Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Philadelphia Trail Marathon (virtual) - December 12, 2020

Despite Covid indeed.

Prelude to Change
On February 29, Emaad and I sign up for the Philly Trail Marathon scheduled for Saturday, April 18, 2020.  Little do we suspect that it will be 34 weeks, not seven weeks, before we run it, and in Gaithersburg, Maryland, not Philadelphia.

A Pandemic Changes Everything
At the end of February talk of a pandemic has begun, but how bad things will get are not clear.  I ran the George Washington Birthday Marathon two weeks earlier and there was no mention of the corona virus. Emaad and I register for the race on the last day of February before entry fees increase.

But it doesn't take much longer for virus concerns to surface.  On March 7 I run the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K, and rules at the aid stations are in effect due to the virus. Later that week my wife and I drive to Florida to spend a week, but we return home after only four days. Many public facitities are closed and supermarkets are sold out of essentials. We become concerned that may not be able to return home if we wait any longer. On the drive home on March 18, fast food restaurants have closed their indoor dining and are only doing take out or drive-thru sales.

Dos Amigos (post race).
On March 20, we get emails that the race has been postponed until September 27, assuming that Philadelphia will issue the necessary permits. On July 14 comes the news that the race will go virtual. Runners will have until December 31 to run it virtually.  Shortly thereafter, a package arrives from Uberendurance Sports containing a bib, a medal and the race premium shirt.  I do not open it, since I have not yet run the race, and the runner's code is that you cannot display a medal you did not earn, and you cannot wear a shirt from a race you did not run or volunteer at. And who needs a bib in a virtual race?

No Training? No Worries!
Because of a serious automoble accident on July 10 that left my wife confined to a wheelchair for months, I cannot be away from the house for any significant duration.  That largely means that I have to run on the streets in my neighborhood, frequently doubling back to the house to check on her, initially as frequently as every 15 minutes.  Long runs are not possible.
As the summer turns to fall, and she can start to use a walker, my runs lengthen, but not into double digits.  Frequent daily 3-5 mile runs enable me to hit 100 miles per month, but just barely.

As she strengthens and begins to use a walker and the days get shorter into November, I suggest to Emaad that we aim to run the virtual Philly Marathon on December 12.  He agrees, but insists that we need to get a couple of long runs in.  Two weeks prior we run 13.1 miles in the neighborhood, coming back to the house once to check in.  The next weekend we do a 10-miler from the house, again looping back to the house in the middle of the run.

A Plan
I arrange for our two children to spend time with their mother for significant parts of the eight hours that I figure I need to get to and from where we will run and the time for the run.

Seneca Creek north of Route 355.
We decide that the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail offers the best opportunity for the marathon.  It is only about a 15 minute drive from home and we can park at Route 355 in Gaithersburg, Right next to the trail. We plan to run north about 4 miles to Brink Road, go back to the cars to reload our Camelbacks, then go south about 5 miles to Riffle Ford Road, return to the cars for a second refueling, then north about 3 miles to Watkins Mill Road and return for our 26.2 mile marathon. Moreover, we are familiar with the trail and figure that there will be fewer people on it than other trails closer to home.

No Plan Survives First Contact with the Enemy
Trail food?
We meet and at 8:33 a.m. we are off and headed north. The forecast is for an unseasonaly warm day, partly sunny with a high close to 60 degrees.  But as we start out, the temperature is in the upper 30s and there is a significant amount of fog.  I'm wearing tights, two shirts and gloves, along with a buff (for both neck warmth and to use as a face covering when encountering other trail users).

It is a pleasant day for a run and early on there are not too many other people on the single track trail.  We move along unhurredly, as there is no cutoff that we need to beat, nor other runners to overtake. Familiarity with the trail makes reminiscing about races we ran, and people we ran with, on that section of the trial easy.  We get to Brink Road and decide to go on to Huntmaster Road, maybe another mile further. At Huntmaster we figure to go another 1.5 miles, to get to 6.55, so that wene we return, we'll have have the race done.  But the day is nice, the trail is easy, the scent of horses (never seen) is in the air and we keep going.  Only when we reach the spot at mile 7.1 where we would have to ford Seneca Creek to keep going on the trail that we decide to turn around.

We retrace our steps in good spirits.  I take a picture of my Garmin when we reach 13.1 miles (at 2:59) and SMS it to my wife and children so they can see my progress.

The CSX bridge
Back at the cars, I decide to shed my tights and gloves, and change my two shirts for one longsleeved one.  I refill the Camelback, eat a Wild Mesquite Huppybar, and pack a few gels. It takes almost ten unhurried minutes to do all this, and Emaad is starting to get stiff waiting so he heads off.  

Emaad crosses the feeder stream
approaching Riffle Ford Road.
I catch up to him in a couple of minutes as we take the sidewalk next to Route 355 to get to the other side of Seneca Creek, then get on the trail to go under the road.  There are even fewer people on this stretch of trail, which alternates between runable stretches and some rocky, twisty, up and downs as it passes under I-270 and the 1906 stone arch bridge for the CSX tracks. And as we approach the bridge, so does a CSX train, with a consist of half a dozen locomotives heading a long string of autorack cars and tankers.

We pass thru Seneca Creek State Park on Long Draught Trail, catching a whiff of a cigar from someone sitting on the bank of the creek, then pass under Great Seneca Highway with the scent of sewage from vents of the WSSC sewage pipes in the area. We pass the disc golf course and the players on the course.  Then an easy hop over the stones across a small tributary to Seneca Creek and we shortly arrive at Riffle Ford Road. I touch a symbolic toe on the pavement and we retrace our steps northward.  Even before we reach Great Seneca Highway, the Garmin reads 20 miles (and 5:03) and I take another picture to send home announcing my progress. 
Grafitti under 355.

