Saturday, March 29, 2014

100th Blog Post: In Search of Boylston

This blog turned six years old on March 24th and this is my 100th blog post. Crazy to think that this all started as a training log, suggested by my mom I might add, so I could recall the details of my misadventures in running. Wow, where has the time gone?


You may, or may not have noticed I have been bringing up the Boston Marathon more frequently in my posts. It is interesting that when the thought of getting into a particular race is so far off, the desire to run that race fades as well. During the five year duration from 2009 to 2014 where my marathon personal best stood frozen at 3:33:41, I was so far off the ability to achieve a Boston qualifying time, that the concept eventually faded off into the realm of "nice to haves", "maybes", and possibly "nevers". After all, I could do okay at mountain ultras, but always seemed to fall short in road races.

I absolutely believed 2013 was going to be a make, or break year in my relationship with running. It became very apparent that doing nothing but ultras, as pretty and scenic as the locations may have been, was zapping the mojo out of my running. The effect was amplified by being often injured, out of shape, and just generally feeling lethargic at every race. It was a nasty series of unfortunate events as I would do lousy at one ultra, sign up for another in hopes to rebound back, do even worse, sign up for a longer race in hopes I could compensate for lack of speed with slow endurance......and do even more worse. After slogging through the Massanutten 100 in 31:38, slogging through Mohican in 28:55, slogging through Leadville only to time out at the last aid station, it was either time to hang up the shoes, or revamp my whole outlook on what running is.

Ask yourself why you run any given day, and the answer may be different each time. As a hobby runner, my answer for why I run 99% of the time is going to be so I can have fun. Testing your physical limits can be fun too, but pushing through 100 mile race after 100 mile race just to get a cool buckle sacrificed more fun than it should have.

Needless to say, spending my summer and fall in Colorado couldn't have come at a better time. Seeing the beauty of the our earth is quite aw inspiring, as well as feeling reconnected with the natural world. Though I put in a lot of high mileage weeks in the high country, they weren't out of obligation to fulfill a training routine, or to prep for some upcoming race. It was simply about me taking time to run, hike, walk, or even peacefully sit to listen to the whispers in the wind and echoes from the deep canyons and passes. THIS is the relationship I had strived to have with running, because it wasn't even about running. It was a symbiotic and purposeful harvesting of my need to be a part of the creation around me.

Thus, moving to Norfolk a few months ago, needless to say, was a bit of a culture shock from Colorado. I admit I was concerned that my running would suffer for two big reasons; the winter was unusually snowy and cold and not conducive for high mileage running; and how would I react to running without being constantly surrounded by epic scenery?

The Boston Marathon was the resounding, yet unlikely response. I figured if I wasn't going to be able to run trails on a regular basis, why not test the road running chops and see if I could gain a little "speed" in the legs. After the tragic events of the 2013 Boston Marathon, my mind really jumped at the idea of one day being able to run the historic course and experience the culture that is the city Boston. But again, with that 3:33:41 PR, it still remained an afterthought. However, my body reacted well with the transition back to roads after a five year lay off and I ran a respectable 3:10 at the Shamrock Marathon. Not that fast, but still a big PR. While it wasn't a Boston qualifying time of 3:05, it bridged the seemingly insurmountable gap that had previously existed between my lack of road speed and a Boston qualifier. Even more surprisingly, less than two weeks after Shamrock, I ran another marathon just for fun, and ended up with another PR of 3:08. I think being able to knock over two and a half minutes off my marathon in a non focus race means I am certainly capable of taking additional time off. This is a pretty good starting point.

