Sunday I ran the Rock n Roll Raleigh Marathon. This was my third time running this race, and also the third different course this race has used, although it was pretty much the same as last year with very minor tweaks (read: kept all of the damn hills, shuffled some inconsequential stretches). Three years ago, I was in the process of getting back into some semblance of decent shape and feeling good about my prospects in the days leading up to the race. The night before the race, I got into a huge argument with my then-girlfriend and ended up sleeping maybe two hours and running the race in a really weird mental state. Somehow I managed to PR and break 3 hours for the first (and only) time. Last year, I spent the entire day before the race at a beer and barbecue festival, overindulging in both. I woke up with a massive hangover, very dehydrated, on a few hours of fitful sleep, and ran the race dressed as a pirate. Despite not the best circumstances, I managed to reach all of my goals — don’t puke, don’t die (the bar was VERY low). Going into the race this year, things had to be more promising, and the past few months certainly have gone better than the lead up to either of those races. In fact, I have run more and felt better than I have in about five years. I was really excited to run this year, because I’ve had a not-so-secret competition with 2014 Mark. I have figured that if I can keep beating 2014 Mark, I have a good shot of having a very good fall of racing. I’m off to a good start, beating my Umstead Marathon time by a few minutes. This wouldn’t be a direct comparison as the courses were different, and it also was earlier in April this year, but close enough for me. And that meant that if I’m to stay ahead of three years ago, I’d need to PR at Raleigh. Running a 3:03 on a perfectly flat beach marathon course is one thing, running several minutes faster than that on a hilly-ish course is another. To add a little spiciness to the equation, I ran 140+ miles last week, so my “taper” consisted of two days of easy runs on Friday and Saturday before the race. Oh well, let’s see what we got.
Ari (who ran the half) and I got our bibs Friday night. I was feeling a bit more tired than I wanted from a long week at work. We headed over to Umstead for the pasta dinner and to meet up with some people, then went home for a little jog. Saturday morning we woke up early to get to Umstead for the start of the 100. We basically hung around the park most of the day, watching various friends go around and around and around and around. It was a beautiful day to just hang around the park and I was glad the weather forecast said it would be MUCH cooler for race day morning. I did another shakeout Saturday evening with a few pick-ups to what felt like a sustainable marathon pace. I didn’t fret that I felt pretty damn flat, trusting that a good night’s sleep and race day adrenaline would help counteract some of that.
Race morning I awoke before the alarm, bathroom, food, bathroom, bathroom, dive to Raleigh and park downtown, about a quarter mile from the start, with 45 minutes to go. In the car, I got lubed up, put on my throwaway clothes, and we ambled over to the portapotty lines. With ten minutes to go, we made our way to the front corrals, I kissed Ari and wished her good luck, found a bush to pee one last time, and took my spot just off the front, fired up and ready to go.
The first 5 miles are mostly in and around downtown Raleigh, flat-ish with a few undulations. My plan going into the race was to use the first few miles as an opportunity to settle into a comfortable marathon effort. Of course, despite reminding myself to stay disciplined, I took the first half mile-ish a bit harder than planned before backing off and coming through mile 1 in 6:40 (2:55 pace, way under PR pace, whoops). During mile 2 we ran under a bridge where an awesome marching band was playing. I wish they would have put them later in the race because they really pumped me up. Mile 2 split was right in line with the first (13:20). I was relaxing as people were still flying by in the early goings, knowing most were probably doing the half. Right before mile 5 came the first sorta uphill and I caught up to two or three people here without really exerting myself any more than I had been. Mile 5 was right on 33:20 and I was happy that I felt as good as I did so far.
The next two miles were one of the longer and bigger climbs in the race, up past Cameron Village. The spectators were, as with most of the course, pretty sparse, and there wasn’t much in the way of music either (except for a cool drum circle group). I accepted that I would slow a little here and knew I’d get some of it back later. Running under where I thought I’d be already helped with this thought. I took a honey stinger at the top of the hill, around mile 7.5. When we got to mile 8, the half runners split off and I was surprised how many made the right to continue for the full. Last year, despite being way further back in the field, it was quite lonely once the races split off. But here, I could see at least three or four runners strung out ahead of me. As we turned onto Hillsborough St for the out&back stretch to Meredith College, I passed a guy with a great beard and told him so. He seemed less appreciative of the compliment than I would have been two weeks ago. For the next mile and a half out, I was slowly working up toward a pair of guys. Right before mile 9, the leaders started running back toward us and I decided to pass the time by counting how many were ahead of me. By the time I got to the turnaround I counted at least 18-19 people including the lead female. I thought to myself, either some people went out too fast (I hit mile 9 in 1:00:10) or this race attracted A LOT more fast runners this year. Coming back, I caught up to the pair just after 10 (1:06:48) and briefly considered tucking in with them as there was more than a gentle breeze blowing at us. I quickly scrapped this idea as I was feeling pretty good, had found a rhythm that was working for me, and didn’t want to mess with that to stay with them. So off I went back down Hillsborough. We met back up with half marathoners here and ran side-by-side (on separate sides of the street, thankfully) for about a mile. I could not, for the life of me, do the math necessary to figure out if I should expect to see Ari somewhere in this crowd, or if she was still behind, or way up ahead. Even now, I’m still not sure, but nevertheless, I didn’t see her. It was cool getting some cheers and cheering on half marathoners I DID see, although it was even cooler getting a nice half mile downhill where I let my legs stretch out some. Up a baby hill, then down another little out and back, this time on NC State’s campus, I hit the halfway clock in 1:27:04 (the website has a different time, and there was a mat a little ways beyond the halfway clock, but that mat was definitely not halfway). I thought to myself, ok, that’s a bit under what I planned (PR pace would have had me at 1:28:25), but at least I can run 1:30ish and still have a chance to PR. I figured I was, at the worst, looking good for sub-3, and, best case scenario, I only slow some on the second half hills, run 1:28ish, and try to kick to get under 2:55.
