Singletrack Maniac 50k

I’m calling this “The Experiment.” If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you probably know that I’ve had some significant trouble finishing my ultramarathons in the past couple years. I have a tendency to become severely dehydrated on even moderately warm days, often with bad results (four DNF’s – including this one – and two hospital visits).

After every episode, after the disappointment dulls a bit, I find myself dissecting everything about the experience to discover what I can do differently to find success at these long-distance endeavors. I’ve tried myriad different fueling and nutrition regimens and I’ve tried running slower, but the end result is frequently the same.

In the aftermath of Seashore last December, I swore off ultrarunning for a while as the disappointments kept coming in more and more dramatic ways. In fact, I spent the winter and spring training for much shorter races, and I only ran one trail marathon because I had already signed up for it. But I still found myself becoming more curious about other approaches I could take to combat my apparent proclivity toward stomach and dehydration issues during ultras.

So it was that I signed up for the Singletrack Maniac 50k just five days before last weekend’s race. I was woefully undertrained, having run only four double-digit runs in the eight weeks since the marathon, the longest of which was 14.5 miles. But I really liked this race when I ran it last year and found myself eager to return.

I would use the race to experiment with some new techniques: I planned to alternate walking and running in an 8/2 pattern, with 8 minutes of easy, relaxed running followed by 2 minutes of walking. I would use the walk breaks to drink as much as I could. I also believed that the slower overall effort would be easier on my stomach and allow me to actually eat food at the aid stations. I brought a hat with me – and I never wear a hat when running – just so I could put ice in it as the temperature increased to help lower my body temperature.

I also really, truly and honestly came to the race with no preconceptions about finish time – I had not done the math of what pace the 8/2 method might produce. I was prepared to do a lot of walking and resting – part of my thinking was that I often approach these races with a finish goal in mind, which probably makes me push harder and eventually leads to the same unhappy ending. I was also prepared to DNF if things started to look bad – my wife is understandably growing wary of my continued participation in these events and I wanted to prove that I could run smart and take care of myself. For those reasons, I also told no one about this race beforehand.

The weather forecast that week showed that we were in for some tough conditions – the high would eventually hit near 90 degrees and the humidity was stifling. Yet I still saw the race as an opportunity to make myself a smarter – and better – ultrarunner.

Race day

The day started with one of my most embarrassing moments as a runner – I showed up late. Somehow I had remembered the start time as 8:00, but when I walked to the empty starting area and was greeted with incredulity by the lone volunteer, I knew something was amiss. It turned out the race had started at 6, and I was now an hour and 15 minutes behind the clock. Aside from the embarrassment, I thought it was actually a stroke of luck because there would be no one to race, a situation that would really support my goal of slow, easy running. This was going to be like a solo training run with fully stocked aid stations.

The first few 8/2 segments passed quickly. I took my shirt off after the second round and already felt cooler. But the humidity was crushing and I was already sweating heavily. I found myself drinking well on my walk breaks and felt positive about my approach.

I won’t go into great detail about the course because the entire day was spent running alone with my thoughts (here’s last year’s report, which has more course description). I never found myself looking at my watch to see the mile splits (I never really knew how far I had gone) or pace. I was so focused on seeing x:x8:00 on my watch to know when to start my next walk break that I really didn’t pay attention to other data. It was actually a very effective way of breaking up the monotony of the run since I was all alone.

The occasional encounter with an aid station was my only method of determining where I was, and I stopped at every one to peruse the food and chat with the volunteers. They all knew I was the guy who had started late, and it made for some humorous conversations and lots of cheers. The volunteers, like last year, were all wonderful and very friendly – which was great since it was my only human interaction all day.

After about 12 miles the heat really started to catch up to me. My stomach was already in a bad place but I was focused on working through it. I grabbed some ice at the Mile 12 (?) aid station and put some in my hat and down my back. It seemed to help immediately – whether my overheating is a cause or effect of my troubles, I know it’s something that needs to be addressed during the run. Things settled down and I was able to keep up my 8/2 system for a while longer, still drinking as much as I could.


Coming into the aid station before starting the first D loop.

The heat continued to be hot as I began the dreaded D loop – the hardest part of the course, in my opinion. It’s 5 miles of twisting, undulating singletrack that just does not let up. I walked more and more. About halfway through the loop I took a 10-minute sit-break to let my heart rate come down and to fully recover before moving on. Even walking was feeling like an effort and I wanted to re-establish equilibrium. After the break I felt much better. I was still in a very positive mood, just enjoying the experience and thinking about how I was going to manage the discomfort that I knew was inevitable. I looked forward to restocking my hat ice at the 18-mile aid station and cooling back down.

The first big blow of the day came when I finally arrived at the AS and was told there was no ice. I was really hot now and my heart rate was growing higher with less and less effort. But the next aid station was only about 3.7 miles away, so I continued onto the E loop with a bit more walking than before. This section is technically easier but I still found myself getting tired and losing focus. I started to miss my 8/2 splits because I was generally walking a lot more at this point. Until now, the 8-minute mark had been my cue to drink, and now I was probably drinking less because I was less rigid about the schedule. But my stomach was starting to turn and I was not able to drink as much, anyway.

At the next aid station I was able to get some ice and it felt great. I sat beside the table for a few minutes to let my HR come down and to text my wife that I was still in the race and doing OK. Then I grabbed some gummy bears and Fig Newtons and set off for my second encounter with that miserable D loop.

My stomach was pretty upset, and before long all the running I could do was more of a shuffle. I was walking a lot and shuffling when I could – mostly on the downhill sections. I was having trouble drinking but was still in a good place mentally. If I could keep things as they were at that moment, even though they weren’t ideal, I knew I could finish. It would just take a long time, but my legs were not the issue. It’s just that stupid stomach.

