Monday, April 13, 2015

Pace Group Leading 101

I have been asked quite a bit in the past month what it is like to be a pace leader and how one can take on such an endeavor. Becoming a pace leader isn't very hard, as all one typically needs to do is inquire with the race management. Other venues include joining and applying to formal pace teams, some of which are specifically affiliated with individual events, or a brand. However becoming a pace leader, and being a successful pace leader are two very different things. In addition, being a pace group leader is entirely different than being a pacer, which I wrote about in a March 2014 post called The Art of Pacing.

I am by no means an expert on pace group leading, but I'd like to think my cumulative experience with all kinds of running gives me a good starting point to offer advice. Pace group leading is incredibly rewarding, sometimes challenging, and at other times very straightforward. Though I have fun when I run, I personally view each pace leading assignment as a job, and my ongoing pace results as my resume. In reality, a proven track record of success could lead to being a part of a sponsored team, so it's worth while to take your duties seriously. Plus, you have the hopes and goals of your fellow runners on your shoulders, and you owe it to them to give it your best effort. So how does one become a successful pacer? Well, here's a general list, and I hope it helps anyone aspiring to become a pace group leader, of any distance, or be better at what you do.

Apologies that this is long, but I think it hits most of the main topics and then some.

Fitness Level

- Be able to run at least 20 minutes faster than your pace group time. In other words, if you are pacing a 3:35 group, you would hopefully be capable of running a 3:15 on race day. If you ran a 3:15 two years ago, and haven't run anything that suggests you are near that fitness now, it does not count. I've known former sub 2:40 marathoners who have blown up pace leading groups much slower than their PR's. You need to be at that current fitness level when you take on your pace leading assignment.

- Be in race shape, not pace shape. Some people think, oh I just need to be in enough shape to run my pace time. If you do this, your pace time will start to become more and more a max effort. The pace group you lead should feel fairly comfortable the entire time, and the effort level is easier the better shape you stay in. Bottom line, keep your fitness in that 20 minutes, or faster zone.

- Be fit enough for the course. For example, the Charlottesville Marathon is a very hilly course, and this past year it was very windy. Between the hills and wind, the course probably ran 5 minutes slower than a more typical flatter course. This means running a 3:45 in Charlottesville would have been a 3:40 effort elsewhere. If you factor in the fact we recorded 26.72 miles for the marathon, our actual 26.20 mile split was under a 3:40, and subtract 5 more minutes for wind and hills, now you are at an equivalent effort of 3:35. If you showed up in 3:30 marathon shape, despite it being 15 minutes faster than the supposed 3:45 pace, you would have ended up running within 5 minutes of a max effort. Hence, why it is important to understand the difficulty of your course. Not all pace times are the same effort at different races.

Why is it necessary to be significantly faster than your group?

- You will hopefully be talking with your runners, giving them advice, and cheering them on. It's tough to do that out of breath, or while very fatigued.

- You might be carrying hydration gear and nutrition, which adds weight and slows you down. In fact, I even encourage carrying your hydration and nutrition, especially if pacing alone, so you can maintain an even pace through water stops. If a pacer slows down for water, and your runners also stop, you can throw off the visual pacing cue that a pacer provides. It can be easier for your runners to catch up and know that once they are back with you, they are on pace, instead of both the runners and pacer trying to re-calibrate pacing.

- You might be carrying a pace sign. You might be surprised how much carrying a pace sign, especially a larger one, on a very windy day can zap your speed. Being in shape can help negate these effects.

- It helps your runners be confident in you, the pacer, to know you are under control and not on the verge of a blow up. A pacer who looks relaxed and at ease can seem more "reliable", and can also make surrounding runners feel relaxed. In contrast, a pace group leader that is panting and sounds exhausted is not always the best moral booster.

- You may have to catch up for various reasons, whether it be a bathroom break, to stretch, eat, or tie your shoes. Even a 2 minute bathroom break means you will have to sprint a half mile to catch your group. You don't want your runners being alone much more than a few minutes, if at all.

- In case you blow up. It happens. A pacer is so focused on their group that they don't drink enough or eat enough and boom, they are in the midst of a full on bonk at mile 19. If you are in very good shape, a bonk should not effect you the way it would someone else running at full effort.

Take Your Pace Leading Seriously
- Show up rested and in shape. Taper if you need to, but remember that people are counting on you. Some are trying to BQ, some to PR, win awards, or just finish. All are influenced by your performance, or lack thereof.

- Respect the distance. It doesn't matter if you've run 1,000 marathons. 26.2 miles is still 26.2 miles. A lot can happen, so never lose respect for the marathon.

I've Never Run a Marathon That Was Exactly 26.2 Miles
- A marathon is 26.2 miles......if you know and run the exact tangent lines that the course was measured with. In other words, you will always run more than 26.2 miles.

- Plan to run anywhere from 26.4 miles to 26.7, and make sure to adjust the pace accordingly. It still frustrates me that most marathon training plans don't account for this.

- Communicate to your runners the difference in pace. Sadly, people are told a 3:45 marathon is an 8:35 pace, a 3:30 is 8:00, and so on. Yes, but again only for an exact 26.2 miles. If you know a course is going to be 26.45 miles, it means you will be running 5 seconds per mile faster than what they are told. Our overall pace at the Charlottesville marathon was an 8:23, and we finished in 3:44:07. If you showed up thinking you were going to be running an 8:35 pace, you were in for a rude awakening.

Do you run consistent mile splits throughout the race?
- Yes and no.

- Yes, if it is a flat course, like Shamrock, where the first and second halves are about the same in terms of difficulty and geography. On these courses, each mile split should be no more than +/- 5 seconds of goal pace.

- Yes, if you know the mile markers are not significantly off and both halves are about the same distance.

- No, if the course is very hilly. You are guaranteed to drop your runners if you try to maintain your pace up a steep hill. Sometimes you need to budget some slower miles to account for big climbs, and faster miles for downhills. Trying to pace too mechanically can hurt your runners, and it's best to run the way they would run the course, which is slower uphill, faster downhill, and even on the flats.

- No, if the course is like Richmond, where the first half is a net downhill, and the second is a net uphill. In this case, it is okay to allow a positive split by several minutes.

Wear a GPS....AND a Watch.
- A gps is a great tool for tracking distance, pace, and splits. It will also let you know if a course is running long.

- I use an old Forerunner 305, and keep have several screen views stored specifically for pace leading. My primary screen of choice shows current pace, average pace, and distance. My secondary screen shows elapsed time, distance, and overage pace.

- I wear a watch so I can view mile splits between course mile markers, and not just the mile splits on my gps, which might be different.

- I wear a watch because my gps has died during a race, and there's nothing worse than trying to hold a steady pace with no data.

- I wear a watch because sometimes my gps loses signal and isn't always trustworthy for pace.

