Friday, January 31, 2014

My first-ever beer mile

A few weeks ago some fellow runners and I were chatting over beers after a run and one of us suggested that we do a beer mile.

"Great idea," I said, "when should we do it?"

"How about Thursday three weeks from now?"

I looked on my calendar. The date was perfect.

That date ended up being yesterday. It was also my 47th birthday

A beer mile, in case you haven't heard, requires you to drink four beers and run a mile, in the following sequence:

1. Drink a 12-ounce beer straight from the can/bottle (no modification of the container is allowed).
2. Run 1/4 mile
3. Drink another beer (by the way, the minimum alcohol content is 5 percent. This means most "light" beers are out.)
4. Run 1/4 mile
5. Drink another beer (you're probably starting to notice a pattern here)
6. Run 1/4 mile
7. Drink another beer
8. Run 1/4 mile

There are other rules, to do with puking, running while drinking, etc., but this gives you the general idea.

The main difficulty in planning a beer mile is figuring out where to do it. Most logical spots (school tracks, parks, etc.) forbid consumption of alcohol. We decided on a section of greenway that was relatively near town (so we could recuperate in our favorite burrito joint) and, we hoped, would be pretty much empty at 6:15 p.m., after dark.

Problem #1: Snow. It doesn't snow much in Davidson, North Carolina, but by a fluke it had just snowed a couple days earlier. We were hoping to mark off a quarter-mile section of the greenway to run on, but we couldn't find a section that long that was clear. Solution: We'd run an eight of a mile out and back. The turnaround would slow us down, but we we're planning on breaking any records anyway.

Problem #2: As it turned out, the "isolated" section of greenway we were planning on using was right next to the town's parks and recreation office. Several employees appeared to be working late. If they were paying attention they might notice some unauthorized alcoholic activities occurring right outside their windows. Solution: We tried to look as inconspicuous as possible as we sauntered past the office. Fortunately the actual event would be out of sight of the building. In the end this turned out to be a non-issue, but there were school teachers and lawyers among us for whom "getting caught" might be more than merely embarrassing.

Problem #3: I hadn't chugged a beer in over two decades. Solution: Uh, you're on your own there, Dave!

A little after 6:15, six of us lined up at the start, first beer in hand, others arrayed strategically on the ground.

We yelled "start" and cracked open our beers. I was drinking Miller High Life from a can. This stuff wasn't just fizzy, it was positively frothy. It seemed like every swallow of beer I drank doubled in volume on the way down. Drinking this thing was taking forever. I still had about a third of a can left when the first runner finished his drink and sprinted onto the dimly-lit greenway. Finally I finished and took off. I was in fourth place. My stomach felt like it was going to explode. Fortunately I was able to belch several times and settle into a quick stride. Soon I reached the turnaround and headed back. This wasn't going to be too bad.

Then I started drinking the next beer. It's one thing to chug a beer when you're nicely rested; it's another thing entirely when you've just run a quarter-mile all-out. After a couple swallows I had to stop to take a breath. The first runner was already finished and heading back out. It seemed impossible! I finally settled into a drink-gasp-drink-gasp pattern and was able to down the beer and head back out, still in fourth place. I belched my way around the cones and back to the starting area.

Now the leader was starting to struggle a bit. I think he was having trouble keeping his beer down—He was a fast runner and drinker, but didn't seem to have the stomach for the event. Meanwhile I was dealing with my own issues of froth and gasping for breath. Finally I downed beer number three and headed back out. I passed the former leader and was now in third place. The new first- and second-place holders seemed strong indeed; there was no chance I could catch them. By the time I was back to the start, they had practically finished their fourth beers. The former leader came in and was struggling to open his can. It was a very chilly night and his fingers were numb. I was halfway through beer #4 when it occurred to me I could help him—I ripped the pull tab off of my can and handed it to him to use as a lever.

Unfortunately, while I was doing this, the fourth-place runner continued to drink; he finished his beer about three seconds before I did. Now it was just a footrace; I accelerated as quickly as possible (while belching) and caught him just before the turnaround. Runners 1 and 2 had finished, but I wanted third place. I poured on the speed, but Runner 4 would not go down without a fight; I could hear him gaining on me. Somehow I found another gear and picked it up even more as I drove to the finish line in the darkness. I held him off, and managed to finish in a time of 9:54. As the other two runners straggled in, we all agreed: That was hard!

