Monday, December 29, 2014

Fall Recap: A Wedding, a Fat-Ass, and a Six Second PR

So 2014 has come to a close, and with it, the sudden realization that I haven't posted anything on this blog for nearly three months. While in the past few months I haven't been keeping up the mileage quite so much since Green Lakes, that isn't to say I haven't been keeping busy. The highlight of the fall is not running related, but it wouldn't be right not to mention that Hayley and I got married in early September. Wedding preparations, followed by a honeymoon, caused me to take a running break for a few weeks, and subsequently a blogging break ensued. (Bonus link: Strava GPS data for my flight from Philadelphia to the Dominican Republic.)

The first running-related highlight of the fall season was volunteering at the Virgil Crest Ultras. The day before the 50M and 100M trail races, my friend Rusty and I had the pleasure of checking the already-placed course markings on VCU's south half, AKA the alpine section. This entailed running/hiking up and down the ski slopes of Greek Peak in three different places, then running along the singletrack and dirt roads to The Rock Pile - an aid station at the 25 mile mark of the VCU that marks the turn-around point for the out and back. (50 milers run the out-and-back once, 100 milers run it twice.) The 15 or so miles that we slowly covered was itself a solid workout.

Atop the slopes of Greek Peak

The day of the race, RD Ian assigned me a spot at the Hitching Post aid station, mile 6 and 44 for all the runners, plus mile 56 and 94 for the 100 milers. The 6:00pm shift brought in most of the slower 50 milers who'd been out on the trails for 12+ hours already, and many 100 milers who were only about halfway finished. Some of them looked so fresh like they'd just started out and others looked like death. Handing out food, beverages, and encouragement to these people felt almost like Christmas. For any runner reading this who has never volunteered at an ultramarathon, all I can say is get out there and volunteer. It was such an incredible experience to watch these athletes pushing themselves to the extreme, to the edge of breaking down completely, and (for many of them) still keeping smiles on their faces. Additionally, having been in the runners' position before, I could empathize with them. I could feel the karma that comes with giving back to this running community who has helped me through the trail races I've done. Knowing that I could not have completed a single one of my ultras without the dedicated aid station volunteers, it felt so right to give back to the runners who were pushing themselves to the limit. Spending the evening in a lantern lit tent was highly satisfying, and I would have loved to stay all night if I didn't have a job to go to. I certainly won't forget this volunteer experience and will be writing more on Virgil Crest in the near future. I promise.

Some words of wisdom at The Hitching Post.


On October 5, Hayley and I drove out to Oneonta for the Pit Run 5K/10K, which happens to be the first race I've run of any distance, in the fall of 2005. Back then, I had been running for a year and had no idea what to expect. I finished that first 10K with nothing left in the tank and loved every second of it. To finally come back to this race brought a high level of nostalgia.

Hayley's friends invited us to run it with them, so Hayley entered the 5K and I the 10K. I used the road race as a warmup for the Empire State Marathon that I would be running a few weeks later, which I'd neglected to train for. The mile long hill up East Street was worse than I remembered and I suffered dearly for it, quickly dashing my hopes of grabbing an age group award and a 10K PR. The lackluster 43:37 result gave me reason dread Empire State and the long, painful run that was inevitable only two weeks later.


A few days later, I drove down to the Catskills and met Adam so we could check Kaaterskill High Peak off our to-do list. Here's a few pics from Kaaterskill.


Against my better judgement, I then jumped into the Danby Down and Dirty 20K trail race that weekend, only a week removed from the Pit Run. Held in Danby State Forest in (you guessed it) Danby, NY, the DD&D is the season finale of the Finger Lakes Runners Club Trail Circuit. The reasoning was that if Empire State is going to be Hell on two legs, I might as well live it up on the trails and complete a race I might actually enjoy before the trails get covered in that infamous Upstate New York snow.

The starting line of the DD&D saw many familiar faces, and like many of the races in the Trail Circuit, the only competition was of the friendly nature. The race consists of a 10K and 20K, both starting together and following the same singletrack course along the Finger Lakes Trail's main trail and an FLT side trail called the Abbott Loop. However, the second loop of the 20K is not just a repeat of the first loop, but but an entirely new loop altogether. I ran the first loop at a comfortable pace, then decided to to pick it up a bit and see how many runners I could catch over the last 10K. Surprisingly, I did not encounter a single runner during the second half, despite having 68 finishers and me taking a wrong turn and having to backtrack uphill. I finished in a few seconds over two hours. Another trail run in the books.


Next up was the Empire State Marathon, in Syracuse, NY on October 19. This flat road race was the first marathon I ever ran, three years prior. I signed up for the 2014 edition after once again not making the cut in the NYC Marathon lottery.  I had low expectations for myself going into this race, given the lack of high mileage in general (and road running in particular) since late August. Since Greek Lakes, my longest run was a single 20 miler on the roads three weeks earlier. Running hard and breaking four hours at Empire State seemed like a reasonable goal, but it was still no guarantee.

I decided I would run comfortably for the first 20 miles without focusing on my watch and then give whatever was left for the last six miles. I barely glanced at my Garmin until about eight or nine miles and was surprised to see that I was averaging an eight minute pace, good enough for a sub 3:30 finish. I was determined to run by feel and refused to check my watch between mile markers. At each mile marker up through mile 17, I checked my time and somehow every single mile was within between 7:50-8:10.

Somewhere near the halfway point.
Around mile 17, I came to the turn-around at one of the out-and-back sections to cover the same four miles I had just run, but in the opposite direction. This section was on a paved pathway adjacent to the south shore of Onondaga Lake, and the the headwind was horrendous now that I was facing west. My pace slowed considerably over the next three miles, and all of the sudden, the sub 3:30 seemed impossible. As a last ditch effort, I downed a caffeinated GU gel shortly before the 20 mile mark. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous. I felt like Popeye downing that sweet, sweet can of spinach. Within a minute or two, the pain and fatigue vanished and I was in a full on runner's high. I took off in reckless abandonment.

About five minutes later, I came upon a crowd of spectators that included Hayley and her Aunt Nancy. Paranoid that I would lose the high, I simply yelled that I felt great and would find them at the finish. I took off down the road and ran each of the last six miles faster than I had run any of the first 20. I never in my life thought I'd feel that good near the end of a marathon. Most of this stretch was a flat straightaway for several miles. I passed scores upon scores of runners who looked like the walking dead, strewn about the highway while barely able to remain upright. Some were marathoners battling the dreaded wall, others were back of the pack half marathoners who'd been running for almost three hours. Filled to the brim with excessive energy, I shouted encouragement to many of them. I ran a few of these miles with another guy who identified himself as John, and we decided to try and pace eachother to a sub 3:30.

I ended the day with a 3:29:37 official time - good enough for a near-even second half split, and more importantly, a six second marathon PR. Although the only competition here was myself, it once again goes to show that every second can count, even in a long race like this. Two months later, I'm still trying to wrap my head around that last six miles, but for now I'll take it.


The final fall adventure of note was my fat-ass debut - The Wagathon Fatass Trail Run. For the uninitiated, a fat-ass is an organized run, usually on trails and of ultramarathon distance, that has a pre-set course but is not really a race. The general consensus is that to truly be a fat-ass, the run must have no entry fee or prizes. Most fat-assses are not timed events, which means that runners can start at whatever time they choose and aim to finish around the same time of day as everyone else. Such was the case with The Wagathon.

From what I can tell, the purpose of The Wagathon is to show off some of the incredible scenery in the Shawangunk area of the Hudson Valley, in southeastern New York. The pre-planned 29 mile course runs point-to-point from Sam's Point Preserve to downtown Rosendale. It runs northeast along the Shawangunk Ridge, through Minnewaska State Park and the Mohonk Preserve and ends in front of the Red Brick Tavern in Rosendale. While atop the ridge, one can see the valley and Hudson River to the east and some of the Catskill high peaks to the northwest.The course also includes five separate rock scrambles, adding to the difficulty of an already technical set of trails.

Adam invited me down to his place for the weekend in order to run the Wagathon. The day before the run, he introduced me to rock climbing at Minnewaska State Park. I learned how to tie the rope to my harness and belay another person, and learned how to look for seemingly invisible footholds and handholds to scale various vertical outdoor rock walls. The experience was kind of painful and at times nerve racking, but it's something I'd definitely try again.

The next day, we set out from Sam's Point around 8:30 AM. Adam was already familiar with the course so we rarely had to check our map for directions. (In true fat-ass fashion, the Wagathon route was sparsely marked. Carrying a map or memorizing the route was critical.) Since time didn't matter, we took it easy, walked whenever we felt like it, admired the scenery, and talked with other runners along the course, including one of the organizers. As a result we didn't finish until the early evening. Upon finishing, we proceeded to gorge ourselves on real food at the Red Brick Tavern and socialize with other runners, while being awarded Wagathon bumper stickers as finishers' prizes. This was Adam's first ultra distance run and we both had a great time running it. I'm hoping to make it back down to the Gunks in April for the Wagathon's sister run, The Springletrack Fat-Ass Trail Marathon.
Ready to roll out. (Photo: Erica Harlec)

One of five rock scrambles.


I'm not really one for New Year's resolutions, but I do hope to start writing blog posts with more frequency. As I write this, I am taking a few weeks off for recovery. I'm looking forward to trying out some new gear I got for Christmas and maybe write about some of those items, as well as some big running goals for 2015. In the meantime, happy trails and Happy New Year!