Monday, March 21, 2011

Pass in the Grass - Tobacco Road Half Marathon Race Report

Better Late Than Never
I hate being late. Absolutely hate it. My alarm was set for 4:40AM which would have given me plenty of time to have a quick breakfast and be in the shuttle parking area by 6:00AM. The race was to start at 7:00AM. The shuttle trip was only 5 miles. Plenty of time, I told myself.

I woke up at 5:50AM and immediately went into full panic mode. My alarm had either not sounded, or I had slept right through it. Not sure which had happened, I cursed myself and my stupid alarm clock as I grabbed a large coffee and my race bag and slipped out of the house into the darkness.

I jetted down the interstate in my turbo charged angry toaster of a car, passing everything in sight, hoping none of the cars I whooshed past were unmarked state troopers. I made it to the entrance of the shuttle parking area at about 6:05AM. There was a long line of cars attempting to make the right turn onto the access road to the parking area (this should have been my first warning of what was to come). Luckily, I was coming from the opposite direction, so one light cycle later and I was headed into the parking lot.

The parking lot was surprisingly full and I was directed towards the far end of the lot. After parking, I broke into a light jog across the lot to the shuttle bus loading area. When I rounded the corner, I was greeted with a massive line of several hundred people waiting for the shuttle, and not one bus in sight. No worries, I thought. The pre-race packet had indicated there would be lots of 55 passenger busses for transport. I stepped into line, confident I would easily make it by 7:00AM. Oh how wrong I was...

One hour and ten minutes later, I stepped off the bus at the start-finish line of the Tobacco Road Half Marathon. The race organizers knew that there were transport problems, so had delayed the race start. The half marathon runners were still in the starting corral. I ran across the parking area and quickly checked my race bag. Then, my morning coffee hit like an atomic bomb in my colon. Great, the port-o-potties were all the way on the opposite side of the giant parking lot that served as the race start/finish area. I sprinted.

As I closed and latched the port-o-potty door, I heard the roar of the crowd sending off the half marathon. I had missed the start, and more importantly I had missed the chance to run with my 2:00 hour pace group which was being led by a great runner and an old friend, Gary Franks. Now, I was pissed.

By the time I made it to the starting line, the full marathoners were lined up and ready to go. I squeezed through their ranks to the front, stepped across the timing sensor and took off. I was nearly 6 minutes behind the half marathon field.

Pass in the Grass
It was odd running along the first mile or so almost by myself. I kept going around turns expected to see the pack in the distance, only to see more empty street. Finally, after what seemed like forever, I hit a long stretch of straight road where I could see the half marathon pack stretched out in front of me. I saw two or three pace group balloons bobbing among the crowd in the distance, but figured my group was long gone. In a mile or so, I caught the 2:40 pace group, but couldn't see the next pace group in the distance. I was still really pissed about missing the start and not being able to run with my pace group, so I decided I would catch them - even if it killed me.

I started passing runners - lots of runners. We were still on the secondary roads leading to the Tobacco Trail, so passing was easy. As we entered the Tobacco trail, the mass of runners squeezed onto the former railroad track and passing became much more difficult.

I honestly think that this race allowed too many entrants. 2500 runners funneled onto a trail the width of an old railroad bed was a recipe for frustration. I was already pissed. Now I was frustrated as well. Passing was very difficult, and simply maintaining a steady pace was nearly impossible. I was speeding up, slowing down, dodging left, dodging right, and all the while I kept passing runners. When I was blessed with an open space on the trail, I practically sprinted across it.

Eventually, I figured the best and most consistent way to pass while maintaining a semi-constant pace was to run on the very edge of the trail, with one foot down the slope of the ditch on the slippery pine straw and grass. In fact, as I caught the 2:30 and then the 2:20 pace group, the *only* way to pass was in the ditch since there was a mass of runners clustered around the pacer, blocking the entire trail. I'm lucky not to have tripped and fallen down the embankment into one of the scummy beaver ponds along the route.

