Sunday, April 22, 2012

Race Recap: The Blue Ridge Marathon

What does it mean to run a race that advertises itself as "the nation's toughest road marathon"? What does it mean to run a marathon that has 3,600 feet of both climbing and descending?

At the pasta dinner on Friday night before the race, an organizer for the Blue Ridge Marathon took us all through the course. The real difficulty with the course, he said, was on the downhill sections. Does it make more sense to slow down and save your legs for later, or just roll with the hills and run as fast as you can? The downhills are so steep that it's pretty much impossible to avoid pounding your legs no matter what the pace, so why not just run them fast? Your quads are going to be hurting at the end regardless.

It's an enigma.

My plan was to try to have fun while running the race. I'd stop and take pictures, and walk whenever the hills got too steep. I'd walk through the water stations, and I'd play the downhill sections by ear. But I still wanted to finish faster than I did at Steamboat, where I pretty much collapsed in the second half and ran a 4:08.

I had driven up to Roanoke for the race with Bobby Aswell, who would be going quite a bit faster than me, and Mike MacIntyre, whose goal was just to finish it, after being pulled off the course due to weather last year.

After the pasta dinner, we all lined up to get our picture taken with the great marathoner Bill Rodgers, who had been brought in as a speaker for the event. Here's my picture:

Bill is no idiot!

Rodgers is a great guy and was infinitely patient getting his photo taken with the hordes of admiring marathoners.

Our hotel was rather "well-worn" but after we settled in for the night the room was fine and we got up at 5:30 to get ready for the race. Although rain was in the forecast, it looked like it wouldn't hit until after Bobby and I had finished, so I decided to run in my usual race-day attire: A DART singlet, shorts, and calf sleeves. We drove to the start, where it was a comfortable 60 degrees — a little warm, but nothing to complain about given what our friends had had to deal with in Boston 6 days earlier. Here I am at the start:

We'll see how long that smile lasts...

Before I knew it, we were off -- a minute early, by my watch. That is something that simply never happens! The first mile was flat, but afforded us views of the second mountain we'd be climbing today, Mill Mountain, with a giant star on the top:

You may have to click the picture to find the star
I tried to take my first self-portrait here, with the star in the background. Unfortunately the star is obscured by a streetlight.

If you look closely, you can see our first hill in the background

At the end of Mile 1, we arrived at the first hill. It really didn't feel too bad.

Everyone is looking much better than they will in a couple hours

I have a new GPS watch that allows me to get instantaneous readings of both the current elevation and the current grade of the hill I'm climbing (or descending, as the case may be). I gave myself permission to walk whenever the grade was above 15 percent. This hill was probably closer to 10 percent, but I knew they'd be getting much steeper.

We climbed over 600 feet in two miles, reaching the first hill-top at Mile 3. In any other marathon, this would be a devastating hill, but it was just a prelude to what was coming. I took a brief walk-break at the water station, then continued on. We were now on a scenic two-lane backroad, with no houses in sight and only the occasional spectator to cheer us on. The half-marathon splits off at Mile 3, so suddenly there were very few runners around. Around Mile 6, we headed up the first really significant hill. A highway sign offered some good advice for runners looking for an enjoyable marathon:

Not even to use the porta-john?

The road was dramatically steeper here, with several sections exceeding 15% and some getting very close to a 20 percent grade. In Mile 6 and 7 the total climb was over 800 feet, and I slowed to a 10:30 pace (that's counting stopping for photo ops and walk breaks). I reached a false summit at an aid station and got one of the volunteers to take my photo.

Not quite there yet....

For the last half-mile of the climb, runners were streaming by in the opposite direction, and I saw Bobby in time enough to give him a high-five (but not to get a photo). Finally at Mile 7 I summited Roanoke Mountain, where the aid-station volunteers gave us all a rousing ovation.

The volunteers were enthusiastic throughout the course

By this point I had started taking two waters at every aid station. After getting my water, I walked to make sure I drank every drop, then headed back down the mountain. I didn't have a good sense of how to take these sustained downhills, so I just ran by feel, trying to pick a pace that took advantage of the grade, without completely destroying my quads. It ended up being a little slower than I thought; my pace hovered around 7:30, which isn't much faster than my pace for the entire Richmond Marathon. It was steep, but fortunately there weren't any sections where it felt like I couldn't run at all.

Despite the blur, I think this road sign captures what I was dealing with on the downhills

Every half-mile or so, even on these isolated rural routes, there'd be a couple fans cheering runners on. Here's a pair at a bridge at the start of the third major climb:

That's the spirit!

