A Test of Pacing, not Racing: Kettletown State Park, CT 50K

First Ultra of 2014 and a new state (CT) to conquer!

First Ultra of 2014 and a new state (CT) to conquer! Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail Series

I knew nothing about my next race held at Kettletown State Park going into my first ultra of the season. Partly because it is located up in Connecticut (I rarely seem to venture there, just drive through it a lot) and partly because it was to be the inaugural race put on by some folks known as Trail 2 Trail.

I chose to do the 50K, the longest option of the four races (5K/10K/20K were the others) and this hugely excited me because it would give me one more state to tick off my slow completion of 50 states. Yes, going beyond the marathon distance counts and for the really curious, no, I am not even close to being halfway done!

I picked this race believing it would be good build up into my two 50 mile races, Vermont 100 and then onto something I keep harping on about, Tahoe 200. My imagination told me the course would be fast and there would be a good chance of a PR on it. My coach however had other ideas for me whether my imagination was right or wrong. He strongly encouraged me to take my racing cap off and treat it like a 50 miler (in terms of pace). Just a few days prior, the rule changed a bit more. It was now to be treated like the first 30 of a 100 mile race. I knew he was right, I just honestly didn’t want to hear it. You see, putting a bib on and taking it easy is more of a challenge than touching my toes. For those that don’t know me well, I cannot touch my toes!

Regardless of speed, I went into the race-non-race fully prepared. Some would even say over prepared. A tall runner in full neon joked with me at the start line “I take it you’re doing the 5K?” friendly mocking me about my fully stocked up hydration pack. The game plan today (other than not to race) was to eliminate all of the mistakes from two weeks prior at Bear Mountain. Today I was going to carry two water bottles. One was full of water, one was my timely prize from CLIF that I received the day before the race. I had S-Caps. I had gels. Lots of them. I even had a bag at the start/finish area so I could do blood tests, change shirts or just get more of all of the above mentioned nutrition. How does the saying go? Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. I was prepared to make sure Bear Mountain was a one-off mess.

Kettletown Course Map

Kettletown Course Map. Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail Series

The course at Kettletown was a 10K loop. A small loop on one side of a lake and then a larger one on the other side, shaped like the number eight. This design layout allowed for frequent aid stations. The aid station being the same one of course at the start/finish area. The race director explained to the group of over a hundred runners that there were no electrolyte drinks available. I already felt my IQ increase for my detailed prep work. For the 50K route, we were told that after three loops, we would reverse the course for the last two for no other reason than it would mix it up. To start the race, a song would be played and when it was over, we would begin. As we waited at the imaginary start line listening to  House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’, I couldn’t help but feel this all had a touch of ‘The Barkley Marathons’ to it with its quirky rules (or maybe lack of them) and interesting version of a start horn, gun or general loud noise. If you wanted a race the opposite of the New York City Marathon, Kettletown State Park was fast becoming a hot favorite for any tri-state runners.

And we're (all) off!

And we’re (all) off! Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail Series

The song from my years of puberty finished, we all hesitated and then realized we were meant to start running. Tiffany ran by my side (she was competing in the 20K) at the front and we quickly started climbing up a grassy bank into the wooded trails. Runners passed me by left and right and I watched as Tiffany ran ahead and soon went out of sight going uphill. With four different races going on at once, it was impossible to know who was racing what. With my racing cap left at home, I didn’t have to worry about this. It actually benefited me to have everyone thrown together.

Being clueless to the course, I threw out an idea that around five hours would be a good finish time; not killing it and or backing off too much (I was in the mind sight of opting for the first coaching suggestion of running it at 50 mile pace). One hour per loop would also be simple to track. my time game plan was of course planned out naively still without knowing what was in store for me. For starters, the previous night getting ready at home, my phone alerted me to a flash flood in the area! I smirked at my phone and then towards Tiffany and thought of my recent mud bath adventures at Bear Mountain. Would this be round two?

In reality, the mud or wetness of the course wasn’t ‘that’ bad. That’s not to imply my feet were dry though. A mile in to the race, I found the first muddy puddle and then a second one and then a stream crossing. You get the idea. It was virtually impossible to not take at least one step into the aqua and most people around me just went the most direct route. I already liked my Saturday company.

