Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Publix Georgia Marathon 3/22/15 (Race Report)

On March 22, 2015, I completed my seventh Publix Georgia Marathon with a finish time of 5:10:20.

The Publix Georgia Marathon, which takes place every March here in Atlanta, is the race equivalent of a new James Bond movie or a new Stephen King novel, in that I refuse to miss out on it regardless of predictions or circumstances.  This year, my predictions were not particularly stellar. 

After achieving my slowest road marathon time last year at this event, my extended running funk that I had been experiencing since my Pinhoti 100 finish in late 2012 had continued in a gradual downward spiral until this past Christmas season, when I found myself in a state of complete “fitness burnout”, where I lacked the motivation even to show up for normal Saturday training runs or weeknight gym workouts with my trainer.  The sofa in my apartment was more inviting, and unhealthy processed foods were more tempting. 

I ultimately decided that, instead of waiting for my running mojo to return to me, I needed to put on some running shoes, go out into the world to find my running mojo, hit it on the head with a club, sling it over my shoulder, and carry it back to my cave.  At the beginning of 2015, I established a new rule that forbade me from taking consecutive rest days, meaning that I had to run at least every other day.  I did not concern myself with pace or speed, and I decided simply to concentrate on shorter runs of three to 10 miles where my only goal was to run nonstop without walk breaks.  I also backed out of a handful of ultramarathons that I had scheduled over the winter, with the belief that a no-pressure approach to my running comeback would help me to rediscover the joy of running simply for the sake of running.  Since we had a rough winter by Georgia standards this year, with more sub-20-degree days than usual, the act of going outside to run at least four days a week was not always easy, but I soldiered on without fail, often wearing bulky clothes on the colder days or running at odd hours during out-of-town trips to work conferences and such.  The best way to become a runner is simply to run, and, after weeks of pounding the pavement on the hills around my apartment complex, even on those days when the absolute last thing on Earth that I want to do was run out in the cold, I am finally starting to feel like a runner again. 

My newfound focus on consistent short runs, however, came at the expense of endurance training, and, when I showed up at the start area on the morning of this marathon, my one and only long distance workout of the winter had been a 16-mile Saturday morning run that I had completed with my training group in late February.  During the previous year, I had learned the hard way how a long distance can wreak havoc on legs that are not accustomed to endurance training.  My running was more consistent than it had been in years, so this marathon would be a true test of whether consistency could compensate for a lack of longer runs. 

As I sat in my truck in a parking area next to the race start and watched the pouring rain hit my windshield, I debated whether or not I should visit the check-in booth and change to the half marathon distance, as several of my friends had done this year.  I finally decided that the worst thing that could happen was that I would be picked up by the sweeper bus if I ran out of energy and fell behind on the necessary pace to finish within six hours.  I finally left the dry comfort of my truck to walk over to Centennial Park in the cold rain, where I took shelter under a Powerade tent and talked with a friend for a few minutes before lining up in my race corral, where I set my timer for modest two-minute-run/one-minute-walk intervals. 

My enthusiasm was dampened by the miserable weather during the first few miles through downtown Atlanta, the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhoods, and the streets of Little Five Points.  I was joined by a local ultrarunning friend, Paul, during these early miles, and I fought the temptation to stay on the half marathon course with him instead of splitting off onto the marathon route where the two courses separated on North Avenue, although I knew that finishing the half route would result in a DNF (Did Not Finish) for me, since I was wearing a marathon race number.  My walk/run intervals helped us maintain a deliberately slower pace.  As we made it to the fifth mile, I ate my first pack of Sport Beans and drank some Powerade from an aid station in hopes that the calories and the sugar would help my motivation. 

When I reached the point on the sixth mile where the marathon and half marathon routes diverged, I reluctantly left the crowds of the half route and continued on the full route toward Decatur, where I knew that tougher hills were in store for my soaked mindset and my undertrained legs.  I spent a good part of the next mile after the split-off wondering whether or not to turn back and return to the half marathon. 

Somewhere around this time, I realized that a hole had formed in my left Smartwool sock, and that my big toe was poking through the hole.  The discomfort of my toe poking through the sock was just a minor annoyance, though, so I shrugged it off as a problem that I would not be able to resolve until the race was finished. 

John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”  During my trek through Candler Park to the neighborhoods of Decatur, I started searching for ways to cheer myself up as I soldiered on in the soggy weather.  I made a point to smile and wave at all of the volunteers and police officers at the intersections, since I knew that they were going to a lot of trouble to be standing out in the rain for all of us runners. 

A long straightaway into the city of Decatur at mile 11 has always been the site where I experience extreme mental lows during this marathon, because the road seems to go on forever.  I was steadily tiring of the two-minute-run/one-minute-walk intervals, and I saw the writing on the wall in terms of my ability to maintain those intervals.  After a short internal debate, I changed my timer to one-minute-run/one-minute-walk intervals, knowing that these gentler intervals might slow my pace, but hoping that they would help me through the tougher terrain that was soon to come. 

