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A Montana Mountain Adventure Run

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

A few months ago, I made the decision to search out a fun marathon, requiring some traveling, to compete in during the month of July.  One of the challenges of marathoning is that I have most of my “free time” in the summers, but for much of the United States, the summer months tend to be on the hot side for long races.  One of the exceptions to this is our own regional Mad Marathon, held in Waitsfield, VT in early July, but I had already run that particular race a few years ago.   While running this race, I was introduced to the world of the “50 States Marathon Club” whose members seemed to have a heavy presence in this local race for just that reason.  So, I googled for “July Marathons” and found one that piqued my interest – the inaugural “Big Sky Marathon” in Ennis, Montana, on July 19, 2015.

The Big Sky Marathon is the younger sibling of the already established Madison Marathon, one of the toughest “road” marathons in the US, due to its challenging terrain and high altitude.  Sam, the race organizer, clearly a glutton for punishment, decided to follow up his established Madison Marathon with the Big Sky Marathon, on the very next day.  Wow.  The big difference between the two races is that the Madison Marathon starts and finishes at altitudes which might prove unrealistic for many runners recently arrived from lower altitudes, especially in light of its many climbs and descents, while the Big Sky Marathon, not lacking in its own challenges, is more “altitude friendly”, descending from high altitude (8500 ‘) to the valley floor at a much more reasonable altitude (5000′) over its duration, without any significant climbs.  I did not for a minute think that this race would be easy – but I can train for descents, not for altitude!

Reading through the web site for these races, it was apparent that Sam wanted a race which would appeal to two groups of runners – the aspiring 50-Staters, who might find the new marathon’s altitude profile less intimidating than the Madison,  and a group which I had never heard of before, the “Marathon Maniacs“, a running group which honors runners who complete large numbers of marathons in a short period of time, and who are particularly keen on running marathons on back-to-back days.  Ouch.  I counted myself among the former, not the latter.

So, looking forward to the upcoming adventure, I flew into Montana, rented a car, and spent two nights sleeping in a canvas tipi (hey – it was cheap!) in West Yellowstone, MT, acclimating, and enjoying Yellowstone for two days before the race.

Sunset Over the Teepees

Sunset Over the Teepees

 

Given that the race was mostly downhill, and I have had a lot of experience at altitude, I knew I could handle the “breathless” component of the moderately high altitudes where I would be running – Past experiences told me that I just had to never run hard enough that I was seriously out of breath (aka- no “going anaerobic”), which I wouldn’t do in a marathon anyways.   I was more concerned with hydration issues.  Most tourists don’t notice high altitude dehydration, as the most common repercussion,  especially in the dry, sunny climate of the Rockies in the summer, is that they get tipsy a little faster at cocktail hour.  Bearing in mind that I was running a marathon in two days, I was constantly drinking water as soon as I arrived, but it seemed like I was losing more than I was taking in.  There were other issues with this that arose during the race.

The town of Ennis, which serves as the headquarters for these races and as the finish line for the Big Sky Marathon is a cute little town about an hour northwest of West Yellowstone, located in the Madison River valley (apparently home to some of the best fly fishing in the country) between the Madison Mts. to the East (the range just to the west of Yellowstone Park, and home of the Big Sky Ski Area) and the Gravelly Mts to the west, where the race was held.  Ennis reminded me a lot of Jackson, WY in the 70’s before it got turned into a tourist trap and became surrounded by the summer homes of billionaires and Hollywood types.  It has a tiny little village with small shops, bars, and cafes, plenty of shade, and is a fringed by the less quaint sort of places where probably many of its inhabitants are actually employed.  I pulled into Ennis at 5 am on the morning of the race, and met up with the race organizers and other competitors at a gas station in town, where I realized how intimate a race I had gotten myself into.  Almost all the competitors took the school bus to the start line, and there couldn’t have been much more than 40 of us, and a few were doing the half marathon version rather than the full!

