Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Black Canyon 100K - Grit, Pride and a DNF

Go West. Go West.

If I wanted to seriously appear on the big stage of ultrarunning, it meant venturing out west. In the later stages of a successful 2014, I began to really embrace the idea of doing a western ultra. Looking at the calendar in terms of both other potential races and time off of work, I landed on Aravaipa Running's Black Canyon 100K (this year part of the Montrail Ultra Cup). So around Thanksgiving, I signed up for the trip out.

Black Canyon was a perfect choice. Course suited a lot of my strengths. The average high for the Phoenix, AZ region is usually around 70 a temp, I adore. And coming from Philadelphia, PA, where we average around 45 degrees, not a huge jump. Furthermore, the 100K was 6 weeks out from Umstead 100 at the end of March allowing me plenty of time to recover. However, in no way did the assumptions I made play out as expected.....

Going in, I expected to have a good solid base of training. In other words, fully healthy. After Batona, I had been enduring 4 weeks of bronchitis, translating into 4 weeks of little running. And forget it if I tried to run outdoors. Hack a lung central. Usually, in addition to my running mileage, I bike commute to the office. Also out the window. It was not until a week before the race, I could really do anything. Talk about a blow to my conditioning. Only a few people knew going into the race I was experiencing this.

Weather, you could say was the big player. My expectations were way off in the reality. Winter here in Philadelphia has been more like highs of 20. And as race day got closer the forecast for Black Canyon called for temps in the 80s. So instead of a manageable 25 degree difference, it was headed for a 60+ degree shock. In a fully exposed area, this scared the heck out of me. Due to this, I packed one of my Ultimate Direction hydration vests with some Nathan's waist pack bottles for use later in the race.


The night before the race, I did not have the best of sleeps mainly due to some fear of the heat. Yes, it really was freaking me out beforehand. But once the race started, that was going to have to go out the window in such a deep men's field.

My strategy was simple enough. Take advantage of the cooler portion of the day before the sun really gets up. And then once it got warm, do what I can with the goal of finishing. For a while this worked well. For the 1st 18 miles, I was in a solid pack of runners but started to feel off but I was still running at a reasonable but untaxing pace. Once I left the 24 mile aid station, things changed. I was out of there around 3:02. It was a good 24 miles (I was still in the top 10 at this point) but my race after that no longer became a race. The warmth really began and the lack of training started to show up. My pace suffered. However, I told myself I did not come out to DNF. I came to finish no matter the time. I pushed on. During this section, eventual Women's Winner Caroline Boller passed me. She looked solid. And just before the aid station, fellow Trail Whippass Member, Michele Yates caught up to me. She left the station before I did as I was utilizing some extra fancy sponge cool down equipment. (Ok, it was a large sponge sitting in a big bowl of ice water.)

Maybe it was the sponge coolant but the next section was fairly well to me. There was a pep to my step again and I moved decently passing Michele and a couple others. But while I ran, the pace still was slow. In my head, I was moving aid station to aid station in want to finish this thing survival mode. Eventually, I made it to Black Canyon City around mile 37. (Taking a fall on the way in on the out and back.) Here, I had a drop bag for me with my UD pack and bottles. Prior to that point, I was running with a visor and a Nathan handheld. A headgear swap also occurred. Now I was sporting a full hat so I could put ice in it. The Nathans bottles I was using on the front of the UD pack had one purpose, cool down water. And with this being the longest stretch before an aid station, vital equipment.

But instead of getting juiced up and getting into a groove, the sun and heat were taking there toll. The aid station could not come soon enough. Eventually when it did, I was now asking what mile I was at and how far to the next station. As it turned out, it was mile 46 and 4.5 to the next. My watch had me at around 8 hours. I mention this because it took me close to an hour and a half to cover that distance. My pace felt like a crawl. I was passing some 50K participants which at least made me not feel like I was alone. For some reason, when I finally got the next aid station in sight, my body did not want to take another step. 400 yards out from the station, I had to pause for a second. It was at that moment, my day was done. In no way was I going to be able to cover the last 11 miles. Sure I had been out for 9:20 giving me over 8 hours to make the cut-off but I had no headlamp. Which not really a huge deal since I am sure I could have latched on with another runner with one. Physically, my body told me enough. Walking into the aid station, I gave my number and uttered 'I'm dropping out'.

Did I want to finish? Absolutely, given it was my first time to race an ultra out west. And to be honest, that is what kept me going even when I knew my day as a contender was done. It was pure pride and trying to represent the east coast. I dug as deep as I could have.

Once I was out, I layed on a cot for a bit with a cold rag around my neck before some roll and puke action. Knowing it was an aid station that allowed crews, I was able to get a ride to the finish area. While I was walking well, it took about another hour to feel better. Should I have just waited the 2 hours total to make a finish? You could say possibly but when I made my decision, I reached a point continuing was not possible. I knew it and knew it was a reality I could not turn an eye to.

It was nice to be able to speak with some people at the finish including both Caroline and Men's Winner, Ford Smith. Ford ran a tremendous race.

Bravo to everyone who got a finish. It was a tough day out there for many of the contenders as a list of DNF's could show you.

I cannot be upset because I went to my end. Normally it gets me a finish but when I'm compromised from the start, you see how far it gets you. It got me pretty damn far. And I can look at Black Canyon as a good time on my feet. Since I have the Umstead 100 mile at the end of March, no time to dwell on the bad but to find the positive. There are some adjustments that will be in place for Umstead.

And hopefully in the future, I'll be back out west for another race. In the meantime, I leave with this feeling....Black Canyon really made me realize how much I love trees!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Wintery Mix - A wet start to 2015

So we are roughly three weeks into the new calendar year of 2015. I’d love to say it has been going smashingly but it has been a bit of a struggle. But if this blog was all sugarplums and roses, I’d be either the greatest runner ever or just not honest. I’d bet money on being neither. Currently having a nasty cough does not help matters. Especially, considering the timing of the cough but I’ll circle back around to that in a bit.