The northbound journey is not particularly hurried.  We ask a couple of fisherman have they have been faring ("nothing" and "a few small ones") and have to dodge some family groups, particularly in the park or near roads that provide parking for trail access.  

Back at the 355 parking lot we only need less than 2 miles.  To avoid retracing our steps we decide to try to go south on the side of the creek opposite the trail. But what looks like a trail quickly peters out and we give up trying to be creative and simply head north.  Peculiarly, my arithmetic ability is still functioning after 25 miles, and go just far enough out so that the return gives us 26.24 miles in 6:46:26.

The results.

The rewards.

The Best Present
 I eagerly tear open the bag from Uberendurance Sports, don my newly earned shirt and proudly hold up the medal and the bib.

Happy Birthday, Trail Marathoner!

Oh, December 12 is my birthday. And December 12, 2020 was my 70th birthday.  Who could ask for a better 70th birthday present than running a trail marathon with a friend, and getting a medal for doing so? (Although my age goes in the offical records as 69, the age I was had the race occured on the originally scheduled date.)

Swag: shirt, medal, bib.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K - March 7, 2020

I write this on March 24, seventeen days after the race.  A lot has changed in that period as a result of the corona virus pandemic. It has changed what I was going to write. I had started this a couple of days after the race, but what I was writing then no longer seems right.  The race seems like it was held in a different time that that we are in today.

Fair Weather
The weather leading up to race day is pretty much near perfect. No rain for a week, and after the mudfest and high water of 2019 I obsessively check the stream gauge on Seneca Creek at Route 28. Last year it ran at 440 cubic feet per second. This year it is less than a quarter of that and below the median for the date. A good omen promising a dry course, and even better, a dry crossing of Dry Seneca Creek.

Waiting to start
Fair Warning
The coronavirus is in the news, but there are no restrictions on gatherings such as the race.  At the start, the organizers announce that because of the coronavirus, the rules at the aid stations are changed. Runners are not to take their own food at the aid stations. Instead, volunteers will hand them food or the runners may take food, such as M&Ms, potato chips or pretzels, already parceled out into small disposable cups.

Fermat's Last Theorem and Other Topics
The nearly 300 runners start off down the park road to the entry to the trail under partly sunny skies, temperatures in the 40s and just a bit of breeze.  I run with Don and as usual on such runs the topics bounce around randomly.  For some reason (other than Don's training as a mathematician) we discuss Fermat's Last Theorem and the efforts to prove it. This leads to a discussion of the four color theorem and its applicability to objects with more than two dimensions.

Old farm equipment along the trail
In the meantime we enjoy the near perfect conditions. South of Riffle Ford Road the trail has been rerouted to higher ground to avoid an almost-always stretch next to Seneca Creek.  At one point I'm running point for a group of about ten runners.  I go down a path and in about ten yards realize I've gone astray. I stop yell back for everyone to stop following me and cut uphill to the proper trail.  "I'm no shepherd," I tell them,"but you are sheep for following me astray."

After about five miles Don picks up the pace and I cannot follow.  I'll see him again at the food pavilion at the end of the race where he finished 58 minutes ahead of me.

Not lost
A runner compliments me on my harlequin tights (made for me by legendary ultrarunner Eric Clifton) and I return the complement on her InknBurn gear. It is an opportunity to tell about running Marathon du Medoc in an InknBurn shirt.

South and North
The Route 28 aid station  (mile 7.5) has small cups loaded with snacks and runners are careful in selecting food. I take a cup of pastel peanut M&Ms and eat them while walking alongside Route 28 to cross over to the Seneca Bluffs Trail.  Finishing the snack, I ask the course marshal guiding runners onto the trail if I can leave the empty cup with her and she takes it.

About a mile along a runner ahead of me stumbles and falls. Remarkably his shoe comes off and rolls a short way down the slope on the left side of the trail.  He is unhurt and retrieves the wayward footwear.

Dry feet at Dry Seneca Creek
Further along I join my pace with a fellow runner. When I mention my obsession with the stream gauge, she perks right up, and agrees that last year's reading of 450 ft3/sec. is indeed high. She knows this because she kayaks on Seneca Creek and monitors the gauge before setting out to paddle on the stream.  She plans to drop after 15 miles and just south of the crossing at Dry Seneca Creek her two children meet her to run her with her for awhile.

Speaking of Dry Seneca Creek (it is never dry, although perhaps in the 19th century it occasionally  might have been), this year it is possible to cross it on the concrete stepping stones without wetting a foot; a welcome change from last year's thigh-high torrent with the stones submerged and unseen in the turbid water.

Playing the air guitar flag
Soon enough the course reaches River Road and we cross back over Seneca Creek to return to the north, but not before passing the course marshal playing air guitar with his flag to the tunes of his boom box. 

Just up Seneca Road, before where the course get on the dirt of the Seneca Greenway Trail is a semi-unofficial aid station (mile 14) serving distinctly adult beverages. It is a week or ten days before the seriousness of the coronavirus really will hit home and the workers treat it with some levity, with one in personal protection equipment and another pouring Corona beer for the runners.  At the same time, the aid station workers are wearing gloves to avoid food contamination.

It is only a mile to the Berryville Road aid station (mile 15) where our drop bags await.  I don't get anything from mine but instead dispose of the shirt I had taken off a mile into the race, as well as my gloves and hat.

It was cold and good
It is 4.5 miles back to the Route 28 aid station (mile 19.5) on the east side of the creek. I run with a number of different runners, and each is an opportunity to tell stories of races I've run.  Over the course of the day I tell the Medoc Marathon story three times, the mildly risque Hell Hath No Hurry story a couple of times and several other stories.

