Archive for Marathon

Marathon Mishaps at Bear Mountain

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The North Face Endurance Challenge – Bear Mountain, NY

For the fourth straight year, I decided to physically and mentally put myself through the rocks and roots of the Bear Mountain trails at The North Face Endurance Challenge. Being just up the road from my base camp of NYC, this race is hard to pass up. The event marks my anniversary into the world of ultrarunning (50K in 2011) although this time, I was back to try a new shorter distance than usual; the classic 26.2.

Getting to just run today came about thanks to the flexibility of The North Face staff, notably Susie and Karen. My original reason for being at Bear this year was to volunteer but when the runner in me figured out I could squeeze a marathon in between two volunteer shifts, I shouted “sign me up!” and a long day ahead was put on the calendar.

May 3rd – Race Day

I arrived at the very misleading grassy fields of Bear Mountain at 3:30am with Rui. He was about to undergo his first ever 50 miler and was definitely one of the first to arrive. My schedule for the day was; 3:30-8:30am registration tent, 9am-1pm?? marathon and 1:45-7:30pm registration/t-shirt printing. Arguably, this was an ultramarathon day for both of us, just that my GPS device would be unable to back me up on this one.

I was introduced to Nick in charge of registration. With a sea of laptops out and ready, the job at hand at first seemed a little overwhelming for so early in the morning. I watched as he checked in the first 50 miler runner and took a mental note of what had to be done.

As soon as the next runner came by, it was my turn. The key to my  job was to basically not hand out a bib and plug it in the system as something different. If the shirt or socks I handed out were the wrong size, I could live with that but the bib being wrong would have killed me! Luckily, I had a cup of coffee at my side and after not messing up the first guy, I got on a roll and like clockwork, I became a veteran at registering runners in and wishing them good luck!

After the 50 milers left at 5am, the 50K runners slowly emerged and a new wave of registration begun and then once more for the marathon runners. Marathon runners! That was my race. It was time to shut up shop and get ready for my race.

pink bib

Pink bib for real trail runners!

I had eaten my breakfast albeit nothing that great (a dry half of bagel, Nature Valley granola bar and a banana) at 7am but hadn’t paid as close attention as I would have liked to with my blood tests. Working a new gig and it being so early, I wasn’t as focused as normal going into a race. By the time I was scrambling to get ready for my race, I had begun my day of what would be many mishaps; mishap #1 – lack of constant blood glucose monitoring pre-race.

My glucose ten minutes prior to the start was far higher than I wanted. I knew I wouldn’t be needing any glucose intake until at least the second aid station (mile 9) but still carried three gels in my shorts for safe keeping.

In unison with not testing my blood frequently throughout my busy morning, I had barely drunk any water. Counting two cups of coffee did not count. I probably had one bottle of water in six hours. And that was just pre-race. To think not carrying a hand-held would save me time would in fact do the opposite when I would start to get dehydrated later on; mishap #2 – lack of hydration.

With five minutes to go I was just about ready. I had decided to go with compression socks over no-show socks. My theory lay with all the mud and slush expected out on the course. With a higher sock line, the risk of debris flying into my shoe would be reduced. That’s all I had, so I went with it!

Catching up with Kirk,  pre-race

Catching up with another T1D, Kirk Noreen pre-race.

I met up with De’Vang and Ruth at the start area, friends from different NYC clubs and my T1 buddy Kirk who I’ve not seen in a couple of years. As the horn sounded, I sped across the grass field heading for the underpass; the gateway to the trails where the adventures awaited. Within the first 400 meters, my feet were soaked in ankle-deep muddy water as I ran straight through the huge puddles splashing whoever was in close proximity. This puddle was really just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone knew the course was technically tough but the water and mud were extra star guest appearances for today’s race.

A couple of guys jockeyed hard to control first spot and I left them to it sitting content in third. Remembering my coaches words “run within yourself” I tossed my competitive ego aside and let runner after runner pass me by as we climbed up for the trail for the first three miles.

Not your typical marathon elevation profile!

Not your typical marathon elevation profile!

As much as I let them runners go ahead, I consciously counted my placing as I was adamant that the majority of these runners would come back to me later in the race. De’Vang joined me by my side and another runner called John. We ran together, conversing energy on steep ups with power hiking and running the rest. We had no intention of splitting up and rolled into the first aid station (Anthony Wayne) together tied for 11th.

Mile 4; chatting with De'Vang and John in close proximity.

Mile 4; chatting with De’Vang and John coming into Anthony Wayne.

I grabbed a couple of cups of fresh H2O and swiftly kept going along the road to the next section of trail. I checked my watch to see it took less than 30 minutes to get here. This meant we were ahead of course record pace. This was not a good thing! I told the guys the news although we didn’t really do anything about it. Inevitably, the trail did it for us.

From mile 5, we climbed up and up, some on trail, some on road and were joined by one more runner, Brandon. He wasn’t your typical looking trail runner; covered in tattoos, sporting tri shorts, but then again, is there even such a thing as your ‘typical trail runner’?

Brandon was a top guy. This was his first trail race jumping across from the tri scene to get his feet wet. Well, we were all doing a good job of that today. Every mile or so, a puddle emerged that was so long or wide, the effort to try to stay dry was just not worth it. Plus ploughing straight through them is always more fun! The blister risk was going to be high today but we wouldn’t find out the results until we were done hours later. I put my faith in my CEP socks and Brooks Pure Grit and got on with the task at hand.

I ended up letting the three of them go ahead. John was the nearest to me but De’Vang and Brandon felt good enough to push on harder and actually caught the next group ahead by doing so. I took a gel from my pocket as I felt this may have been the cause of why I was letting them go ahead. At the summit, I ran over a section of large flat rocks (very common in this state park) and looked down the other side at the steep descent to come. Low and behold, everyone was there delicately scrambling down the rock face. I used my downhill skills to catch back up with a few of them and get back in the mix on the fringe of the top 10.

mile 8.5

Mile 9 at Bear ; the obstacle course on water!

As we headed around Silvermine Lake to the mile 9 aid, for no apparent reason, my left contact lens begun to act up. At some angles, my vision was OK, but for the most part, my view was just a blur. At the aid station, I made a B-line for the nearest car mirror; mishap #3 contact lens malfunction. 

Before the volunteers could tell me I was going the wrong way, they figured out what I was doing. Keila was cheering everyone on with Michelle Mason and came over to investigate. She grabbed some water and poured it into my cupped hand with the lens waiting to get cleaned up. I put it back in but my nothing had improved.

Ironically, the mirror belonging to the car was an EMT vehicle! I didn’t even notice (hard to with one eye working!). The EMT guy was scrambling for saline trying to be of assistance, probably more used to twisted ankles than failing contact lenses. He finally came to my rescue and showed me a small plastic tube of the stuff which I snatched and intuitively bit off the plastic seal to his hygienic horror. I forgot, this wasn’t really “my” saline as such. Nothing a few wet wipes wouldn’t clean up though right? I dosed the lens in saline and tried again. It was slightly better but nothing like normal.  I had been hanging around for a couple of minutes now and my pack of runners had this time most definitely fled. I decided ‘good enough’ and got back on the trail.

I chased down two runners splashing my way through more deep puddles of mud not wasting any time with the dry feet route. They had made the most of my blurry pit stop but finally I re-took my position. By mile 11 I was ultimately out there alone chasing a pack of five or six that I could not now unfortunately see, even through a stretch of flat(ish!) trail through the trees.

The highest point of the course was halfway but first I had to get there which required a fairly grueling power hike. I rejoined John again and we worked together up it. At the peak, my watch showed me 2:05, a sub-4 time goal I had set myself now seemed dubious. The fact I was behind on time was the least of my worries though. My left eye was showing me double and triple rocks! Planting my feet in the right safety spots had become a tougher challenge than normal out here.

Once at the high point, I got to run along a relatively flat section. A fallen tree made for a natural hurdle and as I took off, I immediately felt a sharp twinge in my left sartoris muscle (the muscle that wraps from the hip over the quads into the medial knee point). Mishap #4 cramping. This was not a good omen for the 13 more miles that remained. A first cramp is never a last for me. I only had one choice; to back off the pace to try to tame the pain away.

Another tree obstacle appeared down the trail and though I climbed over it with slightly less aggression, now the other leg gave out. Sartoris left and right were forcing me to deal with some serious pain management skills. Chasing the pack had now become a distant goal. Trying to see, stop cramping and getting some fluids inside me jumped up the hierarchy fairly quickly.

Not carrying S-caps or a hand-held to sip on fluid was proving to be a disaster. A rookie move. I had justified to myself that this was just a marathon and I would be fine without both and quicker on my feet if I wasn’t handling a hydration bottle. But a 4-5 hour run is the equivalent of a fast 50K for me and in that race distance, I would never think twice about carrying fluids. It’s just what you should do.

Running within myself now meant trying to avoid cramps. Even so, I still managed to pull some people back. I passed by one guy who told me “you’re now in 9th” to which I replied “no way!” Then a few hundred yards later, I passed a back of the pack 50Ker who declared “Wow, you’re in 5th”. I felt like the next person was going to say I had won an all-inclusive Caribbean cruise for four people. I had to ignore the noise around me and focus on the basics; running.

That was harder said then done. My cramping was spreading like a bad disease and now it had started, it would be hard, almost impossible to stop. Occasionally I just had to pull up and wait out the pain. Standing still while I cramped up took me back to my first 50 miler at JFK where I had the same situation. But this was happening, three years later! If you don’t cramp, let me just say you are lucky. The pain of cramping is unbearable. And then when it happens during a race knowing you have to run X miles just twists the knife in that bit more.

Marathon Course. Flat on paper!

Marathon Course. Flat on paper!

I reached a fairly unique looking aid station at 18 – Owl Lake. The set up was the back of a pick-up truck with various cups laid out! Craving some food I looked around at the offerings but only saw water and what appeared to be orange juice. I grabbed a cup and took a big swig immediately spitting it out onto the floor. Not orange juice. Then my eyes (yes, even the blurry one) spied a half-finished bottle of Coke at the front of the truck. I asked the volunteer for the Coke which he somewhat reluctantly fetched. Pouring me a cup, I downed it and reached out for more in true Oliver Twist fashion. A female runner next to me liked the look of the Coke and so she grabbed the last cup. I’m pretty sure the Coke was not meant for us but it did me the world of good! While a few tired runners from the 50K and marathon lingered at the pickup truck, I got out of there ASAP and knew I had jumped a couple of spots in the process. At a wild guess, I sat in 13th.

More climbing, more descending, the course unsurprisingly was relentless. My feet were dry and then soaked, it was described later by someone as the hardest Tough Mudder they had ever done! After a fairly standard section of trail, I felt a small stone playing around in my right shoe. I curled my foot inside my shoe to try to relocate it to a less annoying spot but it ended up going under my mid-foot which made it worse! I checked my mileage and pulled up by a branch to use as a step. I had 8 miles to go and knew the right thing to do was to just remove it. Mishap #5 foreign object in my shoe. That is the golden rule of objects in your shoes other than your feet. Take them out before they cause more problems than they are worth.

Reaching for my shoe was harder said than done however. My legs was so tight, my hamstrings immediately cramped up. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place (pun intended). I had to just keep going to take the shoe off which intensified the cramping. I eventually just yanked off the shoe. The foreign object fell out of my shoe easily enough but my laces were double knotted and tied as tight as you could imagine. I picked at the knot for minutes and watched one, two and then three runners go by. Mishap #6; laces in a knot. The unfortunate luck I was having was almost comical.

I eventually released the laces and put my shoe back on – if not for a little more cramping. I slowly caught up and passed two of the runners that had whizzed passed me as I dealt with mishaps 5 and 6. I got to Anthony Wayne aid station and didn’t spend a great deal of time there as I noticed the final runner who passed me was loitering at the food table looking pretty beat.

Anthony Wayne aid meant this was now the last aid station for me, 4 miles left. That’s what I hoped at least. I turned a sharp left rather than my usual route through the car park (the 50K/50M route) but hesitated for confirmation from someone. Keila was again close enough by to give me the nod that I was correct and said I was Top 10 or close to it.

I was literally going back the way I had come in the morning, the now barren course marked with all the distinctive ribbon colors labeled for each race distance. If I was just going back the way I had come, I knew the majority of the course was going to be downhill.