Anger is a Gift
As I approached the turn around at mile 8, I saw Gary leading the 2:00 pace group coming back toward me. I yelled to Gary as he passed, and then saw another old friend from Nortel, Jim Wei running in the same group. They both yelled to me as I passed by. I was probably a mile or so behind them. I pushed harder.

Passing was getting tougher now. Not only because of the crowds, which were still terrible, but also because I was creeping into the faster runners, most of whom did not want to be passed, and some of whom made it intentionally difficult for me to pass.

Around mile 9 I arrived at the aid station with beer! Yuengling is not my favorite beer, but it tasted damn good, even if it was in a very little cup. The guy ahead of me grabbed a cup as well, and toasted me with a friendly "Cheers!" We chatted for a bit as we finished our beers on the run. Turns out he had been trying to catch the 2:00 pace group the whole race as well (again due to a port-o-potty delay). I was running a bit faster, so wished him luck and pulled away (I wish I had asked his name as he seemed like a great guy).

I was more determined than ever to catch the 2:00 pace group, but was in the densest part of the race field now, and was constantly blocked. I became very angry in a near road rage sort of way. I was dodging into the oncoming racers to pass and generally just being an arse. I'm not normally an angry person. In fact, I'm very easy going. The anger I was feeling was uncomfortable. An old saying drifted into my head - "Anger is a gift". Why was I so angry? I was supposed to be running for fun - for joy! The old saying meant that my anger should be righteous. A poorly organized half marathon that I was running for fun, definitely did not deserve the gift of my anger.

I drifted along for a bit and slowly my anger melted away. It was a beautiful, cool Spring morning. In fact, it was the first day of Spring. The trees and flowers were blooming and I was doing something that I loved - running.

As I left the trail for the last 3 miles of secondary paved roads, I ran with joy. I ran with abandon. I passed many more people, but this time for fun.

In the last mile, I could see the 2:00 pace group about a half mile ahead. I wouldn't be catching them. Amazingly, I wasn't really unhappy about this, just slightly disappointed at not being able to run with friends. I crossed the finish line 2 minutes after the 2:00 pace group.

I had started almost 6 minutes late, nearly dead last, and had passed about 1500 people, to finish in 1:56. And I was happy.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Revenge of Krampus - Umstead Trail Marathon Race Report

So, I had a plan. I would run as much of the Umstead Trail Marathon as was fun, as a sort of pre-race for the upcoming Tobacco Road Half Marathon which was two weeks later. I would treat my Umstead run as my long training run for the Tobacco Road Half. My plan was to bail out of the race around mile 15 which was conveniently close to the start/finish (easy couple of miles walking). Things didn't work out according to plan...

Pre Race
Three weeks prior to the race, I ran a 16 mile training run in Umstead that ended in a brutal attack by Krampus. Undeterred, I ran again the following week and completed the 16 miler with no problems, escaping from Krampus unscathed. Last week, I ran only about 7 miles, trying out my new RunAmoc trail shoes. I was super confident of running the 15 miles during the race - until the weekend before the race.

I was feeling very tired the Sunday of race week. Really weak and wiped out feeling. Hmm.. This wasn't a good sign. Monday, my throat was sore. Hopefully just a cold, I thought. By Wednesday, I was in agony. Every swallow felt like eating busted glass. Off to the doctor I went. You know it's bad when the doctor peers into your throat and goes "Ugh! That looks bad. Probably strep throat."

I headed home from the doctor that day with a prescription for Amoxicillin. I would have been depressed about missing the race, but I was too miserable to think about much besides the ice picks constantly jabbing into my throat. I downed two giant, pink, Amoxicillin horse pills, some pain killer, and went straight to bed at 4PM.

48 hours later on Friday, I could have kissed the discoverer of Amoxicillin. I felt completely healthy. I decided that if I felt good the morning of the race, I would head out to the race and run a few miles, stopping when I felt like it. Once again, I was blinded by hubris...

