Monday, May 16, 2011

Muddering Through It: Tough Mudder/New England Race Report

On Saturday, May 7th, I had a new racing experience. As I should know by now, signing up for events months and months in advance can make such events seem like abstractions, like intriguing ideas that will never ripen into actual physical activities of the most challenging and uncomfortable order. Tough Mudder falls squarely into the "it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time" category.

For the uninitiated, Tough Mudder grew out of a Harvard Business school class project, which the professor found interesting, but critiqued the fact that the organizers would likely never be able to attract enough participants (about 500) to break even, much less turn a profit. Tough Mudder events now exist all over the country, and sell out regularly, with well over 10,000 people doing events on any given weekend. The idea behind Tough Mudder is to create a ridiculously challenging, but nonetheless surmountable, course, ostensibly under the auspices of "former British Special Forces". The races involve - of course - mud, along with challenging terrain, icy water hazards, and all manner of obstacles requiring one to go up, over, through or around, with a lot of effort.

For my part, bounding up and down a mud- and snow-covered mountain did not intimidate me. Climbing, balancing, jumping . . . no problem. Electrical shock?  Bring it.  But being immersed in near-freezing muddy water time and again required me to confront one of my own demons. Ever since my body started to adapt to high running mileage by getting leaner, I've had almost zero tolerance for cold water.  Turns out, that's a significant part of the Tough Mudder experience, especially in Vermont in early May.  So, while my relationship to cold water might not be a phobia, per se, it definitely qualifies as a strong aversion, and thus became the "thing" upon which I fixated as the Tough Mudder start approached.

I got up early and made the longer-than-expected drive to Mount Snow.  It was a mostly gray, cool morning, with the car thermometer reading between 38 and 46 degrees.  It was blustery, but didn't look like it would rain.  As one friend put it, one good thing about Tough Mudder is that the weather is basically irrelevant.   True enough.

I arrived early enough to park, take a few pictures and get into the "zone".  I strolled around, appreciating the clever-but-contrived signage.  I got my face and arm "marked" with my race number.  I saw all sorts of folks: military-types, runners, triathletes, costumed wing nuts, tall, short, fit-looking, not-so-fit-looking, well-geared, and minimally-dressed.  Hairstyles were colorful and interesting, with the dyed Mohawk perhaps the most favored look.  Many teams had matching uniforms, some more fanciful than others.

Seeking to stay warm, I lingered inside, then got into my racing clothes before checking my bag and making the 1/3-mile hike up to the starting area.  I was one of the first participants to line up, and we were the day's first wave of "Mudders".  I chatted with a few folks at the start, including a young Army guy who'd just run a 1:18 half-marathon off minimal training (hate him!) and a guy who operates an adventure race blog featuring Tough Mudder reviews.  I talked to two guys who are striving to do ALL Tough Mudder races around the country, including twice in one weekend sometimes.

The pre-race speech was a tad too canned for my taste.  The announcer read a prepared script, whipping us into a frenzy, and fomenting an atmosphere of this event being an expression of rogue courage which would somehow elevate us to a higher state of being.  He brandished a large poster of Osama Bin Laden, with a large red "X" through the photo, and some of the crowd started yelling, "USA, USA, USA!!!"  I found the demonstration somewhat distasteful, and while I appreciate that Tough Mudder raises money for the Wounded Warrior Project, the Bin Laden gesture seemed cheap, disrespectful and completely contrived.  We were there for our own sakes, to play in man-made obstacles with only minimal danger to ourselves.  This was semi-extreme recreation, not the sort of goal-based sacrifice that would make the world a better place (and analogizing that premise to our current international conflicts is a loaded exercises in itself).

And, so, after months of anticipation, the gun sounded and the masses dashed down the steep base of Mount Snow, some yelling like medieval warriors, before turning left and heading STRAIGHT UP the steep ski slopes for a mile and a half.

I was trying to find a rhythm, and it soon became clear to me that trying to run up a 30+% grade with alternating surfaces of slippery mud, grass, wet rock, snow and ice was to embark on a fool's errand.  Add to that the charming touch of being sprayed with snowmaking machines (meaning, thick mists of cold water), and I changed my slogging jogging gait to a power hike, letting a number of fellow Mudders go ahead of me.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally stopped climbing and started to confront the obstacles which supposedly set Tough Mudder apart from other endurance events and adventure races.

In all honesty, I cannot remember the particular order of the challenges/obstacles, but I certainly remember many of them, particularly those involving exposure to frigid water.  Here are some highlights:
  • Devil's Beard - After missing this obstacle because a wooded lateral trail section was poorly marked, several us had to run back UP the mountain before slithering under taut cargo nets across rugged mountain terrain.  I'd imagine that this is where the scraping of my body began in earnest
  • Boa Constrictor - Possibly the least appealing obstacle, involving two long tunnels which each dipped down into frigid muddy water, leaving barely enough room for one to turn one's head and keep breathing.  This was my first immersion, and I emerged from this obstacle with numb hands and feet, and with blood dripping down my knee and shin
  • Tires - basically running up through a series of tired, with an occasional mud pit making it interesting
  • "Ball Shrinker" - this water crossing involved a suspended tightrope which plunges the intrepid participant into chest-high water.  I asked the safety kayaker near me if he'd be kind enough to return my testicles to me if he saw them (though, we all know to where they retreated in an effort to survive)
  • "Kiss of Mud" - crawling under barbed wire wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared

  • "Hold Your Wood" - physically, this may have been the most challenging undertaking, as we had to grab a ~40-pound log and carry it up and then down an extremely steep pitch.  The footing was treacherous, and I had to "learn" how to fall safely, so that the log wouldn't land on me or roll down and take out any fellow competitors.  I commented to a fellow sufferer that after the cold water festivities, that was the only "wood" any of us would be holding.  Tossing that log back into the wood pile was a major relief.
  • Evil Kenevil - This turned out to be an easy up-&-over.
  • Spider Web - climbing cargo nets proved very manageable, and gave weary legs some much-needed rest
  • "Walk the Plank" - The mother of all Mudder obstacles, at least for me.  This involved climbing a rope up to a 15-foot platform, then plunging into what was billed as 35-degree water.  This was my moment of confronting and conquering many a personal demon.  I did it, but the effect of that water was truly a shock to my system.  I pulled myself out of the pond, and told the volunteers that "You all suck", with a big smile on my face.  I felt like the worst HAD to be over by that point.

  • Underwater Tunnels - This obstacle merely involved plunging through a muddy pond, under several progressively lower horizontal posts.  Not fun, but short.

  • Funky Monkey - Greased monkey bars make for good times, as I got through about 4 rungs before falling into the - you guessed it! - muddy water below
  • Berlin Wall - The only challenge which required a group effort to surmount.  I hooked up with three other guys, and we figured out how to get each other up and over.  It was a great mental, physical and social exercise.
  • Glacier - This involved climbing up a large heap of snow, and then descending down the hard, cold, rough downside.  Here I managed to pass the only woman who'd been ahead of me in our wave.  I don't usually care much, but it was nice not to get "chicked" in this particular testosterone-heavy endeavor.

I was passing plenty of others in the final stages, and ended up in a sort of "head-to-head" battle with a guy I'd seen since the beginning.  On the poetically-named "Turd's Nest", I passed him and did not see him again until after the finish.

The final few obstacles involved trudging through iced red water in the "Blood Bath", sliding down the mountain on wet plastic, hurdling some uncomfortably handled metal pipes, and then the two Tough Mudder signature finishing obstacles: "Fire Walker" and "Electroshock Therapy".  The fire segment was mostly a noxious stretch of blinding smoke.  The much-ballyhooed electric shock was little more than the sort of ticklish pinprick one would get from a novelty hand buzzer.

I charged through finishing chute alone, arms pumping while a few people cheered, with the clock reading 11:19:xx am, meaning I'd just taken nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes to go 10 measly miles.  I also heard - informally - that I was 10th overall in the heat, which I guess was a good thing.

