Seeing as how I have only 362 days before 2013 (unless the world ends, that is), I figure I should finally get around to reflecting a bit on 2011. In all measurable (and immeasurable) ways, 2011 was absolutely my best year of running ever. It’s not really even close. I ran more, I ran faster, and I ran further (or is it farther, I can never remember) than I ever have before. I made some awesome new friends through running, and some friendships I already had were strengthened. I saw some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen with my eyes. I discovered I can do so much more than I previously thought capable of. But all the intangible stuff aside, I’m kind of a stats/numbers geek so that’s what I’m going to talk about.
In 2011, I ran a grand total of 3,337 miles. That is a little over 9 miles per day, or about 64 miles per week for the entire year. Obviously the year was not nearly as even as those number would lead one to believe. I started the year not running for over three weeks, my first running coming on January 24th. I battled nagging aches and semi-injuries for most of those first few months, and my only workouts were races. Somehow I still managed to run some decent times and capped the spring with a big 10k PR at the 10k in Rockville and a very satisfying sub-hour run at Broad Street. It was after Broad Street that something in my head just clicked. I had spent the first few months of the year so focused on structuring this perfect running/racing plan and trying to hit workouts and I just kept feeling frustratingly on the edge of disaster. So I sort of gave up and decided to just run. And run I did. For some reason it seems I train my best in the miserable hot summer months. May was the first month I had run over 300 miles in almost a year. June I ran 397 which was a big lifetime high. July followed with 428. And so on. In the six months from May through October, I ran more than the entirety of 2010. And all along I managed to stay reasonably healthy and not feel particularly burned out.
I looked back at some of the goals I stated for myself at the beginning of last year. I didn’t meet all of them, but I came pretty close to most — no sub-5:00 mile (5:06 though, a new PR), no sub-17 5k (but I did run a 16:11 3 mile), no sub-28:30 5 mile (but I did split 28:32 at Pike’s Peek 10k), DID run sub-36 10k (35:29), DID run sub-hour at 10 miles (59:07 at Broad Street).
Of course, at the start of 2011, I thought my ultimate goal would be to run a really fast half marathon in the fall. And while I DID set a new half PR in Virginia Beach in September, by June my goals had clearly shifted to much longer races. 2011 was to be the year of firsts for me. I won my first race. And then my second. And third. And fourth. I won’t pretend that any of those wins were particularly impressive or anything to brag about, but they certainly were cool moments. And any time I can win good beer, I’m happy. Right around the time I ran the Finger Lakes 25k in July, I decided to listen to Ashley finally and run a 50 miler and that became my new goal for the fall. Along the way I ran 46ish miles on my birthday in August. I ran that half marathon PR. I ran that 3 mile PR. I ran a 40 mile trail race that I won despite feeling worse than I have ever felt while running. I smashed my weekly and monthly mileage lifetime highs almost routinely. I had two running streaks of over 60 days. I was running a lot and loving it and doing it reasonably well.
It wasn’t so long ago I did run that 50 miler, Stone Cat, and I did pretty well for a first attempt at racing that distance. I underperformed from what I thought I was capable of but I think I’ve learned a great deal from the experience. The somewhat disappointing end to what I really have to admit to myself was a better fall racing season than it felt like, only serves to fuel a renewed hunger for continuing to bust my ass and improve in 2012. I’ve taken it pretty easy the last few weeks of 2011. Mentally, I needed that. Physically, I DEFINITELY needed it. It’s easy to forget that in 2010, my longest run was 19 miles and my highest volume week was 80. I’ve laid out a pretty ambitious plan for the first half of 2012 and I’ll talk about my goals for the year and all that later today or tomorrow. Suffice it to say here though that while I am overall pretty happy with 2011, and ought to be, to me it just marks the first year that I really took this stuff seriously for the long term. Which means that I expect to be talking about how quaint it was that I thought 2011 was such a good year for me when I write my 2012 review a year from now. Onward and upward!
Til next time, RUN HAPPY everyone!
Finally finally FINALLY, after a frustrating few weeks I had one that actually felt like training and not just some jogging for fun and fitness!
Monday – 11 miles, 96 minutes on the treadmill at the Y. Also did some light lifting, mostly squats, before
Tuesday – 9 miles, 76 minutes on treadmill at Y, some steep hill climbs thrown in the middle
Wednesday – 4 miles, 31 minutes at the Fullsteam run and then 2 miles in 30 minutes on the treadmill (15% throughout)
Thursday – 12 miles, 97 minutes around Cary
Friday – got drunk, hooray for Christmas parties
Saturday – 20 miles, 2:54 at Umstead and Black Creek greenway
Sunday – 30 miles, 4:32 at Umstead (two Umstead 100 course loops, 1:51 each, plus some extra after)
Total for week – 88 miles
I was really pleased with this week. It was nearly 13 hours of running, most of it coming on my Saturday/Sunday back-to-back long runs. Although there are a few aches that seem to go and come every few days (currently my left big toe tendon again, the left hamstring earlier in the week but that has abated), I feel mostly fresh and healthy again. On top of that, since Hellgate, I have felt a renewed energy and enthusiasm to train and improve and compete, something that waned a bit in the weeks following Stone Cat. While yesterday’s 30 slow and I was pretty exhausted, it was good to see that I still have the endurance to do something like a 20/30 back-to-back. Actually, previously my longest back-to-back runs were a 24/20 in July, and those were on pancake flat rail trails, so this is progress.
I’ve got an ambitious week (and really weeks) ahead, with a birthday run redux Friday and another ultra distance run on Christmas. As of now there’s a little less than three weeks til my next race (Weymouth Woods 100k), which will serve primarily as a long run in the build up to Umstead. It’s nice to feel like an actual runner, and eat like one without gaining ten pounds, again!
Til next time, RUN HAPPY everyone!
