Archive for Race Report

Run, PR and Rock ‘n’ Roll

The start at Constitution Avenue. Photo Credit: Competitor.com

Rock n Roll USA 2014: 30,000 runners stories begin at Constitution Avenue. Photo Credit: Competitor.com

I’ve always found that 4 to 5 weeks out from a marathon is the prime time to test out the training with a half-marathon. With Tiffany entered into the NYC Half in mid-March, we made a pact to enter different races so we could fully support each other.

Scrolling through the usual running websites I seem to spend hours and hours on, I came across Rock ‘n’ Roll USA in the nation’s capital the day prior to her race at home. Being close by (does a 4 and a half hour journey count?) and having always had good results in DC (Marine Corps (MCM), The North Face 50K and 50M), it felt like the right race to choose. That and the fact that one of my sponsors, Brooks Running grabbed the tab for me. It was not necessarily as flat as MCM; their appeared to be lots of rollers from my course profile interpretation and one nasty alarming spike indicating some hard work around miles 6 and 7, but hills never hurt anyone and this would be a more than fair test for the Boston marathon.

Course and Elevation Profile. Courtesy of Competitor.com.

Course and Elevation Profile. Courtesy of Competitor.com.

My PR time for a half has been archiving since 2011 at just under 1:19. This has been mainly in part to not running many of them. If or when I have done so, it has definitely not been at my peak. But with this race in DC, I had somewhat of a chance at least to PR. They say a chance is all that you need. I would need to knock off 6-minute miles for that to happen. That was what I was about to try to subject myself too.

An early start Saturday morning got me out of bed at 5:30. I went straight to the fridge to grab my yogurt and sprinkled on the granola packet I had picked up from the expo. It’s been a really good go to breakfast for me of late. Minimal fat, a good source of protein and my favorite of course, the carbs.  My glucose was locked in steady in the mid-100’s. Prep wise, so far, so good.

We left our friends house in Bethesda and ran (yes) for the train. Missing it by seconds put me 16 minutes behind schedule due to the wait for the next metro. Upon arriving at the start area, this time would have been nice to have. I looked at the lines for the you know what and knew that was not happening. It was literally blood test, bag check, anthem and go in the span of 5 minutes.

No time to get anxious or over think about the race, I was already speeding downing Constitution Avenue with 30,000 others (a mix of half and full marathoners as one)! The Monument was to our left and the White House to our right. I glimpsed at both but cared more today about my watch which showed me 5:50. The numbers went straight to my brain and on came the brakes. 6:05 pace for the first few miles were the instructions I had told myself to follow. First half discipline, second half attack was the strategy today.

Mile 1. Photo Credit: Tiffany Carson

Mile 1. Photo Credit: Tiffany Carson

Mile 1 clocked in at 6:05. The slight climb up by the White House had helped me ease off the pedal. Mile 2 begun with a downhill stretch back towards Constitution. My pace again picked up but this time I chose not to fight it as much remembering a phrase I heard on a Trail Runner podcast loosely remembered as “the trail is giving it to you” meaning if the trail is runnable, don’t hold back. Well, the road was downhill, so I followed suit. As the course wrapped around the side of Lincoln Memorial to cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge for an out and back section, the wind swept across me and it was time to find some cover.

Battling the headwind over Arlington Memorial Bridge.

Battling the headwind over Arlington Memorial Bridge.

Battling the headwind crossing into Virginia momentarily, I closed a gap on a group of five and tried my best to sit there. When the tallest of them continued, I followed. My mind was already drifting into the future thinking how if this south-west wind stays true, it would benefit me during the latter miles.

Watching the leaders come back towards me gave me a mental lift about the wind situation. Here they were in front after 2 miles with most of them isolated to the conditions and they just got on with business. What choice did they have? They were hardly going to fall back and wait for cover. We turned around at a large roundabout close to the famed cemetery and I impatiently took some places around the outside like a novice track runner working harder in lane 2. I knew this didn’t make sense but my impatience was greater than my discipline. This couldn’t go on if this was to be my day.

Running back towards the Lincoln Memorial was quite the view. A bright pink and orange sky was glowing behind the monuments. The wind at my back was now just an added bonus to this spectacular morning view. My watch clocked off  a second consecutive sub-6 but the race clock disagreed blazing 18:15. It meant two things; I was hitting 6:05 pace perfectly and my watch was caressing my ego. From now on, I knew to be wary of my GPS data. A 5:55 mile on my wrist seemed more like a 6 or 6:05 on my feet. Tiffany was unexpectedly waiting for me at the 5k mark. I ran by very content with my pace and  the feel of my body.

5K mark checking the watch.

5K mark checking the watch.

Heading north along the Potomac River, the road remained flat curving left and right. It was time to focus on pace, on relaxed breathing and cutting the tangents where others in front were not. I knew I had two miles of this before the big successive hill climbs.

I shook off a runner breathing heavily trying to hang on. I didn’t need that kind of distraction. I then joined forces with a guy in yellow called Jeff. He asked what my plan was and I told him honestly anything under 1:19 would be great. He told me this was his  only his second half marathon ever, his first a 1:24 and he liked my plan. I liked him and we worked together nicely over the next mile but I couldn’t fathom how you could pick your goal time during the race with someone you’ve just met. Sure enough, as the first hill climb begun, Jeff disappeared behind me. I reminded myself that the hill was no higher in elevation gain than Harlem hill is in Central Park, a hill I know inside out. With that confidence, I did not fear the hill but embrace it instead and in doing so caught and passed a handful of more runners.

Running alongside Jeff

Mile 5: Running in sync with Jeff.

A minor rest bite on a plateau before the much steeper but also shorter hill lay ahead swarmed with spectators. I didn’t really know how bad it was going to be which sometimes is better off. I leaned into the hill with the same effort as the opening miles but notably lacking speed.

At the top, a switchback to the right put us back on flat road. My legs went to jelly but I had to fight on. My mile split after this was 6:24. It had cut into my time profit as I knew it would but I wasn’t expecting it to be that much. I ran over the 10K mat at 38 minutes and knew it was now time to start the attack plan and push the pace under 6-minute miles. I grabbed a rare cup of Gatorade which was barely filled. Enough to hydrate me and keep the glucose topped up at least.

I was now somewhere north of downtown DC. The houses and small towns were alien to me but just like mile 1, this was no tourist outing. My focus was on seeing the next mile marker and hitting a good split. I was hoping for 5:45’s for the next few miles. The elevation chart seemed to show the most drop off now through mile 11.

But not until after another hill to conquer that I had unaccounted for. I ran past a frat party cooking up a BBQ, chugging beers and screaming at the top of their lungs with the BBQ smoke unfortunately filling my lungs. The hill, noise and smell were left behind me. I clocked the mile at 5:51. It wasn’t enough. I needed more time back than that. The next mile came and went. 5:53, the same scenario dawned on me in my head. I needed to go faster.

With 4 miles left, I imagined it was the middle 4 loop of Central Park. That’s nothing, I said to myself. Every mile was crucial, the focus had to be perfect. I did not want a repeat performance of Martha’s Vineyard now because of some muscle fatigue. Pain is temporary, PR’s are forever, or something like that. I twisted and turned ninety degrees  through the backstreets of DC dodging occasional potholes and drains which kept my wits about me.

Eventually a right turn showed me the long straightaway I knew about from studying the map. Directly ahead was the Capitol building albeit a couple of miles at least. The road descended gradually and I focused on squeezing the gap on the women’s leader from Brooks. She had been ahead the whole race and I recognized her from a couple of Chicago Marathons where I’m sure she kicked my ass both times but today I went by somewhat to my own surprise. 10 miles done in just over an hour, my split was perfect at 5:42.

With 5K left, I knew I was on the cusp of a PR time. The long road south dipped through a short tunnel and then back up. I monitored my pace from the lowest point of the tunnel to the top and it didn’t change. I was now in this state of 110% effort every mile trying to trick my brain that this (mile) was the last. That sounds crazy but it works. Aid stations are how I break up ultras and mile markers are how I break up road races.

The second half of the race was all about being on the attack!

The second half of the race was all about being on the attack!

At the end of the long straight, I gained on a group of three. Turning the left corner was another climb. A woman on the sidewalk shouted “Catch one more if you can” repeatedly in a calm and soothing voice. It was like a mantra to me that was perfect. They were ahead by so much a mile ago, I didn’t have any expectations of getting within striking distance but up that climb I realized I was the runner with the most energy left and went by all three of them in one fell swoop.

One of them though jumped onto my pace. The breathing on my right shoulder would not fade out like usual when you pass someone. Back into the wind I was close to home but this runner was getting a free ride and I didn’t appreciate it. Out of the norm for me, I shouted back at him “Come on, take your turn, work with me” to which he replied “No. I’m doing the marathon. You help me!”  Immediately feeling like an idiot I turned to him seeing his red bib and profusely apologized. Considering we had just knocked out a 5:20 mile, this guy was legit and maybe even winning the race and here he was getting abuse from me! At 2 miles to go the clock read 1:06:45. What I thought was almost a certain PR still needed two sub-6 miles. My confidence dimmed slightly but now I had a comrade of sorts. I couldn’t fall apart now in front of the guy running a marathon at the same pace!

I stayed ahead and took the hit of the wind. He sat just off me. We closed in on a handful of solo runners whose pace was no match. A 5:44 mile meant it was all but confirmed as a PR for me now. The cones split the road; half marathoners left, full marathoners right. We gave each other words of encouragement and went our separate ways. From a more than awkward start together, 2 miles later we were basically banded brothers!

Ecstatic with how my race had gone, the new question I asked of myself was “by how much can I PR?” I fought off the next runner to take another place (I had no idea of my overall placing the whole race) and was happy to find out I had a downhill stretch leading me into the finish at RFK Stadium on the east side of town.

The stadium came into sight above the treeline and then did the blue finish line banner tucked away through a tunnel in the car park. The cheers grew and I had this sudden urge to try to duck under 1:18 so I did the thing you’re not supposed to be able to do and put the after burners on and  sprinted the 0.1 home.

Final push for home. Can you say 110%?!

Final push for home. Can you say 110%?!

I climbed two more placings and got the crowd lively during my sprint finale but the 1:17 was not meant for today. It wasn’t meant to be that good. Still, a 1:18:21 gave me a big PR after three years and a smile in the finish chute that would not go away. The result was huge and I knew it. All I could think about was Boston and what this could possibly mean.

To put my PR in perspective I have to look back to the start of Boston training in late December. The winter in New York has been anything but fun to train in with several waves of snowfall that have made being flexible with my training a must, not a choice. And then there was the disappointment of Martha’s Vineyard in February with a slower time than the previous year. But this race changed all of that. It proved to me, my training has been spot on. Fewer miles, more speed and that is all thanks to Jack Daniels and Brian Rosetti of The Run Smart Project.

The Stats.

The Analysis

And now Boston awaits. I could not be more excited for it. I hope I can keep my head this year and run the race I know I am capable of on April 21. I’ve decided to make 2014 a real push for PR’s. I see no reason why I can’t do so at all distances from this half marathon up to 200 miles. Yes, my ‘first’ 200 miler will count as a PR! Challenge me at your peril!

 

The Mental Game at Martha’s Vineyard

headerlogo noweenies

No weenies allowed on the island!

My adventures on the summer vacation island of Martha’s Vineyard have always occurred in winter. That doesn’t make much sense to most people until you throw in the details of what has become an annual trip for me. A fairly unique 20 mile road race occurs here every President’s Day Weekend and it serves as a great test race for those training for the Boston Marathon.

My first trip here begun a day after finding out about my uncle’s loss to cancer in 2012 and it was the most therapeutic weekend escape I could have wished for with my friends. We returned again last year and I raced to 4th place.

Target #3

Target #3 for the weekend.

This year, my third consecutive, I would have somewhat of a dart on my back or should I say bib. I received my race packet in the mail and saw my number 3 bib. I don’t recall ever having a lower bib ever. My brain started churning ideas about what this meant being seeded. Third place was obviously not returning from last year and so I couldn’t help but start to set my hopes on a very potential podium place, maybe even a win if I got lucky?

