Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Busy Racing Weekend (Double Recap).

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From left: Carl, Yours Truly, and Chris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Times, Bad Times: Wrightsville Beach Marathon Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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