The bus ride to the start was the first adventure of the day, and followed the course of the race in reverse. Looking around the people on the bus,  it seemed like there were some real hard core runners, male and female, who looked the part that I expected for a race like this.  The other half, well they looked like me – fit marathon tourists, not necessarily that young in chronology while clearly young at heart.  This was the peer group I expected to find myself running with.  After the drive along the valley floor, the bus turned off and started to weave its way up the east flanks of the Gravelly Mts on rapidly deteriorating dirt roads, with pronghorn antelope scattering as the big yellow monstrosity approached.  At one particular point I remember noting a steep primitive road angling up the mountainside, and thinking “a school bus can’t make up that, can it?” And it did!

Finally after about an hour on the school bus, it screeched to a halt high at the starting point high on a mountain ridge, not too far from a few small snow banks, and the well-hydrated runners dashed out to relieve themselves, either in one of the two porta-potties brought to the start for the race (courtesy dictates that women, of course, get first dibs on these)  or on the above timberline wildflowers (for the men, out of necessity).

Porta Potties at Sunrise

Porta Potties at Sunrise

 

At 7:30 in the morning, after Sam sketched a start line in the dirt road, the race started with a short half mile climb up to the high point in the race.  Many of the runners started off very conservatively, walking this first ascent in light of the altitude, while others took off like they were shot from a cannon.  I started off this climb at a slow 10 minute mile pace, which pretty much put me in the middle of the pack as the participants spread themselves out almost immediately.

Scenery Near the Starting Line

Scenery Near the Starting Line

High Point of the Race

High Point of the Race

The scenery at this point was simply spectacular – Over the course of the first 10K of the race, the descents were pretty mellow, and we were running through wide-open alpine meadows and cattle grazing fields, where I could see the mountains of Montana in all directions, and other racers strung out thinly in front of me.  There seemed to be a lot of them in front of me!

Early Morning Madison Range Views

Early Morning Madison Range Views

Runners on Top of the World

Runners on Top of the World

The second 10K was the part that race guru Sam referred to as “the quad burner” section, where most of the 3500 ft descent transpired.  I usually feel steep descents in my glutes (butt!) more than my quads by the way.  This was an interesting part of the course, but knew would be one of my stronger sections given my Vermont trail running background.

Burning Quads and Glutes

Burning Quads and Glutes

At one point, I seemed to have set off a small stampede of the grazing Black Angus cattle grazing on the slopes of the mountains, but I suppose they weren’t running at me – they were probably running from whatever was chasing me!  I also noticed that without pushing things particularly hard, I started passing some people who had long been far in front of me – perhaps all the running in the Vermont trails was paying off?  I was clearly moving up through the pack, but I truly had no idea of “where I stood” in the race standings, given how spread out the runners were.  At the 13 mile point, at the end of the serious descent, a few of the runners in front of me called it day as half marathon competitors, and the second flat, easier part of the race through ranch land alongside the Madison River began.  Flat is easier, right?

The Madison River Valley

The Madison River Valley

It wasn’t.  Why?  HYDRATION!  While I felt well hydrated before the start, during the first half of the marathon, in the cool morning weather, descending, I drank water at about the same rate I would during a sea level marathon – a few ounces of water or Gatorade every two to three miles works just fine for me usually.  By the time I reached the valley floor, unbeknownst to me, I was starting to get seriously dehydrated.  I usually do my fastest running in the middle 1/3 of marathons, and while I did pick up the pace for a few miles to pass a few more competitors, by the time I reached the water station at mile 17 I could tell that I was in trouble.  I had to stop for a few minutes, and drink about a liter of water.  The water lost through normal running at the early altitudes, and the relentless sun (there isn’t much shade in this part of Montana- they don’t call it “Big Sky Country” for nothing!) in the cool temperatures had baked a lot of water out of me!  From this point until the end of the race I needed to drink about two more liters of water from the water stations, and walked far more frequently than I have ever done in a marathon in order to recover from the dehydration, as well as the descent which had taken a toll on my legs.  I ended up leapfrogging with another strong runner at this point, a gentleman somewhat younger than I for whom this was his hundredth marathon, before eventually pulling away a few miles from the finish line.  I was totally relieved to see the “Welcome to Ennis” sign a mile from the finish line, fighting leg and foot cramps, but determined to run the last mile without stopping.

Near the Finish!

Near the Finish!

