Sunday, October 26, 2014

2014 Peak to Creek Marathon

Yesterday I ran the 2014 Peak to Creek Marathon, formerly known as the Ridge to Bridge Marathon. I signed up for this race a few months ago with the intention that it be my “comeback” distance race. I figured Peak to Creek was the optimal opportunity to test the waters and see how my back would react to so many hours of pounding because Peak to Creek is (1) primarily run on unpaved roads, (2) close to home, and (3) almost all downhill (2,800ft of elevation loss). To my mind this was a trifecta of good omens and I registered right away! I was further encouraged after I successfully ran The Scream! Half Marathon in July, which is essentially the middle chunk of the full marathon’s course.

Going in to the race I felt prepared. My back hasn’t really bothered me in a long time and all of my runs have been going great. I’ve been having some trouble with tendonitis in my left posterior tibial tendon, but it hurts more after I exercise or if i’ve been sitting for a long time than when I move (aka, I planned to ignore it all through the race and deal with the aftermath later). I had no time goals going into the race either. Mostly, I wanted to have fun and feel comfortable. Of course, races are more fun when you run them with a friend and one of my friends, Jeanine, planned to run at a 10min/mile pace. If I was feeling good, I hoped to keep up with her for as long as I could.

Starting Line
Joy. Nerves. Fanfare.
As I took stock of all the runners at the start line I noticed a few significant trends. There weren’t very many runners (I’d say 250 total), but pretty much everyone there looked like serious athletes. I also saw lots and lots of Boston gear. I only had to tune into a few conversations to confirm that the strategy of the day for a huge proportion of runners was to qualify for Boston. Apparently a downhill non-paved course is good for more than coming back from a back injury; it’s a good recipe for qualifying for Boston too! Almost without warning the crowd began surging forward (no countdown, no gun) and we were off!

Miles 1 to 5: In the Beginning
Bucolic. Surreal. Crisp.
Race day often doesn’t feel real to me. I’ve been waiting and waiting for it to come and when it finally arrives it’s difficult to switch over to the “it’s here!” mindset. For the first five miles Jeanine and I chatted and tried to soak in what was happening. As I took in the breathtaking views of fog burning off of the mountain tops, farmland vistas, and the purposeful gait of hundreds of runners moving towards a common goal I felt exhilarated and blessed. This was all greatly enhanced by the soundtrack I chose to be the epic background to my experience...the incomparable 2 Chainz.

Miles 6 to 10: I feel like I should see a fairy or unicorn or something
Panoramic. Breathtaking. Effortless.
I love when races have an out-and-back section that allows you to see the people at the very front of the pack. Peak to Creek offered a nice, long viewing of some of Western North Carolina’s best and fastest. This section also allowed Jeanine and I to witness a jolly Japanese man who was running Peak to Creek as his 675th (or some crazy number like that) marathon! As we passed by him on the out-and-back he held his camera up to us and said, “Say-ah cheese!” to which we happily obliged. Soon after, we turned off onto the road that would lead us on a solid downhill stretch for about eight miles. A logical race strategy would be to use the first eight miles of this race to warm up, run solidly but hold back just a tad on the downhill to save your quads, then tear it up for the last eleven miles of gently rolling hills. Race day excitement and adrenaline, however, overwhelm all logic and tell you to run like a zombie is chasing you!

Miles 11 to 15: And then there was downhill
Wonderland. Serpentine. Kaleidoscope.
Running downhill is waaaay fun! Especially if you are a slower runner like me. I never get to see splits like that on my GPS watch and I enjoyed every last tenth of a mile of it. My quads? Not so much. I tried to compensate by downing as much caffeine as I could handle. I always wear my hydration vest with a bladder full of water. I also usually carry an extra water bottle full of gatorade. This time I opted to fill my extra bottle with flat coke instead of gatorade and the strategy really paid off. I also opted for a Clif bar with caffeine in it as well as GUs with caffeine. Whenever my energy started to flagg the caffeine was like injecting a bit of NOS into my system.