I got my finisher's headband and race t-shirt, some food, a space blanket and lingered around waiting for others to finish.  I grabbed a Dos Equis, drank about two sips and tossed the rest.  I watched as people threw kegs at cardboard cutouts of celebrities.  And then I de-briefed briefly with a couple of other finishers before heading towards the gear check in an effort to get dry and warm.  The line was very long, as the later starters were checking in, and only a couple of us were seeking to get bags we'd checked earlier.  There was some confusion, and I just stood there, shivering, while the volunteers looked for my belongings.  Several aspiring participants started asking me questions, commenting on my bloody legs, seeking reassurance that it wasn't "so bad".  One young woman asked, "How do you feel?" A: "Tired." Q: "But happy, and glad you did it, right?" A: [after long pause] "I'm tired."  She seemed deflated.

Looking back on Tough Mudder, the life-timing of this event was apropos as it turned out, given that it fell  at the end of a very intense and difficult couple of weeks.  I'd been in a bit of a post-Boston funk, running less than I have in years.  I've been tired, somewhat listless, and quite preoccupied with the transition I'm making from married father of three to separated part-time "single" dad.  Other personal confusion and challenges have also abounded.  But Tough Mudder was a great opportunity to do something "different", something outside my athletic comfort zone, and to do be pleasantly surprised by doing it pretty well.  As usual, the life lessons and parallels are there for the taking.

One common question since May 7th has been, "Would you do it again?"  The answer for me is that I'd consider doing it in a warmer place and perhaps with a team of similarly-conditioned folks, since the camaraderie of the experience is one of the things which sets Tough Mudder apart from the typical running race experience.

Thanks for reading. - ESG

Monday, May 2, 2011

"More (or Less?) Than a Feeling": Boston 2011 Race Report

A goal properly set is halfway reached.
--Abraham Lincoln

It's probably only a tad ironic that the marathon which has taken me the least amount of time to run has resulted in my taking the longest amount of time to generate a race report.  There are a couple of reasons for this, the main one being that - two weeks removed from it - I still don't know how I feel about my performance in the 2011 Boston Marathon.  And, so, without further qualifying equivocation, here's the report.

After the debacle which was Boston 2010 (and my running year as a whole), I had trained for and expected to run a certain time in 2011.  That time was not to be.  My sub-3:05 goal slipped away in the Newton Hills, but rather than an epic blowup, I managed to contain the slowdown and finish my second Boston Marathon with a new PR of 3:08:48.   It's difficult to characterize the result in terms of good or bad, satisfying or disappointing.  It's all of those things - and more - but the experiences from the race (and from the weekend as a whole) are more significant than the final time on the clock.

With so much going on in my life at the moment, it's difficult to know where to begin this year's race report, but it may serve everyone's interests in just focusing on the race itself.  Suffice it to say that the weekend involved some personal highs and lows, as I reconnected with some friends, forged new friendships and struggled through the complicated dynamics of marital separation.


After some crazy scrambling with my friend Steve/TTM on Sunday night, where we raided a number of southern New Hampshire chain stores in search of a tarp on which to rest at Athlete's Village on Monday morning, we finally found one in the automotive section of Wal-Mart.  I had not set foot in a Wal-Mart in about a decade, and Sunday night was a bit of a freak show there.  Still, we acquired 160 square feet of vinyl protection, and ended up back at my place a bit after 10:00 p.m., later than either of us had hoped.

We crashed at about 11:00 and I had the alarm set for 4:00 a.m., so that we could be on the road and under the Boston Common in time to get on the first wave of buses leaving Boston for Hopkinton.  The drive went smoothly, and we found James and Kevin with no problem.  My other friend Steve was also supposed to meet us, but he left his phone in his car and never did find us among the assembled throng.

The ride to Hopkinton was fine, and I was calm and relaxed.  I had not looked at pacing spreadsheets, brought no pace band with me, and otherwise was not thinking about tackling 26.2 miles in a certain time.  Instead, I was thinking only about saving some energy early and settling into a sustainable sub-7:00/mile pace.

We arrived at Athlete's Village and set up our monstrously large tarp.  Friends and strangers kept finding us, claiming small swatches of dryness as we all waited for 10:00 am to roll around.  Everyone was fueling up, drinking, standing in bathroom lines, etc.  Seth found me, and we hung out with his Swedish friends for a while.  The wind was blowing, but the frenzy over the unprecedented tailwind had everyone feeling at peace with the weather.  Sunday's storms had blown over, and the sun was shining from a brilliant blue sky.

Time passed in fits and spurts, with some segments seeming long; other moments passed by at warp speed.  We all started getting our gear on, applying BodyGlide, eating, drinking, shedding layers.  The whole scene definitely had the feel of a religious gathering, with shared rituals co-existing peacefully with individual habits.

The time finally came to meet up with some friends who'd come on a charter bus, check the gear bags and head to the starting corrals.  I had a twinge of regret about the incompleteness of my last bathroom stop, but it turned out to be too late to do anything about it.  I also forgot to put my calf compression sleeves on, which makes a second critical omission in two consecutive Bostons (forgetting my HR monitor last year).

I found my way into an overflowing Corral #8, said good-bye to one of my friends who was several corrals ahead, waited for a bit, shed my long-sleeved shirt and then pushily made my way towards the front of the corral.  The energy was palpable as thousands of highly-trained, tapered runners endured their final moments of energy restraint.


Miles 1-5

1 - 7:18
2 - 7:00
3 - 6:55
4 - 6:54
5 - 6:57

The Boston Marathon boasts 115 years of distance running lore, staged on the same course year after year after year.  For all the great moments and triumphs, it's a course which has surely chewed up and spit out more runners than probably any other road race in the world.  As a sort of recreational runner's "All-Star" race with a pronounced downhill start, Boston tantalizes many an aspiring PR-seeker to go out too fast before paying dearly for such over-exuberance.  I wanted to go out "easy" and take 3 or so miles to settle in.

Other than the annoyance of navigating the crowd, things seemed to start well.  I felt an uncomfortable pang in my stomach, which I attributed to nerves and did my best to ignore.  I found a tangent along the left side of the course, weaving more than I should have, but less than I wanted to.

By the end of Mile 2, I had found my groove, and was feeling good about the pace, my effort and what lay ahead.  I tried to draw energy from the fans without expending any extra by high-fiving or otherwise hamming it up.  I stayed alert to those around me, especially during the aid stations, but very much sought to remain in my own space.

Miles 6-10

6 - 6:54
7 - 6:49
8 - 6:49
9 - 6:52
10 - 7:21*
*includes Garmin distance adjustment

I paid attention to my stride and form, being careful not to over-run the downhills.  It seemed like I was doing fine, and my heart rate stayed relatively low throughout this segment.  Somewhere after Mile 5, I passed a guy in a bodysuit animal costume.  I pulled up next to him and said with a grin, "I hate when costumed runners are so fast."  When I saw his face and heard him speak, I realized that he was from Japan, and he replied, "Oh, thank you.  You have beautiful form."  I'm guessing he didn't quite grasp what I'd just said, but I gladly accepted the compliment, knowing that if it wasn't a lie at that moment, it was likely to be soon enough.

With my stomach still a bit of a question mark, I took my first gel at about Mile 7, a Gu Roctane pineapple (no caffeine), chased by two cups of water.  I'd drunk only water at aid stations to this point, and fueling-wise, I seemed okay.

In about Mile 9, I saw a runner towering over the rest of the field.  I ran next to him and told him that his ability to move at that pace was very impressive.  I guessed that he was 6'8" or 6'9", but he told me that he's actually 6'11", and that he's never seen anyone taller in a marathon.  He said that there's nothing special about him running, as he's just putting one foot in front of the other just like the rest of us (except with about half as many strides per mile).

Up until Mile 10, the pace felt right and encouraging, such that I had a sense that it could be a stellar day.  Yet, for no obvious reason, Mile 10 was very difficult.  I suddenly felt labored and tight, and thought that my day may be coming to a premature end.  Still, unlike in marathons past, I stayed with it, kept my wits about me, and regrouped.

Miles 11-15

11 - 6:58
12 - 6:57
13 - 6:55
14 - 6:54
15 - 7:11

This was a strange segment for me, as I didn't feel great, but remained encouraged by the mile-by-mile splits.