But like any race, it all comes down to who shows up and who stays away. I quit the daydreaming on Friday upon hearing the previous year’s winner was returning. I refocused my attention on my ability and what I could do. OK, maybe still being able to grab 2nd place didn’t quite escape my consciousness. Last year, my average pace was 6:13 although I fell apart in the last few miles to give up 2nd and 3rd. I refused to make the same mistake again this year but I wanted to match and ultimately better that pace.

I went into Saturday’s race with a different plan; hold back. I broke the 20 miles down into three parts just like I would do for a marathon. The plan was 8 easy, 8 focused and 4 with the heart (as coach Jack Daniel’s would put it). If I averaged 6:15’s early on, I would be able to accelerate my pace later and pick off runners in the latter miles. It was a new type of racing strategy for me, one that required a lot of mental toughness.

Checking the forecast the morning of the race, I was thankful to see clear skies and a delayed snowstorm in the hourly details. I changed clothes from tights to shorts on the 45 minute ferry across from Cape Cod trying to make the best choice with the high-30’s weather. At the start area, I changed my socks from ankle to compression ones for warmth over anything else. I have given up believing they can give you an edge during performance. What I did believe was, I was being very indecisive and twitchy! My glucose was set perfectly in place at 184 and I was ready to see how my winter training had been going.

I peeled off my Novo hoodie and sweats and gave them to Tiffany and joined the second row of runners trying to blend into the ‘not so keen but still keen’ starters area. I bumped into Kieran Conlon, a fellow ex-pat and familiar face from last year. We had a good duel last year but today was a year on, a fresh race for both of us.

Start of the race leaving the ferry port at Vineyard Haven. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

Start of the race leaving the ferry port at Vineyard Haven. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

The gun went off and almost 400 of us headed east towards the north-eastern tip of the island; Oaks Bluff. I immediately checked my watch after the first straight and saw 6:01  so backed off. I reminded myself of the plan; hold back. 20 miles would sort out the true speedsters from the wannabes.

We climbed over the metal bridge and I did a head count in front. I lay in 10th ignoring the speedy couple who a few of us had figured out were a relay duo (10 miles each – although the male was running all 20). Kieran and another guy came by my side and we small talked. We agreed to ignore the pace up ahead as a volunteer called out “6:19” for  us at mile 1.

We ran along the shore line into a slight head wind. I tucked in the best I could behind two taller runners. The sky was blue and it was turning out to be a better day than I had I envisioned. Climbing up and around East Chop lighthouse at Oaks Bluff and then descending the other side by coastal lined beach homes was as always beautiful. I imagined summer time here. One day I will experience this island in peak season without a race! We crunched shells along the harbor boardwalk with the pace steady at 6:20’s. I grabbed my first gel that I had tucked in my glove to keep warm just before I approached the aid station. Knowing the course inside out, made these decisions easier to make. My glucose felt fine but I was wary of not waiting too long to get the first one in the system.

Holding steady through Oaks Bluff. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson.

Holding steady through Oaks Bluff. Kieran Conlon (front right). Photo credit: Tiffany Carson.

I saw Tiffany just beyond 4 miles as we made a triangular-shaped route around Ocean Park. I had dropped some places, I recall 15th or 16th but wasn’t concerned by my placing yet. My pace was where I wanted it to be.

The only out and back section followed which gave me a good look at runners ahead. The leader had a big gap. He was the winner from 2013 and already looked untouchable as  he did last year. The next runners were red, blue and red. I wanted to remember their colors as I was confident I would see them all again when it mattered.

Heading south again came my favorite stretch of the course. Seaview Avenue is a long stretch of road down to the turn at mile 9. After running past the golf course, the strip of road is in the middle of the ocean to our left and Sengekontacket Pond (try saying that on Saturday night) to the right. The snow was much more sparse up here than back in New York which I did not expect. The roads were in good condition with patches of sand on them and although there was a bike path to use, we all decided to run on the road as it was safer which seemed ironic.

I popped my second gel at mile 6 and grabbed water from a volunteer, most of which landed on the ground so I grabbed a second one, the last one in the row of stretched out arms and in doing so, heard a groan behind me.

I turned and apologized seeing I had two runners on my heels. I offered my cup up immediately but he declined. So far, two gels and some water.  I was treating my gels like they would be enough quick carbohydrates to keep my glucose in check but this was 20 miles at supposedly faster than marathon pace. I have nailed my carbohydrate strategy down at the marathon distance, always grabbing Gatorade at every other aid station. If I kept up my current gel only routine, I would be out of gels by mile 12 and relying on Tiffany to give me spares every few miles which we didn’t really plan for. I made it an immediate decision to grab Gatorade at the next aid station and get more carbs on board.

I approached mile 10 as I gained but never did pass the relay couple. Tiffany yelled “start picking them off” as she held out more gels for me to grab. Now carrying four again, I was pretty confident I would not be going on the lower side of my glucose range for the second half of the race.

A digital clock stood by the halfway mat and read ’01:02:45.’ After feeling good for 10 miles holding back and running some good 6:10-20 splits, the time I saw crushed me a little. My ‘hold back’ plan would call for a negative split so I wasn’t quite sure why I was feeling so dejected. Maybe, I knew that 10 miles faster than what I had just done was not quite in me today. I was beginning to have a hard time mentally believing I could pull off a 2:03 or 2:04 time going off how I felt.

I sped through the lively aid station manned by one of the many boys and girls clubs of Martha’s Vineyard and just for a few strides felt my energy lift. I sat in 13th and knew it was time to start seeing some runners come back to me. A long stretch of rollers lay ahead along the bike path on the left and then the right side of the road. As I approached mile 12, I finally reeled one of them in clocking a 6:09 mile. Up to 12th and I didn’t hang around to let him tag along with another fast mile of 6:10 I picked off one more. The plan was in motion.

I wound around a bend to a smaller aid station at 13 and got cheered on to my first “Go Team Novo Nordisk” of the year. I heard the woman tell her friends that I was diabetic. I thought in my head, spread the word! I got a kick out of knowing she knew about the team.

Down a rare steep descent, I used gravity to give me some speed. But now, the pain in my legs was building, soreness, tightness all happening at once quickly. I promised myself to start drinking more water every day, get more sleep, heck, eat more vegetables, anything to not feel this pain! My pace was slipping back. My last split was 6:15, not 6:09-10’s anymore. I nervously peeked on the mile beep and saw 6:37. Not good. I looked straight ahead and saw a tiny dot in the distance, my next target. But he faded out of sight soon enough. My focus miles were quickly getting very blurry.

The beginning of the end at Mile 14. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson.

Fire Danger: LOW. A different low was happening at Mile 14. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

Just as my legs were failing me, now so was my head. I kept at it but my feet felt like they were running across sand. At a cross-section to turn right, Tiffany stood and could see my pain. “3 minute gap” she said talking about 2nd place. I had 10K left to close that  gap, feeling like this? Forget it.

And it continued to get worse as I lost the two places I had earlier taken. I had churned out two more slow miles through 17 and now sat in unlucky 13th spot. But I wasn’t unlucky. This had happened to me because of a lack of focus. My training has been solid (minus all of our snowstorms) and my glucose levels were fine. I had simply lost focus. I felt defeated. This was not like me.

I passed Tiffany again and gave her a look to say ‘not my day’. So when she pulled alongside me in the car moments later, the words she chose “catch the guy ahead” were all I needed to hear to spark the light to redeem myself for a race that was going in the wrong direction. The basic notion to catch the next guy ahead of me was lost on me before I heard the words out loud from Tiffany. My head had been only thinking of negative thoughts; why did my legs hurt? Why was I running slower than last year? Why was I 13th? None of these questions I asked myself were doing me any good but the words ‘catch the guy ahead’ were simple and perhaps tangible.

The ‘guy’ ahead was oblivious to my mission. He had just passed me a mile ago with pure ease. He knew I was toast as he went by. I had failed to run well between 15-17 because I was not focused on those individual miles. I had just over two miles to go, to work as hard as possible and make the guy ahead truly earn beating me.

Immediately the rolling hills of the last stretch begun. I had miraculously changed gears  as if my brain just flipped a switch in my legs to turn the power back on. I could tell he had no idea I was making a move. On the uphill, I glanced and saw the mile 18 marker and was relieved it wasn’t mile 19. It gave me more time to catch him. Yes, my brain was happy I got to run more miles! As we descended the other side of the hill, a family cheered at the end of their driveway for him and then moments later, me. And now he knew I was coming.

The next climb came quickly. This one, longer but with less grade than before. I ran it like the finish line was on the top. The gap between us was reducing but it was gradual. Down the other side, I saw three more runners come into view. The guy who passed me at 14 was closing in on a pair both wearing red working together. And just like that it was game on to see if I had enough left to catch more than just one runner. Back from the dead almost.

I had all four of them in my view but only a mile and a quarter to try to make a convincing move. I broke it down in my head as  5x 400 meter laps at all out pace. Just to catch the closest guy would have been satisfying but he was now pushing on again as he had witnessed the same scenario as me and got hungry to take some places too!

This scenario played out in Ohio last November and I regretted not fighting harder to stay close to the guy ahead closing a gap on the next runner with a mile left. I refused to let that happen again here. The worst that could happen was to try but fall short. One of the four guys was clear, almost gone for good, but the two in red were clearly slowing the most and I was definitely pushing hardest.

The guy I had been tearing after for 2 miles finally passed the two in red. One of them sensed me and glanced back to confirm. He didn’t have anytime to react. I was going all out with a lot of determination and sped past the two of them as well. But I wanted the guy I had been chasing for 2 miles. I somehow kicked even more and closed on the heels of him. I went past him just before crossing the road to the finish straight.

The guy furthest ahead took note and kicked away from me but my concern was now only keeping the last guy out of reach down the straight. I was all of a sudden in the top 10 and didn’t want to give that up. I ran  as hard as I could; eyes closed, arms pumping and grunting away. It wasn’t pretty but it was all heart and that’s what I had asked myself to do in the last 4 miles. I was finally delivering on my promise.

Home Stretch: Running into the finish for 10th.  Photo credit: Tiffany Carson.

Home Stretch: Running into the finish for 10th. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson.

I ran like 10th place meant 1st, crossed the line in 2:06 and bent over to grab my knees with nothing left to give. Seconds later, the other three finished and none were too ecstatic with my late charge home.  I later learned, my last mile split was 5:41.

Pure exhaustion at the end! Photo Credit: Granite State Race Services.

Pure exhaustion at the end! Photo Credit: Granite State Race Services.

My overall time was a minute and a half slower than 2013. To know I was faster the year before was tough to swallow. Walking away from the finish line, me and Tiffany talked about immediate changes that have to happen to keep improving. No more just running.  Core work, better diet, sleep etc. That might sound serious and maybe a little to so for some but it’s the truth. To start with, I want to PR in Boston in April. That’s a tough challenge for me. I’ve never yet raced well there but I am ready to change that.

But longer term, I need to be at my fittest, leanest and strongest going into Tahoe 200 come September. Maybe the fact that I didn’t hit my time goal or place higher than I thought I would is exactly what I needed to happen. A wake up call of sorts.

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First medals of 2014: finisher medal and 3rd place age group.

Seeing 10th place and snatching a 3rd place age group award on the print out stuck to the gym wall helped my ego a little, but it didn’t take away my feeling of disappointment. I need to focus much better in the middle of a race. That’s been an issue of mine at Boston and other races for a long time. In a way, if I had run my best time here, it may have masked this problem. I think it might just have been a better first race than I originally thought. I know what to work on and I’m excited to improve.

The 2013 Finale: ‘California Dreamin’ at The North Face 50 Mile Championship

tnf BANNER

I first saw images of The North Face 50 mile championship race held in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco a few years ago. My jaw literally hit the floor watching a video of the race. Single track cut into grass hillsides off the Pacific Ocean, glimpses of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, not to mention a packed field of elites, made this race an absolute ‘must do’. This course offered some of the finest trails in the US and I wanted in.

I put it onto my 2013 calendar as my closing race. It was to be my C race for the year after Boston (=B), Western States (A) and UROC (=B). Am I even allowed to have such a thing? Well, my rules, so I guess so. My training for it was far from specific since UROC 100K. I had run 4 marathons in 8 weeks. Two as pacer and two for myself but relatively little trails (does the Central Park bridle path count?) or elevation runs.

