Monday, October 31, 2011

Week in Review: 23-29 October 2011, and Halloweeny 50K Race Report/Product Review

Getting back on track with the mileage thing:

23 October 2011: 20 miles (140 minutes), including an impromptu Diane Heiser-brand beatdown, as I joined her for pickups of ~4 minutes, 6 minutes, 4 minutes, and 2 minutes on the promenade. Almost hit by a car in the process, jeered by a group of guys in Fells when she dropped me on the 6, and saw a guy with a boa constrictor draped over his shoulder coming back on Monument Street. What a day . . .

24 October 2011: 15 miles (110 minutes), out, back, and along with the Fed Hill group, plus a little extra meander.

25 October 2011: 6 hard-fought miles (~40 minutes): 1 mile warmup, 2 miles warmdown, and about 3 miles of intervals on the track on "relay night." Mile (6:15-ish - bad), quarter, half, half, quarter, plus some jogging around. Last quarter in 68, which is the fastest quarter I've run in a long, LONG time (which is a feel-good, even though Diane ran a 64 and beat me in the last few meters . . . boo)

26 October 2011: 9 miles (65 minutes), easy with the group running from O'Donnell Square

27 October 2011: 7 miles, wandering in and around Patterson Park (50 minutes)

28 October 2011: 3 miles (25 minutes), test-running the Hokas in Patterson Park

29 October 2011: 30-ish winning birthday miles (probably more like 31), in about 5.5 hours (330 minutes) - see below.

Total Time: 760 minutes
Total Distance: 91 miles

Back to a solid mileage total. Good variety of speed, distance, and terrain this week, and getting beaten by the best on occasion, made this week productive and satisfying.

Now, the race report, and product reviews (man, this thing is going to be jam-packed - if you're just interested in the Hoka Mafate Trail Running Shoe and Nathan VITABand reviews, skip straight to the bottom now):

For my birthday weekend, my original plan was to run back-to-back 50Ks, in keeping with the tradition that I started last year of running a mile for each year (where last year's event was a wandering 29-mile loop around some of my favorite places in Baltimore City). This year, the Halloweeny 50K and the Fire on the Mountain 50K were scheduled as back-to-back races on my birthday weekend, so I had planned to run them back-to-back, in honor of 30 being a big year and a nice round number, for whatever that's worth. I was also planning to try to go under 5 hours for each of them, or under 10 hours total. But, as we shall see, the best laid plans of mice and men (especially mice, and even more especially, men dressed as women dressed as mice) . . .

In any case, at 5:05 a.m. on Saturday, Octoher 29th, my cell phone alarm rudely awoke me after a night of warm, sound, cat-free sleep in my own bed. I spent the last 10-ish minutes of still being 29 tending to my three cats and starting to put on my costume (which, for those still not in the know, was Karen Smith from the movie "Mean Girls" dressed as a mouse for Halloween, in keeping with the monologue in the movie about Halloween being an excuse for girls to dress like sluts without retribution, and that the "hardcore" ones dressed in lingerie and animal ears). My costume, which cost about $15 (total of $6 for women's size XS running skirt and size M running tank on deep clearance at Target, $5 for blonde wig, $3 for mouse ears, and $1 for a roll of pink ribbon to use as accents for the outfit), proved more complicated to put on than I had thought - apparently it's not easy being a girl. Somehow, I managed to take an hour and a half to get out of the house, in spite of laying things out the night before (maybe I should have stopped noticing things out of place and fixing them before I left).

The drive out to Gathland State Park for the race was a bit harrowing, as it was alternately snowing/sleeting, and people were choosing either to ignore this fact and drive 90 mph as if nothing were wrong, or panic and drive 40 mph as if there were already a foot of snow on the road. I arrived at the parking lot at about 5 minutes to 8 a.m., when the race was supposed to start, only to find that due to the snow, the start had been moved to the pavilion a little less than half a mile up the hill. I drove up the hill and checked in right around 8 a.m.; fortunately for me, due to the changed start location, the start time was pushed back 15 minutes to account for anybody who had gone to the original start location and been re-directed. After a pre-race briefing with more course directions than anybody could possibly remember all at once, we were off.

To back up for a second, because this was a "fatass" event, the event was not postponed to a later date due to weather. As a "fatass" (no entry fee, no t-shirt, no awards, no wimps), participants take their ability to navigate the course and their safety into their own hands, since the course is not marked, race-related medical help is not available, and the event is not sanctioned by the park. Given this background, although a little over 100 people signed up for the race, only 41 actually showed up, and, with the ever-worsening conditions (more about that later), only about 10 people actually finished the entire race.