The Race
I truly love Umstead State Park. It's a mini 5579 acre wilderness surrounded by cites and suburbs. Driving to the race along several miles of dirt road brought back many memories of growing up "in the sticks".

I arrived early (of course) and sat in my car sorting out my gear bag for a bit. After a quick inventory, I headed into race headquarters (in the camp lodge) to check in and grab a quick snack.

The lodge was bustling with activity. I didn't see anyone I knew, so I just checked myself in at the registration table and headed to the food table.

I grabbed a banana and an excellent hot cup of tea and parked my lazy arse by the big stone fireplace.

I spent a bit of time chatting with some of the other racers by the fireplace and generally just relaxing, until about 10 minutes before the start, when one of the organizers requested everyone start moving to the starting line. I slipped on my Wolfpack RunAmocs and headed out to the start line.

Miles 1 - 8, The Fun Run
The race started on the bridal trails and quickly entered the single track hiking trails after about a mile and a half. I loved this part of any race. Everyone was bantering (at least in the back of the pack, where I like to run) and chatting, and generally having a great time. The park was open to the public during the race, so there were lots of non-racers on the bridal path. A few of them even joined into the pack and ran a short stretch with us.

One small asian lady trotted up to my side and asked what race we were running. I told her it was the Umstead Trail Marathon.

She looked surprised and asked "You run the whole race in the park?"

"Yes, the whole thing" I replied.

"Wow!" she said, "Good luck!"

I smiled and said "Thanks!" But looking back I should have taken her response more seriously.

Once we hit the single track, the chatter dropped off as concentration and foot placement is key to not busting your arse. I didn't do much passing during the single track miles, just ran my own pace and tried to enjoy my favorite part of the race. Right at mile 8 we emerged from the single track onto the bridal trails, where we would run the rest of the race.  This is the first point at which I thought about quitting. The fun part was behind me and there was 18 miles of bridal path stretching out ahead. I thought about it for a quarter mile or so, until I was at the actual fork in the course which would have taken me back to the start/finish line. Luckily there was an aid station at the fork, so I grabbed some water, took a quick physical assessment and quickly decided to continue to mile 15, the next opportunity to take a drop out.

Miles 8 - 15, The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Wheezing
OK, time to buckle down and run a sane pace so I can make it to mile 15, I thought. The next two miles were basically one big downhill followed by one big uphill. I locked in a nice 9:30min/mile pace and just cruised. I've run this portion of Umstead many times, so no real surprises. At the 10 mile aid station, just before the turn onto Turkey Creek Trail, I swallowed a couple of electrolyte tablets with my water and started the long hilly route out to the mile 15 aid station.

Turkey Creek Trail is a deceptively hard trail. It starts with a long downhill section to Turkey Creek, and once  you are nice and comfortable, kicks you in the guts with a seemingly never ending series of steep hills. It had been a couple of months since I  had last run this section and I had completely forgotten how hilly the last half of this section was. By mile 13 I was deep in the heart of the hills and suffering a bit. I was having some trouble with my breathing, which is unusual since I've never had trouble with my lungs before. I chalked it up to pollen and maybe some lingering effects of my strep infections. So, I simply plodded on.

The last mile or so before the 15 mile aid station is fairly level, so by the time I arrived I was feeling good again. I should have considered this when making my decision, but race day adrenaline has strange effects on your reasoning ability. I downed another electrolyte capsule with some water and opened one of my honey gels. These things seem to be the only sort of gel my stomach can tolerate on longs runs. I had been experimenting with them on my previous runs and felt confident they would work. I actually sat down and slowly finished my gel and sipped my water.

It was a beautiful day. Breezy. Warm. Cloudy. Great day for running. My running endorphins were in high gear.

I decided to continue...

Miles 15 - 20, Krampus' Revenge
I know what you are thinking...

"Scott, you are an idiot! You had strep 3 days prior the race! You probably still have strep! You were going to bail out at 15! You've only run about 40 miles in the past FOUR WEEKS! Haven't you learned anything from the mistakes you have made?!"

