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 illusions 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. Nearly 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. 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.

(Photo credit Frank Probst. Finishing my first Hellgate 100k)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rear View: The Back of the Pack

(Luanne Turrentine. The last finisher of the 2009 Freedom's Run Marathon. Photo credit Michael Theis)

Let's all be honest. We as a society are enamored with speed. We are enamored with the fastest runners, the most physically gifted athletes, and experiencing the view from the front of the pack. The front of the pack can be awe inspiring to watch and could even be broken down into several sub levels. If we truly looked at THE front of the pack, we would notice it is made up of only a handful of runners capable of winning any given distance they race. These are the big dogs winning big city marathons and landing spots on the Olympic podium. Then we have national class athletes who are the folks capable of qualifying for the Olympic trials, can win most larger local races, and are the folks who were competitive collegiate athletes and still run at a very high level. Thirdly, you have the local front of the pack runners, who can win the smaller Turkey Trots and qualify for Boston 20-30 minutes under their qualifying standards. These are your sub 17 minute 5k, sub 36 minute 10k, and 2:30's-2:40's marathon folks who are all light years faster than me, but still significantly out of reach of the world class guys.

However, like myself, most of us fall into the large gray realm described as the "middle of the pack" which encompasses the majority of those who partake in running events. However, even in the middle of the pack, you can find some amazingly inspiring stories and run with folks trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon or compete for age group awards. There's no shortage of blogs like this one about people's race schedules, race reports, gear reviews, nutrition advice, training, and all sorts of topics that we, the middle of the pack, can relate to. Most races logistically cater to the needs of the elites, but also the needs of its largest demographic group, the mid pack runners. The middle of the pack, in sheer size alone, can influence the finances of a race and with enough sway, even how a race is operated.

Then there's the all too forgotten group.....the back of the pack. These are the folks fighting to make the time cut offs and often finishing marathons in six, seven, and even eight or more hours. Sometimes when I see that a marathon has a 7 hour time cut off, I just can't wrap my head around why a race would even allow for a pace that is essentially a brisk walk. I mean seriously, a marathon is meant to be a RUNNING event, not WALKING, right? Maybe the 7 and 8 hour time limits are just a gimmick to attract slower runners/walkers so that races can make more profit. Why give a coveted finisher's medal to someone who literally walked an entire marathon that other people trained very hard to run the entirety of? Why not tell the back of the packers to just train harder, lose weight, and come back when they are fast enough? WHY!

Why? Because I have learned that the back of the pack might just be the most inspiring place to be.

The back of the pack is an amazing group of people. I fully admit, in my first years running, I assumed and created a caricature of what the back of the pack runner was. They were supposed to be the morbidly obese weekend warrior that didn't train, neglected their health, but still sought the "glory" of doing races and getting medals. After a decade of running in front of these people, and then with these people, I learned that this assumption couldn't be further from the truth.

First, I learned what it was like to be a back of the pack runner from my own struggles. Knock on wood, I have been thankful to be a middle of the packer most of my running life, but not everything goes to plan. I have gotten severely lost at races where I lost hours of time and finished near the back of the pack. In these scenarios my ego would have to come to grips that my fitness wasn't the culprit of being in the back, but rather my poor sense of direction or local vandals who thought it would be funny to remove course markings. During a race in 2012, I got food poisoning from food I ate the night before and had to walk the last 15 miles of the race. In 2013, I got e-coli from drinking out of a stream and suffered through hours of horrible nausea and stomach cramps and again was one of the event's last finishers. Then, on other occasions I was just very out of shape, or got injured during a race and similarly finished hours and hours slower than expected. I knew then, that sometimes being a back of the pack runner, for some, can be just a momentary period when a lot of things didn't go right at the same time. The silver living is that during these sub par races I had the opportunity to meet and run with fellow back of the pack runners. Their enthusiasm, toughness, and demeanor reminded me that the back of the pack was a far more upbeat place than I had envisioned, despite whatever struggles they may have also had.