- Just remember that gps data is not infallible. You might run side by side with another runner an entire race and finish with a different distances and paces on your gps devices. Stick to the data on YOUR gps, as constantly trying to factor in what someone else is getting will throw you off.

Have Experience with Road Marathons.
- Your pacing job should not also be your first marathon, even if you are fast enough. I've seen several novice marathon pacers who missed their goals because they did not have the experience to account for things like a long course, or hills.

- If your pace leading is your first marathon, see if you can team up with a co-pacer.

- If you are a trail runner, keep in mind that running 26.2 miles at a consistent pace on pavement is very different than running various paces on undulating trails.

You set the pace, not your runners.
- I have seen pace leaders pace off the runners around them, but you need to be the one setting the pace. Picture yourself as a steady island floating along while the other runners are boats around you. You are meant to be the constant and the physical and mental fixed variable in the race.

- Show restraint. A pacer can not get caught up in the excitement of the crowds and music and lose track of the pace. Don't get too caught up in conversation, because your conversational pace may be much faster than someone else, and you may accidentally start going too fast, or even too slow without knowing it. Don't be tempted to follow your runners when they kick to the finish and stick to the goal pace.

Be Visible
- Most pace groups provide shirts and signs to carry, and some do not. It doesn't hurt to add a little flare to your sign, or attire to make you easier for your group to spot. This past spring I added orange duct tape and a Hawaiian Lei to several of my signs so I could be seen. At one race, I was surrounded by a half dozen guys that were probably all over 6'3", which meant I was not necessarily easy to see in the middle of them. Having a sign on a 3 foot stick enabled me to be visible among my tall fellow runners.

- Keep your pace sign visible. I've seen pacers who trim down the pace stick to make it shorter and easier to carry and then don't keep it raised high and visible through the run. In a crowd of people, you can't even see the sign. Be sure to use a longer stick and if needed reinforce it so it doesn't break if it;s very windy. I used a carbon fiber hiking pole at the Charlottesville Marathon because a typical dowel rod would have easily snapped in the 20-30+ mph wind gusts. A longer stick also means you don't have to keep your arm raised, which can put a lot of strain on your shoulders. Alternating arms also helps.

Do Your Homework
- Learn what you can about the event and logistics. Your runners will have a lot of questions for you, and you can give them some much needed assurance by having answers. Figure out where the water stops are located, if there are porta potties and gels, or any major hills and notoriously tough stretches. It even helps to find out any quirky details like if a certain mile is long/short, or what typical race day weather will be like.

Learn Race Specific Math and be Flexible
- This helps for projecting accurate finish times and knowing whether you may need to speed up at the end of a race, or have the luxury of slowing down a little. It's also nice to be able to share with your runners what their projected finish time will be if they hold the current pace.

- In regards to projecting finish times, don't over think it, but know ahead of time where you want to be. It doesn't hurt to have goal times for the 10k split, 10 mile, half, and so on. It all helps keep you on track. Pace charts are a great tool but don't always account for the specifics of a course.

- Example: If you are pacing a 3:30 group and running an 8:00 pace when you reach mile 25, it means you have roughly 9:36 to the finish. If you are at 3:20 elapsed time at mile 25, you are spot on. However, if you are at 3:18, or 3:22, you have a little last minute tweaking to do, and if it means speeding up, you could hurt your runners.

- Example: You're pacing a 4:00 group and you reach mile 20 in 3:00. You have 6.2 miles remaining, which should take roughly 56 minutes at current pace, but that would bring you to a finish of 3:56, which is too fast. You now have the "luxury" of slowing down to a 9:30 pace, which could allow some runners to catch up. However, as you are running, you see miles 24 and 25 run a little long at 1.07 and 1.05 miles. Now you have to adjust back to a 9:15.

- Being flexible means taking into account long/short miles and things like hills and wind. If you reach mile marker 5, and your gps says 5.08 miles, that's a good sign the course will run long. If you reach mile marker 10, and your gps reads 10.16, it reaffirms you need to run a slightly faster pace to hit goal. You can extrapolate and predict that if you are already 0.18 miles over at the half, you will finish with 26.56 miles. Sometimes you'll notice the distance balance out, where you were 0.22 miles over at mile 15, but only 0.17 over at mile 20. Again, be flexible and adjust the pace mile by mile if needed. Communicate with your runners if they ask why your pace keeps changing. They will most likely appreciate the fact that you are capable of micromanaging the pace a mile at a time to keep them on target.

Communicate and Listen
- Before the race, communicate with your runners. A marathon may be just another day at the office to you, but your runners might be fighting off the nerves and jitters of their first marathon, or a potential BQ. You will likely get asked a lot of questions on race morning, and leading up. Do your homework about the event and course, so you can answer. Communicate your pace strategy and water stop strategy. All of these things can help calm nerves and enhance your runners' marathon experience.

- During the race, communicate. Talk about notable course details and things like turns and mile splits. You can establish a lot of trust just by being consistent with your pacing, but also lose trust if you do a poor job. If a mile split seemed too fast or too slow explain why, whether it was wind, hills, etc. When I was pacing a 4:00 group, a couple runners thought we were going a little too fast, but I assured them it was the pace needed to account for the extra distance I was getting between mile markers. I said my goal was to get them to the half in just under 2 hours, and when we crossed the half in 1:59:53 I knew I had established the trust of my group.

- Know how much, or how little to talk. Small talk, introductions, and jokes in the early miles are a great way to break the tension and make the miles go by easily for your runners. However, excessive talking can be mentally distracting and tiring to some people. There are, however, instances where runners will request you to keep talking to take their mind off their fatigue and discomfort.

- Continue to reassure your runners. Later in a race, you might be running the exact same pace as earlier, but it will feel like a harder effort as your runners tire. They will ask if they are still on pace, and you need to assure them that you are. Say mile splits out loud, or say something like "Last 3 miles were all between 8:28 and 8:35 pace" or "5 miles left, we'll do it in 42:30, which will bring us in just over 3:44".

- Communicate with your co-pacer(s) if you have them. Talk about how to manage water stops, bathroom breaks and race/pace strategy. Try not to separate too far from each other as it will become confusing for your runners. If one pacer runs ahead, it will freak out runners who are, in fact, still well within their target pace. Stay as a team.

Stick to the Plan
- It doesn't matter if you've been running alone the final 8 miles of a race, stick to the plan, and maintain an even pace. You'd be surprised the number of runners whose only goal is to keep you in sight, or keep you from passing. If you speed up, assuming nobody is with you, you may completely discourage a runner a half mile behind you who can no longer see you.

- Don't slow down either, as it might be tempting to provide company to people you pass. You slowing down to be supportive of a struggling runner, barring medical emergency, might cost another runner their goal.

- More often than not, you will be the one catching and passing many runners, especially after mile 20. Encourage them to stick with you, but if they can't, you just have to move on.