But after a mile of climbing up and following these ribbons I stopped and looked around. No one was around, there were only the sounds of birds, rummaging squirrels and me. I declared to myself that I had to be lost! My mind started to spin. I began to think that when I finally made it back to the world of civilization, I would figure out my mistake but it would be too late. I would have my first ever DNF because I went the wrong way. I already knew that turning back four miles and then running another four the correct route would have put my mileage super high for the day and that was definitely not going to be good long-term. The mind does some crazy things when tired!

Over a small ridge line, a runner wearing a red bib ran by below. Red bibs were 50 milers. This now made less sense than before when I had not seen or heard anyone! My trail merged with his and I followed him up and away from the direction I thought I was meant to be going towards the finish.

Before long, a marker cleared my head and had pink and red arrows pointing in the direction I was going. Analyzing the speed and freshness of the runner ahead, it clicked that this was a relay runner. They run 6.2 miles each. This must be right and I must be close to the end!

My body was over it. I hoped I was Top 10 more than I believed it. With so much stop and start running, keeping track of my position today had become no simple task. I descended downhill on less rocky terrain picking up much more speed than what most of the course allowed up to this point. Already going through my mistakes and bad luck, I begun to daydream about what my coach would make of my first trail race of the season. At least I didn’t…THUD!

And there I lay looking up to the sky with tall trees lining my view all around. My first fall of the day. The palms of my hands and back of my arms took the brunt of it. I brushed myself off and got up wearily. Mishap? Nah, this is part of the deal with trails. If you switch your mind off on a technical course, the inevitable is going to happen.

I kept going but through pure exhaustion just started to break down out there emotionally, thinking a lot about my late uncle. I think about him daily but rarely get to the point where I lose control. I guess the cocktail of almost five hours out on a rugged and wet Bear Mountain race course will do that to you, especially when it’s just not your day. I wanted more from this race but it wasn’t to be my day.

The descent finally took me towards a road that I knew well from training runs. Those last few miles just run were definitely new to me which explained why I thought I was lost and why I was confused to see a 50 miler runner who turned out to be a relay runner. Funny how these things all work out and no more talk of DNF’s! I am too proud of my clean record for that to become a reality anyway.

Passing by a couple of relay runners late into the race.

Passing by a couple of relay runners late into the race.

But getting on the familiar road, I thought I was home and dry. I was neither. The markings took us back into the trail via some wooden steps that acted like a champagne fountain with the liquid flowing down to the next level below. If this was champagne, trust me, it would have been very enjoyable but this was a brutal set of steps to get up with water flowing around my feet. Not only that, I now had a runner tearing down the descent behind me on some serious mission.

Convinced it was a late attack on me, I shrugged as my body physically and mind emotionally had shut down from competing for the day. When he passed, he tapped my arm and encouraged me as if we knew each other. That’s why I love trail running. He spurred me into a running motion and I wanted to try to keep that going through to the end. In fact, he was a relay runner for November Project, a likely mutual friend of NYRR’s Paul Leak who I know is linked to the team.

The trail became heavily clad with bushes tight either side scratching on my legs and then it opened up into a far more familiar rocky trail. Now, without doubt, I sensed the end was near. But my recent encounter with the runner who spurred me on was lying ahead on the trail motionless. I ran up to him and checked in. He said he had fallen because of cramping but it looked more than that to me. He looked pretty banged up.

“Go finish your race” he yelled at me. I didn’t really have time to go into how this was more of a mental training day for me than a race anymore but once  I was sure he was fine, I carried on going. Of course, within two minutes he grunted past me again back at it and giving it everything. His grit was pretty awesome.

Last push for home.

Mile 26; Last puddle and push for home.

Under the bridge and getting my feet soaked one final time, the end was all but in sight. And as predicted, my gritty relay runner was friends with Paul. Paul and myself high-fived as I was finishing and he was beginning on his journey. Pretty sweet to have so many awesome friends into the same crazy stuff as you.

Done! A mental triumph if nothing else to claim 11th spot.

Done! A mental triumph if nothing else to claim 11th spot.

4:42 was good enough for 11th and third in my age group. It didn’t match up close to my pre-race expectations. I also never envisioned so many mishaps to have to work through out there. And after a quick break mingling with the likes of Dylan Bowman and Jordan McDougal, it was back to work for me, printing t-shirts for the runners for the rest of the day!

De'Vang ran a great trail race to claim 7th. If he hadn't have gotten lost. maybe a top 5 spot.

De’Vang ran a great trail race to claim 7th. If he hadn’t gotten lost, maybe a top 5 spot.

Jumping Shenanigans with the instigator (Elaine) and De'Vang who ran a great race for 7th.

Jumping shenanigans with NYC buddies; Elaine “instigator” Acousta and De’Vang

Post-race “Debrief”

Being on my feet all day for 16 hours was definitely one of my longer marathon experiences ever but getting to spend all that time among like-minded individuals who push themselves to the limit and then find another level is so great to be around. It was a great first trail test for the year at Bear. Now to learn from my mistakes and move forward.

Part of me regrets putting the bar so high as most of the time, this will ultimately lead to perceived failure. The other part of me tells me, that’s just who I am. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” is how my buddy Jeff Le described it to me days later. I like that he said that. He basically told me to not change my hunger and to keep setting the bar where I want to set it because that’s just me.

Humanity Prevails; The 118th Boston Marathon

sca

Unique Boston wristbands cut from the flags of the 2013 race and heart tattoos given to every single one of the 36,000+ runners was a nice touch by the BAA.

Running Boston is special. But getting to run the 118th Boston, a year removed from the tragedy that shocked the world and brought everyone that much closer was on a completely different level. Everybody wanted to be part of this and I was one of the lucky ones that would.

Pre-Race

Boylston Street - a beautiful Saturday afternoon with a great atmosphere.

Boylston Street – a beautiful Saturday afternoon with a great atmosphere.

I spent much of the weekend build up hanging outside in the glorious sunshine along the finish line of Boylston Street and the restaurants and shops of Newbury Street. I was with my teammates Benny and Matt, lots of New York running friends and my sister, who had flown all the way over from Holland! The atmosphere was amazing. Everyone knew this year was special and had a particular viewpoint on it. Whether it was “Boston Strong”, “Taking back the Finish Line” or just peace. For me, the race was to celebrate humanity, to celebrate good people in this world.

Matt, myself and Benny from Team Novo Nordisk before our JDRF event.

Matt, myself and Benny from Team Novo Nordisk before our JDRF event.

Talking of good people, on Saturday night, our team were invited to speak at the JDRF runners (and families) dinner party in celebration of their training and fundraising efforts towards a cure for type 1 diabetes. We told our stories of diagnosis, of our passion for running and about what our team stands for. It was a really awesome event. Although we were invited to be the inspiration, we left knowing we had met some truly inspirational people as well. Runners who ran for their partner, child and even neighbor’s child, the range of people and why they had a passion to raise money for diabetes was very broad. Amazing!

Race Day

Boston!

Boston!

As per usual I beat my alarm and was up at 5:20am. My blood glucose was in the high 100’s but I was fine with this. As myself and Benny had been discussing the previous night at our Italian dinner, “carb up and don’t go low.” All my racing gear was carefully placed by the bed to throw on without disturbing Tiffany too much. Benny and myself met up with Matt easily enough at security check point number 5 as specifically instructed by the folks at BAA. They had allowed us to take medical bags to the start village in Hopkinton which was a huge plus. When the no bag rules was announced, I was disheartened thinking the bad guys had won. But BAA understood and respected our need to test our blood glucose levels frequently and as close to the start of the race as possible.

On the long bus ride out of the city to Hopkinton,  I usually throw on the headphones and put my head down to drown out the chatter of excited runners but this year was different. We laughed and joked together all the way there. It was great, I felt relaxed and was enjoying every minute of it. Plus it was a Monday!

I ate precisely two hours before the start in the athlete village after getting a perfect glucose reading. Because we had been so punctual getting out to there, we were able to grab some grass space in the sunshine and just chill out for an hour or so. Grass space in the sun was top-notch real estate so things were going really well! At 9am, it was time to begin the long walk to the start so we dropped off our medical bags with some staff members. My final reading was slightly higher than target but not a huge concern for me. I handed my full bottle of Gatorade to the volunteer that was helping me out with the bag. He was grateful for it and I was grateful to be able to drop off a medical bag. It was that kind of friendly atmosphere everywhere you turned. These kind of interactions were I guess, why I sub-consciously wanted to come back. To have good memories of Boston once more.

Pre-Race: Steve Lee, Rui, Keila, myslef and Benny all about to start in Wave 1.

Pre-Race: Steve Lee, Rui, Keila, myself and Benny all about to start in Wave 1.

I wished Matt and Benny the best of luck and jumped in the back of corral 2 which was approximately 2,000th place. My plan was to not run the first six downhill miles hard, just to run relaxed and behind goal pace. In the middle section, miles 6-16 hit goal pace or slightly faster, miles 16-21 maintain the same effort through Newton hills but drop the pace down and then push hard for home from there.

Start of the historic 118th Boston.

Start of the historic 118th Boston.

The gun fired and about a minute later, I had officially crossed the start line mats, tapped start on my watch and begun running. I was feeling ridiculously nervous those first few miles, almost feeling like I could have passed out which was so strange for me. I had put a lot of pressure on myself to race well and maybe I just needed to cut out the noise and just run. At the 5K marker, I clocked 20 minutes exact which was slightly slower than I had planned for but at least I was holding back. That was the plan after all (my two previous races here, I had run too fast in the first half and paid heavily for such naiveness later on at the hills and beyond).

Once the main descending was over after mile 6, I got into goal pace of 6:18, sometimes faster and this brought me through halfway at 1:23; 30 seconds behind target. I had caught and passed a few Nike NYC runners; Matt, Joe and Kwabs over the first 13.1 but what reassured me the most about starting slow and then speeding up was being passed by Chris Solarz around mile 6. Knowing the time he was shooting for and the fact that he had started behind me, assured me my tactics were correct (little did I know that he got start in corral 5 at the start and had spent much of his early miles weaving around to get up to speed).

But while my time goal was fractionally off and not alarming me, the way my body felt was. I was more tired than I wanted to be and now I had to do the distance all over again, at a slightly faster pace with the Newton hills bang in the middle of it all to boot. Pros seem to negative split this course, now it was my turn.

Other than the minor aches, the sun’s rays were becoming a greater issue now. Sitting in Hopkinton killing time, the sun had felt nice at 8am but now it was approaching noon, and my appreciation for it was diminishing. Without a cloud in the sky and no shade on this course, the heat was now playing a role just like the Newton hills always guarantee to do. Although I had managed a handful of hot runs in Mexico recently, the bulk of my training was run in three or four layers in and out of snowstorms from one of my worst New York winters I’ve experienced. The high was 66 yet it felt much warmer than that (I found out later, feel factor put it at 77). These were the hills I did not see coming.

Mile 15.5 controlling the long downhill before Newton hills would begin.

Mile 15.5 controlling the long downhill before Newton hills would begin. Photo credit: Kino

I churned on with my just faster than marathon pace, seeing some of the now familiar faces of the JDRF family on the streets, which gave me a nice lift. I knocked out a cheeky sub-6 downhill mile 16 just before the first Newton hill where I saw Kino and Ken Tom in their usual spot taking photos and cheering on everyone (because they know everyone!). The mile split was a bit too much but I knew I was chasing the clock after halfway and felt an urge to close the time gap while I was still going down.

I turned right and saw the famous site of the first of four climbs. I approached it with determination that it would not slow me down. I would monitor my pace, reduced my stride and take some places from runners that had over exerted themselves on the first 16. The crowd was ferocious here. Think about it. This was mile 16 in the middle of a sleepy town called Newton and it was packed on both sides of the road. Noise I have never heard during a Boston marathon before.

I locked in 6:30 pace up the hill, recalling that was an ideal pace to run each of the hills at for a 2:45 marathon. Before I knew it, I was up the first one and had passed many runners in the process. I mention this because I’m used to being the one getting passed and spat out the back around now from previous painful Boston’s.

We got a long flat break now through the Powerade gel hand out section. Not that I wanted one but it did make me alert to reach for my third and final Honey Stinger gel. I had been switching between Gatorade and water at every aid station and consumed two gels as well at 7 and 14 miles. From what I could tell, glucose control was 100% in check.

