Thursday, April 10, 2014

Moonlight Double Feature!

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Busy Racing Weekend (Double Recap).

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From left: Carl, Yours Truly, and Chris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Times, Bad Times: Wrightsville Beach Marathon Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Shoe Review: Mizuno Wave Sayonara

Anyone who runs with me knows that I keep a large collection of running shoes in rotation.  However, after acquiring a pair of Mizuno 's relatively new performance shoe, the Wave Sayonara, I spent a lot of dedicated time in that shoe, including a wide variety of workouts and one race-like scenario.
I should say that I've never been a fan of the Wave Precision or the Wave Elixir--the shoes the Sayonara is intended to replace.  However, there was a lot of hype and some promising features that led me to give the Sayonara an honest shot.  Let's get to it.
Like most Mizunos, the Sayonara fits large on me (I sized down 1/2 size), and the heel cup is a bit spacious.  However, unlike other Mizunos, I found the toe box to have ample width.  With some experimental lacing, I found that a semi-boxed lacing pattern with a loop-lace on the extra eye locked my foot perfectly into the footbed without too much pressure on my often-sensitive metatarsals.  Observe my lacing in the picture.
My semi-boxed and eye-looped lacing if the Wave Sayonara

Here's the fun part.  I've taken this shoe on long runs in the 12-20 mile range, easy recovery runs, tempo runs, hill repeats, road speed intervals, and a heavy half marathon at near race pace.  It has seen over 90% asphalt and 10% non-technical dirt trail. Mizuno markets the Sayonara as an "Everyday Fast" shoe.  This is a good description.  As most if my shoes are lighter than the Sayonara's already light 8.1 ounce (men's size 9) weight, and it's 10mm heel/toe drop was a little high for my midfoot running style, I figured the Sayonara would be just a distance trainer.  However, after running with the shoe, all those numbers mean little and less.  The response is firm, almost to the point of stiffness when on the stationary or walking foot, but in a running stride, the shoe's flexibility and just-right give (from Mizuno's new U4ic midsole material) become evident.  Unlike many trainers which start out soft and firm up during the run, the Sayonara starts out firm and softens up just enough.  The underside (pictured below), made of a combination of solid blown rubber in high abrasion zones, rubber treads under the forefoot, and exposed EVA under the midfoot, provides so-far reliable traction.

The Sayonara does show signs of wear after about 120 miles.  Some of the exposed EVA is "tagged" on the side of the midfoot, and the blown rubber at my midfoot point of impact is showing some beveled wear, with the micro tread faded away.  Much of this wear is expected, and I have been putting some hard workouts on these shoes.  However, the shoe's responsiveness has not changed so far.  I hypothesize that it will have more longevity than a dedicated racing flat, but maybe not so much an average high-mileage trainer.

My conclusions:
The Mizuno Wave Sayonara is not for everyone.  Those that crave a soft, mat-like ride will find it a bit firm, and pure minimalists may think there's a bit too much shoe (which I was afraid of initially).  However, for me, the Sayonara is a top candidate to replace the endangered Brooks Green Silence as a trustworthy marathon shoe.  The GS and the Sayonara are apples and oranges, so I won't even begin to compare the two, but they each serve well as marathon racers in their own way.  Next Spring, I will qualify for Boston again, and it may just be in the Wave Sayonara.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thunder Road 2013: a Pacer's Recap

I had wanted to be part of Thunder Road for several months.  Ever since fellow Reckless Running brand ambassador Bobby Aswell, Jr. declared that Thunder Road was going to be his 200th marathon, I decided I needed to be there.  However, I was in money-saving mode, and I wasn't sure how competitive I wanted to be.  I thought of opting for the lesser-known 5k and then providing some crowd support, but I think that would have left me with a big case of mileage envy.
[Cue spotlight, stage left]
Enter the pacing opportunity...
The Endurance Magazine Thunder Road Pacing Team.  I'm front row, far right.  Photo courtesy of DC Lucchesi.
The Endurance Magazine Official Thunder Road Pacing Team had yet to acquire pacers for the 3 hour group.  I couldn't run a 3:00 marathon; my very best was a 3:04.  However, they were accepting paired tag teams with runners each doing a 90-minute Half.  I could pull of a 1:30 Half.  Luckily, Claire Naisby was willing to do the other Half.  Boom.  Call us a 3:00 pace team!
There were a lot of pros to this plan: free entry into the race, including the usual swag, and a pacer tech tee to boot, and a chance to cheer on all my running buddies.  However, there were some caveats: I couldn't really "race," or hold an individualized strategy.  I was going to be accountable for other people's paces.  I could make or break someone's PR.  With that in mind, I had to stay healthy and in shape for this effort.
Fast forward to race day.  Claire and I agreed that she would run the first half, and I'd join them at mile marker 12, shortly before the Full/Half split.  I actually started the race with everyone and peeled off after about 3/4 miles to slowly jog over to my rendezvous point.  Spectating friends Dave Munger and Stephanie Mishler came by after a while to cheer on the field from my location.  We watched the scattered leaders of the Half and the Full zip by, with fierce competition evident in both races.
I did a few strides to keep loose for my 14.2 mile heavy half at 6:52 pace.  Soon enough, I saw the telltale orange pacer shirts of Claire and Jason Philbin (another 3:00 pacer, first half only).  There was a good size group around them.  Rather then wait for them to get to the top of the hill (Morehead...bleh), I got excited and ran down about 100 meters to meet them.  Everyone looked to be working pretty steadily, but still have plenty of gas in the tank.  In short order, we passed through the Half split-off, bidding adieu to Jason as he turned to complete the 13.1 mile race.  Claire stuck with the Full group with the intention of dropping out of the pace group and continuing at her own pace for a potential, impromptu debut marathon.  I settled in to a solid 6:52 pace, peeking at the Garmin occasionally, and recording splits on my reliable Timex stopwatch, which had the gun time from the start of the race.
The 3:00 pace group about 100 meters after I joined.  The three orange-clad pacers (left to right) are Claire, Jason, and me.  Photo courtesy of Stephanie Mishler.
Running through Southend is a great stretch for the Full Marathoners to regain their focus.  The course was far less crowded, and much of the "racing" vibe that surrounded the Halfers was all behind us.  Now, everyone seemed to be focused on working together.  Running acquaintance Clayton Venhuizen was sticking with my group, as I expected he would be.  I knew sub-3 was a goal of his, considering his PR had been 3:00 and change.  He and I both talked up the other runners and kept the attitude positive. Clayton asked to draft me, and I was happy to oblige.  After all, I had the freshest legs in the group.
Before we knew it, we were at mile 16 and headed back into Uptown.  After passing by the stadium and running a brief out-and-back (temporary course change for 2013), we were among the skyscrapers and crowds.  We rattled off some fast splits in the mid-high 6:40s, but my group and I were content with that since there were some tougher miles ahead.
At mile 19, we were headed away from town on Caldwell, towards NoDa: my old stomping grounds from when I played music more regularly.  The 6:50s splits came with some effort, but they set Clayton up for a faster mile 22 and 23 (part of his race plan).  For the past few miles, my group had disintegrated.  All that were left were Clayton, and Sean, a young man we had caught who had decided to hang on with us.  Whenever Clayton would fade back to me, I would ease in front of him to allow him to draft.  He took advantage of it whenever I did.  After zigging and zagging in and out of the residential parts of Plaza Midwood, we climbed the last real hill of the course onto Central, which would lead us back into Uptown.  It was great to see a lot of familiar CRC faces at the mile 25 cheering zone.  We ran through the lane of spectators with arms outstretched, catching as many high 5's as we could.
"Autopilot, boys!"  Clayton (white) and Sean (green) looking great at mile 25 as I pace from behind.
Arms outstretched to catch some high-five love from CRC just past mile 25.  Photo courtesy of Sommer Baucom.
When we reached mile marker 25, the gun clock read 2:51:05.  We had nearly nine minutes to run 1.2 miles.  "Alright gents," I said, "it's all autopilot from here!"  Clayton felt invigorated and pulled ahead to seal the deal for the last mile.  Sean did the same but quickly faded back to me.  We crossed over I-277 and bore left on McDowell for the final, flat stretch.  Although there was only half a mile left, it looked a lot longer when staring down cleared city blocks.  Spectators cheered the racers, and some cheered me as pacer, recognizing my conspicuous, orange shirt.  Come to think of it, I was the first of the pace team to come in for the finish of the Full.  We turned right for the final .2, and I knew Clayton would come in well under his 3 hour goal. Seeing the official gun clock at the finish line, I neglected my usual sprinting finish and maintained the same, steady pace through the finish line.  I crossed at 2:59:46.  Clayton PR'd at 2:59:29, and Sean faded back for a 3:00:20.  A few minutes later, he told me that I had pulled him to a 10 minute PR!
Me crossing the finish line with a clock time of 2:59:46.  Now if only I'd run a full marathon in that time...  Photo courtesy of Stephanie Mishler.
I had barely gotten out of the finish chute and met Dave, Steph, and Bryan Massingale, when up came Claire, cruising in for her first marathon finish and smiling wide with a 3:08!  Not only did she finish her first marathon without training specifically for the race, but she snagged second place overall female!
I ran back onto the last mile of the course to see who I could pace in.  Fellow DARTer Matt Williams turned the corner for the final .2 as I passed by him; he scored a solid BQ with a 3:12.  Moments later, I congratulated Bobby Aswell as he was on the homestretch to his 200th marathon finish.  I chatted with Dustin Branham (who ran the half and was awaiting his wife Ashley's finish for the Full) at around mile 25.5 when I saw Sam Mishler cruising up.  I ran alongside him for the rest of his race, providing what I hope was some welcome company for a warm and muggy marathon finish.  Sam finished with a 3:22, beating his previous Thunder Road time.  I peeled off 100 meters before, having decisively aggravated my dodgy achilles tendon.  Unfortunately, the achilles injury sidelined me for a while, but I'm at least content that it happened at an event where my running helped other runners, rather than some random training run.
One thing is for sure, I really loved pacing!  I surely will pace Thunder Road next year, and I will continue to seek out pacing opportunities in the future to give back to my running community.  Until then, I'm on recovery duty.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Big South 5k: Back To My Old Self

Last weekend, I raced the Big South 5k in Pineville, which is one of the fastest certified 5k courses in the the Charlotte area.  Ever since Umstead, the fastest I had run for 5k had been 19:26, well off of my previous PR of 18:36.  I wanted to race this fast course to find out if I finally had gotten my sub-19 fitness back after months of training adjustments, building strength, and hard work.  If I set a new PR, so much the better.

Big South is a huge local race.  Over 1100 runners showed up, including a cadre of the fastest runners in the Charlotte area.  Chief among the racehorses was Fam, who had set a state record at this same race the previous year.  Other fellow Reckless Running ambassadors were Bobby Aswell and his daughter Nicole.

The course was tailor-made for fast times.  The first 2k or so was a gradual uphill, followed by another 2k of refreshing downhill, and then a flat kilometer within proverbial scent of the finish line.  The final 150 meters or so also was downhill.  My goal was to hit 6 minutes flat for the first mile and then see what happened from there.

Usually, I find a spot in the front row of anything from 5k-half marathon, for this relatively high-profile race, I decided to sneak in about three or four rows back.  As I moved forward to secure a spot, a young teen stiff-armed me and glared at me as he stepped in front of me.  Seriously, kid?!  Whatever.  I made sure those I knew who were faster than me were in front of me, and waited for the start.  The start itself was more of a stampede.  I struggled with elbows and cut-offs and all manners of discombobulated foot traffic.  It was all I could do to thread the needle between runners, hit the tangents, and try and find some breathing room where I could establish my pace.  Once I finally got in a groove, I zeroed in on Bobby, who was hovering a dozen meters ahead of me.  I worked fairly hard on that first mile and crossed the marker at 6:04.  Not quite 6 flat, but still just under a sub-19 pace.

The first couple hundred meters of mile two were a continuation of the uphill trend.  I kept the pressure on, passing a few people here and there, but Bobby maintained his lead.  No worries, I wasn't here to race Bobby, I was here to race my own fitness.  Once we crested the last of the uphill, it was "off to the races."  I opened up and let myself sail down the rewarding hill, concentrating on keeping my turnover fluid and trying to goad some faster (but sustainable) paces out of my stride.  I hit the mile two marker at 12:04: a perfect 6-minute-mile.  I reminded myself that the second mile started uphill, and my current pace was well under 6 minutes/mile.

I felt like I had run a hard two miles, but I knew I had some gas left for the gently descending Rea Road and the flat Blakeney Shopping Center, so I visualized a mile repeat workout and imagined I was running my last rep.  Without having to save anything, I could open up and embrace the pain of an all-out mile.  The field was strung out, and Bobby was 10-15 seconds ahead of me with some interlopers between us.  I was not likely to catch him, but I still could benefit from chasing him.  I felt the heavy lungs of the hard pace, but my legs weren't getting heavy yet, so I gutted it out.  I checked my watch at the third mile marker.  It read 17:50; I ran the third mile in 5:46!  With 0.1 miles the question wasn't if I was going to PR, but by how much I was going to PR.  I poured it on for the last stretch and ran the 0.1 miles in 30 seconds (a 5:00 m/m pace).  Official time: 18:20, a massive PR for a 5k!  As icing on the cake, I won my age group, which surprised me given the competitiveness of the field!

Bobby finished with a pretty smoking 18:06, and Nicole ran her second fastest road 5k ever.  Fam came in under 14 minutes with a 13:57 and had the overall win by nearly two minutes.  After this confidence-building race, I finally feel like my old (faster) self again!

