Monday, November 21, 2016

Race recap: The Flying Monkey Marathon

Sam and I are sitting in our rented car, trying to stay warm before the race. Sam will almost certainly finish before I do, so I suggest we figure out a place to hide the key.

"Front left tire?" suggests Sam.

"Makes sense to me," I say. "Nobody will think to look there for the key since that's where all runners hide their keys."

"I know, we could put it on someone else's tire!" suggests Sam. "How about that white Jeep?"

"That will work, as long as you finish before that guy!" Whoever owns the Jeep is nowhere to be seen.

"Oh, I can take him, easy!" Sam laughs. "Now you've got to put that in your blog post about the race!"

We step outside for the obligatory pre-race selfie:

Starting to wonder if this is really a good idea....

It's a chilly Fall morning, the temperature still below freezing. But there is no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. With temperatures looking to rise to the mid-40s by the end of the race, it should be a great day to run a marathon. But right now it's just cold. Sam needs to use the bathroom, so he heads towards the start with about 20 minutes to go before race time. I head back to the car to stay warm for a few more minutes.

"Front-left tire, right?" I say.

"Copy that."

After a couple more minutes of warmth, I strip off my last couple extra layers and head to the start, wearing shorts, a compression shirt, calf and arm sleeves, and gloves. I feel the hint of an urge to urinate. I see three porta-potties with a long line of runners waiting to use them, and decide I can find a place to pee somewhere along the course.

Flying Monkey is a small, eclectic race in Nashville, TN, frequently confused with the much larger (but also eclectic) Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati. Flying Monkey also super hilly, as I detailed in my race preview here. Last night, Sam and I laughed as we emptied our swag bags, loaded with fun, eclectic items like race stickers, two different shirts, a packet of spicy asian mustard, and even a fortune cookie. Here's my fortune:

Pretty sure you don't get these at Rock n Roll Las Vegas!

As the race start approaches, I remind myself of my bare-bones racing strategy: Run by feel, and take the climbs hard and the descents easy. My three goals are A: sub-4-hours. B: Sub-10-minute miles (4:22). C: Better than Bangalore (4:43). But of course, even though the plan is to run by feel, I'm still not willing to ditch my Garmin, which means I'll also be monitoring my pace, but I'll try to minimize that.

After a few photo ops, the race starts with a "Ready, Set, Monkey!" The first half-mile ascends through a grass field before we hop on to the narrow Main Drive through Percy Warner Park in Nashville. Main Drive is a beautiful, paved road that is mostly closed to traffic. The trees are near the peak of fall colors and there is a smattering of dry yellow leaves on the ground. As advertised, we start by running up, up, up. Before I've gone a mile, my watch beeps to indicate that I've already completed my climbing goal for the day. By the end of the day, I'll exceed that goal by a factor of 27!

This poster from the race gives you a good sense of what the scenery is like. I didn't bring a camera along, but there would be a number of points along the way where I wished I had!

I don't see any flying monkeys during the race, but that doesn't mean they aren't there!
None of the hills during the first several miles are especially steep, but they definitely add up. After 6 miles, I've already climbed over 700 feet. My pace is solidly under 4-hour marathon pace (9:09/mile), and the run so far is feeling easy. Maybe a sub-4 will be possible after all!

The course is a double loop that we run both ways, so every ascent will be a descent later in the race, and vice versa. Mile 7 is a long downhill that is steep enough in places that I need to put the brakes on. I'll be heading up this hill in Mile 19, a 300-vertical-foot grind. There are aid stations nearly every mile, with enthusiastic volunteers handing out water and sports drink in tiny Dixie cups. Since it's cold, I'm not especially thirsty, but I try to take a 2-ounce cup of water at every stop, knowing I'll regret it later if I don't. The small cups are a peeve of mine. Ideally if water is provided in cups, they'd be at least the 10-ounce size, filled about 3/4 of the way full. That way if you're thirsty you can get a solid 7-8 ounces of water at each stop. That's probably three times what you realistically get out of a Dixie cup. If I ran this race over again, I'd probably carry a 16-ounce handheld like Sam did, and get the volunteers to refill it every few miles.

