Saturday, June 26, 2010

I Came, I Saw, I Conked Out - Mt. Washington Road Race Report

The Mount Washington Road Race has achieved cult-driven, quasi-mythic status among a select group of masochistic runners who wish to exert their will over the Northeast's highest peak.  At 6,288 feet, the summit of Mount Washington's primary claim to fame has been as home of the world's worst - or at least most unpredictable - weather.  The foot race traces the auto road for 7.6 miles, and, according to the official course description, "has an average grade of 11.5% with extended sections of 18%, and the last 50 yards is a 22%'wall'".  The race begins, though, with a 300-meter downhill, just to make things appropriately perverse.  It's such a popular undertaking, that thousands of people get shut out every year, thanks a lottery system which selects the 1000 lucky (?!) winners who get to slog their way up a course that slows the average entrant's running pace by 60%.  I put off entering this race, in light of the comment I heard from a past participant, who told me long before I became a runner, "The first mile was the hardest thing I ever did.  Then it just got worse."  That description echoed in my mind for years before I took the chance and entered the race.

So, in 2010, I was one of those 1000 entrants, getting the opportunity to take part in the 50th running of the race.  I had hoped to make my ascent within some semblance of respectability, perhaps in the low to mid-1:30's.  I'd have been satisfied with anything under a 1:45.  As with any and every race, I never considered that I might not make it to the top.

I had been feeling a certain sense of antipathy towards MTW.  I did not alter training, my training, save for a single mountain run one week out.  I climbed about 1500 feet in 3.5 miles and felt surprisingly comfortable doing so.  I figured that while I had no reason to expect great things from myself, I would at least be able to sustain a half-marathon-type effort as I inched my way up the auto road.

It bears mention here that I've been feeling sort of "flat" since after Boston, and that I've endured a pervasive sense of hip tightness during attempts at fast running.  This tightness coincides with recent efforts to shed the prescription orthotics which I've been wearing consistently since 2008.  It's been frustrating to feel like I'm hindered by nothing more than a "range of motion" issue, rather than by running fitness, per se.  More on that shortly.

The weekend started with a nice drive up to Jackson, NH with my friend Dan, a veteran of MTW and a great guy with whom to chat about running and life.  We arrived at the epicenter of race weekend, the Eagle Mountain House, where we got our packets, shirts, etc. and mingled with some of the country's top mountain runners.  We also watched the first set of inductees into the MTW Road Race Hall of Fame.

We got to my friends' Jim & Chris' wonderful mountainside home, and were treated to a delicious pasta dinner, good company and lots of positive pre-race talk.  As the sun set over the mountains, including Mount Washington itself, which was visible from the house, I laid out my gear and prepared for the next day.

Dan and I left the house to meet another Jim and his girlfriend Lindsay, with whom we had orchestrated the labor-intensive and logistically complex "ride-down" process.  We had breakfast, and then headed towards the base of the mountain.  Linsday left us driving my car, and she planned to meet us at the top to drive us all down.

Many folks were concerned and thus complaining about the weather, as it was a very warm day.  Even at 9:00 am, an hour before the start, it was above 80 degrees, though not particularly humid.  I lingered around, did an easy mile warm-up run on the trails and got into race mode.  I was more excited than nervous as we lined, and took my place about a quarter of the way into the assembled mass of humanity.  As the announcer warned us about the volume of the imminent starting blast, most of us covered our ears.  The boom came, and we were off.

I started out at what I'd describe as "fast training" pace, knowing that I could not risk redlining early in this race.  I had decided not to look at pace, time or distance, setting my watch instead to the heart rate display screen, and seeking to keep my heart rate in the 170-172 bpm range (which corresponds approximately to my half-marathon heart rate).

The first mile went fine.  I stayed steady, watched my HR climb steadily and tried to get into a steady rhythm, a common piece of advice from mountain veterans.  I thought I was accomplishing that, but somewhere in the middle of the second mile, I felt that all-too-familiar hip "lock-down" sensation.  It's tough to put into words, but it's like the ligaments and tendons connecting my thighs to my hips have rusted, so that they move slowly.  It doesn't cause pain exactly, just an unshakable sense of tightness that makes it nearly impossible to keep up my leg turnover.  I've experience in road races before, but when it happens on a relatively flat surface I can slow down and usually work through it.

As I approached the end of the second mile, I broke my "don't-walk-'til-tree-line" vow.  As I walked in an effort to collect myself, I realized that the tightness was only worsening.  I tried running again.  No dice.

I ran and walked until about the 2.5 mile mark, and then realized that the steep pitch was too unforgiving, and that the best I could hope for was a seemingly interminable 5+-mile shuffle to the summit.  Deciding that wasn't what I'd registered for, I did something extremely tough for me: I stopped and dropped out.

