Tag Archive for garmin

Feeling Good at the Vermont 100

Green Vermont mountains. Photo credit: Amy Rusiecki

Green Vermont mountains everywhere. Photo credit: Amy Rusiecki

Pre-race Goal Setting & Strategy

The Vermont 100 aka the VT100, was probably my first real race since school XC days that I approached it without any fixed goals. No time splits, average pace stuff and no finish time predictions. I did have one clear goal however; to run as fast as possible from start to finish ‘feeling good’. But that was it, nothing more. A new approach to running a very long way.

VT100 logo -

‘One step at a time’, a fitting slogan for my race strategy.

My former runner brain told me to be obsessed with breaking 20 hours. I knew the course would potentially allow for this with a great race but I respected and trusted my coach to guide me into a new way of setting running goals. By running on feel, my ability would do the talking for me. Perhaps I would break 20 anyway or maybe it would be 22 or the flip of that, 18? By not obsessing over numbers, I no longer would be able to feel like I was ahead or behind during the race (goodbye anxiety and stress). Just look at what Kilian produced at Hardrock the week prior. He ran ‘easy’ for 70 miles and then took off for the last 30 because he felt so good. He even dropped his more than capable pacer (Rickey Gates) because he began moving so fast. But alas, I am not Kilian, nobody is, but I and we can learn from the best and their style of running.

The day prior to traveling up to Vermont, I listened to my trusty source of trail running tips and humor from Trail Runner Nation. It was ironically fitting that the topic of conversation was Vermont and how to race on feel with guests Jimmy Dean Freeman – attempting the six original 100-milers in 13 weeks(!!) and my coach, Ian. For those intrigued, here’s a link to the podcast to what I’m talking about by running on feel;

JDF – Original Six Hundo – 2 Down – Mentor Ian Sharman | Trail Runner Nation

Listening to this was like getting a last-minute pep talk. Just in case, I wanted to say screw it, this approach sounds so vague, listening to this reassured me, this was how to do it. The detailed OCD sub-20 hour plan I had scribbled on my elevation profile chart weeks earlier was handed over to my crew on the 5-hour drive north Friday morning. Luckily for me, I had never re-read it to memorize any of it. It was now just a very basic guide to where I would possibly be for my crew of Tiffany, Francis and Rui (both paced me at Leadville in 2012) at each major aid station. Typical of them, they didn’t blink an eyelid to my very new approach which speaks so highly of who they are. They respected my strategy even though it would make it harder for them to track me down. Tip 1 for new 100 mile runners – get awesome crew!

My crew of Rui, Tiffany and Francis were priceless all weekend long. #VT1002014

My crew of Rui, Tiffany and Francis were priceless to me all weekend long. #VT1002014

VT100 course elevation and aid stations

VT100 course elevation with various aid stations.

Like Jimmy did recently at Western States three weeks prior, I couldn’t quite tear myself away from all my race data and planned to wear my heart rate (HR) monitor for the first 20 to 30 miles to guide me, capping my efforts at 150 bpm up the early climbs. And of course I would have my Garmin Fenix to keep track of all the data, yet I set my screen to only show elapsed time and my HR information.

July 19th – Race Day

Waking up at 2:15am Saturday morning felt anything like it. I had managed four hours of shut-eye and I was now ready to get going, my adrenaline was in full force. First things first though; a blood test. I was perfectly steady in the mid-100’s and I went to the kitchen to consume a couple of bowls of Honey Nut Cheerio’s, a yogurt, granola bar and a banana. Feeding the body calories now seemed to be the best move knowing a few hours later on in the day, I would not be craving real food so enthusiastically.

3:59am. VT100 start line at Silver Hill Meadow

3:59am. VT100 start line at Silver Hill Meadow. Photo credit: Vermont 100

In the dark fields of Silver Hill Meadow, 300 runners set off down a wide dirt road at 4am. As I had been warned, some runners leapt out in front at marathon pace. My extent of course knowledge was limited to knowing what sections were up or down and the names of aid stations only because I was carrying a laminated course elevation chart in my shirt pocket. I was basically out there just following yellow plates with black arrows or the guy ahead of me hoping he or she was paying attention. After a mile or so of road, the route turned sharp right onto a trail with some rocks and mud (that I was surprised to see on the course) and we began the first climb of what would be many. The course was renowned for being a relentless series of hills in humid conditions. Nothing too long or too steep but it would equate to 14,000 feet of ascent by the time we had covered the distance. This was great prep for Tahoe 200 (40,000 feet) and was a big factor why I was here. We all lucked out on the humidity factor though. This was not to be a hot race compared to years past. On one hand, I looked back and was annoyed I had put in  all those runs in Central Park with four layers on for what?! But on the other, I was relieved. 100 miles is hard enough without having to drown in sweat all day and worry about body temperature.

After an hour and change, the headlamp came off. The sun hadn’t quite risen but the openness of the land plus the non-technical terrain allowed me to be free of my Petzl Nao’s mega bulb. That headlamp is serious business people, highly recommended! At 5 miles, a hike up Densmore Hill was the first time to test out my strategic patience. Being able to resist the run and hike up gradients seems to be all part of the game at Vermont. This early on, everything feels great, my goal was to feel great all day long. Lots of folks around me pushed on while I went to power hike mode. My HR hovered at 151 and I knew I was now at my limit.

My ‘feeling good’ approach to the race took its first turn south at mile 10 however. Some very abnormal stomach cramps set in and I scrambled to figure out what was going on. After a little internal freak out, I nailed it down to nothing more than nature calling and took a detour into the woods (note; this was not someone’s property line! Last year, a runner pooped in a local’s blueberry bush which as you can imagine, caused quite the stir in town). Of course, this ordeal meant losing some time but the bigger picture was that I immediately felt better. Embarrassingly to admit, this scenario played out another five times throughout the first half of the race! I took the positive spin on this that I was definitely not going out too fast with all of these breaks.

Rolling into Pretty Horse (not feeling good!) with a veteran VT100 runner going for #11.