Heading for a Decision
I reach the Route 28 aid station in company with another runner. She is contemplating dropping out, and I've been trying to buck up her spirits with two tales of the toughness of Jennifer (and the second).  When she gets there she plops down on a chair and is greeted by a friend who is dropping out.  I go on, feeling bad that I didn't try harder to convince her to go on.

But after getting on the Seneca Ridge Trail beyond Black Rock Mill, I'm pleased to hear her overtake me.  She gives me credit for encouraging her to go on.

It was funny then
I let her go on and stay with Mary, who has fallen earlier and banged her knee.  She is toughing it out and can't run too much. Then she falls again on the same knee.  She pronounces her running for the day over but says she can walk it in.  She urges me to go on.  After assuring myself that she is OK, I do.

I go on and after a bit fall myself.  No harm done, I've fallen so many times on trail runs that most times muscle memory takes over: rotate left, tuck the right shoulder in, roll to the right, try to spread out the landing.  I do well this time, and my hydration pack absorbs some of the impact. A nearly 360 degree roll and I'm on my feet.

Five More Miles to Go
I arrive at the Riffle Ford Road aid station (mile 26.8) and check my watch. The decison point for going to the finish for the marathon (closer to 29 rather than 26.2 miles) or the 50K (more like 32 than 31.1 miles) lies a bit ahead and I know that unlike last year I'm comfortably ahead of the cut-off.

I go on to the Mink Hollow Trail and as I cross the park road in a little while, Edwin Starr's 1969 hit Twenty Five Miles pops into my head.  I sing part of it (I got a five more miles to go/Now over the hill just around the bend/Huh although my feet are tired I can't lose my stride) for the course marshals at the road but they are too young to recognize it - or perhaps I just don't sing well.

Another couple of different runners join me.  I get to tell my stories again. One tells us she just got back from a visit to Iceland.  The other runner and I jokingly move further away from her.  Little do we know that is soon to become the rule.

With around a half a mile left she says she is going to go on. I urge her to finish strong as it is her first ultra.  Another runner passes me.  I don't fret. I mostly walk. No hurry.

 I cross the line in 8:33:28, good (?) for 159/166 overall and  8/8 in my age group. On the other hand, I'm the oldest 50K finisher - by six years.  Two older runners finish the marathon, including the remarkable Gretchen Bolton at 74.

Finisher's pint
I sit a bit and go to the pavilion for food and beer.  I'm not very hungry and pass on the chili but get a cookie and fill my finisher's pint glass with beer.  Don is still there and gives me a ride the quarter mile to my car.

Swag: Bib, pint glass, two bananas, candy

Thursday, February 20, 2020

George Washington Birthday Marathon - February 16, 2020

Don't lose your confidence if you slip
Be grateful for a pleasant trip
And pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again
-  (Lyrics: Dorothy Fields / Music: Jerome Kern) Pick Yourself Up (1936)

Pick Yourself Up
The DNF from Elephant Mountain 50K gnaws at me.  I had no regrets at the time I stopped, but like living with a slowly growing cancer, I can't quite shake the doubts and regrets it has planted. Only one way to deal with it - confront the demon. 

The DC Road Runners George Washington Birthday Marathon is just two weeks later. It is near by (20 minutes), reasonably priced ($50 - $120 depending on when one signs up), low-key, small (about 200 entrants plus 35 relay teams) and does not sell out.  I haven't run a road marathon since the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon, but The only question is the weather, which in February in Washington can be notoriously unpredictable. I know that - having run it in the cold and wind in 2013, being signed up for the canceled 2014 race, and having run one loop in a snowstorm in 2015 before the race as called off.  So I wait until the Wednesday before the race to sign-up, with the forecast looking increasingly promising.

Start All Over Again
Double Agent Barry goes game face early on
Barry is signed up for it  after doing another Dopey Challenge (he is both a Marathon Maniac and a Double Agent) and I offer to pick him up on the way to the race.  He asks to get there a bit early so he can take part in the Marathon Maniac photo, and I agree, as the race starts at 10 a.m., so early isn't really early. I get him at 8:45, we park, near the Greenbelt Recreation Center, collect our bibs and shirts, take some pictures and relax before walking the couple of minutes to the start.

The Dunkin' Donuts truck is parked on the way and is giving out coffee samples. Barry gets a cup. Not a coffee drinker, I pass.

The race starts promptly at 10 a.m. and we go off at an easy pace toward the back of the pack. We listen in as a couple of women runners discuss the marriage proposal one had received ("I was expecting him to ask, so I had already thought it over") and accepted.

We go along on the familiar route with temperatures comfortable in the upper 30s and little wind.  Having looked at the expected temperature climb into the 50s later in the day, Barry has opted for shorts, while I've gone with tights.

Except for about 2.4 miles on the way out and 1.9 on the way back, the course consists of three loops of a rough triangle: Beaver Dam Road on the grounds of the USDA Agricultural Research Center, Springfield Road and Powder Mill Road, with the first and last connected by the short Log Lodge Road, where the relay exchange is located.

Beaver Dam Road with runners
I joke that it is a Goldlocks course: the first loop is too long (9.7 miles) , the second too short (7.3 miles) but the third just right (9.2 miles). It does have rolling hills, and my device reports just over 1000 feet of climbing (and descending). Barry's device claims 1400 feet.

Barry and I run together from the start. He says it takes about four miles for his hip to loosen up, and several times I say that I'm going on, but I don't. 

Found Objects
I spy a capsule containing a white powder on the ground and pick it up.  It is probably a salt cap, and I twist it open and pretend to inhale from it. Or maybe I do inhale from it. And maybe it isn't salt, for soon afterward I pull away from Barry and don't see him again until we meet up at the Community Center for the post-race food. Later in the day I pick up a small plastic bag with two white capsules and an off-white tablet.  This time I don't try any chemical experiments. I carry them for awhile but finally discard them in the trash at an aid station.

Approaching the halfway point
(Photo by Bidong Liu)
Speaking of discards, during the day I pick up at least a half dozen of the small tabs torn from the top of gels.  I realize they are easy to drop but it does annoy me a bit that runners can't be more careful not to litter.

Speaking of litter, since the race is along public roads, it is an opportunity to survey the amount of trash that afflicts our public spaces.  All sorts of food containers, fast food containers, snack wrappers and beverage containers have been tossed out of cars (I suspect). Approaching the aid station at mile 19 on the other side of Soil Conservation Road, I pick up a pair of beer bottles.  As I cross the intersection past the police officer guiding traffic, I assure him that I'm not running while drinking.

Casualties of corduroy roads
Speaking of traffic, Powder Mill Road has a fair volume of traffic that travels at a good clip.  To slow it down (or may to provide additional traction on downhills) the USDA has corduroyed the road in a number of spots.  It doesn't seem to result in lower speeds, but it does appear to have separated some cars from their hubcaps.

Odds and Ends
This is my seventh year running GWB Marathon, so the course itself holds no surprises. There is a mix of the familiar and the occasional new experience. Here are some of them.

I have new glasses with transition lenses, so they automatically darken when out in the sun.  I generally like them, but the morning is overcast but the lens darken anyway.  This makes it a bit darker than I prefer, so I take them off. The downside of that is the loss of visual acuity - I generally can't make out the big E on the traditional Snellen eye chart, so my uncorrected vision is worse than 20/200.  Fortunately this is a road course without rocks and roots and I can see the cars coming at me, so it isn't too much of a disadvantage.  Later the day turns sunny and I put my glasses back on.

Boom box and air guitar for encouragement
At the top of a hill on Powder Mill Road (about miles 8.5, 16 and 23.5) a solitary figure with a boom box provides music for the runners.  He has been there every time I have run the race and I greet and thank him.  The third loop he plays air guitar to accompany the music.

A bit into the second loop, just past a one-lane bridge on Beaver Dam Road, a 16-passenger bus being used to shuttle runners to the relay point is perpendicular to the road and blocking one and a half of the two lanes.  Its tandem rear wheels are over the pavement and in the mud, and it is clearly stuck.  It likely took a wrong turn on its shuttle, tried to turn around and got stuck. Fortunately it is gone by the time I get there on the third lap.

Part of the audio soundtrack of the race is the report of guns from the Prince George's Trap and Skeet Center south of the portions of the Ag Center south of Beaver Dam Road.  The firing is especially heavy during the first loop and it does not take an expert to recognize a variety of arms and ammunition in use.  In past years, the sound usually fades by the turn onto Springfield Road, but this year it can be heard for at least a mile a beyond the turn. The intensity of firing is less on the second and third loops, but is still pretty heavy.

Reaching the aid station at the corner of Beaver Dam and Springfield Roads during second loop (mile 13.1) I spy pizza on the table.  "Mmmm, pizza," I say, knowing that it was brought out for the volunteers.  Asked if I want some, I decline, but add, "Maybe on the third loop."

When I reach the aid station at Soil Conservation Road on the third loop (mile 19) they offer pizza - pepperoni or vegetable topping.  I choose a slice of pepperoni, despite already having a few peanut butter-filled pretzels in my hand. The slice sustains me for the mile and a half to the Springfield corner aid station where I decline pizza, but grab a donut hole. 

At the start I told Barry that my goal was to finish in 5:30.  He aims for 5:45.  At mile 19 I look at my watch and calculate that a 12 minute a mile pace will let me attain my goal.  Since I'm running at a bit below that I think I have a shot at it.  I maintain that for another mile.  By mile 21 I feel that I'm running just as hard, but the pace has slipped to 13 minutes per mile.  By mile 22, it's slower yet. I revise the goal to 5:40.  The last half mile is downhill then flat and a push allows me to cross the line in 5:39:22, good for 174/196 overall, 126/142 male, and 7/10 in my age group.  Barry finishes in 5:47.
Finished (and redemption)
(Photo by Noah Eisenberg)

We meet up in the Community Center, where the runners get a post-race meal of pasta, pizza and birthday cake for the 288th Birthday of the Father of Our County, the namesake of the race.

The first President congratulates Barry and me on our finish

Swag: Quarter zip shirt, bag, medal, bib
(not pictured: confidence and reassurance)

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Elephant Mountain 50K - DNF - February 1, 2020

There are times, when explanations, no matter how reasonable, just don't seem to help.
- Fred Rogers, Life's Journeys According to Mister Rogers (2005)

The End

"Emaad!" I yell a second time.

He finally hears me, stops, and turns around.  He is about 30 yards ahead of me on the long uphill about a mile from where we left the Start/Finish area to start our final 8 mile loop.

"Go on," I say, "I'm done. I'm going back." After 24.7 miles and 6:45:48, my day at the Elephant Mountain 50K is over.

He doesn't try to talk me out of it. A wave of the hand, an "OK" and he goes on and I stop. I trudge the mile back to the Start/Finish.  I pass a few more 50K runners headed out for that final loop. They don't try to talk me into continuing either.

At the finish I report my DNF and get a handshake for my effort. No finisher's pint glass for me.

The Beginning
In the days leading up to the race I obsess over the two cutoffs posted on the website - one for when we return to the Start/Finish line at about mile 23 (7 hours) and the second at the finish (9 hours).  It seems generous enough, but the course has some climbs, the weather can be hot, and the footing is unknown.  And results for previous years do not show any finishers over 9 hours, so I take it that the race organizers are serious about the cutoffs.  I prepare a pace card so we can see how we are doing.

