Monday, October 24, 2011

First and Last...Do I smell Boston?

The alarm went off at 3:45a and the nerves automatically kicked in.  We were headed for Morganton NC to run in the Ridge To Bridge Marathon. This race would be my first official marathon and it was no coincidence that it is also a Boston Marathon qualifier. I decided to give qualifying a shot even though I didn't know if it was possible. After grilling all the marathoners that I knew (Theoden, Emily, Tracy S., Tracy T., Molly, Becki and Tom) I still had a raging case of nerves. I spent the past two weeks after my worrying, asking questions and running the race over in my mind... then a little bomb dropped.  I misread the qualifying times thinking I only had to run a 3:40 to qualify. For the 2012 race that would have worked but since that registration is already closed out,  I would have to qualify under the new time of 3:35 minutes. I found that little factoid out the Saturday prior to my race.  Five minutes faster...that is a big chunk of time. I realize that wanting to qualify for Boston is a lofty goal and a lot of runners spend years chasing it and this was my first but I felt the need to prove myself. The competitor in me wanted something tangible to feel that I was good. Silly I know,  but for those of you who know me this makes perfect sense. Qualifying for Boston is considered the Mecca to being have to be fast to get in...end of story. I wanted it and wanted it bad. My running coach Tom and I had reviewed the race plan on Friday via phone and discussed what I needed to focus on. There is 9+ miles of downhills in this race and the biggest mistake that is made is runners tear down the mountain and run out of gas on the flats. I needed to stay controlled on the hills and as long as I stick to the plan, I would be in under the time. But as I looked at the plan I had scratched out on paper, I still didn't have a sense of if I could do it or not. Tom reassured me "trust your have done all the preparation you can, now just run." If it's one thing I am good at, its following the race plan. I had a layout and I would stick to it come hell or high water. I even wrote it on my hand in sharpie marker to reassure. All I had to do was run.

John and I got up, went through the morning routines and hit the road at about 4:40am. We needed to be in the parking lot of the Brown Mountain Beach Resort by 6:30am to catch the buses to the starting line so I wanted to be sure we had plenty of breathing room. As we headed up, we talked about the race. I told him of my fear of not performing well, of worrying about racing too many races in too little time, that my knee was still sore on my Friday run, etc. He reassured me that I would be ok. We found our way to the parking lot (which happens to be the finish line) and headed to the buses. We met with Tom, Melinda and DC just outside and hopped on. At precisely 6:30 the buses pulled out for the 40 minute trek to the start line. We made small talk as the buses ascended but as we got closer, my heart started to pound and I grew quiet. I downed a plum and said a few silent prayers.  The sun was rising over the mountains as we pulled into the tiny gas station that was just across from the start streaking the sky with first pink then orange...God's morning paint job. It was a gorgeous day for a race in the mountains that were showing their full fall colors. It was a bit chilly but I opted for my same old race gear of my Nike compression shorts, Mich Ultra race shirt and knee socks that were dubbed the "Big Bird Legs" because they were fluorescent pink and orange striped. I added my Mountain Hardwear vest and Nike running gloves (I hate when my hands are cold) and decided to carry my small Amphipod so that I always has a supply of water/Gu Brew to sip off of.  I did add a new accessory of my Spibelt to carry my Honey Stinger Gels  (which didn't seem to stay put and migrated north every few miles during the race). After spending some time on the bus pinning on numbers and chips, we hopped off and headed to the line. This race was full of people I knew....Emily, Theoden, Leah, Steve and Tom and so we were in good company. After the few race announcements and lots of "good luck" the countdown was on...I remember looking up and a thought crossed my mind "Do I smell Boston?" It was odd at the time but became my race mantra. The crowd took off and I pressed start on the Garmin as I crossed the timing mat.

The first part of the race is pretty flat with a few gentle rises and drops and a little out and back turn around, complete with an orange cone with an impossibly tight turn. As we headed towards the turn, everyone I knew was in front of me and running back past. I tried not to panic because I was sticking to my plan of 8:30 miles in the first part of the race and I knew those downhills were coming. As we made the turn and headed back past the first aid station, I pulled out the first of my gels, washed it down with Gu Brew and found myself on the longest downhill I had ever run. John and I were both exchanging how we were feeling and dodging runners and cars as the switchbacks continued down. We crossed the half way mark and were almost exactly on time. I let out a big sigh; my Garmin wasn't synced with the miles and my pace was jumping all over so hitting that mark was a big relief.  I kept saying to myself "trust your training."

