Tag Archive for otto lam

Feeling Good at the Vermont 100

Green Vermont mountains. Photo credit: Amy Rusiecki

Green Vermont mountains everywhere. Photo credit: Amy Rusiecki

Pre-race Goal Setting & Strategy

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

VT100 logo -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VT100 course elevation and aid stations

VT100 course elevation with various aid stations.

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

July 19th – Race Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not your average 100 miler!  Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Not your average 100 miler! Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

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

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

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

Taftsville Covered Bridge at mile 15

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

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

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

Cranking through the miles and loving it once more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restocking at Seven Sees with the crew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 75 and feeling good! Photo credit: Francis Laros

Mile 75 and feeling good! Photo credit: Francis Laros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work in Review and Looking Ahead

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

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

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

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

Mountains, Lakes and a lot of Lotteries

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

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

WS100 Robinsons Flat with RJ TNN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012_ultra_trail_mont_blanc

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

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

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

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

When Tahoe 200 became official live on Twitter!

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

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

LT200 with text

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

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

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

 

“Going the (Philadelphia) Distance”

Philadelphia Marathon 2013

Philadelphia Marathon 2013. Photo credit: philadelphiamarathon.com

The Philadelphia Marathon would complete my ‘four fall’ marathons (others being Top of Utah, Twin Cities and NYC). It was never on the schedule as a true race but that didn’t stop me midweek changing my goals for it. The days after pacing the New York Marathon on November 3rd, I didn’t do much speedwork, just easy miles to keep up the turnover but all my body was holding up well.

Course Map; half city, half out to Manayunk and back.

Course Map; half city, half out to Manayunk and back.

I decided that the course was flat(ish), my mind was strong and frankly why not try to go after it. Sub-3 was my original goal to save the legs for my December 50 miler, but it seemed as though I was setting the bar too low on myself. I played that game back at the Twin Cities marathon post 100K and happily succeeded. So, I decided to just go for broke. I would chase down my personal best/record (depending on where you are reading this from) and go for a sub 2:45 time.

Race prep: putting on my 17th (and counting) race bib this year.

Race prep: putting on my 16th race bib this year.

Race day weather was near perfect. Low winds, a high of 63 but the early race start of 7am realistically put this number down to the mid-40’s for the race. I went to the start village with my teammates, Casey and Ryan. We hung out with Rocky, ran ‘the steps’ as a warm up and then decided we had better get ready for 26.2 miles.

@teamnovonordisk hanging with the man!

@teamnovonordisk hanging with the man!

With bags about to be checked into the UPS trucks, we all scrambled for our blood testers for one more check of blood glucose levels. Typically competitive people, we liked to compare our results. Let’s just say I lost with the highest number but just above 200 was by no means bad for pre-race.

I squeezed up to the front of my corral which was just behind the really skinny guys known as the elites. The race director made his speech and then to my surprise, a legend of marathon running I am still to meet, Bill Rodgers appeared on stage to follow suit. Bill Rodgers is one of the heroes of running no doubt about it with 4 New York and 4 Boston wins. This got me fired up and ready to go.

Elite field lead us off.

The elite field lead us off on the 20th anniversary of the Philadelphia Marathon. 

Off down Benjamin Franklin Parkway lined with a flag from every country you could think of, we headed east across Philadelphia. Amongst the frenzy of the start, I missed the first mile marker. I spotted my friend De’Vang ahead and gave him a tap. Neither of us knew we would be here. He had just raced NYC and I had just paced it, so you could forgive us for not knowing.

We compared goal times and he let me go when I said 2:45. I ran by friends Elaine and Tom cheering excitedly and before the first mile marker the race was already feeling like a home away from home. Past Liberty Bell into Old City we went, I was this time ready for the mile split. Two miles complete and my pace was behind. My watch was not helping with data off (déjà Vu NYC) but in all honestly, I was off. I already felt I was at my limit as the first drip of sweat ran down my face. I knew this was going to be a tall order to maintain this pace and I was already behind!

Mile 1 down Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Mile 1 down Benjamin Franklin Parkway Photo credit: phl17.com 

Down the riverfront on Columbus Boulevard, I followed a thin line of runners, nothing but footsteps, breathing and the Rocky soundtrack. Yes, a runner next to me was blaring out “Eye of the Tiger” so loud it was unmistakable. I liked his style but me and music do not mix in the marathon setting. I need to hear my breathing, hear the crowds and take in the whole experience, not block it out.