I made my way through the halfway point in downtown Decatur and waved to a few friends who were standing by the road before following the course through the beautiful, albeit rainy, Emory University campus.  At this point, I was actually thankful for the cold and wet weather, because I was spared the usual temperature increase that had always taken me by surprise during the final half of the previous Publix Georgia Marathon events.  I continued waving to police officers, spectators, and volunteers as I entered the harsh territory of the appropriately-named Druid Hills neighborhoods, where the constantly changing elevations claim many a runner. 

The one-minute-run/one-minute-walk intervals got me through these hilly neighborhoods without incident, and I was pleased to find the intervals were helpful in both physical and mental terms.  I can do anything for just one minute, and I had no trouble even running up the steepest inclines if they happened to greet me during a run interval.  The punishing hills of the Briarcliff neighborhoods on the way to the Virginia Highlands area have slowed me to an extended walk in the past, but I was able to maintain a constant pace this time. 

As I passed Mile 20 on the course, I realized that I was genuinely happy and energetic.  This was the first race experience in a couple of years where I had been able to pull myself out of a mental rough spot and find energy inside myself for the later miles, and I was overjoyed to be reunited with that spark that had been missing for so long in my races.  I was somehow moving almost as fast with the one/one intervals that I had two/one intervals earlier in the race, and I had no doubt that my consistent short runs over the past three months were helping my legs to feel more at home on pavement even during the longest distance that I had completed in months. 

As I entered Piedmont Park, I looked down at my feet and realized that the toe area of my left shoe was red.  I felt no pain in my foot whatsoever, aside from the tiny annoyance of my big toe poking through the hole in my sock, and I wondered if I had perhaps spilled some red Powerade on my shoe at some point along one of the aid stations.  I simply ignored the sight of my shoe and kept running with a smile.

While I was running through the Georgia Tech campus a couple of miles later, though, I noticed that the red stains on my left shoe were becoming more prominent and that, in fact, the red was spilling over the front tread.  I was still pain-free, but I realized at this point that the hole in my sock had probably led to a small cut or scrape so that blood was pumping out each time my foot hit the pavement.  I was still running strong with plenty of energy, though, and this was something that I would not need to worry about until after I crossed the finish line.  After the race, when I did finally arrive home to remove my shoes, I would find that a small scrape had, indeed, formed on my big toe and that the blood had completely soaked the inside of my shoe. 

As I passed the Mile 25 marker of the race, I encountered a runner who looked as though he had been struggling, so I asked him if he wanted to join me for my one/one intervals to the finish.  We introduced ourselves and spent most of that final mile straightaway road talking about our jobs and such.  There was admittedly some selfish motivation in my decision to ask a stranger to join me for this stretch, since I knew that conversation would take my mind off of how this last mile seemed never to end, and of how the distant landmarks of the finish area seemed never to come closer.  Just before the turnoff onto the finish road, my new friend fell back and told me that he would walk for a while longer, so I ignored beeps of my interval timer and ran consistently to the end. 

I crossed the finish line with a time of 5:10:20, and managed to beat my disappointing time from last year’s race by more than a half hour.  This marathon was still nowhere close to my fastest one, but it was also a good bit faster than my slowest one, so that was fine with me.  I was grateful that I had managed a decent run by my standards and remained energetic at a race where I had been predicting a disastrous death march during the final miles.  I do not have many long distance races on my schedule for the next few months, because I’m planning to continue my focus on consistent shorter runs, but my weekly mileage will inevitably increase, and I am sure that I will be finishing more of these longer runs with a smile in the future. 

As always, I am thankful to the volunteers, race organizers, and police officers who helped out along the course, because it is not easy to stand around in cold rainy weather.  A couple of days ago, I signed up early for the 2016 Publix Georgia Marathon, so my streak of participating in this great event will continue.  My goal for next year is to complete the race with a faster finish time without taking a post-race selfie photo of a blood-covered shoe, and, more importantly, to continue having fun. 

See you on the trails.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mystery Mountain Marathon 10/12/14 (Race Report)

On October 12, 2014, I completed my fifth Mystery Mountain Marathon with a finish time of 7:41:29. 

Photo courtesy of Joy Sandoz
Mystery Mountain Marathon, which is organized by the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), takes place every October at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia.  The race, which is named after an 855-foot rock wall of unknown origin at the highest point of the race atop Fort Mountain, shows a total elevation gain of over 8,500 feet on typical GPS readings, and features a challenging mix of steep climbs and technical trails lined with rocks and tree roots.  Despite the rough terrain, Mystery Mountain Marathon is my favorite Georgia race, because of the beautiful scenery at the start of leaf season, the presence of several local running friends, and the many volunteers who go above and beyond the call of duty to make this a safe and fun experience. 