The second climb was really a sneaky double with a mini break, almost time to recover but not quite which is like the westside hills of Central Park from 102nd Street heading south. But this was mile 17 of a race, of Boston. I took on the climb with the same plan, same biomechanics and then the same result. I was now 19 miles in, just Heartbreak to go. Without wearing a wristband full of data splits to look at, I gauged I was in a good shape to PR but it would be close. The aches in my legs were revealing themselves to me as the sweat from my forehead and torso increased evermore. My body was fighting off the pain as best it could.

pre-heartbreak hill

Not Heartbreak Hill. Photo credit: Mike Toma

And then sooner than I anticipated, I stood at the bottom of Heartbreak hill. Arms pumping, legs driving, the pistons were all at full steam for this last push. It was a lot of work and I wasn’t trying to hide it from anyone. I saw Mike, Benny and Rhonda from the Westside Y to my right and then another hundred meters later, it was all over.  I went down the other side rapidly. Wow, that was so much easier than ever before I thought to myself.

I joined a small posse of runners going downhill as we pushed on knowing now was the time to run as near to 6-minute pace as possible, this was after all the fastest mile of the course other than mile 1. The road veered left and the crowd increased. I locked my eyes on the Heartbreak Hill Running store sign and then it all came back to me. Heartbreak hill was about to begin.

Even running this course for my fourth time, I got confused what hill was what and how many there were. So for the record, what I used to believe to be three hills in Boston became four but now I will not forget, there are actually five! So, without any other option, I went at it again although this time I knew this was most definitely Heartbreak. The last and of course biggest hill left. 600 meters over a gradual grade sounds very straight forward. But it’s the timing of the hill, the miles and miles of subtle downhill strides which now play a big role in why this hill is so tough.

I watched a guy in neon yellow go passed me and almost let him go before realizing that he was my ticket. He was going the pace I should have been going so I clawed him back in and worked off him all the way up no matter how much it hurt me to do so. Once up on top, it hit me how tired I was. I just had 5 miles left. It all sounds so simple typing it or maybe even reading it but my body was in serious breakdown mode. Did heartbreak break me? Did it add me to the list of many?

Passing the crew before mile 22.

Passing the crew before mile 22.

I passed Tiffany, my Sis, Beck and others who were all going nuts for me. It was incredibly awesome to have that much love shout at you in over the course of a few seconds and I wish I could have given them a more positive smile or thumbs up but I was in trouble. Tiffany sensed it both there in that moment and because she had been tracking my pace through every 5K split on the app. We both talked in detail about the game plan and knew the last 5 miles would call for a perfect home stretch push. She encouraged me as best she could to pick it up.

My brain took in the words of good coaching but the quads were now screaming for it all to just end. Downhill I clocked a decent 6:20 but I would have to go faster. I knew that mile should have been a flat-6. The next mile flipped up on my watch and I recall seeing it as a 7 minute pace or something that close. This was where my brain took the first exit. I calculated what was required and it was literally impossible to do that now without help, without a T-rex chasing me, without something. I can’t fully explain why, but I knew it was over and I couldn’t fight back after seeing that split and feeling as bad as I felt. I had completely forgotten the lesson of Martha’s Vineyard 20 Miler when a bad mile there, did me in as well.

Every next mile seemed so far away. The famous Citgo sign just never seemed to get bigger and it took all my heart to not stop and take a walk break down the long straight never-ending road. I have to thank the crowds 100% for that. Runners left and right were doing just that, either because they were cramping up or just smoked but I somehow managed to refuse this option. I think I was honestly too scared of getting screamed out (in a very nice kind of way) to keep on going!

I turned my mind to the possibility of running my fastest Boston time now that the 2:45 PR had long but faded away but as I made the famous last left turn onto Bolyston and saw just how far the finish line was  from my location, I knew only an insane sprint and quite possibly a wheelchair to greet me would have given me even a slim chance of turning that into a mini-success ending. I decided against this option which is not a normal choice for me. I decided instead to stop for a second at the sight of the first bomb last year outside Marathon Sports and wave to the crowd to thank them for coming back too and standing there being Boston Strong. I walked across the line in just over 2:49 and sunk to my knees. It was over. What an emotional race.

Post-Race

I tried to walk but was physically destroyed from the course and mentally heartbroken that I did not run the race I had trained for. I felt like I had let a lot of people down. I staggered away but eventually gave in to the volunteer help down the finish chute and asked to go to the medical tent to test my blood. My levels were actually perfect for post-race which showed I had once again managed my carbohydrate intake either via Gatorade or by Honey Stinger gels perfectly. What I had not done, was drink enough water on top as I had lost a fair bit of weight in the surprising heat and that’s probably why I felt faint. But like many others, this was just another part of what makes marathon running a challenge.

The physician who looked after me was called Meghan. Once I was ready to leave medical, she placed my medal in my hand with the ribbon neatly folded up around it and we hugged. It was so powerful because she was exactly the sort of person that was taking care of far more serous medical issues a year ago right here. I will never forget that moment.

Me and my Sis post-race at South Street Seaport.

Me and my Sis post-race at South Street Seaport.

Initially, I was very down due to my sub-par performance. I knew I was in 2:45 shape so I hung my head low walking towards Boston Common to collect my bags, still with medal in hand. Hours later, my sister Helen told me to be proud because she was as well as all my friends. She put the medal around my neck for the first time and it sunk in that my time or sadness was not really that relevant to the occasion.

I came back a year later to run this course once more to stand up to evil in this world, to showcase the spirit of the marathon and the strength of this great city, famously now phrased as “Boston Strong”. The 118th Boston Marathon was always meant to be something so much bigger than me or my time or any individual runner.  I even include Meb in that statement as much as his victory was amazing! I guess I will have to keep chasing that darn unicorn because ultimately I love the Boston Marathon. One day, I will get this course right and there is no doubt in my mind, I will fully appreciate it.

The prizes for the effort. Boston Runs as One official shirt and the 118th Boston finisher's medal.

The prizes for the effort. Boston Runs as One official shirt and the 118th Boston finisher’s medal.

Mountains, Lakes and a lot of Lotteries

Lotteries are a fairly simple concept. You buy a ticket, hope to see your numbers and win or in most cases, actually lose. But some lotteries are easier than others. My life experiences tell me I’m much better at running related lotteries than Mega Millions ($7 and counting). You could argue that winning a lottery to get to run a race further than most people choose to drive their cars should not be classified as winning per se, but in my world of adventure and fascination with pushing the body well beyond the comfort zone, I beg to differ.

I try to go about every day of my life, remembering it is no rehearsal. You have to grab every opportunity by the horns and if that means doing some crazy stuff along the way then even better. Here is my story of how I chose my 2014 A race as well as the rest of my race calendar.

WS100 Robinsons Flat with RJ TNN

Western States 2013 – running alongside Team Novo Nordisk team-mate Ryan Jones

When last December rolled around, it meant I had two important tasks to take care of. Buy Christmas presents and enter lotteries for popular ultra races. After my 100% lottery success rate at Western States (1 from 1), I got greedy and bought my ticket again with dreams of the Grand Slam in mind (Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch in the span of 3 months). I also insanely threw my name in the toughest 100 in the world; Hardrock (any excuse to go back to Telluride) but both entries were denied on the same day.

Breathtaking Hardrock 100, literally. Photo credit: Tetsuro Buford Ogata

Breathtaking Hardrock 100, literally. Photo credit: Tetsuro Buford Ogata

I found out later, I actually made the wait list for Hardrock, listed with 50 by my name. I wasn’t entirely sure if that meant what I thought it did. I ended up asking someone who knows a thing or two about ultras, Anton Krupicka, of all people at his NYC film event; In The High Country, a couple of days later. His smirk told me enough before his response even came out.  As I expected, all 35 in my “never” category (first timers) would have to drop out and 15 of the 49 wait listed ahead of me, just to get a bib! Now I understand why they call this category never. It was time to move on.

The race up 86 stories begins...Looks like fun right?!! Right? Photo credit: WSJ

Empire State Building Run Up:The race up 86 stories begins. Photo credit: WSJ

Climb the Empire State Building? Sure, why not. This wasn’t my alternative for missing out on two huge ultras but it would be such a cool thing to do (read insane) it appealed to me! I entered the lottery ticket, didn’t dare tell Brian at the Run Smart Project (who is helping me with my Boston training) and waited….Result; “Thank you but….” Third strike! Next.

OK focus. Back to the big races with mountains and lakes, no more indoor quirky  challenges to distract me. This was now it. I had most definitely saved the biggest lotteries for last; the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), arguably the hardest mountain 100 mile race in the world traversing Italy, Switzerland and France around the famed European peak and out of nowhere almost, a brand new race that drew me in as soon as I heard the name “Tahoe 200.” The race was instantly appealing for the unfathomable distance, location and the fact that it was an inaugural race.

2012_ultra_trail_mont_blanc

After three outs, of course, the lottery gods woke up and I received entry into both races. With the races scheduled just 5 days apart, over 5,000 air miles not to mention a 10 hour time difference, the sane part of my brain said I had to choose just one. Would it be around a mountain or around a lake?

My brain was spinning. This led to numerous discussions with Tiffany, family and friends to get a sense of how to decide on this tough but ultimately very good ultra runner problem to have. As much as it frustrated me that I was about to let one of these two races go, I realized that many other runners from these lotteries and others did not have the same choice.

Saying that, it didn’t make my decision any easier. Over a week had passed and  I had still not made my decision. UTMB or Tahoe 200? Alps or California? 100 or 200? Sometimes, it just seemed ‘easier’ to just do both. Could I physically do both? Probably. Would I hate every second of Tahoe though? Probably.

Just before I was about to put pen to paper and play the pros and cons game, Tiffany said “Choose whatever makes you happiest.” She was onto something. I went back to the moment in time I knew I was selected in both races. For Tahoe, I followed Twitter on a Sunday afternoon as names were tweeted in threes and fours every few  minutes. 85 ‘lucky’ runners were  drawn from a pool of almost 200 applicants. Giving up hope, my name was drawn dead last! But I was in and I was overjoyed to be in.

When Tahoe 200 became official live on Twitter!

This is what a lucky ticket looks like: Tahoe 200 lottery live via Twitter!

Three days later, I woke up to go to work and saw I was tagged in a Facebook post at 4am. I knew what it meant. I had just been selected for UTMB. Due to getting into Tahoe, my initial reaction was anything but joy. I had already started planning Tahoe. Tahoe is so unique. The inaugural 200 mile race. The appeal of it at present is just stronger than UTMB right now. Perhaps because UTMB is not inaugural, perhaps because I want a different challenge than 100 miles, perhaps because I might be able to compete at Tahoe.   I think it’s all of the above. I’m lucky that I will get to share this journey with another two of my NYC ultra friends; Lucy Ledezma and Otto Lam and have my crew from Tiffany, Team Novo Nordisk and my family to help me achieve my biggest race yet. The adventure awaits.

LT200 with text

The first ever 200 mile single loop mountain race in the United States, the Tahoe 200 circumnavigates the sparkling, clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe from the Tahoe Rim Trail. The route occasionally detours off the TRT to explore aspen meadows, rock gardens of giants, small impossibly blue lakes, thick canopied forests, and long ridge lines with stunning views.  The course is nothing less than magical.” – Candice Burt, RD, Tahoe200

Now the decision has been made, UTMB is far from forgotten. I will apply again and get to do it one day. For this year, every race builds towards early September and the Tahoe 200. The first goal race begins at a very special Boston Marathon. I’m tired of having a PR from 2011. Enough said. Then the Cayuga Trails 50 upstate New York which doubles as the USATF 50 Mile Championship and then Vermont 100, my third 100 ever and hopefully another great race. There are still lots of other races to add including what happens after Tahoe (I’m serious by the way). I’m going to knuckle down and find some more trail marathons, 50’s and maybe another 100K or two. 200 miles isn’t going to run itself.

February 15th: Martha’s Vineyard 20 Miler
March 15th: Rock N Roll USA Half Marathon, Washington DC
April 21st: Boston Marathon
June 1: Cayuga Trails 50 (USATF 50 Mile Championship)
July 19th-20th: Vermont 100
September 4th-8th: Lake Tahoe 200

 

“Going the (Philadelphia) Distance”

Philadelphia Marathon 2013

Philadelphia Marathon 2013. Photo credit: philadelphiamarathon.com

The Philadelphia Marathon would complete my ‘four fall’ marathons (others being Top of Utah, Twin Cities and NYC). It was never on the schedule as a true race but that didn’t stop me midweek changing my goals for it. The days after pacing the New York Marathon on November 3rd, I didn’t do much speedwork, just easy miles to keep up the turnover but all my body was holding up well.