Mile 4 wound us back north into the city center passed City Hall and continuing west. The clock timer read 25:11 and so did my watch. From being behind, I was now right on pace for a 2:45. It was a shame I was red lining it to be on pace though.  I saw people I expected to see from Tiffany and Katie to others I did not such as Luke. My face turned from grit to smiles every time I recognized someone cheering me on.

Mile 6: back through the city. Photo credit: Elaine Acosta

Mile 6: heading west back through the city. Photo credit: Elaine Acosta 

But as naive as I was to try to hammer out a PR just because I felt it was worth a shot, I was now slowly adapting to the realization that my wristband splits would mean very little from this point on.

Passed the 30th Street train station and up a hill we went. My legs felt like they weren’t doing anything close to the effort of the first 6 miles with the added strain of going up. A right turn took us up another climb. The wheels were spinning but backwards was definitely not the plan. A group of rowdy college kids offering free beer and having a grand old-time for 7:45 in the morning. Could a few high fives cure my own diagnosis of acute fatigue syndrome? Momentarily yes but as they faded out of sight and noise the hill only continued going the same way as my heart rate.

I crested that hill as if it was my last one from a hill repeat training session. Luckily, what goes up must come down. A long straight lined the way ahead. I literally leaned into the descent and let gravity take over while I sucked up some much-needed oxygen.

The mile markers only verified what I already knew.  I was dropping time. At first it was 10 seconds, then 25, now 45. I had no real plan B. A sub-2:50 was technically written out to me on the reverse side of my wristband but I knew turning it around to see it was the only easy part about it. I popped a gel. Maybe my glucose was lower than I thought. 8 miles done was about time for first one so heck, try something I thought.

A second and ultimately last big hill climb up Lansdowne Drive brought some confidence back. I pulled in some runners and begun to view the race as good Boston training. It made a nice change taking some places rather than losing them. At the top, a flat section looped us around Please Touch Museum and then the reward for all the climbing thus far. Not only was the road down but perfectly paved, fit for race cars.

The Schuylkill river marked the end of the free fall and a u-turn gave me my first glimpse of other runners expressions. Most looked strong and under control but not all which gave me more hope and dare I say confidence. It was a simple reminder that I wasn’t the only one hurting.  As I headed back in the direction of the start/finish area by the Art Museum, aka the Rocky steps, I surprisingly noticed De’Vang not more than a minute behind again. My pace was truly in no mans land so I did what I never normally do in the middle of any race and turned around. I needed help so I literally put the brakes on and waited for him. We tapped hands and began running together.

Stride for stride, I now had a much-needed running partner on the course. We spoke occasionally to see how each other were doing. The game plan was to get to halfway together. De’Vang was adamant he would then ease off a bit more for the second half as he was hurting to. As I didn’t have a plan, the idea of easing off sounded like music to my ears. I was pretty confident at that moment in time I knew who I would be crossing the line with.

Mile 12 crossing the Schuylkill River. Photo credit" phl7.com

Mile 12 crossing the Schuylkill River. Photo credit” phl7.com

Over a bridge and up around the front of the Rocky steps, we then headed north while the half-marathon signs all pointed south to the finish. I didn’t think about that much. I wasn’t jealous of the runners that were about to be done but I knew I had a lot of work left to do and seemingly not much gasoline. We clocked the halfway shy of 1:25. I recapped the first half in my head, reminding myself the first 6 miles were at 2:45 pace and the latter 7 were less and less not. I knew doubling the clock time was unrealistic and all bets were now off for even a 2:50 finish which I had considered midweek. Marathons are not like ultras where you almost always get a second, third or fourth wind after a low point. But in the marathon, as soon as you are down, you normally just keep going.

The game for me now was to slow that process down as much as I possibly could. This was becoming a great test of pain management. How much did I want it? How much pain could I handle? I fast forwarded the clock to my last race of the year that will be in San Francisco. 50 miles of relentless climbing and descending with the best of the best ultra runners. I need to want it and handle pain out there so I thought I better start practicing right now.

gfgf

Halfway house: running outbound on the second half. Photo credit: Steven Beck

Just after halfway, we passed Tiffany, Beck and Kwabs and I forced a smile. My girlfriend and best running friends had come down from NYC to watch and cheer me and many other friends on. We were lucky to have so many of our good friends here.