After completing this marathon four years in a row from 2009 to 2012, I had scaled back to the 12-mile race option in 2013 due to injury.  Although I am still on the long road to getting back into peak shape, I was determined to return to the full marathon distance once again this year, albeit with the modest goal of simply finishing within the eight-hour cutoff.  After completing a 50K distance at the Merrill’s Mile 12-Hour Run in July and completing 29.5 miles at the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run in early August, I had struggled with heat and low energy at subsequent long distance runs, including a slow finish time at the Hotlanta Half Marathon in late August and a DNF (Did Not Finish) over Labor Day weekend at the Yeti Snakebite 50 Mile, where I dropped from the course after only 22 miles.  I’ve found, however, that the most effective way to get back into the shape for long distances is to attempt long distance races, even when I am undertrained.  In addition to being a fun way to spend time in the woods during my favorite month of the year, the full Mystery Mountain Marathon would be a great opportunity to get some training time on my feet.

Photo courtesy of Daina Denning
This year’s event would feature a new difficulty in the form of slippery rocks and mud, because heavy rains had drenched the park throughout the previous night until just a couple of hours before the start of the race.  As I made the rainy two-hour drive from my apartment to Fort Mountain State Park in the pre-dawn hours, I wondered how the wet weather would impact my race, since running on the trail boulders and the many leaf-covered wooden bridges could now be like running on black ice.  Since I usually start in the back of the pack, I would also be making my way along trails that were muddied from the shoes of a couple of hundred other runners.  Excitement overcame nervousness, however, when I arrived at the park and enjoyed hanging out with friends at the race number pickup.

As I lined up with other runners at the start, Race Director Kim Pike advised everyone that the wooden bridges would be extremely slick because of the overnight rains.  She also warned us that black bears were present and active on the park grounds, and that we should exercise caution, especially if we encountered mother bears with cubs.  Despite my offbeat wish to see one of the bears from a respectable distance, I did not personally encounter a single one during this race, but several other runners and volunteers reported bear sightings later in the day.

The sound of cannon fire sent us on our way, and I enjoyed a relaxed running pace along the first mile around the campground lake, the only flat terrain of the entire course.  I realized early on that the warnings about the slippery surfaces of the wooden bridges were valid, because I saw one runner ahead of me slip on one of them. 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil
The next three miles were pleasantly uneventful as I talked with several other runners in the back of the pack along some rocky ledge trails and water crossings that demanded vigilance because of the weather.  Although I watched a couple of others slip and fall on the trail, and heard even more people falling on the trail behind me, I fortunately remained on my feet the entire time.  In lieu of the usual running gels, I had decided to fill three small plastic bags with my favorite race fuel, Gummi Bears, and I started putting a handful in my mouth at every half hour on my watch.  After the first notable climb of the course, I arrived at the Stone Tower aid station at the 3.5-mile mark, and fueled with Powerade, orange slices, and half of a banana before climbing up to the overlook at the highest point of the race.

As I led a few other runners along the trail that circled Fort Mountain, a hiker warned us that there were yellow jackets just ahead.  A couple of minutes later, I spotted several of these yellow jackets buzzing around some slippery stone steps.  Knowing that the best strategy was simply to run through as fast as possible, I quickly negotiated the slick rocks and somehow managed not to get stung or to fall on my face.  I counted my lucky stars as I heard cries of pain from runners behind me, and then caught up with a few other runners who were comparing the stings on their legs.  As I passed a few people on the climb to the tower, I did not have a lot of trouble coming to terms with the fact that I was unpopular with the yellow jackets. 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil
The next four miles to the second aid station consisted of a series of short, but steep climbs and similarly steep descents.  As I felt my heart rate go up sharply on the hills, I looked back with a wistful nostalgia at my 2012 self who had weighed 50 pounds lighter while quickly negotiating these climbs on his way to a 5:30:17 finish time.  We have to make do with what we’ve got at any given time, though, and I was pleased to discover that I still had the ability to pass other runners on the uphill sections with my power-walking pace.

After I fueled with more Powerade, oranges, and bananas at the Park Entrance aid station, I continued along the hilly trail and enjoyed the company of a couple of fellow ultrarunners, Mary and Paul.  I always go through an energy lull at this point of Mystery Mountain Marathon around mile 9 and 10, because I’m tired out from the earlier hills, and because I know that the most challenging sections are still to come, but relentless forward motion and good company got me through.  I suffered my one and only fall of the day on a muddy descent as Paul and I ran down to an unmanned water station, and I subsequently apologized for the multiple F-words that I had provided as the soundtrack as I slipped on the mud and fell on my back.   With nothing injured except for my dignity, I soldiered on and moved steadily to the 11-mile aid station at the base of the Power Line Trail, the steepest of many massive climbs that would greet me on the second loop of the course.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil
The top of the Power Line Trail was concealed in fog, and, despite my slow and deliberate pace, I enjoyed the cinematic look of my surroundings and even managed to close the distance between myself and some faster runners who had started the climb a minute or so before me.  After making my way to the top, I walked along a short stretch before starting the scariest part of the course, a steep rock-covered descent that drops roughly 1,200 feet in one mile to the bottom of the mountain.  I ran down this hill at a decent pace, although I was mindful of the slippery terrain and made sure to stay off to the side of the muddy main track.  Technical downhill running is not one of my strengths, but I somehow passed runners during this descent for the first time in any of my Mystery Mountain Marathon races.  I was sapped of energy when I reached the bottom of the mountain, though, so these runners soon passed me on the forest roads that led to the next aid station. 