Soon after this at around Mile 11, someone yelled "You're almost finished!," causing the runner behind me to laugh uncontrollably. I said, "I think what he meant was that you're almost to the point when saying 'you're almost finished' doesn't evoke laughter," thus evoking even more laughter....

Next we'd be climbing Mill Mountain, with the star at the summit. The slope wasn't quite as steep as Roanoke, and I only took a couple of walk breaks. Every once in a while this runner with a strong German accent would pass by and ask if I knew how far it was to the top. Since I had a GPS and knew the elevations of all the major summits, I'd tell him in feet how much more climbing was left. Then I wondered whether I should really be giving him measurements in meters. He didn't seem to have any trouble with the numbers, no matter how I reported them. Soon, we arrived at the star:


Then we wound around the star and ran past it again, at an aid station. For some reason there was a person in a raccoon suit standing there, so I said "I've got to get my picture with the raccoon." I meant that I wanted to have one of the aid workers take my photo using my camera, but there was an official photographer there and he took the picture instead...which means, you don't get to see it because it's not available as I write this (and most likely I won't be willing to pay what they are charging for it when it is available). Oh well. Here's a self-portrait with the star in the background. It'll have to do.

This is the biggest illuminated star in the world!

Now it was down, down, down, 800 feet of descending to the valley floor. Once again the road was very steep, but not so steep that it wasn't runnable. Despite that I only managed about an 8-minute pace.  Oh well, it was a pretty, fun descent. The jostling and bumping from the downhill run made it very uncomfortable to keep my camera in my belt, so I decided to just carry it. This meant I took a lot more pictures in this section.

Here I am running downhill

Catching up with the last-place half-marathoners

Passing through the historic Mill Mountain toll booth (no charge for marathoners)

Heading into a very swanky neighborhood. Nice house!

The swanky homes all had fantastic views

Finally I made it to the bottom and put the camera away. I was at Mile 16, a "flat" mile with just 91 feet of climbing (AKA more than Boston's "Heartbreak Hill). One last big climb remained. As I started up the hill, the local residents were outside their homes cheering me (and all those other runners) on. "This is the last hill," they'd tell us. I knew there was actually one more hill after this one, but they were right that this was the last really big one. I ran past more beautiful homes, and I walked a lot. Other runners seemed more determined to keep running all the way up, but they weren't gaining any ground on me, so I felt like I probably was taking the right approach here. For the final stretch, we ran up a cul-de-sac and got to see the other runners coming down. I didn't see Bobby, so I knew he was well ahead of me. Then it was down, down, down, to Mile 20, where the route took one last cruel turn up another steep hill, probably another 200 feet of climbing over a half-mile. When we finally reached the top, we were greeted with this sign:

The problem is, downhill was now just as painful as uphill

In the above picture you can see a guy in a rust-colored shirt, who was about 50 yards ahead of me. Whenever the locals would cheer him on, he'd raise both arms and whoop, much to their amusement. I gradually caught up to him on the downhill, and we chatted a bit, picking up the pace to around 8:20 per mile. But I knew I wasn't going to be able to keep this up for long, and on Mile 22, he dropped me. We were winding through city streets, and near Mile 23, we passed our hotel:

It was probably a good thing that I didn't have a room key on me.

It was turning into a very warm day -- around 70 degrees, so not Boston 2012-warm, but still warm enough in the sun to cause massive sweating. My shorts were drenched. Now it was just a battle of will. The course was basically flat, and ideally I'd be running it at around an 8:00 pace. 9:00 was more realistic, but the temptation to take walk-breaks was strong. I tried to wait for water stations, but sometimes I just gave in and walked mid-mile. Here I am in one of my more determined moments:

I'm smiling outside, but feeling truly lousy inside

On and on I ran. Despite having climbed the "last hill", there was yet another hill, about a 70-foot climb, in Mile 24. It was a gradual incline across a footbridge, but I could definitely feel it. I walked the bridge. I was now running through an industrial area, hoping that I'd get a bit of an adrenaline surge for the final two miles, but it wasn't forthcoming. About a mile from the finish, I passed this:

The Red Cross? Seriously? I think the race director is toying with us.

And on and on... Finally I could actually see the finish line. Unfortunately it was about a half-mile away. I tried to pick up the pace. I figured Bobby would probably be there to take a picture at the end, so I got ready to assume a triumphant pose. Unfortunately just as I arrived, a trio of half-marathoners was also crossing the line, hand-in-hand. I slowed down to a walk as Bobby snapped the shutter, so here's what he got. It's probably a pretty accurate rendering of my condition at the time:

I made it!

