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. 


Friday, March 28, 2014

Publix Georgia Marathon 3/23/14 (Race Report)

On March 23, 2014, I completed my sixth Publix Georgia Marathon with a finish time of 5:41:23, earning my slowest marathon to date, but enjoying a return to the marathon distance after a year of shorter races.

I suppose that we all go through occasional times when our motivation is nowhere in sight and we are not living from day to day as much as we seem to be sleepwalking from day to day.  This past winter was one of those times in my world, as I approached my training with a half-hearted mindset and indulged in an unhealthy diet.  I have come to think of life itself as an ultramarathon race where I keep moving through the joyful high points and the numbing low points with the same relentless forward motion, and I suppose that this winter was one of those times in an ultramarathon when I just want to step off of the trail, lie down on a cushion of leaves, and wait for the sweepers to wake me up.  In fact, I actually did step off the route and lie down for a few minutes when I ran out of energy during a 22-mile training run just three weeks before this marathon.  I eventually picked myself up off of the ground, dusted the pine straw and leaves off of my running clothes, and resumed my run, remembering that the best course of action in all endeavors is to keep moving and keep smiling.

As I spent the past several weeks searching for ways to motivate myself into a return to decent fitness, my offbeat sense of logic decided that the best motivators would be a finish and a medal at this latest Publix Georgia Marathon, even if I showed up undertrained for the event.  A couple of well-meaning friends reminded me that I had the option to downscale my race distance from the full marathon to a half marathon at this event, but I remembered my regret from scaling down from the marathon option to the 12-mile option at the Mystery Mountain Marathon this past fall, and I decided that continuing to settle for half measures would not snap me out of my complacent lull.  Instead of dipping my toe into the icy cold water on the shallow end of the pool, retreating, and returning to the serenity of a comfortable lounge chair, I decided that I would be better off jumping into the deep end of the pool with a loud splash and being forced to swim and adapt to the conditions.  I may not have been in ideal shape, but I was ready to be a marathon finisher again.

Photo courtesy of Amy Delmas
Common sense had not entirely forsaken me on the morning of the race.  Knowing that the key to finishing this marathon would be to save my energy by starting at a conservative pace, I lined up with some friends in the 5:30 Pace Team.  As we started our race in Centennial Olympic Park and made our way through downtown streets with a two-minute-run/one-minute-walk interval routine, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group and I eased into the pace with a sense of optimism about the day ahead.  The 50-degree morning temperatures were pleasantly cool, and, since weather predictions indicated that the temperatures would remain almost constant, the conditions were shaping up to be perfect for a marathon finish.  Since a marathon finish, however slow, was my only goal this time around, I was happy just to enjoy company and conversation in the midst of thousands of fellow runners.

I was repeating my strategy from the previous year by not carrying any food or water and, instead, relying on the plentiful aid stations that were placed every couple of miles along the course.  As I ran with the pace group along the first few miles through downtown Atlanta, midtown Atlanta, the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhood, and Little Five Points, the occasional small cup of Powerade was more than enough to keep me in good energy and good spirits.  The sight of Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders in the Little Five Points area was an additional motivational boost, of course.

The Mile 7 split, where half marathon runners turn away from the marathon route to begin their return to Centennial Olympic Park, is always a comical, yet uneasy point of the race for me, as I joke with friends about how this is our last chance to scale down to the half marathon, and as I realize that miles of difficult hills lie ahead.  The increasingly arduous inclines in the neighborhoods around Ponce de Leon Road that normally mark the beginning of my energy drops during this race did not faze me at all this time around, though, and I credited the 5:30 Pace Team for helping me reach this point in the race with plenty of running mojo in store.  I had a tendency to run slightly ahead of the pace group, but I always kept myself in check by staying with them during the walk intervals.  The occasional greetings from friends who were cheering the runners at different points along the route provided another source of positive vibes, and the encouragement of a fellow ultramarathon runner at the start of a long straightaway into the city of Decatur kept me smiling at a point in the race when I am normally burned out.

My pace group and I reached the halfway point of the race in Decatur at the 2:38:00 mark on my watch.  The decision to have a few minutes banked for the challenging hills ahead was a wise one, and I remained pleased with my decision to stay with the group.  I knew from past experience that my relative lack of endurance would result in some energy drops over the next few miles, because I was rusty on the long distances.  This awareness kept me grounded whenever I was tempted to run too far ahead of the group on the luxurious downhill stretches, and I knew that the moment was approaching when I would be struggling just to keep up with everyone.  My favorite part of the course, a series of turns through the beautiful Emory University campus, turned out to be even more fun when I caught up with a friend with whom I had not run since my early ultrarunning days and spent a few minutes talking with him.

