Friday, December 21, 2012

Running Out of 2012

OK, so it's December 21st, 2012, the final day of the Mayan long count calendar, and the prophesied date end of the world.  However, we are still here, and my race calendar goes far beyond today.  2012 has been a very busy year.  By the time the year is done, I will have raced eight 5k's, two 8k's, three 10k's, a 15k, a 4-mile race, a 13-mile race, a 30k, two half-marathons, three marathons, two 50k's, 42.5 miles of a 210-mile relay, and a 50-miler.  I have set thirteen different PR's, including at least one PR for every distance.  I will have run over 2700 miles for the year, with nearly 400 of those being race miles.  2013, by contrast, will have far fewer races, but they all will be noteworthy.
My focus race for the foreseeable future is Umstead 100-mile Endurance Run on April 6-7.  100 miles is way beyond any of the challenges for which I have trained.  But, as I always do, I'm just going to figure it out as I go.  Volume...yes...I will need to maintain a high volume, but my focus will be not on just more miles, but more quality miles.  For Umstead, it will do me no good to do 16x400 on the track at vVO2max.  In order to prepare for the daunting undertaking of tackling 100 miles on foot, I will need to get plenty of practice doing just that...being on foot.  I will have to force myself to devote some training days just to walking.  I will have to rack up weekends of back-to-back long runs (B2Bs) where I am downright irritable by the last ten miles of the weekend.  I need to run through the night and in the rain and snow.  And I need to stay healthy.  Needless to say, such a grueling undertaking requires a lot of focus and positive energy, so I have supplemented my plans with other "shorter" ultras.  Frosty 50k (which was my first ultra) on January 5th and the Charlotte Ultra Run 50k (February 2nd) are a couple of "B" races that I will enjoy putting some focus into.  Both are flat and fast, and both present the possibility of a sub-4 hour time.  I most certainly will crush my old 50k PR of 4:57:59.  Later in the year, I anticipate doing one or two 50-milers.  Mountain Masochist sounds tempting, and I may want to see what the Boogie is all about.  Of course, the thought had occurred to me of returning to Prince William Forrest Park for the second annual OSS/CIA 50-mile Night Run...
But that's all far away.  Well, not exactly.  Frosty is only two weeks away and I'm already tapering for it.  Anyway, closer at hand--and still barely within the 2012 calendar year is the Freedom Park New Years Ultra Run 24hr, 12hr, 6hr, Marathon, and Half-Marathon, for which I won a free entry to the race of my choice in a random drawing.  Being that the Freedom Park event takes place a scant five days before Frosty 50k, I opted for the Half-Marathon.  Of all the goals I've set for 2012, the only one left unaccomplished is to run a sub-90 minute Half.  Now, on the last day of the year, I have a chance to do it!  Here's how it's gonna go down:
All of the races will take place on a certified 0.9859 mile loop.  The loop is relatively flat and smoothly paved.  In order to keep the same finish line for both the Half and the Marathon, the Halfers will start 0.2976 miles behind the start of the first full loop and then complete thirteen laps to reach the certified 13.1094 mile distance.  Yes, I am using an unnecessary amount of SigFigs in my preparation, but no one can say I'm not thorough.  I plan on maintaining a 6:40 pace for the race (1:27:24 projected finish), which works out to 1 minute, 59 seconds for the first partial loop to the lap finish line and then 6:34 for every subsequent full lap.  Therefore, I will be keeping an eye on my lap pace, but marking my laps on the same finish line every time to give me real-time +/- data VS my intended 0.9859 mile splits.
On another note, my current Half Marathon PR--which is from a VERY hilly course--would have me finishing two minutes before last year's overall winner.  This year, there are more participants, including one or two fellow contenders for the win, so a secondary goal for the race would be a podium finish.  I have taken the overall win in 5k's and 10k's before, and I have had several top three finishes (including one 3rd place 50k finish), but I have never outright won anything as long as a Half or longer.
We'll see...

Until then, Marry Christmas, a belated Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Solstice.  I hope we make it through the day and prove those Mayans wrong.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Here We Go Again...Recap of Anthem Richmond Marathon

Those that know me are aware that I keep a pretty regular two-month training cycle between big races.  I nearly doubled that training period for Ridge-To-Bridge, but having already signed up for Anthem Marathon in Richmond--a brief fourteen days after R2B, I was not about to let a perfectly good registration go to waste.  So this race was an experiment in quick recovery/quick preparation, and seeing what effect two close marathons might have on my body.  I've been racing and writing a lot lately, so I will keep the recap brief and then go on to what worked and what didn't. 
It was a beautiful Autumn day in Richmond.  The starting race temperature hovered around 40 degrees, and the leaves were in peak color change.  My two-week recovery/taper had me feeling good and fit, but not necessarily fit enough to shoot for another sub-3:05 or sub-3:10.  However, when I saw fellow DARTer Brian Helfrich at the start and he affirmed his goal of 3:05, I figured I might as well try and hang with that pace and see what happens.  I lost Brian halfway through the first mile, but I latched on to the official 3:05 pacer.  Miles 2-6 were positively beautiful.  A long stretch on Monument Avenue surely was the backdrop of many of the event's promotional photographs.  Shortly after the 10k timing mat, I had to drop out of the 3:05 pace group to use the restroom. 
A sustained downhill allowed me to make up some lost time and bank a couple more quick splits.  We crossed the James River on the traffic-free Huguenot Memorial Bridge and looped around onto Riverside Drive.  Here lay the setting for the rest of the promo photos.  Riverside was serenely shaded by trees and detached from the urban backdrop of Richmond.  I made conversation with a couple other runners: Butch, a teen running his first marathon; and Scott, a wiry Jesus look-alike running his seventy-sixth marathon.  On a residential uphill leading away from the banks of the river, Scott fell behind and Butch pulled away.  It would not be the last I would see of either of them.
I crossed the timing mat at the 13.1 mark on pace for a 3:07 finish, but I knew that the second half of the course was bound to be more challenging.  I figured 3:10 was possible, but I wasn't going to kill myself to reach for it.  At mile marker 15, I really started to feel the effects of having run a hard marathon two weeks before.  It was as if all of the post-race soreness from R2B suddenly awakened.  To exacerbate the situation, I was feeling as if my fuel stores were running low at a very early and inopportune point in the race.  More on that later.
After mile marker 16, the course brought us back to the North side of the James River via the Lee Bridge.  As I had been told to expect, the entire length of the bridge was a gentle climb that was fully exposed to the wind.  It was not the worst hill or bridge I had run, but I certainly wanted to be across it.  I gained the North side of the river, made another necessary pit stop, passed the ever-freindly Scott again, and tried to split some more miles in the mid-low 7 minute pace.  3:10 was looking unlikely.  Does anybody have 3:15? 
Miles 18-22 were just plain not fun.  The day was heating up quickly, and Broad Street was not nearly as scenic as some of the more photogenic stretches of the course.  In fact, it was reminiscent of the second half of Thunder Road, when you're just ready to be done.  Butch was having harder day than me.  He was seated on the curb at mile marker 20, shaking his head in exasperation.  At mile marker 22, I asked myself, "What the hell are you doing?  Aren't you supposed to be having fun?"  So, I walked a hundred yards and caught my breath. 
I picked up my running pace again just in time to jump into the 3:15 pace group.  It was easier to run in a group, so I figured I would hang on to these folks for a while.  The next couple of miles went by quickly but not easily.  I allowed myself another short walk break at mile marker 24 and then resolved to run the remainder of the flat/downhill end of the course.  As I navigated the last few turns through downtown Richmond, I tried to kick into a hard pace for the last half mile.  Bad idea.  I immediately felt my chest shut everything down, so I settled back into a jog and waited for the finish line to approach.  The last 0.2 miles of South Fifth Street lead straight downhill to the river, and I found my kick in time to muster a sprint for the finish.  I threw my arms out to the side and screamed, doing my best Mo Farrah impression.  I can't wait to see how that photo comes out!  Final time: 3:15:50.  Hey, I'll take it!
Mile splits:
7:11, 7:07, 7:04, 6:53, 7:04, 7:03, 7:50 (potty break #1), 6:49, 7:09, 6:55, 7:04, 7:19, 7:10
First half: 1:33:29
7:11, 7:10, 7:13, 7:31, 8:58 (potty break #2), 7:30, 7:27, 7:49, 7:54, 8:50 (walk break #1), 7:17, 8:40 (walk break #2), 8:01, 0.2 mile in 1:28 (6:25 pace)
Second half: 1:42:21
Total: 3:15:50
Things that worked:

Socks: Feetures Elite.  Not.  One.  Single.  Blister.  Period.
Compression:  Zensah calf sleeves and Nathan Reflective Arm Sleeves.  The Nathans fit better than any arm sleeve I worn so far, they have grippy bands on the upper cuff to hold them in place, and one of them has a little gel-sized pocket.  Nice.
Gels: I went back to GU for this marathon.  I still prefer the taste of Clif, but GU tends to work just as well for me.  Also, even though GU is a bit thick for my liking, I find that if I hold the gel packet in my warm hand for a minute or two before shooting it, the gel softens up to a nice, thin consistency.
Pace Teams:  I don't do a lot of big city marathons, so I don't often have the luxury of latching on to official pacers.  I hung around a few pacers for a couple of times during this race.  The pace team leaders at Richmond were spot-on accurate with their splits and very supportive to their followers, especially in the late stages of the race.
Walk-breaks:  All in all, I did not lose a whole bunch of time to my walk breaks.  I walked quickly, maintaining a 15-minute pace or better, and I saved a lot of energy in the process.  On my second walk break, I actually passed a couple of people.  Never underestimated the benefits of walking!
"Gangam Style:"  I heard this song THREE TIMES during the race, and it pumped me up each time.  Hooray for Korean hip hop!
Things that did not work:
Shoes:  New Balance MRC 1600.  Don't get me wrong.  I love these shoes, and they're a great, go-fast racing flat...for a Half.  During the last 10 or so miles of the marathon, I found myself wishing for a little more underfoot protection.  I ought to have stuck with the Brooks Green Silences that carried me through R2B.
Pre-race Nutrition:  As with most races, I have my final three days before go-time scheduled out meal-by-meal, and almost calorie-by-calorie.  However, while hastily packing my gear into the car before going to work on Friday morning (from whence I was headed straight to Richmond), I accidentally left my lunch bag at home, and it contained many of my snacks and such that would continue my scheduled carbo-loading in the 4.5 hour drive North.  Therefore, I had to substitute my pre-ordained feeding plans with pretzels, bagels, and other high-carb treats I could get from gas stations and convenience stores along the way.  I had no reliable way to monitor my caloric intake or carbohydrate ratio.  I don't know if I overfed, underfed, or just ate the wrong stuff, but I did not go into the race feeling effectively fueled.  A couple of necessary potty breaks during the race also were indicators of a less-than-optimal nutritional plan, and they probably cost me a couple of minutes altogether.  Lesson learned: As Treebeard would say, "Don't be hasty!"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