Miles 16 to 20: Elevation loss doesn’t necessarily mean downhill
Cascades. Fishermen. Rock walls.
After running downhill for so long, having to run uphill (we’re talking teeny tiny, brief, almost nothing uphills) made me very, very grouchy. The sun had come out, lighting up the fall leaves into brilliant fiery colors and making the creek water sparkle like diamonds, but it also made me hot and even more cantankerous. I started cursing at rocks, out loud, just for being there. I also griped at every car that drove by and kicked up dust on the road. But anger is an emotion that is easier to harness into something useful than defeat, so I put my unfounded irrational energy to good use and pushed on.

Miles 21 to 25: I hate rocks, hills, sunshine, & camp fires, but most of all I hate trucks
Tunnel vision. Eye of the Tiger. Car dust.
I love 80% of races. For 80 percent of the race, no matter the distance,I feel great and am happy and enjoy myself. Then, I turn a corner, my mood bottoms out, and I swear I’ll never sign up for a race ever again. Telling myself I would only have two 5Ks left once I got to mile 20 sounded reasonable and doable when I was at mile 13, but at mile 22 I was telling myself I was an idiot, I was going to jump into the back of the next truck that passed by, and make the driver take me to the finish line so I could give the race director the finger. Keep in mind, NOTHING WAS WRONG. The course was still gorgeous, I didn't actually feel all that tired physically, I was keeping up a spectacular pace, and everyone I passed (especially the wonderful volunteers at the aid stations) were hospitable, friendly, happy, and helpful. I guess I just don’t react well to being mentally tired. I swear I’m polite and/or upbeat 99 percent of the time, but everyone’s entitled to some kind of rage and mine is “long distance runner’s rage.” Put that on a t-shirt!

Final Stretch: Oh, the humanity!
Cantankerous. Elation. Gratitude
When I passed the sign that said “Mile 25” a man was driving by. He leaned towards me out of his truck window and said, “That’s a good looking sign right there, right? Way to go!” He was so nice! But of course I was imagining where I wanted to shove that sign. Then, as I approached the finish area at Brown Mountain Beach Resort I looked down to see that they were already doing the awards ceremony! Those bastards! I started running faster.

As I careened around the corner towards the final stretch I was told I had to do a lap around the parking lot and couldn't take the nice, straight path to the finish chute. “Are you f*&k!3g kidding me?!” I yelled out loud to those very friendly and nice people. I hope they thought I was being funny. I begrudgingly took a left around the parking lot yelling “Move!” at anyone in my line of sight who put so much as a  pinky toe onto my race path. Spectators yelled “Way to go! Almost there! Looking good!” as I passed by. I responded by making the most murderous face I could manage and ignored them.

But then, there it was! The finish line! I threw myself across the timing pads and finished in a new PR time of 4:28. I did it! Months and months of work (well, fun) and I had reached my goal of completing another marathon pain free. I hobbled over to the side of the chute threatening to barf on anyone who didn’t get out of my way and laid myself out on the grass. In less than 3 minutes I was back to my normal, cheerful, ecstatic self and happily went to hang out with my friends and bask in the glory of the day. And don’t worry, I apologized to the people I cursed at.


Congratulations to everyone who ran the race this year, especially those of you who qualified for Boston or met a new personal goal. You are all great inspirations to me! And a special thanks and shout out to Jessica, the most awesome friend in the entire world, for making this day possible. 

Happy running!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

2014 Bethel Half Marathon


Do you have the means to travel to Canton, NC? Do you have legs, $35, and like awesome free stuff and delicious food? If you said “yes” to any of these questions then you should absolutely add the annual Bethel Half Marathon to your bucket list!

Finding a truly great half marathon is like finding your soul mate; you know it when you see it. As far as road half marathons are concerned, I think Bethel might be my soul mate. The race has been going on for over two decades, so the organization of this event is a well oiled, efficient machine. From the informational webpage, to registration, to information emails, to packet pick-up, the race organizers told me everything I needed to know when I needed to know it, and with a flair of Southern hospitality.

On race day, there was ample parking, REAL bathrooms, and runners were greeted with freshly brewed coffee, various breakfast breads, and a cheerful bunch of volunteers. Even more impressive was the “swag table” where I got to pick not just one, or two, or three, but 5+ pieces of swag gear from the very generous race sponsors. I’m not talking stickers; this swag table had t-shirts, hats, wallets, bags, and more.

And then there were the prizes! Everyone loves a trophy or a pint glass, but it is so much cooler and more meaningful when prizes come from the heart of a community. At Bethel, local artisans provided handmade jewelry, cutting boards, and ceramic candle holders (perfect for yourself or for re-gifting over the holidays) for all the fast people who earned age group prizes.

And the course itself was second to none for road races, complete with breathtaking views! Western North Carolina is a world class destination because of its scenic beauty and picturesque farmscapes. The community of Bethel is a perfect representation of all that is great about my home state, and as I ran the course I couldn't get over the eye candy I got to see (pictures cannot do it justice).

Of course, if you are reading this you probably want to know more about the elevation profile of the course, to which I can say it is accurately described as the flattest half marathon in WNC. There are some climbs, but nothing too crazy. I got my third fastest half finish which is AMAZING! I’d say it is a course to PR on for sure.


And then there is the after-race reception. Most half marathons provide finishers with beer,  but if you get out of WNC - which is a delicious micro-brew Mecca - races give you disgusting bullshit like Miller Lite. I’d rather suck on my sweaty shirt than drink a Miller Lite. But even though Bethel doesn't give you beer, it gives you something you probably need more, which is delicious food! They know what’s up and provide a  smorgasbord of soups (potato, chicken noodle, vegetable, or tomato), cookies, cupcakes, sweet breads, sweet tea, and Gatorade. Yum! I’ll take a congratulations, medal, smiling volunteer face, and bowl of piping hot soup over a big city name and a crappy beer ANY DAY!

Overall, the Bethel Half Marathon is probably THE BEST half marathon WNC has to offer. I encourage each and every person out there with legs to run this unbeatable race sometime in their life. You won’t regret it!

Happy Running!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Run for the Horses Ultramarathon Recap


Nine months ago I was suffering from a crippling back injury, sure I would never run again. But as of yesterday (September 20, 2014) I’m officially an ultra marathoner! Want to know how I did it? Keep reading…

When Latisha and Deanna first asked me if I was interested in running a 50k (31 mile) race with them, I said “No!” Or maybe it was, “Hell no!” But the more I learned about the Run for Horses 50k/50mile race, the more I was convinced that I was meant to run it. Not only was the race for a good cause (Hope for Horses works to to find quality homes for the many unwanted, neglected and abused horses in the WNC area) but the race was to be held at my beloved Biltmore Estate! I actually took horseback riding lessons on the estate for nearly 10 years back in the day and have many fond memories of that time. Not only that, but the race itself was for both horses and runners. We would all be traversing the same trails over the course of the day, providing me with plenty of opportunities to get my horse fix. So yes, I signed up!

But what about my back? Since coming back from my injury I have been very careful to stick to workouts that minimize damage, which means running just 2 days per week and Crossfitting the other days. But can you train for an ultra marathon on just 2 days of running per week? Apparently, I can! Even before my final, longest distance training run before the race (25 miles) I knew that I could finish the race with no pain, so I thankfully arrived on race day full of confidence and energy.

The Run for Horses 2014 attracted over 100 riders and 18 runners. Of us runners, 10 did the 50 miler and 8 of us did the 50k. I did the 50k which was a “two loop” course where we ran a 15.5 mile loop, ending at the start line where all of our gear was, followed by another 15.5 mile loop to the finish (aka, the start). My goals for the day, in order, were to (1) Have fun, (2) Finish. To ensure my success I had talked my wonderful friends Jessica and Misty into meeting me for the second loop to run with me and make sure I didn’t give up. I had prepared an exhaustive list of things to bring to the race, I knew I was well trained, and so I slept really well the night before the big day.

The race started promptly on time, and me, two great friends of mine from the Black Mountain Running Posse, and a new friend named Sean took off together. The weather was perfect for a long time, cool and breezy. Though I had worried about the directional signs for the race, the course was very well blazed and the aid stations were spread out in just the right increments.

The first loop of the course was GORGEOUS! I couldn’t get over it. I have been to the Biltmore Estate hundreds of times, but 80% of what I got to run for this race was brand new to me. I happily chatted away with Sean and Latisha as we cruised along, clicking off miles 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,....and then mile 10 happened. Our day went from being delightfully crisp and cool to sweltering hot in a manner of 30 minutes. I tried not to let it bother me though. I had prepared for this. My 25 mile training run had been brutally hot and I knew that trying to run through the heat was a recipe for nauseating disaster, so I let Sean run ahead and did what I needed to do to make it back to my half way checkpoint and pick up my “squad” of pacers (e.g., Jessica and Misty).

Have I ever mentioned how important it is to have supportive people around you when you run? If not, let me say now that having people you love there to support you through a race can be a make or break kind of deal. After inhaling watermelon and an Ensure waaaaay too fast at the halfway point, I relied on Jess and Misty to entertain me, motivate me, and keep me calm as I pushed through the all too common “cranky stomach” problems that are notorious for distance runners as we tackled the second loop. But lo and behold, after a few minutes/miles, a Sprite, and my angels (again, Jess and Misty) offering to hold my running vest, I started to feel myself again. Granted, the sun was still a-blazin’ in the sky and making me curse the summer, I kept on moving.

The middle miles of the race, from 15-22 seemed to fly by, not because I was moving quickly, but because I was trying to savor and really appreciate what was going on. Somewhere in this timeframe we caught back up to Sean and the four of us - Me, Sean, Misty, and Jessica - became a team of adventurers exploring the estate. Of course, soon after mile 23 both Sean and I began to fade. Where Sean was very stoic in his looming fatigue, I let my inner sailor come out.

I was glad there wasn’t an elevation map included in the original maps of this race because I was under the impression that it would be as flat as a pancake. The first loop (pre Jess and Misty) was “rolling,” but the second half was m@t%e$ f*#k!n hellaciously mountainous. At one point, with the sun beating down on me and my legs positively burning from exertion up a hill I turned to Jessica and said “I think i’m going to cry when I finish. No, scratch that, I think I might cry now.”  But Jessica knew me and empathized with my situation and was able to calm me down and help me rally.

I remember exactly when my GPS watch rolled over past the 26.2 mile mark. “This is the g@d&!mned furthest i’ve ever run!” I said, sailor mouth still on. “That finish line better be m@t%e$ f*#k!n close.” Waves of the desire to cry kept creeping up on me, but I tried to remind myself that I didn't actually feel that bad; I was just toddler-grade tired. Jessica encouraged me to keep my caffeine level up (which helped a lot!) and Misty kept me nice and distracted by initiating conversations about topics I LOVE to talk about (like Crossfit!). 

The hills became ever more frequent and brutal, so Sean and I made a pact to run on the flat and downhill sections, but to walk on the uphills, or if we were somewhere directly in the sun to save our energy. We pointed out cute dogs, cows, lambs, deer, grape vines, and the spectacular Biltmore House to one another, but  mostly I think we were beyond ready to be done. Around mile 29 (back in the full blast of the sun) I took a firm stance on walking but could tell that Sean still had some ultra shuffle left in him. Jess, Misty and I encouraged him to keep going. He couldn’t be bested by a girl! And I kept plugging along how I needed to finish the race.

It was Misty I think who made me realize that I was just prolonging the inevitable. I might feel tired and cranky and hot, but wouldn't it be better if I was tired and cranky and hot but moving faster? Yes! Somehow I managed to pick up my pace with a little help from my 2 Chainz Pandora station, and shuffle over the finish line.

Talk about surreal! But crossing that finish line surrounded by the people who knew from experience what I had gone through to make it to that point (Jessica, Misty, Pete) was so much more meaningful to me than a crowd of thousands of strangers could ever be! And no, I didn’t cry then (too much caffeine from my GUs!) but when I hugged Jessica and Misty later as I thanked them for coming, I really did have to choke down some major tears of gratitude!

My official finish time was 7:08:00 (6:45 moving and the rest spent taking memorable pictures and eating more junk food in one day than I have in the past year). This was good enough for a second place female finish! Granted, like I said before, there were very few runners on the course. Still, I bet if the weather would cooperate I could knock off an hour, and I seriously look forward to taking on that challenge!

Thank you so much to everyone who made this day one of the best and proudest moments of my life. I will remember and cherish you all forever!

Happy Running