Since this was such a small race, normal, but mellow traffic continued without any roads blocked off, so I brought it in to the finish line in a small park at the far side of the village, running on the sidewalks with encouragement from the few people who knew that there was a race finishing in their town.  The finish line was simple – a few orange traffic cones, and a few volunteers with a stopwatch.  My time made it my slowest marathon in a few years by about twenty minutes, which at first disappointed me.  As I gathered my wits at the finish line I looked around, expecting to see the runners who had finished already sprawled all over the lawn, but the only folks I saw were Sam, and a few volunteers.  I inquired as to my finish, suspecting that I had managed to sneak my way into the top ten, when I heard the shocker “2nd PLACE!”  How on earth did that happen?  I realized that I had passed more people than I first suspected, a few had dropped out at the half marathon point, and most importantly, a lot of the best runners were attempting to complete two marathons in two days, and thus were running at a far slower pace.  Never having finished this high in a race, I sought out the winner to offer my congratulations – that is what you are supposed to do right?  This was new territory for me.  Apparently he had beaten me by an hour, and had to take his medal and driven home to Arizona to get to work the next day.  He had also run in the previous day’s race.  WOW!  Well done, whoever you are! So instead, I hung out for the next 45 minutes or so as other racers trickled in, cheering them on as best as I could.  Alas, I did not have the chance to meet the race’s celebrity, an older fellow who apparently was using this race to complete his 1500th marathon.  now THAT is a marathon maniac!  In another interesting twist, since I was wearing a Middlebury College t-shirt, a gentleman came up to me and identified himself as a Middlebury College graduate, and he was there waiting for his wife to finish.  It’s a small world sometimes.

All in all, this was a memorable race for all the right reasons.  It had a unique twist, and was really a well inspired, organized, and from my perspective, well executed race by Sam the organizer.  He was in perpetual motion over the course of the day – moving from water station to water station, and cheering on the racers along the way.  He reminded me a lot of my favorite race organizers in Vermont, people who work hard out of their love of the sport and competition, and want to offer participants the opportunity for a uniquely memorable experience, while keeping their sense of humor.  I am glad that races like this can still be found, even as running becomes more and more corporate.  Well-done!  And did I mention that this is about as beautiful as it gets for running scenery?

The only drawback?  My reward for the runner-up finish was a shot glass and a few tokens for free beers in the town’s brewpub, and I still had a half day drive in front of me to get back to Billings to catch my plane home the next day.  Someday……

Google Earth of Big Sky Marathon, Looking West

Google Earth of Big Sky Marathon, Looking West

 

Check out this Altitude Profile!

Check out this Altitude Profile!

A Trailrunner hits the Boston streets

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I have resisted turning this blog into a training log, or a simple recounting of races, but from time to time I have the pleasure of participating in a road race worthy of mention, even if it isn’t on the trails, or even in Addison County.  I think the Boston Marathon is worthy of mention, as it is an aspiration for so many runners, and one which I recently had the pleasure of running for the first time in my life, deep into my middle age.  The first challenge of the Boston Marathon is simply getting in.  Unlike most marathons where if you pay your money on time, you are in, or some popular marathons, like New York, which have a lottery system for entry, Boston has strict qualifying times by age group and sex. While these qualifying times do not require superhuman performance, they are challenging enough that many life long runners are never quite fast enough to run the most famous race in the world.  I had assumed that I was one of those.

I competed in the Clarence Demar Marathon in Keene NH in the fall of 2013, literally on the spur of the moment, as it was a nearby and inexpensive race, and accepted last minute entries.  I had no delusions of grandeur for that race, as I had barely run for the month or so preceding it with a minor, but nagging injury.  Much to my surprise, and aided by generous downhill portions, I had my best  marathon since my early 30’s and headed home very happy with my performance.  Later in that evening, I was chatting online with my nephew, also a distance runner, and he suggested that my time might be a Boston qualifying time for an old guy like me.  So, I went to the web page, and discovered that I indeed had qualified for this famous race that I had always assumed was totally out of reach!  I guess the moral to this story is that you don’t have to get fast – you just have to grow old gracefully.

So last fall rolled around, and I registered online, and felt like   Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket when I got my notification that I was accepted to run!

My Golden Ticket!

My Golden Ticket!

 

Then the hard part hit – training for an early season marathon in the cold of a Vermont winter.  And it was a tough one.  A lot of time on the treadmill, supplemented with some cross country skiing, and the occasional run outside, which became a little bit easier when the howling cold of January and February subsided for the more typical winter weather of March.

On the day before the race, myself, Ben, a fellow Addison County trailrunner, and the patient Mrs. Trailrunner drove down to Boston, and we went into the city proper to check out the race exposition and pick up our race numbers.  It seemed that most of the wares offered for free tastes were concoctions of chia seeds and stuff that looked like it came out of my chemistry lab.  And tasted like it. One the funniest of these offerings was, I kid you not, pizza in a tube!

Pizza in a tube

Pizza in a tube

 

No thank you – bananas and bagels are fine, supplemented by the vile but oddly sustaining goo called “Gu“.  There was also a huge poster at the entrance to the exposition for all the runners to sign, and I had to leave my trailrunner moniker.

Signing the Wall

Signing the Wall

Finally, the long anticipated day, April 20 arrived.  The race itself has an uncommon course for a major city marathon.  Unlike the New York and Philadelphia marathons which I have done in the past, which weave through as many neighborhoods as they can, the Boston Marathon is a straight shot into the city from the western suburb of Hopkinton.  Now, to put it in perspective, Hopkinton is all the way out by Interstate 495.  This is what Bostonians call “a long commute”.  And we were going to run it.  Arriving by bus at the runners’ village, about all I had time to do was spend the mandatory minute or so in one of the thousands of porta-potties filling the Hopkinton High School football field, before joining the throngs for the long walk to the actual start line.

Never enough porta-potties

Never enough porta-potties

The numbering system at Boston is also unique in my experience.  The bib that you wore reflected the time that you submitted for qualification, so the fastest qualifiers had lower numbers, while those of us benefiting from the relaxed standards for old folks necessarily had higher numbers.  At the start line, these numbers were used to ensure that you were surrounded by runners of more or less your same speed.  The roughly 32,000 runners were split into four “waves” of about 8000 runners, starting 25 minutes apart, and each wave was broken down into 1000 person “corrals”.  My number, in the 16,000’s put me right at the start of the race – for the third wave.  As we were waiting in the slow drizzle for the race to start, I amused my fellow competitors with the observation that “We should be proud of ourselves – we are the best of the slightly below average entrants”.

When the gun went off for us, my prerace strategy of starting off slowly was dashed by the energy of the crowd behind me, as well as the fact that the first four miles were pretty relentlessly downhill.  Another challenge for me is the fact that all the hydration that had been part of my life for the previous 24 hours inevitably make it so that one prerace porta-potty stop is not enough.  Mid race is when this becomes more of an issue.  While there are porta-potties along the course, it is an unwritten rule that men who merely need to perform “task 1″ shouldn’t use these, leaving them for the women runners.  Fortunately, the early miles of the Boston Marathon have ample forests alongside the road for minimal privacy.  Another curiosity about this is that nobody wants to be “the first” to turn a section of pristine forest into a giant urinal, but once one man decides that a place is appropriate for an on-the-run pit stop, the rest become emboldened.  So, feeling nature’s call, I dashed into a lightly wooded section alongside the road, and found myself almost immediately accompanied by about 10 other older gentlemen who seemed relieved that I had chosen this special place for us.  After uttering something about how this might make a good advertisement for Flomax, I was back on the road, needing no further stops of this sort.

As luck would have it, the early morning drizzle turned into a downright foul weather day, with intermittent downpours and headwinds.  The funny thing about this was that I barely noticed it, and in fact actually welcomed the cooling rain.  I was also glad I was wearing a polypro t-shirt under my race shirt.  One of the next high points for the race was the run through Wellesley, MA, home of the all women’s college of the same name.  The section going through town, roughly at the half way point,  is nicknamed “The Scream Tunnel” due to the vociferous enthusiasm of the college students.

I had been warned that from mile 16-20 was the hilliest part of the course, culminating in Heartbreak Hill would be challenging.  I found Vermont training more than sufficient to overcome the challenges of what we would call a rise in the road.  Admittedly, I dropped by pace by about a minute per mile on them, but was surprised to see so many competitors walking.  Finally, the last 6 miles into the city is almost entirely downhill or flat, making for a fun, fast finish.  With maybe 5 miles to go at the top of a small rise, I caught my first glimpse of the Prudential Tower near the finish line!  I also knew that my nephew – the same nephew who I was chatting with online when I realized I had qualified – would be looking out for me at around mile 23, and I was able to see him, and ran over and gave him a big hug before continuing to the finish line.  The last two miles of the race are finally in Boston, proper, and includes a run by Fenway Park before a short zig zag up to the long straightaway and finish on Boylston St.

Of course after the elation of crossing the finish line comes the dreaded “march of the zombies” as all of the runners, now suddenly realize that they have to walk for many city blocks to actually get OUT of the race area.  People keep giving you stuff.  A medal over your head Bottles of water, capes to keep warm with, and funny energy food supplements.  One in particular, a chocolately looking protein drink which looked curiously tasty was thrust into my hands, but I found that I was tortured by the fact that my frozen hands couldn’t actually open the bottle.  Fortunately, one of the staff took care of this for me when I mumbled something which was correctly translated as “can’t open.”  Noting the odd lurching walk off all of the finished competitors, I started mumbling “brains….Brains…” and a few people laughed and joined me before we all realized that talking hurt at the moment.  Finally, I met up with my friend Ben, and we managed to hobble our way to a warm bus to get us out of the cold and back to Hopkinton where we could clean up and prep for the drive back to Middlebury that evening.

The only disappointment with the race?  I had to go through a short tunnel at around mile 25, and my GPS watch apparently lost connection with the satellites needed, and so the last mile didn’t register on my Google Earth projection.  Trust me, I did it.  I don’t have any pictures taken during the race, as my hands were too cold to manipulate the camera feature on my cell phone!

Most of the race on Google Earth

Most of the race on Google Earth

Philadelphia Freedom

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

While running on the trails of Addison County still makes up the bulk of my posts, readers will notice that I also enjoy sharing my discoveries when I get the opportunity to run in other locales, sometimes on the trails, sometimes not.  Trailrunning is indeed among my favorite ways to set myself up for adventure, but experiencing new places or new running events, and sharing them here, is also something I find quite rewarding.  With this in mind, I am going to share a personal first – a short trip, including a commercial airline flight, for the sole purpose of going running.  I guess this is the conclusion to the saying “You know when you are getting hardcore when….”

So, last Sunday, very early in the morning , I was milling around with 30,000 of my newest closest friends, awaiting the start of the Philadelphia Marathon.  As this was my second marathon this fall, I was in new territory regarding distance events – never before had I done two such road races in such a short period of time.  This particular race was of interest to me due to the easy access and inexpensive nature of flights to Philadelphia, combined with a sister who lived in the area, who for some unexplained reason was eager for my company and eager to transport me where I needed to be!  Also, there was this little idea I had, about a year ago, when I first learned of the “50 States Marathon Club“, a club which requires that members do at least one marathon in each of the 50 states in order to gain admission.  The fine print, however, says that you can get the T-shirt for it after only 10 states, and after all, that is the important part, right? I was further intrigued to hear that there is a local runner (who to the best of my memory I have never met) named John Lent who has actually completed all 50! So – off to Philly I went, working on state number……4.  Yeah….a long way to go still for this trailrunner.

In any case, the race information made it quite clear that, in the aftermath of last year’s Boston Marathon incident, there would be an extensive series of security checkpoints before the start of the race, and runners needed to be at the start area by 5 am in order to ensure that they had enough time to clear the inevitable long security lines.  Well – there I was in front of the famous Philadelphia Art Museum on the banks of the Schuykill (pronounced “Skookill”, derided as “Sure-kill” on the adjacent expressway) River, with about 20 other runners, who walked into the start area without so much as a check over from the bleary-eyed security forces standing around.  Comforting.  Having two hours to blow before the race start was actually kind of fun however, as it gave ample time to walk around, and strike up short impromptu conversations with other racers.  I could offer my sage advice to those running their first ever marathon, as well as comment and learn from those runners who were clearly far more experienced than I.

The race went off without any real hitches, however!  The last time I ran in such a large race was the NY Marathon, in 1992, and during that race it seemed as if there was no room to run until the race was more than halfway done due to the crowds.  At that time, when the gun went off – the race started for everyone – if you were a few hundred yards behind the start line, it was more or less tough luck.  As a result, all the runners crowded the startline as much as they could, and were more than happy to trample each other to get underway, with resulting crowding that took many miles to disperse.  The advent of chip technology, where a microchip embedded in your race number ensured  that your own clock didn’t start ticking until you crossed the start line led to a much more genteel start to the race, and people were far more willing to let things spread out.  So, while the first few miles were pretty dense with runners, I never felt like my pace was dictated by the pace of nearby runners.

The first half of the race went through a series of neighborhoods in downtown Philly.  We passed by the art museums, into the downtown business district, through Philly’s Chinatown, alongside the Delaware and Schuykill River, and through numerous residential districts.  Other than brief slowdowns to grab water or Gatorade, the only stops I made were to take a picture of Independence Hall as all the other runners sped by, and find relief in a porta-potty.  I had grown accustomed to long races in far more rural settings, and there weren’t exactly a lot of discretely wooded sections along the way in the course of this race!  Frustratingly, this particular pit stop was complicated by the fact that the occupancy of each individual porta-potty was indicated by a small red or green sign by the door handle, and my red-green colorblindness forced me to try doors until I found an empty one, as other runners zoomed in on the correct choices much more readily.

Independence hall

Independence hall

The second half of the race was a long “out and back” along a city parkway road adjacent to the river. Just as I was leaving town, I saw the fastest athlete – a wheelchair para-athlete wheeling his way back into the finish area, and not long after that, I saw the first of several fleet-footed men of African, presumably Kenyan descent sprinting towards the finish line at a pace I could not match for one mile, let alone 26.2. The race course turned around in the formerly gritty factory town of Manyunk, which now is apparently quite gentrified. Curiously, despite the fact that I was wearing a Middlebury track singlet for the race, it gathered no recognition from the crowds of onlookers who lined the course until I hit Manyunk, where it garnered me many “shout-outs”. Must be a lot of former Midd-kids who are now yuppies living there!

I usually  don’t care to talk explicitly about my running pace when authoring this blog, as it is primarily about sharing the joys of running and the out of doors, rather than as an online training log. And besides, my times are not that impressive, as befitting my age and modest training relative to most people who run longer distances. That said, I was very pleased with my performance in this race, in that I started off appropriately slowly, and accelerated throughout the race, finishing my final 10 Km at a pace which was pretty close to the pace at which I usually run a normal 10 Km race! Finishing a long race like this strongly is also one of the most empowering feelings in running. I might even call this my best marathon ever, with the aster-isk that it was the best I had ever performed relative to my age group, and frankly only a few minutes slower than a few marathons I did as a much younger man in my early 30′s.  Yup- it felt good!

Finally – one of my goals for this race was to have someone get a picture of me running up the famous “Rocky Steps” of the Philly Art Museum, to post in this blog.  Before the race, well it was just too dark!  When I passed by these steps at the half way point, I realized that I was putting in a good time, and didn’t want to stop and mess around with a picture.  By the finish, well the best I could muster was to stand in the foreground of the steps, raise my arms in victory, and let them frame this famous building, maybe with a little hop in my tired, sore legs.  Of course, with the finish, my day was not yet complete – after a few hours of recovery, including a shower, nap, and a good meal at my sister’s house in the suburbs, I had to complete the short flight back from Philly and seemingly endless ride home from the Burlington airport before fluffing my pillows and collapsing to get a little sleep in before classes the next day.

At the Rocky Steps

At the Rocky Steps

Philadelphia marathon route on Google Earth

Philadelphia marathon route on Google Earth

Just a Very Long Training Run

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Last October, as a long season of trail running came to a close, I pondered the semi-unthinkable:  Would it be possible to compete in and complete a marathon without the single-minded training regimen that is inevitably recommended by “the experts”?  Training for marathons by traditional methods (60-90 training miles per week, for many many weeks) had only accomplished one result for me- injuries before I ever reach the start line.   Well, I found the answer for this, when I raced in a marathon, and completed it, feeling great most of the way – the description of that race has already been described in my post entitled “Questioning Conventional Wisdom – A Marathon Story”.

So far this season, I have done a fair number of longer runs (up to 13 miles), but let’s face it – one’s conditioning can’t be as advanced in July as it is in October.  Add the loss of training time due to a nasty cold, and worse than usual allergies, and well, my legs have definitely felt better.  Nonetheless, I have always wondered if I would be able to enter, and complete a marathon, treating it as “just” a very long training run.  Why did I think this was even possible?  For one, there are a fair number of older athletes (*ahem* like me) who run in large numbers of marathons each year, and while they don’t compete for prizes, they appear to have fun chugging along at a more leisurely pace than the younger thoroughbreds.  These people have to have day  jobs right?  An early summer marathon also might be a springboard to more, and maybe longer races later in the season.  So, I set out to find a mid-summer marathon to test some new questions about physical limits.

It didn’t take me long to learn of a race in Waitsfield VT called “The Mad Marathon“, and I thought that with a name like that, it would be a perfect venue at which to attempt this latest experiment.  There was one slight problem with this plan – a marathon with truly minimal training should probably be undertaken on a flat course, and this race has 1000 vertical ft of climbing and descent.  Yikes!  Nonetheless, there I was at 7 am Sunday morning…lined up with about 1200 runners (most of whom seemed to be running in either the half marathon, or as members of marathon relay teams) for the starting gun.

I knew I had to do things differently if I was going to survive this race.  I tend to start of long runs slowly, and accelerate as the run or race proceeds.  In this run, however, I knew that I was cutting it awfully close in terms of my abilities, so I picked a pace which I knew I could maintain for long distances, and stuck to that pace, no matter how good I felt at various times in the race.  I also knew that for a sunny summer run, even in comfortable weather (and nature obliged with high temperatures in the low 70′s by the end of the morning race)  hydration would be even more critical that usual.  With this in mind, I forced myself to take water at EVERY water station, and walk through the station so that I could drink the full cup.  As a curious aside, at the first water station, only about a mile into the race, the volunteer offering me my hydration seemed shocked when I drank the gatorade, and poured the water on my head!  This is another old runner’s trick for staying cool on long runs, but apparently this particular volunteer had never before witnessed the practice.  And speaking of the volunteers – they were great!  Water stations were abundant, amply staffed, and I don’t think that I have ever seen a more enthusiastic bunch.

I am not going to go into the particulars of the race course, as it is well described on the race website linked to above.  In general, it started in the village of Waitsfield, climbed up to the roads high on the east side of the Mad River Valley (where a few past runs, including one a few weeks ago have been posted), did a loop to the north towards Moretown, and reversed its course into East Warren, before plunging back into the valley for the finish line.  I am going to share a few fun quirks of this well run race.  At about the 9 mile mark, I approached a woman who seemed to be struggling on the second of many climbs in the race.  She also had a sign on her back saying “Today is my birthday”.  So, as I pulled alongside her, I inquired if anyone had sung the Happy Birthday Song to her yet that day.  Hearing  that nobody had, I asked her name, and sang her the song before passing her by. I hope you finished the race Barbara!  Another fun little semi-surprise was……free beer!  The catch, was that in order to get the beer for free…..you had to drink it at mile 24 of the race – beer at the finish line cost 3 bucks a cup!  I loved the novelty of this, and despite the fact that I knew it would cost me a few minutes, I was running this as a “Timeless” race, so I couldn’t resist the temptation for at least a few sips of delicious cold beer, even with a few painful miles to go.  I also thought it was funny, that due to Vermont liquor laws, I had to go stand inside the roped in area to enjoy this treat.  Many thanks to my new friends from the Sam Adams distributor!   Finally, the finish line had a little barn structure to run under as one crossed the finish line, and the race announcers went out of their way to welcome each and every finisher by name over the PA system, and say something about where they were from.  The race participants also seemed to come from a lot of different places, for such a small race (only 271 finishers in the full marathon!)  It seemed that a disproportionate number of the entrants were striving to complete a marathon in each of the 50 states, and they found this marathon appealing, since it was a mid summer marathon, a rarity, in a cool climate.

So, here I am, a day later, and I really don’t feel too bad!  The legs are a bit tight, but I suspect I will be able to resume at least short runs in a day or two. I think I will call this experiment a success! Thanks to the organizers for putting together a challenging (hence slow) fun race.  I don’t have any pictures of the race, but the race web page has a lot of nice shots up from the 2011 race, which will give one a great feel for the great scenery accompanying this race.

Google Earth of the race course

 

A very scary altitude profile

Questioning Conventional Wisdom – A Marathon Story

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Long ago, in a very different phase of life (ie, pre-kids), I fancied myself a semi-competitive endurance athlete.  And of course, every semi-competitive endurance athlete has to try running the most famous of all footraces, the marathon.  And yes, I ran a few of those (OK – well two).  With the advent of a more fulfilling domestic life, and diminished training time, the training presumably prerequisite for running marathons became hard to come by.  As I aged, I also found that my body no longer responded well to the demands of high mileage weeks. All the standard training routines for marathon training prescribe many months and many miles, typically crescendo-ing to a few weeks of 70, 80 or even 90 miles per week.  Inevitably, long term marathon plans (and of course, you do have to really plan for a marathon for many months, right?) culminated with some form of injury a few weeks before the actual race, many months of recovery, and forfeiture of often steep entry fees.  As a result, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that my most recent marathon (1992!) would probably be my last.

Fast forward to the last few years, and my new found love of trailrunning…..Trail running and long distance running are really NOT the same thing – I can have a great time on a relatively short run through the woods, and many trail running afficionados regularly enjoy running distances which are quite amenable to the average athlete.  That said, once I started getting a taste of the great trails in the area on a regular basis, I really wanted to get out there and discover increasingly lengthy trails and their inherently less accessible sights.  Long term readers will note the increasingly long runs covered in this blog.  I had not abandoned old favorites of course, but I didn’t see the point of doing a blog writeup on my 5th run up Snake Mountain, Silver Lake, or some other old favorite of more reasonable distance.   I have also found that I am much less prone to injury when I spend most of my time on the trails.  The combination of the slower pace that the trails demand, and the varied footing, diminishing repetitive use injuries, have allowed me to do the occasional long run, without sustaining anything but minor annoyance aches and pains.  I also discovered, that if I go slow enough, I can pretty much run forever – or at least 2 or 3 hours – and feel pretty good the next day.

I also recently read the best selling book by Christopher McDougal entitled “Born to Run” in which the author, an aging athlete, wondered why he was hurt all the time by running. This question led to a variety of heretical conclusions on the way distance runners typically train.  Reading this, I began to ponder my own heresy – If a runner can run comfortably for 3 hours, on challenging mountainous terrain like we have here in Addison County,  why couldn’t they finish an marathon without the stress of a daily training regimen?  In my own case, despite my best intentions, life usually limits me to 20-30 miles/week – in other words about 1/3 of the mileage recommended.  Nonetheless, after running the entire TAM 3 weeks ago, covering 16 miles in 3 hours and feeling pretty good, I realized that the marathon distance might not be out of the question.

While most large, famous marathons require registration as much as a year in advance, we have a little-known low key small (a few hundred runners) marathon here in the Green Mountain State every fall.  The Green Mountain Athletic Association has sponsored an October marathon for over 40 years just a little bit north of us on South Hero Island.  There was still time to register three weeks ago, and the registration was a mere 30 bucks!  So, I threw my hat in the ring, and decided to give it a try.  I figured that there would be no dishonor in not finishing, but those who know me knew that I would finish, even if it was after dark and I was crawling.  So, on a cool Sunday morning, I lined up with a modest flock of other runners to give it a try.  I am not going to go heavily into the details of the race – let it suffice to say that a race course which which follows the shoreline of Lake Champlain during foliage season is going to be scenic, windy, and pretty flat.  I really had no idea what sort of time my middle aged body might give me, so I started off pretty slowly, and gradually picked up the pace as my legs allowed, and felt pretty good about shuffling across the finish line in a little under 4 hours.  What is the only way to train?  Whatever works for you!

Unfortunately, I wasn’t willing to lug my camera along the entire out-and-back course, but lets face it – people like to go there on vacation for a good reason.  So, the GPS data will have to suffice.  And yes, my body is very sore.

Google Earth of the course

Yup - Its Flat!