2017 Zugspitze Ultra Trail 100K

My race starts at the back, as it always does. Hundreds of anxious runners push their way to the front, oblivious to their abilities and those around them. I choose to relax at the back for now. I know all but a few will finish behind me.

L-R: Connor, me, Markus before the start of the race!
L-R: Connor, me, Markus before the start of the race!

At 07:15 the race starts. An oompah band slowly leads the race for the opening section through town before runners make a left-hand turn to head toward the trails. I’m with Markus and Connor, who plan on running together again this year as they (we) did last year. For today’s race I will be on my own, running my own race. I’ve set a somewhat ambitious goal time of 16 hours. In my pocket I carry a folded map of the entire course, with checkpoint and elevation info.

Full map with checkpoint and elevation details for the course
Full map with checkpoint and elevation details for the course

On one section of the map, there’s a list of each of the 10 major checkpoints (V1 through V10). I have scrawled goal times at each, based on a finish time of 15:30. I went through the 2016 results and scoured the results to find the ideal splits for each section based on the most consistent competitor(s), so these times represented a very evenly paced effort over all 100 kilometers and one I hoped to replicate.

A close-up of the splits to hit to keep me under 16 hours.
A close-up of the splits to hit to keep me under 16 hours.

Starting the race, even on roads there are  running/trekking poles everywhere. Europeans love them, even on pavement. I hate them because right now they’re just sticking out in all directions and it’s difficult to pass people. I would love a rule prohibiting their use on paved roads or in the first 5 kilometers of any race. It’s just too crowded to have to deal with the drama of getting poked by these things.

In a mile we’re out of town and on the trails. The weather is cool and dry, perfect for ultra running. The sun is out and lights up the forest beneath the mountain. Already we’re climbing as we head toward the Zugspitz (the highest peak in Germany), and the trail is runnable enough to move up positions. There are a few sections of single-track, but even on uphill switchbacks it is possible to pass people. I briefly consider whether it’s wise to pass people so early, but my effort is light and given that I started so far back I decide it’s not an issue.

This section of the course is the perfect way to start out the race. It’s gentle trails, rolling uphill toward the first aid station at Eibsee (elev 3370). The total ascent in the first 10km is only about 1,000 feet, and without any real drama I’m at Eibsee filling my bottle with “iso” to continue my run around the mountains. My time is slightly ahead of last year but a bit behind where I should be: My course time is 1:09 (versus the goal of 1:03). Still, I’ve got plenty of time to make up in the miles ahead, so I don’t really think anything of behind 6 minutes behind and continue along the course.

Elevation profile for the 100K
Elevation profile for the 100K

Making a left from the first aid station, the course immediately heads uphill. And uphill. And uphill. Soon all the trekking poles come out, and I’ve got my hands on my knees pushing up steep grades. Over the next 2.7 miles we climb 2,000 feet and at the summit of this bump we find ourselves crossing the border into Austria! It’s the first real climb of the day and I try to remind myself that there’s still a lot more climbing to come. Thankfully we have a very runnable descent and lose more than a thousand feet heading down to the second aid station, Gamsalm (elev. 4109), overlooking Ehrwald in the valley below. On the immediate descent into Gamsalm we head down the switchbacks of a ski slope. Dozens of runners are zig-zagging their way down the grassy slope, and I’m happy we’re not allowed to go straight down because that sort of route might destroy my quads too early in the race.

My elapsed time at Gamsalm is 2:43:11, against a goal of 2:24. I’ve slipped a few more minutes from goal (now 19 minutes behind) so I make a note that I can’t take it too easy any longer. With almost three hours on my feet, I decide it’s time to start replenishing calories. First I start with fluids (iso) because the sun has come out and the course is more exposed. I’m finding that I have to ration my fluids along the course, which is a big change from last year when it was wet and overcast. I drink 20 ounces at the station, and fill up another 20 ounces to bring on the course. I listen to my stomach, which is craving sweet fruit, and down a couple pounds of watermelon before continuing my way along the course.

We make our way east through Austria toward the next aid station (V3), Pestkapelle (elev. 5319). V3 is only 8km (5 miles) away, and it’s positioned before the biggest climbs of the day. Although there is a fair amount of climbing headed to V3, most of it is surprisingly runnable and I decide to push the pace a bit to start passing people before the real hard climbing begins. I decide to run all but the steepest of uphills, even when others are walking, and I move up a few spots but make sure to enjoy the changing scenery along the way. Looking south we see more mountains and a valley between us. The sky is amazingly clear.

I share some of the trail with eventual 3rd place woman and we enter the V3 aid station at Pestkapelle together with 3:45 on the clock. Shit, each aid station I’m falling further behind target. Target time was 3:23; I’m now 22 minutes behind. I make it a point to stay a few extra minutes here because I know there is a fair bit of climbing ahead. I eat at least a pound or two of watermelon and top up on fluids. Without wanting to waste any more time there, I make my way along the trail.

We hit some little climbs shortly after leaving V3. I note a cable car that ascends up the side of the mountain and wish I could take such a shortcut with some mechanical assistance. Pretty soon we’re moving up some of the steepest sections of the range. I’m suddenly wishing I had poles, as my hands go on my knees to try and force push my way up the mountain. Switchbacks ease the slope up the mountain but lengthen the distance. I guess it’s a necessary evil. I recall that at this section last year, we got hailed on and I had to put on my jacket and hat because the constant pelting of hard ice actually hurt a bit. This year we had amazing views and clear skies to reward us at the top of each peak.

In about 2.5 miles into this section, we hit the race’s highest and perhaps steepest point at 7218 feet (2200m). My lungs are fine but my legs are ready for some downhills already! My wish is granted, and there’s a fairly runnable section headed down to V4 at Hammermoosalm. I find myself running with the 3rd place woman again although she pulls away along a stretch of downhill fire road. I make up that lost time on some of the more technical downhills, which she doesn’t appear to do well on.

Between V3 and V4 is the highest point of the course, with some of the most beautiful views.
Between V3 and V4 is the highest point of the course, with some of the most beautiful views.

Entering Hammermoosalm (V4), I check my time against my goal and I’ve stopped the hemorrhage: my course time is 6:03 against a goal of 5:50. I’ve claimed 10 minutes somehow. Was it pushing the uphills, or doing well on the technical downs? I’m not sure yet. I do know that the last big climb of the first half of the race is ahead, and I am very much looking forward to getting to V5 at Hubertushof Reindlau, which roughly marks the halfway point. More importantly, I know that after V5 there is a long stretch of flat road along a river that will be my best opportunity to make up lost time on some of the ascents. We’re already 40 kilometers into the race, but it still feels quite early in the race and I don’t let myself think too much or get excited about finishing. There is still a lot of race (and pain) left ahead of me.

Feeling a bit crushed by a long uphill that stretches as far as the eye can see. And not even halfway to the finish!
Feeling a bit crushed by a long uphill that stretches as far as the eye can see. And not even halfway to the finish!

The ascent from V4 (4650 ft) up to the top of the Scharnitzjoch peak (~6720 ft) isn’t any steeper or longer than the ones that preceded it, but the fact that I can see almost the entire climb makes it difficult. The prior ascents had a few more switchbacks and turns. This I can see stretch on for quite a bit ahead and beside me. Having run the race last year, at least I know where the peak is and know there is a big downhill to V5. Unfortunately, it’s not a downhill that I particularly like. It’s a little tricky to run because the trails are narrow and very channel-like. It’s too narrow to comfortably run without kicking your ankles — the dirt walls flanking the trail prevent you from running with much grace, but the surrounding grassy areas are too uneven to run fluidly. I clomp my way down this unpleasant section, but I’m reminded that last year this was all mud and I’m grateful that it’s dry and without snow this year.

I find a good rhythm with a woman just behind me and we make our descent quite quickly, passing a number of runners who do not handle the downhill sections so well; or perhaps they went out too fast and they’re paying the price for their early pace. Either way, we make our way down to V5 where I see the first batch of competitors pulling out from the race. There is a mandatory medical tent that everyone must stop in for a quick evaluation. There’s someone receiving an IV drip, laying on a cot. His day is over. There are a few others being attended to by medical staff, so I skip the checkup and continue through the tent to the aid station. My time at V5 is 8:10, only 17 minutes slower than target goal.

I’m feeling tired, so I grab a lot of watermelon (what’s my obsession with watermelon today?) and have a seat in the shade. It’s the first time I’ve sat down all day and it feels good — perhaps too good. I’m feeling very good mentally now, knowing that more than half the course is behind me and, more importantly, that the section ahead is all runnable. I decide to allow myself a 10-minute break in the shade here, fearing that if I keep pushing the entire race I will blow up from either exhaustion or a lack of calories. I eat more watermelon.

Although the 10 minute break seemed a bit gratuitous — a lot of runners came in the aid station after me and left well before — I feel justified in having taken it as I shuffle my way out and along the Leutasche Ache (river). Running along gentle rivers is nice because it means the terrain is flat. It feels a bit strange to be running with a regular gait at this point, but my legs are so tired from the ascents that I can only maintain about a 9:45 pace. My hips are tight, my quads are exhausted, and I’m doing everything I can to keep moving forward.

It’s at about this point where I start to pass runners doing the shorter distance. They’ve had a 20+ km headstart on me, so I note the color on their bibs. 100k competitors have green bibs, and 80k runners have blue bibs. I feel sorry for every blue bib I pass here, because there is still a lot of course left and I know they will finish deep into the night.

There are children’s playgrounds here and weird signs with troll-looking faces painted on them. I think some of it may have to do with ghosts, but I’m not sure. It feels a bit like I’m running through the hometown of the 7 dwarfs. Thankfully the presence of other humans means that there are proper bathroom facilities and I duck in a nice facility to relieve myself instead of having to do it behind the bushes and trees surrounding us.

A flat stretch of trail en route to Mittenwald.
A flat stretch of trail en route to Mittenwald.

After about 10km of flat running we are back in Germany at Mittenwald (V6) at 10:11 course time. My rest break at V5 and bathroom break shows: I am now a troubling 37 minutes behind. This is where Aaron, Amr, and Reto had planned to come cheer Connor, Markus, and myself — but I realize I have hit this aid station well ahead of schedule and they’re not here. I pull out my phone for the first time and text them telling them that I’m, “Leaving Mittenwald at 16:55.” Hopefully they can relay this info to Connor and Markus behind me when they all see each other.

I almost over-react when I see that Mittenwald doesn’t have watermelon (!) but then I notice they have some honeydew-looking type of melon. It’s tasty and I ask one of the volunteers what it is. It takes about 4 people to figure out the english word for this type of melon: stone melon. It’s quite tasty and I forget that they don’t have any watermelon.

I continue my run to V7, Gasthof Ferchensee. I recall last year that this is where Markus and I really pushed the pace and so I made a commitment to keep that tradition alive! It’s only a 5-kilometer stretch and relatively flat, so I barely have time to drink my bottle of iso before I’ve arrived. My course time is 12:31, 42 minutes off my goal time (11:49). No good. I don’t waste any time eating and just fill up my bottle to continue to ward V8, Partnachalm.

Last year this entire stretch was fairly dark and I needed my headlamp already. This year I’m still under the light of the full sun. It’s starting to retreat behind the mountains to the west, but the sky is still very light and I’m happy to not rely on my headlamp at this point. Leaving V7 there’s a decently significant climb. It’s enough that most people are walking up at this point (mile 45) but I continue to run, although at a very slow pace. Still, it’s enough to get a lot of thumbs-up from the people I’m passing. I sort of feed off this to keep me moving forward before hitting the high point for the segment. About halfway through it levels off and becomes runnable in a nice, grassy, Alpine sort of way. I see a course medical volunteer out there who is monitoring competitors. He’s walking around the field and asks how I’m doing, I’m I’m OK. I respond, “Great! How about you?!” He chuckles and continues his walk along the course.

