2014 New York City Marathon

New York City, NY
November 2, 2014
2:43:42, 26.2 miles
164th (out of 50,564)

As a firm believer in breaching my comfort zone, I hold myself accountable for running one road marathon per year. It’s an opportunity to explore a new city and be reminded of what asphalt-induced leg trauma feels like. This year I had the privilege of joining 50,000 others in running the world’s largest marathon, the New York City Marathon.

Two years ago I threw my name into the NYC Marathon lottery but came up empty-handed. Later that year, presumably to avenge my misfortune, hurricane Sandy devastated the mid-Atlantic coast forcing organizers to cancel the race. Then last year I somehow managed a speedy personal best time (2:34:50) at the Eugene Marathon which, to my delight, qualified me for New York (i.e. allowing me to bypass the lottery). Since the qualification lasts only a year, to the Big Apple I went.

Though I tend toward trails, mountains and solitude, New York City offers none of these. And with a steep $260 entry fee (ten bucks per mile!) plus travel and other costs, I felt conflicted about the price tag. That said, I can now attest that a foot tour of NYC’s five boroughs through a more than a million screaming, cheering spectators while chasing the world’s fastest marathoners is an incredibly unique experience and, quite frankly, ought to be up there on any runner’s bucket list.

Coming off a hundred miler just seven weeks prior, I knew my NYC Marathon training would be less than ideal. A personal best would be out of reach no matter how great a day I had. So to make the trip more meaningful, I raised funds for the Ocular Melanoma Foundation, a cause close to my heart ever since my mom passed away from the disease a decade ago. Ocular melanoma is relatively uncommon (6 people per million) but no more understood and certainly no less deadly than the many forms of cancer that kill half a million Americans each year.

An accomplished runner in her own right, my mom ran without vision in her right eye; surgeons had removed it when she was first diagnosed at age 27. Thus I vowed to run the race “half blind” (with a patch over my right eye) if enough donors chipped in. My uncle Glenn, who had also registered for the marathon, agreed to do the same. Ultimately we raised over $2700 and easily surpassed my goal. Needless to say, I’d be half blind on race day. See the fundraiser here: https://www.crowdrise.com/halfblind

I stayed at Glenn’s house in Jersey the night before the race due to his convenient proximity to the city. On race day, a bus departing at 5:30 am drove us to the staging area on Staten Island. There we were briskly ushered from the warm bus out into the frigid, blustery November morning. Our next challenge was to figure out how to kill three hours until race start while trying to stay warm.

Staying warm before the race.

Staying warm before the race.

My qualifying time seeded me in the front-most corral, something I wasn’t exactly stoked about for fear of busting off the start line too fast and running the first half at an unsustainable pace. Having run a hundred-miler just seven weeks prior, I knew my inadequate marathon training wouldn’t favor my best performance. Windy conditions and the eye patch further reduced any pressure to “go for it,” so I set my sights on a 2:45—well off my personal best, but still a solid marathon time.

As we lined up in our corrals, an announcer introduced the elites who were standing just meters ahead of me: Gregory Mutai, Wilson Kipsang, Meb Keflezighi and others. These guys consider a 2:15 marathon to be a bad day. Then promptly at 9:40 am the blast of a howitzer signaled the start, sending us up the iconic Verrazano Bridge, a moment I’ll never forget.

One of the many, many corrals. (Photo: NYC Marathon)

One of the many, many corrals. (Photo: NYC Marathon)

The race begins over the Verrazzano Bridge. (Photo: NYC Marathon)

The race begins over the Verrazzano Bridge. (Photo: NYC Marathon)

The true ferocity of the wind became painfully evident as we crossed the bridge. Sporadic gusts exceeding 40 mph nearly knocked me off my feet while I dodged discarded hats and ponchos. I even spotted an unfortunate runner’s bib number as it whipped past me, destined for the ocean waters far below. Despite the elements, I think I enjoyed these conditions more than those around me, perhaps due to my time spent in the mountains or lack of lofty race day goals.

As I reached firm ground at the far end of the bridge, thousands of Brooklynites greeted me with wild cheers. Gusts continued to knock me around throughout the morning, so I simply kept my head down, eye to my feet, and hurtled through Brooklyn and Queens fueled by the unbridled energy only a fervent mass of New Yorkers could deliver.