The Wellesley women were MUCH more boisterous than I remembered from 2010, and the "Wall of Sound" greeted us a good half-mile before the screaming co-eds came into view.  Unlike last year, though, I stayed in the middle of the road, glanced at some of the scream tunnel signs and soaked in the energy and atmosphere.  I felt privileged to be running the Boston Marathon, to be treated like someone special for a day.  I also resolved to make sure I stayed positive for the second half of the race, regardless of what ended up happening.

I crossed the half-marathon mark exactly where I had hoped to be, at 1:31:31.  I simultaneously felt hopeful and concerned.  For reasons that I can't completely explain, I had a sense of foreboding, but I tried to discount it as the irrational fear of a runner attaining a new fitness level.

Mile 14 marked my second gel, a Carboom raspberry.  My stomach was not calm, and the GI melodrama went into full swing, as my stomach and I transitioned from a state of a detente of benign discomfort to possible full-blown disagreement, but each time I thought about making a pit stop, there'd be no port-a-potty, and when I did see one, the urge would temporarily subside.  I finally decided that I would stop, but there was a line.  So, the decision essentially made itself.  I was going to roll the digestive dice and see how long I could hang on.

Miles 16-21

16 - 6:57
17 - 7:20
18 - 7:13
19 - 7:27
20 - 7:29
21 - 7:56

At this point, I knew the hills were coming, and I was not sure what to expect exactly.  I was prepared to slow down, but wanted to feel like I was maintaining a pretty even effort. I stayed as steady as I could, but I knew that I wasn't going to be pulling off any late-race heroics.  I ground my way up the hills, and somewhere around Mile 17 or so, I felt a hand on my butt.  It was a rather incongruous sensation at that point in a marathon, and I was not feeling particularly flattered or amused by the attention.  I turned to see my friend Seth behind me, not a good sign.  Our exchange went kind of like this:
Me: What are you doing?!
Seth: Jogging, dude. I'm done.
Me: [With a somewhat disgusted glare of disbelief] I can't talk to you now.
Seth: Cool.  Go for it.

I spent the next mile or two feeling badly about having been such a jerk to my friend, but as a runner I knew Seth would understand.  Given that his goal was even more ambitious than mine, I knew he was in a bad place, but I realized that I was, as well.  I was very much trying to keep myself in the race mentally, to accept that marathons are not - at least at my mediocre level - all-or-nothing endeavors.  I still had plenty of "room" for a PR, and I knew that I had a good chance to break 3:10.

So, I rode out the hills as best I could, and figured that - if nothing else - I would hang in longer than I did last year.  Progress by degrees, rather than by leaps and bounds, became my new reality.

And, with no particular degree of pomp or circumstance, I was up and over Heartbreak Hill, slowing down, but still running.

Miles 22-Finish

22 - 7:28
23 - 7:36
24 - 7:31
25 - 7:45
26 - 7:29
0.2+ - 1:37 (6:24 pace)
Most of the hoopla surrounding the Boston Marathon is about getting in, known to runners as "qualifying".  The training, the careful selection of qualifying races, the new need to rush to register.  It's all about getting to the party.  And, while I'll readily admit to having gone through all of that myself, I've spent more time thinking about the end of the race, particularly those last 5+ miles when one has earned the opportunity to run through the streets of Boston as someone special for a day.  Last year, my greatest regret was that I death-marched the last 5+ miles in a cramp-riddled, depressive slog.  I was more war victim than celebrant.

Before this year's race, I vowed to run the last 5 miles strong and with a smile on my face.  As I came down from Newton, though, I realized that "strong" was subject to situational redefinition.  The promise to sport a smile, on the other hand, lay entirely within my control.

No math whiz on a good day, it's ironic that the last miles of a marathon put me in human calculator mode.  I was trying to figure out what it would take to hang on and break 3:10.  I had the WILL to run faster.  I believe I had the CAPACITY to do so.  But, in the critical moment, I lacked the ability to turn my legs over any faster than I did.  I knew I was slowing down, but I refused to stop.  I knew my dreams of a major marathon breakthrough were on the side of a road somewhere in the last few miles.  I also realized that I was slowing down to what used to be my goal pace.  In other words, my "bad day" used to be my "good day".  That meant - and means - that I have reached a new level as a runner.  And I took great solace in that late-race epiphany.  

My reality may not yet have caught up to my ambitions, but I was getting closer.  So, with that wonderful observation at the front of my fatigued consciousness, I took it all in.  I gave thumbs up and pumped my arms.  I smiled.  I patted struggling runners on the shoulder.  I beheld the Citgo sign.  I enjoyed the drunken college kids, the silly signs, the air horns.  I basically allowed myself to be part of this pulsing, throbbing, living mass of human energy.  And it was wonderful.

Mile 25 was a struggle.  I felt myself bending, but refused to break.  I would not stop.  I would not walk.  I would not grimace or frown or wallow in self-pitying notions of what might have been.

And, with a final push, I was through the underpass, quick right, quick left.  And then impossibly long final straightaway, the runner's equivalent of putting the 18th green at The Masters.  And I saw the time, and I knew that I could not only break 3:10, but 3:09, too.  And I did, with a 3:08:48 official time.


As usual in a marathon, I was glad to be D-O-N-E.  I felt mostly numb, but not shattered like I had the year before.  I did not cast murderous glances at runners in wheelchairs, didn't stumble my way while deliberating whether to seek medical attention myself.  Instead, I went through the post-finish receiving line, collected some water, snacks, my medal and a space blanket, and looked for the gear buses.  I went to designated meet-up area, where I saw friends who'd already finished, and waited for those who yet hadn't.

It's now May 2, and I still don't have a handle on how I feel about the way I ran in Boston.  26.2 miles yields great opportunity, but also provides a rather large platform for screwing up.  Did I run too fast in some of the early miles?  Did I blow my pre-race nutrition?  Did the stress of life, the chronic sleep deprivation and other worldly distractions detract from my ability to run to 100% of my fitness level?  I still don't know the answers to these and other related questions, but I do know that I am a new and improved runner.

And I hope that the lessons gleaned from the training cycle - discipline, persistence, focus - and the race - more persistence, flexibility, tenacity in the face of potential disappointment, joy in the moment - will carry over into my life.

After the race, a good friend of mine who is a lifelong endurance athlete now in his early 60's, wrote me the following:
We invest a lot of time and effort in trying to change a couple of minutes on race day, but when all is said and done, the time and effort changes us way more than the minutes do.
So true, Dave, so true.  Thus, with a nod to Dave and to President Lincoln as quoted at the start, I'll call Boston 2011 a qualified success, and an important stepping stone on the way to greater achievements, in running and in life.

Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Here We Go Again . . . Primed for Boston 2011

In what seems like both a blink of an eye and a geological epoch, we are just a few days away from the 115th running of the Boston Marathon.  Almost a year ago, I wilted on the historic course, crumbling under the weight of my father's death, pre-race illness and an inability to manage emotions and expectations.  I had wandered somewhat aimlessly through my training, logging the miles but not the quality; creating fitness, but not peaking when it mattered most.  About 3000 running miles - and a few serious life trials - later, I get a second chance.

Interestingly, I have been so focused and consumed by non-running life this year, that my race prep has been relegated to a serious back burner.  I have not stalked the weather, obsessed about what to wear, made a pace band or otherwise fretted about how I will execute next Monday.  Knowing that I averaged 75.6 miles per week during my pre-taper training, with more quality than ever before, ran my first official ultra race and a managed a new half-marathon PR seems to have liberated me from needing to micro-obsess over the details.

At this point, I need to try to rest, eat well and stay emotionally/psychologically strong and even-keeled.  Am I declaring a public goal? Yes, sub-3:05, but I hope to do even better than that by running smart early, and running with heart late.  The way I described it recently is that I'll take 3 miles to get to pace, cruise along for the next 17-18, and then hammer away with a big smile on my face for the final 5-6 miles, running tall, strong and happy through the streets of Boston, en route to a very different experience from a year ago.

Having a second chance at Boston has been an unexpected blessing, as I managed to re-qualify and to get myself registered despite the mad rush which caused the race to fill in an unprecedented 8 hours!  Of course, to get to the point where I expect to improve considerably on my prior effort has taken a ton of hard work, self-reflection and sacrifice.  One might be able to extract a life lesson from that, but I'll leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. ;-)

So, with this brief update, I'll likely be "off" the blogosphere until after the race.  As always, I'll post an unvarnished (and probably tragically under-edited) report shortly after the race.

Best of luck to all of my Boston running friends, and a special word of gratitude to those of you who have been there for me during this challenging period of my life.

Cheers, ESG

Monday, March 21, 2011

Equal Parts Personal & Record - New Bedford Half-Marathon Race Report

Sunday, March 20, 2011 set out to be perhaps the most important training day of the year. In the overall arc of a plan which presumably has vaulted me to a new level of fitness, the well-regarded New Bedford half-Marathon was to be a critical test. In addition, of course, to finding out what my body might be able to do, it seemed equally important to test my racing "spirit", one of the key areas on which I have focused my training in recent months.

Working with my coach, we settled on a goal time of ~1:27, which would represent a new personal record (PR) of over 1:45, but with a specific strategy designed to mete out my energy/effort and pace as if this had been a full marathon. Since the Boston Marathon is THE running goal of 2011 for me, I mostly bought into coach's notions. And, as is my practice, I'll spare those who wish not to wade through the details: finish time was 1:26:18, or 6:35/mile. On the whole, I'd call this race a smashingly successful breakthrough.


Confidence comes from many sources.  In sports, the primary predictor of game (or race) performance tends to be performance in practice or training.  I have never experienced the type and quality of training I have had leading up to this race.  I've managed to hit or surpass my coach's targets in terms of volume AND paces, while staying relatively healthy in the process.  Each successive hard or long (or hard AND long) workout has been a confidence-building block.  Still, I went into this race a bit nervous, as I'd not run a decent road race (by my definition) since my half-marathon PR at Bay State in October 2009 (yes, 2009!).

All training indicators told me that a 6:3x half-marathon pace was viable, but that number seemed intimidating.  Still, as the race approached, I got it in my head that I could break 1:27, meaning that I would have to run an average pace of 6:38/mile for 13.1 miles.

Life has been a whirlwind lately, and just getting to the starting line in New Bedford took some nimble logistical navigation.  With Mrs. ESG and our oldest daughter away, I was back at the house caring for the younger two kids.  We had a great time, but I had no backup to stay with them while I spent much of the day driving and running.  A friend came through for me, though, and I left the house at 7:00 am for the 2+-hour drive.

At least three running pals would be at New Bedford, my good real-life friend Steve and two ever-closer originally virtual friends, Troy and Seth.  The day shaped up nicely in terms of temperatures, with mid-30's in the morning rising to mid-40's. The wind would prove to be a bear throughout the day, but there's nothing to do about that.

I arrived early enough to get a good parking spot, pick up my bib number and relax before meeting up with Troy and Seth.  Seth had no idea what he might run (given some inconsistent training), and I may have successfully scared him into making sure I did not pass him late.  Troy wanted to break 1:30.  Steve is in a different league, seeking to dip under 1:18.  I also bumped into a top-notch area female runner, Christin, who was sort of "coming back" from sub-par winter training.  She's always been a couple of notches above me, but unless she was completely sandbagging, the gap may have momentarily narrowed.

Troy graciously endured my pre-warmup obsessing about how to dress for the conditions.  It was already about 40 degrees at 10:00 am, but the wind was cold.  I agonized about whether to wear a headband, arm sleeves and/or gloves, and Troy initially convinced me that I needed none of those things.  I regretted the decision immediately, though, and returned to get my gloves and a long-sleeve shirt to toss at the start.  After a productive port-a-potty stop, Troy and I were jogging around easily, sort of tracing the course backwards.  I needed to make one more stop, at a KFC, to finish the job, and Troy demurred when I offered to treat him to the "10-Piece-Bucket-for-$10" special Sunday-only offer.  It was a good thing, as I had no money on me. ;-)

We finished our warm-up with a couple of surges, and blew right past 7:00 and then 6:45 pace.  It was hard to tell how that would feel as a "race pace", but I liked the fact that my body wanted to run fast.  We got our place in the corrals, I saw and fist-bumped Steve and waited for the various Miss New Bedfords to sing us some patriotic songs.


At 10:59 AM, something like a gun or horn went off, and the mass of humanity with numbers on their chests began to move.  The first two miles are pretty flat, but the wind announced itself early and often.  I kept telling myself, "6:45 per mile for 3 miles . . . be patient . . . listen to your coach".

I could not believe how many people were up ahead of and around me.  With the exception of the Chicago and Boston marathons, I'd never found myself in such a large group of runners, especially as I've gotten faster.  I let go of any notion of where I might place and just settled into the right pace.  More than once in the first couple of miles, I had to dial it back.  That was a good sign.

Mile 3 brought the first climb of the day, which actually turned out to be a three-stage climb of sorts, with recovery in between.  I stayed steady and felt good about the effort/pace correlation.

Mile 1 - 6:43
Mile 2 - 6:44
Mile 3 - 6:40

Coach had wanted me to dole additional effort incrementally after that third mile, and I agreed in principle, but thought/hoped that it would be faster than what he proposed.  The wind was a bear, but I had my sights on dropping to a 6:35 pace and holding on as long as I could.  I very much stayed in a "one-mile-at-a-time" mental mode, which worked very well.  The flat/slight downhill sort of offset the wind, which was starting to get into my head in a literal way, as it was incredibly loud.  This apparent hypersensitivity may be due to my large pinnal endowment (i.e., I gots me some big-ass ears).  Still, it seemed that the effort and fair terrain were complementing each other well, and I settled into a faster pace at a lower heart rate.  I was also mindful of what my 10K split would be (see below).

Mile 4 - 6:37
Mile 5 - 6:32
Mile 6 -6:32
10K split - ~41:07
(unofficial 10K PR)

With half the race behind me, I took stock of how I felt.  My stomach was a tad rocky, so I chose to skip the planned gel.  It seemed too risky, and I calculated that a slight fade at the end would cost less time than a bathroom break.  The challenge was to remain focused and - for me - not panic if I saw my pace slow a bit in the face of the challenging headwind.  As the miles clicked by, I started to believe that this was going to be a wonderfully memorable race day.

As we headed towards and ran by the ocean, the wind went from tough to merciless.  Lovely view; crappy running conditions.  So, I forced myself to work hard to stay under 6:40 pace, knowing I'd "banked" a few seconds during earlier miles. My average HR for miles 7-10 was a metronomic 167, which tells me that I maintained effort, while the wind and terrain determined exactly what pace that effort would yield. I was also feeling parched, again likely thanks to the wind, so I took small swigs of water during the aid stations in these miles.

Mile 7 - 6:31
Mile 8 - 6:38
Mile 9 - 6:39
Mile 10- 6:31

I'd been waiting to get past Mile 10, and hit that mark almost spot on my "best-case-scenario" goal.  I was certainly working hard, but I was not struggling or suffering unduly.  Taking inventory, I realized that my left foot had been hurting for miles, likely from a shifting orthotic insert, and my stomach had begun that uncomfortable "sloshing" feeling, though no where near as badly as at the Holiday Lake 50K++ race.  It's time to address this via electrolyte supplements.

I've long advised new runners and first-time half-marathoners to pick a goal pace for the race, run it for 10 miles and then either hang on or speed up for the final 5K.  I was prepared to take my own advice.

Bracing for the final hill, which I thought came early in Mile 12 (meaning shortly after the 11-mile marker), I was still moving well.  We seemed to get a slight respite from the wind, which was a major blessing.  The hill came much later than I thought, but I kept pushing, knowing where I was and thinking (dreaming?) that sub-1:26 was possible.  I felt my hips straining up that hill, but it was only fatigue, not pain or weakness or injury.  I saw Troy's wife Marianne and her friend, who told me I looked great.  I was passing people by what seemed like the dozen, and when I crested the long, grinding slope, I started running as hard as I could.  With less than a half-mile left, I looked at my watch and knew that 1:25:xx was gone, so I ran fast but controlled, not wanting to hurt myself and ruin an otherwise glorious running day.