For this month, I had two races on my plate right out the gate.

One really out the gate on 1/3 down in Elkton, MD at a race called PHUNT. PHUNT has been around for some time now but this was the first year of an entry fee as the run transitioned from a fat-ass to a full blown race. Carl Perkins, the RD, really did a tremendous job on a number of accounts and it showed with 350 (correct me if I am wrong, Carl) individuals signing up to tackle the 25K and 50K courses. Originally, I was not going to do PHUNT but back around late October, you could say some bugs were put in my ear by my friend Maggie and Carl, himself. Part of this was due to Brian Tinder flying out from Arizona for the race. Brian is a member of Adidas’ Ultra Team. Eventually, I folded to the pressure and signed up for the race. To be one of the best, you race the best. You could say that was my first mistake. And I say mistake because I really should have expected other factors around the date of the race to impact race day. See I work for a financial company that just so happens to match their fiscal year to the calendar year. You might be able to guess, I should have saw the crazy workload coming. Boy did it come. It also matters that it is the time of year when people have to use time off or lose it. Both my boss and I fall into this category. So here we are with a major project and understaffed. Add in the demands of the holiday and I toed the starting line at PHUNT much more tired than I usually would. Of course, I had to put thoughts of being tired out of my head once we started. I did my best by taking the race out from the start trying to get into a nice flow and hopefully open some gap on Brian and Chris Beck. Lets say, my plan did not work. I felt tight in my shoulders and knew I was not in for my best day. I could not get into a smooth rhythm. Towards the end of the 1st 25K loop, I felt like a sitting duck. I let Brian and Chris move ahead. Aside from catching them both at the S/F aid station, this was the closest to the lead I would be the rest of the day. It was now cold and a slight drizzle was moving in. I thought about not going back out but made myself move forward. In hindsight, I probably should have brought more layers with me on that second loop. I muscled through as much as I could just trying to enjoy the scenery a bit more. And if I got close to the lead great. I was being honest with myself what I had in me. Eventually after the second major aid station, I caught up with Chris whose day took a bad turn and just kept moving. For a little bit, that put a spark in me but when I learned Brian had ten minutes on me with less than 5 to go, that bubble was popped. I meandered in to the finish content with second place and was happy to be out of the cold even if my body was still cold. Eventually I layered some clothes and took a nap in a chair. Conditions were getting worse and by the number of people who dropped from the 50K down to the 25K, it emphasized how crummy a day it was. A few of the TrailWhippAss folks dropped but the majority were still out on the course so I was waiting for the rest of the flock to come in. Dylan ran a great race for third. Maggie tied for 1st female. Eventually Ryan and Destrie made it in. It was at that point of us all being in that I headed home. Next year, I am going back but only for 25K. I learned my lesson of trying to race a 50K at one of the company’s busiest periods. Congrats to Brian Tinder for coming out east and running a textbook race for a solid win in miserable weather.

Up second was a super small race I did last year, the Batona 50. This year it on 1/19 and was extended from the 53.4 mile distance of the Batona Trail to 55 miles so people could run to their cars.  Also, notable is the decision to do away with the long 50K option. 2015 meant all or nothing. I had a blast in the inaugural running so once registration had opened I signed up. Batona fit perfectly into my schedule as it was a nice long effort far enough out from Black Canyon (on 2/14). A week out the weather looked fantastic. However, as the week progressed, there began a call  for rain. But this was not to be until after 3pm. Based on my goal of close to 7 hours, I was not worried. Then the time moved to 1pm. I got concerned enough to run out to buy a piece of gear I did not have. A light packable rain shell that could handle the rain. Night before, the talk of rain turned to 11am! Holy cow, this is not what I wanted to hear. But of course, it got better as I started developing a little cough the day before. Terrific timing. My cough told me I would have to run a pace that did not induce coughing. With this being a 55 mile run, that was not expected to be a problem. Race morning, I woke up feeling nice and rested until at PHUNT. I felt good because Peg was driving me down to the race and would be supporting me at the even number aid stations. Given the weather forecast this benefited me by having access to additional clothing without needing to carry more. Batona is a super small race with only 8 people toeing the start this year. Once the RD, Angie sent us off, I went out nice and comfortable running wise. I could not say the same about the weather as immediately precipitation started to fall. For the most part the trail was very runnable. Caution had to be taken on the road crossings from thin-ice and patches of the trail had ice too. I went through the 1st aid station without stopping since it was early. When I got to Peg at aid station 2 (Paul was manning the official support station), I had her assist with refilling my handheld and with giving me a cough drop. I had encountered a few spots when I throttled my pace down, I would cough. It was in this stretch before AS 3, that two things would happen, I would scrape my knee after a minor slide on some ice and I would lose my GPS signal. Denis at AS 3 helped by pouring some water on my knee to clean up some of the blood. The rain was not washing it away. Oh, I should mention the rain just kept getting steadier now. I was not having any fun. I was not soaked but a cold rain with trail ponding was wearing me down. It felt like the horrible weather at PHUNT again but worse since I would be out much longer. As I made it into AS 4, I decided to drop. I had been running for a little over 3 hours and did not want to subject myself to another 4-5 hours of rain. I was thinking about my health predominately. Having a cough meant I was compromised to a degree and did not want to make matters worse in the long run. Amazingly, three hearty souls finished the full race! I applaud them for their determination in quite possibly the worst race weather I have been a part of.  Also, amazing dedication to the volunteers who supported these three people on their finish. Ironically, the finish rate for the race was higher than last year when only two people finished.

