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.

2013 Lookout Mountain 50 Mile Trail Race

Overall Time: 8:58:24
Pace: 10:46 min/mile
Place: 21st of 201 finishers (400 registered)
AG% : N/A

Weather: 35, rainy, windy, muddy, overcast, miserable, pneumonia-inducing
Start Time: 7:30am

It’s a little odd but the Lookout Mountain 50 Mile trail race is now the first race that I’ve done three times. It’s not odd to do a race three times. But it’s odd that of all the races I’ve done and all the distances — 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, etc. — it’s this particular 50 miler that I come back to every year. It’s over a thousand miles away, it’s up and over a damn mountain, and it’s 50 miles — it’s not just something you wake up and do on a Saturday.

Why do I come back to this race? I think it’s very simple that it was my first ultramarathon. It is when I started to explore and define my niche as a runner back in 2011. Was I a road runner? A distance runner? A trail runner? … Or perhaps a bit of everything?

Understandably I came into this race with some good expectations. Last year I had a good race, and after a 2013 of PRs in distances from the 5K to the 50 mile I was definitely feeling good about giving 2013 Lookout a hard effort and breaking my course PR from last year (8:35).

Then the weather happened.

Quite simply, the biggest obstacle for me and others in this race was the weather. The race started off in semi-darkness as the sun struggled to rise from the east and cut through the heavy layer of mist that had settled on the mountain. With temperatures just a few degrees above freezing and a steady stream of rain coming from the skies (with no foreseeable end in sight), everyone had to find a little extra motivation to get into the wet and muddy start chute.

At the crack of the sun at 7:30am, the race began and did so with the familiar sprint-out-too-fast feeling that all races (even 50 milers) are known for. I counted around 50 people who had gone off ahead of me in the first mile and this felt about right. I figured that I would catch up with most of them on the long 2000′ ascent from mile 14 – 22, and then another dozen or so in the second half of the race. I always adopt a fairly conservative start during 50 milers and it’s always seemed to work well. It really helps prevents blowing up in the end and the mental boost of passing people in the latter miles of the race helps translate into a physical boost.

A wet, damp, misty morning race start atop the mountain.
A wet, damp, misty morning race start atop the mountain.

I fell into just the right train of people when we hit the single-track around the second mile. It was so well-paced that everyone kept the same speed and there was no passing until the first aid station at mile 6. From there the trails opened up a bit and we more or less all kept our positions heading to the Nature Center aid station at mile 14.8. This section is the most runnable of the course, but the rain had made the conditions slippery and muddy. Rocks became a great opportunity to lose traction, and anything with wet leaves was always a bit of a gamble. The mud wasn’t too bad here and thankfully this year there weren’t any thigh-deep water crossings, but looking at my watch just past the 1-hour mark it didn’t appear that the rain would be letting up anytime soon.

While the rain continued for quite a while, at least it was warming up a bit. Being wet is one thing, but cold and wet is quite another. Once the sun managed to come overhead a bit things warmed up and the rain was a lot easier to deal with. It was still misty, but at least it wasn’t freezing.

Making it to the aid station at 14.8, I noticed a few people already falling back  a lot (near-walk speed). Clearly a lot of people had gone out too fast, and I felt bad knowing that some of these people had blown their race in the first 14 miles.  The first 14 miles are all net downhill, and following that is a big climb (2000′) back to the top of the mountain. If so many were hurting on the easy opening miles, I knew there would be carnage at the top of the mountain and a lot of DNFs. I had little sympathy for these foolhardy runners, and didn’t skip a stride passing them.

Just as last year, I felt pretty good on the long ascent back to the top. I have a fairly good uphill technique and intuit fairly well when I’m pushing too hard and need to back off. It was on this ascent alone that I passed 14 people. One of them was a friend’s father who I had passed at almost the exact same spot in 2012. It’s funny how things repeat themselves.

The ascent itself is long but never unmanageable. I always feel comfortable on it because after every steep, intense uphill it will level off a bit and allow you to catch your breath. It’s never as daunting as it looks in elevation profiles. Before I knew it I had reached the top, and was coming back across the start / finish line to head to the southern end of the race — a 28-mile out-and-back section with some pretty fun sections to keep things interesting.

It was good to be at the top, and even better it had stop raining. We had all spent almost 4 hours in the rain and it may have been a little too unbearable for many to complete the entire race soaked from head to toe.

Beginning this second half, I quickly found myself on a trail section that runs along some power lines. This trail has clay dirt trails, which when mixed with water just becomes HELL ON EARTH. The rain had stopped but the clay was saturated, making it slippery one second and then threatened to suck your shoe off your foot. Somehow my shoes stayed attached to my feet, and I made a mental note that when I was returning in the final miles through this section I couldn’t bitch about it because it would only be 2 miles from the finish at that point.

I continued along the trail making my way to the Lula Lake aid station at mile 29.9. This is always one of my favorite parts of the course and I’m not really sure why. It’s pretty, but then so again is the rest of the course. It’s downhill, but half this race is downhill. There’s just something about it that makes it very pleasant — it’s far along in the race that I’m never really running with anyone, so it’s quiet and calm. I feel alone, and not in a bad way. Yet it’s also early enough in the race that my legs aren’t yelling at me and I still have enough energy to look around and enjoy being in the wilderness. I’m not yet yelling, “GET ME THE FUCK OFF THIS MOUNTAIN!” It may have something more to do with my mental state in the middle of a 50-mile race. The first half of warming up is done, and I get into a good zone while still quite energetic. It makes the middle miles (25 – 40) all the more enjoyable.

It’s also something about the sound of hearing the water feeding into Lula Lake / Lula Falls. With all the overnight and morning rain, the falls were extra active and I made it a point to stop dead in my tracks and soak it all in. Having been in New York City for almost 8 years now, I need to do this once in a while.

I made a mental note there that I had spent 4:45 on the course so far. Last year I had taken exactly 4:30, so I was 15 minutes slower this year through the first 30 miles. Given the conditions, I figured this to be just about right and continued on. I knew I wouldn’t be going under last year’s time of 8:35, but I wanted to make it under 9:00 and knew it was going to be a fight until the very end.

I just ripped this picture off the internet, but you can see Lula Falls in the background. This year the falls were extra active from the rains.
I just ripped this picture off the internet from a previous year’s race, but you can see Lula Falls in the background. This year the falls were extra active from the rains. That is not me in the picture.

Passing through Lula Lake I was looking forward to the Long Branch aid station at mile 34. For me that’s when the race finish starts to materialize mentally. At mile 34 there is a 4.5-mile loop that you do before then heading back to the finish along the same trails that span from mile 22 – 34.

