Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Horse-Shoe Trail - Giddy Up!

So I've picked November 7-8 as my days to run the 142 mile Horse-Shoe Trail across southeastern PA. After combing over the trail description and maps, I've decided to start on the western end of the trail where it meets w/ the Appalachian Trail. I picked this direction for a couple reasons:

1) I won't have to hike an extra couple miles from the end of the Horse-Shoe Trail to the road when I'm done (I like to be DONE when I'm done...not have to still walk a couple miles to the car!). By ending the run in Valley Forge, I'll be right at the street when the trail ends.

2) The first 30+ miles on the western end of the trail are probably the most remote and challenging as far as terrain goes, so I'll happily glide over that on fresh legs in the beginning instead of shuffling like a zombie at the end.

3) The prevailing wind is generally W/NW this time of year in that area of PA (Hey, I do my research!), so I'll gladly opt to have it at my back more often than not as I head east to Valley Forge.

Since I'm doing this run unsupported, I'm plotting out my water supply points pretty carefully. There are a few streams/springs along the way that I've plotted, but finding others is proving to be pretty tough as the maps of this trail are printed in black and white (i.e. No blue rivers to easily pick out). I'll be fine either way, but the B&W maps are definitely proving to be a challenge in some regards.

Since I know I'll be running over some hills w/ cell towers and through a few small towns along the way, I'll be sure to send some audio posts to the blog as I make my way through the trail. Hopefully the Utterli site has ironed out some its issues of late and all my posts make to the blog in a reasonable time. Either way, I'll be sure to carry a camera with me and post a nice run report within a day or two when I get back home.

As far as a Speed Record goes, I have inquiries out all over the place right now to see if anyone knows of an existing record, but thus far one doesn't seem to exist. This is great news to me since I'll really be able to relax and take my time running w/ my semi-heavy pack (I'll post my complete list of gear/fuel before I take off next weekend).

One of the major reasons I'm doing this run is to practice how my Vermont Long Trail attempt will go next year, and I hope to gain some quality insight in terms of what gear to carry and how long I should stop for my quick snoozes on the trail. I know my Long Trail attempt is still a ways off, but I'm already excited to start ramp-up process for that big run!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Plans, They Are a' Changin'

Next year was going to be the "Year of the Trail" for me. I had designs on making three different Speed Record Attempts on various historic trails ranging from 140 to 370 miles. On top of that, I was going to kick off the spring by making a serious attempt at becoming the 9th person to finish Barkley. ....then the whole "World Championships in France" thing popped up in my schedule and forced me to re-think my 2010 plan. Obviously this is a good problem to have.

Since I'll need to focus lots of my training on flatter road-style terrain over the next 7 months, I'm scrapping Barkley and one of my trail attempts for the spring. The Race Director for the sold-out Umstead 100 was nice enough to let me into the race last week, so I'll have that as a suitable March warm-up for France. Running 100 miles on those park roads is just a wee bit more appropriate as training for France than the sawbriar mountains and 52,900 feet of elevation gain at Barkley.

Given that the France race also takes place on the same day as the Massanutten 100, I'll have to push my return to MMT back yet another year....which stinks, but isn't completely bad: I'll be able run on 71% of the course in February after earning my invitation to run the 71 mile "Reverse Ring" course by finishing "The Ring" last month. The extra experience and longer wait will only make my eventual return to MMT that much more successful, I'm sure.

Once I get back from France, I'll still have half the year to work in some of my trail plans, and the major focus will be on challenging the Vermont Long Trail record (271 miles in 4 days, 12 hours, 46 minutes). There are lots of reasons for me to make a serious run at this record, but I'll save those for a future post. As of right now I'm thinking I'll be ready to make the attempt in late August or early September of next year. Jonathan Basham broke the record this year w/ a September run, and I'll admit even before his record effort I also thought this was a good time to do the run for weather & bug reasons. I didn't spend the first 28 years of my life in the New England woods and not notice things like that. I'll talk more about the Long Trail as the time for that run draws closer.

As for the rest of 2009, I'm ready to focus on one more solid effort in the next couple months, but to be quite honest there isn't much to chose from on the race schedule! I would have loved to run the Pinhoti 100 in Alabama, but it happens to be one of those races that would randomly cost me about $3.2 million to get to. I think I'm better off saving my $$ for France this year. I'll save Pinhoti (which looks like a great point-to-point 100 miler) for another year when travel plans are easier to work out.

As an alternative I'll be pushing up one of my solo Trail runs from 2010 to next month. I still need to work out the logistics, but most likely I'll be heading out to run the 140 mile Horse-Shoe Trail in PA (Harrisburg to Valley Forge) in the middle of November. It'll be a little late to catch the foliage up there, but I'll still enjoy the countryside (and probably the company of a few horses too!) during my journey. Since this is a lesser known trail in the running world, I'm not sure an official "Speed Record" exists (still researching that), but for someone who is looking to take it a little easy on his run and appreciate nature a bit, I consider this is a good thing. Enjoying a little relaxing time on the trail before focusing seriously on France sounds like a perfect plan to me! Giddy-up!

Friday, October 9, 2009

More Photos from National Championship

In between his 3 million other duties, Crew Chief Jeff found the time to take a ton of photos during the NorthCoast24 last are a few to help show the various stages of the race (and how cool the venue was!), Enjoy!

Pre-race photo...let's see how long that smile lasts on my face.

Finding a nice easy groove early on. ...and if you're wondering what high-end fancy shirt I'm running in, it's an $8.99 Target special.

Did someone say this field was a little stacked? Here's Scott Jurek and Serge Arbona cruising around in the morning. Jenny (Scott's crew) is in the Brooks Jacket while Lizzy looks on in a pink hoodie, which I can only assume is another $8.99 Target special. We're big fans.

Jeff kept me perfectly in time with split updates on every lap. You can see the Tent City view of the Cleveland skyline here.

Speaking of Tent City, here's Lizzy posing in front of the last section if it. Quite a cool place to run through during the day/night. Someone's crew was always there to give you a smile or clap as you passed through.

Still smiling early on, must be when I realized the sun was coming out and we might not get drenched like everyone was predicting.

Jurek leading the way as we practice for the World 24 Hour Conga Line Championships.

Lizzy shows off the view of the skyline from the middle of the park...

...then hops right back to business to hand me a full bottle as I passed through.

It wasn't all work for her though...she got to frolic with me along the lake for a couple seconds here. She's not much interested in running, but as far as frolicking goes, she's world class.

Jeff and Lizzy perfect the art of the self-shot w/ Cleveland in the background. Please note neither of them are from Boston, but they both wore their Red Sox caps all day - Talk about full support for this Boston boy!

It was too early to hallucinate, but I still think this lady is actually a ghost that walked straight out of the lake and stood in that random spot as the sun went down.

As the sun (and lots of the other runners) started to fade, I started picking up the pace.

Sharing a moment w/ Women's 3rd place finisher, Team USA member, and expert curler, Deb Horn

My love for running at night really helped me reel in the leaders as I kept flying when the hours got small.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Zombie, Zombie, Zombie

As the sun came back up I put the glasses back on and did my best to not be embarrassed by wearing tights in public.

Hey look, even though I've just realized there are two guys right on my heels for 2nd and 3rd place, I'm still smiling!

...and yes, the smile can't be wiped off my face at the Award Ceremony as RD Dan Horvath announces my 139.28 miles and 3rd place finish!

Monday, October 5, 2009

NorthCoast 24/National Championship Report!

First off, let me thank everyone who wished me well and sent comments and encouragement, not only in the days leading up to this race, but during this entire injury-plagued year as well. Over the course of a 24 hour run, you have a lot of time (24 hours, even) to think about how lucky you are in terms of the friends and family you have, and I don't take for granted anything I'm able to do, in and out of my running shoes. Thank you!

With that, let's get to the good stuff...and trust me, there's some drama at the end, so it's worth plowing through my endless rambling!

Elizabeth and I loaded up the XTerra Mobile Command Unit and began our road trip to Cleveland on Thursday morning. With U2 playing that night in Charlottesville, VA, we made the less-than-conventional route from DC to Cleveland by driving 3 hours in the opposite direction to catch the show. To prove how crazy this driving plan was, when I initially told GoogleMaps I needed directions from DC to Cleveland and then added Charlottesville as a necessary stop along the way, my computer promptly burst into flames.

The crazy-huge stage for the U2 show in the daylight when the gates opened

...and then lit up in one of its 90 billion color combinations...very cool!

After the show we drove about 1.5 hours toward Cleveland to cut into the 7.5 hour drive we would have had left on Friday. After getting some good sleep between 2am-9am in the hotel, we were off on the final 6 hour leg to Cleveland. Sure, more sleep and less excitement might have been a a better lead-in to such a big run, but whatever...I don't like to make my running any more important than any other part of life, and I didn't think twice when the opportunity arose to see my wife's favorite band on the grounds of UVA (which is both dear to her heart AND where she earned her Masters at the School of Architecture).
A Beautiful Day to see U2 at the University of Virginia!

After a mostly rainy drive, we pulled into Cleveland around 4pm on Friday afternoon, and about an hour later my brother in-law and Master Crew Chief Jeff landed in town as well (he flew in from Dallas just to crew, how's that for support!?!). With our team assembled we grabbed some dinner and supplies before hitting the sack around 11pm. One of the benefits from all the travel and excitement was we all fell asleep pretty quickly; no pre-race jitters for me, just some much-needed ZZZs.

The morning came quickly and we made the short drive to the race site at Edgewater Park on the banks of Lake Erie. This was the first year for the NorthCoast 24, and the race director Dan Horvath did a great job picking the venue. There was lots of scenery to admire (the lake, the skyline, etc), and the course was just about perfect for running. The .9 mile loop had just enough rises/drops in it to work your leg muscles evenly every loop. The miles were easy to pile up, especially in the hours when the wind wasn't blowing too hard (it wasn't too bad during the windy hours, but it definitely slowed everyone down a few seconds per loop at some points). With the skies overcast and threatening (and the temps in the 50s), there was a chance the day could turn nasty, but it never really did. It was a cold day for crews, but as far as I was concerned, it was pretty sweet running weather.

We set up our Base Camp in "Crew Alley" along the 1/4 mile stretch of the course after the Official Race Headquarters area. Here are Jeff and Lizzy proudly showing off their wind/rain-protected home base. Well done, guys!!

It was pretty chilly at the start, so I was bundled up (and it was a little tough to get my pre-race hit of gel off the spoon!). You'll notice Scott Jurek readying himself for the race in the background; his crew set up shop next door.

Just before the 9 a.m. start I made my way over to the crowd at the starting line and chatted with defending National Champ (and all-around great guy) Byron Lane for a bit. Poor Bryon has been limited by injuries the past few weeks and had to end his day early at 94 miles. Having seen him win the Viaduct 100 in August after he fell and broke his finger about 30 miles in, I feel pretty confident in saying he's one tough dude and will be back with a vengeance to fight to reclaim his title next year!

My plan for the day (just like in all of my rehab races this year) was to let all the fast guys go without me at the beginning. With the insanely loaded field of running gods, legends, heroes, and super-humans, I knew the only way to save the infinitesimally small chance I had at a top 3 finish was to run my race and my race alone. When the gun went off, I was standing 30 people deep in the crowd and didn't even bother to look up and see the favorites take off...but considering they started lapping me within the first 4 miles, I knew they were positively flying out there.

With my limited training this year, I knew my brain would be more important than my legs in this race. If I was to have any success, I needed to stick to the same plan from my three August races: Ignore the leaders, start off slowly, and run within my limits to get in quality training miles without aggravating my shin injury. The big difference with this race is after following the slow n' steady plan for the first part of the race, this wouldn't just be another training run: To hell with my shin, this was what I've been rehabbing for all year, and I was going to make my move no matter what.

I know how it feels to have a runner blow by me in a race when I'm starting to hurt (not good!), so I figured if I could make a strong move after 50 or 60 miles, maybe that could mentally crush a few runners ahead of me...then maybe a couple more would drop from injury...and maybe a couple more would be eaten by coyotes. You never know. The point is, I knew I needed a ton of things to go right for me to make top 3, but only one of them was really under my control: Run smart, keep hammering out the miles after I made my move, and let the chips fall where they may.

Jeff and Elizabeth called out my lap splits right from the start, and I can't overstate how important that was for keeping me running 9 minute miles and not 7:30s or 8s. It took a few laps to settle in, but after progressive warnings from them like, "Too fast!", "Maybe slow it down a bit", and finally "Mellow out, Dude!", I figured out how to run the prescribed low 9 pace and settled in. After that I just kept my head down and started churning out the miles. It wasn't long before Mark Godale (American Record Holder for 24 Hours - 164 miles!), Scott Jurek, Dave James, Serge Arbona, Akos Knoya, Phil McCarthy, Bill Allen, etc etc etc started blowing by me...again and again and again. Holy cow were they were about 5 or 6 other guys I didn't even know! I forced myself not to pay any attention to the circling masses though; I had my plan, and if nothing else, it would be great to look back on this race years later and remember having the chance to run with so many legends of the sport. It really was pretty cool, after all!
Staying calm and cool early on (John McCarroll photo)

Smoothly and steadily I turned out the miles. My plan for the first 8 hours was to stop every 2 hours for 1 or 2 minutes just to stretch out my calves, quads, and hamstrings. Nothing major, just a quick stretch to keep things loose in the chilly air. While I did my physical maintenence, Jeff and Lizzy would prepare my fuel. I started with a plan to use EFS as my main fuel source, but it led to all sorts of stomach cramps in the first 6 hours, so I nixed that plan and went back to the old standard of Perpetuem and Hammer gel. I don't know why I always think there's some magic new potion out there that will work better for me than Perp and Gels. I think I've learned my lesson for the last time and will stick to that combo for good. To clarify since I always get asked this question: when I say that Perp and Gels were my fuel source, I mean that's all I used. I didn't eat any solid food at all for the 24 hours.
Jeff fills my tank while I make mothers around the world wince
by drinking directly from the jug

Running my slow and easy pace offered me the opportunity to meet some great people out on the course throughout the day. One stand-out was Jeff Burke, a local policeman and Air Force reservist who runs races every weekend wearing this rig (see below) which sports various military and service flags. His goal is to spread awareness of all of those who selflessly serve our country, and from the looks of the 2nd picture, he had the chance to explain his message to a few curious crew kids during the race. You're a great American, Jeff! (I should also mention he covered 71+ miles wearing that rig all day/night! Oh, and it had LIGHTS on it at night too!!)

As the day moved on, I didn't bother looking at the leader board until mile 30 or so. When I took a quick look at that point, the print was too small on the screen for me to make out any of the mileages as I ran by, but thanks to my short seven-letter name, I was able to quickly pick it out on the list. I smiled when I saw that I was hardly hanging in the top 20 (I was 18 or so). I thought to myself, "So far so good...wait a little longer...stick to the plan...let the leaders' legs start to tire, then make your move."

So on I went, running my 9s and staying quiet. Thirty miles turned to 50 or 60, and the sun began to fade. I started the mental debate with myself; When do I make the move? I had a smart and cautious Angel dressed in white on one shoulder saying, "Keep the safe and slow pace, Dan. You're not in top shape, just keep doing what you're doing and be happy to finish the run healthy and ready to race another time. Your mommy will be proud of you no matter what.".

...and then there was the guy on the other shoulder: His name was "Eddie" and he was sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet yelling, "Just, flip the damn switch and fire the freakin' engines already!!!"

While the guy in white made some solid points, Eddie's plan sounded way more fun, and I decided it was indeed time to make my move. The next time I passed my crew I yelled out for all to hear, "Hang up my Iron Maiden battle flag on the front of our tent, it's time to Kick some Ass!!". So they did...and I did too. Who am I to argue with Eddie?

If you had this guy yelling at you to get moving, you would too!

It's hard to put into words what happened over the next few hours, but it's safe to say my plan worked to perfection. After I flipped the switch, my 9s turned into 8s and the miles started flying by. I started lapping everyone. When insanely-fast Dave James (who was in first place at the time) said to me "Man, you're flying! I need to stick with you all night!", I knew I was getting noticed by some of the leaders. I figured if some of them were hurting at that point, maybe the sight of me zipping around the track throughout the night would ever-so-slightly start the whispers in their heads: Did they go out too fast? Do they have enough left in the tank to keep going for 10 more hours?? It was a long shot, but it was all I had for ammo, so I just hammered out the miles and hoped they noticed me.

Jeff and Lizzy kept yelling out my lap times throughout the night, and when they'd announce anything in the 7s, not only did it make me feel good, but the other crews started taking note and clapping too. I knew I was doing something special (for my talent level, anyway) and I was happy to keep the good vibes going as long as I could. When I crossed 100 miles in a negative split at 15:55 (a new PR too!), I knew I was holding up my end of the plan to make my strategic move I just needed keep hammering through the wee hours and hope for a little luck to crack into the top 10.

After 16 hours, as planned, I started running 5 lap intervals before stopping to stretch/fuel up for a couple minutes. This plan kept my legs loose and body fueled throughout the night. I had dropped back down to running 9s and 10s (with a couple 11s and 12s mixed in during stretch/restroom laps), but I was still feeling good and churning out the miles. After about 18 hours I had climbed up into 8th place, and even better news than that: A few of the runners ahead of me were now reduced to a walk, and I stopped seeing a couple others on the course altogether. This just added more fuel to my fire as I kept hammering away, 5 laps at a time.

After about 20 hours I had climbed into 4th place. Another hour after that, I glanced at the the leader board again and saw my short little name now looking mighty big, sitting in 2nd place. No chance of catching Phil McCarthy in first, but that wasn't even remotely a consideration or care for me. My goal was to make the National Team w/ 135 miles and a Top 3 finish, and I knew it was well within reach if I kept things together for a couple more hours.

I ran the same pace/plan up until I had only 3 laps to go for 135 miles. There was about 1 hour and 40 minutes left in the race when, after not walking a single step for the first 132.3 miles, I decided to enjoy the sights of the sun coming up and walk 3 "victory" laps to get to my 135 mile goal (ok, I was finally feeling tired too!). I took my time talking to and congratulating all of the other runners who fought so hard out there all night. I shook a few volunteers' hands and thanked them for all their hard work. Soon enough the homestretch came and I crossed the timing mat one last time...

All smiles on the Victory laps (John McCarroll photo)

135 miles...hooray!!

When I crossed the timing mat to bring my total to 135.1 miles, there was still 35 minutes left on the clock, but I didn't care. I had made the goal of 135 and Top 3, so I was calling it a day. I asked the Time Keeper to verify I had gone 135 miles. He pointed to the leaderboard and said, "Yes, you've done 135.1"...simply music to my ears! I was so happy! Such an improbable goal, not only for the distance covered in my less-than-top shape, but also with such a loaded field of much more talented runners. I was so elated and relieved...and so very much done with running for the day!

...and then it happened.

For the first time in 24 hours I was close enough to the leaderboard to read the mileage numbers next to the runner names. I was immediately snapped out of my triumphant mood when I saw not one but TWO runners were now less than a lap behind me! If both passed me, I'd be out of the top 3 and miss out on the National Team! No!!!!!!!!

How STUPID could I have been to not at least have asked who was behind me (and how far back they were) before I started my "victory/jackass" laps?!! It was pretty tough to start running again with the same rhythm I had earlier, but the fear of missing out on Team USA because of such a moronic move was pretty good motivation. I looked over my shoulder for support from Eddie but he was fast asleep with the cockpit seat pushed back and the jet's gas tank gauge pinned on Empty. If I was going to save this race, I needed to rely on good ol' grit and tougness (which always sound great when writing about them days later, but at the time, they really hurt like hell!).
Guess who doesn't want to be running again? (John McCarroll photo)

Jeff relayed to me that ultra legend John Geesler was only a couple minutes behind me and running very well. Keith Straw, another veteran ultra He-man, was just behind him and closing fast as well. Since I honestly didn't care if I ended up with 2nd or 3rd place, I made the bargain with my screaming legs that I would let John pass, but if Keith got close, I'd have to switch on the miler's kick until either I won or blacked out...and for those of you who have done the later, you know it's really not very fun. Basically, I picked up the pace the best I could, but I wasn't going to hurt myself unless absolutely necessary. I saw no difference between 2nd and 3rd place (really, aside from $100 more in prize money, who cares?). The National Team is way more important than prize money...which quite honestly I didn't know existed until after the run.

After blowing through 3 more miles, I saw John Geesler coming and gave him a hearty congratulations on a great run. He's really such an idol of mine, it made me proud to see him rebound like he did. We had talked early in the race about how he was frustrated with not being able to make the National Team the past couple years. When we passed each other throughout the rest of the race I did my best to encourage him when he expressed doubts in his ability. Not that a savvy vet like him needs to hear anything from me, but I hope it helped him get some positive vibes flowing a bit. ...and regardless of my placement in the race, it made me quite happy to see him cruise by me into 2nd place and make the team again. I thought, "There's a guy who just earned his spot on the I need to do the same!"

As for Keith, he's also a great guy, but on this day, for the remaining 5 or 6 minutes of the race, there was no way in hell I was giving him an inch. I pushed hard after my last full lap and started a semi-kick in the final 2 minutes to ensure he couldn't catch up (I didn't see him, but with everyone wearing hats/jackets at this point, I wasn't sure what to look for anyway). When the horn sounded I was so very extremely super happy and relieved. I had done it...3rd place...Team someone get me a chair!

I had finished a 1/2 lap at the end and just happened to be standing next to one of the volunteers who I had casually spent a few minutes chatting with a hour earlier on one of my Jackass laps. It was great to shake his hand again, only this time as an official member of the National Team. Elizabeth came all the way over from the other side of the loop to give me a big hug and kiss (and snap this picture):

Yes! Team USA here I come!!

Once I got back to the headquarters there were many phone calls and hugs to be shared. I couldn't have done it without my amazing wife and bro Jeff...Thank you guys!!!!

It was great to chat with Scott Jurek and Akos Konya a bit before the Awards Ceremony. Neither one felt like they "had it" during this race, but even on their bad days they're such gracious ambassadors to the sport (and so generous w/ their time to pose for all the photo requests from fanboys like me!).

It felt great to get called up for the Award Ceremony and shake RD Dan Horvath's hand (and collecting the $200 check was cool too!!). Dan and his team of volnteers really put on a fantastic race. This was the first year for NorthCoast 24, but it was run like a well-oiled machine. Fantastic job, Dan!

Here are the Triumphant 3 (John, Phil, RD Dan, and me) from the race. I'm so lucky to be joining John and Phil as the first official members of the 2010 National Team! The remaining 3 spots will go to the top performances distance-wise in all other 24 Hour events held during 2009.

In the end Phil covered 151.5 miles in a stellar win against an amazing field. He was strong and steady all day. No way I was going to catch him! John grabbed second with 139.40 miles, and I was right behind with 139.28 miles in 3rd. I should also mention Jill Perry ran a fantastic race for the Women's title with 136.32 miles. Anna Piskorska (132.26) and Deb Horn (128.93) also earned spots on the National team as well...Simply fantastic races, ladies...Congrats!! Full Results Here.

As for me, I'm obviously very happy with how it all worked out, but even more importantly, I'm encouraged that I turned in this performance while not in top shape. Using the pacing plan from this race and adding a little more fitness to my legs, I think I can not only serve as luggage carrier for Team USA, but actually make a difference in the World Championships next May in France. I learned a lot on Saturday, and over the next few months I'll be certain to prepare myself properly in order to take the next step up in the 24 hour event. They say the 3rd time is a charm, and the World Championships in France will be my 3rd 24 Hour race...sounds like a good luck sign to me!

Thank you again to everyone who followed along with the race webcast and sent your positive vibes. I really had no chance at pulling off what I did, so I owe every little bit of my success to to all of you for keeping me going out there. ...and of course, I owe just a wee bit more than thanks to Elizabeth and Jeff for their amazing crew work. They gave me a shot of motivation each of the 150+ times I pass them on the track. Without them the move would have still been made, but it never would have lasted as long or been as successful without them in my corner. Here's to my awesome crew! Thank you!!!!

See my follow-up post for more Photos, click here