Course Map; half city, half out to Manayunk and back.

Course Map; half city, half out to Manayunk and back.

I decided that the course was flat(ish), my mind was strong and frankly why not try to go after it. Sub-3 was my original goal to save the legs for my December 50 miler, but it seemed as though I was setting the bar too low on myself. I played that game back at the Twin Cities marathon post 100K and happily succeeded. So, I decided to just go for broke. I would chase down my personal best/record (depending on where you are reading this from) and go for a sub 2:45 time.

Race prep: putting on my 17th (and counting) race bib this year.

Race prep: putting on my 16th race bib this year.

Race day weather was near perfect. Low winds, a high of 63 but the early race start of 7am realistically put this number down to the mid-40’s for the race. I went to the start village with my teammates, Casey and Ryan. We hung out with Rocky, ran ‘the steps’ as a warm up and then decided we had better get ready for 26.2 miles.

@teamnovonordisk hanging with the man!

@teamnovonordisk hanging with the man!

With bags about to be checked into the UPS trucks, we all scrambled for our blood testers for one more check of blood glucose levels. Typically competitive people, we liked to compare our results. Let’s just say I lost with the highest number but just above 200 was by no means bad for pre-race.

I squeezed up to the front of my corral which was just behind the really skinny guys known as the elites. The race director made his speech and then to my surprise, a legend of marathon running I am still to meet, Bill Rodgers appeared on stage to follow suit. Bill Rodgers is one of the heroes of running no doubt about it with 4 New York and 4 Boston wins. This got me fired up and ready to go.

Elite field lead us off.

The elite field lead us off on the 20th anniversary of the Philadelphia Marathon. 

Off down Benjamin Franklin Parkway lined with a flag from every country you could think of, we headed east across Philadelphia. Amongst the frenzy of the start, I missed the first mile marker. I spotted my friend De’Vang ahead and gave him a tap. Neither of us knew we would be here. He had just raced NYC and I had just paced it, so you could forgive us for not knowing.

We compared goal times and he let me go when I said 2:45. I ran by friends Elaine and Tom cheering excitedly and before the first mile marker the race was already feeling like a home away from home. Past Liberty Bell into Old City we went, I was this time ready for the mile split. Two miles complete and my pace was behind. My watch was not helping with data off (déjà Vu NYC) but in all honestly, I was off. I already felt I was at my limit as the first drip of sweat ran down my face. I knew this was going to be a tall order to maintain this pace and I was already behind!

Mile 1 down Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Mile 1 down Benjamin Franklin Parkway Photo credit: phl17.com 

Down the riverfront on Columbus Boulevard, I followed a thin line of runners, nothing but footsteps, breathing and the Rocky soundtrack. Yes, a runner next to me was blaring out “Eye of the Tiger” so loud it was unmistakable. I liked his style but me and music do not mix in the marathon setting. I need to hear my breathing, hear the crowds and take in the whole experience, not block it out.

Mile 4 wound us back north into the city center passed City Hall and continuing west. The clock timer read 25:11 and so did my watch. From being behind, I was now right on pace for a 2:45. It was a shame I was red lining it to be on pace though.  I saw people I expected to see from Tiffany and Katie to others I did not such as Luke. My face turned from grit to smiles every time I recognized someone cheering me on.

Mile 6: back through the city. Photo credit: Elaine Acosta

Mile 6: heading west back through the city. Photo credit: Elaine Acosta 

But as naive as I was to try to hammer out a PR just because I felt it was worth a shot, I was now slowly adapting to the realization that my wristband splits would mean very little from this point on.

Passed the 30th Street train station and up a hill we went. My legs felt like they weren’t doing anything close to the effort of the first 6 miles with the added strain of going up. A right turn took us up another climb. The wheels were spinning but backwards was definitely not the plan. A group of rowdy college kids offering free beer and having a grand old-time for 7:45 in the morning. Could a few high fives cure my own diagnosis of acute fatigue syndrome? Momentarily yes but as they faded out of sight and noise the hill only continued going the same way as my heart rate.

I crested that hill as if it was my last one from a hill repeat training session. Luckily, what goes up must come down. A long straight lined the way ahead. I literally leaned into the descent and let gravity take over while I sucked up some much-needed oxygen.

The mile markers only verified what I already knew.  I was dropping time. At first it was 10 seconds, then 25, now 45. I had no real plan B. A sub-2:50 was technically written out to me on the reverse side of my wristband but I knew turning it around to see it was the only easy part about it. I popped a gel. Maybe my glucose was lower than I thought. 8 miles done was about time for first one so heck, try something I thought.

A second and ultimately last big hill climb up Lansdowne Drive brought some confidence back. I pulled in some runners and begun to view the race as good Boston training. It made a nice change taking some places rather than losing them. At the top, a flat section looped us around Please Touch Museum and then the reward for all the climbing thus far. Not only was the road down but perfectly paved, fit for race cars.

The Schuylkill river marked the end of the free fall and a u-turn gave me my first glimpse of other runners expressions. Most looked strong and under control but not all which gave me more hope and dare I say confidence. It was a simple reminder that I wasn’t the only one hurting.  As I headed back in the direction of the start/finish area by the Art Museum, aka the Rocky steps, I surprisingly noticed De’Vang not more than a minute behind again. My pace was truly in no mans land so I did what I never normally do in the middle of any race and turned around. I needed help so I literally put the brakes on and waited for him. We tapped hands and began running together.

Stride for stride, I now had a much-needed running partner on the course. We spoke occasionally to see how each other were doing. The game plan was to get to halfway together. De’Vang was adamant he would then ease off a bit more for the second half as he was hurting to. As I didn’t have a plan, the idea of easing off sounded like music to my ears. I was pretty confident at that moment in time I knew who I would be crossing the line with.

Mile 12 crossing the Schuylkill River. Photo credit" phl7.com

Mile 12 crossing the Schuylkill River. Photo credit” phl7.com

Over a bridge and up around the front of the Rocky steps, we then headed north while the half-marathon signs all pointed south to the finish. I didn’t think about that much. I wasn’t jealous of the runners that were about to be done but I knew I had a lot of work left to do and seemingly not much gasoline. We clocked the halfway shy of 1:25. I recapped the first half in my head, reminding myself the first 6 miles were at 2:45 pace and the latter 7 were less and less not. I knew doubling the clock time was unrealistic and all bets were now off for even a 2:50 finish which I had considered midweek. Marathons are not like ultras where you almost always get a second, third or fourth wind after a low point. But in the marathon, as soon as you are down, you normally just keep going.

The game for me now was to slow that process down as much as I possibly could. This was becoming a great test of pain management. How much did I want it? How much pain could I handle? I fast forwarded the clock to my last race of the year that will be in San Francisco. 50 miles of relentless climbing and descending with the best of the best ultra runners. I need to want it and handle pain out there so I thought I better start practicing right now.

gfgf

Halfway house: running outbound on the second half. Photo credit: Steven Beck

Just after halfway, we passed Tiffany, Beck and Kwabs and I forced a smile. My girlfriend and best running friends had come down from NYC to watch and cheer me and many other friends on. We were lucky to have so many of our good friends here.

De’Vang pulled ahead and initially I struggled to stay on his left shoulder anymore. Just as he was creating a slight gap we descended. The second half of the race was an out and back so I did my best to remember where the hills would be for the final miles. Rather than be happy with the current downhill, all I could think of was what was to come with the final mile being uphill! I closed the gap on De’Vang going down to the river’s edge and now felt better than him but not much. Rather than stick on his shoulder, I felt good enough to keep my pace and let him join if he wanted. We had run over 4 mile together and had an unwritten rule that after halfway, we would do our own strategy again.

I pushed along at about 6:30 pace and churned out the miles along the river. I saw a large bridge ahead and thought it was the one we had to cross for an extended loop but it was too high above us for that to make sense. It turned out to be Falls Bridge, nothing more than a landmark on the course. I ran under this bridge into a large aid station and cheer zone that definitely lifted my energy. The bridge then came that we had to do a small out and back on. As runners were coming the other way, I just assumed the turnaround was at the end of the bridge. No, another left and down the road we all went.

We u-turned around a traffic cone and continued back up to the bridge. My predicted finish time was now creeping up towards 2:55. I hoped and prayed I didn’t see my friend Shannon Price coming who was the Clif Bar pacer for the 3 hour group. He had become my feared sweeper of the day. I did not want to see him or have to fight like hell to stay ahead of him. Luckily, I did not.

Onwards north towards the small town of Manayunk, a suburb of Philadelphia. Over a small bridge and then along the straight road of Main Street we went. I saw the crowds growing ahead and a banner held high above at the crest of the hill at the far end. Assuring myself that was the turnaround point, was relief and dread that I still had to go back. My legs were absolutely shot. My only goal left to fight seemed to be a sub-3 hour time. I had made a self-inflicted wound in those first 6 miles that was making for some severe determination now with 6 to go. At the banner, the road shifted left and into view came more ground to cover north. Thank goodness for the crowd support because this was a true ‘sufferfest’ I was putting myself through.

On the turn, 10K to go. I started doing the math of what minute miles I needed to run to go sub-3. My brain was a fog and I recall believing that  7’s would do it (it was actually slower). Part of my brain would tell me that it’s OK to stop and walk for a minute but I fought back hard every time the conversation came to surface. To stop would have been a huge mistake.

The nice aspect of the course being out and back was seeing my other friends running. First up was Brian Hsai and then Tony ‘three marathons in the fall’ Cheong from Nike Team Run NYC. He was fractionally behind the 3:10 pace group coming towards me. We saw each other, raised out our medial arm and tagged. No words, no expression, just the quick slap of hands which said everything about how we were feeling and our respect for each others ‘crazy’ of running multiple races so close together.

Grinding through the next mile, which of course had some uphill, reminded me to never try to PR here. I was wrong about this course. Although not as hard as New York or Boston, Philly has some bumps in the road that make you change running technique frequently. I caught sight of more friends; De’Vang, Otto Lam and team-mate Ryan Nichols, all very easily among the 12,000 runners. Each person I saw gave me a lift as I pained my way towards the end.

But no friend can help you more than one by your side.  I had just passed mile 22 when a big shout of “ENGLAND” came from behind me. I turned to see my 3:15 New York pacer team-mate Andrew Rastrick a few yards back. Without hesitation, I waited for him. I felt like I had been stranded for days and Andrew was the helicopter! I jumped on his shoulder and was more than pleased to try to run at his pace. I thought it might last a few hundred yards at most before he dropped me. But I knew the situation. Four miles left and a partner to work with if I could just keep up. I mentally embraced it like many training runs over the years where I have hung on for dear life in Central Park to not get dropped by the pacer. Worku Beyi and Kevin Starkes, I’m talking about you.

Another hill on the stretch home cheered on by Tom. Photo credit: Elaine Acosta

Pain is temporary; on the stretch home with Andrew at mile 24. Photo credit: Elaine Acosta 

We knew we were both working off of tired legs from two weeks prior. Andrew mentioned breaking three hours was his only goal and I quickly agreed. A goal of mine is to run sub-3 in all 50 US states. This plan is by no means planned out but I would like to do it over my lifetime. As short as my current states are and as many races as I have run in Pennsylvania, this state was not yet checked off. Now was surely the time.

I hung and hung. Every other minute I was close to telling Andrew to go ahead and run his own race. I did not want to slow him down but knowing  neither of us were close to our PR’s, knowing we had put our bodies through the same exact stress two weeks prior stopped me from opening my mouth. I decided to work  and work harder. We looked for the 23rd mile marker. It seemed an eternity away. Knowing we were both itching to see it told me that we were in mutual discomfort.

Cassidy and Meb finish the 2013 NYC Marathon with the iconic photograph of sportsmanship. Photo credit @nycmarathon

Iconic shot; Cassidy and Meb finishing the 2013 NYC Marathon together. Photo credit @nycmarathon

My mind flashed back to the Meb story in New York when a local runner, Michael Cassidy caught Meb and rather than pull ahead, decided to stay and help each other out and run to the finish together. I am not claiming to be Meb and Andrew is not claiming to be Cassidy but we do know we were helping each other in exactly the same way.

At 24 miles, we had 19 minutes to go sub-3. It was all but secured but the pace we had been keeping would not have shown anyone we had any intention of simply just making it. I wanted to push mile 25 and hang on for a final mile, Andrew, not quite so much. Subconsciously, I knew that with a mile to go, I wouldn’t slow down.

