Monday, March 6, 2017

Umstead Trail Marathon: The Race That Fights Back

Year of the Woodpecker!
This year was my third time running Umstead Trail Marathon, and the race continues to confound me.  I'll say right now that I'm happy with my result, but it wasn't a pretty process getting there.
For those not familiar with Umstead Trail Marathon (UTM), it's a different atmosphere that attracts something of a cult following each year.  There are no medals or age group awards.  There are only wooden plaques for the top 15 finishers in each gender.  These plaques are in the shape of that particular year's mascot, or "critter." The 15th place plaque is exactly the same as the 1st place plaque, so you're either in the awards, or you're not.  The species of the critter is a closely guarded secret until packet pickup, and all of the past critters have been animals native to Umstead State Park.  This year was the year of the Woodpecker.  My first UTM (year of the Bat) was my second marathon, and I finish just outside the awards with a 3:48.  A couple years later, during the year of the Horned Caterpillar, I ran a 3:36 for a training run-turned-race to finish 13th and took home a plaque.
Having a couple of UTMs under my belt, I considered myself familiar with course and its challenges, and I also believed I was a serious contender, maybe for top 5, but certainly for top 15.  Sam, my training buddy and sometime nemesis, rode up with me.  We both expected he would finish after me, but still within the awards.  Nevertheless, I had to be on my toes; he was my nemesis after all.  My other loose goal was to try and beat my Grandfather Mountain Marathon time of 3:19:15.  Comparing those two races would be like comparing apples to oranges, but both would be significantly harder than an average road marathon, just for different reasons.
The course is built for pain.  Even though the race is a "trail" marathon, there are really only about 6 miles of technical single-track trail on the course, all within the first 8 miles.  The rest of the course consists of wide, groomed bridal trails about the width of a dirt road, but strewn with hills of all shapes, sizes, and grades.  The only flat and smooth part of the course is an out-and-back in the first couple miles before entering the uneven footing of the single-track.  The first couple miles lull you in, then the single-track softens you up, and the long, relentlessly grinding hills finish you off.
The elevation profile for Umstead Trail Marathon.  A little hilly.

The race started at 9:00 sharp, and I settled into a groove right away in about 8th or 9th position.  The first half dozen or so runners formed a lead pack right away and started creating some space within the first mile.  I was not about to chase them.  If any faded back, so be it, but I was falling into a small pace group with a couple other runners anyway.  When we dipped into the single-track, things started to get fun.  The trails were not super-technical, but there were enough roots and rocks to keep you engaged and using up brain energy the whole time.  There were endless opportunities for twisted ankles, stubbed toes, or wipe-outs.  I avoided those this time, but I did have to do some hopping around.  On the switchbacks, I could see that Sam was not far behind me.  This wasn't surprising, given the surface.  While I consider myself a decently fast trail-runner, Sam is far more efficient on the uneven terrain.  Unlike most runners, he doesn't really lose pace when transitioning from smooth to uneven ground.  Where I tend to scamper, he glides.
By the end of the final section of single-track, I had tracked down and passed a couple more runners, but a taller runner with a bushy mustache had passed me and opened up some space.  While I was glad I wouldn't have to worry about my footing anymore, I knew that the rest of the course would be one long, grueling climb after another.  Most of the remainder of the race was one long out-and-back, so every uphill and downhill would be one we would go back down or up on the way back.  The longest of these was "The Easy Way Out" hill, which was over a mile long and led up to the 10th mile marker.  Some roving aid cyclists were about, and one said to me "You're about a third of the way up," after I had been climbing for a few tough minutes already.  "Thanks," I said with just a hint of sarcasm.
Miles and hills went by, and while the nice weather brought many runners, hikers, and cyclists to the park, I was largely alone for my part in the race.  I did a mental self-inventory after the tropical paradise-themed aid station at the halfway point.  I was feeling a bit beat up for this point in the race.  Not the best sign.  It could have been worse though.  As I was struggling at what felt like a shuffle up one of the hills, Mr. Mustache faded back to me and looked much more broken.
As I neared the turnaround at mile 15, I noted that the lead pack had broken up a bit, but I was in sixth place with a large, hard-to-close gap between me and the 5th place runner.  I also noticed that while my gap on Mr. Mustache was growing, Sam was only 2-2.5 minutes behind me, which was not that far with 11+ miles to go and what felt like an early bonk coming on...
As I rolled through the same series of hills I had just traversed--only this time in reverse--I adopted the same mindset as I did at Grandfather Mountain: don't hammer the hills, just get up them.  It was nice to see the rest of the field on their outbound leg, including several runners I had come to know from this race and other regional running events.  I peeked over my shoulder every now and again for pursuers, and I saw no one.  Mr. Mustache had fallen off the edge of the Earth, and I couldn't see Sam, but I knew he was lurking...
Circa mile 16.  I was feeling a bit worse than I look in this pic.