De’Vang pulled ahead and initially I struggled to stay on his left shoulder anymore. Just as he was creating a slight gap we descended. The second half of the race was an out and back so I did my best to remember where the hills would be for the final miles. Rather than be happy with the current downhill, all I could think of was what was to come with the final mile being uphill! I closed the gap on De’Vang going down to the river’s edge and now felt better than him but not much. Rather than stick on his shoulder, I felt good enough to keep my pace and let him join if he wanted. We had run over 4 mile together and had an unwritten rule that after halfway, we would do our own strategy again.

I pushed along at about 6:30 pace and churned out the miles along the river. I saw a large bridge ahead and thought it was the one we had to cross for an extended loop but it was too high above us for that to make sense. It turned out to be Falls Bridge, nothing more than a landmark on the course. I ran under this bridge into a large aid station and cheer zone that definitely lifted my energy. The bridge then came that we had to do a small out and back on. As runners were coming the other way, I just assumed the turnaround was at the end of the bridge. No, another left and down the road we all went.

We u-turned around a traffic cone and continued back up to the bridge. My predicted finish time was now creeping up towards 2:55. I hoped and prayed I didn’t see my friend Shannon Price coming who was the Clif Bar pacer for the 3 hour group. He had become my feared sweeper of the day. I did not want to see him or have to fight like hell to stay ahead of him. Luckily, I did not.

Onwards north towards the small town of Manayunk, a suburb of Philadelphia. Over a small bridge and then along the straight road of Main Street we went. I saw the crowds growing ahead and a banner held high above at the crest of the hill at the far end. Assuring myself that was the turnaround point, was relief and dread that I still had to go back. My legs were absolutely shot. My only goal left to fight seemed to be a sub-3 hour time. I had made a self-inflicted wound in those first 6 miles that was making for some severe determination now with 6 to go. At the banner, the road shifted left and into view came more ground to cover north. Thank goodness for the crowd support because this was a true ‘sufferfest’ I was putting myself through.

On the turn, 10K to go. I started doing the math of what minute miles I needed to run to go sub-3. My brain was a fog and I recall believing that  7’s would do it (it was actually slower). Part of my brain would tell me that it’s OK to stop and walk for a minute but I fought back hard every time the conversation came to surface. To stop would have been a huge mistake.

The nice aspect of the course being out and back was seeing my other friends running. First up was Brian Hsai and then Tony ‘three marathons in the fall’ Cheong from Nike Team Run NYC. He was fractionally behind the 3:10 pace group coming towards me. We saw each other, raised out our medial arm and tagged. No words, no expression, just the quick slap of hands which said everything about how we were feeling and our respect for each others ‘crazy’ of running multiple races so close together.

Grinding through the next mile, which of course had some uphill, reminded me to never try to PR here. I was wrong about this course. Although not as hard as New York or Boston, Philly has some bumps in the road that make you change running technique frequently. I caught sight of more friends; De’Vang, Otto Lam and team-mate Ryan Nichols, all very easily among the 12,000 runners. Each person I saw gave me a lift as I pained my way towards the end.

But no friend can help you more than one by your side.  I had just passed mile 22 when a big shout of “ENGLAND” came from behind me. I turned to see my 3:15 New York pacer team-mate Andrew Rastrick a few yards back. Without hesitation, I waited for him. I felt like I had been stranded for days and Andrew was the helicopter! I jumped on his shoulder and was more than pleased to try to run at his pace. I thought it might last a few hundred yards at most before he dropped me. But I knew the situation. Four miles left and a partner to work with if I could just keep up. I mentally embraced it like many training runs over the years where I have hung on for dear life in Central Park to not get dropped by the pacer. Worku Beyi and Kevin Starkes, I’m talking about you.

Another hill on the stretch home cheered on by Tom. Photo credit: Elaine Acosta

Pain is temporary; on the stretch home with Andrew at mile 24. Photo credit: Elaine Acosta 

We knew we were both working off of tired legs from two weeks prior. Andrew mentioned breaking three hours was his only goal and I quickly agreed. A goal of mine is to run sub-3 in all 50 US states. This plan is by no means planned out but I would like to do it over my lifetime. As short as my current states are and as many races as I have run in Pennsylvania, this state was not yet checked off. Now was surely the time.

I hung and hung. Every other minute I was close to telling Andrew to go ahead and run his own race. I did not want to slow him down but knowing  neither of us were close to our PR’s, knowing we had put our bodies through the same exact stress two weeks prior stopped me from opening my mouth. I decided to work  and work harder. We looked for the 23rd mile marker. It seemed an eternity away. Knowing we were both itching to see it told me that we were in mutual discomfort.

Cassidy and Meb finish the 2013 NYC Marathon with the iconic photograph of sportsmanship. Photo credit @nycmarathon

Iconic shot; Cassidy and Meb finishing the 2013 NYC Marathon together. Photo credit @nycmarathon

My mind flashed back to the Meb story in New York when a local runner, Michael Cassidy caught Meb and rather than pull ahead, decided to stay and help each other out and run to the finish together. I am not claiming to be Meb and Andrew is not claiming to be Cassidy but we do know we were helping each other in exactly the same way.

At 24 miles, we had 19 minutes to go sub-3. It was all but secured but the pace we had been keeping would not have shown anyone we had any intention of simply just making it. I wanted to push mile 25 and hang on for a final mile, Andrew, not quite so much. Subconsciously, I knew that with a mile to go, I wouldn’t slow down.

25.5 miles mean we can smile again! Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

0.5 miles left meant we could smile again! Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

Up the long climb we went that I had been dreading and then passed all our friends. There was someone losing their mind but then I realized it was Katie just having a good time!  Andrew said to go on but I declined immediately. He had gotten me out of a mess at mile 22 and I didn’t care if my time was going to say 2:55, 56 or 57.

We would finish this together, Meb and Cassidy round 2! To duck under three hours was our goal when we met and that is exactly what we did. We were both more than happy with the result. Running can be so solitary but it can also be a team sport. It’s really up to you. Without the push it would have been even closer to the 3 hour mark. We finished in 2:56 (and lots of seconds).

Done. 4 marathons complete in 8 weeks. Two as a pacer, one on shot legs and one hanging on to whoever was around me. Thank you De’Vang and Andrew for your help on the course. Sub-3 at Philadelphia felt like I had just “gone the distance” with the man himself. I don’t like shortcuts anyway.

"Going the distance" feels oh so good!

“Going the distance” feels oh so good!

For Others; Pacing the NYC Marathon

April 2004, London; I lined up behind the 3:15 pacer at my first marathon believing I had done all the right things in my training only to fall well short of my goal time, crawling home to a 3:48 after having a pretty bad hypo experience at mile 21. That pacer disappeared from sight at mile 15 in and I had no idea how anyone could run so well, stay on pace and carry a sign. The marathon humbled me. I went so far as to take a break from racing for a few years.

London Marathon 04 with my Sis.

The archives; Post-London Marathon 04 with my Sis.

November 2013, NYC; I lined up as the 3:15 pacer at my umpteenth marathon. Ten years on, I have become a runner that I didn’t think was possible. I was lucky enough to be selected by the New York Road Runners (NYRR) as one of the official pacers for this year’s much missed New York marathon (after the cancellation last year following Hurricane Sandy). I was happy to be allocated the 3:15 time. An average pace of 7:26 per mile would be needed. As much as I run these days, this was to be my first official pacing gig. I felt honor and pressure. I had a horrible image of quitting in the Bronx and getting on the subway with my pacer shirt and orange balloons saying 3:15. I say this only because two weeks prior, I was hobbling around the streets of Brooklyn with my family with inflammation in my right heel. With rest and icing, it healed just in time for arguably the best day of the year.

My love affair with the New York Marathon started in 2007. Since watching my own country’s, Paula Radcliffe win the race, I got inspiration I needed to run another marathon. It could only be New York. I took the plunge the following week and went to Nike Run Club (I had heard about it for over a year but stubbornly not wanted to run in a group). It proved to be a huge turning point in my life both in terms of running and friendships. Those few days really kick started the second chapter of running in my life.

