Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Atlanta Monster Dash 10K 10/27/12 (Race Report)

On October 27, 2012, I ran the Atlanta Monster Dash 10K with a finish time of 47:20 and beat my previous 10K distance record by almost three minutes to place 14 out of 578 runners.

The Atlanta Monster Dash 10K, an inaugural Halloween-theme event that started and finished at the International Plaza next to the Georgia Dome and World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, will forever go down in my memory as the least likely personal record in my running history to date, because my initial intention for this race was to run as slowly as possible with no effort whatsoever.  After several months of intense training and weight loss, I am now tapering for the Pinhoti 100 ultramarathon on November 3, and I had signed up for the Atlanta Monster Dash 10K as an excuse to put a relaxing short run under my belt to keep the blood flowing the weekend before the 100-mile race.  I was simply going to run the course at a leisurely pace, enjoy watching runners dressed in outrageous Halloween costumes, and collect the impressive race swag in the form of a Monster Dash running jacket and a brilliantly macabre race medal.

October has always been my favorite month of the year, and Halloween has always been my favorite holiday.  When I am not running on trails through beautiful fall leaves during the month of October, I can usually be found at home revisiting some of my favorite scary movies while trying to avoid the temptations of candy corn and pumpkin spice cakes.  The Atlanta Monster Dash race, sponsored by Team Ortho, seemed like a fun chance for me to bring those two worlds together, and, in the days leading up to the event, I even brainstormed various costume options to celebrate this occasion where the actual running would only be an afterthought.  What is the greatest and most awesome monster in the entire history of movies?  The greatest and most awesome monster is the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Unfortunately, a Creature costume was not practical for a race, since it would be a big rubber suit that would cost a fortune and make actual running impossible.  I had an old Jason Voorhees hockey mask somewhere in my closet from a Halloween party several years ago, but I ultimately decided that I did not want to wear a mask during a race and possibly injure myself before Pinhoti 100 by tripping on the pavement due to impeded vision.  I even considered writing the word, “Life”, on my running shirt and handing lemons to people during the race, but I did not want to carry a bag of lemons.  In the end, I simply showed up at the Monster Dash 10K in my now-familiar race outfit of an orange/black running shirt and black/orange running shorts, which, coincidentally, were the perfect Halloween colors.

Most runners at the start line had also eschewed the idea of elaborate costumes, but I had fun marveling at the handful of people who were celebrating in style.  I spotted male runners dressed as women, runners dressed as bloodied zombies, superhero runners, and even someone dressed as Mr. Potato Head.  I settled into the middle of the pack at the 10:30-minute Pace designation and looked forward to warming up in the cool morning weather once the race kicked off. 

I am not sure what was going through my mind as I immediately took to the edge of the pylon course markers and passed by most of the runners at a brisk pace as soon as the race started.  I think that I just wanted to get away from the crowd and have plenty of space to myself on the road.  I was not in a competitive frame of mind, at least not yet, but I wanted to run by feel.  As the race course made a series of turns away from International Plaza and eventually hit a gradual, but noticeable, half-mile incline, I was already approaching the sporadic runners near the front of the pack and I had all of the elbow room that I wanted.

I looked down at my old stopwatch when I ran by the first mile marker and noted that I had finished that first mile in nine minutes.  I was enjoying the pace and knew that I was on track for a 55-minute finish, which would be faster than what I had in mind for this taper-week throwaway event, but still presentable on my list of historic 10K race times.  I naturally accelerated, though, when the course took an extended downhill near the state capitol building.  I spotted a runner ahead of me who was dressed as a Spartan warrior and decided that I should pass the Spartan warrior on general principle.  I left the Spartan warrior behind and continued to pick off runners as I ran over the interstate downtown connector bridge. 

The Atlanta Monster Dash 10K was not a flat course by any stretch of the imagination, but the hill climbs felt effortless for the most part as I took a couple of sharp turns into the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic area.  A runner ahead of me was speeding along with the fast consistent pace of someone who was focused on a specific goal, and I made a quick decision to control my own pace by trailing this runner and keeping him in sight.  Fast Consistent Runner did not miss a beat on the turns or inclines, and I soon ascertained that he was probably shooting for a 50-minute finish.  I was hesitant to run that speed for an extended time at this race so close to Pinhoti 100, because I did not want to tire out my legs so close to a goal event, but I liked the idea of trailing just behind this runner for a mile or two before slowing down when the hill climbs became rough in the last half of the race.  I remained ten feet or so behind Fast Consistent Runner and was pleased that this pace was not wearing me down as it had during past 10K events.

