Sunday, September 28, 2014

Race Recap: The LungStrong 5k

I thought I was entering the LungStrong 5k with a modest goal: Finish the race in 18:40 or less, 51 seconds slower than my PR. That would qualify me for the Second Seeding at the Bloomsday run next May. But circumstances never seem to work out quite the way we think they will, and today was no exception.

My plan was to start off the race at roughly a 5:45 per mile pace. That would allow me to slow down to 6:00 on the mostly-uphill second half and still come in at a 5:52 pace for the whole thing, which should mean hitting my target time even if the course was a touch long (as it is reputed to be).

At 7 am, a big group of DARTers joined me for the warm-up, running the entire 5k course at a nice, easy pace. This turned out to be a lot of fun as I tried to take a group selfie while on the run:

Running-group-selfies in low light are more difficult than you might think!
Soon we were back at the starting area and I laced up my racing flats and ran a few strides before the starting gun. For this race I decided to try taking two caffeine tablets 45 minutes before the race, plus eating a GU 15 minutes before the start (a total of 450 mg of caffeine) -- this is the dose recommended by at least one study, about 6 mg per kilo of body weight. I've never taken that much caffeine before a race, so I was curious if it would help.

I'd find out soon enough. LungStrong is a combined 15k and 5k, and both races start at the same time. I knew the 15k would probably have the strongest runners, and a pack of about 10 of us were near the front within about 100 meters of the start. At a quarter mile, the two races split apart, running for the next half-mile on opposite sides of the street. There was just one runner ahead of me on the 5k, Mike Beigay, who I knew from the Charlotte Running Club. Looking down at my watch, I could see I was running about a 5:20 pace, and Mike, 20 meters ahead, must have been doing 5:15 or better. I reminded myself that my strategy was to run 5:45 for the first half of the race unless it was feeling really easy. This wasn't feeling easy. We hadn't actually hit the first downhill yet and I was laboring for breath. I slowed down a bit and let Mike pull away. Across the street, the top 15kers were also pulling away. Fine, that was the plan.

About a half mile in, we finally started to hit the downhill, and I tried to relax and let the hill do most of the work. This worked okay, and my watch beeped 5:44 at the end of the first mile. Slight problem: We hadn't actually reached the mile marker; my actual time for Mile 1 was more like 5:52. 

As we turned off the main drag and into a neighborhood, I found myself gaining on Mike. Looking down, I saw that my pace was still about 5:45, just fine. Then the cyclist turned around and said "Clockwise this year." He must have been referring to the little lollipop that the course followed as it turned around:

The course starts at the green dot and ends at the checkered dot
But he was headed down Meta Road, just below where the lollipop actually starts. "TURN RIGHT" I said. I had just run the course as a warm-up and I knew that was the correct route. The biker yelled back "Clockwise!"

"No, that's later," I shouted. "I just ran it this morning!" I was now even with Mike and told him "I don't care where the bike goes, I'm turning right. We both made the turn, and in a minute the bike caught up with us at the point where the real lollipop started. "Oh, you were right," he said as he passed. "Sorry."

I didn't realize it at the time, but this incident must have given me a jolt of adrenaline. Looking at my GPS record, my pace picked up to 5:15 a mile. I think I slowed down again before I looked at my watch, because I just remember going slower on Mile 2 than Mile 1. In fact, I did slow considerably as I headed back towards the finish, and for Mile 2 my average pace was 6:00. As before, my GPS beeped well before I reached the second mile marker, and I probably actually reached that marker in about 6:10. As we turned back on to Jetton Road, there were still runners and walkers four-abreast in the lane coned off for the race, so the lead bike rode onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately, that made it impossible to follow any tangents on the course, and the sidewalk also wove back and forth. I don't think it cost me a lot of time, but any little thing like this can be very frustrating, especially when you're heading uphill and struggling to maintain pace.

