbound, it was hard for me to turn the legs over for 6:25 pace.  6:35s were more realistic.  My B goal became the priority and I starting digging back towards the rest of the field.  Miles 8-10.5 were one long grind as the course trended gradually uphill back to the road.  I saw many friends along the way, including a PR-paced Allison, a smiling Dave, and a laid-back Allyson and Barrie.  Some other runners shouted my name, but I was so focused on trying to maintain a hard pace and not lose my B-goal that I didn't register everyone who called out.
Me in suffer mode at the 10.5 mile mark, just about to return to the pavement.  There were worse photos of me during this part of the race...  Photo courtesy of Megan May.

Despite the lovely surface of the ATT, I was ready to be back on the road and hoping the change in surface would let me grab back some of the seconds I was losing while I was trying to hang on during those late middle miles.  When I finally hit the asphalt, I had to re-calibrate to the hard surface, but I was able to push my pace a smidgen.  It's not that my legs were sore; my breathing just couldn't keep up.  So, as I ran along the shoulder of the road and into the sun, I closed my eyes and started counting breaths to match a pattern to my strides.  No other runners were within reach, so I had no rabbits to chase.  I just had to watch the clock keep counting up while the last few mile markers went by.  I was behind pace for my B goal after coming off the ATT, and I was just barely on pace once I got to mile marker 12.  I just had one more climb and then a downhill finish into the baseball complex.
On that last climb, I ignored the watch.  I knew I was hemorrhaging seconds and my lungs were toast, so I resisted the urge to check the time until I got to the last turn.  Once I got to that point, which was almost exactly a half mile from the start line, I did the math and figured I could PR if I ran that last 800 in 3:15 (6:30 pace).  The downhill helped, and I could feel my turnover coming back.  When I got to the mile 26 mark for the full marathon, I knew I was within 360 meters--less than a lap around a track--so I gunned it.  A quick glance at my watch confirmed I had a PR in the bag and a chance at sub-1:26, so I gritted my teeth for the last few moments.  I came in at 1:25:53 on the gun clock, with a net chip time of 1:25:50, a 26 second PR.  To boot, I had won 2nd place in my age group, which I did not expect for a race this size with such stiff competition.  I had to fight hard for it though.  That half marathon felt very much like a 13.1 mile 5k!
PR!  Woohoo!  But it hurt!
Dave came through the finish line a little while later and I met up with him after we both had cooled down.  He also had to fall back on his B goal and was very content to barely make it.  Unfortunately, we were pretty much the only folks who came out of that day with an accomplished goal in the books.  Carrie did not fair badly.  She won 6th place overall female with a 3:11, which was just a minute slower than she though she would run in these conditions.  Most of our Davidson friends had to pull the plug on their BQ attempts and just coast it in for the finish.  Training buddies Brian, Derek, Matt, Rachel, and Richard all had respectable times (including PRs for Richard and Rachel), but they were several minutes past their individual goals.  Chad abandoned his goal early and elected to run with Richard, which probably benefited both of them.  The legendary Bobby Aswell finished in 3:24, which is great considering he had just ran Myrtle Beach Marathon the week before.  As Bobby would say, "That's the marathon!"  Sometimes, you do everything right, but some factors just conspire against you.  Tobacco Road was a warm, tough slog, so everyone who ran it--even those who had to drop--got their money's worth that day.
Here is my Strava data for the race.
From left: me, Derek, Chad, Dave, and Matt enjoying some well deserved beers.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Shoe Review: Skechers GoRun Ultra Road