But cup size is really my only complaint (twss). Otherwise there is ample support along the course. If you aren't particular about what gels you consume, you can even get plenty of gels from the aid stations, unlike in many races where only 1 or 2 stops along the way actually provide gels.

I've had a bit of an urge to pee since before the start of the race, and at Mile 10, when I spot a random porta-potty on the side of the road, I decide to take advantage. When I pop out a minute later, one of the runners nearby says "Great job in there!"

I laugh and thank him for his support!

As I near the end of the first main loop, around Mile 10, the race leader passes me, heading the other way, looking strong. He'd ultimately finish in 2:50 -- very fast for this tough course! This is Mile 15 for him, and this is the only runner I see passing in the opposite direction. At this point we turn on to a side loop, and so the other runners ahead of me won't be passing by. The course layout is complicated but ultimately makes sense. I've been passing runners going my direction all morning, but these are the slower early-starters who got out on the course an hour early to make sure they'd finish in time. I passed Sam's friend Kathy, who hadn't trained much due to an injury and so was walking much of the course, around Mile 8. She'd ultimately finish in just under 7 hours.

I loop around the side loop and rejoin the main loop at Mile 14. Now I pass lots of runners who are still on their first loop, headed the opposite direction. I look at my watch and see that I'm still 4 minutes under the time I need to get my sub-4-hour marathon. I also am starting to feel worn down so I do a bit of calculating and come up with a 9:30 pace. All I need to do is run a 9:30 pace for the last 12 miles and I'll have my sub-4. But first I have to run up this ginormous hill.

Now that I'm back on the main loop, I notice that the mile markers for the first loop have "bonus" signs on the back for the runners going the other way. The first one says "IDIOT," for those of us who might of thought this was a mile marker for OUR direction. The second one says "IDIOT" too, for anyone who didn't get the message the first time.

Photo of me taken by Dave Martin Creative somewhere around Mile 15

I manage to maintain my sub-9:30 pace all the way to the start of Mile 19, when I know I'm going to face the biggest climb of the race. Sure enough, this climb is a doozy. My pace slows, to 10:00, then 10:30, then even slower. But about 7:30 into the mile, I pass the Mile 19 marker! There is absolutely no way I am running a 7:30 pace, so I wonder if this is just the race director messing with our heads again. By my watch, I complete Mile 19 in 10:59, after 308 feet of climbing. I don't even try to calculate the pace I'll need to finish in under 4 hours, because at this point I'm quite sure I'm not going to make that. My only thought now is to not let this thing turn into a death march.

The course does flatten out some at this point, but there are still plenty of small hills. My legs are both twitching, and I begin to worry that I might not be able to run at all. Just willing my legs to keep moving seems to be a monumental mental task. Somehow I keep going, but I'm never close to the 9:30 pace, let alone whatever faster pace I'd need to make up for my 10:59 Mile 19. This graph shows just how dramatically my pace changed after Mile 19:

A tale of two races -- before and after Mile 19
But I do manage to keep things moving at a 10- to 11-minute pace, as perhaps a dozen runners pass me over the last 7 miles. I pick up the pace a bit in Mile 25, but I have to slow again in the last mile, to avoid tripping as I gingerly make my way through the same rough field we started in. Sam yells "DAVE" just as I cross the line in 4:07:31. Here's a photo Sam took just after I finished:

I actually look much better than I feel here

Sam had crushed the course, finishing in 3:23:59, good for second in his age group! He points me to the water, then gets me some food as I collapse on the ground with my drink. After 15 minutes or so, I am able to get back up and grab some more food on my own, suggesting that though this race had beaten me up, I am in better shape than I've been in after several other marathons. After 30 minutes, I'm able to walk back to the car to put some warmer clothes on, and I take this photo at the finish line:

Feeling better, but once again looking better than I feel.
We wait for Sam's friends Jerry and Kathy to finish, then get a picture of the whole bunch, including Jerry and Kathy's spouses:

A whole bunch of people looking better than they feel!

