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.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Mystery Mountain 12-Miler 10/13/13 (Race Report)

On October 13, 2013, I finished the Mystery Mountain 12 Mile in 3:06:04, and enjoyed my first pain-free trail run after several months of injury. 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil
The Mystery Mountain Marathon and 12-Miler races, which are organized by the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), take place every October at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia.  This event, which takes its name from an 855-foot rock wall of unknown origin at the highest point of the course, is my favorite Georgia trail race because of its scenic views at the beginning of leaf season and because of the fun camaraderie between the runners and the dedicated volunteers. 

I have enjoyed running the full Mystery Mountain Marathon course over the past four years, but I reluctantly decided to scale down to the 12-miler race this year so that I could continue to recover from a heel injury and get back in shape after several mostly-sedentary months of physical and mental recharging.  After almost four years of running ultramarathons and marathons on a monthly basis, I found out the hard way that my body will force me to take a break one way or another if I do not take time off voluntarily.  I will not bore anyone with the gloomy specifics of my downward trajectory of fitness over the past few months, except to say that a series of injuries led to burnout, which, in turn, led to laziness and weight gain.  Since my DNF at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race in June due to pain in my left heel, I had half-heartedly participated in the Hot to Trot 8-Hour Run in August, where I finished 17 miles in just over four hours before calling it a day, and the Yeti Snakebite 50-Mile in September, where I ran an easygoing 10 miles before heel pain and fatigue compelled me to drop out at an aid station near the parking area.

On the morning of this race, I woke up humbled and uncertain of my ability even to finish the 12-mile race option.  The 12-Miler, which follows the first loop of the full marathon course up and down several challenging hills on technical trail terrain covered with boulders and tree roots, may not be as relentlessly grueling as the full course, but it is still no joke.  Since I had not run over 10 miles over the past two months and was still uncertain about how the aggravated fascia tissue in my left foot would respond to the uneven trail surfaces this time around, I had no idea what to expect from my trek through the Fort Mountain woods on this day.  Relieved that I had kept a couple of my old trusty extra-large black running shirts, I begrudgingly dressed in one of them and tried to keep myself away during the two-hour drive to the race start by blasting U2’s The Unforgettable Fire in my truck. 

My energy and enthusiasm were quickly dusted off and reawakened after spending an hour catching up with friends at the race number pickup building, and I made my way to the back of the pack at the start line with a smile on my face.  I had spent too much time alone in my metro-Atlanta apartment over the past few months, so I guess that the mountain air and the sight of familiar faces gave me the necessary spark to kick off this short adventure.  As the leisurely first mile of the course circled around a beautiful campground lake, I shared some jokes with a couple of friends and fell into a relaxed pace with no pressure to finish with any particular time goal.  During the 2012 Mystery Mountain Marathon, I had rushed out from the parking lot and achieved a 5:30:17 finish time while I was at the all-time peak of my running fitness.  This time, my one and only goal was to return home with a 12-Miler finish instead of adding yet another DNF to my year. 

I was in good company behind a line of runners as I walked up the first notable hill after the trail course left the campground area and joined the Gahuti Trail that circled the inner perimeter of the state park.  As I jogged at an easy pace over the next couple of miles that wound around a series of mountainside ledges, I enjoyed the company of a local running friend, Aaron, as we exchanged gallows jokes about the hills that awaited us.  When we finally did arrive at the first long climb, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I still had most of my hill-climbing mojo that had served me so well during races of the previous fall season.  I passed a handful of runners on the way to the first aid station, where I downed a cup of Powerade before resuming the uphill climb to the Overlook area that provides one of the most awesome views in all of north Georgia.  I was soon passed in turn by a few running friends who were on their way to impressive finishes for the full course, but the conversation kept me smiling as I trudged up the steepest hill of the 12-Miler course that led to the picturesque stone tower above the mysterious stone wall that attracts most of the park visitors. 

As I ran with a couple of friends and took my time to enjoy the fall wilderness five miles into the course, I was pleased that I had felt no pain at all in my left heel so far, and I hoped that my good fortune would continue.  I caught up with a couple of the marathon participants and spent a couple of minutes encouraging one girl who was nervous about race cutoffs for the full course.  I spent several miles leapfrogging with one friend, Paul, whom I would pass on the hill climbs only to be passed by him on the technical descents, where he had a downhill running finesse that I lacked.      

 As I climbed one long ascent on the way to the eight-mile aid station, I saw Lauren, one of my pacers from last year’s Pinhoti 100 race last fall, ahead of me in the distance.  We amused ourselves by quoting scenes from the movie, Blade Runner, as we crested the hill and approached the aid station at the park entrance road crossing.  After thanking the volunteers and downing another cup of Powerade with a handful of Gummi Bears, I joined another friend, Joseph, with whom I had run several previous ultramarathons, and enjoyed talking with him for the next couple of miles as the trail evened out along a forest road that continued on one of the most fun downhill stretches that I have ever had the privilege of running. 

Photo courtesy of Lauren Gray Castor
This had turned out to be a perfect morning so far.  I felt no pain whatsoever in my heel.  More importantly, I felt like a runner again.  During my shorter runs and workouts over the past few months, I had been down on myself about my injury and my backslide into weight gain after my hard work from the year before, and I had let that “negativity snowball” become larger and larger to the point that it had sucked the joy out of an activity that I had always loved.  On these Fort Mountain trails, though, I was riding a wave of happiness that put a newfound spring in my step.  Long distance runs are good metaphor for life itself, because we often have to go through debilitating low points before we reach the exhilarating high points.  On this particular day, I was having a good time, and I sensed the promise of better times over the horizon. 

As we reached an unmanned aid station just before Mile 10, I was grateful to make my way through a rock garden section with no trouble, since that type of terrain had wrecked my heel during previous trail runs over the summer.  I heard voices behind me and decided to stay ahead of them by running nonstop for most of the next mile that looped down to a creek crossing next to a small waterfall.  Since I had let my endurance skills slide over the past several months, I felt the energy leaving me as I passed a couple of people on the arduous climb to the Mile 11 aid station, but I kept moving since the finish was only a mile away.  When I saw some friends turn off of the Mile 11 aid station to climb the massive power line hill that signaled the beginning of the second loop for the marathoners, I felt a brief regret at my decision to scale down to the 12-Miler, but that regret was admittedly extinguished by my relief that I did not have to climb that hill this year. 

