H.U.R.T. Slog Blog

Getting in. The lottery for the 2017 H.U.R.T. was held the day I finished Fat Dog 120 in August. After a fitful night’s sleep, I hobbled over to the lodge, connected to the internet for the first time in a few days and happily discovered that I had not been awarded entry. A week later, the waitlist was released, and I, remembering only the glory of Fat Dog, happily discovered that I sat at #2. A few weeks later, I was in.

Training. I focused on running the Richmond marathon in early November. Then, figuring my meticulously-planned training for Fat Dog seemed to work well, I jotted down the mileage I put in for each of the 10 weeks leading up to Fat Dog, and tried to replicate it leading up to H.U.R.T. I came fairly close. My long runs were VDM at Thanksgiving (~27m), Birthday MGM (50k) and Boyer’s (40m), on which I resisted the peer pressure of Marthon urging me to quit with them at ~32. #mentaltraining

Obligatory setback. 2016 was a great year of running for me. I came within about 10 minutes of it being a perfect year of running, but with about a mile to go on a pancake flat December 31st run, I took a bad spill. I was finishing my run at a decent clip, daydreaming about running the Cherry Blossom 10-miler in April when I caught my foot on an off-kilter concrete block. I went from vertical to horizontal before I knew what happened, landing hard on my right side.

I managed to run with mild discomfort over the course of the next week, but the following weekend, I had to cut a final Rock Creek run in half when I was wheezing in pain less than a mile into the run. Unofficial diagnosis was a bruised rib. I shut myself down for the final week and hoped for the best.

Relaxing in Hawaii.

Here are some things I did in the 2 days before the race:

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Pillbox Hike on Thursday morning to see the sunrise
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Course scouting: favorite tree we’d run through 10x

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Relaxing at Waimanalo Beach the day before the race. This beach is nice

I did other things, but I either don’t have photographic evidence or they were not worthy of reporting.

The Course. H.U.R.T. has a reputation of being one of the least runnable (but most punnable!) races out there. The race consists of 5 identical 20-mile “loops,” and each loop consists of 3 legs (approximate lengths of ~7.2, 5.5, and 7.3 miles). To oversimplify, the course can be thought of as a “Y” with aid stations at the three points of the “Y” and the start/finish located at the bottom. Leg 1 runs up from the bottom to the central intersection and off to the right. Leg 2 retraces back to the intersection and off to the left arm. Leg 3 retraces back to the intersection and down to the bottom. The end of leg 3 does not match the beginning of leg 1 exactly, but in the other two cases, you’re traveling the same trail in the reverse direction when you leave an aid station.

The aid stations are at low elevations and the central intersection is towards the high point of each leg. So you descend into each aid station and begin with a climb when you leave, and (again oversimplification), each leg is basically one big climb, a little flat, and a big descent.

The trails are very technical. You cross through the Pauoa Flats trail  on each and every leg (3 x 5 = 15 crossing). This section has the most dramatic roots (see below), but, it’s short, it’s flat, so it’s really not bad. Much of the rest of the course is covered in rocks and roots. With few exceptions, you’re unable to get into a consistent stride for more than a few minutes.

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It’s not all like this.

H.U.R.T. is also known for great aid stations. The volunteers are all fantastic, and–not to take away from the wonderful people–there’s a very logical explanation for the quality of the aid stations: there are only three. So food supplies that might be normally spread out across 10,15+ aid stations are consolidated into three. Honestly, there are almost too many food options. But the people and the food and the atmosphere really do live up to the hype.

Race Plan. I had a large drop bag and the start/finish. For the other two I just had ziplocs with a few small food items, and I made sure to have a headlamp or flashlight at each of the three aid stations. I would carry two handhelds the whole time, except the final loop when I switched to a hydration pack with bladder, mainly so I could collect any headlamps left at the two other aid stations. Keli was there to crew, but I insisted that she actually enjoy Oahu and sleep, so the plan was for her to see me off, go explore for a while, crew all of Loop 3, go to sleep, and then crew Loop 5, running the last leg with me.

Loop 1: The getting-my-bearings-loop. We started in the dark at 6am. After the first ~2 miles of climbing, you reach a short section of paved road, followed by a relatively flat, relatively runnable section. In other races, you might feel excited to open it up a tiny bit. But the heat & humidity, though not totally oppressive, kept my energy levels at bay and helped me stay slow.

The roots also slowed me down, though I did manage to slam my shin into big gnarly ones on two occasions. I also slipped in the one stream crossing, soaking my left foot, which wasn’t the end of the world, but I learned to be more careful. I didn’t spend more than 2-3 minutes in the aid stations and just got my bearings. I believe adrenaline kept my rib pain at bay; it helped to be going slow as well.

Loop Time: 4:28, 24th place.

Loop 2: The hot-but-not-as-bad-as-I-thought loop. After a quick change of socks, I was on my way. About 1.5 miles out, I caught up to the legendary Nikki Kimball. We ran together for the next few miles, which was a treat. We stayed in close proximity the rest of the race–she would lose me on the downs, and I would catch up and pass on the ups. She was planning on having surgery on her leg two weeks later. I was not.

The heat was bad, but not nearly as bad as DC summers, and you’re under cover the vast majority of the time with a breeze helping at times. On leg 2, I took a spill on one of the least technical–obviously–sections of trail. I broke my fall with my handhelds, puncturing one of them. The rib flared up a little bit, but I walked it off and sat down for a few minutes on Bien’s Bench before descending to Nu’uanu. I felt strong when I finished the loop.

Loop Time: 5:07, 16th place.

Loop 3: Darkness falls, crewed loop. Master crew chief Keli had all my gear laid out on a towel, and I pointed to various articles as I rested in a chair. We taped up my punctured water bottle and I was on my way. Keli drove around to meet me at the other aid stations, so I was motivated to finish each leg and less motivated to leave.

