Monday, November 28, 2011

JFK 50 Mile - 11/19/2011

I had a lot going for me heading into this year's JFK50 as opposed to last year: significantly more experience and exposure to the world of ultras, a lot more high mileage and quality training, a (new) faster marathon PR, and much greater familiarity with the course.  I have Jackie to thank for that last one, especially!

I decided after Burning River to make JFK my focus race for the fall.  Priority would be taken away from marathon racing and given to consistent training for a couple of months.  I was never really sure what to set as a goal for JFK.  Back in the summer, when we formed our team from the Naval Academy for this year, I had thought about breaking the military team record, which I thought would take at least one sub-7 or a few sub-7:10 finishers.  At the time, I thought that with some pretty serious training, I should be able to go for sub-7 hours.

Early in September my recovery from Burning River seemed to be complete.  Training amped back up and plenty of quality races and training miles came in the next couple of months.  I didn't really realize it as it was happening, but it was pointed out to me that I'd been traveling a lot to races.  It turns out I had gone somewhere to a race of sorts for six of seven weekends starting with the UBER Rock 50K on September 24th.  Of those six races, one was an unexpected marathon PR at NYC, and the only one which was less than a marathon was a 10 mile PR.  In between all of these came a lot of really good training runs and high mileage weeks (for me).  After all this, I was feeling primed for JFK in the best shape I'd ever been in.  Under 7 hours now seemed almost like an expectation I had for myself.  I told myself that I really should be able to do it, but I still wasn't sure.  So much would come into play.

As I continued to try and convince myself that I should be able to break 7 in the days leading up to the race, I also started conjuring up splits and potential race strategies for a 6:45.  The night before the race, my parents asked me if I could estimate when I would be arriving at each checkpoint where they would be along the course: miles 15.5, 27, 38, and the finish.  I spent like 20 minutes doing mental calculations and thinking about the race, and ended up writing down 2:15, 3:45, 5:05, and 6:45 and telling them these could 15 minutes off or more.

Whatever the case, I showed up to the start with legs feeling fresher than I could remember feeling in months.  I assembled with the rest of the team in the gym and, just like last year, we got a late start jogging to the starting line, which they said is a little over a half mile from the gym.  We began jogging over, in good spirits, not feeling particularly rushed.  Turned out we were a little late, because we were still jogging down the street in Boonsboro when a gun went off.  "Wait, was that...I think that was the start?"  It was indeed!  We continued jogging right up past the starting line and began the race.  Although we'd lost almost a minute right there, I didn't let it bother me.

The best races I had in the previous couple months were the ones I approached as fun runs without sweating all the pacing and racing details.  So I wanted to do the same here.  I've really come to enjoy uphills and technical downhills and rocky trails.  So I knew the first 15-16 miles of JFK would be the most fun part of the race.  I stayed completely relaxed, ran with Ted, and just enjoyed myself UBER style.  I wanted to hit the towpath feeling as fresh as possible.

Ted and I gradually made up for the minute we had lost, passing lots of people in the initial couple of miles up to the South Mountain Inn, including a nice looking girl named Jackie who we would talk to more after the race :-D.  When we got on the trail, passing people became a little less frequent, but still gradual.  Last year we were a few places out of the top 50.  I definitely wanted to be top 50 this year, and thought top 30 (maybe top 25) would be possible.

At some point on the App Trail, probably around mile 12, I had a strong urge overcome my bowels.  Once it settled, I discussed with Ted the likelihood of having to make a pitstop at the next aid station.  He was feeling it too, apparently!

Grabbing gels from Dad!
sweet new Navy Ultra singlets!

We came down off the switchbacks together and saw my parents at about 2:12 I think...right on schedule!  Another half mile or so and we came to the big aid station before the towpath.  That urge I had felt previously had not returned, but Ted had to hit the toilet real quick.  I expected I'd have to be stopping later on and that I would see Ted again.  I told him I'd continue onto the towpath and start out at a conservative pace.