I ripped my singlet off in disgust and started the walk of shame down the mountain, while the bulk of the field still worked its way up the mountain.  I happened to see Dan, and then Jim so they'd know not to wait for me at the top.  As Dan went by, I actually had a momentary change of heart, and decided to chase after him, to see if he could somehow pull me to the top.  He never heard me, and I didn't catch him.  As it turned out, though, he was hurting himself, and pretty much shut it down shortly after I saw him and walked to the summit.

When I reached the bottom, I wallowed for a bit before going for an easy run on the trails.  Even slight uphills were bothersome, so I finally just packed it in for the day, disappointed with myself.

I sat under the big tent, out of the scorching sun, talking to a couple of other wounded warriors.  Lots of people succumbed to the heat.  I couldn't help but feel like I fell prey to a lack of internal fortitude.

It was particularly frustrating to have this attempted conquest linger as unfinished, since I'd planned to run it once, wear the shirt as a badge of honor and simply check this ridiculous pursuit off "the list".  Now, of course, I have to head back next year, though my friend Jim, who's run the race about 17 times (and who ran quite well last Saturday), is plotting an unofficial run later this summer.  If I can get to the top on my own two feet, I'll likely consider that "close enough" and move on to other, less harshly vertical, challenges.

As a postscript to the disappointment of MTW, I have sought the help of a new chiropractor, one certified in Active Release Techniques, aka, ART.  Many runner friends swear by the painful sessions, and - after two such torture treatments to date - they've not exaggerated the pain part of the process.  I'm waiting on the gain.

In other brief running news, I have formally hired a coach to get me to Chicago, and have volunteered to be a pacer at the Vermont-100.  More on those two topics later.

Thanks for reading. -ESG

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Better Pacer than a Racer?

Having enjoyed my first pacing experience a great deal last fall, I soon looked at other such opportunities for this spring.  I exchanged e-mail messages with the Keybank Vermont City Marathon Pace Leader Coordinator, and my expression of interest became an invitation, which became an idea, then a plan, and - finally - a firm commitment. Of course, I had not thought things through in terms of how I might feel after Boston 2 Big Sur . . .but, hey, sometimes planning is overrated.

I had thought of heading up to Burlington alone, find a cheap place to crash for the night, run the race and come back.  However, when the kids heard that I was returning as a pacer, they begged to come with me, since they'd had an amazing time (which was not exactly my experience, at least not during the race) in Burlington in 2008.  As it turned out, my wife had to work, so I took the kids and our baby-sitter to Burlington for the weekend.

We left home on Friday mid-afternoon for the almost-3-hour drive to Burlington, and I scrambled to get all the kids' stuff together for the weekend.  This is a key piece of information, because it led to my forgetting my custom orthotics at home, a realization which caused me considerable angst when I unpacked my things at our hotel on Friday evening.


Saturday's plans involved my hitting the Expo and hanging out at the Skirack booth for a couple of hours so that prospective 3:40 "pacees" could ask questions.  A few did, but I filled my time in a couple of ways.  I chatted up Endurasoak, an amazing recovery bath soak made by Oasis Recovery Systems (in the interest of full disclosure - it looks like I'll be working with the company).  I "test drove" some Aline inserts to address the orthotics issue.  They felt a bit odd by mile 3 of an easy run, so, after much agonizing about whether to run in untested over-the-counter orthotics (what's that maxim about "Don't try anything on race day"?), I went over to the Structural Management booth, where I spoke with Dr. Tim Maggs about taping my feet, and where I met U.S. running legend Greg Meyer (see pic above).  Greg won the 1983 Boston Marathon, the last American to do so.  After Dr. Maggs graciously (and without charge) taped my feet, I asked Greg if we could get a picture.  He graciously put his hand behind my back, only to proclaim, "This guy's still damp", as a good Samaritan snapped a couple of shots with my phone. I made a sort of lewd remark, and he laughed and sent me on my way.  Nice guy, not at all full of himself, and completely accepting that his running days essentially ended 13 years ago after moving a piano for his ex-in-laws.

During the expo, I also had an "It's-a-small-world" moment with a Mizuno rep who was working at the Skirack booth.  He and I had a few mutual running friends and I helped hook my new running coach up with his fall relay team. Cue the theme songs and the dancing international dolls.

On Saturday evening, we ended up having dinner at Troy's lovely Burlington home.  I'd "met" him via RWOL friends who post on Facebook, too.  It was nice to put social media to good use for a change.  Troy graciously invited my whole gang to his pre-race pasta feed, where we also met other RWOL posters and made new running friends.  We all discussed our goals, our most recent races, our injuries (if applicable), etc., but mostly, we ATE.  We brought a peanut butter pie (becoming a tradition before my "fun run" marathons) which was one of the best things I've ever eaten. Ever. Troy captured the image for posterity.

As you can see from the pic to the right, I was wicked stylin' in my taped Vibram Five Finger-sporting tootsies.  Didn't matter as I tucked into that pie, though.

So, after letting the kids take a swim back at the hotel, we all turned in, me with bright blue kinesio-tape holding my feet and my psyche together.

I drank Gatorade, ate pretzels and watched soccer and track on the TV before dozing off sometime around 11:00 p.m.


After another fitful pre-race sleep, it was nearing 5:00 am, and I was up. I ate some food in my room, then in the lobby and then went to Starbucks for some coffee.  I arrived at 5:55, and the baristas watched me pacing (already with the pacing) outside before unlocking the door at 6:01 a.m.

I ordered my Venti Gold Coast and returned to the hotel.  I got my final things together and made it to the first shuttle bus pickup, so that I could settle in and answer more questions from nervous runners.  Being one myself not that long ago (like, in April), it was mostly a joy, though the kooky, insidpid, uber-obvious questions did also flow.

As I wandered around Battery Park, I heard my name.  It was BetJet from RWOL, seeking her redemption BQ attempt after succumbing to the heat a few weeks back.  We chatted and I wished her well, thinking I'd likely see her on the course.  Then, I met a friend of a local running friend, who was looking for me just to say hi.  From there, I did my bathroom business, and just took in the scene, which is one of my favorite things about marathons: the bubbling cauldron of nervous energy and anticipation which is the starting area.

At one point, two women stopped in my path.  One came over to my side; the other snapped a couple of pictures.  The one next to me smiled sheepishly and said apologetically, "I'm just soooooo excited."  It was quite cute actually, and made me feel like a B-list (okay, C-list) rock star for a short while.  I later commented that the real hallmark of success is the photo with the pacer after the race.

More people asked me questions, about pacing and myriad other things.  With mixed success, I tried to curtail my wise-guy replies.  Some folks made that damn-near impossible.

As the start time grew near, I actually used my newly-discovered Pace Leader influence to cut the long bathroom lines, since I needed to mill about near the actual starting line long enough so that people could find me.  Yes, it's true: power corrupts. ;-)

With the start inching closer, I made my way to the starting area, waving my sign for all to see.  A group started to form, with a number of people introducing themselves, asking (more) questions, and simply biding their time until the speeches, music and other fanfare passed.  The wheelchair runners were off at 8:00 am, and the runners followed about 4 minutes later.

About 45 seconds after the starting gun, our group was across the line.  I was now pacing a marathon for the second time in my running life, and - quite honestly - did not know what to expect.

Miles 1-6
3 8:12
4 8:05
5-6 15:57

The course makes it a tad challenging to find a rhythm in the early going.  The combination of the crowd, an uphill first mile and several turns meant that I knew it'd be a slow mile.  I'd hoped to be behind by 15 seconds, but it was closer to 20.  I tried to head off any concerns by telling the group that we were exactly where I'd hoped we'd be (the first of numerous little white lies I'd spout throughout the day).  After the first mile, I settled into a groove, but I could feel myself running too fast.  I'd cruise along for a bit, check the  "average lap pace" and realize I was anywhere from 10-20+ seconds ahead of the goal 8:23 pace.

That said, I also knew that the second half had the biggest, longest hill on the course, and that it was pretty muggy and getting warmer.  In other words, it was a strategic decision to put a little bit of time "in the bank".  I only hoped not to burn anyone out, but the fact is that a pacer can't run the ideal race for every single aspiring "pacee".  So, I did the best I could.

Mile 7-Half
10-mile split - 1:22:43
HALF - 1:48:51

By mile 7, I seem to have found the pace groove.   There's a nice group around me, we're joking, everyone is in good spirits.  There's a triathlete running his first marathon, who's clearly a wise guy.  I was worried that he was talking too much, too soon. Same thing with a young Canadian guy who'd cornered me before the start.  When he was high-fiving the crowd in the early stages, I was not encouraged.  By mile 7, he'd fallen well behind us. 

I encouraged those around me drink early and often, as I can tell it's deceptively humid and muggy.  There's an unattractive highway out and back part of the course,which does yield one benefit for mid-pack runners: it allows us to see the leaders as they hammer their way along the course.  We cheered, continued to crack wise and focused.  Then we took a long but not too steep uphill back into town, and the group seemed to be holding together.  Some folks would drift away and come back.  The picture below may have been taken at around Mile 8, and appeared in the Burlington Free Press (at least online) on Monday.  Good thing I have the sign, or you might not know it was me.

At some point, RWOL forumate BetJet showed up alongside me, offering a cheerfully warm greeting.  Not long after, I noticed an ache developing in my left foot.  It got worse for a while, then just leveled off.  I warned the group at about Mile 10 that if it worsened, I'd have to drop out, since I couldn't risk fading and ruining their race.  I tried to alter my gait just enough to minimize the pain (on the outside of my left foot), and of course I wondered if it was due to running sans orthotics.