Rolling into Pretty Horse (not feeling so good!) with Prasad Gerard; a veteran VT100 runner going for #11.

Apart from my bathroom needs, the legs, lungs and mind were all feeling great. “How am I feeling?” was the question I would repeatedly ask myself. This could be to do with anything from drinking, getting calories down, salt pills, blood glucose levels or my effort level. The various topics were the same from mile 1 to mile 100. It was like the wheel of fortune landing on a different number (in my case, topic) each time. Doing so took focus and is why I didn’t care when I read in the pre-race literature that music was banned from the course. To not have any music as a distraction for me over 100 miles would be a first but my assumption of the rule was that running alongside horses was probably deemed a fairly dangerous situation! That’s right, this race was run alongside horses!

Not your average 100 miler!  Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Not your average 100 miler! Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Sidenote: For those not in the know, this 100 mile malarkey that I can’t seem to get enough of came about 41 years ago because of a 100 mile horse race gone wrong for a guy called Gordy out in California. His horse went lame so the next year he ran the distance on foot and finished it in just under 24 hours. The next year more runners showed up and that race became known as the Western States 100. I talk about it from time to time!

This was my (and likely many others) first time ever running a race alongside horses. It took some good communication skills from both the rider and runner how to let the four-legged guys go by without any ugly mishaps. When the first horse ran up behind me (their race started an hour or so behind ours), I shifted to the left of the trail slowly and let them by while still running. The guy in front of me took a slightly different approach leaping off the trail and then standing still, looking petrified! Either he was in for a long day of this or I was doing something very wrong and about to find out about it.

To my surprise, I caught back up to one of the handful of horses that passed when descending a somewhat steep stretch and passed them back. “Oh. Think you’re getting away from me do you?!” heckled the rider to me. I assured her my ego was not that big that I thought I was going to beat her horse, I just wasn’t much enjoying standing behind a big horse.  These were the only occasions you would (if dare) rarely pass them. The other time would be when they were drinking from their troughs on mandatory 45-minute breaks. While we ate gummy bears, M&M’s and gels, our four-legged friends were more into grains, carrots and apples (I am not a horse expert – a rider kindly filled me in on all this info).

Taftsville Covered Bridge at mile 15

Taftsville Covered Bridge at mile 15. Photo credit: Vermont 100

One of the highlights of the day came early descending a long hill to Stage Road aid station. The runner ahead turned as I approached and said “Oh, I thought you were a horse!” In any other scenario, I would have taken being called a horse as highly offensive but this was one of the highest compliments I think you can say to a runner on the Vermont course! All I was doing was letting the grade take me downhill swiftly refusing to break to try to save my quads. It resulted in quite the fast pace, definitely nothing manageable for a long period of time.

At 30 miles in, the legs began to finally get that tingly sensation in them, the kind all ultra runners know. At this point I had caught up to Keila and Karen (running together) and felt a bit more assured when Karen mentioned her legs felt the same way. All three of us ran into Stage Road aid together and saw a bunch of our friends there. It was like Cayuga 50 all other again, so fantastic to see so many friendly faces.

Cranking through the miles and loving it once more!

Cranking through the miles and loving it! Photo credit: Nanci Photography

Rui ushered me over to the crew area like I was a plane needing fuel which wasn’t far from the truth. My blood glucose was now 98 and it was time to get some carbs in to push that number back up. My crew had everything ready spread out on a blanket (I heard later kids looked enviously on at the goodies on display).

This was a bit smoother than the first aid station at Pretty Horse ten miles earlier. Tom (Elaine’s fiancé and crew chief) had asked me if I wanted my drop bag. “Drop bag?” (I didn’t have any) I said, “No. Where’s Tiffany?” I then turned to my right to see a very stressed and fast approaching Francis and Rui charging towards me. I got a good chuckle out of it, they didn’t find it so funny as they were about a minute from missing me.

While Tiffany was getting more ice into my bandana and cap, Rui was grabbing me foods and drink that I requested for my pack which left Frankie rubbing Aquaphor on my legs.  Bug spray, sunscreen, by whoever was free next and then off again. What may sound like chaos was fairly well controlled, everyone with a job to do. All hands were on deck at aid stations but these interchanges were definitely the highlights of the day for me. Giving them a review of the last X miles, how I felt at that given moment and then normally me making an awful joke about something. This was what it was about, having fun with my friends while doing something crazy because after all, 100 miles is crazy. I’m fully aware.

Through the second and final covered bridge (Lincoln) of the day at mile 40 took me towards the hardest climb yet up to Barr House. I had asked my buddy Tony Carino a week before for course knowledge (he ran a sub-20 in 2013) and he said everything was runnable until 70. I forgot to remind myself that Tony is a monster climber!!! I happily put my head down and hiked the steep pitch up until finally reaching an unmanned table with water and Gatorade – the sign that the climb was over.

By now, I had discarded my heart rate monitor. I was well into my groove so had no need to risk chafing my torso for some almost irrelevant heart rate readings going forward. As the sun was now up, my concern was more on staying cool with ice, hydrating smart and getting calories in constantly. My stomach pains were coming and going but now they were more to do with the running. Luckily, my palette was taking well to Honey Stinger waffles so I went through a good few of those which clocked up 160 calories each time. I knew by keeping some sort of food in my hand as much as possible, it would remind myself to keep grazing. As for now, this food plan was working like clockwork.

Walking out of Camp 10 Bear with words of encouragement from Tiffany and Rui.

Walking out of Camp 10 Bear with words of encouragement from Tiffany and Rui. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

I arrived at Camp 10 Bear, mile 47 (the main aid station which doubled as mile 70 where I would pick up my first pacer later) expecting a carnage of people and cars, much like you get at Winfield in Leadville. But this was Vermont and although one of the major four 100 mile races in the States, this was not what I call a big aid station. The welcome and energy from other crews made it great regardless. I hopped on the scales and hoped to see no weight loss from my Friday medical. One pound up in fact. I blame those waffles!

