Tuesday, July 25, 2017

TRT 100: Sometimes Things Just Gotta Play Hard

In one of my favorite episodes of The Wire, Detective Kima Greggs refuses to fudge the identification of one of the gang members who everyone knows was one of the shooters who shot and almost killed her in a drug bust gone bad. Bunk tries to tell her that things will play a whole lot easier in court with an ID, but Greggs refuses by simply saying, “Sometimes things just gotta play hard.”

I’ve always loved that line because it was just plain good writing. It was exactly what a cop like her would say in that situation. She believed in doing things the right way. All the time. No matter the outcome. I identify with that. And that line was the refrain that got me through a tough night at TRT 100. Well, that and a whole lotta help from my family and friends. It’s a good story (if you’re into 100 mile race reports), so grab venti cup of coffee and settle in.

I didn’t do a blog after Eastern Divide and before TRT because we were in the thick of moving and I was teaching summer school. Couple all that with my focus on being a new dad, and the blog just had to give. TRT, though, it’s worth the time. I just put PT to bed, so I should (I hope) have a little time to get all this down.

Chris, Sean, and I set off for Reno by way of Charlotte on the Wednesday night before race day. With a little airport sprinting (along with Andy) we made our connection in Salt Lake and arrived in Reno in time to hook up with Brett, Michele, Jordy, Kristin, Josh Starner, Josh Hamilton, and Matt. Thursday and Friday were dedicated to race prep. We started with a little start line recon Friday morning:

Rolling Deep: Photo Andy

Saturday morning at 3:45 we set out for the start line.

The gun went off at 5, and Brett, Jordy, Josh, Torrie, and I set off on the first of two 50 mile loops. We settled into an easy pace and chatted happily for the first few miles. After a bit, Jordy was warmed up. He said his goodbye for the day and took off to join the front of the pack. The rest of us kept cruising knowing that, for us, this was a race that would reward patience.

The first 30 miles were pretty uneventful. Brett and I stuck together through Hobart, Tunnel 1 and the Red House loop. We came into the first crew spot at Diamond Peak  (mile 30) together.

Seeing PT, Ginger, and Lois there was really the highlight of the first 50 miles for me. I wasn’t sure if they’d be there, and my sprit soared when I saw them.

Photo array credit: Pawel

The crew got me in and out and outfitted with an ice bandana. (Thanks, Kirby. Those things were crucial for keeping cool.) I was in and out a little slower than my normal AS routine, but I decided pretty early in this race to not worry about that. There was so much sand and grit on the course that I felt like it was worth it to give up time in aid stations to take care of my feet so that I could avoid blisters later.

I took off from Diamond Peak to catch up with Brett, and was happy to hook back up with him before too long. 

Brett and I mostly ran together on and off for the first 50 miles getting separated here and there. Sharing the first lap with Brett was a huge help. Time in the mountains with him is something I treasure. We had a blast chewing up the miles together and keeping each other happy.   

We got split up somewhere after Hobart 2 (I stopped to avail myself of the facilities). The climb up to the Boy Scouts at Snow Valley was a bit of a valley (see what I did there, Brett?) for me on lap 1. I got behind on calories and didn’t realize it until I found myself getting irrationally angry at the signs leading into the aid station. The Boy Scouts were awesome, and they stuffed me full of food and got me moving again for the 7 mile descent (mostly) to the Stonehenge 50 mile aid station.

 When I got there,  I got a little more love from PT and Ginger to stoke the stoke. 

Ginger, PT, and Lois, were there with the Blacksburg Crew (Josh S, Kristen, Michele) and my awesome race team (Chris and Sean) to get me turned around and back out on the second lap. I told them we could take it easy and not rush. I came into mile 50 a touch over 12 hours. I knew a negative split was not going to happen, so sub 24 was no longer a realistic time goal. The goal was to take care of my feet, get some clean clothes, and make sure I was chilled out going into the second lap. Chris and I got all geared up and started out on lap 2. I needed to walk for a while to let the food I had crammed in settle, and Chris was cool with that. I promised him that we would not repeat Grindstone and that we’d run plenty tonight. We ran off and on for a bit.