In my pre-race research, I had come across several references to trails with “you-could-die-if-you-take-a-wrong-step” precipices. On loops 1 and 2, I pooh poohed these claims. But, when darkness fell on the third loop, and particularly on the descent on Leg 2 into Nu’uanu and the ascent out of there, I was pooh poohing no longer. When you’re sleepy, you’ve got 40+ miles on your legs, it’s dark, and there’s even a tiny bit of moisture on the trails (and we had a dry year), it’s  scary.

Keli was at the Nu’uanu aid station but went home to get some sleep. Towards the end of the loop, I could sense my mind slipping a bit. I thought I was on Loop 4 a few times and had to remind myself I was just on Loop 3, which was… disappointing.

Loop Time: 5:50, 13th Place

Loop 4: Blackout Loop. My drop bag at the start/finish was a small duffel bag with all my dry clothes in a trashbag and everything else loose inside. Upon finishing Loop 3, I grabbed my bag, sat down, removed the large trash bag of dry clothes, set it to the side, and took off my shoes and socks. Then I proceeded to frantically search the duffel bag for my change of socks. Ignoring the trashbag beside me, the amazing crewing from earlier, and the general selfishness of running an ultra, I sent a 2:31am text to a sleeping Keli, eloquently asking “Socks?! Where are they??” Just before putting my wet socks back on, I remembered the trash bag, sheepishly sent an apology text, put on my dry socks, and was soon on my way.

This loop was hard. The jungle provides a great deal of protection from the sun during the day, but it makes for a very dark night.  On Leg 2, descending to Nu’uanu, I encountered a feral pig snorting and scampering away on the side of the trail. I was not hallucinating. It was scary. I don’t want to talk about it. Karma for my text to Keli, maybe.

I had a sort of secondary crew member on this loop. Codi was crewing his girlfriend, who was just a bit behind me, so he was at all the aid stations when I came through. He swooped in and helped me out at the first aid station and was there to help at the others, which was nice. I think my bib # matched his lacross # in college, which was how we connected–a short-lived Bromance that was much appreciated.

Loop Time: 6:52, 12th Place

Loop 5: Heading Home Loop!

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One. More. Loop.

Keli greeted me at the end of Loop 4, helped me through a small pity party, got me changed, and I was off for the final loop. Here’s where the benefit of the loop course comes in. At the end of Fat Dog, I was pretty unsure of what lay ahead, how much more climbing I had to do, how far I had to go to get the next aid station, etc. This was tough on the mind. Here, I had a very good sense of distances and landmarks. (e.g. when I reach this fallen tree I’ve got 4 more switchbacks to the top, this climb takes 10 minutes at an easy pace, etc.).

The last loop is a celebratory loop in ways–this is the last time I have to make this climb, traverse this mud patch, cross this stream, etc. I bid a fond farewell to each aid station as I passed. Keli crewed me at the first aid station and then met me at the second one to run the last leg with me. As we climbed out she was worried that I was keeping the pace slow on her behalf. I assured her this was impossible. I eventually told her to run ahead because I wanted to slow down even more.

Once we’d reached the highest point of Leg 3, I let Keli push me to a much faster pace than I would otherwise have run. We passed the first place female and “sped” towards the finish. A kiss of the sign, a ring of the bell, and I was done!

Loop Time: 6:26, 9th Place.

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It wasn’t.

Here are all my splits for the mathletes. Leg times are measured from time in to one aid station to time in to the next aid station–so Leg 1 times (except loop 1) include the longer break taken prior to beginning that loop. Bold underlined legs required headlamp use for at least a portion of it.

Leg 1 Leg 2 Leg 3 Loop Time Total Time
Loop 1 1:40:11 1:11:23 1:36:36 4:28:10 4:28:10
Loop 2 1:50:47 1:25:19 1:51:16 5:07:22 9:35:32
Loop 3 2:02:28 1:37:58 2:09:32 5:49:58 15:25:30
Loop 4 2:36:23 1:49:10 2:26:33 6:52:06 22:17:36
Loop 5 2:37:31 1:44:00 2:04:07 6:25:38 28:43:14

Conclusions.

  1. I liked this race a lot more than I imagined I would. The loop setup required minimal logistical thought ahead of time. The loops are long enough, the terrain varied enough, and the jungle flora interesting enough that it did not feel boring. Knowing what lay ahead at the end was very helpful psychologically.
  2. Slow is good. Lack of drama: also good.
  3. I’m not typically a beach person, but I am after a 100 mile race.

 

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America’s Friendliest Marathon

According to its website, the Richmond Marathon is “America’s Friendliest Marathon!” The quotation marks clue the reader in to the fact that this is an unofficial designation, and can a marathon itself really be friendly anyways? Anthropomorphization knows no bounds. I was skeptical.

Regardless, in early 2015 I signed up for this race with the intention of avenging my two barely-over-3-hour marathon efforts and finally breaking that barrier. Shortly after signing up, I discovered that a friend of ours would be getting married that weekend. I took advantage of the option to defer my entry to 2016 for a small fee.  Then in between, I got my sub-3 at the DC Rock and Roll marathon in March. All pressure was off.

Keli was running the half. We would be staying with friends of friends–the friends would be there too, running the half, and the friends of friends would be running the 8K. Our hosts picked up our packets for us on Friday and prepared a nice pre-race pasta meal at their home–they were super friendly. I slept well, getting close to 8 hours of sleep (a rarity before races and a good sign).

Race morning, we were able to park in a a garage, quite literally, 1 block from the starting line (smaller marathons are the best). The temperature was probably high 30s and was looking to warm up a little but stay below 50 for the duration of the race, which was a good sign for me. We spotted a gsp puppy (good sign), and I was able to relieve myself of a little weight in the port-a-potty (another good sign). Tired of good signs? Bad signs included (1) the fact that I accidentally dropped my clif block shots in said port-a-potty and (2) it was a bit windy, which could make things tougher. I still had 3 gels, so all nutrition was not lost.