But suddenly, right around Mile 26, things turned south in a hurry. I knew I was still in the game as long as I could keep from throwing up (some ultrarunners encourage throwing up as a way to clear out their stomachs and actually feel refreshed, but for me throwing up is the nail in the coffin). I stopped to sit on a bridge over a small stream, still positive that I could manage the issue and move on in a few minutes. I even took a photo and posted it on social media (below) – not necessarily to get a reaction from friends but mainly as a way to make light of the situation in my own mind. It seemed to trivialize my suffering to post it for an audience – this was something I was doing to myself for fun and not a life-or-death situation.


Checking out a pretty stream.

I felt a little better after a few minutes (and the flies became unbearable), so I got up and carried on to the 26.5-mile aid station. There was still no ice (this is the same aid station that falls at Mile 18), but a volunteer gave me a cup of melted ice water that I was able to hold against my face and neck. After a couple minutes I set off for the last E loop – only 4.5 miles to go and this thing was in the bag! As I set off into the woods, one of the volunteers remarked to a friend that I would likely catch the last-place runners on this loop.

However, a few hundred yards up the trail, a wave of nausea swept over me. I sat immediately and held the cold water to my forehead. It was far worse this time and I could not shake it. I sat for about 10 minutes and was feeling no better. When I got up and started to move on, I felt dizzy and nauseated and knew immediately that my day was over. Even if I walked steadily, the next 4 miles would take me more than an hour, and every individual step  I took was unbalanced and nauseating. I stopped again after a couple steps to reflect on my situation and my promise to my wife that I would drop before things went too far. So that’s what I did – I stumbled back down the trail to the aid station and ended my day.

After sitting at the aid station for a few minutes, the cart carried me back to the starting area where I recovered for a little while and then showered and drove home. A bottle of ice water at the finish area, which I placed under my armpits and on my neck, helped cool me down enough to feel a little better. Since I never did throw up, my appetite returned after a couple hours even though my ability to take in fluids was compromised until the next day.

Lessons learned

I can honestly say that I thought I tried everything right this time around, including conscious efforts to take things slow, to make myself walk frequently, to drink often and to not get tied up in the competition of the race. I hydrated well in the days leading up to Saturday. I think I was able to go farther than I would have without doing those things, but I still was stopped short by the same old issues. Maybe I can finally let myself believe that I am just not a warm-weather runner.

Although I am at peace with Saturday’s result, it makes me wonder why 55 other people (out of about 60 entrants) were able to finish the race in the same conditions I faced. How can other ultra friends go three or four times farther than I did, even when the weather is unforgiving? Why do I seem to be so sensitive when it comes to dehydration and stomach issues, even when I try so hard to do everything right? After this race I’m not sure what else to try, other than doing all of my running in cold weather.

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Monument Ave. 10k

And the quest for sub-40 continues.

Ever since my first real shot at breaking that barrier in 2012, it’s been my goal to beat 40 minutes in a 10k. The subplot shifted this winter when I hired a coach and dedicated the winter training cycle to the sole purpose of hitting this goal at Monument Avenue. In what’s clearly becoming my MO, my training was strong and I was confident of nailing the race, but race day didn’t turn out like I had hoped.

On paper, the weather on race morning seemed good – 55 degrees and rainy. But when the gun went off the rain hadn’t started and the air was thick with humidity at 88%.

My approach to this race was to let the group pull me along in the first mile, which is historically a fast one for me at Monument (this was the 9th time I’ve run it). My training indicated I could probably expect to hit 6:15-6:20 to open. I always slow for 2 and 3, speed up for 4, struggle through 5 and then finish fast over the last 1.2 miles.

When my first mile ticked by at 6:24, worry set in. Sure, it was just below sub-40 pace of 6:26, but it wasn’t fast enough to give me a cushion for the next two slower miles. More worrisome is that my effort was one that would have produced a faster pace during training. I had already started sweating and I knew the humidity was holding me back.

Mile 2 passed in 6:33 and I really started to get worried. I didn’t want to be that far off pace so early. Mile 3 was another 6:33, which gave me just a hint of hope since I had maintained the same pace during what is always my slowest mile at Monument. Even so, I was growing more and more worried about my prospects. My effort felt harder than it should have.

As things grew tougher I tried to dig inside for inspiration. I thought about wounded veterans and others who might wish they were able to be running at all. I thought about my friend Steve, whose initials are written on my race shoes. But none of it seemed to work. I would dig in and quicken the pace, only to fall off again after a short time.

I crossed the 5k mark at 20:17, and I pretty much knew my chances at sub-40 had evaporated. I would not only have to hit goal pace for the next 3 miles – a task that had been too difficult already – but also shave off an extra 17 seconds, or almost 6 seconds per mile. Either that or have an awesome kick at the end.

Mile 4 is fast and slightly downhill, so I stepped on the gas and tried to make up a little time. I could feel that I was already digging into the reserves I’d need at the end of the race, but I had to move now if I even wanted to have a chance. Even so, mile 4 clocked in at 6:27. Not even goal pace.


Getting passed by an elite woman in Mile 5, and not caring.

Seeing that number flash on my Garmin after the fourth mile was pretty much the nail in the coffin of my mental situation, which had been steadily deteriorating. I had already spent the energy of my kick and nothing was working. What had felt so smooth and easy during training was out of my reach during the race. My mental strength collapsed and I simply phoned in a 6:48 for mile 5 – barely half-marathon pace.


Somehow I fell asleep during the last mile.

I rallied a bit for the last mile, but, despite burning calves, could still only muster a 6:39, and a 6:19 pace for the last 0.2. To put that in perspective, I had real expectations of throwing down a sub-6:00 for the last mile in my pre-race plan.

I finished at 40:56 – a full minute slower than my goal and even 33 seconds slower than my PR. Sure enough, less than 10 minutes after I finished, the temperature dropped and the rain started falling, erasing the humidity. Of course.

