Wednesday, February 12, 2014

2014 Graveyard 100: Little Known Race Drawing Big Time Talent

Let's face it, there are a ton of ultras in the country these days, and yet you only hear about a few of them. It seems that only the big named events like Western States, or the big prize money events garner any kind of attention to their starting fields. Well, I am here to tell you about the talent that has been showing up to the Graveyard 100, and it may surprise you.

The Graveyard 100 is the brain child of North Carolina runners and residents Brandon and Heather Wilson, the founders of RacENC. The inaugural event was held in 2012 as a point to point race that traveled roughly 102 miles of the Outer Banks from Currituck to Hatteras via route 12. In the 2013, the race was re-routed to a 50 mile and back due to road closures on the course. However, weather permitting, the 2014 event will see runners follow the long lonely roads of the OBX once again. While the race consists of flat roads, it is by far anything but an easy event. However, for some of the most talented runners around, it has become an ideal location to show some of their speed.

So let's take a look at some of the names that have run, or will be running, the Graveyard 100 miler, and the sister event held the same day the Graveyard 100k. Some of the names you will not recognize, and some you will.

Valmir Nunes- Valmir is one of the greatest runners of our time. He won Graveyard in 2013 in a course record 13:48 at the age of 49. He has a 100k PR of 6:16, holds the Badwater course record, was the 1991 100k World Champion, and won Spartathlon in 2001. Listing all of his wins and records would require a whole separate blog in itself. The guy is a legend, and also one of the nicest folks you could meet.

Mike Morton- Unfortunately Mike was injured and did not run the 2013 as planned. Mike has a resume that includes a course record win at Western States, 3rd overall at Western States 16 years later, 13:11 course record at Umstead, 13:18 course record at Long Haul, 13:42 course record at the Keys 100, winning Badwater, holding the current American 24 hour record, 13:14 course record at Iron Horse, and numerous other wins at various distances.

Brenda Carawan- Brenda won the inaugural 100 mile event outright in a breakthrough time of 16:33. That time would go on to be one of the fastest female 100 mile times of 2012. Considering it was run on a course slightly longer than 102 miles, it was very impressive. Brenda, who has also finished Badwater, has since gone on to win the Keys 100, Graveyard 100k, Cow Town 50k, and finished the famed Spartathlon.

Donna Utakis- Donna is entered for the 2014 event. She has consistently been one of the top females at most events she runs. Some of her highlights include wins at the Grindstone 100, Laurel Highlands, Hellgate 100k, Cascade Crest 100, and TARC 100.

Andrei Nana- Andrei was 2nd overall in the inaugural Graveyard 100. Andrei is known for his intense workouts, and logged over 8,000 miles of running in 2013. He has since gone on to finish near the top at almost every 100 he has run including the Lost 118 Miler, Iron Horse 100, Keys 100, Long Haul 100, Ancient Oaks 100, winning the Peanut Island 24 Hour, and completing Spartathlon with an impressive sub 31 hour finish.

Olivier Leblond- Olivier is the defending Graveyard 100 champion with a time of 14:47 last year. He also ran a 2nd place 14:33 in 2013 to Valmir Nunes in 2013, but on a course that was roughly 3-4 miles shorter than the original. Olivier won the Old Dominion 100 in his first attempt at 100 miles and has since won both the 2013 and 2014 C&O Canal 100's, Desert Solstice 24 hour with 152 miles (100 mile split of 14:36 and qualified for US 24 Hour Team), Icy 8 Hour, Stone Mill 50, North Face 50k, and the 12 Hour ATR.

Joe Fejes- Joe won the Across the Years six Day event with 555 mind blowing miles, and then upped the ante with 580 miles at Six Days in the Dome. Last year Fejes broke the 72 hour record with 329 miles. A former member of the US 24 Hour team, Joe has won numerous other timed events and ultras.

Connie Gardner- Connie has been one of the most consistent female ultrarunners in the past 15 years. She won the 2013 Graveyard 100 in a time of 15:33 at age 49 (coincidentally the same age as Valmir), which was one of the fastest female(or male) 100's of the year. She has won numerous 100 milers and ultras throughout her career, run sub 7 hours for 50 miles, was a member of the US 24 Hour team and 100k team, and was also the previous female 24 hour American record holder with just over 149 miles.

Jonathan Savage- Jonathan was 4th overall at last year's Graveyard 100 in a time of 17:38. He was a member of the US 24 hour team and has numerous wins in 24 hour events. Other highlights include running 146 miles at the North Coast 24 hour, winning the Keys 100, Bethel Moonlight Boogie 50, Hinson Lake 24 Hour, and many other finishes near the top of the field.