The next 5ish miles were the part of the race I first told myself I needed to be strong during, both mentally and physically. There was a nice downhill as we left campus before turning on Avent Ferry Rd. It’s not the steepest and there are some downhill stretches, but it FEELS like it’s a long uphill grind, probably stemming from this being very barren (the people waiting for a bus or just generally looking unenthused or actively annoyed by the race outnumbered spectators 3:1) and winding and there’s still so much race left to run. I again knew my splits would slow, but I had some time banked even from 2:55 pace, so I wasn’t gonna stress. Still, I managed to push a little on the downhills and grind on the uphills and not lose quite as much time as anticipated. There was a string of runners up ahead that I was just focusing on reeling in. Toward the top of the hill, I treated myself to my second honey stinger and managed to get about half on my singlet and hands. Typical Mark. I just had to laugh. Avent Ferry bottomed out at Lake Johnson and I unsuccessfully tried to grab a cup of water here, which at least had the benefit of wetting my hands to get rid of the stickiness. The next mile and a half we wound along on a flat trail beside the lake. This was the worst I felt all race. I think the cumulative effort of working hard on the previous 16+ rolling miles (both up and down) hit me and I started to question whether I should have eased up and run slower like originally planned. Pffft… too late for second guessing, onward ho! At 17, I was at 1:52:30, still almost a full minute under 6:40 pace (I liked thinking in terms of 6:40 pace, because it’s really easy to do mental math, even in the latter stages of a marathon it turns out), but started feeling like my legs just didn’t have the pop or drive they did even ten minutes prior. I had to really call on some mental reserves here to stop from slowing considerably, asking myself to just push to 18 and then maybe I could take it easy on the next uphill. Around this point the lake trail goes along a dam and I caught sight of two more runners, one was the lead female, the other a guy I thought might be Owen Bradley, who had run 50 miles at Umstead the day before (DAMN!). The sight of them not so far off, plus the short, steep downhill, helped re-energize me a bit.
As soon as the trail ended, we turned right and were met with another short, steep uphill. At the top of the climb, we made a left and were greeted by… another hill! I was gaining on some of the people in front of me which helped take my mind off how blergh this stretch felt. This is the most desolate stretch of the race, back on NC State’s campus, running by a golf course, and some far off buildings. What passes for the Raleigh skyline comes into view around here, but at mile 19, it feels like more of a tease than an encouraging beacon. Just before mile 20 (2:12:56 — the hills had slowed me to just about 6:40 pace), I caught up to the lead woman and went by her, trying to grunt out something along the lines of, “stay strong.” The bike escort she had reminded me I now had a decent downhill which was very much appreciated, despite knowing what came next. I caught up to Owen, asked him if it was indeed him, and told him how friggin’ ridiculous and amazing it was that he was out here now. As we turned to start another mile and a half uphill grind to Dorothea Dix Park, we also caught up to a guy in an ECU singlet and I led the three of us passed the mile 21 marker. It was here, in the midst of this hill, that I made an important decision. I was still under even my dream goal pace, the last three miles were a bit easier, this stretch was exposed and I was feeling it. I thought about easing up, letting the two guys behind me go by and maybe trying to just keep in contact with them. But instead, I started pushing a little harder, trying to get some separation. I knew I wasn’t near the front, and never really felt like I was racing anyone but the clock, but I got competitive. I thought about the 25 hill repeats I did in the midst of my fourth 20 miler in four days last week, I thought how this was not even close to as bad as that felt, and I pushed up the damn hill into the park. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a little separation, a boring out and back stretch, and views of a few more runners ahead of me.
My legs were feeling the effort, but I didn’t want to just ease up and recover. I could see a sign for mile 23, and it felt soooo far away as we did this weird clover-y loop in a section of the park you’d imagine they’d find a body at the beginning of an episode of SVU. Right at 23, we met back up with the half marathon course, and I was even more glad than before that we had separate courses and that it seemed everyone was obeying the line of orange cones, because I did not have any extra energy to weave in and out of traffic. I appreciated the encouragement they were sending our way, but something about being around a lot of people again caused me to become acutely aware of the effort I was putting forth, and it sucked. Before the race, these last few miles were the ones I’d planned on hammering. “Empty the tank” is the term I like to use because that’s exactly what it feels like. Now, though, I was worried there would be nothing left in the tank to draw upon, having gone a little quicker than planned thus far. I was glad we had driven this section a few weeks ago, because I could mentally check off landmarks. At 24 (2:39:20 — when I saw it at the time, I wasn’t able to process that I had sped up), I caught up to another runner and told him let’s finish strong. Coming out of the park we made a left and got a nice downhill. I pushed, hard. I remember some people here and there cheering. I remember splashing myself with water somewhere in here. A right turn and then the last uphill of any significance as we approached mile 25. I felt like I was running in sand but somehow made it up the hill. Three years ago this was the spot in the race where I grew genuinely worried about collapsing because I was so overheated and exhausted and the idea of running even one more mile felt insurmountable. This time I felt better than I did there, but only marginally. Once on Boylan, I saw two more marathon guys and used them to force myself to keep the pedal down instead of easing up and coasting to the end. I went by them with about 3/4 mile to go and a guy on a bike pedaled up next to me, telling me I looked like I was finishing really strong. If only he knew how I was feeling! A turn brought me Nash Square, where our car was at, so I knew it was only a few minutes of suffering left. The course turned one more time and we were on McDowell, the finishing stretch. I could see the finish up ahead and started whatever passed for my finishing kick. I ran so hard, my peripheral vision started going black. I haven’t been this deep into the well in a long time. I was, essentially, scraping the bottom. As I approached the line, I thought I heard Ari yell my name. I just kept reminding myself to run all the way through the damn line. And I did. I ran right across the finish in 2:53:29, a PR by 3:23.
I staggered for a moment, stopped my watch, awkwardly took my medal, caught my breath and composed myself. Looking up I saw Ari on the sidewalk looking excited with tears in her eyes. I may have let out some sort of guttural noise and, once outside the transition zone, gave her a big sweaty hug and we both started sobbing. The stress and effort of the past almost-3 hours (and the distance traveled the past eight months, both physically and figuratively) caught up with me and I needed a minutes to compose myself. Turns out I was wrong at halfway… I split 1:27:04 for the first half and came back on what I would argue was the more difficult, hillier back half in 1:26:25. I think that was quite probably the best I have ever run a marathon. I got my finisher’s jacket and we headed back to Umstead to see the last few finishers and then home, where I [edit to add:, errm… ARI and I (sorry love!)]… spent the rest of the afternoon moving my furniture from my apartment into Ari’s. (Thankfully, I was able to coerce Stiner and Strunk into helping us with that endeavor).
