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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

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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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Perks & Challenges of Training for an Ultra

So, I am 915 miles into the training cycle for my first ultra (In24 Philadelphia) which has included five runs between the marathon and 50k distance over the last seven weeks.  The preparation for a 50+ mile urban ultra has taught me a few things about the world of ultra marathon training. Here are just a few of the pluses and minuses I have taken away from the last few months:

The Perks:

Slower Paced Runs

I have been doing my longer runs 90-120 seconds slower than the typical long run pace I would do for a marathon training cycle. This has helped with muscle recovery. My legs have never felt the way they often do after I race a marathon because, despite the longer distances, I have not pounded my body like I would during a race.

While it has taken me some time to adjust to this newer “long run” pace, the idea of focusing on miles vs. pace has freed up my mind and has been quite relaxing. Furthermore, this “quantity vs. “quality” philosophy further simplifies the training.

Eating Real Food During Runs

This might sound sad, but one of the highlights of my long runs has been eating real food. My favorite “go to” food has become peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It has become a morale boost. Energy gels and hydrating alone are not enough during the extended time our bodies are out there running, so real food is a necessity.

My race will have a food table, and I will bring my own as well. I have learned that the body will tell me what it wants. If I look at a particular food and cringe, then I’ll stay away from that food. If I look and want it, I will take it.

Stopping to Adjust is Fine

Running further is a war of attrition, and sometimes there needs to be a lull to regroup and check in with the body (and mind). This might involve a bathroom pit stop or the re-application of sunscreen. It might involve consuming the “real food” mentioned above. These little “pauses” go a long way in making the post-run after-effects less daunting on the body.

Also, I have been running with a hydration pack which has room for my phone, so I have snapped the occasional photograph during my runs. It has been nice to stop and smell the roses during some runs.

The Challenges

Slower Paced Runs

Yes, I already listed this as a perk, but for a runner with a “5K pace” competitive spirit, it has taken EVERY ounce of mental effort to discipline myself to run slower. It has not always been easy. While I do miss a good 8 x 800m repeat workout on the track; there is not much purpose for that when running for distance vs. a PR time.

Training is More Time Consuming

I did the math, and I spent approximately 13.5 hours training during the longer mileage weeks (one of which maxed out at just under 102 miles).  That is nearly two hours per day. This has been a challenge especially with a full time job (and a couple of part time jobs).

Weight Loss

Some might say this is a perk, but at one point, I had lost over 21 pounds. I was getting dangerously close to my high school weight. So, I had to make nutrition adjustments along the way to gain a few pounds back. Then, I had to figure out how to maintain my weight.  I added protein shakes to my diet, as well as trail mixes of all sorts.

Tiredness

While the slower-paced long runs have been easier on my muscles, I have been more tired from the mileage. I am not sure if this has been from the miles alone or the fact that I have had to wake up earlier to fit the mileage into my weekly schedule of government employee, coach, New Balance employee and writer.

I have found that a ten minute nap, when possible, goes a long way. Also, yes, coffee, and more coffee.

The hay is in the barn. The race is less than two weeks away. I’m still not sure if this will be a “one time deal” or not, but one thing running has taught me:

Never Say “Never”

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While the gray was a surprise, I’m labeling the “ultra beard” as a perk. I’m still figuring out how to trim it.