Shy of halfway, all was going well. How did I know? Because I asked myself “How are you feeling?” and all that mattered was my answer to that question time and time again. My crew brought me lunch as we had discussed the importance of real food as much as possible. A toasted bacon and cheese panini sandwich with arugula. Remember tip 1 for new 100 mile runners? Get awesome crew! I took half of the sandwich with me, restocked the bag and rolled on. Tiffany and Rui checked in with me as they were more aware than me that I was moving well and well under the taboo time of sub-20 but I assured them I was running my own race and was feeling good. The sandwich was a challenge however. It took me well over an hour to eat it. My stomach could handle waffles but this was a different story. My body was beginning to fight back, that darn stomach of mine.

At the halfway point according to my GPS ‘during my lunch hour’ I caught up with Otto climbing up to Pinky’s. Otto is quite simply a nut job. He runs more 100’s than I run training runs and is incredibly funny, I just can’t figure out if he means to be funny! He was in shock to see me coming from behind when I welcomed myself. “What are you doing here?!” he said in shock seeing me behind him. Otto is famous in our ultra circle for starting out fast and crawling home, but always making it home. I don’t think he has ever quit any of his many races. My response was simply “What are you doing here?!” He then questioned the situation “Either you are slow today or I am doing something wrong”. We laughed about it and pushed on ahead wishing him luck, not that he needed it. He just needed to pace himself and would be on for 21-22 hours. I knew where I was too now. I was just over 9 hours on the clock and my mind started to drift ahead to a sub-18 goal. This was probably a bit suicidal but I knew I was in that mix, especially if I could get to my pacers feeling OK. I remembered my strategy quickly though going back to the present “How am I feeling?” and continued on up the hill.

Restocking at Seven Sees with the crew.

Restocking at Seven Sees with the crew. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

At Pinky’s aid, I wasted no time passing a weary looking Kevin Shelton-Smith looking to feast on all the goodies to get out of his low. He had bombed off the front with Brian Rusiecki (the race favorite), something Kevin likes to do. I wasn’t just passing my friends from NYC though, I was clipping off new friends too and having great conversations or small talk with all of them from Megan running solo to Dave who I recognized from Western States last year to high-fiving Jimmy Dean who I had barely met a few hours earlier when we small talked about his podcast. I love the interaction in this sport because the respect for one another is honest and we truly care for each other out there no matter how much we want to beat the other to the line.

A long ascent got me to mile 58 and the Seven Sees aid. It was the last crew meet up before pacers as they would skip Margaritaville because Francis had to get ready to pace me back at Camp 10 Bear. I knew he of all people was sad to miss out on that aid station! As rumors had it, this pace was decked out to the nines and would be my number one place to volunteer at in the future. They turned me down for an ‘adult drink’, not because I didn’t have ID but because I was too early the volunteer told me! 38 miles with a margarita on board might not have made the most sense anyway.

Back on the scales at Camp 10 Bear. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Back on the scales at Camp 10 Bear. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

I had definitely taken a cut back on my calorie intake the last 20 miles. My stomach was struggling to accept anything. What drove me forward with momentum was the excitement of getting to run with my pacers soon. Up and over a climb, I ran strong into Camp 10 Bear. At 70 miles, it was the furthest I had ever run solo (Tahoe 200 will have the same rule in effect). Back on the scales for the public weigh-in, I had now lost my one pound from mile 46 and was back to square one. Tiffany offered me the other half of the sandwich from lunch to which I almost vomited just thinking about real food. My stomach was definitely my weakest link. I pretended to myself this wasn’t an issue but I knew it was or would eventually be. With the sun going down, I decided to ditch the hat and neck bandana which had been my ice holders all day long in the sun. But I kept the pack on, kept the same shoes and socks on. I wanted to simulate Tahoe as much as possible.

30 miles to go, now with my trusty pacers. First up, Francis.

30 miles to go, now with my trusty pacers. First up, Francis. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Mile 75 and feeling good! Photo credit: Francis Laros

Mile 75 and feeling good! Photo credit: Francis Laros

My only change was a fresh shirt and I was set for Francis to be my companion for the next 7 miles. We had decided as group to flip pacers more than normal. Francis would get a 7 and a 6 mile leg (mostly uphill) and Rui would get a 12 mile stretch and the last 5 (both mostly down) suiting their strengths (Tiffany unfortunately just found out the week prior to the race, she has a serious hip injury so had to work the crew chief full-time shift. I know it was tough for her to be there around all these runners and not get to pace. She is a tough cookie and I’m so happy she could put on a brave face at a very frustrating time for her. She is amazing and I love her so much for everything she does for me.)

First off, we had what I was told was the hardest climb of the day back out of Camp 10 Bear. To be honest, I barely recall it. We talked easily and hiked efficiently. It was an absolute blast to have company and for those that don’t know Francis, his company and endless stories are second to none. With a couple of winding single track downhills thrown in to the section, we moved well. Francis was almost giggling to himself during one stretch because it was so effortless. My watch had long died since mile 60 so I was completely running by feel. He told me we clocked a 7:35 mile at one point. I did not believe him but he insisted it was true.

Entering Spirit of 76 aid after 7 fantastic miles with Francis.  Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Entering Spirit of 76 aid after 7 fantastic miles with Francis. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

A fifth and final climb took us over a road and up to the welcoming aid station of Spirit of 76. The volunteer at the top pretended to pull us up with some rope while we demanded to use the ski lift. All stupid stuff but it shows you how much fun we were having out there on Saturday night, now with over 76 miles in my legs.

Spirits are high at Spirit of 76.  Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Spirits are high at Spirit of 76. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

My buddy Jun was departing the aid station as I approached. We smiled and waved (it took me until the next day to realize he was running solo – no crew, no pacers, the same as Otto – RESPECT!). At every aid station, I really had two crews. Mine and Keila’s (Heidi, Benny and Denie) because she was always a few minutes behind since halfway. It was so great to have a handful of friends always there for me ready to do anything I needed. But no one got Francis’s Aquaphor job!