I learned that sometimes the back of the pack is both a temporary place and sometimes it is permanent, or becomes permanent. Some back of the pack runners might be the bigger runners you might expect to see at the tail end of the crowd. However, what lies beneath the often judged exterior is a lot of unseen grit and determination. What your eyes will not see is that some of these people may have been much heavier than what you witness on race day. That 300 lb person might have been 400 lbs last year and and unable to walk a few hundred feet without getting winded. Them plodding along at 15 to 20 minute miles might be a pace they never dreamed they could ever do, but they are doing it. These folks may have once been healthy, but due to illness, raising a family, or the accumulation of years of inactivity they gained weight. These "fat" runners are the brave ones who had the guts to do something about it. Distances and speeds that are all too often considered too slow, are to someone else years and months of dedication coming to fruition. The speed might be slower, but the effort and heart are the same, if not far greater. Setting and achieving goals is not always about the clock.

I learned that many back of the pack runners are not overweight. Sometimes it's hard to fathom how normally built runners could end up in the back of the pack, but it happens and happens in very different ways. Like me, some are just having bad days, are injured, or just not feeling it. For a majority, like myself, running is just a fun hobby, and pace is not as much a concern as enjoyment. Some runners are just not genetically meant to be fast. All of our bodies are built differently with different types of muscles fibers, lactate threshold levels and lung capacities. Although thin and healthy, there are those people who just weren't designed to be speedsters. Finally, we have the group of older veteran runners. Some were late bloomers who started running when their kids were older, when they became empty nesters, or even when they retired. On the flip side many older athletes have done things that we would have never guessed based on the slow and steady gait we've become accustomed to seeing. As someone in their early 30's, I find talking to older runners to be extremely fascinating. These people are literally a gateway into the history of modern day running, and you'd be amazed at the some of accomplishments and PR's that older runners are too modest to boast about it. From personal experience, there are people I will do easy runs with whom I later find out were once 2:20 marathoners, or former elites back in the 1970's and 1980's. It's a humbling reminder that some of the back of packers we casually interact with were once very fast front of the packers. If healthy enough to continue running into our 70's, 80's and beyond, it is inevitable that all younger faster runners will end up in the back of the pack anyway.

(Local legend Ed Demoney circa 1979. Photo credit: Ed Demoney and the VHTRC)

(Ed Demoney more recently. Still doing ultras at age 80. Photo credit: Ed Demoney and the VHTRC)

I've learned a lot about the back of the pack, but certainly not everything. I've learned a lot about who they are, what drives them, and how they came to be in the back of the pack. I've learned that the back of the back is full of some of heartiest and and most determined souls. I've learned that the back of the pack is a tough group of folks who stick together and work together. They are parents, siblings, someone's child, and also someone's inspiration. They are usually the ones fighting the most against the tide. They are sometimes the overweight person who is overcoming, or overcame, the fear of being stared at, judged, and surrounded by skinny people. They remind me how easy I have it, and how much harder some people have to work than me for what may be viewed as a lesser result. I also learned one big sobering fact....

The back of the pack is overlooked. It can be a lonely place as the number of runners start to spread out over the waning miles of a course. The crowds that greeted the 3-5 hour finishers with exuberant cheers have long since gone home. When a race begins at 8am, few people remain in the early and middle hours of the afternoon, although runners on the course continue to forge on. When the going gets tough and back of the pack runners hit their walls and low points, they can't rely on boisterous fans lining the streets for a boost. They must dig deep and typically only with the company of their fellow back of the packer. In some cases course markings are taken down prematurely, traffic is no longer blocked off for runners, and aid stations supplies "run out". Having recently paced friends finishing marathons in 6 to 7 hours, I honestly feel they do not get the same experience, though they paid the same entry fee, and trained just as hard. Aid stations, if still there, are dwindled down to a few cups and snacks as most of the luxury foods that welcomed other runners have been packed, or eaten. The local bands have gone, or at least stopped playing for the day. The only glimpse the back of the pack might get is seeing a few band members as they break down their sets. This familiar scene continues to play out as what was once a festivious party just a few hours before is now nothing more than a quiet street. Waterstops powered by hundreds of peppy volunteers before are now just a cluttered and wet mass of empty cups littering the road. The finish line isn't much different. The best case scenario is the finish line still stands, but even then the roar of spectators become a sparse cheer of a few loyal friends and family members. The worse case scenario, the finish is has been taken down, so there is no epic inflatable archway to cross under and no clock to even display your finish time. Your post race meal is whatever little food is leftover, but at least you get a medal and a finisher's shirt, assuming they didn't run out of your size. Twice I have stayed until the very end of a marathon to volunteer and/or cheer people in, and I've always made sure to make a ton of noise, because my cheer might be the only one the runners get at that point.

Some of the greatest running/sports/life stories I have ever heard have come from the back of the pack. Caroline Williams' 2010 finish at the Massanutten 100 and Luanne Turrentine's 2009 Freedom's Run Marathon are two stories that will stick me forever as a runner. In reality, myself and many others are more inspired by stories like theirs, and less by some marathon world record. It's relatable and about real people like us.

(Caroline Williams finishing the 2010 MMT100 with minutes to spare. Photo credit Ray Smith)

I hope race organizers wake up and realize that the race experience needs to be the same for all runners, regardless of speed. An 8 hour marathoner or 3 hour half marathoner, though they may not seek it, does not deserve less fanfare and less pomp and circumstance for their efforts. They don't deserve better, but they definitely do deserve equal. Being a back of the pack runner is already tough. Being on your feet as long as they are is tough. Doing it without all the cheers and live music is tough. But you know what? The back of the pack has proven to be tough enough.


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 both numbing and blindsiding, as well as the fact the doctors said she 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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Richmond Marathon- 3:45 Pace Leader

This has been a big year for firsts, and leading the Richmond Marathon 3:45 pace group was again another great new experience. Overall, I must say the Richmond Marathon is one of my favorite races and it has really enabled me to reconnect with a city that was a big part of my youth. Having grown up near Richmond and now revisiting it as a runner, this particular marathon was the ideal place for my first pace leading gig.

The objective of a pace leader is simple. Get as close to your goal time as possible without going over. At the fastest, we would not want to run quicker than 3:43, and at the slowest nothing over 3:45. If our runners wanted to qualify for Boston or get safely under 3:45 for other goal purposes, it was communicated that it was up to them to run ahead of us. That being said, while the ultimate goal is 3:45, we also had to make sure our mile splits also remained consistent throughout the day, as pacing is as much in the process as it is the end result. In my two previous Richmond Marathons, 2010 and 2012, I ran with a friend and my sister, both attempting their first marathons. They would go on to finish in 4:44 and 4:19 respectively, and though I was there to guide them, they were very much in control of the pace.

Race recap:

Despite an ominously chilly forecast, race day weather remained on the more favorable side. It was 18 degrees when I woke up at 5:15am, 27 degrees at the start, and 46 and sunny at the finish. Personally, I was very excited and honored to be a pace leader, and all the e-mails exchanged with runners and my co-pacers really built up some quality energy for race morning.

The start was a little crowded as expected. I stood in wave 2 with an Olaf balloon that had two 3:45 signs on either side of him. I was thrilled to have found him the night before since the character, who is from the movie Frozen, was super appropriate for a chilly race. Unfortunately, Olaf didn't fare too well and began rapidly deflating in the frigid air. It slipped my mind that Olaf loves summer. Though I was able to have Olaf with us at the start, I sadly had to "let him go, let him go" and left him near the start to get gorgeously tan laying against the burning sand......*big operatic finish*.....Innnnnn Suuuummmmeeerrrr!!!

Um, where was I going with this? Oh, yes, the crowded start. Yup, the first mile was a bit slow, something like 8:45, but we flowed into a nice groove thereafter. We had to pull back a bit on the big downhill at mile 6, and then crossed over the James River. Along the scenic Shore Drive, I asked who was trying to qualify for Boston and a surprisingly large number of hands went in the air. To that I responded with a "Awesome! Today is your day!", but also realized many people's goals and dreams came down to how well I performed as a pace leader. Mile 10 came in 1:25, at an exact 8:30 pace. Originally, our goal pace was supposed to be an 8:35, but since the Richmond course always registers at least 26.4 miles, we made sure to build an extra time cushion of a few seconds per mile. Shortly after, we crossed the halfway point in 1:51:32, again exactly where we said we would be. Our goal was to run the first half in 1:51:30 and the second in 1:53:30, or less.

The crowds along Forest Hill avenue brought a nice little boost, though some of the hills caused a few of the runners to fall back. I tried to keep the energy of our group high and would encourage those who came out to watch to make some noise for our runners. It's amazing to see how much a cheering crowd can give a group of runners a little extra bounce in their stride. Throughout the day our hodgepodge of runners became a marvelously mixed medley of faces and personalities. For each runner we lost several more would fall back into our group, or catch up. Then there were a handful of hearty souls that held tight and stayed with us the entire day, or at least until they broke away for strong finishes.

Mile 16 brought the infamous and exposed Lee bridge. I encouraged our runners to stay close and work together to block out the chilly wind that was now hitting us head on. The Lee bridge is where runners start to separate and carnage of unforgiving concrete, wind, hitting the wall all come into play. Of the handful of potential cruxes at the Richmond Marathon, getting the group over the Lee bridge and up the hill to Cary St was probably the most significant. The next few miles provided respite from the wind and hills as runners were given a little time to recover on the pastel streets of Cary Town and the Boulevard.

Just after mile 19 we hit the last significant hill on the course as we passed by the Richmond Diamond. Our runners were now decidedly more quiet as they were reserving energy for the closing stretch, though some started to have doubts whether they could keep up and whether we were still on 3:45 pace. At this juncture, being a pace leader becomes more like being a counselor as I discovered having a reassuring bedside manner can keep your runner's heads in the game. After all, at this point, the marathon becomes a mostly mental endeavour. We hit mile 21 in exactly 3 hours, or right at 7 miles per hour. Still a solid 8:30 pace. We urge those still with us trying to qualify for Boston to run ahead and remind them that our goal is 3:45, not the 3:44-3:43 they will likely need to gain entry in Boston. Everyone was working so hard at this point I couldn't help but watch my runners in admiration.

We reached mile 25 in exactly 3:35, which gave us 10 minutes to run the remaining 1.2 miles. I did some quick math and realized we'd have to drop down to an 8:20 to get it right at 3:45. The only thing I was genuinely worried about was if the course ran longer than 26.4 miles, and sure enough it looked like it would measure closer to 26.45. While an extra 0.05 miles does not seem like much, it is actually a difference of about 20 seconds. I had been systematically calculating every mile, and every bit of "bonus" distance, so that we could cruise into a 3:44:30 finish. That extra 0.05 miles meant we had to drop down from the 8:30 pace we had done all day to an 8:20, which doesn't seem like much, but anyone will tell you it is very hard to do after 25 miles. Thankfully, the last 0.3 miles of the race were a generously fast downhill, so we did not have to push the pace nearly as much as expected. We cruised across the finish line in 3:44:55. Success! (note: Most courses run "long" due to the fact we rarely run the exact tangent lines needed to get a perfect 26.2 mile measurement. No error on the part of the marathon. It's just the name of the game).

Our 3:44:55 also meant we ended up being possibly the closest pace group to their target time. At the finish there was the usual mix of fatigue, reunions, adulation and mixed uncertainty. Among the hugs and hive fives there was one runner who ran with us from start to finish that wasn't sure she if she qualified for Boston, though her watch read 3:44:57. I had certainly hoped she got her BQ given how much trust she put into our hands to get her to that finish line in under 3:45. In the few days after the race, I looked up the results of the runners in our group, and was thrilled to see that everyone made their BQ's, including the woman who wasn't sure. That alone, among many other things made the whole experience worth while. A big hats off to my fellow pace leaders Christopher and Matt for doing an awesome job and keeping our runners happy. I already can't wait to do this again next year.

Monday, October 20, 2014

100 Marathons and Ultras in Perspective

I will start by saying, I'm not taking any of this too seriously, and neither should you. I'm also not saying that reaching 100 marathons/ultras isn't something to be proud of. It is, but on the grand scope of things, running statistics, key word statistics, are trivial. It's like asking someone on their birthday if they feel older.

At an age of 33 years 119 days, I have now officially completed 100 running events of marathon distance, or longer. To the best of my knowledge, I am also the 11th youngest American ever to reach the 100 marathon milestone. My first marathon/ultra was on November 20, 2004, and my 100th on October 18, 2014. It took 9 years, 10 months and 29 days. The moment came to fruition on a beautifully verdant, albeit unseasonably warm autumn day at the Medoc Trail Marathon. The race was a delightfully fun, smaller, and yet incredibly charismatic event. In retrospect, it was a far more fitting setting than some larger race venue.