I ran for most of the final mile that circled back around the campfire lake and crossed the finish line at 3:06:04 to place 84 out of 108 finishers for the 12-Miler event.  This may not have been my finest hour, but it was a welcome shot in the arm of running bliss that I needed more than I had realized.  Almost immediately after crossing the finish line, my relative loss of endurance fitness caught up with me as my legs cramped and excruciating pain shot up and down my calves.  Several friends were hanging out at the finish area, though, and I enjoyed their company as I chilled out for a couple of hours and watched the first wave of marathoners finish their race with new course record times.   

My gratitude goes to the GUTS crowd and to Race Director Kim Pike for putting another perfect Mystery Mountain Marathon and 12-Miler day together.  I cannot wait to return to the full marathon distance at this course next year. 

It feels good to add a race finish to my blog instead of penciling in another DNF.  I still have a long way to go to return to my previous level of fitness, but I am familiar with ups and downs of the yo-yo effect and I am glad that my injury has recovered enough for me to return to a routine running schedule.  I will be taking my time returning to longer distances, though, and I plan to spend the next several months devoting my full attention to the Publix Georgia Marathon in March.  In recent years, I have simply shown up for marathon races between ultramarathons, so I am looking forward to training specifically for a marathon for a change.  I know that one successful race finish will not solve everything, but this Mystery Mountain 12-Miler marked the return of some actual motivation to my running life by way of a fun-filled fall morning in the company of great friends. 

See you on the trails.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

DNF: Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race 6/14/13 (Race Report)

On June 14, 2013, I had a DNF at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race when I arrived at the finish line of the first 18-mile stage after the four-hour time cutoff. 

Photo courtesy of Charlene Simmons
The Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race, part of the Rock/Creek Trail Series, consists of three stages over three days on the beautiful trail systems around and above the city.  The first stage takes place at the Raccoon Mountain Reservoir, along 18 miles of moderately technical trails overlooking the city of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River.  The second stage is located a few miles away at Lookout Mountain, along 22 miles of hilly trails and creek crossings.  The third and final stage poses a challenge to the toughest of runners with its 20 miles of rocky climbs on the Signal Mountain trails just north of the city. 

Since I was still running cautiously due to the overuse injury that had led to my DNF two months earlier at the Umstead 100 Endurance Run, where I had reached Mile 37.5 with an aching left heel and inflamed Achilles tendons before being advised by the medical staff to drop from the race, I knew that a successful finish of all three stages of the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race was a tall order.   This would not be the first time that I had shown up for a race with insufficient preparation, though, and my enthusiasm blinded me to the downward trajectory that my running fitness had suffered so far this year.  I had not run farther than an 11-mile distance over the previous two months, and I arrived in Chattanooga the day before the race with the assumption that I might be pulled from the race sometime over the weekend, but I was all smiles as I picked up my race number and settled down with friends at The Crash Pad hostel that would serve as the race headquarters.  I simply told others that I was just there to have fun and to run as far as I could. 

An apparent premonition of things to come factored into my choice of running attire when I woke up from my comfortable bunk at The Crash Pad on the morning of the first stage.  I knew that I would never hear the end of it from running friends if I neglected to wear my trademark fluorescent orange running shirt at least once during the event, so I joked with others that I was wearing the shirt for the first stage just in case I did not make it to the other two stages.  Since runners were encouraged to carpool from The Crash Pad to each stage location, I caught a ride to Raccoon Mountain with two local friends, Heidi and Lara.  Lara and I had run together at comparable paces during several previous events, so we had decided to partner up and try to beat the cutoffs together for this first day. 

I have always enjoyed the attention to detail that Rock/Creek gives to each Chattanooga race in the series, and this event was no exception.   The sight of the elaborate race banners at the start/finish location gave me a jolt of enthusiasm and adrenaline that amplified over the next hour as I greeted several friends and acquaintances.  Lara and I settled into the back of the pack as Race Director Randy Whorton counted us down to the start over the loudspeakers. 

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
The first mile of the Raccoon Mountain course was completed at a snail’s pace, as I found myself near the back of a single-file line after a short stretch of pavement turned onto the trail.  I have always enjoyed starting my races in a relaxed fashion, so the brief setback did not concern me.  Since this stage took place on the same trail system where I had run the Rock/Creek Scenic City Trail Marathon in 2011, I knew that the runnable single-track trails that twisted back and forth in endless switchbacks would enable me to open up into a comfortable pace soon enough.  Once the crowd thinned out, Lara and I took advantage of the easy terrain by running nonstop for several minutes at a time up and down gentle inclines and descents, slowing down to a fast hike only occasionally when the hills were steeper than normal.  We had been blessed with unseasonably cool weather for mid-June on this particular morning, and I was grateful for the 70-degree temperatures.  A thunderstorm had swept through Chattanooga the previous afternoon, but most of the trails were dry, and my shoes had plenty of traction on the rocks.    

The first several miles of this stage were pleasantly uneventful as Lara and I ran back and forth on switchback trails with gentle slopes.  I would later regret my decision not to eat any of the gels that I was carrying during the first half of the event, but I was feeling energetic early on, and I assumed that the remainder of the course would be just as forgiving.  We caught up with two more local friends, Woolery and Amanda, and enjoyed talking with them as the trails ascended to a ridge that overlooked the city of Chattanooga before twisting back to the first aid station at Mile 4.7.  My water bottle was still full, so I grabbed a small piece of cake from an aid station bowl and kept moving.  The most luxuriously easy section of trail greeted me over the next mile or two, and I ran nonstop as the trail emerged from the woods onto a gravel road next to an electrical switchyard.  Time flew by and the miles must have accumulated faster than I thought, because I soon arrived at the second aid station and was surprised when a volunteer told me that I was at Mile 8.

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
Upon arriving at this aid station, I was also warned that I had reached this point in the race just under the cutoff time.  I remembered being held up during the first mile after starting in the back of a long line of runners, though, and I was confident that my current pace would enable me to finish well within the four-hour limit.  Lara and I ran out of the aid station and entered a maddeningly repetitive series of switchbacks that doubled back and forth on themselves several times over.  It was on this particular stretch that I started feeling the same ache in my left heel that had led to my failure to finish Umstead 100.