Last race bib of 2013. 18 for the year and what a year!

Last race bib of 2013. 18 for the year and what a year!

Excuses over, I was excited to be a part of this race. I’m not sure if the prize purse increased this year ($10K for the winner of both male and female races) but the elites flocked onto the entry list in the last few weeks of the build up and not just from the US. Ryan Sandes was coming in from Cape Town, Emilie Forseberg from Norway and her pacer was a guy called Kilian Jornet. The US elites included Rob Krar, arguably the ultra runner of the year (URY) even prior to this, Max King, Dakota Jones, Mike Wardian, Mike Wolfe, Dylan Bowman etc etc. It was easier to say who wasn’t running it.

The course profile - no altitude worries but....

The course profile – no altitude worries here but relentless climbing nonetheless.

It dawned on me how lucky I am as an amateur, to get to have these amazing race experiences with the best of the best from across the world. It’s the equivalent of the weekend golfer teeing it up with Woods, or rallying with Federer. But with trail running, the difference is, it’s the real deal. Of course, these guys who I have the utmost respect for, make fewer headlines than professionals in main stream sports, but running is my sport and I love everything about it. It is an honor and more importantly darn fun to be able to race with them.

TNF50 Course Map

TNF50 Course Map: luckily the course is well-marked!

After a few hiccups pre-race that included forgetting to pick up the rental car, forgetting to bring music and no batteries for the headlamp (at least I had my insulin), I made it to the start area in the dark and cold conditions at 4:30am (thanks Joe and Fick for driving me so early!). I met up with Joe Del Conte, a fellow NYC ultra runner pre-race and we shared the same excuses that this was to be a fun race, with a firm emphasis on fun. My blood glucose was a touch above my target at 225. I had a now watered down Gatorade in my handheld, a few gels and was set, ready to explore what this course was all about.

Departing for the adventure at 5am. The sea of headlamps begins.

Departing for the adventure at 5am. The sea of headlamps begins.

We left the now very familiar red bubble North Face arch just after 5am. The course started flat which then wrapped to the right and downhill across a road and over a footbridge onto Rodeo Valley Trail. The pace was way faster than I needed to go but I figured I would run what I could, the climbs throughout would slow me down anyway.

I climbed the first hill to the top of Bobcat alongside Joe as sunrise began to break. The view ahead and behind of the string of headlamps was breathtaking. It took me back to the sight at Turquoise Lake in the opening miles of Leadville. The climb was longer and harder than what I had studied on paper; probably not a great omen for the next 47 odd miles.

We descended down a wide and rocky fire road which was way too fun. I knew this descent would be repeated at the end of the race so tried my best to remember certain memorable spots or turns which may or may not help hours later. The only issue was, I was doing this observant task in the dark.

Along a flat section, we ran through the first aid; no need for anything much here. A quick gulp of water and I kept going. Along this road allowed more time to pound out some good speedy miles. So far, so good with my planned sub-9 hour goal.

At the next aid station (Tennessee Valley), I had climbed and descended a similar hill, this time rapidly  down on switchbacks. I met up with Tiffany, Joe and Fick, did a blood test  which was important (79), refueled my bottle and gels and gone. I hadn’t processed the idea until now that it was still too dark to hand off my headlamp to them. As I had no drop bags, I would be hanging onto this beauty until mile 28!

The third climb would bring about the best reward thus far. Once up on top, we were greeted to some brave souls swaying in the wind, pointing us over the ridge line and down a single track. This was the start of Pirate’s Cove.

Pirate's Cove. Photo credit:

Pirate’s Cove. Photo credit: Ultra Sports Live TV

Single track sweeping along the coastline. The ocean waves were breaking on the beach and smashing into a solitary rock which gave the postcard view the final touch of aesthetic beauty. Yes, this course was living up to its reputation alright and now it was daylight, I would not miss anything else. It was a gem of a trail. The fun descent meant only one thing and that was back up and over the north side of the cove. I re-caught Joe who had not stopped at Tennessee Valley. We ran side by side down a fire road. A runner ahead was less than impressed walking down to the aid.  I stopped myself offering him a gel when I recognized it was Karl Meltzer. A gel wasn’t going to make his day any better. He was about to drop and I saved myself getting yelled at for trying to help.

The aid station at Muir Beach was an important time to stock up. The biggest climb of the race was ahead. I ran across a farm field which just seemed so strange like I was back in XC days. Those trusty ribbons pitched in the soil ahead reassured me this was correct. The ribbons lead us towards a hillside and the start of coastal trail. I looked up to see dozens of runners hiking switchbacks above me. I looked above them and saw even more runners!

I was prepared to hike all the ups today but because there were so many switchbacks, the grade never seemed to become an excuse to slow the pace down to hike mode. I enjoyed the back and forth twists and the ability to keep running for the most part. Note to self, don’t study the course profile so much! I was now running solo, Joe took the climb easier than me.

The climb was pretty relentless. It was 1,500 feet of up. I ran what I could but now 15 or so miles in, my body wanted to rest a bit more on these uphill sections. Perhaps the year of racing was catching up with my legs. Ironically, I was moving ever closer to Cardiac. The aid station name, not my physical condition. Through the aid, the terrain changed dramatically; weaving between trees and hopping over roots in a shelter of greenery. It was a nice change of environment. This was the fringe of the Muir Woods.

Although my surroundings were different, the elevation gain continued. I left the woods to find a marshal directing me right where the trail splits, pointing almost unknowingly towards five guys who all appeared to have on neon yellow tops. I waited to let them pass and realized it was the lead pack coming back from the out and back of McKennan Gulch.

The neon effect: Vargo, Wolfe and Krar bomb past me at mile 25. Photo credit: Trail Porn.

The neon effect: Vargo, Wolfe and Krar bomb past me at mile 25. Photo credit: Trail Porn.

Dylan Bowman, Mike Wolfe and others bombed passed in silence and made the turn down the hill. I think I was just blown away by how deadly silent they all were like assassins yet not trying to kill others, each other. The pace was a different league.

I marched onward and upwards along Coastal Trail single track around ‘wrecked car’ –  a landmark of the trail which is exactly as it is named. The story of how the car got to lay somewhere so remote from back in the 1940’s apparently remains a mystery. This section was a not a great spot for an out and back being single track and all but I did get to see almost every elite runner I know over the next ten minutes from Ryan Sandes to The North Face favorite, Mike Wardian.

Single track leading out to 'wrecked car' and the turnaround point. Photo credit: Strava

Single track leading out to ‘wrecked car’ and the turnaround point. Photo credit: Strava

It made for some interesting exchanges. Some would just bomb straight past as I dove into the hillside (lead runner gets right of way) and others would give me a “good job” shout which felt wrong as they were ahead of me but that’s just what we say this side of the pond. The views of the Pacific high above Stinson Beach were just fantastic. The single track headed north to the furthest point north on the course. I was greeted at the aid with an offer of some hot broth. It wasn’t in my plans but it was windy and cold up  top on the exposed hill at almost 2,000 feet so I gladly accepted. I stayed for a refill while small talking with the volunteer about the day and other random ultra stories.

But as more runners came into the aid, I knew it was time to get going south again. I caught up to and then passed the women’s UTMB champion Rory Bosio. I had no doubt she was having a bad day or was just burnt out from the year and didn’t dare ask her for clarification of my theories. I think she may have even dropped at the next aid. When I ran back the way I had come and saw who was coming towards me, I knew this race was definitely an end of season affair for most; Dakota Jones was about 4 miles back from me. I almost took a double take to make sure it was him. I found out later that he was running with the flu and taking it easy. Who runs 50 miles easy with the flu?! Check his humorous encounter of the race out; http://www.irunfar.com/2013/12/the-mid-packers.html.

Stinson Beach view. Photo credit: mountainrunningdventures.com

Stinson Beach view. Photo credit: mountainrunningdventures.com

I descended fast down part of the famous Dipsea Trail to Stinson Beach aid station where Tiffany, Fick and Joe were waiting for me. I put on a brave face to say everything was going well although in reality I was hurting pretty bad. First things first, I made them take my headlamp off me! My blood was good but not safe enough at 83. Tiffany said do you want me to jump in later for the last few miles. I jumped at this offer. I was without doubt no threat to the $10K winner’s purse and decided this would be a fitting end to the year. Tiffany has been with me every step of every race, none more so than through the night at Western States. Her enjoyment on the trails is forever growing so it feels great for me to see her have such fun out on them too sharing these races and places with me.

I left Stinson Beach and immediately had an uphill through the moors of Dipsea. I suffered all the way up that hill to Cardiac aid just as I had coming the other direction earlier. But now, 50K in, I was rethinking my 9 hour time goal. I was walking runnable stuff, my body was just trashed. The reality of being overly aggressive in the first half now spoke to me loud and clear.  When a group approached from behind in relaxed conversational mode and took me down with me ease, I knew I had to start digging deeper to get the wheels back on.

I knew the game though. Bad patches happen. You are meant to suffer out here at some time or another. 50 miles is 50 miles. But when my suffering dragged on and on and more runners passed, I knew this was not a normal bad patch. For this race, I was not monitoring my glucose every minute. I was going off feel and my occasional blood tests when crew could reach me. What was actually happening was, I was heading south  geographically and physically speaking too. I popped a Clif Shot gel and then another immediately after. 48 grams of simple carbohydrates to fuel the system back up.

Back up to Cardiac Aid Station

Back up to Cardiac Aid Station Photo credit: Mountainrunningadventures.com

Within a few minutes, I was moving better again. Run the downs, hike the ups, repeat. On a sharp right turn downhill, a couple of Dads watched with their boys. “Alright! Changing diabetes. I have diabetes!” shouted a Dad lifting his shirt to enthusiastically show me his pump insert. I gave him the thumbs up and continued along the trail.

This small interaction with another diabetic that I will never see ever again kick started  my race both physically and mentally. That reminder that wearing the Team Novo Nordisk shirt across the country all year long touches people and shows them what is possible is a very powerful tool. It’s the ultimate win-win for both the spectator and the runner.

I reached Cardiac aid, refueled smartly and got going. My head was back in the game but my legs were still like lead, screaming for a walking break. I knew better though. The scenery changed again, I was immersed in big redwoods descending through the Muir Woods. Single track switchbacks winding steeply downwards and crossing over large trunks as bridges was another major highlight of the course, even with wrecked legs. To get to run on some of the famed Dipsea steps was just plain awesome.

I was behind on time and this next leg between aid stops was short and gradually down or flat all the way back to Muir Beach. I locked my brain into a fixation that I had to run this whole section, even if it killed me. I could reward myself with some walking later on but not here.

At Muir, the aid station was packed. It was a merging point for 50M, 50K and marathoners all coming and going different directions. I changed my focus from running to orienteering through here. All I cared about was making sure i followed orange ribbons, not red, blue or any other color out here.

I hiked up Coastal Trail along with the 50K’ers. Grinding out miles now. It was nice to have more runners around albeit ion a different race. There were a couple of guys around me from the 50M though that we ended up playing the cartoon car race game where the lead continually goes back and forth. Ultimately, we were helping each other push ourselves without talking much about it.

Mile 40 - another surge uphill.

Mile 40 Coyote Ridge Trail: another surge uphill with glorious views among the Marin Headlands.

The climb had many false summits. My GPS was in no way accurate and I had long given up guessing the mileage I was at. The pain throughout my body spread but the views to my right of the Pacific took the edge off no doubt. I continued to fight for position with my competitors although way back from the front. This race was not about placing or even time anymore, just about giving it everything I had until the end.

Tiffany was all smiles waiting for me at mile 44, ready to go. Glucose 102 called for some fuel which I digested on the last hike up of the day. We spoke about her college friend Peter Hogg who was not only well ahead but actually finished. He had run a great race and competed against and beaten the likes of Mike Wardian and David Riddle out there. I was looking forward to meeting him later at dinner.

At the crest of the hill (Alta aid), I knew it was all plain sailing now. We were now back at the mile 3 section of the course and about to repeat the very first descent done in the dark hours ago.

Last few miles on this great course!

Closing miles on this great course! Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

I glanced my watch and realized a 9:15 finish time was possible. It was not the sub-9 goal but it was a hell of a lot better than the 10 hour mark I had feared may come into play when things weren’t going so pretty after Stinson beach.

