Tuesday, March 27, 2012

HAT Run 50K - 3/24/2012

I checked the weather forecast on Saturday morning before leaving for Susquehanna State Park.  At about 6:30am, the chance of rain was no higher than 20% until after 9 or 10:00am, and then it increased up to 40 or 50% by 2:00pm.  At about 7:45am, after picking up my bib number, the 10% chance of rain became 100% as a significant storm muddied up the trails until a half hour or so into the race, which began at 9:00am.

So yup, it was going to be three muddy 50K's in a row.  The streak continues!  While I knew the mud would probably slow the race down a bit, I was still really excited to race as hard as I could.

Everything about the HAT Run was fantastic.  After 24 years of putting on a top-notch event, Mr. H and Mr. A and their cohort definitely know what they're doing.  Starting about a week before the race, the HAT Run facebook page began showing updates of course and race preparations.  I know this happens at most races, but it was a cool behind-the-scenes look at all the hours of work that go into making everything just right on race day.

Ten minutes before the start, as many of the 512 entrants as possible were packed under the pavilion trying to stay out of the rain, buzzing with excitement.  At the last possible minute, everyone made their way out to the field for the start.
the start! (Photo: Mom)
I was really excited to experience the start of this race, high school cross country style with everyone lined up across a field.  Talking with Jackie on the starting line, a siren went off unexpectedly.  We did the usual, "Was that--?" and then began running as our suspicions were confirmed.

I didn't really know much about the other runners in the race, but I knew there was at least a handful of fast guys.  I thought a top 10 finish would be a pretty reasonable goal, with a reach goal of top 5.  So my plan was to go out toward the front and watch the beginning miles as the leaders settled in.  A guy I had met about two years ago at a group run that he leads (although I was the only one that showed up that particular day) ran up beside me in the first mile.  Ginn and I caught up and chatted while a small bunch spread out up ahead.  We stayed comfortable and got a feel for the muddy trails.  They weren't too bad right now, but we knew the conditions would get a little worse as the day went on, especially since every part of the course was passed over at least twice by all the runners.

finishing the small loop, mile 3.6 (Keith in red, Ginn in Orange) (Photo: Mom)
After the first small 3.6 mile loop, we passed back through the start/finish aid station at the pavilion.  I was in a small pack and could no longer see the lead runners who had already gone through the aid station.  Four miles in, now, I had a feel for the race.  The course consisted of incessant hard, short climbs (which I already knew to expect) and fast, slick descents.  The race itself was fast.  As we began the first of the two big loops, I settled back a little bit.

Everyone running around me was super cool.  A very good group of folks who were very enjoyable to run with.  Soon enough, I settled in with guy named Keith.  It's kind of scary how many times Keith and I have not only been at the same race, but finished very close to each other.  But here, at mile 6 or so of the HAT Run, was the first time we ever met.  After several miles, I had learned that he was the winner of the Mid-Maryland 50K, where I was 4th, and the Rosaryville Veteran's Day 50K, where I was volunteering.  I then learned of his 2:38 marathon PR and Leadville run, and began thinking I was still going a little too fast.  But it was a lot of fun running with him.  We stayed together for the majority of the first big (13-14 mile) loop and made it go by very quickly and easily.

Me, Keith at mile 12 (Photo: Mom)

I tried to be consistent with fueling for this race, basically taking a gel every other aid station when I would grab one from Dad.  I kept a handheld filled with Gatorade, too, which I would replace with a new one from Dad whenever it got low.  That was awesome, because I never even really slowed down at the aid stations - just grabbed a gel and/or bottle from my dad on the run and dropped my old stuff.  I don't think I've ever run an ultra before without stopping for at least a quick fueling.  Apparently I missed some really good food from the volunteers at the aid stations though!

