Monday, October 24, 2011

Cape Cod 100 Miler - Race Report!

OK, I promise I wasn't lying when I said I was taking a break from running after the Spartathlon. In the three weeks after that race, I only ran three or four times (about 6 miles each) when the weather was too nice to pass up. Just as I was happily enjoying the life of a non-runner, and my body started showing its appreciation by adding about 5 lbs. of "let's look like a normal grown man" weight, an old friend sent me a surprise note.

About 10 days ago I received an email from my buddy (and 70 year-old ultra machine) Pete Stringer. He, and a group of his Cape Cod running friends were putting together a 100 mile run across the Cape the following weekend and wanted to know if I'd like to come up and run it with them. My normal response would have been, "No thanks, I'm taking a break from running", but my history of running across Cape Cod made me think about it a little more. The final 80 miles of Run 192 happened to also take place on the Cape, and with my parents living just a handful of miles from the course, I knew I'd also likely have some local support as well. Yes, this would be a super low-key race, but after the glitz and glamor (and disaster) in Greece three weeks earlier, running for the simple sake of running through a beautiful area in perfect fall weather sounded pretty good to me. ...I should also point out that Lizzy said I had to do it. She insisted. Really.

The idea behind this year's Inaugural 'Cape Cod 100' was for key people to run the route as a bit of a test before making it a bigger race next year. By running the course themselves this year, the organizers would be able to gather valuable info like split times to the various Aid Stations (and the best spots to add more), and to decide if any sections of the course needed to be rerouted for whatever reason. The geography of Cape Cod lends itself perfectly to hosting a 100 miler as you can see from the map below. There's something about running a natural point-to-point 100 miler that is so very appealing to me. It's like you're really "getting somewhere", as opposed to running loops, out-n-backs, etc.. Also, Provincetown is a pretty cool place to end up at the finish for many reasons!
(Not the actual route, but close enough!)
I made the drive from DC to MA in record time on Friday (thank you, NYC traffic for actually cooperating for once!), and after catching up with family for a bit over dinner, I headed down to fellow runner Greg Stone's house to spend the night just 5 miles from the starting line of the race in Woods Hole. With the 4 a.m. start time, I was more than happy to take Greg up on the offer to crash at his place and not have to wake up any earlier to drive to the start. Greg has a tremendously impressive running resume to his credit (including 2:30 marathons!), but had never attempted a 100 before. Our plan was to head out together running 9s and see how the day unfolded.

After gathering with the other runners in the dark chill of the morning (temps in the 40s), we walked over to the starting line which happens to also be the official start line for the world-famous Falmouth Road Race. It was pretty cool to start the race there considering all of the legends who have raced/won that contest over the course of its 39-year history (Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Rod Dixon, and a whole bunch of Kenyans who have headed down to grab all the prize money in the past 20 years!).

A few ticks after 4:00 a.m., we were off and running. Greg and I settled in quite nicely on the first 10.5 miles on the Shining Sea bike trail. What makes the Cape Cod 100 course fun for racing is the mix of flat bike paths (about 38 miles in total spread out in 3 sections over the race) and the relentlessly hilly road sections in between. Sure, there are no mountains to climb, but starting around mile 30 on the Service Road, the roller coaster ride of 100-300 ft. ups and downs begins!

After the first 10.5 miles of the race on the trail, and about another 10 on the winding roads, Greg and I hit the Canal bike path for 5+ miles of enjoyment. The 4 a.m. start time meant we missed the early morning views of the ocean and Martha's Vineyard along the previous trail, but it was definitely a treat to see the sun rise along the Canal.

Only runners and fisherman out to see the sunrise in the chill of a beautiful Fall morning...Lucky us!
As the conversation flowed freely, I almost didn't notice how effortless the first 26 miles were before we pulled up to the first Crew stop of the day. It was awesome to have not only my parents but also my Uncle Rich and Cousin Kate (who just ran her first marathon last weekend!!) there to cheer us on too!

The Sagamore Bridge arches over the canal as Greg and I cruise along
Hey, are those my Drymax USA Flag socks?! Yes indeedy! They deserved another chance to run after the disaster in Greece.
Uncle Rich (standing), joins my dad and Kate on the wind-protected side of the wall. Chilly morning for them, but ideal for running.
After refills and high-fives, we headed out to tackle the hilly roads of the next 26 miles or so. The roads on this course bring you through multiple little town centers, past historic buildings, cemeteries, etc.. Even though a couple miles were a little precarious when the sidewalks/shoulders disappeared and car-dodging became a bit of an art form, the point of running the race this year was to see which sections could be improved upon and altered to make for a better race in the future. By time the official route for next year is in place, I'm guessing this will be a near perfect course for runners. That said, aside from just a couple miles, I really enjoyed the whole course. If you think running sidewalks in some sections is boring, trust me when I say some of the historic "sidewalks" in the Sandwich/Barnstable/Yarmouth areas are just as twisty, rooty, and narrow as the singletrack of many mountain races! I really appreciated the change of terrain and had a blast running them!

Shady sidewalk fun with Greg as we make our way to the mile 48ish Aid Station
After hammering the Service Road hills, and a couple more Crew Stops, Greg and I were still cruising along running our 9s and enjoying the picture-perfect day (probably hit a high of 60 degrees at mid day with a nice breeze). About 2 or 3 miles before the mile 48 Aid Station, the sidewalk disappeared and the road got a little narrow for running. Since I was so focused on avoiding the cars, I didn't realize that Greg was having some issues behind me and fell off pace...and when I pulled up to the Aid Station a couple miles later I was shocked to see Greg already standing there! It turned out that he had to drop a couple miles earlier, and his brother picked him up and drove him ahead to the Aid Station. I was bummed to lose Greg's great company, but like everyone who runs these things knows, it's almost impossible to run an entire 100 miler with the same person before one issue or another pulls someone off the pace. I was very thankful (and fortunate) I had his company for the first half, and I know he'll be back to rock a great 100 mile finish soon enough!

I used the next 5.8 mile section to do a little 'systems check' and see what my plan would be for the second half of the race. I was feeling fresh and strong, and with all systems a "Go", I figured it might turn out to be a special day over the second half of the race. When I pulled up to my crew (which from this point until the finish consisted of my parents, Greg, and his brother Rich), I grabbed my headphones, filled up my Camelbak with a special shot of Ultragen, and started off on the 22 miles of the Cape Cod Rail Trail.

Pulling into the start of the 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail. A thoroughly enjoyable section of the course to run.
When I have a low point in a 100 miler, it's usually between miles 50-70; the reason being those miles usually coincide with the hottest part of the day. With the weather being so perfect on this day, however, I had no issues at all. When I started on the trail and used its mile markers to get a split time, my watch showed an exact 9:00. It had been a while since I was able to get an exact split, and the fact that I was still running 9-flats confirmed my thought that things could not be going more perfectly for me.

Over the next 20 miles of the rail trail I just kept the iPod rockin' and my legs rolling. Even though there were another tough 20+ miles of hills waiting for me at the end of this trail, I was feeling so fluid and strong I definitely had my sights set on running a negative split for the last half of the race. After all the months of hard work leading up to the Spartathlon, and of course the frustration of that race itself, it couldn't have felt better to finally be able to take advantage of the fitness I worked so hard to build up. It was finally time for me to have some fun and do what I do!

Rich, Steve, and Greg await the coming whiplash they'll feel as I blow by them on the trail.
What's that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of my legs kicking ass!
Coming in for a landing at the end of the 22 mile Rail Trail section (roughly mile 76 in the race). Yes, I was having fun out there!
At the end of the Rail Trail, I was pretty happy with how easily I ran every one of those 22 miles between 8:45 and 9:00 pace. I knew the last 24-ish miles of the race were pretty hilly, but things were going so smoothly for me I didn't bother to think about it too much and just took off to attack those ups and downs the same way I did the previous 22 miles. Sure enough, my Spartathlon training proved to have long-lasting benefits as I kept my miles right around 9s the rest of the way. 

Runner, crew, vampire...we all enjoy a good sunset!
With about 11 miles to go the sun was finally gone and I put on my headlamp and vest for the final stretch up Route 6 into Provincetown. The relentless hills were still there, but the joy of how smoothly I was still turning out my 9 minute miles made the climbs irrelevant. With about 4 miles to go, runners have the pleasure of turning the corner on Commerical Street in P-town and being greeted with the triumphant site of the Pilgrim Monument shining brightly in front of them (the Pilgrims landed here first before heading over to Plymouth).

No better sight to see for a 100 miler running to Provincetown!
The final miles of the race also take you down the narrow streets of town filled with restaurants and shops...and since I was running down them at 8pm, the crowds of tourists, date night couples, and street performers were a delight to pass by. Their clapping and energy had me running effortless 7 minute splits from miles 97 to 100. Sure it wasn't the spectacle of the finish line in Sparta, and runners from 34 nations weren't flanking me as I came into the finish, but it was running...and for the first time since my disappointment in Greece, I remembered just how much I love running, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. I'm a lucky, lucky man to be able to do what I do, and for 16 hours and 12 minutes this past Saturday, that's exactly what I did.

At the Provincetown Inn finish line. Best thing about finishing at 8:12 p.m.? Restaurants are still open!
Loads of thanks to pass along for helping me have so much fun in this one:

Thank you to my beautiful wife Lizzy (and our karate-kicking baby-to-be) for not only saying it was ok to leave her alone for the weekend, but for basically forcing me to run this race "You have to do it!". As always, she was right!

Thanks to Pete Stringer, Bob Jensen, Fred Murolo, Fiona, Greg, and everyone who had a hand in helping organize this race. (Congrats also go out to Bob and Fred who came in together for 2nd/3rd place!). With a couple minor tweaks, I'm certain this race will grow to be a favorite for 100 milers very quickly. There's lots of 100 mile gold to be mined along the Cape, and with hotels near the start and finish lines, it almost doesn't matter which route you take in between, it's a great time and place to run a race.

Thanks to my parents, yet again, for clearing their schedule to crew for me (and to my mom for taking all the photos!). Also thanks to my Uncle Rich and Cousin Kate for coming out in the chill to cheer me on as well, what a great surprise!

Special Thanks to Drymax for their awesome USA flag socks. I feel so bad for not giving them their proper plug by grabbing a top spot in Greece, but I'm comforted by the thought that I will run many more successful races with their patriotism powering my legs! ..and not that I have to say it again, but I will: My feet are in picture-perfect shape after 100 miles of pavement pounding thanks to my Max Pro socks. Thanks, guys!!

...and now, until my next surprise running adventure, I'm going back in to hibernation!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Spartathlon Race Report!

Obviously the Spartathlon didn't work out as planned last week. My training and fitness were better than ever heading into the race (seriously, I was in stellar shape), but as soon as we started running from the Acropolis, I knew I was working with a super-low energy level. The most likely culprit was the fact that I didn't sleep at all the night before. Sure, I forced myself to stay in bed with my eyes closed for the better part of 8 hours, but the jet lag that only allowed me a couple hours of sleep each of my other previous two nights in Athens was still messing with me on night #3. I just had a really hard time convincing myself to fall asleep when my internal clock thought it was 3 p.m.. Couple that with the excitement before a big race like this, and the hope for me catching any useful rest before the run went crashing down like so many columns of the Parthenon. Of course, once we started running, I did my best to convince myself that the fatigue would go away and I began executing my race plan as if everything would be fine. I wasn't giving up without a fight. If I was going to die out there, I was going to die with my boots on.

Anxious runners pose with the Starting Banner at the foot of the Acropolis
The field awaits the sun's arrival, and with it, the start of the race
Focused while stretching before the start
As the race began and we left the cobblestone paths of the Acropolis for the busy rush-hour streets of Athens, I shared a few miles of delightful conversation with Brit Peter Foxall. I knew Peter from his stout reputation, and I smiled at my good fortune of being able to run a few miles together amongst the crowd of runners. Peter has 8 Spartathlon finishes in 13 attempts, which pretty much makes him the leading expert on the race, and I used some of our time together to pick his brain about various parts of the course ahead. Regardless of my dead legs, I was still focused on making it to Sparta in these early miles.

After about 10 miles, we were still running on the very busy and fume-filled streets, but our 'runners only' traffic-cone lane went away and we were left to fend for ourselves on the shoulder of the road. I had heard the course heading out of Athens was pretty much horrible all around, but I figured it would only be for a few miles. As it turned out, the cars, exhaust, factory smokestacks, and the oil refinery (this one killed me, really) made just about every step of the first 50 miles less-than-appealing to me. I couldn't even fully appreciate the sections on the coastline with their beautiful views. While those roads had less traffic, they also had no shoulders to run on, so the cars that did come careening around the tight turns were definitely something that kept me from relaxing and enjoying the moment. I'm sure the course was much more enjoyable after the 50 mile mark in Corinth, but for that 1/3 of the race, I was hard pressed to think of a worse combination of conditions in which to run.

I do, however, credit the insane traffic for allowing me the opportunity to dust off my language skills and share a bonding moment with two Portuguese runners after the three of us nearly jumped out of our shoes at the sound of a Fiat's screeching tires about 10 feet from us (it just missed smashing into a bus). I was just behind the two men at that moment, and when I saw the Portuguese names on their bib numbers, I knew they would appreciate me saying a few 'Hilarious but Not Safe for My Blog' comments in their native tongue. I did my best to pretend I spoke more Portuguese than I actually do (which is very very little) over the next mile or so before I needed to let them move ahead. That moment, along with running through the occasional group of school kids high-fiving and cheering wildly along the road, was my favorite part of the race.
Everyone got a boost (and probably 100 communicable diseases) by high-fiving the dozens of school kids out on the course
Regarding the current traffic/pollution issues on the course, when you think about it, it's really nobody's fault. When John Foden and his crew used the ancient writings of Herodotus to map out this course 30 years ago, I'm sure there was about 10% of today's trucks and pollution along the roads. Even more importantly, since this is the route Pheidippideis ran 2500 years ago, it's not like we can just re-route things today to meet our aesthetic appeal. It is what it is, so I'll stop whining now.

Back to my race, after about 20 miles I was already fighting a level of fatigue that I usually don't experience until 80 or 90 miles. Had we run by an auto mechanic's garage at this point, I would have asked them to kindly remove the engine block I apparently had strapped on my back. Without that option, I figured the only thing I could do to keep my energy from totally failing was to increase my calories. I'm usually a 250 kcal/hr runner, but I upped that to 350-400/hr for a couple hours to see if it would help. It did not. What it did do, predictably enough, was make me very nauseous.  Couple that with a moment I shared with a German runner that will go down in history as one of the all-time 'Hilarious Moments in Truck Exhaust Inhalation History', and I suddenly found myself buying two tickets for an immediate ride on the Vomit Comet. No waiting in line for me on that ride. I had the SpeedPass and everything.

If only we didn't have to run by those smoke stacks at the Oil Refinery in the background, the coastal road sections would have been much more enjoyable!
Naturally, the sun started to heat things up at this point, so Mr. Dehydration came out to run with me over the next couple hours. It's always a treat to share a few miles with him. I was pretty much as miserable as I've ever been on a run at this point, and my exhaustion only exacerbated my feelings toward the traffic and fumes out there. I really wanted to punch Henry Ford, Giovanni Fiat, and Doug Suzuki right in the kisser for what their legacy was doing to me out there. Cars and trucks (and Greece's apparent lack of emissions laws) were not my friends on this day.

There was safety in numbers when running on the side of the highway, too bad I couldn't keep up with anyone all day
It wasn't all bad, though. One positive of running on busy streets was the occasional bus shelter I could stumble into for a few moments of shady protection from the anger of the Sun Beast. Even funnier than my moments with the Portuguese and German runners was around mile 35 when I staggered under a bus shelter with two people already sitting inside. While I always try to be respectful of the personal space of others, I was pretty wobbly when I crashed down on the far side of the bench with my legs sprawled out in front of me. The poor people in there immediately got up and left while mumbling something in Greek and shaking their heads at me. Even in my delirious state I realized I must have looked like a sweaty drunk guy to those unaware I was running a race through their city streets. Sorry, Nice People, I hope you didn't miss your bus because of me!

By the time I stumbled into the Oil Refinery aid station around mile 40 (located literally in the parking lot of the noxious refinery), I was in 100% survival mode. I knew I needed to make it 10 more miles to cross the canal in Corinth and make it onto the Peloponnese. There I'd find my parents for the first time all race and at least collapse among those who are legally bound to care for me. I don't remember much about those last 10 miles other than I couldn't even run the downhill miles for more than 2 minutes at a time before needing to stop, stretch, or otherwise lay prostrate under the sweet shady relief of the occasional highway overpass. Mercifully enough, the canal finally appeared after 9 hours of struggling from the start.

Reaching the tiny gap between the mainland and the Peloponnese was a HUGE victory for me.
Once I crashed down on the ground by my parents, I technically still had a few minutes on the official cut-off time for the check-point, but at the pace I was going, making the cut-off at even the next stop down the road was out of the question. My day was done 30 miles earlier, quite honestly, and the miles between 20 and 50 were really just me making sure there wasn't a miracle buried deep in my legs somewhere. Given that I fought as hard as I could from the start and still ran the slowest 50 miles of my life (seriously), I wasn't really upset at having my dream of reaching Sparta come crashing down before I even really started the race. Sometimes it just isn't your day.

Mile 50. Can I get some sleep now? Please?!!
After resting for a bit in Corinth, we made the drive back to Athens to crash for the night. Naturally, I slept pretty well this time, and I did my best to ignore the fact that my legs felt fine when I woke up in the morning. Unlike my experience last year in Canada when I had to stop 50 miles into a 24 hour race due to soul-crushing fatigue in my legs from over-working them all summer, this time my muscles were not even remotely stressed during my 50 mile shuffle to Corinth. The fatigue I struggled through must have been based entirely on the lack of sleep leading up to the race. If only I didn't have a day job and could have flown over a week earlier. No wonder guys like Jurek head out two or more weeks before international races, it's just the best way to handle such a dramatic time change before a big run.

It wasn't all frustrating/bad news out in Greece, however. After resting for the night back in Athens, the following day we drove the course to Sparta to cheer in the final few hours of runners. The scene there was fun and festive with fellow runners joining the townspeople up and down the main street leading to the finish line at the statue of King Leonidas.

With a bicycle escort from the local children, every runner received a hero's welcome in Sparta!
Truly a fantastic finish line!
It's not over until you touch the statue and drink the water from the river
Team USA reunited to cheer on our fellow runners. Sadly, none of us made the finish line ourselves this year. L to R: Me, Chisholm Deupree's handsome back, Oz Pearlman (sporting a Yankees-defeating Detroit Tigers hat under those glasses!), and Mike Arnstein who made it the furthest of us all at ~115 miles.
The Spartathlon is a brutal race the allows no room for error. For those who do make it all the way to Sparta, the emotions and fatigue are worn clearly on their faces
That evening a huge crowd gathered in the town square for a cultural music ceremony with the Mayor of Sparta

Thousands of Spartans were in attendance...seemingly more than the actual population of the town
The next day we made the long drive back to Athens, stopping at a few beautiful/ancient sites along the way. My parents pose here on the shore of  the 'original' capital of Greece at Nafplio.
I did a little exploring down a 3,000 year old (and PITCH BLACK!) cistern at Mycenae
Oh yeah, and back in Athens the Parthenon was pretty cool too
You're standing on top of the (ancient) world up there!
The view allowed me to map out my next stop...a must see for any athlete in Athens...
The Panathenaic Stadium, only about 2,500 years old, and site of the original Olympic games!
It was pretty darn cool to run a lap on that beyond-historic track!
Sure hope the King and Queen were impressed by my time!
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of ancient history and modern hustle and bustle of Athens...
Oh yeah, and the food....I REALLY liked the food!!!
What's ahead for me now? Pretty much preparing for the arrival of Baby Rose, and running the sleep deprivation ultra that will be the first few months of his/her life this winter. I'll probably go out for a run once or twice a week, but it won't be much more than that. The overall running guidelines will be: whatever time allows, and whatever trails appeal to me. The experience of training so intensely for Greece definitely has me thankful that I'll only be running for pleasure in the foreseeable future. I look forward to getting back into the gym to throw some weights around for the first time in 4 years, and when I do have the time to venture out for a run in the mountains, it'll most definitely involve more plans to stop and smell the roses along the way. I may pop up now and then in a VHTRC Fat Ass race, but it'll definitely involve more chatting and cruising than racing...and I definitely won't be eating any gels. God knows I've had enough of those over the past 5 years!

As for this blog, I can't thank everyone enough for stopping by over the past 4 years. This thing was created to help inspire others, and the number of you who have contacted me directly with your own stories of struggle and triumph in not only running, but with fighting cancer or other illnesses, has literally given me the return-inspiration I've needed to achieve the (albeit modest) goals I've reached in this sport. We all make a pretty great team!  Even though I won't be posting much over the next few months (I won't bore you with lame posts, but I whenever I take pretty pictures on an adventure run, I'll be sure to share them here), I want everyone to know they should still feel free to contact me via email for advice on training or gear or whatever. I can't stress how much I've enjoyed having so many of you ask for help on training for your first marathon or 50 miler or 100 miler, and then watched you all put in the hard work to achieve those lofty goals. The community spirit is what ultra-running is all about, and I very much want to continue to play my small role in this great family!