Thursday, December 29, 2011

Race preview: New Year's Double

Allen, Texas

Saturday, Dec. 31 & Sunday, Jan. 1

New Year's Double, AKA New Year's Eve Marathon and New Year's Day Marathon

This is a new challenge for me. I've run races on back-to-back days, but those were a half marathon and a 10K. This will bump me up from a 2-star Maniac to a 4.

There are 2,000 registrants in 4 distances over 2 days, but among those going 26.2, there are 190 on Saturday and 121 on Sunday. There are 88 runners planning to run both marathons, but with a 6-hour time limit and certainly a fair number of folks who, like me, haven't tried this before, I can probably guarantee a few DNFs on Sunday.

Both races will start in the low 40s and finish in the low 50s, with hardly a cloud in the sky. The wind will be a factor, though, picking up out of the south as Saturday morning goes along, then turning around to become a pretty stiff north breeze throughout the race Sunday. There's a mid-loop straightaway of just over a mile that runs directly north-south; this could really sap some strength come Sunday (because the benefit of a tailwind is never as great as the punishment of a headwind).


The marathons will each have awards for the top 10 men and women, and since the registrant lists were posted, I did some somewhat-obsessive digging on Athlinks. Seems there are about 9 or 10 guys with faster PRs than me (and almost all of them are running both days). This suggests I might be right on the cusp of getting some bling. The wild card, of course, is strategy. Do I go all-out to make the top 10 on Saturday and just shuffle through Sunday? Do I sandbag Saturday and then go hard on Sunday to take advantage of everyone else being tired? If I do that, how tired will I be Sunday? If anyone cares about making the top 10, there's a good bit of poker to be played -- especially since the out-and-back loops assure you of knowing where you are virtually the entire race.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Year in review

The year-end best movie/song/album lists are coming out, so it's probably safe for me to roll out the recap of my 4th year as a runner.

I'll finish the year with about 1565 miles, assuming I hit 183 this month, my high for the year. I had a lull in September after hurting my ankle running 50 miles for the first time, but I'm feeling strong as the year draws to a close.

Here are a few things I'll remember:

SCORECARD: 2 5Ks, 1 10K, 2 15Ks, 6 half marathons, 6 marathons (counting one to come 12/31), 1 50K, 1 12-hour, 1 24-hour -- 405.44 race miles
PRs: 5K (19:23), 10K (42:20), 15K (1:02:57), half marathon (1:29:51), marathon (3:12:55), 50K (4:40:02), 12-hour (50.4 miles), 24-hour (57.04 miles). Yes, I set a PR at every distance I ran this year. Some still have major room for improvement (50K and 24-hour, obviously).
RUN OF THE YEAR: Dash Down Greenville. Two weeks earlier, I'd gone into Cowtown with a big checklist: first ultra, qualify for Maniacs, and hit the marathon split in 3:15 to (presumably) qualify for Boston. But the weather turned against me and wretched tendinitis made for 23 miles of pain. I took a week off and managed just 3 2-mile runs the next week before it was race day again. With the pain gone and my legs clearly much stronger from the long run and recovery, I ripped off a 32-second PR.
DUD OF THE YEAR: Tyler Rose Marathon. My first race back from the aforementioned injury was a mighty struggle and a reminder that while I should never have to worry about just finishing a marathon (barring catastrophic injury), I can't just roll out of bed and go nail one. Over an hour slower than my PR -- tougher course, yes, but that doesn't account for it all.
EVENT OF THE YEAR: Grandma's Marathon. Nothing ever happens in Duluth, except for this race. And they've been doing it for 35 years, so they've got the kinks worked out -- the organization was terrific. Spectator support was the best you'll see outside of New York, Boston or Chicago. I don't repeat events as a general rule, but there's a decent chance I will go run this one again.
NON-EVENT OF THE YEAR: Rock 'n' Roll San Antonio Marathon. My view might be a little skewed based on what just happened in Las Vegas, but in hindsight, the biggest problem there was also the biggest problem for my race: too many people. We all know that Competitor is a for-profit operation and they're as likely to cap race entries as I am to turn down a piece of pumpkin pie. But at some point they need to understand the laws of diminishing returns. The expo was too crowded. The start was too crowded. The finish was too crowded. And as a bonus, the course was terrible -- there was very little to look at, including, outside of about 2 areas, spectators.
I registered for Boston as somewhat of a charade. I figured the race would fill up during the registration window for folks who beat the standard by 5 minutes. When that didn't happen, the message board prognosticators still didn't give me and my BQ-2:05 much cause for hope. So on the day of the announcement, I just plodded away at work as usual and, frankly, completely forgot about obsessively checking the BAA website for updates. Then I got the notification of a mention on Twitter and suddenly it was time to party.
HOTEL OF THE YEAR: Candlewood Suites, downtown Mobile, AL. Just a few blocks from the expo and start/finish of the First Light Marathon. Very friendly staff, and quite affordable (it's not a huge race so they don't gouge you).
DUMP OF THE YEAR: America's Best Value Inn, Texarkana, AR. I tried to go cheap for the Run the Line Half Marathon. Big mistake.
BIG GOALS FOR NEXT YEAR: Run the New Year's Day marathon to complete the New Year's Double. Finish Rouge-Orleans alive. Break 19:00 at Dash Down Greenville. PR at Boston. Run 6 marathons in 16 days in the fall to hit level 6 of Maniacs (my schedule has to be reworked as one of the races I penciled in will be a week later next year). Go sub-24 at Old Dominion 100 or Cajun Coyote 100.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Race review: Run Like the Wind 24-Hour Run

It was nowhere near the 100 miles I was shooting for, but I set new PRs for distance and time by covering 57.04 miles (92 1K laps) in 12:22:18 before bowing out.

I was 2nd of 6 in the official results, although I think there were only 5 folks who started the day with any intent of going for 24 hours, and one of those got moved to the 12-hour roster after the race started.

Staying awake for 24 hours (plus) isn't the easiest thing to do, so I wanted to sleep in on Saturday and get to the race as shortly before the 10:30 a.m. start as I could. But 8:00 rolled around and I couldn't help it; I was wide awake. I got dressed, assembled my drop box and made the 15-minute drive to the Canine Center for Training and Behavior.

It had rained overnight and was continuing to drizzle as the start time approached. I thought about walking a lap to survey the course but figured I was about to see plenty of it anyway. There was some mud around the start-finish area that volunteers were covering with mulch, but generally the course looked to be in reasonable shape from what I could see of it. That would change quickly.

There were 29 starters in the four timed events (3, 6, 12 and 24 hours), and I found out before the start that there were 4 besides me who were planning to go the whole way. But I didn't know who any of them were and so I didn't concern myself with strategizing against them. I wasn't about to repeat my mistakes from the Labor Day weekend 12-hour in St. Louis; I just wanted a comfortable pace I could keep up for a while.

Within 5 laps I'd already lost track of what lap I was on, and I had only a rough guess of what pace I was keeping, though I knew it wasn't too fast. I could also tell that the course was not going to hold up for long. By the third lap I was already seeing areas where a thin layer of mulch was giving way to mud. Good thing my shoes were due for retirement anyway.

I generally followed the same nutrition plan as St. Louis, alternating a 350-calorie protein drink with a Clif bar or some other solid food after each hour. I mostly stuck to Heed for hydration instead of plain water and was careful not to overdo it, since hyponatremia has been a problem for me in the past. I'd had a headache for most of the week but I was feeling much better on this day.

About 2 1/2 hours in, I made a pit stop to reapply Aquaphor and checked the standings for the first time. I was in the lead! I had 23 laps; there were folks at 22, 21 and 20, I think. Suddenly I grew interested in finding out who these people were. A short time later a guy in a red shirt asked how far I was going, and he shared that he was doing the 24 as well. I learned that this was Austin, who was in 2nd. I started paying attention to where he was.

The 3-hour runners left the course and I was thankful, knowing that would mean several fewer pairs of shoes leaving footprints in the mud. Perhaps the rate of course erosion would ease, especially given that the rain had stopped. Austin passed me, and then lapped me, and I went back to not paying attention to others. I was chugging along just fine, not acutely aware of my pace but good enough with the math in my head to know that I was on track.

Shortly after the 6-hour competitors ended their day, I had my first foot issue. Just as I was coming around to the start/finish area, on one step with my left foot I felt the sharp pain at the front of the arch, in the middle of the foot, that is the telltale sign of skin about to be rubbed raw. I immediately ducked into the tent and went to work.

It was nothing to fix the foot (just a quick tape job), but the problem was that on this day, anything coming off was not going back on. That meant the compression socks that I really wanted to keep on as long as I could were going to be lost for the day. My shoes, totally drenched in mud, could've stayed on, but I went ahead and moved to the second pair. (I knew at the time that, barring extraordinary circumstances, this would be my only shoe change. I took a third pair but they were brand new and I really didn't want to kill them off immediately.)

As night fell, I strapped on my headlamp and limited my running to the couple of stretches that were still runnable thanks to artificial lighting. At 7:30 p.m., 9 hours in, I had 72 laps down. So I knew I needed 90 more to get to 100 miles, and with 15 hours to go, that meant I had only to churn out 10-minute laps (16:07 miles) the rest of the way.

Keeping track of this was easy. My laps just needed to end by :10:00, :20:00, :30:00, etc., on the clock, and I was consistently peeling off 9-minute laps. I set a goal to chip away little by little each lap to the point that I would have enough time for a bonus lap at the end, because 101.06 miles sounded much better to me than 100.44. My legs, after feeling achy for a while, were now just fine, probably because of the increased walking.

I was buoyed as well by hearing at the aid station that Austin, now a good 5 or 6 laps ahead of me, was thinking about dropping to the 12-hour event. At some point we were leapfrogging each other on the course and I asked him about it. He knew he couldn't keep the same effort for another 12 hours without crashing. I wasn't sure if I could either, but I was going for it. Another guy, Paul, had now moved ahead of me but I thought it would be easier to worry about making up a lap on him than 6 on Austin.

The 12-hour mark passed and Austin and a couple of others stopped. I was still on schedule, now with 90 laps down. A lap or two earlier I had felt a pain in my chest coming to the end of one of my run intervals. I figured I'd taken it a little too hard and tried to get past it with deep breaths. The bonus time I'd been banking with each lap was starting to wither to just a few seconds. I took a minute of it and sat down.

There were now just 3 of us left: me, Paul, and a woman named Shannon who was close to 20 laps behind me. There had been a couple brief rounds of rain since the late afternoon, once when I was changing shoes and again later when I was grabbing something to eat. The opening 50-meter stretch was a complete slop-fest by now, and plenty of other areas throughout the first quarter of the loop were quite boggy as well. I have no idea how, but Paul was zipping around the place without a light as if it were nothing. I hadn't seen Shannon in a while; we were probably just on opposite corners of the course, going the same speed.

My 91st lap came in only a couple of seconds under the goal. I tried running another little stretch near the start of the next lap, as I figured that despite the mud I knew enough about where I was going to run it. But the sharp pain in my chest returned, this time on the other (left) side. This set off some panic in me. I may well die running, but I wasn't ready for it to happen now. Fortunately I didn't have to worry about it because in short order the aches and pains in every other part of my body became too much to bear. My back was killing me, my knees were starting to go, and my feet were swelling. I came to the next section I would normally have run, and I just couldn't do it. My walk became a stagger, and finally my will vanished. I sat in the tent for 20 minutes with no intent to continue, then turned in my chip.

Paul and Shannon kept going until past the 17-hour mark, when apparently thunderstorms rolled in and shut the thing down. Before I left, I had chatted with Sam, the race director, about prizes and felt fairly certain I'd end up in 3rd, assuming Shannon kept going. She came up 2 laps short of catching me. I felt bad about that, since the awards are not intended for the folks that go out quickly but don't see things through to the end.

Speaking of which, I felt bad in general about how this race went when I headed back to the hotel. Not only did I not run 24 hours or 100 miles, but I'd made such small improvements over my previous personal bests. You hear "100 miles in 24 hours" and think that's such an easy thing to do, to keep up a 4.17-mph pace. But what that calculation ignores is all the ancillary stuff that goes on. You have to eat, and drink, and on a day like we had, you have to keep up with your gear. The eating and drinking weren't an issue for me, but in hindsight I would have taken at least 5 or 6 more pairs of socks, and still another pair of shoes, this one bigger and wider to fit my feet better after so many hours.

As I've thought about it, these kinds of preparation mistakes just come along with being new at this. I looked up the resumes of my competitors. Austin ran Rocky Raccoon last winter (and under 24 hours, at that). Shannon has banged out most all the Tejas Trails events in the last couple years. And Paul is not just some dude: try Western States AND Badwater just last year, for example (they're 3 weeks apart), to go with numerous other 100s over the last few years (Heartland, Angeles Crest, The Bear, Wasatch Front, etc.). Compared to those folks, I am a total spare. This made me feel a lot better about my effort. Some day, I will get there.

My result was also a major wake-up call for Rouge-Orleans. It's barely 2 months away and I don't really have time to revamp my training schedule to be what it probably needs to be. So it might come to be that I get out there and just walk the whole damn thing (I can still make the time limit if I just keep moving forward). Whatever happens, I won't be mentally unprepared. The loop course I just ran made it a little easier to give up when things got tough. Rouge-Orleans is point-to-point, with a few very widely-spaced aid stations (think 25 miles apart) and, for me, no crew. "It hurts", in the sense of aches and pains, is not going to cut it.


As with many ultras, you in fact do not run this one for the stuff. The race is aimed at dog people, seeing as it's held at a dog training facility and raises money to help people who otherwise can't afford to get their dogs trained. So the goodies were dog treats, a frisbee, etc. -- nothing my cats can get excited about. The T-shirt is a soft organic one, though, and in the coming days I should be seeing a hat in the mail to commemorate my 2nd-place finish.

New Year's Double (marathons), Allen, Dec. 31-Jan. 1.