Monday, December 13, 2010

2010 Rocket City Marathon race report

Note: Originally posted as a note on facebook.

This one will be short(er).  I promise.

Against my better judgment I decided that I would run the Rocket City Marathon just 3 weeks after the JFK 50 miler.  I won the marathon last year and I have so many great friends in Huntsville it feels like my home course even though I live in Cincinnati now.  I had never run a 50 mile race prior to JFK, so I had no idea how it would affect my marathon.  What the heck.  I’ll give it a shot and see how it turns out.

After my 2nd place finish at JFK, I felt like I had accomplished my major goal for the year.  I usually have no trouble getting excited about a race, but I just couldn’t get psyched for Rocket City because deep down I knew it would not be my very best performance.  To make matters worse, I wanted Stefanie to be able to come to RCM, so I waited for her to get off work on Friday at noon (the day before the race) and then I drove us the 6 hours to Huntsville.  I hate traveling the day before a race, much less driving that long.  I was able to do a 4 mile shakeout after picking up my packet at 6pm and felt fine though.

Race morning temperature was perfect in the low 40s, but it was a little windy.  I was seeded first because I won last year, but Daniel Ellis had the fastest recent marathon time on the start list.  I considered him the favorite and heard he was looking for 2:20 or better.  I was thinking that if I was able to PR in this race, then it would be a miracle.  There was no reason to start faster than 2:26 pace.  I wanted to be conservative at the start, and if I somehow felt good, I could pick it up gradually.

As the race started I had no trouble letting Daniel and a couple other guys jump out to an early lead.  I ran my own pace in the mid 5:30s for the first 9 miles and found a few friends to join me.  We had a nice little group turning directly into the southerly wind on Bailey Cove around mile 10.   Fellow Auburn alumni, Josh Whitehead and David Wall, were included in this group.  The pace was perfect considering the headwind and I was hoping to pick it up when we headed north with the wind at our backs.  But I didn’t feel as good at this point as last year.  My legs were already aching.  Aerobically I was fine; I had the quietest and most controlled breathing rhythms in the group, but my legs just weren’t there.

Kameron Ulmer from Idaho was the first to start pushing the pace as we turned northward and the pack quickly strung out.  I tried to go with him, but couldn’t match his pace.  He would eventually come within 13 seconds of winning the race, nearly catching Daniel.  I ran with Scott Wietecha from Tennessee until mile 20 but eventually he was able to pull away as well leaving me in 6th place.  I had no fight.  The negative thoughts had been relentless since mile 12.   I wanted to quit but I just kept telling myself to wait until the next mile.  A funny thing happened though.  As long as I didn’t try to run under 5:40 miles, I was ok.  So I just kept moving.  At mile 23, one of the guys who went out early with Daniel was sitting on the side of the road.  Alright, back in 5th and in position to get some gas money!   (You know it’s not your day when you’re thinking about gas money.)  It was a nice pick-me-up though and it kept me going until another guy who went early with Daniel came into view around mile 24.   He was running slowly and I passed him at mile 25 and moved into 4th position where I finished.  I had a strong last mile and crossed the line in 2:28:14.

After the race, I tried to analyze what went wrong.  Physically and emotionally, it felt like a really bad race.  But realistically, it was great.  Nothing went wrong.  I trained all summer and fall for a different race where I ran great.   In training, I ran hilly trail tempos at 7 min pace instead of 10 mile marathon paced runs on the road.  I ran a 50k trail race plus 6 miles warmup and cooldown one day for a total of 37 miles in preparation for JFK – not suggested marathon training in case you were wondering.  And that training worked great for JFK.  Then, just three weeks later I attempted to run a marathon at a pace which I hadn’t trained sufficiently for.  My legs just couldn’t handle a turnover faster than 5:40 pace.  If I wanted to, I could change that, and I feel confident I still have a road marathon PR in my legs, but I’m not sure that’s what I want right now.  When I find out what it is I want to do from here, you’ll be the first to know.