So, I kinda already beat my A goal for Seattle. Hooray?!This week, I’m going to recuperate from the race and, once I feel recovered, I’m going to start trying to figure out what to shoot for there. In the meantime, we’re heading up to Rhode Island next weekend to run the Newport Marathon, and then we’ll be at the Boston Marathon(!). I’ll be dipping my toes back into the ultra world with a 50k in SC next month, but one step at a time, right?
Last Saturday, I ran the Umstead Trail Marathon.This was my fifth time running this race, the only race I’ve run every year since moving down to NC (2015 was cancelled) and, by far, the race I’ve run the most. Obviously, this race holds a special place in my heart (see: 2012), and as I’ve joked with some people, every other time I run it, I have a pretty alright race. 2012 – pretty good, 2013 – pretty not good, 2014 – pretty alright, 2016 – unmitigated disaster. Of course, as Ari so compassionately put it earlier this week, “It hasn’t been your year since 2012.” I digress… In the two weeks since I ran Oak Island, I’ve managed to both recover well from that effort and maintain a good deal of training volume. I’ve had two decent track workouts, one encouraging M-pace run, and a good long run at Umstead last weekend that covered about 85% of the marathon course.
My parents were in town this weekend, and it was also Ari’s first marathon ever, so there was some added stressors but nothing too bad.The night before, we got our packets, and then it was a fiasco trying to find some dinner before eventually ending up at my favorite pizza place, Treforni, where I devoured a meatball sub. Got things set out and myself to bed reasonably early, and as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was asleep like a rock. I was up before the alarm, too. The nice thing about a 9 am race start is that my body is used to getting up at 5:30, so there is no rush to get up and out the door. I actually felt like I was sleeping in. We headed downtown to get some last-minute things and saw them setting up for Florence Forth; we were glad we were out of there before being trapped. We got to the park about an hour before race start, which, for me, is unheard of.
This race is like a big running family reunion and has some really cool quirks that have cemented its place permanently on my yearly racing calendar. Carolina Godiva does an absolutely top-notch job putting on this race, down to the last detail. The volunteers go to great lengths to make sure everything runs smoothly (pun decidedly intended), so it was fun to get into the lodge before the race and say hi to some friends. As I alluded to above, last year, I was undertrained (really, not trained at all), and the entire race was an abject catastrophe pretty much from the beginning. As a result, it was my first time running the race that I failed to get wood. This year, I had three main goals (four if you count “don’t break an ankle on the single track”)… I wanted to get back at least to the top 15. But really, I wanted to see if I was in better shape than 2014, the year I ran 3:11:44. I figured, if I could beat that time, it would mean that I’m ahead of where I was at that year and would bode well for a PR attempt on an easier course down the line. I figured, if I could manage that time, it would also put me close to a respectable top-5 showing.
If Ari was nervous, she hid it well. We were ready and moseyed our way to the start area with a few minutes to go. I gave her a kiss and told her to kick ass and then walked up to the front. With about a minute to go, I ducked into a port-a-potty for a final bathroom trip, and as I returned, perfectly timed, we were off.
The course is almost constantly either going up or down in a fairly unrelenting fashion. The first two miles are pretty much the easiest of the race, and a good opportunity to get things in gear before getting on the single track. Immediately from the start, a group of four guys went out and separated themselves from the rest of the pack. I was content to cruise up the hill right on the back of this pack. I recognized one guy as last year’s winner of the Umstead 100, Jason Tischer, and knew he would probably have the endurance to hold a decent pace. The other guys (white singlet, blue singlet, capri tights) I did not recognize, but they looked speedy enough to be up there. I hopped on the first bit of Company Mill single track at mile 2, solidly in 5th, and immediately began closing the few-second gap that the four guys had on me. I descended pretty recklessly, rolling my ankle a few times, and at one point, misjudging my speed and careening left forearm- and knee-first into a tree, but nothing too concerning.
By the first single-track climb, I had regained contact with the back of the group. They seemed to be going much more cautiously, but I was content to just maintain contact, allow them to set the pace, and recharge for the inevitable bridle trail push. Four miles in, we hit the short, steep Graylyn descent, and I passed two guys, moving into third before returning to the single track on Sycamore. We loped along the flattish, mostly non-technical section by the creek before ascending the steep, rugged uphill toward the Sycamore parking lot aid station near mile 6. On the downhill to that aid station, I briefly took the lead, mostly because I just wasn’t going to hold back on any downhills and knew I would (and did) get immediately re-passed on the ups. Heading down the final mile and a half of Sycamore single track, I found myself thinking something I never would have considered I would be — I was lamenting the fact that the single-track portion of the race was about to be over. I was actually wishing there would be more because I felt that would be the only way I had a chance on the other four; it seemed that I had clearly been the best (or at least most aggressive) on it and that they were stronger and quicker on the bridle trail.
Alas, right before mile 8, the single track ended, and we turned to run back up the Graylyn hill. The rest of the 18+ miles remaining would all be on wide, crushed gravel bridle trail, but that doesn’t mean they are any easier. As soon as we hit the hill, the four guys pulled away. Two (Tischer and blue singlet) ran way away and had a good 10-15 seconds by the top of the hill and gaining, and the other two (white singlet and capris) ran together slightly less far from me but were nevertheless pulling away. A quick glance behind, and I saw nary a soul; I was officially in 5th and also in no-man’s-land. I was actually ok with this development, as it mentally became just a more intense than normal long run in my favorite park. Running down corkscrew hill, I went hard but within myself and then continued to press but making sure to avoid approaching the red line on the longish, gradual climb up from Reedy Creek Lake to mile 10. By the time I got to the top, I could see the pair of 3rd/4th ahead and not really gaining much more on me. The first two guys were way out of sight already.
