Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Area 13.1 Half Marathon 8/18/12 (Race Report)

On August 18, 2012, I ran the Area 13.1 Half Marathon with a finish time of 1:57:04.

The Area 13.1 Half Marathon, an inaugural event in Roswell, Georgia that was sponsored by Zulu Racing to raise money for South Africa benefit programs, was a new experience for me in two ways.  With its 6:30 PM start time, this half marathon would be the first evening race of my running career, and, since I had already run 10 miles with my Galloway training group roughly eight hours before the race start, it would be my first race event as the second long-distance run in one day.  I wanted the 23.1 total miles for the day as a part of my preparation for some fall season ultramarathons, so I approached this particular half marathon as a routine training run.

In all honesty, though, I registered for the Area 13.1 Half Marathon just for the T-shirt and the medal.  This extraterrestrial alien theme race, which is named after the UFO conspiracy theories associated with Roswell, New Mexico and the Area 51 military installation in Nevada, appealed to my lifelong fascination with 1950s sci-fi monster movies and reeled me in with the promise of an outrageously fun, albeit challenging, summer event.  I was lured aboard after just one glance at the event website and the race swag.

I was well-prepared for the inevitable alien invasion when I woke up on the day of the race.  I weighed 192 pounds after months of intense workouts and a Paleo Diet lifestyle.  I was still recovering from a mild Achilles tendon ache in my left leg, but my running was unaffected as long as I continued massages and icing whenever the symptoms surfaced.  I met my Galloway training group at Riverside Park in Roswell, the same location as the Area 13.1 Half Marathon, early on Saturday morning and enjoyed a fast, but seemingly effortless 10-mile routine training run.  An ill-advised decision to sprint the last small stretch to the end with some friends brought the Achilles sensations back, but a post-run recovery on my foam roller at home alleviated the problem.

Conventional running wisdom states never to try anything new on the day of a race.  I decided to ignore this wisdom for the time being when I made the decision to try out a new pair of Hoka One One running shoes, a recent brand known for its oversized, but lightweight, midsole technology.  Since the Hoka One One shoes have received almost universal acclaim with many of my ultrarunning friends because of their cushioned feel on long pavement races and rocky trail events, I had long wanted to try the shoes for myself, but had been unable to find any in my size.  When I found out early in the afternoon that a local running store had a pair in my size, I tried the Hokas by running a half-mile around the store block, and, finding the cushioning effect much to my liking, purchased them for the intent of using the Area 13.1 Half Marathon as a testing ground for longer events with the shoes.  The Hoka One One shoes have a springy low-impact effect that has been compared to running on a moon surface.  If I were going to run a science-fiction theme race, I figured that I may as well go whole hog with the theme and wear shoes that feel as though I’m running on the moon.

Sure enough, the Hoka One One shoes did give me the sensation of a low-gravity step as I started the Area 13.1 Half Marathon with some friends in the back of the pack along a flat road next to Riverside Park by the Chattahoochee River.  The race capacity of roughly two thousand runners along a relatively narrow road resulted in some of the most densely-crowded initial miles of a run that I have ever encountered, even rivaling the infamous first mile of the Peachtree Road Race 10K here in Atlanta every July.  I immediately began to pass a multitude of runners, but was still restricted to a restrained pace that was probably a blessing in disguise to minimize later fatigue.

For the first three miles, I ran on top of the yellow lines in the middle of the road to avoid the camber and slope of the pavement on either side, and soon found myself negotiating the orange pylons that the police had set up to free the left side of the road for drivers.  When I saw a runner ahead of me trip over one of the pylons to fall on the asphalt, I stopped momentarily to help him stand, and then resumed my own run with a watchful eye.  The elevation change along these first three miles was forgiving, save for a couple of gradual slopes, and, although I had resolved to run at an effortlessly comfortable pace as a training run for this event, I found myself quickly moving up in the crowd.  I wanted to catch some friends in the 2:00:00 Pace Team, but had started in the back of the crowd way behind those pacers.  I passed the 2:30:00 Pace Team early during the run, and soon found myself edging closer to the 2:15:00 Pace Team when I spotted their signs before passing them during the next couple of miles.

After an abrupt uphill stretch to the first turnaround just before the Mile 4 marker, the Area 13.1 course veered off the pavement onto a pleasant gravel dirt road neighborhood of large homes by the river.  I had elected not to utilize any Galloway run/walk intervals for this race, but my nonstop running felt pleasantly carefree so far.  The improved feel of my running as a result of my weight loss has been remarkable, and, during a few of my recent training runs, I have felt as though I were Peter Parker after being bitten by a radioactive spider in a laboratory.  Still, I reminded myself that 13.1 miles is a long way to run, and I could pay a steep price later on if I overextended myself during the first half of this race.

I had foolishly ignored a cardinal rule of inaugural races by neglecting to carry my own water bottle, because first-time race events often underestimate the hydration needs of runners on a crowded course.  My irresponsible oversight became apparent when I encountered aid stations that were already almost out of water and had to wait a few seconds while volunteers filled the remaining cups one-by-one for each participant.  The temperatures in the mid-80s for this August evening were merciful for this time of year, but the humidity was off the scale, and the lack of adequate hydration would ultimately exact a toll on some of my most talented ultrarunning friends who were present at this half marathon.

As I left the gravel terrain and returned to pavement on the way to the halfway point, though, I was still having fun with my running pace and I continued to pass runners until I finally spotted the signs for the 2:00:00 Pace Team ahead.  My initial plan was to catch up with this Pace Team and remain with them for the rest of the run as a solid training exercise to end my day.  I looked forward finally to catching these pacers and then edging into a slightly slower pace to stay with them.   Cheering crowds were gathered at the start area that doubled as the halfway point of the race, and I waved to a couple of friends as I arrived at the halfway aid station.  The water supplies were still dwindling, but I grabbed one cup and then accepted my first running gel from one of the volunteers.   I did not have enough water to wash down the gel entirely, so I simply kept running while enjoying the taste of the blackberry-flavored mix in my mouth.

The seventh mile of Area 13.1 took runners to a perfectly-flat riverside road straightaway that was deceptively torturous due to the long line of sight to landmarks in the distance that seemed never to come closer.  Long straightaways in races are a weakness of mine, because I fall into a frustrated “Are we there yet?” frame of mind when I see buildings, traffic lights, or other such landmarks a mile ahead.  The ordeal was lessened this time by fun conversation, because I soon caught up with the 2:00:00 Pace Team and greeted a friend, Dan, who was holding one of the pace signs.  Dan and I talked for a few minutes before I surprised myself by comfortably running ahead of the Pace Team on my own.  I was still energized by Dan’s voice behind me as he encouraged all the runners in his pace group and cheered everyone along. 

The toughest section of the course revealed itself at the Mile 9 marker shortly after I turned onto a road with two notable hills and overheard several other runners complaining that they had assumed the course was perfectly flat.  I smiled to myself, concealed my own increasing fatigue, and soldiered on, waving at a handful of faster friends who were returning from the Mile 10 turnaround.  The hills were not an issue for me, but I was starting to struggle with the humid weather.  The Mile 10 aid station had similar water shortage issues, as gallant volunteers quickly filled cups one-by-one.  I repeated the unfamiliar routine of downing my single cup of water and then eating a gel, this time with a chocolate frosting taste that remained on my tongue for the remainder of the event.

The Hokas still felt good on my feet, but I was increasingly cognizant of the fact that my stride was different in these shoes as I obeyed a first instinct to land on my heels instead of striking mid-foot as I have always done with my standard running shoes.  I did not feel any Achilles pain at the time, though, so I continued to pass runners on my way back to the final straightaway after Mile 11.  I waved to friends who were running behind me in the opposite direction on their way to the turnaround that I had just passed as I enjoyed the view of dusk settling on the Chattahoochee River to my right.

I turned onto the home stretch and repeated the two miles of the mentally-taxing straightaway road where landmarks seemed to remain forever out of reach in the distance.  I was finally feeling the burn from two long runs in the same day, but I resolved to continue my nonstop run without walk breaks until the end.  The sight of “UFO lights” along the path as volunteers waved green flashlights up and down the trees on the other side of the road brought a smile to my face, but my arrival at the Mile 12 marker brought an even bigger smile to my face.

The longest mile is always the final mile in such a race, but the road straightaway made this particular section into one of my greatest battles with exhaustion that I had experienced to date.  I caught up with a small crowd of runners, struggled to stay with them as I overheard their conversations, and then somehow outdistanced them.  I finally reached the bridge underpass on the way back to Riverside Park and passed one runner who cheered me on and told me that he was going to ride my coattail to the finish.  I ran over a long wooden boardwalk, crossed a wooden creek bridge, and shot into overdrive when I saw the crowds beside the finish line chute.

I finished the Area 13.1 Half Marathon in 1:57:04 and placed 255 out of 1755 runners.  I had maintained an average pace of 8:56 per mile for the distance and finished 24 of 134 in my age group.