We came down off the mountain to the second little out and back (complete with orange cone)  and caught a second glimpse of the other runners. Tom, looking relaxed and cool as ever,  encouraged us with "good pace guys" but  I was starting to feel the fatigue. The flat was claiming a lot of victims and we were starting to pick them off but it wasn't feeling good. My legs felt like lead as we headed out past the local country store, across the bridge and  back out to the the rolling hills. This part of the race threatened to break me, as the gentle rises gave way to more flats, I struggled with the pace. I knew I was out of downhills for a while and this was the stretch the veterans of the race had warned about. If you take the downhills to fast you won't feel good on the flats...they will feel all uphill. I wasn't completely out of gas, but I was tired. I kept telling myself to just get to the last 6 miles and it will get better. I have a healthy fear of the "mile 19" curse because I have fallen victim to it in a few of my Ultras. This mile seems to be a breaking point for a lot of runners and can make or destroy your race. I just needed to hit mile 20 to get the feeling of doom out of my head. John was beside me pushing me the whole way and at about mile 22 I broke. John was pushing me to stay on pace at 8:15 and I couldn't take it. I snapped at him to stop "half wheeling" me. Note:  Half wheeling is the term that I learned from Tracy when a fellow runner runs that 1/2 stride ahead of you and drives you insane. I couldn't push any harder and I couldn't deal with being asked to. John decided to take off since he was feeling good and I was on my own.
The finish line...and the proof (gun time)

Those last few miles tested me mentally and physically more that I could have imagined. I began doing the math in my head for the pace I needed to maintain to get my qualifying time. All I could do was put the hammer down and run like hell to finish. I passed a few other runners and fought the urge to quit, cry, scream and sit down. I knew it was possible to attain and I wasn't going to give up easily. I could stand to hurt for 20 more minutes.

As I came within 3 of the finish, the flats gave way to a meandering downhill and before I knew it I could see the blue blow up finish line from the road. I saw John cross the line and hope spurred me on. The race volunteers steered me into the parking lot, the course flattened again and my legs were heavy. The cruelest part of this race is the "parking lot loop." You actually run past the finish line (its below you and off of the road) turn into where you park and loop the entire lot for your final .2 mile. Just as you feel motivated by the finish line, you have to run away from 26 miles it's a bit of a mind trick.

My form was horrible, everything hurt but as I inched close to the line I looked at my watch and thought again, "Do I smell Boston?" My time was going to be good enough to qualify. As I pushed those last few strides, I saw Tom beaming just past the finish line. As I glanced at the clock (gun time) and saw the 3:31 on it, I let out what was a combination of a sob and laugh. I had done it. Tom's first comment... "I am so proud of you" brought me to tears. All the training, all the downhill repeats in the God awful hot days, all the long runs and worry had paid off. I had finished what I set out to accomplish. For all of you that encouraged me, I felt you out there pushing me on...I carried your hopes with me on that course and am glad you were there with me for every step. Thank you for all your kind words and encouragement I am truly grateful to you. I ran my first and last marathon with all my heart and all the effort I had. If by a miracle I actually get into Boston, I will come out of my marathon "retirement" to run it but for now I will hang my hat in the house of the Ultras.

Monday, October 10, 2011

New River Re-do

Yesterday I competed in the New River 50k held in the tiny town of Fries, VA just off 77N on the scenic New River. This race is almost 100% flat and winds out and back on the New River Trail. Wonderfully maintained and very friendly to first timers,  this race was my first Ultra last year. I came back this year to chase a better time and to introduce my husband to the Ultra world. My only goal was to finish with a better time than last year and to get some miles on my legs as my marathon approaches. After catching the Toby Keith concert, we drove the two hours up to Galax, Va and stayed at the Super 8 for the night. Getting up early to get everything packed, I tried to give as much advice  to John as my novice brain would allow in order to make sure he was ready for his first race. We filled our Nathan Hydration packs and tucked in our favorite snacks including the infamous PB&J Uncrustables and Honey Stingers along with the basic needs of chapstick, salt/electrolyte pills and Gu Brew. After a quick hot breakfast (always oatmeal for me) we packed the car and headed to the starting line to pick up our packets....easier said than done.