The next two miles trended downhill, and I could see the guys coming back to me a little. It was still relatively early. and the worst hills were yet to come, so I was content to hang back and eat up real estate slowly but surely. I think I saw Jim Clabeusch on a bike here, and that was a nice little break from the monotony. From 12-14.5, the Turkey Creek section is a hilarious stretch of steep, seemingly never-ending uphills and some downhills just short enough to tease you. At what I figured was about halfway, I was at about 1:34:30 on my watch, feeling reasonably good and ready to push the second half if need be. I caught White Singlet at the bottom of a downhill right at mile 14, passing him going up the last of the Turkey Creek hills toward Graylyn and moving into 4th. By the time we hit the aid station turnaround at the bottom of yet another hill near mile 15, I was even with Capris. Heading away from the aid station and re-tracing our steps from 15 to 21 meant I would get a chance to see where everyone else was and thus also get to see Ari. Exciting!
I really made an effort to push the downhills on the way back through Turkey Creek; I wanted to get a little gap on 4th place, figuring that the race for 1st and 2nd was over.
Unfortunately for me, when I got to the aid station before 17, he was right there with me and stayed there all the way to the mile 18 marker, where our next long, gradual climb began. If I had to pick a low point in the race, I guess this would be it. I was still 8 miles from being done, I had been running for a little over 2 hours, I had just pushed the last two miles and instead of getting any separation, capri guy was now going by me as soon as we started the uphill and looking stronger than I felt. I made my best attempt at staying with him, but I was mentally content to let him go and hope he’d come back to me on the next downhill stretch. Somehow I managed to run either side by side, or just a step behind, for a good portion of this climb. Just after mile 19, as we approached a powerline cut, a Wild Ari Appears! coming downhill toward us. Without thinking, I jumped up in the air and yelled her name. I was worried she might be in a bad place or tired, but she looked just as excited as I was to see her. I ran to the other side of the trail, gave her a big hug and kiss and told her to go for the Olympics as we ran our separate ways.
As corny as it may sound, that was seriously one of the BIGGEST highlights of the race for me. And as silly as it may sound, whatever lull I had been experiencing immediately went away. I found an extra gear in my stride, and a half-mile later, as we got to the top of the grind, I was pulling away from 4th place and stretching my legs out on the long, gradual descent ahead. There seemed to be a big group of what I figured were high school runners out running, and they were perfect to key off of. They were running just a little slower than I was, so I could focus on reeling them in and eventually go by. I also saw the guy who was in 2nd place (blue singlet) up ahead and definitely coming back to me. That was… unexpected. I figured maybe he tried to hang with Tischer, and it ended up being too much. By the time we hit the bridge and began a long, steep, winding uphill, I was even and then pulling away from him, too. I heard footsteps for about a minute and then nothing. Cool. I figured the race was now for 2nd, as I doubted Mr. 100 mile champion would fall apart late in a marathon, and I didn’t have any extra wheels to pick it up to try and catch him.
The final gut punch in this race is miles 21.5 to 24, Cedar Ridge. It’s a long downhill that ends very steeply, and then you immediately turn around and run back up it. There is a sign at the bottom as you begin the climb out that says “Welcome to Wheels-Fell-Off Hill.” It is accurately named. Last year, I walked/hobbled almost the entire uphill section, a combination of calf cramps and just being completely gassed. For the first time all race, I allowed myself to go full throttle down the hill. I knew I’d have enough to get out of it, and I wanted to put a cushion on the guys behind me. I saw the leader go by on my way down and when I got to the turnaround I calculated he must be about 3-3:30 up. I knew I wouldn’t have enough real estate to catch him (not to mention he still looked pretty strong), but I also found that I was about 2 minutes up on 3rd place at this point. With that info, I went into grind mode, just trying to get up the hill as best I could. Turning back onto the trail at the top of the hill, all that was left was to run back to camp. Cemetary Hill remained, the short, steep final obstacle literally standing in the way of sweet relief. One of the only nice things about the up & down nature of the course is that the last half mile you run is all downhill back to the finish. Turning onto the camp road, I had a smile on my face and knew I had 2nd place locked up, and, more importantly, barring a car hitting me, I was going to come in under my 2014 time. I ran through the finish line in 3:07:26, second overall, and my second fastest Umstead. Booya!
I got my finisher’s pint glass and collected my wooden 2nd place plaque, put on some warmer clothes, and had a little bit of food (my stomach needed a bit immediately post-race before I could handle much more than a few orange slices and some gummy bears). Then I went back out to run Ari in. I got to the last long hill (Cedar Ridge) where Bill Harris told me she had already started down the hill – awesome. I met her and ran her most of the way in, going on ahead with a mile to go to give her that last stretch for herself and so I could get the camera set up to capture her finish. The feeling of seeing her cross the finish line, a first-time marathoner, at Umstead no less, after training for all of three months, was far and away the most satisfied and elated I felt all day. Neither of us could keep our emotions, or tears, in check. Ultimately, a hugely successful day. We both survived, I did reasonably well, she did amazing, neither of us are injured or really much worse for wear. Win-win-win (well, not quite win).
Saturday, I ran the Oak Island marathon along the southeastern coast of North Carolina. When I arbitrarily came up with my silly idea of running a marathon or ultra every month of 2017, I was a bit worried that February would involve some travel, a blizzard, or fighting polar bears, and initially, I hadn’t found anything that fit particularly well into my schedule. Then, the universe did me a solid: the race company that puts on a series of beach half marathons in the area decided to add a full marathon JUST to their Oak Island race. I could check February off my to-do list! AND, bonus: the weather this weekend was more mid-spring than mid-winter, so we got to enjoy a beautiful day at the beach after the race.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The ensuing weeks between Frosty Fifty and Oak Island have been some of the best I’ve had in a few years, despite each week having at least one, sometimes two, very easy days. I’m seeing Stiner regularly again, and that is making a HUGE difference in recovery time and how my legs feel day-to-day overall. I’m a few pounds lighter than I was back in January and almost twenty pounds down from when I was setting powerlifting PRs in December, so that helps with, well, everything. The past week or so, I’ve actually been eating somewhat better (which is not saying very much) and sleeping closer to 7-8 hours a night (which is saying A LOT). All this to say that heading in to this race, I was feeling optimistic that it would go reasonably alright and confident that I wouldn’t find myself at mile 18 wishing I had gone out for that run on a random Thursday night after work instead of sitting on my couch with a pint of Ben n Jerry’s (because I HAVE dragged myself out every single time this year).
The day before the race, we had to drive down from Durham and needed every second and then some to make it to packet pick up just in time. We got our race bibs as they were packing up and then spent longer than we’d have liked getting a burger and fries from a decent-enough restaurant down the block. Serendipitously, our AirBnB was located a little over a half mile from where the race started and finished. We made our way there after dinner and were greeted by a lovely host and her adorable pugs. If you have never been greeted at a door by four tiny, affectionate pugs, you have not really lived. After getting our stuff in and settled, I went out for a short shakeout down to the beach and back. I spent a good minute or two by the water just staring up at the pitch-black sky, sending Ari snaps of blackness that was supposed to be beach and taking in the stars that you don’t get to admire near a city. Once back, it was my pre-race ritual of shaving my head and then a reasonably early bedtime, as the race started crazy early.
With a race that started at 6 am, that meant wake-up was somewhere around 4:30. Unlike many times in the past, I was up before the alarm and felt mostly awake and ready to go (thanks Amy for having the most luxurious bed to sleep on of any AirBnB we’ve stayed at!). I went to the bathroom, downed a Boost shake and most of a Quest bar, went to the bathroom, got dressed, went to the bathroom, got my shoes laced, went to the bathroom, got our stuff ready to go, went to the bathroom, and was off to the park. Even though it was only a short jaunt from where we stayed, we opted to park right next to the start so that Ari could chill out during the hour between when my race started and when hers did and so that after the race we could grab whatever we wanted immediately. It was still extremely dark with nothing but a few headlamps and the neon from the timing stuff at the start/finish lighting up the area. This meant that as I made my way to the start, with about three minutes to go, I had unlimited options for one last bathroom stop. With about a minute to go, I heard Brad Smythe yell for me to make my way up to the line, which at first surprised me (how did someone know my name?!) and then amused me. I gave Ari a quick kiss, she wished me luck and told to do it and go for the Olympics, and with that, we were off.
Right away, some guy blasted out and had gapped all of us jamokes by the time we had to make a left about 200 m into the race. I settled in to what felt like a comfortable uptempo pace and ultimately watched another three guys pull on ahead of me at a much less rapid pace. For the sake of this report, I will name them tri-guy (because he was wearing a triathlon-looking outfit), beard guy (because he had a solid beard and kinda looked like Jesus), and bad dog (because, shockingly, he had a singlet that said bad dog on it). With a dearth of street lights on the first four or so mile stretch of residential roads, I opted not to glance at my watch every few moments to see if I was “on pace” mostly because I didn’t have a specific pace in mind. Given how the 50k went and that training was going about as well as could be hoped for, I figured a 3:20ish would be a reasonable result, and if I had a good day, maybe I could stretch for a 3:15 (it WAS a flat course after all).
Comfortably in fifth, feeling relaxed, the first four seeming to continue to pull away, and with a few glances back on some of the turns noticing nobody really close, I was in a no man’s land that I actually relished in the early miles. I stopped to pee around mile 3.5, and in the thirty or so seconds that took, I didn’t see anyone coming up from behind. I was glad about this notsomuch because I cared about my placing but because I didn’t want to run with anyone. As the course turned out of the residential section near mile five, we hit the first of two bridges we’d be running over and back, this one the steeper and longer of the two (get it out of the way early, I suppose). As I made my way up, it was impossible not to notice the absolutely picturesque sunrise starting to take place to the east. So, silver lining on the bridge… perfect vantage point for maximum sunrise gawking. Alas, the gawking was kept to a minimum as there were miles to be run. Coming down from the bridge, I could barely see the leader, who was already almost a mile up, and the other three guys were strung out somewhere from a minute or so to several minutes ahead; the next guy back from me was a few minutes in arrears.
Only twenty miles to go, yippee. It was finally light enough to see my watch. Apparently I had been running just over 7:00 pace so far. So… not 3:20 pace. I had a brief but ultimately pointless mental conversation where I thought maybe we should ease back to which I rebutted myself figuring, hey, this feels alright, and worst case, I blow up later and jog it in, having gotten a decent workout out of the whole mess. The next few miles twisted through more residential areas and next to a golf course. Coming out, we made a left and ran toward one of the uglier lighthouses that dots the North Carolina coast (as Ari would later describe it, it looks like a cigarette. The three colors that comprise it are grey, other grey, and darker grey). This was a somewhat sad, lonely, and kind of monotonous out & back, but such is the nature of running near the beach. Some people were waking up and out on their porches, but most “spectators” here were just construction crews getting to their site. As soon as I turned around right before mile 9, I realized something I hadn’t yet considered… the last two miles I was running felt pretty comfortable despite the quicker-than-planned speed…oh, right, maybe because we had a tailwind. I was immediately greeted by the headwind I hadn’t considered, and it was a little more jarring than it probably ought to have been. It knocked me out of rhythm and focus for a few minutes, and part of my mind again was like, “well, that inevitable slowdown happened sooner than anticipated, huh?” Fortunately, my legs were not part of this conversation and carried on, re-establishing a rhythm and maintaining a pretty consistent speed.
As I closed in on halfway, I felt better than I really had any business feeling, but I wasn’t going to fight it and had made up my mind to just hold on. There was a bet-hedging part of me that was attempting (with limited degrees of success) to do the mental math on what I would run if I slowed to 7:30 miles, or 8:00 miles. I passed through halfway in about 1:32:20 (there was no mat or marker so that’s my best guesstimate) and allowed myself to entertain the idea that I was very likely going to get that 3:15 and possibly even 3:10. I really didn’t consider the possibility that I wouldn’t slow down some. I figured that was inevitable, and my only goal was to do effective damage control when it started, hopefully close enough to the finish that I wouldn’t have to death march for very long.
Right after half way, the course ran back close to the start/finish, and here was the only clusterfuck of the day. You see, the second half of the marathon course was just the entire half marathon course and covered a portion of the accompanying 5k as well. The half started an hour after we did, but the 5k… didn’t? I still honestly don’t know when it started nor exactly what the course SHOULD have been. It seems that there was supposed to be a turnaround point and that they were then supposed to make a left, or something, but none of it was well marked. I just know that it seemed like no one actually knew where to run. It was just a mess of people, some walking, some running, strollers, children, in all directions, all across the entire roadway. For about a mile or so, I did my best Frogger impression. Fortunately, I was able to navigate the sea of people relatively unscathed (I think I rubbed into someone as I was going past, but in my defense, agility has never been my strong suit). I did have to miss an aid station which, boo-freaking-hoo. At some point in this, I passed Bad Dog and I guess pulled away, as I never saw him again. Hopefully he was not swallowed by the tide of lost soles.