The Golden Gate Bridge peaking out behind the Marin Headlands. Photo credit: The North Face.

The Golden Gate Bridge peaking out behind the Marin Headlands. Photo credit: The North Face.

Down the jeep road we went. I wasted no energy now. This was a new race. A 5K race starting now. The Golden Gate arch peaked over the headlands to my left. I had almost forgotten where I was running for the last few hours. This location was so close to San Francisco but yet so tucked away. I could see the draw of the city to the athletic yet also driven career types.

Home stretch pushing as hard as possible for 9:15. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

Home stretch pushing as hard as possible for 9:15. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

I knew 9/minute miles would do the trick. This was UROC heading down Vail Mountain all over again. I hammered the hills and Tiffany ran alongside. She worried I would go too fast for her but I assured her, I was not going to finish without her. This race was merely another excuse to be outside, travel somewhere new and experience the great trails of the west coast. My training did not quantify this as a race and therefor my time be it sub-9, sub-10 or now on the verge of 9:15 was all irrelevant numbers in the grand scheme of things.

We crossed the road which I knew marked the final mile. The sweeping left hill took the pace off my plan and we power hiked as my exhaustion kicked in one more time. I felt the 9:15 was gone as the hill seemed to never end but then I saw a glimpse of people in a field on the horizon. We ran hard again on the flat, turned right and through the arch together. My time? 9:15 and change. Not spectacular but an honest and great run. I was happy. Isn’t that ultimately the goal of anything we do in our lives?

Post-race with soon to be crowned URY Rob Krar who won the race. #thatbeardisawesome

Post-race with soon to be crowned URY Rob Krar who won the race. #thatbeardisawesome

I saw the winner, Rob Krar limping in my direction immediately after and grabbed a few words with him. If there is a more humble ultra guy out of the elites on the scene right now, I don’t know who it is. He is a great inspiration and great guy too.

I hobbled my stiff legs over to a tent hoping to get warm. A circle of chairs surrounded a heater with a couple spare. I sunk into one, did what all diabetics should do first, a blood test (113) and then changed into warm clothes while making new friends and recapping what we just experienced.

We met up with our friends, Joe and Fick, grabbed some food and a beer, mingled with some of the other elites like Kilian Jornet, Rickey Gates and Anna Frost from the Salomon team and then headed back into the city to celebrate this race and all the others before it from 2013. What’s not to love about this crazy world of ultrarunning?

Post-race festival at Marin Headlands.

Post-race festival at Marin Headlands.

 

Post-Turkey Trotting in Amish Country

2013-berlin amish country half marathon  logo

Due to an almost 10 hour drive to Ohio for Thanksgiving resulting in a 3am bedtime, Tiffany and I scrapped any crazy ideas of waking up in time for the local turkey trot 5K at 7am. With some swift internet surfing, Tiffany found a race close by in a small village called Berlin, in the heart of Amish country. There was a 5K and a far more appealing 13.1 option set for the weekend. We signed up for the latter, the longer the better obviously.

It was a lovely 20 degrees on race morning. Some brave souls wore shorts, but not us. Tights, long sleeves, gloves and a buff for me. I am not a cold weather fan even though I find a way to run all year long. The race was marketed as “designed for runners by runners.” I assume they were referring to runners who like freezing cold conditions while chugging up and down country roads. That’s right, Holmes County, Ohio is by no means a flat part of America.

Snowy and scenic Holmes County.

Snowy and scenic Holmes County.

This was the second annual race with close to 800 participants signed up between the two races. Mark Fowler, the race director said “Participants will be treated to views of untouched countryside, Amish buggies and working farms, as well as scenic rolling hills, and Amish school houses.”

Mark sounded the horn and we left the black rubber school track to embark on a big loop of snowy countryside. At the exit gate of the track, everyone turned left but I went (and was) right. Being in 1st place wasn’t my plan but here I was. As others rejoined, I confessed to them I had watched the course video the day before. A half mile in, I did a quick head count and had me in 10th. If I wasn’t concerned about the other runners on the start line who looked serious, I was now. I had hopes of potentially snagging a win here but the reality was, I had to watch the front six peel away at a pace I did not want to dare attempt.

Time to get warm. Photo credit: HolmesCountyTicket.com

Time to get warm. Photo credit: HolmesCountyTicket.com

I noticed my watch failed to start, the buttons froze or something. I tried to get it going but it was not to be. I would have to run this one school XC style, off feel only. The same can be said of my diabetes. My pre-race glucose at 182 was perfect. I just needed to calculate my carb intake for the next 13 miles at half-marathon pace intensity, a distance I have not done this year, and look to finish around 100-130.

After a back and forth tussle with a runner over the first fast mile, I eventually won the duel to sit alone in 9th. Ahead, groups were forming of two and three.  The two within reach wore grey and bright orange. I wanted to close the gap and join them but then the first hill came alone which didn’t work in my favor. I reached the top of the hill, marked by a traffic cone and the gap had opened.

Mile 2 announced the first of many climbs.

Mile 2 announced the first of many climbs.

I ran through an aid station which was run by Amish children and their parents. What a unique experience. I felt rude to ignore the water and Gatorade from them so early on but it was so cold, all I wanted to do was run. The road dropped into  a valley where other Amish families watched and waved but most noticeably did not cheer as is their religion. A cheer would have been nice though as the next hill was imminent and much steeper.

My pace range on the course was anything from 6 to 10 minute miles (at a guess). It has only ever been so wide when on the trails where hiking is part of the norm. I wasn’t hiking but it felt close as a tip toed up the hill. I leaned into the ground as the angle of asphalt got sharper. I noticed scratches, probably from the horses hoofs over the years scrambling up and down. I didn’t know the grade but it was definitely enough.

As I reached the top, my legs felt like jelly. I was probably doing 6:20 pace, closer to my marathon pace than half marathon pace but my primary concern was on catching the two ahead right now. No matter whether I was chugging up the long steep hill on County Road 70 or descending back down it, the two ahead were somehow staying within sight. I continued to run isolated in 9th. I knew this because I would listen to the spectators voices to gauge how far behind 10th place was.

At mile 6, we unexpectedly turned right off of route 70. We drove the course prior and our journey took us left and flat. This turn right along a dirt road was anything but!  The climb was the easiest so far but that really wasn’t saying much. I saw a barn ahead that proved to be the top as well as the halfway marker and an aid station. This time, I happily accepted some cold orange Gatorade that landed on my chest as much as in my mouth.

A sharp descent followed and allowed me to catch my breath.  I got to subtly glance behind on a sharp left seeing a runner, probably 30 seconds back that I hadn’t expected would be there. The gap in front of me to the runner in grey was also about 30 seconds and a minute to the only other runner (in orange) I could still possibly catch. When I hit mile 7, I knew I had just 4 flat miles to play with to close this elusive gap before the last and probably hardest climb would start. I knew if I waited until then, chances were I would lose time on the climb.

Mile 8 - back on the flat stuff for a breather!

Mile 8: Back on the flat stuff for a breather! Photo credit: AmishLeben.com

I tried to move faster but my body felt rigid and stuck at the same pace. I realistically said to myself I could catch only one of them at this point. 4 miles went by and it was still a stalemate. No one had changed position since mile 1. I had reeled in the grey runner to ten feet just as we were about to turn right and climb at mile 11 but as expected he kicked just prior to the big climb and increased the gap on me. I was on my limit and had no response. Mentally, I was done. I had worked for over 10 miles on this gap and now he had gone again.

I climbed up and analyzed ahead. I could see 5th and 6th side by side near the top, 7th was slowing down and 8th (grey) was now making another charge for him while escaping my grasp. I felt like I was drugged going up that hill. My mechanics were atrocious and I hoped to see the same from my fellow competitors but did not. They all looked pretty solid.

At the top, my legs were now really wobbly. More specifically, my right ankle felt like a ‘kankle’ flapping around. (It was not, rest assured).  With a mile to go, the runner in grey passed orange. I knew, if I could have hung on a bit longer, I would have been right there making the same move up a place.

A nice descent showed us the way back to the track. My head was back, eyes closed, I was absolutely ready to finish. I had been in 9th place all day and frustrated of not being able to claim places back along the way. Without really noticing it,  I actually closed the gap quickly on the orange runner here. I gave it one last burst of speed so he would see me close as he turned left to the track.

But the left I expected didn’t exist. It wasn’t the course. That course video was wrong! We stayed straight and headed back up a hill towards the main high street of Berlin. I realized then, we were going to wrap around the school property line and come back into the track from the far side. This mentally destroyed me more so than a mile before when the runner had kicked away from me. I was so close to the end but there was more! As the orange runner ahead took one last sharp turn left he showed me his cards. He looked back.

The gap remained though, 50 feet or so. Finally, back onto the track I expected us to go straight to the finish on the left corner but we both got ushered right for a 350 meter showdown. Not quite the Jimfest of the 1983 Western States 100 finish but here we were fighting it out for 8th. Now right on his heels, I knew this was my chance but on the back straight, he kicked ahead. I did everything to stay close on the track covered that was covered in patches of snow.

I gave one last charge on the final bend expecting him to go again but he didn’t, he couldn’t. His pace was constant while mine increased with this new speed that seemed to come out of nowhere.  I went around the outside of him and kept on going. A couple of looks back to make sure he wasn’t breathing down my neck and I knew I had secured 8th. I looked up at the clock with no idea what I had run and saw 1:27. Definitely not fast, but not slow for the course and my lack of speed training the last few weeks.

I keeled over the finish line. Some volunteers looked at me with worrisome and one said “He looks very pale.” Yes, I was freezing cold and have English skin I thought! I got handed my medal which doubles as a bottle opener and some Amish cheese. Yes, cheese. Do they know what I love or what?!

Minutes later, I watched Tiffany come tearing round the track to finish 2nd in the women’s race. She got to cross the finish line with her four year old niece which was pretty cool to watch, let alone do.

Celebrating at the finish line with Tiffany and our number #1 fan of the day.

Celebrating at the finish line with Tiffany and our number #1 fan for the day.

Once warm and dry, I found out I won my age group but only because of my duel on the black rubber track. I was really just content to have come 8th not 9th because I had invested so much effort to close the two ahead down all race. I viewed the age group award as a reward for my determination.

Not that any of this stopped me getting grief as I didn’t get to bring home some cash for placing like my better half! At least there’s $10,000 for the winner next weekend in San Fran. Wishful thinking maybe, but one thing is for sure, I’ll keep trying to be better.

Medals and cheese, good combination ; )

Medals and cheese, good combination ; )

 

“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.

Surviving the UROC 100K

UROC logo horizontal

The early crisp morning light in Breckenridge was filled with stars. Not so much in the sky but more around the start line; Kilian Jornet, Sage Canaday, Dakota Jones as well as runners not even running; Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka to name a few were everywhere. Yes, “Call them and they will come” was proving a true statement for UROC, an abbreviation for Ultra Race of Champions, which boasts one of the largest purses in the sport of ultrarunning.

Breckenridge morning

Breckenridge daybreak

My reason for being here was certainly not to grow my bank account. I know my place. With 70 pro bibs and about 100 regular, I knew I would be a mid-pack runner today, privileged to be running behind such great athletes on this beautiful and testing course between two giant ski towns; Breckenridge and Vail. The course consisted of four big climbs over 100k (or 62.2 miles), an ultra distance not yet on my resume.

UROC 100K elevation profile

The UROC 100K elevation profile

The starting line was located at the Vertical Runner Store (the country’s highest elevation running store at 9,600 feet). We could see the Tenmile Range mountains all covered in snow in the distance. Soon, we would be up there, playing in the snow – not what I had expected or particularly wanted. A police car led us out of town at 7am along the empty streets of Breck (lets face it, not many care about the Ultra Running World Championships and that’s actually how most of us like it!) before we beared right onto an uneven gravel surface and began our first asccent.

Some familiar faces lead us out on the adventure!

Some familiar faces lead us out on the UROC adventure!

Over a bridge and already you could see Sage in the lead with Kilian close behind higher up. It was now time for me to start hiking. My good friend Carlo, also from New York, had informed me this climb was no joke. It was 1,500 foot of straight up. He had trained on this climb so shared his knowledge and said this was absolutely a walk all the way part of the course.

