Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Chasing Shirts - Godiva Hard Climb Hill Race

The Winter that never was has given rise to the Spring that pretends it is Summer. It's hard to believe that Ryan and I have muddled through enough of the Godiva Winter Series events chasing the "beautiful shirt" to actually earn it, but somehow that's just what we've done. It wasn't easy either. I think I was either very sick, or very tired, or a combination of those two for most of the events, usually due to my own stupidity, but sometimes simply due to plain bad luck. Kids have a habit of bringing home lots of "viral gifts" from public school during the Winter. I think Ryan was either just recovering from or just catching some sort of illness for 3 of the runs, including the final "Hard Climb Hill Race".

Eternal Vernal Infernal Traversal
Hard Climb Hill Race, or as I have misnamed it, Hard Hill Infernal Traversal (H-HIT me with your best shot!), is an interesting event. There are 3 options for running the race: 3 miles, 7 miles, or 10 miles. The 3 mile out and back includes the hard climb, which, trust me, is definitely hard. An additional 4 mile out and back starts at the same spot as the 3 mile run. I didn't attempt the 4 mile section, so I don't know if it's hilly or not, but since nearly everything Godiva runs seems to include giant hills, I can only assume it was chock full of more infernal traversals. Run both sections and you get 7 miles. Feeling brave? Run the "hard climb" 3 mile section again for 10 miles of "fun" in the hills of Duke Forest.

Running to the starting area.
Unusually, Ryan and I arrived late to the race. I hate being late. For anything. Some people don't mind being late, but it really stresses me for some reason. Fortunately, as with all the Godiva events, checkin was quick and easy, so we had our bibs and were running through the forest towards the starting area in no time at all. The slight stress I had felt due to being late simply melted away.

When I originally planned to participate in the Winter Series it was mostly a means for me to add a few fun races to my Winter schedule, and perhaps expose Ryan to some true cross country racing, but in a relaxed atmosphere. Standing in the starting area, I realized that I had actually gotten to know quite a few Godiva people since starting the Winter Series. A very nice bonus.

The out and back nature of the races make this run a very social affair. At some point on the course you pass by everyone in the entire race. I really like this format. Cheering on the "fasties" along the route is just as fun as high-fiving your slower friends at the turn around point. The centralized start/finish location allowed us 3 milers to cheer both the 7 milers and the 10 milers across the finish line, while grazing on a great snack spread (whoever thought of the cinnamon twists and coffee is awesome!). Add in some balmy Spring temperatures and you have a near perfect morning of running. Well, aside from the hellish hills.

The kids were discussing their fartlek strategies.
Or maybe they were just talking about farts, I
couldn't quite hear.
The Race
Ryan and I started out nice and easy and pretty much kept that pace through the entire 3 miles. Ryan had been sick the day before with a fever and wasn't feeling very spunky, so I let him run his own slow pace. Luckily we spent nearly the entire 3 miles running with Shannon and Karen. They were both great with Ryan. I spent most of the time quizzing them on their upcoming 100 mile ultra marathons. I still can't wrap my head around that. 100 miles! Simply amazing!

Approaching the finish of the 3 miler, Ryan finally gave out. He could see the finish, but just didn't have the energy for a sprint. That is, until I goaded him. Then, suddenly he was full of sprinting energy! I think he really enjoyed the small final sprint, mostly because he successfully blocked his old man's passing attempts at the finish line. I took pity on his poor health and let him win, this time.

Honestly, I really am a very slow runner. My left knee is full of hamburger and is held together with fishing twine and gristle. As such, it can only turn over at turtle like cadences. Ryan on the other hand, has the advantage of quickness and extreme youth on his side, which means in a dead sprint he wins every time. Next year, I'm switching tactics to the tried and true "old age and treachery" approach. It's my only hope.

As usual, all of the Godiva folks were great with Ryan, and there were even other kids at this event that he spent some time playing with afterwards. He told me in the car on the way home that he "had a great time!" I can't ask for more than that.