Coming into Hobart 3, I realized we might not make Tunnel 4 before sunset. No worries, I had a headlamp in my pack (I think). That was important because we’d hooked up with an awesome guy named Shannon from Vegas (by way of Hawaii) who was in need of a headlamp. He asked if he could just hang with us until Tunnel so he wouldn’t be out in the dark alone. I told him I could do him one better: I could give him a headlamp at Hobart that he could just use, so he wouldn’t have to wait on us. I was feeling a little beat up and knew I was going to need to mostly hike for an hour or so. In the end, I ended up running the last two miles to Tunnel sans headlamp.  I couldn’t find it in my pack easily and didn’t want to waste time looking for it, so I just used my Marine Issue Night Vision and jogged it into Tunnel without a light. Shannon tried to give me mine back, but I couldn’t take it. It just felt wrong. It was not a big deal anyway. Shannon ended up being happy to have the company and he hitched himself to our train for the rest of the race. It was great having the extra company.

As we hit Tunnel for the fourth time and set out on the Red House loop for the second time (mile 62ish), things stopped being fun and games. Red House Loop 2 was the beginning of a rather dark period of the race for me. Not literally, I had a baller Petzl Nao headlamp in my drop bag there. I just fell down into the bad part of the nothing box for a few hours.

 I couldn’t get into a running rhythm for very long. My HR kept spiking and I just felt weak. That can spiral out of control, and I fought it throughout the loop. I ate a pile of bacon wrapped tater tots at Red House (thank you amazing Red House Aid Station people!) and tried to get the train going again as we left Tunnel for the 5th time (1 more to go). We met up with Brett and the Bon Jovi of Math Education- Andy (who ran his first ultra pacing Brett!!!!), and Josh Hamilton. We left in a train heading up the mountain towards Bull Wheel. I just couldn’t keep the rhythm and started a bad spiral for about an hour. I had to unhitch from the train and let Josh and Brett go off into the night.

Chris and Shannon cruised along with me mostly in silence for quite a while. Somewhere on the climb to Bull Wheel is where Detective Greggs came into the picture. 

I’m not ashamed to say I considered bagging it on that climb. I was pushing calories as much as I could, but I was just so sleepy. I just wanted to lie down on a rock and sleep. So BADLY. Double fisting caffeinated gels only made my stomach feel bad. I did it anyway. It didn’t help. Sleep beckoned me like the sirens calling to Odysseus. Luckily, Chris had lashed me to the masthead and was driving us forward.

For a couple of miles, Chris, Shannon, and I climbed in silence. I considered how I might get out of the 8-mile descent to Diamond Peak and the 2 mile brutal climb out of the mile 80 aid station. I’ll admit to considering just turning the wrong way after Bull Wheel and ignoring the protest I knew would come from Chris if I headed down to Diamond Peak off course. I knew he wouldn’t LET me quit. I’d have to force it. I considered that for a few minutes. And then, I thought about some things things:
  •  I. Do. Not. Quit.    Ever. 
  •  I am here to set an example for my son. Your word is your bond. Do what you say you are going to do. That’s what you have in life, so never give it up.
  •  My mom. She’s going through chemo right now, and I’m carrying the little Smurf mountain climber in my pack that she gave me. How am I going to quit at my hobby when she’s acting like chemo is no big deal? Not an option.
  • Sean. He flew all the way out here. How could I deprive him of the chance to see the these mountains? My friend Star stuck it out at WSER last year in far worse circumstances so I could see the course. Gotta live up to that.
  • Detective Greggs. Good Ol’ Detective Greggs. Sometimes things just gotta play hard. Well, TRT let’s dance. So we did.

I sucked it up and pounded two more caffeinated Chia gels and did my best to run it back into Diamond Peak—using the term run very loosely. Chris, Shannon, and I rolled into Diamond creek a couple of hours past the time I hoped to be there. But I honestly didn’t care about the clock. I had one goal left: Play this thing out-- hard.