So for those keeping score at home 2015 has yielded a 2nd place and a DNF. Not the start I was hoping for especially since the Batona race was a great long run for Black Canyon. I’ll have to regroup a bit. I’ll be having a lighter mileage load this week to tend to my health. And I will figure out how I will get another long run in before Black Canyon.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Looking Back and Moving Forward: 2014 in Review

Ok, I originally did a recap on Monday (12/22) in this space that was super brief and, in hindsight, not very good. I will chalk it up to embracing being home from the office and wanting to play Akrham Origins (a video game).

To do myself right, I'm blowing up the ship and re-writing this entry. Lets see how it goes this time.

Between my last entry where I ran the Bucks County Marathon, I added three other races: Philadelphia Marathon, Lansdowne YMCA Reindeer Run 5K and Wissahickon Wanderers Inaugural Winter Solstice 10K Trail Run.

To do a whirlwind recap, they went like this:

Philadelphia Marathon - Was a last minute decision. I told myself leading in I would relax enjoy it and take whatever comes. Well for 10 miles I was on a great pace but my legs had too many race miles on them so I dropped down to the Half Marathon with a port-a-john pit stop. In the end it was a solid tempo run. Nothing memorable.

Lansdowne YMCA Reindeer Run - I had run it twice in the past normally as my closing 5K race of the season. Considering 2014 was light on fast 5K courses, I opted to hit up this race. I pounded out a 15:32 on the course for my second fastest ever 5K time. And I was home by 9:30 am! Oh yeah.

Winter Solstice 10K - Last up was a free 10K trail race put on the Wissahickon Wanderers. If you wanted a shirt that was 15 bucks. Luckily, I squeezed into the closed out field. Official time was 39:57. Of course, it was not a true 10K. I mean we are talking existing trails in the Wissahickon. That location alone throws GPS's batty. It was a great course that had a little bit of everything the Wissahickon has to offer. And I closed out racing as a 34 year old.

Now on to the meat and potatoes:

Year in Review....

Initially, in the old version, it was weak. Just a few bullet points. Yawn. There still be some but I want to include some stats too that did not fit in a good/bad post.

Miles run (as of 12/24) - 3813
Miles raced - 719.6
Number of races completed - 38 (Had 1 DNF this year)
Avg race - 18.93 miles

Total Time racing: 103:01:54
Pace per mile: 8:35

Common race distances: (does not add to total races due to other distances)
50M - 4
50K - 5
100K - 1
100M - 1
HM - 2
Marathon - 3
5K - 14

Trail - 19
Road - 19

As you might be able to tell, I did quite a bit of running this year. It was by far the most I have ever run in a given year in terms of both race mileage and total mileage. Going into the year, I was aiming for 2500 to 3000 since I felt last year of being over 3400 might have been too much. Well, I went in the other direction in a big way. Never would have imagined running almost an ultra a month. However, as I gravitate more and more toward ultras, it does make sense. In planning some of 2015, I already have 4 lined up before the end of March.

One of the best by-products performance-wise of my transition as a runner has been the incredible impact on my marathon times. After failing to make the starting line for 3 marathons since 2011, I finally was able to toe the line for not one, not two but three marathons. All three ended up being my fastest three marathons in my running career. I even went under the magical 2:30 mark once. (Missed a second instance by 4 seconds.)

Some of my races standout including the 3 marathons with the 2:24:55 PR being the biggest highlight. Having two sub 3:25 50K races was awesome. In the first instance, I ran for the state 34 year old 50K PA State record that I missed by a few minutes. The second instance I got closer when I did not try for it. Thankfully, the 35 year old record is around the same time, so I can go into the year hoping to get a state record there. My OSS/CIA 50M was memorable for having to race through the woods in the dark. Falling quite a bit does help with the memory but it was also fun in a creepy way. Especially, when I think it was the latest I stayed up in several years. Also, I finally set the FKT at Batona I had originally planned for 2013. I'm looking forward to knocking more time off that in 2015 since it is a race now.

My biggest disappointment on the year was not getting the 100K qualifier I told myself I was going after. It was the reason I went to a road ultra in CT. However, the road just mentally did not agree with me on a day I should have had someone yelling at me to keep going so I dropped to a 50K. Second would be my DNF at Cayuga Trails. I was locked in to run my tail off but I ended up with a groin injury too early that I should not shake. Third would be having my worst performance in an ultra at Stone Cat. I was primed for a fast time on a course that suited me but external factors impacted the amount of sleep I got the night before that destroyed my mental focus.

The mixed bag of the year was the Viaduct 100. For 90+ miles of the race, I led at a pace around 15 hours, but my body decided it had enough. However, I did manage to finish after nearly a 12 hour break thanks to wonderful support from friends freshly made. Emotionally it is a high and low in my year. One of the goals of 2015 is to run a straight through 100M. It is going to happen!

Best part of 2014? Expanding my network of running friends. Specifically getting to know the Trail Whippass folks. (If it was not for Trail Whippass people, I would not have finished Viaduct. )I've gotten to see/read/hear many of them accomplish great things, including my friend Maggie Guterl who is going to be a Team USA member for the 24 hour World Championships! 

So, that is the recap. Better than bullet points I think, even if it only covers some of the past year. For the complete picture, read all of the posts in 2014. (I dare you!)

With an eye towards the future, 2015 is taking shape. I start the year with:

  • Phunt 50K
  • Batona Trail (55 mile edition)
  • Black Canyon 100K (traveling to AZ for this bad boy)
  • Umstead 100M (this time I will have an awesome crew to keep me rocking)

Some carryovers would included chasing that 100K qualifier and a sub 6 hour - 50 Mile. Not sure where they may fit into the year's racing schedule. It might not be possible but I'd like to hope so. Timing is always the toughest part, especially since the fast 50 milers are in the fall when I aim to tackle the Steamtown Marathon again.

Mainly, I just hope to grow as a runner. Maybe put in a few less miles. (But I did say the same thing last year.)

Thanks for reading and being part of the journey!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bucks County Marathon: Sure, lets race a marathon today!

As loyal followers of this blog may know, my race at Stone Cat did not go anywhere near as planned. Thankfully, lots of running and hiking on trails in Maine (particularly on Pleasant Mountain) did a lot to heal. Not to mention that during that span, my legs felt really good.

So it was not out of the question that when I returned to Philadelphia on Friday that I would see if there was a race to do. Oddly enough, this past weekend was light on racing. However, I did notice that up in Washington Crossing, the Bucks County Marathon was taking place on Sunday. I filed that away. Saturday morning, I woke up and did nice quiet 10 miles along the river. Still, I thought about the marathon on Sunday. Normally, a marathon after such a long easy day would be out.

After discussing it with the spouse, I decided I'd figure it out Sunday morning. The 9am start with less than an hour drive, made it easy to sleep in and make the call when I wake up.

I didn't have a great sleep on Saturday due to some tooth discomfort. So I had no problem waking up on Sunday. After mulling it a bit, I decided around 7:15 to go run up in Washington Crossing. (Left at 7:30) At this point, I was more towards the decision to run the marathon. Part of what was holding me back was the race day fee of 125 bucks. I don't normally make snap judgments with high cost like this. My take was if on the way up, I don't want to race, I can run along the towpath on the NJ side. If anything, it would break up some monotony of running the same places near home.

Drive up along I-95 felt good. As I pulled into the parking lot close to 8:15, I was going all in. I was running the marathon. I walk the 1/3 mile to the registration area with my gear bag and register. I hand over my check and get my number. I was not the only person who decided to race a marathon that morning as around 11-12 people signed up race day! Managed to get a small size long sleeve tech-shirt too!

At this point, I find a good spot for my bag near the start/finish and spot Pat McCloskey, the RD. I chat him up a bit and ask who was the guy looking to go fastest. He tells me Brandon Carter, last year's number two was hoping to run 2:37. This was the same time, I jotted down on my entry form for prediction considering the 50 miler a mere week earlier. At this time, I also find out Pat does comps if you ask and provide information to justify it. Did not know this. Once we go off for our respective duties, I hit the line-free port-a-potties. It was great! I should mention that if you are looking for a nice size marathon of 500 people max, this is a great event as the number of potties can handle much more in terms of number, especially with public restrooms nearby!

Anyways, I shake a bit of rust off my legs and line up in the first wave. Before I know it, Pat is giving us the go and we are off. Immediately, I settle in alongside Brandon. Let me say he has a fantastic beard but he was also a Redskins fan wearing an Eagles jersey. We seemed to separate ourselves relatively quickly on the initial paved section before hitting the towpath. The towpath was mainly packed dirt or fine gravel throughout. In all, we might have had 3-4 miles of pavement the whole race. Our first aid station was around mile 2. Brandon grabbed something and dropped back for a moment. I skipped this station. In a bit, Brandon reconnected. A few more miles down the road, same thing happened with my flying by the aid station and Brandon dropped off when he took aid. This time however, he did not come back. Knowing his talent, I moved as steady as I could. I was not really checking my mile splits. Every few miles, I would look. But with the day cool and feeling good, I ran comfortably. My mile times showed I was going under 6 minute pace. With the course out and back, I figured I would likely positive split so go out in whatever and hope to come back in 6 minute pace. I would hope that could be enough. Not until the turnaround, would I know if that was a possible strategy to implement.

In regards to the course, the setting was so beautiful and quiet. All I would see or hear really is the lead cyclist a bit ahead of me and the smattering of spectators.

Eventually, I reached the turnaround in around 1:15:24. At this point, it was look at my watch time and see what my lead is. Less than a few minutes later, I would see Brandon in 2nd. I figured I had 3 1/2 minutes up. Another 2-3 minutes I saw 3rd place. So I felt I had at least 2nd locked up if I was to be caught. However, on the way out, I noticed the course was a tad uphill in spots, so when I saw the first people behind me, I was on a downhill grade so I opened it a bit to keep the tempo up. I felt smooth still. And the best part now was all of the other runners encouraging me as they were headed out! Their support kept me energized more than the occasional gatorade or gels I was consuming. My thoughts turned to running as fast as possible and hope I had 4 minutes up with 10K remaining. There was no longer any desire to settle for second, I wanted to win. I kept pushing. Around the 10K mark, the course circles around giving runners a chance to spot others in the race. Coming out of this little paved loop section, I know I had at least 4 minutes with a little over 5 to go. At this point, I told myself, do not give back more than 15 seconds a mile. Yet, because I was now checking my splits at mile intervals, I was holding just under 6 pace! Not only was I easily going to go under 2:40....I was going to crack 2:35!

With a mile to go, I was now on the 'spiral of death' which is how Pat described the early and last part of the course which make up the majority of the pavement in the race. And after 20+ miles on soft surface, the pavement sucked. So much so, once I knew I had the race victory now, I was like, I'm going to drop a 7 minute mile here and enjoy this. If I run 2:33....awesome. And for much of the spiral I did that, until the last .2. I looked at my watch and saw if I hammered just that bit more, I could crack 2:32. That is exactly what I just did! I ran through the line in 2:31:53. My third fastest marathon just a week after a 50 miler and a month after my 2:30:03 in Steamtown. I was amazed at what I just did.

Heck, I even jokingly looked at Pat and said 'Can I have my race entry back?' Surprisingly, he said yes to it! That was a cherry on top! Especially since I made such a split decision to do the race.

Pat found my drumsticks and gave me a 'what the heck are these for?' We got some nice shots of us with him holding them.