Minutes after I collected my medal and race T-shirt, I felt a noticeable drop in energy as delayed exhaustion finally caught me.  I grabbed an apple from a food table and took a few greedy bites for some quick sugar relief, then talked briefly with a handful of friends.  When rain began to fall, I decided to skip additional post-race celebration and walk to my truck, where I ate a second apple and sat comfortably until some of my strength returned.

I ran nine miles the following morning and performed a back-to-back comparison of the Hoka shoes with my standard running shoes.  My ailing Achilles tendon seemed to worsen during the first couple of miles with the Hokas, but the relief was almost instantaneous when I replaced them with my standard shoes, and I continued my run pain-free.  The next day, I returned the Hokas to the running store and took home a new pair of my standard Brooks Adrenaline shoes.  Nobody said that running is not an adventure in experimentation.  I had looked forward to trying the Hoka One One shoes for a long time, and, if I had never tried them, I would have never known for sure.

My finish time at the Area 13.1 Half Marathon was just over a minute slower than my personal record at the distance from a few years ago.  Considering that this half marathon was my second long run in a single day, and that I fought brutal August humidity, I am quite happy with the final result.  After all, this was just another training run for my fall season.  Thanks to Zulu Racing for a fun experience outrunning the alien invasion, and congratulations to my friends at the race who made me smile every step of the way.

See you on the trails.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run 8/4/12 (Race Report)

On August 4, 2012, I completed my third Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run with a distance of 37.8 miles.

Photo courtesy of Sean Oh
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 rock-strewn forest road down to a sandy path along 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 shelter.  The 73-foot elevation gain in the final half-mile of the loop seems modest to runners during the first few laps in the cooler morning hours, but gradually wears the body down over the eight-hour duration until most participants are reduced to a lumbering walk in brutal summer temperatures.

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 90’s 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!”  At this year’s race, we were treated to a temperature high of only 84 degrees, but stifling humidity and thunderstorms throughout the day presented a unique set of challenges that ultimately resulted in a comparable amount of dehydrated or overhydrated runners, along with many blisters earned from eight hours in rain-soaked shoes. 

A couple of days before this event, I weighed 199 pounds on my gym scales, dropping below the 200-pound mark for the first time since I was 17 years old back in 1989.  As such, I was looking forward to competing at the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run for my third year in a row, because this would be the first real test of my improved running fitness when compared to previous experiences at this race.  Unfortunately, an unexpected setback in the form of a muscle sprain just above my left Achilles from sliding on muddy trails at the Camp Croft Challenge Trail Marathon during the previous week threatened to derail my plans.  The bruise and small lump just above the Achilles tendon gradually disappeared after a week of frequent icing and Arnica gel treatment, but my confidence was still shaken to the point that I questioned my wisdom of showing up at this race.  I made a promise to myself that I would stop running if I felt any Achilles pain whatsoever, even if my Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run turned into a Hot To Trot Half Hour Run.  Like most other runners, I had learned the hard way that it only takes one experience of not listening to my body to stop my running career for an extended time, and I did not want to risk my fall season races for this event.

Photo courtesy of Sean Oh
Thankfully, my Achilles felt normal as I arrived at the picnic shelter on race day and set up a camp chair with my drop bag of supplies for easy access beside the route.  All GUTS events have a family reunion feel to them, and this morning was no exception as I greeted old and new friends before Ryan called everyone to the start for race instructions.  The oppressive humidity was already evident, but overcast skies held the promise of easier race conditions this year. 

Hoping that the weather would remain comparably mild, I settled into my usual position near the back of the pack as the runners took off slowly in a single-file line along the trail over a series of abrupt hill berms before spreading out on the paved road section that followed.  I intended to run with a careful pace, but still found myself passing a few others along the first half-mile.  When we crossed a wooden bridge by Sweetwater Creek, I slowed to a power-walk on the hills, but resumed running along the flats and descents between each climb.  Remembering my unfortunate brush with yellow jackets on the course a year ago, I prayed that the experience would not repeat itself.

