Monday, November 24, 2014

JFK 50 mile 2014 race report


The start of this year's JFK was bitterly cold, nearly a record low for this race.  It was 16 degrees F when Divesh dropped me off at the starting area, and I told him that if it got colder than the starting temps for Arrowhead, including the warm year, we were turning around and going home.  Fortunately at JFK you're able to wait inside a school gymnasium for part of the pre-race morning.  Twenty minutes before the race start, all the runners have to leave the school and walk about five or ten minutes to the start line.  It was a strange, slightly somber procession.  I tried to jog to warm up but it was hopeless since we were only going to freeze again standing at the start for the ten minutes left before the 7am start.

At 7am on the dot, we were off.  The first 2.5 miles are on a road, up a big hill, which normally probably wouldn't feel very good, but on this day I just wanted to warm up, so it was actually pleasant to be going uphill.  Because it was cold and windy, my heart rate monitor was on the fritz and kept showing numbers in the mid 180s, which I knew was way higher than whatever my actual heart rate was.  Without the monitor to keep me in check, I probably ran too fast on those first couple of miles, but it felt so good to be finally on my way that I didn't care.

At mile 2.5 we turned onto the Appalachian Trail.  There was the usual trail race traffic jam as some people slowed heavily from their road pace, but the first mile of the trail is wide enough to pass so it wasn't much of a problem.  The trees blocked the wind and my heart rate monitor came back to life.  My goal was to keep my heart rate in the 155-158 range, though it can be tricky to stick to a particular heart rate on a crowded trail, when you don't want to be the annoying person who passes someone on a downhill only to immediately slow on the next uphill!  The pack thinned out by mile 6 or so and from there until the final descent off the AT, you could run without worrying about other racers.

The entire AT section was just excellent running.  The sun had come up and it was a beautiful day, still cold but perfect running weather.  The trail is a good mix of difficult, rocky sections (made more difficult by the leaves covering a lot of the rocks) and some easier, less technical sections; there are just enough non-technical parts to keep you from getting mentally exhausted by all the rock-hopping.  My pace felt conservative and comfortable, and my homemade sports drink, being used in its second race, was going down excellently.  I had high hopes for a good stomach day, and those hopes would end up coming true!

Before the race I had gone back and forth in my head many times over shoe choice for this race.  I know...but it's a complicated choice!  You've got the mostly-but-not-entirely rocky trail section, the crushed gravel towpath, and the road.  Trail shoes, for the rocks?  Super light racing flats for the towpath?  Cushy shoes for the pavement??  In the end, I decided to settle the issue with some math:  I timed how long it would take to change my shoes.  The answer was 37 seconds, which made the solution clear:  wear trail shoes for the AT and change into super light Hokas (my Hoka Cliftons are lighter than my road racing shoes!) for the rest of the race.  I knew I would save far more than 37 seconds, not to mention my ankle ligaments, by wearing trail shoes on 13 miles of rocks.  My one disappointment with this strategy was that although it left me all set to save some time by running quickly down the steep mile and a half descent at the end of the AT section, I wasn't able to put my trail shoes to use there because the trail congestion came back and the trains of people were too long to be able to pass.  It was a shame not only for the wasted time but also because the descent looked like it would be great fun to speed down.  Still, on the whole, I definitely appreciated having the trail shoes and I would probably go with the same shoe strategy if I ever do the race again.

I think I came into the aid station at the bottom of the switchbacks, which is mile 15.5, in about 12th place, but because I stopped to change my shoes (and also ended up changing out of three-quarter length tights and into shorts), I wasn't really sure where I was place-wise when I started running again.  All I knew was that I felt fantastic and was ready to speed up.  Just after this aid station you go back onto the AT briefly for a very enjoyable half mile of smooth trail and then you're dumped out onto the canal towpath.  The towpath section of the race is almost exactly a marathon--26.3 miles.  It took all the self-restraint I could manage not to set off too quickly in this section, but I knew I had to be patient.  Anyone who knows my patience level knows why this was the most difficult part of the entire race...

