50 for Freedom

On June 9 – less than two weeks from today – I will embark on a 50-mile run to raise funds and awareness for Operation Enduring Warrior, a Richmond-based nonprofit that focuses on the empowerment and rehabilitation of our nation’s wounded veterans.

Running 50 miles – a feat that will be sure to test my limits of endurance and willpower – is nothing in comparison to the challenges faced by the selfless soldiers whose lives have been inexorably altered during the course of defending our country.

Operation Enduring Warrior, guided by an all-volunteer board, uses donated funds to reach out to injured veterans by way of care packages, hospital visits and visits to schools and other groups to spread the word. But that’s just a small part of what this group is about.

OEW’s main focus is empowering wounded soldiers through experiences, proving that their lives can still be full of adventure and achievement despite catastrophic injuries. The team coordinates high-adventure programs such as skydiving, scuba diving, surfing and long-distance endurance events for the veterans, providing a transformative experience for soldiers who have lost limbs or suffered other injuries. But the effect reaches much farther than those who participate – the images and video of the wounded soldiers in action provide a source of inspiration to other veterans who have suffered major, life-altering injuries (and a kick in the pants for the rest of us).

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The OEW team is made up of current and former members of the military. Their trademark is the gas mask, which is worn by team athletes during endurance events to highlight the difficulties facing wounded soldiers. The blacked-out face masks reinforce the anonymity of the team members and drives the focus toward their mission.

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Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands, N.M.

While I won’t be wearing a gas mask during my run (it will be hard enough already), I do hope to use this as a way to bring awareness and, hopefully, donations to this worthy group. Even the smallest donation can help affect the life of a soldier wounded in the defense of our country. And if you can’t donate, just spreading the word about this run and the organization it promotes would be a huge help. Thank you for your support.

Click here to donate.

Click here to “like” Operation Enduring Warrior on Facebook.

Run details: The run is planned for Sunday, June 9, 2013, at Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield County. It will consist of four loops of the park’s Fendley Station trail. It is not part of an organized event; the solo effort (and the effort of my support crew) is intended to honor the sacrifices of our veterans.

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If he can ring the bell, what’s your excuse?

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Singletrack Maniac 50k

I first heard about the Singletrack Maniac in February, but I was already committed to run Promise Land as my spring goal race at the end of April. So I filed it away and just waited to see how I felt after PL before signing up for SM, which happened to fall merely a week later. When PL morphed into more of a 26-mile run followed by a ridiculous 3-mile mountain climb and, thanks to my traitorous stomach, a 5-mile recovery walk to the finish line, my body actually felt pretty good afterward, and by Tuesday I was ready to hit the register button for SM.

About the race: This was a first-year race that took place at Freedom Park just outside Williamsburg. I’ve done two first-year races before (a 5k and a half-marathon) and both of them have had some major glitches. And this race was being put on by a county rec department – what would they know about running ultras? I’ve learned to approach first-year races expecting the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when this one turned out to be among the best-run events I’ve done.

The name of this race is appropriate for the course – most of it is run on singletrack hiking/biking trails through beautiful forests. There is a dirt/gravel service road that connects the trails, and a couple short segments of pavement, but otherwise it’s mile after mile of twisty, rooty trail. I wasn’t sure how to approach this race – having run a very tough race just a week before, I knew my body wasn’t going to be in top shape. But this course promised to be far easier than PL, simply by the fact that it wasn’t in the mountains. I wanted to take the course and the distance seriously, but still anticipated that I would fare much better than the previous week. I also wanted to use it as a chance to work out my nutrition, which had failed me the previous weekend.

The race was run essentially on three 4- to 5-mile trail loops (Trails A, D and E), each of them covered twice during the race. According to my Garmin (which I wouldn’t trust farther than I could throw it), there were about 2,000 feet of elevation gain on the course. There are no big climbs, but the course is constantly rolling and there are very few flat or straight sections.

Race morning: I traveled to Williamsburg the morning of the race, having worked the previous evening. That meant a 3:45 a.m. alarm, probably the earliest I’ve ever gotten up for a race. The race started and finished at a middle school, and it was a nice touch that the locker rooms were available before and after the race to provide showers, restrooms and a warm place to hang out in the 45-degree pre-dawn. About 40 to 50 runners lined up for this inaugural race, listened to a final briefing by the race director and then set off as the first beams of sunlight peeked through the clouds.

The race: With the exception of a handful of speedsters, the majority of the racers set out at a relaxed, conversational pace. I got a chance to catch up with Meg, who I met at Icy-8 and have run into at several other races this spring. After a brief out-and-back on the main road, the course ducked onto the fire road and then onto loop A. The running was very easy, and, after a mile or so on loop A, I told Meg that if the trails were like this all day, I was going to be a very happy runner. The forest was quiet and beautiful, and the thin singletrack trail was well defined and covered with a soft layer of pine needles. It was probably one of the best trails I’ve ever run on.

The pack spread out quickly, and I had another one of those moments like I experienced at Instant Classic, where I wondered if I was actually in last place (I wasn’t). Meg and I ran together, chatting occasionally but otherwise immersed in the experience. I was so immersed that I didn’t notice when, at mile 5, a root literally rose from the earth and grabbed my foot. I took a hard spill – my first-ever fall during a race. But the trail itself was so soft and forgiving that I was able to hop back up and continue on without a thought.

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Nice trails on loop A (photo by Meg)

At the exit of the first loop Meg stopped at the aid station but I continued on. We had taken the first loop pretty easy and I was feeling good and didn’t really need anything at that point. I passed a handful of other runners as I picked up the pace a bit and made the second trip around the A loop without incident.

After the second time through A, I stopped to refill my CamelBak and saw the race leaders cruising by as they finished the 2-mile out-and-back road section upon which I was about to embark. I got my Tailwind topped off and set out on the road to the turnaround at the entrance of the park. It was a great chance to see who was ahead of me and who was behind. I didn’t count, but there were about 15 people in front of me and several behind.

The out-and-back done, it was time to resume the trails, this time heading to loop D. Before hitting D I stopped at the aid station to peruse the menu. There was an amazing selection of tasty treats at each of the aid stations, but what jumped out at me for some reason were the Fig Newtons. So I grabbed a couple and made the right turn onto D.