Epilogue: Because of the weather situation on Sunday, Stefanie and I made the decision to leave Huntsville earlier than planned in an effort to beat the snow/wind that was forecast in Ohio.  We left Huntsville at 6AM and encountered scattered snow showers the whole way home, but the interstates stayed pretty clear.  Shortly after we arrived home, we had 3 inches of snow and counting.  Good thing we left when we did.  Of course, I still had to run.  So I went out and ran in the snow, which was fine because I love snow.  Amazingly, I was able to maintain 7:30 pace…in the snow…after driving home 6 hours.  After my first two marathons and JFK, I could barely run 9 min pace the day after because my legs were so locked down.  If I needed any more convincing this was it.  I simply couldn’t push my legs hard enough in the marathon to run my fastest.  If you’re reading this and are not a runner, it probably doesn’t make any sense.  And I’m not sure it makes complete sense to me, honestly.   All I know is that I shouldn’t be upset that I was almost 2 minutes off my marathon PR.  But, at some level, I am still disappointed that I wasn’t able to run faster.  And that’s why I’ll be running tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

JFK 50 Mile race report

Note: Originally posted as a note on facebook.

Much delayed but here it is.  Tried to keep it from getting too long, but a lot can happen in 50 miles.

Sometime in late 2009, after running several 50k’s and never being seriously challenged, I decided it was time to step up and run a “real” trail ultramarathon.  I was immediately drawn to the JFK 50 mile and really didn’t even consider any other 50 milers.  Where better to see how I stack up against the best ultra guys than at the largest and oldest ultramarathon in the country?

While the early entry list contained the names of many good runners, there were no superstars.  I was not surprised though to see the final entry list had added Michael Wardian and Mike Arnstein.  In addition to being proven ultra runners, both men had gone 5:50 at JFK in prior years and, in my mind, were favorites to win.  Wardian was fresh off a bronze medal finish at the 100km World Championships in Gibraltar just 13 days before.  Admittedly, it was unlikely that his legs would be very fresh with such little time to recover, but this is Wardian we’re talking about here.  The guy races a lot, and still goes fast, so I quickly dismissed any more thoughts of winning the race.

Race morning dawned with a perfectly cloudless sky and temperatures in the mid 30s with the forecast calling for upper 50s in the afternoon.  The plan was simple, yet complicated.  Be patient, run my own race, but also put myself in a position to compete.  As the starting gun went off, I immediately located Wardian and Arnstein.  The pace felt ridiculously easy, but in a 50-miler, it must feel easy for a long time.  I didn’t think I had any business being in front of either of these guys, so I just stayed glued to their backsides as we made the initial road climb up to the Appalachian Trail.  According to the chip timing mats, I was in 22nd place as we left the road and hit the trail.
The first section of trail is relatively flat and not very technical, but the pace of Wardian and Arnstein remained mild.  Eager to prove myself as a good trail runner and looking to put a little time cushion in between me and the road guys – who I knew would roll up quickly on the flat tow path section – I  began pushing the pace a bit on the trails.  I pulled away from Wardian and Arnstein and caught up to a couple guys from Alabama.  I had met Owen Bradley before, but I had never met Dane Mitchell.  Like myself, Dane isn’t technically an Alabama guy anymore since he recently moved to Vermont.  It was nice to run with a couple guys who shared a common link, even if I really didn’t know them all that well.

The trail transitioned to a paved bike path as the course climbed to its maximum elevation at about the 6 mile mark.  I crested the mountain with a group of 5 or so and the pavement turned back to trail.  I had neglected to use the restroom just before the start of the race due to the lines at the portable toilets, so I pulled to the side of the trail to empty my bladder.  It was kind of weird to me because I’ve never had to stop during a race to use the restroom.   I thought to myself, this is definitely a different type of race than I’m used to running.  Feeling much lighter, I was ready to roll now and quickly caught back up to the group I had been running with.  The trail suddenly turned technical with an abundance of rocks and ankle twisting gaps in between.  I tried my best to float over the rocks and maintain pace without over expending energy.  I passed Owen and Dane in this section.  Dane would tell me after the race that he never remembered seeing me pass him.  It was probably because he was too busy trying not to roll ankle that he didn’t notice me slide past.  He finished 4th overall and was also a first time 50 mile runner like the three guys that finished in front of him.