Once the crowds started to clear, I was feeling a bit re-energized knowing it was just down to the end of the island and back, more of less (more, actually, because there was another bridge detour). And now, despite being toward the front of the marathon, I was working my way through the back end of the half, so I never felt lonely again and had targets to key in on, work up to, pass, rinse, repeat, instead of just ruminating on having to run another 5 miles in a straight line. The sun was very much out now, but it fortunately didn’t heat up much, and that headwind that had shocked me earlier now felt more like a refreshing breeze as I chugged along. At sixteen, I actually stopped at the aid station long enough to get two full cups of water and some Sport Legs down; when I started running again only a few seconds later, I felt like I was shot out of a cannon.
Three miles later, I could finally make out the end of the line where we’d turn and head back for home, another mental boost. It was cool hearing all the encouragement from the half marathoners when they realized I was running the full, and it was nice having the energy (for the most part) to give some back. I hit 20 miles in just a hair over 2:20 and finally allowed myself to figure 3:10 was probably a lock and now maybe, juuuuuust maybe, a 3:05 was possible. I also allowed for the possibility that with 10k still to go, it was possible I’d still have that slowdown; I told myself I would be ok with missing 3:05 if that were the case, but that was probably a lie, and at any rate, I was feeling about as strong as I had all race.
I was excited for the bridge section because, one, it would break up the monotony a bit, and two, I figured I would get to see how far up Ari was. I thought that if I didn’t see her until the bridge, that would mean she was having a good race. And that’s just when I did see her – right as we both crested the top of the bridge, her coming back in toward the island, me on my way out. I also noticed that tri-guy had moved into third, probably 2-3 minutes up on me, and beard guy was now only seconds ahead. As I turned around to head back, I saw him continue to come back to me until, with about 5k to go, I went by. Encouragements were exchanged. I pulled away, not so much because I didn’t want a race to the finish but because I wanted to see if I could catch Ari before she finished. Turning on to what I knew would be a long, straight stretch to the end, it was nice to have something else to occupy my mind.
With maybe a mile or so to go, I finally caught sight of her LOUD and oh-so-short shorts (pot, kettle, nice to meet you). Doing that had allowed me to actually pick up the pace ever-so-slightly. By the time I went by her (after briefly considering a butt slap and opting for just shouting, “GO ARI!” because slapping her butt would involve veering across the road some, and I didn’t trust my legs to run in anything but a straight line), I was pretty sure that I was no longer going to blow up, or even slow down, that I had enough in the tank to finish, and that, barring a sea bird swooping down and attacking, I was going to run under 3:05. I could make out the finish line from over half a mile away, and it just sat there, taunting me; I logically knew every step brought me closer, yet my eyes told me it was just going to sit there in the distance forever. Fortunately, it did not, and I hit the last block and did what passed for a kick at that point. The last mile of the race was my fastest. I crossed in 3:03:38, good for 3rd place overall and a Boston qualifying time that will almost certainly not be far enough under. I had just enough time to down a water and jog back out to see Ari cross in a time that was only a minute off her PR. So that was awesome!
So there is my report that took about as long to write as it did to run the race. Good ratio. I went in figuring I was in somewhat better shape than, like, October, when I was a fat flump “running”/trudging/hiking around Medoc Mountain State Park and probably a teensy bit better than January, but to run a 3:03 off basically seven weeks of some easy runs is pretty damn surprising…and encouraging. How did that happen? I guess all the stuff I mentioned before about training and eating and not being a fat powerlifter actually have some sort of effect. I have a bit shorter turnaround time for March’s marathon, yet another date with the Umstead Trail Marathon. As anyone who knows me knows, this race holds a special place in my heart. I seem to follow up pretty good runs there with pretty terrible runs. Fortunately, I’m coming off my worst run ever there last year, so that hopefully bodes well for two weeks from now. In the meantime, it’s time to nom a burrito.
And here’s a prize for making it all the way to the end. Sorry it’s not a cookie:
::tap tap:: Hello…. hello? Is, is this thing still on? Mic check. Hello? ::tap tap::
I think it’s been said that the journey of 1,000 words begins with a single letter. Or something to that effect. Now that we have my corny dad joke out of the way, perhaps I can get started…
It’s been quite a while since I wrote anything of substance on here. And there have been more than a few times, often around the turn of a new year, when I have gotten on this blog and wrote some sort of impassioned proclamation that this time, THIS TIME(!), will be different. That things have been… less than spectacular, and I intend to change that and I have a plan and I intend to write and record how this masterful plan is going and all the success along the way. Then I get like, maybe a month or two, if that, and everything goes awry. I get busy, I get lazy, and this gets put aside.
What does this have to do with a race? Not much, and everything. Things have decidedly NOT been great, for far longer than I would really like to ruminate on. And a dream without a plan is just a wish, and if wishes were fishes, I’d have a witty sounding end to this incredibly pointless sentence. I intend to write here, possibly often, but who knows. I am loathe to talk about myself, but I enjoy writing, and I like to write down some mental notes from races I’ve done; so, I’m stuck with this. I suppose I could just write them privately, but what would the handful of you who read this do then?! So, hello again dear readers. I am not going to talk about past failures and successes (well, not much at least). For now, I’m going to recap a race I ran and then take it from there.
So, a few weeks ago, Ari and I traveled to Winston-Salem to run the Salem Lakeshore Frosty 50k (well, she ran the 25k, but you get the idea). It was my first long (read: marathon or longer) race in months and the first race I didn’t completely dread in a lot more than just a few months. Fortunately, the weather cooperated (this had been rescheduled from two week’s prior thanks to NC’s one winter storm of the season), and heading to the race, I was more thinking about how humid it was than how cold I was.