My pace was getting slower and slower, 6:05, 6:10, 6:15. Much slower than the 5:52 I was looking for. I knew there would be one last downhill after I made the sharp left turn off of Jetton Road, so I tried to push myself to maintain the pace by reminding myself that I would be able to recover there, but it was no use. I just kept getting slower.

Finally I reached the turn and took the opportunity to glance back and see where Mike was. Obviously he had slowed as well, because he was now about 50 meters behind me. With less than a half mile left, I knew he had no chance of catching me, so I just cruised down the hill and tried to rest up a bit for the final sprint to the finish. Garmin beeped 6:18 for Mile 3, and I was still short of the real mile marker. I picked up the pace as much as I could for the final tenth of a mile, and tried to remember to raise my arms in victory as I crossed the line.

I had won, but I was 19 seconds short of my goal: My chip time was 18:59, officially a 6:07 per mile pace. The Garmin said I had averaged 6:01, which, if the GPS had actually matched the course distance, would have just been good enough to reach that 18:40 goal. But GPS records don't qualify you for the Bloomsday run, so I would have to be happy with the overall win. I think this course really is a bit long, but not outrageously so. I had it at 3.17 miles, or .07 over the official distance. I'd much rather run a course that is a little long and know my time is legitimate, than run a "PR" on a course that is actually too short. 

Here's the photo Chas caught of me receiving my race award:

That's Mike to my right, and the third-place finisher whose name I didn't catch
I knew I had made a couple of mental errors in this race. The first was going out too fast. I should not have been lured to a too-quick pace by Mike and the faster 15kers. When the bike took a wrong turn, I should have kept my eye on my pace and held steady instead of picking it up. I think these variations in pace, even though they were perhaps only a quarter-mile each, took a disproportionate amount of energy, which I desperately needed on the finishing uphills. It's possible that the extra caffeine might have contributed to my bad pacing, but I think I should be able to handle the caffeine as long as I can focus and run a smart race. Hopefully I'll be able to use that knowledge next week as I head to Syracuse for the Festival of Races and the US Masters 5K Championship.

That said, a win is a win; it's exciting to place first in a race with hundreds of participants, so I'm glad to have gotten it. It's a great start to the fall racing season, with hopefully even better results to come!

My Garmin record of the race is below.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

14 of the best things about running 10,000 miles

Over the past four years, my life has been transformed in many, many ways, for many reasons, but most of them can be traced back to the fact that I have become passionate about running. One device that I [almost] never run without is my trusty Garmin GPS. I took my first one, a Forerunner 305, for its first run on September 4, 2010. According to Garmin, that run didn't end until 25 hours later! (This was actually the result of my not understanding that you need to reset the thing after each run, so two days' run became one epic 12-miler).

As of today, since that first run, I've logged over 10,000 miles. Here's the Garmin report to prove it:

Technically this proves nothing, but take my word for it, I really ran that far!

So what can happen to a person over 10,000 miles? Let me count the ways.

1. You'll make some of the best friends you'll ever know, and get to know them better than you ever imagined. You can talk about a lot during a 20-mile training run — or a 6-hour drive to a race.

2. You can learn to enjoy running in the rain. I've run through more torrential downpours than I can count, and each one of them was a special moment. Sometimes, running through puddles while the rain drips down your face, you'll find that you actually run faster, with less effort than when it's dry and comfortable. Sometimes, however, you don't.

3. You can run your first 16-miler, your first 18-miler, your first 19.3-miler. Each one of this seems harder than the last one, but then, suddenly, they don't seem so bad any more, and you run farther, harder than you ever imagined possible.

4. You can run your first Marathon, a beautiful, fantastic, beast of a race, in one of the most spectacular places on earth. For Big Sur, my dad and stepmom flew down from Oregon to watch me finish, giving me one of the best memories of him before he died.

5. You can run while you are on vacation, past volcanoes and endangered species. You can find the steepest road you've ever seen and try to run up it. Then you can actually succeed at running up it.

Wow, that's some hill!

