Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Harrisburg Marathon

The Harrisburg Marathon was this past Sunday and I had planned on it being my last long race of the year. My niece, Laura Kanagy, was running it in an attempt to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This was her third marathon. I ran Philadelphia with her in 2008 and then ran Harrisburg with her last year, along with another niece, who was running her first. Laura ran a 3:45 at Philly and I knew she had a good time in her, after that one. I just wasn't sure she would ever make running Boston a goal.

She finally made the commitment and put Harrisburg on her schedule so I said I would join her. I find it hard to turn down any run with good company. As the day approached, it was looking to be nearly perfect weather, 40 to 50 degrees and overcast. They were calling for about a 10mph breeze by the end, and we definitely felt it, but it wasn't too bad. We both drove into town the morning of the race and met an hour before the start. We registered, got a little warmup jog in, and lined up. The horn sounded and we were off.

The Harrisburg course starts and ends on City Island, an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, and the first few miles take you over the bridge and through downtown Harrisburg. Then the course offers a little bit of dirt trail before crossing back over to City Island for a loop and then back out to the north side of town. Many miles of the course are on paved path right beside the river. We were aiming for about a 7:55 per mile pace, which would get us to the finish in under 3:30. Her qualifying time for 2013 will be 3:35, and I wanted to try to get her there five minutes under that.

Our first miles were in the 7:45 range, and I was a little concerned that we were starting too fast, but I also was interested in banking a little time. She was trying to run faster and I had to hold her back. Marathon pace is always so easy those first few miles that it is difficult to be disciplined. Our pace gradually increased a little as we got close to the halfway point. She was running really well, but I have seen people blow up after the halfway point, so I felt cautiously optimistic.

The Harrisburg course is fairly flat except for miles 18-20. The course follows a rolling paved path through the woods at this point. The hills are short but kind of steep so they get your legs just at the point of the race when it is becoming hard. It was here that I started to see her struggle a little bit. I had to "stretch the rubber band" a little to keep her moving. I tried to keep slightly in front of her to pull her along because she was definitely slowing. We made it through the trail, however, without losing too much time (the three miles were in the 8:00 to 8:05 range). I stopped at a portapot as we left the trail and discovered when I came out that she must have put the hammer down. I finally caught her but she was moving really well again. We were down in the 7:45 to 7:50 range. We started scoping out people to catch, caught up with them, and then chose a new victim. This worked quite well.

I did not tell her where we were, time-wise, those last 7 miles and she didn't ask. I figured I would just keep trying to pull her along at 7:55 as long as I could. We headed down by the river again for the last few miles and she was definitely struggling. Miles 25 and 26 were up above 8:10. When you can see City Island again, it is still a deceptively long way off, and seems to take awhile to get there. It is mentally a tough spot on the course. When we got within half a mile, however, Laura put the hammer down again, and we surged to the finish in 3:28 and change.

Laura ran well this day and definitely put in a gritty performance. After struggling a little through miles 18-20, she turned it on and put in really good miles at a time when most people are really slowing down. We passed a lot of people in those last five miles, including relay runners.

This was an excellent way to spend a quality three and a half hours with my niece. I was just hoping that I would have the legs to keep up and not let her down. I've put a lot of miles on these legs this year (this was my ninth race of 25 or more miles since March) and my weekly mileage is always down in the fall. I've already ended up in a wheelchair after a slower race (Boston three years ago after a hard bonk) so I know I can't just take it for granted that I will be fine. The distance must be respected. This day I felt good. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, this was supposed to be my last long run of the year. Well, my brother convinced me to do one more 50 mile trail race in mid-December near Chattanooga. How could I turn that down?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tiadaghton Trail Half Marathon

The fall version of the Tiadaghton Trail Half Marathon was run on October 30 this year. I had run the spring version for the first time this year at the end of March and the trail was covered with 3 inches of snow. I was hoping to see what I could do on a dry version of the course and thought I should have good weather in October. So much for that. The day before the race an early season storm moved through the area and covered the course in 6-8 inches of snow. I wasn't sure how the driving would be, as I've got to go over a few mountain ranges to get to the trail, but I figured I would get up early in the morning and check the conditions.