The pain in my left heel felt similar to plantar fasciitis, but the ache was accompanied by inflammation in my Achilles and ankle.  After my Umstead DNF, I had enjoyed two weeks of complete rest before returning to my local running group for Saturday morning training runs on pavement.  Since the symptoms were not as apparent with my road shoes, I gradually felt my running mojo almost return to full force over the next few Saturdays as I enjoyed 10-mile distances on local Atlanta routes.  As I passed the halfway point of this first stage on Raccoon Mountain, though, I was dismayed to realize that my injury was still present and that the pain was amplified in my trail shoes as I ran on rocky surfaces.  I was still moving at a decent clip, though, and I temporarily shrugged off the ache to keep running. 

The 25 pounds or so that I had regrettably gained over the past seven months with my injury setbacks and poor diet choices since my Pinhoti 100 finish back in November were not so easy to shrug away, though.  I was still much lighter than I had been during my previous years of trail running, but the recent loss of fitness still took a lot of wind out of my sails, and I was reminded of my need to return to peak condition.  The true annoyance of an injury setback for any runner is that, once the runner returns to a consistent training routine, the runs and exercises that used to feel effortless are now difficult and burdensome.  Many runners can deal with this in stride, so to speak, but I have always had a tendency to fall into a psychological downward spiral where I continue to compare my current fitness lows to my previous highs and get down on myself for being slower and heavier.  Fatigue hit me like a lead brick this time around, and, when I finally arrived at the third aid station in a tired daze after running and walking switchbacks for an eternity and was told that I was only at Mile 12, my shoulders slumped and I expressed visible disappointment.  A mile or so after leaving the aid station, the increasing pain in my left heel reduced me to a slight limp, and I slowed down as midday temperatures rose.  I asked Lara to run on ahead, telling her that I was over this whole running thing and that it was time to stick a fork in me at this particular event. 

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
I was embarrassed at having shown up for this race in such terrible shape, but I shifted my focus and decided to concentrate on simply enjoying the beauty of the trail instead of trying to finish within the time limit.  There was no shortage of beauty on these trails, fortunately, and I was always pleased to see the Tennessee River below me whenever the trail route skirted the periphery of the mountain.  I knew from my previous experience on these trails at the Scenic City Trail Marathon that I would soon reach an awesome section at the foot of the massive rockfill dam, and I looked forward to arriving at that point. 

Anticipation soon gave way to frustration, though, because the rockfill dam section seemed increasingly unreachable as the trail kept turning back on itself so that I felt as though I was always getting farther from my destination instead of closing the distance.  The pain in my heel had reduced me to a walk, and I was trying to conserve the last few sips in my water bottle.  Woolery and Amanda caught up with me as I finally reached the rock trail at the foot of the dam, and I gratefully accepted when Woolery offered me some water from an extra bottle that he was carrying.  As they continued ahead, I looked at my watch and realized that I would be hard-pressed to finish the next couple of miles in time. 

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
After limping along on a beautiful trail section that gradually ascended to the park grounds, I broke into a slow run as I made the final turn and laughed when I saw that volunteers were taking down the finish line banner.  I had finished the first stage of the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race six minutes or so after the time limit.  I shook hands with Randy Whorton at the finish and told him that I looked forward to returning to this event in better shape next time.  I greeted friends and spent the next several minutes resting my legs in an ice bath that volunteers had set up in an inflatable pool.  I felt no disappointment, and I was actually pleased with myself for finishing 18 miles on trails when my previous two months of running had been limited to shorter distances on pavement routes.  My injury was a concern, so I resolved to visit a doctor this time, as I should have done after my Umstead DNF two months ago.  I have long ago learned not to complain about results that I did not get for work that I did not do, and my easygoing demeanor after my DNF was an acceptance that I needed to put more effort into training properly for my next big event. 

My race was over, but my weekend was fortunately far from over.  Since I was booked at The Crash Pad for the weekend and since I was enjoying the company of running friends, I decided to stay involved in the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race by returning the next day to cheer for friends as they ran the second stage at Lookout Mountain.  After returning to the hostel from Raccoon Mountain and having lunch with several runners, one friend, Justin, and I decided to take a bus to the North Shore area of Chattanooga to look at a vintage record store.  When we finished browsing the stores, we were amused to discover that the North Shore bus routes had ended for the day and that we had to walk back across the river.  This was a blessing in disguise, because walking a few extra miles in the late afternoon completely removed my soreness from the morning run.  The heel pain remained, but my legs felt otherwise normal by day’s end.  Once Justin and I returned to the hostel, I took advantage of a sports massage setup to have my injury examined, and I was told that I was suffering from a strain of my left abductor hallucis muscle. 

The following morning, I carpooled to Lookout Mountain from the hostel, and walked the first mile of the route with a friend after the runners started so that I could take some photos of two notable waterfalls.  We then drove up to the highest point of the race at Covenant College so that we could cheer for runners as they climbed a steep power line trail to arrive at the halfway aid station.  Upon returning to the start/finish area, I cheered for friends next to a bridge aid station as they embarked on their final loop of the stage.  After some volunteers abandoned the bridge aid station, I noticed that a few runners were still approaching the station for water and food after crossing the finish line, so I jumped in to work the aid station for a short while. 

I have discussed races in long-winded detail on my blog, but I have never written about my volunteer work at running events.  It is easy for us runners to take the presence of volunteers for granted, and I always have to remind myself that the aid stations that I see on forest trails out in the middle of nowhere are not simply beamed down from an aid station mothership in the sky.  The setup of an aid station at a trail race often involves the transport of tents, bulk water bottles, food, and medical supplies up and down remote forest roads, and volunteers must work long hours to support the runners after setting up the station and before taking the station back down.  On general principle, I like to volunteer at one race for every two or three races that I participate in as a runner.  This is a fun way to make new friends and earn some good karma for my next race, although I usually feel as though I have run an ultramarathon of my own after I work an aid station for a day. 

Photo courtesy of Mark McKnight
On the final stage of the race, where runners would complete 20 brutally technical miles at Signal Mountain, I decided to take advantage of the full volunteer experience by arriving at the Mile 11.8 Signal Point aid station location before the supplies had arrived so that I could help carry the supplies down a hill to a beautiful mountain overlook, help set up the aid station itself, refill water bottles and hydration packs for the runners, and help break the aid station down after the last runners had passed through.   I was admittedly envious of my friends who were still competing in the event, but I also knew that they would be happy to see a familiar face after climbing the treacherous steps up to this particular aid station location.  For the next few hours, I was inspired by the sight of many talented friends who reached the aid station in good spirits on their way to the finish line, and I enjoyed spending time on this scenic overlook above the Tennessee River. 