I headed down the white-blazed Appalachian Trail (AT) section up to Weverton Cliff, behind Sean Andrish and another faster runner. The snow was coming down, the rocks were getting slippery, and it was a gradual uphill. I stopped to put on a jacket and re-tie my shoes, and Sean ran out of sight, so I held my pace once I got running again, was passed by a guy dressed as a nun and another guy not in costume, both of whom I passed by the end of the first AT section. I came into the first aid station looking like this:

Time to fly, indeed, turn sheet in hand.

Not super-fast up the mountain, but definitely rolling down the backside, where the snow had turned to light rain. The next section was "easier," following the AT down to the C&O Canal Towpath (of JFK 50 fame), but on the Towpath, the snow had turned to freezing rain, flooding the path and ensuring that I would not be even remotely dry for the remainder of the race. So a theoretically flat, fast 3-ish miles on the towpath became a slower, colder, wetter slog than I would have liked. Sean and his fast friend passed me on the towpath coming back from the aid station, about a quarter-mile from aid, which was a little bit of a blow to morale, as I had hoped to make up a little more distance here.

Due to the cold temperatures, and the tiny skirt I was wearing, leaving more leg bare than is optimal under these conditions, I didn't dawdle at the aid station, and headed back down the towpath as quickly as possible. The turnoff, on the second footbridge to the left, came sooner than I had passed Sean, which led me to believe that he had decided that enough of this was enough, and simply turned around and headed back to the start, bypassing most of the race (this later turned out to be true). This left me in first place, apparently 5-10 minutes ahead of the second-place runner, heading up what appeared to be a rough section of trail. The volunteer on the other side of the footbridge directing runners up the trail was reluctant to try to give me directions (which, in retrospect, would not have been a huge task - how difficult is "green trail, to a left on blue, to a left on red, turn around at overlook, red to green back to the towpath" to remember for an hour or two?), and, a bit frustrated with this, I began climbing the steep green trail/fire road, and worrying about how my increasingly frozen hands were going to pull out the turn sheet to keep me on track. The soaking-wet cloth gloves, which I had balled my hands into and tucked into my jacket sleeves, were doing very little to keep my hands warm, and only the fact that I had my hands balled up, recirculating body heat to the extent possible under those circumstances, was keeping me from frostbite. Any attempt to take the turn sheet out had to be completed within a couple of minutes, or else my crippled fingers may never work again.

As the snow came down harder, the green trail turned more narrow and winding, and it occurred to me that, based on prior review of the turn sheet, there was a potentially difficult turn-off on the green trail to the blue trail, and I may have gone too far and passed it. Struggling with frigid fingers, I pulled out the turn sheet, and, sure enough, the distance that I had gone seemed a bit too long, and so I turned around, brushed the snow off of an info sign along the way, and found that it was the Naval Battery location that the turn sheet mentioned was what you would see if you went too far.

Back on course, I headed further uphill, to encounter my first downed tree, due primarily to the freak snowfall on the trees, which were more leaf-covered than they typically would be when snow starts here. I then realized two things: 1.) Those shotgun-like sounds that I had heard earlier in the race were the sound of trees falling under the weight of the snow, and 2.) the tree which had freshly fallen in the path (only the slightest hint of snow on it) had fallen in the path while I was off-course, and, had I not missed the turn, I may well have been under this very large tree when it fell. As if all of this was not nerve-wracking enough, I was struggling to pull on my soaked cloth gloves and to tuck my hands into my sleeves after I exposed them in order to read the turn sheet. This slowed my progress up the hill, as I attempted, mostly with my teeth, to pull on the gloves to protect my fingers. As I progressed up the hill, a trail of footprints became apparent, and I began to wonder, since Sean had turned around, and was running with another person anyway, if the runner in second had passed me while I had spent about half a mile off-course. I decided that it was cold enough that I was just going to follow the footprints, even if they were on the wrong path, since whoever was out on foot probably didn't want to stay out in these conditions for a long time, no matter where they were going, and there would likely be help wherever they were.

All of this caused me to slow and be more cautious, and it was on the rocky downhill at the end of the blue trail to the red trail that the second-place runner passed me. He had been following my footprints, apparently, and had sped up for the same reasons that I was being more cautious. We decided to stick together, and he let me borrow an extra pair of socks and a Gore-Tex glove cover to keep my hands warm. The gentleman, Tom Kubicz, dressed in a much more weather-appropriate medieval costume, turned out to be a professor of Oceanography at Johns Hopkins Homewood campus (my undergrad alma mater), so we quickly had fodder for conversation as we descended to the overlook, then back onto the red trail, onto the green trail downhill (flying down this relatively tame trail section), and back down to the C&O Canal Towpath to the aid station where all of this mayhem had started. We also passed the gentleman whose footprints I had been following, who turned out to be a hiker with a dog (explaining the frequent animal tracks next to the footsteps), coincidentally on the same path that we were following.