I woke up in the morning and it hadn't snowed much at night so I decided to go for it. I did take the long way around so I wouldn't have to travel the back roads over the mountains. When I got there, it was actually about 10 degrees warmer (mid-30s) than in the spring so that was a good thing. For the fall race, they reverse the course direction, except for the last half mile, which includes 40 yards through a concrete spillway with 6 inches of water in it (they keep that part at the end, thankfully).

There were about 100 runners that started the race. Other than the 1/2 foot of snow, conditions were decent. We started off on a dirt road for about 1/4 mile before taking the trail into the woods. The first mile and a half of this race features some of the rockiest trail I have ever run on. The rocks are mostly the correct size to be ankle-breakers. I started onto the trail in second place and, after a stream crossing, the guy in front of me slowed down when he got to the rocks so I passed him. I am more confident on rocks after this year than before and have gotten to the point where I can actually pass people. I didn't expect to be in first at this point (or ever) but it somewhat energized me and I pushed it a little through the first few miles. About 4 guys stayed right on me until we hit the first aid station. I stopped to get a drink of water and they all went by me. The next half mile to mile was on a dirt road so I caught them again and we ran together on the road. Soon the trail ducked into the woods again and went downhill. I made a dash for the lead and pushed the descent. One guy stayed on my tail and the other ones were not as fast descenders.

The snow was deep and we were breaking new trail part of the time. I didn't necessarily want to be breaking the trail the whole time but it wasn't too much extra work (the snow was powdery) so I kept doing it. We got to another dirt road section and I started talking with the guy I was running with. He looked familiar to me and I knew I had seem him at other races. It turns out it was David Lister, who had just won the Megatransect a few weeks ago. We carried on a good conversation most of the rest of the way.

At one point, David tore down a steep descent that found me sliding on my butt on a number of occasions and I was not ready to keep up with him. I'd like to blame it on me being in my mid-40s and he in his mid-20s and I'm just not ready to take chances like I did at his age. In fact, I'll buy that argument. At the bottom, however, the trail made a "T" and he wasn't sure which way to go so he was still there when I arrived. I remembered the direction from the spring so we took off again. This inability to see trail markings was a problem at numerous places. The tree branches that were marked with marking tape were covered in snow or weighted down so that you couldn't see all of the markings. We got lost at one point and the two guys behind us caught up and none of us could find the trail. We spread out and wandered through the woods looking for it. We had a general idea of where it went, but we couldn't find it. Finally, the one guy found it at the top of the ridge, yelled to us, and took off. The rest of us got back on track and were chasing him.

David and I caught back up to him and followed him for a little and finally I decided I still felt good and I passed them both and went to the front again. After another downhill section through the trees, we were alone again. We got to the last aid station (3 miles to go) and I stopped for water again and he went flying past and put 50 yards on me before I started again. I kept him in sight for awhile but when we got to the rocky part again, he was definitely putting some time on me. There is no doubt he is the better runner but I was just trying to keep it somewhat close. I went through the water spillway again (it was actually colder in the spring) and caught site of him as he turned to run through the finishing chute. I finished in second, a little over a minute behind.

I was very happy overall with how I ran. I haven't led a race in over 20 years so it was kind of cool to be in the front for about 9 miles. I felt good and had fun running and chatting with Lister. I love the course, even with the rocks, and even in the snow. I think I also like the half marathon distance on trails. It is a nice distance where you don't really have to worry too much about bonking and you can go pretty hard. I'll definitely be back to Tiadaghton. This stuff is just too much fun. I dislike asphalt more and more, with every race I run.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tussey mOUTaiNBACK 50 Mile Relay

This year, instead of participating in the 50 mile ultra version of this race on October 23, I chose once again to run in the relay portion. The Nittany Valley Running Club has been having a draft to pick relay teams (Draft Challenge Relay (DCR)) for this event for many years. It is a fun, competitive, atmosphere that really brings the club together. Everyone throws their name in the figurative hat, sends in a bio of race times and other information, and then captains are chosen and a draft night is held at a local watering hole. I had done this a few years ago when they ran with 7 person teams.

This year it was decided to run with 6 person teams. Unexpectedly, I got chosen as one of the captains (some of the faster runners were not participating this year) and had to take on the task of pouring over bios and choosing a team. Draft night came, we chose our teams, and then the teams got together and chose which legs they would run. The captains, of course, get stuck with the toughest legs, which this year was the leg 4/10 combination, two long uphill legs.