So, who would have guessed that my romanticized hunt for a BQ, via road running, is what has brought some much needed excitement back to my world of running? I can just imagine running up heart break hill, meeting the girls of Wellesley, making a right on Hereford, and a left to into the finish line crowds on Boylston. In addition, my desire to run ultras, especially 100 milers, has dropped significantly. 100 milers can wreak havoc on your fitness since you taper for two weeks, and then it's another two weeks to a month before you feel recovered, and by then you've lost six weeks of training. Seems to me less is more these days.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Trail Runner's Return to the Asphalt: Shamrock Marathon

It was just last month I wrote a blog post titled "A Long Way to Boston" lamenting on how far off my abilities were for achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time of 3:05. My last, and only real attempt at running a fast marathon, was back in 2009. I ran the inaugural Three Bridges Marathon in Crozet, Virginia in hopes of running a 3:25. However, the day went quickly south after mile 16 and I finished in a humbling 3:33:41. Though it was a very cold day, the weather had little to do with my splits of 1:42 for the first half, and a train wreck 1:51 for the second half. Since that race, I have only ever run road marathons as a pacer, or just for fun.

In the following years I avoided the roads that often whispered to me "you're no road runner, just stick to the trails where you are comfortable". I often looked to the roads with disdain as this lurking challenge that had always got the best of me. I figured my choice for running trail ultras was justified. Why struggle to try and run a 3:30 marathon, when I can run ultras that worked in favor of my slow and steady modus operandi. In the race between the tortoise and the hare, I was always more relaxed and confident being the tortoise.

But, alas, life brought me to a place where my safety blanket of mountain trails were four hours away, and once again I had to confront the taunts of the pavement. January and February of 2014 marked my first real months of dedicated road running in nearly five years. A harsh winter and new work schedule has kept me running 40-50 miles per week, which is a dramatic, and dare say, much needed decrease from last year. While I can definitely say my running was not specific to training for a marathon, logging some good tempo runs and quicker long runs lead me to believe I could probably PR my marathon in the spring. Looking through the spring marathon options was exciting due to the plethora of enticing choices, but in the end I chose to run a popular local favorite, the Shamrock Marathon. Strange as it may sound, I felt like a running novice all over again.

Shamrock race report:

I'm not going to lie, I was a little nervous about doing a road marathon again. I hadn't had pre-race jitters since my first few ultras back in 2004 and 2005.

The Start: I lined up in corral 1 and tucked in behind the 3:15 pace group. A few of my longer training runs suggested that a 3:15 was a possibility, but it was still intimidating because it was so much quicker than my current PR. Promptly after starting, I got stuck behind folks literally just casually jogging, while simultaneously getting nudged by people blowing by super fast. Admittedly, I was not thrilled about runners who started in front of the 3:15 and 3:05 pace groups with no intention of running anywhere near those paces. After the awkwardness of the first mile (7:25), things opened up, I left the 3:15 pace group, and settled into a groove. Mile 5 was hilariously long, as I clocked a split of 8 minutes. We hit the first turn around of the course and I gave a big high five to my buddy Ryan who was a few minutes ahead already going the other way. Moments later we reached the short mile 6, which my watch read as a 6:20 mile. The miles clicked along, I got to see a lot my fellow runners heading out to the turn around, and then we entered into Fort Pendleton. Fort Pendleton would have been rather uneventful had it not been for our military men and women who lined the streets to give us high fives and cheer us on.

Miles 10 through 12 were on the windy boardwalk. Here I was able to tag team with a cluster of runners to draft and avoid the wind a little bit. It was crazy how much energy you could save just by being behind someone. The wind persisted was we retraced our way North on Atlantic avenue, but now runners were starting to thin out, and there was nobody to draft with. I crossed the 13.1 mile mark in 1:34:33, which is exactly where I wanted to be. Miles 2.0-13.1 were at a 7:12 pace, and I felt pleasantly comfortable, but also knew to conserve energy in the event of high winds later in the race.

Miles 15-19 coming off Atlantic Avenue and entering onto Shoreline Drive provided a pleasant reprieve from the wind and an opportunity to bank some time. The course isn't terribly exciting along Shoreline, but it was fairly peaceful running through a brief section of woods and greenery. The pace stayed steady around 7:10-7:12, but not for long as we literally ran into a wall of wind entering Fort Story.

