Tuesday, April 19, 2011

115th Boston Marathon - 4/18/2011

   I love racing.  Whether it's racing hard for a PR attempt or participating in lots of events for social and/or training purposes, I love it.  This past fall, I did a lot of races - some of them hard, some of them for fun.  Early this semester (or, calendar year), I came back to school after what I considered a hard fall season of running.  On a run one day in January, I decided that I wanted to focus on training for a marathon PR this semester, and not run so many races.  I told myself on that run that I could get myself in 2:50 shape by the time Boston rolled around.  I figured if I was in shape to do 2:50 on a flat road course, I could do a 2:52 or 2:53 at Boston (being the relatively difficult course that it is.  I know Boston is by no means the hardest of road marathon courses; however, in my previous two attempts at it I was slowed significantly by the hills in Newton.  2010 was considerably better than 2009, though, so hopefully I would continue that trend and run the course even smarter in 2011 (in addition to being in better shape). 
   By the time I arrived in Boston 3 months after that January run, I felt confident about running a PR.  I put in 11 weeks at over 60mpw, a couple good tune-up races, and plenty of long runs.  Not particularly high mileage, but consistent and quality training, I thought.  My mindset going into the race was this: There was no reason I shouldn't be able to PR (which would mean beating 2:55:14); 2:52-2:53 seemed like a pretty reasonable goal; if I had a perfect race, I could possibly run 2:50 or get just under that into a 2:49:high.  My plan was to go through the half in 1:25:00 and maintain that 6:30 pace through mile 16 (1:44:00).  Then, I expected I'd slow a bit on the hills over the next 4-5 miles, and hopefully be able to pick it back up for the last 5.
   I forgot my Garmin in the hotel race morning.  That was fine, though.  I'd focus more on how I felt than on my exact pace.  Race morning was chilly and quite windy, but the wind was supposed to be a good tailwind.  I was glad to be back at Boston for the third straight year with all my teammates.  Always a good time.  When we got to Hopkinton, I put in my headphones and listened to Eminem until it was time to go.  I was definitely feeling ready.
   The gun went off and I immediately settled in to my race.  I felt like this could be my day.  I was focusing on my own race and how I felt.  About 8 miles in, I felt fantastic, slightly below 6:30 pace.  I started thinking that maybe I was underestimating myself a little bit.  2:52 seemed very do-able, not just pretty reasonable.  And that 2:50 "perfect race" I had been thinking about started seeming a little more attainable.  I was going for broke.
   I went through 10 miles at 64:10.  Then the half-marathon mark came at 1:24:22, still feeling very good.  Mile 16 came at 1:42:37 on my watch.   So I was running just a little bit ahead of my plan - this put me at about a 6:25 average through Mile 16.  Next came the hills, but I still felt good about maintaining my pace.  PRing became almost a certainty at this point, provided nothing disastrous happened.  As expected, my miles slowed a little bit over the course of the hills - 6:45, 6:42, 6:26, 6:48, 7:10.  That 7:10 was the mile including "Heartbreak Hill."  Ok, so now I'm tired.  But still feel "good".  Just had to hang on now.  I came off the hills with a few miles at sub-6:30.  This was happening.  I felt a rush for the last several miles.
   For at least the last 4 miles, I'd say I was running right at my threshold.  If I pushed any harder, I felt like my legs would give out.  At one point, I stepped in a very small pot-hole.  If it were any bigger, I'm sure my leg would not have been able to keep my balance.  I'm not sure how long I would have stayed on the ground.  With 4, 3, 2 miles left, 2:50 started to seem attainable if I could really push hard.  Of course, the usual roaring Boston crowds were a great asset.
   Mile 23....Mile 24...Citgo sign.  Right on Hereford.  Left on Boylston.  I put in a solid kick on that final stretch down Boylston St.  With about a tenth of a mile to go, I passed Joan Benoit Samuelson and made some faces at the TV camera following her.  I crossed the line in 2:51:02 officially.  Totally stoked about a 4:12 PR and what I considered a very smartly run Boston.  I'm extremely proud of my team for coming in 12th of 65 in the team competition.  TOP 10 NEXT YEAR!!?
   Obviously I'm excited about the PR, the smart, relatively consistent race, and the team result.  I stayed very true to my plan/goal, coming pretty close to my "best case scenario" race.  Here are my 5k times:

0k-5k  19:44
5k-10k  20:14
10k-15k  19:53
15k-20k  20:10
20k-25k  19:46
25k-30k  20:31
30k-35k  20:59
35k-40k  20:27
40k-finish  9:18