Winter Series Epilogue
Somehow, over the course of the Winter, the series turned into something much more than chasing shirts and having fun. The racing itself faded in importance, overshadowed by the growing bonds of a father and son. The true gifts of the Godiva Winter Series are the priceless memories - both mine, and Ryan's.

Thanks Godiva.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Domestic Abuse - Hanging Rock Trail Race 12K

Trail running is hard. Beautifully, wonderfully, difficult. Fortunately, it can also be immediately and immensely gratifying. All it takes is that one small stretch of trail where everything just clicks, where your entire body feels like it's dancing with the forest, and you are hooked.

From that point on, you become an addict. Roads become boring. Pavement becomes the price you pay for the reward of the trail.

My name is Scott, and I've been a trail addict for about one and a half years. Like all addicts, I love to share my high with others. My goal is to pull my lovely wife, Sherri, deeply into my addiction. Hanging Rock Trail 12K was her first real hit.

Being a running family can be difficult, especially if both parents are running a race on the same day. When the alarm goes off at 4:15AM, and you have to shuffle sleepy kids into the car by 5:30AM for the long ride to the grandparent's house, you begin second guessing all of the madness. But massive doses of coffee help.

Hanging Rock State Park is familiar ground. Sherri and I have hiked there many times. I also spent about half of my childhood in a house not more than 25 miles away. I've camped, hiked, swam in the mountain top lake, and climbed (legal and otherwise) all over Hanging Rock State Park. But I've never really ran there. Time for Sherri and I to change that.

Sherri's only previous trail racing experience was the Pilot Mountain Challenge 5K. Not a big enough hit to induce the cherry high. The Pilot Mountain Challenge suffering to sweetness ratio is simply tilted too far toward misery to form any lasting addiction. I thought Hanging Rock might be a bit sweeter. I was right. And wrong.

Good Drugs
It's been several years since I last hiked the Moore's Knob Trail. I had vague memories of a really nasty, steep trail going up the mountain, followed by a steep, nasty ditch going down the other side.

We're off! But where the heck are we going?

Turns out  the part I remember was only about the last half of the race. The first half was on Wolf Rock Trail. Maybe I should have actually taken a look at the course map and elevation profile before we ran this monster.

The route is shaped like a foot kicking a big rock.
Totally appropriate.

The race winds around the park, all the way to the far side of the lake.
But we have to go up and down that big mountain in the distance.

We finally hit the gravel path leading to the Wolf Rock trailhead. Steep!

I spent a lot of time playing paparazzi for Sherri (left) and Iris.
Sprinting ahead to take pictures was tough.
Good thing they had these convenient benches
where I could grab a quick nap. Just kidding.
It was either sit down or fall down after
sprinting up the big gravel hill.

After a bit of pavement and groomed trail to get to the actual trailhead, the next few miles of Wolf Rock Trail were fun single track. Sherri is a quick study and generally pretty light on her feet, so she cruised along Wolf Rock Trail without any difficulty.

Rocks, roots, and fun! Josh ran through this stuff barefoot!

Bad Drugs
Coming to the end of Wolf Rock Trail, Sherri began to feel the familiar patellar femoral (runner's knee) pain that she's been battling for the past month or so. I think the steepness of some of the descents really took a toll on her knees.

Sherri's knees go kaput around mile 2. Profile courtesy of Iris.

By the time we made it to the creek crossing to head up the endless stone staircase to Moore's Knob, she was in some serious pain. Both knees were stiffening and running down hill was misery.

Fortunately, there would be no downhill running for the next 1.5 miles or so. Actually, there would be very little running at all.

Perfect place for a trail race!

These never seemed to end.

Unsafe! Someone inform the park rangers!

After what seemed like an hour, and about two dozen false summits, we finally made it to the top. But after a short run through some nice rocks, trees, and briar patches, we headed down the long steep trail back to the lake, and the finish. The trail seemed even safer on the way down.