The GoRun Ultra Road out of the box.
 Usually, I like to do shoe reviews after I've put about 50 miles on the shoes.  That's enough time to get to know the shoe for better or worse, but it's still well within the"sweet spot" of the shoe's lifespan.  I never got around to reviewing the Skechers GoRun Ultra Road at the 50-mile mark because I was too busy in the middle of my training for a PR marathon.  Now, months later, I've put nearly 300 miles on the GoRun Ultra Road (GRUR), but this review will be surprisingly similar to it would have been at the 50-mile mark.  That at least should tell you something about the shoe's longevity.
For Q4 2015 and Q1 2016, Skechers Performance has expanded and diverged the maximalist GoRun Ultra line to include the road specific GRUR reviewed here and the GoTrail Ultra 3 (notice the name change).  This allows for the GRUR to stack up more directly against other maximalist road running shoes from Hoka OneOne or Altra.  However, the GRUR should be seen as an animal all its own, and not just a spec-for-spec contender against any one particular model.
Fit and Comfort
The GoRun Ultra R features a Fitknit upper with synthetic overlays.  The Fitknit on the GRUR is very comfortable and allows for some popping color, but it's a more coarse knit than Nike Flyknit; more like adidas Primeknit, but with a more structured feel.  So, for a knit upper, I would say the GRUR has a fairly high volume fit, which is useful for a high-mileage trainer.  The coarseness of the knit also allows for plenty of breathability between the threads.
The sockliner is perforated, which is impossible to notice while wearing the shoe, but this helps with the GRUR's unique method of moisture management.  The midsole is also perforated, but rather than there being gaps on the bottom of the shoe that let water in from underfoot, the drainage holes are on the side of the ample stack height, letting water roll out like a fancy mini-golf trap-door obstacle.  My feet have not gotten wet in the GRUR from simply running on wet roads.
This perforated sockliner lets moisture out of the shoe.

The drainage ports in the midsole of the GRUR.  You can get a good view of the texture of the knit upper in this photo too.
Midsole, Outsole, and Ride
What defines the Skechers GoRun Ultra line is the high, maximal stack height (26mm toe, 30mm heel) combined with the proprietary M-Strike midsole profile.  Many other maximalist shoes make use of similarly practical rocker shapes, such as the Altra Olympus and Paradigm, and all of the oversized or ultra-sized Hoka models, but the Resolyte in the GRUR gives it a different feel underfoot.  It would be apples and oranges to compare the GRUR to the Hoka Bondi or Clifton because the Hoka CMEVA and the Skechers Resolyte are such different "flavors."  The Skechers GRUR is heavier than the Clifton, and about the same weight as the Bondi (10.3oz), but the responsive midsole is more reminiscent of Hoka's RMAT, which is used in the Conquest, Vanquish, and recently discontinued Huaka.  This responsive foam tends to "give back" a little, which is nice when you want to pick up the pace, even though you're probably not going to reach for the GRUR for your next fast 5k.
Another benefit of the--well, not firm, but less marshmallowy--foam is that the shoes have a much longer lifespan than any the CMEVA Hoka or earlier GRU models.  I don't run in the Paradigm, but I expect the GRUR to outlast those.  They are more responsive than my Altra Olympus (also near 300 miles), and I only attribute the Olympus' longevity to strategically placed outsole rubber.  By comparison, my Bondi 4s are very diminished in quality of ride, and my Cliftons were totally dead before 250 miles.  I'm a  straight-on, midfoot striker with high cadence (190+) who weights under 140 pounds, so it's not like I'm putting a lot of stress on these other shoes.  The GoRun Ultra Road just holds up better, even without much outsole to speak of.  Like other Skechers Performance trainers, the Resolyte acts as a midsol/outsole, and is a bit more built-up in the midfoot (M-Strike technology), but the only real "outsole" spots are the dot-shaped pods that allow for strategic ground feel and durability.  So even though the GRUR is a large shoe by most people's standards, it's not clunky.  If feel like I can run in my natural form in the GRUR, which I can't say for all maximalist shoes.
The underside of the GRUR practically new out of the box...
...and the same underside a few months later with 300 miles on them.  Other than some expected wear on the lateral edge (due to my midfoot striking), the show has held up very well.

The Skechers GoRun Ultra Road is a great choice for a high-mileage, maximalist trainer if you want something different--and more affordable--than your average Hoka.  It provides a small touch of springy response amid the soft, long-run catering shock absorption that has made the maximalist trend so popular.  The cushion compound is great for the many road-pounding miles logged while putting in base for your next marathon, or even racing road ultras in the 50-100 mile range (hence the name).  At $115, take a look at this shoe for your soft run alternatives.  Good show, Skechers Performance!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Shoe Review; Saucony Breakthru 2, 50 miles in.

I've been spending a lot of time in performance trainers lately.  I absolutely love to race and do speed workouts in racing flats, and I occasionally reach for more minamalist or lower-drop shoes, so your average performance trainer is more like a cushioned daily trainer in my rotation.  I have close to 300 miles into my Brooks Launch 2 (not sure if I'll get the Launch 3,which is very similar in my opinion), so I picked up a pair of Saucony Breakthru 2.  The Breakthru is a shoe that's geared directly toward the Brooks Launch/Mizuno Wave Sayonara crowd.  It's a daily-to-uptempo trainer that could be called upon for some longer race work.  Here are my thoughts after 50 miles.

