Friday, June 19, 2015

Eating Humble Pie - Watchung Spring Marathon

This entry will describe how a race will fall apart and that I should be prepared for anything and I should respond properly to what is thrown at me during a race and basically, to not be stupid.
Shortly after Bear Mountain, I saw a post on Facebook from NJ Trail Series (they put on the Febapple race in February that I won) that there were plenty of entries left into their Watchung Spring race series and especially the marathon distance and that there would be prize money to the top-3 male and female winners. Since they hadn't finalized the date of the race until Spring, I didn't realize this race was open and figured I could use my free entry prize for winning the Febapple 50K and parlay that into a top-3 finish and prize money at this race. Obviously, I knew placing top-3 was all about who shows up to the race. If fast people show up, my chances are very low. I can only run as fast as my fastest while those much faster than me can only do something stupid and drop out for me to beat them. But I was hopeful that not that many fast people would show up and worst case, I get in a good training run at race effort.

My running following Bear Mountain was inconsistent since I wanted to make certain I wouldn't re-injure that meniscus. I only ran once the week after Bear Mountain for 6 miles. The week after that I ran 20 miles in 3 days as I was travelling to Poland for a short trip. Then I picked up my mileage to 50 miles the next week and I ran around 32 miles in the 6 days leading up to the race. Looking at the weather forecast, the temperatures were expected to be somewhat cooler than earlier in the week and rain was expected about 2 hours into the race. I ate a PB and Jelly sandwich about 90 minutes before the race. It felt a little humid that morning though and not as cool as the original forecast had said.
About 5 minutes before the race began it started to rain a little bit but then stopped. The course would be a 0.6 mile loop followed by 4x 10K (6.2 mile) loops and then one last 0.6 mile loop. At the start, four people ran ahead of me and I let that lead pack go. I ran comfortably hard on this roughly 1.2ish mile section of road before we went to the trail. My first mile was just below 7 minute miles. I knew this was not going to be possible to hold for the rest of the race and was ok slowing down once we hit the trails. Mile 2 was 8 minute miles and I hoped to hold that pace the rest of the race and finish around 3:30. However, about 3 miles into the race, I felt my right hip tightening up. It wasn't hurting but I was nervous it may start hurting and become a problem. I wasn't sure what I could do about it at this moment so I just went with it but wasn't pushing my pace. I had about half of my water by the time we hit mile 5 and the aid station and went right by it since the Start/Finish aid station was in another two miles. It was in this two mile section that I started to feel just a little overheated. I completed that first 10K loop and the mini loop in about 57 minutes.

Loop two saw me taking some walk breaks up some small hills and my pace slowed down. In fact, half-way through this loop the wheels started to fall off. Yes, I had slowed down a little earlier but at mile 10 and 11 (which included filling up my water bottle and taking electrolyte pills) my pace was about a 10 minute mile. I finished up the loop with an 8:40 mile and from there I was finished. The humidity had worn me down tremendously. My heart rate was staying high and I couldn't cool myself down unless I walked. When I tried to run I would feel sick.

I had debated those last two miles if I should drop down to the half-marathon distance since I knew some pain (not physical injury type pain) was forthcoming. However, I didn't want to have a DNF or drop down to mentally impact me during my Grand Slam races because I wanted some tough-it-out moments to help me in those situations if need be and if I could pull myself together, it would be a reminder to not give up unless it is a life-threatening or major injury type situation that would occur from continuing. Also, it would only be another 13 miles. I could find the will to suffer through that. The suffering began quite quickly. I basically walked a lot after the aid station at the Start/Finish. My pace slowed to a 12-minute mile and then a 13 minute mile and after a 10-minute mile downhill section, it went back up to average 16:30 for the next two miles. I nearly threw up upon getting to that middle aid station. I filled up my water bottle and drank a lot of it and poured the rest on my head, neck, legs, and wrists. Then I took a seat on the grass in the shade that the aid station provided. I stayed there a few minutes trying to cool down and regroup. A woman who I was playing leap frog with only because she was waiting on a runner behind her said, "only 2 more miles to go" to which I replied, "I have one more loop after this one". So I got up and struggled my way forward and again, debating dropping out.

To put in perspective the downfall, my first 10K loop was 52:35, the 2nd was 59:18, the 3rd was 90:16. What would the 4th be?! Well maybe it was a combination of slowing town tremendously and pouring water on myself and trying to stay cooler and maybe just knowing that this was the last loop, I picked up my pace as best I could and walked the uphills. I walked some flat sections too if I felt like I was overheating. I imagined getting some ice cream or iced coffee or tea after the race and how a cold shower would be phenomenal. Eventually, I caught up and passed some fellow marathoners that ran by me during my death loop. Looks like they were suffering now like I was then. I took my last electrolytes before the aid station and when I got there, I filled up my water bottle and cooled myself down and then refilled the bottle. At the aid station I chatted with another runner who I had just passed coming into the area. This was her first marathon and first trail race. She was suffering but still in good spirits because she knew she would finish. We ran out together but after maybe 0.2 miles, she couldn't keep up so I took off faster and told her I'll see her at the finish. I felt surprisingly good now. Not fresh but a lot better than earlier. My last two mile which included a long hill was abbot a 9:30 pace. I finished the race in 4:50 and was so glad to be done and get that bad race behind me. I may have had a shot at 3rd place had I had a good race, but given the humidity, it was highly unlikely. First place finished in 3:01, which was never a time I would be able to do. I guess the fast people showed up for this race.

After the race, I ate a lot of blueberries and strawberries from the aid station and chatted with the Race Director. Then I sat in the shade under a tree and waited for Juerg to finish the race. I then chatted with him a while, mostly about how terrible this race went for both of us and plans for the next couple of months and Leadville. Then it was tiem to go home. It finally rained at about 5PM and by the time I exited the subway it was a torrential downpour and I enjoyed every second of that.
So my thoughts on this race aren't so bad. We all have bad races now and then and this day was my turn. I feel you learn more from the really bad races than the great ones. The reason is you have to adjust so many things and work so hard physically and mentally to continue and not quit. It's not that you don't work hard and use mental strength as well for great races, but the positive feedback loop from a great race is easier to and more fun to handle. In the bad races, you just want them to end but the end is farther away than it would be if it were a good day. Also, you can use these terrible races as motivation during other races. If a down moment may be appearing, remind yourself of how you suffered and still survived and finished on a bad day when things may have been much worse. Finally, this was still a training race and I still am focused on completing the Grand Slam. So one bad day doesn't matter.

Later that week, I had the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge in Central Park (3.2 mile race) and ended running my fastest 5K (and 3.2 mile) race. I clocked in at 19:25 which is a 6:05 minute/mile pace. So things improved rather quickly following that terrible marathon. Now it's just a bunch of 100-mile Mountain races to take care of. . . .

A win, an injury, a recovery, a hope.

As usual, my plans of frequently updating this blog fell flat.  This year's winter was atrocious.  I had grand plans of taking the team I was coaching for the Bear Mountain races in May up to all of these various trails and have a fun season by bringing the trail experience to new people.  So let's start from where my last blog post ended.

Plan for 2015:
In my last post, I gave my possible race plan for the year.  Now all I had to do was train.  I decided that to make training more fun, I would see if I could recruit a bunch of people and friends from Team in Training to do a brand new event and season.  We would be the first team to train specifically for an ultra-marathon and also for a trail race.  Specifically, it would be a team to train for the North Face Endurance Challenge in Bear Mountain.  I had done the 50-miler there the prior 3 years and love this race.  My plan for our team was simple; set up training plans for all the race distances that are off erred for the race weekend (5K, 10K, 1/2 marathon, Marathon, 50K, 50-miler) and help people train and finish these very tough races.  One of the promises I made in the pitch was to (weather depending) get out to trails to train on at least twice a month.  Things started off well as we had a decent number of people interested and as they were all 1/2 marathon-marathon-ironman veterans (with the exception of one person), after a couple weeks we took our first trail running trip up to Van Cortlandt Park to start the new year.  The run went great and right after it finished and we were on the subway heading back south, it began to snow.  This was the beginning of the winter blues.  As everyone is aware, the Northeast had a terrible winter.  Trails were covered in snow and ice and more snow until April.  We tried a few times to get some runs in on the trails but each time we went, bad things happened.  These were all great learning experiences though. One of these actually turned out quite positive for me and another participant. 

A win - Febapple Frozen Fifty Feb 21st:
So some background before this quick race recap.  Beginning sometime in January I was experiencing some pain on the inside of my ankle.  It felt like some kind of tendinitis.  I would ice and rest a few days and it generally never bothered me too much.  It was just there and I did feel it more so after running and the following day but sometimes during the runs as well. In late January, I also started to get some pain in my right side deep in the groin.  It was a little pulling / pinch pain.  I also had some pain on the inside and below my knee.  It felt like IT Band pain but on the inside of the leg.  So I had these things going for me. . .  I would run and training was going well enough for the winter we were having.  I was getting my money's worth on the treadmill.  I took some additional days off when I would feel the pain and was not sure what to expect going into the Febapple race.  Race day was cold.  It read 8 degrees in the car before I got out to head to the start.  I was signed up for the 50K (really 30 miles) since I didn't think I was ready to do the 50-miler and I didn't want to run 50-miles in some possible bad conditions.  The course consisted of 10 mile loops made up of about a 4 mile loop and a roughly 6 mile lolly pop.  The race started out well and I ran with my UTMB housemate Eric.  He was flying down the snowy terrain (aside from one redirected portion onto a road, the entire course was blanketed in snow.  Most hard packed, other loose and annoying.  After about 2-3 miles, I passed him.  I didn't know who was ahead of me and didn't care.  My plan was to run my race and have a consistent run.  Walk the uphills and run everything else.  I barely drank any water that first loop.  I was basically playing leap frog with a couple people.  Usually they would run the uphills while I would hike them and then I would catch up on the flats and downhills. They went into their cars or stopped for aid at the end of the first 10-mile loop. I finished it in 1:28.  On to loop two.  I was getting a little warm so I unzipped my jacket and was taking in more water.  But loop two was more or less uneventful.  I kept up my same strategy.  I finished loop two in 1:32, not too much of a time difference.  On loop three I was happy this was my last loop.  I had no idea what place I was in.  I figured there had to be a couple people ahead of me.  There was one spot where you have a chance to see other people coming at you on that lolly pop stick part of the course but I don't know who is running which race since they have 10,20,30, and 50-miler races going on at the same time at that point.  So I continue to run and only really take a short break at the last aid station with about 3 miles to go.  I just stopped to refill my bottle and I chatted with the volunteers there (Otto Lam, Elaine Acosta - people I've seen at TGNY-100).   Then I was able to run well into the finish.  After I crossed the finish line I asked the race director who won.  He said "you".  I thought he was joking.  Apparently there was only one person ahead of me but he dropped down to the 20-mile after being hypothermic finishing that 2nd loop.  At the finish, I also saw one of my Bear Mt. teammates, Fabian.  This was his longest trail run and he placed 5th in the 20-miler (6th if you count the guy that dropped down from my race).  So TNT represented!  I felt pretty awesome for winning this race.  That made back-to-back trail running wins for me!  Let's not get too excited though. The only reason I am winning these races is because the real athletes are not running them. But, it's nice to come in first. 

An injury:
On the car ride home, I was stuck in traffic for a while.  It took 40 minutes to drive to the race but over 2 hours to get back.  That evening and the next day that part on my inside knee was killing me.  I decided that I had to see a doctor to get to the bottom of this pain.  It felt similar to the pain I had on my left leg following the Virgil Crest 100 in 2012.  I was able to see a doctor that Friday and took off from running until then.  By that time, all pain had subsided and I went there basically feeling fine.  The orthopedist told me I most likely just tweaked something and as long as I didn't have pain, I could run.  So two days later I tested out a short run and aside from that groin pain, I was ok.  About two weeks later I ended up running a marathon training run in Central Park and that evening and again the next couple of days I felt that knee pain.  Unfortunately, I had to wait almost two weeks to get a follow up appointment and was able to get an MRI.  The weekend before the MRI, I attempted a trail run in Staten Island with a teammate and at mile 8, the knee started to hurt and got much worse over the next mile.  I was pissed off but glad I had the MRI coming up.  The day before Easter/Passover weekend I got the result of the MRI and it said I had a Grade 2 medial meniscus tear.  The orthopedist said that it was good and bad news.  It was good that it wasn't a full tear but bad because with a partial tear, it's hard to know how quickly and if it will heal on its own.  So he prescribed me some PT sessions with people right by my work and they accepted my insurance.  The PT regimen was basically electrostimulation to my quad and calf, cold laser therapy, ultrasound therapy, and some stretching and strengthening.  I was also doing other strengthening exercises for my hips at home as well as a stretching routine. I was committed to taking time off from running until they said I could start up again.  After 1.5 weeks, the pain in the groin and knee was gone although the knee still felt weird.  The weather had improved and I was hoping I could get the ok to run so I could lead our team on the trails in Bear Mountain for a training run.  The PT said it would be ok so long as I didn't feel any pain.  So we went up to Bear Mountain and leading the team at a very easy pace for myself, I got the test to see if things improved.  Amazingly and happily, I never felt any pain.  We did 18.5 miles on the trails and every step I was just waiting to feel something that wasn't quite right but every step felt good.  Still, the test remained to see how I would feel that night and the next day.  Luckily, I felt ok and continued to ice, stretch, roll, strengthen and go to PT to continue the progress.  It was basically time to taper for the Bear Mountain 50-miler so I wouldn't get another chance to test how far I could go which I guess was a good thing because it is better to continue to give the knee the time it needed to heal and my leg to strengthen.  So the real test of progress would come on May 2nd for the 50-miler. 

A recovery:
I was a little nervous about the 50-miler for two reasons.  The first was the slight concern that I wasn't fully healed and that I would feel pain that would get worse throughout the race and not only would I have to drop from the race, but it would set me back again in my Grand Slam training.  The other concern was with what my current fitness would be like.  Even if I run by feel and I feel comfortable if I have lost a fair amount of fitness, I'll feel like garbage later and will slow down dramatically.  I can't do anything about these things until they happen though so I put those thoughts to the side and just get ready to run the race. 

So the race set up to be like any other except I did feel more comfortable this year than most before the race.  Having done the routine 3 times before, I borrow the van from my parents in Long Island, drive up Friday night and sleep in the back of the van before the race.  I set my alarm for 3:45AM and slept ok except for some periods where I had a bad feeling that the parking lot location for the shuttle bus to the race was changed to a different place from where I was parked.  I also had a weird dream about not being able to get to the start of the race and it involved some co-workers, family, and for some very bizarre reason, D.L. Hughley!  The alarm goes off and as usual it's pretty cold outside of my sleeping bag.  I get ready and changed quickly and head out around 4AM to get on the bus.  I eat a Pro-Bar Meal bar on the bus and get to the race village with about 45 minutes or so until the start of the race. 

I drop off my drop bags and I use the port-o-potty as soon as I arrive and then go into the food tent but I'm not hungry and just put in my contact lenses and put on my purple tutu.  I say hi to Susie and Karen who are basically the race volunteer directors and fellow runners.  I also see Juerg and Eric as well and we chat for a bit.  Before you know it, it's time to drop off my start/finish bag and then head to the start.  For some reason, I am not assigned Wave 1 once again.  They had nearly 500 people signed up for this race.  The last two years I placed around 35th and 45th place but for some reason, I don't go in Wave 1.  Out of four waves, I was in wave 3 last year and wave 2 this year.  They send off waves every minute so it doesn't really make a difference.  They blow the horn and my wave goes off.  We take off running pretty quickly as this is the easiest part of the race.  It's a way to separate from the field on flat and runnable terrain for about 1/10th of a mile.  Then we head downhill, go through an underpass and head uphill on very loose and rocky terrain.  This year, I run some of this before walking a little more.  The plan remains to run the flats and downhills and walk most of the uphills. 

The first aid station around mile 4 has our drop bags but I completely skip it.  I had barely had any sips from my water bottle.  This was a mistake.  First, I didn't take off the sniper scope (little flashlight attached to the water bottle with small bungee material a la David Snipes) so I would be running with that additional weight (albeit not that heavy) for 20 more miles.  Second, I placed my second water bottle in the drop bag there and didn't have one in my second drop bag.  So I committed myself to only 20 ounces of water between aid stations.  As the day got warmer and the length between some aid stations was 6 miles, I hurt my race by dehydrated myself early on and being forced to conserve instead of consume water.  Stupid rookie mistake made by me just being cocky I think. 

Everything continues fine to the next aid station.  I fill up on water and head out.  I would say about a mile or two afterwards, my stomach began to bother me.  I knew I should have some gels or some type of nutrition but I just felt nauseous and the thought of any calories made me feel like my stomach was too full and I would have to throw up.  So I didn't have anything except water.  I also felt like I was overheating.  So two miles into this 5.5 mile section, I was sucking down water and realized I'm going to be in trouble.  The only thing I could do was to slow down and I did so by a little. I got to the next aid station, drank nearly a full bottle of water and then refilled it up.  I still didn't eat anything.  The next section was 5.6 miles.  Soon after leaving this aid station I catch up to Hicham Hamsi who was having some issues as well such as a bad blister on the back of his ankle and also a knee injury he had been nursing.  So we run together with another person.  I wanted to chat with him as he was very talkative but when my stomach isn't feeling good, I really can't do anything but keep my head down/straight and keep moving forward.  After a few miles he moved ahead and I didn't catch up to him until the aid station but soon after that he was still going faster than I was capable of in my state so I just went on my own.  At most of the aid stations, I saw Yvonne and it was good to see a familiar face.  I saw her heading into Aid station #5 which is also aid station #6 because it is a 6 mile loop.  I told her my stomach wasn't doing well but she said I looked good.  I also saw Harald who was the aid station captained and he didn't recognize me at first.  I told him the same thing and he said "well, you know how it goes sometimes.  Just keep going and maybe it will get better".  All truth that I knew and hoped for.  So I go for this loop and I thought it was mostly flat and boring from what I remembered the year before.  It's actually a good amount of climbing the first mile or two and then heads back down before it gets a little more boring.  I did the loop and felt maybe slightly better at best. 

Now I had another 6 mile section to the next aid station.   I remember this section has the somewhat long uphill road that I was hoping to run prior to starting this race but I knew I would be walking it this time once again.  That was ok with me though because I was happy for the walk breaks.  While I did have some shot blocks at prior aid stations eventually, at the next aid station, I started to drink Mountain Dew to get some liquid calories in and I needed a boost.  The next section felt a little better and my stomach was on the mend but I was still a little tired.  By the time I got back to Anthony Wayne, I was happy because the race was nearly over.  Only about 9-10 miles to go, albeit some tough sections ahead.  About 1.5 miles into this section I wonder if or when I will see my teammates/participants running the 50K course.  I had been wondering about this for a while and thought either they would finish before me which would be great or maybe I would catch them closer to the finish.  As I'm running I see someone up ahead that looked like Meghan.  I finally catch up to her and I don't remember what I say to her but at this point, I knew my goal race was not going to happen and in all honesty, I was so happy to be pain free on the knee that my time didn't matter.  So I walked with Meghan who was having some major IT Band pain.  She was ok on uphills but downhills were tough.  It was like that for her for about half her race and only got worse as the day went on.  So we walked together until we got to the aid station before the climb up to Timp's Pass.  At this point, I felt great.  Sure, my legs were a little tired but my stomach wasn't bothering me which was key.  Timp's pass came and went and I was flying down the rocky side on the way to the final aid station.  However, a 50Ker pulled up with some major calf cramping and I stopped to see if he was ok and I gave him some Tums and told him he'll be ok.

