Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Something Wicked This Way Comes: 2015 Wicked 10k

(Pre race. Photo by/with Sherry Barkley)

(The Running Turtles in all our Halloween glory at the Virginia Beach Convention Center)

The Anthem Wicked 10k was only the second official 10k I have ever run. That's almost as ironic as the fact I ran my first official 5k back in January. It ended up being a fun event and I was excited to run in another costume. My goofy side has always enjoyed dressing silly and being able to get a smile or laugh out of folks at races. That said, I was admittedly a bit unsure how feasible running in my large inflatable Godzilla costume would be, as well as the fact I was carrying multiple accessories. Underneath the air tight suit, inflated by a battery operated fan, I had an external speaker system hooked up to play epic Godzilla music and his trademark roar. The music was from the 2014 Godzilla motion picture soundtrack and the roar was from the original 1950's films. I was able to download both on iTunes and would click through the two tracks with an iPod in my hand. Now that I think of it, I was easily carrying around an 5 extra pounds of stuff, not including the costume.

(Crushing the Despicable Me characters)

About 15 minutes before the start I jogged around a bit to see what running in the costume felt like. Honestly, it wasn't too bad, though I knew the speaker system bouncing around would be super uncomfortable. Then again, you don't run in a costume because its comfortable. I also reminded myself that running 6.2 miles versus a few hundred feet in a parking lot would be very different experiences. Nearing 8:00am, I made my way over to corral 3, which is where I was placed based on my estimated 60 minute finished time. 60 minutes was a pretty rough guess how "fast" I would run in the costume since I registered for the race before I could try it on. It could take less time, though highly unlikely, or two hours if I was forced to walk the whole event.

When the race started and I was pleasantly surprised how well I could run as Godzilla. The music and roar still sounded loud and crisp despite the sounds of thousands of shuffling feet on pavement. The only big issue was the speaker bouncing around, so I found myself having to hold it still with the hand not holding the iPod. I realized it must have looked like Godzilla was holding his belly or something. My visibility also wasn't very good since the only place I could see out of was through Godzilla's mesh mouth. I could basically only see runners directly in front of me and would have to turn my entire head to look to the sides.

Mile 1 passed and there was a clock which gave me the first glimpse of what pace I was running. Pace wasn't important, but I was still a bit curious. It said something like 11:21, and I figured my chip time must have been two minutes slower than the clock, so a 9:21 first mile. That seemed about right given the costume. I also wore my gps, but couldn't see what is said until after I got the suit off. It looked like my estimated finish of 60 minutes was spot on, given that I would probably slow down the last few miles. After mile 1, I never looked at the time until I reached the finish.

The rest of the race was an absolute blast. We passed runners on Atlantic Avenue for about a half mile. I got to see a lot of the amazing costumes people created and wore. Some of the best costumes I saw during the day were the Wizard of Oz, Up, Bobba Fett, Spivey porta potties, a candy vending machine, lots of minions, and a t-rex. Mile 4 passed and I was definitely started to get warm, though the shade from the buildings kept things fairly cool most of the morning. Nearing mile 5 we turned onto the board walk and directly into the sunlight. Without a costume, it probably would have felt good, but it got intensely hot inside with no air flow and really made the last mile tough. Thankfully, around mile 5.5 I took a slight running break so I could bust out some Thriller dance moves with the zombies on the boardwalk. Looks like I still got it.

(Strutting and getting stared down by Gru)

Pretty soon the 19th Street finish line was near and I was sad that this fun run had come to an end. Godzilla, the King of the Kaiju, received some pretty loud cheers and final triumphant high fives. I decided to sneak a peak at the clock which I couldn't really read due to the stinging deluge of sweat pouring into my eyes. It looked like it said 53:xx. Nah, it was probably 58:xx. That made way more sense. I got my finisher photo taken and received my medal. Though completely parched, there was no way more me to drink anything until I took off the costume. I decided to walk one block over back to Atlantic Avenue and spent the rest of the morning in my costume cheering in runners until the very last one passed. Dang, that was fun.

(Godzilla in the house!)

(Godzilla is all about the bling)

After the race ended and results were put up, I was shocked to see my official time was a 50:21. Seriously? I cross referenced with my Garmin, which showed 6.33 miles run in 50:21, which came out to a 7:57 pace for Godzilla. If I had been paying any attention, I would have realized I started 3:13 after the clock, which meant that mile 1, which I thought was about a 9:21, was actually an 8:08. It's funny how I'm normally very good at knowing my pace, but I had no concept of my effort level when wearing a big costume. Oh, in case you were wondering, I also lost 5 lbs of water weight in less than an hour.

