Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Amica Marathon Race Report

This last weekend we were visiting family in Narragansett, Rhode Island. My mother-in-law made us cheesecake. Her cheesecake is the best cheesecake in the world, and I ate lots of it. Fortunately, our visit coincided with the Amica marathon, which was taking place in nearby Newport. Since a serving of cheesecake (at 2.8 ounces, about 1/6th of the entire cake) has around 250 calories, running a marathon would allow me to eat two entire cakes and not put on weight (I expect to burn at least 3000 calories while running a marathon). I had also heard that the course was very scenic, but this was a secondary consideration. After downing a few beers on Saturday night the deal was sealed: no more cheesecake or beer until I brought back a medal from the race.

I woke up at 5am on Sunday to the sound of heavy rain. I left the house a little later and drove 15 miles in the dark to the race start in downtown Newport. The weather conditions were truly abysmal. It was cold (in the 40's), windy and raining hard. The rain was a cold rain, which later turned to a hard hail. The race website later characterized the conditions as being the worst imaginable for running. My wife later told me that when I didn't drop out of the race she really, seriously began to have concerns about my mental state.

The marathon started at 8am, and two minutes later I was questioning the wisdom of what I was doing. My shoes filled with freezing cold water and I was completely soaked. The course was a point to point race, first passing through downtown Newport before heading into some picturesque neighbourhoods with the large historic mansions Newport is famous for. We ran for a while along a road by the seashore, where the weather was at it's worst. In addition to the lashings of rain and wind, waves crashed over the seawall onto the course. The scenery was dramatic at times, and wild. I found myself sometimes running but almost stationary, stopped by a wall of wind. I began to feel I was participating in something special, a legendary race, tales of which would be passed down the generations.

I reached at halfway point a little after two hours, when many half-marathoners finished their races, leaving the field a little barer. The second half of the race was less interesting than the first, being a couple of out and backs along roads in and out of Newport. Actually this part of the race was quite boring, and I don't have many memories of it. I finished in my worst marathon time ever, 4 hours 23 minutes. However I was very happy to have finished and considered this an achievement. In retrospect if I were to do this race again, I would only do the half marathon, which was extremely scenic, rather than the full. Even though this would mean eating less cheesecake.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Blues Cruise 50K Race Report

I wasn't sure whether I would be able to make this race. The previous week I was suffering from quite a bad chest infection, picked up on my way home from Greece. My voice was hoarse and I was short of breath. I was worried I might have swine flu. Finally, the day before the race, I went to see a doctor. I was told to take some Tylenol and get some rest. I took the lack of concern from my doctor as an encouraging sign and started preparing for the race for the following day.

The race was set in Amish country, in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania. This is the furthest I have ever driven to and from a race in a single day, at close to 260 miles round trip. It was an important part of my training for the JFK 50 miler in November, since at 5 miles longer than the marathon it gave me an opportunity to run the longest distance I needed for my training program. It was also a trail run, which would be good practice for the first 16 miles of the JFK race which takes place on the Appalachian trail.

The race was hosted by the Pagoda Racers and their website claimed it was suitable to introduce newcomers to the world of ultra trail running with a course that was "very runnable but challenging enough to make it interesting to everybody". I later found the first part of this statement to be a lie. Here is the elevation profile for the race:

While the race did not have huge climbs, there was a lot of up and down for most of the trail, which ran through woods and fields. Furthermore, at mile 10 (and again at mile 20 - the course was an out and back) was Skislope Hill: 300 ft of elevation gain in less than half a mile. The trail was covered in tree roots and stones. I tripped and fell several times on the roots, as did most people I spoke to. Fortunately I was carrying hand held water bottles in both hands, which were very useful for cushioning my falls.

The aid stations, at every 3-4 miles, were very well stocked with Heed (my favorite Gatorade-like drink), chocolate goodies and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (very yummy). At one aid station they were grilling beef burgers. Towards the end of the race I was given cold wet towels that were placed on my head and back to cool me in down in the heat.

I spent the first half of the race running in groups of 3 or 4 people, which I found to be very pleasant and social. We referred to each other by the states we had traveled from. I was New York, and spent quite a bit of time running with West Virginia and Massachusetts. I ran the second half of the race on my own, when most of the field had become very spread out. At one point I realized I had lost the trail when I ended up at the shore of a lake with nowhere to go, necessitating retracing my steps a half mile. I didn't really hit the wall like I usually do during a marathon. I think the enforced walking breaks during the very hilly sections and my overall very slow pace as a result of running on trails helped conserve my energy. I actually felt better at the end of the race than I usually do in a marathon. I finished in a fairly slow 6 hours 21 minutes. I was happy with this time given the terrain and the fact that this was my first trail race.

Trail running is very different from road running and for me requires some new running skills. The race seemed more social than the marathons I have run in, and the beauty of the countryside helped keep my mind off the difficulties of running the course. I could definitely become hooked, and will be looking to do some more trail races in the future.

Friday, October 2, 2009

North Face Speaker Series: Dean Karnazes

The other night I went to see Dean Karnazes give a talk at Symphony Space as part of the North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series. Having read Dean's book "Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of all All-Night Runner" a couple of years ago, I was intrigued to see what Fitness Magazine claims "might just be the fittest man in the world" looks like in person. Dean seems to be quite a controversial figure in the ultrarunning world. He has raised awareness of the sport through his book and media appearances. On the other hand, some people resent the attention he receives at the expense of more competitive runners. There is no doubting he is an impressive athlete: running 350 miles non-stop and winning the Badwater 135 mile race in Death Valley in 2004. When someone asks how your run was, how often do you get to say it was OK for the first two nights, but the third night without sleep was a little psychotic?

Seeing Dean in person makes me realize he is clearly at a very different level of fitness and conditioning than the rest of us, in the same way that the Kenyan runners who lead the pack of the New York marathon are physically very different to the runners that follow. As well as being very lean, he is also surprisingly muscular. He doesn't look like a skinny runner. As a former weight lifter who likes to drink beer, I found this quite heartening. I wanted to go to the gym and lift some weights after seeing him. 

Since most of the audience were runners, the majority having run  marathons or longer races, I was hoping to hear Dean talk about what it takes to run crazy distances like 350 miles. What sort of training is needed for such an event? How much harder is it running 350 miles than running 50 miles or 100 miles? How do you explain to your wife that you want to go on a three day run? What we saw was a video of Dean on the Dave Letterman show, which was entertaining, and some anecdotes about his 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days tour.  He did talk a little about the why's and how's of extreme running, but not enough in my opinion.  I would really like to hear him talk about his achievements from the point of view of someone who one day might also be tempted to do something a little crazy. Overall I had an entertaining, if not enlightening, evening.