My main goal going into the race was to run the last 7 miles. Sure, I had other goals (sub 24; sub 30; finish no matter what). But, I have had trouble closing 100s. I have a history of walking in the last 20 miles and not really pushing myself. I needed to prove to myself that I can close hard, and I went into TRT with that being my #1 goal. I felt like this was a chance to re-define myself as a 100 miler. I was damn sure not going to let a few hours of feeling sorry for myself get in the way of that. I didn’t. And Sean wouldn’t have let me anyway.

I picked up Sean (or rather Shannon and I picked up Sean) for the second trip up the 2 miles of HOLY HELL that is the climb out of Diamond Peak. It went on forever. (Kudos to the RD for putting that sandy bastard of a climb at mile 80). Brett and Michele slipped away from us on the climb- not be seen again until the finish. Josh Hamilton was long gone. He crushed it after the 100K point and never looked back (Well done, brother).

I spent the time from Diamond Peak to Hobart mentally preparing myself to get down to business once we started the climb to Snow Valley. I kept making myself eat so I wouldn’t hate on the Boy Scouts and their signs on the climb. Sean did a great job as a pacer on this leg.

For 13 miles he chatted with Shannon and me, told jokes, kept it light, and never let us give up on ourselves. Once we went through the Snow Valley Aid Station, Sean cajoled me into running. He made me keep my promise to myself.

We left Snow Valley at like 27 hours and 45 minutes. We had just a little over 7 miles to go. I really wanted to run hard and try to get in under 29 hours. I didn’t bother doing math (Don’t tell me the odds. Ever. I’m like Han Solo that way, and Pawel is always right when it comes to odds anyway). I ran hard. I blew out my quads and dug deeper than I’ve ever dug to close out a 100. Instead of doing the “Who cares? Walk it in” thing this time, I cared. I kept Detective Greggs, PT, Ginger (and all the sacrifices she made to help me train and be at this race), my mom, and the promises I made to myself at the front of my mind and kept eating gels.

Sean probably had a good time laughing at me grunting in pain as I tried to power my way down the hills and up the little rollers. He was probably running without breathing hard, but I ran with the intent of dropping him. 

I knew I couldn’t, but I’m never one to let reality get in the way of effort. 

We passed a few people and I felt the surge of happy that comes from that kind of thing late in a race (FEED ME, as Sam Evans would say).  

Sean and rolled into the finish line at 29 hours and 14 minutes.

The prize: Seeing my family smiling at the finish; Seeing my friends basking in their accomplishments (and the pain that comes with them) at the finish; And that Buckle. That sweet ass BUCKLE.

So to wrap up this long report (I told you get a Venti), I just want to say a huge THANK YOU to my amazing wife who made it possible for our family to be together out here. Thanks for making the trip and helping Ginger,  Lois (mother-in-law of the year).

 I also need to thank Chris and Sean for getting me through.  I owe you guys BIG TIME and look forward to returning the favor.

Brett, thanks for sharing the miles with me. Looking forward to many more.

Jordy, seeing you out on the trail in the night was a big lift. You always inspire me, my friend.

Josh Hamilton- way to crush it! Thanks for another awesome adventure. Grindstone is going to be a party.

Kristen, Michele, Josh Starner, and Andy: Thanks for the love and support.

Mom, thanks for the inspiration. Keep fighting. We need you around for a long time.

George (the RD) and all the amazing volunteers at TRT 100: You put together an awesome race.

Here’s a link to the Strava data. Strava took some liberties with the last 7 miles so the splits are not accurate.

Shoes: Hoka Speedgoat 2. I recommend.

Bonus: Ginger, Lois, and PT headed off to Yosemite for a week of exploring.

We finally made it home on Sunday with a little help from our friends. You guys rock! 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Boston 2017: Aim Small, Miss Small/ Aim Big, Hit Big (Sometimes)

Anyone who has studied and/or practiced the art of long range shooting (as I have in a previous life) knows the old saw: Aim Small, Miss Small. While this is great guidance for hitting a man-sized target at 1000 yards, it’s not an approach that suits me as a runner.