No Room for Error: a Recap of Ridge To Bridge Marathon 2012

Lately, I've made no effort to keep secret the fact that Ridge To Bridge Marathon (R2B) was to be my first honest attempt at qualifying for Boston.  Up until now, all of my goals, while lofty, have been reasonably within my ability level.  Either they were to finish a given ultra-distance (OSS/CIA 50-miler), or to break a fast time milestone for a shorter distance (LKN Rotary 10K, Charity Chase Half-Marathon).  For R2B, I would be racing "fast" for a longer time than ever before.  Breaking a 3:05 for BQ was--I thought--just beyond my ability range, or at the very edge of it.  3:05 works out to a 7:03 minute/mile pace.  I planned on keeping a 7:01 overall pace to allow a little wiggle room.  Any more wiggle room and I would run the risk of burning out my energy too quickly.  There was almost no margin for error.  To put the daunting nature of this goal into perspective, 7:00 was my mile repeat pace a year ago.  This would be my toughest running challenge thus far.
I drove up to the host hotel--Quality Inn, Morganton--the evening before the marathon and met up with Mike Smith, Bryan Massingayle, and Bryan's friends Brad and Pam.  Pam was making her 26.2 debut at R2B while Bryan and Mike were seeking sub-3:10 BQs.  I was happy to have the camaraderie of my fellow marathoners and the leisure of packing in a van and hopping over to the bus shuttle in Lenoir, rather than having to get up before 4am, drive 1.5 hours the morning of the race just to catch another half hour of riding in a bus.  Mike and I shared a room, spent a little time talking equipment and strategy, watched the first and best scene of Gladiator on hotel cable, and fell asleep before 9pm.  I don't know about Mike, but I slept like a baby.
Everyone was in good spirits as Bryan drove us to the bus pick-up at the finish area.  R2B is a point-to-point course starting in Jonas Ridge and ending in Lenoir, so most of the racers were leaving their cars and gear at the finish and catching the charter buses to take them up the mountain to the start.  That's right, charter buses; David Lee spared no expense for the participants in his race!  The temperature was in the low 40s at the starting area--perfect for running--and the foliage was peaking in Autumnal colors.  It was shaping up to be a fantastic day for a marathon.  Good.  I would need everything to work in my favor.  No room for error! 
Bobby Aswell, me, and Bryan Massingale before the start.

Miles: 1-6: REFRAIN!
After some nerve-settling warm-ups, a gathering around the starting mats, and a recognition of the national anthem, we were off.  As per my race strategy outlined in my recap of Lungstrong 15K earlier this month, I relaxed into an easier-than-goal pace in the mid-low 7s for the first couple of miles.  Bryan anticipated the same strategy and backed himself off as he came beside me.  "Discipline," I reminded us both.  He acknowledged.  Mike smiled knowingly in agreement as he slowly passed us.  Shortly after the first mile, I could see the first and second place runners on the opposite side of a hooking bend in the road, already very far ahead.  I did my best to only pay attention to my own watch.  It was not a race yet.  I caught Mike near mile 2, and he remarked that he thought the course would be more rolling.  I was hesitant to agree just yet.  I noticed friend and fellow Charlotte-area runner Emily Hansen at the aid station cheering us on.  Emily was a veteran of this race, and I definitely took her anecdotes into account when devising my own strategy. 
The next 3+ miles were a rolling out-and-back along the ridge.  I spied a beautiful gorge around mile 3.5 that was filled with morning fog.  It looked to me like a bowl of fluffy mashed potatoes.  Beautiful.  The turnaround gave me a clue how far ahead the leaders were, and how many people were ahead of me.  In second place was Shannon Scott, who had run a few miles alongside me toward the end of Salem Lake 30K a month earlier.  I also saw Clint Siemers making good time and Bobby Aswell, Jr. not too far ahead of me.  I caught up with Bobby about halfway through the 5th mile.  He greeted me and let me go.  The next mile was the longest...ahem..."climb" of the race: about 2% grade for just under 7 minutes.  I gave myself permission to work the hill a little to start negatively splitting my miles and to make sure the legs were awake for the romp down the mountain.  Aid station 2 was the same location as aid station 1, so I hailed Emily and passed my arm sleeves, gloves, and ear warmers off to her before starting my descent.  Off we go...
Splits for miles 1-6: 7:28, 7:21, 7:15, 7:04, 7:09, 7:20
Miles 7-15: RESTRAIN!
Over the next 9 miles--save for about a half mile of small but surprising uphill in the middle--the elevation dropped a staggering 2000 feet.  The course literally ran us down a mountain.  This is really what makes R2B famous--a monumental downhill that made for fast splits and potential blow-ups.  Naturally, I had to make up some time for a conservative first 10K, but in doing so, I had to bank some time for the fatigued back end of the race.  No problem, all I had to do was run a few seconds below pace for this stretch, right?  It was more complicated than that.  Firstly, I was a little too conservative on top of the ridge, and I started the drop about a minute behind goal pace, twice the gap with which I was comfortable.  Secondly, one does not just trot down this mountain dirt road.  The grade was steep a lot of the time, steeper at other spots, and downright recklessly steep for some stretches. 
The many switchbacks made for interesting scenery and precarious footing.  I easily was in the top 10% of a strung out field, so I saw and passed other runners intermittently.  The surface was a fine gravel dirt road with some larger rocks here and there, but it was more forgiving than asphalt and far more runnable than any trail.  On the numerous hairpin turns, I had to choose between cutting the tangents and treading on more rutted footing or taking the turns widely, more smoothly, and sacrificing a second or two in the process.  Over a dozen or so such turns, those seconds add up, and today there was no room for error! 
Flying downhill at the half.

I focused on maintaining cadence and form, and let the hill carry me away.  Weeeeee!  Thankfully, my mile splits were coming down very quickly...maybe too quickly.  When I saw a sub-6 minute split at mile marker 11, I thought I might be getting a little too reckless.  By the time I reached the halfway aid station, I read 1:31:35 on my watch, on pace for 3:03.  I had made up all of my time from the ridge and I still had a lot of downhill to go.  I listened to my legs.  the quads were already starting to feel a bit rubbery.  Uh oh.  That's the first sign of them eventually giving out all together.  Hopefully, they would just stay rubbery for the rest of the race and the soreness (oh yes, the soreness was in the mail) would wait until later in the day.  By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, I had written my check, and now my legs had to cash it.
Splits for miles 7-15: 6:54, 6:50, 6:55, 7:07, 6:38, 5:59(!), 6:57, [13.1 mile split: 1:31:35],6:44, 6:49
Miles 16-22: SUSTAIN!
To paraphrase Bobby Aswell, one's ability to succeed at R2B depends on his or her ability to run the last 10 miles.  If the long downhill of the mountain makes this race famous, the 10+ miles of sobering flat on the back end make it infamous.  As soon as the slope leveled off and the gravel road turned into smooth, hard asphalt, I instantly felt the fatigue of my legs.  The first flat mile after the mountain was an out-and-back during which I got to sneak a peek at much of the field ahead and behind me.  Clint stilled looked good and was pulling ahead.  After I turned around, I came upon Bobby, Bryan, fellow DARTer and BQ-seeker Tommy Wagoner, and Mike all in order.  They appeared to be trying to wake up their legs much as I was.  It took me that whole mile to get recalibrated.  Then, I found my pace again, hard as it was.  I pushed to hold my splits as close to 7s as possible.  I had to.  With the weather heating up and my energy stores only getting lower, there was no room for error.
After every mile marker, I re-did the math in my head, affirming the pace I needed to keep, wishing there was just a little more of a time cushion.  "No dice, Chas," I told myself, "you gotta earn it with every step!"  The scattered runners ahead of me were fewer and farther between.  I passed the first place female runner at mile 20, and she encouraged me, making no attempt to retaliate.  10K left, and 43 minutes in order to finish 3:03-something.  Yep, I still had to hold a 7:00 pace.  It was starting to get old, but at least the miles were ticking away.  I just had to keep talking myself through it.
Splits for miles 16-22: 7:14, 6:57, 6:55, 7:02, 7:07
Miles 23-26.2; PAIN!
In the final miles of the race, I suffered what I can only describe as a slow bonk.  My legs were hurting and felt like bricks, but this had started miles ago.  The agony slowly made its way up my body, and all of my muscles just wanted a break, even just to ease back on the pace for a few seconds.  What made it worse was that I was practically alone for most of these final miles.  I admonished myself to ignore the agony and keep pushing.  Quoth the inner monologue:
"You've hurt worse than this!  Suck it up!"
"Forget the rest of the race, THIS is what you trained for!"
"Almost room for error...dig, dig, DIG!"
The asphalt gave way to perfectly hard-packed dirt road in the final couple of miles.  I think I passed a couple more people here, but I honestly don't remember.  After mile marker 25, I started counting the minutes and the fractions of a mile on my GPS watch.  All I had to do was endure a little more pain.  Half a mile from the finish, I ran alongside the destination at Brown Mountain Beach Resort and heard the noisemakers of the crowd as one or two other finishers crossed the line.  I heard someone cheering my name, but I could not recognize the voice.  I ran down one last little hill and into a final, too-long loop around the gravel parking lot.  I passed one more runner in this stretch, and he appeared not to have a kick left in him.  As I rounded the last corner for the final quarter mile, I saw that Tommy had been my cheerleader.  Tommy had dropped out of the race at mile 20 with a seized-up hamstring.  Disappointing as it was, he was still there to cheer me on, take pictures, and run ahead of me towards the finish arch. 
Mile 26 and still pushing.