I saw the clock from a distance, with 1:26 as the first three digits, heard my friend Steve call my name and pushed through to the finish. I was glad to be done, and was thrilled with my time.  My watch read one second faster than official chip time, but I'll take my 1:26:18 with joy and pride.

Mile 11 - 6:30
Mile 12 - 6:24
Mile 13 - 6:18
0.1+ - 5:24/mile pace

So, 6:35 is now my actual (not goal) half-marathon pace, but - in all candor - I think I had more to give on this day, perhaps 60-90 seconds total if the wind had been less severe and I had been a bit more aggressive.  This 2:30 PR put me 261st overall and a humbling 63rd in the 40-49 age group.  So, I had a great day by my standards, but I'm mindful of being just another schmo in terms of New England runners in my age range.

In the finishing chute, I saw Christin, who was about 20 seconds ahead of me.  I then ran into my old coach Brian, who'd run a 1:18 after an 8-mile "warmup".  Steve beat his 1:18 goal by fractions of a second.  Troy smashed 1:30 with ease.

I was happy, but cold, tired, thirsty and needing a bathroom, so I went to my car, put some clothes on and started cooling down.  Seth (who ran a blazing 1:24:xx) miraculously tracked me down, and we had a nice easy cooldown and chat.  We're both pretty fired up about Boston.  We ran along part of the last mile of the course, and he still had his bib visible, so people were cheering for him/us.  We laughed quietly and said thanks.

I left New Bedford abruptly after the cooldown run, as I had to pick up Mrs. ESG and our oldest daughter at Logan Airport.

And, for all the significance of a race performance as reflected by some numbers on a digital clock, the day was much more significant for me on the personal front, than it was on account of any "record" I might have set.

We had a nice family afternoon/evening, punctuated later by what will surely be just one in a series of very difficult conversations between Mrs. ESG and me about what the future holds for us as a couple/family.  It was thus a day of wonderful highs and some lows, but it was the type of day I won't soon forget, and which I would not trade.  It may not have been an easy day in many respects, but Sunday, March 20, 2011 was the kind of day that constitutes "living" at its best.

As always, thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron

Monday, March 7, 2011

Entering a New Phase

Yesterday, Sunday March 6, 2011 marked the end of what my coach terms "Phase I: Aerobic Support Plus Mini-Speed Cycle" in advance of this year's Boston Marathon.  That means that "Phase II: Strength and Marathon-specific Sharpening" begins today.  Of course, I'm all-but duty-bound to draw a parallel between the transition of a marathon training cycle (this seems like a particularly good time to focus on "strength") and the far less clearly delineated "phases" of my life since February 3rd.  Interestingly, ironically and/or appropriately, Day 1 of Phase II is a scheduled rest day (at least from running).  The notion of needing rest, or - in a slightly different parlance - being still, is something I have pondered incessantly in recent weeks.

Since I'm firmly ensconced in a period of self-reflection as a means towards increased self-awareness and - ultimately - self-improvement, I have tried to find a way to draw strength from something outside of myself, my human relationships, my interests, etc.  I'm not generally comfortable with the vocabulary of faith, grace, or - yes - God, but I do know that I believe in something, while simultaneously not having the slightest clue how to tap into that belief in a way that gives me comfort, clarity or calm.  I don't "get" prayer and have never really been able to still myself through meditation.  Running certainly helps, but only to a point.

So, a week ago Saturday, I was in a bookstore with the kids.  I picked a book called, "Running the Spiritual Path: A Runner's Guide to Breathing, Meditating, and Exploring the Prayerful Dimension of the Sport," by Roger Joslin.  The dedicatory quote grabbed me instantly: 

Stillness is what creates love. Movement is what creates life.
To be still and still moving—this is everything.

This quote is attributed to Do Hyun Choe, who appears to be a master of some sort of martial art called Sugi.  I could not find much more information about him.

For my part, I seem to be all about movement, both physically and mentally, while harboring a deep-seated antipathy towards stillness in most any form.  So, following Choe's missive, the conditions of my existence may be reasonably conducive to “life”, but the pervasive lack of stillness is a chronic obstacle to “love”; Thus, stillness is one of the many things upon which I'm working.  However, as with all long-terms habits, such matters are not unlearned overnight.  One idea which keeps arising is yoga, which I should work into my life schedule, but which - unlike the last time I tried it - I need to treat as meditation, not cross-training.  I'm hoping to find the right class at the right time.

Well, enough about spirituality and stillness.  Back to what I know best: movement. Here's a recap of the past two weeks of training.

February 21-27
  • Monday - 6M easy/recovery
  • Tuesday - 10+M, with 4x(800m @ 5K, 400m @ 3K & 200m @ 1M pace)
  • Wednesday - AM: 10M; PM: 5M (both easy)
  • Thursday - 8+M easy
  • Friday - 12M, w/3x3K @ "threshold" pace, plus 1K at 5K pace
  • Saturday - 8M easy
  • Sunday -10M (aborted 20-miler due to family emergency)
TOTAL = 70+ miles (10 fewer than planned - boo!)

February 28 - March 6
  • Monday - 7M easy
  • Tuesday - 11M, with 4x200m @ 1M pace, 4x800m @ 5K pace, & 3x1200m @ 10K pace
  • Wednesday - 15+M
  • Thursday - 7M easy
  • Friday - 12+M, with 10x2 mins at 10K effort
  • Saturday - 9M, with 12x200m @ 1M pace
  • Sunday - 20+M (water only)
Total  =  82 miles (that's more like it)

I have done all of the distance-based speedwork on the indoor track, and continue to be pleasantly surprised about the consistency with which I've been hitting the target paces.  I realized last night that I got to Chicago eking out 60-ish miles per week with minimal quality, whereas I just completed another 80-mile week with 3 successful quality sessions.  That's extremely encouraging.

This upcoming week presents another challenging training block, with 75 miles scheduled on six running days, and three "quality" days, which include hill repeats on Tuesday, a reprise of a killer threshold session (3x15 mins at MP, MP-10 secs and HMP) on Friday, and a 20-miler on Sunday progressing down to goal marathon pace during the last 10 miles.

One final note on the family front.  Things seem to be stabilizing for the most part, but there remain moments of tension, awkwardness and difficulty.  Overall, though, the kids are doing better, and Mrs. ESG and I are finding a way to relate cordially and cooperatively, especially as far as the kids are concerned.

Thanks for reading. - ESG/Ron

Monday, February 21, 2011

Against the Wind

Against the wind
I'm still runnin' against the wind
I'm older now but still runnin' against the wind
Well I'm older now and still runnin'
Against the wind

- Bob Seger

Returning to the song-lyric-as-blog-post-framework, we turn this week to Mr. Bob Seger, rasping troubadour of what we'd now call the era of "classic rock".  This past week involved a whole lot of "runnin' against the wind", both literally and otherwise.

The post-ultra training schedule called for a recovery/cutback week 55 miles, on 6 days of running.  However, as is the norm during marathon training, life intervened, and we had to tweak our way to that mileage, which came out like this:
  • Monday - 30 mins recumbent bike, plus very light weights, stretching
  • Tuesday - Unscheduled rest day [back was hurting, hugely stressful day and was pressed for time]
  • Wednesday - 8M easy
  • Thursday - AM: 5M easy; PM: ~7M easy [mild temps]
  • Friday - 10.4M, with 10x1 min at half-marathon pace (calling that 6:45/mi right now); high 50's!
  • Saturday - 8+M easy, partly in driving winds and sudden whiteout snow squall
  • Sunday - 16.8M, involving some good hills and relentless headwinds for maybe 2/3 of the total
The good news, I managed the 55 miles, and ran every step outside, a nice accomplishment in mid-February.  My back feels better.  The less pleasant news is that the family unit (such as it is) is definitely going through a very difficult transitional time.  The separation is taking a significant toll on all of us, especially the older two kids.  Mrs. ESG and I are still figuring out how to relate to one another, especially within the context of co-parenting children who are clearly suffering under the weight of our adult decisions.  Things have - in no particular order - alternated between tense, explosive, cool, bitter, calm, terse, emotional, serious, etc.  "Loving", "forgiving", "compassionate", and similar ideals are not on the list.  And I consider myself as responsible as anyone for the dearth of good will.