Your Chip Time vs Your Runner's Chip Time
- Again, remind runners, especially ones trying to BQ, that your times may be different, even if you finish at the same time.

- This applies even more to runners you catch up to who started the race in corrals ahead of you. Their times might actually be 30 seconds to several minutes more than yours, based on when you started. In a larger race with 30,000+ runners, this time gap could be over 3 minutes.

- Example: If a runner's BQ is 3:40, but because they are much faster, they are lined up in the 3:05 corral, they may cross the starting mat 3 minutes ahead of you. If the runner has a bad day and your group catches up, the runner is now on 3:43 pace, not your 3:40 pace, and would thus have to speed up to BQ. Though this scenario is unlikely, it's not implausible, and you could potentially save a day from going from bad to worse.

Encourage Your Runners to Go Ahead
- This is especially true if you have runners who want to run Boston. Keep in mind, wanting to run Boston, and just wanting to qualify are very different. To qualify, you just need to run under the qualifying time, even if by 1 second. However, to gain entry into Boston, runners will likely need to run 1:15 under their qualifier, but I always say 2:00 just to be safe.

- Example: If I am pacing 3:45, and that is also a runner's BQ time, I remind them that my goal is to finish close to 3:45, not 3:43, which is what they will need. I try to remind runners trying to BQ around miles 10, 16, and 20 that they need to run ahead to bank the extra time. If you are still with the 3:45 pace group at mile 24, it is not likely you will run the last 2.2 miles at a 7:30 pace in order to get into Boston.

- Sometimes, however, runners only care about qualifying for Boston, and not running it. It's more a goal to say they did it, or to continue a streak of qualifying times. I still remind my runners that my goal is to get near my target time, which is based on MY chip time, and they need to be aware of any difference in our start times. My watch might read 3:44:55, but if you started ahead of me, we may cross the finish together and your chip time might be 3:45:06, and you missed a BQ. I actually had this happen at Richmond last year, but my runner simply did not have the energy to push ahead. It was a gamble for her to stick with the 3:45 pacers through the finish, and when her clock time showed over 3:46 (3:44:55 my chip time), none of us knew if she made her BQ. Thankfully, it turns out she BQ'ed by 3 seconds, but it was a big risk.

It's Okay to Finish Alone
- I have finished most of my pace leading assignments alone, and this is normal. It may initially feel awkward to run with people all day, only to come through that boisterous finish chute all by yourself. It's the name of the game. You may have a pack of 50-100 runners behind you the first 10 miles and it's an incredibly empowering feeling. However, it could be half that number by mile 16, and by mile 20 you may be down to 5-10 runners tops. At least 60-70% of your initial group will fall behind, while the rest will eventually kick and finish a few minutes ahead. Other times, you will absorb a few runners you catch up to, or finish with runners who just want to hang at your pace as long as they can.

Gauging Success
- A successful pacing job is finishing within 2 minutes of your target time without going over. There are exceptions, like when I had to stop for traffic two miles from the finish at one of my races, which cost me nearly a perfect pacing job. A very good pace job is getting within one minute of your target time.

- A successful pacing job includes not deviating more than 5-6 seconds per mile of your goal pace, assuming a flat course.

- A successful pacing job should also not see more than a 1-2 minute difference for each half, assuming a consistent course profile and half distances.

- You may never know what your pace leading meant to someone. However, this past spring I got many thank you's from people who BQ'ed for the first time, thought they would never BQ again, ran their first marathon since giving birth to a child, or finishing their first marathon. While running a 5:00, or 3:05 marathon may be a piece of cake to us, for some it is the culmination of something far greater than we can wrap our heads around. Pace leading allows you to participate in the midst of other people's struggles and triumphs. Realize what a privilege it is to be part of that.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Graveyard 100- A Very Special Race

Good races are not hard to find, but truly special ones are far and few between. Sure, there are plenty of fun and well organized running events out there. There are events that hedge more on their history and lore to drive the race experience, rather than the experience in and of itself. But, once in a blue moon you find an event, sometimes by accident, that ends up being the diamond in the rough we all hope to find.

I wholeheartedly believe that Brandon and Heather Wilson's Graveyard 100 is such an event. I think great race experiences comes down to the elements of challenge, course beauty, creativity, and race support. All too common these days is the culture of seemingly valuing the bling and swag of an event more than the personal journey that transpires between the start and finish lines. I totally get it if people are all about cool medals, chip timing, aid every two miles, and live runner tracking, but sometimes it's refreshing to see an event that values the "test" of what running a 100 miler is, and not all the glitz. If you want to voyage into the unknown, where the reward is in the miles in between, by all means the Graveyard 100 is for you.

The Graveyard 100 is not meant to be an easy race to finish. Many ultras, not that it is a bad thing, now cater to runners to ensure nearly everyone finishes. I've even witnessed established older ultras adding more aid and tweaking logistics to make it easier for runners. Don't get me wrong, but isn't one of the alluring factors of an ultra supposed to be that it isn't easy? And yet, some people seemingly have the attitude of wanting to do something hard, but in the easiest way possible. Again, there's nothing wrong with that, but one reason the Graveyard 100 is special is because it is not that kind of race.

I like that regardless if you are an elite, back of the packer, or prior champion, there is no certainty you will finish this race. It all comes down to risk versus reward, and in that sense the Graveyard 100 offers some incredible rewards. I think if you ask any person, myself included, how they felt when presented their Graveyard buckle, they would say with a tired satisfied smile, it was well worth it.

I love that Graveyard is the hardest "easy" 100 miler you will likely encounter. People see the flat elevation profile and say "piece of cake!" Crewed runners see that they can receive aid from their crews every 4-9 miles at water stops, and think "this shouldn't be too bad". There are no big climbs, no mountains above 10,000 feet, no technical rocky sections or river crossings, and yet the percentage of people who drop is higher than at most "harder" one hundreds. Why is that you wonder? For those that have been on the course, well, you know the answer.

This race is a crucible in numerous capacities. It will test your mind, and for some it will torment their mind. You will start at the north end of Currituck, see sunrise as you pass Currituck sound to your right, and run through small coastal towns like Corolla and Duck. You'll think "this isn't too bad". Then as your legs start to experience the initial onsets of fatigue you will pass through Kitty Hawk and Nags Head. You can see miles down the road and miles behind you. This is usually when it hits you that this is going to be tougher than you thought. Runners ahead fade into nothing more than little dots on the horizon and you'll swear those mile post signs can't be accurate. But, they are.

