Monday, August 04, 2014

Iron Retirement: An Ironman Boulder Race Report

I want to believe that Ironman Boulder will be my last ever Ironman but I know myself and know I should never say never when it comes to things like this.  However, I sincerely believe that if I do another Ironman it will be when I’m retired and I have my days to train.  Ultrarunning takes up a lot of time but I really love running trails and so it doesn't feel like I’m “training” it feels like I’m playing and exploring.

Ironman, or even half-iron triathlon is a different story.  You really need to train for those because of the distances covered in the bike and the swim and the money involved.  Were it possible to train for these events exclusively by trail running then I’d probably do them whenever a larger group of my friends went out to do them but you can’t, not really, which brings me to my current story.

About a year ago I somehow became aware that there would be an inaugural Ironman Boulder.  I have no idea how I became aware of it because I have gone deeply into the ultra running and marathon worlds and triathlon has become somewhat foreign to me.  However, through circumstance I discovered this event and immediately felt compelled to do it.  Not because it was an Ironman, that was actually the only drawback.  I wanted to do it because it was inaugural, because it was in Boulder, CO and because I had several friends who were talking about doing it and so I registered both myself and the GeekGrl and almost immediately regretted it.

I knew I didn’t have the motivation to actually train for an Ironman, knew it.  I knew that I think both swimming and cycling sucked and i knew that all I really cared about was running.  However, I also had been sitting at seven Ironman finishes since 2008 and that has actually bugged me it just hadn’t bugged me enough to pull the trigger on an eight Ironman, that is, until last year.

My plan then was to “train” for this Ironman almost exclusively by running.  Sure I told myself that I would get in a few long rides and get some swimming in but that never really materialized.  On race morning of Ironman Boulder I had swum a whopping 16, 060 total meters for 2014 and I had ridden my bike, get this, 169.77 miles…for all of 2014 and that included two “long rides” of 38 miles and one 40K bike split at an Oly Triathlon.  Actually, my running has been a bit sub-par because of a couple military schools that disrupted my schedule but at least that was at 1365 miles for the year.  So, that was my Ironman Training.

People kept asking me how I thought I’d do, how my training had gone and so on.  I honestly had no earthly idea.  I mean, my training was obviously crap if you think about Ironman training.  However, in the six years since my last Ironman I have completed eleven 100-mile trail races and a mix of 67 other marathons, 50Ks and 100Ks.  I have even completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, in other words, I’m no stranger to serious endurance.  However, that’s all running.  Obviously I can run but what about a marathon that’s preceded by a 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike.  I didn’t know how to answer that one but now I think I do, we’ll call it fast-average.

Of my now eight Ironman races my first was 14:27:18, my second 15:54:46, my third, 15:35:52, my fourth, 15:05:51, my fifth (and PR and one I trained like a demon for) 12:31:21, my sixth, 12:47:40, my seventh, 13:12:25 and now my eight at ironman Boulder, 13:15:02.

Frankly, I was shocked.  Hand to my heart I told someone I thought I might be able to hit 13 and a half hours but I thought something in the 14 to 15 hour range was more realistic.  I kept thinking back to one particularly brutal 112 mile training ride that I had developed for myself and how i had utterly fallen apart at about mile 100 and I had to pull over to a gas station, get a big bottle of Gatorade and a liter of full-sugar mountain dew and a red bull and lay in the shade while I drank it.  I kept imagining that kind of epic blow-up that would end in a 26.2 mile death march well into the night.

First off, I liked the swim start.  It began like a standard large marathon with people seeding themselves in corrals by their anticipated swim time.  I seeded myself into the 1:16 to 1:30 group and when the cannon went off we all just moved forward slowly and they released groups of maybe five to seven swimmers at a time with a few seconds between each small group.  It was not your typical Ironman washing machine start.  From the get-go you had your own little block of water to swim in though there was still the usual bunching and bumping but nothing like IMCdA or IMAZ.  I just found a comfortable groove and swam.  Occasionally I would run into a group that seemed to be fighting each other for position but I would just move out of the way and find new water.  What was more surprising is that my arms didn’t get tired.  The worst of it was getting bored and ready to be out of the water.  My swim time was 1:21:47, I think my third slowest IM swim.

T-1 was smooth and took me about eight minutes fifty seconds, mostly because I really had to pee and so I stopped at a port-o-potty just before heading out on the bike.  I had imagined that I would fumble around like a novice like I did at the recent City of Lakes Oly Tri but the fast transitions in the short local races are completely different from the giant transitions in an Ironman.

Once out on the bike I felt good and had driven the course the day before so generally knew what expect.  The strangest thing about maybe the first third of the IM Boulder course is that it’s right up against the mountains and so while there really aren't any serious climbs there are a lot of shallow climbs and descents and because they are in contrast to the sharply sloping Front Range sometimes it looks like you are on flats but you are going uphill, sometimes it looks like you are going uphill but you are actually going down and sometimes you look like you are going downhill but you are going up.  It was very weird but you just have to trust the way your legs feel or your bike.  On the “flat uphills” it felt as if my tires were made pf gum and I kept looking down to see if I had a flat.

The next third or so of the course has some short climbs followed sometimes by big descents that would carry you up the next hill or long shallow descents that would peter out into equally long flats.  This is a very fast section of the bike.  The last third or so is continuous shallow rollers, which allow you to ride at a nice steady pace, that is until mile 100 where there is a monster climb that has about four distinct summits, the first is the worst.