So now that Boston is over, my focus becomes the Burning River 100 on July 30th.  I felt "great" after Boston...sore, but not bad.  Today (Tuesday, the day after), I ran a nice and easy 6.5 miles (at 8:30 avg.).  It felt good to shake out, and I feel comfortable about amping up the mileage now.  I'll have a few races of marathon or longer distance coming up in the next month here to use for training...maybe a 50 mile PR? ...We'll see.
This Queen of Hearts blew across the street right in front of me on Saturday before the race.  I decided that I liked it and wanted to run with it.  Maybe I'll keep it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

National Marathon - 3:10 Pacer - 3/26/2011

   The SunTrust National Marathon is a nice figure-8 course through all parts of D.C., without repeating the Marine Corps Marathon course at all, or very little.  I returned to National this March for the third straight year as a pacer.  In 2009, I was a 3:10 pacer, but I was secretly using it as a 'race' to qualify for Boston.  Luckily, I managed to be right on with a 3:10:37 chip time, 3:10:59 gun time that year.  Last year, in 2010, I paced 3:15.  With a slightly fast first half, I slowed the pace group down a little bit in the second half and came across in 3:14:46 chip time, 3:15:40 gun time.  That year, the highlight was a man named Tony, who I met the day before the race at our Pace Team table at the expo.  He was dead-set on qualifying for Boston (needed 3:15) after having had some frustrating attempts.  He was the only person to stay right by my side that entire race, as I brought him in at 3:14:high.  He was ecstatic.  And I felt like I was qualifying for the first time all over again myself.  That remains one of the highlights of my running career.
   This year, Tony was back, and gunning for a sub-3:10.  This would help guarantee that he'll be able to register for Boston 2012 before it fills up, with the new registration process.  He found me a few miles into the race and latched on to me once again.
Mile 12 - Tony is the one waving
   I was joined this year by another 3:10 pacer, Ben Waite.  It was nice having him so that we could constantly keep each other in check with the pace.  That was especially good considering I only slept 2.5 hours the night before and had barely eaten anything - wasn't sure how that was gonna work out.  We were both wearing Garmins, but they were not agreeing with the Mile Markers on the course at all (when there were markers, that is).  We decided it best to go by Mile Markers, though. 
   We stepped on the timing mat at the 13.1 mile mark at 1:35:00 on my watch.  I was pretty stoked about that.
Mile 15 - Me, Ben, Tony (pink socks) and the rest of the 3:10 gang
    As the race progressed, the group got gradually smaller, but we maintained a nice pack through mile 23 or so.  The course is generally flat, with the exception of uphills from about mile 6 to mile 8, and slightly rolling hills for the last 3 miles or so.  We hit those rollers with a small group still latched on to us, including Tony.  Tony was expressing concern that he started closer to the front of the pack than Ben and I did, so if we all crossed at the same time, his time would be a little slower.  We offered encouragement to the runners going up the hills, reassuring them that we were on pace.  The group strung out a little bit over the last mile or two.  I was focusing on Tony, making sure I got him across in time again.  The last couple miles were strikingly similar to the same miles in 2010.  Tony was clearly putting out and hurting.  We got very vocal as we approached the finish, and Tony kept asking all the way to the last tenth of a mile, "We good!? Are we gonna make it!?" 
   Ben and I crossed the finish line in 3:09:36 chip time, 3:10:10 gun time.  Running a reliable race as a pacer is definitely just as satisfying to me as running a great race of my own.  Prior to this marathon, I had expressed that if I had to choose between running a reliable 3:10 at National and running a PR at Boston on April 18th, I'd choose the reliable pacing.  It's a truly awesome experience, which I highly recommend to any seasoned runners. 
Tony sprints in to the finish right around that turn
    And Tony?  He crossed the line with a chip time of 3:09:52.  He made his goal by 8 seconds, PRing by 5 minutes, and was almost as ecstatic as he was at the finish line a year earlier when he qualified for Boston for the first time.
Tony, Me
The 3:10 pacers