Eventually, I passed the Fast Consistent Runner on the gradual hills as the halfway point of the race course turned around the boundaries of the historic Oakland Cemetery.  Fast Consistent Runner remained at my heels for a short while, though, as we turned onto a long straightaway down Memorial Drive next to the cemetery.  The hill climb of the fourth mile did not faze me, and I took advantage of a speedy descent at the end of that mile.

As I passed the Mile 4 marker on the way back toward the state capitol area, I looked down at my stopwatch and was surprised to see that I had run the distance in 30 minutes.  My previous 10K personal record from the downhill Silver Comet 10K course back in early 2011 was 50:17, and I realized that I could set a new personal record simply by maintaining a sub-9:30 pace during the last two miles.  I shook my head at the absurdity of my new goal to set another personal record at this event, despite my modest intentions in the days leading up to the race.  Ultimately, though, I remembered the words of a friend who had tried to motivate me for a past 10K event a couple of years ago, “Jason, nobody is impressed by 50-minute times, and you need to finish a 10K in less than 50 minutes to be a better runner.”  The race course was more crowded now, since I had caught up with many of the Atlanta Monster Dash Half Marathon runners who were sharing some of the same roads, so I had no way to gauge my placement in comparison to the other 10K runners ahead of me.

The hills became steeper, but I somehow became faster.  I soon caught up to an impressively fast runner who was pushing a runner-friendly baby stroller ahead of him.  I noticed with a mixture of amusement and concern that this runner was letting go of the stroller and allowing it roll on its own ahead of him for a foot or two on the road descents before speeding up and taking hold of it once again.  I gradually edged past the Catch The Baby Runner, knowing that, once again, I needed to pass him on general principle.  I saw the CNN Center building in the distance while running up one tough hill and realized that I was edging close to the finish.  I glanced at my stopwatch, smiled, and sped up slightly as I made the final turn off of Centennial Olympic Park Drive back to the finish line next to International Plaza.

I crossed the finish line of the Atlanta Monster Dash 10K in 47:20, earning a new 10K personal record by almost three minutes.  I had placed 14 out of 578 total 10K runners and finished the race with a 7:37 average pace.  The detailed race results site would later show that I had passed 207 runners according to the timing marks, and that none of the runners in the race had passed me on the course.  I had finished fourth place in my age group. 

I had mixed emotions as I collected my medal and made my way back to my truck, because I doubted the wisdom of running a personal record 10K on a sudden whim just one week before a 100-mile race that I had been training for over the past year.  As a character in John Carpenter’s Halloween states, “It's Halloween, everyone's entitled to one good scare.”  My legs felt great, though, so I shrugged off the decision with a smile and promised myself that I would enjoy complete rest for the next few days.

Thanks to Team Ortho for organizing a fun theme race on the hilly streets of downtown Atlanta and keeping everyone safe and happy during an inaugural event.  I loved the Atlanta Monster Dash 10K and I hope to return to this race in the future to see what I can do if I give a 100% effort to race out hard.  For now, though, I am treasuring my new 10K personal record as another feather in my cap during a fortunate fall season of running.

See you on the trails.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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

On October 14, 2012, I completed my fourth Mystery Mountain Marathon with a new personal record finish time of 5:30:17 and improved on my previous record by almost an hour.

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
Mystery Mountain Marathon is organized by the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), and takes place every October at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia.  This race, which takes its name from 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 dauntingly technical terrain where early fall season leaves often obscure the ankle-twisting rocks along the trails.  Despite the challenges, Mystery Mountain Marathon is one of my favorite races, and I always look forward to a fun day on the trails with great friends, dedicated aid station volunteers, and beautiful fall colors.  Many of my local running heroes also participate in this race every year, and I am always humbled and appreciative just to be present at the event. 