As I left the Emory University area just before Mile 17 and made my way to the daunting “It’s about to get real.” section into the Druid Hills neighborhoods, I started to feel cramps in my upper leg muscles.  I shrugged off these pains with the realization that this is what happens to an undertrained runner who has spent the past several months completing distances of 13 miles or less when he decides to run a marathon.  I resolved to take in more nutrition at the next aid station course, and soldiered on. The next two miles went by uneventfully, but the understanding that I had not properly prepared for this distance became increasingly evident with each hill.

By the time the pace group reached Mile 19, my energy level was starting to take a nosedive.  I told the Pace Team leaders that I was going to back off the pace somewhat, but that I would keep the group in sight and catch up on the descents when I could.  Despite my self-doubt, I still continued with the group for a couple more intervals.

A few minutes later, a series of sudden excruciating cramps up and down both of my legs stopped me in my tracks.  I leaned over and massaged one leg while pain erupted in the other leg.  I walked a couple of steps, only to feel the cramps return in full force.  A couple of friendly runners stopped and asked me if I wanted them to call for help.  I reassured them that I would be okay, but that I would have to walk slowly for a short while.  After I smiled and resumed walking, the cramps shot through my legs again, and I doubled over in pain.  Two of the runners offered me a handful of jelly beans, and I gratefully accepted, sensing that some added sugar and sodium would get me through.  After I thanked the runners profusely, but encouraged them to go on without me, I continued my slow walk and saw the 5:30 Pace Team run over the next hill and disappear from my view.

An often-repeated motivational quote surfaced in my mind.  “We cannot change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust our sails.”  I knew all along that I would succeed in crossing the finish line of this marathon, but I would have to adjust my sails to do so, in figurative terms, and adapt to the new conditions. If this meant continuing at a slow walk for the next mile until cramps subsided, then I was good for the challenge.

After walking nonstop for a short while, I was able to resume running on the downhill stretches.  Whenever I felt the leg cramps returning, I would simply slow to a walk and maintain a consistent pace.  A benefit of the relaxed speed was that I was unaffected by some of steepest hills of the course that climbed into the Virginia Highlands neighborhoods, and I was able to pass several exhausted runners along the way.  I enjoyed an extended downhill run that led away from Virginia Highlands and into Piedmont Park.  I encountered a visibly discouraged runner who told me that she was trying to finish her first marathon.  I walked with her for a couple of minutes, offering encouragement, and then made the most of a good descent once we turned at the end of a short out-and-back section.  I caught up with the runners who had helped me earlier when I was suffering from cramps, and enjoyed conversing with them for a while as we ran and walked through midtown Atlanta streets on the way to the Georgia Tech campus.  As I made my way through Georgia Tech, I took advantage of the last two notable downhill sections, because I knew that I would be reduced to walking for most of the final mile.  All the while, I kept hoping to catch up with the 5:30 group, even when I felt my energy failing me.

The greatest joys of running and the greatest disappointments of running both lie in the fact that we can only take out what we put in, in terms of being rewarded for our efforts.  I knew that I was achieving the slowest road marathon finish of my running career by a considerable margin, but I also knew better than to complain about the results that I would not get from the work that I did not do.  I remembered a weekend in January when I used icy weather as an excuse to oversleep on a Saturday morning instead of joining my training group.  I remembered another winter weekend when I had traveled to my hometown for the funeral of an old friend, but had failed to make up my training run on the following day.  I remembered yet another weekend when I had just flat out not felt like running.  I was now steadily making my way to a marathon finish that would give me a much-needed shot in the arm of motivation and confidence, but my leg cramps and my inability to run for most of the final section were the price to pay for my lazy training and unhealthy nutrition choices over the winter.

I adjusted my sails to adapt to the direction of the wind, though, and I was able to jog a few brief sections during the last mile, when the CNN Center that overlooks the finish area at Centennial Olympic Park remained maddeningly in sight the whole time, but seemed never to draw closer.  I happily reassured myself that, despite my slow pace, I had still not lost my endurance during my extended vacation from distance running.  I was also invigorated by the sight of a few friendly and familiar faces cheering me on as I neared the park.  Finally, I realized that I was having fun, albeit an offbeat sort of fun.  Struggling to complete long distances on foot may not be most people’s idea of a good time, but I remembered that this is the sort of thing that I live to do.  Like a samurai who has finally found a battle after years of aimless wandering, I was once again doing something that I had been put on Earth to do.

I crossed the finish line at 5:41:23 on the timer, just 11 minutes behind the 5:30 Pace Team, but over 70 minutes slower than my marathon finish from the previous year on this course.  I shrugged off the notion that this was a bittersweet victory, though, and simply decided to file it as another victory under my belt.  I reunited with some friends from the pace group at the finish area and congratulated them before driving home with a medal earned and some lessons learned.