Although there's nothing special or fancy about the Breakthru 2's aesthetics, it's a pretty handsome shoe in my opinion.

The shoe looks nice.  Not outstanding or garish, and not plain or drab.  Saucony dropped the sublimated printing from the original Breakthru for a slightly more understated, yet classier look.  I love the ViziOrange colorway too!  My Breakthru 2s look like a tough, older brother to my orange Type A6s.  
A complaint I hear from several trusted sources in the running shoe community was that the original Breakthru was snug with an ill-fitting toe-box.  Saucony's description implied that the Breakthru 2 is slightly roomier.  I ordered my true-to-size men's 9.5 and felt that the fit was right.  The Breakthru 2 is a slightly snug shoe, but I'd call it secure-snug, not tight-snug.  My toes never felt uncomfortable.  There is a hard heel counter, but it's not something I notice while running.  There's nothing special about the sock liner.  It's not the soft, creamy heel-cup you might find in the Brooks Launch 2/3 or in any of the Saucony ISO series, but it doesn't need to be.  It gets the job done.  The overall fit is locked-down and secure for business.
The Breakthru 2 has pretty decent outsole coverage with enough rubber (XT900 and IBR+) to keep it sturdy.

Midsole and Outsole Design
The Breakthru 2's midsole uses SSL (Saucony Super Light) EVA with a full length PowerGrid drop-in.  The Breakthru line has not yet integrated Everun into the midsole like many of the other core trainers, but this may be an update for future models.  The flex-grooved outsole consists of hard XT-900 rubber on high-wear areas (on the heel and under the big toe) and lighter IBR+ over the rest of the covered areas.  The combination of these rubber compounds make up about 70% of the underside of the shoe, with the rest being exposed EVA to save weight and provide some flexibility.  
A comment that circulated about the original Breakthru was that the midsole was firm and stiff.  Compared to most trainers, I would use those words to describe the Breakthru 2 as well.  Remember, this is a trainer, but it's geared toward faster running.  It makes sense that it bites back a little.  Whether or not this is a positive or a negative depends on your preferences.  The 50 miles I've put on the shoe so far has consisted of a couple of easy daily runs, a fast-finish long run, a super-easy recovery run with my 3rd-grade students, an OrangeTheory Fitness class that included a treadmill run, and a tough, hilly, tempo interval workout.  Aside from the OTF class, all of these runs were on the roads.  At easy paces, the Breakthru 2 felt a little more stiff than smooth, but as I picked up the pace, the shoe began to shine.  As I approached marathon pace, stiffness became smoothness with a crisp response.  When doing a fast 5 miles at near 10k pace at the end of a 17-mile fast-finish long run, I didn't feel that I was fighting the shoe at all.  Same goes for my hilly tempo interval workout later in the week.  This shoe may not be the shoe I would reach for when I'm starting an easy run on pre-fatigued legs, but if I'm doing some pace work that includes some substantial mileage--more than I'd like to do in a pair of racing flats--the Breakthru 2 might get the nod.  I would consider it a very viable marathon racer for most runners, although like most shoe geeks with too many shoes, they may not be my first choice to race 26.2.
If I like the Brooks Launch 2 or 3, would I like the Breakthru 2?  Probably.  The Launch is a a little more shoe, and I think it's a little cushier.  The Breakthru is nearly an ounce lighter (at my size), and possibly a tad more efficient at faster paces.  These shoes definitely compete for the same audience, and they are both a very reasonable $100 MSRP. 
If I like the Mizuno Wave Sayonara, would I like the Breakthru 2?  I think so.  I've run in the Sayonara 1 & 2, and I've worn the 3 for short periods of time.  I think the Breakthru has a better overall fit and ride.  It's feels somewhere between the Sayonara and The Wave Rider 18/19 in comfort and response.  For the price and satisfaction, I prefer the Breakthru 2.
If I like the New Balance Vazee Pace, would I like the Breakthru 2?  Maybe, but likely not as much. As far as performance trainers go, I think the Vazee Pace has the Breakthru beat in nearly every category.  The Breakthru is stiffer, a little heavier, and not quite as roomy in the toe-box.  However, it is $10 cheaper.  I've not yet run a full marathon in either the Vazee or the Breakthru, but the extra distance may make a difference in this comparison as far as how the differing amounts of cushion under the feet come into play in the late stages of a long race.
Overall Take:
I like the Breakthru 2.  Like, but not love.  I appears to be a quality update from the original, and it is a truly great value at $100.    I think I'll use it just as much as my Launches, and I won't be disappointed, but it comes just short of having that X-factor that makes me want to show up and run a race in them or enjoy a nice, 22-mile long run in them.  Not bad, Saucony, not bad.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Peak to Creek 2015: The White Whale