Photo courtesy of Sean Oh
I had no pre-determined race strategy, other than to keep going until my Achilles muscles started hurting.  The ratio of hills to descents and the forgiving terrain of the trails did not aggravate my Achilles at all on the first lap, and I kept my fingers crossed that my good fortune would continue as my legs warmed up.  I decided that I would be perfectly happy if I could get just two or three hours of good trail running in as a solid weekend training exercise before calling it a day if needed.  The next couple of laps were similarly uneventful, and I was pleased to note by the picnic shelter timing clock that each lap was taking me roughly 12 to 13 minutes.  I established a tentative goal of completing four laps an hour.  Assuming that I was able to complete the entire race pain-free, this pace would result in 32 laps over the eight hours.  Knowing that I would inevitably slow to a walk later in the race just as I had during previous years and lose that pace of four laps an hour, I figured that a goal of 32 laps was overly optimistic, but I liked the idea of trying my best to maintain such a pace for the time being.  With this number in the back of my mind, I continued at a comfortable clip by running nonstop roughly 80% of the time on each loop, then power-walking the steeper hill climbs to conserve energy.

I managed to finish nine laps just after the two-hour mark, and I was happy to have an extra lap in the bank to maintain my four-lap-per-hour pace as long as possible.  That boost in confidence was timely, because the faint sound of thunder began to roll over the course, and I soon felt raindrops.  The thought of rain at a Hot To Trot event brought a smile to everyone’s face on the course, and we joked that it was our lucky day.  I assumed that the rain showers would quickly pass and evaporate in a punishingly humid fog under the sun, but my assumptions were mistaken, and the rain was there to stay for a few hours.  Rain fell in a slight drizzle most of the time, but occasionally poured down in full force.  The constant overhead canopy of leaves protected me from the worst of the showers, and the trails remained free of slippery mud.  One particular sand-covered hill that was my least favorite part of the course was made slightly more tolerable by the wet weather, so I continued to accept the rain as a blessing.

Photo courtesy of Sean Oh
At the conclusion of each lap, I ran through the timing chute with a smile for the volunteers, and made my way around the corner of the shelter to the aid station, where a small team of dedicated workers were always angels to the rescue with ice water to refill my handheld bottle, gels and Gummi Bears to keep me moving with sugar energy, and even cups of watermelon that put a smile on my face.  I settled into a routine of eating a gel after every other lap, so that I was loosely adhering to my established racing style of eating a gel every half hour.  At the end of the non-gel laps, I would either grab a small handful of watermelon or Gummi Bears from the aid station, or stop by my own camp chair to take a few gulps from bottles of Powerade in my drop bag.  I have learned from experience that eating an excessive amount of watermelon in the middle of a race is a bad idea, because my body retains a lot of fluid when I combine the watermelon with my normal running nutrition.  I rarely have the self-discipline to turn away from watermelon when it is placed in front of me on a hot day, though, and I would ultimately pay the price when my hands started to swell later on during this race. 

Aside from the short aid station stops, I kept moving steadily around each loop and stayed true to my strategy of running 80% of the course except for the steep hills.  The one exception was when I noticed with dismay that some medical tape that I had wrapped around a particularly blister-prone toe had slipped off and slid underneath the sole of my foot inside my wet shoe.  Knowing that I would save a lot of time later on by taking the precaution to avoid a rubbing blister, I sat down for the only time during the eight-hour event to remove my shoe and sock to discard the tape.

Photo courtesy of Errol Josephs
One of the many joys of the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run is seeing my friends over and over again as they pass me, or vice-versa, while we all run the laps at our respective speeds.  An ultrarunning friend, Johan, who would go on to win this event with the most laps, always had kind words each time he passed.  The other front runners were also a sight for sore eyes each time they passed by as the race continued.  I paid the favor forward by doing my best to offer words of encouragement or jokes to each runner whom I passed on the course.  I took it as a good sign that I did not see many of the faster runners as often, because I was running faster this year and I was lapped fewer times.  The endurance of each and every participant on the course gave me strength as I observed the sheer will of people refusing to stop during moments of fatigue.

I passed the four-hour mark with 17 laps under my belt, remaining one lap ahead of schedule on my four-lap-per-hour plan.  Exhaustion was bearing down on me, and I kept telling myself that I would walk the next lap in its entirety, but an urge to keep running the laps won me over each time.  I kept expecting to end my race with an aching Achilles, and I was pleasantly surprised to complete each subsequent lap with no Achilles pain at all.  No matter how tired I was at the end of each circle, I still tried my best to maintain appearances by breaking out into a run when I passed the lap counters at the timing chute.