Then I got my medal, shook the race director's hand, and posed for a finish-line shot with Bobby. Once again, how I look is a good approximation of how I was feeling at the moment:


I knew I should have some food, but none of the finish-line fare looked particularly appetizing. I grabbed a couple bananas and managed to choke them down. Even more impressively, I managed to keep them down. After resting for 30 minutes or so, Bobby and I headed back to the hotel for a shower before returning to watch Mike finish in a thunderstorm. He had finally finished the race, after three years of trying, but not before the finish line was practically demolished by the weather! Here's the shot Bobby got of Mike crossing the line:

Mike (left) had cramped up in Mile 8 and walked the rest of the race

Overall, I'm pleased with my race. I finished in 4:02:45, which was actually fourth place in my age group, despite all my stops and walk-breaks. If I had finished just 3 minutes faster, I would have been in third and won a trophy, presented by Bill Rodgers. Bobby won our age group and got to do just that. And all three of us can now say we've finished what is arguably the nation's most technically difficult road marathon. According to my Garmin, we climbed and descended 3,953 feet. Compare that to Grandfather Mountain, with 2,800 feet of climbing and only 1,800 feet of descending.

On any given day, the racing conditions can make a race more difficult. There is no doubt in my mind that the competitors in the Boston Marathon had a tougher challenge this year, facing an official high temperature of 89 degrees, and likely temperatures much higher than that, running most of the race on blacktop with no shade. Nonetheless, it really did feel great to complete such a challenging course. I'm glad to have been a part of it.

My Garmin plot of the event is below.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Race Strategy: Blue Ridge Marathon

I signed up for the Blue Ridge Marathon because I wanted a challenge, and because I wanted to run a marathon where I wasn't constantly worrying about my overall pace and finishing time. You might say I'm running it for "fun," but I'm not sure that's the appropriate term when you're talking about a race that bills itself as "America's toughest road marathon."

This is a race that has incorporated its elevation profile into the race logo -- check this out:

(I'm pretty sure the runner is not to scale)
The Blue Ridge Marathon brags about its cumulative elevation gain: 3,620 feet. It also brags about its cumulative descent -- 3,614 feet. The combined toll of the climbs and quad-pounding descents means this will be a serious challenge.

Just how serious? Let's compare it to the other two "hilly" marathons I've run:

Elevation profiles, normalized for vertical scale
To make this graph, I compressed the vertical scale on my Garmin plots of Big Sur and Steamboat to match the scale of the Blue Ridge profile. Big Sur is unquestionably a hilly marathon, with about 1,800 feet of climbing and descending according to Garmin. But its hills barely register when you place it next to the Blue Rige profile. Even Steamboat, with its massive descent from 8,200 feet to 6,700 feet, doesn't look very imposing next to the Blue Ridge marathon.

Blue Ridge has three massive descents of over 500 vertical feet, along with a half-dozen others that would count as major hills on any other course. The 500-foot climb in the first three miles would be devastating in most other races, but here it's just a prelude to three tougher climbs in Miles 5-7, 12-13, and 15-19. The final five miles look to be relatively flat, but at that point I expect my legs to feel floppier than a limp rag.

My primary goal in this race is just to have fun. It's tempting not to even bring a Garmin, but I'm too much of a data junkie to leave it at home. I want to follow along as I climb the hills, to see just how steep that last climb is, and how much I slow down for the climbs and speed up on the descents.

I also have a vague goal of finishing faster than I did at Steamboat. As tough as Blue Ridge is on paper, I still think I should be able to complete it faster than 4:08. I count roughly 9 miles worth of climbing in this race, so even if I only climb at an average pace of 11 minutes per mile, if I run the rest of the race at a relatively easy 8 minutes / mile, that gives me a total of 3:56.

I plan on walking through all the water stops to ensure I get plenty to drink, and I'm also planning on bringing a camera. But even if I stop to take a few pictures, there's no way those breaks will add more than 12 minutes to my time. Unless this race is a lot harder than it looks.

The only other strategy I plan on employing is a strategy of knowledge. Knowing the course makes it easier to handle, so I'm going to memorize the location of the major peaks in the race beforehand: Mile 3.1 (1483 feet), Mile 7.4 (2125 feet), Mile 13 (1735 feet), Mile 19 (1604 feet), and one last tough hill at Mile 20.5 (1167 feet).