(Despite my performance, I still had my highest overall and age group finishes at this race.)


Even Bart Yasso was disappointed in my time.

There’s obviously a bit of disappointment after this race, having invested in the coach and the training over the past three months. I knew I was ready to run sub-40, and was thinking that somewhere around 39-flat might even be possible. I was confident and prepared. But it didn’t happen. All I can think is that the humidity slowed me (or the fact that my favorite race shorts were AWOL and I had to wear a backup pair). But at this point in my racing career, I almost expect to crash and burn on the day of a big race after a successful training season (see Seashore, Shamrock, and even my 50-miler attempt).

Thankfully, it is a little easier to seek redemption after a failed 10k because there is less recovery time after a race and less cost involved in signing up for another one. I’ve already got the Carytown 10k on my calendar on April 27, although it is a tougher course and the weather can potentially be much warmer. I’ll keep my expectations moderated and just see what happens. Maybe I can at least beat 40:23 and snag a PR.


Hanging with my fast buddy Nebs after the race.

Stats: 301/27,404 overall; 30/1,335 men 35-39

Garmin data here.

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Frostbite 15k

For the first time in a long time, I finished a race this weekend and was genuinely proud and satisfied with the results. My return to shorter-distance road racing kicked off with a 1:03:27 at the Frostbite 15k, a Richmond race that I have eyed for the past several years but had never run. This won’t be a full-blown race report, but a few highlights from a fun and meaningful day.

Final stats – 1:03:27 finish time/ 6:48 overall pace/ 2nd place male 35-39/ 30th overall

#Megsmiles – Part of what made today’s race so meaningful was the tragic death of local runner and fellow RRRC member Meg Menzies earlier this week. Her death elicited an overwhelming response from runners around the world who took to the streets this weekend to log thousands of miles for her memory. This was the RRRC’s first event since Menzies’ passing, and her spirit could definitely be felt among the runners. Many people wore blue – Meg’s favorite color – and a moment of silence was shared before the start of the race.


Lined up at the start – I’m about three rows back in the center with the black hat and sunglasses.

Goals – Going into the race, my two goals were to run sub-65 (6:58 pace) and to place in my age group. I felt like that pace goal was in line with my current fitness and my goals for the spring. I was a little nervous, though, because it had been so long since I had actually tried to race at an event. The age-group goal wasn’t really up to me, since that factor depends on who shows up to the race, but glancing through previous years’ results let me know that a 65-minute time would have gotten me in the top three in those races. As you can see from the stats above, I performed much better than expected in both regards.


Effort – I discovered that 15k is a tricky distance when it comes to pacing. Half-marathon effort would leave me with too much left in the tank at the end, and, of course, 10k effort would leave me spent with three miles to go. I tried to find a nice balance and ran the first three miles in the 6:50s. I crossed the halfway point at 32:11, which would have given me a finish time of 1:04:22 if I ran even splits. As you can see by the results, I ran the second half of the race a minute faster than the first.

Racing – After about 4 miles the field was spread out and there really wasn’t anyone to race against. I finally tracked down the sixth-place female and slowly gained on her until passing with about 1.5 miles left to go. But the last mile held some annoying hills that started to test me as my energy waned. I could hear her gaining on me and I was almost ready to throw in the towel and concede the finish place to her. But something clicked in me as we crested the last hill and I found another gear to pull away from her. My racing instinct kicked in and I was not going to be passed. I covered the last 0.3 – including the steep uphill finish – at a 6:18 pace.

Work to do – My “A” goal for the spring is to run sub-40 in a 10k. While today’s race shows I’m in a good place, it also shows that there’s work yet to be done. It’s true that this course is much hillier than the Monument Ave. 10k, but the equivalency for this 15k time would put me around 40:3X in the 10k, which wouldn’t even be a PR. I’m glad I still have 10 weeks of heavy training ahead of me.


As always, it’s great meeting up with friends at these events.

Other notes:

– Today I proved that 10 miles is, indeed, enough running to cause chafing. I did not believe that before the race and was not appropriately prepared.

– While the crowds love to cheer for the sixth-place woman, no one cares about the 25th-place male. In the few miles I was running close to female #6, the crowds would erupt for her and she would get enthusiastic encouragement from all corners. But when I strode by just seconds later, I was lucky to get a half-hearted “way to go” or “turn left here.”

– Today’s AG award was my most lucrative yet, coming in the form of a $20 gift certificate to a local running store. Out of about five top-3 AG placements in my career, this is only the second that has come with a monetary prize. It almost makes up for the race entry fee!


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2013 recap; 2014 preview

It’s time once again to both take a look back and attempt to peer forward at the year to come. Overall, 2013 was an excellent year for my running. But there were a few major low points as well, to even out the mix. Let’s start with the highs:

Ultras: I think my big story of 2013 was my growth as an ultra-distance runner. I ran four organized events and four ultra-distance runs on my own. Despite some significant setbacks (which I’ll get to in a minute), I’m very proud of what I did this year. One of the highlights was running the Singletrack Maniac 50k a mere seven days after finishing the brutal Promise Land 50k++, and coming in 13th place overall. And even though many of the races didn’t go as well as I would have liked, most of the solo long runs were amazing experiences that I will remember for a very long time.

New friends: As I immersed myself into the ultra world, I made some friendships that have been quite meaningful to me. Ultra people are the friendliest people you’ll meet (if not the sanest), and I’ve really enjoyed being a part of that world this year. As I step away from organized ultra-running in 2014, I am most saddened by the thought of not meeting up with these folks at races.

Fitness: I have been very fortunate to be able to avoid injury this year despite significantly increased mileage. The secret was running most of my runs at an easy pace and not really doing any speedwork. My conservative approach meant I lost top-end speed but was able to run longer and more comfortably than ever before. The most exciting thing for me is that this year of base building has really boosted my overall fitness, and now that I’m starting to play with speed a little more I am returning to levels of fitness that I wasn’t sure I’d see again. 