My official time for the race is 4:07:31, a 9:26 pace for a marathon distance (though my watch had the mileage at 25.9, which was plenty!). That's just 15 seconds per mile off of my "stretch" goal, so I'm pretty happy with that, especially since I handily beat my B and C goals. I'm not quite sure why I wasn't able to pick up the pace again after Mile 19, other than the fact that I haven't had a complete marathon training cycle for this race. I'm primarily training for the half-marathon distance right now, and I don't consider myself at top fitness. I haven't completed a lot of long road runs (My longest runs have all been trail runs, and the longest of those was barely 20 miles).

"By the way," Sam tells me after the race. "Remember that white Jeep where we were going to put the key?"


"It was long gone when I went back to the car to get my jacket!"

We both had a good long laugh over that one!

The Flying Monkey is definitely a great marathon, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a challenging, beautiful, quirky race. The Garmin record of my race is below.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Race preview: The Flying Monkey Marathon

Marathon Number 14 looks to be a real doozy: The Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon claims to have "Over 7200 feet of overall elevation change." Wow! While technically that sounds worse than it is (the figure counts both ascents and descents), it's nonetheless a daunting challenge. Unlike some of the mountainous marathons I've done in the past, this one takes the form of a never-ending set of climbs and descents. Here's the elevation profile:

I count ten major climbs, but none of them is over 300 vertical feet. A 200+ foot hill is nothing to sneeze at, but it's also not that far from what I see every day running at home; I just don't tend to see ten of them in a row! Nothing looks to be over about a 15 percent grade, so it's all theoretically runnable, though I certainly expect to do my share of walking in this race. Of all the hilly marathons I've done, only the Blue Ridge Marathon and Pikes Peak Marathon have more climbing. Even Grandfather Mountain Marathon and Crater Lake Marathon don't climb as much as this one!

The race covers a very scenic 11.2-mile loop in a public park in Nashville, TN. The loop has been rated one of the best runs in the country by Runners World, and people in Nashville even have "11.2" stickers on their cars. So how do you get a marathon out of an 11.2-mile loop? You run it both directions, then add a couple side loops. Any hill you descend, you'll also have to climb at some point in the race. The race has some fun traditions, like tabulating "monkey kills" (the number of times a person has finished the race) and even claiming there might be actual flying monkey sightings along the course. I had to name my favorite monkey when I signed up for the race. Hopefully they won't ask me to recall it later, because I've already forgotten which one I picked! The race limits the number of participants to some unspecified number less than 400; only 324 finished last year.

So what's my strategy for the race? Well, I don't consider this an "A" race, so I'm not going to go all-out. I want to feel like I've had an extra-hard long run when it's over, not like I've given it absolutely everything. So I'm going to run more by feel than I normally do in a race. I'll monitor my speed to be sure, but I'm going to let my body tell me when I need to go faster or slower, especially on downhills. I've done a lot of hilly runs recently, so I think I'm ready for the pounding I'm going to take in this race, but I still don't want to push things too far. The climbs will be physically taxing to be sure, but they don't pound the muscles in the same way, so I will make an effort to hit them fairly hard.

My goals for the race are as follows:

A: Sub-4 hours. This is probably unattainable at my current level of fitness and desire to take it relatively easy, but I can still dream, can't I?
B: Better than a 10-minute pace (4:22). I think this is doable, even if I'm taking it easy, assuming I feel good on race day.
C: Better than Bangalore (4:43, 10:48 pace). I bonked hard in that race, but I'm much fitter now, so even though this is a tough course, I shouldn't have a problem doing this. But you never know, which is why we put these goals out there.

The weather forecast for the race is pretty close to ideal for me:

The race starts at 8 am, when it should be right about freezing, with the temperature rising to the mid 40s at the finish. Perfect temps would probably be mid-40s the whole time, but I prefer 30-degree weather to, say, 60-degree weather by a longshot. I will probably start with arm warmers and gloves, but I expect to remove those by the end of the race.

The description of the runner support on the race website is a little cryptic:

Volunteers will be present along the course to provide fluids and directions, at the following locations.

Corners of Shell Hill cut through and Main Drive (both sides, at Main Drive mile 4 and mile 6)
4 way intersection of the Chickering parking area and Main Drive
The picnic area at mile 8 on the Main Drive
Corner of Luke Lea Heights road and Main Drive
By the flagpole near the Percy Warner Park "stone gates" main entrance
The corner of Deep Wells picnic area and Main Drive
At the top of Three Mile hill
The sharp switchback marking the western turnoff from the Main Drive to Old Hickory Boulevard

The mile points on Main Drive don't correspond to total mileage for the runners, so they're not much help if you're not a local. I was also unable to find many of the other points on the map. However, since nearly the entire course is run twice and there are 8 stops, it sounds like there will be plenty of water available, so I don't plan on carrying my own. Time will tell if that was a wise decision! I will carry my own fuel, a combination of GU and Huma gels. I usually consume 7 gels in a marathon but I always carry 8, just in case. I think I'm not going to carry a camera or phone on account of the cold: It will be hard to deal with a camera while wearing gloves, and I'll want the space in my fuel belt to stash gloves / arm warmers later in the race.

I'm really looking forward to the challenge and fun of this race! Here's hoping I feel the same way after I've run it!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Race recap: The Lake Washington Half Marathon

It's been a whirlwind of a visit to my hometown of Seattle. I've done a ton of museum hopping, met up with family and friends, and sampled all my favorite Pacific Northwest dishes.

But one thing I've never done in Seattle is run a half-marathon. Other than a few high-school cross-country meets, the only race I've ever done here was a 10k road race back in the 1980s. So I signed up for the inaugural Lake Washington Half-Marathon, which promised a flat and fast course along the beautiful lakefront in Kirkland, just outside of Seattle.

When I arrived in Kirkland at 6:30 on Saturday for the race, it was pitch-dark and rainy. I was an hour early for the start, so I strolled to the registration booth and got my bib and t-shirt. Since the rain didn't show any signs of letting up, I walked back to the car and sat inside as I waited for the start time to approach. Here's my one-and only pre-race photo, taken inside the car:

At least it's dry and relatively warm in here!
At 7:15, it was still dark but the rain had eased off, so I made my way back to the starting area. The lines at the porta-potties were too long, so I skipped that and hoped my slight urge to pee would go away as I started to run. My long-term goal in the half-marathon is to run a 1:32, a 7:00 pace, which would earn me a guaranteed entry to the New York Marathon. But I didn't feel like I was quite ready for that yet, so I decided to start off at around a 7:20 pace and then adjust based on how the run was going at the halfway point. I noticed a long line of runners heading for the starting mats, so I followed them, standing between the 1:30 pace group and the 1:40 pace group. If I ran a 7:20 pace for the entire race, I should finish in about 1:36. In any case, I wanted to stay ahead of the 1:40 pace group.

At 7:30 a.m. an official grabbed a megaphone and announced that it was too dark to start the race, so they were delaying the start until it was safe. I figured this would be at least long enough to use the porta-potty, so I dashed off and did my business before another 100 or so runners followed suit. I was back at the start by 7:40, but there was no indication the race would start any time soon. The chatter among the runners centered on why the race directors hadn't taken the expected sunrise time into account when planning on when to schedule the race. But of course, this is the sort of thing you expect to happen at a first year event, so we patiently waited and tried to keep warm, thankful that the rain had halted for now.

Finally at 8:05 the race started. Seemingly on cue, it started raining again, and it didn't stop until long after I had crossed the finish line. I tried to settle in to a comfortable, fast pace, and found myself running at about 7:05 per mile. That seemed a little fast, but I wasn't able to settle in to a slower pace. The lake was visible to the right, but it was still a little dark and hazy, so you couldn't see much of it. After the first mile, we turned left and headed up a long hill. Suddenly it wasn't hard to slow down. After a 140-foot climb, we headed downhill again, and I salvaged a 7:24 for Mile 2. Mile 3 was downhill, 7:03. Mile 4 was flat, and I settled into a 7:16 pace.