6. You can qualify for the Boston Marathon, and run the Boston Marathon, and be energized and amazed at the city of Boston and its running community, even in the midst of tragedy. 

7. You can pace runners as they complete 100-mile ultramarathons. It's amazing to see what people who are stubborn, determined, and disciplined can do. I simply cannot imagine running that far but I have immense respect for the people who do.

8. You can train through snow, slush, muck, rain, and just about any other weather condition you can imagine. And it still won't prepare you for this.

9. You can run faster than you ever imagined possible.

11. You can continue to seek out even more-epic adventures.

Pikes Peak
That's quite a mountain!
12. You can race through the middle of the night in a van with 6 other people just as crazy as you.

13. You can drink coffee after nearly every run. There is nothing more satisfying than sipping a perfect cup of coffee at 6:30 a.m. after a great run with great friends. You can get so accustomed to coffee that you stifle the urge to complain bitterly every time a race doesn't offer coffee at the finish line (Beer? Is that all you got?).

14. When you finish running 10,000 miles, you get to start on the next 10,000, which you just know will be even better!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Race strategy: The LungStrong 5k

It's time to get back on the 5k horse. My plan for the 2014-15 racing season is to focus on shorter road races: 5k, 8k, 10k, and 12k. In May I'd like to do one of the biggest races in the world, the Bloomsday Run in Spokane, WA, a 12k with over 50,000 participants. To qualify for "second seeding" and start just behind the elite invited runners, I need to run a sub-18:40 5k or a sub-39:00 10k during the year prior to the race. I don't have a qualifying time yet, so I've decided to go for it at this weekend's Lungstrong 5k in Cornelius, NC.

Lungstrong is a relatively flat course with a bit of a downhill near the start and an uphill finish. That does not set up well for me -- I prefer to have the uphill at the beginning and downhill at the end so I can cruise home. It's also said to be a slightly long course -- maybe 3.18 miles instead of 3.1. That may not seem like much, but if I want to run an 18:40 it's the difference between a 6:01 pace and a 5:52 pace for the race. That's a big difference!

So what's the strategy? Well, today I ran a set of 2-minute intervals (with 1-minute rests) on the road at "goal 5k pace," which I decided was 6:00 per mile. As it turned out, the first four intervals were on a downhill, and I ran them all at around a 5:45 pace. The last four were uphill, and I slowed to 5:58. That's 16 minutes of running at an average pace right around that 5:52 mark. If I can do that for 18:40, with no breaks, I should be able to complete 3.18 miles and hit my qualifying time. So by that logic, it makes sense to start out at a 5:45 pace for the mostly-downhill first half, then try to hang on and keep the pace below 6:00 for the second half.

That is likely to be quite painful. My feeling during the workout was that the uphill 5:58s were tougher than the downhill 5:45s, and my Strava lap analysis of the workout seems to confirm that it wasn't just because I was tired: It gave the last two uphill intervals a Grade-Adjusted Pace (GAP) of 5:33 and 5:27, compared to a GAP of 6:09 for the first interval, which I actually ran at a 5:42. This suggests that if I feel like picking it up even a bit faster than 5:45 during the race on the downhills, it wouldn't be a bad idea to just "go with it" and bank some time for the uphills.

That said, today's workout does give me some confidence that I'll be able to hit an 18:40 assuming the course really isn't any longer than 3.18 miles. What might help more than anything would be if there was another runner or two in my pace range. Last year an 18:40 would have been good for third overall, with first and second place over a minute ahead of that pace, so that doesn't bode well. I should probably expect to be running basically alone.

Current forecast for race day is an overnight low of 58 degrees the night before. It shouldn't warm up much by race time, so I expect the weather will be very favorable. I tend to like it just a bit cooler but I don't think it will be a problem for this distance as long as it stays in the low 60s.

This will actually be my first road 5k since the Spencer Mountain 5k last fall, nearly a year ago. I don't think I'm in quite the shape I was in back then, but I'm definitely excited to be racing 5ks again!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Race Recap: The Blue Ridge Relay 2014

It's been a crazy summer, so what better way to top it off than with the craziest race of the year: The Blue Ridge Relay. In the BRR, teams of up to 12 runners compete in a non-stop race from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia to Asheville, NC, 208 miles away.

There are 36 legs of the race, ranging from 2.5 miles to 10 miles in length, and averaging about 6 miles each. The team must specify the order of runners and can't change the order after the race has started. That means I knew from the start that I would be running legs 11, 23, and 35, a challenging trio that I blogged about last week.

Our team, Stache and Dash, is now rivals with JITFO, another Charlotte-area mixed-gender team that we narrowly defeated last year to win first place among all mixed teams. This year, two other mixed teams were looking strong, and all four teams started at 12:00 noon on Friday. But JITFO was our primary target, so we monitored them closely every step of the way.

Here's our team at the start of the race:

Blue ridge relay
Well, most of the team...Claire and Janel would join us a few miles down the road.
From left: Sean, Rob, Gisele, Brian, Stan, Me, Johanna, Inga, Danny, and Wen

And here is Laura decorating JITFO's van:

Blue ridge relay
Stache and Dash is off to a flying head start in the spelling portion of the event!

Giselle started things off with a blazing downhill run.

Blue ridge relay
That's Gisele on the left

Then our van (Van 2) dashed ahead to get lunch and meet up with Claire and Janel. Through sketchy cell service, we got updates on the other van's progress, and things were not looking good. We were slowly and steadily losing ground to JITFO. Too bad spelling didn't count in the official results! By the time Van 2 took over we were about 5 minutes behind. Wen, Claire, and Janel logged fast, short runs, and Danny was off to a fast start on his run, when I realized that I was barely ready for my turn, which was coming up next. I had been driving the van and tracking the runners, and hadn't had time to change my clothes or locate my GPS and running glasses.

I was thrashing through the back of the van, tossing everyone's gear outside in order to get to mine. Finally I found everything and got to the exchange zone just moments ahead of Danny.

Apparently after I took off, the van nearly left without all the gear I had thrown outside. It was only Claire who noticed and said "Isn't this all of our stuff out here on this rock?"

Meanwhile, I was charging along on my first leg, an 8.4-miler. I wasn't sure I was in shape for an all-out run of this distance, so I took it pretty easy over downhill miles 1 and 2, about a 6:50 pace. Then I hit the big climb, and slowed even more. Somehow I made it up the hill and was looking for the downhill on the other side, which...didn't come, and didn't come. It was just flat, with a few more uphills thrown in.

Finally the downhill started, and I could pick things up again, but now, 5 miles in, I was pooped. I managed a 6:25 pace. Then it was an uphill slog to the finish, and I got slower and slower: 7:25, 8:11, before finally managing a 7:14 pace for the last 0.4 miles. Average pace for the leg: 7:25, on a leg with 625 feet of climbing. Not very good -- about 25 seconds per mile slower than I was hoping for. Again we lost ground to JITFO.

By midnight we were about 15 minutes behind, waiting for Van 1's runners to show up at a patch of grass and mud, somewhere in Appalachia.

Blue ridge relay
They definitely have some interesting street signs out here!

Again, Wen, Claire, and Janel ran their legs and this time I was determined to be ready well in advance of my leg. Danny sprinted to the finish of his leg in the darkness, I took the baton, and ran past the Penland School of Crafts on notorious Leg 23, where JITFO's runner got lost last year and probably lost them the race. I was determined not to let that happen to me. Sure enough, within a mile, the two runners ahead of me went straight when they should have turned down a gravel road. I shouted to them to let them know they were headed the wrong way, then plunged into the dark and the fog. My first two "road kills" of the race, but at least I had saved them a major detour!

I was on a gravel road. It was so foggy that I could barely see two steps ahead. I plunged forward as best as I could. Suddenly a ditch appeared in front of me, seemingly dug straight across the road! It took a moment to figure out what had happened: the road had veered left and I had continued straight. Eventually I figured out how to follow the line of vegetation along the side of the road, but I was still frustrated because I wanted to run fast, but felt like I needed to slow down because I was basically running by feel.

Finally the road leveled out, then started to climb. It was paved, and much of the fog had cleared, but now I just had to keep my pace up on this long, gradual hill. The hill went on for three miles. I passed four more runners, and had my sights on a seventh road kill when I reached the exchange in a tie. Stan immediately spurted ahead of their runner, so which one of us got the road kill? It was an academic question, of course, but it made for interesting conversation in the middle of the night.

Stan handed off to Gisele from Van 2, then we made our way to the final transition zone at the bottom of the infamous "Mountain Goat" Leg 31. Stan offered to drive, but within a few minutes he felt himself starting to doze off and asked if I could handle the drive. We switched positions, and I drove for about 10 minutes before I felt the urge to sleep as well. Everyone in the van was now asleep, so I decided to just pull over to the side of the road for a 20-minute power-nap. I woke 18 minutes later, feeling much better. I started the van up again and pulled out into what I thought was an empty road, but as I glanced in the mirror I saw headlights right behind us. I gunned it and avoided disaster.

I later learned that Wen, sleeping on the floor in back, was awakened by the sudden acceleration and thought someone had stolen the van! She was too afraid to say anything at the time but had a great story to tell later!

Finally we arrived at the exchange zone with enough time for everyone to get 90 minutes or so of rest.

Meanwhile the rest of our crew steadily lost ground to JITFO. We were in third place, though, and ahead of our pace from last year. Everyone was running as well as they could, JITFO was just that much better than us.

As the day grew brighter, Wen nervously prepared for her run up the Mountain Goat leg. About 20 minutes after JITFO came through, Wen took the baton and headed up the mountain. We followed behind, stopping a couple of times to cheer her on.

Blue ridge relay
Here's my attempt at a photo of Wen passing two guys (I was driving...)
Wen did awesome on her leg, and we continued to plug away. Claire had a great downhill leg, then Janel took over on the second Mountain Goat leg. Not only did this leg have the steepest climb on the course, it also had a crazy-steep downhill!

Janel loved every minute of this descent!
After a quick leg from Danny, it was my turn to run my final leg of the race, leg 35. The elevation profile of this leg kind of says it all:

That's a whole lotta purple!
After a steep, steady two-mile climb of 900 feet, I'd have a downhill-to-flat section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. My goal was simply to finish the climb without walking, and to have something left for a final kick.

Up, up I went. After about 2/3 of a mile, Stan drove by in our van, saying "I didn't realize it was this steep! The Rockies ain't got nothing on this!" Although I appreciated the sentiment, I couldn't help but think that Stan had probably never been to the Rockies. It was damned steep, but the hill seemed to get ever so slightly less-steep after Mile 1. I picked up the pace a bit (not much -- my pace on Mile 1 was 9:59; on Mile 2 it was 9:20. As my watch beeped "Lap 2 complete" I looked for my downhill. It was nowhere to be found; the road continued up and up! Finally at Mile 2.14 the road started to level off. Trust me, I felt every inch of that .14 miles!

The next third of a mile dropped over 150 feet, and I did everything I could to take advantage, but since I was still gasping for breath, it wasn't easy. Soon I turned on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the road leveled considerably. I was going to have to exert some effort to pick up the pace. I managed a 7:16 for Mile 3 -- not bad, but not as fast as I had been hoping. Now there were a couple of runners ahead, and I felt a surge of adrenaline that helped me pass them while picking up my pace to 6:42. Still not great, but I was at least salvaging a bit of speed. After Mile 4, I was hoping I'd be able to see the exchange zone, but the road turned a corner. I gave it everything I had, and finally the crowd of runners there came into sight. I handed off to Stan and tottered around in a daze while I caught my breath. I was done, and we had just one race leg left!

