Tag Archives: marathon

Trail Marathon: Chasing Ghosts

April 30 was a cold, gray day on the Potawatomi Trail – and the ghosts were out.

Trail Marathon is the original and oldest race put on by RF Events, celebrating its 32nd running on April 29-30. “It’s so old,” says RF Events owner Randy Step, “that it doesn’t even have a fancy name. It’s just ‘Trail Marathon.’”

I ran the 5-mile race here for several years, gasping all the way and marveling at the signs that said, “MARATHON MILE 13” and such. How was it possible to run even a half marathon on these crazy trails? And a full marathon or 50K? Inconceivable! That is, until a pivotal conversation led me to find out in 2014 that it wasn’t only possible, it was fun. I’ve run the marathon or 50K there ever since.

2014, after finishing the 50K. No wimps, baby!

But it wasn’t until last year that I found out about the Rogucki trophy. Named after the late local running legend John “Road Kill” Rogucki, the top marathon finishers each year (male and female) age 50 and older get their names and times on the trophy.

Isn’t that worth running a marathon for? I thought you’d agree!

Well, there was something cool to shoot for! But in 2016, I was preoccupied with getting our Zero Waste program off to a good start. So I ran a solid 4:20 but didn’t focus on trying to win. I was happy with my time, until I discovered I’d finished second in the Rogucki by just five minutes.

Well, that settled my plans for 2017 – I would run the marathon again. And this time I’d mean it.

With last winter’s hard training, I figured I’d be in peak shape for Trail Marathon. It was just two weeks after Boston, but I lined up Sunday morning feeling confident I could give the race my best effort.

My plan was to run the first loop in under two hours, then hold steady in the second, with an overall finish around 4:10. Nowhere near the 50+ record time, (Randy said Rogucki had run it in three hours) but a winning time in many past years.

I started with the front runners to establish a position early. The leaders soon disappeared, but I settled in at the pace I wanted. Despite the cold weather, I heated up fast; at the first aid station I peeled all my top layers off. I’ve never run a race shirtless before, let alone in 45 degrees, but here you go:

Near the end of the first loop I was still among the top marathoners and hadn’t seen anyone else near my age. I powered up the hills between miles 11-12 feeling good. If I could sustain the pace, I liked my chances. I tried to imagine Rogucki’s spirit running with me. Or was I too slow even for his ghost?

Then someone in gray hair and a gray-white beard passed me. Not a sudden burst of speed pass; his pace was steady and strong. Past me, up the hill, and down the trail, the distance between us steadily widening.

Oh, sh**.

Well, what to do? Step it up and try to stick with him, or stay on plan and let him go? With over half the race left, a faster pace risked burning out. But it looked like my shot at a Rogucki win was rapidly fading into the distance with the back of this guy’s shirt.

I made the decision; I would run my race, not his. And who knew? Perhaps he’d get tired near the end, or tweak an ankle (which I do NOT wish on anyone, but it happens). And if he won, well, more power to him. There was always next year.

I finished the first half in 1:58, right on plan. Then things went downhill (not the good kind). I struggled up the inclines, and my legs were sluggish. Maybe it was too much to expect, so soon after Boston? My spirits picked up when I spied my opponent up ahead, only to fall hard when I realized it wasn’t him and likely wouldn’t ever catch him.

But that turned out to be the low point. I relaxed and focused on keeping my cadence up despite fatigue. I caught a second wind and fell into a rhythm that carried me through the remaining miles. At Boston, the final four miles were agony; here, they weren’t easy, but I was able to enjoy them. The rain held off, I was on my favorite trails, and running strong. Couldn’t ask for more!

Why yes, I AM having fun. Can’t you tell? (From 2013)

I crossed the finish line eighth overall in 4:08, beating my goal time and improving last year’s time by 12 minutes. Success by all measures – except one. And as I walked through the finish chute, there was my worthy opponent, stretching by a picnic table. He’d finished seventh overall, just ahead of me.

By five minutes.

I walked up to him and congratulated him on his great race. “Thanks,” he said. “This was my first marathon.” Yep – his first ever, and on these trails! We figured that on the road, his performance would translate to about a 3:15 finish. He looked puzzled when I mentioned the Rogucki, so I took a mental deep breath and asked how old he was.

“I’m 40,” he said. So he wasn’t even eligible for the trophy for another ten years! The gray hair had fooled me completely. I went over to the display of results, and there it was:

It was funny, but I felt relief more than pleasure. Not from winning, but that I’d stayed disciplined and stuck with my plan. If I’d tried to chase him down, I might have cost myself an excellent result – and the win – for a nonexistent competitor. For a phantom.

And if he’d been over 50 after all? Well then, so what? So much of winning a race is outside one’s control – the weather, the trail conditions, and above all, who shows up and who doesn’t. What really matters is that I ran the strongest, smartest race I could that day. That’s at least as gratifying as my name on the trophy. Not that I’ll refuse it.

Breaking News from Mars: Boston Bound!

WELL, THE MARTIANS WENT HOME. It was too cold for them. So Earth is safe for another year.

In other good news – I completed the marathon and qualified for Boston!

dancing Snoopy

Yes, I’m really pleased! But at the end of this post, you’ll see another example of the sense of perspective that seems to accompany the ups and downs of my running life.

Officially, my required qualifying time for Boston 2017 is 3 hours 40 minutes. But faster runners get first crack at registration, so the more I beat that time by, the better my chance to get an actual spot in the race. I wanted to beat my required time by at least 10 minutes, to leave no doubt.

Just one problem: a finish of 3:30:00 would be over 20 minutes faster than my previous best, the 2012 Ann Arbor Marathon. But I’d goofed around and taken pictures at that one. With the hard training I’ve done this winter, I felt confident I could do it. I even set my planned pace to 7:45 per mile instead of the needed 8:00, to give myself some extra cushion.

Like at the Richmond half last year, I divided the race into stages to break up the monotony of the run and give me some mid-race recovery. Each stage I would run three miles at an 8:00 pace, followed by three miles at 7:30. The final 2.2 miles would be at whatever I had left.

I arrived at 6:30 a.m. for the 7:15 start. I warmed up with an easy mile, and after a quick pit stop (no lines – yes!) I was ready to go.

Just before the start. This is the best I would feel until Tuesday.

Just before the start. This is the best I would feel until Tuesday.

Conditions were, shall we say, interesting. I’d been hoping to wear shorts, but with a wind chill under 20 degrees, it was not to be. At one point the sun came out and it seemed to be warming up, but soon after the wind picked up, the clouds came back, and the snow started to fly. I ran through at least three good-sized snow squalls during the race, at times strong enough to barely see ahead. On the other hand, there was no danger of overheating.

The first two stages (miles 1-12) went right according to plan, and I hit the halfway point at just over 1:42:00. At this point a few things conspired to slow me down a bit. First, I was, naturally, starting to get tired and sore. Then I ran uphill into the wind for a couple of miles. At last we turned around and I had the wind at my back. What a difference! I also got a boost when we joined up with the half marathoners for the last six miles. Running with other people does make a difference, especially if you can pass some of them. Just one of those mental things.

When it came time to start the final surge to the 7:30 pace, I couldn’t do it. It took all I had to maintain 8:00. Over the bridges, up the last hill, and then we hit the half-mile downhill to the finish. The last few hundred yards seemed to take forever, and I didn’t have my usual finishing surge, but I got across the finish line, breathing and upright, in 3:26:50.

“That’s Boston, baby,” I said to the race director as we slapped hands in the medal area.

“You’ll remember this race in more ways than one,” he said.

Boy, was he right, although not the way either of us thought. Once again, my lack of attention to myself post-race came back to bite me. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say I spent quite a bit of time huddled under a blanket by the gas heater in the registration tent, pale and trembling. Finally it dawned on me that I might want to change into the dry clothes I had in my bag two feet away. And I should have tried to eat something right afterward, regardless of how my stomach felt. Next time, next time.

And just in case there was any danger of my getting an unhealthy level of pride in finishing in the cold and snow, I met a guy at the pre-race expo. He’s one of those who felt the need to run a marathon in all 50 states, which he finally completed in Hawaii last year.

“What was the hardest marathon you ran?” I asked him.

He thought for a minute. “That would be Colorado,” he replied. “It started at 7,000 feet, everything over 8,000 feet was in snow, and I had pneumonia. The fever broke the day of the race, and I decided as long as I was there, what the hell.”

I’m not sure which is more crazy – that story, or that he had to think about it first. That’s runners for you, folks.

Preparing for the Invasion, Marathon-Style

The Martians invade Michigan on Saturday. This is NOT a rumor – I have evidence!

Martian spirit - 2

My strategy?

Run!

Martian Course BJ - 0896 - reduced

26.2 miles, to be exact.

Hard to believe that this will be my first road marathon in four years. I’ve run thousands of miles since 2012, at every distance from 5K to 100K, except for the marathon. Mainly because at distances over the half (13.1 miles) I much prefer trail running. So why am I running a road marathon this weekend, and with a specific goal time in mind?

Boston Marathon - Bing Images - free to share

Yes, the Boston bug finally bit me, and a finish time of under 3:40 (3 hours, 40 minutes) at Martian will qualify me for the 2017 race. My personal goal is for a 3:30 or better, which is what I think I’m capable of given my training.

The hardest part of all this, somewhat ironically, is these final few days before the race. With the training load cut way back and extra time to think about the race, I have that twitchy feeling of, “There must be something left to do!” Well, let’s check the three main components of racing readiness and see what I stand.

Physical: My body is as ready as it can be. The strength workouts, distance runs, and speedwork have done their job. Cutting back on the training load allows my body to heal and reduces the chance of an overuse injury. So this week has been about slow runs and light workouts, “keeping the edge sharp” for Saturday morning.

Tuesday night, for example, I went out with PR Fitness for a 5-6 mile run. I kept my heart rate under 145, which meant after a mile I was by myself. But instead of trying to keep up with them, I enjoyed the relaxed pace and did some gear checks (see below).

Mental: As an experienced ultrarunner, I have no worries about the distance. Rather, the challenge will be holding it together at a much faster pace than my ultras. How will I respond when things start hurting late in the race, and there’s a strong temptation to slow down? Fortunately, I have my experience at the Richmond half marathon to boost my confidence. No guarantees, but I have the motivation to run strong and push past the pain.

Logistical: Just as important to a successful race are my choices in clothing, gear, fueling and hydration, and pace (course strategy). This is where I learned the most from Tuesday night’s run. The weather was nearly identical to the forecast for race morning – sunny and chilly, with some winds. This allowed me to dress in my expected race day outfit. I learned that my layering strategy was just fine, but the wrap I was using as a hat would not suffice.

For hydration, I want to carry at least one water bottle so I can consume salt tablets and Gu when I want to, and not have to wait for an aid station or deal with those tiny cups. I originally planned to clip a bottle onto my belt but it bounced too much when full, and caused the belt to slip. So another solution was needed. I could carry the bottle (and did for most of Tuesday’s run) but that’s a strain on the arms over a long run.

Fortunately, the local running shop was close by and still open, and I settled on this little number – the “Trail Mix Plus” from Nathan.

Nathan race belt with bottles

It cinches more snugly than my other belt, and the bottles won’t jiggle. I may look like a bit of a dork wearing this, but what else is new? And if it gets me across the finish line five minutes faster, bring it on! Heck, I’d wear head-to-toe pink if it made me faster (underwear, too). And a sports bra (although I’d insist on a sub-3 hour guarantee).

So I’d say all systems are go. Or so I thought, until my daughter posted this helpful comic from The Oatmeal on how to run a marathon. Click the image for a very humorous take on the marathon from someone who’s been there.

The Oatmeal - Marathon Running - from Facebook page

Alas, it’s too late to drop what I’ve done and follow his suggestions. Maybe next time!

You Gotta Have Heart (Rate)

My first marathon this season is just ahead, and it’s taper time! Cutting back on distance and speedwork a bit allows my body to rest and heal up, so I’ll be at peak form on race day. The nasty cold I’ve just gotten over helped enforce that rest, at least. Not that I appreciated it.

One temptation tapering runners have is to use the extra time and energy to try something new and different. Hey, I could start those judo lessons, or try out the Eskimo Diet (mmmm….seal meat). Well, you’re not supposed to do this. Stick to the familiar. And as a serious runner (well, as someone who takes running seriously), I rigorously follow this advice.

Except when I don’t.

This week I tried something new (gasp) in my running – usually a no-no right before a race. On the other hand, this change just might win the approval of my coach. Because it involved me running slower.

I'll believe it when I see it!

I’ll believe it when I see it!

First, allow me just a little history to set the context.

Last Saturday, I went out for my first group run since I’d caught that cold. Coach put me down for 14 miles at an 8:20 pace. I felt well enough but told her (and myself) I would run easy and only so long as I felt (reasonably) comfortable.

The first seven miles went fine. I felt a bit winded but chalked it up to the hills on the route. I started the route back – and heard three women coming up behind me.

Cue my stupid male instinct. Easy training run? Recovering from an illness? Screw it – no way I was gonna get chicked! So I stepped it up – for a few miles, anyway. At the final water stop I graciously let them go ahead. I’d made my point. Yeah.

Gwen here won the Kalamazoo Marathon last year. I'll let her chick me. Mainly because I have no choice in the matter.

PR Fitness runner Gwen won the Kalamazoo Marathon last year. I’ll let her chick me. Mainly because I have no choice in the matter.

It wasn’t until I checked my splits afterward that I found out what I’d really been doing. 8:20 pace? Not exactly. I’d ended up running mostly under 8:00, and during my push I’d been doing 7:30 – uphill. Well, pushing the pace is fairly routine for me, and I have to admit to taking some perverse pride in it. No harm, right? Doesn’t it show how fit I am?

And yet there are those articles that say runners often do their slow runs too fast. And for five years now Coach has been trying to get this into my thick head. But what, exactly, is “too fast”? And why is a faster pace so bad?

Well, my recent fitness tests, as well as a couple of books I’ve been reading, have finally given me something quantitative to work with. And this means adding a tool to my training that I’ve had for years, but never really figured out how to use.

Heart Rate Chest Strap Monitor

The heart rate monitor.

Heart rate training is popular among elite cyclists, and to some extent among runners. Instead of running at a specific pace, you run at a specific heart rate, or in a heart rate zone. The advantage is that you can tell when you are running aerobically vs. anaerobically. The threshold is known as the Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate, or MAHR.

Why is this important? Because of the differences in how the body produces energy. When running anaerobically (above MAHR), the body uses carbohydrates for fuel, of which there is a limited supply. Eventually, fuel runs low and the runner has to slow down, or bonks.

Running aerobically (at or below MAHR), by contrast, mainly burns fat, of which the body has a much larger supply available. The longer the run, the more important this source of energy is. So ultrarunners (ahem) should really be interested in running aerobically as much as possible.

Dr. Phil Maffetone, one of the pioneers of heart rate-based training, has a method for estimating one’s MAHR. Doing the math, I came up with 131 beats per minute (BPM) as my MAHR. So for me to run aerobically, I need a pace where my heart rate stays at, or just below, 131 BPM.

What is that pace? There was just one way to find out. I strapped on the monitor, set my Garmin to display heart rate, and out I went for a six-mile run. I though I might have trouble holding a particular heart rate, but it turned out to be pretty easy.

Pace too fast 2

I held 131 BPM for two miles, with splits of 9:33 and 9:43. Just for fun, I also ran one mile at 135 BPM, clocking 8:55. People often find their MAHR pace is annoyingly slow at first, but for me it was okay – very comfortable, not snail-like. Maybe over 10 miles or more it will get annoying. Just one way to find out! More to come as I continue to experiment with this.