I’m feeling surprisingly good at this point and I know there’s a big downhill toward a river crossing shortly before the V8 checkpoint (Partnachalm). I know that V8 is where my race begins; it’s there where I struggled last year covered in mud and the darkness of night. So far I have energy to spare, so I’m looking forward to that push.

Soon I’m at a set of switchbacks that I recall vividly from last year. It’s on a fairly narrow trail, and in 2016 Markus and I got stuck behind a train of slower competitors. It irritated the hell out of me because I do much better on downhill stretches and they were really holding me back. This year I had no one holding me back and I scalp a few solo runners along the way. In just a couple kilometers, the course descends 300 meters (~1000 ft) over about 30 consecutive switchbacks. Each averages only 15 seconds…. right, then left, then right, then left, then right, then left… my ankles are begging to get to the bottom already. My mind was so tired in 2016 that I Had forgotten how many of these there were, but soon I reach the bottom and I recognize that the V8 checkpoint is not far. I just have to run down across a river and then up the other side to reach Partnachalm.

Heading down to the river, there are rails to keep me from flying around more switchbacks (will there be no end?!). Soon I’m crossing over a bridge, and heading back up the other side. This time the railings come in a bit more useful as I desperately try to aid my legs by pulling myself up. My legs are shot. How did I go from having gas in the tank to struggling so badly? Some of the runners I passed on the downhill switchbacks are catching up with me as I scale up to V8. They’re gaining on me each switchback up and all of a sudden I’m jealous of their poles that I hate so much with a passion. My hands go my knees to push with each step and I’m sweating like a pig. Where is V8?! It should be here already!

The course turns down a small alley and opens to V8/Partnachalm. I’m here. Course time is 13:48. I’ve made up some time against my goal (now 34 minutes behind the 13:14 goal time) but I’m hurting and concerned. I rush to the aid station and find none of the glorious melon I had shoveled into my face at previous aid stations. I’m bonking and with no melon in sight! I head straight to the quarter-cut oranges and stuff them in my face, in desperate hopes that their juice will revive me. I oscillate between getting in some protein (cheese? sausage?) or sticking to fruit. I sample a bit of everything, hoping a cornucopia of nutrients will magically combine to give me strength to push the final 12+ miles.

I sit off to the side of the aid station to sit down for the second in the race. I assess my body. Nothing’s injured, but there’s little gas left in the tank. Finishing under 16 hours? It doesn’t seem possible anymore. I’ve made up time on the last segment, but perhaps pushed too hard too soon. Soon it will be dark and I don’t know how that will play out. I know there’s a big climb coming ahead — two, in fact — and I’m having doubts for the first time. I text Aaron my disappointment and try to temper expectations: “…I’m leaving V8 now. Headed up that damn mountain soon… Probably finish around 17 hrs.

Lowering expectations! So tired that I typed "V7" instead of "V8"
Lowering expectations! So tired that I typed “V7” instead of “V8”
And a message to Markus. "Feeling very tired," was an understatement!
And a message to Markus. “Feeling very tired,” was an understatement! Again, too tired to realize that I meant V8!

I switch into a long-sleeve shirt here, unsure if I’ll be able to sustain a pace/effort to generate enough heat in the cooling temperatures now that the sun has started to set behind the mountains. I leave V8 feeling beaten, physically and mentally, and of course there is a slight uphill to start the next leg. Lovely. I walk. The incline is very moderate, so I make a deal with myself to jog; jog until I cannot physically jog, and then I will allow myself to walk. I keep jogging. Jogging becomes running. Running turns into passing people. Somehow I’m feeling alright again, but I know that there’s a steep climb leading up to V9 (Talstation Langenfelder).

The good news is that there’s still plenty of sunlight. Last year it had been dark at this point of the race for hours, and worse it had been raining all day. This stretch was muddy and uphill, which was like two steps up and one step back. Mile for mile, it’s probably one of the steepest ascents and it hurts so late in the race. As soon as I reach it I put my head down and start marching: up, up, up. There are few people left to pass, so I run out of desperation just to get this stretch over. It’s longer than I remember. Last year I didn’t see anything in the dark. This year I see everything and recognize none of it. I only remember the narrowness of the trails, the felled trees, grasping at branches to help pull me up the mountain.

Somehow the strength that left me climbing to the top of V8 has come back. V9 is getting closer and closer. I know not to expect is anytime soon, and it’s a good thing because this feels like the longest 7 kilometers of the race. 4.3 miles has never felt so long and for good reason: it takes 1 hour and 17 minutes, roughly 18-minute per mile pace of quad-burning uphill. I reach the top knowing that the rest of the course is fairly runnable.

Looking back at this stretch, I had thrown the Sub-16:00 finish time out the window when I started. Coming into V8 I felt broken. After consuming a few calories and a 5-minute sitdown, I started off toward V9 feeling empty but somehow found my legs again on a very difficult stretch of the course. Relative to the rest of the 476-person field I actually had my best stretch here. Somehow I posted the 11th fastest split here of the entire field. I had almost given up, yet my place for that segment was my strongest of the entire race. This was a big lesson; I hit V9 and did the mental math: I arrived just before 14 hours. I had two hours to finish under 16 hours. I knew there was a 4-mile loop of considerable difficulty: the climb I had just finished heading into V9 continued another two miles up, before coming back down to the same checkpoint (this time considered V10). I recalled last year most people took 1.5 to 2 hours to finish this loop, so I wasted no time in heading out.

Starting at V9 the course heads south, up the mountain toward the top of the Alspitze (mountain). In about two miles it climbs approximately 425 meters (1400 ft) along what I would normally call runnable roads, however the severe incline of some portions rules out the possibility of anything resembling a run. While the roads are wide and non-technical, the grade of some sections forces everyone to a hike. It’s about this time that it’s starting to get dark. I have my headlamp ready for the second half of this 4-mile loop because I know the downhill sections are much more rocky and technical and I can’t afford to wipe out so late (also I value my teeth).

The fight for a sub-16 resumes. I push every uphill and see competitors at the top of the mountain with their headlamps starting to show. They’re the bait I need to keep going. I’m pushing as hard as I can and lose my breath more than I would like. I look forward to coming down this silly mountain so that I can make up for lost time. This is taking much longer than I had remembered from last year. In fact, most of these sections that I’m running in whatever remains of daylight are taking much longer than I had remembered from the nighttime of 2016. I guess this is the curse of being able to see everything ahead of you — it just doesn’t end.

Soon I crest the top of the loop, but I do recall from last year that it winds around a bit before making the ultimate descent down. I recall last year seeing headlamps in the direction NOT of the checkpoint but further out on the mountain. It’s a deceiving loop that takes you away from the checkpoint even as you head down from the peak. I try and focus not on getting close to the final checkpoint, but rather on the distance that my watch is showing. Just get to 4 miles for this loop and I’ll be good. Headed down the stepped mountainside, I pass the competitors whose headlamps I had been chasing up the hill. I’m going for broke to get to the finish. It gets runnable and I can start to see and smell the finish line. It’s near.

Making my way down the mountain, finishing the loop from V9 to V10.
Making my way down the mountain, finishing the loop from V9 to V10.

Hitting the runnable flats of V10, I top up my water bottle with a final coke. My watch is reading just over 15 hours, and I’ve run the 4-mile loop in about 66 minutes — the 18th fastest time in the field. I know the final section is a bit over 3 miles long and I’m feeling good that my legs continue their bounce back from the horrible condition they were in at V8. Praise baby Jesus, I have almost an hour to run 5 kilometers. For the first time in the race I can relax mentally.

I continue down the hill with a half-knowing smile on my face. I’m looking forward to finishing, to stopping, to having a beer and a big fucking sausage. It’s dark now, but I’m fine with that. Last year this section was slip-slide-slippery with mud. I probably fell 6 times. This time around it’s dry and fast. It’s two miles of switchbacks descending to a small town called Hammersback and then another mile to Grainau, where I had started so many hours ago.

Hitting Hammersbach, I see my first sign of civilization: some locals sitting on lawn chairs on a street corner, cheering me on! The course is not really well marked here and I can tell the locals know I look lost. They yell at me (in German?) and wave me left, so I comply! My watch reads 15:50 and I’m starting to get a little nervous that I’m going to miss my goal by literally seconds. I drop the hammer and grind out my fastest miles of the race now that I’m on flat roads.

Soon I hit Grainau and I recognize this bit from last year. I’m sneaking up on the backside of the Musikpavillon where we had started that morning. The sights are getting brighter and the sounds are getting louder — the end is near! Before I know it, I hit a back alley and I see the glow of the finish area. I finally allow a proper smile to come through and make a hard left to enter the finish area. With a final time of 15:57:23, I’ve managed to finish 31st overall and 21st in the open age group.

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It’s the first finish in at least two years where I feel like I have accomplished something. Last year’s finish was simply that: a finish. It wasn’t a race where I had pushed myself or set a good time. This year was different. I ran my race the entire 100+ kilometers and kept my foot on the pedal even when I wanted to (thought I had to) give up. Most of my run was solo. I don’t think I said more than a few words to anyone over the course of almost 16 hours, except to talk about stone melon. Somehow I held up; my mind and body hurt but are miraculously made whole again with a beer and the sight of friends at the finish.

Next year will not be Zugspitze. I love this race, but now it is time for something new. What will that be? Only time will tell!

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2017 Napa Valley Marathon

Overall Time: 2:57:52
Pace: 6:47
Overall Place: 25 of 1271
Age Group Place: 5th of 97

Full Garmin data here: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1605270531

The 2017 Napa Valley Marathon was my pre-spring marathon in March, run as a fairly hard training run for the 2017 Boston Marathon in April.

Hanging out in the vineyards before the start of the race
Hanging out in the vineyards before the start of the race
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Rolling hills and vineyards in the background.

I decided somewhere around (under) a 3:00 marathon would be a good time for a hard “training” marathon, so standing on the start line I fell back on my typical marathon strategy: Easy warm up for the first 5K, then fall into pace for mile 4 – 18 (give or take), and then decide if I want to speed up after that. The plan worked out pretty seamlessly — easy to start, faster in the middle, and then some quick miles in the end (this was also partly due to rain and hail in the last 5K and I decided I needed to get out of that weather). Nice and controlled, no drama. I split the first half in just over 1:30, and the second half in around 1:27. Final time was right around 2:57:52. Felt good to run a sub-3:00 marathon just because.

Although this time was only about 5 minutes from my PR, dialing it back even that much made it so much more manageable and (dare I say it?)… easy. It also allowed me to enjoy the course, which was beautiful. The marathon winds south, down the Silverado Trail from Calistoga to Napa through the famous vineyards of the Napa Valley. The sun rises shortly before the 7 a.m. race start, and it feels like the valley is waking up as you begin the trek through the rolling hills of wine country. If anyone is looking for a scenic and fast west coast race, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

A few gently rolling hills, with a net elevation loss of approximately 250 feet.
A few gently rolling hills, with a net elevation loss of approximately 250 feet.

There were aid stations roughly every 2 miles, which was enough for me. I took Gatorade at each station between miles 6 and 20, but nothing else. Skipped on energy gels as is my norm.

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Passing the Conn Creek Winery, just before the halfway point.

Crowd support was as you would expect in a small-town marathon. This isn’t NYC or Boston, so don’t come expecting a 26.2-mile tunnel of screams. Most coming out were leap frogging along the course to cheer for specific friends and family running the race, but they cheered on all the runners regardless. Speaking as someone who doesn’t look forward to cheer stations, I appreciated them being out there early in the morning because as beautiful as the course was it was still nice for it to be punctuated with some screaming, hollering, and funny signs.

After crossing the finish, I headed straight to get my bag and walk to the hotel for a shower and some lunch. I had a wine tasting scheduled for early that afternoon, and no marathon was about to get in the way of that.

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Thanks for a lovely experience, Napa Valley Marathon!

