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It’s been on the calendar for months now.  I had been checking off the weeks, putting in my training, focusing on my attempt to return to Boston.

But then a couple of weeks ago I got sidetracked.  It wasn’t for anything bad.  In fact, it was a pretty cool trip to our Nation’s capitol where our family got a private tour of the West Wing of the White House (you can read about the trip over at Jess’ blog).  The side tracking was that the trip came in the middle of the week and require over 18 hours of driving in less than 60 hours.  I was exhausted and my shoulders and back were a wreck.  A massage helped, but for the last two weeks, I’ve been having trouble staying focused.

Just last night I realized that Sugarloaf is not weeks, but only days away – and that scares the crap out of me.  I aches and pains the body goes through at the end of a taper I can deal with – I’ve been there before, many times.  But with only 11 weeks of training, and that training being a new plan, I am unsure at best.  I don’t know how my body or mind is going to react to Sunday’s race.  I know my last couple of 20-milers didn’t go as planned…neither did my last couple of 15-milers.

I am dreading “the wall”.  I know it’s out there, waiting for me.  Over the last couple of 20-milers, it hit me just before 17 – the first without gels, the second time with.  I’m trying to take comfort in the reality that the last 16 miles of Sugarloaf are essentially downhill, but I’m not convinced that will be enough.  Will my quads hold up under 16 miles of pounding?  Will I be able to take advantage of gravity?

The good news is is that I will have my friends with me.  My buddy and teammate JB decided that after running several half-marathons and several ultra-marathons, maybe it was time to run a marathon-marathon.  Although he is much younger than I am, his goal on Sunday is the same as mine – sub-3:15.  In addition to JB, I also found out a couple of nights ago that another RaceMenu teammate, Tommy, will be joining us as well, and his goal is also a sub-3:15.

If there is one thing I have learned over the last couple of years of road racing, it’s that having friends with you is a huge help…as long as you follow “the plan”.  My mistake at Boston 2011 was that I went out with friends (Tommy was one of them) who were running faster than I had trained for.

Not gonna happen this time.

The plan is to average 7:24 – 7:30 over the first 8 miles (the first 5 being flat, the next 3 rolling), do whatever it takes to not kill ourselves over the next 2 miles (uphill) and then slowly pick up speed over the final 16.  Here’s a shot at the elevation chart:

Elevation Profile of the Sugarloaf Marathon

 

The key to this race I think that stretch from mile 8 to about mile 10 1/2.  I’m not sure what “not kill ourselves” will mean.  Do we slow down to 8:00 miles?  8:30’s? 9:00’s?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that when we reach the crest, we’ll have some time to make up.  Should JB, Tommy and I manage to run 7:30’s over the first 8 miles and fight through the hills with 9’s, that will mean running just a smidge over 7:12’s the rest of the way – even with the downhill, I’m not sure I can do that.  If we can maintain 7:24 pace through 8 and then only drop to 8:00’s on the hills, we only have to run 7:23’s the rest of the way.  Sounds more reasonable, but again, the hills are the X-factor.

We’ll see.

One more little jog tomorrow and then it’s countdown ’til go time.  Who am I kidding, the countdown started 3 months ago…I just forgot.

This weekend?  Really?

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I have taken a little over a week off from running.  During this week I’ve been able to process through what happened at the Around the Lake Marathon and begin to focus on what comes next.

On the calender, my next big race is the Vermont 50 – a tough 50-miler through the mountains of Vermont.  I had promised my friend Doug that I would run it with him should I qualify for Boston (which I did back in October of last year).  It’s been sitting on the calender ever since – looming large.  It is a big reason why I am NOT running the New York City Marathon this year for Autism Speaks.  I just couldn’t see myself running a 50-mile race at the end of September and then following it up with a Marathon in early November.

The Vermont 50 Team in fact has a growing number of runners and support crew that should make it a very fun event come September.

But 50 miles…

…that’s a lot of miles to run.

***

The most I’ve ever run at one time is the marathon distance (26.2 miles).  Even taking into account that I weave through crowds and sometimes take the longer, outside lane, I’m pretty sure I haven’t run more than 27 miles at any one time.

And my last attempt at 26.2 ended at the 20-mile mark, doubled over, hobbling for the portapotty.  As unready as I was for the Around the Lake Marathon, there was part of me that was convinced that I was going to pull off a 3:15 and lower my qualifying time for Boston 2012.  (Click HERE for the new registration process) Sitting at a 3:19 qualifying time, my chances of getting in with the new rolling registration feels slim.  I’d feel a lot more secure about being able to run Boston for the third consecutive year if I could give myself a 5 minute qualifying cushion that would allow me to register in the first week instead of the second.