There was a tiny but sadistic little uphill in the final yards leading to the finish line.  I had to beat 3:05.  I saw 3:04:xx on the gun clock.  No room for error.  I did not--could not--sprint to the finish.  It was all I could do just to maintain my pace through the final inches of the race distance.  As soon as I was sure I had cleared the timing mats, I stopped running.  A volunteer draped a thermal space blanket on me, and I ripped the timing chip from my shoe.  I was taking no chances having that thing go off accidentally and negating my time.  Official chip time: 3:04:07.  I was lucky 13th place overall, and I had placed 3rd in my age group.  More than that, I was a Boston Qualifier.
Finished...and done.

Third age group.  Nice little pottery award.

Splits for miles 23-26.2: 7:17, 7:05, 7:00, 7:19, [final 0.2 mile in 1:24], [second half: 1:32:32], [chip time: 3:04:07]
The potential for a fast downhill at R2B was the lure of many BQ hopefuls on this day.  Clint fared best out of all of us with a 2:57:xx, nearly 18 minutes ahead of his qualifying time.  That was also good enough for 6th place overall.  Fellow DARTer Dean King also qualified with a 3:23:xx.  Bobby Aswell completed his 182nd marathon with a 3:13:xx and a 3rd place age group award.  Bryan, Mike, and a few other familiar faces came short of their goals, but still finished with respectable times.  Like any R2B veteran will attest, this was adeceivingly difficult course. 
Only in the past couple of days has it registered with me...six months ago, I never would have said I had a chance to qualify for Boston.  I worked my ass off for four months and accomplished several other running goals that I thought were well beyond my reach.  All of that effort and obsession paid off...with a margin of just 53 seconds.  Truly, there was no room for error. 
In emulation of ultra-running guru/blogger Jonathan Savage, here's what worked:
Shoes: Brooks Green Silence with YANKZ quick laces.  A high performance racing flat with a socklike upper and a surprising amout of cushion underneath.  Why is Brooks discontinuing this shoe?
Compression: RaceReady LD compression shorts and 2XU calf sleeves. 
Gels: Clif Shots.  In my opinion, they taste better than GU, and that's important in a long race.  However, they do have a higher sugar/maltodextrin ratio, so they do need to be chased with water in order to clear properly.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Musings: Post-Lungstrong and Pre-Ridge to Bridge

This has been an exciting Fall for racing.  After the memorable but humbling milestone of completing my first honest-to-goodness 50-miler in June, I shifted my focus away from ultras and trail running for a four-month immersion into intensive marathon training.  I originally signed up for the Anthem Marathon in Richmond with the hopes of acquiring a respectable marathon PR that was representative of my ability.  However, after jumping through a rapidly closing registration window and getting on the roster for Ridge to Bridge Marathon at the end of October, I started to get that itch that some of my faster marathoning friends have gotten as well.  All of my intermediate-long distance races and training runs have alluded to the possibility of me qualifying for Boston—a goal I never had considered possible until recently.  With R2B being a downhill, potentially fast (albeit at a price) course, I figured…what the hell?

Fast forward.  For the past few months, I have been in full-tilt training.  I have upped my weekly mileage base to an average of about 60 miles/week, I maximized the number of quality long runs in the 18-23 mile range, and I included regimented and diversified speed work in my plan twice weekly.  The work done in the hot, humid Summer has paid off in seemingly effortlessly faster paces in the crisp Fall air.  Every race up until now has been a tune-up to my culminating BQ attempt on October 27th.

While Salem Lake 30K was the peak training race, Lungstrong 15K was the last of these tune-up races.  Being exactly two weeks out from R2B, the Saturday of the event was supposed to be a tapered long-run day of 12-14 miles.  I figured the 9.3-mile race, plus warm-up and cool-down would be just right to bring me to the prescribed mileage for the day.  Also, the race would serve as a final extended threshold workout and confidence builder before I go into the “maintain-refrain-keep-sane” final days of my taper.

Had Lungstrong been a focus race, I would have attempted to go sub-60 minutes, which would have been the logical progression from my previously achieved goals of sub-20 (and sub-19) 5K and sub-40 (and sub-39) 10K.  However, since I had run the course before and found it to be a touch long and fairly rolling, I thought it more prudent to set a pace goal of a 6:40 minute/mile average for the duration, which would translate to a 1:02 finish.  The number was not arbitrary; 6:40 was smack dab in the middle of my 10K pace and my half-marathon pace.  Also, the ever dubious McMillan Pace Calculator prognosticated a 1:02 time for 15K based on my most recent races.  So naturally, like John Henry VS the Steam Drill, I wanted to beat the pace generator.

It could not have been a more beautiful morning for racing.  I arrived at the start early, even though I live five minutes from the location, and I got my warm-up miles in while dressed in layers to fend off the chill.  My trusted friend and chiropractor, Dr. Matty Zimmerman was just finishing setting up his booth and offered his ever encouraging words.  He also asked if I wanted him to check on my talus (one of 26 foot bones) before the race.  When your chiropractor offers you a tune-up before a big event, you say “yes, please.”  After checking my alignment, rotating my tires, and topping off the air pressure, Matty waved me on and I was good to go.

There aren’t too many exciting details that stick out about the race itself.  It was more just a reminder of proper racing strategy.  First, don’t go out too fast.  This, I did pretty well with for once.  I did not jump off the line like I would do in a 5K.  I gave myself at least a half mile to settle into my intended pace.  This surprised a lot of nearby friends who expected me to shoot past them in the first 100 yards.  It felt good to slowly amble through the low gears first.  Also, in a 5K, if I go out to fast, I might hurt a little more on the last mile; but for 15K, mistakes like that get amplified exponentially as I get into the 7th, 8th, and 9th miles.  Not today.

Second, maintain equal effort.  I dialed in my pace on the first real flat section of the race, the 200 meters of Jetton Road before our left turn into Jetton Park.  The detour into the park allowed an easy downhill where my perceived 6:40 effort yielded a 6:20 downhill coast, and a 7:00 climb on the way back up.  So far, so good.  I found myself looking at the Garmin less and less and going more by feel.

Third, run my own race.  I love running in a group, and I especially love racing in a group.  Competition brings out the best in my running, and it allows me to set and reach for spontaneous mini-goals in the middle of a race like “I’m gonna catch that guy,” or “now if I could just hold her off…”  For this race though, my pace was my primary concern, so I had to do a lot of ignoring.  I should note here that after the cacophonous clearing of the starting blocks, no single runner passed me for the duration of the race.  I did not keep count of the several ones I passed, but I never attacked anyone as I often do.  I just let my goal pace slowly reel them in.  It helps that I achieved a subtle but notable negative split from start to finish.  Broken up into 3-mile blocks, I ran miles 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9 with respective splits of 20:05, 19:55, and 19:48.  The final partial mile was at a 6:20ish pace.  Qualitatively, the pace throughout felt comfortably hard, and in retrospect I believe I could have pushed a little harder, but there was no need to run myself into the ground for this last tune-up race.  I finished with an official chip time of 1:01:32 (6:37 pace).  Take that, McMillan Pace Calculator!

As a test of fitness, Lungstrong was very encouraging, but perhaps more encouraging was my newfound faith in my ability to monitor pace.  As I approach R2B (and any possible subsequent BQ attempts), I will not have a lot of room for error with regards to maintaining pace.  One mistake in the early miles or treacherous downhill could derail my plans before I even have a chance to bonk.  So here is the strategy I must program into my head.  For the first rolling 6 miles of R2B, I plan at running at BQ pace +5 seconds (7:06-7:08, including a conservative first mile).  For the following 9ish miles that contain more than 2,000 feet of quad-burning descent, I must focus on shortening my stride and keeping my turnover consistent, while hopefully letting gravity propel me to a BQ-10 second pace (6:50-6:52).  For the final 11 miles—a false flat that gradually trends downhill—I plan on holding on to BQ pace for dear life.  Many R2B veterans, and the RD himself, recommend adopting this template for a race plan.  As far as my running fitness, the hay is already in the barn.  The critical challenge that determines BQ or crash-and-burn will be the discipline of pace-making on the downhill.  I’m perhaps more excited and nervous than I was before my first marathon!  We’ll know in ten days.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Trial...Run: Salem Lake 30K

The late September week leading up to Salem Lake 30K was beautiful.  The early morning running weather was in the low fifties with clear, starry skies, and I was able to get in some high quality training runs, including a 13.1 mile marathon pace workout at 7:01 pace, an 8 mile speed workout the following day with some hard, long intervals mixed in, after which I ran another 5 miles in the evening to make 26.2 for two days.  I tapered and carbo-loaded as the week drew on to prepare for an 18.6 mile marathon simulation that I would be running at Salem Lake 30K in Winston-Salem on Saturday. 
The weather did not exactly cooperate.  The evening before and the day of the race, a combination of warmer air and rain storms descended upon the Piedmont.  Race day was bound to be muggy and wet.  In addition, 70 percent of the race would be on fine gravel/dirt road trails, so the footing would be gritty, which is somewhere between muddy and crunchy. 
No matter.  Much of Ridge To Bridge Marathon (my upcoming attempt at qualifying for Boston) would be on unpaved roads, and I had to be prepared for any conditions.  I had anticipated running in my Brooks Green Silence--a racing flat that offers some squishy cushion for marathons--but the conditions favored the Montrail Rogue Fly and its superior traction.  I also opted for knee-length RaceReady LD compression shorts, which had the same mesh pockets as the regular RaceReady LD running shorts, but with added compression to stabilize my quads and hamstrings.  After meeting fellow DARTers Todd Mayes, Clint Seimers, and Tommy Wagoner--all of whom were using this race as a marathon tune-up like me--I found my place near the front of the pack and waited for the start.
From the beginning, the race felt like exactly what it was: a strange intermediary in the large gap between a marathon and a half-marathon.  At 18.6 miles, one is tempted to race at threshold speed as if it were a heavy half, but the distance is just long enough to flirt with the stamina depleting properties of a marathon.  Since my goal was to stay as close as possible to my intended marathon pace of 7:01, I felt I should be working hard the whole time without bonking at the very end. Todd shot out ahead and out of view in the first quarter mile.  Tommy took a starting spot behind me and intended to set a more conservative pace.  Clint was near me at the start and overtook me in the first half mile.
As far as trails go, Salem Lake Park is very hospitable, even in the rain.  The wide dirt road is well maintained and never rutted--somewhere between the consistency of Umstead State Park and the Davidson College Cross Country Trails in footing.  Having run most of this course during the Frosty 50K ten months earlier, I was familiar with the two notable hills at mile 1.5 and mile 6.5; both of which I would revisit at mile 12 and mile 17.  The rest of the course is seemingly flat when compared to marathons or halves like Thunder Road or Run For Green.  What I forgot about were the nearly unnoticeable changes in elevation throughout the course that could not even be described as rollers.  These little micro-hills would add up after a while, especially on slightly uneven footing. 
The first 6 miles had the racers circumnavigate the lake going counter-clockwise.  One of the funny things about running at Salem Lake is that no matter what side of the lake you are on, you always wish you were on the other side.  Clint, who claimed to be setting the same goal finishing time as me (2:10) was nearly a furlong ahead of me at this point and was pulling away, so I ignored him and focused on another runner next to me named Nate.  Atop the hill at 6.5, the surface changed to the smooth asphalt of the Salem Creek Greenway, and Nate and I sailed down the course's longest downhill and settled into a nice conversation.  Nate's watch had died earlier in the week, so I happily provided him with mile splits as he was aiming for a 7 minute pace as well.  The conversation made the 3 miles to the 15K turnaround go by in no time.  Frankly, I was surprised I could hold a conversation while trying to maintain that pace for so long.  I saw Todd on his return leg a few minutes before I hit the halfway point.  Clint was a couple minutes behind and looking strong, and I was about a minute behind Clint.  My split at the 15K turnaround was 1:05:20, almost right on target for my goal, but I would have to keep pushing the pace to stay near my intended time. 
After the turnaround, I spotted Tommy still on his outbound leg but not more than two minutes behind me.  He was making good time and appeared to be in good spirits.  The 3 miles of greenway seemed to go by more quickly than they did on my own outbound leg.  Near the hill that led to the lakeside trail, I saw Todd on the sideline cheering me on and making sure I didn't need any more gels.  I checked my watch and saw 1:24 and change.  "I'm done," he assured me.  Still, it took me a moment to realize "done" meant "withdrawn," and not "across the finish line."  I was worried that Todd might be injured, but I later found out that he just was still in recovery after his win at a hard-run Run For Green Half Marathon.  I low-geared my way up the winding asphalt of the hill that joined the greenway to the lake trail and settled in to my 7ish pace for the hard 10K that remained.
Nate stayed stride-for-stride with me for the entire middle third of the race, even though we were pacing ourselves for a finish that was several minutes faster than his PR for this particular course.  He must have been having a good day, because he pulled away from me for a long kick with 4.5 miles left to go.  I affirmed that he was speeding up (rather than me slowing down), and let him go.  Even though he was in my age group, and thus direct competition for me, this was not my focus race of the season, and assessing my ability to hold a 7 minute pace was the main goal for today. 
Just as it had been at Frosty 50, traveling around the many fingers of the lake was getting a little old.  Even at a fast pace, you crave to see a landmark ahead of you that is not another blind curve.  After reaching the East tip of the lake and finally angling myself in the general direction of the finish, I knew I only had 3.5 miles to go, and I would have to do it in nearly 24 minutes to meet my goal.  That's not too far off of my 8K/10K pace, but with 15 miles under my belt (and a 1.5 mile warm-up), I didn't feel comfortable trying to squeeze out that kind of pace for that long.  I dug and dug, trying to be vigilantly consistent with my 7:0x pace, all while playing Math games in my head to predict what my actual finishing time would be.  2:10...not likely.  Certainly under 2:12.  2:11...hmmm.  New goal: go sub-2:11.  Going 2:10:xx was almost as good as going 2:10:00, right? 
I passed eight or ten other runners in my final miles.  For the final hill at mile 17, I slipped into low-gear and slowed my pace, but I overtook two other runners in the process.  I have finally come to realize that sacrificing a few seconds in a conservative climbing pace pays off in dividends when it comes to late-race energy.  My watch showed a race time of 2:04 seconds before I reached the marker indicating one mile to finish.  Alright, if I was going to go sub-2:11, I had to bust out a sub-7 mile for my final kick.  I toggled my watch's view screen to my "current lap" screen; the final mile was the only data I wanted to see from here on out.  I visualized the track where I do a lot of my intervals and went to town.  Six minutes and a few more runners later, I made the final turn toward the finish and spied the digital time counter.  It was going to be close, so as is always the case, I had no choice but to sprint.  Final time: 2:10:56.  Not bad.  Clint destroyed his goal and finished with a smoking fast 2:07:50.  Tommy also came in under his outside goal of 2:20 and finished with 2:19:24, kicking strongly for the last quarter mile.  Todd got in a nice 12+ miles worth of workout, but he was the overall winner in Krispy Kreme donut consumption at the finish line.
From left: Tommy, Todd, Clint, and me.  Can you tell Todd didn't exactly just finish an 18.6 mile run?

A 7:00 pace over 30K would result in a finishing time of 2:10:24, and my finishing time indicated a pace of 7:02, which is still withing the pace I would need to hold in order to qualify for Boston in one of my upcoming marathons (7:03 for a sub-3:05 finish).  Given the wet, muggy conditions, I would consider this marathon simulation a success.  I crossed the finish line feeling worked, but not bonked, and the following day, I felt as if I had run a hard half instead of a full marathon.  This implies that I had a good deal left in the tank after 18.6 miles at race pace.  At Ridge To Bridge Marathon, if I played the downhill conservatively, I might be able to save a little energy while maintaining pace and elongating the distance between me and the wall.  Whether I qualify for Boston at R2B, Richmond, or not at all, I'll be back to Salem Lake in January for the Frosty 50 once again, hoping to break 4 hours for a 50K.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Team DURT: Blue Ridge Relay 2012

In September, of 2011, a bunch of my running buddies from DART rounded up a 10-person team for the Blue Ridge Relay, a 208 mile, 36 leg relay foot race from Grayson County, Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina.  The DART team had such a great time and ran such a respectable race that I resolved to be part of the 2012 team.  Interest among DARTers to do the BRR waxed and waned during the Spring months, and ultimately six of us would form an ultra team, meaning each runner would run more than a marathon's worth of distance during the relay (an average in the mid-30s).  This made me even more excited as my training for the past several months had been geared toward ultra-distance racing.  Team DART revamped its name to DURT: the Davidson Ultra Relay Team.  Go DURT!

Being an ultra team, we would use only one passenger van, and unlike most "open" teams, our van would be active for the duration of the relay.  The make-up of our van was not unlike the lineup of the Seven Samurai--or the Magnificent Seven if you prefer Westerns to Kurosawa.  In the driver's seat was Greta Munger, Dave's wife.  She not only was stalwart in enduring the long hours of driving and the colorful aromas of six sweaty men in a van, but she consistently maneuvered our large passenger van along winding roads and in and out of precarious parking spots with surgical precision.  Dave Munger was our captain, coach, organizer, and statistician.  His thorough research and planning took a lot of the guesswork out of what lay ahead, especially for those of us who had not run the BRR before.  Sam Mishler was our workhorse.  He was slated to do the most mileage of the race.  On top of that, he provided an ample supply of "real food," thanks in large part to his wife, Stephanie.  Bobby Aswell was our veteran runner.  Not only had Bobby run the BRR several times, but he had nearly 200 marathons under his belt.  Two runners I had not met before the Relay were Stan Austin and Bobby Cordell.  Stan was fairly laid back and soft spoken, which belied his solid, unwavering tenacity on the roads.  He would be our silent killer.  Then there was Bobby Cordell...  With a tattooed neck, a grown-out Mohawk, and a conversational pace that nearly matched his running pace, Bobby C was our wild card.  Living in Boone, Bobby C was accustomed to running up and down mountains over ultra-distances every day.  Out of our team, I was the youngest, the smallest, and had been running for the least amount of time, so I viewed myself as the rookie.
DURT! From left: Greta, Bobby C, Sam, Dave, Me (Chas), Bobby A, and Stan

Our team had a start time scheduled for 11:30am, alongside some other folks we knew, including another Davidson-based 6-man group from the Summit Coffee Adventure Team.  We were looking forward to spending most of the Relay going head-to-head with Summit, but more so just enjoying their company at exchange zones (EZs).  Our Friday midday start was the beginning of what would be a hot day in the mountains.  Our intended order of progression though the legs was Bobby C, Sam, Dave, Me, Bobby A, Stan, and then the order cycled  back to the first runner.  As Bobby C was getting warmed up/psyched up for the first leg and drinking who knows what (some combined energy, herbal concoction), the other teams observed him with visible curiosity and--I like to believe--fear.  Eschewing stopwatches and/or GPS units, Bobby C's simple running motto was, "I just run as fast as I can for as long as I can."  This was true of him no matter what the distance, be it 5K or 100 miles.  When the first leg started--a fast 4 miles straight downhill, Bobby bolted ahead of the pack with arms swinging high.