Any marathoner who has finished between the times of 3 hours and 3:10 (I've had three marathons in that range) has had that fleeting thought: "maybe I can run a sub-3..."  That fleeting thought then blossoms into a stretch goal, then a hunger, and then an obsession.  There's an allure about having a personal best marathon time that begins with the numeral 2.
That's the White Whale I was chasing at this year's Peak to Creek Marathon, and that's why I haven't posted anything on this blog since Grandfather Mountain Marathon nearly three-and-a-half months ago.  Other than a couple of fun races that I did as tune-ups or workouts, I tunneled all of my focus into training for a sub-3 marathon at P2C.  Three years ago, when P2C was still called Ridge To Bridge, I ran my standing PR of 3:04:07.  After nearly matching that at Marine Corps Marathon last year, I figured I could make the requisite <3% improvement to achieve my goal as long as I put in the work and followed the same race strategy as 2012.
Fast forward to race morning.  Unlike the brisk and clear 40 degrees of three years ago, this year's P2C marathon would start in the mid-50s with dense fog.  I usually prefer a little cooler for a marathon start, especially since the fog was an indicator of humid air.  The fog also limited the visibility on course to less than 100 feet, so most of the picturesque views up on Jonas Ridge were shrouded in gloom.  Nothing to do but focus on the task at hand.
Me with Bobby Aswell at the start.  The fog in the background doesn't fully illustrate what the gloom actually looked like that morning.

As per most of David Lee's races, we started with very little ceremony.  I had corresponded with a handful of runners prior to the race who all were targeting 180 minutes, so we formed an informal pace group and held each other accountable for the first few miles (with everyone adhering to my conservative-early race plan).  The rolling 5.5 miles atop the ridge kept a favorably easy-going 6:55 pace, which was purposefully slower than the 6:52 needed for a sub-3 finish, but well within the margin that the mountain would help us make up.
After our second time through the aid station at the top of the mountain, my group of about six runners settled into a comfortable downhill in the <6:40 range.  The key here was to stay relaxed.  We reassured each other with friendly conversation and quick mental math at each split.  By mile 9, much of the group had broken up and fallen behind.  A runner named Ryan stayed with me, and he and I would be accompanied by a revolving door of sub-3 hopefuls as the race went on.
After 10 miles, there was a sneaky little uphill in the middle of the long downhill section, and while it wasn't much, it was enough to make one work after the complacency of a sustained downhill.  I was prepared for it and I had warned Ryan as well.  More jarring than the uphill was an especially steep couple of miles of drop that followed.  I did not even look at my splits for this section because I was too busy trying to step gingerly, keep my turnover tight, and not brake too hard by reflex.  In retrospect, I could have all three of those things better...
We passed through the half at just under 1:28, which was good as far as banked time, but I was already starting to feel a little beat up.  With a couple more miles of downhill left, I hoped I hadn't already sabotaged my legs for the long flat section that made up the final 10 miles.  When we hit the flat out-and-back at the bottom of the mountain, I settled into race pace (6:50) right away and did my best to ignore the growing rubbery feeling in my legs.  Ryan was in good spirits, so I did my best to project the same positive attitude.  At this point, with a little bit of cushion built up, any splits we clocked at race pace were just money in the bank.
Somewhere between mile 17 and 18, my GPS watch lost satellite connection, so I had no input for pace or distance.  "I've lost GPS," I said to Ryan in a level tone that a pilot might use to keep his passengers at peace when engine #1 caught fire.  Shortly after, his watch began to go in and out of connection.  We were flying blind, just like the real marathoners before the 2003.  From here on, we would run by feel, which was strangely liberating.  Luckily, the chronometer still worked on my Garmin, so I could see my race time and manually record splits at every mile marker.
The conversation between Ryan and me grew pretty thin as we passed through 20 miles.  I remember saying something like "...only 10k left, and we have almost 45 minutes to do it."  They were meant to be encouraging words, but there was an aftertaste of accountability to them.  Mile 21-22 is where I hit my lowest point.  I had been running hard for almost 2.5 hours, and there was just enough of the course left to make the remaining time--and growing pain--seem daunting.  I tried to rationalize things, maybe blaming low blood-sugar for my turn in attitude.  I tried to tell myself that I had done harder things before, but I was beginning to doubt if that was true.  "If you feel good," I told Ryan, "go for it.  I can hold this pace, but it's all I got."  Ryan did not move ahead.  On we went into pain.
Shortly after mile 23 is when my self-reckoning came.  "F*** this!" I said to myself.  I surged ahead.  My increase in pace may not have been all that dramatic, but I had a turn of attitude.  If the rest of it was going to hurt, I was going to make it hurt for less time.  Ryan faded back slowly, but he continued to run hard.  Over the next 15 minutes of running, other runners appeared ahead on the dirt road, steadily faded back to me, and gave me kudos as I ran past.  Thomas, who would be the 1st place Masters winner, overtook me in the last mile.  He was looking great, and my beef was not with him, so I cheered him on and let him go.
Brown Mountain Beach Resort came into view within the last mile.  This was the finish line, but I well remembered the last half-mile would be a loop around the whole of the Resort parking lot.  All I had to do was keep running and I would get my sub-3.  It seems so simple in retrospect, but it was truly agonizing at the time.  Upon passing the mile 26 marker, I realized I had a shot at sub-2:59, so I poured on whatever I had left.  Running form and poise went out the window for the last couple hundred meters; it was just a sloppy charge with the last ounces of gut I had left.
Official finish time: 2:58:55.  I found my White Whale.
I had gotten 10th place (3rd in my age group), but a handful of runners finished between me and the 3 hour mark.  Ryan was 15th place and came in at 2:59:48, the last runner to finish in under three hours.  We greeted and congratulated each other like long lost brothers.  Thomas joined us in the revels and credited us with his sub-3 PR.
Finished and totally depleted.
Sub-3, baby!