At the start of the descent from the climb, the course soon split. 5K runners were to go left (although I’m not sure I had actually seen any) and we (10K/20K/50K) descended a technical route over to the right of football sized rocks down to a small two plank, slightly unstable footbridge. Once over this, we headed back up, through tightly cropped foliage and over more rocks before descending steeply to the start of the loop down to the start/finish. A quick check of my watch and I noted the small loop was almost an exact two miles. With all my liquid still fairly full, I had no reason to stop at the aid and proceeded on across a really cool wooden bridge that crossed a fairly lively river. This was immediately the most scenic part of the course so far. Scrambling up and over big rocks alongside the river was a test of good core and foot skills. People were guessing the best route towards the next flag and making mistakes all over. Some went off course to the left, others to the right. I guess by the fifth loop we would have it figured out but for now, it was trial and error stuff.

The bridge leading to the most technical section along the river. Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail

The bridge leading to the most technical section along the river. Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail Series

Over a road marshaled by one of the organizers and I was back climbing again. I ran gently up all of it but knew deep down this would not be the same later. The trail turned flat and then presented a gradual downhill of sweeping single track over pine needles twisting and turning through the trees. It was a great section of trail. Dare I compare this section to part of Western States? …This part of the course felt like a section at Western States! Brownie points to the course designer for making me think of WS out there!

A water cooler with a stash of white cups sat idle on the trail and marked the end of the fun downhill. I then climbed some switchbacks which kept the grade manageable but still took a good grind until reaching the top which gave a partial overview of the lake now well below. Remembering looking out at the lake pre-race to try to gauge how hilly this course could be, I threw out a guess that the top of the hills were probably 400 feet above the lake. I assumed that now I had seen the lake, I was at the top of the hill.

My course knowledge was proving particularly worthless! The trail turned left and then up again over some wet rocks. I grabbed all sorts of thickness of tree branches to save me from spilling over and then up a big rock step, Kettletown’s equivalent to the Hillary step before clambering along a ridge line to now, the true peak. From there, the trail got really fun again with a long descent mixing the flat and random juts of rock and roots all the way back to the road. From there it was a third of a mile back along the rocky river stretch and over the wooden bridge to the start/finish aka race HQ.

When I got there, I wasn’t ready at all to be efficient with my stop. I was like a racing car pulling into the pits without any idea what I needed. I first dashed across to my backpack and rummaged for my blood tester. With a reading of 82, it was time to get some more quick carbs on board. I grabbed a few more gels and loaded them into my side pockets of my pack and then went to refill my bottles.

I should have had them ready in my hands and done this immediately in hind sight. By going to my bag first I missed the opportunity of the water cooler being free. Now I was waiting behind a runner to finish and losing time. It shouldn’t have mattered due to my non-race agenda but it bothered me that I was making small mistakes again and mistakes cost time. I need a chalk board to write “I will learn from this” multiple times over as punishment and by Tahoe, I will be a pro.

Once the cooler was free, I poured in a new powder packet of CLIF and refilled the other one with water. A glance at the time read 1h 07. If that was to be an honest pace for the day (as was the plan), I was looking at a 5:35 finish time. Probably a better conservative time than trying to go sub-5 without calling it a race.

I climbed up the long open trail again recalling my first mile split in the mid-9’s. I repeated this pace again and then realized I needed to focus more on my glucose numbers than my Garmin numbers. Why I didn’t mix both water bottles with CLIF was lost on me with my BG at 82 but I stopped to correct that at the top of the hill.

Like a scene out of Breaking Bad, I was in the middle of nowhere trying my best to pour a container of powder into a small water bottle hole and making a real mess of it! With the majority of it making it into the bottle, I sealed the cap, brushed the excess powder off my hands and marched on up the trail.

In the valley of the trail this time around was a lost and bewildered runner coming towards me shouting “where is the start?” To begin with, I had no idea what race he was trying to be in. I soon figured he must have made a wrong turn and come back the wrong way along the 5K route to a T-section which is where I met him. After suggesting his best bet was to follow me and run three miles back to the start from where I was, he decided to seek a second opinion from a nearby hiker instead.

As I had been assisting, a runner I had been running behind and catching for the last mile decided to take no part in the puzzle of how, where or why the lost runner had got himself into this pickle. She had shot off up the hill and away from me again! Once I was back up the ridge line, I had managed to catch her again not impressed with her lack of desire to help and now with the last mile and a half down to the start/finish over a nice grade, I opened my legs up and pushed on ahead.