We were off.  At each EZ, the finishing runner would slap our team's slap-bracelet on the runner starting the next leg, and then the crew would van up, cheer along the next runner as we passed him on the road, and await him at the next EZ while the runner on deck warmed up.  Bobby C was the second runner into EZ1, and Sam set off at a more conservative pace for a rolling, more difficult 7.5 miles.  We lost a couple more positions on leg 2, but Sam wisely was conserving energy for a long relay.  Dave's leg was shorter, but also rolling, and he kept a respectable pace for the duration before handing off the bracelet to me at EZ3.  My first effort (leg 4) was 6.9 miles in the late afternoon heat with two significant climbs, as well as a handful of smaller rollers.  Dave's projected pace for me was just under 7 minute miles, and I felt good at that pace--albeit hot--on the 1.5 miles of flat, open road leading to my first climb.  The hill dug into my pace right away, but I focused on my breathing and stride, reminding myself that I signed up for 35+ miles of racing, and there would be plenty more hills along the way.  Coming off the first hill, I spotted my first catch of the day.  He was a ways off, but there were still a few miles in which to catch him.  The second, longer, steeper hill would be where I recorded my first road kill.  Unfortunately, I was passed as well on this hill by one of the Charlotte Running Club runners, whose team started 30 minutes after us.  Ah, well...  Aside from the climbs, I maintained a 7ish pace as directed, and I finished my leg on one last little climb that was more of final insult than a real challenge.  As soon as I passed the bracelet to Bobby A and slowed to a stop, the stagnant air immediately began to cook me. 

Bobby A arrived at EZ5 promptly on schedule, and Stan shot off on his first leg: a hard 10K+ with some tough hills and exposed sunlight.  Stan would like to have run a minute or two faster on his leg (the heat was slowing all of us down), but he amassed a good 5 or 6 kills along the way.  Through our first rotation, we were feeling the heat but still keeping a very competitive pace.  Bobby C, Sam, and Dave sweated out some more sunlit legs before I started leg 10, an 8.4 mile leg with one really tough climb, some nice downhill, and a second, smaller-but-steeper climb before crossing a four-lane divided highway and finishing on a flat into EZ10.  This probably was my best run of the relay.  15 minutes in, the sun began to flirt with the mountain ridges, giving me intermittent shade.  At 2.5 miles, I settled into a mile-long climb that brought 2 more kills back to me.  The extended downhill along the middle miles of the leg was fantastic.  Shaded on both sides of the road by trees, and having a soft dirt road for a surface, I locked into a 6:45ish pace and relaxed.  The second hill was indeed steep, but I could see the top, so it ended up being only a couple minutes of heavy breathing.  I was lucky to get a break in the traffic at just the right time to cross the highway without slowing down, and I strode into the EZ damn near right on time, feeling pumped up and ready to eat!

Bobby A turned in another clockwork performance along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Stan followed with a gem of a sunset run that ended up being his best leg--he logged 9 kills on leg 12 alone! 
Bobby C's next run took us to the base of Grandfather Mountain, after which Sam had to run his hardest leg: 10 miles straight up the mountain on a winding road in the dark.  Since Dave's leg after Grandfather was set to be a 2.3 mile fast downhill, the van skipped ahead to EZ 15 to drop me off so they did not have to scramble and race Dave down the mountain after Sam's exchange at the top.  Bobby C kept me company during my long wait, and I got geared up for my first run in the dark.  Team Stache-and-Dash, made of of 12 more running friends from the Charlotte area, arrived shortly before the DURT van.  We exchanged some smack talk in order to keep things interesting.  Sarah Keen, with whom I often run in the early mornings, took off for Stache-and-Dash on leg 16 less than a minute before Dave flew down the mountain and passed the bracelet to me.  This was a fast 3.4 mile leg with one steep hill in the middle.  As soon as I got the bracelet, I screamed "Sarah, you're mine!"  Zeroing in on her blinking light, I probably shot off a bit too fast, but I was caught up in the spirit of the competition.  Running at a pace in the low-6's, the hill at mile 1.5 hurt me...pretty bad.  I let up a little when I started getting a side stitch, but I kept the pressure on Sarah and another perspective kill on whom she was closing.  Sarah cheered me on as I passed her, but I could not return the sentiment because I was already out of breath!  Sorry, Sarah!  Just about halfway through this short leg, the hill gave way to a gentle downhill, and I coasted my way to the EZ while still keeping a sub-7 pace.  I made 5 kills on that run, and I would have had a 6th if the leg had 200 more meters.  Sarah passed her bracelet on shortly after me, having made 4 kills for her team.

The following legs by Bobby A, Stan, and Bobby C were a bit of a blur to me because I tried unsuccessfully to get some shut-eye.  I sat up in a haze sometime in the dark, early hours of Saturday morning feeling the fatigue of the day upon me.  Maybe I was not doing a good enough job of conserving my energy...  Sam looked a little worse off than me.  He was eating and hydrating, but from my opinion, it may not have been enough to keep his energy up for the heavy legs ahead of him.  Visibly fatigued and in a bad mood, he was dreading leg 20, a 5.6 miler with a doozy of a steep hill in the middle.  He warned us that he was going to shuffle through it, but Dave, Greta and I became ever more worried waiting for his long overdue arrival at EZ 20.  When I finally recognized his blinking lights coming up the last hill to the EZ, I could see Sam had a bit of lean to him--a phenomenon that affects ultra-runners when they are depleted and just trying to maintain forward motion.  The exchange wasn't pretty.  Sam passed the bracelet off to Dave and dropped to all fours, sick to his stomach.  I rushed some cold water to him and gave him a small moment to breathe, and then I coaxed him into the front seat of the van since Dave had another short, fast leg, and we needed to get to the EZ in time for me to catch the next exchange.  Poor Sam didn't even get any quality fresh air.

We arrived at EZ 21 a few scant minutes before Dave, and then I was off on my 4th leg, a 5.4 mile route with one moderate hill in the middle and a long, steep hill in the last .75 mile up to the end.  I was beginning to feel my side stitch from the last leg, but the cool air felt good anyway.  The moderate hill hurt, but I was able to maintain a decent pace.  I was dreading the last climb, but I resolved to low-gear it all the way up.  In retrospect, I expected the climb to hurt me a lot more, but I'm sure I was muttering swear words between gasps the whole way.  The EZ was a welcome sight, and I finished leg 22 in what I believed to be a respectable time for that given point of the relay.  Off went Bobby A.

Sam would stay in the front seat of the van for the rest of the night.  We all tacitly agreed that it was better for him to have more room and better access to road visibility and car comfort controls.  The wait at the following EZ for Bobby A was another nail-biter.  Bobby was overdue, which had been unlike him so far.  20 minutes after his anticipated arrival, we were contemplating getting in the van and driving down the route to search for him.  I trod down towards the arriving runners to act as a spotter.  Just when I was about to retreat and get on board with the idea of a search party, I heard Bobby's voice on the course yelling "DURT!"  This was our signal to get the next runner ready for the exchange.  After passing the bracelet to Stan, Bobby confirmed that he had taken a wrong turn a half mile from the EZ and added an extra 2.5 miles to his route!  This was not our night.

It was not Summit's night either.  Chri, their second runner who shared the same legs as Sam, was even worse off than Sam.  Sick to his stomach, Chri was also beginning to have the shakes.  Tim, Brian, and the rest of the Summit team made the decision to pull Chri from the race.  While Sam wasn't having the shakes, it was evident that he could not continue, so we too were pulling our #2 runner from the race.  It was no longer a game of good-natured insults and friendly competition between our teams.  It was a matter of finishing a relay without killing ourselves in the process.  Summit eventually would withdraw from the BRR to save Chri the discomfort of being inconsolably ill in a van for 13 or 14 more hours.  DURT decided to carry on with our remaining 5 runners. 
Dropping a runner from a BRR team meant that the rest of the team had to maintain sequential order throughout the remaining legs, so Bobby C (#1) would be passing the bracelet to Dave (#3) from now on, and the actual assigned legs shifted for the last two rotations.  Bobby C and Dave would have to do an extra, 7th leg, Bobby A and I would be adding significant mileage to compared to our originally scheduled legs, and Stan would about break even with just a couple extra miles.

Stan finished his 4th leg feeling unsatisfied--not being able to make up much time in the short, 3+ mile distance, and Bobby C ran a conservative 5th leg.  Dave ran leg 26, a hilly 6.9 miler that would have been Sam's, and I prepared for my next run: 9+ miles instead of the intended 7.4. 

In regards to morale, this was a real low point for me.  I already had run 24+ miles at a fast pace, and instead of 11 more to go, I had 18+!  On top of that, my side stitch was killing me, and I was feeling muscle soreness in my quads.  This did not bode well considering my last leg of the day eventually would be 9.4 miles with 2000+ feet of quad-busting downhill!  But that still was hours away.  Now, I had to suck it up and survive this next long leg.  Shooting for a slow 8:20-8:30 pace, I told Greta and Sam to expect me at the next EZ in 78 minutes.  Dave arrived with the pass-off, and off I shuffled.  The first 1.5 miles was a steady downhill, and I already felt a rocking agony in my rib line from my side cramp, as well as a burning pain in my quads.  It was still totally dark outside, but that would not last for long.  I passed one runner at 2 miles, and then I settled in on a long road that ran parallel to a pleasantly flowing river.  The sun rose behind me, and in no time, total darkness became broad daylight.  At the 4 mile mark, I closed in on another runner and anticipated another kill, but the runner surged ahead as soon as he noticed me on his heels.  OK, whatever, I wasn't so much worried about road kills anymore anyway.  Besides, there were a lot of miles left in this leg alone.  For 4 more miles, I stayed within yards of this guy, closing slowly, watching him surge away, and trying to remain indifferent.  I finally passed him with impunity with about a mile left in the leg. "Thanks, buddy, I enjoyed it," he said as I passed by.  I didn't, but I kept that part to myself.  After a little more than a mile and a couple more road kills, I passed the baton to Bobby A after a perfectly predicted 78-minute run, and I headed for the van.

I was really beginning to worry about the worsening cramps in my side and the integrity of my quads for the upcoming long downhill.  Bobby C suggested that I might be outrunning my own respiration--this from the guy who runs as hard as he can for as long as he can.  Under his advisement, I doing some deep breathing whenever I wasn't eating or trying to lay my head back.  Meanwhile, Bobby A and Stan were doing their part to carry the team and keep us on a decent schedule during their legs. 
Dave's 6th and penultimate leg was the infamous leg 31: a 6.5 mile run with 1300+ feet of elevation gain and virtually no decent.  It was one of two legs rated "Mountain Goat Hard" out of the 36 legs of the relay.  Dave was a trooper, and he was set to muscle his way up the mountain with no real complaints.  As we passed Dave and drove up the mountain, the sky opened up with rain.  That was just insult to injury.  We saw many runners walking up the mountain road, and we fully expected Dave to take longer than he expected to make the climb, so we waited at the chilly, wet summit.  On the bright side, Sam was looking and feeling a lot better.  He had taken over as navigator, and he advised my to stay in the van as long as possible to stay warm before my run while he acted as a spotter.  No argument here.  Soon, I glimpsed Dave coming up the gravel mountain road through the rear view mirror of the van.  Sam and Greta's signals confirmed it, and I jumped out of my seat to cheer him on from the exchange point.  He had made good time and was looking strong.  Now I had to uphold my last responsibility. 

I accepted the bracelet with burning quads and cramped breath.  "It may be 9.4 miles," I thought to myself, "but at least it's my last 9.4 miles."  The gravel road began to roll downwards immediately after the EZ.  Clad in compression quad sleeves on my upper legs, and shod in a new pair of ultra-cushioned Hokas, I shuffled my way down the first mile.  The whole while, I practiced the deep breathing that had given me some relief in the van.  I also concentrated on keeping a short, high-cadence stride to curtail my downhill speed and save my legs, much like a truck locking into low gear.  Only, there were no runaway truck ramps on this leg.  The rain, which had let up briefly, began to fall once again in earnest, which felt kind of nice at the time.  After a mile and a half, it felt better to breathe, and my legs were not protesting so much, so I relaxed...and relaxed...and eventually settled into sub-8 minute miles.  So much was I dreading this leg, but by golly, I was starting to have some fun with it!  At my 3 mile mark, the DURT van passed by me on their way down the mountain, cheering as they went.  I cheered back and threw both fists in the air.  At mile 4.5, the gravel road became paved, and while the surface was not as soft, it was smoother and faster.  I spotted another tired runner ahead of me, and I passed him after a few more blind curves.  There was plenty of decent left to go, but I could tell the grade was softening.  Another road kill.  More flattening.  Fewer trees and less shade.  6.5 miles in, a runner I had heard from behind overtook me.  However, as the remainder of the downhill gave way to flat road, he stayed within reach.  Passing people had not been my concern for the past two legs, but this kid wasn't pulling away from me.  I pulled past him and kept him behind me for the rest of the leg.  I now was fully exposed to the warm sun and running on a flat, paved surface, but I was keeping a consistent pace in the low-7s.  Two more miles...less than 15 minutes of pain.  One more mile...  I dared to glance behind me and saw a ponytail closing in quickly.  I didn't want to end my relay as some other runner's fresh road kill, so I surged.  6:30 pace...6:20...6:15...I had to keep accelerating to hold her at bay.  When I saw the sign for the approaching EZ, I let it all out, taking my last quarter mile of the relay at a 5:30 pace.  After I passed the bracelet to Bobby A for his last leg, I saw the ponytail come into the exchange zone fewer than 50 yards behind me.

After shedding my compression gear and sliding on some comfortable sweatpants, I checked my email and text messages.  The registration for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run had opened and sold out all while I was running my leg.  Our friend and fellow DARTer Chad Randolph had acted as my proxy and got me into the race before it filled.  There is a mixture of emotions when you literally have just finished running 42.5 hard miles and you find out you are officially registered for a 100 miler! 

Anyway, I was done for the day, but the rest of the team still had work to do.  Bobby A was on leg 33--the other Mountain Goat leg.  The giant hill in the middle of this leg was not the largest of the relay, but it contained the steepest ascent and steepest descent of the entire 210 mile course: 13% grade!  Bobby finished strong like we all expected, and he looked even happier to be done than I did.  I yielded the large back seat of the van so he could decompress as I had for the last 50 minutes.  Stan busted out a quick leg 34--about the only tolerable leg of the last 6--and accumulated a few more road kills in the process.  Stan had our highest kill tally, with 32 for himself.  The rest of us were in the high teens or mid-20s.  Bobby C began his 7th leg, which had one last brutally steep climb before the final leg into Asheville.  As the van passed him, Bobby was looking strong, dropping his arms and bouncing up the hill, seconds away from getting the team another kill.  Bobby took his time on leg 35 because the descent following his climb was reeking havoc on his right quad, which had been bothering him for a while and was visibly bruised, as he pointed out with pride. 

At the final EZ, Bobby C passed our team bracelet to Captain Dave.  During last year's BRR, Dave had the honor of running DART's last leg into the city.  You can read about that run here.  Only the dumb luck of our mid-race, rearranged leg order pegged him once again as our anchorman.  His downhill run into Asheville undoubtedly was a much different experience than in 2011, partly due to the fact that he already had run more miles in 24 hours than he ever had before.  Greta drove us down the route to park the van one last time, and we got to see the winding, high traffic downhill that Dave and the other leg 36 runners would have to negotiate.  As we hobbled over to the finish line at the Mellow Mushroom, we donned our DURT shirts and Sam grabbed Dave's.  The team waited a block away from the finish and I ran ahead to the turn ahead with Dave's shirt to catch him on his way in.  When he finally broke out into the city streets, he looked great.  Or, if he was in pain, at least he was hiding it very well.  He threw on his shirt, and we strode across the finish line as a team.  Official time: 28 hours, 10 minutes, and 50 seconds.  As a team, we maintained an 8:03 pace.  We finished in the top 20% of all Ultra teams, and about the same for all of the relay teams, period.

We all agreed that DURT's 2012 BRR effort was an amazing experience for all involved, and for most of us, another BRR may be in the future...but we may think twice before forming another ultra team.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Blue 5K Recap

It's been a while since I've done a race recap (or any post at all), mostly due to my gradual recovery from the OSS/CIA 50 miler I ran in June.  I must say, it was nice to run a straight up road 5K for speed after putting in so much volume-intensive training.
Four months ago, a ran a huge PR of 18:51 at Pawz Too Run in Davidson.  Everything was just on for that race.  Since then, all of the 5Ks I have run have been in the 19:50s.  There were several reasons I could state for these times: one course was 60% soft ground, another was in the middle of a hard training cycle, etc., and so forth; but I still felt underwhelmed with my performances.  P2R was a certified course, and I feel like I earned that sub-19 time, but given my more recent times, I felt the need to prove to myself that the 18:51 was not a fluke.  Blue 5K was to be my validating race.  My main goal was to go sub-19 again, but given the course, I would be satisfied with anything in the low 19s.
As is my custom for a 5K, I arrived over an hour early so I had plenty of time to run the full course as a warm-up.  Coming off a rest day, and feeling strong from a slew of recent speed workouts, my legs felt better than their average slightly-beat-up-from-over-training-ness.  Starting at the East gate of Bank of America Stadium on Mint Street, the course took a fast right onto Stonewall and followed that street gradually downhill for nearly the first half of the race.  The downhill leveled out and angled upward as Stonewall doglegged into Morehead.  Turning right on Morehead, there was a solid mile of terraced uphill punctuated by a final, steep climb passing over I-277 just past the Dowd YMCA.  Runners of Charlotte's Thunder Road Marathon should be very familiar with this stretch.  The final four blocks leading back to Mint Street and the East gate were mostly flat with some short downhill stretches, so if I had any juice left, this would be where I would let it rip.  Not an easy course, but it looked better in person than the profile did online. 
700 runners showed up for this popular race, so my first concern was to get a decent spot at the front of the starting chute so the foot traffic didn't bog me down before the quick first turn.  At the "go," dozens of runners shot out ahead of me, and I tried my best to marry my pace to my goal.  I wanted to average in the high 5:50s-6:05 minute/mile for the first 2K (shooting for sub-3:48/km) to take advantage of the easy slope on Stonewall.  I knew I would lose some of this time on the back end of the race.  My first kilometer was a target-paced 3:42.  The pack settled down at this point and runners began to fade back to me one-by-one.  The next kilometer was 3:46, and although it was still downhill, I had to work to maintain that pace.  So, doing the math in my head, I was 8 seconds ahead of a 19-minute pace at 40% of the race distance.  I would have preferred more cushion before the climb, but I had to save some energy as well.
As Stonewall curved, flattened, and began to wax uphill, more runners faded back to me.  Of course the hills would slow me down, but I was confident I at least would gain a lot of ground on the field ahead due to all the hills I normally run in training.  Sure enough, once I started climbing Morehead, I reeled in my competitors wholesale.  There was a brief respite from the climb at the 3K mark, but I registered that kilometer at 3:53.  I now was a scant 3 seconds ahead of a 19 minute pace, and there was a 1200 meter climb ahead that would eat up more time.  I kept a good pace and minimized the damage, but the 6:18ish average would not be fast enough to preserve my initial goal. 
The last bit of the climb on the overpass was a bit agonizing, but I still had some gas in the tank to muster a final kick.  I overtook a few more runners and did my best to slash off seconds, all while breathing very audibly.  One last right turn brought me onto Mint Street and to the 3-mile mark.  With 18:40 showing on the clock and about 0.1 miles to go, I was out of contention for a sub-19, but I surely would turn in a respectable time.  A fast runner with pink shoes was ahead of me and within reach, so I let everything out to get one last pass in.  Seconds after passing her, I saw her gaining on me in my peripheral vision; she wasn't letting me go that easily!  One last surge kept me ahead of her as we passed under the finish arch, but we were close enough to receive the same time of 19:17.
Given the early August heat and humidity, and the late-stage climb of the course, I am very pleased with a 19:17.  I'm still hungry for another sub-19, but I believe today's performance alleviates any worries I had about my specific 5K fitness. 
Satisfied with a good time.

