Sunday, October 18, 2020

Hartford Marathon - Hartford, CT - Oct. 10, 2020

When I hit the halfway point in South Windsor, CT, at around one hour and 47 minutes, I had already known that finishing in less than four hours would be more difficult than ever on this warm October day.  But I still was not expecting to fail as spectacularly as I did.

We got on the road at around 9 a.m. and made it to the start point at the Capitol Building in Hartford at around 11:15.  I did some warmups and was ready to go by 11:30.  I felt a bit bogged down by all the stuff I was carrying, but I had to soldier on.  I had my phone (for music and to call Gloria if anything went wrong), my license and insurance card (in case anything went really wrong), my GoPro (to take video of this very different marathon experience), my 20-ounce bottle of diluted Gatorade, and detailed turn-by-turn notes on dozens of pieces of three-by-four note paper.  

The latter was the most cumbersome, but the most important.  I had spent hours combing over the course map (from certifiedroadraces.com) and using Google Earth to get an on-the-ground look at all the twists and turns, as well as landmarks for which to look.  And yet, I still somehow missed a turn in the first mile. It killed my momentum and started me on the road to stressing out (I also thought I had lost my license, but it was buried in my pocket).  I had only been running for five minutes, so I walked back to the Capitol Building and started over. 

This time, on the right track, I proceeded to run the five turns in the first two miles - 7:29 and 7:59. That was probably too fast, but with the multitude of cars and confusing street signs - and enough pedestrians to make it necessary for me to wear a face mask - I was uncomfortable, I was stressed, I had to pee, and I could not get out of downtown fast enough. 

Things went a little more smoothly heading north and into Riverside Park, with my third mile at 7:45.  Thankfully, there was a portable restroom in the park, so I made use of it and set out onto the trail along the Connecticut River where I was a bit more comfortable (though I still wore the mask because of the other people walking the narrow path) and was able to get rid of the first bunch of pages of my course notes.

Deliberately slowing down through the rest of the park trail (8:10 for mile four), then back into downtown Hartford (8:05 for mile five), I navigated the next four turns to get me to the Founders Bridge over the river and into East Hartford, with a sixth mile at 8:06.  Five more turns in the seventh mile (7:55) on thankfully less-busy streets got me back onto a trail, this time in Great River Park, on the other end of which, at the eighth mile (8:39), Gloria met me with cold water and moral support, both of which I already needed.

In mile nine (8:32), the course started getting a little easier along East River Drive, with a turn onto Route 5 (Main Street), though the busy road did not make for much fun.  A turn into a residential neighborhood made things better in mile 10 (8:18), but the straightaway on Prospect Street had me confused and frustrated because I knew I had to turn back onto Main Street, but *none* of the intersections had street signs.  Frustration saps energy, so when I finally found Main, my 11th mile time was 8:45 - my slowest yet.  

That was fine.  I wanted to slow down.  The temperature was now in the 70s and it was relentlessly sunny.  The next turn was onto King Street, and once again there was a lack of street signs, getting me all tense again.  Seriously, East Hartford - you really suck with your signage.

Finally on King Street (8:35 for mile 12), I could relax because there was only one more turn (8:35 for mile 13) and then there would be nine blessed miles on the relatively peaceful Main Street (but not Route 5 - as I said, it was confusing) in South Windsor.

Unfortunately, by this point, I was already losing steam.  This was the part of the race to which I was looking forward, but I could not even enjoy it.  It was far too early to be running out of gas, yet it was happening rapidly - 8:59 for mile 14, 9:14 for mile 15, 9:27 for mile 16 and, at the turnaround, 10:09 for mile 17.

Nine more miles to go and I knew there was no chance of anything getting any better.  My legs were getting leaden and my stomach was twisting in knots.  I walked for a while and Gloria pulled up alongside me in the car at around mile 18 (11:35).  She gave me some more cold water - I downed two bottles.  I was clearly dehydrated.  I had gotten accustomed to doing long runs in the heat during the summer, but recent weeks had been cooler and this unexpected spike in temperature caught my body off guard.  It was obvious by now that this would be the first time it would take me more than four hours to finish a marathon.

My condition worsened as running turned to jogging in mile 19 (12:17), then a jog/walk in miles 20 and 21 (13:04 and 12:24), and then walking in mile 22 (14:04). 