For this year’s race, the aid station was located farther up the forest road route than normal so that the usual six-mile stretch of road with no aid would be split up to better accommodate the runners.  When I finally reached this aid station, which was run by two friends, Deano and Perry, I told them that I was mostly walking, since I was out of energy.  When they assured me that I had completed 15.5 miles of the course already, though, my confidence rose.  I downed some more Powerade, oranges, and bananas, thanked my friends, and commenced a series of seemingly never-ending hill climbs on the rock-strewn road.  This forest road section marathon is maddeningly frustrating in many ways, because I keep anticipating the inevitable downhill stretch only to turn a corner and see more climbs ahead.  My power-walking pace served me well, though, and I soon passed a runner on one particularly steep stretch.  For the remainder of the entire race, I passed others instead of being passed myself. 

Photo courtesy of Joy Sandoz
When I finally arrived at the long-awaited descent, I ran occasionally during the steeper downhill sections before finding myself on a road covered with wet grass that was slick underfoot.  I decided that the benefit of attempting to run this stretch would be negligible at best in terms of my finish time, so I resumed walking as not to slip and fall on my face.  When I got to the Far Out aid station that was located at the bottom of the mountain 19 miles into the course, I was happy to see two friends, Tom and Ronnie.  At this aid station, I also caught up with a couple whom I had been leapfrogging since the beginning of the race, and, after some mutual encouragement, I continued ahead by power-walking at a fast clip on the rolling hills and slippery grass of a forest road that led to the most famous climb of this race, a non-stop two-mile hike back to the top of the mountain. 

This relentless two-mile climb, which proceeds alongside rhododendrons and a beautiful rocky creek with occasional waterfalls, is the most daunting section of Mystery Mountain Marathon for most runners, but I have always enjoyed how this hill allows me to utilize my steady power-walking hill strategy, which is my greatest strength for trail races.  I plowed forward up some grueling hand-on-knee ascents, and managed to pass three runners on my way to the top. 

I was exhausted, but happy, when I finally arrived at the Last Gasp aid station alongside a paved road at mile 22.3.  Six and a half hours had passed, and, for the most part, I was too tired to run, but I was still confident of my ability to reach the finish before the deadline.  For the next few miles, I only ran for brief stretches, because my legs were now reminding me that I was rusty on the long distances trail routes, but I still managed to pass a couple more runners.  After a near-eternity of climbing up and down hills along the perimeter ridgeline of the park, I finally made it to the top of the Power Line Trail, where I would have to run down the same steep route that I had climbed hours earlier.  I miraculously avoided slipping on wet grass and mud as I ran down the hill, grateful to see more friends volunteering at the final aid station.  I alternately ran and walked the flat trail on the last mile around the campground lake, but picked up my pace when I turned the last corner and found myself within sight of the finish line.  I was apparently brain-dead at this point, because one of the volunteers had to direct me to the correct side of the flags along the finish chute.  I crossed the finish line in 7:41:29 and placed 83 out of 93 finishers for the slowest trail marathon time of my running career, but I was nonetheless overjoyed to have conquered this tough course on a wet and rainy weekend.

I collected my medal and race glass, and then hung out at the finish line for a short while to congratulate friends and to relax before my drive home.  I was grateful to see a large box of fruit at the finish table, because I have returned to my lifestyle of avoiding processed foods whenever I’m not actually running.  I found out that the wet conditions of the trail had got the best of a few people, but that many of my running friends had also finished with amazing times. 

Thanks to Kim Pike and to the GUTS crowd for another perfect Mystery Mountain Marathon, despite the decidedly imperfect weather.  This was a particularly beautiful race, because of the leaf change scenery and because of the fog that lent a mystical atmosphere to the setting, but, as always, the people are what make this even so special. 

See you on the trails.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hotlanta Half Marathon 8/24/14 (Race Report)

On August 24, 2014, I finished the Hotlanta Half Marathon in 2:28:40.

Photo courtesy of TrueSpeedPhoto
The Hotlanta Half Marathon, an inaugural event directed by one of my local running friends, Rachel Langelotti, and sponsored by Orion Racing, features the most lively local half marathon course that I have seen to date.  With a route that begins at Underground Atlanta and takes runners past the Georgia Capitol Gold Dome, underneath the Olympic Rings to Turner Field, along the Atlanta Eastside Beltline Trail, through Piedmont Park, through the Georgia Tech campus, through Centennial Olympic Park, and back to the start in the late summer heat, this race certainly lives up to its name. 

The August temperatures had taken a bite out of my running since the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run at the beginning of the month, when I had completed 29.5 miles during the allotted time.  Two weeks later, a 21-mile training run in the middle of the month had been particularly brutal.  The dog days of late summer make for tough running even for smaller runners, and, although I have continued to drop pounds in recent weeks, I am still a long way from peak fitness.  Fortunately, I placed no pressure on myself for this half marathon, and I decided early on that I would be running this race simply to enjoy the company of friends and to earn some cool bling in the form of the inaugural race medal.  

