Tuesday, April 19, 2011

With Swagger: 2011 Boston Marathon Race Report

It's Boston, so this is special enough to merit its own (most likely) lengthy post. As I write this, I'm not sure that I've fully processed my performance, which, to recap, was a 7-minute PR, on a marathon course where I've suffered through some of my most spectacular failures, in shoes (the Asics Pirahna SP 3) that people told me I couldn't run a marathon in. (And probably some other, less significant "obstacles" that I'm forgetting here.) Nevertheless, I have to give this a try, before the memories go stale . . .

By way of background, if you've been paying attention to this blog recently, you'll have noticed by now that in 2011, I haven't run a single race that wasn't at least a little bit scary to me. This is by design, because if the training and mental preparation that I've engaged in leading up to these races hasn't been sufficient to allow me to rise to the challenge, then there's something wrong with one or the other (or both), and I need to address it in order to move forward. In this case, the "scary" was my attempt at 2:50. Considering how much faster this would be than my PR, this was a brash goal, but one that, given the new Boston qualifying standards, was absolutely necessary to achieve if I wanted to assure myself a spot in the 2012 running of the event (which would be my eighth consecutive finish).

With that in mind, I slogged through a 10-hour drive in a hot car on Saturday (always in training for Badwater), slept soundly on a friend's futon for eight hours, then woke up, dressed, and headed off for the expo. Along the way, a lot of bizarre stuff happened, including stumbling up the steps from the T into the tail end of the Women's Elite Mile race, confetti and noisemakers at the Palm Sunday service at the "church of the finish line," a ridiculous picture with Josh Cox that made the teenage girls that took it giggle, and a "who's THAT guy" look from a girl that I'd like to think was Desi Davila (it was sort of the same look the confirmed Desi gave me when I got her autograph at the expo last year) . . . but none of that is the point. The point is, in spite of the crowds, I felt very, very alone. Not that I was expecting company, but with my "outlandish" goal in the back of my mind, and nobody else willing to step up and be equally (or more) convinced that it was possible, I began to have the vague sense that I may have been setting myself up for failure.

And then things took a turn for the better, when, as I was sitting outside City Hall Plaza, waiting for the time on my meal ticket to come, I decided, even though I was dressed in torn-up Abercrombie jeans and a polo shirt, to run on the Adidas "charity mile" treadmill while I waited. I still needed to get at least one mile in to keep my streak alive, so why not? As I hopped on the treadmill and cranked it up to a low-7-minute-mile pace, a strange thing happened. People stopped to watch, and then smiled, and I smiled back, and then three women (who were more dressed for this than I was) came over and signed up to run a mile, marveling at how strong I was running in jeans (not that I haven't pulled similar stunts before, in front of fewer people, over longer distances). This convinced me of two things: 1.) whatever happened in the race, the training I'd put in had me at the point where the joy that I feel when I run was visible to others, and 2.) this race would not go badly, because this pace, even in the wrong clothes and the wrong shoes, felt very comfortable. As it turned out, running a charity mile in all three locations made you eligible for a drawing to win a free pair of Adidas shoes, so I spent the next couple of hours mostly walking between other locations to get my three miles in. (The last of the three was the most amusing - a small, slender girl in the dress, seeing me on the treadmill, dragged her well-dressed boyfriend over to run a mile, and he refused, in spite of her insistence, while all the while, I trotted along happily.)

By race morning, not that everything was fine, but I was feeling better about this entire endeavor. I have the bus ride and the athlete's village bit down now, and my timing from port-a-pot to nutrition to port-a-pot to clothing change to start line was very comfortable, even if the temperature, for standing around, was not. As I jogged down the road in my Pirahnas, I felt strong and in control (at least, that was what I was telling myself, because the pre-race psychology speaker told us to tell ourselves that), and increasingly convinced that this would be a good race.

The gun went off (I could actually hear it from the second corral), and the crowd lurched forward, gradually breaking into a run. As we headed down the first downhill, I reminded myself not to push too hard, as this is the part of the race where breakdowns are born. Still, I found myself passing a lot of people on the first downhill, and on all of the downhills within the first few miles. I would have been more concerned about this, except for the fact that it felt very easy. Maybe it was the fact that this year, more than ever before, I've put a lot of effort into being light and fast on the downhills, or maybe I was just very prepared for the race.

Whatever the case, I was loosely tracking my splits, and I could tell that I was going pretty fast, although I couldn't exactly tell what sort of finish I was on pace for. I decided to wait until the halfway mark to pass any judgment on my progress, and to re-assess at that point if necessary.

If only there were something more dramatic to talk about here, but there really wasn't. I kept gradually moving up in the sea of people, although occasionally, one or two people who felt the need to kick in a very early finishing sprint would come whipping past me (in most cases, only to eventually get caught again). I experienced some minor discomfort here and there, but overall, it was manageable, and I felt strong and comfortable. I reached the halfway mark in a little over 1 hour, 25 minutes, which was effectively my strategy - to be in the 2:50 ballpark at the midpoint, then to run the best second half that I could manage from that point on.

And in the second half, the lack of drama continued. I kept riding the downhills and passing people, and when the Newton Hills hit, well, I was trained for them, and I kept passing people there, too. At the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, Steve Uhl, a classmate of mine from high school, saw me and shouted "Go Ploskonka," the first time in the race anybody had acknowledged me thus far. This was a great time to hear that, since I was already fixated on attacking the hill, and this gave me an even better reason to do so. Once I made it through the Newton Hills, my biggest worry was my stomach/nutrition. My stomach had been feeling lousy since the start of the race, and I had been balancing that with my need for nutrition. A couple of times, I felt the "bonk" coming, and I forced down Gatorade to stave it off. The last such instance would be Mile 24, in deference to my Holiday Lake finish, when I bonked spectacularly and took 40 minutes to go the last 2 miles.

Then, in the last few miles, things got interesting. I passed somebody I knew from the Army 10-Miler team at work, and then Seth Tibbitts, who I was sure had a much faster marathon in him than I did (and as it turns out, his chip time was a minute faster than mine, because he had started a corral behind me). Passing these people turned this into a real race. While I was still cautious about blowing up, I had the general sense that I was potentially going to run under 2:50, and I pushed closer to the red line (although, in retrospect, I was still far from overheating the engine). I felt strong and fast until the last turn, when I rounded the corner and saw the seemingly never-ending path to the finish line, which conjured up all sorts of memories of my past struggles to the end, and these memories overcame me to the point that I may have lost a bit of time here. But this close to the finish, anything less than the magical 2:50 was "loser talk," something I take care not to engage in these days. I did my best to suppress all of the bad memories of this part of the race, and crossed the finish line with 2:50:10 on the clock, and I was pretty sure that my starting line offset was more than 10 seconds (as it turned out, I finished in 2:49:33). As it turned out, I had split the last 5K in 19:17, my fastest 5K split of the race. This was apparently pretty dramatic to people who had been watching my progress online, since up until that last 5K, I was on track to run about 2:51. I congratulated Seth on a great race as he came in shortly after me, and then began the deathmarch through the finish chute to post-race food, mylar blankets, medals, clothing pickup, and the family meeting area (although, of all the post-race things I could have, at that point, the thing that I wanted most was a port-a-pot).

And here endeth the lesson.

Except not really, because it turns out that my parents had decided months ago to come up to the marathon to watch me run, and had seen me rounding the last turn and heading for the finish line (although I hadn't seen them). They later said that (in spite of how I felt at this point) people remarked at how strong I looked at the end of the race. I didn't find out that my parents were there until my mom called me, and said she was at the finish line waiting for me. Strong as I was, I couldn't hold back tears as I walked towards the family meeting area to see them. To be fair, I cried in 2005 when they handed me my first Boston bib at the packet pick-up, and I cried in 2009 when I broke 3 hours at Boston for the first time, but this was the most I ever cried at the marathon. To understand this, you have to realize that they didn't show up at my first marathon (Baltimore in 2004, when I ran 3:00:51, qualifying for Boston on my first try), and then they came to Boston in 2005 and 2006, when in both cases I blew up and finished well over 3 hours. They don't normally come to my races, and so to have them show up here was beyond unexpected, and made even more amazing by the fact that they had just seen me run the fastest marathon of my life, the marathon that I wanted to run to make them (and everybody else who's supported me along the way) proud.