As I approached the wooden bridge, this was now my landmark to get water bottles ready and go straight to the cooler. I was excited to see Tiffany at the finish and learn how her 20K race had gone. She came over to me as I filled my water and was not too happy to have finished second. It was tough because I was having a grand old-time of it, enjoying the course, running conservatively and all of that good stuff and she had just finished a hard-fought race and had this raw emotion of defeat. But as I left the aid station, I thought about it and realized how much competitiveness she has inside. I kind of liked that she was mad. I was happy she wanted more and not content with how she did. Maybe because it showed me, she always wants better, always trying to improve. We are very similar in some ways and that is a probably an attractive personality trait we both give each other.

On the third and final loop (in normal direction), I had a guy in a white shirt on the hunt for me. We had been going back and forth since loop two and now I was hearing loud rustling along the trail close behind me, I was surprised he was back again but decided to keep moving forward without reacting to it. With the downhill back to the lake over the next climb, I pulled away once more and ran the rest of the third loop solo.

Focused while doing my best to stay relaxed out on the trail.

Focused while doing my best to stay relaxed out on the trail. Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail Series

Going up and around the ridge of the lake, a runner in blue came bombing towards me. I waited for the next runner, probably Dan from November Project (the neon runner) bringing chase but no one came. Wow, I thought, he is on loop 4 and has a huge gap. Impressive.

At 30K in the bag, I was back for more liquids. Brian (the guy in white) was calling it quits  which really surprised and disappointed me. The yo-yo game we had been playing for a few hours was officially over. The RD approached me and said something about ‘done’. Given my bemused look, Tiffany interrupted and explained what he was asking. “No! I am not done, give me more!” I responded. With 20K left, my mind was nowhere near done and I had to verbally say it with meaning before my body could even process that bad idea.

Loop 4 was the start of reversing the course. The concept was quirky enough let alone the results of it; some runners ran the big loop first but once at the option to go reverse, went the normal loop direction, some ignored the rule completely and kept running the same way and then their were others (me) that took the rule literally and ran the whole 10K loop in reverse.

It was easy enough to navigate the red flags and when I saw the back of a whiteboard, I knew that made sense too. Whether I was right or wrong for doing it this way (let’s say I was right), the race as such was now just a bunch of time trialists’ going all sorts of directions in Kettletown.

When the top five guys all came at me in the opposite direction, I realized I was the one isolated and doing it differently so at the last start/finish to refill my water one last time, I discussed with the RD’s the Wacky Race situation out there and decided I wanted to go back to the normal direction.

First off, everyone who didn’t change direction had an advantage of course knowledge. When you run a 10K loop three (or four times) in a row, it’s pretty fair to say you get to know the course well. My loop 4 felt like a whole new course. And secondly, if I was as close as I thought I was to them, I had better go the same way. Yes, I wasn’t here to race but if they were tiring and my pace was staying moderate throughout, I wanted to know about it both physically and visually by perhaps climbing a place or two on the board.

I checked my glucose and was happy to see it perfectly in the right zone. Now doing the shorter loop of two miles again first, the leader sped by me. That meant he had almost two miles on me. But another guy was in my grasp. We had passed along the single track minutes earlier on the end of my loop four and now I could see him ahead and not looking too hot.

He said his hip flexor was shot and refused and water or S-caps I had to offer him. I returned to the lake with a marathon in my legs and still felt good. Tiffany exclaimed “You are not racing are you?” to which I replied “No, it’s not my fault people are getting tired!” with a cheeky smirk. “Then how are you catching them?!”. That was the first time I knew my proximity to the leaders was for sure closing. Now that I could sniff blood, it was hard not to push a bit harder, see who was around the next bend. This is obviously a huge pitiful of using a race as training miles.

I crossed the wooden bridge and saw what Tiffany was talking about. Another runner appeared who I had not seen for a long time and one I would not have got by continuing to go in the reverse loop. Down went third place without any fight either and now just like that, I had a podium spot.

On the hunt for second place with 4 miles left. Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail

On the hunt for second place with 4 miles left. Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail Series

Knowing the leaders large gap, the only mystery that remained was where was second place? I knew who it was now. They guy in blue that had been going different directions on the loop all day long. Talk about everyone going different directions, this guy just made up his own rules from the get go! But regardless of everyone’s direction, the distance would be of course be 50K for all. And I also knew one more thing, he would be coming towards me on this final four mile loop stretch.