There are a few bonuses to this setup. Firstly, miles 38.5 – 50 are the same as 22 – 34, but just in reverse. You head back to the finish on the same trails but reverse direction. This means the route is fairly familiar. It also means that if you’re near the front, you are heading “back” as lots of others are heading “out.” The runners are typically very encouraging and cheer you on, so it’s a good boost of energy. Secondly, I can always start to taste the finish line when I’m physically running toward it. At the end of the ascent back up the mountain at mile 22, you pass through the start / finish chute to do an out-and-back section on the southern part of the course. Obviously as you begin this section you pass through the start / finish line and are heading away from it. It’s not until another 15 miles that you reverse directions and start heading back. There’s something very simple about the act of running back — actually physically making yourself close to the finish line — that really excites me even if I had several hours of running ahead of it. It keeps my spirits high and my legs moving.

Thus when I reached mile 34 and did the 4.5-mile loop before heading back to the finish, I felt fantastic. The race was entering its final miles. A lot of people stop at the Long Branch aid station (miles 34, and 38.5) because it offers a much larger assortment of food and beverages. It’s very common for people to load up on potatoes, soup broth, and instant noodles here. I was so motivated to get to the finish that I just went through only taking the time to say hello to a few friends. One of them told me that I was in front of her brother, Jonathan W., which came as a surprise to me. He’s a fast guy and I had figured he was way up ahead of me. I was wrong! I couldn’t think much about it so I made my way back to the course. I had a race to finish!

I looked at my Garmin to try and see what possibility I had of finishing under 9 hours today. Unfortunately the GPS signal was inaccurate that day, partly due to the switchbacks in the first half of the race and perhaps also because of the weather. It made it impossible to get an accurate estimation of how many miles were left, and because I knew that my time would be very very close to 9 hours I just couldn’t estimate with any certainty. It was going to be close.

Heading toward the finish with 11 miles to go I saw Markus A. making his way to mile 34 while I was heading back to the finish. I placed him around 75 minutes behind me and was impressed at his time given that it was his first 50 miler.

Before I knew it I had hit mile 40 and saw two more friends, Daniel and Dominic, in the exact same spot that I saw Daniel the previous year. This made me nervous because last year he took 12:41 to finish and this year the race had a cutoff time of 13:00. With the mud at the end of the race, I wasn’t confident that they’d make the finish. I said hello to them and kept on.

A mile later I saw yet another pair of friends, Luc and Mel. I shouted to them, “Ca va!?” but was met with not-so-happy faces. Luc had a foot injury and had been forced to slow down dramatically. Given the injury and the 13-hr cutoff time I knew he wasn’t going to make it. I gave him a look of sympathy but couldn’t stand around just yet. I had to make it to the finish.

Reaching Lula Lake at mile 42.5, I sucked down some warm ramen for whatever extra calories I might need to finish up the last section of the course and continued on without breaking much of a stride. I started thinking about all the carnage on the course — Daniel and Dominic probably not making the cutoff time, Luc’s injured foot, and the absence of seeing my friends Bernie and Cindy on the course — and realized it was a pretty brutal day for a lot of people.

Lula Falls again.
Lula Falls again.

Me, I was feeling fine. I was struggling on some sections and my right ankle was giving me issues, but my legs and head felt fine. Yes the conditions made the course slower than last year — I kept thinking to myself that I had never felt so good yet struggled so much! — but I felt like as long as I kept my head on straight I wouldn’t have any blowups today.

The miles were whittling away and soon there were only 5 miles to go. Then 4, then 3, then 2… then there was the muddy clay trail leading to the finish. It’s not very long, but man does it just stuck all your energy out of you. I walked it. I couldn’t be bothered to run along that torturous stretch of soul (and shoe) sucking filth. When I spied the end of this stretch, I made a hard right to follow a metal fence and thanked heaven and earth that stretch was done with.

I started checking my watch more often to see if I could make it under 9 hours. I had done this a little bit on the course earlier, but things like that are just so hard to predict but now I knew I was within a mile or two of the finish. But was it one mile? Or two? I wasn’t sure. Argh, the uncertainty was killing me. I knew only one thing : whatever the distance, it was short and I had to try and push toward the finish as hard as I could. There weren’t a lot of people around me so motivation was sparse. But all I needed to do was keep my head down for a few minutes and listen for the finish line. Right as I looked at my watch’s overall time hit right around 8:56, I figured my chance at sub-9 had gone out the window.

Then I heard some cowbells. And a loudspeaker. And someone announcing race finishers. The finish line was somewhere just around the corner! I booked it up the incline and saw a volunteer cheering me on. “It’s muddy and slippery, but the finish line is just around the bend!” Holy shit. I looked at my watch: 8:58. Muddy and slipper be damned, I sprinted up the final bend and crossed the line in disbelief that I had pulled off a sub-9 race through shit weather. I closed my eyes and with smiled with relief. I was happy. I hadn’t blown up at the end. I beat my friend Jonathan W., even though he probably doesn’t even care one bit about beating me (or not). I was done.

2013 JFK 50 Miler

Overall Time: 7:42:09

Pace: 9:15

Place: 53rd of 863 finishers (921 starters)

AG% : N/A

Weather: 30, overcast, mild wind

Start Time: 7:00am

 

The JFK 50 Mile race is the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the US. Every November around 1000 people set off from the town of Boonsboro, Maryland on their way to Williamsport via the Potomac River, and this year I was excited to be one of them.

I had two “A” races this year: The Boston Marathon and the JFK 50 Miler. These two races are very different, but I had just as much ambition for each: I wanted a PR for each. Boston wasn’t a guaranteed PR, what with the hills in the latter half. JFK on the other hand would almost be impossible not to PR on. The other 50 milers I’ve finished have been relatively difficult with decent total elevation gain, while the JFK course is just about as easy as they come, so a simple PR wasn’t enough — I wanted to chop off a full hour from my previous 50-mile efforts. My goal for the race was to hit somewhere around a 7:15 finish. If things went incredibly well maybe I’d inch closer to 7:00, and if things were tough I might creep toward 7:30.

As far as most trail runs go, the JFK course is flat. It’s broken up into three major sections. The first 15.5 miles are on the Appalachian Trail (AT). Much of it is rocky, and you gain 1200+ feet of gain in the first 5 miles alone. If there’s a part of the course than can be considered difficult, this is it. Following the AT, there is a 26.3-mile length of towpath along the Potomac River. After the towpath, there is a 8.4-mile section of gently rolling hills on paved road toward the finish in Williamsport.

On race day morning I woke up with my friends who had traveled with me from New York, and we checked to see what the weather would have in store. At 5AM it was only 34 degrees, which wouldn’t be so bad once the sun came up and we were moving along the course. But curiously the air temperature was set to drop down to 30 degrees by the 7AM race start and I noticed a wind would be settling in as well. I was suddenly glad I had brought my arm warmers.

In addition to the arm warmers, I had brought a few basics to have along the course. I had approximately 1000 calories of Endurox drink mix to consume on the course, some candied ginger (~300 calories), and my Orange Mud Hydraquiver backpack to carry it all in. I normally figure that I don’t need calories for anything less than a marathon (26.2 miles), so I’d just need to restock enough to get me through the last 20+ miles of the course.