New Addictions
The trail down off Moore's Knob wasn't kind to Sherri's aching knees, but Hanging Rock had one more hard lesson to teach before the finish. Running along a flat stretch of trail back near the lake, the fatigue and pain finally blinded her to the small root that sent her slamming into the ground with a thud.

But did that stop Sherri? Hell no! She was up and running again in 10 seconds. Smiling and laughing about it even though I think it was a really hard fall.

Sherri crossed the line, in pain, but smiling. She even won 2nd place in her age group!

I'll never tell her there were only 3 women
in her age group.

The next day, Sherri was hobbling around the house on very stiff legs. Strangely, she's already asked me to sign her up for Owl's Roost Rumble. Addiction is an ugly thing.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Will Run for Pi

In celebration of Pi Day, I went into full irrational mode and created my own Pi Day race for the 12athon. But in a fit of transcendental exuberance, I cranked the mileage up to 3pi and decided to run the distance in 30pi minutes, if possible.

It's been just a bit over 2 weeks since the Umstead Trail Marathon, and it's been a slow recovery for me. In fact, my first post-marathon 4 mile run was a full 8 days after the marathon, and it was a slow run on a razor's edge. One small mistake in my running form, and ninjas would spring from the trees, attacking my right leg with acid covered ice picks and rubber hoses. The tree ninjas in my town don't mess around.

Undaunted by the ninja ambushes, I ran again the next day, pushing the mileage to 5 miles during a workday lunch time run. Fortunately, there are no suburban tree ninjas allowed in the upper class neighborhoods that my lunchtime route winds through (against zoning laws!), so I completed the run suffering only the usual disdainful, snooty looks of disapproval from the baby-stroller driving suburban moms on the greenway trail. Actually, I would prefer the ninjas.

Surviving both the tree ninja attacks and the baleful glares of the snooty suburban stroller moms, I felt confident I could finish my planned 3pi run. I mapped out the route in Umstead and hoped I could somehow get lucky with the timing.

Pi A La Mode
Of course today just had to be the warmest day thus far this year. My car thermometer indicated 80F as I pulled into the Umstead parking area. Am I acclimated to anything even resembling warm temps? Not a chance. But this is for Pi! Full steam ahead!

I co-opted a coworker (Hi Jon!) with a Garmin GPS watch to help with the pacing, and set off on the 3pi run. Actually, Jon is training for a Half Ironman in a few weeks time, so he's in great shape and needed to run about an hour and a half today anyway.

Two miles into the run and I knew it was going to be a tough day for me. Sweat was pouring down my face and I had that weird tingly feeling in the top of my head that tells me that I'm overheating. I would have paid real money for a bowl of ice cream.

Luckily there was a slight breeze and a good bit of shade on the route, so I managed to not melt down until almost the very end of the run. Unfortunately, the last mile of the run is almost entirely uphill, and a steep hill at that. I slowed to a crawl and watched as Jon relentlessly pulled away up the hill (I had told him not to wait on me since he had real training to accomplish for a real triathlon). I had finally overheated. Slowly, painfully, I shuffled my way up the hill to the 9.42 mile point I had mapped on the route.

But somehow, with a delirious, drunken, stumbling sprint, and just the right amount of walking at the last moment (glad I wore my watch!), I managed to hit the 3pi mile point in exactly 1:34:20. 3pi miles in 30pi minutes! I am truly a geek.

Pie A La Lunch
And as a reward for my geeky awesomeness?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Defeat of Krampus - Umstead Trail Marathon 2012

Not having a race goal is strange. But this year at the Umstead Trail Marathon, I intentionally avoided making any real, or imaginary goals. I didn't need or want the pressure. Having flushed myself down the metaphorical toilet 3 weeks prior to the race, I didn't really know if I could even finish the race, much less meet any of my usual vague, nonsense goals. So, I resolved to simply wing it during the entire event. I hoped I had enough latent fitness after Uwharrie to finish, and perhaps even finish ahead of my bonktacular 5:49 finish time of the previous year. However, I tried to avoid making even that a real goal.