Per statistics from the 100 Mile Club of North America, there are currently 450 North American runners who have completed 100 marathons, or more. However, the actual number of people is a bit more, since I know a handful of others who qualify, but probably don't know, nor care, to be in the group. Safe to say there are probably closer 600 people who have run at least 100 marathons.

I will also note that a majority (86 out of 100) of my marathons occurred while completing ultra distances of 31 to 103 miles. Only 14 were actual races of 26.2 miles, whereas most of the 100 marathon club members totals are soley from marathons. Based on the statistic of having ultras comprise over 50% of "marathons", only Ian Torrence and Keith Knipling completed their 100 faster. That's pretty good company.

Another crazy statistic is that in 100 marathons/ultras I completed a total of 4,198 miles, or an average race distance of nearly 42 miles. What is the significance in that? If I had run exclusively marathons my 4,198 miles would actually be equivalent to running 160 marathons. Since 100 marathons, for most folks occurred at 2,620 miles (26.2 x 100), I was curious to figure out when I may have reached that total.

As it turns out, to the exact mile, I unknowingly reached 2,620 miles at the Crooked Road 24 Hour on December 6, 2011. The funny thing is the distance I chose to do that day was completely arbitrary, and I chose to run 62.7 miles because I had never done a 100k. Thus, I completed the equivalent of my "100th marathon" at age 30 years 168 days, which in 2011, would have made me the 5th youngest American to 100 marathons. Subsequently, after 2011 a handful of younger runners hit their 100 marathon milestones, hence why I am now 11th on the list.

I will say for certain that running as many marathons and ultras as possible has NEVER been my objective, nor ever will be. I simply run to have fun like anyone else, sometimes to push myself, and other times just to enjoy the freedom of the outdoors among friends. If I had really wanted to, I could fairly easily run a marathon, or two every week (like the Marathon Maniacs Club) and be somewhere around 400-500.

In all honesty, not that it isn't a big deal to do something like 52 marathons in 52 weeks, but most fit and experienced distance runners could trudge through a marathon any given day or weekend, but choose not to. Like me, they have a life outside running, and can't afford, or don't want to spend that kind of money constantly traveling and paying entry fees. They would probably also rather select a few focus races per year and keep the emphasis on quality over quantity. I also don't encourage, believe it is healthy, or admirable to run too many races. Running too much, especially before we physically mature in our early 20's, and even after, will no doubt lead to unforeseen health risks years down the road.

That being said, I've had tons of fun along the way and shared the miles with many cool characters. I'm looking forward to the next 100, but alas, as I alluded to before, it is JUST running ;-)

The top 11 list of youngest Americans to 100, and the age they reached it, currently looks like this. I am sure in the next few years the list will expand, but there haven't been many younger folks recently, until myself.

1) Brenton Floyd (18)
2) John Lui (24)
3) Laura Skladzinski (28)
4) Ian torrence (reached 100 ultras by 29, probably much younger to 100 marathons/ultras)
5) Justin Gillette (29)
6) Matt Jenkins (30)
7) Hideki Kinoshita (32)
8) Leslie Miller (32)
9) Jonathan Young (32)
10) Keith Knipling- I have no idea where he would rank, but I'm fairly sure he's in the top 5-6
11) Me (33)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reaching 100

When I graduated from college in 2004, I could jog 2-3 miles, and on a good day I could push it for 3 or 4. At the time my only real bucket list item was to finish one marathon in my lifetime, but given my personal best for distance was six miles in an hour and seven minutes, it was a longshot. However, I figured if I kept at it for enough years or decades, I’d eventually get there and it would be something I could tell my grandkids about.

This Saturday I will be running my 100th marathon/ultramarathon. It is a statistic that nearly blindsided me as it had arrived one month shy of the 10 year anniversary of when I ran my first ultra. Sometimes I am humbled when examining what a span of a decade truly looks like. I am no longer the over whelmed, clueless college graduate toeing the line of his first ultra. In the following ten years, that clueless guy who only ever wanted to run ONE marathon ran 86 ultras, 13 marathons, and enough total miles to circle the earth. Life, in a similar fashion as the many miles on trail, has transformed me in those years. Running has become like clothing in that it has come to mirror my trends, my mood, my culture and my expression. A hobby fit to be worn on the sleeve. As the athletic world, and running in particular, is enamored with numbers, times, and totals, it occurred to me that there was something drastically different about reaching 100. I don't really care about it....

For some reason, we always seem to have some grandiose idea in our minds of what it will look like, and what we will be like, when we reach a specific milestone. Will we celebrate it with a bucket list race, maybe among friends, perhaps try to PR a certain distance, or maybe have it align with an event that holds some special place with us?. We can often lose ourselves in believing we will ascend to some higher level of runner nirvana once we finish a certain race, complete a certain number of races, or run a certain distance. I, myself, would like to believe that after running as much as I have, that surely I would walk away from it with some profound new understanding of myself and the world. And yet, at best, in brief and fleeting flurries we will attain moments of clarity that only running can provide, but at the end of the day I am the same person with the same doubts, strengths and flaws. Maybe running just makes them clearer without the clutter of life’s peripheral caterwaul. However, arriving at the point of 100 marathons/ultras, maybe with some enhanced maturity, I’ve come to the realization that 100 is just a number. And running is just a hobby.

Don’t be mistaken, hobbies are important, and at times they can define us. They tend to embody the ideals that we strive for, ones that by their very nature are unattainable in the frenzy of the mundane daily grind. For the personality types that the lure of running attracts it can offer us everything that our wild at heart needs desire; adventure, danger, testing limits, comraderie, or just being outdoors. For those of us who have been fortunate enough, our hobby has grown to a place of such significance that it transcends the conventions of everyday life and forms a symbiotic relationship with life itself. Sometimes the boundaries of life and the “the run” dissipate into a place as blended as the horizon line of the sea and the sky.

As I type this, it’s become evident that maybe I have actually learned a few things. Do I attribute them to running, or just getting older, or perhaps the combination of both? Either way, here are a few simple things.

1) Failure is just as much a choice as success. Nobody’s definition of either matters except ours.

2) In the end our successes and failures matter only to us. I’ve never once thought differently or disparagingly about a friend, or stranger, because of how poorly, or well they ran. When I run poorly, or well, I need to remind myself that others view me the same way.

3) Appreciate what your body can do. Sometimes our accomplishments get so dilluted and lost in the deluge of what other people are doing that we can forget how special they are. Remember that our friends who reguarly run 100 milers and a dozen ultras a year make up an incredibly small percentage of athletes, let alone runners. Remind yourself that completing the distances and races you do is incredible, no matter how many times you've done it. Some people struggle to run a 5k, and others a few steps. Keep the perspective. Keep the appreciation.

4) Running will provide as much companionship, or solitude as you seek.

5) Running will not fix anything.

6) Sometimes running is the problem. Realizing it can be both sobering and scary.
a) Running should never be your only source of fulfillment, because the ability to run/walk can be taken away any given moment.
b) Running should never be your constant escape. We run ridiculously hard races to prove to ourselves that we can take on all life's challenges, so why not have that attitude with things outside of our running life (ie. Marriage, work, sickness, family). Don’t be afraid to bring the heroics into your everyday life.

7) Your body speaks to you all the time. Listen to it. I have only reached 100 marathons/ultras because I did a majority my races in my 20’s when my body was much more resilient. If I want to run until I’m 80 years old, I need to be a smarter more balanced runner now.

8) Keep it fun. Nothing sucks more than when the hobby you are most passionate about begins to suck.
a) Slow it down. This is doubly necessary for faster runners. Not every race has to be raced. Run a couple races just to have fun and enjoy the simple nuances that you might miss when in competition mode. Get to know your fellow runners and meet the volunteers. Plus, you’ll finally get to try some of that home cooked aid station food you were always curious to try, but skipped in favor of more gels. Doing this can make an event you’ve “raced” many times seem like a whole new event.
b) Speed it up. If you always tend to run easy, and know you can go faster, try running an entire race at full effort. You might be surprised what you are capable of.
c) Try something new. Getting a 10 time finisher’s award might be cool, but take the time to try out new events. Some of the best events are small grassroots efforts.
d) Volunteer

9) Have a bucket list. Don't do it all at once.

10) You will always run the way you train.

11) At some point we are all going to get older and get slower. We have no choice in that. However, how gracefully we do it is our choice. The ability to inspire is ageless.

