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.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

My Own Personal 5K #3 - April 5, 2020 - Verona, NJ

These are weird times.  Everything you normally do, the way you do it, has to change in some way.  But I would be damned if I was not going to run the post-marathon 5K as scheduled.  I would have to improvise, but I would do it.

As part of my recovery from the two marathons, I had planned to run the St. Cassian 5K in Montclair and Bloomfield - at Brookdale Park, site of my first 5K ever, back in 2006 - scheduled for April 5.  Then the coronavirus started to spread.  By the third week of March, I was working from home.  Shortly after, events started getting canceled.  

OK, no problem.  I am a disciplined guy.  If they cancel the race, my backup plan will be to get the course map from the website, show up at the park later in the day, and run the damn race myself.

Sure enough, by the end of March, the race was canceled.  Then, at the beginning of April, Gov. Murphy shut down all state and county parks, of which Brookdale is the latter.  I drove to the park in hopes that maybe the shutdown was only to stop people from driving to the park and congregating in groups.  However, there was yellow "caution" tape at every entrance, so I drove to neighboring Verona, where I had run the Labor Day 5K in 2011.

The course starts on Lakeside Drive, flat for the first half-mile, until a turn onto Hillside sends you uphill.  At 45 years old, I am now feeling the effects of aging after more than a decade of hard running.  Nine years ago, I bounded up that hill and made the next turn onto Forest to hit the first mile marker in under six minutes.  Not so this time, with a 6:22.  By the time I got to the turnaround on Forest, not even at the halfway point, I was already feeling winded and running out of gas.  But at least I got to go down that hill, which helped me get a 6:13 in the second mile.

Back onto Lakeside, I pushed as hard as I could, turning onto Bloomfield Avenue and then into Verona Park (which, as a municipal park, was open).  There were people strolling while wearing masks and cops present to - I assume - ensure that people did not get together in groups.  And then there was me, loudly grunting and huffing and puffing my way into my imaginary finish line.

I managed to hit mile three with a 6:09, finishing near the boat house with a final time of 19:22.  Looking at my times now, I am happy to see that I negative split every mile.  But at that moment, all I could think of, while gasping for breath and jogging a couple of miles to shake it off and cool down, was how nine years ago I did that course in 18:33.  I thought about how only four years ago, I triumphantly ran sub-18-minute 5Ks at two consecutive races.  And now, it is a struggle to even hit the low 19s.  

This is the day that, I imagine, every runner dreads - the day that you realize that not only are your PRs permanently in the rearview mirror, but you are never even going to come close.  I have reverted back to my run times from a decade ago.  And eventually, I will end up with results that are slower than even that first 5K in Brookdale Park, as a 31-year-old.  

I asked a running colleague who recently turned 60 how he coped with it.  He told me two things - first, to start looking more at the "age-graded" scores on result lists because it gives you an idea of how you did for your age; and, more importantly, he told me to keep putting in the same effort.  The result does not matter as much as long as you know you are giving it all you have, just like you did when you were running PRs.  

Sound advice, regardless of whether there are actual races to run.

Monday, March 9, 2020

One City Marathon - Newport News, VA - March 1, 2020

Even as far as mile 6 of the One City Marathon in Newport News, Virginia, I had my doubts.  Could I actually complete two sub-four-hour in two states in two days?  I had never run a race with such sore legs before, so at that point, I wondered if the answer was no.  But I was already in the thick of it and there was no turning back. We had literally come too far.

With Gloria behind the wheel on Saturday, we stopped at an Italian restaurant in Suffolk, VA, for a pasta dinner and arrived at our hotel in Newport News, VA, around 7 p.m.  That gave me just enough time to get my clothes ready and get to sleep by 9 p.m.

I woke up at 4 a.m., did some stretches and slathered Biofreeze on my tired legs.  Sure, I had held back as much as I could at the Ellerbe Marathon the day before, but 26.2 miles of running followed by six hours in a car still takes its toll.  Sitting on the bus to take us to the start line of this point-to-point race for an hour after that did not exactly help much, either.

Needless to say, when the race finally started at 7 a.m. Sunday, on the unseasonably cold morning (28 degrees), I was on stiff legs.  If the prior day was about holding back, this race would be about pushing through.