I was pretty amazed and how well I was doing on the bike and how much of my bike handling skills I had retained.  i am more nimble on a bike than most age-group triathletes and so was able to whip by a lot of people on the curvy downhills and 90-degree turns.  However, my legs were NOT used to be clipped into one place and being forced to make exactly the same movement over and over for hours on end.  I was motley concerned with having to sit on my ass for several hours but that really wasn't much worse than it ever was.

The thing that killed me the most were the balls of my feet.  I swear to god by mile 80 I had several bouts where I just wanted to start crying.  I felt like the balls of my feet had been split open and filled with salt.  I kept trying to lift them off the pedal, I tried peddling more by pulling upward than pushing down and I got some relief but there really isn’t anything to be done, you are locked into one position and you have to use that one position.  The other thing that happened is that the tendons behind my knees started to become painful and finally, about mile 90, my left hamstring and calf cramped up really badly and I could not bring it into an upstroke otherwise it would start cramping again so I basically coasted for the next 5 miles massaging my leg and drinking everything electrolyte I had on my bike, which was fortunately quite a lot.  If you look at my race results for that segment you see I was passed by 61 people and my average pave dropped from 18.5 mph to 16.9 mph and that includes me still doing well at the beginning of the segment and making a comeback at the end.  It was pretty brutal but I credit my general experience in ultra endurance events for my being able to pull out of it without any significant or lasting damage.

I hit T-2 feeling about like I remember feeling at my last few Ironman events when I was actually trained for such a think, legs were kind of sore and stiff, butt hurt, feet hurt but I was in good spirits and clear headed.  I got through T-2 in about 10 minutes 40 seconds but I had to take extra time to find someone with some tape so I could tape my bib back onto my race belt, I had accident torn off one corner, and I had to stop for another bathroom break, which I don’t mind because it means I’ve been hydrating and the alternative costs a lot more.

I came into this race with two major concerns about the run, one, as mentioned above, I thought I might have a spectacular blow-up on the bike and have nothing left to actually run with and two, the course is 100% concrete and I have recently suffered a knee injury running a marathon on a course that’s probably about 60% concrete.  Well, worry number one never really materialized and worry number two, all i can say is that it’s a hell of a lot different running a marathon on concrete at a 3:37 pace versus a 5:17 pace.  I actually ended up really enjoying the run course.  There was lots of support, lots of shade and it was composed of three out and backs that you ran twice so you got to see everyone as they worked their way through the course.

The only problem I had with the run was due to a completely rookie mistake.  Somewhere around mile 16 at one aid station I ate a gel and some gatorade type drink, they call it Ironman Perform, I think I also downed some coke and water and I pretty much immediately became sick to my stomach and this cut my pace by two to three minutes per mile for the rest of the race.  I didn’t start feeling better until I finally threw up somewhere around mile 25.  However, I can’t even complain about this little mis-step because, once again, I knew exactly how to handle it.  I knew how to minimize the damage and how to maximize my performance given the circumstances.

So what can I say other than I had a good race, all things considered I had a really good race but I don’t chalk it up to dumb luck.  I have a deep base of endurance and the kind of strength that is needed for these types of events.  I hals have a deep reservoir of knowledge related to taking care of myself under adverse circumstances and I can pretty much always diagnose what’s going on with my body and come up with the right fix.  If those things weren’t true and I think things could have gone far worse.

All in all I had a pretty good time but the good time was really just visiting Boulder again and seeing friends and family.  The race itself was fine but it didn’t spark anything within me that rekindled my desire to do more IM events.  I was glad I finished as well as I did and i was proud to have finished but when I was done I was simply ready to collect my shirt, hat and medal and head back to our hotel room not only because I was tired but also because I didn't feel the pull of the Ironman scene.  I guess I’ve come to like my sports quieter and less flashy.  Having said that, I’m grateful there is such a thing as Ironman, I’m glad to have been a part of it and I’m not ruling out some additional events ten to 15 years down the road but for now I’ll take my eight finishes and call it good.

Next up, the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival (I.M.T.U.F.) 100 mile endurance run.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Damn the Consequences

When I'm ready to do something new I am REALLY ready to do something new.  I don't wait until the old thing is over and then start the new thing fresh I jump into the new thing and then keep up with the old thing until it is completed.

Men's Masters Physique Competition Contestants
It's a way of being that I think keeps me excited about my life and all the things there are to do but it is not without its consequences.  As stated, I've hired a professional bodybuilder to help me remake my body composition to be much more lean and more heavily muscled.  Something you would see in a men's masters physique competition like these guys.  Yes, these are older guys.

When I was much younger I was into lifting somewhat and I was a bit more muscular but age and years of running has stripped a lot of that away and I have NEVER been as lean as any of these guys.

Actually, I have found that as I have aged, despite all the running, my body fat percentage is actually creeping upward.  When I was at the peak of my running and weight loss about three years ago I was down to about 17 percent body fat measured in hydrostatic weighing.  Earlier this year I had the hydrostatic weighing done again and they had me at 23%.  I don't really believe I'm 23%, I mean I know that hydrostatic is the best you can get but I really think the people at the lab did something wrong.  I think they guy who was doing the readings in the dunk tank didn't get good readings.  However, my home scale puts me at 20% and so I know that I'm up and what's worse, I can see and feel that I'm up.

In addition to the extra body fat I feel weaker even though I've been doing the Olympic lifting.  I can't explain what is going on with my body, I ran a marathon PR in February, I've been Olympic lifting, I run an average of 200 or more miles a month but the fact remains that other measures tell me there is decline in the wind.  The strength thing isn't just a perception thing either.  During my last PT test I did fewer pushups and sit-ups though I did run my third fastest 2 mile run ever, 13:49.