2016 Boston Marathon

Overall Time: 3:03:22
Pace: 6:59
Overall Place: 1887 of 30,740
Age Group Place: 1297 of 5488
AG%: 67.23% (per 2015 USATF tables)

Going into this race, a lot of people asked me how I felt. To be honest, I felt great. I had never put in such a successful training block before. My overall mileage was consistently high for me, and I was hitting my speed workout paces right on the nose. I had hit a 17:22 5K on a hilly course, and that along with my weekly mileage numbers gave me the confidence that I had the speed and endurance to slip in a 2:49 marathon this year at Boston. I had performed a 20-mile run along the Boston course three weeks prior to the race, and averaged under 6:30 pace for the final 13 miles of the run. My buildup had gone right according to plan.

Like any marathoner who tries to plan every element of their race, I started checking the weather as soon as it was within the 10-day forecast of the major weather websites (Accuweather, weather.com and Weather Underground). As the calendar counted down, the picture got worse and worse: relatively warm running conditions, sunny, and a head wind to finish. Ugh.

On the morning of the race, I made my way with Connor to Boston Common to jump on a bus to the start at Hopkinton. We bumped into Andrew C. and Gen W. and the four of us made our way together. The bus ride always feels so long (“We have to run back?”), so it was nice to have company. Andrew, Connor, and Gen were all running their first Boston Marathon. I was excited for them and nervous for myself.

Stepping off the bus in Hopkinton we made our way to the Athlete Village and met up with more friends. It was warm already. We didn’t need our throw-away clothes in the sun, but I kept mine on just because I felt like it would be a waste otherwise. I had brought this clothes 300+ miles I was damn well going to wear it! As the 10:00 a.m. start approached, I got in a light jog by the corrals and jumped to the start in time for the Apache helicopters to fly overhead and the gun to go off. I was already sweating from my 10:00-pace jog and I knew that the road ahead would be a long, hot, difficult 26.2 miles to the finish line in Boston. I was prepared mentally for a struggle but not looking forward to it.

Miles 1 – 5:
The first few miles are downhill and fast. There’s congestion at the start to keep things from getting too crazy, but I was almost on pace the first mile (6:39) and by Mile 2 (6:30) things were flowing nicely. My friend Dan F, who had the same sub-2:50 goal as myself, was a hundred meters ahead and disappeared into the distance with each mile. Miles 3-5 (6:30, 6:28, 6:31) were perfectly on pace, and the downhill assist in the opening miles was a nice way to conserve energy while hitting target pace.

Miles 6 – 9:
Entering Framingham, things began to look more familiar to me. I had run the race only twice before, but had run the course itself more times in training and this is where I start to get mentally comfortable. Unfortunately this is where I started to feel the heat of the sun in the cloudless sky. As much as possible through town, I kept to the right to seek any shade that some of the buildings offered. It wasn’t a pleasant thought knowing that I had more than 20 miles more of this and that there wouldn’t be many opportunities for shade ahead as the day got warmer. My pace slipped a bit in these miles (6:35, 6:35, 6:39, 6:35) but not enough to alarm me.

Miles 10 – 13:
The miles through Wellesley are always great — the screaming girls, a couple of nice downhills, and of course the halfway point. Unfortunately this is where I knew a PR attempt was off. I was starting to heat up and slow down. First a 6:41 Mile 10, then a 6:43, 6:38, and 6:41. These paces were slower than my old PR pace. Not a good sign. I hit the halfway in 1:26:32.

Miles 14 – 21:
The second half of the course was trying to manage expectations given the heat and the hills to come. I was fine on the flats; Mile 14-16 was 6:40, 6:53, and 6:40. But I could feel myself struggling. I was slowing down and overheating but the hills hadn’t even come yet. When they finally came, it marked the end of a decent race. With the first hill in the 17th mile, my pace slipped above 7:00 pace and would never go back under. At every aid station I would take three cups of water: one to dump on my head, one to dump down my spine, and one to actually drink. For every short-lived cooling effect I was grateful, but this effort was beyond salvaging. I had redlined already and there was no going back. A 7:07 (mile 17) led to a 7:19, 7:07, 7:33, and a miserable 7:48 mile 21 up Heartbreak Hill.

Miles 22 – 26.2:
The rest of the race was a struggle simply to finish. I kept getting as much water as possible to cool off, but the damage was done and I couldn’t pick up the pace. The final miles were all in the Mid-7 range and I couldn’t speed up despite the cooling weather approaching Boston. With the cooler weather came a headwind, which normally I might complain about but it helped me from overheating and actually felt quite pleasant. I was waiting for Connor and Gen to pass me by but that never came. By the time I made the famous right on Hereford and left on Boylston, my watch read over three hours for the first time in a marathon since 2011. I was happy to see the finish line ahead but had no motivation to bother sprinting the final quarter mile down. I simply maintained pace and crossed the finish line as if it were a typical weekend long run. I was done and ready to move on.

I crossed the finish line in a relatively slow time for me. I wasn’t disappointed, though. I wasn’t even frustrated. I had put in a solid training block, but there wasn’t anything I could do about the warm and sunny [slow] weather that day. Looking at the numbers, everyone else suffered as well.

BQ rates among all participants were down a whopping 29% compared to the year before.

I charted my friends who ran, and plotted their individual 5K speeds at each marker. Everyone slowed down, even my friend Dan F who has negative split probably every marathon he’s run in the past 3 years:

Positive splits all over the place!
Positive splits all over the place!

LetsRun.com had a short write-up of how slow the times were this year and included the time of the 500th and 1000th finisher for the past three years. This year was noticeably slower by about 6-8 minutes:

Slower times in 2016 due to heat.
Slower times in 2016 due to heat.

Of my friends who ran, on the whole we were all slow. Dan ran a 2:58 (2:50 PR). I ran a 3:03 (2:53 PR). Gen ran a 3:35 (2:58 PR). Erik ran a 3:14 (3:00 PR). It just wasn’t the day to PR, so when I look back at my time I’m not disappointed. I gave it a solid effort and never threw in the towel even when I knew it wouldn’t be a time I was proud of.

I wish I could take some time off to recoup, but tomorrow (April 30th) I’ve got a tough trail 50K that is a training run for an even tougher 100K in June. And just for good measure there is a half marathon (Brooklyn) and the Dipsea Race thrown in for some speed. This is going to be a painful spring race season but potentially my best yet. Stay tuned!

2015 Lookout Mountain 50-Mile Trail Race

Overall Time: 7:58:59
Pace: 9:34
Overall Place: 11 of 174 (10th male)
Age Group Place: N/A
AG%: N/A

This was one of my two big fall races of 2015. I’m not sure why, but I wanted to run this race a 4th time and try to crack the top 10. I wanted to try and apply some of the physical and mental toughness that I had acquired since running a time of 8:35 in 2012 (then good for 13th place). While I was incredibly pleased with that race at the time, I knew there was room for improvement.

This race is very familiar to me; it was my first 50-miler in 2011 and I returned again in 2012 and 2013 to test my mettle. It’s the only 50-mile course that I can actually remember in any detail – I can visualize every segment of the race and I feel this gives me an advantage when deciding how hard and when to push the pace. I thought that if everything went right, I could hit a top 10 placement and flirt with finish time below 8:00. To put the finish time in perspective, prior to 2015 there had been only 17 people in 908 finishes – less than 2% — to go under 8 hours since the race started in 2009. I knew it was a bit ambitious, but I didn’t fly a thousand miles for small goals.

Heading to the start, I had no excuses for failure. I was coming off a solid block of fall marathon training (and a new PR of 2:53), I had avoided re-injury, and the race-day weather was looking conducive for fast times.

I traveled to Chattanooga with 4 friends, each with different ultramarathon experience, so I was calm on the morning of the race. The 5 of us chit-chatted in the pre-dawn hour, a welcome distraction until the call to the start line as the sun rose.

The crew before the race start.
The crew before the race start.

Shortly after 7:30 a.m. the race started and I found myself warming up during the opening mile with 30 people ahead of me. I chose my position with the intention of not going out too slowly, for fear of getting stuck behind too many people on the single track trail after the first mile of road. I counted on the majority of those 30 people coming back to me during the second half of the race.

Starting off at daybreak
Starting off at daybreak

I was settling into a nice rhythm. They’re opening rolling downhills are an easy, gentle way to start off the race. My body (and hands!) were starting to warm up and right when I started to feel relaxed… I fell. Hard. My right shin took the force of the fall and it hurt like a motherfucker but I bounced up without a second thought and kept running. I didn’t want to get trampled nor did I want to lose any time. I feared for a second that something might be broken (or become broken) so I did a quick self-analysis and made a mental note to reassess every few miles once the adrenaline went away.

Pulling into the first aid station at Mile 8, my leg seemed fine at this point (whew) and it was still a bit early for me to be stopping for fluids, so I cruised on by and gained a few spots from those who did. I’d save my first fluid stop for Mile 14 before the big ascent back up the mountain.

The trails widen after the first aid station as the course continues down the side of the mountain, losing 1,000 vertical feet. This was a welcome opportunity to start passing some of those who went out ahead of me at the start, but I knew to save myself for miles 14 to 22 which climb back up the to the top of the mountain (~2000 feet of climbing). Keeping that in mind, I kept my ego in check any time people were around trying to race me (either passing me or speeding up to prevent me from passing them). I just kept to my game plan of easy running the first 14 miles; cutting off a minute or two here could have added a full hour on the back end.

Adidas XT5 helping to keep me upright on slick rocks
Adidas XT5 helping to keep me upright on slick rocks

As I hit Mile 14 I started to do what I learned from many better trail runners than I – grind on long uphills. Keep the cadence high, the steps small, and don’t let up for nothing. When you pass, keep going and pretend that you’re just on a Sunday jog. Make it look effortless like you never want to stop. When the slope makes running impossible, power hike as hard as you can. If you’re going to walk up the steep stuff, it doesn’t mean you can let off the gas. It just means you’re walking as hard as you can run. Too many people give up when it gets too steep to run. If you’re going to hike, you might as well hike fast.

And so run-hike I did, as fast as I could. I passed a dozen people and never looked back. OK, maybe I looked back a few times, but each time I couldn’t see anyone so it doesn’t count. I was relentless in my ascent to the top of the mountain, feeding off of passing people who were gasping for air and knowing that there were even more behind me struggling to the top.

When I finally reached the top at Mile 22 I knew that this is where my race would begin. I had a goal of hitting the top in 3 hours and 1 minute; In 2012 I hit the top of the mountain in 3 hours 15 minutes, so I figured that if I was going to finish under 8:00, I wanted to aim for a 3:01. Unfortunately I made it up in 3:13 – more than 10 minutes behind schedule. If I was going to dip under 8 hours, it would all be made up on the second half. I knew that in 2012 the biggest room for improvement lied in my second half, so I wasn’t too worried that sub-8 was out of reach yet.

I kept moving and tried to pay as much attention as possible to the next 7+ miles toward the Lula Lake aid station because they are also the *last* 7+ miles of the race course coming the opposite direction (uphill, unfortunately). I tried to survey the slope of the mountain, look at the terrain, and figure out how fast I would be able to run up it and how to take that into account for my goal of under 8 hours. Looking at every detail, it was trickier than I had remembered and I knew that I’d have to really push against gravity the final few miles.

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Making my way to Lula Lake at mile 30
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Making my way to Lula Lake at mile 30

The aid station at Mile 30 is at Lula Falls, which is probably the single coolest part of the course. It is a powerful yet serene waterfall that I feel is always worth taking a few seconds to stop and admire. This is why we run on mountain trails, right?

Unfortunately after the falls there is another uphill ascent, but nothing to terrible. A net uphill of 500 feet is followed by a descent to the southernmost part of the course at Mile 34. It was during this stretch that I made my only conversation with any of the competitors. A man recognized something about my singlet and asked if I was from New York. It turns out that he, James, had lived in Brooklyn for a number of years! We small-talked a bit during some hike sections. I told him my boyfriend was running this race; he’s now living in Atalanta; we had both run this same race in 2011; …and we had the exact same goal in mind – Top 10 finish, and under 8 hours. Almost immediately I realized that this new trail running friend would also become my race nemesis. Would it come down to one of us chasing down the other to claim the final Top 10 spot? Would the friendly banter turn into lung-searing sprints toward the end, phlegm foaming around our mouths desperately trying to beat the other? I didn’t want to find out, and took advantage of a downhill to create a gap that I hoped he would never end up covering!

At the aid station at mile 34, the course goes on a circular 5 mile loop. While fairly short, it’s deceivingly difficult and takes most people over an hour to run. There’s quite a bit of elevation gain, and there are a lot of switchbacks that break your stride. This year I finished it in a respectable 57 minutes, which sounds slow but I assure you it doesn’t feel it!

Coming out of the loop, I bumped into my boyfriend Connor. I was surprised to see him only an hour behind me because I thought he’d be running bit further back with a friend of ours, but I was happy to see him push his limits a bit in his first 50-mile race. I figured if I would finish around 8 hours, he’d be 90 minutes behind in 9:30 which is very good. Maybe I was a bit cocky thinking that I could put an additional 30 minutes between us in the final 11 miles but I was on a mission!

I kept to that mission and only offered a quick chat with Connor. I would have loved to catch up but I had a time (and people) to chase. I began the final 11 miles feeling pretty beat up. Stopping even for just a few seconds to get more fluids and to say hello to Connor made it difficult to start running again. The only thing that brought me to life was that during this final stretch, there are people going the opposite direction to cheer you on. They’re many miles behind, so they tend to be very courteous and stand to the side to let the faster runners pass and offer brief words of encouragement. “Good job!” “You look great!” To each and every one of you, thank you! Trying to keep up a pace so late in the race is difficult physically, so it’s such a huge mental relief not to have to dodge people on the trail.

One of these runners had been taking a count of the top runners coming back. Somewhere around Mile 40 I was informed that I was in 10th position. Holy shit. I tried to not get excited, but there was no way around the fact that I wanted to hold my position. I was going to die trying if I had to. I knew that with the final 7 miles uphill, I would have to push as hard as I could during the somewhat-runnable section from 40 to 43.

I pushed and pushed, and got to the final aid station for a quick fluid refill. A volunteer confirmed that I was in 10th place. I noticed a runner behind me (shit) in an orange jacket who I had seen here and there on the course throughout the day. I had thought much earlier in the race that he looked to be a strong runner, but this late in the race I didn’t want to find out any more so I kept moving while he stopped.

With 7 miles to go I just emptied the tank. Every uphill was a suffer-fest. I was in a quest to keep my 10th place spot, and if someone was going to pass me during this final section I was going to make them hurt. I wasn’t going to hand over anything so easily. If someone was tracking me down from behind I wanted to show no give-up, no weakness. I wanted to break them before they could hope to pass me.

Feeling the pain at mile 42.
Feeling the pain at mile 42.

At Mile 48 I hit a large open dirt trail. The time on my watch read 7 hours and 39 minutes. I had to average about 10 minutes per mile uphill to finish under 8:00. I wasn’t sure that I could do it, but I was too close not to try. I wasn’t sure what I was racing for now – position? Time? Personal satisfaction? All of the above? Could I ease off the gas a bit and still save face? Of course I couldn’t.

Just a few more miles to the finish
Just a few more miles to the finish

My watch was inching nearer and nearer to 8:00. At 7:55 I could make out the top of the mountain in the distance. I knew the finish was near. At 7:57 I could see a building. A building I sort of recognized! I knew the finish line at Covenant College was right ahead of me. And then as I was headed up straight toward that building, there was a course marker that made me turn left. Left?! “No no, I can see the finish area and I want to run straight toward it!” But I had to follow the course marker. I had only 2 minutes to run and I started to retire the sub-8 goal. But then I made another turn, this one right (back in the right direction), and I saw something. I saw the finish chute. I saw the Christmas lights that have greeted me three times before, marking the final 30 meters of course. And of course after one final turn in the chute I saw the finish line. I couldn’t believe it. With only 61 seconds to spare, I crossed timing mat smiling ear to ear.

My official time was 7:58:59. My place? That’s a little bit of a disappointment. It turns out that the volunteers and other runners who told me I was 10th were sort of right. I was 10th…male. 11th overall. I can’t honestly claim to have finished in the Top 10; I can say that I was the 10th male, but that wasn’t what I was going for. Does this mean I have to return another year to try and crack the Top 10? No. But I probably will anyway.

2015 NYRR 60K (Knickerbocker 60K)

Overall Time: 4:41:09
Pace: 7:33
Overall Place: 7 of 350
Age Group Place: 2nd
AG%: N/A

I’m not sure exactly what this was. It wasn’t an “A” race, nor was it simply a fun run. It was a solid effort without taxing my reserves, and most importantly it was an easy way to claim a Front Runner NY record.

In 2009 Front Runner legend Patrick Guilfoyle ran the 60K, probably with the intent of running it faster than any Front Runner had previously done. I’m told that Tim Guscott mentioned Peter McGrane’s then-club record (5:15:55) to Patrick, which may have provided motivation and a target to run. It was no surprise when Patrick ran a 4:50:26 (7:48 pace) and re-set the FRNY club record.

Having dabbled in some ultramarathons before, I thought that 7:48 pace was a bit soft for a club record. I figured that I could run faster and without going for broke. And so that’s how I found myself in Central Park at the start line to the NYRR NYC 60K (formerly “Knickerbocker”) on a cold Saturday morning in November. Ego had driven me to sign up to claim the record, but self-restraint was keeping me from racing all-out. I still had a much more important race on my calendar — the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler — and this would be a good tune-up long distance race.

The course this year was modified and simplified. Instead of the historical out-and-back 1.3-mile section along the 102nd street transverse followed by 9 clockwise loops around the inner 4-mile loop of Central Park, this year’s 60K not only changed direction (we would run counter-clockwise with the flow of most foot traffic), but omitted the opening out-and-back section in favor of a 5-mile loop followed by eight 4-mile loops.

I was happy to change the direction of the race; running upstream for almost 5 hours and fighting through joggers and tourists wasn’t my ideal Saturday morning race scenario. Unfortunately it also meant running up Cat Hill 9 times, which didn’t thrill me. But it’s a loop course, which means an uphill at one section means a downhill on another. I didn’t care that much.

The gun went off and Peter Ciaccia was there to wish everyone a great race. My friend Gen ran the first 2 loops with me, I suppose as his final long run before the Philadelphia Marathon the following weekend (he would go on to run his first sub-3!). I was happy for the company and my pacing was spot-on at 7:30. Unfortunately after the first two loops he had to call it a day, and so it would be just me and the 4-mile loop of Central Park.

There’s not a whole lot you can say about this race. It’s just the 4-mile loop on repeat. The hills get a bit taxing, especially going up Cat Hill 9 times. There is a water station on the east side and the west side of the course so you’re never more than 2 miles from aid. There are lots of people running in the park, not because of the race but just because it’s a lovely Saturday morning, so it feels as if you have plenty of company even if most of the runners are just going for their morning 5K jog.

I can at least mention the crowds. Because of the loop format, if you’re lucky enough to be in a large running club that supports you then there’s a good chance they’ll send out a crew to cheer you on. All they have to do is stay put and they’ll see you as many times as they wish. Better yet, some will run the opposite direction to see and cheer you along twice as many times. And inevitably there are those who will also run with you for support and to break up the monotony of the course. I had all three of these things. Front Runners had a great cheer zone at the bottom of the west side at 72nd Street. In addition, a number of them ran the opposite direction of the course and cheered me on from multiple points. And Richard White was nice enough to run me through the final loop of the course when I was starting to hurt.

If you run in the top 10 or 15 positions, you’ll be lapping people beginning halfway through the race. This was my only sense of accomplishment other than maintaining a steady pace. Otherwise I just set my legs to cruise control and tried to check out mentally. I wouldn’t even pay attention to the number of laps I had left because you start to forget silly things like that (“Was that lap 6, or 7?”). Instead I knew my finishing time would be around 4 hours and 40 minutes, so I just focused on running until I had an hour left to go and then I could start counting down.

In the end I managed fairly even splits — some miles were faster than others, but then were slowed down by bathroom breaks or stops to get fuel and hydration. I crossed in 4:41:09 (7:33 pace), to set a new record for FRNY and place 7th overall for the race. I was happy. I waited around to see the other Front Runners finish (Connor, Manja, Kurt), and called it a day. Within a half hour I was back home, showered, and ready for a nap. Ah, the benefits of an ultramarathon in your city’s back yard!

2015 Mohawk Hudson River Marathon

Overall Time: 2:53:03 (1:27:00 / 1:26:03 split)
Pace: 6:36
Overall Place: 23 of 1145
Age Group Place: 3 of 89
AG%: 72%

This fall my marathon target was the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon. This race came after a period of injury that sidelined me the first quarter of 2015, but despite that I wanted to set a new marathon PR.

This was the site of my first real marathon race (back in 2011) and also my PR (2014). It’s a lovely course that I’ve had experience on, and the flat terrain allows for a fast race.

mohawk-elevation
With downhill sections around mile 3 and again just after the halfway point, the overall flat course is a very good place to set sights on a PR.

Based on my training leading up to the race and the race-day weather, I knew a PR was possible but it was by no means certain. After having done endless rounds of training analyses, I came to the realization that the training numbers (paces, distances, overall mileage) indicated I was roughly just as fit as when I ran this race (and PR’ed in 2:53:52) a year ago. The difference this year might lie in the modified taper I tried. I would count on that to get me to the finish line faster than last year.

My goal going into the race was a 2:51 +/- 2 minutes. On the chance that I had perfect weather and magical legs, I’d shoot for a 2:49. If I struggled, then I’d at least like to hit 2:53:00 and at least hit a minor PR. That margin is rather narrow and specific, but it was large enough to feel like it was a good certainty.

I planned on accomplishing this with a first half of 1:26:30, and a second half that could then range from 1:23:29 (best-case scenario), to 1:27:00 (worst-case).

Raceday weather was a little warmer than ideal. Early morning temperatures were in the high 40s, but would hit 60 degrees and sunny by noon when I would be finished. This wasn’t a death sentence, but it did give me reason to worry that I would overheat in the last few miles when no one feels that good anyway. Additionally there would be a 7-8 mph constant headwind for the final 8 miles of the course. I wasn’t exactly sure how much I’d be able to feel this, and at least it wasn’t anything like the 15+ mph winds at NYC Marathon last year. I figured I’d be just fine.

As always the start of the race is quite undramatic. I kept my warm clothes on until only 5 minutes before the start, at which point I hopped into the corral, heard the national anthem, and waited for the gun to go off. Small races are great like that: start line logistics are so simple. The bag drop bag was 50 feet away and fully staffed up until the start.

With little notice, the gun went off and so began the race. Marathon race starts are always undramatic, so there isn’t much to write about this one. The first miles came in a little slow as I warmed up (first mile of 6:45, second in 6:50), and soon I settled into what I hoped would be my race pace. These were all a few seconds ahead of last year’s effort, which is what I wanted. Surprisingly the next several miles were all very comfortable and consistent (6:33, 6:32, 6:34, 6:49, 6:40, 6:39,6:36, 6:34, 6:33, 6:35). I had never hit 6:30s feeling so relaxed.

It’s quite odd for me to be able to run mid 6:30 miles and feel so relaxed in the middle of a marathon. If you asked me on any random training run to go and do 8 or 10 miles at 6:30 pace I’d have to mentally prepare myself for what I would consider to be a hard run. It would not be a stroll in the park. But after a ten-day mental and physical taper for a marathon, all of a sudden this pace becomes completely manageable and… dare I say it?… easy. I knew it would not be easy to hold onto the last few miles, but as far as I was concerned these opening miles were in fact easy.

These opening miles are aided by a very beautiful course — the first half is easily the most scenic. At Mile 5 you emerge from city streets to join the Mohawk River bikepath, and the descent down to the river is pretty amazing. The fall foliage greets you and gets you through the first half feeling very positive.

The lovely bike path along the Mohawk River.
The lovely bike path along the Mohawk River.

There are some gentle hills in this section which can catch some people off guard when they expect a flat and downhill course. While the course loses about 375 feet overall, the middle section of the course is a net uphill and you need to be mentally prepared for this.

At this point in the race, there are also enough people around you in a small race (~1100 finishers) that it doesn’t yet feel like a solo time trial. The pack mentality certainly comes out and it’s easy to maintain pace with a good group.

The halfway mark came in 1:27:00, exactly 30 seconds off pace. Although I was minorly disappointed I wasn’t worried. The previous year I had hit the halfway mark much slower and ran a 1:25 second half struggling the entire way. This year feeling much better, I had realistic expectations of a 1:24 second half and dreams of a 1:23.

I knew that the miles after the halfway mark (roughly miles 14 – 18) were the fastest since there are the biggest downhills of the course. Passing the 13.1 mark I started to push the pace a bit. After the half mark, my miles quickened to 6:26, 6:30, 6:28, 6:34, 6:25, 6:31. I was feeling good and knew that keeping this pace would get me a second half of 1:24 and change. If I could pick up the pace in the final 10 kilometers, maybe I’d slip under 2:50 (unlikely) but if not I should be able to cruise in with a 2:51.

Unfortunately beginning at mile 18 we ventured off the bike path and hit some road. Road isn’t so bad, but the trees that had been shielding us from the wind and sun were no longer around. Heading due south along open roads, I could feel the direct headwinds. Normally a 7 mph headwind wouldn’t be too bad but at this point I was pushing as hard as I could and I didn’t appreciate the wind pushing back.

It was also around this time that the race started to thin out. Everyone who went out too fast soon fell back, and I found myself running alone. There was no one to latch onto, and no one to push me — only myself. This is fairly evident looking at the results. I finished in 23rd place. The 22nd place finisher? He was three whole minutes ahead of me. I couldn’t even see anyone to chase the final miles. And the 24th place finisher? He placed 1 minutes and 49 seconds behind me — more than  a quarter mile. It was definitely a sparsely populated race course in the final 6 + miles.

Shortly before Mile 20 (6:35) I passed the then 2nd place female runner and mentioned the headwind, which she wasn’t taking very kindly to either.

At Mile 22 (6:47) the course goes from the streets to another bike path along the Hudson River. I was hoping for enough trees to block the wind, but this wasn’t the case. The headwind was still there, but at least I had only 4 miles to go. I put my head down, quite literally in fact in an effort to lessen the wind, and tried desperately to run as fast as I could.

The ensuing miles were particularly painful and slower than I wanted (6:33, 6:37, 6:37) but I was still holding a decent pace and would negative split the race. Still, I knew that a 2:51 had slipped away and the changes of a 2:52 were quite low as well.

With a mile left to go I tried to put in one final solid mile, which resulted only in a 6:26 (and a 1:17 final .2 miles @ 5:53 pace). I could see the clock ticking up… 2:52:57, 2:52:58, 2:52:59… and I sprinted as hard as I could… but crossing the line I ended with a 2:53:03. I had run the second half in a respectable 1:26:03, a minute faster than the first half.

I was mildly disappointed to not have finished under 2:53:00 by only a few seconds. Looking back at the weather, it didn’t appear that the relatively warm conditions affected me much but unfortunately only because there was a headwind to cool me in the final 8 miles. The headwind wasn’t a huge deal; it cost maybe 8 seconds per mile. But these 8 seconds over 8 miles were the difference between a 2:51 and the 2:53 I finished in. While a very small difference, it’s one that was fairly big to me.

Any sense of disappointment quickly gave way to relief and happiness. I had set a new PR by 49 seconds. Also as I would realize later, not a single person passed me the entire race. I started with a conservative pace and for the last 24+ miles did nothing but passing. That’s something my friend Gen would appreciate.

When injured and not allowed to run all February and March this year, I worried how long it would take to get back into the shape I was in 2014. As I started back with a run-walk program in April, I was frustrated how much patience I was required to endure as I gradually built myself back up. All May was easy running, and only in June did I finally permit myself to do any sort of light speed work after almost 5 months.

To be able to have only a 4-month buildup after a serious injury, and to then PR at the marathon distance was a big win for me. I didn’t hit the magical 2:49 marathon time, but there’s plenty of time and road left for me to do that. More important was that I was able to run faster than last year, I did so without re-injuring myself in the process, and I felt good and positive the entire race experience.

If someday anyone stumbles across this and is wondering how long it takes to come back from a tibial stress fracture or stress reaction, take some comfort knowing that by skipping my spring marathon (Boston) I was able to come back faster than before by focusing on a fall marathon. It was a long and uncertain process, but it totally paid off.

Breakdown of splits:

splits

2015 Dipsea Race

Running Time: 1:05:13
Finish Time: 1:04:14 (1-minute head start)
Pace: 8:41
Place: 263 of 1419
AG%: N/A

It feels like it’s been a long time since I updated this. Normally I would have been writing something around April about the Boston Marathon, except that in February of this year I was diagnosed with a stress reaction in my tibia. This meant a complete cessation of running in February and March, and only a gradual resumption of run/walk starting in April. While my doctor had cleared me to start running (ok, run-walking) by the Boston Marathon I was not in the position to run a marathon.

That meant my first real race would be the Dipsea in June — the annual trail run from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. This race is the oldest continuing trail race in the country, having started in 1905 (though was not run for a few years during the Great Depression and WWII) and continuing on today.

I decided I’d take a month to do some rehab-running (April), and then a month to start to introduce proper training (May) before the 105th Dipsea on June 14th. With only a bit more than a month worth of training, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get back up to speed to handle the Dipsea. Not only is the Dipsea a competitive race, it’s also extremely hilly and challenging — with both massively steep uphills (688 steps of stairs to start with) and super fast descents (with names like “Suicide”) through some gnarly terrain.

Last year I was run as a Runner and qualify with a 1:09 to be invited for the 2015 race as an Invitational runner. To keep that status, I figured I would have to run a 1:07 this year but I wasn’t sure I could knock off two minutes from last year’s time. Granted last year was warm and times were artificially slow, but I had gotten to the start without having any injuries along the way.

The famous Dipsea, running from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach
The famous Dipsea, running from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach

Based on Russ Kiernan’s previous splits, I had three course goals that would keep me on track to maintain Invitational status and run around a 1:05: 1.) hit the top of the stairs at 7:40, 2.) hit the bridge across Redwood Creek at 18:45, and 3.) hit the top of Cardiac at 43:50. If I could hit Cardiac in 43:XX, I knew I could run the remaining couple of miles pretty strong since they’re fairly runnable and downhill/flat.

Connor and I decided to start off together, mostly because he wanted to keep from going out too fast, although I told him that I wasn’t sure what the final miles would have for me. I wasn’t sure if my strength could get me through the final fast miles and said he should drop me if he still had the legs to go in the last downhill 2 miles.

Connor and I got in the corrals and before we knew it the countdown started. “Your race begins in 5… 4… 3… 2…….. 1!!!!”

Immediately I saw Rickey Gates fly off the front of the pack. This was no surprise, and he would go on to post the fastest run of the day. What a talent! Our group was fairly fast so I tried not to get caught up in the excitement of the start, nor the jockeying for position. I wanted to save my legs for the two massive climbs in the race.

The Dipsea course elevation profile.
The Dipsea course elevation profile.

I hit the stairs taking two at a time, monitoring my breathing and heart rate. When I found myself working too hard, I’d stay to the right on the stairs and let faster people pass left. Once in a while I’d pass left when my heart rate had come down, but I made sure to stay in a fairly aerobic zone because so much of the race still lie ahead. It was on these stairs that I saw Alex Varner fly by me and I knew I’d never see him again. I wondered if he’d be getting his 7th consecutive fastest-runner triumph.

Hitting the top of the stairs, Connor and I emerged exactly at 7:40. Wow, what pacing! I was happy that I hit my first course goal, and looked forward to the descent down to the creek. Of course I had forgotten that between the stairs and the descent to the creek, there’s still a sizable climb passing the 1-mile mark. Ugh. Lots of people were passing me at this point, but I was trying not to worry. I’d catch them on the downhills and still wanted to conserve energy.

Soon enough the descent along Muir Wood Road came and I let my legs turnover to gain some speed. Hitting the bottom and crossing the creek at 18:40, I was so please to be on pace. Still, I knew the climb to Cardiac would make or break the race.

The climb from the creek gets pretty crowded; by this time we were catching up with a lot of the earlier groups. “Passing left!” was coming out of my mouth constantly, whether I was running or power-hiking my way up. I tried to pay attention to any section that got remotely flat, and therefor runnable, and sped up. When at one point Connor slipped ahead of me on an uphill climb, I found myself quickly catching up to him on the flats. Knowing that he and I were primarily road runners and have more raw speed than most of the other trail runners, I shouted to him as I caught up: “You gotta push on the flats!” Most of the other runners were recovering on the flats after hard uphill efforts, and us pushing the flats up to Cardiac is where we really started to make up ground.

Cardiac this year felt a lot easier than last, and I’m not sure why. I kept my head up when I could sense the summit approaching, and looked at my watch. We were around 41:00 and I told Connor that if we hit the top at 45 minutes, that’d be good. But if we hit the top at 43 minutes, that’d be great! We hit the top at 43:24. I was so happy to have hit this split. I knew if I kept up the effort I would finish right at 1:05.

Once at the top the running gets pretty good. I slowed down for a quick Gatorade, and in that half second a dozen guys jumped ahead of me seeing the flat and fast section atop Cardiac. That meant Connor was now way ahead. The trail gets super narrow, so passing was not always an option — especially if the person I wanted to pass was passing someone. The congestion and narrow trails made it impossible to catch up to Connor, which was frustrating. Not only did I want to run with him, I didn’t want him to beat me!

I was feeling good so I didn’t worry about Connor dropping me. I’d pass when the trail allowed it and had the confidence that I could put in a properly hard charge over the final two miles.

Unfortunately after Cardiac we entered the Swoop, a section that this year that was so massively overcrowded that at times we were forced to come to a full stop; other times we were able to march a a snail’s pace, which was unacceptable considering it’s downhill. While it was incredibly frustrating, there was nothing I could do about it so I just bided my time and took the opportunity to recover a bit.

Exiting the Swoop, there’s a bump called Insult. I can’t convey how much of a bump this really is. Everyone talks about it but I feel like it’s over before it starts. It was nothing to sweat over. With only a little over a mile left and the trail a little wider than before I decided it was time to make my move to catch up to Connor. I’m a good downhill runner and don’t get [too] scared about taking stairs or hills fast going down and I made it my mission to pass everyone to catch him.

I powered down everything and anyone in my way, and with about two hundred meters before hitting the Shoreline Highway (about a half mile from the finish) I managed to meet up with Connor on some stairs that I was attacking. I yelled at him to come with me and we had only 800 meters of downhill road separating us and the finish. We kicked and managed to average 4:50 for that final stretch, crossing the finish together in a chip time of 1:05 and managing to maintain our Invitational status for 2016.

Crossing the finish, I couldn’t believe how perfectly the race had gone. I hit each of my sub-goals within a matter of seconds and crossed at exactly my goal pace. It’s not often a race works out with such perfection, especially a trail race with such varied terrain. I was ecstatic.

I had guessed at the start that we’d need a 1:07, and it turns out that the cutoff this year was 1:08:02. It was good knowing that we were several minutes under this, because next year the pressure will be a little less. We’ll know exactly what it takes to qualify again and I think we’ll even be in better shape.

This year my goal was to finish uninjured and to qualify to run again next year. Next year my goal is a bit more ambitious: run under 60:00 and juuuuuust maybe crack the top 100.

2014 JFK 50 Miler

Overall Time: 7:26:05
Pace: 8:54
Place: 35 of 912
AG%: N/A

After the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon in October I started feeling a little burnt out. Instead of ending my racing season in December this year, I decided to cut things short and end in November. I need some time off before I ramp up my training for Boston, so the JFK 50 on November 22nd would be my final real race of 2015. I had high hopes for the race, although with the realization that my training hadn’t been focused on anything longer than a marathon.

When I ran this last year I was slightly disappointed with my time (7:42:09). It wasn’t a miserable failure, but I certainly thought going into the race that I could do much better and break 7:30. Part of my failure last year was not realizing how slow the first 15.5 miles would be. The other part was then losing mental focus somewhere on the never-ending towpath along the Potomac and slowing down when I didn’t have to.

For those not familiar with the JFK 50 Miler, it starts in Boonsboro Maryland and ends about 15 miles west in Williamsport. From Boonsboro you head south for 15.5 miles along the Appalachian Trail to the Potomac River. Once at the Potomac, you follow it west and north for 26.3 miles. After the stretch along the river you jump back onto roads as you head 8.4 miles to finish at Williamsport Middle School.

The JFK 50 starts in Boonsboro and heads 15.5 miles south along the Appalachian Trail. It then follows the Potomac River for 26.3 miles, and then roads inland to Williamsport for the final 8.4 miles.
The JFK 50 starts in Boonsboro and heads 15.5 miles south along the Appalachian Trail. It then follows the Potomac River for 26.3 miles, and then roads inland to Williamsport for the final 8.4 miles.
The total elevation profile for the JFK 50 Mile. After an initial rocky climb and descent along the Appalachian Trail, the remaining 35 miles are relatively flat.
The total elevation profile for the JFK 50 Mile. After an initial rocky climb and descent along the Appalachian Trail, the remaining 35 miles are relatively flat.

Like last year I would be racing without a crew to meet me along the course. There are so many aid stations that additional support isn’t really required, except that many people prefer to run the opening 15.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail with trail shoes and then change into road shoes for the final flat 34.7 miles. This means two things: 1.) Yes, your math is correct. The race is actually 50.2 miles and 2.) changing shoes requires a crew to meet you off the AT to perform the swap.

Sans crew I would have to decide between wearing trail shoes or road shoes for the entire haul. I decided on a pair of Adidas Adios 2 figuring that they were light yet had enough protection for any unseen rocks along the AT. As long as my footing and basic trail footwork was up to the task, the Adios 2 would be sufficient for the AT and then perfect for the flat sections to follow.

In terms of other gear, I kept it minimal: I had my handheld water bottle, two Clif Shot Bloks (200 calories each), and 3 pre-measured 200-calorie bags of HEED energy drink that I would mix with water along the course for liquid energy. With almost a thousand calories in my pockets, I’d just have to worry about grabbing a few additional snacks and drinks located at the aid stations on the course.

My race plan was fairly simple. In an effort to better last year’s time, I decided to avoid losing as much time on the Appalachian Trail (AT), and then fight as hard as I could -mentally and physically — to maintain an 8:00 pace per mile for the final 35 miles.

My first goal was to split around 2:20 for the AT section of the race. If I could maintain that 8:00 pace the rest of the way I would hit a finish time of around 7:15 taking aid station stops into consideration. My goal became to keep it under 7:30, and possible threaten 7:15 if the stars aligned.

I liked my plan — it seemed uncomplicated and achievable — and felt like the equipment (shoes, hydration, calories) was effective enough to get me to the finish line with a smile on my face. The only thing left to do was execute.

The morning of the race was cold. A sign outside leading to the front indicated it was 15 Fahrenheit. Brisk. I made my way to the start with a couple of additional layers that I planned to throw away as soon as (or if) I warmed up along the course.

When the gun went off, I had been unable to make my way to the very front of the start. There were roughly a hundred morons ahead of me whose self-entitled and ill-informed egos demanded that they start at the front of the race only to powerwalk when the race started. They became obstacles and I felt no sympathy for any shoulders bumped or elbows thrown getting around them.

After about two and a half miles of uphill road, we hit the first section of the AT. I’m not the best trail runner, but I’m fairly proficient and very comfortable on them. Immediately a lot of the people who charged out fast on the opening road miles were coming back to me. I was surprised how poorly some relatively fast people can run trails.

Mile 4 is always interesting because it has a paved section of the AT, which sounds easy and runnable — but it’s at some ridiculous incline that everyone slows to a powerwalk getting up it (no use in tiring yourself up running up something so steep with 45 miles left to go!). The highest point of the course is just after mile 5. It looks intimidating on the elevation profile, but in all honesty it doesn’t seem that bad when running it. It’s a fairly steady incline leading to the summit, and if you can get into a good solid groove it never feels unbearable.

Summiting the top of the trail, there was a fairly consistent and runnable (but still rocky) downhill section for about 4 miles. I was looking forward to making up some time lost on the earlier uphills, but soon became frustrated at the congestion ahead. It was just my luck that I got stuck behind a long train of people with pretty poor trail skills. Passing became difficult because there wasn’t just one person to get around — there were at least a dozen and each time I passed one or two I would have to stop for someone else in front of me gingerly going downhill. I wish I could have pushed them to the side, shouting, “RUN DAMMIT!” but of course that’s not very nice (or legal).

Coming to mile 9 I decided to finally get a few calories in. With the cold morning temperatures and the relatively slow pace of the opening miles, thirst wasn’t really a factor for the first hour but I knew I’d need sugar now to delay running out of energy later on. My plan was to save the Shot Bloks and HEED until the section along the Potomac, so I filled my bottle with Gatorade, which was all I needed for the entire stretch of the AT.

Most of the rest of the AT was a simple pattern of gently bouncing uphill behind people, and then passing them on the downhills.

Along the Appalachian Trail. Morning temperatures were below 20 degrees, so I started with a long-sleeve thermal top that would later be tossed.
Along the Appalachian Trail. Morning temperatures were below 20 degrees, so I started with a long-sleeve thermal top that would later be tossed.

The shoes were holding up great. There was no foot pain from any of the rocks on the trail, even small ones hidden under leaves. Most of the big rocks were clearly visible; as long as my eyes and feet were quick enough I could dance on and around them without any harm. Any doubt I had previously about wearing a road racing shoe for this race went away.

If (like I have done in the past) you’re reading this because you’re doing JFK in the future and haven’t decided on what to wear, my advice is this: if you’re light on your feet and have decent trail experience, road shoes are 100% fine. If you’re a little delicate and question your ability to skillfully run on top of rocks (especially going downhill), you are a prime candidate for trail shoes for the race.

I got off the AT in 2:36:59 — about 15 minutes slower than I would have liked. To be honest I was a little disappointed in this. But with the trail congestion and a couple bathroom breaks, I can’t really say there was a whole lot I could have done about this. Next year I should position myself a little closer toward the front of the pack when getting on the AT so I don’t get stuck behind so many slow people.

Hitting the flat stretch of the Towpath, I tossed my army-green long sleeve top that I had started with. One of the kid volunteers looked at me with amazement, asking, “Aren’t you cold!?” I just smiled and ran along. Now the long road was ahead of me. Time to go to work.

Starting the towpath along the Potomac. The green long sleeve that I started with is gone, but I've still got one more layer until the air temperatures hit 30 degrees. Note the girl in purple (ok, fuchsia) behind me.
Starting the towpath along the Potomac. The green long sleeve that I started with is gone, but I’ve still got one more layer until the air temperatures hit 30 degrees. Note the girl in purple (ok, fuchsia) behind me.

I settled into my 8:00 pace but had to calm my competitive nerves from getting the better of me. A lot of people were coming off the AT and started passing me in the first mile or two along the towpath along the Potomac. One boy/girl combo that passed me was especially irritating, although for no really good reason. Girl was wearing a purple (fuchsia, really) running jacket and Boy was wearing a neon yellow long sleeve top. They had been talking near me earlier in the race and Girl had started singing to him at some point (WTF?), which was sort of irritating because I don’t care to overhear that sort of chipper BS during a race. It was the same type of  irritation that occurs listening to some NYU student gab at 100 decibels to her friend on the subway during morning rush hour when the rest of the train is silent and still waking up. Of course I’m sure it’d be different if I knew her and she was talking / singing / whatever’ing to me, but the fact is that it just seemed like a banshee-like distraction that I didn’t want to listen to. Then she remarked something about how good she felt at the point (approx 25 km). You see, she explained, normally she feels tired at the 25 km mark of her weekend long runs but today she felt great!

I wanted to yell at her. “Great! Fucking fantastic, but you still have more than 55 kilometers to go so shut up!” I wanted to race them right then and there. I knew better and stuck to my plan. I had 35 miles to worry about passing them. At this point all I wanted to do was enjoy the scenery (and then put my head down and grind out miles once I got bored of the scenery).

Let’s get two things straight about the 26.3-mile section along the Potomac: 1. It’s beautiful. 2. It’s boring and flat. My description of this leg will be boring and flat as well — I ran and kept an 8:00 pace.

It was undramatic. Over the next 26+ miles I ate both my Clif Shot Blocks spaced out fairly evenly (total calories: 400) and had one 200-calorie mixture of HEED. Other than that for nutrition, I stuffed my mouth full of potato chips somewhere around mile 35. This means I ended up discarding more than half the HEED I brought. Of the 3 bags on me, I used only 1.

Beyond those lovely details of what I ate and drank, the only thing to say is that I ran right around 8:00 pace for all 26.3 miles. It wasn’t always easy — running that far never is — but I never felt in danger of hitting the wall of totally imploding. I knew I would be in pain when I hit the final 8.4 miles on the rolling hills toward the finish, but pain is expected and I knew there was still enough in the tank to keep motoring on.

Looking smooth along the Potomac!
Looking smooth along the Potomac!

There was a volunteer or some crew person whose timing always coincided with mine. Every 7 or 8 miles he would pop up on the trail and say, “Looking good! Real smooth!” He was obviously leap-frogging his way toward the finish and after the fourth time seeing him I joked, “Are you stalking me?!” He laughed and repeated what he’d been telling me all day.

“Looking smooth! You’re going to catch up with a lot of people hurting pretty soon!”

Hearing this random stranger’s encouragement actually helped quite a bit. When I hear things like, “Good job!” or “You’ve got this!” it just passes in one ear and out the other. But something a little more qualitative will stick with me more. If I’m running smoothly, it means I’m not looking like I’m straining too much. I’m not looking like I’m going to cross the finish line a broken man crawling on all fours.

Shortly before the end of the towpath along the Potomac at around mile 41, that volunteer’s statements would come true and I saw what I had been waiting for all day long: sing-songy Girl in the purple jacket who had passed me at the start of the Potomac section. I could tell she was slowing down and maybe 400 meters ahead. Within 5 minutes I had reeled her in; she had succumbed to a run-walk pattern and I knew she wouldn’t be picking it up the final 8 miles like I would. At the aid station at mile 41.8, she stopped and I flew by her to get onto the road to Williamsport. My heart smiled.

Along the towpath running beside the Potomac River. 26.3 miles of monotonous beauty.
Along the towpath running beside the Potomac River. 26.3 miles of monotonous beauty.

Coming off the towpath there is a short (200 meter?) uphill stretch that I’m sure renders even the fastest of runners to a power hike. It’s miserable thinking that you have to scale this mini-Everest so late in the race, but at the same time it’s a great chance to vary the muscles you’re using and give the rest of your body a break from the constant running.

Once I crested the top of the hill the final 8.4 miles challenged me to keep my pace. They are on road, so I was grateful for my shoe choice. They are not 100% flat, which any other time is not a problem. I say “not flat” because I refuse to call them hilly. Here’s a graph to show you what I mean:

The final 8.4 miles along the road to Williamsport.
The final 8.4 miles along the road to Williamsport.

First you can see the mini-Everest you scale to reach the top of the road. Then you have a still-quite-runnable section of road that goes up a little, then down a little, then back up, and down…. until you get to the finish. The obvious problem is that by the time you get to these little bumps in the road, you’ve been moving for over 43 miles. Your legs are dead. *My* legs were dead. It’s a constant assault of gravity on legs that are depleted of strength and energy.

At this point I had done some mental calculations and knew that a 7:30 finish time was right around my pace up to that point. With more than 8 miles, I was slightly nervous about slowing down and finishing just over 7:30. I didn’t want to waste any time with any more bathroom breaks or stops to fill up my water bottle with Gatorade. I made up my mind to run the final stretch on road without stopping, and hopefully without slowing.

I knew that if I maintained an 8:30 per mile pace for this final section, I’d slip in right under 7:30. So when each mile kept coming by without me noticeably slowing, I felt more and more confident as I got closer and closer to the finish line. After the uphill onto the road, my splits quickened as I was desperate to finish.

A 7:47 next mile was exactly what I wanted. It was fast enough to pass people and not so fast that I felt like I would die. Next up: 7:49, followed by a 7:46. Awesome. I knew at this point I could jog a 9:00 pace to the end and still be fine.

With a couple rolling hills ahead, my pace slipped just north of 8:00 pace. Miles 47 (8:02), 48 (8:03), and 49 (8:10) were slower than I wanted but at this point I knew I had averted some huge bonk. There would be no walking during this 50 miler and I was free to put in one final solid mile to the finish. Throwing down an uphill final mile of 7:45, I crossed the finish with a big fat smile on my face as the clock read 7 hours 26 minutes and 5 second.

After looking through the results of the other runners, it appears that maintaining speed over the last section is fairly rare, which leads me to think that either I did something quite exceptional or I made a big mistake and should have pushed harder during my time on the Potomac. My guess is that the real answer is somewhere in the middle.

Boom! 50.2 miles and still a smile on my face.
Boom! 50.2 miles and still a smile on my face.

When I started to go through the numbers, I felt much better about my race and pace strategy. Although I got off the AT a little slower than I wanted, that was only a small setback. The numbers showed that when I got off the AT, not a single person who was behind me on the trail finished ahead of me. That’s right — in the final 34.7 miles, not a single person passed me (except perhaps temporarily before fading). I did all the passing.

My time during the 26.3-mile section of the towpath was 3:41:42 (8:25 pace). My time for the final 8.4 miles was 1:07:24 (8:01 pace). Although I kept just over an 8:00 pace for the towpath, the normal occurrence of bathroom breaks crept in and slowed up the average pace. I’m fine with that.

I still have bigger ambitions for this race. I’d love to show up next year in proper 50-mile race shape and threaten a sub-7:00 finish; and maybe one year I’d love to come in swinging for a 6:30 finish. But those sorts of leaps take time and I’m in no rush. This race has been around for 52 years and as long as it’s around for 52 more I’ve got plenty of time.

The winner of this year’s race finished an hour and a half before me. I don’t delude myself into thinking I’m an elite ultrarunner, but I do take pride in my accomplishments and progress. Taking on a distance race (be it an ultra or a shorter distance) takes hard work, smart planning, and discipline to execute everything properly. Having everything come together so well is something that can never be taken away from me, and only inspires me to try and attempt even more.

2014 Mohawk Hudson River Marathon

Overall Time: 2:53:53
Pace: 6:37
Place: 22 of 897
AG%: 71.83%

The build-up to this marathon was a little short training wise, but mentally I had been preparing myself for a PR for almost a year. In 2013 I had a successful year of distance running, setting PRs from the 5K to the marathon and 50-mile distance. I was ready to take 2014 seriously and continue the trend. So when a difficult 2014 Boston Marathon came my way and I was barely able to sneak under the three-hour mark, I knew I’d be forced to plan a fall marathon and attack the 2:55 barrier (and perhaps 2:50!).

I chose to run the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon, the site of my first “real” marathon back in 2010. The scheduling would allow me to pace the NYC Marathon again and still have time to get in training before the JFK 50 Miler in late November.

The race starts in Schenectady and runs east along the Mohawk River before joining the Hudson River where the marathon turns south into Albany.

mohawk-map

The course is mostly flat, with two notable sections of downhill — one in the first 10K and another at mile 16. The rest of the course has a few rollers with the final miles being pancake flat. It’s a good course for a fast time, but ultimately all the course potential in the world doesn’t get you to the finish line. Your legs and your fitness do.

mohawk-elevation

The beginning of this year was particularly difficult for me as my mother fell ill to pancreatic cancer. From March through June I made several trips that included visiting her when she was sick and then unfortunately to be with my father and family when she passed away. Between recovering from Boston and dealing with much more important life concerns, running was put on the back burner.

I started my training in July for a solid three months of training. During this period I would see both my 5K and 5-mile PRs fall fairly drastically, which all pointed to increased fitness and my ability to be somewhere around 2:50 in the marathon. I was excited to be making these physical jumps and nervous at the thought of running 6:30 pace for 26.2 miles. I had put in a lot of 70+ mile weeks, including a 20-mile run almost every weekend. The longest run was my 33-mile perimeter run around Manhattan for my 33rd birthday.

As I began my taper I felt great. With 10 days to go, I put in my final speed workout and the bounce in my newly rested legs became to return.

And then I pulled a muscle in my back.

I have no idea how, but with a week to go my back became incredibly painful. It felt like a pulled muscle and caused my back to stiffen up. Every time I stood up from a chair or turned over in bed I felt like my back was going to snap in two. How was it going to be possible for me to run a marathon in a week? I wasn’t sure.

Over the course of the week leading up to the marathon I was not able to run for a couple days. It was just too painful. Wednesday (4 days before the big day) I was able to run a loop of Central Park at an excruciatingly slow 9:15 pace. I hurt but not terribly so. Thursday was better, and by Friday I was thinking I would be just fine for the weekend, but not confident about what my back would feel like running for almost 3 hours at a fast pace.

I headed up to Albany Friday after work so that I’d have all of Saturday to do the marathon thing — packet pickup at the expo, one final shakeout run to calm the nerves, walk around town to relax the mind. Connor joined me Saturday afternoon, as he had agreed to meet mile at mile 20 of the marathon to run the final 10 kilometers with me.

On Saturday night two more friends showed up and joined us for dinner. Daniel G and Jeff W were also up from New York City to run this race, so we met at my friend/weekend host John’s apartment for some pasta (and wine for me). Jeff and Daniel weren’t shooting or PRs, so I felt like I was the only one nervous about the next morning. Still, they were tired and the night was called to a close fairly early and that made me happy. I was in bed by 9:30. Everything was going just according to plan. Even better, I had a decent night of sleep.

Sunday morning brought pretty good marathon temperatures. My back was a little stiff but I figured that adrenaline and pain in my legs would silence whatever my back hard to say on the course.

Waiting in the fields around the start line was cold but as the sun poked out from the clouds it was comfortable enough that we weren’t shivering. I wore some arm warmers to get me through the opening warmup miles (thanks for bringing these, Connor!), but I planned on ditching them with no regrets as soon as the temperatures warmed up.

With five minutes left to go I seeded myself at the front of the coral, figuring on finishing in the top 25. There were some pretty fit-looking runners at the front and when I overheard two runners discussing their race plans and paces, my thoughts were confirmed (the top three men were all in the 2:20s). My back was feeling like it would hold out for the distance, so there was nothing holding me back. It was time to run.

With nothing more than a “ready, set, go!” the race was started at 8:30:00. The first mile in every race is a shit show and this was no different. The 3:05 pacer, who before the race started cautioned his group not to go out too fast in the first two miles, literally rocketed off the start line and was firmly ahead of me. The pack chasing him and all the other go-out-too-fast marathoners were quickly ahead of me. I wondered how many of them I would reel in after 5K, 20K, 30K. Morons.

The opening mile was of course slow. I’d rather lose 30 seconds and take it easy than bank 30 seconds and blow out early. My watch read 6:55, but that was just a warm up so I wasn’t concerned. I settled into a decent groove and found myself running with a young runner named Hunter with the same goal as me — to run mid 6:30s for the first half and then try and pick up the pace the second half to threaten a 2:50; the thought being that if 2:50 proved unrealistic, salvaging a 2:52 or 2:53 would be just fine. He had run a 2:52 the prior year despite going out a little fast, so he had hoped this year to run a more conservation race and finish much stronger.

I felt good running with him because at 6:55 for mile 1 he was already proving to be capable of not letting the race excitement get the better of him. We ran shoulder-to-shoulder and split mile 2 in 7:00. Shit. Time to move.

Mile 3 (6:39), 4 (6:39), and 5 (6:34) were feeling really smooth and like clockwork. I was pleased at my consistent pacing despite a few morons surging past me only to fall back for no reason, then again surging ahead. I still do not understand how people can train for so long and then ruin their pacing on race day on a flat course. Hold your damn pace and focus on your own race.

Mile 6 was pretty pancake flat. I was feeling like the pace was all Goldilocks — just right. Then I saw the mile split. 7:01. Shit. Surely the mile marker was off (looking at the Garmin data, I’m confident the mile markers were more suggestions than hard fact). Mile 8 was 6:49. Mile 9 was 6:46. How did I go from ‘easy’ 6:30s to struggling at high 6:40s? This wasn’t good. I was not comfortable at this point mentally or physically. My legs were straining and I realized this was going to be a long day. Hunter went ahead and I was glad for it — I didn’t want my bad day to affect his. He resumed his routine of 6:30s and slowly disappeared along the course.

Early in the race. I still have my arm warmers, at this point hanging around my wrists before I would ditch them before Mile 10.
Early in the race. I still have my arm warmers, at this point hanging around my wrists before I would ditch them before Mile 10.

There was no real strength in my legs, so it would be up to my heart to get me to the finish. Going under 3:00 would be difficult today and potentially worse, would I embarrass myself when Connor met me at Mile 20 to run me in? I had told him I’d hope to be running mid 6:20s to 6:30s at the end but… would I be scraping by at 9:00 pace? I was terrified at the thought, but it was definitely a possibility.

I began taking Gatorade at every aid station, each spaced two miles apart. Maybe a little sugar would help me. I was determined not to give up. I didn’t come up to Albany to throw in the towel. The only way to run a good race and set a PR is simply to do it.

Mile 10 (6:42) was a little faster but still slower than my goal. Miles 11 (6:50) and 12 (6:41) were confirmation that despite my decision to give a solid effort, this was going to be a struggle. But I was going to press on. With the halfway point coming up, I knew I could push the second half and either blow up or come home proud. I’ve never faulted anyone for trying and failing, but I’ve always been disappointed at those who never reached and always stayed safe. I decided to try to be the type of person I respect and push on.

Mile 13 (6:20) was definitely mis-marked, because mile 14 (6:46) was long. The two averaged to a 6:38 which was back on pace. I was hurting but the pain would be gone soon.

I split the half in 1:28:08 (6:43 pace), a full two minutes slower than my original plan but still something I could turn into a decent race. If I could run like I knew I was fit to do, I’d be able to split the second half much faster 1:25 and PR. 2:50 was not possible but a PR still was. And so my real work began.

Mile 15 (6:32) began the typical marathon game of catching and passing people who were slowing down because of overzealous early miles or unrealistic goals. Around mile 16/17 (12:57 for the two combined) I caught up and passed Hunter. I had told him before that my race began at mile 18, and was a little sad that he was slowing down after a fairly well-paced first half but hoped that he’d hold on to a decent finish. Unfortunately I would later learn that he would finish in 3:04:51.

Connor would be coming up soon, so pancake flat miles 18 (6:31 and 19 (6:27) I sped up a little knowing that I could finish a strong final 10K with how I was doing.

Somewhere around Mile 22. Connor's shadow is on the right.
Somewhere around Mile 22. Connor’s shadow is on the right.

I was happy that I was able to pull my head out from my ass and get back to race pace, but still terrified that I would blow up in the final couple of miles. I knew that when Connor joined me I’d still be managing decent pace but anything can happen in the final miles. I just hoped it would be awesome things happening!

Coming to mile 20 (6:25) with a slight downhill I picked up Connor. He had a handheld bottle with some sports drink that I had asked him to bring, so that I’d be able to get proper sugar in the final miles and not have to drink it from a cup. It was a relief not to suck down so much air trying to get in a little fluid.

I continued to hit my marks. Mile 21 (6:35) and mile 22 (6:34) were right on target but I was hurting. It was around 22.5 that my mind began to wander. Did I have 2.7 or 3.7 miles to go? I hoped for 2.7. I glanced at my watch and I was wrong. 3.7 — ugh.

It dragged on and on, but I was happy when I finally reached mile 23 (6:38), knowing that I had just a touch over 5 kilometers to go. I could do this, but I knew I wasn’t home free until a mile to go. I started doing math in my head and knew I could hit a 2:53 if I kept it under 6:30 pace the rest of the way. This was a big ask — to speed up in the last miles of the race — but I had done it before and I was going to die trying again.

Mile 24 (6:29) came and went. I was on the hunt for 25 and began passing people hurting in their final miles. This is always good motivation and I began to recognize segments of the course and felt like I could see the finish in my mind. I pushed.

The course began throwing in urban elements and without having to look at my watch I knew I was closing in on the finish area. My legs hurt. I wanted to vomit.

The course rejoined the river side and mile 26 (6:32) greeted me with the knowledge that in 385 yards I would be done. I ran on my toes the final stretch and scalped a few suffering runners, running 78 seconds — just under 6:00 pace — to chase down the clock and record a 2:53:53.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a marathon. Exhaustion and elation at the same time!
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a marathon. Exhaustion and elation at the same time!

I had run the second half in 1:25:45, a 2:23 negative split. My decision to run a harder pace despite struggling through the opening miles was the right one. I finished 3rd in my age group, which really means nothing except that this was a small marathon. Still, I was a little disappointed when instead of a little plaque or award, all I received was a beanie and a lunch tote.

It was a PR, but it felt like I had done it the hard way. All my other marathon PRs came with ease. They were achieved with a moderate effort first 16 miles, followed by an 8.2-mile tempo run. This race felt like a slugfest from after the 10K mark. This was a 10K warmup and then a 20-mile pain cave.

Of course it makes sense that suffering the most leads to the fastest races. Running faster than you have ever done before means more discomfort and breaking barriers your body has never broken through. But this race seemed unnaturally hard and the final 20 miles taught me a few things. Firstly, I learned that a difficult race is always worth suffering through and can be salvaged. Secondly, I was probably in 2:50 shape but just had a less-than-ideal day.

I’m pleased with my time – it’s faster than I’ve ever run before. But at the same time I still want more. I want to go under 2:50, and running a PR but still not breaking 2:50 has made me more hungry. I’m motivated to train more, I’m confident I can do it, and I can’t wait to suffer through it all over again.

2014 North Face Endurance Challenge : Bear Mountain 50 Miler

Twelve days after a torturous Boston Marathon, I found myself waking up at 2:15 AM to depart for Bear Mountain for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler. That’s sort of a mouthful of a name, so I’m just going to refer to the race as the Bear Mountain 50 (or BM50). With a 1-hour commute and a 5 AM start time, half the battle is waking up on time and getting to the start.

This year 4 others were silly enough to sign up with me for the BM50: Daniel G, Dominic D, Kurt S, and Luc B. This was Daniel’s 4th consecutive running of the event, despite having sworn last year never to do it again. But like any good ultra runner, the pain of the race fade away and quickly he’s on the hunt for a new challenge.

I wasn’t sure what to expect out of my legs for this race. It was long enough after Boston that my legs weren’t sore but I still wasn’t sure how much I’d have in the tank for the last 15 miles of this race. I always feel “fine” but this isn’t the sort of race you can just wing. Additionally my mother had fallen ill two months prior to this race, and was still in the hospital unable to walk or support herself. With constant phone calls between my father and me, I had more on my mind than running around in the woods.

Starting in the dark at 5 AM, I took the first few miles super easy. There was plenty of race ahead of me and I just wanted to get the heart moving and the legs warmed up. As it turned out, my legs weren’t as fresh as I thought. I could tell early within the first 10 miles that it was going to be a very long day. They didn’t have any strength in them, but at least they weren’t sore. They were just tired. The initial goal was to start conservative (mission accomplished) and then to start picking up the pace around mile 21 and maintain a steady push to the end.

I soon found out that my easy starting pace would become my “picking it up” pace the rest of the day. I don’t know if I just didn’t have the fire in me to keep pushing or if my legs had a deep fatigue from a long training cycle that I couldn’t shake, but I wasn’t going to try and force anything that would result in a DNF. I accepted the reality and forged on.

The course this year was visited by a few inches of rain during the week leading up to the race. Mud of course was everywhere. Streams became rivers and uneven paths became long trenches of puddles and mud. Rocks became great opportunities to slip, and anyone who knows Bear Mountain knows it’s nothing but rocks: big rocks, little rocks, sharp rocks, rocks for climbing up, rocks for climbing down. In the first few miles people did their best to avoid the muddy trails and water puddles. They kept to the high side of the trail and tip-toed around as much as they could. But it was inevitable — feet would become wet. Within a couple hours most people had stopped dancing around the water and just plowed straight through. This was a trail race after all.

Things got tougher around mile 13, when a mysterious left hip pain appeared along with an old ankle injury on my right foot. Fan-fucking-tastic. It got pretty bad; bad enough that I’d inadvertently wince and hold my breath, which of course is not the most productive thing to do when trying to run. A fellow runner even asked if I was alright as he passed me by. Mind you I was still running and at the time I was surprised and dumbfounded (insulted, even) as to why he asked if I was OK, but later I realized I probably looked like a lame horse — bum right ankle, painful left hip, visinbly wincing and perhaps even audibly gasping.

With more than 35 miles left to go, thoughts of dropping from the race were going through my head. I told myself I could just drop at the aid station at mile 19 before the really difficult sections of the course started. I wasn’t sure how I’d make it to the finish. Every step hurt both sides of my body. And that’s when I started thinking about my mother.

When I had spoken to my father a few days before the race, it had been approaching 60 days that my mom was still in the intensive care unit of St. Joseph’s Hostpital recovering from a major surgery to remove a very aggressive cancer. She wasn’t able to stand up, sit up, or walk on her own. Her biggest accomplishment every day was having nurses assist her out of the bed to sit in a chair nearby for a half hour or more. While my mom could have chosen to just lie in bed and receive pain killers, she opted against that and tried to do as much as she could. Walking thirty feet down the hall may have taken over an hour, but that was only more reason to do it. If she could summon the mental and physical strength to will her body that had been torn apart, then I could finish this race. I could never look at myself again if I dropped from this race just because it was hard or just because I hurt. I chose to be in this race. I wasn’t going to dishonor my mother by choosing to fail. I wiped those thoughts of stopping from my mind.

The remainder of the race can be summarized in a single word: pain. My right ankle made it difficult to descend quickly, and my left hip made it difficult to climb. All time goals went out the window and I just went into survival mode. Initially I was gunning for a finish time of around 9 hrs 30 min, but now I was just trying to get to the finish in one piece. Whether it would be 10 or 12 or even 14 hours, I was going to finish this.

I reached the aid station at mile 24 and already I was seeing lots of people struggling. By mile 28 some runners began picking up their pacers, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Pacers became handlers and motivators as exhausted runners wanted to stop.

The stretch of road from 28 leading up to 33 were fairly runnable. At least a mile or two were on road, albeit straight uphill. I began catching a lot of people here; people who had started off too fast (all too common even in 50 milers) and were reduced to a walk with 20 miles left to go. I continued my run — really, more a shuffle — and gained momentum as I passed each runner.

Around mile 38 I heard my name called from behind. It was my friend Kurt! He had caught up to me and was making good time in his first 50 miler. We exchanged pleasantries and continued to the mile 40 aid station together. He had “lost his brakes” and couldn’t control himself from flying downhill, which is how he ended up passing a lot of people. He had a “no running” policy on all uphills, so as we exited the mile 40 aid station up a very gentle incline he refused to follow me running. The section began on paved road and for once continued on a relatively runnable trail. Despite the incline I wasn’t going to walk this and so mentally I said “good bye” to Kurt figuring that he’d catch me later on the downhills.

I glanced at my watch and did some mental calculations. I had to maintain a fairly decent 12-minute pace for the last 10 miles to come in under 11 hours for the race. While this was much slower than my original goal, it became something to motivate me. With Timp Pass around mile 46, I knew that there would be some real slow paths ahead. I’d have to fight for every second.

Power hiking my way as fast as I could up Timp Pass, I managed to get to the mile 47 aid station at 3:34. I had 26 minutes to go three miles. This would be just under a 9:00 pace, but I knew that the final stretch was fast and I was going to do anything to get under 10 hours. So I ran. I didn’t even stop at the aid station; I yelled my number out and started flying down the smooth, flat trail. Oh, what a feeling it was to finally run on something other than rocks! I didn’t care about how much my body was protesting, yelling at me in pain. My pace quickened and I flew past other runners. The course was now shared with those doing the 50K distance and the marathon, so I was catching the back of those packs. I was a man out of control.

My watch’s GPS connection had been lost around mile 21, so although I knew my overall time I had lost track of distance long ago. Each aid station mile marker was clearly labeled, but in the last three miles I was cutting a sub-11 hour finish so close that I wanted to know exactly how far I had to go so that I would know if I had to pick up the pace or not. I felt like a rabid dog, running without knowing where I’m going or how far the finish line was exactly.

Then things started to look familiar again. The final half mile of the race is the same as the first half mile. I realized I would make it to my sub-11 finish!

On the final descent to the finish area, a local area hiker spotted me from 50 meters away. She was barefoot to protect her shoes from the mud, gently making her way through the muddy and wet path. Her friends were taunting her, yelling at her to pick it up and not worry about getting dirty. I saw the fear in her eyes as I approaced running at full speed. She yelled out, “please don’t splash me!” Sorry honey, I had a race to finish. Mud and water be damned, I kept pace and flew stright by her.

I crossed the line in 10:55. I had run the final 3 miles in just under 21 minutes, averaging under 7 minutes per mile after 47 miles of running.

A 10:55 finish any other race would be massively disappointing for me. But this race became about something other than time. Sometimes people ask (and I wonder) why I run, especially the long distances. I don’t always know, except that it is what I do. But today when I didn’t want to run, I was running for my mom who could not. For the two months prior to the race, I would write a letter to my mother almost every day. I’d tell her about my day, or my exciting weekend adventures, or what was coming up next. I wasn’t about to pen a letter telling her that I had dropped from this race.

My mother ended up passing away less than two weeks after this race. While it was not unexpected, I was not prepared for it. It was her strength that allowed me to finish this race, and because of that I can take pride when I look back at my experience.

If there’s one thing I learned, it is that choosing to stop — when I still have the option not to — is not something I’m about to do. Pain be damned, I was not about to feel sorry for myself and call it a day simply because things weren’t going my way. My mom had survived two episodes of cancer and 18 years on dialysis without ever giving up. Her third and final battle with cancer got the best of her, but that didn’t keep her from trying until the end. If I can ever be half the person she was, I won’t ever be throwing in the towel either.