As soon as I set foot on the trail I knew this one was going to be more challenging than A. The A loop had been a nice, gentle introduction to the trails, but D was getting a little more serious. Again, there were no big climbs, but the trail was constantly going up or down and twisting so much that you could only see a hundred feet or less of the path ahead of you at any moment. There were also plenty of roots, but they were often obscured under that luscious bed of pine needles and leaves. So you would find yourself cruising along and suddenly your foot would smash against something you hadn’t seen and send you flying. I was fortunate to be able to steady myself without falling, but the stress accumulates as the muscles all over your body suddenly and repeatedly tense up as you try to maintain balance. My arms, lats and shoulders have never been so sore after a race.

I pressed on, not having stopped running in the 13 miles up to this point except to pause briefly at the aid stations. We crossed a bridge and headed up a segment called, appropriately, “The Switchbacks.” I caught and passed another runner here, as I felt strong climbing this area. The back section of the D loop was noticeably tougher with a lot of steady inclines and lots of twists and turns. It was impossible to gain any kind of momentum due to the constantly changing nature of the trail. I was noticing that a lot of minor muscles in my hips and upper legs, and my right knee, were staring to get more sore than I’ve experienced before. This was due to the fact that there was a lot of non-frontal running on this course – my legs were often moving in a completely different range of motion as I navigated the trails, swaying from side to side in addition to moving forward.

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One of the infrequent gentle sections of loop D (photo by Meg)

I took my second spill of the day around mile 17 while I was nibbling a Fig Newton. This was an all-out belly flop that forced a massive “HUMPH” from my lungs as the air was forced out by the impact. Other than a few small scratches on my knees I was fine, even though I was more than a little annoyed to have watched the last bit of Newton fly 10 feet ahead and roll through the dirt.

About a mile later I was thankful to hear the volunteers’ voices that signaled the aid station at the end of Loop D. It had been a tough loop and, at Mile 18, I was growing a bit tired. My stomach was starting to feel heavy again, though not as bad (and not as early in the race) as last weekend. After having my number checked I set off on Loop E, which begins directly across the fire road from the exit of D. I immediately noticed that this trail was much easier, and these 3.7 miles passed relatively easily and without major incident. Mentally this was a no-man’s land – my body was starting to tire and I still had a half-marathon ahead of me, including another round of that dreaded D loop. I just tried to stay focused on the moment and not on the larger task that remained ahead of me.

The E loop spits you out at the fire road across from the entrance to D. One more complete loop of D and E, and then there would only be the 1 mile back to the finish line. It was a nice mental boost to finally be past the 21-mile mark, with single-digit mileage ahead. I stopped at the aid station here to refill my CamelBak, this time with plain water as I was worried about the growing discomfort in my stomach. It wasn’t bad yet, but it was there. I overheard a volunteer mention Promise Land and I perked up out of my haze to say that I had run it also. They asked me about my experience and how it compared to the current race. It was actually really nice to have a short conversation with the volunteers – not only did it pull me out of my race fog and away from my constant focus on my immediate physical condition, but the volunteers’ reactions reminded me that it was a pretty cool thing to be running ultras on back-to-back weekends. (Let me say here that the volunteers at every aid station were awesome – it felt like there were more volunteers than racers on the course.)

After that brief interlude I actually felt refreshed and ready to tackle D again. That didn’t last too long, though, as the loop begins to take its toll quickly. I was still running, having set a goal to not walk a step at least through the marathon distance. The running was much slower, however. The back stretch of D was the hardest part of the race, mentally and physically. It was somewhere around 23-24 miles in, the trail was relentless, my legs were getting tired and my stomach was feeling worse. I was sure another puke-fest was imminent. I finally gave in and walked one of the steeper climbs – only about 20 yards – and pulled a Fig Newton from my pocket. A few moments after taking a small nibble, I realized my stomach had completely settled. I was frankly amazed and excited. Had I found an antidote to my stomach issues? Are Fig Newtons the magic ultra food?

Feeling better, I ran onward. The trails are marked in half-mile increments and I just ticked them off one by one. At last I reached the end of the D loop and mile 26.5 – it was time for one last aid station stop before finishing this thing up. At the aid station I heard that the top three guys had already finished in about 4:30. Sheesh.

Worn down and slow, I was happy that the easy E loop was all that stood between me and the finish. I continued running, but it was very deliberate – not much faster than a fast walk. I heard two runners approaching from behind and was determined to not let them pass me – I hadn’t been passed up to that point in the entire race once the field had settled after the start.

A surge of energy/inspiration came over me at the 2-miles-to-go marker and I started running a bit faster. The people behind me faded back and I quickly caught up to another runner who was being paced by his young son. I ran past him going uphill and pressed on through the end of E and the checkpoint at the aid station. The guys there asked me if I needed a top-off but I ran through, locked into a groove and ready to tackle the fire-road climb back to the main road.

The climb was tough after 30 miles on trails, but somehow I was able to run strong all the way up, onto the road and all the way to the school’s sports fields where the finish line awaited. It seemed like a very long mile but I covered it in a little over 8 minutes, finishing with a fist pump at 5:51:18. I crossed the line at such a pace as to almost knock over the volunteer that eagerly stepped forward to drape the medal around my neck. In this small field, my time was good for 13th place overall (and 6th in my age group – it’s hard racing as a male in my 30s). My only real goal had been to break 6 hours, and that had been accomplished with minutes to spare. There were probably less than 10 people at the finish – a handful of volunteers and racers that had recently finished – but they all cheered loudly as I approached and crossed the line, and each runner came to shake my hand. I felt more welcomed in that small crowd than I have at the finish line of many a larger race.