Soon we were in downtown Asheville, looking for parking. After we had finally found a spot, as we walked to the finish, we got a text from the other van: "You missed it. Stan is here!" Oh well. We strolled to the finish line and posed with the team for the obligatory finish line photo:

Sean, Danny, Me, Janel, Rob, Johanna, Claire, Inga, Stan, Wen, Brian, and Gisele

JITFO had beat us, but they hadn't finished first; that honor went to team Strictly Running. So while we had beaten the team record with a time of 24:49:24, JITFO finished second for the second year in a row. Still, we were good sports about it and posed for the traditional winner-lords-it-over-losers photo:

Well, all of us except Stan were good sports about it!
A couple things to note about this picture. First, I'm by far the whitest guy on the team. Second, Allen (above me and to the right), who has a blog called "Allen's Road to Boston," was the happiest I have ever seen him... and I saw him right after he qualified for Boston! It was almost worth losing to see someone that happy!

Overall, I was a little disappointed with my running. I gave it everything it had, and had a pretty good final leg, but I'm definitely not in the kind of shape I was in last fall when I PRed in the Runway 5k. My plan for this fall is to focus on the 5k to 10k distance. I'd better get to work.

My GPS records of my runs are below.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Race Preview: The Blue Ridge Relay

After last year's triumphant mixed division victory at the Blue Ridge Relay, everyone on team Stache and Dash was ready to do it all over again.

As the race date approached, not everyone on the team could make it again this year, but we have assembled a solid team once again -- quite possibly more talented than last year's team. I have had a difficult summer, with unexpected deaths in the family leading to a lot more travel than I had planned in an already-busy season. My training hasn't exactly been ideally suited to what, for me, will amount to an 18-mile road race in three stages, but it hasn't been bad either. My focus race was the Pikes Peak Marathon, and though it didn't go as well as planned, clearly my aerobic conditioning and hill training was good and I crushed the uphill portion.

What I didn't know is whether I had lost my straight-up foot speed in training for a 6-hour mountain run. I haven't done a speed workout in over three weeks, so today I decided to test that with two miles at 10k race pace. That test went well, even on a hilly road (after a mile warm-up) I managed 6:20 and 6:07, so I still think I have the foot speed to do well at Blue Ridge.

This year I will be runner #11, which gives me legs 11, 23, and 35. All three involve some serious hills, which, if nothing else, I should definitely be prepared for!

Leg 11 is last year's leg 10, an 8.4 mile run with 758 feet of climbing. Most of the climb comes in one big push around Mile 3:


That's about a 350-foot climb in a mile. If I can handle that, everything else is comparatively flat or downhill. I'd like to complete the leg in around a 7:00 pace, so even if I slow to, say, 8:15 for that mile, then all I'd have to do is about a 6:45 for the rest of the leg. Tough, but doable.

Leg 23 is the "easy" leg, but it's still 5.3 miles in the middle of the night. It's also where JITFO's runner got lost last year, so I'll need to be careful to hit the turns correctly. I've been there before, though, so I'm pretty sure I know which way to go -- and I'll have a cue sheet with me, so I think I can handle this one. Total climb for the leg is a non-trivial 580 feet. I'm projected to do this leg in 7:05 per mile. I'd like to think I can do better than that, but I definitely want to save something for Leg 35, which is a real doozy:

Watch out for that first mile -- or two!
For some reason, the Blue Ridge Relay only rates this leg as "Hard" rather than "Very Hard" or "Mountain Goat Hard." There is 1,000 feet of climbing, all in the first two miles. It's steep, steep, steep, for a solid two miles. Yes, the leg is only 4.2 miles, and the last two miles are downhill, but that climb is insane! I'm projected to run the leg in 7:20 / mile. So, maybe 8:30 on the climb and 6:10 for the finish? No matter how you break it down, this is a real tough one. If I can just hang on for that climb, hopefully I will recover quickly and be able to run fast through the finish.

This is one of my favorite races, which I suppose is why I always come back, year after year. Here's hoping Stache and Dash enjoys the same kind of success we had last year!