Ok, enough backstory, the point is I'm making this change right now and right now I am practically immobile due to soreness from my lifting and my trainer is strictly limiting me to 30 minutes of cardio per day for now.  He says once he is able to see how the combination of diet and lifting is impacting my body and he feels like he has things dialed in for me I may get to start running more.  This all means that I'm now limited to daily 3 mile runs because I'm too sore to knock out 4 miles in 30 minutes but even if I weren't, its still only 4 miles and, hmm, lets see what I still have on my race schedule for the year.

Ironman Boulder on August 3rd (assuming my new Commander doesn't nix that)
Hartford Marathon on October 11th
Newport Marathon on October 12th
Soldier Marathon on November 8th
Pensacola Marathon on November 9th
Pilgrim Pacer Marathon on November 15th
and the Tucson Marathon on December 7th (which I may nix because the only reason I signed up for it was to try and get a faster BQ time which will not happen with this new change.

So, yeah, all these races are going to pretty much be walk-a-thons. I also want to do several marathons next season so that Misty and I can finish off the 50 states.  By any reasonable standard my plan simply doesn't make any sense.  Most would probably say it's fairly stupid but here's the thing.  I am utterly and absolutely terrified of returning to my younger, fat self.  That's just the bottom line.  I'm also not going to just toss the whole 50 state goal, I have 31 right now.  I also have other goals in life that I need to start working toward.

Actually they are more my wife's goals but they are extremely important to her so they are extremely important to me.  She has been nothing but supportive of me running the 100 milers and now she wants to transition into track and field when she hits 50 so that she can compete in the Senior Olympics, something that sound really cool to me too and time is ticking so really now is the time to transition.  My life, my rules, damn the consequences.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Winds of Change Come Again

As the 2014 season continues to roll on I have accumulated a few more races and a few more experiences.  My new job with the Army has brought me a total of five weeks of schooling away from home.  Three weeks was spent at Ft. Rucker Alabama in the Aeromedical Psychology training program, which means I am not officially a flight psychologist.  That school was very cool but I'm not going to go into detail here.  The other school was Captains Career Course; two weeks in my "home town" of San Antonio Texas.  Another great school but this time focused on military officer stuff.  The only problem with the schools is they put somewhat of a crimp in my training.  Not so much the first school but definitely the second.  However, they were well worth it.

As far as races go I did the Albuquerque Half-Marathon on April 19th pleasantly surprising myself with a 1:45:31.  While not my fastest half it is one of my faster ones and I think my fastest at altitude.  While I was at Ft. Rucker I also got up near Birmingham to do the Run for Kids Challenge 50K.  This was a trail run consisting of 10 loops of single track trail through the Oak Mountain State Park.  It was a great little low-key race but one in which I had some troubles.  I have a hard time running on wooded courses because I'm not used to the roots or the dappled sunlight and so I end up tripping and falling a lot.

The trails aren't technical by any means but there was just enough to where I tripped and fell hard once per lap for the first four laps and then I just had to slow down because the falls were starting to take their toll.  I finished the race in 5:39 and then headed back to Ft. Rucker for two more weeks of Army Training Sir!

Finally, on a whim, Misty and I traveled to South Bend Indiana to run the Sunburst Marathon.  We had been apart for three weeks and i thought this would be a nice reunion and a way to pick up Indiana.  The race was very well done and it was a nice urban course.  My only problem with the course itself was that it had too much concrete.  I think there were several opportunities where there could have been less.  It was also pretty hot out but that's not something a race director really has control over.  As I said, it was a good race.  It started in the downtown area and finish at the Notre Dame football stadium.  Normally the race finishes on the field but that was being refurbished zoo we finished up at the foot of "Touchdown Jesus."

After that race I haven't done any others and training has been very difficult because I have suddenly developed chronic left knee pain.  I took a full week off and it has gotten significantly better but not completely better.  So far I have seen a family doc, a physical therapist and a chiropractor.  I have gotten that I have osteoarthritis, tight IT band and hip flexors and basically "what those guys said."  However, I've also been told by the same three people that I don't have any internal damage and that my knees are strong so we are collectively hoping that better hydration and some glucosamine will clear it up.

In the mean time I'm feeling a bit like the writing is on the wall for the demise of at least some aspects of my running.  I think that in order to preserve as much as possible as long as possible I'm going to try and stick exclusively to trails, limit myself to 50Ks and shorter and not worry as much about my time so I can do my races on lower weekly miles.  However, I think I'm going to invest the extra time into some serious weight training and dieting under the supervision of a professional bodybuilder who lives here in Albuquerque.  I know a body building approach isn't exactly compatible with distance running but it is more compatible with my body type and it won't prevent me from running, it will just slow me down, which I am cool with.

So, I still have lots of running left to do this season as well as another three week Army school (hopefully) but its also on to new and different things and hopefully a new and different body.

My new coach Korbie Ntiforo

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Have you ever wondered?

From time to time I've looked for race reports as a way of deciding if I wanted to do a race or not and sometimes to just try and estimate what kind of finish time I should shoot for.  I've come across several blogs that just ended as I'm sure they all do at some point but I've always wondered what happened to the people who wrote them.  I have known one person who's blog ended because they died but I suspect most people either just get tired of blogging or they stop doing whatever it is they were blogging about but I still wonder.

As for me, I've mostly just gotten tired of blogging.   I think about it from time to time but I've actually been a lot busier at work than is usual because I've changed jobs and the startup in the new job has been pretty time consuming.

However, I have not stopped running or Olympic lifting.  In fact I've even set a new marathon PR this year and I think the extra few minutes I was able to cut off my old PR is due to the lifting.

