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 there...no 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.

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