The first couple miles were relatively eventful as far as running on the C&O Canal Towpath goes.  I was passing lots of early starters, many of whom were in cheerful spirits.  Once in a while, I would catch up with another 7am starter, run with him a little bit, and then continue on.  After a few miles I caught up with a guy named Wes, who I soon learned won JFK in 1987 (I believe).  We talked a bit and ran together for a few miles.  He guessed that we were in the top 25 or 30 at this point.  That excited me a bit, but scared me more, I think.  I was feeling really good, but knew that it wouldn't last.  And then, I'd surely be seeing lots of these people again.  Wes told me something like, "You see that guy up there in the red? And then up ahead of him there's a guy in green.  You can pass them and if you do that, then you can pass maybe 10 more people."  Well I didn't know where he got his information, but part of me did trust his judgement.  He'd won this race before, and run it several times...I liked to think he knew what he was talking about, as far-fetched as it may have seemed to me.

Eventually, Wes dropped back and told me to go on.  I told him there was a good chance I'd be seeing him again later, but he didn't seem to believe me.  One of the next guys I caught up to was a guy named Jesse.  I ran with him or near him for a bit.  I didn't wear a GPS watch, and I never even took any splits on my Timex, but I remember a few key points along the route.  One of them was the halfway-ish point...and aid station at mile 24.8 (I think).  I hit that with Jesse at 3:25 or 3:26 on my watch.  I thought about last year's JFK when I hit the halfway in 3:45, and came back with another 3:45 for a 7:30 finish time.  I knew that there was no reason the second half should be slower than (or the same as) the first half on the JFK course if I ran a smart race.  I hoped that would be the case today.

The towpath was as long and monotonous as ever, and I had multiple highs and lows along the way.  Sometimes, my legs, especially my quads, would cramp up for a mile or two at a time.  For nutrition, I was taking a gel basically every hour starting at about 1:15 into the race, carrying Gatorade in my handheld which I would refill every 10 miles or so, and usually grabbing an orange slice or two and sometimes a couple pretzel sticks at each aid station.  The gels became a little more frequent later in the race.

Sometime shortly after seeing my parents at mile 27, I definitely started feeling the pace.  I was getting tired, and the miles of the towpath were taunting my mental state.  It would be 11 miles before I saw my parents again, and I was really hoping to be looking good each time they saw me.  There was a guy up ahead of me who I'd been able to see for a while, but he appeared to be running stronger than I was.  I kept my eye on him up in the distance for the next few miles.  At one point, he stopped to pee, and I got a little closer to him before he finished and got back to running.  Then, a little later, he stopped to tie his shoes and I caught up and ran by him.  He finished soon after I passed and quickly caught back up with me.  He was definitely feeling better than I was, so I decided to let him go.  I started trailing behind him again, but not far back.  Soon enough, I came out of the semi-low point I was having.  Maybe it was the motivation of having someone to run with.  I caught back up with him and ran stride for stride with him for a few miles leading into the mile 34 aid station.  He was pushing the pace a bit for me, but I figured it was worth it to stay with him.  At one point, he looked down at his Garmin and appeared to be doing some mental math.  After a minute, he said that if we continued our current pace, we'd run a 6:25 or 6:30.

Hold up.  That's not me, I thought.  As motivating as that thought was, I dropped off a little and never saw him again after the mile 34 aid station.

Mile 34 to 38 was tough.  This marathon (26.3 miles) of towpath was painful both physically and mentally.  But after 34 miles, I knew I'd be seeing my parents again at the next aid station.  I probably slowed down a bit in this section to preserve myself for when they saw me. That was a long 4 miles, and I was definitely hurting when I rolled into that aid station.  But my dad greeted me telling me I was 16th  (later learned that it must have been 17th).

Coming into mile 38 (I think)
Sixteenth?  At JFK?  I believed it, but I think it was a little better than I was expecting.  Although I wanted to dilly-dally at the aid station, I couldn't let myself, especially after that bit of news.  I let the volunteers fill up my bottle, grabbed a couple things for myself, and got going again in short time.

I look tired...
Sometime back around mile 30ish, I had an interesting encounter on the towpath.  I passed a woman who I was pretty sure was Meghan Arboghast and thought, "Oh, God, what am I doing??"  I also noted that there was no lead bike with her, meaning that someone in the field was beating her.  I wondered who it might be.

Well, shortly after leaving mile 38, Meghan Arboghast caught up with and passed me back.  I was almost positive it was her, so I greeted her and found out I was correct.  She seemed like she was in a good rhythm, and kept on going to finish second for the women. 

I had to pee.  I looked at my watch and it said 5:21 or so, and decided I'd keep moving until my watch said 5:30.  Then I'd break up this last little section of towpath and reward myself with a little pee break.  I really wanted to...I was struggling.

So I did that, and then the end of the towpath aid station came sooner than expected!  This was my longest aid station stop (still probably only a minute or so).  I think I took a couple bites and sips of some random different things, then headed onto the road.  One guy who I had passed earlier in the race (I think at the very beginning of the towpath) passed me at that aid station.

I thought about keeping up a jog up that "hill" at the beginning of the road.  But then I got to it.  I welcomed a quick walk break up it.  I knew there were aid stations every 2 miles or so from here on out, and that was very uplifting.  Even more uplifting was how I began to feel once I started running again after that hill.  Then I looked at my watch when I passed the 8-miles-to-go marker.  5:40.  My watch was at 5:40.  I could run the last eight miles in 10 minute pace and still break 7.  That sounded perfectly doable.

The mile markers (now every mile) came and went quickly.  And with each one, my mental math comforted me more and more.  I felt "great" much as I can feel "great" after 45 miles of hard running.  I recognized the spot right around mile 47 where Jackie came blowing by me a year earlier.  Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I actually turned to look behind me real quick at that point.  But there was nobody to be seen, and that last guy to pass me was still visible a half mile or so up in the distance.  I had slowly been closing on him, but he seemed to be finishing strong too and was out of my reach.

The only split I took on my watch the entire race was the last mile, just because I was curious what it would end up being.  It was a 7:04, which I considered a good strong finish.  The last eight miles was about 61 or 62 minutes, so under 7:45 pace.  Looking at the chip time splits on the results, it appears my 26.3 miles of towpath was covered in 3:18:29, or just over 7:30 pace.  I must have been moving when I was feeling good, then.

The clock read 6:42:36 when I crossed the line in 19th place.  I was glad that the minute or so we had lost before the start didn't come back to bite me in any way.  I was almost 2 minutes behind the guy in front of me, and not within a minute of any significant time landmarks (that is, I was a little worried in the beginning that I might end up running a 7:01 or something..).  The announcer had some nice things to say over the loudspeaker as I approached, introducing me as the first military finisher and the youngest finisher so far, or something along those lines.

It was a perfect race.  Everything went better than I could have asked for...I couldn't believe I was in the top 20.  Then, to top it all off, we clinched the military team trophy in what was apparently a close race with the National Guard team!  And Jackie came through with another top 10 finish, second year in a row! It was one year ago at this race that I met her - first when I passed her at mile 4, and again when she passed me at mile 47.  I have to say it must have been the Halloweeny 50k in the snow that was our most valuable training run on the JFK trails this year.  But seriously, Jackie and the Navy guys were such an important part of JFK training...lots of fun miles with them!
8 straight years!
 That Jackie girl I saw in the beginning of the race!
 Of course, my parents were there to support me the whole way.  Although I didn't have the huge numbers represented by Team Jackie, it was so good to see my parents at those three aid stations during the race.  My mom was taking some of the pictures seen here, and my dad would hand me a baggy with a couple gels to last me a another hour or two.  Seeing Team Jackie at those aid stations was an added bonus - the more familiar faces the better!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Chicago, Baltimore, Waffle Cone, Halloweeny, and NYC


Basically since I recovered from Burning River, the race I've been focusing all of my training toward has been JFK50 on November 19th.  The focus race of the fall for my team was the Chicago Marathon on October 9th.  I was debating training completely through Chicago or doing a short taper for it.  A couple days after that Uber Rock 50K, I decided it'd be fun to give sub-2:50 a try at Chicago.  So I tapered and took it easy for about 2 weeks, feeling confident that I could PR in a marathon and get under 2:50. 

The goals I wrote down for Chicago before the race included hitting the half at 1:24-1:25, running 20-minute 5Ks, and "confident about PR, should go sub-2:50, perfect day=2:47/8".  Here is a basic rundown of the race:

  • 6:32/mile average for first 5K
  • Low 6:20s/mile average for next 20K
  • 10 Mile split in 1:04:07
  • 13.1 Mile split in 1:23:55
I was feeling great up to this point and thinking about 2:48.  The last time I was in Chicago, I ran very even splits, and wondered at the halfway point this year if I might be able to do something like that again.
  • Mile 17-20 average 6:39/mile (beginning to fade)
  • 20 Mile split in 2:09:09 (a PR for 20 miles...I struggled to a 2:14 a month earlier)
  • Mile 20-26.2 average ~7:00/mile (crash)
The last 10K was tough and I ended up with a 2:52:28.  It was slower than I thought I would be able to run, but I couldn't complain - it was still my second fastest marathon and I didn't see myself as in peak marathon shape.


So after Chicago, I got back to training.  In building up to JFK last year, I raced Steamtown, then ran Baltimore the following weekend, then Marine Corps on Halloween.  But I did little to no training in between those 'long runs'.  I had the same kind of schedule this year, but wanted to keep up my running in between long runs/races.  The few days after Chicago, I basically just did shorter, easy runs; but I was running at least.  Then on Saturday I headed to the Baltimore Marathon with Jackie, another long run/race in her heavy racing and training schedule.  She ran very well with a 3:15 clocking on a tough course on a brutally windy day.  This was my second time running Baltimore, and it is definitely the most difficult road marathon course I have run.  On top of that, there was a serious headwind for much of the race, most notably mile 20 to 23 or so.  I ran with Jackie and had a lot of fun, and got a great training run out of it.  A couple hours on the White Clay trails with Jackie in Delaware the following day felt pretty good, too.

Waffle Cone

I continued to increase mileage after Baltimore, and continued to feel really good.  I began falling into this trend I've observed over the last several weeks with a lot of miles at a faster pace than usual.  A lot of my runs have been ending up under 7:30 pace.  This summer, when I was doing a lot of 80 or 90 mile weeks, my pace was usually around 8 minutes or slower.  Since taking a day off before Baltimore, I had done about 110 miles in 8 days, much of them at a decent pace.  I was in Delaware again on Saturday, and the following morning was the Caffe Gelato Waffle Cone 10 Miler (or something to that effect).  Although Jackie had just done some 35 miles or something that day, we both seemed to think it would be fun - just a small, local race on a very nice weekend weather-wise.  It turned out to be a trail race, which made it interesting.  A few miles of it were singletrack and as I was racing through those miles, I realized that I had never really run all-out on singletrack trails before.  I ended up running 1:02:02, an unexpected 10-mile PR.  I've been wanting for a while to try to run under an hour for 10 miles.  This impromptu race gave me confidence that I'd be able to do that.  Give me a road course that's not too hilly, and I think I could do it.  It was a fun race, and Jackie and I added a few miles afterward before cashing in our free waffle cone coupons.

Halloweeny Fat Ass 50K

This "race" was ridiculous.  I put race in quotes because it was really just an organized fun run, fat ass event.  Jackie and I saw it as a good training run for JFK and a fun way to spend Halloween weekend, running in costumes bought at Goodwill.  Much of the course was part of the JFK course, plus a loop up the Maryland Heights trail (which was awesome) and a loop through Harper's Ferry.

The race was schedule to begin around 8:00am.  Here was a look out the back window at about 7:00 am:
It was Halloween weekend and snow was falling and sticking to the ground.  Surely once the sun came up it would stop coming down and melt away.

After a meeting with all the runners and the race organizers in a pavilion at the start, the RD said something like, "Okay well I think that's everything, so umm...Go, I guess!"  Of the 100+ people who signed up for this freebie event, apparently only about 40 showed up.  Many of those no-shows were probably deterred by the weather.  It was still snowing at the start, and we jumped onto the Appalachian Trail from Gapland to Weverton Cliffs:
My 'Candace Corn' outfit from Goodwill was certainly not made for this kind of weather, nor was Jackie's pom-pom tutu.  Once we got moving, I warmed up enough, but the worst part definitely came when we got down onto the C&O Towpath.  Down there, the snow was more like sleet or cold rain blowing into us with a persistent headwind.  After the second aid station, we started climbing the Maryland Heights trail, for which I was very thankful because I knew the long steady ascent would keep me warmer.  We went up for a couple miles, keeping a watchful eye on the trees far above us.  It sounded like a gun range at times with high branches cracking and falling to the ground all around us.  Luckily, all the runners made it through unscathed.  It was seriously pretty dangerous; if it weren't for the loud, gunfire-like cracking noises which provided a few seconds of warning, at least a couple people would quite likely have fallen victim to these so-called "widow makers". 

On the MD Heights loop, the snow was several inches deep and still falling.  It was beautiful, and I couldn't believe it was October in Maryland.  The only thing that could have made it better would have been the added comfort I would have had from wearing actual clothes.  But the trails were awesome and peaceful, and I was reminded how much I love running in the snow, especially after a long hot summer.  After an overlook over Harper's Ferry, I was a little disappointed to descend back down the to Towpath where the weather wasn't so pleasant.

There were four aid stations on the route.  We stopped at them each for at least a few minutes, and I mostly ate cookies because I was hungry and they were delicious.  For the Harper's Ferry loop, I really needed to rely on the turn sheet that was provided at the beginning of the run.  It was kind of cool running on this unmarked route, though.  Once in a while we would come upon an arrow drawn in the snow on the ground by somebody's feet who was ahead of us, indicating the right direction.

Eventually, we were back on the Towpath and then heading up the switchbacks at Weverton Cliffs, back on the AT toward the start/finish at Gapland.  The AT was much more snow-covered at this point than it had been in the morning.  The running was slow and meticulous, but really peaceful and fun. 

Before we rushed into the bathrooms to change into dry/warm clothes, this is what we looked like after finishing:
And I don't think I'd ever seen snow on a pumpkin before:

New York City

If you ever get the chance to run the New York City Marathon with the NYPD Running Club, I highly recommend it.  Running through the five boroughs past hundreds of thousands of spectators with NYPD across the front of my singlet was a remarkable experience.  The NYPD is clearly appreciated and loved by the people of the city.

After Halloweeny, I continued my heavy training which was still going really well.  I had a better than expected, relatively hard 20 mile run on Tuesday, and felt good throughout the week.  NYC was to be my last hard training run before JFK.  As such, the time I ran was not really a concern to me.  I thought it would be cool to get another sub-3 under my belt, but really wasn't sure how my legs would feel.  I had a feeling even a 3-hour marathon would be a pretty difficult effort, and was realistically expecting something in the low 3 to 3:05 range.

I went up to NYC with Ted, Charlie, and LT.  Ted and Charlie were shooting for something fast, and LT was kind of undecided.  He seemed to be planning on going out at 2:55 pace or so (maybe a little faster), so on the starting line I decided I would just run with him until I dropped off pace.  When the gun went off, we began running up the Verrazano Bridge and my legs felt completely dead.  I was kind of confused because they had felt fine on our short shake-out run the day before, which granted was short and easy.  But I assumed it was just from sitting on the long bus ride to the start and then standing around for a while at the starting line, and hoped it would go away soon.  Or if it didn't, then I'd end up with a relatively slower time, but still get a good training run.  Either way, I'd have fun.

After a 6:58 first mile up the Verrazano Bridge and a 6:09 down the other side, LT and I settled in to about a 6:30 pace and enjoyed the massive crowds and beautiful day.  Before I knew it, we were at mile 9.  Those first 9 miles flew by.  I was genuinely surprised when I saw the 9 mile mark, expecting something more like 5 or 6 I think.  When I hit the 10 mile mark in 1:05:22, I think I started to think about how I was feeling.  Excellent.  I was feeling excellent.  I was going way faster than planned, though, and knew I would be feeling the pace sooner rather than later.  Somewhere around mile 10 or 12, I started pulling away from LT a bit.  Admittedly, I was pushing a little bit at this point...but it was comfortable and I didn't feel like I was setting myself up for any kind of huge crash later on.  So I kept going and went through the half at 1:26:01.  Around mile 14, I started to think about that, and realized that I only had to run a 1:29 second half to come in at 2:55.  That would be way more than I was asking for out of this race.  But I felt good enough and told myself there was no reason I couldn't run a 1:29; it might mean getting out of my comfort zone a little bit later, but I knew I would be able to if I wanted.

As I ascended the Queensboro Bridge at mile 15, I noticed that I was passing a lot of people and that I thought I had been doing so for several miles.  I would see a pack up ahead of me and think, "Oh, I can catch up to them and just hang on to their group for a while."  But then I would catch up to them and go right by them.  And that kept happening.

After that bridge, there was a sweet 3 or 4 mile stretch down First Avenue.  It felt like Boylston Street in Boston, but 3+ miles long.  Just a long straight stretch with several rows of spectators cheering alongside.  My pace dropped into the 6:20s for this stretch, and I was still feeling really good.  At this point, I started telling myself that if I hit the 20 mile mark within 2-3 minutes of my 20 mile split at Chicago, then there would be no reason why I couldn't beat my Chicago time.  I hit 20 miles in 2:10:59, less than 2 minutes slower than my Chicago 20 mile split.  I knew what this meant: I was going to run under 2:52 at least.  But if I was going to do that, then why not PR and get under 2:51:02.  I felt great, so I started realizing this would be a real possibility.  Forget that, I felt so good, I could go under 2:50.  So that's what I decided.  I felt almost fresh still going into the last 10K, so I felt like I could really start pushing and still sustain it for a few more miles.

Mile 21...6:17
Mile 22...6:19
Mile 23...6:06

I was at 2:29:43 at mile 23.  I told myself before then that if I hit 23 in 2:30 or better, I could definitely PR and probably go under 2:50.

Mile 24...6:31
Mile 25...6:10
Mile 26...5:52

I was having tons of fun running fast for that last 10K.  I've never finished a marathon feeling so good.  I was pushing myself hard, but comfortably.  I crossed in 2:49:31 with the most unexpected PR I've ever had.  Looking at my running log, I had run 164 miles in the 12 days before this race.  Ironically, this turned out to be the best race I've ever had in a marathon.

Previously, I viewed Chicago '09 as my best marathon race.  It is still the most evenly paced marathon I've ever raced, with half splits of 1:27:36 and 1:27:38, and only a 22-second spread among my 5K splits.  In New York City, though, I opened with a 1:26:01 and continued to speed up for a 1:23:30 second half.  I don't know the 5K splits exactly, but I closed with a 38:32 10K compared to 40:40 for the opening 10K.

Since my mindset for this race was entirely in training run/fun run mode, the fact that I ran a PR didn't, and still hasn't, really hit me I don't think.  I crossed the finish line feeling like I just had a really good training run.  It did much for my confidence leading up to JFK, which was already high.  And it makes me wonder what I could run for a marathon under normal racing and training circumstances (also, I was hungry and had to pee starting at about mile 5 in NYC and consumed nothing but one gel at mile 16 and a little Gatorade or water every couple miles).  Not sure when that will happen again, but I look forward to it.

Now it's two weeks of taper while I chomp at the bit to toe the line at JFK50...