Carrying 1300 calories, I’d only have to consume a little bit from the aid stations along the way — somewhere around 1000 calories total spread out over the 50 miles.

We drove to the start but not in time for the 6:20AM course briefing that I was told would be unnecessary. Finding parking wasn’t an issue and we had just enough time to use the john and jog to the start about a mile away. I was surprised to see that the start was actually on a main road through the town of Boonsboro. While I knew the race started on paved road, I figured it’d be a small side street or possibly sidewalk. To be honest it was pretty cool to be running right through town for the first half mile.

Typical for just about any race, a lot of very slow people had pushed their way to the front. Before the gun went off, I thought I had placed myself near enough to the front that I wouldn’t be weaving around people. I was wrong. The incredible inconsiderateness of some people will always astound me, and it certainly irritated me that morning as I restrained myself from pushing people out of the way to try and get around them. The roads were fairly wide but with almost 1000 people stampeding along, a slow runner in front can really be annoying and possibly dangerous.

The first two miles of the race start. Despite having placed myself fairly close to the front, a lot of people who would just end up congesting the streets had also pushed their way up. #896 finished in 8:57, and 9:42 -- more than 1 and 2 hours slower than me -- yet they're ahead of me in this picture.
The first two miles of the race start. Despite having placed myself fairly close to the front, a lot of people who would just end up congesting the streets had also pushed their way up. #896 finished in 8:57, and 9:42 — more than 1 and 2 hours slower than me — yet they’re ahead of me in this picture.

It took a couple of miles to get decent position in the field while we were still on paved roads, and soon we were on the AT. I could tell a lot of runners ahead of me didn’t quite have the trail experience of typical ultramarathoners and saw a face plant within the first 4 miles along with a lot of general inability to navigate through technical rocky sections. I did a bit of passing out of necessity, but tried not to get overzealous considering that I still had 45 miles left to cover. The AT section of the course is interesting. Friends had told me about it and I had built it up in my mind that it was basically a mine field of sharp rocks sadistically hidden by leaves. I was surprised to find out that none of the rocks seemed painful to my feet and that there was also a random two-mile section from 3.5 to 5.5 that was on completely paved roads. That makes a majority of the first 10 kilometers on paved roads and this supposedly was the “hard” bit.

Miles 6 – 15.5 were finally on proper trail, and none of it seemed too difficult. If you’re a road runner who doesn’t feel comfortable on trails, then I could understand how it could be tricky — especially navigating some of the downhill portions. But for those with a bit of experience and not afraid to actually run it wasn’t half bad. In this section there wasn’t a lot of jockeying for position, although I did pass a lot of people on the downhills. I started eating some of the ginger I had brought along, but the air was so cold that I couldn’t feel my fingers and it was a substantial physical and mental exercise trying to open the Ziplock bag. I must have spent a few minutes trying to run while opening the bag, eating, closing the bag, and putting it in the shoulder pocket on my backpack. It wasn’t my most elegant moment, but my fingers just weren’t working in the cold.

Somewhere on the AT in the first 15 miles.
Somewhere on the AT in the first 15 miles.

Unfortunately I lost a bit of time when I tweaked my right ankle pretty seriously midway on the AT. I had done the same thing back in late September on a run in Prospect Park, and my ankle has never quite healed fully. It was problematic in the Tesla Hertz Run in October and has given me the ocassional issue even on the road. I was nervous that it might mean a DNF for me, and I was really focusing on trying to get off the AT without causing any major damage. At the Tesla Hertz Run, after tweaking my ankle in the same way around mile 20 I continued to do it at least a half dozen times for the next two mile. It was beyond painful and I wasn’t about to repeat that. I gingerly made my way through the rest of the AT and made it down the switchbacks in approximately 2:35. It was 15 minutes slower than I had wanted, but I lost a bit of time that I wasn’t going to risk injury trying to get back.

Sadly I can’t report that I didn’t fall in this section. With just a few hundred meters left before getting off the AT, my left foot got caught on something and I went down pretty fast. After a two second self-analysis to make sure nothing was broken I got back up, brushed myself off, and continued going down without having lost my position in the field.

Approaching the towpath and flat 26.3-mile section ahead, I decided it was time to start with the energy / hydration plan. I filled up my water bottle with some Endurox mix immediately exiting the AT… and I immediately dropped it and spilled it all on the ground. 500 calories wasted. Yikes. I tend to eat / drink minimally in races, so losing these 500 calories made me hope I wouldn’t need them later to postpone a late-race bonk.

The towpath was a welcome relief coming off the AT. Going down the AT the pace slowed a bit and I caught up with traffic (even despite my gimpy right ankle) that I was unable to pass because of the narrowness of the course.  Now on the open towpath the course was much wider and completely flat. I was able to enjoy the sight of the Potomac on this cold November morning, and with the sun properly up now I was beginning to regain feeling in my hands. By mile 20 I had started to sweat, which meant that it was time to ditch the arm warmers.

Head down conquering the towpath of monotony.
Head down conquering the towpath of monotony.

My pace along the towpath was fairly consistent 8:10s, plus or minus a few seconds here or there. Before the race I had wanted to hit 8:00 flat or just a few seconds faster, so seeing these splits on my watch was disappointing. Worse, I took a realistic look at how the effort was and whether speeding up was in the cards. It was not. I was fairly sure that if I tried to increase the pace just a little bit, I would be walking at mile 40. This was my pace on this day, and I was going to make the best of it.

Things got a little difficult shortly past the halfway mark. The sun hid behind the clouds, and I started to notice the wind a bit more. A few people had mentioned the wind earlier in the day but I didn’t give it much thought at all. But by halfway it was making me cold and slowing me down. I regretted having thrown away the arm warmers, and became a little concerned that a short-sleeve shirt in overcast and windy 32-degree weather wasn’t quite ideal.

Miles 30 – 42.5, the end of the towpath, were a struggle. I guess in a 50 mile race they always are. It was near this point that I just wanted to be done. I had only been able to pour one more mix of Endurox into my water bottle after beginning the towpath, meaning that I was in some massive caloric debt zone. I had probably burned nearly 4000 calories and consumed only 700 during the entire day. I had stopped at one of the aid stations near mile 35 to try and get in some sugar (Mountain Dew and Coke!) and also some hot soup broth. While it tasted fantastic, I was a tad too aggressive with it and I could feel it sloshing in my stomach for the next two miles. Ugh.

Worse, having stopped at that aid station to eat / drink I noticed that my knees were getting painfully stiff. I looked down and saw dried blood from the fall that occurred shortly before exiting the AT. When I got moving again, they were swollen and painful and I was jogging at 11:00 pace at best. It wasn’t for another half mile that the stiffness went away and I could run properly again, but by the point my pace had slowed to around 8:35 per mile. I made the decision that between the sloshy stomach and the painful knees, I wouldn’t be making any more stops at aid stations until the finish. I would just run through them, calories be damned!

