Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Rocket City Marathon 2015

The marathon is special. It takes me a good six months to prepare to race a marathon.

Sure, training just to finish a marathon takes less time than that, and that is a noble goal that stretches most people. Finishing is a challenge and I respect everyone who tackles that challenge. I'm not denigrating that worthy goal. I'm merely pointing out that there is another level of marathoning, call it (because there is a book with this title) Advanced Marathoning

To race a marathon... To learn your body's capabilities such that you can pick the appropriate pace from the beginning and maintain that pace throughout the 26.2 miles and have nothing left at the finish, that's an art. It's an art because each race is different. It's an art because every time I've raced the marathon, there have been mistakes and imperfections, but those, along with the moments of precise pace and strategy, contributed to the beauty of the race. And each race has been unique.

Racing a marathon is special. It takes 6 months of your life. You're likely to get sick during that time. You're likely to have spikes in responsibility at work during that time. You may have a family emergency of some sort during that time. You may get injured. You're pretty likely to just plain lose motivation to run during that time. If you prepare to race a marathon, you'll have opportunities to overcome different kinds of adversity. 

And then comes race day. What if you don't feel well on race day? What if you have a motivation lull during race week? What if you have a family emergency the eve of the race? And then, the completely uncontrollable bogey... What if you have bad weather on race day? 

What if you have all of those? Well, you'll probably have a poor race.

December 12, 2015, all of those happened to me. And I had what I consider to be my worst marathon ever. 

Now that I've philosophized a bit... I really do like the new Rocket City Marathon course. It's really cool and still reasonably fast. It's a little more difficult than the 2013 version, but it is still a fast course. And this picture is great... I cannot recommend this race highly enough.

The numbers... Results are at runrocketcity.com. I had three goals here. My A goal was a 3:05. I knew that the weather would not allow that to happen, so I abandoned that goal before the start line. My B goal was sub 3:10. You know, "three oh something". My C goal was to run a BQ time of 3:15. I missed all three of those goals. 

I ran a 3:19:39 which put me at 93rd overall and 12th of 133 in the 40-44 age group. I'm frankly embarrassed by that number, but looking back at the mistakes I made during preparation and on race day, it really is what I deserved and it is what I should have expected. 

So, what went wrong?

Well, let's start with race day. It was unseasonably warm and humid. Temps were in the mid-upper 60s during the race and the dew point was around 60. That really zapped me. Then, I had issues with digestion. This seems to mess me up far too often. I had to take an emergency number twp port-a-potty stop at mile 4.5. It was not pleasant, took longer than it should have, and that threw my hydration off a bit, too. When that was over, I was pretty far behind my C goal and I tried running hard to make up the time. Again, that wasn't very smart at all. 

I hit the 10k at 47:52 (about a 7:43 average pace) but I had been running pretty much 7:10 to 7:15 miles the whole time. So ugh. I hit the half timing mat at 1:38:34. From there, I'm thinking, "If I negative split this thing by two minutes, I can still break 3:15." But I was already tired at 13.1 and the back half is hillier. I thought about just quitting at 13.1 Just walking right to the arena and hanging out and waiting on the winners. It was warming up and I already felt pretty bad, so what was the point? But hey, I trained and I didn't have another marathon in mind to go to later. So I just hung on. I'm glad I did because quitting would have been just that for me. Quitting.

I still passed a lot of folks in the back half. But the climb up to the Space and Rocket Center completely zapped me. I saw my good friend Chris Ramsden coming out of the Space Center as I was entering, and I knew that he should have been way farther than a mile and a half ahead of me, so I knew it wasn't his day either. I yelled some encouragement anyway, but I figured that he didn't want to hear it and just wanted to be at the end.

And those miles from there through the Botanical Garden just drained me. They're rolling. And by the time I got out of there just after mile 20, I was done. I was feeling the harder effort from the early miles. For miles 21-25, it was all I could do to run 8 minute miles. I hit mile 21 at 8:07, and I said to myself, "NO! Okay. That's the last 8 minute mile I'll run. The rest will be below 8 minutes." Then I repeated that for miles 22, 23, 24, and 25. Ugh. 

When I looked at my watch at the one mile to go marker, I noticed that I had a chance to break 3:20. Well, you know, why not try? So I dug a little deeper and ran a 7:20 last mile to break 3:20 comfortably. I had to have something to reach for to just keep from giving up, so I'm glad I was close to that one arbitrary number on the clock. And I'm glad I didn't quit.
Eww. I sure was gross and sweaty at the end.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Make Progress

It's been a very slow and difficult three years since I ran a sub-3 marathon in 2012. Sometimes, it's hard for me to believe that I ever did that. So, here's what's happened since then.

I had a stress fracture in my right tibia in December of 2012 while training for a 50 miler. I wasn't as disciplined as I should have been in keeping my fitness in the water during the 9 weeks off from running and my fitness declined greatly. I came back very slowly and had an okay spring of 2013, all things considered.

During the late summer and early fall of 2013, I had a calf strain that was the worst I've ever had. I lost 9 weeks to that, which is the same amount of time that I lost to the stress fracture. I still wasn't at the fitness level before the stress fracture and my fitness declined even more. Again, I lacked discipline in maintaining fitness during a forced break from running.

After recovering from the calf strain, I slogged through the winter building my base and had a very mediocre finish at Mountain Mist 2014. A month later, Mount Cheaha completely humiliated me. I regrouped for the Chattanooga Stage Race, but again I wasn't as fit as I should have been and posted some slow times there. I just hadn't been doing the work. That's one of the things I love about running. You can't hide. If you don't do the work, everyone will know. Races are the ultimate accountability tool.

I decided that I'd build a big base through the winter and then hit the spring of 2015 with some shorter faster stuff and have a break out spring. Well, I built a big base. I completed the HTC Grand Slam. I threw in a 50 miler in between Recover from the Holidays and Mountain Mist just for good measure. I had a big base. Then, I got sick. I really didn't know what was wrong, but I just knew that I didn't feel well, ever. I struggled to run at all, let alone run fast or far. After a few nights of coughing, I was diagnosed with pneumonia. A shot and some pills later, and I felt better. The Levaquin did a number on my tendons (runners, NEVER take this drug), and I was out for over two weeks. Ugh. So much for leveraging the big base from the winter.

Barely two weeks later, I was diagnosed with pneumonia again. Two more weeks off, and this time I was referred to a specialist. A reasonably healthy guy shouldn't be getting pneumonia like that. The specialist ran all kinds of tests. I was poked and prodded in all kinds of ways. He found that I have histoplasmosis. (Google it if you want, but you may not want to ever be near me again. It's gross.) Well, soon after that, I was covered in a rash all over my body. My forehead, torso, arms, legs, even the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet. I was in complete misery for two weeks. And I couldn't take a steroid to help with the itching because of the histoplasmosis. Misery. But I've continued to take the histo medicine and now I feel great. I feel better than I have in a long, long time.

So here I am. Not as fit as I should be. Not as fit as I once was. And this whole post is my list of excuses for that. I'm wondering, can I ever be as fit as I was at 39? Has my window passed?

Well, I'm just going to be honest with myself. I know my fitness level right now. It isn't what I want it to be, but no good will come from pretending it's better than it is. I know that I can't handle the mileage I once did. I know that I can't hit the same splits on the track that I once did. I'm in 19:57 5k shape and I can handle about 55-60 miles per week. That's where I am. I can start right here, right now and I can improve.

And that's what I'll do.

I find palpable motivation from pithy sayings for some reason. Well, here's another that's my mantra for the rest of this year.

You can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can't make both.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Cloudland Canyon 50 Miler

Intro and Background

I've signed up for a 50 mile race four times before this one.

The first time was Dizzy Fifties in 2010. Hubris is what kept me from finishing that one. The second time was Dizzy Fifties in 2011. A complete lack of mental toughness prevented me from finishing that one. The third time was Lookout Mountain 50 miler in 2012. A stress fracture prevented me from starting that one. I was ready for LM50 and I was bummed to be unable to start. Since that stress fracture, I simply haven't been the same runner. And then there was the scam that was Bullet Creek. I don't want to talk about that other than to say it was the first experience I've ever had with a complete fraud.

So, that's why this was special for me. I've tried and failed to do this before. It just seemed like something always went wrong when I signed up for a 50 miler. I was never 100% confident that I was going to finish this until I crossed the finish line. I've done literally a dozen 50k races. I've done 40 miles. But 50 miles has been elusive. I kept expecting to get injured. I expected to wimp out and quit because we cross the start/finish area at mile 38.

Leading up to the race, I had planned to go with five other friends who were going to run the 50 miler. All of them either switched to the 11 miler or did not start the race. Another omen, I thought. I should drop to 11 miles... I'm just not meant to do a 50 miler.

But I just got stubborn and I was going to get this done no matter what.

Boy, am I glad I did.

The Venue

Cloudland Canyon State Park is a place that has to be experienced to be believed. Pictures are good. Pictures may make you want to go, but you really have to see it to really appreciate the beauty of this place. Here are a couple of pictures.
A few of the ~593 stairs. It was cold on race day!

This was taken one week before the race. It was raining and a cloud had settled into the canyon.

And this is the creek at the bottom of that canyon on race day.
The pictures are nothing compared to being next to the majestic beauty of this place. I will go back in the spring, summer, and fall to see the changing character the seasons have on this special spot.

The Race

Run Bum Tours knows how to put on a race. Period. All of the stuff you expect from a great trail race was delivered. A challenging and scenic course. Good organization and communication. Well stocked aid stations. Amazing volunteers. And just a down-home, simple, friendly, community feel.
Pre-race in the group shelter. We were a little late starting (maybe 10 minutes), but at least it was warm inside.

The race started in the dark at 5:00 AM EST (more like 5:10 actually). I was staying in a cabin in Mentone, about 40 minutes away, in CST. So, I had to get up at 2:00 AM CST to make this 5:00 AM EST start. I got about 1-2 hours of sleep because I just could not fall asleep and I had to wake up in the middle of the night. Also, I have almost no experience with headlamp running, so this forced me to take the first 2.5 hours of this race slowly. That probably saved me from myself.
Limestone County representing! Me, Jonathan Spry, and Lanier Greenhaw (left to right).
I had heard that the first 38 miles would be fairly easy and that the last 11 or 12 miles would be brutal. Well, not so much. The first 38 miles were definitely easier but still not easy. While the last 11 miles were stunningly beautiful and brutally difficult, the first 38 miles were varying terrain, changing beauty, steadily difficult, and just plain fun. And very cold. 

The biggest problem was that I couldn't get water. My handheld bottle kept freezing. I ended up breaking the nozzle on my bottle while trying to get ice from it. So, I had to take the lid off and drink directly from the bottle rather than through the nozzle. At the aid stations, I was trying to thaw my bottle lid at the fire. But it was useless. Within minutes of leaving, I'd have a slushy mess in my bottle. But still, I was able to get plenty of fluids by drinking at the aid stations. But freezing is going to be a problem when temps are below 20F.
I still had a nozzle on my bottle here...

Hmmm.. Whatcha got to eat here?

I was fortunate enough to run almost all of this race with my good friend Jonathan Spry. I really enjoyed spending the day with him. We separated occasionally for various physical needs (ahem) or walk breaks, but by and large we were together the whole way.
Yeah, it was cold!
There was this section between miles 17 and 22 that was just brutal to run. Now, on a mountain bike, it would be AWESOME! But running was not so pleasant. The trail was generally downhill, but there were these humps, little 4-10 foot high steep hills. They were just enough to break the running rhythm. You didn't want to walk the whole way because it was generally downhill, but you didn't want to start and stop, either. So, I ended up just taking what the course gave and running when gravity pulled me and walking when I lost momentum. It was very draining and it will make the elevation change of the course be deceptively low. Those little humps were real and they were up and they were down and there were literally hundreds of them. 

As Jonathan and I were running, we talked some about the people who call us crazy and who don't get out and enjoy the beauty of God's creation all around us. Even the first 38 miles, the "not as beautiful" part of the race, was gorgeous. We ran along ridges and could see for miles. There was this one section where the trees were predominantly evergreen and there was a partially frozen creek running along the trail and it just felt like I was in Washington state somewhere. Beautiful. I wish everyone could see and appreciate the beauty I saw Saturday.
And in the middle of that beauty there was this random Ford.
And somewhere along the way, probably about mile 15 or so, Jonathan and I met a man named Rick who really helped us both out. It was the first 50 miler for both Jonathan and I, and Rick really gave us some good advice and set a pace that we both knew would not kill us. We settled in and followed him. One of my favorite things about running is the people I get to meet. I love meeting these people who do this crazy stuff. Rick, thanks so much for the company, advice, and for saving me from myself. I look forward to seeing you again at Mountain Mist!

As we hit aid station 5 at about 33 miles, the temps were warmer and my water bottle stayed thawed. It was now that I realized that I had a chance to finish. I was tired, but I was beyond 50k and I knew I had some energy left. It wasn't going to be easy, but it was going to be done.

The Last 11 (or 12.5 or whatever)

Coming into the start/finish area, aid station 6, I was concerned. Not when I came into the aid station, but before the race. I was worried that I would wimp out. But my beautiful wife was there. She had a fresh water bottle for me. She took some stuff I didn't need any more (headlamp, flashlight, trash, etc.). And she gave me a hug even though I was a frozen sweaty mess.

And I had Jonathan and Rick there keeping things positive and moving forward.

And the beauty of this last part of the race. It was incredible!
Thanks for the photo, Rick!
I'll post a couple more pictures, but they don't do justice to the course. There was a hilly 3+ mile road section that we just had to endure. Then, we turned onto the trail. The trail was very, very rugged. Rocky. Rooty. Uneven. Up and down. Technical. Difficult. But it rewarded us with lots of views. And Rick and Jonathan just kept things positive. And then we got to the stairs and views like this awaited us the whole way.

Have I mentioned that it was cold?
And at the bottom of the stairs, there was this creek.
We ran along this creek for about a mile and a half to the last aid station. This mile and a half was mostly runnable trail, but had some uphills and one creek crossing that was just treacherously icy. I literally got on all fours to cross because all the rocks were covered with ice. It was very, very slippery and I did not want to fall into the creek. And the mile and a half was farther than I really wanted to go. I was more than ready to be finished.

Coming into this aid station, I was very, very hungry. It felt great just to get something in my stomach and that gave me a boost that I needed to get the last 5 miles done.

After the aid station, we were walking on a slightly uphill section and I told Jonathan and Rick that I felt better and that I just wanted this to be over. So, I ran. And I ran some more. I really hope that wasn't a jerk move because they had been with me and so encouraging to me all day. But I felt like running. So, I ran and Jonathan stayed with me until we reached the stairs. I went up a little faster and got to the top and ran most of the last mile or so. I just wanted to be done.

And, anti-climactic, I know, but I finished! My wife was there waiting for me, and that was so very special. I love her. She is awesome.

I ran 11:07:36 which was good enough for 18th overall out of 116 who started and 75 who finished. Nathan Holland was the winner in an astonishing 7:33. Results are here.

The End

I'm now a 50 mile finisher. I cannot say how much I appreciate all the encouragement and congratulations on Facebook and via text message. Thanks, guys. It means a lot to me.

Of course, thanks to my wife who put up with all the training to make this happen.

Thanks to Jonathan and Rick for running with me and keeping things positive the whole way. Ultra runners are good people.

And special thanks to Lanier Greenhaw who encouraged me in the months leading up to this, who inspires me by his consistency and 100 mile races, who was the self-appointed EP sweeper, and who threatened me within an inch of my life if I didn't finish this one. :)

Post race I had one of the most heavenly hot showers I've ever had there at the group lodge. And the post race grub was good, too. Run Bum puts on great events.

I swore I'd never do another 50 miler, and two days later, I'm still thinking that's true. This was much slower than I believe I'm capable of, but I had to get a finish under my belt before I worry about time. And I may never do another one. I just like the 50k and marathon distance better. But if you only run one 50 miler, you won't find a better 50 miler than Cloudland Canyon 50 miler. Unbelievable.

And my right big toe is the only casualty from running 50 miles.