Fellow DARTer and Reckless Running brand ambassador Bobby Aswell finished in 3:18, and fellow Umstead 100 alumnus Bill Weimer finished in cramp induced 4:21.  This course can be fast if you play it right, but no matter what, it leaves you beat down at the end.  I still have not run since finishing this race, and it took me three days to even feel like I could walk right.  It will be a pretty subdued season for me for the rest of 2015, including pacing a couple of races.  My next White Whale will have to wait until Boston in April!
Bobby and me again, post-race.  In pain, but not showing it!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Great Scot! Grandfather Mountain Marathon Recap

I expected a hard run at Grandfather Mountain Marathon, and I was not disappointed.  I drove up to Boone the night before the race to meet my one time nemesis Sam, grab a leisurely dinner, and take a convenient night's rest on the Appalachian State campus, a few minutes' walk from the GMM's start at Kidd Brewer Stadium.  Luckily, the temperature in Boone for out 6:30am start was about 10 degrees cooler than our part of the state, but the humidity was still high, and I could have stood it to be quite a bit cooler for a marathon.
A collage of images from the GMM course, taken from the race website.

GMM is nice and old school: no electronic chips, no timing mats; just a stopwatch, a bull horn, and a starter pistol at the start.  The race began with nearly two laps around the track at the stadium before spilling out the main gate, merging onto River St through campus, and then hopping on Rte 321 through Boone.  As per my original race plan, I used this flat open street section of the race to establish a 7:20 pace/effort.  The pace wasn't coming as effortlessly as I had hoped, but I told myself I just needed to get warmed up and then everything would lock in.
After a couple of miles, we turned off 321 to a side street that took us out of town and up into the first of many long climbs.  Immediately, my pace deteriorated, but this was also part of the plan.  I was not going to shoot myself in the foot by trying to kill these climbs early on.  I just maintained an even effort and thought about putting one foot in front of the other.  When I came off the track in the beginning of the race, I was in 14th place.  By shortly after the 3rd mile marker, I was in 11th, and I could tell by the breathing of those I passed that I probably wouldn't see them again.  Before I lost contact of the leaders, they had formed a pretty substantial pack ahead of me.  I kept telling myself that this was a long race and I would reach some of them in time.  Spoiler alert: I didn't.  I stayed in 11th place for the rest of the race and ran the last 23 miles in solitude.  That in itself was a challenge.
One cannot run Grandfather without expecting some long, relentless climbs, so to prepare, hills naturally become a regular part of most training runs and workouts. However, there are precious few hills in our local area that emulate the climbs of the GMM course.  I guess running Grey Road and loops of Abersham Park would come close, but those aren't exactly convenient out-the-door running routes (except for Sam, lucky bastard).  So I settled in and let the pace fall where it may.  Since the first half of the course has several significant downhills as well, I was able to make up some of that pace and get a relative breather for some extended stretches.  Of course, one must be careful on the downhills too; they're great for picking up some speed, but bombing them too hard will sabotage the quads for the back half of the race.  I think I hit them just right.
With no one around me, and a scarcity of personnel on the course, there wasn't much to occupy my focus except my own running and how I was feeling.  Even at a conservative pace, the climbs will chip away at you.  I worked on my breathing cadence, did the math on my watch to try and figure out how off it was from the mile markers, and tried to let the brain cling to anything else.  Then, somewhere between mile markers 9 and 10, something clicked.  I was in the middle of a long hill under a tree-canopied stretch of winding mountain road, and the effort seemed to melt away.  I fell into a zone that can only be described as "Smooth."  The rest of the hill gave way and I took my renewed sense of vigor to the Blue Ridge Parkway a couple of miles farther.
Once I ran around the on-ramp to the Parkway, I settled into the longest and straightest downhill stretch of the course.  Once again, I found my Smooth and let the legs turn over, allowing my mind to take a break and just enjoy the run.  I logged my my fastest mile of the race here, a 6:41.  I knew the crux of the race would come after the 16th mile mark, so repeated the mantra, "Maintain the Smooth," in my head for the rest of the Parkway.  The serene views of Moses Cone State Park helped.
After exiting the Parkway, I took a couple more turns that led to Clarence Newton Road, which is about a mile of gravel drive that ends in the steepest grade of the course.  Knowing what this section was going to be like, I just resolved to shuffle on the hill.  Running hard would not have been much faster, but it would have depleted a lot of energy.  I was still moving forward, and I was going faster than walking, so that was good enough.  Better yet, I was breathing relatively comfortably.  When I got to the aid station at the top of the gravel hill, I was almost surprised at how short a time it took, but then I turned right onto Rte 321, and the course just kept going up and up.  No more shuffling, I had to find my stride again and keep the pace up.  There were no more sustained downhills to give me a break.
Here and there, I could catch a glimpse of Brian Kistner (from Ellerbe Marathon), but he was no more than a white speck at the top of a long hill.  Still, it was encouraging to be remotely aware of another runner.  Before I knew it, I was at mile 20.  I told myself before the race that mile 20 would be where I would find another gear and try to get some time.  I was over 5 minutes ahead of my anticipated time for getting to that mark, but there was no way I was going to lay down 7-minute miles for the last 10k.  I did rally to produce a couple of miles in the low 7:20s, but the last 3 miles of the course were a long, uphill slog.  I was rewarded by some beautiful views of both the panoramic countryside and the large, granite rock outcroppings along the road, but more and more, I felt the reminder of my protesting legs.
The last couple of miles were fully exposed, allowing the sun to beat on me, and the highway continued straight and up.  I saw a couple of runners out of reach in the distance (not Brian; he had made up a lot of ground), so I spurred myself on, trying to count down the minutes to my estimated finish.  A half mile from the finish, we turned off the highway and onto a gravel path leading to McRae Meadows, the sight of the Highland Games and the marathon finish.  I heard the drone of the bagpipes before turning off the highway, and I drove my legs forward.  Almost there.  There were pipers, tartans, and Scottish flags everywhere.  I pumped my arms to gain the top of the last little hill leading onto the gravel running track and broke out into my last gear for the final lap to the finish.  My last gear didn't have much extra speed to offer, but there was no lack of adrenaline as 15,000 highlanders cheered from the bleachers and heavy things were being tossed by giant gingers in the infield.  I crossed the finish line at 3:19:20, over three minutes faster than my predicted finish, and just under my super-secret stretch goal of 3:20.  And my body was completely trashed.
I waddled my way to the marathon tents next to the path leading up to the track, found my change of clothes, choked down some food and fluids, chatted with winner (for the 2nd consecutive year) Caleb Maslund, and waited for my friends to finish.  Shortly after, the winning female ran by.  Fittingly, she was from Glasgow, Scotland!  She remarked about how great a treat it was to finish among the bagpipes and kilts.  Sam followed her by a few minutes and finished in a very respectable 3:38, also in a kilt.  To boot, he won 2nd place in his age group.  DURT teammate Stan Austin finished in 3:45, Chad Randolph came in smiling for his 13th GMM finish in 4:02, and David Moore rounded out the DART crew with a 4:40.
3:19 and totally satisfied!
2nd AG and 2nd overall kilt!
Grandfather Marathon #13 for Chad!
David looking too energetic to finish this race...
Photo by Chad Randolph.

To add to the satisfaction of the day, I didn't lose either of the challenges in play with Sam or Dave.  I did not get beaten by Sam at GMM, so I don't need to go skirt shopping; and I finished before Dave finished his international tri, meaning I don't have to commit to triathlon training.  Whew!

Here is my Strava record of the race.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Grandfather Mountain Marathon Preview: More At Stake

Since I started running marathons in 2011, Grandfather Mountain Marathon has been on my list.  With well over 3000 feet of elevation gain on the point-to-point course, GMM has a long and notorious reputation as one of the most challenging road marathons in the country.  Needless to say, it's not a PR course, but I intend to show up to compete.  The race field caps at 500, and while I don't have any concrete time goals, I think a pretty ambitious stretch goal would be to land in the top 10 finishers.  After looking at the results from the last 10 years, 10th place has ranged anywhere from 3:05 to 3:38, so that goal is kind of a crap shoot depending on the conditions and the competitive field.
More than an arbitrary time or place goal, there are two other wagers that depend on the outcome of this race, both involving different respective sometime nemeses, Sam and Dave (no, not the soul duo).  Sam, against whom I settled the score last December, will be using GMM as a training run for Grindstone 100.  As a sub-term of his penance for losing our bet, he will be racing in a skirt...okay, well, a kilt.  Considering the GMM is a prelude to the Highland Games, he will not be the only one in a kilt.  However, if Sam bests me during this race, I will have to wear a skirt (or kilt) during a requisite number of public group runs for the remainder of the year.  So whether I'm competing or not, I certainly can't lollygag.
 Also in my mind will be newly re-branded triathlete Dave Munger, against whom I will be racing from afar.  Dave will be racing the Stumpy Creek International triathlon (like an Olympic distance tri, but with a slightly longer bike).  GMM will start at 6:30am in Boone, and Stumpy Creek will start at 7:00am (+9 minutes for Dave's start in the 4th wave) in Mooresville.  Whoever finishes first wins.  Dave is shooting for a 2:45, and assuming we both start on time, I will have a 39 minute head start on him.  So a 3:24 would have me finish on par with Dave's A goal, but that's assuming he's not being too conservative with his predictions.  Also, a 3:24 at GMM is no regular 3:24.  For comparison, here is a link to my Strava record of the very challenging Ellerbe Marathon, and here is a link to a friend's Strava record of GMM.  As you can see from the silhouettes of the respective elevation profiles, I have my work cut out for me.  If I lose, I will have to do a triathlon, something for which I've never trained.  If that's the case, I hope Dave takes it easy on me and keeps my obligation to a sprint tri.  If I win, Dave has agreed to do the Murph WOD (run 1 mile, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, run another mile; all for time), an undertaking for which he feels equally uncomfortable.
Since this is not a PR or BQ attempt, but rather a don't-screw-up race, I will have a very different strategy from a conventional marathon.  In the precious few flat sections of the race, including the first couple of miles, I'm going to try and dial in a 7:20ish pace, which is significantly slower than my usual marathon pace, but conservation is the name of the game here.  As I negotiate the upward trend of long, steady climbs, I will try my best to maintain the same effort I dialed in for the flat 7:20s and let the pace fall where it may.  Experienced GMM runners always warn about one particularly steep climb up a gravel road in the 17th mile.  I have absolutely no expectations for this climb.  I'll just low-gear it, walk if I have to, and try not to be breathing too heavily once I reach the top.  Hopefully, by mile 20, will have maintained a sub-8 minute overall pace (about 2:40 or less on the race clock) and have enough juice left for a 10k kick.  On a perfect day, I would pick up the pace and take that last 10k in 43 minutes, but that will be a daunting task considering all the climbing I will have under my legs at that point.  That would give me a 3:23 or under.  I'd be happy with slower than that, but not with Sam and Dave looming in the back of my mind.
It will be a challenging day, but I'm not ready to go shopping for skirts or practicing brick workouts just yet!