Anyway, we wrapped up the 2013 season by doing the Hawaii marathon and initially I thought I was going to try and PR there but it soon became apparent that it was way too hot and humid to do anything but survive.  To make matters worse there wasn't a single bit of breeze and practically no shade so it was SLOW, I think I ended up with something in the 4:20 to 4:30 range.  However, we stayed in Hawaii for a week and had an awesome time.  We snorkeled, surfed, kayaked, ran trails and did a lot of general sight seeing.

This year my biggest race is going to be the Run Rabbit Run 100 miler in Steamboat Springs, CO in September in an attempt to keep my Hardrock eligibility alive another year so before that I've been working my endurance back up and doing a lot of strength work.

So far my 2014 race schedule has included:
January 1st Foothills Fatass 50K, always a good way to start the new year and the weather was perfect.  We didn't get much snow over this winter, which I know is bad in drought stricken New Mexico, but it meant that the trails were largely mud and ice free though not totally.  It just happened that this race was my 80th marathon or longer race and I took 3rd overall in a time of 5:56:36.  Coincidentally, being a fatass race on New yYear day I think that also put me somewhere near the middle of the pack but it was fun anyway.

January 18th The Duel Trail Marathon in one of my old home towns , Wichita Falls, TX, where I spent most of my high school years.  I had not idea there were even any trails in Wichita Falls but they have at least one that was built for mountain bikes and it has all kinds of triply mountain bike obstacles on it, swinging bridges, ranks, narrow raised bridges, a big metal half-pipe and lots of twists and turns.  The marathon is two loops and it is easily the craziest run I've ever done.  I ran it in a time of 3:49:20 and was second overall and, strictly speaking, first masters.  The guy who won was actually 44 but since he took top overall honors I got first masters.

February 2nd I ran Rock-n-Roll New Orleans and all I can say is that the weather was as close to perfect as I think it's possible to be.  Well, that and New Orleans does have some awesome food but there could hardly be a bigger contrast between the people there to do the marathon and the vase majority of the people who were just there to eat, drink and smoke as much as they possibly could.  Anyway, it is a flat fast race and a pretty nice course overall but I was so focused on running hard and using so much energy to run that hard that I really have very little recollection of the course as a whole, more like an impression.  I ran a new PR of 3:24:31 and promptly got sick as hell the next day and that cold hung on like grim death...which is also how I felt.   The reason I am so sure that it's the Olympic lifting that has allowed me to run a new marathon PR is because it's the only thing that is different about my training since I started running.  My old marathon PR was 3:28:13 and I ran it almost four years and just over 40 marathon or longer races ago and I was maybe five to seven pounds lighter.

February 15th was the Black Canyon Trail 100K.  It was to be my return to really long distance running after taking a year away following the Grand Slam but it was not to be.  Both my wife and I had the same thought prior to driving out to Arizona, that I should not be doing this race.  I had been too sick too recently.  The day started out well enough but somewhere around mile 26 things started going badly.  I was slower and slower and getting weaker plus it was about 90 degrees out and I wasn't warm at all.  By the time I got to the 50K aid station I was shivering and coughing and I knew it was time to stop and so that's what I did, I DNFd at 50k.  My cold had come roaring back and while I might have been able to finish it would have been horrible and taken a huge toll; stopping was the better choice.

March 29th Forest Gump Challenge, MO - 4:41:59
March 30th Hogeye Marathon, AR - 4:09:46This weekend was just meant to be a state getting weekend in the quest to get 50 states and a good endurance training weekend.  The Forest Gump Challenge is a tinny little race that I'm not even sure how I found because every time I went to look for it to get more information it always took a while.  The race takes place in a very small town called Reeds Spring, which is maybe 20 miles or so from Branson.  When I registered for the race I couldn't find any information other than it was at least a marathon and possibly a 50K as well and it was in Missouri.  I registered for the 50K even though I wasn't 100% certain there was one, which I know seems weird because I registered for it but the actual registration pace was the only place that a 50K was mentioned, everything else I could find advertised their marathon and shorter distances.   The race ended up being a 3.1 mile loop on roads, a mix or state highway, "main street" in the middle of town and some residential road.  After the first loop I really thought it would be a dangerous race because about half was on the narrow to nonexistent shoulder of what was obviously the major street running through town and it crossed a state highway at two locations.  However, I actually never felt unsafe and didn't hear anyone say they felt unsafe.  The drivers were all very friendly and as far as I could tell always gave the runners right of way and a wide berth.   Also, despite the fact that it was 10 loops for the 50k I didn't find myself getting bored.  There was a fair amount of variety in the course and it was made up of about three distinct sections that made it easy to break down in your mind.  I ended up taking second overall three minutes behind a guy who was 27 years younger than me.  I was pretty happy with the result.

Day two of the weekend double was the Hogeye marathon in Fayetteville, AR.  In addition to running  the 50K the day before I had also run one additional lap of the course with Misty as she finished up her marathon so I had a little over 34 road miles in my legs at the beginning of the race.  Whenever we do these double weekends we are basically just in and out very quickly and we don't get to do much other than run and eat but it's a good way to see each location where we are running.  Most of the time this is fine with us because neither of us are very big on staying in one place and doing a lot of sightseeing.  We find that running 26.2 miles through a city gets us pretty much a lll the sightseeing we want but Fayetteville seemed like the kind of town that it would have been nice to spend an extra day in.  The course was a good one as city based marathons go.  A pretty large portion of it, maybe as much as half, was on nice paved bike paths and it included a trip around a lake set in a large city park.  I ran maybe the first half of the race pretty well, on pace for a sub-4 marathon but during the later half of the race the running from the day before really started to take it's toll and I began to fade back.  I figured that if I had only run a marathon the day before rather than 34 miles I probably would have gotten that day two sub 4 but I didn't so no big deal.  It ended up being a great training weekend and I actually still got 3rd in my age group.

April 13th Cedro Peak 45k is a reach that I had actually told myself I would never run because of how rocky I thought it was.  The race is put on by local friend of mine and the first year Misty and I ran an aid station and had a great time, the second year we were out of town as Misty and I were running a double in Washington and Oregon and this year we had it on our schedule to run the aid station again but it happened that we weren't called to do that so at the last minute I decided to sign up because I had missed several miles of training earlier in the week and felt like I really needed a good, long training run.  It turned out that the course wasn't nearly as rocky as I thought it would be.  I had just happened to run the very hardest sections of it in prior runs.  However, it is a rocky course and there are some pretty evil sections so it's nothing to be taken lightly.  Anyway, I projected that since I was training through the race and spent the evening before it doing a lot of squats at lifting that I would probably finish in about six hours.

My time ended up being 5:54:11, which was close to what I thought I'd do but the way I did it was not what I had imagined.  The first 20 miles or so wen't by better than expected and I think I was pretty far forward in the pack, maybe the leading edge of the mid-pack or somewhere thereabout.  However, right about mile 20 you start this long rocky climb that lasts maybe two and a half miles and that climb ground me down pretty badly.  By the time I got to the final aid station, which is 4.5 miles from the finish, I had recovered from the climb somewhat and was running pretty well on the mostly easy trails in that section but then the course turned upward again and I was seized by a serious cramp in my right adductor, the inner thigh.  It hurt like hell and I was in a position where I couldn't really bend my leg because when I did it would start to cramp again.  As I hobbled along the trail I was favoring my right leg so my left calf started to cramp too and it was pretty nasty, both legs cramping and the trail still climbing.  A few people asked if I was ok as they passed me and one person gave me so electrolyte capulets but the dam mange was pretty well done and I had to move really slowly on the uphill and rocky sections, basically anywhere that required I lift my legs.  If the trail sloped down or was smooth I was able to run with a gait that barely lifted my feet off the ground but that kind of trail was not particularly abundant in the last couple miles of the race.  In the last 4 miles my average pace for the entire race dropped by a minute a mile and i was passed by several people but I finished and once I started to get rehydrated and got some food I actually felt pretty good.  I had never cramped that badly or that persistently in a race before so I'm not sure if it was all the squats from the night before or the fact that this race has Heed as its electrolyte drink and I do not drink Heed because it makes me sick.  It was probably a combination of the two.  Anyway, I actually felt like I had a good race, I got what I came for and now that I've run the course i think I'd pretty happily run it again.  Not only is it always fun to run with friends but it's also nice to run a race that is actually run by friends.  Albuquerque has an awesome ultra community.

So, if you have ever wondered what happened to a certain blogger that suddenly seems to have fallen off the face of the earth it may just be that they needed a break from blogging and they are still as active as ever.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hamstrings and Hope: A Marine Corps Marathon Race Report

The Marine Corps Marathon is an awesome race and it has great crowd support.  In fact, I would have to say that of the 77 marathon or longer races I have done the MCM ties for second best crowd support along with Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon.  The crowed support at these races is second only to Boston, however, I have to add the caveat that I have not run the New Your City marathon or the Chicago marathon, both of which are supposed to have amazing crowed support as well.

I went into the MCM coming off a heavy training schedule that included four consecutive 60 mile weeks and Olympic Weightlifting four days per week.  Also, within the previous 35 days I had run two marathons, one 55K and a 12 mile mountain run so my goal for the MCM was just to run it as hard as I could as a final training run for the Honolulu marathon where I plan on trying to BQ.  Of course my other goal was just to run it because as a 50-states runner it gets me Virginia, as a former Marine it seemed like the thing to do and of course, it is “The People’s Marathon” and as such one of a handful of “must do” marathons.

Before going into the MCM I had talked with several people who had run it and read reviews and everyone seemed to mention at least once how awesome it was to have the Marines out there supporting them at the aid stations and at the finish line.  There is no doubt that the aid stations were well done and the Marines were supportive and enthusiastic but I didn’t experience them any differently that I’ve experienced similarly well done civilian staffed aid stations.  I pondered that for a while and think it has to do with the fact that I was in the Marine Corps and I am in the Army now.  I have lived, and live, a military life; something, according to a recent New York Times article, only .05 percent of the American public does any more.  I suppose for a civilian to have America’s war fighters out there supporting them through a run is pretty special, for me it was just my peeps.

However, one thing that I really did love was all the military members from other countries’ armed forces.  I know for a fact that I saw members of the Norwegian Navy, the Dutch Army, British Royal Marines and Australian Army.  Of course there were representatives of all of America’s Armed Forces and I wore my New Mexico National Guard racing singlet so we were represented as well.  I got a kick out of the Norwegian Navy’s shirts because on the back they said “525 years of innovation.”

In addition to all the different militaries and military branches that were represented, there was also a huge swath of humanity represented.  There was probably more diversity at this race than anything I’ve seen before.  That’s one of the cool things about DC, it has enormous diversity and you can meet all kinds of people.

The race, of course, is one of the largest ones in the world.  In fact, in 2012 the MCM was the 8th largest marathon in the world with 23,519 finishers.  This year, 2013, saw 23,512 finishers and you could really tell at the start line.  The MCM has starting corrals like any large marathon but also like any large marathon, there is an annoyingly large number of people who completely ignore them so you have six hour runners lined up in the three hour corral and from the first seconds of the race they are like bounders in a fast moving river.  I decided to line up in the 3:35 corral because I thought I could run something close to that if I ran hard as planned.  I figured that if I started to falter due to the accumulated fatigue of the last 35 days it would happen later when I wouldn’t be getting in anyone’s way.

When the howitzer went off the crowd of 23,000 plus runners lurched into motion along two two-lane roads that were separated by a low median.  It took maybe a mile before the roads converged and we were just one mass running through DC.  Apart from the crowding, the first thing I notices about the course was that it was fairly hilly in the beginning and actually rolled at least gently almost throughout.  I once again just decided to run by feel and not look at my watch very much at all, mostly just to check if it was time to take another gel.  This strategy has worked well for me because worrying about my pace isn’t really going to help any.  I’m experienced enough to know if I’m probably going too fast and on the other end, I can only run as fast as I can run, looking at a watch isn’t going to make me any faster.

Despite the fact that the MCM runs past many interesting things I really didn’t see a lot on the route.  I was aware of when I was running a segment of the Army 10-miler and I knew when I was on the National Mall but I just didn’t see much because I was very focused on running my best race.

As I’ve mentioned before, this past summer has been a big experiment for me.  I took this year to recover from the Grand Slam of last year and stuck with running marathons and a couple 50ks.  I’d struggled with my weight and mileage all year long so by the time May hit I was ready to try anything and the thing I tried was Olympic weightlifting coupled with a bit lower mileage than I had been running.  MCM was going to be the first race where I really planned on putting that training to the test.  I mean, I ran well at the Air Force marathon but there I lined up with the 3:45 group and didn’t exactly try to race even though I ended up with about a 3:37.  As I said, at MCM I lined up with the 3:35 group and intended to race.

Anyway, because I had only been lifting for about four months I am not lifting anything heavy.  Most of that time has been spent just getting down technique and building the supporting muscle.  I quickly discovered that I am weak as hell, at least compared to everyone else at the Oly gym, but my coach kept at me to keep it light and repeatedly told me that getting the technique down early is the key to being able to lift to your potential later.  In any case, I wasn’t in it to become an Olympic weightlifter, I was there to become a better runner, develop more thrust, and let me tell you, I was not disappointed.

Probably somewhere around mile five or six I left the 3:35 pacer behind and just cruised along hoping that maybe I could keep them at bay to the end of the race.  I just focused on how I felt, tried to push the pace and kept looking for people I could target for passing.  I ran well until mile 24 when suddenly, for the first time ever, I had a bad cramp in my left hamstring.  It was bad enough that I pulled up sharply and grasped it to try and keep it from causing my entire leg to seize up.  At that point I still wasn’t exactly sure how well I was doing but I knew I was doing well.  I was hoping there would be an aid station soon where I could slam some Gatorade thinking maybe I was low on electrolytes and immediately ahead I saw one, score!  I hobbled up and said Gatorade? And they said, nope, doughnut holes.  WTF?! Doughnut holes in a marathon?  At mile 24?

I hobbled on by running as fast as I could while still grasping my hamstring and squeezing it to try and get it to release.  I did that for about a mile and I was finally able to let go but the hamstring was still really tender.  My pace at mile 23 had been a 7:42, mile 24 was a 9:01.  I was able to pick up the pace to an 8:48 in mile 25 but the hamstring was still threatening to go out.  At 1.2 miles left I was feeling a little better and I ran mile 26 in 8:12.  The very end of the MCM has what is called Marine Hill, which is the access road to the Marine Corps War Memorial.   Marine Hill climbs about 50 feet in a tenth of a mile, is lined with cheering Marines, and has a sign that says “charge the hill!”  This is where my old Marine self kicked in and I charged the hill at full speed.  It was no easy feat but I passed several people, there were ALWAYS several people in your immediate vicinity so passing several doesn’t require much acceleration.  However, by the same token, getting passed by several people doesn’t take much deceleration.

So, I charged Marine Hill and it was a good thing I did because it put me across the finish line 3:29:03, my second fastest marathon ever.  My fastest, 3:28:13 is at Tucson, a mostly downhill course where I was three years younger and maybe 10 pounds lighter.  It would have been very easy to lose 57 seconds in that final 1.2 miles.

I really feel awesome about my finish and about my new approach to training.  I have great hopes for Honolulu though I continue to be worried about the heat.  As I sit here writing this it has been below 35 degrees in Albuquerque for the past 2 days and is getting colder.  Honolulu has been having lows in of between 68 and 71 and highs between 82 and 85.  The forecast for race day, we are 14 days out now, is a low of 68 and a high of 83.  Oh well, I have checked a running calculator that checks such things and it assures me that at temps of up to 75 degrees I shouldn’t lose more than two minutes and since the race starts at 5:00 a.m. I am hopeful that I’ll be done by the time temps hit 72.

I am still going to try for a BQ, I am still going to line up with the 3:25 pace group and try to beat them in by two minutes, that would be a 7:44 minute mile average pace and what I figure I need to run in order to actually qualify for Boston.  Just making your cutoff doesn’t cut it anymore.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Faster than Buck Wheat: A Duke City Marathon Race Report

This weekend was the 30th anniversary of the Duke City Marathon right here in Albuquerque New Mexico.  I’ve run Duke City once before and, I guess because it’s mostly on a bike path that I have literally logged thousands of miles on, I don’t find it particularly inspiring.  However, since it was the 30th anniversary, which is pretty cool and something to celebrate, the GeekGrl has never run the full marathon but has been dying to run if for maybe the past four years though something always happens to derail her plans.

This weekend was supposed to be a Drill weekend with the Army Guard but we were told there was no money and so no Drill.  As soon as I found out I wouldn’t be at Drill I asked the GeekGrl if she wanted to run and, well, her answer is pretty obvious by this point.
Considering I just did a 34 mile ultra last weekend and a 12 mile mountain run the weekend before I probably should have just taken it easy this weekend but I’ve really been on a roll with my training over the past four weeks for the first time this year and I have finally started to drop a bit of weight so instead I decided to throw in Duke City and train right through the Marine Corps Marathon, just go there and enjoy the race and not worry about time.  My plan moving forward is to back off in November, taper for the Honolulu Marathon and see what I can achieve there.  My only concern for that race is that it might be too warm to do really well but I guess that’s something I’ll discover on race day.

Anyway, given that I’m training straight through I decided to run this fairly easy as a long-supported training run but a marathon is still a marathon so it was still kind of tough to run easy.  I was averaging 8:30 minute miles out to the half-way point and feeling good but on the return I felt like I needed to back off and so dropped my pace down to 8:45 and eventually to 9s and the last couple miles were low 10s.  I ended up finishing in 3:55:02 and still feeling pretty good but ready to stop running.  Today, the day after the race, I took off running as planned but I was able to get right back to Olympic Weightlifting and knocked out several sets of squats and split squats.

The other thing I did the day after the race was look up the official race results.  As I was looking at my age group results I noticed a guy with the name “Buck Wheat.”  I ended up beating Buck Wheat by 12 minutes so now I know, I am faster than Buckwheat.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Roots Running: A Meditation on the Canyon de Chelly Ultramarathon

This was the first year of the first ultra to be run on the Navajo reservation in the sacred canyon, Canyon de Chelly.  Though it was technically a race and had prizes for the overall and age group speedsters this run was more about running for running's sake or as race Director and elite Navajo runner Shaun Martin put it, "This race is about running in the Navajo tradition, running as a prayer."  It was an awesome experience.

In case you haven’t noticed I am not Native American and while I do have an ethnic identity, it is, for the most part, something I rarely consider; it just isn’t a salient part of my life in any regular way.

In fact, when the GeekGrl and I first moved to New Mexico our youngest son, having grown up in rural white South Dakota, came home from school one day and asked “Where do our people come from” and the GeekGrl laughed and said “Our PEOPLE…the suburbs."
However, I do relate strongly to the culture of running and the people who call themselves runners.   The thing about running is that it’s such a foundational human activity it is able to span race, time and cultural context uniting apparently disparate people into one community.  This is actually what the ethic of the modern Olympics proposes, that sport spans all differences and unites humans in the fundamental pursuit of excellence.
Running has given me a great deal and the longer I have participated in it the more complex and varied my cultural identity as a runner has become.  I started out as a very mainstream, hyper gear-conscious triathlete who fully embraced every advantage of modern technology and always raced close to home with the sole goal of going fast, placing well and winning awards.  But over time I have drifted further and further to the idea of running as a kind of quest for understanding and connecting, understanding myself for sure but also understanding and connecting with people at a more fundamental level.

There are no pretenses in running and no masks for those who run long distances to hide behind.  I have run the gritty working class streets of Cincinnati, the upscale waterfronts of Chicago and San Francisco, the genteel horse country of Kentucky, the remote hollows of Alabama, the beautifully desolate hill country and canyon lands of Texas, the high mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, the lonely deserts of Arizona and Nevada, the rugged terrain of California’s Sierra Nevadas, the damp forests of Oregon and Washington and so much more.  I have even run the hallowed grounds of the Boston Marathon and they have all revealed to me some aspect of myself and provided me with some deeper connection to my fellow human.

When I was interviewed about having done the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning I said “Doing the Slam was about reaching back into history and joining with those runners who came before me and with them, attempt to do something so audacious.”  Doing Canyon de Chelly was very much the same kind of reaching back, the same kind of seeking kinship with the past while tying that past to the present. However, Canyon de Chelly involved reaching WAAYYY back in history, back to a time lost in the mists of time when running wasn’t just a sport but human kind’s fastest mode of transportation and something that was not only practical but also spiritual.

Running as a way of connecting to the distant past and running as a form of spiritual quest is not something that’s entirely new to me.  Back when I was an undergraduate in college, actually before I became a runner, I did an independent study with a locally well-known poet, V.B. Price.  I called the independent study “In through the Outdoors.”  In some ways, apart from the title, it mirrored the concept of the famous Led Zeppelin Album, “In through the Out Door” in that I was trying to regain something lost.  Specifically, I had just completed six fairly disappointing years as a low ranking enlisted man in the Marine Corps and my goal was to try and reconnect with who I had been and who I wanted to be as opposed to who I felt I had become and who others demanded I be.

To that end I   Sometimes the outings were mellow and contemplative and sometimes they were relentlessly aggressive and exhausting.  However, each of the outings resulted in new insights that were chronicled in a series of poems I wrote and discussed with V.B.
spent a few hours a week hiking and jogging in the Sandia mountains east of Albuquerque.
When I did become a runner my natural curiosity lead me to reading about the ancient practice of persistence hunting whereby a group of tribesmen strategically run down prey until it is too exhausted to escape them any longer.  While humans are naturally blessed with the ability to run phenomenally long distances at moderate paces, our four legged brothers and sisters have speed but only over short distances.  While we were able to jog along and repeatedly startle the animal into bolting for a few hundred yards, the animal could only bolt so many times before it was done.  As long as we could keep sight of the same animal it would eventually become too exhausted to run away and we would move in for the kill.

Theoretically, at least in the pursuit of large animals, a group of hunters would divvy up with the smaller, speedier tribesmen actually running the animal to exhaustion and the larger, slower tribesmen following behind wielding clubs or stone axes to deliver the killing blow.  I have often been out on a run and imagined myself as one of those large, slow, stone ax wielding hunters.

Indeed, there have been many trail races where I found myself in a small line of men running down a single track trail though the canyons, mountains, deserts or forests and I suddenly find that in my mind’s eye I can see and experience my own distant past as a persistence hunter.  I am transformed from an urban dweller with an office job and a mortgage into a man with nothing more than his few clothes, his fellows, the beauty of nature and the running.  In these moments everything is right with the world, everything is as it should be and I am at peace.  I think running trails allows us to move through the world at a human pace rather than a technology driven pace,  it allows us to move through a natural environment rather than a built environment and that, I believe, is what results in the sense of peace and calm that arises from trail running.  For me the equanimity
won on the trails translates directly into resilience back in the modern world.
While the experience of traveling back in time as an ancient runner in a natural environment brings me great peace it does not have any particular story that is connected to me in any real way, it’s only a fantasy.  However, William Yazzie, race director Shaun Martin’s father-in-law and spiritual mentor does have a story that ties together running through time, creating continuity between my most ancient of ancestors and my own life today.
During the race briefing the night before we began our journey into Canyon de Chelly he recounted part of the Navajo creation myth for us runners.

What Mr. Yazzie had to say not only held cultural significance for him as a Navajo, it also held significance for us as runners and for me personally.  Mr. Yazzie told us, “At the beginning of time back in the old days monsters plagued the Navajo people.  These monsters roamed the earth causing trouble and misery for the people.  Changing Woman (a.k.a. mother earth) gave birth to twins. These twins wanted to rid the world of the monsters and by doing so make the people safe.  Through running long distances with the holy people, the twins became powerful war gods who defeated the monsters.  Today there are still evil monsters that are plaguing the people, monsters like alcoholism, drugs, and diabetes.  You runners are like the twins training and running long distances, defeating today’s evil monsters and by doing so you inspire the people; when they watch you running they have hope that maybe they can
also defeat the evil monsters of today."
When I thought about this I knew there was no more accurate way to describe my own journey of running, a journey of defeating the evil monsters in my life, monsters like obesity, self-doubt, anger, fear and hubris.  These were things that I had spent a lot of time hiding from, things that constantly plagued me and that caused me great pain.  Through running I have at least tamed them if not completely defeated them and I dare say that I have inspired at least a couple other people to pick up running shoes and defeat their own monsters.  And so, with that recounting of the Navajo creation myth and my reaffirmation that I was indeed going to run a spiritual race it was off to bed.
Race morning dawned clear and cold.  An intimate community of around 85 runners and a few volunteers gathered around a small bonfire and stood silently at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, all facing east, all contemplating the journey ahead, all listening as William Yazzie welcomed the day’s new dawn in the traditional Navajo way, with prayer.  As Mr. Yazzie finished singing his prayers to the new day a Navajo spiritual leader introduced himself and let us know he was going to prey for our health, our safety and our journey in the Navajo way.

He held aloft a bundle of Eagle feathers in one hand and in the other scooped some cedar shavings from a leather pouch around his neck and tossed them onto the hot coals.  As the smoke began to rise he began to chant his prayer and then instructed us to cleanse ourselves in the smoke of the cedar.  He then laughed, tossed some more cedar on the coals and said, “Maybe we should make sure and do a good job of cleansing.”
Despite Shaun’s joking the night before at the race briefing about “Rez time” he had us all lined up and ready to go right at 7:00 as advertised.  He gave us our final instructions and told us “When I say go be sure to yell out in the Navajo way, yell out to introduce yourselves to the Canyon and to announce your selves to the gods” and with that he yelled, “On your mark, get set, go!” and in unison all us runners let out loud yips and yells and surged forward, running into the east, into the dawn of a new day in the traditional Navajo way. The rest, as they say, is history.
While I can’t adequately convey my experience of running Canyon de Chelly in words, I can, in the White Suburban Guy way, tell you that the course was mostly flat sandy roads, some sand was pretty deep but most was not and all was blessedly compacted by recent rains, there were a total of around 70 stream crossings, also courtesy of the recent rains, all about ankle to mid-shin deep and maybe five to 15 feet wide, I spent the majority of my day running alone and I finished in 6:44:23.
I made no attempt to run fast but I did embrace running as a form of prayer and in that largely solitary experience, found my brothers and sisters on the trail.  I also did my best to try and document my journey through many, many
pictures that I hope will convey some small sense of the stark grandeur of the Sacred Canyon.
That is my story about running in the Navajo tradition, running as a prayer, and now I’ll end with a traditional Navajo prayer that has been slightly modified for runners.

The Navajo Beauty Way Ceremony

In beauty may I run

All day long may I run

Through the returning seasons may I run

Beautifully I will possess again

Beautifully birds

Beautifully joyful birds

On the trail marked with pollen may I run

With grasshoppers about my feet may I run

With dew about my feet may I run

With beauty may I run

With beauty before me may I run

With beauty behind me may I run

With beauty above me may I run

With beauty all around me may I run

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I run

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I run

It is finished in beauty

It is finished in beauty

Ahe’hee Shaun Martin!

Ahe’hee William Yazzie!

Ahe’hee Din’e!

H’ago’onee’ my friends, until we meet again.

And of course, my favorite sight of the day, my beloved wife.  Ahe’hee my love.