For me, running long distances is about finding things out. It’s about exploration. It’s about testing the limits. Mostly, it’s a chance—In our safe, comfortable, insulated life—to stare into the abyss. Running offers the chance to grow. To strive, to seek, and to not yield even in the face of struggle.

With that approach to my chosen hobby, I often gleefully toe the line at races with goals that are improbable. Sure, I always set more reasonable sub goals to keep me pushing when the big dream has been swallowed by a cruel reality (see my Grindstone race report here. But, I’m not interested in having things that are easily attained. I never have been.

I share this idea as an introduction to my race report from the 2017 (121st) Boston Marathon. In November 2015, I ran the Richmond Marathon with the goal of qualifying for Boston. As someone whose preference is 100 milers and not marathons, I thought it would be cool to run a “fast” (for me) marathon. Qualifying for Boston would represent that. So, I ran Richmond and snagged a 3:09 (and change) that put me well under the 3:15 qualifying standard for my age group.

Fast forward a year and a half. Add in the greatest addition to the world I can imagine (Paul Thomas born November 10, 2016—the USMC Birthday, btw), and this is where the idea of Aiming Big to maybe hit Big comes into the picture for Boston.

I knew that I wanted to spend the bulk of my time after Paul was born learning how to be a good dad and a good partner for Ginger in this thing called parenthood. That meant making a commitment to the home life first and running goals second.

I adjusted my running and training to reflect that priority. Instead of doing speedwork, going for a regular run before or after work, and hitting the track once a week, I shouldered a backpack and ran to work and back a few days a week. When PT was big enough, I knocked out my morning miles with him in the stroller on the other days.

The strategy was to get in the miles where I could without sacrificing time at home.

Ginger was an awesome partner and made it possible for me to do my long runs in the mountains on the weekends, so I could still feel good about building my base for Tahoe Rim Trail 100 this summer. I managed to get in a little tempo (with the pack or the stroller) here and there, but mostly I knew I’d be running Boston on some quality volume and HEART. I had, after all, run over 700 miles for the year and paced 43 miles at Umstead a few weeks ago (Thanks for letting me run with you Chris and Star).

In the face of the facts, which I did consider based on the sage advice of Wendell Berry and Zach Miller (http://www.irunfar.com/2016/08/though-you-have-considered-the-facts.html) I decided to follow my pattern of setting a big goal that would give me a chance to explore. The facts told me that I probably wasn’t in the kind of shape you need to be in for big marathon goals. My friend Pawel also made I was aware of this fact. He is right; running 6:50s for 26 miles DOES require a certain amount of turnover. But…

Facts should not limit us. They should inform us.

I considered all the facts as Wendell Berry has suggested, and then I joyfully set about Aiming Big in the hopes of hitting big. One never knows when the stars will align and hard work and heart will give you a gift. Considering the facts helped me formulate reasonable sub-goals and approach all the goals with joy.

So, I hopped a plane to Boston aiming for a sub 3 hour marathon.  Yes. I know. Sub 3 is a BIG goal. Yes. I also know that it was an unlikely goal. But this is where the joy of running is for me. I KNEW I could easily run a 3:25 marathon, which is the qualifying standard for me for next year. I knew I could go and just have fun cruising. But I wanted to explore. So I did.

I am, however, not foolish. I was not toeing the line without having fully considered all the facts and building sub-goals that were informed by them. So, I made a reasonable plan:

Run the first 5K at a pace neither too slow to allow a sub 3 finish or so fast it would cause me to blow up before the halfway point. After that, I planned to progressively ramp it up if it was going to be my day.

It wasn’t. I just didn’t have the turnover. That was apparent by the 10K point. Chris, my partner in this edition of Chasing Windmills, was feeling just the same. He had, in fact, just finished his first 100 miler two weeks earlier. We talked a little, pushed ourselves, and set about the work of chasing our sub-goals.

We’d hoped to run together the whole day and finish sub 3. Instead, we stayed together until our paces were no longer simpatico, and I took off at the halfway point and tried to just run splits that were as even as possible. That alone was a big goal considering my training.

At the half, I was at 1:36. I was planning to negative split as I had done at Richmond, but the facts told me that a negative split that would result in a sub 3 finish was a fool’s errand. I settled into a pace that would keep 3:08 (a PR) within reach. Each time I tried to pick up that pace, the heat from the sun made it seem like I was running faster than I was. Mile 16 was 6:57 and it felt like 6:30.

At mile 17, I started feeling low on energy, so I double fisted a couple of gels Jordan Chang style to ensure I wouldn’t bonk. A PR was out the window at this point, but running strong to the finish wasn’t.

 At mile 19, you roll into the “hills” that Boston has to offer. Heartbreak Hill proved to be much ado about nothing and I cruised up it thinking: This would, indeed, suck at a 6:50 pace, but it’s really no big deal in the 7:30s. Heartbreak hill came and went.

Rolling into Brookline at mile 22.5 was a big motivator. Chris’ family and Julia were lined up outside of the house where we were staying (Thanks for having me Frank and Megan). It was a big lift to have them cheering us on. Chris’ dad was there too. I never want to disappoint a fellow Marine, so I made sure to cruise through trying to make it look easy. Whether I did or not is up for debate. I doubt I did.

Photo: Frank Curran

I was able to pick up the pace a bit here. I was still really hoping to at least go sub 3:10 at this point. I wanted to just blister that last 6K or so. I figured: here’s a chance to explore—go hard in the last 5K of a marathon to sneak in under 3:10. Again, each time I tried to pick it up, my body responded with a laugh. So, just kept it steady and soaked in the scene.  

I did push (but not blister) the final 5K trying to get in under 3:15. It wasn’t easy mind you- 7:20s are not easy for me that far into a race under most circumstances, and they were not easy here. I laid down a 6:54 mile 26, but 3:15 wasn’t to be either.

The tale of the clock: 3:16:36

·      I finished 3466 (out of 29,000 or so runners), which is pretty cool since my seed was 7267. I’m proud to say I literally passed thousands of people.

·      My second fastest marathon. Link to the Strava data

The reality: I didn’t hit any of the big goals I was really aiming for—at least not on the clock.

But, my biggest goal was to explore. And that one I hit. I saw what was possible on the training I had put in so far this year. What was possible was NOT a sub 3 marathon.

I did, however, have a lot of fun. I finished Boston and chased another windmill with Chris. I would have loved to have caught that sub 3 windmill, but I have zero regrets.

My main goal this year is to learn to be a good dad and a good partner. I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve had with PT and Ginger for any running goal. Life is about balance, and I’m learning how to strike a good balance between home and hobby.

So, my final thoughts after The Boston Exploration:
  • Aim Big, Hit Big. Don’t be satisfied with things you can easily obtain.
  • Set big goals. Say them out loud, so you’ll be accountable for them. And enjoy them.
  • Do not be afraid of “failure” because failure takes on many forms. The only form of failure I’m afraid of is failing to grow by exploring. 
I owe some folks some big Thank Yous:
  • Ginger, thank you for supporting me as I continue to chase windmills and learn how to do so as a new dad. I love you. 

  • Chris, thank you for always being up for staring into the abyss with me. Looking forward to TRT this summer.

  • Frank and Megan, thank you for the hospitality. I enjoyed meeting you both.

  • Jordy, thank you for helping out at the house while I was gone. 

  • Amy, thanks for being there for Ginger and PT while I was off adventuring. 

  • Jordy, Brett, Sean, Andy, Pawel, the boys from Always Brothers, Kirby, Steven, all the folks at Runabout Sports, and the rest of the BBurg running crew, thanks for the encouragement and support.  
·      For Andy: The wall is socially constructed. I refuse to participate in that construction.
·      For Pawel: You were right. Again.
·      Mom: I ran this one for you. Thanks for giving me strength.