Easy running: The easy running I mentioned above allowed me to experience two of the most enjoyable and meaningful runs of my life. First, I helped pace the 3:45 group at the Richmond Marathon, and then two weeks later I ran the Turkey Trot 10k with a friend as we represented a veterans group with which we are involved. Neither race was about speed, but I found both to be extremely rewarding because I was running for something beyond myself. There will definitely be more of this in my future.

And now, the lows:

My stomach: Both my biggest highs of the year and my biggest lows were tied to ultra-running. There were three critical moments in which my stomach failed me – at Promise Land (I still finished), during my solo attempt at 50 miles (I stopped at 37) and during the Seashore 50k (I DNF’d). Without rehashing it all here, I’ll just say that it is immensely frustrating as an aspiring ultra-runner to have the fitness to cover the distance but to be cut short repeatedly by a propensity to become severely dehydrated and ill. Every road of inquiry for a solution has led nowhere, and it’s the reason I am pulling back from ultras this year. It’s very difficult to step away from something that generally brings me joy, but the fact that I love it so much makes the continued failures that much harder for me to bear.

And now, here are the goals I laid out for myself at the beginning of the year, and how I fared in each category:

Ultra: My meager goal at the outset of 2013 was to run two ultra-distance events. Having completed 7 runs longer than a marathon this year, I’d say this goal was achieved. I didn’t set a distance PR, though – my longest run this year was 37 miles.

PR: I didn’t set any PRs this year in races that I had run previously. But I only set out to “race” one time in 2013 (at Seashore), and that one didn’t turn out so well. Most of the rest of the year was devoted to easier running.

Race: Looking back now, I just realized that I entered more events this year (9) than I have run in any previous year. So it looks like I met my goal of participating in several races, even if I wasn’t running them hard.

Mileage: This year’s 1,766 miles is 465 more than last year’s 1,301, which was my highest year ever. It’s a full 1,000 miles more than I ran in 2011, which was the first year I started logging my miles and my biggest running year up to that point. Given the general constraints of my family and work life, I am very pleased with my mileage this year. As I’ve said before, I don’t chase numbers, but the miles add up naturally as my training and ability increase.

Run with my daughter: Done. It was wonderful, and we are already talking about which races to do together this year. She says she wants to run every weekend that there’s a race.

With ultras off the table at this point, I don’t have a clear plan for what I’d like to accomplish this year. But here are a few thoughts:

10k PR: Although I’m sad about stepping away from ultras, I’m excited to focus again on shorter road races. It’s a literal change of pace from the past 16 months and I’m looking forward to testing myself again. To that end, I’ve hired a coach to help me train to break the 40-minute barrier at the Monument Avenue 10k in March.

Road racing: An extension of the previous thought, I hope to run several road races this year, and actually try to race them. (Of course I’m nowhere near fast enough to challenge for a top spot, but by “racing” I mean I hope to challenge my own PRs and perhaps vie for age-group placement at smaller races.) I plan to run a 15k in a few weeks and perhaps get in a few more shorter races in the spring. I’m not thinking past the spring season just yet – I’m not sure what the fall will bring.

Long runs: I still have a love for running long, and I am not leaving it behind altogether. I’ve had my coach formulate my 10k training plan to allow me to run the Instant Classic Trail Marathon during the cycle, and I would gladly accept an invitation to pace at the Richmond Marathon again this year. Also, I really can’t foresee making it through the year without running a solo ultra or two. And there’s still the cloud of an incomplete 50-miler that continually hangs over my head . . .

Representing: Whether racing or not, I’d like to participate in a few events this year while representing the veterans group I mentioned above – Operation Enduring Warrior. This will be particularly meaningful for me as my little brother (who’s not so little anymore) heads off to begin his service in the U.S. Army at the beginning of February.

Take the summer off: With the combination of my stomach issues in warmer weather and the fact that my daughter is out of school, I’m allowing myself to step back from running during the summer. It will be my off season, and I’m OK with that. Last summer I even took a lengthy break from DailyMile during the summer so I could allow myself to remove my focus from running, since I wasn’t doing much of it anyway. As a result, I had an amazing summer with my daughters and never regretted the fact that I wasn’t hitting a certain mileage. This is what will happen again this year.

Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to a strong and exciting 2014 for myself and all of my running friends!

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Seashore 50k (DNF)

I had big goals for the Seashore 50k, but the weather had other plans. After a fantastic fall of training, which included pacing a 3:45 marathon and two successful solo runs of 27 and 29 miles, I felt so ready to run sub-4:30 at Seashore. It’s a flat, fast course and it takes place in late December, so my history of violent stomach troubles while running in warm, humid weather should not be a factor, right? Wrong. It would be just my luck that a late-December heat wave would strike on the day of my race.

I stayed in a pleasant hotel on the beach, but when I arrived Friday afternoon to warm, humid conditions, I wasn’t able to enjoy the scene. Instead I was filled with a sense of foreboding, knowing that the conditions the next day were not going to be favorable. I was still hopeful that the predicted 70 degrees wouldn’t feel unbearable and that I would be able to take advantage of the cooler morning hours and still hit my goal.


Race morning was cool and pleasant. I found several DailyMile friends and met some other folks from Richmond (identifiable by their Seal Team gear).


I got to the site early and it was chilly. It also was beautiful, as the trail runs along a bay that was lit by the rising sun. I took a short walk down the start of the trail to get a feel for what I would be running on, and was very happy to find the flat surface covered with a blanket of pine needles. Perfect!

race3 race4

At the stroke of 8:30, the race got underway. I started somewhat close to the front, but there were some heavyweights there who I knew were going to take off fast. And they did. But I maintained a place that was somewhat close to the front of the secondary pack as the leaders slipped away. I was confident in my approach, taking the opening miles very easy and letting myself fall into a groove. It’s the way I’ve been running this fall and it always produces good results. I don’t worry about what my watch says, particularly in a trail environment where it always reads incorrectly.

I found someone nearby to talk to – I wanted to be friendly, of course, but also to check and make sure that my effort was truly conversational. After a short out-and-back on the paved entrance road, we turned onto the trails where we would spend the rest of the day.

The trails were flat and beautiful, and I confirmed that the challenge of this race was not going to come from the topography but from the weather and my effort. I ran the first 15 miles in the 8:10-8:30 range, feeling great and soaking up the atmosphere by chatting with fellow runners and enjoying the scenery. By Mile 15 I was pretty much alone and had started counting the runners ahead of me who were starting their second loop after the turnaround at approximately Mile 16.5.

At 15, the trail emerged from the forest and ran through an exposed marsh, and for the first time I really started to feel the heat and humidity. My pace was still around 8:30 but I could tell the effort was slightly more noticeable. At the turnaround I discovered that I was in 27th place, which was kind of exciting even though I had no real goals in that regard – you never know who’s going to show up on race day, so plotting out a finish place is useless. I also realized that my current pace would have me finishing around 4:18-4:20 – far ahead of my 4:30 goal. But I knew I would need that cushion as the day continued to get warmer.

As I began my second loop and saw the runners behind me, I could see a lot of discomfort on their faces. Many people had already started to walk. But I was still feeling strong, and happy to be embarking on my second loop, so I pressed ahead.

As I reached Mile 19 I was definitely in a very focused zone. The effort was growing just a little harder, but I had been running for almost 3 hours already. I had made a conscious effort to adjust my fueling for the conditions by drinking more water and pushing up the frequency with which I took my Shot Bloks by about 5-10 minutes. Other than the effort, though, my body was feeling great.

At about this time my friend Andrew popped up to run with me for a bit. Although I wasn’t in a position to do a lot of talking, I was happy to see him and have some company for a while. Together we passed runner #26, and a little later #25 to put me in 25th position around mile 20. Andrew, who was registered to run but has faced some injuries, fell back to find another friend as I pushed ahead.

I took my very first walk break at this time and turned in my first mile of the day that was over 9 minutes. I told myself that it would be OK since I had a 10-minute cushion to hit 4:30. And this approach worked well for a couple miles. The running felt good but it also felt nice to take a 1-minute walk break at each mile.

But at Mile 23 I had to take two or three walk breaks as my breath started to grow shallower and it became harder to bring down my heart rate. That mile passed in 14:20. And suddenly I felt that familiar tingle that starts in my fingers and becomes a queasiness that spreads across my body. Oh no! Is this really happening now? There was nothing I could do. I stopped and sat on a small bridge and vomited repeatedly.

Several runners passed me as I sat with my head in my hands. I sat for probably 7 or 8 minutes and was overcome with weakness. I considered dropping out at the next aid station – at Mile 25 – because I felt like all was lost. I was far too weak and I was now caught in that too-familiar scenario of losing all of my fluids and not being able to take any in. There was no way that 4:30 was happening now, and it appeared that sub-5 was out of the question, too. Part of me had been so set on hitting a goal time at this race that I didn’t even care about “just finishing” – it wasn’t worth it to me if I was just going to run another 6-hour 50k. I’m not proud of those thoughts, but that was what was in my head at that moment.

Somehow I was able to get myself together and start moving again. And then, surprisingly, I was able to start running again. With about 7 miles left to go, I knew I would not be able to run the entire distance, but if I could alternate some running and walking, I might still have a chance to come in around 5 hours.

Mile 24 – including the puke stop – ticked by in 25:00. Ouch. But I put it behind me and kept going. But about a mile later my rebirth was extinguished. I suddenly felt completely empty and nauseous, and had to sit down immediately. Runners trickled past and I was hit with a resigned comeuppance as my 25th-place position dissolved into the 40s and 50s.

All I could do now was walk to the next aid station. I hoped they would have some Fig Newtons that would revive me and allow me to make it to the finish. At this point I had accepted a slower time but felt much more strongly about finishing. I wanted to earn my medal and go home a finisher, no matter what.

Some volunteers were stationed at a turn about 30 yards from the aid station, and as soon as they saw me they knew something was wrong. They told me medics were at the a/s and called them to my assistance. They helped me to a cot to lay down and immediately packed ice around my neck and armpits. They made some calls and I could overhear them saying I couldn’t go on, and arranging transportation to get me back to the main road. I was still alert and OK mentally, and spoke with the volunteers as much as I could without making myself sick again. They removed my timing chip and my bib. I moved to a golf cart and got wrapped up in some blankets since the ice had lowered my temperature effectively. I was feeling very weak and very sad that I was being pulled. It was a relief to have a team of professionals looking after me, but I felt I could make the last 6 miles if given enough time to rest and recover. But it was not to be. I trust their judgement and am so appreciative of their help and concern.

I was carted to the park’s visitor center, where an ambulance met us. I really didn’t want to go to the hospital but knew I would feel revived with some IV fluids. I would have to go to the ER to receive an IV, so I consented and was taken to Virginia Beach’s Sentara General. After three bags of fluid and a shot of Zofran to help with the nausea, I was feeling great and ready to go finish up the race. But doctors don’t think the same way I do, and I sat in the ER for more than 7 hours as tests were completed and then re-completed to make sure everything was OK. Which it was.


Postscript: So where does this leave me? Sadly, I feel like it means my ultrarunning days are mostly behind me for now. This dangerous, race-ending descent into sickness has happened to me five times in the past 18 months – three times during ultra events on warm days and twice on shorter runs in the heat of the summer. Every time it happens, according to yesterday’s doctor, my skeletal muscles are breaking down and being released into my blood. Kidneys are not able to process those materials and the condition can result in serious kidney damage or failure.

But why does this continue to happen to me? I am thoughtful about my drinking and nutrition, and I have no trouble with these issues when the weather is agreeable. Yesterday’s doctor speculated that my body is extremely sensitive to certain conditions and even that my body has some kind of abnormal reaction involving salt on hot days. I don’t know. I just know that something isn’t right and it seems to be something more than simply eating or drinking the right things. I have tried so many different approaches to race nutrition and have still come up empty.

What exhausts me the most is when this happens during a race. Not only am I emotionally invested in these events, but the travel and fees and my absence from home are a real cost to my family. Not to mention whatever bills hit me after this ER visit. I just feel so silly and embarrassed to undertake these things with such high hopes and have to come back afterward and tell my friends and family that I crashed once again. And there’s also the toll on my own confidence. I’m tired of failing.

But I love running long distances, and that won’t stop. What I foresee happening is a return to shorter-distance road races and then the occasional ultra run by myself or with friends. No organized ultras, but rather the impromptu jaunts in the woods or around the city that I have enjoyed so much. Then, at least, I can choose the weather!

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Richmond Marathon (3:45 pacer)

I want to start this report off with a little honesty: The idea of attempting a fast marathon still scares me after my experience at Shamrock in the spring of 2012. I had big goals and really put myself out there for that race, which came at the end of the strongest training cycle of my life. But on race day I crashed and burned, and it left a scar on my psyche that still lingers.

With two small children at home and a series of small injuries over the past 18 months, it’s been hard to make the commitment to train for another fast race. I am hesitant to invest myself on the front end, knowing that I won’t be able to put in the necessary mileage due to time constraints and always fearing that my injuries will flare up with the increased demands on my body. It’s easy to make excuses – I just don’t know if I’m ready for another let-down.

However, there are a lot of positives in regard to my running these days. Some of the post-Shamrock burnout and injury led me to a new approach at running that eventually introduced me to the world of ultra-distance. I love running long and slow, and I’m at the point where, if there’s a marathon in my town, I’m going to run it. I’m not worried about my time – I just want to get in the miles in a race environment.

So earlier this year I signed up for the Richmond Marathon without a real idea of how I wanted to approach it. I had a Pfitzinger training plan picked out but still wasn’t quite ready to commit to seeking a PR. But a few months later, my ultra-buddy Nebs reached out to see if I would be interested in helping him pace the 3:45 group. This opportunity would be perfect for my situation – I could run the marathon with purpose but not stress over chasing a PR. I jumped at the opportunity to add such an experience to my running resume, even though at times I questioned how easy a 3:45 marathon would be for me. I knew I could run 3:45, but I wanted to make sure I was going to be fit enough to lead the pace group without thinking about my own running.

I questioned my decision even more as I ramped up my training in the late summer. The heat and humidity crushed my paces, and I was barely getting through 14- to 16-mile runs at race pace (8:35). But I kept at it and the cooler weather finally came. About five weeks before the race I had a breakthrough run – I set out for 4 hours to see how I felt in the later miles, and ended up running almost 29 miles, crossing the marathon mark at about 3:38 and feeling energetic and happy all the way through the end. I had no more worries after this, and spent the next several weeks focused on getting in a few more long runs and otherwise resting my leg, which had grown increasingly painful. Race day finally arrived and I was feeling great.

The marathon itself was more than I could have ever hoped for. I enjoy being a part of the city’s running culture and, having been involved in some way every year since 2005, I feel an attachment to the Richmond Marathon. Serving as a pacer was a great opportunity to help other runners reach their goals, to be an important part of the structure of the race, to serve as a kind of running ambassador, and, of course, to get a free entry!

The weather was perfect, with chilly temperatures and overcast skies. I got drenched on my 1-mile run to the starting line but the rain stopped soon afterward. The starting corral was hectic as we introduced ourselves to the runners who lined up with us, answered questions and said hello to old and new friends. I hardly realized when the race began and was still holding the large 3:45 pace-group sign, which I had to quickly toss over the fence as we started shuffling off.

The opening miles were easy (of course) and from the start we were ticking them off with precision. Nebs – an old hand at marathon pacing – had put together a solid race plan for us and all we had to do was hit the marks. Once we found our pace out of the gate, it was easy for us to lock in so we didn’t have to give a lot of thought to how fast we were going. There was lots of chatter and lots of cheering. We even saw running luminaries David Horton and Bart Yasso along the way.


The pace group, just past Mile 7. Nebs and I are in the yellow shirts in the front middle.

About 6 miles into the race I looked back for the first time and was dumbfounded at the number of people behind us. Who knows how many of them were attached to our pace group, but there was a tight group of hundreds of runners on our heels. It was a powerful feeling. The group was large for much of the first half of the race, and only started to shrink as we crossed the Lee Bridge around Mile 16.

Along the way I had the opportunity to meet and chat with several of the runners in our group. I talked with first-timers and old-timers, and a guy who had run marathons all over the world. I asked a man who was running with a photo of a serviceman on his back to tell me about him, and learned his sad story of PTSD. We saw Bart Yasso again, and then a third time, when he gave a hearty cheer to the 3:45 pace leaders.


3:45 pacers getting it done

Another part of pacing a marathon is accepting that the runners with you are in control of their own races. You’re there to set the pace, but they have to do the work. The faces in the crowd change throughout the day as runners drop off or catch up. Likewise, we got to encourage the runners that we passed, which happened more frequently as the race progressed. There were a lot of “death-marchers” as we got to the last 4 miles, but all you can do is offer a kind word and keep going. I’ve been one of the death-marchers before, and I was quickly taken back to that place as we passed them on Saturday.

The chatter in the group diminished around Mile 21 as runners grew more focused in the latter stage of the race. In a very personal moment, I saw coach Don Garber step out from the sidelines just in front of us to check in on a flagging runner, just as he had done to me in my first marathon a couple miles before I collapsed. But this was a different day, and I was still feeling great and still locked onto pace like a metronome.

The last few miles ticked by and a part of me was sad that the experience was going to be over soon. (Of course, the other part of me was ready to stop running.) As we made the last turn onto 5th Street we began to urge everyone around us to make their move. “Pass us!” “This is it – you made it!” Some people actually did speed up and pass, while others just looked forward with a dead-eyed resignation.


Running the last quarter mile

We crossed the finish line and immediately looked at our watches. I was amazed to see 3:44:59, while Nebs stopped his watch at exactly 3:45:00. The official race results were not as generous and gave Nebs and me a time of 3:45:02 and our fellow pacer, Michael, an official finish of 3:45:01. We got lots of high-fives and back-pats as we made our way through the finishing chute and into the post-race area. Our group came the closest to its target time of any pace group that day. We even got some very nice emails in the days afterward from folks who had run with us. 


Celebrating a race well run

Despite my ease with the effort and the distance on Saturday, it’s pretty surreal for me to stop and ponder the idea of easily pacing a 3:45 group. When I last ran the full Richmond Marathon in 2007, I struggled mightily to run 4:07 and only dreamed of running sub-4.  Saturday’s race was my second-fastest official marathon and my second official sub-4. I’ve run some faster solo runs in training this year but this was only my fourth official road marathon. Being able to pace the 3:45 group this weekend was another dream come true and a big item crossed off my running bucket list. I owe a big thanks to Nebs for hooking me up with the opportunity, and I hope to be at the starting line again next November with “Pace Leader” printed on my shirt.

After it’s all said and done, I still don’t know if I’m quite ready to make another attempt at a “fast” marathon, but this race energized me and has me looking ahead to some exciting things in late 2013 and into 2014.

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50 (uh, 37) for Freedom

On Sunday I set out to run 50 miles, but, as most of you know by now, I only made it through 37 of them. Even though there’s a slight taste of disappointment in having fallen short, I do feel like I accomplished a lot that day – I raised awareness and almost $1,000 for an organization about which I feel strongly, and I covered 37 miles of trail on a stiflingly hot and humid day.

The setup: Running 50 miles is the next big item on my running to-do list. After running four “short” ultras and a trail marathon this spring, I felt like the time was right to make my first attempt at 50. I hadn’t thought about it until recently, but this season’s ultra-distance runs – including three in a four-week span – actually came together nicely as training for a 50-miler. But the lack of organized 50-mile events in the area meant that I would be attempting this on my own.

Tackling a run like this by myself would be no small task. Aside from the logistics involved – planning a route, putting together aid stations, making it work with the family schedule – running alone in the forest for 10 or more hours can be a huge mental challenge. I remember how badly I longed for human interaction after four hours of solitude at Promise Land in April. How would I fare on a run of this length?

Then an idea struck me – to make this run more meaningful, and to make it about more than just myself, I would turn it into my first-ever fund-raising effort. The first organization I thought of was Operation Enduring Warrior, since I know a few people involved with that effort and am confident of the quality and sincerity of the group’s mission. Within a day or two of hatching the idea, I made it official (you know, by posting it on Facebook and DailyMile) and began the two-week countdown to game day.

Shortly after unveiling my plan, my fears of running 50 miles alone were put to rest when several friends offered to come out and support me during my run. (They wouldn’t be running the entire 50 miles, but would run shorter segments with me and hook me up at aid stops.) I guess I should stop being surprised at the generosity and selflessness of the ultra-running community, but I was still very touched that they would offer to spend a Sunday helping me out.

The cast of characters included Nebs, a very talented runner who had just come off two 100-mile races just two weeks apart; Tab, the magical unicorn of ultra-running who not only has the uncanny ability to anticipate your every need on the trail but also has a personal distance record of 80 miles; Mike, another very talented athlete who has run more than 75 ultra events, including the Western States 100; and my brother, Stephen, who has been focused on elite military training for the past several years. A tough crowd to impress, for sure.

The run: The plan was to run four loops of the 13.5-mile Fendley Station trail at Pocahontas State Park – a route that has been very good to me on previous runs. But instead of covering four consecutive loops, I would break up the loop into three distinct out-and-back sections that I would run twice each. This would allow me to access my support vehicles more frequently.

I knew going in that the weather was not going to be particularly favorable on the day of the run. The forecast called for an afternoon high of 90 degrees and 100 percent humidity in the early morning. And I felt it as soon as I made my very first steps at 5:07 a.m. on Sunday. I felt it in the air, and I felt it in my stomach. I’m no stranger to stomach issues during long-distance efforts, but this was the first time I had felt the symptoms from the outset.


The trailhead at 5:07 a.m.

The easy part: The morning air was thick and heavy, but I was relieved to finally be running after two weeks of building anticipation. My headlamp lit the dark trail, and as the sun crept up in the sky I was bathed in heavy, damp gusts of air that emanated from the quiet forest, as if it were exhaling its muggy breath on me. I wasn’t sure when I would first see my crew, and anticipated it would be around 11:00 – six hours after I started. Six hours of rolling dirt track, of time alone in my head.

The first segment of trail was the hardest and I wanted to get it out of the way. I covered close to 13 hilly miles in a little over two hours, keeping things at a very leisurely pace that almost felt too easy. I made it a point to drink every time my watch signaled another mile, knowing that proper hydration and nutrition would be critical on such a hot, humid day. I called my wife at the first check-in and told her things were going well but that it was going to be a tough day. It would still be four hours before I would see anyone and I was already feeling worn down by the humidity. I wasn’t really thinking about the mileage at all, but it just seemed like there was so much more of the day ahead of me.

I set out on the next segment and, for the first time in my life, I popped in the iPod and listened to a running podcast as I ran. Oddly, the topic was running hydration, and how we apparently don’t need to drink as much as we thought. It seemed to help take my mind off the present effort, and so did the text I received from my wife a short time later that said she was bringing the kids out to meet me right then, just to say hello. I met them around mile 16 and happily visited with them for a few minutes.


Nebs (right) prepares to join me for some miles as I towel off at my “aid station.”

After a few more miles I received another welcome text, this time from Nebs, who had just arrived at the park. It was around 10 a.m. – an hour earlier than I had expected anyone to arrive. I found him and Tab waiting for me when I arrived back at my car around mile 23. It was a great boost to see them, and an even bigger boost when they offered to run the next 4-mile out-and-back with me. These miles passed quickly, thanks to the company and conversation.

In fact, I was probably so distracted that I didn’t really notice the growing lump in my stomach until we returned from that leg. I think they noticed something was off, too, because they started offering me things from their ultra bags-o’-tricks. Ginger chews. Salt tabs. Magic blue pills. These guys are ultra pros and I felt comfortable in their hands.


Nebs and I head out on “the hard part.”

The hard part: After resting a bit (and chatting with Meg, who stopped by to say hello), Nebs and I headed off for the next section. We started out fine but it didn’t take long before my stomach started to get worse. I told Nebs I was going to have to throw up – it wasn’t a question of if, but when. I preferred to get it done with so, hopefully, I could empty things out and keep going. After a few miles of mostly jogging with a little walking on the hills, it finally happened, and I felt better at first. Nebs – a great guy to be with on the trail no matter what the situation – was exceptionally understanding and encouraging. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew that day. But there was no question things were getting rough.

Nebs and I finally cruised into the parking lot where my family, Tab and my brother were waiting with my aid supplies, around mile 34. I immediately went for the unfolded lawn chair that beckoned me. The rest is a blur. My kids were happy to see me and I was happy to see them. The adults started tending to me, offering all kinds of food and drinks, knowing that I had already had some trouble and that I hadn’t been eating or drinking in a while.

Then the vomiting really started. I got up and tried to stumble to the edge of the nearby woods for just a little privacy, but it came before I could make it there. And it came again and again and again. I recovered, I sat back down, I ate a few bites. And then it came again, as soon as the food hit my stomach. I rushed back over to the edge of the woods, very conscious that my 5-year-old daughter was nearby and not wanting her to be alarmed. But she’s not easily shaken, and provided the line of the day when she came over to me and said. “Daddy, why don’t you bring your chair over here so you can sit down while you throw up?”

Afterward I felt so weak that I couldn’t imagine walking to the edge of the parking lot, let alone setting out on the next 7-mile out-and-back section under the midday sun. It was here when it first hit me that I might not be able to finish.


Stephen (left) and Nebs (right) help me get ready for what would be the final 3-mile loop of the day.

Tab tried more magic – Shiatsu pressure points, magic blue pills, some liquid out of a dropper. (It’s amazing what you let people put in your mouth during an ultra.) (Wait … what?) After resting a little while longer I stood up and felt like I could walk. Mike, who had recently arrived, suggested that I change course and set out on a nearby 3-mile loop, just walking as far as I could. He and Stephen would accompany me. I filled my CamelBak and a bottle with plain water and we set off, slowly trudging back into the forest.

The end: I was already spent, not having taken in any nutrition in many hours and wilting under the heat and humidity of the day. My walking immediately slowed and it was useless to try to ingest anything. I tried a tiny sip of water and it sent my stomach back into convulsions and I threw up along the trail. Stephen tried, without success, to get me to eat something – a single grape, a salt tab – but I wouldn’t. My stomach was completely wrecked.

Mike and Stephen saw me fading and tried some tough-love tactics on me. They reminded me of the veterans for whom I was running. They told me I would regret quitting once I was home and recovered. They didn’t need to remind me of those things – they were already prominently on my mind. I knew why I was out there. I knew there were many people who had donated money with the expectation that I would finish. Of course I knew that there were soldiers without limbs who would trade troubles with me in an instant.

But I was empty. I was beyond pushing. I knew with each step that this would be my last loop, if I could even make it through. I slowed even more, to a stumbling shuffle, while Stephen and Mike walked farther ahead, immersed in their own conversation. When we finally returned to the parking lot after covering the 3-mile loop in over an hour, my wife saw that I had only sipped an ounce or two of water from my bottle in that time (and had thrown it back up immediately). Although I had already made the decision to stop on my own, she affirmed that my journey was finished.

I felt a little better about the decision when I couldn’t eat a proper meal for more than 30 hours after I had stopped running. It’s not like I came home to the AC and a comfy chair and perked up behind a big bowl of pasta. I sat and slept through the rest of the afternoon and evening, and could hardly take in more than a sip. I wasn’t sore or hurt, but so completely drained that I could barely move. I was so incredibly hungry and thirsty, but my stomach would just not allow anything. Continuing on the trail for five or six hours that day would have been impossible.

Now what? So what’s left? I’ve done seven ultra events now and have faced major stomach issues on five of them. This is obviously something for which I need to find a solution. It’s even more frustrating because my body is fine otherwise – I’m not sore or injured, I don’t have any blisters or chafing. My weakness is my stomach. I’ve tried many different products and foods with middling success. I’m wondering if I need to go so far as to consult with a sports nutritionist before I consider attempting another ultra.

But there’s no question that I will do another. It’s in my blood now. When things work, it’s an amazing and cathartic experience. At the very least, I feel like I owe a lot of people a successful 50-mile run after the way this one turned out.

Before I end this novella, I want to thank everyone who joined me along the way, whether it was with a donation to Operation Enduring Warrior, a kind word before or after my run, or stopping by the park that day to say hello. I am indebted to Nebs, Tab, Mike and Stephen for joining me on the trail to see me through. I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did without them. And, of course, my biggest thanks goes to my wife, who encouraged me to take on the project and helped with planning and logistics, and is my biggest supporter every day.

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