Last week I actually felt like I did some relatively noteworthy training. It had been a frustratingly inconsistent and boring stretch. To finally run more days than I didn’t and to feel sore and not injured was definitely a good feeling.
Tue – 4 miles easy
Wed – 4 miles easier
Thu – 12 miles with some hills on the treadmill
Fri – nada
Sat – 13 miles total, crewed for David Ploskonka at the Hellgate 100k, 7 and 6 mile sections I’ll talk about later
Sun – 18 miles at Umstead on the Company Mill trail
Total for week – 51 miles
As mentioned above, Friday/Saturday I crewed for David at the Hellgate 100k which took place in the mountains of Virginia (about a three hour drive for me from Durham). I had heard about David Horton’s races and wanted to experience it for myself, from a non-participant standpoint first. The cool thing about Hellgate is that it starts at 12:01 am on Saturday morning so everybody (racers, crews, and volunteers) is totally exhausted pretty much the whole time. Add to that the fact that the 100k is actually closer to 66 miles, with roughly 13,000′ of elevation gain and this is a monster of a race.
I drove straight from work Friday night, arriving at Camp Bethel around 7pm, just in time for a lasagna dinner. I met Hope, who I would be crewing with, and Henry, who is another Baltimore area runner. The three of them had driven down in Henry’s truck which would be our crew vehicle for the weekend. I ate too much, as usual, and then we went to the lodge for the pre-race briefing. Dr. Horton is hilarious. This was unlike any pre-race atmosphere or meeting I’d ever been to. There were so many runners there who I recognized from being a creepy internet race results/blog stalker. It was neat to see them in person, and later to see them running.
After the briefing we had an awkward break where nothing was planned. Mostly we were just waiting until 10:50 when we’d drive over to where the race would start. We laid around by the fireplace, joking a bit. Eventually we got our clothes on and made our way to the truck. The drive over was quite amusing, there was lots of joking about Hope and I abandoning our crew duties in favor of the Monster Maze in Natural Bridge. There was Henry’s Starbucks cappucino/chocolate Boost concoction that looked very much like diarrhea. The mood was quite light considering what lay ahead. I think that was a good thing though, no need for the runners to get too focused and stressed about the task at hand, I know I appreciated the joking that took place before Stone Cat.
The race started exactly at 12:01 am and after seeing them off, Hope and I made our way back to the truck and followed the caravan of crew vehicles to aid station 2, the first time we could meet David. We hung around talking to the volunteers and being pretty happy that it wasn’t much much colder. We didn’t have to wait too long after getting there, he came through in 15th place and looking good. And as he was off, so were we. The gap between AS 2 and AS 4 (the next time we could see him) was considerable and that was really our only opportunity to try to get some sleep. I might have dozed off for about an hour total while waiting this time, that would be the only sleep I got during the entire adventure. AS 4 was definitely the coldest spot for me, but I was given the job of holding a potato chip bag full of grilled cheese sandwiches by the fire so I kept pretty warm. David came through a few spots further back but still looking good.
The rest of the race followed a similar pattern. We’d drive to the next aid station along some back roads in the dark, I would consume chocolate, or a Boost shake, or some trail mix, mostly anything with some caffeine. Then we’d sit in the truck for a bit to keep warm, get out and wait a little bit for David to come through, give him some fresh gels and whatever else he needed and then see him off, rinse, repeat. The sun started to come up while we were at AS 6, which was at the top of a pretty long climb. A frontrunner or two dropped out when they got up here for various reasons. Horton made Hope (who is a singer) sing a duet of Oh Holy Night with one of his students who was working an aid station. We did not see a lunar eclipse, which may have been one of the only downers of the whole weekend.
After that we got to AS 7 and it was here that I would start to pace David to AS 8. I went to the bathroom, put on my Pure Grits, and just waited around for him to come through. Now that the sun was back out, I was feeling a little fresher than I had been overnight. When David came in, we jogged over to the aid table with him, I grabbed a Hammer gel for myself, and we were off. The first part of the section was a fairly significant climb to the top of a ridge. On our way up we caught a guy who had come in a few minutes ahead of David and looked like he was really struggling. Any stretch that was downhill or flattish we ran and at one point were cruising at a pretty good clip for an extended period of time. We hiked up the last stretch to the 8th AS where I passed David off to Hope, got back in the truck and drove by myself to the last AS. When I got there, things were significantly less crowded than the earlier spots. The race had been going on for nearly half a day at this point and the field was definitely stretched out (and exhausted I’m sure). I was actually caught a little by surprise when David and Hope came through, running very strong and up a few places from earlier in the race. In fact, David was now in the top 10 for men and 12th overall! The last section featured a long three miles up up up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and then down down down to the finish back at Camp Bethel. We were hiking very swiftly up the first part of the section and once again quickly caught up to another racer who had left the aid station a few minutes earlier. When we got to the top, David mentioned that we would just ease into the descent gradually. I said ok. Maybe it was my fault as pacer or maybe it was just gravity but we eased into things for about 30 seconds and after that it felt like we were absolutely bombing downhill. Towards the end of the section, as we got off the trail and onto a gravel road, I’m pretty sure we were running close to 6:00 flat. And he had already run nearly 65 miles at this point! Amazing. Horton was there to greet him at the finish, just over 13 hours after he started.
It didn’t hit me how exhausted I was until much later. After all, I hadn’t just run 66 miles in the mountains on no sleep. I knew David was an incredible runner already, but to see firsthand on such a difficult course that had some bad history for him, that was so inspirational. I was honored and thrilled to have played my small role in getting him to the finish line. From a more self-centered standpoint, I got exactly what I wanted out of crewing Hellgate — some experience on the other side of an ultra (which I will happily put in the karma bank), an exciting adventure in the mountains, and it reinvigorated my passion and desire for running, and specifically running these long distances and crazy races. I’m finally feeling unbroken and uninjured and the fire is burning again. The rest of December is going to be pretty awesome and next year is going to be even better.
Til next time, RUN HAPPY everyone!