I can't argue. I freely admit that sometimes, I'm just plain dense. Actually, I prefer to think that I've inherited a good dose of the bull-headed stubbornness from my Scotch-Irish lineage. In short, I blame my father.

The honey and water sat well for the next couple of miles. But then I heard the faint clatter of cloven hooves trotting up behind me. I didn't even have to turn my head.

"My legs feel fine, Krampus" I wheezed. "Go away!"

"Yesss" hissed Krampus "but your center is bursting with hubris.."

Krampus quickly trotted up beside me, reached over with his hairy clawed hand, and grabbed my stomach. I felt his claws sink deeply into my guts. Then to add insult to his injury, Krampus savagely twisted his hand. My guts felt like they had been tied into a knot.

I didn't even have the time to respond before Krampus scampered away on the heels of another runner, cackling gleefully to himself. Miles 15-20 were a target rich environment for ole Krampus.

I spent the next 3 miles fighting off the urge to retch into the nearest ditch. I started walking up every hill. It seemed to help my stomach. I stopped counting the number of times other runners and course staff asked me if I was OK. I must have looked pretty green.

After what seemed like hours, I stumbled into the aid station at mile 20. A friend of a friend actually took this picture at that moment. I felt as green as my shirt.

Miles 20 - 26, Strong Work
At the mile 20 aid station, I gulped down as much water as I could stomach. Again, someone asked me if I was "OK". I was getting tired of this question, but glad the course folks were on top of the situation. That alone made me feel better. I totally lied and told them I was "OK". Had a quick conversation with one of the aid station workers about my RunAmoc shoes and then staggered on down the trail.

The next two miles were a haze of trees, runners, bikers, walkers, and cramps. I heard a lot of "Nice job, keep it up!" sort of comments, which in my dazed state seemed strange. I didn't feel like I was doing a good job at anything, other than cramping (thanks a lot, Krampus!).

Around mile 22, I made it to the final aid station. I grabbed two waters and actually sat down on the edge of the trail. Some sadist had designed the course with the biggest, gut busting hill of the park at miles 22 through 24. And my gut was already well and truly busted. While pondering this, one of the aid station workers asked me yet again, "Are you OK?". God bless the Umstead Trail Marathon course workers! They should be given their own special awards. If any of you read this, THANK YOU! Because now the question had true meaning to me. Was I really OK? Why was I doing this? I could run the two miles of gut busting hill, followed by two more miles of up hill slope to the finish or I could pull the tag from my racing bib and quit.

Then one of the random comments from a spectator on a mountain bike in the previous two miles drifted into my head. All he said was "Strong work!" as he pedaled past. Not "good work". Not "nice job". Not "good going". Strong work. If this was a question of strength, did I have it? I sat sipping my water, pondering this question.

Then, I stood up and headed down gut busting Cedar Ridge Trail. Strong work, I chanted to myself.

By now, I was walking - a lot. My guts refused to accept any pounding from running. So, I walked, even down hill. By the time I was near the bottom of Cedar Ridge, something shifted in my guts. Krampus' grip eased just a bit. I ran the last quarter mile down the hill. Then I ran the same quarter mile back UP the hill. Slowly, I began to run more than walk. By the time I made it back to the aid station, I was running again. I grabbed some water and a small cup of flat Coke (man, is that stuff good when your body needs some sugar!), downed it and trotted off down the trail for the last two miles.

In the last two miles I walked up the steepest part of two hills , but ran mostly. As I passed the mile 26 sign, I thought about kissing it, but couldn't muster the strength to cross the ditch and scramble up the bank to actually do that. I shuffled in to the finish in 5:47.

Post Race
My beautiful wife was waiting at the finish line as I crossed. She was all I could see. I had somehow run my very first marathon. One of the race workers tracked me down to give me my finishers pint glass. I drove home and promptly put it to good use.

See you next time, Krampus.