Happy Halloween!

I will see you at the Harbor Lights Half Marathon where I will be pacing the 1:52 pace group. Or, if you are running the OBX and/or Richmond Marathons, I will be there as well pace leading the 3:45 groups.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Finally: My first Boston Marathon Qualifier

Crazy to think I wrote these very words on this blog in February 2014.

"Friends that are much faster than me are barely qualifying for Boston. I mean, geeze, I'd have to average a 7:05 pace for 26.2 miles. That is 1:25 faster than the fastest mile I ran in high school, and a faster pace than anything I could muster for 10k as an adult......As of 2013, my half marathon PR was a 1:37, improving on 1:42 from 2009, but even that projected out to a 3:14 marathon and I knew there was no way I could maintain the same pace for another 13.1 miles. Again, it seems my potential is a 3:20 to 3:25 marathon, though I have yet to run faster than a 3:33, and am still a long, long, way from Boston."

Well, as it turned out, this past weekend at the 20th Steamtown Marathon, I ran exactly a 7:05 mile pace and qualified for the Boston Marathon. To put it bluntly, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is literally something I never thought I would ever do. Granted, I am still keeping all this in perspective, as I know I'm not nearly as fast as many men and women out there. I am still largely a middle of the pack runner. In fact, I'd be lying to say I haven't been jealous of people who can easily run 20-30 minutes under their qualifying times year after year. For some, running Boston isn't a challenge and is just another race on the calendar. For me, I had never been fast enough to even entertain the notion of attempting to qualify. Boston was always a race for those fast runners, and I'd always have to settle being the spectator. Add the fact that I never had a pedigree in running, my high school personal best mile was a 7:30, and my V02 max was measured at a pedestrian 47. While I found moderate success at running longer ultras, it definitely seemed that I was better suited for slow and on trail, versus fast on road.

But, my mindset changed and I decided settling was not good enough. For me, getting over that doubt came down to not caring about what I should be able to do, or not do. Things like the McMillan pace calculator have always told me that I wasn't a fast enough 5k or 10k runner to ever qualify for Boston, despite putting in the specified training. Apparently, 42+ minute 10k guys like myself have no business trying to run sub 3:10 marathons. Well, you know what? Who gives a crap?

Anyway, I suppose a short recap of the Steamtwown Marathon is in order.

Race report part:

After a dedicated 10 week training block, I can honestly say I did not feel ready to BQ at Steamtown. I had a lousy half marathon that was supposed to be a key training run and my final 20 mile long run ended up being 10 miles of running and 7 miles of walking. I also knew that while Steamtown is a fast downhill course, the final three hilly miles can be brutal for the ill prepared. For every person that has said Steamtown is a fast course, I've heard another person say how challenging and hilly it was.

Race morning was absolutely perfect and was the quintessential brisk fall day. Temps hovered near 40 degrees at the start and rose into the mid 60's with plenty of sunshine. The fall foliage was already in bloom and several weeks ahead of what I would normally see in Virginia. It was truly a magnificent day.

At the start, I lined up with the 7:00 minute mile group and darted off into the cool morning air after a resounding cannon blast. Although the race is relatively small with 2,300 runners, I still got stuck weaving around people running much slower than the corral they started in. Much of the first half of Steamtown is very pleasant downhill and the key to success is fighting off the urge to run too fast. I honestly felt like I was jogging, but was still consistently just under a 7:00 pace. It wouldn't have been hard to drop 6:30's, but I'd have risked blowing up the quads for later. Around mile 8 we passed through the small town of Carbondale and were greeted by many enthusiastic and friendly supporters.

I passed the 10 mile marker in 1:09:52 and the half in 1:31:45. My Garmin had me at 1:09:33 at my exact 10 mile split and 1:30:44 at exactly 13.1. Exactly where I wanted to be and still feeling good. Miles 14-17 were part of a scenic walking path along streams and through the woods. I noticed runners picking up the pace through this section, but then slowing down as we neared mile 17. This is where I was thankful I decided to wear my gps since a lot of the runners I had been pacing with were starting to slow and it would have been easy to naturally slow with them if I hadn't had a pace to look at. Around mile 18 my legs started to get that typical heavy feeling and the course was starting to level out a bit and had a few more uphills. Much to my pleasant surprise mile 21 came in at 7:08, 22 in 7:03, and 23 in 7:06. I felt good and was ready to tackle the 200 feet of gain that awaited me for the final 3.2 miles. As they warn, the Steamtown Marathon truly begins at mile 23.

The notorious mile 23 hill was as tough as people said it would be. Thankfully, the crowd support lining both sides of the street was amazing and definitely helped power me up to the top. There were plenty of folks walking the entire hill, but I knew any walking would cost precious time in the end. Mile 24 took 7:40 and was the slowest mile of the day, and yet it still allowed me to pass a number of fading runners. I spent most of mile 24 recovering from the hill with zapped legs and also fought off some nausea. Mile 25 took 7:30. With 1.2 miles to go I banked whatever time I could before the final hill at 25.7 miles called "Homestretch Hill". Like before, the crowd support going up the hill was amazing and most welcome. Mile 26 came in as the second slowest mile at 7:32. However, Homestretch Hill continues on a slight incline for another quarter mile after you think you've reached the top. After cresting the true "summit" of Homestretch Hill I was able to sprint the final downhill and through the finish chute. Clock time 3:08:05, watch time 3:07:57. After a very, very long time, like 12 years, I had finally qualified for the Boston Marathon!

It's crazy to think that I had just done something that no more than 20 months ago, I considered impossible. It really makes you wonder how often we impede our own potential by placing limitations on our perceived abilities. That said, I'm just scratching the surface with faster road running. I spent so many years trying to run farther and longer, I never put serious thought and effort into getting faster.

Though Steamtown is a fast downhill course, I calculated that my slowest 3 miles negated 10 of my fastest downhill miles. The math proves that. My slowest three miles (24, 25, and 26) took 22:42 and when averaged with my faster first 10 miles in 1:09:33, the pace for the 13 total miles was a 7:06, which is just slightly slower than my overall pace. In fact, Although the course has 955 feet of net downhill, it also has roughly 400+ feet of uphill, so it's really not a guaranteed PR course. Thankfully, though I live in an area with no hills, I was able to do weekly repeats across the 1.2 mile long Jordan Bridge, which is a favorite hill training spot for locals. Once a week for 10 weeks I would do anywhere from 8-11 miles up and over the bridge, which usually netted 1,000 ft of gain/loss. As much as I focused on the uphills, I made sure to really push the downhills at a pace much faster than marathon pace, usually in the 5:45-6:15 range. In retrospect, those hard workouts definitely paid off given my quads felt strong much of the day at Steamtown.

On a bittersweet note, this would have guaranteed an entry into Boston any other year, but it may not have been far enough under the qualifying time. In recent years you only needed to run 1:02-1:38 under your BQ to gain entry, even if qualified, but this year it was a whopping 2:28 under. I also recorded 26.53 miles on my gps, which means I could have done a much better job at running the tangents. I actually hit my exact 26.20 mile split in 3:05:45, which was pretty sweet to see, but not when still several minutes from the finish. Typically, I assume I will get anywhere from 26.35 to 26.40 miles during a race, even on a certified marathon course, due to the difficulty in running the exact tangent lines. However, in retrospect I probably added distance weaving around slower runners the first few miles and being a bit tired and "lazy" towards the end. It may have been the difference between a 3:07:57 and a 3:06:xx. Hopefully, it doesn't cost me a trip to Boston in 2017.

Lastly, I wanted to add that the Steamtown Marathon was a really wonderful event. It's small enough where the race feels quaint and personal, the expo isn't crowded, and race weekend logistics are super easy. I slept in my car near the start which allowed me to have a one block walk to the shuttles in the morning and one block walk to my car at the finish. When you arrive at the start you get to wait in a nice warm school gym before heading outside to the starting line. The course was also one of the prettiest I have ever run and the local crowd support and volunteers were amazing. I definitely look forward to running Steamtown again.

Nutrition: 5 gels taken at miles 7, 11, 15, 19, and 23

(with fellow Asians at the finish)

(Downtown Scranton)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Danger Zone: Caring for Your Body and Mind

First off, I am certainly not telling anyone what to do, or how to live your lives. But, I also wish I had read something like this like 8 years ago as it would have saved me a lot of frustration over crappy running and even periods where I hated running.

Secondly, the only thing better than learning from your own mistakes is learning from someone else's. I'm giving you the opportunity to learn from mine so you don't have to learn from yours. Running might just be a fun hobby for us, but it can be an incredibly expensive, tedious, physically and emotionally demanding hobby.

(2009 American River 50. Photo by Facchino Photography).

The following quotes are actual things I wrote in my race report from the 2009 American River 50. For context, I had foolishly run a 50k the weekend before and was having issues with my legs very early on at American River. Like many people, I had traveled very far to do the race and spent a lot of money, and thus was hell bent on finishing. Six years later, the sheer stupidity of running back to back ultras blows my mind, as well as the misguided "ultra" mentality I used to finish the race.

"As we descended back down to the path my right quad muscle completely gave out.....For the next couple of miles I made a futile attempt at a run/walk method, but after a few steps I would have to stop.....I was able to grab 6 ibuprofen from a volunteer and quickly downed four of them.....To heck with the pain. I'm not here to limp around. I am here to run!.... .This wasn't about being a tough guy."

In retrospect, yes it was about being "tough", and I'd be lying to say that I didn't feel pretty "badass" for pushing through a strained quad to finish a 50 mile race. Then, when I shared the race report on Facebook a few days later, it was immediately flooded with likes and similar kudos for being so bad ass, tough, inspiring, and so on. Reading those only reaffirmed to myself that I was a tough SOB. However, among the cliched platitudes a comment from elite runner Annette Bednosky stood out. She was the only person who cautioned against running too many races and in particular continuing to run during a race when things quite clearly didn't seem okay. Six years later, I know for a fact she was right. I cringe at some of the things I did at that 2009 American River 50. I took 6 ibuprofen (dumb), I had pain in my quad and still ran 35 more miles (dumber), and I ran an ultra the weekend before and thought I could pull off a 50 miler seven days later (dumberer).

The sad thing is, even though I knew better, I continued to make poor decisions often misdirected by my overzealous love of running. From 2008 through 2009, it seemed like I had stretches of time where I ran an ultra or marathon every weekend for several months. I figured if you are lucky enough to find something you love to do, aka running, the more you do it, the more fun life will be. However, healthy moderation wasn't even an afterthought, and I lost a good degree of self control over how often I ran. There were a lot of bad races in there and a lot of wasted opportunities to do better with less. If I heard about a nearby 50k a friend was doing, I did it. If a friend invited me to run a marathon with them, I happily obliged. If there was a 30 mile training run or fat ass ultra, you're darn skippy I showed up to all of them. Ignorance was indeed bliss.

Running is a powerful drug and races are a wide open gateway. In my early years as a runner, the purpose and product of my running were very positive things. Running helped me lose weight after college, it made me healthier, and in general it helped me cope with normal everyday stress a little better. Then, I discovered ultras and learned a lot about myself by pushing through high physical barriers and deep mental places. I felt accomplished and proud of myself. If I could run 50 miles, surely it will make other challenges in life feel a little bit easier. But wait, if running 50 miles can make me feel accomplished, perhaps 100 will make me feel even more invincible. And it did, for a time.

But, soon you realize maybe it isn't enough. You need a bigger challenge, a bigger fish to catch. I became Captain Ahab in search of my great white whale. Now it had to be 100 miles in the mountains, maybe 135 miles across Death valley, or a 24 hour race. But, where does it stop? Could I run across the universe and still feel like it wasn't enough? 40 mile running weeks turn into 60, then 80, and soon I found myself doing well over 100 trying to emulate how the top runners in the country were training. I would freak out if I didn't run everyday, or if I didn't exactly get in the 20 mile long run on Saturday followed by the 15 on Sunday. Then, there would be additional stress if my pace was too slow for a particular workout, or didn't get in my runs, even while on vacation or at a work conference. The irony is a lot of the time while running my only thought was "why am I doing this?". I wasn't enjoying it, it wasn't helpful for training, and even if it was training, why was I training for yet another race? However, it was in those grinding, slow, irritating slogs that I finally conceded to a scary fact....I now hated running.

How did such a 180 degree turn happen so fast? How did something I looked forward to doing a few miles everyday become such a dreaded daily penance? How come I could feel accomplished and ecstatic running 3 miles a decade ago, and now I can run 50 and actually feel bummed out about how I ran? I asked myself a lot what was going on in my head as well as my body. Was I burnt out? Was I over trained? Under trained? Were my expectations hurting my enjoyment? Why was I stressing and training so hard to run a 100 miler, when I no longer felt the need to prove to myself I could do it?

Then it occurred to me. The reality was, it wasn't running I hated, it was the fact I completely lost sight of why I ran and why I had originally found it so fulfilling. It wasn't that the act running wasn't fulfilling enough, but I had become a different person who no longer required a certain kind of running, and more specifically extreme running, to feel accomplished and alive.

I had grown and evolved. It was that simple, and yet so hard to figure out.

And somehow, part of that evolution stemmed from the fact I have witnessed troubling things in the world of running, and not just ultrarunning. People are getting injured at alarming rates, but continuously running more and more races regardless. It seems that the power of the masses can be a powerful collective force to support you, but sometimes can't be the simple voice of reason when you need it. Sometimes it's the very friends around you that spur you onto another bad decision, albeit from their perspective they are simply cheering on a friend. And then, we as runners, want to achieve our own goals, and maybe even try to impress certain audiences, though it may be at the expense of our own health.

So, the big question you may be wondering. Do, I still enjoy running? The short answer is yes. But, I still give myself a few reminders from time to time to keep my brain and body in check. I hope sharing these little reminders can help others prevent a healthy fun hobby from becoming a potentially self destructive place of perpetual frustration.

1. Running races is a first world luxury.
- Not running a PR, not qualifying for Boston, or not getting into a certain race, are all petty first world problems.
- If any of the above things cause any kind of stress, maybe it's time for a reality check in what we should really be concerned about in life.

2. Running is not a fix, nor the answer to any of life's major problems. When your run is over, they will still be waiting for you.

3. Be balanced. Running should not consume your life unless you are a professional athlete. Take time to unplug from all things running from time to time. Eat some ice cream. It won't hurt you, but running too much might.

4. Celebrate the little things. But, be sure to take the time to discover what those little things are for you....and for others.

5. Actually train. Running an ultra or marathon every weekend, and then not running at all during the week, is not training. Plus, you don't want to become "that guy" who read Born to Run, bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, then decided "ease" into it with 80 miles per week and got three stress fractures a month later.

6. On the flip side, don't freak out about training. Most of us aren't getting paid to run, so if training is draining the life out of you, stop.

7. Actually rest. I know rest can be big scary four letter word for us runners, but it's important. We tend to think if we aren't running, we must be resting, so we justify 2 hours of cross fit and a 40 mile bike ride as a recovery day. No seriously, learn to physically rest, and if you can't sit still, go walk a few miles.

8. No finisher's award is worth getting injured for.
- This is especially true for "challenges" where you do X amount of races and then you get a special medal.
- Plus, after you post your medal photos online, who is going to see them? Probably less than the amount of people who will see you in that sexy leg brace the next three months.

9. Know the difference between pain and discomfort.
- Pain usually indicates an injury, in which case stop.
- Discomfort is a normal part of running, but can often become pain.

10. Don't be an enabler for bad decisions (be a rational voice)
- If your friend royally jacked up their leg at mile 45 of a 100 miler, please tell them to stop.
- If your under trained friend wants to become a Half Fanatic, or Marathon Maniac, maybe it's not a good idea to support their three half marathons in three days, or five marathons in five weeks, etc.
- If someone sprained their ankle and then walked 21 miles to finish a marathon, don't jump on the bandwagon to tell them how badass they are. Tell them it was dumb, and you might prolong their running life.

11. See the other side of running. Volunteer, crew, or pace. Being a participant is great, but you only see one vantage point of the sport.

Bonus thought: Care for yourself. You only get one body and mind. Love them. You're the only person who has to live in them and with them. You don't have anything to prove to anyone else and sometimes, you need to know you don't even need to prove something to yourself.

Run Happy my Friends!

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 mileage 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 that my mountain running legs had long since faded. 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. While 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. I'm also 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. 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 shifted to setting 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. Interesting stat: Max King's marathon pace is a 5:14 mile compared to his 100k pace of 6:14, which is a 19.1% slow down. My marathon pace is a 7:10, while my pace was 8:34 for the 100k, which is a 19.5% slowdown. A little over a 2 seconds per mile slower pace for every mile beyond 26.2 miles and very close in terms of pace slow down for the increased distance.

(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: 8:34
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

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 there's something unique and a bit off from what I had previously pictured. 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.

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