First climb; 1,500 feet up to Vista Haus

First climb; 1,500 feet up to Vista Haus

Me and Carlo climbed the path, sprinkled in snow from yesterday’s storm. I was now getting passed by more conservative starters from the street start. My glucose was at 220 and that was OK. It would decline with the effort so I held back on the Gatorade intake. The climb was one of patience. I didn’t like losing so many spots but it was so early in the race, I had to let that go. We never did summit the mountain which was a slight disappointment but got close and made a right turn at Vista Haus. Now at over 11,000 feet, the entire ground was caked in snow. You could see the town below amid the sunrise and surrounding white-capped mountains. Views like this were a huge factor why I wanted to be back here in Colorado. It would at least distract me from the effort that would be required to get through this course. The wide path of the uphill was now replaced with single track. I followed a group of four on the packed snow back down the mountain.

The sun was beaming in our faces and the snow was bright so I flipped my shades resting on the back of my head to on my face. We descended the switchbacks of Peaks Trail northbound. It was slow-moving at times. No one in front seemed to want to step aside and no one behind seemed urgent enough to scramble around so we stuck together as one twisting train through trees and open spaces. One guy decided to make his move only to fall onto his ass as he slipped on ice. Eventually, there was room to pass at a safer place and we descended at a better speed.

Descending down from Vista Haus

Descending down from Vista Haus

I rolled through the first aid station (Grand Lodge) before I knew it, just after the 5 mile mark. I didn’t check my watch but knew I was well ahead of my 12-hour target finish I had set myself. My water bottle was still half full (of Gatorade) and I also had two gels with me. I decided that I didn’t need anything so I kept going. My glucose was 114 and dropping. Wait, what? It was too late. I was already beyond the aid station. What was I thinking? Sadly, I wasn’t. I reduced my basal rate and grabbed a gel to save the low. It had started to freeze slightly so was a lot more work than I was used to over the Summer consuming them. I realized that I had 7 miles until the next aid in the town of Frisco. One gel and half a bottle of Gatorade was by no means reassuring to get me there. I had to pay closer attention to my glucose level from now on. That drop came out of nowhere.

Luckily, the terrain from here to Frisco was rolling trails. Me and Carlo had never drifted far apart on the descent and regrouped again for this section. We decided we liked the pace (albeit ahead of schedule) so worked together passing people and taking turns leading. My glucose issue proved not the main worry though. That would have been the hidden ice and the bridges covered in the snow. We both had a couple of ‘Bambi’ moments. The bridges were made of skinny trunks compacted together and a few pieces were missing on them showing us the icy stream below. We made sure our feet stayed dry and slowed when we had too.

We ran at a clip, about 8/min mile pace, knowing 11:30 average would get us sub-12. The last couple of miles before the suburbs of Frisco were all down and we let gravity do the work for us. Pulling into Frisco though was a different story. No matter if we ran east, north or south, headwinds seemed to get us in every direction. We laughed at the ridiculousness of this. The hardest part of the course so far was Frisco!

Frisco aid station

Frisco aid station

We turned left on Main Street and ran up to the aid station together. Tiffany gave me my hydration pack in exchange for my handheld bottle. Now the real climbs began and I needed to carry more fuel as the times between aid stations would increase. My good friend Doug Masiuk was there and put some great words in my head about how children with diabetes were watching me. It struck home instantly. I wasn’t feeling great for just covering 14 miles at this point but this helped keep my focus. I was doing this for more than just me.

I caught back up with Carlo as we left Frisco heading west. Asphalt road turned to dirt road and we got ready for the big climb of the day up and over the Continental Divide. Initially, I felt OK and ended up being a few yards ahead of him. This was the point we had agreed to do our own thing. I felt he was suffering a bit so just went my pace as he went his. But as we rounded Rainbow Lake, the climbing really got going. Effort increased, grade increased and my pace decreased. Carlo went tip toeing by in his style I still cannot master and off he went. He was closely followed by another runner who appeared from nowhere. I wasn’t surprised to witness this. From our training runs together, he has impressed me immensely with his climbing. I stuck to my much slower hiking pace, stretching the legs out as much as I could.

Before I knew it, my pace was no match for anyone. I felt like I was running the ultramarathon of Boston; in over my head and slowly being humbled by much better equipped competitors. But I reminded myself, this race was between myself and the mountains, nobody else. I was still early into this long 7 mile climb up the Colorado Trail through the pine trees. Eventually, the tree line broke and I got to catch my bearings to an extent.

Climbing the vast mass of land up and over the Continental Divide.

Climbing the vast mass of land up and over the Continental Divide.

I found myself in a wide mass of open mountain covered in a thick fresh layer of snow. I looked upwards and saw a trail of people switchbacking higher and higher until out of sight. I wasn’t sure if I preferred the heavy trees hiding my fate or seeing what was left to do! My lungs were piercing. My movement was slow going but onward I went dredging my feet through the packed down snow path. The snow required more and more energy expenditure as the air got thinner. I began to feel sorry for the leader rather than myself. Imagine leading the charge through fresh snow which was up to 18″ deep in places. No thanks! I was almost grateful how much my climbing sucked!

Climbing up to 12,300 feet in the snow. Hard work!

Climbing up to 12,300 feet in the snow. Hard work!

At a false summit, about 12,000 feet up, the Colorado Trail took us around the side of Wheeler Pass (the point we would cross at 12,300 feet) rather than directly to the top. To our left was Breckenridge, now just a tiny town from up here and every step I took, I slipped slightly down. My whole body was working to keep me upright. A couple of slips meant I slid down a couple of feet off the trail but this was all fun, right? I wasn’t exactly smiling, more gritting my teeth out of determination that I would soon see the peak at change the muscle groups up.

View from Wheeler Pass at 12,300 feet

View from Wheeler Pass at 12,300 feet

A couple of cheers ahead meant that moment was iminent. While others stopped to grab pictures of the 360 degree views of beautiful snow-capped mountains, I had more interest in descending so I could a) get some time back b) get some oxygen. The climb had knocked me sideways. I’ve never climbed anything that long before, let alone amidst cold temperatures and 30 mph winds through the snow. My hat is officially off to all the real climbers of the world.

My viewpoint from up above was firmly fixated on the many colorful dots lining the trail which gave me hope that I wasn’t the only one who was slow climbing to the top. I knew my strength was downhill single track and this was exactly what we had next. Albeit in the snow which made it tougher but it was fun and this time I meant it. As I ran back down to tree line, the snow turned to muddy and icy trails and I did my best to keep the legs going fast without making any fatal landings. I moved up several spots here and my confidence begun to come back knowing I could always catch the majority of good climbers on the way back down.

The view ahead; the long descent to Mountain Creek.

The view ahead; the long descent to Copper Mountain.

Noise from the bottom of the trail was a really welcome sound. Rather than a false summit, this proved to be a false base. It was two women directing us over a temporary bridge which I soon found out was not for running on. The bridge moved a couple of feet up and down so I quickly grabbed the railings to stay dry. Note the word temporary. Now that I was safely across, I looked for the aid station but there was nothing. This was not it. I followed two other runners who didn’t seem so disheartened as me that this wasn’t time to stop, refuel and go again. I didn’t no the course and it was messing with my head.

Mile 27; running into Mountain Creek

Mile 27; running into Mountain Creek

A long stretch later of rollers, I heard more noise. The trail ascended towards a few people and then from nowhere, Copper Mountain Ski Resort appeared. I put on my brave face and ran down to the aid station. Tiffany virtually jammed the blood tester onto my finger to make sure this time I did a test. My CGM had me going great; mid to high 100’s all the way down from the mountain but my tester was the real deal and said different; over 300. I was mad. This explained a lot of my exhaustion. I was probably high for the majority of the climb and descent. I wasn’t even halfway through the race, yet I felt like I had run 90K. My first thought was to empty out all the extra gels, chews and bars I was unnecessarily carrying in my pack. My second thought was do some insulin! I’m not sure why the weight of my backpack was a higher priority than getting some insulin in the system. I’ll just have to blame that on cloudy judgement. I checked my water bladder and realized I was not doing great at hydrating. Hydrating would also help bring my glucose down and clear my head.

I left the aid station feeling defeated. My eye caught a pro runner sitting in a chair telling his friend why he had decided to quit the race “I don’t want to be out here for 15 hours like these guys”. I had to bite my lip not to say anything. He wasn’t injured as far as I could tell, just decided it wasn’t his day. Well guess what. It wasn’t particularly my day either. I had fallen almost an hour behind my schedule after having a cushion the other side of the previous mountain and my glucose was not where it should have been. I get everyone has their own agenda. I guess mine is never quit. Being diabetic, you don’t really have a choice so I take this philosophy into my races too.

But just to contradict all of that, as I climbed a really steep climb away from Copper Mountain, I took pause on a mini-plateau to try to catch my breath. I bent over my knees and stood there for far longer than I had planned. Tiffany was just a few hundred yards below getting in the warm car, I was way off my plan goal pace, felt exhausted and I still had two big climbs down the road. I am not a “why me” type diabetic. Those days and emotions are years and years in the past. But, for the very first time in a long time it did just feel like too much to handle all at once. I wanted to throw in the towel so bad. But I knew I wasn’t a quitter, I was a fighter. I didn’t enter the race to fall short. I wasn’t injured, I wasn’t being ill. I just felt like a complete mess. It could have been worse.

I stepped up the hill. I got two or three paces only and again put my hands on my knees and contemplated how simple it would be to just turn around and get in the car. I thought of my uncle, my Dad, my family and friends that believe in me and have my back, Tiffany for unrelenting support on all of these crazy adventures I find and enter. I had to dig deeper than I already was.

Then, a runner passed by and tapped me on the back. “Stay strong brother, it will get better”. Words, I normally pass along to others were coming directly at hopeless me. I said “You promise?”. I asked him if this was the climb up to Vail mountain with dread in my voice. He gave me a funny look and said “No. This is a mile of single track and then the bike path”. Bike path? Why didn’t I know about this. I’m usually so fixated on the race course and here I was not knowing what was coming next. The whole exchange gave me life. I shuffled behind him on the single track and then descended onto the start of the asphalt bike path running parallel with the main Colorado expressway of I-70. I realized I had less than six miles of this slowly ascending bike path until the next aid stop. The asphalt felt funny on my feet after over a marathon on trails of mud, ice and relentless snow. It started flat and I moved along at such an awfully slow pace, I realized I was as good to walk as run so that’s what I did.

Bike path

Bike path; the groomed asphalt leg towards Vail Pass

What was happening? I had perfectly groomed Vail Parks and Rec. asphalt with not a slither of snow, ice or rock in sight and I was walking! I could feel the mini daggers stabbing my lungs. I was now on a low part of the course, well below 10,000 feet but for all I cared, it felt the same as Wheeler Pass minus the temperature and wind. I tried my hardest to run anything flat and had to play games with my brain; run to the bridge, run to the next red flag. I did whatever I could to speed up but for all the games I thought up and tried, I was a tortoise and the hares were whizzing by my every few minutes. To add to my growing woes, my CGM had packed up. It had obviously had enough of the cold weather. It then dawned on me that I wasn’t carrying a blood tester in my pack. I was now somewhere between a high 300 and a low but wouldn’t know it until it hit me. I had to hope I made a good judgement call with my shot of insulin back at Copper Mountain.

I reached a car park and saw a couple of guys I recognized. They had been watching the race in both Frisco and Copper so my brain process thought they were working and therefore this was the aid station. I was adamant this was the top of the 1,000 foot climb to the aid station. False alarm. Through the car park, I went and down on a nice gradual descending road with a lake to the left. I saw a runner ahead and wanted to keep the same gap on him. I had no desire to catch him, my expectation levels for the race were evaporating. I just didn’t want to let him go like many others had today.

I saw some Hoka One One flags and a couple of cars ahead but I was so tired, it didn’t add up until I saw Tiffany. Now, I had finally made it to the aid station. It had taken me forever to cover the straightforward terrain to get here. I was a train wreck already off the tracks.