Back on Route 5, after Gloria went ahead to meet me at a later point, I called her and told her I would be walking the rest of the way (and that I was sorry that she would have to wait around for the next hour or so).  Along Prospect Street again (15:58 for mile 23), even walking was difficult, as I slowed to a trudge (17:32 for mile 24). 

Stopping for a moment to dry heave as my stomach continued its revolt against the rest of my body, I finally made my way to Pitkin Street (20:13 for mile 25) and onto the Founders Bridge, where I finally vomited whatever my stomach could produce.  Gloria met me on foot during the last mile (21:14 for mile 26) and helped me slowly meander to the finish line, which I hit at a final time of 4:50:45, almost a full hour slower than my previous slowest marathon.  

While walking those last few miles, I spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong.  My best guess is that a lot of small factors compounded into a what turned out to be a difficult and exhausting day.  Sometimes, everything - the weather, the mood, the course, the conditions - seems to fall into place (ah, Mississippi, less than two short years ago); but sometimes, nothing does.

At 46 years old, with 24 marathons under my belt, that has to be expected (especially in the weirdest year ever) and I have to be OK with it.  It means I am human, it means life throws curveballs, and it means that things can not always go as planned, no matter how much one plans.

Of course, it also means that I will probably be back in Hartford next year, trying again.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Marathon XXIV

The COVID era marches on with races canceled everywhere.  Frankly, even if they were not, I am not comfortable enough being around large groups of people anyway, so I would probably steer clear.

And yet...

The marathon into which I have entered has become a virtual marathon this year.  Participants can run it anywhere in the world and send the proof of their 26.2 miles from their Garmin or similar devices.  But that seems weird to me.  If I planned to run a marathon in a certain place on a certain date, well, I am going to do so. 

Thus, my 24th marathon will be of the virtual sort, but I am going to run the actual course (thank you, certifiedroadraces.com!) on the day.  I set out to run *this* marathon, so I am going to run *this* marathon.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Baker's Dozen Half Marathon - Montclair, NJ - Aug. 8, 2020

The pandemic has not, and will not deter me from my usual training cycles, and if that means all of my races are going to be my myself, then so be it.  It was never supposed to be about competing against other people or winning age group medals anyway.  Admittedly, it had been getting like that in recent years, with my ego running away with itself sometimes.  But in the end, it has always about me and the clock - setting personal records and training to perform at my best on race day.

Now, with my days of PRs behind me and speedwork becoming more difficult as I navigate the back half of my 40s, racing for the hell of it has never been more important.  I cannot say I get much joy out of short races anymore, but the challenge of marathons is as alluring as ever. 

So I continue with my marathon training schedule, and doing so (using Hal Higdon's Intermediate Marathon training program this time) requires running a half-marathon halfway through the 18-week program. 

Rather than try to find another new course, I decided to take another stab at the Baker's Dozen in Montclair, NJ.  I had specifically trained for that race a couple of months earlier and had a tough time with it - partially because it was a warm day, but mostly because I have been burning out in the speed department as I get older. 

This time, I would have more fun with it.  It was, after all, just a stepping stone in my marathon training program rather than the endgame of weeks of training.  Plus, I knew the course a lot better, so that helped me gauge when to push and when to conserve.

My first two miles, along Forest, Claremont, and North and South Mountain avenues, were almost exactly the same as six weeks before, with a 7:11 and a 6:50 (as compared to 7:10 and 6:49).  I strategically took the loop around Eagle Rock Way and Stonebridge Road a little more slowly (7:09, as opposed to 6:49 in June), and thought I was doing the same for the fourth mile up South Mountain Avenue (7:10, though I did a 7:09 last time).

The strategy was to conserve for the steep uphill on Claremont Avenue in the fifth mile.  I did that mile also on par with last time (7:53 vs. 7:54), but this time I did not expend as much energy and that made a big difference in the rest of the race.  So instead of already feeling fatigued in the sixth and seventh miles on the rolling hills of Highland Avenue, I felt strong as I hit a 7:12 and 7:05 (where I did 7:23 and 7:08 last time).  In the next few miles along Upper and North Mountain avenues, I tried to keep status quo (7:17, 7:35, 7:26 and 7:23) averaging one second faster in these miles as I did in June; but once again, I did not feel like I needed to push nearly as hard to get there.