Thanks to the countless volunteers, police officers, and race organizers who make the Publix Georgia Marathon possible.  Thanks as well to all of my running friends who kept me company or volunteered at points along the course.  I am writing this report a day after signing up in a discount registration blitz for my seventh race on this course in 2015, and I look forward to another fun race, and to faster finish times in my future.

See you on the trails.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Atlanta Half Marathon 11/18/13 + Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon 11/30/13 (Race Report)

On Thanksgiving morning, November 28, 2013, I completed the Atlanta Half Marathon with a finish time of 2:29:34 as a volunteer leader for the 2:30 Pace Team.  Two days later, on November 30, I completed the Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon with a finish time of 2:44:13. 

Photo courtesy of Martin Kratzer Photography
After several humbling months of injury and inactivity, I am now training consistently again, and I am well on my way down the long road that will return me to peak fitness.  Unfortunately, the ability to function in sub-freezing temperatures is still not in my bag of tricks.  Many runners proudly claim that they love racing in cold weather, and that they would take winter temperatures over the summer heat any day.  I agree with this mindset, but only to a certain point.  I can stay outside all day in 30 to 40-degree weather, but temperatures in the low 20s push the envelope of my comfort zone a little too far.  When I found my way to the Atlanta Track Club Pace Team tent in the parking lot of Turner Field next to the start area of the Atlanta Half Marathon early on this 23-degree morning and waited for my fellow pace leaders, one friend observed, “Jason, you look like you’re getting ready to rob a train.”  Sure enough, I did look the part, since my face was covered in a polyester Inov-8 head wrap that resembled one of the cloth masks worn by Jesse James and other legendary train robbers in centuries past.  I will admit that the idea of holding up a train simply to come in from the freezing cold and stand by burning engine coals sounded quite good to me at the time. 

Thankfully, the brutal chill was somewhat alleviated when I took one of the 2:30 pace flags and made my way to the middle of a crowded corral to join my fellow Pace Team leaders Miranda, Crystal, and Dan.  The Atlanta Half Marathon, with its runner population of nearly 11,000, is the perfect race for those who want to be in close proximity with others for the duration of the event, so the human windshield stayed in full force as we crossed the start line and enjoyed the first couple of miles that led through downtown Atlanta.

In recent years, I have settled into a Thanksgiving tradition of volunteering to help lead the 2:30 pace team at this race event, because I enjoy the camaraderie among the runners, many of whom are participating in a half marathon for the first time.  In the past, the comfortable speed of this pace group has helped me to recover from longer-distance races during the fall season.  This time around, however, the half marathon distance would be the farthest distance that I had completed in several months, and I would need the pace to guide me to the finish.  In a sense, I felt as though I were a first-time half-marathon runner myself.  The 2:30 pace team has an established two-minute-run/one-minute-walk interval routine, so this strategy falls in line with the Galloway training that I utilize for many pavement races. 

The race course of the Atlanta Half Marathon features a luxurious downhill stretch for a long while after the roads leave the downtown Atlanta area to circle the western perimeter of the Georgia Tech campus.  The first notable hill greets runners just after five miles, as we leave the Atlantic Station and climb over Peachtree Road before descending into Piedmont Park.  After we run through Piedmont Park at the seventh mile, the rolling hills hit full force and keep on rolling for the remainder of the race.  Since the Pace Teams must maintain close to an even speed throughout the event, the ability to keep everyone running consistently up and down the hills in the final miles can be a challenge.  This year, my ability to keep myself running happily during the final miles was a challenge in itself.  My interval timer was keeping me grounded while the other pace team leaders checked their GPS watches to assure us that we were maintaining close to the 11:27 minute-per-mile pace necessary to hit the finish line at the right time.  Since I love motivating others, I took advantage of every opportunity to take my mind off of my own rusty endurance skills by complimenting the first-time half marathoners around me. 

Photo courtesy of Miranda Byrd
Our group crossed the finish line together at 2:29:34, and we posed for a photo after collecting our impressively-large medals.  I had completed my longest running distance since my fascia tissue injuries had taken hold during the early summer months, and my legs felt as though I had just completed a 50-mile ultramarathon.  As I returned my pace team flag to the Atlanta Track Club tent and congratulated others, I felt the need to keep walking so that my legs would not seize up with pain in the cold weather.  Fortunately, I was back to my good old self after an hour of rest, and I felt great for the rest of the day as I spent the holiday with my family just north of Atlanta.  The next day, I spent most of my time relaxing on the sofa in my apartment to watch movies, because I only had this one day to rest before my next half marathon the following morning. 

The Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon, which takes place at Unicoi State Park in Helen, Georgia, was an inaugural race organized and directed by one of my good running friends, Sean “Run Bum” Blanton, and the entire event encapsulated the fun-loving aesthetic of his epic sense of adventure, while providing an excellent opportunity for beginning trail runners to discover the addictive charms of racing through the woods.  The 40-degree temperatures, while chilly, were noticeably more forgiving on this day than they had been on Thanksgiving morning, but my friend, Kate, and I were thankful for the 10:00 AM start time as we carpooled to Helen from Atlanta.  When we arrived at the start area in a field next to the Unicoi Lodge, I was thankful that I did not have to stand outdoors to help assemble a pace group, and I enjoyed remaining inside my warm truck until it was time for Sean to greet the crowd with his introductory speech. 

As the race started, I settled into the back of the pack with another of my local running friends, Elizabeth, since we had both decided that we would be taking plenty of long walk breaks on this trail course.  The first mile of the course consisted mostly of road running to thin the crowd before we turned onto a generously wide single-track trail into the woods.  An easy trek around the beautiful Unicoi Lake was just what the doctor ordered to get the blood flowing in my legs and to ease me back into running mode so soon after the half marathon two days before.  After circling the lake, we crossed some paved roads and continued to enjoy the wide trail that took us into picturesque marsh areas before ascending a few long graduals switchback climbs. 

Elizabeth and I had settled into a strategy of walking almost every notable incline, and, although my pace seemed sluggish compared to the effortless running of my pre-injury days, I was still happy that we were passing a handful of other runners.  Since this was my first time running on the trails of Unicoi State Park, and I had no idea what obstacles awaited me later in the course, I was content to save energy by running and walking at a conversational pace the entire time.  I kept commenting on the beauty of the terrain, because this course displayed the north Georgia mountains at their best on a sunny day.  Since Sean had described the course as a series of “30 to 60-second climbs”, our inability to reach the top of each peak within any remote semblance of that time frame became an ongoing joke. 

Photo courtesy of Wayne Downey
The climbing was balanced out by some of the most fun downhill stretches that I have ever encountered, since the wide trails provided ample room for me to watch my step and to pass by, or be passed by, other runners.  All the while, the glorious scents of late autumn, namely fallen leaves, crisp air, and burning fireplaces in the distance, kept a smile on my face.  After roughly seven miles of running and hiking up and down these scenic trail hills, we turned onto a paved road leading us through the town of Helen.

Helen, Georgia, a former logging town that was subsequently transformed into a re-creation of a Bavarian village, always impresses me with its well-played balance of rustic charm and tourist trap atmosphere.  A notable feature of this small community is a funnel cake business that I always loved visiting during my nutritionally carefree days, because these fresh funnel cakes are usually worth the six months that each one probably takes off of my life.  Since the race course veered along the outskirts of Helen’s main street, however, I was spared the dilemma of even having to decide whether or not to halt my run for a funnel cake stop.  Temptations always seem to find their way to me instead of the other way around, and, as we climbed a hill to the second aid station of the course, I found myself staring at a vast table spread of fresh pumpkin pie and various other baked goods.  Since I had finally rebooted my Paleo diet over the past month, and stuck to the plan even on Thanksgiving Day, I simply grabbed a banana, thanked the volunteers, and resumed my run.

After a mile and half of gentle climbs and speedy descents, Elizabeth and I arrived at the Mile 9 water crossing, where we quickly made our way across 20 feet of a calf-deep mountain stream.  After running for a short while, though, my shoes and socks felt completely dry. 

The Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon ultimately ended up being slightly short of a half marathon distance, but we resumed our casual pace of downhill running and uphill hiking to conserve energy for the unknown terrain that lay ahead.  I was proud that my legs were still functioning after completing a half marathon so soon before, but I also realized that it would be quite a while until I had my full ultramarathon mojo back.  This particular race lived up to its promise of being a perfect light course to introduce runners to the trail, though, and my high spirits soared all the while because of the easy trail stretches.  I will not go so far as to say that the trails of this course were groomed, but they were noticeably less technical in nature than the terrain that I am accustomed to running. 

The finish area greeted us much sooner than we expected, and I thoroughly enjoyed an easy descent that took us into the open, where we ran around the perimeter of the parking area field and crossed the finish line.  I had completed this race in 2:44:13 and placed 151 out of 190 runners.   I gave Sean a high-five as I passed through the finish chute, and then enjoyed hanging out with other runners for a few minutes while I ate some orange slices from the food table. 

Since I have been completing short distances now that I am running pain-free again, it was a tall order even to finish two half marathons back-to-back.  I am grateful that I made the most of the Thanksgiving holidays by completing both the Atlanta Half Marathon and the Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon in one piece, and returning to my workout routine immediately after.  It is a blessing to be running consistently again. 

Thanks to the Atlanta Track Club for another perfect Atlanta Half Marathon and thanks to Sean Blanton and Run Bum Tours for their brilliant inaugural event with the Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon.  My plans for next year’s Thanksgiving break are already written in stone.

See you on the trails.