I soon arrived at the 9.3 mile aid station.  My dad was crewing for me for the first time and he had the deer in the headlights look when I popped off the trail into the aid station.  Apparently he underestimated my level of urgency at mile 9 of 50.  I had told him I should be patient and relaxed at this point, but knowing I was in front of Wardian and Arnstein, I didn’t want to hang around too long.  My dad refilled my bottle with GU Brew and gave me another GU Roctane and S!Cap.  The next section of Appalachian Trail was rolling and somewhat technical.  I tried to press the pace just little but was very cautious on the ascents in attempt not to hit my redline too early.  I was mostly running alone at this point.  I had plenty of company though as I was passing loads of 5AM starters.  These folks were completely awesome.  They gave plenty of room for me to pass and shouted words of encouragement.  I finally reached the Weverton Cliffs where the trail rapidly descends a series of switchbacks down to the tow path.  It was much steeper and more technical than I was expecting.  So much so that you really couldn’t use the descent to pick up the pace.  At one point I nearly busted as I tried to pivot around a switchback.  I slipped on some leaves and did a complete 360 degree pirouette, but I managed to maintain balance and not go down.  I hope the 5AM starters I had just passed got a kick out of my near disastrous dance move.

I refueled again at 15 miles and headed for the tow path.  At the 15.5 mile time check I was right at 2 hours and now in 5th place.  I didn’t know it at the time but I had also put almost 8 minutes on Wardian.   As I began running alone on the tow path, I made a very deliberate decision to take a few miles and really relax.  I wanted to settle down and make sure I hadn’t pushed too hard on the trail before hitting my goal pace.  After a few miles in the 6:50s according to GPS, I felt like I was in good shape so I started easing the pace down a little more.  The next 12 miles slipped by uneventfully as I tried to take in some of the scenery and just enjoy myself.  It wasn’t long though before I slipped back into my trance-like race focus where all thoughts and senses are concentrated on the task at hand.

I saw my dad again at mile 27 and stocked up again on my nutrition.  About this time, I started seeing Wardian’s handler and knew he was closing fast.  At mile 29 I turned around and saw him coming.  I pushed the pace into the 6:20s in an effort to delay the inevitable.  He caught me just before 30 miles.  We exchanged small talk for a little as the pace increased further.  I encouraged him to go get the course record thinking he was about to drop me, but he didn’t pull away.  My Garmin beeped and I looked down to see it report a 6:12 mile.  Oops.  But I was running with Michael Wardian, and I wasn’t feeling that bad, so I couldn’t just stop.  I wanted to compete.  I guess realizing that I wasn’t going to drop off, Wardian then encouraged me to go on ahead and leave him.  I laughed and told him I had no business running that pace, so we both backed off some.  I was shocked though as he continued to fade and I was able to keep rolling.  Next thing I knew places 2, 3, and 4 came into view in the distance all running together and I was gaining fast.  My momentum just snowballed and I passed them all at once around mile 34 with little trouble.  I was on cloud nine.

Then reality hit.  Looking back, I had just run a 6 mile section at 6:21 pace.  Way too fast.  At the same time I realized my water bottle was empty.  I wasn’t due to see my dad until mile 38.  No worries, I’d just fill up at the next aid station which was just up the trail.  As I rolled into the aid station I asked for Gatorade.   But the aid station workers just looked at me like and alien.  Either they didn’t have any Gatorade or didn’t realize that any electrolyte beverage would suffice at this point.  I nearly just ran on by in frustration, but I turned around to have someone half fill my bottle with water from two tiny Styrofoam cups.  I was not happy.  I thought this was the biggest and oldest ultra in the US?  How were the aid stations so clueless?  To make matters worse, the park service moved the aid station where my dad was supposed to be at mile 38 to mile 39.  My legs were starting to cramp and I desperately needed some electrolytes.  This was the lowest point for me in the race.