Photo courtesy of Sean Oh
An absence of specific Achilles pain did not equal a complete absence of pain, though, and the trial of miles soon exacted its toll on me.  The cumulative effects of running this eight-hour event after a trail marathon the previous week was all too apparent during the last half of this event, and a sharp heel pain occasionally shot through my right foot in my well-worn old trail shoes when I took a wrong step on the rocks of the forest road section leading downhill to Sweetwater Creek.  I eventually began to fall into a routine of mental blankness as my will to move ignored the red flags of fatigue.  The kind volunteers at the aid station would assure me that I was doing great each time I passed by, and, when I would tell them that I was about to start walking the laps because I could not run anymore, they would laugh and tell me that I had told them that the last time around.  I would then break out into a slow run back down the trail hills to complete the same stage play.  Like the teenager who just wants a Pepsi in the old Suicidal Tendencies song, I plodded along thinking about everything, but thinking about nothing. 

My frayed mental state became apparent during an encounter that is amusing in retrospect.  An acquaintance from a local triathlon and running club who had arrived on site to cheer for us from the shelter area called my name as I finished a lap.  When I saw that he was holding up a digital camera, I posed for a photo.  This friend kept holding up the camera as he asked me a series of questions.  “How many laps have you run, Jason?”   My mind went blank and I shrugged as I remained in my motionless pose.  “How do you feel?”  I told him that I felt pretty good, and asked him if he was done taking the photo.  “How many more laps will you run?”  I shrugged and asked him once again if he was done.  He asked me a couple more questions, and, when I finally demanded to know if he was done taking the picture so that I could keep moving to the next lap, he nodded.  Minutes later, another friend passed by me on the course and laughed as he told me that the guy had been videotaping me with interview questions instead of trying to take a single photo.  With my status as the official unintentional comic relief of the ultramarathon world still very much intact, I soldiered on.

I finished 25 laps just before the six-hour mark on the timing clock.  As the rain showers fizzled out and dry weather returned, I kept moving with the help of a stern internal dialogue.  Jason, you will get those 32 laps that you wanted if you can finish seven more laps in the next two hours.  Do not worry about how much your feet hurt from the gravel.  Do not worry about how tired you are from last week’s marathon.  Do no worry about how you are having trouble thinking clearly.  Just think about seven laps in the next two hours.  Just get it done.  Just get it done.  I somehow managed to find a smile for each runner whom I encountered on the loop, even if that smile was occasionally accompanied by faint mumbles.  At one point, as I walked up the final hill of one loop with a small group of runners, one of them asked us how much longer we were planning to keep running, and I replied off the top of my head, “I paid for eight hours.”  This drew some laughs from the other runners as we lumbered back up to the shelter. 

I greeted the aid station volunteers with a smile at the end of most of the laps and reminded them how much I appreciated their being there, but I also passed by a couple of times with a dazed expression on my face and a weak wave of acknowledgment during those last two hours.  As the final hour approached, I noticed that my fingers had swollen to Stay Puft Marshmallow Man size, and I knew that I had lost control of my hydration strategy.  When I licked my arm and tasted salt, I ascertained that I was losing sodium, but could not decide whether to modify my hydration or my electrolyte nutrition.  The good news was that I managed to complete four more laps during the seventh hour of the race, and therefore, only had three laps left to go in the final hour for my goal of 32.  I was incredibly thankful that I had banked an extra lap ahead of schedule earlier in the race.

Photo courtesy of Errol Josephs
Those last three laps during the eighth hour were painful, but I was able to summon enough energy to run for short stretches.  I stayed away from gels, Gatorade, or watermelon, and took less frequent sips from my water bottle.  When I completed 31 laps, my running legs were almost dead.  I threw my water bottle into my drop bag, and began my final loop with 25 minutes left on the clock.  I walked most of the time, but occasionally broke out into a jog during some of the more generous descents.  I eventually joined a group of running friends who were in a celebratory mood for their final lap, and I eagerly shared their enthusiasm.  This had been a good day for me, and I felt as though I were the luckiest person in the world for completing this event with no pain at all from the Achilles muscles that had been bothering me days earlier.  I passed through the finish chute for the last time with eight minutes left on the clock, relieved that I did not have time to go out for another lap.  I had succeeded in my goal to complete 32 laps, beating my previous course record by six laps.  I had finished the 2012 Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run with 37.8 miles.

I relaxed in the company of friends as I grabbed a chicken breast from the picnic grill and ate it with some sweet potatoes from my drop bag as a perfect Paleo celebration meal.  The ability to complete 37.8 miles in eight hours in August has boosted my confidence for the fall races to come, and that alone would have been reason enough to endure this challenge.  The joys of spending a day with friends and the ability to keep pace with some of my ultrarunning heroes, however, made this one of my favorite running memories to date.  Thanks to Ryan Cobb and the GUTS crowd for another safe and sensational Hot To Trot event.

See you on the trails.