Tatyana Spencer- Tatyana won the inaugural Graveyard 100k in a time of 8:16. It was one of the fastest female, or male 100k times of 2012 (or since). She has run 3:47 for 50k, 16:12 at the Keys 100, won the Keys 50, and Peanut Island 12 Hour

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Paved to Waves: Maysville to Macon 50 Miler

(Courtesy of M2M website. Race director Brad Mitchell on the M2M course)

One of my biggest desires in upcoming years is to run new unique and challenging events. I've never had a desire to be a 10 time, 20 time, 30+ time finisher of any event. With so many great concepts popping up in the running and ultrarunning world, I believe life is too short to do the same races over and over again.

That very idea is what got me to the starting line of the Maysville to Macon 50 miler. Initially, I saw that there was a brand new 50.3 mile race in North Carolina, it was reasonably close, inexpensive, and I would probably get to catch up with some of my runner friends. But, as I learned about the details of the race, that's when my interest really piqued. The event had a 12:01am start, just like the Hellgate 100k, and it would be run on 23 miles of roads (route 58) before turning and running up 27 miles of sandy beachfront (Emerald Isle). So much for the idea of a nice easy 50 miler....

On to the race!

After nearly a 5 hour drive through traffic, I finally arrived in Atlantic Beach, NC. When I got there, we still had an hour long shuttle ride to the cozy little town of Maysville, NC. I was pleasantly surprised how the town went out of their way to make us feel welcome. The mayor, the police commissioner (Dan Ryan, the man behind the idea of M2M), and a local mascot all came out to our starting point, a small diner in the middle of town. It occurred to me that this was my first 50 miler in about a year and a half, and only my second in the past three years. 50 miles is a fun distance because you can definitely blow up if you go out too fast, but you also don't want to go out too slow either.

12:01am. After the Pledge of Allegiance the race finally began. The 23 miles of roads were basically broken up into several segments. I ran the first couple of miles up front, but sure enough two other guys caught up and eventually passed me. The first 10 miles to the aid station went through dark county roads, but seamlessly passed by in an hour an twenty minutes. The eight minute pace was a bit faster than the 8:30's I had planned, so I backed off a bit more. By the way, we had a police escort that stopped oncoming traffic the first ten miles which was pretty awesome!

13 miles. I caught up with one of the guys who had passed me earlier, and he ran behind me for a mile, or so. His bright headlamp directly behind me was causing some awkward shadows so I picked up the pace just to get a little bit ahead. A few miles later I glanced back to see how he was doing, and didn't see a soul in sight.

ERROR number 1 (+0.5 miles, 5 minutes): At around 17 miles I realized I hadn't seen any signs for route 58, which is the road we were supposed to be on. Apparently, by running on the left side of the road, I naturally followed where it went and completely missed a fork in the road where I was supposed to bear right. It wasn't a huge mistake, but I added a half mile, and five minutes trying to find my way back.

About twenty five minutes later I crossed the only "hill" on the course, which was a pretty bridge going over into Emerald Isle. Though short, the uphill and downhill of the bridge was a nice change of pace for the muscle groups. From there we made a right turn and ran for three miles until we reached the oceanfront.

3 hours and 14 minutes. The 23.3 miles of road were done, and I can honestly say I was glad to be switching over to running on the sand. As soon as I passed through into the beach area I was welcomed with a massive oceanfront of white that stretched beyond the view of my headlamp. The area was so wide and open that it was a bit disorienting to figure out where you were supposed to be going. Since I knew to go left, I just followed that until the shoreline narrowed down to a more defined strip of sand with the ocean to my right. From this point to the finish the pace of running, aside from fatigue and weather, would be dictated by the type of sand we were on. It would either be very loose granular sand that you would sink ankle deep into, or wet packed sand that was ALWAYS off camber closer to the water.

The first "marathon" of the run went by in 3:43 as I arrived at the aid station overseen by RacENC mastermind Brandon Wilson and his son Andy. This was mile 25.8 on the course, but actually my mile 26.3. Subsequently, the lead runner already had a 12 minute gap on me, but I viewed the next 24 miles as either an opportunity to close the gap, or let it grow. The next six miles to aid station 3 were by far my sloppiest. I struggled to find good footing as the tide was a bit higher and shrunk down the running path options to mostly the deeper sand. My slow pace during this stretch was mostly due to the soft sand and spending too much time zig zagging from hard packed sand to the flatter stuff when the hard packed got too slanted to run on.

31.8 miles. I arrived in 4:50, which is a decent time (31 mile split of 4:42), but it looks faster than is was due to all the road running at the beginning. The slowest part of the course was still to come, and there were still 18.5 more grueling miles of sand to cover. From here, the next two aid stations were both 7.5 miles apart. I figured a 10 minute mile pace, which was much tougher than expected to maintain on sand, would get me through each segment in 1:15, and give me a good shot at breaking 8 hours. The passing of time through the night and early morning wasn't as bad as I expected. The dark beach was certainly quiet, but I had some good tunes playing on my headphones, and I just settled into a rhythm. Every mile or so I would take a moment to jog backwards and take the strain of my left side. Running on a constant angle can cause major muscle imbalance problems, so I figured to take some time to relieve the physical monotony.

6:30am. Almost 42 miles covered and the ambient light from the sunrise meant I could ditch the headlamp. However, a chilly rain was already beginning to fall, and made the 38 degree morning all that much cooler.

Entering Fort Macon: I entered the Fort Macon beach access at 7 hours and 30 minutes, and had a little over three miles to the finish. I knew if I pushed it, I could break the 8 hour barrier, which would have been a great accomplishment on this tough course. However, the last few miles of the course were not how I pictured, and I found myself rather uncertain as to where to go. I followed my gut and found both of the hole punches we needed to prove we ran around the outer most portion of the fort beachfront. As I made my way into the fort area, that's when I got confused.

ERROR number 2 (+2.0 miles, 20 minutes): When I arrived at Fort Macon, I had only seen one sign that said "this way", which was located in a parking lot. I assumed it was pointing me to run down the only paved road in the fort area. And so I did. After almost a mile I saw nothing and realized I was running AWAY from the fort. It didn't seem right, so I stopped, asked a few passing cars if they knew where the finish was, but they were all employees and didn't know. I then ran back up the road to see if I had missed any signs, and when I was almost back to the beach area, a volunteer told me to turn back the way I had JUST run. I was literally about a hundred yards from the left hand turn into the finish when I had turned around. (f-bombs everywhere)

Needless to say, I was pretty pissed off at myself for adding 2 miles and 20 minutes at the very the end of a 50 mile run. Had I just trusted my gut, as wrong as it felt, and run another 0.1 miles I would have seen the turn sign into the finish area.

Finish Line: 8 hours and 21 minutes. My anger over the added miles subsided quickly after finishing. The third place runner came in three minutes after me, which was way too close for comfort, given that I was 20+ minutes ahead of him at mile 49. The winner, elite Iron Man Rob Hilton, finished his first ultra in a blistering time of 7:36. Rob is a 2:30's marathoner with an Iron Man PR under 9:20 (beastly), which explains how he just floated by me with such ease. Even without my navigational errors, I would have finished 20 minutes behind him. Anyway, given the added 2.5 miles over the entire course, and 25 minutes of lost time, I am certain I would have been under 8 hours. The good news is, the added distance did not cost me the win, nor second place. In the end, sometimes you just have to laugh it off, and realize that 8:21 over 52.8 tough miles is still a solid day. Other than that, I essentially ran every step of the race, aside from a few moments where I walked a few seconds to eat something, which means my endurance has finally bounced back.

Final Thoughts: Thanks to race director Brad Mitchell and all the volunteers for putting on this event. Running in the rain, when temps are in the high 30's was cold enough, so I know standing out there all night and all morning to volunteer was even colder. It was certainly a unique and tough challenge. A 12:01am start, 23 miles of dark roads, followed by basically a 27 mile ultra on sand was definitely something I had never considered doing before this weekend. Congrats to all the other runners who endured hours and hours of freezing rain and wind, including my buddy Dave who gritted it out despite some muscle issues. Those conditions were just miserable, but the runners did what they do best, and that is endure. What an awesome day (or night) with a fun group of the toughest SOB's I know.


Mike Bailey

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Long Way to Boston: The Need for Speed

8 minutes and 30 seconds. I was out of breath, but felt accomplished. I was 15 years old and just ran the fastest mile I had ever run. Sure, there were kids in my gym class who could run it in six minutes, and some even faster, but it was a big jump from the 9 and 10 minute miles I had run all through middle school. After all, I wasn't a runner, so it was good enough for me.

17 years later.

After completing 9 marathons and 81 ultras, I have acknowledged that road running has always been my weakness. I suppose it largely has to do with my lack of enjoying road running, but also because of how much slower I have been compared to others. By nature and personality, I am more aligned with the laid back nature of trail running. I love just going with the flow, relaxing, enjoying the views, and being able to seamlessly click off 15, 20, 25 mile runs through the mountains. However, over the years, with all my trail running, my body has adapted to the more lumbering pace of going up and down mountains and hills. While my cardio has benefited from this, the muscle conditioning and turnover needed to run faster on roads never really developed. Odd as it sounds, it became easier for me to run 50 miles at a nine minute pace, than five miles at a seven minute pace, though you'd assume the speed would pick up drastically at "shorter" distances. Nope, never happened, and I can partially attribute this to the fact I started off running long slow ultras and not with road races like many people.

What about qualifying for Boston? This is a question I ask myself more than you'd think. As a trail runner, I sort of feign disinterest, but in reality I'd love to qualify as much as anyone else. Many people assume, because of my ultrarunning PR's, that surely I could qualify for Boston. Nope. I think my best chance at qualifying for Boston was probably back in 2008, or 2009 when I was doing a lot of road running in Northern Virginia. I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in a costume, and still ran a 3:30. And as I recall, ten of those miles were spent running with folks at about a 8:45 minute pace, meaning I could have maybe run closer to a 3:25. In retrospect, I may have had a chance at running a 3:20ish time if I had taken the race seriously, but that would still have been way off the 3:10 qualifying standards of 2008.

It's been frustrating to say the least. I have studied and implemented marathon training routines, done the speed work (sometimes for 3-4 months), saw little progress, and then jumped back into the trail ultras which I found more gratifying (and less disappointing). I've done a handful of road races in the past few years, and a couple trail marathons just to test the waters to see how far from Boston I am. The results have always been the same. I'd struggle to run seven minute miles for a 10k here, run a 3:44 trail marathon there, and run a 1:37 half marathon somewhere else. It certainly didn't help when the Boston qualifying standard for my age group dropped down to a 3:05. Friends that are much faster are barely qualifying. 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. Putting it all into perspective can really suck. As of 2013, my half marathon PR was a 1:37, improved from a 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.

February 2014. I've been patient over the past three months, and spending more time with focused workouts, and not just mindlessly running all the time. I suppose working full-time again has caused me to re-evaluate my routine and forced me to be more efficient. I admittedly had too much free time much of the past six months and found myself just kinda running to fill the time, and often finding my pace drifting slower and slower. While in Colorado, it was beautiful and amazing, but most of my mileage came from hiking. Not the best combination for improving speed, though it sure was incredible. Thankfully, the physical perks of living at high altitude carried over to my move back East, and I made sure not to squander any cardiovascular gains from living at 5,000 feet all summer and fall. That's when I decided to step up to the challenge of running roads again and signed up for my first road run since 2012. It was a local 15 miler, with no prior speed training, no taper, no planning. I just saw it as a good race to assess my current fitness, or lack thereof.

Short "race" report. As stated, no taper, and though the legs were not tired, they were not 100% fresh either. 15 miles is also a weird distance to pace, but I figured to maybe keep it within half marathon pace range. I based my goal time of 1:52 off my pace from my 1:37 half marathon in November. Mile one was weird. The pace felt fairly comfortable, not easy, but also not tough. When we passed the first mile marker I expected to see a time of maybe 7:20-7:25, but was surprised to see 7:01. The next few miles the paced slowed to 7:05, 7:08, 7:10, but I was running with a group, and was just maintaining their pace. A few more miles went by, a few people dropped off the group, and we neared the turn around. The lead guys were all running sub six minute pace, which was pretty cool to watch. I hit the 7.5 mile turn around in 54 minutes exactly, already two minutes ahead of schedule. The small cluster of runners I had been running with all dropped back (I didn't realize that they didn't slow down, but I sped up). Instead of freaking out that I went out too fast I just kept running within my zone. The next six miles were all under seven minutes, which meant that I was going to negative split the course by a lot and crush my 1:37 half marathon PR. I crossed 13.1 miles in 1:32:24 for the new PR, but cramped and slogged through the last mile in 7:23. Overall, it was a pleasant surprise, and nearly six minutes faster than planned. I expected to slow down a ton the second half, but actually negative split the course by 1:30. Another positive thing was that even when my legs felt tired and heavy the final 5 miles, I was still running low 7:00's pace, though I would have assumed low 8:00's based on feel. This run, I believe, also sparks another kind of discussion. Most of my miles, as much 90%, are in the 8:30-10:00 pace range (trails and roads), with the remaining 10% not being much faster than 8:00 pace. Even on treadmills running a few miles above 8.0 mph seems so much tougher, especially when I consider I just ran 15 miles at a speed of almost 8.5 mph. I always thought treadmills were supposed to be easier, but maybe the logic about external stimulus affecting perceived effort makes sense in his regard.

The reality check: My pace for 15 miles was exactly the pace I need to qualify for Boston....just 11.2 miles short. I think tapered and rested, I could have maintained the same pace for 18, maybe 19 miles. However, I know I'm not where I need to be to close out that last 7-8 miles. That will take some dedication to longer fast runs like the 15 miler, and perhaps a little less time on trails. I'm not naive about this. Many of my friends who run in the 3:00-3:05 marathon range have half marathon PR's around 1:25, which is significantly lower than mine. Cutting 30 seconds per mile off a half marathon is a monumental task. It's too bad, because I may have had a good shot at the old 3:10 standard, but the reality is even a lot of guys who qualify at 3:05 aren't getting in. Right now a 3:03 will get you in the race, but it may eventually be sub three hours. Kinda sucks when you get faster, and the standards gets faster at the same time. Until then, or I get bumped up an age group, Boston will have to wait.