Grand Canyon Rim-Rim-Rim 3/13/2011

Early in the fall of 2010, I began entertaining the idea of travelling to the Grand Canyon to run Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim.  I had never been to the Grand Canyon before, but I figured if I was going to see it, why not see the entire thing while getting in some extraordinary mountain trail running?  Like all adventurous ideas that enter my head, I thought this would remain just a dream until February 2011, when I purchased a flight to Arizona for March 11th with two friends.  It was actually going to happen.
We landed in Phoenix at almost midnight on Friday, March 11th, without any kind of plan whatsoever.  We started driving in a rental car toward the Canyon, but decided it’d be a better idea to just find a cheap hotel for the night and make the drive the next day.  After a couple different hotels, we found one that only had its “deluxe” rooms available…for $70.  Perfect.
After a beautiful, scenic drive the next day, we got to Grand Canyon National Park and checked out the trailhead on the South Rim.  It was probably 60 degrees and very windy, with a little bit of residual snow lying around in spots.  We went to a park office to inquire about conditions on the North Rim…I’d been told to expect deep snow over there at this time of year.  The ranger we spoke with reinforced that.  She said we would definitely need snowshoes and told us the latest report was of 41 inches of snow on the North Rim.  We should expect knee- or waist-deep snow for at least the last few miles up to the North Rim, if we make it that far, she said.  She wasn’t very happy to even be telling us all this.  Our run was not a good idea in her mind but, “I can’t tell you not to,” she said. 
Honestly, after talking to the ranger and reading a bunch of signs and posters about the conditions on the North Rim, we were a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to do the entire run.  They made it sound nearly impossible at this time of year.  And we didn’t have snowshoes, trekking poles, crampons, or even long pants…and they’re talking about waist-deep snow?  Ah well, still worth a try, we figured.  We’ll do what we can.  We kind of thought all the warnings were slightly exaggerated.
We drove into Tusayan, the very small town about 10 minutes from the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim.  After getting some food supplies for the run at the General Store, we checked into the cheapest hotel in town: the 7 Mile Lodge (highly recommended; nice folks, free wi-fi, fridge, and like 60 bucks). 
Sunday, March 13th.  3:00am wake-up.  We get dressed and packed, eat a little breakfast, and drive to the trailhead, trying to figure out exactly what time it is.  We heard that Arizona doesn’t participate in daylight savings, which just went into effect at 2:00am.  So it took a while to figure out if we were actually starting this run at 4:00, or if it was really 5:00.  Charles’ and Ted’s smart phones said 5:00, my dumb phone said 4:00, and my watch was still on east coast time so it said 6:00.  But it was really 7:00 on the east coast now.  Whatever, we started the run at about 4:00am Arizona time. 
Ted, Charles and I set off in the pitch black darkness (with headlamps of course) and very quickly ran into the first reason why running in the Grand Canyon at this time of year is not ideal.  The switchbacks of the Bright Angel trail were covered in solid ice almost continuously for at least the first two miles.  Those first two miles took almost an hour.  What’s the level of fear right under “scared to death”?  I think that if I had feared for my life, I would have turned around or stopped and waited hours for the sun to rise and melt the ice.  But I didn’t, so I must have been not quite that scared.  The three of us all fell countless times on the ice, usually on parts of the trail where our headlamps could not illuminate the magnitude of the drop when looking over the side.  The only thing that kept me going, I think, was feeling the temperature rise gradually as we lost elevation and knowing that the lower we got, the less ice there would be.  Plus, I wanted that North Rim.  There was no turning back.
Then I started thinking, if it’s this icy on the South Rim, maybe it really will be bad on the North Rim.  Only one way to find out, though…
Ted on the Bright Angel trail, past most of the ice
 After an hour or so, we were passed the ice, and we continued down the trail toward the river at a leisurely pace in the dark, just taking it nice and easy for the early miles.  We reached the Bright Angel campground on the other side of the Colorado River at about 7:00am, and took our first solid food break.  Unfortunately, Charles had been dealing with an injury for several weeks and it was hurting him too much to continue at this point, so he turned around to head back up to the South Rim while Ted and I continued on northward. 
This is me coming across the bridge
For the first 6 or 7 miles on the North Kaibab trail, Ted and I were making very good time.  The trail gains elevation only gradually, so we were able to run at a good pace for several miles.  The sun and the temperature were rising, but it was still quite comfortable.  And the views were astounding. 
Our routine became to take a break roughly every hour.  Somewhere between Cottonwood Campground (6.8 miles from North Rim) and Roaring Springs (4.7 miles from North Rim) we took a break.  We were 5 hours into the run.  We did not know exactly where we were, or even how far those check points were from the North Rim, so, out of curiosity we took out the trail map to try to get an idea.  “That must be that bridge we just crossed,” we reasoned, pointing at the map, “which means we only have like two or three miles to the top!”  I think it was at this break that I tried sending a text message: “Think only 2mi to north rim. Not sure. Still 60 degrees probly. Trail getting very steep. 5 hours. Food break.”
Our spirits somewhat lifted by this revelation, we continued upward as the trail got steeper.  Every once and a while, I would look up at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon towering above us and wonder aloud if we were seriously going all the way up there.  Ted wondered the same thing.  Two miles to go and our destination still looked thousands of feet above us?  Something had to be wrong.  It can’t be that we were wrong about our estimation from looking at the map.  No, certainly not.  “That must not be the rim…that must be some other peak that goes above the rim,” we reasoned, looking straight up.  Our minds were tricking us.
We reached Roaring Springs, 4.7 miles from the rim.  Again, at the time, we didn’t know that it was 4.7 miles.  Another look at the map, and we realized that we must have been wrong before about only having 2 miles to go.  Now, we figured, it most only be about 2 miles.  I think it was a combination of our minds playing tricks on us and the map not showing enough detail.  Had we pulled out the trail guide that labeled all of the checkpoints and their distances from the rim, we would not have kept frustrating ourselves so much. 
As we continued past Roaring Springs, I stopped believing what my mind was telling me.  Even if I really thought we only had a couple of miles to go this time, I wouldn’t let myself believe it…if that makes sense.  Then I started remembering hearing about the Supai Tunnel, another checkpoint which I thought I remembered hearing was less than 2 miles from the top.  I knew we hadn’t seen it yet, so I came to terms with the fact that we had not been reading the map correctly.  It was 3 miles between Roaring Springs and Supai Tunnel…3 long, steep miles.  Still, Ted and I would look up once in a while and try to convince ourselves that we weren’t going all the way up to the highest cliff we could see.  We were, though.
As we approached Supai Tunnel, we started seeing more snow.  The temperature was still fine, though, probably in 50’s.  Our skepticism about the levels of snowfall on the north side was soon eliminated.  Luckily, most of the snow was packed enough so that we could step on top of it without falling through.  However, countless times we would be moving along and suddenly have one leg waist-deep in snow.  Eventually we reached Supai Tunnel.  Now, it was less than 2 miles to go, and we knew that for sure this time.  The rim still appeared to be very high above us. 
That last 1.7 miles must have taken at least an hour.  The trail was covered in that deep snow except for short breaks that got a lot of sunlight.  Having one leg fall completely into the snow so often got very frustrating, and drained all kinds of energy each time.  I felt like the trail was deliberately messing with me.  We wanted the North Rim, though, and we really were almost there.
Cacti and 80 degrees in the Canyon - pine forests and waist-deep snow on the North Rim
 Finally, we reached the trailhead.  The North Rim is a pine forest with several feet of snow on the ground, although the temperature was still probably mid-40’s or low-50’s.  I saw that there was a road, albeit snow-covered, so I tried reaching it.  But I couldn’t walk on top of the snow up there without falling through.  I took about three steps, falling all the way through each time and working my leg back out, before an excruciating Charlie Horse took over my left hip.  I laughed at myself as I rolled in pain with my entire left leg stuck in the snow, exhausted and feeling defeated by the trail and the snow.  Ted and I then worked our way over to some rocks to sit down on and take a break.  I tried sending this text message: “7h20min. North rim. Finally. Trail just kicked our ass. Very snowy up here but doable”. 
Our break on the North Rim lasted about 30 minutes, probably.  Then we started back down the North Kaibab trail.  We went slowly and carefully for the first couple miles through the snow, but still making much better time that we had been on the way up.  We passed Supai Tunnel and all the snow, and started making good time.  We stopped at a little waterfall flowing down the rocks on the side of the trail to fill up our Camelbaks and water bottles.  That water was perfect: ice-cold and crystal clear.  Our good pace continued all the way back down to the river, getting even steadier as the trail evened out for the last several miles before the river.  

Ted and I seemed to be beginning to feel and think exactly alike.  Going up an incline one behind the other, the person in front would start walking just as the person behind would start saying, “Let’s walk this one.”  Every time one of us felt the need to walk, so did the other.  And every time one of us felt like speeding up, so did the other.  The Canyon seemed to be treating us quite equally. 
We reached Bright Angel campground, the campground just before the river on the way back, and stopped for a break and Camelbak refill.  Then we continued to push the next couple of miles back on the Bright Angel trail before it became too steep to run.  We hiked probably the last 7 miles or so.  There were times when one or both of us considered running for a little bit, but decided against it.  We were exhausted, and the sun was beginning to set.  We were expecting to be finished well before sundown, but ended up hiking the last 2 miles or so in the dark.  The trail was still a bit icy up toward the South Rim.  Luckily it wasn’t completely frozen over again yet, though, so it wasn’t dangerous.
Ted and I reached the Bright Angel trailhead a little over 15 hours after we began that morning.  We were proud, tired, dirty, hungry, and sore.  We severely underestimated the Grand Canyon, especially in terms of weather conditions.  Lesson learned: next time, go later in the year, probably in April.
Ted and me - all done.
 I felt comfortable with my fluid and food consumption during the run, although, thinking back afterward, I realized that I really didn’t eat much considering what I was doing.  I ate two wraps that I made with a cheese stick and two pieces of turkey inside a tortilla, and about 4 ounces of the best trail mix I’ve ever tasted.  I consumed 9 gels, and I’m guessing about 6 liters of water, about half of which was mixed with electrolyte tablets.  I used the toilet paper that I brought along once, about 5 hours into the run, and watered the plants 2 or 3 times.  Afterward, I was as sore as I could ever remember being for a day or two, but was back to running normally in 4 or 5 days.
Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim was an extraordinary experience, and one that I definitely plan on doing again someday.  I highly recommend it for anyone with an affinity for trail/mountain running and some of the most beautiful sights nature has to offer.  If you’re going to see the Grand Canyon, you might as well see the whole thing.