The Hotlanta Half Marathon greeted me with a family atmosphere as soon as I arrived at the start with Rebecca, a fellow runner who had carpooled with me, and I quickly spotted several familiar faces.  I enjoyed catching up with a handful of friends, many of whom were volunteering for the event, before I made my way to the back of the crowd to begin my run at a carefree pace.  I had planned to use my timer to complete this race with the same three-minute-run/one-minute-walk interval routine that I use during my normal group training runs on weekends, but I would have to improvise a strategy instead, since I had accidentally left my timer at home. 

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Watters
During the first three miles of the course, as we ran past the state capital and around Turner Field, I enjoyed the company of Paul, a fellow GUTS runner with whom I had finished a handful of recent events, since we were both moving along at a leisurely clip.  In typical August fashion, the weather was deceptively cool during this early stretch, but I knew that the heat would soon take over with force.  I was impressed to see volunteers handing out water even during the first couple of miles.  Running without a water bottle at an inaugural race is always a gamble, because organizers often underestimate the resources, so I was happy to note that we would all be in good hands because of the plentiful aid station supplies at this particular event. 

As I left the Turner Field area and ran underneath the Olympic Rings on Capitol Avenue, I ended up in a conversation with a fellow runner from the Marathon Maniacs group, and I enjoyed talking with him for the next several miles as we ran similar paces.  After a brief turn through the Georgia State University area near the Capitol, we reached my favorite section of the entire race.  The Atlanta Eastside Beltline Trail, a concrete path that gradually descends for a couple of miles down to Piedmont Park, is one of my favorite routes to follow on weekend training runs because of the artwork that lines the stretch in the form of elaborate graffiti illustrations and interesting sculptures. 

The rising temperatures started to take hold as I reached Piedmont Park and passed the halfway point of the route, but I still had a smile on my face as I ran with the occasional improvised walk breaks, which I usually took on notable inclines.  The eighth mile of the race was a lot of fun, since I always enjoy running and people-watching at Piedmont Park on the weekends.   

The heat began to take a toll as I reached the ninth mile, but a cup of watermelon that some aid station volunteers handed to me provided a good physical and mental boost.  Mile 10 of the race was a good excuse for me to relive old college memories as the route twisted through Georgia Tech campus and exited by Bobby Dodd Stadium.  The next couple of miles on Centennial Olympic Park Drive were mostly flat and forgiving, but I nonetheless increased the frequency of my walk breaks because of fatigue. 

The last mile of the race was a slow one for me, but I still enjoyed the scenery of the route on the bridge road that passed by the CNN Center and before making a sharp twist for the final section back to Underground Atlanta.  I picked up my running pace with hopes of reaching the finish line before two and a half hours had passed, since that had been my modest goal all along.

I crossed the finish line of the Hotlanta Half Marathon with a time of 2:28:40, placing 785 out of 1177 finishers with a pace of 11:21 per mile.  I was pleased with the outcome, because my pace echoed that of my normal weekend training runs over the summer, and because I would be pacing myself even more conservatively for an ultramarathon the following weekend.  I am confident that faster times are inevitable as I continue to get back into shape.  After I crossed the finish line and ate a banana, I joined the volunteers to hand water bottles to the remaining finishers and to congratulate friends for a short while before returning home. 

The half marathon is always a fun distance, and this new Hotlanta Half Marathon is my new favorite race of this distance.  I loved the scenic route, I loved the excellent organization, and I loved seeing so many friendly runners and volunteers along the way.  Thanks to Rachel Langelotti and the Orion Racing crowd for a perfect inaugural event that I hope to see again and again in the years to come. 

See you on the trails.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run 8/3/14 (Race Report)

On August 3, 2014, I completed my fifth Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run with a distance of 29.5 miles.

Photo courtesy of Deborah Williams
The Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run, a fixed-time event sponsored by Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), takes place every August at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Lithia Springs, Georgia.  The 1.1813-mile race route loop starts at a picnic shelter that serves as the aid station, descends along a hilly single-track trail, a paved section, and a gravel forest road down to a sandy path alongside Sweetwater Creek before crossing a wooden bridge and climbing hilly trails covered with tree roots to the final forest road hill that leads back up to the timing chute at the shelter.   The GUTS website description from Race Director Ryan Cobb outlines the risks of this event.  “At the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Race, our goal is to provide the race as advertised.  As the name implies, you can count on it being HOT.  Temps are easily in the 90s this time of year in Georgia, with humidity off the scale.  Hyponatremia and dehydration can be serious.  Runners are expected to use proper electrolytes in order to stay alive!”

As a show of support for the Race Director’s wife, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer just days before the race, runners were encouraged to wear pink clothing or apparel to this event.  Since my only pink gear was a pair of running shorts with pink lining that had been through too many dirty trail falls and too many machine washes, I bought a pair of pink shoelaces from the Target across the street from my apartment and used the laces to make bracelets, one for myself and five for any other runners who did not have any pink clothing.  I ended up handing all five of the extra bracelets to runners in the parking lot before I even made it from my truck to the packet pickup location. 