After a bit second place came in but it was not Brandon. It was Brian Cullen in 2:47:02. Brandon held on to third. So I turned a three/four minute lead at the HM into a 15 minute win. Seeing them come in, I walked my gear back to the car while I had energy and to let Peg know how things went. With awards to be done after the third female, I was going to hang out and enjoy some of the delicious food which included handmade veggie burgers! Tasty! I didn't eat much else but I certainly was stuffing my face with one of those burgers when Pat did the awards. It was funny. At least to me because I was so classy looking with a face full of food.

Not long following awards, I said my goodbyes to Washington Crossing and drove home for a lovely evening. All in all a great day!

A few other tidbits:
The course is not entirely flat as many of the junctions where there is a bridge that crosses over the path, the path dips down and up for a few speed bumps.

I've been experiencing some tooth pain since around Thursday. The cold has been good for it so running has not been a problem. (Today, I went to the dentist and there was no signs of anything major so the cause is a bit of a mystery at the moment. Hopefully, some clean up he did will help.)

Raced in my one of my pairs of the Brooks T-7. Knowing the surface I knew I did not need to use the Saucony A3's since they don't have too many big races left. My alternative would have been the Montrail FluidFlex. But once I walked across the field and saw the moisture ice up a bit on my toes, I swapped out for the Brooks. Both the T-7's and the FluidFlex's were considered due to the light weight and race surface.

Now, I know another place where I can go enjoy some easy but scenic running.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Stone Cat 50 Mile Recap: Crumbling Kitten

Today is November 15th, one week after I ran the Stone Cat 50 Miler up in Willowdale State Forest in Ipswich, MA. It has taken me this long to write up my recap for a couple of reasons. One, I was on vacation in Maine where I tend to be much more removed from technology. Second, I was busy running the mountain near the house we stay at and doing some hikes. Both of these have been beneficial in enabling me to even do a race recap for Stone Cat.

In short, I consider it the worst ultra performance of my ultra-career. (Despite placing 2nd in 6:28:23) Respectfully, I should have seen this coming....

Back over the summer I was looking for a fast 50 mile race to take a crack at sub 6 hours. In examining my options, I got down to Stone Cat and the Nashville Ultra in early November. (Due to JFK's entry fee, I did not consider it.) Stone Cat became my preferred choice as it could easily be tied into a vacation to the house my spouse shares with her sister in Maine. Plus, it was two weeks after Fire on the Mountain as opposed to just 1 for Nashville. Thankfully, I lucked out on the lottery and got into Stone Cat back in July. As thus, Stone Cat became a nice A-race to close out the year of big races. And despite it being the third marathon or longer in a month span, I was geared to it. I had to be knowing Samuel Jurek and Sebastien Roulier were in the field. Both guys had times sub 6:15. My logic was it would take a sub 6 possibly to win on an extremely runable course. So yeah, some pressure there.

A couple weeks back, the spouse told me she did not ask her relatives living 45 minutes from the race site about staying with them since we'd have out dog Falcon. This left a bit of a small scramble but luckily the race hotel, the Comfort Inn in Danvers, took pets in addition to having a great rate! This settled things.

However.....on the Thursday, before the race, I locked my keys in my car during a run. My spouse had to come back from work in NYC early to retrieve the car for me since she had the spare pair on her. Stress where I shouldn't have had it....not good.

The next day, Friday, we drove up to MA with only a dash of problems the worst of which was 95 20 miles from the hotel. Not bad since we still made good time, had an easy time checking in, prepped my bottles and gear for the morning while grabbing some take out Panera. (Sadly, they did not remember to give me my Cinnamon Roll.)

All this was fine.....until.....sleep. Went to bed around 10 to wake up around 4:30. An hour later, Falcon barked. We had never stayed in a hotel with him before. He usually is not a barker but he is always attentive. (He is a shepard/chow mix.) Typically, telling him once to stop does the trick. Not this night. Anyways, while he did not bark throughout the night, this instance kept me awake far too long. Stress level HIGH! In the end, I managed only 3 hours of sleep due to being unsettled.

To say I was pissed would be an understatement, I was furious. Thankfully, the drive to the race was easy enough. My spouse, Peg, and Falcon came along. Falcon would be in and out of the car during my race. Peg was a trooper on this day because she knew I was not going to be rosy after the night. My focus was off and physically, I was exhausted. These factors played a big role in my effort.

At check in, I ran into a former HS XC teammate's brother, who I also knew. He was there crewing for a friend of his also doing the 50. It was great to see him and gave me a slight boost.

Before I knew it, 6:15 had arrived and we were off. Three of us, Samuel, Sebastien and I ran together up front almost from the get go. We had some nice conversation. It was really the best part of the day for me. Eventually, Sebastien dropped off the back. I was feeling exhausted. I recall looking at my watch and one point going, 'it's only been 15 minutes! I feel like it has been 30' That said it all. Despite running with Sam for a while, he pulled away and put 2 minutes on me before the end of the 1st lap.

All I could think about was how exhausted I was. Essentially, I was mentally defeated already. During ultras, we all hit that bad patch. Well, I spent much of the race trying to find a good patch. As I finished the first of four 12.5 mile loops, I changed handhelds and mentioned how exhausted I felt to Peg. I was so out of it, I had almost forgotten to take off my gloves, arm warmers and tech shirt I had on at the start due to the cold. Rookie. I tried to run faster but I just did not have any gears. My head and body kept me back from pushing with any relative ease. I was fighting myself and I was losing. After the second lap, Sam had gained another 2 minutes on me. At this point, my only goal really was to finish. This was because I made a promise to Peg that once the race was over, I would be in vacation mode. And the only way, I could do it was to finish because I would really have been pissed about the lack of sleep had I not run 50 miles. Sam's lead grew after 3 to 8 minutes. My pace was ugly. I wanted to sit down and nap or just go for a walk through the woods. I mentioned this time to Peg that I wanted to go to Maine after the race instead of staying another night so we could see family the following morning.