Which brings me to the part where I try to make sense of all of this. Clearly, I trained both hard and smart since the beginning of January, I came into the race prepared, and I ran a smart race, utilizing every bit of my knowledge of the course. But to leave it on that level would be doing a disservice to the performance. And in the interest of plumbing the mind behind the run, I think there are two intertwined lessons here:

The first (which was to be the original title of this post, before I ran the way I did) is about being "alone in the crowd." We've all heard the cliche about "being alone in a crowded room." I'm a master of this - superficial socialization doesn't satisfy me, and in many cases, I'd rather just avoid it entirely. And in that spirit, it dawned on me this year that in many ways, a marathon, and, in particular, the Boston Marathon, is, at its core, this sort of socializing. We all gather in one place for one race, and we wish each other luck, and graciously accept the well-wishing from family and friends back home. And all of these things are all well and good, and we would do well to draw energy and support from them, and to be thankful that they are what they are. At the same time, when the gun goes off, and there are 26.2 miles between you and the finish line, the ultimate responsibility for your performance lies within. Only you know how you feel, only you know the struggle you're dealing with, and only you have the answers. And so, paradoxically, the marathon is both a joyous social gathering, and an intensely personal struggle. To be as successful as possible in a marathon, and in particular, in a race like Boston, you have to be able to optimally reconcile this conflict, whether, for you, that means charging forward with your head down and not acknowledging anybody, or smiling and waving to the crowd the whole time.

Which brings me to the second lesson, which is about "swagger." In case you somehow missed it, the "boston with . . ." campaign was plastered all over the city in preparation for the marathon, and one of the phrases (which was important enough to make it onto a pair of shoelaces, for goodness sake) was "boston with swagger." At first, I was a bit offended by this, especially since the poster children for this were two average-looking runners wearing those ridiculous mylar finisher's blankets. But after this race, I'm convinced that "swagger" is the most accurate word to describe what it takes to run a fast Boston Marathon. Consider that this race filled up just 8 hours after registration opened, and that unofficial world records (on a "net downhill" course, arguably wind-assisted) were set this year. Make no mistake, Boston is vying to be the grand marathon stage for years to come. And if you want to perform well on a grand stage, you need swagger. You need the borderline ridiculous confidence and flat-out guts to haul down the early downhills, your legs moving uncomfortably fast, banishing thoughts of a late-race crash due to your reckless abandon early on. And you need that same confidence to attack the climbs in the Newton Hills, in spite of what you just did to yourself on the downhills, knowing that even though you might be moving forward more slowly, you'll make up the time on the downhill backside, and still have plenty left to do it again. I will admit that the first few times I ran this race, I lacked that swagger. I was afraid. But this year, especially since I trained more specifically for this race than ever before, I came in with much more "swagger" than ever before, and it showed in my performance.

And just to make that last statement clear, just because "swagger" rhymes with "bragger" does not mean that they are necessarily related words. In this case, "swagger" is not about intimidation, talking a big game, or trash-talking after the race. "Swagger" is about having the quiet confidence to line up at the start and know that for the whole race, you will remain focused, positive, and confident, attacking the course and drawing strength from your competitors' challenge, rather than wishing it all away. And when the race is over, you know that you've run a clean, hard race, and risen to the challenge of your competitors the whole way.

So there (in probably too many words) is the 2011 Boston Marathon. Barring disaster, I'll be back in 2012, chasing a time that's 5 minutes faster, to assure my spot in the 2013 running. And I'll train even harder and smarter, so that I show up with more swagger than ever before.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Something about Hay and Barns (Week in Review: 10-16 April)

Here's what my pre-Boston "taper" week looked like:

10 April 2011: 17 miles total, in runs of 25, 49, and 50 minutes, all over the same old Canton/Fells/Fed Hill ground. Running felt progressively easier later in the day, which was encouraging, considering that this all happened the day after my 50-mile PR. Still, finishing my last mile of the day at 7:00/mile pace felt a little harder than usual.

11 April 2011: Okay, post-race malaise. Felt really awful, and just barely got in a slow mile (10 minutes) to keep the streak alive. Chalk it up to too much caffiene and not enough sleep - in combination, makes for some great mood disturbance.

12 April 2011: Not enough better than yesterday to mount a charge, so I took aggressive sleeping action, and went to bed right when I came home from work, then woke up at 10:30 p.m. to run a lap around Patterson Park (2 miles, about 15 minutes). Felt both stronger and totally off-balance from the rest.

13 April 2011: Now back to the real deal. 10 miles at APG, chasing a power line cut that I saw on drive in that looked cool, only to find that it wasn't really that far away on foot, turning the rest of the run into stupid loops around Burger King. Then home to find myself the sole participant in the Wednesday Night Canton run, which I stretched into 11 miles total, but not without throwing in a little bit of tempo to make things interesting (25:40 to the WTC, 45 and a second or two back to the Square). Total time, 70 minutes, and 77 minutes.

14 April 2011: My mom's birthday, and clean-up at work before my long Boston weekend, so only enough time for a mile (10 minutes) around Wal-Mart mid-day. Whatevz. Streak still alive.

15 April 2011: Okay, so no more long running before Boston didn't happen today, as I went out for about 5 miles in the morning (conservative estimate, as I was out for about 39 minutes, but I had a slow start), and then later, because it was too nice not to, another 10 miles (about 70 minutes), capped off with the last mile and a half at what felt like a very comfortable 6:40 pace. Nothing hurt, so I guess that was all okay.

16 April 2011: Last Baltimore-based shake-out before Boston, and I'm slightly regretting that I didn't randomly jump in the 11th annual Victims' Run in Patterson Park, which I didn't know was going on until I passed it just a few minutes into my 5-mile (35 minute) shakeout. On the one hand, a solid performance at a random race would have been a big confidence boost going into Boston, not to mention a lot of fun. On the other hand, $25 to do so (although the short-sleeved cotton t-shirt looked kinda cool) might have been a bit much, and there's always a chance something so last-minute and risky could have backfired, so I stuck to my run, and finished off feeling comfortable. Good enough.

Total time: 450 minutes
Total distance: 62 miles

One thing to notice about arbitrarily-defined weeks is that they can really mess with mileage totals (maybe). Compared to what I've been doing over the past few weeks, this week roughly represents the "cut in half" thing people say you should do every so often to prevent burnout. That said, in the 7-day period from Bull Run this past Saturday, through this past Friday, I ran a total of 107 miles, my highest "weekly" total so far this year. In other words, paradoxically my highest and lowest mileage "week" in recent history. (And to add even further confusion, I had some of my highest and lowest mileage days this past week.) I could say a lot about what I think all of this means, but I'll reserve judgment until Monday, except to say that historically, I have run some very good races coming off of some very high-mileage periods, because running that many miles prevents "staleness" that sometimes comes from too much time off, which has the effect of making you "forget" how to run.

Final words (although this post probably has enough of them already, but for the sake of some content that isn't totally training-focused) . . . since everybody has their opinion about the new Boston Marathon qualifying standards, here's mine:

This will be my 7th consecutive Boston Marathon, and I hope to run Boston every year until I physically can't run it anymore. As my PR is 2:56:32, I'm still fairly comfortably under the minimum qualifying time, even when it drops to 3:05:00 for non-masters men for 2013. That said, if I want to be sure to keep my streak alive, I'll need to run faster, to ensure that I can register earlier. While this adds some pressure to qualifying, it also puts some "skin" back in the game for me. Not to say that I've been lollygagging with my marathons over the past few years, but at the same time, there hasn't been any direct impetus to run faster. Now that 2:50, or 2:45, are meaningful goals, I have additional motivation to go after them. For better or for worse, though, so does everybody else.

Continuing that thought, what will be really interesting (and what I'd love for somebody to dig into further, and which I'd do right now if I weren't a-fixin' to leave for Boston shortly) is to see how many marathons recently have been run around the magical 3:10 mark (and, for that matter, the other qualifying marks), in proportion to total marathons run over the same time period. My suspicion is that, given that human nature is to take the path of least resistance, and work only as hard as necessary to achieve a goal, there will be a disproportionate number of marathons run very near the qualifying times. A percentage of these people have legtimately run as fast as they can expect to run, but another percentage (likely larger than the former), are people that have achieved this standard only because it would have required disproportionately more work to knock another 5 or 10 minutes off of their qualifying time. Now that registration is sufficiently competitive, and the gloves are off when it comes to qualifying (up to 20 minutes faster, of course, and then we're back to the same situation that we were in previously), I suspect that marathon times will mysteriously get faster, and at some point (to be determined how soon, of course), we'll be back where we started, where it will be a race to register online (at which point, they can re-implement the same system, with faster times, to further stave off the rush).

Of course, by then, if they don't repeal the rule, I will have run at least 10 consecutive Boston marathons, thereby obligating me to run only the minimum qualifying time for early entry. But in the meantime, Boston has become higher-stakes for me, and like every race has been so far this year, just a little bit scary. But that's par for the course, and, as has been the case so far, I intend to rise to the challenge.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Week in Review - 3-9 April, and Bull Run Run 50-Mile Race Report

Comin' atcha now with that blah blah blah:

3 April 2011: 8 quasi-slow Canton/Fells/Fed Hill miles (60 minutes) in the morning, and a faster reprise (9 miles, 60 minutes) in the evening.

4 April 2011: 1 stupid mile, in about 10 minutes, in bare feet around Patterson Park, carrying my dress shoes, with my keys and phone in my pockets, post-Sara's-recital, keeping the streak alive.

5 April 2011: About 9 miles (65 minutes) at TNT, including the following workout: 4x(600m hard, 200m jog rest, 400m hard, 200m jog rest, 200m hard, 200m jog rest). First run in Asics Pirahna SP 3s, 4.6-oz miracles which can be summed up with two words: SO FAST. Oh yeah, workout times: (2:02, 77, 37), (2:12, 81, 37), (2:08, 83, 44), (2:08, 81, 37). (Yes, note the trend of the first set being fast, then getting slower, then getting faster again - I really think I have a mental block about the track sometimes, but that's a topic for another post.)

6 April 2011: 16 miles (conservatively; 1 hour, 53 minutes), in part with the Wednesday night Canton Square crew, and in part on my own, running at dusk in dangerous places like East Monument Street, and being called a black boy's "n-word." Street cred, yo.

7 April 2011: Orioles magic, as they come back from 2-0, 4-2, and 5-4 to defeat the Detroit Tigers 9-5. Went there, saw it, bought a 40-dollar "on-field" official home team hat. Oh, and because my running streak needs to stay alive, 2 miles (15 minutes) around Patterson Park just before midnight, just beating the buzzer.

8 April 2011: Pre-furlough(-that-never-came) madness at work, combined with pre-Bull-Run-Run traffic that make a 2 hour drive take a little over 3 hours (thanks DC-area highways on a Friday at around 6), so this was another stupid mile (10 minutes), around the Hemlock Overlook camp.

9 April 2011: 54 miles; Bull Run Run 50-Mile in 7 hours, 28 minutes, 50 seconds, 10th overall, plus a mile and a half warmup (10 minutes) and a mile and a half warmdown (10 minutes), and later, a mile just because, well, you'll see in my totals . . .

Total Time: 812 minutes (not a very round number)
Total distance: 100 miles (a round number)

Before I get to the (probably epically too-long) race report, you'll notice that this was the week of stupid mileage. Lots of elsewhere-in-my-life activity happened that precluded some of the running that I had planned. On the other hand, I knew I had a 50-mile chunk coming in on Saturday, so ironically, even though this was officially my highest-mileage week in 2011, it was also, in some ways, my "easiest" week in 2011, relative to my recent activity. It was also a lot of fun, running stupid short distances at stupid times. Definitely not something to do as serious training runs all the time, but maybe something to incorporate now and then, because just running randomly for about 10 minutes is a different (and often surprisingly fun) way of doing business.

Okay, now for the race report:

I'm going to try to simplify and shorten as much as possible here, because in a way, Bull Run was a very simple race for me this year. Okay, fine, my goal for the race was a bit ambiguous and complicated:

1. Run at least as fast, or faster than last year (most likely meaning a time between 7 and 8 hours), but feel much stronger doing it.

2. Win prizes.

3. Have fun.

As such, coming into the race, with the help of the illustrious David Alan Snipes, I put together an all-male "team" to compete for the "fastest male team" prize (fleece blankets). The team was Matt Bugin (at Dave's recommendation), John Cassilly (Matt's running buddy), Jack Pilla (who won Vermont in 2009, in just over 16 hours, and who Sara, who was working the finish line aid station then, thought was me, because him and I look similar, although he is 52), and me. We were all looking to run in the 7-8 hour range, so I felt that our team would be pretty competitive, even with the "WUS" teams, which are typically stacked with the fastest runners, in the mix. This was all in keeping with goals 2 and 3 above (particularly the team's name, "Equipo de Deportes," or, in English, "Sports Team," the best I could come up with three hours before team registration closed).

The drive to the race was not fun, as it took nearly 3 hours, but fortunately, even though I showed up half an hour after dinner ended, I was still able to pick up my packet and eat leftovers in the lodge, while I caught the end of the pre-race briefing, and met with my teammates for the first time. None of us actually knew each other, other than online (except for Matt and John), so it was a little awkward and first, but being the non-psycho version of ultrarunners, we were all cool, and Jack's wife (who runs, but is still recovering from surgery, so was crewing for Jack during the race) was also cool, so I knew that everything would be cool. (Cool.) Jack and I retired to our respective cars early for sleep, and Matt and John slept in the cabins (although Matt got fed up with somebody's snoring in the middle of the night, and moved all of his stuff out to his car and slept there instead).

I woke up at 5:15, 15 minutes later than I do on a normal workday, after having gone to bed at 9:00, hours earlier than I do on a normal workday, so I felt a lot fresher than I usually do in the morning. After a disgusting breakfast of half a sesame-seed bagel with peanut butter, 3/4ths of a muffin, and some water, I ambled down to the starting line, and got up front with the rest of our team, which, although there was no requirement to do so, packed up to run together at the start.

It became quickly obvious that Jack was going to take off and do his own thing, but Matt, John, and I stuck together in a loose pack for about the first ten miles. This brought back cross-country memories, as we traded the lead, talked trash, pushed each other through the tougher spots, and turned on the intimidation factor as we passed other runners in a group. The trail got muddier and muddier closer to the turn-around, and both Matt and I were wearing MT101s (in black), which are awful on mud, while John was wearing some sort of heavy shoe with giant lugs, so he would pass us on the muddy sections, we would curse his lugs, and then scramble to make up the distance on the dry sections.

As the trail got dryer as we neared the 16-ish mile mark (the start/finish area, and beginning of the second out-and-back), Matt and I put some distance on John, and we chatted about running philosophy, work, life, the universe, everything. Matt and I are the same age, and although Matt hasn't been running ultras for as long as I have, I found we were very similar in a lot of ways, which was really reassuring, and a huge mental boost in a race like this. I probably should have mentioned, at the start, that goals 1 and 3 were potentially in conflict, in that running on the slow end of what I thought would be doable would be an "also-ran" performance, while running on the fast end would most likely be top-ten. So, in the interest of every race being a little scary (and therefore, on some level, a growth experience), the fact that I was running very comfortably with somebody who I could really relate to was mostly easing that fear. That said, Matt has a lot more experience on trails than I do, and he finished top-10 at Holiday Lake (my first-race-of-2011 learning experience/disaster), so there was still an element of intimidation factor, particularly at any point where he would temporarily take the lead, or zoom down a hill that I was approaching more cautiously.

Our comfortable pace continued towards the marathon mark (as it turns out, Matt's entered in the Boston Marathon this year - it will be his first one - do the similarities ever end?), and it was about this time in the race that we finally started to chase people down. In these races, typically the faster guys go out hard, slow down in the middle, and then find something left at the end. Matt and I had been going at a pretty steady pace all day, and while Matt was concerned that we would never see anybody, I reassured him that if we could hold steady, we'd gradually make up ground. Sure enough, we started picking off runners in front of us, including Keith Knipling as we climbed one of the short-but-vicious back-half hills. Matt decided that he wanted to pass authoritatively, so we bombed down the hill faster than I would have liked, but I was still hanging in, so, whatever.

Then, when we got to the "Do Loop," a 3-mile circuit through leaf-covered, short, steep, zig-zagging hills, Matt fell apart. I didn't realize that I had dropped him until about halfway in, when I noticed that I was no longer hearing footsteps behind me, and I thought his calf was the problem. As it turned out later, his nutrition was the issue - not enough calories (been there, oddly enough, at Holiday Lake this year). So now I was running alone, with only the crew teams on the lake and the aid station volunteers as human life, and I was vaguely worried. I pulled back on my attack on the jack-knife hills, worried that maybe I would also burn out. After all, thanks to my unintentional taper, there was no way of knowing how much I had left in the tank - maybe I just felt good because several days this past week, I ran only a mile or two, but I didn't have enough to go 50 miles at this pace on this kind of training/rest. I recalled that we hit the marathon mark in 3:43, which would be on pace for a 7:06 50-mile - the aggressive end of my time goal. Finally, as I approached the aid station at the end of the loop, I decided to take the advice of an aid station volunteer earlier in the race, who, seeing me staring at the table with a puzzled look as I pondered which cookies to eat this time, and whether I needed to eat something saltier than that, told me that I was "thinking too hard." Bottom line was that I was feeling good, and I needed to just keep running.

So I did, and then I started passing the hundreds of people who were still on their way out. I smiled at each one of them and told them "good job" as they passed, because it's the good-person thing to do, and because I was wearing my Natural Vitality t-shirt and hat, and wanted to make my Badwater sponsor proud. (Incidentally, the cotton/hemp fabric blend for the t-shirt? Really awesome cool-ish weather running wear; who would have thought?) As I neared the 40-mile mark, I sensed that this could be where the big crash might happen, so I kept smiling and looking as strong as people were telling me I was looking, because that way, if there was pain, I wouldn't feel it. One woman asked me what it was like to be young and fast, and then told me that "it looked good on me." Other than that, no particularly memorable comments, just lots of runners showing a lot of grit in being out there for that long.

I reached the aid station 10 miles from the finish, still not having passed any runners in front of me, but a man at the aid station told me that there was a runner not too far ahead, so this spurred me on for the next 5-mile stretch. Over that stretch, I passed him, and I also passed Aaron Schwartzbard, one of the WUS runners that Matt had mentioned that he wanted us to pass, so I felt a little disappointed that Matt wasn't there to share in this kill (although it was a bit anti-climactic, because Aaron was dying and actually very politely let me pass, as I was power-walking an uphill, before I even got right up on him). I reached the last aid station, about 5 miles from the finish, still feeling pretty good, but really wanting to use the bathroom.

Here were the final gambles. I knew there were port-a-pots ahead, near the soccer field, but I didn't know how much distance I had on people behind me, or whether or not somebody would try to make a move. I also wasn't sure how much food I needed to prevent a late-race crash, a la Holiday Lake, and it would be awful to have this effort end with a 20-minute final mile (or 40-minute final two miles) and blow my race. I decided that 3 Oreos was enough food for 5 miles, and that I would play the bathroom thing by ear. As it turned out, the 3rd Oreo was either at my limit, or one too many, because I spent the last 5 miles on the verge of vomiting. I also decided that the port-a-pot, although very tempting, was something that I could handle after the 3-ish miles left to finish, and uncomfortably passed on the opportunity. I felt okay about this, because I had completed the previous 5-mile stretch in about 40 minutes, so if I could hit 40-ish minutes on this, I would be flirting with sub-7:30, and it's nice to be under a number like that. As I neared the finish line (which I knew because I remembered that the bluebells get denser about a mile from the end), I was finally relieved that the "crash" that I had expected from previous 50-mile races, had not come, and was unlikely to come at this point. On the last steep climb to the end, I passed Jack, coming down the hill after his race, who told me "no walking!" on the hill. So I muscled up the longest, steepest hill in the race as fast as I could, and as it turned out, this was a good thing - I finished in 7:28:50, 10th place (in the top-ten visor, as no prize money is involved here), an uncomfortably narrow margin ahead of the next guy, who finished just two minutes behind (and just over 7:30).

As it turned out, Jack finished in 6:49:57, 4th place, setting a new over-50-years-old course record by a huge margin, and John came in not too long after I did, in 7:37:10, good for 14th place. Then the three of us stood around and worried about Matt, who John had passed, and said that he looked bad. To our very pleasant surprise, Matt came jogging in at 8:01:02, 24th overall - not bad for his first 50-mile race. So now the waiting game began, because the all-male WUS team's fourth was supposedly a 9.5-hour 50-miler, but their fastest runner, Matt Woods, set the course record in a blazing 6:08:14. Finally, enough time elapsed that it was mathematically impossible for them to win, and we all celebrated with hamburgers, hot dogs, cookies (ew, SO MANY COOKIES), and, best of all, sitting down.

The fact that we won the team competition was especially gratifying, since the WUS team was trying to stack the competition to win the male, female, and co-ed awards. As such, they couldn't put all of their fastest guys in the male team, or else their co-ed team might be too slow. In any case, some of the race organizers vaguely resented this type of prize-engineering, so a team of four people who only vaguely knew each other, and had a collective 1 prior finish, but came together to push each other to better races, and ultimately winning, was the feel-good story of the two minutes when they were actually thinking about it. So there.

But the real bottom line in all of this (besides the fact that blankets are an awesome team victory prize, because we were all very cold) is that I felt really great for the whole race, thereby accomplishing goal #1, arguably the most important of my goals. In a way, I feel bad about my performance, because it was, by some standards, "lazy," especially considering how many people laid it all out there today at this race, and at the American River 50. On the other hand, I am still walking normally, and feel as though I didn't just run 50 miles, which is really important for training through and running well in Boston. And all of that (which wound up being really long, sorry) can be summed up in two words that are becoming staples of this blog lately: Mission Accomplished.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Week in Review: 27 March - 2 April

This will be (for once) a relatively short update, as this was sort of a "down" week, in the sense that I didn't run a major race that I could subsequently carry on about for thousands of words. Instead, the (relatively) terse summary of my training:

27 March: 11 miles (77 minutes); the traditional post-race recovery run around Canton/Fells/Inner Harbor.

28 March: 13 miles (91 minutes); attempted to catch the end of the Fed Hill run, but nobody was running back my way, so I detoured uphill through Mt. Vernon and back down dark scary Monument Street.

29 March: 6 miles (42 minutes) as a TNT "warmup" at APG. Another 9 miles (65 minutes) at TNT, including a set of 3x(4x(400 m fast, 200 m jog rest), 400 m jog rest), with 400s in 82, 83, 83, 84, 84, 84, 84, 84, 84, 82, 81, 76 (oops). Based on the last one, maybe should have been running the whole workout less conservatively.

30 March: 10 miles (72 minutes) at APG, including some stupid-silly off-trail steep-grade-in-the-woods running in honor of the upcoming Barkley Marathons, followed up by another 8 miles (58 minutes) with the Wednesday night Canton run crew.

31 March: 8 miles (55 minutes) on a run around Harford Community College that started like garbage but ended up fast.

1 April: More garbage? Split run, 7 miles (50 minutes) in the rainy, ambivalent morning gray in Fells, then 10 more miles (70 minutes) on a similar route in the evening, when it was slightly warmer and brighter. A few intermittent fast sections in there.

2 April: Long(ish) 120 minutes (conservatively, 16 miles) at Loch Raven, on trails. This was uncharacteristically beautiful and fun, in spite of the gray, spitting rain.

Total time: 700 minutes (exactly)
Total distance: 98 (inexactly)

I was not keeping very close track of my mileage during the week, but I felt like I was running a lot of miles. And now that I've actually bothered to add it up, apparently I was, coming very close to that magical 100-mile week mark.

So maybe some meditations on the 100-mile week are in order. On the one hand, when I stop to think about it (which I try not to do), it seems like an awful lot of running. On the other hand, when it comes time to actually do my run, once I get over the fear that this might be the run where I crash, it feels entirely natural to be in motion for an hour, or an hour and a half, or however long my run is supposed to be. And especially since this past Wednesday, running has felt very, very pleasant, normal, and even a little euphoric towards the end of each session. Maybe that's the magic of the 100-mile week - it's the threshold at which one more mile becomes more pleasure than pain. Or maybe it's just me.

Another thing about a 100-mile week is that it gives you a lot of time by yourself, with your thoughts (so hopefully they're not stupid and boring). I could also use this space to carry on about the thoughts I've had while running this past week, but it's getting late, and there's more running that needs to happen tomorrow, so, for now, I'll keep them to myself. But if one of them keeps on catching my fancy, I may just drop some science on that in a day or two. Until then, I'll keep on riding this wave and continue to hope that it never crashes.