By the weekend, though, it did seem like we might have been beginning to scratch out a modicum of equilibrium, starting to find what I've been referring to as our "new normal".  After a brief interaction tonight, though, I'm not so sure once again.  That said, the kids seem a bit better, and - frankly - that's what most matters to me.  My needs, my wants, my feelings, fall far down the hierarchy of concerns, at least right now.  Still, I feel that the space I've sought is starting to serve a purpose, as I have had time to reflect, look hard into the mirror and think about who I am, what I am called to do on this Earth and how I can be better a better father, and - really - a better man.

So, this next week calls for 79 miles, but of course that will have to be at least 80.  Perhaps my coach will scold me.  But, I have to be who I am, right? ;-)  And, I have to suffer the consequences of my decisions. An extra mile in a week shouldn't have resounding repercussions.  But what about some of the other choices - big and small - we make?

Thanks for reading. -ESG

Monday, February 14, 2011

My First Ultra & Other Tests of Fortitude: Holiday Lake 50K++ Race Report


As 2010 wound down, I reflected back upon what turned out to have been a difficult year.  My father died in April.  As far as the clock was concerned, the year brought one running-related disappointment after another.  My first year as my own boss was a bright spot, as was the continued growth and blossoming of my three children.  What proved to be most trying, however, was that fact that pre-existing fissures in my marriage grew larger.  As time passed, the relationship which I considered to be the bedrock of my existence grew more troubled and tenuous.  Mrs. ESG and I finally articulated the severity of our troubles and sought help.  The results were mixed, but things did not improve.  And, so, in what proved to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, I moved out of my house on February 3rd.  Telling the kids that I was going away for an undetermined period was more difficult than any other test I’ve faced.  At this point, I know not what the future holds, but am figuring out how to stand on my own two feet, confronting some of my own demons, and then taking stock of what lies ahead.

As some of my readers and other running friends know, one of my running goals in 2011 is to complete a 50-miler, hopefully for charity.  It seemed to me that a critical step towards being able to fulfill that goal would be to run a 50K race.  So I searched for a race that wasn’t too far, too hard or too close to Boston.  What I found was the Holiday Lake 50K++, with the two pluses referring to so-called “Horton Miles”, aka, bonus miles attributed to the Race director, ultra-endurance legend David Horton.

I signed up for the race in December, and started receiving informational e-mails from Dr. Horton, whose “day job” is Professor of Exercise Science at Liberty University, signed “In Christ”. A strangely endearing signoff for this cultural Jew.

The tone of Dr. Horton’s  e-mails and general vibe of the ultra scene signaled from the start that while this new pursuit still involved the same basic aim of propelling myself from one point to another as quickly as possible, I was no longer in the structured, highly marketed, competitive world of road racing.  As one person described it, Holiday Lake felt like adult “running camp”, with a camaraderie and a “we’re-all-in-this-together” spirit unlike anything I’d experienced in my own racing history.

As is my nature, I’d gathered as much information about Holiday Lake as I could find.  I read race reports, studied the course map, and reviewed prior years’ finishing times.  Then, taking all that into account, coupled with a sense of how my current training reflects my current fitness, I picked a respectable time goal: 4:45 (as in, 4 hours and 45 minutes).  That number came about through an alchemy of art and science, but it seemed like a good, reasonable goal.  I’d have been happy with anything under 5 hours.  I’d have been shocked if I’d broken 4:30.

In the days leading up to the race, I’d suffered under the weight of the recent life change.  My back was stiff and sore, thanks to an unhappy SI joint.  I was having more trouble than usual sleeping (which is saying a lot), and couldn’t seem to make myself eat enough (weighing in at an adult all-time low of 148lbs last week).  Add to that sleeping in a new place (and in a mediocre new bed), and it has been what we might call a rough spell for me personally.  Still, through it all, I managed to stick to most of my training schedule, and have been meeting or exceeding the goals on most of my quality workouts.

So, I sketched out a basic pacing strategy, tried to plan out my nutritional needs, and made my way to the Holiday Lake area for the pre-race briefing and pasta feed on Friday, February 11th.  I picked up my number, bib 317, which Dr. Horton had indicated in a prior e-mail was his prediction as to our finishing place.  I was only slightly amused.  The vibe was friendly, and before long I was happily ensconced among folks who felt like close friends.

Dr. Horton was holding court, clearly in his element.  He was very funny, rather irreverent, affecting a shtick which included benign misogynism (regularly implying that women cannot succeed at certain physical challenges, as a backhanded way to motivate them to try).  He poked fun at all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons, but it all seemed good-natured, and no one took it personally.  He even needled the impressive Jennifer Pharr-Davis, who smashed the women’s Appalachian Trail speed record by 30 full days in 2008, completing it in 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes.

After a fun yet relaxing Friday evening, I got my usual abbreviated pre-race sleep, rising at 4:30 Saturday to drink weak coffee and eat four Nature’s Path Frosted Blueberry Toaster Pastries, along with some other miscellaneous nutritional odds and ends.  Perhaps not the ideal pre-ultra-marathon breakfast, but I made due with what I’d brought to this remote part of the Commonwealth of Virginia.


By 5:55 am, I had checked in for the race at the Holiday Lake 4-H center, and lingered around inside, hoping to avoid losing too much energy trying to stay warm in the low-20-degree morning chill. 

This was also an unusual race for me in the sense that I felt very little self-imposed pressure.  I had no doubt that I would finish (barring injury, of course), but the usual time goals and placing concerns just weren’t there.  Maybe it was due to the fact that trail ultras (especially one’s first) are by nature unpredictable, or that other life events made the time inconsequential.  Or maybe it’s due to other factors which I cannot fully appreciate or explain.  Whatever the reason, it was refreshing to begin a race relatively relaxed.

At about 6:15, Dr. Horton called the runners to the start area.  After the umpteenth series of announcements and a final roll call of apparent no-shows, Dr. Horton led a prayer, and started the race at exactly 6:30 a.m.

Having talked with Holiday Lake veterans, I’d learned that after the 0.6-mile uphill road start, the trail is a narrow single-track, such that one may want to avoid getting boxed in.  In a questionable maneuver, I tore up the hill, noting at one point that I was running 7:15/mile pace uphill on cold legs at the start of a 33-mile race.  Deduct a few genius points here.  I reached the trail, and settled into a briskly manageable pace, but I didn’t really feel that great.  I followed the small circle of light cast by my headlamp, and just focused on finding a rhythm.  I passed some people.  More passed me.  The headlamp’s effectiveness waned in the twilight, which created a dream-like feeling.  Daylight slowly made its presence known, and I soon ran with a little more zeal, since I could actually see where I was going.

The first five miles had some ups and downs on narrow trails, but it was – as advertised – very runnable.  I blew past the first aid station at about Mile 4, not needing water or nutrition just then.  I took an occasional swig from my water bottle, crunching half-frozen slush out of the silicon nipple in the sub-freezing air.

As I settled into a comfortably hard pace, I tried to free my mind, letting go of all the heavy thoughts which have swirled around me like a black cloud.  I was in nature, moving briskly on my own power, surrounded by people who cherish something which I cherish.  It felt good.

In the vicinity of Mile 6, I slowly ate half a Clif Mojo Peanut Butter Pretzel bar, as I had been practicing during recent longer runs.  Small bites, thorough chewing, little sips of water.  So far, so good.

Just past Mile 6, we hit a small stream crossing.  I stepped through on my toe, but felt my right foot get wet.  I didn’t think much about it until we reached the much larger water crossing shortly before the end of Mile 7.  I was moving well, so I just ran through mid-shin-deep near-freezing water.  Time for my Smartwool socks to shine.  My Montrail Mountain Masochists and Zensah compression sleeves handled the wetness admirably, and the extra BodyGlide on my feet surely saved me from blistering.  At this point, there was a rather unfriendly, iPod-toting fellow running near me.  I tried to speak to him once or twice, but he completely ignored my presence.  I was pleased to pass him.

The aid stations were about 4 miles apart, stocked with ultra staples such as pretzels, potato chips (Pringles, in this case), M&Ms, powdered mini-doughnuts, Oreos and Coke, Mountain Dew, ginger ale, etc.  Volunteers were cheery and helpful, and the collective love of the ultra scene came through in the brisk forest air.

I continued to click off solid splits, staying at or under 8:30/mile for anything that did not involve too much uphill and/or stops at aid stations.  I would chat with runners and hang next to them briefly, either letting them go or forging ahead, depending on what pace felt “right”.  I did not speak to any other admitted first-time ultra runners, and found that most of the people around me were extremely experienced.  Many had done 100-milers, and virtually all of them seemed to thrive on doing multiple ultra races year-round.  Some of the folks even knew each other from having run together in prior races. One guy lamented the lack of uphills, extolling the virtues of his Pike's Peak Ascent (a half-marathon straight up to the summit of Pike's Peak).  And people call me crazy?

The terrain varied just enough to be interesting, consisting of some single-track through bare midwinter woods, some fire roads (with semi-frozen ruts making footing a bit tricky), as well as fields and sloping waterfront trail.  Only a couple of road crossings interrupted the serenity of the trail and so it was a treat for this New England boy to run in the woods for hours in mid-February.

As the miles ticked off, I realized I was likely on track with my presumed 8:30 pace prediction (at least after settling in after Mile 5).  As we hit a rather nice but tricky stretch of single-track, I found myself in reverie, just watching my foot plants so that I did not go tumbling down the hill to my right into the chilly waters of Holiday Lake.  I nearly soiled myself as I just about crashed into a streaking blur of neon yellow, a.k.a., the Brooks-sponsored leader Matt Woods tearing back towards me after having reversed direction at the turnaround.  I still had close to 2.5 miles to go to get there, and he was flying like a man on the run for his life.  Turns out, he smashed the course record by running 3:28.  Two years ago (when the trail was not covered in 8” of snow), the winner ran 3:50.

After about 15 miles of trail running, I had my closest call with going down, nearly tumbling – twice – down the wooden steps over the reservoir less than a third of a mile from the turnaround.  I grabbed the railings both times, saving myself from an ugly spill, took a deep breath and just focused on getting down in one piece.

I’d “guesstimated” that I’d reach the turnaround at about 2:15, and the clock said 2:16:xx as I found my drop bag.  I changed hats, ditched my headlamp, put on new gloves and took some more nutrition.  I’d thought about changing into dry socks, but my hands were still cold and I couldn’t deal with it.  I also grabbed my uber-bright orange and white Oakley Jawbone sunglasses, as the sun was up and I always prefer to have the eye protection from stray branches, trail debris and wind.  That turned out to be a good move, as I heard at least two dozen “nice glasses” along the way back.  That gave me a nice boost as the miles began to wear me down.

Having reversed direction, I was now one of the ones running towards the slower runners.  I caught up to the second place female, who is an accomplished ultra-runner who seemed to be having a rough day.  I tried to chat and run with her, but she was not very responsive, and suddenly took a hard face plant about a mile after the turnaround.  I made sure she was okay, and then went on my way.

While I had visions of possibly running an even split, I knew the odds were against that.  So, rather than get too pace-focused (as is my tendency), I just continued in a groove and found myself passing runners.  Some of the slower runners were giving us “place counts”.  I heard that I was somewhere in the mid-40’s at this point.  That was a pleasant surprise.

At some point, I saw a familiar shirt.  I called up ahead to a guy I thought was Jim (whom I'd met earlier), but turned out to be his good friend Doug.  We talked for a bit, caught up to another guy from Georgia who Doug knew, and Doug told me that anyone who runs with him gets a nickname.  He thus dubbed me “Ron Jeremy”.  I told him I was flattered, but should have said that I’d been called that by every woman I’d known since high school.  It’s tough to be that sharp-witted at Mile 20-something, though.

As much as I was enjoying the company, I left Doug and Georgia-boy behind.  I felt strong, and wanted to just stay in that zone where the 8:xx miles were clicking off with regularity.  I tried to continue eating and drinking water, but became concerned that I was not taking in enough calories.  On top of that concern, I felt an unpleasant gurgle in my stomach, which was beginning to slosh around like a half-empty tank of gas.  I reached the Mile 24 aid station and – finally – ditched my long sleeve shirt, leaving me in a sleeveless Under Armour top and Moeben arm warmers.  It felt like I was racing at last.

The marathon mark passed at about 3:49.  Not bad for a trail race with 6+ miles to go.

I was looking forward to the final aid station at Mile 29, knowing how close we would be.  I took some ginger ale for the first time in the race, but avoided anything solid.  At that point, though, the stomach woes ripened from discomfort to all-out distress, and about a mile later, I succumbed to the need for a pit stop.  It was painful to stop so late in the race, and even more so when three guys passed me after what seemed like minutes.  In other words, I’d just blown a nice lead.

Gathering myself, I trudged towards the pack of three.  Doug was in the lead, and he was moving well.  The other two struggled, and I closed the gap pretty quickly, passing them on a steep climb.  We would trade places for the next couple of miles, though one of them seemed like was going to be sick, and the other was warding off cramps.

With maybe two miles to go, I passed a couple more guys, including a very muscular young guy who’d been far ahead of me at the time of the turnaround.  At the same time, though, Doug was widening his gap.  The other two guys were near me.  I was – after all this time and distance – finally losing steam.  The final uphills were hard, but I welcomed the excuse to walk.  I got confused and briefly lost the trail – which was very well-marked – a couple of times.  At about Mile 30, I was ready for this running event to be over.

So, with what little physical, mental and emotional reserves I had left, I passed the two guys ahead of me, reached the road and knew that I had six-tenths of a downhill asphalt mile left to finish.  With the time I was losing in the final few miles, I thought sub-4:45 was out of reach, but when I looked at my watch, I realized I might still have a chance.  And so, at some time around 11:11 am on February 12, 2011, your faithful scribe pumped his arms and legs furiously, motoring down the road trying to beat an arbitrary and meaningless time goal.  The Garmin registered a “best pace” of . . . drum roll . . . 5:31/mile.

I tore through the finish line so hard, pumping my arms and yelling some version of "woo-hoo!", that Dr. Horton called, "It's okay. You can stop running now, Ron".  I approached him later and pointed out that he got my seed wrong, but only by a single digit.

Final official finishing time: 4:44:48, good for 31st place overall out of 320+ runners (308 finishers), and 6th in the Male 40-49 age group.

Runningwise, at least, 2011 is off to a good start.

  • Fueling is critical; underfueling is stupid
  • The ultra community is an amiable collection of wonderfully eccentric goofballs
  • Running on trails is far better for both body and spirit than is running on roads
  • Strength, determination and courage in running beget strength, determination and courage in life
  • I’m currently in far better running shape than I have ever been
  • I will surely do more ultras in the future, and (mostly) look forward to doing a 50-miler
  • I'd like to run Holiday Lake again in the future, and do so considerably faster
That's it for now.  Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron

Monday, January 31, 2011

Crockett, Tubbs and Me

This week's post title channels an all-too-significant part of my high school social life.  why? Because Crockett and Tubbs were the undercover drug team in the be-all-end-all show of the 1980's, Miami Vice.  Growing up near Miami, it was a big deal to me.  I'll admit somewhat abashedly that my high school senior picture involves a white suit, pink shirt and - yes - a thin white leather tie.  Hey, we all make fashion mistakes on our way to finding our own sense of personal style.  Right?