I think the hardest part was just the foaminess of the beer. It was difficult to get it down quickly when there was so much foam. I don't think drunkenness really played any part during the actual run—though naturally I did feel a little buzzed afterwards.

I managed to capture the whole thing on my Garmin. Since the Garmin captures "moving time" I got a good sense of my pace for the running portion -- 6:40 for the mile. That's not flying, but it also involved four starts and stops, plus four turnarounds. Taking a look at my final sprint, it looks like I was under 5-minute pace for that last dash to the finish.

What's more interesting are my beer-drinking splits. Here's the Garmin speed graph:

The four deep troughs correspond to my beer-chugs; by hovering over the graph on my Garmin activity page, I can figure out how long it took to do each one: 29, 46, 56, and 86 seconds; a little slower every time, with an extra-long gap on the last one due to my stopping to help my fellow beer-miler. Clearly if there's room for improvement, it's in the beer-drinking portion of the event. I'm not currently planning on doing another beer mile, but if I did, I'd definitely need to work on my beer-chugging skills.

By the way, there's a whole web site on beer miles. The current world-record is 5:04, which seems almost unfathomable. I took nearly twice that long!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

THAT'S the trail?

In just over two months, I'm planning on running my first ultramarathon: The Leatherwood Mountains 50 miler. Though technically any race longer than 26.2 miles "counts" as an ultra, I decided I didn't want my first ultra experience to be the more typical 50K run. At 31 miles, a 50K is just 5 miles longer than a marathon, and while that's certainly not easy, I didn't want to think of this as a slightly-longer marathon. I wanted to have a completely new and different experience.

To train for a trail ultra, it goes without saying that you need to do some trail running. I figured if I'm going to run trails, I should run them as often as possible, and they should be comparable in difficulty to the trails I'm planning on racing. So I asked my ultra-running friend Brandon to pick a nice, tough trail run for us to try this weekend.

He didn't disappoint.

We met on Saturday in Montreat, NC, a small retreat town near Asheville. Temperature: 23 degrees. Although there was no snow on the ground, a light snow was falling.

Montreat's elevation is 2,500 feet. We'd be running up about 5,600 feet. Needless to say, it wasn't going to get any warmer. Joining us were Brandon's brother-in-law Tom and their friend, whose name I never managed to remember.

We started by running straight up a steep paved road. Within a quarter-mile, we were walking up the steep road. A quarter-mile later we were at the trailhead; more walking ensued. "It gets runnable after a mile or so," Brandon insisted. After about 1,000 vertical feet of climbing, the trail did level off a bit. It also got snowy. We were running through about an inch of fresh snow. Brandon and Tom bounded ahead; their friend lagged behind me. At least I wasn't the slowest.

Brandon and Tom stopped at an icy creek. The normal means of crossing -- hopping from stone to stone -- looked rather treacherous, as many of the stones were coated with solid ice. I managed to pick my way across without getting wet or falling in. More running ensued, now on a gradual upslope.

I caught up to Brandon and Tom at a waterfall. They had already eaten energy bars and wanted to take a group photo. Here it is:

That's me, trying to wolf down a Clif Bar before we need to take off again

Soon we were off again, and before long the terrain became once again too steep to run. We were hiking up through steep snow, and my hand was practically numb from cold. I tried to take a sip from my hydration pack and found the tube was frozen. Fortunately I was able to flex it and get the water flowing again. We were only about 6 miles in to our planned 20-miler. Finally we arrived at the top of Graybeard, to spectacular views. The snow here was a couple inches deep. Tom and Brandon's friend was going to turn around here, which meant that I would be the slowest guy in the group.

Brandon pointed to a steeply-descending path through a bramble: "There's where we go next!"

THAT'S the trail? I thought. It not only didn't look runnable, it didn't look skiable. Down we went. I grabbed on to every handhold I could find, trying to stop myself from plummeting hundreds of feet down the steep slope. Somehow I made my way to the bottom, several minutes behind Tom and Brandon.

Next it was back up a similar slope to another peak. And down again. And up again. This next time we lost what little semblance of a trail we had been hiking up. Brandon: "Let's just climb up. It's a waste of time looking for the trail -- we'll find it when we get to the top."

He was right, but the climb took a while. "How high is the top?" I asked Brandon.

"About 5,600 feet. What elevation do you have now?"


"I think your watch is wrong."

Brandon turned out to be right. After about 100 feet more climbing we did reach the top, at 5,600 feet. It was frigid and windy. Here's the shot Brandon got of me and Tom at the top:

Why do we look so awkward? Because the wind is gusting at 20+ MPH!

The photo fails to capture the volume of snow we had been dealing with all morning. Here's a shot of Tom on some flatter terrain that gives you a better sense of the amount of snow covering the trail:

Now THAT'S snow!

We were all freezing, and my water had frozen solid.

"Don't worry, I've got a different route down; it's much more runnable," Brandon said.

It better be -- it was now 1:30 in the afternoon; we'd been out for 3 and a half hours, and I needed to be finished in an hour and a half.

The first mile down was anything but runnable. Some sections were more aptly described as "slide-on-your-ass-able."

Finally we reached a legitimately runnable road. It was hellishly rocky, covered with snow, and icy / muddy in parts, but for the most part we were able to manage a 10-minute running pace. This compares to the 17-minute pace we had averaged on the way up.

Soon we were back on the runnable trail we had come up at the beginning of the trip. Now we could really stretch out our stride, and I was able to sustain an 8:30-ish pace in sections. Until I went crashing to the ground after tripping over a root. Naturally I bumped the same knee I had injured last Fall. Fortunately, I found I could still run, and kept going, at a somewhat more manageable pace.

I met up with Brandon and Tom again at a creek. "Here's a shortcut home -- it's less than three miles from here."

That was good, because I needed to be down to the bottom in 30 minutes.

This trail was steeper, rockier, and less runnable. But at least there was no snow. I hopped my way down, crashing one more time, until finally we reached a road.

"Tom and I are going to get a few more miles, but just run down this road and you'll get back to the parking lot."

I ran down the blissfully smooth, dry pavement, and found myself back at my car at exactly 3 pm, just when I needed to arrive.

5 hours of running, over 4,000 feet of climbing through snow, ice, and mud, and my toughest trail run ever was complete. What an experience.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Long-Overdue Race Recap: The Kiawah Island Marathon

As soon as I sat down in Sam's car for the 4.5-hour drive to Kiawah Island, South Carolina last month, I couldn't resist asking him about the plan I had been hatching for about the previous 48 hours:

"Sam, I have a crazy idea, and I either want you to talk me into this, or talk me out of it," I said.

"You want to run the full instead of the half?"

Was it that obvious?

I had signed up months ago to run the Kiawah Island Half Marathon -- it was going to be my best shot at running a 1:25 half and qualifying for guaranteed* entry to the New York Marathon. I had been training all fall for a fast half-marathon and was in top form. But then, 5 weeks prior to Kiawah, I had a relatively minor injury that made a major impact on my training.

A 5-mile tempo run at half-marathon pace 10 days from race day wasn't encouraging; I could only sustain the pace for the first three miles. On a set of what should have been easy 1200-meter intervals at HM pace 5 days out from the race, I had to cut my last one short.

Even with race-day adrenaline, it just didn't seem likely that I would be able to sustain a 6:28 pace for 13.1 miles. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed possible that I might be able to hit a marathon PR at Kiawah. I've always felt like my marathon PR was soft. I only managed a 3:22:55 at Richmond, a 7:42 pace. Surely I could do better than that. If I couldn't run 6:28 for 13.1 miles, maybe I could run 7:38 for 26.2.

It didn't take long for Sam to agree that it would probably be a better idea to run the full than run the half. If I PRd, I'd qualify for Boston, and I might decide to go ahead and register for the 2015 race. But either way, it seemed more likely that I could put up a very decent marathon time than PR and get a New-York-qualifying time in the half.

After a somewhat odd pre-race dinner that included steamship round and only one type of pasta (with a very heavy meat sauce), I slept surprisingly well the night before the race. I hadn't been able to fully carbo-load, but I felt like I should still be able to put up a good time.

Race morning went well, and Sam and I arrived at the start area feeling confident. Here's the one-and-only photo of us on race morning:

No alligators were harmed in the process of taking this photo

I posted this shot to the DART Facebook page to see if anyone noticed that I had a Marathon race number on, not a half race number. No one had a clue.

As we sat on a nice covered verandah awaiting the start, we reflected on just how pleasant the starting area for Kiawah was: Plenty of places to sit down, with the option to wait inside, outside, or under cover. Plenty of bathrooms, and just a short walk to the start line.

Soon we were ready to go and headed up to the starting area, where we were careful to get fairly close to the front of the pack. There I ran into my Blue Ridge Relay teammate Johanna Remes, who was also looking to run a 7:30-ish pace for the marathon. Awesome! Sam was planning a faster pace, so this meant I'd have someone to run with.

Soon the starting gun went off, and we were on our way. We had lined up in the perfect spot, and hardly had to pass anyone to maintain our planned pace. As Johane and I chatted, the miles ticked away:

Mile 1-5: 7:46, 7:30, 7:36, 7:33, 7:40

I felt like I was working a tad harder than I would like, but I wasn't straining. The course was lovely, running through moss-covered oaks, across bridges, and past beautiful homes.

Mile 6-10: 7:38, 7:38, 7:39, 7:37, 7:38

The course was flat as a pancake, as promised. My garmin was reading some of the miles as longer than the mile markers indicated, but it wasn't a huge issue. The only thing that worried me was a growing urge to use the restroom. If I had just needed to pee, it wouldn't be too bad, but I felt like I was probably going to have to take a dump at some point. That would not be good.

Mile 11-15: 7:38, 7:43, 7:47, 7:50, 7:44

This stretch was frustrating. Johane, who was running very well, dropped me. The miles each seemed to just be a tad longer than my Garmin indicated. And the urge to take a dump would not go away. A couple times I was able to pass gas and dispel the urge. But it seemed less and less likely that I would be able to complete the race without a pit stop. A look at the map shows that the course was rather complicated:


As you can see, there are several out-and-back sections. These allowed me to see both who was ahead of me and who was behind. Even if I couldn't PR, I still had a good shot at a Boston-qualifying time -- a 3:25 total, or 7:52 per mile. At each turnaround I could see that I was a couple minutes ahead of the 3:25 pace team, in good position to BQ.

Miles 16-18: 7:44, 7:49, 7:59

I was slowing down -- mainly because I really needed to stop and take a dump. Finally, in Mile 19, I saw an empty porta-john and tried to do my business as quickly as possible. But between evacuating, cleaning up, and pulling sweaty compression underwear and shorts back on, the stop took over three and a half minutes. As I hustled back on to the course, I strained to see if the pace team was ahead of me or behind me.

Mile 19: 11:23

It seemed almost certain that it was. I tried to ask some of the spectators if they had seen the 3:25 pace team pass them, but they were oblivious.

Mile 20: 7:52

Each mile seemed to be longer than the last. My Garmin measured Miles 17-21 at 1.03, 1.02, 1.06, 1.02, and 1.03 miles, for a total of 5.16 miles. At a 7:50 pace, that extra .16 miles adds 1:15 to your total time.

Mile 21: 8:04

As I approached the last turnaround at Mile 21, I finally saw the 3:25 pace team. They were definitely at least two minutes ahead. With just five miles to go, this meant I would need to pick up over 20 seconds per mile. I'd need to be running 7:30s, not 8:00s. That just didn't seem to be in the cards.

Mile 22-24: 8:03, 8:31, 9:17

In Mile 24 I actually broke down and walked for about 30 seconds. I knew there was no way I'd catch the pace team, and it just didn't seem to be worth it to go all-out if I wasn't going to get at least a BQ.

For the final two miles I did manage to pick up the pace a bit, with an 8:52 and a 9:05, but clearly this wasn't going to be a PR day. My official finishing time was 3:32:02. It wasn't what I was looking for, but it was actually my second-fastest marathon ever. The temperature had gotten quite warm by the end of the race, which may have contributed to my finish, but I think the real issue was the mid-race poop break. Absent that I might have been able to hold off the 3:25 team for a few more miles, then gut it out with them and finish just under the wire.

Johanna had a fantastic race, finishing in 3:22:50 and 5th overall woman, PRing and BQing by over 30 minutes. Sam faded at the end like I did, not quite BQing but finishing in a very solid 3:17:24.

Sam and I were disappointed but felt like we had given it as much as we could. I do feel like if I hadn't been injured, I could have easily laid down a marathon PR; I was just in excellent shape this fall before my injury. Of course, had that been the case, I would have been running the half, not the full.

Either way, this was a good race, and a nice learning experience. Now it's on to new experiences in 2014: Trail races and ultras. Maybe at some point down the line I'll return to serious marathon / half marathon training and see what I can do, but for now I'm glad the injury didn't keep me down for long and left me able to pursue my other goals.

Details of my race are below.

* Getting a "guaranteed entry" doesn't actually guarantee anything any more. If I had run a sub-1:25 half, I would have qualified for it, but since the NYRR only sets aside a limited number of spots, the qualifiers are then put in a lottery for those spots. But either way, it's a nice target to shoot for.