After Around the Lake, I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I would probably not be running Boston this coming April.

But then Doug called me this past week.  He wanted to see how I was doing after my meltdown.  He had texted me earlier in the day asking if he could call, wanting to talk about “September 25th and September 11th”.  The Vermont 50 is on the 25th.  I assumed that maybe he was organizing some kind of memorial run for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 – he’s that kind of awesome.

To my surprise, he was calling me to essentially let me out of my promise to him.  He knew how bummed I was after Around the Lake and called to let me know that there was a race being organized (by my team/sponsor Racemenu no less) to give runners one last chance to improve their qualifying times for Boston 2012  – a time trial type race, with 1 – 4 runners going out every 30 seconds based on projected finishing times.  Imagine being able to start a race with a group of people who were gunning for the exact same time?

I couldn’t help but think, this is my second chance!!!

The details of the race are still being ironed out.  All I know is that Racemenu chief, J. Alain Ferry is currently working on putting the race together and he feels confident enough about it that he’s had his team write about it on the team blog, facebook page and twitter feed.

September 11th is 5 weeks from yesterday, which would give me 5 weeks of training.

I haven’t been chasing 3:15 for too long (last November at New York was my first attempt), but three marathons later, with times that are getting slower (3:27 – NYC, 3:37 – Boston, DNF – Around the Lake) I wonder if Father Time is starting to nip at my heels.

New York I can chalk up to running shortly after my BQ run at Smuttynose.  Boston I can chalk up to going out too fast and bonking at 17.  I’ve essentially had a down cycle since Boston – that, along with the HEED I ingested at Around the Lake can take the blame for my flameout there.

My blog friend Lizzy suggested that maybe it was time to concentrate on shorter races, and she may be right; but I know 3:15 is just within my grasp.

It’s right there…my fingertips scraping against it.

This marathon would be in 5 weeks.

5 weeks!!!

I’m pretty sure I can rally hard for 5 weeks.

***

I’m also pretty sure that if I were to run a marathon in 3:15 on September 11th, I wouldn’t be able to run 50 miles 14 days later.  I’m not completely sure how I feel about that.  There were a lot of people I was planning on seeing/meeting from the running community on September 25th.

Who knows, maybe plans get held up and the marathon doesn’t happen.  If that is the case, I suppose I am back on for the VT50, but right now, at this moment, I can’t turn my back on one last opportunity to better my chances of getting into Boston 2012.

This morning I got up and hit the treadmill at 5:30AM – an easy 3.5 mile run with no incline.  I haven’t run pre-dawn in a while, and honestly, after over a week off, the legs felt a little rusty.

But it sure felt good to sweat.

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I really hadn’t planned on being here, yet here I was, at the starting line, wondering what the heck I was doing.

Having just come off my first heavy mileage week since late March, I wasn’t sure how my legs were going to react.

They felt heavy.

What the heck was I doing hopping last minute into a half-marathon?

***

One of the things I “love” about the half-marathon and marathon distance is that at some point, if you are a mid-packer like me, you will be tested.  It is not a question of if, but one of when.  Usually the test comes in the second half of the race.  In a marathon it is often during the last 10K (though mine at Boston came at 17).  In the half, I usually find that I must overcome my brain somewhere around miles 9 or 10.

Yesterday my test came during the first 4 miles.  I had jumped into this half-marathon on a whim.  I hadn’t trained for it, AND I had just started a new training cycle that already had me at over 40 miles for the week.  That isn’t a lot for some, but it is a full week for me.  My legs. were. tired.

As the starter yelled, “Go. Go! GO!” I got sucked out by the front of the pack.  I had run into RaceMenu/Mix1 teammate Greg (when he showed up I joked that everybody’s projected finish had just dropped one spot) and had made the mistake of hanging out with him near the start.  When the starter yelled go, I knew to let Greg go (he’s fast).  I didn’t give chase and I thought I was running at a smart pace.  Because of the threat of rain, I had left my iPhone (my de facto GPS device) at home, so I had no idea really what my pace was.  As we passed the first mile marker I tapped my watch and looked down.

6:09.

Um, what?!?

My goal for the half-marathon I had signed up for 2 weeks from now was to run 7:00 minute  miles (and that would be an almost 2 minute PR).  I had no business running a 6:09 first mile in an impromptu half-marathon.  I slowed myself down a bit which resulted in me watching several runners pass me by.

It’s never a good feeling when you get passed, even if you know in your head that it is the smart thing to do – it is discouraging at best.  As the faster runners continued to pass me, I quickly spiraled into a dark place wondering what I had been thinking.  I hit mile 3 in 20 minutes flat, but my legs felt like rubber.  I was spent.  I had gone out too hard, too fast and with  little over 10 miles to go, I was done.  By the time I hit mile 4, I actually had thoughts that maybe I needed to stop road racing – for a while anyway.  What was the point, really?  I mean, seriously, I am not fast enough to have a shot at winning any of these races; why in the world was I putting myself through this kind of hell?  Miles 4 and 5 were significantly slower and I started to think about walking or quitting.  The problem of course is that if I did that, I was stuck in the middle of nowhere and I’d still have to make my way back to the start.  On top of all of that, my right foot fell asleep between miles 4 and 5 (and would remain so for most of the race) and it felt like I was running on a stump of a right foot.  Yes, things were moving along swimmingly.

When I hit mile 6 I looked at my watch.

41:59.

Just under 7:00 per mile.  Granted there were still 7 miles to go, but a PR was not out of the question.  We were almost done climbing Heartbreak Hill and I notice that I was now starting to pass a few people.  I saw Greg coming in the other direction.  We slapped five as we passed each other.  He had a good 40 – 50 second lead on the second place runner.  Encouraged, I tried to quicken the cadence a little and push up the hill.  As we hit the turnaround and started heading back, I saw one of the runners who had passed me early on off in the distance.

I stopped thinking about my sleeping foot.  I stopped thinking about the pain and how tired I was.  Instead I focused on this runner’s tan shirt.  There were other runners in between us, but for some reason I did not want to lose to this guy.  It was time to go to work.  He was to be a good 75 – 100 yards off, but I slowly started to reel him in.  Coming down Heartbreak, a young kid pulled up next to me and I latched on.  Moments later I heard a loud, booming, “LUAU!!!”  I looked to see Kim from Tales of an Endless Runner working her way up Heartbreak.  I yelled back and carried on.  Running downhill felt good.  I finally caught tan shirt at around mile 8.  As I started to pass him, he surged, as did young kid.  I pushed along with them.  Tan shirt briefly opened up about a one meter gap before fading.  Young kid and I pushed on.

I still felt terrible.  My legs were sluggish and my breathing was labored.  My mindset, as it had been from about mile 5 on, was “just finish”.  Forget the PR, just finish.

I kept thinking if I could just hang with young kid, I would be all right, but I very quickly realized that in this particular case, youth was going to win out.  At mile 9 I felt young kid quicken the pace.  He was trying to reel in a group that was about 50 yards ahead of us.  I thought about coming along for the ride, but I knew I had spent my surge energy catching tan shirt.  I quickly glanced behind me to see if anyone was closing on me and saw no one.  I decided to keep my pace and let young kid go.  It was a move I would partially regret later.

When I hit mile 10 I looked at my watch.  70:16.  I started to do some math.  My PR was a 1:33:14.  That meant if I ran the next 3.1 miles in just under 23:00 minutes, I could PR.  My heart and my brain went in two different directions.  My heart said, “GOGOGO!!!” where my brain said, “be smart, run smart!”

I divided 23 by 3.

7 2/3.

7:40.

But that doesn’t take into account the extra 0.1!

23 divided by 3.1 is…

oh crap! too hard. I can’t even do that when I’m not running.

I arbitrarily assigned the 0.1 mile stretch 45 seconds.

22:15 divided by 3.

3 times 7 is 21.

that leaves 1:15…divide that by 3…that 75 second…25!

7:25!!!

I need to run 7:25 pace the rest of the way to hit a PR!!!

Yes, this is what was running through my brain as I covered mile 11.  When I hit the mile marker I looked at my watch – 7:18 for mile 11!

Re-calculate! 

Nononono!

Just run!!! Keep pace.

Mile 12 came in 7:19.  1.1 miles to go.  If I could just maintain my pace I would beat my previous best.  I looked ahead.  I had pulled within maybe 75 yards of the guy ahead of me (young kid has disappeared out of sight).  I thought about trying to make up 75 yards over the course of a mile, but I was spent.  That said I did manage to pick up the pace.  With less than a few hundred yards to go, I heard RaceMenu Chief Alain cheering me in.  There was no one behind me and there was no way I was catching the guy in front of me, but I picked up the speed with one last push.  I knew the PR was mine.  As I made the final turn and ran through the chute, I saw the clock – 1:32:23 – a PR by 51 seconds.

1:32:23 - 22nd overall, 4th AG, 51 second PR

I. was. beat.

Alain handed me a mix1, congratulated me on my PR and told me that Greg had won the race in a course record 1:14.  Man that guy is fast!  Greg and I posed for a picture for our sponsors.

So, I finished in 1:32:23, 22nd overall and once again, as it seems to be my fate in these things, 4th in my age group, just off of the podium.   Maybe if I had chased young kid back at mile 9 – 10 I would have caught the 40-something that finished ahead of me – of course, maybe I would have crashed and burned before even making it to mile 11, who knows.

I’m glad I chose last minute to hop in on this half-marathon.  I’m glad I passed the test early on in the race.  Did I learn anything? Maybe that even when it feels like it’s all going down the tubes, if you put your head down and battle through, sometimes good things can happen.   Makes me feel pretty good going into the Boston Run to Remember Half Marathon over Memorial Day Weekend in 2 weeks.  That race is MUCH flatter than this was, so I’ve actually got a shot at another PR.  We shall see.

***

On a tangentially related note, it seems that Sunday may have been National PR Day.  Many of my running friends scored personal records in the races they ran, none more joyous to me than my buddy Brendan (@mainerunnah on Twitter) who ran the Pittsburgh Marathon and got his BQ in a 3:19 finish.  Those of you who read this blog regularly may remember Brendan from my Smuttynose BQ.  At that race we were both shooting for 3:19’s as part of Team Kinvara, but he unfortunately came up 33 seconds short.  Getting the text that Brendan had achieved his goal actually brought a tear to my eye.  Congratulations Brendan, you have caught the Unicorn!  I will see you in Hopkinton in 2012!

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As I walked along the sidewalk I could feel the right side of my body heat up under the rays of the rising sun.  Just on the other side of a small wall was the beach, the ocean’s wave splashing invitingly.

A bead of sweat ran from my temple and down my cheek.  I looked at my watch.

9AM.

The race wasn’t starting for another hour, and that was only if it was starting on time.  One more hour for the sun to rise higher in the sky and give off its intense heat.  I puttered up and down the sidewalk, stretching a little, jogging a little, trying to work out the crick in my neck I had woken up with 2 days earlier.  I wasn’t feeling great about this race.

4 months earlier I had run a 10K in sub-freezing weather.  Initially I had worried about the cold, but I discovered that at that temperature, I was actually kind of fast.  I finished in a flashy 39:29.  I toyed with the idea of going sub-40 this past Sunday, but with the temperature as it was at 9AM, I re-evaluated and thought maybe a sub-45 was a smarter goal.  Normally I enjoy the hour before a race, but the heat was so intense that I was afraid to sit still for too long, and so I wandered like a lost soul.

Finally, at 10, we were called to the starting line.  The announcement came over the PA that if you were planning on running 17-minute 5K splits, you should step to the front of the line, otherwise step back.  I took several steps back, along with everyone else.  Two Kenyans joined us where  we stood.  My teammate Lisa* leaned over and told me that they were the heavy favorites.  I took another step back.  The two Kenyans kept shuffling backwards and everybody else followed suit.  I looked over at another teammate, Chris, and said, “I wish they’d stop shuffling back.  Aren’t they supposed to be right on the starting line?”  He nodded and laughed.

Finally the starter asked everyone to step to the line.  The crowd pushed me forward and I found myself lined up alongside the Kenyans.  “This is not good,” I thought.  Chris asked me what I was shooting for.  “40 if it were 30° cooler, you?”  He said 36.

That's me between one of the Kenyans and the guy in the blue shirt...Chris is to my left, Lisa is to my right

Hmmm.  36.  Maybe I won’t be hanging with you too long.

The starter raised the horn, counted down and we were off!  I followed my teammate as we shot off the starting line.  Initially it didn’t feel so fast, but I knew I had started too quickly when my breathing became heavy almost immediately.  A quarter of a mile in a photographer took a shot of the lead pack.  It was the Kenyans, Chris, another runner and me.  I very quickly realized that this could end poorly for me.  I had no business being in this lead pack.  As we hit mile marker 1, with the Kenyans already 20 yards ahead, I looked at my watch.

5:55

5:55?!? What the heck was I thinking?  I had a moment of panic as I tried to keep up.  I made a very quick decision to slow it down drastically.  As I watched my friend pull away, I focused on getting to the turn around.  The race had been set up as a 3.1 mile out and back loop.  I knew the turn around was less than 3 minutes away.  With the heat pounding down on us the way it was, I was going to have to break this race down into 4  1.5 mile races to get through it.  By the time we hit the first turnaround, a few runner had caught and passed me.

There is no worse feeling in a road race than getting passed, but again, I also knew that I had no business being this far ahead of the pack.

We hit the turn, I grabbed some water, took a sip, poured the rest down my back and headed back.

BAM!  The wind hit me hard.  In retrospect, I don’t think that the wind was actually that strong, but when combined with the heat and humidity, it felt like I was running into a wall of jello-pudding.

Mile 2 arrived quickly, 6:36, But I could already feel myself fading.  The heat was getting to me.  A few more runners passed me, but I kept plugging along.  I spotted the building that we had started at and looked at my watch.  Oh!  Just under 6:00! Maybe I’m doing better than I thought.  That gave me a little energy boost as I honed in on the turnaround…except it wasn’t the building and the turnaround wasn’t there.  I looked up to see an identical building a couple hundred yards down.  There was the building we had started at.  My small boost of energy quickly deflated.  Mile 3 still arrived at a respectable 7:12.

As I hit the turn, there were my girls.  I shifted right to give my Katie a high five.

You can just make out Katie behind the garbage can with her "Go Dad" hat

She was wearing the same “Go Dad!” hat she had worn for Boston.  I shot out of the turnaround at 20:18 – striking distance of a sub-40 – and sitting in 15th place.

Katie had given me a small energy boost that carried me over mile 4 in 7:05 (my first and only negative split of the day!).  I struggled to make to the turn, but kept telling myself that once I was out of this turn it was only 1.7 to go.  I took a gulp of water, poured the rest down my back and prepared to be hit by the wind.  It didn’t hit me quite as hard this time, but in looking back I realize that it was because I wasn’t going nearly as fast.  I pushed on, knowing that I essentially only had to keep this up for another 12 minutes or so.

The mile 5 marker came and went.  I looked at my watch.  7:20.  I was slowing down.  Shortly after passing the marker I got passed one more time.    I tried to hang with the guy, but every time I tried to hit the accelerator I got nothing.  It was like cranking an engine with a dying battery, and my legs were dying!!! Mile 6 came in a relatively slow 7:37.  Chris was standing there and yelled, “300 meters!  Kick it in!”

As I passed the last water stop I yelled, “Throw it in my face!!!”  The kid holding the water cup looked confused.  “Throw the water in my face!” I yelled again.  One of the other volunteers told the kid to throw in my face.  Finally he got.  As I went through the water stop, I got hit three time.  It woke me up!  The legs came somewhat alive and I pushed it for all I had.

One last push

Unfortunately, the guy who had just passed me did the exact same thing.    I closed on him but in the end I ran out of real estate.

Coming around the final turn, I high fived Katie again and went through the finishing chute.  43:11.  I had covered the last 0.2 in a 7:00/mile pace.  I leaned on my knees, breathing hard.  As miserable as it was, I have to admit it was fun.  One of the things I love about out and back races is that you get to see everybody.  Throughout the race I was able to shoot hello’s to teammates and various runners who I had met before the race, plus I really got to see the two Kenyan runners in action, up close.  They ran with a fluidity I can only dream of.

When the results sheet went up I almost tore out my hair.  4 months earlier I had missed the podium by 2 seconds, finishing 4th in my age group.  When I first saw the initial results, there I was, 43:11, 16th place out of 169 finishers, 4th in my age group.  4th?!?  Again?  This time by 9 seconds.  Remember that guy who passed me just after mile 5?  Yeah, that was him.  I couldn’t believe it.  What I forgot however, was that in the final posting of the results, most race directors remove the overall podium finishers from the age group category, so surprise, surprise, I found myself on the podium at the awards ceremony.  3rd place in my age group!  I’ll take it!

So what did I learn from this race?  Lesson #1:  unless you are Kenyan, don’t try to run with them.  As thrilling as it was to run next to poetry in motion for a 1/2 mile, I paid for it dearly over the next 5.7 miles.  Lesson #2:  no matter how tired you are, dig deeper at the end to get that final kick and start it before the final 0.2 miles.  The last guy that passes you could be the difference between a podium finish or not.  Lesson #3: racing on a team can help your motivation.  I managed to finish 2nd on the RaceMenu/mix1 team, but part of what kept me motivated was seeing my teammates out on the course.  A simple wave or a nod was an acknowlegement of a shared effort to get through a race under brutally hot conditions.

Up next is the Boston13.1 half-marathon this coming Sunday.  I’m praying that the 6:15 AM start means much lower temperatures.

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*Back in March I was asked to join the RaceMenu/mix1 racing team.  I have now run the Boston Marathon, the Providence Marathon, the Boston Run to Remember Half-Marathon and the Father’s Day 10K with them, and it has been a pleasure meeting the teammates I have.  Check out RaceMenu at www.RaceMenu.com.

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