In typical Mark fashion, we had to hustle from the parking lot to the starting line and got there with mere minutes to spare. Just enough time to use the port-a-potty, put our bags by the bag check tent, and get to the start line, where I saw Shannon and Kelly Bruno. I gave Ari a good luck kiss and got ready to maybe not suck so much this time. When we finally started, I kept mentally telling myself to relax and run easy. The 50k consists of four 7.75 mile loops of Salem Lake, mostly flat with some easy undulations, and almost all of it hard-packed gravel surface, much like the Umstead bridle trails I love so much. In the first mile, it felt like a lot of people just blitzed out by me and were gone. My competitive instincts were easy to quell, as the thought of blowing up and having to trundle around the lake for hours and hours did not strike me as any sort of fun, so that first mile I was content to let people literally run away from me and settle in to what felt like a sustainable rhythm. I was a bit surprised when I saw the first split was right around 8:00, followed by another. My effort felt more in line with what I’d been running of late, which was decidedly closer to 9:00 or slower.
Not one to argue with my body, I decided that if it truly felt comfortable, I was going to stick with it. The lake on the first lap was pretty cool. With the humidity, there was a fairly dense fog lingering on the surface and making it sort of spooky. The loop had a lot of twists and turns and you could see runners ahead and behind you at various junctures which was cool, although I was somewhat disappointed that I never managed to spy Ari through the trees. At the end of the loop, there’s a fairly steep, but short, uphill leading to one last significantish downhill. At the top of the hill, I pulled off to the side and peed, which would be the only time I needed to do that all race. As a result of that pit stop, I came in just over an hour, happy and still running well.
The second lap is a bit of a wash mentally. I ran. I think I caught some people who had been ahead of me. I continued to click off pretty consistent miles. My legs felt good, and I was grateful for that. I was sweating more than usual for this time of year, but I think I was doing a good job of staying hydrated to counteract it. I hit halfway at just over two hours, thinking to myself that even if the wheels totally fell off at this point, I wouldn’t have to suffer too too long. The third loop, I expected things to thin out some as the 25k runners would be finishing, but a decent amount of traffic remained on the trail. I enjoyed it because it gave me a short-term focus pretty much the entire way around, which helped distract me from the accumulating fatigue. As I came toward the end of the third lap, I was excited because I figured I would get to see Ari and then only have one loop to go. I tried my best to be in and out efficiently, but I couldn’t find some stuff that I had, in my infinite brilliance, left in the car. In the parking lot. A half mile away. It took me a good thirty seconds for this to sink in before I said fuck it and got on with more important stuff, like ya know, finishing the race.
As I started the last loop, I allowed myself to feel some degree of excitement, as I was fairly certain that I was going to 1) finish the race and 2) finish the race significantly better than I had anticipated or hoped. Hitting the marathon mark a few miles into the loop in a time I haven’t seen in a marathon in almost a year and a time that just a month or so ago seemed about as attainable as time travel was a nice boost. I was certainly feeling a bit more tired, but my early restraint was paying off in the form of legs that still felt like they had some juice. I definitely didn’t (and couldn’t) pick it up or kick it in or anything, but I was able to maintain and grind out the last few miles. Coming down the hill for the last time, crossing the finish line, I was certainly ready to be done with this nonsense, but I was not DONE, if that makes any sense. More importantly than finishing place or time (which I was quite pleased with) was how I managed to not fall apart and run almost the entire race evenly. But if you’re the type of person who needs to know, feel free to peruse the results here. My splits for all four laps were within two minutes of one another (one minute, if you factor out the minute I spent watering trees before the end of the first loop). That level of consistency over such a long distance leads me to believe I had a bit more in the tank and that with some actual training, I might not suck at this stuff in the not-so-far-off future.
Post-script: Ari ran a strong 25k and carried on to finish her first 20 mile run and thusly missed me finishing. I appreciate a girlfriend who skips me finishing my race so she can get her shit done. I appreciate more that she didn’t make a big deal out of it, because, ultimately, it’s not. It’s a baby step in the right direction. Check back say in August and see if there have been several more steps that way. I’ve got a busy year planned out, ambitious too. But back to wishes and fishes and all that crap, and now it’s time for bed.
This is, ostensibly, a running blog but clearly I have curated it lately. Or really, I’ve razed the fucking thing to the ground. This blog started back when I thought I was someone worth reading about. I have since learned that self importance is bullshit. Ego is bullshit. That most of what I do is bullshit that only a handful of people care about and I am no great shakes. That is quite alright with me.
So what is the point of this? Well I ran a marathon this past Saturday and it was the worst marathon I’ve ever run and a bunch of people have asked me about it so I’m writing this so that I can point them here instead of talking about it. And also I’m writing this because aside from my therapist and my journal I have no outlet for this sort of shit.
I ran Umstead because Kim and Jason Page are wonderful, kind, generous human beings and allowed me to. Much like most times I’ve run the Umstead marathon, which happens to be my favorite race on earth, I was gifted an entry by the kindness of Bull City Running Company. I have been training for the Umstead 100 mile run and so my marathon legs are… lacking. However, I certainly possess the ability to cover 26.2 miles and have more than a few times in the past few months and thus felt good going into Saturday. What a fool!
It did not go so well. I showed up ready to run. I have had a solid stretch of training that I will not bore anyone with but suffice it to say I have been running, both long and hard (obligatory that’s what she said) for the last few months. So 9 am Saturday rolled around and I was on the front line next to superwoman, err, Lorraine, and as we got the start command, I ran. The first few miles were completely uneventful. We went up the same way we will at the 100 miler, we turned, we went onto the Company Mill single track. I held back because I felt ok and I didn’t want to hurt myself. Jay was there and we were chatting like it was just some regular old Saturday morning long run.
So far so good. But then I came upon mile twelve-ish. Right around the first time I came upon the wonderful paradise aid station, my quads decided they had had enough of the day. Somewhere on Graylyn I remember Ronnie telling me he saw a hitch in my giddyup. This was not inaccurate. There was a hitch in my giddyup. And it just got worse. By the halfway point my quads started cramping like a mofo. And it just got worse from there. At times, I was crumpled up on the side of the trail, beating on my vastus medialus like it had done something seriously offensive to me. It cramped like it had not cramped in years, since the first time I attempted to run 50k in DC. It cramped like it did on the side of the George Washington Parkway in 2009, total lock up.
