Friday, November 10, 2017

New York Marathon 2017: Kind of a Big Deal

Foreground: The New York skyline on the TCS NYC marathon finisher's medal.
Background: The New York skyline as seen from my brother's apartment in Brooklyn

The New York Marathon is the biggest marathon in the world, and it's the biggest thing I've ever been a part of, period.  Working with my elementary school's student run club, which associated with the New York Road Runners (NYRR) to offer swag and other incentives to encourage running and healthy lifestyles to children, I was offered an entry into the marathon.  Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. 
Fast forward nearly a year, and I was toeing the line at one of my bucket list races. 
I put at least as much planning and hard work into training and preparing for this marathon as I had for any previous marathon or ultra.  Having had success designing marathon training plans for myself and a few other trusting friends, I started from the ground up and composed what I thought to be a 16-week magnum opus of a training plan.  John, my training partner who ran with me for the first half of Boston 2016, said he would train with me on this plan from start to finish.  A few other DART friends jumped in on pieces of the plan as well.  Now, the pressure was double; it was no longer just my success hinged on the preparations, but also that of some of my closest running friends.
There were a few successful tune-up races in the following months, and several notable indicator workouts, but it seemed as if every time John and I were in the same place, we were looking eagerly toward some symbolic horizon outlined with the skyscape of the five boroughs.  As the sweltering summer gave way to September, October, and the much anticipated November 5th race date, we felt pumped and ready to turn what was supposed to be a nice, big, fun race into an all-out assault on our respective PRs.
After dealing with the expo two days before the race, and enjoying a relaxing Saturday on the eve of the marathon, all I wanted to do was start the damn thing and start laying down some miles.  I met fellow DARTers Travis and Mike in the Runners' Village in Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island nearly three hours before the start, and after waiting another 90 minutes or so on John, we finally made our way to the Southern base of the Verrazano Bridge amidst a throng of anxious racers from all over the world.  10 feet behind us in the crowd, John spotted Dean Karnazes, the famous Ultramarathon Man known for--among other feats--running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.  I reached back and fist-bumped Dean, wishing him a good race, but then he decided to shuffle forward in the crowd and talk to us for 10-15 minutes.  That was a cool and unexpected icing to the proverbial cake of a weekend!

NOTE: Many NY marathoners think of the race in segments separated by borough, or similarly from bridge to bridge.  Since each borough (and each bridge) is unique, I found this is an apt way to lay out this recap.

Staten Island & the Verrazano Bridge
After the national anthem and a welcome from the president of the NYRR, we were off to much fanfare.  It took a little over a full minute for John, Mike, and I--oh and Dean too--to reach the official start line.  We settled into the closest thing we could get to a run.  It was so crowded that we couldn't get around anyone or pick up any speed.  Two minutes in, John said almost laughingly, "We're doing a nine minute pace!"  I assured him that it was just the first quarter mile. 
We reached our first mile marker at the apex of the Verrazano Bridge with a chip split of 7:45, which was a full minute slower than our goal race pace.  However, John and I spent that first mile talking each other down and reminding each other that there was no point in wasting energy trying to zigzag or elbow around hundreds or thousands of people.  We were at the highest point along the marathon course, and we enjoyed a fantastic view of New York Harbor, the Manhattan skyline, the whole of Brooklyn laid out before us, and the fabulous water cannon boat in the Lower Bay.  We also had a panoramic view of the ominous, low-hanging clouds rolling in from the North and East.
As we descended the Verrazano, our pace picked up to a gliding, downhill-assisted 6:40.  There was still a thick crowd of runners, but we had spaced out enough to pick our way through them and maintain race pace without slaloming too much.  Now we just needed to "find our smooth," which was one of the many mantras John and I shared in training.
I'll say right here that Brooklyn is my favorite borough of New York City, from both a runner's and general NY visitor's standpoint.  Hence, I was pleased that nearly all of the first half of the marathon traversed Brooklyn alone.  The crowds were loud and diverse, and the avenues of the course were gently rolling, just enough to keep your legs from getting stale and not fatiguing them early.  Internally, John and kept a constant pace with one another, trading mile splits verbally, and repeating little one-word mantras like "smooth," "glide," and "[equal] effort" to keep our heads cool and sharp.  I looked for my wife, brother, and some Brooklyn friends around mile seven, but alas, I missed them.  They later claimed to have spotted me from the other side of Fourth Avenue.  At that point in the race, John and I had made up all of our lost time from the slow start and were still running a little hot on pace.  It took a conscious effort to rein back the pace and go from make-up-time mode to stick-to-race-pace mode.
As we left Park Slope and 4th Ave, turning from Flatbush Ave to Lafayette Ave, we entered downtown Brooklyn, where the buildings were taller and the crowds were louder.  At one point, we passed a 50+ piece marching band that starting blaring out a full-brass rendition of Rocky's "Gonna Fly Now," and I recall feeling so pumped that I said to John something to the effect of "If you don't feel like running a 2:56 after that, then your f***ing dead!"
John and me running through Brooklyn.

The Pulaski Bridge & Queens
Any NY veteran will tell you that while the Verrazano is the tallest bridge on the course, no one feels it because it's the first mile.  This is accurate.  Hence, the Pulaski Bridge at the halfway point is the first time I really felt as if I was running up a bridge.  John and I hit the half marathon split at 1:29:27, which was right where I wanted to be.  As we ran down the back end of the Pulaski and into Queens, we were greeted by another great crowd.  Even though the Queens part of the course was only a couple miles long, the people of that borough would not be outdone by the droves of Brooklyn cheerers.  On Lexington Ave, a loud PA system was pumping Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," to which John and I sang along at the top of our lungs.  "So good, so good, SO GOOD!"  Queens truly was fun, but the urge to use the toilet, which had made its way into my thoughts back in Williamsburg, had become something I no longer could ignore.  I informed John that I was going to make a stop, and that I would NOT try to catch up to him as I did stupidly in Boston.  A block or two before the Queensboro Bridge, I spotted a toilet on the right...and watched another runner fly into it before me.  I cursed aloud and then saw a trio of portable facilities 50 yards ahead on the other side of the road.  I played a mid-marathon game of Frogger to get to my salvation.  Less than a minute later (although it seemed longer in my head), I was back on the course and racing towards the Queensboro Bridge feeling light on my feet.
The Queensboro Bridge and Manhattan; First Avenue
If you watch the NY marathon on television, you notice that the Queensboro Bridge is covered, and there are no spectators.  I went from the raucous cheering of the crowds in Queens to the pattering of runners' footfalls and the ragged rhythm of runners' breathing.  My necessary stop had caused me to lose ground on my goal, but I was determined to make it up gradually and smartly.  Runners were slowing down all around me on the bridge climb, with many stopping to walk.  After the 25k timing mat, the bridge began to trend downward, and I was able to find my smooth again.  Only this time, I had to talk myself into smoothness; John was far ahead, not to be seen again during my race.
There is a well-known contrast between the eerie quiet of the Queensboro Bridge and the block party of cheering spectators waiting to welcome NY marathoners to Manhattan, but something else from that point in the race remains more firmly etched in my memory.  As I rounded the descending ramp on the First Ave, there was a huge LED screen showing the leaders of the elite women's race.  I saw Shalane Flanagan running in Central Park.  On the side of the screen was a bracket showing her in the lead with over 40 seconds on runner-up Mary Keitany.  Glancing back at the image of Shalane, I saw the fire in her eyes and knew that she was not only going to win, but she was going to destroy the women's field!  I pumped my fist in the air and cheered at the top of my lungs, "Go Shalane!"  Reinvigorated, I was ready to take back my race pace and lay down a hard last 10 miles! 
At this time, the mist began to fall more densely, and I was wet from precipitation more than perspiration.  This was not unwelcome, but it did come with a mild headwind and some slick road surfaces on First Ave.  My racing flats didn't lose purchase, but I did not get the sense that I could dig in all that strongly. 
I ran from Midtown to Spanish Harlem, and a few runners around me who were decked decked out in the emblems and colors of their Mexican heritage were garnering a lot of cheers from the local spectators.  "Vamos, Mexico!"  While I was just the gringo along for the ride, any cheers for my fellow racers seemed to get me going as well. 
First Ave continued for a long while, and I was well past 19 miles before I caught sight of the Willis Avenue Bridge, my road to The Bronx.
Me heading into The Bronx via the Willis Avenue Bridge.  Circa mile 19.5.

The Willis Avenue Bridge & The Bronx
For all the infamy of the Queensboro and the Verrazano, I found the Willis Bridge to be the most challenging bridge of the race.  It's not long, and it's not terribly steep, but it is exposed, there's not much downhill on the back end, and it comes with 19+ miles of running on the legs.  The Bronx comes at a challenging part of the the race.  Runners reach the 20-mile mark in the middle of this all-too-short borough.  I was not bonking at this point, but I was having a hard time shaving my overall pace down to my goal of 6:50/mile.  After my break in Queens, I was one minute behind.  Every mile after that, I had chopped 5-10 seconds off that gap.  Now, at mile 20, I was 20 seconds (aggregate) behind pace and not getting any closer to it.  That left me almost precisely on pace for a 3:00 marathon.  This was too close for comfort, and I knew that the most challenging parts of the race were yet to come.  Still, at least The Bronx part of the course turned me around so I was finally running toward Central Park and the finish line instead of away from it.  The fifth and last bridge--the Madison Avenue Bridge--was so short and gentle that it was almost an afterthought.  I was on my way back downtown, and I knew it.
Manhattan: Fifth Avenue & Central Park
Fifth Avenue was exciting.  Once I reached the 22nd mile marker, I began to look for the tall trees of Central Park.  There was still plenty of race to run, but any telling landmark at this point would be a boon.  My pace had stagnated.  I couldn't run any faster than 6:50 on the flat sections, and the gentle uphills were taking too much effort.  The sub-3 goal was looking more and more out of reach.  Then there was the Fifth Avenue hill in the 23rd mile...the whole 23rd mile.  Fifth Ave wasn't steep; it was just long and grinding.  I found it harder than Heartbreak Hill in Newton on the Boston course.  Heartbreak was a little steeper, but it was shorter than half the length of the Fifth Ave hill.  I hemorrhaged pace on that hill, laying down something between a 7:20 and 7:30 mile.  I also used a lot of energy to get to the top.  At this point, sub-3 was gone, but I was still going to have a respectably fast marathon time. 
Me trying to maintain a decent race effort in Central Park.

Turning into Central Park made for some nice, arboreal scenery.  The rolling hills through the park weren't awful, but they did continue to break up my already broken pace.  I managed to keep a low-7s pace for most of these last couple of miles, but I was ready to be done.  The thicker crowds picked up one last time as I ran along Central Park South, and I picked up the pace a little as I saw the 800-meter-from-the-finish mark, but I remember thinking it would take a PR 800 race effort to get me anywhere near a sub-3 at that point.  I turned North for the final quarter mile, during which the finish line remained hidden until the last 100 meters. 
The finish line.  Notice the wet conditions evidenced by the reflective surface underfoot.

I strode through the finish to an official 3:01:16 race time and found John there waiting for me in the chute.  I signed "three-oh-one" with my fingers and he beckoned me over to peak at his watch.  John's race time: 2:55:55!  He had slashed nearly two minutes off his PR!  While I was suffering up Fifth Ave and gritting my teeth through Central Park, John was posting a sub-19 minute 5k on a mad charge to the finish.  Even though my legs were gelatin, I nearly jumped up and down for him and bear-hugged him!  I had a good race, even though I didn't hit my goal, but John's PR seriously made my day!
John and me glowing after a great marathon!

New York really is a big deal.  Out of the 15 or so road marathons I've done, this one was my third fastest, and on a humid day too.  Not only that, but the course and the city as a whole has so much to offer the runner.  Boston was cool, and I'm glad to have done it, but I honestly prefer New York as a race.  Marine Corps might be the only city marathon that I like as much as this one.  I'd like to come back to New York and challenge those last few miles to a rematch, but for now, as I'm typing this, I'm still getting goosebumps thinking about some of the highlights.  That's always a good sign.

Here is my Strava data for the marathon.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

2017 CSD Spartan Half: It Never Gets Any Easier

This past weekend was the third time I've run the Community School of Davidson Spartan Road Race Half Marathon.  However, it's the same course as the Run For Green Half, which I've paced several times, and on which I've done dozens of training runs and course previews.  I know every turn, every tangent, indeed every hill (and there are a lot) on this course.  That said, running it over and over again doesn't make it any easier.
I usually race 13.1s as a tune-up race in the middle of a marathon training cycle, so PRs are often accidental.  However, I chose this as a focus race after my trail marathon in March.  Given the 8-week turnaround, I didn't think I would be 100% for CSD Half, but I figured I'd be fit enough to shoot for a PR, an overall win (something I've not had in 2017 yet...), or both.  I was counting on my familiarity with the course and its closeness to home to give me an edge over most of the field.  Also, I knew that a few of my training buddies would be targeting this race and looking to compete, so there would be incentive to stay on my toes.
My previous PR was 1:25:50, and I knew I could do better, even on a more challenging course, so my plan was to maintain 6:25 pace miles for as long as I could to set myself up to go comforatably under 1:25.  The trick to this course was that the rolling hills trended steadily down until the turnaround just past the halfway point.  It's a course that's set up for positive splits, so I had to bank some time and energy to allow for a late race time hemorrhage, especially going up Patrick Johnson.
All started according to plan on race morning.  We got lucky with a 48* overcast day in early May, so I went into the race with high hopes.  Derek, from the Main Street Milers Frosty Relay Team, was there looking to improve upon his time from the previous year...and perhaps chase me down and make me hurt to stay ahead of him.  The race begain on South Street with the only sustained downhill mile on the course.  I reigned in my effort to a conservative half marathon pace, but the 6:15 mile was still my fastest of the day. (and easiet according the Strava's Grade Adjusted Pace calculator).  I gave a little time back on the uphill section of Avinger in the second mile, as was planned.  I came through the second mile split in 12:50, exactly where I wanted to be.  Three or four leaders were packed together ahead of me, outside of any attackable range.  I could hear Derek and Martin Harrison (another Davidson mainstay) not far behind me.
Three miles in, I was passed by Rob--a runner I didn't know, but would get to know--and I settled into a comfortable fifth place.  It was too early to make any moves on anyone.  I was content to run my own race and let the course bring any leaders back to me if it may.  Soon enough, the first place runner faded hard.  Within the space of a mile, he came all the way back to me.  As I inched around him, he stubbornly tried to surge to keep me at bay, but I could tell he was burning up too much energy to keep it happening.  An uphill in the fifth mile left him trailing and me with a 10 second gap behind Rob.
Outbound on the far greenway near the turnaround, circa mile 6.5.  Photo courtesy of Matt Williams
Back inbound at the same spot, circa mile 7.25.  I still felt good enough to flash the famous Bobby Aswell pose.  Photo courtesy of Matt Williams

The greenway leading off the main, residential thoroughfare and to the course turnaround really allowed me to lock in and make up some ground on Rob and the two leaders.  At each mile marker, I could tell I was building in a little extra cushion.  I had hit the 10k mark in under 40 minutes, which is a great split for the middle of a half marathon.  After I hit the turnaround though, I was hit with a brief, unexpected mental check.  I knew I was a little more than half done and keeping a great pace, but there was still more than 6 miles of hard running left, and Derek was not nearly far enough behind me for my own comfort.  I was able to keep my splits and play to the terrain, surging where I could and dialing in an even effort, but a forboding sense loomed as I ran the inbound River Run rollers.
I caught up to Rob about 8.5 miles in.  We ran together and traded positions for most of River Run after that.  I glanced at my watch to see that we ran 15k in just under an hour (59:59 according to Strava).  Rob confirmed that that was one of many PRs he has hitting on this run.  For myself, I considered it a good day already.  Until this past October, I had never run 15k in under an hour.
Just after that 15k revelation, we came upon what I consider to be a gauntlet of late stage challenges on this course.  There was a sustained uphill that led us to Robert Walker, then a quick left turn directly into the Triple Threat hills, which were not long climbs, but steep enoug to put some junk in the legs.  From there we finally got out of River Run and got one last downhill before the last challenging couple of miles.  We turned right on the greenway and ran for about 1000 meters before climbing the infamous Patrick Johnson hill.
Circa mile 11.5.  I'm feeling the punishment of the rolling hills and about to climb Patrick Johnson wearing a mask of displeasure.  Photo courtesy of Dustin Branham

Rob was beginning to pull away at this point, and he seemed to have the same approach as me: low gear it and shuffle up the damn thing; pace be damned!  Still, even at a shuffle, the climb redlined me, and I was having a hard time recovering my turnover.  At this point, Rob had opened back up to a five second gap, and it might as well have been five minutes.  I could maintain my pace (which was a bit slower than my previous 6:25), but I had no more surges left in me.  When we reached the heart of the 5k racing crowd (who started an hour after us), I lost Rob in a sea of people.  Now it was just me and my PR hunt.
With less than a mile to go, I was fairly sure I had the PR, but as fried as my legs were, nothing was absolute.  I just kept pumping my arms and letting out quite audible grunts and groans as I weaved between 5k'ers and tried to open up my sub-1:25 margin.  After climbing the long grind on Pine, turning left on Lorimer, and gutting out the last half mile, I came around the familiar curve in the road to the last uphill to the finish. I was well under my sub-1:25 goal, but not close enough to sub-1:24 to warrant an all-out sprint.  I crossed the line in fourth place overall at 1:24:16.8 (which I round up to 1:24:17).  I took 93 seconds off my PR and more than two minutes off of my best time on this course.  Derek finished strong in fifth place at 1:26:06, which was 4+ minutes faster than his time on this same course last year, and half a minute from his flat course PR.  Fellow DARTer/MSMer Brian finished with a 1:28, which was faster than his anticipated time as this was a train-through race for him.
The last 50 feet.  I look a lot better than I feel in this photo.  Courtesy of Matt Williams

Everything went right that day. Even not being 100%, I was fit enough to race, and had some of my recent, nagging injuries under control.  The weather, which is usually the biggest variable, was quite optimal.  The competition was such that I nearly always had a rabbit to chase.  And, as I said before, I had detailed knowledge of the course.  Still, even with all of that, I wouldn't say this race was any easier for it.  I may get fitter, become a smarter runner, and run the course faster, but this course will never get any easier.  Derek, who unquestionably had made more relative gains than me over the past year, thought likewise.  "One day," he said to me, "you're going to level out, and I'm going to catch you."
"Yeah, one day," I said, "...but not today."
Me with Derek directly after the race.  4th and 5th place overall, and two strong finishes.  Photo courtesy of Amber Wood

Monday, March 6, 2017

Umstead Trail Marathon: The Race That Fights Back

Year of the Woodpecker!
This year was my third time running Umstead Trail Marathon, and the race continues to confound me.  I'll say right now that I'm happy with my result, but it wasn't a pretty process getting there.
For those not familiar with Umstead Trail Marathon (UTM), it's a different atmosphere that attracts something of a cult following each year.  There are no medals or age group awards.  There are only wooden plaques for the top 15 finishers in each gender.  These plaques are in the shape of that particular year's mascot, or "critter." The 15th place plaque is exactly the same as the 1st place plaque, so you're either in the awards, or you're not.  The species of the critter is a closely guarded secret until packet pickup, and all of the past critters have been animals native to Umstead State Park.  This year was the year of the Woodpecker.  My first UTM (year of the Bat) was my second marathon, and I finish just outside the awards with a 3:48.  A couple years later, during the year of the Horned Caterpillar, I ran a 3:36 for a training run-turned-race to finish 13th and took home a plaque.
Having a couple of UTMs under my belt, I considered myself familiar with course and its challenges, and I also believed I was a serious contender, maybe for top 5, but certainly for top 15.  Sam, my training buddy and sometime nemesis, rode up with me.  We both expected he would finish after me, but still within the awards.  Nevertheless, I had to be on my toes; he was my nemesis after all.  My other loose goal was to try and beat my Grandfather Mountain Marathon time of 3:19:15.  Comparing those two races would be like comparing apples to oranges, but both would be significantly harder than an average road marathon, just for different reasons.
The course is built for pain.  Even though the race is a "trail" marathon, there are really only about 6 miles of technical single-track trail on the course, all within the first 8 miles.  The rest of the course consists of wide, groomed bridal trails about the width of a dirt road, but strewn with hills of all shapes, sizes, and grades.  The only flat and smooth part of the course is an out-and-back in the first couple miles before entering the uneven footing of the single-track.  The first couple miles lull you in, then the single-track softens you up, and the long, relentlessly grinding hills finish you off.
The elevation profile for Umstead Trail Marathon.  A little hilly.

The race started at 9:00 sharp, and I settled into a groove right away in about 8th or 9th position.  The first half dozen or so runners formed a lead pack right away and started creating some space within the first mile.  I was not about to chase them.  If any faded back, so be it, but I was falling into a small pace group with a couple other runners anyway.  When we dipped into the single-track, things started to get fun.  The trails were not super-technical, but there were enough roots and rocks to keep you engaged and using up brain energy the whole time.  There were endless opportunities for twisted ankles, stubbed toes, or wipe-outs.  I avoided those this time, but I did have to do some hopping around.  On the switchbacks, I could see that Sam was not far behind me.  This wasn't surprising, given the surface.  While I consider myself a decently fast trail-runner, Sam is far more efficient on the uneven terrain.  Unlike most runners, he doesn't really lose pace when transitioning from smooth to uneven ground.  Where I tend to scamper, he glides.
By the end of the final section of single-track, I had tracked down and passed a couple more runners, but a taller runner with a bushy mustache had passed me and opened up some space.  While I was glad I wouldn't have to worry about my footing anymore, I knew that the rest of the course would be one long, grueling climb after another.  Most of the remainder of the race was one long out-and-back, so every uphill and downhill would be one we would go back down or up on the way back.  The longest of these was "The Easy Way Out" hill, which was over a mile long and led up to the 10th mile marker.  Some roving aid cyclists were about, and one said to me "You're about a third of the way up," after I had been climbing for a few tough minutes already.  "Thanks," I said with just a hint of sarcasm.
Miles and hills went by, and while the nice weather brought many runners, hikers, and cyclists to the park, I was largely alone for my part in the race.  I did a mental self-inventory after the tropical paradise-themed aid station at the halfway point.  I was feeling a bit beat up for this point in the race.  Not the best sign.  It could have been worse though.  As I was struggling at what felt like a shuffle up one of the hills, Mr. Mustache faded back to me and looked much more broken.
As I neared the turnaround at mile 15, I noted that the lead pack had broken up a bit, but I was in sixth place with a large, hard-to-close gap between me and the 5th place runner.  I also noticed that while my gap on Mr. Mustache was growing, Sam was only 2-2.5 minutes behind me, which was not that far with 11+ miles to go and what felt like an early bonk coming on...
As I rolled through the same series of hills I had just traversed--only this time in reverse--I adopted the same mindset as I did at Grandfather Mountain: don't hammer the hills, just get up them.  It was nice to see the rest of the field on their outbound leg, including several runners I had come to know from this race and other regional running events.  I peeked over my shoulder every now and again for pursuers, and I saw no one.  Mr. Mustache had fallen off the edge of the Earth, and I couldn't see Sam, but I knew he was lurking...
Circa mile 16.  I was feeling a bit worse than I look in this pic.

From mile marker 18 to 19.5 was one long, slow climb, not unlike the one leading up to mile 10.  In fact, this climb came to that same aid station, just on the inbound leg.  With GPS being inaccurate in the park, I had been eyeballing my splits and doing the math in my head at each mile marker.  I had been running in the mid-7:30 for most of the race, which was pretty good on this course.  Mile 19 was 8+ minutes, but I told myself, "It's okay.  You have over a mile of downhill now for a nice, fast, 7-minute mile."  That 20th mile was not nice, fast, or 7-minutes.  My turnover was gone, and I knew my last 10k would be all about damage control.  Worse yet, some of the most challenging climbs of the course were still yet to come.  And I kept looking over my shoulder...
I slogged up the "Corkscrew Hill" climb in the 22nd mile, and knew my next aid station would lead to the dreaded Cedar Ridge out-and-back, but I was still going steadily uphill just to even get there.  When I made it to the Cedar Ridge aid station, I left my water bottle there knowing I would pick it up again in about 2.5 miles.  No sense in carrying it for the worst climb of the race.
Me approaching Cedar Ridge aid station.  Don't I look excited?

Even on my third time running this race, it surprised me how long that stupid out-and-back was.  It was especially awful because it was just a means to an end: to get the distance right and add a horrible hill.  Shortly after going down the aptly named "Wheels-Fell-Off Hill," I ran a short way to the turnaround and came back to see Sam finishing his descent just as I was starting my ascent.  Sam was way too close for comfort, and when he would reach the turnaround in after another minute, he would know exactly how close he was.  Not good.  An alarm rang in my head that shouted "Not again!"
The rest of Cedar Ridge was interminable.  I picked up my water bottle at the last aid station and made my way toward "Cemetery Hill" at mile 25.  This S.O.B. of a hill is not only a long grinder, but you can see the entire hill staring back down at you from the bottom.  I low-geared it and chugged towards the top.  At one point, I looked over my shoulder and saw no one chasing, so I allowed myself a 10-second walk break.  However, 5 seconds in, I peeked over my shoulder again to see Sam's bright orange shirt coming around the corner to the bottom of the hill!  F***!  I had to start running again and not let up the rest of the way!
I wouldn't see Sam again for the rest of that last mile, but it seemed like I was looking behind me more than I was looking ahead.  I knew on Cemetery Hill that I would not achieve my goal of beating my GMM time, and there was no way I was catching 5th place, so I just maintained my shuffle to finish solidly in 6th place with a 3:22 flat.  Sam came in 91 seconds later for a secure 7th place finish, but he looked a lot better than I did.  I was absolutely destroyed.

Glad to be done...and to have held off Sam!

I'm sure I'll come back to Umstead Trail Marathon again, but maybe in a couple years, after I've once again forgotten how hard the course is!

7th and 6th place overall!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Charlotte 10-Miler: Great Race, Great Distance

I love to run marathons.  There is a sense of high reward for putting so much time and focus into what is a very challenging feat.  I also love 5k's, even though it's cool for my friends and me to say "Man, I hate 5k's!"  There is a satisfaction about running at a near red-line pace for 3.1 miles.  It's a different kind of hurt.  Half marathons reside comfortably between those two extremes, but there are so many half marathons now that the 13.1 mile distance can get a little familiar.  There is a magic little window that is occupied by the 15k and 10-mile distances that really entices me.  For me, these two distances straddle the one-hour race duration.  In that one-hour +/- race, I am surfing on the intangible edge of the lactate threshold, which means I have to play it just right.  In a half-marathon and above, I want to stay slower than that fast tempo for fear of getting too lactic and bonking.  In a 10k or a 5k, I have to push past that pace and just keep burning.  For a 10-miler, I experience a thrill (and pain) near to that of a 10k, but I have to strategize from start to finish as much as I would a half marathon.  The Charlotte 10-miler is a fantastic race that I have run a couple of times, and its course favors both speed and strategy.
The morning of the race was perfect racing weather: 41 degrees, clear and calm.  Many of the fast runners from the greater Charlotte area showed up for this event, so I lined up near the front and shouldered next to Meg Hovis, with whom I ran most of this race two years ago.  The start of the race was flat to downhill, and an easy, conservative effort still had me going out way too fast.  My watch was showing low 6s to high 5s, and it took a lot of discipline to slow myself down, especially with droves of people out ahead of me.  "We'll see them again," assured Meg.  The steady hill at the end of the first mile brought several runners back to reality, but I continued to gain ground while running with Meg, Sarah Duffy, Jason Philbin, and a few other similarly paced runners.  I played this hill by effort--again, conservative--and hit the first mile mark at 6:24, which was only a couple seconds faster than my first mile split from the two years ago.  Off to a good start.
After turning off Johnston Road and hitting the unpaved section of the greenway, everything felt smooth and fast.  The terrain was flat or steadily descending, the surface was fast but forgiving, and the arboreal surroundings were serene but envigorating.  The next couple of miles clicked off in short order, and I started to break off ahead of the pace group in which I had settled.  The pace felt right, and I had a steady stream of runners ahead of me that I could reel in steadily, one or two at a time.
After a rolling, residencial loop that lollipopped back to the main part of the course, I returned to the greenway and ran over the chip-timed 5-mile split at 31:13.  I was on pace to beat my PR of 1:03:05, but I knew the second half of the course had a big hill leading up to the final mile, so I had to have just the right amount of time in the bank and fuel in the tank before I got there.  The next three miles were all about maintaining that goal pace and checking my effort.  I had to keep hammering, but I had to respect the distance too.  I passed 6.2 miles (according to my watch, with some tree-cover error) at right around 39 minutes, which would be a good stand-alone 10k time for me any day.  After the 7th mile marker, I was having to put out a noticeably bigger effort to maintain the same pace.
I exited the greeway near the mile 8 mark and made a hard, 180-degree turn to angle towards the course's next neighborhood, and the infamous mile 9 hill.  After laying down a respectible pace through the neighborhood, I climbed the "Big Hill' with the same strategy as I would with a couple of the more familiar burners on the local Davidson courses.  I low-geared it, refused to look at the pace on my watch, and reminded myself that the final mile would be a screaming fast downhill, and that I should save my energy for that.  Even pulling back on the reins, the hill sucked.  There was no way around that.
Once I hit the mile 9 mark at the top, I unloaded.  Doing the quick math in my head, I knew that a 6:40 mile would get me to the finish with a PR, but I had every intention of running faster than 6:40.  There was no one within reach ahead of me or behind me, so I just focused on the clock.  When I made the last two turns in the final quarter mile, I knew I had a PR in the bag, but my A goal was 1:02:30 (derived from a planned 6:15 pace).  I crossed the finish line in 1:02:18.  I'm extremely happy with that time, because it's just a representation of everything going right for that race.  Winning my age group was an added bonus.
Picture of my finish, courtesy of Bobby Aswell.

Here is my Strava data for the race.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Salem Lake 50k Relay, by Main Street Milers

After an unprecidented but not unwelcome,  weather-induced reschedule, this year's Salem Lake Frosty 50k/25k/50k Relay was more like a Foggy 50k Relay.  A few early moring running buddies and I decided to enter the Relay lists as a coed open team with the singular purpose of winning that category.  In order of relay segment, we--The Main Street Milers--were Dustin, Ashley, Derek, and me (Chas).  This recap is co-written by my fellow MSM teammates in the order of events as they unfolded.
Main Street Milers
From left: Dustin, Chas, Derek, and Ashley

A brief course description:
Salem Lake Park has a beautiful, seven-mile, hard-packed dirt path the circumnavigates the lake and connects to Salem Creek Greenway (asphalt) on the Northwest corner.  The course started at the trailhead nearest to the park's main entrance and ran the entirety of the trail around the lake, adding a short out-and-back on the asphalt greenway to make each lap 12.5 kilometers, or 7.75 miles.  Four laps would complete the 50k, and relay teams had one runner for each lap.  The course was largely flat, but there were two significant hills at mile 1.25 and 7.25.  Rain had swept through the area in the few days before the park, and while there was no active precipication, the ground was wet, but not overly soft in most places.
Here is how the Main Street Milers' race played out:
First leg: Dustin
First off, my primary goal was not to lose the race within a race.  Here's what I mean.  Derek, Chas, and I had made a little wager: slowest guy buys a round of beers for the others.  Given that Chas was virtually always faster than me, and Derek had recently "turned the screws" (his words) faster than I was able at the Mayberry Half Marathon, I was the clear underdog.  In other words, I needed to put up a strong performance in order to keep up with these two guys. In all honesty, I knew Ashley was going to be a formidable teammate/competitor as well, and she played no small role in motivating me to run my best race.  None of these MSM teammates was going to make things easy.
I lined up on the front.  As the RD gave us the signal, I immediately fell into a pace that felt more like a 5k than 7.75mi.  This landed me in 2nd position, led only by an unknown in a red singlet.  This order persisted for approximately a mile, during which I could hear Chad Crockford and Caleb Masland behind me having a very pleasant and unlabored conversation behind me regarding marathon PRs, which were both in the mid-2:30s.  I quickly realized that I was significantly outclassed and these two could pass me whenever they liked.  They did so shortly thereafter, leaving me in 4th position.  Next to pass were a young, curly-headed unknown, and finally at approximately mile 2, a Charlotte runner wearing a CRC singlet and laboring far more than the first few runners.  I then maintained 6th position for the remainder of my leg, keeping curly-head and Mr. CRC in sight for 6 miles.
Keeping tabs on my watch, I was slowly losing ground on pace.  My first couple of miles were 6:10 and then it slowly crept up to 6:17.  This was my overall average, and I knew it was artificially high due to GPS loss on those curvy lake fingers.  But I kept my eyes on the prize, which wa to put up a strong performance for my team.  My unspoken goal was to average 6:15 min/mi, but I was a little hesitant to tell anyone because I didn't realistically believe I was able to hit that number.
Mile 5 is when things began to get difficult, but grit is grit, so I bore down and knocked my overall pace at mile 6 back down to 6:16.  Small victories.  When I hit the final hill by the dam, I slowed significantly because it was a legit grade.  This felt like an embarrassing, molasses-like pace.  As I neared the apex, I could see all of my DART buddies cheering for me near the finish line.  So I dug deep, took advantage of the downhill, and came in strong as Ashley took the baton.  A few minute of heavy breathing and recovery and I was back to slapping fives and catching up with buds.  What a great day at the races!
Second leg: Ashley
My goal was to keep all of my miles sub-7, which seemed like a reasonable challenge.  As Dustin had set me up well towards the front of the pack but behind the lead 25k runners and the lead men's relay team, I ran alone for a couple of miles.  The second leg of the winning mixed team then cruised by me at sub-6 pace and was out of my sight within a few minutes.  Keeping up with him was out of the question, so I just tried to hang on to my place.
The run was mentally tough due to the unvarying terrain in the first 5+ miles, the fact that I was basically alone for the entire 7.7 miles (but obviously being chased) and the lack of anything resembling crowd support.  I occasionally had to remind myself I was racing as I passed walkers out for a leisurely stroll around the lake.  I took the race a mile at a time, checking my Garmin often (probably too often, since I learned later that it wasn't entirely accurate on the second half of the course) to make sure that I was staying on pace.
I was grateful to turn onto the paved road for the out-and-back at mile 7 even knowing that the infamous big hill was still ahead of me.  The best part of the race was finally arriving at the top of the hill, hearing the DARTers in the distance cheer (and Morgan and Johane ringing cowbells) and cruising to the finish where Derek was waiting.
Ashley finishing her leg and passing the "baton" to Derek.  Dustin looks on from the background, and I'm still bundled up in the exchange zone looking down the trail.

Third leg: Derek
Lesson learned: if you start a 12.5k race at sub-5k pace, you're going to have a bad time.  That is a scientific fact.  Blame it on relay inexperience, blame it on sitting around and watching a race unfold and anticipation build around you for an hour and a half, or blame it on shooting out like a cannon and forgetting to start your GPS for a minute or so and not bothering to check pace.  In the relay chute, I watched the lead team come in about 3 minutes before us and I really wanted to give a strong effort to make some time up.  Plus, there was a friendly intra-team wager to think about.
Either way, a sub-6:00 pace for the first mile and a half is too richfor me.  The course doesn't do you any favors either, since every corner you round in the first 3 miles, the trail looks exactly like the section you just ran and there ar no landmarks for frame of reference.  Add to that the fact that I was only 7 days out from running a marathon (not raced, but still 26.2 miles), and by mile 3 I was ready to be done.  Around mile 2, I had spotted and was using another runner in a bright yellow shirt as my rabbit.  It was clear that he was moving too, so I assumied him to be from one of the fast, college-age all-men teams.  So I spent the next mile or so slowly closing the gap on him.  I caught on and eventually passed him around mile 4, and we traded places back and forth a few times with a few encouraging words, but I was hurting pretty bad.  Right after mile 5, he found another gear and I just needed to let him go.  We weren't directly racing each other anyways, but then without my rabbit, it was survival mode until "The Big Hill" at mile 7.5.  My legs were toast and felt about like mile 25 of a marathon, only at 6:40 pace I was now also breathing (gasping?) at 5k levels.
This was not fun.  Had I not had teammates counting on me (we were still in the medal hunt after all), I probably would have bagged it much sooner.  But I had been asked to be on the team because they thought I could help our chances of placing well, so I gutted it out until "The Big Hill."  I tried to go strong up that sneaky bastard knowing I was almost home, but about halfway up it you round a corner and see that not only are you ONLY halfway up, but it gets steeper.  Not sure what it was, but my breathing at that point was on the verge of hyperventilation, so I walked.  Only the second time ever in a race, but yeah, I did.  10 seconds or so.  Got my breathing back under control, finished the hill, and still managed a decent sprint down the hill to the finish.  Not a proud race performance, but still turned in a sub-50 minute 12.5k, if only barely.  And, after I could see/breathe/think again, I was informed that I had closed the gap with the lead team to under 10 seconds, so that's a win.  We were in decent shape leading into our strong fourth leg runner.  All in all, it was a fun day getting to spend time with friends, interrupted by 45 minutes of hardcore suck.  But due to that aforementioned wager, I was now buying the post-race beers.
Derek striding in to pass me the slap braclet for the final leg.
Fourth leg: Chas
Less than 10 seconds after the leading open coed team from Clemson passed off to their anchor runner, Derek came flying into the exchange zone with the gimace of an all-out effort on his face.  He had made up nearly three-and-a-half minutes of the gap to the lead team!  I shot off after their anchorman (Michael) and slapped the timing bracelet on my wrist.  50 meters down the trail, I heard more than one person from the exchange zone yelling, "hey!"  I turned back to see them holding something up.  Glancing at the slap bracelet on my wrist, I realized it was the timing sensor; it had fallen off!  "F***!" I screamed as I sprinted back, grabbed the sensor, and turned back on course while I still had Michael in sight.
Now the heart rate was up, and I had the pressure of chasing the lead team, as well as trying to match Dustin's impressive sub-48 minute leadoff leg.  After a mile, it was apparent that Michael was out of my league.  He opened up such a huge gap in that time that he was uncatchable unless something extraordinary happened.  I couldn't in good concience slow down though.  When I reached the first hill at mile 1.25, I quickly realized that my effort for the distance was setting me up for a world of hurt later in the race.  The hill was not a bad hill compared to our usual Davidson running routes, but it was enough to induce the burn.
While Michael from the Clemson team was out of reach, I locked in on another college-age runner from one of the open male category teams.  He was keeping up a quick pace and served as a good rabbit.  I took my splits by eyeballing the race time at each of the trail's permanent, certified mile markers. I passed mile 3 at 18:27, nearly on pace for a sub-19 5k.  I didn't know how sustainable that pace would be, but I'd have to keep it up if I wanted to stay on par with Dustin's performance.  After I crossed over the far end of the lake at Linville Road and started running along the north lakeshore, the GPS started going wonky.  I knew I was maintaining a fast pace and the effort was getting more painful, especially since I was only about halfway done.  At any moment, I was expecting the rabbit I had picked to fade back to me, but he remained 5-10 seconds ahead of me throughout the run.
I picked out my 5 mile split at 30:34 (which would crush my official 8k and 5-mile PRs) and my 6 mile split at 36:40ish.  The pace was as fast or faster than any other race I had done at similar distances.  Shortly after I got to the asphalt out-and-back section, I saw Michael coming inboud from that segment, which meant he was more than half a mile ahead of me.  Damn, he was fast!
Being the last runner on my team, I got to hear several DARTers' recounts of the big dam hill in the last quarter mile of the course.  It was as painful as everyone promised.  Still, it was good to know I was just over a minute from the finish once I reached the top.  I opened up my stride down the backside of the dam hill and was determined to finish fast.  I wouldn't match Dustin's lap time, but I would be respectably close, and I wouldn't have to buy the round of beer.  I finished in just over 48 minutes.
Me striding in for the team finish.  All pictures courtesy of  Ashley and Brian Neff.
As a team, The Main Street Milers finished 2nd in the coed mixed category.  The club runners from Clemson clearly outclassed us, but they were extremely polite and sportsmanlike, even referring to us as "sir," and "ma'am," much to our chagrin.
Other DART teams fared even better in their respective categories.  The DARTlings, and all female team, won the ladies' overall category, and Foolish Velocity excitingly edged out the defending masters category champs with a heroic last leg by Joey Noto.
DARTer and Ironman Ashley Ackerman took 3rd place overall for the solo 50k race with a 3:57.  This was doubly impressive because this was his first attempt at 50k!  As per usual, great things happen when a bunch of DARTers get together in one place!
Most of the DART contingency at Salem Lake.  MSM in the back row on the left; back center is Foolish Velocity (Chris Flaherty, Dave Munger, Joey Noto, and not pictured is Mike McCarthy); DARTlings are up front (Katie Rose, Amber Wood, Johane Hirschfield, and Morgan Dethman), and an unknown Marathon Maniac.  Also not pictured is Ashley Ackerman, who was preparing for his first 50k.

Main Street Milers Frosty 50k Relay by the numbers
Dustin: 47:45 (6:10 average pace)
Ashley: 53:10 (6:52 average pace)
Derek: 49:49 (6:26 average pace)
Chas:48:11 (6:13 average pace)
Main Street Milers: 3:18:53 (6:24 average pace)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Novant Charlotte Marathon: Pacers Do It With Consistency.

This year's Charlotte Marathon (formerly Thunder Road Marathon) was my fourth time running the race and third as an official pacer.  Pacing is something I love to do for my running community and frankly, even though this race is local, its course is challenging enough for me not to want to do it unless it's complimentary.  Does that make me cheap or smart?  Maybe both.  Anyway, I signed up to once again pace the first half of the three hour pace group, meaning I would be pacing a 90-minute half, which seems to be a nice default for me as a pacer.  It's quick enough that it's a worthwhile race experience, but enough over my PR to be reliably attainable.  In the Summer and early Fall, I trained through a very rigorous half marathon program that really boosted my speed for that distance and culminated in me obliterating a 15k PR (my target half was cancelled).  Following that, I focused on some high end speed to likewise crush my 5k PR four weeks later.  In hat time period, I only had about 5-6 weeks of marathon-specific training.  With the usual base I have built up, I knew I would have no problem finishing the race with a decent time after my pacing duties were relieved, but part of me was itching to stick to that three hour pace (6:52 minutes/mile) to see how long I could hang on.

You can find me in the right third of the frame in the obnoxiously pink pacer shirt.  I'm right behind Chad Crockford in the JITFO singlet, who would go on to win the marathon.

I noticed many familiar faces at the starting line, including some really fast folks from all around the Charlotte metro area.  Most of those speedsters would speed ahead at the gun and never be seen again.  A good twenty or so people spotted me with Matt L. (my pacing partner) in our conspicuously pink pacer shirts and huddled around us.  Bryan, one of my local training buddies, met up with us intending to break 1:30 for a half marathon PR and tune-up for his focus marathon in January.
When the go signal went off, dozens of people charged ahead.  Some faded back, but it seemed like there were a lot of runners out there running faster than a 1:30 half/3:00 full pace.  As was always the case, we would see many of them again.  With the tall buildings in uptown Charlotte, my GPS watch was jumping around for pace readings, and out of our large group, no two watches said the same thing, so I largely paced by feel.  It worked out well enough; we came to the first mile marker at 6:51.
Somewhere in the first mile.  At least a score of runners were on the 1:30/3:00 bandwagon.

As with any rolling course, I briefed my tag-alongs that we would shoot for equal effort on the ups and downs and end up with reasonably even splits.  The first half of the Charlotte course--which shares all but the last 500 meters of the half marathon course--is a beautiful, residential route that traverses the Meyers Park, Dilworth, and Southend neighborhoods.  With lots of crowd support and appealing streetscapes, the miles went by with relative ease.  We climbed the infamous Morehead Street hill at mile 8+ and started shedding some followers.  At this point, Lucy, a friend of another running buddy, overtook the first female who faded back to us and became the lead female marathoner.  We had banked a good 20-25 seconds on the race clock before that hill and were perfectly comfortable to give some of it back.  After going up most of the hill, taking a brief loop through Dilworth, and then climbing the rest of Morehead, we had given back about 10 seconds and were a cumulative 13 seconds ahead of pace.
Many of the half marathoners in our group started to fade in Southend with all but the last 5k of their race remaining.  Bryan stayed with us, but he was less talkative.  I positioned myself at the front of the pace group once we turned onto Mint Street at mile 11.8.  The headwind here was palpable, so I figured I would offer drafting services to half marathon finishers and Lucy, who had her eyes on a winning marathon spot.  A little more than half a mile from the half marathon finish, I noticed Bryan lagging behind by a few strides.  With our banked seconds, he was still on pace for a sub-1:30 and big PR, but this was no time to get complacent and fall off.  I drifted back and ran at his shoulder trying to draft him back to the group.  Me made up the gap, and by the time the course split, he was set up for one final quarter-mile push that propelled him to a 1:29:46, which beat his stretch goal.
As we full marathoners veered around the BB&T Ballpark and out of sight of the finish line, our 2nd half pacers, Paul and Ryan, were waiting at the mile 13 mark to relieve us of our  By the time we reached the certified 13.1 mark, we were still 10+ seconds ahead of pace.  Since it was getting warmer (at least at a 6:52 pace), I shed my pacer shirt and was down to a singlet.  I decided to run with the group to offer additional support and maybe benefit from having the fresh Ryan and Paul as pacers.  Miles 14-16 not only were the least scenic of the course, but they had the strongest headwind, so I tucked in behind Paul, who was a good six inches taller than me.  I took my turn running into the wind too, but I allowed myself to work off the new pacers' fresh legs whenever I could.
This is probably mile 14ish.  From left: Ryan M. (second shift pacer), Lucy (lead female), and me (down to my Reckless Running singlet

Again, the conversation and general sense of security in running with a group made the miles go by quickly, and we continued to bank a few more seconds per mile as we carried on.  By mile 18, I accepted that I was going to have to stop at a port-a-potty, so as soon as I bird-dogged one on The Plaza, I surged ahead and took care of the need as quickly as possible.  When I got back on the road, I could see Ryan and Paul's pink pacer shirts a couple hundred meters ahead of me, and it looked like Lucy and a couple other sub-three hopefuls were hanging strong with them.  I settled into a closing pace, but I intended to take my sweet time catching up to the sub-3 group to avoid repeating the stupid mistake I made at Boston.  I had chosen my potty stop well because the next couple of miles were flat enough to pick up the pace a bit and negate the small amount of time I lost in the facilities.
By mile 20, I was back on pace for three hours, but the pace group was still far ahead and not coming back to me.  It was evident that they were going to go under three by a considerable margin, so I abandoned any notion of catching up to them and resolved to run solo for the last 10k.  Here and there, I would pass runners that had fallen off the three hour pace group, and I tried to get them to tag along with me because I technically was still on pace for sub-three, but most of them had hit their wall and were fading.  As each mile went by, I kept on banking a few more seconds, much like I did as a pacer for the first half, but with 2.5+ hours of running on my legs, the idea of a sub-three finish wasn't seeming any more certain.

Circa mile 24.  I'm on my own and tired, but still coherent enough to give an Aswell-style thumbs-up.

Mile markers 23 and 24 came along, both confirming that I was 18-20 seconds ahead of pace.  I had not bonked, but the legs were protesting and my breathing was getting heavy.  Still, with each mile marker, I remember telling myself something like, "You can't run 24 miles of a sub-three marathon and NOT get the sub-three finish!"
The 25th mile was a pleasant departure from the roads and took me on a greenway near the medical center in midtown.  The gun clock at mile 25 read about 2:51:30ish, which was still 20ish seconds ahead of pace, but anyone who has run the Novant/Thunder Road marathon in the last three years knows that mile 26 is one, tough, uphill slog up the length of Stonewall.  This was the reason for all the previously banked time.  Marathoners like to joke that a marathon has two "halves:" the first 20 miles and the last 6.2.  Well for me, this race's two "halves" were the first 25 miles and the last 1.2!  With my banked time, a 7:00 pace mile would still set me up for a sub-three finish, but a 7:10 would be too close for comfort.  I tried to just look ahead and run, but I couldn't resist glancing at my watch here and there.  With the instantaneous pace jumping back and forth between 7:05 and 7:10, I had tragic visions of the finish clock flipping from 2:59:59 to 3:00:00 right in front of me.  Of course, that was just the last mile talking.  The only real thing to do was to HTFU and do the damn thing!  I remember what my onetime nemesis Sam said during a track workout a couple months ago: "Chas always has a little something left."  So I dug in and started running under a 7:00 pace again.
When I got to the top of Stonewall and turned right on Mint (not even noticing the mile 26 marker), I focused on the finish line, which was still so far away!  I knew it was going to be close, so I let it all out.  I crossed the finish line in 2:59:52, fifteen seconds behind Lucy, who held on to the lead to get the overall female win.
Crossing the finish line just under three hours.  For the life of me, I have absolutely no recollection of high-fiving Hugo the Hornet, but here's photographic proof.

This sub-three finish meant at least as much to me as my first sub-three and current PR from last year.  This race, although it was within a minute of my PR, was on a much harder course and thus gave me a sense of validation.  Running a lot of 3:00+ marathons and having one sub-three finish means I could have had a good a good day and gotten lucky once.  Running a second sub-three lets me confidently think of myself as a sub-three marathoner.  Now on to loftier goals yet to be decided...

Here is my Strava data for the race.
The double-Aswell pose!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Two races, two goals

Since laying down a breakthrough of a 15k PR at the beginning of the month, I've maintained base fitness for the Charlotte Marathon but focused most of my key workouts on running a fast 5k.  I've done two 5k's in October, both with very different goals, different settings, and different race strategies.
October 15: Rescue Me 5k at McAlpine Creek Park:
This race kind of fell into my lap.  My wife and I recently started fostering an adorable Pit Bull rescue through South Of The Bully rescue agency.  Rescue Me 5k was an adoption event and a fund raiser for several Pit Bull rescue agencies in the area.  It was also the first chance I would get to race on the McAlpine Creek cross country course.
Since this race was at the end of a high volume training week and my legs were still sore from a hard tempo run a few days before, I didn't have any concrete time goals.  Besides, in a XC style race, the clock doesn't seem to be as important as does your position.  So I was in it to win it, certainly not to PR.  Although, in the back of my mind, I thought I still had the legs for a sub-19.
The morning was crisp, and the day was clear.  It was good racing weather.  I lined up at the front with a few other fast looking fellas.  At the "go" shout, I strode ahead to an early lead, but only by half a stride.  By the sounds of the footfalls on the dirt path, there was a lead pack of half a dozen or so runners (including one loudly breathing dog) led by me and one other runner whom I'll just call Red Shirt.
Since McAlpine gets used so often for large college and high school XC meets and invitationals, the course has certified metric markings every 200 meters as well as permanent mile markings, which made on-the-go strategic decisions much easier.  At the first mile marker (6:00-6:01 by my clock), Red Shirt and I had pulled away from the rest of the leaders.  We could still hear them--especially the dog--but they were fading.  Red Shirt strode ahead of me, so I tucked in behind him and let him set the pace.  There was plenty of race left after all.  The course's one real hill popped up at about the halfway point, and Red Shirt charged hard up the slope in an effort to break me.  The hill sucked, and he did gain a couple more strides worth of ground, but then I could tell by his thrown back posture that his surge had cost him.  I passed him at the 2500 mark and he tucked in behind me as I motored down the slope on the back side.
Coming out from the tree line with the hill, we ran through what would be the final straightaway after we would do a different loop on the back end of the course.  Red Shirt stayed on my heels through two miles (12:11 at the second mile marker), but I heard his footfalls fade back dramatically in the next quarter mile.  By the 4000 mark, I was alone with at least 100 meters of a lead and the win seemingly locked up.  Every 200 meters, I would do the math to confirm that a sub-19 finish would be awfully close, but once I rounded the pond for the final straightaway once again, I knew I had it.  My finish time was 18:56.  Red Shirt was about 25 seconds behind me, and the third finisher was 10 seconds behind him.  I ran the race I wanted, got a satisfying win, and got some publicity for Barlowe, our foster dog.  My wife and I called that day a success!
Barlowe was my biggest cheerleader at Rescue Me 5k

Please adopt me!

October 29: Charlotte Runway 5k at Douglas Int'l Airport:
The Runway 5k was my focus race for my short but packed 5k training cycle.  My old PR of 18:20 was getting stale, and although it was on a supposedly certified course, the general consensus of that course's shortness brings the street cred of that time into question.  So, following a lead from my buddy Dave, who PR'd at Runway three years ago, I decided to give it a shot.  Not only did I want to PR, but I had lofty aspirations of going sub-18, which all sources indicated would be a bit of a reach for me.
After carpooling with Dave and Rich (who works for American Airlines and got us great parking) and meeting John A., Bryan, M., Mike M., and some other buddies there, we quickly assessed that the weather was about the best one could ask for when running a PR 5k.
With 2000+ people racing, and a start line that was a couple dozen people wide, John and I got into the front row to avoid some of the logjam.  At the start, I settled into my pace--well actually a little faster for the first 30 seconds--and focused my gaze straight ahead.  Some of the appeal to this race, aside from being outrageously fast and flat, is the opportunity to run on a closed taxiway and fairly close to an active runway.  That being said, I did not notice the huge parked aircraft or any of the air traffic around us.  I was focused straight ahead the whole time.
18 minutes for 5k is a 5:47 pace, so my goal was to hit even 5:45 splits to break that barrier.  The first mile maker came up at exactly 5:45 on my clock, but I found myself in a no-man's land, with the other 7-8 runners too far ahead to chase down, and not noticing anyone right on my heels.  I wish I could say I was dueling it out with another racer like at Rescue Me 5k, but honestly, it was just me out there holding on to that 5:45 pace...thinking about how uncomfortable it was.
I passed the second mile marker at 11:31 on my clock, making for practically even splits, but I was starting to feel the acute intensity of the burn.  Those that usually run longer distances know well (and lament) the different kind of hurt that an all-out 5k presents.  Two thoughts bolstered my resolve: (1) I was two-thirds done with what was on pace to be my fastest 5k ever, and (2) I only had to hurt for 6+ more minutes.  With those mantras repeating back-and-forth, I maintained and even quickened the pace a bit.
At 2.5 miles, I was overtaken by Franklin, to whom I finished second place at Spencer Mountain 5k a couple years ago.  Rarely does someone pass me the last mile of a 5k, but I remember Franklin being a great late stage racer, and he was just a touch faster than me.  Franklin's girlfriend Paula, who was the lead female, also strode ahead of me, but she stayed within arm's length.  Having Franklin and Paula there actually helped me accelerate on the last half mile of the course since I, like everyone, run better in a pack.
Once we rounded the hangar complex and came within sight of the finish line (still about 500 meters away), I surged with anticipation.  My watch said 16:51 the last time I looked at it, which was well before the third mile marker (which I never even remember seeing), and I guessed that a hard kick would get me across the line in under 18 minutes.  I passed Paula and bade her to pick it up with me and "do this!"  She cheered me on and tucked in behind me.  From there on out, it was one long, anaerobic sprint to a 17:44 finish (with a chip time later adjusted to 17:43).  I was sure I was going to PR this day, and halfway confident I might break 18, but 17:44 was waaaaay beyond my goal!  John also broke 18 minutes with a one second PR (17:58), and Dave broke 20 minutes with 19:46, heralding a strong post-injury return to form (Dave's recap).  Bryan PR'd with a 19:11, and Richard barely missed his sub-20 goal with a 20:05.  Fast times were had all around, and we were all beaming on our way home from the airport.
Now it's time to switch gears again and run a fast marathon in a couple of weeks...
Two thumbs up means a good day at the airport!

Here is my Strava data for both races:
Rescue Me 5k
Runway 5k