Struggling, but not about to stop now! The final miles were overcast and cold, and I regretted getting rid of my arm warmers at mile 20.
Struggling, but not about to stop now! The final miles were overcast and cold, and I regretted getting rid of my arm warmers at mile 20.

I got off the towpath and onto the final stretch of paved road and soon there were mile markers alerting us how many miles left to go until the finish. “8 miles to finish.” The rolling hills ahead were really slowing everyone down who I had in sight. I felt tired but put in a final surge just to see what I had left. My legs protested but I quickened the pace back down to just under 8:00 pace and began catching up with a lot of people ahead who had been reduced to jogging after 42 miles. I could see them struggling up the hills, which gave me more desire to hunt them down and pass them. I made a deal with myself to pick up the pace again when I hit 6 miles left. 7:40 miles became 7:10 miles, and the last 5 kilometers was well under 7:00 pace. I wanted to stop but even worse I just wanted this to be over. I passed people like they were standing still, which was exhilarating. With one mile left to go I managed to pass two more people, one of whom I only edged out in a sprint finish that made me want to vomit when I stopped just beyond the finish line.

My final time was 7:42:09, which was a little bit slower than I had expected but not entirely off the mark. The conditions were a little cold and windy, and to be honest I may not have had my best running day. But I did still manage a decent race and a PR at the distance.

Oh sweet baby Jesus! So happy to be finished.
Oh sweet baby Jesus! So happy to be finished.

I’m writing this 5 days later, and I’m still reflecting on the race. It’s a bit amazing to me that in my 50 milers I actually consume so few calories. During all of JFK I had maybe 800 calories during the run and still had energy to pass at least a dozen people in the final 8 miles of the race.  While I would never recommend to anyone else to have so little fuel, this strategy seems to have worked for me for my past three 50 milers. While it makes me nervous to go into a race with this plan, at the same time it relaxes me knowing that I don’t really have to carry much (if any) food on me.

Looking back at the course if I do this again, the first 15 miles I will have to attack a little faster and watch out for my right ankle. The towpath is very beautiful but monotonous, and unfortunately the race doesn’t allow iPods so I’ll have to find another way to distract myself. If I can run the last 8 miles like I did this year, I’ll always be a happy camper so that’s a good goal to try and hit again. Ironically, what I think was a little difficult was the relatively easiness of the course – the last 35 miles were so flat that there was no reason to walk any bit of it. For most races you’ll get a good uphill that you have to walk up, and you use different muscles and break up the rhythm of the run a bit. It’s a good mental and physical break. But with the JFK course you have to be constantly running and running and running the entire time. It’s a relentless assault and you have to stay motivated the entire time. It’s hard!

If it weren’t for the relatively steep entry fee ($200), I’d say that I’d do this race again next year for sure. Instead, it might have to wait another year or two but I will be back to tackle this course.  It’s a great end-of-season race and could be easily integrated into fall marathon training. Best of all, there’s a great sense of camaraderie that isn’t lost despite the event’s size. The towns along the course and the support  / cheering is fantastic. The atmosphere is electric from the race start in Boonsboro to the end in Williamsport. It’s a big and historic event, and yet it has managed to remain fairly low key and enjoyable. What a great race.

2013 New York City Marathon

Earlier in 2013 New York Road Runners (NYRR), the organization responsible for putting on the New York City Marathon, went the route of putting together their own pace team for the marathon. They’d be calling on local runners with an established marathon history to lead the various pace groups (ranging from 3:00 – 5:30) to the finish line.

Earlier in the year I hadn’t planned on doing the NYCM and instead signed up for some other races in November, chief among them the JFK 50 Miler. When I thought about the opportunity to pace, it seemed like a great training run three weeks before my 50-miler. Best of all I’d be able to participate in the world’s largest marathon and soak in all the excitement first-hand.

I applied and begged my best to run the 3:30 pace group. After submitting my running CV, I was accepted and given exactly what I had wished — Team 3:30!

Benefits of pacing include free entry, a private heated tent with lovely pre-race refreshments, and a pacer singlet to wear during the race. Truth be told, the singlets weren’t anything to write home about but it was free and in fact I’ve worn it after the event.

Pacing the 3:30 group meant hovering right below a 8:00 pace per mile. This is a really nice sweet spot for me. It’s not too fast, not too slow. I hit the pace right in the first couple miles and was able to enjoy the entire race experience (unlike in 2011 when I raced it and saved a BQ with only 5 seconds to spare).

As you might have guessed, my splits were very even so I won’t bother posting those stats. I finished in 3:29:44 and got the opportunity to see some very thankful people cross the line with me. There was one girl in particular who crossed with me in 3:29; she was so happy and excited (though too tired to properly show it) to have run a PR and BQ time and my normally non-existent heart may have actually felt a little good for once.

New York City Marathon Rundown

It’s a rundown… get it? Hah!

OK kids, here’s the course for those unfamiliar with it.

INGNYCM13_Course_Map_ForWeb

Mile 1-2 : Run Away From Staten Island! (aka the Verrazano Bridge)
You know this already but I’m going to say it again: the first mile is uphill. THE FIRST MILE IS UPHILL!!  Cool your heels and keep your pace conservative. If you’re smart you’ll use the normal early-mile congestion of a big race to keep from going out too fast. There will still be those who zoom by and that little ego of yours is going to want to go with them. But you have no idea how fast that guy who just zoomed by you really is, so run your own race. You can’t win the marathon in the first mile, but you sure as hell can lose.

Once you’ve reached the top of the bridge, lean into the downhill and regain some of the time you lost in the first mile. Don’t increase the effort; let gravity take hold and keep the effort even and easy. Those are going to be the keywords the rest of the race — The NYC Marathon course can be tricky because of the bridges and uphill / downhill sections. Keep an even pace and keep it easy at least until you enter Manhattan for the first time.

Focus on turnover and good downhill form on the second half of the Verrazano to conserve energy. Remember that you can never gain as much time downhill as you lost on the uphill so don’t freak out if you’re a few seconds behind on pace. You have the next several hours to make up those seconds, so just chill.

If you’re in a green corral and use a Garmin, take note: satellite reception may be spotty on the lower level, so don’t look at your Garmin until at least mile 3. If you look at your Garmin on the bridge it will most likely be inaccurate, so paying close attention to an easy pace will be crucial. Listen to your body.

Miles 3-7 : Welcome to South Brooklyn
Heading north along 4th Avenue is where the race starts to feel like a race. The three corrals (Blue, Orange, and Green) all come together, your first water stop comes along, and all of a sudden there are crowds. People are cheering. If you’ve written your name on your singlet they’re probably calling your name! It’s exciting! It’s OK to get excited. It’s not OK to start running half marathon pace. You want to keep your head on cool because you’re about to hit the bulk of what is to come — gently rolling streets with great crowd support and the occasional bridge.