This year, Mystery Mountain Marathon would serve as my final long-distance training run before my second attempt at Pinhoti 100 on November 3.  I had completed the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race three weeks earlier and run the full course route of the hilly Atlanta Marathon the previous weekend, but my legs still felt fresh and rested on the morning of this event as I woke up in the middle of the night and drove two hours north to Fort Mountain State Park with Wilson, an ultrarunning friend who would be running this trail marathon for the first time. 

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Gelinas
At 176 pounds, I had finally reached a stopping point in my weight loss over the past several months by way of the Paleo Diet lifestyle.  My own low-carb version of the Paleo lifestyle consists mostly of chicken or pork with fruits and vegetables, and I have found that this basic diet provides nutrients suitable for quick recovery from my recent series of long-distance running events during my training season. Before this year’s Mystery Mountain Marathon, however, I decided to address the problem of energy lows that have normally plagued me 10 to 15 miles into my long runs.  Two days before this race, I loaded up on Paleo-friendly carbohydrate sources by eating a lot of fruit and sweet potatoes.  I resumed my normal diet the day before the race, since I dislike eating large meals so close to an event, but I was full of energy as I greeted friends at the packet pickup area on race morning.  I lined up in the middle of the crowd as Race Director Kim Pike gave pre-race instructions at the start line.

Photo courtesy of Graham Gallemore
The marathon kicked off with the sound of cannon fire, and I ran with the crowd as we turned through campground parking lots on the way to the single-track trail.  I am never one to let overconfidence get the best of me, but I still accelerated to a faster pace in the parking lot to pass several runners before the bottleneck at the trailhead.  I ate a piece of ginger candy for some early sugar as I ran the first mile around a scenic campground lake, and enjoyed conversation as I settled into my place in the line of participants.  After circling the lake, the course turned onto the Gahuti Trail, a technical rocky trail loop around the inner forest area of the park.
Photo courtesy of Dustin Shelley/Liza AuYeung
I ran nonstop for most of the first three miles, save for a few notable hill climbs.  My pace was hampered somewhat by trail rocks that were slippery from a recent rain, but I ran along a pretty ledge trail at a decent clip with a handful of other runners at my heels, and reached the first major climb at a much faster time than in previous years.  I ate a packet of Sport Beans at the half hour mark on my stopwatch while I made my way up rocky switchbacks.  I knew that I would be at the first aid station within minutes to find a variety of food choices, but I wanted to take in more sugar than normal during the first several miles to prevent any energy lows and to maintain my positive frame of mind.  When I did arrive at the first aid station, I drank a cup of Powerade and took a couple of orange slices as I started another steep climb to the Fort Mountain overlook, where vistas from several miles away can be seen on a clear day.  Once I reached the scenic overlook, however, I simply kept running and circled the top of the mountain on a trail covered with boulders and tree roots that demanded concentration and prevented me from enjoying the views of mountains in the distance.

Photo courtesy of Dustin Shelley/Liza AuYeung
I made my way around the mountain followed by a friend with whom I had run at the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race, and we compared challenges of the trail rocks at the two events as we arrived at a steep climb to the Fort Mountain Stone Tower and passed a few runners on our way up.  Once I reached the top, I ran down a series of dangerous stone steps at a fast, but careful pace, and allowed myself to be passed by two runners, confident that I might catch up with them on the subsequent series of trail hills.  After passing a small crowd of cheering volunteers and high-fiving some children that stood beside the trail, I continued running nonstop up and down a couple of gradual inclines.  I opened another pack of Sport Beans and put them into my mouth just before I made a turn and encountered a photographer that took my picture when I climbed the small flight of steps at a wooden overlook.  Mildly annoyed at my inability to smile on account of the big mouthful of Sport Beans, I kept going as the Gahuti Trail left the populated mountain top areas and veered back into the forest, where I was welcomed by a terrain of sharp climbs and slippery descents. 