Not that I didn't want to finish. I really coveted the finisher's pint glass. More than that though, I coveted the finish itself, and a shot at redemption from last year's miserable race. But redemption isn't quite the right word. Revenge seemed more appropriate. The problem was that I was in no shape for finishing with a good time, much less for serving up a cold, heaping dish of revenge. But race day does funny things to your brain. Everything seems possible and wisdom is easily tossed aside.

The Tick Mob was out in force at Umstead.

Chatting with Josh (the barefoot) and Ash (the shoe-ru) in the starting corral, I heard the first whispers of my nemesis, Krampus.

"You have a chanssse at 4 hourssss.. Eazzzzy...." purred Krampus.

Nemesis is such a totally appropriate description of my relationship with Krampus. As Brick Top, a character from one of my all time favorite movies, defines it:

"Do you know what nemesis mean? A righteous infliction of retribution, manifested by an appropriate agent."

Yes, Krampus is truly a righteous infliction of retribution. He's the payback for all my stupid decisions, in both training and racing. He's the justified manifestation of the regular cramps and injury I inflict upon myself through my own stubborn stupidity. He is my running nemesis.

In the excitement of the moment in the starting corral, under the seductive influence of Krampus' slippery logic, I broke down, and verbally committed to a finish "somewhere between 4 and 5 hours."

So, when the thought of a sub-4 hour finish slithered through my endorphin soaked brain in the starting corral, I had two reactions. First, I did the quick mental calculations of what the 10-10-6.2 splits would need to be to achieve a 4 hour finish. Then, as the cold fear of that math swept through me, I quickly denied that I had done such a calculation. But I couldn't flush the thought out of my mind, even though I knew attempting a 4 hour marathon in Umstead in my state of fitness would be an utter disaster. The battle against Krampus had begun.

Miles 1 to 10 - Bread from Stones
Trotting away from the starting line, I buried the thoughts of an impossible 4 hour finish in the back of my mind and just concentrated on the joy of the moment. Umstead is a special race and I try to appreciate that fact, even though this is only my second year. The Godivans seems to have mastered the art of balancing organization, chaos, and atmosphere. Add that to the tough and beautiful Umstead course, seemingly littered with awesome volunteers, and you have a very special race indeed. I'm not the only one who feels this way either. Umstead Marathon is just magical and I can't describe exactly why. It's something you have to experience to appreciate. But once it grabs you, be prepared to return year after year for a feast of "bread from stones".

I'll be honest. The first 10 miles of Umstead are my absolute favorite. The mixture of bridal path and single track trail is ridiculously fun. Last year I blazed through those 10 miles because I intended to drop from the race after 15 miles. This year I blazed through those same miles because I couldn't help myself. The real difference this year is that I never felt like I was pushing the pace. I just relaxed and flowed along the trail at the pace my body seemed to dictate. Of course at Umstead, that means I was going too fast.

Photo courtesy of Shannon Johnstone.
Entering the Company Mill single track trail, I settled into what I thought was a decent pace. Amazingly, Ash, my running companion to that point, shot down the trail like an antelope and was out of sight in a couple of minutes. He would go on to his own excellent sub-4 hour finish. But for that moment, I could only envy the way he effortlessly slide through the trail traffic and right out of sight.

After what seemed like only a few minutes I found myself on the "Devil's Spine", successfully hopping past the "Tree of Death". Moments later, after a brief, but steep climb I hit the first aid station. AC and Harold Hill were both there jeering and cheering me on. "You can still catch the leaders!" taunted AC. "Come on, let's go, Slippers!" cheered Harold. Nothing like some good natured smack talking from guys you know to put a smile on your face.

I cruised down the hill and entered the Sycamore single track trail, immediately striking up a conversation with Shannen McGinness, who I discovered was running his very first marathon. And I thought I was crazy for accidentally running Umstead as my first marathon. To intentionally run Umstead as your first is whole new level of madness! My kind of guy apparently. Shannen and I ran together on and off again all the way out to about mile 13. He went on to a solid 5 hour finish for his first marathon. Good on ya, Shannen! Tip a pint for me!

Leaving the second aid station, the rain started coming down pretty hard. By the time I started down the second half of Sycamore, the trail was one giant mud puddle. For a few brief minutes I tried to keep my RunAmocs dry, but inevitably I slipped into a puddle and soaked them both. After that, I just splashed down the trail like some innocent, grinning 5 year old kid. Awesome! That was my favorite mile of the entire race.

Leaving the single track was kind of a sad moment. I had managed to catch up to Bob Sites, who was running the marathon as a training run in preparation for the Umstead 100 miler (true insanity!) and we chatted about strategy and smart running at Umstead. That conversation probably saved me from some very stupid running later on as I was already on pace for a finish of a bit over 4 hours. I needed to slow down and to start walking some of the steeper hills.

Running past the 10 mile marker, I was just a handfull of minutes off of my starting line calculations for a 4 hour finish.

"Exxxxcellent!!" hissed Krampus. "Pussshhh harder..."

"I'm here to have fun, not get hurt. Go bother someone else!" I pleaded.

"Weaknessss!" sniffed Krampus.

Krampus knows me. I pushed harder.

Miles 10 to 18 - The Training Will Save You
Leaving the aid station just past the 10 mile point, I was pushing a bit harder than I wanted, but still felt relaxed. I had hooked up with Shannen again and we gabbed away the next few miles and entertained ourselves by counting off the top placed runners passing us on their way back out the Turkey Creek trail. Once I hit the hills on the Northern end of Turkey Creek Trail, I decided that I wouldn't look at my watch again. Seeing the time at the 10 mile mark had caused me to surge a bit and I knew I would pay the price for that later.

Unfortunately, as I left the aid station at the race midpoint, I couldn't resist glancing quickly at my watch. I was still only a handful of minutes off of a 4 hour marathon pace.

"Don't worry. The training will ssssave you. Pushhh harder...." coaxed Krampus.

"Hell yeah! I have trained hard!" I thought.

I had actually trained quite a bit for Umstead this year. I had badly overtrained in fact, but I felt good, so no need to let that inconvenient fact enter my mind. I was still feeling very fresh after 13+ miles, so I pushed the pace again.

For anyone who knows Turkey Creek Trail, pushing through the Northern end of that trail is just plain stupid. It's actually the hardest part of the entire Umstead Marathon course (in my opinion), and you have to do it twice (out and then back).

But apparently, my training did indeed help me. I pushed through to the aid station past mile 15 and then cranked back down Turkey Creek towards the race mid point aid station, now at mile 17.3 on my journey towards the finish.

Last year, after deciding to continue running instead of quitting  at mile 15, as was my pre-race plan, I barely made it to the 17 mile aid station before my stomach cramped, and I bonked hard. This year, I blew through feeling great. A bit of water and a little snack and I was happily on my way. In fact, I cruised right through the remaining hills and onto the flat, two-bridges section separating the northern portion of Turkey Creek trail from the southern section.

It was there, on the lone flat section of the entire marathon, that my over enthusiastic pushing caught up with me.

I heard the clatter of cloven hooves skittering along the trail behind me.

"I'm doing it Krampus!" I breathed heavily. "I'm pushing, and it's working!" I gushed.

Krampus didn't respond at all. He simply took one scaly claw and jabbed it deeply into the center of my right calf.

"Son of a ...!!!!" I howled. "You back stabbing piece of ..!!!!"

 But just as quickly as he had appeared, Krampus vanished with a cackle. I thought I heard him hiss "Hubrisssss!!!!" as he disappeared.