I knew exactly how to gauge the gap. If I hit two miles to go before seeing him, it was advantage me, if I saw him first, advantage him. Did he know this? Maybe, maybe not. I pushed the next mile hard, up and down the craggy rocks and over the ankle-deep stream one last time, through the over grown trees and up high overlooking the lake. The course was second nature to me now. The watch beeped mile 28 and there was no sign of him.

Within ten seconds though he appeared. We exchanged nods and went our opposite directions. It was a 2 mile time trial to the finish. Game on. I climbed the ridge line harder than I had all day now and ran down the other side even harder knowing my route back to the river was slightly easier to traverse than his. I had snuck on the racing cap for better or worse most definitely now.

Coming out onto the path where the loop meets, I knew if I saw him, I could still push harder but I arrived to nobody, not a sound. I stopped to listen, I would have heard a pin drop. I scrambled the rocks by the river one last time, managing to run off trail one more time (I never did learn the best route here!). Without anyone around, I was fairly confident I had clawed my way up to second.

I crossed the invisible finish line in 5:37, climbing a surprising 5,000 feet of up over the distance and being confirmed as suspected as 2nd overall by the RD’s. I saw Dan Berteletti (the winner) sitting on the grass at the lake and congratulated him. I received my wooden medal and a buff. No fan fare, no fuss. I enjoyed how low-key it was and the guys who had put on the show for us or was it us for them? Probably a mix of both I guess, it was an exciting and close finish for a 50K.

The medal design suited the style of race - low key, no fuss and original. Nice work T2T! Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail.

The medal design suited the style of race – low key, no fuss and original. Nice work T2T! Photo credit: Trail 2 Trail Series

The best part of the race though was that my legs felt great and my glucose levels were equally cooperating. Pushing the last loop was definitely not the game plan and the dangers of pushing hard in small tune up race scenarios need to be cut out to avoid burn out. The bigger picture has to be Tahoe and every training run and even ever race needs to focus on just that. I will grow as a runner if I can manage my competitive nature. Just as I know now to let the guy fly by me on a Tuesday night in the park, I now need to let the guy in a C-race do the same. If I can’t do that, I need to stay away and run 31 miles away from a race environment. This is a skill I am clearly yet to master. For now, one ultra down, many more to go for 2014 and a new state on my list is complete.

Post-race goofing in the lake with my favorite person. 2nd place for both Tiffany and myself. #firstlosers

Post-race goofing in the lake with my favorite person. 2nd place for both Tiffany and myself. #firstlosers

10K PR’s, Trails and More…Trails.

LOGO

I had to research Athlinks.com to remind myself what 10K races I had done in the past (there were not many). My 10K PR has stood from a New Year’s trail race in Virginia back in 2011 with 39 minutes and change. Other races I had run but actually forgotten about included the British 10K 2009 and a Central Park course,  the Joe Kleinerman from 2008 (one of my first races in the States).

I decided that this year would be as good as any to sign up for another 10K and PR. There aren’t many distances these days where I can say that with full confidence. My rationale is this. I’ve run countless half-marathons and marathons where I’ve noted the 10K time clock and realized ‘that’s better than my 10K PR’. . In order to keep this running goal simple and cost-effective, I picked a New York Road Runners (NYRR) race. Hear me out!

The NYRR UAE Healthy Kidney 10K was 1) a stones throw from my doorstep 2) on a course I know inside and out 3) one of the biggest 10Ks in the world (biggest prize money at least). Note: my chances of leaving the day with some winnings were less than slim.

With my race calendar all but full in May, I was lucky that this race fit into my one and only non-race weekend. A slight modification to my Tahoe 200 training meant I would no longer be running back to back 26 milers over the weekend but instead, a 10K race with 14 trail miles in the afternoon and 26 more on Sunday. Either way, it was lined up for my biggest weekend of running in 2014.

The goal of racing was primarily just to PR but I wanted a time goal to break as well. A sub-37 equaled 5:57 pace and sub-36 equaled 5:47 pace. I thought about the toll on my body from Boston and Bear Mountain of recent weeks (plus the serious lack of 10K training!) so sub-37 seemed the smarter bar to reach for. Even that may have been too much. Did I definitely have sub-6 minute legs on me at this time of my training? This was all part of the fun to go and find out!

May 10th AM – 10K Race, Central Park, NY

Being at home less an hour before the start was no doubt a strange feeling. I’m used to being in a hotel room, cabin or tent somewhere across the country. An NYC race is just not my primary go to anymore, perhaps because I’ve done most of the NYRR racing scene, maybe more so because I just love to travel so much. I tested my morning glucose and all was good in the mid 100’s looking ideal for pre-run numbers.