After 45 miles you will exit the creature comforts of society and begin your adventure into the land of dunes. This is where the isolation begins. You will pass the Bodie Island lighthouse to your right, cross over the iconic 2.5 mile long leviathan that is the Bonner Bridge, and into Pea Island. After this, you are in the second half of the race, but the hardest is yet to come. You'll see mirages on the road that look like shiny wet spots, but as you continue on you'll see nothing but more road. Depending on the year, you may be running on sand, into a flood plane, or completely dry asphalt. You might get hit with a light sting of fine sand swirling through 20 mph winds or intense sun radiating from the blankets of off white dunes. Embrace this stretch that transports you from the land of the ordinary and into a magical world of sand and ocean. Ten miles later you will finally get a faint glimpse of Rodanthe in the distance.

For most runners, Rodanthe is where reality starts to set in. This is where most drops occur, and at 100k into the race, this is where the real journey begins. At this point, the long miles have started to take their toll, and 9-16 hours of exposure to the sun, pavement, wind, and cold have depleted even the heartiest of souls. This is also where good planning can mean the difference between a finish and yet another DNF. Warm dry clothes are invaluable, but the lack thereof can mean a turn for the worse. Uncrewed runners have even bigger thoughts to consider. They've gone 18-22 miles between full aid all day, but now must endure the longest stretch without aid at just over 24 miles. The mental battles to quit, or keep going rage on. For some it's an easy decision to end their day, and for others it's a long debate whether they want to venture back out into the chilly night for another 8-12 hours. Time to get some hot soup, patch up those blisters, grab that extra layer, and adjust the headlamp one more time.

From Rodanthe to Hatteras it's a long lonely dark road. Runners battle to stay positive and deal with the monotony. Salvo and Avon provide slight respite from the tunnel vision developed by running a solitary strip of tar while being guided by the small light of a headlamp. Local cars that previously whizzed by every few minutes, some alarmingly too close, are a now a rare sight. Every once in a while you'll see headlights in the distance and swear they aren't moving. Believe it or not, that "stationary" car in the distance is actually moving towards you at 55 mph, just from five miles away. If you are lucky enough to have a clear night, take a moment to look up and soak in that splendid night sky. It's amazing how many stars you can see when there's no ambient light around. Then, you'll see lighthouses and the blinking lights of water towers on the edge of your view and you now know to absorb the fact you will not get there for another two hours.

(Hatteras night sky. Photo credit coll100ertexample.blogs)

If your brain hasn't numbed by the time you reach the final aid station at mile 87, it might by the time you finish. After leaving Hatteras lighthouse, which will feel like forever to reach, you will experience more of the same in regards to never feeling like you are getting closer to objects in the distance. It's a double doozy if you are not familiar with Hatteras as it will seem like forever to reach the finish, even when you know it's less than 5 miles away. At this point, you pretty much just want to be done and off your feet. For some it will still be night and for others it will be the next day. Years like this one you'll get to witness a rare sunrise accompanied by a setting full moon and be reminded of what a special journey you are about to finish. Finally, before you've even realized it, you will be at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and be handed your buckle by race director Brandon. You will likely be too tired to assess what you just did and only be thinking of getting warm, getting a shower, some food, and going to bed.

(2015 Champion Marco Bonfiglio with race director Brandon Wilson. New course record of 13:01. Photo credit John Price)

The next day you will wake up sore, have some new blisters, and probably a few less toenails. Then you'll remember everything that you went through to lose those toenails, to get that winter sunburn, that gritty sand in your socks and those two swollen feet. Then, you'll take a glance at that buckle and hopefully you'll give a little smile and realize it was all so worth it.

(Ultra legend, past Champion, and 2015 2nd place, Valmir Nunes. Photo credit John Price)

(photo credit Brian Burke)

Like I said, the Graveyard 100 is a special race. I think anyone who has ever finished it will say the same. It's the reason I have been involved with the event every year since its inception. I have been an inaugural year solo participant, a staff member trying to recruit talent like Mike Morton, Valmir Nunes, and Olivier Leblond, a race photographer, aid station volunteer, pacer, and crew member. I can honestly say I am thrilled to see how far this grass roots event has come along. For Brandon and Heather this event truly is a labor of love for you, the runner and running community.

The Graveyard 100 also has drawn a wide variety of athletes locally and internationally. The event has now had four different champions representing four different countries; the US, France, Brazil, and now Italy. This year's event also saw America's 2nd fastest non track 100 miler with Marco Bonfiglio's incredible 13:01. Only Ian Sharman's 12:44 at Rocky Raccoon in 2011 is faster. Valmir Nunes also ran one of the fastest American 100 milers by someone age 50, or older with his 14:20. It should be noted that Marco recorded a distance of 161.9km on his gps, or 100.38 miles, and he stopped for ice cream during the race, which means he most likely could have run under 13 hours. The bottom line is, whether you finished in 13 hours or 29:59, amazing things are bound to happen at the Graveyard 100.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Virginia Beach Distance Races 100k

(Photo Credit VA Beach Distance Races. Getting in some quicker miles early in the day)

It's been a while since I could say a race went well, or surprisingly well. All of my ultra PR's are fairly old, set between 2010 and 2012, but I knew my fitness and endurance are better now then when I set them. However, instead of improving on those I've had a lot of lackluster results due to poor strategy, not being recovered enough for races, or just being out of shape. Ultimately, I had a lot of "okay" races, but nothing that stood out.

The Virginia Beach Distance Races, the brainchild of local running guru John Price, consisted of a 50k and 100k distance. The course was designed to be fast and circled a USATF certified 2.31+ mile loop around a local golf course. The 100k would do 26 laps, plus a 1.64 mile out and back at the beginning. The 12 hour cut off was the same for both races and gave runners ample time for the 50k, but made it challenging for the 100k, which was probably why only three people finished. Though flatter than any trail ultra I have ever run, the course had enough little bumps and turns to keep you from getting lulled to sleep. For reference, the course was definitely fast, but not as fast as a typical road marathon course. Per usual for Virginia beach, we also had a stiff headwind for about a mile of each loop. To top it all off, the weather couldn't have been more beautiful for a February 8th day. Morning temps were in the mid 30's and rose into the 60's by the late afternoon.

Interestingly, I was originally signed up for the 50k race, with the goal of breaking 3:48, but switched races the day before to test my chops at a quicker 100k. 100k courses are hard to come by and honestly a 3:48 50k would have been nothing more than a glorified 3:12 marathon with 4.8 miles tacked on. A challenge for sure, but for some reason I wanted something bigger, but also without having to run 100 miles to do it. I did, however, wonder if I was going to regret switching, given my training was for the 50k, and my 60 miles per week over the winter didn't feel like enough for a 100k. In the past year, I had also transitioned from 9 years of exclusively running trails to exclusively running roads purely due to geographic location. Several months earlier I had an okay run at the mountainous Hellgate 100k, but part of me knew I was better suited for a flatter course and my mountain running legs had long since been gone. I guess one reason for switching to the 100k was to see if that was true.