After missing the initial turn off the main road, we proceeded to scower every inch of the countryside looking for a way in. We drove around for an extra 30minutes until we finally found the trail and managed to make our way into the park with 10 minutes to spare at check in. This was not how I wanted my race morning to start and believe me and I was hoping it wasn't a bad omen for the rest of the day. After checking in we met with my good friend and running coach Tom at the starting line. We were also joined by some Gaston County Runners, Patrick and Beckie who we previously had only chatted with online. Before we knew it, the countdown was going and we were off. Taking off at a nice little clip, we settled into a little group that consisted of John, Tom, Patrick, Beckie and myself. We were soon joined by a wonderful runner named Holly who was running her first Ultra as well. We took the long stretch to the aid station to chat about injuries, races etc.and to enjoy the beautiful river that runs next to this part of the course. After the aid station, the course then crosses the river on a beautiful old fashioned trestle bridge and leads to the railroad tunnel that is dark enough to not be able to see your feet. These are my two favorite parts of the course. As we kept trucking to the turning around, I stuck to my nutrition plan of Gu Brew and Honey Stinger Gels. We stayed a pretty steady pace of 8:30-9min miles and I felt pretty good as we ducked into the aid stations along the way to refill our bottles and pick up some grub. Just before the turn, John's pack decided to break and made it impossible for him to carry. He dumped it at the aid station and proceeded with his Amphipod and pockets full of gels and Honey Stinger Waffles. This did concern me a bit, but this race is so well manned and the aid stations are done so well that I figured he would be ok. As we started back after the turn, we found that Holly and I were holding onto the 4th and 5th spots for the women and I wanted so badly to finish above my goal of top 10 women but my glutes were having none of it.

Last year my quads and IT bands were the issue, but this year it the the posterior chain that was angry. Mostly my glute medius was the tightest and from time to time, this forced me into walking. Tom and Holly had pulled out ahead by a significant stretch by then and I gave up trying to keep up. I kept pushing and urged John to go ahead of me while I fought with miles back on my own. As I struggled with those John pushed onwards and was feeling good. I was so proud of him and could catch glimpses of him from time to time in his bright orange vest. That kept me motivated. Occasionally I would feel good and pick up my pace and it was at the last aid station where I finally caught up with him. We started that 5+ miles back along the river that in the morning is so pretty, but it can be sheer torture on the return. This is where John got the first feeling of the term "when the wheels fall off." That part of the trail stretches on so long that you swear you'll never get through it. Long, flat and with meandering curves that keep the next part of the trail just out of sight, we leaped frogged each other several times in that stretch.

Montrail. I waited for John to finish and had to admit that it brought me to tears to see him finishing so strong. I could see the relief on his face and I was so proud that he ran so well. Smashing my first Ultra time by 30 minutes, he was a true warrior! After Tom snapped another photo and I discovered that I also scored a Montail running hat in the raffle they have (another bonus of this awesome race), we made our way to the car to grab a beer and sit in the river. This is one of the best parts of the post race! The New River runs about 50 yards from the finish line and offers a wonderful piece of therapy for an aching body. Sitting in the river, Tom summed it up perfectly "what more could you ask for, a beautiful day, good friends, good beer and a ice bath!" So very spot on.

My finish

After about 20 minutes and some race review, we headed to the car for a change and into the second best part of the post race...the soup lunch. There are these wonderful women who make the most delicious homemade soups, bread and cookies that is served in the Bingo hall just up from the finish line. To a tired body and a stomach so tired of synthetic tasting food, it's heaven. John and I settled in with a few runners at lunch, stuffed our tummys full and headed to the car. We were able to catch up with Patrick and Beckie who both seemed to really enjoy the experience and both of them had an awesome race!

John finishing his first Ultra!

I have to say that this race is going to become an annual trek for me. Annette Bednosky is an awesome RD not to mention a stud Ultra runner herself (check out her accomplishments at USATF's website) but she has everything perfected. The volunteers were always cheering, quick to get you anything you needed at the aid stations and sprinkled all over the course to keep motivating. The aid stations have everything you can think of to eat and drink. Last year I had the privilege of having this as my first and I have to admit it spoiled me. My hat goes off to everyone involved in this race. I am very content with my finish and John's and will be back for another shot next year. I look forward to my marathon in two weeks and have all my fingers and toes crossed that I can pull out another successful race.