But my next marathon would have to wait a while longer.  Knee surgery forced me to defer my New York bib a year. So I ran the 2009 race instead and took a 47 minute chunk of time off my first attempt. It put some demons to bed, that’s for sure.  For those that know me, the journey has anything but slowed down from there.

Working the booth with Tommy.

Tommy and me working the booth at the expo. Photo credit: Elaine Acousta

My pacing duties actually began well before standing at the start line.  On Saturday morning, I worked at the Pace Team booth. The people and questions came thick, fast and sometimes very personal; “What is the pace team?”, “How much does it cost?”, “I pee a lot while running. Should I try to break 4 or just settle for 4:15?” Yes, I got to meet all sorts. It was quite an experience. It really made me realize a) people do really come from all over the world for this race (most came back from last year’s cancellation from as far as Sydney!) b) they do really rely on the pacers to help them achieve their goals.

Looking back to Manhattan while crossing the Verrazano.

Looking back to Manhattan while crossing the Verrazano.

Race (pace) day begun in Times Square at 6am. Our NYRR contact, Paul Leak directed me onto the correct bus. He had promised me Pamela Anderson (she was running it) on the bus and all the other VIP’s. Paul had let me down, it was just the pacers! We drove through Brooklyn watching the sunrise over our great city and then over the Verrazano bridge to the start village in Staten Island.  Getting into the village was a tough task. It was the first real reminder of the day how big this race had become. Over 50,000 would run making it the largest marathon in history! Paul handed us our goal pace signs, which somehow worked like VIP passes to get into the village. The security was super tight. I didn’t appreciate getting a metal detector run over me (twice) but respected the need for solid policing. The world was watching after all.

Security overseeing runners head into the start village

Security overseeing runners head into the start village

People asked me what perks we got as pacers. Well the heated tent with a breakfast spread was a nice touch, I will say. Unfortunately, for pacers like me in the wave 1 start, we didn’t have much time to enjoy this. I always like to eat two hours prior to a race and was now already inside this window. My BG was a bit high at 198 but I wanted to be there at the start of the race so I calculated my carb intake needs and took off a unit of insulin to make sure I would stay in that range. The tricky part with my diabetes was having to be in my assigned corral early. That meant doing my last blood test with about an hour and a half before the start. I decided to take a bottle of Gatorade with me as a safety precaution along with my pacer sign and giant meeting point sign.

Pre-race with Keila and Jackie. It was cold I swear!

Pre-race with Keila and Jackie. It was cold I swear! Photo credit: Jackie Choi

I dragged my stuff around the village trying to dump my bag in the green village (green bib) and then figure out where the blue corral was as this was my assigned start corral. Immediately, everyone around me thought I knew everything about anything. “Where is the green corral?” and “Should I use the bathroom now or wait until the corral?” People seem to like talking about toilet needs to me for some reason.

As I approached the entrance to the corral a man approached me and said “Oh great. You’re here. They have been asking about you”. Did ‘they’ think I was Pamela Anderson? It all felt a bit strange. Everyone stared at me as soon as I entered the corral. I waved my sign at them as an ice breaker and everyone just stared back. I think looking back they were all thinking ‘Is he really going to run with that giant sign the whole way?’. The answer was no, although when a big burly French guy actually asked me that question I said “No, you are and while you’re at it, you can shield us all from the wind to please!” The temperatures were perfect but the wind would not be. Up to 20 mph headwinds would be a big problem for the runners today. Luckily, for any of them savvy enough, I would be the one battling the wind without choice. I predicted that my effort would make it feel more like a 3:10 than a 3:15.

While hanging around for the start, the big two questions were “Are you running in kilometers?” and “Are you running even pace?” I politely told them I last ran in kilometers in school cross-country and no, I would not be running even pace. I had printed off a wristband with mile splits that took into account the hills of the course and would therefore run even effort. That meant the first mile would be about 8-minute pace and the second, 7-minute pace purely because it was over the bridge. After that, the pace would settle to 7:20-25’s for a while through Brooklyn and Queens.

