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Rocky 50k – Recap

Is Somerset coming up?

“Yes, it’s just ahead. The next block is sketchy.”

Yes, there were some sketchy portions of this run. Well, I prefer to call them “gritty” sections of Philadelphia. After all, this is a gritty town but with so many hidden gems.  This combination made for a unique and amazing run through Philadelphia. I felt like both an athlete and tourist at the same time.

This was the third year for the Rocky 50k, an event cooked up by Rebecca Barber who was inspired after reading the Dan McQuade article that tried to lay out the area covered by Rocky in the training montages from the movies.  The route / course is a planning marvel.

This is known as a “Fat Ass” race which means no awards, no amenities, no road closures. It is a “run at your own risk” kind of event, and it does not disappoint.  When you think about it, it’s simply about running and the enjoyment of our sport.  At the same time, it is a great way to see Philadelphia.  I’ll take a run vs. the Duck Boats any day of the week as a wonderful way to be a tourist in the City of Brotherly Love.

That being said, 50k is a long distance…31 miles. The distance requires a certain level of respect and preparation. In the previous five weeks, my longest run was the NYC Marathon; however, since then, I hadn’t run more than eight miles at a time. It probably was not the smartest idea to decide to run this only four days before the event, let alone run it in full Rocky sweats. On the other hand, I went with the “Don’t overthink it and just have fun” mentality, and it somehow worked.

I figured I would run much slower than my marathon pace, so my body wouldn’t be beaten up as much. Also, I did use my hydration vest to have some kind of safety net. In addition to liquids, my vest held my phone, energy gels and the course directions.  I know I know…Rocky didn’t
have a hydration vest, but he didn’t run 31 miles all at once…oh, and he is fictional.

The race starts at the convergence of the intersection of Wolf, Lambert and Passayunk in South Philadelphia, just near the fictional home of Rocky himself. As I arrived with my wife and her friend (both planned on running the first ten miles), we were greeted by an enthusiastic Rebecca who was carrying Dunkin Donuts munchkins for anyone interested. While we waited to start at 7am, dozens of Rocky look-alikes showed up, including a woman carrying a stuffed chicken who was nice enough to allow us to pose with it.

 

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This chicken was easy to catch

 

At 6:57am, we posed for a selfie and Rebecca made a few announcements, including thank you’s to those who donated sneakers to Back On My Feet.  Without a ton of fanfare, we were off, heading northeast on Passayunk through South Philly and eventually into Society Hill and Old City. I stopped here and there to snap photos during the first few miles.

 

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Lots of food / fueling options along the route

 

Initially, I was on my own, but around Mile 4, I met up with a pack of runners, including a woman from DC (I never got her name), and Terry, a runner from South Jersey as well as two other runners.  In the Port Richmond area, Terry and I stopped to use a porto-john (near a construction site as opposed to one being provided by the race).  This was a lucky placement because I needed to use a bathroom since the start.  The downside was we got separated from the other runners as we ran across Lehigh Avenue.

Somewhere around Mile 8 or 9, we caught another pack of people as we ran down Broad Street. This group would become my comrades until Mile 23. There was Preston, Hannah, Brendan, Terry and me.

 

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Our pack – as seen on Broad Street

 

The pace felt good with this group, and I vowed to stay with them as long as I could for fear of getting lost. We trekked back into South Philadelphia, and headed east on Washington Ave.

Eventually, we worked our way up the streets of the Italian Market, and since a car was holding up traffic as the driver parallel parked, I took it upon myself to run in the middle of the street.
As I passed a guy unloading a truck to deliver vegetables, he yelled “Go Rocky!”  I couldn’t help but smile.  It was one of those memorable moments that won’t be duplicated.

 

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Italian Market 

 

As we worked our way north for the second time, this time up 2nd street via Northern Liberties and Fishtown (Miles 15-17?), the pack’s pace as just under 9 min / mile, and included Mile 17 in 8:34…the pack agreed this was a bit fast so we slowed it down after that.

At Mile 18ish, we made that right onto Somerset (in an area someone called sketchy).
It wasn’t the prettiest of neighborhoods, but we were greeted with confused, polite smiles from people and we got the occasional cheer. One house even had a Christmas tree and Santa outside, which helped the area feel more festive.  I must have smelled marijuana at least five times in this stretch just beyond the B Street Bridge; however, I never felt unsafe. I will say it was an eye opening experience to traverse such a blighted part of Philadelphia while running.

 

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Skinny Santa

 

As we ran across Lehigh Avenue the second time (this time all the way to Ridge Ave), I began to feel the effects of running in my Rocky sweats. I was sweating a ton, but I stayed with my pack
(although Terry fell back at this point, so we were a pack of four).  One of the biggest challenges of this run is the up and down of the corners and curbs…by Mile 21, I was getting clumsy.

Also, our group missed a left turn onto Hunting Park Ave, and ended up running an extra 1.3 total miles. As we ran along Kelly Drive toward Center City again (Mile 23 or 24), I fell off the pace of the pack. I was warm and had a bad headache. On my own at this point, I took a few walk breaks and decided to keep my pace slower to keep my heart rate down. I vowed not to shed the Rocky outfit out of sheer stubbornness.

 

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Feeling warm and headachy at mile 24ish

 

As I got closer to the marathon distance, my wife was running out on Kelly Drive, and ran toward Boathouse Row with me. I stopped at the Cosmic Café to get water, and ran passed the Art Museum Steps (I was so tempted to just run up the steps at that point since I had run over the marathon distance; however, I decided to run on to get in the full distance).

My wife ran the last few miles with me which was probably smart because running across town on a crowded Chestnut Street was dangerous for a delirious runner. She was my brain. After I made a left onto Front Street, and a left onto Race Street, I headed toward the Ben Franklin Parkway for the home stretch.  By now, my wife had run ahead of me so she could set up and take photos / video of me eventually coming up the “Rocky Steps.”