Anyway, the important stuff is that I “ran” ok for about 12-13 miles, and even at 16 miles, I was still on pace for a 3:30 finish. And then the wheels came off and everything went to shit. I first noticed a cramp-y feeling near the paradise aid station on the way out. I don’t know specifically what mile that was but it was earlier than it should be in a marathon. I grabbed a lei to help me remember that things should be fun but it didn’t help; nothing was fun. I walked the uphills not because I was tired but because if I attempted to run them, my quads seized up and would not relent. Hell, the flats and downhills were bad enough. Everything sucked and I just wanted to be done. And eventually, I was. Three hours and fifty-four minutes after I started I ran through the finish line. By several minutes, a personal worst.
Blah, blah, blah something about building character or something noble. Guys, here’s a secret, there is NOTHING remotely character-building about this run. I did not learn a goddamn thing about myself from suffering for almost four hours. Sure, I had to dig deep into my well of suck it up to not say fuck it and be done but to be honest, the way the course is set up, it would have been pretty inconvenient to quit early, so part of the reason I finished was just that it made sense… my car was at the finish so I was going to have to go there anyway. There is absolutely nothing impressive or noteworthy about this and I feel kind of silly even spending this many words writing about it. Ultimately, I ran a race and I finished and it was one of the worst race performances I’ve ever had and, hey, what do you know, life goes on.
And that’s the thing of it… life has a way of putting things in perspective. I can handle the marathon going poorly because there is plenty in my life right now that this race pales in comparison too. Running is nice, I like it, I do it, I will continue to do it, and I have some big-ish goals even. But it’s not an all encompassing thing to me, it does not define me, it is not where I derive my self-worth from. I have enough outside of running to stress the fuck out about; last week I got to have a nice, longer-than-expected jog in the woods.
Hi there! This is Katie, Mark’s crew chief extraordinaire. Mark gave me permission to guest post about our experience at the Hinson Lake 24 hour.
We had been planning on arriving late because Mark had to work Saturday morning and I had gotten drafted as a volunteer Fortunately his event got canceled very last minute due to rain and we got to pick up our other crew member, Shuriah, and head down hours earlier than expected. We arrived just before 11 AM, Mark grabbed a number and started running. Because of the schedule conflict and other things Mark hadn’t actually trained for a 24 hour and was planning to use this more as a long run.
Shuriah and I set up towards the end of the loop, before the rotary building and the check in/aid station. It had the benefit of being very close to the car. For an ultra I really liked the set up here: a 1.52 mile loop around the lake, with some nice views and a mix of sand, hard pack trail, and boardwalk. The aid station was setup after a bridge and one of the lake and was also near the rotary building with indoor bathrooms.
The good part of the short loop is you see your runner often, there’s much less suspense in between visits then a longer loop or point-to-point. This could probably work against a fast runner like Mark in some cases but it ended up working out pretty well here. He stopped almost every loop for a swig of coconut water and a bite to eat. Mark has a tendency to underfuel so fueling has been one thing we’re trying to work on, but he did great here taking almost everything I offered for the first few hours. I was happy about that because it meant a lot less stress than worrying if he was eating enough and if he was going to crash.
Mark has been running shorter but faster runs lately so he went out really quickly. Much too quickly for an ultra, maybe even if you’re not doing 24 hours. We kept telling him to slow down and he said he was trying to listen but he busted out almost 32 miles in 4.5 hours (all times super approximate, I don’t keep super strict track during the event). He stopped to use the bathroom at this point and then we walked a lap while discussing strategy. At that point we agreed 90 miles would be a good upper limit.
I did enjoy the ability to walk a couple laps with him. The trail was nice in the daylight. It was perhaps a little narrow for the number of runners present, crew and what not. All places were sufficient for a runner to pass a walker provided the walker was paying attention. Which we tried! Its really just wide enough for two people in many spots so it does require some mindfulness to let the fast people pass. Also the sand was annoying at a walking pace, gaiters are a good idea for this race. It seems like it would still be good in the rain if the sand drained ok too.
At the end of the lap we walked he went out and started cruising even more, stopping to see us less. The walking lap made him feel a lot more energized. Shuriah and I passed the time very companionably. We hadn’t met previous so we got to know each other and I told her pretty much everything I know about the fine art of crewing for an ultrarunner. I’m still learning but it was probably an astounding amount of information nonetheless. She’s a non-runner so we had to cover fueling, hydration, temperature control, and how to tell when things are starting to go downhill.
We also chatted with runners coming in, offering a little encouragement but mostly laughing and joking. The entire race was very personable and this was a fun environment. I was glad to have company, so Shuriah, the runners, and Mark’s fast laps made the hours pass very quickly. We were quite fortunate that it didn’t rain the entire time we were there, although we did have a tornado watch and some distant lightening.
Around 68 miles Mark and Shuriah walked a lap, it was already dark. We had been able to see his form tightening up, after 55 miles or so it suddenly looked a lot less smooth. The second walk loop didn’t have the impact that the first did, and after some more running he walked his final two laps for a grand total of 80.56 in about 12.5 hours since we had arrived. We endorsed his decision not to press on a bit further given his form. The point of this race was to get some miles and not wreck him so bad he needed weeks to recover. Anything over 60 miles has generally resulted it a longer recovery time.
Overall it was a very enjoyable race. Mark did struggle not to get caught up in the competition and excitement of racing, but overall I think this experience will fit in very nicely for his next A race. It was nice to see him having fun at a race for once too, often as a competitive ultrarunner the last miles are a grim sort of determination. I know he really appreciate all the shout outs from you blog readers that were there too, he often gets caught up in the task and focusing so please don’t mind if he’s not super cheerful at the next race you see him at – he’ll still appreciate it and make an attempt to catch up with you after. I was proud of his performance, but then I always am.
I think I prefer a distance race to a 24 hour race, I like the whole being done when you’re done and not just counting the hours. Still, I did really enjoy this particular race and I’d be happy to crew there again.
Mark will probably post his own version of this race report later. Meanwhile, if you do ultras, tell me what your crews pack to eat while they wait on you. I get so sick of sandwiches and since I’m generally traveling to his races its whatever we can buy the night before. I also hate leaving to run and grab something so I like to pack and settle in for the duration. Any ideas?
Thanks for reading!