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
For the next couple of miles, I leapfrogged a couple of runners by passing them on the uphill climbs only to have them pass me on the technical downhills.  This is a frequent occurrence for me at trail races, since I can power-walk quickly up inclines, but am often timid when running down hills that are covered with rocks or tree roots.  I climbed the hills at a consistent pace, though, and soon outdistanced the group of runners to find myself alone again.  A rock band of teenagers, including the Race Director’s son, was a unique and welcome sight along a flat section in a marshy area along a low elevation point of the Gahuti Trail, and I waved to them as I ran past.  After making my way up another series of hills, I arrived at the Park Entrance aid station on the eighth mile of the course.  I was somewhat blanked out mentally from pacing myself faster than usual for the first eight miles and concentrating on the rocks, but I still thanked the volunteers as I put a couple of packets of chewable race candies in my pocket and drank two cups of Powerade.  I emptied one of the electrolyte candy packets into my mouth and kept moving. 

Photo courtesy of Di Sha
The last stretch of the Gahuti Trail is normally where I become discouraged and exhausted at this particular race event, but I was able to keep running with a smile this time around, probably due to the plentiful glycogen supply from my carbohydrate load two days prior and from my sugar intake so far in the race.  My vision was somewhat blurred after miles of focusing my eyesight on trail obstacles, but I gradually remedied this problem by looking away from the trail up to the treetops when power-walking on the hills.  After enjoying a luxuriously long downhill run, I crossed a park road and found myself behind a group of ultrarunning friends while I negotiated a rock-covered section.  I enjoyed a long conversation with the friends ahead of me over the next mile, but I took off on my own in the lead after having to call them back when they started down a wrong trail.  I wanted to keep the lead in front of this small group, so I power-walked up a rocky ascent as fast as I could before arriving at the Mile 11 aid station with a personal record time of two hours and 15 minutes.  I said hello to a few volunteer friends, drank more Powerade, and turned back onto the trail with some orange slices and a section of banana.  I had not intended to race Mystery Mountain Marathon outright, since I simply wanted to stay injury-free on this training run for Pinhoti 100 in three weeks, but I liked the idea of finishing the race with a sub-six-hour time.  As such, I was pleased with my pacing so far.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Gray Castor
The Power Line Trail now loomed in front of me like a death march straight up to the stars.  There is nothing quite like standing at the bottom of the Power Line Trail and knowing that you have to climb it.  I wasted no time, though, because I wanted to preserve my lead in front of my friends.  I ran a short descent, jumped over a marshy water crossing, and power-walked with a spring in my step.  I spotted a pair of runners farther up the hill and resolved to catch up with them before they reached the top.  I reached the top with less effort than in years before, and turned on the trail right on the heels of these two runners.  I was now on the 301 Loop Trail, a mountain biking path that circled the outer perimeter of Fort Mountain State Park and featured a number of strenuous hills and descents. 

Photo courtesy of Di Sha
After running for a short while on a mostly flat ridge as a break from the Power Line climb, I reached the edge of my least favorite part of Mystery Mountain Marathon, a sharp rock-covered descent that drops roughly 1,200 feet in just one mile.  As always on this section, I was afraid of slipping on one of the loose rocks and breaking an ankle or a leg, but I had no choice on this stretch but to throw caution to the wind and let gravity carry me down.  I weigh 70 pounds lighter now than when I did last year at Mystery Mountain Marathon, but I am still intimidated by the technical downhills, and I run them as though I were still at my heavier weight.  Praying that I would evade injury, I ran with short frantic steps and somehow managed to pass the two runners in front of me halfway down the hill.  This rocky descent had a few deceptive turns, and I always thought that I was close to the bottom, only to run around a steep switchback and find that more long downhill sections were still ahead. 

The terrain finally leveled off to a forgiving forest road, and I was happy to see friends at the Mile 13.3 Stables aid station.  I completed the established routine of drinking two cups of Powerade and then taking some orange slices and bananas to eat as I quickly walked away from the station.  I had not refilled my 70-ounce Camelbak yet and was happy that I still had plenty of water left.  My new strategy of letting thirst guide my hydration instead of drinking before thirst had served me well at the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race three weeks before, and, once again, I found myself running better with less water in my body. 

For the next several miles, I traveled up and down forest roads and followed the orange ribbon markings at the many intersections around the periphery of Fort Mountain.  Caves, ravines,  and abandoned mine shafts were a fun sight beside the jeep roads, but I was still moving at a faster-than-usual pace and did not take a lot of time to enjoy the views.  I ran the flats and downhills without fail, but also found the energy to run up several of the hills when I wanted to reel in the occasional runner whom I saw in front of me.  This section of forest roads was not effortless by any stretch, but I remained in a positive frame of mind and did not let fatigue get the better of me.  I was in a hurry to put as many running miles behind me as I could before reaching the punishingly constant two-mile climb that began after Mile 19. 

Photo courtesy of Di Sha
I reached the Far Out aid station at Mile 18.7 and, for the first time during this race, I had my Camelbak refilled with water by a volunteer.  I was overjoyed to find a bowl full of Halloween gumdrops in the shape of pumpkins, since gumdrops are always a favorite treat for me at aid stations.  I greedily crammed a handful of the gumdrops into my mouth and took another handful to carry with me as I waved goodbye to volunteer friends and left the aid station. 

After running along an easy dirt road outside the park grounds, I followed the orange markings back onto park property and ran a series of rolling hills over the next half mile or so.  When the temptation to stop and walk hit me, I reminded myself that I would be hiking for a long time as soon as I reached the big two-mile hill.  This mentality allowed me to pass a couple of runners who were taking walk breaks on the mild climbs, and, when I did finally reach the foot of the massive hill, I was relieved to walk at long last. 

Photo courtesy of Dustin Shelley/Liza AuYeung
This steep two-mile hill climbed relentlessly beside a creek, and the sounds of small waterfalls did little to assuage the physical hardship.  Uphill power-walking is what I do best at races, though, and I passed a handful of others as I soldiered up to the top, reminding myself that each step brought me closer to the finish.  I felt confident that a sub-six-hour time was in my grasp, and I mentally pushed the fast-forward button to walk faster as the trail became even steeper on a series of switchbacks beside one waterfall.  I surprised myself by reaching the last part of the climb in just a half hour and running when the terrain occasionally flattened.  Eventually, the sound of vehicles driving by on the main park road by the Last Gasp aid station at Mile 22.3 in the distance compelled me to go faster. 

I was somehow coherent and happy when I reached the Last Gasp aid station and was told that I only had 3.9 miles left to go.  I knew from previous Mystery Mountain Marathon experiences that this was the longest 3.9-mile distance in the world, but the sub-6-hour finish time carrot dangled in front of my face and kept me moving.  The orange markers guided me up and down rolling hills on a jeep road where sporadic fallen tree branches threatened to trip my feet.  I managed to run up a few hills in my haste, but I slowed to a fast hike on the final relentlessly long ascent after I passed an unmanned water stop at Mile 24.6.

Photo courtesy of Dustin Shelley/Liza AuYeung
This climb took me to the top of the Power Line Trail, where a couple of volunteers teased me about my fluorescent orange shirt providing excellent camouflage.  I laughed as I took off down the hill and tried to ignore the painful battering of my quads.  The volunteers egged me on to catch up with one runner in front of me.  I passed this runner near the bottom of the hill and continued my nonstop run up a small incline to the Power Line aid station, where volunteers cheered me along.  I called out my name and my race number as I ran past, and high-fived one volunteer as I made my way along the final mile that led around the campground lake once again back to the start/finish area.  I sped up as I caught glimpses of the finish line from the other side of the lake, and the realization that I would finish well below the six-hour mark lit fires under my feet. 

I emerged from the woods into the campground parking lot and crossed the finish line in 5:30:17, placing 39 out of 114 runners.  Kim congratulated me as I crossed the finish line, but it took me a couple of seconds to pull myself together after my final sprint.  I thanked everyone as I collected my finisher’s medal and beverage glass, and then sat down for a short while to cheer for others finishing the race. 

This year’s Mystery Mountain Marathon was the second tough trail race in a row where I had performed at a level beyond my goals and expectations going into the event.  I will never be confused for an elite runner, but my finish times are improving as I continue to learn new lessons and benefit from focused training.  More than anything, though, I had a lot of fun at this year’s race, and did not suffer noticeably from energy drops or mental lows.  Pinhoti 100 looms ahead in less than three weeks, and I could not have asked for a better final training run.  Thanks to Kim Pike and the rest of the GUTS crowd for giving me the opportunity to push myself on some of the toughest marathon hills in the world.

See you on the trails.