Seeing the Art Museum from the Parkway, I got a bit choked up. It wasn’t because I was about to finish a 50k (52ish kilometers to be exact…32.29 miles), it was because I was reminded how much I love this city. In fact, I was reminded over and over on Saturday morning why I fell in love with Philadelphia nineteen years ago.

Yes, it is a rugged, scarred city with an inferiority complex at times. Yes, it is a city that can be a bit parochial in its way of thinking bigger than itself. But it’s MY city, and the people of my city showed nothing but love all morning (some of whom didn’t even know what we were all doing running in such areas of the city. They simply waved and smiled or cheered or honked their car
horns…then went about their business).

Philadelphia has changed so much since I arrived here, yet has somehow managed to stay grounded and welcoming. I know the Pope recently experienced this love.

I can’t think of a better way than “running” to see such a cross section of Philadelphia…the famous and the not-so-famous areas of the town.  Each year, I find something new to love about this place.  So, as I made my weary way up the steps, I got a second wind and skipped up every other step. Yes, they are steps that a fictional character made famous, but these steps are real, as is Philadelphia. It is home.

If the circumstances allow for it, if you asked me if I’d run this again, my answer would be “yes.”

Or, as Rocky would say:

Absolutely.”

 

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Lehigh Avenue did Shine

 

 

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Trick photography at Mile 29

 

 

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Amor para Philadelphia

0 comments on “There Are Good People in this World: 2015 NYC Marathon Recap”

There Are Good People in this World: 2015 NYC Marathon Recap

My mom would have been disappointed in me because I spoke to strangers in NYC at 5:30am. I’d been unsuccessfully trying to hail a taxi to take me to the New York Public Library so I could get on a bus to Staten Island.  While waiting, two pedestrians asked me if I was heading to the buses, and I said yes. They told me to follow them to the subway, which I blindly did because a nervous runner is not always a smart runner. Fortunately, these were fellow racers and good people who even paid my subway fare. Yes, that is the truth.

I got to know them (a father and daughter) a bit while waiting in the bus line. The father was running his 25th NYC Marathon, and the daughter was running her 3rd overall marathon. She was fighting off a nasty cough. As we patiently waited to board the bus, they unknowingly calmed me down ahead of the trek to the start. “There are good people in this world,” I thought to myself.

The bus ride was long and quiet until the person sitting next to me made a deep, nervous exhale. I said something like “Yup, I know what you mean.”  Her name was Nelly, all 4’10” of her. She ran NYC last year in the crazy wind, and was thankful for better weather this year. As we exited the bus, we talked more about the race course and other marathons we’d run; however, in the chaos of the Staten Island security entry, we got separated. I hope Nelly had a good race.

The Staten Island staging area looks like what I can only imagine an internment camp might look like.  It is located at Fort Wadsworth, so it as a very cold feel to it. Fortunately, I only had to
spend just under two hours there. It is a makeshift city with a Blue, Green and Orange “Village,” more or less.  It is quite an impressive operation; however, it is very difficult to stay low key before a race in such a setting.

By 9am, I was in my corral…Wave 1, Corral 1…It was a good feeling to know I’d be one of the first people over the Verrazano Bridge. When the gate slid open to the side to let us out of our corral to head to the start, I felt like I was in a scene from Gladiator…entering the Colosseum for battle.  Double decker buses were lined up on both sides of us as we walked to the start. Tourists cheered for us from atop of these buses as we took our designated spot.

When the canon went off at 9:50am, it was on. I was thankful to be able to run the upper deck of the bridge. When I ran NYC in 2006, I was on the lower deck. This felt less claustrophobic.  Because of the crowded start and the incline, Mile 1, as expected was slower (7:34); however, coming down the other side of the bridge, Mile 2 was blistering fast (5:59). Oops.

The Highlights and Lowlights

1)    Brooklyn – The crowds and enthusiasm in Brooklyn were unmatched by any other borough. Perhaps it was because the Brooklyn miles are early. If Staten Island made us feel like Gladiators, Brooklyn made us feel like rock stars. The energy from spectators was contagious, so I had to keep my pace under control.

Most of the first half of the race is in Brooklyn. The music and crowds really lifted us as we made our way through. I will never forget a group of drummers that had spectators and runners
chanting as they played. Unforgettable.  I hit the Half on the bridge from Brooklyn to Queens in 1:26 exactly.  I was literally right on pace for my race goal (2:52). I felt good.

2)    Queens – The marathon doesn’t spend more than two miles in Queens so I didn’t really get a feel for the borough. The Queensboro Bridge was in sight, and this was uplifting. Yes, the 59th Street Bridge had me “feeling groovy.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  The bridge is long and eerily quiet. It is a good time to check in with your head during the race…a time to ready yourself for the upcoming difficult miles.

3)    Coming off the 59th Street Bridge – The feeling you get from the crowds as you come off the bridge into Manhattan is hard to describe in words. The only way I could ever do it justice is to suggest you run the race yourself. Then you’ll know…you’ll get goosebumps from the wall of noise.  The crowds on 1st Avenue will blow you away.  I mean, there is a “Holland Tunnel” of crowd support for the Dutch runners alone!

Just passed mile 16, I saw the big yellow “G” down the street, so I knew where my wife would be. Before the race, I told her I’d wave if a PR was still in play, but I’d stop if it wasn’t. I did neither. I
simply pointed to her and did a fist pump to let her know all was good.  Adrenaline was firing with the Bronx looming.

4)    Stomach Cramps – Literally minutes after the fist pump, the stomach cramps abruptly showed up.  I wasn’t sure if it was from my wardrobe malfunction early in the race when two energy gels fell out of my shorts in Brooklyn, leaving me with only two gels for the first 18 miles.  When it happened, I tried not to let it worry me. I even said something arrogant to myself like: “Alberto Salazar didn’t take ANYTHING during his ‘Duel In The Sun.’” I’m no Alberto Salazar. Maybe it was the borderline warm temperatures. Maybe it was the later start time. I won’t ever
know for sure, but the pain was intense. I knew I was sufficiently hydrated though. Yet, the pain could not be ignored.

