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.