Monday, February 28, 2011

Race review: Cowtown 5K and Ultra

I ran a 23:20 in the 5K without trying. I ran a 4:40:02 in the 50K with a lot of trying.

I finished my first ultra, but that's about the only victory I can claim. Otherwise I was 29th of 288 in the ultra (5th of 37 in my age group) and 103rd of 3812 in the 5K (9th of 160 in AG).

Saturday's 5K was just a warm-up for the ultra. I'd be running a few miles at home anyway, and entering this "race" allowed me to get a little more familiar with the area, where to park and so on. I went off at a comfortable pace and sped up a little on the downhill back half of the course but otherwise stayed in control. It was an easy run.

Now, as for Sunday, there's more of a story to tell. My plan was to hang with the 3:10 pacer as long as possible, just maybe long enough to get to 26.2 in that time before coasting through the last 4.9, perhaps coming in around 4 hours. This was a ridiculous plan.

It was warm, and humid, and windy, and not for a moment before the race did this deter me. In the corral, I told Greg, the 3:20 pacer, that I'd probably see him in a couple hours as I slid back, but I really wasn't resigned to this. After all, I'd run a half-marathon PR a week earlier in weather that wasn't much better, and a headwind in one direction means a tailwind in the other, right?

The horn went off and I trotted out with a pretty good-sized group of 3:10 hopefuls. The first downhill mile was a little quick, and a couple guys in the group started taking some shots at the pacer's credentials (sorry, I didn't catch his name and the Cowtown site is down right now so I can't look it up). He gave his marathon PR as 2:37. The peanut gallery was silenced.

I was already soaked in sweat but brushed it off. We passed mile 4 and headed up the hill across from Jacksboro Highway. "This is the second toughest hill on the course?" I thought. Piece of cake. We zipped downhill into the Stockyards and I ducked ahead to get a clean shot at the water station. It smelled like horseshit. One of my favorite segments of any race I've done, but hold your breath.

We ticked off a couple more miles, keeping the pace as a tight pack. This proved beneficial as we turned onto Main Street, into the real teeth of the wind for the first time. I ducked in behind some folks to catch a little bit of a break as we headed for the bridge, the part of the course I'd feared the most.

On this day, though, the bridge wasn't the problem. For several days beforehand -- actually I think this probably fired up during the Run the Line race and I didn't notice -- I'd been bothered by pain in my right shin. I figured it was something I just needed to stretch out, and counted on the adrenaline rush of race day to mask.

But no, stretching doesn't do a damn thing for tendinitis, and not long before the Main Street bridge, it started flaring up like a sumbitch. I fell back from the pace group, and in the span of a couple hundred yards the neon sign started to flash indicating that my day was over.

Well, over in the sense that I was not going to reach my goal on this day. And since that goal was out, and I was hurting, I very easily could've turned off on 7th or some other street and marched 2.5 miles or so back to the car. But I told myself after my first marathon, where I crapped out more than 8 miles from the finish, I don't plan on putting a DNF by my name, ever. Unless I actually break a hip or something, I'm finishing the damn race.

Someone ran alongside me downtown and said, "Let's go find that 3:10 pacer." And so I darted off for a bit before slowing again. And so it went for another 20 miles, with the darting eventually becoming jogging, and the slowing becoming walking, and more time spent on the latter than the former. The throng of folks cheering in the Fairmount area around mile 12.5 were good for a boost. The turn north at mile 19 finally let me use the wind that been steadily picking up. The folks blasting "Like a G6" pushed me through the water stop at mile 23 as I dumped a full cup over my head. (Hey, I like that song, I'll admit it.)

The ultra split from the marathon course just past mile 25, and all motivation was lost. The cheering spectators vanished, and the view of the Trinity from along the trail did nothing to distract me from the now-crippling pain in my leg. Every time I stopped to walk, it hurt more to start going again. The only time it felt better was when I realized how incredibly bad my lower back was hurting. Something was going on behind the levee that sounded like cars being crushed, but it smelled so awful that I longed for the manure of the Stockyards.

We rejoined the marathon course for the last mile, and I spotted another ultra runner who I'd been leapfrogging many miles earlier (there were a whole bunch of these guys; I think most of them leaped last). I decided that if nothing else was going to go right, I was going to pass this guy before the finish. (OK, he had a friend or significant other come out to walk him in, so he was defenseless, but still.)

Coming down Harley I heard all kinds of folks cheering for the guy running the ultra. For a few moments, nothing hurt. I remembered why I was doing this: to see if I could. Not to scoreboard anyone, but in a way, kinda yeah. I ran through the finish line like the race had just begun.

Obviously, I'm disappointed with the ultra finish. I should've had more modest goals. Would my leg have acted up anyway? Most likely, but maybe I could've gone a little longer before the pain set in. I was going to finish my first ultra and qualify for Marathon Maniacs no matter what; I should've been happy with that.

All things considered, the ultra course route is pretty terrific. It hits many parts of the city and mixes main roads, side streets and trails quite well. It's not a course for a PR, but I can respect the thought put into it to show off Fort Worth. On the other hand, many of the streets are in poor shape and provide a tricky running surface. Some streets had actual holes in them. And the out-and-back section that's shoehorned in for the ultra is miserable.

The support for the race was really incredible. The aforementioned Fairmount group was ringing cowbells and cheering at an ear-splitting level -- and that wasn't even a water station, just a crowd of dozens making noise. The water stops were well-manned and large enough to accommodate everyone, and several folks set up folding tables in front of their houses and made their own unofficial aid stations.

The expo was enormous. I bought a singlet and my 50K, 50 mile and 100 stickers for the car, and got a good lead on a medal display (I've outrun my current setup). Getting in and out was painless. I saved the 5 bucks and parked at the UNT Health Sciences Center; the walk was a little longer but plenty reasonable, and I easily made the time up on the way in by skipping the line.

For the 5K:
7:05 pace last .17

For the 50K:
8:16 pace last .18

Your mileage may vary, but for running both days I got both a cotton and tech shirt with the exact same design and sponsor logos. Is it too much to ask to make the cotton shirt some other color? The wedge-shaped finisher's medal is the 3rd in a 5-year series that ultimately forms one big circle with a star logo. If you missed the last 2 years, you can buy your way up to speed with a charitable donation. I'm all for charity but the idea of selling finisher's medals disgusts me. Medals are to be earned, not bought.

The finisher's tech shirts are long-sleeved and race-specific, and not white. I also got a small Cowtown Challenge medal for running both days. Folks who ran the 10K on Saturday got a third medal -- I know of no other 10K that gives a medal to all finishers.

Post-race food was satisfactory, with bananas, yogurt, donuts, peanut butter crackers and so on handed out as you walked through one of the livestock sheds. There was yet another long beer line that I didn't have the energy to stand in.

Dash Down Greenville (5K), Dallas, Mar. 12.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Where in crazy Fort Worth am I?

My first marathon, the Route 66 in Tulsa in 2009, was my only race so far that offered runner tracking. Some of my friends got texts at a couple checkpoints, some got them at others, some got them out of order... in other words, it was a mess.

Let's see if things go more smootly at Cowtown on Sunday. You can track me at 10K, 13.1 miles, 30K, 26.2 miles and the ultra finish. If you didn't do what I did -- drop all your data subscriptions to spite T-Mobile until your contract runs out -- I don't think the service costs anything. Depending on my mental state, you might find out that I finished before I do.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Race preview: Cowtown 5K and Ultra

Fort Worth, TX

Saturday, Feb. 26 and Sunday, Feb. 27

Cowtown 5K (Saturday) and Ultra (Sunday)

Sunday will be my first ultramarathon and serve as the gateway to my first 50-miler later this year and my first (and second and third) 100 next year. It will also qualify me for entry into Marathon Maniacs. Saturday's race was a late toss-in once the organizers offered a challenge medal for running both days. (I'm using "race" loosely as I will be ending my 6-race PR streak on purpose -- no way I'm doing anything crazy on the eve of a 50K.)

The 5K should have well over 4,000 folks. The ultra is capped at 500 but will probably draw half that many.