I still managed a 6:30 for Mile 17, and a 6:47 at Mile 18, but the pace slowed substantially after that.  Mile 18 was probably my last Sub 7 mile, and part of it was thanks to my friend Jen, whom I know via social media. She was cheering just before Mile 18. Jen even made a sign for me. Again, the thought hit me: “There are good people in this world.”

5)    The Bronx: As I entered the Bronx, the wheels were sharply coming off the wagon. Not only
were the stomach cramps an issue, but I was starting to lose my legs now. There is nothing worse than the brain wanting to go while the body will not allow it to go.  It is a disheartening feeling. So, my goal of 2:52 slowly became my goal of a Sub 3 hour marathon, and eventually became a goal of survival. The miles in the Bronx were desolate and not so pretty.

6)    Mile 24 – After gutting my way down from Harlem into Central Park, I saw my wife for the
2nd time.  This time, I stopped to give her a hug and kiss since the PR was no longer in play. Also, I wanted to let her know I was fine. I didn’t want her worrying. She is a worrier.

Once I got further into Central Park, my pace picked up again. I felt like I was on my home turf. Plus, I knew the end was near. I knew that Sub 3:04 was still a possibility so I used that as my final motivation. Somehow, I picked up the pace enough to barely make it: 3:03:59.

Normally, a “Positive Split” of +11(1:26 / 1:37) would have been very upsetting to me, but I left nothing out on that course. I truly went for it, and fell short. I’m thankful for the miles and the finish. I’m thankful for the fellow runners and race volunteers. The volunteers for this race are second to none…they are the best. They are out there for hours, and are so upbeat and supportive.  I do love New York and New Yorkers.

There are good people in this world.

 

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The rush of coming off the 59th Street Bridge

 

 

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My cheering section (with the sign from the 2006 NYC Marathon!) 

 

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I have no recollection of this photo being taken

0 comments on “Race Recap: Beat the Blerch – East”

Race Recap: Beat the Blerch – East

This race was the perfect storm for danger. Beat the Blerch attracted a more casual runner, which is great. The more people running and being active, the better. That’s a good thing. I am a proponent of this. However, when you have more laid back runners attracted to a race, race organizers better be clear about what runners are getting themselves into.

This was a technically challenging trail race. If it is a difficult trail race, you very well better label it as such. The following is the course description on the website:

All participants will run on stunning trails that meander through the 1,000 acre park and along Whippany River. The half and full marathoners will continue on country roads and loop back through Lewis Morris Park.

When I registered for the Half, I knew there would be some trail (as there is in other races I’ve done…St. Luke’s Half, Steamtown Marathon, etc). Yes, some trails, but clearly road races. Beat the Blerch was a trail race, which is fine, but again, please label it as such, especially when it is a challenging course that is rocky, full of tree roots, ruts, constant elevation changes and switchbacks. The safety of those registering for such a race depends on accurate information.

In an email a few days prior to the race, we were told the following:

There are “some sections” that are legit trail running, some roads, some packed gravel and some couches.  Hey, it’s an adventure!

Oh, and for the love of all runners, please put a course map with elevation chart on the website so the mystery can be digested ahead of time. A map of the state park was on the website, but not an actual course map.  We email requested a course map, and finally got one the day before the race.

I truly felt bad for the runners who clearly did not expect the level of difficulty of the terrain. My wife witnessed at least one broken wrist.

Fellow runner and friend, Jen Miller, offered to help a woman who cut open her finger.

When somebody falls during a trail race, there is a distinctive and disturbing “thud” that makes one shudder, but yes, that is part of trail racing. I understand.

The danger was magnified when the half marathon merged with the 10K on the most difficult part of the terrain. Some runners were not aware of trail rules and got annoyed at people trying to pass.

As far as the logistics, parking was easy, and there were plenty of buses which took runners to the start. Our bus driver got lost, so we arrived to the start area around 8am. Fortunately, the Half Marathon started at 9am, but I felt bad for any runners on the bus that had the 8am Marathon start time (maybe that’s why the marathon started at 8:10 instead).

Second, bag check took longer for 1,000 runners than it did for 40,000 runners for the NYC Marathon.  The volunteers were great, but clearly the system was slow.  Since this was the first time the race was put on in New Jersey, I can forgive this.

What is less forgivable is a poorly marked course. Just after Mile 10, I came to a T in the trail. No volunteer there, no arrows, no ribbons or spray paint on any trees. I had a 50/50 chance of guessing correctly. Up until this race, I’d done one trail race: The Half Wit Half which was more challenging, and had more varied terrain and direction changes, yet was better marked. I decided to wait for a runner that was behind me. I asked him “Which way do you think, left or right?”

“Hmmm, let’s go left” he replied. We ran a good half mile before we realized we went the wrong way. Fortunately, the volunteers at a water stop for the 10K corrected our direction. Ok, fine, we did some bonus distance (I think the race was shorter than advertised anyway); however, at this point, I was ready to be out of the woods: “Get me the f**k out of here” I said to myself out loud hoping nobody heard me.

Also, what I didn’t know at the time was that I was in the beginning stages of the stomach flu. Maybe this is why my belly was bothering me pre-race and why I was so cranky. Initially, I chalked it up to nerves, but it wasn’t the case. Let’s just say the last couple of days haven’t been fun. I was supposed see the Pope yesterday, but had to stay home to recover.

Anyway, on the bright side, I managed a 12th place finish (1st in Age Group), but I was upset with myself for not having fun during the race. Despite my competitive nature, I still manage to have fun in just about every race; however, in this race, I had trouble adjusting to the thought of doing a fairly technical trail race vs. other races I typically run.

