Wednesday, August 25, 2010

'Possum Droppings and Moose Tracks - A Couple Race Reports

The last month has been quite interesting and busy for me.  Family and work lives have seemed to be ratcheted up a notch, and I find less and less time to chronicle my adventures on the roads and trails, as I continue to try to get back into the shape I once enjoyed some 13 years ago as a college runner.  Of course, the reality is that this whole effort has nothing to do with the destination, but, rather, it is about the journey.


Since my major goal for the Fall is to run two marathons in the span of six days - Marine Corps Marathon and Stone Cat Trail Marathon - which are on different surfaces, I have found that I need to make sure I don't lean too heavily on one surface versus the other.  The rub being I could train 100% on trails and be ready for both races, but could not train on roads and really be prepared for Stone Cat.


Nevertheless, the 'Possum runner in me decided it was fine time to stick my nose in a longer road race and test my mettle with other road hogs.  Living on the North Shore, Newburyport's Yankee Homecoming is a very nice option for a challenging 10 mile race.  I didn't really have much of an interest until about a week before the event when a friend of mine at work had mentioned he was running it, and that was enough to get me to the event.


Yankee Homecoming usually draws upwards of 1500 runners for the 10 miler alone, as it is one of the centerpieces of Newburyport's 'Old Home Week' style festivities.  It starts at 6:30 at night, so it can be a sauna over the first half of the race depending on which New England July weather persona shows up.  It also has a classic finish, where sweaty, drained runners charge into the Newburyport High School stadium to finish at the 50 yard line of the football field.


This was not the first time I had run this race.  In my former life as a runner I clocked a 61:58 on this course in 1999 when I was college and club speedy-shorts.  With a marathon on the brain, I was shooting for a finish of 1:20 to 1:30, in fact, I knew the course was tough in the latter 5 miles, and resolved that sub 1:20 would a fine accomplishment.

I made it to the race and it was very warm before the start, which meant bad news for me, as I am not a great heat runner.  I also had spent the better part of the day in my cubicle at work, so I felt tight.  I grabbed my number and filtered my way through the 5000 other people in the race area.  It was a bit of sensory overload, and the inner trail animal was getting a little skiddish.


I decided my race strategy would be to get out at an even pace and try to steal a little time each mile by adding 30 to 60 second surges at every mile marker for as long as I could.  The expectation was that the last three miles would be the toughest, and any time I could gain in the first 5 or 6 miles would be money in the bank.


When the gun went off it took about a minute to cross the start line, and then the first half mile was a furious effort of weaving through traffic to find some space.  I knew I was behind my goal pace and decided to begin my first surge early to get back a few seconds.


To my surprise, my first mile was around 7:30, and I felt like I was in a good place with 9 miles to go.


Yankee Homecoming is actually also a fantastic race because there is so much spectator support along most of the 10 miles.  The sections of the course that go through downtown Newburyport are surreal, as the sidewalks are packed with people and the cheers are beyond raucous.


I continued my strategy for the first five miles, and felt like I was asking way too much from my legs as my first five splits were well below what I targeted to run, and I knew full well the last five miles are where the hills were.  Nevertheless, I decided I was going to go for it, and figured the worst case scenario would include bonking hard and run/walking whatever distance I had left to the finish.

First five splits: 7:28, 6:54, 7:11, 7:21, 7:24.


Mile 6 was the first great challenge as this mile features a significant, gradual climb, and it was at this point that I decided I had an outside shot of holding a 7:30 pace.  At the top of the hill I noticed I was off pace, and needed to make up some time, but burning quads - perhaps over taxed from the fast first five - were crying out for a little backing off.  I did back off a little to collect myself, but then decided that I was going to go for it, making it to the six mile split with a 7:26!  From there the dye was cast and I took advantage of the descents in mile 7, 6:57 split, and then held on as best as I could for the remaining three miles.


I have to say the last two miles were mentally and physically amazing challenges, but even though I was able to hear the cries of my body to stop, I somehow stayed in a focused place where I was able to keep moving forward.  I can't even begin to explain how much I wanted to stop and walk at about 8 miles, but somehow just kept moving my legs.  I just remember telling myself that I had to keep moving.

As I got closer to the finish the crowds thickened and the cheers got louder.  I tried to ride the wave of encouragement and as I arrived in the stadium I came to the line and yelled in exictement when I saw the clock - 1:13:41!!


In actuality my time was 1:12:41, as the chip only clocked finish times and not net time, but I started my Garmin when I crossed the start, so my splits were accurate.  My last three painful, painful miles were 7:18, 7:23, and 7:13.


Besides the novelty of running much faster than I had anticipated - to the point where even I was in disbelief following the run - I was extremely happy with the level of testicular fortitude and mental toughness I was able to conjure and maintain.  Even in my faster days I rarely had races where I was able to feel as dialed in as I had felt during this race.


Not too bad for a trail animal!
Yankee Homecoming 10 Miler Results

Nearly a month later, I had the opportunity to snag a ride with Breakheart Dan to Nashua, NH to run the Moose on the Loose 10 Mile Trail Race.

The morning was mild, with thick overcast and a hint of rain in the air.  Again, I felt tired and was just looking to run a decent race, and was targeting a finish time around 1:20, knowing full well that my Yankee Homecoming Race would not be a good guide for a target time, since this one was on trails.

Breakheart Dan and I nonchalantly stretched and headed over to the line, a little bummed that we didn't see more familiar faces.  

The course itself, in actuality, is 4 laps of a 2.5 mile circuit.  The circuit is off road, but is mostly made of gravel, dirt and pine-needle paths.  Definitely more a cross country-like course than anything found on the Grand Tree, or most of the ENETRS and NSTS, calendars of events. 

I found the multiple loops to be advantageous when it came to racing during the last two loops.  By that time, one knew the best places to push and where to hang back a little, and I was able to 'race' a couple runners with a decent amount of success.

After the gun went off I scooted out to a quick start, and found the first mile's long gradual descent very nice.  So much so that I ran the first mile way too fast - 6:54!  From there I backed off the pace a little bit, but from my Yankee Homecoming learning experience, I knew that pressing a little bit wouldn't spell instant disaster.


I finished the first loop, and headed out for the second with an idea of what was up next.  It was a little interesting having relay runners in the mix (Moose also offers 2 and 4 person team relays) and it was tough staying close to the mantra of holding a consistent tempo run like pace when you had all or nothing relay folks with you.


Loop two there was that internal dialogue of whether or not I was running too fast, and then resolving once again that if I crashed and burned in loops three and four, at least the fast miles now would lead to a cushion if the bonk happened.


Loop three was where most of the racing occurred, as I pushed by a couple of guys at different points on the loop that were running about the same pace ahead of me, and in true XC coach form, once I passed, I used turns and down hills to gap them a little and see if they'd respond.


Loop four was when all the racing and fast pacing started to catch up with me, and it was simply about shortening the loop and holding the pace to different landmarks and then reassessing if I needed to back off.  As I came out of the park and onto the dirt access road, I saw Breakheart Dan heading out for his 4th loop and we hollered at each other.  I kicked home, and again came to the finish and was extremely elated to see 1:10 on the finish clock!

Convinced it wasn't true, I looked at my watch and saw 1:10 as well!  Admittedly, I had the course as being short - about 9.8 miles, but again this was an amazing leap forward for me.


I don't have true lap splits, but based on the Garmin data each lap was roughly  2.45 m:

1st - 17:39
2nd - 17:58
3rd - 17:39
4th - 17:14


The time was good enough for 14th in the thin field, Titus Mutinda earned top honors with a 56:36 for the men and Stephanie Burnham was tops in the women's race with a time of 1:06:59, and somehow I managed to earn a pint glass for my effort, as I placed 2nd in my age group.  Breakheart Dan also had a nice showing as he came in just under 1:30 and, most importantly, had little trouble with his IT band.  Dan is still in rehab mode with his ITB, but I am sure I can speak for those of us in TUG when I say that it is nice to see him back out on the trails where he belongs!

Moose on the Loose 10 Mile Trail Race Results

I am certainly happy to see my times start to come down a little, and it is nice to get out and feel like I can race as opposed to just run, but if anything can be gleaned from the last couple races for me (and maybe for you?), it is the realization and revelation of personal endurance.

Times and splits mean so very little, but I am overjoyed to know that with all of the crap that I am going through right now, a choice I made 4 or 5 years ago to lose weight and try to become a runner once again is paying off.   The last few years haven't been easy with hip problems, IT Band issues, etc., but I endure.  Too cold, too hot, missed races because of depression - I endure.  Even now I sit with an ice pack wedged in my crotch because I strained my groin yesterday because I took 5 or 10 steps the wrong way.  I could get bummed out and worry about missing a NSTS race this weekend because of this, but no matter what happens, I'll endure.

As I look around at most other areas of my life - kids, marriage, work, etc.  I notice how that theme of personal endurance permeates just about everything we do in our lives.

I guess when you really get down to it, it really is all about that RFP, Relentless Forward Progress.


Happy trails!