The day before the race Emaad and I visit the Desert Botanical Garden with friend Cathy, an ultrarunner who relocated to the Valley of the Sun about ten years ago.  She has honed her gardening skills with classes at the Gardens that she uses in her own yard and to instruct us about the various plants we will see during our run.

Final instructions at the start
Saturday morning we get a parking spot about 30 yards from the start line. We put together drop bags for the turnaround at the Spur Cross Aid Station (mile 11) and I do one for the start/finish.  They are pretty minimal - a shirt, some gels, maybe a handkerchief.

Promptly (nearly on the second) the 61 50K runners are off at 7 a.m. Fourteen 50 mile runners started an hour earlier (ten will finish).  The sun is still below the horizon, but there is enough light to run by.  Still to come are runners in the 35K, 22K, 12K and 6K distances. We'll see (and get passed by) 35K runners later, but the others will be well done before we are anywhere near overlapping with them.
It is a long climb up at the start, but the golden glow of the impending sunrise behind the hills and mountains to our right is inspiring.

In less than three miles we reach the Go John Aid Station (named for a runner named John who always implored others to "Go!").  A quick drink, a check of the pace card and off we go.

Looking back to the start/finish
It doesn't take long for the field to spread out, but we have a couple of runners following us.  We head up a ridge and hear howling ahead.  To my untrained ear it sounds like a a bunch of runners goofing off at an aid station, but one of the local runners with us, says it is from a pack of coyotes.  We scan ahead as we head down a gentle slope with good views but don't see anything.

Speaking of which, we haven't seen any of the polka-dotted ribbons that mark the trail either.  We have gone awhile without seeing any, but we are clearly on a trail, and we can see a couple of runners ahead.

But one of them heads back towards us and expresses concern about not seeing any ribbons.  Emaad consults the GPX track of the course that he had downloaded on his phone and confirms that we are indeed off the course.  On the other hand, we are headed on a trail that will intersect with the course at the next aid station..  Meanwhile, another pair of runners catches up with us.  The eight or so of us give a collective shrug and decide that all we can do is press on.

Avoid the pointy plants
Gravity Never Takes A Holiday
In parting at the Botanical Garden, Cathy told us to avoid plants with points, especially cholla cactus, which have small but nasty barbed spines. We assure her that will be do our best to look but not touch.

The trails are generally firm dirt, but with plenty of rocks that require attention.  Unfortunately, I catch a toe on one during our off-course section and gravity tugs me earthward.  I'm an experienced faller, so I tuck my right shoulder in and go into a roll when I hit the ground.  The maneuver helps spread out the impact, but I nearly take out one of the runners with us, bumping up against her shin.  But I stop just short of a prickly pear cactus.

A few miles later, on another flat section, I go down again.  Again, no significant damage and no encounter with pointy plants. Later that night I catalog scrapes on my right shin, knee, hand, elbow and shoulder. At least the wounds show that I was able to spread the impacts.
Typical trail (with rocks to trip on)
I'll fall again around mile 13, on a rockier stretch of downhill, but without serious damage.  I quip to hikers heading in the opposite direction, "Go on. Nothing to see here."

But the falls do take a bit of a toll - my lower back is sore, probably from being twisted or wrenched in the falling.  A couple of ibuprofen help for a bit, but the pain returns later in the day.

Friend Sara, running the 22K didn't get the warning from Cathy.  She falls on a downhill - "like I was sliding into home plate" - right into a cactus, maybe a cholla.  At the finish she goes to the medical tent to have the spines removed from her leg.

Back on Course
Emaad crossing Cave Creek about mile 12
We rejoin the course at the Rodger Creek Aid Station (mile 5.9).  The aid station workers are not surprised to seeing us come from the wrong direction, as others have preceded us. They suggest that we cross the timing mat and we do.  We have shaved about 0.9 mile from the course. We are not going to win any awards anyway, so it is unfortunate but not such as thing that would require us to disqualify ourselves.  Because of my concern about making the cutoffs, I'm secretly pleased that we have saved a few more minutes.

With the exception of the fall on the way out, the run to the Spur Cross Aid Station (mile 11) is uneventful, but is filled with great scenery. At one point we can see the aid station below and seemingly near, but we have to run away from it while headed down, and then cross Cave Creek on a small improvised two-board bridge before reaching it.

At the aid station I change from the long sleeve shirt to a short sleeve one, get my handkerchief, refill my bottle and use the Porta-potty, entirely forgetting to get anything to eat at the station.

The view on the Spur Cross Trail
The day is getting warm (temperature will reach 79) and the sun is high and bright. I have gels and salt tabs with me and I am taking them, but at irregular intervals.

You Think You are Tough
On the way back to Rodgers Creek, we fall in with a woman runner. As usual during an ultra, we chat.  We are walking a fair amount now, I I mention my concern about the cutoffs (although we were 35 minutes to the good at Spur Cross.  She too, has a pace card, and suggests that we need to pick it up a bit if we wish to maintain our cushion.  He says that she cannot run the rocky stretches because she is legally blind.  She also tells us that she has MS.  Neither affliction prevents her from running away from us, although we briefly catch up to her approaching Rodgers Creek before she goes ahead for good.

Emaad circling Elephant Mountain
At Rodgers Creek Aid station (mile 16) I soak my handkerchief and hat to provide some cooling, and this time we get on the right part of the course that we missed outbound.  The first stretch is an old road, flat but particularly rocky. The next stretch is a short bit of paved road. Neither is pleasant, but we are soon enough back on the trail, and into the Go John Aid station with our time cushion undiminished.
We work on the section around Elephant Mountain toward the Start/Finish.  It gets rocky and uphill.  The sun beats down on us, and our pace flags. A mountain biker comes flying down one particularly steep and rocky stretch, telling us not to worry about him.  Finally the trail levels out and then heads down to where we started (mile 24).  We beat not only the official cutoff, but my unofficial cutoff, but we have given back time.  The 35 minute cushion is down to 17 minutes.

The Abruptness of the End
I change shirts again, re-soak my hat and handkerchief and we head out. It is the long uphill that we started on and we are mostly walking, even the more level stretches.  I tell Emaad that we need to pick it up if we are to make the 9 hour finishing cutoff.

We reach a stretch on one of the uphill switchbacks that is level and he urges me to run.  We do.  He gets ahead of me.  We both keep walking uphill.

I look up and see not only him but that the stretch of trail further along - and uphill.

It's a gut punch. No, a knockout punch.  I don't even agonize over whether I can go on. At the time I feel no shame, no regret, no sadness, about it.

I call out to Emaad and quit.

Another runner comes along and I get an ibuprofen from her. She goes onward and I turn around to go down.

Emaad goes on to finish in 8:42, 18 minutes under the offical 9-hour cutoff.  But because of the addition of the 50 mile race there are four runners who finish over that time. The cutoff wasn't a cutoff.

Reasonable Explanations?
The heat.
The falls and back pain.
The failure to manage electrolytes and nutrition.
Misapprehension of the cutoff.
Not taking time to regroup.
Lack of mental toughness.
Failing to realize that I only had 100 feet of the 500 feet of climbing to go.
My age.

Mister Rogers was right. Explanations don't help.

Swag: Shirt, bib (but no finisher's glass)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Colossal Vail 50/50 50 Mile - November 9, 2019

Rather than the usual linear report, this one on the Colossal Vail 50/50 50 miler is topical.

For those who prefer linear, here is the short version: from La Posta Quemada Ranch we ran south on the Arizona Trail for 16.9 miles in about 4:11. We turned around and ran north on the Arizona Trail for 24.8 miles in another 7:20. We turned around and run south on the Arizona Trail for 8.5 miles in 2:44 until we returned to La Posta Quemada Ranch for a total elapsed time of 14:15:47. There we stopped running and accepted the finisher's railroad spike.
Finisher's spike.

"It's a Moave," Avery says.
I've just come to a dead stop, having seen in time the snake on the single track about three feet ahead.   Avery is behind me and Emaad behind him. I'm no herpetologist, but I recognized the triangular shaped head and the rattles on the tail as those of a rattlesnake and hit the brakes. Now Avery has ID'd the snake as one of the more venomous of the snakes on the planet.

It is about three feet long and stretched out on the trail, head facing us. It is deathly still. Emaad comes forward to take a picture.  I toss small pebbles in its direction hoping to urge it into the undergrowth on either side of the trail - or to see if it is alive. It does not move. At all. We are at a standoff.  Finally Emaad decides that we need to go around, and he steps on a flattened dead prickly pear cactus and goes around.  The snake still does not move and no unseen ones strike at him.  Avery and I follow.

Safely past, I kick dirt toward the still unmoving snake's tail.  It whips its head around and I bolt down the trail, not interested in further interactions. We warn several runners headed in the opposite direction of what may lie ahead for them.

Early on.
Concierge Service
Ultra aid stations are invariably staffed by helpful volunteers. But the five aid stations (four of which one visited twice on the double out and back course) were beyond outstanding and worthy of five-star Yelp reviews for service. They all had the usual assortment of ultra-race food: cookies, potato chips, candy, PB&J sandwiches, gels, various hot food and water and sports drink.  But they also had volunteers who immediately offered to refill your pack and bring food to me as I sat down to go through my drop bag.  There were tables at the Sahuarita Aid Station, so one could sit and easily rummage through a drop bag.  And sitting around a table with other runners was even more convivial than the usual friendliness that occurs among ultrarunners. 

Where's Waldo? At  Sahuarita Road AS.
(Photo by E. Burki)
At the Pistol Hill Aid station more than one volunteer warned us of how much time we had left to depart in order to make the impending cutoff.  No one wanted to see a runner get timed out because they were too comfortable sitting down.

There is Always Someone Crazier
Southbound, after crossing through the tunnel under I-10 (about mile 7)  we come across someone with a backpack and a worn baseball cap.  He was a through hiker, headed south to the Arizona Trail's southern terminus at the Mexican border.  He had been on the trail about seven weeks, and only had maybe another 50 miles or so to go to finish his 800 mile journey.  He was content in his journey and we wished him well.

The I-10 tunnel.
After we finished our journey to the southern turn-around at the Peaks View aid station and returned to the  Sahuarita Road aid station (mile 22.8) we met the hiker a second time and had a chance to chat with him.  Turns out this was his second through hike on the AZT, having gone south to north - Mexico to Utah - two years ago.  And he mentioned that he had done several other thru hikes as well.

Later in the day, perhaps approaching La Selvilla aid station (mile 36) we come across another thru hiker.  He's been on the trail for six and a half weeks or so.  By then dusk is approaching, but he doesn't seem fazed.

Headed toward Sahuarita Road AS
(Photo by E. Burki)
You Are Where?
Emaad leaves the Sahuarita Aid Station northbound (mile 22.8) ahead of me.  I'm changing shirts, refilling my pack, giving raw honey packs I picked up on the trial to other runners and getting a bite to eat.  Although we generally run together it isn't unusual for one or the other of us to leave an aid station alone and have the other catch up.

I head out and after a bit can spot him a little ahead. The trail drops down into a dry wash that goes under Highway 83, then makes a right out of the wash on the other side of the road.  After a bit the view of the trail opens up and I can see a pair of runners ahead, but not Emaad. I begin to think that he has sped up and passed them. I'm not making any progress in catching up to them, but as the trail ascends and descends the rolling desert I can't see him either ahead of them or behind them.
Headed south.
(Photo by The Viking)
Passing back thru the tunnel under I-10 (about mile 26.5) I turn off airplane mode on my phone to text Sandy that I'm still alive and progressing. I see a message from Emaad that he is at mile 25. But since I had my phone off I figure that was from earlier.  Approaching the Gabe Z aid station I text him I'm at mile 28 and put the phone back in airplane mode.  At the aid station I start to get concerned that maybe he isn't ahead of me.  I recall that he has a low bib number 6? or 8? and ask the volunteer who is checking runners in and out of aid stations if either has been thru recently. Bib 6 has so I know he is ahead of me. I exit airplane mode and see a message waiting for me, "OK, mile 28.4." I text "You are maybe a half mile ahead of me. Keep going. Don't wait for me. I'm fine. Going back in airplane mode."

Near the southern turnaround.
(Photo by E. Burki)
On I run. Approaching the turnoff at Posta Quemada Ranch for the 55K finish I catch up with Avery. We chat and leapfrog each other until we are on the other side of a small canyon leading down to Agua Verde Creek.

Then a voice calls my name.  I stop and look across the canyon.  It is Emaad.  He's behind me. (Turns out his bib number was 9, not 6.)

When he catches up he explains that he made a wrong turn at the wash passing under Highway 83.  In that short period I passed him, unaware that he had left the trail.  He was likely never more than a quarter to a half mile behind me, and said that he could occasionally see me ahead.

Good that he caught up, because out rattlesnake encounter lay less than a mile ahead.

Dark Places and the Zone
Marathons have "the wall," a spot in the race when things start to go wrong and you feel exhausted. Ultras have their own version of the wall, a dark place where doubt and despair set in.  It may be physically based, but it is more a mental state.

I enter the dark place around mile 34 or 35, with the rattlesnake behind and La Selvilla aid station a couple of miles ahead.  This is the longest stretch of the race between aid stations, 7.2 miles from Gabe Z to La Selvilla. We've been going for nine or nine and a half hours. The sun is getting low.  And we are going up and down the sides of Posta Quemada Canyon.  What really gets me down, I realize later, is that the aid station isn't where I thought it was going to be.

The whining commences.  I should have signed up for the 55K.  I could have bailed at the 55K turnoff. I'm tired. Why do I do these things? The uphills are steep.  There are too many uphills. Where is the aid station? Whine, whine, whine.

Finally we reach the aid station. They tell us us we have about an hour to get to the Pistol Hill aid station (mile 39.1)  three miles ahead to make the 11 hour cutoff.

There is something about having a short-term goal to focus one's attention and get out of the cave of darkness. Three miles - one hour - 20 minutes per mile. Doable.  Let's go.

After a mile or so Avery, who had fallen behind us, passes us.  The La Selvilla volunteers had lit a fire under him as well.  He goes on.

We make Pistol Hill in about 44 minutes, with about 16 minutes to spare.  I plunk down in a chair, get a headlamp from my drop bag, and get a refueling from the accommodating volunteers. One reminds me that I have ten minutes to get going, another says 11.  No matter. Off we go. No pressure now. We have four hours to go 11 miles.

Sunset on the way to the northern turnaround.
The sun sets as we head to the turnaround 2.4 miles ahead. Back to Pistol Hill (mile 44.2) and we are single digit miles to the finish.  I'm feeling in the zone. Not tired, not sore, Energizer Bunny activated. It's a state of mind. I'm not actually moving very fast, but the apparent effort is not taxing.

Emaad, on the other hand, has entered the dark lands.  While I try to cheer him up, the shadows are internal, and one ultimately has to find one's own way out.  What finally works for him is hearing the music from the finish a half mile out and then seeing the lights from the trail.

Now perky he accelerates toward the finish.  I continue my steady pace, or plod. He stops and yells back that he will wait for me.  I tell him to go on, and he finishes 26 seconds in front of me.

Avery, having accomplished making the cutoff, eases up the last few miles to finish in 14:31.
Swag: Shirt, poster, Huppy Bar, bib, finisher's spike. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Pennypack Trail Fest 60K - October 26, 2019

Driving in the Night
Game 3 of the World Series, the first in Washington since 1934, starts at 8:07 p.m. and takes 4:03 to complete. It is my first World Series game ever (a bucket list item) and the Nats 4-1 loss to the Astros is disappointing. (The Nats go on to become World Champions with a thrilling wins in games 6 and 7 - Fight Finished!) But as I do whether the game is in April or October I stay to the last pitch.  Never mind that I have the Pennypack Trailfest 60K in Philadelphia at 7:30 the next morning.

After a walk to the car, I start at about 12:30 a.m to drive to Villanova, where I will be staying for the weekend with Emaad's cousin.  Fortunately where I am parked and the way I'm going enables me to avoid any congestion from the fans leaving the game. Adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning technology on my car, coupled with light traffic makes the driving easy and with only a quick pit stop for gas I arrive at about 3 a.m.

I manage a bit less than three hours of sleep, but that should be enough. There will be plenty of time to rest once the race is run.

It would not be an Uberendurance race without
polka music on the course.
The race is three loops of a 20K course, enabling three different race distances: 20K, 40K and 60K. The starts are staggered a half hour apart, with the longer distances going off earlier.  About half the course covers portions of the Dirty German course, which Emaad and I ran in May. The rest of the course is about what we expect from Pennypack Park trails: mostly single track, up and down but nothing too long or steep, wooded, enough rocks and roots to require paying attention and a modest stream crossing or two. Three aid stations (one visited twice) per loop means a water bottle will suffice.