After the normal trash talk (although it seemed to be down a little this year), race day came and we were off to the woods. It is a beautiful course, mostly in Rothrock State Forest south of State College, and a beautiful time of year to be running. It is almost all on dirt roads in the woods. Our team was doing well and running about fourth out of 10 teams for most of the race. I felt fairly good on leg 4 and managed to pass a couple other captains on the climb.

Then tragedy struck. As we were traveling in the van to the leg 9 transition zone, we passed the three other teams that were in front of us. The first place team had a sizable lead and their leg 8 runner, Ed Thompson was running well when we passed him. As we waited at the transition zone, Ed was not the first runner to show up. The other teams started to come in and they brought word that Ed had fallen by the side of the road and there were people trying to help him. We did not know what this meant at the time, but since there was nothing we could do about it, we did what we could, which was to keep running.

I didn't feel quite as strong on leg 10 but held my own, I guess, and then our leg 11 and 12 runners finished strong and I believe we ended up in fourth place amongst the DCR teams. Afterwards we were waiting at the finish line, watching the other teams finish, when the word came that Ed had a heart attack and had died. We were all stunned by the news. He was having fun and had looked so good not very long ago. The joy of the run and the competition was now tempered by sadness.

The emails were flying around, especially amongst the captains, about what to do with the situation and the appropriate way to handle the team results and how best to memorialize Ed. A number of the teams had to forfeit because runners couldn't get through as the ambulance had blocked the road for awhile. I disagreed somewhat with the prevailing opinion that we shouldn't publish the results on the club web site and all the teams should forfeit and we shouldn't compile stats (there is always weeks of rehashing the results). I think there is an appropriate time to mourn but then I think we need to get on with life. That is how I would want it to be for everyone else if it was me lying by the side of the road. I wrote the following email and sent it to the captains. I spent a lot of time editing it because I certainly didn't want to be dismissive of the tragedy.

I will go along with whatever the group wants to do. Yesterday was tragic and I think it is appropriate to somehow memorialize Ed. I do like what Mike is willing to do on the Tussey web site with the memorial to Ed. I do agree that we shouldn't be concerned with winners or losers or order of finish, given what happened. I like Tom's idea about not listing the results on the NVRC web site but just listing the teams and a memoriam to Ed. I'm not sure, however, that we should try to wipe away everything about the day.
Given my family history, I wouldn't be too surprised if I would die someday out on a run. I tend to think that running will increase the quantity and quality of my life, but I understand that there are risks. Quite frankly, I can't think of many better ways to go, doing something that I enjoy. If that happens, feel free to have a memorial but don't let it get in the way of living and enjoying life. I really won't care anymore. I would sooner that you take a run in the woods with some friends and breathe the air a little deeper and enjoy what you have left, including the rivalry and competition that makes you all smile and drives you to thrive. My father died this spring so I've had some time to ponder this stuff in the last half year, and I think he would agree with me. Celebrate life and the lives of those who have passed away, but don't stop living because of death.

I don't have the opportunity to run with you all every day and work some of this out so I don't know what all you talked about today. I really don't care about the DCR finishing order, or whether we all DNF or not, although I must admit that I was looking forward to all of you geeks cranking out the spreadsheets and the chitchat that would ensue. For me, yesterday started out as a beautiful day in the woods and ended up as a very sad, but still beautiful day in the woods. I did not know Ed and only chatted with him briefly, but I think he enjoyed being part of the event. 
I do think that an appropriate gesture would be to buy flowers on behalf of the NVRC for the funeral (or do something in lieu of flowers if the family has requested it). I would certainly be willing to put some money towards that. Again, I will defer to what the group wants to do and am okay with whatever you decide. I'm sorry about the rambling email and I certainly don't mean to lessen at all the magnitude of the tragedy that occurred. These are just some of my thoughts and what I would want you to do if it happened to me. 
It might be nice to organize a run from Colyer in the next few weeks, and run leg 9 and half of leg 8, out and back, and remember Ed and the joy of running.

We did indeed have that memorial run and it was nice. A few people had already arranged a memorial on the spot and it was a beautiful place in the woods. In the end, life goes on for the rest of us and we must carry on. We run with the memories of those who have gone on before us. We try to learn from them and remember them but we live with the realization that we can't outrun death. When it comes, a little spot in the woods on a run wouldn't be that bad.