I finally made it to mile 39 and was able to refill my bottle and take a salt tab.  I was only 5 minutes behind the leader, and he was supposedly dying, but so was I at this point.  I left the tow path at 4:55 splitting 2:55 for the tow path section which is almost an exact marathon.  I was still hurting and even had to walk for a brief stint as the road climbs away from the two path.  I just tried to keep moving forward though.  Gradually, the electrolytes began reaching my muscles and I began feeling better.  I had another aid station mishap in this section when I rolled into the aid station and was trying to refill my bottle and no one even realized I was there.  The first Gatorade cooler I ran up to was completely empty.  I then asked for Gatorade and was given Mtn Dew.  Fortunately, I was able to meet my dad and get my own aid again at 46 miles.  I heard the leader was still looking rough, but he was still 3 minutes ahead and I still couldn’t see him.  At some point between 2 and 3 miles to go, he finally came into view in the distance but I knew I couldn’t catch him.  I pulled to within nearly a minute, but just ran out of miles.  I was ready to quit at mile 38, but would have given anything for another 2 miles at the end.  So, 2nd place overall in 5:53:09 (7:04 pace).  8th fastest time in the 48 year history of the race.

I might have had a chance to pull it off if it weren’t for my 6:21 pace 6 mile section and the aid station snafu around mile 34.  Live and learn.  I can’t be disappointed though.  It was a great race and I exceeded my own expectations.  Now I have to figure out where to go from here.  Recovery has gone great so far.  I have already turned down my automatic entry into Western States – I’m just not ready to do that yet, but I am thinking about the US 100km champs.  Stay tuned…  What do you think I can do at Rocket City this weekend though?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Stone Steps 50k Race Report

Note: I originally wrote this as a note on Facebook.  I've backdated it and posted it here now that I have a blog.

I've been thinking about doing a blog for while, but I just haven't gotten around to setting it all up.  So I figured I'd just throw a few thoughts down about my race this past weekend and how the training has been going for JFK.

Let me share some background first.  If you care enough to have read this far, you probably know that I moved from Huntsville to Cincinnati in June.  I ran an easy 50k just a couple days after I drove up because I was living in a hotel, Stefanie and the dog weren't with me yet, and I didn't have anything else to do that weekend.  So what if I had trained all spring for a 10k and it was less than a week after running 31:37 at Cotton Row?  I ended up running 3:34:34 and breaking the course record at Another Dam 50k really, that's its real name...because you run across a dam.  It was a relatively easy course, other than the very slippery mud, so I was pleased, but it wasn't anything to write home about.  But that race finished off my spring season and I took some major (for me) downtime from running and racing.

It's really difficult to run and race well when you're moving into a new house and have a new job and are trying to get settled, so the timing was not coincidental.  I ran easy for 6 weeks at about 50% peak mileage before starting to build back with my eyes on running the JFK 50 miler in November.  I started doing some quality workouts and long runs with a group based out of Bob Roncker's Running Spot; most of the team was training for Chicago or another fall marathon so it fit in reasonably well with what I needed to be doing - minus the fact that they don't get off the roads much.  I ran the Hood to Coast relay in August with a corporate team from GE, and it showed my fitness was still very good even though I ran it mostly for fun.  Since that point, I ran 7 consecutive 90mi+ weeks leading into Stones Steps 50k this past weekend.

I went into this weekend's race with the mindset that it was going to be a tune-up race for JFK.  I wanted to go hard and knock the rust out of my legs so to speak, but I didn't want it to be an all out race effort.  I knew from running the course in training a couple times that even at that level of effort I should be able to break the 4:16 course record if everything went to plan.  Since I'd never run past 31 miles, and I'm about to attempt a 50 mi race for the first time, I wanted to run a bit longer, just to mentally convince myself that it was possible.  So, 30 min before the 8AM race start, I went out for a 3 mi warmup - something I don't normally do before a 50k.  That left me with 8 min to take off my warmups, change into my trail shoes, grab my water bottle and catch a few pre-race announcements.  I saw Eric Schotz (who was up in the area visiting family) at the starting line and wished him luck.  He was the only person in the entire field that I knew.

The race starts and I immediately have deja vu, flashing back to Mtn Mist when Carl Laniak took off at sub 6 min pace...and I stupidly followed.  A man, who I'll call Harvey...because that's his name...I just didn't know it at the time...takes off at probably 5 min pace for the first 200m or so.  I was planning on starting conservatively and I ask out loud, to no one in particular, if this guy was legit.  It wasn't like there was a bottleneck imminent at the trailhead.  To each their own I guess.  I caught him before the first mile mark without pushing it all.  A third guy followed me closely, but this was the only company I'd have all day.

