Thursday, October 30, 2014

Oorah! Marine Corps Marathon 2014

As I write this, it's been two years to the day since the last time I qualified for Boston.  I ran my guts out at Ridge To Bridge (now Peak To Creek) in 2012 to qualify by a mere 53 seconds.  Much can change in two years, chiefly my qualifying time for Boston.  This Fall racing season is the first in which I could qualify with a sub-3:10 instead of a sub-3:05.  This is especially significant because my 53 second window was not large enough to actually get me into Boston 2014 (in which I would have needed a 1:38 window).  Although I retained much of my fitness and speed over the past two years, the faster efforts were getting harder, and after a crash-and-burn BQ attempt at Wrightsville Beach, I figured I would need those extra five minutes.  A sub-3:10 would require my second fastest marathon at the very least.  A 3:08 would be a much safer bet for Boston.  Still, part of me longed to get another sub-3:05, just to prove that it wasn't just a fast, downhill course and perfect race conditions that qualified me two years ago.
Enter the Marine Corps Marathon.  I've always wanted to do this race, and having gotten in via lottery, 2014 was my chance.  This was my focus race, and I curtailed my usually busy racing schedule to put forth the proper discipline into a regimented four months of training.  I wasn't going to waltz my way in and expect to run fast like I tried to do at Wrightsville.  The plan was tough, but I trained through the hot summer, chose a handful of favorite tune-up races, and put all my eggs in the MCM basket.  It wasn't really until I ran an unexpected PR at Lungstrong 15k that I started to think "OK, I got this."
I did everything right in the preceding week: tapered mileage (but not too much), maintained high intensity, adequately hydrated, ensured proper sleep (mostly), and optimized my carb-calorie ratio.  Heidi and I also arrived in the capital on the Friday night before the Sunday race to make sure all I had to do on Saturday was pick up my packet at take it easy.  If I were to have a bad race, it would not be due to lack of preparation.
Fast forward to race day.  I woke up on the first alarm (no snoozing) at 4am to don my laid-out race gear and head to the lobby of the hotel for what was my first cup of coffee in two weeks.  I was probably looking forward to the coffee more than the race!  The two week caffeine fast paid off.  I was hyper-focused and ready to roll.  After a short metro ride to the runners' village between the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery, I saw that I was over-punctual.  I was one of the first few dozen of over 27 thousand runners to arrive.  I took my pick of a few hundred port-o-potties and made my way to the starting corrals.  And I waited...and waited...and waited.
Hurry up and wait...
As other early arrivals who were hoping for 3:00-3:20 times made their way to the corral, I made small talk, did intermittent sets of push-ups, and frequent trips to the bushes in order to subdue the nervous energy.  30 minutes before the start, actor Sean Astin (who would fire the starting pistol and then run the marathon) addressed the growing crowd to pump up the masses.  He was greeted with chants of "Ruuuudy," and "Go Samwise!"  "Goonies never say die," I added.  Then came a team of Marines parachuting into the starting area (also running the marathon).  Among them were Medal of Honor awardee Corporal Kyle Carpenter, some Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran amputees, and others who had gone above and beyond the call of duty.  90 seconds before the start, a trio of V-22 Ospreys performed a low-altitude flyby of the start line.  If anyone wasn't pumped for this race after all of this, they should've been checked for a pulse.
Bang!  Rudy Gamgee (aka Sean Astin) fired the starter pistol, which was followed in short order by the more symbolic Howitzer blast, and we were off.  Whereas Wrightsville Beach was a race of guts (go out at race pace and hold on until failure), my MCM race strategy was one of prudence.  A 7:03 pace would bring me in at 3:05, and a 7:10 pace would give me 3:08; either one of those times left a decent cushion for a BQ.  My plan was to set out at a 7:10 pace or slightly slower and then ease into a sub-7:05-7:10 pace over the first few miles (which were the hilliest).  After 10k, I would focus on staying between 7:00 and 7:05, or an equal effort as terrain would allow.
Although my watch recorded a 7:10 split for mile 1, I did not pass the first mile marker until my time read 7:20 or 7:21.  This is where I wanted to be, but I could tell right away that I would need to account for GPS error and use my splits at the official markers rather than trusting the pace display on my watch.  By mile 3, I had reached my proposed race pace and deduced that my watch was reading long by about 2%, or 8-9 seconds per mile.  By this quick calculation, I knew that in order to keep a pace in the low 7:00s range, my watch would have to read in the mid 6:50s range.  That was fine, but I had to trust to equal effort so I did not burn too much energy on the large Rosslyn hills in the first few miles.  Also at this point, I caught up with the official 3:05 pace group leader.  I hoped he was starting off conservatively like I was, because I had not anticipated catching him until the last 10k or so if all went according to plan.  I used the crowd that orbited the pace leader, but I made a conscious effort to not get too locked in.  At times, they pulled away for a few dozen yards, and at other times, I drifted ahead of them without really noticing.  I let it all happen.  The real "race" would not begin for quite a while.
As we crossed the Key Bridge into Georgetown, the field started to open up, and I really settled into my comfort zone.  The marathon pace that felt so labored and stressed-over during training just flowed naturally.  A long, scenic out-and-back allowed us to glimpse the front-runners.  One leader--a sinewy, 125 pound collection of lean muscle fibers--was far ahead.  One minute behind him were three or four similarly shaped East African runners.  On their heals was DC area elite ultra-runner and repeated JFK 50-miler champion Michael Wardian, who cruised by with the ultra-runner's stereotypical long, flowing locks, a bushy hipster beard, and a visage of laser-like of focus and determination.  "Go, Michael," urged several racers around me.  Wardian, who clearly was a hometown favorite, would end up finishing in 4th place with a 2:25.
As we turned around to head South out of Georgetown and toward the memorials and parks along the Potomac, I got to see much of the field.  I had forgotten just how many people were running this race.  For the next few miles, we followed Ohio Drive along the banks of the Potomac, past the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and all the the way down to Hains Point at the Southernmost tip of the Memorial Park Peninsula.  Just before reaching the Point, I passed over the timed split mat for 13.1.  My watch said 1:32:25, which was almost exactly on pace for a 3:05 if everything continued as it was.  Having passed the halfway point, being cheered on by volunteers from the Wounded Warrior Foundation, and running alongside the reverently arrayed portraits of servicemen and women lost in the line of duty, I felt a renewed sense of vigor.  Maintaining my splits, I felt a boon of confidence with each passing mile.
After circumnavigating Memorial Park, we turned on Independence back toward the Lincoln Memorial for another short out-and back.  Near the mile 16 mark, I heard my name called from the the sidewalk.  There was Heidi cheering for me and smiling broadly as she took a video of me on her phone.  I looked out for her again about a mile later as we looped back around on the other side of Independence.  Again, I got a boost as she cheered me on while snapping pictures.
About 17 miles in, enjoying the moment.  Photo by Heidi.
Half a mile later, turning alongside the National Mall.

We looped around the South side of the Washington Monument--which was a great view--and we turned East on Madison to run along the National Mall towards the Capitol.  It was around here that I was starting to notice the warmth of the day.  The temperature had been 66 degrees at the start--far warmer than the forecast of low 50s, but I was doing my best to ignore it.  While I was feeling warm, I wasn't feeling the perception of fatigue that accompanies heat stress yet.  I made a point out of staying hydrated and fueled, and I tried to maintain the flow that had taken me this far into the race.
In view of the scaffold-covered dome of the Capitol, I ran over the measured 30k split with a race time of 2:10:24, an official 30+ second PR for that distance.  I navigated Peace Circle and Garfield Circle to head back towards the Potomac along the South side of the Mall, passing the Smithsonian and other national museums along the way.
My next big challenge was the 14th Street Bridge, which started shortly after the mile 20 marker.  Much like the Lee Bridge on the Richmond Marathon course, the 14th St. Bridge was long, gradually uphill, and exposed to the wind.  My pace took a bit of a hit on the bridge, but I was feeling relatively good physically for being this far into the race, so I maintained a positive mental outlook.  I was to the point where I could start counting down minutes to the finish, which always helps me find a strong finish.  Even after crossing over the river, out of D.C., and back into Virginia, the elevated bridge kept going and going.  From the Jefferson Monument at the start of the bridge to the off ramp in Crystal City, the bridge portion of the course was just over 1.5 miles.
An out-and back from miles 22-24 through Crystal City with spectators lining the streets was a great place to pick up the pace and gain back another couple of quick miles.  At this point, I was passing quite a few people.  Some of them were walking, some were desperately maintaining a jog.  I was feeling pretty worked out, but my legs were not heavy yet, so I focused on negative splitting as much as I could without redlining.  These miles were in the 7:00-high 6:50s range (real pace, not GPS pace).
As I exited Crystal City and passed underneath the bridge on our way North to the Pentagon, I was blasted with a brutal, unexpected headwind.  The long stretch around the East side of the Pentagon was open and exposed, with few spectators and nothing to shield me from the heavy wind resistance.  Although it was flat, this was the most challenging part of the race for me.  My 7:00 pace slowed to somewhere between 7:20 and 7:30 around the Pentagon and on Highway 110 alongside Arlington Cemetery.  At this point, with about a mile left to go, I started to feel as if I was hitting a wall.  I willed myself through the pain and told myself to just keep hurting for a few more minutes, and I would finish under 3:05.
As I arduously brought the mile 26 marker to me, I knew there was one more steep hill to take leading up to the finish at the Iwo Jima Memorial.  Honestly, the hill didn't worry me; I just wanted to get out of the wind!  As I turned left off the highway, I ignored the top of the hill and focused on the road ahead of me.  Marines were on on either side, cheering me on.  Their words were unintelligible to me, but I used the energy regardless.  Turning right at the top of the hill, the finish line was 200 feet away.  I pushed with what I had left.  All of the sudden, I felt a hamstring go rubbery.  Then, my left shoulder started to seize up.  Everything else was starting to hurt.  The wheels were falling off within 100 feet of the finish line!  I grunted and grimaced my way past the finish line in 3:04:51.  I had done it!  Not only did I qualify for Boston by over 5 minutes, but I proved to myself that I could still run a sub-3:05, even if I didn't have to anymore!
I threw my leaden arms over the fence of the finishing chute, dropped my head, and let out a guttural yawp of victory, startling a toddler in a nearby stroller.  I smiled apologetically at the parents and hobbled my way towards a company of proud Marines waiting to put a medal around my neck.  I shook each one of their hands and thanked them for their service.  Doubled over on the grass in front of the iconic Iwo Jima Memorial, the exhaustion caught up with me, and I became overcome with emotion to the point of weeping real tears.  After I regained my composure, I stretched my many ailing muscles and joints, and I found Heidi watching the Marine Corps marching band just as they struck into the "Marine's Hymn."  We spent another hour or so enjoying the festivities in Rosslyn before retiring to the hotel for freshening up and heading to the airport.
The Marine Corps Marathon was an awesome experience for many reasons, both personal and general.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to do a big city marathon while getting a super-sized dose of patriotism and national pride.  Semper Fi!  Oorah!

*Out of 27,000+ runners, I was the 179th finisher.  I was the 4th finisher from the state of North Carolina.
*My first half was 1:32:25, and my second half was 1:32:26.  I kinda want that one second back!
*Counting the gel I ate before the start, I had a total of 7 gels for this race (about one every four miles), which is more than I've ever eaten for a 26.2, but it worked on this particular race day.
*Here is the Suunto GPS data for the race.  By the end of the run, the cumulative GPS error was roughly +1.5%
*Normally one to make up my own training as I go, I broke character and used a tailor-made training plan from for this race.  It worked for me!

Shoes: Adidas Adios Boost 2
Socks: Swiftwick Zero
Singlet: Ascendant racing singlet by Reckless Running
Shorts: Brooks Sherpa IV 2-in-1
Compression: CEP Run+ calf sleeves
GPS watch: Suunto Ambit 2R
Gels: Clif Shots (3 Vanilla, 1 Lime [+caffeine], 1 Razz, 2 Turbo Espresso [+double caffeine])

Monday, September 29, 2014

Lungstrong 15k, 2014: Turning a Corner

This is the fourth consecutive year I've done Lungstrong 15k, and (spoiler alert) it's the fourth consecutive time I've set a 15k PR at the race.  In 2011, I was recovering from a nagging case of double ITBFS, so I ran at an easy pace for fun.  Still, having never raced 15k, it technically was a PR.  The 2012 Lungstrong was the first time I tested myself at the distance, and I was in the peak of the fitness I had built for what was (and still is) my best marathon to date.  2013 Lungstrong was a year in which Dave Munger and I chased the lofty goal of breaking 1 hour on the reputably long course.  We came up short (or long, as it were) of our goal, but I still managed to squeak out a 3 second PR after a miserable last 3 miles.  You can find Dave's recap of that race here.
After a gut-wrenching effort for what amounted to a fairly negligible improvement during the 2013 race, I did not go into this year's 15k with high expectations.  Once again, I am in the peak of my marathon training cycle, and I have been logging some hard workouts and taxing long runs.  Therefore, I approached Sunday's race with working-on-race-strategy mindset.  Sure, I would run hard, faster than I would for a half marathon, but I had no intentions of targeting a PR pace.  I enjoyed a nice warm-up along the 5k course with several friends from DART, and I felt pretty loose for the start of the race.  The lack of PR-chasing pressure made me actually look forward to toeing the start line.
At the start, I lost a few seconds to elbowing for space and I settled in with the traffic.  As always, the first 100 meters or so were deceivingly fast (5:30ish pace), so I made a conscious effort to dial back to something in the mid-6 range.  The crowd eventually thinned out, and I weaved my way through patches of familiar faces.  As we hit the first mile marker well into Jetton park, the clock read 6:35 (although my own GPS mile beep was about 10 seconds earlier).  Perfect.  This was brisk and sustainable.  10 meters ahead of me, I saw John McCormick, Clayton Venhuizen, and unnamed shirtless runner with 1% body fat, and the eventual 2nd overall female.  I had run with John and Clayton respectively in different pacing efforts for longer races, and I knew both of them to be just on the fast side of my wheelhouse.  This pack was not pulling away, and I figured running a second or two faster per mile to stay with them would be better than staying in the no-man's land in which I was running at the time.  For the next 1.5 miles, I made a very methodical effort to close the short distance with them.
Staying with the pack proved to be advantageous.  We naturally ebbed and flowed, with each of us drifting to the front occasionally to share some of the wind-blocking duty.  The camaraderie of running with familiar faces made the miles go by more quickly as well.  Before I knew it, we were at the mile 5 marker in 33 minutes, which meant we were maintaining even splits from the beginning of the race.  I was feeling better than I had at mile 1 or 2, so I figured I would at least hold this pace for the duration of the race and maybe get a sub-62 finish; not a PR, but a great time and fantastic training effort.