At mile fifteen, the course bears west over the Queensboro Bridge where neither spectators nor cars are permitted. Runners plunge into eerie silence when they arrive, a stark contrast to earlier miles. For two miles I found myself alone with my thoughts. Naught but the rhythmic echo of shoes on pavement could be heard above the dull hum of omnipresent city noise. Suddenly a low roar welled from, quite literally, the light at the end of the tunnel. I made a hairpin turn and met head-on with a wall of wild cheers—cheers twice as loud as anything I’d heard in the first three boroughs. Welcome to Manhattan!

The last nine miles of the race were, quite frankly, a blur. With tiring legs and (still) half blind, I mollified my fear of a careless misstep by directing my full focus to the ten feet of asphalt in front of me. I held the steady 6:15 per mile pace I’d maintained thus far, a feat that propelled me past dozens of fading runners who’d gone out too hard and hit the wall. One hard right, then another, then I finished—quite simply as that—in a satisfying (and palindromic) time of 2:43:42.

Rockin' the eye patch. (Photo: MarathonFoto)

Rockin’ the eye patch. (Photo: MarathonFoto)

That night over a pint of Yuengling, Glenn and I recapped our experience. As far as road marathons go, New York City is hard to beat. Nowhere else will you find an event put on at that magnitude. Everything is immense: the number of runners, the size of the crowd, the city itself. Would I do it again? Absolutely, but I probably won’t. There are simply too many other events I’d like to run before I consider repeating one. But I encourage you—even the snootiest trail runners or apathetic non-runners among you—to partake in a big city marathon sometime in your life. And if you get into NYC, you won’t regret it.

2014 San Juan Solstice 50

Lake City, CO
June 21, 2014
8:48:59, 50 miles
2nd (out of 167)

“Legs feeling peppy?” asked Paul as we strode side-by-side up the dirt road, its smooth surface barely illuminated by the dull glow of an imminent solstice sunrise. “Yeah, I think so!” I replied. This was my third trip to Lake City to run the San Juan Solstice 50, and he knew how hard I’d been training.

After three quick miles, we reached the turn up Alpine Gulch—the first of three major climbs—and together we dropped to the first creek crossing. Without hesitation, Paul plunged into its icy current and, with a howl, pulled himself dripping wet onto the opposite bank. I jumped in after him and immediately found myself flailing as the strong flow threatened to drag me downstream. The heavy spring runoff had race organizers planning an alternate route due to high waters, and suddenly I could see why.

The route crossed the stream a dozen times more and at each one Paul slipped further ahead, his huge stride carrying him up and onward at an unmatchable clip. I picked my way cautiously through each icy stream, my legs cold and heavy, and as I gained the ridge and broke from the trees, he was out of sight.

Paul is, after all, my roommate, and though I ran a strong race (second place and 32 minutes quicker than last time), it was the tall, soft-spoken guy who crushed the course and, due to his humble nature, will never brag about it. So I’ll brag for him.

By Williams Creek Campground (mile 17) Paul had ten minutes on me, and by the time I reached the continental divide he had over twenty. By my standards I felt pretty damn good, but clearly Paul did too. Anyone else and I’d be on the hunt, planning my pursuit and strategizing, but in this case I wanted Paul to have a big day. He goes hard and when he’s hot, he’s untouchable, but those who hammer from the get-go are prone to implosion, and Paul had succumbed to an implosion in his previous race. Up on the divide I settled into my groove—no one ahead, no one behind—and simply ran my own race, occasionally wondering how things were unfolding for Paul up ahead.

Many miles on the continental divide. (Photo: David Eitemiller)

Many miles on the continental divide. (Photo: David Eitemiller)

Paul and I met at the Telluride Mountain Run last August where he appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and steamrolled the field, winning by over an hour. Unsure of his future and uncommitted to a life in Fort Collins, I convinced him to give Durango a try, and before long we were signing the lease for a townhome on Durango’s west side just a stone’s throw from the nearest trails.

For the last eight months I’ve gotten to know Paul beyond merely his tall, lanky stature and quiet disposition. He’s extremely smart and thoughtful, often caught foam-rolling his IT band on the living room floor with a book about Lewis and Clark or Genghis Kahn in hand. He’s inspired by landscape, concocting high-country routes with massive summit objectives—single-track be damned. He works incredibly hard, putting in forty-plus hour weeks in the dairy-frozen section of the local natural grocery. He routinely out-cooks, out-eats and out-sleeps me (probably why he easily out-runs me) and is mysteriously unpredictable, vanishing during his off days to knock out huge lines up in the mountains.

One thing I admire most about Paul is his old-school slant. No fancy watches. No Facebook. Shoes and socks with holes? No problem. At San Juan Solstice he charged off the line in a striped, cotton tank-top that he may have scavenged from a thrift shop floor for all I know, his hat reversed and blond locks flapping in the breeze. He gets after it without overthinking it, a “simpler-is-better” approach that I (and perhaps many of us) could benefit from.

After climbing the divide’s final roller, I descended into Slumgullion (mile 40) faster than I ever have. I always love how the air grows noticeably thick during this descent following hours of hypoxia; the throbbing headache subsides and the stomach gets back to work on that bar I ate fifteen miles ago. At the aid station I topped off my water bottle and laughed when my brother-in-law Matt mentioned that Paul rolled through over thirty minutes earlier. “Damn!” I pictured him now, grinding his way up to Vickers (mile 46) through dense stands of lush aspen, perhaps suffering immensely but never relenting or even conceding a hint of discomfort. Even if he had hyponatremia, giardia, gone way off course, and had a bear’s jaw clamped around his ankle I don’t think Paul would complain.

The Vickers climb is always a bit of a slap in the face, no matter how good one feels. While previously it nearly brought me to tears, this time I knew what to expect and stomped the climb proudly. I proceeded almost recklessly down the final descent, over the Gunnison River, up Lake City’s Silver Street and pushed strong through the finish line. But before I could even grab a beer, Paul was there to shake my hand and congratulate me; the Durango boys had swept one-two!

The Ham-boli one two.

The Ham-boli one two. (Photo: SJS50 Staff)

Paul is an incredibly gifted runner. He’s got a hell of an engine and can skitter across technical terrain quicker than most, especially for someone his height. It’s only a matter of time before he lands a sponsorship, and when he does, I’ll feel privileged having gotten to know him beforehand. He has inspired me to look at my own running objectives from a new perspective. Through all the data and stats and numbers and structure that can obfuscate the running experience, Paul reminds me the core reason why I run: it liberates.

And the fact that Paul finished just narrowly missed a sub- 8 hour finish in his longest race to date (third fastest time on the course and 40 minutes ahead of me), well, that’s just a kickass performance worthy of applause.

2014 Miwok 100K

Stinson Beach, CA
May 3, 2014
9:40:41, 62 miles
2nd (out of 358)

 

Last year I exhausted much of my travel budget to visit the French-Italian Alps where I ran the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Though I figured 2014 would need to be a year of close-to-home racing, my European experience left such an impression that I couldn’t resist signing up for at just one out-of-area ultramarathon, both as an excuse to explore new trails and mingle with another running community.

This year that race would be the Miwok 100K, a 62 mile tour of the Marin Peninsula just north of San Francisco. Miwok was first run in 1996 and, in eighteen years, has gained reputation as a “classic race” eliciting the likes of Anton Krupicka, Dakota Jones, Dave Mackay, Hal Koerner and other top talents. Nowadays, the allure of international competition and prize money elsewhere has reverted Miwok back to a low-key but still highly-regarded and well-organized event.

The race begins an hour before sunrise beside the Stinson Beach fire station where some 400 runners have gathered. Just before the gun I jog up a dark street, away from the masses, where I can hear waves lapping the shore as I draw deep breaths of thick, Pacific air, its salty taste a far cry from the thin, dry air back home. One-hundred kilometers is a strange distance and this will be my first go at it. Do I pace it like a 50 miler? Or perhaps it’s long enough to encounter the onset of some 100 miler symptoms? I finish my warm-up, rejoin the herd, and after a quick countdown we’re off.