Starting Out
Up just before 6 a.m. provides sufficient time to eat a large Bismark doughnut from Beiler's bakery at the Germantown (MD) Dutch Market. Emaad handles the 40 minute drive and we get a parking place near the entrance to the park. I'm mildly regretting my choice of breakfast food.

Packet pickup is easy at the pavilion at the start/finish is quick and easy. We will come past here at the end of each lap, so no need to worry about what to put in a drop bag - we have everything. The weather is near perfect, with temperature at the 7:30 start in the low 50s and a bit of overcast.  I select a long-sleeve shirt for the first loop and figure I'll change to short sleeves for the subsequent loops.

Contemplating the start - with backwards shirt
Off the 46 or so 60K runners go promptly at 7:30. Unlike Dirty German, the Trailfest runs in a counterclockwise direction. We haven't gone a minute and I realize that I have left my water bottle behind. Since the aid stations are not much more than 3 miles apart and the day isn't hot, I'm not particularly concerned.  And I know that after one loop I'll be able to pick it up when we return to the start/finish.

After about a mile Emaad notes that I'm wearing my shirt backwards.  No problem. I pull my arms out of the sleeves, twist the shirt around and reinsert my arms into the correct sleeves.

But it does make me think that maybe the sleep deficit is a factor in the two snafus at the start.

By mile 5 or 6 the leaders of the 40K race overtake us. By mile 8 or so the leaders of the 20K race are passing us.  It's OK. We know we are not fast. We will be lapped by 60K leaders (and followers) in the second loop). Emaad and I go on, not in a hurry. Our goal is to finish under the 10 hour cutoff. Quite a modest goal indeed.  So we chat with runners that pass us and the occasional runner who stays with us for a bit. 

Ready to start another loop.
We don't linger at the aid stations, but we don't hurry thru them either. At one aid station the bacon has just come out of the frying pan. It is too hot for me to hold, so I dunk it in a cup of water to cool it off. It is an inspired move - the bacon is cooled down and I have bacon-flavored water to drink.

At another aid station a volunteer recognizes me from the pose I struck at the end of Blues Cruise 50K three weeks previous as he was the finish line photographer, Jim Blandford.  He thanks me for giving him the photo credit and I thank him for both volunteering and taking the photos.

At the end of the first loop I change from my long-sleeve shirt to a red short sleeve Nats "Curly W" shirt. I won't be going to game 4 - or game 5 for that matter but I can show support for the Nats.

Nearing the end of the second loop we catch up with a 40K runner on her second loop.  We chat and then she goes ahead again and disappears around a bend. But we soon catch her. She is standing at the side of the trail and her legs are quivering.  She had fallen, apparently tripping on a depression, and had dirt from her knees to her chest. Fortunately she didn't hit her face or head and was perhaps more shaken up than injured. she tells us to go on as she starts to walk. Later, within a mile of the finish, she runs past us.

Posing in Thoreau's Hut
We stop for pictures at Thoreau's Hut, a piece of public art in the park.

As we start the third loop I tell Emaad that we need to pick up the pace to finish under 10 hours.  We have been quibbling about the length of the loops - I claim they are 11.7 miles; he claims something shorter, maybe 11.25 miles.  It is a silly, friendly argument that is utterly irrelevant - we are racing the clock, not the length of the loop.  We did the first loop in 2:47 and the second in 3:21, so we need to finish the third in about 3:51. Since we were about a half hour slower on the second loop, dropping another half hour would work for our goal. But I'm worried that we might lose even more time, so we do pick up the pace, or at least our apparent effort increases.

Every mile I calculate the pace we need to maintain for the remaining miles. But my arithmetic skills are erratic - a phenomenon well known to ultrarunners - and the supposed required pace bounces around for no reason other than computational error.  Finally, with about five miles left, it is apparent that we will succeed.

The Benches.
And then Emaad starts asking why not change the finish goal from 10 hours to nine and a half. "Because I don't care," I reply. But he does care. And with a couple of miles left and a new goal in hand, he takes off when I decide to photograph "The Benches" another piece of public art in the park.

Done photographing I go on.  I glance at my watch, do some mental arithmetic and decide that Emaad was right.  It is time for a new goal. With just a mile or so left maybe I can go under 9:30. So I pick up my pace. Even though this is the third loop, I become increasingly concerned that I have gone off course as I don't see a pink ribbon for quite some time. Just as I'm getting ready to hit the brakes and start backtracking, I spot one. Confidence restored, I go on.

Pennypack Creek
I cross Pennypack Creek on the sidewalk of Pine Road and make the left onto the field leading to the finish line at the pavilion. I can seen the clock, and realize that I won't be done under 9:30 but with a bit of a push I finish in 9:30:40. Emaad is waiting for me, have finished in 9:25.

I'm 45 of 46 overall and 38 of 38 males (DFL!). As I cross the finish line a volunteer first hands me my finishers cap and asks my age, and tells me that I have finished third in my age group. My reward is a nice German Wetterhaus with thermometer.

While most of the finish has been packed up, a volunteer brings Emaad and I some German potato salad and a bratwurst on a bun. 

Meet a Champion
We meet up again with Jim Blandford who is helping with the finish line clean-up and learn that he is much, much more than a mere aid station volunteer and sometime volunteer race photographer.  It takes a bit of prying to learn that he is a Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile winner. (He doesn't mention his two third place finishes either.) And while we talk about running Bull Run Run 50 Mile, he only mentions his ten finishes, not that he won this year's edition (his second BRR win) and he as five other top seven finishes.  Many ultrarunners are modest, but Jim is a champion in that, too.

Swag: Hat, hoodie, bib, 3rd Place AG Wetterhaus.