I won't be carrying water -- there are 18 water stops in the event, so that should be plenty. I will be carrying a couple extra gel packs. I don't want to repeat the experience I had at Richmond where I thought I had one last gel for Mile 24, and it wasn't there. I'll need 9 gels for this race: One at the start, 6 for my regular 4-mile intervals, and 2 extras.

I do expect that I will be walking at times on some of these hills. The gradient on the hills is as high as 18 percent, and that's not something I can just run straight up with no breaks. Not all the hills are that steep -- 10 percent is more common than 18 -- but that's still a serious grade that's going to require breaks on longer stretches. I asked my friend and veteran ultra-runner Jeff McGonnell how to manage the hills, and he said that if I had to walk, I should "walk with purpose," swinging the arms and making as much progress as possible. Makes sense, and I'll try to follow that advice as I go.

I'll be heading up to Roanoke on Friday afternoon, enjoying a pasta dinner with legendary marathoner Bill Rodgers (and a couple hundred of our friends), and then racing on Saturday. I can't wait!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Race Recap: The Lake Norman Rotary 10K

On Sunday I got a message from my friend Chas Willimon. Both Chas and I have been looking for a 10K race where we might have a shot at setting a PR, and now Chas had an idea: "There's a 10K in Huntersville next Saturday. If you are interested, maybe we could pace each other to sub-40."

After being humbled by the heat (and beaten by Chas) at the Leprechaun Loop 8K two weeks ago, I wasn't sure I had a sub-40-minute 10K in me. To run a sub-40, you need to average 6:26 per mile — the same pace it takes to run a sub-20 5K, something I had only accomplished once.

But if I did have a shot, it would probably be with Chas there to pace me. I checked the weather, and it looked like the temperatures would be ideal on race day, in six days' time: About 40 degrees at the start. I gave Chas a provisional "yes" unless we got an unexpected sudden hot spell.

The race was the Lake Norman Rotary 10k, and yesterday we previewed the route and found it to be fairly hilly. Here's the elevation profile I recorded:

The major hills are in Miles 1, 4, and 6. We decided that the critical hill was in Mile 4: You're fresh on Mile 1 and by Mile 6 you can smell the finish line. So the plan was to run at about a 6:20 pace for Miles 1 to 3, then try to hang on to that pace up the hill in Mile 4. The mostly downhill Mile 5 would allow us a rest before the difficult final hill in Mile 6. We also agreed that if either of us found ourselves falling below a 6:26 pace, it was okay for the other runner to drop him. For Mile 6, if we were still together, pacing would end and it would be a race to the finish.

The race was a combined 5K and 10K, starting simultaneously, with most racers signed up for the 5K. As best as we could tell there were only 20 or 30 10Kers in the group. It was a perfect, brisk morning, and I decided to run in a singlet and shorts. At the starting line, most of the other runners seemed to be less experienced than me and Chas, and we heard lots of "watch out for those guys in tank tops, they look serious." We chatted with one runner who also looked serious—he said he'd be running around a 5:40 pace—but he was running the 5K. It looked like Chas and I might be competing for first place in the 10K.

As the race started, it quickly settled into groups: Serious Runner and one other runner out front, then a pack of 7 or 8 including me and Chas about 20 seconds behind. We maintained our pace almost perfectly for Mile 1, a 6:18. About two minutes into Mile 2 I noticed the pace of our little pack had picked up a bit and we were now running closer to a 6:09 pace. I told Chas we could slow down a bit and we let the pack ease ahead of us.

But then we hit the point where the 5K split off from the 10K route. The entire pack was running the 5K and Chas and I were in the lead, right behind the pace bike! We hit the Mile 2 mark on perfect pace: 6:20. One runner, a guy in a blue T-shirt, was fairly close on our heels. Would he be a threat to pass us? We tried not to concern ourselves with that and focused on maintaining our pace.

Mile 3 was a slight downhill. Chas asked if I wanted to pick up the pace or "float" down the hill a little faster. Knowing we had a tough Mile 4 ahead, I suggested we just maintain pace. We hit the Mile 3 mark on perfect pace again: 6:20.

Then we turned the corner to face the hill that started out Mile 4. It was gradual at first, but we knew there would be steeper sections ahead. Looking at my Garmin I could see I was beginning to fall off pace. I dug in deeper and tried to pick it up. Finally we hit the first steeper section. It wasn't exactly a San-Francisco-style hill, but it had a definite gradient to it, and as I tried to maintain my 6:20 pace, it felt like someone had just strapped a bag of bricks to my back. As we crested the hill, the Garmin showed a 6:33 pace -- not bad, given that we had banked a good 20 seconds in the first three miles. I tried to pick it up as the road turned briefly downhill, but we finished Mile 4 at that same 6:33 pace.

This race was odd in that it didn't have mile markers, just kilometer markers. Since I always use miles-per-minute for my pacing, it didn't match up to my GPS display. But fortunately a 40-minute 10K means you need to run 4-minute kilometers, so it was easy for us to check whether our Garmins matched the official course distances. I don't usually race with a total time display on my GPS; instead I have current mile pace, previous mile pace, and total distance. But at the 5K marker I did manage to scroll to the total time window and found that we were 50 seconds ahead; our GPSs were measuring longer than the actual course—always a relief compared to when the error works in the other direction.

Mile 5 was supposed to be an easy downhill, but first we had to contend with some rolling hills. I found myself falling further off pace in anticipation of the downhill relief. Chas was starting to pull away from me, which was perfectly okay according to our pacing plan; I wasn't maintaining a 6:26 pace. As we crested the last hill before the sustained downhill, my pace read 6:40.

I tried to pick up the pace on the downhill but found it difficult. Blue Shirt Guy had fallen back a bit, but now I began to worry that he would catch me. Gradually I picked up the pace, until I hit 6:33 at the end of the mile. Had I lost too much time? Would I be able to hold on for the final uphill in Mile 6?

There wasn't time to think about it; I just had to run. Halfway up the hill I passed the 9-kilometer marker. If I was on pace, my overall time should be below 36:00. I scrolled to the overall clock and saw that it read 35:20. All I needed to do was run a 4:40 final kilometer. Surely I could do that, right?

Chas continued to pull away, and Blue Shirt Guy's footsteps got louder behind me. I tried to run hard over the crest of the hill and maintain my momentum for the final push downhill. Blue Shirt Guy looked young, and I thought he might have a good kick. I could see the cones of the finish chute ahead, and I was still in second place. My watch beeped 6 miles, and I didn't look down (I later saw that my split for Mile 6 was 6:35). I strode around the final corner, and up one last hill to the finish line as the clock ticked 39:15, 39:16, 39:17... I made it! My watch read 39:19 at the finish line, but my official time was 39:17.8. Blue Shirt Guy was three seconds behind!

Chas and I congratulated each other on setting our goals — Chas had crushed his with an amazing 38:59 — and then shook Blue Shirt Guy's hand (his name turned out to be Donald McKenzie) and told him he had done a great job. "I was just trying to keep up with you," he said. Chas had won the race, and I was second.

As it turned out, fellow DARTer Chad Randolph showed up to watch the finish, and he got pictures of me and Chas crossing the line:

Chas and I assume the standard "stop your Garmin" finish-line pose

And here's the obligatory finish-line portrait:

DART goes 1-2!

For this race the overall top 3 get framed certificates — but we'll have to wait a few days for those to be customized with our names. Even more important from my perspective, I hope they also print 39:17.8 on mine!

The Garmin record of today's race is below:

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A record week

After getting an excellent start to the week with treadmill runs of 17, 15, and 15 miles, I had completed 48 miles in just three days. On Thursday I felt good enough to run again and did an easy 4 miles with DART. Then on Friday I felt fine and ran the 6-mile DART loop by myself. After just five days of running I had completed nearly 60 miles.

I seemed to recall that my highest-mileage week was right around 70 miles. How hard could it be to break that record now? A little searching revealed that I had actually done 76 miles one week last spring, but still, I'd need only 18 miles or so to break that record. I decided to try to break 80 miles for the week.

On Saturday I tested out my new pair of trail shoes and got in 7 miles on a warm, humid morning. I was drenched in sweat, but I quickly calculated that I needed just 14.09 miles on Sunday to break my record.

I decided to run 16.

This morning I met up with the DART group. Just one runner, Kevin, was planning a run as long as me, and he had already run 6, so he was willing to 14 with me. I figured 14 was better than nothing so I ran with Kevin as far as he was willing to go, right about 14 miles on a very hilly route.

We arrived back in town and I thought about turning it in right there, but I decided that would be wimpy. Plus, I had made the mental commitment to run the Blue Ridge Marathon in three weeks (with 3,620 feet of climbing, its tagline is "America's Toughest Road Marathon"), so I felt like I needed to show some grit. And also to run a few more hills. I picked up the pace for another 2.7 miles, and finished my run solo, again soaked through with sweat.

That brought my total for 82.61 miles for the week, a record by more than 6 miles!

Details of today's run are below: