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!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Trifecta: an Exercise in Dumb Toughness

A wise man once told me, "If you're gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough."  That man is now running in a skirt once a month due to losing a bet, but the message still rings true.  This past weekend, in an act that most would describe as dumb and tough, I raced three races in one day.  In the evening was the Moonlight 5k, Half Marathon, and movie at the Badin Drive-In in Albemarle.  I won the half the previous year and got 2nd place in the 5k (winning the Double Feature award for combined time), so I was compelled to come back and give it a go at defending my title.  However, many of my students from my elementary school's afternoon run club were racing the Rhythm & Run 5k in Kannapolis the same morning.  I wanted to go out and support my kids, and the cash prize for first three overall was an added incentive.  Just like that, I was committed.
9:00am: Rhythm & Run 5k
The day was warm and humid, and it was only going to get more so as the day wore on.  I showed up in Kannapolis for a very abbreviated warm-up (I had to save my legs for the other races) and scouted the field for potential threats.  I saw Dustin Branham in his conspicuous, red DART singlet and waved hello.  Deep down, he and I were both thinking, "damn, I was hoping he wouldn't show up!"  Dustin had only been getting faster, and he was in top form after recently running a 1:27 PR for half marathon. He and I noted a couple more fast looking high school runners before we saw Fam.  Well, there went 1st place...
We three lined up for the start line in the front row, along with fellow Reckless Running Ambassador Julie Alsop, who had won the women's field at the race the past two years.  The high school runners were there too, asking direct questions about our 5k PRs to size us up.  Great...  Since I teach in Kannapolis and had previewed the course the previous week, I shared the important details with Dustin and Fam: fast, downhill first half, then a steady uphill, 100 yards of grass surface through Village Park, a tunnel under the Loop Road, a couple of hairpin turns, an awfull uphill in the last mile, then flat for the last half mile.  It was not an easy course, especially with the humidity.
At the start, Fam shot off to a predictable lead.  Also ahead of me were High School runner 1, Dustin, and High School Runner 2, in that order.  The first half mile was a good, open, flat stretch around the NC Research campus where I could nail down a sustainable pace.  Dustin and the HS runners were going out fast, and I was not ready to start chasing anyone.  Fam was way ahead.  In fact, he had left the lead, Segway-driving officer in the dust!  HS2 faded back to me in the first couple of minutes, and after his footfalls faded, he never returned.
Shortly after we crossed the Loop Road and hit the Baker's Creek Greenway about a mile into the race, Dustin passed HS1 and kept moving on.  My first mile was a 5:52, which meant Dustin must have been in the mid 5:40s.  That was fast, but a 5k isn't over until 3.1...  The greenway was fast and flat, and I could see HS1 struggling to hold his pace, especially on the gradual uphill leading to the end of the greenway at Village Park.  I passed HS1 with confidence on that climb and ran into Village Park with my gaze fixed on Dustin.  I was getting closer, but we were now past the 2 mile mark and he still had a few seconds on me.  Did he have enough left in him for a late race push?
I reeled Dustin in bit by bit on the grassy section before the tunnel.  I knew he would hear my footfalls in the echoing tunnel, so I made my move there and passed him before the double-hairpin walkway leading up to the sidewalk on the Loop Road.  I was now in 2nd place.  I tried to ignore Dustin and dig in on the big hill and maybe open up some distance between us before the flat homestretch.  It sucked, but it was over soon enough.  With 1/2 mile left, I saw that I had a chance for a good finishing time, so I opened up my stride.  The final turn gave way to a great straightaway, so I sprinted in for what was one of my top five 5k times, an 18:31.  Dustin came in hot for an 18:46, which was not only a big PR, but the fulfillment of one of his recent goals of going sub-19. HS1 finished about 30 seconds after Dustin.  Julie came in shortly after the 20 minute mark and won the women's race for the 3rd year in a row.  Fam had been done for minutes by the time we had finished.  DART had dominated with both overall wins and the top three spots on the men's side.
Fam (with Lil' Fam) in 1st, me in 2nd, and Dustin in 3rd, all winning cash money!

7:00pm Moonlight 5k
The 5k at the Moonlight Drive-In race event is what RD Peter Asciutto woud call the flattest, fastest 5k course in Stanly County.  The course profile was inviting, but the 80 degree temperatures with 100% humidity would add some challenge, especially considering I had raced a hard 5k 10 hours before.  The field for this 5k was smaller and less stacked, and only a few of them were racing the half a couple hours later for the Double Feature award, but I was not going to sandbag any of these three races.  After, if you're gonna be dumb, well, you gotta be tough.
Again, my warm-up was very short, just enough to shake out some of the gunk from the previous race.  I greeted fellow DARTers Bobby and Nicole Aswell and Sarah Ferris.  With very little ceremony, Peter lined us up, explained the simple course and gave us the go.  I ran out to an early lead (after overtaking an overzealous 10-year-old) and focused only on pace.  I could hear the footfalls of the 2nd place runner, but they were becoming more and more faint.  I tried to maintain a 6:00-6:10 pace, but with the humidity and latent fatigue from the morning, it was taking quite a bit more effort than usual.
The start of the 5k.  I developed an early lead after catching the blurry kid in front.

When I reached the turnaround at the halfway point, I could tell I had nearly a minute lead on 2nd place, so I felt pretty safe.  When I reached the second mile, he was nowhere in sight.  I considered easing up the pace a little to save some gas for the half marathon, but that notion just didn't feel right.  Besides, I was flirting with another sub-19 finish, so I couldn't in good conscience hold back.
After the turnaround in the 5k, I had a big lead.  Photo courtesy of Bobby Aswell.

I was going to be a close call for sub-19.  Once I made the last turn, I had about 30 seconds left.  The finish to this 5k was remarkably similar to last year's 5k.  I poured on the gas to break the tape at 18:53, the same time to the second as last year.  2 of 3 races were in the books.  I had a 2nd place finish and a 1st place finish, but with a half marathon left, I was not even halfway done, volume wise.
1st place in the 5k.  2 races down, 1 big one left.

9:00pm: Moonlight Half Marathon
Fellow DARTer and ultra runner Chad Randolph showed up to participate in the half, so I grabbed yet another short warm-up with him in the full dark before the race started.  I could tell from those brief 10 minutes of easy running that the legs were tired, and I was not looking forward to this hilly half marathon with my usual pre-race enthusiasm.  The temperature had cooled, but not by much, and the humidity was still high, making the air sticky and uncomfortable.  The competition was also more fierce.  I briefly met Michael, a younger runner who recognized my Reckless Running singlet because he had seen Fam train with App State students when he ran in college.  Michael was far younger than me, and if he had run for his college, he would be formidable.  Also present was Adam, a.k.a. Tall Man from last year's Moonlight Half.
I tried to shake the gunk out of my race-addled legs by jumping up and down at the start, but I knew I just wasn't going to feel loose again until we started running.  I was tired, but I felt like I still had 13.1 miles left in me.  After the go, Michael and Tall Adam shot off ahead in a mid-6s pace, while I settled in to a 6:50ish pace.  My ultimate goal was to win the half again, and maybe beat last year's time, but I was not going to do that by challenging the leaders too early.  Last year, I had let Adam and Rob get far ahead of me before I reeled them in.  No matter what distance the race, from 5k to marathon+, I always try to have focus on the long game.  Plus, my tired legs wouldn't have much of a fifth gear after the day's racing, so I needed to save it.
3rd position proved to be a relative no-man's land for the first few miles.  I could see Adam's blinky light ahead, and Michael was not wearing one, so I only saw him when he was in view of Adam's headlamp.  As far as I could tell, there was no one behind me for minutes.  As we made our way into Morrow Mountain State Park, I caught up with Adam at the 4-mile mark.  This was a lot earlier in the race than when I caught up to him last year, but the race was feeling longer to me already.  I focused on the barely discernible outline of Michael ahead of me, but I couldn't help but notice that Adam's footfalls were never really fading away.  He wasn't racing in my pocket like Benny the Belgian did at the Race for R.A.R.E., but he was close enough to be heard, so he was in my head.
The ceaseless, rolling hills became more and more pronounced as we neared Morrow Mountain, the capstone of this challenging course.  After making the hairpin turn leading to the steepest part of the climb to the summit, I tried to convince myself, "this is the worst'll be over soon, harden the f*** up!"  The climb was awful, more so than I remembered, or perhaps I was just more tired.  I could see Michael and hear Adam still, so there was incentive to keep pushing, but the summit just never seemed to get any closer.
The elevation profile for the Moonlight Half Marathon.  Morrow Mountain looms like a giant middle finger flipping you off in defiance.

After an eternity of climbing, I reached the top a few moments after Michael and turned around for the downward plunge.  The pressure was on, and I couldn't let Michael or Adam gain too much ground.  Soon, I was cranking out gravity-assisted 6:00 paces.  I saw Chad near the bottom of the steep hill and he cheered me on.  He had a solid hold on 4th place, and he eventually would finish in 4th.  After rounding the hairpin, the mountain continued steadily down, giving back all of the altitude we had climbed leading up to it.  Suddenly, Adam's footfalls grew louder--a sound so unwelcome it was almost deafening.  My calves were aching from the bounding downhill, and I had given myself a side stitch from chasing Michael, so there was nothing I could do to respond when Adam passed me decisively.  We were over 7 miles into the half marathon, and that's the first (and only) time someone passed me during all the day's races.  I had more than 5 miles left to run on very hilly terrain, and anytime I tried to shift into a higher gear to pursue the two runners ahead, my body protested.  I could maintain a low-7s pace, but that was all I had left.  I felt bonked like the end of a marathon, so the only thing left to do was sustain the pain and bring it in for a 3rd place finish.
That's exactly what I did.  The last three miles were utter crap.  I maintained my pace, but every second was painful.  I finished with a 1:31:58, which was only half a minute slower than my time the previous year, but it was still my slowest and most painful half in over three years.  However, I did make the podium with all three of the day's races.  In fact, it was a solo trifecta; I got a win, a place, and a show.  Also, my combined 5k and half marathon times earned me a repeat win for the Moonlight Double Feature award.  So despite the agony I was feeling, it was a good day.  Long, but good.
Coming in for a 3rd place finish under the headlamp.  Photo courtesy of Bobby Aswell.

Me with Chad after the half.  Chad got 4th.  The trophy is the Double Feature 1st place award.

Some lessons learned:
1) Racing a hard, hilly half marathon after two sub-19 5ks is not the best idea.
2) Don't ever believe you can't bonk during a half marathon, because you most certainly can!
3) After a hard evening of racing, the 75 minute drive home through the rain in the middle of the night is the worst part.
4) Being dumb and tough isn't all it's cracked up to be...or is it?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Shaking a Shadow: Race For R.A.R.E. 10-miler Recap

When I won a free entry into Race For R.A.R.E trail 10-miler from the Run With Theoden Facebook Page, I thought, "sure.  It won't be a focus race, but it'll be a fun time on the trails."  I wasn't expecting to take it too seriously.  Of course, as is often the case when I show up to a "fun race," things got a little out of hand.
It was an unseasonably cold day for late March, cold enough to necessitate ear warmers, gloves, and arm sleeves.  Many racers were clad in leggings and long sleeve tops.  I was the only one in a singlet and split shorts.  One female racer remarked, "No matter how cold it is, there's always some guy in a singlet and split shorts..."  Guitly.
I lined up near the front of the pack, and as the RD gave us the go, I shot out in front with a couple other runners.  One was 5k participant who quickly faded behind.  The other was Benny, a young, tall Belgian with a long-legged stride.  After about a half-mile of smooth road, we shot into the sweet, single-track trails with me up front.  I wasn't planning from the start to be the front-runner; that's just where it felt right to be at the time.
After another half-mile, it was pretty clear that the race for overall winner was going to be between just Benny and me.  We didn't trade places at all.  He just stayed right on my shoulder and let me set the pace.  The trails were what I would call "fast technical."  They were hilly and zigzaggy enough to keep me on my toes, but not so rooty or rocky as to keep me from going fast.  And with Benny on my back, I was not of a mind to slow down.
Benny the Belgian chasing me as he did the whole race.

I kept thinking to myself "this guy is young, and young guys always go out fast.  After a few miles, he'll fade."  He didn't.  I almost wished he would pass me so that I could chase him for a change, but I wasn't going to just give him the lead, so I kept pushing.
The undulating trail took us up to the base of Spencer Mountain at the halfway point, and some of the hard climbs and rapid descents really began to wear on us...or at least on me.  After 6 or 7 miles, the Brussels Sprout was still on me like syrup on a waffle.  This is the part of a race that Greg McMillan would call the Go-Zone.  It's far enough into the race that the distance and the pace have taken their toll, but not close enough to the end to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  This is where the strong racer makes his move and separates the men from the boys.  That's exactly what I was trying to do: separate the man from the boy.  Whenever I would see an opportune stretch of trail, I would surge in an effort to drop Benny.  No joy.  He never let more than one or two seconds separate us.  He was tenacious.
When I knew we were only about a mile from the finish, I had a foreboding feeling that Benny had me right where he wanted me.  I just knew he was going to stay in my pocket and try and out-kick me.  I did not like the prospect of trying to kick against someone half my age.  All I could do was push the pace and try to make him work to keep up.
We broke out onto the smooth road again, just over a quarter mile from the finish, and the challenge was on.  The sun was at our backs, and I could see Benny's shadow creeping up as he made his move.  I surged.  As we made it through the final sprint, I screamed as I let out everything I had.  It was just enough.  I beat Benny for the overall win by 1/3 of a second.  It was the closest and most consistently competitive race I've done in...well...ever.
Despite the feeling of being chased the whole time, the trails were super fun, and I had a great time.  I'll be back next year.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Skechers Performance GoRun4 Review

One of the perks of working a part-time job as a running retailer is that I get to know a lot of product reps.  When one of those reps is friend in your running community, all the better.  Lately, I've had the opportunity to run in a few Skechers Performance running shoes: the GoRun Ultra enhanced cushion trainer, the GoRun4 lightweitht trainer, and the GoMeb3 racing flat.  The GoRun Ultra is a soft, hybrid-lugged shoe that's extremely comfortable for long runs, recovery days, or general day-usage.  The GoRun4 is really more my speed as a trainer, and it deserves an in-depth review.  Given the shoe's versatility, I also will describe it in comparison to the GoMeb3.
 Full Disclosure, the GRU and the GM3 were sample pairs on extended loan from my local running Performance Rep.  The GR4 was a personal purchase from Skechers Performance.

Out of the box (looks and specs):
The most striking thing about the GR4 upon taking it out of the box was its weight.  Skechers Performance (SP) gives a weight of 7.8oz for a men's size 9 (I wear 9.5), but I think they feel lighter.  More on that in a bit.  The indicated heel-to-toe drop is 4mm without the removable sock-liner, and 8mm with the sock-liner.  If you prefer to train in lightweight performance shoes like the Saucony Kinvara or New Balance 890, this shoe is in your wheelhouse.  SP also offers the GR4 in a wide array of colorways.  I opted for the blue/gray/black option, and I think the shoe looks badass.
On the foot (fit and feel):
Even before you put the GR4 on your foot, you can tell that the material on the upper is going to be soft and forgiving.  SP uses a one-piece, nearly seamless upper that disappears on foot.  The sock-liner is removable for a higher volume fit, or to feel more of the road.  Since the upper is so forgiving, and the last of the shoe provides ample room, I chose to keep the sock-liner in the shoe for my runs.  That being said, the comfortable upper allows for pretty much unrestricted sock-free wear, so the Sockless Runner doesn't have to be an impostor.  The heel cup is soft, pliable, and non-restrictive, and there is a recess cut into the fabric of the heel collar for quick, pull-on convenience.  As far as step-in comfort, this shoe rivals the Pearl Izumi Road N1, the UnderArmour SpeedForm Gemini, and the Saucony Zealot ISO-fit.  Lots have companies have been experimenting with innovations in midsole technology and geometry, but the latest shoe tech trends seem to have been focused on making plush, comfy uppers.  With the GR4, Skechers Performance is right up there with the top brands on that front.
On the road (ride and performance).
One thing a lot of GR4 runners notice is that it rides a bit firmer than it looks.  In this way, it's similar to the Pearl Izumi Road N1.  However, like the N1, the firm-ish ride is also incredibly smooth.  Personally, in a performance trainer, I would take firm and smooth over cushy and soft any day.
Part of the smoothness of the ride comes from SP's proprietary M-strike technology, which both favors and rewards an efficient, midfoot strike.  The midsole contains two densities of Resolyte (SP's memory-foam-like, durable midsole compound), so the different color sole in the midfoot is a bit more responsive and more prominent.  While this prominence is less noticeable than it has been in previous versions of the GoRun, it's more apparent than it is in the GoMeb3 racer.  The bottom of the shoe comprises mostly exposed midsole, which keeps the weight down and contributes to the silky ride, but there are strategically placed rubber outsole pods to provide some road traction and extra proprioception.  The combination of the plush upper and the smooth-riding midsole really makes the GR4 disappear on your feet during the run, especially on hilly terrain.  Thus, the weight and offset mentioned above aren't features I take much notice of.  The way the weight is distributed throughout the transition, the shoe feels much lighter than it is.  In fact, it feels lighter than the GoMeb3.
Best uses (for me):
I've taken the GR4 on several runs, including medium long runs (10-12 miles), tempo intervals, and easy base days.  These runs have been mostly on rolling road routes, with a few miles here and there on minimally technical trails.  While the shoe is very versatile, it really shines when you pick up the pace.  The GR4 is a great choice for tempo runs, hill repeats, and longer races (15k-marathon).  I got to race the very hilly Ellerbe Marathon in the GoMeb3, and had great success.  However, at virtually the same weight, and with a smoother (in my opinion) ride, I think I would choose the GR4 over the GM3 for another hilly marathon.  I prefer something a little more featherweight and firm than the GR4 for 5k/10k races, but most people would really enjoy the GoRun4 as a 5k racer.  In fact, my friend and fellow Reckless Running brand ambassador Bobby Aswell has had a lot of recent success with the GR4 as his 5k racer lately, and he runs 50+ races a year.
Final thought
At $100, and with a lot of distinctive features that set it apart from other performance trainers, the Skechers Performance GoRun4 is worth a look for efficient runners or those who might want a fast-day shoe.  Bottom line, this shoe is legit.  Skechers Performance flexes its running tech muscles with this one, and based on how the GoRun has evolved over its first 4 versions, the brand shows its willingness to adapt and improve to the needs and wants of the running base.  Great shoe!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sustain the Pain: Ellerbe Marathon 2015

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

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

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

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