Even on the seven-turn twister of mile 12, I kept it relatively steady with a 7:32 (7:34 last time) but did not have (or feel the need for) quite the closing kick as I did six weeks prior, tackling the last mile at 7:24 (7:14 in June).  Still, with a finish time of 1:35:52, I somehow managed to best my previous Baker's Dozen time by 17 seconds, making it my third slowest half-marathon ever, but somehow a little more satisfying now that I have accepted that my speed game is a thing of the past.  

This attitude took me through my triumphant double sub-four-hour marathon weekend earlier this year, which now seems like a lifetime ago on a different planet.  As long as this weird new world continues to change everything we do and the way we do it, my races will continue to be less formal and more personal; and I am heading into my first marathon of the COVID era with that approach.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Baker's Dozen Half Marathon - Montclair, NJ - June 28, 2020

When this race was introduced in 2017, I could not help but wonder if a bunch of Phish fans were behind its nomenclature.  After all, Phish's guaranteed-to-be-epic 13-night run of the same name had been announced in January of that year.  Then along comes this race in the spring in Montclair - a town sure to have its fair share of phans, as evidenced when the Trey Anastasio Band played at the Wellmont Theater in 2011 and 2013.  Coincidence?

Since I never got around to running the actual race (usually in March), this year's circumstances seemed like a good opportunity to finally give the course a whirl.

Having lived in neighboring Little Falls for eight years, I know a lot of the roads in Montclair, so much of the course was on familiar ground.  The race starts and ends at the Montclair Bread Company on Forest Avenue, in the eastern side of town, but this race hits just about every area except the northeast and southeast corners. 

(Race map: https://certifiedroadraces.com/certificate/?type=l&id=NJ17550JHP)

I had written out turn-by-turn directions to take with me, which was especially helpful in the early miles.  After turning off of Forest Avenue to head west on Claremont, there was already a bit of an incline.  I took it in stride, not letting out too much effort, and hit a 7:10 for the first mile after turning left on North Mountain Avenue and crossing Bloomfield Avenue (the main drag through downtown) to continue on South Mountain Avenue.  I can imagine that the locals, especially those in cars, are probably not too fond of this crossing on the actual race days.

Training had gotten pretty bad over the past couple of weeks, especially with speed work.  Tempo runs got slower and more painful; track intervals were more labored.  But as I hoofed it down South Mountain for the second mile (6:49) things started to feel like they were going to be OK.  With a loop around the southeastern section of town, along Eagle Rock Way and Stonebridge Road, my third mile stayed strong with a 6:46, but that would be the last sub-7 mile of this race.

Retracing the path back up South Mountain and crossing Bloomfield again, I could feel the slowdown  in the fourth mile (7:09), but the worst was to come when I turned left on Claremont Avenue and climbed a 115-foot incline.  I had to take the steep hill as gingerly as possible because I knew it would knock me out beyond recovery if I did not.  So after turning onto Highland Avenue, mile five ended up being 7:54, my slowest of any half-marathon ever.

The next two miles on the rolling hills going northbound on Highland Avenue (7:23 and 7:08) were followed by a right turn on Mt. Hebron and two miles southbound on Upper Mountain Avenue (7:16 and 7:29) and a left turn on Claremont to zig the zag northbound on North Mountain Avenue for another two miles (7:28 and 7:30).

During these miles, I could not help but think about how, a year and a half ago, these splits would have been slow for a marathon, let alone a half.  How had things gotten so slow, so quickly?

Worse, a nagging pain in what I assume was my piriformis muscle (deep in my right buttock) - something with which I had suffered a few years ago - started creeping in.  All I could hope to do was maintain the pace as best as I could through the twisty-turny next mile (7:34) along Parkside, Oakcroft, Brookfield, Edgemont, Parkway, Valley and Vera.  That was a lot of turns and the paper on which I wrote the street names was rapidly turning to soaked shreds in my hand due to my profuse sweating.  It was probably more than 80 degrees by this point.

I managed to push it to 7:14 for one last mile along Midland, Chestnut, N. Fullerton, and the home stretch from Rand to Forest, finishing the race near where it started with a final time of 1:36:09, my slowest half-marathon by more than five minutes (I ran a 1:30:40 at Seaside Heights in 2008).

The year 2020 is long going to be remembered as a dividing line in a lot of ways.  In addition to life in a pre-COVID and post-COVID world, for me personally, it is the year I ceased to be a "fast" runner for my age and bumped down to "average".  My goal is to learn to live with that, without beating myself up.  