This pace was okay, but I wondered if I would really be able to sustain it for another 9 miles. I could already feel my legs beginning to tire. I hadn't run anything close to this pace for anywhere near 13 miles in a long time. I started to think a 7:30 pace was a bit more realistic. Mile 5 had some rolling hills, and I finished it in a hard-fought 7:22. Then we took a sharp left turn and I saw a long, steep hill, with no end in sight.

The hill continued for a grueling 130 vertical feet. Finally we turned off the road and onto a level greenway. Unfortunately, the greenway was unpaved, packed gravel. The rain had softened it to a degree that perceptibly mitigated each step. I much prefer racing on paved roads, and although there was nothing technical about this greenway, I just felt like it took more effort to maintain my pace than on the flats. I had been running next to two women, and here one of them just took off; clearly this was the kind of surface she liked! The other woman, in a pink t-shirt, handled the gravel better than I did and also moved ahead of me, but she only gained ground on me slowly. I finished Mile 6, with its climb and soft surface, in 7:50. I was able to pick things up again in Mile 7, to a 7:26. But the gravel just went on and on, and I slowed in Mile 8 (7:43) and Mile 9 (7:43).

I could still see Pink-Shirted Woman, perhaps 200 yards ahead. If we ever got off this greenway, maybe I'd be able to summon the strength to pass her. Mile 10, 7:37, came to an end, and we FINALLY turned off the greenway. What a relief! Unfortunately, the course turned uphill again, and my pace slowed. After a quarter-mile or so, the course finally headed downhill, and I just tried to relax and let the slope carry me along at a quicker pace. The next thing I knew, I was being passed by a gray-haired man. I looked at my watch and saw that my pace had slowed to over 8:00 per mile. What?!? I summoned whatever strength I could muster to pick up the pace. Mile 11, mostly downhill and on pavement, was finished in a pathetic 7:47. Pink-Shirted Woman had moved comfortably out of view, and Grey-Haired Man continued to gain ground on me.

But now there was only 2.1 miles to go. Surely I could pick up the pace for these two miles, which would surely be flat ones, right? Wrong. We turned a corner and ahead was another long climb. I gritted my teeth and pushed my way up. Finally, after another 80 feet of climbing, the course turned downhill. I glanced over my shoulder and saw the bright-yellow shirts of the 1:40 pace team. I couldn't let them pass me! I picked up the pace again as I ran down the hill, but the hill was steep enough and my legs sore enough that I couldn't take full advantage of the grade. Finally it flattened out again. Mile 12 was over in 7:46. Now the pace team was right behind me. I heard someone ask if they were on pace to finish in 1:40 and they said they were actually a bit ahead, probably due for about a 1:39:30. I did my best to stay ahead of them, but as we turned the final corner into the finish area, they pulled ahead of me. Mile 13, 7:35.

Just a little more to go. I gave it everything I had for that final tenth of a mile, and crossed the line as the clock read 1:39:20, just behind the pace team. My official chip time was 1:39:15.

It was still raining. I shook hands with the pacers and thanked them for keeping me honest at the finish. My average pace for the race officially was 7:35 per mile. Not bad for a course that was hillier than I thought it would be, much of it on a slow surface. I think my goal of a 7:00 pace and a 1:32 finish is attainable on a truly flat, fast course if I just do a few longer tempo runs and track workouts, to get myself used to running a faster pace over a longer distance. And I've signed up for a very flat, very fast half-marathon in Houston on January 15 where I should be able to get very close to that time.

Meanwhile, I grabbed a donut and some coffee in the finish area. It was much too cold and wet for a beer. After a couple of minutes, I headed back to the car, where I was once again too cold to step outside for a post-race selfie.

Me in the car after the race. This is all you get, folks!
For now, all I can do is get back to training. I've got a few long tempos and big track workouts in my future. Oh, and a "fun" marathon in Nashville in two weeks. Wish me luck! Details of Saturday's race are below.