Pics to be posted later (as of 10/25)

Monday, September 30, 2013

"Best Laid Plans..." 2013 Lungstrong 15k Recap

            Lungstrong 15k is one of my favorite local races.  It’s within five minutes of my house, the residential backdrop is nice, and the 15k distance is such a great mix of strategy and speed.  Originally, my goal was to run well and shoot for a PR.  My last 15k PR was at the same race the year before.  However, when my running friend and training buddy Dave Munger messaged me asking if we wanted to team up and pace each other to a sub-60 minute finish, I couldn’t refuse. 
            Sub-60 for 15k was a very ambitious goal.  I’d only twice gone sub-40 for 10k, and the latter of those was 18 months ago.  A sub-60 effort would be a 96+ second PR for me, but I was hoping for a lucky break in the weather and to reproduce previous success Dave and I have had as co-pacers.
            The race as a whole was bittersweet.  For 6 miles, Dave and I stuck to a carefully organized plan of steady pacing on or around 6:20 min/mile pace.  We cut the tangents, communicated splits, and tried to ignore other runners, although it was nice to be greeted by many friends offering support as course volunteers.  We were maintaining my established 10k pace, and the last couple miles of Lungstrong make you pay a hefty vig for whatever pace you try to coax out of them.  Dave ran very methodically, monitoring and targeting the pace on each respective climb and descent.  I’m used to letting the pace come to me on the given terrain, but I found myself locking onto Dave and trying to stay literally within arm’s reach of him.  After 6 miles, I was a liability.  Dave was 10 meters ahead of me.  I remember him shouting something numerical and unintelligible back to me, but I just responded with “break off.”  He was looking so strong, and I had no chance of running his race. 
Here I am chasing Dave before I lost him altogether.

            Shortly after I dropped from Dave’s contact, the course took a turn on what was a new section for the 2013 race.  This half-loop added another significant drop and climb that really caused me to hemorrhage time.  The last two miles of Jetton Road were rolling, and I found it hard to get back into the mid-6s.  The biggest hill didn’t seem to bother me as much because I knew it was coming.  Turning onto Charles Towne with ¾ mile left, I caught my breath (if not my pace) on the last real downhill.  Another running acquaintance, Clayton Venhuizen, passed me here.  We turned left for one more partial loop that trended mainly uphill.  At this point, I passed a masters gentleman in a hoodie and leggings who had been 10 meters ahead of me for the past 9 miles.  Sub-60 had been out of the question ever since I lost contact with Dave, but I still had half a shot at a PR.  As I turned the last corner leading to the finish, I saw 1:01:20-something on the gun clock.  I got my PR, but I had to sprint to get it.  Official time: 61:31.1; a whopping 5 seconds faster than last year. 
            The Bitter: It’s tough to set a goal and miss it by what seemed to be a large margin, even when the goal is a lofty one.  The last 3+ miles were utter crap.  Also, I really felt I could keep up with Dave for at least 8 miles, when we originally planned to break apart and start racing.  He’s just been so damn strong lately!  It seems he’s always peaking when I’m plateauing, and vice versa. 

            The Sweet:  Even though it wasn’t pretty, I did get a PR, and that’s the first PR I’ve gotten in over 7 months, unless you count newly raced distances.  Also, my time was virtually the same as last year, so I’m starting to believe I’m getting my pre-Umstead speed back.  In addition, I ran the first 10k in under 39:40 (even taking into account Garmin/course marking discrepancies), so I think I’ve still got my sub-40 fitness.  To boot, I won 2nd place in my age group, so there’s that.   And sweetest of all, thanks to my loving wife, I had a gluten-free chocolate waffle waiting for me at home after the race!

            In comparing last year’s Lungstrong to this year, I’ve learned a couple of things.  First, I do better when I intentionally plan a negative split.  When I did this last year, I ended up with virtually the same time, but I felt so much stronger at the end of the race.  Similarly, most of my more memorable PRs beyond the 10k distance were slow starts with negative splits built in.  Also, Dave and I concluded in retrospect that distances 15k and up (excluding ultras) really diminish the value of co-pacing.  At longer distances, one has to run one’s own race.  If I had taken the hills in my own stride early on and played to my strengths a little bit more, I might have been able to keep contact with Dave for a little longer. 

            So far, that’s 3 consecutive Lungstrongs for me, which is the longest streak I have of any race.  This might just have to be my annual local must-do.  I’m not setting goals for next year yet, but when I do, this race will be very fresh in my mind!