This year’s race took place on the last day of a pleasant cool spell, so temperatures only climbed to 86 degrees, but I knew that I would be in for a challenge when I checked the weather from my iPhone before the race and noted that the humidity was at 91%.  Since humidity is always a factor due to the race route that climbs down into the Sweetwater Creek valley, I decided beforehand to follow my usual strategy for this race by running for most of the first two hours to put some miles in the bank before settling into a power-walk later in the day when the rising heat became a factor.  My mileage ambitions for the event were modest this time around, since I am still enjoying a steady comeback to the world of ultrarunning.  I had recovered quickly from my 50K at the Merrill’s Mile 12-Hour Run in early July, and had enjoyed three weekend long runs since then, but I knew that the hills and humidity of the Hot To Trot race would be another great test of my endurance abilities. 

The first hour of this race was pleasant and uneventful, thanks to some cool morning temperatures.  I started near the back of the pack and ran the entire loop for the first few laps, save for the two notable hill climbs that I walked from the beginning.  I finished four laps in one hour before taking my first nutrition, a banana, from the aid station table.  I had brought a container full of Fuel100 Electro-Bites, but I soon discovered that I would not need them.   The GUTS aid station table served a variety of amazing-looking homemade baked goods and standard running fuel, but I decided to eat fruit for as long as possible, since I had found that strategy much to my liking at the Merrill’s Mile event.

My running mojo dissipated surprisingly early, and I started power-walking most of the loop after only an hour and half into this race.  I knew that the humidity was taking a toll on me, but I was not discouraged by the situation.  My primary goal at this race was simply to stay on my feet for the entire eight hours without sitting down.  I was hoping to complete a 50K distance, but that distance goal was secondary to my promise to keep moving with relentless forward motion.  When I was still recovering from aggravated fascia tissue in my left heel last year, I had bowed out of the race after only four hours.  Now that I was injury-free, I was determined to get my money’s worth out of all eight hours.

The main appeal of the Hot To Trot race for me is that it is a great social event.  I always enjoy the opportunity to spend time with every runner on the loop at some point or another during the eight hours, because the setup allows me to see faster or slower runners with whom I am not always able to interact during point-to-point races.  I tried my best to have a smile and kind words for everyone, since a little encouragement always goes a long way as the hours count down closer to the peak of the midday heat. 

Most of the trail loop is mercifully covered in shade, but an open area when the route turns at Sweetwater Creek is always a good place to gauge the intensity of rising temperatures.  After only a couple of hours, I knew that this day was going to be hotter than I had expected.  Hot To Trot always seems to sneak up on me like this every year.  Fortunately, the aid station workers had started to stock the table at the picnic shelter with watermelon, and I took advantage by taking two or three slices on each lap to serve as my only nutrition and my only hydration, just as I had done at the Merrill’s Mile race. 

The most daunting part of Hot To Trot for me is always the fourth hour, because I’m starting to tire out and the gravel of the forest road section starts to rough up my feet.  Putting one foot in front of the other is the key, though, and the halfway point of the race arrived faster than I had expected. 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil
I did not suffer though any mental low points during this year’s race, and, thanks to my limiting the nutrition and hydration to watermelon from the aid station table, my hands and arms did not swell this time as they always had in previous years.  My electrolyte balance felt normal during the entire event, although more sodium might have helped me earn more miles toward the end.  My only real display of exhausted irritability came about five or six hours into the event, when one running friend teased me about putting my entire hand in the watermelon bowl, and I jokingly gave her the middle finger.  I apologized to her a few moments later as she ran past me while I was talking with someone else. 

When I saw the Race Director’s wife near the picnic shelter toward the end of one of my laps, I told her that she was in my prayers, and that I was pulling for her recovery.  The abundance of pink apparel worn by the race crowd was a touching testament to the ability of the running community to support its own, and this aspect of the race made it one of my favorite events in recent memory. 

I started running for longer stretches about six hours into the race, simply because I knew that I needed to put more distance behind me if I wanted the 27 laps required to achieve the 50K distance.  I knew that 27 laps were a tall order, since I had only lost a few pounds since my 50K the previous month, and that I had earned that distance on a flat and easy course.  Still, I soldiered on, and kept moving forward.

I was inspired by the sight of top runners who sped by with a seemingly effortless motion even during these late hours of the race while giving words of encouragement to everyone whom they passed.  I paid it forward by returning the good wishes and by offering kind words to others. 

The heat finally caught up with me seven hours into the race, and I had to slow down to keep my body temperature down after a brief period of light-headedness.  At this point, I realized that I would fall short of the 50K distance, but I was still going to give the course a good fight.  The field of runners had dropped in numbers, because I was being passed or passing fewer people on the trail.  My distance would be unspectacular in the final rankings, but I was proud to be a part of the race for the duration.

I crossed through the timing chute for the last time with only 13 minutes left on the clock, because I knew that I did not have quite enough time to lumber through another lap.  I had finished 25 laps to earn 29.5 miles at my fifth year at this race.  Any disappointment that I felt about failing to earn a 50K distance by only a mile and half quickly went away while I enjoyed congratulating friends at the picnic shelter. 

The Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run is an event that I eagerly anticipate every year, despite my preference for fixed-distance races over fixed-time races.  The social aspect of this GUTS event always wins me over, and I have grown to love the family reunion atmosphere.  Thanks to Ryan Cobb and the GUTS volunteers for another perfectly executed and safe run in the crazy August heat. 

See you on the trails.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Merrill's Mile 12 Hour Run 7/5/14 (Race Report)

On July 5, 2014, I completed 31.68 miles in eight hours and 11 minutes at the Merrill’s Mile 12 Hour Run, finishing my first ultramarathon distance in 15 months. 

Photo courtesy of Deborah Williams
After an injury that caused my DNF (Did Not Finish) at the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run in April of 2013, I took a vacation from long distance running that stretched out longer than I had intended, due to lackadaisical training and a handful of half-hearted race attempts that ended with more unfinished races under my record.  Over the past year, I had settled into a comfortable weekly routine involving shorter distance workouts to allow the enthusiasm for running to return in its own time.  The mantra, “Use it or lose it.”, applies to endurance running all too well, and many of us who have enjoyed riding the wave of multiple ultramarathon finishes can fall off of the map altogether when that wave figuratively crashes onto the shore.  As I stepped up my running game over the past three months, though, I was pleased to realize that I missed pushing myself through the ultra distances.  I missed those magic moments during the final miles of an ultramarathon when I was able to overcome a mental low point to let a renewed enthusiasm carry me to the finish line.  I missed sensing my body’s shift to survival instincts while participating in these extreme events where my health can possibly be at risk.  I missed my tendency to become cranky and irritable when my brain places all of its focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other when I am exhausted.  I missed the way that random people stare at me when I am painfully shuffling across a restaurant or grocery store parking lot like a 90 year-old man after I stop for a bite to eat during the drive home from an ultramarathon race.  I missed waking up the morning after an ultramarathon and having to place my hand on a bedpost to support myself for the first few steps before the blood starts to flow through sore muscles once again.  Those unfamiliar to the sport may be bewildered at my mindset, but fellow ultrarunners understand.  When I lined up in the back of the pack at the start of the one-mile loop course at Merrill’s Mile this year, my primary goal was to reacquaint myself with all of the above sensations that had been absent from my life for so long.  In other words, I was finally ready to step back out of my comfort zone.

The Merrill’s Mile Run, which takes its name from a mixed dirt and gravel track at Camp Frank D. Merrill, an Army Ranger training base in Dahlonega, Georgia, has been directed for the past three years by Willy Syndram and his ultrarunning organization, Dumass Events (Dahlonega Ultra Marathon Association).  This event has evolved to offer multiple fixed-time options over a two-day period, allowing runners to compete for an astonishing 48-hour run, or to register separately for 24-hour or 12-hour runs.  This year, Dumass Events was working in conjunction with a charitable organization, iCan Shine, which works to encourage children with disabilities through recreational activities, so that runners would be striving for a combined distance of 10,000 miles.  During the weeks leading up to this race, I realized that my own capabilities for earning a high mileage would likely pale in comparison to my performance at the inaugural Merrill’s Mile in 2012, when I had run 41 miles in roughly nine and half hours at a significantly lighter weight, but I also knew that the relaxed vibe of this loop run would be a great opportunity for me to return to the world of ultra distances.  As I woke up in the predawn hours and drove to the race, I decided that I would focus on two goals.  I had to finish a 50K distance, and I had to finish that entire distance on my feet without sitting down.  Since I had not run any distance longer than 12 miles since my comparably sluggish Publix Georgia Marathon finish back in March, I knew that I was in for several hours of painfully slow progress under the summer afternoon sun in the wide open space of the Camp Merrill track, but I was also yearning for that experience in an offbeat way.

Photo courtesy of Wendy Kent Mitchell
The weather was unseasonably kind to us at the start of the race, with temperatures in the low 60s and breezes that gave me a pleasant chill.  These morning hours, while the entire length of the mile loop is cloaked in shade from the surrounding trees, are a good time to go out fast and earn as many miles as possible before relentlessly overbearing sunlight takes hold.  I took advantage during my first seven miles by running the two long straightaways of each loop and taking walk breaks on the two short turns.  During these early miles, I enjoyed conversing with a longtime ultrarunning friend, Paul, who was employing the same strategy.  My running intervals consisted of an easygoing “forever pace”, since I was working through some mild soreness after completing the Peachtree Road Race 10K the previous morning by running nonstop through the massive crowds and long inclines to earn a finish time of 58:24, which was a satisfying time for me at this stage of my comeback.  I knew from past experience at Merrill’s Mile that most participants slow down to a walk as the sun approaches its midday position, so I felt assured that some relaxed running early on would get me started with a solid foundation of miles to motivate me along for the rest of the distance. 

