Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Novant Charlotte Marathon: Pacers Do It With Consistency.

This year's Charlotte Marathon (formerly Thunder Road Marathon) was my fourth time running the race and third as an official pacer.  Pacing is something I love to do for my running community and frankly, even though this race is local, its course is challenging enough for me not to want to do it unless it's complimentary.  Does that make me cheap or smart?  Maybe both.  Anyway, I signed up to once again pace the first half of the three hour pace group, meaning I would be pacing a 90-minute half, which seems to be a nice default for me as a pacer.  It's quick enough that it's a worthwhile race experience, but enough over my PR to be reliably attainable.  In the Summer and early Fall, I trained through a very rigorous half marathon program that really boosted my speed for that distance and culminated in me obliterating a 15k PR (my target half was cancelled).  Following that, I focused on some high end speed to likewise crush my 5k PR four weeks later.  In hat time period, I only had about 5-6 weeks of marathon-specific training.  With the usual base I have built up, I knew I would have no problem finishing the race with a decent time after my pacing duties were relieved, but part of me was itching to stick to that three hour pace (6:52 minutes/mile) to see how long I could hang on.

You can find me in the right third of the frame in the obnoxiously pink pacer shirt.  I'm right behind Chad Crockford in the JITFO singlet, who would go on to win the marathon.

I noticed many familiar faces at the starting line, including some really fast folks from all around the Charlotte metro area.  Most of those speedsters would speed ahead at the gun and never be seen again.  A good twenty or so people spotted me with Matt L. (my pacing partner) in our conspicuously pink pacer shirts and huddled around us.  Bryan, one of my local training buddies, met up with us intending to break 1:30 for a half marathon PR and tune-up for his focus marathon in January.
When the go signal went off, dozens of people charged ahead.  Some faded back, but it seemed like there were a lot of runners out there running faster than a 1:30 half/3:00 full pace.  As was always the case, we would see many of them again.  With the tall buildings in uptown Charlotte, my GPS watch was jumping around for pace readings, and out of our large group, no two watches said the same thing, so I largely paced by feel.  It worked out well enough; we came to the first mile marker at 6:51.
Somewhere in the first mile.  At least a score of runners were on the 1:30/3:00 bandwagon.

As with any rolling course, I briefed my tag-alongs that we would shoot for equal effort on the ups and downs and end up with reasonably even splits.  The first half of the Charlotte course--which shares all but the last 500 meters of the half marathon course--is a beautiful, residential route that traverses the Meyers Park, Dilworth, and Southend neighborhoods.  With lots of crowd support and appealing streetscapes, the miles went by with relative ease.  We climbed the infamous Morehead Street hill at mile 8+ and started shedding some followers.  At this point, Lucy, a friend of another running buddy, overtook the first female who faded back to us and became the lead female marathoner.  We had banked a good 20-25 seconds on the race clock before that hill and were perfectly comfortable to give some of it back.  After going up most of the hill, taking a brief loop through Dilworth, and then climbing the rest of Morehead, we had given back about 10 seconds and were a cumulative 13 seconds ahead of pace.
Many of the half marathoners in our group started to fade in Southend with all but the last 5k of their race remaining.  Bryan stayed with us, but he was less talkative.  I positioned myself at the front of the pace group once we turned onto Mint Street at mile 11.8.  The headwind here was palpable, so I figured I would offer drafting services to half marathon finishers and Lucy, who had her eyes on a winning marathon spot.  A little more than half a mile from the half marathon finish, I noticed Bryan lagging behind by a few strides.  With our banked seconds, he was still on pace for a sub-1:30 and big PR, but this was no time to get complacent and fall off.  I drifted back and ran at his shoulder trying to draft him back to the group.  Me made up the gap, and by the time the course split, he was set up for one final quarter-mile push that propelled him to a 1:29:46, which beat his stretch goal.
As we full marathoners veered around the BB&T Ballpark and out of sight of the finish line, our 2nd half pacers, Paul and Ryan, were waiting at the mile 13 mark to relieve us of our culpability...er...responsibility.  By the time we reached the certified 13.1 mark, we were still 10+ seconds ahead of pace.  Since it was getting warmer (at least at a 6:52 pace), I shed my pacer shirt and was down to a singlet.  I decided to run with the group to offer additional support and maybe benefit from having the fresh Ryan and Paul as pacers.  Miles 14-16 not only were the least scenic of the course, but they had the strongest headwind, so I tucked in behind Paul, who was a good six inches taller than me.  I took my turn running into the wind too, but I allowed myself to work off the new pacers' fresh legs whenever I could.
This is probably mile 14ish.  From left: Ryan M. (second shift pacer), Lucy (lead female), and me (down to my Reckless Running singlet

Again, the conversation and general sense of security in running with a group made the miles go by quickly, and we continued to bank a few more seconds per mile as we carried on.  By mile 18, I accepted that I was going to have to stop at a port-a-potty, so as soon as I bird-dogged one on The Plaza, I surged ahead and took care of the need as quickly as possible.  When I got back on the road, I could see Ryan and Paul's pink pacer shirts a couple hundred meters ahead of me, and it looked like Lucy and a couple other sub-three hopefuls were hanging strong with them.  I settled into a closing pace, but I intended to take my sweet time catching up to the sub-3 group to avoid repeating the stupid mistake I made at Boston.  I had chosen my potty stop well because the next couple of miles were flat enough to pick up the pace a bit and negate the small amount of time I lost in the facilities.
By mile 20, I was back on pace for three hours, but the pace group was still far ahead and not coming back to me.  It was evident that they were going to go under three by a considerable margin, so I abandoned any notion of catching up to them and resolved to run solo for the last 10k.  Here and there, I would pass runners that had fallen off the three hour pace group, and I tried to get them to tag along with me because I technically was still on pace for sub-three, but most of them had hit their wall and were fading.  As each mile went by, I kept on banking a few more seconds, much like I did as a pacer for the first half, but with 2.5+ hours of running on my legs, the idea of a sub-three finish wasn't seeming any more certain.

Circa mile 24.  I'm on my own and tired, but still coherent enough to give an Aswell-style thumbs-up.

Mile markers 23 and 24 came along, both confirming that I was 18-20 seconds ahead of pace.  I had not bonked, but the legs were protesting and my breathing was getting heavy.  Still, with each mile marker, I remember telling myself something like, "You can't run 24 miles of a sub-three marathon and NOT get the sub-three finish!"
The 25th mile was a pleasant departure from the roads and took me on a greenway near the medical center in midtown.  The gun clock at mile 25 read about 2:51:30ish, which was still 20ish seconds ahead of pace, but anyone who has run the Novant/Thunder Road marathon in the last three years knows that mile 26 is one, tough, uphill slog up the length of Stonewall.  This was the reason for all the previously banked time.  Marathoners like to joke that a marathon has two "halves:" the first 20 miles and the last 6.2.  Well for me, this race's two "halves" were the first 25 miles and the last 1.2!  With my banked time, a 7:00 pace mile would still set me up for a sub-three finish, but a 7:10 would be too close for comfort.  I tried to just look ahead and run, but I couldn't resist glancing at my watch here and there.  With the instantaneous pace jumping back and forth between 7:05 and 7:10, I had tragic visions of the finish clock flipping from 2:59:59 to 3:00:00 right in front of me.  Of course, that was just the last mile talking.  The only real thing to do was to HTFU and do the damn thing!  I remember what my onetime nemesis Sam said during a track workout a couple months ago: "Chas always has a little something left."  So I dug in and started running under a 7:00 pace again.
When I got to the top of Stonewall and turned right on Mint (not even noticing the mile 26 marker), I focused on the finish line, which was still so far away!  I knew it was going to be close, so I let it all out.  I crossed the finish line in 2:59:52, fifteen seconds behind Lucy, who held on to the lead to get the overall female win.
Crossing the finish line just under three hours.  For the life of me, I have absolutely no recollection of high-fiving Hugo the Hornet, but here's photographic proof.

This sub-three finish meant at least as much to me as my first sub-three and current PR from last year.  This race, although it was within a minute of my PR, was on a much harder course and thus gave me a sense of validation.  Running a lot of 3:00+ marathons and having one sub-three finish means I could have had a good a good day and gotten lucky once.  Running a second sub-three lets me confidently think of myself as a sub-three marathoner.  Now on to loftier goals yet to be decided...

Here is my Strava data for the race.
The double-Aswell pose!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Two races, two goals

Since laying down a breakthrough of a 15k PR at the beginning of the month, I've maintained base fitness for the Charlotte Marathon but focused most of my key workouts on running a fast 5k.  I've done two 5k's in October, both with very different goals, different settings, and different race strategies.
October 15: Rescue Me 5k at McAlpine Creek Park:
This race kind of fell into my lap.  My wife and I recently started fostering an adorable Pit Bull rescue through South Of The Bully rescue agency.  Rescue Me 5k was an adoption event and a fund raiser for several Pit Bull rescue agencies in the area.  It was also the first chance I would get to race on the McAlpine Creek cross country course.
Since this race was at the end of a high volume training week and my legs were still sore from a hard tempo run a few days before, I didn't have any concrete time goals.  Besides, in a XC style race, the clock doesn't seem to be as important as does your position.  So I was in it to win it, certainly not to PR.  Although, in the back of my mind, I thought I still had the legs for a sub-19.
The morning was crisp, and the day was clear.  It was good racing weather.  I lined up at the front with a few other fast looking fellas.  At the "go" shout, I strode ahead to an early lead, but only by half a stride.  By the sounds of the footfalls on the dirt path, there was a lead pack of half a dozen or so runners (including one loudly breathing dog) led by me and one other runner whom I'll just call Red Shirt.
Since McAlpine gets used so often for large college and high school XC meets and invitationals, the course has certified metric markings every 200 meters as well as permanent mile markings, which made on-the-go strategic decisions much easier.  At the first mile marker (6:00-6:01 by my clock), Red Shirt and I had pulled away from the rest of the leaders.  We could still hear them--especially the dog--but they were fading.  Red Shirt strode ahead of me, so I tucked in behind him and let him set the pace.  There was plenty of race left after all.  The course's one real hill popped up at about the halfway point, and Red Shirt charged hard up the slope in an effort to break me.  The hill sucked, and he did gain a couple more strides worth of ground, but then I could tell by his thrown back posture that his surge had cost him.  I passed him at the 2500 mark and he tucked in behind me as I motored down the slope on the back side.
Coming out from the tree line with the hill, we ran through what would be the final straightaway after we would do a different loop on the back end of the course.  Red Shirt stayed on my heels through two miles (12:11 at the second mile marker), but I heard his footfalls fade back dramatically in the next quarter mile.  By the 4000 mark, I was alone with at least 100 meters of a lead and the win seemingly locked up.  Every 200 meters, I would do the math to confirm that a sub-19 finish would be awfully close, but once I rounded the pond for the final straightaway once again, I knew I had it.  My finish time was 18:56.  Red Shirt was about 25 seconds behind me, and the third finisher was 10 seconds behind him.  I ran the race I wanted, got a satisfying win, and got some publicity for Barlowe, our foster dog.  My wife and I called that day a success!
Barlowe was my biggest cheerleader at Rescue Me 5k

Please adopt me!

October 29: Charlotte Runway 5k at Douglas Int'l Airport:
The Runway 5k was my focus race for my short but packed 5k training cycle.  My old PR of 18:20 was getting stale, and although it was on a supposedly certified course, the general consensus of that course's shortness brings the street cred of that time into question.  So, following a lead from my buddy Dave, who PR'd at Runway three years ago, I decided to give it a shot.  Not only did I want to PR, but I had lofty aspirations of going sub-18, which all sources indicated would be a bit of a reach for me.
After carpooling with Dave and Rich (who works for American Airlines and got us great parking) and meeting John A., Bryan, M., Mike M., and some other buddies there, we quickly assessed that the weather was about the best one could ask for when running a PR 5k.
With 2000+ people racing, and a start line that was a couple dozen people wide, John and I got into the front row to avoid some of the logjam.  At the start, I settled into my pace--well actually a little faster for the first 30 seconds--and focused my gaze straight ahead.  Some of the appeal to this race, aside from being outrageously fast and flat, is the opportunity to run on a closed taxiway and fairly close to an active runway.  That being said, I did not notice the huge parked aircraft or any of the air traffic around us.  I was focused straight ahead the whole time.
18 minutes for 5k is a 5:47 pace, so my goal was to hit even 5:45 splits to break that barrier.  The first mile maker came up at exactly 5:45 on my clock, but I found myself in a no-man's land, with the other 7-8 runners too far ahead to chase down, and not noticing anyone right on my heels.  I wish I could say I was dueling it out with another racer like at Rescue Me 5k, but honestly, it was just me out there holding on to that 5:45 pace...thinking about how uncomfortable it was.
I passed the second mile marker at 11:31 on my clock, making for practically even splits, but I was starting to feel the acute intensity of the burn.  Those that usually run longer distances know well (and lament) the different kind of hurt that an all-out 5k presents.  Two thoughts bolstered my resolve: (1) I was two-thirds done with what was on pace to be my fastest 5k ever, and (2) I only had to hurt for 6+ more minutes.  With those mantras repeating back-and-forth, I maintained and even quickened the pace a bit.
At 2.5 miles, I was overtaken by Franklin, to whom I finished second place at Spencer Mountain 5k a couple years ago.  Rarely does someone pass me the last mile of a 5k, but I remember Franklin being a great late stage racer, and he was just a touch faster than me.  Franklin's girlfriend Paula, who was the lead female, also strode ahead of me, but she stayed within arm's length.  Having Franklin and Paula there actually helped me accelerate on the last half mile of the course since I, like everyone, run better in a pack.
Once we rounded the hangar complex and came within sight of the finish line (still about 500 meters away), I surged with anticipation.  My watch said 16:51 the last time I looked at it, which was well before the third mile marker (which I never even remember seeing), and I guessed that a hard kick would get me across the line in under 18 minutes.  I passed Paula and bade her to pick it up with me and "do this!"  She cheered me on and tucked in behind me.  From there on out, it was one long, anaerobic sprint to a 17:44 finish (with a chip time later adjusted to 17:43).  I was sure I was going to PR this day, and halfway confident I might break 18, but 17:44 was waaaaay beyond my goal!  John also broke 18 minutes with a one second PR (17:58), and Dave broke 20 minutes with 19:46, heralding a strong post-injury return to form (Dave's recap).  Bryan PR'd with a 19:11, and Richard barely missed his sub-20 goal with a 20:05.  Fast times were had all around, and we were all beaming on our way home from the airport.
Now it's time to switch gears again and run a fast marathon in a couple of weeks...
Two thumbs up means a good day at the airport!

Here is my Strava data for both races:
Rescue Me 5k
Runway 5k

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Novant 15k: Locking In

This is the sixth consecutive year I have done Lungstrong 15k, which is the longest streak I have for any perennial race.  This year, the event was renamed to Novant 15k, but the course and event details remained the same.  For at least four years, I've had a long-standing goal to break 60 minutes for a 15k, and since it's not a common distance, Lungstrong/Novant is really the only course on which I've given it a shot.  One of the big pros to Novant is that it is two miles from my house.  However, it's also a course strewn with rolling hills, and some of the more challenging climbs are on the back end.
To be honest, I wasn't even planning to race Novant this year.  I had spent the last 12 weeks training hard for the single-minded purpose of qualifying for New York Marathon with a 1:23 half marathon.  I was tuned up and locked in, ready to give it my best shot, but the unrest in Charlotte during the week of the race and ensuing declaration of State of Emergency caused my focus race to be cancelled.  I was deflated, but I quickly resolved to use all that peak fitness for something, so Novant 15k found its way into my cross-hairs.
When I describe the Novant 15k course to others, I break it up into three 5k sections.  The first 5k, even though it has a fast start, has some notable and steady climbs out of Jetton Park and on Jetton Road itself, giving it what I would call a medium difficulty.  The second 5k, while not flat, is the most tame and easy part of the course, weaving through residential side streets before depositing onto the Western end of Jetton Road.  The final and most difficult third of the race is made up mostly of the long, rolling terrain of Jetton Road and a couple of more steep climbs off the main road in the 7th and 9th miles.  In past races, if I was feeling spent by the 10k mark, I knew that the final 5k would be a downward spiral.
I got lucky with the weather on race day. It was in the mid-50s, which was paradise compared to the long, hot summer of training.  I knew I would be competitive, so I slipped into a place near the front row, behind a dozen or so other local Charlotte runners who I thought were out of my league.  At the start, once the adrenaline set in, I looked at my watch to see that the low-6ish minute paces were popping off way too easily.  I had spent the last months ingraining a 6:20 pace into my head for my target half, so I worked consciously to dial back to that pace.  It felt surprisingly fresh!  
After the field thinned out, and before a small lead group of elites led by pro miler Matt Elliott vanished, I took a count and reckoned I was in 12th place overall, which was better than I expected for as popular a race as this is.  I swiped a couple more places in the climb coming out of Jetton Park and found myself in a relative no-man's land for most of Jetton Road.  New to this year were mid-race timing mats at each certified 5k split point, so I hit lap on my watch--albeit a couple seconds late--after the first 5k to see that I had run the first third in 19:32.  That was pretty good for my goal, but the first two thirds of the race are only good for offsetting the end...
The ever-thinning field of runners ahead of me continued to drift back and I started picking them off very gradually through the neighborhoods at the Western end of the peninsula.  Billy Shue, who had won last year's race, was still ahead of me but he had stopped gaining ground and was still visible.  After five miles, and having passed everyone between me and Billy, I started to go back over the position count in my head.  Billy was fifth, so I was sixth.  Being a Run For Your Life race, the overall awards were five deep, so if I took one more place, I'd be on the overall podium, not just an age group winner.  The thought seemed fleeting, but then Billy started slowly fading back to me.
I passed Billy Shue right around the 10k mark, which I hit at 38:53.  Not only had I run my second 5k faster than the first (19:21), but I had just run my second fastest 10k...ever.  What was more uplifting was that I still felt locked in and relatively fresh, and was holding my own against Billy.
Around mile 6.5, the course took a brief detour off Jetton Road and down a hill on a side street called Mountainview.  Of course, what goes down must come up.  The detour turned right on North Beatties Ford Drive and headed up a short, steep hill to get back to the main thoroughfare of Jetton.  Jetton kept going up for a few dozen meters after that, so the detour had the potential to really take the wind out of one's sails before slogging it back in on the last 2.5+ miles.  It didn't help that one of the volunteers was yelling "you're almost to the finish!"  While outwardly I remained stoic, my inner voice screamed, "No I'm not!  Shut up with that!"
The inbound leg of Jetton was a series of long, rolling hills.  None of them were steep, but the fatigue of the earlier miles and the morning sun shining in my eyes certainly made me work for the pace.  But I was maintaining that pace and logging sub-6:20 miles.  The hill on the detour only marginally bit into my time.  The first three leaders were nowhere to be seen, and the fourth place runner was a dot that was nearly a quarter mile ahead of me, so I focused on keeping fifth place.  With each passing minute, it was becoming more and more likely that I would get my sub-60 goal.
At mile 8.5, I turned off Jetton onto Charlestowne Drive, which was the last sustained downhill of the race.  While turning, I peeked over my shoulder to see Billy not too far behind me.  He was far enough away that he would have to work extremely hard to catch me before we ran out of real estate, but he was still close enough to make me wary.  After the last downhill, the rest of the course was a widely arcing climb followed by a flat finish into the shopping center where the race started.  I was afforded a couple more 90 degree turns where I could sneak a glance back at Billy.  He was still in view, but he wasn't closing enough to threaten my fifth place.  However, my efforts to keep him at bay had pushed me into a possible sub-59 minute finish, so I couldn't let up.  I used the last, flat 400 meters of the course for an extended kick and clocked a 58:31 official finishing time.  Not only had I placed overall and gotten my sub-60, but I had obliterated my previous PR by 2.5 minutes!  It was the best "pound-for-pound" race I had run since the 2015 Charlotte 10-Miler, and maybe even better than that.  The real confidence booster for me is that I felt locked in for the whole race. Considering all of that, I didn't really care about my cancelled half marathon.  I was more than consoled or content with this result; I was elated!
Me after rounding the final corner and seeing the finish line.  Photo courtesy of Brian Neff.

The stride to the finish with 58:30 on the gun clock.   Photo courtesy of Brian Neff.

Here is my Strava data for the race.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Summit Solstice 12-hour Relay Recap

Summit Coffee, a basecamp of the local Davidson running community, organized a 12-hour team or solo relay race for their solstice themed race this year.  Judging by the success of the event, I'm sure this relay will be the first of many annual Summit Solstice 12-hour Relays.  The format was slightly more complex than most timed ultras or relays.  Rather than accumulating the most distance, each team--8 person, 4-person, or solo runner--tried to rack up the most points based on running loops of three different routes, all starting and ending at the Summit Outpost location on Davidson College's fraternity court.  There were 3-mile and 5-mile routes--respectively worth 1 point and 2 points--on the Davidson College cross country courses, and there was a 9.3 mile route worth 5 points that ran along the infamous Grey Road, looped through Abersham Neighborhood Park, and returned via Grey Road.  Additionally, after 5pm, each team was allowed to have two runners out on the courses at a time running for points (not counting pacers).  The 9.3 mile route had the highest point/mile ratio, but it also contained many of the most challenging hills in the area.  Add summer heat to the equation and you get a lot of hard running for a long day. 
The Main Street Milers:
Back row from left: Tracey, Bobby, me, Matt, and Jeremy.
Front row from left: Julie, Sam, and Ashley.

There were several DARTers forming or joining teams for the relay.  A couple of early morning running partners and I covertly recruited some of our weekly training partners to put together as competitive an 8-person team as we could.  Enter the Main Street Milers.  In running order, I was the leadoff, followed by Ashley N., Tracey D., Julie A., Bobby L., Sam M. (my one-time nemesis), Matt C., and Jeremy A.  Our main competition going into the race came in the form of The Coffee Bean Bombers (a fellow DART group), and The Charlotte Running Company.  Both had some strong runners and I figured that each shared a common strategy with us: bank as many 9.3 mile runs as possible before 5:30, when the courses became limited to the 3-mile and 5-mile options.
The start of the relay.  I'm up front in the Reckless Running singlet.

Since I was the leadoff runner, I was the only one to start at the same time as a packed field of competition (until 5 o'clock when the extra runner rule came into play).  Other teams were putting some fast runners first, trying to grab a few extra minutes of lead on the next team.  Off the bat, I knew that Scott K. (CRC) and Mike R. (CBB) would be direct competition on this leg as far as 8-person teams went.  John A., who ran the first half of Boston with me, was leading off for Summit Coffee's 4-man team, and there were a couple other speedsters whom I did not know.  At the start, nearly all of the teams predictably turned toward the 9.3 mile route.  The first hill, which we in MSM call Rick Flair hill, was less than a quarter mile into the race, which made it difficult to settle into an appropriate race effort.  John, Scott, and I stuck together as a front pack, but a lone runner named Jareth shot out ahead of us.  Jareth was certainly fit, but he looked very tall and broad shouldered to be running such a quick pace.  After two quick miles averaging under 6:40 pace, John backed off saying "Too rich for my blood."  I couldn't blame him; he was on a 4-man team and had done comparatively little running since Boston.  Scott was a faster runner than me, but he was not as familiar with the local roads and hills as I was, so we stayed together for most of the run.  I let him know when each of the seven notable hills were coming up and what to expect out of each of them.
As the miles went by, I maintained an average race pace of 6:40.  My official goal was to finish the leg in 64 minutes, but my semi-secret goal was to be the first overall runner to return from the 9.3 mile leg.  Jareth's considerable lead stopped opening once he got to the second big hill, and I had a feeling Scott and I would reel him in eventually.  We low-geared it up that hill and turned into Abersham for a nice, sustained downhill to get the legs turning again.  I tried to save my breath on the descent because another hill called the MotherF***er was shortly after it.  The MFer was not a long hill, but it was steep and did not leave much recovery before Mishcrest, the next hill.  Scott hammered up the MFer and led me by a few strides, but when he made the right turn to bring Mishcrest into view, he simply blurted "Oh my god..." 
After Mishcrest and the rest of the Abersham loop, we were well over halfway done, and there were only two hills left, but Big Mama and Last Grey were the two biggest hills on the course.  Scott pulled ahead of me coming out of Abersham and opened up a fairly strong cushion between us.  We both overtook Jareth (who we then learned was on a 4-person team) on Big Mama hill, and he faded back after that.  I kept Scott in view, but he had a good 20-30 seconds on me as we climbed up Last Grey and headed back into town.  As we ran through campus toward the exchange zone, Scott slowed a bit to try and find the right path onto the court.  I shouted ahead where to turn, but I kicked into high gear to close the distance too.  By the time we made it to the exchange, I had closed to about 3 seconds behind him.  We both ran the roughly 9.3 mile route in about 61 minutes.  I tagged Ashley and she was off.  Scott had tagged Todd J., and Mike tagged Derek M. a few minutes later.  Both Todd and Derek were fast runners, so it was clear that CRC and CBB were front-loading their legs.  We would have to keep the pressure on all day.
Scott coming in to be the first long leg finisher with me hot on his heels.  We both ran about 61 minutes.

Even though it was already pretty warm when I ran the first leg, the summer day only got hotter.  Ashley made her goal time, but our next four runners struggled with the preordained times by which we had planned.  All of the teams were having similar difficulties.  After their first three runners, Charlotte Running Company moved to doing only 3-mile and 5-mile routes, so we were able to build a steady lead on them.  The Coffee Bean Bombers stuck with the long loop, just like us, so whatever leads we gained on them were tied up whenever their runners came in.
Sam finishing his first leg and passing off to Matt.  This was in the high heat of the day.

I had to leave for a few hours in the middle of the day to run errands and grab my gear for the gig my band was to play at the relay festival later that evening.  When I returned, Matt was out on his leg and Jeremy was preparing to be our last first-time-through runner.  Matt had been worried about the heat and his performance, but nevertheless, he came in under his projected goal time and tagged Jeremy at about 3:30.  At this time, the remaining seven of us had to strategize how the last few hours would play out.  Our lead over the Bombers was tenuous at best, and I figured it would come down to the final, short-mileage run of the day, so we needed to set up enough time on the clock to get in more 3-milers and 5-milers after 5:30 than they could.  This was the rough order of battle:
*Jeremy comes in, hopefully before 4:45 and tags me, and I start a long loop.
*Sam starts another long loop at 5 o'clock with the extra runner rule.
*I come in with as much cushion as possible to tag Matt, who then runs a 5-miler as quickly as he can.
*Sam comes in, hopefully before 6:20, and tags Bobby, who starts a 5-miler (or 3-miler if Sam comes in late).
*Matt comes in with at least 24 minutes left on the clock, and Julie goes out to fit in one more 3-miler before the clock runs out.
Donning the war paint before my second leg!

Our plan hinged greatly upon us meeting specific time goals to ensure our later runners' finishes--not an easy task considering the heat and the fatigue on everybody's legs.  So when Jeremey came in at 4:40, I set out at a purposeful pace and expected to endure 70+ minutes of pain.  After getting to the top of Rick Flair hill, however, I found myself settling into a respectable pace.  There was no way I was going to touch my 61 minutes from the morning, but I thought that 70 minutes (roughly a 7:30 pace) was doable.  That would leave plenty of cushion for Matt and Julie too.  The first half of this leg was much more solitary than the mass start of my earlier run, but I kept reminding myself of the team play to keep motivated.  I knew that another mass start was going to start 20 minutes after me, so I expected I would get an idea of how many points were on the road on my way back into town.  I low-geared the outbound Grey Road hills and the MFer and Mishcrest in Abersham, but I made up the pace on the flats and downhills.  About 6 miles into my run, I spotted the spread-out line of 5 o'clock starters on their outbound part of the Grey Road route.  At the head of the group was Mike from CBB.  Sam was about a minute back, and I affirmed to him that I was going to go sub-70.  No more than 5 minutes behind Sam was Derek, also from CBB, which meant that we were tied for first, and both our teams had 10 points currently on the road.  Hopefully, MSM's lead would give us time for that extra point or two...
I didn't dillydally up Big Mama hill or Last Grey hill, and as I ran back into town, I kept pushing the bar for my goal finish.  Sub-70 became sub-69, and then sub-68.  As I sprinted down Rick Flair hill and around to the finishing area of the exchange zone, I shouted Matt's name to make sure he was ready to bolt out on his 5-miler.  I finished my second 9.3 mile loop in 67 minutes, 41 seconds. 
Mike and Derek both ran pretty respectable times too, with Mike passing on to Young Nate, who easily would have time to run a 5-miler.  Sam came in before Derek and tagged Bobby, leaving him 42 minutes to run 5 miles.  Bobby could do it, but he would have to keep the engine revved the whole time.  By the time Derek came in to tag Lisa B. for the CBB, who only had time for one more complete run, it was assured that The Main Milers would at least tie, and probably win, assuming both Bobby and Julie finished their legs.  Julie had no pressure because Matt gave her over 30 minutes to run 3 miles, and Tracey was out on the course pacing her.  With 20 minutes left on the clock, I shook my legs out, and shuffled out onto the course to pace Bobby in.  On my way out, I saw Young Nate, Julie, and Lisa all coming in for their respective finishes.  That left the score tied at 53 points.  Bobby's leg would be the winning leg.  I intercepted him about a mile from his finish with almost 11 minutes left on the clock.   It was clear that he was hammering out this run and the fatigue was real.  He kept pounding and I kept him updated with the race clock.  He strode into the finish area to rousing applause with the winning two points.  It was close, but we pulled off the win! 
Bobby finishing the final leg for the win.  I'm pacing behind him, and Sam is cheering on the sidelines.

Both MSM and CBB racked up over 100 miles each, which in itself is impressive.  The inaugural Summit Solstice 12 Hour Relay was an awesome event with lots of fun and some great competition.  The Main Street Milers might have to get back together next year to defend the title.
After the race, I wanted nothing more than to dissolve into a hole filled with pizza and beer, but I had to get ready to play the headlining gig with my band in less than an hour...

Here is my Strava record for my first leg.
Here is my Strava record for my second leg.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Awful and Awesome: Boston Marathon 2016

For most sub-elite marathoners, the opportunity to run the Boston Marathon is  peak goal, or at least a perennial one.  I'm no exception.  When I started running races fast enough to believe I could qualify, and then actually started qualifying, Boston became a Golden Shangri-La in my running mind.  That said, during the years, I developed a competitive streak (with myself as well as with peers), so I came to Boston this year not only with the intention of participating in the world's most historic marathon, but of giving the race my very best.  Despite a nagging injury at the beginning of my 4-month training cycle, I trained for Boston as hard or harder than any other PR marathon attempt I've done.
The day before the big race.  That's the finish line and arch on Boylston.

When the mid-April weekend before Marathon Monday came, I was pumped.  I came off a fantastic training block, I had high, high spirits (though I tried to keep most of it on the inside), and everyone around me--family, fellow runners, co-workers, my 3rd grade students--was lifting me up with cheers and well wishes.  I felt like I was going to crush it.  I even dismissed the looming weather reports that called for warmer temperatures and headwinds.  I had raced in warm weather before, and the winds didn't look too bad, right? 
Me and Coach Greg McMillan

The day before the race, I attended a small race meeting held by Greg McMillan of McMillan Running and his team of coaches.  I used a custom made McMillan Plan for Marine Corps Marathon in 2014, and have trained off of his plans (or variations thereof) ever since.  Coach Greg was extremely approachable, and his info session solidified the race plan I already had in my mind.   Like a true running geek, I scribbled notes.  Here's a partial transcription:
          Gear Check
          Sleep (or don't...)

                    Weather tomorrow consistent 60s, headwind
Race Day
          5-10 minute warmup
          Stay loose in corral
          First 12 miles = Autopilot
                    -->Follow Plan          
          Wellesley = wake-up call
          Newton --> lean into the hills
          FLY into Boston
               --no pity parties
               --use crowd, use Citgo sign
               --look up, ahead
               --BE THE PASSER
               --right on Hereford (hill)
               --left on Boylston
               --LONG finish straight
These notes went through my head in the evening and morning leading up to the start, and at various times throughout the race, so they kind of serve as headers for the actual sequence of events.
Morning of.  Pumped  up and ready to go!

First 12 miles = Autopilot
                    -->Follow Plan
I met running friends John, Mike, Tommy, Rick, and Jose at the bus loading area in Boston and we passed the pre-race time together in the Athletes' Village in Hopkinton.  I felt great.  My head was right, and everything was good physically.  All of us save Rick were in the first wave (departing at 10am), but only John and I had the same corral assignment. Of that group, I had spent the most time training with John, and we had very similar plans for the day, so we intended to race together for as much of the race as possible.
After the race announcements, the national anthem, and the hyped-up crowd in Hopkinton, I was getting tingles.  I almost wanted to shoot for an outright PR while waiting in the corral, but the fact that we were already sweating at the start line checked that fleeting aspiration.  When we did cross the blue-and-gold start line, John and I settled into a rhythm right away.  I like to think we're both pretty shrewd racers, so having each other there was especially comforting.  We wouldn't get too far out of hand on those sharp, early downhills, and we almost tacitly agreed on when we could afford to give a pinch more effort to steal back some seconds.  Despite being surrounded by thousands of people who were pace peers with us, we avoided weaving around and wasting energy, and we figured out a fairly minimally damaging way of getting through the over-crowded aid stations. Every time we crossed over a timing mat, we were aware of all of our friends back home tracking us through the B.A.A. website or Boston Marathon app.
The day was hot, and there was no cloud cover, so the bright sun beating down on us  seemed to add to the taxing effort.  But before we knew it, we were through 11 miles in just a hair under 76 minutes.  We were on pace for a 3:01, which was a pretty solid goal, given the temperature.  Both John and I would have preferred a sub-3, but the conditions and course made chances of a negative split slim to none.
Just after that mile 11 mark, I faced the truth that I was going to have to stop and relieve my bladder.  Maybe I would catch up with John, maybe I wouldn't.  After my 15-20 second break, I got back on the road.  John was still in view, but far ahead.  I could barely make out his red shorts and blue D9 Brewing singlet.  I was feeling physically relieved, and I had a little pep in my step, maybe too much pep.  Maybe I would catch up with him...

Wellesley = wake-up call
Not long after the 12th mile marker, I could hear the ruckus that was the infamous ladies of Wellesley College.  Coach Greg had told us that we would hear this scream tunnel from a half mile away, and he wasn't kidding.  I was surprised at how long it took to get to Wellesley after first hearing them.  The ladies did not disappoint; they shouted loudly and crazily, calling runners out specifically.  Many cheered me on saying things like "Go Reckless, we love you!" after seeing my Reckless Running singlet.  I have to admit, I did pick up the pace a bit.
Throughout the town of Wellesley, I could still pick John out in the crowd.  He was still a ways ahead, but I was closing.  When I got to within 5 seconds of him, I went ahead and motored on up to close the gap.  Not my wisest move.  At marathon pace, closing a 5 second gap should take a lot longer than it did.  Come to think of it, I probably should have left John alone until Newton or Brookline--or not caught up at all.  But the camaraderie of racing/suffering together was too much of a draw for me.  John was a bit surprised to see me, but he did a good job of not telling me how much of an idiot I just was.  I didn't need the telling anyway; I had developed a nice little side stitch for my efforts.  I was going to have a long back 12 miles...

Newton --> lean into the hills
As John and I descended the last big drop before the infamous Newton Hills, I tried to repeat the "glide, glide" mantra in my head that kept me in line for the first half of the race.  Already, I could tell the the smoothness was gone and I was making my way toward a survival situation.  When we hit Newton Hill #1, I leaned in as Coach Greg told me, and John and I fared pretty well compared to the field around us.  Some folks were walking, and others were backing off profoundly.  John was looking too good in fact.  Well, too good for me.  This is where my antics in Wellesley were coming back to bite me.   We ran the whole first hill together, but I knew I had used too much effort for this point in the race.  John started pulling away, and I bade him to go on.  Here, I resolved to ignore my time goals and just try to "enjoy" the last 9 miles of the marathon and take in the experience that is Boston.  I wish I could say that I just took it easy and everything felt great, but after 17 hard miles in warm weather with some beat up legs, enjoyment was a very relative term.
The hills in Newton were legit.  From the pre-race briefing and countless conversations with Boston veterans, I knew just how many there were and where to expect them, but that didn't make them any more forgiving.  Still, I leaned into them, and even though I walked through an aid station or two, I ran up every hill.  Even Heartbreak.  I was not going to walk a single step on Heartbreak Hill.  The loud Newton crowds reached a new decibel level at the base of Heartbreak, which was 21 miles into the course.  I settled in and just started turning the legs over.  As I passed people, I beckoned some of them to come on, and some lifted up their heads and joined me for a while.  As long as Heartbreak was, I actually enjoyed grinding it out.  When I saw the sign at the summit that marked the top of Heartbreak, I jumped up with what I imagined to be NBA-caliber vertical to slap the top of the sign.

 FLY into Boston
               --no pity parties
On a good day, with a well-executed race plan, I would have some gas in the tank by the time I crested Heartbreak Hill for the descent towards Brookline.  Obviously, this was not that day.  I actually dreaded the the downhill that followed Heartbreak because my legs were trashed.  There were 5+ miles left, and I wasn't going to get through them without walking through at least a couple of aid stations.  There was no way I was going to fly into Boston like Coach Greg said, but I sure as hell was not going to have my own pity party.  I forced myself to run and made myself earn my walk breaks.  If I walked every time I wanted to, then I may not have done all that much running.

             --use crowd, use Citgo sign
               --look up, ahead
               --BE THE PASSER
After walking through an aid station, I made sure to get all my fluid down, then I waved my arms at the crowd, and they would make damn sure I was running again.  On that, you can count on the people of Boston.  Racers ahead of me and behind me were walking in droves now, but more of them were running, and I was going to be a runner, not one of the walking dead.

               --right on Hereford (hill)
               --left on Boylston
               --LONG finish straight
After passing the Citgo sign, which marks about 1 mile from the finish, it was all about surviving and maintaining.  I was counting down minutes.  Still, even a mile can seem like an eternity in the right (or wrong) context.  When the course passed under the Massachusetts Avenue overpass and away from the screaming spectators on each side, there was an eerie silence except for the footfalls and labored breaths of the other runners.  I admit that I gave in a little bit here and allowed myself one last walk break.  Sure, it would make my last mile last even longer, but I wanted to finish with a smile on my face.  Once I came out of the underpass, I used the crowd once more to bounce me back into a full running gait.  I turned right on Hereford and didn't even notice the bit of incline leading to Boylston.  When I got to the final left turn onto Boylston, I remembered what I always tell my 3rd and 4th grade run club runners whenever they run a 5k: "explode through that last turn!"  And I did.  The crowd was deafening, and the giant scaffold arch loomed far ahead of me.  Coach Greg's words rang true again; this last straight was LONG!  I soaked in every bit of it, screaming and beckoning the crowd as I went.
The moment I crossed the finish line, 3 hours, 16 minutes, and 3 seconds after starting, I went from an elated fireball of emotion to a withered husk.  Instantly, I felt the pain of the whole race, and I had nothing left to hold myself up.  I threw my arms on the scaffold and puffed out breaths that were a strange mix of laughing, sobbing, and dry-heaving.  One of the pink-jacketed medical volunteers appeared next to me and offered me a wheelchair.  "Do I need that?" I asked myself, "do I look that bad?"  I declined, but stayed doubled over on the structure for another moment.  When I finally rallied myself for the long, long, walk down the finishing chute, I thought about how nice that wheelchair would have been.
I thanked every volunteer I saw.  Literally, every one.  It took me nearly 15 minutes to hobble the couple of city blocks out of the chute with gear in hand, but it seemed like hours.  I had no idea where John or anyone else was, and I couldn't muster the dexterity or mental capacity to call or text anyone.  I kept walking until I found a traffic light post to prop myself against at Stuart and Arlington.  There I lay for the better part of an hour until I could gather my bearings and meet John, Tommy, and everyone else at the Commons to begin our celebration.
Me after getting some color back in me.  That finish totally killed me.

The heat and headwind affected everyone.  Many of the Boston veterans, John included, ran much better times in 2015 with relentless rain, and daunting headwinds, but much cooler temperatures.  In fact, in 2015, over 12,000 runners re-qualified for Boston.  In this warm 2016 race, that number was about 1/3 as large.  I was over 16 minutes slower than I would have hoped, but that margin was consistent with many (I daresay most) of the racers that day.  Tommy, who also had hopes for a sub-3, finished with a high 3:16 as well.  John finished strong with a 3:04, including a nice negative split on the last 2 miles.  He was the exception to the rule.  Even the winners were a good 3-4 minutes slower than an average winning Boston time, and that's quite a large margin at the world class level.
As I've said to my family and friends, this was one of the toughest days I've ever had as a runner, but the experience of running Boston is still unmatched.  The stories we marathoners hear and tell about the crowds, the history, and singular personality of this race are all true.  It's too early to say whether I'll run Boston again, but one thing is for certain: it's not just another marathon!
Nearly 27,000 finishers received coveted BAA medals on Monday, but none of them had this waiting for them when they got back to their 3rd grade classroom!  My students are the best!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Tobacco Road Half Marathon Race Recap

With Boston being my primary focus for this season, I knew well in advance that I was going to run a March half marathon as a tune-up.  My choices were Corporate Cup in Charlotte, Tobacco Road in Cary, and Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington.  Tobacco Road happened to fall conveniently at the end of a cut-back week in my training plan, and a bunch of my Davidson area running buddies were going for either the 13.1 or 26.2, so that was that.  After battling an achilles injury this winter, my goals for this race fluctuated over the past few weeks.  My A goal was to break 1:25, which would be possible on an "all-goes-well" day without a nagging injury in the equation.  My B goal was to beat my standing PR of 1:26:16.  Not the softest PR, but still in reach even if not everything went according to plan.  If neither A nor B were in the cards, I was just going to take advantage of the opportunity to book a 13.1 mile workout at anything faster than PR marathon pace.
Since so many DARTers and local friends were going to Tobacco Road, I took advantage of a chance to carpool with Dave (also doing the half) and Chad (doing the full).  11 of us got together for a nice pasta dinner the night before the race, and then Chad, Dave and I nodded off for some fitful rest after watching the USATF Indoor World Qualifiers...you know, to get in that racing mindset.  Even though Daylight Savings Time started that night/early morning, I was still awake an hour before my alarm and staring at the ceiling until it was time to get ready.
Race conditions were not ideal.  The predicted rain in earlier forecasts was going to hold off until well after the race, but the temperature at the start was still in the low 60s with some noticeable humidity.  This would come into play during the half, and it most certainly would throw a wrench into some of the full marathoners' best laid plans.  After a short warm-up run, I politely shouldered my way to the front of the chute.  There were over 3000 runners at this event, and I didn't want to get log-jammed.   Right under the arch was a taped off section where a couple dozen elite runners lined up.  I recognized Charlotte area runner Chase Eckerd among them, who also was racing the half.  At any Charlotte race, Chase would be a threat to win, or certainly place in the top three, but since Tobacco Road is advertised as a fast course and holds the USATF state championships for marathon and half marathon, Chase was going to have a lot of stout competition.  I lined up right behind the elites, alongside Carrie, a local friend of Dave's who was kind enough to let us park at her house.  Carrie was racing the full and looking for a top 5 finish.
At exactly 8:00am, we were off.  I settled into a brisk pace and let the elite field go, as well as a few folks who started near me.  By the time we climbed the first gentle hill out of the USA Baseball Training Complex about a half mile in, I was in about 30th place, right where I expected to be, and among what appeared to be my "pace peers."  The Tobacco Road course is one out-and-back, with the first and last 2.5 miles on rolling, four-lane roads, and the middle 8+ miles on the American Tobacco Trail (ATT), a straight, very finely crushed gravel/cinder path.  Compared to our regular training routes in the Davidson area, the rolling roads along the first two miles were fairly tame, but I still noticed the inclines while trying to maintain a PR half marathon pace.  The first two miles were in the 6:30+ range, which was too slow for a 1:25.  I was already starting to feel the heat, so the necessary negative split to reach my A goal was looking less and less likely.  I was feeling way too out-of-breath for an 85+ minute effort.
About mile 2.5, just before hitting the ATT.  I'm in the white singlet.  I was with a decent pace group, but the elite female runner in the left side of the frame dropped out of the race a few minutes after this.  Photo courtesy of Megan May

When we broke left onto the ATT, I was pleased at how nice the surface felt under foot.  I was a nice, semi-soft reprieve from the hard asphalt, but it was still a fast surface.   A couple minutes into the ATT, I had to stop off to the side and give up 15 or so seconds to relieve myself from over-hydration, but I could still see my pace peers when I set back to running.  I caught up with them without too much wasted effort.  The next 2.5-3 miles were the only stretch during the race where I felt like I had a rhythm.  Much of this had to do with the very gradual downhill that carried me toward the turnaround.  I knew it would turn into a long, gradual uphill once I doubled back, but I had to enjoy the rhythm while I had it.  I fell in with a couple of other runners here and there and we used each other for pacing, but as runners drifted back, I found myself in a no-man's land for much of the race.  After 6 miles, I saw the leaders coming back on the inward leg of the race.  Chase was 9th or 10th and visibly taxed.  A labored smile was about all he could offer me.
A few minutes later, I made it to the turnaround with a net split of 42:38.  If I were to maintain that pace, I would be in the low 1:25s, but the return leg of the course did not favor even splits, much less negative splits.  As soon as I made the 180 degree turn northbound, it was hard for me to turn the legs over for 6:25 pace.  6:35s were more realistic.  My B goal became the priority and I starting digging back towards the rest of the field.  Miles 8-10.5 were one long grind as the course trended gradually uphill back to the road.  I saw many friends along the way, including a PR-paced Allison, a smiling Dave, and a laid-back Allyson and Barrie.  Some other runners shouted my name, but I was so focused on trying to maintain a hard pace and not lose my B-goal that I didn't register everyone who called out.
Me in suffer mode at the 10.5 mile mark, just about to return to the pavement.  There were worse photos of me during this part of the race...  Photo courtesy of Megan May.

Despite the lovely surface of the ATT, I was ready to be back on the road and hoping the change in surface would let me grab back some of the seconds I was losing while I was trying to hang on during those late middle miles.  When I finally hit the asphalt, I had to re-calibrate to the hard surface, but I was able to push my pace a smidgen.  It's not that my legs were sore; my breathing just couldn't keep up.  So, as I ran along the shoulder of the road and into the sun, I closed my eyes and started counting breaths to match a pattern to my strides.  No other runners were within reach, so I had no rabbits to chase.  I just had to watch the clock keep counting up while the last few mile markers went by.  I was behind pace for my B goal after coming off the ATT, and I was just barely on pace once I got to mile marker 12.  I just had one more climb and then a downhill finish into the baseball complex.
On that last climb, I ignored the watch.  I knew I was hemorrhaging seconds and my lungs were toast, so I resisted the urge to check the time until I got to the last turn.  Once I got to that point, which was almost exactly a half mile from the start line, I did the math and figured I could PR if I ran that last 800 in 3:15 (6:30 pace).  The downhill helped, and I could feel my turnover coming back.  When I got to the mile 26 mark for the full marathon, I knew I was within 360 meters--less than a lap around a track--so I gunned it.  A quick glance at my watch confirmed I had a PR in the bag and a chance at sub-1:26, so I gritted my teeth for the last few moments.  I came in at 1:25:53 on the gun clock, with a net chip time of 1:25:50, a 26 second PR.  To boot, I had won 2nd place in my age group, which I did not expect for a race this size with such stiff competition.  I had to fight hard for it though.  That half marathon felt very much like a 13.1 mile 5k!
PR!  Woohoo!  But it hurt!
Dave came through the finish line a little while later and I met up with him after we both had cooled down.  He also had to fall back on his B goal and was very content to barely make it.  Unfortunately, we were pretty much the only folks who came out of that day with an accomplished goal in the books.  Carrie did not fair badly.  She won 6th place overall female with a 3:11, which was just a minute slower than she though she would run in these conditions.  Most of our Davidson friends had to pull the plug on their BQ attempts and just coast it in for the finish.  Training buddies Brian, Derek, Matt, Rachel, and Richard all had respectable times (including PRs for Richard and Rachel), but they were several minutes past their individual goals.  Chad abandoned his goal early and elected to run with Richard, which probably benefited both of them.  The legendary Bobby Aswell finished in 3:24, which is great considering he had just ran Myrtle Beach Marathon the week before.  As Bobby would say, "That's the marathon!"  Sometimes, you do everything right, but some factors just conspire against you.  Tobacco Road was a warm, tough slog, so everyone who ran it--even those who had to drop--got their money's worth that day.
Here is my Strava data for the race.
From left: me, Derek, Chad, Dave, and Matt enjoying some well deserved beers.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Shoe Review: Skechers GoRun Ultra Road

The GoRun Ultra Road out of the box.
 Usually, I like to do shoe reviews after I've put about 50 miles on the shoes.  That's enough time to get to know the shoe for better or worse, but it's still well within the"sweet spot" of the shoe's lifespan.  I never got around to reviewing the Skechers GoRun Ultra Road at the 50-mile mark because I was too busy in the middle of my training for a PR marathon.  Now, months later, I've put nearly 300 miles on the GoRun Ultra Road (GRUR), but this review will be surprisingly similar to it would have been at the 50-mile mark.  That at least should tell you something about the shoe's longevity.
For Q4 2015 and Q1 2016, Skechers Performance has expanded and diverged the maximalist GoRun Ultra line to include the road specific GRUR reviewed here and the GoTrail Ultra 3 (notice the name change).  This allows for the GRUR to stack up more directly against other maximalist road running shoes from Hoka OneOne or Altra.  However, the GRUR should be seen as an animal all its own, and not just a spec-for-spec contender against any one particular model.
Fit and Comfort
The GoRun Ultra R features a Fitknit upper with synthetic overlays.  The Fitknit on the GRUR is very comfortable and allows for some popping color, but it's a more coarse knit than Nike Flyknit; more like adidas Primeknit, but with a more structured feel.  So, for a knit upper, I would say the GRUR has a fairly high volume fit, which is useful for a high-mileage trainer.  The coarseness of the knit also allows for plenty of breathability between the threads.
The sockliner is perforated, which is impossible to notice while wearing the shoe, but this helps with the GRUR's unique method of moisture management.  The midsole is also perforated, but rather than there being gaps on the bottom of the shoe that let water in from underfoot, the drainage holes are on the side of the ample stack height, letting water roll out like a fancy mini-golf trap-door obstacle.  My feet have not gotten wet in the GRUR from simply running on wet roads.
This perforated sockliner lets moisture out of the shoe.

The drainage ports in the midsole of the GRUR.  You can get a good view of the texture of the knit upper in this photo too.
Midsole, Outsole, and Ride
What defines the Skechers GoRun Ultra line is the high, maximal stack height (26mm toe, 30mm heel) combined with the proprietary M-Strike midsole profile.  Many other maximalist shoes make use of similarly practical rocker shapes, such as the Altra Olympus and Paradigm, and all of the oversized or ultra-sized Hoka models, but the Resolyte in the GRUR gives it a different feel underfoot.  It would be apples and oranges to compare the GRUR to the Hoka Bondi or Clifton because the Hoka CMEVA and the Skechers Resolyte are such different "flavors."  The Skechers GRUR is heavier than the Clifton, and about the same weight as the Bondi (10.3oz), but the responsive midsole is more reminiscent of Hoka's RMAT, which is used in the Conquest, Vanquish, and recently discontinued Huaka.  This responsive foam tends to "give back" a little, which is nice when you want to pick up the pace, even though you're probably not going to reach for the GRUR for your next fast 5k.
Another benefit of the--well, not firm, but less marshmallowy--foam is that the shoes have a much longer lifespan than any the CMEVA Hoka or earlier GRU models.  I don't run in the Paradigm, but I expect the GRUR to outlast those.  They are more responsive than my Altra Olympus (also near 300 miles), and I only attribute the Olympus' longevity to strategically placed outsole rubber.  By comparison, my Bondi 4s are very diminished in quality of ride, and my Cliftons were totally dead before 250 miles.  I'm a  straight-on, midfoot striker with high cadence (190+) who weights under 140 pounds, so it's not like I'm putting a lot of stress on these other shoes.  The GoRun Ultra Road just holds up better, even without much outsole to speak of.  Like other Skechers Performance trainers, the Resolyte acts as a midsol/outsole, and is a bit more built-up in the midfoot (M-Strike technology), but the only real "outsole" spots are the dot-shaped pods that allow for strategic ground feel and durability.  So even though the GRUR is a large shoe by most people's standards, it's not clunky.  If feel like I can run in my natural form in the GRUR, which I can't say for all maximalist shoes.
The underside of the GRUR practically new out of the box...
...and the same underside a few months later with 300 miles on them.  Other than some expected wear on the lateral edge (due to my midfoot striking), the show has held up very well.

The Skechers GoRun Ultra Road is a great choice for a high-mileage, maximalist trainer if you want something different--and more affordable--than your average Hoka.  It provides a small touch of springy response amid the soft, long-run catering shock absorption that has made the maximalist trend so popular.  The cushion compound is great for the many road-pounding miles logged while putting in base for your next marathon, or even racing road ultras in the 50-100 mile range (hence the name).  At $115, take a look at this shoe for your soft run alternatives.  Good show, Skechers Performance!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Shoe Review; Saucony Breakthru 2, 50 miles in.

I've been spending a lot of time in performance trainers lately.  I absolutely love to race and do speed workouts in racing flats, and I occasionally reach for more minamalist or lower-drop shoes, so your average performance trainer is more like a cushioned daily trainer in my rotation.  I have close to 300 miles into my Brooks Launch 2 (not sure if I'll get the Launch 3,which is very similar in my opinion), so I picked up a pair of Saucony Breakthru 2.  The Breakthru is a shoe that's geared directly toward the Brooks Launch/Mizuno Wave Sayonara crowd.  It's a daily-to-uptempo trainer that could be called upon for some longer race work.  Here are my thoughts after 50 miles.

Although there's nothing special or fancy about the Breakthru 2's aesthetics, it's a pretty handsome shoe in my opinion.

The shoe looks nice.  Not outstanding or garish, and not plain or drab.  Saucony dropped the sublimated printing from the original Breakthru for a slightly more understated, yet classier look.  I love the ViziOrange colorway too!  My Breakthru 2s look like a tough, older brother to my orange Type A6s.  
A complaint I hear from several trusted sources in the running shoe community was that the original Breakthru was snug with an ill-fitting toe-box.  Saucony's description implied that the Breakthru 2 is slightly roomier.  I ordered my true-to-size men's 9.5 and felt that the fit was right.  The Breakthru 2 is a slightly snug shoe, but I'd call it secure-snug, not tight-snug.  My toes never felt uncomfortable.  There is a hard heel counter, but it's not something I notice while running.  There's nothing special about the sock liner.  It's not the soft, creamy heel-cup you might find in the Brooks Launch 2/3 or in any of the Saucony ISO series, but it doesn't need to be.  It gets the job done.  The overall fit is locked-down and secure for business.
The Breakthru 2 has pretty decent outsole coverage with enough rubber (XT900 and IBR+) to keep it sturdy.

Midsole and Outsole Design
The Breakthru 2's midsole uses SSL (Saucony Super Light) EVA with a full length PowerGrid drop-in.  The Breakthru line has not yet integrated Everun into the midsole like many of the other core trainers, but this may be an update for future models.  The flex-grooved outsole consists of hard XT-900 rubber on high-wear areas (on the heel and under the big toe) and lighter IBR+ over the rest of the covered areas.  The combination of these rubber compounds make up about 70% of the underside of the shoe, with the rest being exposed EVA to save weight and provide some flexibility.  
A comment that circulated about the original Breakthru was that the midsole was firm and stiff.  Compared to most trainers, I would use those words to describe the Breakthru 2 as well.  Remember, this is a trainer, but it's geared toward faster running.  It makes sense that it bites back a little.  Whether or not this is a positive or a negative depends on your preferences.  The 50 miles I've put on the shoe so far has consisted of a couple of easy daily runs, a fast-finish long run, a super-easy recovery run with my 3rd-grade students, an OrangeTheory Fitness class that included a treadmill run, and a tough, hilly, tempo interval workout.  Aside from the OTF class, all of these runs were on the roads.  At easy paces, the Breakthru 2 felt a little more stiff than smooth, but as I picked up the pace, the shoe began to shine.  As I approached marathon pace, stiffness became smoothness with a crisp response.  When doing a fast 5 miles at near 10k pace at the end of a 17-mile fast-finish long run, I didn't feel that I was fighting the shoe at all.  Same goes for my hilly tempo interval workout later in the week.  This shoe may not be the shoe I would reach for when I'm starting an easy run on pre-fatigued legs, but if I'm doing some pace work that includes some substantial mileage--more than I'd like to do in a pair of racing flats--the Breakthru 2 might get the nod.  I would consider it a very viable marathon racer for most runners, although like most shoe geeks with too many shoes, they may not be my first choice to race 26.2.
If I like the Brooks Launch 2 or 3, would I like the Breakthru 2?  Probably.  The Launch is a a little more shoe, and I think it's a little cushier.  The Breakthru is nearly an ounce lighter (at my size), and possibly a tad more efficient at faster paces.  These shoes definitely compete for the same audience, and they are both a very reasonable $100 MSRP. 
If I like the Mizuno Wave Sayonara, would I like the Breakthru 2?  I think so.  I've run in the Sayonara 1 & 2, and I've worn the 3 for short periods of time.  I think the Breakthru has a better overall fit and ride.  It's feels somewhere between the Sayonara and The Wave Rider 18/19 in comfort and response.  For the price and satisfaction, I prefer the Breakthru 2.
If I like the New Balance Vazee Pace, would I like the Breakthru 2?  Maybe, but likely not as much. As far as performance trainers go, I think the Vazee Pace has the Breakthru beat in nearly every category.  The Breakthru is stiffer, a little heavier, and not quite as roomy in the toe-box.  However, it is $10 cheaper.  I've not yet run a full marathon in either the Vazee or the Breakthru, but the extra distance may make a difference in this comparison as far as how the differing amounts of cushion under the feet come into play in the late stages of a long race.
Overall Take:
I like the Breakthru 2.  Like, but not love.  I appears to be a quality update from the original, and it is a truly great value at $100.    I think I'll use it just as much as my Launches, and I won't be disappointed, but it comes just short of having that X-factor that makes me want to show up and run a race in them or enjoy a nice, 22-mile long run in them.  Not bad, Saucony, not bad.