25.5 miles mean we can smile again! Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

0.5 miles left meant we could smile again! Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

Up the long climb we went that I had been dreading and then passed all our friends. There was someone losing their mind but then I realized it was Katie just having a good time!  Andrew said to go on but I declined immediately. He had gotten me out of a mess at mile 22 and I didn’t care if my time was going to say 2:55, 56 or 57.

We would finish this together, Meb and Cassidy round 2! To duck under three hours was our goal when we met and that is exactly what we did. We were both more than happy with the result. Running can be so solitary but it can also be a team sport. It’s really up to you. Without the push it would have been even closer to the 3 hour mark. We finished in 2:56 (and lots of seconds).

Done. 4 marathons complete in 8 weeks. Two as a pacer, one on shot legs and one hanging on to whoever was around me. Thank you De’Vang and Andrew for your help on the course. Sub-3 at Philadelphia felt like I had just “gone the distance” with the man himself. I don’t like shortcuts anyway.

"Going the distance" feels oh so good!

“Going the distance” feels oh so good!

For Others; Pacing the NYC Marathon

April 2004, London; I lined up behind the 3:15 pacer at my first marathon believing I had done all the right things in my training only to fall well short of my goal time, crawling home to a 3:48 after having a pretty bad hypo experience at mile 21. That pacer disappeared from sight at mile 15 in and I had no idea how anyone could run so well, stay on pace and carry a sign. The marathon humbled me. I went so far as to take a break from racing for a few years.

London Marathon 04 with my Sis.

The archives; Post-London Marathon 04 with my Sis.

November 2013, NYC; I lined up as the 3:15 pacer at my umpteenth marathon. Ten years on, I have become a runner that I didn’t think was possible. I was lucky enough to be selected by the New York Road Runners (NYRR) as one of the official pacers for this year’s much missed New York marathon (after the cancellation last year following Hurricane Sandy). I was happy to be allocated the 3:15 time. An average pace of 7:26 per mile would be needed. As much as I run these days, this was to be my first official pacing gig. I felt honor and pressure. I had a horrible image of quitting in the Bronx and getting on the subway with my pacer shirt and orange balloons saying 3:15. I say this only because two weeks prior, I was hobbling around the streets of Brooklyn with my family with inflammation in my right heel. With rest and icing, it healed just in time for arguably the best day of the year.

My love affair with the New York Marathon started in 2007. Since watching my own country’s, Paula Radcliffe win the race, I got inspiration I needed to run another marathon. It could only be New York. I took the plunge the following week and went to Nike Run Club (I had heard about it for over a year but stubbornly not wanted to run in a group). It proved to be a huge turning point in my life both in terms of running and friendships. Those few days really kick started the second chapter of running in my life.

But my next marathon would have to wait a while longer.  Knee surgery forced me to defer my New York bib a year. So I ran the 2009 race instead and took a 47 minute chunk of time off my first attempt. It put some demons to bed, that’s for sure.  For those that know me, the journey has anything but slowed down from there.

Working the booth with Tommy.

Tommy and me working the booth at the expo. Photo credit: Elaine Acousta

My pacing duties actually began well before standing at the start line.  On Saturday morning, I worked at the Pace Team booth. The people and questions came thick, fast and sometimes very personal; “What is the pace team?”, “How much does it cost?”, “I pee a lot while running. Should I try to break 4 or just settle for 4:15?” Yes, I got to meet all sorts. It was quite an experience. It really made me realize a) people do really come from all over the world for this race (most came back from last year’s cancellation from as far as Sydney!) b) they do really rely on the pacers to help them achieve their goals.

Looking back to Manhattan while crossing the Verrazano.

Looking back to Manhattan while crossing the Verrazano.

Race (pace) day begun in Times Square at 6am. Our NYRR contact, Paul Leak directed me onto the correct bus. He had promised me Pamela Anderson (she was running it) on the bus and all the other VIP’s. Paul had let me down, it was just the pacers! We drove through Brooklyn watching the sunrise over our great city and then over the Verrazano bridge to the start village in Staten Island.  Getting into the village was a tough task. It was the first real reminder of the day how big this race had become. Over 50,000 would run making it the largest marathon in history! Paul handed us our goal pace signs, which somehow worked like VIP passes to get into the village. The security was super tight. I didn’t appreciate getting a metal detector run over me (twice) but respected the need for solid policing. The world was watching after all.

Security overseeing runners head into the start village

Security overseeing runners head into the start village

People asked me what perks we got as pacers. Well the heated tent with a breakfast spread was a nice touch, I will say. Unfortunately, for pacers like me in the wave 1 start, we didn’t have much time to enjoy this. I always like to eat two hours prior to a race and was now already inside this window. My BG was a bit high at 198 but I wanted to be there at the start of the race so I calculated my carb intake needs and took off a unit of insulin to make sure I would stay in that range. The tricky part with my diabetes was having to be in my assigned corral early. That meant doing my last blood test with about an hour and a half before the start. I decided to take a bottle of Gatorade with me as a safety precaution along with my pacer sign and giant meeting point sign.

Pre-race with Keila and Jackie. It was cold I swear!

Pre-race with Keila and Jackie. It was cold I swear! Photo credit: Jackie Choi

I dragged my stuff around the village trying to dump my bag in the green village (green bib) and then figure out where the blue corral was as this was my assigned start corral. Immediately, everyone around me thought I knew everything about anything. “Where is the green corral?” and “Should I use the bathroom now or wait until the corral?” People seem to like talking about toilet needs to me for some reason.

As I approached the entrance to the corral a man approached me and said “Oh great. You’re here. They have been asking about you”. Did ‘they’ think I was Pamela Anderson? It all felt a bit strange. Everyone stared at me as soon as I entered the corral. I waved my sign at them as an ice breaker and everyone just stared back. I think looking back they were all thinking ‘Is he really going to run with that giant sign the whole way?’. The answer was no, although when a big burly French guy actually asked me that question I said “No, you are and while you’re at it, you can shield us all from the wind to please!” The temperatures were perfect but the wind would not be. Up to 20 mph headwinds would be a big problem for the runners today. Luckily, for any of them savvy enough, I would be the one battling the wind without choice. I predicted that my effort would make it feel more like a 3:10 than a 3:15.

While hanging around for the start, the big two questions were “Are you running in kilometers?” and “Are you running even pace?” I politely told them I last ran in kilometers in school cross-country and no, I would not be running even pace. I had printed off a wristband with mile splits that took into account the hills of the course and would therefore run even effort. That meant the first mile would be about 8-minute pace and the second, 7-minute pace purely because it was over the bridge. After that, the pace would settle to 7:20-25’s for a while through Brooklyn and Queens.

The gun fired, Frank sung ‘New York, New York’ over the sound system and we clambered over people’s throwaway clothes (that they had clearly done a bad job of actually throwing away) towards the start line. Here we go. The goal was to run as close to 3:15:00 as possible without any crazy sprints or slowing down shenanigans. I felt the pressure as I had a sea of people swarming around me putting all of their faith in me.

The famous start over the Verrazano Bridge.

The famous start over the Verrazano Bridge. Can anyone spot Thunder?!

Among the 50,000, I quickly saw friends. Steve “Thunder” Lee was posing for a photo on the middle divide of the bridge wearing his Superman costume and then Angela from Nike Run Club. She told everyone they were in good hands. I appreciated the compliment as I’m sure their were some doubters in the group.

An NYPD helicopter hovered at bridge height to our left, a stark reminder of how tightly watched this race was going to be. At the highest point of the race was mile 1. I hit the pace almost perfectly. The descent would be fast and I did my best to keep it at 7 minute pace. Some runners went ahead and kept checking over their shoulder to see me. I didn’t have to say anything for them to know they needed to back off slightly.

The 3:15 group going over the Verrazano Bridge.

The 3:15 group going over the Verrazano Bridge.

During the entry into our second borough (Brooklyn), all three colored corral starts split and rejoined a mile or so later. I was looking for my other 3:15 pacer, Andrew, who begun in the green corral on the lower level of the Verrazano. On 4th Avenue, crowds were growing and so were the runners. At 3.5 miles in, all corrals were now as one. I spotted a sign ahead which looked like Andrew’s 3:15. I just had to pray it wasn’t 3:10 as I closed the gap. It was him.

Green, orange and blue routes separate briefly after the Verrazano Bridge.

Green, orange and blue routes separate briefly after the Verrazano Bridge.

The real-time pacing was going well but my GPS version was not. Either I was submerged with too many of them (GPS watches) or buildings were throwing off the data. My average mile was saying 7:10 when I knew we were doing 7:25’s. I knew because I kept checking elapsed time at mile markers. I was basically running pre-GPS watch era.

Some concerned runners wondered why two 3:15 signs were spread apart. I simply told them, we started in different corrals. We were slightly behind goal pace and he was probably slightly ahead. I phrased it that if they ran in the space between us, they would be ‘on the money’. I think that was all the reassurance they needed to hear. We did however have 20 more miles to go which would have been my greater concern as a runner of the race.

By the clock tower building in Brooklyn, myself and Andrew finally connected. We figured that I should be behind him due to starting at fractionally different times. I had felt some pressure from my group to catch him and I should never have let that be the case. I eased off slightly as we climbed the hill north on Lafayette Avenue where the crowds were and are always amazingly loud.

The reward was a long gradual downhill. Most of the faces I had seen on the Verrazano were still the same. We were all here, we were all running as one big group. I urged them to stay relaxed. The race did not begin until 1st Avenue and I hoped they trusted that fact.

Empty cups; I did not drink smart early in the race.

Empty cups; I did not drink smart early in the race.

As pacer, my aim was to run in the center of the road on both straights and turns. Going through the aid stations trying to grab liquid was therefore not too easy. After a couple of failed attempts, I found my glucose level dropping. I realized that I was simply not following my normal carbohydrate intake methods all because I was carrying a stick! What is the first rule of pacing? Look after yourself or you can not look after others. It was true.

I grabbed a gel from my shorts. Within half a mile, I grabbed a second one (which I rarely do). Luckily, my pacing remained as it should have even though the effort I had to exert went up a notch for a mile. A good save but I should have never have put myself in that situation.

Running through the Hasidic Jewish community is one of the quieter and strangest sections of the race. It’s a place where two separate worlds collide for a few hours as 50,000 people run through their neighborhood. I watched a runner try to high-five several men in a row and they all just stood there staring. But as is New York, all of a sudden, one block further ahead, we heard a DJ blaring some music.  We were entering the start of Williamsburg. Crowds roared again and you could feel the lift the runners got from the noise.

At 11 miles in, the pace was perfect. I was not afraid to let them know this either. I liked telling the group every mile or two if we were up or down and by how much. There were a few cheers when they heard we were exactly on pace.

At the Pulaski bridge, we clocked a halfway time of 1:37:40, ten seconds behind. My pace data on my watch was so off, I wanted to switch it off and just wear a normal watch. Gauging the 7:25’s off feel was not as easy after spending years relying on my ‘techy’ watch. “Ten seconds is nothing” I told them. “The crowds in Manhattan will shave off one minute of time for you without you having to do anything”. They liked hearing this as we looked over to our left and saw the amazing skyline of Manhattan. They knew the main part was to come.

But something in Queens didn’t go right. My pace kept dropping and my glucose was definitely OK (now). Two miles later, we completed the last turn before the long Queensboro bridge begun and I had lost more time. I was now 45 seconds behind. Andrew and his group had stayed close by me. We had since realized I should have been the one ahead of him and his green wave group. I was not happy with this and subconsciously pushed the bridge climb. At this point in the race, it was hard to keep track who were my runners from the start gun and who had jumped on for the ride. I intersected with more friends running their own race; Marisa Galloway and Tony Cheong notably. Tony looked like he was hurting some and didn’t seem too thrilled to see me. Then, my pacer light bulb went on. I was the guy no one in front wanted to see! The sweeper, if you will, for some of the fast folks with goals of 3:10 and faster. If they saw me, they were not having their day.

By the middle of the bridge, all you get is an eerie noise of feet on road and breathing, nothing more. As pacer, I felt pressure to say something but I waited and waited and then when we descended over and into Manhattan and the roar of noise slowly began. As the crowds came into sight I declared “Party time!”. The contradiction of  silence to the ‘wall of sound’ coming off the bridge is a special moment along the course. We turned under the arch of the bridge and then looked straight up 1st Avenue.