Post-race: After the race I got a chance to ask the race director about the origins of this event. I wondered why a county rec department would choose to put on a 50k rather than a more popular distance such as a half or full marathon. It turns out – no surprise here – that she’s an accomplished ultra runner herself. She was looking to put on an event that showcased the fantastic trails in this park, and there was no other ultra in the area. She just happens to be the wellness director for the county and was able to get their backing for the event. It was obvious to me from every aspect of the race – the well marked course, the well stocked aid stations, the smooth organization, the enthusiastic volunteers – that this race was put on by people who love the sport and know what it’s about. I definitely hope to return next year

What’s next: The thing about running ultras is that you meet other ultra runners along the way. And as soon as you’ve met a couple, you’ve heard of feats of awesomeness that easily eclipse anything you’ve ever done. I’ve met people who have run 50k training runs on back-to-back days, and run 100 or more miles in a single day. For me, running two 50ks on consecutive Saturdays is well beyond any endurance activity I’ve pursued. This was my fifth ultra – I ran my first just less than a year ago. I’ve been humbled to go from a faster road runner to a back-of-the-pack ultra athlete.

I’m very happy with my sub-6 finish this weekend – it was the fastest pace in which I’ve finished an ultra – but there’s a ton of room for improvement. I have a road marathon PR of 3:23. I finished Instant Classic in 4 hours just a little over a month ago, and if you add 5 more miles at the same average pace you get a 4:52 50k time. While those trails were a bit easier than those I ran this weekend, I know I have it in me to run a sub-5 50k at some point. It’s a matter of building my endurance to get me through those later miles. The same goes for my goal to run a 50-mile race – I have to find a way to get past that 30-mile fade to tackle 20 more miles.

But now it’s time for a little rest after a busy spring racing season.

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Promise Land 50k++

There are days when the race goes your way, and days it doesn’t. And then there are those days when the entire experience of the event overshadows the specifics of the race, and this was one of those days.

The background: I’ve done a handful of ultra-distance runs in the past year (my birthday run, Maryland, and Icy-8), but I felt like I couldn’t say I’d arrived as an ultra-runner until I’d done a Horton course in the mountains. David Horton is one of the most accomplished athletes on the planet (if you don’t know him, you should just go read about him here), and he brings his sick sense of masochism to the races he puts on in the mountains of central Virginia.

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With almost 8,000 feet of elevation gain over 34 miles, I knew this race was going to be a challenge. But I also had heard that it was a gorgeous course so at least I would have nice things to look at while I was suffering. I was absolutely right on both counts.

Race weekend: I opted for the full experience – rather than stay home in Richmond and get up at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning to make the 5:30 start, I would travel on Friday evening and join the pizza dinner and bonfire at the Promise Land camp. Let me say here that, as somewhat of an introvert, it is completely out of character for me to willingly attend an event where I don’t know anyone, and everyone else already knows each other. Just being among all those ultra-runners was a little intimidating. Everyone looked the part – young and old, male and female, every last person was fit and trim and had stickers on the back of their crossover vehicles that made my 26.2 seem like a joke.

I felt a bit like a fish out of water until I ran into Daily Mile friends Tab and Larry, whom it was great to finally meet in person. After hanging out at the bonfire for a while it was time to head back to the tent and get things ready for the next morning – pinning my bib to my shorts, getting my CamelBak filled and reviewing the course maps one final time.

After a remarkably comfortable night of sleep, I awoke to Horton’s megaphoned voice alerting the drowsy campers to the fact that it was now 4:30 – 1 hour to start. I packed up camp and tried, unsuccessfully, to make use of the facilities, and I was suddenly worried about having to take care of business in the woods during the race. But there wasn’t much time to worry about that – it was time to get this thing started.

Start to AS3 (0-12 miles): The race begins on a gravel road and immediately starts climbing. The first mile is pretty subtle but people were already walking. Then the incline increased noticeably and I decided to walk as well – I’m still learning how to manage my effort over these longer courses and knew I didn’t want to blow it all on the first two big climbs of the day. After about 2.5 miles the course finally cut over onto some singletrack and I was able to start running again.

After 2,000 feet of climbing in the first 4 miles, we encountered a glorious section of the course that trended downhill on very runnable doubletrack. I cruised easily through the next few miles, passing several people and maintaining an extremely casual pace in the mid-8s. I caught a glimpse of a burning orange sunrise through the trees, but whenever I would look up to take in the gorgeous views I would invariably step into a hole or stumble over a rock.

I stopped at the second aid station to top off my CamelBak. My general fueling goal was to empty the CamelBak every two hours, which would put me right at 200 calories per hour. Of course in a race you don’t get the luxury of choosing when you refill – the aid station doesn’t fall at exactly two hours. In this case I hit the station at about 1:40 and still had a good bit of Tailwind left, so I topped it off with water and had a volunteer dump in more of the powder.  But she poured a lot in and I worried that it had been mixed too strongly, which would mean more of the powder would be sitting in my stomach with every sip, and I would be getting less water to help it digest.

After AS2 we started the next big climb of the day. I started to feel fatigued but told myself I was just being a bit of a pansy. I knew the climbing would be hard but that I would be able to run again once I crested the top. It was nice to get this climb out of the way because I knew that there was only one more major climb left ahead of me around mile 25.

It was here that I first started to notice my stomach. It was exactly what I had experienced in Maryland last summer. It wasn’t anything overt yet, and I wondered if it was because I hadn’t been able to, uh, you know … before the race started. But I did think to myself that if my stomach ended up revolting later in the day, I could remember that it started around mile 12. Probably not a good thought to have, but it proved prescient.

After topping out at the course’s high point and crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were greeted with another heavenly descent along a well-packed gravel road. I covered much of this in the high 7s and cruised into the Sunset Fields aid station, where I ate the most delicious Dorito that I’ve ever had.

AS3 to AS6 (12-26 miles): After Sunset Fields, the course took on a new character as it plunged steeply downhill on a far more technical trail than what we’d run to that point. A large group, including Larry, passed me out of the aid station and I watched as they sped downhill with amazing skill and agility. I thought I was doing OK but they quickly put distance between us as I gingerly danced between the rocks. It was one of those moments, like at the campground the night before, where I questioned what I was doing out there with all those “real” trail runners.

The group disappeared into the distance and I was alone for a while, passing the occasional runner on the way down, and the trail once again smoothed out for a bit – a nice reprieve from the rocky section. But soon I found myself in another small group just as the downhill trail once again became steep and rocky. This time I got caught up in the “conga line” – I was just a couple feet behind the runner ahead and could hear the footsteps of others immediately on my heels. If anyone in line stopped, it would mean almost certain disaster for at least a couple others. The pace increased and I just decided to see how long I could ride that train. I had to toss caution to the wind and just go with it, even as visions flashed through my head of what would actually happen to my ankle or knee or face if I made a wrong step. My eyes were jostling in my head and I tried my best to look to where I was putting my feet, offering up a silent prayer that the god of that mountain would spare me.

At last we were spat out onto the gravel road at the mile 17.3 aid station. But wait a second – the sign says 16.1! Suddenly I realized that those “Horton miles” – the 3 bonus miles that actually make this race a 54.7k – were not accounted for in the official race measurements. So even though my Garmin told me I was just past halfway, the sign said 16.1. It was a bit of a punch in the gut because I was feeling beat up after the last descent down Apple Orchard Falls and my stomach issues were starting to become more pronounced.

The next short segment was another nice downhill-ish cruise on a gravel road and I resumed my standard “easy” pace in the mid-8s. But then came mile 19.5, and we made a sharp right onto a singletrack trail to begin the teaser climb just before the last huge climb of the day. I was still running when I could, but I was starting to feel worn down and getting worried about my fueling situation. I was 3:45 into the race at this point, on course for a finish somewhere around 7 hours. But I knew that my energy would fall off quickly if I couldn’t get any calories. I sipped when I could but the Tailwind was starting to upset my stomach – something that had never happened before with this product. Again I wondered if it had been mixed too strongly. I had been drinking at least a cup of straight water at the last two aid stations to aid my digestion and it seemed to help a bit, at least until the water started upsetting things, too.

After getting a refill and a couple Doritos at aid station 5 (and then dropping the chips on the ground, and then picking them up and eating them), I started to ascend the slow, steady climb along a forest road. My Garmin died around mile 22 and I really started to feel alone. There was no one around me and even my watch had left me high and dry – for the rest of the race I would have no idea what time it was or how much real distance was ahead of me (since I knew I couldn’t trust the aid-station signs). After a good bit of climbing and, in a bit of a departure from my normal state of being, really hankering for some kind of human interaction after more than 4 hours of lonely effort in the mountains, I jogged in to AS 6. I got some water but could only eat about two tortilla chips. At this point I knew the nutrition situation wasn’t going to get sorted out and that it would now become a test of how much suffering I could endure for the next 8 miles.

AS6 to finish (26-34 miles): I knew all along that the climb up Apple Orchard Falls from miles 26 to 29 was a doozie – it’s pretty much what people talk about when they talk about this race. But until you reach that 2,000-foot climb at mile 26 of a race, you just can’t appreciate what a ridiculous and maddening situation it is in which to find yourself. There was nothing I could do now but walk, slowing to a trudge and perhaps a stagger as the steepness increased and my onboard nutrition stores dwindled. Hearing other racers approach behind me, filling the air with their inane conversations, enraged me. I didn’t understand how people could be in such good spirits.

While the climb was brutal, the real issue is that my body was running out of fuel. I hadn’t taken anything substantial in hours and I felt utterly empty. Every attempt at an effort beyond slow walking caused my stomach to churn. I was familiar with this experience after what I went through in Maryland, and I was perpetually running a diagnostic on myself to make sure I was suffering within the realm of safety. As long as my vision was still clear and I wasn’t lightheaded or dizzy I was OK. I was really starting to worry about dehydration and got angry whenever I felt a drip of sweat fall away. My mantra became “I’m still in control” – meaning that I was still in charge of the situation even though my body wasn’t playing along. Actually, everything else felt great – my legs felt strong and nothing was sore – it was just my stomach. As slow as I was going, I never stopped on the way up.

Somehow, through waves of despair and hopelessness, I made it to the top and trudged into the Sunset Fields aid station. I grabbed a cup of water, sat on the curb and closed my eyes as nausea washed over me. I have no idea how long I sat there, but it was probably a good 15-20 minutes. My eyes were closed and I heard the steady stream of runners come into the aid station, complain about the climb they had just finished, and then carry on. I thought of how nice it would be to quit, to just look over at a volunteer and say “I’m done.” Even though we were only about 5 easy miles from the finish it felt like it might as well have been another 20.

But then I thought about the shorts. At this race, you don’t get a medal or a shirt for finishing – you get a pair of shorts. They’re nice shorts, but still -I honestly hadn’t been all that excited about them before the race. I have plenty of running shorts already. But in that moment I suddenly realized that I had to get those shorts. It’s funny what inspires you in those moments.

I had no plan of when I was going to get up off that curb or what I was going to do next, but then a fellow runner who I had passed on the ascent a while ago came up from behind and said, “You look how I feel.” I remember that she had looked like she was suffering when I passed her. She stayed with me for a few minutes and coaxed me off the ground with her encouraging words. I stood and knew immediately that I wasn’t going to get much farther without puking. I made it across the Parkway and veered off into some trees as my new friend carried on down the trail, not realizing I was not still behind her. Sure enough, I lost it all, right there in Sunset Fields.

I felt a little better but knew the feeling wouldn’t last. I started a fast walk down the trail, and experimented with actual running. My legs felt great and were eager to run, but every time I shifted my gait from a walk to even a slow jog, the bouncing would cause my insides to churn. All I could do was humbly walk the last 5 miles, trying my best to be gracious to the runners who passed with concern and encouraging words before trundling on to their own finish.

Post-race: My friends greeted me enthusiastically when I crossed the line and offered knowing words of support and encouragement when I told them what happened. I guess that’s the heart of the ultra community – these people know what it means to endure and suffer, and they know that bad stuff happens out there on the trail. There’s no judgment. There was no judgment even though almost everyone there was talking about their next 50- or 100-miler and I had just struggled so mightily with a simple 50k.

It would be easy to be disappointed after a performance like this – months of training and preparation derailed by stomach issues. But I left with an overwhelming feeling of happiness and accomplishment. I never doubted that I would finish the race, but it was satisfying to have pushed myself through the struggle. Sometimes I think that’s why I have gravitated toward ultra-running – not to finish fast but to experience true discomfort and see how I handle it. If that’s the case, this race was a resounding success. And, besides, I guess spending almost 9 hours on my feet is good training for a 50-miler!