I do love to run on trails, but I don’t like to “race” on trails. When I race, my body and mind want to go fast. Trails slow me down, which I do like to do on many training days. Yes, I do like to take in the beauty that is around me on runs, but during a race, it’s harder to appreciate nature when my main concern is not falling on my ass. The level of concentration required is mentally exhausting. Yes, I probably need to lighten up more during some races. I could learn a thing or two from the more laid back runners.

The post-race amenities and food were what you’d expect if you know anything about The Oatmeal’s comic about running. There was cake and several couches upon which to sit.  You could pose with the Blerch or have a marshmallow bacon chocolate snack. It was a festive and pretty setting for a race.

I was thankful everyone I knew at the race finished safely. If this race is held again next year, I’d rename it to Beat the Blerch Trail Marathon/Half Marathon/10k.  The pre-race email included a clever and hysterical comic on the Do’s and Don’t of Running Your First Marathon. Here is the link:

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/marathon_do

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The Blerch tempts us to slack off. 

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Several F Bombs later

0 comments on “Race Recap: The Bubble of the Hood to Coast Relay”

Race Recap: The Bubble of the Hood to Coast Relay

We waited at a restaurant in Sandy, Oregon for Enterprise to deliver the correct-sized Van 2 because the initial van had a broken mirror, and the replacement was not ready. When it did arrive, it was not big enough, so we waited for another as we waited for our food. We waited,
and waited…

Service was slow at the Trattoria Sapori. Tony, our charming waiter, was proving that charm and humor can only take you so far when you’re serving a pre-race dinner to twelve runners and two van drivers the night before a 198 mile relay.

In the grand scheme of things, these were two minor bumps in the road on the way to Seaside from Mount Hood. The good news was that Jackie from Enterprise showed up donning sunglasses in the dark, and delivered a sweet van. Plus, the food finally made its way to our tables, albeit served in a manner described by Tony as a “Staggeration”method. This meant two dishes at a time over a twenty minute period. Not ideal, but we were still fresh with enthusiasm ahead of our upcoming adventure.  We adjusted. Isn’t this what runners do?  We adjust and move forward.

Our Team consisted of runners from Colorado and Pennsylvania, so we became the CoPa
Bananas, mostly because we are “crazy runners,” but also a tip of the cap to the Philadelphia restaurant(s).

Race Morning involved a 40 minute drive to the base of Mount Hood where it was a cloudy, breezy 54 degrees. Mount Hood is a majestic peak, but because of an unusually warm summer, had no snow covering it at all.

We had time to decorate our vans, take team photos and buy race souvenirs before Runner 1 (Walter) lined up for our start time of 9:15am.  Before Hood to Coast, I had never met Walter. I only knew he was the oldest runner on our team.

By the time we would made it to Seaside 28 hours later, I knew Walter was a retired professor, a wine expert, a strong coffee fiend, and a closet potato chips lover.  His ancestors were almond farmers. When he was 22, Walter had half of a lung removed because of an illness caused by the Donora Smog in the Pittsburgh-area back in 1948.  So, he is a survivor, and a tough, compact runner, no more than 5′4″. Walter insisted on being Runner 1. He brought quiet civility to our van.

After the start, our team separated into two worlds: Van 1 and Van 2.  Van 1 would soon learn the logistics of Exchange Zones and changing weather conditions. Van 2 was still four to five hours from sending a runner onto the course.  I was in Van 1, but Runner 5, so I had time before getting my “Hood to Coast legs.” However, as Walter passed the bracelet to Greg (Runner 2) at 10:02am, the remaining runners in the van started to get into race mode. It was on.

Greg had a super-fast leg, partially from adrenaline, and partially from some serious downhill.  He, like myself, is a fan of pop culture, 80s music, and movie quotes. In such situations of finishing strong or if our van was driving and had to abruptly stop, Greg would quote “I”m coming in hot!” His humor and movie-quoting ability came in handy during down time and
edgy moments.

Runner 3 was Jeff aka Jefe. Jeff, besides my wife, was the only teammate I really knew well heading into the race. I have known him for fifteen years, and paced him to his first marathon finish back in 2008.  He and I share a similar balance of quiet seriousness and silliness. Jeff is a true gentleman.  He had been recovering from a calf injury, but his legs held up nicely as he handed off to his significant other, Katy (Runner 4).

Katy is relatively new to road running. However, soccer was always her sport, so she knows all about competition, running and endurance. She doesn’t love running, but she’s learning to like it.

She would hand off the HTC bracelet to me. When you’re in a relay, you develop a bond with your teammates, but you particularly develop a bond with your exchange partner.  The moment
your teammate passes off to you is so brief, but it is a lasting bond. In the past, I have written about this kind of phenomenon that occurs in running: The temporary yet lasting bonds it creates.

The Exchange is that brief moment you’re able to cheer on your teammate coming in, say something quick like “Great job!” and they, in turn, send you on your way with encouragement of their own. “Go get it!” or as one super-competitive team kept saying along the way: “FUCKING CRUSH IT!!!!” We found this entertaining.

I was Runner 5. When runners from other teams would find out I was Runner 5, the response was usually “You got the shaft” or “Oh no, you have the toughest parts of the race.” To make things more fun, the sun finally came out just before my leg was about to start, so the temperature was now just under 80 degrees.

Adrenaline carried me through my first three miles pretty fast (this leg was 6.05 miles and labelled “Very Hard”).  I started to labor during miles 4 and 5, and the last mile was completely uphill, so my pace suffered here a bit. However, I managed 18 Kills, which is what it is called when you pass a runner at Hood to Coast: A Kill. You either Kill or become Roadkill.

At the top of the hill, Runner 6 was waiting for me. Runner 6 was my wife, Jill. Seeing her was a sight for sore eyes and tired legs. What I didn’t realize was that parking at this exchange area was a challenge, and Jill had to walk/run nearly a half mile to make it to meet me in time.

Jill would take us back into Sandy, Oregon again, where we would meet up with Van 2 for the
first Van 1 to Van 2 exchange. This occurred just before 2pm when Jill handed off to Tim (Runner 7). Seeing members of Van 2 was a morale boost. We were reminded that we were a team of twelve runners, not just six.  Van 2 was having its own experiences and stories to tell, and we
wouldn’t really be able to fully hear or share these stories for another 24 hours.

Total mileage for Van 1 through the 1st Leg: 35.34 Miles – We were back in Sandy, Oregon, and we had about 4.5 hours of downtime before meeting up with Van 2 again in Portland.

We were hungry and sweaty, so we stopped at a Subway in Gresham where we ate in a church parking lot. Fortunately, our driver and wife of Runner 2, Sarah, had a friend in Portland that offered up her place for us to shower and recover before gearing up again.

Speaking of Our Driver…

The unsung hero / MVP of our van was SarahShe did ALL the driving along the 198 mile course. She had to deal with six personalities and parking challenges at just about every exchange zone, not to mention her own fatigue.  Sarah was able to remain even-keeled throughout the race. This kept the rest of us calm and focused.

2nd Leg

At 6:37pm, Paul (Runner 12) handed off to Walter, and our van resumed running in Portland. This is when we transitioned from daytime to night time running. We each wore reflective vests, headlamps and two additional lights to see and be seen.

When it got dark, the weather began to change. It rained on and off, but all in all, our van was spared the truly awful downpours yet to be experienced by Van 2. Actually, just before Jill handed off to Tim for the second time, it started to lightning and thunder, and at roughly 11:29pm, our van was finished with the 2nd Leg.

The rain became more steady as we drove an incredibly dark road with constant curves to Exchange 24 in Mist, Oregon. We decided this would be a good place to attempt to sleep before our 3rd Leg was estimated to begin at 4:07am.  We arrived in Mist just before 1am.

Sleeping was difficult. It was stuffy in the van, so we opened the doors; however, it was noisy outside with runners talking and walking past on a regular basis. Also, the exhaust smell from the other vans was not the ideal air quality for sleeping. Furthermore, we were all slightly haunted by the fact that it started pouring overnight. Rain pounded the roof of the van. We worried about our runners in Van 2 and how awful it must have been to be running under such conditions in the dark.

Somehow, we managed anywhere from 40 minutes to two hours of sleep, and before we knew it, Walter was dressed and ready to run. He had some uncertainty about when Paul would be arriving since we hadn’t heard from Van 2 yet. We had limited to no cell service, and the two-way radios didn’t appear to be working. Walter didn’t want to spend more time outside waiting in the rain than was necessary, but at 4am, our van collectively (and coldly) sent him on his way.

We all felt guilty about this, so Greg decided to go wait with Walter at the exchange, and somehow my phone call to Van 2 went through…”Paul should be arriving between 4:20-4:30″ is what Shannon, our team captain told me. So, I went to meet up with Walter and Greg to let them know. Since Greg was next to run after Walter, he went back to the van to get ready and I waited with Walter. This is when Walter said “Is that Paul?” and sure enough, Paul was there…panicked because he initially didn’t see Walter, but the exchange was made at 4:14am.

3rd Leg / Finish

At daybreak, the rain began to ease as our team started progressing through our final legs; however, just before Katy handed off the bracelet to me, the winds kicked up. Fortunately, the rain wasn’t too bad, but the winds began gusting at an alarming strength.  As I made my way up a 3.5 mile ascent, tree limbs started falling, and runners had to be vigilant about debris on the road and above the road. My final two miles were downhill, and I knew these would be my final miles of Hood to Coast, so I tried to savor them. I took in the beauty of this wooded country road despite the weather. “I’m running in Oregon!” I thought to myself.

I barreled down the hill and saw Jill waiting for me again. I attempted humor by mocking the “FUCKING CRUSH IT” team by saying something in a similar tone, but more CoPA Banana-centric. So,  I went with “PEEL OUT!!” and I proceeded to miss her wrist with the bracelet. I sheepishly tried again, and off she went.

After we parked the van at Exchange 30 to meet Jill for the final time, the winds were even
stronger. A large tree fell near the parking lot. Fortunately, it fell away from the vans, but it made an eerie crackling sound and caused the earth to shake. Those of us who witnessed it fall gave a collective pause but we all moved on from there.

As Jill became visible, so was her enthusiasm. Wet leaves were blowing all around, but she was smiling from ear to ear and her arms were up in a celebratory motion. It was as if she had no idea what kind of weather she was running through. As soon as she handed off to Tim for the final time at 8:45am, it began to pour, and the wind somehow got worse. We started to wonder if Van 2 was cursed.

Now that we were “finished” until we needed to meet up with Van 2 to finish as a team in Seaside, we had one goal: Coffee.  So, we set off for Astoria to Three Cups Coffee House. When we arrived, we were all in a happy, exhausted fog, so the coffee and food was such a boost.  Our van thought of Van 2 and we hoped everything was safe for them and that they were somehow able to have a positive experience despite the weather. After coffee, we drove to Seaside to await their arrival.

In Seaside, it was clear that the race would not be finishing on the beach because of the weather. The wind and rain were just too much for such a location. The tents were abandoned / coming apart and some of the Porto Johns on the beach had been knocked over by the wind. The finish line had been changed a couple of times while we waited. It was a bit deflating, but we all understood that runner safety came first.  There was still a palpable enthusiasm on the Promenade as teams finished. Fortunately, the rain let up, but the winds only became more angry.

Sometime around 1:30pm, Paul ran down the Promenade, and we joined him to all finish together. The moment was surreal. We were all awake for over 30 hours, yet we were all smiling, relieved, weary.  We had made it:198 miles, 36 legs, and we were all safe.