The view ahead was a sea of people on both sides of the street with signs, balloons and runners as far as the eye can see heading for the Bronx. I checked my watch. I was all of a sudden only a few seconds behind goal time. What had I done on that bridge? I certainly didn’t mean to close the time gap so quickly, especially over one of the toughest parts mentally and physically of the course. I was not proud of myself. I had broken my rule of no dramatic shifts of speed.

The masses along 1st Avenue

The masses along 1st Avenue

A mile up 1st Avenue, I saw my friends lining the left side. There were lots of them but I only managed to lock eyes with Francis and Tiffany before I moved back to the center of the road. The first signs of fatigue were now evident. My group of runners seemed fine, no complaints from anyone at least, but ahead, runners were walking, holding hamstrings or going a fraction of the speed they were probably going in the first three boroughs. The marathon wall in New York for some reason seems to come earlier than other races. The course is just tough, no two ways about it.

Working 1st Avenue. Photo courtesy; Reiko Cyr.

Working as one up 1st Avenue. Photo credit; Reiko Cyr.

Through the gel zone, I grabbed as many as I could. I learned this tip from my veteran pacer friend Otto Lam. As soon as we were through, I turned to offer the gels to anyone that didn’t get one. In doing so, I saw the amount of runners working hard to keep pace with me. It was an awesome sight to an extent but it really added to the mounting pressure that I had to nail this time goal.

The last mile of 1st Avenue sucks. I didn’t try to pretend otherwise to the runners either. I said “This section of the course gets really quiet but in one mile we will be in the Bronx and the it will be loud all the way home. I promise. For now, just focus on this mile”. I felt the need to say something as I heard the breathing getting louder as the crowd fizzled out. With silence can come doubt and at mile 18, this is a high drop out zone of the course. You need to tell yourself that you can do it. As long as you’ve done the training, it’s basically a mental game not a physical one from here on in. I carried my pacer sign as high as I could so they would always have a visual. In hindsight, I could have probably carried it a bit lower as you know what you’re looking for after 18 miles of running. To me, it just felt like my way of helping as much as possible.

“Up a short climb over the Willis Avenue bridge and we will be in the Bronx”. My memory had left out the long second climb before we actually got off the bridge. I regretted using the words ‘short climb’ but still no one was heckling me. I had balanced out the pacing up 1st Avenue and we were now at a really nice ten seconds under goal pace.  Some of the crowds here in the Bronx were big but not as loud as they could have been. I turned to my trusty pacer stick and used it to pick the crowd up. It worked immediately. I guess they were getting bored with watching all these serious runners so I started having fun with the crowds and it worked. The runners appreciated it. It was a win-win move.

Bronx bunching; Mile 21. Photo credit: Oh Snapper.

Bronx bunching at Mile 21. Photo credit: Oh Snapper.

My Danish running friends (who I had met at the expo) were running strong. They asked if the bridge ahead was the last one. It was. Madison Avenue bridge back into Manhattan and then five miles left. I found the question an interesting perspective from another runner. As I had been mentally counting hills to go, they had been counting the bridges as a way to break up the race. My concern for the group was the 5th Avenue hill still to come; a mile long up before entering Central Park.

Off Madison bridge, we turned left turn down 5th Avenue greeted by none other than Michael Jackson’s Thriller (They’ve played this song here every year for some time now). “If anyone hanging with the group has anything left, now is the time to go” I said. Most of them laughed/cried and said “We are trying to hang on!” OK, good to know. It really was impossible to tell if any of them had broken away, fallen off the back or I had gathered up some new runners along the way. I’m sure it was a combination of all three. Anyone we now passed in dire straits got a tap from me and words of encouragement. I referenced Dusty Olson’s words “Dig deep” that he used pacing Scott Jurek during his ultrarunning hey days.  I didn’t like to see people walking and know these two simple words can be very powerful.

We had four miles of temporary pain left together. I wanted everyone we passed to jump on the 3:15 bus. We hit 110th Street which meant the beginning of the 5th Avenue climb. “Time to do work” I said. “Hang on guys”. This hill is truly something. I think I’m accurate in saying we can all blame the legend of Fred Lebow for the placement of this one mile hill so late in the race. I wanted to tell them they were halfway but stopped myself when I read the street sign ’96th St.’. Wow, I guess I was hurting too. Andrew, was still by my side. I was now a comfortable 30 seconds ahead of the goal time. I wanted to hit 3:15:00 but feared the one second over scenario so much I didn’t want to risk being that close. I know it would have haunted me and I would have viewed my job as a failure so I aimed for a 15 second window.

Grinding at Mile 22. Photo credit: @raysphotos (Instagram)

3:15 group grinding at mile 22. Photo credit: @raysphotos (Instagram)

With two blocks of the hill left, we were close enough “Come on. Almost in the park and then no more hills” I shouted. That wasn’t’ quite true but no more hills like that. It was a close enough statement to say to fatigued runners who were probably not even listening to me anymore.

Central Park looked nothing like usual as is always the case during the marathon. A sea of people lined the left side of the route as we weaves around the MET museum. A small climb towards Cat Hill made teeth clench. I gave a heads up that a nice downhill would be the reward.

Two runners glued themselves to my sides. Down to the edge of the park, a large crowd awaited us. Just like the Bronx, I asked for noise for the runners and received it in full force. As I glanced up and saw a ‘800 meters to go’ sign, I knew I was OK, comfortably under 3:15. We turned back into the park at Columbus Circle. I pointed out to the lead singer of the band playing and he pointed right back at me, both smiling like a couple of Cheshire cats from Alice in Wonderland. Boy, we were basically in Wonderland, this was awesome.

I grabbed some high fives from runners as we climbed the last 0.2 up the teaser of a finish. I slowed a little to make sure runners just behind knew if they could catch me, they were under the 3:15 time. I crossed the line at 3:14:44 just as happy as if this was my own race.

Home stretch; I finally had time to relax and enjoy the finish!

Home stretch; I finally had time to relax and enjoy the finish!

I found Andrew at the finish and we congratulated each other among many of the other runners we had paced. We collected our medals, foil blankets and some food as we walked north through the park to reclaim our bags. When, I finally got my stuff, I grabbed my glucose meter. I was 82. Time for food, anything but gels!

The amazing finish area in Central Park.

The amazing finish area in Central Park.

The whole race was truly about other people. From 50,000 runners to over two million spectators, the NYRR, the police. But it was even more than that. It was for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the people of Boston and for everyone gunning for sub 3:15 around me whether they made it or not. It seemed truly fitting that this race was not about me, I was just a small part that was very happy to help. Thank you Brian Hsia, John Honerkamp and Paul Leak at NYRR for selecting and trusting me as a pacer. It is one of my best running experiences I’ve ever had.

NYCM 2013

NYCM 2013 medals

 

 

 

 

Twin Cities Marathon; The Sub-3 Experiment

TCM logo zoom

Observation:

Ultra runners are not normal. Ultra runners refuse to follow normal runner rules of training and racing. We ‘like’ to run 100 miles at altitude, 24 hours around a one mile loop course or dream up our own challenges. Some of my friends ran Boston backwards and then forwards this year. Why? Why not? Most of these ideas and races seem abnormal and impossible to most of the human race. Part of that is my drive.

Artist Impression of the course

Artist Impression of the course.

The Twin Cities Marathon (Minneapolis/St.Paul) is labeled “The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America”. I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about. The only problem with this year’s race was the date. It fell just a week after my 100K race in Colorado that I knew would (and definitely did) exhaust me. Most people would let the race go and look for it again on the calendar next time around. It would just not be ‘normal’ to run it so soon after such a hard effort. So, I said to myself ‘Imagine if I could break 3 hours at Twin Cities on really tired legs. That would be cool’. And there, the idea was born. I called it the Sub-3 Experiment.

To put my fitness into perspective, just three years earlier P.U. (pre-ultra), I broke the three-hour barrier in the Chicago marathon for the first time. I crossed that line with such emotion after having that goal from a young age. I wondered how future running achievements could every top that moment in time. Oh, how narrow-minded I was!

Chicago 10-10-10; 2:58. A priceless moment in time.

Chicago 10-10-10; 2:58. A priceless moment in time.

Hypothesis: Mind over muscle (fatigue)!

Prediction: This is where I have to be really decisive? Yes, I will do it!

Experiment:

Me and Ryan represented Team Novo Nordisk for the weekend at Twin Cities. We walked from our hotel to the HHH Metrodome (where the Minnesota Vikings play) where the start would be. We met up with my NYC marathon maniac friends; Kino and Thunder who I seem to bump into as much away from New York as in it. We discarded our warm clothes and got ready to go to the start line.

Getting race ready inside the much warmer stadium.

Getting race ready inside the stadium.

After my best night of sleep before a race ever, I was in good spirits. This was probably due to the fact that the ‘race’ was more of a game to me. If my legs weren’t feeling it, I would slow down but still finish. I was here to have fun and enjoy the challenge I had set myself.

I did a final glucose reading before handing my bag in and was surprised how low I was at 110. A 110 reading is normally perfect for everyday life but not before 26.2 miles. I was well below my target I always set myself of 180. As I had a 32oz Gatorade with me, now seemed a good a time as any to get some in the system. A few gulps and then a few more. I ended up polishing it off. I decided why risk going low in the race, I could always hold back on my carb intake in the first few miles if I felt it necessary.

Twin Cites route and elevation chart.

Twin Cites route and elevation chart.

I went outside to temps in the low-40’s. Most runners where already in the corrals waiting. I got into mine and weaved my way closer to the front. As soon as it became more trouble than it was worth, I settled on a spot and waited for the usual proceedings of speech, anthem and gun.

Start of the 32nd Twin Cities Marathon

Start of the 32nd Twin Cities Marathon

Off we went west through downtown Minneapolis. I didn’t try to rush ahead, I just stayed at the pace of most around me and moved up when a gap presented itself. The city had a similar look to Chicago, just not quite the same masses of runners. I believe we were about 9,000 strong.

By mile 1, I realized just how far back I had started. I was only now catching up to the CLIF pacer group of 3:15 led by fellow ultra runner Harvey Lewis. He read out a 7:21 split for mile 1 (I needed an average pace of 6:51 per mile for sub-3). OK, so thirty seconds down but no big deal. I had allowed for a slower start until 2.5 miles until the road flattened out.

We ran passed a church with its Sunday service bells chiming and then turned ninety degrees left up a long gradual climb. I noticed Kino ahead and caught up to him. We small talked, wished each other luck and then separated again.

Within two miles, we were in the suburbs of the city with beautiful tree foliage either side of the residential street. OK, the artistic impression of the course was pretty accurate. We wrapped around our first of four lakes for the day at Lake of the Isles. My average pace at the mile 4 was now down to an average of 7/minute miles. I had been gradually speeding up and so far so good. I told my plan to Crazy Chris Solarz in the week and he warmed me the wheels may fall off as early as mile 2. After a 100 mile race he had done last year, the next weekend he ran a marathon and it was not too speedy for him. I had been warned by the master but I was pretty determined to give it a fair crack at the whip.

The course was very flat now as we headed south. Around the biggest lake of the day; Lake Calhoun, and I could now appreciate why everyone who lives here loves their lakes! The lake looked glossy from the sunrise and a range of yellow, orange and green-leaved trees wrapped around the perimeter of the lake as the backdrop. During this lake, I passed by the last official pacing group on the course (3:05ers) which proved a bit more difficult than I wished for but once through, the space ahead was open and I continued at my steady pace.

I clocked 43 minutes at the 10K electronic mat. More to the point, my pace was now exactly on sub-3 hour target. All I had to do was maintain it for another 20 miles! I was surprised how many cheers I was getting of “changing diabetes” and “diabetes”. I’ve been wearing my Team Novo Nordisk shirt with pride all year-long but I guess running in the mountains and remote trails doesn’t attract the same level of spectators as a city marathon. It was a pleasant change. I enjoyed the acknowledgment of people recognizing what we are trying to do; diabetes doesn’t hold any of us back.

Early miles staying composed

Early miles staying composed

I was consuming a cup or two of Powerade at every odd mile marker to make sure my 110 pre-race glucose wouldn’t drop any lower. It by no means should have after that Gatorade I consumed but I was feeling more on the low than high side in the early miles. I ended up grabbing a gel from my shorts earlier than I would normally do. I was frustrated that a low now would possibly affect my pace rather than my legs that were doing a great job. Well done legs!

From mile 8 on, I knew the course descended very subtly all the way until mile 20. I didn’t want to increase my pace dramatically but knew it would be nice to have a cushion on my goal pace before the long hill from 20 to 23. I glanced my watch again and saw 6:47 pace. I stuck with this pace over the next few miles as it felt manageable.

The race director clearly knew what he was doing with his lakes because he saved the best of the four until last (only 9,996 lakes still to see in Minnesota!). As we hugged the south bank of Lake Nokomis, there was a great view of Minneapolis behind, probably a good five miles away. The houses around the lake were no joke either. I guess, if your living the good life in this part of the world, you live by a lake!

As much as I was enjoying my views and the race, my bladder was not enjoying any of it. I had been holding out for a few miles now. I really just didn’t want to stop to go or the complete opposite and wet myself so I just thought if I kept running, the problem would just go away. Shortly before halfway, I took a detour into a porta potty and oh man, did I feel better after that! I got going again and noticed the thirty seconds of cushion time I had just built up had gone again but at least I didn’t wet myself. I’m not sure I physically could have. How do people do that anyway?!

I clocked my half split at 1:29:40. Things were shaping up for the perfect sub-3 race but I was still concerned if my legs were coming along for the whole ride. I had to hold this pace for the same amount of effort again and climb this hill positioned at the hardest miles in any marathon. My mind was wandering and doubting. I had to break the race down before I cracked. OK, six miles until the bridge over into St. Paul. Let’s focus on those six gradual downhill miles and nothing else I said to myself.

I had noticed I was passing people every hundred yards or less the whole race. This felt great. Not that I was racing anyone except the clock but there’s something immensely satisfying about running smart, holding back and finishing strong. Time would tell if I was holding back or already close to my max though. Nothing was a given. I’ve never heard many people anyone say “that marathon was an easy” and respected the distance and discipline required.

Flying through the last aid station; I could wait 1.2 miles for water.

Pushing the pace on the second half.

As we ran alongside the Mississippi River to our right, I knew the bridge was imminent. With just about a mile of Minneapolis real estate running remaining, I got a tap on my back from a tall runner. “I love your team” he said. “Oh, thanks…me too” I said. “Are you T1?” I asked him. He was indeed. I was impressed. I demanded he apply for the team immediately!

During the conversation, I felt a growing number of runners swarming around me as we descended down the road towards the Franklin Street Bridge. I wasn’t one to enjoy doing all the leg work with a light breeze coming at us so I pushed the gear up enough to breakaway and cross the river independently.

Bridge the gap; between Minneapolis and St.Paul

Bridge the gap; between Minneapolis and St.Paul

The view of the rowers on the Mississippi River with the tree foliage either side was picturesque to say the least but I would have traded the view at this point for no wind which was blowing me all over the place. As I reached halfway across, I felt my speed pick up again. In part because the bridge was now descending but also because I heard the cheers of a large crowd on the St. Paul side of town.

I ran though this noisy section and kept my pace high as I kept drawing more and more runners in who were now fighting hard to stay at their earlier pace. Mine had picked up again, now to 6:31. I questioned if that was too much but knew for every mile, I was putting a nice twenty seconds in the bank that I may need to spend again on the hill.

Under the Mile 20 arch

Under the Mile 20 arch pushing at 6:30 pace.

Though a 20 mile arch I went and I still felt good. Better than good, I was growing in confidence that sub-3 was just 10K away. I had about 45 minutes to cover the ground. I kept with my hydrating system of Powerade every two miles. The temperature was now perfect running weather now in the low 50’s and overcast.

I waited any moment for the climb to begin. I had built up two minutes of cushion since my pit stop. I knew I could sacrifice my pace back down to 7-minute miles going up, push for the last 5K and still be OK. After a small climb, the view surprised me. It was a long gradual down again. What a bonus! Where was this hill then?

I approached a small group clutched tight together. As we turned sharp left onto Summit Avenue, a spectator gave us encouragement “Good group here, work as a team up this hill”. Team? I’d only just met them! I stayed at my pace  and pretended like they weren’t there. Sure enough, no one followed and I pulled away from them. I reminded myself, I had just climbed five mountains last weekend and this hill wasn’t going to be my excuse for slowing down.

Up ahead carnage was ensuing with a couple of runners staggering and walking the hill. I flew past them. The crowds were great here, a couple of rows deep in places and really had my back.  The legs were now feeling a little wobbly. I could fee the pain of the marathon kicking in and feared my pace had fallen off. It had slowed but not by much; 6:45.

Summit Avenue was as straight as a dart. I focused on the solid line painted on the asphalt for a bike lane and used that as my personal line. I kept my effort fair for the miles that were left to cover. The risk of my legs not feeling it was too high so I maintained my 6:45 pace all the way to the summit of Summit to be specific.

Classic mat shot with 5K to go!

5K to go; the classic mat shot!

Now I was passed 23 miles and I could see the road ahead descend again. Less than 5K to push. The crowd got louder as the legs began to get tighter and make their own kind of noise. Runner after runner, I kept closing the gap on the next one and charging ahead. I haven’t felt this good in the closing miles of a marathon since my PR at Marine Corps in 2011.

At mile 25, a couple of back to back hills presented themselves in front. I ran right through the aid station. I could drink as much as I wanted in 1.2 miles. In doing so, I blitzed through typical final miles marathon carnage; a guy holding his hamstring and another drinking from three cups of water. I knew now that I was not only going to break three but do it in style too.

With the final push uphill I looked up for the church in the skyline as I knew this would mean the home stretch. I was anticipating a tight left turn with a hidden finish but it was so much better. Down below the hill in the distance was the red and orange decorated finish arch. I realized I could cruise in but didn’t want too. I made every next step lighter and more powerful. Mind over muscle all the way home.

Home stretch still pushing hard

Home stretch still pushing hard

Result:

Across the line in 2:56. I keeled over and realized I was pretty dead. I bent over for an eternity soaking up my achievement. I didn’t want to leave the finish area. If their was ever a way to not PR and feel amazing, this was how to do it. I had achieved a big negative split of 1:30, 1:26 (something I don’t do nearly enough). The stats got better; nobody passed me after the halfway mark.

Like clockwork; the numbers make it look easy but I assure you i't wasn't

Like clockwork; the numbers make it look easy but I assure you i’t wasn’t!

I waited for a while draped in my foil blanket. Thunder came in next with a 3:15 and we waited for Ryan and Kino who were both shooting for 3:30. The rain that was forecast finally came down momentarily. Shaking from the cold rain, it was time to get our bags and change into dry ASAP. My flowing running legs minutes before were replaced with stiff hamstrings, calves and IT bands. I was looking forward to a few days off.

gghg

The home straight in St. Paul. A great finish area!

Re-grouping post-race with my team-mate Ryan, Thunder & Kino!

Re-grouping post-race with my team-mate Ryan, Thunder & Kino!

Conclusion:

The past two weeks, I have run two marathons and a 100K race in three different states (pacing Tiffany in the Top of Utah Marathon (3:05), UROC 100K  in Colorado (16:57) and now Twin Cities in Minnesota). I’m tired.

I predicted I could do it before I started but honestly I had my doubts and even a few doubters. I kept the demons at bay and went after it like I always seem to do. Think you might lose and you already have. My plan simply worked because I had one. Some determination and gusto didn’t hurt me either!

Now for a short break before the home stretch of 2013; New York City and Philadelphia Marathons and then onto the trails once more for the North Face 50 Championships in San Francisco. What, you thought that was it?

A medal I will always be proud of. 2:56 on a beautiful course!

Twin Citites medal; one I will always be proud of.

Pacing in the Canyons; Top of Utah Marathon

Top of Utah Marathon Anyone?
Top of Utah Marathon Anyone? Photo Credit: Nicole Smith

Due to the extreme jump in demand for places at next year’s Boston Marathon, people were scrambling around in late Spring or looking for earlier fall marathons to BQ, an acronym referring to Boston Qualify to my non-runner readers.

Plans for Tiffany to run Chicago in mid-October were revisited, we knew that race fell too late in the year, so we landed ourselves in Logan, Utah, a small town situated just off the base of the Wasatch Mountains and a few miles shy of Idaho.

The race (Top of Utah Marathon) was picked for many reasons. The date, the course profile (starting elevation 5,500 dropping over a 1,000 feet), the  scenery (through a canyon in the mountains) and those fabulous moose medals!

The real draw to the race was the moose medals!
The real draw to the race was the moose medals! Photo credit: Top of Utah

Initially, I planned to jump in as pacer for the second half of the race. Realizing that the first half (18 miles) was the most scenic, I upgraded my pacing duties and entered the whole race. I was just hoping she wouldn’t go too fast as my 100K race in Colorado was the following week. No, seriously, I was very concerned!

Net downhill!
Net downhill!

Needing a BQ of 3:35, was not the concern for her. A 1:31 half and a couple of 19 minute 5K’s told her she was in 3:05-15 shape. A 20-minute cushion to fall back on and a limitless faster window was the game plan going into it.

We took a bus from our hotel at some ungodly hour and transferred to a second bus situated at the finish area which climbed up and through the canyon road, the same one we would descend. It felt like the Utah’s version of Boston all being crammed on a school bus with loads of excited….well, adults!

The combination of 6 AM and 5,500 feet above sea level made our start location anything but normal mid-September weather for what we are used too back in New York. We competed to see who could look more ridiculous with the most amount of layers on. I recall at least five for me and am claiming victory on this post!

Just prior to the start, we did a mini shake out in front of the start line. When my eyes locked on a guy wearing exactly the same kit as me, my instinct said ‘How did he get that kit?!’ I approached him, a skinnier version of me and then realized it was my Team Novo Nordisk teammate, Seth Pilkington, whom I had never met and clearly neither of us knew we would be here. He said he was going for the win so we backed off a few steps before the gun was fired.

7 AM and the sun was barely rising as we were moved off down the canyon. The strategy Tiffany was using was the 10/10/10 rule which translates to the non-runner as the first 10 easy, the middle 10 focused and the last 10K with all your heart. I have used this strategy myself. I particularly like recalling Jack Daniel’s quote which is almost identical;

“Run the first two-thirds with your head, the last third with your heart”.

After the first couple of miles, the easy part got thrown out of the window, we were running 7:05 pace. I tried to convince Tiffany to bring it back to 7:15-20 but she wasn’t having it. A sea of people lined the single lane asphalt in front and behind us. This was the only sign of anything man-made for miles. It was just a road, a canyon and lots of very happy runners.

The sunrise hit one hillside and left the others dark. The scenery was perhaps more spectacular than we had predicted it would be here. And this race only attracts 2,000 runners. Go figure?

Goofeballs!

Goofballs descending! Photo credit: Marathonfoto

By mile 7, the pace had dropped to the same number. This was shaping up to be a fast day! Tiffany was in about 10th place for the women. Every mile or so, we would see one more further ahead and gradually reel that person in. Their was not much banter between them. They knew they were all fighting for top spots in the race. I was beginning to feel like the only guy in the front row of The Bachelor Tells All. Shouldn’t really be part of this but as I am, I’ll take the best seat please. (That was also a public confession to watching The Bachelor FYI – what a show!).

My role was to ultimately to limit the pace to 7 minute miles. The canyon descent was so inviting as well as seeing the next target ahead but we had agreed to not hammer down the 1,100 foot descent. That’s why we had a plan after all. There would be flat miles to finish, 8 to be precise, in the Cache Valley which had a risk of feeling anything but fun on worn out quads at the current pace.

A pit stop at a rare man-made object at mile 11 wasn’t ideal but ultimately, the 30 second break we both got from the pace seemed to do us both good. The 7:35 on the watch was in essence another 7:05. We lost a female place in the process but caught back up to her within the next mile to resume as we were in 6th or so. The pace was dropping and we went as low as a couple of 6:30’s which bemused a couple of guys working the same system as runner and pacer as we bombed passed.

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Exiting the canyons having way too much for 16 miles into a marathon.           Photo credit: Marathonfoto

Coming down lower we got to see more humans other than very nice aid station volunteers and/or runners. Crowds formed first in patches and then as a mass section at a fork in the road at mile 16. We ran through the aid station smoothly, grabbing our fluids and turned a slight right. I asked for confirmation that she was in 6th place but got a quizzed look from a spectator. Tiffany told me to forget about it. If she didn’t care, nor should have I but we both knew a top 5 meant prize money, a nice little extra for her efforts today.