From mile marker 18 to 19.5 was one long, slow climb, not unlike the one leading up to mile 10.  In fact, this climb came to that same aid station, just on the inbound leg.  With GPS being inaccurate in the park, I had been eyeballing my splits and doing the math in my head at each mile marker.  I had been running in the mid-7:30 for most of the race, which was pretty good on this course.  Mile 19 was 8+ minutes, but I told myself, "It's okay.  You have over a mile of downhill now for a nice, fast, 7-minute mile."  That 20th mile was not nice, fast, or 7-minutes.  My turnover was gone, and I knew my last 10k would be all about damage control.  Worse yet, some of the most challenging climbs of the course were still yet to come.  And I kept looking over my shoulder...
I slogged up the "Corkscrew Hill" climb in the 22nd mile, and knew my next aid station would lead to the dreaded Cedar Ridge out-and-back, but I was still going steadily uphill just to even get there.  When I made it to the Cedar Ridge aid station, I left my water bottle there knowing I would pick it up again in about 2.5 miles.  No sense in carrying it for the worst climb of the race.
Me approaching Cedar Ridge aid station.  Don't I look excited?

Even on my third time running this race, it surprised me how long that stupid out-and-back was.  It was especially awful because it was just a means to an end: to get the distance right and add a horrible hill.  Shortly after going down the aptly named "Wheels-Fell-Off Hill," I ran a short way to the turnaround and came back to see Sam finishing his descent just as I was starting my ascent.  Sam was way too close for comfort, and when he would reach the turnaround in after another minute, he would know exactly how close he was.  Not good.  An alarm rang in my head that shouted "Not again!"
The rest of Cedar Ridge was interminable.  I picked up my water bottle at the last aid station and made my way toward "Cemetery Hill" at mile 25.  This S.O.B. of a hill is not only a long grinder, but you can see the entire hill staring back down at you from the bottom.  I low-geared it and chugged towards the top.  At one point, I looked over my shoulder and saw no one chasing, so I allowed myself a 10-second walk break.  However, 5 seconds in, I peeked over my shoulder again to see Sam's bright orange shirt coming around the corner to the bottom of the hill!  F***!  I had to start running again and not let up the rest of the way!
I wouldn't see Sam again for the rest of that last mile, but it seemed like I was looking behind me more than I was looking ahead.  I knew on Cemetery Hill that I would not achieve my goal of beating my GMM time, and there was no way I was catching 5th place, so I just maintained my shuffle to finish solidly in 6th place with a 3:22 flat.  Sam came in 91 seconds later for a secure 7th place finish, but he looked a lot better than I did.  I was absolutely destroyed.

Glad to be done...and to have held off Sam!

I'm sure I'll come back to Umstead Trail Marathon again, but maybe in a couple years, after I've once again forgotten how hard the course is!

7th and 6th place overall!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Charlotte 10-Miler: Great Race, Great Distance

I love to run marathons.  There is a sense of high reward for putting so much time and focus into what is a very challenging feat.  I also love 5k's, even though it's cool for my friends and me to say "Man, I hate 5k's!"  There is a satisfaction about running at a near red-line pace for 3.1 miles.  It's a different kind of hurt.  Half marathons reside comfortably between those two extremes, but there are so many half marathons now that the 13.1 mile distance can get a little familiar.  There is a magic little window that is occupied by the 15k and 10-mile distances that really entices me.  For me, these two distances straddle the one-hour race duration.  In that one-hour +/- race, I am surfing on the intangible edge of the lactate threshold, which means I have to play it just right.  In a half-marathon and above, I want to stay slower than that fast tempo for fear of getting too lactic and bonking.  In a 10k or a 5k, I have to push past that pace and just keep burning.  For a 10-miler, I experience a thrill (and pain) near to that of a 10k, but I have to strategize from start to finish as much as I would a half marathon.  The Charlotte 10-miler is a fantastic race that I have run a couple of times, and its course favors both speed and strategy.
The morning of the race was perfect racing weather: 41 degrees, clear and calm.  Many of the fast runners from the greater Charlotte area showed up for this event, so I lined up near the front and shouldered next to Meg Hovis, with whom I ran most of this race two years ago.  The start of the race was flat to downhill, and an easy, conservative effort still had me going out way too fast.  My watch was showing low 6s to high 5s, and it took a lot of discipline to slow myself down, especially with droves of people out ahead of me.  "We'll see them again," assured Meg.  The steady hill at the end of the first mile brought several runners back to reality, but I continued to gain ground while running with Meg, Sarah Duffy, Jason Philbin, and a few other similarly paced runners.  I played this hill by effort--again, conservative--and hit the first mile mark at 6:24, which was only a couple seconds faster than my first mile split from the two years ago.  Off to a good start.
After turning off Johnston Road and hitting the unpaved section of the greenway, everything felt smooth and fast.  The terrain was flat or steadily descending, the surface was fast but forgiving, and the arboreal surroundings were serene but envigorating.  The next couple of miles clicked off in short order, and I started to break off ahead of the pace group in which I had settled.  The pace felt right, and I had a steady stream of runners ahead of me that I could reel in steadily, one or two at a time.
After a rolling, residencial loop that lollipopped back to the main part of the course, I returned to the greenway and ran over the chip-timed 5-mile split at 31:13.  I was on pace to beat my PR of 1:03:05, but I knew the second half of the course had a big hill leading up to the final mile, so I had to have just the right amount of time in the bank and fuel in the tank before I got there.  The next three miles were all about maintaining that goal pace and checking my effort.  I had to keep hammering, but I had to respect the distance too.  I passed 6.2 miles (according to my watch, with some tree-cover error) at right around 39 minutes, which would be a good stand-alone 10k time for me any day.  After the 7th mile marker, I was having to put out a noticeably bigger effort to maintain the same pace.
I exited the greeway near the mile 8 mark and made a hard, 180-degree turn to angle towards the course's next neighborhood, and the infamous mile 9 hill.  After laying down a respectible pace through the neighborhood, I climbed the "Big Hill' with the same strategy as I would with a couple of the more familiar burners on the local Davidson courses.  I low-geared it, refused to look at the pace on my watch, and reminded myself that the final mile would be a screaming fast downhill, and that I should save my energy for that.  Even pulling back on the reins, the hill sucked.  There was no way around that.
Once I hit the mile 9 mark at the top, I unloaded.  Doing the quick math in my head, I knew that a 6:40 mile would get me to the finish with a PR, but I had every intention of running faster than 6:40.  There was no one within reach ahead of me or behind me, so I just focused on the clock.  When I made the last two turns in the final quarter mile, I knew I had a PR in the bag, but my A goal was 1:02:30 (derived from a planned 6:15 pace).  I crossed the finish line in 1:02:18.  I'm extremely happy with that time, because it's just a representation of everything going right for that race.  Winning my age group was an added bonus.
Picture of my finish, courtesy of Bobby Aswell.