I waited for Tom at the aid station, since he was taking longer than I would have, because the next section, through Harper's Ferry, was subject to complicated directions, and with minimal access to my turn sheet in the accelerating wintry mix, it seemed best to use the buddy system here. We went down the towpath, right over the canal bridge, slightly right up a set of stone stairs to a trail to more stone stairs to a graveyard to the right, through the graveyard and to the left, up a road and through a college gate to the left, back down onto the trail, down to the road and left again to loop back across a "no-bike" bridge to the right, onto a footpath which led us back to the towpath - phew! Got all that? In better weather, this would have been a lovely scenic tour of the town, and even in this weather, with more functional fingers, I could have gotten a few neat photos out of this, but at this point, I was too cold to fully appreciate any of it. We turned right on the towpath to head back to the first aid station, and the puddles had only gotten bigger and colder since we had left them last. In spite of our friendly banter, the towpath seemed interminable, although maybe it's not apparent from this picture of us heading back:

On the towpath - Lord and Lady of the Freak October Snowfall?

We reached the last aid station together, and at this point, a couple of new things were apparent: 1) Sniper and Chris, who had been patiently "crewing" for me this entire time ("crewing" which mostly consisted of making jokes about my costume and providing general moral support, so that I wouldn't think about how conditions were steadily getting worse), had firmly established my alter-ego's name as "Gerta," the steroid-pumping German, due to comments from Pam, a race volunteer, about how muscular my legs were, and 2) it was now officially too cold for that silly skirt. Tom and I left the aid station together, but Tom said that he was fading, and told me I could take off and run faster if I wanted, since I was cold, and motion was the best way for me to stay warm at this point - I wasn't insulated nearly as well as Tom was.

I scrambled ahead up the hill, up the tight switchbacks, with Tom not too far behind, competitive drive being what it is. Eventually, I lost sight of him, at about the same time that the course began to level out a bit (although it was still a gradual uphill), and also at about the same time that I realized that I probably wasn't eating enough, and was now playing a balancing game between level of exertion required to generate enough body heat to keep warm, versus energy to move forward. Or, some of the energy that I needed to move forward as fast as possible needed to be diverted to warming my body, but if I didn't keep moving foward, I wasn't going to get the benefit of the waste heat from forward progress. This was going to make the last 6 miles interesting. Although that doesn't sound like a lot of distance on paper, in practice, in drastic enough circumstances, anything can happen (see: 2011 Holiday Lake 50K, last two wobbly miles that took half an hour to complete). To add to the intrigue, the harder snowfall had now brought down so many trees that for a solid mile of the course, there was a downed tree in the path, without exaggeration about every fifteen feet. At the rate these were coming down, it was hard to believe that there would still be a forest when this was all said and done.

Nevertheless, I kept the faith and slogged through (briskly, as though Diane were chasing me, and ready to pass me at any second - ha!), passing a few more runners who had turned back early (including a very large guy - around 5'7" and 200 pounds - ambling towards the finish in a long-sleeved shirt and shorts, apparently unaffected by the cold . . . sometimes some extra body fat is convenient), and finally, a couple of hikers who confirmed that, in spite of the fact that I hadn't seen a white marker on the snow-covered trees in an uncomfortably long time, I was near the parking lot and the pavilion. I motored downhill, and sure enough, within a couple of minutes, it turned out that those car-like sounds that could have just been wind or airplanes were what I had wanted them to be, and I rolled into the pavilion, about five and a half hours after this whole ordeal began, first man, woman, and mouse to finish.

Finishing this silly thing, with a random dog. Also, note no exaggeration with respect to the snowfall.

Then the cold really set in, and I looked more like this:

Tom showed up about ten minutes later, second to finish, and we congratulated each other the best we could, given that we were both exhibiting signs of the early stages of hypothermia.

Overall, it was nice to begin my fourth decade with a win, but in particular, with a win under these conditions. It takes more than speed to finish first in a Fatass - it takes a lot of guts, self-sufficiency, and awareness of your environment to persist and make it to the finish in spite of minimal aid and no course markings. Furthermore, because Fire on the Mountain wasn't cancelled until a couple of hours after I had finished, I had been deliberately holding back a bit, under the assumption that I was going to have to run another 30-ish miles the next day under similar conditions, so I had been doing only what I needed to to get through the race in a timely fashion, win or otherwise. It was nice that that strategy turned out as well as it did, and saved my legs enough to allow me to run a 2-hour, 17-mile run the next day in the relatively warm, dry confines of Baltimore City, around M&T Bank Stadium during the Ravens game - my first stadium run this year during a game, and a huge come-from-behind win for the Ravens (down 24-6 when I passed the stadium at halftime, with folks in purple shamefully streaming out).

So that's the race, but you're probably also curious about the gear. If you are, here goes:

Hoka Mafate Trail Running Shoe Review:

In the above pictures, you probably noticed the giant, goofy shoes that I was wearing, and wondered "what on earth?" I was wearing the Hoka Mafate Trail Running Shoe for this race, the first time I had ever worn them, save for a three-mile shakeout the day before in Patterson Park just to make sure that there was nothing catastrophically wrong with them.

In the pantheon of increasingly wacky shoes these days, these are some of the wackiest, with their oversized sole and bright colors. The concept is that the thicker sole allows for more cushioning, and, in spite of the appearance, a near-barefoot 4mm heel-to-toe drop (most shoes come in at around 12mm), which, combined with a wide, slightly rockered outsole, allows for more natural running form, and saves your legs on potentially punishing downhills, while also allowing you to run faster than you otherwise would. All of this is supposed to justify a lofty $150 price tag. So, did it? (Note that I will answer this hypothetically, as I paid far less than $150 for these . . .)

Well, first off, the claims about flying downhill are warranted. The first picture in this post is pretty characteristic of how I was handling the downhills in this race. The cushioning, rockered sole, and positioning of the foot allow for a little extra "slop" in the heel-braking that inevitably occurs on the steepest downhills to keep you from face-planting. Once you're comfortable with the height off the ground, and convinced that the shoe is wide enough to provide a stable platform on which to land (because it is), you can really fly on the downhills, as the tag line suggests - they force you to engage your lower back and butt more, which helps save your quads.

That said, in my experience, they were a wash on the flat C&O Canal Towpath, and on the uphills. Some people have claimed that they are too "mushy" uphill, but I didn't notice a difference, although I am generally strong and adaptable when it comes to climbing, so I might not be the best judge of that. In this case, a flaw with the shoe, probably particular to my foot, came into play. Because the back of my heel is unusually flat, it tends to slip in shoes with a pronounced rounding in the back of the heel (which is probably ideal for people with more "normal" feet). The slippage for me in the Hokas was pretty bad, to the point that in spite of my lacing tricks, my heel was eventually slipping significantly on almost anything that wasn't a downhill. Over the course of a lot of miles, fighting the shoe this way was tiring.

As far as tread and grip on terrain, this race exercised the shoe over a lot of different surfaces - road, gravel, puddles, snow, ice, rocks. Although out of the box the shoes were a little slippery on flat, wet surfaces (I almost took a dive on the linoleum behind my front door when I was running back to the house after tossing out a bag of cat litter in the park before leaving for the race), once the race began, and the shoes were "christened," the grip improved, and, for not having an outsole specifically tuned to any one surface, these were some of the better-gripping shoes that I've ever worn (heel slippage aside, of course).

Also, these were the "waterproof" version of the shoe, and, like every waterproof shoe, that works only until your socks get wet. As deep as some of the puddles were, wet socks, and ultimately wet shoes, were inevitable. I will say, however, that after close to 6 hours in the shoes by the time I finally got them off at the finish (including 4 hours of being pretty soaked), I somehow had almost no signs of pruning or trenchfoot, so they must have at least kept the water to a minimum.

Overall, because of the poor heel fit, I definitely would not have paid full price for these. But, with a better upper fit (which, within a few minutes of putting them on, I'm sure you can determine whether or not the shoe works for you that way), these are awesome trail shoes, and definitely worth considering for long trail races. My legs didn't feel terribly beaten-up the next day (they were good enough for a relatively fast 17 road miles), which I can't totally attribute to the shoes, because, again, I was running just fast enough not to freeze, but I suspect that the shoes helped, if for no other reason than I didn't have a single bruised toenail or blister. (And, with respect to bruised toenails, being a little higher off the ground reduces the risk of stubbed toes, probably.) For me, these are an effective heel mod away from being a great trail shoe. And, for Hoka, this is another "podium" for your shoes, you know, if you care as much about those things as your website claims. ;)

Nathan VITABand Review

As people apparently read this silly blog now, sometimes companies send me free stuff to test out, and usually, I'm remiss in reviewing it. But it's a new year for me, and I'm turning over a new leaf, so here's my review of the Nathan VITABand, provided to me for free by Nathan:

Here's me wearing the VITABand, just before all of that stuff above happened.

The Nathan VITABand is a Livestrong-style bracelet with a unique identifying number on it that you can link to an online profile with your medical history and emergency contact information. In the event that you, say, foolishly venture out into the cold, snowy wilderness underdressed, run out of food and water, and freeze to death, somebody can at least identify your corpse. (And if you're still alive, they might even be able to call the number on the bracelet and get you appropriate help.) The bracelet can also hold chips with your info written on it, so that the person who finds you doesn't have to call the phone number on the bracelet to ID you, and a pre-paid debit card chip, which you can use at places that accept pre-paid, touchless payment methods. Fancy.

I had just received the bracelet a couple of days before the race, so I didn't have either of the chips for it yet (they come in the mail once you fill out your profile online), but I figured that since it matched my outfit (it was hot pink - not sure if it comes in different colors), it was at least a fashion statement, if not a precaution in the event of a catastrophe on a mountain. So I really can't vouch for it saving my life, but I can offer some initial impressions:


- Pink color looks cool, is highly visible, and supports breast cancer awareness ('tis the month . . .)
- Lightweight
- Easy-on, easy-off
- Fits securely
- Holds a lot of information in a neat little package


- Time-consuming data entry online (but basically a one-time thing)
- Subscription service ($20 per year; not backbreaking, but still not free)
- Cats think that it is a small snake and try to chew on it (mine has teeth marks in it now, and is missing the placeholder "debit" chip . . . although that's better than missing a real chip)
- Pre-paid debit service is as useful as touchless debit is available and as much as you pre-pay (which I typically do not do)

But all things considered, this is a compact, sturdy ID system, probably the best on the market in that regard. The subscription fee might be cause to balk, but at the same time, it's not terribly expensive for a little peace of mind. I wish that the touchless payment was credit, as opposed to pre-paid debit (personally, I would me more likely to use it if it were credit), but they could probably modify that without having to modify the bracelet itself. If you can keep it away from curious cats, and the subscription model doesn't bother you, this is arguably the best bracelet of its type out there.

And with that, I've written more than my share of words for the week. Now, back to running . . . :)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Week in Review: 16-22 October 2011 - Boredom

It's been a while since it's been boring like this:

16 October: 10 miles (80 minutes) at Loch Raven, on the trails
17 October: 1 mile (10 minutes) at Patterson Park
18 October: 2 miles (20 minutes) at APG
19 October: 5 miles (35 minutes) in the rain in Holly Woods off of Route 7, for whatever reason
20 October: 9 miles at APG (65 minutes), followed by a late-night 6 miles (45 minutes) in and around Patterson Park
21 October: 7+ miles (~70 minutes) through the Inner Harbor and back
22 October: 15-ish miles (~150 minutes) on the NCR Trail

Total Time: 475 minutes
Total Distance: 55 miles

So there, one goal accomplished: documentation of my daily mileage, which, for the past month, has been helter-skelter (the documentation more than the mileage), because I've been spending a lot more time and effort on "races" (or, in most cases, more accurately, "epic runs") to get it together enough to put this in my entries. I'd guesstimate minimally about 60 miles per week in previous weeks (based on race distances alone, it's unlikely that it would be much less), so this was a bit of a "slow" week for me, in the grand scheme of things.

So here comes the part where I say something deep, or wise, or whatever, as parting words to my 20s, since I turn 30 this coming Saturday (October 29th), in a big way, with back-to-back 50Ks (i.e. back-to-back races of 30-ish miles, as I've come to a point in my life where I'm more than happy to associate an "ish" with my age, lest I be confined or defined by a specific number). Halloweeny 50K (a "fatass" event, for which I will be wearing a surprise silly costume, pictures of which will no doubt end up on here) on Saturday, followed by Fire on the Mountain 50K on Sunday (a "serious" race, maybe - as serious as a race can be when one of the finishing requirements is to throw a branch on a fire).

And so, setting parentheses aside, and temporarily eschewing the complex sentence-splicing techniques that I'm admittedly too fond of, time to be clear and direct: Running has been good to me. I started running at age 13, and since then, I've never gone more than a month without putting on shorts and running shoes and hitting the trails or the streets for at least an easy mile or two. Since then, I've seen and done more crazy running-related things than I'd ever have the time or patience to type out in this blog, and had many a good time with friends along the way. It hasn't always been easy. It hasn't always been pretty. Sometimes, especially at the time, it hasn't been all that fun. But however it was, it's been a huge part of my life.

All of that relative pomp and circumstance aside, though, the thing that fascinates me the most about running is this: All I did, at least once each day for the majority of days over the past 17 years, was put on shorts and running shoes, and hit the streets or the trails for at least an easy mile or two. Put that way, it seems trivial, even inconsequential, especially at the time. But I've seen and done so much that's anything but trivial or inconsequential as a result that, over time, I've changed my view of the "trivial" and "inconsequential." Because this isn't about a journey of a thousand miles starting with a single step; this is about not even knowing that a single step will lead to a thousand-mile journey in the first place.

Or, less proverbially, life's most brilliant moments are apparently built on the mundane, the trivial, the inconsequential. There is always some sort of beauty hidden behind the boredom, waiting to be revealed by the perceptive and the patient.

I'd rather not skew further abstract than that, as I'd rather not come off overly poetic or pretentious about any of this. All I know is that 17 years later, I'm running hundreds of miles in remote wilderness, getting my picture in magazines, wearing silly belt buckles and climbing trash heaps in foreign lands, and none of that was part of a grand plan of mine. It all just happened, because I just happened to stick with something and endure a whole bunch of "whatever," with eyes wide open, to get to a whole bunch of "wow." And as long as my body will have it, I'll continue to endure and embrace the seemingly mundane, because it seems that good things really do come to those who are able to wait.

Also, having to do your business in the woods really gives you a new appreciation for toilets and modern plumbing. Truth.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

2011 Baltimore Marathon Pace Report

These are the kind of reports that I don't relish writing - the ones where things didn't go as well as I had hoped, and I have to think about what I might have done better. Nevertheless, I think this sort of exercise is useful, so, without further ado, I give you the 2011 Baltimore Marathon, as seen by a 3:20 pacer . . .

By way of explanation (and not at all intended to excuse), the 2011 Baltimore Marathon was just a week after my 27:30:55 finish at the Grindstone 100. So I was still a little tired from that, although, on the whole, less beaten up than I usually feel after a 100-miler. 2 easy miles on Sunday, 7 easy miles on Monday, 2 easy miles on Tuesday, 1 easy mile on Wednesday, 12 miles on Thursday, and 6 miles on Friday . . . Or 30 miles on the week coming into the marathon. The 12-mile run and the 6-mile run felt iffy - I felt good enough to be running at a decent pace, but not entirely confident that I could sustain the pace for longer than the run. While 3:20 should have been well within reach for me, it was questionable as to whether or not I could pull it off.

I jogged the 4-ish miles from my house to the starting line, and didn't feel all bad, in spite of the cold. After the obligatory pacer photo, I had nothing in particular to do for the next half an hour, but the time seemed to move quickly, since the walk to the starting line was relatively slow, due to the huge number of people. I got to the starting line about 20 minutes ahead of time, and 3:20 hopefuls began to congregate around me, Rich Lavene, and Brian Hsia (of 2011 Beast of Burden win fame). It was a little chilly, but the energy was definitely there, and I was feeling optimistic about this.

The gun went off, and we, predictably, went through the first mile a little bit fast. No big deal, because that happens in just about every one of these. The race was fairly uneventful for about three miles, until somebody tripped over a cone on the way up to the zoo, which prompted shouting "CONE!" at the dozens of cones that we would come across for the rest of the race (mostly Brian would shout it first, in between taking pictures of everything, and I would echo him). The run through the zoo was mostly downhill (a pleasant surprise), and volunteers were parading animals around - a rooster, a rabbit, even an alligator! This all sounds a little silly, but honestly, if they never put the run out to Fort McHenry back into the race, I won't be too disappointed, as long as this replaces it.

And so it went for the rest of the first half of the race - mostly downhill, good crowd support through Mount Vernon and the Inner Harbor, and a very brief tour of the Under Armour corporate headquarters. Soon we were heading for the dreaded second half of the race . . .

And this is where things started to fall apart. Around mile 15 or 16, the hills start getting serious, and you have to get serious in response, which Rich did by pushing on the uphills. I followed, but my legs were not enjoying this. I wanted to hang back and go a little slower, and try to save myself for the downhills, but in the spirit of "one group," I went anyway. I could feel myself bleeding out a little more on each hill, and now I was just hoping that I would be able to hold on for the rest of the race . . .

Unfortunately, around the back half of Lake Montebello, a stiff headwind kicked in, and we were surging against it (and my legs were complaining), and so, when we got around the lake and began the climb up 33rd Street, when Rich asked me if I was okay, I said "no," and that may have been a mistake. Sometimes, like that darn coyote and his running off of the cliff, if you don't realize that there's nothing under your feet, you won't fall. So that was the setup, maybe, because as soon as we started up that hill, between the 20 mph headwind, and the incline, my legs and butt hurt so bad that I was temporarily blinded with pain.

I did the only thing I could, and I pulled off of the course, and, per instructions, waited for the 3:30 group. Probably standing still, although technically the correct thing to do, was a mistake, because as soon as I began running with the 3:30 group, I could feel that the 10 minutes of standing had caused my legs to stiffen, and I felt uncomfortable (in a different way) at what would ordinarily be a manageable pace. After about a mile and change with them, with less than three miles to go, I pulled off to the side of the course, saw Pete DeCapite (a friend of mine going back to grade school) on his way to a 1:45 half, run past, then decided to walk towards the finish, pacer shirt and visor off, and pick up the 3:40 group when they passed.

I picked up the 3:40 group with about a mile and a half to go, and things still didn't feel good, but at this point, it didn't matter - there wasn't much left, and I was going to finish. I ran it in on tired legs, with Bruce Yang, who I paced 3:20 with at Louisville, and ended up pulling him along towards the end, now pulling me along - kind of nice how that worked out. I proceeded to sit around at the finish for about 2 hours, at the pacer tent with my parents (who had surprised me by showing up), making small talk about running with whoever was passing by. Eventually, after a few sodas, a sandwich, and a really awesome blue crab cupcake, I felt recovered enough to put my all-black Asics 2150s back on and head over to the "Celebration Village" for my Maryland Double medal, and then walk my parents back to their inconveniently parked car - a good head-start for my run home.

That all capped off a 65-mile week, 35 of which was on marathon day. That's been about par for the course volume-wise for me in the past month (although I've been doing a terrible job of keeping track - this will need to improve starting this coming week). Arguably, this is all one of the more boring things that I've done and that I've written. But I still think there are a few take-aways here - I will continue to second-guess my decision to pull off when the pain became blinding. It was awful, but in retrospect, I almost wish I had attempted to push through, just to see what would have happened. Maybe I could have made it to the top of the hill and struggled through the rest of the race (easy to say now, of course). But even still, I'm glad that I got to pace a group that allowed me to test my limits. For what it was worth, I ran nearly 22 miles at a solid training pace before I fell apart, which isn't bad. And of course, I helped some people get through what is a very difficult road marathon, so there is that satisfaction.

I feel as though there might be more to say about this, but for now, I'll leave it as I was happy to participate in the biggest running event in Baltimore, and happy to have the opportunity to connect and re-connect with friends through this event, and I look forward to running this in the future.

Okay, lame, lame (although heart-felt and true), so for real, I'll leave you with this:


Monday, October 10, 2011

Grindstone 2011 Race Report

(Pre-epilogue: See above; posting late, because, after the race, it took me a full 12 hours, from 6 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday, to drive back to Baltimore - 200 miles - due largely to a blockage on I-81 North, around mile 259, rumored to be due to a truck carrying bales of hay that caught on fire, and which the fire department was unable to extinguish, which left me sitting at a virtual standstill on the highway for four hours. Add in three or four intermittent hours of sleep in the car at random off-highway location, and a totally ineffective cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee from a rest stop, due to a random piece of plastic that fell in when I was pouring it, and brewed into the coffee as it cooled, eventually almost finding its way into my mouth, and the return trip was almost more mentally stressful than the race . . .)

At Grindstone in 2010, I had a terrible showing; I dropped out just 22 miles and a little over 6 hours into the race, a little after midnight, totally spent in every sense of the word. So of all of the races that I'm re-trying this fall, for the sake of improvement over my past performance, the bar for Grindstone was the lowest. That said, the bar for the desired finish was arguably the highest - my goal was to go under 24 hours if possible, which would likely put me in the top ten, or even top five, and would be no easy feat on a course this brutal - over 23,000 feet of gain and loss over 100 miles.

The road to Grindstone would not be easy, though. Due to my work schedule, I had to leave Israel and come directly to the race - the air travel time alone (including the painful trudge through international security checkpoints), from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia, and then from Philadelphia to Baltimore, was 18 hours, after which I would still have a little over 3 hours left to drive to get to the starting line of the race. As it turned out, the 3-hour drive turned into a nearly 6-hour drive, as traffic at the 495/66 West interchange was at a dead standstill, at 10:30 a.m. on Friday. No, I didn't see that coming, either.

I showed up at camp at 3 p.m., with the start of the race at 6 p.m., having missed the pre-race meeting at 1 p.m. I had wanted to nap for an hour or two, but seeing as to how friends were there, and were excited about the race, that never happened. That left me running on about 6 hours of intermittent sleep on the plane, which arguably put me in about the same place sleep-wise as I was with this race last year. Nevertheless, for some reason, I had a quiet confidence about the race. Although I had no specific basis for this belief, I was convinced that everything was going to be fine, that I was most likely going to run well, and if that didn't happen, then I was surely going to finish the race.

After a brief prayer, and David Horton's exhortation to "make wise decisions" on the trail (e.g. keep eating, keep drinking, pay attention to course markings and don't get lost), we were off, right on time at 6 p.m. In the interest of being wise, I had done some homework and come up with a sub-24-hour split chart, based on splits that others had run in previous years for each section to go under 24 hours. According to the chart, I needed to make it through the first section in about an hour, and the second section in about two hours (for a total of about three hours for the first approximately 15 miles of the race) . . . and that was about as far as I went in following the chart during the race. Although I carried it with me during the race, I was nervous about looking at it, for fear of putting undue pressure on myself.

At any rate, the first hour passed, I passed the first aid station on time (actually, about five minutes fast), and night fell. Time for 12 hours of running trails of varying degrees of technical by headlamp (an area where I definitely need to improve). While I climbed to the top of Elliot Knob quickly, and came down efficiently, via a gravel road, as soon as I hit the next section of rocky, slightly downhill trail, my pace slowed, and people passed me, because I just couldn't see what I was doing. Fortunately, since I was deliberately going out "slow," I took this as an opportunity to keep the pace in check, and save myself for the daylight, when running over this type of terrain would be less of a challenge. I made it to the second aid station in a few minutes over three hours - again, right on schedule. At this point, once I made it a step beyond this aid station, technically, mission accomplished, so this was a big boost going forward.

And so it went, sort of, for the rest of the first half of the race. I wish there were something more exciting to say about this, but there really wasn't - my vague plan for this race was working out well, and external circumstances (i.e. sleep deprivation, darkness, cold weather) seemed to be irrelevant.

My best over-exposed iPhone photo of the wooden bridge just before the North River Gap aid station - nope, the woods at night aren't scary in the least. :)

Even my highly inexperienced one-girl crew/pacer showed up at the right aid station, on time, and was appropriately totally business about things (more about that later). I made it through half of the race in 12 hours and 46 minutes, accomplished by a steady march forward at anywhere between a 12 and 15-minute mile pace, feeling like I hadn't run at all, even though I had 51 miles behind me. I was optimistic about the rest of the race. (Not to mention unconcerned enough about time that I stayed at the top of the turnaround long enough to take the below picture, and attempted to post it to Facebook right then and there, only to be thwarted by an intermittent data connection.)

A beautiful sunrise - better late than never.

This optimism continued when I picked up my pacer, and we ran from mile 52 to mile 66 in about 3 hours, including the dreaded "7-mile-climb" section in about 110 minutes, on the fast side of the split chart for that section. That left me with a little under 8 hours to finish the last 36 miles, which seemed challenging, but achievable.

Gradually, however, this started to slip away. More mentally than physically tired at this point, the little things that I would ordinarly be able to ignore were now making life difficult. My feet hurt intermittently, I felt heavy and out of balance running with my hand bottles (and, at the risk of TMI, being, um, "bound up," according to my pre-race weigh-in, to the disturbing tune of 10+ pounds heavier, as a result of air travel, which always seems to do that to me), and I was generally fatigued from being awake for so long and having gone through so much. In response, I started to slow . . .

And, on the way back, it turns out that the climbs are different. On the way out, they tend to be steeper and shorter; on the way back, they tend to be longer and more gradual. Especially late in this type of race, the latter is far worse. My walking got slower and slower, until I was struggling to even move forward at a typical 3-mile-per-hour pace. How much was mental, and how much was physical? Well, my pacer came out and paced me two miles in to the last aid station, and the last three miles to the finish, and once I picked her up, my walking pace picked up dramatically, without feeling cripplingly strenuous. So there was definitely a significant mental aspect to all of this. Also, the fact that just about everything in the last 30 miles blurs together in my mind as I write this (with the exception of my pacer mentioning that she saw a baby bear in the middle of the trail coming out from the Dry Branch Gap aid station, taking a mighty dump right where some poor runner would probably inadvertently step in it, and where I would have stepped in it, had she not pointed it out) is strong indication that mentally, I was suffering through some significant impediment.

I crossed the finish line in 27:30:55, 18th overall (a little worse than my 14-seed, but not totally out of the ballpark) hugged the totem pole, as is tradition at Grindstone, and then proceeded to receive a lot of comments about how it looked like I hadn't just run 100 miles, probably because I hadn't really run much of the last 30 miles of the race, and had strolled relatively leisurely through the first 70+ miles.

In retrospect, I would like to have gone faster, had I had my pacer to lean on for the remainder of the race, I almost certainly would have gone faster this year, and I'm sure that I can go faster there next year. But this was a huge, meaningful finish for me, considering that it's the first race in over a month in which I've had a proper, relatively satisfying finish. It's a great confidence boost going forward, and I'm really looking forward to taking the next step towards once again consistently putting in strong performances under duress, that show no signs of said duress, at Hellgate in December.

And that aside, perhaps the real guts and glory story here is my pacer, who, despite the notable limitations of (deep breath) not having run a race longer than a half-marathon (and that only a few weeks ago), not having run longer than 14 miles at a time, much less that distance on steep, rugged trails, never having been to an ultra, never having driven around that relatively obscure area of Virginia, particularly alone at night (and having to show up late due to work commitments earlier that day), never having run with a headlamp on trails at night (and navigating at this race with a bottom-of-the-line Petzl), and, as it turned out, being afraid of being alone in the woods in the dark (a fear that could have been validated by her bear encounter), and on top of all that (for whatever it matters; not being a girl, I wouldn't know), being on her period, bravely paced me through 19 miles of the race, 14 of which were consecutive, and legitimately at or faster than typical sub-24-hour finish pace, in addition to another 9 miles in transit on foot by herself to pace me. I'm reluctant to over-lube the hype machine here, but . . . that's hardcore, and if she ever decides to do one of these races, everybody up front should probably look out . . .

The physical evidence - as rugged and spartan as the course I took to get it.