12) It’s just running. Keep a healthy perspective on it. Running should help make life easier, or at least provide more clarity. It should never make it tougher, or less enjoyable, especially for those closest to you. The wide expanse of life will always entail triumphs and tribulations far greater in meaning and purpose than running.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Belmead Trail Fest

(Some of Belmead's lush greenery courtesy of Belmead Trail Fest)

A common theme that I have adopted over the past few years is trying to get the word out about smaller local running events. I have also gotten a lot of joy out of spontaneously showing up to first year events that nobody really knows anything about. I find that it keeps the running hobby fresh, full of zeal, and often directly supportive of the local community.

Belmead Trail Fest ended up being a delightfully low key and fun event with all the charm of a local race. The late September date means it likely won't be blazing hot, nor cold, and there's still ample sunlight to keep the 50 mile cut off time at 12 hours. Race day weather was in the high 50's at the start and hovered near 80 all day. While it felt plenty warm in the sun, about 70% of the course is on shaded single track trail, so it was quite comfortable most of the day. The event also boasts three separate race distances of 26.2 miles, 50k, and 50 miles that have a group 8am start. The 8am start is great for people like myself who don't necessarily like, or can't because of family, to get up at 4am to start a race in the dark at 6am. It's also nice to finally have an ultra option where you don't need to wear a headlamp for the start, though 50 milers who might take 11-12 hours would need to carry a light at the end.

As for the course, all three race distances run the same 10 mile loop with various add ons for the marathon and 50k. The 50 miler was simply five loops. The trail itself was both very runnable, but also surprisingly technical. Per other's gps accounts the 50k had roughly 1,840 feet of gain, which meant nearly 3,000 for the 50 miler. While the elevation gain for the course is fairly benign in comparison to a Mountain Masochist, all the twists and turns, roots, snakes, corn, and short little climbs made it slower than a course like JFK 50 where the elevation gain is about the same, but you have long flat sections to stretch out the legs. Still, on the grand scheme of things, I'd say the course is on par with running trails at Bear Creek Lake, Holiday Lake, Prince William Forest, Bull Run, or Lake Anna, all home to a lot of local ultra events. The course was also very well marked, though it didn't prevent myself and three others from going a mile off course.

The course itself race could be broken down into two main parts. Miles 0 to the 3.7 mile aid station (more like 3.0 miles?) were are on bridle paths that circumnavigated rolling corn fields. It may very well be the only race where the possibility exists to roll your ankle on the many ears of corn strewn on the bumpy grassy horse trail. In all honesty, while scenic, this was probably my least favorite part of the course and the only place where you are out in the sun. However, later in the day the sun shifted enough so that there were sections around the cornfield that became shaded. It should be noted that this 3 mile section will probably be replaced next year by trails that go down to the James River and the Belmead estate. Miles 3.7-10 were mostly singletrack through the woods and some wider service roads. These 7 miles were by far my favorite of the race as they brought you into some wonderfully green wooded areas with enough variety in the trail to keep it exciting, even after 5 loops. At the end of each loop you had access to aid and drop bags, so you never had to go more than 4 miles without support.

My personal experience at Belmead was very positive. I like the fact you feel like you are entering a civil war battlefield just driving to the start. The morning mist rising up from the fields served wonders to transport us back in time 150 years, even if for only 4-12 hours. In addition, I spent most of my day running alone and never really knowing who was running what particular race. In essence, it allowed me to let go of the race vibe and feel like I was on a nice long solo run in the woods. Since moving in January, I've only had limited access to trails, and run almost exclusively on roads, so for me a day in the woods was just what I needed. The finish was just as low key as the rest of the day. By the time I finished the 50 miler almost everyone doing the marathon and 50k had completed and gone home, and the only people remaining were still out on the course. So, it was definitely different to come in with just a handful of folks, but I didn't really expect otherwise. I loved the finisher's medals, which were hand crafted cross sections of wood. It was a pleasant deviation from the standard race medals, though I suspect next year they'll have something else unique and cool for finishers.

All in all, I definitely suggest giving this event a try. The entry fees are cheaper than most races, the course was fantastic (if you don't mind loops), and it's a great time of year to work it in as a fun run, or training run for a fall race. I hadn't intended on doing any more ultras until at least 2015, but the proximity and forests were just too tempting, and I was able to register on race day. The best thing is that all proceeds from the event benefit Francis Emma, the non-profit organization that maintains Belmead. The best way to keep history alive is to support it!