First of two times through this stream (Photo: Trent)
I finished the first big loop and was now 17+ miles into the race, and it was so much fun.  I was racing very seriously, trying to maintain a relatively high level of exertion without using up all my stores.  Since there were always other racers around me, this was a very fine line to skirt, and it created an air of uncertainty among at least Keith and myself.  Around half way through the big loop, there is a roughly 2 mile stretch on gravel and asphalt road, much of which is downhill.  We were running down the hill together at something under 6:20 pace according to Keith, when a group of 3 runners came speeding up behind us and blowing by down the hill, definitely under 6:00 pace.  Once the hill leveled out, we kept them in sight for quite a while, but wondered what was going to happen.  Keith planned to keep an eye on them until 6-8 miles to go and then try to pick people off.  At this point, I hoped/planned to maybe stick with him until that point when he would surge ahead and I would hang on with whatever I had left.

So there was all this uncertainty.  Were the guys up ahead going to maintain?  How many of them would fall back again?  And who was still behind me waiting for a moment to surge, like Keith.  The fellas that went blowing by us on the paved downhill were going extremely fast, but I got the impression that they were under control and knew what they were doing.  I think only one of them ended up coming back.

There were a few things that were certain, though:  1) Trent was going to run up one of the bigger hills with me at the end of the first loop, and then the last few miles of the race, 2) I was going to see my parents every 4-6 miles - I remembered at JFK how I tried to focus on feeling/looking okay each time I saw my parents on the towpath, and it worked well keeping me honest there. 3) The course was very difficult, but after the first big loop, I'd seen it all and knew exactly what to expect for the last 13-14 miles.

finishing the first big loop (Photo: Mom)
In the beginning of the second big loop, I passed Keith on a downhill.  I always love descents, especially technical ones, and I was having a blast flying down these.  Normally, they wouldn't be very technical for the most part, but the mud added a new dimension that really kept the mind engaged.  It was kind of cool - I was quite literally sprinting down the steep hills, on the brink of uncontrollable tumbling.  Except I was under control.  This might sound weird, but it felt amazing as I concentrated on each foot placement while simultaneously envisioning a route for the next ten strides.  Even as I was doing it, I didn't really understand how.  But it was working, and these downhills were the only places where I really gained anything on Keith.

Once I got ahead of him, though, I felt a bulls-eye burning into the back of my shirt.  He and I were probably rounding out the top 10-ish, and I remembered what he said about the other runners, waiting until the later miles to reel them in, and I knew what kind of speed and endurance he had.  This made it tons of fun, though.  Running in front of him, I was definitely out of my comfort zone and had no idea what was going to happen, but I was running at my sustainable maximum. 

After the lower aid station, the course takes the green trail up a long steep hill.  It's about two miles of mostly up until we reach the road, which we take for about a mile of downhill and a mile of flat back to the aid station.  At the very top of the green trail, I saw a guy walking.  As I passed him, he began jogging with me on to the road and we chatted a bit.  Turned out I know his brother and he knows my brother, but he and I had never met.  He graduated from the same high school 4 years earlier than I did, and I remembered hearing his name a lot as a cross country stand out.  He had crashed pretty hard after the first big loop, and was pretty much done racing.

As I went through the lower aid station for the final time, with about 5 miles to go, Keith was 50 yards or less behind me.  I was expecting it much earlier, but he was finally about to pass me again.  Trent was joining me at this point, and I was feeling pretty good.

At this point, the course heads back up a pretty big hill on the red trail, then down the steep other side to the river crossing.  Keith pulled ahead of me on the uphill, which is when my legs really started cramping up - especially my hips.  I kept breathing and pushed through it, and then caught back up and crossed the stream with Keith a mile later.  After that though, he was gone.  Next was what is probably the biggest hill of the course.  It was a lot of power-hiking and forcing a run on the less steep or flat parts.

A recurring mantra throughout the day was, "If you can walk, you can shuffle, and if you can shuffle, you can jog."  I told myself this at some point early on in the race going up a hill, and it actually did turn in to kind of a mantra which I repeated to myself many times.  It actually worked, too - it kept me from walking a lot more than I maybe normally would have.