Shoes: Adidas Hagio.  These are probably my new favorite all-purpose racing flats.  I ran my warm-up in the Inov-8 Bare-X 150s, but I was just feeling too much road in those shoes today.  Luckily, I brought the Hagios and they performed comfortably and effectively in road race conditions.  I can't wait to try them at 13.1 or a 30K.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Recap of the OSS/CIA 50 Mile Night Run

One of my goals for 2012 was to finish my first 50-miler.  Boy, did I pick one!  My lack of patience led me to find a race that was relatively close and set to run before the midsummer heat set in.  That left the Bethel Hill Moonlight Boogie in Ellerbe, NC and the OSS/CIA 50 Mile Run in Prince William Forest Park, VA.  Both were night runs in the late June heat, but that is where the similarities ended.  The Boogie was and is a well established road race notorious for long, relentless hills, marauding dogs, and a high drop-out rate.  The OSS/CIA run was in its inaugural year, and was set to run in a protected wilderness known for rugged terrain, technical trails, and a very real likelihood of getting lost.  By the time I had worked up the gumption to tackle one of these 50s, the Boogie was full.  Therefore, I was destined to take my chances with the unknown at the OSS run.

The OSS/CIA run was named for the Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency.  As history would state, the military operatives who birthed the OSS trained on the trails in Prince William Forest Park, so we were to run in their boot steps.  In keeping with the clandestine nature of the OSS and the CIA, the race was themed to be a “covert” event; a test of one’s ability to perform and compete relatively unseen in the wilderness.  Even the tech shirt said “No one knows where you are…just run!” 
Badass shirt!

After staying with friends in nearby Fort Lee, VA, I made my way to the PWFP in the late afternoon on race day.  The race directors—Alex H and Alex P—were on top of things and had me checked in no time even though check-in was not due to start for over an hour.  With that to-do off my mind, I had plenty of time to relax, check, re-check, and check again my gear and my drop bags, and meet some other racers and volunteers.  Phyllis (also Charlotte area based) was there just as early as me.  She and I were part of the same online trail running group, but this was the first time we had met in person.  It was good to see a familiar face, even if it was only by a thumbnail profile picture.  We met up with Michael—also a member of our Charlotte-based group—and his friend Lauren shortly before the trail briefing.  One volunteer was kind enough to snap a picture of our Charlotte contingent. 
CLT people before the race.  From left: me, Phyllis, and Michael.

Once everyone was checked in, the Alex’s rounded up the pack for the short but informative trail briefing.  One of the park rangers went over some safety regulations and park rules, and then Alex H informed us that the CIA made it explicitly clear that they are in no way connected to this event…just in case we were wondering.  He also reminded us that we were taking on a risky ultra, so we should look out for ourselves and each other.  Alex P went over the course map, of which we all received a copy in our race packet.  The course consisted of two giant loops over the same path, with the second loop adding an extra out-and-back section to bring the mileage to 50.  Once the short and sweet briefing was over, we had forty minutes to ready ourselves.

I donned a Nathan hydration backpack with HEED in the bladder and GU gels and ginger chews in the front strap pockets.  In my right hand was a 22oz Nathan handheld bottle with regular water and more gels in the strap pocket.  In my left hand was an LED knuckle light, which left my hand free to grasp.  On my head was a Petzl LED headlamp with a rear-facing red strobe on the back side of the band.  My RaceReady shorts had pockets full of Clif Bars, Stinger Waffles, and more gels.  Having trained with all these items, everything felt secure and accessible.  On my feet were a pair of Montrail Rogue Flys.

The Alex’s gathered us at the trailhead for the start, so when Alex P gave the signal, all 70 of us flooded the single track at once.  The pack lined out after a couple hundred meters, and I guessed I was near the 20th position.  I fell in behind two runners named Mary and Sean (whose birthday was on race day) and found their pace very comfortable.  Michael settled in behind me and Phyllis formed up behind him.  Another runner named Pat joined the back of our informal, six-person pace group.  Mary was an effective pace keeper.  Our running pace stayed consistently in the high 9 min/miles, and we walked all of the uphills from the first half mile on.  Overall, we were setting an initial pace for a 10 hour finish, which was a goal for which we all seemed to be aiming.  The first hour went by very quickly.  The six of us made for very sociable company, and the first five miles of trail were very run-able. 

The footing became more rugged after the first hour.  Several large rock outcroppings and stair like climbs and descents brought our reasonable running pace to a slow, calculated walk.  I affected my best East European interrogator voice and said “we have ways of making you walk!”  All agreed that THAT should have been the slogan for the race.  Nearly seven miles into the race, Mary stopped abruptly to cough up a wasp(!) she had swallowed by accident.  Sean stopped to pat her on the back, but they both insisted we continue on.  I took over the lead spot in our pace pack.  I checked my watch regularly to make sure I was keeping the same conservative pace we had established so far.  Soon after, Michael and the rest of the pack faded behind me on a long, easy downhill.  There was still some light in the twilight sky, but visibility was dropping fast.  I reached back and turned on my red strobe so that the pack behind me could spot me from afar.  10 minutes later, the trail crossed Mawavi Road, on which we were to run a mile-long out-and-back round trip before continuing on our original trail.  The half mile to the aid station at the top of Mawavi was a slope containing 300 feet of vertical gain.  I walked nearly the whole thing, seeing the race leaders pass me on their way down.  The volunteers at the Mawavi aid station hole-punched my bib, refilled my water bottle, and sent me on my way.  I glided back down the hill, seeing another dozen or so runners on their way up.

I waited until I hit the single track at the bottom of Mawavi Road before turning on my knuckle light.  The next four miles of single track were pleasant to run, and I only saw one or two other runners along the way.  Whenever I could, I would keep pace with another runner and pool my light with his in order to conserve the batteries on my headlamp.  It was completely dark now, and I started to hear the sounds of nocturnal critters in the distance.  I dodged some gnarly spider webs and saw the telltale glint of wolf spiders’ eyes along the side of the trail every few feet.  I heard the intermittent cries of foxes and the low honks of water fowl in the nearby creek.  Now it was an adventure. 

Shortly after the 12 mile mark, I came upon the Oak Ridge aid station, which was the first full service aid station and the site for our drop bags.  I handed my bottle to a volunteer to fill with water and I grabbed a pre-mixed dilution of HEED from my drop bag to fill my pack bladder.  I also reloaded my gel pockets with a pre-rationed selection I had labeled in one of three sealed plastic bags.  The next part of the course was a two-mile loop that would return us to this same aid station, so I left my back pack with my drop bag and continued on with just my handheld bottle.  I’m sure the two-mile loop would have been very pleasant to run or hike in the daytime, but since it was a circular means to an end in order to add the proper mileage, it just seemed unproductive and tedious.  Also, racers would have to do this loop twice more on their second full course lap.  That prospect seemed totally unattractive, but Alex H later said that the purpose of adding the extra loop on the second lap instead of the first was to get in our heads.  Great.

I returned to Oak Ridge aid station, picked up my pack, and got back on the main trail.  Having stopped at the campground’s facilities along the way, I had given Phyllis a chance to pass me.  I caught up to her shortly and we passed some miles together.  According to her, Michael was behind and she did not know how he was doing.  The Oak Ridge trail spilled out onto Burma Road, a wide gravel road that reminded me of the fire roads at Umstead State Park.  We saw a headlamp ahead of us and closed the distance on him.  We introduced ourselves to the runner, whose name was Josh, and took a long walk break together up the hill on Burma.  I later would find out that Josh and I went to college together and knew many of the same people.  Small world.  Burma Road allowed us to open our legs and spread out for long stretches, but the short range of our lights made the wide darkness in front of us seem that much more ominous.  Near the top of a long ascent, we came across a very zealous volunteer named Gary, who offered encouraging words and directed us to where our next dip into the single track would be.

Josh, Phyllis, and I entered the single track together, but I shortly shot off on a technical downhill.  I just couldn’t resist flying down the hills.  The next few miles were fairly technical.  I fell down a couple of times, and I sank my feet into soft mud once or twice.  Before long, I caught up to a couple of European runners: Christophe (French) and Alexander (German).  Christophe urged me to pass him, but he and German Alex were keeping a fairly quick pace, so opted to just join them instead.  The single track led to a fire road called Pyrite Mine Road, and the three of us settled into a long run/walking climb.  Once again, the limited range of our illumination kept us from seeing the top of the hill, so we ran until it got steep, and walked until it got less steep.  Christophe lagged behind for a bit, but Alex was very consistent, so I settled in and focused on his efficient German stride. 

At the top of Pyrite Mine, we refilled our bottles at an unmanned cooler and ran a couple hundred feet of asphalt before turning on yet another fire road.  By our watches, we could tell that we were well past 20 miles of running, and therefore not that far from the next full aid station.  The relatively flat fire road made for 8 minute miles with a few short walk breaks.  Once we hit our next stretch of single track, we knew we had about 1.5 miles left of our first lap.  “Hey, it’s Sunday!” I shouted when I realized it was past midnight.  German Alex laughed, but Christophe didn’t seem to care.  The single track was very run-able, but it contained a lot of rolling hills leading back to the start/finish/halfway aid station at Telegraph Road.  I had started feeling my legs getting tight a few miles back, but the fast pace on the fire roads seemed to loosen everything up.  I continued to walk the uphills and blaze down the downhills.  Once I saw the lights of Telegraph Road camp site peeking through the darkness, I picked up the pace in order to check in at the halfway mark of the race. 