The half-marathoners head off in several waves beginning at 7:30am, the marathon at 7:45am. I jogged up the sidelines two blocks and watched Keli and crew run by, then went back to wait by the start. Around 7:40am I noticed that there seemed to be more runners yet to start then could feasibly cross the starting line by 7:45am. Just at that moment, I overheard another marathoner ask about this, and I learned that the marathon in fact started two blocks away (this is the problem of having gracious hosts take care of all details for you). I made a dash for the real start, snaked my way through the crowds and hopped the barricade for the first wave with about 30 seconds to spare. Game on.

Oftentimes when a race has both a marathon and a half marathon option (my sample size was 2 before Richmond), the two races share the first ~12 miles and then deviate. A marathoner in this situation has to deal with the crushing reality that he/she has another 14 miles while watching the half marathoners peel off for their final mile. The worst. Richmond is great in that the two races run in parallel for just the first 2 miles. Then the marathoners split off, do their thing, and the two courses share the final 5 miles. Jealousy is less prominent.

The first half was relatively uneventful. You have about 2 miles in the less scenic downtown area, but you quickly get into some nice residential neighborhoods. You cross the St. James River just before mile 8, then you get the next 1.5 miles running right along the south side of the river on a heavily shaded wandering road, with zero urban sights in view. It’s lovely and it’s early enough in the race that you should probably still be feeling good.

I took down a gel around mile 5 then again at 10. Around the halfway mark I spotted a “candy tent” and snagged a handful of gummy bears to make up for the aforementioned port-a-potty gummies. I crossed the halfway mark at a 1:27:30 which was faster than I was planning, but I was feeling in control so I didn’t panic. yet. At mile 15, we turned north back over a bridge.

The next 3 miles were tough. It was a very slight but steady incline and it felt like we were going into a headwind the whole time (despite a 90 degree turn halfway in the middle). It might have actually been a stiff crosswind on the bridge, but bridges are agonizing. I had picked up one of the race’s gels, an “Accel Gel” before the bridge, and had it soon after the bridge. Its metallic aftertaste prevented it from receiving my official endorsement. One final gel at mile 21 represented the extent of my fueling, which seemed to work well.

We joined up with the half-marathoners at mile 21, and the course did a good job of having a line of cones down the middle of the road to keep the two groups separate. By this point, I knew sub 3 was assured, a PR was also virtually assured, and if I didn’t crash much, sub-2:55 was also very likely. And here is where the race really starts to get, dare I say, friendly. Though not pancake flat, it’s about as close as you can get (blueberry pancake flat?). I kept up very even splits from 21 to 25, and then began to push it after mile 25, which is slightly down hill (fastest mile for me!).

The final quarter mile is steep downhill; gravity does all the work if you can just lift your feet and deal with the debilitating knee pain (Strava said I was running a 5:17 mile pace at the end). I spotted Keli and crew on the sidelines, veered to the side to get some high-5’s before the final push and crossed the finish line in 2:53:12, a new PR by 5 minutes, bringing to an end what can only be described as the friendliest marathon I have ever run.

We made a quick exit, showered, rehydrated, caffeinated, and were ready for a productive day of beer mile training.

Fat Dog 2016!

I ran the Fat Dog 120(+2) in August. It was a tremendous success by all measures, so without further adieu, here are my 10 steps for a successful Fat Dog (portions of which are likely applicable to other similar races):

Step 1: Optimize non-running portions of the trip. For me, this consisted of linking up with a merry band of fellow runners (Marthon, Julian & Daniel) and planning a vacation with Keli after the race. Even if the race itself was a disaster, I knew the trip would be a success because  I would have fun before and after (I did). Plus, the guarantee of pre- and post-race fun mitigated the need to obsess over my performance. Less obsession with performance –> relaxation –> better performance.

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Team Fat Dog!

Step 2: Don’t overtrain. I averaged about 50 miles / week leading up to Fat Dog, maxing out with 60-mile weeks on 3 occasions. I had 4 long runs: Holy Cowans 50K in May, Highlands Sky 40 miler in June, 28 miles of pacing at Hardrock and Catherine’s 50K in July. I had another few 18-20 mile runs but not many.

This sounds like a lot to me, but it’s definitely lower mileage than many other people; some people run more for half marathon training. I resisted peer pressure to run more on a few occasions (including those crazy Watkinses suggesting a back-to-back 50K the day after Catherine’s). I’ve built up my mileage very slowly over the course of years–not months or weeks–and I found that this amount of training, plus a healthy taper,  left me uninjured, happy, and rested. Post-race recovery was not all that bad either.

Step 3: Get Excited! You’ve gotta have a good amount of enthusiasm going into an event that will last a day and a half, and I had that. I didn’t let the adrenaline tire me out, but I did allow myself to get psyched up for this race in the weeks leading up and a bit at the start. The first minute of the race was probably the most exciting minute of my year, and really really wanting to do this race helped me throughout. Note: the last minute of the race was the most relieving minute of my year.

Step 4: Stay cool; don’t look cool. In thinking of what might lead to failure, I was most worried about the sun and overheating (that contributed to my demise at Bighorn last year). So I donned a really nerdy hat that covered my ears and neck and rocked some newly-acquired arm sleeves. I’ve appeared more stylish in races, but I think the sun protection was very helpful.

Step 5: Stop and smell the flowers. This race is incredibly beautiful. The vast majority is on nice trails, there are wildflowers galore and beautiful vistas when you get up high on the major climbs. We even got a clear night with thousands of stars and a meteor shower. Enjoy it. Slow down and take pictures. The pictures never do it justice, but it keeps you going slow, and you’ve gotta go slow to go fast.

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Scenic Death March
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This guy has the right idea
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Flowers for days

Step 6: Eat lots of Bannock. Mmmmm, so delicious. I almost retraced my footsteps to get more from the aid station after I left. In addition to that fried, bready goodness covered in fresh blackberry jam, I thought the food at the aid stations was great. Bacon galore. Lots of variety. I don’t overthink my nutrition, but I generally had success in fueling throughout the race.

Step 7: Stay positive. Attitude matters, so I told Keli my #1 goal was to come in and leave (well, at a minimum, leave) each aid station with a smile on my face. I definitely allowed myself some pouting and self pity on the course, but I figured forcing myself to be happy at regular intervals would help my overall psyche. I achieved this goal at all aid stations, with the exception of the last one, at which there would be only frowns and bug bites.

Step 8: Rely on the kindness of strangers & new friends. Attitude only gets you so far; sometimes you need a little help. All of the aid station workers and runners were super friendly (it was an ultra, and it was in Canada, duh). But, I got a few notable boosts along the way:

1) At the first major aid station (Mile 18), Julian’s crew of Nicki and Ann were there to help get me nourished, refill my bottles, and give me encouragement. Even without the promised pom-poms, they gave me a big shot of energy going into the next section, which was a tough one.

2) Work constraints made Keli have to fly out the morning of the race and was supposed to meet me at the next major aid station (Mile 41), but United Airlines had other ideas, so I found myself alone (she missed me by 4 minutes!). As I was looking around for Keli, Hannah and Jack swooped in to help me get changed and geared up for the night. Hannah also shuttled my drop bag to the next major aid station for me.

3) Finally, I fell victim to bad blisters (for the first time ever really), and I was a bit of a mess coming through the Nicomen Lake Aid Station in the middle of the night. A volunteer there gave me a few of her own bandages to get me through the next 15 miles (I got the full treatment at a major aid station the next morning). I’d also forgotten to pack some Advil, but on the way out another runner saw me hobbling and offered up some of his own stash, which was critical for making it through the night.

It’s amazing how much these little acts of kindness help out.

Step 9: Have a good pacer. On the whole, I felt great and could have managed all alone had the race been a mere 100 miles, but I was losing steam big time as I approached the final section, which had lots of climbs and would get some exposure to the hot afternoon sun. Luckily Martha was there to pace me after helping crew in the first half of the day. Martha enjoys conversation, so I knew that she’d have no trouble distracting me for those final 20 miles, no matter how long it took. But she also knew that sometimes a suffering runner just needs silence, so before the race, she armed me with a safe word (i.e. short, profanity-laced sentence) that I could use to demand quiet if needed.

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non-verbal manifestation of the safe word at mile ~105

Despite claims of being a bad pacer, Martha was great. She reminded me to eat and hydrate; she told good stories; she told one horrible story, then during quiet contemplation reformulated that story into a 15-minute masterpiece. I never came close to using the safe word in large part because Martha could intuit when I was suffering, and she herself would suggest halts in conversation/monologue that lasted five, even upwards of ten minutes–a veritable ultramarathon of silence for her.

And finally, it never came to it, but she was prepared to defend my honor, possibly with violence, in the final stages of the race: first when a chipper 40-miler was gushing over the beauty of the course as I sat on a log, looking deep within my soul and my bag of trailmix, trying to muster enough strength for the last 5 miles. And again in the final mile when overzealous course markers nearly tripped me up in a frantic effort to line the course with glow sticks… an hour before sundown. (And she also provided 50% of the photos that appear in this post).

Step 10: Have a great crew. It should be noted that anyone that serves as a crew is almost certainly an excellent person. Obviously, they help speed things up / eliminate chaos at each aid station: your drop bag needs no retrieval, bladders are refilled, food is brought to you, packs are cleaned of trash, etc. etc. If they really really like you, they may even massage your tired legs. Life in the aid station is good and efficient.

If, on top of this, you recognize the utter selflessness of crewing, you may feel compelled to repay crew by 1) not dropping unless absolutely necessary (they have invested their time for your success) and 2) moving as quickly as possible to minimize their waiting time. And if you genuinely like your crew, then, in those few miles before an aid station when you may be feeling sluggish, you may have even more motivation to keep moving to see a friendly face.

And if, on top of all of this, your crew is someone who not only is supporting you in the race in question, but also has supported you in multiple other races, and supports you in all non-running aspects of your life as well, then that is a comforting thing to think about and can give you a healthy dose of perspective when you want to amputate your feet in the middle of the night: what you are suffering through is pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. So while I may not approve of Fat Dog’s slogan, I do think that having the above perspective does in fact help you to “suck it up” at low points.

All of the above applied to me at Fat Dog, and I could not ask for a better crew chief than Keli. After the race, we got to explore Whistler & Vancouver, where we had a grand old time, hiking, biking, drinking, eating, and singing our favorite new song (courtesy of Martha) a bit more than we’d probably care to admit.

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Recovery hike with my crew.

References and some practical bonus advice:

11: poles were helpful for the last 20 miles but I didn’t need/want them before that.

12: the race organizers take the mandatory gear list pretty seriously (and it sounds like it was all needed in 2015), so I wouldn’t try to cheat it. It’s not horrible but you should probably practice carrying extra weight in training.

13: Save your quads and go slow on the first few descents. 120 miles is a long way.

14: The ‘flat’ section from ~80 – 100 is a lot less flat than you would hope.

Photos I took from the first 40 miles

Professional Photos from the race.

Elevation profile in feet and employing a more useful scale than the one on the website.

If you’re considering running it, do it!

2016 Highlands Sky 40

Fat Dog was the big goal this year, but I told myself that if I was feeling good, I would put in a hard effort at Highlands Sky. I found myself the day before the race feeling good, though my foot was giving me a tiny bit of trouble–one of those injuries where you just start running and it could either go away completely or completely ruin your run.

The drive from DC to Canaan is lovely. Once you escape the first miles of 66, it’s smooth sailing, scenic and downright enjoyable. Former champs Martha and Aaron were hosting me in Canaan, and I was hoping some of their skills and knowledge would rub off on me. Check-in went smoothly, and I indulged in a bit of the pre-race dinner, which I personally found quite delicious (pasta, meatballs, chicken, salad, garlic bread, etc.)

Back at Marthon’s, I had dinner part 2: pizza from Siriani’s. Also delicious. Next up was a failed attempt to feed the ponies, then a hike up to PJ’s house for s’mores plus 1/2 a beer around the firepit. I didn’t get to bed until after 11 and wakeup time was a little after 4, but I never really get much sleep before these things anyways, so it was good to have activities to keep my mind off the race.

At the start, I met up with Robin, who was coming off her course record at Laurel Highlands (a 70-miler) the previous weekend and was ambitiously gunning for another one here. I hadn’t really thought about pace at all, but she showed me her pace chart, and I learned that 10:30 miles would get me a 7 hour finish. I filed that away in my head.

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Bernie pup at the starting line = very good omen.

After some milling around, the race started pretty abruptly. The first two miles are on a paved road. It’s downhill. You can stretch your legs out and run probably a little faster than you should. Robin and I did the first two miles in about 7:30 and 7:00. My foot was not bothering me at all, so I was feeling pretty optimistic. Turn left on the trail, grab a drink of water and start the long climb up. The trail is not super technical to start, but there can be a lot of overgrowth, so you do have to watch where you’re stepping. The climb starts at a very slight, runnable, incline and seems to gradually steepen over the course of its ~6 miles.

One guy was wearing tights, which Robin and I thought was odd until we got to the stinging nettles section. It was maybe 3.5 miles into the race and only lasted ~5 minutes, but those suckers hurt. They don’t leave any lingering pain though, so once you’re through, you’re good. Note: tights guy said the tights didn’t even help, so stick with shorts.

I tiptoed around a few puddles on the way up until you cross a small creek / waterfall about 5.5 miles in. Your feet definitely get wet there. Soon after the waterfall, the trail gets really steep, and I power-hiked up until it levels out near the top. One mini/half fall on the flat section because I got a little lazy.

From here to the Road Across the Sky (henceforth known as RAtS), I settled into an easy effort. You have to slosh through mud, splash through black puddles with unknown terrain below (I think our year may have even qualified as a ‘dry’ year), and there is a lot of overgrowth, so it is in your best interest to take it slow. Later in the race, a lot of the top guys would be talking about falling down several times, which probably helped my cause. I made it a point not to look at my watch, instead just focusing on not falling, keeping my effort under control, and taking in enough food to fuel me for the second half.

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Up in the Highlands

Coming out of AS3 (mile ~16), I had settled in behind a runner, Matt, whose Capital Area Runners singlet suggested he was a good road runner. I had learned that we were sitting in 7th and 8th place, which was a pleasant surprise. A bit before the RAtS, you come to an area called “10 Bridges,” aptly named because there are, yes, 10 bridges (think wooden boardwalks). Once you get past the 10th bridge, you’re at the RAtS. Matt and I had caught up with two other runners at this point, so a top 5 position, and associated finish prize, was quite literally in sight. After Bridge #10, the four of us turned onto the RAtS.

Full disclosure: the RAtS is in many ways an objectively brutal section of the course. You are out in the open, the elevation profile makes the rolling hills look tame, but they’re legit (it also feels like the ups far exceed the downs), and you’re largely running in a straight line, making the road appear to stretch on for eternity. Aaron’s advice was to assume that the road would never end. That way, when (if?) it ends, you are happily surprised. I was carrying my phone for picture-taking purposes, and I had included some headphones so some music might help pass the time.

Confession: I loved this section. I emerged onto the road feeling great and quickly decided to forgo the headphones and focus on the race. Matt and I passed the other two runners and settled into a nice low-7 min/mile pace. There’s an aid station about a mile down the road, but the next one was only ~3.5 miles ahead, I had ample water and gels and was feeling great, so while Matt made a pitstop, I just called out my bib number and kept on trucking into 5th place. Two ants appeared on the horizon, and I told myself to stay steady and that I would pass them by the end of the road. In reality, I was able to reel them in before the next aid station, making sure to run a little harder as I passed them. My watch dipped into a sub-7 min mile pace on the downs.

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The Long and [non]Winding Road
Soon after that aid station, I caught another runner and moved into 2nd place, definitely uncharted territory for me. I must admit I got a little giddy at the prospect of actually leading a race, but I allowed myself to slow down a bit towards the end of the road to catch my breath and take down some more food. I arrived at the aid station at the end of the road to learn that 1st place was 25 minutes ahead (with ~12 miles to go this seemed insurmountable). BUT, the volunteers said 1st place did not look good and had laid down at the aid station, so I didn’t completely give up hope.

I took it slow to catch my breath for about a mile after the road, but then settled into a solid effort for the remainder–never letting up but also not pushing it super hard. After a few miles I realized that the crash I half/fully expected after my effort on the RAtS wasn’t going to happen. In every ultra I’d run up to this point, I’d had at least one low period that was painful enough to question why I run these stupid things. That didn’t happen this time.

Once I picked it up again after the RAtS, my mood could best be described as “happy.” It was kind of a stressful time in my life, and I was just thankful to be running in a beautiful place, and both doing and feeling a whole lot better than I expected. So I ran and was happy. I chatted with the various hikers / horseback riders who gave me conflicting versions of how far back I was (anywhere from 10 minutes to 45 minutes). Aid Station 7 told me I was 20 minutes back, but first place was still looking a little haggard. Spoiler alert: he fought through some pain and held on for the win, though he said he had strongly considered dropping late in the race.

Coming down the ‘butt slide’ (not too bad, though I guess if it’s wet it’d be a whole lot worse) I got some encouragement from Kirstin and Tom who were hiking up the trail. At the final aid station, Aaron informed me that first place was out of reach but told me to sprint it in for pride. So I did! For maybe a half mile. This course is awesome, but these last four miles are not that great. I figured I was not going to catch 1st and probably not going to be caught, so I eased up a bit.

I ran into Martha who joined up with me on her bike for a mile or so of road. After a few hours on my own, it was good to have some company, and she confirmed that 3rd place was nowhere in sight. She’s also a huge proponent of walking, so I got to walk some inclines with no shame. I jogged the last 1/2 mile of woods on my own and emerged at the finish line, crossing in 2nd place having closed the gap with 1st down to 9 minutes. Top-5 finishers got a sweet Patagonia vest, which I wore with pride.

Here’s my Strava. I ran in my beloved Saucony Peregrine 5s, which I think was a good shoe for this course. I hope to find another pair before I run this race again. I’m not sure I can have a repeat performance, but I’ll definitely run it again.

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destroyed my favorite socks. 😦

On Goals

On Goals

The Goal

Once the dust of Hellgate settled, I gave myself two running goals for 2016. One is to finish the Fat Dog 120 in August out in British Columbia. I am 0 for 1 in long races out West, so I’ve got a healthy dose of respect for and fear of this race. But it looks absolutely beautiful, there’s a good group going, and Keli and I may make a longer vacation out of it, so I’m really looking forward to it.

My other goal was to run a sub 3 hour marathon. I ran a 3:00:42 in Charleston in 2012 and then a 3:00:26 at Boston in 2013 and hadn’t tried to go faster since then. I’ve spent the last two years dipping my toes into and then fully immersing myself into the trail running / ultra world, largely leaving the roads behind. But the marathon does hold a special place in my heart–that’s what got me into running–and my PR seemed too close to the 3 hour mark to just let it sit there. I was only partially looking forward to this.

I picked the DC Rock and Roll Marathon to give it a go. The plan was to get down to business in January and February: eat healthy, do some marathon-specific training with some longer runs on roads, maybe some hill repeats on Joey’s hill (which the race would pass through). The reality was not close to the plan. No dedicated speedwork / hills to speak of; holiday food galore; weddings; travel, etc. I did have a good 3 week stretch with some solid runs, and I kept up running fairly consistently, but I tended not to rearrange my life in favor of training.

The Race

In the end, I arrived at race day unsure of how I would perform. On the one hand, I assumed my legs were generally much stronger than they were 3 years ago, but on the other hand, I hadn’t trained specifically for this race or for speed in general. I probably hadn’t run a total of 26 individual sub-7 minute miles in the past year. I wasn’t sure which side would win out, but I figured I had a decent shot, particularly since the weather cooled off and it looked like it would remain cloudy all day (it did).

My plan was to run the first half in 1:30, and then try to crank it up in the second half, and hope my legs and mind would carry me through. In my previous two 3-hour marathons, I’d given myself a good cushion at the halfway point, only to crash and burn in the final miles. Unlike my attempt at a serious training regimen, my race plan would be executed well.

I got some crowd support from my Dad in Rock Creek, made it up Joey’s hill at mile 6 just fine, got some more support from Keli, Melisa and other friends on North Capitol Street, and I’d shared much of the race from mile 4 onward with Robin and Martha, so things were going smoothly.

Martha and I bid a jealous adieu to Robin–she was running the half–where the two races diverged, and we came through the halfway point just a little behind 1:30. So far so good. Two pace bikes emerged and ultimately indicated that Martha was the second female. She seemed pleasantly surprised/cautiously optimistic. A few spectators let out a “Girl Power!” cry as we cruised through Capitol Hill, which presumably gave Martha power but conferred no benefits on me.

Soon after we entered the out-and-back section at miles ~15-17, we saw Aaron on his way back towards us. He was looking good (he went on to finish a solid 8th in 2:45), gave us some encouragement, and we continued on waiting to see how far ahead the first place female would be. Female #1 was looking strong when we crossed paths with her around mile 16, and though I botched timing how far ahead she was (my brain not good during the marathons), it was a good 3-4 minutes. Outwardly, Martha seemed content to hang back in 2nd, but internally may felt differently. We continued along our way.

Around mile 18, I noticed that a bird had pooped on my shorts, which is good luck? or not. But it was an appropriate metaphor for the current mood that was setting in. My legs were protesting a bit from the pounding of the roads, and I started to plant seeds of doubt in my head. During this stretch, I was doing my best just to keep up with Martha.  The race thins out a lot in the second half, and had I been running alone, I don’t know if I could have kept it up the pace (that happened to me late in the race at Charleston, another small marathon). So I fought a mile or two of pain, determined not to fall back. Ultimately, I took down a gel and some Gatorade, which helped a lot, and as we came through mile 20, Martha told me we just had to run the last 10K in 45 minutes to break 3. It didn’t seem quite “in the bag” as she noted, but it did seem very achievable.

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good aim.

There’s a gradual ~0.5 mile loop at this point at the end of Anacostia Park, and as we were coming out the back end of it, I caught a glimpse of the lead female’s two pace bikes less than a minute up ahead, just before they turned the corner out of view. I wasn’t sure if Martha had seen that, but I kept quiet since 1) she seemed to be in the zone (it was a rare silent Martha sighting) 2) I figured at this pace, we would catch her in a few minutes and 3) let’s be honest, I was working too hard to talk much.

Sure enough, we crossed paths with the leader as we came to a U-turn around mile 21. Then as we approached Fort Dupont park around 22, Martha kicked it up a gear and pulled into first never to look back. By the time we crested the final peak in the park, second place was a good 100+ yards behind. We’d separated from each other a little bit by this point–Martha had a race to win–and coming down the descent from that last hill, I didn’t try to keep up.

By now, I was confident I would make it and I felt myself ease up just a tiny bit, still keeping under 7:00 miles. I would spend the last ~3 miles running alone with Martha just ahead. Somewhere between 24 and 25, I heard a voice behind me and turned to see Keli riding up behind me. We chatted a little but she wisely told me to stop talking and cruised alongside me, giving encouragement, until peeling off just before the finish.

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1/2 mile to go. it’s gonna happen!

Coming down the final chute, the crowd gave me a huge ovation–okay, fine, maybe it was for Martha who was about to break the tape despite the efforts of the guy behind her (not me). But the roar was inspiring nonetheless, and I crossed the finish line in 2:58:07. hurray!

The Aftermath

I envisioned two scenarios going into this race: a painful suffer-fest in which I managed to slip in under 3 hours or a painful suffer-fest in which I didn’t make it under 3 hours. I didn’t imagine the possibility of a non-suffer-fest. Now, I’m not going to say it was easy, but apart from ~2 miles of pain and self-doubt, the race went incredibly smoothly and overall was, dare I say, very fun. And, soon after the race, I couldn’t help asking myself… could I go faster?

I think the answer is yes. I averaged 30-35 miles a week in the two months before the race and topped out at 51 miles. Most of this was quality running (trails with hills, harder running on roads, running a few miles on a full stomach after WUS). But there are people on the Strava doing much more mileage. Plus, with two big hills, the course is not a fast one.

So then… do I want to go faster? Again, the answer is yes, but I am not sure to what extent. This is a little bit of an oversimplification, but I’ve derived enjoyment from running in two ways: 1) the satisfaction of working towards a goal and achieving it and 2) the actual enjoyment of running (this isn’t a particularly profound thought, I don’t think).

Both aspects have always been a part, but the balance has changed a lot over time. In the beginning, I was very much focused on #1. I watched the Marine Corps Marathon one year, decided I wanted to run one and ultimately qualify for Boston. And I did (eventually!) and it was great. But I enjoyed going out for runs primarily because I saw them as a stepping stone to achieving the goal I set for myself.

The desire to set goals and work towards them is still there (uh, that’s what this post is about), but in recent years, the balance has shifted much more towards enjoying running for the sake of running. Short runs alone help me relax and clear my head, WUS is a welcome mid-week break, and weekend runs in Rock Creek are as much a time for socializing and animal watching as they are for training.

All of which is to say: there’s still a part of me that will want to push myself to go faster, but there’s a larger part that will probably be resistant to serious non-fun training, and would be very mad at myself if I got overzealous and injured myself trying to shave a few minutes off my marathon time. But, as I said, I actually had a lot of fun in the race, so we will see…

Congrats to Martha on her victory! Thanks for dragging me to a sub-3 finish. Sorry I ate your chips. The worst part is, they weren’t even that good.

Oh, that reminds of potential Goal #3: Get a Wardian-type record for running Hellgate in a birthday hat on my birthday…

Hellgate 2015 Race Report

I signed up for Hellgate in October after running much better than expected at Grindstone and feeling much better than expected in the days following. Keli was able to get a few days off from work, my birthday would be the Thursday right before the race, so we were going to take a mini one day vacation to Charlottesville before heading to the race. Birthday present to myself was Hellgate and Keli’s present to me would be to crew me. Hurray!

No Hellgate report would be complete without reference to Keith’s and Aaron’s reports. Keith gives a good breakdown of the sometimes significant difference between Horton miles and actual miles and his elevation profile would be printed out and taped to my handheld bottle to provide me with real-time updates of all the joy that was coming my way.

Aaron provides a very detailed description of the course, which I, like countless others, read in hopes of being prepared for everything that lay ahead. My brain turns to mush in a race, though, so (and also I think because of the nature of the course) not a lot of it stuck in my mind. So I would recommend both reading it and, if it’s your first time, expecting the unexpected. It’s a really tough course that goes up and down and all around, and besides being a little unprepared is part of the fun.

One highlight Aaron mentioned was turning off his headlamp and being able to run purely by the light of the moon. So a few weeks before the race, I excitedly checked a lunar calendar and learned we would have a new moon (i.e. no moon) for race day. Boo hoo.

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Hike up Humpback Rocks the day before the race.

Had a nice time in Charlottesville and area in the day before the race. I ate a lot of delicious food in the 36 hours prior to the race. Probably not the best pre-race nutrition plan, but oh well. I went into this race, not so much excited or tense, but also not relaxed. I was kind of ambivalent to be honest. I hadn’t run a ton since Grindstone, so I wasn’t sure if I’d feel out of shape, or well rested, or somewhere in between. I didn’t have any strong expectations (good or bad) going into the race. Mostly ambivalence.

The caravan left Camp Bethel at 10:50pm.

Observation 1: The caravan drives too fast.

There is a best blood award at Hellgate. I truly fear that one day that award will be earned on the drive to the start.

We arrived at the start, sat in the car for another 20 minutes, walked to the start, nailed the National Anthem, and were off.

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Ready to go…

Observation 2: This is a fast field.

The top 10 finishers get a sweet nano puff Patagonia jacket. I didn’t think I could feasibly get top 10, but, hey, you never know! Those thoughts were quickly dispelled at the start, when 30-40 people flew out ahead of me. And several people would pass me in the early miles. I try to start slowly, but still, there are a lot of fast runners in this race so don’t get drawn up too far!

I started off in shorts, t-shirt and windbreaker plus gloves. Five minutes in, I slowed to a speed walk and removed said windbreaker, stuffing it into my pack. Gloves would stay on for a few hours more because I have weak frail hands that get cold easily. Nothing exciting to report in the first five miles to the AS1.

There’s a long climb from AS1 to AS2. I expected the temperatures to cool off as we ascended, but about two miles into the climb, we rounded turn on the road, and it actually felt noticeably hotter and more humid. My stomach wasn’t feeling right, and sadly before we even reached the top of Petites Gap, I would utter “Never again [will I run this stupid race]” out loud to myself.

I don’t know if it was what I’d eaten before or the unexpected warmth, or despite my wanting to remain patient, the fact that several people were passing me on the way up, but I wasn’t feeling good, wasn’t having a good time, and I wasn’t being the toughest cookie about it either.  But I wasn’t planning on dropping or anything yet. So I continued on.

Observation 3: Rocks and leaves, particularly at night look very similar, and though the leaves tend to outnumber the rocks, you kind of have to assume that they’re all rocks, or at least that rocks lie beneath.

As Aaron notes—and this is one of the few things that stuck—the first half is largely up a road, down a trail. Though not always super technical, you have to be careful on the downhills. I was sufficiently careful throughout the race particularly at night. Had a few close calls, but no falls.

The race was uneventful from AS2 to AS6. I wasn’t feeling good through AS2 and AS4. Shared some miles with friends James and Erik between 2 and 4, which helped numb the pain. Seeing Keli for the first time at AS4 was a big boost, and by the time I left AS4, I was feeling better (still not great, but good enough). The pity party was over. I kept it slow and conservative (particularly on the trails).

The first signs of daylight were coming as I left Jennings Creek (AS5) with Erik. In hindsight, I should have left my headlamp there; you have ~2 miles of climbing on a road, so if there’s any glimpse of daylight as you leave AS5, you’re probably fine without a light. Unless you’re running up the hills, which I was not.

Observation 4: The aid station crews are great.

Hellgate does not have world’s greatest aid stations in terms of food. But another runner noted (and I confirmed at AS6) that a single crew would set up several aid stations throughout the race. So they’d set up AS2, wait for everyone to come through, then pack up and go set up AS5 (or something like that). I could be exposing my ignorance if lots of races work like. But everyone was clearly working super hard, and they were all super nice and helpful.

I started feeling really good leaving AS6. I picked off one or two people early on. About halfway to AS7, it gets a bit more technical. I ended up passing another 4 people in about a mile, and I ran pretty strong the last 1.5 miles into AS7 feeling great. I asked what place I was in and Horton told me I was 39th, adding that I was behind my expected finish (I was bib #30). I told him I would pass 9 more people. Hung out here for 5-10 minutes with Keli, eating lots of tater tots, soup, and other snacks. Headed off into the hills again.

Observation 5: I want to die.

15-20 minutes into this section, I bonked. Hard. Maybe I ran too aggressively into AS7; maybe I didn’t eat enough; maybe it was the heat. Interestingly, this kind of happened to me at the same point in the other 100K I’ve run (Miwok). I was all alone and not feeling at all good. There’s a decent-sized climb to start and for much of this section the trail follows this annoying, repetitive pattern of following a ridgeline while going in to and out from the mountain. At times it seemed to create an optical illusion where the trail appeared to be going uphill when really it was going down hill(?). I don’t know, I didn’t care. I thought I felt bad on that first climb to AS2, but now I was truly miserable and not trying to pretend otherwise. Luckily no one was around to witness my suffering.

I finally reached the road going up to AS8, having walked much of the way. In an effort to expedite the misery, I played a game where I would ‘run’ to an orange streamer, then walk the next ~100 yards to the next streamer, then ‘run’ to the next streamer, then walk, etc. I’ve played better games in my life.

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Hating life coming into AS8

Observation 6: Having a crew makes me want to live again.

I was a broken man coming into AS8, where Keli was waiting. I sat down on a bank next to the trail. Keli had bought some trail mix and other goodies, which was good because Clif Bar’s #7 and 8 didn’t feel so good going down in that last section. She got me nourished, gave me some words of encouragement, and got me out of there. It’s unclear what would’ve happened in the absence of crew, but I might have just kept on sitting. It was in the mid-70s at this point I think.

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Thanks to the volunteer who gave me this ice water towel

There was still another ~13.5 miles to go, but in my mind, I was focused on getting to the last aid station, which was 6.6 – 8 miles away, depending on whose word you were taking. The last section, though not easy, seemed manageable and quantifiable (~2-3 miles up a mountain on a road, then 2-3 miles down a mountain on a road).

Leaving AS8, you run along a road downhill for maybe 2 miles before cutting off onto a trail that goes on forever. At times it is unclear why someone designed the trail in this way. You go up, down, left right, seemingly circling back on yourself. I got through it. It wasn’t pretty or enjoyable, but I ran/walked my way through it neither fast nor slow, always moving forward.

I passed three people in the quarter mile before AS9 (Day Creek). I wasn’t enjoying myself, but they were enjoying themselves less. I took my time in the aid station, eating a popsicle, eating some food, and drinking lots of water. The three of them headed out before I did.

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Waving goodbye as I backed out of the aid station.

I caught the first two in the first quarter mile or so. The third guy was way ahead, so I just settled into a determined power hike and trudged onward. Ultimately, I caught up near the top, we chatted a bit, and I pressed on alone (as I would remain for the rest of the race). Cresting over the Blue Ridge parkway it took me a couple minutes to adjust to running downhill.

With about two miles to go, I let all tension go. I had no races planned for 2016 yet, and I’d already decided during this race that I was going to dial back my running for a few weeks over the holiday. So I just let gravity take over, opened up my stride a bit, and let myself enjoy this last race of 2015. The road bottomed out, and I turned left up into Camp Bethel, slowing a little bit on the incline but still running strong. Up the final chute, and crossed the finish line just as Horton got my name out. Finished 30th place, so I wasn’t lying back at AS7!

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Victory! Well, internal victory at least.

Observation 7: Best race swag ever.

Patagonia Houdini (retails for $99), Nice warm socks, and conductor-looking hat that I wore with pride for the next few days.

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rocking my new socks, windbreaker and hat.

Observation 8: I’ll be back.

But not next year. And I think I’ll want more of a full moon. And maybe incorporate it into the Beast Series. I know, I know, I swore it off at Mile 7, and don’t get me wrong, I experienced some of my worst misery (second probably to my DNF at Bighorn). But the lows make the highs all the better.

 

Two Paths to 3:21 at MCM

I ran my first ever marathon at the Marine Corps Marathon in 2007 in 3:21:39. This year I managed to crush that time by 6 seconds coming off of Grindstone just two weeks ago. I started a little slower, but was feeling okay and wanted some therapeutic suffering, so I slowly ramped up my effort. Still very far from my PR, but given the circumstances, it felt very good to run this time and in this manner. And it’s a PR on this course. Here’s my strava log of it.

I went back and pulled out my splits from 2007 from the website, and here is my overall average pace plotted against distance for both years. Look how smart I’ve become. 2015 was much more enjoyable than 2007.

MCM

Maybe next year I’ll go for the elusive 3 hours here. But they’re moving the expo to the National Harbor, which is a huge letdown…