The predictions right now are all over the place but it's looking like about 45 for the 5K and low 50s warming to low 60s for the ultra. I'd swap those in a heartbeat but I learned this past weekend I'm still OK with upper 50s.

There won't be any winning on Saturday, but Sunday I'll get a small victory just by finishing, as I'll have met the two goals I mentioned earlier. My next goal would be to break 4 hours, which is likely to happen if and only if I hit the ultimate stretch goal of 3:10:59 at the 26.2 mat. I'm going to go as far as I can with the 3:10 pacer -- and maybe I'll wish later that I had run-walked, but I'll save the guessing games for then. Ultra awards go to age-group winners only and there's no danger of that happening for me.

Just a couple easy miles Tuesday and 3 on Wednesday. If I have time Thursday maybe I'll work in some leisurely bike time at the gym.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Race review: Run the Line Half Marathon

I stunned myself with a personal best, 1:29:51, 15 seconds faster than my last half marathon 3 weeks ago. That makes 6 straight races with PRs, and means that in my 11 half marathons, I've run PRs 9 times. The age grade of 79.4 is a personal best, too.

I was 2nd in my age group for the 2nd straight race (out of 17 total) and 16th overall out of 316.

Originally my plan was to go all-out for this race to crack the 90-minute mark, but as each day passed last week with a warmer forecast, I tempered my expectations. By yesterday I would've been happy with just the best I could do. That feeling was still in place this morning when the temperature was 58 when the gun went off.

I started way too fast, getting fired up by some punk kid who shoved me at the start. I looked at my watch and saw I'd zipped through the first third of a mile in a hair over 2 minutes, which led to me throwing on the brakes. There were a lot of folks in front of me, and even though I knew some of them were relay runners, I figured there was no way that many people would be banging out 6-minute miles on this humid, mild morning.

My pace settled to about where I had hoped, in the 6:50 range. There were two volunteers at every mile marker calling out paces rather than elapsed time, which greatly reduced the amount of mental math I had to do to stay on track. As I passed each one and heard "6:50 pace" -- some of them were a little generous -- I told myself I was one mile closer to where I wanted to be.

Sure enough, all those folks who zoomed out at the start slowly came back to me. That one kid who pushed me had blazed through the first mile, out of sight, but by mile 4 I held my tongue from saying "you've had it" as I slipped past him. Apparently I was alone in maintaining my pace as not a single person passed me the entire race.

At the 10-mile mark, my pace was starting to slow. Usually I like to switch gears at mile 11, but I had to crank up the effort half a mile early because I was starting to feel drained. There was a long straightaway with no one in sight, which gave me no one to run down or distract me from my fading energy (and I didn't hear any footsteps behind me to push me, either). Somewhere along the way I quit even looking at my time and focused only on the number on the bottom right of my watch -- miles elapsed.

I climbed the last hill to get to State Line Avenue and commence actually running the line. As with much of the back half of the race, the headwind was just enough to hold me up and give the race that feeling of interminability that sets in when the finish is just up the road. I passed the 13-mile marker and spotted the finish-line clock. It said 1:29-something. I was incredulous. I'd written off my time too soon! I gathered my ass and hauled it the last 100 or so yards to the finish. Not until I stopped my watch and looked at it for confirmation did I realize that I had actually done something I never would have guessed not long ago: break 90 minutes for a half marathon.

Texarkana is not much of a town. The two trail sections of the race were nice, and I can see these being assets to the locals (though they would seem awfully short to folks here who run around White Rock or follow Plano's extensive system). But around the start/finish areas downtown, half the storefronts are empty and the other half are run down. Much of the residential areas we saw were not very well kept up. And State Line Avenue, only partially utilized by the race, is just a blighted, pole-sign hell.

All that said, the community support for this race was staggering. At many places along the course there were volunteers whose purpose seemed to be nothing other than to cheer runners on (you could tell they were volunteers by the glow-in-the-dark yellow shirts they wore).