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Great Swamp Spring Distance Classic 15K – Basking Ridge, NJ - June 7, 2020

The official race date was a week or two prior, but I ran this official course as part of my coronavirus-era series of “races” to keep myself training hard and racing regularly.  Almost as sad as the fact that these terrible times call for such a strategy is the fact that my abilities continue to decline.  If 2019 began the slide from peak performance, 2020 has sealed the deal with an exponential decrease.
This is a stone cold fact that you never read in any running book or article: When it comes to speed and stamina, you lose it much more quickly than you attain it.
I have been running for 15 years.  It took me 11 years to get to peak speed.  I maintained it, with some minor fluctuations, for about two years.  And in the last two years, I have already dropped to almost the levels at which I started.  That is a brutal blow to the psyche; a bruise on the ego.
But let us get to the matter at hand – the 15K in Basking Ridge (where Phish's Page McConnell spent his childhood!).  My last 15K was on the hills of Block Island in 2016, where I inexplicably, unbelievably achieved a PR of 58:22.  Less than four years hence, on a mostly flat course, I could not even come close.
Starting at the official line, spray-painted on the pavement, I headed east on Lord Stirling Road. The first mile was great (6:18) thanks to an early downhill.  Having rested the day before, my legs felt fresh.  I was glad I had studied the course map, because the first turn was on Carlton Road which has no street sign.  Thankfully, though, the turnaround point on that road was spray-painted on the pavement.  
I hit mile two with a more realistic (though slightly disappointing) 6:33.  But I figured that was a good place to be this early on in the race, knowing that for a 15K, it is important to keep some gas in the tank.
Before turning onto Lord Stirling again to continue eastbound and hitting the mile 3 mark (6:30), a fellow on a bicycle (there were a lot of those out there that morning) passed me and said, “That’s quite an aggressive pace you’ve got going.”
I wanted to be able to explain that I was trying my best to run races while there were no actual races happening and that this was one of the courses, all I could muster was, “Thanks.”
Still, if I could have stayed in that 6:30 range, I would have been happy, all things considered.  But by the time I made it to the mile 4 mark (6:44) on Pleasant Plains Road, I could feel it all unraveling.  It was getting warmer – sunny and approaching 70F – and I was getting fatigued already.  I was not even halfway finished.  I had to press on, though.  I had no choice – this was a race, after all.
After another well-marked turnaround I hit mile 5 (6:47) before turning eastward again on Lord Stirling.  With each successively slower mile, I was calculating in my head how much slower my overall pace was, and it was not making me happy.  I simply had to push harder.
For a little while, it worked.  I hit the mile 6 mark with a 6:40 before the final turnaround that would send me back west on Lord Stirling with a straight stretch to the finish line for the final 5K.  I just had to keep pushing.
There was almost nothing left, though.  I gave it whatever I could - using every ounce of energy, trying to extend my legs as far as they would go – and I still came up with only 6:54 in both mile 7 and mile 8.  With a little more than a mile to go, I let it out whatever was left and managed a 6:39 in mile 9.
If that was the end of the race, my average pace would have been 6:39.  Nothing about which to write home, but understandable with the way things have been going.  But in that extra third of a mile at the end, I had to run up that hill that I went down at the beginning of the race.  It took me 2:42 to go that last three-tenths of a mile.  That is a 9:00 pace.  It was excruciating.
With a 1:02:23 final time, it was my slowest 15K with the exception of my first one in 2006 (1:09:38).  Since my second one was in 2009, with a 1:00:46, this means my ability has dropped to that of more than 11 years ago.  That is 11 years of improvement lost in only four years time – and not for lack of training, either.  I have been training exactly as much and as hard, only to see myself deteriorate rapidly.
It is frustrating and, like I said, it is something you never hear about.  Even with no major injury and no change in training, it all just falls apart when you get old enough.  
But does this mean I am giving up?  Not a chance.  July is half-marathon time.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

My own personal 10K - Pompton Plains, NJ - May 17, 2020

The way things have been going, who knows if the hypothetical half-marathon for which I have been training will be anything more than that.  But in the meantime, the schedule for Hal Higdon's Advanced half-marathon training program said I have to run a 10K, so it was time to select another old race to re-run.

For this one, I chose the Apple Chase 10K in Pompton Plains, which I ran on May 4, 2013.  I remember it being notable because it was the first time I met North Jersey's greatest runner, Rob Albano (who, of course, won the race), and also because it was where I achieved my PR, thanks to the super flat course that had nothing even resembling a hill.

There was no illusion that I would come even close to that 38:19 record, nor did I even think I could match the 39:34 result from the Grand Prairie, Texas, race from only five months ago.  No, my speed game has gone quickly downhill this year, so there was no expectation that even a sub-40 was in the cards.

I studied the course map from CertifiedRoadRaces.com and set about to run the race late Sunday morning.  It was a pleasant 63 degrees and sunny, though a little breezy.  Starting with a first mile of 6:10 northbound along West End Avenue was encouraging, but my stamina quickly dropped in the second mile along Mountain Avenue and southbound along the Boulevard, with a 6:18.

Continuing into the wind, it was getting increasingly difficult to maintain even that pace, so my third mile was 6:36.  Even after turning onto Slingerland Avenue (now in the borough of Lincoln Park) and doing the quick out-and-back on Frances Road, things were not getting any better with a 6:38.

Ouch.  It was not that long ago - just a few years - when those splits were slow for a half-marathon, let alone a 10K.  I had to push with all my might along West Parkway to try to make some kind of improvement in the last two miles, especially since I was now heading north with the wind at my back.  All I could do in miles five and six, though, was maintain status quo with 6:37 and 6:32, respectively.

The last few tenths of a mile for the Apple Chase race are supposed to be on the grounds of Pequannock Township High School on Sunset Road, through the field gate and onto the track for a big finish (I love track finishes!).  Unfortunately, the gates were closed, so I had to turn around and finish the last quarter mile on the road, with a finish time of 40:10, which was around what I expected. 

I can only imagine what it would have been like if there were hills involved, but that is something to find out another day.  On this day, I ran the best race I could, as a 45-year-old in the early stages of post-PR life.  At this point, what matters most is that I keep putting in the effort.  I will keep training, I will keep racing, and I will keep posting times, official or not.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Boonton SRT 5K - April 26, 2020

The weird times continue, but I still will not change my training cycles.  I decided to start training for a half marathon, ostensibly to take place sometime in the early summer.  Of course, the possibility remains that there will be no race to run.  Plus, Hal Higdon's Advanced Half-Marathon training program calls for sporadic shorter races to be run during the training cycle and there are definitely none of those happening.

There were plenty, however, that were supposed to happen, such as the Boonton SRT 5K in Boonton, NJ, on April 26.

Here is a fun fact: Any race that is certified by USA Track and Field has an official course map archived at certifiedroadraces.com.  Race got canceled?  No problem!  Look up the course map and run it yourself.  The start, end and turnaround points are explained and visualized in great detail, so you can be certain of its accuracy, even more so than if you use your GPS watch.  And knowing that you can run the exact race for which you trained gives your result that much more authenticity than if you ran 3.1 miles anywhere else.

So I found the course map and ran the race (later in the day, in case anyone else had the same idea).  

It was a chilly morning for the end of April, but I wore shorts because I was taking this as seriously as if it was the actual planned event.  I was happy to blast off as quickly as possible, if only to warm up.  The first mile through the pleasant suburban neighborhood was flat and then downhill, which led me to a 5:56 - my first sub-six mile in more than five months (the first mile of the Purple Stride 5K in November).

That was not going to last and I knew it.  Things leveled off alongside some woods and the Boonton Reservoir, but what goes down must come up again, so I had to go uphill in the second mile, resulting in a 6:28.  A 36-second slowdown is a huge swing, and I was determined to pick up the pace.  

The third mile included two turnarounds, which always tend to kill momentum, and I needed all the momentum I could muster since I was rapidly running out of steam.  By the time I was on the home stretch, I was hurting.  I pushed as hard as I could, but my aging body has been on a noticeable decline, no matter how hard I train.  My legs cannot churn as quickly, my heart cannot pump as strongly, and my lungs cannot process oxygen as efficiently.  

Still, I managed to (painfully) pull out a 6:12 for the third mile and hit the finish with a 19:21, exactly one second faster than I did a few weeks prior when I did the Verona Labor Day 5K course as my own personal race.

So this is it.  This is 2020: Racing by myself, with only two competitors - the clock and the effects of aging.  Awards and medals aside, that is what it has always been about anyway.  I guess not much has changed after all.  See you later in the month for my next 10K, then.