Rui’s turn and little did I know but this segment would be the hardest yet by a stretch. It was the old duo back together. Rui and me have great memories of bombing down Hope Pass two years ago, maybe too fast in reality and we were out to seek some more great downhills now. For the first five miles everything was working out that way, moving good, power hiking ups, never really walking anything. And then at mile 83 on a flat road, that all changed.

I felt my skin go pale, my head go faint and I started to stumble around with no energy whatsoever. My stomach hurt once again and almost immediatley I was dry heaving onto someone’s lawn (sorry!) with my fingers down my throat. There’s not anything much more painful than being sick I find. Unfortunately, because I had been failing to put solids in well the last 25 miles or so, I was failing to bring anything decent back up. Jimmy passed me by and gave me some encouragement, “suck it up bro” or similar words. It was kind of a blurry low in my race so forgive me for not remembering  it exact but I appreciated it. He was right, suck it up. This was really my first low of the race at mile 83. Not bad really!

I gingerly stood up, took a couple of deep breathes and then we continued. Really slowly at first. Rui insisted on me getting in some S-caps and i washed them down with Tailwind (it was the best I could do for calories at this point). Within minutes, I was back to running and we caught up to Jimmy and his pacer Scott. He was in a bit of shock to see me but we joked I was back from the dead! I explained to him while we ran as a group of four my last few hours of running. Amazingly, Jimmy completely nailed what had happened to me because it had happened to him before. By removing my cap and bandana full of ice (at Camp 10 Bear) because I deemed the evening time not necessary to use them anymore, I had begun to overheat. The humidity had very subtly got higher as the sun went down. He had ice-cold water in his bottle and I sprayed the back of my neck and felt the difference. Now I just had to get to Bill’s aid (88) and get the ice back on! We ran together for a couple of miles before I had to back off the pace again. But before I reached Bill’s, I noticed my insulin insert had fallen off my stomach due to the sweat and ice dripping down it all day long.

Our pace went back to a hike and I had to drag my ass to Bill’s having now, my second low point in the span of five miles. Rui put his headlamp on but I stubbornly refused. I had set a new goal to get to Bill’s headlamp free and did that although barely. I knew Rui was concerned but he kept me moving. At Bill’s, I wandered over to the medics at the barn and got on the scales. I was down to 176, a 4 pound loss. “How do you feel?” the medic asked me. It was a great question, one I must have been failing to ask of myself for a few miles now because I felt awful. My grumbled response of “OK. Tired” wasn’t my best ever performance of faking the good life but she understood. I was at mile 88, my weight was steady enough and so they let me go over to my crew to proceed.

I walked over to the crew area set up at a section of grass and decided enough was enough and  lay down on it. It was my first time off my feet in 88 miles. I had beaten my previous best of 80 miles at Western States.

My crew grabbed me hot noodle soup that I had been craving for about 7 miles now but was only available for the first time now. As they got my headlamp ready for me and some food into my backpack (just in case I could miraculously eat anything else for the last 12 miles) I checked my glucose which was now higher than planned due to the insert incidence. Perhaps another factor why I had probably had a really rough patch. I made some adjustments with my insulin, had yet another bathroom break and then I was back on the trail with Francis. It had been the longest aid stop by far today.

As soon as we left, my walking very slowly increased and Francis made it a point to tell me. After a half mile or so, we reached the next downhill and just like that, I began to run again. All the way down and then all the way back up to Polly’s aid (95), Francis kept me going strong. It was as if the sickness, the long aid station stop at Bill’s belonged to a different race. That’s the magic of ultra running right there. Those miles seemed so straight forward so soon after a chaotic five-mile stretch.

When we approached Tiffany and Rui for the last hand off, we already knew what we needed to do. Be efficient. Francis announced to them, this was going to be a quick aid stop. Blood test, refill of water and electrolyte drinks and go. It was all business mode again now and I caught Rui off guard by this turn of events.

No time to stop with 5 to go as Francis and Rui do a Garmin exchange.  Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

No time to stop with 5 to go as Francis and Rui do a Garmin exchange. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

I looked over at Rui as we left the aid, realizing he was wearing three layers. “What are you wearing Rui?” I asked him puzzled. “Well, you looked pretty bad back there so I put some layers on”. You have to realize that Rui got given the last leg at Leadville too where we army marched 10 miles home between 4am and 8am in the freezing cold. He started to shed layers as it soon became apparent that we were about to kick the last 5 miles apart together pretty efficiently. I asked him where we were for time. I wanted to know if we were over or under the 20 hour goal time. He did the math and knew we had to run 14 minute miles to go under.

Running a gradual descent, this was exciting news. We were both so pumped, we knew it would take a real curve ball now to screw that up. And then, we came to the end of the road, looked left, looked right and couldn’t see anymore of the green glow sticks. We kind of just wandered around looking for them and then Rui told me to wait while he ran back the way we had come. I just stood in the dark and waited for what seemed a very long time……..”Come back!” I ran so hard back up that hill to find him by a huge arrow on the ground and two yellow plates ushering us off the road to the left. “Better make that 13 minute miles I guess?” I said to Rui. We both laughed our heads off and got moving.

We ran everything, yes everything all the way in. He pushed me home taking two more spots up the last big climb along the way. We weaved around single track the last half mile as hard as possible and then turned a last corner to see the red neon ‘finish line’ sign crossing it in 19 hours 37 minutes. A new 100 PR for me by almost 3 hours. Yes, a different course, temperature, terrain, I know all of that. What I was most happy with was to nail sub-20 without having that as my focal point all day long and getting caught up in the numbers. The plan had worked and worked really well. I also just found out this week that I beat a horse! A few dropped out so I won’t count those guys but I beat a horse on my own two feet!

19h 37 minutes, job done. Thanks to everyone in this picture a thousand times over. #VT1002014 Photo credit:  Heidi Tanakatsubo

19h 37 minutes, job done. Thanks to everyone in this picture a thousand times over. #VT1002014 Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

At the awards with Jimmy Deen Freeman (3 down, 3 to go for him, amazing!)

At the awards with Jimmy Dean Freeman (3 down, 3 to go for him, amazing!)

Work in Review and Looking Ahead

I asked myself at mile 99, could I keep running if I had to (thinking ahead to Tahoe 200) and I’m pleased to say with confidence, the answer was most definitely yes. I wanted to finish the race tired but not screaming for medical treatment and I achieved that fine line of effort perfectly. Overall, I was very satisfied with the whole race. Tiffany, Francis and Rui were outstanding. Their support and care for me is impossible to repay but I’ll try my hardest too. I am forever grateful to them.

I know where I made mistakes but I also know where I made good decisions, solved problems and ran smart. I will use all of this information to my advantage in a few weeks time. Excited to go beyond the 100 mile mark and explore a new chapter in my ultra running journey. Thank you all for your love and support. Roll on Tahoe 200!

My third 100 mile buckle and bib for the archives. I can happily call VT100 a success.

My third 100 mile buckle and bib for the archives. I can happily call VT100 a success.

JFK 50 Mile: The 33 Minute PR

A year ago I stepped up to what many regard as a ‘real’ ultramarathon; 50 miles. The race to me was simply known as JFK. I have since learned much of its history. It is the oldest 50 mile foot race in USA, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and implemented by President Kennedy in 1963 to make sure all military officers were fit for war. The course has stayed the same each year since. Starting out in the small town of Boonsboro, MD, the race is 15.5 miles of road climbing and Appalachian Trail (AT), just over a marathon on the C&O canal towpath and ending with 8 miles of rolling road hills into Williamsport, MD. I learned a lot from my first 50 in 2011, mostly don’t assume your body will keep going without fueling or pacing!  I was however ecstatic with my 7 hours 13 minutes and 33rd overall. How could I not be? It was a PR!

JFK elevation: 15 miles of trail fun followed by 35 miles of flat and fast canal path/rolling hill roads

I returned to this historic race for precisely that reason. This year was the 50th running of the oldest 50 mile race in the country. I signed up in Spring for one of the 1,000 places against 10,000 people and was lucky to get a place. I think I put about six stamps on my envelope come to think about it, just to make sure I had paid enough postage and maybe it would get there even quicker!

Race Day: November 17th 2012

I woke up at 5am to temperatures just above freezing that would rise to a high of 52. Perfect running conditions. First, great weather in Leadville (no thunderstorms), then Chicago (no heat) and now JFK. The weather gods have been kind to me this year. Walking the half mile from Boonsboro school to the start line on the main street bundled up in five layers, I had the intention of starting the race with a long-sleeve top over my Brooks ID singlet and wear hat and gloves. I scanned what over runners were wearing and decided to scrap my extra layers and go singlet and sleeves from the start. A final pre-race blood test had me at 240. My glucose had risen from 143 at breakfast. Not ideal and a slight miscalculation of bolus intake. I already had my hand-held bottle filled with Gatorade which I now wished was just water. I poured half of it away, upset with myself for not having water to replace it with and/or having a better starting blood glucose. Probably both. I increased my basal rate on my insulin pump and knew I could get water at aid stations to stay hydrated. I would figure it out, I always seem too.

The start of the 50th annual JFK 50; me (in neon yellow, no not Eric Clifton in pink tights!)

The great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt fired the starter pistol to get us under way at 7am sharp. I sat right behind the two favorites; Max King and David Riddle before they quickly pushed up to the very front. As the top 25 of us quickly took off from the main pack, I immediately wished I had kept my gloves as the cold wind rushed over my hands.

The pace was fast, faster than I had thought possible. 7:02 at mile 1. I had studied my Garmin data from JFK 2011 and knew I was too aggressive in the first half of the race which led to a breakdown in the second half with cramps through miles 32-38. So why was I running a 7-minute mile?! In my defense, the start of the race is a good time to jockey for position before the trail section and road miles are always going to be quicker than trails.

Road miles out of Boonsboro, MD

My plan for this year’s race was 8:30 average pace through the first 15 miles and 7:30’s for the last 35. This would equate to a 6 hour 30 minute race. Plan B was: 6:43. Why so precise? A 30 minute improvement from 2011 sounded nice and Plan C was to go sub-7 hours. My training seven weeks post-Chicago consisted of not much training. Rest had become the new mileage. My longest run had been 16 easy miles.

We soon climbed steeply for a mile and jumped onto the first section of trail. As the sun rose on my left, the shining light flickered through the trees making it hard to see the trail but at the same time, was one of those beautiful images that remind you why you are a runner. This trail section was fairly wide and still a frenetic pace for 50 miles. An aid station appeared so I grabbed a cup of water as planned to balance out the effort of the first few miles.

We hit a road section again, in the woods now, and climbed again, this time steeper to get to the highest point of the course. Ellie Greenwood was a few yards ahead of me and I studied her as she chose when to run and when to walk the hill. I copied her. My average pace had fallen to 10/min miles but I trusted what I was doing. This is the two-time Western States 100 champion as well as numerous other amazing achievements in the sport. Others around her chose to run the whole way up. I knew I would see the majority of these people again before the race was over.

A familiar looking volunteer from last year pointed at a narrow gap into the woods and I now knew we were onto the magical AT section for 10 miles. This is by far the toughest part of the course, not because of elevation changes but the jagged rocks buried under and around large brown leaves. The pace now fell into that 8:30 range but the energy expenditure felt like 7:30’s. As tough as it I say it was, it is and will always be the most fun part too.

I joined forces with a familiar face, Derek Schultz on the AT, a fellow Brooks ID runner with a very strong ultra background (Laurel Highlands Ultra course record holder). He bombed the downhills and I caught him on the flats as we shared stories for a few miles. We passed the JFK 50 legend Eric Clifton in his trademark outrageous running tights (neon pink this year) and Derek chatted to him while I closed the gap on a pack of three ahead.

I tagged on the back and we became a solid four, staying in order passing the early 5am starters. The last few miles of AT are where the rocks get trickier as your brain gets more tired. It’s also a place that has put a nice dent in my right shin for life from my fall last year.