Anyways, I trucked up the hill as best I could, with Trent behind me encouraging me along.  We finally emerged out into the field with about 2 miles to go, a moment I had been envisioning for weeks.  Keith was nowhere to be seen up ahead of me in the open field, or on the long downhill road leading to the last mile and a half.  I kept pushing, though.  I reminded myself that my goal for the day was to race all out and leave everything out on the course, and I wasn't going to let myself down by not honoring that goal.

After one of the hardest hills (Photo: Trent)

That paved downhill hurt but I got down it pretty quickly.  Then it was a sharp turn back on to the trail for one last tough climb before breaking out on to the final half mile section in the field.  Getting toward the top of this climb on the yellow trail, I looked up and saw...who else, but Keith.  We'd become so acquainted throughout the race, constantly running together or yo-yo-ing back and forth.  "Damn it," I thought, "now there is no excuse not to try and beat him."  I couldn't see him through the next little windy-curvy section of trail, but when we popped out of the woods, he was right there, maybe 50-70 yards in front of me.  The finish line was maybe a quarter- or half-mile away.  Go time.

I sprinted as hard as I could, pretending I was doing an interval on a track.  The gap was closing noticeably, but only gradually.  I gave it absolutely everything I had and, when it was clear that it wasn't enough, shouted "Damn it, Keith!!" before crossing the line 6 seconds after him.

DAMN IT, KEITH!!! (Photo: Mom)
I was extremely satisfied when I finished.  The challenge of the course, the organization of the race, the character of the competitors, the miles talking with and racing against Keith, the soreness in my legs, the comfort of the new shorts I was wearing, the lack of chafing or blisters, the frequency of seeing my parents and Trent, the humor of the RD's.  Everything about it made the HAT Run exactly what I would want from an ultra.  And, of course, as expected, Jackie ran a strong race and lived up to her label as "one of the pre-race favorites" with a solid second place showing, less than a minute behind the winner.

It really felt good to race.  Mentally and physically, it was a real challenge and loads of fun.  It was a bit of a rough winter, but I feel like I'm fully back into the swing of things now and really looking forward to whatever comes in the future.  I'm delighted to be typing this report without any ice on my leg and after having had a couple of good runs since the race.  I'm also delighted to have been a part of such a spectacular event basically in my hometown, and a bit sorry that this was the first year I made it out there.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

3/17/2012 Rock 'n' Roll USA and pre-HAT Run

My fourth year in a row at the National Marathon, which is now the Rock 'n' Roll USA Marathon, was another fantastic time.  As I continued to try cramming valuable training in for HAT post-injury, RnR was to be my last training run before taking a week easy leading up to the race.  It came at the end of a pretty heavy training week.  I was running a lot and got a couple good track/speed/hill sessions in, but felt generally lethargic on a couple of long runs.  I looked back at my training log to the Fall months and wondered how on earth I ran how I did.  I don't think my fitness level is that much lower than it was in the Fall, but some of the runs I did training for JFK seem impossible now.  I guess that's to be expected, sort of, and that I'm in a different part of the training cycle now, so hopefully I can get back to that level later this Spring.  Anyway, pacing 3:30 on Saint Patrick's Day with David and Capt Smith was a lot of fun.  It was mostly comfortable and never did I worry about not being able to run the even pace, but there is no way I could have run a 2:49, which is what happened in November at the end of a longer string of higher mileage days/weeks than these past couple weeks. 

Whatever, despite all that, I'm still really excited for the HAT Run this Saturday.  This is the first race that I have had the intention of racing since JFK.  I'm really excited to see the full HAT course, and to see how I can run against whoever else shows up.  With how I'm feeling right now, how training has gone the last couple months, and looking at the list of entrants, placing in the top 10 seems like a reasonable goal.  I'd really like to do well, as it is a kind of "hometown" race for me, only about 20 minutes from home.  I'm a little nervous, though; my legs have felt heavy and tired the last two days, and now there are two more days before the race.  Regardless, though, I plan to show up on Saturday and run as hard as I can, and that's what has me excited.

It's looking now like the streak of wet, muddy 50k's is going to continue!  Weather.com is showing 70% chance of thunderstorms on Saturday and Sunday.  I was really hoping to run a dry 50k this weekend since I intend to race, but another mud run would be fun too and will certainly make things interesting on that course.

Highlights from pacing RnR USA include:
  1.  Solid group through 20 miles, after which point runners began stringing out, but many hang on to meet goals and PR.
  2. Helping people BQ is always exciting and really gratifying.
  3. First marathon run in a tu-tu.
  4. Good training run on tired legs.
  5. One guy in the group who had been with us basically all race was starting to feel really gassed around mile 25.  Leading up to the 26 mile mark, he hit a wall and slowed drastically.  We encouraged him and watched as he grit his teeth and found an impossible finishing kick at mile 26.0.  At about mile 26.1, I turned around and witnessed a precise moment when his legs locked up and completely failed him as he collapsed to the ground.  Capt Smith and I ran back to help him up.  He couldn't even stand on his own, but his sights were set on the finish line less than 100 meters away.  I've never personally witnessed someone fighting through such pain in a race.  As Capt Smith and I each held an arm and helped him along, we kept him from collapsing again while he's knees practically scraped the asphalt with every step.  When he reached the line, he fell to the ground again, and he was completely drained and unresponsive.  His eyes were open, but he wasn't speaking.  We carried him to the medical tent where he was taken care of.  It was an inspiring finish and I couldn't help but feel proud of him.  Although I don't even know the guy, I watched him give literally everything his body had and more in order to meet his goal.  I don't know if it was his first marathon or his 50th, a personal best or personal worst, but it was an extraordinarily inspiring effort.
Thanks David P. for the photo!
 Can't wait for another fun day on the trails with a few hundred amazing folks this weekend!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Seneca Creek 50K and B&A 13.1 - You're never over

A lot of icing and a week off from running after the Mid-Maryland 50K allowed my shin to recover pretty completely.  I eased back into running with mostly shorter runs and speed workouts to keep my mileage low that first week back (unlike during previous attempts at recovery).  I actually had some pretty sweet track workouts that week which indicated that I at least haven't lost any speed since the fall (endurance, maybe). 

The next week was the week of the B&A Trail Half Marathon, the single half marathon that I run every year.  This was to be my fifth B&A Half...and I'm pretty sure it's the only half marathon I've ever run.  Usually, I train somewhat through B&A but race it hard after taking a day or two easy beforehand, and every year my time has dropped.  With the injuries and on/off nature of my running the past couple months, I wasn't sure I'd be able to PR again, but figured I'd at least run it hard and see what happened.  B&A was on Sunday.  Six days prior, on Monday, I went out for a workout on tired legs.  It was 15 miles with 3 hard miles in the middle.  My legs were pretty trashed going in to this, so the first 5 miles and last 7 miles were substantially slower than usual, but I did manage 18:29 for those middle 3 miles.  But that was all-out, and last year my first 3 and last 3 miles at B&A were both under 18:20.  I thought my legs would recover a bit throughout the week, but still figured a PR might be a stretch.

Then I was persuaded to sign up for the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K.  It was kind of a tough decision.  Obviously it was tempting because it is a nearby trail ultra with lots of cool people.  CONS: really early Saturday wake-up, potential relapse into injury.  PROS: free for military, cool people, lots of training value if injuries don't flare up.  Of course in the end, the PROS outweighed the CONS and I was getting dressed at 3:45am on Saturday. 

Rain throughout the night on Friday promised muddy trails for the event on Saturday morning.  This was a cool event - nice and low key, but with a great turn-out.  There was a marathon and a 50K which were approximated to be 30 and 34 miles, respectively.  Energy was high in the crowd under the pavilion awaiting the casual 8:00 start.  At the RD's command, the swarm was off down a paved path for about a mile before being introduced to the muddy singletrack on which we would spend the rest of the morning.

I had nixed the idea of saving my legs for the weekend once I decided not to go for the 13.1 PR, so they were feeling pretty heavy.  I was out to have a good time, and I brought my camera along for the run:

Capt. Smith making haste in the early miles
Captain (Mosi) Smith and I ran together for a while and fell into a rhythm.  The trails were indeed muddy, which makes two slippery 50K's in a row now.  This one wasn't quite as bad as Mid-Maryland, and the mud was only bad for the first half and the last few miles - but I'm hoping this trend doesn't continue for Hat Run in a few weeks.  In any case, the mud is still a lot of fun.  Within a few miles, though, the best shoe-cleaning opportunity of the race came with a nice stream crossing.

The weather was actually pretty nice - overcast, but not raining and not cold.  In some of those early-middle miles, I tried picking up my pace a couple times to see how it felt, but I definitely didn't have it in my legs, so I just stayed calm and took in the trail.  Soon enough, I got to the aid station by the lake, where the "marathoners" continued down the trail and the "50Kers" took a tour around the lake. It was about two hours in and I was comfortable, but during that lake loop I started feeling it a bit.  So when I got to the aid station, I shoved a bunch of stuff into my mouth, saw some salt pills and took those, and filled up my bottle.  All that helped me for a few miles, but somewhere around mile 22 I entered a relatively low point.  It wasn't terrible, but I definitely slowed down.  Then, after a couple miles, I started taking short walk breaks up some of the little hills.   Again, not a terribly low point, as I remember running pretty strong for a mile or so during which I passed some spectators who said I was at mile 26. 

I was running decently, but tired, when I got to the second-to-last aid station.  This one had lots of good cookies and stuff, which I enjoyed.  Out of curiosity, I asked one of the vollies there what mile I was at.  He said, "We think this is about 22 miles if you're in the marathon, and there are about 7 miles to go."  Loved that response. 

There was about 4 miles to the last aid station, and then 2.5 or so to the finish.  Here is where I hit a legitimately low point, and re-learned something that I've already been taught multiple times in this sport.  I left the aid station slowly and was quickly reduced to walking through some exceptionally muddy sections.  The 4 miles until the next aid station seemed incredibly long.  I was beginning to pity myself and I felt like I couldn't run another step.  I was just out there to have a good time and take it easy; why was I feeling like this?  I hoped that I could do a walk/shuffle combo and cover those 4 miles in 45 minutes or so. 

Then I realized...I've been here before.  I've felt this, and much worse.  And if there's one basic thing that those experiences have taught me, it's that you're never over.  These things pass...just be patient, walk if you have to, and stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You're never over, and you know it.

That was some of my self-talk, I guess.  That, combined with a little bit of almost-done-so-just-get-this-over-with adrenaline, had me running strong for another two miles to the last aid station, and then 2 or 3 after that to the finish.  Those last 4 or 5 miles were definitely my fastest and strongest of the day.  Weird how that works.

I made a quick stop at that last aid station and got out quick when they said it was just two miles to go (was definitely more).  I was at 4:41:something, and I thought maybe a sub-5 hour time was possible.  I ran hard all the way to the finish, except for the steep little hill right after that aid station, and came across in 4:59:49.

That felt like a very good run and (most of) it was a lot of fun.  As I said before, there were a lot of great people to hang out with afterward.  Jackie, Alan, and Steve came down from Delaware, David and Meg came from Baltimore, and of course Capt Smith and Mitch (my carpool) from Annapolis. 

A full day in great company on muddy trails

The best news about this 50K was that none of my injuries flared up at all.  My shin and ankle felt perfectly fine the entire time.  And as an added bonus, I didn't chafe or get any blisters, either.

To get the full training value of the weekend, the next day was the B&A Trail Half Marathon with the team.  My legs were definitely sore, but I was happy with a very evenly paced 1:29:02.  Like last year, the first and last 3 miles were strikingly similar: 20:11 and 20:09, respectively.  I also had the privilege of running in the last half mile or so with my mom, who finished her first half marathon with impressive but not surprising strength.

All in all, I was very happy with the weekend.  With my first race of the year (race race, that is) coming up in a few weeks at HAT Run, this weekend showed me that I've still got some good fitness despite all those weeks off.  As long as I stay healthy now, I should be well on my way back into racing shape, and maybe even good for a marathon PR if I decide to go for one at Boston.