After a couple of miles, I just kept going, with the foot no better and no worse, and we hit the halfway point almost exactly where I'd hoped we would be, with an official split of 1:48:51.  So far, so good.

Miles 14-20
17-18 16:57
19 8:17
20 8:20

20-mile split 2:47:06

After a stretch near Lake Champlain and some beautiful homes (one fellow runner said, "You'd think they at least have the help out cheering for us."), we headed back towards the start/finish area along a congested bike path.  The pace seems to be just about right, and we prepare for the "Assault on Battery", with Taiko drummers and large crowds cheering us up the long hill.  I try to stay smooth and relaxed, reminding the troops to "run tall".  I can sense the group thinning behind me.

After Battery, we run north towards another winding neighborhood.  There are some slight hills, but regardless of the terrain, this is the toughest stretch of a marathon: a lot of ground covered; a lot yet left before the finish.  It's time to focus and help these folks meet their goals.

Miles 21-Finish 
21-22 17:22
23 8:18
24 8:30
25 8:19
26 8:11
0.2 1:47

The foot was achy, the group had thinned (with some runners having gone ahead), and stomach woes were percolating.  A stalwart of a runner named Mike, early 50's from the Albany area, was running stride for stride with me, and - most importantly - was able to keep talking comfortably (a sign that we wasn't working too hard). So, at the end of Mile 20, I handed him my pacer sign and hit a port-a-potty.  I took care of business, loosened my left shoe a bit, and then take off to catch back up, running about 7:00/mile pace to do it (which, interestingly, didn't feel any worse than 8:25+/-).

I caught the group, saw my friend Joe's girlfriend Kim struggling a bit, and tapped her on the shoulder to offer a word of encouragement. 

Mike stuck with me, and I urged him to go if he felt good.  As a result of giving back some time with the pit stop, I started to get a little nervous about cutting it too close, so upon hitting the 24-mile marker, I stepped it up just a bit and got back under pace.  At the Mile 25 marker, I called out to anyone within earshot that we have 15 seconds to spare, and I sped up again.  Vermont has a very cool results interface that provides data not usually found in the marathon results page.  One interesting statistic is that in the final 6 miles, I passed 100 runners, while 14 passed me.  Sounds about right for a pacer.

Finally, as we enter the park, I tried to get the crowd into it.  I waved the sign and pumped my arms.  At Mile 26, I slowed down to a jog, continued to work the crowd and tried to "pull" anyone in the vicinity across the line in under 3:40.  I see the clock turn past 3:40, but I know we're under.  I let a mini-wave of runners go by me, and I cruise across the finish line in 3:39:35 chip time (overall average pace 8:23).  As an aside, that 9 minutes faster than when I "raced" the same course 2 years earlier.  Other than my foot hurting and just wanting to drink lots of cool liquids, I felt pretty good.


Overall, Vermont City is a very well-organized race, but one criticism I would offer is that the finishing area is not well laid-out. Immediately after crossing the line, things get compressed quickly. The food lines don't move very quickly, and there's no obvious place to sit or get some rest.  I had trouble finding my drop bag, which delayed being able to find the kids, since I needed my phone to contact them. 

So, I milled about a bit, and enjoyed talking to a few people.  I saw some folks I know.  Others came up and thanked me for pacing, including one emotional young woman who started crying, repeating "I can't believe I did it" over and over.  I know the feeling and congratulated her, noting that her tears were a clear sign of proper mid-race hydration.  A couple more people found me, including one woman who'd gone ahead of the group after about Mile 10, running 3:33:xx.  She gave me a VERY warm hug and kiss.

Finally, the kids found me, and the sun was beating down.  We all had smoothies and gathered ourselves to check out of the hotel and head home. Before we could leave, though, a tan, lean older man started talking to our babysitter.  We weren't sure what he was saying at first, but it turns out that he had just run his marathon in 3:58, at AGE 73.  We chatted in a combination of English and my awful French for a bit, and I learned that his name is Albert Miclette, and that he holds virtually every Canadian 60+ age-group distance record, including 100 miles.  Mr. Miclette runs between 70 and 135 miles per week when training, and says that he's never injured.  Those are the types of people who inspire me to push harder and to enjoy every minute of being able to propel myself through this world on the power of my own two feet.  Oh yeah, he won his age group. ;-)

One we returned to the hotel, I took a long soak in Endurasoak while sipping an intense local smoked double porter micro-brew. That was nice.  The drive home was relatively easy, and the feeling of stepping outside of the bubble of self-absorption which is the usual training/racing routine was very satisfying.  I hope to continue to pace one or two events a year, while still pursuing my own marathon (and beyond?) goals.

Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron