Thursday, 26 November 2015

#144 If a picture is worth a thousand words, a marathon is worth at least twice that!

The amazing thing about the marathon is that every race has a story. Every runner experiences something that no one else can truly understand. It's a totally unique journey that can never be repeated. 42.2K/26.2 miles covered running is the equivalent of a small lifetime, often including its very own near-death experience. Shorter races tend to be predictable but the marathon is special. You truly never know what you're going to get.

Here is my recap of the 2015 Philadelphia Marathon. This is my version. My story.

It starts early on Friday morning. I was up and out the door at 6am. Toronto is such a beautiful place without the traffic. An hour later, I and my fellow charges (five in total) were packed into our trusty VW Jetta and on our way out of town. Some nine hours later we rolled into Philly. Not much to say about the trip other than it was absolutely stunning at times. America is such a beautiful place. It's a real shame about the people Haha

It was just after 4pm when we found the best parking spot in all of Philly (luck was on our side). We checked into our Airbnb in the Fairmount neighborhood which would turn out to be an ideal place to be. We opted to walk the two or so miles to the expo which allowed us to stretch our legs and get a first impression of the city. The expo was rather basic and unworthy of praise. After considerable internal turmoil, I decided not to buy the coffee mug and instead drank the questionable beet juice that came in the race kit. Later we had a burger and beer at a place called Monk's.

Normally I would have run on Friday and taken Saturday completely off but due to all the driving and the trip to expo, I had to save my run for Saturday morning. It was a beauty of a day and I ran down to the river and to the start/finish area. I saw the Rocky steps but refused to run up them (I've seen the movie like once; I don't get the hype). Later a bunch of the Lungs gathered at a local diner for some ceremonial brunch (i.e. pancakes). I then spent the rest of the afternoon lazing about back at the Airbnb before we had dinner at a local Italian joint. It was BYOB. Dave (who was wineless) did not approve. In the evening, DC and I watched the new Bond film at a nearby cinema. I hate to say it but everyone else was right; it really wasn't that good. Daniel Craig was about as good as expected but the plot and particularly Christoph Waltz's character was underdeveloped and somewhat wasted (he could have been so much more evil). By the time we got back it was after 11 so I called it a night.

Sunday: Race day. My alarm went off at 5am but I had already been awake and stirring for an hour or so. There were six of us (including five running the marathon) staying at the Airbnb so getting ready, having breakfast and using the one bathroom was a bit comical. Fortunately it kept the atmosphere calm and everyone's level of stress (seemingly) low. We didn't leave our place until almost 6:30 which is crazy because the race was supposed to start at 7:00. It was only a 10 or so minute walk and luckily we arrived from the north side of the city so didn't have to deal with the 30+ minute security checks to get into the start area. The heightened level of security was however blatantly apparent which was also annoying because it meant it was harder (almost impossible in my case) to make a last minute pit-stop into the trees.

Once we passed security and joined the masses, I began to panic as the corral entrance was no where to be seen (apparently it was all the way at the back). After a few tense minutes, I saw an opportunity and we snuck through a security fence and into one of the slower corrals. I/we aggressively then made our way toward the front with what was only a few minutes before the start. Little did we know that the race would ultimately be delayed by about 15 minutes due to 'traffic' issues which apparently turned out to be a potential terrorist plot (Apparently ISIS left their SUV parked on one of the streets). I'll also mention that although I could have technically accessed to very first "GOLD" corral (for elite and seeded athletes), I stubbornly refused to do it, opting instead to stay with a majority of my fellow Black Lungs. Once we finally did get underway (after singing both the American and French (?!?) national anthems), and only after it was too late, did I discover that the gold corral actually starts and gets a 10-20 second "head start" before the rest of us are allowed to go. Dumb.

So here I am, not even 1K into the race, running with all the idiots who have gone out way too fast and chasing after a bunch of runners who I should be running WITH. Given all the commotion, mile 1 goes by relatively quickly but the clock tells me I'm about 20 seconds off my goal pace. Not a good start. A short time later, the second mile goes by and its clock now suggests I'm a full minute off my time. What the hell is going on? I more or less panic and also realize it's time to take some fuel. I have two packs of Clif Bloks energy chews stuffed in the back of my (zippered) Nike short shorts and plan to take a single chew every two miles up to the 20M mark (10 in total; the equivalent of about three gels). I fidget with my shorts, grab a chew and cautiously chew it up and choke it down (not an easy task by any means). A minute or so later, a friend of mine (Francois who is running the half) comes up behind me and notifies me that a bunch of my chews fell out of my shorts awhile back. I reach to my pocket and discover it is completely empty. I won't lie, at this point (less than 5K into the race), I consider throwing in the towel. I'm annoyed, angry and feeling somewhat helpless.

I keep running and find myself mostly alone. Mile 3 goes by and I'm surprised to see I am exactly on (6:00) pace. Mile 2 simply must have been off. I'm feeling pretty good now (the wind is still at our backs) and I also see a number of my teammates not too far ahead. Croker is clearly way ahead and for some reason is running in the middle of the road Haha Jake and Lovisek are running together with a large group. I tell myself that if I started in the proper corral, I would be running with them right now. Surprisingly, Darren is closest to me, running alone and seems to be struggling. I keep my pace steady and catch him at mile 5. I ask if everything is alright. A side stitch seems to be the cause of his unexpectedly slow start. Miles 6 and 7 takes us through the heart of the city. I can't help but notice that all the people lining the streets are there to cheer on someone who isn't me. It's almost as if I didn't exist at all. I wonder how long they have to wait before they'll see their runner (for the 5 or 10 seconds it takes for them to run by). Mile 8 comes with the first of two significant climbs and not surprising I pass a bunch of people on my way up. I note how much I love running up hills. Mile 9 is downhill. I'm not so good at that. The next hill comes in the 10th mile and it's even longer and more daunting than the first. Again, I climb it with relative ease maintaining a near steady pace. As we approach the 10 mile marker I once again come up and run along side Darren. We exchange a few words but once again, he opts against my company and leaves me in his dust (Don't worry I'm used to this). Mile 11 is again mostly downhill and heading toward mile 12 the wind in finally at our back (temporarily at least). At this point I note that Jake and Peter, running together, are not too far ahead. While not picking up my pace on purpose, I catch up to them around mile 12 (done in 1:12 bang on) and for the first time today, I am glad to be running with a group.

As we approach mile 13, I begin to anticipate a majority of the guys running just ahead or behind us will make their way to the finish of the half. However, much to my surprise we almost all veer left and continue on the marathon course. At least that means there will be people to chase! Mile 13 goes by and the clock reads 1:18. I remind my little group we are exactly on (my intended) pace. Unfortunately for the next (long) while, the course is set to follow Kelly Drive all the way to the final turnaround point at 20 miles or so. This means we will be running more or less into a stiff and unrelenting headwind.

I maintain my place near the front of the pack consisting of myself, Jake, Peter and two or three others. Although I know I should fall back and draft once in awhile, I am stubborn and want to keep us right on pace (I also really like to see my feet at all times). We continue to click off 6 minute miles at 14, 15, 16 and 17. Just after 17M, we make a left turn over a bridge and momentarily get a break from the wind. A short out-and-back later however and we're right back to facing the somewhat infuriating NW-ish wind. It's also around this point that our little group once again catches up to our old pal Darren (for me, the third time today). Seeing him struggle to keep pace, I insist he tuck in and draft off our group. After some resistance, he finally falls in line and moves to the back of the group. A part of me thinks that's the last I/we will see of him today.

Mile 18 and 19 slowly pass by. We're still right on pace but it's now starting to feel harder. Having taken no fuel up to this point (other than a half-assed attempt at a terrible tasting gel around 19K), I begin to worry that I am indeed running out of gas. My mind sets itself on reaching the turnaround point and finally being done with the nasty wind. When we finally reach it (still running as a group), the relief at no longer running into the wind is quickly replaced with sadness as Peter almost immediately makes a move and runs off ahead. Without any word of warning, Jake follows suit and in a matter of minutes I am suddenly running entirely alone. I was really going to miss those guys. To make matters worse, I reached the 20M marker only to see that I am no longer on (6:00/M) pace. Things are slowly going south and I still have 10K to go. The real "race" has only just begun.

I came into this race confident I could run 2:37. To be perfectly honest, I was certain I would do it. Hell, I even convinced myself it would be easy. I knew I wasn't the fastest guy in my group and my training had been admittedly inconsistent but after running seven marathons, the last six of which were well under 2:40, doing that again was the least of what I came here to do. I had imagined much more from myself today.

And yet with fives miles still to go, some of them downhill and with wind at my back, I found myself not so much hitting the wall as running on a dangerously low and insufficient amount of fumes. I shouldn't have been surprised but around 22 miles, I became aware of someone closing in behind me. Closing fast. It would be the first person to pass me in what seemed the whole race. I turned to see him go by. Completely to my surprise it was Darren. After catching and passing him three times in the previous 35K, he got the last laugh. I still can't fathom how he did it but somehow he had fought back from what seemed certain death and was now flying ahead of me and into the distance. I was able to watch as he slowly but surely got closer and closer to Jake off in the distance. Only later would I learn of their epic battle for the finish.

I passed mile 23 and knew there was just over 5K to go. I tried to avoid it but the mental math told me that even running under 2:40 was becoming less and less likely. As much as I tried, there was nothing I could do. I had nothing left to give.

Passing mile 24 meant 3K or so remaining. This is where I think I remember seeing Dave Clark. I felt bad that I didn't have a smile or something sarcastic to say.

Finally mile 25. The final full mile. The finish was not far away now. I wanted to give everything I had left but seemed to come up tragically short. And why was I again running into the wind?

Mile 26. A downhill finish. Crowds that I could neither see nor hear at this point indicated that I was not far from that glorious moment when I could finally stop moving. 2:37:2X. I had 90 seconds. How far was 0.2 miles? I still didn't know if I would make it. My hands and legs suddenly began to go numb. The prickly "pins and needles-like" feeling moved toward the centre of my body. I wondered if something terrible was about to happen. I don't think I would mind if it did. I also felt as if I was moving faster again but wasn't sure. Finally I could see the finish line. I looked toward the clock but it was too blurry. A few more agonizing metres. A few more seconds. Then I saw it. 2:39:3X. It wasn't far now. I was going to do it. I was going to get under. It was going to be okay.

I missed by goal by about two minutes. That really doesn't matter now. There will be another race. Another opportunity. Another reason to run and train. Perhaps this is taking the easy way out, but for the first time in eight attempts, I really didn't care about my result. Instead I was far more happy and excited to hear just how well my friends and teammates had done. Croker ran 2:34! Lovisek stayed right on pace and ran 2:37. Jake and Darren had fought til the end and came within seconds of one another, 2:38 each. Eric Bang, a Black Lung by association broke 2:30, not that there was any doubt of it. Incredible stuff this. Later I would learn that Doyle was just a minute behind me. He would have got me if the race were a bit longer. Lockwood ran 2:45 for a PB. Cameron took almost 10 minutes off his previous best running 2:49. Simion missed his by less than 15 seconds; 2:51. Landry PBed with 2:53. Campbell struggled, was forced to walk at times but still managed a 2:56. Not bad for a 55 year old! Kelly and Anne came in more or less together in 3:06. Kelly missed her best time by seconds and for Anne, it was her first age 50! There were others we knew running as well: Brittany, 2:47; Laura, 2:58; Gina, 3:01 as well as many others. The Toronto running community was well represented on this day. Everyone will have a story.

Increasing cold and on the verge of total leg cramps, I stumbled back to the Airbnb, alone and somewhat emotional. In a few hours I would feel totally fine again, aided by burgers and a few too many beers. We would celebrate and share our stories all day Sunday.

Monday was another beautiful day which was good for driving (aside from the blizzard in Buffalo. The 10 or so hours it took to get home seemed like nothing compared to the 2:39:37 from the day before. Still though, I was exhausted.

On Tuesday morning I returned to work, was congratulated by my colleagues and chatted briefly about the race. I began going through the pile of emails that had accumulated after a four-day weekend. After getting about half-way through I took a second to "check in" on social media. The first thing I saw was a message from Hidds: "Sorry to pass on this news. Anthony passed in the early hours this morning..." That's as far as I got before I lost control and broke down.

I'm not really sure how to end this blog. Most of you will have stopped reading by now...

Without trying to sound profound or pretend to know what I'm talking about, running and racing is something I do for myself. It's selfish, stupid and silly at times and also really strenuous and stressful. But it's also something I honestly feel that I need and couldn't live without. It's become part of who I am, Running is also something I choose to do with others and is truly better with others. Without them, it just wouldn't be the same. It certainly wouldn't be as worthwhile. A race is only a race when there's competition. In many ways, I am the person I am today because of the people I have and have had in my life. My life is better because of each and every one of them and because of the time we spend together and the memories made. The Black Lungs are my family. Davey was part of that family. He left us too soon. We're sure as hell gunna miss him.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

#143 Steel City Satisfaction

Pittsburgh Marathon Race Recap

Sometimes the best races we run are not necessarily our fastest. This was absolutely true of my experience Sunday at the Pittsburgh Marathon running 2:37:23

All things considered, I can confidently say that this effort and outcome were the 100% best I could have accomplished and there are few things in life as truly satisfying as that.

Like any marathon, this one had it's fair share of ups and downs, quite literally in fact. The Pittsburgh course is without a doubt the toughest I have encountered and presented us with relentless rolling hills and a few significant climbs and descents. This made the course extremely engaging and interesting but also immensely challenging, both mentally and physically. 

Oddly, it was the first 10K that felt the most uncomfortable and created the most doubt in my mind as to how the day would go. In a race as long as 42.2K, you shouldn't expect to feel good all or even most of the time. Inevitably things can and do go wrong. However, feeling off so early into the race was not at all expected and was honestly enough for me to even consider dropping out (a thought I'm sure most marathoners experience at least once every race). 

Luckily however around 15K, I began feeling better, settled in at a comfortable effort and focused my attention on just getting to the half. This meant first having to tackle the course's most grueling climb which began abruptly at 18K and continued for another two, rising some 70m in that span. The halfway point came soon after and my time of 1:19:10 was almost exactly what I had set out to do, albeit was supposed to feel a lot better.

The next 10K, from the halfway mark to about 20M/32K, are always among the most mentally challenging in the entire race given how much of the race is still left and how far there is to go. The miles seemed to get longer which was seemingly made worse by a lack of fellow competitors, sparse crowds/support in most sections, the continuing and never ending undulating hills and a rising sun radiating down as I ran almost entirely alone.

PROOF that I ran the race in Pittsburgh. Thanks MarathonFoto! #HeelStriker
With the arrival of 20 miles and only 10K left to go, I was still holding my mostly steady pace of 6:00 minute per mile and although it was definitely beginning to feel harder, I convinced myself that I was not really slowing down. A few more lonely and mostly downhill miles passed by and only after passing the 23 mile mark (37K) did I finally recognize and fully accept that I was going to achieve my goal. 

The last 3 miles seemed to crawl by and the finish seemed still so far away. With just over a mile to go I entered the shaded and sparsely supported downtown core and was soon able to see a steady stream of half marathoners in the distance indicating the end was near. I wasn't able to show it, but I was never more happy all day than to see the familiar face of fellow Black Lung and today's top cheerleader Anne Bryne shouting my name and cheering me on with but a few hundred meters to go. 

A few long seconds later, I made the last turn, saw the finish and gave everything I had left to get there. I crossed the line only vaguely noting the time of 2:37 something and was immediately overcome with an overwhelming and emotional sense of relief, joy and satisfaction.

The result is not my personal best but it is the absolute best I could do on the day. It was my first marathon in over a year and followed my most significant injury/setback to date which required a slow and at times uncertain comeback. This result is the successful product of doing many things right: the training, the taper, the carb-loading and also getting and being mentally engaged at the moment. It also required setting realistic expectations, goals and having a solid race plan. I did all of this and was rewarded with the race and the result that I deserved. For that, I am entirely satisfied.

I cannot however take all the credit. I am truly very fortunate to have a partner that is so supportive and encouraging (in her own unique way) but mostly just tolerates my misplaced and stubborn commitment to running and training. A massive shout-out must also go to my club and teammates, the Black Lungs, who I was fortunate to chase around for a majority of the training cycle and who provide the endless support and motivation to keep me striving to be better.

Next up is a well deserved period of rest and recovery. Following that, I hope to focus on improving my speed over shorter (5 and 10K) distances before again emphasizing endurance for the fall marathon cycle where I do intend to PB.

A few fun facts and figures:

- Strava and Garmin Connect data for you real running and racing nerds (like me)! 

- For only the second time ever, I ran a slight (~1 minute) negative split: Half - 1:19:10; Finish - 2:37:23. I've had my doubts it can be done, but with realistic goals, it does work!

- Like every marathon I've run, I attempted a completely new and untested fueling strategy. This time it was 2 packages of caffeinated Clif Shot Blocks (12 total): Two before then one every ~3K ending around 30K. Luckily it worked! No bonking and no hitting walls.

- 2:37:23 is both my fourth slowest but also fourth fastest effort over 42.2K (i.e my median marathon). It is also the sixth time I've run under 2:40 (technically under 2:38).

- I, along with many of my Black Lungs teammates, will be returning to Pennsylvania for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 22nd.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

#142 Another kick of the can

I haven't exactly tried to keep it a secret that I will be running the Pittsburgh Marathon this Sunday, May 3rd.

Am I ready? Mostly. Am I going to run fast? Maybe. Am I excited for the end of the marathon cycle? Absolutely!

Pittsburgh is said to be a great event overall with excellent organization, crowd support and which runs on a scenic but challenging course that includes several noteworthy hills.

This will be my seventh marathon but first in over a year (since Boston 2014). I don't exactly have a time goal in mind but honestly, will be a bit disappointed if I don't run around 2:40.

Despite what seemed like a long time recovering from last fall's hip/groin injury (and still occasionally being reminded of it), I was able to put in a fairly substantial training block that included running over 2,100K since the start of the year as well as four 100 mile (161K) weeks, averaging almost 140K/week during the peak marathon build. My speed is certainly not where I'd like it to be or where it's been in the past, but my endurance should be and is hopefully enough to carry me through.

Given that I was training specifically for the Ottawa Marathon on May 24th, you might wonder why the change to Pittsburgh. Essentially it's because 1) after running relatively well at Around the Bay in late March, I felt that eight additional weeks of training was simply too much especially with my fitness finally coming around (peaking perhaps?) 2) Most of my Black Lungs teammates ran Boston last Monday (where they were wicked fast) and are now in recovery mode. I wanted to mitigate the time between our respective races so we can be more or less on the same page when the fall cycle (Philadelphia) begins. Finally 3) I will be working non-stop at the #TORW2015 race expo from Thursday to Saturday which means long days on my feet and having to be mentally engaged almost constantly. This is both physically and mentally draining and a pretty legitimate excuse for a poor marathon performance if you ask me. I do however still plan to play some role in Ottawa on race day either pacing the full or half and will definitely be cheering on my Black Lungs teammates.

So ya, Pittsburgh in five days. Let's see how that goes.