I started the 12/31/99 midnight-to-sunrise Phish set in my headphones at the beginning of "Slave to the Traffic Light".  Even though I had finished that song the previous day, my confidence was shaky and I suspected I would need almost the entire four hours to finish this race.  Sure enough, my first mile, through the park was 8:57.  Good enough.  Twenty-five more of those and my goal is reached.

A quick out-and-back in mile two (8:14) on a state highway led to some local roads for the next few miles (8:32, 8:22, 8:30) before moving on to U.S. Highway 60 for a few miles.  I chalked up those relatively swift miles to the excitement of the beginning of the race and the fact there were a few hundred more people at this race than the day before.

Beautiful tree-lined street in mile 5
Thankfully, the entirety of this marathon was flat, with only a few exceptions that amounted to nothing more than some small inclines and declines (definitely nothing I would call "hills", especially after Ellerbe) so my pace stayed rather consistent with 8:29 and 8:38 for miles six and seven.

With more than a quarter of the race finished, my confidence increased greatly.  Off of the highway and onto some local roads, I managed to keep things status quo (8:38, 8:51, 8:54, 8:35) without worrying as much.  So when I got to one of those inclines in mile 12, I took it gingerly with a 9:00 pace.  Knowing that I could do every mile at that pace for the rest of the race and still finish well under four hours boosted my confidence even more, especially as I hit mile 13 at 8:33 and the halfway point at 1:53:38.  I could spend two hours and six minutes on the second half and still reach my sub-four-hour goal.  Mile after mile of flat course meant that there was a real possibility of not needing nearly that much time, since my splits would likely be more consistent than on Ellerbe's hilly course (where my second half was a full two hours after a 1:51:xx first half).

The sign at the swim club in mile nine said, "Marathoners - just keep swim running"

Sideline support from the local residents in mile nine

I was finally comfortable enough to tell myself that it was not a matter of whether I would do it, but rather how long it would take. I was sore, no doubt about it - it was my 40th mile of the weekend.  But somehow, the building excitement of not just reaching, but smashing that goal got me through the next mile (8:30). After the 15th mile (8:44) it dawned on me that if I kept up the sub-nine miles, I would actually tie the marathon from a day ago.  And then after mile 16 (8:36), the prospect of actually beating it became all too real, especially as I was propelled by some seriously awesome Phish jams like "Drowned -> After Midnight" and a particularly killer "Piper".


If restraint was the order of the day in Ellerbe, consistency was the name of the game in Newport News, and somehow, I kept nailing it through miles 17 (8:44), 18 (8:44), and 19 (8:46) - through Christopher Newport University and into the Mariners' Museum and Park.  "Roses Are Free" started in my ears while I was in the park, as a beautiful view of the James River appeared before me.  Knowing this legendary half-hour jam would take me well into mile 22 and that nine-minute miles from that point on would still net me a better result than the day before, I hung back a bit, with 9:02, 9:01, and 9:04 as I ran through some suburban neighborhoods with people on their driveways cheering for the runners.

Four miles left, with 38 minutes to run them to beat the marathon I had finished less than 24 hours prior.  I had it in the bag, with an 8:47, 8:57 and 8:58 as I made my way into downtown Newport News, joined now by the half-marathon runners and 8K runners.  The excitement of finishing strong, with runners around me and spectators on the sidelines (for a change), the closing sequence of "2001 > Wading in the Velvet Sea > Meatstick" to end the Phish show that had been playing my ears for two days and...holy moly...beating yesterday's time by two minutes...led me to make my last mile an 8:18.  Mile 26 was not only my fastest of the race, but the fastest since mile four of Ellerbe!

Fun signs from locals in mile 23 - "Go random stranger, go!",  "May the course be with you", "Smile, remember you paid to do this" and "Run like zombies are chasing you."

Passing by Newport News Shipbuilding in mile 25
My final time was 3:48:36.  I was elated.  Overjoyed.  Beside myself.  And sore.  All worth it.  Two marathons in two states in two days, and they were not even my two slowest marathons ever, either.

Post-race party in the park in downtown Newport News
At 45 years old, with no more desire to attempt a personal record, I managed to set and reach a new, different goal.  That is what keeps this sport exciting - there are always new ways to approach it.  The only question...what next?

Me, triumphant, with beer