Archive for Pacing

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

 

 

 

 

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.

Pacing at Yonkers Marathon

Last Tuesday, I had heard rumors amongst the group of going to Yonkers Marathon to do our 22 mile easy run (training for the Chicago Marathon on October 7th). I dismissed this as a crazy idea. Why  would we want to train on one of the toughest marathon courses and tack on an extra 4.2 miles? I slept on it and by Wednesday I had signed up, completely sold on the idea!

Yonkers Marathon is old

I now had three full days to prepare for my 8th marathon. I quickly learned how much history the race had. For starters, it is the second oldest marathon in the world (after Boston). It used to be held at noon in May, one month after Boston and America’s best distance runners like Ted Corbitt had to run both of these marathons to qualify for the Olympics. The original course; a big loop incorporating seven towns has long gone. It is now one smaller loop, which is run twice to get to the magical distance of 26.2. It has also since moved to mid-September and at a more reasonable time of 8am. The course remains tough, just not Ted Corbitt tough.

Hasting-on-Hudson hills; mile 4.5-6 and 17.5-19

The modern two-loop course; still hilly

Yonkers is one of the last qualifying races to gain entry into the following year’s Boston Marathon. I entered Boston last week and immediately shared the news with my good friend,  Gary Berard. We trained together for Boston in 2011; four months of solid work that resulted in a PR for both us. I hit 2:56, Gary an amazing 2:45.

He was keen to sign up. The only problem was his last competitive marathon was that race. It fell outside of the qualifying window. He has not been training for a while now due to his coaching business, GB Running. Somehow, I sold him on running Yonkers in three days time, saying I would run alongside him. I did however forget to mention it was a hilly course. He would need a 3:10 to get into Boston. We calculated the pace at 7:11’s/per mile. My easy 22 miler had quickly become a little longer and faster! It didn’t matter, he wanted a BQ and I wanted him to train with so it was on.

On Saturday Gary still hadn’t actually signed up and l kept receiving texts that his neck was hurting him. This wasn’t going to plan. So I texted him back “See you at Grand Central at 6am.”

Sunday 6am. Gary was there. He had time to recalculate the pace. It was actually 7:14 per mile. “Every second counts!” he said. A group of about eight of us boarded the train and ate breakfast during the thirty minute commute. My glucose was 200 so I was right on my pre-race goal.

We arrived at Yonkers just before 7am. I adjusted my insulin pump’s basal rate to -60% for the next four hours (standard practice before any of my runs), we got changed and then checked in our bags. One final check of my glucose. I was 147 so I grabbed a bag of Powerbar Energy Blasts (45grams of carbs) and ate them straight away to try and get back up to 200. I was carrying six Honey Stinger gels for the race, all containing 29grams of pure sugar. Five tucked in my shorts and one in my compression sock for no over reason other than I had run out of space! A complete overkill but I did not want to rely on the Gatorade stations to actually have Gatorade, as stupid as that sounds. This may be the second oldest marathon but it definitely wasn’t the second biggest, no offense to NYCRUNS, the new group in charge of the Yonkers marathon.

8am(ish) Start of the 87th Yonkers Marathon and new Half-Marathon

The gun fired and we begun the task at hand. About hundred or so of the 1,000 runners were ahead within a mile of a gradual climb. It was irrelevant however, who was ahead.   Our pace for mile one was 7:12. We were already settled into a good pace. In fact, the majority of runners ahead were half-marathoners (700) and we actually felt sorry for any  marathoners trying to race this thing for real as you literally had no idea which place you were in unless you were winning (the leader got an escort police bike).

The first mile was a gradual climb

By mile three, me and Gary got a thud in our backs. Pesky half-marathon kid trying to squeeze through the middle of us. In fact, it wasn’t, it was Rui. He was adamant on running his own pace of 7:25 so we didn’t expect to see him. He liked our pace so made the group into a three. The more the merrier.

We cruised north on rolling terrain into Hastings-on-Hudson. This was where the big hill started. We turned right and as expected begun to climb. I knew from the elevation chart that the climb was about a mile and a half long. Our pace here was off but it really didn’t matter. What goes up must come down meaning we would get the time back. It was also early days in the race.

At the bottom of the hill, there was a 10K checkpoint followed by a long straightaway with lots of young volunteers manning the upcoming water station. They were going wild and really enjoying helping out. If you took their cup of water or Gatorade they would be ecstatic! Maybe the excitement got to us too. I checked the Garmin and saw 6:40 lap pace. I pulled the reins in on that real quick. Gary said thank you (for noticing) but I should have said sorry for not noticing.

The pace remained steady after that small burst as we ran south back towards Yonkers. I felt good with my glucose. I had taken a handful of small cups of Gatorade up to this point and decided at mile ten to take a Honey Stinger gel. By mile 11 and 12, we had lots of high school and military half-marathoners blazing past us. We had to remain focused and not get sucked into a different pace. One asked us if we were doing the half marathon. I’m pretty sure he was disappointed we weren’t as he thought he had just jumped three places!

On pace: 7:10 average with Gary and Rui at the halfway point.

We ran downhill into the town centre and did a u-turn to go on loop number two. We clocked 13.1 on the timing mat at 01:34:40, goal pace was 01:35:00. We were in good shape. We also now knew exactly what to expect for the rest of the course. We were basically Yonkers runners from now on!

The one aspect of the course we couldn’t control however was the heat. It was nearing 10am and it was getting hot. A high of 73 was the forecast but this felt hotter already. I made a conscious effort to say “do not underestimate the heat and drink at every aid station from now on”. I was now grabbing two or three drinks at each aid station. I would give at least one of these to Gary. We didn’t want dehydration to be the reason he didn’t BQ.

The road ahead was now clear. All of the half-marathoners were out of sight and it felt like a training run. We had done this countless times together. Just a small group running side by side at X pace over X miles. In our current situation, we had 12 miles to go at 7:14 pace. I felt fine and I know Rui did too. As we should, we have both been training hard for Chicago but Gary was the concern. This was important to him. His training had been limited to training his clients at their pace for months. He looked OK but I didn’t dare ask him. I mean, what would I have done if he said no!

We saw a police bike in the distance and soon realized it was escorting the leader. I was confused though as I saw Mike Arnstein at the start line and he is a 2:28 marathoner. How on earth were we gaining on the leader at mile 16? Well, if we were all women, we were! It was the lead woman and she was well clear of her competitors. We passed her up the Hastings-on-Hudson climb and wished her well.

Rui went for a pit stop before the steep descent at mile 19 so we went to a two. I popped my second gel here knowing the downhill motion would help me digest it easily. As we had done on the last loop, we let our bodies fly down this hill at a much faster pace than necessary with the theory that braking to stay ‘on pace’ actually wasted more energy. We were also taking the most direct route through S-bends, and tight turns using all the marathon tricks in the book to not do more work than was necessary.

We were heading south again passed an industrial area with no trees, leaving little asphalt unshaded. Their was nothing we could do but stay on pace and blank that out. We were finding we had a headwind so I took the lead and let Gary run a few yards back. Tour de France moves on two feet! We passed a handful of marathoners who were now in trouble but for the most part, it was just us and the road clocking off miles.

By mile 22 I had expected to see Rui come back to us. I had to assume he had shut it done and would ease in for the last 4.2 miles conserving his effort for Chicago as was always the plan. I never let my head think I was going to stop at 22 and wish Gary the best. I had convinced him this was a good idea and our pace was good but too close for any mistakes to happen.

Gary had earlier in the race said with three miles to go, he wanted to blaze home. I said sure, why not? But we realized two things at mile 23; 1) He didn’t need too. Our pace was steady and on for a 3:08. 2) Gary’s lack of training, should I say zero training for this was now taking its toll on him.

For the first time, he asked “Where’s the turn?” referring to a right turn at the most southern part of the course. I heard this as “I’m tired now”. I checked lap pace on the watch; 7:10….7:14….7:20. For the first time I changed my tone and demanded he stayed on my shoulder. He dug deep, really deep to not have a space between us. That mile ended up being 7:20 but I knew we could afford to give back a few seconds so I didn’t sweat it (too much).

The turn came as did some partial shade. Before we knew it, their was a cop car at the end of the road which meant the next turn back north. This turn would be the most positive one yet,  a long straight downhill where we again let the weight of our bodies do the work for us. I called out 1.5 to go. Then 1 to go. Gary said “Is that 1 mile or 1.2?” He had called me out!! I confessed I wasn’t really worried about the 0.2 part. Funny how he was though! We switched to shouting out actual mileage to go using my GPS as the guide.

I called out half a mile. Some small crowds started to emerge in the town, it was a rare but welcome site. You may be surprised to hear that no one really watches the second oldest marathon in the world! They don’t even close down the traffic for it!

After three obsessed hours staring at my lap pace on the watch, I had completely neglected the actual clock time! I did some quick math and told Gary he had to run a half mile in 5 minutes. It was in the bag. Then we got to a large coned section. My watch already said 26.2 miles was up so to see the 26 mile marker ahead was slightly alarming.

I literally sprinted ahead of Gary and left a big gap between us. What was I doing? How was this helping Gary get his BQ!! I let him come back to me but tried to maintain the pace around the last few turns. “You’ve got 100 seconds left”….”You’ve got 80 seconds left” and then “This is the last turn”.

BQ for Gary. I’m about to punch the air behind

And thank God it was. We turned left on the boardwalk and straight away, there was the finish line. I relaxed, let Gary bomb past and he finished in 3:09:00. I tucked in right behind. He did it. We did it. Great teamwork.

Rui came in right behind us at 3:10. He had been trying to catch up since we left him on the top hill. He was instrumental to Gary achieving his BQ to, running alongside for 17 miles or so.

We all enjoyed the moment. A great achievement on that course with zero training. A good day’s work, I was proud of Gary. We walked to a shaded area of the course to cheer home the rest of our teammates. After a few minutes had passed, Gary asked me “How are your levels?” I was so caught up in the race, I had forgotten to do a post-run blood test asap. Gary was already repaying me for my effort by thinking like a diabetic! I went to bag check, pulled out my blood tester and pricked my finger to draw the small sample of blood. Five second countdown on the meter and 179. More good news! All of this before midday on a Sunday. Now time for a well-earned lunch with my great running friends.

Yonkers glory! Rui, Gary and myself

Race Report: Leadville Trail 100 (Inbound)

Winfield – Twin Lakes (50 – 60.5)

Winfield aid station

With Rui by my side, we strolled out of Winfield. I was now wearing gators over my shoes as I was sick of wasting time, stopping to remove stones. I was digesting food on the road back to the trail section so it was a pretty slow start. Even so, I was excited to show Rui Hope Pass. He would be my witness to how tough this was! I had two concerns going on. My stomach wasn’t happy and climbing Hope from the south side was going to be a steeper grade and test me.

Winfield to Twin Lakes via Hope Pass at 12,600ft

The trail was a little congested with runners coming towards us making their way to Winfield. An unwritten rule is that whoever is in front has right of way,  so it got under my skin when some of these folks didn’t seem to care about this and made me wait for them to pass. It reminded me of the NYC subway system, a complete free for all with people getting on the train before allowing people to get off. When the terrain was flat or down, I ran, if it was uphill or slightly technical underfoot, I went back to walking.

All smiles towards Hope Pass climb with Rui

We reached the sharp left turn, the start of a 2.5 mile climb up approximately 2,400ft. Embedded rocks acted as steps and skinny trees acted as a handrail to propel me up the mountain. When these natural objects weren’t available, it was good old-fashioned steady relentless steps, the ‘no stopping’ rule again in full force.

Rui reminded me to drink water. I guess the altitude wasn’t making me believe I was sweating and therefore threw my brain off the necessity to hydrate. Also as we climbed, the temperature was dropping, another factor as to why I wasn’t dying of thirst. I had a sip or so every time he said it but it was not easy. Eating and/or drinking going up is tough. You’re trying to take down energy or fluids while your body is going up. Not a great combination.

About halfway up the climb, Rui pulled me to the side of the trail to eat. My glucose was in the low 200’s so we opted for some potato chips, carbs without the sugar. This was also the best food source to fight off nausea as well, so it had a double effect at 11,000ft. I took down two chips real slowly. I’m pretty adamant my face looked no different from when I was 7 years old refusing to eat my greens while my Nana told me how good they were for me! Rui was doing a good job playing Nana. He didn’t let up. He made me eat several more before allowing me to continue the climb.

As a big group came towards us up the climb, I was down to the last chip. We didn’t want to get stuck behind this group so we jumped back on the trail, onwards and very much upwards. The surrounding trees soon thinned out which meant we were close to the top (if you count a mile as close). We climbed a section where it was hands and feet stuff before getting onto the switchbacks to the top.

A few runners were sitting down with their patient pacers. I gave them a high-five or a tap on the leg to try to get them going but refused to focus too much on their agony, it could be me any minute if I let my brain think about. The climb was now really tough with the thin mountain air in full effect. Certain parts involved climbing on tippy toes. If you were to put your heel down, you would have fallen backwards. I was playing real life Snakes and Ladders and I refused to land on any snakes! Rui paced slightly ahead and we were in a groove rolling double sixes all the way up.

For the first time in the race, I felt rain. On went the rain jackets. I borrowed one from Francis only the day before. It was a thicker jacket than the one I planned to use. I wasn’t motivated to throw it on because of the rain though, this was just drizzle to a Brit. The reason lay in the temperature drop. It was significant and the winds were now swirling all around us.

Looking back from atop Hope Pass

We hit the top of Hope Pass. We looked back, we looked forward. Such incredible scenery. I instinctively grabbed a rock to keep as a memento.

Rui adjusted his jacket as the wind was kicking our asses all over the place. His brand new cap flew off his head and he could only watch it as it flew away. He thought it was cool rather than  getting annoyed at his misfortune.  I didn’t want to hang around to lose my hat so off I went descending the trail. I was pretty confident he would catch up!

Looking ahead atop Hope Pass. Hopeless aid just below and Twin Lakes in the distance

It was half a mile to Hopeless aid station. I had run further than ever in my life while climbing Hope Pass twice. A guy called Donny told me Thursday night “Don’t quit, you’re going to want to quit. Probably around mile 55”. Donny couldn’t have been more wrong.  Me and Rui were two big kids flying down this famous mountain without a care in the world. We startled a few runners ahead with our enthusiasm and energy. Should I have held back a little bit? Maybe but I wasn’t going to win this thing, I was here to enjoy the experience and I was most definitely doing that.

Hopeless aid station was full of runners refilling water bottles, getting hot soup or fixing their feet. We stopped and I did a blood test; 193. I took off my rain jacket and grabbed some water and a cup of soup.  I wanted to keep the descent going to bring the glucose down but Rui again held the reins on me and told me to eat before we continued. Besides, when would we next eat soup next to llamas again?! My stomach was already feeling  better than back at Winfield. My pacers persistent caloric intake was working, even though my brain was saying ” just run”.

Hopeless aid station. Tip of my woolly cap for those volunteers!

We thanked the volunteers and said our goodbyes. We had 3 miles of descending to do. Without doubt, this section was the most fun. Not too steep or too technical so we upped the pace all the way down making up some time from the outbound section, whizzing past cautious runners. As Rui was ahead I had a path to follow. If it looked good I followed, if he had to move his feet out of a tricky situation, I took a different route.

A section of single track expressway Rui and myself tore up…or down?!

What felt like sub-7 pace was actually 8:30’s. The average pace of last years winner Ryan Sandes was 10/min miles for the whole race so if I could just sort my climbing out I’ll one day start cashing checks for having this much fun! Here’s to dreaming. The trail widened and flattened out as we reached open meadows. This meant the river crossing was near and I was far too excited to share this experience with Rui. He wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as me to run through the iced cold water. It was about 7:30pm, sunset. I guess he had a point that cold feet with no sun isn’t the best mix. But we had no choice!

I went first and showed him how much fun it was. I ran through as fast as possible. It seemed to have got deeper than four hours ago and I had forgotten there were two parts to it. The second part, even deeper. What a great way to stay alert!

A couple of girls were running alongside us. The pacer of their group had a radio hanging off her backpack with M83 playing. I ribbed Rui for not having one of these as we ran into Twin Lakes with them, laughing as the music blared. I don’t know what Rui did, but I was feeling so much better after that stretch. I was ready for fresh clothes, some food and my next pacer, 49 years young, 2:41 marathoner, Frankie Bubble aka Francis.

Twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery (60.5 – 76.5)

I sat down and had a large choice of what to eat. Francis and Keila had gone off to buy me sandwiches from a deli (god knows where they found one!) Savory food items were something we did not factor for as much as we should have. Complex carbs with fat and protein. This was ideal food to put on some weight while not spiking my blood glucose. I grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich and some chips as roadies. The one definite savory item that was working for me provided by the aid stations was the Ramen soup with noodles and crushed crackers. Never try something new in a race. Screw it. 100 miles was new and it was working out just fine, the same way I borrowed Francis’s jacket over Hope Pass.

After 60 miles and more importantly, two river crossings it was also time for a wardrobe change. Off came the shoes and compression socks. I looked for blisters although I felt confident this wasn’t that necessary a procedure as my feet felt pretty good. I found about five, oh the power of adrenaline! I slapped on Vaseline, put on new socks and a fresh pair of Cascadia’s. This pair actually belonged to Francis, another late decision. We realized how little give the trail road gave from our Thursday shake out run and my own spare shoes; Brooks Pure Grit (a light weight trail shoe) and Brooks Ghosts (a neutral road shoe) wouldn’t be as suitable. Thank god we were both 11.5!

I changed leukaemia T-shirts, threw on my long sleeve Brooks top and my thin weatherproof Brooks jacket. Lastly, on went the wooly hat and the headlamp. I didn’t think I would need this until the end of this section but it was getting slowly getting dark. Off we went saying goodbye to my parents, Rui and Keila.

Couple of night owls about to knock out 16 miles

This 16 mile section was known as being the most runnable but first we had to climb. I told Francis a statistic I remembered about the race. If you make it out of Twin Lakes inbound, you finish the race. Hope Pass was over with. If he was worried about my mental state, he needn’t of as I confidently told him that. I felt like I was back in the game and the sub-25 buckle was still very much a tangible goal.

I had forgotten that this ascending section was quite long before I could try to run. The plan was to knock out 16/min miles for 10 miles (to Half Pipe aid) and then 14’s into Fish which was flat for 6 miles. My blood glucose was hovering around the 200’s and my caloric intake was still not hitting 500 calories between aid stations but my stomach was trying its best to understand what I was trying to get done out here!

We hit double track trail which was great news. We could run side by side on a track each. We could run! And run we did, at least that’s what it felt like to me in the pitch black with our two headlamps and a flashlight to guide us. I drank a lot more here. Why did i start to drink more now? Probably because it was flatter terrain, I was running and I knew I needed to put on weight for the dreaded next weigh in, especially as I was still under-eating. That had to be at Fish Hatchery.

We arrived at the aid station feeling good, looking good, talking all the way there. Half Pipe sure was a busy Saturday night hang out for the middle of nowhere. Lots of runners looked far too happy to be sitting down and chilling for my liking. I said to Francis, let’s make this a quick stop. I chugged two cups of water, grabbed some fruit and Ramen soup. Maybe Ramen soup will sponsor me for my next 100? That’s right, I was definitely not in a “never again” kind of mood, this was fun, this was what I had trained so hard for over the last six months.

Off we went for 5.6 miles of runnable miles to go. Francis kept encouraging me by telling me the average pace was dropping quickly and we were heading towards the planned pace for the section. We passed through a crew section which was pretty lively. We didn’t use it for Team England and I was glad. My crew needed some sleep and me and Francis were having a grand old-time anyway.

The dirt path road turned a corner and we saw car lights in the distance. It was route 24, the main spine road through Leadville that crew cars had been using to hit up all of the aid stations. Then we saw closer car lights and I knew that was the asphalt road that led me 2 miles into Fish Hatchery. I went for another sip of water from my bladder. It was mostly air.

Rather than waste time and pour water from Francis’s bladder to mine, we adopted the scuba diving ‘buddy breathing‘. He tucked me under his wing as I took water from his mouthpiece whenever I needed it. We had a good laugh at how ridiculous this looked yet no one was actually around to witness it.

Next came the realization I was still wasn’t eating enough food for the weight watchers medics eagerly waiting for me. I ate the second half of the grilled cheese sandwich and some chocolate. This was the plan. Eat and definitely don’t pee in the last miles coming into Fish. I was also now adopting Francis’s warmer jacket as a fourth layer over my backpack. Apart from a water bottle sticking out of my chest, it would take an eagle-eyed medic to realize I was wearing my backpack under the jacket (the crazy ideas you think of at midnight!). I also had on my hat, headlamp and two pairs of gloves. After all I was in the Rockies!

We heard some wild Texas music up ahead. Wow, the aid station is pumping out some Cotton-eye Joe pretty hard we thought. Then we realized it was two southern dudes doing their thing to motivate the runner. We had buddy breathing and ideas to cheat the scales, they had cowboy music. Two different ways to pass the time and entertain ourselves!

Twin Lakes aid station: but where were the dreaded scales?

We ran into the aid station. The pros had all finished and I’m sure a boatload had not returned from Winfield either due to time cut offs or pure exhaustion. I ran into the food area alone. Frankie had done his shift and done it awesomely. I looked for the dreaded scales left and right. Nowhere. I walked ahead. Nothing. Should I ask someone? By the time I considered that I was out of the aid station and back with Francis, Rui and Keila ready for her night shift. No weigh-in, after all that deceiving and well thought out plan!

Fish Hatchery to May Queen (76.5 to 86.5)

My feet felt fine. No need to address them or change shoes. We filled my empty water bladder back up to the max 50oz, reloaded the hand-held with Gatorade and tried to eat a granola bar and some fruit. From the calculations we had done, if this could be a slightly faster than planned 10 miles, Rui would have the chance to whip me back to the finish in sub-25. We all believed it was on.

Keila and I walked out of Fish Hatchery shortly before 1am.  I was eating (nibbling) and needed time to digest it but unfortunately I now had an even more painful area to deal with than my stomach. I was chaffing in my groin really bad. I know, not pleasant reading. Trust me, it was far more uncomfortable trying to knock out the last 23 miles in the discomfort. I had  been adding Vaseline at every aid station all day and night but for whatever the reason, my body and my Salomon compression shorts were not getting along down there. I’ll leave it at that.

The road rolled up and down, to the right and then dipped left onto a dirt path. This was all very runnable stuff but I wasn’t running now. I just walked it as fast as possible towards the start of pipeline climb to the peak of Sugarloaf Pass. I knew the climb would be slow and grueling so I justified that walking towards it would converse what little energy I had left for the long climb. Neither Keila or myself knew the exact distance, we just knew it had several false summits.

The first section was straight up for one mile. We saw a spectacular view of headlamps ahead of us. From memory, this climb then turned left and kept bending around the mountain for at least another two miles. Just like Hope Pass, I told Keila this wasn’t the time to focus on the average pace plan for the ten-mile stretch. This was about what pace could I go without having to stop.

The pace was good. The path up was very smooth if you discounted the huge cracks we kept jumping over in the trail where water must gush down at a frenetic pace during thunderstorms up here. We were however lucky with the lack of rain for the race. The straight up section was done in no time. After two more miles, I found I was only being passed by runners/pacers with trekking poles. I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of these accessories in ‘running’ events. Did they work? Absolutely. We’re they anything to do with running? Absolutely not. I asked a guy who seemed experienced (yes he had trekking poles!) how much further until we hit the summit? He confidently said one mile.

One mile later I was still disappointed that it wasn’t the top. People with trekking poles are also liars!  Keila felt my frustration as I would say “this is definitely it” for the umpteenth time. I wish I never had asked anyone. I wish I had said at the bottom it was at least 5 miles of climbing and then I wouldn’t have got myself into this emotional mess of false summits. I was warned but the newbie in me didn’t listen or research this section enough.

Finally, we made the top. It was now freezing. I still had my two pairs of gloves on and four layers so felt warm enough however. This was now the time I had been waiting for to descend the remaining miles into May Queen. I had told Keila “don’t you worry, when we get to the top of this, we are going to run all the way down to the aid station”. The words were positive but somewhere over Sugarloaf Pass, I let my brain do some more calculations. Even if I could have run down this section, I would have needed a sub-2 hour half marathon finish to get the bigger belt buckle; the under 25 hour finish. Francis had told me earlier that it helps to be really, really stupid in these races, meaning don’t think, just do.

Unfortunately for me, my brain would not shut down. I had run over 80 miles and I was still alert, still calculating, still not being sick! But atop Sugarloaf, my brain told my legs, forget it, that big buckle is not happening, not this time anyway. My legs went into complete sleep mode and would not run. I wanted to, I wanted to so bad but their was nothing. I knew I was going to finish, even if I just walked in. I think i also and knew that if I had tried to run in for the last 18 miles to a sub-25, I risked a very high chance ending up in hospital for a long time. So, I was  caught between two not very appealing options and dragged ass to finish in that huge five-hour window.

We walked and talked all the way downhill on very runnable road to single track to road where a row of cars were parked just before May Queen. We almost kept on going but then realized one of the cars was Team England! It was 4am and it was now the coldest part of the race so far. Sorry Keila, I gave you ten miles of walking but you sure helped me keep moving all the way.

May Queen to Finish (86.5 – 100)

Francis had the chair ready by the side of the car and was open for business! “What do you need Stevie?” I probably muttered something sarcastic like “to finish this race”. Rui was bundled up  head to toe. This was August 19th right? My Mum also looked unrecognizable in numerous layers shaking her hands. This wasn’t triumphant shaking, this was freezing shaking. I pleaded with her to get in the car which Keila had already done to get warm where the heat was on full blast. She finally listened to my advice. Looking back at this scene now reminds me how much determination and positive energy I had the whole time. We got a great tip from Gary Brimmer the day before the race; don’t let him (me) see the car ever. We liked it. We also didn’t use it and it never crossed my mind even for a spilt second to jump in the warm car and call it quits. I had six hours to complete a half marathon and therefore complete my first 100 miler in Leadville, the highest ultra marathon in the States. You could have shown me a warm bed, a shortcut, a free pass to the finish line. Would not have made a difference. I was going the way I came and Rui was going to get me there, absolutely no question.

May Queen aid station at 4am

Off we marched down the road into May Queen aid station. Again, it was jam-packed. Runners camping out trying to get warm, taking their time, some contemplating if they would ever get going again. I wanted something hot unsurprisingly. I said to Rui I wanted Ramen soup and a cup of cocoa. He advised against this combination so I changed up the menu and just went for the cocoa. A nice hot roadie with enough sugar to keep me from having any hypo problems. We broke this last section into two. 7 miles of single track along Turquoise Lake until we would see Francis again at the boat basin (a crew area).

This stretch was my real low point. The sub-25 game had long gone as we walked the trail by the lake. What I remembered as easy trail running on the outbound had now become a really hilly and technical section. I started to get dizzy and told Rui to slow down (he was going as slow as possible) in case I passed out. I tried to munch on some potato chips and sip water as this was the best cure. It worked but then repeated itself every few hundred yards. I think we knocked out those seven miles at about 25/minute per mile. Sounds impossible right? I guess I like making the impossible possible but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind! Rui told me I looked like Iron Man. I corrected him and said I was Ultra Man! The humor didn’t last long. When I saw a face in a rock I knew I needed to wake up fast. I guess after 25 hours I had finally become tired.

Sunrise over Turquoise Lake: Amazing, although I don’t think I appreciated its beauty as much in the moment!

Just as I had told Keila earlier, I told Rui as soon as we get beyond Boat Basin, the trail flattens out and the road widens up to the finish. I promised him I would get faster. I felt this huge amount of guilt that he was having to go so slow in such cold conditions when only hours before we were two kids flying down Hope Pass at 8:30 pace.

Before I could start thinking too much about how far Boat Basin was, Francis appeared on the trail. What a great sight! The car and that comfy chair couldn’t be far away. We high-fived and kept walking. Only a handful of spectators were siting outside by the lake watching the sunrise. My Mum and Keila were passed out in the car but Francis had it all under full control. I needed more Vaseline I exclaimed! I sat in the chair for a while with the throw over me to try to get warmer. My sugar was over 200 but I didn’t care. Better than dealing with a hypo at this stage of the game. Runners were passing through slowly. I noticed that none of them looked cold. They also had less layers on than me. That was it. To hell with all these layers! I took off my track suit pants, gloves and one of the jackets. If I was cold now, I would just to have to move faster!

We left and immediately walked at a really brisk pace. It was probably around 15/min miles. Rui said “We are going to walk like bad asses all the way into the finish line and take back some places that belonged to me!” A random woman sitting right there said “Hell yeah!” We had no clue she was there but were amused she was a ‘fly on the wall’ to our crazy army talk!

Off we went. The first few steps were so excruciating, I cannot find clean enough words to describe the pain. But as soon as I got into astride, the pain numbed (slightly). It sure felt better going faster than 25/minute miles. I hadn’t gone this fast since running into Twin Lakes over 17 miles ago. We marched down a dirt road as the sun kept rising. We were passing people. One guy, then another, then one more appeared. The best part about this was they were still in running motion, we were power walking and it was no contest.

Rui knew it was 3.5 miles of gradual uphill to the finish. I had forgotten this part completely. He told me to swing my arms as if I was running while maintaining the brisk walking technique. Who was this guy? An English teacher or a marine? Our pace went from 15/min miles to 12:15’s with this technique! More people were passed.

Turquoise Lake at 6:30am. Who needs sleep with views like this?!

This wasn’t to say it was easy. Far from it. I was real beat up doing this but happier than dragging ass into the finish. He had a game plan and I trusted him with my life. Occasionally Rui would ask the random spectator the actual time. His plan was foiled when one person responded “You can break 28 if you keep going like that”. I liked his plan, until he told me we would need to run the last mile. The last mile was 2/3 uphill and he wanted me to run it?! Would have been so easy, if only I hadn’t run about 104 before it!!

He firmly shouted “Go!” and we started running. Another runner said “You’ve got plenty of time” referring to the 30 hour limit. He obviously didn’t have a Rui pacing him home! After 100 yards of running though, I stopped and went back to walking hoping Rui wouldn’t notice. He turned and said “Come on!”. For one of the rarest times in my life I said the words I hate most “I can’t”. He didn’t let up and said it again and again. “Rui, you know me, right? If I could I would but I just can’t. Sub-28, 28 and change. It’s the same thing. Let me enjoy the final mile rather than kill myself. Their will be other times.” He sighed and gave in to my plea, maybe because I implied this wasn’t going to be a one and done 100 mile show. But what a pacer. This guy had never paced anyone before and here he was with these techniques and motivational words all the way home. 4 hours to cover 13 miles. I owe you lots of pacing brother!

We met Francis and Keila with about 3/4 mile to go on E 6th Street. I whipped off my backpack, jacket and top. I had to showcase the leukaemia T-shirt for the final stretch. Their was no need to run anymore  but I instinctively did anyway. I ran that 3/4 mile as hard as I could with my three amazing pacers alongside me.

6 months of training and 100 miles comes to an end. What a journey!

At just after 8am, I stepped onto the famous red carpet and broke the tape, a nice touch the organizers do for all official finishers. My eyes swelled with tears as I sent a little prayer up to heaven to my uncle. 28 hours and 2 minutes. I received my medal from a woman I recognized from the Leadville Race Series store. We hugged as if we knew each other for years, not two days. Then  I was surrounded by my pacers for high fives, big smiles and more hugs and then my Mum which was such a special moment. We didn’t say much but I’m sure we were both thinking of what I had achieved in honor of Uncle Dave. Medics took me into a tent for a mandatory check up and weigh in. I was up 2lbs from Winfield, must have been all that buddy breathing with Frankie!

Post-race with the best pacers anyone could wish for!

I left the finish area staggering out. Moments earlier I had just run across the finish line but now my body was in complete shut down. The brain is so powerful, its scary. I found a space on a bench and dumped myself onto it guzzling cold water next to Rui who looked as beat as me. He had run a marathon in total and not eaten or slept well for a long time either. That’s the thing about crewing/pacing, you are as tired as the runner and I fully appreciated that and everyone’s commitment. I did my post-race blood test; 178, OK, great. No need for any sugar or insulin, my brain could shut down. Francis got the car and we drove back to the hotel. Although it was only half a mile away I still managed to fall asleep during the ride! I got carried up the stairs to the room and I crawled into bed, fully clothed. Out cold with a smile on my face. Finishing is winning? Darn right, especially in Leadville.

Now that it’s all done and dusted, I’ve had lots of my friends ask “What was the worst part about it?” That’s a pretty negative question and my answer is relatively short. If they were to ask me “What was the best part?”, they would have heard what you just have read. Everything about it was the best part. From the training, the leukaemia fundraising, the build up races, the research, my friends and parents coming out to Leadville and of course finishing it. My place was 169 out of 364 finishers. A very low 45% completion rate. Those numbers make me feel proud, I’m forever part of the Leadville family as are my parents, Rui, Francis and Keila.

What a journey. Leadville is in my heart forever just like my hero and inspiration, my brave Uncle Dave.

LT100 Training – 12 hrs Running with the Devil

With just 4 weeks to go until Leadville Trail 100, my phase #2 training plan called for the second 50 mile effort. Without getting on a plane to head west to Colorado, Utah or Wyoming, the most local race with hills was in Vernon, New Jersey. ‘Running with the Devil’ is in fact not a 50 mile race but a 12-hour timed race up and down mountain ski slopes on a 5K loop. See how far you can run in the alloted time. Last year’s winning time was 50.1 miles so I set my goal as just that.

Elevation changes of the 5K loop are extreme allowing little time for “normal” running

To 99% of the world, this seems like well…Running with the Devil. The 1100 foot ascent in 1.5 miles followed by the same elevation drop right back to the start made me fully aware this race was going to be as much mental as physical with the easiness to quit coming every 5K. This was perfect. It would be the longest time running for me no matter the distance covered by almost three hours (Bear Mountain 50 Miler; 9:13).

“Running is simple as it requires just a pair of shoes”….unless you’re running with the devil!

Friday night was spent packing endless food and diabetes supplies, spare shoes, spare socks, spare everything. I had hardly calmed down enough for bed when the alarm woke me at 3 am. I picked up Rui Guimaraes, my running brother and soon to be awesome Leadville pacer. He was tackling the 6-hour version. Nothing wrong with that, this race is hardcore and he is still dipping his feet in the ultra/trail running scene.  We headed through the Vanilla Sky like streets of Manhattan and out of the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey.

We arrived at Mountain Creek Ski Lodge in plenty of time ready for the 6 am start. After my very early breakfast (bagel and bananas) my blood glucose sat at 160; all good. The goal was to keep it there for the next 12 hours. Race director,  Rick McNulty, sported an appropriate polka dot jersey and gave us the lay of the land. A 5k loop started and ended at the lodge. Towards the end of the race, when time was running out, we could tack on a short 0.5 mile loop but as soon as the clock read 12:00:01 the loop would not count, the race was over.

Mountain Creek, Vernon, NJ

We had 30 nervous but excited starters. I saw a tall guy sporting the Team Type 1 kit so introduced myself. He was Ryan Jones. He had heard of me through the team and we are both doing Leadville. Unfortunately for me he was not doing more than six hours and that also meant our conversation was cut short when we started ascending the first hill. He was running it and it was steep! I let him go, I just knew that kind of output for me was unsustainable for 12 hours.

The start of 1100ft gain!

After this climbing stretch, we turned sharp left through some woods but we were now descending. I was convinced these mountain goats ahead of me were going the wrong way but they were right and we did get a mini downhill recovery. That soon ended when we started climbing in an open field by the ski lift. This hill was long and ridiculously steep. Both of my achilles were in agony and I had to stop at the top to stretch. We hit our second runnable section which was rolling terrain on a rocky trail? Was this the top? I prayed hard. The devil just laughed.

The trail ended and I saw an even longer climb. This was head down, big stride stuff. No running, looking up or talking here. This was really tough and I was just starting.

The last descent; the yellow dot is me!!

It had taken me 35 minutes to climb 1.5 miles. How was I going to hit my goal of 50 miles at that pace I asked myself. Run down hard! Sections of the downhill where steeper than the way up so I had some leaning back to do which meant braking to not lose control. It also meant a lot of quadriceps work. I arrived back at the start in 45 minutes giving Rui the really comforting news that it was really tough! I sat in a chair at the lodge and did my first ‘during exercise’ blood test; a low of 62. This was a surprise. I had taken half of my breakfast bolus at 4am and been 160 only 3 miles ago. I had no time to ponder how now, I had to load up on sugar fast and carry on. Two honey stinger gels went in the system and I carried on. This wasn’t a time to re-test in 15 minutes. I would do so in 45 minutes after loop 2.

Besides, I was fully loaded with gels in case I ran into trouble while away from my supplies. I also had my handheld water bottle full of Gatorade. Now I knew the course, I started to break it down into managable doses of pain; the climbs consisted of three power hiking sections with two runnable trail sections and the descent was just that, just get back in one piece.  My pace remained the same on loop 2; a 35 minute climb, 10 minute descent and 5 minute break for blood testing, food intake and general recovery.

Loop 4 in the books (12.4 miles) and the sun was now out to play.

Now my blood glucose was 82. Only just OK. More gels and some energy chews were digested and off I went. At loop 3 I appreciated the first two more, the sun was now rising. At loop 4 I now found myself suddenly surrounded by another hundred plus runners in the 6-hour and 3-hour events. It was tough to know where I placed in my race, more so now. I guessed top 10. My real focus though was keeping an honest pace of 45 minutes per loop and getting my blood glucose back to near 160. I didn’t want to get sucked into a pace of a guy doing 3 or 6 hours.

I achieved both my steady pace and glucose control for the next few hours. I was on track to run 50 miles; 16 big loops and 1 short loop. At 1pm I changed my shoes and socks. As I entered the rock trail near the summit I wondered how the new trail shoes would do on this section. THUD. Down I went hitting my shin hard on a not so blunt rock. I guess I got my answer! Two women who I had just passed, said they heard the wounded animal and made sure I was OK. After five minutes of hobbling and really thinking I had just ended my 12 hour race at 7 hours I joked to them that as it (my leg) had not fallen off, it was time to carry on.

This was unsurprisingly my slowest loop and also resulted in my highest blood glucose; 188, due to not burning as much carbs as predicted for the loop.  I was now behind schedule. As well as my shin, my whole body was also now beginning to ache more and more with the heavy cement legs on the uphills and pick axes attacking my quads on the downhills.

At 3pm I found Rui sitting down amongst many other 6-hour finishers. I asked how it went as I only saw him once in his race. He won it!!! Only his second ever ultra race and he tore it up with over 28 miles. Whether he knew it or not, this gave me renewed energy. I returned after yet another loop and he told me I was in fourth place. It didn’t mean much as I had no idea how far ahead the top 3 were. All I knew was, it meant a handful who were ahead of me had dropped out at some point. I slumped into my chair at the lodge and did my routine; towel, blood test, can of coke and handful of fruit (it was all my stomach could handle at this point). I tried to imply to Rui I felt bad he was waiting for me to finish hoping he would say he was really bored and we should call it a day. Typical pacer just looked at me and said he was fine and I should keep going! I had two hours left and was really wasn’t feeling it. Finally I got up and went for “one” more loop.

It took a while, almost an hour. I was now walking sections I had run and even sat at the top of the ski lift to drink water. That was a mistake. I almost lay down and was going to have a little nap! That nap could have lasted the rest of the race time.

I returned to base and Rui informed me I was now top 3. Then he kicked my ass and told me the 4th place guy was coming after me! Why? Please just leave me alone! Their was no question of what I had to do. One more big loop to keep 3rd, my 15th loop. I could do that in one hour surely? And surely, I did. It was one of my fastest of the day; 46.5 miles in the bag. I came back to base with 11:40 on the clock. I thought I was catching 2nd place and wanted to round up to 47 miles so I just grabbed some iced water and carried on. The short loop was a steep climb up and a steep climb down. The devil was everywhere!

Now I was definitely done. I sat on a bench by the finish. Rui said well done, 3rd was secured. Then, Rick, the race director started chanting “One more, one more, one more”. Was he sicker than me?! I said no way. He did it again. Rick doesn’t know me but he certainly pressed the right buttons. I made sure to tell him how much I hated him and got up!  As painful as it was, I did it and finished with 47.5 miles in 11 hours 58 minutes. I missed 2nd by three minutes Jason Friedman – last year’s winner) and first by one mile (Tony Carino). Final blood glucose; 112.

My biggest achievement though was not stopping until it was physically impossible to do any more mileage. That was what I ultimately took away from this experience. “Whenever, I had a decision to make to quit or carry on, I ultimately chose the harder of the two” Rui enforced. He was right and this is exactly how I need to function in Leadville. Thank you Rui, thank you Rick. You guys pushed me all the way.

The big W for Rui (now relaxing!) I had 3 hours to go – mental toughness time!

 

How do you train for 100 miles?

My brain is the orange circle

The question is frequent, my answer is not what is expected. Back-to-back workouts. These are defined as two long distance efforts on consecutive days, the latter one done with muscle fatigue. This type of training simulates (to a small extent) the tiredness of an ultra event be it 50 miles or longer. People expect a crazier answer such as running 80 miles or 90 miles. The fact is that anymore than 50 miles is viewed by most as too much. A 100 miles on foot is conquered 5 inches between your ears rather than physically (I’ll get back to you on that post-Leadville to confirm or deny this).
When it comes to 100 mile training, there is no easy way, no secret short cuts. You cannot go into this half-hearted or without a true passion and love for running. You will simply not make it. Some runner’s brains work like the graph (left). I believe my brain is always repeating the orange circle “go workout”.

The plan. Note the weekend back-to-back focus.

To be stronger, I need to run, a lot. My plan is devised by Bryon Powell (a top Leadville finisher) from his book ‘Relentless Forward Progress‘.  My maximum weekly mileage is 85. I’ve read other athlete’s blogs that state 100, 150, even 200! Like the 99% of ultra runners, I do have a job to pay the bills and just don’t want to go up to the 100 weekly mileage (not yet at least).  I fully believe in ‘training smarter is better than training harder’.

This is why back-to-back workouts are key for me. Just like training for a marathon, the one workout you should never miss is the long run, I cannot afford to miss my back-to-backs for 100 mile training.

I use my weekends to crank out these two workouts. While most people, look forward to a friday night out, I’m busy researching new trails to explore and getting my clothes and gels ready. My weekend mileage is anywhere between 30-50 miles.

A bear at Bear Mountain.

On June 23, I decided to do my biggest back-to-back yet. I boarded the 7:50am train out of Grand Central heading to Manitou train station just north of Bear Mountain. I had researched a point to point route along the famous Appalachian Trail totaling 26 miles ending at Tuxedo train station. It would be a true mountain trail test with technical ascents and descents.

I had a great time, even flying solo. I saw bears (OK they were in the zoo, but still), wild deer and other animals all day long plus of course magnificent views along the famous single track trail. From the top of Bear, you can see the Manhattan skyline about 60 miles south.

Safety never takes a holiday; map, blood tester, Road ID bracelet.

Let me be the first to say, trail running alone is not recommended. Not only did I get lost to add-on 3 miles but I also ran out of water before I hit the main road back to civilization. My sugar supplies were never an issue (my backpack can feed a Halloween party) but dehydration in the middle of nowhere would have been no joke. As promised, a huge thank you to hikers Alan and Chu for topping up my water bottle. Alan was lugging a 5 liter bottle in his backpack and happy to share with an independent explorer like me.

Due to the terrain and stopping to take more photos than I planned, my 29 miles took 7-1/2 hours. It also felt like a 40 mile road run due to the extra output required to go up and down mountain trails all day. My glucose control started perfect at 169 and ended perfect at 145. I was fighting a few early on-set hypo’s throughout the run though, most likely due to the heat.

A view from the AT

I finished at 4:30pm at train station #2. It was hot and i was spent. I refueled with whatever my body could handle. That happened to be not much; a pop ice to cool down, some chips and a cereal bar along with lots more water on board. Onto the bus i got (the train got cancelled!), took a quick nap and I was back in my manic city. I was now on a tight schedule for round 2; pacing duties for my good friend Keila on her NYC 100 mile race put on by running legend Phil McCarthy. I was to pace the last 18 miles from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn into Times Square.

Home for a shower, change of lycra and a recharge of my Garmin and back out. I grabbed two slices of pizza and headed south via the subway. Dinner time had never been so public!  I met my friends at the beach and waited for Keila to arrive with pacer Beck. I had heard she was doing awesome all day via text updates. It was better than anyone had expected, first place by the time Mike, Alisa and myself all jumped in to pace her at mile 83 at 10pm. My sugar was 219 at this point. I had been chomping on some local fruit waiting for her at Brighton Beach and had under calculated the carbs slightly. I took my handheld 20oz bottle of Gatorade, poured half away and added water due to my blood sugar. Let’s roll.

At mile 90, we stopped for a change of shoes and a general refuel. 2nd place Michael Samuels came through and kept on going. At mile 97, I had to stop in desperate need of some sugar. I had miscalculated how much glucose I would need for the last ten miles; I was running mile 45 of my day so it was getting tricky to keep the levels in the right zone (150-200). At 2am in NYC this was not going to be a problem though. I grabbed a Coke from the nearest street vendor and within a few minutes felt better.  I laughed at myself for getting dropped by Keila who had been running for 97 miles.

I picked up the pace as I didn’t want to miss the big finish. I saw second place ahead but this time it wasn’t her. My eyes lit up just as they had done a few weeks earlier in my own race when I saw the top 3 in sight. I ran as fast as I could to catch up with the once again first place speedster. The last mile up Broadway into Times Square was a fantastic experience. Keila sprinted into the bright lights of Times Square and won the race which had a lot of impressive local ultra runners in it.

Team 160Keila! Everyone had run and crewed all over 4 of the 5 boroughs for 21 hours. We will give Keila the most credit though ; )

Far less important, I had logged another back-to-back (it could be argued it was a double as well due to no sleep in between) but 46 training miles over 16 hours into the early hours of Sunday counts. Roll on next weekend if you are anything like this one. Congratulations to the champ 160Keila.

 

 

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