It was also the most boring.  I did enjoy the first few miles of the towpath, with the absolutely perfect weather and the nice light feeling of getting out of my tights and into shorts.  But I had seriously underestimated just how hard it is to run an entire marathon on pancake-flat ground.  I had done plenty of flat training runs, but never more than 16 miles at a time, since I tried to end all my long runs with 4 or 5 miles of hills in order to simulate the towpath-to-road transition at the end of JFK.  This was definitely a mistake and next time I would do at least one 23-25 mile run of pure flatness.  After 17 or 18 miles of towpath I was struggling to force my legs to keep moving at the right speed, even though I knew I wasn't too tired because I was still running almost exactly the same pace for the same heart rate (155ish beats per minute and 8:15 or so minute miles).  I also got sick and threw up once, though like in Flagstaff, it was only the one time and I felt immediately better afterwards, and more importantly stayed better for the rest of the race.  Overall it was a total win on the stomach front.

The towpath boredom was sometimes relieved by briefly talking with a few other runners, but I was on my own 99% of the time.  I did manage to catch up to a nice guy named Keith and talk with him for a while, but he was just a little too fast for me and I reluctantly had to slow down.  Fortunately he was using a run-walk strategy so we ended up leapfrogging each other most of the rest of the race, at least until he left me in the dust the last couple of miles.

The only other excitement during the towpath section came from finally starting to pass some women.  I think I had made it into 10th by mile 27, then 7th by mile 38, where Divesh pointed out that there were two more women only three minutes in front of me.  I was feeling rough at that point and thought I had no chance of catching them, but amazingly enough, one caffeinated gel later, I bounced back and made it into 6th.  The girl I caught stayed right behind me though and I knew it was time to try to find a faster gear.



I came off the towpath having done 3:38 for the slightly long marathon, which happily was seven minutes faster than I'd been hoping for.  I passed one more girl early in the final 8.5 mile road section, and from then on it was just pure pain, misery, and waiting for the end.  I was doing okay on the flats and downhills but every single uphill on that section felt like it was going to do me in.  It was only the desperation to hang onto my 5th place that kept me going.  At 3 miles to go there's a fairly large uphill and I stopped to walk the second half of it.  A guy from Alabama who I had passed a little earlier re-passed me here and said something like "Why did you slow down?"  He was sort of joking but sort of not, and he was exactly right--slowing down wasn't doing me any good.  It only slightly reduced the pain and it was just going to prolong the amount of time until I could stop running.  I tried my best to get it together and was also spurred on by a guy in a red shirt who flew by, looking like he was hardly working despite being almost 48 miles in.  At 2 miles to go there's another uphill and at the top I looked back--no women in sight.  I finally believed, for the first time, that I was actually going to hold on.  I relaxed a little, sped up for the downhill into Williamsport, and made the final turn towards the finish line, crossing the line for an official time of 7:32.


It was finally over!  Though I couldn't fully enjoy the finish because I was in so much pain, I was definitely happy.  My goals had been sub 8 hours and top 10 women, and both of those were "stretch" goals--I thought 8:15 was a more likely outcome.  From miles 30 to 50 I pushed myself as hard as I ever have, and, with the help of that Alabama guy, I didn't give up at the end like I often do.


Now I'm ready for a good long rest, during which I will hopefully finally figure out what I want to do with my next year running-wise...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

JFK 50 Training: A wise man, my mother-in-law, and a mystery foot pain

Starting out this blog post has made me realize that I never finished my Balkans trip report.  I'll just sum it up by saying that our final days consisted of being invited to a party in a ten-house village in Kosovo (we sadly had to decline), Maria being hit on by a drunk singer over a morning picnic, getting lost approximately 10,495 times, fighting our way through the trees and rocks on a steep Barkley-style descent, Maria using her previously-unknown-to-me tracking skills to lead us out of our lostness to within 50 feet of a hotel and bar (she's like a homing pigeon when it comes to wine), and both of us coming down with salmonella/e coli/vicious gut bug of death, though at least on our last day in Montenegro.  We lost a lot of weight during the following week!

Somewhere in the midst of all the stomach pain was a trip to Scotland to be support crew for Michael and Kenny in their Celtman triathlon (though fortunately for me, and also for Kenny who would have had to put up with me, Liam bailed me out of my pacing duties) and squeezing in a quick climb with Dave.  

This is why my JFK training began with three weeks of rest...

With such a large, uninterrupted block of time to train before the race, nearly three and a half months, I was excited to construct the ultimate training plan.  I gave myself a solid six weeks of base building with zero speedwork days, then six more weeks with intervals and tempo runs in the mix, then another two weeks to do a final weekend of back-to-back long runs and start easing off for the two weeks before the race.  In theory, this was going to be perfect.

In reality, it was almost perfect.  It certainly didn't start out perfectly.  Halfway through my basebuilding period, I felt awful.  My legs were sluggish and my pace for my regular training run heart rate was slower than it had been in about a year.  I was also visiting Duluth at this point and struggled with the humidity--and this is coming from summer in Georgia!  On one of the days in Duluth I ran with Rasmus at Lester Park and we mixed in a few speed intervals into a ten-mile run.  As I wheezed and gasped my way along behind Rasmus, he turned to me and asked, "Do you have asthma??"  No, Rasmus, no I don't.  Fortunately, being the wise man that he is, he reminded me to trust the training and not to panic and head off to the track for some 800m repeats, which would likely do nothing other than ruin my nicely-planned out basebuilding phase.  I repeated this to myself several times over the next few weeks and managed to finish out the phase without abandoning my training plan.

Then, my in-laws came to visit for two weeks.  I may or may not owe my mother-in-law a significant amount of credit for how everything quickly turned around for me fitness-wise.  My in-laws are Indian and my mother-in-law is not only a great cook but also seems to genuinely enjoy cooking for us when she visits.  Virtually everything she cooks is extremely healthy, and since this was at the same time that I started doing twice-weekly speedwork, it turned into an impromptu crash diet.  It's hard to say whether the speedwork or the diet had more of an impact, but one day I went for a run on a flat road as a bit of a fitness test--I do this once in a while, run at a heart rate of 150 beats per minute on a flat, straight road and see what pace that gives me.  When I'm in shape it's generally around 8:25 minute miles.  On this particular day, it was 8:00.  I figured it was a GPS malfunction and forgot about it.  Two days later I won a trail 10k and felt nice and strong.  The day after that, I tried the heart rate/pace test again, this time in a different location.  Same result.  Hmmm...!

There was one small interruption to my "perfect" training plan after this--the Flagstaff 55k.  It was the last race in the US Skyrunning series and since I had done the first race, I felt like I should really give Flagstaff a try to see if I could scrape together a few more series points.  The race was entirely at altitude (8,000 to 11,500 feet) and very hilly, so since I had been training on mostly flat-ish ground to get ready for JFK, I had pretty low expectations.  And while the results don't show it (my time was super slow because I took forever in the last 5k, even longer than such a hard 5k demanded), the race actually went really well for me.  I was running much faster on the flats and downhills than I normally would, all for the same race pace heart rate I would usually use.  My new homemade sports drink was working well; my legs felt strong pretty much the whole race and I only threw up once, which by my standards is a 10 out of 10 on stomach quality.  And even with the altitude and the lack of hill training I was still mostly passing people on the second-to-last big climb.  In that last 5k, though, I was seriously sunburned and overheated and was getting paranoid about heat stroke, so I took it easy and spent lots of time standing in little patches of shade trying to cool down.  So while my finish time wasn't very good, I was really excited about having felt so good in the first 50k.  I also got to meet some way faster yet friendly new runner friends.  And I feel fairly confident that I won't have to worry about heat or sunburn at JFK!   For anyone who's interested, Flagstaff was a great course with beautiful views and nice singletrack trail; there's a video summarizing it here.

For added satisfaction, I recovered quickly from Flagstaff, partly through spending four days on the Appalachian Trail with my friend Nick.  We were treated to a great show of leaf color, and there's nothing better than doing a totally different type of running to get fully recovered and revived.



After that it was back to JFK work.  I had some sections of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia that I wanted to see, and it's only a short hop from Virginia to Maryland, so I managed to get in two long runs on the actual JFK course.  These went fairly well although I was somewhat dismayed to learn that the hills on the Appalachian Trail part of the JFK course are nothing to sneeze at, and with a lot of that section being rocky, it's not going to be quite as fast of a 50 miler as I thought it would be.  Still, all in all, with 26 miles of towpath and 8.5 miles of road, it's definitely about running fast rather than getting up and down big hills, which is what I wanted.

If the race had been a week ago, it might really have been the perfect training period.  But then, the "almost" part of "almost perfect" set in.  Two days ago I started having a strange pain in the arch of my right foot.  I'm trying to avoid mentioning the possibility of it being the-injury-that-shall-not-be-named, the one that can take months to recover from, but so far that appears to be the most likely culprit.  Since JFK is my goal race for the entire season, I'll have no qualms about shutting the pain up with ibuprofen on race day and dealing with the aftermath later, but at the moment even a quadruple dose of vitamin I doesn't sound like enough to do the trick.  Fingers crossed.  Until then, if you have any thoughts on how to cure the-injury-that-shall-not-be-named in less than 8 days, please let me know...




Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Peaks of the Balkans Trail: Day 4

Like every other day on these trips, Day 4 started off with a steep climb.  This time it was to a meadow that the trail description said would have a good view.  They weren't kidding:



The day's route involved briefly crossing into Montenegro but then returning to Albania for several more kilometers, passing through the small village of Doberdol, and then crossing over into Kosovo for the third section of the trail.  As we climbed out of Cerem and crossed into the next few valleys, the scenery changed from Alpine to a bit like the Pyrenees:


All was going well until about 1 kilometer after the summer shepherds' village of Balqin, where our trail markings abruptly ended in the middle of a large meadow.  It was back to map and compass time, which was a slight mental blow when we had gotten used to being off navigation duty.  The real problem was that we weren't sure if the markings were actually gone or if we had just gone the wrong way, so we spent a fruitless hour or so searching for the trail before deciding to plan our own route to Doberdol.  On top of this, we had pretty much polished off our remaining pite and the few snacks we had managed to buy in Valbone.  We sat down and assessed our situation:

Alicia:  So we have a couple of snacks left but no dinner?
Maria:  Right.  And no breakfast.
Alicia:  Okay.  So we have no dinner, no breakfast, and we don't know where we are, but other than that...everything's good?

After what felt like a very long time of making our way across a ridge in the hot sun, we arrived in the village that we had assumed from a distance must be Doberdol.  In one of our few lucky navigational breaks, it was.  When we got there, though, we stared up at a signpost, trying to figure out how the arrows pointing toward various other villages could possibly fit with what the map was telling us.  This problem was solved a minute later when a friendly guy from the village walked up to us, looked up at the signpost himself, and then rotated the entire post about 90 degrees.

The guy, who we decided to call Dimples, then took us back to the Doberdol mountain hut for some food:  milk, yogurt, fresh cheese, bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers.  All good, though at this point I was really ready for some variety; we'd largely been eating this same meal, or parts of it, for the past few days.  We ate a little and put the rest in our packs to save for dinner.

Hiking up the very steep hill out of Doberdol, we met a shepherd and proceeded to have a conversation that we'd also been having over and over again for the past few days:  the discussion of where we were going. This was not exactly a language barrier but more like a fundamental state of mind barrier.  The problem was, our trail was essentially a long, thin oval.  This meant that at any given point, it would have been faster to go across the oval to get to a particular town further down the route, rather than to continue around the oval.  So when I would say to someone that we were going to Town B via Town A, they would invariably point out that we were in fact going completely the wrong direction to get to Town B and that Town A wasn't even remotely on the way to Town B.  In most cases this eventually led to an impassioned discourse on why we needed to turn around and go a different way; I didn't have the language skills to explain that the whole point of the trip was to go the long way around.  The upshot was that we left a trail of people in our wake who believed we were complete idiots. Much the same as everyday life, no doubt.

After continuing on up the hill, we made it to the triangular border area between Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo:


This was a beautiful, very runnable section of trail, though we spent far too long trying to decide if we should be looking for trail markers, since the trail description claimed that the whole section was marked, or if we should just use the map to get to the next village by the best route we could come up with.  It got frustrating quickly, especially as the day went on and the sun started to go down while we were still on the high border ridge.



We knew we needed to get down before dark, partly because the trail description warned of a scary descent and partly because we didn't have warm enough sleeping bags to stay the night up high.  Our bodies were starting to complain from the long day and various aches, pains, and niggles appeared (Maria, staring at her feet:  "Is that my skin?!").  Eventually we found the right route--there was in fact no scary descent, and what the trail description called 4km was actually 10km according to signposts--and headed down to find a camping spot just above the village of Roshkodol, Kosovo.