After we finished, we got our team medals and took more photos before checking in to our rooms.

Van Life

Something strangely amazing occurs when you’re doing a relay and your home for 28 hours is a van: You become insulated from the outside world: No television, and very limited cell service. You become protected by the Hood to Coast Bubble. You’re unknowingly “in the moment” with your van-mates and running mates, and we all know how difficult it is to “be in the moment.”  To
me, being able to be in the moment is a rare and beautiful thing. It helps us feel alive vs. simply being alive.

When you’re in the bubble, you have no idea what is going on with current events or what day of the week it is, and it feels good. You’re in the Hood to Coast world, and more specific: You’re in the Van 1 or Van 2 bubble. You eat, travel, run, plan, laugh, joke, sleep, bond, bicker and take care of the less glamorous things in a tight space over a long time-period.  The bubble is intense yet safe. It is freeing.

Somehow, in this bubble, we managed to gel. A collective “I don’t want to let the team down” way of thinking evolved. I hadn’t felt this way since my track and cross country days. Now that
the van has long been returned to Enterprise, and most of us are back at work, we collectively miss being inside the “Bubble.”

Random Memorable Moments:

-The mountain coffee shop at Exchange 4

-Running
Leg 2 in the dark…quiet, peaceful yet an amazing experience to run from Scappoose High School to St. Helens High School

-Learning about Hawaiian onion chips and church coffee

-The vinyl record collection at Trattoria Sapori, and Tony, our waiter, referring to every customer as “Tony”

-The woman with the green hair at Plaid Pantry who made us our Subway sandwiches

-Passing our teammates on the road with the van and honking the horn / shaking the cowbell each time they ran

-Being stuck behind the team with the horse’s behind on it as we waited at a train crossing

-The great music pumped out of a speaker on the roof of Team Hoodzillas’s van

-The parade of blinking LED lights of the other runners moving in the dark

-Soup at the Columbia County Fairgrounds just before midnight

-A chocolate chip cookie at 5am

-“I have a hard boiled egg in my purse.”

-The music…a 6hr11min playlist, which of course included Copacabana by Barry Manilow. Some members of Van 2 did not like this song.

-Shopping for food supplies at Safeway in Sandy, OR

-”I like chips.”

-The amazing volunteers: 3,600 of them enduring the same weather as the runners

-The natural beauty of Oregon

Stats:

Team pace: 8:32/mile over 198 miles

Start Time: 9:15 am on 8/28

Finish Time: 1:32pm on 8/29

Van 1 Kills: 198

Team CoPa Bananas: 258th out of 1,050 teams (Top 25%).

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At the start

 

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Our home

 

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Gassed from a long hill. Oh, hi to Runner 6

 

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Van 1 – Portland

 

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“Normal” for Hood to Coast

 

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The Bananas…

 

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At the Copa

 

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The wind…Seaside, Oregon

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Race Report: In24 Philadelphia

“I apologize to the entire world for this.”

This is what I said when I was just about to break one of my rules: “Never run shirtless.” Well, I was about to run shirtless…the temperature finally had me agitated to the point where, yes, the world would see more than they needed to see.

I just finished my second loop of In24 Philadelphia, an urban ultra, really the only race of its kind, but I’ll come back to that later. I was inconsolable. I wanted my shirt off, my hydration pack off…everything was bothering me. This was only Mile 17. I should not have felt this bad at Mile 17. My pace was conservative, yet I felt worse than I had during any of my training runs.

Mile 17 was the first time in the race I almost quit. I told my wife I was shaving my “ultra beard” on Monday because there was no way I was going to make it to my goal of 50 miles. “I’m not a f**king ultra runner. This is not fun at all.”

To my wife’s credit, she did not try to fix the situation. She simply let me vent and told me she’d meet me on the course with a dry shirt later in Loop #3.

In24 is a repetitious 8.4 mile loop along the Schuylkill River. Philadelphians simply call it “The Loop.”  I figured this would be a safer way to be introduced to the world of ultra running…more checkpoints, no chance of getting lost in the woods, home turf advantage, etc. Last year, I signed up for a local 50k but I had my appendix removed three days before the race. I knew In24 would be a longer effort for me, but the environment would be more controlled overall.

With In24, the only wild card would be the weather. Yes, a July race, so I knew it had the potential to be hot.  I’d simply run slower I thought to myself as I prepped for this race. Well, Mother Nature made this a humbling day for a lot of us.

When my wife found me again, I was at Mile 21, and deliriously singing Tom Sawyer by Rush. I have no idea why this song was stuck in my head, but it was. I put on a change of shirt, but did not put the hydration vest back on. There were plenty of hydration stations along the way, so hydration was not the issue. However, this is when the sun came out, and it got blistering hot (91 degrees and humid).

My wife would check in on me from her bike from time to time, but she was not allowed to pace until Loop #5. Fortunately, she was near me when my nose started bleeding at Mile 22. This has happened to me before in hot races, so I did not panic. Luckily, I had a wet towel with me already, so I sat on a bench for a few minutes until my nose stopped bleeding.

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Oranges and ice from medical tent. Bloody hell.

So, I continued, and finished Loop #3 with the occasional walk break. For a shorter-distance runner, walking while competing is a difficult thing to get used to, but EVERYONE was doing it today. In fact, with In24, you have 24 hours to go as far as you can. Some of the more experienced ultra runners ran two loops, then checked out to take their break, only to return at dusk to continue when the temperatures cooled down. To me, this felt like cheating, even though it was perfectly legal in such a race.

Therefore, I trudged on, and I started to figure things out during Loop #4. I found myself going back and forth with two other runners. I’d run .8 mile, then walk .2 mile. I’d pass them while I was running, and they’d pass me while I was walking. Seeing these two runners comforted me. We were in a groove together yet we weren’t running together.

After Loop #4, I was allowed a pacer; however, with a heat advisory now in effect, I was required to carry hydration with me. So, I went to the tent to get my hydration vest, and meet my wife who would be my pacer for Loop #5. I warned her that I would be slow.

On the West River Drive side, at Mile 38, I grabbed onto my wife because I was close to passing out. I almost went down a couple of times. She said I had that blank look in my eyes. I could not get my heart rate down no matter how hard I tried to slow things down. Thankfully, we were a quarter mile from the next medical tent, so we walked there. I figured, “Well, this is it for me…38 miles is pretty far. I’ll just call it a day.”

At the medical tent, I got my vitals checked, and the one medical technician couldn’t get a reading on my blood pressure. Something was wrong with the pump. I asked her if I was dead. The doctor took my temperature, gave me an eye test and a choice…go back on the cart or walk/run to continue on. Here, I almost quit, but said to myself “if I can just get through this lap, I can always go home and sleep, come back in the morning and get my official 50 miles in.” Again, that felt like cheating but it was not.

So, Loop #5 involved a lot of walking to manage my heart rate. Plus, I got really bad foot cramps at Mile 40 (the kind of cramps you get when you swim deeper in a pool). After fighting the cramps off, I did run it in at the boathouses to make it to the check point. I told race officials I was taking a break (at 42 miles). At the tent, we gathered things like we were leaving for the day. Well, my wife gathered things. I was useless. I told her I was going into Lloyd Hall to get cooler. However, on the way, I saw pizza and it looked appealing to me. It was the first time since the start that food seemed appealing to me. I ate it with childlike eagerness.

When I returned to the tent, I had a banana and sipped on a beer (a beer that was intended to be a celebratory post-race beer).  Maybe it was the beer talking, but I told my wife I was thinking about doing the sixth loop. In the back of my mind, I knew if I went home, I would not be returning in the morning. I’d be stuck at 42 miles with that 50 mile mark dangling in front of me. One more loop. If I could just make it one more loop.

It was just before 8pm when I put on the vest and my headlamp. I checked back into the race: “I’m stupid enough to run another loop” I told a race official. His response: “Are you stupid enough to run two more loops?” Another race official gave me a piece of candy, and I shoved it into my hydration vest “just in case” I said and thanked her.

As I started Loop #6, the leader passed me. He was starting Loop #7. He looked amazing. He is the record holder in this race with 153ish miles. I was in awe, and so I started running. At first, I thought I’d run a bit, walk a bit, etc; however, I ran 90% of this loop. The temperature felt better (even though when I’d get in my car later, it would still be 83 degrees). This was the best I had felt since my 2nd loop. It was a pleasant surprise.

At this point, my wife was back on her bike, so she snapped this at Mile 48:

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Running and feeling mostly awful, but not 100% awful

At Mile 49ish, I could see the Philadelphia skyline illuminated in the distance. I stopped to drink in the moment and I took a blurry photo (below) of the city. I love this city. I moved here nineteen years ago (nearly to the day) to go to graduate school. I’m one of the few students in my program that stayed. It is home to me. Here, with just over a mile to go, I got a bit emotional. I was alone. Most of my miles are done alone. Running has always been the glue that has kept me together over the years, but here, in this moment, I wept for a bit before bringing it home.

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Blurry and teary skyline

At roughly 9:42pm, I crossed the checkpoint for the sixth time (50.7 miles). I did not feel euphoric, I felt relief. I checked out of the race and called it a night. I wanted to see my dog Harry.

When I registered for In24, my initial goal was 50 miles, but as my training progressed, I started toying around with the idea of going the full 24 hours. As this day developed, however, I realized I’d be lucky to survive 50 miles.

The atmosphere of In24 is amazing. As a friend said pre-race: “This is the Woodstock of running,” and she was right. I was a Lone Ranger, which is the urban ultra component of the race; however, there is also a five person relay, a twelve hour and 24 hour relay, as well as a midnight loop, and a 5k the following morning.  A “tent city” emerges with the participants staking their claim near Boathouse Row. It becomes an instant community of runners.

The enthusiasm of the volunteers at the water stations was contagious. It is a long day for them too. Seeing the other runners and relay participants, some of which were friends, was a real boost during some tough moments. Also, the race is a festive atmosphere, and proceeds go to Back On My Feet, which is an amazing organization that incorporates running into the lives of the homeless. This organization helps the homeless think of themselves differently via running.

Running has been no different for me. Over the years, running has helped me feel better about myself in various ways. It has been my therapy. It has made me a better person.

I can’t say whether or not I would do another ultra, but as I said in my previous post, I know enough at this point to never say never. It was a humbling yet gratifying experience. I will say that I have never been this sore or felt so weak after a race. I’m not sure if it was the distance, the weather or both.

It was a roller coaster with the full range of emotions and struggles. There was never a sustained rhythm…it was darkest before the dawn, and I learned not to say “I’m feeling good right now” because that feeling never lasted.

I am ready for shorter races, and I am very ready to get back on the track again.

Notes: Foods I ate during this race: Gu (6), Chomps (2), Philly Pretzel, pizza slice, orange slices, flat coke (2), ginger ale, banana, boiled potatoes, water/Gatorade mix, Swedish Fish, PB&J (2), protein shake, ¼ Flying Fish Exit 4. My only wish for this race would be for an earlier start time: 10am in July is rough.

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5 Things I Learned About Trail Racing in the Half Wit Half

Welcome to pretty much the center of the universe for stupidity.  We are proud of that here in Reading, because we have nothing else to be proud of here.”

So said the race coordinator for the Half Wit Half, a trail half marathon just outside of Reading, Pennsylvania.  He said this at approximately 9:12am as roughly 500 “half wits” lined up late for the 9am start. We also had to recite the “Half Wit Oath” which began with “I are a half wit…” and got funnier from there.

The Half Wit Half isn’t so much a trail race as it is an obstacle course, and registering for it as my first-ever trail race was probably not my brightest moment; however, it was consistent with half wit logic. I was not alone as I convinced two friends to join me in my stupidity.

Instead of summarizing all of the incredibly difficult terrain we had to navigate, and the ridiculous, jaw-dropping uphills and downhills, which had all of us cry-laughing incredulously by the end, I will focus on some observations of trail racing.

1 – Concentrating is exhausting

I am a road runner.  I am decent. I like to “go,” and when I am racing, I have the ability to rest my brain, go on “auto-pilot” and just race.  In the Half wit, I could never relax. The course is so rocky and full of hazards, I could never “open it up.” In fact, I had to concentrate so much to stay upright (in which I was unsuccessful – more on that in #2), I was mentally drained by the first water stop at the 5K mark.

2 – Falling down Hurts

I went into the Half Wit with two goals: 1) Finish safely, and 2) Try not to fall or twist an ankle.  I finished, and have that going for me, which is nice; however, I lost count at the number of times I turned my ankles, and yes, I fell four times.  Falls #1 and #2 were on a steep downhill in which I needed to grab trees to avoid falling. The thing is, it is harder to grab trees while on such a steep grade than you might think.  So, I landed on my ass twice. If you have ever fallen during a race, you know it feels like slow motion as it is happening. Fall #3 I will call the “Ironic” fall because it occurred on pavement as I crossed a narrow paved path to resume the wooded path on the other side. Today, the entire left side of my body remembers this fall.  Fall #4 was just plain mean in that there were rocks hidden under the brush, and I went airborne into sticker bushes.  Ouch. The best part was having to use my hands to get up from this fall, with my hands in the stickers.  Did I say, ouch?

3 – Downhills are more difficult than Uphills

With the few times I had run trails, I already knew this, but the reality was more apparent under racing conditions.  I felt like I was two different runners. One runner was quite competent and in control going up hill. The other runner had to nearly walk down many of the rugged downhill sections because 1) Gravity forces you to lose control, and 2) I was so uncertain of the terrain.  So, I passed people on the uphill, and they passed me on the downhill. In a sense, I became a spectator, watching in awe how the more experienced trail runners navigated the downhill with ease.  I just kept asking myself “How do they do that?”  I wanted to be able to do that too.

4 – Walking is perfectly acceptable

As I ran passed people that were walking uphill, I wondered “Do they know something I don’t know?” and “Should I be walking too?”  The answer was not necessarily yes; however, during the ridiculous verticals, including some crazy switchbacks, it became more obvious that running would be either 1) Stupid or 2) Not possible.  So, I learned how to walk without worrying about walking during a race.  It was safer and allowed my body to regroup because I also learned the further I got into the race, the more clumsy I became.

5 – Trail runners are a different breed

I mean this as a compliment to trail runners.  The majority arrived in casual clothes and flip flops. I did not know this was a thing.  In general, they appear more laid back and friendlier. I noticed more beards and tattoos than I had noticed during the many road races I had done.  I jokingly wondered to myself: “If I grow a beard or get a tattoo, would it help my trail running competence?” Probably not.

Running my first trail race, I was reminded I am competitive, but it also hit me that I am not a laid back racer.  This laid back attitude is worth pursuing some more; however, I am not sure I am wired that way, so I will learn how to become a better trail racer instead.

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Runner’s Amnesia: A Lesson from the Philadelphia Marathon

Two years ago, I ran the Philadelphia Marathon with my wife, as she attempted to qualify for Boston.  It was very memorable.  I even did a long, very detailed Race Recap (see archives).  I remember a ton from that race, even the most intricate details. It was a very special and fun experience.

This year, I ran the same race; however, this time, I had a PR in mind.   The good news:  I got my PR; however, the bad news:  I don’t remember much from this race.

Yes, I remember some fragmented sensory details:

Sounds: A bad song – What Does the Fox Say?  A good song: Welcome to the Jungle. The occasional “Go Jared, Go Gerald” cheers from awesome spectators (great crowd support this year).

Sights: A race sign: “Tired? Honey Badger Don’t Care.” Also, I got to see my wife and some friends on the out-and-back portion of Kelly Drive; however, I don’t remember what I said to them.

Smells: The amazing aroma of food in Manayunk, and the beer emanating from the Drexel students on 34th Street.

That’s about it.  Other than the above, I remember the “pre-race” stuff and the “post-race” stuff.  The “during-race” stuff: Not so much.

I have tried hard over the last three days to think of specific moments or memories in the race, and I can only come up with two:

1)  Mile 1: Accidentally bumping into a runner, who replied rudely “JESUS CHRIST!” – Thank you rude runner.  You are partially responsible for getting me fired up from that point onward.

 2) Mile 9ish (near zoo):

Me: (Burp) “Oh that felt so good.”

Fellow Runner: (Burp) “That was awesome.”

So, aside from a negative interaction and burping, nothing else.  No other memories (Oh wait, two Gu fell out of my pocket on Delaware Avenue, so I had to turn around and pick them up – I just remembered that). Perhaps I’m in a temporary state of Runner’s Amnesia and maybe additional memories will come back to me (just like the Gu story).

For sixteen weeks, I was laser focused on a PR. Mission Accomplished. Yes, there is some satisfaction to it, but at what expense?  First of all, I don’t remember much from the race.  Second, I’m sure I was a grump, especially in the final weeks leading up to the race.  Third, I might not be physically burned out from training, but I’m mentally burned out from Spring-Fall-Spring-Fall marathons over the last two years.

Major Lesson Learned: A PR does not equate to more fun or wonderful memories

In five weeks, I start another marathon training cycle, and I plan on enjoying every moment of this down time.  Also, I’ve decided there will not be a PR attempt in this race.  In fact, I might run it with my wife. It’s time to have fun again (although, this might not be fun for her)!!

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(Photos help us remember)