Here is my Strava data for the race.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Salem Lake 50k Relay, by Main Street Milers

After an unprecidented but not unwelcome,  weather-induced reschedule, this year's Salem Lake Frosty 50k/25k/50k Relay was more like a Foggy 50k Relay.  A few early moring running buddies and I decided to enter the Relay lists as a coed open team with the singular purpose of winning that category.  In order of relay segment, we--The Main Street Milers--were Dustin, Ashley, Derek, and me (Chas).  This recap is co-written by my fellow MSM teammates in the order of events as they unfolded.
Main Street Milers
From left: Dustin, Chas, Derek, and Ashley

A brief course description:
Salem Lake Park has a beautiful, seven-mile, hard-packed dirt path the circumnavigates the lake and connects to Salem Creek Greenway (asphalt) on the Northwest corner.  The course started at the trailhead nearest to the park's main entrance and ran the entirety of the trail around the lake, adding a short out-and-back on the asphalt greenway to make each lap 12.5 kilometers, or 7.75 miles.  Four laps would complete the 50k, and relay teams had one runner for each lap.  The course was largely flat, but there were two significant hills at mile 1.25 and 7.25.  Rain had swept through the area in the few days before the park, and while there was no active precipication, the ground was wet, but not overly soft in most places.
Here is how the Main Street Milers' race played out:
First leg: Dustin
First off, my primary goal was not to lose the race within a race.  Here's what I mean.  Derek, Chas, and I had made a little wager: slowest guy buys a round of beers for the others.  Given that Chas was virtually always faster than me, and Derek had recently "turned the screws" (his words) faster than I was able at the Mayberry Half Marathon, I was the clear underdog.  In other words, I needed to put up a strong performance in order to keep up with these two guys. In all honesty, I knew Ashley was going to be a formidable teammate/competitor as well, and she played no small role in motivating me to run my best race.  None of these MSM teammates was going to make things easy.
I lined up on the front.  As the RD gave us the signal, I immediately fell into a pace that felt more like a 5k than 7.75mi.  This landed me in 2nd position, led only by an unknown in a red singlet.  This order persisted for approximately a mile, during which I could hear Chad Crockford and Caleb Masland behind me having a very pleasant and unlabored conversation behind me regarding marathon PRs, which were both in the mid-2:30s.  I quickly realized that I was significantly outclassed and these two could pass me whenever they liked.  They did so shortly thereafter, leaving me in 4th position.  Next to pass were a young, curly-headed unknown, and finally at approximately mile 2, a Charlotte runner wearing a CRC singlet and laboring far more than the first few runners.  I then maintained 6th position for the remainder of my leg, keeping curly-head and Mr. CRC in sight for 6 miles.
Keeping tabs on my watch, I was slowly losing ground on pace.  My first couple of miles were 6:10 and then it slowly crept up to 6:17.  This was my overall average, and I knew it was artificially high due to GPS loss on those curvy lake fingers.  But I kept my eyes on the prize, which wa to put up a strong performance for my team.  My unspoken goal was to average 6:15 min/mi, but I was a little hesitant to tell anyone because I didn't realistically believe I was able to hit that number.
Mile 5 is when things began to get difficult, but grit is grit, so I bore down and knocked my overall pace at mile 6 back down to 6:16.  Small victories.  When I hit the final hill by the dam, I slowed significantly because it was a legit grade.  This felt like an embarrassing, molasses-like pace.  As I neared the apex, I could see all of my DART buddies cheering for me near the finish line.  So I dug deep, took advantage of the downhill, and came in strong as Ashley took the baton.  A few minute of heavy breathing and recovery and I was back to slapping fives and catching up with buds.  What a great day at the races!
Second leg: Ashley
My goal was to keep all of my miles sub-7, which seemed like a reasonable challenge.  As Dustin had set me up well towards the front of the pack but behind the lead 25k runners and the lead men's relay team, I ran alone for a couple of miles.  The second leg of the winning mixed team then cruised by me at sub-6 pace and was out of my sight within a few minutes.  Keeping up with him was out of the question, so I just tried to hang on to my place.
The run was mentally tough due to the unvarying terrain in the first 5+ miles, the fact that I was basically alone for the entire 7.7 miles (but obviously being chased) and the lack of anything resembling crowd support.  I occasionally had to remind myself I was racing as I passed walkers out for a leisurely stroll around the lake.  I took the race a mile at a time, checking my Garmin often (probably too often, since I learned later that it wasn't entirely accurate on the second half of the course) to make sure that I was staying on pace.
I was grateful to turn onto the paved road for the out-and-back at mile 7 even knowing that the infamous big hill was still ahead of me.  The best part of the race was finally arriving at the top of the hill, hearing the DARTers in the distance cheer (and Morgan and Johane ringing cowbells) and cruising to the finish where Derek was waiting.
Ashley finishing her leg and passing the "baton" to Derek.  Dustin looks on from the background, and I'm still bundled up in the exchange zone looking down the trail.

Third leg: Derek
Lesson learned: if you start a 12.5k race at sub-5k pace, you're going to have a bad time.  That is a scientific fact.  Blame it on relay inexperience, blame it on sitting around and watching a race unfold and anticipation build around you for an hour and a half, or blame it on shooting out like a cannon and forgetting to start your GPS for a minute or so and not bothering to check pace.  In the relay chute, I watched the lead team come in about 3 minutes before us and I really wanted to give a strong effort to make some time up.  Plus, there was a friendly intra-team wager to think about.
Either way, a sub-6:00 pace for the first mile and a half is too richfor me.  The course doesn't do you any favors either, since every corner you round in the first 3 miles, the trail looks exactly like the section you just ran and there ar no landmarks for frame of reference.  Add to that the fact that I was only 7 days out from running a marathon (not raced, but still 26.2 miles), and by mile 3 I was ready to be done.  Around mile 2, I had spotted and was using another runner in a bright yellow shirt as my rabbit.  It was clear that he was moving too, so I assumied him to be from one of the fast, college-age all-men teams.  So I spent the next mile or so slowly closing the gap on him.  I caught on and eventually passed him around mile 4, and we traded places back and forth a few times with a few encouraging words, but I was hurting pretty bad.  Right after mile 5, he found another gear and I just needed to let him go.  We weren't directly racing each other anyways, but then without my rabbit, it was survival mode until "The Big Hill" at mile 7.5.  My legs were toast and felt about like mile 25 of a marathon, only at 6:40 pace I was now also breathing (gasping?) at 5k levels.
This was not fun.  Had I not had teammates counting on me (we were still in the medal hunt after all), I probably would have bagged it much sooner.  But I had been asked to be on the team because they thought I could help our chances of placing well, so I gutted it out until "The Big Hill."  I tried to go strong up that sneaky bastard knowing I was almost home, but about halfway up it you round a corner and see that not only are you ONLY halfway up, but it gets steeper.  Not sure what it was, but my breathing at that point was on the verge of hyperventilation, so I walked.  Only the second time ever in a race, but yeah, I did.  10 seconds or so.  Got my breathing back under control, finished the hill, and still managed a decent sprint down the hill to the finish.  Not a proud race performance, but still turned in a sub-50 minute 12.5k, if only barely.  And, after I could see/breathe/think again, I was informed that I had closed the gap with the lead team to under 10 seconds, so that's a win.  We were in decent shape leading into our strong fourth leg runner.  All in all, it was a fun day getting to spend time with friends, interrupted by 45 minutes of hardcore suck.  But due to that aforementioned wager, I was now buying the post-race beers.
Derek striding in to pass me the slap braclet for the final leg.
Fourth leg: Chas
Less than 10 seconds after the leading open coed team from Clemson passed off to their anchor runner, Derek came flying into the exchange zone with the gimace of an all-out effort on his face.  He had made up nearly three-and-a-half minutes of the gap to the lead team!  I shot off after their anchorman (Michael) and slapped the timing bracelet on my wrist.  50 meters down the trail, I heard more than one person from the exchange zone yelling, "hey!"  I turned back to see them holding something up.  Glancing at the slap bracelet on my wrist, I realized it was the timing sensor; it had fallen off!  "F***!" I screamed as I sprinted back, grabbed the sensor, and turned back on course while I still had Michael in sight.
Now the heart rate was up, and I had the pressure of chasing the lead team, as well as trying to match Dustin's impressive sub-48 minute leadoff leg.  After a mile, it was apparent that Michael was out of my league.  He opened up such a huge gap in that time that he was uncatchable unless something extraordinary happened.  I couldn't in good concience slow down though.  When I reached the first hill at mile 1.25, I quickly realized that my effort for the distance was setting me up for a world of hurt later in the race.  The hill was not a bad hill compared to our usual Davidson running routes, but it was enough to induce the burn.
While Michael from the Clemson team was out of reach, I locked in on another college-age runner from one of the open male category teams.  He was keeping up a quick pace and served as a good rabbit.  I took my splits by eyeballing the race time at each of the trail's permanent, certified mile markers. I passed mile 3 at 18:27, nearly on pace for a sub-19 5k.  I didn't know how sustainable that pace would be, but I'd have to keep it up if I wanted to stay on par with Dustin's performance.  After I crossed over the far end of the lake at Linville Road and started running along the north lakeshore, the GPS started going wonky.  I knew I was maintaining a fast pace and the effort was getting more painful, especially since I was only about halfway done.  At any moment, I was expecting the rabbit I had picked to fade back to me, but he remained 5-10 seconds ahead of me throughout the run.
I picked out my 5 mile split at 30:34 (which would crush my official 8k and 5-mile PRs) and my 6 mile split at 36:40ish.  The pace was as fast or faster than any other race I had done at similar distances.  Shortly after I got to the asphalt out-and-back section, I saw Michael coming inboud from that segment, which meant he was more than half a mile ahead of me.  Damn, he was fast!
Being the last runner on my team, I got to hear several DARTers' recounts of the big dam hill in the last quarter mile of the course.  It was as painful as everyone promised.  Still, it was good to know I was just over a minute from the finish once I reached the top.  I opened up my stride down the backside of the dam hill and was determined to finish fast.  I wouldn't match Dustin's lap time, but I would be respectably close, and I wouldn't have to buy the round of beer.  I finished in just over 48 minutes.
Me striding in for the team finish.  All pictures courtesy of  Ashley and Brian Neff.
As a team, The Main Street Milers finished 2nd in the coed mixed category.  The club runners from Clemson clearly outclassed us, but they were extremely polite and sportsmanlike, even referring to us as "sir," and "ma'am," much to our chagrin.
Other DART teams fared even better in their respective categories.  The DARTlings, and all female team, won the ladies' overall category, and Foolish Velocity excitingly edged out the defending masters category champs with a heroic last leg by Joey Noto.
DARTer and Ironman Ashley Ackerman took 3rd place overall for the solo 50k race with a 3:57.  This was doubly impressive because this was his first attempt at 50k!  As per usual, great things happen when a bunch of DARTers get together in one place!
Most of the DART contingency at Salem Lake.  MSM in the back row on the left; back center is Foolish Velocity (Chris Flaherty, Dave Munger, Joey Noto, and not pictured is Mike McCarthy); DARTlings are up front (Katie Rose, Amber Wood, Johane Hirschfield, and Morgan Dethman), and an unknown Marathon Maniac.  Also not pictured is Ashley Ackerman, who was preparing for his first 50k.

Main Street Milers Frosty 50k Relay by the numbers
Dustin: 47:45 (6:10 average pace)
Ashley: 53:10 (6:52 average pace)
Derek: 49:49 (6:26 average pace)
Chas:48:11 (6:13 average pace)
Main Street Milers: 3:18:53 (6:24 average pace)