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.

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.

Scenic Death March
This guy has the right idea
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.

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.

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!