In the end, I slogged through the last lap and SOMEHOW managed to finish in 2nd place. I was happy to be done but sad that I could not give it my best. I allowed myself to mentally lose prior to reaching the starting line. Granted physically, I was drained from the lack of sleep but I do think beginning a race in a bad headspace was my biggest downfall. Due to that, I would claim this as my worst performance since becoming an ultramarathoner. There was no reason I could not have given Samuel a better run for his money. And let me say, he ran an outstanding race. My hat's off to him.

Eventually, I came off my stance of wanting to leave for Maine immediately. And if you were to ask Peg, I handled things much better than you would have expected. Thankfully, the weather in Maine was ideal and on Monday when I finally got to hit trails on Pleasant Mountain, I was able to move on.

Where do I go from here? Maybe try to add something before the end of the year. Likely won't be a 50 miler since I would have to find money to travel for one of those.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Fire on the Mountain 50K - Finale (for now?)

Long long ago this year, I signed up for the race this entry is about, Fire on the Mountain 50K in the western part of Maryland.

It had been on my radar for a couple of years now. Back in 2012, when I was unable to do Steamtown, I really was looking for a way to take advantage of my fitness in a non-marathon but long race environment. Doing some internet searching, I came about Fire on the Mountain and Rock N The Knob (in PA). Both were the same weekend and after some thinking, I settled for the 30K of Rock N The Knob. (Did not regret that decision.)

Last year, I was geared on doing Harrisburg before a stress fracture derailed things.

But 2014 was the year I was destined to run Fire on the Mountain (or FOTM for short from here on out.) It helped that the RD, Kevin, had a deal of $20 registration around January. That sealed it as I sent in my check as soon as possible. Little did I know when I signed up that FOTM would be my 10th ultra of 2014.

With so many races that required focus this year, FOTM, while important, did not get a lot of attention until a few weeks ago when I realized I was hitting a gauntlet of races: Steamtown, FOTM and Stone Cat. Each of them being two weeks apart. Much of my emphasis was on a great Steamtown performance that left me little time to worry about logistics for FOTM, including lodging. I flipped back and forth between a Super 8 in Hancock or camping at the finish line/bus shuttle area. Eventually after a bad night of sleep on Friday before the race, I settled for the Super 8, where a number of fellow runners were staying. Oddly enough, I was not near them or saw them during my time there.

I rolled into Hancock around 6-ish and went off to find dinner. Being a vegetarian in this town did not seem to be a good thing as it limited my safe bets. Hardee's probably would have been the safest but that would have meant just fries. I thought about the Pizza Hut and almost ended up there. It was last option. After an attempted, find something to microwave at the local Sav-A-Lot, I ended up with a medium pizza and fries from Sheetz. Amazingly, not a total disaster. I knew I was risking it with the pizza but I had faith in Sheetz to be edible. In a pinch, I'd do that again.

Back in my room, I watched some World Series action and checking for any last minute race updates before hitting the hay. As much as I needed a good night of sleep, it was not to be. It was ok but not totally refreshing. But I had time to wake up as I had a 30 minute car ride to the finish/bus area and a 45 minute ride after that.

Thankfully, I did not get lost getting to where I needed to be since it was on some unlit roads. Upon my arrival, I checked in, got my number and went off into the woods for a little doubling down. After some freshening up, I confirmed with the RD that we could wear sweats to the start and they would get back to the finish. Since it was cold, I wanted to stay as warm as possible, especially since two weeks ago in Steamtown, the bus did not have heat. (This time that was not an issue.) Plus having a bag for gear to be returned, allowed me to listen to music on the bus ride out. As I was about to get on the bus, I looked up to the sky and saw the most beautifully clear sky in my life seeing so many stars that felt closer than ever before. But I could not stand in awe forever, I had to get on the bus.

During the ride, I listened to a combination of In Flames' Sirens Charms and Gary Numan's Splinter albums. I managed to relax and catch a few winks during the bus ride. Before I knew it, we were at our destination following a small walk down a dirt road to Point Overlook. Like many others, I went off into the woods one more time. A few minutes before the start, I shed my layers and put them in my sack pack loading it into the back of the designated pick-up truck. As we lined up, got last minute instructions and were about to go, a couple of stragglers arrived giving FOTM a brief delay in starting. After a spell, the official start commands were given.

At once the lot of us started down the dirt road we walked before merging onto a road for about a mile before we were to swing onto the red trail. (To avoid getting lost, our course instructions were given as Red Trail ->Green Trail -> Fire/Logging Rd -> Purple Trail. These came in very handy.) Down the road, I met Wade, who was running in his first ultra. As we turned onto the red trail, I moved to the front on the single track. We hit some downhill with technical footing and a lovely surprise of a downed tree. It was a few feet before the tree, I rolled my ankle. It hurt immediately and locked up. Wade and another runner passed me. I thought about dropping out right there. However, I felt, I might be able to loosen it and walked for around 30 seconds down the trail. I was moving ok and would continue to do so all day. However, my ankle injury did limit my flow and speed as I was uber aware to not take any risks on it. The red trail was far and away the most technical section of the day. Great fun that I would have loved more at 100%. But I moved on. Before the first major climb of the day, I passed the second place running and could see Wade ahead. With the steep grade, I had no intention on running up the hill and used my power hike technique where I put both hands behind my back. This works well for me. (And credit goes to Ben Mazur, who is the first person I heard use this method.) All along this trail, I would see Wade and then not see Wade. Typically, this was happening along the sections that I really took it easy on my ankle. Eventually, we popped off the red trail at an aid station before moving straight ahead onto the green trail.

It was on the green trail that I was able to run smoother. In fact, this was my best section of running the whole day. Granted I did take it easy on a lot of the dry water crossings due to the rocks. Around half way through this section, I caught and passed Wade. I slowly crept away. (Later on, I would find out he was having some stomach issues along with making a wrong turn causing him to drop out.) Right before the half way 'Oasis' aid station, I saw some orange blazes that freaked me out with a down directional sign. However, I saw a young girl, who was the RD's daughter, to my right so I went right up the uphill road.

YES! I made it half way and I was going at a much better pace than the first section of the race. I had an outside shot of the course record as I was in 16 and 2:23 with 16 more to go. (CR: 4:38 - Held by Brad Hinton, a tremendous ultra runner who I had the honor of racing at the OSS/CIA Nighttime 50M in June) At the station, I topped off my handheld with orange Gatorade before bounding off.

Knowing, the course going onto the fire/logging road section, I asked Kevin, the RD who happened to be at Oasis, how long the stretch was. 8 miles. I was either going to love or hate this stretch. However, it would be my best shot at giving me breathing room for the purple trail. I ran this the best I could. (The theme of the day.) My ankle being tight was no help pushing the pace. Despite, things, I managed to cover the 8 miles in a little less than an hour giving myself around 1:15 to cover the last stretch on the purple trail.

Going in, I heard the purple trail was the most runable. I would say without the leaves it totally would be. But with a rolled ankle and leaves covering much of the trail, I did not take it like I would. Mainly, I did not want to really do something stupid where I would not be able to race Stone Cat. Part of the decision to be cautious allowed me to enjoy some of the views I could see from the mountain top through the trees. Then again, at the same time, I was wondering which one would be the next to go up. (Answer: none, this was the last mountain.) This section had some great downhill that normally I would have flown done jumping side to side to avoid the rocks but I gingerly took the upper portion of downhill slow. Later on, there would be a more gradual downhill that I could find a solid strip of footing to flow down. Back when I hopped onto the Purple Trail, I thought I might be able to go under 4:30. For much of this stretch it was dangling there. With 3 miles to go, I knew I would have to high tail it in order to do so. I did not. Whatever, the reason, I just enjoyed the scenery of the final miles even if I just wanted to be done. The last hill before the trail's .5 marker, I hiked up, touched the marker and realized, I had the record. I cruised through the rest and out of the woods. In year's past, there had been firewood to grab for the final 1/4 mile. With Kevin, 450 miles from the site, a few minor things did not happen for the race. This was one of them.

In the end, I crossed the line in 4:31:59 taking 6 minutes off Brad's record. I was happy with that considering when I took off my shoes and socks, my right ankle was definitely swollen. (It really looked bad by the time I got home where it was more than a roll that happened. It was a sprain.) Originally, I had hoped to leave around 1pm for my 3 1/2 - 4 hour drive home. Didn't happen that way. What happened was one of the best things of ultras, sitting around with people talking and hanging out. I enjoyed soda and pizza for a few hours. At some point I had to leave, which was 3pm. I wanted to be home no later than 7 because I did want some time to see Peg before she left for NYC.

One thing I mentioned in the title, that I did not mention really was that earlier in the year Kevin announced this was to be the final edition of FOTM. He was unable to find someone to take the race organization on. While I am sad it is the final year, I am extremely delighted that I participated considering it had been on my docket for two years.

Maybe one day, the race will be resurrected and someone will break my CR. It is possible. I believe my ankle cost me 10-15 minutes out there. But that is whatever.

Now, I have another race to turn my attention to...Stone Cat 50.

When is that? Oh in a week of this posting. (Today is 10/31, Stone Cat is 11/8.)

Many thanks to RD Kevin Spradlin for his dedication to put on a race from 450 miles away from the site. Also: Kevin's daughter MacKenzie Spradlin for the photos she took, the aid station staff along with all the other runners who made this race what it was. I have plenty of good memories to last for a long time.

Fueling: Lemon-Lime and Orange Gatorade, Strawberry Banana GU gels and Black Cherry Clif Shot Blocs.

Shoes: LaSpotiva Helios. (Their rock protection saved my hide at FOTM considering my jacked up ankle.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

2014 Steamtown Marathon Report

Destination – Scranton, PA
Objective – STEAMTOWN Marathon

Goals: Top 5, Sub 2:30

A small bit of backstory:
Two years ago, I was scheduled to run the 2012 edition of this very same marathon. Training was locked in and come race week, I knew I was ready to rip through the course and go sub 2:30. Or at least that was the feeling early in the 2012 race week. At around 1am Friday night (technically Saturday morning), I ended up in the ER due to a violent illness that struck at the wrong time. However, it took such a toll, I had to withdraw from the race less than 24 hours before it started. My friend, Matt Byrne, would go on to win his third Steamtown title that day. It would have been great to run with him but alas…..

Flash forward to 2014:
After my 2:24:55 at Two Rivers in March, I reached out to the race committee requested a comp entry into the 2014 Steamtown Marathon. They honored me with their offer of the comp. Between the end of March and the start of October, I really shifted my running logging in long miles and an average of an ultra a month. After the 100K at Green Lakes at the end of August, I knew I had to kick it into high speed. While I dabbled to keep some sort races for foot speed, I knew the marathon would require loads of it. Marathon distance was not the worry. So for the entire month of September, I raced essentially a 5K each weekend. The first couple felt slower than I would have liked but by the end of the month at the Sloppy Cuckoo races, I felt locked in.

In the final week before the race, I was much more nervous than 2012. I didn’t know my competition like I had a couple years back and my identity as a runner was now as an ultramarathoner on the trails. Plus, throw in what happened with the ER and, yes, nervous. One of the few things I was feeling good about was camping the night before the race. I was going to be saving some cash and thus reducing the pressure to win any. However, Thursday night, my partner asked if we could still do the hotel room as she had a rough work week. Amazingly, I settled down quick and made a deal with her anout the room. So in the end we did stay at the TownePlace Suites in Moosic, PA.

Before leaving on Saturday, I found out who the contenders were. It was here, I felt a bit nervous. I had hoped for a top 5 but I was slated to be 6-7th by a few minutes based on projections. (I projected a 2:27. A split the difference between the Two Rivers time and the sub 2:30)

We drove up from Philly and arrived at packet pick-up at Scranton High around 3. During pick-up I grabbed a few gels that I was short (I had two but I race with four) and met up with Matt who was there with his Scranton Running Company. And I bumped into Mel Lancet who was also doing the marathon. I know Mel from Viaduct. That Viaduct family is a tight community. After pick-up, we headed downtown to see about some food and possible shopping. (Not for me but for her.) Kind of struck out on both accounts. But on the plus side, we got a sense of the finish line set-up and getting in and out of Scranton.

Not finding food was fine as we knew there was a Panera Bread across the street from our lodging. Once we checked into our room, that is where we went. I went simple with a classic grilled cheese and tomato soup. (Additionally, I picked up two slices of pizza from a place a few doors down to take back to the room.) While eating, I told my partner, what happens happens. I cannot worry too much about the race now. This was clearly a bit of lowering expectations and not looking forward to 26.2 miles of hard fast mostly pavement racing. Back at the hotel, we settled in for the night watching a small binge session of Breaking Bad. (We were in the middle of the final season. We have since finished.) After that it was in bed around 11pm for a 5am wake up as I had a 6am elite shuttle bus to catch.

The bus ride from downtown Scranton to Forest City was memorable simply because it was cold on the bus. Not freezing but I felt cold. On this ride, I got to see some of the competition for the first time. (Not everyone took the elite shuttle.) For most of the ride, I listened to In Flames’ Siren Charms and sat with my eyes closed, relaxing. 45 minutes later, we made our destination and were escorted to the classroom set aside for us. On the way into the high school building, I ran into Carl Albright, co-RD at Viaduct. Viaduct again on the weekend. (I would later find out another Viaduct-er, Joey Parente was there honoring his friend, Jim.) I said a quick passing hello before coming out and saying a real hello before I warmed up. After warming-up, I returned to the room to relax and found out there were W-9’s to fill out if we expected to win money. Initially, my thought was not to bother. After the preview, I had thrown out the idea of winning money. But on second thought, why not anyways. So I filled out the W-9.

Around 5 minutes before the start, I left the room to make my way to the line. Good thing I didn’t wait longer (as I was the last out) since I barely made it to the line before they started. (Later found out from the 3rd place female, it was started 3 minutes early.) For the first couple of miles, I was with a small group not far behind the leader, Fred Joslyn. However, around mile 2, this group split. A few dropped back and a few latched onto Joslyn. The lead group became 4 and I was stuck in ‘no-man’s land’ in 5th. At which point, I further expected to not finish top 5. But this did not do anything to get me to go slower. I just kept running. The miles ticked off. I could see the lead group pull farther and farther away. Eventually, I heard before the half, they had 3 minutes on me. A lot of this was after Carbondale, where I had to chop stride to go around a car. (It happens. Thankfully, Carbondale got me locked back in focus quickly with their support.)

For miles 14-20, I mentally wanted it over. My pace was starting to sag some. We were on roads I wanted off, praying for the trail section to come give me some relief. Eventually, they came and I was able to zone out. Around 16.5, I heard Matt cheering me on. It was a great push. I needed it and what better way to get it than from someone I know. In this stretch there is a section on some bike path that gave you a chance to see runners within a few minutes. It was here that I felt the first sense of being caught. 6th and 7th did not appear far off. Maybe 30 and 45 seconds up.

Around mile 20, I got a bit of a second wind in the form of seeing 4th place alone ahead. It was Brian Flynn and he looked like he was hurting. With 6th not far (in my head) behind me, I went for Brian. Not guns all out, catch and die myself but steady freddy style. My thought was I can end up hopefully in 5th still if I grab 4th.  It took me a few more miles to catch him. I think it was around mile 22. Around the mile 23 marker, I saw 3rd place!  It was Chass Armstrong. For a brief moment, I got excited but calmed down and took the same approach to chasing him. While I did not feel like I was going faster than prior, I was maintaining which was good enough to catch Chass on the downhill coming out of Greenridge past the mile 24 marker. It was here, I felt confident to make top 5. Now, it was to go for the sub 2:30 time. I was hanging on to it by a thread. I couldn’t go much faster and there was the last big climb before the finish still. However, up ahead in the distance, but visible, was Peter Kemboi in 2nd. I knew I didn’t have much real estate left but I was going to try to catch him. With around ¾ to ½ mile left, we hit the uphill. Peter is closer but still out of reach. My stride hits a wall closer to the top. Brian Crispell is there and gives me a verbal push of encouragement. I crest the hill and run down to the finish line. I do not catch Peter who finished 22 seconds ahead of me. Nor do I crack 2:30 as I finish in 2:30:03. (Fred Joslyn would repeat, winning in 2:22:37)

Normally for me, I would be really upset about the time. With the way the race played out I cannot be really since from mile 2 on, I ran by myself. If I was not so seasoned doing that from ultras, I do not think I would have done as well. My plan was to stop putting any emphasis on the marathon if I went under 2:30 for a second time. So I’m not retired from the distance yet. And I’m okay with that. I ran a smart race and managed to move up places in the closing miles.

Eventually, we said goodbye to Scranton as a celebratory meal at Waffle House awaited us. But I hope to be back next year.

Result: 3rd place overall

Time: 2:30:03

Up Next: Fire on the Mountain 50K (10/26)