Geoff Roes aid station (Vail Pass)

Vail Pass; the Geoff Roes celebrity aid station

“What do you want?” asked Tiffany. “To sit” I said. She didn’t like the answer and tried to warn me of my favorite cheesy ultra line ‘Beware of the chair’. (Yes, I have taught her well!) Ultra running legend Geoff Roes was manning the aid station with his buddies. He did not seem too impressed with my performance as he didn’t even speak to me! Instead his friend fed me three cups of ramen soup which did me the world of good. It was early afternoon but my body was still really cold. I took my gloves off and did another blood test; 160. Fantastic, even more so considering I was guessing my levels the last couple of hours.

I was quite happy sitting there. Tiffany less so and she couldn’t hide her concern for how I looked or how I was faring. “Can you pace me from Minturn?(mile 52)” I said exhausted. Let me stress, I am not a fan or believer of pacers for less than 100 miles but I was pretty desperate and drained. Only the elites were not allowed pacers. I was fairly confident at this point I wasn’t one of them or going to catch ones that were.

Up I got from the chair. I had the easiest miles of the course ahead; 6.6 miles of gradual downhill back on the asphalt. I waited until the gradual became a slope to kick-start my running motion. My legs were holding up OK but my chest and head were not. I told myself to run to a certain marker but this eventually was reached and I kept on going. The key was keeping it at a steady pace, nothing heroic but no more walking except for the few uphills.

The path ducked under the I-70 and turned right, away from Vail. Nobody was around (I had passed one person since the aid station). I was convinced this was wrong. To go wrong and add on mileage seemed like the last thing I could handle. I was not living in Kilian’s mindset of “more miles, more fun” which he said while getting lost at Lake Tahoe.

The path eventually twisted back west and widened. I ran over big chalked words; TEJAY and VOIGT. I knew were I was instantaneously. This was the end of the USA Pro Challenge bike time trial stage that occurred here a couple of weeks ago. The use of watching dome rare TV was now helping me in my ultra!

I ran down a long right bend and saw an even better site. Two runners ahead and an aid station. I didn’t expect either things to be possible in my very off day. I was catching people and I had reached an aid station sooner than anticipated?! This aid station was situated just before the second biggest climb; up to Vail mountain. The volunteer told us it was 4.2 to the top and we all looked great. I believed the first part only. My glucose had dropped to 98 so I was pretty wary of my energy needs. I had some Coke and Clif blocs and got the hike going. I wasn’t eating well and knew it. I had a Clif bar in my bag but literally couldn’t stomach myself to even try a bite. I should have eaten this or similar way earlier in the race before my stomach decided to disintegrate.

I was convinced we were going to enter Vail village which in part would have been nice but also a tease as this race still had 20 plus miles to traverse. We did not. Up we climbed by a small waterfall and followed the stream over and under big fallen pine trees. I noticed a big difference from the morning climbs. No snow, well at least none on the trail itself. The sun had worked its magic and cut me some slack for the final third of the race. Switchback after switchback we went up. My view was of pine trees and a solo runner ahead. I had been slowly catching him, not because my climbing had improved but because he was violently throwing up or at least trying to every few minutes. I offered him whatever I had in my pack but he just needed to press the restart button before he could think like that. As much as my nutrition wasn’t good today, I was grateful to not being feeling like him.

Looking back down the climb up to Vail Mountain

Looking back down the climb up to Vail Mountain

When the tree line stopped, I was greeted to a grand mountain view of open yellow field with many more switchbacks going up. A couple of runners who I had not seen for hours were just above me but struggling. It was reassuring to know others were in the same discomfort as me.

After these switchbacks and me catching up to them, the climb plateaued. I kept checking my elevation numbers on my watch as I knew Vail mountain was about 11,000 feet. We seemed to have climbed that but alas, no aid station was in site. I felt confident on Vail mountain. It was the only part of the course I had been to from my previous trip here last Summer. The view of the famed Vail ski bowls to my left looked the same but I could not see the main gondola house that I was familiar with.

I had my eye on two more runners ahead who I had reeled on running along a muddy but beautiful ridge line of the mountain. They slowed to descend a technical rocky section and for some reason I tried to pass one of them here only to lose my footing and begin crashing to the ground. I tensed all of muscles, ready for the hard impact of flesh on rocks when an outstretched arm hooked under mine and reduced the fall to barely nothing. What a Godsend. Ultrarunning competition sure beats the sharp elbows of a 5K! I thanked him over and over. He got the idea. He literally saved my ass!

I skidded along more muddy trail and spotted asmall Scott Running set up in the distance. Relief once more, time for a break. MY glucose was still on the lower side of safe; 102, so I reached for a fresh can of mountain cold Ginger Ale and consumed it in a flash along with a contradicting warm cup of ramen soup. I talked with the guys volunteering about who had won, where all the main elites had placed etc. It was mind-boggling to me they were all done. How do they cover the course in such a frenetic pace, especially with all the snow and wind conditions. Before, I got too comfortable talking about everyone who had finished, I decided I better get moving to follow suit. I had a two more descents and a climb to go. It sounded better than saying over 16 miles!

The sun was on its way down but as the descent to Minturn was only a few miles to go, I wasn’t concerned. Tiffany would be there ready to pace me and hand me my headlamp in time for the last two or three hours of what was left. My sub-12 pipe-dream would not have called for such use but such is life and here I was just trying to finish at this point. After a mile of running a relatively flat section, I started to become a little nervous. I really hadn’t descended much at all yet where as the sun had.

Red flags signaled a turn off the wide dirt road onto single track. This led to a set of switchbacks through long yellow grass. I didn’t count them but heard later there were 38 switchbacks in total. I was hammering down the mountain here playing a game against the sun. Who would get done first; me to Minturn (aka headlamp HQ) or the sun behind the mountain range. I pushed and pushed the pace. I truly believed that any minute now, I would catch a glimpse of the small ski town below and it would all be fine.

Racing against time; the descent to Minturn started pretty until I ran out of light.

Racing against time; the descent to Minturn started pretty until I ran out of light.

I did catch a glimpse of some early evening lights below. Unfortunately, I estimated the distance at about two miles downhill, an impossible distance before the sun would set. I looked up and saw the sun nestling behind the dark mountain skyline and knew my fate was almost sealed. As I got lower, the trees around me increased. More trees equalled less light. My eyes were fighting hard to see the path, the rocks and roots ahead and to make sure I kept seeing a red flag every once in a while. But then ultimately my fate was sealed for me. I planted my left foot down but it never landed as expected. It kept on going into a hole for another foot or so and my knee gave way slightly to the shock of the landing.

I steadied myself to check my leg hadn’t fallen off. A bit shaken from the surprise hole in the ground, I decided there and then that this was just not my day. I had been hopeful of getting to Minturn by 7pm or at least 7:30. It was now approaching 8 and it was pitch black with no one around. I walked down the trail with no headlamp. I couldn’t tell a long blade of grass from a red flag anymore and was adamant if I came out of this trail head in the wrong place, I would be calling it a day. The course had mentally and physically abused me all day in many different ways.

Walking down the trail in the dark was a bit depressing at first. Why where there no glow sticks or reflectors? I felt like the race was for elites and I had crashed there fast party and didn’t belong. This course was laid out for runners finishing before dusk. Enough of the violins though. I had to think how I could make this joke of a scenario better. I had a MacGyver moment and realized I had the next best thing to a headlamp, the backlight of my watch! I pressed the button and got some minuscule light showing me the way (as long as I kept the watch low to the ground). After 15 seconds my watch blacked out so I had to press it again. In all, I ended up walking down the trail which of course got more and more technical and must have pressed that darn button over two hundred times! I had to laugh at how badly wrong everything was going. A light finally shone from behind me. It was a runner I had passed back at the top of Vail Mountain. He said “How are you doing?”. “Great” I said, “I haven’t got a headlamp” in my most sarcastic tone. And he just flew down the hill! This happened another couple of times. I was the hitch hiker that nobody wanted to acknowledge existed. Then I got a shout. “Do you want to share my light?” “Um, sure.That would be great” I said taken aback. Someone was helping poor old me out. Who else would it have been than my ass saving rock friend. This guy was my guardian angel today!

We walked down the trail together. My new ultra hero Ben (not Kilian anymore) was feeling out of it from the altitude. He was stopping at Minturn. I tried my “But you have X more hours to make it X miles” line but it was of no use. He was physically done for the day. We laughed how we were both having a rough go of it at 10,000 above our usual habitats (Ben lives in Chicago). A flashlight came streaming towards me and Tiffany followed jumping on me. She had decided than rather wait (she had been waiting a while) in Minturn, she would walk up the trail to me and give me my headlamp. This was awesome! Talk about waiting for a bus and then two come along at once. I signed off with my guardian angel Ben and walked with speed and my own light down to the bottom of the trailhead with my favorite pacer.

First things first. I needed warmer clothes. We detoured to the car and I put on another jacket. I did my blood test in the car. The car wasn’t even on and it was so much warmer compared to the outside temperature. My glucose was a perfect 157. Everything was better. We jogged through the main street of Minturn and checked into the aid station. I was looking forward to some soup. No soup. OK, some Coke then. No Coke. The volunteer kindly told me they had both at the next aid station. The next aid station was five miles up the mountain though! OK, everything was not better! UROC was not rocking but I wasn’t done with it.

We left Minturn not very happy. I made do with some Oreo’s. My headlamp was no way near as bright as Tiffany’s and I asked if it had new batteries in it. We stopped at her new-found friends house who were having a campfire watching the race. They knew me and her like we were family! We sat by the fire and changed the batteries. Time was ticking by but right now, my only goal was to finish. I soaked up the heat of the fire while I could and bonded with strangers that seemed to already know everything about me! It would have been as much fun to hang out with them but the job was not over; five miles of up and five miles of down to go.

We climbed the same trail we had just come from. That wasn’t too exciting as I hadn’t forgotten how rocky it was. The five-mile climb was no joke, it was straight up. No switchbacks, no plateaus, a relentless grind up to Eagles Nest aid station at over 10,000 feet. I was making all kinds of weird noises, digging deep to keep a solid pace going. I wanted to get to the top by 16 hours. I knew I still had the smallest of chances of breaking 17 hours and therefore getting a belt buckle to go alongside a finisher’s medal. I hadn’t particularly cared for the sub-17 buckle (finishing before midnight) as I have far more treasured metal from Leadville and Western States. I wasn’t convinced before the race, a buckle was a deserved prize for ‘only’ 100K but now living in the moment of this race I had changed my mind. This was as hard, if not harder than either of my 100 mile races. Being so close to the buckle cut off time gave me a desire to push and go after it.

After a few miles, I saw ahead on the right a handful of yellow lights. I was convinced this was the aid station and made a big fuss out of it to Tiffany. She wasn’t sure. I was almost at the 10,000 feet mark so it made sense. Just a bit more of up and the road would level out and lead to the lights. It was soup time!

I saw a big metal sign up ahead which was a good indicator that it was the beginning, or in my case the end of the trail head. I walked by it and was now standing on an access road. No flags pointed towards the light and neither did they point the other direction. The red flags pointed straight up the steep mound in front. I couldn’t believe my (lack of) luck. Tiffany marched on while I stood there defeated. I was mad at the people in the hut/house, whoever they were and whatever it was. Did they not know their was a 100k death march going on tonight?!

I sulked up the steep grade, one step at a time. I knew as soon as I saw the real aid station it would mean no more climbing. And then on a plateau, far in the distance we could see the lights ahead of Eagles Nest aid station. No. More. Climbing!

We ran towards it and I jumped in a chair. Ramen soup was in my hands moments later. I glanced at my watch to see how things were shaping up; ’16:10′. “We have to go” I called to Tiffany just as she was grabbing some food herself. We were informed it was 4.7 to go, better than 5 I guess. I needed all the help I could get. We would have to average 9-minute miles and if so, I would just make it under 17 hours.

Off we went. Luckily it was on a wide red-clay dirt road that winded down the mountain. Tiffany ran on my left and we both looked for red flags to make sure we didn’t make any wrong turns. A wander off course now would have ended my buckle plan in an instant. I felt like we were really hammering it. “Are we going 7:30 do you think?” I asked her. She kindly made it obvious we were not. Darn my legs must have been trashed because it sure felt like it! Whatever the pace was, it was still hard work even though we were going down.

Winding switchback after winding switchback but no sign of the village lights. Luckily, we both did have some course knowledge (finally). We had been two sevenths of the participants in yesterday’s fun 5K. We knew a blue gate was a 1-mile to go landmark. We passed an area by a gate and Tiffany was sure that was it. I stopped to see what cushion I had to do the final mile in; 22 minutes. I knew we had been flying! We kept going, winding down the road, shouting out when we saw a red flag or when their was a batch of rocks to avoid. But one problem remained. I caught a glimpse of the lights below and knew instantaneously that the finish was well over a mile to go. We had called the finale too early. I guessed it was at least two miles. If I was right, I was still OK but barely.

We ran and ran harder. I didn’t want to miss out by a minute. What hadn’t mattered to me a few hours ago now meant everything all of a sudden. We saw the blue gate ahead; ’16:50′ on the watch she I hit the backlight. A ten-minute mile and it was done. We started passing houses that were now above us rather than below us. We were so close. And then with not much warning, was the finish arch. I turned left and saw the digital clock. The numbers 16:57 beamed at me in neon red.

I crossed the line to the crowd of two. A timekeeper staying warm by her laptop and a guy handing out medals. He gave me my medal and then paused for a long time as I looked at him and wondered if the rumour of sub-17 hours was in fact correct for the buckle. “Oh, and you get one of these by the skin of your teeth”. Man, no need to tease me like that!

I ended up being the very last runner to get a belt buckle from the race. Even though it felt like I had come in dead last, I had most definitely not. The finish rate was 55%. To be on the right side of that felt like its own triumph. I was proud to have finished, to stay in the game even when everything seemed to go wrong for me all day.

Exhausted yet triumphant; my 100K finishers medal.

Exhausted yet triumphant; my 100K finishers medal.

I leave UROC knowing I was under prepared for the race. Kilian Jornet used a great quote after his sub-par Western States debut in 2010. “I think when we win a race, we don’t learn so much because everything is perfect. It’s important to lose because that’s when you learn.” I fully appreciate where he is coming from. I never came here to win but I did set lofty goals on myself and fell way short.

All in all, I am proud of my race. It was an absolute sufferfest. I can confidently say, it was the hardest race of my life. It tested me to my maximum and then some more. I have never quit a race and will continue that streak as long as I’m not about to come away from it seriously injured. I want to keep showing the world that you can do anything you want while having diabetes. Even climbing five mountains in the snow at altitude over 100K. It’s a crazy life but someones got to do it!

The sub-17 hour bling!

The sub-17 hour bling!

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.

Believe in the Dream; Western States 100 (62-Finish)

Tiffany and I ran out of Foresthill side by side, stride for stride. We politely turned down all requests to refill my water and eat the aid station food. We had all those options and more at the car, which was parked a quarter-mile down the course. I had increased my cushion from Michigan Bluff  to thirty minutes ahead of sub-24 and felt pretty good, as was always the plan. The cushion was not but I was hoping it was here to stay.

At the car, I finally relieved my shoulders of the backpack and picked up two hand-held water bottles, perfectly prepared by Benny and Sean; one ice and water in the blue bottle, the other ice and Gatorade in the grey bottle. My glucose had dropped a lot to 99. I reduced basal again and grabbed some gels for the next stretch. I changed tops from T-shirt to singlet. What a difference all of this made. I felt lighter and fresher. I did however refuse to play the new socks/shoes game here. With Rucky Chucky river crossing in 16 miles, I was likely going to change them there anyway so I was reluctant to waste time and go through this process twice. We had what we needed; headlamps, gels and the last section of my wrap sandwich.

Foresthill trail sign

Foresthill trail sign

We took a left onto a dirt road. We would not see Benny or Sean until the end of Tiffany’s pacing at Green Gate (mile 80). The trail turned remote again almost immediately. We walked as I tried my best to eat the wrap. Not to my surprise, Tiffany had lots of news to tell me about from the day. But to my surprise, she told me she had been scheming a master plan all week with family and friends for this very moment at mile 62. She had gotten everyone to write a personal message to me that she then proceeded to read out as we moved along the trail. It was awesome!!! Everyone, that did that, thank you so much!!!

As I fought with my sandwich to go down, I listened to all the messages; a mixture of humor and seriousness wrapped (no pun) into one. The timing could not have been better as I was now feeling a bit rough around the edges. This was more than just cramped legs, my body was slowly shutting down. It was a huge lift to know I had the full support of everyone back in NYC, Hong Kong and of course England.

After a mile of fighting, I finally tossed away the food. My stomach had just shrunk too much that it was not happening for me. It was a long descent into the next aid so we ran sections of gorgeous single track at a pretty good clip. I let gravity take me down and rolled with that pace until the effort hurt or a climb appeared so walking made sense. This was going well for a while but after a few miles, I kept having to stop after a few minutes of running. I threw my hands on my knees, bent over and had to regroup. And then I would slowly start to walk until I was ready again. Luckily, Cal 1 aid station (Dardanelles) put a break to this stop start motion. Ice, refills and some fruit to go. Some cups of Coke pushed the glucose up and perked me up.

Trail to Peachstone aid.

Trail to Peachstone aid.

We hiked the majority of the next five miles to Peachstone. It was two separate climbs and the power hiking felt good as I had got tired of running. Tiffany made fun that she had to run to keep up with my long stride up the hills. But the humor was short-lived. I was, for the first time, sensing that five miles seemed really far away. I had been working aid station to aid station off my map with a certain pace to keep. That map got left behind at the Foresthill aid so we were now working with less information for better or worse. Was that why it seemed harder? Or was it that I wasn’t eating? Or was it that the sun was slowly setting and I was not looking forward to nighttime running? (I moved really slow during Leadville in the dark). Whatever the reason, I was hurting.

Aliens marked the entrance and exit of Peachstone. Either that or I needed some more Coke. (You find the craziest themes at aid stations, especially at night that this was fast becoming). We left Peachstone fairly quickly. I ate some fruit but not much else. My glucose was fine, my stomach wasn’t, so I had no great incentive to eat much. I was starting to feel sick so food wasn’t going to help that situation out too much.

I ran hard again on the descents down to Fords Bar(Cal 3) but kept stopping again. This scenario played itself out countless times so I was now being ‘that guy’ that would pass someone only to be passed back moments later. When I was just walking easy, Tiffany tried her best to get me to run in her comforting tone. I stubbornly refused.  But the comment did not go away. It lingered and weighed guilt on me as the clock was ticking.  I knew I had to keep moving, keep running the flats and downhills, walk the uphills. Just keep going while we still had sunlight. And most times after a delay, I would start running again. I told her “No sitting down at Green Gate, no shoe change”. I had planned to do both but was so fixated on time, I didn’t want to be stationary more than I had too, even in this numbing pain. I felt like I was losing time here although I wasn’t.

My pacing was not smart. When I ran, I really ran but the slumping over and walking were not doing me any favors. It felt like the right thing to do because the faster pace felt comfortable. That was the only defense I gave to Tiffany.  I knew a slower but more consistent pace was more textbook but I couldn’t fathom doing that all the way to the river crossing.

American River from the WS trail up above but still not close to the crossing.

American River from the WS trail up above but still not close to the crossing.

This was a major mental pit full for me. I had stopped working on the small victories and now  wanted the medium ones, this being the river crossing. Tiffany asked “What do you want?” “The river” was my smart reply. I only had the river to go off as a landmark, everything else around me was now feeling old. I needed the river crossing and was growing increasingly impatient. We saw it from high above in descending the mountain but it was the crossing, I craved for.

Leaving Cal 3, we passed a DNFing Jennifer Benna walking towards us with her pacer (husband).  He said “Great job, get to the river before it’s dark”.  What a great idea I thought. Imagine if I could make it to the Rucky Chucky crossing in daylight? And just like that, I made it my goal to see the famous crossing in daylight.

But my stomach was really in knots, shrinking by the mile, intestinal pain on the rise. I tried to force myself to be sick several times in a row. “Are you sure you should be doing that?” came from Tiffany. “Ann Trason said making yourself sick is sometimes the best thing you can do!”. I couldn’t have felt any worse by not doing it so it was worth a shot. Dry heaving is not fun mind and I eventually gave up.

I called for the headlamps to go on with about four miles to go before the river. I didn’t want to fall because we were being stubborn that the light was fading fast. I felt defeated that I had missed this ‘small victory’ opportunity. It was ridiculous. I was never meant to get to the river until 10:40pm but I had forgotten that and instead sulked that I missed out on a new small victory that I hadn’t even planned for!

My whole body language changed immediately. We heard screams and laughter down below on the American river but could not see who or where. “It had to be the crossing, right?” Tiffany agreed. We begun to climb higher but I wasn’t concerned with this. I had heard from the course meeting that you think you are at the river and then you tap on some miles. This was obviously what was going on, wasn’t it?

As we walked further away from the noise, I begun to get desperate “When is the course going to swing hard left?” (as if it must).  A slight left ahead got my hopes up but that wasn’t it. Was it a hard right up the mountain side instead? That didn’t make too much sense but I would have taken it. My obsessive focus was river, river and river as if it would solve my energy low.

We walked almost for miles continuously on easy flat trails in search of Rucky Chucky. It felt aggressive for a walk (I have been informed since, it was not). This was my low and I didn’t even want to register it. I wasn’t eating right or drinking right.  I managed to take down a Powerbar fruit smoothie but even that was tough going. Baby food was tough to consume? This was not pretty!

Finally, and I mean finally, lights and noise appeared.  I got ushered onto the scales. I stepped on and half stepped off. Somehow, none of the medics made a fuss of this wobble. My weight was 173. Four pounds lost since Foresthill. “Do you want to sit down?” said a medic. It was a question, not a statement so I had a get out. “No. I’m fine” I responded.

I had changed my mind about not sitting at Green Gate (mile 80). I knew I had to and I would solider on for two miles more before doing so. I walked to the food selection at Rucky Chucky. I looked at everything and was convinced whatever I would have picked up would have quickly come back up. The low was getting lower. I needed Green Gate badly.

Lights guided us down some steps to the river bed. I got halfway and then it finally happened. After miles of wanting to, I was now a real ultra runner, I had been sick!! Just like Ann Trason, had said, I immediately felt (slightly) better. “Do you want to go back?” asked Tiffany. “No, let’s go.” Green Gate was so close, why sit down when I could crawl?

Grabbing the rope, volunteers with waders and powerful headlamps guided us across the hip deep water. There were lots of big rocks to climb up or around. I didn’t expect this. I joked to anyone that cared to listen “Even the river crossing is difficult”. A young volunteer replied “This is Western States”. I liked his reply. It was smart and true, something I would have said to a runner half complaining myself! So, I was having a rough few miles. Go figure. What did I think was going to happen? 100 miles of glorious trails hitting all my time goals, keeping my weight, staying cool in 102 degrees? This was all just part of the adventure. I had to embrace it more!!

Tired and weak; 'I have to get to that rock?'

Rucky Chucky river crossing; “I have to get to that rock?!”

I looked at the positives. I was still ahead of sub-24 pace, blood glucose under good control, about to get to sit down and then just twenty miles to go. Oh, and I had just run 18 miles with my badass girlfriend during the Western States 100. Time to make the glass half empty again! Life was definitely better than it felt!

I steadily (OK, really slowly) crossed the river. My body now felt somewhat refreshed from the cool river water. I contemplated dipping my body in more at the far side (like I did in the canyons) but realized I had taken forever to cross the darn thing, I had better just get out!

Rucky Chucky river crossing; so this is how traffic jams happen!

Rucky Chucky river crossing; this is how traffic jams happen.

After a mile plus of hiking the canyon road up to Green Gate, Benny and Matt came towards us to join in for the last mile up. Tiffany gave Benny the lowdown on my state of mind (not great!). I knew they were discussing how I was doing but purposely switched off and spoke with Matt. Maybe he had some magic energy that would get me out of the rut?

I wanted to be an hour ahead of schedule for the last twenty with Benny. That one hour cushion would have been a godsend to know I would break 24 hours. I wasn’t sure if I was there. In fact I knew I was shy but not just not by how much (I was 33 minutes ahead). Regardless, Tiffany had been awesome as I knew she would be. She saw me at my worst going through the motions and just helped me patiently and calmly keep moving forward. Relentless forward progress. I think she may have even joked after the weigh-in, I looked better at 173lbs!

