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Humanity Prevails; The 118th Boston Marathon

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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.

The Mental Game at Martha’s Vineyard

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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.

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!

The Chicago Project – 7 weeks from 100 to 26.2

Let me begin by saying my weekend in Chicago with my best running friends (minus Frankie and Gary) was one of the most fun weekends I have ever had. That is what running should and will always be about for me. Spending time away from home with people I genuinely love and care about, supporting them with new PR’s and commiserating with them when missing them (a few celebratory drinks on Sunday was pretty fun too).

‘There’s an app for that.’ No seriously, the Chicago Marathon really did have an app.

For the first Chicago in years, the weather forecast was looking perfect. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a 15-day weather forecast but there most certainly is. “It’s worth a Google!” As the days, hours and minutes counted down (I downloaded the marathon app and watched it intensely!), the 10-day forecast, weekly and weekend never changed the prediction. The Windy City would be a low of 37 and a high of 53 with 11mph winds. Near perfect marathon weather.

My 2nd favorite city in the USA!

I went into this marathon just seven weeks after the exploits of Leadville 100, hence the title ‘The Chicago Project.’ How was I going to know how to train for a marathon after that? Who could tell me if I was right or wrong with my training?

People may ask why attempt a marathon so soon after 100 miles? Well, my reason for being in Chicago was purely for social reasons initially but then I decided to take the race more seriously. I thought why not try to use my new-found endurance level from Colorado and bring it across to a short, sweet and very unique 7-week marathon training program! Some call me crazy and I say thank you!

Week 1: I took the first week completely off. Well, almost. After five days of relaxing, I decided to get back at it on Saturday with an easy 10 miler. Relaxing felt completely alien to me. Do people really sit on the sofa all night? This is why the Type 2 Diabetes epidemic is so big (no pun intended), people are not exercising enough!

Week 2-4: I got back into five to six-day training cycles totaling 50-70 miles a week. Every week incorporated two-speed workouts from my go to ‘Jack Daniel’s Running Formula’. The one custom change I made, was to reduce the demanded fast pace to one gear less. For example, if the workout called for 20-minutes at 15K pace, I would do that at half-marathon pace. And if it called for half-marathon pace, I would do it a marathon pace and so on. This plan seemed to work pretty good. it helped me to avoid injury, improve confidence of my speed and to eventually having to stop staring at Rui and Francis’s bums as they were way faster than me at this point.

Week 5: or 3 weeks out, our main workout called for 22 miles at easy pace. For me this was 7:20 pace. As most of you know, the 22 became 26.2 at the Yonkers Marathon and the pace became 7:10’s to help my friend Gary BQ for 2013. Due to this extra endeavor, I again backed off the mileage before and after this run to compensate.

Week 6: The key workout was now upon us; a 15-mile speed workout. I managed to run this at 6:18 average pace but it literally killed me. If anyone saw a runner flat-out on the road in Central Park mid-September, that was probably me. When I analyzed my Garmin data, I knew I was right around 2:47 marathon shape. How could I be so sure? By comparing my present fitness to my marathon PR fitness. I compared the workout data to my first 15 miles of my Marine Corps Marathon PR of 2:45 from 2011. I ran the same pace but my heart rate data told me I wasn’t ‘as fit’. A body blow to my Chicago dream. I told myself  though that Chicago is a flat course and the race day adrenaline will push me through. Plus, Central Park is all hills and the workout was done on a lack of sleep. I decided to ignore the science and go with plan A anyway, PR the race. I was optimistic, it’s the only way for a diabetic to be!

Base Camp – across from the Start and Finish area at Grant Park

At 3:30am I woke up as did my roomie Rui. The alarm wasn’t set that early, we were staying at the Congress Hotel, right across the street from the start! Pure adrenaline woke us up and as much as we both tried to sleep, by 5am we were both up doing our pre-race routines. At 5:30, (2 hours before the race) it was time to eat breakfast. Blood glucose test; 333. Terrible! I had miscalculated my lasagna meal from dinner very badly. I wanted to be around 200. I ate a bagel, croissant and banana and pumped in an extra unit of insulin to try to drop the number down. I had to be careful though and not over adjust. Better to be high than low on race day but 333 was a joke.

We walked from the hotel into Grant Park shortly before 7am amongst the masses of 38,000 runners plus family, friends, police and marathon staff. It was crisp but not too cold. Our $2 CVS Pharmacy wooly hat and gloves and baggy hoodies were a bargain and worn with pride! We picked up these on Saturday as we all failed to bring throw away clothes. Marathon amateurs, the lot of us! One final blood test before dropping off my bag; 286. Still high. I dared not pump any more insulin in at this point. I trusted my original correction when I was 333 would eventually do the trick. I carried 4 Honey Stinger gels, two in my shorts, one in each arm sleeve – that’s what they are made for right? Game time.

The start of the 35th Chicago Marathon. 38,000 runners are off!

I wished my friends well as we separated to different parts of the corral A and B. Rui and myself headed front left as the first turn is….yes left. We are smart runners! The gun fired exactly at 7:30am and we were off. Part of this different feel real. I looked at my race chip and my bib and quickly made myself get in the zone. Now was the time to perform. Put the speed workouts from the last few weeks and my endurance into this final exam.

The first 5K of the course in the heart of the Windy City (with inaccurate GPS!)

Mile 1 from two years ago was way too fast. I got caught up in the excitement. Not so, this year, 6:23. Mile 2; 6:26. OK, this was OK I told myself, loads of miles to swing that around. Don’t panic. I hit the 5K at 19:48. Now panic! 54 seconds behind schedule. I was paying too much attention to my Garmin rather than the natural feel of 6:18 pace. The huge Chicago buildings were throwing the GPS way off and now, so was I. A mistake. I’ve run this course before, I should have known better than to trust my watch over my body. It was time to knuckle down.

Mile 3 – that Brooks guy in yellow looks stressed!

Now heading north for 4.5 miles I got into some sort of groove. It was all effort though, not smooth like Marine Corps felt. I asked myself ‘this shouldn’t be hurting so much, especially so early on.’ My heart rate was already at 166. Oh boy. Going to be a tough day out here, I just knew. Could it have gotten worse before it got better? Yes. A guy in a cow costume was ahead of me! I thought these nightmares of people in costumes were long gone since I got taken down by a tutu in the London Marathon 2004! After an embarrassingly long time, I finally passed the cow at 10K. I prayed to never see him again. But respect to the cow, he was moving!

We turned south back through Old Town just prior to mile 8. I was still behind my goal pace but I had cut the deficit, even with the wind in my face the whole time going north. But here we were, now running back to the city and the wind was still against us. A runner next to me said “This is not right. How can this be?” (in much stronger language). I agreed and then realized there was nothing we could do about it. We were already stretched out, in the top 500 or so, and the wind coverage was slim to none. You could hide behind the person in front but then you were running their pace, not yours. The only thing to do that could make this work seem like fun a this point? High five Elvis at mile 10. I remember him from 2010 and made it my duty to take a detour and give him a high-five. “Thank you very much” he said. Everyone loved it, no more than me.

Back over the bridge at Mile 12

Back in the heart of the city, the crowds were big and loud. I spotted the black RUN NYC singlet of Matt Woods. I was surprised to see him. He hadn’t trained particularly well for this race and told me he was just hoping to break 3-hours at best. When I got to him at mile 13, we exchanged pleasantries. I didn’t dare tell him we were on pace for 2:44! This may have been the only time in the race I felt OK. I was on pace for 2:44, maybe a 2:43 high if I could just execute 13 more miles at my current pace. I was now in a 6:10 zone which felt pretty good. The key now was focus through the middle miles.

At the charity cheer zone around mile 15, the focus went out of the window. I saw the Leukemia team and JDRF, two charities very close to my heart and decided to flap my arms in the air to get them cheering. They responded with huge noise. It was great fun and loosened me up a little.

With 9 miles to go, I was slowly falling apart. I took my second gel with caffeine, hoping it would get my energized. My Garmin’s data was so out of whack I wasn’t even following it. I was using 5K check points and doing the math in my head to see if I was ahead or behind PR time. My two-minute cushion at halfway was now almost down to one minute and my legs were screaming for mercy. My brain drifted into the past and reminded me I had only just run 100 miles and Yonkers Marathon. I had to work hard mentally to switch it off, leave the excuses for somebody else.

I decided I had to break those last 9 miles of intense pain into 3 mile chunks. My brain couldn’t cope with thinking about 9 more miles. As we headed south and I was looking forward to a loud and fun section of the course, China Town. Then we turned hard right and started heading west again. I had forgotten there were two sections that took us on these long west loops, not one. It made sense. We still had 9 miles to go, China Town was near the end. I kept plugging away, taking a Gatorade at every other aid station to keep my blood glucose levels topped up. I definitely questioned why I choose to be in such pain during these miles.

China Town – a great part of the course with GANGNAM STYLE!

Heading east once more in front of the magnificent Chicago skyline, China town was this time, definitely close. I heard Gangnam Style by PSY for one! I was now 5 miles from home. At this point, all pacing and heart rate numbers were out of the window. I knew the PR was still there but it would be really close now. I had tired on the second half like a true rookie. I turned the ninety degree left to head north on Michigan Avenue; the hardest finish to any marathon I know. Over two miles straight which feels like forever and ever.

The wind hit me once again and it was now at its strongest as I was at my weakest. I was gutting it out but my body was a mess.  All I had to do was slow down or stop and it would go away. The Ethiopian’s and Kenyan’s had won 40 minutes ago, why carry on? Why bother? Only runners can understand why we never quit, never take the easy road. My legs were absolutely trashed. My mile pace went up to 6:45’s here and my heart rate had sky rocketed to the mid-170’s. I was at my maximum output but running my slowest miles, it wasn’t pretty.

I turned right up the only significant hill of the course, absolutely exhausted. One final turn left at mile 26 and the finish shoot was in sight. I glanced at my watch knowing the PR was now touch and go. 2:45:58…..2:45:59…2:46:00…and it had gone just like that. I was crushed, almost heart-broken but not quite. I crossed the line 25 seconds slower than my 2011 PR, less than one second per mile slower.

2:46:23

Too most people, a 2:46 marathon is a fantastic time. I understand that, I truly and respectfully do. Saying that, I couldn’t hide my personal disappointment. My good friend Kevin Starkes witnessed my finish (he ran 2:43 only a week after his Hampton’s win in 2:39!). I tried to explain to him, I could have done it. He slammed me down for being hard on myself and simply said “You looked pretty dead crossing that line.” I needed to hear that, it was true. I put 100% in and came up just short. That’s all you can ask for. No regrets, no excuses.

Boston 2013, watch out, I’m coming for you with 16 weeks of training, not 7!

I quickly got over my near miss PR. My post-race glucose was 123 for starters! And then their was the free beer shared with all my friends in the Grant Park festival afterwards. Our day and night of celebration made Marathon Sunday another truly special day in my life. Thank you all for being part of it.

So many of my wonderful friends ran exceptional races out there on October 7th. Crushing PR’s and making exciting debuts. With over twenty of my NYC friends who ran it, I’ll keep this short and say the highlights of the day were Luke McCambley’s 2:37 debut marathon (I take full credit for making him sign up!) and Steven Beck’s 3:16 (18 minute PR)/staying out till 2am to PAR-TAY! Until Boston, peace.

Kevin 2:43, Luke 2:37 -DEBUT!!, Me and Rui 2:52 PR

Pacing at Yonkers Marathon

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

Yonkers Marathon is old

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

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

The modern two-loop course; still hilly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first mile was a gradual climb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yonkers glory! Rui, Gary and myself

Race Report: Leadville Trail 100 (Inbound)

Winfield – Twin Lakes (50 – 60.5)

Winfield aid station

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

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

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

All smiles towards Hope Pass climb with Rui

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking back from atop Hope Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery (60.5 – 76.5)

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

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

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

Couple of night owls about to knock out 16 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fish Hatchery to May Queen (76.5 to 86.5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May Queen to Finish (86.5 – 100)

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

May Queen aid station at 4am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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