Mile 6 of the 9.3(+) mile course is where the race starts to wear on you.  This year was different.  I was feeling relatively good.  According to my watch, I passed through 10k in just under 40 minutes, which is where I was at the same point in 2013, but I was feeling quite fresh this year.  John must have been feeling it too, because he made his move at this point and pulled away from our group decisively.  I still wasn't quite in the chasing mindset, so I did not pursue him, but I did keep him in sight.  Our makeshift pace group began to disintegrate not long after.  Clayton's footfalls faded behind me, and while I could still hear the rapid cadence of 2nd Female, she was retreating slowly as well.  Shirtless had faded a while back, I believe.
There were a handful of hills left in the course, most of them long and gradual, but one short, steep hill before the mile 7 marker was the last real "high-heart-rate" challenge.  I almost died on this hill last year.  Watching John's feet cycle up and down ahead of me helped me crank out the hill without hemorrhaging time, and I caught my breath within a few short moments after.  I was feeling confident and knew I had gas in the tank, so I decided to open the throttle a little bit over the last couple of miles.  It was doubtful that I would catch up to John or the other runner on which he was gaining, but I was keeping them from opening up any more distance from me.  I heard nothing behind me, so I assumed I had broken off completely from what was left of our pack.  I dug in with purpose up the hills, and I turned my legs over as smoothly as I could on the descents.  I was rewarded with some faster splits, despite the increasingly rolling course.
When I turned off four-lane Jetton Road about 3/4 mile from the finish, I glanced over my shoulder back down the road to see what had happened to my running buddies.  2nd Female was about 100 meters behind me, and Clayton was out of view.  I would be in no danger of being sniped from here to the finish.  I milked the last long descent that led to a final climb through the residential back end of the course.  Dave, who won the 5k, was there to snap a photo of me at the bottom of the hill.
Photo courtesy of Dave.  Rarely will you see me smile this far into a race.

With 1/2 mile left, all there was to do was dig.  I glanced at my watch and realized that I had a definite PR in the bag, maybe a sub-61!  I hugged the last couple of turns and bird-dogged the race clock above the finish line on the last straightaway.  By the clock, I was going to miss sub-61 by 4 or 5 seconds, so I just cruised in at the same, steady pace I had maintained for the last mile.  Only after crossing the finish line did I realize that the gun clock was probably 3-4 seconds ahead of my chip time.  Had I sprinted the last straightaway, I likely would have recorded an official sub-61.  My official race time was 1:01:01, which has a nice symmetry to it.  It was also a surprise 30 second PR.
Cruising through the finish.  Photo courtesy of Dave.

I was beaming after I caught my breath.  I ran far more strongly than I figured I would be able to, and I had the impression that I could have kept it up for a little while longer if needed.  If this race was indicative of my fitness, than I can surmise that my marathon training is turning a corner, and I am beginning to reap the benefits of the program.  Lungstrong was a huge confidence builder, and an excellent high note to be my last race before Marine Corps Marathon in a month.  Now, I just need to get in one or two more quality long runs and nail some hard workouts, and I'll be ready to tear up some roads in DC come October 26th!  Run Reckless!
Great Day!  Bring on MCM!

P.S. For what it's worth, I do believe the 15k course is long by anywhere from .15-.20 miles.  According to my Suunto GPS data and Strava, I ran  15k in under an hour.  Hurray for that!  It may not be official, but at least I know it's within my ability, and that's all I need to know.

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!