Getting organized at Green Gate aid.

Getting organized at Green Gate aid with the help of Katy.

My Brooks ID friend Katy Gifford was running the Green Gate aid station. She was there to greet me with a big smile, a hug and a much promised grilled cheese sandwich. Was this to be the magic energy?  I slouched into a chair. I hadn’t sat down for 18 hours!! Needless to say, it felt like heaven.

As I looked at my grilled cheese sandwich figuring out how on earth I was going to actually eat it, I thought to myself ‘I feel…OK’. Not great, but a few gears up from being sick at the river two miles ago. Nearing 11pm, I decided to put on arm sleeves as the temperature would perhaps drop slightly, or maybe I just still feared my pace would and they would be useful for that. I reminded myself that my feet were already a mess and seeing them now would not do me any favors, so I pursued with the same pair of Grits for the last stretch.

After a couple of cups of hot soup and nibbles out of the sarnie, it was time to head out. We got about a minute into the journey and I asked Benny if he had the pacing map. He said no. I wanted it. I wanted to know my cushion. Benny assured me he knew exactly what time to be at each aid station, pace etc, so off we went. We had already spent longer than planned at Green Gate but it was important to regroup and get some energy back.

Pacer change at mile 80!

Pacer change at mile 80! (Matt P with a great photo bomb!)

I had eaten about three mouthfuls of grilled cheese sandwich at the aid. Benny was holding it as he was more hopeful than me that I would eat more. We quickly got into a very easy running pace along flat single track. Real easy. I surprised myself that I no longer wanted to stop and have any breaks.

Benny ran behind (as was custom for the pacer) and we talked. Well, he talked. I was a good listener for the most part. When an incline came, Benny passed me the sandwich. “Eat” was the instruction. He wasn’t even asking me! One small bite and then some water to make sure I could actually swallow it down. The simple task of eating (what humans do to stay alive) was significantly harder than putting one foot in front of the other. These miles were all about eating, not running to stay on track for a successful result.

The ascent ended and I happily returned the sandwich to Benny. Back to running. But surprisingly, this repetitive task of climbing equals sandwich worked out. A few miles later and Benny had achieved his goal (largely against my will – could you tell?) and I had consumed the sandwich over five miles between aid stations.

Just before we entered the aid station, Benny made me stop for water. Not just a sip. Ten seconds of continuous drinking. “How many what…seconds?” I was not happy with this rule. Benny reminded me about my weight. So, we stood still in darkness on the trail at midnight and I chugged back ten seconds of water. As much as Benny was correct, I didn’t appreciate stopping anymore as starting again was the most painful exercise.

We rolled into Auburn Lake Trails aid at mile 85. This time, my name was called out over the MC. Things were getting personal and I liked it! But we hit a scales block. Dislike! I jumped on. “177”. I was back at starting weight. Like! And cue high fives between me and Benny. I sat in a chair. I hadn’t planned on this but was getting pretty exhausted and felt I deserved a minute or two off my feet. Benny didn’t show any major panic in his eyes so I assumed my time was good. I had given him full control of my pacing and ultimately my final time.

My CGM sensor had fallen loose so I was now working off blood tests only at each aid stop. Volunteers were eager to help me refuel but I had to politely tell them to hold tight while we drew some blood and saw where my numbers were. I was just above 200. So-so. Benny and me discussed basal rates and what to eat. Lots of broth and noodle soup was all I could take so that’s what it was. Some of the volunteers dropped their jaws to see two diabetics out here doing the numbers, figuring out carbs vs insulin vs energy. They had lots of questions for us! It was pretty awesome. I guess that’s a prime example of Team Novo Nordisk’s global mission of #changingdiabetes right there.

Off again. Benny was not saying much about my time cushion other than “you’re good”. As me and my team had discussed hours ago on the shore of Lake Tahoe, if I could control my pace in the first half of the race, Tiffany and Benny could motivate me and drive me on as my body tired for the last 38 miles. I trusted them completely. We also knew this tactic would mean passing runners who were now falling apart towards the end of the race.

Sure enough, this was happening. Seven spots had been taken in a few miles since Green Gate. Our pace was nothing to blow anyone’s mind but to me it felt great, to others around us it, it probably looked great, and that’s all that mattered. I knew I wasn’t going to see any of these people again until after the race. I knew the pacing for the last twenty miles had to be  between 15-18 minute miles from memory and we were running most of this, so I figured we were going 10’s. If that was right, we were banking loads of time.

Brown’s Bar aid station could be heard from far away. These guys were here to party first, volunteer second! The speakers blared out The Killers as we crossed a tiny bridge decorated with Christmas lights (yes, really, this one topped the aliens – I was not hallucinating!) to the aid. I sat in the chair.  The chair was fast becoming a mini reward for making the next aid station. Benny and a volunteer grabbed me more chicken noodle soup and cups of broth. Lots of them, my appetite was back to an extent.

The station was sponsored by Rogue Valley Runners from Ashland, OR. Owner (and WS racer) Hal Koerner was probably tucked up in bed at this point (he probably was but unfortunately with a DNF at the river). I talked excitedly about my upcoming trip out there in August. Benny was probably wondering why the hell I was talking about a future trip to Oregon during my Western States race! It didn’t make sense to have a random conversation about Oregon, where to go, what to do etc but that’s how relaxed I felt about my race at that time. I was definitely on the upswing.

Benny was anything but freaking out that I was sitting down and taking my time. I didn’t know it at the time but I had more than doubled my cushion time since Auburn Lake Trails. The only thing I needed to do better was get my glucose lower. As if 88 miles wasn’t enough to wear you out, now my sugar wasn’t coming down below 200.

Benny and me discussed the numbers again and took a bolus of insulin. We ideally wanted this number back at 150 range ASAP. The route to Highway 49 aid would be a mix of descending, flat and ascending. The pace remained steady with some confidence to it. And why not? Ten miles to go and Benny kept reassuring me the silver buckle was locked up, no matter how many times I asked him!

Highway 49 aid station

We crossed the road into Highway 49. US flags led us into a  cheering frenzy. It was 2:30 in the morning but you wouldn’t have guessed it. Sean grabbed me a chair. Blood test. Glucose was back on target with 130. This was surely diabetic runners high right? I had iced water and iced Gatorade in my handhelds in no time. We were about to leave and I asked Sean, “Where’s Tiffany?”. “Um..you wore her out. She’s sleeping in the car” he said. We smirked although I knew she would be upset she missed me here. I would see them at mile 99 for the final push. 6.7 miles to go and the silver buckle was safe. Dream locked up!

We marched out of the aid. “OK, Benny” I said. “We have 6.7 miles to go. I have an hour and a half to do 6.7 miles right for sub-23, correct?”. Benny paused. I don’t think he wanted to tell me what he had already been planning since Green Gate. “Yep, that’s right” he said. “So, are we going to do this or what?!!” I said. It hadn’t crossed my mind until then, that I was cutting myself short with a sub-24 goal!

Before I could get too excited though, we had to climb a long hill but from that point on, it was gradual downhill all the way through grasslands to the famous No Hands Bridge. We didn’t mess around! I almost tripped a couple of times on some rocks and had to slow it down to avoid a potential wipe out. My fear came from cramping up rather than actually taking a layer of skin off. The legs were really stiff and heavy, the earlier mountains had done their damage on them. The section to No Hands Bridge was only three miles long but the last mile seemed to drag as the bridge just wasn’t coming into sight. When we did eventually catch a glimpse of it, we shouted out a couple of “woots” of pure excitement.

No Hands Bridge

No Hands Bridge

We had already discussed en route here, no more blood tests at any of the aid stations, refill bottles at No Hands Bridge and go. Time was precious if we were going to break 23 hours. Tiffany and Sean were there to our surprise. It was awesome. I told her, we were going to try to break 23 hours. She kind of already knew by the clock and the urgency Benny was putting on me to keep going. We ran off over No Hands Bridge, the lowest point of elevation of the course but with runners high. 3.3 miles to go. We were on a mission!

I still had lots of work to do. Benny and me discussed it plenty. We knew a 14-minute pace would seal the deal. Easy right? Well, we had to climb all the way up to Robie Point aid (where Tiffany and Sean would meet us for the final mile) which would leave 16 minutes of time remaining to cover the last 1.3 miles. If I only had 10 minutes, I was going to go for it I told Benny, but I would rather work at almost maximal effort now and relax for the last mile and enjoy mile 100 with everyone.

The uphill finish to Auburn would not be straight forward!

I didn’t mind changing my technique as running was really exhausting but the power hiking was losing me time (or so I thought). We caught six more runners and powered on through them. They were all pretty toast. I was close (to toast) but my new-found goal of sub-23 was driving me on like no tomorrow!

We heard cow bells at the top of the climb. Robie Point. In and out, without stopping. I checked the watch. 24 minutes to cover 1.3 miles! My body relaxed, I felt euphoric. We hiked the asphalt road following the orange spray-painted feet that I’m sure are for Western States? (we had been following yellow ribbons and glow sticks up to now). Tiffany and Sean met us at the crest of the hill and we did a mini-celebration. I think this is when Benny told me he had the pace sheet the whole time but didn’t want me to see it!!

We walked fast but didn’t need to. All the work had been done and this was now the moment to enjoy the occasion. I thanked everyone again and again for all their hard work. If I didn’t have such great friends who were organized and committed to the race, the sub-23 wouldn’t have even been a talking point. The bonus of going under one more hour is credited to them and I include my other team-mates, Matt and Laura in that as well.

We ran a section of the mile. I knew from watching countless Western States videos, you turn left and then a second left, through a narrow gate and onto the famous Placer High School track to the white finish arch wrapped in flags from across the world. In between left turns, I wanted to see the next left so bad. Marshall’s were there to show us just that turn I wanted along with a few die-hard locals who were staying up all night to cheer us home.

Onto the track we went for the 250m finale. I looked across the field and saw the famous white arch with my own eyes. It seemed surreal. Was this really happening?! This moment was special, really special. It turned the bend and ran down the final stretch and across the line shouting in celebration. 22 hours 53 minutes. I had believed in my dream that sub-24 could happen and achieved it. The sub-23 was just the icing on the cake to without doubt, the run of my life.

Believe in the Dream; Western States 100 Miles ‘One Day’
Going sub-23 was the icing on the cake. Can you tell?
That finishing feeling is priceless!

Tim Tweitmeyer was working the ‘graveyard shift’ handing out finisher medals. It was great to meet him. A true legend of ultrarunning winning 5 of his 25 sub-24 finishes at Western States. What a great person to receive my medal from!

I celebrated with the crew and crawled into a white plastic chair at the finish line. My glucose was 110. Nailed that too. Will someone please wake me up now?! A couple of others snuck-in under sub-23 which was awesome to witness. I went off to do some heart rate testing with the John Moores Sport Science team. Within minutes of the tests starting, my body just broke down completely; shivering and cramping everywhere. The new goal for my crew was to get me to bed! And so we did just that.

At the award ceremony with the shiny silver buckle!
At the award ceremony with the shiny silver buckle!
Who knew a belt buckle could make you so happy?!
Who knew a belt buckle could make you so happy?!

I found out later that day I came in the top 50 men spots (60th overall). It took a few days for everything to sink in and while hobbling around NYC with two banged up blistered feet, it finally hit me how perfect everything went, how precious health is and to stick your neck out there and try to achieve great personal things, not matter how small and inconsequential they are to others.

I’ve had days and now weeks (yes this blog is very late) to reflect on everything from Western States. I’ve had conversations with Tiffany, Benny, Matt and others about what’s next and when. What does this all of this mean anyway?

For starters, my confidence has sky rocketed. I knew I could do it. Even with the hot conditions, I was adamant it could be accomplished, but I still had to execute the plan. I’m a few hours (8 to be precise) shy of winning the thing, but I know I can do better. Not just in Western States or 100 mile races, in everything. I know I can work harder, work faster and keep pushing the limits. Because all that limits do are hold you back.

I already know that my diabetes doesn’t limit me. I’m excited to explore this “no limits” attitude in life and future races starting with my first 100K distance race in Colorado at the end of September. I’ll probably have a dream about it soon and hope to make that one come true too.

 

 

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