We immediately funnel onto single-track and climb 2000 feet in just over three miles. I come into this race with a solid six week training block behind me feeling fit and more confident than usual, so I hammer the ascent to hang with the lead pack comprised of Gary Gellin, Chris Wehan and a third guy, all Californian runners who know these trails well. The four of us reach the ridge at dawn and cruise north along the esteemed Marin Coastal Trail. The ocean fog diffuses any hint of the rising sun, casting a flat light upon the sloped trail that commands acute focus and good balance while I do my best to keep the leaders in sight.

For ten miles we roll through mossy, old-growth Redwoods. Occasionally I catch a glimpse of the ocean through the massive trunks that line the soft fire trail; its vast blue expanse stretches as far as the eye can see. At the northern-most point, we drop steeply to the Randall Trailhead (mile 17) where we reverse, climb back up Randall and proceed south along the same route past all the oncoming runners. Gary and Chris hold a two minute lead and I am in a comfortable (if lonesome) third.

First Climb

Top of the first climb. (Credit: Glenn Tachiyama)

Marin Coastal Trail

Running the Marin Coastal Trail. (Credit: Glenn Tachiyama)

I reach Cardiac Hill (mile 27) still just a minute or two behind Gary (Chris has bailed, leaving me in second place) but already I sense difficulty. My hip flexors and glutes have grown tight and I’m unable to drop the descent to Muir Beach as quick as I’m capable. My stomach feels fine and I’ve stayed on top of my calories. It’s early; perhaps these are symptoms of dehydration? At Muir Beach (mile 32) I consume copious amounts of salt and water but still struggle to find a comfortable rhythm. Ultimately I admit I probably pushed the first two climbs too hard and now I’ll pay the price as I grind out the second half of the course on nagging legs.

Miwok contains seven prominent climbs ranging from 800 to 1800 feet. All are steep but runnable and five of them are encountered on the back half of the course. From Muir Beach (mile 32) to Tennessee Valley (mile 37) to Rodeo Valley (mile 42) back to Tennessee Valley (mile 49) back to Muir Beach (mile 54) I make my way over the hills trying my best to enjoy the panoramic views of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean. Gary’s lead grows so I revise my goal to hold on to second. Tightness spreads through my quads, knees and calves as I descend to Muir Beach for the second time, but the cruelest climb, a 1500 foot grind back up Cardiac Hill at mile 57, still awaits.

Pirate's Cove

Running above Pirate’s Cove. (Credit: Glenn Tachiyama)

I take a moment at the aid station to fuel up and stretch out for the final eight miles, knowing I’m comfortably in second place. Wrong! As I wash down a hummus-filled tortilla and screw the lid on my handheld bottle, Jean Pommier jogs down the trail. He’s in third place, but soon I’m about to be. Oh shit! Seeing him ignites a fire beneath me and I haul ass up the road toward the final climb.

Sometimes no amount of water, salt, food or stretching has quite the same effect as the sudden realization that the race is yours to lose. Thank you, Jean, for surprising me and activating my fight-or-flight reserves. I alternate between power-hike and power-shuffle up Cardiac Hill glancing far too often over my shoulder to convince myself that I can hold Jean off. I crest the ridge, blow through the final aid station, and grit my teeth for the three mile drop to the Stinson Beach finish line while trying very hard not to eat it on one of many ugly flights of railroad-tie stairs during the descent. Amazingly, it works. I finish second in 9:40:41, a solid 40 minutes behind Gary but just three minutes ahead of Jean (who later admits he was more concerned about fourth place who was just minutes behind him).

Pace-wise running 100 kilometers is much like running 50 miles, but lends itself to the tenacious runner rather than the swift. One must push aside the desire to be done at mile 50 and tackle those last twelve miles with obstinacy. I never dug as deep as 100 miles often requires, but the Miwok 100K provides a worthy challenge nonetheless.

Thanks to Gary and Holly for being incredible hosts and providing accommodations in Mill Valley, and congrats to Gary on his victory! Finally, thanks to Tia Boddington (the race director) and all the amazing volunteers for putting on a superb event. To my Rocky Mountain cohorts: if you need an excuse to escape our crazy Colorado spring weather, visit Marin and run Miwok; you won’t regret it.

 

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