We pushed on through some flat roads at the base of the canyon among small bungalow homes heading north towards Logan. But now begun the mind games. 18 downhill done and 8 rollers to get home. Mile 19 produced the slowest mile other than the pit-stop. it was time to dig in. Luckily for Tiffany, she had a female to focus on ahead, that we assumed had to be the elusive 5th place.

The next few miles were tough. The gap would close but at every aid station, Tiffany would take her time to hydrate and collect herself and the gap expanded again. With 5K to go we finally reeled her before turning onto the main high street. it had taken 5 miles from initially seeing her to taking her down. This fly on the wall pacing gig was awesome!

Up main street for a long mile, we could see in the distance what looked like another female runner. Once confirmed, it was game on again. This gap closed but we were running out of time. The advantage we had, was that we could attack from behind without her (competitor) knowing.

On the turn, she finally noticed but like a deer in headlights literally froze knowing this was the end of her luck. We went past and I was adamant Tiffany had pass with utmost conviction. And we did but somehow her competitor kicked back. It was now game on for the last mile.

Tiffany slowly stretched the gap as we ran full stride. Her breathing was heavy, it was really gutsy and awesome to watch but nerve-racking too. All I could do was encourage and lie a little bit. “How much is the gap?” she asked me approaching the last turn. “Not enough” I replied although it probably was.

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Incredible push for home to snatch 4th place female right at the end. #proud. Photo credit: Marathonfoto

Tiffany ran that final straight so hard, I barely kept up! She clocked in at 3:05 and some change and I finished between her and the disgruntled fifth place female. At first, the news was coming through that her time meant she had beaten her PR Berlin but alas not to be true. She missed it by seconds but that did not put a damper on the post-race festivities.

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Two happy marathoners. Photo credit: Marathonfoto guy with our phone!

Somehow I managed to snag an age-group award for my pacing duties and for that I earned a small moose trophy but the show deservedly went to Tiffany with a giant moose for 4th overall and $500 cash. Take that Uncle Sam! What a day and what a fun race at the Top of Utah. Post-race five-hour drive to Zion National Park ahead and a full six days to recover before my inaugural 100K in Colorado. The fun never seems to stop.

2013 Race Calendar; The Plan of Attack!

I have spent a few more weeks than I had planned in my off-season; my right ITB told me to roll more, rest more. It’s given me time to reflect on an amazing 2012, appreciate being 100% healthy and like most runners in December-January; plan for an even more amazing 2013.

The A race (of all A races!)

My “A” race stands out like a sore thumb, in a very very good way; Western States 100. As a first time entrant to the lottery system to the oldest and most prestigious 100 miler in the world, the chances of actually getting a place were between slim and none. I somehow got in. What is it with me and raffles in 2012? I don’t know but I need to be buying Mega Millions too. I’ll be rubbing shoulders with the best in the sport; Tim Olson, Ryan Sandes, Ellie Greenwood to name only a few. I will be fortunate enough to share this awesome experience with my Team Novo Nordisk teammate; Ryan Jones (a fellow LT100 finisher in 2012).

Did someone say running in Colorado?! I’ll go!

My second major race falls into a new distance. The 100K race is something yet to be tackled on my resume. I’ve seemed to found a fairly successful race distance between 50K and 50M; the “W” from The North Face in DC and my 16th place at JFK (both 2012) are my highlights to date. I was unable to enter the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) event last year due to the date being a week apart from the Chicago Marathon. This year, no such marathon dilemma, it is fully on my radar. It will be my “A2” race if you will. The event, in it’s third year now, attracts the best athletes going after the biggest prize money in ultra running (not that I think I will get anywhere near the pot of gold!) It has moved from Virginia to Colorado for 2013. I don’t think I can resist the challenge of some thin mountain air on a great point to point course beginning in Breckenridge and finishing in Vail.

Looking to PR big time @ the oldest one of them all; Boston Marathon

But, back to the start. I”ll kick things off with some winter training with a great and smart training partner; Gary Berard, and give Boston a good effort. It’s time to shave off some time from my PR of 2:45. Then, it will be full on trail season with a return to Bear Mountain for 50 miles and DC for the same distance (key fitness tests for Western States). I’m dabbling with Pocono Marathon in mid-May purely from a downhill elevation perspective (specificity training). Remaining races will no doubt happen on a whim to add the year. I haven’t figured out a half-marathon yet towards Boston for starters and I’m keen to tackle a Half-Ironman maybe towards the end of the year. I am really excited and ready to race alongside my team mates at Team Novo Nordisk and make this year the best one yet.

Here’s the calendar to date (bold=registered);

February 16th: Martha’s Vineyard 20-Miler, MA (tbd)

April 15th: Boston Marathon, MA

May 4th: TheNorthFace Endurance Challenge 50M, Bear Mountain, NY

May 19th: Pocono Marathon, PA (tbd)

June 1st: TheNorthFace Endurance Challenge 50M, Washington DC 

June 29th: Western States 100, Squaw Valley-Auburn, CA

July 20th: 20in24 Relay, Philadelphia, PA

September 28th: UROC 100K, Vail CO (tbd)

California International Swimathon

cimlogo

My first time back to California in 25 years was a very different one. I was returning as a diabetic (no Disney candy for me) and as a runner. The most obvious part of this trip that stood out though was the weather. I think I must have cast my British ‘take the weather with you’ luck. We were in store for a real treat; thunderstorms all weekend with up to 30mph winds!

This was my inaugural race with Team Type 1 (now Team Novo Nordisk). A good chance to meet some of the guys before the end of the year. Eight of us from across the country were meeting up to race (at what is declared the fastest marathon in the west; California International Marathon (CIM) held in the state capital of Sacramento).

With the weather so bad, we were lucky (?!) the race was actually still going ahead. After witnessing first hand the on/off nature of the New York City Marathon with Hurricane Sandy a few weeks prior, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the race organizers scrapped this one too. But the show went on. We were going to get blown around and soaked for three hours and part of me was really excited by these insane conditions. I packed my usual race gear with a few extras. My tub of Aquaphor, lots of socks, band-aids and a baseball cap. This was my defense against the storm!

Purple = BAD!

Purple = BAD!

Half of our team were doing the relay; Casey, Matt, Nathan and Ben and seemed genuinely worried one of the marathoners might beat them! That was Benny. It was his first marathon yet everyone knew he was lightning fast. That left Chris, myself and Rhet (another first time marathon guy with a time goal way out of my league) to the marathon distance.

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We woke up Sunday to the expected forecast. I looked out of the hotel window to witness palm trees swaying around in heavy rain. This was to be a swimathon, not a marathon. I was rooming with Rhet who remained focused and ready to see what he could do. No one seemed to adjust their goal plan of giving it everything.

CIM course map

The race course ran point to point from Folsom to Sacramento. A similar layout to Boston minus the four hills. I squeezed my way near the front of the start line in a packed area and somehow found Benny. It was almost pitch black, winds whirling around us and the rain coming down hard already causing many large puddles and flooded areas of road. This was anything but California sunshine.

We took off south. A lot of people were ahead or really gunning it to get there. This was because the race is popular with many elites for its fast design and also the relay teams starting at the same time. Soon we turned west for a long fivemile stretch. Winds pushed us to the right and everyone was doing their best to run straight and shield themselves with another body. Wearing a baseball cap helped keep the rain off my face but could do nothing about this intense wind.

My goal going in to the race changed a few times from a controlled sub-3 to wanting to PR. My mindset was slightly aggressive considering I was two weeks post my all out effort at JFK 50 miler but I went with my confident brain rather than my tired body and set the goal at 2:44. The first few miles were clipping off easily at 6:10 and I felt great. When do you not feel great in the first few miles right?

This pace soon changed though when we turned south for the next five miles. The south winds up to 30mph were now directly at us and I found myself sitting on two guys. One was upset that I was doing so but it would have been suicide to take the lead role. I looked around and saw another ten runners behind me! My guilt of drafting disappeared instantly! Anyone running in front or solo on this stretch was wasting some serious energy. Our pace was, well irrelevant, due to this situation but about 6:45 average.

Finally a right turn to get out if the wind and another west stretch. The lead guy from before had finally eased up and calmed down that no one was taking the bait for lead role. I nudged him and said, now you’re running smart. He agreed and no longer hated me! His buddy struck up a conversation mentioning he ran Leadville. We talked about Leadville for the next mile together realizing we probably ran past each other a few times as our finish times were within 30 minutes. Small world this running business!

I hit the halfway point at 1:22; 30 seconds ahead of my goal time at 1:22. Being the optimist, I said to myself; ‘All you have to do is run the same speed again and you will PR’. Did I mention I was running in heavy rain and 30 mph winds?!

Sunny California!

Sunny California!; This photo went viral on social media because no one believed it was that bad. Yes, it was!

We were now on a second long stretch of running directly into the ‘in your face wind’! There were so many puddles and flooded areas! we were running straight through them. Our feet had quickly adjusted to the fact they would be soaked the entire race and I was praying my layer of Aquaphor and two pairs of socks would shield me from blisters. At mile 16, I calculated I just had to maintain 6:15’s and I was on for a huge PR. I think the rain got in my head because I’m since sure my calculations were off.

As soon as I started to dream, my legs started to scream. I was hitting the famous marathon wall but four miles early! I was still grinding along and I tagged up with a guy about 6′-3″ and 200lbs; a perfect partner. Just like in cycling, we shared the lead rotating every 400 meters or so and kept at this for two miles until our paces differed and split again. It was that sort of race where you grabbed help where you could. This was no PR day for 99% of the 15,000 runners and I wasn’t getting too upset that my pace was dropping and I was part of the larger statistic.

The final 6.2 miles headed west into Sacramento. Hoping these miles would be better due to less wind, I was badly mistaken. My pace had shuddered way down to 7:45. This wasn’t a tire legs situation anymore, this was a hypo. I popped two gels and regretted not sticking with my routine of a gel every seven miles or so. If I had taken one at mile 20, this wouldn’t have happened. I wanted a really good post-run glucose reading and thought I would be ok just gulping on Powerade at the water stations. Even with my experience, I still get it badly wrong. I remembered talking to Matt on the flight over from NYC about shutting it down if it wast going my way. Even, in this situation, I couldn’t. I couldn’t let go. I wanted to perform at my maximum on that day.

With a mile to go I approached a long line of tall palm trees and knew that was near the end (from my minimal course research). As I saw the trees, I realized the rain had stopped. It was still cloudy but seriously, hallelujah!

My pace had picked up again with the gels doing their magic. I had been stupid not to take a gel back at mile 20 and had gone hypo and paid the price. I saw my team mate, Rhet ahead with less than a mile to go. He was meant to be done by now. I pulled up alongside him and without hesitation made sure he stayed on my shoulder. This was not my day and I wasn’t going to ditch a teammate. I wanted to see him finish strong. We swung around the last two turns at the State Capitol and finished together in 2:53.

Casey, Benny and Nathan were waiting for us right at the finish line. Benny threw down an impressive 2:43 first time marathon in those horrible conditions beating the relay team who had to settle for a 2:45. Yeah, Benny’s that good!

I went to the drop-bag tent to collect my stuff and dug out my blood tester. I was 91. I don’t want to know how low I was at mile 20! It wouldn’t have changed the outcome enough to still PR. We hobbled to the car and shared our stories. Of course, at his point the sun was breaking through the clouds. No time to enjoy California sunshine. I had a plane to catch back home!

What a blast with the team even though it was a quick trip in not so sunny California. The good news writing this is, at least I know I will be back next Summer for Western States 100. Then I’ll be crying about too much sun!

One more bling to an incredible 2012!

One more to an incredible 2012!

 

Gotta Run with Will

In September, I was honored to be asked by Will Sanchez to be on his show; ‘Gotta Run With Will’. Previous guests have included some local celebrities of the NYC running scene; Nicole Sin Quee, Francis Laros, Deanna Culbreath, Jonathan Cane and Terence Gerchberg. I had a great time being his guest discussing my running resume, managing diabetes and of course the Leadville 100 in honor of my Uncle Dave!

Will is a true part of NYC running. He has been a member of New York Road Runners since 2003, worked as a mentor with Team in Training (Leukemia and Lymphoma Research) and attends the famous NYC Run Club; where I have met 99% of my New York friends! Thank you Will and the team at Gotta Run with Will.

 

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