If you’re having a hard time resisting the temptation to go faster in this section, just remind yourself that you’ve trained long and hard for this race. You didn’t spend those thousands of miles and all those early Sunday mornings training hard just to make the rookie mistake of going out too fast in the first half. Successful marathoning takes discipline. Focus on getting into your rhythm now. Remember what I said earlier about even and easy? Live by these words every step through Brooklyn.

If you live in Manhattan or even much of Brooklyn, there is a good chance you’ve never run through Bay Ridge. Soak it the new sights of South Brooklyn!

Miles 8 – 13.1 : Williamsburg and Greenpoint (still in Brooklyn)
Passing Atlantic Avenue at mile 8 you’re going to head east onto Lafayette, where the street narrows.  Hopefully it’s pretty enough to distract you from the fact that it slows down a bit. But as soon as you turn north onto Bedford just after mile 9 things will open up again. You’re going to hit a downhill here, so don’t freak out if you see a fast split thinking that you’ve gone too fast. As long as your effort has stayed the same you’re A-OK. You’ll hit sort of a quiet zone around the Hassidic areas heading to the Williamsburg Bridge, but as soon as you pass underneath it things will liven up a bit. Some of the hipsters who haven’t gone home from the previous night might be a little confused why you’re chasing them down, but make sure to check out the water station at McCarren Park and show North Brooklyn Runners some love!

Mile 13.1 – 15 : QUEENS IN QUEENS!
As you cross the Pulaski Bridge heading into Queens, look for the timing mat indicating the halfway mark.  Make sure to smile for the cameras, as they’re bound to be around here. Force that smile and continue into Queens.

Heading north toward the Queensboro Bridge will be just about the flattest section along the entire course, so keep your splits even and your pace easy. You don’t want to feel like you’re working before you hit the Queensboro Bridge. If you notice that you’re starting to struggle, ease off the gas because the hardest part has yet to come. Ask anyone who has run this race, be it once or fifty times — if you go out too fast in the first half, the Queensboro Bridge will ruin you and the rest of your race.

Mile 16: The Queensboro Bridge
That hardest part is of course the incredibly long stretch of the Queensboro Bridge. It’s a long and quiet uphill. There are no spectators to cheer you on. There are no water stops. And there are no excuses : if you’ve run a smart race up until here, you’re fine. If you went out too fast and kept pushing back those thoughts telling you to slow down, you’re going to suffer here and the rest of the course.

 

This will be the first time you will see lots of people start walking.

However you’re feeling, once you’ve crested the top of the bridge make sure to enjoy the downhill and the Manhattan skyline.  It’s time to zip up your man suit and tackle the rest of the marathon!

Mile 17 – 20 : 1st Avenue in Manhattan
Some people love First Avenue, and some people hate First Avenue. Choose to love it. Yes it’s a long stretch north toward the Bronx, but it is a long net downhill and there is amazing crowd support the entire time. Feed off the energy but keep your pace under control. A lot of people speed up here too much unintentionally because the air can be truly electric. Be mindful of your pace here.

Mile 20 – 21 : The Bronx
There are two reasons you’ll start to hurt here: the fact that you’re now at Mile 20, and then the lack of crowd support. Thankfully it’s a very short section and you head back into Manhattan where crowds will resurface. After just a mile in the Bronx you’ll head back to Manhattan along the Madison Avenue Bridge. You may be thinking, “Oh God, another bridge!?” But this is just a bump — you may not even notice it. Keep your head down and get back into the City.

Mile 21 – 24 : Fifth Avenue
Coming back into Manhattan you run south down Fifth Avenue for a good straight stretch including a pretty stretch around Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. The first half is great — it’s flat, it’s fast, and you now have less than 10 kilometers until the finish. The second part is a “hidden” uphill. When you approach Central Park you may see it if there aren’t too many people in front of you: Fifth Avenue begins an annoying uphill around E. 106th Street, and it doesn’t stop until you enter Central Park at Engineer’s Gate at E. 90th Street. This little bump of a hill may not have looked like much on your training runs, but this isn’t a training run and you’re definitely going to feel it. The good news is that the rest of the course is [net] downhill from here. Once you make it into the park you have only a little more than 2 miles to go. 2 miles! You can do this.

Mile 25 – 26.2: Central Park. PUSH BABY, PUSH!
You know Central Park and it’s not flat. Thankfully you enter Central Park at one of the highest points. That means that after passing the Mile 24 water station where Front Runners New York will be, you have Cat Hill to run down! This is a great time to recover from the uphill along Fifth Avenue, and you should use this to get a bit of adrenaline pumping through those veins. Once you’ve hit Cat Hill you have only 1.5 miles to go. That’s only 6 laps around a 400-meter track. You’re home free and no matter how much you hurt at this point you have to push harder. If you are going for a time goal, do NOT cross that finish line thinking that you could have given more in the final miles. It’s time to push all-out. I’m not going to tell you where the hills are here, because it doesn’t matter – just push toward that finish. See the finish line as you re-enter Central Park from Columbus Circle, and get there knowing you ran a smart race and gave it everything you had.

Congratulations. You’ve just finished the New York City Marathon.

2013 Tesla Hertz 50K Run

Overall Time: 3:24
Pace: 8:30
Place: 2nd of 22
AG% : N/A

Weather: 65, sunny
Start Time: 8:00am

Before The Run

This was a little trail race out in Rocky Point, Long Island that I used as a tune-up for the JFK 50 Mile in November. This was sort of a last-minute substitute for the Hartford Marathon due to its proximity to the City and the fact that it was on trails. If my two “A” races this year are on trails, then that means I should be doing my training on trails. Hartford would be out, and Tesla Hertz was in!

The Course

The entire event was very laid back and stress-free. There were several events happening concurrently: a 50K, 50-mile, 100K, and 100-mile races. The races consisted of a number of loops around 10.4-mile loop — 3 times in the case of the 50K. There was an aid station at the start (at the north end of the loop) and halfway along the loop (at the south end of the course). We’d get fairly well-acquainted with the whole setup since we’d see everyone a few times.

When I looked at the course online, it appeared fairly flat and fast — even if it was mostly on single-track. However in person it wasn’t quite as fast as I thought it would be. Before the race I thought for sure that breaking 4:00 would be doable even just for a training run. I hadn’t tapered in the weeks leading up to this race because it’s not an “A” race, but still figured a 3:55 would be a given. I was wrong!

It’s hard to pin-point exactly why this race was slower than anticipated, but it may have had something to do with the constant tiny turns on the course. It’s hard to get into a good 50K running groove. For the longer stuff (100K, 100 mile) you don’t have to worry so much about fast running — but for the 50K you are still moving at a pretty good clip and that was really made difficult by the lack of straights.

Although the course was slower than I expected, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I wasn’t so concerned about time; this was more an effort-based race for me. So long as I kept the pace pretty constant and put in an good effort, I’d be happy with my result. And quite honestly the constant little turns in what appeared to be a fairly straight course was sort of fun.

The overall elevation was basically flat. This is Long Island, after all. There were bumps and small rollers that kept things interesting, and only one real bump a few miles from the finish of each loop that caused anyone to slow down. It was very small but incredibly steep. I was happy to be able to still run the entire thing on the second loop but will admit to having power walked up it on the third loop.

Footing on the course was generally pretty good, although I did have a couple very painful ankle experiences in the final loop. This being New York in October, there were leaves on the trail and may have hidden a few rocks that I would have seen otherwise. But to be fair the trail was pretty free of rocks and roots; this definitely wasn’t anything like TNF Bear Mountain 50 miler.

For such a small race, they were really prepared. Along with your basic fluid choices (Water, HEED), they had some fairly good food. There was nothing out of the ordinary, but I guess I just didn’t think that a small first-time race would be stocked with all the chips, pretzels, potatoes, PB&J sandwiches, sugar wafers, and candy (Twizzlers!) that they had. Except for fluids I didn’t partake at all during the run, but those sandwiches were from Heaven once I was finished!

The Run

My race was a fairly typical, well-paced run. I led the race for the first 7 or so miles before two guys right behind me decided to make a move. This wasn’t a race I wanted to try and fight to make the podium on, so I let them go. I wasn’t going to ruin my training on account of my own testosterone and ego getting in the way, so at the end of the first loop I found myself in third place.

I had run the first loop with no water bottle, so at the aid station at the start of the second loop I picked up my new Orange Mud backpack hydration system. I wanted to test it out to see how it held up so that I could make a decision as to whether or not to use it for JFK. It added a minute or two to my time, rummaging through my pack to get it out and put it on, but it was worth it — I needed to give it a good field test before running with it in a big race. By the end of the race I would decide that it was one of the better purchase of the year and that it would by my hydration system of choice for JFK and Lookout 50.

Unfortunately shortly after beginning the second loop I got a little lost on my run and added a half mile when I failed to pay attention to the course markings and accidentally veered down some ATV trails. The trails and the course were definitely well marked as long as you paid attention, so this was all my fault. That was a little frustrating for me as I went from 3rd place all the way to 6th (ack!). I did panic a little bit, knowing that I had lost substantial ground. I had to push the pace a bit to regain 3rd position and it was confusing when I had to then re-pass those who thought I was in front of them (“What are you doing back here?” they wondered aloud). After settling back into things, the remainder of the race was pretty quiet. There weren’t enough people in the race to settle into a pack, and the only other people on the course were running the longer distances and were thus running a fair bit slower. It would just be me and my thoughts.

Before my little detour on the second loop, I had thought I could catch at least one of the two guys ahead of me. But after going off course I sort of threw that thought aside, and instead started worrying that I wouldn’t be able to maintain a Top 3 finish. I worried that the little surge that I had thrown in to regain 3rd position might bite me in the ass during the last loop. Yikes!

On the back half of the second loop a few people told me I was not terribly far from the leaders. But I know how these things work; misinformation is rampant in races, and you should never — NEVER — trust other people who tell you things, no matter how well-meaning they area. I didn’t think I’d be able to take 1st or 2nd place, and was really just focused on maintaining 3rd overall.

Starting the third loop, I made sure not to get lost again and just kept my head down for the final 10 miles. Unfortunately my right ankle was taking quite a beating, mostly due to it being a little weak from having a minor sprain a month ago. It happened in the worst of places, too — just after beginning the third and final loop. It forced me to stop a couple of times. It was just too painful to even walk on. I wondered if I’d have to drop and walk back to the start without finishing the course. In the span of a half mile I managed to jam it on random rocks a half dozen times, and it would send pain shooting up my leg and I would have to stop to collect myself. I was really nervous about whether I’d be able to finish this race dealing with the current pain and fearing injuring the ankle any more. After a couple minutes the pain calmed down and I decided to pay attention to my footing and try to finish the race, albeit at a somewhat slower pace.

Toward the last half of the final loop I started to get a little bit of mojo back and I could sense that I was gaining on the second place runner. With only four miles left to go I could see him up ahead. Somehow despite my detour in the second loop and having to nurse a weak ankle in the third, I caught up with the 2nd place runner. He said he was struggling, which was easily apparent. We had chit-chatted during the first loop and I knew that he was finishing off a pretty long and tough race season. It had definitely worn him down and he was in a pretty bad state but still moving forward. He was moving too slowly for me to try and encourage to run together, so I made my way to the finish.

I pushed on the last few miles just to make sure no one passed me and that I could hold onto a somewhat respectable 2nd place finish. Before I knew it, the race was over and I had made my third Top-3 finish this year! Granted it was a super tiny race, but it still feels good.

Quick Final Thoughts

This was a great race that I’ll be recommending to many friends, especially those who are looking to try their first ultra-distance events — 50K, 50Mile, 10K, 100 Mile. The support is really great for such a small event and everyone was incredibly friendly. The race director was at the start the entire time and the volunteers were all fantastic.

Typically ultramarathons (especially those on trails) have a great feeling camaraderie, and Tesla Hertz was no different. Everyone — runners and volunteers — had a very positive outlook on the event no matter how much they were hurting, and there were lots of words of encouragement on the course whether you were passing someone or being passed.

If you’re looking for a great ultra experience close to New York City, I highly recommend Tesla Hertz.

2013 Grant Pierce Indoor Marathon and 50K

Overall Time: 3:54:58
Pace: 7:33
Place: 3rd of 17
AG% : N/A

Weather: An air-conditioned 70 degrees in mid-summer!
Start Time: 9:00am

Let’s cut to it: this is a bit of a crazy race.

Three years ago Michael Wardian wanted to break the indoor marathon world record. Thus, the “Grant Pierce Indoor Marathon was born and the 200-meter track at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center in Arlington, VA would be put to good use.

After Wardian broke the world record the event continued and has grown in popularity. A few months ago when my friend Dave L. told me about it I just had to participate. Immediately I went to the race registration website and saw something unexpected: a little check box asking if I wanted to participate in a 50-kilometer option! I clicked the option and marked my calendar for the chance to run 250 laps on an indoor unbanked 200 meter track.

Come July and after a quick Bolt Bus ride down to DC, I met up with a friend who offered to put me up at his apartment in Arlington — perfect! It turns out that he lived only a mile from the race venue, which itself was a new experience for me: on the morning of race day, it was a first for me to be able to drive up to the “entrance” of the marathon. We literally parked in the parking spot immediately in front of the TJ Community Center entrance. Hah — after so many big city marathons (Chicago, New York, Boston) it was so bizarre not to take several hours getting to the start of a marathon. We just drove up, parked, and walked in the door!