Just as I thought to myself I may just get off this trail without falling, down I went at the feet of two men from the 5am start. They were staring straight down at me as I moaned in some serious pain. One of them said to the other “That one looked like it really hurt” as if they had been hanging out at the third corner of NASCAR all day comparing car crashes.

They were right. That one did really hurt. My left foot got tucked under a rock and down I went hard on my right side, my right knee connecting perfectly with a rock embedded on the trail waiting to cut me open. I very gingerly got up and got handed my water bottle that must have flown off course during the downfall. I looked down to see if the pain was actually warranted and saw a nice line of claret over the notch of my tibia and was relieved. I mean, if you’re going to fall and moan about it, you want to see proof it hurt right! I hobbled, I walked and finally I ran again and slowly got back into my stride, relived it had not been any worse.

Descending the switchbacks of Weverton Cliffs

At 14.5 miles, I was now functioning like nothing had happened back there. I descended the steep Weverton Cliffs switchbacks down to the Potomac River. A 1,000ft drop in less than a mile. There were lots of 5am runners in this section so I had to communicate well to get by without any more drama. If the switchbacks had a tree on the inside, I grabbed it and swung around the turn without losing too much speed. Clearly the fall, had not hurt my confidence.

I heard lots of cheers below and soon ran through a large crowd of spectators including Michael Chu as I got close to the C&O canal towpath section. At the aid station prior to this 26.3 mile stretch of flat monotonous running was Tiffany, being a trooper running around Maryland all day supporting me. She greeted me with a huge smile and handed me my blood tester. I pricked my finger, blood strip already set up and got my reading: 275. 27…what?

My glucose went up after 15.5 miles? I filled my water bottle with water and kept on going. I analyzed in my head why 275. I had thought that maybe on the trail I was going low around miles 10-13 so knocked back two gels, which in hindsight I never needed. I readjust my basal level from -60% to -20% and would see where my glucose was again at mile 27.

I checked my average pace for the first third of the race; 8:25. Just faster than I had planned but I was happy with that. Now was time to get into my faster stride. I was hitting 7:38 average for the first few miles of the canal. Not quite the 7:30’s I would need for Plan A but it was still early in the race and I found my pace to be manageable. The most important thing was not to run a mile faster than 7:30 even though I felt good. I passed a pair of runners who made a comment “The race doesn’t start until mile 30”. It made me think. I actually put that in my head but changed it to mile 35. I still remember how quickly the body can fall apart from miles 30-35 with that ‘still X miles to go’ mentality.

Changing pace on the C&O canal path

Just shy of marathon distance, I saw a deer ahead on the canal path. I’ve always enjoyed seeing them while out on the trail. As I got closer, I waited for the deer to see me and bolt but it never did. I ran around it giving the guy some space but clearly not enough as it begun to follow me and then decided to chase me! When did deer ever chase humans! My pace went into marathon mode for a few yards until it either felt sorry for me or just got bored with this running thing.

I then teamed up with a human. We chased each other back and forth but not like the deer. We decided it would be easier to say hi, acknowledge we were running the same pace and run together. He (Nick), like many others in the race was part of the military, based at West Point, NY. We ran into a main aid station at 27 to lots of cheers, still chatting away. Tiffany was there again, ready to help me with my blood test; 250. Well, going down but still not low enough to start really eating much. I gave her my handheld water bottle, no need for that anymore as now aid stations were frequent along the canal path (every 4 miles or so) and I was carrying gels in my compression short pockets anyway (if I would ever need them), so I didn’t need to be lugging around Gatorade on heavy arms. Tiffany told me we were in 26th and 27th place.

I caught back up to Nick and we carried on at our pace. We discussed our JFK races from last year, both with similar stories of good but not great performances. He was way ahead of his time goal so when he stopped to take an S-cap and said he would catch me back up and never did, I wasn’t too surprised.

I hit 50K and knew the next few miles would be the toughest mentally. There would be aid at mile 34 and the next main one at 38. The aid station at mile 34 never seemed to come as the long left bend around the Potomac River just kept on going and going with no one in sight. I almost wanted to see another deer! My pace was now slipping towards the 8 minute mark and I wasn’t feeling great. I knew I wasn’t going to cramp like last year; I had been taking two S-Caps on the hour like clockwork. It was my sugar. This time, I knew it for a fact. I could feel the symptoms of a hypo, not just the effort of running 34 miles. I finally saw a dozen Santa and elf hats and an area decorated in tinsel. What a great sight! A volunteer asked what I wanted and I said “Everything!” I grabbed two cups of Coke, M&M’s, orange slices, pretzel sticks and some cookies. I told them, this was the best aid station on the course. Partly because it was decked out for Christmas but also because mile 34 of 50 miles sucks! It’s far enough into the race that you’re really hurting but still too far enough from the finish, you can’t get too excited about it being ‘almost’ over. I played games in my head; 8 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. ‘Lets go’ I told myself.

Mile 34 Cookie Monster sighting

I left the aid station swiftly and munched on the food. I had three cookies left. I ate one but quickly realized I was not carrying any more liquid. Their was no way I could eat the other two cookies without getting a really dry throat. I decided to keep them by putting one in each of my short pockets. I don’t know why I did this, I had gels on standby if need be but laughed to myself as I felt like the Cookie Monster taking on the JFK50! Churning out these mid-30’s miles was real agony. I knew a 6:30 finish time was off the table now but as I turned a corner onto a long straight away, I saw a great sight; three runners way ahead. I knew I would eventually get to them. This image gave me new energy. Seeing them and my mile 34 aid station intake made me feel so much better. The pace came back to 7:35-40 and I closed the gap gradually. Eventually I passed them and knew I was now closing in on the top 20 of the JFK50. This became a new goal in itself, one that I did not plan or think about at all pre-race.

I kept my placing but felt my energy and pace dip again as the final aid station on the C&O canal path was not too far away. I pulled out one of the cookies from my shorts and ate it with an energy gel, about 50 grams of simple and complex carbs as one. My mistake of experiencing two hypos close together was that I had tweaked my basal rate of insulin between miles 27-38 and I had been too aggressive to bring my glucose level down.