It’s been almost a month since my last update. It seems I fell into my familiar habit of when things aren’t going so well, I’m much less inclined to talk about it. Instead I tend to just get grumpy, brood, eat ice cream and oreos, and drink beer (that is, much more beer than I normally do, which is probably borderline having a problem level), and that ultimately leads to being slow, fat, and out of shape. Now I understand that three weeks worth of binging and inactivity and gaining about twelve pounds does not lead to the same type of slow, fat, and out of shape as your average American. I’m still only a little more than 160, which is still lighter than I used to be when I thought I was in pretty good shape. And I kinda half-assed an 18:50 5k on Thanksgiving on a whim, a time only two years ago I would have been THRILLED with. So perspective is important, and something I tend to lack when things seem to go less well than I’d like them to.
The week after Stone Cat I tried to run, and did. 30 miles on a sprained right ankle. Exactly one week after the race I drunkenly sprinted around downtown Raleigh with my friend Zane. The next morning my left peroneal tendon felt really sore. And it felt that way pretty much every day since. The past few weeks, as I mentioned above, I’ve done precious little running, or anything for that matter. Last week I went to the gym and lifted for the first time in a long while. Even though I THOUGHT I wasn’t overdoing it, apparently I overdid it. And was sore for the rest of the week. I was also getting more and more frustrated. Another week was slipping away and things still weren’t feeling as good as I wanted them to. Next year’s big races were getting closer and I’ve got to get back into training. Ugh. 24 frustrating miles was all I managed, a lot of it uncomfortable.
Sunday I went to see John Stiner for another massage. I walked in and I guess I was giving off the frustrated vibe because he told me I seemed real down. I explained my issues with the ankle and he set to work on it as thorough and focused as usual. Almost as important as the work he did on me physically, he helped reset me mentally. He’s a smart guy and he helped put things in perspective (which, again, is something I tend to lack when evaluating myself is concerned). I had a long stretch of very intense training and while I didn’t perform quite as well as I wanted to, I still ran two pretty good, very long races (the longest of my life). And throw in a new half marathon PR and what would have certainly been my first time under 17 for 5k and I had a season to be proud of. It was pretty much necessary to take some down time after all that. And it’s hard to go from up, up, UP, go, go, GO all the time to nothing. Any runner can relate to this. But that’s what I needed and that’s what I ended up getting, whether I liked it or not.
I took two days of pretty much complete rest after the massage. Last night I laced up my Brooks Launches, the ones I haven’t worn since the 40 miler, and ran 4 miles. It was the first time since Stone Cat that I completed a run without thinking to myself at some point, “[x] hurts, dammit.” I’m not 100% yet, but I’m ran mostly pain free last night and that’s a big first step. I’ve got some adventures left this year (one of which will be crewing Dave at Hellgate this weekend) and some big plans for next year and I think I’m finally ready to get back to work.
Til next time, RUN HAPPY everyone!
Usually at the end of my race reports I like to write down some of the lessons I learned from the race. But that novella was long enough with just the who, what, where, when, and why (well, I still don’t know exactly why but whatever) so I decided to break it. Plus my thoughts after the race were mostly just negative and not really all that constructive so a “what did I learn” post would have been pretty terse and just consisted of “I learned that I suck and I ran a pretty bad race.” Not exactly helpful going forward. Because I’m still pretty new to t racing somewhat competitively each race is a great learning experience; especially race distances I’ve never done before. Stone Cat in particular was an extremely valuable experience on a number of fronts. I learned about myself as a runner, myself as a competitor, abut some of the gear I run in, the in-race fueling strategies, all sorts of stuff. I’m going to try to put it down in some logical order but my propensity for rambling will likely win out.
I’ll start with some of the positives I took away from the race. The first is my gear. I ran in the brand new Brooks Pure Grit, part of their more minimal-focused Pure Project line of shoes. I intend to write a full review of them but suffice it to say these shoes really held up, and exceeded my expectations. The terrain wasn’t crazy, but there were some rocky sections, some twisty rooty sections, there was that stream crossing and a number of other muddy/wet spots, and the Pure Grits worked fabulously through all of them. Light and quick yet adequately cushioned, perfect decision for the race. I was also EXTREMELY happy with my Drymax socks. After years of reading all sorts of ultrarunners plug the brand, I bought a pair at Bull City Running and on the few 4+ hour runs I’ve done, they have been great. This was their biggest test by far, every loop my feet were completely soaked with freezing water and not once did I get so much as a hot spot. By the end of the race, my feet were actually dry. Amazing. My $15 headlamp I bought a year ago at Walmart worked reasonably well, though I suspect if I intend to get more serious about ultras and just long runs in the woods through the night in general, I should invest in something a bit higher quality. The rest of the Brooks kit worked well, as usual. The only complaint, gear-wise, was my gloves. And it’s not my gloves fault really, it’s my hands. I really ought to invest in some mittens, because my hands get too damn cold in gloves. I’m not sure what I could have done differently, I thought the gloves would provide a bit more protection from the cold water bottle but I ended up running with it like a football way more than I wanted to (which is at all). Maybe chemical hand-warmers? Maybe mittens? Maybe TWO mittens? It’s something I’ll have to continue to research.
Probably the thing that went best was my crew. As I mentioned previously, Katie, Tyler, and Scott were phenomenal and without them I doubt I would have done as well as I did. I’d like to just reserve Katie for all future ultra endeavors as I can’t imagine anyone would be more prepared and just completely on top of things like she was. It saved me time at the start/finish of each loop and precious mental energy.
Like in the 40, I went out a bit more aggressively than I probably should have, but also like the 40, I was feeling remarkably good early. Of course, you SHOULD feel remarkably good when you’re only 25% done with 50 miles! While I may have run slightly faster later on if I had gone out a bit slower (or even if I had just taken it easier on some of the steeper inclines on the loop), I don’t think that was the main factor for my slowdown later in the race. What I DO think was the biggest issue was once again in-race fueling. I didn’t throw up, or even get nauseous at all so at least I learned something from the 40 miler. The coconut water was, I think, a good idea. Katie suggested maybe a 2:1 coconut water/pineapple juice mix. I dunno if I’d like the taste but maybe it could work. I have used both now and both seem to work really well for me AND sit well with my stomach. I think the primary problem was that I didn’t eat enough. Two GuS or one Gu and and a package of Clif shots for every loop was not enough. I could run a pretty good marathon on that strategy, and essentially did. I’ve done 25-30 mile long runs on that or less and been fine. But those are done in four or so hours, not six or seven. I don’t know if I should have frontloaded things more and doubled my intake early on and then tapered off toward the end, or if I should have tried to eat more real food at the aid stations, or what but I know that by the last two loops my energy levels were not where I wanted them to be. What I need to do is get better about trying things out IN training. Too often I go out and maybe have one gel and some water during my training long runs and then I just kind of guesstimate come race day. That’s probably not the best strategy to figure out what works and how much of it I need in situations like that.
I think another issue that negatively affected my performance, but one I don’t have as much control over, is my overall training. Quite simply, I haven’t been training for stuff like this very long. Until May, I hadn’t run much over 50 miles/week in almost a year. Each year that’s passed as been more consistent than the last but that is not saying a whole lot. Finally in May I started getting consistent about running and about increasing volume without getting hurt. I ran almost as much from May through race day as I had all of last year! But seven months does not make someone a good runner. Seven months is a good start, but it’s just that — a start. A lot of the people who ran the race, and who do ultras in general, seem to have been at it for at least a few years. So I have a long way to go. Fortunately, not running much in high school or college probably saved my legs so I’m hoping I have at least a few years that I can push them and continue to see improvements. I don’t think I’m that close to being topped out yet. But I have to continue to be consistent and actually put in the work.
Related, I need to get less lazy. I tell people this and they look at me strangely. It’s true though. I don’t find it very difficult to just go out and run for an hour or two each day (and four or so on the weekends). It’s a matter of lacing up the shoes and getting out the door, the rest is sort of autopilot. But it’s the rest of the things that go into training that I need to recommit myself to, and that I hadn’t been leading up to Stone Cat. It’s going to the gym and lifting a bit to strengthen my legs. Strong legs are beneficial to overall power output when running AND they help you get up the damn hills better, plus at the end of the race, stronger legs will be able to maintain pace easier. I need to be better about doing mobility and flexibility work, particularly with my ankles. This is not the first time this year I’ve sprained an ankle trail running. If I’m intending to do MORE of them, I need stronger ankles and that doesn’t take much, just a a commitment to actually work on it a few days a week. I DID join the Y last week so once I feel a bit more recovered from the race, I intend to be a regular there. The sleep has been better than it used to be but there’s still room for improvement there. The beer, oreos, ice cream, etc etc needs to get SERIOUSLY scaled back. I don’t think I’m ever going to completely cut out beer but the other stuff is just filler. I’m not fat and I’ll never be one of those people who knows he’s not but says he is so other people will say, ‘Nooooooo you’re in SUCH good shape.” Lame. I know I’m in good shape. GREAT shape. But I could be in better shape. How do I know? Because I have been before and it doesn’t even require the borderline-ED behavior I used when I wrestled in high school. Just some discipline and self control.
I need to get the eye issue figured out. Someone suggested (and I kind of suspected) it had a lot to do with the cold, dry morning air. This would explain why it doesn’t happen to me over the summer. Still, I think I may go see an eye doctor just to be sure.
I also think I need to get mentally tougher. There were WAAAAY too many moments during the race where I allowed myself some time to feel sorry for myself. Where I stopped or slowed to a walk when I probably didn’t need to. Yes, I ran at least 20 miles aware that something was wrong with my ankle and some people think that’s tough. That’s mostly just being jacked up on some adrenaline and as long as I kept moving and didn’t stop for long, the real pain wouldn’t set in. I knew that so it wasn’t as big a factor as it might seem. But the fact that I was able to run the last 8 or so miles of the race while I didn’t do that on the third loop indicates to me that I wussed out quite a bit. I’m not saying that if I were just mentally tougher I could’ve held pace for the last two loops but I think I could have run much better than I did. Part of it is just not being used to THIS sort of pain and exhaustion, it’s not the same as running a mile all out on the track. It’s not the same as the last minute of the third period of a wrestling match, though it’s MUCH closer to that than the mile. I don’t know HOW exactly I’m going to work on this except to just be more mindful of it on my long runs, in my workouts, and in future races. I wish I could talk to high school wrestler Mark, he seemed so much tougher than I feel now. I’m gonna try to channel that intensity and focus in my running more.
Overall, I’d give this race a B- because I DID run 50 miles for the first time in my life and I did it in a pretty decent time. Still, there were a lot of mistakes made, and there’s a TON of room for improvement in the future. Katie said something that really stuck with me – I’m allowed to not be satisfied, but not disappointed. I think I confused the two immediately after the race. I’m not disappointed because I didn’t mail it in, or quit, I gave a full effort and finished a race longer than most people I know will ever think of running. I also got to see my best friend kick some ass too. But I am certainly not satisfied with anything. Satisfaction breeds contentment which breeds laziness. I’m not going down that road. I’m going to take a little bit of time to recover from both this race AND the six or seven months of training that led up to it. And then I’m going to get back to business as smarter runner, with more focus and determination and motivation to improve than I have ever had.
Til next time, RUN HAPPY everyone!