Mile 19 is where the fun began. It was double clobber of an uphill and straight into a 20+ mph headwind for my slowest mile of the day, a 7:41. Previously, I heard that the Fort Story section of the course was mentally tough because of the isolation, it wasn't, but the winds were strongest for these three miles. I passed mile 20 in 2:24:30 and this is where I started seeing the carnage really start to pile up. Runners typically hit the wall physically, and mentally, between miles 18-22 and now they had a stiff head wind on top of it. It also didn't help that we so so spread out that finding someone to draft with was not a possibility. My pace slowed to 7:30's in this stretch, but it was entirely due to the wind, which was a good thing because I knew I still had a lot of energy left. I did some quick math and figured if I could run the final 6.2 miles in under 50 minutes (8:03 pace), I could break 3:15. Given how good I still felt, I knew it was definitely within reach.

The Final Stretch: The hearty wind persisted through miles 21 and 22 (ran 7:30's for both), but died down a bit as I headed South back onto Atlantic Avenue. I passed numerous runners who were fading, stopping to stretch, and generally just slowing down. I tried to encourage them as I passed, often patting them on the back and telling them to keep it up. I, myself, was getting tired, but somehow managed to avoid hitting any kind of wall and maintained a 7:19 pace. At this point in the race we got another chance to see the marathoners who were at their respective miles 14 and 15, as well as the 5 hour pace group. I could see how much these runners were digging deep with over ten miles to go in their race, and it really motivated me to try and close out my final miles strong. Mile 25 came by, and my watch read 3:01. A few blocks later the course turned hard left onto the boardwalk, and I'll be damned if the wind didn't blast right into us again for old time's sake. At this point I could see the finish line arch about 0.4 miles away. Typically, it would have felt like an eternity to get there, but I managed a nice kick at the end to finish strong. I ended up covering the the final 10k in 46:11, which was well under my estimated 50 minutes.

The Stats:

Distance: 26.45 miles
Time: 3:10:41 (My exact 26.2 mile split was 3:08:53)
Average Pace: 7:13 (my best mile time in high school was a 7:30)
Weather: Sunny then cloudy, 44 at start, 46 at finish, winds 10-25 mph
Placement: Tied for 95th out of 2,788

Final thoughts. I can see why this event is so popular. Shamrock really put on a wonderful festive atmosphere and made the event fun for everyone. Being able to use their dry bag check to get into warm dry clothes was great, as well as having a massive indoor tent for the finish party. The volunteers on the course were amazing. As for my run, it certainly exceeded my expectations. Though it was not a Boston qualifying time, it was a personal best by 23 minutes. It also let me know I am capable of making it to Boston when my qualifying time increases from a 3:05 to a 3:10 in a few years. Given only two months of preparation, I know I have a lot of room for improvement, and if anything it was nice to know I am still getting faster. Who knows, maybe I will give that sub 3:05 a shot. But, for now I'm content to know that this old dog still has a few new tricks.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Art of Pacing

(pacing my friend Ryan at the Old Dominion 100)

The art of being a effective pacer is a very unique craft. It is entirely different than being a good runner, a good crew member, or even a volunteer. Since my first pacing assignment in 2006, I have paced roughly 20 runners of varying ability and experience at distances ranging from 10 to 100 miles. In the many hours spent on roads and trails, I have found that there things that make a good pacer, and things that make make a bad pacer. Good pacing can save a runner's race and enrich the experience, and bad pacing can destroy it. I've seen plenty of both over the years and have made numerous notes about what it takes to be a good pacer, and what to avoid. This is a little long, but I think it's worth the read.

1) The skill level of a pacer- Your speed should be not significantly slower than the person you are pacing. If you decided to pace a faster runner, oh let's say the final 30 miles of a 100 miler, it's probably not a big deal that you are slower than them. Even very fast runners will be significantly slower in the final miles of a long ultra. However, you still need to know you can hang with them if they get a sudden burst of energy, or if they are going to be pushing hard to have a competitive finish. If you are pacing someone the last 50 miles of a 100 miler and they intend to run it in 10 hours, but your 50 mile personal best is 12 hours, it's probably best you leave the pacing up to someone else. Getting dropped by your runner does sometimes happen, but it can be avoided if you plan accordingly. After all, it's your job to look out for your runner, and not the other way around. Lastly, though not entirely necessary, it does help if the pacer has run the same race, or distance the runner is doing. Having a shared perspective of a race can pay dividends.