To add a layer of competition to the race, there's a Texas-Arkansas challenge that scores the results like a high school cross country meet to determine the champion. I should call it an Arkansas-Texas challenge, since they whipped our butts (though I was proud to have my score counted as the 5th-fastest Texan). That part aside, the Metroplex was well represented in the awards. The 2nd overall female is from Dallas and the female grand masters winner is from Allen. I also spotted a trainer from the Baylor Tom Landry gym the wife and I used to attend who placed in her age group.

6:23 pace last .12

In sharp contrast to the Texas Half, there was plenty of stuff. The goodie bag was a reusable shopping bag from Academy, filled with a long-sleeve T-shirt and fleece ear-warmers with the event name on the front. There was also various plastic stuff -- because you can never have too many water bottles, really -- and a bottle of water. And also in contrast to the last race, this one had a fantastic medal:

The awards were pretty neat as well, metal signs signifying the accomplishment. The age-group awards were a little smaller than license plates, but the overall winners got signs about three times bigger:

The race had a big mis-step post-race, however. Burgers and hot dogs were being grilled next to the finish line, but if you wanted something else -- anything else -- tough. That's right, no bananas or Clif bars or muffins or any of the items you'd expect. Wish I would have known this.

Cowtown, Ft. Worth. 5K on Saturday, ultra on Sunday.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Desperate times

The day we'd been waiting for has come, when the Boston Athletic Association announced what the fallout would be from last October's registration debacle. The official stance is that qualifying times will not change for 2012, but registration will be opened in tiers: those who BQ by 20 minutes get the first 2 days to themselves, followed by 2 days for those who made it by 10 minutes, 2 days for those who made it by 5 minutes, and a week for those who made it at all. The same process will apply for 2013, but all qualifying times will go down by 5:59.

Of course, this isn't exactly how it will work. The BAA says they'll take all the entrants from the just-made-it group and reorder them to allow entry to only the top qualifiers from each age group. They fully expect the field to fill during this period of registration, so if you qualify by 2 seconds, don't pack your bags.

Thing is, I don't think that whole exercise will even need to take place. I expect the field to fill in 6 days, meaning today's announcement was a de facto 5-minute cut in BQ times for 2012 and an 11-minute cut for '13. The field size will not increase, so you have to compare the number of people who made the cut by less than 5 minutes to the number of folks who got locked out during that infamous 8-hour blitz (and beat the clock by more than 5 minutes). I'd wager a fair amount on the latter.

Now, does this mean the new standards are good or bad? I don't know. They are what they are. I'm not going to moan about elitism and how the new process makes the race a little more inaccessible to the weekend warrior. The BAA can do whatever it wants. I was disappointed to see nothing done about the 30-minute head start for women, a cushion that even a lot of women admit is out of whack, but again, if you want it your way, start your own marathon.

I have three marathons scheduled between now and registration: Cowtown (the first 26.2 of my 50K), Big D and Grandma's. If my prediction 2 paragraphs ago is correct, I need to cut 5:31 off my PR to get to 3:10:59. I'm going to go out with the 3:10 pacer at Cowtown and see what I can do, though there isn't much from my training lately to suggest I'll pull a rabbit out of a hat there. Big D has no pacers and the course is not PR-friendly. That leaves Grandma's, which will also have a 3:10 pacer. I'll have a good 10 weeks between Big D and Grandma's to prepare, the weather should be favorable if temperatures are normal, and the course is (I think) the easiest of these three. That might be my day.

And if it isn't... come back in October 2014.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Race preview: Run the Line Half Marathon

Texarkana, TX

Sunday, Feb. 20

Run the Line Half Marathon

Just because. You won't find many races that cross three state lines, even if it's the same line three times.

A small but competitive field of about 250.

Low to mid 50s, cloudy with an even-money chance of light showers. As long as the thunderstorms hold off until the afternoon, we should be OK.

Much like my last race, the PR/age group award combo is in play (if I get the first one, I can get the second one). My PR from The Texas Half was 1:30:06; third place for M35-39 at Run the Line last year was 1:30:27.

I'll do 4 miles Tuesday, 6 Wednesday and 4 Thursday, then get up Saturday morning and jog an easy 3 before hitting the road.