At the final aid station, I fill up on water and head out, happy to be done soon.  With about 1 mile to go, I see Mary Harvey walking ahead and she sees me and I give her a hug.  She was doing great until rolling her ankle at about mile 17 (in the 50K) and had been walking most of the race since then.  Her walk speed was very impressive though. So I walk with her until we get to the underpass that leads to the parking lot about 200 meters or so from the finish.  Then I tell her I'm going to sprint it in and I run hard to the finish.  As I'm running in I hear a big cheer from the side where my teammates who finished the 50K were sitting.  I was shocked that I was able to finish in about 10:10.  The way my race was going I expected much closer to 11 hours if not over 11.  So given the circumstances with my lack of training since March and the possibility of the meniscus hurting, the race went great.  Still I had to see how the knee felt the next day.

On Sunday, I felt fine albeit it a little tired and had some soreness in my quads.  However, I decided to give the half-marathon a shot.  Since Aleks was injured and wasn't going to run the half, they allowed her to transfer the bib to me and if I felt ok, I would run the half.  We had 4 other people running the half but I was starting in the earlier wave so unless something went bad with my knee I most likely wouldn't see them until after the race.  Before the race started we took some pictures together.  Then it was time to race the half.

It was very odd running the half marathon after the 50-miler the day before.  I really felt the effects of the 50-miler on my legs.  Thankfully, there was no bad pain.  It all felt like the muscular pain one gets the day or two following a heavy weight lifting session for the first time in two months.  But they also felt tired. I couldn't really push it and I also felt like my heart rate climbed faster and I got tired fairly quickly.  I walked most hills while others ran up them and I couldn't tell if they were stupid and I'd see them later or if they would be able to handle that push uphill since it is just a half marathon.  What I did notice is that people were still very timid going down the rocky hills on the course.  This was most evident at the very rocky section following Timp's Pass.  However, getting back to the race itself, I was really happy to only be doing a half marathon that day.  Being worn out from the prior day, the one thing that kept me going was knowing the race would be over soon.  I was curious to see how the actual course was and even though they give out the course maps on-line, I never put two and two together to realize it's basically the first 4 miles an the last 9 miles of the 50-miler.  Once I made it to the Anthony Wayne aid station, I knew exactly what was coming up.  That doesn't physically make the race easier but I knew all the parts of this course now.  So I continued with my run/walk and passed a huge number of people on the Timp Pass section because they went out too hard and were trying to run up some of Timp Pass and were toasted from that attempt.  Again, everyone was very hesitant on that downhill mile of rocky terrain and I just blazed down it.  When I reached the last aid station, I stopped for about 2 minutes to chat with the people I knew who were volunteering there.  Then I took off and had a lot of fun that last section and saw Hicham near the top of the last hill and gave him a high five while asking why he wasn't running it but he had twisted his ankle badly on the 50-miler.  I ran comfortably towards the finish and got into a near sprint with someone and told them they better beat me since I did the 50-miler the day before.  I think I ended up winning that sprint.  I ended up finishing the half in 2:10 and was very happy with that result for a couple reasons.  First, no knee pain!  Second, I wasn't sure what kind of time I could do on that course if I was fresh but 2:10 the day after running the 50-miler sounds great to me! 

All in all it was a very productive and hopeful weekend following about 2 months of an injury.  So things were looking more positive for my Grand Slam hopes. 

In the week or two following the race, my right knee never felt the type of meniscus pain I had earlier, but I would say it didn't feel normal.  I signed up for a trail marathon on May 31st in Watchung with the hopes of placing top 3 and winning some prize money.  The next blog entry will show how things went from hopeful to humbling.