When Dave and I got in, the race started off without a whole lot of activity or organization. It started late due to some much needed last-minute volunteers. Apparently the race didn’t have enough volunteer lap counters to handle all the runners. I didn’t mind they delay because the whole event is very low-key and has a very casual feel to it, but after that was all sorted out we took our positions on the start line and off we went!

As we completed each of the 250 laps (211 for the marathon), there were three systems to track us. There was a timing chip in our bib, the volunteer lap counters to write down each of our lap splits, and a video camera monitoring the event for backup, I assume.

The race itself was exactly what you would think…. lots of counter-clockwise loops of an indoor running track. The track was unbanked, thankfully, and had enough lanes for the 80 or so people running in the event. Unfortunately there was a lot of race etiquette that was not observed by a lot of the participants. Specifically, a number of Marathon Maniacs really gave their group a bad name when they decided to walk the entire event in Lane 1, absolutely ensuring that people would have to go wide around then the entire time. Considering that the race director asked people to have some respect for the fact that Wardian was attempting to break the indoor 50 kilometer world record and *not* hug the inside lane, it was a blatantly selfish act. But I’m not writing this to bitch, so I’ll stop there.

The first 80 or so laps went fairly quickly. 10 miles at an easy pace is easy no matter what. Because there were lots of slow people, I was lapping just about everyone except the top 3 runners. It’s the sort of (false) confidence-builder that allows you to enjoy what would otherwise be a fairly mind-numbing event. It’s a mental boost and sort of a distraction and… it just sort of ‘works.’

The middle bit was a little tough, I’ll admit. I decided to pick up the pace and give myself a good workout, but laps 125 until 200 were a mental struggle. I felt like I still had so much left to go! It wasn’t until I neared lap 211 (the marathon mark) that I felt near the finish. 39 laps still sounds like a lot, but it’s only 7.8 kilometers — less than 5 miles. 5 miles is nothing! It’s not even a loop of Central Park and because I wasn’t racing this I had plenty of energy left in the tank. Those final 39 laps went by without incident and all of a sudden I was crossing the finish line for the 250th and final time.

My split at the marathon distance was a 3:16:34 and I finished the 50K in 3:54, which was basically a perfectly paced race. This was a nice workout and gave me a good feeling about leaving for the RacingThePlanet Iceland race the following month.

2013 The North Face Endurance Challenge Bear Mountain 50-Miler

Overall Time: 13:12:47
Pace: 15:50
Place: 188 of 240
AG% : N/A

Weather: 45 – 75 degrees, sunny
Start Time: 5:00am

For the spring of 2013, I had two big events on my “A” list: the Boston Marathon and the Bear Mountain 50-Miler. For a number of reasons, both these races have already become very important lessons to me.

The Bear Mountain course is notoriously hard. The overall elevation gain / loss isn’t that spectacular, but the rocky trails are famous for a huge amount of DNFs. While a 14-hour cutoff time limit sounds fairly standard, in reality almost 40% of starters do not finish. My goal was in the 9:30 range. Having run an 8:35 at Lookout in December, I figured that with the more technical nature of Bear Mountain I should expect to add approximately an hour onto my time from Lookout, which has a bit more elevation gain but is less technical.

Like any good ultra, I started off my race fairly conservatively. I made sure not to push the pace in the first half and to monitor my breathing on the uphills. Starting in the dark at 5:00am, I found myself looking forward to the rising sun so that I could enjoy the scenery around me. I could tell it was going to be a beautiful day already; with the sun threatening to come out you could see how clear the sky was.

The first aid station was at mile 3.9, which allowed me to ditch my head lamp. The course up to this was point was moderately rocky with some rolling hills, but nothing too challenging. It was a good warmup for the upcoming difficult stretches. At this point no one actually stops at the aid station for anything more than maybe some liquid. With the cool temperatures and an aid station only 5 miles away, I didn’t even bother with that. I kept running and was greeted with slightly more difficult terrain leading to the aid station at mile 8.6, but still at this point everything was very manageable.

I knew that the worst stretch of miles lay between 13 and 21, and that I shouldn’t freak out if I found myself miserable during that portion while not even being halfway through the course. I had heard that there were lots of rocks, and some rock climbing in these miles. Everyone’s time would suffer accordingly, and I wanted to reserve a lot of energy to pick up my pace for the second half.

Those miles were described fairly accurately; some sections were completely un-runnable, and felt more like rock climbing (both up and down) and hiking. When I heard the course was rocky, I thought sharp, mouse-sized jagged rocks; I didn’t think of stone basketballs that I’d be navigating for hours, hoping and praying for runnable ground even if that meant the chance to fall on roots and slugging through mud.

I was lucky enough to be in the middle of a tight little pack of decent runners through these tricky miles and this helped me focus on moving forward and not the misery surrounding me. Unfortunately, at each aid station I kept losing all the running packs that I had been pacing with. They’d all stop for a few minutes per aid station, while I would blaze straight through after filling my handheld and scooping up a handful of salty potatoes to eat on the trail. I never stop for more than the time it takes to fill up my handheld bottle and grab some food to eat while running. With 9 aid stations, if I take even just 3 minutes rest per station then that’s almost a half hour in total time I’ve added to the course.

bear-mountain-50-course1
Alone, somewhere in the first 13 miles when I still had the arm-warmers on. The rocks in the background will give you a good idea of some of the terrain.

I got to the Mile 27 aid station in pretty good form; I had been passing quite a few people after the tough miles leading into mile 20, and my conservative start was beginning to pay off. There were Front Runner volunteers who were waiting for a friend of theirs to come through and pace with, and seeing some recognizable friendly faces was welcome pick-me-up. Even better, starting at mile 27 the course got very runnable. I logged some pretty fast miles here and put some big distance in between me and whoeverthefuck was on my tail. At mile 30 I decided to turn on my Garmin to monitor the last 20 miles of the race, but I failed to get signal despite having stopped for almost two minutes to pick up satellite (really, what’s 2 minutes in a 9+ hour race?). I don’t know why, but this really irritated me.

Shortly after getting my Garmin to finally work, I twisted my ankle pretty hard. It hurt. I could tell it wasn’t anything that would result in real injury (thank God), but it was irritating. The bottoms of my feet were starting to hurt. I had already fallen three times by then. The course had become more runnable, but it was still a technical nightmare – every footstep was a concentrated effort, and even then I wasn’t immune to twisted ankles and bruised feet. It was mentally exhausting. And then I realized I didn’t want to be racing this anymore. The course was so rocky that I could only afford to pay attention to the ground immediately in front of me, which meant that following the marked course was hard since it was the trees (eye level or higher) that had the markers. Oh, what I would have given for a course that had little flags in the ground instead! I was starting to not care anymore. I wasn’t enjoying myself. My pace slipped.

I no longer cared about my time goals. I didn’t care if I was out there for 10 hours or 13 hours. What’s the difference anyway? I was running completely alone after the aid station at mile 33. All I remember wondering is, “Why am I here?”

I realized I had no good answer for that. If I have to ask myself that in the middle of a race, I’ve got to reconsider being out there at all. I was no longer out there for me. At that point I just wanted to see some friendly faces and enjoy the rest of the run.

I hit the next aid station at Mile 40 and had a long and hard talk with myself (internally, of course — I didn’t want to look crazy). I still had a lot of life left in my legs, but I had lost motivation in my heart. Should I just jog the rest of the way and finish somewhere around 10.5 hours? I decided instead that I should wait on some friends who were further back in the race. One or two of them would be bringing up the rear of the course, fighting against the cutoff times the entire race. I decided that as long as my legs didn’t get too tired from sitting, I’d wait for my friends and finish the race with them.

I spent the next couple hours seeing friends come through for the marathon and the 50-miler. I met a guy named Wayne from North Brooklyn Runners who was waiting for his girlfriend Cherie. Wayne had been dealing with injuries as of late but was going to run the last 10 miles with Cherie. Thankfully, pacing someone over the last 10 miles of a 50-miler normally means not having to run too fast.  Talking with Wayne under a shaded tent, I overheard a situation under the shaded tent next to me. A guy was struggling a bit and was dehydrated. He was talking to some EMTs who looked very concerned. They were asking him if he wanted to continue and then asking *why* he wanted to continue (a silly question, honestly). He was struggling to find an answer that sounded good. It can be a little difficult to put into words the rationale behind desire and pride after 40 miles of running but quite simply he had made it too far to quit.

The guy sat down to rest for a minute. A short time goes by and he’s again talking to the EMTs. They’re advising him against continuing the race. Then I overhear him say, “I guess I should mention that I only have one kidney.”

WHATTHEFUCK!? One kidney!?

Jesus. This guy’s nuts. Perfect.

I start talking to him and find out that he hasn’t been able to piss for hours, despite feeling the urge to. When he tries, nothing comes out. He’s dangerously dehydrated and probably went out too fast in the first part of the race, so he’s hurting a lot right now. He’s afraid that when he finally does piss, it’ll come out bloody. He wouldn’t be the first.

He wants to continue, but he’s concerned for his safety. I can see in his face that he doesn’t quite know what to do.

I’ve made up my mind at this point; I’m going to try and help this guy if I can. This will give me a reason to be on the course. It will certainly mean more to me than just finishing the race alone at this point. And besides, waiting for my friend Mikey is taking too long.

“Do you want a pacer? I’m waiting on some friends but if you want someone to run with I can run with you. The next aid station is 4.4 miles away, so no matter where we are there is help no more than about 2 miles away. If you drop dead on the course I can run and get help.”

He looks me over, probably wondering if I’m crazy. I wonder if I have overstepped my bounds. I don’t want him to be offended; a stranger offering help might be a little weird and it can be hard for some people to accept help. But I think this guy had by then lost his ego miles ago. He’s talking about piss, after all. He accepts.

Before we start off together he rests for another 20 minutes to hydrate and see if his legs will wake up again. We start along the last 10 miles of the course, and I’m impressed that at this point he’s actually still running; slowly, I’ll admit — probably around a 12:00 pace — but he’s running and I just want to keep this guy vertical and moving.

The running doesn’t last long. We’re back to the rocky technical stuff as we joke about what a bitch of a course this is. His name is Matt, from Philly. He had been living in Florida training for a flat, road 50 miler until a job brought him to the northeast. He decided to continue with his 50 mile plans after hearing about Bear Mountain just a couple hours away and signed up. I can tell he’s rethinking the wisdom of his decision.

Every mile is a slog at this point. Matt is hurting on the uphills because of incredible fatigue, and on the downhills because his quads are shot. They’ve probably been gone for miles at this point, and that means that any sort of real downhill means pure pain and fear in his eyes. I’m praying for flat runnable ground, but it doesn’t come.

We make it to the aid station at mile 45. Matt’s actually in good spirits at this point, but he’s beat up physically. I point out to him that in order to finish, he simply needs to do what we just did – run about four and a half miles.  With his spirits high, he’s actually confident about finishing now.  He gets the urge to piss and excuses himself a few dozen meters for some privacy in the woods. He comes back and says his piss doesn’t have blood in it (success!). I can’t tell if he’s lying so that the medics at the aid station don’t worry, or if he’s really telling the truth. Either way, he’s lucid and wants to keep moving.

With only 2.5 miles to the next aid station, I know that we have to go over Timp Pass. Matt is still soldering on, but I just need him to get done because he’s really struggling on the rocky uphills at this point. When we his Timp Pass it’s almost with relief, knowing that after the Pass it’s smooth sailing until the finish.

We continue to chat the entire time. We talk about our running history, our races, PRs, and plans for the rest of the year. It’s exciting, getting to know someone just as crazy as me and not afraid to tackle some hard races. And it’s refreshing talking with someone new.  We don’t know each other well enough to bitch about our personal or professional lives. We don’t have a history with each other to talk about. And we don’t get caught up in petty discussions of politics.

Even with my closest friends, talking about running can involve talking about politics (of the running club we’re in). It’s a rare day that goes by when I don’t have a conversation about Front Runners, good or bad. Being alone on the trails with a stranger — though at this point, now a new friend — gives me a little bit of focus about why I run in the first place. I’m enjoying every sentence and every step at this point. It’s like I found a little part of me that I didn’t even know I had lost.

Before I know it we’re past Timp Pass. We hit the final aid station and there’s a sign telling us there are only 2.8 miles until the finish. Matt’s excited. I’m excited. The final stretch of the course is easy. Soft earth, no rocks, no big climbs, no crazy downhills. And before we know it we see a field in the distance… and then a parking lot. Spectators are telling us we have a half mile to go. And then we see the finish line.

Soon we’re running across the field with the big red finish line in the distance. Matt has the energy (the adrenaline, at this point) to still pick up his heels and we finish together. He asks what the time is, not that it matters at this point. I tell him it’s a bit over 13 hours. He had hoped for a sub-11 hour finish but that goal went out the window long ago. He’s just happy to finish a race that almost half the field drops out of.

We grab some food and a cold beer and we don’t say much. We just need hot calories and to sit down finally. I’m sort of proud of him, this guy who I have met only hours before.

This is my slowest finish time for a 50-miler (even slower than the one I did just “for fun”), but I don’t care. I lost all motivation out on the course, but I found something even more important: the value of camaraderie on the course, and remembering why I run in the first place. During those final miles Matt had kept thanking me almost every mile, but truthfully he saved me just as much as I saved him.

Soon my other friends come to sit with us and I’m told it’s time to go home. For once I’m the runner that everyone waits for to finish, but I don’t mind. In fact, I’m proud of it.

Matt and I at the finish.
Matt and I at the finish.