Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sustain the Pain: Ellerbe Marathon 2015

Last year, I ran the Ellerbe Marathon and had loads of fun.  It was six days after I had run--and blown up at--Wrightsville Beach.  This small, rural race was very old-school, like many of the other events hosted by the vaunted Mangum Track Club.  The field was small, the atmosphere was homey and friendly, and there was homemade chicken and dumplings waiting for all runners at the finish.  In a way, it's the complete opposite of big city Rock 'n Roll Marathons with expensive entry fees, retail-driven sponsorship and expos, and tens of thousands of runners.  I had such a great time that I vowed to come back and patronize such an awesome race.
A brief word on the course: Ellerbe is an all-road marathon, but it is very hilly and pastoral.  Far hillier, in fact, than any of the routes my local running group frequents.  The course is one large, beautifully orchestrated loop that starts and ends at a small, cinder-block constructed church, and somehow works out to be a certified 26.2 mile distance and Boston qualifier.  Few runners would seek out this course as a target BQ.  The long, relentlessly rolling hills make it very difficult for fast times.  It's futile to count all of the hills, but the most notable of them are at miles 9, 16, and pretty much all of the last 5 miles.  There are some equally dramatic downhills to zap the quads too, so it's an equal opportunities leg-crusher kind of a race.
Having completed my focus marathon goal back in October, I originally intended to run Ellerbe as a fun run like the year before.  However, after having some great races and workouts as of late, I decided to run hard and be competitive.  That never seems to take a lot of convincing for me.  The weather was less than desirable, but not all bad: chilly rain that varied from light, broken drizzles to cloud-bursting downfalls.  So chafing, blisters, and soggy shoes were in the back of runners' minds, but at least the cooler temperature wouldn't bake us late in the race.
And we're off!  I led the race for about 10 feet (bib #71).

We lined up at the start a few hundred feet from the church, and Mark Long gave an informal briefing, recognized some race veterans, and joined us in thanking the generous volunteers.  With a casual "on your mark, get set, go," we were underway.  I shot out with five or six other runners that comprised the front row and fell into a comfortable marathon pace.  The first two miles are the only consistently flat part of the course, so it was easy to dial in a pace and see how I felt.  Brian Kistner--a four time winner of this race--shot out way ahead after the first few meters.  I settled in with a tightly locked chase pack that included Rich Riopel (winner of Hinson Lake 24-Hour Classic), Levi Vanuga, Charles Bruchard, and Aaron Loder.  Everyone seemed content to let Brian gain ground for the time being.  We spent those first couple of miles shuffling positions but always staying locked together.  As we turned off the main road into the side streets of the small town of Ellerbe, Levi and Charles began to break off and give chase to Brian.  Aaron, Rich, and I stayed together not far behind and observed while maintaining a very consistent low-7s pace.
Brian (foreground) takes and early lead.  From left, Charles and Levi start to give chase, while Aaron, Rich, and I stay clustered together.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Spradlin.
Moments later, Rich (left) and I wave to photographer Kevin Spradlin.
After the easy first few miles, the course began to roll and things began to shake up among the lead packs.  After a long downhill, Brian had opened up over a minute on us, and Levi and Charles were about halfway between him and my pack.  Levi was looking to move up.  By mile 5, in the middle of the first real uphill, we could see in through the rainy gloom that Levi had taken the lead from Brian.  Charles was holding his own in a no-man's land.  Rich and I were still shoulder-to-shoulder, and Aaron was in contact, but drifting behind.  At a break in the terrain near the second water stop at mile 6, Rich made his move.  He broke away decisively and caught up with Charles in the space of less than a mile.  Our pace group had disintegrated, and the leaders were beyond view, but we were all still very aware of one another.  Between miles 6 and 9, the terrain rolls a bit more and trends uphill, with one significant climb in the 9th mile.  Here is where I started to gain some ground on Charles.  He would pull away a little bit on the downhills and I would reel him in on the uphills.  There were more and more uphills, so I was closing.
Me chasing down Charles.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Spradlin.

I was 10 seconds behind Charles when we reached the third aid station at mile 9.  We shared three or four miles together after I caught him.  Charles was running strong, but he admittedly was having a hard time with the hills.
On this part of the course, between miles 9-13, there were some of the best views last year, including one spot before a downhill plunge where you could see pretty much all of Richmond County.  This year, all of those views were shrouded in fog.  We were running through a cloud.  We even lost sight of Rich ahead of us, and we would not see him again.  I hit 13.1 miles in 1:33 and change, which I thought was a great split for this course, albeit a little reckless.  The second half would be hillier and harder.  I ran through the halfway aid station and settled in for the most challenging climb of the course.
Mile 14.5 is one of the lowest elevations on the course, and mile 16 is the highest point.  In fact, it's the highest point in Richmond County.  Naturally, between those two points is 11-12 minutes of hell.  I recalled this climb from the previous year, but it was worse than I remembered.  It's just one of those that goes on forever and gets steeper along the way.  You turn a corner only to see more up, up, up.  I was relieved to finally see the aid station at the top of the hill and grab a quick cup of water, but I was surprised by the unexpected ice in the water that nearly choked me as I took a swig.  Race photojournalist Kevin Spradlin snapped some shots and let me know that I was two minutes behind the runner ahead of me.  Was is Rich, Brian, or Levi?  Hopefully, time would tell.  I really wanted to get a top 3 podium spot, but with 10 miles left in the race, I would need to gain 12 seconds per mile on the third place runner.  And that was just to catch him at the finish.  I would have to do even better if I wanted to secure that spot with any confidence.  Although I was tired from the long hill, I still felt like I had the gas to keep the pressure on for those last 10 miles, so I pushed on.
Me taking a much needed drink...
...and spitting out some surprising ice cubes.  Photos by Kevin Spradlin
I turned over my legs to shake out the brickish feeling from the climb and chased an invisible runner.  Long before I had expected, Brian appeared before me.  I had cut into that two minute gap a bit, but he was not giving ground easily.  For at least 20 minutes, it seemed as if I was gaining no further ground on Brian.  I reminded myself that there was plenty of race left and to be patient.  In 2014, I passed no fewer than a half-dozen runners on the final, uphill five miles, and I was hoping that might be my window of opportunity this year too.
As we passed the infamous dog pen (meeting place of the traditional MTC shirt run)at mile 21, I noticed I was finally gaining on Brian.  We had just 5 miles left, and they were pretty much all uphill.  There were not many discernible landmarks, but when I saw an odd branch or rock on the side of the road, I used it to time the gap between the two of us.  It was less than a minute and closing steadily.  I finally caught up to Brian shortly after the last turn of the course onto Grassy Island Road, just over 3 miles from the finish line.  He was visibly tired, but so was I.  I focused on grinding out the remaining hills to try and build on my lead and protect my 3rd place position, but I could still hear Brian's faint footfalls on the wet asphalt for quite some time.  He was still very much a threat.
Grassy Island Road took one final downhill dip with about 1.5 miles left in the race before a last, agonizing climb.  The 8th and final aid station was at the bottom of this dip, and I bypassed it for want of saving every precious second.  30 seconds later, I risked a glance back, and Brian was running through the water stop.  It would be very hard for him to catch me, but he certainly could if I didn't keep charging, and I was nearing the end of my rope.  I glanced at my watch, which was just ticking over the 3-hour mark, and I realized I had a chance at a sub-3:10 (a BQ) if I just sustained the pain.  Originally, I thought it would be cool to get a 3:14:15 (for Pi Day on 3/14/15...you know), but a BQ on this course, while not needed, would be a much more fulfilling accomplishment.
Those last 9 minutes were sheer agony.  I was trying to hold off Brian while racing the emotionless, tireless clock.  When the church and the finish line came into view, I mustered as much of a kick as I could, but the result was not any perceivable acceleration.  The finish line just seemed to float there without getting any closer.  The eternity eventually passed and I found myself resting my hands on my knees while Mark Long draped a medal on me.  I finished in 3:09:22.  Brian finished 40 seconds later; I didn't even notice him cross the line.
The finish.  Full suffer mode. Photo by Kevin Spradlin.

Levi held on for the win in 3:00:26, and Rich finished strong with a 3:03:xx.  Chad Randolph, who was my ride and compatriot, finished in 8th place with 3:44, second in his age group.  Fellow DARTers David Moore, Sarah Ferris, and Joe London had good-but-tough races too, but just missed the homemade pottery age group awards.  Man, this race was tough!  But I love it, and odds are I'll be back again next year with some other loyal DARTers.  Run Reckless!
From left: Chad, Sarah, David, me, and Joe.  Go DART!
Kevin Spradlin wrote a recap of the race for the PeeDee Post that can be seen here.
My Strava data can be accessed here.