So, what's the connection?  Well, last week marked my second consecutive in the 80's, and - surprisingly - I seem to be functioning and responding rather well to the training stresses.  The last two weeks came out as follows:

Week of January 17 to January 23
  • Monday - 6 miles easy
  • Tuesday - 12 miles progression (last full progression mile in 6:12!)
  • Wednesday - 10 miles moderate
  • Thursday - AM: 5+ miles recovery; PM: 6+ miles recovery
  • Friday - 13 miles with a lame/aborted progression
  • Saturday - 9+ miles
  • Sunday - 22 miles
Total Mileage: 83.6 miles

Week of January 24 to January 30
  • Monday -Elliptical, weights, core
  • Tuesday - 12 miles, with 6 x 3 mins at 10K-5K pace
  • Wednesday - 15 miles "easy"
  • Thursday - 8.5 miles, easy
  • Friday - 10+ miles, progressing to half-marathon pace
  • Saturday - 15 miles, with 5 at marathon pace+10%
  • Sunday - 20+ miles "easy" (but very, very hilly)
Total Mileage: 82 miles

The first of these two weeks marks the end of my "base phase", and the idea is not to exceed that peak mileage during the next 10 pre-taper weeks, allowing the additional quality - which began last Tuesday - to serve as the new stressor.  While I'm certainly tired, I can't believe I'm in as good shape as I am, handlign the volume and bits of quality with much success.  In addition, I'm feeling strong in the core and upper body, only minimal hip soreness (and only intermittently) and am recovering well from harder efforts.

Last week's Friday>Saturday>Sunday sequence was unprecedented for me, and should serve me well as I prepare for the Holiday Lake 50++K on February 12th.  This will be my first time running an ultra-distance with a bib pinned to my shirt, and I'm nervously excited about the experience.  The course comes out to ~33.25 miles, and I have NO IDEA what a reasonable time/pace goal should be.  I am thinking (hoping?) that anything under 4:45 would be reasonably respectable, but - mostly - I'm looking forward to joining the fraternity of ultra-runners, around whom I seem to have spent a lot of time, and for whom I seem to have a natural affinity.  I cannot wait to be a bona fide part of their ranks.

On a non-running personal note, the rest of my life has not been easy of late, due to a number of reasons from which I will spare my dear reader(s).  Let's just say that running is one thing over which I have control, where the results of putting in effort/work are tangible, and which demands of me only what I'm willing to give it.

More later.  Someday.

Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Boston Buildup - Take 2 & Other Miscellany

Well, as often happens, life has gotten in the way, and it's been a couple of weeks since my last post.  Things have been busy at home, at work and in other areas.  Winter has finally decided to behave like it's normal self, so that's been a factor, too.


In terms of running, the week of January 3-January 9 ended up like this:
  • Monday (1/3) - XT
  • Tuesday - 6+M
  • Wednesday - 12.4M
  • Thursday -AM: 6+M easy; PM: 6+M easy
  • Friday -10+M
  • Saturday - 7+M, with 4x20 secs strides
  • Sunday - 12.65 sloooowwwww miles on snowy trails with my ultra-pal Nate
Total for the week = 64+ miles

The week of January 10-January 16 marked the first week of a "formal" - meaning fully planned - schedule (which of course ended up being tweaked).  It came out like this:
  • Monday (1/10) - 6M
  • Tuesday - 10+M, progression run
  • Wednesday - 10.3M (103 laps on 0.10-mile indoor track during massive snowstorm)
  • Thursday -AM: 6M recovery on TM; PM: 4M recovery on TM, plus weights and core
  • Friday - 8.3+M progression (at dusk, after waiting around court nearly the whole day)
  • Saturday - 10+M, easy
  • Sunday - ~19M on hilly, snowy, slippery, roads with a nasty headwind for about two-thirds of the run
Total for the week = 74+ miles

I've felt a few niggles in the outside of my hips, but I'm generally feeling smooth and strong, and have been able to take hills more powerfully than at any time in the past 8 or so months.  It also appears that my body continues to evolve, in my fifth year as a "runner".  My weight is consistently down about 4 pounds from this time last year, with the leanness seemingly accompanied by more muscle.  I feel lithe and strong, and while often tired, I sense that I'm capable of feats of endurance and strength unlike anything I've done before.  We'll simply have to wait and see if that's the case when it comes to perform in a race setting.


The next four weeks involve mileages of 83, 80, 77 and 77, with the week of February 7, 2011 including the Holiday Lake 50K++.  The "++" is the result of what some folks call "Horton Miles", bonus distance (at no extra charge!) named in honor of Holiday Lake Race Director and ultrarunning legend Dr. David Horton.  The preliminary intelligence I've gleaned about this race is that it's in the middle of nowhere but is a very runnable ultra course, consisting of two 16+-mile loops, with runners changing directions at the end of the loop (thus doing the same loop in reverse the second time).  Given its location in the western part of Virginia, the weather and conditions could be anywhere from 50 sunny degrees to sub-freezing with - like last year - half-a-foot or more of snow on the ground.  I'll try to gather more information about this race and preview it later.  I know, I know . . . you all can hardly wait.


Finally, I'll mention that I finished a must-read for any endurance athlete: Bill McKibben's Long Distance: Testing the Limits of Body and Spirit in a Year of Living Strenuously, [Amazon link] where one of the world's foremost  environmental thinkers recounts the year he dedicated himself to training like an elite/Olympic Nordic skier.  A thorough review may follow separately, but suffice it to say that while McKibben was prepared to test his physical limits, he had no idea - as the re-released title indicates - that his mental, emotional and spiritual strength would be subject to even greater rigors when his father confronted rapid-onset terminal cancer .  The book is full of thought-provoking reflections, and in particular eloquently conveys the solitary nature of the internal struggle/mission of the endurance athlete.  McKibben certainly "gets it", and I for one hope that his eloquence might help others understand what drives people like him (and me) to continue to push and push despite knowing that we'll never achieve any objective measure of glory, victory or elite status.

That's all for now.  thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise

This first post of 2011 involves looking back in order to be able to look forward.  The title (admittedly a tad more melancholy than necessary) is the name of a song by one of my new favorite artists, The Avett Brothers.  They make rocking bluesy alternative folk music that boasts some of the most poignant lyrics I've heard in ages.

For me, the song's title couplet essentially distills 2010/2011 into eight words.  Last year seemed to involve a head full of doubt.  Still, despite that chronic hindrance (and some physical ailments, too), I managed to log 2860+ miles, run five full marathons and help a multiple world champion ultrarunner break a 100-mile race course record in 90-degree temps.  I also met some amazing people, and established some close new friendships.  Still, I raced with a pervasive lack of confidence, fueled by GI woes, hip problems and - undeniably - a lack of mental toughness when it came time to pin on a numbered bib.

But I realize that the 55 miles per week which I averaged for the year are - as they say - "in the bank."  I gained racing experience, including up-and-personal observations of a world-class competitor.  I also managed to get through a major career change, the death of my father and other personal challenges.

The entire song (and album) is worth a listen (or a hundred), but here's the most running-specific quatrain as I ponder 2011:
There was a dream and one day I could see it
Like a bird in a cage I broke in and demanded that somebody free it
And there was a kid with a head full of doubt
So I’ll scream til I die and the last of those bad thoughts are finally out

So, with a 50+K, then Boston, then Tough Mudder New England, then a 50-Miler (TBD) and then - hopefully, running gods willing - a stab at a sub-3-hour marathon in the late fall (when the weather is more predictable than it tends to be, say, on Columbus Day weekend in Chicago) on the 2011 Running To-Do List, my plate is Thanksgiving Day full. Yet, I have to remind myself that I am still a relatively new (if not young) runner, with only three years of consistent mileage behind me, and clearly not laden with abundant natural talent or the most killer inborn racing instinct. 2011 thus brings a Road (and Trail?) Full of Promise.

Of course, many challenges and obstacles remain, but I have a strong sense that I am poised for a breakthrough year.  In terms of running, those breakthroughs will reflect on the clock.  In terms of life, we'll just have to wait and see.  With that in mind, the Avett Brothers offer this useful missive:

When you're loved by someone, you're never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it.

A Happy, Healthy and Successful (as defined on your own terms) New Year to all.

Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron