Chicago Marathon 2012

I’ve been struggling trying to find the right words to sum up running the marathon last week.  You see, it was 100% more fun than running it last year, and yet, I’m still trying to figure out for myself why I even have run 4 marathons in the first place.  The other week Run Wild by Boff Whalley (yes, that Boff Whalley) came in the mail, and so far it’s exactly what I always wanted What I Talk About When I Talk About Running to be.  The entire premise of the book is that the city marathon is the antithesis of what running should be – and I’m half-inclined to agree.  It’s a long story.

Anyway.

They changed the start of the marathon this year to have 2 waves – one starting at 7:30am, the other starting at 8am.  Because I didn’t have a qualifying time to get in the first wave, Ian and I started in the first corral of the second wave.  Which made the first 2 miles of the race completely different from last year.  The road was spacious and uncrowded and we started off running faster than we planned, but it felt good, so we stuck with it.

The last corral of the first wave included all of the charity runners.  I don’t know what the average finishing time for charity runners is, but it’s certainly much slower than my running pace.  By mile 3, we were passing people walking.  Walking.  At mile 3, with at least a 15 minute head start.

Skinny legs

Ian and I continued to run about 7:20 min/miles, and started getting really good at dodging people as we passed them on the road.  Really good.  Because we dodged people from mile 3 all the way until the finish.  It was annoying.  But we were flying, and feeling good, and it was just so much better than last year that it hardly seemed like work at all.  At every mile check, I compared our time to what my PR’s were from 2 years ago, and my splits were almost the same.  At the 10k mark, we were only 30 seconds slower than my PR from 2 years ago.  At the half marathon mark, we were actually faster than I ever ran a half marathon aside from the Park 2 Park race from a couple weeks ago.

We were holding a really good pace, even if we slowed a bit, everything flew by faster than last year, and I actually didn’t space out and remembered running miles 17-20 this year.  The little things stand out more than last year, even though they all passed by much faster.  It was really a lot more enjoyable to run 54 minutes faster than last year and spend less time out on the course.  It was also a lot easier to run with other people.  From mile 7 until 23 or so, Ian and I ran with another girl who was going exactly our pace, which actually made running a lot easier during the later miles.  When the urge to walk starts settling into your mind, it’s good to have other people next to you to motivate you to keep running.

So I don’t really know what else to say.  We ran a marathon.  In 3:21:39.  Which is pretty fast, I think.  We crossed the finish and were stunned at what we’d just done.  It all came together better than I predicted.  I’m literally shocked that I can run so fast.

Will I ever run another city marathon?  I don’t know.  I just know that I’ll continue to run, and continue to seek out the unknown.

Saturday’s Races

Park2Park Half Marathon

Don’t ask me how I did it.  I’m still trying to figure out the answers myself.

Yesterday morning started off cool, and with only partly cloudy skies.  Perfect conditions for running.  I decided to include the Park2Park Half Marathon as part of my training for Chicago.  My previous PR was a respectable 1:39:14.  Based on the good time I had at the Riverbank Run in May, I figured I could run a 1:35:00 half marathon.  I figured that would make for a good goal, given the number of miles I’ve been running in training over the past couple months.  That plan for Saturday’s run went out the window pretty fast.

I started near the front of the race right from the line, mixed among actual collegiate cross country runners, and used the first half mile to warm my legs up.  But everyone around me was moving too slow, so I went ahead, and well, found myself isolated pretty quickly.  Apparently when you run fast, there are not so many runners to keep you company on the road.  It gets lonely.  I took the first mile out in 6:20.

I quickly got used to running alone, just like all my training runs.  I passed and/or got passed by a grand total of only 3 people the entire rest of the race.  I kept my pace steady, and somewhere along mile 5 or so, Matt Smith was on the side of the road cheering and said “you’re in the top 10”, which I know he wasn’t actually counting, but I started to think about it, and, well, given the number of people who I saw take off up the road ahead of me from the start, it didn’t sound ludicrous.  I had to definitely be in the top 20, probably top 15, even.

If the mile markers on the road were accurate (which they very well may not have been), I ran the sixth mile in 6:03.  6:03!  I have never in my life run a mile under 6 minutes, and there I was, out on the road trying to reel in one guy ahead of me, being wary of the dark, dark clouds suddenly coming into view off the lake, and running faster than I ever have, ever.

I’M FLOATING! Also, OMINOUS CLOUDS.

As the course took us out to the state park, my new goal was to run fast enough to finish before the rain started falling.  I stayed light, told my feet to keep kissing the ground, and just cruised.  I was pushing myself, but was still comfortable, as comfortable as running 6:25 min/miles can be, at least.  I passed one more guy after mile 10, and just before mile 12, got passed by the 1st place woman.  Who, apparently is a runner at Western University.  I picked up my pace to try and hang with her for a few minutes, before giving in to the lactic acid and letting her open up a gap on me.

I heard thunder as I rounded the last corner, and finished feeling strong, if in a lot of pain, and then I crossed the line in 1:23:51!  Seriously!  15 minutes faster than my PR.  10 minutes faster than what I was guessing I would run.  13th place overall.  An actual placing out of a huge field!  (Somehow 4th place in my age group)  The storm rolled in right after I finished, and the race directors “black flagged” the race, effectively cancelling the rest of the race.  There were only 15 official finishers before everything was torn down.  It pays to be fast, apparently. I never thought I could run this fast, though.  I am on cloud 8-3/4.  If the seeding for corrals at the Chicago Marathon hadn’t closed awhile ago, I would’ve been in the A corral.  Like, the one right behind all the elite runners.  The one full of people who run fast enough to qualify for Boston – which seems suddenly possible.  Certainly not this year, because I haven’t done quite that level of training, but why not next year?

Kisscross Highland Park

Jack Kunnen Photography: Highland Park &emdash; IMG_5890
But of course, even with a race in the morning, I felt the need to also race in the afternoon.  This time on a bike.  I don’t have as many words to say about the cross race at Highland Park in Grand Rapids, just that the course was mostly grass, not very technical, and meant for the power guys.  That’s usually good news for me, because I struggle with technical courses, but my legs were tired, so I just had to hang on and do my best.  And take multiple beer hand ups.  And have fun bunny hopping a barrier.  And hurting my legs in as many ways as I could think of in one day.  And just having fun riding my bike again.  I finished 14th, getting out-sprinted at the line once again, pretty much right in the middle of the field.  But it didn’t matter, because there were microbrews to recover with afterward.  And my legs were so gloriously tired at the end of the day.  God I love bikes.

Kisscross Cannonsburg Race Report

Cross season has finally started, with the first race in the area at Cannonsburg Ski Area last Friday night.  I’d ridden my cross bike all of a couple hundred yards since April, so needless to say, there was a little rust to shake off.  I got there early, watched the “C” race while drinking a beer and trying to not to freeze in the cold rain that suddenly started falling from the sky.  But it turned out to be the perfect temperature once I actually started racing and got warmed up.  Also, maybe beer isn’t the best pre-race drink.

Jack Kunnen Photography: Cannonsburg Night &emdash; IMG_5163

The course that was drawn up had quite a variety of terrain, from going straight up the ski hill, then straight down the ski hill, to off camber sandy turns, to a few barriers on the back half of the course that was PITCH BLACK by the end of the race because there were no lights over there, to even a stream crossing with 4 foot high banks on each side that got progressively muddier and muddier:

Jack Kunnen Photography: Cannonsburg Night &emdash; IMG_5327

But overall I don’t think it was too technical, which is good, because I’m much better on the pure power sections of courses.  The first lap was crowded as everyone tried to get to the stream crossing first to avoid being held up, but I was squarely in the back third of the pack anyway, because I can’t sprint off the line.  Also, on the fastest part of the lap near the finish line, the guy in front of me hit a bump and lost control of his bike and bit it HARD.  I narrowly maneuvered around him as he was still sliding/tumbling to a stop, and I think he was banged up pretty badly.  He certainly didn’t get back on his bike and finish the race.  After the first lap, the pack spread out and I never really had to fight for a line, but it did take me half the race to actually figure out the cleanest lines.

Jack Kunnen Photography: Cannonsburg Night &emdash; IMG_5275

Over the rest of the race, I continually passed more and more people as they all got tired and my endurance only made me stronger.  I was having a blast, even if my hands and arms were ready to quit trying to hang onto the handlebars over all the rough bumps.  I took a beer hand up on the last lap, and also somehow cut my hand at some point, leading to a bloody knuckle.  I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, with muddy and sandy legs, and a huge smile on my face.

Jack Kunnen Photography: Cannonsburg Night &emdash; IMG_5300

Let’s catch up

It’s been awhile.  Ever since vacationing in California I’ve been disconnecting from technology more and spending more time outside in nature, whether that’s on my road bike, or at the beach, or on my back patio drinking beer and watching the light get low.  The faster I catch up with the past 6 weeks of THINGS the faster I feel that I myself can get back to my regularly scheduled program.  And it’s necessary, because with all this time outside, I’ve been enjoying my time, but I stopped making things.  I stopped writing, I stopped taking my camera along with me places, I stopped.

I ran a 25k in mid-May and beat my PR from 2 years ago by 5 minutes.  And 2 years ago was when I was in the middle of Ironman-type training for the Ohio Triple T – 4 triathlons in 3 days.  I was running a lot and in good shape, just about to start my taper, and I ran what I thought was my best race ever.  Until this year.  Despite not doing any real running training, and only having one long run of 9 miles this spring, I was optimistic after having easily bested my 10k PR a week earlier.  The plan for the Riverbank Run was to start with the 7:00 min/mile pace group and see how long I could hang on.  No more trying to even split races or holding back and regretting not running faster at the beginning of the race.running

Conditions were literally perfect – overcast and in the 50s – and I started off well.  I surprised myself by holding pretty even 7:00 min/miles for the first 7 miles of the race before my splits started to slip.  But not by much.  They all stayed comfortably under 8:00 min, and given the few rolling on the back half of the course, I wasn’t sad.  I was a little upset that there was no official split at the 13.1 mile mark, but guessing where it was along the road and looking at my watch, I’m pretty sure I ran my fastest half marathon at around 1:35-ish.  The last couple miles were flat and hard, but I was still passing people all the way home, so I somehow went out even more conservatively than those around me.  I finished in 1:50:24 and was spent, but glowing.  Without training, I killed my time from 2 years ago where I was training a ton.  I’m not even in super great shape right now, I’m certainly heavier than I was 2 years ago, but I so far this “not being sick” thing is delivering good results.

Naturally, we went to Founders for recovery beverages after the race.

I spent another full week in Alabama.  This time by myself.  It was mostly unexciting.  I played golf once.  The wait staff at the Japanese sushi place already recognize me because I’ve been there enough times.

Thanks to a warm winter and spring, I’ve already ridden more miles on my bike than I did all of last year.  And I’ve been out of town for 3 weeks sans-bike during prime riding time too.  I spend a lot of my time biking, which I enjoy greatly, but it leaves little time for other activities, which I’m starting to miss.  All my bike rides leave fun stories to chat about, but only with the half dozen or so people I regularly ride with.

I turned 26.

I went to Chicago for a weekend to prep for Neocon (big annual contract furniture show).  I was wined and dined and met lots of fellow employees and caught up with several old friends and even did a little bit of work.  It was an absolutely gorgeous and energizing weekend in the city.  From running along the lakeshore in the morning to lunches and dinners and drinks with new people with new ideas, I was living the good life.  Chicago really is one of the best summer cities.  It was hard to come back to the quietness of Holland.

I managed to find a reason to go back to Chicago for the day on Wednesday for work “research”, which was very educational.  I was always a little bitter that I never got to go to Neocon when I was at Herman Miller.  But apart from that, I really have been enjoying my new job and all the people I work with.  I think it was a very necessary change of scenery.

june

I got new glasses, because though my old ones had a “scratch-resistant coating”, they were not “scratch proof”.  A couple weeks with a metal camera body without an eyepiece and I had done more damage than I realized.  We’ve also been doing some good work on our backyard.  We converted a spent whiskey barrel into a composter.  We built a few sections of fence where we took down a tree last year to give us some privacy from our neighbor.  We built flower beds and planted a few vegetables as well as started growing a variety of hops.  Homebrewing from scratch may be a future project.

Let’s start making things again.

Overdue Race Reports

Barry-Roubaix

Back in March, I did my first real bike race (cyclocross is a different animal).  Conditions were nearly perfect with temperatures holding in the 50s.  It was a mix of pavement, gravel roads, and two-track, along with a thousand or so other racers.

IMG_4795
I was pretty unsure of what to expect, so I started near the back of the pack and took the first fast section on the road fairly easy.  When we turned onto the first sandy two-track portion, it was a fight to pick a clean line through the dirt and around riders who’d stopped.  It was pretty crowded, and once one person in front of you stops, you have to stop and start running, because remounting on uphill tracks through deep sand doesn’t really work.  Below, you can find me in the middle of the shot with my bike over my shoulder:

The pack began to thin out a bit once we got onto gravel roads, but the course itself was never flat.  The hills were relentless.  At the top of every hill I tried to make sure I was around other riders so we could draft and work to catch other riders on the faster sections of the course.  This strategy seemed to work well for the majority of the back half of the race.  I had warmed up pretty quickly and my legs had good sensations, so I methodically kept passing racers when I could, and trying to get up the steep dirt inclines with momentum.

For the majority of the race, the group of riders around me worked well together trading pulls, but as we dropped a few riders and were about to enter the last technical two-track section, people were very reluctant to stick their face in the wind.

Without knowing the exact layout of the course, I was a little lucky to be willing to take a pull just as we entered the technical section, and so I had a completely clean line in front of me to ride.  I could jump back and forth over mud puddles to find the best line and never ran the risk of getting stuck behind a fallen rider and having to dismount.  Several straining and difficult minutes/miles later, I exited onto the final paved section of the course and curiously noticed that of the 6 or 7 guys who didn’t want to take a pull on the gravel road leading up to the two-track, only one was still with me at the end.

There was one last climb and a few more miles of fast fast downhill back to the finish, and real road tactics came in to play.  In a group of 5 of us, it was easy to see there was only one other guy taking strong pulls, and we did our best to drop the others and duke it out between us to the line.  We’d passed a fair amount of other riders without the benefit of a draft on the last few miles before the finish, and I think my legs only got stronger as the race went on.  I wish I hadn’t started off so slow, but I had a decent sprint to clear myself from the group and had a strong finish.  And most importantly, HAD FUN.  RACING BIKES IS FUN.

Strava data:

Dunecross

There was a small cross race in April at the Felt Mansion, so I figured I’d get a small workout in and see how I stacked up.  The last cyclocross race I did, back in November of 2010, I finished 2nd to last, thanks in large part to a tumor growing in my lungs, so I was pretty optimistic I could improve on that result.  The course had a couple technical single track sections where I lost much ground, but also a few wide open power sections, where I made up more ground.  We hiked some barriers, hiked some stairs, and I tried not to fall over in the areas with loose sand.

The race was disappointingly short – the six laps only took about half an hour – but it was a good workout and a good test to keep the cyclocross skills sharp.  I think I finished in 4th place or thereabouts.  So much easier when you have fully functioning lungs.

Strava data:

Tulip Time 10k

I was feeling a little tired and bloated from a week of traveling for work and drinking beer the night before, so my expectations for the race weren’t so high, but I did think I had a chance of beating my PR of 45:45 I set two years ago.  Back then, I was training a lot to get ready for a series of 4 triathlons in 3 days, so my mileage was pretty high and I was 10 pounds lighter.  But last week, I had a nice run of an hour or so where I only stopped because I didn’t want to increase my mileage too fast – not because I was tired.  Don’t you ever just wonder how far you can go?

Anyway, it was pretty comfortable running weather, and I took off at the front of the pack, and the weirdest thing happened – the leaders never got too far in front of me.  The wind was at our back for the first leg of the run, and I clocked what I’m pretty sure is the fastest mile I’ve ever run, and without even sprinting.  A few more miles ticked by and we headed into the wind on the backstretch, but my splits stayed comfortably under 7-minute miles.  I was a little bewildered, but entirely overjoyed.  I finished in 41:17 (6:40 min/mile), good enough for 10th overall and 1st in my age group.  And the best part (aside from having two fully functioning lungs this year) was that I think maybe my legs have finally turned into endurance running and biking machines.  A good run like that can make you feel like you’re on top of the world.

I’m running the Riverbank 25k this Saturday, and even though I haven’t done a run longer than 8 miles all spring, I’m optimistic that I can beat my time from two years ago.  That race two years ago is still what I consider to be the best race I’ve ever run, so I’m eager to see how my new legs will fare.

A race in which I thaw out

I’m half awake, standing on the Metro platform dressed in a black garbage bag.  It’s roughly 32 degrees outside and I’m trying to store all the radiant heat I can.  A dozen of us pack into the train the moment the doors open, eliminating all personal space but providing additional heat.  We all ride one stop and then exit to a zoo of other runners trying to find friends and soak up one more minute of underground heat.  The escalators leading out of the station are all broken.  Sorry for the convenience.  A stair workout – exactly what I needed immediately before running a marathon.

I was the most under-dressed person I saw the entire morning as I shivered my way around the Pentagon to the bathrooms and finally to the start corral.  I was adamant that my 2″ inseam short shorts, a singlet, gloves and arm warmers were all that were necessary.  I met up with my Matt, John, and Christine without any problems, and so we huddled for more warmth and waited for the start.  There were skydivers landing on a patch of grass on the opposite side of the corral.  V-22 Ospreys flew overhead.

My toes were numb and my knees turned purple, but waiting with others and watching the sunrise made the time pass faster.  As the gun went off, runners everywhere started peeling off the extra layers of clothes they’d brought to stay warm and threw them to the side.  As we lurched and walked forward to the start line, I scoured the side of the road for something easy to pull on and grabbed a zippered hoodie and a nice ski hat.  The things people throw away! (That I would then throw away after 20 minutes anyway. Though I did save the hat by passing it off to my mom after I was no longer freezing.)

Matt and I decided to run together, and I was more chatty than usual while running as we took things easy and just enjoyed the run.  The road was definitely less cramped than at the Chicago marathon, even though the course did get narrow at several points.  The course has a two main hills in the first 8 miles, after which point it levels out and is flat like Chicago for the final 18 miles.  Because of this, the fact that I’d only just finally recovered from my last marathon, and that Matt and I were taking the race casually, I was guessing my overall time would be about 15 minutes slower than Chicago.  After running a few 10:30 min miles from the start, even that estimated time seemed optimistic.

But after climbing the two hills with relative ease – I was fearing they’d take more out of my legs – and finally warming up and actually being one of the most appropriately dressed runners, our pace naturally quickened.  Not purposefully, we just ran the speed that our bodies allowed, because faster or slower would be wrong.  We always ran the right speed.

We passed through Georgetown without difficulty, passed the Kennedy Center by the river, and went right around the Lincoln Memorial turning towards the loneliness of Haynes Point.  I handed off my gloves to Ellie because I thought I was getting too warm, which of course meant that my hands started getting cold and I had to run another 4 miles before I could get them back.

The spectators thinned out and there was only the sound of runners breathing, shoes on pavement.  Everyone was less chatty than at the beginning as we approached and passed the halfway mark.  I was a little surprised at the ease with which Matt and I made up time and reached the 13.1 mile mark well under my made up goal of 2:10.  Before the race, and reflecting back on running Chicago, I figured it wasn’t going to be much use trying to go slow in the first half to even- or negative-split the marathon.  Since we never really trained for the race, it was going to hurt just as much in the final 6 miles no matter how fast we reached the halfway point.

Contrasting to the Chicago Marathon, there were a lot fewer people spectating along the course, but whereas Chicago was almost completely barren between miles 14 and 18, the Marine Corps Marathon had people at the right time as we ran down the Mall from miles 16 to 20.  It was a very welcome boost.

I was a little wary with how good I was feeling after 17 miles, and anxious not to jinx things.  In Chicago I was already deep in my pain cave, but the cooler temperatures in DC kept me fresher, and although my legs were starting to feel fatigued and I couldn’t accelerate or change pace much, I could keep moving at my own tempo – the tempo where stopping and standing still would seem like more work than continuing to turn my legs over.

At mile 20, we hit the bridge to cross back over the Potomac.  The combination of no spectators, nothing to look at, an extra-wide road, and the grade of the road (for drainage), erected a huge wall in front of me.  Just as Matt and I started doing math in our heads to see what our possible finish time could be and what pace we could/couldn’t finish in, I reached the point where my body started slowing down and there was nothing I could do to pick up the pace.

It was over a mile before we saw more spectators in Crystal City, and though I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people lining the roads at that point, I wasn’t very responsive.  They were handing out donut-holes which I took and then nearly choked on, and a few people were handing out beer in Dixie cups, so even though I was partially delirious, I took some and washed the donut-hole down with some lukewarm Natty Light.

Sometimes, drinking beer isn’t always the best idea.

I had to slow even more to allow my stomach to re-settle itself, but the finish line was getting closer and closer.  The spectators disappeared again as we passed the Pentagon and reached the final mile.  I checked my watch and quickly realized that although I wouldn’t be breaking my marathon PR, it was definitely possible to beat my time from 3 weeks prior in Chicago.  We were holding a remarkably even pace throughout the whole race.  I picked up the pace in the last mile, because at that point my body could take an extra serving of pain knowing that the end was literally within sight.  We charged up the final short hill to the finish, passing dozens of people in the final few hundred yards, and ended up crossing the finish over a full minute faster than my time from Chicago.

The day before, we were watching it snow in October in DC.  Three days before, I was at the proton therapy center in Illinois, getting a 4D CT scan of my insides (3D + over time to track my breathing) and receiving 5 tiny tattoos to mark how my body aligned with the machine.  I glanced at the animation of my lungs breathing on the computer screen as I walked out, still a little astonished at how much space all the scar tissue from my tumor takes up in my chest.  It didn’t look any smaller (and may not ever be much smaller) than it was 2 months ago, and at that point I really wasn’t sure if my body would hold up and I’d finish the Marine Corps Marathon at all.  But I knew I’d start, because a DNF is better than a DNS, and if I couldn’t finish, at least I’d have some fun in the beginning.  And instead, I exceeded my own expectations, and a week later, I’ve already recovered faster than I expected.

I’m due to finally start radiation therapy a week from Monday, but I don’t expect to have that slow me down either.

At least I never walked

I figured I should probably give a recap of the Chicago Marathon while it’s still roughly fresh in my memory and before I ran my next one (which will be on Sunday).

I woke up plenty early the morning of the marathon, with enough time for my usual pre-race oatmeal/honey/peanut butter breakfast, and since I was staying at the Hyatt downtown, only had a few blocks to walk to the start in Grant Park.  Worried about arriving too late and encountering endless lines for port-a-potties and congested start corrals, I arrived way too early instead, and found a spot on the street and sat down and waited – at least an hour before the gun went off – as more and more runners started funneling in and building the energy.

I’d been sitting in the corral for so long that by the time the race actually started, I already had to go to the bathroom again, but I didn’t feel like peeing into a Gatorade bottle near a fence like some people, so I started moving with the school of fish that was the race and kept a keen eye out for a port-a-potty.  Problem was, that would be longer than I anticipated.

The first several miles of running were congested, but not in a frustrating way, it was simply an awesome group-thing to be in.  Almost immediately, I was a little worried about the temperature, though.  It was about 70 degrees at the start, and the sun had barely risen.  I’d be fine if it never got any warmer.  After getting warmed up from running, I could tell it was going to be a long and hot day out on the streets.  Less than ideal conditions.

Throughout the entire race, I enjoyed reading the signs spectators had made.  My favorite was “Don’t poop your pants”.  Very important advice.  Probably the second most important goal of the day aside from finishing the marathon.  “Hurry up and finish so we can drink” left me a little confused, because, like, you don’t need to wait for me to finish to start drinking.  Drink away!  A few girls had posters with their phone numbers on them, but there’s no way I could ever remember 10 digits in my late race deliriousness.

The first 5 miles went by without me seeing a single port-a-potty.  Things were getting desperate.  And then we took a turn out of generic city blocks and into Lincoln Park, and I saw a few guys taking a leak next to the first tree they saw.  I bolted across the road and down a small hill and joined them, taking a piss like a racehorse, with my back to the race and a nice view of an empty park stretching out to the lake.  The first port-a-potties on the course were only about a half mile farther down the road, but let’s just say that there were some well watered plants in the park that morning, and I’m glad I didn’t wait.

The rest of the first half of the marathon I did what I could to stay comfortable and enjoy the people lining the streets.  The north loop on the course had people on pretty much every block, which was much more preferable to the later miles that had a few deserted stretches.

quick feet

I reached the halfway point holding a steady pace, but it also meant that I was now in uncharted territory, as my longest run of the year prior to the marathon was all of 13.1 miles at the SavageMan triathlon.  The course gradually got hotter and sunnier and visible signs of pain started to show up an fellow runners’ faces.  I saw one woman vomit around mile 15.  And I slowly started to slip into my pain cave.

I have no recollection of miles 17-20.  Seriously, none.  All I know is that I was hurting.  One gigantic blur.

The last 6 miles were a constant battle to stay hydrated under the fierce sun, and the toughest mental exercise in just keeping forward motion.  Reaching mile 20 and knowing you still have another hour of pain (if you can keep your pace) is disheartening, to say the least.  I spent a lot of time cursing myself for ever being dumb enough to run a marathon, and even more for knowing that I signed up to do it again just 3 short weeks later.  What was I thinking?  Why didn’t anyone stop me?  Every hundred yards my legs told me to rest and just walk for a block or two.  Or just through the aid stations.  But I wouldn’t let my brain listen, and continued to run, jog, shuffle, scoot along while I stared only at the asphalt directly in front of me, blocking everything else out.

The crowds gradually grew towards the end, which provided a tremendous lift, and the block party going on at mile 25 is probably what saved me from wanting to walk for the last time.

I finished with a time on the faster end of what I was guessing I could do, given my (lack of) preparation, and immediately after crossing the line I was already waddling my best towards the beer truck and then the massage tent.  I shuffled back to my hotel room to peel off my less-bloody-than-I-feared socks and shower off the salt all my sweating had left behind.

I tried to get back to the finish line/charity village as fast as I could to see my sister and cousins, but my legs could only propel me forward at one speed by that point, so I didn’t see any of them actually finish, but none of them were cursing at me for giving them the idea to run the marathon in the first place, so all was good.  I think I’ve had just enough time to recover to do it all again.  DC, here I come.


SavageMan 70.0 Triathlon 2011 Race Report

I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I’ve had a lot of people give me incredulous looks over the past week when they find out I just completed a Half Ironman.  Like it was some Herculean feat that not only I shouldn’t be able to do, but that no one should ever willingly choose to do either.  I don’t know what others thought my chances of finishing were, but I never had any doubt I’d complete the entire triathlon.  I may have made deflecting comments in weeks prior about just quitting after the bike if I was too tired, but my training prep leading up to the event left me feeling 100% confident.

A 1.2 mile swim?  Puh-lease.  Granted I only found the time/energy to hit the pool three times in training, one ended with a coach stopping me on my way to the locker room to tell me what a beautiful stroke I had (like I don’t know), and the other included a solid set where after 600m of freestyle I finally found my groove and immediately declared myself ready.  A 55.7 mile bike?  I’ve had enough rides of greater distance than that this summer operating on less lung power.  I am as comfortable on my saddle as I am on my living room couch.  True, the hills would be a challenge, but I’ve been to hell and back on the bike before, and if there’s anything I know, it’s that I can survive.  And a 13.1 mile run?  My longest run of the summer was only 9 miles, but if had to walk, no worries.  A pain of a half marathon is minuscule and over in the blink of an eye compared to the pain of chemotherapy.  Bring it on.

SWIM

I slid into my wetsuit, and we waded into the water near the front of the 2nd wave for the in-water start.  As if I had any excuse to quit, there was a guy at the start floating behind me with no legs competing.  Just a flipper attached to one of his nubs.  Only a few minutes later, we all put our faces in the water and started spinning arms and kicking legs.  Maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t doing all I could to be at the head of the pack like in most of my triathlon swims, but it was very uncrowded.  I hardly bumped into anyone or had to swim over top of others.  I decided to stay within myself and take the swim easy – no sense in burning so much energy so early in the day for such little gain.  Before the first turn, I had already passed a few people from the wave that started 7 minutes ahead of us.

The swim course was one of the easiest open water swims to sight I’ve raced in, and on the back stretch, I finally settled into a groove where I didn’t feel like I was forcing my arms forward against their will with each stroke.  I drafted at the hip of other swimmers when I could, and, well, just kept on keeping on until the home stretch.  As I was nearing the beach, I noticed one other swimmer with a different color cap (meaning he started in the wave behind me) pass me, but by my calculations, only getting passed by one or two swimmers was a pretty good start to the day.  I exited the water in a little over 31 minutes, which is right what I predicted, and only a few minutes slower than my best time.

BIKE

And so began the heart and soul of the SavageMan.  My relatively quick transition saw me start the bike before Matt and Abe, even though they both swam faster than me, but I also bundled up less than them.  It was a cool and cloudy morning, and with a long descent to start the bike course (and still being wet from the swim), I threw on a vest, arm warmers, and gloves to ward off the cold.  Familiarize yourself with the profile:

Climbing Toothpick near the start, I immediately ran out of gears.  Looks like I wasn’t going to be setting any records.  It was time to stay within myself and just make sure I didn’t redline.  The few rolling miles before the descent were windy and cold.  We’d been instructed by the race directors about the numerous “dangerous, technical descents” on the course, but a fellow racer we met when setting up our in the transition area in the morning told us that aside from the first tight turn on the first descent, they weren’t that dangerous.

This was good knowledge to have.  And it was correct.  After a tight turn to start the downhill, I crouched down, took my fingers off the brakes, and sank like a stone.  I still didn’t know the course, so I wasn’t going at my limit, but I still passed more than a handful of racers more scared/cautious than me.

And then the real test began.  You ride through a couple of intersections in Westernport near the river, then take a 90 degree left turn, cross a timing mat, and if you’re foolish enough to look up at the road ahead, curse loudly to yourself.  This pictures from the top of the Westernport Wall can not accurately depict the steepness of the climb itself, nor the fact that the lower three-quarters of the climb is seriously steep itself.
That top section in the photo, partially hidden by the tree and paved with concrete instead of asphalt, is the steepest section, maxing out at 31%.  There’s no chance to carry any momentum into the base of it.  The shouting crowds and repeating loop of the Rocky soundtrack and concurrent surge in adrenaline weren’t enough to get me to the top without hopping off my bike and walking.

But after finishing that climb, the road only continues to tick upwards.  The Big Savage climb is timed (starting the clock at the base of the Westernport Wall), and it took me over 45 minutes to reach the top.  45 minutes of finding all sorts of different climbing styles.  Out of the saddle.  Paperboying.  Woodpeckering.  Hand in the hoods.  Hands on the middle of my handlebar.  The couple short downhill sections of the climb only meant that the other sections had to be that much steeper to make up for the lost elevation.  I tried to remember to eat calories as much as I could, but it took me nearly 30 minutes to eat a single Clif bar.  Any bite larger than a nibble rendered too much food in my mouth to both chew and breathe at the same time.

Though I will say, when I remembered enough to steer my head away from the road in front of me, there was some truly scenic countryside to gaze at and enjoy.

The descent off of Big Savage was my favorite part of the entire day.  After enough time to warm up (and shed the vest and arm warmers at the bag drop), I settled into my tuck and bombed it.  Sweeping turns through the forest required only a light feathering of the brakes, and all concentration turned toward carving up the road whizzing by me.  My biggest concern was finding the right line around the slower racers.  I’m told I caught a few of them off guard when my speed and closeness surprised them, but I never felt unsafe.

But on descent we shift from awareness to is, evaluating only the line itself, not how things could go wrong.

Near the bottom of the descent, I passed a few racers in full aero gear who were obviously not great descenders.  As the next Cat 4 climb started, one passed me again and remarked about how effortless I made it look.  Made my day.

I hadn’t memorized the course map or profile, so after Big Savage, I only knew what lay ahead of me based on how far I could see up the road.  There were more climbs, steep as all the others, and now only short descents off of them.  And then came Killer Miller.

Though at it’s steepest, the Westernport Wall is worse, Killer Miller is nearly just as steep in sustained sections, and much, much longer.  There were spectators on this section of the course as well, but honestly, I can’t remember what any of them looked like.  When my eyeballs weren’t examining the inside of my own skull, they were intently focused on the square meter of asphalt just beyond my front tire.  I turned myself inside out, used the entire width of the road, and finally found myself in the flow state.

The remainder of the ride was mostly an exercise in trying to remain in the zone despite whatever was going on around me, and then easing back a little to prepare for the run.

RUN

Through most of the bike, my feet were pretty cold.  I opted not to wear shoe covers, and I purposely over-tightened my shoes for most of the ride to make climbing a little more efficient, so the first mile of the run was simply an exercise in getting warm blood to my feet and feeling them out again.  After a short trip to the port-a-potty to relieve some liquids, I still struggled to find my rhythm.  I walked the uphill sections of the run, and waddled through the flats.  It’s not that my legs were coming unhinged, but my gut was still not cooperating.

I ticked through the miles and held a relatively pedestrian pace of 11 minutes/mile through the first half of the two loop course.  I don’t have a clue what I was actually thinking about.

Around mile 8, I stopped for another bathroom break – this time a little more lengthy -and finally, I could run.  I switched to a half cup of Coke at every aid station, and quickly found new life.  I was starting to catch and pass other runners for the first time, and my legs still weren’t tired.  By not redlining while trying to set a PR, I held a comfortable pace the entire day.  I negative split the run at a pace that didn’t exhaust me, and even after finishing, I felt like I could’ve continued on for hours more.  My legs didn’t hurt.  I’m not sure how else to explain it.  You either understand, or you don’t.

I’m still waiting for photos from others and from the race photographers, as I’m especially anxious to share some of the other parts of the course with everyone, and trigger my own memories of other sections on the course, so if they’re uploaded in a timely manner, I’ll update with some of the better ones.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Holland Hundred

For all the races and events I’ve done in the past few years, there’s actually only one that I’ve managed to prioritize enough to not miss every year – the Holland Hundred.  It’s not a race, but a casual ride through country roads in Allegan county with several rest stops for food and water and where everyone starts whenever they get to the start.  The result is a long parade of riders all going at their own speeds; It’s really just a chance to ride with others for most of a Saturday without having to worry about finding food for yourself.

Riding 100 miles in a day is really not as impressive of a feat as I think a lot of people make it out to be, but it’s  not something that’s’ very enjoyable without a little preparation.  Three years ago, I was just getting into cycling, and since work sponsors the event and that year it started and ended at the park across the street from where I lived, I took advantage of the free entry and support and gave it my best shot with Abe.  Beforehand, our longest ride was in the neighborhood of 45 miles, but we were ambitious, and maybe a little stupid.  It rained for roughly the first 4 hours of the ride.  When we passed Hutchins Lake, I remember thinking about riding right off the road and into the lake as I was sure I’d be drier that way.  I experienced my first bonk, somehow managed to finish upright, and then swore that I’d be better prepared for the next year.

And we were.  In a mostly non eventful century ride the next year, Abe and I comfortably finished much faster – and actually enjoyed – the ride.

Year three saw me in the best cycling shape of my life, and I bribed my roommate to join me by saying I’d let him draft off me the whole way.  That resulted in a slow ride, which left me with some achy joints by the finish, but again, more enjoyable than not.

This year, with nothing really left to prove, I was debating if I was going to ride the full 100 miles or take the optional 67 mile route.  There was no real motivation to ride the entire thing aside from the fact that I really like to ride bikes (and if a 2 hour ride is fun, a 6 hour ride should be 3x as fun, right?).  I was feeling confident from my 83 mile ride a few weeks ago, but that was after 2 weeks of recovery from chemo, not one, like I’d have for the Holland Hundred.  I let the conditions of the day dictate how far I’d go, and if I wasn’t feeling strong enough, I could take any number of shortcuts on the route and save my body.

I rolled out from the start at the same time as Jim (the guy I bought my bike from) and a few other strong Jade riders, so I decided to suck their wheels and get an easy and fast lift for a long as I could hold on.  After 45 miles of hiding in their draft, I was feeling good and ahead of schedule (I think we averaged about 21mph) and the heat of the day hadn’t hit yet, but they were only doing the 67 mile route.  So where the routes split, I kept on heading south while they turned north.

I spent the rest of the ride at an easier pace with one other guy and few others who came and went.  After the final rest stop, and with only 10 miles to go, the midday heat picked up and the wind got taken out of my sails as fast as it rushed out of my back tire.  What should have been a 3 minute tire change took about 10 or 15 minutes due to muscles that were (finally) starting to feel fatigued and a frustratingly tight tire that was difficult to mount back onto the rim.

Finally, I did finish, to absolutely no fanfare, but to much happiness, which I must still partially attribute to this honeymoon phase I’m still in with my new bike.  (Ride details: Part 1Part 2)ICSWYWTLH #2