Sunday, July 12, 2015

Great Scot! Grandfather Mountain Marathon Recap

I expected a hard run at Grandfather Mountain Marathon, and I was not disappointed.  I drove up to Boone the night before the race to meet my one time nemesis Sam, grab a leisurely dinner, and take a convenient night's rest on the Appalachian State campus, a few minutes' walk from the GMM's start at Kidd Brewer Stadium.  Luckily, the temperature in Boone for out 6:30am start was about 10 degrees cooler than our part of the state, but the humidity was still high, and I could have stood it to be quite a bit cooler for a marathon.
A collage of images from the GMM course, taken from the race website.

GMM is nice and old school: no electronic chips, no timing mats; just a stopwatch, a bull horn, and a starter pistol at the start.  The race began with nearly two laps around the track at the stadium before spilling out the main gate, merging onto River St through campus, and then hopping on Rte 321 through Boone.  As per my original race plan, I used this flat open street section of the race to establish a 7:20 pace/effort.  The pace wasn't coming as effortlessly as I had hoped, but I told myself I just needed to get warmed up and then everything would lock in.
After a couple of miles, we turned off 321 to a side street that took us out of town and up into the first of many long climbs.  Immediately, my pace deteriorated, but this was also part of the plan.  I was not going to shoot myself in the foot by trying to kill these climbs early on.  I just maintained an even effort and thought about putting one foot in front of the other.  When I came off the track in the beginning of the race, I was in 14th place.  By shortly after the 3rd mile marker, I was in 11th, and I could tell by the breathing of those I passed that I probably wouldn't see them again.  Before I lost contact of the leaders, they had formed a pretty substantial pack ahead of me.  I kept telling myself that this was a long race and I would reach some of them in time.  Spoiler alert: I didn't.  I stayed in 11th place for the rest of the race and ran the last 23 miles in solitude.  That in itself was a challenge.
One cannot run Grandfather without expecting some long, relentless climbs, so to prepare, hills naturally become a regular part of most training runs and workouts. However, there are precious few hills in our local area that emulate the climbs of the GMM course.  I guess running Grey Road and loops of Abersham Park would come close, but those aren't exactly convenient out-the-door running routes (except for Sam, lucky bastard).  So I settled in and let the pace fall where it may.  Since the first half of the course has several significant downhills as well, I was able to make up some of that pace and get a relative breather for some extended stretches.  Of course, one must be careful on the downhills too; they're great for picking up some speed, but bombing them too hard will sabotage the quads for the back half of the race.  I think I hit them just right.
With no one around me, and a scarcity of personnel on the course, there wasn't much to occupy my focus except my own running and how I was feeling.  Even at a conservative pace, the climbs will chip away at you.  I worked on my breathing cadence, did the math on my watch to try and figure out how off it was from the mile markers, and tried to let the brain cling to anything else.  Then, somewhere between mile markers 9 and 10, something clicked.  I was in the middle of a long hill under a tree-canopied stretch of winding mountain road, and the effort seemed to melt away.  I fell into a zone that can only be described as "Smooth."  The rest of the hill gave way and I took my renewed sense of vigor to the Blue Ridge Parkway a couple of miles farther.
Once I ran around the on-ramp to the Parkway, I settled into the longest and straightest downhill stretch of the course.  Once again, I found my Smooth and let the legs turn over, allowing my mind to take a break and just enjoy the run.  I logged my my fastest mile of the race here, a 6:41.  I knew the crux of the race would come after the 16th mile mark, so repeated the mantra, "Maintain the Smooth," in my head for the rest of the Parkway.  The serene views of Moses Cone State Park helped.
After exiting the Parkway, I took a couple more turns that led to Clarence Newton Road, which is about a mile of gravel drive that ends in the steepest grade of the course.  Knowing what this section was going to be like, I just resolved to shuffle on the hill.  Running hard would not have been much faster, but it would have depleted a lot of energy.  I was still moving forward, and I was going faster than walking, so that was good enough.  Better yet, I was breathing relatively comfortably.  When I got to the aid station at the top of the gravel hill, I was almost surprised at how short a time it took, but then I turned right onto Rte 321, and the course just kept going up and up.  No more shuffling, I had to find my stride again and keep the pace up.  There were no more sustained downhills to give me a break.
Here and there, I could catch a glimpse of Brian Kistner (from Ellerbe Marathon), but he was no more than a white speck at the top of a long hill.  Still, it was encouraging to be remotely aware of another runner.  Before I knew it, I was at mile 20.  I told myself before the race that mile 20 would be where I would find another gear and try to get some time.  I was over 5 minutes ahead of my anticipated time for getting to that mark, but there was no way I was going to lay down 7-minute miles for the last 10k.  I did rally to produce a couple of miles in the low 7:20s, but the last 3 miles of the course were a long, uphill slog.  I was rewarded by some beautiful views of both the panoramic countryside and the large, granite rock outcroppings along the road, but more and more, I felt the reminder of my protesting legs.
The last couple of miles were fully exposed, allowing the sun to beat on me, and the highway continued straight and up.  I saw a couple of runners out of reach in the distance (not Brian; he had made up a lot of ground), so I spurred myself on, trying to count down the minutes to my estimated finish.  A half mile from the finish, we turned off the highway and onto a gravel path leading to McRae Meadows, the sight of the Highland Games and the marathon finish.  I heard the drone of the bagpipes before turning off the highway, and I drove my legs forward.  Almost there.  There were pipers, tartans, and Scottish flags everywhere.  I pumped my arms to gain the top of the last little hill leading onto the gravel running track and broke out into my last gear for the final lap to the finish.  My last gear didn't have much extra speed to offer, but there was no lack of adrenaline as 15,000 highlanders cheered from the bleachers and heavy things were being tossed by giant gingers in the infield.  I crossed the finish line at 3:19:20, over three minutes faster than my predicted finish, and just under my super-secret stretch goal of 3:20.  And my body was completely trashed.
I waddled my way to the marathon tents next to the path leading up to the track, found my change of clothes, choked down some food and fluids, chatted with winner (for the 2nd consecutive year) Caleb Maslund, and waited for my friends to finish.  Shortly after, the winning female ran by.  Fittingly, she was from Glasgow, Scotland!  She remarked about how great a treat it was to finish among the bagpipes and kilts.  Sam followed her by a few minutes and finished in a very respectable 3:38, also in a kilt.  To boot, he won 2nd place in his age group.  DURT teammate Stan Austin finished in 3:45, Chad Randolph came in smiling for his 13th GMM finish in 4:02, and David Moore rounded out the DART crew with a 4:40.
3:19 and totally satisfied!
2nd AG and 2nd overall kilt!
Grandfather Marathon #13 for Chad!
David looking too energetic to finish this race...
Photo by Chad Randolph.

To add to the satisfaction of the day, I didn't lose either of the challenges in play with Sam or Dave.  I did not get beaten by Sam at GMM, so I don't need to go skirt shopping; and I finished before Dave finished his international tri, meaning I don't have to commit to triathlon training.  Whew!

Here is my Strava record of the race.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Grandfather Mountain Marathon Preview: More At Stake

Since I started running marathons in 2011, Grandfather Mountain Marathon has been on my list.  With well over 3000 feet of elevation gain on the point-to-point course, GMM has a long and notorious reputation as one of the most challenging road marathons in the country.  Needless to say, it's not a PR course, but I intend to show up to compete.  The race field caps at 500, and while I don't have any concrete time goals, I think a pretty ambitious stretch goal would be to land in the top 10 finishers.  After looking at the results from the last 10 years, 10th place has ranged anywhere from 3:05 to 3:38, so that goal is kind of a crap shoot depending on the conditions and the competitive field.
More than an arbitrary time or place goal, there are two other wagers that depend on the outcome of this race, both involving different respective sometime nemeses, Sam and Dave (no, not the soul duo).  Sam, against whom I settled the score last December, will be using GMM as a training run for Grindstone 100.  As a sub-term of his penance for losing our bet, he will be racing in a skirt...okay, well, a kilt.  Considering the GMM is a prelude to the Highland Games, he will not be the only one in a kilt.  However, if Sam bests me during this race, I will have to wear a skirt (or kilt) during a requisite number of public group runs for the remainder of the year.  So whether I'm competing or not, I certainly can't lollygag.
 Also in my mind will be newly re-branded triathlete Dave Munger, against whom I will be racing from afar.  Dave will be racing the Stumpy Creek International triathlon (like an Olympic distance tri, but with a slightly longer bike).  GMM will start at 6:30am in Boone, and Stumpy Creek will start at 7:00am (+9 minutes for Dave's start in the 4th wave) in Mooresville.  Whoever finishes first wins.  Dave is shooting for a 2:45, and assuming we both start on time, I will have a 39 minute head start on him.  So a 3:24 would have me finish on par with Dave's A goal, but that's assuming he's not being too conservative with his predictions.  Also, a 3:24 at GMM is no regular 3:24.  For comparison, here is a link to my Strava record of the very challenging Ellerbe Marathon, and here is a link to a friend's Strava record of GMM.  As you can see from the silhouettes of the respective elevation profiles, I have my work cut out for me.  If I lose, I will have to do a triathlon, something for which I've never trained.  If that's the case, I hope Dave takes it easy on me and keeps my obligation to a sprint tri.  If I win, Dave has agreed to do the Murph WOD (run 1 mile, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, run another mile; all for time), an undertaking for which he feels equally uncomfortable.
Since this is not a PR or BQ attempt, but rather a don't-screw-up race, I will have a very different strategy from a conventional marathon.  In the precious few flat sections of the race, including the first couple of miles, I'm going to try and dial in a 7:20ish pace, which is significantly slower than my usual marathon pace, but conservation is the name of the game here.  As I negotiate the upward trend of long, steady climbs, I will try my best to maintain the same effort I dialed in for the flat 7:20s and let the pace fall where it may.  Experienced GMM runners always warn about one particularly steep climb up a gravel road in the 17th mile.  I have absolutely no expectations for this climb.  I'll just low-gear it, walk if I have to, and try not to be breathing too heavily once I reach the top.  Hopefully, by mile 20, will have maintained a sub-8 minute overall pace (about 2:40 or less on the race clock) and have enough juice left for a 10k kick.  On a perfect day, I would pick up the pace and take that last 10k in 43 minutes, but that will be a daunting task considering all the climbing I will have under my legs at that point.  That would give me a 3:23 or under.  I'd be happy with slower than that, but not with Sam and Dave looming in the back of my mind.
It will be a challenging day, but I'm not ready to go shopping for skirts or practicing brick workouts just yet!