(Nearing a 180 degree u-turn on the course)

As for my race, I didn't really have any concrete goals. But, if I did have a last minute goal, it was to qualify for the legendary Spartathlon Ultramarathon, which required a sub 10:30 100k finish time. The qualifier is good for three years, but since the qualifying time drops to sub 10 hours next year, I figured to make that my makeshift goal. If anything, I figured my strategy would be to at least PR my 50 mile time of 7:35 (JFK 50 five years ago) and then shuffle through the last 12 miles and hope to get under 10 hours.

The race started just after 6:35am. Sunrise had not yet arrived, but it was just bright enough not to need headlamps. For the first 20 miles I was on autopilot and tried to stay smooth and relaxed in the cool morning air. I did start out a little quick and gradually pulled back the effort to just over an eight minute pace. Things were good until about mile 20 when I started to develope some tightness in my hamstrings. This forced a handful of short stretch breaks, which continued all day, though I still managed to reach my marathon split in 3:31. My original goal was to reach my marathon split in 4:00, but today I didn't let it bother me how far ahead of my target times I was. However, though I had plenty of time in the bank, the increasing discomfort in my hamstrings had me strongly considering stopping at 31 miles.

The battle with the doubt monster lasted a few more miles and I decided to just get to 50k, reassess how I felt then, and reminded myself that this was nothing uncommon for this distance. Looped courses can make dropping so inviting that it can cause people to quit when they don't have a good reason to. So, I ran a few more miles and hit the halfway point in 4:09, which was a 50k PR by 13 minutes, and it helped put some much needed mojo back in my race. Typically, it's never good to PR a shorter distance within a significantly longer race, but the pace was a good bit slower than my goal pace would have been for 50k, so I wasn't too worried. I'm just glad I was able to push through the temptation of bailing early.

(Photo Credit VA Beach Distance Races. Coming through the start/finish checkpoint)

The rest of the miles just rolled by without much thought. Sometimes thinking too much is worse than thinking too little. I spent a lot of the day just enjoying the nice February weather and seeing my fellow runners and walkers on the course. Miles 38 to 45 were my slowest of the day and my paced slipped to over 9:30 due to a few refueling and stretching breaks. After six hours my primary motivation was now to set a 50 mile PR, which I figured was easily doable on the flatter terrain. I had briefly considered pushing the pace to see how fast I could hit my 50 mile split, maybe in the 6:55 range, but realized it wouldn't be prudent to jeopardize a solid 100k time by running a faster 50. Not worth the risk of a blow up with 12 miles remaining. I came through lap 21, roughly 50.7 miles in 7:05:03 for the 50 mile PR, but still had five laps to go.

Those last couple of hours were a bit tough. Most of the 50k runners had finished, so the course was very empty and we weren't allowed to have pacers. You couldn't rely on a lot of distractions or fellow runners to help push you along and I challenged myself to not rely on headphones and music. It really became a battle between me, my thoughts, and the solitary strip of six foot wide pavement. Four laps to go....Now three. 57.6 miles completed in 8:12. I do some quick math. If I could cover the last two laps in 48 minutes, I could break 9 hours. It caught me off guard. For most of the day, I had been anticipating a significant slow down, maybe a 9:30 finish, but I had continued to chug along with only a few low points.

Nearly 60 miles completed. 8 hours and 33 minutes elapsed with one final lap to go. I was feeling it a bit during the previous lap, but on this one I had to dig in a little bit deeper. I'm not going to lie, those last few miles felt a little rough. All I wanted to do was walk, or give myself an excuse to walk, but knowing I could break 9 hours was enough motivation to stay moving. My mantra was "one foot in front of the other", but every time I thought that my mind would conjure up stop-motion images of Kris Kringle and the Evil Winter Warlock. At any rate, it made the time pass and I soon turned into the final curvy stretch and made a sprint towards the finish. As I glanced over to the finish line clock ten yards away I could only make out the first digit. It was an eight. A few moments later I reached the end of the lap and tagged the stop button on my watch...8:53:45. It was a 100k personal best by 85 minutes, signified three ultramarathon PR's in one day, and also qualified me for Spartathlon.

(Photo Credit VA Beach Distance Races. Finishing 62.2 miles and realizing I had just run under 9 hours)

I knew I had it in me, but this was still a pleasant surprise. The crazy part is my marathon PR was a 3:33 only 11 months ago, and today my marathon split was 2 minutes faster. I also admittedly went into the 100k event with a mental block thinking finishing under 10 hours would be a stretch. As the race progressed I decided not to worry how far ahead of my split goals I was and ran based on how my body felt, not my brain. I think sometimes the expectation that we are going to fatigue and slow down can become a self fulfilling prophecy. I am now somewhat curious to see what I could do if I focused from the start on running a fast 100k, or 50 miler. I can already think of 8-10 minutes lost that weren't necessary like chatting and stopping to eat instead of eating on the run. It's all trivial, and I certainly wasn't out there with a race mentality, but it's good to know there's room for improvement. Overall, my pacing was good, but could be better. I ran the first half in 4:09 and the second in 4:44, but I also spent 2 minutes getting aid the first half versus 8 for the second. With more specific training and gained experience I think I could achieve 100k splits closer to 4:05 and 4:25.

I'm certainly keeping all this in perspective given that 100k world champion Max King ran a 6:27 100k, which is roughly my 5k pace. Elite women are running in the 7:25-8:00 range, and quite a few others have run 8:00-9:00 hours in the mountains and at high altitude. Still, I reminded myself that my first 50 miler took me 10:39, and today I ran 12 miles more and 1:46 faster.

(First time off my feet all day. A well earned little break)

(With race director John Price just a few minutes after finishing)

Approximate splits:
13.1 miles: 1:44
20 miles: 2:40
26.2 miles: 3:31
31 miles: 4:09
50 miles: 6:59
62.2 miles: 8:53:45
Time at aid: About 10 minutes, and mostly in the second half.
Overall pace: 8:35
Running pace: 8:25

Lastly, thank you to all the volunteers who were out there today, Running Etc. for their support, and John Price for directing a fun new event. If this event continues next year, I definitely encourage runners to come check it out. The looped course wasn't as monotonous as anticipated and you got to give and receive a lot of support to your fellow runners during the day. Time for a beer, and then a nap. In that order :-)

(Me and my friends Jon and Virginia, who ran the 50k, enjoying some post race rest and unseasonably warm winter sun)

-Gels every 25 minutes (Honey Stinger and GU Roctane)
-S Cap every hour after 4 hours (4 total)
-A few handfuls of pretzels
-Approx 2,200 calories consumed during race
-Pre-race Little Debbie brownie (530 calories)
-Post-race Samuel Adams (150 calories)
-water, Gatorade, and some soda

Saturday, January 3, 2015

My First 5k

Yup, you read that correctly! After 102 marathons and ultras, I completed my first official 5k race on New Year's Day 2015.