1a) Inversely, if you are significantly faster than the runner you are pacing, realize their "fast" may still be slower than your slow. Allow your runner to dictate the pace, and don't push them unless they ask you too in order to achieve a particular finish time, whether it be a PR, sub 24, or just breaking a certain hour mark. Also know that if you are not used to jogging at someone else's slower pace, it may be very uncomfortable for you. Sometimes it can actually be tougher for a very fast runner to run with someone much slower. If that may be the case, give the duty to someone who is feels better at the slower speeds.

2) Listen to your runner- This means listening for both verbal and non-verbal commands. The verbal commands will be easy to understand, but it's the other signs you need to notice. Body language will say a lot about your runner's energy, level of fatigue, and general attitude about how the race is going. Know that runners tend to put on poker faces, and though they may say they are doing alright, their body will show you something else. A pacer needs to be able to read the bluffs. If your runner is acting very differently than their typical behavior or personality, something may be up. It could be general tiredness, which is to be expected, but it could always be something more. Pacers aren't substitutes for doctors, but knowing what to look for can help your runner.

3) Know your runner- Most people we pace will be friends of ours. If you have run with them before, then you probably have a better idea how the distance will effect their body and demeanor. If you are pacing someone you don't know (or know well), be sure to use those first few miles, or hours, to get a read on their personality. If somebody really enjoys talking during races, then be sure to engage them in conversation. If you are a super quiet person, pacing a very social runner may not be a good idea, and vice versa.

3a) Know your runner's preferences- Learn what your runner's preferences are, and if you don't know, simply ask. Figure out what clothing makes them comfortable, what foods they enjoy, and what foods they are still able to eat if their stomach goes bad. If your runner is comfortable in cold weather clothing when it is 80 degrees out, just roll with it, and if they like going shirtless in 30 degree weather while eating nothing but avocados and listening to Pearl Jam, then so be it. Just keep an eye out for what is practical, and if their preferences are adversely effecting their performance.

4) Be the backup brain for your runner- Runners are entirely responsible for themselves and the predicaments they end up in, but the presence of a pacer can alleviate much of that. Understand that a tired runner usually does not think as clearly, and sometimes they are working through numerous thought processes to the point they may overlook seemingly simple details. Know what your running will be needing in the near future in terms of both gear and nutrition. Ask if they are hungry and thirsty because even basic things like eating can slip a runner's mind. If our runner's strategy is to eat and drink at certain time segments, be sure to remind them, but also know when to tweak the plan if it isn't working well. Don't force your runner to eat, or drink, unless it is vital to them finishing a race. If you can, try to know what items are in your runner's upcoming drop bags, or what items their crew and/or aid station may have. Keep an eye on the environment, research the forecast, and track the time of day so you can effectively prepare night gear and clothing for potential shifts in weather.

4a) Know the race- If possible, find out what you can about the course. Know the distances to each aid station, time cut-offs, and where drop bags and crew access may be. If you've run the race before it's an even bigger bonus. Some runners don't like being told every upcoming turn, or climb on a course, and some will take whatever advice they can get. Be familiar with turns and areas where it may be easy for runners to go off course. Remember, your runner is tired, and may not be looking where they should for markings. Also, though rare, course flagging goes missing. Sometimes locals remove markings by accident, sometimes it's just plain vandalism, and sometimes wind and storms rip down and wash things away that were there earlier. Know the course, as your runner should as well, but also keep a turn sheet available for a back up.