This past Saturday I ran the Stone Cat 50 mile trail race. This was my first 50 mile race and, by four miles, the longest distance I’ve ever run. To be brief, this was one hell of an experience. But I’m not good at brevity so here’s my report:
The flight to Boston was the first first of the weekend: my first time traveling solo on an airplane. Anyone who knows me knows how much irrationally afraid of air travel I am, so fortunately the plan ride was uneventful (and because you’re reading this, obviously the flight home was too) and quick. My awesome friend and the one responsible for me getting into this mess in the first place, Ashley, picked me up from Logan International and we headed to her apartment in Cambridge. An easy shakeout along the Charles River and some catching up and that was it for the night. We got plenty of sleep and took our time getting up and out the door. There wasn’t much on the agenda for the day before the race. We had to pick up our numbers from the New England Running Company in Beverly. Then we drove over to the Doyon School where the race would start/finish the next day and ran the first ~2 miles of the course out and back. I’m glad we did that as I knew to expect some wet conditions. After that it was a short drive to Gloucester to meet up with Katie. While Ashley drove back to Logan to pick up Tyler who was flying in from Buffalo, Katie and I stocked up on some supplies and took a tour of the cute little fishing town. We went out to eat at Maria’s Pizza which was a delightful find with delicious food that on almost any other night I would have seriously overindulged in. My brother Scott arrived; making it just in time for food after having fought through traffic driving up from Long Island, and our little crew, which we named Team Awesome, was finally complete. Back at Katie’s I was making last minute preparations and getting everything ready for race day which would arrive extra early. I was in bed by about 10:30 and despite a somewhat racing head and heart, managed to sleep reasonably well.
I woke up before my alarm went off, right around 4:30 am. I was the first one up, with Katie not far behind. Despite how early it was, I was feeling awake and alert and ready to go. The rest of the group began stirring shortly after. I was dressed and eating breakfast in minutes and began packing my bag. We got on the road right around 5am and were at the school by 5:30. It was amusing driving there not seeing a single car on the road and then all of a sudden we were met with this hub of activity. Ashley and I walked into the school’s gym to check in. The volunteer there gave me a little crap about my Yankees sweatpants (as well she should have — I was in Red Sox country after all). There were runners everywhere, all over the gym stretching, dressing, applying Body Glide, and doing all the sorts of things you typically see runners do in the minutes before a race. The line for the bathroom seemed too long so I opted for the woods. By the time I was done with all that we walked over to the basketball courts where the race would finish. As I walked from the woods over to where the rest of the group was standing, my first moments alone in a while, I looked up at the crystal clear sky and just spent a second or two admiring it, lost and detached from what was about to happen. It was almost 6am but nothing really seemed set up and most people were still inside. I figured, correctly, that they decided to push the start back a bit to allow slightly sooner running in daylight on the first loop. I waited until I saw everyone coming out of the school and walking toward the start and then I took off my jacket and sweatpants, put on my gloves, get my headlamp ready and grab my water bottle. Ashley and I walked over to the start and gave each other a “good luck, kick ass” as I left her to get towards the front. We lined up on the edge of the field and the race director said some stuff that I don’t remember. Then he yelled,” 3, 2, 1 GO!” and like that, the race I have been training for since July had finally started.
The Stone Cat course is set up to be a good race for first-timers but I can see how experienced ultrarunners could still be challenged. The course is a 12.5 mile loop that starts at the school, runs across the field, turns onto some trails, winds through Willowdale State Forest before coming back out to the field. Repeat four times and that’s it. From a logistical standpoint, it makes life easy because I only needed to bring with you enough stuff for 12.5 miles and could leave everything else at the start/finish where the crew would have everything prepped and ready to go when I got in. At any point I was only about 5 miles from an aid station. The course itself is relatively easy, inasmuch as there are no serious, steep hills that force you to walk. Every inch of it can be run, and therein lies the difficulty. While there are SOME hills there’s no obvious spot to take it easy and running the whole thing can (and likely will) catch up with you later. As for how the actual race went…
It was a surreal experience to actually be doing the race I had spent so long thinking about and training with my focus specifically on. And for the first few steps, I wasn’t really. There’s a marathon that is run simultaneously with the 50 miler. They run an extra bit at the start around the school fields before doing two laps and calling it a day. Apparently the 50 milers were supposed to line up on the left side of the field because we were not going to do the extra field bit. Fortunately I realized this minor foible early and was able to cut across the field before we made the turn onto the actual trail.
As we hit the trail, three guys had very clearly moved well in front of everyone else already. Then there was a fourth guy a bit behind them and I fell in next to someone else in 5th/6th position. Thanks to our brief bit of course recon, I knew to expect some decent puddles early on here and to stay on the left side to avoid most of them. It was strange running through the woods with it being so dark, illuminated by all the lights ahead and behind me. As the trail turned I moved up past the guy I had been with briefly and another guy, just cruising along at a very relaxed effort and was all alone in 4th. The trio ahead of me probably already had about 100m and I quickly put out of my head any thoughts on trying to bridge the gap so early. I kept reminding myself that the first lap was like a long warm-up. I couldn’t do much good here but I could do a whole lot of awful if I ran stupidly.
I was not a fan of this first part in the dark. The course had a number of twists and turns and in the dark, even with my headlamp, there were sections where I got off-trail a few steps. Because of the winding nature of the trail, I would see the three lights ahead of me and get a bit confused when I ran in a different direction than it seemed they were moving. Worse than the navigation though, my hands were FREEZING. I knew to expect this beforehand but didn’t know what to do about it. My strategy was to run with one hand balled up in my glove while the other held the handheld bottle and then switch off when I needed. The problem was that even with the gloves on, the bottle chilled my hands so quickly it became a real issue. At times I had to run with it tucked under my arm like a football, which was not exactly comfortable. I definitely got a little whiny about the cold and the dark in my head here. At some point early in this loop I was running down a short hill, managed to get off trail and as I was attempting to correct myself, punched a tree with my right hand. OUCH! It jolted me for a second but I shook it off and kept going. I tried being cautious on the particularly winding sections, tried to stretch my legs a bit on the flatter stretches. About 3.5 miles in, the sun was finally starting to make its appearance and I was actually able to see more than just what was right in front of my face. And what I came to pretty soon was the “small creek crossing” mentioned on the race website. Thanks to the rains the previous weekend, the “small creek crossing” was decidedly not that small. It stretched on for probably a few hundred feet. Initially I thought maybe I could avoid getting my feet completely soaked by running along the edge. Nope. Not a chance. I quickly realized the folly of my attempt and plowed right through, the water occasionally reaching up to my shins. It was FREEZING cold, obviously, and my feet went instantly numb. This would be the best test yet for both my Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes and my Drymax socks. I hoped they were up to the task.
Shortly after that, right before I came to the first aid station, I wiped out on a little root. Nothing major, just scraped up my hands. Everyone here was extremely encouraging and helpful. Every aid station I came to throughout the day, someone immediately volunteered to take my bottle and refill it, but I had to continue to politely decline their offer. I decided to go with just water at the aid stations and sip from my coconut water bottle throughout the loops. I also ate three Clif shot blocks here (which had hardened up much like the Gu chomps did at the 40 miler and made it tougher to chew). I was in and out pretty quickly and back on the trail. The section between the first and second aid stations is only about 3.5 miles but it felt longer. At some point in this stretch, I turned off my headlamp. I also got caught and passed by Dave Herr (though I had no idea who it was at the time), who looked very strong. In and out of the second aid station, I ate a Gu Roctane (blueberry pomegranate) and was feeling very good, though my hands were still frozen. The volunteer who had given me crap about my Yankees sweats before the race was there and told me it’s a two minute penalty which made me chuckle. My feet, I was happy to note, seemed dry and had no hot spots forming. At some point about 1:15 in, I stopped to pee. I had no qualms about stopping to pee throughout the entire race because I took it as a good sign that my stomach was cooperating and I was drinking enough. The last ~mile of the loop is the same as the first part of the loop so I’d have a chance to see where the leaders were. I was probably about two minutes from finishing my loop when I saw the three guys ahead of me coming back out, so I figured they already had a 5 or so minute advantage. Crazy. As I turned back onto the field I saw Dave running out so he was up by about a minute or two as well.
As I crossed the line and rounded past the aid station, Katie, Scott, and Tyler greeted me. Tyler took my bottle and re-filled it. I complained about my hands, and went to take off my gloves because they felt wet and cold. It was here that I first noticed that my right hand was covered in blood from when I hit the tree. Cool. Scott got my orange gloves, as I figured they’d be a bit warmer. I also took off my long sleeve Brooks shirt, now wearing just a neon green Brooks t-shirt on top of my Brooks ID singlet. I also took off the headlamp but opted to keep the ear warmers at least for another lap. They said I was looking good and that the leaders came through in about 1:25. Tyler said to just run my race and don’t worry about them, I was thinking the same thing. I was happy with where I was at and the effort I had expended so far and I set off. First loop – 1:35:36
I saw some guys coming in as I was going out. I actually don’t remember much of the second loop except that it felt much better than the first. The sun was out now and it was almost like starting a completely different race. My hands were still cold which was annoying but aside from that everything felt strong. I went through the first section quicker than the first lap which didn’t surprise me considering I could SEE where I was going now. I stopped to pee before crossing the water this time and I got to the aid station a minute or two early. Another nice bit of running to the second aid station and as I got through there a guy named Chad caught up with me, as did the two marathon leaders. The guy who would win the marathon went on ahead and out of sight quickly while Chad, the second place guy, and I pretty much stayed together for the rest of the loop. Toward the end of the loop I was feeling good and pulled a little bit ahead of the other two. We had been passing people on their first loop for some time now but it was never an issue. This time the leaders were a bit more strung out instead of the pack that looked so strong when I passed them at the end of my first loop. I got through the s/f and once again, Katie and Tyler sprang expertly to action. I lingered maybe a little bit longer here this time and also took an espresso hammer gel because I realized I was down a gel on this loop. (My strategy was one Gu Roctane and either a regular Gu or a package of Clif shots each loop plus some aid station grazing and water). I switched to my hat and once again was off, now running in 6th place. Second loop – 1:36:39 (3:12:15 cumulative)
As I started the third loop I was beginning to feel the collective fatigue from running so much begin to catch up with me. It never felt daunting that I was only halfway done and still had some 25 miles to run but I was definitely approaching a mental low. As I began the first hilly part of the loop I powerwalked instead of running this time. About now I also noticed my eyes were starting to do the same thing they had done at the 40 mile race – fog up. It was a slow process but now that it was light out, I definitely noticed my vision was getting cloudier, not exactly ideal for running on a trail. At some point before the first aid station I tripped over a root and fell again, my right knee going straight onto a rock. It was split open and bleeding immediately but I was more concerned with any potential damage that had done. After a few exploratory steps I decided it was going to bruise and I was fine. Onward. First aid station and I munched down some pringles and more shot blocks and more waters and continued on. It was here in between the first and second aid stations on the third loop that I hit the lowest point of my race. All of a sudden I was starting to feel sluggish. I remember wondering to myself where the hills I was encountering had been on the previous two loops. I was starting to feel some discomfort in my right ankle from all the times I had landed awkwardly or kicked a rock or root, and the two falls. I still had about twenty miles to go and I was not feeling so great.
And then I came up on a tall, skinny guy in jeans carrying what looked like my jacket in a bundle in his arms. Scott? Yes, my brother was walking along the trail 5 miles in. He looked back and I just kinda waved at him and said go. He became a pseudo-pacer for a mile or two. I was feeling like shit and he was trying to encourage me but it only helped internally, not physically. I took off my hat and gave it to him, hoping the cool air on my head would help too. He had only seen me running at the beginning of races and at the end of Finger Lakes where I won and was feeling pretty good. This was entirely different. Eventually I began to feel a bit better and was running again and I left Scott, thanking him for being where he was. Right before the aid station I took off my t-shirt and handed it to the Yankee-hating volunteer asking her to give it to a tall guy wearing jeans who would likely be coming through in a bit. I asked someone what mile we were at, because at that point I couldn’t do the simple math of 25+7.5, nor did I have the intelligence to look at the sign that SAID what mile we were at. Someone woman said about mile 20 and being so tired I got kinda grumpy with her and said that I was on my third loop. I felt kinda like an ass but we all have our moments. A cup of M&Ms, water, some more Pringles, a pineapple roctane and I was off. It was a bit lonely on the final stretch of this loop. I was realizing that not only was I now not ahead of 6:40 pace but I was falling behind it and a 7 hour finish would be difficult if not impossible. No 50 milers passed me and I didn’t encounter any ahead of me, just people on their previous loop. Those last 5 miles of the third loop felt like they just dragged on and on. It seemed like I was encountering parts of the course that had just been added for this loop. But I was definitely running the same course, just much slower. I didn’t allow myself to think about the fact that I needed to run an additional loop after.
Finally I got back to the part of the trail that I recognized as only being about a mile from the end. I was angry with myself that I basically had to walk up not-terribly-significant uphill near the end. I just kept telling myself to hike with a purpose, not to dawdle. I saw a few of the guys ahead of me, though the ones at the very front had already come through and exchanged some encouragements. I came out to the field and realized just how cloudy my vision had gotten, especially my left eye. I came through the start/finish again and went straight to the aid station. Tyler and Katie were standing there waiting, Tyler now all ready to run as we was going to be pacing me for my last loop. He grabbed my bottle to fill it, Katie handed me the last GUs and I just shoveled some more potato chips and pretzels down my gullet. I was still standing at the table, a bit out of it when I saw a big container of Morton’s salt. Not really thinking I just picked it up, opened the spout, and poured quite a bit into my mouth. Katie and Tyler just kinda looked at me like I was insane. At that point I’d probably have agreed with them. Water bottle back in hand, hands feeling a little better with it warming up slightly, Tyler and I set off on the last loop with me commenting that I don’t know why I did that with the salt but I feel like it was a good decision. Third loop – 1:56:11 (5:08:26 cumulative)
We headed back onto the trail and I was feeling pretty eh. My ankle had really started hurting; each step was a noticeable lightning bolt of pain and the ones where I had a misstep would also result in an audible expletive. The beginning of this loop was probably the slowest I was moving all day. Tyler was doing a good job of being encouraging without accepting. What I mean is he would tell me we were moving well or going strong but he never said it was ok to just walk it in. After only falling once on the first loop and once on the third loop, this loop I was a mess. I was tiring, I could barely see where I was going, and I kept kicking rocks or roots and a few times I went down. The times I didn’t, I stumbled and ran off trail. There was an embarrassing amount of walking here. I also stopped to pee again (still hydrated at least) and then we came to the water crossing for the last time. I barreled right through this time, and it actually felt great because it numbed up my ankle for a few minutes. We reached the first aid station, I downed my last roctane and some more water, some more M&Ms and Pringles. The first woman, who turned out to be the incredible Aliza Lapierre, came in right behind me and kept going but she went to her car off the trail a bit as I continued onward. I knew she’d pass me again as she looked incredibly strong and I felt like crap but I wanted to see how far I could get before it happened.
This new development reinvigorated me a bit and I was actually doing something that probably resembled running. I was feeling better here than I did on the previous loop, and I was moving quicker, or so it felt. I had lost a lot of time in the first few miles from all the walking and falling and I doubted I’d be able to make it up but I wanted to at least not lose MORE. Despite feeling better I was still running off trail in spots, I had to step a bit gingerly when heading downhill because of the ankle, and I kept kicking rocks, 90% of the time with my right foot. Aliza went by me in between aid stations and I don’t remember much else before getting to that last aid station. I DO remember saying out loud that I wanted to run all the way to the aid station, no more walking. Tyler kept reminding me of this and we did it. It wasn’t fast but I didn’t stop to walk. I got in and don’t remember what I did there but I tried to get out quickly. Five more miles, that was all that was left but it seemed so far away still. I started out of the aid station running, trying to get myself to just get through it as fast as I could, the faster I ran, the sooner I’d be done. After what felt like at least a mile later I mentioned that I was now a Fullsteam loop away, that was nothing. I had also run further, distance-wise, than ever before. I was running now, it felt like we were moving at a decent clip but keep in mind that I was also semi-delirious and semi-blind so my perception was certainly skewed (although Tyler mentioned after that the parts where we were actually running felt close to 8:00 pace). About 2ish miles from the end we came across Aliza’s pacer who was walking by herself, apparently the victim of a twisted ankle. Mentally I empathized, but didn’t have the energy to say anything out loud. Fortunately, the entire loop Tyler had been saying things like “good job” and “looking strong” to anyone we passed and I just kept telling myself it was me he was telling that too.
We got to the last noticeable hill on the course and I had no choice but to powerhike up it, moving as fast as I could. Once it leveled out, it was back to a run and now we were on the part of the trail that doubled as the start part, less than one mile to go! I took off my gloves and handed them to Tyler and also cast aside my hand held. I started running hard, I think. At least it felt like the effort increased. 6:40 had come and gone (sometime around the last aid station). Seven hours had come and gone somewhere about two miles ago. But dammit I was going to finish strong. I didn’t bother avoiding the one big puddle right before the end of the trail this time, tromping right through it.
As I turned off the trail to run out to the field, the second best moment of the entire weekend occurred – Ashley was running right toward me, looking very strong, about to head out on the trail for her fourth loop. She screamed and had the biggest smile on her face. I was beaming and so happy, happy to be just about done but also THRILLED to see my best friend running so well. We high-fived and I tried to say kick ass but I don’t think I got the words out intelligibly. And then I was on the field, just a few hundred meters between me and the end of my 50 mile journey. Tyler peeled off to let me run it in by myself and then yelled at me that if I was going to finish on my own, I better sprint it in. So I dug in. With every ounce of energy left in my legs I ran. I could see just enough to avoid running through the girls soccer game going on. I could see the clock behind the basketball courts. I could hear Katie and Scott cheering for me. I pushed and pushed and crossed the line 7 hours, 13 minutes, 10 seconds after I started (final loop — 2:04:44). That was good for 7th overall (6th male) out of 107 finishers. I took another step or two to slow down and then my hands dropped to my knees. I had run 50 miles. The barn had definitely been burnt to the ground. I was done.
The race I had thought about for months was over. The RD handed me a really awesome finisher’s jacket and later a voucher for a free pair of trail shoes – turns out I won the early number pick-up raffle from the day before. The rest of the moments immediately following the race are foggy. (edited to add: Katie reminded me that most of the guys who had finished ahead of me were standing around the finish talking and were nice enough to congratulate me. That felt good. Chad and I briefly talked about the race and the course and I congratulated him on working his way up to 3rd place.) I think I staggered over to the aid station again. The Team Awesome crew met me and there were hugs and congratulations and there was food stuffed in my face and I was drinking (I remember wanting Coca Cola, and pineapple juice, in that order) and then I remember I just had to walk over to the playground and lie down in the mulch. And that’s what I did. I just collapsed on the ground in a heap. It’s all I had energy for. What always amazes me about races (and some hard long runs and workouts) is how your body seems to know exactly how long it needs to hold on for before giving up and usually it is just long enough to be done and not a step further. Standing up to walk to the bathroom a few minutes later felt nearly impossible. The actual walking to the bathroom part felt more difficult than any loop. My ankle felt AWFUL. A few days later, it is definitely sprained but improving considerably each day. Surprisingly I wasn’t OMGSOHUNGRY but I did eat, and drink.
Probably the BEST part of my day, and the entire weekend, occurred a few hours after I finished. My vision was mostly returned. We were all just hanging out waiting for Ashley. We had literally JUST taken bets on when she would come in. It was about 9:50 into the race. The bets ranged from 10:20 (me) to 10:45ish. About half a minute later, we saw a tiny female runner in pink come out onto the field. WHAT?! I moved as quickly as I could toward the finish and seeing her come in at 9:53, a HUGE PR, made me ridiculously happy and proud. I hugged her so hard. Team Awesome had had a remarkable day.
This is long enough as it is. I have a lot of thoughts about the race in general, about what went well and what didn’t go well, about what I learned going forward, about what I want to do going forward, about my Pure Grits (spoiler alert — they’re AWESOME), and, most importantly, about myself. I also have a lot of pictures from the race. All of this I’ll share in a separate post. This one will serve as just the account of what I did, how I did it, and who I did it with. Considering this took longer to write than it took me to run the actual race, I think that’s enough for now.
Til next time, RUN HAPPY everyone!
With less than 48 hours to go before the most important race of the year to me, the typical runner expression is “the hay is in the barn.” Of course, I only have a cursory knowledge of barns and farms and the like and have never actually put any hay in any barn. Actually, when I think of that expression, I do not immediately think of how it’s a good metaphor for all the training I could possibly do to run the best race I possibly can is now completed and doing anything more will produce no extra improvement.No, what I think of when I hear or read or say that expression is of a big red barn full of hay ablaze in the middle of some sad looking farm in the middle of the country. Totally en fuego. This is probably a carryover from my younger pyrophilic days (ya know, just like EVERY boy aged 5-20ish).
But, incendiary imaging aside, the statement IS true for me right now. For the past few months I have been very fastidious about doing the work I need to do to run the way I want to run now. With 48 hours to go there’s really nothing more I can do. So far I think I’ve been good and smart about the taper. Yesterday morning I ran three mile repeats at Duke with full recoveries in 5:55, 5:49, and 5:49 and my legs felt like they wanted to go faster and much much further. I take this as a VERY good sign. The workout felt short and pretty easy; the same workout a few months ago would have left me pretty exhausted and wrecked for at least a day or two. Progress. Confidence building.
Apropos in that wrestling season started for the 6-8th graders at the school I work at and I am helping coach it. Wrestling was my first real sporting love and the first time I was ever faced with the same sort of feeling I’m feeling now. All the big tournaments were on weekends, which meant you had the whole week beforehand to just sit and think about the tournament and the pain you were going to endure and all that. I used to feel the same mix of confidence and apprehension back then, though I think I leaned more toward confidence than I do now with running. In running, especially this ultrarunning stuff, I haven’t been doing it nearly as long or at a high level to feel the same level of confidence as I did before I stepped on a mat. It’s growing, in leaps and bounds at times, but I still have a long way to go; this weekend is another step.
It’s going to be such a departure from the 40 miler. There I was all alone from the moment I left for the race in the morning to the moment I got back home. I ran the race with no crew, just the aid stations. I finished the race and hung out and talked to people around me but there was no one there waiting specifically for me. Stone Cat is going to be the opposite of all that. One of my very best friends (and the reason I’m doing ultras again in the first place), Ashley, is running it too; and I’m so happy to be able to spend some time before the race with someone else who knows how I’m feeling right now. My brother is coming up from NY (and hopefully will get to see me finish this time). There are a number of other people coming to help crew or cheer and whatnot. It’s excited and motivating — with all those people there because I’M running, I’ve GOT to make it worth their while (as well as my own).
Yesterday afternoon I got another amazing John Stiner massage. This time the focus was on making sure everything is loose and ready to endure hours and hours of running. He worked out parts of my legs and feet that I didn’t even realize needed to be or COULD be worked out. After that it seems all there is left to do is hydrate, rest up, and wait for the race to start. I can honestly say my legs have not felt this good, this fresh, this ready to just run and run hard in months. It’s an awesome feeling, and an anxious one. Good anxious. I’m ready.
I’m going to burn the barn to the ground.
Til next time, RUN HAPPY everyone!