The course consists of a 5+ mi loop and a 3+ mi loop which meet in the center of Mt Airy Forest at a pavilion where all of the aid was located.  You run both 3 times, then finish with an extra 5 mile loop.  The 5 mi loop has 2 pretty good climbs, one of which consists of about 250 vertical feet of stone steps for which the course is named.  (I've attached a link to my GPS data at the bottom of this post.)  Neither "major" climb was very long, but both were so steep that I walked a significant portion of each.  The trail was almost all single track and somewhat technical, but still very runnable most of the time.

I was determined to be patient and sit behind Harvey (still the leader) for at least the first loop.  I was successful in doing that for the first 5 mi section and let him gain a ~30s lead leaving for our first time on the 3 mi loop because I stopped to refill my bottle.  The third place guy stopped to use the facilities, and so he joined me as I returned to the trails.  We caught Harvey pretty quickly just as the trail opened up into what amounted to a big, flat field that we had to cross before entering another portion of single track.  This allowed the 3 of us to bunch up and exchange names.  When I told Harvey my name, and he established I had moved from Huntsville, he informed me that he met a training partner of mine at Spartathalon.  I knew immediately that he must have been talking about Kathy and Rob Youngren.  I instantly had more respect for him knowing that he did Spartathalon, but I was perhaps even more perplexed as to why he would start as fast as he did with that kind of experience.

Unfortunately for my new friends, these flat, wide open areas are exactly the type of course where I can just cruise effortlessly.  The pace had begun to slow, so I just naturally took over the pacing.  The 3rd place guy moved into second and followed me for the rest of the short loop back to the aid station as we pulled away from Harvey.  I took my time refilling my bottle and grabbed another gel but didn't wait for him as I left the aid station because I could tell by his breathing that the pace was a little too much for him to handle.  8.5 miles in and I'm alone and nicely warmed up and the trails were wide open.  So of course I started running too fast.  After a while, I started catching people.  Some were in the 50k and being lapped, and others were part of a 27k race that started 30 min after the 50k.  Trying to pass people who are wearing headphones on narrow single track trail is frustrating, so I just run even faster.  To be fair, most people at least attempted to give me some room as I passed.

Fast forward to about 20 miles and I found myself alone again and realized that I had probably been going faster than I should have.  Especially if I wanted to put in a few more miles after the race on the roads.  I tried to relax a bit especially as I started my last 5 mi loop.  I knew I was well under the CR and I was pretty tired.  My quads were starting to spasm, which I can't remember ever happening before so that was kind of scary.  I realized that I had not taken any of my salt tabs all day and the temperature had been creeping up into the unseasonably warm 70s.  Fortunately I had a couple of electrolyte caplets in my water bottle pouch and I think they actually worked, because the spasms went away after a few more minutes.  I can't afford to make that kind of mental mistake at JFK.  Lesson learned.  I cruised in the remainder of the last loop and finished in 3:44:39 with a CR by over 30 minutes.  I quickly changed shoes and headed out for another 3 miserable miles on the roads.  I had originally thought about making it to 40 miles total, but I just ran too hard in the 50k.  So 37 miles in 4:40 total running clock time.

All in all, it was a good day.  I learned some lessons and got a little reality check before JFK.  Big thanks to race directors Dave Corfman (2010 Badwater finisher) and Andy Jones (road 100mi WR holder) for putting on this great event.

Finally, a couple gear/product shoutouts.  It was my first race in my Nike Pegasus Trail shoes and I liked them a lot.  I've been running mostly on the roads here in Cincy, and I wanted a trail shoe that felt more like the road shoes I am so comfortable in.  I'm curious to see how they would handle a really muddy, wet course.  I am a huge fan of GU gels and GU Brew energy drink.  Another drink was provided, but I can barely get that stuff down.  There is simply no comparison when it comes to taste.  The raspberry and lemon lime flavors are both great.

This was way longer than I intended.  I can't believe you're still reading.  Go run.