An hour and half after the 9:00 AM start time of the event, my 12-minute mile running pace shifted to a 15-minute mile power-walking pace that I would employ for the next several hours.  I had eaten an orange from my drop bag after my first hour of running, but I soon fell into a routine of taking slices of watermelon from the aid station at the beginning of each loop and nibbling on these slices for the next half mile.  For the remainder of the day, these watermelon slices would be my only source of nutrition and my only source of hydration, since they worked wonderfully well in both regards.  The amazing aid station volunteers soon caught on to the fact that that the “watermelon man” was stopping by for a slice or two during each loop, so they always had fresh slices waiting from a plentiful supply of whole watermelons underneath the station table. 

Photo courtesy of Jake Moore
I finished my first 16 laps in just under four hours, and was pleased to be more than halfway to my preplanned distance goal, although the snowball effect of discomforts was starting to take a toll on me.  The small gravel of the race course occasionally found its way into my shoes, but I never stopped to take my shoes off, relying instead on my ability to keep the worst of the pointed pebbles at bay by kicking my feet into the ground until the pebbles shifted to a more tolerable spot.  The rising temperatures, while not as rough on this particular day as they had been in past years, still presented a hardship since my weekly routine of early morning short runs had not acclimated me to the midday climates.  I was thankful for my sunscreen and for my running hat with an extended flap to cover the back of my neck.  Since the loop fell just short of a full mile, I was comically annoyed at the notion that I had to complete 32 laps on this course instead of just 31 laps to earn the 50K distance. 

The company of fellow runners occasionally took my mind off of the task and provided a fun distraction.  I was enjoying catching up with several friendly faces that I had missed during my break from the ultra races, and I was reminded that the greatest asset of involvement in a local ultrarunning community is showing up at these events “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”  I was astonished at the efforts of the 48-hour runners, who were still walking steadily despite having been on the course for a day and half.  I was also inspired by the faster 24-hour and 12-hour runners who were lapping me multiple times on the course with smiles and quick greetings. 

Photo courtesy of Jake Moore
My confidence was boosted by a handful of comments about my fast power-walking speed, and I was thankful that, despite my heavier weight in comparison to my 2012 self, I had regained the ability to employ my “Jason Voorhees” walk that had served me well in so many race finishes.  Almost three months ago, after a disappointing DNF at the Sweet H2O 50K, where sweepers caught me at Mile 11, I had kicked my diet soda addiction to the curb in favor of water, and had returned to avoiding processed foods.  On the day of this race, I was enjoying a renewed fitness thanks to having limited myself to fruits, meats, green vegetables, and water since April.  My reliance on watermelon for nutrition and hydration during this race was enabling me to keep the streak alive, although this strategy is rarely practical during ultramarathons.

Relentless forward motion is the key to ultramarathon success, as I have learned so many times, but relentless forward motion often demands the full use of my mental facilities.  During the hottest time of the afternoon, when I had finished over 22 laps and was now on the single-digit countdown to my 50K, I simply listened to a couple of friends as they talked beside me, because I was too exhausted to complete a thought.  As I approached the ultramarathon distance for the first time in over a year, I was now in uncharted territory once again in terms of endurance, and was pushing the distance envelope again to help me prepare for my fall race schedule.  Through it all, my zombielike power-walk kept me going.

Photo courtesy of Deborah Williams
At 3:00 PM, we shifted directions on the course from a counterclockwise direction to a clockwise direction.  The logistics of this change necessitated that I complete two laps without stopping for my watermelon fix, but I emerged unscathed from this minor alteration in routine.  In retrospect, I probably would have taken an Endurolyte capsule later in the day to help me replace some sodium and electrolytes that the watermelon slices were not replenishing, because this might have assuaged the mental low that overtook me from lap 22 to lap 27, but I still found a way to climb out of the lull when I reached a point where I only had five laps left to go.

After I had finished 27 laps, I started running again.  I maintained a power-walk during the first lengthwise straightaway of each subsequent lap, because that straightaway was now mercifully shaded from the sun in the late afternoon and I was enjoying the coolness for a change, but I decided to run the returning straightaway that was exposed to the sun simply to spend the least amount of time out in the open as possible.  This routine of running through the sun and cooling down with a walk through the shaded portion was oddly refreshing, because I was able to shake up my legs after walking nonstop for so long. 

I finished 32 laps (31.68 miles) in eight hours and 11 minutes, pleased that I had not only completed my first 50K in over a year, but that I had managed to do so with a somewhat respectable time considering my lack of endurance training over the previous months.  My first ultramarathon of 2014 was now in the books.  I thanked Willy and the volunteers profusely before sitting down for the first time in over eight hours and enjoying a shaded camp chair at the aid station for several minutes before starting my drive back to Atlanta. 

My completion of a nonstop run at the Peachtree Road Race 10K followed by this 50K the next day at the Merrill’s Mile 12 Hour Run was a much-needed shot in the arm for my confidence and motivation, and I am overjoyed to be adding another ultramarathon report to this blog at long last.  Thanks to Willy and the volunteers of Dumass Events for an outstanding event that got me back into the game.  I am now looking forward to what the future holds for my endurance that I am pleased to have rediscovered. 

See you on the trails.