At the start with Nike RUNNYC friends Jeff Blum and Michael Chu

At the start with Nike RUNNYC friends Jeff Blum and Michael Chu

Once at the start, I checked my glucose one last time (I recall this my fourth test in two hours) before dropping off my bag and saw it had dropped below 100. With the race minutes away, all I had on me was my two Honey Stinger gels that I planned to carry during the race. I took both of them which was slightly honey overload. I luckily managed to snag a sip of water from a random runner who just happened to be a fellow Brit, Richard who had come across the pond for the race.

I squeezed my way to about four rows back from the elite field of Kenyans and Ethiopians. Looking at their physique up close is always a reality check why people like me will never be able to run 4:30 miles. Thank goodness for people like Phidippides and Gordy who pioneered the long stuff!  My plan today would be 6-minute flat for the first three and go from there. Worst scenario that I felt terrible, I would hang onto that  pace for the second 5K but best case, I planned to push on down to 5:50’s or less to run home strong and take some places on the way.

Mad dash out of the gate.

Mad dash out of the gate. Photo credit: NYRR

After many typical NYRR speeches, we were off. Some runners sprinted ahead of me as if it was a mile race. I ignored the mayhem and found my pace as we ran past the boathouse on our left. Going up Cat Hill, I knew the incline would keep my pace honest so clocking a 5:48 wasn’t what I expected. Adrenaline does some crazy stuff to your body I guess, plan out of the window!

Mile 2 was flat through Engineer’s Gate and Fred Lebow’ and then snaked gradually downhill to the top of the transverse. I run this section of the park for mile repeats so I knew holding back to 6 here didn’t seem to make much sense. If the road gives it to you, take it right? Mile 2; 5:45. At this point my mind began fast forwarding to just keep going and chase down sub-36 after all.

We wrapped around the top of the park and up Harlem hill. Lots of runners began coming back to me. At the top of the hill the 5K marker read 18:09. I stopped believing that sub-36 was on the cards at this point. Not without killing myself at least and with another 40 miles to log for the weekend, my Tahoe part of my brain said no way, not worth it.

Mile 4 over the three west side hills kept my pace consistent with the last; dropping. I had just run two 6-minute miles and change. The pain was now kicking in, reminding me that’s why I probably should have run 6-minute miles at the start. But I had to stop obsessing over data, just run.

Being one of the biggest 10K races, I never had any concern that someone would not be in front of me. A few hundred yards ahead was a female runner in orange and a male runner in neon. My new focus was to not let them break away from me. I counted lamp posts to monitor the gap. It remained steady as we descended the fast descent on the west side of the park, the goal was being achieved. I wanted to glance at the watch as I was so curious what pace we were doing but resisted.

Passed the Webster statue on 72nd Street, I climbed the short hill to be greeted by Francis and Justin who were out pacing the Nike Run Club group. That was great motivation to keep pushing. On the descent to the Columbus Circle corner, I finally closed the gap on the female runner to make my move. With a mile to go, I still had a small shot at catching the other runner.

Pushing the last mile

Pushing the last mile. Photo credit; MarathonFoto

The final mile is much of a blur to me. It was an all out effort to catch him. A simple duel for a nothing place but he served a purpose for me and hopefully I did for him too. At 800 meters to go, the metal fences formed either side of the road and ushered us home. I got excited that this was it, the last moments of full exertion where now here.

But I could not close the gap. My heart was pumping my blood around as fast as it could and it felt as thought the chance just wasn’t going to come. But then on the short descent before veering left onto the 72nd Street home straight, I found a gear I didn’t think was there (and maybe nor did he). I made my move with purpose, now or never stuff. 400 to go now meant 400 to hang on, 400 to celebrate a great 10K race.

Nothing left to give. PR looming.

Nothing left to give. PR looming. Photo credit; MarathonFoto

I was able to take the final strides to the line alone crossing the line in 36 minutes and twenty something (5:51 average pace), good enough for a top 50 spot in a very competitive field. Wow, I almost went under 36 was my first reaction. Mary Wittenberg greeted me at the finish and my second reaction was directed towards her saying “This is why I don’t run the short stuff!”

New PR 36:23. No more 10K's for a while!