At the aid station, Tiffany asked how I was doing. My reply was negative for the first time “I’m so tired”. Rightly so, 38 miles is, well 38 miles. But it wasn’t the distance. My glucose was 90. Proof that I had been fighting hypos. I took a Gatorade from her and downed it in seconds and grabbed some Jelly Belly Sport Beans.

Mile 41: the C&O canal towpath almost over

I pushed on but still didn’t feel great. The third place woman passed me and I watched her as she ran with an effortless stride (unlike me). I realized she was hurting too, just not showing it. I kept her in sight and as my glucose rose from the Gatorade and sport beans, my body felt better and I noticed on my watch that there were now only 10 miles left. That’s nothing, I said! 2 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. Dig deep. And I did. 7:09, 7:07 for the last two canal path miles.

I had caught back up and re-passed her, promising her beer and pizza at the end for helping me. By keeping her in sight, we had both closed the gap on some other runners who were now also behind us. One of which was third place runner Jeff Buechler from last years 2011 JFK. I felt bad for him, his leg must have blown up or something to be this far back from the leaders.

My pace was now really going up in gear. My glucose felt like it was back to normal and I was about to hit the last section of the course; the rolling asphalt hills. The part I like to forget, is the immediate climb off the C&O canal path which is 200m of pure agony. Your pace goes from hare to tortoise as you clamber up it. I didn’t dare look at my heart rate data but I’m sure it was close to max. I reached the crest with no desire to go any further until I saw a runner ahead. As I ran along the farm roads, one turn then showed me that after him there was no one left to catch. With under 8 miles to go, I was convinced this would be my last place to take. I contemplated sitting on him until one mile to go but quickly realized he was suffering far worse than me so passed by, wished him well and I truly felt sorry for him even though we had over a 10K to go. I asked him if anyone was ahead. He said no. Why would he have said yes? He knew it would only motivate me to kick on. Smart runner, dumb question from me.

I crested a hill as I opened the gap on him. He was right, no one. Just me and the road and an excruciating 7 miles to go! I chose the 8.5 road miles to think of my uncle and his battle with cancer using each mile as a year of his fight. It really helped me because I was absolutely exhausted. I went past an aid station and grabbed a cup of Gatorade to top up my glucose level. I refused to have another hypo now and didn’t care so much if I went the other way. I even threw away my last cookie like a pro cyclist would throw away a water bottle before a big climb. Every ounce mattered to me. I’m pretty sure looking back, that throwing the cookie away didn’t do anything for me!

For the first and only time on the course, we had mile markers. They were traditional wooden blocks by the side of the road with the number of miles to go. All on my own and ready to be done, all I wanted, was to see the next one with a 6 on it.  As I closed in on the mile 6 board, the wind knocked it over on its back as I ran past. I laughed at that one. This was exactly how I felt! I hadn’t looked at my watch for a while. My pace at this point was what it was, meaning I had no more speed to give. It was just under 8-min pace which I knew would put me around 6:43 finish time (Plan B goal). I focused hard to remain sub-8 minute pace.

With 5 miles to go, I noticed a guy in the distance running on an adjoining road. He looked the part. Light shoes, skinny, skimpy shorts. The tell-tale signs of a fast runner. He joined the race road and ran ahead of me. After having some time to really think about this ironic scenario, genius me realized he was not a random runner, he was the next guy ahead of me! I had to assume he went the wrong way or took a pit stop. Either way, I was on his heels and soon he was another one behind me.

Mile 46

Any excuse not to run now ; )

I turned right in between a row of small houses and saw a police car stopping traffic. I knew this was mile 46. I also knew I wasn’t going to see Tiffany here but really wanted too. This pain was really getting unbearable now. Then, of course she jumped into the street cheering me on. It was awesome. My energy was again lifted and the road was now coned off to traffic with the final 4 mile stretch.

At three miles to go, I hit another long straight and I could see three more runners ahead. One was Ian Torrence who I had run with in the pack of 4 back on the AT, hours earlier. I had to pinch myself that I was going to maybe catch this guy. He is a few years older and maybe not his old speed but this guy is a real name in ultra running.

And so it was, I chalked off more guys. My plan to not run hard early and blow up was working. My tank was close to empty but I had been slowly improving my place for most of the race. I had not been passed properly since early in the AT section.

I climbed a sweeping hill to the final aid station at the top. I remembered this and knew I was one mile shy of the end…until the volunteer shouted “1.5 miles to go!” Oh well. What’s half a mile over 50.2 miles right? I turned left to roll downhill on a main road and glanced to my left to see the last person I had passed way back and no threat to me now. I could have eased off the pace at this point and kept my place but I knew I was close to a 6:40 finish time. I made that my mission as I clocked off a 7:10 mile 49.

That 33 minute 50 mile PR feeling!

Can you say ‘Run Happy’ Brooks runners?

I climbed a slight hill on the final straight and saw the finish in the far distance. What a sight! I pushed all the way home and made it; 6:40:38 an average pace of 8 minute miles. I had just taken 33 minutes off last year’s time. What a difference a year makes in my short ultra running career.

I got helped over to a chair by the finish line where I got to celebrate with Tiffany and was also greeted to another familiar face; ultra runner Mark Rodriguez, who came out to watch. I did a post-run blood test for the first time in the comfort of sitting down; 123. A man stood over us and said “I like to see those numbers” explaining further that he was a doctor. We agreed. It was the first good one of the day!

I walked into the Williamsport school to go and take a shower. I hid from the first aid medics that would have loved to play with my gashed knee (I learnt my lesson from this last year!), chat with Ellie Greenwood (by far the best female ultra runner in the world right now) who enjoyed the fact that my last name was England like no tomorrow and met with Max King and David Riddle too. Top ultra runners but better still, top people who genuinely care about their fellow runners as much as they care about their own performances. JFK next year? Maybe. I prefer the mountains to flat courses. If I do go back, I have to consider breaking into the Top 10 males as my goal. We will see. With this much fun and support on the course, why not? For now, rest and more rest before my inaugural race for Team Type 1 in the  California International Marathon on December 2nd.