I arrived seconds behind German Alex.  My first lap took 4 hours and 55 minutes, which was right about what I had planned.  So far, so good.  Many of the volunteers I had met before the race told me that I still looked pretty fresh.  Honestly, I was feeling a bit fatigued, but hey, I had just run nearly 25 miles, so that’s okay, right?  A lot had happened while I was out on my first loop.  Lauren greeted me and informed me that Michael had dropped out of the race with a pulled hamstring.  He was hiking to Telegraph now, and was due to arrive sometime after 2am.  I felt for him.  Mary also greeted me at the aid station.  She had dropped out as well and was now an aid station volunteer.  Lauren went on to tell me that the RD’s had recorded about as many DNFs already as they had continuing racers.  Upon hearing that, my moderate aches and pains didn’t seem so important.  German Alex was ready to go, but he admitted that he had gone out too fast and planned to slow down.  Christophe was sitting down at a table with a full meal in front of him.  He looked pretty beat.  I was still in the game.  I had another drop bag at this aid station, so I re-equipped, ate some salted potatoes and a Stinger Waffle, and drank a cup of Mountain Dew.  I thanked the volunteers and set out once more into the heart of darkness. 

Phyllis came into Telegraph seconds after I left.  She was looking good, so I cheered her on.  I saw many other runners spread out on the trail walking their way in as I was outbound.  Most were able to manage a smile or a thumbs-up.  A mile later, I caught up with German Alex.  “Where’s the Frenchy?” he asked.  “He was having a meal,” I responded, “he didn’t look so good.”  Christophe eventually would rally and pass me later in the race, but that happened hours later.  I don’t really remember when German Alex and I split, but I ran the next few miles on my own in the dark.  I looked for small landmarks to remind me of how far into the lap I was, but my memory was a bit fuzzy at 1:30 in the morning.  I did remember the treacherous footing that forced my comrades and me to walk during the first lap.  I had to be especially careful this time as I was following the same path alone in total darkness.  When I reached Mawavi Road, I walked the entire way to the top, and I took my time at the water cooler.  One young runner named Ibby I had met before the race was looking in a bad way, but he insisted on continuing.  He walked slowly out of the aid station, and I ran my way past him down the hill.  I did not expect to see him again.

The miles between Mawavi and Oak Ridge passed almost uneventfully.  I remember running most of them, taking scheduled walk breaks, and being serenaded by the same nocturnal fauna as before.  I did not see a single runner.  I tripped and fell once, and my knuckle light went out.  I beat the battery pack with the palm of my hand and it flickered back on, but not as brightly.  No good.  Luckily, I had my headlamp, and I had a spare knuckle light in my drop bag just a couple of miles away.  I stowed the malfunctioning light in the shoulder pocket of my hydration pack and continued on under the headlamp. 

Once I reached Oak Ridge, I dropped off my back pack once again and fished the spare knuckle light out of my drop bag.  Since I had two two-mile loops before coming back to my drop bag—and to the food table—I sucked down a single GU gel and hit the forest loop.  As I said before, I was not looking forward to doing this seemingly pointless loop twice on this go-around, but my spirits lifted when I saw Gary waiting at the trailhead.  Gary was as encouraging as ever, and his energy was infectious.  He ushered me into the loop and I settled into a sustained run for most of the two mile leg.  It seemed to take a lot longer than before, but I was able to pass a couple of other runners along the way.  I returned to a cheerful Gary and turned directly onto my next and final two-mile loop.  This loop most likely took longer than either of the others, but it felt as if it went by more quickly for want of it being done.  I stopped and shook Gary’s hand and told him that he was a great man to have around at 4am!  He gave me a “damn right!” and urged me back to Oak Ridge aid station.

I had 11 or 12 miles left, and I already had run over 40.  If I was going to drop out, this would be the place to do it.  No, I was tired and achy, and my quads were killing me, but I still had a lot of running—or at least walking—left in me.  I decided to leave my hydration pack in my drop bag and continue with just my handheld bottle full of HEED, and a half-dozen gels, bars, chews, etc.  Now I knew I had to eat some more “real” food.  Nothing seemed appetizing.  A volunteer handed me a cup of Ramen-style chicken noodle soup.  I grimaced and forced it down my gullet, and I instantly realized it was the best meal I had ever had.  No hyperbole intended; I cannot remember a more nourishing, delectable meal.  The volunteer asked if I wanted another, and I declined so as not to put too much on my stomach for the jostling ride to come.  Alex H was at the aid station.  He had just gotten a text stating that the winner had crossed the finish line with a time of 8 hours and 42 minutes.  Unreal for this course!  He offered me some words that were halfway between encouraging and provoking.  “I’ll see you at Telegraph,” I said to him in my proudest, most indignant voice.

The single track of the Oak Ridge trail was one long blur.  The uphills seemed longer, and the downhills seemed more treacherous and more painful.  My quads were trashed.  It hurt to run the downhills, but it also hurt to walk them, so I ran them.  Every time I came to a technical descent, I reached down into my more primal self and flew down the hill yelling and screaming at the top of my lungs, punctuating the shouts with sharp, uninhibited profanity.  I had come to grips with the fact that the pain was not going to go away from this point on.  If I let it stop me, I would get nowhere and still be hurting.  If I embraced it and accepted it, I could learn to separate my pain from my progress.  There was no longer a question of “if.”  I was going to finish this motherf****r.  All I had to do was keep moving forward, and the miles would take care of themselves.  Now I just had to work on chipping away at my pace.

Burma Road once again gave me a chance to open up my legs.  I ran short distances and walked in between.  While my walk breaks were frequent, I kept an efficient hiking pace—near 15 minute miles—so my overall pace was not deteriorating too dramatically.  I saw a glimmer of light through the trees on the horizon.  Dawn was approaching.  My spirits lifted another peg.  The single track between Burma and Pyrite Mine contained more stubbed toes and more painful downhills.  I was finding it hard to summon the energy to run after each walk break.  I was unquestionably bonked, but I was still in a clear and sound state of mind, so while my muscle glycogen was depleted, I at least knew my blood sugar was alright.  My pace was at the mercy of my metabolism, but I could still will myself forward.  I set small, manageable goals, like running until I reached the next trail blaze, or allowing myself to walk for the next three minutes, etc.  I forced myself to eat, even though nothing seemed palatable.

It was fully light outside by the time I reached Pyrite Mine Road.  While I enjoyed seeing my surroundings in the daylight, I was a little disheartened to see the entirety of the hill ahead of me.  I walked.  I ran a few steps here and there, but mostly I walked.  Someone—probably Gary—had left a water cooler at the top of Pyrite Mine Road.  I stopped to top off my bottle and took out my trail map.  According to my watch, I had run over 50 miles.  I found my location on the map and gauged the remaining distance according to the map scale.  Two, maybe three more miles left…great.  I crumpled the small map in my fist and left it on top of the water cooler.  The only way through was through. 

There was a little more than a mile of fire road before I hit the single track again.  I had clocked some near marathon-pace times on this stretch with German Alex on the first lap.  Now, I was happy to hit 10-minute miles between walk breaks.  Phyllis caught up to me shortly before the trailhead to the single track.  Although she said she wasn’t feeling too well, she looked no different than the last time I had seen her 25 miles earlier.  I waved her on as I was sure she had more run left in her than I. 

In the full daylight, I could really appreciate the beauty of the trails in Prince William Forest Park.  The last stretch had some rolling hills, but the surface was agreeable.  The last mile was interminably long.  Before climbing what I thought had to be one of the last hills, I glanced behind me.  There was German Alex, 50 feet away, waving at me while walking.  I smiled and turned to face forward to see a glint of reflected light through the trees.  Yes, I was seeing the cars in the parking lot right before the finish line.  German Alex must have seen it at the same time, because he immediately broke into a run.  I was not going to be passed in the final 300 meters of a 50 mile race!  All of the pain and agony evaporated away, and I broke into a sprint.  Everyone in the clearing dropped what they were doing and cheered as I emerged from the trail with Alex hot on my heels.  Rarely does anyone see a head-to-head duel like this at the end of an ultra marathon.  I could hear the German closing in on me, but I dared not look for him.  I strode through the finish line at 11 hours, 21 minutes, and 8 seconds, exactly one second ahead of Alexander.  I immediately turned around and Alex and I through our arms around each other like long lost comrades.  By far, this was the best finish I have ever experienced to any race.
My climactic sprint to the finish.  The Euro-blur behind me is German Alex.  Photo courtesy of Michael Vance.

The race was a brutal battle of attrition.  Out of 71 starters, there were only 29 finishers!  With a more than 60% DNF rate, the OSS/CIA 50 makes even the Boogie seem welcoming.  Phyllis finished a few minutes ahead of me and took 2nd place in the female division, 11th overall.  I finished 13th overall, which more than satisfied me considering just finishing this race was an admirable feat for experienced ultra runners.  More than one fellow participant stated that this race was the toughest 50 they had ever run.  I say again: boy, did I pick one!

I have to give major props to Alex P and Alex H, the race directors.  This truly was an awesome event that was rewarding in countless ways.  I also must send a shout out to Gary, Lauren, Mary, Michael, Dave S, and several other volunteers (some of whom were DNF’d racers) who kept my engine running.  Big congratulations and thanks go to Phyllis and German Alex for pushing me in the final stages of the race.  With this milestone in the books, I think I may see a 100-miler in the not-too-distant future.
This is what I look like after running 53 miles.