Although my own Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race experience did not turn out quite the way that I had expected, I still had the time of my life hitting the trails for a run at the first stage and then cheering for my friends for the remainder of the event.  Trail races are like family reunions in so many ways, and I am always blessed to spend time with old friends while making new friends.  Spending a few days in the coolest city of the Southeast was icing on the cake. 

Thanks to Randy and Kris Whorton for putting the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race together with the Rock/Creek crowd.  The dedication of the race workers and the camaraderie of the runners inspire me to return to Chattanooga as soon as possible after participating in Rock/Creek races, and I have already decided to return to this stage race next year for another bite at the apple.  I have my work cut out for me with a patient recovery from my injury and a running comeback over the summer, but my fun weekend at this event has given me a shot in the arm of enthusiasm to tackle these challenges. 

See you on the trails.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

DNF: Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run 4/6/13 (Race Report)

On April 6, 2013, I had a DNF (Did Not Finish) at the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run when I dropped out of the race at Mile 37.5 due to Achilles injuries. 

Photo courtesy of Ashby Spratly
The Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run consists of a 12.5-mile course that participants must complete eight times to earn the finisher’s buckle, and the terrain of finely packed gravel roads up and down rolling hills through the beautiful forests of William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina is a long-distance runner’s dream come true.  After completing my first 100-mile race on the rugged single-track trails of the Pinhoti 100 in Alabama this past November, I was eager to experience this course on luxuriously smooth roads where the technical trail obstacles that normally reduce me to a frayed mental state would not be a concern.  This Umstead event, which includes two elaborate aid stations and a handful of smaller unmanned water stops along the course, offers the ideal conditions for a race of this distance, and the dedicated volunteers actually outnumber the runners so that the needs of every participant are addressed with the utmost care. 

A 100-mile race under ideal conditions is still a 100-mile race, though, and the distance demands a level of training and respect that I did not properly acknowledge in the months leading to this event.  After completing Pinhoti 100 and the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run less than a month apart at the end of 2012, I was stopped in my tracks with an IT band injury that left me unable to complete any run longer than 10 miles for almost two months.  During this down time, I gave in to burnout and a loss of motivation, and I even broke from the Paleo eating lifestyle that had served me so well through the previous racing season.  I fortunately bounced back from my lull with new personal course records at the Mount Cheaha 50K in late February and at the Publix Georgia Marathon in March, but these improvements were too little and too late in the big picture of my Umstead 100 training.  On the morning of April 6, I showed up to a gunfight with a knife. 

I woke up two and half hours before the 6:00 AM race start after a surprisingly refreshing sleep in one of the historic four-bunk cabins less than a half mile from the start area.  The cabin, which lacked any heat or electricity, was cold in the 39-degree overnight weather, but my warm sleeping bag was comfortable, and, since none of the other three reserved roommates showed up, I enjoyed the dark solitude and the pleasant experience of dressing for the race without having to worry about waking others.  I could not have asked for better pre-race circumstances, and I was confident that my good luck would continue for the remainder of the weekend.  After catching up with friends inside the large main headquarters camp building, I walked out into the predawn darkness with my headlamp and made my way to the back of the pack of runners. 

I was in no hurry when the gunshot sounded to start the race, because I had planned for a conservative pace of three hours for each 12.5-mile lap from the beginning, with the intent of holding this pace as long as possible with enough flexibility to allow for slowing down even more after the first few laps and still making the 30-hour time limit.  Although Umstead 100 was billed as a much easier course than Pinhoti 100, I was cognizant of my less-than-stellar training this time around, and, as such, was adopting the same basic strategy that had led to my success at Pinhoti.  Run the first marathon in less than six hours, run the second marathon in less than seven hours, run the third marathon in less than eight hours, and finish the rest of the distance in less than nine hours.  After walking steadily up the first gradual hill, I settled into an easy plodding jog that would mark my fastest pace of the entire event. 

After leaving the half-mile road from the race headquarters, the course followed a 0.75-mile out-and-back Airport Spur side route with gentle gradual elevations and a view of the Raleigh airport in the distance.  Despite the easy topography, I reminded myself to take short walk breaks every couple of minutes to ensure a relaxed pace.  I was considerably more relaxed and cheerful along the first couple of miles of this course than I usually feel at the beginning of long races on more technical trails, and I enjoyed conversing with other runners around me as the morning sunlight appeared.  After turning around on the Airport Spur out-and-back and passing by the headquarters road, the route continued on the main Headquarters Spur for another mile and half before starting a counter-clockwise loop. 

Shortly after the beginning of the loop, I enjoyed a beautiful nonstop downhill run for one mile before I reached the bottom of a valley and crossed a creek bridge.  The smooth gravel road then climbed for a gradual one-mile ascent that was relentless enough to force everyone ahead of me to a walking pace.  I knew that there were a great many previous Umstead finishers competing in this race, so wisdom dictated that I should take walk breaks on the course whenever I saw everyone else start to walk.  I have never met a hill that I cannot walk, so I enjoyed the opportunity to hike along while meeting new friends.  I caught up with a couple of friends from previous races and enjoyed their company as we crested the hill and maintained alternating runs and walks on several subsequent lesser descents and climbs. 

A massive aid station on a bridge greeted us at the bottom of a hill just before Mile 7, and I was surprised to see every type of food imaginable underneath the series of tents.  I grabbed a couple of orange slices to supplement the Sport Beans that I had been eating at every half hour mark on my stopwatch and continued on.

The next two miles of the course, affectionately known as the Sawtooth Section, followed the smooth road up and down several steep climbs and descents through some scenic countryside above winding creeks and old trees that were still bare from the winter season.  Countless runners had advised me before this race to walk every single hill along the Sawtooth Section, and I quickly understood why.  Even at my brisk hiking pace, these short hills demanded respect. 

Photo courtesy of Mary Shannon Johnstone
Even along this toughest section of the course, I was overjoyed at how different the Umstead terrain was from any other ultramarathon that I had participated in to date.  Instead of constantly negotiating rocks or tree roots on narrow trails, I was able to turn my brain off and simply move forward on the smooth gravel roads that were wide enough to allow me to run alongside friends. 

The ease of the running terrain and my happiness at sharing the weekend with friends old and new kept me from being concerned when the Sawtooth section of the course summoned the initial warning signs from both of my Achilles tendons.  After finishing the Publix Georgia Marathon with my fastest time on that pavement course three weeks before, I had exercised lightly for a few days before enjoying a solo Saturday morning training run in the cold pouring rain, and returned home to discover an unusual tightness around my Achilles tendons on both legs.  The tightness in my left Achilles and lower leg had resulted in a mild heel pain similar to plantar fasciitis symptoms, while my right Achilles had swollen to a noticeable lump.  Knowing that my extended recovery from my IT band injury over the winter had reduced my fitness and slowed my recovery rate from long distances, I had taken advantage of the remaining two weeks before Umstead to massage both of my Achilles tendons with a foam roller on a daily basis while icing both legs at least twice a day.  The tightness in both of my lower legs gradually subsided as the race date drew closer, and I decided that I would be fine for a 100-mile attempt as long as I wore my compression sleeves.  The initial signs of Achilles tightness in my right leg and an increasing pain in my left heel as I approached the Mile 10 mark of this race did not go unnoticed, but I was confident that I would be okay as long as I kept my pace in check.  I looked down at my stopwatch and decided to slow my already-relaxed pace, since my stopwatch indicated that I was approaching a first lap time of two and half hours, faster than my preplanned three-hour lap times. 

After enjoying another extended gradual descent along the loop to a clear power line stretch at the bottom of a valley, I slowed to a walking pace to the hill climb that took me to the end of the loop and back to the Headquarters Spur that would take me back to the main aid station at the start/finish point of each loop.  After proceeding with a series of short run intervals and one-minute walk breaks on the rolling hills of the Headquarters Spur, I arrived at the end of the first lap in roughly two hours and 35 minutes.  I felt great at the end of this first 12.5-mile lap, but promised myself nonetheless to take my pace down another notch so that I would finish my second lap in roughly three hours.  I sat down at the main aid station for less than a minute to remove a small pebble from inside one shoe, and then continued down a hill from the headquarters while I greeted runners behind me on the out-and-back with smiles and high-fives. 

I returned to the Airport Spur out-and-back section mindful of the need to slow down even more, so I made sure to take walk breaks with increasing frequency.  Even at my reduced speed, I was still leapfrogging several friends on the course, and we all congratulated one another on great progress so far.  The temperature was steadily rising even during these morning hours, but I was still comfortable in my white long sleeved shirt. 

As I made my way back to the main loop and enjoyed the one-mile downhill stretch to the creek bridge once again, I caught up with two unfamiliar runners and soon found out that they had both finished Umstead a few times in previous years.  I stayed with these runners for the next couple of miles at a seemingly effortless pace, although the slight aches in my lower legs were noticeably worsening.  I assured myself that I was well on track for my plan of finishing the first marathon distance in six hours, and that I would then be able to relax my pace even more to stay on track for a strong finish.  I continued to take Sport Beans out of my vest pocket every half hour, and I soon decided to supplement this nutrition with a half-and-half mixture of Gatorade and water in my water bottle when I arrived at the halfway point aid station once again. 

My second trip through the Sawtooth section was more cautious, but no less optimistic, as I leapfrogged one friend by passing her on the hill climbs only to be passed again on the descents.  The weather was warming up, but I enjoyed the clear skies and beautiful scenery all the more as I turned out of the Sawtooth climbs and enjoyed the long downhill stretch to the open power line clearing.  I reminded myself that I needed to apply sunscreen before my third lap to protect myself in the open areas. 

During the final miles of the second loop, fatigue started to get the better of me, but I remembered that this was a routine lull for races of this distance and that, after all, I was about to reach a marathon distance.  The pain in my left heel had become more pronounced, and my right ankle was becoming uncomfortably tight, so I slowed occasionally to stretch the Achilles on both legs.  I finished my second loop in roughly two hours and 50 minutes, pleased that I had successfully slowed down as planned.  I was also starting to feel slightly dazed, though, and knew that my choice to slow down even more would not be a choice at all. 

I sat down for a couple of minutes at the main headquarters to gather myself, and was approached by one of the main helpful volunteers who refilled my water bottle and asked me if I wanted a hamburger from the aid station table.  The idea of consuming some protein at this point to alleviate my daze appealed to me, so I gratefully accepted the hamburger and ate it as I walked back out to the course.  In retrospect, I believe that I made a mistake eating a whole hamburger at Mile 25 when the noon hour was close at hand and the heat of the day was climbing to its peak, but logic does not always prevail when one has completed the first quarter of a long race while dealing with leg pain.  Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to stop at my drop bags, which were located at a tree stump alongside the course near my cabin, and change out of my white long sleeved shirt into one of my trademark fluorescent orange short sleeved shirts.  Sadly, I neglected to apply sunscreen from my drop bag, and I would later regret this oversight.

I walked the entirety of the Airport Spur out-and-back, since my right Achilles and my left heel were both hurting by this time, but I still summoned the strength to run on a couple of the short descents on the way out to the main loop.  When I reached the one-mile downhill, I jogged nonstop, hoping that the Achilles pain would magically go away.  I stopped running at the creek bridge which marked the lowest point of this stretch, and realized that my body temperature had shot up from the run.  I started the slow hike up the long hill climb, surprised at how hot the temperature seemed to be in the open area of the road, despite the fact that the weather predictions only called for highs in the 60s.  Apparently, I was not the only runner who was caught off guard by the early afternoon sun.  As I trailed behind two men, I saw one of them walk over to the side of the road and vomit while his friend stopped to make sure that he was okay.  Both men soon resumed walking and started reciting military cadences as they climbed the hill.  I soon caught up with them and wished them well as I passed by, only to see the two of them pass me minutes later on a subsequent downhill after the pain in my left heel forced me to a walk. 

I passed the Mile 31 mark of the course and gave myself a figurative pat on the back for finishing a 50K distance in seven hours.  I had completed almost one-third of a 100-mile course in only seven hours, and had 23 hours to complete the rest of the distance, but pessimism still washed over me in waves.  My training over the past several months had left me ill-equipped to spend the rest of the day on my feet, and I was realizing that my Achilles problems in both legs were more serious than I had previously imagined.  I have soldiered through enough ultramarathons to make a distinction between normal wear-and-tear physical pain and pain of a potentially debilitating nature. 

I was wincing with almost every step as I walked into the midpoint aid station, and one of the volunteers led me to a chair.  I accepted a chicken sandwich, but only ate a few bites.  The volunteer, who seemed to know exactly what I needed before I asked, told me that he was going to leave me alone for a minute or two so that I could simply enjoy sitting down, but that he would be watching in case I needed anything.  After a couple of minutes, I staggered up out of the chair to resume my march of pain.  The volunteer asked if I were okay, and I replied that I was alright to keep moving, although the last thing on Earth that I wanted to do at the time was leave the chair.  The volunteer must have read more into my expression, because he put his hand on my shoulder and asked me once again if I were really okay.  I thanked him profusely and told him that I would be fine to continue the rest of the lap. 

The ups and downs of the Sawtooth section were murder on my inflamed Achilles tendons and my pace had slowed to a deliberate walk, but those two miles of hilly road were otherwise uneventful.  I reached the end of the Sawtooth road and, when I turned out of the trees onto a road under the sun, I knew that this was going to be my final lap of the race.  I did not feel any sadness or regret at this epiphany.  The situation simply was what it was.  I was participating in an event that my poor winter training season had not prepared me to complete, and I was paying the price with my two injured Achilles tendons that had lost their conditioning for keeping me on my feet for this amount of time.  Runners have to respect the distance, because the distance does not forgive, and I had shown up for Umstead 100 without respecting the distance.  I ascertained that this third loop would take me a little less than four hours to complete, and that I would not make the 26-hour final lap cutoff if I continued to walk the course at that pace.  I had never voluntarily dropped out of a fixed-distance race before, but I knew that I would rather spend one month recovering from 37.5 miles than be pulled from the race at 87.5 miles and spend six months to a year recovering with the same end result of a DNF.  As if to prove the wisdom of my thoughts, my left heel exploded in pain when I stepped on a stray pebble on the smooth road. 

I reached the top of a gradual hill climb that completed the loop section to lead me back along the Headquarters Spur road and sat down for a couple of minutes on a bench next to one of the unmanned aid stations.  I felt my right calf underneath my compression sock and was dismayed to find that it had swelled to a golf ball size lump right above the Achilles.  My left Achilles was also inflamed, and, although no lump was present, the tendons hurt to the touch.  I shrugged, stood up, and continued walking.  Despite my pain, I still smiled and waved to encourage the runners who were approaching the main loop in the opposite direction.  This race was no longer about me, and I realized that I could at least offer helpful words to other runners. 

I had known all along that my chances at Umstead 100 were less than favorable, but I was still mildly annoyed at the degree to which I was falling short of even making a memorable dent in the distance.  I reminded myself that, up until a couple of years ago, I would have never imagined myself even completing 37.5 miles, and I was also happy that I would be completing 37.5 miles in roughly nine hours despite injury setbacks. 

I arrived at the main headquarters aid station and saw two friends from my local trail running group, Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS) standing by the route waiting to pace some other runners.  When they asked me how I felt, I shrugged and told them that I was done.  An unwritten rule among friends in my trail running group is that we do everything possible to talk runners out of dropping from races, and my friends encouraged me at least to go back out for one more loop to get credit for a 50-mile Umstead distance, and then see how I felt after that.  When I replied that I was dealing with a lot of Achilles pain, one of them helpfully suggested that I visit the massage tent inside the main headquarters building before making the decision to drop out.  This idea made good sense to me, and I complied. 

I passed through the electronic timers that marked the end of the lap, and walked into the headquarters to see Denise, a massage therapist whom I had known from several previous race events in the Carolinas, waiting with an unoccupied massage table.  She took a brief look at both of my lower legs, and expressed concern after I flinched when she touched the Achilles area on my left leg.  She called one of the EMT medical volunteers to look at the leg.  The EMT briefly inspected both of my inflamed Achilles areas and advised me that I needed to stop the race, ice my legs several times on the spot, and make my way to an Urgent Care Center to treat my left Achilles as soon as possible.  I assured her that I had dealt with Achilles tightness injuries a few times before, and that I would probably be fine after icing my legs and letting my legs heal for a couple of weeks.  One of the other EMT volunteers offered to take my electronic ankle timing band to the race officials and notify them that I was done.  My Umstead 100 race was over. 

I kept my lower calves on ice for 20 minutes as recommended by the EMT, then grabbed my headquarters drop bag to limp over to the shower building.  Along the way, I spotted Race Director Blake Norwood, thanked him for putting on a brilliantly-organized event, and promised that I would return to Umstead another year to take care of unfinished business when I was better trained for the challenge.  The walk to the shower area was not pleasant, but I was all smiles as I encountered friends and acquaintances, because I had an instinctive feeling that I had avoided a brush with a harmful long-term Achilles injury by stopping my race when I did.  I showered, dressed in everyday clothes, and returned to the headquarters area, where I spent the rest of the afternoon encouraging various friends who were resting between laps, and offering help wherever needed.  During this time, I occasionally made my way inside the main building to ice both of my legs periodically to reduce the inflammation. 

As early evening approached, I eventually made my way back to my isolated cabin, slept for nine hours in my sleeping bag as cold seeped between the boards of the cabin windows, and drove the six-hour trip back to Atlanta at the break of dawn the next morning with good music playing from the stereo speakers and mixed emotions wandering through my mind.  I resolved to enjoy two weeks of complete rest to see how both of my legs would recover with daily massage and stretching therapy.  Right now, six days after the event, my Achilles tendons still do not feel fully recovered, but the improvement is noticeable, I am walking around pain-free at work and during routine errands, and I can even stand and walk on tiptoes without trouble.  My next two weekends are going to feel strange without any training runs, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I know that I will feel better after the break.  I have no races for two months until my next event at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race in mid-June, so I have returned to fundamentals by taking time to reboot my Paleo lifestyle and return to optimum fitness over the next few weeks. 

My goals and strategies are evolving, and I have decided that I need to focus on slowly building up my endurance running skills through everyday training, instead of signing up for frequent races and using the races themselves as training runs.  For a long-distance runner, I have never really done a whole heck of a lot of running during normal non-race weekdays, and I believe that I will do well for myself by simply building up my weekly mileages for longer stretches between events to allow my body to develop its own tolerances to the mileage.  This will be a gradual process, and, in fact, it will likely be a lifelong process, but I am excited at the possibilities.  I have proven to myself that I can finish long distance races time and time again, but something that is worth doing is worth doing well, and I like the idea of training specifically for fewer key events each year instead of spreading myself thin with frequent events as I have done for the past few years. 

I am grateful that I did not back out of my Umstead 100 attempt as I had debated doing for weeks before the race took place, because I would have never known whether or not I was capable of completing the distance if I had not tried.  I had a fun vacation weekend at the Umstead State Park, and enjoyed meeting several new friends so that I can enjoy crossing paths with them at future races.  Ultrarunning has become a fulfilling activity in my life, and I would not trade the experiences for the world, even when reality drop kicks me to the floor when I show up ill-prepared for a race. 

Thanks to Race Director Blake Norwood and all of the Umstead organizers for one of the most fun events that I have had the pleasure of experiencing.  Thanks to the countless volunteers who were trained to sense what the runners needed before the runner themselves could.  Thanks to my friends old and new, who kept me company on those wide gravel roads. 

See you on the trails. 


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Publix Georgia Marathon 3/17/13 (Race Report)

On March 17, 2013, I completed my fifth Publix Georgia Marathon with a finish time of 4:28:51, earning my second fastest marathon time and a new personal course record.

Minutes before the start of the Publix Georgia Marathon at Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, I made my way my designated corral to look for the 4:10:00 Pace Team, with whom I had decided to run so that I could top my previous personal marathon record, 4:20:10, that I had earned at the 2009 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon.  After searching for a short while for the trademark pace signs and realizing that there was no pace team to be found in the corral, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision simply to run happy with no specific pace in mind.  I would use my stopwatch to follow the Galloway intervals of four-minute runs and one-minute walks to keep some energy in reserve for the duration of the race, and just plow forward with no concern for a finish time.  With my orange clothing, I was showing a complete indifference to the Saint Patrick's Day holiday, so a similar dismissal of any pace goals suddenly seemed refreshing.

During the weeks leading up to this event, I had gradually overcome my burnout and started to rediscover the joy of running simply for the sake of running, with no competitive aspirations in mind.  This paradigm shift, driven by a combination of economic realities and a simple desire not to let my running seem like a job, has been governing my 2013 race schedule.  I have signed up for only half as many races as in previous years, and will be enjoying longer breaks between race events in the latter two-thirds of the year to prevent future burnout.  The idea of simply enjoying long runs on local routes with friends instead of crowding races together seems like the best idea for now.  My upcoming Umstead 100 race in early April that I signed up for during a rather overconfident phase this past fall has fallen from the pedestal of priorities, and I am approaching that event with a “Whatever happens will happen.” mindset.

As I approached the start line with my corral, I was amused at the sight of a few outlandish Saint Patrick’s Day costumes in the crowd, and told a few friends that people-watching would be my only goal of the day.  The Publix Georgia Marathon has always been a fun race for people-watching, even when it does not take place on a holiday.  The route twists, turns, and climbs through several prominent Atlanta landmarks where different volunteer aid stations compete for the most fun themes and designs, and where friendly faces can be found on every corner to encourage weary runners to keep moving.  The strong spirit of fun and commitment that the local running community invests into this race is what always brings me back, despite the peripheral hassles of an inconvenient race number pickup location, parking fees, and traffic.  Regardless of my level of fitness or lack thereof, I always find something to smile about when I cross the start line and am on the scenic course with a simple task of moving from one point to another in front of me.  Over the years, the Publix Georgia Marathon has become an outstanding local event.  Reminding myself just to enjoy the tour, I turned on my stopwatch and ran across the start timer.

The first two miles of this course are deceptively easy, as runners follow downhill roads out of downtown Atlanta and through Georgia State University.  After standing in 55-degree coolness for a couple of hours with friends at the start area, my body warmed quickly during my first few run intervals, and I knew that the rising temperatures would sneak up on me, as they always do each year during this late-March race.  Slow and easy is the name of the game on this gradual downhill stretch, though, and I enjoyed the relaxed effect of getting my mind around the feel of the race after the short warm-up.  I was not carrying any food or water with me on the course at all this time around, since past experience has taught me that I can usually find plenty of both along the route.  I took a couple of swallows of water at the Mile 2 aid station and kept running as the course descended to one of its lowest points on North Avenue before leading runners along a gradual uphill stretch to the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhood.

I always love running through the mix of historic buildings and revitalized construction along the Edgewood Avenue trek that leads the way to Little Five Points.  I heard a female voice along this section and discovered the source as I ran by a band that was fronted by an attractive blonde who was singing and playing keyboards.   I let my mind wander into the landscapes of infatuation for the next half mile or so before turning off of Edgewood Avenue into some beautiful Little Five Points neighborhoods.  I noticed at each subsequent mile marker that I was cruising along at just under 10-minute miles just by running comfortably and adhering to the intervals.  I knew that I would be thankful later on for not starting out too quickly, and I was soon grateful that I had failed to locate the 4:10:00 Pace Team before the race start.

A long and gradual hill to the Carter Center is the first ominous hint of challenges to come farther along the course, but I soldiered effortlessly on the climb as I joked with other runners on the narrow road.  An aid station around the corner offered cups of jellybeans, so I accepted one and took my first mouthful, pleasantly surprised to find that these were gourmet jellybeans.  Enjoying the mix of chocolate, cinnamon, and other such flavors, I continued to finish the cup as I arrived at the Mile 7 split where the half marathon runners turned left for their journey home and the rest of us continued east toward Candler Park and Decatur.

The most mentally grueling section of the Publix Georgia Marathon for me is the stretch of rolling hills from Mile 7 through Mile 11, because fatigue starts to take hold while I realize that I am not even at the halfway point of the course yet.  The uncertainty about whether or not I can finish the race always festers in my psyche during this time.  My mind was assaulted with simultaneous self-defeating assertions that this day was just not my day, I was just not feeling it on this day, I was burned out on running, everyone would understand if I dropped out of the race right now, today’s poor performance would not define me as a runner, I might have been coming down with an illness, I had put on too much weight over the holidays, the mile markers were placed too far apart, I was still recovering from the Mount Cheaha 50K race three weeks ago, I did not want to get heat exhaustion on this first hot weather weekend of 2013, road marathons were the devil’s work, humans were meant to sprint short distances instead of running 26.2 miles on pavement, my choice of running attire was not working for me, my new shoes were uncomfortable, the Top 40 songs that the aid stations were playing from the loudspeakers always sucked, the people behind me would soon pass me, I would end up with an embarrassing finish time if I managed to finish at all, and I was envious of the dogs that were lying on the front lawns of the houses along the route.