Miles 18 to 20 - My Kingdom for a Horse
I immediately slowed. Something felt really tight and painful in the center of my calf. Not a cramp, but something more sharp, and scary. Strangely enough, once I slowed, the pain went away completely. But as soon as I pushed the pace, it returned with a searing vengeance. So, I trotted slowly back toward the 20 mile aid station feeling very sorry for myself. A few guys passed me and I grunted to one of them about how glad I would be to get off this f'n trail.

"Easy slope up to the 20 mile aid station from here!" he encouraged me.

I wanted to chuck a rock at the back of his head as he sped away from me up the "easy slope" that seemed to be sucking the life from my very bones.

I ground into the 20 mile aid station feeling depressed and tired. Fortunately, this aid station had Oreos, orange slices, and bananas. I gobbled down an Orea, two giant orange slices, and a big chunk of banana and continued my plodding.

Miles 20 to 26.2 - Coming Full Circle
Within a couple of minutes, my mood improved. I must have been really low on blood sugar, because by the time I made it to mile 21 I was feeling great. AC cruised up on his support bike and offered up anything he was carrying, along with some stuff he really didn't have. Unfortunately, I only wanted the shot of booze he jokingly offered me since my stomach was already full of aid station goodies. I was feeling tired, but overall my legs were working well. I still couldn't push the pace without feeling the strange calf pain, but that no longer bothered me. My mental funk had cleared and I was running happy again. Pace didn't matter. Finish time didn't matter. I just wanted to enjoy my remaining miles through Umstead. I felt a bit guilty about the pouting, pity party I had held for myself back on the end of Turkey Creek. I decided to enjoy every last step of the race to make up for that bit of childish stupidity.

Making it up the big hill to the Cedar Ridge aid station, I was very happy to see that the volunteer crew had poured dozens of cups of flat Coke. I immediately downed two cups. Near the end of a marathon, flat Coke is nectar of the gods! Not that I'm a god, but I will gladly drink their nectar.

I was feeling so good and relaxed about the race, that I actually hung out at the aid station for a minute or so discussing my crazy bedroom slippers. People are always asking me about the RunAmocs, and I never really get tired of talking about them, even during the final miles of a marathon. Anytime I can plant the little seed in someone's head that running isn't all about shoes, I take the time to do it. Running is about you. Not your shoes. If a broken down, middle aged guy like me can run marathons in moccasins, then anyone can run a marathon, and probably without big motion controlled, orthotic filled, cushion shoes.

After the big down and up of the Cedar Ridge trail, I grabbed one more cup of Coke from the aid station, thanked all the volunteers, and took off for the final two miles.

My broken down training and running partner, Ryan, rolled up on his volunteer bike at just that moment and rode with me the next half mile or so. Ryan made me laugh and generally just encouraged me, which really took my mind off the stiffness and pain that was creeping into my legs. He turned back to the course to go help out some other runners just as I approached Cemetary Hill. Strangely, I never slowed down and managed to run all the way to the top of Cemetary Hill, walking only about 20 steps to catch my breath, before pushing hard for the finish.

If my calf was hurting, I didn't notice in the last mile. I pushed hard because I felt great, and crossed the line feeling strong in 4:31. I ran directly into the arms of my wife and two young sons, feeling happy and fully redeemed.

Thanks Umstead. I'll be back again next year.

Epilogue - Defeat of Krampus
Defeat? Didn't Krampus trick me into nearly bonking and injuring myself? Very true. But I've finally realized something about my nemesis. Krampus is me. He's just the irrational, exuberant, self destructive, and perhaps, slightly demented part that pushes me beyond my own limits. In fact, I think Krampus is a part of all runners.

Maybe I haven't truly defeated Krampus. Maybe defeat is not even the right idea. But I do think I have at least come to terms with that side of myself. It's taken over 2 years, but perhaps I have finally tamed Krampus, and I can now stop trying to redeem my past failures and simply enjoy running.