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(l-r) Larry, me, Tab, Nebs, and Mike post-race

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The Richmond contingent

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2013 Monument Ave. 10k

After two consecutive years of big PRs at this race, I fell off this time around to finish in 41:18 – 55 seconds off my best time. But, unlike the past two years, I have been focused on ultrarunning in 2013 and have done no significant speed work since returning from my injuries last fall. The majority of my mileage has been the slow and steady variety, aimed at increasing my ability to run longer distances.

I looked at this race as an opportunity to discover how the slow training would manifest itself during a faster race; to see if, in fact, the aerobic development would also make it easier to run faster. I have to say I am pleased with the results – to be able to run this time with minimal speed work in the past year and directly on the heels of some big training weeks, including a 20-mile trail run just 6 days before this race, shows that I’m still within striking distance of the ever-elusive sub-40 if I were to focus myself on the necessary training.

I didn’t have a solid time goal for this race other than to re-qualify myself for the A-wave in next year’s race by running a time of 41:59 or faster. Judging from recent workouts, I thought a 6:40 pace – or 41:30 overall – was a likely outcome. However, qualification times for this race are good for two years, so it wasn’t imperative to qualify this year since I could still use last year’s race for the 2014 event. It was just something that I could aim for.

This race, as always, was a fun one. Although as a runner in the first wave who is focused on running as hard as I can, it can be tough to really soak up the external atmosphere that makes this race what it is. I don’t see the spectators’ funny signs, the people running in costume are far behind me, and I only get to hear about 8 seconds of music from each band I pass along the way.

This was only the second time I’ve run this race with a Garmin, but it was interesting to compare this year’s splits with those from 2012. Although I was 9 seconds per mile off last year’s pace (6:38 this year vs. 6:29 last year), each mile of my race rose and fell in the same way both years.

This year I opened with a 6:29, which felt incredibly easy as I was sucked along with the crowd. I briefly flirted with the outlandish possibility of running sub-40, but that thought was quickly dashed with a 6:41 second mile. I didn’t feel like my effort had decreased, and yet there I was. The third mile was, like last year, the slowest of the day, coming in at 6:48. I was definitely working hard but still felt strong. My 5k split was 20:49, and I realized that I could pretty easily hit my goal of sub-42 since I had plenty left in the tank.

However, I think this is where the ultra training started to rear its head. Although I felt strong and had plenty of energy, I didn’t have those extra gears of speed to tap when I reached the later miles. Mile 4 – generously sloping downhill, passed in 6:35, and then I was back up to 6:45 for the slightly hillier fifth mile.

In the biggest departure from last year, I could only muster a 6:30 for mile 6 – a downhill mile that I covered in 6:13 last year. Again, I felt relatively strong, but my effort wasn’t translating into faster speeds. The last 0.2 kick was at a 6:13 pace – not even close to last year’s 5:45 effort.

But that’s OK. I’m a different runner this year and I embrace the training path that I’ve chosen. That’s the wonderfully liberating thing about running – it can be whatever you want it to be, whatever fits your life at the moment and provides the fulfillment you need. And, even so, it’s still rewarding to knock out a 41-minute 10k when just a few years ago I was over the moon with a 45-minute performance.

Now it’s on to the real test of all this ultra training – the Promise Land 50k in just two weeks!

Stats: 345/32,226 overall; 41/1,433 men 35-39

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Instant Classic Trail Marathon

The Instant Classic Trail Marathon has been on my radar since its first running two years ago. Even at that time, when I was absorbed in triathlons and not even considering marathons, the idea of a long trail race that was held in one of my favorite local parks was very intriguing. Then, on this weekend last year, I was running the Shamrock Marathon. Finally in 2013 the stars aligned and I was able to take my shot at this event.

Given my focus on ultras this season, and the fact that I only decided to sign up for this event less than two weeks in advance, I had a different set of goals for the day. The top priority would be to run it easy – to find a manageable pace and keep it there for the duration. I had no interest in racing or achieving a specific finishing time (I told my wife I expected to run about 4:30). I wanted to use the day to test out an ultra pace and nail down a nutrition regimen.

Less specifically, I really wanted to run a “fun” marathon – one in which I talked to other runners, enjoyed the beautiful course and didn’t kill myself with effort. I knew the course was challenging – it’s run completely on trails and is generally rolling with several significant hills. I wanted to challenge myself but still be able to jump back into training when it was done.

Lastly, as part of my ultra-running indoctrination, I wanted to complete this race as part of a process of mentally breaking down the aura of “The Marathon.” Now that I’m running longer distances, 26 miles doesn’t hold quite the same majesty for me as it did previously. When I think of 26 miles, it honestly seems somewhat short. But when I think of The Marathon, well, it just sounds so much more imposing. I wanted to approach this as more of a training run and get myself to move past the mental barrier of a distance that has held great significance for me in the past.

I’ll say at the outset that I nailed my goals and am extremely happy with how things played out. My finishing time of 4:06:35 reflects a pace of 9:24, a pace that I held steadily throughout the entire race. My first mile was 9:15 and mile 24 was 9:26, and just about every mile in between was within a handful of seconds of that pace (there were a few exceptions on the hillier segments where I slowed while ascending or sped up while descending).

The race: The weather on race day was just about perfect. Morning temperatures hovered in the high 40s and the sky was overcast. The rain finally started to come down as we stood at the start, and the difference between road runners and trail runners was illustrated when a guy nearby shrugged at the precipitation and gleefully said, “More mud!”

At the start the lead pack took off and I locked into my very relaxed pace. I was passed by many people and after a couple miles felt like I was in last place. I even turned around and could see no runners anywhere behind me. But I honestly didn’t care – I was here to run my (slow) race and wasn’t worried about everyone else.

ICTM_1 3-16-13

Mile 4 – soaking wet and cruising on autopilot.

The rain died down and the trail twisted, turned and climbed. We dropped into drainages, crossed boardwalks through wetlands and ascended long, steady hills. The half-marathon leaders blazed by after about 25 minutes and I briefly wished I could be one of them, running fast instead of making myself maintain such an easy pace. I eventually caught up to a few marathoners who seemed to be struggling already at mile 5, which made me sad for them. There was a lot of trail still ahead of us.

I played leapfrog with another guy for about a mile before we found ourselves running side-by-side. He looked stone-faced and serious and was breathing a little hard, and he didn’t say anything so I didn’t. But we continued to run within about 10 feet of each other, swapping places based on the terrain. Finally I said something (I don’t remember what) and he lit up like I had flipped a switch. It turns out that he was a very friendly guy who seemed eager to chat, and we ended up talking and running together for the next 12 miles. He was from North Carolina and had traveled to run his second marathon, and I got the chance to fill him in on the trails that awaited us since this park is my stomping grounds.

He was a great companion and it helped to have someone to pass the time with. We cruised along – I felt like I was gliding along without expending the slightest effort, but I noticed his breathing was elevated and his conversation wasn’t always, well, conversational. I had a feeling we wouldn’t still be running together later in the race.

There was a turnaround at mile 11.5, and for the first time I could see that I was not, in fact, the last runner. There were many people behind me. Somehow I had just fallen into a dead zone, where the fast people were farther ahead and the slow folks were a good bit behind me. In the ultra-running spirit, I made sure to speak to everyone I encountered on the out-and-back (which essentially was everyone in the race).

As my new buddy and I cruised through the halfway point, I felt on top of the world. Our time was almost exactly 2 hours, but I knew it was unlikely that I would break 4 because I wanted to keep an even effort, and I would add minutes when I would need to stop to refill my CamelBak. Even so, the running was just effortless and I was so happy to be out there. From experience, though, I know things can feel very different at mile 18 than they did at 13, so I was constantly expecting the soreness and fatigue to set in.

I stopped at 15 to put water in my CamelBak and mix in my Tailwind (which I’m completely sold on, by the way). After this, the miles just continued to float past, like calendar pages in a “time passes” montage from an old movie. I never had an instance of, “Ugh – there are so many miles left.” Even at mile 1 I thought to myself without a hint of sarcasm, “Only 25 miles to go!” I was enjoying every moment.

At mile 18 I was even able to retrieve a Band-Aid from my CamelBak and do a little first aid on a bloody nipple (a result of wet clothing from the morning’s rain) – all while I was running my steady pace.

The mile 18 fatigue did not hit. In fact, the course ran on pavement for about a quarter-mile and I naturally sped up when my feet felt that  familiar surface. I lost my running companion here as I sped off (and, unfortunately, never saw him again). I was feeling amazing and pressed on toward mile 20.

Although I wasn’t tempted to walk as I passed into the 20s, I looked ahead to some hills that I knew were coming to plan a strategy. But it suddenly hit me – I was feeling strong and I had not walked yet. I had run through the water stops and up all the hills. This could be the very first marathon in which I had run the entire distance. That thought inflated me and I continued with purpose – I would not walk at all. I ran past miles 21, 22, 23 and was still awaiting that old, familiar feeling of fatigue. But it had not come yet. I was getting giddy, taking sips of Tailwind and saying to myself, “There you go, stomach!” I had never felt so good at this point of a long run.

At this point of the course, most of the big hills were done but the trail still rolled on what always seemed to be an upward incline. It was so easy for me to not stop once I had decided that I wouldn’t. I don’t know if this was a testament to my mental strength or just the fact that I wasn’t really that tired. Sure, it would have been nice to take a break, but I didn’t need to.

I was generally alone over the last 6 miles. It was a very solitary experience but the trail was so beautiful and peaceful that I never felt stressed by it. It was a very reflective time and I thoroughly enjoyed being out there. And the volunteers at the handful of water stops would absolutely erupt in cheers when I came into view, which was quite flattering as I was not sharing those cheers with any other runners. I did pass about 5 other runners during this last 6-mile loop – it was impossible to tell if they were running the full or the half – but those moments were quick and I was soon running alone again.

The last two miles passed just as quickly and I was very satisfied with things. I won’t lie – mile 25 caught up to me a bit as the course turned onto some hilly single track to finish things up. It was a little jarring but I continued to run through that and on to the finish, with a final kick in the mid-7s. I was amused to note that my finish time ended up being my second-fastest marathon by about a minute (I’ve only finished three marathons, including this one.)

ICTM 3-16-13

With Meg (who I met at ICY-8 last month) after the race.

Post-race thoughts: I am incredibly pleased with this race for many reasons. I stuck with my goal of running slow and steady, and was pleased to find that I could keep that pace throughout the entire distance. My fueling was spot-on. The race itself was fantastic – well organized and on a gorgeous course. It was better marked than many road races I’ve done, so even though I was alone for many miles I was never worried about finding my way.

After the race I was tired, but not sore. In fact, I reported to my regular shift at work only three hours later. The next day I felt great and completed a 3-mile recovery run without issue.

It’s nice to know that I can run – run – a marathon on training that consists of only 35-40 miles a week of mostly easy running, with long runs topping out around 13 miles. Obviously I’m not doing it that quickly – this pace was more than 2 minutes per mile slower than my goal marathon pace a year ago. But the endurance is obviously there, and that’s good news as I approach my next 50k.

Stats: 23/108 overall; 8/18 AG (30-39)

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LoveRox Half Marathon

When I first signed up for the inaugural LoveRox Half Marathon last November, I had just had my very first DNS as I had to drop out of my fall half-marathon due to injury. After taking much of the late summer and early fall off from running, and then starting back slowly and cautiously, I saw this mid-February event as the perfect comeback race. I knew I wouldn’t be chasing a PR, but I wanted a solid performance and, more importantly, a motivating reason to start a real training cycle through the winter.

However, on New Year’s weekend I came across another race that captured my attention – the ICY-8 trail run – and immediately shifted my running focus to lots of longer, slower miles. My half-marathon suddenly became an afterthought as my training shifted, and I became a bit wrapped up in the world and culture of ultra-running along the way. A road half-marathon just wasn’t on my radar anymore. But my ultra went well and I felt great afterward, and two weeks later I found myself feeling like I wanted to approach this half with purpose.

It turned out to be a good thing that this half-marathon was no longer a goal race for me. As a first-year event, there were a number of kinks as the day unfolded. While my official time of 1:41:38 doesn’t reflect the effort I gave for reasons I’ll explain below, I still felt good about accomplishing my real goal for the day.

I woke up on race morning to huge, fat flakes of snow falling heavily outside. Thankfully the precipitation stopped by the time I arrived downtown, and after my warmup I approached the starting line about 2 minutes before the start time of 10:00. On such a cold day, I tried to time my warm-up to get me to the start just in time to go. But the race was held off several minutes as runners were delayed by huge lines at the port-o-potties.

At last we were off. It was a mass start that quickly funneled into the narrow Belle Island path and Canal Walk, which was fine with me since I lined up close to the front. The start went well for about a mile until I suddenly noticed the lead pack bearing right off of the Canal Walk onto 14th street. Having run the course in advance, I knew that we were supposed to continue on the Canal Walk for a 1.8-mile out-and-back portion before turning on 14th. But since I had run it by myself and it can be a confusing area, I wasn’t confident of the exact course in that spot. Also, at the beginning of the race, the RD had said there were changes in the second mile, so I just followed along with the lead pack.

After about a tenth of a mile it became apparent that something was wrong. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but a murmur spread through the pack and people began stopping and questioning as more runners spilled onto 14th – which happened to be open to traffic and filled with drivers who seemed to be just as confused at the sudden wave of runners that had begun pouring into the street. The front group of runners – who were following the lead cyclist that had gone the wrong way and started the mess – continued on, eventually only running about 11 miles of the course. A few others crossed 14th and picked up the course on the other side. A third group, including myself, retraced our steps down to the Canal Walk to regain the course where we had left it, and were greeted with the growing throng of runners who had been a couple minutes behind us.

Obviously people were very upset at this point. Not only had we lost time in running the extra mileage, but now we were ensconced in a mass of people running at a slower pace than we had been running. It was so early in the race that I was very conscious of weaving and surging at this point – I didn’t want to waste energy when so much of the race was still ahead. I was frustrated but kept a light attitude about it – I’ve been in a similar situation in a first-time race before and, besides, this wasn’t a goal race for me. I did what I could to make my way through the crowd, even though we slowed to a walk at times on the narrow Canal Walk.

I also discovered a phenomenon that I’ll call “pace creep,” where your effort shifts to match that of those around you. Even at a 7:30 pace I felt like I was flying past people, although in reality I was running slower than my goal of around 7:15. Because I was conscious of conserving effort, I ended up running this part slower just because of the perception of relative speed.

It took a couple miles to get past the main crowds and fall into more of a rhythm. The whole race from this point was pass, pass, pass. It was easy to spot the runners who had been misdirected because they were holding faster paces and often were vocally angry about the situation. But I just kept passing. I also found myself talking to other racers a lot, which is something I’ve never done in a road race. Maybe the world of ultras has been rubbing off on me! It started to hit me later in the race when I’d strike up a conversation with someone and, while friendly, they would hardly be able to answer. I was reminded that this was, in fact, a race.

At about mile 4 I approached two young women from the Capital Area Runners club in DC. They were running a strong pace and I couldn’t quite catch them while maintaining my preferred effort level. So I laid back and let them lead the way. One of them dropped off at an aid station but the other was serving as a great pacer and crowd-splitter as we began our second loop and came up on the slower 10k runners who had recently started their race. I followed her for six miles or so, creeping closer very slowly and finally getting within about 6 feet. I felt bad about staying close behind her for so long, but, like I said, she was running at the exact pace I wanted to run and I would have needed to surge to pass her.

I finally reached her at about Mile 10 and apologized for following for so long but told her she was running a great pace. She smiled and was very friendly and we chatted for a minute or two. However I was feeling very strong at this point, and as we approached a long uphill I surged ahead and she did not come with me.

My energy level was high as I climbed to the Lee Bridge, and I turned up the effort. It was fun just blowing past so many people – both 10k runners and people I recognized from the half-marathon. I felt like I had just started running – very fresh and smooth – and I was able to continue easily at this pace and still find another couple gears through the last mile.

I came across the finish at 1:41, but for 13.75 miles (measured afterward on a mapping program, and including the detour during the first mile) my pace ended up being 7:23. That translates to a true half-marathon time (for 13.1 miles) of 1:36, including the far slower pace of the first few miles. My average for the last 6.5 miles was around 7:10, with a closing half-mile in the low 6:30s. My time was even good enough for 3rd place in my age group – the first time I’ve placed in a race of this distance.

In the aftermath of the race, many things have become apparent to me. It’s been about 9 months since I’ve “raced” a road race, and even longer since it’s been something longer than a 10k. I was very rusty with my tactical approach and ended up starting too conservatively. My lack of specific training left me unsure of my capabilities at the distance and I didn’t want to go out too fast. However, I still felt strong at the end and felt no effects from the run later in the day or the next day. I needed to get away from the “start easy” approach that I embraced for my ultra a couple weeks ago. But that’s OK – as I said above, this was not a goal race and I was just dipping my toes into the road-racing water with this race. I ended up treating it as a long tempo, as some Daily Mile friends suggested earlier in the week.

After my injuries last year, it’s actually very reassuring to know that I can knock out a 1:33-1:35 half with no specific training and with moderately hard, but not all-out, effort. And it made me excited to think about road racing again, helping drive my focus toward the Monument Ave. 10k in 8 weeks.

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ICY-8 8-hour trail run

When I first heard about the ICY-8 trail race, my palms got sweaty and time seemed to slow to a crawl for the couple hours it took to make sure my schedule would allow me to participate. With a new focus on long distances, this race fit the bill perfectly as my first official ultra-distance race. With no set distance, runners just go for 8 hours and see how many miles they can cover using any combination of the 5- and 8-mile trail loops at Lake Anna State Park. I thought this would be perfect for me as a no-pressure run – I knew I could cover at least 50k (31.1 miles) in that time and, if I was feeling really ambitious, I could make an attempt at a new personal distance record (mine currently stands at 41 miles).

The day I found out about the race, in an email from my brother, was four weeks before the event. At that point, I had started to ramp up my training for a late-winter half-marathon, so I pushed the mileage a bit in the next four weeks to include a few back-to-back long runs and replaced all of my half-marathon-focused workouts with lots of slow, easy miles. Not the optimal training window for an ultra but definitely enough to give me a little bit of confidence going in.

pre-race

Stephen, Meg and me trying to stay warm before the race.

Race morning lived up to the event’s name – with temperatures hovering around 17 degrees, there was definitely an icy quality to the day. I rode up to the race with my brother Stephen and Meg, a friend of Stephen’s and an accomplished runner herself. This would be the first ultra for all of us. We arrived in the predawn, made last-minute preparations for the day and attended the pre-race briefing.

At the briefing we got our first real idea of what ultra-running is all about. The atmosphere was just so relaxed and the people were so familiar and welcoming. It was like a bunch of friends had gathered to run trails for the day. The race start was just as relaxed: the RD said “Go!” and people just began shuffling out – nothing like the explosive start you find in road races of any distance.

My strategy going in was to at least hit 31.1 miles – the race’s threshold for officially completing an ultra. Like I mentioned above, a “pie in the sky” goal would be to break 41 miles. To keep the math simple, and because I knew the long loop had some big elevation, I would simply run the short loop repeatedly through the day. I would need 7 loops to reach 31 miles and 9 loops to break 40. The sixth loop would get me past the marathon distance.

Another thing that made me very excited about this race was trying out some new fueling options, something that has given me a lot of trouble in the past. I had done a lot of research on the subject and had found a product that, without going into extreme detail here, seemed tailored to my specific needs. That product, Tailwind Endurance Fuel, contains a different combination of sugars than most sport-fuel supplements, and I felt like I had finally found a solution to my long-distance fueling issues.

Writing this 24 hours later, the race itself seems like a bit of a haze. I guess running the same loop over and over will have that effect. The runners spread out almost immediately, and after about a half-mile I was running alone. After about two miles we reached the fork where the long loop broke off, and several runners took that route, thinning the pack even more (the field was capped at 100 runners, so the pack wasn’t that big to begin with). I just focused on running as easy as I could and enjoying the scenery. It was so cold that the fluid in my Camelbak started to freeze, giving me another good reason to focus on sipping every few minutes.

The short loop was rolling and had only one real climb, which was a beast, but plenty of smaller ups and downs. By the second loop I was really alone, and could cover multiple miles without seeing another runner. And since anyone could run the long or short loop in either direction, there were essentially four loops available – meaning the participants were so spread out that seeing another runner was a somewhat rare occurrence.

There was a huge variety of runners out there – from the guys (and gals) that seemed to float past with such ease at even the late stages of the race to the people that walked the entire time. Most people were very friendly and would offer cheerful greetings and motivations every time we passed. Others seemed focused intently on the task at hand. But, looking back, I don’t remember seeing a single person in obvious misery the entire day – a reassuring sign that these ultra folks knew what they were doing.

icy8

Coming back in from the first lap, ready to shed the jacket even though the temperature hovered in the teens.

The first three laps passed uneventfully. For the fourth lap I ran the loop counter-clockwise for the first time, but quickly realized the course was hillier in that direction. The fifth lap started to wear on me mentally, as I was now in the low 20s but still a lap away from crossing the first major milestone – the marathon distance.

The sixth lap was probably the hardest. I’ve heard it said that, during ultra events, you get the opportunity to “hit the wall” several times. I don’t know if I was hitting the wall, because I was still running almost all of the time that I wasn’t climbing a hill, but things were definitely getting harder. I crossed the marathon mark in 4:52, notching that distance for the fifth time in my life. At this point my hip flexors were getting quite sore, although nothing hurt in an “injury” kind of way. Everything else felt great physically. I wonder if just running the same loop so much was taking a mental toll – even though it wasn’t a hard loop in most respects, just knowing what was coming wore on me a bit.

At the end of each loop I would take a few minutes in the staging area to grab some snacks at the aid station, top off the Tailwind in my Camelbak and, if necessary, make use of the facilities. This generally took about 3-5 minutes and it was nice to have that little break to refocus and chat briefly with the amazing volunteers, who were eager to help. Most of the volunteers were ultra runners, so they knew what you needed and how to help – just the simple task of helping me refill my Camelbak was a big boost on a frigid morning where I could barely feel my fingers.

As I set off for my seventh loop I was fairly certain it would be my last one for the day, even though I still had a little less than three hours on the clock. I would still have time for another. Right now it’s hard to articulate why I didn’t do it, but in that moment I just didn’t have it in me. I was still running – strong, at times – but the mental hurdle of setting off on another 5-mile loop at that point was just too daunting. Otherwise, the seventh loop felt great – maybe because I had made the decision that it would be my last. I ran well almost the entire distance, even picking up speed to pass people on occasion (I didn’t want to be “that guy” who passes and then slows down immediately). I think another reason it felt so good is because my nutrition was working well.

I finally cruised into the aid station for the last time after running for almost 7 hours. In hindsight I’m pleased that I didn’t set out for another loop because I am sore enough as it is, and I hate to think what another 5 miles would have done to my body. And I still wouldn’t have crossed 40 miles. I ended up with 34.5 miles (according to my Garmin) in 6 hours and 48 minutes.

I hung out post-race as the other runners trickled in – both Stephen and Meg also made it past the 50k mark for the day – and enjoyed the food that included chili, hot dogs, sandwiches, chips, homemade cookies and candy. It was quite a spread and very welcome after a long day on the trails. Stephen, Meg and I were even awarded special plaques for being first-time ultra runners.

post-race

First-time ultra finishers!

It was a special day and a special race, and even though I don’t want to think about it right now, I know I’ll be doing more ultras in the future. It feels great to be able to knock out this distance on somewhat limited training, and to have dialed in my nutrition needs. And this race was a fantastic event, put on by people who really know and love ultra running. They were so welcoming and friendly – the first-timer plaques and the words the race director said as he was handing them to us really made us feel like we were a part of a special group of people.

(Garmin stats here)

watch

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