The gun fired, Frank sung ‘New York, New York’ over the sound system and we clambered over people’s throwaway clothes (that they had clearly done a bad job of actually throwing away) towards the start line. Here we go. The goal was to run as close to 3:15:00 as possible without any crazy sprints or slowing down shenanigans. I felt the pressure as I had a sea of people swarming around me putting all of their faith in me.

The famous start over the Verrazano Bridge.

The famous start over the Verrazano Bridge. Can anyone spot Thunder?!

Among the 50,000, I quickly saw friends. Steve “Thunder” Lee was posing for a photo on the middle divide of the bridge wearing his Superman costume and then Angela from Nike Run Club. She told everyone they were in good hands. I appreciated the compliment as I’m sure their were some doubters in the group.

An NYPD helicopter hovered at bridge height to our left, a stark reminder of how tightly watched this race was going to be. At the highest point of the race was mile 1. I hit the pace almost perfectly. The descent would be fast and I did my best to keep it at 7 minute pace. Some runners went ahead and kept checking over their shoulder to see me. I didn’t have to say anything for them to know they needed to back off slightly.

The 3:15 group going over the Verrazano Bridge.

The 3:15 group going over the Verrazano Bridge.

During the entry into our second borough (Brooklyn), all three colored corral starts split and rejoined a mile or so later. I was looking for my other 3:15 pacer, Andrew, who begun in the green corral on the lower level of the Verrazano. On 4th Avenue, crowds were growing and so were the runners. At 3.5 miles in, all corrals were now as one. I spotted a sign ahead which looked like Andrew’s 3:15. I just had to pray it wasn’t 3:10 as I closed the gap. It was him.

Green, orange and blue routes separate briefly after the Verrazano Bridge.

Green, orange and blue routes separate briefly after the Verrazano Bridge.

The real-time pacing was going well but my GPS version was not. Either I was submerged with too many of them (GPS watches) or buildings were throwing off the data. My average mile was saying 7:10 when I knew we were doing 7:25’s. I knew because I kept checking elapsed time at mile markers. I was basically running pre-GPS watch era.

Some concerned runners wondered why two 3:15 signs were spread apart. I simply told them, we started in different corrals. We were slightly behind goal pace and he was probably slightly ahead. I phrased it that if they ran in the space between us, they would be ‘on the money’. I think that was all the reassurance they needed to hear. We did however have 20 more miles to go which would have been my greater concern as a runner of the race.

By the clock tower building in Brooklyn, myself and Andrew finally connected. We figured that I should be behind him due to starting at fractionally different times. I had felt some pressure from my group to catch him and I should never have let that be the case. I eased off slightly as we climbed the hill north on Lafayette Avenue where the crowds were and are always amazingly loud.

The reward was a long gradual downhill. Most of the faces I had seen on the Verrazano were still the same. We were all here, we were all running as one big group. I urged them to stay relaxed. The race did not begin until 1st Avenue and I hoped they trusted that fact.

Empty cups; I did not drink smart early in the race.

Empty cups; I did not drink smart early in the race.

As pacer, my aim was to run in the center of the road on both straights and turns. Going through the aid stations trying to grab liquid was therefore not too easy. After a couple of failed attempts, I found my glucose level dropping. I realized that I was simply not following my normal carbohydrate intake methods all because I was carrying a stick! What is the first rule of pacing? Look after yourself or you can not look after others. It was true.

I grabbed a gel from my shorts. Within half a mile, I grabbed a second one (which I rarely do). Luckily, my pacing remained as it should have even though the effort I had to exert went up a notch for a mile. A good save but I should have never have put myself in that situation.

Running through the Hasidic Jewish community is one of the quieter and strangest sections of the race. It’s a place where two separate worlds collide for a few hours as 50,000 people run through their neighborhood. I watched a runner try to high-five several men in a row and they all just stood there staring. But as is New York, all of a sudden, one block further ahead, we heard a DJ blaring some music.  We were entering the start of Williamsburg. Crowds roared again and you could feel the lift the runners got from the noise.

At 11 miles in, the pace was perfect. I was not afraid to let them know this either. I liked telling the group every mile or two if we were up or down and by how much. There were a few cheers when they heard we were exactly on pace.

At the Pulaski bridge, we clocked a halfway time of 1:37:40, ten seconds behind. My pace data on my watch was so off, I wanted to switch it off and just wear a normal watch. Gauging the 7:25’s off feel was not as easy after spending years relying on my ‘techy’ watch. “Ten seconds is nothing” I told them. “The crowds in Manhattan will shave off one minute of time for you without you having to do anything”. They liked hearing this as we looked over to our left and saw the amazing skyline of Manhattan. They knew the main part was to come.

But something in Queens didn’t go right. My pace kept dropping and my glucose was definitely OK (now). Two miles later, we completed the last turn before the long Queensboro bridge begun and I had lost more time. I was now 45 seconds behind. Andrew and his group had stayed close by me. We had since realized I should have been the one ahead of him and his green wave group. I was not happy with this and subconsciously pushed the bridge climb. At this point in the race, it was hard to keep track who were my runners from the start gun and who had jumped on for the ride. I intersected with more friends running their own race; Marisa Galloway and Tony Cheong notably. Tony looked like he was hurting some and didn’t seem too thrilled to see me. Then, my pacer light bulb went on. I was the guy no one in front wanted to see! The sweeper, if you will, for some of the fast folks with goals of 3:10 and faster. If they saw me, they were not having their day.

By the middle of the bridge, all you get is an eerie noise of feet on road and breathing, nothing more. As pacer, I felt pressure to say something but I waited and waited and then when we descended over and into Manhattan and the roar of noise slowly began. As the crowds came into sight I declared “Party time!”. The contradiction of  silence to the ‘wall of sound’ coming off the bridge is a special moment along the course. We turned under the arch of the bridge and then looked straight up 1st Avenue.

The view ahead was a sea of people on both sides of the street with signs, balloons and runners as far as the eye can see heading for the Bronx. I checked my watch. I was all of a sudden only a few seconds behind goal time. What had I done on that bridge? I certainly didn’t mean to close the time gap so quickly, especially over one of the toughest parts mentally and physically of the course. I was not proud of myself. I had broken my rule of no dramatic shifts of speed.

The masses along 1st Avenue

The masses along 1st Avenue

A mile up 1st Avenue, I saw my friends lining the left side. There were lots of them but I only managed to lock eyes with Francis and Tiffany before I moved back to the center of the road. The first signs of fatigue were now evident. My group of runners seemed fine, no complaints from anyone at least, but ahead, runners were walking, holding hamstrings or going a fraction of the speed they were probably going in the first three boroughs. The marathon wall in New York for some reason seems to come earlier than other races. The course is just tough, no two ways about it.

Working 1st Avenue. Photo courtesy; Reiko Cyr.

Working as one up 1st Avenue. Photo credit; Reiko Cyr.

Through the gel zone, I grabbed as many as I could. I learned this tip from my veteran pacer friend Otto Lam. As soon as we were through, I turned to offer the gels to anyone that didn’t get one. In doing so, I saw the amount of runners working hard to keep pace with me. It was an awesome sight to an extent but it really added to the mounting pressure that I had to nail this time goal.

The last mile of 1st Avenue sucks. I didn’t try to pretend otherwise to the runners either. I said “This section of the course gets really quiet but in one mile we will be in the Bronx and the it will be loud all the way home. I promise. For now, just focus on this mile”. I felt the need to say something as I heard the breathing getting louder as the crowd fizzled out. With silence can come doubt and at mile 18, this is a high drop out zone of the course. You need to tell yourself that you can do it. As long as you’ve done the training, it’s basically a mental game not a physical one from here on in. I carried my pacer sign as high as I could so they would always have a visual. In hindsight, I could have probably carried it a bit lower as you know what you’re looking for after 18 miles of running. To me, it just felt like my way of helping as much as possible.

“Up a short climb over the Willis Avenue bridge and we will be in the Bronx”. My memory had left out the long second climb before we actually got off the bridge. I regretted using the words ‘short climb’ but still no one was heckling me. I had balanced out the pacing up 1st Avenue and we were now at a really nice ten seconds under goal pace.  Some of the crowds here in the Bronx were big but not as loud as they could have been. I turned to my trusty pacer stick and used it to pick the crowd up. It worked immediately. I guess they were getting bored with watching all these serious runners so I started having fun with the crowds and it worked. The runners appreciated it. It was a win-win move.

Bronx bunching; Mile 21. Photo credit: Oh Snapper.

Bronx bunching at Mile 21. Photo credit: Oh Snapper.

My Danish running friends (who I had met at the expo) were running strong. They asked if the bridge ahead was the last one. It was. Madison Avenue bridge back into Manhattan and then five miles left. I found the question an interesting perspective from another runner. As I had been mentally counting hills to go, they had been counting the bridges as a way to break up the race. My concern for the group was the 5th Avenue hill still to come; a mile long up before entering Central Park.

Off Madison bridge, we turned left turn down 5th Avenue greeted by none other than Michael Jackson’s Thriller (They’ve played this song here every year for some time now). “If anyone hanging with the group has anything left, now is the time to go” I said. Most of them laughed/cried and said “We are trying to hang on!” OK, good to know. It really was impossible to tell if any of them had broken away, fallen off the back or I had gathered up some new runners along the way. I’m sure it was a combination of all three. Anyone we now passed in dire straits got a tap from me and words of encouragement. I referenced Dusty Olson’s words “Dig deep” that he used pacing Scott Jurek during his ultrarunning hey days.  I didn’t like to see people walking and know these two simple words can be very powerful.

We had four miles of temporary pain left together. I wanted everyone we passed to jump on the 3:15 bus. We hit 110th Street which meant the beginning of the 5th Avenue climb. “Time to do work” I said. “Hang on guys”. This hill is truly something. I think I’m accurate in saying we can all blame the legend of Fred Lebow for the placement of this one mile hill so late in the race. I wanted to tell them they were halfway but stopped myself when I read the street sign ’96th St.’. Wow, I guess I was hurting too. Andrew, was still by my side. I was now a comfortable 30 seconds ahead of the goal time. I wanted to hit 3:15:00 but feared the one second over scenario so much I didn’t want to risk being that close. I know it would have haunted me and I would have viewed my job as a failure so I aimed for a 15 second window.

Grinding at Mile 22. Photo credit: @raysphotos (Instagram)

3:15 group grinding at mile 22. Photo credit: @raysphotos (Instagram)

With two blocks of the hill left, we were close enough “Come on. Almost in the park and then no more hills” I shouted. That wasn’t’ quite true but no more hills like that. It was a close enough statement to say to fatigued runners who were probably not even listening to me anymore.

Central Park looked nothing like usual as is always the case during the marathon. A sea of people lined the left side of the route as we weaves around the MET museum. A small climb towards Cat Hill made teeth clench. I gave a heads up that a nice downhill would be the reward.

Two runners glued themselves to my sides. Down to the edge of the park, a large crowd awaited us. Just like the Bronx, I asked for noise for the runners and received it in full force. As I glanced up and saw a ‘800 meters to go’ sign, I knew I was OK, comfortably under 3:15. We turned back into the park at Columbus Circle. I pointed out to the lead singer of the band playing and he pointed right back at me, both smiling like a couple of Cheshire cats from Alice in Wonderland. Boy, we were basically in Wonderland, this was awesome.

I grabbed some high fives from runners as we climbed the last 0.2 up the teaser of a finish. I slowed a little to make sure runners just behind knew if they could catch me, they were under the 3:15 time. I crossed the line at 3:14:44 just as happy as if this was my own race.

Home stretch; I finally had time to relax and enjoy the finish!

Home stretch; I finally had time to relax and enjoy the finish!

I found Andrew at the finish and we congratulated each other among many of the other runners we had paced. We collected our medals, foil blankets and some food as we walked north through the park to reclaim our bags. When, I finally got my stuff, I grabbed my glucose meter. I was 82. Time for food, anything but gels!

The amazing finish area in Central Park.

The amazing finish area in Central Park.

The whole race was truly about other people. From 50,000 runners to over two million spectators, the NYRR, the police. But it was even more than that. It was for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the people of Boston and for everyone gunning for sub 3:15 around me whether they made it or not. It seemed truly fitting that this race was not about me, I was just a small part that was very happy to help. Thank you Brian Hsia, John Honerkamp and Paul Leak at NYRR for selecting and trusting me as a pacer. It is one of my best running experiences I’ve ever had.

NYCM 2013

NYCM 2013 medals

 

 

 

 

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