Ellie Greenwood was more amazed at my last name than her 17-minute course record win (I like to think so).

Finally caught up: Me with Max King (new course record holder) and David Riddle (2011 winner and old course record holder)


 

 

Jeff, Jen, Me and Tiffany. Hanging out at the finish line ready for Buffalo Wild Wings!

Race Report: North Face 50K – Washington DC

With just 4 weeks recovery after The North Face Bear Mountain, NY 50 miler I arrived in the capital still somewhat tired. This was also due to a serious lack of sleep the week prior to the race. My head said treat it as a training run. I picked up my bib number at the store in beautiful Georgetown and got excited. A training what?

However, the local news greeted me to warnings of a tornado sweeping through the area! No big deal, I’m from England, I’m used to the rain and the mud back from the XC days of old. The course is the same for everyone after all.

With a not so delightful 4 hours of sleep, I arrived bright and early at Algonkian Regional Park alongside the Potomac river for the second North Face trail race of the year as part of my phase two training for Leadville 100. The grass was wet to say the least from the overnight thunderstorms and this was just the start/finish area! I checked my blood glucose, it was 235mg/dL. A couple of guys spotted me doing this “Hey, you’re diabetic? What’s your reading?” I shamefully replied “Um…235. Better to be too high than too low though right?” In my heart, I knew it was slightly too high, even before 31 miles of trail running. I try and start a race at around 180-200mg/dL. I guess the cinnamon raisin bagel was sweeter than I calculated for breakfast, maybe also combined with some pre-race stress. Rather than make an insulin adjustment I reasoned with myself to go easy on the carb intake for the first hour of the race.

Ultramarathon man, Dean Karnazes got us under way at 7am sharp. I had looked at the previous years results and decided to try to aim for a top 10 finish but the main goal was to run honest within myself, not against people I didn’t know.

Within the first 2 miles, that plan went straight out of the window! I was going 7:15 pace. I got talking to a guy called Will and I calmed down the pace with him. He was a cool dude in the Air Force and his buddy also joined us for a mile or so was in the Army. Oh boy, I’m running against some tough guys today I thought. Why did I come to the home of the military to race!

The open field and dirt path soon turned to single track with huge puddles and thick mud running south alongside the river.  Even wearing a great pair of trail shoes like the Brooks Cascadia couldn’t save me from doing some  Bambi on ice impersonations sliding all over the place. It took every muscle in my body to stay upright. We crossed some “streams” which thanks to our near miss tornado from Friday night meant we were running through ankle, knee and a waist deep water crossings. This was going to be a long day but it was a blast!

After the first aid station, the lead pack had long gone and I found my real pace. A young French guy came roaring past me and I was now in 6th. Had I gone out too fast? I caught up to him on the flats after a hill section. He was from the Pyrenees mountains! This race was going to be like a downhill wind assisted 5K for him. Arthur Al, was his name. We ran together for the next 10 miles. He would drop me on the ups, I would catch him on the downs and/or the flats. We even decided to make a sharp left up a hill at one point to go the wrong way and we lost ten places.

The course is out and back with a mid-section incorporating lots of out and back loops where you pass people in front and behind you.

This proved a great place to say hi to my NY friends doing the 50 miler which had begun at 5am. Here we passed the 4th place guy who had been trying to run away from us for 10 miles. I will never understand the logic in that move in an ultra race, especially when you don’t know who you are competing against. He was done and we had a dozen miles left. We also got a glimpse of the top 3 guys running past us. I thought nothing of it until a guy in the 50 mile race said to me and Arthur we were only two minutes back. It didn’t sound right but it sure got me thinking.

At an amazing rock section; Great Falls, with a cliff drop straight down to the river, I somehow dropped ‘Pyrenees Arthur’. I questioned my ego, dropping him on a technical section with 11 miles to go. I was now running in solo 4th.

With ten miles left, I turned a right out of a wooded area and could not believe my eyes. 1st, 2nd and 3rd all spread out on a straight section 300 yards ahead. I knew then, it was my race to lose. This moment will live with me forever. I went past 3rd, then 2nd and said “great job” with genuine encouragement and they returned the gesture as you do in the ultra world. No#1 wasn’t quite as easy to catch or so responsive when I did. Quite frankly, he was upset I had come out of nowhere to challenge him and rightfully so.

I decided to “drop the hammer” on this guy as my buddy Chris Solarz likes to say. Just like the start, I was again doing 7:15 minute miles! I finally slowed down when I knew he could not see me. I even stopped sometimes and tried to listen out for a branch cracking, a foot landing on a bridge, anything that sounded like a human being. I did this three times. Each time, silence, just me and the trails and I’m really in frigging first place!!!

I had 10K to go. Save something in the tank in case Arthur comes roaring past or number two guy or whoever, I said to myself. I changed the screen on my Garmin 610 to heart rate only. I had to keep my heart rate below 170bpm. If I saw a 7 pop up next to the 1, I walked until it was lower.

The final 2 miles included a long straight, probably 1.5 miles. When I turned right I asked a few spectators cheering crazily for me, if anyone was behind me. They said “No one, you’re good!” With 0.5 left I finally relaxed and soaked up the winning feeling. 4 hours 32 minutes. Top 10? I’ll take top 1 thanks very much! It’s only been about 16 years since I last won and yes, that was on a muddy and wet XC day. I think I like the mud even more now.

So, it had been nearly 5 hours since my last blood test. How had I done with balancing my intake of carbohydrates while running 31 miles? Nailed it; 92mg/dL. More satisfying than winning? That would be a lie, but that is a great blood glucose reading!

I got presented with a winning gold medal and a bag of goodies by Dean Karnazes, who said some very kind words to me. Thank you The North Face for a great event and congratulations to all the runners out there!

Unforgettable day!

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