I was thankful that the IT band injury that had plagued me all winter was not a problem during this race, but I was also paying the price for my loss of fitness and weight gain that had come with the slow recovery from that injury.  During a road marathon, just 10 or 15 extra pounds can make a drastic difference, and, although I was much lighter this time around than I had been for previous races on this course, I still berated myself for not exercising harder during the injury recovery.

I stayed true to my four-minute runs and one-minute walks through these early sections of the route, though, and the miles somehow stacked up one by one behind me in my wake.  An ultrarunning friend, Mike, was riding his bike up and down the course to encourage friends, and I appreciated his company every time he stopped by.  My spirits were eventually lifted when I spotted a handful of friends from previous races and leapfrogged with them by moving slightly ahead during my run intervals and falling behind during each subsequent walk interval.  As I ran down a long straightaway leading to Agnes Scott College in Decatur, I congratulated one friend, Charlie Gregory, a runner from my Saturday morning Galloway training group who was completing this race as his 100th marathon.

As the route turned through downtown Decatur and crossed over the half marathon timer, I noticed by my watch that I had completed the half distance in less than two hours and 10 minutes.  I felt better halfway through the race than I had in previous years.  I am sure that weighing roughly 50 pounds less than I had the year before helped a lot, but I also credited my resolve simply to run by feel without pushing for a particular time.  I was fatigued, but I still felt as though I would be able to adhere to my run/walk intervals indefinitely.  I was starting to pass more runners at Mile 14, as the route followed a generously flat road leading away from Decatur.  A couple of cups of Powerade from an aid station just before Mile 15 gave me some quick energy that I would need as I approached Emory University.

Photo courtesy of Di Sha
One of the two noticeable improvements in this year’s course became evident as I took an unfamiliar turn that led me straight into the prominent entrance gate of Emory University.  The scenic run through the campus that followed was one of my favorite sections of Publix Georgia Marathon, although a couple of hills served as a premonition of the Druid Hills sections on the other side of the campus.  The infamous Druid Hills route greeted me soon enough as I left Emory and began a determined climb up Lullwater Road.  My nonstop run along this initial hill of Lullwater Road was soon rewarded when I reached the next aid station, where volunteers gave me Oreo Cookies.  Mike rode alongside me on his bike as I reached the end of Lullwater Road and climbed a gradual ascent on Ponce de Leon Avenue before turning once again into the Druid Hills neighborhoods.

My ability to run the hills had improved over the past year, so I was able to stay true to my run/walk intervals without taking additional walk breaks on the climbs this time around.  As I soldiered on through Mile 18 and Mile 19 and the countdown in miles took me closer to the finish, my confidence started to soar.  A series of steep hills along the Mile 20 stretch did not slow me down at all this year, and I casually took on the challenge with my normal intervals.  I knew that I would be rewarded soon with a long gradual descent once I reached the Virginia Highlands area.

The midday temperatures were rising along with my confidence, though, and I could feel the sun beating down on me on the exposed roads once I reached Piedmont Park.  My disposition was given a small boost when I realized that a particularly irritating out-and-back section in the park was shortened for this year’s race to make up for the extended trek through Emory University a few miles before.  Even so, I was noticeably battered by the heat by the time I left the park for the final four miles of the race.

I started to establish modest goals using my run/walk intervals, telling myself at the beginning of each run interval that I only had to run four minutes before taking a break.  This strategy was a lifesaver, and I soon found myself passing many runners who had resorted to walking up all the hills.  My body temperature was starting to rise with the heat, though, and staying true to my run/walk intervals took all of the energy that I had to offer.  I reached the Mile 24 aid station in a daze, downed two cups of Powerade, and kept moving.  I still had the presence of mind to thank police officers and volunteers who were monitoring traffic at tricky intersections, but I was also surprised that I could even remember my own name at this point.

I calculated my pace for only the second time of the entire event, and realized that I was not quite moving fast enough to beat my previous marathon record of 4:20:10.  I accelerated all that my legs would allow, though, because I was determined to finish this race in less than 4:30:00 and earn my second fastest time, along with a new Publix Georgia Marathon personal course record.  Keeping up my run/walk intervals in the heat was quite a beatdown, but I did not give in, because I knew that the intervals would get me to the finish line in the most efficient way without collapsing.

The final mile of the Publix Georgia Marathon is an exercise in mental strength, since the CNN Center building that stands by the finish area can be seen the entire time.  This CNN Center building seemed never to come closer, but my run intervals kept me passing other runners along the way.  During the last half mile, I summoned the rest of my energy and ran nonstop to the finish area at Centennial Olympic Park.  I crossed the finish line in 4:28:51 to earn my second fastest marathon time.  For the first time in my running history, I had placed in the top half of the overall finishers for a pavement marathon.

This race had taken a lot out of me, and I almost passed out after walking away from the finish line and collecting my medal.  I was apparently not the only one, though, because a guy walking in front of me suddenly leaned against a truck and broke down sobbing.  I stopped to congratulate him, and walked with him for a short while to make sure that he was okay before continuing on my own into the park and struggling to stay upright and coherent while I congratulated a few friends.  When I reached my truck, I had to sit for a few minutes and gather myself before driving home.

I believe that I could have finished this marathon in close to four hours had I kept up the same peak fitness that I had during the fall season for my Pinhoti 100 training.  As is, though, I am grateful that I did not experience any IT band pain during this pavement marathon and that I stayed true to my established run/walk intervals without taking any additional walk breaks.  When I talked with friends at the finish area, I told everyone that I was going to drop out of the Umstead 100 race in early April, but I have since changed my mind.  My fitness is not ideal for that race, but I am going to drive up there and give that race my best effort before taking a two-month break.

Thanks to the race officials, police officers, and countless volunteers of the Publix Georgia Marathon for making this a fun and safe event.  Since I was one of the first 100 people to sign up for next year’s race with the half price registration blitz a few days ago, my plans are set to enjoy this race for a sixth time in 2014 and take the long tour through this city once again with a smile on my face.

See you on the trails.