Given that my race reports for ultras don't end up that long, one could rightfully assume a report for a 5k would be a mere handful of sentences. But, instead of a five sentence recap, I added some flavorful details to what would otherwise be a bland story of a 3.1 mile slog on pavement. So, without further adieu, here is a 5k race report. Drum roll please!

My first ever 5k was the Hair of the Dog 5k in Virginia Beach. The race, however, offered a formal wear division that meant we could race in typical New Years attire, or pajamas. Anytime I can dress like an idiot, or in this case a very stylish idiot, and run at the same time I jump at the opportunity. I figured the option of wearing pajamas would be too much of a cop out for a "formal wear" division since most pajamas are fairly lightweight and pretty easy to run in. No, no, no. I had to be Formal if I wanted to stay true to thine self and thy formal wear division.

Pre-race day I paced back and forth through my wardrobe. So many choices, so little time. Ah, I spotted a black suite that I hadn't worn in years, but it still fit and looked brand new. "007 reporting for duty", I rehearsed to myself in the mirror. No time for games though as I paired it up with a white and blue striped Ralph Lauren dress shirt and a Sponge Bob tie. The pairing was indeed odd, like Simon and Garfunkle, peanut butter and jelly, Elaine Page and Susan Boyle, but it said I'm fashionable, and I live in a pineapple under the sea. Everything looked good, but it was not yet complete. I added the razzle dazzle of a striped tie, some leftover Christmas spirit with a Santa hat, a jazzy pink plastic wine cup, and some cool shades that declared "For those about to rock, we salute you."

The race itself went by quick. When you are used to running up to 10 hours at a time, 20 something minutes goes by quicker than the flutter of a hummingbird's wings. The first quarter mile was way too fast, and I discovered just how much a pain in the ass running in a suite is. The scarf blew into my face, my suite jacket slid off my shoulder every 3.8 steps, and wearing 4 lbs of dress clothes is akin to running with 500 helium balloons. All of that while running half the race into a 10-20 mph headwind and trying not to look like an ass clown sliding over patches of frozen bike path. Still, I managed to persevere and pass runner after runner that each echoed the similar sentiment "Damn, I just got passed by a guy in a freakin' suite!".

(Photo credit Mettle Events. Passing yet another overwhelmed and unsuspecting victim despite wardrobe malfunctions that would make Janet Jackson proud)

The miles wore on and I swear I spent more energy trying to constantly adjust my wardrobe than on actually running. There was much waling and gnashing of teeth. "Crap, this stupid Windsor knot is coming loose!". At mile 2 a strong gust of wing sent my scarf flying off 100 feet behind me. For a split second I wondered whether to run back and get it, or just to let it go, let it go (insert Idina Menzel cameo, or as John Travolta would say, Adele Dazeem). I made up my mind and ran back to salvage my beloved wool partner in crime. 20 seconds lost. Not much if running any other distance, but cataclysmic in a 5k. At 2.5 miles we hit a wall of wind, crossed a raging 5 foot wide puddle, and veered into the final home stretch.

With one final push, one last adjustment of my outfit to look good for finish line photos, I crossed the finish line with glorious purpose. The sky opened up, a beam of golden sun poured through the clouds, and cherubs showered the earth with the manna of victory. First place in the formal wear division. All my wildest dreams had come true, and out of a whopping 8 people in the formal wear division, I rose from the ashes like a great Pheonix and indulged in glory.

Yeah.....So, that's kinda how my first 5k went. Oh, and I got a medal and a t-shirt. Booyah!(R.I.P. Stuart Scott)

(The spoils of victory)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Last Loop Around the Sun- A Look Back at 2014

2014 was a good year, but not without it's sobering reminders that life is both short and fragile. After the Boston Marathon bombing rocked the global running world in 2013, the deaths of Meg Menzies and Cameron Gallagher created waves that rippled through local communities and expanded to unfathomable distances. In death, as in life, we remembered why living life to the fullest is essential in a world where tomorrow is never a guarantee. I was also reminded that running is just....running. A mere part of life, but never life itself.

2014 was the year I decided not the pursue anymore 100 mile races for foreseeable future. As part of my desire to be a better steward of my body and be able to run 40+ years from now, I made an ultimatum about the quantity of races I do, but more importantly the distances of said races. Too many 100 milers, in my opinion, are the gateway to many preventable future injuries. In the past five years I have literally watched healthy runners decompose into people that are either barely able to finish races they once did with ease, or not finishing at all.

This past year I also made a conscious decision to disconnect from the ultrarunning scene. What I mean by that is this: In the past I have found myself too caught up in what others are doing, whether it was reading race reports, blogs, facebook, or just wasting time looking at ultrarunning websites. In doing this, I found myself comparing and contrasting my life as a runner too often, and eventually coming to the realizing I was losing touch with my own personal convictions for running. Some might think I've been giving the ultrarunning community, which I was very involved in at one point, the cold shoulder and I am just being unfriendly. It might also seem hypocritical that I still ran 5 ultras in 2014, but alas, most of them were well off anyone's radar. In recent years, I've also witnessed a huge increase in the number of running clubs, teams, cliques, and subgroups that make trying to find a seat at a pre-race dinner feel like trying to find a seat in a middle school cafeteria. My only issue with all these groups is that for every person that gains a sense of family, inclusiveness, and comradery from a group, someone else probably feels exactly the opposite. This observation would only be mere assumption, except for the fact I know people who feel excluded and unwelcome for those same reasons. It used to be that just being an ultrarunner was enough to feel like part of the family, and I hope that hasn't been lost. Of course, I still like to chat and catch up with friends if I see them at races, but hours and hours of ultra/running talk probably won't happen. These days I'd rather just enjoy the experience of being out in nature during a race, calling it a day, and then going home to relax and have a beer before bed.

In 2014 I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried some new things. Becoming an Ironman was a huge bucket list item, and it's something I am very proud of. With essentially no experience in the water, or on a bike, it took a different kind of focus to shift from 9 years of just running to working my way into becoming a capable, albeit not fast, cyclist and swimmer. Four months of hard work paid off, and now I can officially call myself an Ironman for the rest of my life. In addition to the Ironman, I also mustered up the nerve to attempt my first road marathon since 2009 and also successfully lead my first marathon pace group. Who knew that going into the year with a 3:33 marathon PR that I would be pacing a 3:45 group by November as a fairly relaxed effort.

In total, 2014 will end with nearly 2,600 miles of running (well short of a PR), a marathon's worth of swimming, and almost 1,000 miles of cycling. For comparison, prior to this year, in 32 years of living, I had probably not swam more than 5 cumulative miles in my life, nor ridden more than 150 total miles on a bike. I also completed 8 running events I had never done before and completed an epic 47 mile Rim to Rim to Rim double crossing of the Grand Canyon. One of my unintentional, but frequently reoccurring themes of 2014 was to try new things. In doing so, I think it's helped enable me to enjoy running and sports it a more complete capacity than I had in a while. There were also some big milestones this past year. I completed my 100th ultra/marathon and also celebrated the 10th anniversary of my first ultra. Putting into words and thoughts what I have learned in just over a decade of running and life brings me to what next year might look like.

So, what goals do I have for 2015? Historically, coming off the exuberance of a good year, I have overtrained, overraced, and ultimately had a bad year. This pattern, sometimes affected by a series of freak injuries, has been fairly consistent since 2009. With so many interesting races popping up I need to be wiser about listening to my body and letting go of temptation to run every cool event that piques my interest. I also need to remember that our bodies don't have much more than 4-5 full out race efforts (tops) in them per calendar year, especially when the races are 26.2 miles or longer. Following my own advice, I will probably run at most two harder efforts in the spring and fall, and maybe one during the summer. Any other event will just be for fun, but even just for fun events will probably be limited to a handful of 50k, or shorter races. That being said, I have nothing of note committed to my calendar for 2015. I may try to achieve a few running goals like a sub 4 hour 50k, or qualifying for Boston, but again I am not putting pressure on myself.

Speaking of myself, I am planning on focusing much less on me in 2015 and much more on others. I hope to volunteer, cheer, crew, or do photography at more events than I actually participate in. For a good solid year, I'd like to not making running all about my goals, my running successes and failures, my training, but instead lifting up others to be the kind of runner/person they want to be. This will also mean another big list of "firsts" in that I will be immersing myself in the world of "shorter" local road races. While I have mostly dwelled in the subculture of trail ultrarunners, I am excited to be a part of a different subculture of the sport I love. While in previous years I have increased the amount I volunteer and crew/pace, I really want 2015 to set a precedent for the future.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Make a Wish- Hellgate 100k

When you see a shooting star, it is usually tradition to make a quiet wish to yourself. The Geminid meteor shower, caused by debris from object 3200 Phaethon, gave runners on a certain magical night plenty of opportunities to make such wishes. Of these, some included just wanting to finish the Hellgate 100k, finishing the Beast series, wishes to the family of a fallen soldier and friend, or the simple wish to make it through another journey. Like Cinderella once said, a dream is a wish your heart makes.

It was a late autumn eve, and one could say it was the kind of night that could bring back the nostalgia of childhood campfires, scary stories, and smores. The time was moments after midnight in a silent stillness that only a secluded mountain forest could provide. It was chilly, but not cold, and actually a bit warm compared to other years. The only noise to be heard was the frantic and excited clammering of 148 hearty souls and a cluster of volunteers and crew people. Though being dropped off in the middle of the night, in the middle of Nowheresville, VA could be hauntingly ominous to some, for me it was a warm homecoming to the Blue Ridge mountains that I called home for over one third of my life.

I've run over 100 marathons and ultras, but none of them were the Hellgate 100k. I've been a sweeper at Hellgate, a crew member and pacer at Hellgate, and I've even applied twice and been accepted twice to run. However, twice I've had to withdraw before even starting the race. Deep in my gut, I knew 2014 would be the now or never year for running this fabled race, and so for the third time I mailed in my entry. My mail in application was initially the standard 8x11 form from the website, but was noticeably closer to an 8x9 when I actually mailed it. What happened to those bottom two inches of my application, you ask? Simple. I cut them off. In hopes of beefing up the possibility of getting selected to run, I originally wrote that I wanted to run sub 12:30 and claim a men's top 10. Then, the reality of several things occurred to me which changed my mind. One, I have not run a mountain trail in over a year, and two, I live in arguably the flattest part of Virginia. I could run 20 miles in any direction from my apartment and never gain more than 100 feet total. Not the best training for a race with 13,500 feet of climbing and technical running. I've also never even come remotely close to a top 10 in any of Horton's races, so that part was also a bit of a reach. So, instead of reprinting my application, which I couldn't do at home anyway, I got out the scissors and removed any delusions of grandeur from my application. In my personal opinion, Dr. Horton had no good reason to let me into the race given my two previous Hellgate withdrawals and the fact I haven't done anything in a while that suggested I could finish. Much to my surprise, for the third time, my entry was accepted.

If you wanted a race report full of details about what food was eaten, what clothes were worn, or what the splits were, this probably isn't the report for you. I'm sure in the ensuing weeks plenty of other runners will share their stories in the kind of detail that will cover all these bases.

As an aside, this year's Hellgate started on what would have been my grandmother's 95th birthday. Her inspiration exactly 10 years ago, while she was battling cancer, is what pushed me through my first ultra. She was the first inspiration that allowed me to dig deeper than I ever physically thought I could. Her spirit is much of what I believe the spirit of Hellgate, ultrarunning, and to a greater degree running the good race is about.

I will say that my Hellgate experience was much like the pursuit of a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman named top 10 male that is. At first she was the unapproachable beauty across a dimly lit ballroom. We exchange quick flirtatious glances. Surely she's out of my league, but I've never been one to shy away from a challenge. However, the crowd between us was far too dense and there were far too many eligible suitors to make any kind of move plausible. I could only admire her from afar as I became a second tier bystander to the symphony of roots, leaves and rocks. Behold, a serpentine trail of lights leading up to Petite's Gap. This orchestra is just tuning up. The dances and partners were many and the element of the dance floor ever changing. With the bitter windy chill of Floyd's Field she takes a step back. A brisk Paso Doble over leaf strewn rocky trails, a slow Mambo with the a gentle climb, and a Rumba with the dipping and sweeping trails entranced by the curvature of the mountain. 37 miles in and the sunrise reflects a familiar twinkle in her mysterious gaze. "13th male" she whispers to me, but laughingly taunts with a "But, you are still a distant arm's length away." I work to find the footing, to find a groove, and never once unlock eyes with the dame so close.

Sacrebleu!? What dost appear before thine eyes but the beauty herself. 46 miles into this dance and she has shrugged off not just two, but three bachelors. From far across the room she has made her way through the masses and into my arms. I finally have her. 10th male. For the next hour we float along in a harmonious Tango. Up close she's more beautiful than I had previously pictured, but, something was off. I could see it in her eyes that their was a vacantness, a lack of empathy, and she was beginning to distance herself from me. Though we continued to Waltz hand in hand, I knew I was losing her. Over 11 hours on our feet, and just as swiftly as she swooped into my arms, another man had just as easily stolen her away. Beauty can be both cold and fleeting, and perhaps more so when so unceremoniously left for another.

And just like a banshee in the night, the mystical temptress of a men's top 10 dissipated into an ephemeral mist. The multitudes came and went, and by multitudes, I mean 9 people. My energy was still surprisingly strong, but the legs had grown weary. Up a final mountain and down a final hill. The orchestra was now playing its final notes. One last stretch of road into Camp Bethel and into the outstretched arms of the composer himself, Dr. David Horton. The dance was over.