5) Keep moving forward- This is as simple as it gets. Most races are made, or broken in the second half. If your runner can keep moving in the latter parts of a race, then they have the opportunity to finish well. Motivate your runner. Tell stories, use tough love, and remind them why they are out there. If you know your runner can handle you being a drill sergeant, then I have no problem pushing buttons to get them fired up. After all, if tough love is the only thing that can light a fire in your runner, use it.....but, ONLY if you know them well enough to know it will work (see part 3). The last thing you want is to say something that makes your runner feel worse, sad, or guilty that they are going so slow. Otherwise, our main goal is to get them going in a forward direction in however small increments they can manage. Set smaller goals. Perhaps try to cover a particular stretch of the race in a certain time. Urge your runner to only think about getting to the next aid station, the top of the next climb, or just making it to a tree a few hundred feet away. Every step gets your runner that much closer to the finish. Encourage your runner, and tell them they are doing well. Novice runners may not be used to shuffling along at a 13-15 minute mile, and may view it as a failure. Let them know that what they may perceive as agonizingly slow, is actually a very good pace late in a race. If your runner needs to lay down, set a goal time for how long they can rest, then get them up as soon as possible.

6) Don't take things personally- Your tired runner may not have much to say to you. They have just run 80 miles, and still have 20 to go, so forgive them if they don't jump into your conversation with elated enthusiasm. They may snap at you for something as simple as putting Gatorade in the bottle they only wanted water in, for not closing the lid on their camel back correctly, or for not grabbing ice when you passed the last aid station. Toss it all out the window. What people say in ultras, stays at the ultra. A very tired runner can often act exactly like a drunk person, so don't take what they do, or say personally. It's your job to keep everyone's heads level, and if needed, just let your runner vent and get it out of their system. I have only ever had one runner who never thanked me for pacing her, but 99.99% of everyone else will be grateful as soon as they are back to their normal selves.

7) IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU!- This is the most important aspect. I have heard pacers grumble about how slow they had to go, how it took 15 hours to go 20 miles, and how all they did was walk and stop every ten feet. When it comes time for someone to pace your tired and beat up ass for 40 miles, you'll be thanking them for the company. Deal with it, and know that signing up to pace could be a crash course in patience. Your pacing duties should not be part of your training. I've seen this scenario play out as well. The pacer was going to do a 30 mile long run anyway, their friend asked them to come pace, and they figured it's the same distance, so why not? Then, they get upset because it wasn't as quality of a workout as they had hoped. Pacing is not your workout, it's not your training run, and it most likely won't be up to par with the training you had hoped to do. NEVER take on a pacing job, because you see it as a way to kill two birds with one stone. It should always be about helping the runner, and not you. Don't project your goals onto your runner. If your runner's goal is to run 100 miles in 25 hours, but you want them to break 24, stick to their plan, not yours. I'm sure if they realize a sub 24 is in reach, they might be willing to go for it, but respect the game plan that is already in place.

7a) Though pacing is not about the pacer, remember to take care of yourself too. Some pacers can get so unselfishly focused on their runner, they forget to take care of their own needs. When Geoff Roes won Western States in 2010, his pacer, elite runner Dave Mackey, had to drop out for a while because he did not watch out for himself. You need to be healthy enough to stay with your runner and think with enough clarity for the both of you.

8) Get your hands dirty- Fact. Runners will be very dirty and gross, especially given the distance and terrain they must cover. You need to be okay with touching your runner's sweaty dirty packs, slimy gel covered water bottles, and salt drenched clothing. The idea of blood, sweat, and tears is often just a cliché, but in ultras you will likely deal with all of it. While you are not expected to do surgery, though you may have to pop big juicy blisters, you can't be fussy about dealing with the grime that comes from another person's hard effort. When you are in their position, you won't want your pacer being afraid to touch you. You will also deal with your runner's other bodily functions. Some people will have bad body odor, they will fart in front of you, pee on themselves, shoot snot rockets, and many other things you tend to not see in every day life. Be cool about it. Whatever keeps them comfortable is what is important. Sometimes runners just need the physical reassurance of a pat on the back, a hand shake, or a big hug. They deserve better than you wanting to stay clean. Remember point number 7. It's not about you.

9) Celebrate your runner- It may be their 800th race, or first ever. Celebrate their journey and the fact you had such an integral part in it. Celebrate if your runner achieves all their goals and more, and if not, celebrate them overcoming their obstacles to still finish. Succeed, struggle, or fail, embrace the time with your runner as they experience a special part of life. When the day comes for you to be paced, celebrate the fact that somebody is willing to join you on your journey as well.