New PR 36:23. No more 10K’s for a while! Photo credit: MarathonFoto

I congratulated the runner who followed me in and apologized for my late burst of speed to nick a spot. He recognized the Team Novo Nordisk shirt and asked if I was a type 1 diabetic. We got into a conversation about the team and he said he was also a T1. I didn’t know who he was until today but now I was intrigued. Arjay Jensen was his name from Greater New York Running Club. We parted ways after collecting some very nice medals and I said I would be in touch. Pretty cool to have two type 1’s running hard out there at the front of the race from almost 8,000 runners. We didn’t even know we had more in common than the same speed until we were done dueling.

Once I escaped from the finish area frenzy, I finally noticed how drenched I was in sweat. It hadn’t occurred to me how humid it was although I did know the index reading was going to be around 90% for the race. Now standing still, I could feel the heat. At least it wasn’t a distraction out on the course for me. Nothing really was. I just ran my very well-known Central Park loop and came away with a result I was more than happy with. A PR by almost three minutes deserves no picking at!

10K medal bonus. My first NYC race for Team Novo Nordisk went better than planned!

10K medal bonus. My first NYC race for Team Novo Nordisk went better than planned!

May 10th PM – 14+ trail miles – Mohonk Preserve State Park, NY

I grabbed my stuff and had to go. I was now on a mission to meet up with Tiffany to get to Mohonk to run 14 trail miles to complete the day. To me this seemed quite normal but when I bumped into my new English friend at the end and begun small talking about my afternoon plans, I could tell from his reaction, my running behavior is far from that. I forget that a lot because to me, it is normal life. Work, sleep, run and then run some more.

At the Mohonk Preserve State Park having a quick photo break with Tiffany.

At the Mohonk Preserve State Park having a quick photo break with Tiffany.

Shawangunk Ridge view from the Mohonk Preserve tower is worth the climb.

Shawangunk Ridge view from the Mohonk Preserve tower is worth the climb.

After just a few hours since the race, I was back on my feet running the hills of the Mohonk Preserve State Park, a great place to get some good non-technical trail miles in. My legs felt great which was good feedback on Tahoe training so far. We took a “scenic” route back to New Paltz meaning I got to do another climb and tag on two bonus miles just in time before the heavens opened.

May 11th – 26 trail miles Manitou to Tuxedo, NY via Appalachian Trail

On Sunday, I tackled a technical section of Appalachian Trail from Manitou to Tuxedo train station solo. 26 miles with over 5,000ft of vertical. A day removed from Saturday’s adventures, my legs did begin to feel tired and this was a great test but it was just so great being outside once again exploring the wilderness of Bear and Harriman and enjoying the weather.

Following the white dashes (Appalachian Trail) for 22 of my 26 miles.

Following the white dashes (Appalachian Trail) for 22 of my 26 miles.

Last few miles of the weekend - finally getting tired!

Last few miles of the weekend running the technical AT – finally getting tired!

What a great way to spend the weekend, logging miles and exploring parts of New York most people do not. 46+ mile weekends will be a staple for me. Tahoe training is officially in full swing and to have a new 10K PR in the bag was just icing on cake to another great running weekend.

Marathon Mishaps at Bear Mountain

bear banner

The North Face Endurance Challenge – Bear Mountain, NY

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

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

May 3rd – Race Day

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

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

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

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

pink bib

Pink bib for real trail runners!

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

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

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

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

Catching up with Kirk,  pre-race

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

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

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

Not your typical marathon elevation profile!

Not your typical marathon elevation profile!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mile 8.5

Mile 9 at Bear ; the obstacle course on water!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marathon Course. Flat on paper!

Marathon Course. Flat on paper!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last push for home.

Mile 26; Last puddle and push for home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-race “Debrief”

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

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

Humanity Prevails; The 118th Boston Marathon

sca

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

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

Pre-Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Day

Boston!

Boston!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start of the historic 118th Boston.

Start of the historic 118th Boston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pre-heartbreak hill

Not Heartbreak Hill. Photo credit: Mike Toma

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

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

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

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

Passing the crew before mile 22.

Passing the crew before mile 22.

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

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

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

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

Post-Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Mountains, Lakes and a lot of Lotteries

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

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

WS100 Robinsons Flat with RJ TNN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012_ultra_trail_mont_blanc

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

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

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

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

When Tahoe 200 became official live on Twitter!

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

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

LT200 with text

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

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

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

 

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!

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