As I looked back at the night and day, I realized that like Cinderella at the royal ball, it was only a matter of time before my chariot turned back into a pumpkin. I also realized that while I was momentarily enamored by the deceptive charm of a top 10, that the only dance that really mattered was the 66.6 mile duet with myself and the Hellgate 100k. She was the real beauty on that Van Gogh(esque) starry night, and one that never left my side no matter what mountains were crossed, what streams were waded, or what cold mountain roads traversed.

But who was she? Who is Hellgate? I'd like to believe she is many things. She's the culmination of a year's worth of running, races, life, and the people who make it. She is the reminder of why we push ourselves, why we keep doing what we do, and what it takes to dig deep. She serves as that reminder for all those who finished, as well as all those who could not. In future years I look forward to spotting Hellgate at the royal ball and asking for another dance.

Bonus Question. Did I get lost during the race? Answer...sorta. I Had some trouble finding the trail in the deep woodsy section after Floyd's Field. I chose to wait and run with another runner, rather than go ahead and get super lost. I also got turned around during a potty break just before Bear Wallow and ran backwards on the course a few minutes before I realized I was back at a creek I just crossed. Small mental error due to lack of sleep, but thankfully no major blunders. Hellgate was a course so well marked even I could follow it with 99.7% accuracy.

(Photo credit Frank Probst. Finishing my first, but not last, Hellgate 100k)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

10 Years- There and Back Again

Today marks the 10th anniversary of my first race/ultra. Wow. Part of me clings to the notion that it feels like it was just yesterday, and part of me knows just how much life has happened in those ten years. Where does the time go my friends?

On November 20, 2004 I completed the JFK 50 miler having never run more than six miles. Though it occurred exactly one decade ago, I remember the day quite vividly. In all honesty I had no idea what I was doing, or getting myself into. My freshman college roommate, Matt, dared me to do the race with him in September of 2004, and a few weeks later, for reasons still unknown, I signed up. This gave me, a beginner recreational jogger, a whopping two months to prepare for running 50 miles. Gulp. Matt had already been training for six months at that point, with 20 mile long runs, and in the past year I had only just started running a couple miles per day.

In October, my grandmother, whom I was very close to, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The news was numbing, as well as the fact the doctors said she only had about a month to live. On that timeline, she would be lucky to still be alive on race day. For obvious reasons running took a back seat to frequent trips to help take care of my grandma, in addition to working over 50 hours a week at my stressful first post college job. Every now and then I would make it out the door to run, but it provided more therapy than training. Eventually, I did manage to build up to one six mile run, which took me a sluggish 67 minutes. Needless to say, I was as physically and woefully underskilled and untrained as one could be. My co-workers semi jokingly and semi seriously placed bets on how far I would make it on race day. The overall consensus was if I made it more than 25 miles they would be pleasantly surprised.

When race day finally arrived I was relieved to have the wait be over. My grandmother was still alive, but just barely hanging on at this point. What started out as a silly dare to run 50 miles became a solitary mission of dedication. Race morning was a bit of a blur, but I do recall never feeling so out of place as I did at the start of JFK. It was cold and I had on a long sleeve shirt with black fleece sweatpants and $40 running shoes. I didn't even know to carry hydration and food. I remember being told to walk the first big climb and then running out of pure excitement to be doing my first ever race. I recall how surprisingly light and fresh I felt for the first 10 miles as myself and Matt found ourselves passing many people on the Appalachian Trail. Then, I also recall how reality hit as I reached the C&O Canal towpath in 3:17 and began to feel a heaviness that my legs had never felt before. My hydration and nutrition started to fall behind from not carrying anything, and rapidly my easy jog turned into walking with intermittent spurts of running. My body was hurting and I was in over my head. Mile 25 came and went, and soon I reached the "marathon" distance of the race in 5:16. "Holy sh*t" I thought to myself. I just ran a marathon!? Normally, the completion of such a bucket list item would be accompanied by celebration, but not when there's still 24 more miles to go.

By mile 30 my body and mind started to slowly descend into the deep dark pain cave. That's when I started thinking about my grandma and her battle. I realized nothing that I would experience on this day would hold a candle to the hell she was currently going through. My mantra became "She fights, so I fight. I am enduring, but she is enduring more." One foot in front of the other. Though I was surrounded by fellow runners, much of my time on the 26.3 mile portion of the C&O Canal was spent alone in thought. For some reason the physical pain I was experiencing created a spiritual bridge to my grandmother. In this brief place in time, on this chilly November day, we were united in our suffering, yet in a way that was emotionally and inexplicably empowering.

42 miles had gone by and the night was ushered in by a bitter cold rain. The soft flat towpath turned back onto rolling country roads signifying the final chapter of the race. Oh the sheer brutality of the sensation of hard pavement under weary legs. I had now gone seven times farther than I ever had and each step ached that much more than the previous one. My body was no longer just in the pain cave, but deep into its darkest bowels and depths. The darkness of nightfall balanced harmoniously with the battle raging in my mind. Just. Keep. Going. All I wanted to do was be done, but the torment of the final miles were not done just yet. My grandma occupied my mind as much as she could, but even so I could not block out the stinging numbness in my hands and swelling in my feet and calves. The mile markers counted down to the finish in a most mocking fashion. 5 to go. 4. 3. 2. Oh, thank the heavens, just ONE more mile.

I turned right. I could hear a voice over a loudspeaker in the distance. Cars filled with cheering friends and family members became more plentiful. This had to be it! I crested one more small hill before seeing the illuminated finish line. After 49.8 miles of the worst beating my body has ever taken I found myself accelerating. My lungs and legs engaged and for the briefest of moments my body felt no pain. I was grimacing, floating, my heart pounding towards that clock. 10:39:32.

My brain could barely assess what had just transpired. I had just run, walked, slogged, and sprinted my way through 50 freaking miles. The elation was short lived as my body started shutting down to a nearly catatonic state. My mind was buzzing, but my body now hardly able to move. It didn't matter though. I was a marathoner. No, I was an ULTRAmarathoner and my grandma was with me the entire time. WE did it.

A week later, during Thanksgiving, I saw my grandma and showed her my/our finisher's medal. I thanked her for being with me, both in spirit at the race, and in person for one last holiday season. She passed away two months later, but survived three months longer than the doctors said she would. That is what fighting the good fight looks truly like. That is real endurance.

After my 2004 JFK 50, I swore I would never run another ultramarathon ever again. Apparently, never again means 85 more ultras and 15 more marathons in the following decade. In 2010, I returned to the JFK 50 and ran over three hours faster than my time from 2004. I have to admit, when I showed up to that starting line in 2004, little did I know what a wild and crazy adventure that was beginning.